Thursday, January 24, 2008

Who Does The PTC Hate THIS Week? - January 24, 2008

I've been taking a bit of a break from writing lately. For one thing I've had other stuff that I wanted to get written and then for the past couple of days I've been feeling like the stock market – in a decline. But the big thing has been that there hasn't been that much I wanted to write about. I wasn't feeling great when I watched Dance Wars: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann but that was the least of the reasons I had for not reviewing this. Once you got past the words "It stinks" there isn't that much more to say. Oh wait, maybe there is. Let's try this: "it was like a non-kosher hot dog – too much filler and not enough meat." But you can see where I'm going with this. You can tell people how bad a show like this is, but unlike a scripted show it is hard to give a deep explanation of why you hate it but there's no depth to it.

Which brings us to the Parents Television Council. I've been giving the PTC a free ride for the past couple of weeks because they seemed to have taken some time off and hadn't been reviling new shows for a while. Oh they went on about how TV writers all hate religion and provided figures to prove it (of course they compiled the figures of "anti-religious" items themselves using their self-defined criteria), how TV was now making disgusting Christmas specials like Shrek The Halls, and hailed Hollywood for eliminating smoking from movies and TV – while not so subtly attacking a favourite PTC target, Seth McFarlane ("It is inevitable that some TV programs would defy this positive trend. It is equally inevitable that the shows doing so would both come from the pen of Seth MacFarlane."). But for the most part the PTC has been quiet and hasn't aggravated me enough to bother to write about them...until now. So who does the PTC hate this week?

Dianne Keaton, ABC, CBS and the Second Circuit: On January 15th Dianne Keaton appeared live on Good Morning America and in the course of an interview with Dianne Sawyer about the new movie Mad Money, Keaton used the dreaded "F"-word. Almost immediately the PTC was in action with a complaint form letter that members in the Eastern Time Zone could cut, paste and fill out and send to the FCC and presumably their members of Congress to protest the comment. It is specific to the Easter Time Zone of course because unlike a lot of network programming Good Morning America and the other morning shows are all tape delayed and appear across the country at their appropriate times, which also meant that ABC was able to bleep out the "F"-word in every other time zone. Where CBS comes into the picture is an apparent incident (which I didn't see) on "an episode of 60 Minutes featuring a music video in which several people raise their middle fingers while singing '[Bleeped f-word] the feds.'" In this case the PTC was apparently objecting to the one finger salute although, as I say I have no knowledge of the context of the situation or the actions taken by CBS on it. In the PTC's press statement they claimed "The networks have made weak apologies time and time again for incidents like this, but they steadfastly refuse to take any action to prevent a recurrence. Diane Keaton's 'f-word' on national television and the lack of remorse by ABC that accompanied it cannot go unnoticed. In fact both Ms. Keaton and Ms. Sawyer appeared to be amused by the profanity, making no sincere effort to apologize to the viewers whom they sucker-punched." In fact ABC took action as swiftly as possible to apologize for the incident, which was followed very quickly by an apology from Dianne Keaton. I have to wonder what measures the PTC would have ABC implement? A five, or seven, or ten second tape delay on live programming so that an overworked sound editor could bleep an obscene word? That might be fine if a show like Good Morning America had a reputation for people coming on and cursing, but the very fact that this incident was so newsworthy is an indicator that this isn't the case.

As for the Second Circuit Court, well I'm sure you all will recall that the PTC has made them their pet whipping boys since the court struck down the FCC rulings on "fleeting obscenities" as being ill-defined and overreaching the Commission's mandate. Of course that's not how the PTC sees it. "Thanks to the inexplicable decision of two judges in New York City, the issue of so-called 'fleeting' profanity remains unresolved at the FCC." Well, no, not really. The court's decision was perfectly clear: "the FCC had not adequately, or constitutionally, explained why it changed its mind on the fleeting use of profanity." (Washington Post: June 5, 2007) I believe that this means that pending a decision by the Supreme Court – to which the decision is being appealed, but which has not yet decided to hear the case – the policy should revert to the previous policy which had been in place for at least 50 years. The PTC is using these issues as a clarion call for tighter regulation: "These instances are blatant reminders of why the Supreme Court must grant review of this case and overturn the ridiculous New York court ruling. It's also time for Congress to consider the existing and languishing legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), that would address the problem." It is entirely possible that the Rockefeller legislation is languishing for a very good reason. Like the question of whether any such law would survive a legal challenge on constitutional grounds given that the Second Circuit's decision was in part based on whether the change in FCC policy could be justified constitutionally. Maybe Congress is wise enough to let this one die at least until after the Supreme Court decides whether or not to hear the case.

Broadcast Worst Of The Week – Ugly Betty: I think that the PTC has decided to elevate Ugly Betty to the level of one of its pet peeves. This is an exalted status, shared by shows like the Seth MacFarlane series, Las Vegas, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me and a select number of others. In the case of Ugly Betty the reason for this is that the show is one of the series promoted by the Family Friendly Programming Forum as a product of the script development fund and more recently has been honoured with the Forum's Family Television Award as Best Comedy. Presumably this serves as a marker for the PTC, not unlike blood in the water for a shark. The PTC seems to be going out of its way to find something to complain about with this show. Here's what the introduction has to say about the show: "But contrary to what the Forum and ABC-Disney apparently believe, bright settings, colorful costumes, and braces do not automatically make a television show 'family-friendly.'" So what do they find objectionable this time? According to them, the January 10th episode, "Airing at the top of the Family Hour, the episode featured a character stealing her deceased lover's semen, heavy sexual innuendo, and a mind-boggling scene set in a pornographic video store." And just to "prove" it the PTC not only describes the scene in the video store in great – if heavily slanted – detail but also include a clip of the scene on the web page. This may have been a mistake because you can actually see the scene which is nowhere near as disgusting as what the PTC describes. Here's what the PTC writes (Cliff and Marc are two gay characters in a relationship): "Meanwhile, Cliff and Marc visit the adult section of a video store. They make multiple references to pornographic video titles, including one film entitled 400 Blows – with dialogue making it clear that the film is definitely not the Francois Truffaut classic. Marc announces in disappointment that he sees straight porn, military porn, and shaved porn, but no gay porn. Both are startled when they see Wilhelmina's surrogate Brandy on the cover of one video, dressed as a dominatrix. Before the scene ends, the program's writers take the sexual dialogue to a grotesquely explicit level: Cliff exclaims, 'If she could do that with a ping pong ball, it'll make for an easy delivery.'" A viewing of the clip they provide (and btw does the PTC pay anyone for the rights to use these copyrighted clips – I'm just asking) shows a fairly innocuous scene that only a thorough prude would find "mind-boggling" or "grotesquely explicit." They conclude their review by stating, "If this episode represents the entertainment industry's idea of 'family-friendly content,' the American family has little, if anything, to gain from prime-time broadcast television." In my opinion if the PTC believes that it represents "the American family" then I'm not sure that I want "family friendly programming" that caters to that sort of family.

Cable Worst Of The Week – Nip/Tuck: The PTC is maintaining its ongoing vendetta against the FX series Nip/Tuck. Although the PTC has only just started maintaining an archive of their Cable Worst of the Week posts, I can tell you that Nip/Tuck was named at least five times last year as the worst cable show of the week, and remember, my records on that were incomplete. This time the PTC doesn't even hid behind the pretense of claiming that they are trying to protect Americans who have to "subsidize" this basic cable show with their cable fees, they simply give a listing of the "evil content" (the following is taken directly from the article although I have eliminated specific examples that were included):

  • Three scenes/segments containing visual depictions of sexual behavior or activity
  • Four scenes/segments containing discussions or dialogue about sexual behavior or activity
  • 23 instances of Foul Language including:

    The word "shit" was used six times in this episode. "Asshole" and "screw" were used three times apiece. "Goddamn," "Jesus," (profanely) hell," "piss" and "bitch" were used twice apiece. "Come" was used once.

  • One scene/segment containing violent content

By the way, the "violent content" was apparently a scene of a surgery to remove bone fragments of a suicide bomber from the body of a patient.

It is interesting to note that although it is patently obvious what the people in the sexual scenes are doing, if you are looking for specific uncovered body parts you would be disappointed because they aren't there. Of course for the PTC that doesn't matter any more than what the main content of any show that they "review" is: objectionable words or content – objectionable being defined solely and exclusively by the PTC of course – is the only standard by which a show is to be measured. The percentage of a show that such content occupies doesn't matter either, its very existence is enough to condemn a show.

Misrated – Carpoolers: The PTC continues in its efforts to "prove" that the networks rating their own shows doesn't work. In fact, what they prove to me at least is that the PTC doesn't understand what the ratings are supposed to mean. Take their position on the episode of ABC's comedy Carpoolers which aired on January 8th. This show was rated as TV-PG DL. At the TV-PG level the "D" stands for "suggestive dialogue (mature themes)" while the "L" stands for "mild coarse language"; the "S" descriptor, which the PTC would add to the rating, indicates "mild sexual situations" and refers to visual depictions of activities rather than verbal descriptions (which are covered under the "L" descriptor). To understand the importance of this you can probably think of the basic ratings as basic blood types like "A" "B" "AB" and "O". The descriptors are like the various subtypes defined by antibodies in the blood, the most famous of which is the Rhesus or Rh factor that is always included in blood types, for example "A+". For the V-Chip to be an effective tool the ability to differentiate between the various factors is important. Do you block all TV-PG13 shows because you don't want your child to see depictions of sexual situations but are fine with violence, coarse language and suggestive dialogue at that level? Without the descriptors you'd have to and in turn the producers would have no reason not to include such scenes in their programs.

So why does the PTC think this show should get the "S" descriptor? Well I'm not quite sure really. Laird, the divorced playboy of this group of men who share a ride to work every day, finds himself fantasizing about Dorrit, a woman who has been brought in to lead a sex harassment seminar in the workplace. To get close to her, he pretends to be a victim of sexual harassment. His friend and fellow carpooler Aubrey has been appointed office "Harassment Captain" (complete with badge) and is horrified by Laird's scheme. Well let's let the PTC take it from there: "In one particularly non-PG scene, Laird demonstrates a gadget that allows him to watch pornography in the privacy of his office. Laird shows off his extensive collection of Swiss porn. Aubrey is outraged and takes the box away from his office, only to crash into another worker, sending porn flying everywhere. Later, Aubrey confronts Laird about his having crossed out the 'Har' in 'Harassment,' leaving Aubrey with a badge that says 'Ass Captain.' Aubrey tackles Laird and pins his arms behind his back on the floor. As Dorrit walks by she sees the two men struggling. 'It hurts, doesn't it?' demands Aubrey. 'It hurts,' groans Laird, as the two lie on the ground in a compromising position." Compromising position perhaps, but does it come anywhere close to being a "mild sexual situation?" I wouldn't say so, and the PTC apparently either does not have or has lost any rights to show a clip from the show which would undoubtedly show this "filthy" moment.

In another "example" of the "sexualized" content of the episode, Dougie – another member of the carpool – confesses to his wife Cindy that he has "cheated" on seeing a few minutes of some of Laird's pornography involving a "a woman having sex with a donkey" (or at least that's what the PTC says the porn showed). Cindy demands to see who her husband has "cheated" on her with and they go to Laird's house to see his collection of porn. In the end the two of them "decide to make their own pornographic video."

In their conclusion the PTC makes this statement: "In the face of all this sexualized material, one wonders whether the network officials who rated this program TV-PG without an S-descriptor even bothered to watch it. From beginning to end, this episode was chock-full of sexual content highly inappropriate for any child who might have inadvertently been exposed to it – and with the V-Chip unable to block the program due to this misrating, who knows how many children were?" Well let's get into this. The "S" descriptor is quite clearly intended for visual depictions of sexual content. How do I know that? I know that because the "D" descriptor for "suggestive dialogue (mature themes)" exists. And the "D" descriptor is used for this episode. The PTC doesn't give us any example of material that would qualify in any way shape or form as a visual "mild sexual situation" (the boundary for the "S" descriptor) beyond two fully clothed men who "lie on the ground in a compromising position" in one scene. And you know that if they had more than that they'd describe it in excruciating, if highly biased, detail. Yet again the PTC proves that they have little or no grasp on the realities of the TV ratings system.

TV Trends: The FOX Monday Night Schedule: TV Trends is the PTCs weekly editorial in which they tell us what's bad in TV. This time around their target of choice is the FOX Monday night schedule of Prison Break and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Actually it is an attack on most of the network's lineup that isn't the reality and game shows that the PTC loves to trumpet as the "Best Shows Of The Week," shows like Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader, Don't Forget The Lyrics, and even American Idol. The PTC says "At these times, parents seeking entertainment safe and suitable for the entire family couldn't do better than tune into Fox."

However then the PTC attacks FOX: "But the rest of the time, they couldn't possibly do worse. On the same nights that American Idol airs, Fox also features the gruesome and graphic forensic crime program Bones and the often sexually-charged medical drama House. The timing of these programs varies; sometimes they have been aired after Idol, and at other times before it. On Saturday the network airs the long-running reality programs Cops and America's Most Wanted. While these do not sink to the levels of many scripted crime dramas, neither would most parents find them appropriate for young children. And at 9:00 p.m. ET Sunday nights, Fox tops off its parade of perverse programming with Seth MacFarlane's twin titans of trashy TV, Family Guy and American Dad." Well setting aside the fact that House and Bones can't actually air on the same night as a two hour American Idol, not to mention the claims that the former is "often sexually-charged" while the latter is "gruesome and graphic" the PTC may have a point that the shows may be unsuitable for younger audiences. Perhaps that's why there's a tuner on your TV set so that you don't have to watch one network every day for the rest of your natural life. But that's not the focus of the PTC's attack in this article of course. The focus is "the brutal drama Prison Break" and the "ultra-violent science-fiction drama Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles."

Now I have gone on record in the past as saying that it is my opinion that Prison Break is not a show that is suitable for the first hour of Prime Time, the period that the PTC chooses to label "The Family Hour" even though the actual Family Hour concept has not existed since the 1970s. The violence is graphic, although inevitably the PTC description of it emphasizes the violent aspects of the show at the expense of any redeeming storylines or content. Thus the PTC takes extreme delight at disapproving of violence and torture while graphically describing it: "in the January 14th episode viewers saw the innocent Michael confined to a sweatbox; inmate Whistler tied up and roughly interrogated; and, most disturbingly of all, the character Gretchen is strapped to a chair and waterboarded – plastic wrap is stretched over her face and a hose is turned on her, thus simulating drowning. As Gretchen thrashes about in agony, Michael and Whistler are forced to listen to the torture. (Perhaps Fox feels that, with 24's strike-imposed hiatus, Prison Break must keep up Fox's tradition of depicting vicious torture.) Additionally, viewers saw Gretchen stabbing, kicking and shooting a man dead; prisoners Octavio and Bellick fighting in a barbarous boxing match to the death, with Bellick hitting Octavio in the face, then in the groin, their inmate audience cheering as Octavio falls to the ground with a blood-covered face, apparently dead; and the sadistic T Bag kicking the drug-addicted Mahone while saying, 'When you're up all night and diarrhea is running down both your legs and vomit is in your hair, don't come crawling back.'" By the standards that the PTC itself applies to programs this very description would probably make the PTC's own site "not family friendly".

Much of the article is saved for the first episodes of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. There is an extensive description of a dream (nightmare) sequence in the pilot: "police aim their pistols at Sarah and her teenage son John, pushing them into police cars; Sarah punches a policeman in the back seat of the squad car, apparently breaking his nose; a Terminator cyborg pulls a sawed-off shotgun from his jacket and begins shooting into the car, it being clear from the mayhem that police officers have been killed; Sarah grabs an officer's gun and shoots the cyborg, and then screams as the cyborg guns down John, whose body sprawls on the pavement with a bloody chest wound." That is followed by this statement: "The entire scene proves to be a dream; but this would be little consolation to a horrified child who inadvertently witnessed the scene." Of course the PTC failed to explain how a child could have "inadvertently" witnessed the scene. I am tempted to go into my best Ebenezer Scrooge voice (Alistair Sim version please) to say, "Are there no parents? Are there no guardians? Is there no V-Chip?" But of course in the PTC's universe parents and guardians are inattentive so that children watch whatever they please and the V-Chip exists only to persuade Congress that the networks are making an effort which they then immediately undermine by misrating their shows. Because in the real world most parents have probably seen the Terminator movies and know that anything bearing that movie's title and featuring lead characters from the show will probably be violent and unsuitable for children. And people who have TVs with V-Chips (and who know how to use them) who also have children who might be "horrified" by the violence of any TV-PG or PG-13 series with a "V" (for violence) descriptor would also be prevented from seeing it.

This of course is not the end of the catalogue of violent content from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles that PTC lists. These include teacher who turns out to be a cyborg gunning down a high school class that includes John Connor and a fight between the evil Terminator and the good Terminator played by Summer Glau. "The two robots in human flesh engage in multiple hyper-violent battles, choking and beating one another, throwing each other through walls, shooting and electrocuting one another, and the like." The go through a similar exercise in describing the second episode which aired at the show's regular time on Monday night, concluding that litany of excesses with the following: "The episode ends with a truly gruesome depiction of the evil Terminator's robot body walking about, with a severed human head placed atop its torso as a disguise."

The PTC concludes its argument with this statement: "And so, parents now have one more night of the week during which they must beware of the Fox network's propensity for violence. It is a pity that Fox, or another broadcast network, does not take advantage of its prime-time opportunity to provide safe, family-friendly programming every night of the week…because there is a huge, untapped – and increasingly frustrated – audience hungering for it." I find this statement very hard to take for a number of reasons. First, I find it objectionable because despite their perpetual complaining about the content of programming on television – and at all hours of the day and night, not just the Family Hour as they persist in calling it, the PTC has done nothing to actually develop a family friendly show of their own. For another thing, despite their claim that there is a "huge, untapped – and increasingly frustrated – audience hungering" for "safe, family-friendly programming every night of the week" the fact is that the one new scripted dramatic series that meets the PTC's criteria to be considered totally family friendly – Life Is Wild on The CW on Sunday night – has an audience so miniscule that on any given night it is smaller than the membership of over 1 million that the PTC claims to have. If indeed there is such a huge untapped audience hungering for family friendly programming they should be flocking to this show and the fact is that they aren't. It's a shame that they aren't, not just because I think it is a good and worthy show, but also because while I believe that there is a place for a show like Prison Break and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, there should also be a place in the TV schedule for a show like Life Is Wild. Not every show has to appeal to the same audience and not every night has to be made up entirely of "safe, family-friendly programming." They say we are (or were before the strike) in the midst of a new Golden Age of Television. If we are (were) it is because of a diversity of content of a like that hasn't been seen since TV was new and people were trying different ideas. Notions like the PTC's demand that networks provide "safe, family-friendly programming every night of the week" will strangle that diversity.

No comments: