Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Short Takes – July 17, 2007

After the length of time that it took to crank out the last Short Takes I was tempted to make this one a PTC only column to get it done on time. And really this post is pretty much that, only not quite because there are a couple of things that I wanted to talk about.

Gizzie probably going away: The Grey's Anatomy relationship between George (T.R. Knight) and Izzie (Katherine Heigl), which in typical modern media fashion has been given the vaguely obscene sounding designation Gizzie (and if you don't get why that's vaguely obscene sounding, I won't explain it to you – I can be embarrassed by such things) may not survive into the next season. According to Mike Ausiello in TV Guide the George and Izzie storyline may be ended because "A source close to ABC tells me that George and Izzie polled 95 percent negative, leading one of the 200 or so participants to conclude that, 'Gizzie will be dropped.'" Which of course is how all decisions in literature are done; by polling 200 people. Like it or not we the audience aren't the final arbiters of the directions that story lines proceed in. If we were, Gone With The Wind would probably have ended with Rhett Butler knocking on the door of Tara and saying "Frankly my dear I made a mistake when I left you."

Money talks, Art walks: It seems that part of the plan for this coming season of 24 involved shooting in Africa. It was such a major part of the storyline that the decision by studio executives not to shoot in Africa meant a three week delay in production because the entire story for the show's seventh season had to be thrown out. According to Ausiello again, the network found that the idea of shooting in Africa too expensive, and the show's producers couldn't find anywhere in the greater Los Angeles area that looked like Africa. Apparently these picky producers never heard the statement from a old time network executive who, when asked to sign off on an extensive location shoot, said (in a quote generally ascribed to Ronald Reagan) "A tree's a tree."

Some differences between Americans and Canadians: Denis McGrath did what a lot of broadcasters used to do during the summer and put on reruns in his blog last week while he was struggling with some real world writing. One of these typically long posts – Denis is a very opinionated guy and he does go on (and on), although it's almost invariably strong and thoughtful ranting – had some nuggets about the differences between Americans and Canadians when it comes to TV. The article – Getting Schooledis Denis's responses to an e-mail interview from a journalism student named Nicole. Here are a couple of major points. I won't touch on most of the points though if you're interested in Canadian TV it is a must read. To the question of the differences between writing shows for Canadians and Americans Denis responds that Canadians are on the whole less insular than Americans, and that shows which use irony do better with Canadians than they do with Americans. There's truth in this idea that Canadian and American tastes don't always mesh, though I'm not really prepared to quantify it the way Denis is. I do know that even in the last year of its run, when Americans writing in rec.arts.tv were screaming for its cancellation, Caroline In The City was in the top ten (and maybe the top five) in the Canadian ratings. Similarly, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip was never as unpopular in Canada as it was in the States. Then McGrath adds:

On a more practical level, the differences have to do with social pressure. Because the religious right isn't quite as militant or influential in Canada, you can portray things that you simply can't in the USA: teenagers can have sex on TV here, without immediately getting pregnant. If they do get pregnant, they could actually have an abortion, not be forced to keep the baby or have a magic miscarriage. Degrassi actually had lots of trouble getting some of their shows past the N, though it's their most popular show. Shows that aired here and were no big deal were too hot to handle down south. That's telling. The Sopranos
runs on CTV here unbleeped. Dropping an F or an S bomb won't be thought of as bringing the whole of western civilization to a halt.

He forgot to mention nudity but it falls into the same consideration as "dropping an F or an S bomb." You can show bare breasts – and not just nipples either but the firm round and fully packed object – without anyone demanding fines or that your license be pulled. And they've been doing it for decades –the first bare breast I saw on conventional TV was in the early 1970s. Movies can be shown uncut, but tend not to be because Canadian TV networks get their TV prints from the studios who cut them to shreds so that they can be broadcast in the USA.

But it's in response to a question on the impact of American TV on Canada that McGrath makes a telling point.

We're the only country in the world that receives U.S. network feeds in their entirety on our cable systems. So their shows are all on at the same time as in the USA. No other country has this burden, and it is a burden, because in many ways we really are what Hollywood would like us to be: an extension of the U.S. domestic market.

The USA is the largest and most successful exporter of culture the world has ever known. And we're right next door. In other countries, people love U.S. shows, but they also love their own cop shows, their own lawyer shows, or family dramas, or soaps, or talk shows. Canada is an anomaly in the sense that most of our top 20 shows are American.

What makes it even stranger is that you'll see lots of Canadians stand up and wave the flag for Canadian music, or Canadian books, -- hell, they'll get all misty eyed at
Hockey Night in Canada
and the 'I Am Canadian' beer ad, but they're more than happy to watch another nation's values and obsessions on TV every night.

And of course he's right. Just ask a Canadian about his Miranda rights sometime – a concept that doesn't exist in Canada because our constitution and our legal protections are different here. It's part of why I almost never review Canadian shows, and part of the reason why I constantly rail at the Parents Television Council for their efforts to treat every viewer like a "pre-tween" child. Because what shows up on American TV is what I'm spoon-fed by Canadian television networks – except for the CBC who have problems of their own – even without cable systems sending an unadulterated stream of the stuff into my home. And yeah I watch it, in part because the Canadian networks arrange their schedules to make it hard to see Canadian shows or even to know that they're on, but also because, too frequently my choice isn't between a Canadian cop show and an American cop show but between an American cop show and an American lawyer show. So sue me for wanting the PTC and the FCC to stop making all TV into pap suitable for a 9 year-old but come close to criminalizing (due to huge FCC fines) programs suitable for adults.

Who does the PTC hate this week?: Anyone who disagrees with a " broadcast decency amendment" to the "Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill" – in other words a bill that otherwise has absolutely nothing to do with broadcasting but which is necessary to pass. The amendment was proposed by Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, who just happens to be a member of the PTC's advisory board; imaging that. PTC President Tim Winter stated "If Senators are sincere about support for what Brownback's amendment would accomplish, why would they oppose it? The Senate – and the public – are not in a position to wait around for the other committees to act. The recent 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that allows the f-word and s-word to be aired at any time of the day combined with the upcoming September hearing on the Janet Jackson case dramatically underscore the importance and urgency of this issue. The Senate must not adopt the "wait and see" attitude that it did for two and a half years following the Janet Jackson incident – the entertainment industry's lawsuits do not permit it." Remember of course that the PTC denies the legitimacy of any appeal against what it sees as its victories – most of which come from a regulatory body (the FCC) rather than the courts – and this amendment is an attempt to, as good old Barney Fife would put it, "nip it in the bud – nip it!" There is so much wrong with this effort that it is difficult to know where to start on it. What Senator Brownback is attempting is familiar to online Poker players as the same tactic used to pass the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 as part of the SAFE Port Act, a necessary piece of law that had no connection with Internet Gambling or the Internet at all. The Brownback amendment is an attempt to make FCC policy as defined by Kevin Martin into rule of law and pre-empt any attempt by the television networks to obtain legal definition of boundaries. The Brownback amendment is an attempt to reinstate legislatively what the Second Circuit called an "arbitrary and capricious" policy. It is a perfect example of the "social conservative" agenda.

Opposition to the Brownback amendment has come from some interesting quarters including the United States Chamber of Commerce which sent a letter to the Chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, expressing a view which disagrees with the PTC's position on the amendment. In the letter they state that "It is important to note that while the decision affects the FCC's ability to find broadcasters liable for the airing of fleeting or isolated expletives, it does not impact the FCC's ability to assess fines of up to $325,000 per utterance in cases where multiple or repeated expletives were aired in violation of FCC rules. Therefore, the only effect of the amendment would be to unreasonably subject broadcasters to a $325,000 penalty for the random utterance of an expletive at a live sporting event, convention, or performance." This of course is a point that the PTC and FCC chairman Martin are desperate to make people forget. It is their claim that any use of the "f-word and s-word" is by the very nature of the words not only obscene but in the case of the F-word can only be seen in a sexual context, and that by overturning the FCC decision on fleeting obscenities the "liberal" 2nd Circuit has permitted writers to fill their scripts with those words. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also states in their letter that "Senator Brownback's amendment on 'excessively violent video programming' is fatally flawed because it fails to acknowledge that descriptions or depictions of violence on television are protected as free speech by the First Amendment of the Constitution," and that "The amendment is also unconstitutionally vague and overly broad. It appears to cover everything from fictional violence to war coverage to sporting events. The resulting regulatory uncertainty would needlessly harm the ability of the broadcast industry to supply the type and variety of television programming sought by the American television viewer. Indeed, the amendment could severely distort the market and alter business models by forcing programming and all associated advertising onto alternative media platforms, such as the Internet."

The Chamber's letter also cuts to the heart of the difference between economic conservatives and social conservatives – because I'm sure that at its philosophical heart the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a conservative organization – and that is the need for government to regulate. In the second paragraph of its letter the Chamber states, "Government regulation over broadcasting should be kept to the minimum and exercised only to the degree clearly required by the public interest. Parents currently have the tools necessary to protect their children from inappropriate content.... Moreover, two-thirds of all U.S. households do not even include a child under 18. Therefore, there is not a public interest justification for further government regulation of the broadcasting industry." They state this point again in the next to last paragraph saying that, "Moreover, the amendment would constitute government intervention where there is not a market failure. If a show does not achieve high enough ratings, it is removed from the schedule. At the same time, parents have the tools needed to protect their children." But of course the PTC has argued and continues to argue to anyone who will listen that the tools that parents have (and the letter specifically mentions the V-chip) not only don't work but are worse than useless, and that parents need government to intervene in order to protect their children (and, though the PTC doesn't come out and say it, themselves). This is in stark contrast to the TVWatch survey that the letter quotes that states that "92% of parents agree with the statement: "Government involvement in curbing the amount of violence on television is okay in theory, but at the end of the day, the best way to prevent a child from seeing content deemed inappropriate is a parent in the home...not a politician in Washington."

The PTC's Broadcast Worst of the Week is a show which was on the list a couple of weeks ago and which was cancelled even before that; The Loop. The PTC cites "multiple instances of casual sex, infidelity, and strong sexual innuendo" as reasons for naming it as the Worst of the Week. The storyline they describe has Sam, wearing a fat suit after a complaint from some passengers on the airline for which he works, being seduced by his boss's girlfriend who he was meant to spy on because she was suspected of being unfaithful. The PTC takes a certain pleasure in detailing a "graphic scene is shown of Sam receiving implied fellatio and moaning in the airplane lavatory." The big thing though is the conclusion that the PTC emerges with: "The Loop represents some of the worst and most inappropriate programming for the family hour, unapologetically polluting prime time with raunchy sexual themes. The Loop is exactly the type of program that parents should guard their families against." Set aside inflammatory adjectives like "polluting" and the reference to the non-existent "Family Hour" which only the PTC believes still exists. It's that last part of that last sentence that counts: "...parents should guard their families against." The PTC's entire point in their lobbying is that parents don't/can't/won't guard their families against objectionable programs so that an organization like the PTC has to do it for them by lobbying and pressuring government to do the "right" thing – the right thing being defined by the PTC, rather than by parents themselves who know their own families and know what they themselves want and don't want their kids to see.

The PTC's Cable Worst of the Week (all the Cable Worst of the Week links go back to the current WOTW so you may not see this) is Kathy Griffin's My Life On The D-List (on Bravo) which the PTC says, "started as a mock-umentary, chronicling Griffin's pseudo-celebrity misadventures. But now the show documents her climb to A-list fame. Not only has Griffin performed in Carnegie Hall and garnered an Emmy nomination, she may just become the newest addition to ABC's The View." This may come as a news flash, but none of that puts her on the A-List or even rising to the A-List. Still, that's not the PTC's objection, though they warn ABC to "look over this comic's raunchy and crude reality series." What caught their attention in this particular episode is Griffin's appearances as hostess of the "GayVN Awards" (which is an off-shoot of the Adult Video News – AVN – Awards). A the PTC puts it, "If you aren't familiar with the GayVN awards, they highlight 'acting' accomplishments within the homosexual pornography industry. Homosexual Porn Oscars, if you will. A niche market, yes—but one near and dear to the heart of Kathy Griffin." The review then describes Griffin picking out her wardrobe for the show, which given that this is Kathy Griffin we're talking about, was probably done with an indescribable edge that doesn't come across when read on the printed page. But greater anger seems to be derived from the venue for Griffin's appearance, the awards show itself. Now I have no doubt that the PTC would be just as irate if Griffin had been hosting the main AVN Awards, which are more oriented to the mainstream side of porn (though they don't object to Gay porn there either) but because it's the GayVN awards, there's a bit of a patina of homophobia. The highlight this moment in particular: "An unnamed presenter and presumable porn star, gives this introduction before handing out one of the gala's many awards: 'Best all-sex video. That would be that slap on it, spit on it, stick it in the ass kind of video you love to see.' The crowd's reaction? Effusive cheering." After noting that Bravo airs the episode "at noontime and even at eight in the morning" they add, "It's clear that BRAVO pushes this indecent content in pursuit of ratings. What's less clear is why all cable subscribers — whether they watch it or not — are forced to subsidize it every month." Setting aside the fallacy that cable companies "subsidize" shows that don't perform well in the ratings – and it is a fallacy – the material that the PTC describes in their review hasn't shown me any indication of "indecent content" except that the appearance was at an awards show that honoured Porn – Gay porn at that – and I'm not entirely sure that the objection isn't primarily due to Gay Porn being the focus of the awards.

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