Thursday, November 15, 2007

Short Takes – November 14, 2007

I have a big dilemma. Do I review dramatic shows knowing that within a few weeks – say by the end of January for sure – most of them will be off the air thanks to the Writers' Strike, and in the case of many (most?) of the new shows won't be returning because they've only survived this long because of the writer's strike? Should I only write these Short Takes pieces because you can bet the PTC is going to find something to bitch about even if there are no new shows? I won't be telling you what new TV shows are coming out on DVD – well that feature kind of evaporated a while ago anyway – because frankly I believe that you shouldn't buy new DVDs until after this strike (and the upcoming Actors' Strike and the Directors' Strike) is resolved and the writers get what they can from the studios. And later, after the scripted shows are gone (except for the ones that have been repurposed from a network's cable partners) should I review the reality shows and the games shows and (hopefully) the news shows that are going to spring up like mushrooms in a forest because there are no scripted shows and people don't watch reruns? And if I do review them, do I tell you that every last one of them is crap (except for a thirteenth season of The Amazing Race of course) and not to watch in solidarity to the writers? Or do I tell you, in what I expect will be a rare event, that you shouldn't watch a reality show in solidarity with the writers but this one might be an exception? Well, at least I know the answer to that last one; it's a matter of intellectual honesty and integrity for me to tell you what I think even if it does break solidarity with the WGA.

This piece to longer to write than I expected, thanks to kid brother coming to town for the long weekend and him having my beloved 4 3/4 year old nephew for Saturday and Sunday. A kid that age can easily tire someone of my age out. And then there was the one day TV bloggers strike that I didn't even know about until I read Tony Figueroa's blog. Next time someone send out a memo please.

Strike stuff: The Writers' Guild strike continues with AMPTP showing the same brilliance that they have throughout the past few months when they knew there was going to be a strike. A lot of shows have either shut down or have been shut down in terms of production sooner than one might have expected. Actually, I suppose it's easier to count the number of shows still filming rather than the number that have been shut down. And some – most? – of the new shows might not be coming back. The staff of Big Shots, for example, were told their show won't be coming back after the strike.

The of course there's the question of how you deal with a show that has a tightly interconnected plot. Two such shows are 24 and Lost and they've each taken different approaches to the strike. Barring an unlikely quick resolution to the strike, 24 won't air until the 2009. The producers have scripts for eight episodes but there's just no seamless way to end the season that quickly and they weren't about to try to operate with a huge gaping hiatus between the first eight episodes and the following sixteen. Meanwhile Lost will air the eight episodes that they have even though writers/producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelhof are not entirely pleased about the fact. As you may recall the series was renewed for 48 episodes, spread over a period of three years. According to Cuse and Lindelhof there will be a cliffhanger at the end of the eighth episode it was never meant to be the end for the season. There's a definite question of how the episodes are going to be run. The sixteen episode run was meant to cover both February and May sweeps but what can you do with eight episodes in terms of taking sweeps?

And for that matter, what will the effect of the strike be on the sweeps period? After all, sweeps are used to calculate ad rates (mainly for local markets), particularly in areas not covered by people meter technology. If – as I expect – viewers don't watch whatever amalgam of reality, news, and game shows that the networks put forth, what happens to ad rates? And if ad rates go down "artificially" because of the strike, won't the studios and the networks that make up AMPTP cry poor in the negotiations claiming they can't pay higher salaries and residuals because advertising rates are down?

FOX has announced an updated version of their schedule for the post-Christmas period – the period when the shows that are currently on will air their last episodes. American Idol will be the main show for the period starting in January, while reruns of Bones and House will move to Friday nights. New series New Amsterdam, The Return Of Jezebel James, and Canterbury's Law will start showing up on the Friday nights starting in February (a rather odd choice given the fairly common belief that Friday is a dying night for network TV – are the shows bad or does FOX think they can win the night with them). Two other scripted shows are in the line-up; Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles will show up on Mondays starting in January and the Farelly Brothers comedy Unhitched will debut on Sunday nights starting in March. A new game show, The Moment Of Truth starts on Wednesdays in January. A new unscripted series, When Women Rule The World will debut on Fridays in March. Gordon Ramsay's summer reality series Hell's Kitchen will debut on Tuesdays in April after American Idol. FOX claims that their Sunday night animated series – The Simpson, King Of The Hill, Family Guy, and American Dad will continue in first run for most of the season (in most cases writers for animated shows aren`t covered by the Writers' Guild.)

Why they strike: I`m putting in a couple of YouTube videos here to explain the reasons for the strike, particularly the whole question of online delivery of content. One had fairly widespread distribution from and features the writer/actors from The Office on "webisodes" and what they got paid for them in residuals because they're "promotions."

This second video is one that I found out about by seeing it on Mark Evanier's blog. It features Howard Gould, who is a member of the WGA negotiating team – he claims he may have been the most moderate member of that group – explaining why the writers need to strike, and why it's a "this far and no further situation.

Just to add to what Howard Gould is saying here, I checked on Canada's two main private networks, CTV and Global. While neither offers full episodes of all of their American shows online, they do offer some and all of those episodes have commercials in them, commercials that you can't skip and that the networks in Canada and the American producers are making money from.

Who Does the PTC hate this week?: First off this time around is a show that the PTC obviously doesn't understand, My Name Is Earl, specifically the hour-long November 1 episode, featuring the gang's second episode of Cops. This is the PTC's Worst of the Week. Now it seems that the PTC remembers the basic premise of My Name Is Earl but seem to have confused the show with something like Highway To Heaven. Here's what the PTC has to say about that: "this program has completely abandoned its original premise, instead resorting to antics more appropriate to The
Jerry Springer Show. Rarely, if ever, is a true good deed actually performed by Earl. More often than not the show serves to promote some of the most despicable behavior our society has to offer." Now they seem to think that the show is about Earl doing "good deeds" or "random acts of kindness" or something like that. The truth is of course that the show was never really focused on that at all but rather on Earl repaying or making right his transgressions against others. This is complicated by a couple of things. First, Earl wasn't exactly a paragon of virtue before he discovered karma so he has a lot of atoning to do. Second, well let's just say that Earl isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer and that playing Sancho Panza to is Earl's brother Randy, who makes Earl look like a genius. Randy and Earl and their closest friends and family are, to use a rather pejorative term, "trailer trash." In fact it is Earl's bumbling efforts to redeem himself combined with the people in his life that provide the humour in this series, not the quest to "do good deeds." That sort of thing is also what makes the Canadian series Trailer Park Boys one of the most successful shows on Canadian TV (contrary to the beliefs of Jim Shaw). Among the things the PTC complained about were the "Strippers, prostitutes, thieves, drunkards, adulterers, drug dealers, and utterly incompetent police officers [who] make up characters in this episode, and the scene in which the thermal video camera that Earl and Randy steal from the police car reveals that people are sexually aroused, and that Randy is present in the same room as Earl and Joy when Earl tries to deal with her heat (though contrary to the PTC's statement, he tries very hard not to watch.

I don't know where to begin on this. Let's set aside the fact that the PTC totally misidentifies the central premise of the show (and indeed the episode) and look at the actual facts of the episode. It depicts a period before Earl and Randy change their ways and go on their quest to right the wrongs they themselves created. It is in fact clear that the person who wrote this review for the PTC has never "had friends in low places" which allows them to adopt a self-righteous tone to the show. As to the material with the camera, it's a funny bit. It should, after all, come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the series for enjoyment (or even comprehension) that Joy is an adulterous slut – the fact that Earl Jr. is black is probably a giveaway to anyone except Earl (even Randy) – or that Earl was totally oblivious. No, for them the shows is "extremely troubling and sad" although they don't give a reason for feeling that way; maybe because it doesn't live up to their idea of what the show is supposed to be about. Their "concern" is that it doesn't live up to the requirements of the mythical "Family Hour." It ignores the fact that there are shows in that time slot that live up to some amorphous "Family Hour" standards on every night of the week (well not the PTC's standards but their standards are only slightly to the left of the Taliban in terms of social conservatism). It is not necessary – indeed probably not desirable – for every show in the time slot to live up to that sort of standard.

The Cable Worst of the Week is It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia on FX, a show I don't watch and if I did try to watch it I'd probably hate it given everything that I've read about it. I can however still criticize the skewed and wrong-headed interpretation of the network and cable's history. They start with the origins of FX: "The FX Network launched in 1994, becoming a pioneer in interactive programming. The first network to use e-mail to connect programs to viewers directly, FX offered an array of live programs from a New York City apartment under the tagline, 'TV Made Fresh Daily.'" This was followed by the admission that the network was not a success with viewers (the usual measure of TV success) but, "FX did embody the creative ethos of cable, and paved the way for the reality boom of the late '90s." They say that like it's a good thing (and in light of the genre's preponderance on the PTC's Best of the Week lists it probably is). This silly lack of viewers led to a format change: "By 1997 FX had turned into rerun land for old Fox-owned sitcoms, but again showed the value of cable by providing an outlet for NASCAR and hockey fans to watch their favorite teams." Again they say this as if it was a good thing and FX wasn't duplicating the work of any number of other cable services, particularly in broadcasting NASCAR and hockey. But then in 2002 FX "pushed itself into the cultural zeitgeist, premiering its gritty crime drama The Shield. Coming three years after the premiere of HBO's The Sopranos, The Shield was the first attempt to replicate premium cable's original programming success on basic cable. The sales pitch? Watch quality programming that's too gritty for network television." The PTC doesn't make clear its position on The Shield – at least not at this point – but when they mention the FX shows that have followed (Rescue Me, Nip/Tuck, The Riches, Damages and Dirt most and maybe all of which have been featured prominently as Cable's Worst of the Week) a pattern probably emerges. At this point they present the review of "one of their cherished TV-MA programs—It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" which airs on Thursdays at 11 p.m. ET and is thus presumably outside the purview of an organization nominally interested what children watch. The description is, to be honest, something that I wouldn't watch myself, however I wouldn't want to be denied – or for anyone to be denied – the opportunity to watch it. But here's what the PTC says about the whole FX line-up (before going into their whole "why should cable viewers be forced to subsidize this filth speech): "Pioneering television at its best? I think not. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia shows FX for what it is: a producer of cheap and crude programming, its claim to innovative television only a pathetic veneer. Undoubtedly, regular viewers enjoy the crude misadventures of It's Always Sunny, or the raunchy sexcapades of Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me. But this programming is hardly original. It's typical television, souped up with graphic sex and violence." And then they add, "Cable bundling may have once granted obscure channels time to experiment and lure viewers. But with 65 million homes now hooked up, the time for such market protection is clearly over."

Why? We can ignore the fact that the supposedly innovative programming that FX produced in the early going failed to attract an audience while the "crude misadventures" and "raunchy sexcapades" have made FX the 13th highest rated Basic Cable channel (this link takes you to a PDF file) in primetime out there (ESPN is first but for whatever reason the Disney Channel does not even appear). Spike, which presents Manswers, last week's Cable Worst of the Week finished in 8th place. The thing is that Basic cable networks like FX are giving the public what broadcast television isn't. In the case of a number of channels it's niche programming of the sort that broadcast TV won't do because they have to appeal to a mass market; in the case of FX, it's progress beyond pat situations and sanitized language and visuals that the networks – and certainly the writers, directors and producers – might want to present and the public might want to watch but can't because of the regulated nature of over the air TV and groups like the PTC that think that the shows we already have go too far. It's interesting that the PTC doesn't get it, or maybe they do. I'm going to misquote a line from The American President to sum up what I've come to realise about the PTC. It's from the press conference scene – I've only substituted PTC for Bob Rumson and "they" for "he": "...I've been operating under the assumption that the reason the PTC devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that they simply didn't get it. Well, I was wrong. The PTC's problem isn't that they don't get it. The PTC's problem is that they can't sell it!" I am convinced that the bulk of the American public is more intelligent, more sophisticated, and know their own children and their own tastes better than an organization of self-appointe guardians of public morality like the PTC. It is a good thing to get rid of cable bundling, particularly in an era when the cable industry is following the lead of broadcast TV and falling under the ownership of a small handful of big companies, but not for the reasons that the PTC promotes.

The Misrated show this week was ABC's Dirty Sexy Money which, as we all know is a show that airs well after the imaginary Family Hour that the PTC tries so hard to defend. The episode is rated PG-DS, with the descriptors warning of mild sexual situations and suggestive dialogue. It's not good enough for the PTC – according to them the descriptors are "thrown in as useless addenda." They object to "adulterous oral sex with a transsexual" and a scene in which one character (Karen) sees her soon to be ex-husband naked and has sex with him to get their divorce papers signed. She then is attacked about her behaviour by her mother but is able to deflect it by pointing out that the original papers didn't get filed because the former family lawyer was doing to her mother what Karen had just done with her now ex-husband. Here's the sort of thing that the PTC cites as evil and bad about the episode: "When Karen goes to her husband Sebastian to ask him to sign their divorce papers, he answers the door wearing only a towel. As the camera pans slowly down his body, Karen gazes at his crotch and stutters: Karen: 'Can you sign these please? They put these sweet little stickies on here so you know where to put your John Han..HanCOCK!' Sebastian invites Karen into the house. As he turns the towel slips off, revealing his naked rear to Karen. After a commercial, Karen and Sebastian are shown necking post-coitally on his floor, covered in a sheet." Now that sequence makes it sound as though she didn't stutter naturally although she clearly did based on the clip from the PTC's own site, and that she practically shouted out the last syllable of Hancock. This whole thing is boring. The pick two scenes out of an hour show that probably took up less than five minutes total, and in the case of the "adulterous oral sex with a transsexual" is so insignificant that a recap at the show's site doesn't even mention it. But that's not enough for the PTC: "Does the House of Mouse-owned network truly believe that the same age group which has made High School Musical a runaway hit is eager for such material? By choosing to misrate its shows, ABC-Disney is ensuring that the V-Chip will be unable to block it. By arbitrarily and nonsensically underrating their programming, ABC and the other networks make certain that parents – even those who have locked out all programming rated for ages 14 and over – are unable to keep their children from seeing such content. The V-Chip cannot block offensive programs, because the networks cannot be relied upon to rate their own programs accurately – as ABC has proven with this episode. As a result, the V-Chip, and the TV ratings system as a whole, is worthless when it comes to protecting children from harmful TV content." Again, I think the PTC has got it wrong. By airing the show in the third hour of primetime ABC is already demonstrating a realization that the show isn't entirely suitable for younger viewers. The "useless addenda" are in fact vital for refining what children are seeing since on my TV at least the V-Chip lets me block "TV-PG S" while accepting "TV-PG V" shows (just as an example). Based on the information the PTC has given us I really can't see that this show requires any different rating and descriptor combination than this show got.

Finally we come to the new weekly PTC section, TV Trends, which this week focuses on "Fox's Foul Family Hour." For an article with this title you'd expect more than this piece actually delivers. About half the article looks at the November 5th episode of Prison Break while the other half looks at the series recap portion of the Family Guy 100th episode, which happened to run in the second half hour of the 8 to 9 p.m. hour of Sunday. From Prison Break the writer describes a scene in which Bellick tries to get another prisoner to have sex with him, and a second scene in which Susan threatens to kill Lincoln's son LJ. The writer points out, "That children watching TV at 8:00 p.m. should be exposed to bloody, murderous violence is bad enough; but how many went to bed with visions of a boy near their own age being threatened with murder still in their heads? How many nightmares did children have as a result? And how many are learning from television every single day that the world is a dark, terrifying place where adults are waiting to torture and kill them?" In fact the answer to their rhetoric is probably "very few." Responsible parents find other alternatives for their children to watch when Prison Break is on, and indeed we know that the show's performance in the under 18 demographic doesn't put it in the top 20 (and the show itself isn't in the top 20 in any demographic). More to the point the show is responsibly rated so that the V-Chip will work. I don't think that the show is a "first hour" show for most of the reasons that the PTC cites, but at the same time it has always been my contention that not every show in every time slot has to be suitable for all audiences. Prison Break is an extreme example, but the fact is that there are enough other shows available in that time period that children watching TV at 8 p.m. aren't forced to watch Prison Break and with responsible parenting won't have to.

The other example of "Fox's Foul Family Hour" cited by the article was the half hour recap episode of Family Guy which appeared before the 100th anniversary episode of the show. As the author of the article describes it, this was a thoroughly disturbed program: "In the course of the half-hour special, Fox treated America's children to all manner of violence, kinky sex and other revolting behavior." He them proceeds to list some of the "revolting" behaviour, things like Stewie trying to nurse on his father's nipple, Peter and Lois in "bondage gear as they prepare to have sex," Stewie punching "the bloodied dog" repeatedly,
Peter sucking a popsicle suggestively, and lots and lots of vomiting. Worst of all there's producer Seth McFarlane: "The episode concluded with Seth MacFarlane himself gloating, 'We hope you've enjoyed this look back at the first one hundred episodes of Family Guy. Here's to the next 100. And hopefully we won't get cancelled for two and a half [bleeped f*******] years in the middle again.'" To this the PTC adds, "If only America could be so lucky. By placing his pubescent pablum in an animated program, Seth MacFarlane is cynically luring children into his twisted universe of crude humor, violence, kinky sex and disgusting behavior. And by airing Family Guy during the Family Hour, Fox exposed millions of children to MacFarlane's warped worldview." But are they really? The episode aired in this time slot as a one-time event; normally the time slot is occupied by a show that the organization largely approves of, King Of The Hill which gets a PTC "Yellow Light." An examination of the ratings for the shows on that particular Sunday night reveals that the two half hours of Family Guy finished fourth on the night against shows that the PTC deems "safe" for children – Sunday Night Football, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and The Amazing Race. But to my mind, the more important thing in this is that the only show that the PTC could come up with to "prove" that FOX's "Family Hour" is "Foul" was a one-time special about a show that always airs outside of the mythical "Family Hour." If they were writing this article for any other week the only thing they'd have to go with would be Prison Break, and one show does not make an evil trend. Two probably doesn't either.

No comments: