Monday, September 03, 2007

Short Takes – September 3, 2007

I have depressingly little today. Part of it was my week spent goofing off, but part of it is this sort of "calm before the storm" period that we're in. In a sense the Emmys do what the start of the new car year used to do; mark the end of the old TV season and the beginning of the new one. But we're two weeks away from the Emmys and there isn't that much right now that's worthy of my usual commentary. I mean even the PTC has take the week off. But let's see what we can come up with.

NBC pulls out of iTunes: This one literally has no impact on me; Canadians haven't been able to get any video content through iTunes since they started offering it. Well I take that back since there've been some short material from Pixar and movie trailers, but when it comes to the commercial content (like stuff you buy), the Canadian iTunes Music Store offers nothing. However it's different in the United States where ABC and some fifty other networks offer content online through the iTunes Store. One of those networks is NBC, or rather it was. NBC-Universal has decided to end its contract with iTunes despite the fact that the company's networks were the top provider of downloaded content, with shows like Battlestar Galactica, The Office and Heroes representing over 40% of the video material downloaded from iTunes. Initial reports claimed that NBC wanted to increase the price of their content from the standard $1.99 to a whopping $4.99 which would mean that a complete 22 episode season, downloaded to your video capable iPod would set you back $110. In fact what NBC proposed was somewhat different. They wanted the right to offer "flexible pricing" with some shows being under $1.99, while others would be priced higher. Furthermore some shows would be offered as part of a bundled package. For example you might get an episode of The Office "free" if you bought the movie Evan Almighty. In response Apple has stated that they will not offer new episodes of NBC shows that they currently sell between the start of the new TV season and December when the contract runs out. In other words when the new season of The Office debuts you'll still be able to download last season's episodes but not those from the coming season. According to the San Jose Mercury-News the two sides are still negotiating, at least as of the end of August. The situation is a difficult one for both companies. Apple's product lines – which include the iPhone (which you can't get in Canada because they can't find a cell partner that will offer affordable Internet access), Apple TV which allows people to play their iTunes video content on their home TVs (which is available in Canada but is kind of useless because there's virtually no video content available – see above), and a reported revamping of the iPod line which is expected to include a video model with a larger screen, like the iPhone – is becoming increasingly oriented towards video offerings. However the amount of content available has been relatively small. According to the Mercury-News, "The loss of NBC's television shows would mark a big hole in iTunes' catalog. If consumers don't have readily available video for their iPods, iPhones and Apple TV's, Apple could have a harder time selling those products, analysts say." At the same time NBC faces its own risks with dropping away from iTunes: "The NBC network came in fourth place in the Nielsen ratings last year and has struggled to come up with new hit shows. Not only does iTunes provide an extra source of revenue, but it can serve as an important buzz generator and audience builder for new programs, something NBC arguably could use." Just as an example, at least some of the initial success of The Office has been credited to it becoming available on iTunes. The Mercury-News article seems to suggest that this sort of thing is likely to become the norm: "The entertainment companies' traditional business models are starting to crumble in the face of digital distribution. While they are all dabbling with distributing their content online, digital sales have yet to make up for the traditional revenue they're losing. And some analysts doubt that the entertainment companies can ever make a legitimate business out of selling individual songs or TV shows a la carte. Until they do – or figure out a better model – dust-ups with iTunes and its rivals are likely to be the norm, analysts say.

Katie Couric goes to Iraq: I'm not a huge Katie Couric basher – I think she was the wrong woman for the job (I would have loved it if they'd hired someone like Dianne Sawyer or Christianne Amanpour – someone with a serious news background) but I will give her credit for getting better at her job. And now she's headed for Iraq for what is, coincidentally (or is it), the anniversary of her taking over the reins as anchor. Starting on September 4th she will be broadcasting from Baghdad for two days and then from Damascus Syria for two days. She will be the second network anchor to go to Iraq since the roadside bomb that severely injured former ABC co-anchor Bob Woodruff. Couric, who stated at the time that she took the job that she wouldn't necessarily travel to places like Iraq (unlike her predecessor Dan Rather) in part because she's a widow with two teenage children and in part because she felt that they didn't necessarily add to the story: "I'm not just window dressing to show that I'm at a particular story, which I think does happen quite frankly in certain situations." In this particular case the trip is timed to precede the release of the Petraeus report on the war in Iraq about which Evening News Executive producer Rick Kaplan has said "The future of our involvement in Iraq will be decided when the Petreaus report is released; if you're going to go to the Middle East at all, this is the time." It is also something that will likely have a major impact on the 2008 elections which is another part of the effort to rebrand Couric as a more traditional anchor after her rather disastrous debut. Kaplan's opinions on anchor trips seem similar to Couric's. Kaplan told Television Week, "Great coverage trips are not based on interviews. There may be great interviews, and I can't imagine taking a trip that didn't have great interviews, but that's not how you gauge a trip. When somebody goes over and interviews the head of a country or whatever, that's wonderful. But that's just not a lasting accomplishment, and that's not what we think will benefit this program, this network or Katie. If you're overseas, you want to get extraordinary interviews, but what you will find is going to distinguish the trip is the caliber and content of the stories that we do: where we go, the stories we choose to tell, the situations we describe, the situations we get into. It's the old Nightline in me. When we go somewhere, we want to come back and we want you to understand where we've been. That's what makes a great trip. That's the take-away for the CBS Evening News."

FOX underestimates intelligence of American TV viewers: I know, so what else is new. This time around it has to do with who would host the Emmy Awards which will be on FOX on Sunday September 16th. The network chose American Idol host Ryan Seacrest to host the broadcast. It was an unusual choice since most networks tend to go for a comedian when they host the show – previous hosts have included Wanda Sykes, Conan O'Brien, Ellen DeGeneres, Gary Shandling and Jon Stewart. Gold Derby now reports that FOX was close to naming House star Hugh Laurie as the Emmy host. Although he's best known on this side of the Atlantic for the dramatic role of Dr. Greg House, Laurie is an accomplished musician who made his name in comedy with frequent partner Stephen Fry in shows such as Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder and of course A Bit of Fry and Laurie. According to the Gold Derby site, "In the end, Fox decided to go with its Idol star over its House star because exex felt Seacrest would draw a larger TV audience and because viewers might be confused seeing Laurie in an unfamiliar role." (Italics mine) For me this logic is up there with the CBS decision in 1970 to make have the lead character of the Mary Tyler Moore Show be a single woman rather than a divorcee because they were worried that viewers would think that Laura Petrie had divorced Rob (and then moved to Minnesota and changed her name to Mary Richards from Laura Meehan). But maybe the American public is that easily confused. They still expect FOX to let shows like Newsanchor run to a conclusion after all.

War of words possible over The War: With the new Ken Burns documentary The War coming to PBS later this month stations seem to be taking positions on exactly what they will and won't let go on the air. The documentary will use the words of World War II veterans including four which are no-nos on TV. According to the San Francisco Chronicle "two are f-; one is s-; and the fourth is –hole. They are words that 1940s military personnel and countless other Americans use every day, but expletives that The Chronicle doesn't ordinarily publish and that the Federal Communications Commission says can't be uttered on public airwaves between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m." Note that this isn't repeated use of the four words, merely four incidents when the words are used (they are "shit", "asshole" and the full versions of FUBAR and SNAFU – "Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition" and "Situation Normal, All Fucked Up"). The problem is that, as usual, the FCC hasn't made its position clear on whether stations can air the documentary uncensored and the individual stations are afraid of the $325,000 fine that the Commission can levy if the material airs and is found "offensive" by the FCC. It's more than a little circular in terms of logic – the FCC won't tell the stations beforehand if the material can be fined so they know where they stand, but will fine them if they step over the line that hasn't been clearly defined. And the line isn't clearly defined. After all, the FCC okayed the broadcast of Saving Private Ryan during primetime (in a 2005 ruling), which the Chronicle points out "included at least six times as many f- bombs" (than The War I suppose) because "the words weren't 'used to titillate or shock'," but in a 2006 ruling they fined a PBS station, KCSM in San Mateo, for airing an uncensored version of Martin Scorcese's documentary The Blues: Godfathers and Sons because "The gratuitous and repeated use of this language in a program that San Mateo aired at a time when children were expected to be in the audience is shocking." The FCC ruling came after exactly one complaint from a viewer, and was apparently overturned on appeal in June of this year. As a result of the potential for fines stations are being offered both the uncensored version and a censored version which removes the "offensive" words. Our old "friend" Tim Winter of the Parents Television Council has stated "I don't know why the stations wouldn't just air the version without those words in it.... It's hard to believe that removing four words are going to significantly damage the program." The PTC will evaluate the show when it premieres. For his part Burns has stated that he understands the position that PBS stations that will air the censored version are in; it is "absurd and yet, at the same time, I understand it. Public television has this impossible mandate to be all things to all people." He also wonders at the fact that there has been no negative reaction over the graphic nature of the violence in the documentaries, which include beheadings and "the dead bodies stacked up like cordwood" to which Winter has replied "it's hard to make a movie about war without showing what war is like." Of course part of showing what war is like includes hearing soldiers say "fuck" and "shit" but Americans are more willing to accept violence over harsh language. As a partial explanation Burns offers this assessment: "'We are both a permissive and a puritanical culture," he said. And the discussion over the language in The War 'is like one of those intersections where an old jalopy filled with drunken revelers is headed toward a bus full of evangelicals.'"

Who does the PTC hate this week?: Nobody. Well at least nobody new. There are no new press releases, no new "Worst of the Week" for either broadcast or cable, and no new "Misrated." Either they've taking the week off or the week they would be drawing their shows to hate from was pristine and totally up to PTC standards in every way. ... Nah!

Bill Maher: Fator hater: I generally like Bill Maher. I enjoyed his series Politically Incorrect and I think he got a genuinely raw deal when ABC cancelled the show after his comments about the 9-11 attacks in 2001, not to mention the reaction of then White House Press secretary Ari Fleischer who said "...they're reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that..." I would love to be able to see his current series, Real Time With Bill Maher on Canadian TV but it's not available. That said, I take exception to something that Maher said on his August 24th show in his "New Rules" segment: "New Rule: If your winner is a ventriloquist, then "America Hasn't Got Talent." Besides, if there's one thing Americans have had enough of, it's the guy who puts words in the dummy's mouth. [photo of Bush and Rove shown] Oh, we kid President Bush. It's all with love." Now I know that he's taking a shot at President Bush and Karl Rove (and probably Dick Cheney), and I defend to the death his right to say it (unlike Ari Fleischer) but Mr. Maher, until you can actually do this you are really in no position to say that Terry Fator doesn't have talent.

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