Throughout its colorful 103-year existence, Variety has always sought out what writer Michael Lewis called “the new new thing.”
Such is the restless mission of a pop-culture publication whose initial raison d’etre was covering vaudeville, circuses, minstrel shows, burlesque and other venues soon to vanish.
Variety is marking 10 years of publishing a daily Gotham edition. That eventful span has brought headlines on the indie film explosion (“No scratch from ‘Witch’ itch”), the horror of Sept. 11 (“A time for healing”) and the current economic turmoil (“Glum and glummer”).
In order to gain proper perspective on recent events and how they’ve been covered at the newspaper, it is helpful to flip through a century’s worth of Variety issues and to recall how quickly paradigms can shift in the media and entertainment business.
Radio was the first new form to dramatically alter the 20th century landscape. On Nov. 10, 1926, Variety‘s lead story told of the landmark beginnings of the first radio network.
On New Year’s Day, 1927, “the merged WJZ-WEAF national hookup of stations will assume genuine showmanly proportions,” the article declared. Variety had soon mobilized a team of reporters to cover radio in the paper’s already idiosyncratic style.
Consider one 1933 dispatch about Franklin D. Roosevelt drawing a record audience of 60 million listeners for a speech about the Depression.
“From the theatrical viewpoint,” the article said, cutting to the industry chase, “the president’s directness in getting right down to earth and couching his speech in easily comprehensible phraseology placed him to the fore as a champ showman.”
The rise of the “picture biz,” propelled by the advent of sound in the late-1920s, suited Variety perfectly, and it was in the Golden Age of the 1930s that the paper cemented its rep. In particular, reviews — long a mainstay — became a calling card.
An early nod pro or con from Variety became a key factor in a film’s commercial life, even if the reviews were occasionally written in an inscrutable style. Assessing “The Wizard of Oz” in 1939, for example, an anonymous critic noted, “‘Oz’ is aimed at the masses and will require heavy advance buildup in all spots and out of routine approach.”
Sometimes, the passage of time revealed the reviews to be amusingly blinkered. “As an experiment, it’s interesting,” Variety said of “Rules of the Game” in 1939. “But Jean Renoir … made a common error, he attempted to crowd too many ideas into 80 minutes of film fare, resulting in confusion.”
Next came the incursion of television, which first surfaced after WWII but quickly rode Milton Berle and “Howdy Doody” into America’s living rooms by the mid-1950s.
“Television is moving in on the ‘mediocre’ type of entertainment some film companies offered and is forcing the studios to produce better and more adult pictures,” read one wary page-one account in 1950.
TV was just the first innovation that shifted the point of view from public arena — be it vaudeville house, circus tent or movie theater — to the home. By the late 1970s, video emerged as a perceived threat.
In December 1985, Variety noted the rancor in Hollywood that greeted an HBO marketing effort to entice subscribers with “the fun of developing your own video library by taping HBO.” It quoted a Paramount exec as blasting the plan as “absolutely counter to our whole philosophy.”
That whole dustup seems especially quaint in light of the way the DVR, iTunes and other gizmos and services have changed the equation in the 21st century. Top brass at Disney, NBC Universal and others now routinely crow about download and timeshift stats and recognize that ratings are not what they used to be.
Videogames and the 1990s dot-com boom prompted another shift in Variety‘s attention. Movies like “The Matrix” and “The Blair Witch Project” or DreamWorks’ grand designs for Pop.com seemed like new life-forms meriting their own kind of coverage. Barely two years after the start of Daily Variety Gotham came eV, a short-lived title covering tech and Web developments. Once the dot-com bubble burst, that coverage migrated into the regular editions.