Friday, July 29, 2005

July random reviews

  • ER: The Complete Third Season - ER near the top of its game, engrossing and addictive, with a great blend of medical and personal chaos mixed with the occasional playful respite. Read the review here.
  • Sledge Hammer! Season Two - Gleefully politically incorrect, both in humor and in content, appealing to people with a skewed sense of humor and to those who like to write angry letters to networks and DVD distributors about glorifying police brutality, violence, misogyny, and gun worship in the media. But it's all in goofy, subversive fun. Read the review here.
  • Trading Spaces: Great Kitchen Designs and More - The oddly addictive home design show doesn't have a lot of rewatch value, but if you love kitchens and want some ... interesting ... ideas for your own, this might appeal. Read the review here.
Books in brief:
  • Naked Brunch by Sparkle Hayter. Yes, that's her real name. This book was not what I was expecting, considering I first heard about it in an article focused on "chick lit" - a term I inexplicably hate, despite having embraced the term "chick flick." Timid Annie discovers she's a werewolf, and not the nice, cuddly kind of werewolf, but one who comes home to disgorge human eyeballs after a night on the town. She meets up with a doctor who helps people/wolves like her minimize their condition, but also with a renegade werewolf who wants her to embrace her werewolf self - and his. A clueless reporter starts getting clues that keep him on their trail, a plethora of minor characters do other things, and everyone falls in love by the end. For a werewolf, Annie is oddly nondescript, and the other characters aren't particularly fleshed out either.
"We hardly find any persons of good sense save those who agree with us."
- Francois Duc de la Rochefoucauld

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Confessions of a reluctant criminal

I don't watch much TV, but I'm intensely loyal to what I do watch. This past season, Fox-broadcast, Universal-produced House was more than appointment television for me, it was television I wanted to watch and rewatch. The show is broadcast locally on Global, which comes magically to my television set for free, but Fox is a beneficiary of the basic cable fee I voluntarily pay for the bonus of having clear picture quality and more channels I don't watch. Except when I've been out of town, I have watched all the episodes as they were broadcast. I tape them in case I'm not going to be home, or need to rewind to catch a line of the witty dialogue I've missed (yes, I said “need”). I have the first season DVD on pre-order from Amazon. There is no additional method for Fox and Universal to get House money out of me, unless I give them a direct pipeline into my bank account. And if they got Hugh Laurie or David Shore to ask, I'd probably do that, too.

So I feel almost guilt-free in admitting that I have (gasp) downloaded all the episodes from BitTorrent, too. Almost. Why do I do this, given the variety of opportunities I've given myself to watch my favourite show? Because I live in the land of no TiVo, don't own a DVD recorder, but want to save and rewatch the episodes in a less fragile and more convenient form than tape until the DVD box sets are released.

But guilt remains, because I know the powers that be hate me for this. Well, not me specifically – I'm not even a speck on their windshield – but the idea of me. Because I'm the annoying voice asking “where's the harm” and distracting from the very salient question of who should control distribution to copyrighted material. The guilt remains because I know the clear answer, current Canadian legal loophole or not, is and should be “the copyright holder.” I'm talking about my desire to rewatch a beloved television show, so I can't plead a sad story that they're forcing me to break the law to put bread on my table.

So yes, I'm going to buy a DVD recorder. But I don't think that's really the point. Is that what the lawsuits against peer-to-peer networks and illegal downloaders are about? Networks forcing consumers to buy personal video recorders or DVD recorders? No, of course not. They've challenged every technology, every step of the way, that would make it possible for viewers to do anything but sit in front of their televisions at the network-appointed time to watch their favourite shows. They challenged the viewer's right to record shows with VCRs, they've challenged TiVo, just as they're challenging the makers of peer-to-peer software, even though those programs can also be used for legal file transfers.

But viewers' habits are not just changing, they have changed. Simple methods – many of them legal – have existed for years for people to watch programs when they want to watch them, not when the networks dictate. The illegal methods take away the copyright holders' rightful place as the source, but in fighting those methods, they are fighting their own consumers, too – the people who watch the show as broadcast, and record it, and buy or rent the DVDs. Lawsuits will do little to change already ingrained habits, when the practical difference between legal and illegal methods seems trivial.

Offering a legal means of electronic distribution could put the control back where it belongs, and focus the copyright owners' fight on those who seek to profit from their creations.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)


“The right to do something does not mean that doing it is right.”
- William Safire

Sunday, July 17, 2005

And the winner is ... conflicted

Because watching a steady stream of mostly mediocre DVDs for review purposes crowded out my TV viewing this season, making House the only show I watched regularly, I've got no intelligent commentary on the recent Emmy nominations (PDF). Which won't stop me from trying to say something about the love-hate relationship many of us have with the whole concept of awards and external validation.

House did better than I dared hope for at Thursday's nomination unveiling, but worse than it probably deserved, given some of the other multiple nominees. The brilliant Hugh Laurie is up for best actor in a drama, and the equally brilliant David Shore for best writing, for the magnificent "Three Stories" episode. I was ecstatic rather than disappointed at two major nominations, since my expectations were low.

Awards are always about more than just who is most deserving, and “most deserving” is too subjective to inspire much indignation in me. (But really, The West Wing and Six Feet Under were among the top five best dramas on the air? I used to love them, but objectively speaking – no.) The Emmys are part popularity contest, part nostalgia, part truly acknowledging quality, and that doesn't change from year to year, and raging against the injustice is as futile as hoping reality television will disappear.

But then, awards in general have an odd place in our culture. We dismiss their importance with rants about clueless Emmy or Oscar voters, but still revel in their cachet when our favourites earn the right to call themselves nominees or, better yet, winners. And why is an Emmy nomination enough to make notoriously self-deprecating Hugh Laurie feel validated, if the overwhelming critical and popular acclaim for his performance aren't?

Katharine Hepburn said: "I think most of the people involved in any art always secretly wonder whether they are really there because they're good or there because they're lucky." And awards are an imperfect way of determining whether luck or skill are at play. If a critic says you're good, maybe that's luck. If a large body of your peers says it, maybe you're good.

I don't think that sentiment is limited to creative types. Most professionals I know have a fear of being “found out” - that somehow they are faking their way through, that everyone else knows the secret handshake, and some day a colleague or boss will discover their complete and utter incompetence. Or maybe that's just me.

My boss values awards highly, and encourages us peons to enter communications projects into competitions. I, however, feel more embarrassment than validation from the process. Just the act of entering feels like a giant act of hubris, in part because I'm exposing my belief that I'm worthy of the honour, in part because I'm sure of the fact that I'm not. And if I win, well, that could be luck, and it could seem like I'm lording it over my colleagues.

We live in a culture where we celebrate individual achievement, but knock people down for taking too much pride in their achievements. Awards are far from being the win-win that the rosy "it's an honour just to be nominated" cliche would have us believe. Because while it certainly is, it also sucks to lose. Yet even winning requires appropriate humility ... or the fortitude to withstand years of ridicule after admitting what the external validation really means: "you like me, you really like me."

"Emotion has nothing to do with appropriateness. It matters only that it shall be sincere. I happened to feel deeply. I showed it. It doesn't matter whether I ought to have felt deeply or not."
- E.M. Forster, Notes on the English Character

Monday, July 04, 2005

Pilot error?

The news about an unaired television pilot being leaked on the Internet gives me more fuel for my frustration with myopic television networks. Global Frequency was one of many pilots that don't make the cut each year, this one rejected as a series by The WB. But courtesy a highly illegal and thoroughly wicked leak to the BitTorrent peer-to-peer network, it has been discovered by fans who are hailing it as the second coming of The X-Files, and pressuring The WB to change their minds. (Click here for the Wired story.)

The producers and fans are harbouring the hope that Global Frequency will be resurrected as a series. But there's another germ of an idea in this story, besides the possibility of using the Internet to test-screen pilots before making decisions on whether to pick them up.

A couple hundred pilots are produced every year, with only a small percentage ever making it to the air. (Click here for an explanation of the process.) The rejected pilots represent ready-made content with nowhere to go. Development money has been invested in a product that now has no value. So why not package some of these rejected pilots and offer them as legal downloads? Since a significant profit through sales is unlikely, networks could simply use them as a marketing tool to drive traffic to their advertising-supported websites, or to the website of a show with similar demographic appeal in order to boost its visibility.

Most unwanted pilots are probably crap. I say this with some confidence, given that a lot of what makes it to the air is crap. But even crap has a target audience out there somewhere, and since determining audience tastes is an inexact science, there are bound to be a few gems.

I'd even pay a few bucks to see The Dragans of New York, the rejected 2002 pilot Hugh Laurie cowrote and starred in before hitting it big on American TV with House, or this year's rejected-so-far pilot Testing Bob, with Peter Dinklage and Dave Foley, or The Catch by J.J. Abrams.

By promoting the right pilot to the right fans, using the appeal of a familiar name or an interesting-sounding concept, networks could find homes for some orphan pilots with minimal effort and cost ... and use them for their own nefarious marketing purposes. The WB didn't even try to distribute Global Frequency and it found an audience. Imagine the possibilities if they'd controlled and publicized access to the download through their own site.

There might be legal obstacles to work out, or financial considerations I can't imagine. But the biggest obstacle is likely the networks' fear of the inevitable backlash from viewers who want to know why their pet pilot wasn't developed as a series, when [insert your least favourite show here] was.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)


“A computer terminal is not some clunky old television with a typewriter in front of it. It is an interface where the mind and body can connect with the universe and move bits of it about.”

- Douglas Adams

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Brave new cyberworld

We live in heady technological times. It wasn't long ago that there was life before the World Wide Web, life before e-mail, yet it's difficult even for those of us who somehow managed to struggle through that life to remember it. Blogging and podcasting are so new, yet already so ingrained in our cyberculture. But not only are the companies that could benefit most from new media technologies not leading the charge, they are actually proud to be bringing up the rear.

Because I am a nauseating evangelist for their show every chance I get, I will balance things out by picking on Fox and their online marketing for House as a small example.

Designed – though not well – entirely in Flash, the website loads painfully even without a dialup connection. Worse, it's updated infrequently, giving no reason for fans to return. Cases in point: though the first season DVD was announced weeks ago, it still isn't mentioned on the site, and "this week's poll" has been up for months ... and refers to the potential love interests of Hugh Laurie's cranky Dr. House as "girls". The writing is amateur and sloppy, with episode summaries both giving away every plot twist and misrepresenting the content of the show - not by ramping up the drama, but by plain getting things wrong. With a decided lack of flair and poor sentence structure to top it off. As Dr. House might say, this job could be done by a monkey with a copy of Dreamweaver.

In addition, the site has been collecting e-mail addresses for a "Fan Club" since its debut in Fall 2004, but apparently nothing has been sent to this group. No details on upcoming episodes, no news on site updates, no bulletin about the show being picked up for a second season, no announcement about the DVD release. Who knows what else they've done with those e-mails they've gathered, but what a wasted opportunity to create a sense of community and loyalty among a core group of online fans, happily willing to be spammed with House news and maybe spread the word.

Shouldn't a giant media conglomerate be able to put out a great website and e-mail campaign that generates more buzz about one of their hottest shows? Shouldn't they have access to some of the best designers, writers, and marketers our ad money can buy?

To cast a wider net of shame, Fox isn't alone in their Luddite-wannabe tendencies. Networks and studios are expending a lot of energy to fight illegal downloads of their products, but are doing little to feed the obvious hunger for electronic distribution. Why not take a page from the also-slow-to-react music industry and offer content online, for a fee or supported by advertising? The BBC is experimenting with legal downloads (see article here). The demand exists. Now we need more networks to put some imagination behind today's technology and be at the vanguard of change, instead of monkeying around with poorly executed websites. This isn't the future, Fox and friends - it's the present.

"Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people."
- George Bernard Shaw

Friday, July 01, 2005

Demanding truth even in trivia

I love movies and television, so glimpses into their creation and their creators are guilty pleasures for me. In other words, I love entertainment and celebrity news. But I hate that very little of it can be trusted. The line between what's a legitimate news source and what's rumour is blurrier than my contact lens-free eyesight, especially now that tabloids are masquerading as glossy magazines and my local newspaper runs blurbs on who's pregnant and who's being sued ... and then retracts them when it turns out they're wrong.

Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner just got married. Good for them, but why did we have to suffer through so many false reports before the actual wedding took place? Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are the non-story of the month: no one knows if they're dating, and why should I care that they might be? I want to know if Kevin Spacey has signed up for a new movie, not speculation about his sexuality.

All reporters, even entertainment reporters, should still have journalistic integrity and do things like fact-checking and using on-the-record sources and verifying information before printing a story. It's one thing for the tabloids to print rumours, but now, nearly every source of entertainment news has the same legitimacy as the tabloids. Even the announcements that come through the new wires use unnamed sources citing strife in a marriage, or “reports say” an actor's in rehab.

Why can't entertainment journalism be journalism? Journalism in general suffers today because of the appetite for instant access to information, increased competition, and reduced budgets, but celebrity journalism isn't even in the same universe. As long as we lap it up and help sell advertising, it will continue unabated. And what could be a wholesome guilty pleasure just makes me feel dirty.


"Truth is generally the best vindication against slander."
- Abraham Lincoln