Wanna brighten Christmas? Try 250,000 lights and a band

Right now, TV is busy with its Christmas cascade. If you go two blogs down, you'll find a Christmas mega-list; it's edited to trim shows once they air and add new ones when they're scheduled. Above that is a look at Sofia Carson, who had three new shows on Thanksgiving weekend and will be back for the Disney Parks special on Christmas morning. And here's a look at one of the cheeriest (or, at least, brightest) of the shows: For three straight Mondays, ABC's "Great Christmas Light Fight" celebrates sheer spectacle; here's the story I sent to papers. 


By Mike Hughes

Many towns might
have a few families that brighten up the holiday – literally.

They loads up on the
lights, sounds and images of Christmas. For kids (and
spectacle-inclined kids), they inject extra “wow” into the

Now multiply that by
a kajillion, approximately, and you have the families in “The Great
Christmas Light Fight,” which fills three Monday on ABC.

“Some of them have
this amazing pyrotechnics,” said Carter Oosterhouse, one of the
show's judges. “One had a live jazz band that was timed to the
light show.”

And there's more.
“One has animatronics, like you'd see at 'A Small World,'” in the
Disney parks, said Taniya Nayak, the other judge.

Yes, these have size
and spectacle. One has 250,000 lights; another has a train ride
through many acres.

Still, Oosterhouse
said, this isn't sheer overkill. “The design sense is quite

One family has
engineers, emphasizing precision; another has a retired Navy pilot,
with a salute to servicemen. And a New York man began his display as
tribute to his wife, who died on Sept. 11, 2001.

These are displays
that go up every year ... but started earlier this year, so they
could be judged for the show. In October – while many Americans
faced election rage – Oosterhouse and Nayak found themselves
encased in Christmas cheer.

“We get there, not
knowing what to expect,” Nayak said. “All of a sudden, there's
this big reveal.”

Both grew up around
Christmas spectacle ... but not neccesarily design requirements. “I
don't think there was any rhyme or reason to where we put the
lights,” Oosterhouse said.

And both grew up
with links to celebrations in other countries.

Oosterhouse, 40, is
Dutch on his father's side and Mexican on his mother's. He grew up in
Traverse City, Mich., and recalls classic Christmases -- “very
Midwestern-Mexican, with big family dinners.”

A rugby star in
high school and at Central Michigan University, he went to California
to be an actor and model. Instead, he thrived on his carpentry
skills; he did “Trading Spaces,” “Three Wishes” and several
HGTV shows, where he also developed a designing sense.

He's married to Amy
Smart, an actress who's had recurring roles in “Felicity,”
“Shameless,” “Justified” and more. They have houses in her
home state (California) and his, but Traverse City wins at
Christmastime, he said. “We want to get back to where there's

Nayak, 43, was born
in India, but moved to the U.S. with her family as a baby. Her
Christmases in Boston were fairly quiet, she recalls, because few
family members lived there. But during visits to India, she saw the
grandness of Christmas and Diwali celebrations.

Design was a family
thing -- her dad is an architect – and she became a designer on
“Restaurant: Impossible” and other TV shows.

Nayak likes to throw
Christmas parties, with one catch: “My husband is a restaurant
proprietor, so people seem to expect more. I'm not going to lie; I've
called on his chefs to rescue me sometimes.”

And life is
different from the old days, she said. “When one light went out,
they all went out. You'd have to figure out which one it was.” Now
try that with a 250,000-light display.

-- “The Great
Christmas Light Fight”

-- 8 and 9 p.m. on
three Mondays (Dec. 5, 12 and 19), ABC.

-- Each hour has
four families, with the judge awarding $50,000 to one. On opening
night, Carter Oosterhouse judges the first hour, Taniya Nayak the

Disney dreams? For Sofia Carson, they became reality

Righrt below this, you'll see the Christmas mega-list -- an attempt to compile all (well, most) of the holiday TV specials. But first, let's pause to meet one of the stars. Sofia Carson has Christmas specials Thursday and Friday (Nov.24-25) and then stars in a cable movie Sunday; in between, her "Descendants" movie reruns. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Step into Disney
World and you might see wide-eyed girls, staring at a stage. They
imagine themselves up there, singing and dancing as Belle or Elsa or
Sofia Carson recalls that feeling, from her Miami
childhood. “We went to Disney World every year,” she said. “And
I had some Cinderella pajamas I never wanted to take off.”

Yes, she envisioned
herself in the stage shows; now, however, she's leaped past that.
When Carson stars in a cable movie Sunday, it will wrap up a
remarkable weekend on three Disney-owned networks:

-- Thanksgiving
(8-10 p.m., ABC), co-hosting a Disney parks party with Derek and
Julianne Hough.

-- Friday (8-9 p.m.,
Disney Channel), at a similar special with her colleagues from

-- Sunday (8-10
p.m., Freeform), starring in “A Cinderella Story: If the Show
Fits.” She plays Tessa, a mechanic who dons a wig and auditions as
a flashy diva.

The mechanic part
was an extreme stretch, Carson admits. “My family cracked up at the
thought of me putting together an engine. I'm a total klutz.”

But the diva part?
That's been most of her 23 years. “My mom says I was singing before
I was talking.”

She started dance
classes at age 3. There were lots of competitions (often at Disney
World) and more. She had the same performing passion as Tessa ... but
a much easier route.

Her parents grew up
and prospered in the U.S., where they're in property management, but
both were born in Colombia. Her mother is Irish on one side, but
related on the other to the Char family that is prominent in
Colombian business and politics.

Christmases were in
Colombia ... but were also done Irish-American style with her
grandmother. Sofia spoke (and sang) in English and Spanish ... and
was minoring in French at UCLA. Then came Disney.

The company has a
habit of spotting young acresses – Hilary Duff, Selena Gomez, Demi
Lovato – and propelling through guest roles, movies, series,
specials and its Hollywood Records label.

For Carson –
that's her mother's maiden name – it's been on hyperdrive. She had
guest roles in three TV episodes in 2014 ... then was one of the
stars of TV movies for 2015 (“Descendants”), 2016 (the
“Adventures in Babysitting” remake and “If the Shoe Fits”)
and 2017 (“Descendants 2”). She also cut her first singles (“Love
is the Name” and “I'm Gonna Love You”) and sort of entered

In Disney's “Hannah
Montana” series, Miley Cyrus played a pop star who would remove her
wig and be an ordinary teen-ager. In “If the Shoe Fits,” Carson
dons the wig and poses as a pop diva. It's a role that required quick
transformations, spectacular dance moves and a month of rehearsals.

Then it was back to
being Evie, daughter of the Evil Queen. In the “Descendants,” the
young characters are the children of classic Disney villains. That
explains why they combine to sing “Rotten to the Core” ... which,
for the Christmas special, becomes “Jolly to the Core.”

Carson also gets to
do some serious singing. “Silent Night has always been one of my
favorite songs,” she said, “so that's what I really wanted to

She ended up taping
two versions of it at Disney World, once for Friday and once for
Christmas morning on ABC. She sings one at the Tree of Life and the
other , the other at Cinderella's castle ... sort of fulfilling all
those little-girl daydreams.

So much Sofia

-- ABC special, 8-10
p.m. Thursday; Freeform movie, 8-10 p.m. Sunday

-- Disney Channel
has the “Descendants” movie at 6 p.m. Friday, 3:20 p.m. Saturday
and 4 p.m. Monday; the “Descendants” special is 8 p.m. Friday and
7 p.m. Sunday.



Here's the Christmas TV mega-list, revised to Dec. 13 and beyond



We're in Christmas Week now, with the Christmas-TV mega-list starting to shrink. Here's a semi-revised version; The first categories (through "home and kitchen" have been updated to fit Dec. 20-25; the categories after that haven;t been updated.


By Mike Hughes

The cartoon classics

-- “A Charlie
Brown Christmas,” 8 p.m. Dec. 22, ABC. One of TV's finest
moments arrived back in 1965.

-- “How the Grinch
Stole Christmas,” 8 p.m. Dec. 23, TNT. This wondrous mix of humor and emotion reruns..


Some classic movies


-- “Christmas
Vacation” (1989), 6:50 p.m. Dec. 20, Freeform. Chevy Chase finds
delightful excess. This reruns at 9:45 p.m. Dec. 24; and 7:45
p.m. Dec. 25.

-- “The Santa
Clause” (1994), 8:50 p.m. Dec. 20, Freeform. Tim Allen is nudged
into Santa's job. Reruns are 6:50 p.m. Dec. 21; 8:50 p.m. Dec. 23; and
5:35 p.m. Dec. 24.

-- “The Polar
Express” (2004), 3:15 p.m. Dec. 21. Pretty pictures partly make up for a so-so plot.It reruns at noon Dec. 22; 3:30 p.m. Dec. 24; and 1:25 p.m.
Dec. 25

-- “Elf” (2003). 8:55 p.m. Dec. 21, Freeform. At 6-foot-3, Will Ferrell should have
suspected he's not a real elf. When he finds out, he leaves the North
Pole and enters an unfamiliar world. There's humor, plus sweet
moments with Zooey Deschanel. It reruns at 6:45 p.m. Dec. 22; 7:40
p.m. Dec. 24; and 5:40 p.m. Dec. 25. 

-- “Frozen”
(2013), 8:30 p.m. Dec. 23, Disney. Now for a new classic, one that
took Oscars for best animated feature and for the powerhouse song
“Let It Go.” 

-- “It's a
Wonderful Life,” 8 p.m. Dec. 24, NBC. Each December, NBC runs and reruns this warm classic.

-- “Christmas in
Connecticut” (1945), 8 p.m., Dec. 24,Turner Classic Movies. Barbara Stanwyck stars in
this light tale. It launches host Robert
Osborne's choices for Christmas Eve viewing. 

 --- “A Christmas
Story” (1983), 8 p.m. Dec. 24, TBS and TNT. A 1940s Christrmas is
viewed with a sharp (and sometimes very dark) wit. It repeats every
two hours, for 24 hours.

-- "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), 8 p.m. Dec. 25, ABC. This gem made history as an animated film nominated for the best-picture Academy Award. It had six Oscars in all, winning two or its music.

“A Christmas
Carol,” with Scrooge played by ...

-- Alastair Sim
(1951), 11:30 p.m. Dec. 22, Turner Classic Movies. Less flashy that
the others – it's black-and-white and only 86 minutes – this has
still drawn great praise.

 -- Jim Carrey
(2009), 6:45 p.m. Dec. 23, Freeform.

-- Bill Murray
(1998), 11:55 p.m. Dec. 24, Freeform. In the clever "Scroooged," he's a soulless TV executive; it reruns at 9:55 p.m. Dec. 25.


Lots of music

-- “Tony Bennett
Celebrates 90,” 9-11 p.m. Dec. 20, NBC. Four-plus months after his
real 90th birthday, Bennett will sing a little and hear
tribute songs from Stevie Wonder, Lady Gaga, Billy Joel, Elton John,
Michael Buble, Andea Bocelli, Diana Krall, k.d. lang and Rufus

-- "'Tis the Season," 9 p.m. Dec, 20, AXS. Don't expect many lightweight ditties
here. In a Nashville concert, powerhouse singer Jennifer Nettles tackles
"O Holy Night," "Go Tell It On the Mountain" and more. It reruns at 11
p.m. ET and then at 10 p.m. Dec. 21, 9 p.m. Dec. 22 and 4 and 6 p.m.
Dec. 23. 

-- "Instant Christmas Carol," 10 p.m.
Dec. 21, TBS. We may or may not be ready for the notion of being serenaded by Shaquille O'Neal, Fred Willard, Jane Lynch and Charles Barkley. Still, here they are doing Christmas carols, alongside some people better known for music -- Alfonso Ribeiro, Ludacris, Conan O'Brien (who has a lovely Irish-tenor voice, Rashida Jones and more. It reruns at 10 p.m. Dec, 24 TBS and TNT.

-- “A Home For the
Holidays,” 8 p.m. Dec. 23, CBS. Each year, this entwines strong
music with stories about adopton, This year, the music is from Miranda Lambert, Alessia Cara, Rachel Platten and more.

-- “Taraji's White
Hot Holidays,” 8 p.m. Dec. 23, Fox. Taraji Henson hosts an hour
that has her “Empire” colleagues, Jussie Smollett and Taye Diggs.
Also performing: Pharrell Williams, Alicia Keys, Missy Elliott, Snoop
Dogg, TLC and Darryl McDaniels of Run-DMC.

-- "CMA Country Christmas," 9-11 p.m. Dec. 24, ABC. Here's Nettles again, this time hosting and sings in a concert with such varied singers Dolly Parton, Idina Menzel and Andra Day.


Parades or humor


-- The annual
Christmas Day parade gives families something to watch after the presents are
opened. That's 10 a.m. to noon Dec.25 on ABC, with pre-taped music by
Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, Kelly Clarkson, Gavin DeGraw,
Jordan Fisher, Sofia Carson, Alesia Carson and OneRepublic.

-- "The 'I Love Lucy' Christmas speical reruns at 8 p.m. Dec. 25. It has color added by computer ... as does the "Dick Van Dyke Show" speial that reruns at 9.

Home and kitchen

--"The Great American Baking Show," 9 p.m. Thursdays, ABC. There will be a holiday theme to this short-term competition; Nia Vardalos ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding") hosts with her husband Ian Gomez.


-- “Terry Crews
Saves Christmas,” 8-9 p.m., Dec. 20-23, CW. Crews (“Brooklyn
Nine-Nine”), a big fan of the holiday, intervenes on celebrations,
with a team of food, drink and design experts.



More cartoons
(broadcast networks)


-- “Prep &
Landing” and “Prep & Landing 2,” 8 and 8:30 p.m. Dec. 15,
ABC. Quick and clever, both of these animated films focus on Santa's
skilled advance men. These are also on Freeform at 5:20 and 5:50 p.m. Dec. 21, then on ABC at 8 and 8:30 p.m. Dec. 24.

-- “I Want a Dog
for Christmas, Charlie Brown,” 8-9 p.m. Dec. 17, ABC. This 2003
cartoon is not considered a classic.

- “Ice Age: A
Mammoth Christmas,” 8 p.m. Dec. 20, Fox. This gently fun
tale has Sid (John Leguizamo) desperate to get off Santa's naughty

Cartoons (cable)


-- “Albert,” 3
p.m. Dec. 15, Nickelodeon. Here's a new one, done with computer
graphic animation. It's the tale of a tiny Douglas fir that wants to
be more famous than the big guys. Bobby Moynihan and Sasheer Zamata,
both of “Saturday Night Live,” lead the voice cast. It reruns at 11 a.m. Dec. 17, 2 p.m. Dec. 21, 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Dec. 25.

-- “Nestor, The
Long-Eared Christmas Donkey,”
8 a.m. Dec. 17, Freefor. 

-- “Mickey's Once
Upon a Christmas,” 7 a.m. Dec. 19, Freeform. Mickey and friends have
three classic stories; it reruns with its sequel at 8:05 and 9:40 a.m.
Dec. 24

-- “Santa Claus is
Comin' to Town,” 4:30 p.m. Dec. 20; 1:10
p.m. Dec. 21; 4:35 p.m. Dec. 23; 11:15 a.m. Dec. 24; and 3:30 p.m.
Dec. 25.
. Fred Astaire
narrates a tale of Kris Kringle (Mickey Rooney).


-- “Toy Story That
Time Forgot,” 6:20 p.m. Dec. 21, Freeform, Dec. 10, Freeform. Here's a fairly recent one, from
2014. It reruns at 4:40 p.m. Dec. 22.

-- “The Little
Drummer Boy,” 11:30 a.m.
Dec. 22, Freeform.

-- “Frosty's
Winter Wonderland,” 4:10 p.m. Dec. 22, Freeform. It reruns at 3 p.m. Dec. 23. 

-- “Jack Frost,” 7 a.m. Dec. 24, Freeform.



More movies (made
for theaters)


-- “Fred Claus”
(2007), 3, 9 and 11:30 p.m. Dec. 14, TNT, In a mildly pleasant comedy. Santa
(Paul Giamatti), a good guy, is visited by his scheming brother
(Vince Vaughn). It reruns on 4:30 p.m. Dec. 24

- “Arthur
Christmas” (2011), 7 p.m. Dec. 14, Freeform. Santa has a
high-tech operation ... but one present gets lost. His youngest son
Arthur tries to help, in a fairly enjoyable animated film. It reruns at 5 p.m. Dec. 15; 1:25 p.m. Dec. 24 and 11:20 a.m. Dec. 25.

- “Jack Frost”
(1998), 9:10 a.m. Dec. 16, Freeform. Too busy to spend time with his
son, Jack dies in a car accident and returns as ... well, a snowman.
It reruns at 2:05 p.m. Dec. 22 and 7:30 a.m. Dec. 23.

-- “Jingle All the
Way” (1996), 5:30 p.m. Dec. 16, Freeform. Arnold Schwarzenegger faces
one of his toughest action-hero tasks – finding the popular toy his
son wants. It reruns at 8:30 a.m. Dec. 17, 8:55
p.m. Dec. 22 and 1 p.m.Dec. 23.

-- “The Nightmare
Before Christmas” (1993), 1 p.m. Dec. 17, Freeform. Tim Burton
reminds us that any holiday can be made to seem creepy. It reruns at noon Dec. 18; 5:10 p.m. Dec. 22; 3 p.m. Dec. 23. 


-- “Surviving
Christmas” (2004), 6 p.m. Dec. 19, TNT and 10:30 a.m. Dec. 24, TBS. Ben Affleck
plays a rich guy who decides to buy a family and have an ideal

-- “The Holiday”
(2006), 1:25 p.m. Dec. 20, Freeform. In a pleasant-enough movie,
Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet swap their American and English homes
for the holiday. 


More new TV movies

-- “My Christmas
Love,” 8 p.m. Dec. 17, Hallmark. A hopeless romantic tried to
figure out who's duplicating the gifts from “The 12 Days of

-- “Christmas With
the Andersons,” 5 p.m. Dec. 18, Ion. When a dad loses his job
shortly before the holidays, he assues Christmas will be scuttled.
Then wacky Aunt Katie (Julie Brown) arrives with other ideas. It
reruns at 1 p.m. Dec. 24.

-- “A Husband for
Christmas,” 7 p.m. Dec. 18, Ion. It reruns at 5
p.m. Dec. 24.

-- “Sleigh Bells
Ring,” 8 p.m. Dec. 18, Hallmark. Rushing to geta sleigh read forthe
Chhristmas parade, a busy woman is startled to find it seems to have
a mind of its own.

-- “A Christmas to
Remember,” 9 p.m. Dec. 18, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. Mira
Sorvino plays a harsh TV personality who crashes during a blizzard.
Rescued by a friendly widower (Cameron Mathison) with three kids, she
has amnesia and (for now, at least) a new life.

-- “A Cinderella
Christmas,” 11 a.m., Dec. 24, Ion. An oft-overlooked woman makes a
big impression at a masquerade party, leaves before revealing her

-- “The Christmas
Swap,” 7 and 11 p.m. Dec. 24, TV One. A single father (Dondre
Whitfield) questions his decision to give up his dreams and care for
his mother

-- “A Christmas in
Vermont,” 7 p.m. Dec. 24, Ion. A young woman is sent to close down
the factory that provides a small town with most of its jobs.

-- “Merry Ex-Mas,” 9 p.m. Dec. 24, TV One, rerunning at 1 a.m. A single mother schemes to shatter the
Christmas wedding being planned by her ex.

-- “When Calls the
Heart Christmas,” 8 p.m. Dec. 25, Hallmark. This frontier series
pauses for a story that finds displaced settlers facing poverty at
Christmastie. Also, an intriguing peddler has an impact.

“The Nutcracker”

-- “Battle of the
Nutcrackers,” Dec. 12-16, Ovation. Each day, at 7 a.m., this
arts-oriented cable channel will have a different ballet company
performing “The Nutcracker.” Viewers will pick their favorite,
with the winner rerunning at 7 p.m. Dec. 21. It was the Berlin
State Opera on Dec. 12, Bolshoi Ballet on Dec. 13; next are Mariinsky on Dec.
14, Wiener Staatsballett on Dec. 15 and Semperoper on Dec. 16.


-- Sitcom
Christmases, 8 p.m. Fridays, TV One. Each week, the cable channel has
holiday episodes, including “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times”
and “What's Happening.”

-- Perry Como
Christmas specials, 10 p.m. Sundays, getTV (via Dish or WSTR
digital). Here are shows from Austria (Dec. 11) and the Holy Land (Dec. 18).

-- And more. For
three hours each Monday, GetTV has Christmas specials and episodes
from Andy Williams, Sonny and Cher, Judy Garland, Johnny Cash, Mac
Davis and Merv Griffin. Other Christmas episodes will be shown
Tuesdays through Thursdays. Then the channel goes non-stop Christmas,
from noon Dec. 18 through Dec. 25.

-- More again, Dec.
24-25, Antenna TV (via DirecTV and WSTR digital). On Christmas Eve,
old holiday episodes will be from 1 p.m. to 2 a.m.; they resume on
Christmas Day, from 7 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.

There's more

PBS' Christmas shows
vary at each station. However, many will include:

-- “Frontline”
reruns “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians,” from 10 p.m.
to midnight on Dec. 13 and 20.

-- “Lidia
Celebrates America,” at 10 p.m. Dec. 16, with Lidia Bastianich
preparing meals for returned soldiers.

-- “A Chef's Life
Holiday Special,” at 9 p.m. Dec. 22.

-- And “Call the
Midwife” continues the British tradition of special Christmas
episodes. It's 7:30 to 9 p.m. Dec. 25

-- "'Tis the Season," 9 p.m. AXS. Don't expect many lightweight ditties here. In a Nashville concert, powerhouse singer Jennifer Nettles tackles "O Holy Night," "Go Tell It On the Mountain" and more. It reruns at 11 p.m. ET and then at 10 p.m. Dec. 21, 9 p.m. Dec. 22 and 4 and 6 p.m. Dec. 23.

He explored Sherwood Forest ... and now explores the world (sort of)

When I first started writing about the iffy concept of cable-TV, some of the first stories were about "Explorer."

The show began in 1981, at a time when made-for-cable shows were rare and cheap; at first, it simply bought and packaged world documentaries. It went from TBS to Nickelodeon (a couple of the earliest channels, created in 1976 and '77) to MSNBC and then found its natural home, on the National Geographic Channel.

The show vanished for five years, returned ... and is now making an ambitious transformation. The new version debuts Monday (Nov. 14) and reruns Friday. Here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

If you grow up in
Robin Hood turf, you might start to think anything is possible.

For Richard Bacon,
it has been. After a string of successes (and one scandal) in England
and some sputtering in the U.S., he now has his big moment – taking
over as the host of “Explorer.”

“I think this has
turned out to be the best thing in my career,” he said.

Here is a show that
began three decades ago. It's been hosted by an actor (Robert Urich),
singer (Tom Chapin), filmmaker (Lisa Ling) and even an actual
explorer (Bob Ballard, who found the Titanic).

And now it returns
with the best spot the National Geographic Channel has – 10 p.m.
Mondays, with the first six weeks tucked neatly after the epic “Mars”

“Explorer” will
go from here to Timbuktu ... literally. In the opener, stories range
from a Timbuktu librarian (who rescued books and artifacts from the
al-Quaida) to funerals in a town in Indonesia.

The latter custom
“involves keeping their dead around for a number of years before
they bury them,” Billie Mintz said. Then “they have a ritual in
which they sacrifice lots of animals for the funeral.”

For Mintz, reporting
the story involved a 52-hour journey (three planes and a tricky
mountain drive) and other obstacles. “I've never had the fear of
slipping on blood before.”

Coming up are some
stories that are thoroughly serious, including the harsh training of
British teachers to spot terrorists. “You've got a 4-year-old who
said the word 'cucumber' wrong,” Francesca Fiorentini said. The
“teacher thought he said 'cooker boom' and the kid gets
interrogated for an hour.”

And some stories
that aren't nearly as serious, including a beer pipeline in Belguim,
leading to less-dire fears. “If there's a spill,” reporter Jena
Friedman said, “a couple ducks will get drunk.”

Bacon's reaction to
that story? “Any facility that gets beer to people quicker, I'm all
in favor of.”

That's part of his
function, to be serious when the story calls for it – including
interviewing activist Erin Brockovich in the opener – and light
when it doesn't. His background prepared him for both.

Robin Hood was
fictional, but “Sherwood Forest is very real,” Bacon said. He
grew up in Mansfield, alongside it. Just down the road were
Nottingham and a 12th-century castle of King John; in the forest,
kids would imagine that an ancient tree was one where Robin Hood

This was a place
where they could dream big things; “I just found it intoxicating,”
Bacon said. As a teen-ager, he was on BBC Radio Nottingham; at 21, he
became host of “Blue Peter,” a kids' TV show ... then was fired
18 months later, when a tabloid paper showed him using cocaine and

That was almost half
his life ago. At 40, Bacon comes across as a stable chap – married
for eight years, with two kids, ages 5 and 2 – who also has a
strong sense of fun. He's hosted a huge list of TV and radio shows in
England and moved with his family to California.

That's the same
risky move that's been made by other Englishmen, including James
Corden. “James and I came in the same week,” Bacon said.

Corden promptly did
movies and became CBS' late-night hot; Bacon merely scrambled.

He landed an
on-location interview show right away, he said, “but it took me a
lot longer to get my (work) visa straightened out than I thought.”
The show vanished.

Mostly, he kept
landing work back home. “I was commuting from Los Angeles to

Now he commutes from
L.A. to NewYork. In a new studio, he has a new version of an old

One of the first big
cable shows, “Explorer” began in 1985, 15 years before the
National Geographic Channel was born. It's been on five channels,
disappeared for a five-year stretch, returned last year, and now has
transformed into a hugely ambitious, weekly show. “It has a bit of
everything,” Bacon said.

Hosting it seems to
be almost as much fun as Robin Hood's job ... and, perhaps, a lot
less dangerous.

-- “Explorer,”
10 p.m. Mondays, National Geographic; opener (actually at 10:01 p.m.,
Nov. 14) reruns at 1:01 a.m. and then Friday at 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.

-- Each of those
hours is preceded by the “Mars” opener (9 p.m. Monday) and its



These are the people who (sometimes) turn music into magic

What does a record producer do? Well, sometimes Phil Spector would be a commanding general, creating his "wall of sound" ... or Linda Perry would be trying to convince Christina Aguilera that raw-and-simple is best. Sometimes George Martin would let the Beatles blast; and sometimes he'd let them toy around for days.

It's all part of the producing world, featured in a new PBS series.At a couple Television Critics Association sessions, the music masters talked about it; here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

Sure, it seems like
everyone wants to be a rock star. But many people – including rock
stars – want to be something else ... a record producer.

“Being in a
studio, making records, is about the coolest place you can be,”
said Don Was, one of the people featured in PBS' sprawling
“Soundbreaking” series.

Peter Asher agreed:
“The first time I went into the studio, .... I knew this is what I
wanted to do.”

That was around 1963
and the studio (later renamed Abbey Road) only had four-track tapes.
But to teenaged Asher (then half of Peter and Gordon) it was
“super-high-tech .... The fact that you could hire musicians much
better than yourself and tell them what to do -- I thought that was
unbelievably cool.”

And at the core was
a distinguished-looking producer. “I would see shots of George
Martin,” Linda Perry recalled. “I didn't know who he was, but for
some reason, I knew that was an important guy.”

Martin produced for
the Beatles and others. He had 23 No. 1 singles in the U.S., 30 in
England. And he helped launch work on the “Soundbreaking” series,
almost a decade ago.

“It's not going to
be boring,” Martin told the Television Critics Association in 2008.
“It's going to be entertaining. It's going to be fun; PBS is like

He died in April, at
90. Four months later, producers talked about the series. They've
molded music for Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones
(Was); James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and Cher (Asher); Pink, Christina
Aguilera and Gwen Stefani (Perry); and Public Enemy (Hank Shocklee).

Yes, styles differ.
At one extreme, said series director Jeff Dupre, are the auteurs:
“Someone like Phil Spector has this dictatorial vision .... There
are some artists like Joni Mitchell who's like, 'I'm producing
myself.' There's a story that she hired David Crosby just to stay at
the door, to tell people to go away.”

But those are
exceptions, Was said. “The beauty of making records ... lies in the
collaborative nature.”

Especially if it's a
collaboration of opposites. Johnny Cash thrived when he linked with
rock producer Rick Rubin; Public Enemy soared with Shocklee. “I
grew up on jazz,” he said. “Having that background allowed the
hip-hop producton ... staking it from various Motown records or even
doing some arrangements that were from the George Martin and Beatles

And the Beatles
themselves benefitted from a mismatch. “George Martin, with his
classical background .... They needed that,” Perry said.

Martin had spent
three years in music school, where he was a fan of Ravel, Rachmaninov
and Cole Porter. He contrasted with Paul McCartney, who couldn't read

Still, he told the
TCA, they all got along. “We respected each other. We worked as a
team .... Working with John and Paul and Ringo and George was
challenging, because they were four such strong individual
characters. We had a wonderful time.”

That approach
transformed, Asher said. “George Martin started when they made
their first album in a day, He was totally in charge, ran the whole
session – do a few takes, thank you very much, next song.”

the men often worked separately, trying studio tricks. To get an odd
sound in “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Martin said he had 16 loops on
eight playback machines. “George felt the best thing to do was to
leave them alone ... and see if it worked,” Asher said. “That was
part of his genius.”

Still, that can go
too far. “Sergeant Pepper” and “Pet Sounds” were great, Was
said, but then “a whole bunch of people (made) records that relied
on technology and were void of any emotional value.”

simple is best. Perry recalls Aguilera's first “Beautiful” take.
“I heard the vulnerability; I heard this whole thing happening. And
I was like, 'That's it.' .... Seven months, (she) tried to redo

And then that first,
simple take – lots of soul, little studio – became a classic.

-- “Soundbreaking:
Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music”

-- 10 p.m. weekdays,
PBS; Nov. 14-18, 21-23