Saturday, June 17, 2006

Short Takes - June 17, 2006

I really need to get back into the swing of writing for this, and this Short Takes piece is going to be a starting point. A couple of things have been keeping me from this - one has been the World Cup, which is ongoing, while the other is that on June 9 I had my dog put to sleep. She was 15 and had a lot of things wrong with her but I really miss her. Anyway...

Rose Leaves Doctor Who: I can't say I'm surprised, and certainly I'm considerably less surprised than a lot of people who have written on the subject. I don't recall what the average duration of a companion on the old show was but two full seasons was most unusual. I think the only ones who lasted much beyond two years were the Second Doctor's companion Jamie McCrimmon (Fraser Hines), Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) who bridged the Third and Fourth Doctors, and Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) who was in the last Tom Baker serial and then appeared in all but the last two of Peter Davidson's run as the Fifth Doctor. In fact as I understand it John Nathan Turner (who was the long time - perhaps too long - producer) didn't want companions to be on the show for more than a year. I suppose that the reason for the surprise about Billie Piper leaving the series is that the current run of Doctor Who has very much been about the partnership of Rose and The Doctor rather than having The Doctor as the primary character and the companion as the "designated screamer" and reason for story exposition.

Couric on the news pays: Pays her salary that is. According to Advertising Age Katie Couric's salary will pretty much be paid for by increased advertising on the CBS Evening News. According to Les Moonves "Katie probably paid for herself in the first week of our upfront. We brought in about $15 million more for the 'Early Evening News' in the first week." That just happens to be the amount of Couric's salary. So much for needing "gravitas", although I still think people would take her more seriously if she went by the name "Katherine Couric."

One stays, one goes: Apparently it is now all but official - Dan Rather will be leaving CBS after 44 years, during which he reported on hurricanes, the assassination of a president, Watergate, trekked into the mountains of Afghanistan right after the Soviet invasion, faced down Chinese government officials to keep the CBS news feed active as long as possible at the time of Tiananmen Square, and covered elections in his own inimitable style. I think it will be the elections that I'll miss him most on - somewhere along the line he'd suddenly go all East Texas on you with expressions that no one could possible script, like "If a frog had pockets, he'd carry a handgun!" Who but Rather could come up with something like that

Meanwhile, longtime 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley is reported to have signed a new contract to remain on the show after a number of weeks of arguing over money to the point that Bradley essentially went on strike.

Indecent in several ways: Two items on indecency. First we have President Bush signing into law a bill that will increase the maximum fines from the current $32,500 to $325,000 per incident if "obscene material or indecent material broadcast between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m." Indecency is defined as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities." According to Bush "This law will ensure that broadcasters take seriously their duty to keep the public airwaves free of obscene, profane and indecent material."

In the other item, CBS is appealing the fine that they received from the FCC related to the episode of Without A Trace depicting a teen orgy because the people who emailed in the complaint didn't actually see the show according to Media Week. The FCC fined 103 CBS affiliates in the Central and Mountain time zones the then maximum $32,500 fine for airing "indecent material". According to the CBS filing all 4,211 e-mail complaints came from websites operated by the Parent's Television Council and the American Family Association, and only two of the e-mails claimed to have watched the program - or more accuartely a "brief, out-of-context segment” which had been posted at the PTC website. Even more suspiciously no e-mail complaints were received by the FCC until January 12, 2005 - the day that the PTC posted their alert on their website - despite the fact that the show that aired on December 31, 2004 was a repeat of an episode that aired on November 6, 2003. The CBS filing points out that to be valid, complaints must come from an actual viewer in the service area of the station at issue, the filing said. The CBS stations stated the obvious when they said that “The e-mails were submitted … because advocacy groups hoping to influence television content generally exhorted them to contact the commission.” For his part PTC president Brent Bozell stated “Every complaint filed comes from a United States citizen who, last I heard, had the constitutional privilege to petition his government. Rather than these stupid legal maneuvers, CBS and Viacom should spend time pondering why it’s wrong to broadcast scenes of teen orgies in front of millions of children.”

I have a couple of problems here. First of all the increased level of fines is a punitive action and is undoubtedly a move to shore up support from the social conservative wing of the Republican party before the Congressional elections. Presumably these are people who will vote for the Republicans based entirely on their willingness to bash Hollywood and take "moral" stands despite the economy, the war and a ton of other issues that most people would regard as more important. On the other hand CBS's filing on this issue, while I think it has considerable merit based on the evidence presented (and the total number of complaints is based on material CBS obtained from the FCC under the Freedom Of Information Act despite Bozell's complaints that the number was too low) it doesn't really argue the merits of the case. There are problems with the definition of indecency which is far more open to interpretation than the FCC seems to believe. There are problems with the ability of the Commission to require that fines be paid based on a loop hole; the fact that the third hour of the prime time period is from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. in about half the United States and between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. in the other half. This sort of dichotomy means that the networks have to pander to groups like the PTC in producing programs for their networks because they have to produce programs "suitable" for the Central and Mountain time zones. As much as CBS is trying legal maneuvers to block these fines, between 2003 and 2005 the PTC probably had a sharp lawyer point out that there was a way for them to control television content for all people not just for children.

And now for something completely different: Although I have a suspicion that some of the stuff that John Cleese and the Monty Python troop were able to get away with in Britain could have come close to an FCC fine. Sadly it seems that Cleese will be retiring from performing, although it's not absolutely clear if it is total retirement or just from writing and performing in sitcoms. The BBC News article announcing his retirement only mentions sitcoms, but a profile article that accompanied the piece indicated that he is giving up writing and performing entirely. Cleese intends to write a book on the history of comedy and become a "comedy professor" to ground younger talent in the "rules of the game." In his opinion too much TV comedy is "poorly written and aimed at US teenagers." (Personally I think he's giving it too much credit.) According to Cleese "It is very rare today to see someone with that grasp of old-fashioned comedy. The last truly excellent performance I saw was Eddie Izzard. But Ricky Gervais is also a match for the great American sitcoms." He'll be missed, but if a future generation of comedy writers and performers learns from him it won't be a total loss.

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