Night Flight (TV series)
Night Flight title screen from 1988
|Created by||Stuart S. Shapiro|
|Narrated by||Pat Prescott|
|Country of origin||USA|
|Running time||4 hours|
|Original channel||USA Network
|Original airing||First Run
June 5, 1981 –
December 31, 1988
Night Flight was a youth-targeted, visual-arts magazine/variety show that originated on USA Network. An eclectic and vast mix of short films, cartoons, B movies, stand up comedy, documentaries, mainstream & alternative music videos and more, it aired (in various incarnations) from 1981 to 1996.
Jeff Franklin (head of American Talent International) and Stuart S. Shapiro (head of International Harmony) approached USA Network about developing Night Flight in February 1981. At the time, “USA” was in its near-infancy (as was American cable TV, in general). The network was struggling to define itself, and to identify and expand a target audience. In a time before the existence of the world wide web, video on demand, and social media, USA Network and its equally young cable rivals had so few original shows, a typical broadcast day lasted only 16 hours or less – and mostly relied on reruns of blocks of programs aired earlier the same day, and decades-old, syndicated network series. As a result, nascent cable channels like USA desperately needed content that was: unique; able to attract a wider audience (and increased advertising revenues); and, low-cost. Therefore, taking a chance on a series that defied conventional formats and easy categorization was an acceptable risk to the network. The first episode of Night Flight aired on June 5, 1981, timed to exploit a Hollywood writers' strike that had halted production of what would be its strongest timeslot rival, NBC's highly popular Saturday Night Live.
Episodes originally lasted four hours each, and aired in the “late night” (i.e., after 11:00 PM Eastern Time) daypart on Friday and Saturday nights. Night Flight’s final USA Network episode aired on December 31, 1988; it was replaced with the programs Camp Midnite and USA Up All Night starring Gilbert Gottfried, respectively, starting the following week.
Night Flight was later revived, through syndication, in 1990. New episodes were produced for three seasons, until 1992, when the series was changed to a "best of" (i.e., reruns of episodes from the USA Network years) format, hosted by Tom Juarez. These “best of” shows were seen as late as 1996.
Format & Content
Night Flight was one of the first sources in American television (and therefore, its pop culture) to see full-length and short films not generally aired on “broadcast/network” television, or even pay-cable TV channels such as HBO. It was the first place that many Americans were able to see music documentaries such as: Another State of Mind; The Grateful Dead Movie; Word; Sound and Power; and, Yessongs. Night Flight was also one of the first American television shows to present the music video as a serious visual-art form, not merely a superficial, elaborate promotional tool for musicians. In addition, with the freedom it had on early (and late-night) cable television, it would at times show portions of videos that MTV and other outlets had either censored or, in some cases, banned outright.
In the series’ original format, there was no traditional, on-camera host. Voice-over introductions of segments and pieces were made by Pat Prescott just before they began. Recurring segments included:
- Take Off - A segment grouping together music videos on particular themes as well as a mix of interviews and snippets from movies, to help round out the segment. Examples from the show are Take Off To Animation, Take Off To Sex, Take Off To Violence, etc. San Francisco news reporter Dave McQueen did the voice-overs.
- New Wave Theatre - Hosted by Peter Ivers, the show featured punk and New Wave acts, chiefly from the Los Angeles area.
- The Video Artist - A segment covering artists working in the then-new world of video and computer graphics.
- The Comic - Profiles of various comedians, consisting of stand-up bits interspersed with interview segments.
- Video Profile - A segment featuring videos by one particular band or artist. works included Suspicious Circumstances, by Jim Blashfield, and works by the Brothers Quay.
- Atomic TV - A segment featuring various Cold War-era footage
- Love That Bob (Church of the Sub-Genius) - A serialized presentation of the Sub-Genius video Arise!
- Rick Shaw's Takeout Theater
- Dynaman - An English-dubbed parody of six episodes of the Super Sentai series Kagaku Sentai Dynaman
- J-Men Forever
- Space Patrol - An early 1950s U.S. sci-fi television series
- Tales of Tomorrow
- Heavy Metal Heroes
- The Some Bizzare Show, featuring the artists of the Some Bizzare label
- Snub TV
Bela Lugosi's Monogram films were recurring features. Other segments included condensed parodies of low-quality, out-of-copyright black-and-white-era movies and serials, as well as letters from viewers.
The show would also highlight movies that were regarded as cult hits. Examples include:
- Fantastic Planet, the English title of La Planète Sauvage (literally "The Savage Planet") an animated 1973 science fiction film directed by René Laloux.
- The Kentucky Fried Movie, an American comedy film, released in 1977 and directed by John Landis.
- Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, the story of a proto-riot grrrl band, directed by Lou Adler.
- Music of the Spheres, a low-budget psychological science fiction mystery, directed by Philip Jackson and starring Peter Brickmanis and Anne Dansereau. 
- Rude Boy, a punk rock drama featuring The Clash.
- Breaking Glass, a musical drama starring Hazel O'Connor and directed by Brian Gibson.
- Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula, two horror satires directed by Paul Morrissey and initially presented by Andy Warhol.
In issue #77 of the entertainment magazine Boston Rock, Night Flight's Director of Programming Stuart Samuels was interviewed about the show. He is introduced as having a doctorate in the History Of Ideas, having been a former professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, a teacher of annual seminars at the Cannes Film Festival, and as the author of a book on cult film classics titled Midnight Movies. He describes their intention as wanting to "...put the videos together in some kind of thematic categories...so that the videos were saying something to each other and were letting the audience make conclusions from them." He also states that they never felt in competition with MTV, as they wanted to be; "...a little more selective... intelligent and... stimulating." He claims they were the first to put director's names on the videos, interview the bands, create band profiles, show uncensored videos and longform 12" remix videos; as well as the first to put together politically oriented shows about subjects like apartheid in South Africa. He states that their intention was not to be "...heavy-handed, but do 'here's-something-that's-in-the-news' shows". Samuels and the interviewer also speak of a backlash against the stagnation and repetition of rock video (c. 1986), which inspired Night Flight to program even more animation, cult and camp films. Samuels also gives the background of Senior Producer Stuart S. Shapiro as having run a company that was instrumental in the distribution of cult, midnight movie and campy films like Tunnelvision.
Films shown on Night Flight
- The Rocky Horror Picture Show
- Assassin of Youth
- The Brain
- Breaking Glass
- Daughters of Darkness
- Dementia 13
- Fantastic Planet
- Kentucky Fried Movie
- Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains
- Magical Mystery Tour
- The Red House
- Reefer Madness
- Scared to Death
- Spooks Run Wild
- Taking Off
- The Pace That Kills
- The Terror
- The Terror of Tiny Town
- Urgh! A Music War
- Concert for Kampuchea (clips)
- On the Air Live with Captain Midnight
- Denisoff, pp. 129—30
- Harrington, Beth. "Reference". Boston Rock issue #77; September 1986. Michael Dreese, pub. Billie Best, ed.
- TV Guide, July 9, 1981, quoted in Denisoff, p. 132
- USA Today, December 2, 1982, quoted in Denisoff, pp. 132—33
- Denisoff, R. Serge (1998). Inside MTV. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0-88738-864-7.