Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Short Takes – August 13, 2007

It is sometimes irritating how time can slip away. I meant to do one of these last week, along with a TV on DVD posting, but with one thing and another (and another after that) by the time either one would have been done it would have been time to do this one – and some of the stuff that I had promised myself I would do this past week wouldn't have been done. And that doesn't even count some ongoing projects that have yet to be resolved. Plus I really wanted to get out to the new casino that opened about 24 miles out of town (a long and gory story exists about why it is 24 miles outside of Saskatoon but the short version is that the people of my hometown are moralistic morons – if you'd like to hear the full story ask me in comments and I'll do an off topic post) – I wanted to go on opening day (Friday) but decided against it and now I don't know when I'll get the chance.

Another thing that fell by the wayside was taking notes for this post. I have a system but it sort of fell apart this week in part because I didn't really check all of my usual sources. The end result is that I'm sort or winging it this week and it might not be terribly long or complete. Well except for the PTC section this week, which is huge.

Big Brother bigotry: The really big story concerning this season of Big Brother in the U.S. has nothing to do with banner planes or the twist of "America's player" or "Evel" Dick (that's how he wants "evil" spelled) cursing at anyone who gets in his way and dumping iced tea on Jen's head. No it has to do with statements that have never been broadcast either on the three weekly episodes of Big Brother that air on CBS or on the nightly three hour live show – Big Brother After Dark – that airs on ShowtimeToo. These were statements made by houseguest Amber which happened to be picked up on the Internet live feeds. Speaking to fellow houseguest (and truly odd Christian – at least in my experience) Jameka, Amber said "The majority of people I know from New York are Jewish, and the majority of Jewish people I know, my gosh, so many are so selfish. So weird. Even my sister always tells me, she's like my sister, and my mom will meet someone and I'll be like, 'I don't like that person. That person doesn't seem like a very good person to me,' and my mom and sister are like, 'You know why?' Why? 'They're Jewish.' How do you know? 'Amber you can tell by their last name, you can tell by their nose.' I'm like, 'Really?'" One of the other houseguests with whom Amber has had an on and off feud is Eric Stein who, as it happens, is from the New York City area (Westchester County) and is Jewish.

Needless to say the statements made their way from the show's live feed to the various video sharing sites including YouTube. Also needless to say there has been considerable reaction, some calling for Amber's removal from the house. It was a story on both FOX News and CNN. Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, said "It's part of the unintended consequences of the communications revolution. Anybody can say what they do - but reality shows are now giving license to these expressions of anti-Semitism. Now, all of a sudden, the world is privy to their bigotry and it's on national television... then enhanced on YouTube. What they've done is distributed anti-Semitism -- which started as a private conversation -- and by putting it on a reality TV show broadcast it to the world at large. I want CBS to understand they are facilitating anti-Semitism. They should act responsibly to the community; they are legitimizing bigoted conversation." In the same posting on TMZ, CBS responded by stating that "Big Brother is a reality show about watching a group of people who have no privacy 24/7 - and seeing every moment of their lives. At times, the Houseguests reveal prejudices and other beliefs that we do not condone. We certainly find the statements made by Amber Siyavus on the live Internet feed to be offensive and they will not be part of any future broadcast on the CBS Television Network."

I confess that this whole controversy bothers me, and it bothers me on both sides. It is pretty apparent that Amber is a very stupid and very strange woman. She's a former drug addict who lied a couple of times to her former boyfriend about being pregnant. That in fact was part of the reason for her extremely angry breach with Eric. Her bigotry isn't surprising. In many ways it is a throwback to the way that North American society was for many years, the sort of prejudice that was common into the 1950s, well after Hitler's rise and fall took anti-Semitism to a frightening extreme. That said, I feel that the statements that have been made about Amber's statements are significant overreaction. They are also expected of course. The live feeds are just that – live – and therefore uncensored. CBS has not, and according to their statement will not "broadcast it to the world at large." The live feeds are Internet rather than television and are a pay to view service. That's significantly different from making "the world ... privy to their bigotry and it's on national television." What is CBS supposed to do to not distribute anti-Semitism? Were they supposed to pull the plug on the Feed and if so at what point were they supposed to do it? Were they supposed to force YouTube to pull the clips off of their site? It is a fact that Amber was aware that she is on camera all the time but it is also a fact that people who are under constant surveillance – either in documentaries or in business situations – who are aware of the fact come to either forget or ignore the fact that they are under surveillance and revert to their normal pattern of life. I think that Amber either forgot that she was constantly on camera or was just living her life and having a conversation with someone she regards as her closest friend in the house. That her speech was bigoted is obvious but so is the fact that if Amber's statement hadn't been the subject of such righteous indignation far fewer people would have seen it or been aware of it since few people – including our Jackie – watch every minute of the live feeds (though she tries).

Coming to Criminal MindsHarvey Keitel Joe Montegna: When Mandy Patinkin pulled – well a Mandy Patinkin – and suddenly left the successful Criminal Minds in much the same way that he left Chicago Hope (then for "personal reasons" now for "creative differences") a number of names were bandied about as possible replacements of various degrees of seriousness. Geena Davis was under consideration as were Michael Keaton and Bob Hoskins. Eventually it seemed likely that Patinkin would be replaced by Harvey Keitel, star of such movies as Reservoir Dogs and The Bad Lieutenant. TVSquad actually announced that he was in serious negotiations for the part. And almost immediately they had to recant when a TV Guide report stated that the negotiations had fallen through. Eventually it was announced that Joe Montegna, who previously starred in Joan of Arcadia, and First Monday, would be replacing Patinkin.

Who does the PTC hate this week?: And the answer is so many things that it's hard to keep count.

The PTC announced their list of "Best" and "Worst" advertisers. The definitions are obviously based on the degree to which the company advertises on programming that the PTC regards as suitable, although they say that they base it on "how frequently they sponsor wholesome, family-oriented television shows or those containing sexually graphic, violent or profane material on broadcast television." The 10 "Best" are (in order): Proctor & Gamble, Walt Disney Co., Ford, Unilever, Viacom, McDonalds, Johnson & Johnson, Schering-Plough [Products include: Afrin, Claritin, Nasonex, Dr. Scholls, Lotrimin], Coca-Cola, and General Mills. The 10 "Worst" are: Toyota, GM, Limited Brands, Payless Shoe Source, Vonage, Volkswagen, Dunkin Brands, Reckitt Benckiser [Products include: Clearasil, Lysol, Spray and Wash, Air Wick, Woolite, Jet Dry, Glass Plus, Electrasol, Easy Off], GEICO, and Bayer.

There is an obvious fault in this list, and that is that it seems to assume that the "good" advertisers are making the decisions that they have as to where to put their advertising dollars based on moral grounds, and presumably the "bad" advertisers are immoral scum. Maybe some of that is in fact the case – at least as far as the "good" advertisers – but I suspect a lot of both groups' choices are based on where they can get the most bang for their bucks; in other words which programming will target their demographics that buys their products. Obviously Disney is going to market most of their movies and their theme parks to families with pre-teen children and will therefore advertise primarily on programs that reach that demographic. In much the same way, most automobile companies will target their advertising to people who buy cars. General Motors and General Mills are not aiming at the same demographics and it makes sense that they will advertise to different audiences and on different programs. If General Mills suddenly found that the population who bought their cereals was watching Rescue Me, they would be advertising on Rescue Me.

Next up, the PTC is upset with MyNetwork TV, and its parent company News Corp. You may remember MyNetwork TV; they were the motley collection of UPN and WB stations, many of them owned by News Corp (which also owns FOX and FX) that were formed into a network after being excluded after The CW was created. Their line-up is a thoroughly pathetic mix of reality shows, movies and a lesser extreme fighting league with Wednesdays in the summer being devoted to "various programs." On August 1, MyNetwork TV aired the first two episodes of the new F/X series Damages, which stars Glenn Close in what the PTC descrinbes as "the so-called Family Hour" (whether the use of "so-called" is a case of the PTC finally acknowledging that the Family Hour doesn't really exist or – more likely – is a protest against the networks who fail to acknowledge the "existence" of the Family Hour, is unknown). The PTC was scathing in their denunciation of News Corp for running the show: "The programming executives at News Corp. and its subsidiaries have demonstrated once again their blatant disregard for children and families, in spite of giving considerable lip-service about being responsible. Coming less than a year after airing a scripted 'S-word' on an 8 p.m. broadcast program, this contemptuous act – airing an adult-themed, mature-rated, 10 p.m. cable program on broadcast television during the family hour – illustrates just how little they truly care about their public interest obligation." Later they add "More children watch television during the 8 pm hour than on Saturday mornings or after school. If the Fox executive suite truly cared about acting responsibly, the company wouldn't put an adult-targeted, MA-rated cable program on one of its broadcast networks at the start of the family hour. Their FX channel has proven to be a cable network that regularly – and proudly – attacks the decency sensibilities of most American families, and now this same graphic and gratuitous content is airing on broadcast television at 8 pm. This behavior proves once again that the self-serving TV ratings system managed by the industry is a sham. Television networks cannot be trusted to rate their own programs. If parents are ever going to trust and rely on a TV ratings system for content information, the system needs to be accurate, consistent and transparent. The networks must be held to an objective and uniform standard, and there needs to be a real consequence for failing to apply ratings accurately."

In a separate article the PTC outlines their objections to the show which primarily seems to be that not enough was cut to meet the standards that the PTC feels should be met for the rating and descriptors used by the network. The FX airing of the show was rated as TV-MA SL (Mature Audience, Sexual Content, Language). The My Network TV version was listed as TV-14 SLV (Sex, Language, Violence). The PTC notes that an article in Variety about the airing of the show stated "the Damages episodes will be edited to reflect a TV-14 rating, which means some of the language will be trimmed, as well as some sexual content, from the original FX airing." In other words, violent scenes would not be edited. The PTC then stated that "Comparing the FX premiere episode with the MyNetworkTV premiere episode, the only discernable difference is that all instances of the "s-word" and "g-ddamn" were cut, as well as a few (but not all) instances of the word "bitch." Left uncut were the words "ass," "hell," "damn," and "bitch," which are not uncommon for TV-14 broadcast shows." In other words the show had been edited to bring the show down to the common standard for a TV-14 broadcast show. They next turn their attention to a bedroom scene that was edited from 55 seconds to 30 seconds. Here's the PTC description of the scene: "there is a scene in which the main character Ellen and her fiancée Noah are clearly having sex. The viewer can see Ellen drag her hands down Noah's bare back, which is glistening with sweat. They passionately kiss, Ellen is shown on top of her fiancée smiling while Noah is on the bottom, smiling up at her." The PTC states "The FX version of this scene is 55 seconds long, while the MyNetworkTV version is 30 seconds long – so, to be fair, the executives did "edit" the scene. But are network executives making the argument that if a sex scene on broadcast is shorter than on cable that somehow makes it appropriate content for a 14-year-old? What is of real concern is that the scene was edited for length, not for content." They may very well be arguing just that. During the period of the Production Code in Hollywood after all the duration of a kiss was one of the defining factors as to whether or not a scene was acceptable (any kiss lasting longer than 3 seconds was defined as lewd, and there could be no open mouth kisses). A 30 second sex scene may indeed be acceptable in the context of a TV-14 series with an S descriptor. Finally the PTC objects to two scenes of violence which were unedited between the FX and MyNetwork TV editions despite the fact that the FX version carried a TV-MA rating but no V descriptor while the MyNetwork TV shows had a V descriptor for the TV-14 rating. In other words the violence in the cable version was not sufficient to earn the V descriptor but in the broadcast version it was. In terms of violence the episode would seem to be correctly rated.

The PTC's new Misrated feature seems to be directed primarily at ABC's series (well really ABC Family's series) Greek and their most recent attack on the show contains what has to be the most absurd and prudish thing I've seen in a while, something literally worthy of The Simpsons' Ned Flanders. The piece starts with a piece of dialog between Casey and her ex-boyfriend Cappie which is apparently about coffee: "Nothing starts the day off right like that first cup of Joe. After all, your first is always the best, don't you agree? The one that's most special?" The PTC points out that "Cappie is referring to the fact that he and Casey had their first sexual encounter together." But then they bring out the next part of the same scene where Cappie's fraternity brother comes in. His nickname is "Beaver": "Beaver: 'You guys are way too into your coffee. Pardon. I spy a tasty morning muffin. [Beaver then walks over to Rebecca.] Beaver: 'Top of the morning, muffin.'" The PTC points out "What is the most offensive about this content is that both the term 'beaver' and 'muffin' are commonly used vulgar slang for a part of the female anatomy, and they are deliberately used to emphasize the sexual nature of the conversation." Heavens, what they must think of Beaver Cleaver, the little sex fiend! They also choose to ignore the fact that "muffin" is frequently used as a non-sexual term of endearment and even directed at children. The PTC decries the fact that the episode is rated TV-PG SDL (Sex, Dialog, Language): "If Greek's content is only rated TV-PG SDL, one can only wonder what would warrant the TV-14 SDL rating." In the case of the scene described above, we are obviously seeing double entendre at work, material that more mature people will catch (and presumably be amused by) but which younger and less sophisticated viewers wouldn't catch. The PTC is so fixated on sexual innuendo that they deliberately ignore the non-sexual contexts that exist for the situation. Not that I'm surprised of course

The PTC's Broadcast Worst of the Week was more reruns; in this case a two hour package of Family Guy episodes tied to the new Fox movie Superbad "the latest sex comedy geared for teens and young adults." Despite the fact that the PTC says that the episodes contain "some of the most outrageous and depraved content of the season" they are episodes which have aired before. Instead let's turn to the PTC's Cable Worst of the Week, which is "repeat offender" Rescue Me. Their approach on this one is interesting. They start off with their usual objections to the show: "Rampant alcoholism. Violent outbursts. Rape. Falling babies? Those four lines now sum up Rescue Me, FX's gritty chronicle of the tragic New York City firefighter Tommy Gavin. But last week the program reached a new low: depicting falling, and dying, babies." Which you would think is all they object to but you'd be wrong. They actually try to argue about the artistic merits of the show, but in typical PTC fashion they don't get it: "The producers of the show undoubtedly considered the August 1st episode critical to Tommy's growing sense of alienation." They delineate the events of main character Tommy Gavin's life include his apparent reconciliation with his ex-wife because of a new baby. Then they describe his life falling apart – the baby turns out to be his brother's and his ex-wife is suffering from post-partum depression. And here is where they don't get it: "At this point the show's writers and producers had a choice: they could have depicted, however hyperbolically, the real difficulties of infidelity and parenthood, or they could go for cheap thrills. You can guess which they chose: Tommy, contemplating infanticide is shown dangling Janet's baby over a city bridge." Here's the thing though; it wouldn't be in character for the Tommy Gavin we know deal with this any way other than this. Tommy is an incredibly flawed and haunted human being (arguably schizophrenic), and this is in character for him. And then they got into the question of "art": "Art, whether on your television or in the Louvre, deals with profound – and sometimes ugly – truths of human nature. But disagreement can and should occur on the line between aesthetic evolution and graphic sensationalism. That basic cable viewers – whether offended or enthralled by cable's programming, whether avid watchers or V-Chip users – are forced to subsidize all basic cable programming is not only unfair, but violates another component of art: the spectator's right of choice."

It is, as I have said numerous times, a bogus argument. Basic cable is advertiser supported, a fact which the PTC acknowledges every time they criticize advertiser for putting their commercials on Rescue Me. The cable user is paying for the cable network's delivery of programming; the advertisers pay for the shows (yes it's a bit simplistic but essentially true) and if the audience isn't there – as was the case with E!'s most recent edition of The Simple Life – the show will be cancelled because the advertisers won't support the show. It is a clear proof that "the spectator's right of choice" really does exist and it exists through the medium of the On-Off switch on the TV. I you don't like the show, don't watch it. If enough people don't watch the show it will end up being cancelled.

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