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The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning critic blogs at TVWeek.com with wit, humor and strong opinion.

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Tom Shales


November 2006 Archives

Now About Bennett's Ratings ...

November 26, 2006 1:53 PM

One reason why I am a sweet old critic instead of a mean old network executive -- or a mean young one, which is worse: The Tony Bennett special I raved about in a recent blog was, according to a TVWeek.com news report, an unmitigated disaster in the Nielsens, scoring the lowest number in its time slot in 15 years.

I've often said that, especially when it comes to episodic television, critics' tastes track pretty closely with the public's (using Nielsen as the barometer). There are relatively few shows in the top 20 on a given week that have been trounced, trashed, bashed or blasted by TV critics, and most of the shows in the top 10, with obvious exceptions, have received widespread favorable reviews.

The point is, network execs love to say critics are snobs who want to watch operas every night and are out of touch with the mass audience. Not true.

That said (again), and though I never imagined "Tony Bennett" would be a ratings bonanza, I sure thought it would do better than it did. After all, even if Bennett's principal constituency is baby boomers and older, there were plenty of currently popular singers who joined him for duets on the show. But NBC, in its strange and borderline mystical way, chose to slot the Bennett special opposite one of those awful, but popular, music awards shows on another network. If that's counterprogramming, Mighty Mouse is the bastard son of Mickey and Minnie.

Apparently the Bennett special was all underwritten by sponsor Target stores and by the record company that released the "Duets" album. The special was really a very long music video; virtually every number duplicated a track of the CD. So nobody went broke on this apparent flop, and no hearts should be broken that it didn't do better.

Bennett's heart should be doing just fine, and the next time he's in San Francisco, he can check it out to make sure. I do wish NBC had shown him the respect of a tenable and sensible time slot, but the once-plucky old peacock has bigger problems on its hands (claws?) as the Fourth Quarter marches on and the November sweeps sputter to a stop.

I still say it was a great show.

No Rags, All Riches

November 22, 2006 9:24 PM

Let’s say a little prayer—or make a little wish if prayer is overdoing it—that when the TV Academy gives out its next mess of Emmys, someone will remember “Tony Bennett: An American Classic,” the musical special that aired way back in November '06.

If nominated, it will probably end up in the same category as the Oscars, the Tonys and the Emmys themselves, those big bow-wow bores that fill up the category because there just aren’t many “musical or variety specials” any more. One big plus for “American Idol” is that, however gimmickly they did it, the producers did bring pop music back to prime-time TV. Of course there’s only one Tony Bennett, last of the great crooner-belters, a man who almost single-handedly keeps a great tradition alive. And it only took him 80 years to get his own special.

Actually, he’s had other specials—and this one wasn’t ALL his own. To plug his new album, “Tony Bennett: Duets,” the show recreated the numbers on the album by reteaming Tony with fellow singers, most of them much younger—though Barbra Streisand was first up, gliding out of the darkness to join Tony in the spotlight (literally, that is) for “Smile,” and everybody did.

Some of the guest artists were of dubious renown. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Michael Bublé? (pronounced Boo-blay, presumably, not “boobul”). The single-named “Juanes”? (pronounced—oh who cares). Even I have heard of Christina Aguilera, but she wasn’t doing Tony, or Irving Berlin, any favors by stomping all over “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.”

And then there were stars who really were worthy: Stevie Wonder on his own beautiful “For Once in My Life” and Elton John joining Tony for one of Bennett’s first big hits, “Rags to Riches.” I assume that the showgirls who decorated, or rather engulfed, this production number, replete with those big white ostrich-feather fan things, were doing a parody of hyper-choreography, because there were times when they completely obliterated the two singers. This did facilitate a funny bit in which John tried to wrestle one of the feather-fans away from a chorus girl. Come on—he must have a whole flock of those at home in his closet already.

Throughout, the choreography was intrusive, the alleged genius behind it being John DeLuca, who did “Chicago.” For all of producer-director Rob Marshall’s messy excesses, however, this was still elegant entertainment—a jewel for the crown at NBC, which has hocked most of its other jewels by now. Adding still more class to the program: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis, John Travolta and Billy Crystal popping up to recite the salient facts of Bennett’s first 80 years on this lucky old planet.

An Emmy or two would be more than appropriate and less than adequate.

Whenever he does his great Tony Bennett impression on “Saturday Night Live,” Alec Baldwin sings a made-up signature tune for Tony called “I Like Things That Are Great.” It spoofs his indomitable innocuousness, gently. The fact is, anybody who does like things that are great, and missed the Bennett special when it aired, should grab one the minute it appears on DVD.

And yes, Tony did get to sing one song with no other singer horning in—his real signature tune, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” with piano accompaniment only. Tony stood alone in the spotlight’s glow that he wears so well and sang of the “golden sun” that shines just for him. It should be a national priority—official, by Congressional mandate or presidential proclamation—to keep this man alive and singing as long as possible.

Eating Cake & Shilling It Too

November 17, 2006 1:53 AM

NBC’s “Supersize Thursday” – on which three sitcoms each ran 40 minutes long – proved perhaps most inventive when it came to shifty product placements. There was something almost Pirandellian about the way the placements were sneaked in by loudly announcing they were there, but pretending to be kidding – got that?

In the highly improved sitcom “30 Rock,” a network exec played by Alec Baldwin tries to get Tina Fey, as the producer of a “Saturday Night Live” sort of TV show, to sneak plugs for GE products into her sketch scripts. She gets huffy and says she will “not compromise the integrity” of her precious show. Then she not-so-casually mentions to a coworker how much Diet Snapple tastes like the real thing, they exchange raves about how great Snapple is and, later, a man dressed as a Snapple bottle emerges from an elevator.

A joke? Well not exactly – because “30 Rock” did indeed include ads for Snapple somehow tied to the placement. The make-believe plugs were in fact real plugs disguised as make-believe plugs.

“30 Rock” was preceded by “The Office” during which one of the office workers chopped up greens for a salad by putting them through a paper shredder which he said was from Staples office supply. Guess what product was pitched during a nearby commercial break – the paper shredder from Staples, perchance?

We all know NBC has fallen on hard times – and on dumb ideas – but this kind of bait-and-switch ad-as-joke-as-ad seems smarmily deceptive. Better to just do the damn plugs honestly and not pretend they’re spoofs of plugs. “Hiding” them in a show by loudly announcing they’re there is a little like doing a documentary on pornography that just happens to feature generous excerpts from hard-core films. Whoring is whoring, no matter how one tries to dress it up.

To paraphrase one of Claude Rains’ famous lines from “Casablanca”: we are “shocked, shocked” to find product placements going on here – and being passed off as self-referential spoofing. There’s something about it that smacks of smirkiness – and a contempt for us poor schnooks watching innocently at home.

Impressions of Election Night

November 9, 2006 3:58 PM

CBS News sent out a color photo of cutie Katie Couric at Network Command Center on election night and she looked so fresh and eager in the picture, and 15-20 years younger than her real age, that she just defied criticism. Judging from mail & comments, people expect me to trash her for her election-night work. N-n-not m-m-me, f-f-f-folks! Considering how accustomed she is to the homey, sloppy ambiance of the “Today” show, I thought Katie did a good job in the new environment. She has the common touch, which is meant to be a compliment….

Stuffiest election-night coverage? Surprise winner: Fox News Channel. Couldn’t they come up with more sparkle and pizzazz than tired old Morton Kondracke and tiring old Fred Barnes trotted out yet again? But then Fox isn’t the channel to watch for anything so prosaic as mere results—facts, figures, etc.—but instead the place to go for interpretation of those facts and figures … not to mention “etc.”....

Conan O’Brien on election night talked to his “Clutch Cargo” screen (still pictures of famous folk with moving lips) and first up, naturally, was the show’s faux George Bush. He said yes, the Republicans had indeed lost the House and might lose the Senate but—a ray of hope—“we still control Fox News.” Roars from crowd ensued….

It may have seemed odd for poor-mouthy NBC to be running not one but two election-night information channels—NBC News and MSNBC on cable—but the two networks are by no means conjoined twins. MSNBC brings real character and personality to the big stories it covers, thanks in large measure to Chris Matthews, the Man Who Loves Politics More Than Life Itself. He should have been the sole anchor, with fellow MSNBC talk-show hosts pushed further into the background. But this still seems the channel most likely to hold your attention even during informational lulls and slow periods ….

NBC’s Brian Williams does exude confidence, competence and command, however, and the network had built him a pretty new studio-set with the GE Building and the famous Rockefeller Center skating rink in the background. Perhaps that means the end to “borrowing” SNL’s Studio 8-H and turning it into Election Central every time Americans go to the polls—an NBC tradition, and a pain in Lorne Michaels’ butt, for decades….

Charles Gibson had the most awesome set to work from, though when he’d go out and wander through it, followed by the hand-held camera team, it sometimes looked like nothing more high-tech than the employee cafeteria. I still think it would have been fun to have the schnook who dresses up as Mickey Mouse at Disneyland come running in when a crucial state could be called … shouting cheerfully in his iconic soprano, “Here’s the latest from Pennsylvania, Mr. Gibson!” Then he could hand Charlie about six feet of teletype paper … One question: Why was the Capitol Dome a glowing gold on the ABC set? If they’re going to repaint the Capitol, what might they do to the White House? Charlie did a first-rate job, however, reeling off the results—striking an ideal balance between boyish enthusiasm (this is fun!) and solid professional dignity. Too much dignity, at least on television, can be a stultifying thing—but, of course, most often the problem with TV is the opposite extreme….

I’m Tom Shales and I’m still thinking about whether or not I approve this message.…

An Ode to NBC News

November 3, 2006 2:20 PM

Illness will unfortunately keep me away from a tribute to three giants of broadcast journalism, and to a still-great news organization, today (Fri., Nov. 3) in Studio 8-H at NBC in New York: A celebration of the 50th anniversary of “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” and a memorial tribute to the self-effacing genius who invented and ran it, Reuven Frank, who would later serve twice as president of NBC News.

Frank’s death was a demoralizing blow to a nationwide network of friends, many of them former colleagues, who kept in touch with Reuven for years by mail and phone and then, once Reuven learned how to weather the Web, via e-mail. Disentangled entirely from NBC News, which he found less friendly once NBC’s ownership changed from RCA to General Electric—from an electronics company to a toaster-making defense contractor—Reuven began writing about TV news in various venues, eventually including TelevisionWeek and the op-ed pages of both The Washington Post and The New York Times.

He was as temperate a writer as he was a human being; he refused to view with outrage or even much alarm the discouraging trends running rampant in the business he had helped invent. He would lay out a case cleanly and neatly, without appeals to emotion or sentiment, and leave it to readers to do some thinking on their own. I often wished he’d been more of an advocate or even a scold in his writing; he had the authority to deliver harangues and tirades with real clout behind them. But he didn’t want to be a grouchy old man.

Reuven viewed change with tolerance, with bemusement, stepping back to admire the fact that home-video gadgetry on display in a drug store window was, he said, far more sophisticated than the professional equipment used by the networks only a few years before.

He was one of the most context-conscious professionals who ever worked in the business, always capable of seeing the larger picture and refusing to become mired in transitory details.
“The Huntley-Brinkley Report” was a model of efficiency, cutting-edge technology and, thanks largely to Brinkley, wit. As executive producer, Reuven was the man who had to come up with a sign-off with which the team ended the 15-minute (!) newscast each night. After the kind of arduous deliberations that such minor matters always get in TV, he settled for what became a national mantra:

David: “Good night, Chet.”
Chet: “Good night, David.” (into camera) “And good night for NBC News.”
Cue Beethoven. That’s right; Ludwig Van wrote the closing theme.

“NBC News” was an institution to be particularly proud of in those days, the industry leader whose convention coverage, co-anchored by the Huntley-Brinkley team, crushed the competition—Walter Cronkite—over on CBS, where correspondents still wore pin-stripe suits and pin-stripe faces. The NBC upstarts loved making the pompous CBS boys look like monkeys. Indeed, the rivalry continues to this day.

Brinkley, with Reuven’s encouragement, brought a healthy disbelief to news of the power elite, with politicians getting a special, sly, subtle mockery—so subtle that the politicians themselves might not have even realized it was there. Brinkley loved his job, though Reuven used to call him “lazy” for his reluctance to travel to remote locations. Brinkley just didn’t see the point in it; send a camera crew, send a correspondent, but why in the world send an anchor? Anchors aren’t sent places; they remain stable, holding things down.

Television was still an exciting business to cover in the ‘70s and ‘80s, before cable came, and a 500-channel universe loomed, and it all got too big and loud—and before an arrogant ignoramus who served as FCC Chairman likened TV sets to toasters (perhaps a brotherly salute to GE). The first generation of broadcast newsmen and women had come out of newspapers and the print tradition, and they loved the sound of a good lead. But Reuven also knew that TV was a visual medium and that the picture, not the word, had to be king. He knew how to make the words serve the picture and he was brilliant at putting them together to tell a story—something he did with particular impact in “The Tunnel,” a 90-minute documentary about an escape passage under the Berlin Wall from East to West.

It won the Emmy as not just the best newscast but the best telecast of any kind the year it aired. Fred Silverman later got it out of mothballs and aired it again during his troubled tenure as NBC chief.

Sorry, I have blogged on too long. May I, however, inject a personal note—as Cronkite used to say? Covering TV in what were for me happier times had many major and many minor pleasures. Among the former was the occasional postcard or note from Reuven—especially one that, once his illegible handwriting had been translated, turned out to contain a compliment over something he’d read and liked. He’d put the sentence or phrase in quotes and add encouraging words. It was like getting money from God.

I could see why those who’d worked for him over the years cared so much about pleasing him—how earning his respect and approval could be the great goal of a career, something worth a hundred Emmys and a thousand cheers. Good night, Chet; good night, David; good night, Reuven; and good night, NBC News.