Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Short Takes – November 6, 2007

I'm back after a week of not being able to feel motivated about putting my thoughts into words – at least not about the idiocy of the PTC (which has gotten so voluminous that I may have to start doing separate articles with just the PTC stuff). When I started writing my piece for last week they seemed not to have come up with anything new except a challenge to the license for CBS's Salt Lake City station, which is something I wanted to go into in greater depth. The trouble was that as I looked on it and tried to get into it I just couldn't find the words. Eventually I threw in the towel. And besides, the big news, probably for the next little while, is going to be the Writers' Strike.

Bad Dog: A&E has removed Dog: The Bounty Hunter from their network following the release of a transcript of a telephone conversation Duane "Dog" Chapman in which he told his son to drop his Black girlfriend and repeatedly used the "N-word." In one exchange he said "We use the word n---er sometimes here. I'm not going to take any chance ever in life of losing everything I've worked for 30 years because some drunken n---er heard us say n---er and turned us into the Enquirer magazine...I'm not taking that chance at all never in life. Never."

I am in such a quandary about this one. On the whole I am for anything that removes reality shows from the once proud A&E network. Even though I occasionally enjoy watching Gene Simmons: Family Jewels I would be overjoyed if it were removed from A&E along with every other reality show that the network has, so that we might actually be able to go back to the days when critics of PBS were saying the PBS wasn't needed because A&E would show all the good British shows. If they were to say that today they'd be laughed out of whatever forum they were addressing. A&E no longer has an interest in the arts and is only as entertaining as any other network that is primarily dependent on not very good reality crap. Nothing on A&E comes up to the level of Big Brother, let alone The Amazing Race.

That said, I find the way that he was exposed highly distasteful. It wasn't a public statement or even something caught by the film crew following him around, it was a private conversation between Chapman and his son Tucker. That's what sets Chapman apart from someone like Don Imus who said what he said knowing he was on live radio and TV. Reportedly Tucker sold the tape of the phone call to the National Enquirer for "a lot of money." I find this a nasty invasion of privacy, although in a different way than I would have if the Enquirer had obtained it my somehow monitoring one of his phone calls without either party knowing about it. The fact is that in private conversations and interactions with people who we consider to be friends and family – in other words people we trust as confidants – everybody says or does things that they would never say or do in public. We have an expectation that these people at least will respect our privacy. And in an era where daughters release video tape of their drunken father trying unsuccessfully to eat a cheeseburger, where a voicemail of a father getting mad at his daughter because she's been avoiding his calls becomes public, or where a man releases tapes of his sex acts with his once or former girlfriend, maybe the expectation of privacy from family, friends, or others we would consider to be confidants is gone. I don't condone Chapman's words or his sentiments but if his son sold the tape to the Enquirer, I condemn him more. As for the Enquirer, well all I can say is it is nothing less than I expect from them.

STRIKE!: The Writers Guild of America strike started at 12:01 a.m. Monday November 5th. Now I'm sure that there are members of my reading audience who think that unions are the spawn of the devil and that the poor companies like Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal, Disney, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and The CW will be driven into bankruptcy by demands from these ungrateful swine – don't laugh, this very sentiment was expressed by a comment on a TVSquad article about the strike, not to mention in a statement by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP): "Instead of working toward solutions that would give the industry the flexibility it needs to meet today's business challenges, the WGA leadership continues to pursue numerous unreasonable proposals that would result in astronomical and unjustified increases in our costs, further restrict our ability to produce, promote and market TV series and films, and prohibit us from experimenting with programming and business models in New Media." Those evil, greedy Union bastards. For a more accurate picture of what a writer experiences check out this Huffington Post article from Howard A. Rodman. One key point: "As re-runs and syndication dry up, and a decent formula is replaced by an indecent one, our members stand to lose roughly 80% of their residual income – of what tides them over."

As you can tell I stand by the Union. And it's not because members of my family have, when they've been able, always been in unions. I tend to look at the issues and in this case the demands of the union seem far more realistic than the claims of gloom and doom (not to mention statements about how cushy writers "really" have it) emanating from AMPTP. But what are those demands? The major demands are (according to Variety):
  • Increase the base rate for calculating home video residuals from 20% to 40%. Sounds like a lot but the actual per unit increase would be from approximately 4 cents to 8 cents (this latter figure comes from an MSNBC article). The current home video residual scheme that AMPTP wants to retain was established in 1985.
  • Increase of residuals for "New Media" to 2.5% of receipts
  • Material made for new media: "The WGA's seeking jurisdiction, with TV minimums applying -- pro-rated in one-minute increments with a two-minute floor -- with residuals paid for even the first use. The AMPTP's asking for the status quo, which includes pension and health contributions."
  • Residuals on material for promotional use. This is included in the "made for new media" section by the WGA while AMPTP asserts that "promotional use of its property is essential to keeping the biz healthy and for maintaining TV audiences.
  • Reality TV – the WGA wants coverage for the people who "write" reality shows; that is creating the story lines in shows.
  • The CW: "The WGA's seeking network minimums and residuals for the CW, while the AMPTP wants to keep the current lower rates."

So now, couch spuds that we are, the big question becomes how this will affect our TV watching? The LA Times has a good piece on the impact the strike will have on many, but not all, shows. The first big impact will be on Late Night TV – Letterman, Leno, O'Brien, Stewart, Colbert etc. – and any show that depends on topical humour, like Saturday Night Live. They depend on fresh material and while it's possible that the talk shows could continue by just doing interviews and performances (Letterman in particular has become a pretty good interviewer when pushed) that's not going to happen because the hosts, like Letterman and Leno, are all members of the Writers' Guild. The big exception will probably be ABC's Nightline which is a product of the network's news division. ABC also claims to have contingency plans for Jimmy Kimmel's show. Daytime shows will probably be the next area to see an impact. Soap operas will probably run out of new scripts by the end of the year, possibly longer in some cases. In the 1988 strike, the networks hired "scab" writers for the soap operas, a lot of them fans, who took the shows in directions that the real writers had planned (Mark Evanier has an interesting anecdote about a soap opera writer who said "When we get back, it's going to take me months to get some emotional logic back into those characters.") ABC claims that The View won't be disrupted, and Live With Regis & Kelly "has no writers." The fate of Prime Time series varies. Most series expect to have about 13 episodes completed and depending on whether they've received extended orders. One notable exception is The CW's Everybody Hates Chris which has all 22 episodes completed (they apparently shoot their entire run at one time so that the kids don't change too much from episode to episode, which they might if they shot conventionally, with a hiatus). The expectation is that most series will run out of episodes by January or possibly February. What we know about mid-season shows is sketchier. ABC's Eli Stone will have a full order of thirteen episodes while Lost is expected to have eight of thirteen episodes. Jericho will have its complete order of seven episodes ready to air.

Mark Evanier (I do seem to be cribbing a lot from him on this don't I) has a list of news sources for material about the strike, ranging from the websites of WGA West and WGA East, through various news media (the LA Times, The Huffington Post, and even Variety and The Hollywood Reporter) to the AMPTP website. You can also get perspectives on the strike from other writers' blogs, notably those of Ken Levine and Bryce Zabel.

For the record (just in case you haven't figured it out by now) this Blog supports the Writers' Guild.

Who does the PTC hate this week?: So much to cover. I suppose we should start with their hatred for CBS. The PTC has called on the FCC to review the licenses of all CBS radio and TV stations, starting with KUTV in Salt Lake City, the first CBS station license to come up for renewal. Is one requires a bit of explanation. CBS and the FCC (and the other networks) negotiated a consent decree to clear the backlog of complaints from the network (most generated by the PTC it should be noted). Most of these were related to Howard Stern, but among the complaints cleared was apparently one directed against the original broadcast of the "teen orgy" episode of Without A Trace. The episode was rebroadcast in January 2006 and resulted in a finding by the FCC that the episode was obscene...but only in the Central and Mountain Time zones. I blogged about the absurdity of this at the time. CBS was fined over $3 million (the then maximum fine of $32,500 times the 100 or so stations that were "in violation" for showing the episode before 10 p.m. local time). CBS has appealed the decision to the FCC, and if (when more likely) the decision is upheld are likely to bring the matter to the courts.

The airing of the episode of Without A Trace led to the issuance of a "Notice of Apparent Liability" by the FCC because the network did not have a mechanism in place to prevent the broadcast of the "obscene" material. CBS has stated that they did not believe they were obliged to – their efforts were directed to putting safeguards in place to handle live radio situations. Not to mention of course that the original finding is under appeal. Needless to say, the PTC is on the warpath, clad in their usual righteous indignation: "CBS' response to the FCC's inquiry is utterly disgraceful. By saying they did nothing wrong by not taking any action after receiving the NAL, they have openly and defiantly breached both the spirit and the letter of the agreement that they freely negotiated with the FCC. Remember that the CBS Consent Decree summarily dismissed thousands of broadcast indecency complaints related to the original broadcast of the Without a Trace episode at issue; so then how could its re-airing not trigger the remedial action specified in the Consent Decree? We therefore call on the FCC to review each and every broadcast license held by CBS, beginning with its owned-and-operated television station in Salt Lake City, KUTV." Of course it goes beyond the whole issue of the Consent Decree. The PTC claims that CBS is engaging in "Jekyll and Hyde" style behaviour: "Its own executives have testified before Congress that they have a zero-tolerance policy towards indecent broadcasts, and by signing the Consent Decree they have admitted to broadcasting indecent material. Yet CBS has filed suit, along with other TV networks, to use the 'F-word' at any time of the day – even in front of children. And they have filed suit to assert that the Janet Jackson striptease on the Super Bowl broadcast was not indecent." In other words, in the PTC's view, an FCC decision is unimpeachable and any effort taken to appeal to such a decision is evil. Unless of course it's a decision that goes against what the PTC declares to be correct, in which case they will howl in righteous indignation about the wrong headedness of the commissioners. Given that, because of the various appeals to the courts, it seems unlikely that the FCC will review the licenses of the CBS stations, one can expect the PTC to start howling soon.

The PTC has also announced its ratings of the "20 Most Popular Prime Time Broadcast TV Shows Watched by Children Ages 2-17." Of the top 20 shows, only seven are scripted shows, and only one of those gets a rating (using the PTC's "traffic light" system) other than Red Light. That show is The Simpsons which earns a Yellow Light. The 20 most popular shows are (Green Light and best to worst) Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, NBC Sunday Night Football, Deal or No Deal, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, The Singing Bee, Don't Forget the Lyrics, American Idol, Supernanny; (Yellow Light) America's Funniest Home Videos, Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, Amazing Race, Survivor, The Simpsons; (Red Light) House, Grey's Anatomy, Heroes, C.S.I., American Dad, Family Guy. It's an interesting list although as usual it is marred by the PTC's usual flawed methodology by lumping shows watched by 2 year-olds with shows watched by 17 year-olds. I doubt for instance that there are too many 2 year-olds who are watching House, or who would be engaged by Grey's Anatomy (or for that matter answering surveys about their TV viewing habits). At the same time I truly doubt that there is that much of a 17 year-old audience for Supernanny. Here's the somewhat more impressive thing for me though. This list seems to disprove the root causes for all of the PTC's demands for increased government regulation, and the claimed failure of the V-Chip. Of the 20 shows named, only six fall into the PTC's "Red Light" category. Now obviously they will claim that one is too many, but I would suspect that most of the audience for the "Red Light" shows are in the older end of their demographic. Of course we don't know that – in fact we don't actually know the actual order in terms of Nielsen Ratings for the entire demographic or portions of the demographic – but I would say it is a pretty good bet. In other words parents are doing their jobs, either with the assistance of the V-Chip or by paying attention to their children's viewing habits and watching TV with them, and the majority of the shows they are watching are shows that even the PTC finds acceptable.

For a change, let's start our look at the PTC's bloviating about shows with a look at the Cable Worst of the Week. I want to lead with this because it shows that behind the guise of wanting every show to be child friendly (and the definition of child, as we've seen above runs from birth to the time the kid can vote) what the PTC really wants to do is control every show that we see. The Cable show they are going after this time is something called Manswers on Spike. Now I've never seen Manswers but when this came up I looked up a couple of clips on the show's website as well as the clip that the PTC supplied on their site. The big portion of the organizations attack is on the show but not before they take some quick shots at Spike and parent company Viacom first. Explaining the networks evolution (or as the PTC would have it, its devolution) from The Nashville Network to Spike, they then add this: "And what came with all this cable channel soul-searching, spearheaded by the takeover of Viacom? Prurient content. Shows exploring NASCAR shifted to ultimate fighting competitions. Talk shows went from playful light-night diversions to proliferators of inane and sexually explicit content." Because of course "ultimate fighting" is prurient. The PTC really hates Viacom: "This shift isn't shocking. Viacom merely brought TNN into its fold, making it a little sister to MTV, VH1 and Comedy Central — fellow Viacom entities." But then we get down to the actual show. The show answers questions, usually about sports or women. One of the clips I viewed on the show's website asked whether "big boobs float" (the answer is yes, if they're natural – "enhanced" breasts aren't buoyant because the saline solution or silicone is heavier than water; natural breasts being mostly fat do float). In the clip the PTC objected to the question was what constitutes nudity in terms of swimsuits. They had someone from law enforcement judge various bikinis. Of course that's not what the PTC saw: "The October 23rd episode of Manswers tackled the last question mentioned above. Simply answering what constitutes indecent exposure (pretty obvious, if you ask me) was not enough. Instead Manswers enlisted two women — appropriately named Brandy and Mandy — to perform a strip show inside a nightclub. Each woman pranced down a catwalk, inundated by sexually charged dancing and the sound of inebriated catcalls, donning progressively skimpier outfits. We all know where it goes from there." First of all, while they were at a night club Brandy and Mandy (and why were those names "appropriate"?) were not performing a strip show. And secondly this show is one that airs at 11 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, and presumably after 10 p.m. elsewhere well after even the FCC thinks that such things are acceptable. But of course nothing of this sort is ever acceptable to the PTC who tells us – without supplying proof of course – "The reason why this show exists is simple: a paltry viewership, buffered by the monthly bill of every cable subscriber." Now I think that the PTC is wrong about the network's viewership, but it really galls me that they take an issue like cable choice, and assume that everyone who supports it – like my blogging buddy Ivan – does so because they want "prurient content" off the air.

The Broadcast Worst of the Week is Private Practice. The episode in question deals with teenage sexual activity, sexual fantasies and the question whether an adult woman should masturbate to relieve he sexual tension. Of course the PTC puts its own spin on it. For example, in an early scene Addison is talking to her friend Naomi about a sexual fantasy she's been having about a co-worker when Naomi's daughter and a friend enter; Addison worries that the daughter may have heard some of their conversation. The PTC says "if Addison's dialogue was inappropriate for the 13-year-olds in the program, how much more inappropriate was it for the real-life young viewers who heard the fantasy described on television?" I don't know, maybe because the description of the fantasy in and of itself was pretty mild? But of course the big thing for the PTC was the teen sexual behaviour. Naomi's 13 year-old daughter Maya and her friend reveal that Maya has been sexually active and that she may have gonorrhoea. Addison decides, quite rightly by the way, not to tell Maya's mother due to patient confidentiality. As it turns out it isn't Maya who has been sexually active but rather her friend Ruby, who suffers a miscarriage. It is also revealed that she is in fact pregnant. The PTC of course paints an extremely graphic word picture of one of the scenes: "In an extremely disturbing sequence, Ruby is shown lying on the kitchen floor with blood flowing from her vagina due to her miscarriage." Of course we only have their word for just how graphic and disturbing the scene is. They conclude (in an atrociously written sentence), "Recent studies indicate that the depiction of sexually promiscuous teens on television can lead impressionable children to believe that teen sex is more common than it in reality is which can in turn influence them to become sexually active." The problem I have with this conclusion is two-fold. First, the episode depicts the result of sexual promiscuity in an extremely negative manner. Secondly, by not wanting the situation addressed, the PTC is pulling blinkers over the eyes of the public just as they did with the teen orgy scene on Without A Trace. When I was studying to be a teacher in the mid-'70s, one of my texts indicated that the average age at which a teen lost their virginity was 16; at the high school where I did my first practicum Grade 9 girls (14 years-old) were pulled from a physical education class I was monitoring for some fairly basic sexual education because a number of the 14 year-old class mates had gotten pregnant. I doubt that teens have changed that much in 30 years. Ignoring the situation does not make it go away.

Finally (because I'm way over length and I really don't want to do their TV Trends this week, an article on Nip/Tuck that starts with the words "Nip/Tuck, the FX network's disgusting "drama" of explicit sex and graphic gore, began its fifth season on expanded basic cable October 30th. While the program's return delighted a handful of smarmy and smug television critics the overwhelming majority of America's cable subscribers were once again forced to subsidize execrable programming that they never watch, and which most sane people would find offensive," but of course doesn't offer any proof of that assertion) we turn to Misrated. This time around – as it frequently is – the show is Ugly Betty. The PTC has a vendetta on against the show perhaps because the Association of National Advertisers' Family Friendly Programming Forum supported its development. Suffice it to say that the PTC has repeatedly gone out of its way to assert that Ugly Betty is larded with "smirking innuendo and lewd visual and verbal references to sex" The episode in question aired on October 25th and was rated TV-PG L (for mild coarse language). The first part of the show that the PTC latches onto (and the one that the clip they showed related to) was a scene of Betty's friend Christina measuring a male underwear model. They insinuate things such as Christina measuring the man's genitals that I really didn't get from the clip, and implies this bit of misinformation, "The model turns so that his crotch is directly before Betty's face. Betty goggles and rolls her eyes in shock, then turns away…but continues to peek at the man's crotch out of the corner of her eye." Actually she doesn't turn away, she immediately walks over to Christina before taking a seat away from the model, but still looking at Christina. Only a dirty mind (and the PTC bounds in dirty minds) could interpret that as continuing "to peek at the man's crotch out of the corner of her eye." There is also comment upon a scene in which Christina helps Betty create a profile for an online dating service. An equally major focus of the PTC's complaint that the show should have been given a TV-14 rating (and if it had been they would most likely have demanded lots of qualifiers for it) was the show's homosexual characters specifically Wilhelmina's assistant Marc. The article goes on at length about various lines of dialogue and situations that they claim are sexually salacious. They even have the audacity to claim that there is a homophobic slur, uttered by one of the episode's gay characters: "When Marc chooses a date with hunky Gus over one with Cliff, Cliff rants at him using a homophobic slur: 'Look at you! You're such a cliché! You and Gus? What is that? That's Beauty and Beauty. That's not a story! Now Beauty and the Beast – that's a fairy tale!'" (Emphasis theirs.)

Now I'm willing to accept that the episode might have warranted a D descriptor (suggestive dialogue (mature themes)) to be added to the L (mild coarse language) if only for a joke that has Betty misspelling "bowl" in a text message to a potential online date, but it's an iffy call. However I would also note that most of the material – including the gay innuendo material that the PTC was so upset about – is the sort of thing that the British were doing thirty years ago on shows like Are You Being Served? which used to get a lot of comedy out of things like the effeminate Mr. Humphreys measuring a client's inseam. The fact is that, as is frequently the case the PTC is focussed on seeing sex in any situation, particularly for a show that they patently do not like and Ugly Betty is just such a show.

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