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April tv

On Friday April 7, the New York Times Crossword offered this clue for a six-letter answer at 36-down: “When people meters are used.”  I am embarrassed to admit it was my wife who solved it for me: SWEEPS.

I have three reactions to this clue:

  1. Are People Meters really so well-known for delivering TV ratings that they can be used in a general interest crossword puzzle, even on a Friday?
  2. Not to get too nerdy, but People Meters are not used for sweeps. “Sweeps” are used to measure local markets that don’t have year-round measurement so local markets with People Meters by definition don’t have sweeps.  Paper diaries produce sweeps in non-People Meter markets. No wonder I didn’t get it! I was overthinking it.
  3. Huh. Sweeps. I haven’t thought about sweeps in years.

There was a time when TV was obsessed with sweeps.  The networks would cram all their best programming into the four sweeps periods of November, February, May and July because the ratings for these months would set advertising rates for local TV stations for the rest of the year.  If you had a character who was going to be killed, married or born, you’d do it during sweeps.

Not anymore.  Sweeps ceased to be a major factor a dozen years ago when Nielsen implemented Local People Meters in the largest local markets. And when Nielsen finally phases out diaries next year, sweeps as we have known them for decades will essentially cease to exist.

The clearest indication of the anachronism of sweeps is all the good programming now being aired in April, which is not a sweeps month.  I would go so far as to argue that the week of April 16-23, definitely not a sweeps period, is the best single week for scripted television in years.  Consider the shows running last week: “Girls,” “Veep,” “The Leftovers,” “Silicon Valley,” “Billions,” “Better Call Saul,” “Dr. Who,” “The Americans,” “Fargo” and “Archer.”  My DVR is about to explode.

None of those series are affected by sweeps since they are on cable, but even the networks are serving up a cornucopia of quality programming this month: “Modern Family,” “blackish,” “New Girl,” “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show With Stephen Colbert.” NBC is debuting its new Tina Fey show “Great News” later in the month.

And of course April has seen the return of the baseball season, the launch of the NBA and NHL play-offs, and the Masters.  That’s a lot of TV to watch considering that spring is here and those of us in northern climates are starting to enjoy longer, warmer days.

It’s not just a coincidence involving production schedules that so much great television is airing in April; TV’s evolving business model and its award schedule are responsible.

Until pretty recently, the average TV season comprised 22-26 episodes and the big money came when the series had accumulated about 100 episodes that could be sold for syndication.  So the traditional TV season would kick off in September and end in May, with the episodes essentially spanning those nine months.

A lot of network shows still aim for 22-week seasons but not all.  Season one of NBC’s “The Good Place” comprised only 13 episodes and seems destined for Netflix instead of syndication.  And 13-episode seasons are the norm on cable, although “Girls” and “Veep” have only ten.  When you have 10- or 13-episode seasons you might as well concentrate them in the fall or spring instead of stretching them through the year. If by the end of the series you only have 40 or 50 episodes you can sell it to Netflix or Amazon, which need the content.

Then there’s the impact of the Emmys.  To qualify for an Emmy at least half a season’s episodes need to run by May 31, so April becomes to TV what December is for the movies – the launching pad for award contenders. Presumably the thinking is that Emmy voters are more likely to remember prestige shows that recently aired than ones that ran last fall.

So what we really have now are two seasons of TV: the Money Season, filled with highly rated procedurals, football, prime time soap operas, awards shows, reality shows and other programs that pay the bills; and the Prestige Season, with critically acclaimed but low-rated “quality” television that bring honor and acclaim to a network.

I guess I shouldn’t complain but after months of desperately searching for something interesting to watch, I am now overwhelmed by the bounty of great shows.  I’ll probably still be catching up in July.

 

1967Bos

Last Friday, April 14 was the 50th anniversary of the most important baseball game of my life.  In 1967 I was a seventh grader with an extremely loose affinity for the Red Sox (or as my father called them, “The Red Flops”).  Entering the season I made the calculated decision that I was either going to start being a real fan by following them closely, or skip the whole notion of caring about baseball.

April 14, 1967 was a beautiful spring day, so when I got home from school I went outside, sat on the lawn and listened to the game on my transistor radio.  (Television was not an option because only weekend games were regularly shown on TV back in those three-channel days.)

To my surprise, Billy Rohr, the Sox’ 21-year-old rookie, was pitching a no-hitter in his first start, out-dueling the great Whitey Ford at Yankee Stadium.  Not only were the Red Sox on the verge of a no-hitter in the first baseball game that I had affirmatively sought out on my own, but the hero was just a kid closer to my age than to White Ford’s.

Rohr was still pitching a nohitter with one out in the ninth when this happened:

Even today that catch by Carl Yastrzemski brings tears to my eyes.  To get the full impact you also need to listen to the play-by-play call by the Red Sox announcer Ken Coleman:

I’ve heard the call so many times over the years that I have it memorized: “Fly ball to deep left,  Yastrzemski’s going hard.  Way back, way back, and he dives and makes a TREMENDOUS catch.”  Yaz saved the no-hitter for only a short while because with two outs in the ninth Yankees catcher Elston Howard hit a soft single into left field and Rohr had to settle for a one-hit shut-out in his baseball debut.

Of course I was disappointed that Rohr lost his no-hitter and I was further disappointed that this performance proved to be a freak event, with Rohr sent back to the minors a month or two later after inconsistent pitching, never to play for the Sox again.   But I was hooked on the Red Sox as surely as if they had plunged a syringe full of baseball heroin into my arm.

For the rest of the summer I followed the Sox avidly, watching on TV when I could, listening on the radio when I couldn’t.  I bought dozens of sports and baseball magazines (the 1960’s equivalent of Deadspin) and dreamed of a day when I too would wear the carmine hose.  That dream, not surprisingly came to a crashing end the next year when I tried out for my junior high school baseball team and saw that the other kids were so much better that I didn’t even look at the posted list of those who had made the first cut.

No, my baseball passion would be solely as a fan.  And I don’t use the word “passion” carelessly.  My ardor for the 1967 Red Sox surpassed the feelings I had for any member of the opposite sex. This was the first time I had a rooting interest in anything besides myself. Since then I have become emotionally invested in other teams, numerous political figures, and too many Oscar ceremonies to mention; that externally directed fandom began with this team.

What a year 1967 was.  The Sox had been league doormats for years, finishing next-to-last in 1966 and playing to sparse crowds.  Indeed, one game in 1965 had been attended by fewer than 500 hardy souls and even on Opening Day 1967 only 8,000 people showed up.

But suddenly, with a few veterans coming into their own, a handful of exciting rookies, and a hard-ass manager who made them hustle, they were competitive.   That early Billy Rohr game was harbinger of thrills to come.

I remember that summer as one long blur of watching or listening to the Red Sox, although I must have done something else that year.  I was just 13, so only partly employed at my parents’ business and I must have spent a lot of time doing early-teen things.  God knows I had no scheduled improvement programs to attend so I must have been out a lot riding my bike or swimming at the municipal pool or exploring the nearby woods.  But my only memories concern baseball.

Like, how we were on the ferry returning from Nantucket when they won their tenth straight game on the road and everyone on the vessel was listening on the radio.  And seeing on TV the next morning that 15,000 fans had mobbed their plane at Logan Airport when they touched down at 2:00 a.m. — more fans that had greeted even the Beatles.

In 1967, the country was tearing itself apart over the Vietnam war but the Sox became a unifying force in New England.  The players themselves were still subject to the draft, although most found a way to get into the National Guard, which required them to periodically go off for two-week tours of duty — pennant race or not.

My Red Sox memories also remind me how much time I spent with my cousins at the homes of my aunts and uncles; so many big Red Sox big moments happened when I was watching the TV at their places.  I was at my Aunt Jean’s house the night Jose Tartabull threw out the White Sox’ Ken Berry at home plate in the ninth inning to end the game.

I was staying at my Uncle Carl’s during the fateful weekend the Angels came to town and 22-year-old Tony Conigliaro ended up sprawled in the dirt with a broken cheekbone and a career cut short after a Jack Hamilton fastball hit him square in the face.  That was a tragedy, but just the night before the Sox had roared back from a 8-0 deficit to beat the Angels.

(Here’s a quick tribute to Tony C)

The Sox always seemed to be winning the dramatic games  and the sportswriters started calling them the “Cardiac Kids,” because they gave us all heart attacks.  And they really were kids.  Yaz, the elder statesman of the team, was 27 years old and the rest of the crew were even younger.

And Yaz was an incredible hero, making fantastic catches and timely home runs.  He won the Triple Crown that year and even though I sometimes can’t remember my own cell phone number I can still summon up the stats at will: 44 home runs, .326 batting average, 121 RBIs.

(here’s a quick summary of Yaz’ career)

The 1967 season was one of the all-time great pennant races.  Back when there were no play-offs and only one team got into the post-season, four teams (the Red Sox, White Sox, Twins and Tgers) battled down to the wire, with three in the running on the final day of the season.

On that fateful Sunday I was once again at my Aunt Jean’s house, watching the game in her basement rec room.  I don’t remember all the details but have never forgotten the key points of the game. The Sox’ Cy Young-winning pitcher Jim Lonborg throwing a complete game and sparking the game-winning rally by bunting his way on base (yeah, that’s when the pitcher’s batted).  Yaz throwing out Tony Oliva at second base as he tried to stretch a single into a double.  And the soft pop-up that landed in Rico Petrocelli’s glove to end the game and induced everyone in the stands to rush onto the field in a wild celebration.

When the Tigers lost later that night the Sox were in the World Series, which also turned out to be a nail-biter.  Their opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals, were a better team so just forcing them to a seventh game before ultimately succumbing was a moral victory.

When the season was over the local TV station produced a special called “The Impossible Dream,” which included cheesy doggerel narration and highlight clips (“This is really a love story/An affair ‘twixt a town and a team/A town that had waited and waited/For what seemed an impossible dream.”)   The excerpts below (which include an New England Telephone ad promoting an extra house phone) provide a real artifact of prehistoric TV production values, but will still bring a lump in the throat to any New Englander over 60.

And then, if that wasn’t enough, they turned the TV special into an LP, which, by the way, I still own and still play on special occasions when I need a good cry:

In the past fifty years the Red Sox have provided a lot of heartache and thrills.  They have been an organizing framework for my life, more closely tied to the passage of time than the seasons themselves.  They have been generational glue in or family — the one thing that parents, grandparents and kids care about. And it all begins with that “Impossible Dream” season 50 years ago.

 

child-watching-tv

The events of November 8, 2016 delivered a severe psychological blow to many corners of American society, including the boardrooms of television executives.

The election’s impact on TV news, with its higher ratings and Twitter feuds, has been much discussed.  So has the effect of the new president on the increasingly politicized award show category and the re-energized late night segment.

TV critics have been eager to view scripted entertainment through the same political lens.  About “The Americans,” the FX show about Soviet spies operating in the U.S. in the 1980s, The New York Times wrote: “In the light of today’s headlines, this Cold War drama feels newly relevant.”

When “The Man in the High Castle,” an alternate reality show about a 1960s America occupied by Nazis, returned last December, Newsweek said: “Watching in the aftermath of the recent presidential election, on the precipice of Trump’s America, the series feels different.”

And Slate called the new season of “American Crime,” which is focused on an illegal immigrant from Mexico searching for his son in America, “a worthy, Trump-Era successor to ‘The Wire.’” Looking ahead, you can be sure that when “Veep” and “House of Cards” return, we’ll hear similar commentary about their relevance to our time.

Given how long it takes to conceive, write and produce a season of scripted television, it’s a sure bet that none of these shows was intended to be a commentary on Trump’s America.  This is especially true since these shows were mostly written when everyone in Hollywood expected Hillary Clinton to win.

Eventually there will be TV shows that actually do reflect the Trump presidency. That has always been the case.  The disputatious “All in the Family” seemed to embody the Nixon era, while “Dallas,” with its celebration of buccaneering capitalism, could only have been a massive hit during the Reagan presidency.  And “24,” which preyed upon America’s apocalyptic fear of terrorism, provides essential insight into the George W. Bush presidency.

When television finally does deliver a Trump-era show, I doubt it will be an overt political series, which we are already drowning in anyway.  Seriously, how many dramas, sitcoms, soap operas and satires about the White House can television sustain?  And besides, the conventional wisdom about the Trump administration seems to change weekly.  In just three months the Establishment’s view of the Trump presidency has gone from potentially dictatorial to inept to laughable.  Who knows what’s next?  Any show that attempts to deliver direct commentary about Trump runs the risk of quickly getting stale.

A smart television producer would instead wonder how a complete outsider like Trump got elected in the first place and try to figure out what’s in the mind of his supporters.  That would require a pivot away from the upper-middle class lifestyle that was the focus of so much television programming during the Obama years (think “Modern Family” and “black*ish.”)

In another words, a true Trump-era show would dramatize or satirize the lives of middle- and lower-middle-class Americans who are anxious about their status, culture and economic prospects.  This could be a 21st century “Rosanne” with an even more pointed edge. Or a police drama about an immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) squad operating at the border.

If showrunners can’t wrap their heads around what it would be like to be a Trump voter or ICE agent, they could still do a Trump-era show about anti-Trumpers.  This could depict the lives of refugees or undocumented immigrants trying to adjust in America.  There have been recent shows about immigrants (“Fresh Off the Boat” and “Jane the Virgin”) but the characters were (mostly) legal.   I don’t think there’s ever been a show about refugees or the undocumented (unless you count “American Crime,” which is more about the crime than immigration per se.)

It looks like the TV industry is getting the memo that it needs more cultural diversity in its programming.  Last November, ABC’s president of entertainment, Channing Dungey, said at the Content London conference, “With our dramas, we have a lot of shows that feature very well-to-do, well-educated people, who are driving very nice cars and living in extremely nice places.  There is definitely still room for that … but in recent history, we haven’t paid enough attention to some of the true realities of what life is like for everyday Americans in our dramas.”

If ABC and the other networks see a market opportunity among the 63 million Trump voters, then there’s a real potential for a wider variety of stories and perspectives.  And maybe our television entertainment would get even better — even if our politics doesn’t.