Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Short Takes – October 21, 2007

I promised myself that I'd get more written this week, so what happens? Well what happens is a lot less than I was expecting to happen in terms of getting actual work done. There are a lot of reasons. A big one is that I'm finding it harder and harder to find time to watch the shows that I don't normally watch. Another thing is that I sometimes get so freaking tired that I fall asleep while watching a show and don't really know it until I wake up (that's not unusual for me – I've been known to fall asleep while playing poker online). Or I get sicker than a dog, which happened on Wednesday. Still there were things I wanted to accomplish that didn't get done and I'm frankly disappointed with myself.

By the way, I'm getting a new digital camera (they didn't have it in stock and I've been waiting three weeks for it) and of course like just about all digital still cameras it's got video capability, and there a couple of vague ideas running around in my head for using video in the blog once I get used to using the blasted thing. After all, Vista comes with video editing software – not great editing software but good enough for my purposes. So not only will I be able to post an up to date picture of my ugly mug but I might give you a chance to hear me stutter and stumble my way through a script. Just don't expect Brigette from TVSquad Daily – I'm not that pretty, that composed, or that prolific.

The first leaf – er show – of Autumn falls: Even though FOX was the first network to put a show on indefinite hiatus – that would be the little watched Nashville – The CW has the "honour" of being the first network to cancel a new show. They cut loose (cancelled, canned, sent to the glue factory) their extremely low rated video show Online Nation, and this one ain't coming back folks no way, no how. Nor should it. The show was essentially a look at the most popular amateur videos from YouTube and other video sites, and that was the problem – if I'm looking at stuff on YouTube I choose what I watch. So do you and so does everyone else. Who needs a middle man to tell us what to watch? And middle man was exactly the role that The CW's show producers had assigned themselves. The show had a measly 0.2 rating and was averaging 540,000 viewers – 300,000 in the 18-49 demographic so a lot of people shared my opinion on this. (Oh wait, CBS just canceled Viva Laughlin, and not a moment too soon either.)

Full and partial orders: The first series of the new season to get a full order was also on The CW. That was Gossip Girl in a move which was actually announced on October 10. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the show pulls about 3 million viewers in its regular time slot but viewership goes up significantly (20% in adults 18-34 which is the audience that The CW wants) once data from DVRs was factored in as Nielsen is now doing. More to the point the show is drawing the "right" people. The show is averaging a rating of 1.9/5 in adults 18-34 but 2.8/7 in women 18-34 and a whopping (well relatively speaking) 4.7/15 in female teens. That's a 15% share of that age group. Two other new shows got full season orders last Thursday according to Michael Ausiello. They were ABC's Private Practice and CBS's comedy The Big Bang Theory. As well CBS is giving a full season order to The Unit. The Grey's Anatomy spin-off Private Practice is the top new show among adults 18-49, while The Big Bang Theory actually builds on its lead-in, Two And A Half Men. Finally E! Online's Watch With Kristin is reporting that NBC has given an order for more scripts for four shows while CBS has given an order for more scripts for one. The NBC shows – Chuck, Life, Bionic Woman, and Journeyman – have all received orders for three more episodes while the CBS series Cane got an order for four episodes. Finally, Kitchen Nightmares, featuring Gordon Ramsay, has been renewed for next season. Again, not surprising – they can't give him a traditional full order because Ramsay's availability in North America is necessarily limited.

Conspiracy theory: Okay, I should preface this by saying that this is my own opinion and it has nothing to do with anything beyond how my twisted little mind works. It may be absolutely not what the networks are doing but I have to admit, I kind of think it holds together.

As you probably know all too well, the Writers Guild of America will be in a position to strike as of November 1st with contracts with the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America coming next year. The strike authorization vote saw 5,507 votes cast out of about 12,000 members (most WGA votes have about a 30% turnout, according to Mark Evanier from whom much of the hard information in this piece come), with 90.3% voting to authorize the strike. If nothing else this indicates a far more united front than Mark at least expected. The issues of the strike include – but aren't limited to – raising the rate of residuals paid for DVDs (the companies pay more to the manufacturer of the box and packaging (about 50 cents) than they pay in residuals to the writer, director and actors combined (about 20 cents)), setting up a residual system for material distributed by other means such as the Internet (iTunes for example – each studio or network has cited $500 million or more a year in online revenue but claim not to have a business model in this area), and expanding the definition and protection of the union membership to those who work on reality shows. In the case of reality shows the situation is summed up by Howard A. Rodman in the LA Times in an op-ed piece: "It seems that the companies are content to make large profits on these shows but don't want to compensate the writers at standard guild rates. Sometimes they even deny that there's any writing going on at all. (Hint: in a "reality" show, look in the credits under "story producer.") And when they do admit that their shows are actually written, they don't want to pay the pension, healthcare and wages that are the industry standard."

Now I know enough about strikes and union negotiations to be dangerous. It used to be that the postal unions in Canada were actually split between two unions, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) for inside workers and a different union for the letter carriers. CUPW was the more militant union, and went on strike with depressing regularity. The non-striking union was still willing to work but the letter carriers could only deliver sorted mail and wouldn't cross the CUPW picket lines to sort it; that had to be done by employees classed as managers. The situation is similar with the WGA except of course that there are no managers. With the writers on strike production grinds to a halt.

So what does television do when production grinds to a halt? Here's where my theory comes into play. You may have noticed (like in the first news piece on this page) that the networks haven't been cancelling a lot of shows and certainly none of the scripted dramas and comedies. The only show cancelled has been The CW's dismal Online Nation. In the 2006-07 season two scripted shows had already been cancelled by this point in the season and by the end of November nine series had left the air including on replacement series. At the same time ABC and FOX have both got backlogs of programming set up as midseason replacements (including the previously cancelled According To Jim from ABC)while NBC has announced plans to revive American Gladiators and a celebrity version of The Apprentice. I think that the networks that are prepared for the strike are willing to run their existing series longer than they would if there were no strike in the offing – in other words run low rated shows until they run out of scripts rather than cancelling them quickly as has been the pattern in recent years. At the same time they are having scripts prepared for their replacement series (like According To Jim). Is it not possible that the networks that have been taking this action weren't thinking of the replacement shows as replacements for cancelled shows but rather as replacements for shows that have run out of scripts, something that is expected to occur for most shows sometime in January or early February? At the same time NBC has two reality franchises that people are familiar with ready to go. CBS has a season of The Amazing Race that hasn't shot yet, and of course FOX has American Idol in addition to their backlog of scripted shows set to debut in January. What if the networks aren't going to cancel the poorly performing shows this season unless the absolutely have to? What if instead they're behaving like a bear preparing for winter hibernation by building up a stockpile of fat – shows – to carry them through until the end of the season or the end of the strike, whichever comes first? Am I crazy; does this actually make any sense?

Oh wait, maybe I am crazy, because CBS has cancelled Viva Laughlin – the series with the singing casino owner – after two episodes. It will be replaced by The Amazing Race as of November 4th.

Who does the PTC hate this week?: I'm going to break tradition here a little this time around and first say who they don't hate. They don't hate The CW's Life Is Wild for which I heartily congratulate them for an all too rare bit of good taste. You may recall that a couple of weeks ago I reviewed Life Is Wild and actually found it to be rather good. And I'm not the only one; Mark Berman, the Programming Insider at Media Week wrote this about the show when discussing last week's ratings: "It's a pity more viewers are not finding Life is Wild, which takes the traditional family drama and adds a new dimension by the on-location filming in South Africa. Before you close the door on it (and I had to label it a loser with ratings this low), keep in mind that it grew out of Online Nation by 447,000 viewers and 50 percent in the demo." It's exactly the sort of programming that people from the PTC on down to families who disdain everything that the PTC stands for except some quality programming that you can watch as a family say that they want, and it's light years different from the mawkish sentimentality of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition with which it shares a time slot (and which I have come to loathe).

Now as to hatred, the PTC sent its North Jersey Chapter Director, Crystal Madison, to shame News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch at his company's annual shareholders' meeting. The targets of Madison's ire were some of the usual PTC targets – Dirt on FX, and Family Guy, American Dad, and Bones of the FOX broadcast network. Surprisingly there was no mention of either Prison Break or Rescue Me in her little diatribe. Her conclusion actually quotes PTC Chairman Leon J. Weil: "The PTC chairman Ambassador Leon Weil [he was ambassador to Nepal for 3 years under Ronald Reagan – make of that what you will] summed it up best while speaking here last year with his common sense solution; (quote) '…if you are going to air mature content on your broadcast network, air it after 10 pm when children are unlikely to see it. And if you are intent on putting degrading programs like Nip/Tuck on the air, programs that violate your own corporate speech policies, put them on premium, not basic cable, where tens of millions of families who don't want it, and are in fact offended by it, aren't forced to pay for it.' (End quote)" Airing network programming after 10 p.m. is hardly an option for FOX which like The CW only offers two hours of prime time. But the funniest part of Madison's little speech actually came before her detailing of the wrongs of specific FOX and FX shows when she said this: "Fox Broadcasting and the FX network have repeatedly embarrassed you, the board and the shareholders with such programs as Family Guy, American Dad, Bones and Dirt." This is Rupert Murdoch and the board of News Corp. she's speaking to. They own both the News Of The World and The Sun in Britain and see nothing wrong with putting topless pictures on Page Three. Reportedly Murdoch was prepared to launch the Page Three Girl in the United States until his then wife threatened to divorce him if he did. The very fact that he owns the New York Post and made it what it is today should be ample evidence that nothing that makes money embarrasses this man. If someone were to ask Murdoch, "Have you no shame sir?" his answer would be "No." So what if FOX and FX incite the ire of people like Crystal Madison or Leon Weil. Murdoch is perfectly happy to laugh all the way to the bank.

The Broadcast Worst of the Week is a traditional PTC target, American Dad. It's not a show that I watch (because I don't like it) but the PTC hates it and Family Guy with the sort of burning passion that is usually associated with hating Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush. Here's a quote (well several actually, linked with ellipses) from the first paragraph of the PTC's commentary on the episode in question, which amazingly doesn't actually mention anything about the episode. In fact the first paragraph takes up more space than the rest of the commentary combined.

There is no shortage of people with perverted minds in our world, and most parents go to great lengths to make sure their children are not exposed to these people. In general we live in a society that frowns heavily on topics like incest and teen promiscuity and all those who promote or participate in such behaviour. It would be nice to say that all people frown on such behavior, but the people at the Fox network simply don't....Fox's Sunday night lineup has demonstrated season after season that if you can draw it they can air it, and the more perverted the better. With a complete disregard for decency, morality, and the general will of the average American family, Fox delivers smut-filled content week after week under the untouchable umbrella of satire and animation. However, the time has come for shows like Family Guy and American Dad to be called out for what they really are....it must be acknowledged that Family Guy and American Dad are not on the path of animated satire that popular shows like The Simpson paved nearly two decades ago, but rather that they are promoting the concepts and perverted fantasies of truly sick minds that are far more suited for the adult entertainment industry.

Tough stuff, right, but what brought this on? Well the episode of American Dad in question "featured, in a disturbingly normal fashion, an inadvertent sexual attraction between two teenage siblings." Well that's debatable. In the plot Haley, the 18 year-old daughter of the house, poses nude for an art class. In the art class is the family alien, Roger. Roger paints Haley's body but doesn't paint her head or face. He then brings the painting home. Later, 14 year-old Steve "is shown coming out of a candle lit bathroom carrying a box of tissue and the painting." According to the PTC, it "is clear that he was masturbating to the sight of his sister's nude body." Later when viewing the painting with a group of house guests, "Steve is shown rubbing his nipple in a perverse sexual manner. But of course he wasn't masturbating to the "sight of his sister's nude body" because Roger didn't paint her head. He has absolutely no way of knowing to whom the body in the painting belongs to. That of course is where the comedy can or should come from – wanting to be with owner of that body only to discover that she is in fact your sister. But of course the PTC sees vile and evil smut everywhere.

The Cable Worst of the Week is VH-1's I Love New York. Now I know that this show has been spun off from the Flavor Flav series Flavor Of Love I've never watched either show and have no desire to (I kind of think that Flavor Flav is either one of the ugliest people in the world or someone who is deliberately cultivating a ridiculous image for whatever reason). I'm not going to go into the reasons for why the PTC hates the show except that it involves sexual innuendo and a reference to the size of one man's (bleeped dick). It all degenerates into the usual PTC cry for cable choice as a means to remove "smut" from TV: "VH1 has shown its scorn for family audiences and quality entertainment for years. And that might be fine for three million people who watched the premiere. But what about the 75 million + subscribers who chose not to tune in, and in fact will never tune into I Love New York: 2? They're stuck with the bill." Well except of course that there is no show that gets 100% viewership, and indeed the advent of basic cable has meant that the television audience is increasingly subdivided by interests. Which I always thought, in my depressing naivet̩ was the whole point behind having cable in the first place, so that Рas much as is possible Рthere is something for everyone.

This week's Misrated looks at Boston Legal. The episode in question, which aired on October 2nd was rated TV-PG DSV. According to the PTC, "A TV-PG rating suggests that the episode contains some material that parents may find unsuitable for younger children; that parents may want to watch the episode with the child; and that the theme of the program may call for parental guidance." The PTC then argued that because the episode dealt with an incident of rape and the mention of the words "semen" and "vaginal bruising" as well as two large photos of a murder victim are sufficient to have the show rated TV-14: "According to the TV ratings guidelines, this is material that 'many parents may want to watch with their younger children.' A discussion about a brutal rape and murder; discussion of semen being found in the victim; vaginal bruising; discussion of how the defendant was having an affair with the victim; all this warrants a mere TV-PG DSV?" In a later paragraph they add, "Considering the rating that Boston Legal did receive, apparently the entertainment industry feels that the discussion of rape and murder is suitable for children of all ages—as long as a parent is present." Of course they fail to mention that Boston Legal is a show that airs in the third hour of prime time or that it is opposite Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show that the PTC complains about when it is rated TV-14 and is frequently far rawer in its depictions than this, or – most importantly – that the rating given to Boston Legal for this episode is entirely consistent with the rating given to other programs with similar themes and plotlines. But of course they're all wrong and the PTC is right.

Recently the PTC has added a new section called TV Trends to their weekly offerings. This time around they're focused on the first hour of prime time with the rather appropriately titled Family Hour Follies although as we shall see the "follies" come from the PTC. The article starts with a rather odd description of the creation of "The Family Hour": "In reaction, during the 1970s the TV networks showed a sense of restraint by voluntarily choosing to set aside that early hour for programs suitable for children. Ever since, the time between 8 and 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and between 7 and 9 p.m. on Sundays, in the Eastern time zone (7 to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 6 to 8 p.m. Sunday in the Central time zone) has been referred to as the Family Hour." Well actually no. The Family Hour was not voluntary but was imposed on the networks by the FCC from September 1975 until the policy was overturned by one of those pesky circuit court judges in 1976. So we've established that "The Family Hour" doesn't exist and that the networks are able to air just about anything they choose in the first hour of prime time. The PTC seems oblivious to this though and claims, "After the release of The Sour Family Hour: 8 to 9 Goes from Bad to Worse, the PTC's study of Family Hour programming in 2001, even Congress was shocked by our findings. As a result, a bipartisan coalition of senators and congressmen urged the broadcast television industry to restore the Family Hour. At first, the networks responded positively. ABC introduced a "Happy Hour" featuring family programming several nights a week. The WB network retained some of its older family-oriented shows in the 2001 fall season and began developing new programs suitable for children. Even program sponsors got into the act, with several advertisers agreeing to fund the development of family-friendly TV scripts. At least some of the broadcast networks seemed to be making a concerted effort to return programming during the Family Hour to a semblance of its previously family-friendly orientation. But it wasn't long before programming in the first hour of prime time slid into the gutter, with new programs featuring even more graphic violence and explicit sex than those aired in the 1990s. In the years since 2001, the broadcast networks have increasingly ignored the Family Hour." There are further descriptions of how TV has slid headlong into sleaze and evil but that's not really my point in looking at this. In this article, the PTC turns into a network programmer and shows conclusively that they don't understand the television business. Take these suggestions (my comments are in italics and parentheses):

  • On Tuesdays, ABC is showing its new programs Cavemen and Carpoolers, both of which contain anatomically explicit sexual dialogue, at 8:00 and 8:30 p.m. Yet it shows the family-friendly hit Dancing with the Stars at 9 p.m. Simply having these programs exchange places would put the child-appropriate dancing program on in the Family Hour, while reserving the more adult material for a later time. (This of course is like putting the kiss of death on Boston Legal since the two comedies – which I haven't seen – have done atrociously in the ratings and wouldn't provide a good lead-in for the third hour drama.)
  • On Mondays, Fox shows its violent drama Prison Break at 8 p.m. On Thursdays, the same network shows the delightful game show Don't Forget the Lyrics at 9 p.m. Why couldn't Lyrics be put on in the 8 o'clock hour on Mondays, with Prison Break after it? (Which effectively kills both shows. The "delightful" Don't Forget The Lyrics goes down before the "family friendly" Dancing With The Stars, Chuck and the CBS comedies How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory. Meanwhile Prison Break goes against Heroes, Two and a Half Men, and Rules of Engagement, which are already beating the FOX series K-Ville. And if K-Ville goes to Thursday night it gets to be destroyed by CSI, Grey's Anatomy, The Office, Scrubs, and most likely Supernatural.
  • Sunday nights on ABC begin with the clean and upbeat family shows America's Funniest Home Videos and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition at 7:00 and 8:00 ET respectively; and at 10 p.m. the network shows comparatively clean Brothers and Sisters. Why does ABC feel the need to intersperse the raunchy sex comedy Desperate Housewives in-between? If ABC had Housewives and Brothers and Sisters switch places, it could have a fairly clean programming block from 7 until 10 p.m. on Sundays. (Now wait, weren't we talking about the first hour of prime time, or even the first two hours on Sundays? So why are they moving the "comparatively clean" Brothers and Sisters. And I'm even ready to argue that assessment of that show – their own site about the show states "There is some sexual content and some homosexual content, with some brief heterosexual and homosexual sex scenes and sexual dialogue." This by them is "comparatively clean?")

In their diatribe about the "Family Hour", the PYC mentions "several advertisers agreeing to fund the development of family-friendly TV scripts." This probably refers to the Family Friendly Programming Forum of the Association of National Advertisers, an organization which I wholeheartedly support, in part because their attitude on family friendly programming is not that every show in every timeslot but rather "to provide optional programming to families every day of the week, with the best-case scenario within (primetime)." They accomplished that this year with shows whose script development they funded on each night except Saturday with the addition of Chuck, Bionic Woman, and Life Is Wild to a list that includes Ugly Betty, Friday Night Lights, Brothers And Sisters, and Everybody Hates Chris. Because let's face the fact that television is a business and the networks have to appeal to a wide audience. To the degree that Prison Break works in the time slot that it's in (which I don't really think is suitable either), it is because it is an alternative to dancing stars, geeks, a variant of Friends and a spy who is part of the "Nerd Herd." If you don't like the show, or even the very idea of the show, don't watch it, but in a free country, shouldn't the option at least be there?

No comments: