Scintillating, pixilating Trio

Jun 17, 2002  •  Post A Comment

I’m keeping an eye on Trio. In fact, both eyes. This is one hot little network, just on the brink of the big time. More importantly, Trio could turn out to be a great network-a valuable new cable channel for a world that seems to need nothing less than new cable channels.
For me, though, it was hate at first sight.
Lured by an obviously seductive title, I tuned to Trio on June 8, a Saturday night, to check out “The History of Pornography,” a six-hour documentary purporting to present precisely what the title promises (OK, I admit it, I was lonely. No, no. I felt a show with a name like that merited investigation). The miniseries, imported from England’s cheeky Channel 4, is a key component of “Trio Uncensored,” the channel’s attention-getting month-long look at, basically, naughty bits through the ages and the censorship thereof.
The British accents and scholarly experts on hand made it clear this was a serious, intelligent attempt to deal with a phenomenon that has existed for longer than anyone can know for sure. The approach was analytical but not stodgy.
`Uncensored’ cover-up
Of course, you have to illustrate such a report, right? Like, this is television. “Pornography” was full of illustrations. It was bulging with them. Tumescent. The only problem was you couldn’t see them. This “uncensored” attraction had been censored to smithereens.
Down in the lower right-hand corner Trio had burned in a bug-I believe that’s the terminology-that said “Trio Uncensored,” the umbrella title. It sat there staring back at the viewer with a kind of mocking sneer, making it all the more absurd and even infuriating that many of the visuals had been rendered utterly indecipherable.
Not only was there some sort of mosaic effect across the screen to obscure salient sections of erotic art, but then over the mosaic in many cases Trio had placed a big red dot. A big red dot? Yes, I said a big red dot. It was laughable except that it was deplorable. That dot seemed to symbolize the most cynical kind of hypocrisy-programming a show about pornography, airing it during “Uncensored” month, then bowdlerizing the hell out of it.
A call to a Trio publicist elicited a chagrined response and the admission, which actually sounds kind of obscene itself, that “We did feel the need to pixilate.” Of course. We all feel the need to pixilate now and then. But this was beyond pixilation. This was a Big Red Dot.
(The dot appeared so often and sometimes so large that you had to kind of contemplate it. Was it a relative of the Big Blue Dot that appears now and then in the National Enquirer and is alleged to have psychic powers? The strains of a long-gone rock tune meandered back from the past: “The morning sun is shining like a red rubber dot-er, ball”).
“It was hypocrisy, but it was well-intended hypocrisy,” says Lauren Zalaznick, president of Trio since May. “What happened was that very inexperienced formatters got their hands on the material, and the result was a kind of odd overkill. When I saw it and my boss saw it, we knew it was absolutely incorrect.” Zalaznick said the red dot was banished after the first airing (the miniseries will be repeated throughout the month) but that the pixilation will remain. In England, of course, most of it aired without censoring and without precipitating a national crisis.
But as Zalaznick says, “In context, there is a reason” for the obscuring of parts of the picture-and a good one. Trio is at present a single-feed service, so that what airs at 10 p.m. in the East-the appointed hour for most of the hot-ticket items in “Uncensored” month-shows up at 7 p.m. in the West. “You don’t want children bumping into this,” she says.
HBO and Cinemax show much more explicit stuff all the time, but of course those are pay channels, not basic cable channels, and that’s a whole other world. “Pornography” really belonged on a pay-cable channel, but even with the pixilating, and once the Big Red Dot got the heave-ho, Trio showed a certain healthy gutsiness in airing it.
Illuminating TV’s past
A few nights after the premiere of “Pornography,” things were looking up. A new documentary called “TV’s Most Censored Moments,” produced by the Worlds of Wonder boys, was sensational without being sensationalistic and marked one of the few instances in memory where television has looked at itself and done so bravely and critically. This one will be repeated in the nights ahead, too, and it really is worth catching just to be reminded of outrageous milestones in TV’s past that one may have forgotten.
The documentary includes, for instance, shots from the infamous rape scene in “Born Innocent,” a 1974 NBC movie starring Linda Blair that so shocked the nation that “family viewing time” was invented as a response. Blair’s character was raped-by reform-school girls using a broom handle-between 8 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., when millions of children were likely to be watching. Even now, the scene is an appalling shocker.
Also recalled are many, many instances of insane network and sponsor-imposed censorship. When the American Gas Association decreed there be no references to “gas chambers” in the 1959 “Playhouse 90” drama “Judgment at Nuremburg,” the actors tried to get them in anyway and were bleeped by technicians; we actually see Claude Rains mouthing “gas chambers” without audio. That’s as shocking in its way as the Blair thing.
Like that gas company tale, many of the stories are well-known, but actually seeing the clips make them more meaningful. “TV’s Most Censored Moments” hit a bracing bull’s-eye. TV may seem liberated now, sometimes too liberated, but revisiting the absurdity of heavy censorship is enough to make one grateful even for the more egregious excesses of modern times.
Trio has a tantalizing array of programming about censorship slated for the month of June, and month-long festivals of this kind will happen four or more times a year on the network, Zalaznick says; the next, on music, comes up in August and will include live performances from the New Orleans Jazz Festival. Trio isn’t really a new network; it used to be a quirky Canadian channel available to U.S. viewers who had satellite dishes. Now it’s owned by Vivendi Universal’s USA Networks, which means the ultimate top boss is the rather amazing Barry Diller.
Always room for quality
Diller seems to do nothing but buy and sell networks and businesses and expand his holdings, and every week he’s in the trades for having acquired this or dumped that. But in a chat by phone last week, Diller indicated he is taking a special interest in Trio and harboring high hopes for it. Zalaznick-who in her previous job breathed imaginative new life into VH1 (“Pop-Up Videos” was born on her watch)-may be the perfect programmer for Trio at this pivotal moment. It only reaches 14.5 million cable homes now, but when an article about Trio programming appeared in a Miami newspaper, there was a huge outpouring from readers who wanted it to be on their cable systems’ menus.
“Smart without being boring” is how Zalaznick describes her vision for Trio. “The word `quality’ doesn’t necessarily mean polite applause and faint praise. It can be pretty aggressive, I think.” An aggressive quality network is something there’s always room for. Zalaznick compares Trio to “the old” Bravo and A&E. Diller went so far as to evoke memories of CBS Cable, Willam S. Paley’s daring-though sadly ill-fated-cultural cable channel. Of course, Diller does not intend Trio to be ill-fated.
Zalaznick doesn’t like the tagline used by the service now: “The popular arts network,” and she’s looking for something else. “Everybody calls it `Barry Diller’s arts channel’ anyway,” she says. It’s just a hunch, but I can imagine the day when people may be calling it Barry Diller’s crown jewel. I can also imagine the day when CAA signs the Big Red Dot to a long-term contract, but maybe I’m just being cynical.