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Dead medium: Primordial Interactive Television (or Winky-Dink Redux)
Source(s): author's essay
From: julian@mostly.com Julian Dibbell
Date: Tue, 10 Oct 2000 01:53:01 -0500

Long-time list subscribers may remember my Dead Media Note 32.5, about an early experiment in interactive television called _Winky-Dink and You_. Many months after that was posted, I was contacted by the daughter of one of the show's creators, who put me in touch with her father. My interview with him, along with a patch or two of my original note to this list, formed the basis of the following essay, which I published recently on FEED (www.feedmag.com). It is both a full-bore tribute to Winky-Dink and a sort of meditation on the irrevocable deadness of some dead media.

WINKY-DINK IN THE WASTELAND By Julian Dibbell

THERE'S A RUMOR going around -- you may have heard it -- that television as we know it is soon to be swept up and utterly transfigured by some digital-age thing they're calling interactivity. Pay it no mind. Television has always been interactive, and if you doubt that, just consider the list of the "Top 2000 Best Things About Television" compiled not long ago by the good people at cable's TVLand channel.

The list meticulously ranks shows, characters, commercials, genres, catch phrases, theme songs, clichés, news events, and other televisual phenomena, barely distinguishing between world-historic moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall (the 1,409th best thing) and such crumbs of nostalgia as the "little dot of light when turning off old sets" (1,289th). You may argue with the rankings -- did the top-rated series, for instance, have to be I Love Lucy? Was Andy Warhol's guest appearance on The Love Boat (950th) really a lesser thing than the phrase "I'd like to buy a vowel" (543rd)? But in its general approach the list gets its subject dead right: This is definitively how we make sense of TV. Not by attending to the coherence of the individual work, as with novels or paintings or films, but by dipping into the flow -- pulling out some floating bauble now and then, some fragment that catches our eye but doesn't quite signify until we set it amid the bricolage of other fragments we've assembled in our heart's vitrine. TV would mean nothing without the active, organizing affections of its viewers; we shape it at least as much as it shapes us.

Interaction, in other words, lies at the heart of television as a cultural form -- and always has. And if you're still not convinced, then I'll ask you to consider one last aspect of the TVLand Top 2000, an item that can be found just three notches above Tyne Daly and eleven below the phrase "Book ' em Danno." I refer, of course, to the 1,388th best thing about television: the classic, underrecognized children's program _Winky-Dink and You_.

FIRST BROADCAST ON CBS from 1953 to 1957, and later revived for a season or two of syndication in 1969, the highly rated _Winky-Dink_ was the earliest experiment in explicitly interactive television -- and given the subsequent competition, from Warner Brothers' mid-seventies QUBE flop to the still-tentative WebTV of today, it remains by far the most successful.

Its success is all the more impressive for the fact that the enabling technology was approximately as sophisticated as a stone hand ax. Packaged as a "Winky-Dink Magic Television Kit" and sold through the mail at fifty cents a pop (later also marketed through toy stores in a deluxe $2.50 edition), the core elements were a transparent sheet of blue-green plastic, a box of crayons, and a rag. The plastic sheet clung to the television screen, allowing viewers to draw directly on the TV image, erasing with the cloth. And draw they did. Winky-Dink, an adventurous cartoon boy with a dog named Woofer, invariably got himself into jams involving pirates, floods, sharks, and other mortal dangers, and invariably the only way out was for the boys and girls at home to draw him a ladder, or a rocket ship, or a bridge across some gaping chasm. Typically, the show climaxed with a secret message, a block-letter word transmitted in two parts -- half the strokes first (just the diagonals, say), and then the other half -- so that only viewers who had traced both sets of lines in crayon would know what the secret was.

"That killed the little bastards," recalls Edwin Brit Wyckoff, chuckling. Together with the late Harry W. Prichett, his mentor and longtime business partner, Wyckoff created _Winky-Dink_, and he would like the record to show it, since he has often seen his invention carelessly credited to the show's host and producer, Jack Barry. Barry, of course, went on to better-known, though hardly better, things: as host-producer of the fifties game show Twenty-One, he was at the heart of the contestant-coaching scandal later dramatized in the movie Quiz Show. Postscandal, Barry spent several years in the exile of Canadian television, returning to something like redemption later in life with the long-running Joker's Wild. But he probably rued till his death the day CBS canceled the original _Winky-Dink_, his first and finest hour in the mass-cultural spotlight.

For Wyckoff, though, the dream never died, and he markets it still. Five years ago, he and Prichett licensed the rights to a Nashville production company, planning to bring Winky back to broadcast TV and into the multimedia age, with CD-ROMs, a Web site, and streaming video in the works. So far, all that's really come of the deal is a half-hour pilot, available for $9.99 on videocassette -- with a Magic Television Kit -- from online toy suppliers Bennysmart. Harry Prichett was still actively involved in the project when he died last February, lauded in his New York Times obituary for the brilliance of _Winky-Dink_ but still shy of the kind of recognition one last revival might have won him.

Wyckoff presses on, however, buoyed in part by the conviction that media culture has at last caught up with his and Prichett's innovation. "With all immodesty, _Winky-Dink_ was seminal," he says, and in a sense he's right. Where early television in general failed to understand itself as anything but a medium of the masses, _Winky-Dink_ showed from the start that viewers felt a deeply personal connection to the medium, a connection that the right technology could easily exploit. Long before the niche markets of cable brought the phrase "I want my MTV" into the lexicon, and even longer before the rampantly personalizing Internet littered the media landscape with MyYahoos, MyMP3s, and other such monuments to self-regard, viewers already had the inchoate but deeply held feeling that some little part of the broadcast flow was their own, and _Winky-Dink_ literally gave them a way to get their hands on it.

By latter-day definitions, of course, the show's interactivity was essentially bogus: Some young viewers, for instance, were dismayed to discover that when they failed to draw that rope bridge in time, Winky walked across the chasm anyway. But, for most, the illusion sufficed -- and spurred them to a far greater level of activity than the one-click pizza ordering dreamt of in most digital-TV philosophies. "It was really anti-couch-potato long before the term couch potato," says Wyckoff. With only a few seconds to draw before the action set in -- and as little time to erase before the next drawing was called for -- Winky adepts moved at a furious, giddy pace: "Come on, draw this! Now erase this! Oh, for gosh sakes, the pirates are coming! Quick! Run up and build a box so they can't see him... It was always a kind of urgency," Wyckoff recalls. "The way a game is an urgency."

At so fast a clip (and with so young an audience), the drawings were necessarily crude -- a stringy squiggle, a simple circle, the outline of a small canister held up by Winky for tracing. But the visual tricks that brought those drawings to life could startle and delight: A simple shift of perspective turned the canister into a rocket ship, a fast-moving background turned the circle into a cannonball -- which in turn morphed into a tennis ball when framed by a racket. Between drawing, watching, and drawing again, the dynamic that resulted was a broadly engaging one. "You can call it interactive," says Wyckoff, "but the point is it involves your hands, it involves your little rear end as you wiggle around, it involves your soul, it involves your imagination, and it involves your surprise."

Above all, he adds, it involved your sense of authorship. Your circle became a cannonball, the cannonball became part of the story, but its identity, Wyckoff explains, remained linked to your own: "Something happened to my cannonball. Not your cannonball -- screw your cannonball -- my cannonball." Stripped to its essence, says Wyckoff, this was the defining reaction to the _Winky-Dink_ experience:

"That's mine."

PERHAPS THIS INTENSELY PERSONALIZED experience explains why, today, those just joining the growing ranks of Winky nostalgists sometimes seem astonished to discover that the show had any other viewers at all. "Since no one I have meet [sic] in the last forty years knows who Winky-Dink is, I have begun to think of this memory as more of a dream," wrote Tom Dollard recently to the classic-television Web site TV Party, having come upon the pages set aside there for _Winky-Dink and You_. "I am glad to see that I am not alone."

Indeed he is not. Messages from at least two dozen other people are quoted on TV Party's _Winky-Dink_ pages, and second only to memories of getting busted by parents for drawing on the TV screen before the magic kit arrived, the theme that most recurs is the suspicion, in later years, that the show never in fact existed. "I ask this question," writes Ron Davis from Missouri: "Why do so many of us think we hallucinated the whole 'Winky-Dink' thing? What was it about that show that made it at once vivid and almost too surreal for accurate recollection?"

Doubts about the program's existence are getting harder to entertain, however. Aside from the testimony of ordinary fans like the TV Party reader-respondents, material evidence of the show turns up with increasing regularity in vintage toy stores and on online auction sites. Check out eBay any given week and you'll likely find some half a dozen _Winky-Dink_ items for sale. According to Ed Wyckoff, the show generated over thirty items of merchandise, including records, coloring books, Little Golden books starring Winky, Winky T-shirts, Winky pillows, Winky masks and costumes, Winky phonographs, and Winky-Dink Secret Laboratories, and most of these have traded hands on eBay at one time or another. But the staple commodity, of course, is still the Winky-Dink Magic Television Kit itself, as heady a packet of postmodern madeleines as ever emerged from the media marketplace: the crayons, the scruffy cloth eraser, and above all the plastic sheet, whose distinctive acrid-sweet smell was apparently unforgettable and whose adhesive properties were still somewhat mysterious to an age only recently acquainted with Saran Wrap.

Probably more than anything else, though, what has raised _Winky-Dink_'s profile in recent years is the ascendance of late-boomer celebrities who caught the second incarnation of the program in their youths and now occasionally give it a name check. Rosie O'Donnell, for one, has been known to sing _Winky-Dink_'s theme song on her own program, the 1,019th best thing about television. Bill Gates, too, has deemed it hip to acknowledge his low-tech predecessor in the field of interactive TV. And now the show can even lay claim to a certain ghetto fabulosity, its praises having fallen from the lips of none other than rapper Ice T, author of "Cop Killer" and other street-life serenades:

"I watched cartoons like _Winky-Dink_ where you had to get a special screen to stick on your TV and when Winky-Dink got stuck in a hole, you'd have to draw him a rope," Ice T told an interviewer a couple years back, talking about his L.A. childhood. "It had a song: 'Winky-Dink and you, Winky-Dink and me, always have a lot of fun together.' _Winky-Dink_, man! _Winky-Dink_ was some O.G. shit."

THE QUESTION REMAINS, however: Why does _Winky-Dink_ even need celebrity endorsement to confirm its cultural heft? Why, really, has the show not long since ascended into the canon of iconographic Americana, right up there with Marilyn Monroe, the Apollo 11 moonwalk, and disco shoes?

In one of the _Winky-Dink_ memories gathered on the TV Party site, a man recalls (with what unspoken erotic frisson we can only guess) the spanking he received for drawing on the TV glass with his mother's lipstick; another remembers that one day the secret word kids were asked to trace was the surprisingly arcane sabotage. How is it that such ripe ingredients have escaped the eye of a DeLillo or a Pynchon? How is it that nowhere in postwar fiction do we find a scene in which, sometime in the same year the Rosenbergs were executed, or the same year Joe McCarthy's witch hunts came to a head, a mother comes home to find the word sabotage scrawled blood-red in a stranger's hand across the face of her TV set, itself a strange new addition to the domestic landscape? Ed Wyckoff, it seems, is setting his sights low. Instead of angling to recommercialize his baby as the new-media application it always was, he should be working the crowd at PEN functions, lobbying for Winky's rightful place in the next great American novel.

And frankly, I wish he would. Because having paid my $9.99 for the videotape version, I have seen the commercial future of _Winky-Dink_, and I'll tell you this much: The future isn't what it used to be.

Admittedly, my expectations may be a bit inflated here. A late boomer myself, I also witnessed the second coming of _Winky-Dink_ in 1969, but unlike many of my young peers (or the college students who, in a brief campus craze of the time, cut classes to Wink out), I possessed neither the magic kit nor the gumption to play along without it. My apprehension of the game was almost pure fantasy, therefore, and seductive as only pure fantasy can be. The instant I figured out how the "magic" was supposed to work, I was under its spell, yearning to touch the screen and pierce the barrier between the mundane world and the televised one I was already, at the age of six, spending hours of every day in. But after that first viewing I never watched again and did not bug my mother for a kit. I'm not sure why. Perhaps I feared even then that the real game couldn't live up to my dream of it.

In any case, by the time I finally got my hands on an official _Winky-Dink_ kit, three weeks ago, the magic had decidedly faded. I smoothed the plastic sheet onto my TV screen, popped in the video (three five-minute cartoons from the 1969 production, plus some fresh-made studio filler), and after all these years got to draw a cannonball of my own into Winky's world. And what can I tell you? Watching _Winky-Dink_ on videotape in the year 2000 wasn't anything like watching it on broadcast television in 1969.

The problem, I can assure you, isn't that I've outgrown the childish yearnings that first attracted me to the show. Nor is it, as some might argue, that media themselves have outgrown _Winky-Dink_, rendering it hopelessly crude in comparison to the three decades of evolution in digital video games that followed. There's some truth to the point, but in the end it founders on its assumption that media evolve in a single straight line -- that _Winky-Dink_, that is, was really just a rough draft of Pong and all that followed. It may look that way in hindsight, but as I peeled the plastic sheet off my screen I realized, finally, that what _Winky-Dink_ had long ago promised me was an exquisite intimacy with something newer technologies in fact come not to build upon but to bury.

By that I mean television itself. And by television I mean, of course, what the good folks at TVLand mean -- the sweeping, oceanic flow from which we pick and choose a meaning that is at once uniquely personal and vastly public. Television in this sense is not something you can summon by popping a video in the VCR or clicking a mouse or even surfing through the cablesphere. Its warm, communal glow dissolves into a thing at once colder and cozier when refracted through these newer technologies, all of which have tended toward an ever greater privatization of the viewing experience. _Winky-Dink_ offered a kind of privacy too, to be sure, but it was closer to the privacy of prayer -- a solitary communion with something great and universal and anything but solitary itself. And, as I discovered watching _Winky-Dink_ on my VCR, that something doesn't come when new media call. It can't be time-shifted or stored-and-forwarded or tailored to your individual needs in any way. It's simply there when you turn it on, and when you don't turn it on it's still there, immutable, immense. The digital-age thing they're calling interactivity will never touch it, or let you touch it. But _Winky-Dink_ did, once upon a time.

Julian Dibbell is the author of My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World.