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Portable Electric Medicine Show (1972)

Arthur Godfrey hosts a series of songs and comic skits based on ecology themes.

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Arthur Godfrey hosts a series of songs and comic skits based on ecology themes.

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Comedy | Music

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28 March 1972 (USA)  »

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Arthur Godfrey's Portable Electric Medicine Show  »

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1.33 : 1
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One innovation ahead of its time, otherwise nothing much.
24 June 2008 | by (Minffordd, North Wales) – See all my reviews

"Arthur Godfrey's Portable Electric Medicine Show" was never (to my knowledge) transmitted in Britain, but I saw it at a press screening in London in 1973, when this programme's American producer was attempting to sell the British syndication rights.

In one way, this special was far ahead of its time ... but wasn't capable of reaping the benefits of its foresight. Purely as entertainment, however, this show had one major problem: it wasn't any good.

Arthur Godfrey seems now to be entirely forgotten (although he's mentioned in one 'Twilight Zone' episode), but in his heyday he was a major force in Yank television. He was one of the first celebrities to voice concern about ecology and overpopulation. A licenced pilot (he kept his private 'plane at an airport in Teterboro, NJ), Godfrey flew all over the world to warn people about the depletion of natural resources. (Hmmm...) He also appeared on David Frost's show to announce that he'd done his bit for overpopulation by getting vasectomised.

The 'Portable Electric Medicine Show' (I'll get to that title presently) was a variety special that purported to be about conserving the Earth's resources and protecting endangered species. As worthy as those causes might be, the entertainment factor of this special was extremely low. I took notes during the '73 screening, but most of my notations are simply comments on how bad this material was.

There was, however, one interesting innovation. Most of this special was recorded with a live studio audience seated in Burbank, CA. Each audience member's armrest was equipped with a device bearing two buttons, blue and brown. (This was the 'portable electric' unit, geddit?) At several points in the show's skits, Godfrey would urge the studio audience to push one button or the other, so as to vote on various aspects of the material that the cast were about to perform: such as whether a forthcoming skit should take place in New York City or in Paris, or whether Barbara Feldon should play her role with a British or a French accent. (The audience chose French; I'd been hoping to hear her British accent.) For each vote, a large console would light up on the wall behind Godfrey to show how many people had pushed the blue button and how many the brown, and which colour received the winning majority. Apparently blue and brown were meant to symbolise water and earth, or something.

I found this innovation slightly impressive, yet I noticed that the audience were never called upon to vote for any important aspect of a skit, such as how it ended. Each vote had only a very minor effect on the dialogue and performances of the cast members. (Compare this with Rupert Holmes's 1985 Broadway musical 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood', for which the audience at each performance voted to decide major plot points in the story as it unfolded, compelling the cast to memorise and rehearse many alternate versions.)

In 1973, I probably didn't know the word 'interactive' but I understood its concept. 'Portable Electric Medicine Show' deserves some credit as an early example of interactive television. But even in '73, I understood that this show's interactivity was limited to the studio audience at the taping: when I saw the London screening, all the interactive decisions were already a fait accompli.

In order to be truly interactive, this variety special should have been aired globally, with viewers all over the world simultaneously registering their votes in real time, and the cast responding ditto. Unfortunately, that wasn't technologically feasible in 1972. Now that it can be done, perhaps someone will revive the concept. But 'Portable Electric Medicine Show' doesn't deserve more than footnote status in TV history. My rating: just 2 points out of 10.


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