When President Obama announced he was holding a Tuesday prime-time press conference, all the broadcast networks dutifully (if grumpily) suspended their 8 p.m. programming...except The CW, which defiantly aired its regularly scheduled episode of Satan's-little-helpers comedy Reaper. Result: Reaper's audience jumped 11 percent to 2.5 million, a season high.
The endless bureaucratic hell that is the digital switchover roared with new flames Tuesday with the news that government coupons for new converter boxes are once again available. The government ran out of coupons late last year -- even though 17 million of them were never used, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration had issued as many as it had the funding to cover. But Congress, always happy to pour money down a rathole, appropriate more as part of last month's stimulus package.
The fact remains that 90 percent of American households get their television through satellite and cable and don't need the converter boxes. Just don't try to tell that to anybody in Washington.
UPDATE: If you reallllly think you need one, here's a website where you can apply for a coupon.
We're used to cult network shows being resurrected by cable, but this one's still a little surprising: Sue Thomas F.B. Eye is returning on Animal Planet -- and if the reruns draw a big enough audience, Animal Planet may commission some new episodes. Sue Thomas, based on the true story of a deaf FBI fingerprint technician whose lip-reading ability won her a job on the bureau's elite surveillance team, was a gushy but engagingaffecting series that had four quietly successful seasons on the Pax broadcast network from 2002 through 2007. Deaf actress Deanne Bray was engaging as Sue, but the real star of the show might have been Levi, her hearing-ear dog. Their affectionate if sometimes misadventurous relationship was undoubtedly the reason Animal Planet was interested. See for yourself starting with the two-hour premiere episode at 8 p.m. on April 6, 9 p.m. on Mondays after that.
Whoaaah! Stop the morning-zoo antics -- we've got breaking news here on the Paul and Young Ron show. ''A bill prohibiting bestiality is moving toward law here in the state,'' Ron Brewer solemnly informs Big-105.9 listeners. Adds Paul Castronovo: ``And my dog is happy for it.''
Still crazy after all these years -- 20 of them, to be exact -- Brewer and Castronovo have skated on more thin ice than Tonya Harding. They've done their show naked; they've pulled on-air Halloween stunts that could have gotten them killed; they've even encouraged listeners to flash their butts at Osama bin Laden.
But despite a million tense conversations with irate program directors, Brewer and Castronovo have not only survived but also thrived. Now on their third South Florida radio station, they've got the top-rated show in their targeted demographic, English-speaking men 18 and older -- not just in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market served by WBGG-FM 105.9, but in West Palm Beach, where the show is simulcast on The Gater 98.7. A Key West station will soon be added to the mini-network.
Not that either success or middle age has brought maturity. In fact, Brewer and Castronovo resent the suggestion.
``Calmed down?'' exclaims Brewer. ``It's the opposite. Haven't you ever heard Nude With a Dude in a Sleeping Bag?'' To find out what Nude With a Dude in a Sleeping Bag really is (you'll be sorry) and what makes Paul and Young Ron tick (you might be sorrier still) read my piece in Sunday's Miami Herald.
If I were making a list of the world's greatest experts on lists, David Wallechinsky would be right at the top. He's been compiling quirky collections of names and facts for more than three decades now, in books like The People's Almanac and The Book Of Lists, and he's the master of the form.
Who else is going to give you the names of 17 Children Who May Have Lived With Wild Animals? (No, Flipper's pal Bud doesn't count.) Or 10 People With The Most Square Miles Of The Surface Of The Earth Named After Them? (Sure, Amerigo Vespucci is at the top of the list, but I bet you didn't know that Norway's Queen Maud came in third.)
So it's with some trepidation that I dispute the absence of our local boys, Fidel and Raul Castro, from Wallechinsky's list of The World's 10 Worst Dictators, in the issue of Parade magazine bundled inside Sunday's Miami Herald.
Admittedly, the criteria for evaluating dictators are vague and controversial. Body counts are indisputably important; any roster of the most infamous dictators of the past hundred years, for instance, would have some combination of Stalin, Hitler and Mao up at the top. But after that, it gets harder to pin down.
Do you give points for weirdness? (Albania's Enver Hoxha banned tractors as a foreign and sinister technology.) Or peculiar sexual proclivities? (North Korea's Kim Il Sung once wrote a love sonnet to the mimeograph machine.) Or downright creepiness? (The Central African Republic's Jean-Bedel Bokassa occasionally ate his political opponents.) My March Madness tournament bracket for dictators may not have anything to television, but it's the only piece in Sunday's Miami Herald that has anything interesting to say about cannibals.
Nightline Face Off (11:35 p.m. Friday, ABC) -- Because the 2012 presidential race doesn't start for at least another week or two, the networks have a shortage of debating politicians. So they turned to the next best thing: Satan. On this special edition of Nightline, Deepok Chopra and United Church of Christ Bishop Carlton Pearson will debate the existence of the devil with evangelical Christian minister Mark Driscoll and Annie Lobert, founder of something called Hookers for Jesus. The cast of Reaper will moderate. OK, I made up the part about Reaper, but the Hookers for Jesus stuff is real.
In the Motherhood (8 p.m. Thursday, ABC) -- In this new sitcom, moms of various stripes, from an uptight Betty Crocker nut case to a do-your-own-thing goofball, struggle to raise snotty children in need of a hard slapping. Starring Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Jessica St. Clair (The United States of Tara) and Megan Mullally, who hopefully has been to a surgeon for removal of that irritating voice she used on Will & Grace.
Samantha Who? (8:30 p.m. Thursday, ABC) -- After being repeatedly bumped and dumped to make room for The Bachelor, this comedy starring Christina Applegate as an amnesia victim horrified by what she discovers about her old life finally gets a regular time slot. It's funny, so watch quick, before ABC loses it again.
Let me program your TiVo! Just click on my best bets for the week at www.tivo.com/guruguides.
Talk about a smackdown! A few years ago CBS big boss Les Moonves was doing a press conference with TV critics concerning the programming on his smaller network, UPN. One of the critics asked when UPN would get rid of its pro wrestling show,Friday NIght Smackdown, which in the critic's judgment didn't fit well with the network's other female-oriented offerings like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and America's Top Model.
"Why should we get rid of it?" Moonves shot back. "ABC has Monday Night Football and Desperate Housewives, and nobody sees a problem."
"Come on," the critic replied. "There's a big difference between pro wrestling and Monday Night Football."
"Yeah," retorted Moonves. "Pro wrestling actually makes money for us."
Since then, UPN and Monday Night Football have disappeared into the dustbin of television history. But Friday Night Smackdown is still around, now on MyNetworkTV, and at 8 p.m. Friday it airs its 500th episode. The ever-popular Rey Mysterio, JBL, Maryse and Michelle McCool and others will be biting ears, gouging eyes, and all the other stuff that makes wrestling cool.
Very cool, apparently. Between Smackdown, USA's Monday Night Raw, the Sci Fi Channel's ECW, and various replays that extend clear over to the Spanish-language nets Telemundo and Mun2, WWE pro wrestling is pulling in 15 million viewers a week. And guess what? A lot of them are women. Some 40 percent of WWE viewers are female, and more women aged 18-to-54 watch Monday Night Raw than any show on Oxygen or Lifetime. If Buffy The Vampire Slayer had pulled numbers like that, both it and UPN might still be around.
Now this is a story you won't read in the Mainstream Media. On Wednesday, Rush Limbaugh was making fun of President Obama on the air, needling him about some recent Teleprompter screwups -- particularly one at the White House's St. Patrick's Day party where the wrong speech was loaded into the prompter and Obama began thanking himself for inviting himself to the party before he realized what was wrong.
Since there was no new multibillion-dollar bailout to assail, Limbaugh mock-seriously went after the Teleprompter, barking out interrogatories like a Congressional committee high on subpoena ink: "There's a rumor, teleprompter, that you send out a small shock to the president when he mispronounces words or mangles phrases you tell him to say, or that you can even make him cough. Is that true? Teleprompter, in private, is Joe Biden as buffoonish in private as he is in public? Tell us!"
Mildly amusing, as long as you're not a member of the People for Ethical Treatment of Technology or something. But then...the Teleprompter answered! Barack Obama's Teleprompter Blog appeared on the Web Wednesday, jibing back at Limbaugh as a technoboob ("He sometimes speaks from notes, and often off the top of his head"), offering tips on interpreting nuances in the president's speeches ("when The Big Guy says, 'Secretary Geithner is doing a great job,' it's not a laugh line") and brooding about rivalries on Obama's staff ("There are some folks in this place who are pushing for Barack to go out there alone. Sans me...Are they insane? With this rabid press corps constantly looking to pin Him down for every friggin detail about obscure legislation like the TARP funding?")
And get this: Not only does Obama's Teleprompter blog, he Tweets! Geeze, I hope nobody has left the nuclear codes lying around. This could be how the world ends, not with a bang but an unstable Teleprompter channeling HAL from 2001.
In an age when Nielsen monitors ratings trends in 15-minute blocs, CBS has just done the unthinkable: renewed a pair of sitcoms, not for a single season but several. Two And A Half Men, about to wrap up its sixth season, was picked up for three more years, The Big Bang Theory, finishing its second, was renewed for two.
The decision is somewhat less astonishing in the case of Charlie Sheen's frat-house comedy Two And A Half Men, the top-rated sitcom on TV. But the other renewal, The Big Bang Theory, was a bubble show just last year. But The Big Bang Theory, the tale of an unlikely friendship between a group of Cal Tech geeks and a gorgeous Cheesecake Factory waitress, has shown first steady and then near-spectacular ratings growth this season and now has joined Two And A Half Men as an anchor of the CBS Monday-night comedy lineup.
The real key to the deal, though, was probably a lawsuit. Warner Brothers, the studio where both shows are produced by Chuck Lorre, sued CBS in December claiming it was owed $49 million in ratings bonuses. The suit was settled this week on undisclosed terms, but you can bet the deal included these renewals.
It will be interesting to see if the shows can sustain themselves for the life of the deal. Two And A Half Men was an immediate hit when it debuted in 2003 with its story of a divorced wimp (Jon Cryer) and his 10-year-old son (Angus T. Jones) moving into the bachelor pad of his sleazebag brother (Sheen). Much of the humor has revolved around the incongruity of Sheen's relentlessly immature character trying to help raise a little kid. But the "little kid" is now in high school and will be a college student by the end of the deal signed Wednesday. Will it still be funny watching Sheen smuggle naked chicks past him?
The Big Bang Theory faced a similar question almost from the first episode: How many ways could it tell the same joke about the egghead and the buxom blonde? So far the series has done a remarkable job of sustaining its premise -- week in and week out, The Big Bang Theory is the funniest show on television. Will it still be two years from now? If both shows tank, CBS could be looking at The Big Bust Theory.
Nobody's going to pay attention to this piece by MSNC's Tucker Carlson, because Carlson had his own highly publicized run-in with Jon Stewartthree years ago. Nonetheless, there's a lot of truth in what Carlson says: that Stewart should stick to being funny. When he takes his press clippings seriously and poses as The Conscience Of The Media, Stewart is not only dull and self-righteous, but rather dim, too. For instance, his accusation that Jim Cramer and CNBC knew the economy was going to collapse but concealed it. "A ratings-hungry TV network had the scoop of the decade but decided to sit on it?" Carlson writes. "Why? In order to curry favor with soon-to-be-disgraced corporate executives? It didn’t make sense." I'd go further and say it's snipers-on-the-grassy-knoll stuff, but you get the idea.
Stewart's problems began three or four years ago when hipper-than-thou critics began touting his satirical The Daily Show as somehow more informative than the networks' evening newscasts. Preposterously, the Television Critics Association (full disclosure: I was a member at the time) even gave him its 2004 award for outstanding news programming, and when CBS booted Dan Rather there was a lot of talk that Stewart would have a spot on the reworked newscast. It became the common wisdom that vast hordes of young Americans got most of their news from Stewart.
Since then, Stewart has devoted an increasing amount of his show to interviews with politicians and policymakers, and periodically erupted into tirades against actual news organizations. CNN, he said, was "hurting America" (compared to who? Osama bin Laden? Lindsey Lohan?) and his frothing attack on CNBC has eclipsed Bill Moyer's tirade against the White House press corps as the gold standard for pseudosophisticated critiques of the "corporate media." (No matter that The Daily Show itself is a smiley-face front for its voracious corporate pop Viacom. Do not look behind the curtain!)
Alas, as Carlson points out, Stewart's "interviews" are mostly marshmallow-throwing contests. (Even his attack on Cramer probably would never have happened if CNBC reporter Rick Santelli hadn't offended Stewart by breaking a booking on The Daily Show.) And any American who depends on Stewart for all his news is certifiably an idiot, since The Daily Show is put together by comedy writers who rarely leave their building, much less visit places like Kabul or Baghdad, where the luncheon spread that craft services puts out is so inadequate. Happily for us all, those young Americans raptly hanging on Stewart's every word are almost entirely mythological: His biggest audience of all time was the 2.6 million viewers who tuned in on Inaugural Day, a minuscule fraction of what the network newscasts draw. Even poor little beat-down Katie Couric pulls in about 7 million pairs of eyeballs a night.
Unlike Tucker Carlson, I still think Jon Stewart is capable of being devastatingly funny. I just wish he'd do that and leave the schoolmarm scolding to Keith Olbermann.