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Equal Opportunity Knocks

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, TV advertising with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2015 by Tom Steward

If there’s one thing Dancing with the Stars is in dire need of – apart from a decent house band, a competent co-host and, y’know, stars – it’s an equal opportunities seminar. I don’t know how many sensitivity courses you’ve been on, but they’ll all tell you (and if they don’t you should) that equality isn’t about treating everyone the same. One of the best teachers I ever had, the film writer and sociologist Richard Dyer, once explained equality to me using male and female public toilets. Men rush in and out, while women take longer. So while giving men and women a bathroom each with the same number of facilities might superficially seem to be giving them identical resources, the sexes are not being treated equally.

I'll give it 5.

I’ll give it 5.

This struck me two seasons ago when Judge Len Goodman told contestant Amy Purdy, who has prosthetic limbs below both knees, that he was going to score her like everyone else in the competition, and that she’d prefer it that way. For the entire competition, Purdy was judged against able-bodied dancers (and Billy Dee Williams) rather than on a scale of achievement that befitted her unique body type. It wouldn’t have been easy for the judges, especially as Purdy herself kept changing the rules of what was possible with her body week by week, but they never had any intention of taking her different abilities into account. To not even attempt this, and to assume Purdy wanted this kind of judging, is to ignore equality.

The Judges have continued to score disabled contestants in this fashion, even when they are physically prevented from competing at the same level as the other dancers. This season features Noah Galloway, who has both his left leg and arm missing. While the Judges are happy to gush and cry for the cameras over Galloway’s overcoming of the odds (and he’s a veteran too, so nothing but conspicuous sentimentality will do), they give him decidedly average scores, reminding us that that they are painting two more limbs on his body in their minds. The Judges’ rhetoric seems to have some idea of how equality works. Carrie Ann Inaba talked of how Galloway ‘challenged’ her judging. But there’s no evidence of this in the competition itself.

But Dancing with the Stars is already a show that seems designed to give Shami Chakrabarti nightmares. It asks people of different ages, genders, bodies and professional dance experience to compete against each other, with no consideration given to how there should be different judging criteria for each group. Doubtless there is some ideological undercurrent of the cream rising to the top regardless of adversity here and whoever said entertainment was a level playing field? However, if the show wishes to bask in the glory of giving a national TV platform to minorities and a diverse range of people (as it has referred to itself doing on several occasions) it cannot simply work around the fact that democracy is just as much about positive discrimination.

I’ve talked about the show’s objectification of female bodies before – and it’s getting no better – but in recent weeks we’ve actually seen feminist perspectives on Dancing with the Stars being written off live on air as ‘cyber-bullying’. Contestant Charlotte McKinney received harsh criticism and, let’s face it, personal abuse from social media after the star of sexist Carl’s Jr. commercials appeared in the season premiere. Her experience was the basis of the pre-dance ‘package’ (although why we have to all use the industry term here, I don’t know) in Week 2 and following her dance, the negative Twitter comments read-out on air were all dismissed as body jealousy by the judges Julianna Hough and Bruno Tonioli and then as body fascism by co-host Erin Andrews.

Benny Hill guest-judges on DWTS!

Benny Hill guest-judges on DWTS!

Now, I’m not saying that the sinister forces of the internet comments feed weren’t at work here and I don’t approve of targeting someone who is as much a victim of the sexist culture as the women it leaves out (as opposed to, say, the people who sit down and write the Carl’s Jr ads). That said, it’s clear to me that many of those comments, however personally directed they were, were aimed at McKinney’s participation in advertising that demeans and degrades women, and to disregard all the criticism directed at her as troll-grudge is to silence a protest against television’s ongoing celebration of women as sexual objects. Dancing with the Stars cannot continue to swim in these choppy waters without changing its body politics.

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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.

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