Sick of seeing Paris Hilton every time you turn on a TV? Well, meet the people responsible for her iron grip on cable news: You. Larry King's interview with Hilton Wednesday night pulled in 3.2 million viewers. That was triple the size of King's ordinary audience since 2005 and the show's best rating in two years.
ABC's new Christina Applegate sitcom, which won't air for another four or five months, is already on its third title. When ABC announced it had picked up the show, it was called Sam I Am. Earlier this month the title was changed to Samantha Be Good. Now the network has renamed it Samantha Who? That ties ABC's previous record for stupid screwing-around with a show's title, set last year with Let's Rob Mick Jagger/Let's Rob.../The Knights Of Prosperity. C'mon guys, with just a little push, you should be able to come up with a fourth title. How about Son of Sam?
By the way, I've seen the show's pilot, and it's a good one. After being hit by a car, Applegate awakes from a coma with amnesia. Trying to put the pieces of her life back together, she learns she was such a bitch that almost everyone who knows her assumes that the hit-and-run driver who hit her was trying to kill her. Which is pretty much what I assume about the ABC executives who keep changing the show's title.
To see the damage done by the absurd fiction that America's broadcast airwaves belong to "the people" -- a cute rhetorical device that in practice translates to grandstanding politicians and Big Brother regulators -- just take a look at Tuesday's hearing on violence in the media before the Senate Commerce Committee.
The senators said repeatedly that researchers have "proven" violence harms children, though they wisely avoided any discussion of the social-science quackery that passes for research on this subject. But, granting their premise for a moment, did they talk about the Internet, undoubtedly the single most pervasive and unmonitored medium reaching American kids? Nope. I could post the video of poor Danny Pearl's head being sawed off on this blog and wouldn't hear a peep from any of the distinguished senators.
Movies or gangsta rap? Nope. Too much political money in that part of Hollywood -- that's why Tipper Gore promptly shut her mouth on the subject when her husband developed presidential ambitions. Video games, in which kids not only see acts of violence but are rewarded for carrying them out? Frank Lautenberg made a couple of token stabs in that direction but was roundly ignored by everybody else.
No, the hearing concentrated almost entirely on TV. "Cowardly, terrible, appalling, repulsive were just some of the terms used by legislators to describe TV programmers," Broadcasting & Cable wrote in its account of the session. Because the airwaves are owned by "the people," the senators feel free to endlessly bluster and threaten TV executives, secure that that nobody will bring up that annoying First Amendment business.
Just how absurdly carried away they get was clear from Tuesday's hearing. One of the focal points was a scene from a coupe of seasons ago on FX's The Shield in which a police captain is taken hostage by members of a street gang, then forced to have oral sex with one of them. Even Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, who was supposedly there to defend the TV executives, railed against the scene, claiming it was probably met the definition of legal obscenity.
In what universe, Professor Tribe? The sex was shot without nudity or on-camera exposure of genitalia. More to the point, the sex was forced -- that is, it was rape. I've seen literally hundreds of rapes in movies that were both more violent and more sexually explicit. Perhaps the most graphic was the vicious pool-table assault on Jodie Foster in 1988's The Accused, which was almost universally praised for supposedly showing the humiliation and degradation felt by rape victims, for bringing the real impact of the crime home to the men in the audience.
Well, The Shield did the same thing -- the rape itself lasted only a few moments, but the impact on the police captain continued throughout the season, damaging his performance at work, wrecking his family life, leaving him sexually impotent and fueling a thirst for revenge so overwhelming that he eventually struck a deal with other criminals to murder the rapist. If you ask me which made brought home to me the psychological damage suffered by rape victims, The Accused or The Shield, I'd say it was wasn't even a close call: The Shield. But instead of being praised for its candor, as The Accused was, The Shield is being offered as pretext for establishing government censorship of television. That's what happens when "the people" own something.
Of course, the irony -- perhaps crime would be a better word -- is that The Shield isn't even on the airwaves. FX is a cable channel, not a broadcast network, and lies outside the FCC's authority. That's a technicality that the senators would like to change. Would-be decency czar Jay Rockefeller promised to introduce legislation putting TV under the thumb of government censors. He's tried before without success, but Congress' lust to win cheap votes -- and punish political enemies along the way -- is growing. Earlier this week, California's senator Dianne Feinstein said she favors reimposing the old Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters, for the explicit purpose of putting talk radio (too conservative for her delicate San Francisco tastes) out of business.
The wisest thing TV people could do right now would be to endorse the proposals floating around for so-called a la carte pricing for cable service. A la carte pricing would enable cable customers to order (and pay for) only the channels they want. Anybody offended by The Shield could simply not order FX and leave the rest of us alone. The Parents Television Council, the clean-up-TV group that produced the video collection of violent scenes (Including the one from The Shield) that got the senators so worked up Tuesday has said many times it would back off of calls for government regulation of cable content if a la carte pricing were to become law. The TV industry should take them up on it.
CNN is just busting its buttons over scoring the first interview with grizzled ex-con Paris Hilton, Wednesday night at 9 p.m. on Larry King's show. Only the churlish would point out that Hilton came to CNN only after the three broadcast news divisions were shamed into dropping the idea. And only the churlisher would do something as mean as point out that CNN boss Jon Klein is always bragging that his network doesn't do bimbos or car chases, just Serious News.
Klein in 2005: "Our editorial chops are alive and well. We're kicking butt everyday. The American people want serious news -- and they're not getting enough of it from cable…We are the most essential source of information for Americans. We've aligned all of our day parts to be the newsy alternatives."
Klein in 2006: "Sizzle is out – audiences expect substance and we deliver that in a way no one else does. We are feeling very good about the momentum we have gained and the fact that we are showcasing our reporting. Our gimmick is news."
Klein in 2007: "We're hoping Paris will flash her boobs on camera." Okay, I made that one up, but don't you bet he's thinking it?
The voice is familiar, but the face . . . well, it isn't there. WINZ radio (940 AM) has added Alan Colmes, the beleaguered resident liberal among Fox News commentators, to its late-night lineup. His nationally syndicated call-in show airs from midnight to 3 a.m.
Don't expect to mistake the radio show for Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, though. ‘‘Hannity's not there, for one thing," Colmes says. "And I take phone calls, which we never do on TV." Not to mention the guests. Sure, you'll still hear interviews with people like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain. But then there's also the guy who was selling helmets to protect against possible space-alien death rays.
"That's probably not the kind of thing you'd see on Hannity & Colmes," Colmes said, diplomatically refraining from what must have been a terrible temptation to make a joke about Bill O'Reilly. "You can explore areas that, well, go with the time of night a little more."
Burn Notice (10 p.m. Thursday, USA) -- No money, no credit cards, it's 8 million degrees and 10 million percent humidity outside, and traffic is backed up along Biscayne Boulevard to somewhere near the outskirts of Savannah. No, it's not your life -- it's Burn Notice, a new series starring Jeffrey Donovan as a spy tossed aside by his bosses and left to fend for himself in
hell Miami, without so much as a Sunpass to his name. Now he's got to find the evil Leviathan at the heart of the conspiracy against him. FPL? Comcast? Jim Defede? Personally, my money is on that grilled cheese sandwich with the image of the Virgin Mary, which I always thought smelled of a Castro trick.
Screened Out: Gay Images In Film (10:15 p.m. Monday, Turner Classic Movies) -- This month-long film series has finally worked its way into the 1960s. Its offerings Monday include two top-notch movies: The Children's Hour, the 1961 adaptation of Lillian Hellman's play with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as teachers at a girls' school accused of lesbianism by a student, and 1962's Advise & Consent, the first really insightful Hollywood film about politics, with Henry Fonda as the president and Don Murray as a senator with a skeleton swishing in his closet.
Hey Paula (10 p.m. Thursday, Bravo) -- In this new reality series, Paula Abdul presents a serious new side of herself, explaining how a non-rotating black hole's photon sphere traps the particles and moves them along tangential orbits, and performing scenes from Last Year In Marienbad in Aramaic. Well, that's the first episode. In the second, you get to see her swill grain alcohol from her Coke cup during
American Idol tapings, sleep with contestants, and then howl at the moon like a coyote after being hypnotized by Simon Cowell.
Prom Queen, the webisode mini-murder-mystery that was the hit of the Internet this spring (15 million viewers!) has generated a sequel. Prom Queen: Summer Heat will kick off in August, with some of the characters getting into trouble during a vacation in Mexico. The sequel will be shorter than the original -- 15 two-minute episodes over three weeks, instead of 80 over three months. “The fans are craving more," says Michael Eisner, whose Vuguru studio produces Prom Queen, "and the great thing about the Internet is the ability to meet their demand almost immediately." Well, most people think the great thing about the Internet is porn, followed closely by this blog, but you know what he meant.
If you've ever wondered how studios can spend so much money on a movie or TV show and still hope to make money off the thing, Thursday's sale of syndicated reruns of the sitcom The Office is a good lesson in the arcane finances of show business.
The Office draws mediocre ratings on NBC (which doesn't stop it from being the fourth-highest scripted show in NBC's imploding Nielsen universe) and with a comparatively large cast has probably only returned small profits to its producers. But even a middling hit on broadcast television looks like pure gold to a cable operation like TBS, which just agreed to pay $750,000 an episode for the exclusive rights to rerun The Office over the next two years. (And it could have gone higher. Comedy Central dropped out of the bidding at the last minute in an attempt to save money to re-sign Jon Stewart.)
Then a deal with MyNetworkTV kicks in. Because MyNetworkTV's prime-time schedule is only two hours a night, and it has no network newscast (some MyNetwork stations don't have any newscasts at all), its stations are a gaping, bottomless maw for syndicated material to fill their airtime. The details are of the MyNetwork deal are hazy, but some TV people estimate that The Office could be pulling in as much as $4 million an episode when all is said and done. Even the low-ball estimate of $1.5 million an episode looks pretty fat for a show that finished 68th in the Nielsens last season.
A lot -- at least, that's the thinking at ABC. The network has just changed the name of one of its upcoming fall series -- starring Christina Applegate as an amnesia victim who discovers that in her previous life she was a nasty bitch -- from Sam, I Am to Samantha Be Good. Last fall ABC did something similar, retitling a sitcom from Let's Rob Mick Jagger to The Knights Of Prosperity after Jagger complained. Wonder if the estate of Dr. Seuss raised a fuss about the use of a character from Green Eggs And Ham?
Vincent Curatolo, who played John Sack in The Sopranos, appeared in Hillary Clinton's hilarious political ad spoofing the series finale, the only cast member to do so. So what was it? Her position on Iraq? Her let's-get-tough-with-Big-Pharma stance? Well...
"I got a phone call the evening before, Saturday evening, from one of our directors on The Sopranos, Allen Coulter, who said that a friend of his, a director, was doing something for the Hillary campaign, and they wanted one of The Sopranos stars," Curatolo said on Neil Cavuto's Fox News show Wednesday. "I said, well, you know what? Have them send a big, long car tomorrow morning, and we will go. I'm in northern New Jersey."
Curatolo, by the way, is the only Sopranos star I'm aware of to go on record saying he didn't like the show's end. "I was a little let down," he told Cavuto. "I wanted a little more closure. I think I would've had Carmela and -- and Tony say something to each other that they have never said to each other all these seasons... I would love for her to have said: 'You know what? Come with me. We're going to move to the mountains. We're done with all this, no more SUVs, no more big house. I love you. You love me."' Jeez, what a wussy. No wonder David Chase had him die in a prison bed instead of getting whacked in some really cool way like Phil Leotardo.