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.

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