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


#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.”

'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.#

Defining a Decade: How the Aughties Changed TV

Hillary Atkin Posted January 8, 2010 at 10:39 AM

Think back to the year 2000. Ah, yes. Y2K, those innocent days before 9/11, when reality television was just making major inroads with the huge popularity of “Survivor,” before Jack Bauer became a ticking terrorist ass-kicker, before “American Idol” changed the pop culture landscape and when Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather reigned supreme over their respective network newscasts.

The dot-com 1.0 party was in its last euphoric throes on its way to crashing and burning, yet YouTube and Hulu were years away from changing the way people consume video. TiVo and DVRs were around, but hadn’t penetrated the marketplace. Most cell phones couldn’t access the Internet—they were text-capable but not many in the US actually texted anyone — and TV stations didn’t have their own Web sites streaming live video of breaking news, much less transmitting to then-nonexistent iPhones, Blackberries or other "smart" mobile devices.

It was a time when Tony Soprano was solidifying his power base in New Jersey as the corpses stacked up and Carrie Bradshaw and her fashionable entourage were becoming icons in living the fabulous single life in New York City.

The Aughties saw the end of beloved, groundbreaking shows like “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” but spawned new ideas and entertainment that shaped our lives and drove the conversation. These are some of the decade’s game-changers across the cable and broadcast spectrum:

Fox’s “24” and Real-World Terrorism: Against the backdrop of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cathartic experience of watching the time-pressured Jack Bauer brutally wring whatever he wanted from evildoers intent on killing thousands of innocents—along with the Abu Ghraib torture photos scandal—kick-started a national conversation about how enemy combatants are treated. The fictional character became representational on both sides of the fence — as hero or villain — and the controversy over the show’s depiction of Islamic terrorists led to Kiefer Sutherland doing a public service campaign to mitigate some of the accusations of racial profiling. In light of recent events, and with the upcoming season set in New York, “24” will remain a lens through which many people view the war on terror.

The Daily Show’s Huge Impact: just when you thought Jon Stewart couldn't get any hotter, or overexposed —  remember all those mid-decade magazine cover stories? — he and his “Daily Show” team of fake reporters proved they hadn't peaked with their 2004 and 2008 “Indecision” election coverage. The show’s guest slot became and remains a coveted go-to spot for politicians, world leaders and authors — with an occasional movie star thrown in for good measure. "TDS’s" spawn went on to great good fortune, most notably Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell, whose Stephen and Steven segments are still fondly remembered.

The Juggernaut that is 'American Idol': Paula, we miss you already. Ten years ago, who could have possibly predicted the massive phenomenon that became “Idol?” (Or Ryan Seacrest becoming a near industry unto himself?) Fan or no — and those who weren't were definitely in the minority – “AI” brought major talent to the world stage. Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson, Adam Lambert, Carrie Underwood and Jordin Sparks can all tip their hats to “Idol,” as do the accountants at Fox Broadcasting Co. With Ellen DeGeneres taking the Paula judging spot, Simon Cowell nearly ready to take a final bow and ratings somewhat on the decline, the peak glory days may be in the past, but the program’s power and progeny (“Dancing With the Stars,” “America’s Got Talent,” etc.) live on.

New Faces of News: The evening news anchor desks had historically been held by older white men, but by the end of the decade, two of the three were occupied by women who made their names on the softer side of news, in the morning. Did the format change? Not so much. When you’ve only got 22 minutes of news, there’s not much time or space for major formula revisions. And the audience — whose size has deteriorated even as the median age increased — really wasn’t up for ch-ch-changes. Still, network news is far from dead — as some pundits have pronounced it for years. And 24-hour cable news, which drives a large swath of political debate from both sides and down the middle in filling its bottomless news hole, isn’t expected to retrench. Even these days, it’s still cost-effective programming.

Food as Entertainment: The Aughties brought foodies another venue outside of the kitchen, the bookstore or the restaurant to indulge their passion and learn some new cooking tricks. Whether your favorite flavor was “Top Chef,” “Iron Chef” or “Kitchen Nightmares,” or your TV was permanently tuned to the Food Network, television catered to the concept of cooking as sport. A far cry from the days when “The French Chef With Julia Child" on PBS was the only game in town. Hungry for more? No shortage of food shows is on the horizon.

Reality as Reality TV: These days, having your own reality show is a career move for untold thousands, who will go to any lengths to attain it. (Example A: the heinous Heene media hos.) The pay might be low, but the perks can be great — extending far beyond the old-school 15 minutes of fame. Whether it’s being a contestant on “The Bachelor,” sewing your way to stardom on “Project Runway,” being a “Real Housewife” (Salahis, anyone?) or becoming a “Biggest Loser,” the tabloid shelf life can be lucrative. Reality television decimated the ranks of scripted television shows and their writers, producers and actors — and sadly, there’s no going back.

Figuring Out Aaron Sorkin and HBO's 'Newsroom.' If You Miss Jane Fonda's Debut in 'Newsroom' on Sunday, You'll Likely Be Missing an Emmy-Winning Performance

Chuck Ross Posted July 6, 2012 at 9:15 AM

I’m a big fan of Aaron Sorkin. Well, let me amend that. I’m a big fan of Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter. I’ve seen “The Social Network” half a dozen times, and never tire of it. Dazzling screenplay, for which Sorkin justly won the Oscar.

I’ve seen “Moneyball” three times. While I didn’t like it as much as “The Social Network,” I thought the screenplay especially was first-rate. Sorkin co-wrote the screenplay for this movie with Steve Zaillian, and the screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, but didn’t win.

Having liked Sorkin’s last two projects so much, I was very much looking forward to “Newsroom,” the Sorkin-created and penned TV series about a cable news show that debuted on HBO three weeks ago.

It was during the middle of watching an advance DVD of the fourth episode of the series that I had my Oprah “ah-ha” moment.

Sorkin is a far better screenwriter than a writer of TV series. There’s not enough time in a single two-hour movie for him to indulge his worst habit -- the soap box preacher in him -- for more than a few minutes. Or perhaps it’s that feature films are more a director’s medium than a writer’s, and someone like “Social Network” director David Fincher is able to keep Sorkin reined in.

Unfortunately, unleash Sorkin in the longer form of a TV series -- even one, like “Newsroom,” that only has a season made up of 10 episodes that are about an hour each in length -- and it’s like unleashing a kid in a candy store unsupervised to overindulge at his leisure.

Similar to his “Sports Night” and “The West Wing,” Sorkin is both the creator and principal writer of “Newsroom.” In an HBO-released description of the show Sorkin said this about why he chose the newsroom setting for the series: “Somewhere along the way, journalists went from heroic to derided and I wanted to write about a group of journalists who are doing their best to do the news well -- reaching unrealistically high and slipping on a lot of banana peels and doing it all in the name of an honorable mission.”

He added, “I spent time being a fly on the wall in newsrooms ranging from Fox to CNN to MSNBC to truTV.” He also said he met with a lot of “heavyweights” in the news business and “basically I asked them two questions: What would a utopian news broadcast be, and what’s stopping you from doing it.”

Sure enough, in episode one, after a too-preachy speech about what’s wrong with America, we find “Newsroom’s” main character, news anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels as a cross between an out-of-control Charlie Sheen and a smartest-person-in-the-room, holier-than-thou Edward R. Murrow), reinventing his newscast.

Now here’s one of the weirder aspects of “Newsroom.” At the beginning of the 10-episode first season, Sorkin sets it in 2010. Thus we have this major scene in the first episode -- that’s terrifically edited -- of the revamped newscast that’s all about the explosion of the British Petroleum oil-drilling platform off the coast of Louisiana and the subsequent oil spill.

The conceit here is that McAvoy’s newscast focuses on the spill part, which, according to the show, most newscasts did not do initially.

But the problem is that none of us in the audience remember that. What we DO recall is hours and hours of coverage on networks such as CNN on the oil spill. So the whole point Sorkin is trying to make, about “News Night” being a "utopian" newscast such as one that hasn’t been seen on TV since the 1950s and 1960s, is totally lost.

Episode two, which premiered last Sunday, July 1, was set in April 2010, and “Newsroom” showcased the then just passed American Immigrant Act by the Arizona legislature. This episode, in which the newscast quickly went south, was one exemplifying Sorkin’s notion of “slipping on a lot of banana peels and doing it all in the name of an honorable mission.”

[Spoiler Alert] The third episode of the series -- which is scheduled to be aired this Sunday, July 8 -- starts in May 2010 and goes through November 2010, focusing on the 2010 midterm elections and the Tea Party in particular.

The episode starts with McAvoy, again, telling viewers how his nightly newscast was going to be different from everyone else’s. And then there’s his big attack on the Tea Party, best summarized when McAvoy says that the Tea Party has been “co-opted by the radical right, which, in turn, has enslaved the Republican middle.”

In one “gotcha” moment he informs some Tea Party true-believers about the money that’s coming into their movement from the Koch brothers, David and Charles. The two Tea Party members have never heard of them. Again, it’s supposed to be illustrative of the revelatory and fresh insight “News Night” is bringing to the media scene. But watching this episode today, in 2012, all we viewers recall is that the monies given by the Koch brothers -- along with who they are and what their political leanings are -- has been talked about a lot in the media.

All of this is intertwined, week in and week out, with one particular interoffice romantic triangle as well as the romantic tension between McAvoy and his executive producer, who used to date. Unfortunately, too much of the latter is preachy as well as just annoying, especially the way Sorkin makes the EP as weak in her personal life as she is strong in her professional life.

In this Sunday’s episode, we get to the best scene of the series thus far. It's the series debut of Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing, the CEO of Atlantis World Media, the company that owns ACN, the cable network on which "News Night" airs. Fonda has said she’s in three episodes this season. I think she’ll win an Emmy just for her performance in this Sunday’s episode.

She’s only in the show briefly, near the end. But Sorkin has given her a humdinger of a speech. It’s pretty much what you’d expect a top-notch, no-nonsense business CEO to say, but it’s Sorkin at his best, matched by a great performance. It reminds me of Jack Nicholson, who was Oscar-nominated for delivering Sorkin’s “You can’t HANDLE the truth” speech in “A Few Good Men.”

I’ve read that fewer viewers watched the second episode of “Newsroom” than the debut episode. That doesn’t surprise me. And I’ll bet HBO executives weren’t surprised either, as they announced a second season of the series before the ratings for episode two were made public.

And I’m sure HBO likes being in business with Sorkin. He should thank them down the road by writing a movie for them. I’ll bet it’ll be fantastic, especially if it’s an adaptation and has a very strong-willed director who can rein him in.

Here's a fun must-watch mash-up of Sorkin using some of his best lines in more than one show, as he cribs from himself: