From the Do You Remember When? Dept.: Let’s rewind the clock all the way back to 1981. Long before the Internet had pervaded our collective consciousness, the prime focus of the 20th century culture had been television — and by the ’80s, it had evolved a considerable step further with the advent of cable television. Instead of three network channels and whatever blurry UHF offerings could be received by the ongoing ornate direction of antennae on your television set (please refer to this entry for a little more background), cable offered a brand new vista of multiple channels from across the nation, as well as premium channels (such as Home Box Office and Showtime) which actually allowed you to watch unedited movies in your home. That alone blew my then thirteen-year-old mind. I couldn’t wait for the little HBO booklet to arrive in the mail every month, and preview what features would be showing on the channel (which included such succulent offerings as the Cronenberg classics Scanners and The Brood, as well as Phantasm and the Satanic bitch godmother of them all, The Exorcist — which I snuck and listened to before I was allowed to watch; I was almost relieved when I finally got to see it and it wasn’t nearly as horrible as I had imagined). My entire family must’ve watched Jaws at least ten or twelve times as a group (usually on Sunday nights, after dinner), and honestly never tired of it.
Mind you, we only had cable on two sets in the house at that time, the family set in the den, and my parents’ in their bedroom. This meant that many a late Friday or Saturday night I would stealthily slide down the stairs into a waiting pool of wanton excess, usually fueled by whatever snacks I had foraged from the kitchen pantry on the way. After ABC’s Fridays and NBC’s Saturday Night Live had closed their doors for the night, I would find myself scouring premium channels for some bit of delicious charnel, and would often end up with something amazing like Patrick (1978) or the wonderfully whacked-out The Manitou (which I eventually shared with my mom, it has since become one of our favorite bad movies). It was on one of those off nights when the premium channels were less giving that I finally discovered what quickly became my weekend addiction — USA Network’s Night Flight.
I know what you’re thinking. Yes, MTV began broadcasting the same year, and sure, the advent of music videos was a huge thing. But back then, that was all they did — and often played the same videos over and over. And it wasn’t like I didn’t rabidly watch during the day. What Night Flight did every Friday and Saturday night was show music videos exploring some theme or another (they would “Take Off” to a given topic, often including interview segments and film clips), often involving a greater variety of musical genres than even MTV did in its heyday (read: early to mid 1980s; once they started all that “reality show” crap in the 90s it was all downhill). Night Flight would take things even further with concert films featuring Genesis and Yes, or features like The Kentucky Fried Movie or Fantastic Planet (La Planète Sauvage), which either tickled me pink or blew my fragile mind. Throw in the likes of the Church of the Sub-Genius’ video barrages (segmented as a series on Night Flight titled Love That BOB) and all kinds of Cold War era footage, and one had a sumptuous feast on the menu every weekend. To relate the two in terms of the other only prominent venues of the time, MTV was to Night Flight what the ’80s era Rolling Stone was to SPIN magazine, or maybe even Heavy Metal.
Each “episode” of Night Flight would consist of a four-hour block of programming which was repeated immediately after, this coming in handy if one had been out with friends before relocating to someone’s or one’s own home in time to see the second airing. Of course, VCRs often came to the rescue (and still do, in the case of a lot of existing Night Flight footage still available online) in such cases. The show was a mainstay of my own weekly viewing habits until 1988. After that, the already tired programming of MTV had managed to outstay the more innovative and explorative show. Sigh.
Today, as mentioned above, Night Flight still exists to a small extent on the internet, just search for it on YouTube and a number of clips can be found. Albeit it may be underwhelming in light of what can currently be covered otherwise via the information superhighway (or a lot of its ideas were copied or adopted by other cable programming in later years, such as Comedy Central or Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim), for its time it was an exciting jaunt into the netherworld of media, a glide across the dark underbelly of social consciousness, or a — a Night Flight.