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Channelling History

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV channels, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2014 by Tom Steward

Doing television history on TV is a daunting task. It’s hard enough trying to convey how television connects with social and political events of the past, not to mention avoiding ending up saying TV is a ‘window on the world’ (hall-of-mirrors more like) or making it a medium of communication rather than art. And how do you talk about the history of broadcasting without it becoming a dry recital of telecommunications regulation of the kind John Oliver parodies or a series of backslapping celebrity anecdotes? This is before having to package all this into an inevitably narrow television format that’s supposed to have a broad appeal. So I’m not at all surprised that CNN’s The Sixties: Television Comes of Age was a failure but I am surprised that AMC’s Mad Men, a piece of historical fiction with only a passing interest in sixties television, managed to do so much with the idea.

The Sixties: Television Comes a Cropper.

The Sixties: Television Comes a Cropper.

Recently, Jon Stewart has been using rather a lot of his daily timeslot to attack CNN with the kind of scrutiny and vigour the network never exhibits in its news coverage. He’s been forsaking more gratifying targets, such as Fox News, because CNN’s bloated, ignorant and downright incompetent news reporting is such an insult to journalism and yet still poses as a legitimate news outlet, rather than just an extended campaign ad like Fox or MSNBC. The decline in CNN’s journalistic practices seems to be inversely proportionate to the rise of their original documentary films and series. A mixed bag, to be sure, but with some real highlights, like Anthony Bourdain’s myth-busting travelogue Parts Unknown and archaeological verite Our Nixon. Consequently, I was enthused about the network doing a documentary series on America in the sixties and encouraged that the first episode would be about television. So what’s my problem?

Well, first of all, Tom Hanks. Clearly a selling point for the series if the roadside spinning-sign branding of his producer credit is anything to go by, Hanks has also enlisted himself as a talking head for the show. The actor’s irrelevance to his own industry continues into the documentary, with his inarticulate babbling at the camera about his (unprocessed) memories of watching TV as a child which even a Den-of-Geek editor would call fanboyish. I’m not exactly smitten with the talking heads format anyway. From talking to people who’ve done them, it seems that their words aren’t chosen on their own merits but as a grammatical bridge in the programme’s narration. This pretty much does for anyone who might have a critical stance, but the majority of guests worked in sixties television or now work in the industry and are unlikely to offer much in the way of perspective.

But if this were the only problem with the series, you’ll be inclined to forgive since the researchers and editors have done such a masterful and artful job of finding and fitting together footage from sixties’ television shows. After all, there can’t be many clips out there of Orson Welles winding Dean Martin’s head 360 degrees with a handle. I know it’s not the way things are done now but it’s a great shame that the footage wasn’t left to speak for itself, as it really tells its own story and a better one than the narration. The fundamental problem here is that it doesn’t say anything about what it would have been like to watch television in the sixties, or any other time for that matter. We know what people watched, when they watched it, and some of what it was trying to say. But did audiences get it?

Mad Men: Better Than a Documentary

Mad Men: Better Than a Documentary

This is where Mad Men steps in. In the recent mid-season finale, the characters are all trying to catch as much as they can of the ongoing TV coverage of the Moon Landings. Ad executive Peggy has to follow this with a client pitch the morning after men walked on the moon. Struggling for a segue, she – and writer Weiner – manage to distil the essence of the dial and bandwidth-restricted TV viewing of the time as ‘everyone doing the same thing at the same time’. If that weren’t profoundly elegant enough, Peggy goes on to talk about how this rare moment of unity (and possibly television itself) masks the social disharmony of late sixties America. This isn’t even for our benefit, but for that of fast-food executives looking to cash in on a conservative backlash. Any documentary about American TV history is going to have to beat that.

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Mexican Stand-Off

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2014 by Tom Steward

This is a post about an episode of a TV show and an open letter responding to that episode. Please watch the episode and read the letter before reading the post, as my editorialising of the episode and the letter will not be sufficient exposure to form an opinion on them and it would be unfair to base a response to the episode on what this post and the letter have to say about it.

On Sunday night, CNN aired a new episode of the travel documentary series Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown about Mexico City. The following day, travel blogger W. Scott Koenig published an open letter to Anthony Bourdain about the episode on his website agringoinmexico.com. Though the letter is reverent towards Bourdain’s writing and journalism in general, Koenig strongly contested the portrayal of Mexico in Sunday’s episode of the chef-writer-presenter’s signature travel show, now in its third season. Koenig accused Bourdain of a disproportionate emphasis on the drug-related violence and killing that takes place in the country and overlooking the richness of the culture, history, art and gastronomy in the regions he visited on the show. Koenig also hinted strongly at potential interference from the network and the programme’s advertisers to scaremonger about visiting Mexico and lumped in the episode with inaccurate press reporting on Mexican drug violence, with comparative statistics to boot.

A Body-Blow in Mexico!

A Body-Blow in Mexico!

Koenig has already swathed Bourdain in the kind of praise that I would have given him, so I don’t feel the need to defend for the latter’s impeccable record in TV, journalism and prose in both non-fiction and fiction. I do, however, feel the need to intercede somewhere between apologist and critic on his behalf. Koenig is right to be disturbed, unsettled and disappointed with the Mexico City episode, but perhaps not for the reasons the blogger outlines. Firstly, I do have to point out a disparity in quality between the two works, lest you think I’m creating a false equivalency between an intricately constructed TV documentary and a hastily-written blog post. If you are going to offer a riposte to such an artfully made and powerfully written piece of television, blogger’s ellipsis and internet grammatology isn’t going to cut it. Right or wrong, this was proof-correction of artistic meditation.

My initial reaction to the Mexico City episode of Parts Unknown was that Bourdain was trying to dispel some of the comforting myths people tell themselves about countries in the grip of violence and under the yoke of organised crime. The perception that gangster rule – in this case the cartels – protects the innocent from harm because of their predominantly internal conflicts was fundamentally altered with the stories of Mexican journalists, protestors, artists and bystanders who had perished or lived in fear for their lives. Any sense that the cartels are a rogue criminal element in Mexico was immediately quashed by the episode connecting the dots between drug operations and Mexican business and government. These are important distinctions, and not to be taken or shown lightly. If I had this as a documentarian, I’d feel obliged to lead with it, even if it meant a few less restaurants onscreen.

While Koenig (or wife Ursula, whom he credits with the bald synopsis) is not wrong about a motif of ‘bodies’ in the episode, I think they may have misjudged where this darkness is coming from. Rather than a SPECTRE-like network-advertiser conspiracy to inadvertently profit from tourism, the emphasis on violence and killing was more likely motivated by Bourdain’s anger and outrage at what’s going on in his backyard. As we saw in last season’s episode of Parts Unknown in Detroit, Bourdain is at his most livid when faced with the ruin of places closest to his home and heart, in parts of the world where remedy is within reach. It is not contempt but fear for Mexico that seems to drive this episode, the unjust feeling that a place of such beauty and brilliance doesn’t have the system it deserves, but also that a good neighbour needs a good turn.

Bourdain in Baja.

Bourdain in Baja.

I don’t think the episode should have sacrificed this raw, seething depiction of social problems for local culture any more than The Wire should have gone to more Baltimore crab shacks (Koenig is loath to admit that there is a great deal of food and drink in the episode). I would take issue with Bourdain’s attitude to Mexico, however. In the Baja episode of No Reservations a couple of years ago, Bourdain wore his ignorance about Mexico on his sleeve and let the natives surprise him. Here, he seems very certain of how the country can solve its problems, and doesn’t mind telling the locals. Crucially, we don’t see what the Mexicans he meets think of his suggestions! I was taken aback by the episode, if only because Bourdain has made more upbeat programmes about worse-off places (Libya, for example). Unbalanced, maybe. Sensationalist, never. Violent? Yes, but not without motive.

Live Day-to-Day

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2014 by Tom Steward

It’s been a long time since American television was purely live but it’s still an everyday part of broadcasting. Amidst the cycle of breakfast shows, daytime chat shows, primetime entertainment and 24-hour rolling news and shopping, there doesn’t seem to be an hour of the day that there isn’t some kind of live TV on the air. We know from experience that live broadcasting can be one of the most powerful, significant and thrilling forms of TV. Live television has been agent and witness to cataclysmic political changes. It made and then ruined Nixon, and then made and ruined him again. We saw the Republicans’ chances of electoral success in 2012 vanish in real time at the GOP conference as Clint Eastwood decided to go off-script and do X-rated versions of his Bob Newhart and Jimmy Stewart impressions. There are other world and universe-changing events witnessed on live TV I should mention – like 9/11 and the Moon landings – but…dude was talking to a chair! There’s no greater potential for surprise, shock and error in television than in a live broadcast, and that unpredictability carries a nervous energy that is utterly exhilarating. And we get it uncensored and first-hand.

I’m reminding myself of what live TV is capable of because, if the past week is anything to go by, American TV has forgotten. Last Monday morning, news anchors on the local Los Angeles TV station KTLA breakfast show reacted to a mid-size earthquake that happened live-on-air by panicking, shouting ‘Earthquake!’ and diving under a desk until it had subsided. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I would have done anything different in this situation, even if I had been trained to keep going. But is there any point continuing to broadcast live if all we’re going to get is dead air, an empty studio and the terrified ramblings of presenters so shaken up by the event they can offer no meaningful information about it? Anchors on the other affected TV stations may have stayed calmer, but they didn’t do much better reporting the earthquake. Deprived of information, hindsight and proportion, presenters on Fox 5 and CBS 2 were left with the remnants of a child’s vocabulary. It was ‘big’. It was ‘large’. Some over-achiever even called it ‘strong’. They might have learned something about the conditions that Fox News anchors work under every day, but we learnt nothing.

If you wanted to watch the television equivalent of muscle-wastage, then you needn’t have looked further than what CNN put on in relation to the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 last week. Either the ‘Breaking News’ button was being used as a coaster for an unwanted drink for the past week, or the network genuinely thought the FBI acquisition of a flight simulator recording from the pilot’s home was some kind of crucial development in the story. Cue hours and hours of wild speculation about the significance of the simulator’s data, even after repeated protestation from the featured experts that conjectures about the pilot’s role in the hi-jacking could be argued any which way. It took former Boeing engineer Bill Nye the Science Guy, who is used to breaking things down for people with the minds of children, to tell us that the only thing we all could do was to guess. At one point, a pilot sat in a flight simulator and took viewers step-by-step through a scenario that he had entirely invented in his head. Not even the ‘Screen of Souls’ had an answer to free them from their suspended animations in a video monitor bank.

CNN imprisons aviation experts in screen bank until flight is found.

CNN imprisons aviation experts in screen bank until flight is found.

Maybe the problem is that news reporting has too big a burden of information for continuous live coverage to carry. If so, then putting on a 2-hour entertainment programme that’s been on TV for years live should be a doddle, right? Well, not if it’s Dancing with the Stars. ABC’s primetime dance competition returned for a new season last Monday night with a re-booted format. But it was the basics of live television that the show tripped up on. The studio audience couldn’t be subdued for long enough to hear the judges’ notes on the dances. New co-host Erin Andrews comes from live stadium sportscasting and you would expect her to be adept handling live TV in the presence of spectators, but she kept overrunning, miscuing and recoiling from the audience’s spontaneous reactions. When live TV runs up against the clock and threatens to fall apart, we get a certain thrill as viewers. But it’s a fine line that if overstepped results in sheer incomprehensibility. It’s one of the qualities that makes TV so much more special than other forms of entertainment; yet live broadcasting in America is languishing. Abused, misused, and squandered, live TV barely deserves the name anymore.

TV is Balls

Posted in American TV (General), Americans watching British TV, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV, TV channels with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’m absent-mindedly glancing at the TV screens in the gym to periodically distract me from the pain and boredom of working out. The screens are usually set on sports and news channels in their rolling news phases, which don’t offer much in the way of entertainment. It’s a shame as I once did an hour on the treadmill when back-to-back Seinfeld was on. The news shown is of a fairly reactionary kind, typically Fox and CNN’s televisual garbage. The Rachel Maddow Show was on once but I think that was a mistake as the screen was turned off almost instantly.

Seinfeld: TV about working out

The point is I’m not really paying attention, nor am I listening on my headphones. I don’t want any Fox News editorials subliminally seeping into my brain like a hypnosis tape and I simply wouldn’t know what any of the laboriously paced sports discussion shows were unnecessarily shouting about. It’s safe to say I was caught off-guard when one of the screens starting showing highlights from an Oldham Athletic game, the football team from my home town who play in the 3rd tier of English soccer (‘soccer’ and ‘football’ are both English names for the sport, so suck it purists!).

Oldham Athletic: Not the team you expect to see in a San Diego gym.

It turned out not to be a hallucination brought on by loss of bodily fluids or even a bizarre coincidence like Oldham striker Matt Smith dating a Kardashian. No, apparently Fox Soccer, the football wing of the Fox Sports enterprise, shows the Saturday results feed of Sky Sports News every weekend. Apart from the shock of seeing Oldham on a TV in the USA (where Manchester is only known because of its global soccer brands), I don’t know why I’m surprised. Sky and Fox are both owned by NewsCorp, Rupert Murdoch’s international media conglomerate, so it makes good corporate sense.

Sky Sports News: Just another Murdoch enterprise in the world.

If you’re an American soccer fan, or British ex-pat, it makes sense to go directly to the source, as weirdly removed from local reality as it is watching a Northwest England League 1 team in Downtown San Diego. To those who know football from the European or Latin American leagues, watching a US soccer team play feels like the moment in Futurama where Fry finds that in the 30th Century baseball has become ‘Blernsball’, a barely recognisable Twilight Zone twist on the sport where spectators try to catch players instead of balls and giant spiders roam free through the diamond.

http://www.comedycentral.com/video-clips/4uymvs/futurama-intro-to-blernsball

For a British football fan, watching English soccer on TV gets weirder. It’s been common over the last couple of decades for veteran footballers in the English leagues to start their retirement early by going stateside to play for a US team. Beckham’s time with LA Galaxy when still in his prime is an exception attributable to his avarice. Some of them even end up commentating on TV soccer coverage. This is why I’m listening to ex-Blackburn Rovers and West Ham player-coach Tony Gale speaking over a Fulham FC game, multiplying the feeling of being at home when I’m not.

All your favourite players…from the 80s!

The locality of my new American residence helps the transition from a country where football eclipses all other sports to one where it doesn’t make the top 3. Being in a city with a large Latino community close to the Mexican border means that there’s more call for football from Latin American and European leagues on TV. And the commentators’ passion for the sport is evident from the Three Amigos vocal harmony following every goal.

It must be pretty baffling for US viewers stumbling upon the Sky Sports News feed on Fox Soccer. I don’t know what Americans would make of an interview with Crystal Palace manager Ian Holloway-hell it took us a few years to get used to his bizarre accent and analogies! It’s basically hours of places and teams they’ve never heard of, endless jokes about League 2 players from 1978 and recurring images of grim-looking fans with woolly hats and no necks walking to stadiums that look like backyards. And Kris Kamara, a Lionel Ritchie impersonator with Jerry Lewis levels of incompetence.

Anyway, back to the gym. I’ve never been so absorbed in the table positions of English lower league teams (though I’m a Blackburn fan so they may become increasingly important soon). I never thought of football clichés as my language but in a place where people struggle to understand and you them, players saying something as banal as ‘we nicked it early doors’ (translation: we scored early enough to kill the game) is oddly reassuring.

 

 

That Was The Week That Was Ass

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2013 by Tom Steward

Apologies for the extended break from posting and thanks for continuing to read the site in my absence. I took the last couple of weeks off while G and I got married. However, there’s been no shortage of stories about TV in America since we went away so don’t expect a quiet first day of term. We resume with a post on the TV coverage of the maelstrom of tragic events that devastated the USA over the past seven days:

It’s been a shitty week in America. Last Monday bombs went off at the Boston marathon killing 3 people and injuring over 150 more. On Wednesday, the first round of gun control reform legislation tanked in the Senate. On Wednesday night, an explosion at a fertiliser plant in Texas killed 14, injured around 200 and destroyed 50 homes. By Friday, Boston was in a state of lockdown as armoured tank police vehicles searched the city streets for the outstanding bomber, Dzokhar Tsarnev, who had escaped custody following a battle the previous night with police that killed brother and collaborator Tamerlan.

Three dead as bombs explode at the Boston marathon last Monday.

How did TV cover the seven-day shitstorm? Well, while a number of entertainment shows such as Live with Kelly and Michael and Conan expressed compunctions about peddling amusement in the wake of the Boston bombings, news programmes seemed to have no obvious qualms about this. News reporters constantly reminded viewers how exciting the events unfolding in Boston were, as if the city had been collectively entered in a catch-the-terrorist role play game. ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer at one point thanked a reporter for her ‘thrilling’ coverage of the aftermath like she was Ben Affleck at an Argo press conference.

ABC World News: ‘Entertainment with a Hint of Fact’

On Tuesday, CNN pulled a CNN and falsely reported that an arrest had been made in connection with the bombings despite official denials. The cable news network had been under fire in recent weeks for its misreporting of the Steubenville rape case and now seems to have moved on from doubting moral and legal verdicts to blindly ignoring empirical fact. Later in the week, while covering the hunt for Dzokhar Tsarnev, CNN reporters seemed to suggest that the lockdown was voluntary, ignoring the tanks patrolling Boston neighbourhoods which gently hinted to residents that it was probably wasn’t a park day.

CNN pull a CNN!

To give them their due, CNN were once again the lone voice of reason when it came to the reporting of gun control following Wednesday’s senate debacle. I’m talking of course about Piers Morgan, who has repeatedly slammed President Obama’s inability to mobilise the gun control lobby and exposed the NRA’s hold over senate voting, and was entirely vindicated this week. To offer some cultural perspective, Piers Morgan is known in Britain for being a dick. Yet in the bizarro world of American TV news, his smug, unremitting self-righteousness somehow twists its way into being the perfect conduit of outrage.

Piers Morgan: smug, self-righteous and…right in this case.

Just when it seemed as if it could get no worse for the USA, it did, and the TV coverage followed the downhill gradient. After the Texas fertiliser plant exploded, news channels once again oohed and aahed over the spectacle and somehow managed to disproportionally report an already heinous disaster as an apocalyptic catastrophe. Fox’s ‘Breaking News’ coverage sat back and admired the epic visuals of nuclear mushroom cloud-like smoke and giant soaring fireballs in viewers’ photos and videos, offering aesthetic judgement and firework-display awe rather than the information necessary to understand the localised explosion that these images related to.

But nothing could take screen time away from Boston last week. On Thursday, the networks’ morning line-up was pulled for coverage of a memorial ceremony for the victims of the marathon bombings in which Obama gave a eulogy. It was the kind of heartrending, preacher-style oratory that made the president look powerful again instead of the lame duck frontman (think Bez with missile privileges) this week’s vote confirmed he was. I’m sure Obama’s speechwriters were grateful events took place in such a culturally and historically prominent city and not some backwater small-town where the annual highlight is a vegetable festival.

TV newspeople set up camp on the streets of Boston and no straight-to-air programme could go without some sort of mention of Monday’s bombings. Given that the bombings were more exceptional and containable and less devastating in terms of lives and infrastructure destroyed than the explosion in Texas, why did it get so much more air time? Well, American TV is a largely local animal and the marathon was attended by runners from all over America, making it relevant to a larger number of regional news programmes. Plus, more people on TV seem to come from Boston than West, Texas.

Explosion at Texas fertiliser plant last Wednesday.

But the main difference is in the news story that results. Texas was an instantaneous disaster that left nothing for follow-up coverage. It exposed systematic failures at a federal and local level. Boston was the explosion that kept on exploding, first the hunt for the bombers, then the capture, then the escape, then the re-capture. And law-and-order eventually triumphed. It couldn’t have played better if it were an episode of Dragnet and intrigue was maintained across the week like a soap opera. Interest in West, Texas dwindled faster than in Smash weand ended up looking like a programme cancelled mid-season.

 

 

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