40 Hours of Television

The class is over, but the discussion continues. Does the media shape reality, or does reality shape the media? Art can imitate life...and life can imitate art. "40 Hours of TV" will explore the media and its impact on us all.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Signing Your Life Away

So, you want to be a reality show contestant? If you do, make sure you read through your contestant application. You'll find some important information there. Things you'd want to know before signing your name. Here's Fox's application for the next season of American Idol (you'll need to have Adobe's PDF reader installed to view the document).

I'll highlight a few points:

"I grant to Producers and its successors, licensees and assigns, the irrevocable right, but not the obligation, with or without my knowledge, to film, tape and/or photograph, record, exhibit, edit and otherwise use my appearance, name, likeness, voice, singing voice, conversation, sounds and biographical data on or in connection with the Program in any manner in Producer's sole election and discretion, which use shall not entitle me to receive to receive any compensation whatsoever."

In other words, if you're the worst singer in the world, you're giving American Idol the right to replay your humiliating audition over, and over, and over, and over, until the end of time. And if they put together one of those "worst of" DVDs, and replay your audition footage...no money for you!

Suppose you're a musician and you audition for American Idol...and you make it! You're on television! What's that? You want to perform an original number on the show? Sure, go for it! Just keep this in mind:

"In the event I perform original music on the Program written or controlled by me, I hearby grant to Producer, without charge, the rights necessary to perform such music on the Program and the rights required to exploit the Program and the ancillary rights therein, inclusive of the music, in any and all media now known or hereafter devised, or for any other purpose, throughout the universe in perpetuity."

In other words...American Idol can play your music forever without paying you royalties. Good deal, huh?

And this is a good one:

"I understand that I may reveal, and other parties may reveal, information about me that is of a personal, private, embarrassing or unfavorable nature, which information may be factual and/or fictional. I further understand that my appearance, depiction and/or portrayal in the Program may be disparaging, defamatory, embarrassing or of an otherwise unfavorable nature which may expose me to public ridicule, humiliation or condemnation. I acknowledge and agree that
Producer shall have the right to (a) include any or all such information and appearances, depictions or portrayals in the Program as edited by Producer in its sole discretion, and (b) to broadcast and otherwise exploit the Program containing any or all such information and appearances, depictions or portrayals in any manner whatsoever in any and all media now known or hereafter devised, or for any other purpose, throughout the universe in perpetuity."

Which means, if Simon says something mean and makes you cry, American Idol will be able to replay that moment over...and over...and over...and over...forever. Oh, and there's an embarrassing moment from your past that someone helpfully tells the producers? Get ready to have your dirty laundry aired to the world.

With all of that said...do you need to borrow a pen to sign your application?

Friday, July 29, 2005

The Reality of Lawyers

I'm sure it's no secret that I'm a fan of reality shows. One of my favorites is The Apprentice. If you've seen The Apprentice, you'll recall that several candidates were lawyers. And the lawyers tended to have, let's say, friggin' annoying personalities. Type "A" overachievers full of themselves.

Suppose you're a famous television producer and you've been given the opportunity to create a reality show. What would you do? If you're Ally McBeal and Boston Legal creator David E. Kelley, the solution is simple: a reality show about lawyers.

Welcome to The Law Firm, the latest wrinkle in the reality genre. Think of it as a court show with lawyers. The prize? $250,000.

There are 12 contestants. I have to say that charisma is a bit of a problem with this bunch. And, as noted before, they are all lawyers with the usual reality show annoying character traits, like being obnoxious and self-centered.

The show stars a lawyer named Roy Black, someone I've never heard of but, as one of the nameless "associates" tell us, is a big name in lawyer circles. Gotcha.

On this show, the lawyers will try cases. And the two cases the show opens with are real nail-biters. First up is Danzig V. Leach. Candy Danzig is suing George Leach because her three-legged dog Dingo somehow got through Leach's fence and the dog was attacked by Leach's Mastiffs. I can hardly wait to see how this turns out.

The second case is Allen V. Ryan. Karen Allen is seeking damages because the defendant, Bill Ryan, pulled her over for speeding...but Ryan isn't a cop, he's a country coroner. With a car that has a siren and flashing police lights. And in an ironic twist, Ryan himself is breaking the law by speeding! Yikes.

So, the lawyers are divided up, blah blah blah, they prepare the cases, they try them, a team wins and another loses, and finally, at the end of the show, Roy Black makes a seeming random choice of whom to eliminate, and two of the annoying lawyers are let go.

I'm predicting this show will be cancelled within the next four weeks.

Next week: a dominatrix and a computer geek! It'll be an hour of intense legal action. Or boredom. Probably boredom.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Stupid GTA Lawsuits

What a surprise, we have a lawsuit against Take Two Interactive for GTA: San Andreas, from a grandmother who -- get ready for it -- is suing because she bought the "M" rated game for her 14-YEAR-OLD grandson, not knowing it was "racy."

http://news.moneycentral.msn.com/provider/providerarticle.asp?feed=AP&Date=20050727&ID=4997141

Good grief, what was she expecting from a "M" rated title intended for 17-year-olds and above? Unicorns?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Hell's Kitchen and Societal Conventions

First off, if you missed the most recent Hell's Kitchen, I'm going to include spoilers in this post, so if you don't know the outcome of the show broadcast on July 25, you might want to avert your eyes.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know I really enjoy Fox's Hell's Kitchen. You can follow the link to Fox for more info about the show as I don't want to explain the concept in this post.

On Monday's show, the three remaining chefs had to come up with a dish each using either chicken, tuna, or beef. They then had to serve a full restaurant.

Unknown to the contestants, their families were dining, and they would be voting on which entree they enjoyed the most. The contestant with the least amount of votes would be eliminated from the show.

And, at the end, Michael, Ralph and Jessica were reunited with their families. We see Michael and his wife and in-laws, Ralph and his fiance and family members, and Jessica and her girlfriend and family (Jessica gets eliminated from the show and leaves with her family).

Now, I don't know if the show ever mentioned that Jessica was a lesbian (or bi-sexual), and I personally think it would have been very cool if the show did not bring up that fact. That way, you get to meet the contestants and not have in the back of your mind that one of them is gay.

Now, here's the thing I wanted to talk about. When Jessica is reunited with her girlfriend, they kiss. It's not very often that we see homosexual men or women with their loved ones on television, exchanging an affectionate kiss, as anyone else would.

If you're a viewer of the show and thought it went over the line with Jessica's kiss, I'd be curious to hear why. And I'd hope the conversation would not be reduced to gay-bashing, or bashing the opinions of folks commenting. I know this is a sensitive subject on both sides.

No Pay-o No J-Lo

And we thought stations played it because it was good.

The new payola, at Sony Music.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Ethics of Advertising

Is it unethical for a company to target its advertising of a harmful, but legal, product to specific ethnic groups?

This is an issue the tobacco industry has grappled with, particularly with advertising campaigns aimed at African-American consumers.

So, what's the problem? Advertisers seek out many different demographics to target advertising at. One can argue the health risks of smoking, but since cigarettes are legal...how come a company couldn't market its problem with a particular demographic in mind? Any thoughts?

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Classic Crock: Part 1

We're lucky in that while moving the Shears organization base-of-operations north to the Wilkes Barre-Pittston-Scranton megalopolis, we get to drive through three radio markets -- Philadelphia, Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton and Northeast PA. That means that, with some dial spinning, we get to hear the Classic Rock format stations in all three. It doesn't matter the call-signs or frequencies. They're all pretty much the same, right? You know the one in your own market. Spin the FM dial right now and stop at the station playing "More than a Feeling". That's the one.

Yes. They all sound the same. We know that. We still listen. They've all distilled out the top 63 or 64 rock classic tracks and play them over and over, and then they play them some more. One or two top main tunes per artist, on average, and maybe 3-4 for your mega talents like Bowie or the Stones. We all know that and have accepted it.

They don't even go that deep into the greatest hits CDs we've all collected over the years. They've focus-grouped the exact number of songs from the fixed selection created between 1965 and 1976, the exact tunes that will maximize revenue for the mix of advertisers that have joined the format. The same songs, the same sponsors and the same endless, irritating, overheated self-promotion.

Oh they'll do the special countdowns and weekends, play rarer songs, and milk the promotion of them to the hilt, like the one right now that's doing a ridiculous "Raiders of the Lost Classics" weekend. Well hell if these songs are so great, warranting a whole weekend, why not play them the rest of the time? What it comes off as, to this listener anyway, is a weekend-long acknowledgement that they're holding out on us.

But it doesn't put us off. No. It's almost comforting that an entire generation can settle into such media complacency. Yes.

These frequency holders have discovered a way to squeeze value out of the airwaves and so they do. Get a radio station and start your own, you say? Many people think to. The ones that look into it will find that they'd sooner be able to gather the capital to build a suspension bridge. The government regulates these airwaves -- to prevent overlap and interference, they say -- and as with nearly everything a government regulates, a shortage was created. So the owners found themselves in possession of valuable assets. Valuable quite beyond the means of an individual or even a small company of individuals.

I have a love-hate relationship with these commercial engines. And make no mistake that's what they are, no matter how warm and fuzzy the DJ's schtick. The DJs need the gigs, man. Don't blame them. They're just driving the bus. They're the gilt wrapping on the packaged and test-marketed rebellion.

Though there are many of us out there who came of age in the era of so-called underground radio, I sense that this is one of those things that are remembered better than they really were. The frequency holders have tapped into that too. They may not care much about music, but they're not stupid.

Love-hate. To get my dose of the same ol' CCR or Yes or Stones, usually on long car drives, I have to subject myself to, for instance, the overplayed and completely uncool Johnnie Cougar Mellencamp. Listen music directors, you may be trapped in your classic rock playlist focus group bubble, but John Mellencamp is just not cool. Come on and listen, really listen, to the trite derivative lyrics and trite derivative rhythms some time. Can anyone who refers to his own rock classic alienation anthem as a "ditty" ever qualify as cool?

Yes, Eric Clapton is a legend. But have you not noticed that his solo work since Derek and the Dominoes is so incredible dreary and BORING? Has anybody? No. Maybe it's because you fall asleep three bars in.

And Fleetwood Mac? Don't get me started. This is the most relentlessly talent-free and unoriginal combo in pop music history. They qualify as classic rock.

Yet their entire worthless careers have produced good, one moment of mirth for all that schlock. Without them the movie School of Rock would have had to ridicule some other artist in that hilarious scene where Jack Black lures Joan Cusack into his plan by exploiting her weakness for alcohol-induced Stevie Nicks impersonations. Ha.

No if there was no Fleetwood Mac, the makers probably would have had to settle for some lesser cheesy talent, like maybe Johnnie Cougar Mellencamp, or whatever his name is this decade.

Love-Hate. But then it's always good to hear that Joe Walsh song. You know the one. it must be his only song. It's the only one they play. Nope. Sorry. They also play "Rocky Mountain Way". The one I'm thinking.... no wait, I'm not thinking of it, it's playing on the radio right now actually. It's an honest song about his hard life as a rock star, the one where he sings "I lost my license now I don't drive." and "I can't complain but sometimes I still do." Classic lines, really. You know the one. You've heard it a million times.

It's comforting. somehow.

Next: Commercial engines with Earth Shoes

The Economics of San Andreas

Just a quick post, check out the Ebay auctions for GTA: San Andreas happening right now. Supply and demand in action. I wonder if I should put my copies up for sale? Hmm...

Friday, July 22, 2005

The GTA: San Andreas controversy, pt. II

In an amazingly fast turn-around, the ESRB has re-rated Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to "Adults Only" from "Mature." The reason for the change was the discovery that a "mod" (in game-speak it's software that makes changes to a game) that unlocked a mini-game that showed polygon figures engaged in a sexual act. But you have to install the mod in order to see the computer sex. You wouldn't see it if you had just installed and played the game.

I'm going to play devil's advocate for a moment. Why was GTA: San Andreas singled out? Rockstar Games, the developer, has a reputation for creating edgy (and controversial) video games meant for adults, not children.

There are several installments of the Grand Theft Auto series. With the release of GTA: III, players were able to take the role of a young street thug and guide him through various criminal acts. It was an open-ended game, meaning the player had the ability to do whatever they wanted in the game. You could be as violent as you wanted -- or not.

Now, in GTA:III, players can pick up a...well, whore, and, if low on health, a few seconds alone with the companion restores the player's health. You don't actually see what is going on, but if you're playing, you know. And when you're done, why, the game allows you to bash the whore's head in with a bat and take her money. You don't have to do that, obviously, but the game lets you. And it is rated "M", rightly so.

Now, to the devil's advocate position: GTA:III and GTA: Vice City featured white protagonists; GTA: San Andreas features black protagonists. Yet it was only GTA: San Andreas recalled and re-rated as "AO" (adults only). And an "AO" rating is the mark of death for a game developer. Most retail stores will not carry an "AO" rated title. It's like a movie getting an "X" rating.

So, the title featuring black characters doing basically the same things as the white characters in the previous installments of Grand Theft Auto is rated "AO" for something that wasn't even a part of the game without installing a patch.

Rockstar also developed a game called Manhunt. The premise: you play a killer sent on a mission to murder street scum and then film the extremely gruesome murders for a snuff movie. Did I mention the murders are graphic? That game received an "M" rating.

So...is the controversy surrounding GTA: San Andreas racially motivated? Any thoughts?

Glad to be here

Thanks, Scott, for the kind welcome. Hello readers. As I mentioned to him in private I was attracted to Scott's blog because of the name, having taken up the study of media myself as an excuse to claim academic credit for watching TV. Though Scott says the 40 hours is not turning his mind to mush, that blue glow is certainly an interesting look for him.

Until later. Keep on watchin'.

Contributor Selected

Give a welcome to Bill Shears from the blog Cinema Squeeze, who will be joining on here as a contributor. Billy has a unique (and funny) perspective on movies. Check out his site if you get the chance, and stay tuned to 40 Hours of TV for his first post.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Court Show Reality

I mentioned earlier that I enjoyed watching Judge Judy every day. Yes, every day. I know what you must think of me, but hey, what can I say?

There was a time when I watched a lot of court shows. I can't remember all of their names (Judge Joe Brown and...er...the others) but I watched. Most were variants of the generic court show theme, although a few (Judge Hatchett! That's the other one!) tried to do more than just hear cases.

One show I didn't watch as often as the others was Judge Mathis. I'm not sure what it was about his format, but perhaps I was up to my ears in court shows at the time. I tuned in on occasion.

It turns out one of my Philosophy 197 classmates was a litigant on Judge Mathis! I was pretty excited to hear about this, because you don't often get the behind the scenes perspective of what happens on a court show (or other reality shows, for that matter).

The one thing I thought was really interesting was that the Judge Mathis show called my classmate, not the other way around, (and these shows always say "If you're in a legal dispute with your dog, call Judge Judy at 1-800-blah blah"). You'd think the shows would get enough callers with cases that the whole season could be covered.

Now, I don't know if what my classmate experienced is typical of appearing on a court show, so this instance may only apply to the Judge Mathis show.

My classmate reports being called by a producer of the show; apparently the producer had been looking through court cases and found something about my classmate's experience interesting.

Once the formalities are ironed out, and it's time to tape, the producers will fly you out to where the show is taped (don't know if it's first class or not...I'll try to find out) and put you up in a hotel (a nice hotel? I'll find out!).

The day of the taping, my classmate was interviewed by a producer in order to create a dramatic narrative. You might think what you see on a court show is the natural progression of the case, but apparently that's not so.

And how much does one get paid to be on a show like Judge Mathis? Ready?

$250.00

That's it! But if you're a defendant, the show actually pays for whatever judgment is handed down (if you watch the credits of any court show you'll see the disclaimer about how the litigants are paid from a fund). I think my classmate won. I'll get more details if I can. In the meantime, if you have been on television (such as a game-show contestant, reality-show contestant, court show, etc), leave remarks and share your experience. The commenting system allows for you to post anonymously, in the event you do not want to reveal your identity, but I'd be interested in hearing your perspective of the experience.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Video Game Factor

Video games have long been the targets of government legislators and special-interest groups. Whether it is Mortal Kombat or Grand Theft Auto III, games, much like music and movies, are singled out as some kind of destructive or negative influence on children. Frankly, I don't buy it.

Video games are rated based on their content by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. The ratings are similar to motion picture ratings, ranging from "E" for everyone to AO, or Adults Only.

I'm a big fan of violent video games. There's just some sort of visceral pleasure in blasting someone with a shotgun in a video game. And these types of games are meant for adults, not children, so parents should be the ones monitoring the use of these games by their kids.

Senator Hillary Clinton (of all people) has decided to go after the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. There is a patch for the PC version that unlocks some naked characters the player can, apparently, use in playing certain mini-games as part of the whole gameplaying experience.

From the AP Wire as reported in the San Jose Mercury News, July 18, 2005:

"There is no doubting the fact that the widespread availability of sexually explicit and graphically violent video games makes the challenge of parenting much harder," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who asked the Federal Trade Commission last week to investigate one of the most violent titles, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
In this 'M' rated game - last year's top-seller among console games - the main character seeks bloody vengeance on gang-filled streets, firing automatic weapons and picking up scantily clad women.

But what really riles family-oriented media watchdog groups are additional scenes in which nude 'girlfriends' join in explicit sex acts in the PC version. The scenes become 'playable' with the help of a freely available download created by a Dutch programmer."

Now, I've been playing GTA: San Andreas and I didn't even know about this patch until I read the AP wire story. But Clinton apparently feels that Rockstar games, the developer of the Grand Theft Auto series, should have gotten an AO rating for GTA: San Andreas, because of that bit of code unlocked by the mod to spring forth the nude women. I mean, come on, aren't there more pressing issues to address? Like, say, all the millions of Americans living in poverty? It an old song and dance. A video game will come out, people will think it will cause the youth of America to start blowing up each other, and then that never happens. And every now and then you get an anecdotal case about a particular video game that was popular with a school shooter.

So...do video games create a reality for a teenager that would cause that teen to kill someone or commit some other violent act?

40 Hours of TV message board

I've just installed a message board for 40 Hours of TV, to discuss movies, television, and other forms of media and entertainment. If you have a chance, check it out and let's get the discussions going!

40 Hours of Television Message Board

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Dramatic Effect

Sound and editing are powerful tools in the hands of the right people, which can turn the most insignificant thing into a stop-everything moment. In Robert Greenwald's excellent documentary Outfoxed, we learn of the "Fox News Alert" and how it was designed (and intended) to introduce important "breaking news" to Fox viewers. Over time the alert evolved into something very different, where a news alert item might concern itself over the Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez "Bennifer" relationship.

As part of my Philosophy 197 assignment to watch 40 hours of television, I'm finding myself watching Judge Judy every night. I know, I know. But this is a show that critical viewing skills can be used. Watch the opening of the show and observe how the teaser for the show is put together. Quick edits, dramatic music, and dramatic voice-overs from the announcer ("A daughter, at odds with her mother, for watching the grandchildren while drunk!") with quick shots of Judge Judy responding to something (usually yelling at someone) with cuts back to the litigants and their responses/reactions. The show attempts to build up a lot of dramatic tension, but come on, it's a court show! But that's how the media works: get viewers by any means available. And, in my case, it's working.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Infotainment or Journalism?

I don't know who coined the phrase "infotainment," but it's certainly an accurate description of the television news game, circa 2005. Of course, it's been with us a long time now, but the lines between entertainment and journalism are so blurred that it's hard to separate them.

Entertainment Tonight is a great example of infotainment, as are other shows the exclusively feature celebrities and the celebrity lifestyles. A celebrity getting married or having a baby is not news, but we treat it as such.

The cable news networks, such as MSNBC, Fox, and CNN all offer up programming that is infotainment, although in the case of the news networks, the entertainment aspect isn't as obvious. Hannity and Colmes, Hardball, and the recently cancelled Crossfire on CNN all follow the debate show format (not that any debate is happening, as The Daily Show's Jon Stewart correctly pointed out on his infamous Oct. 15, 2004 Crossfire appearance), where talking heads spend an hour basically yelling at each other. It's cheap drama to be sure, but people like to watch. Little information is passed on these shows, but if you're into the yelling format, you'll get lots of entertainment.

Local TV news also employs the infotainment model. Try watching commercials for a local station's 10:00 or 11:00 broadcasts and notice how the commercials are put together: the editing, the music, and how the big "news" items are played up. You'll hear a grim sounding announcer say, "Is the water you are drinking contaminated with feces that can kill you? Tune in to News 12 at 11:00 to find out."

You'll see this form of advertising in the 5:00 or 6:00 newscasts as well: "A News 12 investigation reveals that the water you drink may not be safe...tune in to News 12 at 11:00 to find out."

Another thing to watch out for in your local news is how newsworthy the information is. It can be hard to fill a half hour, or hour, with actual news, and we've been conditioned by the media to expect entertainment in everything we watch.

If you really want straight news without the infotainment...well, good luck in finding it. Actually, if you have cable, your best source for news is The Daily Show on Comedy Central. It's better than anything else on, anyway.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Pseudo Reality of Reality TV

In 1998 the film The Truman Show was released. Directed by Peter Weir and written by Andrew Niccol, the film starred Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, a man whose life, unbeknownst to him, was actually a television show. Truman's world was actually a huge, elaborate set, and his friends and neighbors were actors.

We're expected to accept a reality that would allow a corporation to adopt a child, and then broadcast the life of that child 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The production costs alone would not sustain for 30 years, but never mind. Andrew Niccol seemed to have had access to a time machine where he could travel a few decades in the future to see what direction reality shows would take. Could reality programming evolve to the level of The Truman Show? Probably not, although the concept has been explored in programs like The Joe Schmo Show, which aired in 2003.

Of course, reality shows are anything but. While the shows may feature real people, producers are on hand to create a narrative out of the hours of video tape recorded. Situations can be created with the purpose of causing a reaction with the cast, and people are cast into certain personality roles.

Viewers paying attention to the first couple seasons of The Apprentice noticed something odd: when someone was fired by Trump, we'd see them climbing into a cab, which carried them away, presumably home (but in actuality to a nearby hotel); New York City cabs have a cab number on the door. So, we'd see someone like Omarosa climb into cab #384D, and in the next shot, the cab number would be #4924. On The Apprentice, each cast member recorded at the beginning of the show their farewell cab scene. And when the contestant was fired, we'd see them in a different cab. There was also the situation with Trump in the board room and his voice overs. Trump would be talking on camera, and the scene would cut to a reaction shot of one of the contestants, while Trump would speak off camera. But the audio of those off camera monologues by Trump sounded different, like they were recorded louder, or something. As it turned out, Trump was recording the voice over at a different time and place. These issues of continuity were corrected in the last season of The Apprentice.

So, even on a reality show, reality is what the producers and directors want it to be, and not what we actually see.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Mean Chef vs. The Nice Chef

One of my favorite new reality shows is Hell's Kitchen. It stars master chef Gordon Ramsay, and the prize for the winning contestant is their own restaurant. Ramsay is from England, where he is a huge celebrity and owner of several successful restaurants. Hell's Kitchen is the United States version of the BBC series that aired last year.

The show adheres to standard reality show format: a large group of contestants compete each week, and someone is voted off the show. The winner receives their own restaurant, in addition to attaining master chef status through Ramsay's "training."

The hook for this show is Ramsay, who berates, curses and abuses the contestants. Supposedly his methods will result in someone learning to be a master chef in a short period of time. The formula is a bit like military boot camp. In one episode, the contestants were awakened in the wee hours by Ramsay's sous chefs as they yelled and banged garbage can lids. And as the contestants compete in cooking tasks, Ramsay is there, yelling at them, cursing, and frequently taking the entree a contestant has prepared and dumping it on them. Ramsay seems crazy. On the show, the main competition usually involves opening the Hell's Kitchen restaurant to the public, where they wait...and wait...and wait for Ramsay to approve of each dish the contestants prepare. If he doesn't like it, he makes them start over from scratch, so the diners end up waiting two hours for their meals.

I like it.

Hell's Kitchen polar opposite is Cooking Under Fire on PBS. The premise is similar, with contestants competing in cooking challenges, and at the end of the show, voting someone off.

The show stars chefs Ming Tsai and Todd English. Joining them is author and chef Michael Ruhlman. The prize for the winning contestant isn't their own restaurant, but rather a job at one of Todd English's restaurants. So the stakes are a bit lower for the contestants.

What's missing from this show is conflict. Some might argue that's a good thing. But I enjoy conflict. Here, the contestants are given tasks with a reasonable time to complete them (unlike Hell's Kitchen, where Ramsay might announce a competition and give the contestants 10 minutes to complete the task, all the while yelling at them as they do so) and at the end, when the chefs judge the contestants on the meals they've prepared, they're actually nice. Nice! The losing contestant gets "86'd," which is a bit cheesy, and they are actually given a frying pan with "86'd" written on it. Okay.

I suppose PBS is aiming at a different audience than Fox, but I'm not sure that creating a kinder, gentler reality show is a winning formula. If you get a chance, check out both shows and see what you think. If you've seen the shows, I'd be interested in reading your comments about them.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Advertising and Entertainment

Everything's a commercial these days, even when what you're watching isn't a commercial. But if you look for it, you'll find the commercials placed into movies, television shows, and even video games. I own an Xbox game that has within the game world soft drink machines that dispense real-world products.

Product placement is a huge part of the whole media experience, and commercials can be used to alter reality. Take baseball. You watch your favorite team playing, and along the walls you'll notice advertising. It's not actually there, it's added by a computer. Companies pay for that blank wall so they can advertise their product.

In football, some advertisers have their products listed on the football field itself, again done by computer.

Movies and television shows often feature product placement. Maybe a character in a movie drinks a particular brand of beverage, or a television sitcom will have its characters eating food from well-known fast-food chains.

Product placement isn't limited to television and movies. You might even see it in the evening news. How many times have you watched your local nightly news where they did a piece on some product and presented it as news?

The big thing with reality shows is that the network the show runs on will have as guests for the morning news programs the contestant voted off the show the night before.

And if you're in a target demographic, you can count on lots of advertising aimed at you. Now, dig out those wallets...

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Social Sitcom

Situation comedies have been on television for a long time, and a lot has changed since the early days of Ricky and Lucy. In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, sitcoms started to become instruments of social commentary. Or, you could say, they started to reflect the reality that started with the civil rights movement and continued through to the conflict in Vietnam.

Norman Lear was the creator and producer of many ground-breaking shows of the 1970s. One of the most popular was All In The Family. It Starred Carrol O'Connor as the "lovable bigot" and blue-collar archetype (as well as stereotypical conservative) Archie Bunker; Jean Stapleton as his wife, Edith; Sally Struthers as daughter Gloria; and liberal son-in-law Mike "Meathead" Stivic, portrayed by Rob Reiner.

The show tackled social issues like race relations, bigotry, women's rights, and other hot-button issues, delivered as comedy. It's hard to imagine a show like All In The Family being produced today.

In addition to All In The Family, Lear produced The Jeffersons (a spin-off of All In The Family); Maude; Good Times; Sanford and Son; and One Day At A Time. Each dealt in their own way with social issues.

Not produced by Lear was MASH, a show with a laugh track that dealt with broad comedy and intense drama, sometimes in the same episode.

Towards the end of the 1970s, social commentary gave way to the broad slapstick of shows like Three's Company. In the mid-1980s, Bill Cosby re-invigorated the sitcom, which at the time was struggling, with The Cosby Show.

For the 21st century, sitcoms have changed a bit, and programs like Malcolm in the Middle and Arrested Development show that it's possible to have a quirky, funny show without a laugh track. And, of course, we have The Simpsons, not only one of the longest-running shows on television today, but the longest-running cartoon ever. All are on Fox, incidentally. Apparently, the big-three networks aren't capable of such acts of creativity -- at least, not right now.

Commenting fixed

Turns out I didn't have commenting configured correctly via Blogger; it should work now for everyone. Sorry for that.

Monday, July 04, 2005

What Is Reality?

"Reality," as a philosophical concept, is something that isn't easily defined. After all, reality is what we observe, and from that we apply our own life experiences and biases. Reality is subjective, different to each person experiencing it.

The Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant is one of the best explanations of what "reality" is. This version is from the Buddhist canon.

A number of disciples went to the Buddha and said, "Sir, there are living here in Savatthi many wandering hermits and scholars who indulge in constant dispute, some saying that the world is infinite and eternal and others that it is finite and not eternal, some saying that the soul dies with the body and others that it lives on forever, and so forth. What, Sir, would you say concerning them?"

The Buddha answered, "Once upon a time there was a certain raja who called to his servant and said, 'Come, good fellow, go and gather together in one place all the men of Savatthi who were born blind... and show them an elephant.' 'Very good, sire,' replied the servant, and he did as he was told. He said to the blind men assembled there, 'Here is an elephant,' and to one man he presented the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was the elephant.

"When the blind men had felt the elephant, the raja went to each of them and said to each, 'Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?'
"Thereupon the men who were presented with the head answered, 'Sire, an elephant is like a pot.' And the men who had observed the ear replied, 'An elephant is like a winnowing basket.' Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.

"Then they began to quarrel, shouting, 'Yes it is!' 'No, it is not!' 'An elephant is not that!' 'Yes, it's like that!' and so on, till they came to blows over the matter.

"Brethren, the raja was delighted with the scene.
"Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing.... In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus."

Then the Exalted One rendered this meaning by uttering this verse of uplift

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.
Udana 68-69

When you watch television, or a movie, try to notice how "reality" is presented. What messages are being delivered through advertising? How are men and women portrayed? How accurate is that portrayal?

Some people think television is a mirror of society. Or is it the other way around? Is society shaped by what we see on television? It's a hard question to answer.

June 29, 2005, pt.3

Show: Myth Busters
Time: 9:00 p.m.
Network: The Discovery Channel
Genre: Entertainment/educational

Science is fun! Myth Busters is about two special effects wizards, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, who set out to prove -- or disprove -- urban legends and myths, using science and creativity. If you jump up from a bed and your head hits a ceiling fan, will it decapitate you? Are perpetual energy machines possible? Did a Ming Dynasty "astronaut" blast into space? The Mythbusters work to get to the bottom of those myths, by attempting to recreate the conditions of the myth.

This is a fun show. The hosts and other cast members are engaging and they do make science cool, although a lot of what they do on the show would probably result in death if some kid tried to duplicate what they've seen on an episode of Myth Busters.

We've all heard urban legends, the "friend of a friend" story. And in the age of e-mail, millions of people see these urban legends, and because they sound plausible, believe them. The lie of the urban legend creates a version of reality -- people really believe that if they forward an e-mail sent by Bill Gates (or AOL, or Nike, or IBM -- the list is pretty long) they'll get money. Walt Disney is on ice -- his body was put into cryonic storage upon his death. People like to believe these things, and I suppose it may come as a disappointment for folks when they learn that virtually all myths or urban legends are simply not true. That's reality for you.

Grade: A, because they like to blow stuff up.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

June 29th Continued

Show: Cooking Under Fire
Time: 8:30 p.m.
Network: Oregon Public Broadcasting
Genre: Reality show

Cooking Under Fire is PBS' entry in the reality show sub-genre of cooking competitions. It's very different than, say, Hell's Kitchen, because of pacing and a lack of meanness. And I have to confess, but I like it when Chef Ramsay on Hell's Kitchen yells at someone, curses them, and then just shoves that bad dish of food right onto the contestant's apron, sending that person away to cry (probably).

When I discovered that PBS had its own cooking show, I wanted to see how PBS would handle things.

It's too friggin' nice.

There's no conflict at all. Everyone is friendly. The contestants are forgettable and there's no Ramsay character cursing at everyone. The pace is slow without all the editing techniques you see in most reality shows. Also, the contestants were not assigned into specific personality roles as is the norm in reality TV. They were just ordinary folks. And the prize: the opportunity to be hired as a chef at a restaurant. So I guess the people on the show aren't interested in fame and fortune. A quick search on Monster.com shows that, at least for the positions posted, a chef in New York makes an average of about $60,000 a year.

In the episode I saw, the contestants were required to come up with a three-course meal using a certain kind of fish. So each contestant had an hour (Chef Ramsay would have given them ten minutes, screaming obscenities at them all the while) and they presented their dishes to the panel of judges, where no screaming ensued. And when the judges decided who would be eliminated, they did so in a friendly manner (they call it being "86'd") and handing the eliminated contestant with a frying pan with "86'd" written on it.

As far as the portrayal of reality goes, it's common knowledge that most "reality" shows are in fact heavily edited, with the producers creating situations and dramatic tension. What emerges is almost like a fictional show. PBS opted for the opposite route, although it's possible that some creative editing was used. As far as Cooking Under Fire goes, it seems to be attempting to create a more "real" reality show.

Grade: C, mainly because I missed the cursing and lack of tension.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

TV: June 29, 2005

I start my journal with The King of Queens, the sitcom starring Kevin James and Leah Remini as Doug and Carrie Heffernan, an (almost) blue-collar couple; Doug is a delivery driver and Carrie is a secretary for a law firm. Living with the Heffernans in the basement is Carrie's father Arthur (Seinfeld's Jerry Stiller...'Serenity Now!'), who is odd in a nice, sitcom way.

I watched this episode on June 29, 2005, at 7:00 p.m. It aired on my local affiliate of the WB.

Doug and Carrie are your basic lovable mismatched sitcom couple. Doug is a stereotypical male, a goofball who can barely fend for himself. Doug likes the basic things in life: eating, television, hanging out with the guys, bowling, all that good guy stuff. Doug's wife Carrie likes to nag him endlessly and just doesn't understand her big goofball of a husband, but of course loves him, anyway.

A quick note: this is one of those sitcoms where the husband is quite overweight while having a drop-dead gorgeous wife. Apparently, large guys aren't supposed to have attractive wives.

The episode I watched was a continuation of a series with Doug (the delivery driver) being on strike. And since the men of the show are portrayed as lazy, incompetent boobs, we see that, for three weeks, Doug hasn't done anything constructive during the day, and in fact has been sleeping while his wife is working 12-hour days. And since Carrie is portrayed as being nagging and shrill, she's the boss of the relationship. You know, like most women are.

Grade: B, because the show is pretty funny, despite the use of stock characters (overweight, immature male with gorgeous, but nagging, wife).

40 Hours of Television

Welcome to 40 Hours of Television, a personal diary of my television watching project for Portland Community College's Philosophy 197 class, Television and The Presentation of Reality. The class studies different forms of media and how "reality" is portrayed in television, movies, commercials and video games. A requirement for the class is to watch 40 hours of television and keep a journal. What better way to keep a journal than to let the whole world look at it?

Join me, as I turn my brain to mush in watching 40 hours of television. And maybe, just maybe, we'll learn something along the way.