The U.S. Senate Monday approved legislation that would delay the switchover from analog to digital television for four months. The bill changes the transition date from Feb. 17 to June 12. But the change won't be official until the House approves it too; that could happen as early as Tuesday. The Obama administration asked for the change because, depending on which figures you accept, somewhere between 8 and 10 percent of American households are unprepared for the switchover. Because most of those households watch little or no television (anybody with cable or satellite service is already prepared for digital signals), that figure is not going to decline much between now and June. It will be interesting to see if Obama and Congress blink again as the new date approaches.
Judging a life from the headlines attached to it can be a grave mistake. That's certainly the case with Clay T. Whitehead, the former Nixon White House aide who died last month at the age of 69. He spent virtually his whole life working to expand the television universe and break viewers out of the three-channel monopoly that dominated the industry for its first 40 years. But that struggle was conducted completely outside public view. Whitehead's single brush with fame ran in quite the opposite direction.
In 1973, while heading Nixon's Office of Telecommunications Policy, Whitehead gave a widely reported speech lashing out against liberal bias in TV network news -- what he called "ideological plugola'' of "so-called professionals who confuse sensation with sense and who dispense elitist gossip in the guise of news analysis." Whitehead said the White House would introduce legislation that would revoke the licenses of local stations that "fail to act to correct imbalance or consistent bias from the networks."
The speech, coming on the heels of Vice President Spiro Agnew's repeated tirades against the media, won him a reputation as a Nixonian hatchetman. Unlike Agnew's rhetoric, Whitehead's threat had real teeth. Revoking stations' licenses for bias in a network newscast -- whether real or imagined -- would have quickly led to the end of network news. How could a station manager in Hutchinson, Kansas, or Roswell, New Mexico, possibly be expected to fact-check a Walter Cronkite newscast in advance? Time magazine, in a fairly typical (and reasonably accurate) attack, called Whitehead's speech "a blatant attempt to use the government's licensing power to enforce certain political views or standards."
There was less publicity when Whitehead, soon after, apologized to broadcasters for the speech -- and less still for the fact that the legislation he mentioned was never introduced. For the rest of the Nixon administration, Whitehead's name was pretty much synonymous with Agnew's, at least among the general public. Only a few industry insiders understood that in the White House, Whitehead was actually working for policies that would eventually lead to the creation of cable television as we know it today, offering Americans a broad spectrum of voices not only in entertainment programming but in news and public affairs as well. You can read my full account of his pioneering work in Sunday's Miami Herald.
I've always assumed that Whitehead was a dedicated culture warrior who simply changed tactics, deciding that diluting the power of the networks through deregulation would be easier than beating them over the head with license revocations. But Brian Lamb, who worked for Whitehead in the Office of Telecommunications Policy and later went on to found CSPAN, told me last week that he never believed Whitehead was much concerned about liberal bias at the networks at all. Whitehead, Lamb says, was simply trying to placate the real White House hatchetman, Nixon adviser Charles Colson, who subsequently went to jail for his role in the Watergate scandal.
"You've got to remember that we were always looking over our shoulders in that White House," Lamb said. "They were a lot more interested in fighting with the Democrats over Vietnam and Watergate than in telecommunications policy. They wanted everything we did to be a part of that fight. And Colson was the big gun. He could have shut us down at any time. In fact, he almost did when [Whitehead] called for the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine."
What Whitehead was really interested in, Lamb says, was diversity in broadcasting. "He wanted more voices, more voices, always more voices," Lamb declares. He certainly got them. Take a look at this week's TV schedule: Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Bill O'Reilly, Keith Olbermann, Nancy Grace, Glenn Beck, Stephen Colbert. Without cable television, we wouldn't have any of them, and without Clay T. Whitehead, we wouldn't have cable.
As part of the manic Nielsen urge to count everything -- someday, I'm convinced, the company will attach little black boxes to your lawn to count the leaves of grass there -- they've released a new study that shows that average U.S. home gets 118.6 channels. But the average household only tunes in to 16 of those channels, which explains why a lot of folks are interested in so-called a la carte pricing for cable, in which they would only for the specific channels they order.
Another interesting fact hidden away in the study: Black viewers watch way more TV than anybody else. The average black household watches the tube for 45 hours and 22 minutes a week, compared to the overall American average of 31 hour and 55 minutes. Why that's significant: It accounts for the disappearing black sitcom. Sponsors decided they could do without The Bernie Mac Show, Girlfriends, The Hughleys, The Steve Harvey Show, and My Wife And Kids because they get their messages in front of black viewers on other shows.
It's not exactly shocking news, but satellite-TV customers are happier with their service than cable customers. The annual American Customer Satisfaction Index, produced by pollsters from the University of Michigan, DirecTV scored 68 points out of a possible 100 from customers, while Dish was close behind at 65 -- the two-top-rated companies in the survey. Cable as a whole scored 64, but that rating benefits from the performance of smaller companies like Cablevision. Most of the larger cable companies got lower scores: Time Warner 59, Comcast and Charter 54. So much for the "consumer protection" that comes from government regulation of cable. Consumers get the best service when companies compete, not when they sit back in comfortable government-created monopolies.
The readers write:
If you have any opportunity to inquire about the Deadwood mini-movies promised for this
summer, we would appreciate it. I'm sure you have heard how everyone is anticipating more of Deadwood -- in any form.
Jacksonville Beach, FL
When HBO canceled Deadwood last year, it promised the story would continue in two movies. Since then, however, HBO has undergone some management changes, Deadwood producer David Milch has gotten wrapped up in the network's surf noir series John From Cincinnati and the movies have pretty much vanished from public discussion -- until Thursday, when TV critics pressed HBO executives on the subject during a Q&A session in Los Angeles. And I'm afraid it doesn't sound good, Toni.
"It is complicated," said Michael Lombardo, HBO's chief programmer. "We don't have have holds on the actors anymore. David is busy doing John...It's doable. It will just be daunting." HBO Co-President Richard Plepler didn't even sound convinced that Milch wants to do the movies. He said even if all the Deadwood actors can be rounded up (many of them have contracts for other films or TV series) there's a question of "whether or not David is fully committed and motivated to getting the script written."
"I spoke to him the other day," added Plepler. "He's obviously exhausted in concluding this project with John. And I think he wants a little time to think about it."
The chances for the movies may hinge in large part on whether HBO decides to pick up John From Cincinnati for a second season. A month ago, that would have been unadulterated good news for Deadwood fans; the mystical and mysterious John was tanking in the ratings despite its heavy promotion during the final weeks of The Sopranos. But Plepler said the show has rallied, with 4.3 million viewers watching the latest episode. "The show is really finding an audience," Plepler said.
It's hard to know how much of that is spin -- Plepler also claimed HBO is happy with the ratings for its phlegmatic sitcom Flight Of The Conchords, which had less than a million viewers last week -- but a renewal for John From Cincinnati seems at least possible, if not exactly likely. If the show is picked up, the HBO bosses said, Milch will have to go right back to work writing new episodes, and the chances for the Deadwood movies shrink considerably.
That, by the way, led to one of the most interesting asides during the HBO presentation. A critic, noting that The Sopranos sometimes went a year and a half between seasons, wondered why a renewed John From Cincinnati couldn't be put on hold until at least one of the Deadwood movies is done. Lombardo said, quite firmly, that the long gaps between seasons of HBO series are a thing of the past.
"Waiting a year and a half between shows, I think we've discovered, is probably not ideal for the viewer," he said. "I think viewers have expressed that to us." That's exactly 190 degrees the opposite of what HBO executives used to tell us when we asked why it was taking so damn long to produce another season of The Sopranos. Back then, they claimed, all the complaints about long hiatuses were from TV critics, not viewers, who didn't care. On Thursday, HBO finally admitted the truth: They were willing to put up with just about anything in order to get another season of The Sopranos from perennially reluctant producer David Chase, but those days are done.
Anyway, bottom line on the Deadwood: not so good. When we asked for odds on whether the movies will ever be made, Lombardo dodged: "I'm not a betting guy." Plepler guessed about 50-50, but his voice seemed pained. You want to see Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen again, my suggestion is to buy the DVD.
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.
The FCC's long-awaited report on TV violence is finally out, and it's even worse than anybody expected. Not only did the report say the government can and should regulate violence on television, but in interviews explaining, the commissioners were quite clear that they aim to appoint themselves censors of cable TV as well as broadcast. "We can't just deal with the three or four broadcast channels -- we have to be looking at what's on cable as well,'' FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told the Associated Press.
If that ever somes to pass, TV will be reduced to mush. The FCC report suggests that a crackdown on violence will extend into practically every show on television. “A broad range of television programming aired today contains [violent] content," it observes, "including, for example, cartoons, dramatic series, professional sports such as boxing, news coverage, and nature programs.”
So don't misundertand: We're not talking about The Sopranos and CSI here, we're talking about Iraq war coverage on the CBS Evening News and CNN's Virgina Tech coverage, not to mention the lions and tigers on Animal Planet, fistfights at hockey games, and the Nazis in Schindler's List. Anything that some quack psychologist thinks might give a 4-year-old nightmares (or, as the FCC put it, “a definition based on the scientific literature" that "recognizes the factors most important to determining the likely impact of violence on the child audience”) will be fair game. We'll be going right back to the lowest-common-denominator standard of the old three-channel universe.
This is the lunatic endpoint of the whole "it takes a village" school of collective child-rearing. The FCC is saying it doesn't believe parents can be trusted to make decisions about what their kids should watch on TV, so the Nanny State will take over -- and its standards will be inflicted on all of us, children or not.
This report couldn't come at a worse moment. The idiot shrieks of First Amendment Chicken Littles, who predict the end of free speech over everything from Bill Maher leaving ABC to the Bush White House kicking Helen Thomas out of the front row at press conferences, have large desensitized the public to the issue now that there's a genuine threat. And with an election coming up next year, what American politician wants to be the pro-TV-violence candidate?
The last, best hope to divert the kiddie-knows-best steamroller is for cable and satellite TV operators to warm up to the idea of a la carte programming. A la carte service means that subscribers could pick (and pay for) only the channels they want, instead of being forced to accept vast tiers of channels that bore and/or repulse them. There's no technological reason this can't be done. When I was a foreign correspondent living in Nicaragua in the 1990s and watching TV on one of those giant C-band satellite dishes, my satellite company allowed me to choose the channels I wanted from a menu of a couple of hundred.
The cable industry has bitterly opposed a law mandating a la carte service because it's a greedy government-protected monopoly that's used to getting its own way. Why should it let you pay less money for fewer channels when for all these years it's been able to set prices as high as it wanted without fear of regulation or competition? The television industry has sided with the cable guys, because a la carte would destroy its ability to bundle unwanted channels with their popular ones and force cable companies to buy both. Time to wise up, guys. Nobody's going to be buying anything if we have 500 channels full of The Bobbsey Twins Visit Blueberry Island.
I once asked Brent Bozell, the head of the Parents Television Council and the head of the clean-up-TV posse, what it would take to satisfy him. "What would it take to make Brent Bozell shut up?" he paraphrased, fairly accurately. "If we had a system where I can cable television in my home without bringing MTV along with it. A system where every channel in my home is one I invited. A system like a la carte." If the cable industry will put up, Bozell will shut up.
Just in case you had the faintest doubt that allowing telephone companies to compete with cable TV monopolies would result in cheaper rates -- a proposal that the cable companies are fighting like mad dogs in the Florida legislature right now -- ATT has just announced it will offer a free year of high-definition programming to any customer who signs up for HD service through its U-verse TV subscription television operation. (The same deal is also available to customers who buy Direct TV or Dish Network satellite service through ATT.) When is the last time your cable company monopoly offered you anything but excuses? Competition produces better service and better prices. The only people who think otherwise are the cable company monopolists and their toadies in the legislature and local government.
Everybody's reporting today that major league baseball's Extra Innings package of out-of-market games will be available only on Direct TV's satellite service, after baseball financial boss Bob DuPuy's announcement Thursday that a consortium of cable systems had failed to match Direct TV's offer. But I suspect that the fat lady has not sung on this one yet. Note that DuPuy didn't say the cable operators offered less money than the $700 million put up by Direct TV; rather, he claimed that their offer was "not responsive" to some of the terms set by baseball. The argument is not about money but exactly which tier of cable programming the Extra Innings package would be placed -- the sort of arcane issue that neither viewers nor Congress, which has taken an interest in the deal, will ever understand or care about.
Personally, I don't see why baseball can't sell its product to whoever it wants under whatever conditions it chooses to set. Neither the Constitution nor the Bible grants mankind an inalienable right to see baseball games on cable. And it seems to me that Direct TV is not acting like a monopolist but a competitor, trying to acquire something that will make its service different -- and better -- than cable's. But Congress is always anxious to grandstand for its constituents at somebody else's expense, so I expect pressure on baseball to offer the games more widely. And baseball, threatened with losing its exemption from anti-trust laws, will probably buckle.
If Congress really cared about the consumer rights of TV viewers, it would pass a law preventing local governments from granting monopolies on cable service. No single policy in the history of television has been more destructive, simultaneously costing consumers untold millions of dollars in higher rates and lost service while restricting programming choice.
There's a move afoot in Florida to create competition in cable by easing the rules for telephone companies who want to offer cable service. (Herald reporter Jim Wyss has the details in a story today.) Of course, everybody's against the legislation -- the cable companies because competition would threaten the arrogant, slothful and avaricious way they do business, municipal governments because they'd lose the public-access channels that allow them to preen and prance on television. (I'd love to see the city of Miami take a vote of cable customers: Which would you prefer, to watch us on television or have your cable bill cut 40 percent? We'd have to redefine the term "landslide.")
But those objections are predictable. What's really irritating -- and shameful -- is the way some consumer groups are pitching in to preserve the cable monopoly on the grounds that the phone companies might not choose to offer cable service to every single household in Florida. These groups are so enchanted with the word "regulation" that they refuse to see that it's precisely government regulation that has made it possible for cable companies to cheat their customers all these years. Perhaps they should pay a visit to Nicaragua.
I spent five years in Managua, Nicaragua as the Herald's Central American bureau chief. Managua didn't grant an exclusive franchise to any cable company; anybody who wanted to could go into the cable business. Result: four companies competing for my business. Repair calls were always answered the same day, and usually within an hour or two, because dissatisfied customers could (and did) switch companies with a single phone call. It's hard to compare rates between the two countries (especially because the Managua companies weren't paying anything for programming, just swiping it off the satellite), but the prices were quite stable and even drifted downward a bit during the five years I lived there, rather than jumping each year as they do here. Despite being the second-poorest country in the hemisphere, Nicaragua could definitely teach us a thing or two about economics.