Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Moving Day

My blog is moving to a new location, Beacon TV. The location may be different, but you'll get the same peculiar, personal ramblings about life as a TV critic that have been available here since April. Thanks for reading what I have posted here, and I hope to see you at the new site.

Real Baseball

Saturday night, my wife and I went to an Akron Aeros game, a nice evening out. The seats were good, the atmosphere cheerful and the heat far less oppressive than it has been most days lately. Still, even in a relaxed situation like that, I found myself scribbling notes on a corner of the roster; the reporter-critic in me never takes much time off.
I liked being that close to the game, and letting the eyes go where a TV camera might not. On the other hand, I missed seeing replays of key events, to be clear on what had happened and how. And while the pace was pleasant, it felt slower than the game does on TV. On TV, the breaks are filled with commercials and a chance to flip channels to see what's going on in the rest of the world; in the ballpark, even when there's a little stunt to keep the fans entertained, the time until play resumes feels longer.
Little things caught the eye and ear, too. I couldn't help but write down that an announcer was touting a drawing of tickets for the World Series in Detroit -- confusing the series with baseball's upcoming All-Star Game. That's in Detroit. We don't know where the World Series is going to be (although Indians fans right now are probably humming ''High Hopes'').
Then there was the billboard for Pax 23 News, the Akron-based newscast which had its last day on Pax 23 on Friday; it has now officially moved to Time Warner Channel 23. (See the posting below for more about that.) Not far from that was a sign touting Fox Sports radio on 1350-AM, which carries Aeros games; the station now calls itself Radio Free Ohio and has moved from a mostly sports-talk format to political talk from the left of center.
But hey, the Aeros won. And came from behind to do it.

Friday, July 01, 2005

The Perils of the Answer Man

Today's e-mail included a (very polite) request from a reader wanting advice about how to sell an old LP of ''The First Family,'' the Vaughn Meader parody. At church last Sunday, another member asked me (very nicely) if I knew what had become of Johnny Mathis.
I suggested the ''First Family'' owner try eBay. This Sunday, I'll tell the church member about johnnymathis.com. Neither of these questions had anything to do with television, but I try to be nice about it. After all, some folks think I'm the Answer Man.
Not the only Answer Man, of course, not even the only one at my newspaper. George Thomas, the movie critic at the Beacon Journal, does a weekly mailbag column for the newspaper and the Knight Ridder wire, as well as an online Q&A at ohio.com.
He gets a steady run of questions about movies, including some made for TV. Since we sit next to each other, we frequently end up swapping questions -- he'll hand me the TV-movie ones, I'll hand him ones about big-screen films -- or occasionally let our mailbags overlap.
With my own online Q&A, as well as a weekly column in the paper, I also get a steady flow of questions from e-mail, postal mail and online queries. Also the occasional phone call, even though I ask people to send me the questions in writing.
The plus to getting all those questions is that they give you a sense of what readers care about, which can lead to column ideas or shows that deserve a little more attention -- in other words, doing my job better.
One minus is that some questions get asked -- and answered -- again and again. Another is that, if you've answered a few semi-obscure questions, folks figure you're, well, the Answer Man.
I'm often backed up with questions, especially online. While there are many that I can answer immediately, some are really obscure, or they require some research Others may pack three or four questions into a single posting, and I need time to gather all the threads.
So there are times when I mutter about the questions. I have here and there suggested places people can find answers on their own. (There's an archived posting on this blog called ''Links'' with some resources.) But I still love doing the mailbag -- because readers like it, and because it leads to connections and conversations that might not happen otherwise.
Besides, some of the questions are really good. And I love it when they lead to some nugget that I never would have written about otherwise.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

From Channel 23 to Position 23: News Goes On

I'll have a story about this in Friday's Beacon Journal, but here's the short version: The Akron-Canton newscast on WVPX (Channel 23) will move to Time Warner Cable's position 23 effective Monday. (''Position 23'' is basically the same as ''Cable Channel 23'' to you, but it's not technically a channel.)
Newscasts will air at 6:30 and 9 weeknights and will have the same studio and news team that the telecasts on WVPX have had. The newscast will also be available in streaming video at wkyc.com. The 6:30 news will be offered by Time Warner as an on-demand program several hours after its telecast, and kept in an on-demand archive for about two weeks after it airs.
The Akron-Canton news has been in jeopardy for the last three months, ever since WVPX's owner Paxson Communications announced it would end a joint sales agreement with the Gannett Co., owner of WKYC (Channel 3). Among other things, the deal let WKYC produce an Akron-Canton news for WVPX. The agreement officially ends today, and the newscasts will have their last airing on WVPX on Friday.
Paxson is moving in a different programming direction which makes local programs like the news less important than nationally distributed shows. Experienced TV-watchers will recall that Paxson killed an earlier Akron-Canton news when it bought Channel 23 (then WVPX) in 1996.
Even though some viewers don't get cable, most of those in the Akron-Canton area do, Time Warner said. And it expects to reach even more next year, since it will be getting additional local homes as part of the purchase of Adelphia Communications by Time Warner and Comcast.

No ''Neighborhood''

A week ago I wrote here about ''Welcome to the Neighborhood,'' the ABC reality series that was coming under fire -- sight unseen -- because it dealt with families getting to choose their newest neighbor. The heat apparently became too much for ABC, which has decided to shelve the series.
In a statement, ABC said, ''Our intention with Welcome to the Neighborhood was to show the transformative process that takes place when people are forced to confront preconceived notions of what makes a good neighbor, and we believe the series delivers exactly that. However, the fact that true change only happens over time made the episodic nature of this series challenging, and given the sensitivity of the subject matter in early episodes we have decided not to air the series at this time.''
This is unfortunate for a couple of reasons, one involving the newspaper, one involving the show.
At the Beacon Journal, we had planned to put the show on the cover of the weekly Channels supplement and now will have to scramble to get a replacement topic. As for the show itself, after seeing a couple of episodes, I thought it was compelling -- and certainly better than the advance criticism suggested.
I wasn't the only one to think so, either. In my e-mail late yesterday was this note: ''The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) today expressed mixed emotions about ABC's decision to shelve indefinitely its six-part reality series 'Welcome to the Neighborhood,' noting that behind the problematic concept lay an admirable intention to promote diversity, understanding and acceptance.''
Sadly, most people won't get to decide if the show was good or not.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Historian As Star

Lately it has seemed as if every day brings news of another TV death. I've had recent postings on Lane Smith and Paul Winchell, and could have spoken as well about John Fiedler, the fine character actor in movies and TV. Fielder's long list of credits include ''Night of the Meek,'' a Christmas-themed episode of ''The Twilight Zone'' that I watch every holiday season.
Now, Shelby Foote is gone, too.
Foote was known mainly as a historian and the author of a popular account of the Civil War. But he rose to TV prominence as one of the voices in Ken Burns's ground-breaking ''Civil War'' documentary for PBS.
He was pretty cool -- in every sense of the term. About 15 years ago, I was in Hollywood for the TV critics' press tour, and Foote was there to talk about ''The Civil War.'' A friend and I were waiting in the hotel hallway for a third friend, who was finishing up a phone call in his room. Mature people that we are, my friend and I were just sitting on the floor, gabbing and half-heartedly pitching coins against the wall. Then Foote came down the hall. We were embarrassed. He was not. He simply smiled as he went by and said, ''Carry on.''
On TV, Foote showed audiences that historians did not have to be dry relayers of ancient fact. He was in many respects an heir to Carl Sagan (''Cosmos'') and Leonard Bernstein (''Young People's Concerts''), who became known as TV personalities as much as for their academic and cultural accomplishments.
Foote even did Sagan and Bernstein one better, since they had hosted television programs, and he became a star not as a host but as part of a larger narrative.
Foote also reminded producers that a historical account became more compelling television if a strong personality could be found to move along the tale.
Burns, for one, searched for a comparable voice to drive his ''Baseball'' documentary -- and found it in former ballplayer Buck O'Neil.
Carol Berkin, a history professor at Baruch College, has been seen in many TV documentaries not only because she knows her stuff, but because she comes across vividly on camera.
As did Shelby Foote.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Name Games

This arrived from NBC in today's e-mail:
NBC's new 2005 fall drama series "Fathom" has been renamed "Surface." From NBC Universal Television Studio, "Surface" will debut on the NBC network on Mondays from 8 to 9 PM EST this September.

Created and executive produced by Josh and Jonas Pate ("Dragnet"), "Surface" is an expansive drama and undersea adventure that centers on the appearance of mysterious sea creatures in the deep ocean - and tracks the lives of four characters.
(end NBC excerpt)
I watched the pilot of ''Fathom''/''Surface'' yesterday, and the name change isn't going to make me like it any more than I did when it was called ''Fathom.'' Which wasn't much, by the way.
But in pursuit of audiences, show titles can be changed between the making of the show and its premiere as a series. A new CBS drama called ''Close to Home'' was called ''American Crime'' as a pilot. Occasionally shows even modify their titles after they have begun airing; ''Ellen'' started out as ''These Friends of Mine,'' for example, and ''Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place'' shortened to ''Two Guys and a Girl'' when the pizza place was dropped from the show.
(The pizza place sued for wrongful termination, which damaged its career so much that it ended up just doing guest shots on ''The Sopranos.'')
(I'm kidding...)
But those carefully chosen titles still may not tell you much about a series. What, for example, does ''Arrested Development'' mean to someone who has not watched the show? ''Fathom'' at least indicated a connection to the sea; what would ''Surface'' suggest to an uninitiated viewer?

Monday, June 27, 2005

Same Character, Different Faces

I've been spending some of my spare time lately on light and semi-light reading, escaping from the regular world (and TV viewing) to the printed page. On the nonfiction side was a Bobby Darin biography; the fiction has included Philip Roth, a couple of Robert B. Parker's Spenser mysteries and ''The Godfather Returns.''
I have read and enjoyed the Spenser novels since long before they inspired the TV series ''Spenser: For Hire''(starring Robert Urich) and as TV movies (starring Urich and later Joe Mantegna). In stores Tuesday you can find a DVD set of four of Urich's movies, based on specific Parker novels.
Although I liked Urich as an actor, I had a hard time seeing him as Spenser. The Spenser I had seen when I first read the books more closely resembled the burly, battered-looking Parker; Urich always seemed a little too good-looking for Spenser. But now there are times when I read Parker and I hear Urich, especially when Spenser is in an extended run of wisecracking.
I know that books and movies are separate creatures, but they can still overlap in our memory banks. When I read ''The Godfather Returns,'' a revival of the Corleone saga by novelist Mark Winegardner, I heard echoes not only of original author Mario Puzo but of the Francis Coppola movies -- right down to wondering how a line would have sounded coming from, say, Al Pacino.
I didn't like the novel -- which covers years between the movies -- but it was hard to judge it on its own merits since it had such a heavy literary and cinematic past. (Reading the book, I kept wanting to go look at ''The Godfather, Part II'' instead.) Of course, if we were meant to judge it on its own merits, it wouldn't have been called ''The Godfather Returns.''

Ventriloquist Days

The obituaries for Paul Winchell tended to focus on his voice work in animated films, including as Tigger in various ''Winnie the Pooh'' productions. But those of us who grew up watching TV in the '50s and '60s also remember Winchell as a TV ventriloquist, the human companion to the mannequins Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff.
As references like ''Total Television'' indicate, Winchell had a busy TV life spread across the networks and syndication. Part of that stemmed from his genial manner and his banter with Mahoney. Part of it came from being on television at a time when ventriloquists were still an attraction.
Not just Winchell, either. ''The Ed Sullivan Show'' was a regular home to performers like Senor Wences. Commercial fans well remember Jimmy Nelson, who with his mannequins Danny O'Day and Farfel (a dog) plugged a brand of chocolate. Sing it with me: ''N-E-S-T-L-E-S...''
Before them, of course, there had been Edgar Bergen (successful as a ventriloquist on the radio, where ventriloquism was superfluous -- to the advantage of Bergen, whose onscreen performances show he wasn't very good at it). After them came the likes of Willie Tyler & Lester, Wayland Flowers & Madame and Jay Johnson (the ''Soap'' co-star). But I remember Winchell more fondly because he was part of my childhood.

Friday, June 24, 2005

More PBS

As I mentioned in a previous posting, public broadcasting made a lot of noise about feared cuts in funding. While I have some reservations about public broadcasting (mentioned in the other posting), the noise was heard and the House of Representatives restored $100 million to the funds for public broadcasting. But that, apparently, was not enough, based on a letter from PBS President Pat Mitchell posted on the www.pbs.org.
Here's the text:
After an unprecedented mobilization by supporters, parents, educators and "viewers like you," the House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly and in a bi-partisan way, to partially restore cuts made earlier this month by a House Committee. Having spoken with many members of Congress myself, I know it was your voices that made the difference for them in this difficult budget year.

We are enormously grateful to the members of the House who supported this critical, though partial, restoration of funding for public broadcasting. We want to thank Representatives David Obey (D-WI), Nita Lowey (D-NY), Jim Leach (R-IA) and a bi-partisan group of members for their diligent efforts on our behalf. We are also delighted that our PBS member stations were able to generate the support of their communities who weighed in effectively with their members of Congress.

Despite this victory, we remain very concerned that essential federal funds were nonetheless eliminated for our Ready To Learn service which helps low-income parents and caregivers, for the interconnection system that links PBS with local stations and for the transition to digital broadcasting mandated by Congress.

With these cuts, the financial burden of maintaining these operations will fall entirely to local public television stations, decimating their ability to finance local programming, educational outreach and even to air PBS programming. In terms of the digital transition, without restoration of funds, many local PBS stations, especially those in rural areas, will be unable to complete the transition and will go dark when their analog signal goes off.

With the future of the public broadcasting system still at stake, we will continue to work with APTS and NPR to ensure that full funding will be restored as the bill moves through the U.S. Senate and to conference committee in order to ensure the future of public broadcasting, the only media devoted to editorial independence, to local community service and to educational children's and prime time programming.

We thank you for all of your efforts to preserve PBS and your PBS stations, and ask you to stay with us as we work to protect funding for public broadcasting through the end of this year's legislative process.