Monday, April 30, 2007

Short Takes – April 30, 2007

Last week I had planned on writing one of these Short Takes pieces, in part because the PTC's "Worst show of the week" article on 24 last week tossed in a reference to the Virginia Tech shootings that was at once so self-serving, and so incidental to the piece that it was almost a non sequitur that I was livid. Then I remembered the old advice to newsgroup writers about posting when you're angry and decided not to write about it. The problem is that this is so typical of the PTC's behaviour that expecting them not to mention it would have been like expecting the scorpion not to sting the frog. The problem for me was that they didn't address the issue head on with facts and figures or even anecdotal evidence. Instead they just tacked a sentence – "In light of the tragic events at Virginia Tech, it is deplorable that young people with impressionable minds could view such programming and fantasize about the use of weaponry in such a violent manner" – onto a piece that had been written before the events at Virginia Tech occurred about something that had absolutely no connection with those events.

Now let's go on to current events.

Another Tim Minear series bites the dust: I swear I don't know why Tim Minear or any of the Buffy/Angel team keeps working for Fox. Or at least keeps doing shows for the FOX Television Network. Consider his record. The first series he did as a producer was the syndicated High Tide: it ran three years. Next was Strange World which ran 13 episodes on Sci-Fi. Then came Angel, which was on The WB for five seasons. Then came the series that he did for FOX: Firefly (14 episodes aired – eventually), Wonderfalls (14 episodes shot, 4 aired), The Inside (14 episodes shot, 7 aired), Standoff (consulting producer on 4 episodes). To that you can add Drive – 6 episodes shot, 4 aired.

I haven't seen Drive. I swear I was going to review it but forgot to turn on the VCR for the two hour premiere, did tape the third episode (on my bowling night so I couldn't see it live). I wasn't sure I could get into the show without having seen the first two episodes (the premiere) and after I saw the ratings for Monday's show on the Programming Insider section of the Media Week website I pretty much knew that this series was drawing dead as we say in Poker. I still have what turned out to be the last two episodes on tape and I may actually watch them to see if the show was worth saving. It seems at times as though Miner creates shows just so Fox can cancel them. I didn't see Wonderfalls and I wasn't impressed with a non-Miner episode of Standoff but I was a big fan of Firefly (it's one of the few series I own on DVD) and was quite impressed with the interplay of characters on The Inside – a series that Fox brought Miner in to salvage.

The cancellation of Drive seems to be symptomatic of this entire television season on all networks, not just FOX. According to Ed Bark, Drive is the ninth series this season to be cancelled after five episodes or less (he counts Celebrity Duets as a tenth show but it was meant to only go five episodes). In addition he lists eight other shows that got at least six episodes before being pulled. Of the 17 shows he mentions in his article five were on Fox – six if you count Celebrity Duets – and five on ABC. NBC had three, CBS had two and The CW one. Eight of the 17 could be described as serials or shows with a heavy reliance on continuity. The whole thing has reached a certain level of self fulfilling prophecy from a viewer's standpoint. Some people are taping or TiVoing shows for fear of getting involved in something that will get cancelled – they'll catch up with the show if it stays in the line-up – but even with the new Nielsen ratings system which counts recorded shows if they are watched within a week of being recorded, the fact that they are waiting to see if the show becomes successful enough to stay on the schedule for as long as 13 weeks means reduced viewership (lower ratings) which means that cancellation is more likely. In other words "I won't watch it now in case it gets cancelled, but it gets cancelled because people aren't watching it." It seems to be a vicious circle.

Alec Baldwin wants to leave 30 Rock: Baldwin announced that he wanted to get out of his contract on NBC's 30 Rock shortly after the infamous voicemail message to his daughter. His stated reason is that "he does not want to bring bad press to the show." NBC has rejected the request, which is probably best for all involved. My feeling is that after a certain amount of time for the controversy to cool off he would have regretted taking this sort of action at the spur of the moment. His comments in the voicemail to his daughter were harsh but everyone has had moments like this caused by anger and frustration; his just "happened" to be made public. My real anger isn't with him it is with whoever leaked this to the media. Given the bitterness of his custody battle with ex-wife Kim Bassinger it isn't hard to think of who that might have been.

Rosie O'Donnell is leaving The View: Rosie is one of those people who polarize opinion. Some people love her, other people loath her. Last week Rosie announced that she would not be returning to The View once her current contract ends. Donald Trump immediately told everyone who could be bothered to listen – which was surprisingly more people than just his four children and his Melanija – that Barbara Walters had finally wised up and fired the "fat slob" (Trump had called her that when their original feud broke out). Apparently the truth was far more business related, and concerned the length of her contract with the show's producers ABC. Rosie wanted a one year contract, which would give her greater flexibility, while ABC wanted her to sign a three year contract. In other words, contrary to what "The Donald" believed, ABC (and presumably Barbara Walters) wanted her to stay on the show and for a longer period of time than Rosie herself was willing to commit to. It's no secret why ABC wanted Rosie to stay on the show – ratings for The View have increased significantly since O'Donnell replaced Meredith Viera.

Who does the PTC hate this week?: Oh it's a long and distinguished list of both likes and dislikes. Let's start with the likes.

First there's the National Religious Broadcasters for coming around to support the concept of cable choice "the only way to enable them to be truly in control of the television content coming into their homes." They also cite support from something called the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation. I had to look that one up but it's about what you think it is. According to their own description the Foundation is a Conservative think tank but a socially conservative think tank: "Most think tanks talk about tax rates or the environment or welfare policy and occasionally we do also. But our main focus is on the Culture War. Will America return to the culture that made it great, our traditional, Judeo-Christian, Western culture? Or will we continue the long slide into the cultural and moral decay of political correctness? If we do, America, once the greatest nation on earth, will become no less than a third world country." As for the NRB, Chris Hedges, writing in Harper's Magazine on May 30, 2005, described it as one of the leading groups of the Dominionist movement (defined by Wikipedia as "the notion that Christians owe it to God to exercise God's dominion in secular society is asserted, by means of '[taking] control of a sinful secular society.'") I'll leave those two except to say that "by their friends shall ye know them" (which is an overused quote but it fits). The PTC adds "Families should not be forced to subsidize cable networks that air indecent, profane or graphically violent material. Families are counting on religious broadcasters and other pro-family organizations to continue to lend support for cable choice." Somehow it seems more likely to me that many of the first cable channels cut will be the religious channels.

The PTC is also very happy about the FCC report on TV violence – although not enough to provide a link to the FCC report or even to quote from it. Mostly the PTC is too busy quoting itself:

  • The PTC found that violence on prime time broadcast television has increased 75% since 1998. The television season that began in the fall of 2005 was also one of the most violent ever recorded by the PTC.
  • Upon review of prime time broadcast programming from 1995 to 2001, the PTC found 110 scenes of torture. From 2002 to 2005, the number increased to 624 scenes of torture.
  • The TV ratings system is still not accurate, and thus grossly unreliable, due to the fact that content descriptors are being arbitrarily and inconsistently applied by the broadcast networks during prime time viewing hours. This means that parents cannot rely on blocking technology to protect their children from inappropriate content.

"We desperately hope that this report will achieve what has heretofore been fruitless: To motivate the industry to step up to the plate, take responsibility for its product, and fix a problem that it has not only created but perpetuated. And make no mistake about it: the industry has the ability to fix it. The question is whether it will do so." They then go off on a tangent on every issue that the PTC disagrees with the networks about from the "arbitrary, inaccurate, and entirely self-serving" rating system to the decision by the networks to file suit (actually I believe it's an appeal) in the Federal Court "to use the F-word in front of children."

On the other hand the PTC hates General Electric. It's ironic that the organization that wants to censor television programming itself is complaining about censorship. The PTC was engaged in one of its usual diatribes at the GE shareholder's meeting. PTC Director of Corporate and Government Affairs Don Isett was calling on GE, parent company of NBC, to "stop producing, promoting and broadcasting programs that contain some of the most graphic violence, excessive sexual content and foul language on television." A transcript of Isett's statement is found at the site linked. It began "I am here today because NBC consistently promotes and produces programming that contains graphic violence, excessive sexual content and foul language and we think this needs to stop – now." It includes references to the increase in violence (by 635% in the 10 p.m. hour between 1998 to 2005-06 – 2 incidents per hour in 1998, 15 in 2005-06), profanity (he cited the "dick in a box" sketch on SNL; the PTC applauds the bleeping of 16 uses of "a vulgar slang term for penis" but decries the decision of NBC to put the uncensored version onto its website), and NBC's assertion of its legal right to sue in federal court "demanding the right to air the F-word in front of children watching broadcast television." His statement was cut off after he delivered what reads to me like a concluding statement: "Chairman Immelt, GE can and should deliver the scale of a great company to solve big needs around the world and can act as a good citizen by making sure that its impact transcends the bottom line. Those words should sound familiar to you as they are the GE corporate policy on community. Please, now more than ever, NBC needs your help; the proud history of NBC demands no less."

Finally, the PTC's worst show of the week is the episode of Thank God You're Here featuring actress (and first rate Poker player) Shannon Elizabeth. The PTC starts by taking a shot at Shannon's career: "This week featured Shannon Elizabeth, best known for her role in the sex charged teen comedy movie American Pie. It can be argued that Ms. Elizabeth's career has been driven by her nude scene in American Pie and by her reputation for playing promiscuous women." Only then do they go onto the actual content of the show. She participated in two sketches, one solo and one with the other people on the episode, Tom Green, George Takei, and Chelsea Handler. The PTC seems most upset about her individual sketch in which she plays an advertising copywriter. "Traveling quickly down an improvisational road to indecency, Elizabeth pitches an idea for vodka for children. At the conclusion of her skit she is given a bottle of vodka, pepper, and a banana to show the client her new concept for how to drink the beverage. Elizabeth inserts the banana into the male client's mouth and proceeds to insert the other end in her mouth, blatantly mimicking oral sex." Let's start by mentioning that the idea of vodka for children was actually suggested by actors in the scene who are working from a script. The excerpt on the PTC's site (which is not available on Firefox) doesn't actually show the "infamous" banana scene (which "climaxes" – so to speak – when she bites the tip off the banana), but again it is the scripted actors who provide the banana prop. As for Shannon Elizabeth's other scene, the group scene features a Viking leader trying to select his successor. The PTC objects to the way that Shannon "proves" why she should replace the king. "Shannon Elizabeth wastes no time and simply begins kissing the king deeply as the crowd cheers. This sparks a kissing spree as Ms. Elizabeth proceeds to kiss the judge and other cast members. A kissing orgy erupts and the cast all begin kissing each other. The display clearly crossed the line of friendly affection and was absolutely a sexual spectacle. " They finish up with this claim "It should also be noted that the rating for his episode was a mere TV-PG, proving once again that the ratings system is a sham in its efforts to protect our children. For its irresponsible depiction of sexual promiscuity and heavy sexual innuendo, Thank God You're Here is our pick for Worst of the Week." Sexual innuendo I get based on the banana scene, but surely there have been worse depictions of sexual promiscuity. And remember the "PG" in TV-PG stands for "Parental Guidance." The blocking software allows parents to keep their kids from seeing any TV-PG show the rating of which implies that there is material that parents might not want their younger children seeing and which they should be diligent in watching with their children. If you object to something that you see in a show like this, change the channel or turn the damned TV off.

And just to give you a sense of what we're talking about, here in its entirety is the Viking Sketch from the April 18th episode of Thank God You're Here. I think it's funny.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Why You Aren’t Reading An Apprentice Recap

You may have noticed that while I continue to mention The Amazing Race at any opportunity I can manufacture to do so – like right now (how cool was that descent from the Macau Tower – and that's a commercial operation so that if you ever get to Macau you can have the thrill of jumping off a building without the sudden stop at the end just like the contestants on the show) – I haven't mentioned The Apprentice at all this season. There's a good reason for that: I haven't watched at all since about the fifth episode.

I do know why I stopped watching The Apprentice. It was, as you might expect, a combination of things. The transfer of the show from New York to Los Angeles was one thing. When you think of The Apprentice you think of Donald Trump and when you think of Donald Trump you think of New York (and maybe Atlantic City). But this time they weren't in the town so nice they named it twice, they were in Los Angeles, and I don't associate Trump with LaLa Land at all.

Another thing that the show did was to replace both of Trump's sidekicks. He had famously fired my lust object Caroline Kepcher (although she says she quit – either way it was quite abrupt) and started using his far less savvy (and far less attractive, but that's beside the point) spawn Ivanka as one of his "eyes and ears." Except Ivanka frequently wasn't there and was replaced variously by her brother Don Jr. (a chip off the old blockhead) and various winning candidates from previous seasons. Even worse was the decision not to have a second observer. Gone is Vice President and Senior Council George Ross, without replacement. Ivanka, or whoever was sitting in for her, would do all the observing and when it came time to advice Mr. Trump in the boardroom, the second chair would be filled by the project manager from the winning team. That gave the person the opportunity to kiss Trump's butt and undermine the opposition. I guess that's okay, but it still doesn't seem all that fair given that the winning project manager hasn't seen how the other team performed and doesn't bring the sort of business expertise to the table that a senior member of the Trump organization does.

Another major change was that winning Project Managers would continue in that role until their team was defeated. It sounds like a reward for being a successful PM, but there are several faults in the concept. The biggest of these is that if The Apprentice is nominally about seeing which candidate is suited to running a project for one of Trump's companies, it is fairly important to see how the candidates will perform in a leadership position. Having one person stay as Project Manager as long as there team wins means that fewer candidates on a team that wins repeatedly – as happened in this season – will have their leadership capabilities shown. In fact, of the final four candidates, one had been project manager three times and had a 2-1 record as PM, two had one loss as project managers (and that happened in the first two episodes), and one – Stefani Schaeffer – had no experience as a Project Manager at all – and she was the eventual winner! Meanwhile Heidi, the person with the greatest success as a Project Manager (three wins, one loss) didn't make it to the Final Four. Her record obviously doesn't make her the best candidate any more than Stefani's lack of a record meant that she is a poor leader. What it does mean is that we, and Trump, had more chance to see Heidi as a leader than we did Steffani, and how do you evaluate someone as a leader without seeing them lead?

Then of course there was the whole business of housing the candidates. Series creator Mark Burnett seems to have fallen in love with this business of luxury versus deprivation, although this "Haves vs. Have-nots" format was actually suggested by Trump himself. He used it in Survivor where Moto Beach had all the luxuries of home except maybe a TV, while Ravu Beach had a rusty machete and a leaky pot. Well maybe the pot didn't leak but the principle is the same. On The Apprentice luxury took the form of a rented Hollywood mansion complete with swimming pool, although significantly it was somewhat lower on the hill than the mansion that Trump and his entourage had rented. Deprivation was "Tent City", which was on the mansion grounds but separated by a hedge from all the good stuff. Truth be known, even the people on Moto Beach would have seen Tent City as a step up although only a slight step up. Tent City had a wash basin for food and clothes (although at least one of the teams didn't seem able to figure out how to wash their own dishes), a cook stove with utensils, and cots for everyone. The trouble is of course that this doesn't seem to really have anything to do with business. And as was most definitely the case in Survivor being a part of the team suffering deprivation – the Have-Nots – tended to perform poorly in subsequent tasks. In fact one of the candidates resigned because she couldn't handle the conditions that she was subjected to in Tent City – she hadn't signed up for that. Trump snarked at her about quitting.

On the whole this season of The Apprentice has been a massive disappointment, and the series ratings seem to indicate that. Last season's ratings, when the show aired on Monday night, were down over previous years but it still drew and average of 9.73 million viewers (and that figure doesn't included the season finale which drew 11.25 million but aired "after the official television season ended"). This season, airing on Sunday night, the first episode drew 4.3 million – less than half of the average rating for the previous season – and the second episode drew under 4 million (Wikipedia; these numbers are at some variance with the figures that Marc Berman of Media Week quotes – choose "Click here to chat" on The Programming Insider box to reach the forums and review previous Sunday ratings). Whatever the actual results the ratings have been anaemic and the move to the third hour of Sunday night at the beginning of March not only didn't improve them, it appears to have made them worse. This puts a lie to Trump's repeated claims about the show's popularity (certainly he makes no claims about the response of critics or awards, where the show has consistently been defeated by The Amazing Race). I'm not entirely sure where the blame for this belongs. Sir Alan Sugar, who is the "Trump" analog in the British version of The Apprentice, has some thoughts: "When you're on a winner, you stick to the winner. You polish it and enhance it and try to make it more interesting to the public. Keep it simple; don't fall to the temptation of changing things just for the sake of changing things. I've watched the American series and they've made the fatal error of trying to change things just for the sake of it and it backfired. What you're going to see here is tougher tasks, better people and a very clear picture for the viewer. We've polished a great product." I think that he's right, at least in part, with the "proof" that the show has gone astray by adding new gimmicks being made obvious with the depressed ratings. On the other hand, after everything that has been going on away from the show – most notoriously the feud with Rosie O'Donnell – the public might just be sick and tired of Donald Trump. Either way, NBC has a problem on their hands as they've apparently already renewed The Apprentice for a seventh season when other shows with ratings like these are not only not renewed but are frequently pulled from the line-up before they finish their season.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Short Takes - April 15, 2007

Short Takes is back after a week that I took off because I really wanted to write the Amazing Race piece, plus I had more running about to do than normal. I have little bit of a surprise coming for you in the next few days but I'll explain it when I finish it.

Don Imus: Okay, everyone has been talking about this one since it broke so I might as well include my one cent's worth – the proverbial penny for my thoughts. I've never seen Don Imus; his show is on one of those cable channels that I can get but couldn't be bothered to pay for because it just doesn't interest me. I've never heard his radio program because morning AM radio from the US doesn't penetrate this far into Canada and we have enough of our own morning bloviators that we don't need to import any from the Great Republic to the south. That said I do have an opinion (of course). I have seen a clip of what he said and taken by itself it's not that bad. In fact he doesn't start the sequence of events, it is the guy sitting with him (as I said I've never seen the show so I don't know if he's a sidekick or what) who uses the word "hos"; Imus only adds "nappy headed" to what the other guy said. And if it were just that incident he might have gotten away with it either with a reprimand or the suspension that he was initially given. The problem is that it wasn't an isolated incident, it was part of a pattern of statements and behaviour that show him to be bigoted and a mysoginist in both his public and private life. My blogging buddy Sam Johnson cites some examples of Imus's behaviour in one of his blog posts on the matter (Sam, If you'd title these things it would make it so much easier to pick out the one post I need – but no matter): "I've been in radio now for twenty three years and I've bumped into folks in the business who've told me stories about Imus and they way he treats folks off the air. No races in whole, but individuals. Allegedy, his treatment of fellow employees is horrible." But it's not just Sam and hearsay reports. Consider Keith Olbermann's reaction to a statement by Imus calling the MSNBC coverage of his firing "hypocritical and unethical":

This from a man who believed he and his on-air staff were entitled to make sexual, racial, ethnic, or homophobic jokes about anybody and everybody...

A man who reduced women staffers at MSNBC to tears, and conned one into coming on the air and saying embarrassing things about her co-workers, which led to her dismissal by the company.

A man whose ethics were so high, that, in the NBC case at least, the traditionally distant nature of corporate America had to listen to the better angels of its nature, when virtually all the employees of a network and an entire news division said 'we have understood that you haven't fired him the last 10,000 times, but you have to do it now.'

I don't know that "corporate America had to listen to the better angels of its nature." Apparently there was participation from about thirty NBC News employees (including Al Roker and Ron Allen) in a meeting with News President Steve Capus about how to resolve the situation. On the other hand I suspect that NBC was worried about advertisers pulling their business and advertisers were in turn worried about action from a really big constituency.

Some people approach this action as a blow to Freedom of Speech. Sorry, but I'm not buying it. No one is abridging Imus's freedom to speak. He can say whatever he wants but NBC and CBS aren't going to pay him to do it. In general terms you have the right to say whatever you want and I have the right not to pay you to say it or allow you to say it on my property. And while the airwaves are "owned" by the public, which is what gives the FCC the right to license broadcasters and to regulate what is said on them, it is broadcasting companies like CBS Radio and NBC that control the means of using those airways. I seem to recall a saying to the effect that "the press is only truly free to the man who owns the press" (certainly Henry Ford and the Dearborn Independent were proof of that). Substitute radio station or cable TV network for press and you sum the Imus situation up entirely.

Nancy Grace and the Duke Rape Case: Just so you don't think I'm ganging up on Don Imus because he's a white male who made a racist and misogynistic remark about Black women, I'm going call for the firing of a woman for things that she has said about white men. I'd love to see Nancy Grace fired for things that she's said about the Duke Rape Case other court cases. In some ways she is more dangerous than Don Imus with her attitude that being charged with a crime – or even suspected of committing one – is tantamount to being guilty. In the Duke Rape Case she reversed her position on the importance of DNA evidence when the evidence didn't suit her position that the lacrosse players were guilty of rape. The kind of statements that Grace makes have the very real potential to taint the jury pool in cases that go to trial. In fact this is one reason why Canadian courts enforce a publication ban on evidence in court cases before evidence is presented to the jury in the criminal case and the other side has a chance to refute that evidence. I'm not really a fan of John Stewart as a news source but here's his take on Grace and the rape case.

Guess Who!?: That's right, it's your old pal Woody Woodpecker. According to animation expert Jerry Beck, Universal will be releasing a package of Woody Woodpecker cartoons that has my inner animation geek absolutely drooling in anticipation. It's not just Woody Woodpecker either. The package contains Andy Panda, Chilly Willy, some of the Lantz Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons (the character originated at Disney and the deal last year between ABC and NBC for Al Michaels returned the rights to the Disney Oswalds to the company but the ones don by Lantz remained at Universal), and a host of others including cartoons that the network wouldn't allow to be aired on the Woody Woodpecker TV show because they contained caricatures of black musicians which were deemed in 1957 to be racist stereotypes. There will also be six Behind the Scenes segments from the old Woody Woodpecker Show featuring Walter Lantz.

As a kid I was a huge fan of The Woody Woodpecker Show. In part it was the interaction between Woody and Walter and in part because there seemed to be an intimacy between Lantz and his viewers. Not to take anything away from Walt Disney's intros to the various incarnations of his shows, but he always seemed to be unapproachable, almost as if he were having you in for an interview; I suppose it was the office and the desk. Lantz always seemed more open and genial.

Who does the PTC hate this week?: Last week – when I didn't do this article – the PTC's worst show of the week was Family Guy for being generally insensitive and for making doing double entendre jokes – in short the usual sort of stuff that Family Guy does. They were also having a sort of pre-emptive strike at Morgan Stanley since the statement from Connecticut Chapter Director Mary Simon Streep mentions no specific programming that the company sponsors.

This week the PTC decided to use the Don Imus incident as a springboard for their call for "cable choice" (a la carte cable to the rest of us). In a statement released on April 11 – ironically the day that Imus's show on MSNBC was cancelled – PTC Chairman Tim Winter stated "One of the most tragic ironies of this whole Imus incident is that those who have been most harmed by his insensitive remarks will be forced to underwrite his salary as soon as his two-week suspension is over. Outraged consumers should have the ability to 'unsubscribe' to MSNBC or other offensive cable networks without having to lose their cable subscription entirely. The Imus comments are only the latest symptom of a larger and more concerning problem. There has been a shocking volume of racist and anti-Semitic material guised as 'comedy' on advertiser-supported basic cable television. African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Jews have been specific targets in recent months. The PTC has noted the use of the 'n-word' over 140 times in the last two years, including 42 utterances of the n-word in one recent episode of South Park alone." Winter also called on civil rights groups to change their attitudes on "cable choice": "A number of civil rights groups have recently expressed opposition to cable choice. We hope that the Imus incident and these other instances of racially insensitive fare on basic cable will encourage a reconsideration of their position." Now I don't pretend to be an expert on such things but it seems to me that among the cable networks that would be hard hit by a move to "cable choice" would be stations like BET, Univision, and Telemundo; stations that direct their programming to minority communities but which benefit from being sold as part of a package rather than individually. After all, consumer outrage at programming isn't the only reason – or even the most popular reason – why consumers would consider unsubscribing from stations.

This time around the PTC's "Worst Show of the Week" is ABC's In Case Of Emergency. "ABC's new sitcom In Case of Emergency infected primetime television this week with crude sexual content and innuendo. Between Sherman dreaming of a threesome with himself, Joanna visiting a prostitute for a massage, and Jason being blackmailed into having sex with his secretary, the April 4th episode filled nearly every minute of its time slot with inappropriate content." Then they go into details:

  • In Sherman's fantasy, he sees two identical versions of himself preparing to engage him in a threesome.
  • Joanna seeks treatment for her stiff neck from an unfamiliar massage parlor. Although it is blindingly obvious to the viewer, Joanna is na├»ve to the fact that the massage parlor is actually a front for a prostitution business. The owner of the venue makes it clear to Joanna's "masseuse" that girl-on-girl "massage" cost $50 more because it takes more time.
  • Jason learns that he will be indicted by a grand jury unless someone can testify on his behalf. He realizes that the only person with whom he has a good reputation is his old secretary, who is also the only woman he knows with whom he hasn't had sex. The secretary agrees to testify, but only if he "rides her like a racehorse all night long."

The PTC statement sums up, saying: "This episode represents some of the worst content that prime-time television has to offer. Lacking any real creativity, pointless and promiscuous sexual content is dumped into American homes in the 9 o'clock hour. Furthermore, this particular episode once again exposes the ineffectiveness of the television ratings system to protect viewers from such content, as the show was only given a "TV-PG" rating." I am torn between wondering why the PTC hasn't noticed this show sooner – the first scene of the first episode features Harry (Jonathon Kellerman) going to a Korean massage parlor for a "hand job" only to discover that his "masseuse" was the valedictorian of his graduating class (Kelly Hu) – and wondering what exactly the PTC considers "real creativity" considering that most of the shows that it has featured as its "Best Show of the Week" have been reality shows, with American Idol being the current preferred choice. While I haven't been watching In Case Of Emergency regularly when I have I found it entertaining and a more enjoyable show than the somewhat similar The Class

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Theme Song Quiz

I aced it of course!

The quiz comes from Mental Floss. There are 15 themes ranging from the ones that you'd be ashamed to miss to some relative obscurities. I only had trouble with two of them,and one was a show which I have never seen. It could have been a lot harder with some themes from more obscure shows. I mean who remembers the theme to, I don't know Nurses, which was part of a block with Empty Nest, and Golden Girls.

TV theme songs I

Score: 100% (15 out of 15)

Friday, April 13, 2007

Lights Out, But For How Long

o there I was, making supper ('cause a guys got to eat, right) and catching the rerun of the first hour of the Bartlett re-election on The West Wing, and yet again picking up on some detail that I hadn't seen before or had seen before and forgot about for a while. And it's good, sort of like that favourite restaurant where you've been going to since you developed a palate that favoured something more than hamburger cranked out in some factory in Indiana and has the perfectly done steak that you order every time. Then I settle down to watch...well I started out to watch Bones before I discovered that it was being replaced – entirely inadequately – by 'Til Death. It's just as well because I forgot to set the VCR to tape Jericho or Friday Night Lights and I can't tape one and watch the other on the late feed. So I settled onto the finale of Friday Night Lights but it's obvious that I'm going to miss some of the nuances. But let me tell you folks, even missing some of the nuances, this show is like that new place that opens with a cuisine that you've rarely tried before and never seen done really well until now, and suddenly it's on the list with your old favourite. Or at least it is until it shuts down after a few weeks because only you and a few others went there while the rest of the world was stuffing Mickey D's products down their gullets. The comparison to The West Wing is deliberate; while Friday Night Lights just possibly might not be the best show on television, it is undoubtedly the best new show to survive to the end of this season but unlike The West Wing, because people were too busy with shows they were comfortable with and because their perception was that the show was "just" about sports or teen angst it may also become the best "one season" show of the decade. And that's a shame.

The Friday Night Lights finale – three weeks before the start of May sweeps; not that good of a sign – brought the Dillon Panther's season to its conclusion. There was football of course, with the usual last minute heroics by Matt and Smash and Tim Riggins. But if football was all that the show had going for it I wouldn't be enthusiastic about it. And there was teen angst – Lyla Garrity dealing with here parent's impending divorce, Julie Taylor worried about being separated from her first real boyfriend (Matt) because her father is intent on taking a college coaching job, and poor Landry doomed hope of get into Tyra's pants during their trip to the big game in Dallas. But if teen angst were all that the show had to offer, it wouldn't make the show special. The show brings more. In a lot of ways it is about relationships, but even though the central relationship is Coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tami, the relationships we're talking about aren't just male-female. Eric is under constant pressure to perform miracles as coach – he has to recover from the loss of his starting quarterback and groom a kid who by rights is a year or two away from being ready for the pressure of leading the team. He has to deal with the team's boosters led by Buddy Garrity and which basically includes the entire town of Dillon Texas. Everyone's a critic and everyone has a suggestion, and yet the whole thing is done in intimate detail. The stories are personal but at the same time the viewer is aware that these people – players, coaches and their families – are under a microscope from people who aren't going to cut them any slack because of their personal crises.

Friday Night Lights has excelled with casting and in making the relationships seem like they'd be real. Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as Eric and Tami Taylor have an amazing chemistry that makes them work as a married couple. Zach Gilford, who plays Matt Saracen, is a perfect choice as a kid who is suddenly thrust into the spotlight and is coping with what must seem to a kid in his position to be the weight of the world – a beloved grandmother who is slipping into senility, a father who is less distant when he's off with his military unit in Iraq than when he's at home, and the expectations of an entire town. It's no wonder that he latches on to Coach Taylor and his family as surrogates. In the season finale, when Matt discovers that Coach has decided to take the job at a college, he more than any other member of the team feels personally betrayed. It is a nice bit of acting made even more impressive by the fact that the sense of betrayal isn't expressed in words so much as it is in Matt's actions and expression. And then there's Jesse Plemons as Landry Clarke. The character is an outsider when it comes to the team who gains what access he does because of his friendship with Matt (and the fact that he has a car and Matt doesn't). It's a sign of something that the show's creators chose to name the character, who has the slightest relationship to football, "Landry" after the legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Landry is, in many ways, comic relief. He is something of a mediocrity with a good heart and ambitions far above anything he can hope to achieve now and possibly ever. In the finale it is illustrated by his expectations that he will get a romantic weekend with Tyra which is smashed when he find that she's taking along her mother and sister. Yet his good heartedness makes him stop to take Matt's grandmother with them, and then to persuade Tyra to let them give a stranded Lyla a ride to the game. The thing to note is that while these are performances that stand out, the other actors turn in performances that are just as good. It is a great cast and the writers give them great material to work with.

The season finale neatly brought the show's first year to a close, to the point where it would not be entirely disappointing if it were also the show's series finale. The team goes to the Texas State Championship Game – there's a scene in Texas Stadium as the team enters that is reminiscent of the scene in Hoosiers where the Hickory team enters the Butler Fieldhouse. They win the championship, which also sees them defeating Ray "Voodoo" Tatum who services as quarterback had briefly been bought for the team by Buddy Garrity. Eric's decision to leave the Dillon Panthers becomes public in a way that he isn't able to control. Tami Taylor is surprised to discover that she and her husband are finally going to have a second child but while this is enough to get Eric to reconsider his decision because of his devotion to family, Tami insists that he follows his dream while she and their daughter stay in Dillon. The episode ends as the season began, with callers to a local radio show expressing their doubts about the coach, this time about his lack of "heart" for leaving the team. If the show were to end this, combined with the team winning the championship would provide closure for the story. And yet because of Tami's pregnancy the writers have left open the possibility that Eric will choose family and Dillon over football and the job offer in Austin.

There's some reason for hope among Friday Night Lights fans. NBC has ordered six more scripts, and NBC President Kevin Reilly has indicated that renewal is likely. The Peabody Award and the recognition from the American Film Institute probably haven't hurt either. Still there's absolutely no guarantee that these scripts will air or even be shot – it may be that the network just wants to see where the producers intend to take the show before deciding on renewal. Reilly's suggestion that the show's renewal is a strong possibility has to be tempered with the knowledge that the show has never been a strong ratings performer even though it attracts a strong and affluent fan base. The worst that could happen is not that the show would be cancelled; the worst thing that could happen is that the show would be renewed but with so many "suggestions" for "improvements" that we wouldn't recognise it. I don't want this show to end up like Boomtown, killed by those determined to save it. This show doesn't deserve that particular fate worse than death.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Where Has The Adventure Gone?

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time at all, you know that I love The Amazing Race with a passion that is strong and true. Not only do I think that the show is the gold standard which every other reality-competition has to measure up to but I also think that it is better than a lot of other, scripted, shows on television. I'll take The Amazing Race over all of NBC's Sunday line-up – in fact I've only seen two or three episodes of this season's Apprentice and I don't feel like I've missed anything - and 75% of Fox's Sunday too. What I'm about to say isn't going to change my opinion of the show but I think it has to be said. This season of The Amazing Race has turned into adventure travel without the adventure.

The current "All Star" season has been an interesting one as far as personalities and conflicts between personalities is concerned. The producers – Bert van Munster and his wife Elise Doganieri have used an interesting definition of "All Stars". Instead of trying to recruit the first or second place teams from each of the previous seasons (except the sucky Family Edition of course but only because it featured four person teams) or fan favourite teams, they decided to recruit tams with the strongest or most memorable personalities. It meant that some teams that were really popular with the fans were left out – Al & John, The Clowns (Season 4; in fact there was no one from that season or Season 6), B.J. and Tyler, The Hippies (winners of Season 9) – were left out while teams like Joe & Bill (Team Guido from Season 1) and Terri & Ian (Season 3) were included. None of this explains Jon Vito & Jill (Season 3) but that's beside the point. Bert and Elise got exactly what they wanted; strong personalities who are frequently at odds with each other. And it's not just with other teams. There's the usual conflicts between people who are supposed to be close friends or significant others. People who had been bums in their seasons at least partially rehabilitated their images – I'm thinking here of The Guidos and Terri & Ian – while one team (and really one person on that team) has become an object of vilification for the fans. Yes, I'm talking about Charla & Mirna ... mostly Mirna.

The thing is that The Amazing Race is supposed to bring the whole package; personalities, challenges and exotic locales and in most seasons (with the usual exception of the Family Edition) it does. What puts the show that slight bit above Survivor (and light years ahead of Big Brother or The Apprentice) is that the locale changes. The beaches in Fiji are exotic for a time but after a while that quality is lost because they become too familiar. So far in this season of The Amazing Race we've seen the mountains of Ecuador, the wild south of Chile and Argentina, rural Mozambique and the island of Zanzibar in Africa, Poland (including a brief but memorable tribute at the concentration camp at Auschwitz), and most recently Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. So this season has the personalities and it has the locales. Moreover the producers seem to have listened to the fans and made a conscious effort to eliminate the major bottlenecks that saw teams building up a huge lead only to see every other team catch up with them because a business or an attraction was closed until the morning. We've seen some examples – the busses from Warsaw to Auschwitz was a major one – but there have been more problems at the airports than there have been as a result of the way the producers have set things up.

What I think it's lacking is the exciting adventure challenges. About the most adventurous thing the teams have faced this year was a bit of white water rafting (the other option in that detour was climbing a rock wall), while the challenging food component so far has been eating two feet of Kielbasa. Not that some of the challenges haven't been interesting – using specially trained giant rats to find (deactivated) land mines in Mozambique was fascinating – but they aren't exactly adventurous. Other tasks this season have included sorting mail, tuning a piano, shooting an X-Ray, determining a location based on letters found in a boardroom, painting a sign board, and putting polish on people's fingernails. Not a bungee cord or a zip line in sight yet. This past weekend they chose between biting cookies (to find one cookie with a liquorice centre out of 600 boxes for each team that tried it) and applying wax and die to a piece of fabric using the Batik process, then in the Roadblock collecting a pile of old newspapers eight hands high from what looked to be a fairly affluent neighbourhood. It all seems rather mundane.

Then again maybe it is we fans who are somewhat jaded in our expectations. Then too, we've really seen more teams eliminated this season because of travel snafus than challenges. In several episodes it seems as if as much time was spent showing teams trying to get tickets for their next flight as they were doing the episode's challenges. Consider the following:

  • Terri & Ian eliminated because they couldn't get from Maputo, Mozambique to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania on the same day as every other team except Joe & Bill. The direct flight to Dar Es Salaam was full, they weren't able to get on standby for the first flight out of Johannesburg South Africa that three other teams booked in Dar Es Salaam, weren't even considered for standby for a second flight out of Johannesburg, which went to a team that thought they had seats from the first flight an were actually taken out of their seats on that flight.
  • Joe & Bill marked for elimination because the flight from Zanzibar that the producers provided for teams as a back-up in case they couldn't find anything better arrived 10 minutes late and they were unable to make their connection to a flight to Amsterdam. They and Eric & Danielle arrived in Warsaw after several other teams started the next stage of the race.
  • Uchenna & Joyce, who finished the previous leg tied for first, were eliminated (and effectively disappeared from the episode after the first ten minutes) when they missed a connection in Frankfurt, Germany. According to Uchenna & Joyce the computer printer that produced tickets at the airport in Krakow broke down, leaving them without a printed boarding pass for the flight from Frankfurt to Kuala Lumpur. The desk crew in Krakow thought they'd be fine without it but by the time the mess was sorted out in Frankfurt, the flight to Kuala Lumpur had boarded. Uchenna & Joyce arrived at their destination ten and a half hours after the other teams.

I am not going to say that this season of The Amazing Race hasn't been enjoyable because quite clearly it has. In my book it is still the favourite to win the Outstanding Reality Competition series at this year's Emmys. The problem – if you choose to call it that – is that in all too many cases the drama has been created by the clash of personalities, and frequently the clash of everyone against Mirna rather than the adventurous quality of the tasks they've had to do in their Detours and Roadblocks. And while the removal of the numerous bottleneck points has been something of a release, the repeated incidents of high anxiety at the airports – which may be a side effect of the elimination of the bottlenecks – hasn't been that helpful. We want scenes of the teams bungee jumping and rappelling down buildings not standing around in airports dealing with counter clerks. And that's what has taken a lot of the adventure out of this show about adventure travel.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Short Takes – April 4, 2007

I got a little delayed in writing this. The plan had been to get it out on Sunday but circumstances – in the form of a long nap and a two hour Amazing Race conspired against me. Then there's the situation with my printer – there are no Vista drivers for my Deskjet 3820 and the driver that HP suggests using doesn't do a damned thing. I wouldn't mind waiting because I like the printer (and I don't want to buy a new printer) and don't really use one that much now that I'm no longer a bowling league secretary but it's Income Tax time in Canada I've got to print out a couple of returns I'll just have to reactivate the old Windows 98 machine to take care of things. Still there were a couple of things I wanted to put out there and then something new popped up today.

There's a great new show...that just got cancelled: It used to be that TV series ran for 13 weeks and were either renewed for a further 13 or were replaced at mid-season with another show that ran 13 weeks, no matter what. Those days are gone forever of course. A show that lasts as long as 13 weeks is practically guaranteed to run the full year just because the networks don't have anything better to replace them with. Shows like Lost and Jericho go on hiatus for several weeks (supposedly because they "don't repeat well") and the network weasels end up wondering why the ratings on the shows slip when they do come back. And news shows debut either to replace shows that failed – in the eyes of the network weasels – or to stand in for the shows that "don't repeat well." These shows aren't midseason replacements so much as they are Spackle, designed to fill the holes in the network schedules. This season there have been many holes – big, gaping, cavernous holes. In virtually every case – at least when it comes to sitcoms and dramas – these Spackle shows haven't stuck around long enough to even be noticed. The networks schedules are in tatters and I don't know if they know what to do about it.

Take the most recent round of Spackle falling off the schedule. It started last week when The Great American Dream Vote featuring Donny Osmond was cancelled by ABC after two episodes aired – one on Tuesday opposite American Idol and the other the next day. The premise – where the audience voted for which contestant got to have his life-long dream fulfilled (no dreams about world peace need apply) – was pretty lame, so no great loss really, but it did set the stage for the next round of cancellations. In what Variety described as "Black Monday" the networks set out to do some housecleaning. At Fox, production of David E. Kelly's Wedding Bells was halted after seven episodes had been produced and four had aired. Sources were unclear as to whether the remaining three episodes would air in the show's Friday night time slot – Variety suggested that it would not return following a pre-emption on April 6 for the movie White Chicks. At the same time ABC returned 6 Degrees to the indefinite hiatus list after two airings on Friday nights. It will be replaced by repeats of the reality show Wife Swap. ABC had previously placed its highly touted Knights of Prosperity on indefinite hiatus, replaced by reruns of According To Jim.
NBC will be putting Monday night's Black Donnellys on hiatus following the eighth of 13 episodes ordered which will air on April 16 – if the network doesn't pull it sooner. The show will be replaced by the reality-practical joke series Wedding Crashers which had originally been scheduled to air on Sundays. Finally The CW has cancelled 7th Heaven – again – effective at the end of the season, and has set a debut date for its new mystery drama Hidden Palms starting Wednesday May 30. One Tree Hill, which went onto hiatus on February 21, will return with the final three episodes of its season on Wednesday May 2.

It seems fairly obvious that the current model for network television, focussed around airing new episodes during specific sweeps periods, is broken, particularly if your network is running shows that don't perform well in repeats. One of the reasons why, in my review of The Black Donnellys, I questioned whether NBC was the right place for this show was the habit of network executives to pull shows of the schedule at the slightest sign of ratings weakness. A cable network, such as FX or Showtime would probably have let the cancelled shows run for the full number of episodes that had been ordered before considering whether or not to renew. A show like The Great American Dream Vote might even have become a mainstay of a network like Fox Reality. It may be that Fox showed the way to a new model of Network TV with the way it has chosen to handle 24 which debuted in January and will run its twenty-four episodes uninterrupted by reruns or hiatuses. There are reports that ABC will consider running Lost like that next season, with a January debut and a straight run of new episodes. Maybe that's the way most shows should be done, straight through without reruns and then having real midseason replacements. It may not be the best idea in the world but given the mess that the broadcast networks are dealing with this season I can't see it being the worst alternative.

Somethin's botherin' me: Remember the PTC poll on the V-Chip that I reported in the previous instalment of Short Takes. There was something about them that seemed off about them and now, thanks to the Progress and Freedom Foundation blog I think I know what it was. As you will recall, The PTC stated that they had paid to have three questions inserted into two "omnibus telephone surveys of adults nationwide, conducted by Zogby International," one in September 2006 and the other in March 2007. So here's the problem according to the PFF blog: an omnibus poll will sample households which don't have children, don't have televisions with V-Chips, or both. According to the US Census Bureau, 68% of American homes don't have children and therefore don't have any interest in the use of the V-Chip or other devices to restrict TV viewership. Even if the survey restricted the people who answered the questions related to the V-Chip to the 32% of homes that have children in them the results are still questionable since you don't have the same representative sample size – in polling the smaller the sample size the less representative the results.

Perhaps the most insulting thing about the PTC and their activities is the way they disrespect parents. The organization seems to think that they have to act as America's "media nanny" or else children will be exposed to all the horrors of unrestricted television. They fail to recognise that to parents children are individuals whose maturity isn't designated simply by the date on their birth certificate. The question that the PTC asked in the Zogby survey didn't ask whether the family had its own "household media consumption rules." The PFF blog pointed out that "a 2003 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 'Almost all parents say they have some type of rules about their children's use of media.' And a 2006 Kaiser survey of families with infants and preschoolers revealed that 85 percent of those parents who let their children watch TV at that age have rules about what their child can and cannot watch. 63 percent of those parents say they enforce those rules all of the time. About the same percentage of parents said they had similar rules for video game and computer usage." But of course in their Zogby Poll questions the PTC had an agenda: to prove that the V-Chip doesn't work, that the networks that promote the use of the V-Chip are acting in bad faith, and that the nation needs the PTC and similar organizations to "protect" it from the evils of television programs not matter what time they air, "for the sake of the children."

Who does the PTC hate this week?: Not much new to report on the PTC front except for the Worst Show of the Week. This time around it is the March 23 episode of Crossing Jordan. The episode dealt with a teenage girl who was found already buried in someone else's grave. It turns out that she's not as sweet and innocent as everybody thinks – she's running her own teen porn site for pedophiles and as it turns out she and her two best friends are prostituting themselves, meeting some of their online clientele for sex in return for money. It's the whole plotline that the PTC objects to: "The fact that some young girls sell their bodies on the internet is an unfortunate reality. While most people do not condone such behavior, they are forced to accept that it happens. But the fact that something is a reality in the darkest corners of life does not make it suitable for prime-time entertainment. As their idea of public entertainment, the writers of Crossing Jordan chose to present a teenage girl degrading herself by parading her body in a pornographic manner on the internet – and NBC chose to air it at 9 o'clock in the evening. These choices are irresponsible and deeply disturbing..."

Okay, let's delve into this a bit. What the PTC is saying is that the episode of Crossing Jordan is bad not because it titillated but because it deals with a subject that the PTC finds objectionable. Instead of presenting the issue in a dramatic manner it should just be hidden away like a dirty little secret. The "unfortunate reality" shouldn't be confronted because – well I'm not really sure of the PTC's "because". Maybe TV shows are supposed to ignore it because people "are forced to accept that it happens." Again, I'm not sure what the PTC's point is except that the episode shouldn't have been made because they think the subject matter should be a dirty little secret that everyone knows about but can't do anything about. Frankly I find their attitude irresponsible and deeply disturbing.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Today’s Topical Post

It's Juno weekend in the temporary home of the Junos. You'd be amazed at the sort of thing that happens surrounding these sorts of events and the people that you meet. In fact, the other day I ran into a guy I went to high school with. He's a big man with one of the smaller labels. We got to talking and it turned out that he needed a guy to become the travelling manager for a couple of his acts while they were on tour and he offered me the job. I told him that I didn't drive a car let alone a bus but he assured me that they needed someone who could work with the talent and keep things running smoothly. I agreed to take the job – well with the money and fringe benefits they were offering how could I not accept. This won't interfere with my blogging as I was promised a company laptop.

I'll be working with two acts. The first is called Lirpa Sloof. They're a Scandinavian fusion band (in this case that means that there are members from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland) made up of three women, two men and a castrated cat, that performs the complete works of Abba in the original Swedish but with a reggae beat. They also do a lot of things backwards. For example the drummer sits facing away from the audience. This is because he can't perform if he can actually see an audience in front of him. Of course if you saw him you'd realize that he was doing the audience a real favour. They're still working on a way to play their guitars backwards which is a lot harder than you might think. One of the band's big numbers is doing Waterloo in Swedish backwards – they call it Oolretaw and oddly enough it's not bad.

The other act I'll be working with is a young chanteuse from Quebec named Avril Poisson. She may be the real problem. Not only does she have the nasty habit of wanting to get naked at the most inconvenient times – usually when she's on stage, although we're trying to restrict her nudist tendencies to the bus – but there's the whole language issue. There are some people who want Avril to anglicize her given name while the tour is in small town Alberta – in other words to make her first name April. Fools in Alberta might try to disrupt her shows if they know she's from Quebec, or at least that's what the corporate types in Toronto think. Personally I think the fact that she only sings in French – and the Joual slang dialect at that – might be a bit of a tip off. Of course none of that will matter if she starts taking off her clothes on stage. And besides, she's already working under a stage name; her real name is Poisson d'Avril (her parents indulged in way too many recreational pharmaceuticals before she was born).

Wish me luck – I'll probably need it!