Friday, December 21, 2007

Who Does The PTC Hate This Week?

I wasn't supposed to be writing this right now. I was going to be out at the casino Thursday afternoon, so I headed off to catch the shuttle bus. I got there in plenty of time...I thought. There were about 15 people standing about waiting for the bus when I got there but by the time the bus arrived that number had almost doubled, but I was there before them so I should be able to get on the bus. Nope. The driver (who had to pick up people at another stop) quite sensibly limited the number of people who could get on to something like 18 or 20 and somehow, but people who arrived after me were among the 20 and one or two who had come before me weren't on the bus. But the truly galling part for me was this one guy who arrived after me kept shouting "Get in line. Those people there aren't in line." Of course this was after he was safely ahead of me.

Naturally this put me in a perfect frame of mind to write about the Parents Television Council. So who do they hate this week?

First off we have an issue which I actually agree with the PTC on, media cross-ownership. The PTC is opposed to a recent FCC ruling which will allow newspaper companies to also own TV stations (and presumably vice versa) in the ten largest US markets (I would assume that there is some variance in the existing ruling that allow the Tribune Corporation to own WGN and the Chicago Tribune, WPIX and Newsday in New York, and KTLA and the Los Angeles Times in LA). Naturally the PTC and I don't agree on the reasoning behind our mutual dislike for this ruling. In its press release the PTC states, "Broadcasters are required to use the public airwaves to serve the public interest, and at the same time they are able to reap immense financial benefit. This creates an inherent potential for a conflict of interest, especially when billions of dollars are at stake. It is therefore incumbent upon other media outlets to provide a check and balance by reporting objectively about how the public airwaves are being exploited. Experience has shown us that newspapers do not take TV or radio stations to task when they are jointly owned by the same media conglomerate." My concern has little to do with that. It does have to do with creating an atmosphere in which the number of independent media voices in a city or country is reduced. I'm thinking in particular of the presentation of the news. As a Canadian I know of what I speak.

The battle of media consolidation has already been lost in Canada. Both of the two major, private, English language televisions networks are paired up with major newspapers. CTV is owned by CTVglobemedia which also owns the Globe & Mail newspaper, the more popular of Canada's two newspapers. Torstar, which owns the Toronto Star newspaper also owns a 20% share of CTVglobemedia. Quebecor Media owns newspapers in both English Canada and Quebec as well as the TVA television network in Quebec.Global TV is owned Canwest Global, which also owns the Southam chain of newspapers which includes newspapers in every major English Canadian city outside of Atlantic Canada except Toronto. It owns both newspapers in Vancouver, the single dailies in Victoria, Saskatoon and Regina, and the only English language newspaper in Montreal. They also own the National Post, Canada's second national newspaper. The effect, particularly in the case of Canwest Global has been caustic. As a rather silly example, you will not see a single ad for a show on either CBC or CTV in a Southam paper but you often see full page ads for the latest program that Global has bought. It is in news that things are really bad. Canwest Global uses the reporting staff of their newspapers to "supplement" the newsgathering efforts of their TV stations. That sounds benign but the net result is that the reporting in both the TV and newspaper side seem to parrot a similar line. In the recent provincial election in Saskatchewan for example, both the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the local Global TV station both exhibited a noticeable bias in the tone of their reporting towards the Saskatchewan Party and against the incumbent NDP government. To what degree that effected the election, which was won by the Saskatchewan Party is unclear but it undoubtedly had an influence. It's not a good road to travel, and one can only imagine the effects of such consolidation in the United States.

Of course the PTC can't stay mad at the FCC for long; who would their righteous, mass mailed form letter complaints about obscene content go to otherwise. This time around the PTC is claiming that the November 30th episode of Las Vegas was obscene and they're using same tactic that they used when they attacked the "teen orgy scene" from Without A Trace. They are claiming that the content in the Las Vegas episode was obscene in the Central and Mountain time zones because in those regions shows that air in the third hour of prime time start at 9 p.m. and end at 10 p.m. Don't laugh, that old wheeze got CBS a $3.25 million fine for the Without A Trace episode, and the maximum fines have gone up by a factor of ten since then. What I do find alternately laughable and scary is what the PTC is calling obscene in the Las Vegas episode: "The Parents Television Council™ is calling on its members to file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about an indecent episode of NBC's Las Vegas that aired on November 30 at 9:00 p.m. in the Central and Mountain Time zones and at 10:00p.m. in the Eastern and Pacific Time zones. The episode that was viewed by hundreds of thousands of children included a side camera shot of a stripper exposing her breasts. As if that were not offensive enough, the men watching her wagered money about the color of her nipples." That's it, that's what the PTC considers obscene: a shot from the side of a stripper exposing her a strip club, and men wagering about whether the woman's nipples are pink or brown. Let's ignore the absurd notion that "hundreds of thousands of children" were watching Las Vegas, because it is an absurd assertion. What they fail to mention is the duration of the "exposure" in that side angle shot. It is less than five seconds. This isn't the "teen orgy scene" in Without A Trace, (which I personally still don't think qualifies as obscene) let alone the episodes of NYPD Blue where you saw extensive shots of strippers who looked like they were in a real strip club. And the only thing scarier than the image of some self appointed PTC censor hunched over his VCR remote advancing footage of the episode frame by frame to find the naughty bits is the idea that the FCC might actually rule that this absurd complaint constitutes real obscenity.

Sticking with that episode of Las Vegas for a bit, the PTC has also named it this week's Misrated show, and it's for pretty much the same reasons. The show was rated TV-14 LVD (Language, Violence, Dialog) and the PTC contends that the S descriptor should also be added. Here's the description of the scene that they provide: "Sam is trying to come to terms with her new situation when her friend Nick[?] from the Montecito comes to visit her one night. Sam is watching a terrible imitation of an '80s hair band perform a ballad called 'Stripper Girl': 'Your lips were red, your skin was pale…You were the one I wanted to nail…I asked you for a table dance, you came over, put your hand down my pants…' croons the singer as he pushes his hand down his own pants. Meanwhile, strippers dance in cages all over the club. Nick looks over at two men yelling "50 Gs on Pink!" "50 Gs on Brown!" Nick asks them what they are betting on. "Her nipples!" they answer gleefully. The stripper then whips off her top and provides America with a side view of her breasts as she continues to dance." Setting aside the fact that they got the name of the character from the Monetcito who visits Sam (it's Mike, played by James Lesure – I don't know who "Nick" is) I suppose one might think that maybe the lyrics to Stripper Girl is the reason for the PTC's demand for the S descriptor or the bet on the shade of the stripper's nipples. But wait, those would be covered under the D descriptor for "highly suggestive dialogue." So obviously it's the breasts, and in fact the PTC admits as much: "Las Vegas is by no means a family-friendly show -- though NBC apparently thinks it is appropriate for 14-year-olds. But refusing to use an S-descriptor in a program focusing on strippers and bare breasts demonstrates that the networks are either incompetent or willfully negligent when it comes to rating their own programs."

So let's get down to points. First, the focus of the episode was not on "strippers and bare breasts." In fact there were only three or four scenes of Sam in the strip club one of which didn't even show the strippers. None of those scenes ran for more than five minutes. The focus of the episode was a robbery at the casino and Danny's suspicion that his uncle may have been part of it. The storyline around Sam losing her job at the Montecito and trying to get it back was a secondary plot and hardly the main focus of the episode. Second, as I mentioned in critiquing the PTC's campaign to have the FCC declare the episode obscene, the actual amount of time in which the side view of the woman's breasts was seen can literally be counted on the fingers of both hands and I'm being conservative in this estimate. Moreover, the woman isn't seen in a close-up or clearly lit as other shows have done with similar material (like NYPD Blue did on numerous occasions). I scarcely think that any rational person would find that this met the standard of "moderate sexual situations" that is required to earn an S descriptor on a TV-14 show. Then again this is the PTC we're talking about.

Now, let's turn to the PTC's Broadcast Worst of the Week. And it's an old PTC "favourite" making a triumphant return to the top of this category, American Dad but to do so they have to resort to reviewing a rerun of an episode that ran during the second season of the show, "Lincoln Lover." According to the PTC the episode "included highly offensive comments about sexual orientation and perverse sexual innuendo which carried the show from joke after repulsive joke." And yes, that's exactly the way that sentence appears on the website. The episode starts with Stan talking about how it is "cool to alienate gays" and includes the line "gays are the new blacks." What some might see as a borderline clever play on the claim that some colour " the new black" the PTC adds, "as if to suggest that it was once "cool" to alienate African-Americans." Either the PTC doesn't get the reference – possible I suppose – or they feel the need to be outraged on behalf of Blacks and Gays (the organization has been accused of homophobia on more than one occasion). Subsequently Stan becomes involved with a group of "Log Cabin Republicans" (gay members of the Republican Party). According to the PTC interpretation of the episode, "When he realizes they are gay he not only changes his ideas about homosexuals, but now desires to be one. He tells his wife that he plans to have sex with a man to prove to his new friends that he is gay." Now there's quite a bit of detail and nuance that is missed in this description of the episode, which a look at the recap would show. But of course detail and nuance are hardly the PTC's stock in trade unless they "prove" the organization's point. They are far more concerned with the use of the term "power top" which they then need to explain to their readers ("which means he is willing to be the man with the role of penetrating the other") so that they'll know exactly why "This is not a term that children watching TV should be made privy to." The PTC's article ends by stating, "The needless sexual innuendo and offensive sexual scenarios make this show completely inappropriate for broadcast television and far more suited for extended cable." Now, I'm not a Family Guy or American Dad viewer (the PTC tends to lump the shows together in the same circle of Hell) for a number of reasons, none of which have to do with "needless sexual innuendo and offensive sexual scenarios." The PTC's review taken on its own would seem to support their position, the problem is that the PTC is engaged in that old pastime of essayists, picking and choosing the data they present so that it supports their cause, in this case to make the show seem far more outrageous and unfocussed than it was. A comparison of the recap with the PTC article would indicate that the show was far more than a collection of, "highly offensive comments about sexual orientation and perverse sexual innuendo." There was in fact a plot and a reason for the events described.

The Cable Worst of the Week is, yet again, Nip/Tuck. In the four weeks since I spun this recurring post off from my Short Takes posts, Nip/Tuck has been the Cable Worst of the Week twice (and I have a strong suspicion that they've changed the episode being described so it may in fact be the third time and I just missed reporting one). This certainly indicates an obsession with this particular show on the part of the PTC. Their outrage this time is with the sexual relationship between Eden and Sean. Eden is 18 and Sean is 42, something which the PTC makes a big deal about. I won't go into details, although the PTC does. I will simply refer you to the organization's final comment on the episode, which aired on December 11th: "In an era when the sexual abuse of minors has become a major concern, and the entertainment industry increasingly portrays and urges women and even young girls to think of themselves as sex objects, it is outrageous that Nip/Tuck's creator Ryan Murphy shows such insensitivity to these issues, and that his program is lauded by critics as 'deep' and 'insightful.' No doubt potential pedophiles take comfort in seeing their depraved desires lauded by Murphy's warped drama." There is an obvious problem in this assessment – Eden isn't a minor. Every state in the United States considers an 18 year-old to be above the age of consent for sexual activity (in fact the age of consent in the majority of states is 16 – in South Carolina it is 14). An 18 year-old can drive, vote, buy cigarettes, and join the army without getting a letter of permission from a parent. Society considers an 18 year-old an adult except when it comes to drinking. Even the PTC considers an 18 year-old to be an adult. Or at least they do unless it suits them not to as it does in this case. In other words, the relationship depicted in the episode is hardly sexual abuse of a minor, particularly since it seems clear from previous episodes of this season that Eden is at least as much the aggressor in this relationship as Sean is, and indeed it has been made abundantly clear that not only is Eden not a virgin (even with hymen reconstruction performed by Sean) she has been quite aggressive sexually. Far from portraying the "sexual abuse of minors" and showing potential pedophiles "depraved desires lauded by Murphy's warped drama," the show is depicting a relationship which is, if a little strange and even creepy, entirely legal. Put it a different way, would the PTC be up in arms about this if Eden were described as 20 and Sean were 44? I doubt it.

The PTC's TV Trends column this week is titled Decent Sitcom Content: An Alien Concept? The article focuses on the CW comedy Aliens In America. Proving that the PTC is not unable recognise a paraphrased quote when it suits them (see the American Dad piece for an example of a time when it doesn't suit them) the first paragraph of the article is: "To paraphrase a famous Shakespearean quote, some shows are born filthy, and others have filthiness thrust upon them. While many primetime shows occupy the former category, the CW's Aliens in America typifies the latter. A series that could be focused on cultural understanding and the true meaning of friendship is undercut
by tawdry and crude sexual humor." And then they go on to "prove" it, the proof consisting of three examples of dialogue from the show and one scene description. Each is followed by a PTC approved interpretation of the scene. The PTC is clearly stating that the show is awash with raunchy dialogue and situations. They state: "It is easy to forget the more positive elements of Aliens in America when these pointless scenes are embedded into the story. Do the producers hope to appeal to audiences desiring edgy fare? Do they feel that needless filth is somehow going to salvage the series in the eyes of the viewing public? What makes this truly appalling is the fact that Aliens in America on the whole is not a trashy show. Outrageous sexual humor is injected into stories that otherwise have the potential to be positive. The theme of deep friendship is undercut by homosexual innuendo. An attractive girl's company cannot be enjoyed without sex as an ulterior motive. These instances, and more, are sadly commonplace on the new series." Ah, but that's not the worst of it. The writer of the piece uses ratings to "prove" that the general public doesn't want to watch this sort of "raunchy" programming, particularly in the mythical "Family Hour." As the writer puts it, "Perhaps audiences sense that the tone of Aliens in America just isn't right. Despite being one of the CW's most heavily-promoted series, it is also one of the network's lowest-rated. Notably, Aliens in America consistently loses viewers from its lead-in, Everybody Hates Chris. Is it a coincidence that a teen/family sitcom with clean content and positive themes enjoys a higher viewership than a teen/family sitcom that sabotages its positive themes with coarse humor?"

Okay, since the PTC has declared that ratings are the benchmark by which we are to measure the success or failure of a "clean show" versus a "raunchy show," let's look at some ratings numbers. These numbers are taken from Mark Berman's Programming Insider Forum page and there are a couple of nights when the numbers aren't in a form I can use. The numbers are total viewers only (in millions):

  • October 1(the night Aliens In America debuted): Everybody Hates Chris – 2.58 million; Aliens In America – 2.33: -250,000
  • October 8: Everybody Hates Chris – 2.63 million (up 50,000 over previous week); Aliens In America – 2.11 (down 220,000 from previous week): -530,000
  • October 15: Everybody Hates Chris – 2.57 million (down 60,000 from previous week); Aliens In America – 2.23 (up 120,000 over previous week): -340,000
  • October 22: Everybody Hates Chris – 2.53 million (down 40,000 from previous week); Aliens In America – 2.35: (up 120,000 over previous week): -180,000
  • October 29: Everybody Hates Chris – 2.50 million (down 30,000 from previous week); Aliens In America – 2.11: (down 240,000 from previous week): -390,000
  • November 12: Everybody Hates Chris – 2.72 million (up 220,000 from 2 weeks before); Aliens In America – 2.24: (up 130,000 over 2 weeks before): -480,000
  • November 26: Everybody Hates Chris – 2.28 million (down 440,000 from 2 weeks before); Aliens In America – 1.89: (down 350,000 from 2 weeks before): -390,000
  • December 3: Everybody Hates Chris – 1.89 million (down 390,000 from previous week); Aliens In America (repeat) – 1.59: (down 300,000 from previous week): -300,000
  • December 10: Everybody Hates Chris – 2.09 million (up 200,000 over previous week); Aliens In America – 1.84: (up 250,000 over previous week): -250,000
  • December 17: Everybody Hates Chris (repeat) – 1.87 million (down 220,000 from previous week); Aliens In America (repeat) – 1.42: (down 420,000 from previous week): -450,000

There is a lot that we can conclude from this. The first of course is that neither of these two shows is drawing an audience that would merit running this long on any network other than the CW. Secondly, while Aliens In America has never passed Everybody Hates Chris in total viewership it is worth noting that there were two weeks when Aliens increased its audience over previous weeks while Chris lost audience, and several weeks when either the increase in the Aliens audience over previous weeks was greater than the increase in the Chris audience or the decrease in the Aliens audience was less than the decrease in the Chris audience. Finally, it is worth noting that The CW has also aired an "encore" performance of Aliens In America on Sunday nights since October 28th. In that time slot it pulls about 850,000 viewers. Are they people who watched the show on Monday and decided to see it again on Sunday or are they totally new viewers? Who knows? If even half of them are people who didn't see the show on Monday nights, then in most weeks more people watch Aliens In America than watch Everybody Hates Chris – raunchiness and all. What does it all mean? Well bearing in mind that the ratings for these shows are dwarfed by even the weakest shows on the four major networks, the answer is not much at all. The statistical difference is scarcely sufficient to "prove" the PTC's assertion that it's not coincidental that "teen/family sitcom with clean content and positive themes enjoys a higher viewership than a teen/family sitcom that sabotages its positive themes with coarse humor." As is frequently the case when the PTC tries to prove that people want clean programming their methodology is at best suspect and at worst as case of smoke and mirrors, heavy on the smoke.

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