First HBO renewed its male-hooker sitcom Hung. Now comes the news that Diane Keaton has signed on to do an as-yet-untitled sitcom about an aging feminist icon who launches a porn magazine for women. It'll be written by Marti Noxon, who's also worked on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice. After a long run of sitcom flops, I guess somebody at HBO has finally remembered that Sex and the City did pretty well.
If I were a broadcast television executive, I'd be very discouraged by an interview with new FCC boss Julius Genachowski that was published Friday, and if I were a cable executive, I'd be worried. Genachowski, speaking with the trade journal Broadcasting & Cable, said his agency needs to keep a tight regulatory rein on the content of broadcast programming, a guarantee that its audience will keep shrinking. And he ominously expressed concerns about cable content, too, which suggests he's mulling a power grab to bring cable -- currently free of FCC control -- under the government's thumb as well.
Genachowski said regulation of the content of broadcast TV is still necessary "because there are millions of Americans for whom broadcast television is their only video medium." That's simply absurd. More than 90 percent of American homes get their television via cable or satellite, and many of the remain 10 percent watch little or no TV at all. (Which is why the much-forecast national mental breakdown over June's switch to digital broadcasting never happened: Hardly anybody was actually affected.) More importantly, most of the TV audience at any given moment is watching a cable channel rather than a broadcast channel. At least in part, that's because cable programmers don't have to water down their content to appease random FCC dicta on which word or body part might be indecent.
But that might change if Genachowski gets his way. Of course, it's all in the name of the children, you understand. "Parents are very frustrated when they turn on the TV, whether it's a broadcast-only home or whether they are cable or satellite subscribers," Genachowski said. "They are frustrated because they see things they don't think are appropriate for their kids, and they are frustrated by their [lack of] ability to do something about it. There is also frustration and confusion about all the different media platforms kids deal with today."
The clear implication is that the FCC might be interested in helping out those frustrated parents by making sure cable programming is appropriate. (Not to mention cleaning up the Internet, video games and God knows what else might be covered by the phrase "all the different media platforms kids deal with today.") It doesn't take much imagination to guess what the FCC Child Police would do with shows like Nip/Tuck, True Blood or Nurse Jackie. Once you've established children as the justification, almost any act of censorship can be justified.
I'm not unsympathetic with the criticisms of TV programming made by groups like the Parents Television Council. If I had kids, I wouldn't want them watching the smarmy sexual come-onsand debauched gangsta-rap values that inform virtually everything on MTV, just to name one offender. But the best way for the FCC to deal with those concerns is to endorse so-called a la carte programming for cable systems, which enable parents to pay foronly the channels they want coming into their homes rather buying entire tiers of programming as they do now. Letting FCC censors, who work with the speed of slugs (they've got years of backlogged complaints over broadcast indecency on which they haven't even begun to work) and the lucidity of delphic oracles (they infamously ruled the F-word indecent when used as a verb, but okay as an adverb) is a recipe for disaster, not only for cable channels but for viewers.
Hollywood has more lawyers per square inch than anyplace in the United States except Washington D.C. Most of them are employed by networks and studios, endlessly sifting scripts and reviewing shot scenes to make sure that nothing has been said or photographed that remotely could trigger a licensing lawsuit. And I mean remotely. Remember how all Jimmy Stewart's friends went off to some nameless college in It's A Wonderful Life? In the original script, the college was Cornell, but RKO lawyers went insane and deleted the name.
David Cronenberg reshot an entire scene of The Dead Zone because a set dresser had put an E.T. toy in the background in a kid's bedroom. And when I visited the set of a record store in NBC's 1960s family drama American Dreamsa few years ago, I noticed that all the LPs in the record bins were fakes (groups like Zimmy and the Zothars, stuff like that) made up by the show's art department. When I asked Jonathan Prince, the executive producer, why he wasn't using real, recognizable record albums of the time, he shrugged and said, "They're afraid somebody would hit us for licensing fees."
Oddly, this concern doesn't seem to extend to the titles of TV shows at all, as I was reminded by this week's announcement that FX has ordered 13 episodes of a new cop show called Lawman. The FX show will star Tim Olyphant (whose previous law-enforcement experience was playing Sheriff Seth Bullock on HBO's Deadwood) as a U.S. marshal whose colleagues consider him a hopeless antique. The show is based on a character created by Elmore Leonard in a short story called Fire in the Hole.
What makes this strange is that there was another show that was not only called Lawmanbut was also was about a U.S. marshal. The original Lawman, a cheapjack version of Gunsmoke, ran on ABC during the 1958 to 1962 heyday of Westerns and starred John Russell. It was interesting mostly because it was one of the few shows on TV in those days in which the hero wore facial hair. (A mustache...beards were unthinkable for anybody on TV but grandfathers and anarchist bombthrowers.)
It's the second time in less than a year that a title of an early 1960s TV show has been recycled. Last fall, CBS debuted a crime drama called Eleventh Hour that was no relation to NBC's 1962-64 show of the same name starring Ralph Bellamy and Wendell Corey as psychiatrists. I guess all the good names have been taken. Combat, Surfside 6 and The Virginian are probably on the way even as I write this.
The good news over at WSVN-Fox 7 Wednesday was that Deco Drive anchor Louis Aguirre was chosen by viewers nationwide to co-host the syndicated talk show Live With Regis And Kelly on Monday. (It airs locally at 9 a.m. on WSVN.) He'll work with Kelly Ripa while Regis Philbin takes the day off.
The bad news is that Aguirre's victory means another WSVN anchor, Lynn Martinez, lost. She was holed up with lawyers Wednesday, considering a challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court alleging that voters were confused by butterfly ballots, not to mention Philbin's endless stream of cosmically esoteric triva about Notre Dame football.
Could be some of this talk about the collapse of CNN has been a bit premature. The network, riding a tidal wave of Michael Jackson mania, just had the best July in its entire history. CNN's weekday primetime audience average 1.28 million, kicking sand in the faces of cable news' once-and-perhaps-future 98-pound weakling, MSNBC, withjust 868,000 viewers. MSNBC, which has been on the verge of establishing itself as the No. 2 news network in the ratings, slipped way back in July, finishing fourth place in the 25-to-54 age demographic that news shows like.
Whether CNN lives might depend on whether another celebrity dies. There's not much doubt that Michael Jackson coverage triggered CNN's ratings surge. Larry King Live!, which practically renamed itself Michael Jackson Dead! during the month, jumped 54 percent in the ratings.
What isn't working: Lou Dobbs' rants about President Obama's birth certificate. His overall audience dropped 5 percent, and almost double that in the 25-to-54 demo. But take heart, Lou; your July was da bomb compared to Keith Olbermann's. His demo audience was the lowest it's been since December 2007, and that was no fluke: Olbermann's ratings have been steadily shrinking for nine months now.
While CNN and MSNBC scrap for second place, Fox News just keeps rolling along in first -- except more so. Not only did Fox News have more viewers than its two competitors combined, but its primetime audience in the 25-to-54 demo jumped an insane 70 percent.
UPDATE: To answer a question posted down below, no, Nielsen TV ratings do not count podcasts or other online viewing. Nielsen has a new service that's starting to count those numbers, but I think it's still pretty experimental. And the online audience for television shows is still believed to be tiny, though it's growing all the time and undoubtedly represents the future.
My pal Kate O'Hare reports the following exchange at a CNN press conference today in Los Angeles.
JOYCE BEHAR: Tell me what's going on today.
TV CRITIC: I'm a TV critic. I have no idea.
It's not exactly television, but...
I've heard of whistling while you work, but I think Max Baucus takes it too far. Baucus, the Montana Democrat who chairs the Senate finance committee and will have a lot to say about the final shape of any healthcare reform, says the new taxes Democrats are contemplating to pay for it are ``interesting, they're creative, some are kind of fun.'' I guess, if you think bankruptcy, layoffs and unemployment are kicky.
Those are the inevitable results if Congress goes ahead with the main idea being kicked around: the so-called play-or-pay provision that would require almost all businesses to either provide health insurance for their employees or pay a tax penalty of up to 8 percent of their payroll.
Much of the debate around healthcare reform has floated in the philosophical stratosphere -- whether it amounts to socialized medicine, whether it will lead to rationing, whether it's moral to force young, healthy workers into insurance plans to bring down premiums for everybody else.
But before we even get to that, shouldn't we ask a more fundamental question? At a time when American businesses are going bankrupt at a rate of 240 a day, when the unemployment rate is 9.5 percent and headed north, does it make sense to impose any new taxes on business? What if play-or-pay leads to a third option: taking your ball and going home? Read my full op-ed column in Tuesday's Miami Herald.
If you love WSVN-Fox 7's Louis Aguirre and Lynn Martinez -- or even if you loathe them and just wish they'd get out of town for a couple of days -- here's your big chance. Live! With Regis And Kelly(which, imagine the coincidence, airs in South Florida on WSVN) is letting viewers vote on which local broadcasters should co-host the show for the day. And Aguirre and Martinez have made the top 20 list. You can vote for them here, but the deadline is 10 p.m. Tuesday, after which station management will club them like baby seals if they don't win. Well, probably not, but that's only because WSVN lacks my promotional genius.
If you sit around on Sunday nights wishing you were at Merlotte's pounding back warm bottles of synthetic fake blood, well, your time has come. HBO has announced that in September it will start marketing a real-life version of the synthetic blood that the tame teetotaling vampires drink while trying to slurping from the necks of their human neighbors in its series True Blood.Omni Consumer Products, which actually makes the stuff (called, just as in the series, Tru Blood) claims it's a "great tasting, refreshing and enlivening drink." Which is odd because the vampires in the show are always denouncing it as tasteless, dull and generally the vampire equivalent of tofuburgers, but whatever. Go ahead, order some, though I'm told you'll want to keep some vodka on hand.