Thursday, December 13, 2007

Who Does The PTC Hate This Week – December 12, 2007

I have to confess I am in something of a deep blue funk of late. I do know why. There's a touch of Christmas in the mix – I tend to get irritable around this time of the year, usually because I can't find what I want of don't know what other people want (where can I get Test Tube Aliens in Saskatoon?!) – but this year it's more. Television is letting me down. I want to write about TV shows; I want to tell you what I like and what I don't and why I like them and why I don't. The end of the WGA-AMPTP strike "negotiations" – in quotes because negotiations tend to feature two sides bargaining in something called good faith and one side, the one with far fewer than 12,000 members, wasn't behaving like they believe in good faith – left me thoroughly pissed off at AMPTP. And then when some neo-con posted a comment about the strike in a article at TVSquad that was totally unrelated to the strike I'm afraid I went and fed the troll.

(I don't want to rehash this because I doubt that the guy reads my harmless little writings, but he made a follow-up comment that really ticked me off all over again but this time I didn't reply. He wrote: "i understand your point of view, but it doesnt make economic sense. this is how the capitalist market works, if you dont like it, move to russia (on but wait, they are capitalist too now...) [new paragraph] its demand vs. supply, simple as that, and unions are as un-capitalistic as humanly possible..." He's wrong of course, or maybe he's right, but in that case then the big studios and networks should be disbanded and each individual producer should have to find venues for his movies and TV stations that are willing to air his programs. If the supply of labour doesn't have the right to collectively bargain with those who demand it, why should the people who supply movies and TV shows have the right to collectively bargain with the audiences and the advertisers who demand them. Why is one capitalistic and the other un-capitalistic?)

And then there's the PTC. Because I don't have TV shows to write about I feel like I am constantly writing about the PTC and I have to say I am coming to loathe writing about them. Again, it's a case having little else to write about. And talk about un-capitalistic, to say nothing about anti-democratic, the PTC is all over it. The PTC says that advertisers, regardless of whether the she show they are sponsoring is delivering an audience (and more specifically an audience that they want) should base their decisions about what shows they should buy advertising on not based on the number of people who watch it but on whether it is a "wholesome" show, with the standard of quality being declared by a small group of people – the PTC. As far as undemocratic, the PTC is telling that vast majority of Americans that they shouldn't be allowed to watch what they want but only what a tiny self-appointed minority – one million plus (as the PTC is never hesitant to remind us) out of a population of about 303 million – says is good for them. If they had real power they'd be dangerous. So, as much as I hate writing about them on a weekly basis, I'm writing about them on a weekly basis. This time, hopefully, I'll be able to keep my stuff mercifully short.

The PTC has two new press releases up on their website. One is a condemnation of a plan announced by CBS president Les Moonves to "repurpose" programs from their cable network Showtime to the main CBS network. I don't want to delve into the details of his one because it is also the subject of the TV Trends column this week with the overblown rhetoric that is so typical of that particular writer. Not that Tim Winter, the PTC's president is any slouch at overblown rhetoric of course. The press release contains gems like this: "CBS' plan is purely based on corporate greed, not what's good for families or in the public interest." Or this: "CBS has no qualms about putting shows that make heroes of serial killers and revel in sick, graphic violence or those that condone drug use and glorify drug dealers in front of millions of children and families on broadcast television." And of course this: "If CBS goes through with this plan, the PTC will certainly contact every sponsor of the programs. And if indecent content appears over the public airwaves anywhere in the country prior to 10pm, we will urge the public to let their voices be heard at the FCC."

The other press release is another congratulations to Senators Ted Stevens, Daniel Inouye and John D. Rockefeller (average age of the three: 79) for their support of the "Protecting Children from Indecent Programming Act", which the PTC is urging the Senate to pass as fast as they possibly can. PTC Chairman Tim Winter stated, "Congress needs to reinstate the FCC's authority to uphold the decency law after the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling that so-called 'fleeting' expletives were appropriate to air on the public airwaves. We urge the full Senate to pass this bill before Christmas to ensure that children are not bombarded by indecent material in the New Year." Because of course Chairman Winter seems to think that the 2nd Circuit's ruling means that every TV show that will – eventually – be written will be filled with the vilest of language, forgetting perhaps – but more likely ignoring the fact – that the decision applies specifically to unplanned incidents in live broadcasts. Take for instance an incident a few years ago where a man presiding over a debate told one of the speakers to "go fuck yourself." The man presiding over the debate was Vice President Dick Cheney, and he was presiding over the Senate at the time. Or what about the time when George W. Bush was caught on an open microphone describing another international leader with a word that would be censored if it were on even a basic cable show. If this legislation was in place and that event had been broadcast live on network TV, the network would face a $320,000 fine for every station that broadcast a statement by the President of the United States, the same as it would for an athlete overheard saying "shit" by a sidelines microphone after a bad play. But what do I know; I live in a country where not only are fleeting expletives tolerated – if frequently apologized for – but scripted obscenities, and indeed both fleeting and planned nudity, are perfectly acceptable. Of course that description also covers most of the industrialized world.

Of course if the Senate were to pass this legislation, it is hardly bulletproof. As a commenter on the website put it, "The text of the bill, if it ever becomes law, would guarantee legal challenges, and given the U.S. Court of Appeals Ruling on the FCC's "fleeting expletive" standard, would most likely be held overbroad and unconstitutional. The text of the bill 'a single word may constitute indecent programming' lacks any kind of boundaries, as it simply piggybacks on the FCC's general regulatory powers. It also flies in the face of 30 years of judicial precedent, beginning with the Pacifica ruling. Since indecent speech has constitutional protection (unlike obscene speech), a court must be sensitive as to whether the limitation is broader than necessary. This bill does not do that."

Turning now to the Broadcast Worst of the Week which is The CW's series The Game. The PTC's review contains one of their most hilarious definitions of foul language. It seems that foul language is now no longer confined to former obscenities (like "hell," "damn," and "ass") which are now routinely used on TV without the Republic crumbling, or to words like "bitch," "slut," "skank," "hoochie," and "ho." No, we now have the addition of tone of voice as actionable in the PTC's little world. In between the warning about "hell," "damn," and "ass," and the bit where they go on about "bitch," "slut," "skank," "hoochie," and "ho" comes this little gem: "In one scene Derwin is called a 'negro' by an African-American female in an extremely degrading tone of voice." Yes, being called a "negro" is now "foul language" if it isn't said properly.

The plot itself comes in for attack of course. It concerns the male lead Derwin being encouraged to live the life of the single athlete by his teammates. This apparently involves having sex with a lot of different women but avoiding anything that even smacks of commitment: "They give him three rules to live by. First, they instruct him never to use girls' real names, but rather to give them nicknames like 'hottie, buckwild, or delicious.' Next, they say that he should never spend more than four hours with any one girl. Finally, they tell him never to have a sleep-over with a girl, but only to 'hit it and quit it.'" At the same time the women who engage in this behaviour aren't exactly shining examples of their gender either: "Women discuss their methods of becoming pregnant by professional football players, thus tying themselves to the men and their wealth. They talk about the method of having intercourse with the man, stealing his condom following ejaculation, and injecting the semen into themselves with a turkey baster. Derwin is shown having sex with a topless woman on the living room couch and catching her trying to steal his condom. Derwin is painted as a hero for standing up to the sperm thief."

The PTC's comments on this are indicative of their mindset: "This episode of The Game simply doesn't take life seriously. It irresponsibly throws around issues of sexual promiscuity, gender rights and roles, and race relations. The networks profit off of these very real issues while the young viewers suffer for making poor life decisions based on television's fantasy depictions." The PTC seems to think the attitudes in this episode are reprehensible and unreal (And I don't even want to know where they're coming from with that business about "race relations;" it seems to come out of nowhere). Now I don't know a lot about the life of single football players but I do know a little something (though not terribly much) about pro hockey players and the groupies or "Hockey Annies" who are a pretty constant presence at the games and in the beds of single players (and some married ones too), and some can indeed be this devious. If you are going to do a series, even a comedy series, about professional athletes and the women who share their lives this issue is going to come up. A drama can treat it seriously a comedy has the ability to get the same sort of message across by using humour. And as for the "young viewers" who "suffer for making poor life decisions based on television's fantasy depictions," I would frankly have my doubts about any teenager who made his decisions about sexual promiscuity, and gender rights and roles based on watching a TV show, or even a number of TV series.

Now we all know that the PTC hates Nip/Tuck, which again takes its place as the Cable Worst of the Week. What is a bit surprising is that they are angry at the creator of the series for taking on a subject that they themselves rail about, reality shows. But of course Nip/Tuck takes on the subject with a certain amount of wit that the PTC can't really comprehend let alone duplicate: "One can only marvel at the monumental extent of Ryan Murphy's gall. For the creator of Nip/Tuck to attack television for being shallow and sensationalistic is the very nadir of hypocrisy." In the December 4th episode, "Desperate for fame and attention, plastic surgeon and sometime gigolo Christian agrees to allow a 'reality' show to be made about himself, his partner Sean, and their family and friends." Of course the resulting show is exploitive, looking at the various people in Christian's life and including scenes of him, "cupping the breasts of a succession of nude models, each of them begging to have their breasts enlarged." The PTC gets that this is supposed to be a moment satirizing the series Dr. 90210 but obviously hates that Murphy and Nip/Tuck are doing it: "No doubt Ryan Murphy would claim that the use of 'reality TV' themes in Nip/Tuck is actually some subtle satire, some deeply insightful meta-textual commentary on the state of American television, yet it is impossible to ignore the fact that Murphy is in fact exploiting those very same elements to raise the ratings of his 'critically acclaimed' and supposedly highbrow drama – even going so far as to have Tiffany 'New York' Pollard, from VH1's execrable "reality" series Flavor of Love and I Love New York, prominently featured as a guest-star. It is difficult to take any implied criticism of "reality TV" seriously when Nip/Tuck indulges in the very same elements with such obvious glee." And after the inevitable call for cable choice they add this evaluation of Ryan Murphy and his writing: "It is clear that with this episode, Ryan Murphy's writing has descended to the level of a low-grade hack. His original story ideas apparently exhausted, he has been reduced to relying on the very television techniques he claims to criticize. But Murphy and his fellow Nip/Tuck cohorts should beware of throwing stones at shabby television, ensconced as they are in a palatial house of glass."

Every so often I describe something the PTC says as being one of the most absurd things ever. In my book the PTC's Misrated section is filled with absurd assertions that show that the PTC usually just doesn't get it. This week the show is the November 27th episode of Bones which carried a TV-14 DL rating. The PTC is outraged that it didn't carry a 'V' descriptor but for the life of me I can't figure out why. But let's start with a description of the episode or rather the plotline of the episode that has aroused the ire of the PTC. The decomposing murdered body of Santa Claus impersonator Kris Kringle (his real name as they soon discover) is found in a sewer. It isn't a pretty sight – his face has been gnawed by rats. The PTC says this is violence. Of course we don't see any rats anywhere near the body. Of course the PTC editorializes about this: "This sight – coming in the program's opening minutes, at the very beginning of the Family Hour – was certain to put any channel-flipping children who stumbled across it in a festive mood." Later, at their lab, the corpse is examined further: "On a table, the decaying Santa is laid out in his entire gory splendor. 'There is copious insect activity from the sewer!' exclaims a delighted Hodgins as he makes his way around the corpse with tweezer, looking for bugs that might help him figure out where Santa was killed." I suppose this is supposed to be violence in the universe that the PTC inhabits as well. In my world the 'V' descriptor isn't added to shows that show evidence of violent acts, it is used for shows that actually depict violent acts. In this episode of Bones there is only one event that would described as violent, when a group of store Santas at the employment agency where Kris Kringle worked out of attacked and subdued the man who killed him, another Santa who had been picking the pockets of people on the street. There is nothing on this episode (and this one I did watch) that in the least degree deserves a 'V' descriptor. The TV-14 rating should be enough to warn parents who know their kids that this episode and indeed this series might not be suitable for children.

The TV Trends section of the PTC website has a closer look at the organization's attitude towards Les Moonves's announcement that CBS was considering "repurposing" at least one show from their premium cable channel Showtime to the CBS broadcast network, a move which the PTC's press release described as being "purely based on corporate greed, not what's good for families or in the public interest." The TV Trends article, Repurposing: To Whose Purpose? starts with the Moonves announcement and carries on to slam all efforts to move cable shows to broadcast TV while also taking a swipe at professional TV critics along the way to a conclusion which I'm not entirely sure is complete.

The piece starts by declaring that, "The CBS broadcast network is justly infamous for its swath of gory crime dramas like C.S.I., C.S.I. New York, C.S.I. Miami and others. These shows are awash in blood and entrails, and are often charged with depraved sexual tensions as well. Rare is the episode of C.S.I. in which the murder under investigation does not involve or in some way touch upon rape, prostitution, child molestation, sadism or some other unsavory form of sex. However, production on these programs will soon come to a standstill, due to the ongoing TV writer's strike. One might think that, given that all his bloody crime dramas on CBS are going on hiatus, CBS President Les Moonves might consider some other kind of programming." Setting aside the almost puritanical attitudes this statement reveals, one is forced to wonder where Les Moonves is supposed to come up with this "other kind of programming" when new, scripted programming at least isn't going to be available. Set aside as well the fact that this "swath of gory crime dramas" are among the most popular shows on broadcast TV (the original CSI was the most popular show on network TV for the week ending December 9th), because it is a statement that ignores the other elements on the CBS lineup.

The focus of the PTC is on "repurposing," the practice of taking shows from a broadcast channel and airing them on cable, or – as has been the case in the past and will become increasingly true during the strike – taking shows from a cable channel and airing them on broadcast. In a statement reported on the TVWeek website Moonves announced that the network was "prepared to mount a full schedule for midseason, partly by broadcasting some series from sister pay-cable operation Showtime," with the series Dexter likely to be the first to be added because "it would work well with the network's popular dark crime procedurals." This outraged the author of the PTC article: Among those programs will be Weeds, about a drug-dealing housewife, and Dexter, a show about a heroic serial killer. You read that right: on Showtime's Dexter, the hero of the program is a serial killer. The viewer is apparently supposed to cheer for Dexter, because he only kills murderers or other criminals such as pedophiles. On the program, Dexter's father – a police officer – teaches Dexter how to commit his murders: how to drain his victim's corpses of blood, how to dispose of bodies, and generally how to evade the law." Of course the PTC fails to acknowledge that the show is based on a series of three novels by Jeff Lindsay (pen-name of Jeffry P. Freundlich).

But then the PTC has a disgust for cable, which it typifies as "increasingly home to more graphically violent and sexually explicit original programming – programming often laden as well with truly astonishing amounts of profanity." And it is here where the PTC takes its shot at professional TV critics by saying that, "Naturally, television critics are hopelessly infatuated with these rancid shows, lauding their 'dark,' 'edgy,' and 'mature' themes (as though there is something 'mature' about subjects and language which delight adolescents)." But here the PTC makes an inexplicable statement: "In the incestuously insular world of television production, however, praise from 'the critics' is the ultimate compliment." So I suppose this makes shows like Dexter being on the air the fault of people like Maureen Ryan and Alan Sepinwall. I imagine they'd be surprised to know that they had such power. The PTC is wrong on this of course. I doubt that most of the TV networks are worried about what the Sepinwalls and Ryans of the world are saying except when it comes time to pull quotes for advertising; it is the number of viewers that counts even on premium cable channels (see the demise of such HBO series as Rome, Carnivale and John From Cincinatti which were loved by the critics but either weren't working financially or weren't drawing an audience).

They then reveal a woeful failure to understand aspects of television by saying, "... if a program, however tawdry to the vast majority of television viewers, attracts even a couple of hundred thousand viewers, it is considered an overwhelming success. In these circumstances, the corporate ownership looks for ways to turn small hits drawing tiny numbers on cable into bigger hits drawing millions of viewers on broadcast TV." But it isn't a "couple of hundred thousand" really, unless of course the definition of couple is extended far beyond the traditional. In the case of Dexter the first season of the series – on a premium cable channel – drew an average audience of two million viewers per episode. Just for the record that is twice as many people as the PTC claims as its membership. Which begs the question of which group is more representative of the "vast majority of television viewers?" But of course it isn't the matter of audiences that the PTC objects to when it comes to content, it's the sex and the violence and the language. The PTC "proves" the failure of efforts to make the shows more acceptable for basic cable and broadcast TV by stating that "In each case mentioned above, the networks involved promised – cross their hearts and hope to die! – that every episode would be carefully scrutinized and scrubbed clean of any violence, sex, language or dialogue which might even possibly contravene broadcast decency standards…with predictable results. In side-by-side comparisons of the cable originals with the broadcast reruns, the PTC found practically no difference in content." This is of course the sort of statement that the PTC is always making, but the question is really, what do they expect the broadcasters to do? The article cites The Sopranos, The Shield, Damages, and Sex And The City as examples of how the networks involved "failed" to clean up the shows. I don't know about Damages which aired in a modified version on the FOX controlled My Network TV, or The Shield which I've only seen in passing in its censored form. I have seen The Sopranos and Sex And The City in their original forms and briefly as changed for non-premium cable. There's no nudity, and the language has been brought to the standards of basic cable. While Samantha may still be a bed-hopping slut (which is why I love her), she is no longer a naked bed-hopping slut and her language would no longer make a sailor blush. Tony Soprano no longer admires the silicone enhanced ladies of the Bada-bing or uses most of the words that people find objectionable. I don't know what they want, but obviously the PTC expects Samantha to be portrayed in a more chaste manner and Tony not to be the brutal creature that is the entire reason why the show was successful.

The article "concludes" by listing the three "dangers" of repurposing. First: "it creates the possibility that any TV viewer anywhere – adult, teen or child – might be exposed to disturbing and explicit content. So long as Dexter, The Sopranos and other such programs remained confined to premium cable, this was not a concern; adults who enjoyed such programming could order it, while viewers who would find it disgusting or disturbing were not forced to pay for it, or ever see it." But of course, no one is forced to see these shows if they are on basic cable or network television either, unless of course the PTC believes the American to be sheep being force-fed by the networks. Choice and free-will exist. Second, repurposing "makes a joke of America's broadcast indecency laws. Broadcasters do not own the airwaves – the American people do. Broadcasters are granted licenses and allowed to use the airwaves, so long as they operate 'in the public interest,' as required by law. But in their arrogance, the multi-billionaire network owners pooh-pooh the law, claiming that if viewers are offended by the use to which the public property is being put, they should just 'change the channel.' By 'repurposing' programming which is created for premium cable -- programming which is intended to operate on a restricted-to-adults pay network, and which is deliberately written to incorporate ideas inappropriate for children and which many adult viewers would find unsavory or offensive – the broadcast network bosses are defiantly ignoring the laws which the majority of Americans find desirable." But is that statement entirely accurate (and I'm not just talking about the description of Showtime and HBO as "restricted-to-adults", a description that makes them sound like The Playboy Channel)? As noted, broadcasters that have repurposed premium cable series for broadcast and basic cable have made an effort to remove objectionable content in the form of nudity, obscene language and the most extreme violence. These are efforts to fit the content within the restrictions of the broadcast indecency laws, and based on the fact that I have yet to see any broadcast station fined for showing episodes of The Shield or Sex And The City, it is my assumption that this effort has been viewed as successful by everyone other than the PTC. Third (and the point which brings the article to a sudden halt, in my view at least): "by putting extreme and graphic drama on broadcast TV, programmers are deliberately 'raising the stakes.' One has only to look at the programming filling movie theaters and TV screens today to see that this 'upping the ante' is already happening. Allowing adult premium cable programs like Dexter to be "repurposed" onto broadcast TV will serve only the purposes of television's greedy and arrogant bosses…not those of the American people." While I do agree about the statement about TV's bosses being "greedy and arrogant," I must confess that I don't understand this point at all. What exactly does the PTC mean by "raising the stakes" or "upping the ante" and how is this "proven" by what is on the movie and TV screens? This is the least developed point of all – I've quoted almost the entirety of the third point (I dropped only the words "Thirdly, and perhaps most disturbingly" from the original text). Are they saying that by putting an episode of Dexter or Weeds on CBS the other networks would be "forced" to put on something more extreme, or that by airing those shows in bowdlerized versions people will expect "more of the same but even edgier?" What I do know is that the audience is not made up of sheep, and that no one is forced to watch any show. The opportunity to choose exists. People can change the channel or turn the TV off, and if a sufficient number do so, even in the year of the Strike shows will be cancelled. Why? Because in the end TV is a business, a business about delivering viewers to advertisers, and network bosses have to be greedy if only to satisfy shareholders whose principal concern is how much money the network makes. And if there's arrogance on the part of the "TV bosses" there is also incredible arrogance in an organization like the PTC which sets itself up not as an arbiter of good taste but as the definitive word on what constitutes objectionable material and what public should be allowed to watch.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The PTC is just encouraging the shows creators to piss them off.

Oh, and if you think their president Tim Winters is bad, you should read some comments from their former president, L Brent Bozell III.