If you get a warm, fuzzy feeling whenever Lou Dobbs starts barking about illegal immigration, you're going to love ABC's new reality series. The network has just ordered 11 episodes of something called Border Security that will follow law enforcement agencies as they try to round up drug smugglers and illegal immigrants along the border. It's produced by Arnold Shapiro, the same guy who does Big Brother. And that's a punchline too cheap even for me.
When you get out the grill this weekend, how about adding a few Survivor and Mole contestants to the charcoal? When Hormel Foods surveyed its customers, asking what irritating pop culture trends they'd like to barbecue to a crisp this summer, a gratifying 48 percent replied "reality shows," while 44 percent mentioned "baby-bump sightings on non-pregnant celebrities." (Better look out, Ashlee Simpson.) The other favorite culprits were mostly predictable -- black nail polish, animals that fit into designer purses, pop-star clothing lines -- but I confess myself perplexed that 32 percent of Americans hate leggings enough to want to douse them in lighter fluid and toss a match. Leggings? Ahead of, like, Paula Abdul?
Tuesday night's announcement that the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) has reached a tentative contract deal with the studios is less significant than it might sound -- and it by no means guarantees that Hollywood actors won't go on strike this summer. The stronger, and much more militant, Screen Actors Guild hasn't agreed to anything yet. And SAG has made it clear from the beginning of contract negotiations that it will go its own way. In fact, SAG often seems to regard AFTRA as the enemy rather than a fraternal union. Just Tuesday SAG sent a letter to its members
attacking AFTRA for holding "confidential sessions'' to bargain with the studios.
The smaller AFTRA represents soap-opera actors, TV weathermen, musicians, reality show hosts, announcers and other performers on the periphery of television production, about 70,000 in all. SAG's 120,000 members include everybody else, including most film and TV actors. (About 44,000 people belong to both unions, which means the number of Hollywood workers exclusively represented by AFTRA is only about 26,000.) They've been squabbling for some time now over jurisdictional issues -- particularly AFTRA's claim that SAG is trying to poach some of its soap-opera actors.
Meanwhile, SAG is also fighting battles internally. Because a SAG membership card is required for even a bit part in most Hollywood productions, thousands of SAG members are really limo drivers, bartenders, or waiters rather than career actors. One faction within SAG wants to exclude these so-called "middle class actors'' from any strike vote. Another faction says protecting the weakest members is exactly what unions are all about. The feud has turned rather bitter during the past couple of months, with petitions and counter-petitions circulating all over Hollywood.
With all that going on, it's easy to lose sight of the actual issues on the table at the negotiations with studios. The big one, just as it was in the writers' strike that shut down TV production for three months at the beginning of the year, is dividing the pot of revenue from DVDs, on-line screenings and other new digital media. Both the writers and directors have already negotiated settlements with the producers on these issues, which you'd think would provide a good model for SAG -- but Hollywood labor negotiations often have more to do with machismo than good sense.
So there's still a good chance of a strike when SAG's contract with the studios expires at the end of June. The fear is great enough that almost no new movies have started shooting during the past several weeks because studios don't want production suspended by a strike. Some TV producers have gone the opposite route, rushing into production ahead of the usual schedule in order to get some shows completed for the fall season. Bottom line: We may have a second consecutive TV season wrecked by a strike. SAG, which suspended negotiations with the studios on May 6, is scheduled to resume them Wednesday. Stay tuned.
How bad was the 2007-2008 season for The CW? Bad enough that it finished behind Spanish-language network Univision. Well, let's make that "got clobbered by Univision." The Spanish net averaged an audience of 3.5 million viewers, a whopping 44 percent more than The CW's 2.5 million. In the 18-to-34 age bracket that The CW supposedly targets, it was even worse: Univision's audience was 64 percent bigger.
In fact, maybe this item is really about Univision's growing strength rather than The CW's weakness. The English-language nets talk about attracting younger viewers, but Univision actually does it: The combined 18-to-34 audience of ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW) was down by 14 percent this season, while Univision's was up 2 percent. When the industry talks about the Big Five nets these days, Univision ought to be one of the five.
When I talked to Barbara Walters for a story for last Sunday's Herald, she was pretty blunt about why she left 20/20 after a quarter of a century: the eternal, infernal pressure for "the get," the big interview -- particularly the Parises and Britneys and Lindsays of the world. "The fact that it’s mostly celebrities out of rehab that’s interesting to people," Walters told me, ticking off the reasons TV news magazines are headed in a direction she didn't want to go. "The fact that it’s 18 to 49 where our ratings come from, all of that plays a part. And now the Internet, blogs, cable, YouTube, it’s a whole other industry."
If there was a moment that summed it all up, she said, it was the final interview she did for 20/20 in September 2004. Walters trying to get President Bush, then locked in a bare-knuckle race for reelection against John Kerry. ABC told her instead to talk to former schoolteacher Mary Kay Letourneau, just out of prison for having sex with one of her students.
"People are not interested in heads of state," Walters said. "It’s not a big coup to get an interview with a president or a politician. We are much more celebrity-oriented. In part it’s because of the 18 to 49 [demographic], attracting younger viewers." Even on the specials that she continues to do four times a year, she has trouble getting ABC's attention for political stories. "The last time I interviewed a head of state was what, a year ago, Hugo Chavez, who people are interested in because he’s like another Fidel
Castro," Walters noted. "And he had done no interviews. But there’s just not the interest in it, in general."
Still, she doesn't necessarily share the conventional wisdom that network news is a dinosaur lumbering toward the tar pits.
"People have been announcing the death of network news now for at least the past five years," she said. "But there still seems to be an audience. There still seems to be an audience for network [news] programming. Somehow or other, they’re still going."
And if she were starting out her career all over again, Walters says, she'd probably still go into TV news.
"The good thing is that there’s so much more opportunity for women now," she said. "In front of the cameras, behind the cameras, even as executive producers. So I’m sure I would be [interested in TV]. But the difference is that if I was on top of the game, I was also ahead of the game. I had no mentors. There was certainly a glass ceiling. There were very few opportunities for women. You had a terrible struggle.
"Today there is much less of a struggle. But there is also much more competition. It’s a wonderful field. And you have to work very hard. You did when I was doing it, and you do today. A lot of travel, a lot of long hours, but it’s a wonderful field. And there are so many women when you turn [TV news] on. You almost can’t listen to a program that doesn’t have a woman on it. That’s great. When I see all the young women who made it and they say you paved the way, that’s my reward. I’m terribly proud if I made even a little difference. Not just in television but maybe for women in general. What a reward."
Carol Lin, the first anchor to go on the air with the news that an airliner had crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, has been missing in action for about 18 months now since parting ways with CNN. She resurfaces Tuesday on NPR's noon-hour Day To Day show with a personal report: an account of reconciliation in her sometimes-troubled relationship with her mother, who is battling cancer. It is, unfortunately, a subject on which Lin has some expertise. Her husband, CNN producer Will Robinson, died of the disease in 2003, just six weeks after their daughter Chloe was born.
When you hear the words celebrity and serving in the same sentence, it's usually followed by -- best-case scenario -- "sushi'' or, more likely, "time in jail." But believe it or not, a lot of show-biz folks have spent time in the military. A few to keep in mind on Memorial Day weekend:
** Bea Arthur played TV's first prime-time character to get an abortion back in 1972 on Maude. Thirty years before that, she broke another cultural barrier when she was one of the first women to volunteer for the Marines, where she served as a nurse during World War II...
The Andromeda Strain is full of surprises. Every time you think it's merely bad, boring television, it offers up a moment of such exquisite stupidity that the existential bounds of the universe seem to shimmer and remake themselves before your very eyes. My personal favorite bit was when a biologist, told by a fellow scientist that a disease from outer space is about to obliterate humanity, nods and asks how his kids are taking the divorce.
But The Andromeda Strain has idiotic moments for every taste, or lack of it. Maybe you prefer the researcher who, at a loss to explain how a newborn has survived the disease, shrugs helplessly: "It's not like the baby was knocking back handfuls of acetosalicylic acid." (I dunno, doc; no telling what these crazy kids pick up on YouTube these days.) Or the unfortunate hippie who contracts the space germs when a mouse bites him on the bare butt as he squats behind some scrub brush in the desert. (Thus is the counterculture refuted!) Read my full review in the Miami Herald.
She left The Today Show where everybody loved her for an anchor chair on an evening newscast. After months of hype over her gender and her paycheck, half the country tuned in to watch the first night. But the viewers never came back. The show stayed in a distant third place, right where it was before the network spent all that money on her, and soon the critics began sniping about her delivery, her interviews and -- as if it were some kind of sin against journalism -- her salary. Soon it wasn't a question of whether the plug would be pulled on her show, but when.
Nope, this isn't a story about Katie Couric and her troubles at CBS. It's about Barbara Walters, whose short and unhappy career anchoring ABC's evening newscast three decades ago was eerily, painfully similar. If there's one person in the world who truly understands what Couric is going through, it's Walters. Read my full Miami Herald story.
Recount (9 p.m. Sunday, HBO) -- Just in case you were starting to forget how much fun the 2000 election was -- Hanging chads! Butterfly ballots! Everybody hates Florida! -- HBO has thoughtfully repackaged every painful moment as a movie, with Kevin Spacey, Ed Begley Jr., Laura Dern and just about every other star in Hollywood except Flipper and Gentle Ben, who, on account of being South Floridians, are still under a cloud of suspicion about the whole thing.
Shark Swarm (8 p.m. Sunday, Hallmark Channel) -- Sharks high on toxic waste eat practically everybody in a coastal town. The bad news: Darryl Hannah, Armand Assante and John Schneider survive. The good news: It's not in Florida.
The Andromeda Strain (9 p.m. Monday, A&E) -- In this two-part miniseries (it concludes Tuesday) remake of a 1971 film, outer-space germs attack the Earth, reducing humanity to a few ragged bands of freedom fighters armed with king-size bottles of Lysol. OK, I'm kidding; it's stupid, but not that stupid. Benjamin Bratt, Eric McCormack, Ricky Schroder, Daniel Dae Kim and Christa Miller star. As humans, I mean. The germs are all British guys from Masterpiece Theatre that you never heard of. By the way, miraculously, this one doesn't take place in Florida, either.
East of Havana (10 p.m. Friday, Sundance Channel) -- A documentary about Cuba's tenacious, outlaw hip-hop community, produced by Charlize Theron. Something tells me we're not in The Buena Vista Social Club anymore, Toto.