“Do you remember Night Flight?”
It’s a seemingly innocuous yet ultimately loaded question for the culturally adventurous of a certain age. For Night Flight was the sort of cultural touchstone that—if one was lucky enough to have experienced it firsthand—one is not likely to forget and can even serve as a sort of secret handshake decades later. Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre has gone so far as to claim, “I learned about punk from this cable show calledNight Flight” and Richard Metzger, co-founder of this very blog, described his intentions for Dangerous Minds to the New Yorker as, “a late-night television network for heads, like Adult Swim, but different. Do you remember Night Flight in the early eighties? Something like that.”
A lot has been made of MTV’s launch on August 1, 1981, but Night Flight—appearing on the fledgling USA Network—beat them to the punch by nearly two months premiering on June 5 of the same year. Though Night Flight played its fair share of videos and music films, its scope was much broader encompassing all manner of cult films and shorts extending back over several decades. However wide-ranging its programming, though, it was always informed by a subversive, outsider sensibility. The show had no host, just a disembodied female voice accompanied by (at the time) cutting edge computer animation of the Night Flight logo (unsettlingly similar to the 80s cheese rock band Night Ranger’s own logo) flying over darkened landscapes.
The show ran every Friday and Saturday from 11PM to 7AM but actually only contained four hours of programming simply repeating the previous four hours again at 3AM. This inevitably led to hordes of teenagers making the ill-advised decision to stay awake for at least four additional hours to catch anything they missed the first time around (especially if they had the VCR cued up with a blank tape). Imagine that kind of dedication in today’s on-demand generation. Just what you would see when you tuned in was anyone’s guess. It could be a contemporary rock documentary such as the Clash’s semi autobiographical Rude Boy; Urgh! A Music War featuring performances from the Cramps, DEVO, X, Pere Ubu, and Gary Numan amongst a host of other; or Another State of Mind documenting Social Distortion and Youth Brigade’s ill-fated cross-country tour (an education in punk rock indeed). Or it could be 1938’s The Terror of Tiny Town, the world’s only musical Western with an all midget cast; cheesy Japanese tokusatsu TV show Dynaman (dubbed with completely different parody dialogue); Reefer Madness; Proctor and Bergman’s J-Men Forever! or classic 1919 German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. There were plenty of brand new music videos (like The Residents’ “Three-Minute Movies”) as well including a segment dedicated to Britain’s Some Bizarre Records (Coil, Foetus, Einstürzende Neubauten, etc.) or the popular “Take Off” segments (how about “Take Off to Sex” featuring Duran Duran’s uncensored “Girls on Film” video?), or live in studio performances courtesy of Peter Ivers’ (originally cable access) New Wave Theatre from the likes of Fear, Circle Jerks, or Suburban Lawns.
So who, you might ask, was behind this creation? The show was the brainchild of Stuart Shapiro who had run a film distribution company which had specialized in cult films (“pretty much horror films and music films” he has said) many of which had ended up in the eccentric yet social atmospheres of midnight screenings. While the nascent cable networks offered a great deal of promise bordering on hype for expanding television’s horizons, they were yet to deliver on that promise. “At that time there was this sort of evangelistic attitude that cable was really gonna come out and be another world for alternative programming,” Shapiro recalled.
Cable television promised to reach niches previously underserved. “It was gonna be the birth of a freer reign of programming.” One key area that Shapiro saw was sorely lacking was the late night time slot. Many channels simply stopped airing content after 11 or midnight. From seeing the films he distributed performing well on the midnight movie theater circuit, Shapiro “knew that there was a culture of late-night [moviegoers] that were hungry for programming late at night on the weekends. In the beginning, the cable system was going dark late at night – there was really nothing on, so I felt it was a wonderful opportunity to try to put cool hip programming on television.” Shapiro’s business partner, Jeff Franklin, happened to have a friend at the USA Network and when they pitched their idea there they already had the bulk of their programming in Shapiro’s quirky catalog. In addition to the go ahead from the network, USA exerted no control over the pair’s programming choices. “It was the height of freedom,” Shapiro recalls. (What’s more, the network had no way to track which segments were driving the show’s overall ratings.)
Night Flight played a large part in exposing people to up and coming bands (and not just those on major labels with mainstream commercial potential) as well as the new format of the music video but they did even more by putting those videos in perspective by placing them in the larger context of underground video art. In time, of course, they would come to be seen as nothing more than advertisements selling a product. But Night Flight represented the kind of free form spirit embodied in places like college radio where ratings and revenue were not factors but trust in your favorite DJ was enough to for you to give them an hour or two of your time to see where their idiosyncratic taste would take you. It was an approach that would not last through the decade with Night Flight’s final episode airing on Saturday, December 31, 1988.
MTV’s corporate and unadventurous programming would eventually win the day and become the future (and eventual demise) of music video programming. “Discovery was the most important ingredient about Night Flight,” Shapiro would later recall. “You could come and sit down and know that you would be turned on to discover something, no matter what segment it may be.”
“Night Flight Odds n’ Ends”:
“Just Say YES” to drugs: Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s address to the nation, remixed by Cliff Roth:
Jerry Casale of DEVO in 1983:
The infamous Ozzy Osbourne interview, 1982