Sunday, December 30, 2007

On The Fifth Day Of Christmas

On the Fifth day of Christmas my true love (Television) gave to me...Five Naughty Shows! (As defined by the Parents Television Council of course.)

Naughty shows. There are a lot of naughty shows on TV, whether it's sex, language, violence or bad writing (sorry Writers Guild but it's not as if everything your members create is necessarily brilliant – there are a number of scripted shows that I'd pass up for a reality show like The Amazing Race...or even Big Brother). And the truth, which no one at the Parents Television Council will ever admit, is that bad writing (and bad acting and bad direction, but mostly bad writing) trumps sex, language, and violence for making a show bad. The critics – the real ones as opposed to amateurs like me – laud a show like Dexter because of the writing and the acting and the directing. But of course the PTC doesn't care about the quality of stories. The PTC are a bunch of bean counters who enumerate the number of incidents of sexual content, expletives (deleted or not) and acts of violence. And it is of course the PTC which defines what constitutes a "violent act" or a "sexual encounter" or even tells us what an expletive is.

So what is my methodology in defining these five shows that the PTC seems to consider the naughtiest on TV? Well, in this particular case being a bean counter is an appropriate technique. The PTC currently has four weekly – or mostly weekly – columns on their site that I regularly take apart in my "Who does the PTC hate this week" pieces. They are: Broadcast Worst of the Week, Cable Worst of the Week, Misrated, and TV Trends. My technique is to simply count up the number of times that the PTC has mentioned shows in different weeks in these columns. For example, if Family Guy was mentioned as being horrible in these columns on two different weeks it gets two points, but if (as actually happened more than once) Family Guy was mentioned in two different columns in one week it only got one point. There are a couple of faults in this methodology of course. For one thing, only Broadcast Worst of the Week (originally called Television's Worst of the Week) has run through the year. For another thing there were weeks in which I didn't record anything, not because the PTC didn't have anything to complain about but because I didn't write a piece. And last (and least in terms of methodology) the TV Trends columns tend to mention a number of shows. That one at least I'm willing to live with.

So what are the five worst shows as defined by the PTC? In something approaching reverse order they are:

  • American Dad: Three mentions mostly for sexual content. In recent columns they protested the inclusion of a child molester as a character and managed to condemn the show for using homosexual stereotypes but at the same time criticized the show for depicting the main character's attempts at experimentation with homosexual activity.
  • My Name Is Earl: Three mentions. Sexual content surrounding Joy's promiscuity and Catalina's work as a stripper of course but the main thing seems to be that the show doesn't do what they want it to. They want the show to be about personal redemption and doing good deeds. On the other hand the show has become about what some people would describe as "trailer trash." The trouble is that Earl, his family and friends have always been "trailer trash" and Earl's list has rarely been anything other than an excuse to show Earl's world.
  • The Family Guy: Four mentions. As usual, sexuality is at the forefront, what with Lois having had numerous sexual encounters before her marriage to Peter. They are also disturbed by Stuey's repeated attempts at (or fantasies about) killing his mother, and Brian (the alcoholic talking dog) and his fantasies. In one incident Brian seemed to have a sadistic sexual reaction to means in which Stuey would try to kill Lois slowly.
  • Nip/Tuck: Five mentions. Ostensibly the show the PTC hated the most. As usual the big argument was sex and nudity but a major contention this season was the presence of Eden, an 18 year old patient about whom one of the doctors had sexual fantasies and then sexual encounters with. The PTC contended that the depiction of one of these encounters would "validate" the sexual activities of pedophiles (the doctor was in his early 40s) undoubtedly forgetting that in every state in the United States an 18 year old has passed the age of majority and can have sex with whoever he or she wishes.
  • Rescue Me: I've only got two notes for this one, but I know that the PTC has this show on their hit list and I just know that there were a lot of mentions in the weeks where I wasn't writing about the PTC. They loathe this show. They hate it for the repeated use of swearing, they hate it for the repeated sexual situations including an act of sexual violence – or was it something that started as rape and became consensual? – and they hated it for violence, real or supposed.

There are a lot of runners up, and a lot of that has to do with the way in which the PTC counts acts. The depiction of an autopsy, or indeed a dead body at the scene of a crime, is called a violent act. A brief (under five seconds) shot of the side of a stripper's breast (in a recent episode of Las Vegas) is so vilely sexual that the PTC actually had their minions in the Central and Mountain time zones initiate an obscenity complaint to the FCC. They claimed that at the end of an episode of Private Practice Addison "holding the showerhead preparing to masturbate." Except you know, she wasn't. But of course the PTC is so often all about the innuendo rather than the reality of the thing.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

On The Fourth Day Of Christmas

On the Fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me....Four Reality-Competition Show Stars. (Well five really but two of these are so joined in the public imagination that they can safely be counted as one.) Okay, admittedly these are people from shows that I watch and I don't really focus on shows like Project Runway, America's Next Top Model, or American Idol, but do you really want to be reminded of Sanjaya?

Yau-Man Chan: Everybody's favourite loser on Survivor: Fiji. Yau-Man was smart, enthusiastic, agile, and beloved by his fellow competitors. He opened a sealed wooden box when brawnier members of his tribe failed through the simple expedient of dropping it on its corner. His childhood in Borneo gave him some knowledge of the jungle. He almost single handedly won an immunity challenge for his team by applying physics – by way of "unorthodox" techniques – to a challenge involving traditional Fijian weapons. He not only managed to tell his alliance that he had one of the hidden Immunity Idols when forced by two other players, he managed to build on his alliance by revealing that his belongings had been searched. He read his opponents so well that he knew the exact time to play his Immunity Idol – if he hadn't played it at just the right time he'd have been eliminated by a 4-2 vote. His one misstep involved the "car curse." In a Reward Challenge he won a new truck. He immediately decided to use it as a bargaining chip, offering it to cheerleading coach "Dreamz" in return for a promise that if "Dreamz" won the immunity challenge in the final four he wouldn't vote for Yau-Man. "Dreamz" took the truck and then broke his promise, with Yau-Man finishing fourth. The "car curse" turned out to be doubly powerful – "Dreamz" not only didn't win the million dollar first prize, neither he nor Cassandra (the other player who faced the final jury vote) got a single vote.

Dick Donato: "Evel" was by turns abusive, arrogant, tender, mocking and strategically brilliant during his time on Big Brother 8. The California National Organization for Women called for his removal from the show because of remarks he made about a female competitor, and online petitions circulated for and against him. And yet there was usually method in his supposed madness because when it came down to it, Dick's primary objective was not to win the half million dollar prize for himself but to win it for his daughter Danielle who was also a contestant. He was the first person in the history of the American version of Big Brother to have been able to used the Power of Veto to save himself and instead use it on the other nominee – his daughter Danielle (she later returned the favour). And although he tended to be less than successful at challenges his determination a marathon task that didn't work as planned (part of the mechanism for the challenge broke down early in the challenge leaving the two remaining contestants to hold onto a rope while being drenched in water) was only a prelude to his success in the remaining two parts of the final Head of Household competition. This in turn allowed him to go to the final two with his daughter, as he had planned. The quality of his game play (combined with his popularity with the public in a season where phone voting controlled one player) allowed him to win the season.

"Jeric" (Jessica Hughbanks & Eric Stein): You know you have something when you have two reality-competition players whose connection is so deep that they grow a compound name, and their fans petition for their inclusion in The Amazing Race. That happened to "Romber" (Rob & Amber from Survivor: All Stars, and one of the best teams ever to appear on The Amazing Race in my opinion) and it happened to Jessica & Eric. Admittedly they didn't win Big Brother 8, or even finish in the final four, but they had amazing chemistry together and their romantic relationship blossomed on the show. Admittedly things were complicated for Eric due to the whole "America's Player" thing, which allowed viewers at home to determine who Eric would vote for and some of his other actions – on his own Eric probably wouldn't have made some of the voting decisions that were made for him – but somehow they worked through it. True, Eric's first kiss with Jessica had been voted on by the fans, and it was their choice that he give his (supposed) childhood "woobie" to her but there was a definite connection there. Even their evictions from the house had an almost Romeo & Juliet quality to it – in a double eviction episode Eric was removed from the show just minutes after Erica. Since their appearance on Big Brother they are apparently still together, if in a rather long distance relationship at the moment. More to the point they were such fan favourites that when Eric made a comment about how he'd like to be on The Amazing Race, fans started a petition to get the couple on the show.

Julia Williams: Reality TV fans are a fickle lot, and nothing showed that more than the reaction to Julia. She became a fan favourite on the third season of Hell's Kitchen due to her underdog status. While most of the other competitors had experience in fine dining establishments, Julia was a short order cook for the Waffle House chain. The abuse started almost immediately, when she was relegated to chopping apples during dinner service. It was only after one of the "better trained" members of her team repeatedly failed to fry quail eggs that she let her frustration go. Even then, some members of her team wanted to eliminate her because she "worked at the (expletive) Waffle House." She was nominated later for "not knowing proper culinary terms," something so absurd that Ramsay voided the nomination. Julia's performance continued to improve, and when Ramsay was finally forced to fire her, he not only praised her performance on the show but even offered to pay for her to attend culinary school. She was most assuredly the fan's favourite at this point in the show. And then came the series finale. The final two were "Rock", an executive chef from Virginia, and Bonnie, a self-described nanny an personal chef from Los Angeles. The relationship between Julia and Bonnie had never been good – Bonnie was one of the people who thought Julia should have been fired in the first episode – and Julia seemed resentful that Bonnie in particular was there and she wasn't. The fans – some of them at least – turned on her. She was pouting; she wasn't sufficiently grateful for Ramsay paying her way to culinary school. Worst of all, she was a "sore loser" and may even have used her attitude to keep Bonnie from winning. Even I felt that if it were a real restaurant rather than the finale of a reality competition, Bonnie would have been justified in firing Julia's ass – after service was over. Still, no one can deny that at least for most of what was really a lacklustre season for the show, Julia was the one the fans were behind.

Friday, December 28, 2007

On The Third Day Of Christmas

On the third day of Christmas my true love (Television) gave to me....three cancelled series (before the strike).

How bad does a show have to be in order to be cancelled in a year in which the normal laws of supply and demand in the Television industry have been overturned? Usually supply of new shows far outstrips demand. There are always new pilots and people with ideas for new series so that if a show underperforms it is out the door. This trend reached an absurd height in recent years with a number of shows getting axed after four or five episodes. In in some cases that was a long run; 3 Lbs was pulled after two episodes while the late (and not overly lamented) game show The Rich List got one episode on FOX to fail to prove itself.

The WGA strike has changed the Hollywood dynamic considerably though. The supply of new scripted programming is finite, so demand for any series is outstripping supply. The net result is that virtually every show ordered by the five networks either have run or will run all of the episodes that were produced before the strike regardless of ratings. This is the sort of thing that viewers say they want – to see shows get a fair chance to build an audience and develop storylines. This was not a season when you could say that you weren't going to watch a new show out of fear that it would be cancelled just as you were getting cancelled. Now what happened after they shown their final pre-strike episodes is a different story. The networks did order "back nines" for a number of series, but the value of these "back nines" is questionable at best if the networks and studios maintain their current attitude toward the Writers Guild. Still, a lot of shows that would have been pulled for bad ratings after three or four episodes (I'm thinking Big Shots and probably Cavemen here) actually got a chance to show their stuff, such as it was.

Ah but the three series I mentioned, shows so awesome in the fullness of their awfulness that not even a writers strike could save them. They were Nashville the FOX "docu-soap" about aspiring musicians in the Country Music industry, Online Nation a series that ran videos from Internet sources like YouTube on network TV, and Viva Laughlin which was CBS's "musical dramedy" based on the BBC series Blackpool. Let's look at these shows briefly (as briefly as possible) and try to figure out why they were so bad that even in a year where content was in such short supply they weren't considered worth keeping.

Nashville was a reality TV/soap opera, presumably from the same mould as a show like Laguna Beach or The Hills. The show featured a variety of unknowns in various stages of trying to break into the music industry (the most recognizable name was a last name, Bradshaw – Rachel Bradshaw is the daughter of former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and FOX football commentator Terry Bradshaw), but was full of the usual sort of soap opera nonsense that made you wonder just how "real" this "reality" was. Or as Matt Roush of TV Guide put it, "As on the MTV shows, just about everything in Nashville looks about as genuine as a feminine-hygiene commercial." Glenn Garvin in the Miami Herald added, "The show's dialogue feels scripted, its frequent hookups and breakups abrupt and phony, and its scenes from the music business out and out fraudulent." In my book, there's something to be said for the concept of following young people trying to break into Country Music, but it's something that could be done far better in a real night time soap – in other words a scripted drama. The series had the worst ratings for any FOX series airing in its Friday time slot in the 2006-07 season, including repeats: 2.72 million viewers for the first episode (1.31 million in the 18-49 demographic), and that dropped for the second episode (2.14 million viewers total).

Online Nation also died from excruciatingly bad ratings, which on The CW is saying a lot. It was the lowest rated CW show ever (and I have to suspect that includes ratings for shows on UPN and The WB as well) with the final episode drawing a 0.4/1 rating, meaning that only about 500,000 people saw it. I think it was inevitable. The show drew its material from Internet sources like YouTube, and I suppose was intended to be something like America's Funniest Home Videos for the Internet Generation. There's just one flaw in this logic of course: those who want to see this sort of stuff are going to find it online all by themselves, while those who have no interest in finding it online aren't going to have any interest in watching it just because it's on the big screen in the living room. No critic even bothered to review it.

The only scripted series to be cancelled before the strike was CBS's Viva Laughlin and it is less a surprise that it was cancelled than that it was ever approved in the first place. It seems that nobody at CBS remembered Cop Rock (and for all its numerous faults Cop Rock at least featured original musical numbers). The "musical" part of this "musical dramedy" came across more like badly done karaoke, with the voices of the actors on the show often being drowned out by the original artists. But that's wasn't the worst part of the show. As Tricia Olszewski of Pop Matters put it, "The biggest surprise about Viva Laughlin, CBS's new "mystery drama with music," is that the singing and dancing isn't the worst thing about it." She was right too. The plot was muddled, the actors took the material far too seriously and worst of all Melanie Griffith was in it. Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times wrote, "Viva Laughlin on CBS may well be the worst new show of the season, but is it the worst show in the history of television? It certainly comes close in a category that includes Beverly Hills Buntz in 1987 (Dennis Franz in a short-lived spinoff of Hill Street Blues), the self-explanatory Manimal in 1983 or last year's one-episode wonder, Emily's Reasons Why Not. Viva Laughlin is not even in the same league as Cop Rock, a 1990 experimental series created by Steven Bochco that leavened a gritty police drama with Broadway musical moments: cops and criminals breaking into song and dance. Viva Laughlin also features musical outbursts and is far worse." The fact is though, that if there was even the slightest hint of an audience actually watching this thing it would probably still be on TV. The debut on a Thursday pulled an adequate 8.83 million viewers with a 2.4/7 rating in the 18-49 demographic; adequate until you remember that the show lost almost half the viewers who had tuned in an hour earlier to watch CSI. When the show debuted in its regular time slot – Sunday night following 60 Minutes – it lost 40% of the audience of its lead-in (60 Minutes: 11.14 million; Viva Laughlin: 6.77 million), and dropped 20% of its own audience between the first and second half hours (and almost 30% in the 18-49 demographic). And this was the show that was replacing the supposedly weak Amazing Race (which the year before had drawn an audience of 10.89 million in the same time slot).

It undoubtedly takes a lot of bad to get a show cancelled with haste in the year of the Writers Guild Strike, but unlike previous years it seems obvious that none of these shows were cancelled in undue haste. In fact, with the possible exception of Nashville it was the approval of these series rather than the cancellation that was done with undue haste.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

On The Second Day Of Christmas

On the second day of Christmas, my true love (Television) gave to me....Two singing shows debuting within 24 hours.

Who can forget the hilarity that ensued when The Singing Bee and Don't Forget The Lyrics debuted within days of each other? Okay, okay, who can remember the hilarity that ensued when The Singing Bee and Don't Forget The Lyrics debuted within days of each other? I wasn't sure America thought there was a need for one show where people filled in the missing lyrics to songs and NBC and FOX gave them two. Still there must be something to the format because both shows are still on. Of course that little business of the Writers Strike may have something to do with at least one of these shows still being on, maybe both.

The whole story began with the NBC upfronts in May 2007 when the network announced that The Singing Bee would be given the first hour slot on Friday nights, temporarily replacing 1 vs. 100. The show was described as one where people would give the correct lyrics to popular songs in order to win big prizes. The format would be along the lines of the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee – hence the title. At the time there was no similar show announced from FOX either for their Fall schedule or their Summer schedule. This would change.

FOX revealed in mid-June that they would have a new summer show called Don't Forget The Lyrics in which contestants would have to correctly sing the lyrics to win big prizes. The series would debut on July 11, 2007 and would be hosted by Wayne Brady. Needless to say NBC was livid. On the other hand it wasn't the first time that FOX had taken one of their ideas and tried to put a look-alike series on the air. In November 2004 Fox sprang The Next Great Champ starring Oscar de la Hoya and produced by the Dutch multinational Endemol on an unsuspecting (and largely disinterested) public, about four months ahead of NBC's much hyped The Contender hosted by Sugar Ray Leonard and Sylvester Stallone, which was produced by Mark Burnett of Survivor fame. At that time NBC couldn't respond quickly but this time they could. Swiftly hiring former N'Sync singer Joey Fatone as host, they announced that their show would debut on July 10th, the day before Don't Forget The Lyrics, and to make the similarities between the two shows even more apparent, the premiere episode was aired on the 11th, starting a half hour before the debut of the ABC series.

Of course, the shows were quite different. From an originality standpoint, Don't Forget The Lyrics did not impress. If anything it bore a very strong resemblance to the game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, with some modifications. Instead of multiple choice trivia questions, the contestants on Don't Forget The Lyrics had to pick a type of song and after a period of singing karaoke style (with the words put up on a screen) they had to sing the next group of words correctly to win the money at that level. Like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire prizes went up as songs were done correctly while contestants risked losing it all if they got the line of the song wrong (although there was a "Millionaire") style plateau at $25,000. Finally players on Don't Forget The Lyrics had three different "Helps" (aka "Lifelines") that they could use throughout the game.

By contrast The Singing Bee seemed like a far more creative concept. There are several rounds in which contestants are removed until only one contestant is left standing. That contestant participates in "The Final Countdown" in which a player has to remember the correct lyrics for seven songs, each worth $5,000. If the contestant gets all seven right they win $50,000. Between the qualifying sing-off and the Final Countdown, the contestants can face one of at least five different challenges. And it's all presided over by Joey Fatone, who (on those very rare occasions when I watch either of these two shows) has always seemed to be having more fun as a host than Wayne Brady does.

After all the controversy surrounding the one-upsmanship by the networks which led to The Singing Bee being the second highest rated show that week the it debuted (behind Baseball's All-Star Game) the show turned out to be a less than stellar performer in the ratings, pulling a 1.7 rating the Tuesday before it was pulled from line-up. It returned on December 21st, going head to head with a rerun of Don't Forget The Lyrics – it got creamed, finishing in fifth place, while the Don't Forget The Lyrics rerun tied for first in the 18-49 demographic even though it finished fourth in total viewers.

(Hey, these pieces can't all be winners.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

On The First Day Of Christmas...

On the first day of Christmas, my true love (Television) gave to me....An end to this cycle of strikes.

Yeah I said cycle. It obviously started with the Writers Guild strike and both the Directors Guild and the Screen Actors Guild are going to be in a position to strike at the end of June.

Really I am currently full of fear and dread about the Writers Guild strike. It came on me suddenly when I read something on Christmas Eve from Nikki Finke. Nikki has long been adamant on the side of the writers to the point where a Disney/ABC seminar on the strike referred to her as "Tokyo Rose". (She felt insulted by the comparison, but I for one think she should wear it as a symbol of pride; she is feared so much by the "moguls" that they feel obliged to denigrate her.) So it was with a certain amount of shock that I read the following in Deadline Hollywood Dateline in an article about an attempt by Jeffrey Katzenberger:

But the fact that it was unsuccessful dramatically points up disturbing realities, I have learned: that the CEOs are deeply entrenched in their desire to punish the WGA for daring to defy them by striking and to bully the writers into submission on every issue, and that the writers are sadly misguided to believe they have any leverage left. I'm told the moguls are determined to write off not just the rest of this TV season (including the Back 9 of scripted series), but also pilot season and the 2008/2009 schedule as well. Indeed, network orders for reality TV shows are pouring into the agencies right now. The studios and networks also are intent on changing the way they do TV development so they can stop spending hundreds of millions of dollars in order to see just a few new shows succeed. As for advertising, the CEOs seem determined to do away with the upfront business and instead make their money from the scatter market. I'm sorry to break this disappointing development right before Christmas, but I pledged to stay objective in my reporting and I can't ignore this major news development. The truth often hurts. But don't blame the messenger.

She adds:

I am now convinced that the 8 Big Media moguls pretty much have a vice-like grip on how this strike will get settled. And virtually no amount of external pressure will force their hand. I know from my many years of reporting on labor negotiations in the U.S. and abroad that, in any new contract negotiation, there is one watershed moment when the union and the companies can move the flag down the field in a meaningful way before ego, rhetoric, and the passage of time get the better of everyone involved. Has that moment come and gone? I honestly don't know, but if it hasn't, then it's soon -- very soon.

And that's coming from someone who is generally regarded as a friend to the Guild, or at least a more honest reporter than the "trades" which after all make their money from advertising from the studios. I don't know about you guys but for me, as a supporter of the Writers Guild, that's really scary stuff. Over my years of observing labour negotiations it has always seemed that the one thing that has let to strike settlements has been the realization on the part of industry that they can't go on without a skilled and trained labour force, and that the corporate bottom line will not sustain a long labour dispute. The Big 8, as Nikki Finke, calls them and particularly the TV network executives seem unconstrained by this. Not having to pay those pesky writers and going with "unscripted" reality shows might actually help make the fourth quarter financial statement look rosier than it would without the writers. And we as fans of good (or even just adequate) scripted television are relegated to the sidelines and no amount of sending pencils to the networks or the studios is going to change that. What will have an influence – and probably a very major influence – is if first quarter (and probably second quarter) revenues for the networks take a nosedive. And that means that American TV viewers (because we simple Canadians have no influence at all on American ratings) will have to reject the pap that the networks are going to be offering. Worst of all, if the Directors Guild settles a contract before the Writers Guild then that becomes the model for the rest of the industry. And the Directors Guild has a long history of being "friendly" to the producers; being a good little union that hardly ever strikes.

I really hate that the first of these pieces is such a downer.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas To All

I kind of scrapped a couple of the pieces I thought about working on under the pressure of getting things done for Christmas (on Christmas Eve no less) and besides I decided that one of them wasn't terribly appropriate. I mean did you really want me to write about the PTC's belief that Television is "anti-religion" on Christmas Eve? Well even if you did, I didn't. I'll shoe horn that in during my Twelve Days of Christmas pieces (which I haven't even started getting ideas for – yipes!). In the meantime....

In the meantime I've got what most of you might consider a hoary old chestnut but there's a story attached. Those of us of a certain age remember holiday specials that were full of songs and comedy. That's just one of the reasons why I enjoyed Clash Of The Choirs; even with its reality competition base it was a throwback to that sort of show. But, of course, I digress. There are people in their late teens who probably remember Bob Hope's annual Christmas shows – I'm not talking about the USO tours here (the last of those was 1990 before the start of the Gulf War) because Hope and his crew were on the road for Christmas and the shows would air shortly after he returned. In those specials Hope would sing Silver Bells which he first performed in 1951's Lemon Drop Kid, and there were the usual pretty girls, the All-America College Football team, and comedy sketches. By his last years on the air, what Hope was doing became increasingly irrelevant and really rather sad.

Those of us of an even greater age – like mine – remember someone who was even more associated with Christmas than Bob Hope. That was Bing Crosby. Crosby's association with Christmas probably started with the now rarely seen 1942 movie Holiday Inn. He sang Irving Berlin's iconic White Christmas in that movie, a song which later became the focus of Crosby's most successful film White Christmas. Crosby did numerous Christmas specials for TV starting in 1957, a number of these appeared during the time he was one of the rotating hosts of ABC's Hollywood Palace variety series, which ran from 1964 to 1970.

However it is his last special in 1977 that is particularly memorable. The program was taped in London in September of that year and featured the model and actress Twiggy, and singer David Bowie. Crosby reportedly had never heard of Bowie and was encouraged to have him on the show by his children, while Bowie agreed to do it because he knew his mother liked Crosby's music. Crosby wanted to do a duet with Bowie on the song The Little Drummer Boy, however Bowie apparently had some qualms about doing a pure duet (he hated the song) and asked if there was something else he could sing. Ian Fraser, Larry Grossman and Buz Kohan, who was one of the script writers for the special, wrote an original song, Peace On Earth to be sung as part of a medley. In fact it turned into a bit of a blend so that the two songs actually become one. A month after filming the special Bing Crosby died at age 74, after playing a round of golf in Spain. As a result he never knew just how successful his collaboration with Bowie was. The song first appeared on a bootleg with the Bowie song Heroes. In 1982 RCA gave the song an official release – it rose to #3 on the UK charts that year. The Bowie-Crosby duet was also ranked by TV Guide as one of the 25 most memorable musical moments of 20th Century television.

I remember seeing the special at the time, and the Bowie-Crosby performance was electrifying, once they got down to it. Amazingly the blending of their voices was perfect with Crosby's baritone a perfect complement for Bowie's tenor. They come together beautifully in the segments of the medley where they both are singing the same lines and the orchestration suits the power of the merged songs. Best of all, it takes a song which I otherwise cannot abide (the Little Drummer Boy) and not only makes it work but turns it into something almost magical.

(I'd like to thank my good buddy Sam Johnson for choosing this song as part of his e-card this year. If nothing else it inspired me.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Serious Sci-Fi Geek Here

I expect to have a new post up later today and probably one tomorrow too before my second annual 12 Days Of Christmas posts (that I haven't actually started on yet - yipe!) but before that...

Take the Sci fi sounds quiz I received 86 credits on
The Sci Fi Sounds Quiz

How much of a Sci-Fi geek are you?
Take the Sci-Fi Movie Quiz canon s5 is

They tell you if you got an answer wrong but not what the right answer is - frustrating.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Who Does The PTC Hate This Week?

I wasn't supposed to be writing this right now. I was going to be out at the casino Thursday afternoon, so I headed off to catch the shuttle bus. I got there in plenty of time...I thought. There were about 15 people standing about waiting for the bus when I got there but by the time the bus arrived that number had almost doubled, but I was there before them so I should be able to get on the bus. Nope. The driver (who had to pick up people at another stop) quite sensibly limited the number of people who could get on to something like 18 or 20 and somehow, but people who arrived after me were among the 20 and one or two who had come before me weren't on the bus. But the truly galling part for me was this one guy who arrived after me kept shouting "Get in line. Those people there aren't in line." Of course this was after he was safely ahead of me.

Naturally this put me in a perfect frame of mind to write about the Parents Television Council. So who do they hate this week?

First off we have an issue which I actually agree with the PTC on, media cross-ownership. The PTC is opposed to a recent FCC ruling which will allow newspaper companies to also own TV stations (and presumably vice versa) in the ten largest US markets (I would assume that there is some variance in the existing ruling that allow the Tribune Corporation to own WGN and the Chicago Tribune, WPIX and Newsday in New York, and KTLA and the Los Angeles Times in LA). Naturally the PTC and I don't agree on the reasoning behind our mutual dislike for this ruling. In its press release the PTC states, "Broadcasters are required to use the public airwaves to serve the public interest, and at the same time they are able to reap immense financial benefit. This creates an inherent potential for a conflict of interest, especially when billions of dollars are at stake. It is therefore incumbent upon other media outlets to provide a check and balance by reporting objectively about how the public airwaves are being exploited. Experience has shown us that newspapers do not take TV or radio stations to task when they are jointly owned by the same media conglomerate." My concern has little to do with that. It does have to do with creating an atmosphere in which the number of independent media voices in a city or country is reduced. I'm thinking in particular of the presentation of the news. As a Canadian I know of what I speak.

The battle of media consolidation has already been lost in Canada. Both of the two major, private, English language televisions networks are paired up with major newspapers. CTV is owned by CTVglobemedia which also owns the Globe & Mail newspaper, the more popular of Canada's two newspapers. Torstar, which owns the Toronto Star newspaper also owns a 20% share of CTVglobemedia. Quebecor Media owns newspapers in both English Canada and Quebec as well as the TVA television network in Quebec.Global TV is owned Canwest Global, which also owns the Southam chain of newspapers which includes newspapers in every major English Canadian city outside of Atlantic Canada except Toronto. It owns both newspapers in Vancouver, the single dailies in Victoria, Saskatoon and Regina, and the only English language newspaper in Montreal. They also own the National Post, Canada's second national newspaper. The effect, particularly in the case of Canwest Global has been caustic. As a rather silly example, you will not see a single ad for a show on either CBC or CTV in a Southam paper but you often see full page ads for the latest program that Global has bought. It is in news that things are really bad. Canwest Global uses the reporting staff of their newspapers to "supplement" the newsgathering efforts of their TV stations. That sounds benign but the net result is that the reporting in both the TV and newspaper side seem to parrot a similar line. In the recent provincial election in Saskatchewan for example, both the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the local Global TV station both exhibited a noticeable bias in the tone of their reporting towards the Saskatchewan Party and against the incumbent NDP government. To what degree that effected the election, which was won by the Saskatchewan Party is unclear but it undoubtedly had an influence. It's not a good road to travel, and one can only imagine the effects of such consolidation in the United States.

Of course the PTC can't stay mad at the FCC for long; who would their righteous, mass mailed form letter complaints about obscene content go to otherwise. This time around the PTC is claiming that the November 30th episode of Las Vegas was obscene and they're using same tactic that they used when they attacked the "teen orgy scene" from Without A Trace. They are claiming that the content in the Las Vegas episode was obscene in the Central and Mountain time zones because in those regions shows that air in the third hour of prime time start at 9 p.m. and end at 10 p.m. Don't laugh, that old wheeze got CBS a $3.25 million fine for the Without A Trace episode, and the maximum fines have gone up by a factor of ten since then. What I do find alternately laughable and scary is what the PTC is calling obscene in the Las Vegas episode: "The Parents Television Council™ is calling on its members to file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about an indecent episode of NBC's Las Vegas that aired on November 30 at 9:00 p.m. in the Central and Mountain Time zones and at 10:00p.m. in the Eastern and Pacific Time zones. The episode that was viewed by hundreds of thousands of children included a side camera shot of a stripper exposing her breasts. As if that were not offensive enough, the men watching her wagered money about the color of her nipples." That's it, that's what the PTC considers obscene: a shot from the side of a stripper exposing her a strip club, and men wagering about whether the woman's nipples are pink or brown. Let's ignore the absurd notion that "hundreds of thousands of children" were watching Las Vegas, because it is an absurd assertion. What they fail to mention is the duration of the "exposure" in that side angle shot. It is less than five seconds. This isn't the "teen orgy scene" in Without A Trace, (which I personally still don't think qualifies as obscene) let alone the episodes of NYPD Blue where you saw extensive shots of strippers who looked like they were in a real strip club. And the only thing scarier than the image of some self appointed PTC censor hunched over his VCR remote advancing footage of the episode frame by frame to find the naughty bits is the idea that the FCC might actually rule that this absurd complaint constitutes real obscenity.

Sticking with that episode of Las Vegas for a bit, the PTC has also named it this week's Misrated show, and it's for pretty much the same reasons. The show was rated TV-14 LVD (Language, Violence, Dialog) and the PTC contends that the S descriptor should also be added. Here's the description of the scene that they provide: "Sam is trying to come to terms with her new situation when her friend Nick[?] from the Montecito comes to visit her one night. Sam is watching a terrible imitation of an '80s hair band perform a ballad called 'Stripper Girl': 'Your lips were red, your skin was pale…You were the one I wanted to nail…I asked you for a table dance, you came over, put your hand down my pants…' croons the singer as he pushes his hand down his own pants. Meanwhile, strippers dance in cages all over the club. Nick looks over at two men yelling "50 Gs on Pink!" "50 Gs on Brown!" Nick asks them what they are betting on. "Her nipples!" they answer gleefully. The stripper then whips off her top and provides America with a side view of her breasts as she continues to dance." Setting aside the fact that they got the name of the character from the Monetcito who visits Sam (it's Mike, played by James Lesure – I don't know who "Nick" is) I suppose one might think that maybe the lyrics to Stripper Girl is the reason for the PTC's demand for the S descriptor or the bet on the shade of the stripper's nipples. But wait, those would be covered under the D descriptor for "highly suggestive dialogue." So obviously it's the breasts, and in fact the PTC admits as much: "Las Vegas is by no means a family-friendly show -- though NBC apparently thinks it is appropriate for 14-year-olds. But refusing to use an S-descriptor in a program focusing on strippers and bare breasts demonstrates that the networks are either incompetent or willfully negligent when it comes to rating their own programs."

So let's get down to points. First, the focus of the episode was not on "strippers and bare breasts." In fact there were only three or four scenes of Sam in the strip club one of which didn't even show the strippers. None of those scenes ran for more than five minutes. The focus of the episode was a robbery at the casino and Danny's suspicion that his uncle may have been part of it. The storyline around Sam losing her job at the Montecito and trying to get it back was a secondary plot and hardly the main focus of the episode. Second, as I mentioned in critiquing the PTC's campaign to have the FCC declare the episode obscene, the actual amount of time in which the side view of the woman's breasts was seen can literally be counted on the fingers of both hands and I'm being conservative in this estimate. Moreover, the woman isn't seen in a close-up or clearly lit as other shows have done with similar material (like NYPD Blue did on numerous occasions). I scarcely think that any rational person would find that this met the standard of "moderate sexual situations" that is required to earn an S descriptor on a TV-14 show. Then again this is the PTC we're talking about.

Now, let's turn to the PTC's Broadcast Worst of the Week. And it's an old PTC "favourite" making a triumphant return to the top of this category, American Dad but to do so they have to resort to reviewing a rerun of an episode that ran during the second season of the show, "Lincoln Lover." According to the PTC the episode "included highly offensive comments about sexual orientation and perverse sexual innuendo which carried the show from joke after repulsive joke." And yes, that's exactly the way that sentence appears on the website. The episode starts with Stan talking about how it is "cool to alienate gays" and includes the line "gays are the new blacks." What some might see as a borderline clever play on the claim that some colour " the new black" the PTC adds, "as if to suggest that it was once "cool" to alienate African-Americans." Either the PTC doesn't get the reference – possible I suppose – or they feel the need to be outraged on behalf of Blacks and Gays (the organization has been accused of homophobia on more than one occasion). Subsequently Stan becomes involved with a group of "Log Cabin Republicans" (gay members of the Republican Party). According to the PTC interpretation of the episode, "When he realizes they are gay he not only changes his ideas about homosexuals, but now desires to be one. He tells his wife that he plans to have sex with a man to prove to his new friends that he is gay." Now there's quite a bit of detail and nuance that is missed in this description of the episode, which a look at the recap would show. But of course detail and nuance are hardly the PTC's stock in trade unless they "prove" the organization's point. They are far more concerned with the use of the term "power top" which they then need to explain to their readers ("which means he is willing to be the man with the role of penetrating the other") so that they'll know exactly why "This is not a term that children watching TV should be made privy to." The PTC's article ends by stating, "The needless sexual innuendo and offensive sexual scenarios make this show completely inappropriate for broadcast television and far more suited for extended cable." Now, I'm not a Family Guy or American Dad viewer (the PTC tends to lump the shows together in the same circle of Hell) for a number of reasons, none of which have to do with "needless sexual innuendo and offensive sexual scenarios." The PTC's review taken on its own would seem to support their position, the problem is that the PTC is engaged in that old pastime of essayists, picking and choosing the data they present so that it supports their cause, in this case to make the show seem far more outrageous and unfocussed than it was. A comparison of the recap with the PTC article would indicate that the show was far more than a collection of, "highly offensive comments about sexual orientation and perverse sexual innuendo." There was in fact a plot and a reason for the events described.

The Cable Worst of the Week is, yet again, Nip/Tuck. In the four weeks since I spun this recurring post off from my Short Takes posts, Nip/Tuck has been the Cable Worst of the Week twice (and I have a strong suspicion that they've changed the episode being described so it may in fact be the third time and I just missed reporting one). This certainly indicates an obsession with this particular show on the part of the PTC. Their outrage this time is with the sexual relationship between Eden and Sean. Eden is 18 and Sean is 42, something which the PTC makes a big deal about. I won't go into details, although the PTC does. I will simply refer you to the organization's final comment on the episode, which aired on December 11th: "In an era when the sexual abuse of minors has become a major concern, and the entertainment industry increasingly portrays and urges women and even young girls to think of themselves as sex objects, it is outrageous that Nip/Tuck's creator Ryan Murphy shows such insensitivity to these issues, and that his program is lauded by critics as 'deep' and 'insightful.' No doubt potential pedophiles take comfort in seeing their depraved desires lauded by Murphy's warped drama." There is an obvious problem in this assessment – Eden isn't a minor. Every state in the United States considers an 18 year-old to be above the age of consent for sexual activity (in fact the age of consent in the majority of states is 16 – in South Carolina it is 14). An 18 year-old can drive, vote, buy cigarettes, and join the army without getting a letter of permission from a parent. Society considers an 18 year-old an adult except when it comes to drinking. Even the PTC considers an 18 year-old to be an adult. Or at least they do unless it suits them not to as it does in this case. In other words, the relationship depicted in the episode is hardly sexual abuse of a minor, particularly since it seems clear from previous episodes of this season that Eden is at least as much the aggressor in this relationship as Sean is, and indeed it has been made abundantly clear that not only is Eden not a virgin (even with hymen reconstruction performed by Sean) she has been quite aggressive sexually. Far from portraying the "sexual abuse of minors" and showing potential pedophiles "depraved desires lauded by Murphy's warped drama," the show is depicting a relationship which is, if a little strange and even creepy, entirely legal. Put it a different way, would the PTC be up in arms about this if Eden were described as 20 and Sean were 44? I doubt it.

The PTC's TV Trends column this week is titled Decent Sitcom Content: An Alien Concept? The article focuses on the CW comedy Aliens In America. Proving that the PTC is not unable recognise a paraphrased quote when it suits them (see the American Dad piece for an example of a time when it doesn't suit them) the first paragraph of the article is: "To paraphrase a famous Shakespearean quote, some shows are born filthy, and others have filthiness thrust upon them. While many primetime shows occupy the former category, the CW's Aliens in America typifies the latter. A series that could be focused on cultural understanding and the true meaning of friendship is undercut
by tawdry and crude sexual humor." And then they go on to "prove" it, the proof consisting of three examples of dialogue from the show and one scene description. Each is followed by a PTC approved interpretation of the scene. The PTC is clearly stating that the show is awash with raunchy dialogue and situations. They state: "It is easy to forget the more positive elements of Aliens in America when these pointless scenes are embedded into the story. Do the producers hope to appeal to audiences desiring edgy fare? Do they feel that needless filth is somehow going to salvage the series in the eyes of the viewing public? What makes this truly appalling is the fact that Aliens in America on the whole is not a trashy show. Outrageous sexual humor is injected into stories that otherwise have the potential to be positive. The theme of deep friendship is undercut by homosexual innuendo. An attractive girl's company cannot be enjoyed without sex as an ulterior motive. These instances, and more, are sadly commonplace on the new series." Ah, but that's not the worst of it. The writer of the piece uses ratings to "prove" that the general public doesn't want to watch this sort of "raunchy" programming, particularly in the mythical "Family Hour." As the writer puts it, "Perhaps audiences sense that the tone of Aliens in America just isn't right. Despite being one of the CW's most heavily-promoted series, it is also one of the network's lowest-rated. Notably, Aliens in America consistently loses viewers from its lead-in, Everybody Hates Chris. Is it a coincidence that a teen/family sitcom with clean content and positive themes enjoys a higher viewership than a teen/family sitcom that sabotages its positive themes with coarse humor?"

Okay, since the PTC has declared that ratings are the benchmark by which we are to measure the success or failure of a "clean show" versus a "raunchy show," let's look at some ratings numbers. These numbers are taken from Mark Berman's Programming Insider Forum page and there are a couple of nights when the numbers aren't in a form I can use. The numbers are total viewers only (in millions):

  • October 1(the night Aliens In America debuted): Everybody Hates Chris – 2.58 million; Aliens In America – 2.33: -250,000
  • October 8: Everybody Hates Chris – 2.63 million (up 50,000 over previous week); Aliens In America – 2.11 (down 220,000 from previous week): -530,000
  • October 15: Everybody Hates Chris – 2.57 million (down 60,000 from previous week); Aliens In America – 2.23 (up 120,000 over previous week): -340,000
  • October 22: Everybody Hates Chris – 2.53 million (down 40,000 from previous week); Aliens In America – 2.35: (up 120,000 over previous week): -180,000
  • October 29: Everybody Hates Chris – 2.50 million (down 30,000 from previous week); Aliens In America – 2.11: (down 240,000 from previous week): -390,000
  • November 12: Everybody Hates Chris – 2.72 million (up 220,000 from 2 weeks before); Aliens In America – 2.24: (up 130,000 over 2 weeks before): -480,000
  • November 26: Everybody Hates Chris – 2.28 million (down 440,000 from 2 weeks before); Aliens In America – 1.89: (down 350,000 from 2 weeks before): -390,000
  • December 3: Everybody Hates Chris – 1.89 million (down 390,000 from previous week); Aliens In America (repeat) – 1.59: (down 300,000 from previous week): -300,000
  • December 10: Everybody Hates Chris – 2.09 million (up 200,000 over previous week); Aliens In America – 1.84: (up 250,000 over previous week): -250,000
  • December 17: Everybody Hates Chris (repeat) – 1.87 million (down 220,000 from previous week); Aliens In America (repeat) – 1.42: (down 420,000 from previous week): -450,000

There is a lot that we can conclude from this. The first of course is that neither of these two shows is drawing an audience that would merit running this long on any network other than the CW. Secondly, while Aliens In America has never passed Everybody Hates Chris in total viewership it is worth noting that there were two weeks when Aliens increased its audience over previous weeks while Chris lost audience, and several weeks when either the increase in the Aliens audience over previous weeks was greater than the increase in the Chris audience or the decrease in the Aliens audience was less than the decrease in the Chris audience. Finally, it is worth noting that The CW has also aired an "encore" performance of Aliens In America on Sunday nights since October 28th. In that time slot it pulls about 850,000 viewers. Are they people who watched the show on Monday and decided to see it again on Sunday or are they totally new viewers? Who knows? If even half of them are people who didn't see the show on Monday nights, then in most weeks more people watch Aliens In America than watch Everybody Hates Chris – raunchiness and all. What does it all mean? Well bearing in mind that the ratings for these shows are dwarfed by even the weakest shows on the four major networks, the answer is not much at all. The statistical difference is scarcely sufficient to "prove" the PTC's assertion that it's not coincidental that "teen/family sitcom with clean content and positive themes enjoys a higher viewership than a teen/family sitcom that sabotages its positive themes with coarse humor." As is frequently the case when the PTC tries to prove that people want clean programming their methodology is at best suspect and at worst as case of smoke and mirrors, heavy on the smoke.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Head To Head

The other new American show that debuted on Monday was ABC's game show Duel. Like the show, not crazy about the host. I'm not sure – for reasons that should become apparent – whether it will work as a weekly series, but I think it could have the potential to work during sweeps periods.

Duel isn't an ordinary game show. It has a tournament format and unlike a show such as Jeopardy or Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? the tournament aspect is integral to how the series works. The mechanics of the game are layered on in such a way as to violate what I feel is the primary rule of game shows, adherence to the KISS Principle (Keep It Simple Stupid). At its heart the game is a multiple choice trivia quiz, with two contestants competing head to head with each other. The twist – or rather the first of several twists – is that you don't have to give just one answer. Each player is given ten chips, which resemble poker chips each chip represents $5,000. A screen made up of two LCD monitors is raised between the players; it not only serves as the place where they see the questions and the possible answers but it also keeps the players from seeing what the other person is answering. Answers are entered by placing chips on the letters for the various answers; A, B, C or D. A player can place chips on as many or as few answers as they wish. However each chip placed on an incorrect answer is taken away and the amount of money they represent is added to the prize pool for the finale of the tournament at the end of the week. So if a player with eight chips places chips on three answers, one of which is correct, he is left with six chips, and $10,000 is added to the prize pool. There is no time limit in terms of a player giving an answer unless his opponent "presses" him. Each player has two Presses which require the other player to answer within seven seconds. If one player doesn't have the right answer covered with a chip, the duel is over and that player but only those chips that covered incorrect answers are added to the prize pool. If both players fail to cover the correct answer, all of their chips are forfeited with the ones covering incorrect answers going to the pool. They then enter a shootout. They are both given four chips with no monetary value; the person to get the correct answer while using the fewest number of shootout chips wins the duel. Players who win their duel get to keep an amount of money equal to the number of chips they have remaining. They then go on to pick from one of three people randomly selected from the show's pool of 24 contestants. The top four contestants in terms of duels won and money earned have seats in the "Leaders Box." The four players in the Box at the start of the final show will play for the amount of money in the Prize Pool.

Sounds complicated right? Well, it's sort of like the difference between Poker and Tournament Poker. In a regular Poker game the focus is on the current hand. In Tournament Poker, the primary focus is on the hand but the player also has to be aware of how the tournament is structured, where they stand in terms of chip count in the tournament and at the table, when the value of the blinds go up and so on. It's another case of where detail is layered on but the primary focus for the player should always be on the hands they're playing. So it is with Duel. The primary focus of the player should be on keeping as many of his own chips as possible while trying to force the opponent to waste chips. (I don't know why I'm using the masculine pronoun here – in two nights of the show only two men have actually competed and only one has won a duel.) This is where the Press option comes in – it forces players who don't know the answer to use more chips. A player who is certain enough of the correct answer that they can play only one or two chips can gain a real advantage using the press against an opponent who is less clear of the correct answer; conversely a player who has no clue about the correct answer can either force an opponent to use the maximum number of chips or rush their thinking process so that they don't cover the right answer. This gives the show a valid strategic aspect to it that you don't see in most game shows. I'm sure experts in Game Theory could analyse correct choices to death, but for my part I'm just happy to see a game show where not only are players pitted against each other, but there is more to playing the game than simply answering a trivia question or picking numbered briefcases.

The tournament format is essential to Duel. The show builds towards the final contest between the four players in the Leaders Box for a guaranteed one million dollar prize (and possibly more depending on how many chips are collected during the week), and there is dramatic tension in having a contestant winning their duel in one episode and having to choose who they'll face... but holding the actual announcement over until the next episode. But the tournament aspect of the show would seem to argue against having it as a weekly series. The format of the current miniseries with six episodes in a week allows the show to have a fixed pool of twenty-four contestants who are there for every episode and allows the actual leaders to stay in the Leaders Box. Now, I realise that the series was probably shot in fewer than six days but there would undoubtedly be logistical problems in trying to have the show run for even thirteen weeks. Do you restrict the pool of challengers or do you bring a new group in every week? Do you bring back the people in the Leaders Box every week or just have them appear as names and pictures on a wall? How high do you allow the prize pool to build?

Duel is hosted by Mike Greenberg who is probably best known as the co-host of the Mike & Mike Show on ESPN. Well at least he's well known among people who watch ESPN in the mornings, or have access to ESPN Radio – obviously I'm in neither of these categories. There are some definite negatives about Greenberg's hosting style. For one thing he doesn't seem to have any gift for humorous banter of any sort. He seems to be totally serious all of the time and it's wearing on the audience. He also seems to have a couple of annoying quirks. Whenever a new duel is about to start, Greenberg seems compelled to restate the rules to the new contestant and the audience, or at least port of the rules (the part where he tells them the chips are worth $5,000 each). Another quirk seems to grow out of his experience on radio. From time to time he seems compelled to announce that "You are watching Duel on ABC." This sort of thing is pretty much necessary on radio where it's not always obvious what show you're listening to and what stations you're hearing; on TV it's redundant. Television has plenty of clues, including the "Bugs" at the bottom of the screen to tell you what network you're watching, and if you've stuck with a show for any length of time you know what the show is just by watching it come back from commercial. And boy do there seem to be a lot of commercials in Duel, all of them timed for moments of "high drama" like a crucial answer or the selection of the next opponent.

The pedigree of Duel is interesting. It originated in France from producers FrenchTV (although the series apparently isn't seen in France yet). It was brought to the United States by Gail Berman (former president of FOX's Entertainment) and Lloyd Braun (former president of ABC Entertainment) and sold to ABC. A British version of show will begin in January 2008 and the show has been optioned in a dozen other countries if the show proves popular in Britain and the United States.

As I've stated, I am enjoying Duel even though I have trouble with Greenburg as host. I like the strategic aspects of it particularly the ability to force an opponent to make less than optimal choices. This aspect makes the show more than just another trivia challenge. It is certainly preferable to shows like last season's stinker Show Me The Money (with William Shatner) or the popular Deal Or No Deal. The fact that Deal Or No Deal and even one of my favourites 1 vs. 100 are popular may be a bad sign for Duel in terms of gaining an American audience. Do Americans like complexity or strategy in their game shows? The fact that a show where the high point in strategy is deciding which briefcase to pick and whether or not to take an offer is one of the hottest shows on TV seems to indicate that they don't. And for all that I love shows like Jeopardy and 1 vs. 100, they are also very basic in terms of what a player has to think about – there isn't much for the player to do beyond getting the right answer to the question. The strategic aspect and the tournament format are what set Duel apart. I don't think you can scrap the tournament format of the show. Certainly you could have players face off against each other, with the current champion playing until they lose and then taking their money and leaving, but that would seem to make it just another trivia challenge. But in my opinion the tournament format would seem to make the show impossible to offer as a continuing series. On the other hand I could definitely see the show as something you could trot out during sweeps (a full week of shows or episodes presented two or three days a week for the full month) or even for a restricted period during the summer. A great deal will depend on ratings of course, and while the show did adequately during its debut (as did Clash Of The Choirs) it didn't set the world on fire, so ABC may not see fit to even try it again once the Writers Strike ends. In my book that would be unfortunate.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Sound Of The Season

Both ABC and NBC debuted new shows on Monday night. Both will have a limited run this week, but while one has the potential to become a regular series, this time around I'm going to be reviewing the one that has the potential – if people are watching – to become a holiday standard. That show is Clash Of The Choirs on NBC.

For me, choral music has always been associated with Christmas and I'm willing to bet that most people in North America or Europe – regardless of religious faith – are the same way because this is the time of year when music performed by choirs comes close to being ubiquitous. I also know a little about choral competitions. As a student in public school in Saskatoon in the 1960s singing in the school choir or with your class was almost mandatory as was participation in the city-wide choir competition. It wasn't necessarily something I looked forward to – the adjudicators seemed to take great pleasure in pointing out the faults in the singing of seven, eight, nine and ten year old kids. They usually pointed out something which standing up there you knew you didn't do. Indeed the last time I participated in one of those competitions was in 1966. The next year my class opted out of the competition because the previous year's adjudicators claimed we had sung "deserted are our hollowed sheep" when collectively we knew we had sung the correct words, "deserted are our huddled sheep." The last time I sang in public as part of a choir was in 1968 at the Saskatoon Press Club (a long and boring story, but at the same time a treasured memory for me) and while these days I can barely carry a tune in a bucket let alone stay in key and on pitch, I still appreciate the hard work that goes into singing as part of a choir. That's part of why I was looking forward to Clash Of The Choirs.

While Clash Of The Choirs is produced by NBC and BBC Worldwide America, the actual concept for the show comes from Scandinavian production company Friday TV. There the show is called Singalong but while the details may differ, the premise is the same in both versions. A celebrity goes back to their hometown to put together a choir of twenty members which then goes through a training process. After the training, the choirs go head to head in a live competition (which explains why I don't have an image for this show) over a period of three nights, with the winner being announced on the fourth night. And while the Scandinavian version of the series rewards the winning choir with all expense paid trips, the American version is for charity. The winning choir will earn $250,000 for a local charity chosen by the celebrity choir director.

The celebrities selected by NBC ran a gamut of age, experience and musical styles, not to mention parts of the country. Nick Lachey, formerly of the "boy band" 98 Degrees, (not to mention being married to Jessica Simpson) formed a choir in Cincinatti. Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child represented Houston Texas, Michael Bolton picked his choir in New Haven Connecticut, country singer Blake Shelton selected in Oklahoma City, and Patti Labelle looked to find a choir in Philadelphia. In the show's first episode, which ran for two hours, we were "treated" to the audition process that each singer went through (and in some cases had to endure). Fortunately coverage of the audition process was kept relatively brief so that it was not entirely like American Idol auditions where we are inundated with footage of bad singers. Oh there were bad singers in the process, as well as people who thought that singing in a choir was optional and they could get by with dance moves. There were also people who insisted on songs that the celebrities had made famous, a process that didn't necessarily endear them to their prospective leaders – Patti Labelle very quickly came to hate bad renditions of Lady Marmalade even telling people who said they were going to sing it, "Please don't." There were human interest stories in each of the locations, whether it was a girl who gave Nick his first kiss in high school (and who incidentally has a tremendous voice), the two soldiers who auditioned for Blake in Oklahoma City (the both made it and sang in uniform on the show), or the 77 year-old lady who impressed Michael Bolton.

Once the behind the scenes footage was shown the choirs performed. In this first round most of the songs seemed to be pop songs of various types, although Patti Labelle's group did The Whole World In Your Hands. Nick Lachey's choir did Natasha Bedingfield's Unwritten and performed it primarily as a choral number with limited use of soloists. Kelly Rowland's group from Houston sang George Michael's Freedom in a performance that was sharp even though I found some fault with the soloists. They brought it together at the end though. The third group to perform was Michael Bolton's and it didn't live up to my expectations either from Bolton or from choirs in general. The whole thing felt like a showcase for the single soloist with nineteen back-up singers. It was one of the two worst performances of the night. The other weak performance followed with the Oklahoma City Choir fronted by Blake Shelton. It should be noted that Shelton readily admitted that he knew absolutely nothing about choirs – he had never even been in one – and it showed though the audition process and the actual performance. They did my fellow Canadian Tom Cochrane's Life Is A Highway, and while it's a song that could probably work with a choir, I don't really think it did much for this particular group. The final performance was from Patti Labelle's group and it was an amazing experience. The choir came together beautifully, as a choir with the soloists feeding into the choir rather than being out front and expecting the choir to support them. It reminded me of some of the great gospel performances I've heard over the years.

The mechanical parts of the show on the other hand may need a bit of work. Hosted by Maria Menounos of the Today Show and Access Hollywood, the show decided not to go with a judges' panel of any sort. Instead the celebrities whose choirs weren't singing were asked to comment on the performances. Naturally there was absolutely no criticism, constructive or otherwise, about the performance just comments about how great the choirs were and how wonderful the celebrity leader had done. I'm not sure that this was particularly helpful. Certainly for the viewers, who vote after each night's performance on which choir was best, this mutual self-congratulation was less than helpful since it didn't give them much idea of what was right and what was wrong with the performances. And while there were a couple of standout performances (my personal favourites were the Cincinnati and Philadelphia choirs and my least favourite was Bolton's New Haven group) not having any real critiques may make the voting procedure less about the quality of the singing and more about the popularity of the celebrity leaders. Maybe I'm flashing back to those elementary school choir competitions, but I would have liked to have seen at least some critical comments made. You don't necessarily need Simon Cowell style snarky comments for this show, but I'm convinced you need someone who can point out strengths and weaknesses. I'm also not sure about Maria Menounos as host. I found her voice a bit irritating. I've seen some criticism of her attitude; there were times when she interrupted people or cut them off. I'm not going to criticise her on that for the simple reason that the show was live to air and she had to keep it with a strict two hour time limit.

In honesty, I don't believe that I can say that Clash Of The Choirs is a show that has ongoing series appeal like that other BBC Worldwide series Dancing With The Stars. I do feel however that it is a show that fits with this time of the year. While I'm not entirely convinced that American audiences will embrace the concept (I fear that the ratings will stink although under the circumstances NBC isn't going to dump it), it is a welcome respite from reruns of whatever NBC has to rerun (the cupboard seems pretty bare over there even without the strike making a mess of things), and decades old Christmas specials. And while I probably would have preferred to see the show wind up its run closer to Christmas Eve than it will, or add an extra choir to run for a full week (the final episode airs Thursday night) I don't think that's something that should stand in the show's way. The show isn't perfect, but for a one week event at a time of the year when choral music asserts itself in our consciousness I think it works. I just hope that NBC is wise enough to recognise that this probably won't work as a sweeps event. If they are, and if they keep it as a bit of a Christmas treat, they may just have something that will become a holiday tradition in a lot of houses.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Short Takes – December 16, 2007

Some interesting stuff came up this week, some strike related and some not so much. Okay most everything these days is strike related, but you know what I mean.

Oh, and by the way, this is for Phish, who made a comment on an earlier post. Before I reveal the comment let me just tell you that Phish is the guy I mentioned last week who commented in TVSquad that the best writers in Hollywood should just go back to work, and that unions in general were un-capitalistic and defied the concept of supply and demand. Not content to troll about the strike on a totally unrelated topic, he decided to pop up here to write the following: "Brent, you are a 2 bit writer and a failure. pls go get a real job and provide for your family for f***s sake! You're such a loser, i feel sorry for you!" (I edited his language). To which all I have to say is that he's about as wrong about this as he is about unions which in my view is pretty wrong. I am not a "2 bit writer"; no one will pay me that much. I have had a couple of articles on wargaming published – and paid for – many moons ago, and that's probably more than Phish can say. I also had my own zine, which had a small but dedicated following. More to the point I don't write as a job, never have. I write as a hobby – some people build model railroads, I write for relaxation. If a little money comes my way, well, I'm grateful but I hardly depend on it. Okay, enough of that.

Journeyman and Bionic Woman cancelled?: The networks haven't exactly been forthcoming with announcements about cancellations. A lot of the "news" that we get have actually been rumours reported by "our sources." Which is all well and good I suppose but it's not like someone from the network sending out a press release saying something like, "This show isn't working so we're kicking it to the curb." We're not getting that this year. For example here's what The Sun says about the cancellation of Bionic Woman (which starred former East Enders favourite Michelle Ryan and therefore of great interest to the Brits): "The ex-EastEnders star stunned Hollywood by landing the lead role in the much anticipated remake of 70s hit The Bionic Woman, but the show is reportedly about to be axed.... A final decision is expected to be announced in the coming weeks." The title of the article though is Bionic Woman Scrapped. And the same thing is true about Journeyman; E!'s Watch With Kristin has an article titled Exclusive: Journeyman's Journey Is Over but what she reports is basically rumour: "Sources tell me tonight that Journeyman has been closed down. No word yet on whether the series' final two episodes will air as scheduled next Monday and Wednesday on NBC, but we can all keep our fingers crossed."

Now I have no doubt that both of these shows are toast, and a big sign came when Chuck and Life got their "back nines" but Journeyman and Bionic Woman didn't. Neither show was getting spectacular ratings, with Bionic Woman debuting with 14 million viewers but after eight episodes dropping to 6 million. At least in the case of Journeyman – which draws about the same number of viewers or a few hundred thousand less – the blame can quite certainly be placed on CSI: Miami. There hasn't been a series yet that has been able to stand up to that juggernaut on either NBC or ABC.

I don't know about Journeyman, a show which seems to have developed the sort of fan base that sends nuts to TV executives – or in the case of Journeyman boxes of Rice-a-roni (the San Francisco treat – the show is set in San Francisco). It's on Monday night and I'm one of those people who tapes CSI: Miami on my bowling night. Bionic Woman, on the other hand is a case of expectations not being met. And while it's easy to blame the lead actress (Ryan normally speaks with a British accent and I've heard the rather absurd assertion that Ryan can't do an American accent and act at the same time), the problems with the show lie a lot deeper. Part of it is the writing but in my opinion at least the entire concept was wrong. Revived by David Eick who was one of the producers of Battlestar Galactica, like Galactica the original Bionic Woman was also a show created by Glenn Larson, so naturally but probably unrealistically viewers expected this revival to be as spectacular as the revival of Galactica. The problem is that I'm fairly convinced (and was convinced when the show debuted) that there wasn't as much you could do with the concept of Bionic Woman. What are you really able to do with a woman with replacement parts today that you couldn't do in the 1970s. I suppose you could make the character darker – I suspect that was the real attraction of Katie Sackoff's character Sara Corvus who was an almost immediate fan favourite – but how do you make a darker protagonist attractive to audiences from week to week. Instead Jamie Summers on the 2007 revival of Bionic Woman was essentially an innocent thrust into the world of spying for which she was truly unprepared, just as the original Jamie was. I think the public wanted something more.

Late shows going back soon?: This is another area where rumours abound, although there is one aspect that is out of the realm of rumours. I'll get into that one in the next item because it's an interesting one. The reports are that at least some of the major late night talk shows will be returning towards the beginning of January 2008. Variety is reporting that, "the betting in network circles is that several hosts will be back on the air by Jan. 7, if not sooner," possibly with Letterman, Leno, Ferguson and O'Brien coming back at the same time. It seems more likely however that Leno and O'Brien will be coming back for sure: "Latenight insiders, however, believe Leno and O'Brien are most likely to return in early January, no matter what Letterman decides. NBC has to be concerned about the plunging ratings for both shows, which in recent weeks have lost nearly half their audience." While Kilborn's show has been doing well with audiences, he is financially the least secure of the late night hosts, and according to Nikki Finke, the financial strain of paying at least some of the salaries for "below the line employees" of his show may have pushed him to the edge of bankruptcy so that if the others go back without writers, he may well be forced to as well.

Here's an interesting thought. While the networks may well feel that they're winning a victory over the WGA by forcing the late night talk shows back into production, this can be a double edged sword if Leno, O'Brien and Kimmel make sure that everyone knows that they're doing this under protest, that they need their writers, that the shows aren't going to be as funny without the writers, and particularly if the shows suck without the writers, this could help strengthen the support, or at least the understanding, of the writers' cause amongst the general public.

Letterman and Ferguson back with writers?: This item has a lot sounder basis in fact, and it may spell considerable trouble for the other talk shows. On Saturday the WGA announced that they would be open to offering "interim agreements" to independent producers and any of the media companies that sought to break ranks. Previously they had offered such agreements to the Kennedy Center Honours and to the Screen Actors Guild Awards. An interim agreement, as explained by Mark Evanier is when, "an independent producer says, in effect, "If you'll take me off the Strike List and let my writers return to work, I'll agree to your terms." There are variations on how these pacts are structured but in most cases, the Indie has a Favored Nations option. That is, he signs a new contract that the WGA draws up and then when we make our deal with the AMPTP — a deal which presumably will have more favorable terms for a Producer — the Indie can elect to switch to that. In any case, the principle is that they agree to sign with us, we go back to work at that studio and then, whenever the new contract is finalized, it displaces the interim agreement." The first producer to announce that he will be seeking an interim agreement is David Letterman's company Worldwide Pants, producer of The Late Show and The Late Late Show, and while there may be hitches it looks as though the WGA seems inclined to make the deal.

Why can Letterman make this deal and Leno and the others can't and, more to the point, why would the WGA be willing to accept Letterman's offer? The first point is fairly simple to answer; Letterman has followed Johnny Carson's practice and owns his show outright through his production company. CBS only serves as the show's distributor. According to the Tonight Show website Leno's production company Big Dog Productions does the show "in association with NBC Studios." Similarly Conan O'Brien produces Late Night with Conan O'Brien through his company Conaco with Broadway Video (Lorne Michaels's company), "in association with NBC Universal Television Studios" and Jimmy Kimmel Live is produced by Jackhole Productions (which Kimmel owns in partnership with Adam Carolla and producer Daniel Kellison) "in association with ABC Studios." This means that Letterman can make a deal for his show and Craig Ferguson's without the intervention from CBS. And as Mark Evanier points out Letterman is pretty much immune from the issues that AMPTP considers deal killers (the issues that they used as an excuse to pull out of the negotiations): "Letterman, of course, doesn't have to worry about some of the "deal killer" issues that are presently said to be an obstacle to a WGA/AMPTP settlement. He doesn't produce any "reality" shows. He doesn't produce any cartoons. Excerpts from his shows do stream on the Internet via the CBS site but that could be curtailed or kept within a window that the WGA would agree was promotional. There are, as yet, no DVDs of old episodes of Dave's show." As to why the Guild is willing to make a deal with Letterman, beyond the fact that it's a crack in the wall (albeit a tiny one) but Letterman – a veteran of the '88 strike who came back without writers when Carson did – has also been extremely loyal to his workers. As Rob Burnett, the producer of The Late Show with David Letterman describes it, "Worldwide Pants has always been a writer-friendly company. Dave has been a member of the WGA for more than 30 years, and I have been a member for more than 20." According to Deadline Hollywood Daily, not has Letterman been paying his non-writing staff (about $300,000) but he also pays the rent on the Ed Sullivan Theater and insurance costs of 200+ employees. According to a source, "triple that figure [the $300,000] and you'll be close to what he's been shelling out a week for six weeks. I'm tired of everyone being lumped together for taking roughly the same out-of-pocket hit. It's not close." If nothing else that builds up a huge amount of good will. For their part CBS seems a bit conflicted over this. In a press release, CBS stated, "We respect the intent of Worldwide Pants to serve the interests of its independent production company and its employees by seeking this interim agreement with the WGA. However, this development should not confuse the fact that CBS remains unified with the AMPTP, and committed to working with the member companies to reach a fair and reasonable agreement with the WGA that positions everyone in our industry for success in a rapidly changing marketplace." In other words, they're happy that Letterman wants to come back with writers (for reasons that will become clear) but want to cover their butts by making it clear that CBS isn't going to be standing in line to make their own interim agreement.

This is a big thing though – assuming of course that the interim agreement is granted – because it puts the late night shows that are going to be at a significant disadvantage when and if they come back without writers. It's not just the obvious either, the lack of monologues and the other services the writers provide for the shows. If you're an actor are you more likely to want to appear on Leno, passing through the WGA picket line and probably being called every name in the book, or would you be more likely to go on Letterman's show, which would not only be a pleasanter experience thanks to the lack of pickets. In fact it could almost be seen as a show of support for the writers to go on Letterman and refuse to be booked with Leno. It's almost a dead certainty that Letterman would be able to get any presidential candidate that he wanted from either party too. And if Leno's show (and Kimmel's, and O'Brien's) are really bad, the public is likely to turn to the shows that have writers, which would mean a significant boost to the ratings of the two Worldwide Pants series.

On animations writers:
Mark Evanier (again), has a nice piece on the reasons why many animation writers probably want to be in the Writers Guild rather than the Cartoonists Guild. The latter is actually Local 839 of IATSE, the one union which seems to be very conciliatory with AMPTP (which is another way of saying kissing their asses) and very opposed to the Writers Guild. The basic point is that Local 839 has rarely served the best interests of animation writers, who seem doomed to be part of the union because of the way that theatrical cartoons were made in the 1940s, without writers per se but with "story men" who developed gags but also worked as artists. For one thing, Local 839 seems far more aligned with people to punch a clock every day (like animators and assistant animators) than it is for writers who don't necessarly work "at the office." Mark points out a couple of horror stories – like a union business agent who responded to a request for assistance on some issues by saying "I'm too busy to bother with you overpaid whiners." In fact, as Mark points out they weren't overpaid, just paid more than the business rep thought they should be. In fact, thanks to Local 839's "bargaining" abilities the writers had a base pay level that even the cheapest companies in the business in the 1980s (starting with Hanna-Barbera) were ashamed to pay. Mark also offers some true horror stories about trying to move writers from the Cartoonist Guild to the Writers Guild, efforts which ultimately failed, but which saw the business rep spending more time chatting with the studio representatives than he did with the people he was supposed to be representing and was in danger of losing. And while the current business agent for Local 839 is far better than his predecessor, there is still a major fight to get animation writers into their "proper" union.

Videos on iTunes Canada: This isn't a strike story except it kind of is in a peripheral sort of way. Earlier this week the Canadian version of the iTunes Music Store began making TV shows available for purchase. It isn't a big selection right now. For one thing there are only thirteen series available at the moment. For another thing, of those, it seems that only about five are American and they aren't the major network series like Cane or Boston Legal. This has a lot to do with precisely which rights Canadian networks buy when they purchase an American series. Currently Canadians can watch the following (shows marked * are American series airing in Canada:

  • From CBC: Dragons Den (a show about people trying to get money from entrepreneurs for their inventions/business ideas), Little Mosque On The Prairie, The Rick Mercer Report.
  • From CTV: Corner Gas, Instant Star, Degrassi: The Next Generation, Robson Arms.
  • From the Comedy Central (which is owned by CTV): The Sarah Silverman Program*, South Park*, Drawn Together*.
  • From the NHL: Stanley Cup Classics, NHL Games of the Year.
  • From MTV Canada (also owned by CTV): The Hills*.
  • From YTV (or Nickelodeon): Avatar: The Last Air Bender*.

Here's where the peripheral aspect of the strike comes into play. For the most part the contract that the Writers Guild of Canada has managed to get with TV producers in Canada has been inferior even to the deal that WGA writers had before the current strike began. However, as Denis McGrath points out in a piece in his blog Dead Things On A Stick this is one area in which Canadian writers have it better. A statement from the WGC explains where the writers stand on revenues from iTunes: "The flow of revenue for use of these programs is governed by the terms of those licence agreements as well as the WGC collective agreement – the Writers IPA. In addition to other payments under the collective agreement, writers have a royalty formula calculated on Distributors' Gross Revenues when a conventional TV show is delivered over any platform, including online. Digital downloads may be included in an original licence between the independent producer who owns the program and the Canadian broadcaster, for which the broadcaster has paid a licence fee. This licence fee forms part of the writer's royalty formula.... In any case, the digital distribution of made for t.v. programs always results in revenue flowing into the writer's royalty formula." In other words the Canadian writers of the shows available on iTunes get a royalty payment (because they retain authorship) when their shows are downloaded. Also, though it doesn't seem to apply for iTunes yet, animation writers are covered under the WCG contract. This of course is one of the six points that AMPTP demanded that the WGA take off the table when they withdrew from negotiations. Another issue that APMTP was adamant about having removed from negotiations (claiming that it could end up with producers paying out more money than they made from online sales) was the question of using Distributors' Gross Revenues as a basis for payment for online distribution. As you can see, this is something else that the Canadian writers already had. In the terms of handling this area at least, the Canadian contract is ahead of what the union in the US currently has and well ahead of what the Studios and Networks seem willing at present to give them.