Geek Trivia: More reel than real

What broadcast catchphrase did CBS ban from radio dramas due to Orson Welles' <i>The War of the Worlds</i> radio play?

On June 29, 2005, Steven Spielberg launches his multimedia extravaganza disguised as a major motion picture remake of H.G. Wells' classic science-fiction novel, The War of the Worlds. While the pedestrian among us may refer to this cineplex-infesting production as a mere movie, the techno-film buffs out there realize that the most recent incarnation of the classic is actually the result of perhaps the most ambitious software beta test ever conducted by one of planet Earth's most renowned special effects houses, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).

In its three decades of existence, ILM has authored visual effects for dozens of blockbusters, earned numerous Technical Achievement Awards from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and taken home no less than 14 Oscars for special effects. Despite all that technical prowess and industry standard-setting—all of which has crowned the company as the undisputed king of crafting believable movie illusions—ILM entered the 2005 summer movie season working with near-decade-old software.

When computer-based special effects all but wiped out traditional "in-camera" or analog movie effects during the 1990s, ILM developed a dozen different cutting-edge software applications for rendering different aspects of digital effects. Recent advances in computing hardware—specifically 64-bit processor architecture—allowed ILM to rebuild and rebundle these various programs into one powerhouse application suite, which it dubbed Zeno.

Coincidentally, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise both found that their schedules had a concurrent three-month open window, which would give them just enough time to film Spielberg's long-delayed War of the Worlds remake using Zeno's streamlined post-production system. The only catch? ILM had yet to test Zeno, so the movie's brutal 72-day shoot was one high-stakes field test for Zeno, with the $130 million result on display on thousands of screens worldwide.

And all of that work for second place. Why? No matter how good a job Cruise, Spielberg, and Zeno do at creating a plausible fantasy, pretty much no one is going to think that what they're seeing on-screen is "real." That puts the latest War of the Worlds a fair distance behind Orson Welles' 1938 radio play rendition of H.G. Wells' book.

Thousands of alarmed listeners mistook Welles' broadcasts—designed to mimic radio news clips—as genuine accounts of an actual alien invasion, a feat that will live forever in science-fiction and pop cultural history. Of course, Welles did use his own brand of special effects to portray an all-too-convincing state of alarm—a well-known radio catchphrase that officials forced CBS to ban from future dramatic productions to avoid any more listener panic.


What broadcast catchphrase did CBS ban from use in radio dramas due to the panic instilled by Orson Welles' 1938 radio version of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds?

CBS radio was required to exclude the now-familiar hallmark of special newsbreaks—"we interrupt this program"—from any and all future radio dramas, effectively preventing anyone from using Welles' technique of formatting a radio play in the same fashion as a "legitimate" news broadcast. Despite the fact that the original Welles radio production included many reminders that the "invasion" blurbs were merely part of a carefully crafted performance, officials felt that the use of "we interrupt this program" was too misleading to the audience.

Listener reaction to Welles' The War of the Worlds helped make the case, as crowds formed at the supposed site near Grover's Mill in New Jersey, where Welles alleged the first of the described Martian war machines landed. Police had to intervene to control these crowds, some of whom included Princeton University astronomers looking to verify the unlikely events.

Now, before you write off the residents of New York and New Jersey (to say nothing of Princeton faculty) as gullible rubes who'll believe anything the radio tells them, subsequent surveys of the event found that many of those who panicked disregarded the notion that space aliens were attacking the United States. Rather, many feared that the "aliens" were actually German invaders—a common fear in the days prior to the U.S.' involvement in World War II, when many viewed German military technology as vastly superior to America's. At the time, it wasn't such a stretch to think that V2-like rockets could have deposited Nazi war machines armed with strange guns and poison gas on American soil.

When other radio markets used the same technique to portray The War of the Worlds, similar panicked reactions ensued. A 1944 rendition in Santiago, Chile required the mobilization of troops to contain public reaction. Such preemptive action might have saved lives following a 1949 broadcast of The War of the Worlds in Quito, Ecuador, when listeners outraged by the "deception" set fire to the radio station, and authorities jailed station officials for inciting panic.

So, while disguising The War of the Worlds as a real news story may be a bad idea for a theatrical device, it does make for some pretty dramatic Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the June 8 edition of Geek Trivia, "Air (and space) mail." TechRepublic member RadioRanger disputed my contention that the U.S. Postal Service's "Missile Mail" project was a one-time-only affair.

"Um, sorry to contradict, but I remember a mail trial between the United States and Canada (perhaps just in the United States) that involved a rocket to cross a lake in winter—apparently there was no other route. Can't remember if it was the '20s or '30s, but rocket stunts had a brief heyday in the years before World War II. And remember, Robert Goddard was flying rockets when people still thought them impossible."

As far as rocket mailings go, the Smithsonian backs you up on your recollections, RadioRanger. However, these were all unsanctioned projects—many of them wildly unsuccessful and quite dangerous—probably because none of them had the benefit of using guided military ordnance. Thus, while rocket mail was oft-repeated, Missile Mail was not.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.