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Monthly Archives: October 2016

colin-kaepernick-kneeling

The long national nightmare that has been the 2016 presidential campaign will soon thankfully be over. That’s the good news. The bad news is that one of the nominated candidates will actually win.

The damage that the two political parties have done to the country by selecting these two intensely flawed presidential aspirants will be long-lasting. And one of the casualties will be television itself.

There was a time when television was a unifying force in this country – when nightly news anchors were respected figures of authority and you could use the boob tube as an instrument of escapism, not aggravation.

Forget that. Politics permeates everything on TV and whatever credibility the news media had as neutral arbiters is long gone. Of course, one-half of the country has always suspected that the media disliked and looked down on them. This goes back at least to the days of Spiro Agnew’s attack on the press as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” but until now the media has at least pretended to be neutral.

Donald Trump says he’s the victim of a massive conspiracy comprising the mainstream media and the political establishment, which have set out to deny him the election. “Massive” is too strong a descriptor given that no one could commit voter fraud on a massive scale, but there is clearly some kind of media conspiracy and it’s not very secret. Media commentator Bob Garfield has called for a media crusade against Trump while the New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg has advised reporters who think Trump is a menace not to get hung up with traditional values like balance and fairness. Not surprisingly the media, with the exception of Fox News and the rightwing websites and talk shows, have responded with an unrelenting stream of negative Trump coverage while pulling their punches on Clinton.

Conservative confidence in the media hit a new low in the first debate when moderator Lester Holt went after Trump and gave Hillary Clinton a free pass on any negative questions. The second debate was slightly more balanced, but only after the moderators finally prodded Trump into crazy mode by pressing question after question on his lewd conversation with “Access Hollywood’s” Billy Bush. It wasn’t until the third debate that the media offered up a neutral moderator in Chris Wallace.

The news, balanced or not, is supposed to be political, but since when has the rest of television had a mandate to be political? TV comedy is saturated with politics. Many of the shows on Comedy Central have a political edge, as does “Saturday Night Live” and the late night talk shows. Only “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” has eschewed hard politics — and how did that go? Fallon was subjected to global opprobrium when Trump appeared on his show and wasn’t given a “Meet The Press”-style grilling. Fallon was accused of endangering the Republic by “normalizing” Trump.

Sports was once a refuge from politics, but now you can’t even watch football without making a political statement. The conservative media, which blame the NFL for allowing Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the National Anthem, are gloating that the football ratings are down this year. Tom Brady has been excoriated for not denouncing Trump in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” leak. Some players display the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” gestures. And worst of all are the opinions of the sports analysts debating these developments. There’s nothing less illuminating than the political opinion of a sports analyst.

Entertainment television is not the refuge from politics it once was. The sit-com “black-ish” decided it needed to do a show about the importance of voting that culminated with a clip from Michelle Obama’s recent DNC convention speech. “New Girl” also had an episode on voter registration, although this one had a humorous twist in which the left-leaning main characters tried to register a group of sorority sisters who turned out to be for Trump. (Interestingly, the series that tend to be the least partisan are the White House-based soap operas, thrillers or satires that are actually set in Washington, D.C.)

Award shows? Full of self-congratulatory political jokes and acceptance speeches. Reality TV shows? Also no escape. You can’t watch “Duck Dynasty” without filtering it through the right-wing politics of the show’s stars. And right there on “Dancing With The Stars” is former Texas Governor Rick Perry. Of course Sara Palin had her own reality TV show and “Pawn Star’s” Rick Harrison campaigned with Marco Rubio.

And a special shout-out to the reality shows that blessed us with our GOP candidate – “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Without these shows there probably would not have been a candidate Trump. But don’t worry “Apprentice” fans. Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is the new host of NBC’s “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

Finally, who would have guessed that the TV show that would put the nail in Trump’s coffin is “Access Hollywood?” Even the most innocuous, seemingly apolitical television genre – the celebrity gossip show – finds itself dragged into politics.

Sadly what this phenomenon means is that TV is becoming more like the Internet — an echo chamber where people go to get their political opinions affirmed. Already the Right goes to Fox for their news and the Left goes to MSNBC. Soon it will be the same with the rest of television, with Republicans watching reality TV, Democrats watching comedy and everyone hating each other. As the GOP candidate himself says, “Sad. Very sad.”

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hey-jude

Was 1968 the greatest year in popular music? To me that seems self-evident, unless you want to claim 1967. Or maybe 1969.

OK, so I was 14 years old at the time and it is well-known that the most meaningful music in your life is the music that was popular when you were in adolescence and beginning to have a sexual awakening. But it wasn’t my hormones that made 1968 such a great year – it was the music itself.

At least that’s what I thought until I listened to a Slate.com podcast featuring music historian Chris Molanphy, who pointed out that many of the top songs from 1968 were little more than schlock or elevator music. In other words, for every fantastic Number One like Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” there was a dog like Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey.”

Molaphy’s theory is that music served as a refuge because 1968 was such a horrible year politically (assassinations, riots, war, etc.). Therefore some of the year’s most popular songs were mindless diversions from the evening news. Maybe that’s the reason, or maybe the truth is that every year is full of schlock and it takes a couple decades to realize it. Looking at the full list of top hits in 1968, though, it seems that about half the songs aimed to change society through social commentary that you’d never find in pop music today so I’m not sure how escapist it was.

In any event, here are ten interesting nuggets I learned from Molanphy or my own observations about the top hits of 1968.

1. “Hey Jude,” one of the all-time great songs, is still the longest single ever to top Billboard’s pop charts. It was also the Beatles song that stayed longest at Number One (nine weeks). At seven minutes and 11 seconds, it was twice as long as most pop hits, and every radio station played the whole thing. Even more unprecedented, the Beatles ended the song with a four-minute chant, giving pop music a rare sense of mysticism. I will never forget watching the “Hey Jude” clip (below) that appeared on The Smothers Brothers in October 1968. In retrospect, that moment, even more than Woodstock, was the high point of the feel-good “flower power” movement.


2. Another really great hit from 1968 was Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” a fragment of which had appeared in Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” the year before. Paul Simon hadn’t finished the song when the movie premiered and it wasn’t released until the  next summer. The song was initially titled “Mrs. Roosevelt,” but when Simon showed it to Nichols the director convinced him to change it the name of the seductress in the movie. The famous line if the song, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?” was originally intended to refer to Simon’s boyhood hero Mickey Mantle but the syllables didn’t match up. In a song so deeply contemptuous of 1960’s America it was probably better anyway to refer back longingly to DiMaggio’s generation.

3. There were two instrumental Number One hits in 1968, both by international artists. First we had “Love Is Blue” by the French composer Paul Mauriat, who remains to this day the only French artist to have a chart-topping Billboard hit. The song was composed – with lyrics – for the Eurovision contest (as Luxemburg’s entry.) It didn’t win at Eurovision but became a huge hit in the U.S. Molanphy dismisses this song as the greatest piece of elevator music ever composed, but I have to admit that I owned this record and played it constantly.


4.  The other major instrumental hit of 1968 was “Grazing in the Grass” by the South African musician “Hugh Masekela.” Of course I’ve heard this song a million times; it arguably invented the smooth jazz genre. But I never knew the music was from South Africa. Partly that’s because The Friends of Distinction added words and released their own hit single, which is now better known than the original. (And “Love is Blue” and “Grazing in the Grass” weren’t the only instrumental hits that year – only the two number one hits. Other notable instrumental songs from 1968 include “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” and my favorite, “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams. I can’t remember any instrumental hits in the 21st Century.)



5.  Another Number One hit that might as well have been an instrumental recording was “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell and the Drells. This is a proto-Funk record in which Bell directs the band and the dancers on how to perform a dance called The Tighten Up. The remarkable thing about this song is that Drell had been drafted into the army and was recuperating in a German hospital from wounds suffered in Vietnam when the song hit Number One.


7. And then there’s Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, a hugely popular instrumental band that had 17 Top 100 hits before they finally charted a Number One song with “This Guy’s in Love With You.” To demonstrate the oddity of 1968, this song was NOT an instrumental record. Nope, the band’s first Number One hit was vocalized by Herb Albert himself. Originally inserted as a knock-off number in a CBS TV special, the song so charmed viewers that it was rushed out as a single. And not only was this the first Number One hit for Herb Albert, it was the first Number One song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Go figure.


8. Molanphy reserves his greatest scorn for Bobby Goldsboro’s weeper “Honey,” about a husband mourning his dead wife. He claims that it is considered by many to be the worst Number One song ever, although I’m sure the competition for that title is very steep. I have to admit that it’s pretty bad: consider these immortal lyrics: “She was always young at heart/Kinda dumb and kinda smart/And I loved her so”


9. If “Honey” was notable for anything other than its schlock, it was for exemplifying the trend toward country music crossing over into pop. A worthier country/pop entry in 1968 was Jeannie C. Reilly’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.” which scathingly attacked the hypocrisy of small town life.


10. Then there are Number One songs from 1968 that seem downright dangerous. The Doors’ “Hello I Love You” is ostensibly about Jim Morrison’s yearning for a girl walking down Venice Beach but the aggressiveness of the lyrics and the pulsing way in which they’re delivered seems scary even today. In any event it was the first 45 rpm stereo record.


So is 1968 the greatest year in music? I consistently liked more top songs from 1967 (Aretha’s “Respect,” The Monkees’ “I’m A Believer,” The Turtles’ “Happy Together,” The Doors’ “Light My Fire,” Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe,” The Association’s “Windy,” The Supremes’ “The Happening,” even Lulu’s “To Sir With Love.”) But any year in which “Hey Jude” could be heard on the radio for month after month has to rank high.

Suffice it to say that the Sixties really were the Golden Age of pop music. Almost every week another great new song appeared on the top 40 and since we all listened to the same Top 40 format we all had the same frame of reference. Those were the days, my friends. In fact, there was a big hit with that very title in 1968.

nielsen-diary

The recent news that Nielsen intends to eliminate paper diaries from the 140 ratings markets in which they are currently being used was met with relief in some quarters and with incredulity in others that such antediluvian methods were still being deployed to generate TV ratings this late into the 21st Century. For me, however, it brought back memories from more than a decade ago, when Nielsen first announced its intention to phase them out by 2011.

Paper diaries harken back to the dawn of the television age when there were only a handful of TV networks and viewers could generally be counted on to remember what channels they watched throughout the day.  But even back then, Nielsen founder Art Nielsen was always searching for a better electric measurement system that would record what people actually watched instead of what they said they watched.

Fast forward to June 2006.  Coming off a bruising fight with News Corp over the introduction of the Local People Meters that replaced these same paper diaries in the top ten local markets, Nielsen faced an even more implacable foe: the Internet.  People were beginning to find new ways to watch TV online and Nielsen needed a plan to adapt.

The result was an initiative called Anywhere Anytime Media Measurement, aka A2M2.  Looking back on that plan ten years later is a reminder of how visionary corporate aspirations are often restrained by more mundane considerations such as cost, technology and clients.  For example, it eventually turned out that clients weren’t interested in paying Nielsen to measure viewing outside the home (although that is apparently back on the table again.)  And when it further turned out that iPods (remember them?) wouldn’t become the primary vehicle for mobile viewing, Nielsen dropped the quest to develop a “go meter”.  On the plus side, Nielsen did eventually integrate Internet viewing into its ratings, and it did expand the number of local markets measured with People Meters.

The nut it couldn’t crack was the complete elimination of diaries.  Nielsen’s ratings CEO Susan Whiting had pushed for a deadline of introducing electronic measurement in all local markets by 2011, reasoning that the Nielsen staff would be motivated into action by an aggressive but firm deadline.  I was the PR representative on the A2M2 team so I can testify that they were motivated, and yet the 2011 deadline came and went with diaries as firmly entrenched as ever.

It wasn’t for lack of trying.  For at least a couple of years, the A2M2 team met every Friday morning via a conference call between the project managers in the company’s business headquarters in New York City and its technology headquarters in Oldsmar Florida.  They considered and tested a number of options, including a “mailable meter” that would be sent to viewers in lieu of a diary, placed next to a TV for a month where it would record what shows were being watched, and then returned to Nielsen for transcription.

A lot of work went into developing and testing this mailable meter, including research into packaging and shipping, but in the end it wasn’t good enough or cheap enough to replace diaries.  Because here’s the thing about diaries: they are really cheap. Nielsen lost money measuring many of these markets but it lost less than it would have with electronic measurement.

Here’s the other thing about diaries: they hung around so long because a lot of the people who pay the bills (i.e., the local stations) didn’t really want to change if it meant lower ratings.  TV viewers are most likely to mark down the big-name shows they “usually” watch and those are typically network shows, which inflates their ratings, so there was an incentive to maintain the status quo.

Or at least there used to be.  In a world of streaming, video playback, on-demand, channel-switching, premium cable stations, and limited attention spans, viewers are less likely to remember anything they watch, even the six o’clock news, and the diaries have finally lost any credibility among advertisers.   The incentive for abandoning diaries is finally larger than it is for keeping them.

What’s coming instead is something that’s been in Nielsen’s toolbox for years – fusing together different datasets, including return path data from set top boxes and data from other electronic sources like the National People Meter sample.   The flaws of set top box data are numerous, including a lack of representativeness and no information on which person in the house is watching, but at this point anything would be better than paper diaries.

The adoption of fusion data based on modeling different datasets is a significant development.  Until now, almost all TV ratings have been based on quantifiable data from scientifically selected panels that can be double-checked.  You can go back and see how many people actually pushed People Meter buttons in a market or wrote in particular programs in their diaries.  There’s even a room at Nielsen’s Oldsmar facility where station managers can go to review the individual diaries from their markets and confirm that, yes, this 53-year-old white woman really did watch “The Wheel of Fortune” instead of “Jeopardy.”  You can’t do that when data from set-top boxes are funneled into a computer, fused with other data, and modeled using an algorithm that only a handful of data scientists can understand.

Welcome to the 21st Century.  I’m sure my former Nielsen colleagues are thrilled they’ve finally convinced the market to phase out diaries, which symbolized the old, analog Nielsen in a digital age.  That’s an image no one wanted.

The new target date for eliminating diaries is now 2018, seven years after the first deadline.  But I’d bet on Nielsen making this one.  Not only is the technology there but so is the marketplace.

 

 

 

altanta_still_episode_101_pilot_h_2016The so-called “Golden Age Of Television” usually refers to dramas – hardly anyone has claimed we’re also in a Golden Age of comedy.  Indeed, the last great line-up of “must see” sitcoms seems like a long time ago, when “The Office,” “30 Rock,” and “Parks and Recreation,” all appeared together one last time in the fall of 2013. Since then the comedy landscape has been hit or miss.

But the launch of the new TV season brings more enthusiasm than usual for sitcoms.  Critics have been excited about FX’s “Atlanta” and “Better Things,” ABC’s “Speechless,” NBC’s “The Good Place,” and Amazon’s “One Mississippi One.”   If these shows turn out to be half-way successful maybe they, combined with returning hits like “Modern Family,” “black*ish” and Brooklyn Nine Nine,” could begin to constitute a sitcom revival.

Still, it’s interesting that some of these series are not really that funny.  In fact, for some time now, prestige comedy has been synonymous with a dark, bleak world.  On “Louie” and “Girls,” two of the most highly praised “comedies” of the past five years, entire episodes go by without a single joke.

Consider the situations in a few of the new situation comedies.  In “Speechless” the parents are trying to balance the needs of their kids, one of whom is wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy.  In “Atlanta,” a broke Princeton drop-out with serious money and relationship problems is trying to launch his cousin’s hip hop career.  In “One Mississippi,” a woman recovering from a double mastectomy and a debilitating digestive illness returns home to take her mother off life support.

On “Saturday Night Live,” Gilda Rader’s character Lisa Loopner used to say “That’s so funny I forgot to laugh.”  After seeing some of these “traumedies,” I’m beginning to appreciate the unintended wisdom of the saying.  When a sitcom character slips on a rug or is outwitted by a wisecracking ten-year-old, that’s amusing.  But when a character is faced with the absurdity of a parent’s death or a child’s disability, it’s a profound cosmic joke.  The deep humor comes out of the need to keep moving forward in the face of a tragedy, and this is not always laugh-out-loud comedy.

Like many programming trends on television, the trend to bleak humor originates in both changing taste and the fracturing of the once-monolithic television audience.  When there were only three major networks, all television networks needed to appeal to the lowest common denominator and that meant set-up, joke, laugh, set-up, joke, laugh. Some of the resulting shows were transcendent but most were formulaic and mediocre.

The decision of HBO to move into original programming broke the broadcast networks’ creative monopoly and one of their first series – Garry Shandling’s “The Larry Sanders Show” – became an ur-text for bleak comedies.  Shot in single camera format without a laugh-track, the show highlighted the insecurities, selfishness, thwarted ambition and existential despair of the characters and guest stars.  Since then, dyspeptic shows have become increasingly popular as networks sought smaller niche audiences who could support a different kind of comedy.

Laugh-less comedies have also thrived as television’s business model has changed.  For decades the big money for a television series occurred when it went into syndication and the goal was to get a series enough episodes (usually about 100) to make that possible.  That meant targeting a broad audience and generating high enough ratings to keep the show on the air for four or five years.

But as live viewing gives way to streaming, ratings are less important.  Networks and services like HBO, Showtime, Amazon Prime and Netflix are in the business of acquiring monthly paying subscribers and ratings are an afterthought as long as customers keep sending in those monthly checks.   Building content libraries is now the name of the game and it’s more important to have at least one show that each customer is passionate about than to have dozens of shows with moderate appeal.

The dark comedy is definitely a niche and not for everyone.  It’s also hard to sustain.  A show like “Louie,” which seemed fresh and original in its first seasons, felt downright depressing as the years went by.  Louis C.K. peeled back the façade that we all display to the world only to discover a confused, self-involved introvert underneath.  If audiences are going to stick with a show they have to find something redeeming in the main characters and that’s hard to do without at least a little humor.

Fortunately, these new dark sitcoms, as uncomfortable as they are, actually do have moments of real humor.  I really did laugh out loud at “Speechless,” “Atlanta,” and “One Mississippi.”  Sometimes real life is so ridiculous that all you can do is laugh.