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February 2007 Archives

PBS Funding Battle Invigorates Activists

February 19, 2007 12:00 AM

Never let it be said that congressional budget battles are uninteresting-at least not when it comes to public broadcasting's funding. Last we left off, President Bush had proposed nearly a 25 percent cut-at least $114 million-in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in his 2007 budget, prompting expressions of outrage from public broadcasters. Now it has triggered a bit of a political fight. On one side, MoveOn.org and several other groups active in the media consolidation debate have a launched a petition drive urging Congress to give greater support for public broadcasting. "Congress must save NPR and PBS once and for all. Congress should guarantee permanent funding and independence from partisan meddling," the petition says. MoveOn's activity prompted the conservative American Family Association, headed by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, to start a campaign to get Congress to end all public broadcasting funding, countering with a petition drive of its own. The Rev. Wildmon argues that people who watch and listen to public broadcasting-not taxpayers-should pay for it. The news broadcast by PBS is "the most liberal-slanted news in the country," he told TelevisionWeek. "If they want to do it, that's fine, just don't force the public to pay for it. We don't have a government-funded newspaper," he said, adding that cable nets like History Channel and the Travel Channel now carry programming similar to that of PBS.

A CPB spokesman said polls show Americans overwhelmingly feel Congress should fund public broadcasting and also that PBS remains the most trusted public affairs source. John Lawson, president and CEO of the Association of Public Television stations, said its own budget has gotten a good reception on Capitol Hill. "Neither MoveOn.org nor the American Family Association has bothered even to contact us to find out what public broadcasters are actually proposing. So I guess the two groups can have this sideshow debate between themselves," he said. -Ira Teinowitz

Stations on `Jury Duty'

Blink was baffled in recent weeks to see a distributor not boast about clearances for an upcoming first-run series. Foster Entertainment, which is distributing upcoming syndicated court show "Jury Duty" to stations for a fall launch, delivered a number of press releases pre- and post-NATPE claiming that the series had signed deals that would deliver the strip to 65 percent of the country. Conspicuously absent, however, were any references to who, exactly, had bought the show, which will feature a trio of celebrities serving as the jury to lawsuits, with defense attorney Bruce Cutler presiding as judge. Turns out Foster Entertainment's pending lawsuit against Warner Bros. was the cause of the omission, according to company President Diana Foster. Warner Bros. had been considering a similar series entitled "Celebrity Jury" for the fall season and Ms. Foster's production partner Radar Entertainment claims to have pitched the series years ago to the distributor. Blink, however, utilized its network of sources to uncover these mystery stations: KCAL-TV in Los Angeles, WCIU-TV in Chicago and WJAL-TV in Washington, D.C. While it has no New York home yet, the strip is also settled in Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Detroit on outlets from stations groups that include Hearst-Argyle, Meredith and Viacom. The deals were all on a barter basis for the fall. Executives at Foster and Radar did not return calls following the discovery of the stations.

-Chris Pursell

Fuse Wipes Out

Item: Branded toilet paper

Company: Fuse

Promoting: The new sketch comedy "The Whitest Kids U' Know," premiering March 20

Comment: The usefulness of publicity freebies often turns on the reporter's level of desperation. Do you need a tote bag or T-shirt badly enough to use one clearly stamped with a network logo? Installing the "Whitest Kids" toilet paper in a commode raises two concerns. First, that the image's black ink might rub off somewhere it shouldn't. Second, that you will appear desperate for toilet paper to a spectacular degree. -James Hibberd

Schleiff's Next Act: Selling Ice to Eskimos?

February 12, 2007 12:00 AM

Leave it to smooth-talking cable network veteran Henry Schleiff to try to create leverage out of no leverage.

One of Mr. Schleiff's first priorities after becoming CEO of Crown Media Holdings was to get new carriage deals for the Hallmark Channel because most of its old deals expire this year. Last week, Hallmark signed a deal with cable operator Mediacom that pays fees somewhat more than the paltry 11 cents per subscriber the channel had been getting, but substantially less than the 35 to 40 cents some other networks with similar ratings command.

Mr. Schleiff's pitch? Cable operators should hurry to strike similar deals now, while Hallmark is an independent, rather than wait until it gets acquired by a media company that could use its heft-and retransmission consent power-to wrest higher fees later. And he says it's just a matter of time before that happens.

"The only thing that is totally conspicuous is our low license fees," Mr. Schleiff said. A rational cable operator would say, "Let's take this deal and get it signed and get some protection before these guys get bought by someone with retrans consent," Mr. Schleiff argued.

- Jon Lafayette

Roundball Homage

Legendary NBA coach Red Auerbach passed away last year, but he will remain a presence on TV thanks to a series of new commercials from NBA Entertainment that will run on TNT, ESPN, ABC, NBA TV and NBA.com.

The spots combine clips from current games with footage of the coach explaining basketball fundamentals, taken from the classic 1970s series "Red on Roundball."

In one spot about rebounding, the former Boston Celtics coach preaches, "You've got to work hard because without the ball, you've got nothing" as current NBA stars Amare Stoudemire, Ben Wallace, Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard are shown cleaning the glass.

The spots, which will debut during the NBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas, are meant as a tribute and end with the sign-off "Thanks, Red."

-Jon Lafayette

Anna Nicole, They Hardly Knew Ye

The ink on the death certificate was barely dry Thursday when the parade of "I didn't know her but I'm willing to babble on about the life and death of Anna Nicole Smith" began on TV. Then came the spam-like attack of ever-ready public relations "experts," ready to proffer opinions on Ms. Smith.

Among the barrage was an e-mail from one Michael Levine: "Reality TV star and former model Anna Nicole Smith was pronounced dead Thursday after being taken to a Florida hospital after being found unconscious in her hotel room," the e-mail said.

"I spoke with members of the family minutes ago and they are devastated. As a longtime media expert and author, this is a tragedy that was both unpredictable and horrible. Although the cause of death has not been determined, I certainly wouldn't be surprised if drugs had a role in her death. If you'd like to discuss this story in more detail, please contact me. Warm regards, Michael Levine."

Blink has a proposition: Don't e-mail us and we won't e-mail you. Mr. Levine couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

- Michele Greppi

New Yorker Kneecaps '24'

Even Jack Bauer would have a tough time defusing this bombshell: The Feb. 19 issue of The New Yorker explores "24's" famed torture fetish and reveals that some in the U.S. military believe the show is harming America's reputation overseas and causing real-life torture in Iraq.

According to the article, a contingent of top U.S. military officers and FBI investigators met with the show's writing staff last November to explain how torture isn't effective and said the popular series is giving good soldiers bad ideas.

"People watch the shows and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they've just seen," said one Army interrogator who served in Iraq.

Both Fox Broadcasting and Fox Studios, which produces the show, gave an emphatic "no comment."

- James Hibberd

Bill for Milkshake, Fries, Meatwad: $1 Million?

February 5, 2007 12:00 AM

The "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" promotional boxes that prompted a bomb scare in Boston will prove much more expensive for Turner Broadcasting than for fans of the show, who are trying to snap up the suspicious objects on eBay. Fans of Turner's off-color Adult Swim show are cruising the auction site for mementos of the fiasco, and late Friday the bidding for the boxes, which look like the old Lite Brite kids' toys, was running at $250. Turner's bill to compensate the city for emergency response costs? About $1 million, reportedly. Late Friday, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said officials were close to reaching an agreement on restitution and other costs connected to the promotion nightmare, and that an announcement would be made today. The boxes were attached by magnets to public spaces in 10 cities a few weeks ago. One was spotted Wednesday in Boston by someone who thought a device adorned with batteries and lights might be a tad suspicious. In these post-9/11 times, the officials did the safe thing and called in the bomb squad, closed roads and stopped trains, tying up the city. Boston's pols were unleashed. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino ripped the promotion, calling it "outrageous," and demanding that Turner pay emergency-response expenses incurred by the city and other agencies. "It would be hard to dream up a more appalling publicity stunt. Whoever thought this up needs to find another job," said Massachusetts Republican Rep. Ed Markey. City Councilor Michael Flaherty was fuming and demanded that Turner Broadcasting reimburse the city of Boston "for every dime spent today on this serious public safety threat." "It's outrageous, reckless and totally irresponsible," added Mr. Flaherty. "What a waste of resources. Scaring an entire region, tying up the T and major roadways, and forcing first responders to spend 12 hours chasing down trinkets instead of terrorists is marketing run amok." Turner, meanwhile, ate crow, took out newspaper ads and apologized on-air, then got ready to write a big check.

-Jon Lafayette

Designing by Committee

The DIY Network is really going to let users do it themselves. In early February, the network will hand over the controls to its viewers, letting them decide exactly what the log cabin that the show builds for its summer series "Blog Cabin" will look like. DIY will let viewers vote on the fireplace, counters, floor plan and more for the 13-part series that debuts in August. Web site visitors can vote in February and March, said Jim Sexton, senior VP for interactive brands for Scripps. "The audience is participating in all aspects of the show," he said. Once the network's carpenters build the $300,000 cabin to the blogosphere's specs in a Smoky Mountains Tennessee location, DIY will give it away in a sweepstakes that starts in August. The DIY Best Built Home giveaway in 2006 garnered 4 million entries. That's a rough ballpark estimate of the number of entries the network expects for "Blog Cabin." The populist nature of the experiment makes Blink wonder whether DIY will end up with a Frankencabin. "It will be an interesting house," Mr. Sexton said.

-Daisy Whitney

Indigestion Foretold?

Item: Giant Fortune Cookie

Company: NBC Universal

Promoting: "Jet Li's Fearless" on Demand

Comment: At a certain point, even the most innocuous items become frightening once they reach a certain size. This cookie, so massive it seems to almost threaten you into trying to eat it, has easily surpassed that point. Stare at it long enough and it appears to breathe. Your fortune: Those who eat giant cookie have giant regret.

-James Hibberd

Steel Cage Match: Cooper or VanSusteren?

The knock-down, drag-out between CNN and Fox News Channel got personal last week, and Blink had ringside seats well within the splatter zone. A quick perusal of TelevisionWeek's Jan. 29 issue reveals a Fox News advertisement on Page 23 that commenced the hostilities. It depicts a rear-view photograph of a man whose cropped gray hair bears more than a passing resemblance to the silvery locks of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. The ad's headline blares, "Meet the Paris Hilton of Television News" and the copy below politely points out that he gets beat in the ratings "EVERY NIGHT." The ad continues on Page 25 with a glamour shot of Fox anchor Greta Van Susteren, who is administering the beating. The insult to Mr. Cooper generated stories in gossip outlets as vaunted as the Page Six column in New York Post, which, like Fox News Channel, is owned by News Corp. Blink was left to wonder whether CNN would just let the readers decide, or counter by comparing Ms. Van Susteren to BritneyLindsayNicoleEtc. Check out page 9 in this very issue of TelevisionWeek to see for yourself, gentle readers.

-Greg Baumann