Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Short Takes – July 24, 2007

Apologies are in order. I meant for this to be longer, earlier, and more interesting. The longer and earlier were harmed by a bit of a problem that's developed with the fingers of my right hand; I suspect it's arthritis, and me without any of Granny Clampett's (well strictly speaking Granny Moses's) Rheumatis medicine. It's made typing a bit of a pain literally. I have a system, really I do, but implementing it has been a bit hit and miss.

Given that this is the time when the professional critics head for Los Angeles for the semi-annual Television Critics Association press tour there's more than a little news out there, but in most cases the news tends to be in the form of who is in what (Katee Sackoff – yay – and Isaiah Washington – not so much of a yay – have both been signed to play recurring roles in Bionic Woman; just an example) and promotional material. It doesn't mean that I wouldn't love to be down there (all I need is someone to pay me for writing this stuff in dollar amounts large enough to pay the costs of two or three weeks in Los Angeles every six months), but the fact is that a lot of what the TCA press tour is about is the attempt to spin the stories about the networks and their new and returning shows. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Oh, by the way, don't forget to vote in the poll!

The new host of The Price Is Right is...: Drew Carey. One of the only good things about this problem with my hand is that I'm able to feed you this bit of fresh news. Carey, who is hosting the new CBS prime time game show The Power Of 10, revealed that he had finalized the deal to host The Price is Right during his appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman on Monday night, although since the show is taped earlier in the day it was actually completed Monday afternoon. According to Carey he was notified that the deal had been completed less than fifteen minutes before his appearance on the Letterman show. Drew Carey will probably do all right as the host of The Price Is Right. On the plus side, he has had experience hosting a live or live to tape show both from The Power Of 10 and earlier with Whose Line Is It Anyway? In addition he's personable and has something of an everyman vibe about him. On the downside he's not as polished as Barker was and hasn't shown that much experience in dealing with the mass audience on a personal level. The biggest strike against him may be that he's a comedian and sometimes has something of a sarcastic bent to him. The thing about The Price is Right or almost any game show is that you have to take it and the contestants seriously. It's going to be interesting to see how Carey adapts to his new job. The pressure is going to be on him, not unlike the way it was for Katie Couric, to live up to the standards of his predecessor while still making the job his own. But I don't expect Drew Carey to be under the same sort of constant and hypercritical scrutiny that Couric has had to endure.

Schedule changes at NBC: You know what they say about an old broom seeping clean? Well Ben Silverman hasn't exactly swept the NBC schedule clean of the shows that his predecessor as head of the NBC Entertainment Division announced but he did shake the schedule up a bit. He started by moving the new series Chuck from the second hour of Tuesday night to the first hour of Monday as a lead in for Heroes, making Monday night "Science Fiction Night" (Chuck, Heroes, JourneyMan). Next, he extended Biggest Loser from one hour to ninety minutes and put a half-hour version of The Singing Bee on from 9:30 to 10 p.m. (Eastern). The Singing Bee, which had a very successful debut two weeks ago and had been scheduled to alternate with 1 vs. 100 on Friday night. On Friday night, 1 vs. 100 has been shelved and replaced by the second episode of Deal Or No Deal. The game show will serve as the lead-in for Friday Night Lights, which has swapped with Las Vegas, which moves to Friday's third hour.

On the whole I think that this tinkering has been an improvement to the NBC schedule. It gives Friday Night Lights a more accessible time slot with a stronger lead while allowing the comedy-drama Las Vegas to play around with more adult storylines (although the PTC will likely insist that Friday Night Lights is too smutty even for the second hour in much the same way they did with Las Vegas). The Singing Bee will probably do better in its current format as a half-hour show than it would have done at an hour. My one reservation here is that the later time slot puts it up against the last half hour of the Dancing With The Stars results show. The Singing Bee could very easily work as the first show of the night, particularly up against ABC's Cavemen. Finally, by moving Chuck to the first hour of Monday night Silverman has not only established a clear theme for the night but installed a show that probably going to be "friendly" to the "family" audience – youth oriented – in a time slot where it will be effective. There's a lot less contrast in having that show leading out a themed night than serving as the jump between Biggest Loser and Law & Order: SVU. About the only show that is really screwed by these changes is 1 vs. 100, a show that I personally enjoy more than either The Singing Bee or Deal Or No Deal. Best of all this is not the sort of mass schedule modification that Kevin Reilly engaged in last year to "save" Studio 60 from the combination of Grey's Anatomy and CSI, which was immensely destructive to NBC's line-up and didn't even accomplish its main goal. This is more along the lines of surgical tinkering with a sense of logic to it.

Who does the PTC hate this week?: Well the PTC positively loves the US Senate Commerce Committee for "protecting children from indecent content on television." The Committee passed a Bill (do committees actually pass bills?) to institutionalize the ban on any use of "profanity and indecent images" that the FCC attempted to enforce, including the notion of fleeting obscenities that was struck down by the Second Circuit decision. As the PTC writes in their press statement, "We applaud the Senate Commerce Committee, and especially the bipartisan leadership of Senators Rockefeller, Inouye, Stevens, and Pryor, for putting the interests of families above the self-serving interests of the broadcast industry." They further go on to say that "It is clearly in the interest of children and families that nudity and inappropriate sexual content -- such as the infamous Super Bowl strip show -- should not be shown on television before 10 pm. The public interest was clearly served by today's bipartisan Senate action, and we now call on the full Senate to vote on this measure before the August recess." What the PTC misses in its self-congratulatory rhetoric is the quite serious question of whether any such bill would be able to withstand challenge on constitutional grounds, which after all was a major point of the Second Circuit Court's decision. But no, they don't seem to believe that the Television industry has the simple right to sue for redress against arbitrary actions or to seek a clear and consistent definition of what constitutes acceptable behaviour. Note in this excerpt how they define the industry's efforts as "absurd," that the FCC's ruling was an example of "common sense," and how they make it a point to downplay the validity of the Second Circuit's decision by pointing out that it was only two judges: "Through their lawsuits asserting the 'right' to air profanity during the hours when children are in the audience, and the absurd notion that a striptease during the Super Bowl is not indecent, the broadcast networks continue to show they are not responsible stewards of the public airwaves; but as licensees, the responsibility is theirs. The FCC's authority to enforce common sense decency standards, which were recently stripped by two judges in New York City, must be restored. Today's action is a significant step in the right direction." Of course if the two judges had been a majority in favour of their position, the PTC would have said that they were more than enough and would deny any attempt by the industry to appeal to the Supreme Court, an option which the broadcasting industry does not deny to the FCC.

The fact is that the FCC decision overturned by the Second Circuit was not an example of "common sense decency standards" because it went against previously established precedent on the handling of such situations which had been the standard of behaviour for thirty years. Indeed the FCC has contradicted itself since their decision on obscenities by saying that it was in fact acceptable for stations to air Saving Private Ryan with the language uncensored despite the fact that it was an example of scripted obscenities rather than "slips of the tongue" or incidental uses of words like "fuck" or "shit" during something like an awards show. This in and of itself is representative of an inconsistent standard on the part of the FCC. If the words are acceptable in Saving Private Rayan then why not NYPD Blue?

The Cable Worst of the Week is Rescue Me. The Cable Worst of the Week is almost always Rescue Me. And it is almost always Rescue Me for the same reason every time. Details change but the essence lingers on. Allow me to summarise the PTC's complaints in the stylings of Mr. Charles Brown: "Blah blah blah 'graphically and crudely'. Blah blah blah 'hand job.' Blah blah blah, 'eye-popping view of Tommy and Janet sexually healing their ruinous relationship.' Blah blah blah 'nymphomaniac former nun.' Blah blah 'sex during church services.' Blah blah 'penchant for pornography.' Blah blah blah 'salacious slate of programming.'" After that there is of course the usual condemnation of the "fact" that "all cable subscribers are forced to subsidize such programming." I put quotes around the word 'fact' because the PTC insists on using the word "subsidize" which my dictionary at least defines as "to aid or assist with a grant of money or by guaranteeing a market."And while I suppose that the existence of FX as a cable network where shows are – for now at least – unrestricted by the regulations that the FCC imposes on over the air stations might be defined as "guaranteeing a market" the implication of a subsidy is that the product or the manufacturer would not continue to exist without the payment of the grant of money. The only way in which cable subscribers are "subsidizing" Rescue Me is by making FX a profitable corporate entity and the degree to which they do that is subject to scrutiny given that FX sells advertising time of the channel. Certainly it is unfair to say that cable subscribers are subsidizing the program when, at the same time, the PTC condemns advertisers who put their commercials on the show. In fact it might be more valid to say that cable subscribers who pay for FX are subsidizing the commercial-free Fox Movie Channel since the fees paid for FX go into the coffers of News Corp which owns Fox Movie Channel.

Broadcast's Worst of the Week is Big Brother. They state that "In the first two episodes this season sex and foul language dominate" and it seems as though the PTC has feels the need to be more explicit about the language in their press release than the show ever was. The PTC's normal method of dealing with obscenities – and they have a far larger list of such things than most people – is either to give only the first and last letter or to use the initials, like "the S-word" or "the F-word." Here's what the PTC press release on Big Brother being the worst of the week said: "Foul language on the two episodes included poorly bleeped words such as 'asshole,' 'shit,' 'tits,' and eleven instances of the word 'fuck.'" Of almost as much interest as the fact that the PTC used the actual words in their press release is their reasoning for condemning the program (well one of them; we'll get to the other shortly). They acknowledged that the words were bleeped, including the ones which have been used on TV before, but it's not good enough for them. The show should be condemned because the bleeping of the words in question does not meet the PTC's standards for such things!

Ah, but that wasn't the only reason for the PTC to be down on the show. There was it seems explicit sexual references on what the PTC is now describing as "the traditional Family Hour." These references came from "flamboyantly homosexual housemate Joe," and dealt with his accusation against his former boyfriend Dustin. "Joe openly and unapologetically announces that he has contracted the disease from implied unprotected sex with Dustin. Dustin adamantly denies that it was he that gave Joe the STD." I'm sure of course that the PTC would just as rigorously condemn any statement by a heterosexual houseguest about contracting gonorrhoea from a former long term relationship, but they seemed to take inordinate glee from pointing out that it was Gay people having unprotected sex.

The PTC finishes their comments on Big Brother with the almost ritual condemnation of the TV ratings system. According to the PTC "With a TV rating PG-L, no parent could rely on the V-Chip to protect young viewers from such content. Both episodes were unconscionably aired promoting promiscuous and crude behavior in the homes of unsuspecting families." According to Wikipedia, PG-L refers to "mild coarse language." The other "descriptors" at this level are V-moderate violence, S-sexual situations, D-suggestive dialog. The PTC has acknowledged that the strongest language used by the "houseguests" was bleeped, even if it wasn't up to the PTC's standards (they also omit the fact that CBS "fuzzed" the mouths of houseguests when necessary to protect lip-readers). And given the reaction of people both inside the house and outside to Joe's repeated comments about the STD that he claimed Dustin gave to him, it can hardly be seen as "promoting promiscuous behaviour." I would be interested in knowing exactly the PTC would rate any episode of Big Brother using the V-Chip. But of course they will not say what they think would be acceptable, because of course the V-Chip and the ratings system doesn't work.

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