Thursday, November 29, 2007

Who Does The PTC Hate THIS Week – November 28, 2007

The thing about writing these pieces on their own rather than as a part of my Short Takes posts is that I really can't express the frustration I feel towards the Parents Television Council in the title. Somehow capitalizing "this" just doesn't express the same sense of frustration that putting the word in italics does. And despite the fact that they provide me with a lot to post about, the PTC does frustrate me. The PTC and organizations like it that lobby for a sort of homogenization of TV, and particularly broadcast TV, to a specific common denominator – not the lowest just the least offensive to them – in the name of "protecting the children" is a major part of the reason why American television (which the world is exposed to) hasn't progressed nearly as much as one would hope. Shows that would be perfectly acceptable in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada would be attacked by the PTC and in some cases banned by the FCC because they don't come up to some mythical "standard of decency." American TV should be better than it is. It should be free to address more adult subject matter but the FCC, driven in part by the PTC and similar groups frustrates this.

The FCC: Part of the rant above was triggered by the PTC's reaction to an FCC decision that actually went against them. You may remember the controversy that the PTC fired up over the "teen orgy episode" of Without A Trace, and the way that airing that episode as a repeat "violated" a consent decree that CBS and the FCC had entered into as part of an effort to clear away thousands of obscenity complaints brought before the FCC – mostly by the PTC. The PTC called on the FCC to either review all the licenses for CBS owned and operated stations or reinstate the thousands of complaints against the network. At that point the PTC was trumpeting the Commission's power to punish transgressors. They were also dismissing CBS's explanation – that the airing of the episode was inadvertent and that they thought the provisions of the consent decree requiring the network to have instruments and policies in place to prevent further transmissions of "obscene" material applied only to live broadcasts, since that was what the vast majority of the cases (virtually all of those cleared by the first consent decree) dealt with – as being nonsensical at best and the act of an evil corrupting corporation in any case. At that time the FCC had the potential of being heroic defenders of America's children, even though the episode was originally deemed "obscene" because it was shown in the third hour of prime time and in the Central and Mountain Time Zones (only) the third hour starts at 9 p.m. rather than 10 p.m. when the content in the episode would not be deemed "obscene" (incidentally I keep putting the word obscene in quotes because, having seen the episode at least twice I cannot for the life of me discern why the FCC gave it that label).

Then last week the FCC and CBS reached a second consent decree in the case. That Consent Decree required CBS to pay a fine of $300,000 and take measures to comply with the requirements of the earlier Consent Decree. This Consent Decree related specifically to the license challenge that the PTC made to the CBS owned KUTV in Salt Lake City, a station that the network had already entered into an agreement to sell. According to Broadcast & Cable the new decree "applies to KUTV and to a license challenge filed by the Parents Television Council, as well as to any other CBS stations that similarly did not take remedial actions. That decree paves the way for CBS to sell KUTV and a number of other stations to Cerberus Capital." The new fine is in addition to the original $3.6 million fine imposed on CBS when the episode was repeated – a fine that is under appeal to the FCC by CBS, and which will probably (hopefully, at least as far as I'm concerned) go before the courts if the FCC rejects the appeal. It should be pointed out that the $300,000 fine is just $22,000 less than the maximum fine that the FCC can impose on a single station if a program is found to contain indecent material – by whatever standard the FCC is using for indecent at the moment.

Needless to say the PTC is incensed – at the FCC. PTC chairman Tim Winter released a statement that said in part, "The FCC has failed its obligation by letting CBS off the hook – not once, but now a second time – for airing the same indecent content. The FCC has chosen CBS' corporate interest over the public interest, but the public, not CBS, is the true and rightful owner of the public airwaves. And shamefully, the FCC announced its decision the day after Thanksgiving, trying to bury any public scrutiny. What kind of signal does this send to broadcast licensees – and more importantly, what kind of signal does this send to the public? The Commission has failed miserably to serve the public interest." The statement also took the time to remind readers of the actions that the PTC demanded that the FCC take against CBS: "What the FCC should have done is hold a license renewal hearing in order to determine whether CBS has served the public interest in Salt Lake City as its KUTV broadcast license requires. Such a license hearing would be a powerful and positive reminder to every broadcaster in the nation that they are granted temporary and conditional permission to use valuable property. Another way the FCC could have responded is in a manner consistent with what most other breach-of-contract situations might call for, to wit, that the benefits secured by the breaching party be returned to the harmed party. In this case, the FCC would reopen each and every broadcast decency complaint which was summarily dismissed by the November 2004 Consent Decree, and each complaint would be adjudicated on its merits. The dismissal of the complaints was the benefit secured by CBS in signing the Consent Decree and paying a fine. Because CBS violated that agreement, those benefits should be forfeited. In addition, each and every radio and television broadcast license held by CBS should have been reconsidered." Winter's statement concludes with the following nugget, "CBS gets off with a paltry fine and a slap on the wrist – there is no real financial penalty to ensure that CBS will follow the decency law in the future. The $300,000 settlement sounds like a lot of money to consumers, but it's a tiny fraction of the sale price of KUTV and the value of the broadcast license it uses to operate. The FCC has failed its legal obligation to protect families from indecent content and to enforce the terms of contracts it enters into. The public deserves better."

The PTC's attitude isn't overly surprising of course. This is an organization that consistently describes any organization that doesn't agree with its demands – because that's what they are – as being "against families." When the FCC is in agreement with them of course it is an organization that is the great barrier against the corrupting networks and America's children. The PTC summarily dismisses the right of the broadcasters to appeal FCC decisions either to the Commission itself or to the courts, as in the "inadvertent obscenity case" heard by a panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. And when, as in the Second Circuit Court's decision on the "inadvertent obscenity case," the finding of an appeal goes against the FCC and the PTC, then the decision is condemned as wrongheaded and against America's families. Frequently the condemnation is done with words that the PTC would condemn if they were broadcast or even bleeped on a TV show. So naturally the Commission has "failed its legal obligation to protect families" when it doesn't do exactly what the PTC wants.

The Broadcast Worst of the Week and TV Trends pieces this week both illustrate the PTC's ongoing vendetta against FOX's Family Guy and the show's creator Seth McFarlane, who is also attacked in the Misrated column for the show American Dad. The Worst of the Week piece focuses specifically on the November 18th episode which satirizes the whole illegal immigrant debate. Or as the PTC puts it, "On its November 18th episode, Fox's crude animated series Family Guy (9:00 p.m. ET) belched out another patently offensive episode, qualifying the program yet again as the Worst of the Week. The episode was a disturbing in-your-face satire on the immigration debate facing the U.S.; but any legitimate points were totally obscured by a thick veil of sexual innuendo, graphic imagery, and foul language." Notice how they used the words "belched out" rather than the far more neutral "aired" or "broadcast." The choice of words is definitely showing the tone of disgust that the PTC has for the series. In the episode Peter becomes highly patriotic and anti-immigrant to the point of wearing an American Flag suit and instigating a crackdown on illegal immigrants in his work place. It is then that he discovers that himself is an illegal immigrant because his mother went to Mexico for an abortion which the PTC describes in probably more detail than was shown on the show: "In a flashback we see the writer's depiction of a Mexican abortion: Peter's mother goes into a Mexican establishment where she is strung up by a rope, and children beat her stomach with piñata sticks. Peter falls out of his mother's uterus alive and dangles by the umbilical cord. The sight of her newborn child is enough to make his mother keep him, and baby Peter is taken back to the U.S. where he is raised." Upon losing his job for being an illegal immigrant Peter looks for jobs he deems suitable for an illegal immigrant: "He tries working as a housekeeper at a motel (where he tries to engage in a threesome with a couple staying at the motel) and as a nanny for two young children. The nanny position is shown as a spoof on Mary Poppins, as Peter falls through the ceiling of the children's quarters and crushes both of the children into a bloody mess. After vomiting on their remains he pushes the bodies under the bed with his umbrella, vomits again and sneaks out of the window." Of course the PTC doesn't make it clear whether or not these are Peter's imaginings of what the jobs would be like, but of course that makes no difference to the PTC. No, for the PTC, "Family Guy never ceases to shock and horrify with its gratuitous transgression of moral and ethical boundaries. The program hides its offensive filth under the cover of satire, but the smut that saturates the program from start to finish makes any honest critique of society impossible to accept." Maybe if it wasn't animated...

That is the point (if you can call it that) of the PTC's TV Trends column this week, Fox's Family Guy: For Children? Ask anyone from FOX or Seth McFarlane's production company and they'll tell you emphatically that the answer is no, but of course why would the PTC take anyone's word for it when they're already certain of the answer. The whole premise of the article is summed up in this statement: "While in other nations animation has been used in a variety of genres and aimed at a variety of ages for many years (such as Japan's explicitly sexual and graphically violent anime), in America animation has traditionally been considered safe and friendly for children. Even when American animation carried adult humor or subtext – such as many of the classic Warner Brothers Looney Tunes, the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons of the 1960s, or more recent efforts like Animaniacs – it typically eschewed open violence or references to sex. Thus parents may be forgiven for assuming that animated programming, particularly when it airs early on Sunday nights, is safe for their children to watch." And that's the PTC's first mistake. They ignore the American tradition of adult themed animation – Fritz the Cat, Heavy Metal, and Ralph Bakshi`s Wizards to name just three of many examples. As far as airing "early on Sunday nights" maybe the PTC should be reminded that the show airs at exactly the same time as ABC's Desperate Housewives and CBS's Cold Case, and The CW's rerun of America's Next Top Model, none of which are shows that the PTC would describe as airing at an early hour when condemning them – and they have condemned them but then the PTC has condemned just about every scripted show on television.

No PTC article on Family Guy would be complete without the obligatory recitation of the "evils" of an episode, in this case the November 4th episode which was the show's 100th. I won't go through it – it's not really a long list but there is an extended quote – but I would like to point out the shots that the PTC takes at the show's creator Seth McFarlane, part of which is tied into that long quote I mentioned. Before listing the evils of the episode the PTC's writer has this to say: "Family Guy (and its allied animated atrocity American Dad, both from the putrid pen of "creator" Seth MacFarlane) definitely does not conform to this tradition. MacFarlane and his fellows delight in being as openly crude, sexual, scatological and violent as possible..." There's a certain amount of venom there ("putrid pen", the quotation marks around creator, just as two examples). But then comes a shot that is delivered following the long quotation that I mentioned. The quotation is a discussion between Stewie (the homicidal baby) and Brian (the alcoholic dog) about how Stewie intends to torture his mother Lois. Brian is full of suggestions and is getting off on it. The quotation from the episode ends with Stewie saying, "You're getting some kind of sick sexual thrill off this, aren't you?" After this the writer of the piece adds, "Obviously, Seth MacFarlane knows all about sick thrills."

But of course the article isn't "just" another screed against Seth McFarlane, FOX and The Family Guy, it's a defence of the children, for as Mrs. Lovejoy (from that other Sunday night animated series The Simpsons) would say, "Won't somebody think of the children!?" They start by pointing out that Fox "has never been shy about promoting Family Guy as appropriate for youth," with the network trumpeting that the show is #1 in Teens. Just in case we aren't aware of the fact the PTC includes an image – presumably of an ad from an industry publication or a FOX in-house magazine – that states that Family Guy is #1 in Teens. The PTC ignores the other fact in the ad, that Family Guy is also "#1 in Guys." The reason I state that this image obviously comes from a trade publication is that it includes a rating number for each category, which would hardly be relevant for a general audience (8.0 RTO for Guys, 5.9 RTO for Teens, just in case you were interested). But then they get down to the "proof" that the evil FOX and the Evil McFarlane are trying to lure unsuspecting adults and innocent children into their haven of perversity.

The "proof" is so flimsy as to be close to nonexistent; if it were a piece of turkey it would have been cut so thin that you could read a newspaper through it. First they state that "On Sunday, November 18th, during Fox's airing of the Cowboys/Redskins football game, sports announcers promoted that night's Family Guy episode, using the same jocular tone employed to promote detergent or beer. No reference was made to the content of the episode in question." Nice rhetoric, but I have never in my life seen sports announcers promote detergent or beer during the course of a game – in a jocular tone or for that matter any tone. As far as promos for shows, every announcer on every network does do that, and usually in an upbeat tone and virtually never mentioning the content of the show. They are reading the script provided. The second proof is even more laughable: "Furthermore, during commercials for Family Guy aired during that game (and presumably in other markets as well), brief film clips from the episode showed the character of Peter wearing a business suit modeled on the American flag. Using this patriotic image seems almost deliberately deceptive, intentionally designed to lure innocent viewers into thinking that there could be nothing objectionable about such a cartoon – certainly, nothing that would make it unsafe for their children to watch. Needless to say, any such viewers would have been appalled by the actual content of that night's episode." If the PTC weren't actually serious that statement would be incredibly laughable. As it stands it is almost contemptuous of the intelligence of the American public. Are they really suggesting that the American people are so soft brained that they will suddenly flock to a show that has been on the air for six seasons and been reviewed countless times, because of a commercial in which one of the characters is wearing "a business suit modeled on the American flag?" Come to think of it the PTC must think that Americans are that soft-brained, because they're whole raison d'etre has seemingly changed from their stated goal "to ensure that children are not constantly assaulted by sex, violence and profanity on television and in other media" and has become to treat all Americans like children and impose their standards of acceptable programming regardless of the time (why else review "third hour" shows) or mode of transmission (broadcast and cable channels).

The article's whole absurd logic builds up to this final conclusion: "Those who defend the programs produced by MacFarlane and his ilk claim that parents are solely responsible for protecting children from anything offensive or inappropriate. True, parents ought to be concerned about what their children watch on TV – and most are. But when the broadcast networks go out of their way to deliberately mislead parents into thinking that adult-themed programming is harmless, obviously the networks themselves bear a large measure of responsibility." They also add yet another parting shot at Seth McFarlane: "That Seth MacFarlane has befouled this nation's tradition of family-friendly animated humor – on programs named "Family Guy" and "American Dad", of all things – is bad enough; but that the Fox network collaborates in the willful corruption of our children's innocence is indefensible." I defend Seth McFarlane's programs, even though I don't watch them, for a lot of reasons but some of them are bound up in the absolute absurdity of this attack. FOX is not trying to mislead the public as to the content of the show, or if they are they're doing an extremely poor job of it; Family Guy is too well known a commodity for such a measure to work. People do not forget that they watched a show and found it unsuitable for their kids just because a network puts on an ad showing a guy in a flag suit or because sports announcers use a jocular tone when reading a promo for a show. Surveys – not those of dubious quality done by the PTC – indicate that the vast majority of parents do in fact concern themselves with what their children are watching on TV because it's part of their job as parents.

The PTC's Assault on Seth McFarlane continues with their Misrated section's look at American Dad. The episode of November 18th is rated TV-14 LV (Language and Violence) and the PTC believes it should contain an S descriptor (Sex) or at the very least a D descriptor (Dialogue). Reading their synopses of the episode it is a bit hard to think that they might be right about the S descriptor but given the TV-14 rating it is probably a close call. The trouble is that the plotline that the PTC is so excited about is so minor that the only references I can find to it outside of the PTC's agonised rant is two sentences in the Wikipedia episode recap: "Then, a child molester moves in Stan's neighborhood. Stan thinks he is his first target when he begins to molest Steve and his friends. And yet, if you were to believe the PTC's website you'd think the entire episode was given over to Randy the Molester.

Here are a couple of examples that the PTC gives of the sexual content of the episode.

  • Randy: "Hi. Sorry to disturb you. My name's Randy. I just moved in with my mom down the street…I was recently released from prison. And the law requires me to tell everyone within a 2 mile radius that I'm a registered sex offender…I used to work over at the water park, where I molested a TON of kids! But now I'm out now, so we'll see what happens."

Randy sees Stan's son Steve lying on the couch in his underwear. Randy's eyes bulge and he grins.

Randy: "So smooth! Can I come in? I would very much like to come in. I would like to be in your home."

  • Randy is shown spraying butter on the boys as they jump on a mattress, then tries to trick the boys into rubbing against him.

    Randy: "See? Isn't playing Popcorn fun? I'm the salt! All kernels have to wrestle me to get salted!"

    boy: "Goodbye, sweet virtue!"

Now as I mentioned this is apparently a minor subplot in an episode where the main plotline is devoted to Stan losing his "virginity" (he's supposedly never killed anyone) and Randy is introduced primarily as someone who is "deserving" of being murdered. Is this material suggestive? Yes, but is it deserving of the S and D descriptors? According to Wikipedia's article on the US TV content ratings (which I refer to a lot), the S descriptor relates to "moderate sexual situations," while the D descriptor concerns "highly suggestive dialogue." I'm not sure where in the dialogue the PTC cites – and remember they have a vested interest in bringing up the absolute worst elements of dialogue and descriptions of imagery – where you'd find "highly suggestive" in this. There are a couple of elements in the description that are worrisome as far as imagery that might warrant the S descriptor because it is for "moderate sexual situations" but as I've mentioned the PTC has a vested interest in portraying things at their worst, and for whatever reason the video clip that the PTC has provided for the episode is no longer available.

Still the PTC cloaks itself in outrage about the episode and the entire TV ratings system: "The entire TV ratings system, as it is presently administered, is a pathetic joke. The seamy sex talk and crass humor on American Dad is comparable to that found on such cable mainstays as Comedy Central's South Park. But while South Park is generally rated TV-MA and shown at 10:00 p.m. ET, Fox thinks that such programming is suitable for 14-year-olds…or even younger viewers, given the network's reluctance to accurately rate its shows. Only when TV ratings are assigned in a transparent manner, by an impartial outside organization – not by the networks, who benefit from misrating their own programs – will the ratings system be legitimate, and the V-Chip a useful tool worthy of the respect the entertainment industry gives it." It sounds vaguely reasonable doesn't it but there are a few things that the PTC forgets to mention. South Park gets a TV-MA rating for using all the language that 8-year olds know (as opposed to the language that parents wish/think their eight year olds know) and for far more graphic depictions of violence and sexual situations than anything American Dad (or Family Guy) have ever presented.

Let's dissect the PTC's statement a bit further. They say, "Fox thinks that such programming is suitable for 14-year-olds…or even younger viewers" but there is no indication of that except in the PTC's collective mind. The show airs in the last half hour of the third hour of Sunday primetime – the last half-hour in which FOX operates as a network, and it carries a TV-14 rating not a TV-PG rating. There is nothing, even in the skewed episode description that the PTC offers, that an aware 14 year-old would be unfamiliar with. The only "proof" that FOX thinks the show is suitable for people under 14 is the PTC's assertion that the networks (not just FOX) are unwilling to rate their shows accurately, but "accuracy" in this case is being defined entirely by the PTC. It can be argued that far from benefitting from misrating their own programs more liberally the networks would benefit from being harsh in their ratings if being harsh (adding a descriptor in borderline cases) earns them less complaints to the FCC for some violation, real or imagined. But here's the prize moment. The PTC says, "Only when TV ratings are assigned in a transparent manner, by an impartial outside organization – not by the networks, who benefit from misrating their own programs – will the ratings system be legitimate..." I suppose they mean something like the MPAA's ratings board, but even there the ratings are subjective rather than objective, as pointed out in the documentary This Film Not Yet Rated. About the only thing the PTC is right about is that ratings need to be assigned in a transparent manner (although again the MPAA is hardly an example of that) with clear definitions, known by the public, of what is acceptable at each level and what sort of content triggers various descriptors. Then again, if the FCC doesn't have clear and consistent definitions of obscenity, what luck would anyone else have.

Finally (and hopefully briefly) to the Cable Worst of the Week which is another "repeat offender" although this time Seth McFarlane has nothing to do with it. The show is FX's series about plastic surgery, Nip/Tuck. The PTC describes the November 13th episode of "blurring the lines between pornography and original basic cable programming," and being "little more than stylized filth." They mention "adultery, quasi-incest, sado-masochism, and graphic medical violence." What brings this about? Well the quasi-incest seems to be Sean fantasizing about a young patient Eden, while having sex with his current lover Carly. Eden – who in another scene lovingly transcribed by the PTC attempts to seduce Sean while he is conducting a post-operative examination on her newly reconstructed hymen – is the daughter of Olivia, the lesbian lover of Sean's ex-wife Julia. In fact the third scene that the PTC makes note of is Olivia and Julia after oral sex in which Julia has been rather unresponsive leading Olivia to wonder about her "technique." It isn't much of a review even for the PTC but it does include the oh so familiar (if ornamented) PTC whine, "But even if the show – for all its putrid content – has a following, why should every cable subscriber pay for it?" To which my reply is that they pay for it for the same reason the Jewish and Muslim cable subscribers in the United States pay for religious channels and get The 700 Club inflicted upon them when they subscribe to ABC Family – it is the nature of the system and until every cable company converts to digital cable which makes "pick and pay" pricing for cable cost effective for the cable companies that system isn't going to change.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A TV Show Is Not A Roller Coaster

Admittedly, when you watch them they seem like roller coasters sometimes, based on their rapid ups and downs in terms of creativity and characterization and just general quality, but that's not what this is about. This is about the Writers Strike, and while there seems to be good news in terms of progress on that front The strike is here and now and I am amazed that there are still a handful of people who don't get it.

One statement in particular festers at me. It was from a posting at from Dan Uno. In an article titled The WGA Strike: Striking Back at Writers and Producers. The post claims not to be a union busting article, and to be fair he does make a couple of points about how the producers forced the strike and the need to pay the writers more. However, it is his fundamental lack of understanding of the residuals system that drives me to distraction. Here's what he wrote:

I agree that the writers should get paid a fair share, and perhaps even be given a bonus if the show is a hit, but demanding that this money come from DVD sales and Internet broadcasts doesn't jive with me. As an analog consider the following. An amusement park hires an engineering firm to build them a new roller coaster. They agree on a contract, sign off, and the coaster is built. Now, the ride becomes a success and millions of people are going to the amusement park for this particular coaster and buying pictures of the terrifying final dive as souvenirs. Does the amusement park owe the engineering firm a slice of admissions or picture sales generated because of their roller coaster? No, but maybe they do.

As analogies go this one couldn't be more wrong-headed. A roller coaster isn't a TV show and a DVD isn't a photograph of people on the ride.

Let's take a look at how a roller coaster is built and compare it to what happens with a movie or TV show. An amusement park – let's say Cedar Point in Sandusky Ohio because they have one of the greatest collections of roller coasters in North America if not the world – orders a new roller coaster. Call them the Studio or the Network (although that's a bit tortured – they could just as easily be the Theatre, but no theatre owner has ever been asked what movie he wants the movie makers to make). The order goes to one of the big companies like S&S Arrow or Intamin AG – Call them the Producers but again the analogy is tortured as we will see shortly. But Cedar Point has a lot of input into exactly what they want from the coaster before pen even touches paper at the roller coaster company. Is it going to be an adult coaster or a kids' coaster, steel or wood, looping, sit-down stand-up, abover the rails or suspended. That's all coming from the people commissioning the project.

With all that information in place the company can now get to work. The Designers come up with the design of the coaster, based on the parameters given by the company. They are, of course, the Writers. The Manufacturing Pant comes up with the individual structural elements and when the time comes, put the thing together. This is a bit less clear cut, but I suppose the Manufacturing process would fill the part of the Actors. The Engineers check the designs to make sure that there are no obvious ways to get people killed, either from structural defects shown in the plan or from stretching the laws of physics in such a way that everyone in the first car out dies from having their neck broken by excessive G-force. The Engineers then supervise production of the roller coaster. Clearly the Engineers are the Directors. Once everyone has done their jobs the company turns the roller coaster over to Cedar Point, which opens it with great hype and fanfare.

The process is a lot more amorphous in Television. The networks have a demand for a certain number of shows every year. The creators (who if they're lucky become Executive Producers) put ideas forward to the studios in the form of spec scripts and some of those are made into pilots and a fraction of those are actually bought by the networks and made into series. The Writers write the episodes; the Actors act in them and the directors direct them. I'm sure anyone reading this who is actually in the Industry of making movies or TV shows (and probably in the Roller Coaster business as well) will explain to me exactly how simplistic this explanation is, but while the process of creation is vital it isn't the key point in the analogy.

When Cedar Point buys a new roller coaster they know exactly what they're getting. It is going to be a specific size, use this much steel and wood and concrete; the cars will hit this speed on the first hill and the ride will take exactly this length of time from when the car leaves the entry station to the time when the last passenger gets out; the ride will be able to be capable of handling a specific maximum number of people per hour. The roller coaster company is paid a fixed amount based on this, and the company is able to pay the Designers and Engineers and manufacturing and construction works a fixed salary based on this knowledge. A Studio and a Network has no such guarantee. There are no guarantees that the movie they will make will be Night At The Museum (gross $250 million on a budget of $110 million) because it could turn out to be Evan Almighty (gross $100 million, budget $175 million) or Miss Potter (gross $2.9 million). A TV series could be CSI (in its 8th season with no end in sight) or it could be Emily's Reason Why Not (one episode). On the other hand Studios and Networks have something on their side that Cedar Point doesn't because a TV show or a Movie isn't a Roller Coaster.

Let's say that Cedar Fair Entertainment, which owns Cedar Point, decides that they love their new roller coaster so much that they decide that they want one in Canada's Wonderland in Vaughan Ontario and Carowinds Park in Charlotte North Carolina and Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park California. They can't simply wave their arms or something and have copies of the coaster appear at each of their parks. No, they have to go back to the roller coaster manufacturer and pay to build new coasters that are going have some variance because each location is different. And the company gets paid each time that coaster is replicated. Cedar Valley's profits go up with each new coaster but the Designers and the Engineers and the guys working to manufacture and build it are all compensated as well. Each replication of that roller coaster is a separate production.

Now consider the Movie and Television Producers – the ones represented by AMPTP. A movie can be sold over and over again. First they sell it via Pay-Per-View, then to premium cable, then to either basic cable or to a broadcast network. Somewhere along the line DVD comes out, and maybe the mini-disc for the PSP, and even the legal iTunes download. A TV show can be sold in syndication to a broadcast network or a basic cable network, it can be put out on DVD and it can be sold online. And all of these things can be done at minimal cost, because unlike a roller coaster each replication of the movie or the TV show is not a separate production. So profits go up significantly while the cost of the TV show or movie either remains stable or increases only slightly.

Okay, so why not pay the Writers and the Directors and the Actors a fixed amount of money that covers everything? The answer is that you don't know how successful the movie or the TV show will be. Let's say that you pay two writers $50,000 to write 13 episodes of two different shows. Writer A writes for CSI while Writer B works on Emily's Reasons Why Not. Writer A's 13 episodes are seen on CBS the time they debut, and then are rerun several times on the network (because CSI has been one of CBS's "go to" shows when something gets cancelled). They are then included as part of the shows syndication package in the United States and worldwide. They then goes onto DVD in the United States and worldwide. The shows are also put onto iTunes in the US. All of which is revenue for the Production Company. On the other hand, Writer B`s 13 episodes of Emily`s Reasons Why Not turns out to be one episode, even though he`s probably paid for all 13 because he has a contract. Emily`s Reasons Why Not does not rerun even once; it is not syndicated everywhere; it does not go onto DVD and the people at Apple bust a gut laughing when the producer suggests putting episodes on iTunes. So do you pay – or worse accept – a flat salary based on the premise that the show is going to be CSI or based on the premise that it`s going to be Emily`s Reasons Why Not?

The system of royalties and residuals is based on the premise of rewarding success and it has worked for at least a century. When a writer sells a book he/she doesn't (in most cases) sell the book outright to the publishers for a one-time lump sum. Instead the writer is paid an advance and then gets paid a royalty once the writer's percentage of the sales exceeds the amount of the advance (did I get the basics of that right Bill Crider?), plus getting paid if his book is turned into a movie or a TV show. According to Wikipedia residuals are "a payment made to the creator of performance art (or the performer in the work) for subsequent showings or screenings of the (usually filmed) work." And that's what the strike is mostly about, increasing the payments to the creators for subsequent showings of the work based on the success of the format in which the work is being presented (which both costs less to manufacture than VHS tapes and costs more per unit).

Sunday, November 25, 2007

We’ve Got That Rider Pride

Had a good trip out to the casino on Saturday; it was probably helped by finding a system for a machine that allowed me to treat it like my personal ATM. I picked up some things about playing Poker in a B&M room even though I wasn't playing myself. One of the things I picked up on is that Poker is like Yacht Racing – a lot more fun to either do or watch on TV than it is to watch in person. The most interesting hand I recall seeing was a hand where one guy went All In before the Flop for about 4500 and was called by a guy with something around 6000. The All In guy flipped over pocket Ks while the caller turned over K-10 off suit. I still can't figure that one out. The way I play sees All In before the Flop and unless I have a high pocket pair my cards are in the muck at a speed The Flash would find amazing, particularly that early in a tournament.

Ah, but that's not what I'm talking about this time around. Sunday is the Grey Cup which is the Canadian Football League's answer to the Super Bowl except, you know, not really. The Super Bowl is about hype, multi-million dollar commercials and ticket prices that have people mortgaging their children to attend; the Grey Cup is about regional rivalries, grassroots fandom, affordable tickets, parades and great parties. Except in Toronto, which is sadly because that's where the Grey Cup is being held this year. Ask the average Torontonian about the big game and they'll talk about the NFL, and if you ask them about the Grey Cup they'll look at you like you're insane. There's no Grey Cup Parade this year because no one in Toronto knows that the Grey Cup is still being played.

In Saskatchewan we know. If you're born anywhere in Saskatchewan from Estevan in the south to Fond du Lac in the north you are infected at birth with a disease that – during football season – turns your blood as green as Spock's. The 'Riders are the provincial passion our only professional sports team. We live and die with the Roughriders. They haven't made it easy for us either. The 1966 team was the first time in my life that the team won the Grey Cup. I was also the first time in my grandfather's lifetime that they won the Grey Cup and he was born in 1916. Okay it isn't exactly a span of frustration like what the Chicago Cubs have put their fans through, but in some ways it was more frustrating. The 'Riders of the '60s and '70s were always so close and only got the cigar once. The 'Rider players of those teams were my idols. There was George Reed (who ran for more yards in his career than Jim Brown but never got any recognition for it because he was playing in Canada rather than "real" football) Ron Lancaster, "Gluey" Hughie Campbell, and Ron Atchison. Then came a long drought and near bankruptcy for the club before the amazing 1989 Grey Cup win, the team of Roger Aldag, Jeff Fairholms, Ray Elgard, "Robokicker" Dave Ridgway, and of course QB Kent Austin.

It's hard to underestimate the importance of the Roughriders to Saskatchewan. They're a binding force, and not just for people who live here. Saskatchewan ex-pats fill stadiums around the league when the Green & White are playing. Let's just say that my brother was not alone in BC Place stadium when he saw the 'Riders beat the BC Lions. And it's not just Saskatchewan people either. The Roughriders are Canada's team in the same way that the Green Bay Packers are really America's Team (Dallas Cowboys notwithstanding). People in Canada (outside of Toronto that is) have two teams, their own and the 'Riders. In fact, on the day of the 1989 Grey Cup I heard the Roughrider victory mentioned on a Brigham Young University basketball broadcast. The play-by-play announcer was originally from Lethbridge Alberta, and had been a 'Rider fan ever since.

Actually the comparison with the Green Bay Packers is appropriate. Both are community owned teams, both are the smallest cities in their respective leagues. Both have nation-wide fan bases and do very well in merchandising. Both teams have fans sporting "odd" headgear; in Green Bay it's "Cheeseheads" and in Saskatchewan it is (and I swear this is absolutely true) hollowed out watermelons shaped into helmets. The big difference is the history. When the Packers were founded in 1919, the then Regina Roughriders (then known as the Regina Rugby Club) had been around for nine years.

Today's Grey Cup game should be one of the best. For the first time ever the Saskatchewan Roughriders will be facing their oldest rivals, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The Riders and the Bombers play each other every year in the Labour Day Classic in Regina, and then again the next weekend in Winnipeg. There's a lot of good natured give and take between the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, including a statement by former Winnipeg placekicker Troy Westwood who said that people from Regina were "a bunch of banjo-pickin' inbreds" before a 2003 playoff game; he later amended his statement saying, "the vast majority of the people in Saskatchewan have no idea how to play the banjo."The rivalry is intense but this is the first time they'll face each other in the Grey Cup. When the Ottawa team was folded the Blue Bombers were moved into the eastern conference of the now eight team league to balance things out. Beating Montreal in the Eastern Division Semi-Final and Toronto in the Eastern Final Winnipeg advanced to face the Roughriders, who beat Calgary and BC. The Roughriders are an 11 point favourite in the game, in part because Winnipeg quarterback Kevin Glenn broke his arm in the Eastern Final. Glenn will be replaced by rookie quarterback Ryan Dinwiddie who has only played in a limited number of games this season. If the Roughriders win today, Kent Austin will become the first Coach in the CFL to win the Grey Cup to also win the trophy as a quarterback for the same team. And all I can say is

Go Riders Go!!!!!!!!!!

Friday, November 23, 2007


For those of you with access to KTLA on your TVs (over the air or through cable or satellite) be aware that in celebration of 60 years on the air KTLA will be offering a 60 Hour Marathon of shows from the '50s through the '80s. Starting tonight (Friday) at 10 p.m. PST. Among the shows:
  • The Jack Benny Program
  • Rawhide
  • Hopalong Cassidy
  • Lassie
  • Gidget
  • Dr. Kildare
  • Highway Patrol (with Broderick Crawford)
  • F-Troop
  • Please Don't Eat The Daisies
  • Tarzan
  • Time For Beanie
There are some interesting juxtapositions - Highway Patrol is followed by CHIPS, F-Troop by Mayberry RFD. The only thing missing is The Adventures of Champion The Wonder Horse, a show produced by long time KTLA owner Gene Autry. There's also "Current and Retro News" broadcasts.

Information about the KTLA Anniversary Marathon can be found here.

Comment Round-up

I'm writing this on Friday. Saturday I'll be heading out to the Dakota Dunes Casino to watch my first live Poker Tournament – watch, not play in because my personal circumstances (I don't drive) makes it impossible for me to get out there and more importantly get back in keeping with the times they'll be starting and ending. I blame the people of Saskatoon for voting against a casino in the city not once but twice – idiots (I voted for it, not once but twice). And Sunday is the Grey Cup and my beloved Saskatchewan Roughriders are favoured to win. It's an infection and I'll tell you about it before the game.

Right now, let's look at the poll on the Writers' Strike and the comments elicited on that subject and others. So far there have been ten voters. Eight said they were with the writers 110%, one said "Mostly with the writers but AMPTP has some points on their side," and one voted for "I don't give a good God damn. With global warming, war, poverty, and corruption why are you wasting your time writing about TV and striking writers," I think I know who that may have come from. The poll is still up of course and if you haven't voted and expressed an opinion yet please do so, and if you want to comment, put something down here. I may renew the on a monthly basis if necessary in part to try to track changes in attitude as events progress (and yes I fear I may have to renew it at least once if not more often). But now for comments, not just on the strike but on other matters.

First up (but second to comment on the strike poll) is our good buddy Toby who wrote:

The longer the Big Six stay away from the bargaining table, the worse off it will be for them in the long run. Public opinion was already against them anyway, but taking this hard line will give pro-WGA bloggers more time in which to steer readers to that online video showing Murdoch, Redstone and the others chortling over how much money they'll make from the Internet.

I'm just sickened by these people who are taking that hatefuly attitude towards the writers. Obviously they don't understand the full issue and they never will take the time to learn; they're just pissed off the time is coming when they'll be forced off from the tele-teat.

Hey, if I'm willing to go without the scripted shows, they should be able to survive as well!

This is what I mean about the WGA winning the propaganda war. AMPTP's worst enemies are themselves in terms of their public statements both before and after the strike was called. Some of Counter's statements have been laughable, like the one about how it is true that the writers don't get paid residuals for "promotions" that carry advertising because the producers don't get paid for them – that money goes to the Networks not the Producers (okay, so why is Les Moonves at the table again?). It also came across as the height of arrogance for AMPTP to end what they laughingly referred to as negotiations – which amounted to we'll give you a little somethin' somethin' in return for you giving us something worth more than what we're giving you.

I'm with you about those people who are against the Writers Guild. I know where they're coming from – the whole "unions are unnecessary and worse" neo-con crap – and it's repugnant to me. Unions give workers a "big stick" (in the sense that Teddy Roosevelt referred to when he said "Walk softly and carry a big stick") which an individual worker, no matter what field they're working in, doesn't have. People collectively have more power than they do as individuals, in much the same way that 13 colonies united were stronger than 13 individual colonies. And don't kid yourself into believing that employers – any employers including AMPTP – won't take advantage when they can. I've seen too many examples of employers doing just that.

Next up we have this comment from my old pal Richard Goranson. Richard and I go back to the days when blogging wasn't even a glimmer in anyone's eyes. We both ran Diplomacy zines back in the days before the game moved almost exclusively online. And we were good (or at least I was, I think – circumstances kept Richard from making as big an impact as he might have). Anyway, here's what he wrote:

The best things that can possibly come of the strike and its inevitable aftermath:

1) The overwhelming majority of people will finally realize that Leno, Letterman and virtually all talk-show hosts really aren't funny unless they're spoon-fed their material (Unfortunately, hardly anyone will notice).

2) The shows that absolutely depend on superlative writing and already acknowledge their writers as being the driving force on the show (like BSG) will see their demand go through the roof once the strike ends.

3) People will finally see just how scripted so-called "reality TV" really is and if the strike goes on for a very long time it will likely kill the format.

4) Sports viewership will go up and networks will work harder to accommodate athletic formats that do not rely on pre-determined outcomes (so the WWE and the New England Patriots are shot to hell).

Okay Rich, let's go through these one by one. First, most people already realise that Leno and the rest are dependent on their writers. The strike hasn't changed that, largely because all of the talk-show hosts – with only a few exceptions (Regis & Kelly and The View, neither of which claim to have writers, and Ellen which does) – stopped being broadcast when the strike began. Letterman in particular knows very well that he needs the writers; he tried to go on without them in 1988 and even at the time he knew that without the monologue and other things created by the writers the show wasn't very good. There are people who would not only be able to work without writers but thrive; sadly they aren't on TV anymore. Tom Snyder or Dick Cavett come to mind as people whose abilities as interviewers and conversationalists would be ideally suited for this situation but instead the networks have comedians, and while Letterman has developed into a solid interviewer he still needs to do the monologue and the Top 10 list and the rest, and knows that he can't do it without his writers.

I'm not sure that shows that depend on superlative writing are going to see any change in demand sadly. In fact there are rumours that the strike could kill Battlestar Galactica because of demands that the producers are putting on the actors in the form of exercising the "force majeur clause" in their contracts.

The problem with your scenario about reality TV is that the reality shows will go ticking right along because they don't have "writers." More accurately they don't have writers that are members of the WGA or are actually called "writers." The only writing credits listed for Survivor – just as an example – are for Charlie Parsons who created the show, and Jeff Probst. What Survivor does have are segment producers, associate editors, "loggers" and "transcribers." IMDB credits Jennifer Bassa, Elise Doganieri, Bill Pruitt, and Bert Van Munster as writers for my beloved Amazing Race but otherwise it's producers, associate producers, field producers, assistant editors, productions assistants, loggers and transcribers, but no writers. Big Brother credits six writers (who probably write for Mrs. Moonves, aka Julie Chen) but a veritable host of production assistants, story editors, story assistants and loggers. This is one of the lesser issues that the WGA is fighting over.

You might be right about at least part of the sports thing (I saw what the Patriots did to your Bills – grade A ugly). The problem is that whether people are willing to accept an increase in sports or if the networks are willing to make the long term commitment that most sports operations require if it's only to outlast this strike.

In summation, I think that the networks think they have a plan for surviving the strike. Sadly, it involves more reality shows with most of the untried ones being pretty bad, and finding product from other sources, whether it's their cable production or overseas programming (there are reports that the four major networks are looking at Canada's own Corner Gas).

Finally we've got this from Andrew about my PTC piece:

PTC's ignorance is really fattenin' up those Short Takes, huh? This new content forking was a good thing...

Now my views regarding this week's stupidities at the PTC. You said that the PTC doesn't know about the Gossip Girl books. That's sort of correct, except PTC did mention that the series was "based on a series of popular novels by Cecily Von Ziegesar", without noting the controversy and ALA awards. And in their Oct. 26 "Weekly Wrap", they were extremely paranoid...

This month, PTC has pretty much finished all the ratings for the new '07-'08 shows. Gossip girl got red, as did "K-Ville", "Back to You", "Dirty Sexy Money", "Big Shots", "Women's Murder Club", "Bionic Woman", and "Aliens in America". "Chuck" and "Samantha Who" got yellow, and "Life is Wild" was the only new show to have gotten green. Yikes, there seems a lot of radioactivity out of these airwaves, huh?

I'm probably going to make having the PTC stuff separate from the Short Takes posts a permanent thing; 4,000+ word posts aren't really my thing, and they do tend to delay things beyond the weekend.

The Gossip Girl books aren't mentioned in the Worst of the Week post that I was writing about though it is mentioned in the show's red light earning review page which contains more than a few hoots itself: "Both the drugs and drinking are presented as glamorous, easy to obtain, and part of their everyday life. There is no identification of how young teens are able to obtain all the alcohol or the illegal drugs." It's been nearly 35 years since I was in high school (and public high school at that) and I didn't drink, smoked or use recreational pharmaceuticals, but trust me when I say that had I wanted to I wouldn't have any trouble getting any of it. I knew my fair share of kids who came to class either drunk or wasted or both. I couldn't get the PTC's email alerts to load for me so I can't comment on the paranoia. It may be time for me to use one of my spam trap email addresses to sign up.

What surprises me about the PTC's ratings of new shows? Not much really. Maybe Aliens in America getting a red light while Samantha Who? "earned" a yellow. I suppose it's the same reason that they used to like My Name Is Earl, because Samantha is supposedly trying to reform and the fact that the show "regularly features adult themes and situations such as alcoholism and infidelity," while the teenage boys on Aliens In America have "the generally positive message of cultural understanding and responsibly charting one's teenaged years is consistently drowned out by the sexual content featured in each episode." The Gander ain't getting the same sauce as the Goose here. None of it is surprising of course, although the review for Bionic Woman contains an element similar to their review of Studio 60 last year: "Sex and language were not a major issue in the first few episodes but should not be ruled out for future episodes for a show of this nature," although this time they at least gave the show a yellow light. (Studio 60 got a red light for sex because, "Sex has not been an issue at this point in the series, but as relationships progress, sex scenes can be expected;" the closest the show ever came to a sex scene were a couple of implied instances of guys seeing a topless Harriet by accident.) It's about the same amount of consistency one can expect from a group the calls Brothers And Sisters "comparatively clean" while the show's rating site says that "The sexual content is not necessarily graphic, but it is recurring and frequent all in the same. Regular references to sex and sexual innuendo are present in each episode, both in a hetero- and homosexual context. There is some harsh language, with frequent use of words such as "ass," "hell," and "damn," and gives the show a Red Light. For the most part the only thing I agree with them about is Life is Wild, which is a worthy show, exactly the sort of thing that the PTC and parents who claim to want family friendly content have been pushing for for years – and which is getting some of the worst ratings of anything on TV (maybe because it's on opposite Sunday Night Football, Extreme Makeover Home Edition, and The Amazing Race). However, when I checked just a minute ago there is no PTC rating for the show. Are they changing it? Has even this show become too raunchy for the PTC? We shall see.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

For My American Friends

The real Thanksgiving was a month ago - Robin Scherbatsky, How I Met Your Mother

As a result, I am not going to do a list of things I'm thankful for, but I am going to put this up.

Happy American Thanksgiving as we say here in the Great White North, and don't get trampled tomorrow (but just in case vote in the poll before you go shopping).

Who Does The PTC Hate This Week – November 21, 2007

I'm doing this separately from my usual base for these rants against America's Nanny for a couple of reasons. First, they didn't have anything new for me to work on when I started the Short Takes piece this week, and then too I knew I wanted to include the strike related videos. The main thing though is that of late the title "Short" Takes has been a misnomer given the number of words I've been writing and in most cases that's been because I've gone on at length in my PTC posts. I want to keep writing these posts because I think that the PTC and any related organizations are a menace to North American broadcasting. I'm including Canada here too, that even though you can show nudity and say words on broadcast TV in Canada that would have the FCC emptying a network's bank account we don't make that many of our own shows (more's the pity), and when organizations like the PTC force producers and networks to run scared and to produce shows that aren't edgy and don't push the envelope we Canadians lose just as much as Americans do. And yes, amazingly this issue does come up this time around.

First up this week is the Broadcast Worst of the Week. And the proud winner (at least I think that people associated with any show that is called Worst of the Week by the PTC should be proud) is Gossip Girl on the CW. I think it's probably inevitable that any teen drama coming out of The CW and before that The WB is bound to earn the ire of the PTC. Here's how they introduce Gossip Girl: "The CW's new teen drama Gossip Girl, which airs on Wednesday nights at 9:00 p.m. ET, takes all the foul content from The O.C. while stripping away any of that program's redeeming features. This far-fetched soap opera about filthy rich teens deals with every vice from drug use to promiscuous sex to violent rape." The PTC points to three separate story lines – one about drugs, and two about sex – all while managing to mistake a character's name for the actor who played him and getting the actor's name wrong! (Nate Archibald is a character involved in the drugs story, and he is played by Chace Crawford; the PTC repeatedly calls the character "Chance Crawford.") From what I can tell, the PTC made a complete mess of their analysis of the drugs story. They state, "Chance Crawford tries to be a loyal son when he confesses to cocaine possession to take the fall for his father. His father has no remorse for his own actions and seems to find his son's cover-up perfectly honorable. Troubled by the lies, Chance encourages his father to confess. His father responds by punching his son in the face. Chance ultimately turns his father over to the police." On the other hand the recap of the episode from (and reprinted in Wikipedia) states, "Nate eventually confronts his father about the drugs that he had found and been blamed for....
When Nate goes to his mother to confess that his father has been doing and buying drugs for a while, he is upset when his mother rejects the idea that his farther needs help with the problems that he's having....Nate finally tells his father that he needs help and that he has to go and get it, when he ends up punching Nate and getting arrested....The show ends with ... Nate's mother telling him that his father has more charges on him than what it would have been because the police had been building a case against him for fraud for some time and they are not able to make the one million dollar bail." (Apologies for the ellipses, the elements I was looking for are spread throughout a long recap.) Setting aside at least one apparent error – the claim that "Chance" confessing to cocaine possession rather than Nate being blamed for it, - the story line reads quite differently the way reports it as opposed to the way that the PTC interprets it. Then again, the PTC has an agenda, to portray shows it disapproves of in as negative a light as possible.

The two sex storylines are treated in a similar manner. In one the PTC says, "Dan, at his father's suggestion, attempts to prep his room for sex with his girlfriend. He replaces his football-themed bedsheets, lights candles, and brushes up on his sex moves by watching internet porn. Dan is shown lying in bed with a laptop as female voices are heard moaning." I hate to say it but the porn at least seems to be the normal action of a teenaged male hoping to get laid for the first time. The other focuses on Chuck and Blair at a "burlesque" club that Chuck is trying to persuade his father to buy: "Teenage Chuck is shown sitting front and center watching the girls as he masterminds a business plan for his father to purchase the club. He and fellow teenager Blair sip champagne as they admire the girls. When Chuck dares Blair to go on stage she unashamedly takes the stage, strips, and dances for Chuck and the audience." The PTC even put that scene (which is such a minor moment that doesn't even mention the dance in the recap) on their website as "proof" of how terrible the episode is. The PTC offers up this conclusion: "The depictions of teenage behavior in this episode were mind-blowingly inappropriate on any network at any time. This program exhibits Hollywood's concept of appropriate behavior for youth. The show further promotes the hedonistic irresponsible lifestyle that is captivating our country through pseudo-celebrities like Paris Hilton." The PTC seems totally unaware of the source material for the series, the twelve Gossip Girl novels by Cecily von Ziegesar, a New York based author who based the school in the books on the private prep school she attended, and while the novels are controversial they are extremely popular and accepted by the American Library Association as a way to get teenage girls to read.

Next up we have Cable's Worst of the Week and amazingly it's a familiar name – The Sopranos. This time of course it's The Sopranos on A&E because the PTC had no objection to the show on Premium Cable (yeah, right, tell us another funny one) but this is Basic Cable where viewers subsidize channels (and the networks give away commercial time for free, at least if you believe the PTC) and The Sopranos as a show is evil, evil, evil and can't be made
unveil. Here's what the PTC has to say about A&E's attempts to present the show at what the PTC thinks should be Basic Cable level standards: "But A&E has shown throughout its Sopranos run the impossibility of cleaning out Tony Soprano's mouth – let alone muting his heinous violence. The episode titled Cold Cuts, which aired on November 8th, at 10:00 p.m. ET, featured multiple beatings, profane language, and the novelty of watching Christopher and Tony B. dig up and dispose of buried bodies." All right, first let's take a look at what the PTC cites as examples of the show's language:

  • Janice: "How do you like it now, bitch?"

  • Tony: "My name was all over the TV because of your bullshit!"
    Bobby: "It's not that simple, Ton. Apparently the woman's kid was picking on Sophia.
    Tony: "No, no you're not (Janice)! What you're going to do is call Neil Mick, you're going to plea it down, you're going to pay the fine, and not turn this into one of your freakin' cause celebre."
    Janice: "Anybody side's but mine. That bitch is lucky I didn't kill her."

  • Tony: "If it's so freakin' important, then you answer the freakin' phone."
    Melfi: "Stay with that."
    Tony: "It's just the level of bullshit. Every freakin' idea they come up with that's supposed to make things better, makes things worse."
    Melfi: "Okay, right. I agree. The center cannot hold, the falcon cannot hear the falconer."
    Tony: "What the hell are you talking about?"

In those three examples of dialog cited by the PTC as "proof" of "the impossibility of cleaning out Tony Soprano's mouth" the only word that probably couldn't be used on Broadcast TV in the United States is the word "bullshit." Sure, we all know what Tony is really saying when he uses the word "freakin'" but guess what, it is the same thing that every other character on TV means probably 90% of the time. If this is all they can come up with in terms of profane language then as the characters on The Sopranos would say, "fuggedaboudit." As for the accusations about violence, besides the mention of the buried bodies, they are only bother to cite two examples:

  • Tony throws his glass mug at Georgie, cutting his face. Tony then jumps over the counter, and is shown beating Georgie to the ground with a cash register. After multiple blows, Tony's crew pulls him back. Georgie's face is shown covered in bruised and covered in blood.
  • Janice attacks the mother of a child who trips her daughter during a soccer game. Janice punches the woman in the face, and then jumps on top of her, repeatedly punching her. The woman's face begins to bleed, and Janice attempts to flee from the police.

Given what the PTC mentions in those descriptions, it can argued that this scene would pass muster on Broadcast TV as well. here's the thing; while The Sopranos aired in its first run on Premium Cable channels in Canada and the United Kingdom, repeats of the show aired on Broadcast TV in Canada (CTV) and Britain (Channel 4) and Australia's Network 9. In Canada the series was broadcast by CTV uncut, uncensored and unbleeped. In fact it is one of my 78 year old Great-Aunt's favourite shows. My 78 year old mother doesn't like it, but she doesn't organize committees to protest, she just doesn't watch it, which is the whole point really – she makes a conscious choice not to watch it while her aunt makes the conscious choice to watch it. Nothing can please everyone.

Sure, the PTC is right to press for cable choice even if it is for reasons that most consumers couldn't care less about, but their claim, "Finding The Sopranos an appalling show isn't shocking: it's a sex-filled, gangland bloodbath. The real shock is that now every cable subscriber has to pay for it – whether or not they will ever watch it," is wrong. Every cable subscriber is also "forced" to pay for a network like ABC Family which includes in its line up The 700 Club whether or not they will ever watch that show or not. But of course the PTC will never in a million years describe that as being just as bad a thing as The Soppranos being on A&E.

Next up we have the Misrated section of the PTC's site. This time the supposedly misrated show is Supernatural on The CW. The episode in question is rated TV-PG DLV (suggestive dialog, mild coarse language, moderate violence). Naturally the PTC finds the violence and the imagery extreme, and the language too coarse and too smutty. They demand a TV-14 "perhaps with a V and L descriptor" (strong violence, coarse language). They even go so far as to describe the violent content in the show's opening title sequence – in fact that's the clip that they show on their site. I've often said that the PTC totally misses the mark on the premises of shows and they blow it with this one too. Here's what they say about the show in their introduction: "But this program is no humorous, gentle Ghostbusters imitator." Where on Earth did they get the impression that it would be? But then they're sure that the network is aiming the show at young kids. They (the PTC just to clear up our pronouns) state "What age does the CW network consider appropriate for this bloody, dark, occult-themed mayhem? Why, seven and up, of course." I assume they are stating this because the show is rated TV-PG although I have always assumed that most people seeing the PG in the rating actually took the idea of "Parental Guidance" seriously and didn't depend solely on the V-Chip as their only line of defence for programming.

The PTC mentions several incidents that they term violent in the show (although of course no context is provided and the actions are described in the most graphic detail possible to heighten the outrage):

  • A woman taking a shower hears a sound, opens the shower door and peers out. Seeing nothing, she resumes her shower. Suddenly a clothed male arm grabs her around the neck, strangling her. The woman's face, contorted in pain, is pressed against the glass, as the mysterious figure slams her repeatedly against the shower's glass walls. The woman chokes, and her dead body slowly slides down to the floor as evil, demonic laughter is heard.
  • A man is in his bathroom is mystified as his bathtub fills with black water and won't drain out. He peers into the dark water. A hand explodes out of the water and grabs the man by the throat. Veins pop out on the man's forehead as he is strangled to death.
  • A ghost with a greenish face and wet hair appears in Peter's car and glares at him. The ghost touches Peter's face. Water starts shooting out of Peter's mouth. More and more water gushes out as Peter makes choking and gurgling noises. Peter frantically claws at his dashboard and car door, trying to get out, then collapses with face against steering wheel as he dies an excruciating death by drowning, the water filling his lungs.

They also look at a couple of incidents of "sexual" content that would probably be considered mild by most people: "CW has thoughtfully added several instances of sexual innuendo as well: when Bella mentions a "Hand of Glory" (an occult object), Dean smirks, "A Hand of Glory? I think got one of those at the end of my Thai massage last week!"; as Dean appears wearing a tuxedo, Bella looks him over approvingly and says, "You know, when this is over, we really should have angry sex"; and Sam is forced to dance with an elderly -- and randy -- woman, who gropes him (below camera range) and squeals, "Oh! You're just firm all over!"

When I was working out how to write this part of this piece I initially thought doing a compare and contrast between what the PTC found so objectionable about Supernatural and a fairly recent past series to show that the rating wasn't wrong. The more I thought about it the less effective such an idea seemed to me. True by comparing this specific episode of Supernatural with – for example – Buffy The Vampire Slayer (a show which was normally rated TV-PG with descriptors) it could be shown that the content of the episode was rated in a consistent manner. And most thinking people – which I assume includes most of my readers – would be open minded enough to see the point. Ah, but the PTC wouldn't. They would claim that the content of Buffy The Vampire Slayer was consistently under-rated, proof – as they put it in their summation for this episode of Supernatural – that, "Networks consistently under-rate their own programs, because by doing so they can lure more – and younger – viewers, thus making a mockery of the V-Chip – and their own rating system."

Finally, in their new TV Trends section, the PTC continues with last week's total failure to understand the basics behind My Name Is Earl. Just read these two bits from the start of their piece NBC Comedy Hit: My Name Is Earl Raunchy: "When NBC's situation comedy My Name Is Earl premiered in the fall of 2005, it was lauded by critics not only for its offbeat humor but also for its gentle and life-affirming premise, stated at the beginning of every episode.... Undoubtedly the show's unusually moral premise was a factor in the instant success which the program enjoyed. To audiences weary of incessant "comedy" programs consisting of mean-spirited, unpleasant individuals endlessly insulting, injuring and taking advantage of one another, Earl provided a comic and bumbling but also upbeat and positive lead, struggling to do what so many in the real world also aspire to: trying to live a good life and be kind to others." Huh? Were they watching this show at all? Still they even provide pull quotes from TV critics to "prove" that the show was exactly what they claim, like this one from Robert Bianco of USA Today from September 19, 2005: "[Earl] is trying to improve himself, which makes him a welcome relief from the all those TV frat boys who yearn only to grow ever more stupid and slothful." It's all in aid of supporting the premise that the evil networks (or someone - probably the liberals) taking this beautiful little show about redemption and turning it into something sleezy and evil: "While at first the program gave prominent play to Earl's attempts at redemption, in the last season-and-a-half My Name Is Earl has descended into the cesspool. The program's new direction was presaged in the middle of season two, with episodes focused on: Earl and Joy stealing a police car while urging a cameraman from the TV show COPS to film them having sex in the back seat." It's gotten worse (or at least the PTC says so): "And since this fall's premiere, My Name Is Earl has totally forsaken Earl's quest to do good in favor of crude, hypersexual storylines. As the season opens Earl is in prison, leading to multiple "jokes" about prison sex. Earl even acquires a transsexual "girlfriend." Every episode features extended scenes set in the Club Chubby strip joint, with stripper Catalina performing a "jump dance" which causes her breasts to bounce wildly." They even manage to attack Jaime Pressly as well as the TV critics: "Predictably, television critics applauded the program's new direction, as is shown by the fact that Playboy model Jaime Pressly was awarded an Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series Emmy for her portrayal of Joy as an ignorant, foul-mouthed nymphomaniac." (Pressly did two layouts for Playboy when she was 20.) The PTC concludes their TV Trends article with a quote from Tom Shales that seems to support their position about how "bad" the show is: "...My Name Is Earl…amounts to a character study of a character not worth studying." Minor problem with that quote – it was written on September 20,2005, the day after the Bianco quote that talks about how My Name Is Earl is such a welcome relief from "TV frat boys who yearn only to grow ever more stupid and slothful." Of course, since I can find no further Shales comments on the show since he eviscerated it in 2005 we don't know what he thinks of it now. Or for that matter, what Mr. Bianco thinks about it either.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Short Takes – Strike Edition – November 20, 2007

Mostly this is about the strike. There is at least one "fun" element that relates to the strike thanks to the statements of a show producer who leans so far to the right that he has to worry about falling, ans seems to be living in cloud cuckoo land but mostly this is just a wrap-up of a couple of things.

(Oh, and Sam, I know what happened with the list. There were some appearance problems after I posted it and I needed to make some changes. For some reason the font code for that entry said it was supposed to be black which really doesn't work on a black background, so until I could post it a third – or was it a fourth – time, the list was there, just in black letters on a black background. Great way to handle spoilers that.)

"Writer" against the Guild: Okay, that's a bit misleading. The "writer" in question is Joel Surnow. Now Surnow is the Creator and Executive Producer of 24 but apparently, on occasion he actually deigns to go in the Writers' Room for the show (or however it works on the series) and picks up an occasional writing credit for the show, at least according to IMDB. Wired Magazine's blog Underwire picked up on a statement Surnow made at the end of a much longer article in the Washington Times (and if no one has ever referred to that publication as the "Washington
Moon-Times," well they should) in which he dismissed the possibility of Hillary Clinton being elected president (or even nominated) and played up the influence of Hollywood conservatives like him (Adam Sandler is likely to come out for Gulianni?). At the end of the article Surnow stated "'Hollywood's not being held hostage. ... I think [the studios] are going to break the Guild,' he said, later remarking: 'Millionaires on the picket line. ... They're not going to get a lot of empathy.'" [Edits by the Washington Times]

I guess this is the sort of thing one would expect from someone like Surnow; not only is he a producer – albeit not on the same sort of level as the people who are doing the real negotiations AMPTP – but he has fairly extreme conservative values of the sort that wants to break unions on general principle. The problem is that he is totally out to lunch on just about all of his points. Is Hollywood being held hostage? I'd say yes if for no other reason than without writers – and actors and directors, both which of have agreements coming up for negotiation next July – they have no product. And while the pipeline is longer for feature films than it is for TV, if the strike(s) go on long enough the studios aren't going to have anything going out. Are the studios going to "break" the Guild (or more accurately the Guilds, including the Actors and Directors)? Not with 90% of the members who voted coming out in support of the strike, and not without a sizable anti-strike "moderate" group within the Guild. This time around that "moderate" group doesn't exist. More to the point, I don't think that AMPTP wants to break the Guild, at least in terms of destroying it, because I think they wouldn't know how to operate without an organization like the Writers' Guild. Finally there's his statement about empathy: "Millionaires on the picket line. ... They're not going to get a lot of empathy." The thing is though that, for reasons I will explain shortly, the writers are getting public empathy. The public sees their demands as being fair, considering what the writers are asking for as it relates to total costs. They also see that it isn't "millionaires" on the picket line, and even if it was it would be millionaires versus billionaires trying to screw their workers out of a few pennies. There are a lot of working Americans who have seen that happen to them and they don't like it.

Something to talk about: The Writers' Guild and AMPTP are going back to the negotiating table starting on November 26th (the Monday after American Thanksgiving) despite the previous promise by AMPTP President Nick Counter not to return to the negotiating table as long as the writers remained on strike – in other words stop using the only leverage you have in a labour dispute then we'll talk. The reasons for returning to the negotiating table seem a bit obscure but The Hollywood Reporter indicates that it was at least partially brought about by Bryan Lourd, one of the partners at Creative Artists Agency (CAA) who hosted a meeting between industry executives and officials of the WGA at the behest of a number of other powerful agencies. The Hollywood Reporter article suggests that the curtailment of production might have brought AMPTP back to the table while the Guild is worried about losing support from "showrunners" who had come out in support of the writers but whose support might wane if the strike continued for too long. Variety suggests that one major motivation for the WGA to return to the table was layoffs of "below the line" employees. According to Variety IATSE president Thomas Short "blasted WGA leaders last week over job losses, noting that more than 50 TV series have been shut down by the strike. 'The IATSE alone has over 50,000 members working in motion picture, television and broadcasting, and tens of thousands more are losing jobs in related fields.'" Another concern, according to Variety (which hasn't necessarily been unbiased in their reporting – certainly Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood Daily seems to think so and cites a number of examples) is a fear that when the Directors Guild starts its negotiations they might settle quickly: "Once the DGA and AMPTP make a deal, it's likely that the AMPTP will insist that the WGA deal contain similar terms." I suppose the assumption here is that the DGA would accept an agreement that would be less than what the WGA would want. Variety also claims that there are gaps in writers' support for the Guild: "But during the past week, WGA leaders were also quietly pressured by a number of high-profile screenwriters and showrunners to get back to the table. Those members continue to maintain strong public support for their union, reasoning that any evidence of disunity would be exploited by the AMPTP." Of course the identity of these people is all very shadowy.

I don't mean to throw cold water on anyone's parade, but the fact is that getting back to the table is only the first step in solving any labour dispute. Staying at the table is a better indicator of progress. If the new session of talks breaks down almost immediately nothing is gained because it will indicate that the two sides are so fixed in their opinions that nothing will get done. And given statements from both sides right now, those opinions seemed fixed. In a battle of duelling opinions in the LA Times neither Nick Counter nor WGA chief negotiator David Young seem to be budging much. Counter thinks that the writers are being dealt with fairly: "Unfortunately, the theatrics and carefully designed photo opportunities of the last two weeks have obscured the fact that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers clearly supports writers having a fair share in opportunities presented by digital distribution." For his part Young claims that AMPTP never offered the writers anything without trying to take something else back: "In part because the conglomerates never offered a complete proposal, only bits and pieces of an offer, each one paired with a cutback. We, in turn, laid a complete proposal on the table, and we are still waiting for them to respond to it. Our negotiating team worked furiously to avoid a strike. At the eleventh hour, the conglomerates told us that if we made major concessions, they would make positive movement on our important proposals. But when we did so, they offered us almost nothing in return. Then they walked out." I have a feeling that even with the Guild and the Producers going back to the table, it is going to be some time before we see a resolution to this strike.

Status of shows: Both Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide have web pages up detailing how many episodes various shows have left before we stop seeing anything new from them. EW's page is easier to read in terms of a countdown, but the TV Guide page is more complete and up to date. Figuring in December as a month of reruns and specials – as it traditionally is – my sense is that the shows with the biggest problems are the ones with three episodes or less left, particularly if they're also shows that still have to air new episodes this week. So, if I'm not mistake here's what we're looking at as far as shows with three or fewer episodes left, bearing in mind of course that the original lists had a lot of holes in them and didn't agree with each other in the first place. Shows in bold air an episode this week after this is posted.

0 Episodes (Done like dinner)

  • Big Bang Theory
  • The Office

2 Episodes

  • Back To You
  • Bionic Woman
  • Heroes
  • Shark
  • Reaper (may have 4 episodes left)
  • The Unit

3 Episodes

  • Desperate Housewives
  • Grey's Anatomy
  • My Name Is Earl
  • Private Practice
  • Pushing Daisies
  • Supernatural (may actually have 5 episodes left)

Winning the propaganda war: They say that Winston Churchill "mobilized the English language and sent it off to war." The power of his oratory was such that it convinced people both at home and abroad of the rightness of Britain's cause and build morale at the darkest of dark times. While I don't put the collected members of the Writers Guild in the same class as one Winston Churchill, it does seem clear that they are winning the public relations or propaganda war in this one. They are getting the public behind them. For one thing, well the Writers Guild has all the best writers on their side which makes it a lot easier. They're also doing an extremely good job of using the media, and in particular the new media. The New Republic has an article about the strike on their website written by nearly everyone's favourite blogger Mark Evanier titled Strikeout! which gives some perspective about the history of Writiers Guild strikes and why this one is particularly important. And then there's YouTube which has been a goldmine of free media, allowing the guild to spread its message through blogs like this one. And let's not even mention the events that the Guild has staged during their picketing. Certainly Nick Counter wishes no one would. In his opinion piece in the LA Times he wrote, "Unfortunately, the theatrics and carefully designed photo opportunities of the last two weeks have obscured the fact that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers clearly supports writers having a fair share in opportunities presented by digital distribution." Not only is he engaging in double talk about new media but he is clearly stating that the various media events that the Writers Guild have organized have hurt AMPTP's position with the public. But how has AMPTP responded. They've put ads in "the trades" (Variety and The Hollywood Reporter) but of course the public doesn't read "the trades." And as Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood Daily points out, AMPTP hasn't exactly been knocking down anyone's doors organizing events to publicise or win popular support of their position.

And now, because I support the writers and they are providing me with good content, some videos from the writers' side of the strike (because AMPTP gives nothing for free). First up we have some major Hollywood players telling us just how good a thing the Internet is in their own words.

Next up the same thing presented in a different form, quoting from the annual reports of various media companies.

Finally a reminiscence from a legendary writer talking about how the good old days weren't necessarily so good if you were a writer.