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The 411 on Rescue 911

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“This program contains true stories of rescues.
All of the 9-1-1 calls you will hear are real.
Whenever possible, the actual people involved have helped us reconstruct the events as they happened.”



If you recognize that disclaimer, you're one of the millions who tuned in on Tuesday nights for Rescue 911. While it's been off the air for years, many still remember their favorite episode, and many young people pursued a career in emergency services because of the dramatic tales of these hometown heroes.

Join us as we investigate the history of this influential television show that touched so many lives.

Reality TV with a Positive Spin

According to William Shanter's book, Up Til Now: The Autobiography, the inspiration for Rescue 911 came from an episode of the popular the radio show The Osgood File.

The episode focused on a crime that occurred in Arlington, Texas, in December 1988. Late one night, a robber broke into a family's apartment, waking the father, who confronted the intruder. Meanwhile, the man's nine-year old daughter called 911, and inadvertently recorded her 14-year old brother killing the would-be crook with a single shotgun blast. Kim LeMasters, the president of CBS's Entertainment Division, was listening to the show and wondered if other, similar recordings existed.

After acquiring some recorded 911 calls, CBS hired Arnold Shapiro, a producer best known for his Oscar-winning documentary Scared Straight, to produce a few one-hour specials based on the calls. When they started considering hosts for the show, LeMasters suggested Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek's Mr. Spock. Upon hearing Nimoy's name, Shapiro's thought of William Shatner, Nimoy's Trek co-star who had more recently been the lead police officer on T.J. Hooker. Because policemen were often there to help in most rescue situations, Shapiro thought the audience's association with Shatner's previous role seemed like a good fit.


The special Rescue 911 shows debuted in April and May 1989. While other reality shows, like Unsolved Mysteries and America's Most Wanted, focused on unsavory subjects like murder, robberies, and missing people, Rescue 911 presented stories and reenactments of the positive, life-saving actions of America’s paramedics, firefighters, police officers, and other emergency service personnel. This approach helped win over audiences looking to get away from the doom and gloom of similar programming. The one-hour specials were both big hits in the ratings, so CBS decided to make the show a regular series starting in the fall of 1989.

Rescue 911's ratings remained solid and went on to win a 1990 People’s Choice Award for “Best New Dramatic Show” after its first season. The show's popularity carried over into 1991, when episodes were licensed to as many as 45 foreign markets, including Germany, Denmark, New Zealand, and South Africa. In an effort to show off local emergency medical services, many regions filmed their own segments and edited them into the otherwise American episode. Of course this success also encouraged foreign copycats like the BBC’s 999, which was virtually the same format as Rescue 911.

The show would run for seven seasons, totaling 186 hour-long episodes, almost always appearing on Tuesday nights. But because the show was so easily edited down into shorter segments, it became the perfect filler for when CBS needed to kill 15 or 30 minutes after sporting events or movies. Despite its early popularity and versatility, the show's ratings began to wane by the mid-90s, and it was canceled in 1996. The show lingered in syndication for years, with old episodes appearing on the Discovery Health Channel as late as 2005. Today, Rescue 911 is no longer on the air, but clips and even entire episodes can be easily found on YouTube.

Watching TV Can Save Your Life

An unexpected but welcome side-effect of Rescue 911 was that everyday citizens were learning how to save lives. During its seven seasons, at least 350 people wrote to the producers describing how they had used techniques learned by watching the show that contributed to saving a life or preventing an accident. It became such a common occurrence that two special episodes were produced, 100 Lives Saved and 200 Lives Saved, that featured some of these amazing stories. Perhaps the most dramatic was the case of the Murphy family in St. Louis, Missouri.

It was December 1989 and the Murphys were busy moving into their new home. While Glenn Murphy carried in boxes, his wife, Annie, was unpacking inside. When Annie said she was cold, Glenn lit the pilot on the furnace to warm up the house. Annie stayed behind as Glenn went to get their kids from school. Upon his return, she said her eyes and nose burned, she was nauseous, and had a pounding headache. When her condition didn't improve a few hours later, the couple rushed to the emergency room, leaving the children home alone.

As the two sat in the ER's waiting room, they watched that night’s episode of Rescue 911 on TV. On the show, a woman was discussing a sudden illness that had come over her one day. Oddly enough, the symptoms she described sounded exactly like what Annie had been feeling. When the episode later revealed that the mysterious illness had been brought on by a gas leak, the Murphys became concerned about their children back home.

Panic-stricken, Glenn sped to the new house and found his kids nearly unconscious, suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a gas leak from the furnace. Thankfully, Glenn was able to get the children out of the house before any serious injury occurred. Firefighters arrived on the scene, shut off the gas, and rushed the kids to a local hospital where they were treated and released. Had Rescue 911 not been on that night, the Murphy children might not have made it.

A 911 Reunion

You'd be surprised how many EMT, police officers, and firefighters in their mid-30s today would cite watching Rescue 911 as an important part of what made them pursue their chosen career. Kyle Bennett was too young to watch the show when it originally aired, but the program still had a profound impact on his career and his life.

When Kyle was just a toddler, he was bitten by a poisonous snake in his family’s Louisiana backyard during a 1991 Fourth of July barbecue. Though his heart stopped beating twice during the scary turn of events, his life was saved thanks to the quick medical support of local paramedics and hospital staff. A few months later, Rescue 911 aired a segment on Kyle's snake bite, complete with a reenactment by the entire family and medical staff.

Bennett grew up to be a perfectly healthy and happy young man who, inspired by his own traumatic experience, went on to become an EMT. While studying for his certification in June 2009, his instructors learned that his story had been on Rescue 911, and decided to track down the people that had appeared on the segment - EMT George Schwindling, Dr. Philip Gardner, and 911 dispatcher Countess Carter (sadly, no Shatner). The reunion not only allowed them a chance to watch the episode again and relive the events of the day, it also gave Bennett the rare opportunity to shake hands with the people who had given him a second chance at life. (Watch the reunion here.)

Emergency Merchandise

Not only was Rescue 911 a ratings hit—it became a popular merchandising vehicle as well. During the 1990s, five Rescue 911 books were published, recounting stories from the show with themes like Kid Heroes, Humorous Rescues, and Animal Rescues. You could also buy the Rescue 911 Family First Aid & Emergency Care Book, an at-home reference guide for basic emergency procedures.


If you wanted to relive the excitement of the show, you could order tapes of early episodes by calling an 800 number. But as the show progressed, this service was abandoned. Otherwise, you’d have to wait until 1997’s Rescue 911: World’s Greatest Rescues, the show’s one and only home video release. The tape was little more than previously seen rescue segments from the U.S. and foreign versions, spliced together with a new, non-Shatner narrator. But, let’s face it, without Shatner it’s just not Rescue 911.

Of course we wouldn’t want to leave the kids out of all the Rescue 911 excitement!

In 1993, Marchon released the Rescue 911: Chopper Rescue slot car racing set, with two Rescue 911 SUVs that sped along the track until they encountered a huge gap marked with a sign that read “Bridge Out Ahead”. From there, a magnetic helicopter would snatch up the car, carry it safely across the gorge, and drop it safely back onto the track on the other side.

[Image courtesy of Chris Poibug/Internet Pinball Machine Database]

Gottlieb borrowed the magnetic helicopter idea when they produced 4000 copies of a 1994 pinball game based on the show. Amidst a flurry of siren sound effects and plenty of flashing red lights, the magnetic helicopter lifted the ball over the board, allowing the player to release the chopper’s payload onto targets below to receive bonus points.

If pinball wasn’t your thing, there was an LCD handheld video game made by MGA, also released in 1993. In the game, you play a firefighter trying to put out the flames coming from a burning building. Your extinguisher only has 15 shots, but you can keep collecting new extinguishers as they randomly appear on the side of the screen.

[Images courtesy of Hollywood Diecast]

For kids with a longer attention span, ERTL had three Rescue 911 glue-together scale models – a police car, an ambulance, and a helicopter – in their 1993 line-up. One side of each box had a brief synopsis of a rescue story from the show.

Even Matchbox released Rescue 911 cars in 1991, complete with electronic flashing lights and sirens. Models included an ambulance, a police car, a police van, and a “fire observer” van, among others. The front of the packaging proudly stated the toys were “from the hit TV series”; the back had safety tips for kids to cut out and collect.
* * * * *
Did you or someone you know become an EMT, a firefighter, or police officer because of Rescue 911? If you were a fan of the show, are there any particularly exciting episodes you'll never forget? Tell us in the comments!

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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