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Porn On TV: The Battle Of Midnight Blue

How I ruined Television and helped coarsen American Culture.

I WAS AT MY NEW YORK CITY BANK BACK IN 1974. It was still a time when people waited in line to cash a check or make a deposit. In front of me was Bruce David, who was working at Screw Magazine, the infamous Al Goldstein sex tabloid, and also producing “the Screw Magazine of the air” on public-access television. Due to a stipulation in their franchise agreements with the city of New York, Manhattan Cable Television and Teleprompter had to allocate certain channels to citizens for their use for a nominal fee on a first-come, first-serve basis. Moreover, the cable companies were prevented from tampering with a program’s content unless the producer was breaking some law. It was inevitable that America’s most outrageous sex publication would put that agreement to the test.

Bruce, whom I only vaguely knew, asked me what I thought of the show. I said that doing it in a studio and bringing in guests wasn’t as good as going on location. Bruce agreed, explaining the show didn’t have the equipment to go outside the studio. But I did! It was my hobby. At a time when few individuals owned a video camera, I not only had a black-and-white camera (color was way too pricey back then), but also a portable recorder and an editing machine. Even though I was a radio broadcaster at ABC with a nightly talk show, video had me mesmerized. Bruce and I made a pact: We’d become a team. Video was truly going to “kill the radio star.”

First we changed the name of Screw ’s show. The cable companies dictated that a public-access program could not contain the name of a commercial product. They also wanted us to air much later, after midnight, because of the racy content.We came up with the name Midnight Blue, which combined the new time slot and one of our inspirations, a controversial Canadian TV program called The Baby Blue Movie. Bruce and I made a good team. Between his bizarre sense of scenes—humor and my artful horniness, we managed, in a very short time, to capture the eyes, hearts and libidos of New Yorkers, becoming the most-watched and well-known cable show in the Big Apple. Bruce and I couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized. We were, for lack of a better comparison, the 60 Minutes of sex, getting write-ups in everything from Playboy to the Village Voice and Variety. Bill Greeley of Variety compared us favorably to the Tonight Show, then starring Johnny Carson. Eventually word got back to us that Sammy Davis Jr. was having taped episodes flown out to the West Coast so he and his friends could watch Midnight Blue.

Segments covered everything from a swingers convention to strip joints, gay clubs, even a topless tropical fish store where real fish were the customers. Other aspects were downright freakish. There was a man who could blow himself, a 400-pound stripper, a guy named “Ugly George” who videotaped women he coaxed to strip in alleyways and a dominatrix who beat her slave while Ringo Starr could be heard singing “You Always Hurt the One You Love.” Manhattan Cable and Teleprompter were not amused. They began censoring the show—yanking it from the schedule—for ill-defined and inconsistent reasons. We battled them in the media, including on their own cable channels. Whenever a show of ours was pulled— ostensibly for obscenity—we instructed the cable companies to run a clip we had prepared. There was no nudity whatsoever in our filler, but we did relentlessly and viciously bash the cable companies’ CEOs by name. After a few airings of that tape, they began to back off. Bob Morton, who went on to become the producer of David Letterman’s shows on NBC and CBS, once told me in those days that he was selling cable door-to-door and that Midnight Blue sold more subscriptions for him than anything on the air at the time.

Although the cable companies were making a fortune off of us, we had yet to make a dime since the programs were not allowed to air commercials. Bruce and I worked together for about a year, producing almost a show a week on a budget of $50 per episode. Sometime during that period, Goldstein—our partner, who stayed more or less behind the scenes finally kicked in $25,000 for Sony ENG color equipment, state of the art at that time. We were now competitive, technologywise, with the network news. Near the end of 1975, Bruce left to become Managing Editor of HUSTLER, leaving me to raise our baby. Midnight Blue eventually moved to a new “public lease” channel with the same philosophy as “public access” except that we could air commercials. The money and the audience piled up. We were a smash! And we were having a blast. When I say we, I include the ragtag bunch that had gravitated to this project.

Then the news broke that the show was going to be the subject of the House Oversight Committee on Telecommunications. A hack Congressman from Brooklyn named John M. Murphy asked the panel to allow the airing of his complaints about how filthy New York City’s cable TV had become. He was especially livid about this scourge known as Midnight Blue. I was about to receive a major civics lesson. What started out as a legislator pulling a cheap shot turned into, as some wags would name it, “Midnight Blue Day” on Capitol Hill. Cable company execs and lawyers hopped on Murphy’s bandwagon. I was able to get the chairman of the committee, Lionel Van Deerlin, to sponsor me, and off I went to Washington, tapes under my arm. Walking up the stairs and through the doors of the Sam Rayburn Building, I felt as if I were in a Frank Capra movie: Mr. Bennett Goes to Washington.Wow! Maybe my government will listen to me, I thought. Maybe this is a democracy.

For the first time in years I was wearing a suit. I was going to show my respect for these hallowed standard-bearers of our democracy. Boy, was I in for a letdown. The proceedings began with testimony by Congressman Murphy. As expected, he railed against the horrid filth being presented on New York’s cable television. Next up was Charlotte Schiff Jones, the V.P. in charge of programming at Manhattan Cable Television. She issued excuses and apologies on behalf of the company, claiming she too was appalled by what was being aired. However, Jones said, Manhattan Cable could do nothing about it due to franchise protocol. Now it was my turn. I chose my words carefully: Sex is the political issue of the ’70s, I opined, whether it’s women’s lib, gay rights or sexual freedom. This was the Zeitgeist of the times in which we lived.We were, I said, a program that attempted to satisfy the needs of today’s audience. Then I made the case that we were a bunch of avid videomakers and artists who, quite frankly, were having the time of our lives expressing ourselves with new- found freedoms. Outside of a few questions, I felt as if I were playing to Mount Rushmore.

I then invited committee members to another room, where they could view a presentation of bits from the show. I can’t remember what was on the tape except for one piece shot at a gay strip club. It showed a chorus line of men, their dicks flapping in the breeze to the tune of “Baby Face.” On the way back to the hearing room, the head of the committee was laughing and joking about what he had seen.Walking beside me, he said, “Very funny, kid!” We were in. We had succeeded. They loved it. As we all took our seats, the chairman looked at us. I waited for the acclaim I knew was forthcoming. “This is some of the worst filth I have ever seen!” he declared. What?! We had just been screwed big-time. My government was fucking me in the ass. Although the committee made no ruling, we at Midnight Blue were now officially pariahs. To this day I’ve never trusted my government to be honest. Meanwhile, at the very top floor of the Time-Life Building in Manhattan, forces were conspiring to undo us. (Cue the Death Star music!) Headley Donovan, the top man at Time-Life, called a meeting to discuss Midnight Blue. The lawyers advised him nothing could be done because of the franchise with the city.“I don’t care!” Donovan reportedly yelled. “Take them off the air!”

And so it was done. Midnight Blue had been silenced: The smallest of media entities was squashed under the weight of the biggest. We kept fighting, courtesy of the ACLU. Eventually we were allowed back on the air, but with stipulations that we change the show’s name and that we toe the line. We decided on American Blue. After a year or so—with memories of the Congressional hearings fading—Midnight Blue ’77 was introduced. In 1978 the name Midnight Blue was restored, but the groundbreaking program was never the same. In the early 1980s I was at a party, where I was approached by an NBC executive. “I just wanted to thank you,” he said. “About what?” I replied, somewhat bewildered. “I want to thank you for Midnight Blue,” the exec went on to say. “Your program made it easier for us to move the boundaries of what we do up a notch.” I had sacrificed a radio career for this television rampage that Bruce David and I had created, but that moment alone made it all worthwhile. In 1989 I left Midnight Blue and returned to almost-nonexistent AM/FM opportunities. Meanwhile, Midnight Blue hung on until the collapse of Al Goldstein’s empire in 2003. Today I can be heard on Sirius Satellite Radio’s Left 146, Bruce is now Editorial Director of HUSTLER Magazine, and Congressman John M. Murphy is retired—but not before spending three years in prison for getting caught up in an FBI sting operation called ABSCAM. Just another happy ending.


Alex Bennett



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