Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Short Takes – August 28, 2007

We're still in summer mode around here (and I still haven't started the new blog – probably next week) and I'm getting used to being a dog owner again. When my brother went out to B.C. he was supposed to leave Chelsea with me but then his girlfriend told him that the dog was going with them. Well for a variety of reasons that I won't go into, it was not a happy experience for Chelsea, and at times she wasn't on her best behaviour, particularly with strangers. Suffice it to say that the choice came down to me taking her or Greg taking her to the vet to be put to sleep. So I'm a dog owner again, and for the life of me I can't understand what the people who complained about my dog being mean were going on about. That said, I am looking forward to the start of the new TV season with increasing impatience.

Kid Nation problems and opportunities: Someone said that it doesn't matter what they say about you just as long as they spell your name right. It's right up there with "bad publicity is better than no publicity at all." Well, the new CBS series Kid Nation has been getting that sort of publicity. It all started when a parent of one of the forty kids between the ages of 8 and 15 who participated in the show complained the State of New Mexico after the show was completed that the conditions verged on "abuse and neglect." A couple of incidents cited included several of the children drinking bleach that had been stored in an unmarked pop bottle, and one girl (the daughter of the complainant) whose face was burned with spattered cooking grease while she was cooking unsupervised (while the ads for the show say that the children were alone, there was frequently an adult chef present when the children were cooking). According to the New York Times (registration required) State officials in New Mexico have stated that "the project almost assuredly violated state laws requiring facilities that house children be reviewed and licensed." Romamine Serna, public information officer for the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department also added that "If the department had known of the parent's allegations when the incidents occurred, she said, 'We would have responded and would have assured the children's safety.'" There have been concerns since the series launched about whether the production skirted State and Federal child labour and child welfare laws. The Times article also states that "Until Kid Nation, no reality show had focused on taking a group of children from their homes and placing them in unknown situations, forced to deal with whatever arises and recording the results." This would seem to ignore the (dismal in my opinion) ABC series Brat Camp.

In their response CBS responded that they were confident that their actions were within the law. A number of things were cited including the fact that unlike many states, New Mexico did not (at that time – the law has since changed) concerning the use of child actors in film and TV productions. This included requirements for tutors on the set and regulations on the amount of time that children can work. The sheriff's office in Santa Fe County, which received the initial complaint (forward from the sheriff's office in the complainant's home in Georgia) investigated the production and found no criminal activity. Jonathon Anschell, who oversees CBS's legal operations for the West Coast stated that a search of the production's correspondence with the State of New Mexico produced nothing beyond a June 15th warning that the law concerning the number of hours that a child could be on a set had been changed. He also stated that while the children did receive stipends of $5,000 each, the possibility of "gold star" awarded at the end of each episode to one participant (voted by the other children) and payment in buffalo nickels for the performance of certain tasks (the nickels were part of the show's internal economy and could be used to buy things at the show's stores), the children were not employed: "The children were not employed under the legal definition. They were not receiving set wages for performing specific tasks or working specific hours."

Following the New York Times article, the Smoking Gun website obtained a copy of the contract that the parents of the children signed. It clearly delineated the conditions under which the "minor" would live: "the Program will consist of approximately forty individuals, who are all minors, where they will form a community and live amongst themselves." The contract stated that the parents signed away their right to sue "if their child died, was severely injured, or contracted a sexually transmitted disease during the program's taping," as well as giving the network consent to make medical treatment decisions for the children including authorizing surgery, and the ability to search "the Minor's person and the Minor's belongings (including, without limitation, by x-ray or similar device)." There was also an acknowledgement that the participants "'will have no privacy,' except when they are in the bathroom. Provided, of course, that the child is actually 'in the process of showering, bathing, urinating, or defecating.'" While it seems harsh, it also seems like a typical reality show contract modified to take into consideration the fact that the participants on this show were minor children. In other words, the parents knew what the conditions would be like and agreed to them.

Partial Celebrity Apprentice line-up: You remember back in May when Kevin Reilly announced the NBC prime time schedule and The Apprentice wasn't on any list? Remember how good we all felt? Remember the street parties and the march through the streets of Manhattan to the Trump Tower to go "neener neener neener" and give The Donald the collective finger? Okay, I made that last bit up (but I doubt it would have been that hard to organize). Trump was livid and threatening to develop a new show for FOX or some other network; seemingly he believed that he actually created The Apprentice rather than being "mere" talent on a show created by Mark Burnett. Our joy was destined to be short-lived; when Reilly paid for Jeff Zucker's mistakes he was replaced by Benjamin Silverman, and apparently Benjamin Silverman likes The Apprentice. At least he likes it well enough to put the show onto the line-up as a mid-season replacement. This time though there's going to be a better gimmick than having losing candidates live in tents in the back yard (and accidentally setting things up so that a contestant who was never a project manager actually became the new Apprentice). This time we're going to have Celebrity Apprentice! Be still my beating heart – or better yet, be still Trump's beating heart (permanently). Recently Donald Trump announced a partial list of the "celebrities" who have signed on for this adventure. They are: Mad Money host Jim Cramer, "actress" Carmen Electra, comedienne Joan Rivers, singer Naomi Judd, boxer/preacher/ shill for the famous Grill (which I love btw except for the difficulty in cleaning) George Foreman, original Apprentice villain Amorosa, 6 foot tall former model Kimora Lee Simmons, disgraced former Baseball player Pete Rose, racing drivers Danica Patrick and Jeff Gordon, and professional skateboarder Tony Hawk. In the same article Trump stated that Paris Hilton has expressed an interest, and that he'd like to get Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan on the show. Trump claims that more than a hundred other celebrities want to do the show. One who doesn't is Rosie O'Donnell (who Trump called a "fat slob" at one point – and that was one of the milder things he said about her) even though she apparently was asked. Rosie is reported to have said, "It will not happen in this lifetime or beyond." I'd say that was a No, but Trump might regard it as a definite Maybe.

Simon Cowell is quitting: Well he is quitting as judge of American Idol anyway, when his contract runs out in three years. He also seems intent on giving up his other on air jobs: judge on the British series X-Factor, a British show that seems a lot like American Idol which itself was based on the British series Pop Idol on which Cowell was also a judge (Cowell didn't have any ownership rights on Pop Idol and as a result pulled the plug on it to do X-Factor which he does own). Cowell told Britian's Daily Mirror that "I have three more seasons under contract with American Idol and that will be it. And it will probably come at the same time in the UK. I am contracted for another two or three seasons in Britain and I think by that point the public will be sick to death of me anyway and it will be time to go." Of course he'll be keeping busy; Cowell, whose net worth is estimated at about £100 million (about $200 million) created both the international Idol franchise and X-Factor but also American Inventor, the Got Talent franchise (starting with America's Got Talent) and Grease Is The Word, a British version of the NBC show Grease: You're The One That I Want. It's something that he acknowledges in the Mirror article "I run a record label, I run a TV company, we're making movies now - I love that part of my life. I probably get more satisfaction from making a show than being on a show." His music division – Syco Music – employs just 11 people but is responsible for 40% of the profits of its parent company Sony-BMG last year.

FOX does it again: If you look at a variety of blogs and comments about the behaviour of TV networks in general and FOX in particular, the one big complaint that you hear is that they cancel shows almost at the drop of a ratings point. Now I'm not saying that their most recent casualty, the reality show Anchorwoman, was the equivalent in any way of Firefly, Wonderfalls, or Drive. I can't because I didn't see the show on the one and only occasion when it aired (videotape problem – literally the tape I had in the machine wouldn't record anything at all). In fact I don't actually blame FOX for cancelling the show given that it drew a 1 rating and 2.7 million viewers (3% share) , getting thoroughly trounced by Drew Carey and The Power of 10 (8.7 million 2.3 rating 7% share) and just barely beating a rerun of America's Next Top Model. And to be fair FOX at least let the show complete its one episode (there's a story that I heard many years ago about a local station – possibly apocryphal but I seem to recall reading it in TV Guide – that cancelled one of Tim Conway's network shows while it was still airing its first episode; they cut for commercial and never went back). The problem is that even when it's justified, as in this case, it leaves a bad taste. There was no time allowed for the show to try to develop an audience, and while Anchorwoman might never have improved on its first airing this is symptomatic of why people are wary of getting too attached to a new show. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; people won't watch a new show because it might be cancelled and the networks cancels the show because it didn't get high ratings immediately.

Who does the PTC hate this week?: This "dog days of summer" business seems to be hitting hte PTC just about as badly as it is me. This time around the "Worst of the week" and the "Misrated" sections are dominated by a rerun of Criminal Minds, which as I recall they didn't find at all objectionable when it first aired, and a series – The Knights Of Prosperity – that was being burned off but only managed to last two episodes of the burn off. Oh, and there's a summer reality show too.

Let's start off with Criminal Minds. The episode in question was the one in which two serial killers are operating in the St. Louis area, one well publicized because his victims were upper middle class, the other ignored because his victims were prostitutes. Of course what the PTC sees is that "Guns, blood, death, necrophilia and graphic violence against women all played a strong role in this TV-PG LV rated program." The "review" emphasises the opening scene in which a women is abducted from a park and the follow-up to the scene where "This opening scene is not only disturbing for its violence, but is particularly upsetting due to the way the program's writer emphasized the hopes of the innocent family, gaining the viewer's sympathy before shattering the family's dream with a senseless crime." This of course is a case of building dramatic tension and our feelings against this killer; a discerning audience with even a little experience with this show would know that the victim of the abduction has already been killed. The PTC's commentary barely touches on the second killer, the one who kills prostitutes saying, "The show continued with several scenes involving prostitutes, including one scene where a killer drives up to two female prostitutes and mercilessly guns them down. They are left for dead, bleeding next to a dumpster in an alley." That's all they actually have to say about the most violent moment of the episode – the murder of the two prostitutes in the alley. No, they are more fixated on the killer who kills middle class women and hides their bodies in the woods: "He greets the corpse as if it were still alive, and proceeds to comb the woman's hair. After applying lipstick to the dead woman's lips he leans-in to kiss her." Inanely they add "The killers manage to murder seven innocent women before police are able to catch them." I guess that somehow in the PTC's universe the police (really the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit) would immediately determine who the killers were and arrest them before any further murders occurred. But here's the worst bit from the PTC: "Besides being inappropriately rated as TV-PG, the episode is simply inappropriate for prime- time broadcast television. Sadistic serial killers and the violent murder of women is what CBS is selling to the viewing audience, and we should acknowledge that reality." I'm sorry but are we watching the same show? The whole point of this show is that the FBI unit has been set up to apprehend serial killers by understanding them psychologically. I don't know how you are supposed to present this concept without showing the heinous acts of the people they are out to capture. But of course the PTC would much rather that the public only watch shows like their Best of the Week this week, So You Think You Can Dance, a fine show but not the sort of thing that you'd want a non-stop diet of which is what the PTC would like to force on viewers.

Of course the PTC's real fixation isn't on violence. They're fixated on the S-word (sex) and the two N-words (naked and nipples). That seems to explain their reaction to the E! Network's basic cable series Sunset Tan and what makes it their worst cable show of the week, because obviously there was nothing wrong (in their view) with that week's Rescue Me. To the ordinary viewer Sunset Tan proceeds in the rather dubious footsteps of "tattoos shows" like Miami Ink and the fitness instructor show Work Out. I think maybe you can tell that I'm not a huge fan of the genre but that's not really the point here. The point is the PTC's reaction which is typically directed against the "subsidizing" of this evil show. What makes it evil is the "the barrage of bare breasts." Of course there are other evil things in the show as well: "To be fair, the show contains non-graphic shock appeal as well: that of utterly unrestrained consumerism. Watching a mother take her young daughter's cheerleading team to be artificially tanned does add a new, pom-pom inspired nuance to decadence." Huh? What exactly does that mean? Then there's the organization's reaction to the "Olly Girls," (not the Olly Twins as the PTC describes them at least once they're not related) two recently hired employees of the tanning salon named Molly and Holly: "This dizzyingly dense duo was the focus of Sunset Tan's August 19th premiere. Holly and Molly are their names; wasting time and flashing breasts are their game." Gee, they sort of sound like Mikey on American Chopper...well except for the "flashing breasts" part (thank all that is holy). Of course, we don't see the "flashing breasts" of anyone. This is basic cable after all and the companies know that if they show unobscured nipples or even much of the breasts they will be in trouble with the service providers. The PTC acknowledges this although the video (currently available at their Cable Worst of the Week page, at least until they get a new worst of the week) puts something of a lie to the notion that the women are topless "with only their nipples blurred" – a lot more is blurred than the women's nipples. There conclusion is funny as well: "Television is meant to entertain, and some of that entertainment should be mindless fun. But what do gratuitous breasts shots add to this mindless summer fare? I'm guessing it's not a strategy for uncovering pernicious female objectification, or for gaining a deeper appreciation for the difficulty of navigating the consumer-driven coastal California lifestyle." In truth what they find "wrong" about this sort of mindless fun is less "pernicious female objectification" or "the consumer-driven coastal California lifestyle" or even that the Olly Girls are "dizzyingly dense" and more that there is even a suggestion of nudity.

In their "Misrated" section they fearlessly take on The Knights Of Prosperity as show which has already been cancelled twice. The show, which aired on August 8th was rated PG-DL, which for a PG show means suggestive dialogue and mild coarse language. In the scenes which the PTC provides as a transcript Esperanza (the female member of the group) is trying to seduce Ray Romano to get him out of his apartment so the others can rob it (though from the reading of the scene she also seems to be interested for her own reasons). To me some of the dialogue they quote seems fairly innocuous: Ray: "What are you talking about? You don't want to sleep with me." Esperanza: "More than anything in this world." She also tells Ray that "I will do special things..." To me it seems that the most suggestive thing is this bit of dialogue once Ray and Esperanza are in a hotel room: Esperanza: "I would like to freshen up my private areas first." Ray: "Okay, alright. Mine are pretty much ready to go." That seems fairly innocuous to me but not to the PTC which argues "This kind of dialogue surely warrants more than a PG-rating. A female character using her sexuality to prevent her friends from being caught engaging in criminal behavior is not appropriate for young viewers. Would a ten-year-old girl understand that using sex to get out of trouble is not a good way to solve problems?" Because of course ten-year-old girls take their cues on proper behaviour from a character on a cancelled sitcom rather than people like, I don't know, maybe their parents? They conclude that "The above dialogue, along with the rest of the episode's criminal and sexual content, shows that this program is not suitable for children under 14. The August 8th 9:30 p.m. EST episode of The Knights of Prosperity should have been rated TV-14 for its intense discussion of promiscuous sexual behavior – behavior that was glorified and validated because it was 'for the good of the group.'" The TV-PG rating acknowledges that there is some suggestive content included in the episode and the addition of the DL descriptors emphasises the point further as does the time that the episode aired – the second half of the second hour of prime time. As usual, I find the PTC to be their usual prudish selves.

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