Thursday, February 24, 2005

Vivienne: The Last Call For Desperate Boyfriends

For those of us who absolutely, positively, just gotta have a girlfriend, a Hong Kong company offers a virtual honey via cell phone. Not only can you converse with her, you can buy -- yes, people will be charged for this -- virtual flowers and candy.

Whatever happened to being a satisfied single?

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

(Not So) Lacking Political Coverage

It turns out several stations are upset with the Lear Center study which says local TV devoted more time to car crashes than local political races this past election cycle. Several have written to the Center to dispute the methodology, which left out several newscasts. Now the Lear Center has responded (scroll down to the middle of the page to see the follow-up).

Interestingly enough, Lear says it used the "voluntary standard the industry set for itself in the Gore Commission Report of 1998." Only 7 out of 22 on that group were from the broadcast industry, which begs the question: who really agreed to this standard? I bet you it wasn't local stations.

Roid Rage

I'm not sure if steroids or hemorrhoids drove Barry Bonds' angst at his back-to-practice press conference but I have to say this:

Barry, grow up.

It doesn't matter whether you juiced or not or how many home runs you hit. Your performance in front of the mic is pitiful -- something more fitting to the playground than the baseball diamond. Badmouthing the press like they don't have a right to pursue the truth smacks of arrogance.

BONDS: "We just need to go out there and do our jobs, just as you professionals do your job. All you guys lied. All of y'all and the story or whatever have lied. Should you have asterisk behind your name? All of you lied. All of you have said something wrong. All of you have dirt. All of you. When your closet's clean, then come clean somebody else's. But clean yours first, okay."

The old glass houses bit. Fair enough. But what you obviously miss, Barry, is that we've already cleaned house for our mistakes. Now it's your turn. But I guess I'm overly optimistic with wooers like these:

"Dodger Stadium is the best show I ever go to in all of my baseball. They say, "Barry sucks" louder than anybody out there. And you know what, you'll see me in left field going just like this, because you know what, you've got to have some serious talent to have 53,000 people saying you suck. And I'm proud of that."

"But now, don't turn it into a spectacle now just because you have the freedom to come into our office and snoop and make up stories if you choose to, because, you know, a lot of it's not true. I mean, baseball players, every baseball player I know of, and I've been around this game since I was a child, all care about this game, all love this game, all have had their own personal problems or non-personal problems. But for the most part, no one goes out there and wants to embarrass the game of baseball, no one wants to go out there and embarrass themselves. I don't want to go out there and embarrass myself in front of people."

"Are y'all going to be good people or are you all going to be who you are and make the game or sports what it is? It's become "Hard Copy" all day long. Are you guys jealous? Upset? Disappointed? What?"

"Every time there has been incident, it has been corrected and now that it's being corrected, I think we need to go forward, move forward, let it go. Y'all stop watching Red Foxx in rerun shows and let's go ahead and let the [drug testing] program work and allow us to do our job."

Certain people believe they outgrow media scrutiny when they pass a certain milestone. Sorry, pal, it doesn't work that way. And I really don't care how much you whine or complain about it. As long as you try to stick it on everybody else but yourself, you'll get treated like the classless heel you lived up to today.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson: The Original Blogger

Gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide at his home in Aspen, Colorado. His last column was vintage Thompson: crossing guns with golf. Leave it to the doc to find a way to work a gun into anything.

But consider this as you look back on his trippy, alcohol- and drug-influenced career. He was the original blogger. Maybe somebody will come around and prove me wrong, but think about it. Thompson made his name writing anything he wanted with little editorial restraint, little respect for authority, and allegiance to nobody. Once upon a time they called that "New Journalism." And then came the Internet.

I'm sure Thompson is somewhere thinking right now, "Man, this is the worst hangover I've ever had," much like his comic-strip alter-ego Duke once said many years ago. We'll miss you, man.

Wide Release

Variety has an interesting article on how studios are moving away from R-rated pictures simply because they do better business. But what's most interesting is the obvious isn't stated: it's easier to take the whole family to something PG or PG-13 than R.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Kenau Reeves
Rated: R
Red Flags: Violence, Demonic Images, Language

Preconceived Notions: Reeves leaps from one Matrix to another.
The Bottom Line: Heaven, Hell, and moral ambiguity. Whatever happened to plain right and wrong?

Why is it Catholics are always the targets for demonic possession? Didn't Satan fancy a Southern Baptist or two, or maybe a few Lutherans? Come to think of it, I never heard of a possessed Jew. Oy vey. You would think protestants, those people less aligned to the original branch of the church, would be more malleable for the forces of evil. I guess not.

Constantine is based on a series of comic books -- ahem, graphic novels -- for adults. Reeves plays John Constantine, a chain-smoking exorcist who can't get into Heaven, has already been to Hell, and is dying of lung cancer. So he bides his time as a demon-buster, ridding people of evil spirits. Earth, we are told, is a sort of demilitarized zone between Heaven and Hell. Angels are supposed to stay in their place, and demons in theirs. However, that doesn't rule out influence by one force or another -- a way to game the system using people as pawns. As Constantine points out, "They call it the balance." But some guys just don't play by the rules.

So the world may be coming to an end because somebody has stolen a religious relic which has the power to allow the son of Satan into this world. However, we learn, that person needs the help of (drum roll) God. Uh, right. He also needs a Catholic. Surprise, surprise, surprise.

So people are used as tools by higher powers. So we are all living in netherworld between good and evil, although most of us don't know it. Sounds like (drum roll) The Matrix. Yeah, that's right. There's even a neutral third party reminiscent of Morpheus.

Constantine lives in its own artificial world, all right, one lifted from the comic books where people speak in sentences short enough to fit in frames. Its setting is Los Angeles, the "City Of Angels," just one of several visual symbols we see through the film. Like The Matrix, Reeves commands the CGI around him without a stretch. He doesn't dodge bullets but he does run through walls.

What bothered me about Constantine was how it could reduce the fight between good and evil down to a few people with nary any collateral damage. I know, I know -- not everybody can see demons. But if humans are pawns, we should at least be able to tell when we're being played or who's on what side. Looks like The Matrix has us.

Friday, February 18, 2005

So Why Is Local Election Coverage So Lacking On TV News?

A new study looked at 11 large TV markets in the month leading up to Election Day 2004. It found just 8 percent of the local evening newscasts were devoted to local races and issues. Media watchers, including press-bashing conservatives are not happy. Neither is the National Association of Broadcasters, which pointed to flawed methodology, namely leaving out daytime and morning newscasts, "Nightline," Sunday morning interview shows, and station websites.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona has introduced legislation shortening the time between license renewals and forcing broadcasters to detail their public-service programming committments. Good luck getting this bill passed against the power of the NAB. Then again, higher fines for indecency appear to be sailing through Congress.

But let's get back to the title question. As a TV newscast producer, I can offer you my insights, for what they're worth. And remember, my opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of other producers or the stations they work for.

1) Not enough time. To do political coverage right, you need to devote a considerable chunk of airtime. My "news hole" is about 13 minutes at 10pm. That's what's left for news after sports and weather have taken their slices. I would argue you need at least two minutes to devote to each race. That doesn't seem hard for me, and frankly, I've run longer pieces in the past. Just tonight, KOLD News 13 devoted 4 minutes to the issue of growth problems in Sahuarita, a boom town south of Tucson. Not exactly tabloid TV. If we can do it for growth, we can do it for politics. But at other stations you've got other people out there who just gotta have time for crap like the Michael Jackson circus trial. Come on -- if it's all over the cable channels and Court TV, do you really need it too?

2) Not enough people. TV stations aren't cash cows. And when times get tough, people get laid off. When things do turn around, many stations don't bother to return to their previous staffing levels, thinking they can make it just fine with the bare essentials. Heck, just let the network news feeds and CNN fill up the time. News is news, right? Thankfully, I work at a station willing to make the committment to local news. Don't get me going about Sinclair and its NewsCentral fiasco, which mainly involves slashing staff and doing news out of a central location in Maryland... and oh yeah, with a conservative slant, too. When you've got enough news of the day and "breaking news" to cover, good luck having the time to do anything else.

3) Not enough interest. A colleague at a previous station told me people only care about politics on one day: Election Day. I'd like to think she's wrong, but the ratings keep telling me she's on to something. Issue-driven programming makes for good citizens but lousy Neilsens. Yes, we have This Week and Meet The Press and Face The Nation. But none are a ratings smash, and really, those programs are more about providing material for the Monday newspapers on the slowest news day of the week. Yes, we have Bill O'Reilly and the gaggle of cable shout-shows -- if you want a political version of the WWE. Jim Lehrer does a fine job each night on the NewsHour, but only a sliver of us are watching. Put three or four guys at a roundtable and fingers hit the remotes. No station manager or news director wants to be tuned out.

4) Not enough experience. Quality political reporting requires quality people, who do quality reporting. Many of those people demand quality money, too. Unfortunately, too many stations put their old masters out to pasture rather than paying the cash and getting over their irrational fears of the fiftysomething reporter scaring off "key demos" -- people aged 18-49. Hiring young and new means hiring cheaper. I'm sure a lot of college hires could cut it, but unlike newspapers, most TV news operations don't use the "beat" system, meaning everybody covers everything from car crashes to crime to education to politics. Guess what kinds of stories reporters cover the least.

5) Not enough creativity. I'm sure a way exists to make political stories watchable, interesting, and informative, but stations aren't trying hard enough to find it... even with all the graphics and eye candy available to us now -- and without turning into another shout-fest, either. If people aren't watching issue-oriented political news, maybe it's because we're not making it relevant to them. We're not telling them why they should care. If we ask viewers to give up 30 minutes or more of their day to spend with us, we've got to make sure we're answering viewers questions.

6) Not enough committment. Unfortunately, some stations (and station groups) just don't want to do heavy public-service lifting. And why should they have any motivation to? I don't know of a single station that lost its license for failing to devote enough time to community issues. The FCC ditched the "fairness doctrine" years ago. It dropped requirements that AM and FM stations devote a certain percentage of their time to news. Fine. The FCC shouldn't dictate content. But nobody should act surprised that political coverage has slipped when the regulators have clearly said they don't care much about it either.


I'm not one to gripe without offering a few ways out. Here's some ways we can turn things around:

1) Reward stations that make the committment. How about tax breaks for stations that can demonstrate a consistant record of issue-oriented news programming? This isn't about regulating content -- this is giving stations some incentive to overcome fears of lower ratings and lower revenues. Here in Arizona, we have the "Clean Elections" system, which is encouraging people to run for office with state-subsidized campaign money. I think we can find some financial encouragement for broadcasters.

2) Sell advertisers on the value of political coverage. Show me an advertiser who wants to be a good neighbor -- most do -- and I'll show you a way to pay the costs of more local political coverage. Do a couple of news specials each election year with nothing but political stories and get them to pay for it.

3) Tell people why they should care. Here's a rough draft for a promo, and I do mean rough: "Your vote is your voice. Don't like the way the system is treating you? You can change it. And we're going to tell you about the people who want to run things. Because if you don't make the choice at the ballot box, somebody's going to make a choice for you. And you might not like it. Don't say we didn't warn you." We've gotten so good at scare tactics for goofy news series. Why not use the same technique for something really worthwhile -- like democracy?

As always, I'm interested in your ideas. Use the "comment" button.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Hockey Drops Dead -- You See Any Mourners At The Funeral? contributor Ray Ratto says nobody really cares that the NHL season is officially dead. And nobody cared when it was on the brink, either. We'll now take bets on how many fans will come back whenever this lockout ends. When setting your odds, remember the 1994 MLB strike that blew up the World Series. Remember how NBC, CBS, and ABC have all dumped baseball coverage. And keep in mind those 'roids. The standard disclaimer: past performance is no indicator of future events, but they sure do help.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Lovely, Wonderful Thoughts

On February 11, 2005, Chris Francis had his three remaining wisdom teeth removed via oral surgery. The operation required general anethesia and copious gum-numbing. The following is adapted from his personal journal.

I kept having fears about being put under as I lay in bed last night and early this morning. I could barely remember anything about the last time I was put under for an extraction. The anesthetic IV kicked in lightning fast -- about 30 seconds. The next thing I knew, I lie in some side room groggy with a mouth full of gauze.

The appointment was for 11am. I went there with Mom and we only sat in the room for 5 minutes before they called me back. I gave her my Patriot Salute -- two fingers above the eyebrow, a symbol of confidence and whatever bravery I possessed -- and went through the door.

I was led into the room with the chair and given a form to initial and sign, indicating I knew the risks of general anesthetic including… death. I read every word of it. I shuddered at signing my own death certificate.

A kindly assistant stuck heart monitors on my chest, under my grey t-shirt. A blood pressure cuff went on and I soon saw in front of me a visual representation of my anxiety. Beep. Beep. Beep. My blood pressure was normal, if that was any consolation. An IV stood at attention, waiting for duty. I glanced at my right wrist.

I prayed to God. Please get me through this.

Another technician and Dr. Denbrock soon showed up and my heart started to race a little again. He put a strap on my right arm and gave me something to squeeze.

"Just a little pinch," the technician said.

"Lovely, wonderful thoughts," I whispered, recalling that line from Peter Pan. I started sweating.

Another technician added an oxygen tube to my nose. "Nice deep breaths through your nose," he said.

"How long will this take?" I asked.

"About 5 minutes," Dr. Denbrock replied. "We're going to go nice and easy." No first-round knockout this time.

I closed my eyes. My arms dissolved into sleep. Lightness infected my head. I wanted to sleep. But my heart was racing. I sat in that chair and sweat was still pouring off my arms. The beeping sped up.

Some part of me, somewhere in my subconcious, thought I had been given a lethal injection. I flashed back to that critical scene in Million Dollar Baby, where (spoiler alert! spoiler alert!) Clint Eastwood says, "I'm going to disconnect your breathing tube, and you're going to go to sleep, and then I'm going to give you an injection, and you're going to stay alseep."

The assistants caught on. The kindly nurse added a cold cloth to my forehead and a blanket over my body.

"Nice, deep breaths through your nose," the oxygen assistant repeated.

"We're going to take good care of you."

Lovely, wonderful thoughts, I thought again. I worked on my breathing.

"I'm sorry," I mumbled through the gas and the dripping IV. "It's been a long time since I've done this."

It has been more than a decade since I've gone under the knife. Who knew what complications awaited?

"You're doing just fine," the assistant repeated.

Lovely, wonderful thoughts. I hoped I would dream through this.

"Now that some of your color's back," Dr. Denbrock advised, "I'm gonna start the medicine."

Not long after, I was out.

And the operation proceeded according to plan, although getting my right lower tooth took a little longer because it split apart when they pulled it. They had to x-ray me to make sure they'd gotten in all.

I know I dreamed. And my dreams don't make sense because they're my mind doodling on the blank paper of my subconcious. The only thing I remember clearly after the last moments on anesthetic and oxygen is sitting in another room with another chair. Cotton filled my mouth. The IV drip was gone, replaced with a bandage on my arm.

Mom said they wheeled me out in a wheelchair and I gave her another Patriot Salute just before they took the x-ray, but I don't remember it.

The operation was done. Time to go home.

I'm not really in any pain, and I don't even look swollen. I've had to keep changing bloody gause in my mouth every couple of hours or so. I'm also getting reacquainted with the joys of Vicodin.

Lovely, wonderful thoughts.

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

"She hit him with the Bible!"

This audio file is worming its way around the 'net and it's funny as hell. The scene: a Jack In The Box manager in Dallas is in his car, leaving his boss a voicemail message on why he's running late when he sees an accident in front of him... and then a melee after... for which he gives a play-by-play.

Is is legit? isn't sure. My search has turned up nothing to back it up. But after listening to it, who cares? Listen and enjoy. WARNING: The file is 2 megabytes! Broadband (or patience) is highly reccomended.

Friday, February 4, 2005

Why Can't She Just Stay In Prison?

Wanna know why people hate Martha Stewart? Take a lesson now from the New York Post's Andrea Peyser.

Beat The Press

I remember the first question from the first interview I ever had for a TV news producing job: "Why do you want to work in this business? The hours are bad, the pay is s#!tty -- why do it?"

I can't remember how I answered. Maybe it was something clever and succinct like, "because I can." I'm pretty sure that wasn't it, although it sounds a lot better now.

Maybe you've heard about the survey saying one-third of American students think the first Amendment goes too far and only half -- yes, half -- of students said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely.

That isn't depressing. That's just downright scary. The government could start regulating news content tomorrow and half the student body wouldn't care.

Kansas City Star columnist Mike Hendricks blames it on right-wing talk radio: "Guys like Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Whining Bill O'Reilly have built careers denigrating the press. We're all a bunch of libs, they say, out to push an agenda that's hurtful to the well-being of mom, apple pie and the Republic." He also blames it on declining social studies education and several well-known media scandals.

If I learned one thing in my patriotic pilgrimage to Williamsburg, Virginia last year, it was this: take your rights and freedoms seriously because nobody else will. Kids aren't getting that message in school. Adults aren't doing much better at home. We're so scared of terrorism we're allowing the government to sand away our freedoms with overreaching legislation like the Patriot Act and the indefinite detention of enemy combatants, who are obviously whoever the government decides them to be. Some example we're setting.

Part of reason kids don't get history and social studies -- which would give them some appreciation for Constitutional freedom -- is because too many schools do it by the book. Just read it. In math courses, you work out problems. In science, you do experiments. In English, you're working to write coherent sentences, wrestling with words and revising paragraphs. But no interactivity takes place when it comes to teaching the past and the bedrocks of our society. Read a bunch of facts, memorize a bunch of dates, study a bunch of dead white guys... and then forget it all.

We need to make civics class more like science class. Let's make it a lab for democracy. I'm reminded of the amazing ABC News documentary "Eye Of The Storm," where elementary school teacher Jane Elliott taught her class about racism by dividing them by eye color. Maybe we teach our kids about the Bill Of Rights by taking rights away from them and seeing how they like it... starting with the First Amendment. Remember that old cliche -- you don't know what you've got until it's gone. Let's make our kids want what they have.

But what about the adults? Maybe us media types need to take a radical step to educate the masses. Maybe we let somebody in the Bush Administration decide the lead story of the New York Times or the evening news broadcasts for one night to show the danger of government-controlled media. Or maybe we don't -- because the hard right wouldn't get the point.

I consider myself a patriotic independent. I vote for who I want, Republican or Democratic. And despite journalists' low ranking on the list of most admired professions, I've never been spat upon for telling people I produce television newscasts. Most people ask me if I know Anchor X. One person overinterpreted the "producer" title, asking if I had to put up my own money to get the show on the air. Heavens, no. Aside from transmission, payroll and equipment costs, free speech is still free.

All I ever wanted to do in this business was produce quality television -- not change the world, not get somebody elected. All I ever wanted to do was make my audience informed and smarter. All I ever wanted to do was leave the world better than I found it. Relax, this isn't a suicide note.

I'm fortunate to work at a station in Tucson which gets the "quality" part. So did the station I came from in Texas, when people used to drive by and shout "Five is number one!" whenever our anchors were out doing some community service project. Granted, we're not here to be liked, but if we want to be respected, all of us gotta be schooled.

Thursday, February 3, 2005

Basketbrawl: The New Generation

Looks like nobody learned anything from last year's Pacers-Pistons dust-up. Check out this melee at a high school girls game in Alabama.

I particularly like this quote from a cheerleader: "People were screaming and running. Girls lost their cell phones. Keys got lost." People are getting the hell beat out of them and you're thinking about your damn cell phone?

Police had to use taser guns on some people. A lot of good that did. Maybe they should've taken a few frames from those wild-west movies and had somebody fire a gun into the air.

Draw The Line... Draw It Again

One year after Janet Jackson put the boob in the tube, Frank Rich's latest column in the New York Times argues we're living in a cowardly new world of self-censorship. It's aggravated by conservative family groups and the clout of President Bush's re-election.

But before you go shopping for a Puritan outfit, let's remember this: times change.

The uptight, Commie-scared 50's gave way to the free love and dope of the 60's and 70's. And then came the Reagan years, AIDS and crack. Americans once again retuned their moral center. Bill Clinton got caught in a lie about oral sex. But for a lot of us, it was no big deal. Now, imagine if the revelation about his jollies came out after Miss Jackson's celebrated wardrobe malfunction.

Rich hits the bullseye when he says morals groups are spending political capital based upon the "media horde" labeling moral values the prime issue that got Bush re-elected. Do I have to explain this again? Moral values are only one term in a complicated equation factoring in foreign policy, desire for consistency and the failure of John Kerry to find an antidote for the Swift Boat ads.

Red-state paranoia is so pervasive among Democrats, it's driving them to desperation. Take what Senator Harry Reid said right off the bat in his response to the State Of The Union address: "I was born and raised in the high desert of Nevada in a tiny town called Searchlight. My dad was a hard rock miner. My mom took in wash. I grew up around people of strong values, even if they rarely talked about them. They loved their country, worshiped God, never shunned hard work and never asked for special favors... A few weeks ago, I joined some friends of mine for a bite to eat at the Nugget, Searchlight's only restaurant."

Tell me this isn't a transparent suck-up to red-staters. It hits all the right notes: a man born and raised in a small town with hard working, God-fearing, family-values parents. And for the bonus points, Reid throws in that oh-so-tired political cliche of getting together at the local diner. I grew up in Missouri, heart of red-state America, and not once did I ever hang out at the local diner. Somebody please retire this worn-out imagery or at least update it with a more realistic location, like the Wal-Mart.

This cycle of fear and self-censorship will flame out in time. It just takes enough outrage over the people who have nothing better to do than be outraged for us. TV critic Jeff Jarvis recently exposed the form-letter sham behind at least one FCC complaint campaign against indencency. I can only hope it's the beginning of the end.