Monday, September 24, 2007

(Very) Short Takes – September 23, 2007

I haven't got much to write about today outside of taking my regularly scheduled run at the PTC – if I can't make fun of them editorially I am in real trouble. Part of the problem is that we're in a sort of doldrums when all the shows about to pop out are shiny and new and have finally have had their casts and scripts tweaked, and each and every one of them is going to draw a 40 share. It's sort of like Spring Training in baseball, the last time anyone seriously thinks the Washington Nationals have a shot at winning the World Series (I would have said the Cubs but this year they're contenders – it's only been a century since their last Series win, they don't want to be greedy). Harsh reality will assert itself within the next couple of weeks with a couple of shows falling by the wayside at the hands of the evil network weasels and I'll have something to write about.

As it is right now I seem to be suffering from a bit of writers block, or as I'm inclined to call it, literary constipation (because nothing's coming out; of course it could be called literary diarrhea – the only thing coming out is crap – but literary constipation just feels like the right metaphor). That's one reason why the other blog – The Good Old Days Weren't So Bad – is so stagnant. I come up with what seems like a good idea, start writing and after a few paragraphs decide "well that's a big steaming pile of crap" and delete it from my hard drive.

I mean here's an example. One of the things that really bothers me is people writing critical commentary about shows they admit they haven't seen. I mean take this example: "To be honest, I have never really heard much about The Unit. The most that I knew about it was that a guy that I recognized as a character on 24 (and also from those Allstate Insurance commercials) was on it. I had no idea who else was in it or what it was about. After reading up on the show, I can't really say that it sounds like something I'd like to watch, although I'm sure that there's an audience out there for this show somewhere." It's a Cinema Blend Fall Preview of The Unit. Or this one from the same source, about NCIS: "NCIS is one of those shows that I always see getting decent ratings despite the fact that I don't know a single person who watches it. I expect the series appeals mostly to people with military backgrounds or if not, people who have an interest in military shows. I'm all for supporting the troops but my enjoyment of anything even remotely military related is limited to movies like Platoon and Saving Private Ryan and Nelson DeMille books. I have no interested in crime related procedural dramas and even less interest in a series that shows the genre in a military light. That said, the show has gotten good ratings over the last few years so there must be something to it." The writer has never watched NCIS, has no interest in the subject matter but takes a shot at it anyway. These two weren't the only ones either. At times it seemed like Cinema Blend was deliberately assigning people to comment on previewing shows they had never seen and explaining that the show wasn't worth watching. And in righteous indignation I was prepared to take a run at them. And then a little voice (which sounds almost exactly like Tweety Bird) pops up and says "Ooo, what a hypotwite!" Because of course I do that all the time when I write my "TV On DVD" commentaries; I haven't seen all of those shows or even most of the shows but here I am telling my readers what they should spend their money on, sometimes quite vehemently. And since I'm not planning on stopping anytime soon, Delete!

Who does the PTC hate this week?: Well, they don't hate the US Congress, that's for sure. In fact the PTC is ecstatic that Representative Charles Pickering (R – Mississippi) introduced House Resolution HR 3559, a bill similar to that proposed by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D – West Virginia) "that affirms the FCC's ability to restrict the use of profanity and indecent images during times of day when children are most likely to be in the viewing audience." The bill was co-sponsored by Representatives Joseph Pitts (R-Pennsylvania.), Jim Matheson (D-Utah) and Mike McIntyre (D-North Carolina). As usual the PTC is railing against the decision of the Second Circuit on the "fleeting obscenity case." This time though Tim Winter is taking a new tack in his condemnation of the decision. First there's the usual assertion that the networks are plotting to fill their programming with S-words and F-words when children are watching: "No matter what the industry claims, if it had no intention of broadcasting the 'F-word' or 'S-word' during hours when children are watching, then it would not have sued – likely spending much more in legal fees than it would have faced in FCC fines – for the right to air these words and other indecent content." Well setting aside the fact that the PTC is yet again denying the networks the rights that even the most hardened criminal has, that is to say the right to appeal, they're getting their numbers wrong. I doubt that the networks collectively have spent $32.5 million on this suit, which is the fine that could currently be levied by the FCC for an obscenity aired on 100 stations, at the current maximum fine the Commission can levy - $325,000 per station. It's no wonder that some PBS stations have requested a censored version of Ken Burns's new documentary The War. However, as I have said, the PTC is taking a new approach on this issue – that all such language and images are fleeting. Tim Winter states in his press release, "I want to be clear: vulgar, profane language is, by its very nature, 'fleeting.' 'Unscripted' images that are highly sexual in nature may still meet the Supreme Court established criteria for broadcast indecency and are certainly highly inappropriate content for children. The so-called 'fleeting' nature of this type of programming does not absolve broadcasters of their responsibility to protect children from indecent content during the times when kids are most likely to be in the audience." If I'm understanding this correctly, any use of "vulgar and profane" language is fleeting therefore the court decision allows it all and legislation must be brought forward to prevent a person on live TV saying a "rude word" in the heat of the moment because it will allow scriptwriters to fill the screen with the vilest filth. Obviously you Americans are far more pure than we vile and obscene Canadians.

They are also applauding a class action suit launched against the practice of cable bundling. In their press release the PTC states that "The overwhelming majority of Americans support the notion of Cable Choice, so it is somewhat surprising that it has taken this long for a class action grievance to emerge against cable television's bundling practices. There is no question that a remedy is very much in order to put an end to the wantonly anti-competitive, anti-consumer and anti-family practices of the cable industry – a remedy rendered nearly impossible because of the industry's Washington power brokering. A victory in this court case will be a victory for parents and families – and indeed it will be a victory for all consumers. For decades now the cable industry has successfully dodged the free market by hiding behind a litany of falsehoods and PR spin. They have spent tens of millions of dollars on political campaign donations, on lobbying, and on contributions to a myriad of groups and individuals that have helped them to perfect and perpetuate a system that reliably produces price increases that are several times the rate of inflation." It's a great statement but it doesn't mention any of the details of the suit. For that you have to go elsewhere. The suit was launched by "veteran antitrust attorney Max Blecher" on behalf of fourteen cable and satellite subscribers in various cities. It "asked the court to enjoin the companies from "unlawfully bundling expanded basic-cable channels and ordering defendant cable providers and direct-broadcast satellite providers to notify their subscribers that they each can purchase 'a la carte' (separately) except for 'basic cable,'" basic cable being defined as the stations that the systems must carry per government mandate. The suit claims that the plaintiffs have been "deprived of choice, have been required to purchase product they do not want and have paid inflated prices for cable-television programming." Treble damages are sought, claiming "contracts between the programmer defendants and the cable and direct-broadcast satellite providers constitute a combination among and between the named defendants to monopolize trade and commerce in the relevant product market." In the past, the cable industry has argued that "government-mandated per-channel pricing will reduce programming diversity and could actually raise rates as channels forced to fend for themselves die off or have to charge more to make the numbers work." It is interesting to note that about half of the companies named in the suit - NBC Universal, Viacom, Disney, Fox, Time Warner, Comcast, Cox Communications, DirecTV, EchoStar Communications, Charter Communications and Cablevision Systems – are either content providers or companies which provide content and service (Time Warner, Comcast).

I have stated in the past that I support a la carte or "pick 'n' pay" pricing for cable channels although not for the same reason that the PTC does. I would rather not pay for channels that I don't watch. I am also cognizant however of the fact that bundling is almost essential for analog systems or systems that have not required subscribers to buy a digital box. In digital systems the digital cable box can be programmed to exclude individual stations however for people receiving analog services and using their TV's "cable ready" tuner a la carte service would require manpower intense changes to each customer's connection. The industry is almost certainly correct in their assertion that bundling subsidizes less viewed channels. What I do know from my own experience is that even if Blecher and his fourteen plaintiffs – representing, they say, all cable and satellite subscribers "except the defendents [sic] or their subsidiaries and employees" – are successful it will not mean the end of bundling. My experience in Canada, both with Shaw Cable and with every other Canadian cable and satellite system, including SaskTel which is owned by the government of Saskatchewan as a Crown Corporation and operates in competition with Shaw, is that while they offer "pick 'n' pay" as an option the price per channel is such that buying bundles are actually cheaper than buying individual channels even if you only want half of the channels in the bundle.

It's time for the PTC's Broadcast Worst of the Week. This time around it's a rerun of Criminal Minds, about which the PTC said "simply flipping channels past CBS could have potentially been traumatic for any viewer." The episode was the one in which a serial killer uses an abandoned slaughter house that he owns to torture and eventually kill street people. A significant portion of the episode focuses on a young woman who is taken off the streets anesthetised. She awakes in the slaughter house and is challenged by the killer to escape, a sadistic game on the part of the killer – he's rigged things so no one can escape. The PTC describes her efforts to escape: "In a frenzy she tries to escape, but mistakenly crashes into a room covered in broken glass. The girl falls to the ground where she gains multiple wounds, including several on her face. She cries as she pulls the shards of glass from her cheek. A voice is heard telling her that if she can find her way out of the building she will be set free. Throughout the entire episode the girl is shown running for her life, but only finding rooms with the words 'dead end' written on the walls in blood. A Doberman pinscher is released and chases her into the 'Kill Room,' where body parts hang from the ceiling. The head of the old man from the first scene is shown on a table. The viewer learns that he was killed and cut into pieces with a circular saw. The girl is ultimately put on a gurney and prepped for death, when just in the nick of time FBI agents rush in and save her." While I found her efforts to escape heroic even as the FBI team tried to find the killer (and dealt with the sceptical police captain who didn't think there was a crime) the PTC felt that, "The plot was practically nonexistent. The entire point of the episode was frightening and sickening viewers with graphic scenes of blood and dismemberment." They also said that had it been a movie the episode would "certainly be considered for an 'R' rating due to violence." Hardly. An "R" rated film would have been far more graphic in terms of seeing victims (more than one) being dismembered, with abundant blood spattering in the scenes.

The Cable Worst of the Week (which the PTC still refuses to set up as an archived resource) is It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia on FX, for the episode with the Dumpster Baby. Here's how the PTC describes the show: "Charting the heinously decadent misadventures of Mac, Dennis and Charlie, the owners of a Philadelphia pub, It's Always Sunny premiered its third season on September 13th. Filling out the degenerate gang are Dennis' sister Dee and their father Frank (played by Danny DeVito). And this season promises to pack an even more offensively crude punch to viewers – a punch subsidized by every cable subscriber, whether or not they feel the warmth of Sunny." As usual the PTC is sticking with their assertion that cable subscribers are subsidizing shows. It's not true and anyone with a hint of intellectual honesty will acknowledge this; the shows are sponsored and if they don't draw ratings that the advertisers are happy with (both in terms of total numbers and the specific demographic) those shows will be cancelled, as we saw with The Simple Life. The details that the PTC describes for the show aren't ones that would usually qualify for worst of the week (I think the PTC is desperate). One is the scene in which Mac and Dee try to get a tanning salon employee to let them put the baby they found in a tanning bed to give it a more "ethnic" look so it can be in commercials. The other scene they quote is the one in which Frank's mother tells him that he had survived her attempt to abort him. On the whole pretty tame stuff. In their conclusion the PTC writes "While this macabre humor may appeal to some (2.3 million viewers last week), what about the over 50 million cable subscribers who didn't watch, yet still subsidized this programming? Shouldn't those viewers get to choose whether or not they pay for It's Always Sunny's acerbic and polarizing humor?" By that standard we should probably be asking the companies who sponsor shows like According To Jim (just as an example – I could just as easily attack one of the PTC's favourite reality shows) why those people who don't watch the show but buy their products should be subsidizing that show's polarizing humour.

Finally we come to the PTC's Misrated section. They actually give us two this time around one of which they've mentioned several times in the past. The main one was the Emmy Technical Awards. As you may (not) be aware, these aired on the E! cable channel. The PTC believes that the show should have had a language descriptor. Here's why: "This award show was not live like other awards shows; it had been pre-taped and edited for time — yet the producers still chose to leave in many bleeped words like "f-word," "s-word," "b*lls," "d*ck" and "p*ssy." There were also un-bleeped words like "hell," "damn," and "bastard." In other words the PTC are complaining because "bad" words were bleeped and other words, which can be heard on many over the air shows were spoken on a cable channel. They note host Carlos Mencia's comment about sound editors: "…and a sound editor. He could cut all the bull [bleeped 'shit'] out of his own speeches. I apologize. I was going to say BS. I was back there and I asked Elaine Stritch. I said, 'Hey should I say BS or should I say the word?' And she grabbed me by the [bleeped 'balls'] and told me to 'be a man you [bleeped "fucking"] [bleeped "pussy"]'." And then they add this: "Just to be clear, the words were only bleeped, not blurred, so the viewer could see what words Mencia was actually using." So it's not just children that the PTC is concerned about but lip readers as well. And of course they were upset that clips of the nominated song Dick In A Box were shown: "The producers of the Creative Emmys decided to show clips of the song, during which Timberlake sings, 'One: cut a hole in the box. Two: put your junk in the box. Three: make her open the box…' and later Timberlake sings, 'It's my [muted "dick"] in a box, my [muted "dick"] in a box, girl. It's my [bleeped "dick"] in a box, my [bleeped "dick"] in a box, babe.'" Again, I remind you that if you read either of these quotes out loud you heard more obscenities than anyone who watched the show did. And then they added "Not only are there bleeped words, but there is clear sexual dialogue which would warrant the "D" descriptor." Not in that clip, at least in my interpretation.

The bonus material The PTC crowed in triumph about the airing of the season finale of NCIS which, they claim, includes a scene of "of a drug addict snorting heroin out of the intestines of a corpse." Actually the scene shows nothing of the sort; it simply implies it. In the scene, we see the back of the woman bent over the body of her brother (the corpse in question) and it is indicated primarily by the prior reaction of Tony and Dr. Benoit that she is snorting the heroin off of his body, but we don't see the intestines or indeed whether she is snorting the heroin. What the PTC seems happy about is two things. First, the episode initially ran with a TV-14 rating; in the rerun it ran with a TV-14 V rating. Secondly the episode initially ran in the first hour of primetime; the rerun ran in the third hour. To the PTC these two things indicated "that CBS recognized that the show was misrated, and that the network now took the necessary steps to warn parents of it's [sic] particularly offensive content." While the addition of the "V" descriptor might have indicated that, the show had been moved to the third hour of primetime following the debut of The Power Of Ten while the second hour was devoted to Big Brother which had its season finale on the night in question.

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