Friday, February 08, 2008

Who does the PTC Hate This Week – February 8, 2008

For those of you who are interested my mother's recovery from her surgery hit a few bumps but she appears to be over them now. She was in the Intensive Care Unit a couple of days longer than we – and she – hoped and then was moved to the Special Care Unit, which quite frankly was nowhere near as nice as the ICU (and the nurses as a group were nowhere near as attractive) She'll probably be moved to a semi-private room by on Thursday.

Let's turn our attention to the Parents Television Council. The PTC is extremely upset by the prospect of the Showtime series Dexter being repurposed to run on CBS starting on Sunday night. In an article titled "PTC to CBS: Do Not Air Dexter on Broadcast TV" the Council demands that CBS cancel plans to run the show about a serial killer who kills other killers and promises the wrath of all American parents if the show runs. Literally. According to PTC President Tim Winter, "Dexter introduces audiences to the depths of depravity and indifference as it chronicles the main character's troubled quest for vigilante justice by celebrating graphic, premeditated murder." He also stated (boldface mine), "We are putting CBS, its affiliates, and every potential sponsor of Dexter on notice: Parents will not tolerate this type of disturbing content on the public airwaves. We are asking our members, our grassroots chapters and other concerned citizens across America to contact their local affiliates and ask them to reconsider their plan to air this show. CBS needs to realize that this disturbing program is wholly inappropriate for the broadcast medium." Winter quotes – or rather cites in much the same way that I do – a statement by CBS Chairman Les Moonves in which he "acknowledges the devastating impact of violent media on children," and said, "Anyone who thinks the media has nothing to do with this [the bloodshed at Columbine] is an idiot." Winter then asks, "why are you contributing to this culture of violence by airing Dexter?" The PTC statement concludes by stating that, "The PTC has documented a pattern of adult-themed content migrating from premium cable to syndication on broadcast TV; and we are seeing a migration of graphic broadcast TV content from the 10 pm hour to earlier and earlier times of the day. But Dexter is undoubtedly the worst example of this disturbing trend. This is the first time that such a graphic program has gone from premium cable straight to primetime broadcast television. While parental responsibility is always the key component of a family's healthy media diet, CBS must grasp the magnitude of the harmful role it will be playing by airing such a violent and disturbing program on its broadcast network."

Before we get into the bits of the PTC statement that I've quoted, I'd like to address something that actually appeared in the press release though it was not in the part that I've excerpted here. It is in fact something that the PTC mentions each time the show is discussed or even mentions the show without naming it. It is the description of the lead character as a "hero" or the "hero" of the show. My preference here is for the word protagonist. Dexter is by no stretch of the definition of the word a hero. On the other hand he is the protagonist because the stories are told from his perspective. We don't really sympathise with him. We may on the other hand empathise with him because of the way in which he has been shaped by outside forces. In this the question you truly have to ask is what makes Dexter the character any worse than Charles Bronson's character in the Death Wish movies, or Jodie Foster's character in The Brave One. Maybe it's just a question of degrees in that the other two serial killers (which by strict definition they were) gunned their victims down while Dexter's murders are more personal. And perhaps the fact that Dexter isn't motivated (initially at least) by a desire for vengeance but rather by the character's deceased adoptive father who has turned him into an instrument of justice for those whom the justice system has failed.

Let's take the PTC statement apart for a moment. Winter states that the show, "introduces audiences to the depths of depravity and indifference," and is guilty of "introduces audiences to the depths of depravity and indifference." To emphasise this point the describe his method of killing: "He always uses the same procedures, injecting them with tranquilizers, after which they wake up naked and bound to a table with plastic wrap. Dexter always slices his victim's cheek with a scalpel, and keeps drops of their blood on glass slides as souvenirs. He always explains why he's killing them, in one case forcing his victim to look at the bodies of his own victims by threatening to cut off the man's eyelids. Frequently Dexter stabs his victims before dismembering them. Sometimes he dismembers them while still alive." That does sound pretty gruesome but of course we don't actually know if that is what we'll see on Sunday night because we know that CBS will be editing the show for content as well as to fit within the constraints of broadcast television – in other words commercial breaks. We don't know the details and, more to the point, neither does the PTC. But of course to the PTC what the actual content of the broadcast version of the show is really doesn't matter; they've been protesting the translation of Sex And The City and The Sopranos to basic cable since the moment it was announced that those shows would be shown on basic cable, and the considerable amount of censorship that was needed to bring those shows to that level doesn't matter.

The quote from Les Moonves is quoted out of context. We know this because the PTC included a link in their press release. In fact the article referred to a specific issue, the 1999 decision not to go ahead with a TV version of Donnie Brasco. Here is a fuller quote from the article: "CBS Television president Les Moonves told ad buyers and affiliate representatives in New York that the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, CO last month had provoked a reassessment. 'It's not the right time to have people being whacked on the streets of New York,' he said. While Moonves said that it was not fair to blame the media for what occurred at Littleton, 'anyone who thinks the media has nothing to do with this is an idiot.' He said that when he watched the pilot for the show just days after the shootings, it seemed obvious to him that it could not go forward. 'You cringe not just as a programmer,' Moonves said, 'you just cringe.'" That's not exactly the same as acknowledging "devastating impact of violent media on children." It seems very specific to the Columbine shootings, and the fact is that since the shootings we have learned a lot about both the specific influences on the shooters and the general influences on various schools shooters. The media seems to have comparatively little influence, far less for example than the sense that they are being bullied and need to lash out at their persecutors.

Bearing in mind that CBS is taking considerable care in editing Dexter for broadcast television and will be showing the series at 10 p.m. Eastern, a time when children can be reasonably be expected not to be watching, the PTC's attitude seems more focussed on protecting adults from themselves. Or maybe they are just focussed on the precedent that this will presumably set. The problem for me is that I don't know what precedent this does set, but like Groucho Marx in Duck Soup, whatever it is they're against it.

The Broadcast Worst of the Week returns to an old PTC favourite with an attack on a recent episode of Las Vegas. There are two major plot lines in this episode that the PTC objects to. The first involves a character known as "The Cleaner." He cleans the clothes of married "whales" who visit strip clubs and other places where they shouldn't go. The Cleaner wants to retire, particularly after he is flooded with new clients thanks to a couple of Sam's clients who tell their friends about his service. He says that his grandson is the only person who can really succeed him but the young man is working for a women's rights group to "atone" for his family's line of work. He is eventually persuaded to join his grandfather in the family business, and even develops a new market – women who go to shows like "Thunder Down Under" and get a little naughty. It's a fun storyline and despite what the PTC may believe, not the major story of the episode. Here's what the PTC says about it though: "The January 25th episode of Las Vegas glorified strippers, and treated as comic fodder unfaithful spouses deceiving their partners and makes a mockery of marital vows." They also objected to a scene at the start of the episode where Sam gets together with her clients at the strip club: "The show opens with an extended sequence in a strip club. One stripper is shown completely topless from the front, with only tasseled pasties covering her nipples. (This was the third instance in two weeks of tasseled pasties being shown on NBC during prime-time programming.) As the peepshow ends, casino hostess Sam offers to help some of the strip club's patrons with a problem. The men have spent the evening with strippers and are afraid their wives will find out due to the state of their clothing." There are a few things to note here. Based on the clip that the PTC provides, it is difficult to tell for sure whether the stripper who is "shown completely topless from the front, with only tasseled pasties covering her nipples" actually is as topless as they claim. They also forget to mention that one of the examples of "tasseled pasties" being shown was when Danny was wearing a pregnancy empathy belly and the pasties were added to the belly's "breasts" as a joke. But let's set that aside for being silly. Let's also set aside the fact that the strippers in this club were painfully overdressed for strippers at a Las Vegas strip club (most real "strippers" wear little more than a smile). No, it is the description of the men as "unfaithful spouses deceiving their partners." There's no evidence in the episode that the men were being unfaithful – that is having sex with someone other than their spouses – but rather were going out and having stupid fun that they didn't expect their wives to understand. That's what made the final scene in The Cleaner's story – where the women come in to have their clothes done – so funny, the wives of the men were out having their own stupid fun by watching male strippers. But apparently in PTC land looking is enough to render you "unfaithful."

The other storyline that the PTC objected to was in fact the main storyline of the episode. In this story Security Chief Mike Cannon and Concierge Piper Nielsen go to a bar to try to lure away a new bartender for the Montecito. Inevitably they get drunk. They also get married though they don't remember it. Let's let the PTC take it from here: "The two seek an immediate annulment as the staff of the casino laugh at them. At one point Mike wonders whether he should commit to Piper, but his best friend Danny quickly reminds him to look around at all the other beautiful women in the world, discouraging Mike's decent impulse to take responsibility for his actions. The show's twisted happy ending takes place at an annulment party Delinda throws for the happy ex-couple. Popular rapper Ne-Yo guest stars and sings at the party, ensuring that younger viewers will understand that it is cool to have your marriage annulled." I suppose this is the part of the episode that, to use the PTC's words, "makes a mockery of marital vows." I think it's an absolutely absurd position for the PTC to take. I wish I could say that it represented a new high in absurdity for the PTC but I don't think I can. There are a couple of things that the PTC might want to be reminded of. First, since I'm not a lawyer (nor have I played one on TV) I had to check Wikipedia to make sure that something I remembered reading about annulments was in fact correct; it was. One of the primary grounds for granting a legal annulment is if, "Either spouse was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the marriage." A drunken person is considered to be incapable of making a rational decision. The PTC's line, that an annulment under such circumstances is bad is incredible as is the statement about Mike taking responsibility for his actions. But what action is he supposed to be taking responsibility for? He got drunk, he got married, he had sex, and for this he should stay married "till death." Only the most irresponsible people would even consider something like that reasonable. But here's the bit that the PTC totally missed...Mike and Piper didn't get the annulment despite having sound legal grounds for one – they're still married.

Here's the PTC's conclusion on this episode of Las Vegas: "This episode of Las Vegas is yet another example of the entertainment industry's false depiction of reality, and demonstrates Hollywood's commitment to undermining our culture and desensitizing viewers to the most offensive and harmful of content. Stripping is not family entertainment. Infidelity is not without consequence. Marriage is not an insignificant action, to be entered into nonchalantly. Further showing the industry's contempt for its audience, this episode was rated TV-14 D, with no "S" descriptor, in spite of the graphic depiction of strippers and implied drunken intercourse." The demand for an "S" descriptor because of "implied drunken intercourse" (which consisted of Mike and Piper waking up discovering each other and that, under the sheets, they were naked combined with what to my mind was not a particularly graphic depiction of strippers is absurd. But their other assertions are equally absurd in part because they are true statements perverted by the PTC's bizarre attitude about this show. True, stripping is not "family entertainment" but there is a reasonable expectation that a show that airs at 10 p.m. Eastern and carries a TV-14 D rating is not being regarded as "family entertainment." Infidelity is not without consequence, but I don't see any sign at all of anyone in that episode being unfaithful to their spouses – watching strippers does not equal having sex in anyone's books except the PTC's. And Marriage is not an insignificant action, to be entered into nonchalantly but that is part of the reason why annulments exist as a centuries old legal recourse that even the Catholic Church recognises. The PTC is allowing their hatred of the series Las Vegas to impede on any good sense that they may possess.

There being no new Cable Worst of the Week again this week or a new Misrated, we next turn our attention to the PTC's TV Trends column. A couple of weeks ago the PTC skewered most of FOX's line up while stating that parents looking for "family friendly" shows (as defined by the PTC of course) "couldn't do better" than FOX's game shows. Now, they've come back to skewer at least one of those shows, or as they put it, "Leave it to Fox to tarnish its own silver lining." The show is Moment of Truth, hosted by Mark L. Wahlburg (not the actor and singer but the sometimes host of PBS's version of The Antiques Roadshow among other things), and the concept is fairly simple. Before the show the contestant is hooked up to a polygraph machine and asked a series of questions about themselves. In order to win money the player has to answer truthfully – or what the polygraph machine has determined is truth anyway. The thing is that the longer the person plays (and the more money they win) the more personal the questions become. Needless to say the PTC doesn't approve: "Before the episode is filmed, contestants are hooked up to a polygraph machine and asked 50 to 75 prying and prurient questions, along the lines of, "Have you ever made a sexy video and uploaded it to the Internet?" or "Do you think you'll still be married to your husband five years from now?" The questions become increasingly personal and embarrassing as the game progresses. Potentially, a contestant can win half a million dollars – if they continue to submit to the questioning. In an era when The Jerry Springer Show continues to garner an audience, it is perhaps not surprising that such a deeply offensive and inappropriate concept would attract a few viewers. Less easy to understand is why a network charged with using the publicly-owned airwaves 'in the public interest' would want to air a series designed to appeal only to an audience's crudest and basest instincts." We all know of course that when the PTC wants to express deep disapproval of a show or of the networks that run the shows they bring up the whole question of "using the publicly-owned airwaves 'in the public interest.'" It's like a mantra for them. In this case however they are invoking "in the public interest" not because of a perceived problem of obscenity or violence, but because they feel that the show is in bad taste; it's salacious and asks too many "sexually oriented" questions.

The PTC's objections to the show seem to be all over the place and I can't really put my finger on what they hate about the show. They cite a comment from American series' creator Howard Schultz who says "We won't ask any question that in any way, shape or form can harm a minor child under the age of 18," after which they cite the following as "some of the 'harmless' questions children in the viewing audience witnessed during The Moment of Truth's premiere broadcast":

  • "As a football player, did you ever sneak a peek at another player's privates while taking a shower?"
  • "Have you ever had sexual relations with someone the very same day you met them?"
  • "Have you ever had a sexual fantasy while attending Mass?"
  • "Have you ever padded your underwear to look more well-endowed?" (After the contestant answered "Yes," the camera zoomed directly into his crotch.)

I suppose that the PTC defines these questions as being "harmful" to children because of the vaguely sex related nature of the questions but in truth these are depressingly mild.

Then again, maybe the PTC is concerned with the show's focus on honesty, to the point where it might even be harmful. Here's what the article says about that: "Even those questions not overtly sexual in nature, far from opening a 'dialogue about telling the truth,' were clearly intended to be deeply hurtful. Contestant Ty was asked if he has delayed having children because he is not sure that Catia, his wife of two and a half years, would be his 'lifelong partner.' Upon Ty's truthful answer of 'yes,' Catia looked devastated. Creator Schultz has even admitted, 'There was a young man on the show and his girlfriend was sitting on the family and friends couch…On the drive home from the show, they broke up. And he has spent the last month and a half trying to get her back.' Apparently, the breakup of a relationship or marriage as a result of the program's questions could not possibly harm children." This is hardly solid logic, but it's about what I expect from the PTC.

The article makes a point of bringing up an incident in the Colombian run of the show (Colombia is one of about 24 countries the series is produced in, along with Britain and Brazil) to "prove" that there is potential for harm here: "The program's potential for harm became a fact in Colombia. There, a contestant on that country's version of The Moment of Truth confessed on the air that she had hired someone to kill her husband – and was rewarded with $25,000 as a result."

The article also makes a statement that I can't find any evidence of: "Tellingly, Darnell bought the concept for The Moment of Truth away from NBC, after that network decided not to produce a game show with so salacious (and potentially damaging) a concept. It says much that Fox is willing to purchase, produce and show a program that other networks refused for reasons of good taste, and which was actually pulled off TV in another country for hosting a would-be murderer." Now it is entirely possible that the show was offered to NBC and rejected; that sort of thing happens all the time of course and among the shows that were rejected by one network only to be picked up by others are CSI (most of the networks thought it overestimated the intelligence of the American public) and Survivor. I sincerely doubt however that the reason that the show was rejected was because it was "so salacious (and potentially damaging)," or for reasons of "good taste."

I will admit that I haven't watched more than a few seconds of The Moment of Truth and that was by accident. I don't watch "judge" shows (my mother is addicted) and I don't watch Jerry Springer or Maury Povitch (okay I watched Povitch last Friday but that was only because the other people in the ICU waiting room had it on while my brother and I were waiting to get in to see my mother after her surgery). But what is it that sets those shows apart from The Moment of Truth? Is it because those shows don't visibly at least reward their participants for appearing? Is it because this show is set up as a game show? Is it because this show is on in primetime? Or is it because this show is on a major broadcast network? I think it is a combination of these things that allows the PTC to summon up its boundless supply of righteous indignation and cloak their distaste for the material in a claim that the show is "harmful to children." I didn't like the few seconds of the show that I saw, but I won't say that it is for any reason other than the fact that it is boring and frankly down-market TV. But given that Springer and Povitch have made fortunes and have been doing their shows for years, there is obviously a market for this kind of thing and while I hate that there is a market for it, I can't fault FOX for trying to trying to tap into it. I just hope that it will be swept from the air by quality scripted programming once the Writers Guild strike ends.

By the way: the PTC winds up their article with an edited quote from New York Time reviewer Alessandra Stanley. I was going to show you what they omitted to make their point but as it turns out the PTC didn't cut a sentence or two, they cut four whole paragraphs! Read Stanley's article and see if the missing material changes what she wrote "Fox is renowned for callous programming. It was the network that put forth Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? and Temptation Island. But unfortunately, this new series is not quite as innocently ill- intentioned…Ordinarily contestants stand to lose their winnings. Losers on The Moment of Truth don't go home merely empty-handed; they could return to a home filled with hate."

No comments: