Open Mic

Kudos to Colbert!

Hillary Atkin Posted June 10, 2009 at 10:16 PM

Tags: Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report

Nation, I’m not necessarily a big fan of Stephen Colbert’s blowhard-y right wing persona on “The Colbert Report,” (Jon Stewart is my late-night deity) but his on-location shows this week in Baghdad are something to watch—and congratulations are in order for taking his brand of comedy to the war zone for a four-night run.

Cleverly titled "Operation Iraqi Stephen: Going Commando," Colbert began a week of entertaining the troops in one of Saddam Hussein’s many former palaces with a rollicking taped skit of him traveling overseas, not really knowing where he was going, and crossing various places off the list en route. It was only when a single shoe—and then a bunch—were thrown at him that the clueless pundit that he plays on TV realized where he was.

And then it was showtime for Colbert, sporting a camouflage suit and a brand new buzz cut, courtesy of his first guest, Gen. Ray Odierno—or Raymond’s for Men, as the comedian called it. In a nod to Bob Hope, he also carried a golf club.

The comedy was topical, not political—although the nation’s commander in chief made a taped appearance to thank the troops for their service. “You’re welcome,” Colbert said, to which the president responded, “I wasn’t talking to you.” Former President Clinton also dissed Colbert in a bit that started off straight.

The trip is sponsored by the USO, which has a storied history of bringing entertainers to American troops. (Proceeds from the sale of “The Colbert Report" this week on iTunes will benefit the service organization, which last year alone brought entertainment to nearly 250,000 troops stationed around the world.)

But despite all the levity, there is a serious purpose. Who’s talking about the war in Iraq these days? Sadly, since the election, it’s fallen off the media map, eclipsed by news about the economy, Speidi and Proposition 8. Lost in the loss of coverage is the service and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women in a war that’s now gone on for six years.

Mr. Colbert acknowledged that ugly truth about this very unpopular war. From behind a desk draped in the American flag and propped up by sandbags, he went for the funny bone: "By the power vested in me by basic cable, I officially declare we have won the Iraq war!"

While his audience roared their approval, the comedian deadpanned: "It must be nice here in Iraq because I understand some of you keep coming back again and again. You've earned so many frequent-flier miles, you've earned a free ticket to Afghanistan."
And Colbert—after his 10 hours of basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C.—has earned his place in the hearts of the US military, and audiences at home.

"The Colbert Report" airs on Comedy Central at 11:30 p.m./10:30 p.m. Central


'Nurse Jackie': It's Nearly Perfect

Jace Lacob Posted June 7, 2009 at 6:22 PM

Tags: Nurse Jackie, Showtime

I think I'm in love.

Back in early May, I had reviewed the first two episodes of Showtime's addictive dark comedy series “Nurse Jackie,” starring Edie Falco, and waxed ecstatic about the brilliance and humanity of the series' opening installments. Since then, I've had the opportunity to watch the first six episodes of this emotionally resonant and bleakly hysterical series.

It's rare to be captivated by the very first minutes of a new series but it's a deft feat that “Nurse Jackie” not only manages to do so but, once it’s grabbed onto you, it never lets go. The energy and drive of the opening episode continues throughout the first half of the series' first season run.

And what a run it is so far. 

The One Extra Show Fox MUST Do To Send Off “24” Properly (Don’t Worry, No Spoilers Here)

Chuck Ross Posted March 30, 2010 at 6:45 AM

With the end of “24” as a TV series now officially announced, there’s one extra show Fox really needs to do to send off “24” properly.

And it’s got nothing to do with this season’s arc, per se.

I’m basically stealing this idea from Steven Melnick, the marketing maven of 20th Century Fox Television.

Over the past several years, Melnick and his team have arranged for some panel discussions featuring the on-air and behind-the-scenes talent of some of the shows 20th Century Fox Television has produced, including “24.”

These sessions—especially the ones about “24”—have been fun, fascinating, enlightening and entertaining as all get out. The audience for these discussions has been selected people who work in the TV industry on a by-invitation-only basis.

With “24” wrapping up after eight seasons, Fox needs to bring this idea to everyone who’s been a fan of the show.

Here’s how: Fox announces it’s doing this one-hour or 90-minute “wrap-up” discussion show about ‘24” that will air live soon after the night of the show’s finale.

One would hope that participating in the show would be "24" star Kiefer Sutherland, showrunner Howard Gordon, creators Joel Surnow and Bob Cochran, and other selected behind-the-scenes and on-air talent from the past eight seasons.

From the on-air side this could include Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe), Dennis Haysbert (President David Palmer), Carlos Bernard (Tony Almeida), Louis Lombardi (Edgar Stiles), Kim Raver (Audrey Raines), Arnold Vosloo (Habib Marwan) or any other of the hundreds of talented actors who’ve done such gripping work on “24.”

From behind-the-camera there’s also a plethora of wonderfully talented people to choose from for the panel, including directors Jon Cassar and Brad Turner, writers Evan Katz, Manny Coto and David Fury, producer Paul Gadd, composer Sean Callery, cinematographer Rodney Charters, editors David Latham and Scott Powell, and so on.

You get the idea. There’s certainly no dearth of gifted creative people who have been responsible for ‘24” over the years who could be on the panel.

Think of this as similar to the “reunion” shows Jeff Probst hosts after each season’s “Survivor.”

Only this will be a wrap-up for the entire run of “24.” A good host is a must—someone who both knows the series and can keep the proceedings moving in a fun and stimulating manner, with humor, grace and insight.

And the questions? They’ll come from all of us. To submit a question, let’s rip a page from the last presidential election. You submit your question on YouTube. The producers of the special, in conjunction with the host of the show, will cull through them and pick the best, most intriguing questions to be asked during the live program.

I think this is a terrific way to present all of us fans with closure to this great series, as we await a “24” movie. It’s a lot better than a show of highlight clips reviewing eight seasons.

Finally, given how much enjoyment so many of us have gotten from “24” over the years, let’s combine one more element into this show, taken from “ 'Idol' Gives Back.”

The show will also serve as a fundraiser to raise money to cure Parkinson’s disease. Why Parkinson’s? It’s a personal choice. My stepdad battled it for more than 25 years, so I’ve seen the ravages of Parkinson’s up close. The host of the show can simply say up front that  this special program is also a fundraiser and ask that viewers go to a website and donate whatever they can. Advertisers in the show could also be asked to donate something as well.

As I’ve previously written, I think “24” is the best thriller series ever done on TV.

As a journalist who’s covered the industry for quite awhile now, here’s one last observation I have about "24." I talk to a lot of people in media, from TV production to distribution to advertising. And what’s been striking over the past eight years is that clearly the show that got mentioned most often when I asked men in media what they watched on TV, was “24.”

The series has made its mark. Let’s see Fox send it off in the style it deserves.#

Bravo's 'Miami Social': A Cure for Reality Fatigue?

Jonathan Reiner Posted May 31, 2009 at 2:42 PM

Tags: Bravo, Miami Social

To quote the prolific Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, “You gotta get a gimmick if you want to get ahead.”

That axiom applied to the strippers in the Broadway musical, and it also applies to producers and networks trying to stand out in today’s immense ocean of reality programming. No longer is it enough to have a killer concept or compelling material. And gone are the days when you’ll automatically get eyeballs just because you launch on a big network with a major publicity blitz. (Raise your hand if you watched “High School Musical: Get in the Picture.” That’s what I thought.)

I work in the reality biz. It’s my job to stay on top of trends and sample as much programming as possible.

But even I’m suffering from chronic “reality fatigue.” I can only imagine how Joe and Jane Six Pack feel about the bottleneck on the reality highway.

Today you need a hook -- and a big one -- if you’re going to convince viewers to invest in your product week after week. For that matter, you need a hook if you’re going to convince viewers to even sample your program in the first place.

Enter Bravo’s “Miami Social,” a “ “Real Housewives” -style docusoap about hotties living and loving in (wait for it...) Miami. The show doesn’t premiere until July 14th, but it’s already in my DVR queue.

Why? Well, besides the promised intrigue, romance, glitz and catfights we’ve come to expect from Bravo, “Social” also features two reality pioneers making their long-awaited (at least by me) comeback to the genre.

Hardy Ames Hill (the hunky boy scout from the long-ago-but-not-forgotten “Big Brother 2”) and Katrina Campins (the young real estate diva from the landmark first season of “The Apprentice”) have been cast to stir things up, and hopefully reconnect with past fans. This is big news in a world where we’re used to seeing the same faces year after year on MTV’s “Real World/Road Rules Challenge” or VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab”... or even (God help me) “I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!”

It’s certainly not a re-invention of the wheel, but stacking a new show’s cast with long-lost reality vets from a kinder, simpler era and putting them in a new situation is certainly fresh and somewhat innovative. Given the insatiable appetite viewers have for Bravo’s delicious and decadent docusoaps, out-of-the-box ideas like this can only help Social’s prospects. If the show succeeds, I would think the Burnetts, Fleisses, Grodners and Roth’s of the reality world will certainly be combing their archives for graduates of their franchises who might be ready for a comeback.

What do you think? Will you be watching “Miami Social”? And what stars from the reality history books would you like to see return to the screen in a different vehicle? I’ll go first: “Survivor’s” Sue Hawk on the next season of “Ice Road Truckers.”

Nancy Dubuc, are you listening?

Stephen J. Cannell's Greatest TV Achievement and How It Almost Didn't Happen

Chuck Ross Posted October 12, 2010 at 7:48 AM

stephen cannell.jpg

For any of us who have enjoyed TV since the 1970s, part of what we enjoyed was the work of Stephen J. Cannell, who died on Sept. 30--much too young at 69--of complications from melanoma.

He wrote more than 1,000 episodes of TV shows, and created or co-created some 20 TV series.

The list of shows he was responsible for, from “The Rockford Files" to “Baretta” to “The A-Team” to “The Commish,” is astonishing in its breadth.

With the sunset of the fin-syn rules, Cannell sold his production company, basically leaving the creation of TV shows to write novels, and he had a very successful second career doing so.

As The New York Times’ Bill Carter noted in his obituary for Cannell, “The Rockford Files,” which “was a hit for seven seasons, has since been credited with helping to signal a cultural shift away from the perfect physical and moral specimens of the movies and early television and toward more realistic heroes, the kind viewers had come to expect, given the harder-edged reality they saw on the evening news.”

Part of what made “Rockford” so popular was star James Garner’s easy-going wisecrack manner that the actor had perfected playing “Maverick” on TV years earlier, as well as the interaction Rockford had with the show’s great supporting players, including Noah Beery Jr. as Rockford’s dad, Stuart Margolin as the shady Angel, Gretchen Corbett as lawyer Beth Davenport, and Joe Santos as police detective Dennis Becker.

No doubt part of the sensibility we loved on “Rockford” stemmed from the show’s co-creator, Roy Huggins, who also created “Maverick,” “The Fugitive” and “77 Sunset Strip,” the latter being one of the shows that defined the word “cool” back in the late 1950s.

But I think Cannell’s greatest achievement was another show, whose concept was his alone. And it was a show that almost never made it on-air. And once it did finally get on-air, everyone wanted to keep Cannell’s vision of it from seeing the light of day.

The best person to tell this story is Cannell himself. The following is from the wonderful website that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has, its Archive of American Television that contains interviews of many TV luminaries, including Cannell. They interviewed Cannell in June 2004.

To begin his story, Cannell talks about a show he did not create, but for which he did write three episodes. It was back in 1980. The show was called “Stone,” starring Dennis Weaver as detective sergeant Dan Stone.

Here's Cannell:

[It] was back when I was at Universal. I had written an episode of 'Stone' called 'The Deep Sleeper.' And what this episode was about was an undercover agent in the LAPD who had been put into deep cover in the L.A. criminal underworld.

And the idea was he was going to stay down for five to seven years with no contact and then come back and they were going to crash the whole underworld.

Well, he gets into the underworld and he ends up with a [Rolls-Royce] Cornish convertible, his children are at John Dye or Crossroads, he’s living in a mansion in Bel Air. But he’s really a $35,000-a-year guy, and all of a sudden he’s living like a prince. And it’s time for him to come home, and he doesn’t want to go. He doesn’t want to give up the lifestyle.

So that was the premise of this 'Deep Sleeper' episode of 'Stone.' And there were three people who knew he was undercover. One of them had died of natural causes. Stone was one of them. And the chief of police knew. So this guy has a job and he has to kill both Stone and the chief of police so he can remain undercover. And Stone manages to bust him at the end of the hour.

But I remember thinking at the time, what an interesting dilemma—to be a $35,000-a-year cop and to go undercover and being given all those things that the world says you should have—Ferraris, and Armani clothing and the right watches and rings and houses in the right neighborhoods—but you’re still really just a $35,000-a-year guy. What would that do to your sense of values and your moral compass?

It just intrigued me as a writer. So I came up with the idea of 'Wiseguy.'

I would go and pitch it to the networks, and I’d say that I need 6 hours at least to tell one story [on the show]. Because as important as the plot is the seduction of [this cop who goes underground] Vinnie Terranova. That means the adversary has to be as important to the storytelling as the hero. And I need time. I just can’t have two scenes [with] the adversary … I need time to put the [adversary] face to face with the hero and have him seduce my hero, because that’s what this is about.

Well, the minute I would say I need five or six hours [to tell a story arc, the networks] would say, 'Have you got anything else?' And I’d then sell 'Stingray,’ or I’d sell 'Hunter,' or I’d sell whatever else I had.

And I’d go to the next network and the same thing. I pitched it all over town. Five years I pitched that show. I’d pitch it at every place, and then I’d wait until somebody would get fired, and then I’d go pitch it to their replacement. Then somebody else would get fired, and I’d pitch to that replacement. And I couldn’t sell it.

Finally, Kim LeMasters showed up at CBS as head of programming, and he’d been an old friend of mine—I had done work with him in the past—and I went over and pitched it to him and he said, 'That’s the best damn idea I’ve ever heard for a show.' And that’s how I got it on CBS. I just found the right buyer. I found somebody who saw what I saw.

It was definitely different, and nobody wanted it for that reason.

So the show debuts on Sept. 16, 1987, with the first arc. In it, Terranova, played luminously by Ken Wahl, has to infiltrate and bring down a crime organization run by a character named Sonny Steelgrave, played, in a bravura performance, by Ray Sharkey. Cannell was asked if anyone had trepidation about ending the first arc. Again, Cannell:

Everybody but me. Ken Wahl didn’t want to lose Ray Sharkey. He loved acting with Ray. He’d call me up and say, ‘You’re ruining the show, man. You’re crashing the show. You drop Ray and we’re done.’

And Ray was working that on the other end. He wanted to stay aboard, so he was getting everyone to [call me]. The network was concerned, my other writer producers on the show were concerned. Everybody was telling me I was nuts. And I kept saying, this is my vision. I came up with this. None of you came up with this. I wrote the pilot. Actually I co-wrote the pilot with Frank Lupo. But it was from my concept, my story. [So I told everyone] I am going to do this [and end the arc].

And I was already writing the [next] arc. I had already written the first episode, which was called 'The Independent Operator.'

And people were so angry with me for getting rid of Ray. And it wasn’t that I wanted to get rid of Ray. I could see what he was doing. But the fun of the show, at least to me, was to try and redevelop it every six weeks. That’s what made it challenging. Not to lock it in just to a crime story, which was the same heavy for a year. I didn’t think that worked, because after awhile you start saying, why don’t they catch this guy. But people didn’t want to let go of Ray.

So I sent in the first draft of 'The Independent Operator,' which was the first [episode] of the Kevin Spacey arc. We didn’t have Kevin yet, but it was the first hour of the Profitt arc. [Spacey plays drug smuggler Mel Profitt.]

I was at the beach. My writers and producers hated the script. They got in a car and came down [to the beach] to tell me that I was writing 'Batman,' because I had a scene in this thing where [a hood] Roger LoCocco who calls everyone ‘Buckwheat.’ They thought that was horrible.

There’s a scene where [LoCocco] takes Vinnie out and shows him a car. [LoCocco’s] sorta a hit man and no one knows who he belongs to and Vinnie is supposed to find out who this guy’s attached to. And the guy takes Vinnie out to this garage, and he’s got this old Dodge Charger and he’d put armor plating on the car, and he’s got submachine guns in the front lights, and he’d got a big Gatling gun in the trunk, so if cops are chasing him he can literally start firing the Gatling gun from the trunk and start taking out the grills of cop [cars].

I had gotten it from research. It’s called a work car. They had these things in New York. And they were used for bank holdups and stuff like that. And they had armor plating on the doors.

And [my] guys are reading this and saying this is like bad James Bond. And I said, no this isn’t an Aston, it’s an old primer painted Charger that looks like it belongs in a junkyard.

But we didn’t have any other script, and I was even halfway through the second script for the arc. We had to start shooting and I was really concerned because these were talented men and I thought if they hate this so much maybe I’m off the road here. But we cast it and shot it.

[Afterward] to their credit [all the guys] came in and said we apologize and said they we were so wrong and this is so bitchin’.

I think a lot of it had to do with trepidation over losing Ray, and I felt bad about that too, because I loved him, but this is what I wanted to do. This is what I had sold [to CBS].

Spacey was dazzling as Mel Profitt in the arc.

Cannell was right—the arcs are what made the show. Jerry Lewis, Paul Winfield, Patti D'Arbanville, Ron Silver; a whole host of talented performers in arcs that, for the most part, were smart and satisfying.

And while the ratings weren’t spectacular, it certainly proved that there was an appetite for what evolved into the limited series that’s been so successful on cable.

If you want to check out the first season of "Wiseguy," which I highly recommend, you can find all the episodes, for free, on Hulu, if you click here.

At the end of the ATAS interview Cannell, who was 63 at the time, is asked what he thinks his legacy will be. Here’s what he said:

Oh, I don’t care. (repeats) I don’t care. You know what, I’m not about legacies and how people think about me when I’m gone. When I’m gone, I’m gone. I would hope that people would still read my books or look at my television, but if they don’t, (shrugs) that’s a choice.

I just don’t take myself that seriously. For me, all of those kinds of things tend to make you different than the person I am. I think when you start worrying about legacies, and how you are going to be remembered, it’s all about pretension, it’s all about how will they kneel at my altar when I’m gone. Who cares? That’s the way I look at it.

I’m just trying to do the best job that I know how to do every day, and I’m going to try and treat people in the most decent way I can. I’m going to try and live the Golden Rule. I’m going to try and treat other people the way I want to be treated, and when I fail to do that I’m going to apologize, and I do fail.

How it all comes out at the end?—you can’t force a legacy anyway, no matter how hard you try. If they don’t want to remember you, they won’t.

On that score, I don’t think Cannell has much to worry about. If you like TV, and care about great storytelling, you’re not likely to forget him.#

UPDATE, 8 PM, PT on Oct. 12, 2010...We found on YouTube the classy tribute to Cannell the folks at "Castle" ran at the end of their show on Monday, Oct. 11th:

The Perils of Live Blogging the TCA—on an iPhone

Chuck Ross Posted July 30, 2009 at 2:01 AM

Listen, here’s how it came down:

2:30 a.m. The baby started screaming, "ba-bah, ba-bah."

Hours earlier our 6-year-old daughter had come in our room and woke us with the news that her tummy hurt. My wife had gone to her room to put her back to bed and fell asleep on our daughter’s extra bed.

So I went downstairs and fixed our baby’s ba-bah and then fed him from his warm bottle.

By then it was 3 a.m.—six in the morning back east—so I went back downstairs and fired up the computer and sent Tom Gilbert, our executive editor in New York, an email. He was compiling our morning TVBizWire and I asked him how it was going.

Slow going this morning he said, so I went surfing the ‘net to help him. I found a candid interview the LA Times had done with Mike Fleiss. The timing was good because this season’s edition of his "Bachelor/Bachelorette" franchise had just ended.

When asked why we’d had more "Bachelor" editions over the years than "Bachelorette" ones, he said it was because women have a stronger passion in pursuing guys than guys do gals. According to Fleiss, guys will just shrug their shoulders and say, “Forget that chick. Let’s go to Hooters.”

The baby started crying again and I went back upstairs to quiet him. I fell back to sleep for about 15 minutes when the alarm woke me up again.

I called Tom and asked him if we were ready for my live blogging at the TCA. I’d never done that. Back when I was reporting regularly, blogs were a thing of the future. But now everyone was doing them. Piece of cake, I thought. And I was pretty excited about the session I had chosen to blog live about: Joan Rivers, who was going to be promoting her new show on TV Land, “How’d You Get So Rich?”

I’d only talked to Rivers once before, back in 1994 when I interviewed her on the set of her syndicated show “Can We Shop? ” I guess she specializes in shows that have question marks in the title. As I recall the interview, she was pretty funny. It centered around her talking to some guy who was pushing something to do with cleaning toilets.

I got dressed and ran out of the house and drove the 30 minutes to Pasadena and the Television Critic’s Association’s Press Tour—the TCA.

I ran inside, got myself comfortable, and realized something was terribly wrong. I called Tom.

You’re not going to believe this, I told him, I forgot my laptop.

There was silence on the other end of the phone and then, “That could be a problem.”

"No, no. I’ve got a solution. I’m gonna do it from my iPhone."

“I don’t think that’ll work,” Tom said.

"No, no, it’ll be fine. This thing’s really a damn computer. And I’m quite facile with typing on it."

“What are you talking about?. Everyone hates that virtual keyboard it has.”

"Trust me. We’ll be fine."

He had to go to into a short meeting. I couldn’t get hold of our tech support guy, and there really wasn’t anyone else around at TVWeek to help me.

As many of you know, Joe Adalian, our editor, quit a few weeks ago. I haven’t had a chance to replace him yet, which is why I’m here reporting from the TCA in the first place.

So I called my mom. She’s 83 and lives up in Northern California. Believe it or not, she’s pretty savvy on a computer.

“Hi hon, “ she said. “You’re calling me early.”

I explained that I was live blogging from the TCA and needed her to go on our Web site to see if anything that I was blogging was showing up.

“What’s it going to say?” she asked.

"It’ll be about Joan Rivers."

“Ohhh,” she laughed, “That’ll be fun.”

"OK, Mom, call me back when you see I’ve written something." We hung up.

Larry Jones, president of TV Land, came out and started speaking. I was waiting for Joan.

I looked around the room. Glancing behind me I spotted James Hibberd. The Hibberdmeister. Live blogger extraordinaire. The Live Feed. He had honed his skills at our shop and then abandoned us. OK, OK, there might also have been the issue of more money and a more Hollywood-centric publication. So he’s now with The Hollywood Reporter. I think I saw him touch his keyboard. Oh, for crying out loud, what the hell is he saying. Should I be blogging something yet?

Jones showed a clip of Joan’s show. It was funny.

Rivers came out. She was funny—and nasty, of course—right off the bat. “We were originally going to sell this to the Food Network and it was going to be called ‘How’d you get fatter than a fifth of an acre?’ with Kristie Alley.”

I typed furiously on my iPhone virtual keyboard, and then called my mom.

"Anything yet?"

“No, honey. Wait, here it comes. ‘Rivers says shoe first offered to Fudd Network.' ”

"Oy. Anything else."

“No. Oh, yes, here it is. 'Show was called How do u get fatter than a fifth grader?' ”

Tom was right. Live blogging from my iPhone wasn’t going to work. "Thanks, Mom."

I glanced around. Hibberd was typing away. I was sure it was great stuff.

Maybe I should try again. Rivers was having a great time, as if she was onstage in Vegas. She was dropping f-bombs all over the place. She was referring to her show as “How’d They Get So F---ing Rich?” Then she said that following her show was going to be “ 'How’d You Get So F---ing Poor,' hosted by the Madoffs.”

Again, I typed furiously. Just as I finished, my phone vibrated. It was Tom.

“You just wrote F-u-c-k-i-n-g. Is that OK?”

"As long as I don’t hear from my mom."

My iPhone vibrated again and showed that another number was trying to reach me. I recognized it as my mom’s. "Tom, I gotta go."

"Hi Mom."

“Honey, you just wrote F-u-c-k-i-n-g. Is that OK?”

"It is if Hibberd did it too."


"Mom, I gotta go."

I hung up. I had no idea what Hibberd was writing. I just knew it must be good.

Rivers was now telling a story about a guy who became a gazillionaire in the toilet cleaning business. What’s with this woman? It’s 15 years since I last saw her and again with the toilets.

Rivers couldn’t believe what some of the people do who she’d interviewed for her new show. “One of them I love is Hoffman,” she was saying. “You know you blow bubbles … (the wand) makes a bubble. This guy made [a wand] that makes five bubbles. You understand? Big f---ing deal.” She paused and then delivered the punch line: “Lives next to Barbra Streisand.

I was typing furiously again on my iPhone. Just as I finished, it vibrated once more. 

"Hi Tom."

“You just typed it again. Has your mom noticed?”

"Yes, but maybe Hibberd’s doing it too. Try and find out and call me back."

Joan was on a roll: “Do you understand? I’m not making a lie.” She was still talking about the five bubble wand guy. “His dog’s got a psychiatrist. He has a woman come in, and you can’t laugh because you’re filming you know. ‘Hmm, this looks interesting.’ And she’s making the dog feel relaxed. How much more relaxed can you be? You can lick your balls. I don’t know what more you want.”

The room erupted in laughter. I was typing feverishly on my iPhone. Again, it vibrated. It was my mom.

“I’m confused. Is it the dog that’s licking its balls?”

My phone vibrated yet once more while she was speaking. It was Tom. I told my mom to hold on.

"Yes, Tom. Find out about what Hibberd’s blogging?"

“No. But it just occurred to me that you never actually gave me that Fleiss item this morning, so we never posted it.”

I told Tom just a minute, hit a virtual botton on the phone and started to talk again to my mom.

"You’re confused about what? The dog?"

“It’s me, Tom. No, I’m not confused about the dog. I want to know about the Fleiss item”

"Hold on." Then I hit another of the phone's virtual buttons and said, "Mom, I’ll explain about the dog in a minute. Hold on." Hitting yet another button I said, "Tom, we'll use it this afternoon. I love the line about chasing gals at Hooters."

“No, honey, it’s mom. So these dogs lick their balls and chase girls at Hooters? That’s one crazy reporter's job you have.”

At that moment I dropped my phone. As I bent over to pick it up I saw this beautiful woman go up to Hibberd and say, “Love your blog. Do you Tweet?”

Son of a gun.#

An Important News Flash About American Pop Culture, And I Doubt You’ve Heard About It

Chuck Ross Posted July 27, 2009 at 6:40 AM

Tags: HD, high definition, TCM, upconversion, upconvert

The three cornerstones of American popular culture are the movies, music and TV. This announcement I’m speaking of hits on two of the three: movies and TV.

The only thing that excites me more than a terrific TV show is a wonderful movie. I was raised on TV—and movies ON television—which were a staple when I grew up in Los Angeles. The local CBS owned and operated station in LA, then called KNXT, had a great late-night movie program on weekends: “The Fabulous ’52.” Over on Channel 9, KHJ,.the RKO TV outlet, it was the nightly “Million Dollar Movie.”

Of course you had to put-up with a gazillion commercials, but there were all the stars of the 40s that my mom and uncle were always telling me about: Bogart, Cagney, Davis, Bergman and many more.

And what great storytelling. The history of America, Hollywood-style, in our living room every night, in glorious black & white.

Then, of course, syndication of TV shows came in, and, for the most part, bye-bye movies.

But in 1994, something magical happened. Ted Turner, who, in a few moments of mad folly, had almost put himself out of business by buying MGM and its incredible film library, came up with a really great idea. The showing of these movies, these gems of our culture, these incredible examples of great storytelling, on a TV channel with no commercials. And they’d be shown uncut and in their original screen ratio, just as originally released.

Furthermore, he asked one of my former colleagues when I was at The Hollywood Reporter, Bob Osborne, to be one of the hosts on this new channel. What a great choice! Ever since I’ve known Bob he’s been a big fan of and advocate of preserving, older movies. I was living in New York back in the 1990s, and every now and again Bob and I would get together to see old movies at one of the few movie theaters that would show them. Unfortunately, there are even fewer theaters that show older films on a regular basis today.

Though, thank goodness, these movies can be found on the channel Turner started. The channel, of course, is Turner Classic Movies, better known as TCM. As Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss said of it earlier this year, “For anyone who believes that the first hundred years of movies possess treasures that the last few years can't touch — and that's most of the professional film folks I know — TCM is an utterly essential part of the culture, our own American cinematheque.”

And, now, here’s the news: TCM is going high definition. Finally. For now, it’s not true high definition, it’s just going to upconvert its current signal.

For those of you who might not think this is a big deal, it really is. For many of us with big high definition TVs, the standard def signal from TCM has just not been satisfactory.

My service provider doesn’t have TCM HD yet, but Charles Tabesh, TCM’s senior vice president of programming, tells me that the picture is markedly better.

Oddly, TCM itself has said almost nothing about this milestone. Clearly it wants to manage expectations, and most likely getting the channel in real HD is at least months away, if not significantly longer—Tabesh claimed to have no information on that front.

Most of the information about TCM HD has been on the technical oriented AVS Forum, where one of the participants, named Tybee, broke the story. Here’s one of his excited postings from last month:

"Had dinner with one of my friends at TCM last night. He was very excited about the HD rollout. As you would expect, he said they're in the midst of setting up as many carriage agreements as they can. Some things he passed along:

- Cablevision was indeed the first to pick up the channel.
- Time Warner has already signed to carry the channel in some small markets.
- The good news: EVERYTHING WILL BE SHOWN IT ITS ORIGINAL ASPECT RATIO. No stretching. No cropping. No exceptions.
- The bad news: For right now, everything is being upconverted, rather than being shown in native HD. This is temporary (a year or two?) and as my friend pointed out (and has been discussed here) the material still looks worlds better than it does on the SD channel."

Then, a few weeks ago, came this posting from user mbd, who actually was getting TCM HD through Cablevision:

"After a week of living with TCM-HD, some thoughts.

1. Most of what they are broadcasting seems to be upconverted, but it looks night and day better than TCM-SD on my 55" 1080i living room tv.

2. 1.37 films are being shown in their original aspect ratio.

Overall, I am happy with the channel. TCM-SD was very over compressed on Cablevision, the HD version is not."

In a few weeks a lot more people will have a lot more to say about TCM HD, because it will debut next month in Time Warner’s cable system in Manhattan.

I know there are a lot of you out there who have no use for old black and white movies. Do me a favor. TCM is running a great series this month, showing movies from one of the greatest years of movies, 1939. This Friday, July 31, at 9 am ET (6 am on the Pacific coast) it’s airing “Midnight,” made in 1939.

My guess is that most of you have never heard of this comedy. Please, set your DVRs to record it. It’s got a wonderful cast—Claudette Colbert, Mary Astor, John Barrymore and Don Ameche, was directed by someone even those who like old films don’t know too much about—Mitchell Leisen, and was written by two of the great ones—Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.

It’s the kind of movie you’re only going to find on TCM. Lemme know what you think about it.#

#nbcfail Failed to See the Bigger Olympics Picture

Chuck Ross Posted August 14, 2012 at 9:19 AM

One of the oddest items I’ve read lately about NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics was this sentence from “The numbers [meaning ratings] are working in [NBC’s] favor, even if public opinion is not.”

It’s nonsensical. The loudest shouting of public opinion, with regards to TV, is measured by a program’s ratings.

And by that measure, NBC’s coverage of the Games in London was an overwhelming success. Just looking at prime time, the London Olympics averaged 31.1 million viewers, according to TVByTheNumbers, making it the most-watched non-U.S. Summer Games in 36 years. That figure topped the Beijing Games four year ago by 12% and the Athens Olympics, in 2004, by 26%.

Those ratings represent a huge win for NBC and its entire Olympics team. Kudos especially to NBC’s Olympics guru Dick Ebersol, who’s been the architect of NBC’s Olympics coverage for years -- and whose assistance in London was his swan song from the network -- and to Ebersol’s successor as NBC Sports chairman, Mark Lazarus.

A lot of the criticism of NBC’s Olympics coverage came from Twitter and #nbcfail. According to a examination of #nbcfail, here are the top 8 ways NBC blew its coverage (starting with the 8th reason and leading up to the No. 1 reason):

Top Eight Ways NBC Blew Its Coverage of the Olympics, According to #nbcfail

8. Requesting Twitter "discipline" a vocal critic

7. Condescending to critics

6. Cutting an Opening Ceremony tribute to terrorism victims for ... Ryan Seacrest

5. Requiring a cable subscription to view online

4. Stupid commentary

3. Failing at geography ... and social studies ... and ...

2. Cutting content for commercials

1. Tape-delaying what the rest of the world watched live

Most of these are rather minor infractions. Regarding NBC’s attempt to “discipline” a vocal critic, NBC is guilty as charged. Stupid to try to do this, but media companies are surprisingly thin-skinned.

NBC is condescending to critics. Critics can also be surprisingly thin-skinned.

Cutting part of the Opening Ceremony to go to Ryan Seacrest was an editorial decision that one can certainly argue about.

Requiring a cable subscription to view online was a business decision. Given the millions NBC paid for the rights to these Games, it was NBC’s decision to make.

Stupid commentary. Well, when you have practically non-stop coverage for two solid weeks of sporting events, it’s a given that some of it will be riddled with clichés and stupid remarks. None was more stupid than announcer Bob Fitzgerald’s unfortunate foot-in-mouth comment identifying Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg (a character Eisenberg played in the movie “The Social Network”). At the same time, it was a pretty funny, entertaining gaffe.

The mispronunciation of names and places is almost a given at an international event such as the Olympics. From where I sat, I thought there was a lot less of this than in past Olympics.

The No. 1 and No. 2 complaints -- the fact that most of what we watched was tape-delayed and not commercial free -- really go to the crux of how NBC presents the Olympics. 

Instead of my defending NBC, Dick Ebersol is far more eloquent in explaining NBC’s Olympics coverage philosophy than I am. Here’s Ebersol doing just that last week in a discussion with SportsOnEarth blogger Joe Posnanski (I suggest you click on the link and read the entire piece. This is just an excerpt):

“Ebersol, in what he says will be his only interview at these Games, tells me that [the] critics have it all wrong. The Olympics, he believes, are not to be treated like other sports. ‘That’s just nonsense,’ he says. ‘The Olympics are the biggest family television there is. The Olympics are one of the last events where a whole family can gather around a television set and spend the night together. People talk about how we should treat this like sports? You know, we’re getting an 18 rating some nights. Do you know what rating we would get if this was not under the banner of the Olympics? We’d be lucky to get a 1 rating for some of these sports. … This is our business model. The newspaper people have their own business model. We’re in the television business. We’re here to make great television.’ ”

Ebersol continues: “The key is storytelling. That’s by far the most important part of the Olympics. It’s the most important part of television. It’s not enough just to show the Games. We have to give people a reason to care, a reason to be invested.

“The other day when [Dominican 400-meter hurdler] Felix Sanchez won the gold medal we had told his story [about his grandmother dying on the day he was trying to qualify in Beijing]. We had been with him throughout. People knew him. So when he broke down on the stand, people cried with him. It would not have meant as much as a simple sports story.”

As for the tape-delay controversy, Ebersol notes that for the Olympics four years ago in Beijing he negotiated for the swimming finals to be held in the morning, Beijing time, so they could be shown live, in prime time, on U.S. TV. And this was when Michael Phelps was going for his eight gold medals.

In London, on the other hand, all of the swimming finals that were shown in prime time were on a tape-delay basis. And, Posnanski writes, the swimming shown tape-delayed from London “beat the ratings for Beijing on every single one of the first seven days.”

Ebersol tells Posnanski that in survey after survey only a small percentage of viewers say they want to watch Olympics contests live, as opposed to “after dinner.” And, as Ebersol notes, for the most part NBC did allow for live viewing online.

Here’s Ebersol’s ultimate defense of how NBC presents the Olympics, as he told Posnanski: “This year, really for the first time, I have had some time to watch the host country’s television. I’ve been watching the BBC, which is one of the most respected entities in the world, right? Well, they will cut away from races to show a British athlete who is finishing fifth. They openly root for their athletes on the air. It’s a different approach, but we have never done that. Nobody ever uses the word ‘we’ in our coverage, and if they did they wouldn’t last long.

“I believe our coverage is different from anyone else’s in the world. We do as many features on foreign athletes as American athletes. We tell the best stories, wherever we can find them. There’s a great tradition in American television of professionalism in coverage, and I believe we live up to that tradition.”

Jeff Zucker: The Blurring of Fact and Fiction

Chuck Ross Posted December 5, 2013 at 7:29 AM

Reading CNN President Jeff Zucker’s comments yesterday about the future of CNN, I was struck in particular by one paragraph. Here it is, quoted from CapitalNewYork:

“The 48-year-old Zucker initially faced internal resistance to his experiments beyond the realm of hard news, but he now has an irrefutable retort: The No. 1 show on CNN is now ‘Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,’ a travel-adventure show featuring the bad-boy celebrity chef. Zucker said that inside CNN, his formula has finally been accepted 'because people have seen the results.'”

What struck me about this paragraph -- and kudos to Washington Post news media blogger Erik Wemple for noticing this as well -- is that Bourdain was recruited to come to CNN from the Travel Channel BEFORE Zucker was hired at CNN.

Here’s an excerpt of a report by David Carr of The New York Times that appeared on June 3, 2012, which was five months before it was announced that Zucker was going to CNN. And the person who hired Bourdain to come to CNN wasn’t Zucker, it was Mark Whitaker:

“Mark Whitaker, managing editor of CNN Worldwide, has been working to decrease the network’s reliance on politics, where its middle-of-the-road approach often suffers in comparison to the edgier, more partisan offerings of Fox News and MSNBC. He began talking with Mr. Bourdain back in March in the belief that the chef’s penchant for traveling to far-flung places like Thailand and Saudi Arabia was a fit with CNN’s international credentials. More important, Mr. Whitaker wanted CNN’s first move out of its lane to come with a ready-made audience attached. CNN has no trouble attracting eyeballs, it just has trouble persuading them to stick around when the world is not on fire.

“‘Tony is appointment viewing and sticky in a way that we need to be,’ Mr. Whitaker said on the phone. ‘We are big fans of what he does and what he stands for, which is global and smart, but he goes beyond politics and war coverage. We need to be broader than that and we are looking hard to make that happen. Tony was the first person that came to mind.’“

In the CapitalNewYork interview Zucker reiterates much of what he has previously said, most particularly that CNN needs to broaden its audience and attract viewers who don’t usually tune in to the network: He wants the network to attract “viewers who are watching places like Discovery and History and Nat Geo and A&E,” the story said. Furthermore, Zucker added, “The goal for the next six months, is that we need more shows and less newscasts.”

Zucker also said HLN is in for a complete overhaul: It will be “‘rethought, reimagined, and rebranded’ to get away from the wall-to-wall courthouse coverage that earned HLN massive viewership during big events like the Jodi Arias and George Zimmerman trials. HLN ‘really just had a great year from an audience standpoint,’ he said, but: ‘it's not as strong a business proposition, and it's not really what advertisers are looking for. If we wanted to be in the court business, Time Warner would have kept Court TV.’“

That’s when it dawned on me that Zucker reminds me of another TV executive, our friend Frank Hackett, the Robert Duvall character in Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant 1976 movie "Network."

Hackett, as many of you will recall, was a top corporate TV executive at the UBS network.

People tell me -- OK, no one told me this, but I have a healthy imagination to make things up -- that when Zucker recently told some of the veteran CNN staff that he was going to reshape the network in the image of Bourdain’s show there was a big brouhaha and -- either consciously or subconsciously (no one could tell) -- Zucker started channeling Hackett and began shouting at the meeting, “You were hoping I'd fall on my face with this Bourdain show, but I didn't! It's a big, fat, big-titted hit, and I don't have to waffle around in any of your shit anymore!”

Zucker, on a roll, continued: “And if you don’t like what I’ve done with Bourdain, you’re really going to hate what’s coming: The Network News Hour with Snooki the Soothsayer, weather with Miss Kellie Pickler, and commentary we’re calling Vox Populi, starring the mad prophet of the airwaves, Keith Olbermann. I’ve hired the Duck boys to come over here to do sports and commentary about our new Dress Like a Zombie hour. Already sponsored for the whole damn season by Urban Outfitters.

"Listen, come next year at this time I’m going to be standing up there at the annual Time Warner management review meeting, and I'm going to announce unprecedented projected earnings for this network. That we’ve never had advertisers more pleased. That HLN now stands for the Holy-shit Louis C.K. -- Lady Gaga Network.“

At that moment Anderson Cooper got up to protest. Hackett, er, Zucker, basically told him that if he didn’t like the changes he could leave the company.

Cooper shot back: “Well, let's just say, fuck you, Jeff. You want me out, you're going to have to drag me out kicking and screaming. And almost everyone here will walk out kicking and screaming with me.”

Zucker didn’t blink: “You think they're going to quit their jobs for you? Not in this economy, buddy.”

As Cooper was storming out of the meeting he turned to Zucker and said, threateningly, “I'm going to spread this whole reeking business in every paper and on every network, independent, group, and affiliated station in this country. I'm going to make a lot of noise about this.”

Without missing a beat Zucker replied, “Great! We can use all the press we can get.”

And the really funny thing is, while Paddy Chayefsky -- whose dialogue I've mostly borrowed above -- met plenty of TV executives over the years to use as the models for those he wrote about in “Network,” I don’t think he ever met Jeff Zucker.

The Surf Report Visits 'The Tonight Show'

Diane Gordon Posted June 5, 2009 at 12:07 PM

Tags: Andy Richter, Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Pardo, Joel McHale, The Tonight Show

With all the chatter about the changeover from Leno to Conan, I needed to venture out to Universal and see the newest incarnation of “The Tonight Show” with my own two eyes. My friend and fellow media vulture Claire had the hook-up and after a slight hiccup with the parking guard, we found ourselves seated in the audience of the brand spanking new studio “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” now calls home.

Since we were told to arrive at least one hour early, we had time to look at the studio - but only from our seats. The show is run in a very efficient, almost militaristic fashion. Once you're seated in the audience, you can't get up to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. Cell phones must be turned off and no texting or Twittering is allowed (horrors!). Though I was hoping to tweet from the festivities, it made sense that they didn't want glowing Blackberry screens on camera when they got shots of the audience.

After about an hour, Jimmy Pardo came out to warm up the audience and he killed! Aside from doing stand-up and acting roles, Pardo has a very popular iTunes podcast called "Never Not Funny" and watching him with the audience illustrated this motto: he's quick, witty, and equally adept with locals and tourists who come to the show. I've been to countless tapings and Pardo is a rarity among warm-up guys: he actually got the audience in a better mood and more excited about being there. I hope they're paying him well because he's earning the big dollar out there.

Pardo introduced Andy Richter and as I've stated in earlier posts, Andy doesn't have much to do right now. It's great to see him there but I'm still hoping they'll incorporate him into the show more. Andy welcomed everyone and introduced the Tonight Show Band, formerly known as the Max Weinberg 7. I've loved the band from the start of Conan's show and seeing them live was a real treat. They pumped the audience up even more with jazz-inflected boogie-woogie and upped the fun quotient considerably. The band was definitely a highlight for me!

Then it was showtime and Conan came out to a standing ovation and an eager audience.