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Monthly Archives: July 2014

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It’s hard to overestimate the role that TV plays in contemporary American life.  Its effects are so pervasive and fundamental that we no longer even notice them.  Like any essential institution, though, television can be exasperating, overwhelming, or unsatisfying.  So, as we slip deeper into the summer doldrums, this might be a good time to fantasize about ways to improve the television experience.  Here are 10 suggestions:

1.     A pan-platform TV Guide.  With the increased availability of video streaming, it’s possible to download and watch your favorite TV shows well after they’ve run.  Great! But how do you find these shows?  Are they on a network’s website? On Hulu? On Amazon Prime? On Netflix?  Do you need a special app? You can’t just Google the show’s name and find out. Instead, you have to hunt down and search each potential website.  How much better it would be if there were one master website that could direct you to the correct portal.

2.     The Obituary Channel.  This is a concept borrowed from my former colleague Frank Palumbo. There used to be a TV channel just for trials (Court TV); why isn’t there one for the recently departed?   The channel could include breaking news coverage related to the deaths of famous personages, as well as biopics and documentaries. And don’t forget the live coverage of the funerals of the top A-Listers.

3.     Better coverage of TV ratings.  This is one of my pet peeves, articulated in greater detail previously, but every year, as more and more people timeshift their TV watching, the media’s fixation on overnight ratings for the 18-49 demographic becomes more and more ridiculous.  Except for sports and the news, the overnight ratings are essentially meaningless because more viewers will frequently watch a show via a DVR than see it live.  Consequently, it would be better to wait until the DVR ratings are in before reporting viewing in the media.  And can we skip the 18-49 call-outs while we’re at it? People 50+ watch TV too, and sometimes even buy the things that are advertised.

4.     More reality on reality shows.  I’m not sure who coined the phrase “reality television,” but there’s very little reality in that genre.  The producers clearly drive the plots, conflicts and even some of the dialogue to the point where there’s little difference between a show like “Duck Dynasty” and a traditional scripted sitcom.  To that end, I’d like to see a rating system on each show that signals how much is “real” and how much is producer-directed.  A “1” would indicate minimal involvement, while a “5” would reflect heavy coaching and wacky suggested hijinks from the producers.

5.     Commercial choice.  The bane of the TV viewer’s existence is commercials, with entire technologies built around commercial avoidance.  That’s not because people hate commercials – they just hate a lot of the commercials they are forced to watch repeatedly.  But what if people could choose their own commercials?  This is kind of a reverse targeting, where the consumer chooses the commercial instead of the other way around.  This would pressure advertisers to make ads more engaging and interesting.

6.     Universal Remote.  This is hardly a new idea. Viewers have been complaining about multiple remotes since the introduction of the first VCR, but it’s 35 years later and we are no closer to the dream of a single remote that operates the sound and channel selection for the TV, DVR, cable box, Apple TV, Chromecast, and DVD player.  I have five remotes now and, what’s worse, have no idea what two-thirds of the buttons do.  If we can put a man of the moon…

7.     A reality show about nude dating: Oh, wait, we already have that.

8.     A mega-device box: This is the pipe dream of all pipe dreams.  Instead of separate boxes for cable, DVD, Apple TV, game console, etc., why can’t they all be incorporated into one mega-device?  And instead of getting a whole new cable box every time we move, why can’t we just take the box with us? In other words, instead of the cable companies buying the boxes from the manufacturers and renting them to us, why can’t we buy directly from the manufacturer and own our boxes? That’s what happened with landline telephones — which, believe it or not, kiddies, we used to rent from Ma Bell.

9.     Make network executives and media kingpins watch TV with their families:  If the people who greenlight and oversee the junk that’s on TV had to watch these shows with their kids, parents and grandkids, I am 100% certain we’d have better TV.  After all, who wants to have his 10-year-old granddaughter turn to him and ask, “Dodo – why are that man and woman walking around without any clothes on?”

10.  A “favorites” list.  I literally have no idea how many channels are on my TV, and no matter how much “Man Men” and “Justified” I watch, I cannot remember the AMC and FX channel numbers.  Let’s have an easy menu that lets you click on your favorite channels.

The chances for any of these ideas being adopted?  Probably zero, given the inertia and special interests that afflict the TV business. But it’s summer and we can dream, can’t we?

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New York is the greatest city in the world.  And how do I know that?  Because I’ve been watching TV all my life, and that’s a message that’s been drilled into my head for as long as I can remember.

Since the early days of television, the best shows seemed to be set in New York.  From comedies like “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners,” to variety shows like “The Ed Sullivan Show” and Your Show of Shows,” and to the evening news, the “Today” show and “The Tonight Show,” television established the principle that New York was the place to be.  As I was growing up, New York seemed a mythic place where life was more interesting and intense.

And that feeling never really went away.  The list of shows set in New York just kept on growing: “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” All in the Family,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends,”  “30 Rock,” “The Cosby Show,” “NYPD Blue” “Sex and the City,” “Law and Order,” “Louie,” “The Apprentice” and “Mad Men.”  Then there were shows like “Late Night with David Letterman” and “Girls,” which made New York City itself a central character.  But for my mind, the show that has done more to establish New York as the coolest place in the world is “Saturday Night Live,” with its opening credits of people partying, riding the subway and otherwise living life to its fullest.

New York and TV have become so tightly interwoven that getting tickets to a taping (of “Colbert,” ”Stewart,” “Letterman,” “Fallon,” “The View,” etc.) is a major tourist objective, as is waving a sign outside the “Today” set, attending The Macy’s Day Parade or freezing in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  In fact, as you walk around New York these days, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in a huge outdoor set for a never-ending TV show.

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New York has been the focus of television for so long that pointing it out now seems like the most banal observation, as in “duh, no kidding.”   But if you think about it, it’s not really so obvious why this is the case.  New York remains the largest metropolitan area in the country but its political and economic power has been eroding for over a century.  Its manufacturing base has disappeared and it’s no longer a top shipping port. In short, New York is no longer the towering commercial power it was when TV first started broadcasting.

Nor is New York the entertainment hub that it was in 1950.  The irony is that almost all scripted shows set in New York are filmed in Los Angeles, which actually IS the current entertainment capital of the world.  So why the continued focus on the Big Apple?

Part of the answer is that New York has transformed itself from an industrial to a knowledge economy.  Companies don’t make things in New York any more.  They make ideas.  It’s the world leader in business sectors — financial, advertising, publishing, education, fashion, theatre, art, news – that require creative thinking, self-promotion, and communication, the very traits that are most widely celebrated in popular entertainment.  The real New York and the TV New York are both filled with ambitious dreamers from all over the country who seem more interesting than the folks who stayed behind making widgets in their hometowns. That’s good fodder for TV.

But an even more important reason for New York’s outsized role on TV is that TV itself has transformed our very conception of New York.  The idea that New York is the center of the universe becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy with every new show set there.   There was no particular reason for “The Mindy Project” or “The Michael J. Fox Show” to be set in New York, except that it made the characters seem a little more ambitious and glamorous – building on a record of other ambitious and successful characters that had appeared in previous New York-based shows.

If anything, the importance of New York in the TV mindscape is growing.  Jimmy Fallon recently moved “The Tonight Show” back to New York after 30 years in L.A. And when Fox decided to reboot “Glee,” it abandoned the high school glee club in boring old Lima, Ohio and focused instead on the original characters as they sought their fortunes New York City.  The show’s external scenes of Manhattan could have been filmed by the New York Tourism Bureau, so convincingly did they convey the excitement and thrill of being in New York.

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Eventually I fulfilled my own childhood dream and moved to New York.  It’s not really like it is on TV, to be honest.  The city is fast-paced to be sure, but no more so than Boston, Philadelphia or Washington.  Ironically, what really makes the pulse quicken is walking by The Ed Sullivan Theatre when Letterman is taping, or passing the “Today” set when the anchors are in Rockefeller Center. In other words, New York is exciting precisely because TV is there; TV isn’t there because New York is exciting.

 

Elvis and Faulner

William Faulkner and Elvis Presley, two sons of the South born 15 miles apart in Mississippi, were mama’s boys, barely high school graduates, champion substance abusers and of course artists at the pinnacle of their fields. They were also property owners, each purchasing large estates as soon as they could scrape the money together.

Several years ago I visited both Graceland, in the Memphis suburbs and Faulkner’s lesser-known home, Rowan Oak, about 90-minutes south in Oxford, Mississippi. It was impossible to approach these places – especially Graceland – with an open mind, but that turned out for the best, because the contrast between what I was expecting and what I actually saw intensified the experience.

First consider the fact that they even have names.  You would expect a nouveau riche rock-and-roll star to give his new home a fancy title, but you wouldn’t really think that the greatest American novelist – a true artistic soul – would be so pretentious.  In fact it’s worse; Graceland is named after Grace Toof, the aunt of the original owner, so Elvis had no part in choosing that metaphorically apt name.  In contrast, Faulkner himself came up with “Rowan Oak,” which is also the name of magical tree in Celtic mythology.   Faulkner gets points for originality and romanticism, but still, it’s the kind of affectation you’d expect from the plantation owners in Gone With The Wind, not a Nobel Prize-winning writer.

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Graceland (Above) and Rowan Oak (Below)

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What I did not expect was that Graceland and Rowan Oak would be about the same size.  Graceland is really not that big.  A classic Colonial built in 1941, it’s a comfortable home, but it’s smaller than about a dozen houses within a ten-minute walk of where I live.  Probably considered a mansion in its day, by today’s standards it’s only a lower-upper-class home.  The rooms are nicely proportioned, but there aren’t that many of them.  And the kitchen?  Well, let’s just say that this would be the first thing to go in any HGTV makeover.

Rowan Oak, a Greek Revival home built in the 1840’s, is almost as big as Graceland, with large spacious rooms and a gentile atmosphere. (To be fair, Graceland is definitely larger if you count the subterranean space – it has a huge cellar with numerous game and trophy rooms).  Faulkner bought the property in 1930, when he was only 32 and barely supporting himself with his writing; he struggled for years to pay for the upkeep and repairs, at one point even taking a job as a maintenance man at the local power plant.

In other words, he wanted to be true to his Muse, writing novels that were barely comprehensible to a popular audience; but he also wanted to live the life of a country squire even if that meant diverting time from those novels to churn out semi-trashy short stories for popular magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and spending years writing Hollywood screenplays.

What’s most striking and unexpected about Graceland and Rowan Oak is their handsome grounds.  Both are 15- to 20- acre estates set in average middle class neighborhoods where the other houses sit on half- and quarter-acre lots.  They have beautiful sweeping lawns with paddocks and riding areas.  They are both fantasies of how landed gentry would live.  One of them even has a “meditation garden” – and it’s not Rowan Oak. What makes them different is their overall ambiance and how they reflect on their owners.

Each is decorated to appear as they did when Elvis and Faulkner lived there and this has not been a benefit to Elvis’ overall image. As a poor boy who suddenly found himself rich, he spurned antiques and other classic decor as “old,” insisting instead that all his furnishings be new.  Unfortunately, he had the bad luck to die in the 1970s, a decade that now appears to be a bad joke all the way around.  I doubt that many of us would emerge with enhanced reputations if our 70’s interior decorating were exposed to the rest of the world.

To be fair to Elvis, though, much of the house, especially the living room and dining room, is actually quite tasteful (although I bet that, as in many homes of that period, these formal rooms were rarely used).  The famous Jungle Room is certainly over the top, but kind of fun and the TV and game rooms in the cellar are not that different from the game rooms of my youth. In contrast to Graceland, which is frozen at the moment of Elvis’s death, Rowan Oak hearkens back to a period before Faulkner was famous.

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The Graceland living room

Faulkner died in 1962 but it is clear that no fifties or sixties decorators ever set foot there.  I wonder if this is really the furniture that was left there in 1962 or if an attempt was made to recreate the years (in the 30’s and 40’s) when Faulkner was writing his masterpieces?  The furnishings aren’t the high-end antiques that Elvis scorned; these are just old tables, chairs and couches that were probably in the family for generations.  The house does have a lived-in feeling (lived in by the Waltons maybe) but there’s nothing to suggest anyone lived there after World War II.

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Faulkner’s sacred typewriter

The most revered item in the house is Faulkner’s Underwood manual typewriter, which could have come off the set of The Front Page.  The two concessions to modernity are a radio from the last 1940s in his daughter’s room and an air conditioning unit installed in his wife’s room the day after his funeral.

Elvis gets a bad rap for tastelessness and trying to rise above his station – kind of like the Beverly Hillbillies – but I think people should cut him a break.  Graceland is a little garish but not as bizarre as I’d heard;  what critics really object to is the 70’s itself and the refusal of Elvis’ fans to treat it as a joke.

Maybe some of that cynicism should be directed Faulkner’s way.  He too aspired to rise above his station but he worked harder than Elvis did at creating his own myth.  Or maybe we ask too much of our artists.  In the end they are human too, with the usual delusions, dreams and ambitions.  It’s one of the reasons we go to see where they live: to remind ourselves not just that they are people, but to hope that a little bit of the immortality they created will rub off on us.

Chromecast

We are not a family of early adopters, but we’re definitely a family of adopters.  Someone’s always telling us about a new device or streaming service — and the next thing you know, it’s under the Christmas tree or in a pile of birthday presents.

You’d think that the more ways there are to watch TV the happier you’d be, but you’d be wrong.  If anything, more choice creates more stress because it’s frustrating to know you’re not getting as much out of your devices as you should be.

When people talk about cord-cutting, I wonder if they’ve really thought through what it would be like to go cold turkey using the current generation of electronic gadgets. For me, the only way I could manage it would be to consign myself to a life of fiddling, rejiggering and silent cursing.

To start with, I can’t think of anything more misnamed than “cord-cutting,” because now we have more cords than ever before.  We have connecting cords for our cable box, DVR, DVD player, Apple TV, Chromecast and laptop.  The problem is that there are only two HDMI ports at the back of the TV monitor, so every time we want to watch a different device we have to pull back the TV table, lean over and fumble with the cords and the ports. We’ve also got a plethora of power cords, since each of these devices (except for the Apple TV) needs electricity.  I’ve been told there’s yet another box we can use to consolidate all our cords, but I can’t bear the idea of introducing one more piece of electronics and the attendant remote (we already have four of them) into our living room.

In addition to collecting devices, we subscribe to a myriad of paid streaming services: Netflix, HBO-Go, Amazon Prime, and MLB for starters.  Unfortunately, there’s a certain amount of interoperability between the devices and the services.  The Chromecast should be the answer to my dreams since I should theoretically be able to just sit on my couch and stream shows from my iPod.  Alas, Amazon Prime, which is turning out to be a go-to source for shows I’ve forgotten to record, is unavailable on Chromecast. So to watch unrecorded shows, I need to haul out my laptop and connect it to my TV (along with the aforementioned fiddling with cords and ports).

Then there’s the problem with finding the shows you want to watch in the first place.  After all the positive end-of-season press for “Broad City,” I wanted to watch some episodes to see whether I liked it.  Well, you can’t just Google “‘Broad City’ Streaming” and expect to be directed someplace where you can watch full episodes.  You’ll get linked to YouTube clips and weird unknown sites that appear to function primarily as cookie-planting services.  What about the Comedy Central site?  Nope, just clips.  How about Hulu?  Once again, just clips.  What about Amazon Prime?  Yes, full episodes of “Broad City” are available there for $1.99 each or $6 for the whole season.

So after spending $99 on Prime, $30 for a Chromecast and God-knows-what for the iPad, it appears that the only way to watch “Broad City” now is to spend even more money, download it to the laptop, and hook it up to the TV.

Maybe I’m just being an old crank.  After all, the primary way my 22-year-old son watches video is sitting with a MacPro in his lap, which to my aching bones seems uncomfortable and bad for his posture.

To me, it’s plain that before these devices can become a major source of TV viewing, they’ve got to get a lot easier to use.  To watch a TV show I don’t want to spend 15 minutes Googling it, then paying extra for it, then rearranging the wires in back of my set. This is not a lean-back experience – and don’t we mostly watch TV as an escape from this kind of aggravation in the first place?

In the end, after buying all the devices and paying for all the services, the way my wife and I usually watch video is the old fashioned way: via the DVR.  Thank goodness for early 21st century technology.