Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On The Fifth Day Of Christmas

On the fifth day of Christmas (which has already passed) my true love – Television – gave to me ... five Emmy hosts.

What were they thinking?

I mean seriously: What were they THINKING?!

I'm getting this out late because I spent a cold and not overly clement Tuesday with my little nephew, which really meant watching cartoons on Teletoon here in Canada. This would normally spark a rant on the quality of the modern TV cartoon as compared with the stuff that I used to watch as a kid. The stuff I used to watch was better, and if he can say the same thing when he gets to be my age then the art form will be in seriously deep doo-doo. However I had already planned to talk about the Emmys and the decision to use the five reality show hosts nominees as hosts for the Emmys which in its own way shows that something is in seriously deep doo-doo.

I'm not entirely sure what the rationale was for choosing to spotlight the five nominees for "Outstanding Host for a Reality Show or Reality Competition" as hosts for Emmys. That the category was new is scarcely reason enough to make the choice. Of the five reality show hosts – Howie Mandel, Jeff Probst, Tom Bergeron, Heidi Klum, and Ryan Seacrest – only Howie Mandel is really used to working in comedy and before a live audience. Thanks to his work in game shows over the years Bergeron is probably almost as polished as Mandel. For the rest, their skills vary from marginal – Seacrest hosted the Emmys in 2007 and failed miserably – to non-existent in the case of Heidi Klum. Even so the experiment might have worked, or at least functioned adequately, if they hadn't insisted on having more than one of the hosts working at any one time. But – at least during the times when you actually saw the hosts which was increasingly rare as the show continued – the producers insisted on having two or more of the hosts working at a time.

Of course the business with the hosts was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to problems with the Emmy Awards. A certain amount of the problem might have been beyond the control of the producers. A significant number of the nominated shows, performers, writers and directors came from cable series and networks shows that quite frankly were artistic and critical successes but not necessarily seen by a large number of people even in the current climate of reduced audiences. The result would seem to be a reduced number of viewers turning in from the beginning.

Still there were a great many things that the producers of the show did have control over. While the TV networks insist that the Emmys be broadcast live rather than taped and edited, they also insist that the show run to time. The producers know this – or rather should know this since they've been doing the show for years – but still insist on writing stand-alone comedy material like the initial presentation of the hosts or the "tribute" to Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. In Fact the Laugh-In tribute may very well have been the worst thing of the night artistically – the jokes were bad, the performers who showed up weren't as sharp as they were thirty years ago (Alan Sues in particular seemed sadly like he was either drunk for real or suffering quite ill) and the whole seemed to have absolutely no purpose. The producers also put jokes in the category introductions for the presenters, most of which actually work better than the stand-alone material. The problem is that as the show rolls on, material increasingly gets cut for time. And it's usually not the stand-alone stuff but the presenter material. By the end of this year's Emmys the hosts were never seen (as hosts that is, but I'll get into that in a moment) and the presenters barely had time to be announced, emerge and read the names. No jokes, in fact no preface at all to what they were about to do. I'm not even sure if they showed clips of the nominated shows.

Which brings us to one of the worst excesses of the 2008 Emmys, the presentation of the award for Outstanding Host for a Reality Show or Reality Competition. While the presenters for the Outstanding Drama category were reduced to walking to the nearest microphone, swiftly reading out the names of the nominees and getting out of the way of the thundering herd from Mad Men it took about ten minutes and a commercial break for them to present Jeff Probst with his Emmy in a sort of mock tribal council or some other reality elimination format. Beyond the fact that it was boring as hell and badly presented the worst part of it was the waste of time that could have been used for better material, not to mention for a better category. Even the Outstanding Reality Competition category, which by virtually any measurable standard is the more important category, got short shrift as a result. And for the life of me I don't know why they focused on this particular category.

So what does the Television Academy have to do to make the 2009 Emmys if not more successful at least more palatable? Well, first of all, cut the number of hosts down to one or at most two. Whoever does host the show should be big – Craig Ferguson, or maybe Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer. Second, cut the extraneous stuff to a minimum – the obituary reel, a tribute to some notable show or person and do that with clips – but beyond that just focus on presenting the awards. And when you're doing it, keep the jokes to a minimum, particularly in the "lesser" categories. Those are the ones where the presenter should come out and just announce the names of the nominees. And for heaven's sake, when you time the rehearsals remember that sometimes winners talk longer than the amount of time you allot for them, and that people actually laugh at jokes – even the one's your writers come up with. Take the jokes out in rehearsal so you don't have to cut more and more as the show goes on and the important categories come up. Just my opinion of course, but that might make the whole show a bit more watchable.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

On The Fourth Day Of Christmas

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love – Television – gave to me... four shows from last season that I wish were still on this season.

Okay, first of all this isn't the "fourth day of Christmas" post that I had originally planned. What I did have planned was a series of gripes about Canadian TV and the difficulties that being a Canadian imposed on people who love TV – like the fact that the best premium cable, and some basic cable, shows don't show up on basic cable here for months or years after they air in the United States. I could have reviewed Deadwood and Rome, but what would be the point; they had already been cancelled. And please don't ask me to subscribe to the premium channels to see these shows unless you are willing to provide me with a guaranteed $28 each and every month to pay for them. And don't even get me started on people who embed HULU clips on their websites that I can't see because I'm not an American. At least HULU tells me up front. Some other sources make me watch a commercial first and then tell me.

I know, this all sounds a bit self-centered. More to the point writing it was increasingly difficult for me, so I dropped it, but what to replace it with. I very nearly wrote "On the fourth day of Christmas my true love – Television – gave to me... nothing at all." I think I could have spun that into a piece about the industry but it kind of loses the numerical flavour. But then I thought of a great old standby, the "wrongly" cancelled show. Networks have all kinds of reasons for cancelling shows of course but in the light of what we got from them instead, maybe they shouldn't have been so hasty with what they did dump.

Moonlight – CBS: CBS cancelled a show that usually finished first in its timeslot and replaced it with The Ex-List. More to the point they cancelled a show about a vampire in love with a human (and vice versa) six months before ($150 million gross in four weeks), and less than four months before HBO put True Blood on the air. Yeah I know there were fan protests, and I know that after what happened with Jericho (which the network totally mishandled, but that's beside the point) CBS might be just a little wary of on a show that might be described as a "cult favourite," but come on, can anyone really say that the show wouldn't have performed better than The Ex-List? No, I didn't think so.

Women's Murder Club – ABC: This was the show that was usually on opposite Moonlight an alternated winning the time slot with it. The show, about four women involved in the criminal justice system – a cop, a coroner, an assistant district attorney, and a reporter – did reasonably well in the ratings and was one of the few new ABC shows to come back after the Writers Strike, and did so with little apparent erosion in the ratings. The show was not the unanimous critical success that Pushing Daisies or to a lesser extent Dirty Sexy Money and Eli Stone were, but in terms of audience numbers it was close to the latter two series. The time slot might have hurt it; Grey's Anatomy on Thursday night might have been a better fit for the show than 20/20 or the weak and often moved Men In Trees. Certainly Women's Murder Club would have done better coming out of Grey's Anatomy than Big Shots did last season or Life On Mars did this season.

Las Vegas – NBC: Yeah, I know it was expensive, and yeah I know that it was coming to the end of its string but it was one of the great "guilty pleasures" and it deserved to be treated better than NBC treated it in what turned out to be the final not quite a season. Particularly when you remember that this season NBC had Crusoe, My Own Worst Enemy and Knight Rider, none of which can be classified as "great guilty pleasures."

1 vs. 100 – NBC: This one was really hard to decide on. There are a lot of people who would have said Journeyman but it wasn't a show that I saw much of, and I could make arguments for FOX's New Amsterdam (because I liked the concept; it reminded me a bit of Highlander) or Shark (because it's fun to watch James Woods chew scenery), the CW's Aliens In America (which I never saw, but had good ratings – well good by CW standards – until it came back from the strike and let's face it the CW needs all the help they can get). In theory at least I could even make a case for the CW's Life Is Wild on the grounds that it was closer to family fare than most of what is on any network and even at its worst in terms of ratings it did way better than all of the MRC shows that the CW put on combined. But no, I went with a game show, 1 vs. 100 and I did it because as game shows go it was more knowledge based than something like Deal Or No Deal and despite all of the tinkering that NBC did with the scoring system (instead of money levels for each question where you got that amount for each mob member eliminated they changed it to ten levels were you had to eliminate ten mob members to collect that amount of money) and the composition of "the Mob" (putting permanent mob members in, some of whom wouldn't have survived the old system – I'm looking at you Dahm Triplets and you Oscar the Grouch) it was always an enjoyable show to watch.

Monday, December 29, 2008

On The Third Day Of Christmas

On the third day of Christmas my true love – Television – gave to me... three Reality TV Show stars.

Now contrary to what my friend Toby contends, I don't watch all that much reality TV. I watch what I call "The Big Three" from CBS – Big Brother, Survivor, and The Amazing Race and sample a few others in the summer. I really don't consider Dancing With The Stars to be a reality show, and I don't watch the Project Runway class of look-alike shows – Project Runway, America's Next Top Model, Top Chef, and the one about hairstylists. Mostly those shows aren't available to me. I've never watched the "dating" shows like The Bachelor, and most of the talent shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance leave me totally out of it. That goes for their Canadian versions as well, although I feel a considerable irritation over the fact that CTV has pulled Canadian Idol from their 2009 line-up and blame the economic environment. It's one of the network's highest rated show and either they think that they've found all of the singing talent in Canada after three seasons or that it costs too much to rent the venues. (Maybe if they didn't spend $3 million on the rights to the old Hockey Night In Canada theme. No hockey games to go with it, just the theme music.) I even became disenchanted with the only "talent" type show that I watched – NBC's America's Got Talent – as a result of the bloated audition phase and the atrophied performance phase.

What all of that was about was to explain why my list of Reality TV Show Stars is restricted to just three. I mean it could have been four if I'd decided to include Gene Simmons from Celebrity Apprentice but let's face it, Gene Simmons is Gene Simmons; larger than life and maybe even (in his way) larger than Trump. What I'm interested in in this post is the non-celebrities who have, through the medium of the Reality TV Shows that I watch have inserted themselves into my memory for a little while. I have to say that the number who actually did that was severely restricted. While Jerry and to a lesser extent Renny on the summer Big Brother created an impression but in the case of Jerry it was an increasingly negative one and in the case of Renny it often focused on that voice. There were good people in Amazing Race 13 but none who stood out in the way that Kynt & Vyxsin did in the twelfth edition of The Race. So here's what I've got, two players from the most recently completed cycle of Survivor and one from an otherwise unremarkable show called Greatest American Dog. These are presented in alphabetical order if for no other reason than it removes any taint of favouritism from the mix.

Bill McFarlin & Star – Greatest American Dog: I'm a dog guy – have been since the cat I thought was mine ran away when I was four. Watching Greatest American Dog generally reaffirmed for me the claim by the late Barbara Woodhouse that there were no bad dogs just bad owners. The people on the show all loved their dogs, but some were incredibly – even stupidly – indulgent of them. Some couldn't control their dogs while others were over-controlling to the point where their dogs were becoming stressed and the owners didn't even know it. And then there were the egos – mostly the owners – that got in the way. Bill, from Flint Texas, seemed to have a special bond with his Brittany Spaniel Star. Unlike some of the contestants he didn't anthropomorphise the dog, and unlike others he wasn't overly controlling. Star was smart and responsive, while Bill was genuinely concerned with the dog's welfare. At one point Star was injured – apparently by a feral cat – and Bill was heartbroken over the possible injury to his dog, not about possibly leaving the contest. This was in contrast with some other contestants. The other thing about Bill is that he was very friendly and willing to help other contestants on the show in working with their dogs if they wanted the help. Again this was in stark contrast with some of the contestants. One in particular – a professional trainer – tended to be condescending to the other owners. It is something of a testament to Bill and Star that when they were eliminated from the show, I eliminated the show from my weekly viewing.

Bob Crowley – Survivor: Gabon: One of those cases where the "good guy" and someone who actually deserves it wins a reality-competition show. Bob Crowley, a high school physics teacher, from Maine wasn't the most likely person to win the show. In fact he was arguably the most unlikely. He was the oldest man on the show and in a very real way one of the least effective in the physical challenges. But as he said at one point (it was inserted into promos for the show featuring him) he was "wicked smaht." His initial contributions to the tribes that he was on were in terms of woodcraft and outdoorsmanship. His teams had plenty of food cooked well (he improvised a griddle by splitting open and flattening a large tin can) and comforts (at one point he apparently built a bench at one of the camps). This led at least one of his competition to dismiss him as "not really playing the game." It was a severe underestimation. Even as his alliance was falling apart he was laying the groundwork towards forging new temporary relationships. And he was not above being devious. Not once but twice he created fake immunity idols of such good quality that they were able to persuade others of their legitimacy. But perhaps his greatest triumph in the game was an unprecedented string of personal challenge victories – both immunity and reward – with which he was able to retain his position in the game even as he was becoming the obvious threat to beat. In the end he was able to persuade the jury members that he, unlike second place finisher Susie (a woman who made flying under the radar a new art form), had lived up to the show's motto "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast." (One interesting sidelight about Bob: one of his students, Julie Berry, was a competitor on Survivor: Vanuatu - she finished fifth.)

Jessica "Sugar" Kiper – Survivor: Gabon: If ever proof were needed that reality shows have writers – at least to pick out and develop the storylines from the footage shot on location – it is Sugar. To viewers Sugar was the second most likable member of the cast (behind Bob) as shown by the fan poll at the end of the series. And yet she was the only one of the final three not to get a vote for the jury. Susie, who was probably the least visible of the cast members who made it to the merge – at least in terms of screen-time – received only one less vote than Bob. Clearly – and it was stated during the reunion show – there were things about Sugar and her behaviour that irritated people. I suppose that 39 days of Sugar is different than fifteen edited hours of her. What is abundantly clear is that however much she may have irritated them, Sugar also allowed herself to be underestimated by the other competitors (with the possible exception of Bob – I think he saw right through her). They seem to have based their impression of her on the body, the voice and the hair and ignored the fact that she had a brain. It was absolutely clear when we saw Corinne and Randy talking about Bob almost certainly finding the Hidden Immunity Idol at Exile Island despite the fact that Sugar had been there five times while Bob had only been there twice. Clearly Sugar was too stupid to find the Idol (she found it the first time she went). Setting that aside, Sugar was either responsible for or at the very least involved with some of the biggest moves in the game including the elimination of Ace – supposedly the "brain" behind Sugar – and the final elimination of Kenny by giving her Immunity Idol to Matty. In fact it was Sugar who gave Bob the million dollar win by voting for her long-time ally Matty ensuring the tie, and telling Bob of her intentions beforehand which allowed him to practice his fire making skills. Sugar's greatest enemy in the game was Corinne, and I suspect it may have been her statements at the jury session that influenced the portrayal of Sugar. First Corinne said that Sugar would have her vote if only she would agree to use the money to have her vocal cords severed. It went downhill from there. In a speech later in her questioning of the surviving players, Corinne showed off what I can only call her "Anne Coulter" side: "You are an unemployed, uneducated leech on society. And the only thing I would vote to give you is a handful of anti-depressants so that no one else has to be subjected to your constant crying anymore. And maybe if you get some, then it would seem a little more sincere when you are crying about your dead father." And there you have summed up the "heroine/villainess" (because Randy and later Kenny had admirably placed themselves as the male villain of the piece in counter point to Bob's hero) dynamic that the people who put the hours of tape for this season together in a viewable package used to shape our perceptions of this season.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

On The Second Day Of Christmas

On the second day of Christmas my true love – television – gave to me....two cancelled shows.

This piece isn't going to be as long as I had planned on it being. Word ate the original posting. I know I had saved it – in fact there's a nice file titled On The Second Day Of Christmas
on my list of recently worked on Word files. Too bad it links to a blank page. (Almost as bad as the fact that I'm a day of Christmas behind – I didn't count Christmas Day itself as a day of Christmas and even if I did I was nowhere where I could post so...) So basically what I'm going to do is give you the Readers Digest condensed version of the part of the post that I had actually finished when this poxy program lost what I had written.

While there have been a number of series cancelled in the 2008-09 season so far, only The Ex-List from CBS and Do Not Disturb from FOX were actually cancelled and pulled immediately from the line-up. Other cancelled shows, notably My Own Worst Enemy, Pushing Daisies, Eli Stone, and Dirty Sexy Money were allowed to air most or all of the episodes that had been produced at the time that the cancellation order was given (apparently there are three episodes each of Pushing Daisies and Dirty Sexy Money that will air in the Summer 2009). The cancellation of Do Not Disturb and The Ex-List are not surprising. The "humour" in the FOX comedy had all the subtlety of being bludgeoned with a sledge hammer, while The Ex-List hinged on people buying into a premise that I can't see as being anything but absurd (a woman believes a "psychic" who tells her that if she doesn't find her "soul mate" – a man that she had previously been involved with – within a year she will never find happiness) even though many professional critics were enamoured with the show.

No, the interesting part of this season's round of cancellations is that aside from these two the series weren't immediately pulled from the line-up. Even the series that Media Rights Capital did for The CW were allowed to continue their runs after being cancelled (by MRC) until the network ended their deal with the content provider. This is in vivid contrast to previous seasons. The strike affected season of 2007-08 aside, the recent trend has been to pull shows from the line-up quickly. In the last pre-strike season, 2006-07, the five networks cancelled six scripted shows that had aired five episodes or less. And who could forget shows like Emily's Reasons Why Not (1 episode), Just Legal (3 episodes, with five more burned off in the summer), Love Monkey (3 episodes on CBS with the remaining five airing on VH1), Head Cases (2 episodes), Heist (5 episodes), Inconceivable (2 episodes), or Book of Daniel (3 episodes). These shows were all from the 2005-06 season.

The reason for the stark contrast between this season and previous seasons is not entirely clear. One explanation might be the as yet unrealised threat of a Screen Actors Guild strike (the likelihood of which seems increasingly low), or it could be one of the effects of the current economic situation – networks can't afford financially to effectively throw away the money they invested in a show by not airing all of the episodes they've paid for without a damned good reason. In the case of The Ex-List it is probably the realization that they would have better ratings (and consequently be able to charge better advertising rates) with reruns of their stand-alone procedurals.

One effect of this reluctance to immediately pull shows from the line-up has been that viewers have been given more of a chance to view shows. Many viewers – or at the ones who comment on various blogs and message boards – claim that they want new shows to "get a fair chance." Some even go so far as to state that they won't watch new shows when they air because of the fear of quick cancellation (an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy if I ever heard one; if people don't watch new shows out of fear that they might be cancelled then the ratings will be low and those shows will be cancelled). The downside of the networks not pulling shows immediately is that it seems to disprove the theory that a show will gain audience if given time to "mature." Instead viewership for most shows seems to decline or at least stabilise at a lower level when the shows "mature." Leaving aside the argument that the ratings system is "broken" (usually made without any suggestions on how to fix the system), the cancellation of low rated shows is a constant reminder that broadcasting is first and foremost a business.

Friday, December 26, 2008

On The First Day Of Christmas

On the First Day Of Christmas my true love (Television) gave to me.... a Nostradamus wannabe.

I'm talking about Jeff Zucker and by extension his little minion Ben Silverman. The truth is though that most of these pronouncements, whether they come out of the mouths of Zucker or Silverman (and often, before Silverman, Kevin Reilly) are Zucker's. And Zucker has a tendency to make predictions about things that are going to happen. Often – well sometimes anyway – these are predictions of gloom and doom. In my book this makes him a Nostradamus wannabe. The only thing is that Nostradamus couched his predictions in quatrains that are so vague and subject to interpretation that you really only knew he was "right" once things had happened. Who really thought that "Hister" equalled Hitler until after World War II? Zucker, bravely, does not couch his predictions in vague, if cryptic, generalities; he just comes out and makes statements. And his predictions tend inevitably to be wrong. This makes his most recent musings about the future of TV, and the more importantly the action that he took after making them, particularly bothersome.

But let's go back in history first to one of the first Zucker predictions that I took note of in this blog. Back in October 2006, when NBC was going through a batch of cost cutting that required the firing of 700 employees to make a saving of $750 million, Zucker announced that the network would no longer air scripted TV series in the first hour of primetime. According to the TV Squad article at the time Zucker stated that "advertisers just won't pay enough money during the 8 pm time slot to cover the costs of comedies and dramas." Instead the network would program game shows and reality series during that hour, largely I think because NBC was basking in the initial glow of Deal Or No Deal. While it was never stated – the article doesn't cite a source for the statement unfortunately – Zucker presumably expected all of his competitors to follow the NBC lead. At the time I stated that the truth was that advertisers weren't willing to pay enough for the NBC shows that were airing in the first hour of primetime. In the event NBC did try the "non-scripted only" strategy in the middle of the 2006-07 season. The only night on which they aired scripted programming in the first hour was the Thursday night comedy block. On other nights they were airing two episodes of Dateline NBC (then in the heat of it's To Catch A Predator popularity) plus one on Saturday; Deal Or No Deal; Thank God You're Here (the show where actors did "improv" to various pre-scripted situations); and 1 vs. 100 (which was replaced by a twelve episode run of Identity. But in the 2007-08 season the network added the scripted show Chuck (until the beginning of the strike) on Monday night, while airing two episodes of Deal Or No Deal and Biggest Loser (and the Football pregame on Sunday night). Dateline NBC only reappeared on Sundays after the end of the Football season. And this season? NBC is airing scripted series three nights of the week with the Football pregame, Deal Or No Deal (down to one episode a week now) and Biggest Loser. As for the rest, CBS has scripted shows on four of the six nights (the exceptions being 60 Minutes on Sunday and Survivor on Thursday); ABC has scripted series on two of six nights (Lost on Wednesday and Ugly Betty on Thursday); FOX does three (currently – this will change a bit when American Idol begins and changes a bit more when the new Friday night line-up debuts) nights of scripted shows; The CW does four nights of scripted shows (five if you count the Jericho reruns on Sunday night); and MYNetwork TV (which I mention because Zucker's most recent pronouncement apparently counts them as a competitor) does one (three if you count their two nights of movies) but doesn't have anything on Sunday nights. Score one Zucker prediction down the tubes.

Next up we had Jeff Zucker talking pilots and the traditional upfront presentations. This really started in January of 2008 when Zucker told the NAPTE (National Association of Television Program Executives) convention in Las Vegas that NBC would only be ordering five pilots a year instead of the more usual twenty. According to Zucker, "People want to ridicule the idea of making fewer pilots. It's usually those who have a vested interest in perpetuating the inefficiencies of the system. As I have said, this is not about making less programs. It's about making less waste." Supposedly – as was stated in a follow-up statement by then Universal Media Studios president Katherine Pope – was a script for the first episode so they could see what the show would be about. This also rationale also had a lot to do with NBC's decision not to hold a traditional upfront presentation at Radio City. At the same meeting Zucker stated that, "We believe the big show is a vestige of the last decade. What matters is the new schedule and the rationale behind it." And he added "We probably will be on our own in doing this at the start. Like everything else, if it's successful, others will follow." In other words everyone was going to do it but NBC was going to be innovative. There were mixed reviews from the decision not to do upfronts. According to a TV Week article from around the time of Zucker's NATPE speech, while some advertising executives felt that individual meetings with agencies were more important than "the big 'Here are the stars and the shrimp and the fun'" others felt that there were considerable advantages to the upfront system. John Miles of MediaCom stated that the advantage of the upfronts was that "You connect with the community at large, which includes clients. It can create some positive momentum. Does it have to be $20 shrimp? I'm sure it doesn't. But you know want? It's a people business. It's a social business, it's a relationship business, and part of relationship-building happens at those parties." And John Swift of PHD U.S. stated that there were advantages for both sides in the traditional upfront process, including – for the agencies – price advantages, the ability to secure spots when you need them and ratings guarantees.

As for the decision not to produce many pilots, John Miles stated that "We understand the economics, we understand the reality, but we are buying shows for audience delivery and environmental capability, and in order to make some of those decisions, you've got to see the program. The bait-and-switch is that we know that what we see is not necessarily what is going to end up on the schedule, but I think it gives us a flavor of the sort of direction that the network is heading in. And so I think pilots give you some good information about a network's sensibility." And Shari Anne Brill, VP of programming at Carat stated, "I don't know what any of these guys have in development and I like going to those meetings so I have an idea of what's new and coming out. They're going to have to have something to show us or describe because we have to do our [audience] estimates. What do I estimate on? I need to see some form of an attempt at a schedule." (Emphasis mine.) In other words the decision not to do pilots deprived the advertising executives of the ability to make decisions on what programs they should buy time on. Most of all though, based on the performance of the schedule that NBC put in place its "limited pilot" strategy seems to have been an abject failure. Of the new shows that NBC introduced in September, My Own Worst Enemy ended after nine episodes – all that were completed at the time it was cancelled; the Knight Rider remake was initially given a full season order of 22 episodes and then had that order reduced by five episodes and had the storyline "reformatted" to make it more like the original series; Crusoe was moved from Friday to Saturday night for the remainder of its thirteen episode run. The only "success" has been the American version of the Australian sitcom Kath & Kim which has done poorly in both total viewers and ratings in the demographic. From this standpoint the whole business of not actually seeing what you're going to put on your network seems to be an abject failure. While there may still be sufficient questions about the necessity for the upfronts to leave that prediction unresolved, it seems clear that the idea of fewer pilots is another Zucker prediction that's a flop.

Which brings us to the latest pronouncements from Nostra-Zucker-us, and the events that followed them. Speaking before the annual UBS Global Media and Communications Conference on December 8th, Zucker stated that the model for broadcast networks has to change: "Can we continue to broadcast 22 hours in prime time? Three of our competitors don't. Can we continue to broadcast seven days a week? One of our competitors doesn't." In the first part he is referring to FOX, The CW and My Network TV, while in the latter case he is talking about The CW (which doesn't program shows on Saturday) although he might well be speaking of My Network TV which doesn't program Sunday nights. The fact that three networks don't program the third hour of prime time each night is at least partially an accident of history. When FOX was established it could only program two hours a night if the company wanted to produce its own scripted programs; by programming only two hours it was not considered a network under FCC regulations. Networks at the time weren't allowed to produce shows and a major part of the FOX programming strategy required shows to be produced by 20th Century Fox. By the time the FCC regulations were changed the Fox affiliates had cut out a lucrative niche by presenting the news an hour before their "network" competitors. Something similar occurred with The CW and My Network TV – their affiliates had already established their late night news programming at the beginning of the third hour of prime time and they were unwilling to surrender the time. Using these networks – particularly the extremely low rated CW and My Network TV – as a model for the future is at best a questionable bit of logic.

Zucker's UBS announcement was followed the next day by the blockbuster announcement that some people thought the original statement was set up to lead into: NBC signed Jay Leno to do a talk show in the third hour of primetime five nights a week. This means of course that NBC has removed itself from original scripted programming in the third hour of primetime every night except Sunday, and then only after Sunday Night Football ends. And the truth is that no matter what NBC is paying Leno for that hour a week it is probably less than what a scripted series would cost. There are other implications however. Because in much of the country (though not all as the Parents Television Council never ceases to remind broadcasters thanks to their demands for FCC fines) the third hour of primetime fall beyond the so-called "watershed" when more adult programming can be legally presented, NBC's abandonment of scripted programming in that hour means that the network won't be able to do shows that "push the envelope" (although again – because of the PTC and their FCC complaints – the degree to which any of the networks has been willing to do that is questionable). Of course in real terms for NBC the loss is really minimal. With ER ending its run in March 2009, the only NBC show that has been established as a long-term resident of the third hour are Law & Order and Law & Order Special Victims Unit. The most recent attempts (as in this season) by the network to program the third hour have included shows like My Own Worst Enemy and Lipstick Jungle, both of which were cancelled by the network.

Zucker' assertion that maybe the networks should give up the third hour of primetime was hardly received with universal acceptance. Les Moonves of CBS told the UBS conference that, "I'm here to tell you the model ain't broken. You can still make a lot of money in network television. We like 10 o'clock shows." Other reaction to Zucker's statement has been mixed. An article in the Denver Post stated that, "At the very least, NBC is signaling its emphasis on cost-cutting rather than a pursuit of proud entertainment. The days of great NBC dramas like Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Street are long gone. With Leno as a lead-in, NBC affiliates won't get any ratings help for their late news." The article also stated that "NBC pulled off a clever move in the short term, keeping Leno in the family along with O'Brien. In one stroke, it filled a weeknight hour of prime time with Leno's solid brand, prevented ABC from hiring the comedian, and responded to the changing nature of television with a different economic model. The network saves $13 million a week by abandoning scripted dramas in the last hour of prime time. Smart business idea; lackluster entertainment concept. Shareholders are bound to be more pleased than viewers, who are right to expect more. Hailed as bold and radical, it's really a very safe move, aimed at cutting costs." And that's what it really seems to be about for Zucker and NBC – how the shareholders regard the bottom line. In a chart shown at GE's investor presentation on December 16th, the profits from NBC's broadcast business fell from $1.4 billion in 2005 to an estimated $400 million in 2008. At the same time profits for the company's cable arm went up by nearly $800 million. The Wall Street Journal article that this tidbit came from stated that "You can blame some of that loss on the fact that NBC has tumbled in the ratings and has never replaced the hits it had in the days of Seinfeld, and later, Friends. But hits are cyclical: Wait around long enough, and you end up airing something that works. If NBC thought that hits would be enough to claw back some of that billion, CEO Jeff Zucker wouldn't be conceding five valuable hours to Jay Leno, who costs less to air than the shows he's replacing, but has less upside potential. Instead, Zucker seems to be saying that broadcast TV is a big but shrinking business, and that he's not going to fight that trend." It is of course worth noting that the programming decisions that failed to replace hits like Seinfeld and Friends but instead kept those shows on the air by throwing money at their stars (and then after even that stopped working, giving us crap like Joey and the American version of Coupling) were made by one Jeffrey Zucker. As the Denver Post article points out, "Audiences deserve an array of smart scripted comedies and dramas beyond the lowbrow, vanilla humor that has come with NBC efforts like Celebrity Apprentice or The Biggest Loser. The broadcast networks are increasingly abandoning challenging drama to cable. Knight Rider is NBC's answer to Damages, Mad Men, The Shield, Weeds and The Tudors.... While spreading Leno across primetime makes fiscal sense, it sounds about as exciting as the virtual fireplace or yule log video loop so popular at this time of year. It's a game changer, all right. For many viewers, there are compelling dramas and comedies waiting on the DVR. Plan to catch five minutes of monologue, then switch to a meaty cable drama." Or maybe something on CBS or ABC. But that doesn't matter to Jeffrey Zucker. His motto seems to be "short term gain and long term pain" though he doesn't say the latter part out loud.

Concern for the bottom line is important but in both this move and his previous utterances and actions Zucker has proven that the bottom line is his primary concern. But surely success on the bottom line has a lot to do with the quality of the shows you put before the public. Because in truth the public aren't true customers for network television, it is the advertisers. The public – the TV viewers – are the real commodity that the networks are selling, not the shows. Advertisers are buying eyeballs in front of the set because those eyeballs might actually watch the commercials that the advertisers are producing. The financial straits that NBC as a network finds itself probably has very little to do with the existing network broadcasting model. It is in part a product of the economic downturn but also in part a product of NBC simply not putting on shows that the public wants to see.

Oh yeah, and CBS? The network that doesn't believe that the broadcasting model is broken? Well their audience figures are up over last year. According to The Hollywood Reporter, "Through Dec. 21, CBS has averaged 12 million viewers, up 1% from last year. NBC, ABC and Fox are each down 9%." And that's mostly with scripted programming including the third hour of primetime.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Reflections On The Midseason - FOX

(I had intended to get this series of reflections out quickly. Unfortunately I've been feeling really really tire over the past little while. So tired in fact that I've been literally taking naps before going to bed. Anyway I may not get another instalment of this series out until the new year.)

With all five of the American broadcast networks having announced their midseason schedules I thought it was a pretty good opportunity to look at the shows that are been replaced and the shows that replacing them and at the general successes and failures of the networks.

Cancelled: Do Not Disturb, 'Til Death (on hiatus)

Planned Hiatus: Prison Break, Don't Forget The Lyrics, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

Episodes Ordered:
Fringe (full 22 episode order), Prison Break (2 episodes)

House, Bones, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

24, American Idol, Hell's Kitchen, Hole In The Wall

New Shows: Lie To Me, Dollhouse,

Lie To Me sounds a lot like The Mentalist, at least based on the description in Wikipedia: "Main character Dr. Cal Lightman (played by Tim Roth) detects deception by observing body language, and uses this talent to assist law enforcement with the help of his group of researchers and psychologists." No doubt this won't be as clear cut a copy as this makes it sound. Still it sounds like a "safe" series, and its location in the time slot following the Wednesday episode of American Idol should make it fairly safe. Debuts January 21, 2009.

Dollhouse is the latest series that Joss Whedon is doing for FOX. Debuts February 13, 2009. The series focuses on a service that provides people – known as "Dolls" who can be given any personality you like and do any job that you want. Once they finish their jobs their minds are wiped and they're sent to a dormitory/lab known as "The Dollhouse." The series focuses on one "Doll" played by Eliza Dushku who is beginning to overcome the mindwipes and is developing self-awareness. Debuts February 13, 2009

Commentary: FOX has what might be described as the most schizophrenic (in popular if totally incorrect definition of the term – split personality) of all the networks. While most networks might debut new series at the midseason break, most tend to try to keep a consistent schedule from the end of September to the end of May. And when it comes to a very successful reality format, the networks try to get at least two cycles in during that period. Most importantly most networks don't break the rule that says that you don't play musical chairs with a show's time slot when the show is performing successfully. Not FOX. I swear that somewhere in the headquarters at FOX an executive once said, "Rules? We don't need no steenkeeng rules!"

I mean take a look at the shows that they're moving around the schedule. In its last original episode (December 9th) House finished second in total viewers (13.90 million) and first in the 18-49 demographic (5.6/15). In its last original episode (November 26th), Bones finished first in both total households and the demographic (9.43 million, 2.5/8). The only weak show of the three that are being moved around is Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which was fourth in its time slot in total viewers and in the demographic (5.3 million, 1.9). The two game shows that are going on a "planned hiatus" (the only term that I can think of that fits what FOX is doing), Don't Forget The Lyrics and Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? are both doing relatively well in the ratings considering that they're on Friday nights after all, finishing second in total households in their most recent airings and in the demographic (the latter numbers – 1.3/4 for Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? and 1.4/5 for Don't Forget The Lyrics – look weak in comparison to most nights but are strong for a Friday). Conventional wisdom, the "rules" if you will, says that you keep these shows in the line-up. In other words, don't mess with success.

And then there's 24 and American Idol. I mean let's face it, what network decides to bring back a full 24 hour season of a proven hit series in February. Well okay there's ABC and Lost but that only happened after a ratings scare in the third season, but this will be the fourth season of 24 to debut in January. The aim is to run the entire series without interruption. As for American Idol, Fox treats it differently from just about any other successful returning reality series by airing only one cycle of the show per year. And, the network has been doing that since the very beginning. By comparison CBS will have aired 18 cycles of Survivor in about the same amount of time that FOX aired eight cycles of American Idol. While there is probably a sound logistical explanation for this in terms of organizing venues for auditions and just attracting talent, there is something to be said for this approach in terms of keeping the concept relatively fresh and not wearing out its welcome. While the show no longer absolutely dominates the timeslots that it airs in the way it did when it first showed up when it effectively killed The West Wing and so scared CBS that they pushed the third season of The Amazing Race into the summer, the show still regularly wins its time slot handily. What the situation would be if they followed accepted wisdom and ran the show twice a year is certainly something to ponder.

The most recent example of FOX breaking the rules is their experiment with "remote free TV." In a world where networks seem determined to cram as many commercials into an hour as the law will allow, FOX has tried an experiment with fewer commercials per hour in two of their shows, Fringe and the upcoming Dollhouse. Costs are made up by charging a premium rate for the commercials that are broadcast, but presenting them in such a way – 60 and 90 second breaks in most cases – that people are less tempted to either fast forward through the commercials or use them as an opportunity to channel surf. I suppose the jury is still out on "remote free TV;" Fringe at least seems to be successful in terms of getting eyeballs in front of the set – 8.69 million viewers in its most recent original episode (3rd in timeslot against The Mentalist and the finale of the latest cycle of Biggest Loser) and a 3.7/9 in the 18-49 demographic. To be sure it lost viewers out of House (leading Marc Berman to describe it as "overrated") but given the nature of the series it's still a good performance as what is essentially a quirky science fiction show with light dash of police procedural. And while I don't believe that the "remote free TV" concept is a primary reason – or even a secondary – reason for what success the show has had, it is a comforting stand down from the incessant expansion of commercial time into actual story (not to mention time for an actual theme song). It's something that people always say they want but is it something that they'll actually support now that they get it.

FOX has had a promising but less than stellar first half of the season. The loss of the two Wednesday sitcoms left the network without a live action comedy half hour. In truth it sometimes seems as if the people producing comedies for FOX are reaching for the lowest common denominator in their shows at a time when other networks are aiming a little higher in terms of concept and quality of humour (the return of According To Jim notwithstanding). A show like Do Not Disturb had the potential to be so much better if the producers had gone with a different approach to the situation and to the humour. But that, it seems, isn't the "FOX way."

This was the visible problem. The less obvious problem was the ratings of some of their other shows. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Prison Break were consistently fourth in their time slots at between 5.5 million and 6 million viewers and weakness in the 18-49 demographic. And yet these two shows represent one aspect that seems to be new to FOX either since the Writers Strike or since the arrival of Kevin Reilly as head of programming at the network; an attitude of patience and allowing a show time to either find its audience or prove that it is a failure. In the case of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles in particular, the show will be getting a full second season even if it is relocated to Friday night. Another problem that FOX doesn't talk too much about is the situation on Thursday nights. The original plan appears to have been to run the Japanese style game show Hole In The Wall in the first hour to be followed with an episode of the Gordon Ramsay series Kitchen Nightmares. However Hole In The Wall turned into a hole in the ratings and was quickly ushered out of the time slot to be replaced by a second repeat episode of Kitchen Nightmares. And yet Hole In The Wall will return to the FOX line-up once the NFL season ends.

So what are FOX's prospects for the remainder of the season? The combination of House and 24 should be very strong for FOX on Monday nights which would seem to be turning into a very competitive night (not for me though, what with bowling and all). The network may well penetrate the top three with this combination, although I'm prepared to argue that another cycle of ABC's Dancing With The Stars combined with the CBS comedies will keep the shows from making it into the top two. And even though it's been flagging I wouldn't expect American Idol to fall out of the top two on Tuesday night and I'd be so bold (and wise – when I predict something I like to know it's a sure thing before I predict it) as to suggest that American Idol will have no trouble winning the Wednesday first hour and give a good boost for Lie To Me, unfortunately probably to third place where it will knock out my beloved Life.
Bones should do well in the first hour of Thursday, at least until the new season of Survivor cuts in, but I doubt it will help Hell's Kitchen too much. As for Hole In The Wall coming in to replace the Football overrun opposite 60 Minutes and America's Funniest Home Videos...or even the CW's reruns of Jericho it has to be the most absurd thing I've heard of in a while. It's only going to last as long as it takes someone to actually see ratings for it.

That leaves us with Friday night and the much anticipated Dollhouse. For a die hard "Whedon-ista" like me this whole business of Joss taking another show to Fox is worrisome and to have that show wind up in the so-called "Friday Night death slot" makes it even worse. I'm sure that there are people out there right now getting ready to send dolls (or maybe doll heads) to the Fox offices to protest the cancellation of the show even though it hasn't aired yet. Visions of Firefly dance in our heads, and taken in the context of what happened to Firefly that is not a good thing. The show's lead-in, the less than spectacular performing Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, doesn't exactly fill us with confidence either. And yet I'm going to present a couple of reasons why I expect the show to do "well enough" to survive. By "well enough" I mean probably a second place finish in the ratings. The first of these reasons is that Joss feels confident with the current management at FOX – Whedon has said something to the effect that "these guys" aren't the same ones that interfered with and then cancelled Firefly (I just wish I could find the exact quote). By these guys Whedon was primarily referring to Kevin Reilly. And when you remember that Reilly is the guy who carried Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip for a full season, renewed Friday Night Lights for its second season despite the ratings, and stood up for 30 Rock, Whedon's confidence starts to make sense. As for putting the show in the "Friday night death slot" I'm going to suggest a look at the competition. CBS has Flashpoint which was a big success during the summer and will probably win the time slot, but what are ABC and NBC putting on in the second hour of Friday? Well, from ABC we get Supernanny which does badly in both the ratings and the demographics. As for NBC, they'll be running thirteen episodes of Friday Night Lights. As much as I love the show I can't see this doing well, given its performance last season and the fact that the thirteen episodes have already been available on the satellite service DirectTV (and not done very well). The net result is, I suspect (or at least hope), a second place performance for Dollhouse, always assuming of course that the show is at least halfway decent. Unless the show is really really bad, I don't think that we'll see the sort of quick cancellation that has made FOX infamous

While I don't think that FOX will perform as well as CBS for the remainder of the season, the network does have a stable and successful line-up on most nights that should see the network doing very well indeed.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Pokerstars Blogger Tournament

For those of you interested in my poker prowess, after qualifying on Friday in the "8 Game" tournament (eight games played in rotation) I faced off today against 368 other opponents. I finished 24th and won a $215 tournament entry. This by the way is the biggest thing I've ever won playing poker.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Happy Fringemas!

A little promotional piece from FOX and the producers of Fringe with a Yuletide-y theme. Not that I'd normally post it, but (1) I like Fringe and (2) I think it's sort of clever. Not that I'd expect anything less from them.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

AFI’s TV Awards

Every year the American Film Institute honours ten movies and ten TV shows (either series, miniseries or made-for-TV movies) as the best of the year. These are selected by a distinguished jury which this year consisted of (for movies) Leonard Maltin, Jeanine Bassinger, Mary Corey, Mark Harris, Jim Hosney, Rick Jewell, Elvis Mitchell, Daniel Petrie Jr., Tom Pollock, Richard Schickel, Vivian Sobchak, Anne Thompson, and Robert Towne; and (for television) Richard Frank, Neal Baer, John Caldwell, Jean Picker Firstenberg, Mary McNamara, Kathleen Nolan, James Poniewozik, Del Reisman, Matt Roush, Ellen Seiter, John Shaffner, Beretta E. Smith-Shomade, Tony To. The criteria for the television awards are as follows:


Narrative fiction format, originated for television as either a series, movie or mini-series.


English language programs with significant creative and/or production elements from the United States.


First-run programs airing for American audiences on network or cable television between January 1, 2008, and December 31, 2008. Only programs broadcast Monday through Saturday, between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern/Pacific, and Sundays, between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern/Pacific, are eligible.

The Television winners are:

Breaking Bad (AMC)

In Treatment (HBO)

John Adams (HBO)

Life (NBC)

Lost (ABC)

Mad Men (AMC)

The Office (NBC)

Recount (HBO)

The Shield (FX)

The Wire (HBO)

In terms of comments, I would suggest that this is a very worthy list even though I have to confess that I've only seen a handful of the shows on it. The four HBO series were only ever available on premium movie channels that I don't subscribe to, while I am unsure of the status of The Shield in Canada although for at least a while it played on one of the broadcast networks here. I never made the effort to try to watch Breaking Bad as the concept didn't really attract me. I have only very rarely watched The Office, and I confess that I gave up on Lost sometime during the third season. The list does include two of my favourite shows. AMC's Mad Men is a pitch perfect presentation of a time, a place, and an attitude that I find absolutely riveting. NBC's Life is a show that is criminally underwatched largely because it has as a lead-in a show that does little to deliver it an audience (as proven by the show's performance out of the Christmas In Rockefeller Center special. Life is a show built around a quirky character and a complex unravelling situation. These two shows are clearly deserving of this award.

The following is a series of clips from the ten award winning movies and TV series prepared by the AFI.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Reflections On The Midseason - CBS

With all five of the American broadcast networks having announced their midseason schedules I thought it was a pretty good opportunity to look at the shows that are been replaced and the shows that replacing them and at the general successes and failures of the networks. And I decided that I might as well start with CBS.

Cancelled: The Ex-List

Episodes Ordered: Eleventh Hour (18 episodes), The Mentalist, Gary Unmarried, Worst Week (16 episodes)

New Shows: Flashpoint (Friday, second hour), Harper's Island (Thursday, third hour once the run of Eleventh Hour concludes), Game Show In My Head (Saturday first hour).

Flashpoint isn't really a new show. This is the second season of the Canadian made police series that debuted this past summer, and did very well in the ratings. The show stars Enrico Colantoni, Hugh Dillon, Amy Jo Johnson, David Paetkau and deals with the situations faced by the "Strategic Response Unit" of a major – if unnamed – Canadian city, presumed to be Toronto. Returns January 9, 2009 (replacing The Ex-List).

Game Show In My Head is a hidden camera game show from Ashton Kutcher, hosted by Joe Rogan. Contestants perform five stunts for the public for $5,000 each, before a bonus round in which they can double their money up to $50,000. Based on the Saturday time slot and the decision to show episodes back to back, it's likely that this show is being burned off. Starts January 3, 2009.

Harper's Island is described as a 13 episode "mystery event" (the sort of thing that back in the day we used to call a mini-series) dealing with a series of murders of people attending a "destination wedding" on an isolated island off the coast of Seattle. The show is described as "Scream meets 10 Little Indians" and stars Harry Hamlin, Adam Campbell, Elaine Cassidy, Katie Cassidy, Richard Burgi and Jim Beaver (who is well known to those of us who hung out at the rec.movies.past-films newsgroup). Debuts April 9, 2009.

Commentary: If I were CBS President Les Moonves I'd have a huge grin plastered on my face and only part of it would be because I'd be sleeping with Connie Chung Julie Chen. Of course I'm not Les Moonves (and not sleeping with Connie Chung Julie Chen dammit), but I think you get my point. While CBS's line-up is hardly flashy or innovative, the facts speak for themselves. Of five new series that debuted in September for CBS only one has been cancelled is The Ex-List which lost between 30% and 40% of Ghost Whisperer. Even at that it finished second in its time slot in its third and final outing, and would probably have won the time slot had it stayed there. And yet what happened on Friday nights once The Ex-List was removed from the line-up is illustrative of the strength of the CBS line-up. The final episode of The Ex-List had an audience of 5.33 million viewers and a rating in the 18-49 demographic of 1.5/5. In the weeks that followed CBS aired two repeats of NCIS (11.21 million, 2.3/8 in the demographic in the first week; 11.26 million, 2.4/7 in the second week), a Price Is Right: Salute To The Troops special (7.31 million, 1.7/5), a repeat of The Mentalist (11.62 million, 2.4/7), a second – repeat – episode of Ghost Whisperer (5.97 million, 1.5/4), and a repeat of Numb3rs (8.45 million 1.9/6). What this seems to illustrate is that CBS has a line-up of dramas that can readily be repeated and can draw an audience when they're being repeated. I think it can be argued that having a show on in the same place every week, regardless of whether the episodes are new or repeats, is a way to build win fan loyalty. If nothing else, in this rocky economy it is one way of keeping costs at an acceptable level. Instead of creating new shows (that almost inevitably fail) to fill hiatuses in the long dark periods between sweeps periods, it has to be cheaper to run repeats, and if those episodes come from a previous year or two and thus aren't fresh in people's memory, well so much the better.

Moonves isn't doing badly in the comedy business either. Of the four half hour comedies on Monday night, about the only weak spot – and in this case weak is relative – is Worst Week. Worst Week manages to pull 10.6 million viewers (first place) and a rating of 3.5/8 in the 18-49 demographic this past Monday against the first half of the Boston Legal finale, Heroes (which barely won the demographic), Privileged and Prison Break. In just about every other time slot and by any other network that would be regarded as a strong performance, but Worst Week follows Two And A Half Men (15.65 million viewers, 5.2/13 in the demographic) meaning that Worst Week is losing about a third of the earlier show's audience. But while most networks seem to have trouble carving out one night with comedies – or even one successful comedy – CBS has made a bridgehead on a second night with the Wednesday night combo of the veteran New Adventures Of Old Christine and rookie Gary Unmarried. They aren't winning the night but they are pulling solid second place ratings against the time slot winner, FOX's Bones (and this is in spite of me panning Gary Unmarried – so much for the "power" of internet critics!). Net result is the cancellation of ABC's Pushing Daisies and a cut in the order for Knight Rider from twenty-two to seventeen episodes.

And as far as Reality shows go, sure they've had more than their share of summer misfires over the past few seasons, but they've still got Survivor and The Amazing Race performing well, an d in the case of the latter likely to perform better once NBC's Sunday Night Football is out of the way.

Of course Moonves has worries – probably. There has to be some concern about how the audience will react to William Petersen's imminent departure from CSI and there has to be some concern over audience erosion from established shows. Indeed there has to be some concern over what will replace some of the established shows. CSI is in its ninth season, Without A Trace is in its seventh season, as is CSI: Miami. NCIS and Cold Case have both been on for six seasons. Relatively speaking Criminal Minds is something of a "baby" on CBS, having only been on for four seasons. Inevitably, and more likely sooner rather than later for some of these shows, an end will come – not necessarily because of bad ratings but because the "important" people on the show decide it is time to move on, or because someone at the network decides that it isn't cost effective for them to keep the show on the air even though it's not only holding its own in the ratings but may even be winning its time slot. The question of whether or not to be innovative, or indeed whether or not the network can afford to take the risk of being innovative. Or whether, as Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune said on Aaron Barnhart's TV Barn podcast, "In response to all the crisises that we were just talking about... [indistinct] they're just going to batten down the hatch and make nine different Mentalists." Does CBS replace a CSI (for example) with an innovative show that pushes the envelope a bit or does the network stick with what has made them a success. Of course that's for the future. For right now of all the networks, CBS is sitting prettiest.

Monday, December 08, 2008

PokerStars World Blogger Championship of Online Poker

Online Poker

I have registered to play in the PokerStars World Blogger Championship of Online Poker!

The WBCOOP is an online Poker tournament open to all Bloggers.

Registration code: 377400

The Doctor And His Companion

No, not that one, but as you'll see the comparison is probably more than a little apt.

I've been meaning to review Eleventh Hour practically since it began, but there have been problems. For reasons not related to the show – at least I don't think they were related to the show – I had a tendency to fall asleep during the episodes. Fairly quickly during the episodes as a matter of fact. This obviously constitutes a violation of my first rule of reviewing: "don't review a show that you haven't seen in its entirety". The repeated nature of it bothered me too; it made me wonder if I should add a fourth rule of reviewing (the other two being "don't review a show when you have a raging headache," and "don't give a good review to any show that gives you a raging headache"). The new rule would be something like "don't give a good review to a show that consistently puts you to sleep – it's obviously boring... or on too late for most folks." Fortunately, of late, I've managed to stay awake for the whole show, and while I can't say that it's the best thing out there I have to say that I'm really coming to like it a lot. It's not without its faults but there's something about it that grows on me.

Dr. Jacob Hood (Rufus Sewell) is the special scientific advisor to the FBI, a biophysicist with what is obviously an intense interest in scientific ethics. Because his work has made him some dangerous connections FBI Special Agent Rachel Young (Marley Shelton) of the Bureau's executive protection detail has been assigned to both protect him and smooth his path with local law enforcement agencies. Hood is sent out to deal with science based mysteries.

TV critics – both professional and amateur – have a tendency to try to find something to compare shows too. When Bones first appeared with its non-scientist FBI agent and his science expert partner, the immediate comparison was made to The X-Files. Actually a lot of shows get compared to The X-Files. In fact Fringe was compared to The X-Files without anyone actually seeing the series. In that case at least the comparison was at least slightly valid; the scientific mysteries that Fringe deals with are the sort of things that Fox Mulder would believe in and would be perfect grist for the X-Files writers. However, the fact that the characters and the circumstances in which they come together and operate in are entirely different from The X-Files, is what makes Fringe totally different from The X-Files. Agent Dunham is not an unbeliever, and her group are not outsiders. Yes there is a conspiracy – actually it seems like more than one (and after the most recent episode I'm not sure if what seems to be the main conspiracy are good guys, bad guys, or – and I think this is both the most intriguing element and the most likely case – bad guys who are less bad than the other bad guys) – but the nature of the conspiracy(ies) has been clear from the beginning even if the aims are not, for now, completely obvious. And of course The X-Files never had a character quite like Walter Bishop.

I bring this up because Eleventh Hour gets compared to another show too. That show is Fringe, which I find rather bizarre for a number of reasons. For one thing Eleventh Hour is based on a British series that predates Fringe. The characters of the principal protagonists – Hood and Young vs. Walter Bishop and Dunham – are light years apart. The big difference though is that while both shows deal with "scientific mysteries" the cases that appear on Fringe are science fiction, pushing well beyond the realms of possibility now and in any foreseeable future. The mysteries in Eleventh Hour are eminently believable, with science that is either current or being talked about with more than a little real scientific validity. In fact the Biotechnology Industry Organization has started a blog called Eleventh Hour Facts
to discuss issues related to each episode of the show. It is perhaps that aspect – the idea that the cases that Jacob Hood investigates could be taking place right now – that makes Eleventh Hour both fascinating and maybe a bit frightening.

I the episode on Thursday night (which I'm just getting around to reviewing now thanks to painting a bedroom) a young woman dies of the bends... aboard an airplane at 30,000 feet! What's more, she's not the first person from her college to die of the same problem. And though the bends are inevitably associated with scuba divers, not only have the students who developed the bends not been scuba diving, the go to college in Tulsa! Hood and Rachel go to Tulsa to find out what's going on and quickly determine that it is physical exertion that triggered the bends. The girl on the plane had just finished joining the "Mile High Club" with her boyfriend before she died, while the other student who died from the bends just finished moving to a new apartment. Hood initially thinks that the deaths are being caused by a new designer drug that the couple on the plane had taken, which supposedly led to "great sex." The drug turned out to be a sugar pill. Something else is the cause of the situation.

What that something else is appears to become clear when a third person suffers the bends. He's a young engineering student who is out running with his older brother, the school's top football star who is leading the team to the Cotton Bowl for the first time ever. When Jacob and Rachel get the report of the new case of the bends they are able to order a decompression chamber from the nearest Coast Guard station. The problem is that although the chamber temporarily stops the production of nitrogen bubbles within the blood stream, unlike normal cases of the bends they can't gradually reduce the pressure. In fact after a time at a specific "depth" the production of nitric oxide recommences and he has to be taken deeper to stop it again. Unfortunately there is a limit to the amount of pressure the human body can withstand.

Once the "great sex" pill has been eliminated from consideration as a cause for the bends, Hood turns to other possible situations that all three patients have been exposed to. The one thing they had in common was that all three had flu shots recently and they start to think about possibly tainted flu shots. And yet none of the vaccine samples they are able to test is abnormal and no other students are suffering the bends. This leads Hood to look at the specific qualities of the gas bubbles in the blood stream. It turns out that the bubbles aren't the normal nitrogen as is normally found in cases of the bends but rather nitric oxide (NO) a compound which is used in the body as a "signalling molecule." In this case molecule serves as a vasodilator which leads to increased blood flow (it's part of what Viagra does, specifically focused on the penis). This discovery, along with the flu shot and an examination of the blood of the girl in the plane leads Hood and the college's leading geneticist to discover that the three people who suffered from the bends have a virus which is carrying a gene that leads to extreme production of nitric oxide. However the gene is poorly designed and once started (by production of lactic acid due to physical exertion) doesn't have an "off switch." And it turns out that all three of the people who have the bends are the siblings of top athletes at the school – the sister of the girl on the plane was an Olympic calibre diver until she was caught in a doping scandal. Two other students, one of whom worked as a volunteer during the flu vaccinations and another who works as a trainer for the athletic department, are responsible for creating the gene and testing it on the siblings of the leading athletes on campus. When the diver, filled with remorse over the death of her sister, threatens to reveal all of the details she is threatened by them. She then composes an email to someone (I didn't catch the name on the "To" line but I think it was the campus newspaper) but it is intercepted and deleted by the more dominant of the two students behind the plot. The diver commits suicide by doing a high dive into an empty pool. While Hood works with the school's geneticist to come up with a solution to the genetic problem – they eventually design their own gene which will counteract the effects of the original genetic modification – Rachel and college's head of security (a former FBI agent with whom Rachel shares a definite attraction) manage to track down first the guy who gave the flu shots to the siblings and then the one who was with the athletic department. Rachel finds out that he had injected the football player before they found out about the problems with the gene. Hood and Rachel manage to get to him just before the start of a football game and stop him from playing. Eventually they manage to cure both the football player and his engineering student brother, to the point where the football player will probably be able to compete again.

Key to this series is the relationship between Jacob Hood and Rachel Young. It has to be since they are the only two characters who are constants in the series. When I titled this post The Doctor And His Companion and then added "No, not that one..." the reference was quite deliberately to Doctor Who. One of my brother's girlfriends – it may even have been my ex-sister-in-law – once asked me what the purpose of the Doctor's companions was. My response was that their purpose was to be threatened by the menace of the serial, and to allow the Doctor to explain things to someone which brings the audience up to speed on the situation. Like Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, the Doctor's companions are a surrogate for the audience. In some cases Doctor Who companions also had a third role. Sometimes a companion would do physical things. That was particularly true during William Hartnell's period in the role and to a lesser extent in Patrick Troughton's. Hartnell was playing a version of the Doctor who was elderly (and his own health wasn't particularly robust), so the physical action was usually taken on by a younger male companion (Ian, Steven, Ben). I bring this up because Rachel's relationship with Hood fulfills two of these three "purposes;" she is our surrogate, the individual of essentially average knowledge that Hood has to explain the science to in a manner that we can understand, and she is the one who does things that her "Doctor" can't do – everything from chasing down a suspect to getting subpoenas, to invoking the Patriot Act to get information. (And yes, in one episode involving a possible Smallpox release, Rachel was under threat from the episode's "menace." It turned out that what she had been infected with was Chicken Pox.)

Inevitably there are potential questions of sexual tension in show like this. The writers and producers seem ambivalent about this potential. Initially (like in the first episode aired) the relationship between Hood and Rachel seemed to border on the adversarial – she ordered him to keep his panic button with him at all times, leading to a funny scene when it went off while she was in her underwear and she raced to him in a terry cloth robe – it turns out he sat on the panic button when he went to the bar for a drink. Subsequent episodes have made the relationship increasingly more playful. At one point when he liberates some macadamia nuts to illustrate something he discovered she says "minibar – expensive!" In the most recent episode she was with Hood at his nephew's birthday party and was so integrated and comfortable in this situation that she bought the boy a present (a football). Hood's sister even suggests that maybe her brother, who lost his wife to cancer several years ago, might consider a relationship with Rachel. Hood, it seems, has never considered the possibility. We're less sure about Rachel though. She seems rather protective when other women seem to be making approaches to him, giving "the look" when someone suggests possibly hooking up with him. At the same time any true sexual tension seems to be buried. Certainly Rachel seems extremely interested getting together with the former FBI agent who is now the college head of security in the most recent episode, and only the urgency of the case and the need to stick with Hood keeps her from doing something about it. To be sure the sexual tension between Hood and Rachel is far more hidden than the tension between Patrick Jane and Teresa Lisbon on The Mentalist.

Looking at this series with a fairly critical eye, I have to say that it must be described as a typical CBS series. It's very workmanlike and like shows such as Numb3rs and The Mentalist it has at its heart a criminal investigator who comes from a field that you would normally not think of. The shows themselves are very self-contained and like most of the CBS series Eleventh Hour is eminently repeatable. No one is breaking any new ground with this show, and this is doubly true since this show was based on a British series. Rufus Sewell as Hood is quite watchable and does well as the brilliant and just slightly arrogant scientist. Still it isn't a role that particularly stretches his acting muscles (beyond trying to suppress his normal British accent of course). Marley Shelton is probably more interesting for me, but maybe that's because she's a very attractive woman whose character tries desperately to maintain a business like air. Most of the time when we see her she's wearing her hair up in some way. The character is all business when she's working and we only rarely see her in a relaxed situation, when she literally lets her hair down.

I wanted to spend a little time dealing with the writing for the series. As I say it is not something that attempts to break new ground. At the same time the notion of dealing with scientific mysteries – not really crimes in most cases although deaths do often result – is an interesting one. These aren't the conventional subject for a television mystery, which inevitably deal with a deliberate murder and solving that sort of crime. Eleventh Hour has deaths but in most cases they are the result of a cavalier disregard for ethical treatment of scientific discovery. In the most recent episode (the one with the "gene doping") the "villains" don't set out to kill anyone but deaths result because they feel it is perfectly acceptable to test their "discovery" on people. You see the same thing in other episodes, where scientists or companies use science in a cavalier manner and take the attitude that the ends justify the means. The issue, that science is usually neither good nor bad but is used by people for good or bad ends, is a frequent theme in the series. More than in just about any of the CBS crime dramas questions of responsibility and ethics are an underlying but ever-present aspect of this series.

Eleventh Hour is a series that I find to be increasingly interesting as the show has developed, and it's not really because of the mysteries or the evolution of the characters. I suppose this might be something of an "old guy" thing on my part but I'm finding this series to be easy to watch because it isn't pushing the envelope. And in a way I find that vaguely disturbing. Pushing the envelope is how you get the innovative shows that in eight years are going to be what everybody is doing today. It's hard to remember after all that there was a time that CSI pushed the envelope; people, we were assured by TV Guide (at least in Canada), might be leery about watching scientists solving crimes. It was too smart. And yet the fact is that the innovative shows over the past few years that have been pushing the envelope haven't been pulling an audience – at least not the size or sort of audience that the corporate masters of the TV networks (and the companies that buy advertising from them) want them to produce. And when we come down to that, maybe there's something to be said for playing it safe and producing shows that aren't innovative that draw audiences. Whatever the reason, I find that Eleventh Hour keeps pulling me back in spite of its limitations.