Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Short Takes – June 4, 2007

I ate salmon last night. I should never eat salmon, but it was something new and I knew my mother wanted to try it so.... At least this time I didn't vomit. I came close, but the fish stayed where I put it.

The Big Donor Show: It's several days after the fact and I still don't know how I feel about this one although I edge slightly towards agreeing with the network. As I'm sure you know, the Dutch network BNN put on a reality show – produced by Endemol, the same company that created Big Brother just about everywhere (but not in Canada for some reason; we have to be content with watching Americans) and has spread like a giant fungus all over the world – about a woman dying of a brain tumour who was going to choose one of three patients to donate her kidney to (apparently she had only one). The potential recipients had a one in three chance of getting the organ but that was far higher than their odds on a waiting list (in the Netherlands or probably anywhere else in the world). Inevitably the notion of the show brought condemnation from just about everyone you could think of, from Pope Benedict on down. There were calls in the Dutch Parliament for the Health and Media ministers to prevent the show from airing. Of course as we all know by now, the show turned out to be a hoax – or rather the central premise did. The terminally ill woman turned out to be a perfectly healthy actress and the three patients, while really ill, were in on the stunt. After revealing the hoax, Endemol Director Paul Römer stated "Let there be no misunderstanding, I would never make a program such as 'The Big Donor Show' for real. I do understand the massive outrage very well. But I also hope for people to understand why we did this. It was necessary to get the shortage of donors back on the political agenda. I call up everybody to get very angry about that, and to fill in a donor form." The Dutch Minister of Education, Ronald Plasterk called the show "a fantastic idea, and a great stunt" although Christian Democrat MP Joop Atsma, who led calls for the show to be banned, claimed that he didn't feel it had contributed towards solving the problem. The proof, one way or another, may be in the figures – two days after the show aired the Dutch national news program NOS News reported that over 50,000 organ donor forms had been requested.

BNN was an appropriate venue for this stunt. The network is aimed at a youth demographic; the sort of people who tend not to fill out donor cards because they think they're going to live forever and also the type of people who tend to get into car and motorcycle accidents. The network is also known for shocking content, some of which can't be named or described in a family blog, and for medical shows like It Could Have Been You and Over My Corpse in which youth with handicaps are consulted and tell about their lives. The biggest reason that the network was an appropriate venue for the show is found in the network's name. The initials BNN originally stood for Brutaal News Network (Flagrant News Network in English), but when network founder Bart De Graaf died in 2002 it was rebranded as Bart's Neverending Network. De Graaf had been in a serious car accident as a child which resulted in severe renal failure which also led to a growth disorder that made him look like a 12 year-old boy. A popular presenter on the Dutch network Veronica (an outgrowth of the famous pirate radio station) de Graaf underwent a kidney transplant in 1997, the same year he founded BNN. His body rejected the kidney in 1999 and he died in 2002 at age 35. Laurens Drillich, current chairman of BNN, said of The Big Donor Show, "We very much agree that it's bad taste but we also believe that reality is even worse taste. I mean, it's going very, very bad with organ donorship in the Netherlands. We as a broadcaster, BNN, had someone who started our TV station who needed kidneys and was on a waiting list and died eventually at the age of 35. That happened five years ago and in the last five years the situation has only gotten worse in the Netherlands." I'm not entirely convinced that The Big Donor Show was a good idea but it is often the case that people need something shocking to get them to do things that they really should do anyway – look at how blood donation went up immediately after the World Trade Center attacks but only 5% or Americans donate blood. If The Big Donor Show got people to sign organ donor forms and they and their families live up to the promises that those forms make, maybe it made a difference. I hope so.

Doctor Who won't end after four season: The British tabloid The Sun – a paper that no self respecting parakeet would even relieve itself on – reported a few days ago that Doctor Who would be axed in 2008 because producer Russell T. Davies wanted to move on to new projects and "He and senior staff have hatched a plot to hand in a group resignation in summer 2008." Davies claimed that the heavy workload, "nine months of 16-hour days every year" was taking its toll and he wanted to move on to new projects. This was followed almost immediately by an accurate news story from the Guardian newspaper (registration needed) stating that while Davies might go, the show wouldn't: "there isn't any way it would be axed even if he left. He loves the show and he does feel that maybe it would benefit from some new blood." (I can just picture the editors at The Grauniad drooling in anticipation of making The Sun look like a bunch of total prats.) Not only don't I think that Russell T. Davies is not indispensible as producer of Doctor Who, it is my opinion that it's about time for him to go even if he doesn't want to. In its original incarnation Doctor Who had a turnover of producers about every three or four years until the arrival of John Nathan Turner. Turner served as producer for nine years – three times longer than average – and oversaw the decline and cancellation of the series. It's my opinion that a show like Doctor Who needs a continual regeneration of ideas which basically can only come through periodic turnover of writing and production staff. That's what Turner forgot and what the BBC will hopefully remember.

Battlestar Galactica on the other hand will: On the other hand producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick have confirmed rumours that Battlestar Galactica will end after the fourth season. The rumours first surfaced at the 2007 Saturn Awards when both Edward James Olmos and Katee Sackoff told an interviewer that the fourth Season would be the show's last. At the time Moore denied the report but confirmed it on June 1. In an interview about the discrepancy between his two statements he said that "the decision to end after season four needed to be a collective one, which would be why there was some disconnect with prior reports." The plan had always been that there would be a beginning middle and end to the series and they both feel that they will have told the tale they want to tell by the finish of the fourth season. As much as I love the revival of Battlestar Galactica – and I love it a lot – I find this sort of finite storytelling to be one of those ideas that should be adopted a lot more on television. It was key to one of my favourite series – Babylon 5, although that series sort of went off the rails when the decision was made to wrap up both the Shadow War and Earth Alliance Civil War storylines in the fourth season because it appeared that the show wouldn't be around for a fifth season...and then it was. As long as producers are able to get a reasonable guarantee that they will have the time they need to tell their story having a plan is a good thing, but how many TV executives – particularly in broadcast TV – are willing to make that sort of guarantee? The answer is "damned few", right Kidnapped and Vanished fans.

Who does the PTC hate this week?: The PTC's criticism of a lot of shows stems from a fallacy and nowhere is that clearer than in the organization's hysterical condemnation of the season finale of NCIS for "grotesque violence." The first line of the second paragraph of their diatribe states "On the 5/22/07 episode of NCIS that aired during the so-called "family hour" of 8 p.m. ET/PT". Indeed the phrase "Family Hour" "is used in the subtitle for the article: "Horrific Drug Scene Aired During 8pm 'Family Hour' and Without Appropriate Content Ratings". Well here's a news flash for the PTC – you're thirty years out of date. The "Family Hour" (or to be totally accurate the "Family Viewing Hour") was a restriction imposed upon the television networks by the FCC starting with the 1975 television season. It was struck down by US Circuit Court Judge Warren Ferguson in 1976. Ferguson found that the FCC, having lobbied the networks to implement the scheme rather than holding public hearings on the matter had overstepped its bounds and that as a result "the Family Viewing Hour had no binding merit."

Ah, but what of their criticism of NCIS? What is the "grotesque violence?" Well it was directed against a corpse. In the episode, Tony DiNozzo and his girlfriend Dr. Jeanne Benoit are held hostage by a drug dealer who wants the balloons of heroin that are in the digestive tract of his dead drug mule. As the PTC describes it, "The scene shows the dead smuggler having his midsection sliced open and his blood-soaked organs pulled out of his body. The man's digestive tract is sliced open and heroin powder spills over his bloodied torso. When a fight ensues, one character stabs the drug dealer with a scalpel and another character shoots the drug dealer. Then the junkie-sister is seen burying her face in her brother's bloody entrails as she snorts the heroin off his dead body." Needless to say the PTC is outraged: "This episode was rated TV-14, with no content descriptors. Based on the graphic violence, the "V" descriptor should have been used, and due to the foul language, the "L" descriptor should have been employed as well." But they go on: "This episode, this scene, is one of the most grotesquely violent programs we have ever seen on primetime broadcast television. At a time when the nation holds a heightened sensitivity to the volume and degree of violence on television, CBS seems intent on baiting the Congress to act on the recent recommendations of the FCC and expand indecency standards to include graphic violence when children are in the viewing audience. And not only did CBS choose to air this episode during the 8 p.m. 'family hour' when they knew millions of children and families were in the viewing audience, but they ignored the industry's own 'solution' of attaching a proper content rating." And they call on their members to inundate advertisers and CBS affiliates with letters: "If the sponsors knew about the content of this episode, they must be called to account; and if they did not know about the content, then they should demand – and receive – a complete refund from CBS. Furthermore, we are calling on the viewing public to communicate with their local CBS affiliate to ask how their actions serve the public interest, as required by each affiliate's broadcast license. It is outrageous that CBS – which uses the public airwaves for free – would have the nerve to air something so graphically perverse and violent when they know millions of children and families comprise the viewing audience."

This whole thing, particularly the PTC's continual diatribe on "correct" applications of descriptors raises a lot of questions. Easily the biggest of these is who, at the networks, applies the descriptors and what are their guidelines. Obviously the PTC would like a central body – presumably with similar views to their own – to impose the descriptors on the networks. However even a central body to provide ratings and descriptors for TV shows would be rife with problems. The documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated deals with the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board and found among other things that films with homosexual themes were treated far more harshly than films with heterosexual themes, that "the board's raters receive no training and are deliberately chosen because of their lack of expertise in media literacy or child development," and that many ratings board members either have no children at all or none under the age of 18. The question of who decides on the ratings for shows and the descriptors attached to them is, I think, a legitimate one.

On the other hand I personally find the scene that the PTC is most infuriated by to be less than what they claim it to be. The demand for the language descriptor is absurd – the language in this episode is no worse than on any number of other episodes of the series or other shows on at the same time. People have quite frankly seen worse violence to living people than what happened to the drug dealer in this episode (he's stabbed with a scalpel and DiNozzo shoots at him but doesn't hit him). So the PTC's "grotesque violence" is all happening to the corpse of the dead "mule" and to be quite honest we've seen more graphic depictions than that in autopsy scenes on CSI, and Crossing Jordan; even a few episodes of Quincy were reasonably graphic back in the day. No I think what really set the PTC off on their crusade – this "crime" against families was deemed worthy of a press release and call to action of its own and isn't designated as the PTC's "worst of the week" – it the moment when the "mule's" junky whore sister snorts the drugs from off his remains. Yes the scene is shocking and more than a little disgusting but it is in character for the person performing the act, a heroin addict desperate for a drug fix.

But what would the PTC replace shows like NCIS with if they had their way? Well we can get a sense of the sort of pap that they would replace most shows if not all with by looking at their Best of the Week shows. The most recent of these is ABC's National Bingo Night. This is a show that many people have found to be so dismal as to be unwatchable and reviewers were even more shocked by. To the PTC it was great because "This provides a great opportunity for friends and family alike to enjoy a family activity together." This follows a trend in that the PTC wants more game shows and "gentle" reality shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The last scripted series to be labelled as the PTC's Best of the Week was Everybody Hates Chris on March 2. I've only been able to find one other scripted show that they liked – a CBS Hallmark TV movie called Valley Of The Light – although the Council's archives appear only go back to the beginning of February 2007. Meanwhile many series from the five broadcast networks have been named as Worst of the Week and virtually every show on TV has been given a "Red Light" rating in the organization's Family Guide to Primetime TV, and I don't anticipate any change in the coming 2007-08 season. These people don't want good television or television that challenges the viewer; under the guise of "protecting the children" they want television that doesn't offend anyone that will be watchable by the lowest common denominator – the person who is most easily offended. The rest of us suffer from their insistence on not being offended. The public, based on Nielsen ratings, wants shows like CSI and Grey's Anatomy (the two top scripted shows on the list) – both of which the PTC has condemned for violence and sex (not to mention language) – while the PTC wants the networks to serve up pablum like National Bingo Night. And it insults us all, including Canadians because so much of what we see is the product of the American broadcast networks.

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