Thursday, January 31, 2008

Who Does The PTC Hate This Week – January 30, 2008

I think I've already blown some of the surprise on this already with my post on the FCC fine of NYPD Blue but as usual there is plenty of evidence to prove that the PTC's collective elevators don't go all the way to the top. By the way, I didn't much like the way last week's layout went so I think I'll go back to what I was doing before.

The big news at the PTC website is of course the FCC fine for Charlotte Ross's bottom on the 2003 episode of NYPD Blue. The PTC seems to be at risk of breaking their writing arms while patting themselves on the back with all the credit they are taking for this event, even as most North American males are prepared to take up a collection for ABC to help pay the fine – most of us would agree that Charlotte Ross's ass was worth it! This is from the statement issued by PTC president Tim Winter: "We are thankful that the FCC has finally taken a stand for children and families with this unanimous order. The delay in getting here has been frustrating, but we are delighted by the decision. PTC members and concerned citizens across the country spoke out against the nudity in the 2003 episode of NYPD Blue and today their pleas have been answered." Can I have an Amen? The language does have some of that quality after all, particularly that business of "their pleas have been answered." But of course America is not yet delivered from evil so long as the Godless networks actually delude themselves by thinking that they have the right to appeal. But right is on the PTC's side: "Despite the TV networks' scurrilous lawsuits claiming a 'right' to air profanity, and that a striptease in the middle of the Super Bowl was somehow not indecent, this order should serve as a reminder to every broadcaster and every network that they must use the public airwaves responsibly and in a manner which serves the public interest." But then the PTC calls on the spirit of Walt Disney (!) to make ABC see the light (emphasis in this is entirely mine): "Unfortunately, the networks have demonstrated a pattern of avoiding any accountability after airing indecent content. We hope that ABC will honor the namesake of its corporate parent and step up to the plate, pay its fine and accept full responsibility for its actions." But of course that's not enough. Like all good social conservatives who decry the intervention of government into peoples' lives – until it is something they want of course – the PTC calls on big daddy government to keep this from ever recurring: "We also call on Congress and the courts to listen to the people rather than the mega media conglomerate lobbyists and defend the authority of the FCC to protect the public airwaves from those who would abuse their privilege to use them."

Where to start on this? How about with the assertion about lawsuits? The PTC consistently insists that the appeal in the "fleeting obscenities" case that overturned the FCC decision on the airing of obscenities during awards shows and sporting events – in other words live unscripted situations where a person might say something that they'd normally say if they weren't on camera – somehow gives license to writers, producers and actors to use such language in any circumstance. As has been show repeatedly this far from the truth; indeed some PTC press releases (I'm thinking of some of their "Worst of the Week" pieces mainly) have included more uses of the "F" and "S" words than have been heard on broadcast TV since the fleeting obscenity decision was released by the Second Circuit. I am not familiar with the details of the CBS appeal on the Janet Jackson incident but I have to assume that the network's logic is similar; that this was a live broadcast and that no one at the network had any idea that Jackson's nipple would be exposed and that as soon as they were aware that her nipple was in fact visible the network "cut to an aerial view of the stadium, but was unable to do so before the picture was sent to millions of viewers' televisions." (That was from Wikipedia.) The fact is of course that both of the FCC's decisions, in the fleeting obscenities case and the NYPD Blue nudity case are clearly attempts by the FCC to make new broadcast regulations, breaking with decades of precedent about acceptable standards without consultation or a basis in law. And even if there was a law, as the PTC consistently demands from Congress, it is uncertain whether such a law would pass Constitutional muster. I suppose that if the courts found such a law to be unconstitutional the PTC would call for a Constitutional amendment to make it "right."

In his Maclean's Magazine blog, Jaime Weinman writes (far better than I can) about this matter:

I think one reason for the weaknesses of today's network TV is the post-Janet-Jackson fear of FCC fines, which has wiped out most of the new freedom that network shows started to attain in the '90s. (You'll often hear writers for The Simpsons pointing out nostalgically that in the '90s, they had total freedom to show Homer's bare buttocks; now, not so much.) It may seem counter-intuitive that taking away these freedoms could make shows worse, since network television didn't suffer in quality before they were free to show more skin. But while shows don't necessarily get better when they have less censorship, a reversal of relaxed censorship – which is what has happened in the last few years – does seem to cause creative problems. If network TV producers know what they are and aren't allowed to do under current levels of censorship, they can work around that. But now we have a situation where nobody knows what they will or won't get fined for, and producers find themselves in the position of being told they can't do things that were OK five years ago. That creates confusion, resentment and wasted time, none of which are elements of good television as we commonly understand it.

It is a fact. There are frankly amazing stories about Desperate Housewives producer Marc Cherry being forced spend an absurd amount of money to electronically "fuzz" the erect nipples of at least two of his actresses who prefer to work bra-less, or at least with minimal protection "up there." Why? Because he isn't whether that sort of thing will be acceptable to network standards and practices, and if it is whether it would then be acceptable to either the protests groups or the FCC. It's absurd, particularly when you remember a show like Three's Company, thirty years ago, where nipples were quite visible (interestingly it wasn't "sexpot" Suzanne Somers who had that wardrobe situation but rather Joyce DeWitt who was "perky"). Now I'm not insinuating that Three's Company was great TV, but what I am stating outright is that when they were doing the show the producers and directors weren't wasting time and money on absurdities like that. The situation that we are seeing now is a retrograde step, and despite the FCC's contention that their decisions are making the boundaries "perfectly clear," the only thing that is really "perfectly clear" is that writers, producers, and networks are holding back out of a sense of fear that if they make a step over the some imaginary line in the sand that the FCC has established but hasn't told anyone about they are going to get hit with a huge fine, possibly because of another absurdity, that the show runs an hour earlier in one time zone than another.

Jaime also had this to say about censorship: "The other reason that a sudden increase in censorship is bad for creativity is that social standards have a habit of getting more and more relaxed (overall, I mean), no matter what the standards may be at the television networks. The current level of TV censorship is somewhat similar to that of, say, 1988, but whereas that degree of censorship was more or less where social mores were at the time, it's now a bit behind the times." People like the PTC and the FCC like to talk about how the sort of material in the NYPD Blue scene or the "fleeting obscenities" case run contrary to community standards but who is gauging what those community standards are? I'm not sure that anyone really knows what the American public – a community if there ever was one – feels about this situation. What I know is that various unscientific polls that I've seen online have suggested that the overwhelming majority of respondents had no trouble with the NYPD Blue scene but considerable trouble with the FCC reaction to it.

I would disagree with Jaime's claim that the current level of censorship is at about 1988 levels though. Just in the matter of naked breasts, by that time we had Valerie Perrine topless in PBS's Steambath (1973), and bare-breasted African women in a number of scenes in Roots (1977) the latter allowed because "they add reality, not titillation, to the landmark miniseries." (Farrah Fawcett's also accidentally exposed breast in an episode of Charlie's Angels (Angels in Chains) in 1976). Would either of those scenes be permitted today? Would any producer even consider putting a scene like those (let alone the scene in 1992's My Breast where Meredith Baxter's bare breast was examined by a doctor as he planned her mastectomy) into a script in the current climate of censorship? The answer is no; or rather the answer he wouldn't do it on broadcast TV, he'd do it on basic cable and probably win awards for making edgy and important productions. And in the meantime network television suffers because the stories that it is allowed to tell – in the United States at least – are restricted.

Moving on, I feel confident in saying that the PTC had to reach a long ways to come up with this week's Broadcast Worst of the Week. Pickings are mighty slim out there to the point where there is no new Cable Worst of the Week this time around – they're still incensed about the episode of Nip/Tuck with the suicide bomber story. For broadcast they finally settled on continuing their war with Seth McFarlane's Family Guy (although this was aired by FOX without the permission of Seth McFarlane who is on strike) but I have to say that even their writer doesn't seem to have his heart in it. The episode for January 13th is – at least for the PTC – based around "disturbing sexual innuendo and sexual content involving Stewie, the show's talking baby." I say "at least for the PTC" because according to the summary "Peter decides to grow a mustache, and after being mistaken for a fireman, ends up lending a hand when a fire breaks out at a local fast food restaurant. The owner gives him unlimited burgers as a thank you, but he eats too many and has a stroke. When Peter recovers, he vows to expose the fast-food company for what it really is, becoming friends with a genetically engineered cow along the way." Stewie's bet with Brian, that Stewie can become the most popular kid at James Woods High School is a B-plot that they don't even mention. Here's a transcript of one of the scenes that the PTC objects to:

Stewie: "Do you know that I've got a date with Connie Demico this Saturday night at Anal Point?"

Brian: "Ah. I've heard about that place."

Stewie: "Really? What's it like? 'Cause I have no idea."

Brian: "Well uh, I suppose if you imagine it like a parking space that you think 'gosh there's no way I'm going to be able to fit in there' but then you fold in the side view mirrors and sure enough, well look at that."

Stewie: "Well in that scenario it sounds like I'd rather be the parking space than the car."

Brian: "Yeah, that's what I've always guessed."

They then state that after Stewie and Connie go to Anal Point, Connie whips off her top revealing her bra and asks whether they're going to "do it or what?" Remember, as far as she's concerned Stewie is a teenager and the coolest boy in school. Connie "screams in horror at the size of his penis" (not in the clip that I saw) and at school spreads the word about his size. In revenge "Stewie gets back at Connie by tricking her into kissing him while she strips off his disguise. Connie is arrested for molesting a baby." Is this crude humour? Undoubtedly but I'm not sure I'd go so far as to describe it as "disturbing sexual innuendo and sexual content" let alone their final summation: "This perverted plot is clearly inappropriate for broadcast television." Perhaps, but given some of the shows that the PTC labels as "Best of the Week, I think I prefer this (or I would if I ever watched it).

Cashmere Mafia is the Misrated show this week. This is what the PTC said in the introduction to their article: "A rating of TV-PG DL suggests that parents might not want to their young children to be exposed to some bad language and sexual dialogue, but that the remainder of a given television episode is certainly safe for viewing by older children and other family members. At least, that is the conclusion of the executives responsible for rating TV programs.... Apparently, ABC believes that children are mature enough to handle the themes of adultery and promiscuity, as well as the depictions of semi-nude women, that dominated the episode." They may be right, although their description of the episode is, as usual, alarmist. Instead of looking at the PTC's description of the episode, let's start up with a reminder of what TV-PG means. According to Wikipedia TV-PG "signifies that the program is unsuitable for younger children without the guidance of a parent." They further add some examples of show that are rated TV-PG and why (i'll drop the names of the shows and replace them with ellipses): "Some game shows are rated TV-PG ... mainly for their suggestive dialog. Most reality shows are rated TV-PG ... for their suggestive dialog or coarse language." Now the question here is whether the rating should have been TV-14, the next highest rating which is also the most common rating in TV.

The PTC focuses on two specific storylines. First is the situation surrounding Juliet and her husband who has had an affair. Juliet is considering having an affair of her own in revenge. She hasn't reached a decision yet but because of some things that happen in the episode she opts to have an assignation with an old boyfriend which ends in his hotel room, with Juliet in her bra and panties. However (and the PTC doesn't actually mention this but I know because I saw this episode) she doesn't consummate the relationship. The other storyline involves Zoe, who is having a problem with the fact that a younger woman in the office is included on a business trip by Clayton, her fellow managing director at Gorham Sutter (interestingly the PTC, unable to grasp the concept that Zoe and Clayton are equals at the company refers to him as Zoe's boss). After she sees the young woman slip into the married Clayton's hotel room, she confronts him about the situation, but according to the PTC, she "also worries that she is insecure in her own sexuality" and so, "decides to test her sexual attractiveness by walking into the room where her husband is working on his computer, ripping off her top to reveal that she is not wearing underwear, and attempting to seduce him. Her nude back is seen from behind."

Here's the point where I'm not entirely sure about. It may very well be that the PTC is right about the rating of this episode. They write: "Clearly intended to capture the edgy tone of Sex and the City (as well as some that program's fans), Cashmere Mafia contains material that is simply too mature for a PG rating. With depictions of women lolling around in lingerie and its many references to sex, this program is without a doubt too racy not to carry an S-descriptor for sexual content. It could even be argued that the program deserves a TV-14 rating." Now I don't think that the episode qualifies for the TV-14 rating; the scenes involved are simply not severe enough to reach that level. If the best that the PTC could come up with were Juliet "lolling around in lingerie", Zoe's bare back and the way she talks to Clayton about his affair (she tells him that he's "letting your little head think for your big head"). It doesn't reach what I believe is the standard for TV-14. The question for me is the "S" descriptor. For that to be applied on a TV-PG show requires "mild sexual situations." But what constitutes a "mild sexual situation?" And indeed is a (one) "mild sexual situation" enough. I'm thinking here about Juliet in her underwear with her "almost lover," because we've seen plenty of scenes where a wife surprises her husband by dropping a coat or whatever and revealing that she's wearing nothing underneath. My gut instinct says that the episode probably should have the "S" descriptor but it's probably a close call.

This week's TV Trends article declares that "NBC Joins the TV Sex Parade." According to the article "Until recently, NBC has been the best (or perhaps a better designation would be "the least bad") in terms of inappropriate and offensive depictions of sex during prime time. Certainly NBC's new fall season did not feature the flood of tawdry, sex-obsessed sitcoms and boundary-pushing dramas that ABC, CBS, CW and Fox did. Unfortunately, this is changing. Since the beginning of the New Year, NBC is increasingly joining the other networks in pumping sexual situations into its programming." Of course they don't just say that without "evidence." Here are some "proofs" that NBC has joined the Sex Parade.

  • Playboy Playmate of the Year Tiffany Fallon was one of the "celebrities" featured on Celebrity Apprentice: "In allowing her to take a place with the other accomplished celebrities and professionals, NBC implied that someone who takes her clothes off for a living is every bit as respectable and appropriate a role model for children as an Olympic gold medalist or a multi-platinum country singer." The episode (since Fallon was the first celebrity eliminated) also featured an appearance by Jenna Jameson "demurely billed on camera as an 'Adult Film Star' (i.e., "actress" in pornographic movies)." The episode ended with Trump firing Fallon for not involving Hugh Hefner in the fund-raising challenge: "Trump sneers, 'I've known a lot of Playmates of the Year,' and repeatedly boasts of his close friendship with the elderly exploiter of women." Personally I find the description of Tiffany Fallon as "someone who takes her clothes off for a living" to be mean spirited. Oh, and by the way, Tiffany Fallon was probably in the early stages of her pregnancy with husband Joe Don Rooney of the band Rascal Flats during her brief time on Celebrity Apprentice.
  • The game show 1 vs. 100, featured former Playboy Playmates of the Month, triplets Nicole, Erica and Jaclyn Dahm. Worst of all the show aired "at the Family Hour of 8:00 p.m. ET (7:00 p.m. CT/MT)." Former Playboy Playmates in the non-existent (except for the PTC) Family Hour – proof positive of NBC's determination to undermine the American way of life.
  • In the January 10th episode of My Name Is Earl, Earl repays his debt to a stripper who was injured when "Earl shines a laser pointer at a stripper's chest, causing her to fall off her pole and become injured" by becoming a stripper himself. "He takes off his shirt to reveal tassels covering his nipples. As the crowd hoots, Earl spins the tassels. Later, Earl states that 'some old Texan dude just offered to buy me a boob job.'" It sounds like a funny scene to me but of course to the PTC this is "in keeping with the program's continual downward slide," and they add, "Naturally, this episode also aired during the Family Hour."
  • On Las Vegas (which the PTC hates anyway) Danny, "in an attempt to empathize with his pregnant wife, donning a female fat suit – complete with tassels covering his 'breasts.'" Well the PTC has never been known for getting their facts right and this is no different. First, Delinda isn't Danny's wife, she's his girlfriend. Second what Danny was wearing was not a "female fat suit" but rather a Pregnancy Empathy Belly and can you imagine the stink if the "breasts" on the belly weren't covered?
  • It's not just shows that bother the PTC there's also the promo for Lipstick Jungle: "The ad goes on to show a woman's dress being ripped off, and an apparently nude man asking a female character, 'Do you want to take a picture?' But the commercial's biggest brag is the tagline, 'by the creator of Sex and the City!'" Because of course in the PTC lexicon Sex and the City is one of the most disgusting shows ever. In fact the PTC says of the commercial, "If ever proof was needed of network television executives' desire to flood prime-time broadcast TV with the graphic and explicit content previously reserved to adult premium cable, that commercial provides it…with NBC as a willing collaborator."
  • Then there was Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I can't adequately paraphrase on this one so here is what the PTC writes: "While the foregoing examples are distasteful, they are as nothing compared to the horrifically gory scene of sexual violence that greeted viewers of Law and Order: Criminal Intent on January 16th. Within a minute of the episode's opening, a camera focused on a pool of blood on the floor of a medical examination room. Panning along the floor, the camera revealed a dead man's body, his legs in stirrups used for gynecological exams, his pants around his ankles. The puddles of blood on the floor apparently emanate from the man's mutilated genital region, and the shot ends by showing a vaginal speculum jammed into the murdered man's mouth. This grotesquely graphic and gratuitous imagery is more appropriate (if that is the word) to an R-rated movie than prime time broadcast television. The episode, which also featured a teenage boy bragging about manufacturing cocaine and calling a red-headed female police officer 'firecrotch' as he swills vodka, aired at 9:00 p.m. ET – which is only 8:00 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones."

I really don't know where to start on this whole thing. The whole business about the Playboy models (Tiffany Fallon and the Dahm sisters) should probably be dismissed with the scorn that the claims both richly deserve. As I said about the My Name Is Earl episode, it sounds like a funny scene, complete with a neatly done Anna Nichole Smith reference (Anna Nichole met her "old Texas dude" Howard Marshall in a strip club). Similarly the "pregnancy belly" is a nicely done joke about the nature of Las Vegas the city. As for Law & Order: Criminal Intent I can't imagine a more specious argument coming from an organization like the PTC with repeatedly complains about scenes from the other Law & Order shows. The PTC is, as usual in these TV Trends articles, showing itself to be puritanical, strident, and in the end absurd.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Not As Addicted As I Thought

58%How Addicted to Blogging Are You?

I thought it would be higher. Then again I'm sure I lost points for not blogging more often. Hey I'm not Mark Evanier, who has something worthwhile to say everyday. And I'm not the collective that runs if charlie parker was a gunslinger,there'd be a whole lot of dead copycats. I am one guy with two blogs (one of which he neglects terribly) and there's a strike on which means there's nothing new (and worthwhile) that I feel like writing about. Yeah, I know, excuses excuses.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Fine For A Five Year Old Show

Warning: At the conclusion of this post I will be including a YouTube clip of the scene from NYPD Blue which caused 50 ABC stations to be fined a total of $1.43 million. This scene includes nudity, specifically Charlotte Ross's bare buttocks and the side of one of her breasts. It is presented here not to titillate but to illustrate. Obviously do not click on the play button if you are under the age of majority where you live, or feel that you might be offended by nudity.

I am absolutely incensed at the most recent absurdity to come from the American Federal Communications Commission. On Friday the Commission, levied a fine against fifty-two ABC stations in the Central and Mountain Time Zones for airing an episode of NYPD Blue which included a nude scene featuring Charlotte Ross. The scene was deemed to be "indecent" according to the existing regulations which defines material as being indecent if it, "in context depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs in a patently offensive manner as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium." The fine levied was the 2003 maximum of $27,500 per station for a total fin of $1,430,000. Based on the current allowable fines, ABC would have been fined nearly $17 million if the episode in question ran today.

In their decision the Commission stated:

We find that the programming at issue is within the scope of our indecency definition because it depicts sexual organs and excretory organs -- specifically an adult woman's buttocks. Although ABC argues, without citing any authority, that the buttocks are not a sexual organ, we reject this argument, which runs counter to both case law and common sense.

FCC commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate wrote in a statement that accompanied the announcement of the fine that:

Our action today should serve as a reminder to all broadcasters that Congress and American families continue to be concerned about protecting children from harmful material and that the FCC will enforce the laws of the land vigilantly. In fact, pursuant to the Broadcast Decency Act of 2005, Congress increased the maximum authorized fines tenfold. The law is simple. If a broadcaster makes the decision to show indecent programming, it must air between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. This is neither difficult to understand nor burdensome to implement.

In response to the FCC fine an ABC press release stated:

'NYPD Blue,' which aired on ABC from 1993-2005, was an Emmy Award-winning drama, broadcast with appropriate parental warnings as well as V-chip-enabled program ratings from the time such ratings were implemented. When the brief scene in question was telecast almost five years ago, this critically acclaimed drama had been on the air for a decade and the realistic nature of its storylines was well known to the viewing public. ABC feels strongly that the FCC's finding is inconsistent with prior precedent from the Commission, the indecency statute and the First Amendment, and we intend to oppose the proposed fine.

According to the New York Times report on this, "Obscene speech has no constitutional protection, but indecent speech does. Under the law, FCC rules and court decisions, the commission can fine broadcasters for airing indecent speech outside of the 10 p.m.-6 a.m. safe harbor."


Okay, that was the "newsy" part of this, now the editorial part. The FCC is yet again kowtowing to social conservative special interest groups like the Parents Television Council and the American Family Association while using what can best be described as an elastic yardstick to determine what is and is not acceptable. As ABC pointed out in their press release, the FCC finding is "inconsistent with prior precedent from the Commission" which has not in the past found episodes where bare buttocks were shown to be "indecent." And there have been plenty of those episodes starting with the very first episode of the series in which we saw Sherry Stringfield in a nude scene with David Caruso. This was almost ten years before the Charlotte Ross nude scene, and let's just say that the Stringfield-Caruso nude scene would probably be considered a lot closer to most people's definition of indecency than the Charlotte Ross scene (Caruso's character John Kelly and his ex-wife – Stringfield's character – make love). That is ten years of precedent saying that it is acceptable to broadcast images like that, and not just after 10 p.m. Why? Because throughout the show's TV lifetime, NYPD Blue has always aired at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific and 9 p.m. Central and Mountain, and while there have been findings with regard to the show on the grounds of language there have not been such findings in terms of nudity.. Are we to believe that it is only the 2003 episode, titled "Nude Awakenings" that has ever been actionable? Or are we to believe that the FCC has, in an arbitrary manner, changed its policy without bothering to tell anyone until it was time to hand out fines?

The episode of NYPD Blue aired in the US had both an appropriate ratings icon, V-Chip information, and an announcement about the content of the episode before the show started. I had a quote (but for the life of me I can't find it anywhere anymore) in which the FCC acknowledged the warning but added that anyone who tuned in late would not know to expect nudity. The big problem I have with this claim is that the particular clip cited came immediately after the announcement was made; it was part of the teaser for the episode and was shown just after the announcement and just before the opening credits. It is difficult to believe that someone could have such split second timing as to see all or part of this scene, which runs for about one minute and forty five seconds, without hearing the warning. And again what about the ten years of shows that preceded this one where nudity was shown well after the announcement occurred?

I also find the timing of this to be more than a little strange. The episode of the show first aired in February 2003, and the decision on the matter has taken the Commission nearly five years to make? Let me just remind you that the commission (then headed by Michael Powell) made their decision on the Janet Jackson case quickly. In the Without A Trace "teen orgy" case the show was broadcast in December 2004 and the decision was released in March 2006, a gap of fifteen months. Why did it take the FCC near 60 months to make a decision on the NYPD Blue nudity situation.

I'm a Canadian, and in Canada this sort of incident would pass without notice. The Canadian Association of Broadcasters, described as the "national voice of Canada's private broadcasters" has established the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council as an independent, non-governmental organization to administer standards established by Canada's private broadcasters (in other words it does not deal with CBC or Societé Radio Canada). The national broadcast regulator – the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission or CRTC – only becomes involved in censorship issues in the most egregious cases. Section 10a of the CBSC Code of Ethics says this:

Programming which contains sexually explicit material or coarse or offensive language intended for adult audiences shall not be telecast before the late viewing period, defined as 9 pm to 6 am. Broadcasters shall refer to the Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming for provisions relating to the scheduling of programming containing depictions of violence.

That may seem to cover the situation in the case of NYPD Blue but precedent – specifically a decision on the airing of the movie Strip Tease by Quebec broadcaster TQS – is more explicit. In that decision the Quebec Regional Panel of the CBSC stated:

While acknowledging that the showing of bare breasts on strip tease dancers was intended by the filmmaker to be sexual, the Council considers that the absence of sexual contact or lovemaking in the film rendered it, to all intents and purposes, sufficiently innocent that there would not even be a requirement that its broadcast occur only in a post-watershed time frame. Moreover, by airing the film in a family-viewing period (at 8:00 p.m.) with appropriate advisories and the rating icon established by the Régie du Cinéma, the broadcaster had provided sufficient opportunity for those who might prefer not to see the film or not to have it available for their families to make that choice.

By this standard the NYPD Blue scene would not be considered indecent because there is an absence of "sexual contact or lovemaking." In fact this scene could probably be described as the most mundane thing in the world. This is a woman who gets up before her boyfriend (Andy Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz, who had at least two nude scenes during the course of the series – talk about obscenity!) and his five year old son to have a shower before going off to work. She is surprised, shocked and visibly embarrassed – almost to the point of humiliation – when the son comes into the bathroom which she hasn't locked because she's used to living alone. She desperately tries to cover her nakedness. End of scene.

In addition to the earlier watershed hour that the Canadian system maintains, the CBSC maintains what I consider to be a sensible standard. In a 2001 decision related to Sue Johanson's Sunday Night Sex Show the Council stated:

While straightforward on one level, the scheduling issue is ultimately far more complex in the geographically huge Canadian context. The provisions in the Violence Code, which have been extended to be applicable to all forms of adult-oriented programming, are absolutely clear. On the one hand, programming intended for adult audiences must be shown post-Watershed. On the other hand, an exception is provided for signals originating in a time zone other than that in which it is received pre-Watershed. In such a case, the Code provides that the broadcaster is to be judged by the respect for the Watershed shown in the time zone in which the signal originates.

This decision applies primarily to cable channels. It puts the onus on the networks covered by the CBSC to hold shows with sexual content until after the Watershed period at the local station level. In the United States the networks do not and never have operated in this manner. Is it realistic to expect them to change the viewing habits of their audience by changing from "8 p.m. Eastern; 7 p.m. Central and Mountain" after sixty years of broadcasting? More really since this is a holdover from old time radio. But then again, the nudity in this episode of NYPD Blue wouldn't have been considered either sexually explicit in Canada.

Speaking as an outsider looking in at the US system of broadcast regulation, I have to say that it seems to be broken. Sensible precedents, developed over a course of fifty years have been discarded under pressure from social conservatives and a Federal Communications Commission packed with social conservatives (regardless of their party stripe) all appointed by an adherent to the social conservative agenda, George W. Bush. It is a commission where the definitions of "obscene" and "indecent" seems to be entirely that "it's indecent because we say that it's indecent and we say that it's indecent because it is obviously indecent." The only way in which the scene in question is indecent is if you consider any depiction of the human body to be indecent. There is certainly no sexual context in this particular sequence and certainly scenes that had more sexual context from this show were not fined by the FCC. But of course that was before the social conservatives took over the FCC. Now, the FCC takes that part of their mandate that speaks of "community standards" and takes it to mean the standards of the more conservative elements within the American community. And the rest of the industrialized world, Canada included, looks on in bewilderment and what the fuss is all about.

Warning: The YouTube clip that follows is scene from NYPD Blue discussed in this post, which caused 50 ABC stations to be fined a total of $1.43 million. This scene includes nudity, specifically Charlotte Ross's bare buttocks and the side of one of her breasts. It is presented here not to titillate but to illustrate. There is no sound with this clip (there was a broblem with the original poster). Obviously do not click on the play button if you are under the age of majority where you live, or feel that you might be offended by nudity.

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.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Triumph Of Quality

We are coming to the end of the twelfth rotation of The Amazing Race on CBS, and it is my sincere opinion that someone at that network deserves an ass-whuppin'. It's probably Les Moonves but I'm sure he has lackeys who take that sort of punishment for him. But the person who not only gave the green light to Viva Laughlin but decided that there should be only one season of The Amazing Race produced, and that one season should be shortened by having fewer competitors than previous seasons, well that person deserves an ass-whuppin' so severe that he won't even think of sitting down until this time next season – if then. CBS has ordered a thirteenth season of The Amazing Race but what I find to be worthy of an ass-whuppin' is that the next season of this quality unscripted show isn't already in the can ready to dominate network TV starting this February. Instead we will be subjected to Big Brother and a show about people taking lie detector tests.

Now you know that I love The Amazing Race, and you know how much I love The Amazing Race. So I know that you will probably take a statement from me that The Amazing Race is the best reality competition show on TV with a grain of salt about the size of the Windsor Ontario salt mines. So I'm not going to say it. Instead Canwest News Service TV writer Alex Strachan is. This is what he said in his
Fine Tuning: Sunday
column which appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix among other places:

The Amazing Race is one of the most watched, highest rated and most admired reality competition programs on TV – more popular with Canadians than it is with Americans, where it has already been renewed for 12 seasons. And small wonder.

The madcap race-around-the-world is more than just a time filler for a dark winter's night. It's a reminder – an exciting and splendidly visual reminder – that there's a wonderful and mysterious world out there. And a reminder, too, that even though we may be suddenly transplanted into in a different culture in a different land, many of us remain who we are – for better of [sic] for worse.

Part Around the World in 80 Days, part MTV's Real World and all adrenaline rush, The Amazing Race can be jaw-droppingly good. It can be both maddening and emotionally uplifting, frustrating and beautiful, and at times – this season, especially – inspiring.

The Amazing Race was a product of the post-Survivor reality competition boom, which spawned such shows as Murder In Small Town X on FOX, The Mole on ABC and Lost on NBC. The latter two series, along with The Amazing Race had two things in common. The three shows traded on exotic locales and they all were victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. I know it sounds callous to put reality TV shows on a par with the human victims of that tragedy (including the winner of FOX's Murder In Small Town X, a New York City paramedic), but I think it's an accurate assessment. The three shows featured travel to exotic locales at a time when a lot of Americans thought that the world away from their own shores was too dangerous a place to explore. The ratings for Lost soon consigned it to TV's ash heap, while ABC took The Mole (which was in its second series) off the air and eventually burned it off as a summer replacement. Only CBS stuck it out with The Amazing Race, if you can call bouncing the show to every night except Saturday (and Season Six was supposed to run on Saturday nights before sanity prevailed), and spending two seasons as a summer series "sticking with it." The show has endured such indignities as Allison from Big Brother 4 and of course the Family Edition in season eight (which had one contestant lamenting "Why are we going to Phoenix, Arizona for? I want to go to New Zealand!" It was a sentiment echoed by viewers. Fortunately subsequent seasons have erased that taint. In the process the show has won the Emmy for Outstanding Reality-Competition Series in each of the five years that the award has been presented. It has beaten such shows as American Idol (which was responsible for the delay of season 4), Survivor, The Apprentice, Dancing With The Stars, and Project Runway. It is an amazing record and I don't know of any other series that has won Emmys as outstanding program in any other category for five straight years.

The secret to any reality-competition show is casting and this season of the show has had perfect blend of people, the right mix of people we can hate like Nate & Jen, or Ari & Staella (but mostly Ari), people we hope and even expect will win (TK & Rachel; Kynt & Vyxsin), and even people we can be surprised by (Nick & Don; Christina & Ronald). While we may expect the younger and fitter T.K. & Rachel to win, there's a sense of hope that Nick and his plucky and at times abrasive grandfather Don will surprise us, or that the sometimes domineering sales executive Ronald will complete his growing realization about how intelligent and resourceful (not to mention very attractive) daughter Christina is by crossing the finish line first. For me that's a key aspect of the show. It is objective not subjective. People aren't eliminated because other competitors viewed them as a threat, they are eliminated because they finish a stage in last place. And the winner of the show will not be the people who are the most popular among viewers regardless of actual ability. The partnership that wins The Amazing Race will be the one that has surmounted all the obstacles in their path – those created by the show's producers and those that are a result of the nature of international travel – and finished ahead of all the others. There's no manipulating, no alliances and backstabbing, there's just the need to finish ahead of your opponents, and I for one like that.

It is arguable that this season has been the one in which the American TV audience has really rediscovered The Amazing Race in terms of ratings. Checking the Nielsen network ratings, as reported at (you're going to have to go through a number of unrelated posts to find the weekly "Top 20 Network Shows" reports) The Amazing Race has finished in the Top Twenty in the Nielsen ratings in eight of the ten weeks it has been on the air, and on two of those occasions it has finished in the Top Ten. Credit or blame what you wish – the Writers Strike (although the only shows in The Amazing Race's timeslot that are scripted are the FOX animated shows, and The CW's Life Is Wild) for the dearth of scripted product; NFL Football overruns which push back 60 Minutes (but not every week); 60 Minutes itself which serves up a ready-made if aging audience (which obviously hated Viva Laughlin) – the fact of the matter is that people are watching the show. I personally attribute it to the American public finally realizing what Alex Strachan stated in his article on the show:

There's a reason why The Amazing Race has won five consecutive Emmy Awards, over competition like Survivor, American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

It's more than just entertainment. In a good season – and this season has been one of its best to date -- The Amazing Race is both a white-knuckle rollercoaster ride and an affirmation of life. It's feel-good TV programming at its best, reality TV made the way reality TV ought to be."

Season 12 of The Amazing Race finishes on Sunday night after 60 Minutes on CBS and at 8 p.m. Eastern (7 p.m. Central – which is where I am) on CTV in Canada.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Things I Do For You

Like on Thursday night. I subjected myself to a tape of the second episode of Cashmere Mafia.

Now it is absolutely clear that I am the wrong audience for this show. For one thing I pee standing up and for another my taste in porn features breasts rather than abs. In other words, I am a straight guy. There are certain shows that I find more enjoyable than others. I have never watched October Road or What about Brian? I will admit to watching Sex And The City which may sound like it goes against my stated tastes but I watched primarily in hopes that Cynthia Nixon would show off her goodies, something that happened far too infrequently to be really tolerable. I had to settle for Kim Catrall getting her clothes off in just about every episode. Does it hurt my "man-cred" to say that after a while (a very long while) seeing Kim's boobs and ass and whatever else HBO let her expose got sort of boring? One thing is for sure, I never ever watched for Sarah Jessica Parker. Frankly I could care less about Carrie Bradshaw and Big; for me Chris Noth will always be Detective Mike Logan not the guy who was the obsession of a chain smoking writer. And I don't even really like Law & Order (however I am a fan of Law & Order: Criminal Intent). Now I know that whole thing sounds sexist and shallow and what have you, but I'm willing to bet that if you asked most straight guys who watched Sex And The City they'd give you similar reasons for watching.

I'm getting off track here. I'm supposed to be telling you what I thought about Cashmere Mafia. The thing is that the two shows share a lot in common. Sex And The City was about four best friends who were in influential positions in New York City. It was about their lives and loves and about the fact that when you're a woman and have a best friend she's there to hold your hair when you throw up, and presumably that that's more than you can say for any man except the right one. Cashmere Mafia is about four best friends who are in influential positions in New York City. It's about their lives and their loves and the bond that they share that is bigger than anything that they could share with a man except maybe the right man and even then probably not. I think you're beginning to see a pattern here. Now Cashmere Mafia doesn't have the nudity and frequently dropped "F-bombs" that Sex And The City did but after all this is broadcast television. No vomiting and hair holding yet either, but it is only the second episode.

So who are these women and (almost as important) who do they match up with in Sex And The City. First up there's Mia Mason (Lucy Liu), who probably matches up with Carrie. She's just become the big boss at a major publishing company. All it has cost her was her relationship with her boyfriend in the first episode. He proposed to her at the start of that episode, was pitted against her in a competition to get the big job (and lost), and at the end of the episode decided that she wanted a more traditional wife. I'm just guessing but he probably wouldn't have been as quick to dump her if he had the corner office and she was his underling. Then there's Caitlin Dowd (Bonnie Sommerville). I'd say that Caitlin is this show's answer to Miranda. Like Miranda she's absolutely focused in her work life – she's in advertising while Miranda was a lawyer – but she's confused and almost neurotic in her personal life. Of course Caitlin's confusion is a bit deeper than Miranda's – she finds herself attracted to another woman for the first time ever (Alicia, played by Lourdes Benedicto) which naturally enough comes as a surprise after thirty some years. Zoe Burden (Frances O'Connor) is this show's answer to Charlotte. She's a working mother of two kids who are in a tony private elementary school, totally devoted to them and her stay at home architect husband Eric (Julian Ovenden) and is trying to balance work and home, with less than perfect results. In other words she's trying to have it all. Finally we have Juliet Draper (Miranda Otto). She had it all – or thought she did. Then she found out that her husband Davis (Peter Hermann) is not just having an affair (he'd had them before but kept them tastefully out of town) but was having an affair with someone they both knew. At a black tie event she told him that her revenge would be to have an affair of her own with one of the men in that room.

So there you have the set up. The second episode, which is in most shows is probably closer to what the series as a whole is going to be like, went something like this. As in the first episode there were four story lines that came together because of the relationship between the women. I just wish that most of the individual stories weren't absolutely trite. Take Mia's for example. Having won the big job with the corner office at the expense of her personal life, the big boss tells here she has to find new creative director, which means firing the existing creative director who just happens to be the guy who'd first hired her for the company. Naturally she puts it off and puts it off and then manages to fire him in the most public and embarrassing (to her) manner possible. It sounds familiar because it is – I had seen exactly the same storyline in an episode of How I Met Your Mother a couple of weeks ago, and it was old and trite then (but funnier than when Lucy Liu did it). Caitlin's story was almost as bad. The core of it was that she decided to explore her feelings for Alicia by going out on a date with her only to be accosted by a former (male) lover just when they were sharing a hot kiss. Caitlin's embarrassment at the situation and not immediately blowing the guy off somehow drove Alicia off. This in turn led to a reconciliation in which Caitlin admitted that she sucked at relationships but was ready to try with Alicia. About the only thing new about this story line was that Alicia turned around and told Caitlin that they weren't at the "R-word" stage yet, they hadn't even had a complete first date. And I'm not altogether sure that Sex And The City didn't try that during Samantha's involvement with a lesbian (played by Sonia Braga). Juliet's storyline was slightly more original, but only because of her circumstances. Juliet is frightened about getting a date after so long "off the market" so her friends help her out. That's standard sitcom fare and about the only thing that makes it even a little more original is that Juliet isn't divorced or widowed, she's still married to her husband – but it's the same thing because he's a cheating rat-bastard. Juliet's friends help her by picking out the man she should have her affair with (an old friend of the groups from business school and who Juliet had been attracted to back then). Caitlin gives her an extra push by livening up her look courtesy of the hair and makeup crew on an advertising shoot that Caitlin's working on. The transformation is, quite frankly, spectacular and manages to perk up her husband's interest. But Juliet seems determined on getting her "revenge" and goes to meet the man. Naturally it turns out that all those years ago he was attracted to her as she had been to him and the only thing standing in their way back then was her then boyfriend, now cheating rat-bastard husband.

About the only storyline that really showed any originality was Zoe's. She confronts the "stay at home mom from hell" who has become close with stay at home dad Eric. She seems relentless in needling Zoe about her lifestyle choice, pointing out that only three parents can go on a planned field trip with the class, implying of course that Zoe is so busy with her career that she didn't know enough to sign up weeks in advance. Even worse was when she bought Zoe a "working mom teddy bear" – complete with a Bluetooth headset – that said "not now, I'm on a conference call." It rattles Zoe, and when the woman suggests that she and her husband get together with Zoe and Eric for dinner in a few days, Zoe feels pressured to agree. It turns out to be a ruse – the woman's husband is away on business and just Zoe is arriving – late – the seemingly staid stay at home mom propositions Eric. Once Zoe sits down the woman tells Eric that she wants her him to design a new kitchen for her (and the suggestion of coverage in Architectural Digest as a sweetener to get Eric to accept), as cover. Once they get home, Eric makes it clear to Zoe that he knew exactly what was going on and that unlike Juliet's husband Davis, he wasn't interested in fooling around with another woman. The next day before the field trip Zoe makes her victory complete (her triumph included the other excluded parents and a Grey Lines double decker touring bus and the words "not now, I'm on a conference call."). The storyline isn't that original really, the harried working woman faced with a threat to her marriage from someone who doesn't spend all of their time working, that is seemingly in her imagination but which turns out to be all too real, but there is something about the way that the character triumphs that somehow brings something new to the table.

As you can tell, I was less than impressed with this whole thing. It isn't the acting; for the most part it seems quite good based on what they're given to work with. Lucy Liu has more than a little comedic ability of course, and I was quite taken with Frances O'Connor. Miranda Otto was of particular note when she was transformed from the "ice queen" who was trying marriage counselling with her husband Davis, to the newly revealed "hot babe" ready for vengeance sex and capable of attracting not only a prospective lover but also the wandering eye of her husband. The only one I really felt ambivalent about was Bonnie Sommerville. I just don't feel anything special about her.

No, the discontent I'm feeling is that this whole show just feels like a retread of other things. Darren Starr seems to be quite blatant in trying to create a broadcast-friendly version of Sex And The City, right down to giving the women a regular hangout table in a bar. (That location, one of the few time all four were physically together in the episode, had a couple of cute moments; when the three were trying to pick out a lover for Juliet, and Caitlin revealing her possible change in orientation which led to Mia and Zoe revealing their own experimentation with same sex sex.) I could probably accept that, but what I have too much difficulty in accepting is the way in which the storylines seemed recycled. There seemed to be little or no attempt, depending on the storyline, to turn those elements into something with even the vaguest hint of originality. In truth I expected something better from Darren Starr. From now on I think I'll stick to CSI: New York. But then I may be missing something – after all I'm someone who pees standing up, whose preference in porn features breasts not abs.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

On The Twelfth Day Of Christmas

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me....twelve Fearful Forecasts.

Normally I would say twelve fearless forecasts. I learned long ago that the trick with predicting the future is to be as vague as possible in making your predictions so that after the fact you can form the prediction to fit the facts. Either you do that or to come up with something so blatantly obvious that no one could possibly miss getting it right. Take this one for example, from last year: "I predict that the biggest housecleaning at the Upfronts in May will occur at The CW, with new series being created to try to create an identity of its own for the network rather than that of the two parent webs as well as build ratings. It will succeed in the first, not so much in the second." I pretty much nailed that one but it was patently obvious that The CW was going to have to cancel many of the series that they put on the air last season. It was equally obvious that those changes would give the network an identity that was more its own than it had in the first year. And in all honesty there was little or no chance that the network would make significant gains in the ratings. I had a pretty good record last year following those simple rules.

Ah but this year – this year you have the thrice damned Writers Strike, and while I support the writers 110%, it makes it hard to predict the future. I mean take a prediction about the Oscars. I can make a prediction that they'll be boring and generate complaints that they go on too long – that's a perennial one that you can make every year and I usually do – but how do you make that sort of prediction when you don't know whether the Academy Awards will be given on the scheduled date, if the Writers will still be on strike, if they'll grant a special waiver for the broadcast if they do go on the scheduled date and they are still on strike, and if anyone except the six Moguls and the Below the Line workers represented by IATSE will actually show up if they do and they are. I mean you can see the problems for wannabe Carnacs. Still, I've got my crystal ball out of hock and am sitting yogi like before it and with a growing sense of trepidation I look deep, deep into its depths to predict....THE FUTURE!

  1. I predict that the Super Bowl will run far outside of the time slot that FOX will allocate for it, to the point where most of the episode of whatever show the network is planning to run following the game will run outside of prime time in most of the United States. Despite this only half the people in the United States will complain about the game being too long and they weren't watching it anyway. (This is one of the "perennials" I mentioned earlier. In fact I just cut and pasted it from last year's list.
  2. I predict that the first quarter profits for the five networks will go down slightly despite the fact that they don't have to pay for those nasty old writers and for actors and such. The advertisers will start demanding give backs as ratings decline, but at the moment the networks have enough scripted product available in the form of shows that they held back as mid-season replacements that it won't be huge. But what happens when that material is gone and the nets have to rely on reality series, game shows and news department shows?
  3. Outside of the established reality programs such as The Amazing Race, American Idol, Big Brother, Hell's Kitchen The Apprentice, and Survivor new reality series brought out by the networks will be abject failures in terms of ratings. Despite this, the networks will run them to the bitter end rather than go back to the negotiating table with the Writers Guild.
  4. The networks will have greater success with repurposing shows from their various cable networks. There are people who don't watch the USA cable network let alone Showtime.
  5. The Writers Strike of 2007-08 will last longer than the Writers Strike of 1988. Neither side will be entirely happy with the result but one side will be far happier than the other when it is eventually settled.
  6. The Parents Television Council will continue to whine, bitch, moan, complain about language, violence, sexual content, and the "fact" that cable subscribers are forced to "subsidize" content that no one wants (despite strong ratings). They will continue to make protests at stockholders meetings imploring companies to not advertise on bad shows and work with the PTC to choose where to spend their advertising dollars. They will continue to insist that the ratings system is a failure and there needs to be an outside board to "correctly" rate shows presumably with considerable input from the PTC. They will continue to crow whenever they agree with an FCC ruling, and insist that the word of the FCC is unappealable when the evil networks take those decisions to court, but will insist that the FCC reverse its position immediately when the PTC doesn't agree with one of their positions. They will continue to send in obscenity complaints to the FCC for material that most sensible people would never regard as filth. The FCC, mindful of being overturned by the Second Circuit Court on the "fleeting obscenities" case will ignore all but the most blatant and obvious transgressions. Which will be nonexistent because networks are, on the whole, too afraid of the FCC's ability to levy fines of $325,000 per station. (This by the way is another one of those "perennials.")
  7. The 2008 Olympics will be the biggest thing on NBC all year, despite the fact that nothing will be shown live (because the damned foreigners didn't put the Games in the United States where they belong perpetually), the Opening Ceremonies will be totally messed up by Brian Williams and Bob Costas, there will be far too many "up close and personal" pieces profiling (American) athletes. Naturally the only ceremonies that are show will be ones where the USA wins, and the only time some events will be seen is when an American is competing. Meanwhile CBC (and it's various partners) will do a much better job of covering the Olympics by showing events when they happen, regardless of the nationality of the competitors. And they'll do the whole thing – from buying the rights to paying staff, renting locations and housing staff – for a fraction of the total what NBC spent to get the rights. Olympics junkies will flock to border areas where they can see the Canadian coverage and there will be a bump in the purchase of "gray market" Canadian satellite dishes to American households and sports bars. (This is a "biennial" – it is accurate every even numbered year.)
  8. Despite being named by everybody and their cousin as the best new series of the year, Mad Men will receive no Emmy nominations when the Emmys eventually occur. Also overlooked will be anything on The CW and every show on most basic cable networks regardless of quality.
  9. Despite the ample opportunity presented by the Writers Strike, Canadian private TV networks will continue to miss the opportunity to expose their product to their domestic audience continuing to adhere to the mantra that Canadians won't watch Canadian shows so why bother.
  10. Bill O'Reilly will continue to be Keith Olberman's favourite target for calendar 2008, primarily because O'Reilly continues to be such an easy target and he gets so upset when Olberman calls him on something. Why just this weekend Bill O (as Keith O continuously calls O'Reilly) shoved Obama campaign staffer Marvin Nicholson for standing in his way, had the Secret Service intervene, and lied on air about what happened. Olberman probably can't wait to get on the air Monday night. (For the record, I don't see FOX News – it's available but the cable company requires viewers to buy a specific package to get it and I can't be bothered with Bloomberg TV. For some reason that I don't entirely understand – well really I don't understand it at all – I do see MSNBC, and am rapidly becoming an Olberman fan.)
  11. Despite the concerted (I nearly – and foolishly – said "best") efforts of the US Federal Government and the Television industry, the conversion from analog to digital television in the United States will be screwed up so that there will be a small but vocal number of people whose TV stop receiving signals when the switch-off occurs in February 2009. I mention this now because publicity about the switch-off has already started, and the coupons to buy the converter boxes needed for analogue TVs to receive digital signals are already available.
  12. Katie Couric will be hosting the CBS Evening News at the end of 2008. I confess that she's gotten better at the job and watch her more often than either Brian Williams or Charlie Gibson. Her ratings will improve although by the end of the year they still won't take the CBS News out of third place, or even close to second place.

Bonus Prediction: Election night will be very interesting. (And yeah, for me that's another perennial, no matter what election we're talking about. There's something amazing about watching the votes come in and the results being decided.)