Saturday, January 31, 2009

Getting Your New HDTV Super Bowl Ready

From time to time I get emails from various companies, some of which ask me to help me promote a website or something because I do a TV blog. I have a whole thing about what I will and won't promote in this blog but this isn't the place to go into this. Recently I got a message from, which describes itself as "a product review search engine focused solely on electronics." They also have a blog and recently did a post called Seven Super Bowl HDTV Mistakes You Can Avoid and because of my recent rant about the 3-D glasses for the Super Bowl commercials and Chuck, they alerted me to the post.

It is an interesting fact that the biggest buying time for new HDTVs is in the run-up to the Super Bowl, and that's not just true in the United States but in Canada as well. By now I think we all know, or know where to find, information on the technical aspects of TVs and hopefully know what qualities we want/need in a new TV, but this post has more to do with setting up and accessorizing your purchase once you get it home to maximize the enjoyment for the big game. There are a few things I think they missed but on the whole it's a good article. What I want to do is to relate some personal anecdotes and comments to what the writer of the post, Andrew Eisner, has chosen to discuss.

1. Offsides: Andrew Eisner writes: Viewing angle is an important consideration. When the gang comes over for the Super Bowl party you want everyone to get the best picture even from the sidelines. Rear projection TVs can offer some great values for the screen sizes but you're going to sacrifice viewing angle. LCD TVs used to get a bad rap for viewing angle but that along with Plasma burn-in problems is a thing of the past (along with these other HDTV myths). Both Plasma and newer LCD TVs offer wide viewing angles that should meet most demands.

My comment: Many, many, many, years ago I took a university class on educational media; producing things like posters, a slide show, and overhead projector materials for particular elements of a curriculum, and using audio-video equipment in an educational context. Our prof spent a fair amount of time discussing screens for movies and other media. He offered a rule of thumb that I have always applied in picking seats in a movie theatre: the best place to sit between two to six screen heights away from the screen and as close to the center of the width of the screen as possible. Various types of screens had varying reflectivity (brightness) but in many cases that had an impact on the maximum angle from perpendicular that the viewer could sit without there being a problem viewing the screen. While viewing angle on TV screens is not as important on modern TVs there is still a maximum angle on any type of TV – CRT, Plasma, LCD, Projection, and Rear Projection – where the image is not seen at its best. (One reason why I don't have an LCD monitor is because the whites on the LCD monitor of my brother's computer looked muddy unless you were looking practically perpendicular to the screen.

Oh, and my prof? He hated rear projection even for movie screens. Viewing angles for them was depressingly bad and they were very light sensitive.

2. Illegal Motion: Eisner: Fast action can be challenging for flat panel TVs. On LCD TVs, "shutters" have to open and close, on Rear Projection DLP-based TVs tiny mirrors have to move back and forth, and on Plasma TVs phosphor needs to be turned on and off. If TVs can't react fast enough the result is a blurred image. Features to look for include fast pixel response time (6ms. or less), 120Hz refresh, and other special motion compensation features like Motionflow from Sony. Plasma TVs have traditionally had the edge when it came to handling fast moving images but the new generation of LCD TVs are gaining fast.

My comment: I'm not sure that I've seen this on my Plasma TV, but I've seen something similar mainly when something fast moves laterally across the screen. In my case it was a bit of pixilation and I'm not sure whether the fault was with the TV or with the signal received from the cable company (in forum pages I've seen a number of complaints about picture quality from my cable company). Fortunately it doesn't happen that often, but it is something that you need to think about before you buy your TV because once you have it this is something the owner can't change.

3. Pass Interference: Eisner: HDTV often requires a higher grade cable than you might have installed in your house or apartment. If your old cable is labeled RG-59 and your picture often breaks up into little blocks or you don't get some channels at all, you may need to upgrade the cable to RG-6 which provides better shielding and can help with the higher frequency channels.

My comment: This is one where I have had more than a little experience. My home got cable back in the late 1970s; in fact Shaw Cable wasn't even the provider, it was a local company called Saskatoon Telecable. After the digital cable specialty channels became available in Canada in 2001 I bought my digital box. Initially my channels were fine but over time, in the summer, reception for a lot of channels deteriorated to the point where they'd break up or just not be there. The thing was that it was only happening in the summer so it wasn't that big a worry. Eventually (after several summers without BBC Canada et al) I called Shaw because things had become so bad. They did not replace the older cable in the house. Instead the service rep installed a trop amplifier at the point where the cable entered the house. This strengthened the signal coming to the two TVs in the house. Remember too that installing splitters to service more than one device weakens the signal to each of them.

4. Unnecessary Roughness: Eisner: It shouldn't be that complicated to run all your home entertainment gear. A good investment to make your home theater easier to use is a good universal remote. Logitech's Harmony remotes are the most popular. They aren't cheap but are super easy to program and very friendly to use. If you got $200 to spend on a remote go with the Harmony One. Otherwise you can buy the Harmony 880 for around $120 or you can get the Harmony 550 which will cost you around $70.

My comment: Eisner recommends the Harmony remotes by Logitech, and they are extremely good devices that are easy to program and intuitive to use. They can be set up so that a single button will allow you to activate every device needed to do what you want to do. Want to watch a DVD? Push a button that coincides with the task "Watch DVD" and it will turn on the DVD player, TV and home theatre gear all at once. That said you don't absolutely need something that high tech. The remote that came with my digital cable box allows me to turn on the TV and the cable box or the TV on its own. And of course there are other manufacturers who make remotes that can control multiple devices. The big differences between what they offer and what Harmony offers are the ease of programming the Harmony and the one touch activation. If only they weren't so darned expensive.

5. Delay of Game: Eisner: It can become a real drag to have to unplug the DVD player before you can play high def Madden NFL 09 on the XB360 or PS3. If your set doesn't have enough input ports you may end up having to unplug and plug in cables in order to get the game console or DVD player to work. Most new HDTV gear including DVD players, and set top boxes come with HDMI ports. Component ports offer as good a picture for most applications. Look for at least 3 HDMI ports, a component port for starters. A composite port and s-video are usually a given....If your set is HDMI port deficient you can always pick up an HDMI switch box with a remote control for switching ports.

My comment: I'm not a big platform gamer so this isn't a huge thing for me. What I do know however is that the more inputs you have the better. My brother's old TV had two inputs, and switching between switching between inputs involved crawling behind the TV and physically connecting and disconnecting wires. It was a real pain.

By the way, when discussing HDMI cables try not to be tempted by the high price name brand cables if you don't have special needs. You can get usually generic HDMI cables from places like local computer stores – I got mine from a store called OTV Computers for a couple of bucks over $10 for a 6' long cable. By comparison Future Shop here in Canada sells a 4' Rockfish cable for $54.99 – in other words about four times as much as I paid. Even a "cheap" 6' Dynex cable at Future Shop is $30. Don't be locked in to buying from big box stores.

6. Roughing the kicker: Eisner: It's a well known fact that good audio can make the picture look better. Most high definition broadcasts include 5.1 channel surround sound. Don't splurge on a TV and scrimp on the sound system. For a few hundred dollars more you can get a very good quality speaker set including a subwoofer that will help you experience the roar of the crowd or enjoy the half time extravaganza. Home Theater Systems can include a DVD player and receiver for under $500.

My comment: This is one area where I really feel like my TV is deficient. Even though the TV room is small and could easily be overwhelmed by a home theatre system I'm becoming increasingly convinced that it's something I need to explore. The thing that I've noticed initially was a tinny quality in the sound from the big screen TV that I don't really find in my older CRT. It seems as though the modern flat screen TVs were made to be used in conjunction with a home theatre system.

7. Too Many Men on the Field: Eisner: Don't forget, all you male sports fans out there, that women want to watch HDTV too. Selecting a set with the best features and image quality is important but the Wife Acceptance Factor or WAF (a term coined by LCD TV expert, Bruce Berkoff who also just published a guide to HDTV) can be raised with a good looking set like the Samsung LNA650T or quality installation. Flat panels mounted on the wall can be less disruptive to the living room design while large Rear Projection TVs and Front projection TVs might be better off in the playroom.

My comment: This isn't exactly the point that I would have given as my final point. I would probably have mentioned the need to get the picture properly adjusted in terms of colour, tint, brightness and contrast ahead of the "Wife Acceptance Factor." Buy, borrow, or rent a copy of Digital Video Essentials to help get the set calibrated just so. It's not as hard as it used to be. Most TVs come with a home mode and a store mode, the store mode being brighter and more contrasty than the home mode. On my TV the home mode was perfectly adjusted as it came out of the box but yours might need some work. You don't want to see the Cards go up against the Steelers on a blue field after all.

Of course appearance does count for a lot and if that has to be relegated to "Wife Acceptance Factor" so be it. Your own tastes may vary as will the requirements for your TV, although I agree totally that the front and rear projections TVs should very likely be exiled to purpose built home theatre room. The size of the room should be a consideration in your TV purchase. Though most men won't acknowledge the fact it is possible for a TV to be too big (heresy I know but it's a fact). And while that wall mount might be less disruptive to the room, it may not be the best way to go if you want the TV up and running by tomorrow. You might even have to paint the room; studies have shown that the colour of the walls surrounding your TV can have an effect on how you perceive the colour and the brightness of the image on the screen.

And have you ever noticed that those TVs in the commercials that are mounted on the wall but seem to have absolutely no cords or cables attached to them? It's not going to look like that unless you're really willing to do some major construction. Otherwise your TV is going to have a cord to the electrical outlet, and a cable from the source of your signal, whether it's a cable or satellite box, the cable outlet or an antenna (indoors or outdoors), other cables to the DVD player and the game console, and of course cables everywhere to connect up the home theatre system. That's a lot of wire, and don't think I really need to mention that these cables aren't that attractive against a shining white wall.

Having an HDTV is a great way to watch the big game but it's not always as simple as it used to be, when you could just buy a new TV set it up and turn it on. It can be, if you live in a place that has broadcast HDTV signals available and you play your games on a computer and not with a console and you don't care about the sound, so you only need the remote that came out of the box. For the rest of us though it can get complicated. But fun; always fun.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Way They Hold Their Eyes

"Every gambler knows that the secret of survivin' is knowin' what the cards are by the way they hold their eyes." – Kenny Rogers, The Gambler

Ole Kenny may have overstated it, but Poker players know all about "tells"; non-verbal cues that can reveal the quality of a player's hand. It might be as subtle as obvious as a tremor in the hands (indicative of a very good hand – the shaking is due to excitement rather than fear) or as individual as a facial tic. Indeed Mike Caro, known as "The Mad Genius of Poker" has made a comprehensive examination of tells in both books and videos. But what if this concept of "tells" could be used in everyday life, to determine if people were lying or telling the truth? That's the premise behind the new FOX series Lie To Me, and unbelievably, while the characters and storylines are fictional, the science is based on the very real work of Dr. Paul Ekman.

I had planned to write this review up last week and I had it mostly completed, but it struck me that this was a show that I should really watch a second episode of in order to get a true sense of the show. After all, the pilot is frequently used to introduce concepts and characters; the pilot episode of Lie To Me does exactly that. That makes the circumstances different, which I suspect Dr. Ekman would compensate for but I think I've got time enough to wait, at least based on the first episode ratings. The thing is that in this particular case I want to see the dynamics between all four leading members of the cast and that wasn't really apparent in the first episode. The major focus was on the lead characters, Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) and Dr. Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams). Of the other two major characters, new employee Ria Torres (Monica Raymund) mainly gets to observe and ask questions, while researcher Eli Loker (Brendan Hines) barely gets half a dozen lines. Which is why this coming out after the second episode of the show rather than the first. (And the fact that the original version was taking me way too long to write has absolutely nothing to do with it.... not much anyway). I think I was wise to wait for this episode because Eli and Ria got more screen time that was actually integral to the plot, and while I didn't get much more in the way of insight into eli, the character of Ria and her potential difficulties with Lightman really started to come into focus.

The episode started with an amusing little teaser as Lightman took delivery of a mystery package. The Department of Homeland Security brought a new, hand-held lie detector outfit developed for the Transport Safety Agency to the Lightman Group for evaluation. In fact they were waiting for Lightman to arrive in the testing room when he was opening up his mystery package. The new device seemed to be doing a pretty good job in the evaluation test, so you basically knew that Lightman would find some way to totally discredit the mechanical device. Sure enough he did. First explaining that the ostrich egg, one of which had been the contents of his mystery package, was the first handheld lie detector, he then set out to change the parameters of the test. Giving the Ostrich Egg to the man from the TSA and explaining how the tribes of Africa used ostrich eggs as lie detectors – if a man was lying the egg would break in his hands – he then replaced the man who had been asking the test questions with a beautiful woman with a large...cleavage. The woman asked the test subject the same questions that the man had asked but this time, when he answered truthfully, the device indicated that he had lied even when it was patently obvious that he'd told the truth about the colour of his hair. Lightman then explained that lie detectors operated based on physiological changes, like increased blood pressure, pulse rate and the degree to which the subject sweats, but all of these factors can be altered by other factors that have nothing to do with lying, including sexual arousal. Oh, and the ostrich egg? Well the man from the TSA broke it when he lied to his superior from Homeland Security about how much the handheld lie detector had cost.

As was the case last time there were two cases which I suppose is going to be the pattern for this show, with Roth's character being the principal in the major plot line while Kelli Williams as Dr. Foster will be the one investigating the B-plot. Just fun (well not entirely) I think I'll get the B-plot out of the way first. The Lightman Group is hired by a university to discover if a highly regarded freshman basketball player named Earl White has taken a bribe for a well-heeled alumnus and booster to play for the school. They first encounter Earl after practice and he seems like a perfect example of a student athlete – an athlete who is also a good student – who is also raising his younger brother on his own, but there's a certain reticence to him in answering questions that Gillian picks up on. They get a much more solid reaction from the booster, Howard Taft, who had won a championship ring by "riding the pine" in the school's last championship season. Eli uses a gadget to pick up on three lies. The device is a Voice Stress Analyzer (and is a much more controversial device than the lie detector, which makes me wonder why it was being used in this show). The analyzer picked up three points where Taft's voice was stressed beyond normal levels when talking about getting Earl onto the team. Of course his voice also showed stress when he was talking to Gillian but as Eli put it, that was because he was interested in riding something other than the pine.

Having determined that Taft had in fact bribed Earl, they need to find a reason. Why would a kid in line for a huge professional contract be stupid enough to take a $50,000 bribe to attend this college? In reviewing recordings of Earl being interviewed they detect that every time that he was asked about his upcoming pro contract, his facial expression showed not happiness but anger. Moreover, when they review scenes of Earl playing there are times when they spot a facial expression that they eventually identify as pain. When Gillian – who is a huge basketball fan – confronts him, Earl tells her that he took the money because he knows that this is the last season that he'll ever be able to play basketball. There's not going to be a pro contract and he needs to money to be able to take care of his little brother. It's the only payday he'll get for playing basketball. Gillian knows this and has arranged with Lightman to give the fee they earned for this case to Earl as a scholarship to pay his way through a less expensive college.

In the episode's A-plot, Lightman is brought in by the Army to determine if a woman soldier is lying when she accuses her platoon sergeant of rape. Their unit is about to redeploy to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and the sergeant's expertise is believed to be necessary. Gillian wants Ria to go with Lightman but he's initially unwilling to bring her along. We quickly see why. While the woman displays all of the major signs of telling the truth about the rape – crying and a quavering voice – Lightman picks up on subtler indications that she really is lying. Torres, on the other hand is convinced that the woman is telling the truth, not because of the visual indicators, but because of a belief that women don't lie about being raped. She's quite angry with Lightman until the whole thing is broken down for her by Cal and Gillian, and then she becomes angry with the woman soldier. Things aren't entirely as they appear. Lightman bring three women soldiers from the platoon to the office, where he has the interview with the accuser on the big screen TV in the conference room. He pauses the interview when the soldiers come in. Taking one of them to an interview room he leaves two of them in the conference room with the remote control... and a hidden surveillance camera. As he expected the women run the rest of the interview. It is, as Cal explains, human nature, and his real interest is in seeing the women's reactions to the interview. While their expressions aren't sympathetic to the woman who accused the sergeant there is a definite reaction of disgust whenever the sergeant is mentioned. While it is clear that they don't believe the accuser there is obviously something going on. While the sergeant isn't guilty of the rape that he's accused of, the women of the platoon clearly know that he's done something bad. Lightman wants to know what it is before the platoon deploys.

Cal and Gillian decide that the obvious answer is that the soldier who accused her sergeant is doing so to get justice for someone else. It clearly isn't one of the other three women in the platoon, so they decide to check for women who aren't with the unit anymore. The come across one woman – Private Metz – who went AWOL four months earlier, after the platoon returned to the United States. To discover the true story they need to find her. Cal and Ria go to the home of Metz's grandfather (a nice bit role for veteran character actor Rance Howard – Lie To Me is produced by Imagine Television, which was created by Rance's son, Ron Howard). Seeing an indicator in the old man's hand movement, Lightman bursts into his home and audibly simulates an attack on the man. It brings his grand-daughter out of hiding. Once she reveals herself, Cal and Ria question her about what had been going on in the platoon. She confirms that she had been forced to have sex with her sergeant repeatedly while the unit was deployed. Both Cal and Ria see that she's telling the truth. Of course that isn't enough to prevent her from being arrested by the military police – Lightman had called them before they even went to Grandpa Metz's house.

Lightman is determined to stop the platoon from deploying with the sergeant, but they have a problem. The sergeant admits that he had sex with Private Metz while they were deployed in Afghanistan, but he claims that the sex was consensual; Metz was his girlfriend, and he has photos of them together to prove it. It doesn't take much for them – or us – to tell from the photos that Metz wasn't comfortable with being that close to the sergeant. She's visibly pulling away. In an interview she explains that if a woman didn't give in to the sergeant's sexual advances she would be made to drive the lead truck in convoys. The lead truck was the most dangerous position in a convoy because it was the one that was usually targeted by the Taliban. In order to save her own life, Metz had surrendered to the coercion. But how to get the sergeant to reveal himself? Lightman has Metz interrogated using a polygraph. The sergeant is watching the interrogation in an adjacent room along with his commanding officer, Lightman and Ria. Metz answers the questions truthfully about how the sergeant had coerced her and other women in the platoon into having sex with him. Finally she is asked whether she had ever been forced to drive the lead truck. She said that she had. This true registered as true on the polygraph. When that answer came out the sergeant started complaining about how she was lying, and he had never made her drive the lead truck. Despite the urging of his JAG lawyer not to talk the sergeant's words increasingly incriminate him until it is clear even to him that no one believes that he did not force Metz to have sex with him. As for how Metz was able to say that she had been forced to drive the lead truck when she had given in to the sergeant without being given that job, Cal deceived the polygraph machine by giving her a Valium. Nothing that she said excited her to the point where her reactions would register on the machine, even though both Ria and Lightman could tell that she was lying by watching her face.

I think it is reasonable to say that the central focus of this show is on the character of Cal Lightman. Tim Roth does an excellent job of portraying Lightman, giving the character an almost spritely energy. After all, Lightman is a not altogether sympathetic character. He is sarcastic and not a little self-centered, and at times self-satisfied. He is someone who doesn't suffer fools lightly, as is shown in the teaser segment of the episode where he effectively humiliates the TSA official with the ostrich egg. There's another sequence in which he sells stock in a company because of the hand gestures of the CEO in an interview where he touts the quality of the stock; later, after the stock has tanked and the CEO is trying to defend his previous optimism by claiming not to have known about quarterly report, Lightman actually says that he would expect a company CEO to be a much better liar. Certainly he is a very good liar, because does it several times in this episode alone. I suppose that there needs to be a certain amount of deception in this sort of job in order to make the truth come out, and it's no surprise that an expert on detecting lies should in turn be a very good liar.

The inevitable comparison (because comparisons with other TV shows and characters are inevitable unless either is so unique as to make it impossible to find something similar) is to Gregory House. The differences outweigh the similarities though. While House believes that "everyone lies" he's not particularly interested in knowing when they're lying as he is in knowing what they're lying about, and only in the very specialized field that he is dealing with. Lightman on the other hand is focused on the moment the person lies and in interpreting the meaning of the lie. While both men are sarcastic, and as I have mentioned, self-centered Lightman's sarcasm isn't as cruel as House's can be. Lightman is almost playful in this, which something no one could ever describe House being.

I'm not quite as impressed with the rest of the cast. Or perhaps I should say that I'm not as impressed by the rest of the characters. Kelli Williams's character, Gillian Foster, seems to be in the cast as the "voice of reason;" someone whose self-defined role is not just to be Lightman's partner but to be a buffer between Lightman's sometimes abrasive nature and the rest of the world. However, much of the time she isn't working with Lightman but on other cases. Gillian seems much less interesting when she's not sparring with Lightman. She's been the sympathetic academic in the B-plots of the two episodes that we've seen her take the lead in, and in truth it's kind of boring. As for Eli, well it's probably not Brendan Hines's fault, but the character comes across as a one dimensional smart ass. In the service of what the character calls "radical honesty" Eli often says things that are totally inappropriate. His so-called flirting with Ria Torres would be described by most people as very close to sexual harassment rather than clever banter, although she is smart enough not to see more in it than the actions of an overgrown adolescent.

The Ria Torres character is probably the most interesting of the supporting characters for me, but that's largely because of her interactions with Lightman and his reaction to her. Ria is probably the closest character to us in terms of experience if not in ability. She is part of the group but not of it as yet – and she may never be a fully integrated member of the team. She is what Lightman calls "a natural" who knows that a person is lying based on facial expressions without actually knowing the science behind them (Dr. Paul Ekman calls such people "wizards"). And Lightman is reluctant to have her, or any "natural" – around. It is only because she does as well as he does in a test where images are flashed on a screen and she has to name the emotion that he takes her along on this case. The incident with the soldier who initially accused the platoon sergeant of rape is part of the reason; she discounts the cues that the woman is lying about being raped because of her own emotional response to the crime and the belief that women don't lie about being raped. Gillian, more schooled in the academics of what they do, understands that the subtle cues about lying are more powerful than the obvious ones, and points out that about 8% of women lie in accusations of rape. Moreover Ria is sometimes surprised and even outraged by Lightman's tactics. Her reaction to Lightman having called the MPs to arrest Metz even before he knew (for sure) that she was there came across as a mixture of shock and outrage. The real reason for Lightman's antipathy to Ria may be a mixture of things. Someone – if I recall correctly it is Gillian – tells her that part of the reason is that she's uneducated, that she comes by her ability naturally and that it is difficult for someone who has spent twenty years of his life studying and developing his understanding of the meaning of human expressions to deal with that sort of untrained talent. Lightman himself provides another part of the reason. He tells her that when people in their line of work get it wrong it has the potential to hurt a lot of people. Ria picks up a sense of guilt when Lightman makes that statement and tries to call him on it, but he isn't talking.

The big disappointment for me about Lie To Me is in the way that the episodes are plotted. In the two that we've seen so far there have been two major plot lines and I don't think that any of them have been developed to give the dramatic impact that they could have. The plots in the first episode – a teacher apparently murdered by one of her students and a Congressman accused of repeatedly visiting a sex club – seemed rushed and closed quickly. I had a similar reaction to the rape investigation this week. Certainly the "murdered teacher" and the "Army rapist" stories could easily have taken up the whole hour on their own by adding further dimensions to the investigation of the allegations, and it could have been done without the episode feeling obviously padded. While I don't think that this week's B-plot with the basketball player was as strong as last week's plot with the Congressman with an illegitimate daughter working as a high priced prostitute – a plot that I though could easily have been a workable A-plot – it still felt a bit rushed in terms of resolution to me. It may not have been enough to carry an episode but I do feel that with a little expansion it could have been co-equal with another plot of similar complexity. All of this speaks to a problem in the area of dramatic pacing. It seems almost as if the writers wrote down the basics of a plot but didn't feel the need to develop much in the way of twists and turns and blind alleys in getting from point A to point B. This is an area they should probably work on.

Lie To Me is not a series that stands out much from the run of the mill procedural where a "genius" in an area other than normal police work investigating crimes. In this it bears a similarity not to House but to Numb3rs or to Eleventh Hour. Of course Lie To Me does break with that convention considerably. The cases they investigate aren't all murders, as is common in most procedurals, or indeed even criminal matters in a traditional sense. Moreover what the show does with considerable success is show us what is going on as well as telling us. Most of us don't get most of the math in Numb3rs or the "science" in Eleventh Hour, but we can pick up on the visual cues (exaggerated as I'm sure they are) in Lie To Me, particularly when Lightman points them out. It is a show that you have to watch rather than just see and listen to. In this they are clearly helped by the real Dr. Ekman, who provides a fascinating analysis of each episode in a blog at the show's website. I'm not sure that Lightman's personality and Tim Roth's take on the character, combined with the real science of what they do, can overcome what I feel are the problems with the dramatic pacing over the long term, but in the short-term at least I think the show is pretty solid.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Superbowl 3-D – What Will I Be Seeing?

Absolutely nothing! (In 3-D. At least as far as I can tell.)

This saga is all part of the vagaries of the Canadian broadcasting system. The first thing you need to know is that many years ago the Canadian networks made a deal with the Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Comission (CRTC) that requires Canadian cable companies to substitute the local Canadian signal over any American signal of the same show provided that the Canadian and American shows start at the same time. So, for example, if CTV has CSI on Thursday at 8 p.m. Saskatoon time, and CBS has the same episode of CSI on Thursday at 8 p.m. Saskatoon time, the cable company has to put the CTV signal over the cable channel that we get CBS on. It has to be the same episode or the same sporting event and it has to start at the same time. This has caused some problems in the past when a sporting event has run long (as they inevitably do) and what I assume must be the computer at the cable company doesn't know about it. Shades of the "Heidi game" if that game you're watching is suddenly pulled off for a show you hate. This is known as "simultaneous substitution" or simsub. This way the ads that the networks sell get seen by everyone who watches a show – whether they like it or not (and we don't).

(And of course the Canadian networks aren't satisfied with simple simsubbing. From time to time the networks go before the CRTC and demand that they be allowed to substitute over shows regardless of whether or not they show a particular episode at the same time as the American networks. This say the networks will allow them to "program their own networks." The CRTC inevitably files these demands with the requests to allow the networks to count Canadian made infomercials as Canadian content in a circular filing cabinet, but I always get the sense that the networks go off from these meetings saying "one day my pretties." But back to the matter at hand.)

The biggest complaints about simsubbing come at Superbowl time, and speaking as one of those complaining I think we've got good cause. For years advertisers have literally spent millions on commercials for the Superbowl, and for that money they feel they need to do something that really stands out. I suppose that for the advertising community the Superbowl is like the last couple of weeks of December is for movie makers, the time when you put out the serious films that you desperately hope will be rewarded at the Oscars and the other award shows. The Superbowl is when you put together the commercials that you hope will get nominated for the Clios and the other advertising awards. And if you're Canadian there is a better than 50/50 chance that you won't see the multi-million dollar commercials, you'll see the run of the mill commercial from Leon's or something from The Great Canadian Oil Change or some local body shop. I'm trying to think of an analogy here that really works and having difficulty with it. I suppose it's like going to see a great musical on Broadway only to find out that tonight they're letting a high school production do the play.

In recent years – for me at least – there have been some developments that have allowed me to see the American feed of the Superbowl. For reasons that elude me, the broadcasters in Saskatoon never simsub the time sharing channels out of Spokane that I get as part of my basic digital cable. It doesn't happen, so for the past couple of years I've been able to watch the Superbowl with the American commercials. Now that we have the HD service we can also see the game in HD without simsubbing. Why? Well the CRTC has ruled that Canadian channels can't simsub over HD broadcasts until they are capable of providing a local HD signal, and Saskatoon and Regina are probably the last places that will be converted to HD by CBC, CTV and Global (CTV has only just decided to make CFCN in Calgary an HD station – CFRN in Edmonton is still not HD).

So in other words I will be able to see the American commercials during the game, including the 3-D commercials that Pepsi and Dreamworks will be doing for the Super Bowl. Pepsi is doing a commercial for their SoBe beverage line in 3-D, and Dreamworks will be doing an ad for their new movie Monsters vs. Aliens in 3-D. In addition on February 3rd the NBC series Chuck will use the exact same technology to broadcast that show in 3-D. The commercials will of course be using 3-D glasses, not the red-blue type that are what one tends to think of when one thinks of 3-D, or the polarizing lenses which have been common for many years, but something called Real 3-D, which uses an red-orange/blue-purple combination of lenses. This of course means that you have to get those specific glasses to be able to watch the two commercials and the episode of Chuck. In the U.S. you can apparently pick them up in the supermarkets.

In Canada it's a different story. The Canadian rights holder for the Superbowl is CTV and CTV won't be showing the SoBe commercial or the Dreamworks trailer, so why should they distribute the glasses in Canada. There's no advantage in it for Pepsi (which owns SoBe) or for Dreamworks to distribute the glasses either. But what about that episode of Chuck? Well that episode of Chuck is part of the reason why the 3-D glasses promotion won't be running in Canada. You see, here in Canada Chuck doesn't run on CTV it runs on CITYTV. The CITYTV system (not a network) has stations in Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary Edmonton and Vancouver. But people in those cities won't be able to get the glasses either. You see CITYTV won't be showing the 3-D episode of Chuck on February 3rd. They've got a more important show to put on that Monday – The Bachelor. Chuck won't be back on CITYTV until March 9th. Whether they'll offer the glasses then or not, or whether they'll even air the episode at all is absolutely unclear for the CITYTV system's website. Meanwhile those Canadians who will actually be able to see either the unsimsubbed Superbowl commercials or the episode of Chuck won't be seeing them in 3-D unless they can make a run to a stor across the border, can find them on eBay or Craigs List, or can figure out how to make a set of their own. Not that it matters to me of course; I've usually abandoned the Superbowl as a blow out by the time the half-time show starts, and I've never seen an episode of Chuck because I bowl on Mondays.

(Thanks to a tweet on Twitter from The TV Addict – aka Daniel – for turning me on to this. The TV Addict is a much more professional site than this one, and I'm only saying that because... well because it's true.)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Last Templar – So Bad It’s Actually Bad

Nobody in network TV really "gets" the miniseries anymore. In fact, I've always had the sneaking suspicion that the only person with power in Hollywood who actually "gets" the miniseries anymore is Tom Hanks. Take a look at the series that Hanks has done: From The Earth To The Moon, Band Of Brothers, John Adams, and the upcoming Pacific. What they all have in common is that they are epic stories. And that's what the mini-series should be – epics. Look back at the great mini-series from the '70s and '80s and they were epics – Roots, Rich Man Poor Man, Shogun, Centennial, The Winds of War, War And Remembrance. Somewhere along the line though, the networks and the producers lost the idea that a mini-series should be an epic. What they turned into was a dumping ground for stories that couldn't be contracted into a two hour TV movie but weren't strong enough for a feature movie. And because there were so many of these bad stories – presumably because the broadcast networks weren't willing to allocate multiple hours to epics. They were, on the other hand, perfectly happy to give over two 2-hour slots from time to time to show the latest pot-boiler from someone like Judith Krantz (not that I have anything against Judith Krantz; she was a close friend of someone I had tremendous admiration for, and the lady did write a really good sex scene). And that, more than anything else is what eventually killed the mini-series on broadcast TV. Not that they're above trying them from time to time. CBS had Comanche Moon last year which wasn't half bad. It was a hundred times better than the latest effort from NBC, The Last Templar.

Let me just come out and say it. It took me less than ten minutes to decide that this thing sucked pond scum. The defining moment in that time was after the four horsemen in chainmail armour burst into the museum (after one of them beheaded a cop who thought the whole thing was a publicity stunt) and smashed the display cases, grabbed various items from a collection of artifacts from the Vatican, and started to ride off. Tess Chaykin, played by Mira Sorvino, starts to chase after them and shout – I kid thee not gentle readers – "Hey, come back here! That doesn't belong to you!!" I mean just the absolute stupidity of shouting out that line at the backs of four people on horseback who have just beheaded a cop and grabbed the mayor's wife; are we are supposed to believe that she expects them to come back and return the things that they have taken? At that very moment I could have turned the TV off without any compunction, if I didn't feel obliged to write this review. The things I do for you. Then again we don't have TNT in Canada so I really couldn't review something like Trust Me, much as I would have liked to (and trust me I would have liked to).

Okay, so Tess Chaykin is a cut rate Laura Croft, an adventuring archaeologist who has set aside her digging boots now that she has a daughter (she doesn't want to subject her kid to the long absences that she had to deal with from her father). Since she's played by Mira Sorvino we don't have Angelina Jolie's face and boobs – and acting talent – to look at. Tess immediately abandons her English friend Clive to chase after any of the "knights in shining armour" that she can find, but preferably the one who stole the Cross of Constantine – an artefact that her father dug up during one of his many archaeological expeditions. She grabs a convenient brass (or gold) crosier, mounts a conveniently placed police horse and charges off to Central Park to joust with the knight who took the cross. Wearing Manolo Blaniks. Tess that is. And what does she get for capturing a thief and murderer and recovering the loot, and ruining her Manolos? Why she gets arrested of course, with more guns pointed at her than at the guy in the shining armour. No wonder people don't want to get involved.

Of course the arrest isn't totally without its compensation, because it's in the police interrogation room that she meets the male lead, and obvious source opposite attraction and unresolved sexual tension (at least until the end of the miniseries), FBI Special Agent Sean Dailey, played by Scott Foley (from The Unit, nearly unrecognizable in a show where he has actual hair instead of head stubble). While Tess is at best and agnostic, Sean is a believing Catholic who has given up coffee for Lent – along with swearing and a bunch of other indulgences – who quickly clears Tess. Of course it is painfully obvious that Tess and Sean are going to be bumping heads very quickly (and bumping uglies eventually). Because after all Tess feels that she has to get involved even though she's recovered the artefact that her father had found. Sure enough, after Sean has delivered a replacement pair of Manolos (he didn't know what they were; his partner tells him "if you don't know what they are you can't afford them"; and actual, deliberately funny line!) Tess heads for the hospital to question the man she defeated in single combat. She dresses as a doctor (in high heels) to get past NYPD security around the patient, because obviously there isn't a list of doctors who are allowed to go in to see the prisoner and gets the information she needs by pretending to be an FBI agent dressed as a doctor. As she leaves another man enters the hospital room, posing as an FBI agent. He has a foreign accent and a lot more severe interrogation technique than Tess's – he gets the information and ends up torturing the guy to death. It's left to poor Sean to be the third person in the door. She's less successful in getting to the second "knight"; the man (appropriately named Bronko – I swear I'm not making that up) who supplied the horse for the group was gotten to by the mystery man and ended up being hung.

Sean is under pressure, and not just from his bosses. The Vatican, represented by Monsignor de Angelis (played by Victor Garber and even he can't save this) wants the artefacts recovered, although he seems so conspicuously unconcerned about a 12th century device known as a decoder and apparently built for the Knights Templar. This leads Tess to search for an old family friend who she calls Uncle Bill, played with wild-eyed abandon by Kenneth Welsh, who is an expert on the Templars. Coincidentally, it is the first anniversary of the death of his wife and daughter, so Tess finds him at their graves. It takes Tess about five seconds to figure out that Bill was the boss of the knights in shining armour. He takes Tess to an abandoned church where he has stashed the decoder. He has a document that supposedly leads to a supposed mystery of the Templars that is bigger even than the treasure that they were supposed to have taken with them. But before he can fully tell Tess about what he's found they're interrupted by the mystery man (who has disposed of the third "knight" just as Sean and his partner get to his apartment) who gets into a firefight with Bill. Tess hides in a conveniently located sarcophagus with the decoder and the document. Bill escapes from the foreign guy and heads through a secret passage. When Tess gets out of the coffin she heads out the same way. After beating down a gang intent on rape in the sewer that the passage leads her too (they're outnumbered – four of them against one of her, but it does give the chance to utter the line over their prostrated bodies: "I'm nobody's baby!"), she's captured by Sean. He found the church by searching for her car and figured out that she'd gone into the secret passage to the sewers. He just happened to be driving by the manhole that she was coming out of. She manages to escape him by claiming he's attacking her. She has to get away because she just got a call from Bill that indicated that he was threatening her daughter and wanted the decoder and the document in trade. She arrives at what turns out to be something of a party with Bill Clive and her daughter – because of course Bill would never hurt her daughter – but she gives him the decoder anyway. Soon after, Sean comes to take her back into custody.

So now we bring three of the major characters together in one of those absurd things we've quickly come to expect from this mess. Sean, his nameless female FBI boss, Tess and Monsignor DeAngelis are sitting in a huge conference room, and the four of them – the only people in the room – are sitting at the four corners of this huge conference table. De Angelis, seeming increasingly suspicious (and if you haven't figured out by now that he's behind the mysterious foreign killer, who I guess is some sort of Vatican hit man, well I'm afraid I pity you) is kind of irritated because even though he denigrates the idea of the Templar secrets, he wants to know what Bill has found and he can't do that without the document and the decoder. Well of course, as it turns out Sean knows how they can replicate the decoder (using 3-D X-Rays of the artefact courtesy of the Transport Safety Agency), and Tess has the document (thanks to the camera in her cell phone). Deus ex machina much?! The net result is that they are able to decode most of the document, which tells the story of three Templars who escape the recapture of Jerusalem by the Turks by taking a ship that sank (more on that in a moment). They took the documents to a chapel in a recently captured fortress. The name of the place is given but no one is able to find it... until Tess, in the privacy of her home figures out that the name was transcribed by the knights into Latin from the original Turkish. She isn't going to do anything with the information until her daughter persuades Tess that she's all right with her mother going off on an adventure... as long as she's home in time for her recital. Tess takes her expedition boots just as Sean arrives at the door. She avoids him somehow (no idea how she worked this one out) and gets to the airport. Sean sees her boots gone and meets her at the airport. She tries to escape him again, but he's brought his own cops this time. Still they have no reason to hold her so she gets on the plane. Also on the plane are Sean – who arranges to get the seat next to Tess – and also on the killer, who confirms his status as a Vatican hit man by talking on a cell phone with De Angelis.

I'm not going to spend too much more time on this steaming pile of crap. Actually I think I've wasted too much time on it already. It is awesomely awful, with a total disregard for the nuances of history or geography. A major point in the historical flashbacks to the history related the document that Tess decodes with the device is that the three Templars escaped from Jerusalem by sailing from the city in the ship Falcon Temple. In fact they say that they watch the fall of the city from the deck of the ship. Neat trick that, since Jerusalem is over 30 miles from the Mediterranean as the crow flies. And that is far from the only historical error in this mess. I'm not sure if this is as it is written in the original novel, which in turn is a pale imitation of The DaVinci Code, or whether the script writers have simplified the product for the market place. This is the sort of thing that no one with the slightest knowledge of medieval history would buy into. But that's not the thing that turned me against this miniseries. Nor is it the fact that it doesn't live up to what I feel is the need for a miniseries to cover epic material. If this thing was any good in terms of writing or characterization that part wouldn't bother me too much. I mean I liked a couple of those Judith Krantz minis. No what I found so unacceptable was the thoroughgoing absurdity of every situation in the piece, right from the point where the "knights" beheaded the cop outside the museum – like there'd only be one cop to guard something like that – or the coincidence of Sean being right in front of the manhole that Tess emerged from. The worst part is that they have an extremely talented cast in this. They are wasted in this material. The net result is so monumentally awful that, while it doesn't surprise me that Canwest was responsible for it – they'd do anything in a co-production if it can be manipulated to qualify as Canadian Content – it does shock and sadden me that NBC, the network that made Centennial and Shogun, actually lowered their standards to the point where they could air this mess. For shame Mr. Silverman, for shame.

Friday, January 23, 2009

PTC Officially Nuts

I mean we already knew that right? But if we needed any more confirmation it comes from Billboard, and just about every newspaper in North America.

The Parents Television Council is demanding that radio stations not play Britney Spears's new single If U Seek Amy. It seems that the PTC has determined that if you say the words fast (and you've got a smut focused mind like the PTC does) it sounds as you are spelling out a naughty word:

If U See Kay Me

The PTC is telling radio stations not to broadcast the song between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. because the Council believes it would violate the Broadcast Decency Act. In the words of PTC president Tim Winter, "There is no misinterpreting the lyrics to this song, and it's certainly not about a girl named Amy. It's one thing for a song with these lyrics to be included on a CD so that fans who wish to hear it can do so, but it's an entirely different matter when this song is played over the publicly-owned airwaves, especially at a time when children are likely to be in the listening audience."

There's been no comment from Jive, the label that is releasing Britney's new CD Circus on which If U Seek Amy can be found, or from Spears's "people," but think they're grateful to the PTC for playing their part in publicizing the CD and the downloads of the song. According to the Billboard report published on Wednesday, If U Seek Amy, the track is 92 on the Billboard Pop 100 and had entered rotation on six top 40 radio stations, and had sold 107,000 copies digitally according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Note to Julius Genachowski: When you're confirmed as head of the FCC, treat any PTC complaints on this song with the respect they deserve. Remember, "sanity not censorship."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Out With The Old; In With The New

With the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States, numerous Bush appointees submitted their resignations. And so we bid a not so fond farewell to Kevin Martin as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the United States. Martin's management style at the FCC has been described by a Congressional Report as a, "heavy-handed, opaque, and non-collegial management style has created distrust, suspicion, and turmoil among the five current commissioners." Michigan Congressman John Dingell of the House Commerce Committee wrote to Martin in December 2007 stating that "given several events and proceedings over the past year, I am rapidly losing confidence that the commission has been conducting its affairs in an appropriate manner." Dingell also accused Martin of "keeping his fellow commissioners in the dark in an attempt to push through policy," and this, combined with his actions in cable industry proceedings and attempts to relax newpaper-broadcast cross-ownership restrictions, led Dingell to claims that Martins actions "lead to larger concerns as to the inclination and ability of the commission to perform its core mission: the implementation of federal law to serve the public interest." Of course Martin's actions in media censorship, which seem to reflect Bush administration policy are what concern us most at this blog. It is a sad and irresponsible record of increased fines and decisions which fly in the face of decades of procedures and precedents, that took attention away from the real and important work of the FCC.

The question of course is what can we expect from the Obama administration. The new president has selected Julius Genachowski, a former Harvard Law classmate of his who was one of the editors of the Harvard Law Review when Obama was the organization's president. Genachowski graduated magna cum laude from Columbia College of Columbia University with a BA in history and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. Following law school he clerked for Supreme Court Justices William Brennan and David Souter. He worked for the committee investigating the Iran-Contra affair, and for Congressman Chuck Schumer. He was general counsel to Reed Hundt during his term as FCC chairman until 1996. In private business Genachowski worked for Barry Diller as Chief of Business Operations at IAC/InterActive Corporation. He has also been on the board of directors at Expedia, and Ticketmaster during his time with Diller. He is one of the founding partners of Rock Creek Ventures and LaunchBox Digital, and until his appointment is confirmed serves on the boards of The Motley Fool,, Mark Ecko Enterprises, and Beliefnet. He is also a special advisor to General Atlantic, and helped found the New Resource Bank, America's first commercial "green bank." During the election campaign he led on the Technology, Media and Telecommunications working group, and headed the Obama Transition Team's Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform Group. According to Wikipedia, Genachowski "advised and guided the Obama campaign's innovative use of technology and the Internet for grassroots engagement and participation."

Genachowski's major concern upon taking office will....not be "broadcast decency" (censorship) and First Amendment. In fact broadcast decency probably won't a major concern for the FCC Chairman, nor should it be. Despite the Parents Television Council and their perpetual complaints, broadcast decency is probably the least of what the FCC does. Undoubtedly Genachowski's first major challenge will be the Digital TV conversion and the possibility of delaying the transition from February 17th to June 12th. In fact a bill was introduced by Senator Jay Rockefeller earlier this month with the support of President Obama. According to, some two million Americans are still waiting for the $40 coupons that will defray the cost of purchasing the necessary converter boxes. Further, the National Television and Information Administration announced that funding for the $1.34 billion coupon program has at least temporarily been exhausted. According to Nielsen, in December 6.8% of American households were completely unready for the digital transition, with 11.5% of Hispanic households completely unready and 9.9% of households where the head of household was under 35. Clearly this is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately as opposed to the silliness of someone being seen on live TV giving Mickey Rourke the finger at the Golden Globes.

Other issues that will be confronting Julius Genachowski at the FCC include Net Neutrality, media consolidation, the availability of high speed internet services. On several of these issues we know where Genachowski stands thanks to what has been published in the Obama campaign's Technology and Innovation Plan which was largely Genachowski's work. There were three main points to the plan: open government, open networks and open markets. His involvement in the field has given him a special interest in net neutrality, the effort to prevent broadband service providers from discriminating against services that overlap with their own business concerns, such as voice over IP (VOIP). The expansion of affordable broadband access would be an attempt to usage up to the levels of other countries which are more advanced in this area. According to, as of 2008 the United States was fifteenth in broadband penetration in terms of subscribers per 100 inhabitants (25.0 – Denmark, with 36.7 per 100 inhabitants was in first place), and fifth among G7 countries (Canada and the UK are the top G7 countries). In addition, as Ars Technica reports that "high speed" is still currently defined by the FCC as speeds greater than 200 kbps.

The question of open markets applies to media consolidation. According to Ars Technica, it is likely that a Genachowski FCC would not have approved the mergers between AT&T and BellSouth, or Sirius and XM Radio. As well the regulations regarding newspaper and television cross-ownership, relaxed in November 2007 by Kevin Martin, would not have been changed. There is also a sense that the new FCC chairman will not be as ready to pursue Martin's policy of trying to force cable companies to offer channels on an ala carte basis through a host of new regulations. These regulations have in turn led to a dozen lawsuits brought by the cable industry.

But as I have said, it is the issue of "broadcast decency" and First Amendment considerations related to it that will shape our impression of Julius Genachowski and his tenure as FCC chairman. For better or for worse – mostly for worse – it is this area where the popular perception of the FCC is formed, not in its administration of Net Neutrality, media consolidation, or definition of what constitutes high speed internet. And as we all know the Kevin Martin years – and to a lesser extent the Michael Powell years – were a period when decisions on these issues scarred that perception as the opinions of fringe groups like the American Family Association and the Parents Television Council were given far greater weight than in the past, and more fines were levied and the maximum size of the fines went up by a power of 10.

We know what the Parents Television Council wants. In their press release "congratulating" Julius Genachowski on his selection to be head of the FCC they stated that, "We call on the FCC to focus squarely on its legal obligation to uphold broadcast decency standards, despite the fact that the TV networks seem determined to ignore the written law, the intent of Congress, and the will of the American people at every turn. We also encourage the new FCC to continue to work toward ensuring consumers' access to the quality cable programming of their choice and to provide consumers and families the ability to choose and pay for only the TV programming they want coming into their homes." They reiterated this when they called on the Senate Commerce Committee to "ensure that Mr. Genachowki is questioned fully about his commitment to enforce federal broadcast decency law and to resolve the tens of thousands of indecency complaints received by the Commission before being confirmed." They can hope, but there is ample evidence that they won't get what they're hoping for. As we've already noted, Genachowski is viewed as not being a proponent of ala carte cable pricing, and is being seen as at least partly being pro-consumer in this aspect (not surprisingly; from experience I know that ala carte pricing tends to be more expensive for consumers than bundling of cable channels). But where does he, and the Obama administration, stand on "broadcast decency" (or censorship). There are some interesting clues, which would probably be regarded as negative by the PTC and others with their point of view but hopeful for those of us who believe that the Martin FCC has gone too far in this area.

"Broadcast decency" as an issue seems to cross party lines. While Kevin Martin is strongly associated with the issue, his Democratic colleague on the Commission, Michael Copps, has been strong on the issue as have Democratic Senators Jay Rockefeller and Daniel Inouye. Still broadcasters hope that Genchowksi's appointment will mean a return to the more restrained enforcement, and they have some reason for hope. Genachowski is after all a founding board member of Common Sense Media, a non-partisan organization focussing on "parental education and control issues." Common Sense Media's ten point mission statement may give a huge hint about the direction his administration of the FCC will take:

  • We believe in media sanity, not censorship.
  • We believe that media has truly become "the other parent" in our kids' lives, powerfully affecting their mental, physical, and social development.
  • We believe in teaching our kids to be savvy media interpreters -- we can't cover their eyes but we can teach them to see.
  • We believe parents should have a choice and a voice about the media our kids consume. Every family is different but all need information.
  • We believe that the price for free and open media is a bit of extra homework for families. Parents need to know about media content and need to manage media use.
  • We believe that through informed decision making, we can improve the media landscape one decision at a time.
  • We believe appropriate regulations about right time, right place, and right manner exist. They need to be upheld by our elected and appointed leaders.
  • We believe in age-appropriate media and that the media industry needs to act responsibly as it creates and markets content for each audience.
  • We believe ratings systems should be independent and transparent for all media.
  • We believe in diversity of programming and media ownership.

While I suppose that the statement about appropriate regulations about time, place and manner and the need to uphold these may be worrying, given the way tht the PTC has used the current "safe harbour" regulations to demand fines for shows that air after 10 p.m. (the safe harbour time) in some areas of the country and at 9 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones, it is also heartening that the organization advocates "sanity not censorship." As part of an article on Genachowski's appointment The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Common Sense Media CEO Jim Steyer: "'As a devoted dad, he will always take the interests of parents and kids into consideration when important decisions are made at the FCC,' Common Sense Media CEO Jim Steyer said in an interview. However, he said he expects Genachowski to avoid ideological fervor. 'Our motto is "sanity, not censorship,'" he said. "Julius is a First Amendment scholar and will be a great voice for sanity."

Certainly a visit to the Common Sense Media website is a far better experience than the PTC website. Set aside the whole question of web design a search for any TV show provides a far more helpful experience. They don't accept the proposition – common for the PTC – that content that the organization finds unacceptable totally destroys any relevance or quality that the show would have. Take for example Family Guy, a show that the PTC has consistently and repeatedly attacked as being practically too lewd to be seen on TV at any time is given a three star rating as far as being "any good" as well as a scale that shows how acceptable content is for kids (for Family Guy the "minimal acceptable age" given by the site is 14 – exactly what it's Parental Guideline rating is). In addition they have a section on parent and kid reviews, warnings about content in the areas of sex, message, violence and language, and probably most importantly a "Parents need to know" section that not only states what the reviewer thinks about the show but also discussion issues for parents watching shows with their kids (an example from the Family Guy review: "Families can talk about when politically correct attitudes are helpful and when they can be harmful. Peter Griffin's love of television above and beyond everything else could also be discussed -- is this the way anyone should look at the world?"). Where the PTC would – and does – judge every show based entirely on how much objectionable content there is in the show, Common Sense Media will acknowledge that while a show may be unsuitable for kids (although many TV-MA shows get a "minimal acceptable age" rating of 16) it can still be a great show.

I doubt that Julius Genachowski will adopt the suggestion made by TV Week columnist and deputy editor Josef Adalian that, "Ideally, Mr. Genachowski would declare the FCC is getting out of the business of regulating what broadcasters can and cannot air at certain hours. He would recognize the lunacy of trying to protect kids from so-called obscene content on a few channels when the rest of their media universe offers easy access to such content." On the other hand I sincerely believe – or maybe just hope – that someone who has had the experience with the FCC that he has had will recognise the damage that Kevin Martin has done to the FCC through his crusade on broadcast decency which has unleashed a climate of fear among network and local broadcasters. Broadcasters need to know that what was acceptable last year, or a decade ago or thirty years (and longer) ago is acceptable today. Under Martin the lines weren't clear – broadcasters were famously afraid to air Saving Private Ryan (for example) even though the movie had aired uncut a year before because they were afraid that doing so would lead to a fine of over $300,000. Hopefully, under Genachowski, complaints and situations will be evaluated on a case by case basis the way they were before Kevin Martin.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Goodbye Grissom

One of my favourite TV characters is going away.

On Thursday night (which is tonight as I start to write this , but may very well be last night by the time I actually finish it) Gil Grissom will walk out of the Las Vegas Crime Scene Investigations lab for the last time and will probably go in the way he once told Warwick brown that he'd leave – no party with cake, he'd just be gone. William Petersen, who created the role of the smart controlled Grissom, has decided that – as Grissom said a couple of episodes ago – it's time to raise the ante.

For better or for worse, Gil Grissom is going to be one of the iconic TV characters of the first decade of the century, right up there with President Jed Bartlett and Jack Bauer. What is interesting is that when CSI began as a series few gave it much chance of succeeding. Though I can't find my TV Guide Fall Preview edition (about the only thing I miss about the death of the Canadian edition of TV Guide) from the year that the show debuted, I seem to recall that they thought that the show was "too smart" for the audience and too science oriented. They thought that the big hit for CBS that year would be the remake of The Fugitive which preceded CSI on Friday nights (before Friday night unaccountably became the "death slot" for most networks).

While the series began with an ensemble cast, something that has largely been retained, there was a clear leader of the group in the form of William Petersen as Gil Grissom. Petersen, who was probably best known at the time for his work in movies including Manhunter in which he played a forensic scientist, had a "pay or play" contract with CBS but wasn't able to find a project that he wanted to do. He feared being locked into a role that he would find boring. When the role of Grissom was offered to him he found what he wanted, a character where he – as an actor – would learn a lot and wouldn't get bored. It seems to have worked; in an industry where shows rarely go beyond seven seasons because actors become bored with the roles and drive costs up with salary demands, CSI has endured for nine seasons with Petersen being at least present in all but five episodes. Of those five episodes, one was built around the character of Jim Brass with only three other characters from the show appearing (Warwick, Nick, and Doc Robbins), one when Petersen had to deal with a death in his family and was unavailable, and three when he was appearing in the play Dublin Carole.

Over the years the character of Grissom has developed and changed. This tends to happen with many characters on TV shows of course but in the case of Grissom, and most of the characters in the original CSI for that matter, the development and changes have seemed organic and a logical outgrowth of previous events. In the first season Grissom seems far more outgoing, to the point of occasionally flirting with female characters, but as time went by he has become increasingly reserved; close to his friends and colleagues (who generally seem to be one and the same) but less open to outsiders. This change seems to coincide with the onset of his hearing loss; although he recovered his hearing he seemed to become more reserved. His relationship with Sara went unrevealed, if palpable, until it was finally revealed, first to viewers and only later to the characters on the show.

Grissom has a reputation as a polymath, someone with knowledge on a lot of subjects or perhaps more accurately an curiosity in learning about a lot of subjects. This has shown up in a number of episodes of the show. One of my favourites is when he has to deal with a murder at a convention of "little people;" we learn that he subscribes to the organization's newsletter. His understanding of deaf culture is more profound – his mother is deaf and he learned to sign at an early age. When he was younger he attended boxing matches to learn about bruise patterns and blood spatter, and became something of an expert on the science of boxing. Other interests are more personal. He loves roller coasters, to the point of setting up trips to work related conventions to be able to ride. He used to play poker and played well, to the point where he was able to earn enough money to finance his first body farm with his winnings, but in time lost interest in the game or maybe just in dealing with people. This is mentioned in the third season episode "Revenge Is Best Served Cold" and seems to have been forgotten only to be mentioned in the episode "Young Man With A Horn" earlier this season.

Grissom served as a significant influence to the younger investigators under his leadership. His relationship with Warwick Brown was at time adversarial, but still extremely closes. After his death Grissom and Catherine discover a DVD in which Warwick describes Grissom as being close to a father figure for him. Warwick was always worried about disappointing Grissom even in those situations where they disagreed. His relationship with Nick Stokes has similar qualities, although Nick's father is still alive. This relationship reveals itself in the episode "Grave Danger" (directed by Quentin Tarantino) where Grissom takes on the paternal role, referring to Nick by his childhood nickname of Pancho. More than that though, with the exception of Greg, Nick is the youngest of the CSIs and the one who has been taught the most by Grissom if only because he didn't have the same extensive science background that Grissom had. As far as Greg goes, Grissom is at once a mentor and a model. After all both have widely divergent interests, and both were scientists first before becoming field investigators. Grissom's has close friendships with both Doctor Robbins and Captain Jim Brass, although it's unclear how close either of these relationships is. Brass considers Grissom a close enough friend to give power of attorney to, and yet Grissom doesn't even know whether or not Brass owns a boat and they've never seemed to get together socially outside of work. His relationship with Robbins also seems to be primarily work related insofar as Robbins is always revealing new facts about himself to Grissom.

It is his relationships with women that are the most interesting. We don't know much about how he is dealing with the newest CSI of the bunch Ronnie Lake, but his relationship with Sophia Curtiss, who was briefly a CSI before transferring to the regular police department was quite cordial. His two big relationships though are with Sara Sidle, who was initially his protégé but in time became his lover. Petersen has stated that Sara "completes" Grissom. For Grissom the intimacy that they hove goes back much further than when they began their physical relationship. It is perhaps one of the reasons why he specifically chose her to come to Las Vegas after Holly Gribbs was killed in the pilot episode of the series. The hints about the relationship run through many episodes of the series, going back to the third or fourth season, and when the fact that they were together as a couple was revealed to viewers it didn't come as a surprise, simply as a confirmation of what we all knew for a long time (not that this made it any more palatable for some fans). The revelation moreover was done in such a way that it seemed natural. They didn't suddenly come together but rather it was as though we as viewers were being admitted into this aspect of Grissom's life.

I have to say right here that I am one of those people who doesn't totally like the Grissom-Sara relationship. In my case this has a lot to do with my preference for a Grissom-Catherine relationship. They seem to fit together much more readily. In fact there is a point where Grissom refers to Catherine as being like a wife. While the producers of the show prefer to describe the Grissom-Catherine relationship as being like brother and sister, I think there is more than a bit of truth in Grissom's description of it. I prefer to think of it as an almost platonic marriage, in which they share just about everything except sex. They complement each other; he's more driven by the data than she is while she's more willing to go with instinct, her real world experience has been more worldly than his while his academic knowledge is greater both in terms of degrees and variety of interests. Certainly he seems to have a deeper friendship with Catherine than any of his male colleagues – he's had her over to his apartment for dinner at least once that we know of – and the depth of their relationship has been explored a lot recently. She knows that she can talk to him about just about anything, apparently including her frustrations with her sex life, and she is perceptive enough to pick up on the messages he's sending even when he doesn't know he's sending them. She says that she knew that he was leaving, probably before he knew it himself. That remark in itself is telling, not unlike a woman who realizes that her long marriage is coming to an end, not because of the fault of either party but simply because the time for it to end has arrived. There are no recriminations or anger, simply a wistful sense of sadness and loss. I think that it is this aspect of the show that is most likely to be lost when Grissom leaves.

I have no doubt that CSI will be able to survive the departure of William Petersen from the show. The show has a strong ensemble cast and the addition of Laurence Fishburne as a permanent fixture on the series is a definite plus, while Marge Helgenberger, and her character of Catherine Willows, are both strong enough to become primary characters. What I do fear is that the departure of Petersen will significantly alter the personal dynamics of the characters in the series. The crimes will still be as intriguing – the writers will see to that – but the focal point of the relationships for nine years is being removed and it won't be possible to realign those relationships right away. In an odd way, that might be an advantage for the series if the writers are willing to spend the time showing those relationships changing. It may set the show apart from a series like Law & Order where characters are removed and replaced like cogs in a machine with only slight disruption in the day to day operation. I'm looking forward to seeing how the writers handle Grissom's departure and how long it take to deal with its repercussions.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Fear Is NOT Real

Every so often there is a show that you feel you have to see just because of the people involved. You want it to be good of course, and you believe it could be good, but that's entirely because of the people involved – the people that are the reason you feel you have to see the show. 13 – Fear Is Real was one of those shows for me. The people in this case are Executive Producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tappert. You remember Raimi and Tappert right? If the only things they gave us were Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess that would be enough. But of course that aren't the only things they've given us. Raimi gave us the Evil Dead movies, the Grudge movies, and of course the Spiderman series (not to mention having Bruce Campbell as a friend since childhood). Rob Tappert has worked with Raimi since they were college roommates and has either co-written or co-directed most of the movies that Raimi has made (not to mention that he's married to Lucy Lawless). If there's one thing these two guys know it's horror movies. So yeah, I was looking forward to seeing what they'd do with a horror based reality show. So how'd they do?

Well I have to say that I was a bit disappointed, but before I get into reasons I should present a bit of a synopsis of the show. It began with a group of people being driven out into the wilderness in a converted school bus. Brief glimpses of the outside, mainly of graveyards, set the scene as New Orleans and the Louisiana bayous. As they drive along we meet some of the cast including Leah, a bartender who is afraid of just about everything but particularly the dark; Lauren, a model who claims that in the movies it's always the ditzy girl who gets killed first; Kelly, an events planner who talks about being a Christian and claims that she believes in the Devil and in his works; and Cody, a self proclaimed "ghost hunter" with multiple piercings and a huge Mohawk who claims not to be afraid of anything. As the bus penetrates deeper and deeper down a dirt road it becomes darker and darker. Suddenly the bus stops, its path blocked by some logs. The driver tells his passengers that this is where they get off. They keep walking down the road, apparently because they aren't allowed to stay with the bus. So they trek further down the road in the dark with all the weird foresty noises, which always sound scary at night, and finally find a deserted shack. And suddenly we're in every scary teen flick of the '80s and '90s, except that the shack is loaded with closed circuit cameras all feeding to "The Mastermind."

Despite several people in the groups saying "don't open the door," they open the door. The one room shack, which is to say without a toilet (big surprise), is "tastefully" decorated in blood spatters, voodoo doll, a pentagrams and the words "Don't Trust" both in blood, and if I recall correctly a ram's skull. As the group starts to settle in they hear a thump on one of the walls. It's an axe with a note holding a note onto the wall. The note says "Answer the phone." And of course, despite people saying "don't answer the phone" they end up answering the phone. Or at least they do after they find it, since it was hidden under the floorboards of the shack. On the phone is The Mastermind and he has instructions for them. First, one of them has to agree to stay at the cabin and therefore not participate in the "game" that The Mastermind has for them. Surprisingly it is great big fearless ghost hunter Cody, his mohawk looking more than a little deflated by the Louisiana humidity, who decides to stay put. The remaining twelve people pair up into twos. One member of each pair then has to walk down the road to ... an uncertain fate. Next the other six are told to walk down the same road. What we know (and they don't) is that their partners have been blindfolded, gagged and tied to chairs in the woods. As the others walk down the road they come to what they, and initially we since we're in on at least this much of what The Mastermind plans, think is one of their number bound to a chair. It is in fact a dummy. There are more instructions from The Mastermind. They have to search through the woods to find and release only their own partner. Once they do that they have to get back to the dummy as fast as they can. The last pair to get back to the dummy have to face the Execution Ceremony. They also have to take video cameras with them to film their rescue, leading to some very "Blair Witch-y" footage of them stumbling through the woods. Eventually, it is the only all female pair, Kelly and Lauren who have to face the execution challenge. During the night Leah, the one who is basically afraid of everything leaves the cabin – presumably to use or at least find the outhouse – and somehow panics. She screams (of course) and the others (of course) go out to find and comfort her. Nothing really comes of it but everyone associated with this production has to be overjoyed that they cast this scaredy cat for the show since she gets frightened even when there's nothing to be frightened about.

The next morning everything seems nice and normal with all the scares of the night before gone. Then Nassir, a concierge who claims to be a rapper, discovers a tape recorder sitting on top of a cage inside of which is locked a wooden box. The tape tells him to gather up the group before going any further, which he dutifully does. The box locked in the cage is the "Death Box." A player who has the Death Box and reads the instructions inside can kill three of his fellow competitors, but if they are caught with the box they are automatically put up for execution. Steffinnie, a young woman of Laotian descent who says she believes in spirits because she's seen spirit activity in her own life, quickly works out the combination for the lock (which oddly isn't 666 – that's the first number she tries) takes the box out but doesn't open it and hides it in the underbrush. When the others discover that the Death Box is out of its cage there is considerable discussion of who could have it and how it was probably a premature action. There's a lot of paranoia floating about and Steffinnie cracks. She goes back, and with some difficulty finds the box and puts it back in the cage. Crisis, seemingly, averted.

Night falls again and the phone rings. Kelly and Lauren are told to each use a video camera to record their last words to the group (and to us of course) and then walk down the road where The Mastermind's minions – yes he actually calls them minions and has done from the first time he spoke to the victims/contestants – will take charge of them. The minions are dressed all in black and along the road they grab Kelly and Lauren and blindfold them. They also apparently blindfold the camera because for the next minute or so all we see is a sliver of light on a mostly black screen. Finally we all arrive at the site of the execution challenge. There are two slightly larger than people sized wooden boxes; Kelly and Lauren are to be buried alive! They get into their crude wooden coffins, which are of course wire for sound and have closed circuit TV cameras, and the minions begin securing the coffins with nails and wire, lower them into the waiting graves and then shovel on the dirt. While Kelly prays, Lauren fidgets because of the dirt dropping down onto her. Once the burying is finished The Mastermind tells the girls (remember the coffins are wired for sound) that the first one to escape from her coffin will survive and return to the group. The other one will die. Truth be known the result is relatively anticlimactic. It doesn't take too long for Kelly to figure out that she can kick out the end of her coffin with her feet and then she can – amazingly – get out through that end. She's out of the box before Kelly even finishes pushing on the tops and sides. Kelly goes back to the group with Laurens video and I swear someone says "don't watch the video." And on most shows that would be the end but not on this one; the next day dawns and the group goes out to check the cage. The Death Box is gone!!

I have from time to time said that if a reality show is going to be imitative it should have some original aspect to it that will differentiate from the run of the mill. Why is it that after a seemingly endless string of Apprentice imitators came and went only Hell's Kitchen survived and prospered. The answer is that the Gordon Ramsay show had differences – Ramsay's perpetual presence as a hands on leader being the biggest – that made it seem different, or at least different enough, from the original model that it started from that people either overlook or don't care about the similarities. 13 – Fear Is Real is taking from the Survivor model – not surprising since the third executive producers is Jay Bienstock who has been with Mark Burnett's show since Australia – but in a very real way, rather than improving on the model the show is so pale an imitation that it might be called corpse-like. On Survivor there always seems to be something going on, whether it's gathering food or getting water or even lying in their shelters talking smack about other players and plotting alliances. In the wake of the first challenge where the victims have to find their partners the most exciting thing to occur until the Death Box was found by Nassir was a stimulating game of throw the stick into the holes in the concrete blocks. And that made it sound more exciting than it was. Watching Cody's mohawk deflate would have been more fun, but by that afternoon it had almost converted itself into a flat-top.

There is a further major problem with this show and that concerns the subject matter. The classic horror movies of the '70s, '80s and '90s had a common thread of unpredictability. You never knew when something was going to happen and it built up the dramatic tension to considerable heights. And of course none of the people in those movies knew that they were in a horror movie; well except maybe for Neve Campbell and her friends in the Scream series. The net result is that they went to the secluded cabin in the woods with little more on their skeevy little minds but partying, drinking, and getting laid. In those movies then it comes as a shock to all around her that the girl who just had sex ended up as the victim of a hideous murder. The horror aspects of 13 Fear Is Real are stage managed, and worse they seem to be on a schedule. While they may not have known that the first "selection challenge" (or whatever you want to call it) would take place the night they arrived, they knew that the next night either Kelly or Lauren would be "killed" and so there wouldn't be another selection challenge and they could basically relax. That doesn't really inspire fear in well... just about anybody. You can't schedule terror. Plus they're all aware that they're on a reality show dealing with fear and terror, so in light of that awareness how much fear can be inspired within them. The victims might put on a show but it lacks the believability that you might have if, instead of knowing they're on a show called 13 – Fear Is Real, they believe they're on something called True Beauty (to use the name of the week's other new reality debut as an example) and the situation they find themselves in seems like a horrible U-turn from what things are supposed to be. But of course you couldn't do that without fear of lawsuits, now could you.

13 – Fear Is Real is a major disappointment given the quality of the people involved in the show. The fear on the part of the audience has very little to do with what is going on on-screen. We have little or no involvement with the victims and thus their demise and their interactions don't interest us. There is no surprise or shock here and that undermines our sense of fear. And when you take the horror away from a TV series based around horror movie clichés, you aren't left with much at all. 13 – Fear Is Real gets good marks in terms of concept but the majority of the grade is based on execution (you should pardon the expression) and in that the show gets a big fat goose egg. It may not be the worst show of the year or even the month, but when it comes to everything else, it fails to live up to its potential, and it fails to scare us. In short it fails dismally as a show.