Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Short Takes – September 12, 2007

I confess that I came close to not doing even an abbreviated version of Short Takes this week. There wasn't that much that I was that enthusiastic about writing about beyond the ritual skewering of the PTC, and while that's fun, it isn't enough. There were stories – the apparent decision to put Doctor Who on hiatus for a year after the coming season because David Tennant wants to do Hamlet in the West End was one of those stories, but I just didn't have the fire in my belly to do it. Then something happened. I think I'll let the item in question explain itself.

Jim Shaw, arbiter of taste: If you live in Western Canada the odds are pretty good that you get your cable TV service from Shaw Cable. I get my Cable and Internet from Shaw, and I'll let you in on a dirty little secret – I don't hate my cable company. The service is usually up, the customer service in Saskatoon at least is good, and when you're given an afternoon appointment for a service call then by the gods the service guy shows up that afternoon. So I'm a pretty contented customer (except maybe for the rates but that's a part of this story). Now Management – in the form of company CEO Jim Shaw – well that's a whole other question.

On September 8th my local paper the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and most of the other newspapers in Western Canada ran the following ad from Shaw, the company but it reflects the views of Shaw the man:

What does spending 2.5 Billion of your money to fund original Canadian TV programming get you?

(Not much. We were hoping you knew.)

The Canadian Television Fund was created to help promote and develop quality TV programming in Canada. But somewhere along the line, they lost their way. Firstly, they give the CBC a backdoor to $120 million each year. Secondly, instead of promoting the creation of better children's programming or developing a series based on the icons and the elements of our country that make Canada great, they pumped 2.5 billion dollars into shows about the dysfunctional residents of a mobile home park, shape shifting aliens with a grudge against the government and educational programming that.

At Shaw, we believe television should entertain, inform, inspire and make you think. We support the development of original Canadian programming that reflects this great country of ours. However this programming should be a lot more reflective of the audience that will ultimately watch it. We need a better way to create Canadian programming. The CTF is broken and can't be fixed.

This needs some background. Back in 1996 the Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission (the CRTC) established the Canadian Television Fund (CTF) to "support the production and broadcast of high quality, distinctively Canadian television programs." According to the CTF website their objectives are to "To encourage the financing and broadcasting of high-quality Canadian television productions; to reflect Canada to Canadians by assisting the creation and broadcast, in prime time, of high-quality, culturally significant Canadian programs in both official languages in the genres of drama, children's, documentaries and variety and performing arts, and by both majority and minority official-language sectors; and to support Aboriginal language productions in the eligible genres." According to CRTC regulations broadcasters are required to contribute 5% of their revenue to the fund. If I'm not mistaken, the cable company contributions were in return for relaxation of some regulatory requirements. According to a letter sent by Shaw to the CTF in January 2007 when he announced that his company would not be making its $56 million contribution to the fund for the year, "Over the past 10 years, Shaw has contributed over $350 million in direct subsidies to the Canadian production industry." And Jim Shaw is not happy with the programming that the CTF is funding.

Now it's no surprise that Shaw throws and off-handed comment about the CBC in there; Shaw comes from a corporate culture – the Canadian private broadcaster – that regards the CBC as a sort of amalgam of Satan and Stalin (evil incarnate and socialist). There's a whole history behind this but suffice it to say that the Canadian Association of Broadcasters has always wanted the CBC dead.

No it's the second part of his diatribe that is irritating (and mystifying because I can't identify two of the shows he mentions) is that Jim Shaw sets himself up as an arbiter of good taste. Trailer Park Boys (the show "about the dysfunctional residents of a mobile home park") doesn't match Shaw's standard of good taste and quality television and so shouldn't receive funding. As I mentioned, I can't identify the other two shows he describes, the one about the shape-shifting aliens and the one that "offers instruction on the right and wrong way to host an S&M Bondage Party." They may be inventions of his own mind or they may be shows that are funded and he is drawing some aspect of them into the cold hard light of his "critical" eye. Not knowing what they are, I can't tell you if they're good or bad shows. I also can't tell you if they're popular or how they do in the ratings. I do know that Trailer Park Boys is one of the great successes of Canadian cable TV. People know and enjoy the characters to the point where the actors can make appearances on other networks (the CBC) as hosts of events and people know them. To me that's successful TV. Worse is that Jim Shaw doesn't suggest an alternative beyond a vaguely defined request for "better children's programming or developing a series based on the icons and the elements of our country that make Canada great" to go along side his equally ill-defined comments about the quality of the programming that is funded.

Now I get people like the PTC. I know what they stand for and (mostly) against in terms of programming. They don't like sex, violence, and bad language. I don't agree with their definitions or thresholds for objectionable material – I think they are far too strict in every area, at every time period, and in every venue – but at least I know what they stand for. I don't get that with Jim Shaw. All I get from him is an echo of the US Supreme Court Justice who said that he couldn't define pornography but he knew what it was when he saw it. Shaw hasn't defined what a show that should be funded would be but he knows what it isn't when he sees it.

I don't object to Jim Shaw expressing an opinion about shows. Everybody does it all the time. But Shaw is a man with power – green power and I'm not talking eco-friendly here (okay so Canadian money isn't green, work with me on this one). A critic – especially an amateur critic like myself – doesn't have power beyond the power to tell people our opinion and trying to use our words to persuade them to watch or not watch particular shows. Jim Shaw is expressing an opinion about the shows he thinks should be funded and I defend to the death his right to express this opinion. But he's doing more than that and that's where he's crossing the line. He's saying in effect "fund the sort of shows that I think should be funded or you don't get my $56 million." I'm not a lawyer, but that sounds like extortion. Or is it reverse blackmail? And it's the way he puts it in the ad, a way that generates an emotional response: "What does spending 2.5 Billion of your money to fund original Canadian TV programming get you?" It makes it seem as though all the money that is going into the fund is coming directly from the taxpayer, and we all know that the taxpayer hates to fund things without getting some direct benefit. Of course what he's not mentioning is that that money stopped being ours when we paid it to Shaw Cable as part of our cable bill. And don't believe for a minute that if the CTF didn't exist your cable bill would go down by the per capita amount that would make up the $56 million.

To be fair to Jim Shaw, Shaw Communications has been a major funder of quality children's programming through their Shaw Rocket Fund which between 1998 and 2006 has spent $58.3 million to help produce quality children's programming, and presumably that has standards to define "quality." What I find objectionable is that Shaw is attempting to use his company's contribution to the CTF – which as far as I can tell is not voluntary but required as part of his license – to get the CTF to change their policy. And it's the question of whether the contribution is require that may trip him up. There are policies of Shaw Cable's that I disagree with – for example at the inception of the premium digital channels in 2001 the company decided which channels would be offered to its subscribers in a completely arbitrary manner. If I were to protest Shaw's policy on this by refusing to pay my cable bill but insisting that they continue to provide me with service, how far would I get? The answer is not very far at all – my cable service would be cancelled faster than it takes to type it. Actions have consequences, and Jim Shaw's action in not making his required payment to the Canadian Television Fund – for which he gets benefits – needs to have consequences.

Who does the PTC hate this week?: As I said above, I get where the PTC is coming from even if I don't agree with their position or their logic. But it does make studies like the recent one they released on content during the "Family Hour" suspect. Set aside the fact that the "Family Hour" as such hasn't existed for over a quarter century, having been thrown out by the courts as an arbitrary use of power by the FCC, the fact that the PTC defines an act of violence as showing a dead body, considers words like "damn" and "crap" as foul language, and counts verbal references to adultery as sexual content means that the results of this study are inflated to say the least. Still the PTC claims that TV is going to H E double hockey sticks and dragging us all with it: "Our study clearly demonstrates that corporate interests have hijacked the Family Hour from families. This early prime time block was once reserved for programs the whole family could enjoy but it is now flooded with shows that contain adult programming. The Family Hour was once lauded by the entertainment industry and members of Congress as a solution for parents who do not want their children to be exposed to graphic content for at least one hour each night. Shockingly, this data shows that parents cannot trust what is on during the so-called Family Hour for even a minute." When they find that "in 180 hours of original programming, there were 2,246 instances of objectionable violent, profane and sexual content, or 12.48 instances per television hour," though, any validity the study might have is significantly eroded by the organization's definition of violent, profane and sexual content, definitions which may only be shared by the more extreme of the social conservative groups that support the PTC. And here's a question to consider, when exactly was it that Congress and the entertainment industry lauded the Family Hour as "a solution for parents who do not want their children to be exposed to graphic content?" Not recently I suspect.

Onto the PTC's Broadcast Worst of the Week and the organization continues in reruns, this time attacking Heroes for an episode that originally aired back in late November 2006 (at a time when the PTC wasn't doing new reviews; I suspect they were mourning the loss of a Republican Congress during the midterm elections). Their vision of the show doesn't seem to be in agreement with any of the episodes that I've seen: "While Heroes is marketed as a show about super-powered do-gooders and their quest to save the world, it is hard to find that theme in the typical episode." Uh, no it isn't about that at all. In the first season at least Heroes was about ordinary people suddenly discovering that they have extra-ordinary abilities and trying to cope with those abilities. About the only character who was really determined to be a "super-powered do-gooder" was Hiro. The rest of the characters were at the very least ambiguous about their motivations. Not unlike comic book characters have been since the 1970s – the early 1970s (heaven alone knows what they'd think of Roy Harper – Speedy – and his heroin addiction). Here's another gem which shows the PTC's incredibly harsh definitions: "Graphic violence involving fights, guns, bladed weapons, blood, burns, and death are commonplace on Heroes." So are the guns and bladed weapons "graphic violence" or is their use – that sentence doesn't entirely make it clear. Context doesn't matter either: "This week's episode featured Niki attacking her estranged father and beating him into submission." Context does not enter into the PTC's consideration – Niki, has at least one other personality (Jessica) as a result of being physically abused as a child by her father and it is Jessica (the strong personality) who beats her father into submission after the father yells at Niki's son. But as I say, for the PTC motivation and character development don't matter.

The Cable Worst of the Week is the PTC's perpetual target Rescue Me. The Council must be going soft – all they can find to comment on is Tommy's promiscuity ("the August 29th episode features Tommy having sexual relations with two different women. In one scene, Tommy is shown sitting naked in a chair talking to Valerie after a brief sexual encounter") and a bit of dialog that happens after Tommy tries to grope the fire chief's daughter Beth: "My parents always want me to go back on [her medications]. Because they're always worried if I go off it that I'm going to snap and try to, you know, run into the room where they're sleeping and stab their eyeballs out with an ice pick or rip their chest out and then bury it in the backyard next to my ovaries. Why'd you take your hand away?" Before their usual final sentence decrying the fact that basic cable subscribers have to "subsidize" this filth (even though it airs at a time when children, the group that the PTC is supposedly protecting, aren't watching) they add this bit of artistic criticism: "Rescue Me continues its tradition of graphic content matched to superficial character analysis, mocking everything from monogamy to manic-depression. For a show that prides itself in exploring the human psyche in all its dysfunctional glory, this episode seemed only to mock real-life tragedies for a cheap laugh." Clearly they just don't get what this show is about.

In the PTC's Misrated section this week we find The Hills, which is MTV's self-described "reality drama" an intern working at Teen Vogue and her friends. The episode is rated TV-PG with no descriptors, and the objection seems to be concerned with a single scene: "Justin: "Who [muted 'fucking'] cares? Why do they [muted 'fucking'] care? It actually pisses me off. Because when something's working you don't [muted 'fuck'] it up by throwing labels or doing stupid [muted 'shit'] like throwing a ring on your finger. Because society or friends said so. So you know what? [Muted 'Fuck'] them. Literally. I don't give a [muted 'shit']." Although the words aren't bleeped and the mouth of the person saying them isn't blurred they also aren't heard either. Moreover, in the past the PTC has objected strenuously when those particular words have been bleeped and the lips were blurred because the words weren't bleeped to their standards. And yet, despite the fact that if you read the first sentence of the PTC's version of the dialog aloud (complete with the words in the square brackets) you'd have heard more "bad words" than in the actual transmission of the episode, the PTC feels that it requires at least a descriptor and probably a higher rating. Or as they put it, "Wow. In mere seconds, viewers are subjected to four muted 'f' words, two muted 's' words, one "piss" – and the ratings never reflected that. The entertainment industry wants consumers to believe that the ratings system works, but clearly there was nothing correct about the rating for this episode of The Hills." But here's the real question: how can you justify putting an "L" descriptor on a show for strong language when the words in question were only present in one's imagination. The context is clear but the words are taken out. It's not like taking the words "son of a bitch" out and replacing them (badly) with "scumbum" (as was done in Smokey And The Bandit when it was redubbed for TV) but it does the job.

No comments: