Monday, July 30, 2007

Short Takes – July 30, 2007

Well this at least I'll be able to get out on time – or at least right now it looks like I'll be able to get it out on time – which means I can finally get back onto something like a schedule. Writing to deadline was never a strong suit of mine, even at the University of Saskatchewan. Now let's get on with the week's news and my opinions.

This is News?: All of the network news divisions seem to be out to redefine their prime time News shows and their News divisions. NBC is devoting a considerable portion of their Dateline NBC shows to the To Catch A Predator shows (a concept that I truly abhor – see below), while CBS long since converted their show 48 Hours (which I liked) into 48 Hours Mysteries (which I don't). However the News division which has adopted the most "flexible" definition of "News" is undoubtedly ABC. A couple of years ago (IMDB says 2004 but my records say the summer of 2005) ABC had a "documentary" called Hooking Up that was supposed to be a documentary about women looking for love and finding dates/relationships online. This pseudo-documentary came from ABC News. Now, ABC News is producing a "documentary" called 6 Degrees of Martina McBride in which aspiring country music singers who can prove some sort of "connection" to Country superstar Martina McBride in six moves or less – a la the 6 Degrees Of Kevin Bacon game – will get a studio session with McBride and the best will get a recording deal. The special airs on July 30, and it's a vaguely interesting subject (but I'll be watching Hell's Kitchen. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune ABC News Division executive producer David Sloane said that the show is "a serious examination of business school management theory." It's all part of Sloan's philosophy about News: "My definition [of news] is limitless. I think we constantly have to explore different places at the table for news. Just like you guys [in newspapers]. You have a front page. You have a [features] section. You have an entertainment section. You have a page 47. You have page 3. I think we're looking for new ways of engaging the viewer. I'm really all about that." In my book, while 48 Hours Mysteries and To Catch A Predator at least have the patina of news, Sloan's advocacy of shows like 6 Degrees of Martina McBride blurs the lines between News and Entertainment to virtual non-existence, and from a network that lauded the legacy of Peter Jennings this is disappointing to say the least.

Musical showrunners: Well not quite – that assumes that the people involved are swapping jobs in some sort of bizarre daisy chain which isn't what's happening here. What has happened is that Rob Thomas, who was creator and showrunner for Veronica Mars became showrunner for ABC's Miss/Guided when Veronica Mars was cancelled, left his new show after a month. The reason given was "creative differences." Apparently Thomas wasn't entirely happy with the decision to make the show "more of a straight-ahead comedy." The other departure is former Angel co-creator David Greenwalt, who left the CBS show Moonlight after two months in which every role except the lead had been recast. According to the Hollywood Reporter Greenwalt's departure is due to "personal, health reasons."

Comebacks, of sorts: Three shows and an actor to be exact, although the nature of the returns are not necessarily in the form that they previously held.

  • ReBoot was a groundbreaking computer animated series from Mainframe Entertainment which ran from 1994 to 2001 (and was one of my favourite series). The series had trouble finding an American network and when it did occasionally ran into censorship problems. Mainframe, now known as Rainmaker Entertainment after being acquired by Rainmaker Income Fund, will be producing three feature length films to relaunch the franchise. One thing that I find vaguely worrying is that Rainmaker will be working with the website Zeros2Heroes to allow fans of the show to choose between five "completely new takes on the ReBoot world" as created by five previously unknown writers.
  • Another show that will be returning as films will be Futurama. It was announced at ComicCon that the show will return as a full-length high-def movie called Bender's Big Score that will be sold on DVD. This will be followed by a further three films. The four movies will then be split into four half-hour episodes each (16 in total) to be aired on Comedy Central.
  • Also at ComicCon, Joss Whedon revealed that Anthony Stewart Head will be returning to the role of Rupert Giles in a movie for the BBC called Ripper. The project had actually been planned as a miniseries during the latter period of Buffy The Vampire Slayer's run but it was apparently difficult for the parties involved to come to an agreement. In 2005 Whedon had said of the project, "it's something I really want to get off the ground, but the ground is kinda sticky."
  • Finally (and this is a strange one) Rory Cochrane will be returning to the cast of CSI: Miami playing his original character of Tim Speedle. You may recall that Speedle died in an episode of the show's second season, at Cochrane's request because he disliked the "daily grind" and wanted to do more film work. However he later expressed his displeasure in the way that Speedle was written out of the show; his pistol misfired because he hadn't been diligent in cleaning it. A CBS spokesman confirmed to E! News that Cochrane will be returning to the show. There was no explanation of how the character will return except in this remark from the CBS spokesman: "He will be reprising the role of Tim Speedle and it's not a flashback. He will be interacting with his old partner and friend, Eric Delko (Adam Rodriguez)." This has led to a lot of speculation of how the character can return after having his brains spilled over a jewelry store floor; one popular theory is a faked death and witness protection. However there may be a clue in the CBS spokesman's statement – "He will be interacting with his old partner and friend, Eric Delko." It doesn't say that he'll be interacting with any of the other characters on the show. This lead me to think that seeing Speedle will be a symptom of Delko own brain injury, suffered when the character was shot in the season which ended this past May. It makes as much sense as any other theory.

To Catch A Predator sued – twice: NBC's Dateline NBC has a major sensation with their To Catch A Predator episodes, but they may have gone too far. The show and NBC have been sued by the family of Louis Conradt who committed suicide after being confronted by police and NBC journalists at his home in Terell Texas. According to a Reuters report on the suit, Conradt had been targeted after he arranged to meet a "13 year-old boy" at a house in Marshall Texas. However Conradt did not actually go to the house. The "13 year-old boy" was in fact a member of the private vigilante group Perverted Justice posing as a child. When Conradt did not appear at the house, police and members of the NBC team travelled to his home, Conradt admitted them and then shot himself. The lawsuit, brought by his sister Patricia Conradt on behalf of his estate claims that the NBC team "steamrolled" local authorities to arrest the retired district attorney. To quote from the article, "The lawsuit said police and members of the Dateline crew traveled to Conradt's house 'with neither a search warrant nor an arrest warrant' that met legal standards. Both police officers and other members of the party were wearing cameras ... very large cameras, on the cutting edge of technology, that normally are worn only by television reporters,' the lawsuit said. 'They were met by (Conradt). He told them "I'm not gonna hurt anyone" and shot himself. Then a police officer said to a Dateline producer, "That'll make good TV." Death was an hour later,' it said."

This is not the first suit faced by NBC in connection with the To Catch A Predator series. According to The Smoking Gun former NBC producer Marsha Bartel has sued for wrongful dismissal after she was fired by NBC News less than six months after she became sole producer of the series. Bartel's firing came after she complained that the show violated journalistic ethics in a number of ways and many of NBC's own journalistic guidelines. These included the financial relationship between NBC and Perverted Justice that represents a "financial incentive to lie to trick targets of its sting", and that "Perverted Justice does not provide 'complete transcripts from its trolling operations,' so network officials 'cannot independently verify the accuracy' of the group's transcripts." She further stated in her suit that NBC has covered up various things about the To Catch A Predator stings including leading sting targets "into additional acts of humiliation (such as being encouraged to remove their clothes) in order to enhance the comedic effect of the public exposure of these persons", and police officers acting improperly when working with the NBC crew including "goofing off by waving rubber chickens in the faces of sting targets while forcing them to the ground and handcuffing them." When Bartel complained about controversial statements made by Perverted Justice founder David Corvo she was told by higher ups at Dateline NBC and NBC News, "We all know they're nuts." Bartel is seeking at least $1 million in her suit.

I may be alone in this but I find this whole To Catch A Predator concept to be a dangerous step down an incredibly dangerous slope. This is dangerous in so many ways. Start with this one – by partnering with Perverted Justice, NBC isn't reporting the news they are creating the news and doing it in such a way that violates virtually every journalistic standard. This isn't like the FOX series Cops which has documentary crews riding along with police officers, this is NBC subsidizing a private organization using potentially unethical means to target people. Does NBC's involvement taint the court process for the people that are caught – you know the ones who actually expect to have an untainted jury pool and a fair trial. The details of the Conradt case are even more egregious. The fact that he did not visit the "sting house", regardless of the reason – he apparently intended to go but his sister came to visit before he was going to leave – makes it questionable whether the police could have obtained either an arrest warrant or even a search warrant. In the normal course of events – like if this were a police sting rather than one set up by a private organization at the behest of a TV network – the procedure would probably have been to set up another meeting at a different time and location. But because of the involvement of the TV show and its limited time in the region – and no doubt because Conradt was a prominent member of the community that NBC and Perverted Justice wanted to out as a pedophile because of his prominence – little niceties like warrants and burden of proof were set aside. Based on comments in other forums, a lot of people don't find this particularly troubling, and a lot of people seem disappointed that more of the alleged pedophiles caught by Dateline don't take the route Conradt did (and some seem to think that they should be given some "help" with the process). For myself, between the questionable legal situation, the violation of journalistic ethics, the apparent targeting of some people because of their prominence in the community (the way they went after Conradt), and the financial relationship between NBC and Perverted Justice, I find this whole concept smarmy and more than a little disgusting. The sooner it is driven off the air the better.

Who does the PTC hate this week?: Well, certainly not the FCC. The PTC has a press release making a very big deal of their appointment to the FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee. The fact that the release is dated July 26, 2007 is a bit misleading given that they were appointed to the committee when it was rechartered in early June (link is to a PDF file). The purposes of the committee – stated in the recharter document – are (1) Consumer protection and education (e.g., cramming, slamming, consumer friendly billing, detariffing, bundling of services, Lifeline/Linkup programs, customer service, privacy, telemarketing abuses, and outreach to underserved populations, such as Native Americans and persons living in rural areas), (2) Access by people with disabilities (e.g., telecommunications relay services, video description, closed captioning, accessible billing and access to telecommunications products and services), and (3) Impact upon consumers of new and emerging technologies (e.g., availability of broadband, digital television, cable, satellite, low power FM, and the convergence of these and emerging technologies). The committee has 28 members including the PTC including groups as diverse as the AARP, Appalachian Regional Commission, Communication Service for the Deaf, Communication Service for the Deaf, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, League of United Latin America Citizens, National Association of Broadcasters, and The Seeing Eye, Inc. Of course you won`t find any of this out in the PTC press release. It stresses items that the Consumer Advisory Committee isn`t even involved in: "The Parents Television Council represents 1.2 million parents, grandparents, and citizens who are concerned about the content on television and in other entertainment media. The PTC's voice will result in a positive impact for all Americans as we are distinctively positioned to provide opinion and insight into how consumers think about a wide range of communication issues facing our country."

Speaking of content, the PTC has added new content to their weekly best and worsts: Misrated! In this section they go after shows that they feel have been inaccurately rated by the networks in an effort to get innocent children and adult to see and hear smut and violence. This time around they have decided that the ABC summer series Greeks (which normally airs on ABC Family on cable) is misrated. Despite the fact that the series is rated PG-14 the PTC feels that "Parents relying on the TV Ratings or the V-Chip to protect their children from graphic sexual content would have been let down, because this TV-14 episode did not carry either the "S" or "D" descriptors." Their complaint focuses first on a scene where on character (Casey) confronts another character (Rebecca) about sleeping with her boyfriend (Evan). I won't reprint the dialog that the PTC shows in their release, not because it is "smutty" but because it is extensive. There is also a scene in which Casey receives a video message on her cell phone which shows Evan and Rebecca apparently having sex. This is how the PTC describes the scene: "Although the screen that Casey is viewing the video on is small, it is clear what is going on and the clip is rather intense. The video depicts Rebecca on top of Evan, without a shirt, with a clear instance of Rebecca thrusting while kissing Evan." This does not sound too unlike some scenes in mainstream movies or even some TV shows. However the PTC insists that this show is mislabelled: "Though the rating is TV-14 indicating that it is not intended for viewers under the age of 14, parents of teens would have been caught off guard by the intense sex scene between Rebecca and Evan which was not signaled by the presence of an "S" descriptor. Parents would have also been unprepared for the heavy sexual dialogue (with no discussion of risk, responsibility or consequences) because the episode carried no "D" descriptor. The TV-14 rating alone did not give parents adequate information to judge the appropriateness of this episode for their teen." The problem with this argument is that the "intense sex scene" is not seen clearly but is only visible on the screen of the cell phone. As for the dialogue, the bit that the PTC quoted was downright innocuous, with the most explicit statement coming after Casey accuses Rebecca of having sex with Evan but before knowing that he is Rebecca's boyfriend: "I did. Rush night, and it was amazing..." That's it. If there was more intense dialogue, the PTC certainly didn't record it for posterity.

I will pass over this week's Broadcast Worst of the Week only because the PTC, apparently having no new targets to overanalyse, has chosen to declare a rerun of My Name Is Earl to be the worst of the week. Instead, let us look at the Cable Worst of the Week which is the MTV series Scarred. According to Wikipedia "On each episode of Scarred, several real-life risk-takers share the stories of how they were scarred or injured while attempting dangerous stunts on, primarily skateboards (but, occasionally, in-line skates, skis, snowboards, and bikes). The show features a segment called "Scar Stories", which broadcasts videos caught on the scene of individuals dramatically injuring themselves to a great extent, (the wound often leaving a scar), hence the show's name." The Wikipedia article also notes that the show, "like many shows in the same genre, such as Jackass, provides a warning to audiences that they should not attempt the stunts or send in home videos." The PTC takes the opportunity of the return of the show for its second season to go through the five video sequences in the episode in aggressively describing each of the accidents in gory detail. This is one of the shorter descriptions: "Jared gruesomely cuts his face after his skateboard pops up into his eye. His eye is bloodied and bruised and his face is shown with blood pouring out, as Jared's friend exclaims enthusiastically, "Holy [bleeped 'f*ck'] dude, your whole face is a bloody [bleeped 'f*cking'] mess! Holy [bleeped 'sh*t'] dude! Your [bleeped 'f*cking'] eye is [bleeped 'f*cked'], dude…your eye is, like, popping out of your head!" The PTC sums up its review by stating "It is difficult to know which element of Scarred is most repugnant: that MTV considers such programming entertainment; that by showing it, MTV is actually encouraging other teens to mutilate themselves in hopes of getting on TV; or that every cable subscriber in America is forced to support this show through their cable fees."

Setting aside my personal view on shows like Scarred and Jackass, neither of which is to my taste and indeed Scarred sounds like an incredibly stupid show, I would like to tackle the whole assertion that a show like this is "encouraging other teens to mutilate themselves in hopes of getting on TV." Certainly it's a common accusation about this show and Jackass but how is this different from someone setting up a situation in which he gets injured in order to appear on America's Funniest Home Videos – assuming of course that such things occur on either show. In my opinion it seems to be a matter of degrees. The truth of course is that in this era of relatively inexpensive video equipment, and the usually exhibitionistic nature extreme sports types their accidents are likely to be recorded for posterity. A quick and by no means extensive search on Youtube for "Skateboarding Accidents" produced a listing of 1,440 videos. And it's not as if kids have ever needed the possibility of appearing on a TV show to do stupid things – when he was about 9 my brother Greg did a pretty good job of abrading his face when he tried ramp jumping something on his bicycle. So yes, a show like Scarred sounds quite repugnant to me and if it were to be taken off the air tomorrow I probably wouldn't shed a tear, but I am not the intended audience. And, not only does MTV "considers such programming entertainment" but so does that intended audience, an audience that also watches professional Wrestling and Ultimate Fighting. And yet again, people need to be reminded that this is a show that has advertisers. "Every cable subscriber in America" is not supporting this show with their cable fees, advertisers are, and if the show was not attracting an audience those advertisers would take their money and go elsewhere and hte show would be cancelled. But of course that wouldn't "prove" the PTC's point.

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