Thursday, April 28, 2005

Judy Woodruff, Baseball Fan

The Associated Press reports that the CNN anchor will leave fulltime work at the network when her contract expires in June. Here's a link to a story about it:

The news reminded me of the last time I talked to Woodruff. It was July. She was in Boston for the Democratic convention, getting sent by satellite to a crowd of reporters attending the TV critics' press tour in California. She was, of course, helping to promote CNN's coverage. But in touting it, she said CNN was going to be at Fenway Park one day and "It's fair to say the Democrats could maybe learn something about competitition from those Red Sox.''

Now, this was before the Red Sox pulled off their miraculous World Series win, the first in decades. So when I got a chance to ask a question, I reminded Woodruff off the team's long record of frustration -- which didn't seem very inspiring to any candidate.

"But you can't say (the Red Sox) don't believe in competition,'' she replied. Still, she soon enough admitted that "my knowledge of baseball lasts about another five seconds, so I'm going to shut up.''

Wolf Blitzer, also at the press conference, tried to save Woodruff by noting that the Sox were playing the Yankees around that time and ''the Democrats would like to look to the New York Yankees for some inspiration on how to win these kinds of contests.''

In the end, it didn't seem to matter where the Democrats looked for inspiration. And attempts to parallel politics and sports are always risky.

A ''Survivor" No More

We all get the feeling: You decide to root for someone on a show, and that person gets eliminated, and you wonder if you should ever cheer for a contestant -- if somehow you're bad luck.
Of course, it's all superstition, but after seeing a couple of contestants I admired get the boot on "American Idol," tonight's "Survivor" just left me feeling snakebit.
Yes, Stephenie is gone. The gutsy, go-it-alone gal who was the last member of The Worst Tribe Ever has finally been voted out. She tried to build an alliance, she looked for friends, and the show's editing made it seem as if there was enough conflict among the remaining contestants that she might find a way to break through. On top of that, Tom -- the most able of all the contenders, if not the most cunning -- did not win immunity for a change, so there was a chance that the web-spinning other players might seize this opportunity to get Tom out of the way. Katie sure seemed to have her spinner running.
No such luck. The show obviously didn't show us some key discussions, as the Stephenie wipe-out was thorough and merciless. And to think I had to wait an extra hour (because of the Bush press conference) to see it.
Now I'll just have to hope for another "Survivor: All Stars," and a chance for Stephenie to triumph there. Or maybe she could form a duo for another "Amazing Race." It would be a lot more fun to watch her than Rob & Amber.

Thursday viewer warning -- Updated with CBS and Fox changes

President Bush's press conference tonight may throw a wrench into your prime-time viewing plans. (Originally expected at 8:30 p.m., the press conference is now slated to start at 8.)
ABC start coverage at 8 p.m., when it had planned to air ''Sweet Home Alabama.'' It will carry news programming -- including an expanded edition of ''PrimeTime Live,'' throughout prime time.
NBC plans Bush coverage from 8 to 9 p.m.; it will pre-empt ''Joey'' and ''Will & Grace'' and resume entertainment programming at 9 with ''The Apprentice.'' (We'll see what they do if the press conference goes past 9.)
After saying that it would not carry the press conference on the network, CBS blinked late in the day. It's putting the press conference from 8 to 9 p.m. Eastern (7 to 8 Central), followed by "Survivor: Palau" and then "CSI." In the Mountain and West Coast time zones, it will have a prime-time lineup of "Survivor," "CSI" and a rerun of "Without a Trace."
Fox also made a late change, adding the press conference at 8, followed by "The Simple Life" at 9.
All of this is subject to yet another last-minute change, of course.
Through all of the schedule changes, I have had mixed feelings about TV's coverage of such events.
My high-minded side says that, when the president wants to speak to the press and through it to the nation, then viewers are entitled to see it live. My cynical side says that it's basically a chance for the president -- any president -- to use a prime-time audience to his advantage, and the people who really want to see it can watch on cable or catch the highlights on the late news.
Then my class-conscious side (on some issues, I have more sides than a dodecahedron) remembers that not everyone has cable; the people without it should still have a chance to see the press conference live. And my selfish side argues that it's Thursday, I've been waiting for a week to see ''Survivor'' (or whatever show your selfish side has been waiting for) and I should get to see what I want and catch the news later. Assuming, that is, that there is news.
As I said, mixed feelings.
But sometimes the networks' decisions are not all about what's appropriate to cover. ABC apparently will run its press conference coverage as ''sustaining'' or commercial-free programming, so the audience will not count as part of its Nielsen averages. On a night where the network usually takes a beating even with entertainment programs, that's to its benefit.

More "Idol": Now, Bo Bice

Since the Internet rumor mills and message boards sometimes get things wrong, here's a link to The Smoking Gun's reports and documents about some legal problems in Bo Bice's past:
And here's a story with a comment from "Idol" about the latest revelations:

Breaking (do we really want to call it news?)

This came in an e-mail slugged '' 'Access Hollywood' News Alert.'' You can draw your own conclusions about how alert we should be...



BURBANK, Calif. - April 28, 2005- In a statement released to "Access Hollywood," the father of actress Katie Holmes responds on behalf of their family to the news that she is dating Tom Cruise. The story airs on "Access Hollywood" Thursday, April 28, 2005 (check local listings for time and station).

"Happy and excited for Katie," says the statement from Toledo attorney Martin Holmes. "She has a good head on her shoulders and we trust her judgment. We know Tom Cruise is a humanitarian and we feel good about that."

Another Scott scenario?

This landed in my e-mail today regarding Scott Savol's run on "American Idol":
''While you are looking for reasons Savol is still in competition on American Idol, perhaps you should give serious thought to the web sites with the sole purpose of messing up American Idol buy asking people to vote for the contestant they like the least - Savol has been the top one on the list for several weeks. This would also make a good story and help viewers understand why the guy they don't like keeps on going.''
A similar note came to my Q&A on, referring specifically to the Web address . Savol is indeed the site's candidate of choice. (Reader note: The site contains some very harsh language.)
While this could be getting him votes, I'm not convinced it is keeping Scott on the show. We've seen indications in the past that contestants were being kept around by people voting for them as a joke, and the practice eventually ran out of steam. Also, if this campaign has been going on for weeks, it wasn't enough to keep Scott out of the bottom three several times.
And I do know of Scott fans, including one who called me last week to complain that I hadn't said enough nice things about him.
But there's an interesting intersection of ideas at work here. Suppose that many viewers are getting bored with the "Idol" contenders or have seen their favorites get voted off already. That could diminish enthusiasm among voters and create an opportunity for a passionate group of "Idol" haters to have an impact. We'll see.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

I Didn't Mean THAT big a shocker!

I was feeling a little smug during last night's "Idol" when Constantine was in the bottom three -- and then two -- on the show. It didn't last.
Why smug at all? In last night's posting, I had put him in my bottom three and called him "dull." And, I warned: "I suspect the producers liked the shifting fortunes among the contenders because it sets up a possible surprise on the results show tomorrow night. Even those of us disappointed by the recent votes can't really call them surprises."
Of course, I had also said Scott Savol had butchered his performance and put him in my bottom three, too; voters were much kinder, raising him to the top three.
And the smug got wiped off me as thoroughly as it did from Rob & Amber on Tuesday's "Amazing Race." I was not at all prepared for Constantine's ouster.
While he had not been good on Tuesday's performance show, I thought in recent weeks he had emerged as one of the smartest tacticians on the show, reshaping his image from the early descriptions as a rocker into someone who would appeal to a broader part of the voting public. There have been plenty of predictions out there that Constantine and Carrie would be the final two. So I thought even an off week wouldn't sink him. I could have seen Anthony, Vonzell or Scott going. Not Constantine.
I can't begin to explain why Constantine collapsed so suddenly. The habits of "Idol" voters are often a mystery, and this is one I can't solve.
I can make more sense of Scott's survival on the show. Although he wasn't good on Tuesday -- wasting what should have been a valuable opportunity, since he closed the show -- he seems not only to have admirers (a relatively small group in recent weeks, when he was in the bottom three) but sympathizers and protectors. Bad press finally seems to be working for him, and he's not the first contestant to get a voting bounce shortly after being ripped by Simon.
And, as I've written for my column in Wednesday's Beacon Journal (which you should be able to find by tomorrow morning on ), Scott is now getting a good image rebuild into the average guy who's gotten a great opportunity. That "heart and soul of America" kind of rhetoric that was attached to him on Tuesday's show.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

"Amazing"-ly Funny

If nothing else, Rob & Amber got some of the smug wiped off their faces on "Amazing Race" tonight, although they avoided elimination. (n fact, everyone did on this non-elimination show.
The order of finish was Uchenna & Joyce, first; Meredith & Gretchen -- who have allied with Uchenna & Joyce -- in second; Rob & Amber, third, and Ron & Kelly, fourth. Ron & Kelly lose their money and stuff for the next leg but won a nice prize courtesy of one of "Race's" many sponsors.
The prize involves a gnome, which gave Rob the funniest line of the night: "What's gnome?" Amber took a break from saying "Good job, honey!" long enough to try to explain it to him. But I delight in any Rob gaffe at this point, including a needling of other contestants that backfired on him. While Rob declared, "I'm so over India," I'm way over him and keep waiting for the moment when he and Amber finally fail. Until that comes, I'll settle for the moment tonight when R&A realized they were not in first place but in third -- and that their supposed craftiness had not paid off for once. Maybe it's because they went through most of this leg without convincing any local residents to serve as guides; R&A actually had to make it on their own and it didn't work out.
It is indeed "Amazing" that Gretchen & Meredith go on, since they so often make mistakes which could easily end their quest; Uchenna & Joyce have really bailed them out, and the promos for the next show indicate that they'll try to help the older couple once again. I just hope that it doesn't ultimately hold back U&J so much that they lose their considerable advantage on the show.
And what of Ron & Kelly, whose conversation in last week's promo hinted at a great conflict this week? (Kelly, complaining of Ron's trouble with commitment, claimed that Ron had gotten out of the Army by becoming a POW.) Ron seems to be too patient a guy to rip Kelly in melodramatic fashion, but he didn't let her remark go unanswered. He noted that his imprisonment included "hell and torture" and "I almost died." That's reality.

"Idol" Watch

For the first time this season, I wasn't all that excited about watching "Idol." No, not because of the latest off-camera developments, which I'll get to later. Instead, two of the singers I really liked, Nadia and Anwar, are gone and I'm not impressed enough by any of those remaining to care who wins anymore. Someone will, and good for them, and I'll go back to listening to my Jason Mraz CD.
Then, when I actually was watching tonight, it was one of those nights when "Idol" is especially tiresome. You know: The producers have realized they may end up trying to sell albums by any of the remaining contestants, so they have to spruce up everyone's image. So we got Visiting the Contestants' Home Towns, and a much kinder than usual Simon. (Randy, meanwhile, was tougher than usual and Paula even found some less-than-glowing phrases for some of the contestants.)
The show also threw a big fat one across the plate for the contestants: songs from the last five years. Any genre, obviously, so all the contenders can go to their strengths. Carrie was back in a country vein, digging into the Martina McBride catalog; Bo offered up a rendition of the "I Don't Want to Be" (which my wife immediately recognized as the theme from "One Tree Hill"); Vonzell went for Christian Aguilera's "I Turn To You"; Anthony proffered Celine's "I Surrender"; Constantine went back to rocking (sort of) with Nickelback's "How You Remind Me" (and thanks to my 16-year-old son for knowing that one) and Scott CLOSED THE SHOW with Luther's "Dance With My Father."
Still, in spite of the easy category, the show wasn't that great. On my scorecard, Bo came in first (continuing his resurrection) followed by a tie between Carrie and Anthony (even if his faux-Clay manner was more evident with the real Clay Aiken in the audience), then a three-way tie between Vonzell, Constantine and Scott. Vonzell seemed unusually bad, especially given her confidence in recent weeks; Constantine was dull.
But I suspect the producers liked the shifting fortunes among the contenders because it sets up a possible surprise on the results show tomorrow night. Even those of us disappointed by the recent votes can't really call them surprises.
Yet the shocker of the night was that Scott, given the closing spot on the show, butchered his song so much that he didn't get the glowing notices that usually accompany the final performer of the night. (The show wants the audience to leave happy, after all.) And that was even more surprising since the clips of his family and home life were setting Scott up as the likable average guy, "the heart and soul of America," the working-class hero. We'll see if the voters paid more attention to the introduction or the performance.
And now on to recent developments: ABC is planning an expose of "Idol" for next week (conveniently during the May sweeps). The network hasn't released many details but it may involve recent allegations by former "Idol" contestant Corey Clark in the tabloid the Globe.
According to Jeannette Walls' report about the Globe piece on -- which I read because it was less embarrassing than reading the Globe itself -- Clark is claiming an affair with Paula Abdul while he was on the show and that Justin Guarini also bragged about having an affair with the Idol judge. Abdul has reportedly denied the claims, as has Guarini. And Simon Cowell told the syndicated show "Extra" that he considered the charges "rubbish."
I don't know one way or another. The only thing I can point to is that Clark had a reputation for some wild behavior on "Idol" before this latest talk (and before he was kicked off "Idol" for facing legal problems he had not disclosed to the show). In his book "I don't mean to be rude, but..." Cowell said that "I think some of the girls (on the show) were sorry to see (Clark) go ''' because apparently he'd had a threesome with two of them." (Cowell offers "speculation" about which two, but you can look that up in the book.)
Anyway, the Clark story was tough for Abdul because she was already answering speculation about her outlandish on-air behavior (very much reined in on Tuesday's show) with a story in People magazine about her "secret battle" with reflex sympathetic dystrophy, which she is finally treating so successfully that "I'm dancing for joy."
I'd have more interest in the People story if it didn't contain one interesting abrupt transition from Abdul: "A few years later I was a Laker girl and I was in a couple of car accidents. As a result, I had some serious neck problems." Whoa! Whoa! What was that about "a couple of car accidents"?

The culture gap

I spent this morning in Cuyahoga Heights, talking to a meeting of the North Coast Educational Media Center, a group that provides -- to quote its Web site -- ''training, service, leadership, and coordination in the acquisition and responsible use of educational media including videos, on-line databases, and other resources, to our member schools.'' (You can find out more at its Web site, )
I was there to talk about the ways the Internet has changed how I do my job, and to answer questions; as is so often the case with these talks, I had a great time, dealing not only with the big ideas about modern media but with the details of shows people cared about -- in this case, "American Dreams," "House," "Lost" and other programs.
It also gave me a chance to talk about a favorite topic, one we're facing across our culture, which is the cultural gap being created by advanced technologies. If you don't have access to the most modern ways that information is being delivered -- whether because of resistance or the lack of money to get the latest gear -- then you run the risk of falling behind those who do.
We've been seeing this gap for some time; when cable came in, for example, people willing to pay for it had access to 24-hour news channels conveying information and events that could not always be found on so-called "free" television -- that is, the over-the-air networks. (I say so-called "free" because whenever you have to sit through a commercial, you're paying with your time.) But it's becoming even more noticeable with the rise of the Internet, where anyone with a computer and online access can not only seek out information and commentary but add to it -- while those who don't have access are left to deal with whatever they can find on paper.
Don't get me wrong. I love books. I love things on paper. I have spent my share of time in libraries; I was in one on Sunday, and came back with three books and a selection of CDs. Still, the Internet is providing a new means of relaying information (as well as misinformation), creating a larger dialogue among people across borders and creating an expectation that information should be immediately accessible with a few strokes on a computer keyboard.
The gap isn't there, either. It's in homes that have held onto their VCRs in lieu of a DVD player, only to find that their favorite new movies are coming out only on disc, not on tape. It's in those homes that stayed away from cable -- only to see their beloved Indians leave broadcast TV -- or that embraced cable only to find that other interesting channels were in a higher service tier, with a new price tag and equipment attached. It's in the people trying to listen to the audio from a show designed for home theater systems, only they're listening through a couple of small speakers on their TV set. They're exposed to an image on a high-definition TV and realizing that they're missing something on their old analog receiver.
All of those things come with a cost, and not everyone is going to be able to pay it. The economic differences in society then become an informational difference as well. I don't know what that gap will lead to, but I fear that it's not going to be good.

Tune in Tuesday: "The Shield"

I know, this is a big viewing night, especially with "American Idol" and "Amazing Race." But save some viewing energy for tonight's episode of "The Shield," at 10 p.m. on FX. If you've been following the show this season, you know that Vic (played well, as always, by Michael Chiklis) has been trying to clean up his act, notably because of the support he's received from a new commander, wonderfully played by Glenn Close. The change in direction was important for a show that seemed to have gone as far as it could with the bad-Vic story lines in the previous season. But tonight, things take another turn, and one that's as effectively dramatically as it is terribly sad. I watched the episode along with last week's late last Tuesday night, thanks to a review tape from FX, and I didn't regret losing sleep to do so. (A warning to those of you who haven't seen "The Shield" before: The content is often raw, and much rougher than what you encounter on broadcast network shows.)

Monday, April 25, 2005


As my mailbag columns demonstrate, a lot of you have questions about television. I answer them when I can, and then hear from people wondering how I got the answers.
Sometimes I get them by calling or e-mailing networks, advertising agencies, product makers and other sources, or by researching in my home library of books on TV. Sometimes I do online searches via Google ( ) . But there are also some standard references I draw on which you might findf useful.
When it comes to TV series, there are two books that you should have handy: "Total Television" by Alex McNeil and "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present" by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh. Brooks & Marsh, as it's known to TV critics, is in its eighth edition, which goes into 2003. The advantage to "Total Television" is that it also includes daytime shows; the disadvantage is that its most recent edition, the fourth, came out almost 10 years ago.
I also draw on online sources. One is TV Tome ( ), a very detailed Web site about television shows; it's the sort of place where you can find a list of songs played in a specific episode of "ER." Another is the Internet Movie Database ( ), which also includes reports on TV shows, as well as TV movies.
Both sites also include information about whether shows are available on video. When asked about video releases, I often check first at and You can also find plenty of information at
Since some of the questions involve obscure titles, I may check , , and that mighty online garage sale, .
Now, when it comes to something like eBay, the titles being sold may not be commercial releases but something a fan dubbed off the air. Regular readers of the mailbag will recall that I'll say that I have found a title on video but can't vouch for the source or the quality of it; that means that the title may not be a commercial release. But, as I know from fans, some folks are happy just to have a copy of a show, no matter what the quality.

No news or snow news?

Driving to the office in downtown Akron from my Mogadore home this morning, I saw the sun peeking out here and there. And a lot of places were free of the snow that had fallen during much of the weekend. This was a nice change since, on Saturday night, my wife and I had been discussing whether we needed to take the snow blower out of its spring hibernation.
Then again, while I was thinking about this, I was also aware that my son was at home, his school having closed for the day. Indeed, a lot of schools up Cleveland way were closed, so there were clearly some driveways being dug out to the north.
This shows the problem of a weather forecast -- any weather forecast, not just the sometimes alarming presentations you see on local TV stations. My forecast of choice, after all, is the ''local on the 8s'' section on the Weather Channel, which is dispassionate, straightforward and often right.
But it seemed to mess up this weekend, when forecasts Friday and Saturday held out the possibility of a foot of snow accumulating. When we went out to a show in Cuyahoga Falls on Saturday night, we did so wondering if we would come out of the show to find the car covered. It wasn't -- but the snow was falling pretty hard. Still, when we got home, it wasn't falling nearly as hard. And there was no problem getting out to church and the grocery store on Sunday.
Forecasts, after all, are predictions. Scientifically based predictions, to be sure. But in the end, they are an analysis -- just the way pollsters try to analyze how an election will turn out, or ESPN tries to sort out who's going where in the NFL draft -- and they can be wrong.
What often bothers me about weather forecasts is that they tend to err on the side of disaster. A heavy rainstorm begins to sound like something Noah is getting ready for. A prediction of snow is accompanied by footage of some terrible earlier snow. When a parade of forecasts says the weekend is going to be bad, and then it isn't, well it's reasonable to feel skeptical about future predictions.
But once, when I wrote a column complaining about unduly alarmist predictions during a storm, I heard from people who lived in areas where the storm really was bad -- and they were glad to have had some warning. And, over the weekend, we can see that some areas were spared heavy snowfall -- while some others found it bad enough to close the schools.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Rain, snow and a TV marathon

I had some things to do in the real world earlier today, so I had to set the DVR for the early phases of the NFL draft, then catch up on the Browns' pick when I got home.
Once I was home, if the weather had been nicer, I probably would have left the TV on the draft and drifted inside occasionally for an update between chores.
But with rain much of the day and snow starting late in the afternoon, it wasn't a day for doing much of anything, inside or out. And I didn't have to feel that guilty about it; the weather forecasts had been sufficiently grim that I hadn't waited until the weekend to mow the lawn.
Still, the day was too dreary to energize anyone, an emotional letdown after spring had gotten in the blood. So I ended up spending a lot more time than planned on the couch, watching the draft.
There was drama to be found here and there, notably in the tale of Aaron Rodgers, thought to be a prime prospect but ultimately drafted 24th -- and after hours of ESPN coverage included repeated discussion of why Rodgers wasn't picked sooner.
But when it didn't involve teams that mattered to me, the draft was mainly TV-as-company. It didn't require my attention every minute, but when I wanted to look up, it offered something of passing interest, either in a team's selection, or in the crawl containing the picks so far, or in the commentators' analysis and guessing.
So the draft coverage passed the time. But if it hadn't been there, I probably would have ended up seeking company somewhere else -- like in an ''I Love the '80s'' marathon on VH1. TV doesn't always offer something I'm dying to watch. But it usually has something I can settle for -- especially when the alternative is watching the puddles expand outside.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Of "Joan," promos and the season finale

I sat through most of tonight's season finale of ''Joan of Arcadia'' wishing that I had not seen any of the promotional spots for the episode. And wishing that a subtler song than ''Sympathy for the Devil'' had been used a week ago in introducing a new character to Joan's life, one who will cause a lot of tension for the show's third season. Assuming there is a third season.
I understand that the promos -- which emphasized the scary aspects of Ryan Hunter, Joan's new nemesis -- were meant to bring viewers back to the show, so that CBS might be more inclined to renew it. But the promos so emphasized one element of the episode that there were times when some viewers were undoubtedly wondering when the show was going to get to the good part.
And in thinking that, it was possible to miss some really good parts. The humor that has always been so important to the show, for one. And the wonderful emotional range Jason Ritter brought to that last scene in the church. The interplay between Joan and the many versions of God. The way the show keeps blending faith with science and literature.
In the finale, all that fought for attention with dream sequences, and the overuse of the ill wind that followed Ryan, and a tonal shift that made this less ''Joan of Arcadia'' and more ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer.'' (Are we really going to see Joan's friends remade into a team like Buffy's gang?) We have had ''Buffy,'' after all, and if I want to see it again, I can pull the DVDs off the shelf.
I want ''Joan'' to be its own creation. I want the hope back. And even as I say that, I know I would probably watch the beginning of a third season just because I might find a moment or two when the show will be as good as it has been before. But I don't know how long I would stick around, if the price for those moments is a lot of melodrama.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

"Survivor": Another Bizarre Departure

Why do people go on an obviously grueling, spirit-draining, back-biting contest -- and then decide it's not worth it? That was the question at the heart of tonight's ''Survivor: Palau,'' and the arguing about it gave me yet another reason to want Stephenie to win.
Stephenie, you'll remember, was the last member remaining of The Worst Survivor Tribe Ever and is now increasingly isolated in combination with the remaining members of The Tribe That Whipped The Worst Tribe Ever. On last week's show, I thought Stephenie proved very smart by losing an immunity challenge, since it could make her seem less of a threat to other players. This week, though, she was once again in the spotlight, her fierce competitiveness evident in the way she approached a reward challenge. There's a reference on the show to her being the strongest woman in the competition; heck, there are moments when she makes the guys look soft.
So let's jump to tribal council. You could make a pretty good list of people who deserved to go home -- basically, all the women except Stephenie -- but it was Janu who is on everyone's ugh list for the night. Only, when it came to tribal council, Janu seemed likely to stay around because it Stephenie's supposed allies looked ready to break their word and take her out because she's too strong. (We don't know what exactly was on their mind, because there was no vote. But the show certainly set up a scenario where Stephenie was on her way out.)
Well, if the others think Stephenie is strong in the physical challenges, they haven't been paying attention to her skill at mind games. (Think of that little-girl-lost bit she pulled before the fire-for-immunity faceoff with Bobby Jon.) On tonight's show, Stephenie demonstrated that again by replying to Janu's I-don't-care-if-I'm-gone attitude with an emotional declaration of her own will to win; Stephenie's speech basically shamed Janu into quitting so Stephenie would not be voted off. It was wonderful gamesmanship on Stephenie's part and, if the promo for next week's episode is to believed, Stephenie will try an even bolder move in next week's telecast.
All right, I'm gushing about Stephenie. But she's a great contestant. The passion gap I've talked about with contestants on ''American Idol'' is not a problem on ''Survivor: Palau.'' I wouldn't mind if Tom won, but I'm cheering Stephenie's every move. Even the devious ones.

About that star ...

Since "American Idol" made such a big deal about Ryan Seacrest's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I thought I'd give you some information about why and how Seacrest got the star.
First of all, you don't get it for free, as you can find in the Hollywood Walk of Fame's FAQ (frequently asked questions), part of the Web site of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce --
Here's the relevant question and answer:

''Q: What is the cost of a Walk of Fame star ceremony?
''A: $15,000 upon selection. The money is used to pay for the creation and installation of the star, as well as maintenance of the Walk of Fame.''

That fee may be paid by the personality, his production company, a studio or even a fan club. But this is not simply an award you get for being a good guy.
Also, if you are alive, you have to show up for your star ceremony; none of this ''accepting for'' stuff.
As for why Seacrest got a star, besides being willing to show up, the general criteria are:
1. Professional achievement
2. Longevity of five years in the field of entertainment
3. Contributions to the community

Beyond that, the walk has five categories: radio, TV, movies, recording (that is, music) and live theater. ''Idol'' judge Paula Abdul also has a star, for ''recording.'' It is possible to have more than one star; Bob Hope has four. Seacrest's star, as the show noted, is for his work in radio.
And here, since you are probably still asking why he got a star, is the official description of his achievements from the Walk of Fame:
''Seacrest took over for Casey Kasem counting down the
American Top 40 every week on the nation’s top radio stations.
American Top 40 is an institution in the radio world, and with
Seacrest taking the reigns; it is broadcast on more stations in
larger markets than ever before. Since Seacrest's debut,
American Top 40 has more than doubled its listeners topping
out at a record breaking 3.1 million listeners per show. Radio
stations nationwide are able to access the show via satellite or
the Internet, insuring the most up to the minute music chart
''Seacrest also took over the most coveted radio position in Los
Angeles on its Top 40 radio powerhouse 102.7 KIIS-FM
morning show. Since the new Seacrest morning show, On Air
with Ryan Seacrest premiered on February 26th, 2004 over 1
million people tune in each week to wake up with Seacrest and
the show has become the #1 most listened to morning show in
Los Angeles. The fan favorite broadcasts daily from 5:00-10:00
Because of that, you had to sit through that boring segment at the beginning of Wednesday's ''Idol.''

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Goodbye, Anwar

Another "Idol" results show, another farewell to a strong contender. I liked Anwar. Before the finals began, he was my pick to win it all, and I encountered plenty of people who thought he deserved it.
But in recent weeks, I think he ran smack into a passion gap with voting viewers; he was likable, he was talented, but he wasn't overwhelming. There was a certain coolness to him -- he didn't make it a major mission for people to vote for him. His demeanor said: Hey, vote or don't vote, I'm your friend either way. That made for performances that didn't knock me out, and I was rooting for the guy.
But it sure looks more and more like the producers expect a Carrie/Constantine finish, doesn't it? Did you take a close look at that "Rock This Town" video, where they were paired like the road-show stars of "Grease" -- or "Frankie & Annette: The Next Generation." You would think the producers had learned their lesson with that Justin/Kelly movie.
At least we didn't have to deal with a bloated hour of padding before we got the results. Instead, we just had to deal with a bloated half-hour. When the group gets this small, even that stretch of time is hard to fill. So we had the extended mock-tribute to Ryan Seacrest, the performance of yet another just-for-"Idol" song, "the Rock This Town" bit, the inevitable recap of Tuesday's performance. Made for plenty of chances to flip elsewhere. (Yes, to the Cavs game.)

No one is THAT fast

At halftime of the Cavs game -- their last of the regular season -- there was an ad promising ''good seats available ... for remaining home games.'' The ad warned, "You've got to act fast.'' It didn't mention that you should also be able to go back in time.

A fan's note

Tonight, I know that I'll be watching "American Idol" because Scott Savol is from Northeast Ohio and I'll be writing a story for tomorrow's Beacon Journal about how he did. (My uneducated guess -- I hate making predictions -- is that he may end up in the bottom three but will still make it through to next week's round.)
If I weren't on the job, I would be watching the Cavs game. I'm going to watch as much of the game as I can in any case, and let the DVR catch any other shows of interest.
I do this knowing that there's something a little absurd about wondering how the Cavs and the Nets do tonight. And the absurdity is not diminished by the breathless reports on ESPN, a local news anchor feeling compelled last night to predict the winner of that night's game, by turning on Fox Sports Radio in the morning and hearing Cavs talk -- or by such superstitious behavior as the Cavs' not posting the score in the Nets game while the Cavs were still playing on Tuesday.
For those of you who care not about basketball, the Cavs and the Nets tonight will, by their performance in separate games, determine who gets to be in eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings. That's good enough to get in the playoffs, but it still doesn't sound very impressive.
Eighth place. Remember how Bob Costas has griped about the wild card in baseball? Costas was fond of recalling the way broadcaster Russ Hodges called "the shot heard round the world" ("The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"). Under current rules, Costas sniped, the call would be: "The Giants win the pennant! The Dodgers get the wild card!'')
"The Cavs clinch eighth place!" (all right, "The Cavs are in the playoffs!") would feel a little like that.
Not I've not been a big NBA guy in recent years. I can't remember if I watched an entire game in the finals last year. And if you go back a couple of years, you were not likely to find me watching the Cavs on TV.
So what's changed? Do I have to say it?
LeBron James.
I was a skeptic about this guy before he went to the NBA. I was convinced that the veterans would use elbows to remind him that there's a price for being in Spike Lee's commercials and hanging out with Jamie Foxx. But he has proven an amazing player, even in games where it seems no one else on the Cavs has shown up. LeBron in a Cavs loss can be better television than a bunch of no-names in a Cavs win.
Television knows this -- and the attention paid to the Cavs' playoff prospects over the last week or so acknowledges that the networks carrying playoff ball want one of the game's biggest stars there to help their ratings.
And, as a viewer, I want to see him in the playoffs. That doesn't mean I think the Cavs would go far -- if they get there at all. But when I can sit on my couch at home and marvel at what LeBron does during a regular season game, I'd like to see how he amps it up for a playoff game.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

"Amazing Race": Why the Promos Are Sometimes the Best Part

That promo for next week's "Amazing Race" was nasty, wasn't it? In case you missed the dialogue between Ron and Kelly, it went like this:
Kelly -- "You don't make commitments."
Ron -- " ... I was only committed to the military."
Kelly -- "And you go out of that one."
Ron -- "How did I get out of that one?"
Kelly -- "By being a POW!"
Oh, my. Can't wait to see the rest of that episode. But for now, let's deal with tonight's.
There were two choke-you-up moments, the first courtesy of Uchenna & Joyce. To complete a Fast Forward and get an advantage in the race, Joyce agreed to have her head shaved. Even though Uchenna seemed more reluctant to let it happen than Joyce did, he still played the good husband, telling his wife more than once, "You are beautiful." A sweet moment involving a consistently likable couple on the show.
The other featured Meredith and Gretchen, the old folks whose repeated mistakes and miscalulations have had them close to elimination several times on the show. But they prevailed for another week and -- as host Phil Keoghan declared on the air -- are now the oldest couple ever to make it to the final four. (Meredith is 69, according to the CBS Web site, and Gretchen is 66.)
It got to me when they were told they were still in the race, even though I've been aware of all their gaffes. Maybe that's one of the attractive things about the "Race"; you can make mistakes but still prevail somehow, a feeling we'd all like to have about day-to-day life. Of course, on the "Race" your survival can also depend on someone else making an even worse mistake -- and this week it was Lynn and Alex whose miscalculations (two significant ones in this episode) caught up with them.
Which leaves us with Uchenna & Joyce, whose Fast Forward put them in first; Ron & Kelly, Rob & Amber and finally Meredith & Gretchen. I'm still one of those viewers who would like anyone else to win but Rob & Amber, although there were enough other things going on on Tuesday that they didn't annoy me. But if I had to give the prize to one team right now, it would be Uchenna & Joyce.

"Idol" Notebook

Tonight was "Seventies Dance Classics Night," "Happy Birthday Night," "Love Us Even Though We Can't Dance Night," "The Show Isn't Ready to Let Bo Go Night" and the latest in a series of "How Can Paula Judge Anything When She's Dancing Around Instead of Listening to the Performances Night." Well, we know the answer to the last one; she doesn't judge, she just spreads the love.
Only the first of those descriptions was the actual theme on "Idol," and it proved a very flexible description encompassing, among other things, the Ides of March oldie "Vehicle" -- which, it should not surprise you, was sung by the recently struggling Bo Bice. Who still struggled some but at least did better than the last couple of weeks. Scorecard coming up.
I had to do some time-shifting to catch all the show, since I was away from the TV on family business at the beginning, arriving in time for Carrie but having to catch Constantine on a DVR replay during a commercial break. And I generally skipped the other breaks and some of the segments with the contestants dancing (although I saw enough, believe me); the dancing was, after all, part of the attempts we get at this stage to focus more on the contestants' personalities; the same thing applies to the birthday greetings both Scott and Anwar sent out to relatives.
And why was I skipping? To see as much as I could of the Cavaliers game, since their post-season chances are still on the line. (They won, so they still have a chance at the playoffs with one game left to their regular season.)
Getting back to Scott, he was definitely trying to rein in the combativeness from the week before. And he sounded all right, although he always seems a verse or two away from being really good. He would be a lot better if he could just find a song that consisted entirely of a chorus, since the verses are where he most often wobbles.
Also, I was glad to see that Carrie didn't collapse under those snarky "stick to country" comments from the judges last week and went for a little Donna Summer this week. And was at a couple of points jaw-droppingly good.
Carrie, in fact, topped my ranking for the week. Following her, in descending order, Vonzell; a tie among Constantine, Anwar, Scott and Bo; then Anthony at the bottom. But Anthony would have to be amazing not to get out of my cellar.
I had different reasons for clustering the four guys in the middle: didn't really like Constantine's song choice, didn't think Anwar really made a lot out of his song, have already mentioned Scott's problems and thought Bo struggled at the beginning of yet another song he should have kicked the doors off. But he closed the show and received the appropriate kudos from the judges, both signs that someone at "Idol" wants him to stick around.

Tom Snyder

In case you missed it, talk-show host Tom Snyder says he has been diagnosed with leukemia. You can find the details on his Web site,
I wasn't always a big Tom Snyder fan, especially in his later years on late-night TV, but there was a time when I happily gave up sleep to watch Tom and, say, Sterling Hayden just let it rip.
The Web site, by the way, is a handy place to find out not only what's going on with Snyder's health but what he's thinking about a variety of topics. Here's a recent sample:
''Early morning network television is not news anymore--its a joke. I miss Dan Rather. And Tom Brokaw. And I pray in my own stupid way for Peter Jennings to get well soon. David Letterman's son is a very cute kid. But I'd like Dave to introduce us to his Mom. "Saturday Night Live" is not funny. HBO exists because people must have a place to say ...* on television as many times as they can. GM and Ford have lost the way when it comes to designing and building sexy cars that make us wanna buy them. There is no Iraqi oil money to pay for reconstruction. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice don't have a clue as to what is going on there. The worst Italian reastaurant in New York (if there is such a thing) is better than the best Italian restaurant in most other American cities. Books by celebrities about themselves bore me to tears.''
*Indicates a word that wouldn't go into a family newspaper, or in this blog.
As long as we're talking about celebrities online, you may also want to take a look at . That's Rosie O'Donnell's blog, and written in a sort-of-poetic style.

Conclave Watch 2

That was pretty funny stuff today as TV news people debated on the air whether the smoke coming from the chimney at the Vatican was black (meaning no pope today) or white (meaning a pope had been chosen). The TV folks then had to wait for the bells which were meant to confirm the choice of a pope, since there have been problems determining the color of the smoke before.
The picture-in-picture of the chimney, seen yesterday and again today, gave way to one of the bells on CNN, since the bells were now the only place to confirm this. Then, more confusion, since there were apparently bells ringing the hour apart from the bells meant to ring for the new pope.
And, mind you, all this excitement came before the newscasts knew who the pope was. (Update: t turned out to be Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who took the name Benedict XVI.)
I was troubled by Fox News Channel's celebratory ''We Have A Pope!'' graphic. (Who exactly is the ''we'' there?) But overall I enjoyed that all that TV technology and expertise still had to wait for the deliberately low-tech system of chimney and bells.

Oklahoma City 10 years on

As I started writing this, the cable news channels were covering ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. And I remembered a conversation I had with NBC's Tim Russert just about 10 years ago.
Russert had come to Cleveland to give a speech to the Ohio Association of Broadcasters and possibly to revisit old haunts, since he had gone to John Carroll University and the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. But the Oklahoma City bombing the day before his arrival had made the trip a much shorter one. Russert was scrambling to put together a new panel for that Sunday's "Meet the Press." (He had come to Cleveland on a Thursday.) The show had planned to deal with the budget deficit and taxes; now there was only one story worth considering.
Not that everyone at that moment really knew what the story was. As I mentioned in a column at the time, Russert spent some of his Cleveland time on making sure he had Middle East expert Robin Wright as a guest on his show that week.
But don't think Russert was alone in thinking -- in those hours after the bombing -- that such a monumental act of terrorism had to come from overseas. The assumption was pretty widespread at first. Still, given what we later learned about Oklahoma City, it does demonstrate the danger of following conventional wisdom. And because of Oklahoma City, when 9/11 made a national nightmare real there was a moment when I wondered if, once again, danger had come from within.

Monday, April 18, 2005

NBC's Big Games

How long, do you suppose, before John Madden makes a deal with NBC?
How iffy must things be in prime time at the Peacock Network?
How good are they at ABC?
But, most important, are you ready for some "flexible scheduling"?
The 2005 season will be the last for the foreseeable future for "Monday Night Football'' on ABC. The NFL on Monday announced a new deal putting a prime time game on Sunday nights on NBC, while Monday games go to ESPN (which, like ABC, is owned by the Walt Disney Co., sort of keeping football in the family), beginning in the 2006 season.
Let me say that again: We are not talking about a deal for the coming season in 2005, but for seasons that follow, starting in 2006.
On the surface, this is a just a deal that moves prime-time football from from ABC to NBC. (CBS and Fox still have packages built around weekend afternoons.) "MNF" -- which began with a Browns-Jets game in 1970 -- probably stopped being a phenomenon as the Howard Cosell era was coming to an end, and experiments like the use of Dennis Miller as a commentator did not bring back the good old days. And diehard football fans are used to games on Sunday and Monday nights already, since we've had a combo of ESPN and ABC telecasts.
But there are reasons to see this deal as something more sweeping.
For one, ABC is finally confident enough about its prospects for entertainment series to fill those hours previously taken by "MNF." The success of "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" in particular have given the network a long-missing swagger.
For another, NBC needs to establish something in prime time that doesn't have "Law & Order" in the title -- and was willing to take on something it had let get away in the late '90s.
Football will not only give it a foundation on Sunday nights, it will provide a football-season-long promotional base for other programming. So the network has dealt for a package that each year will include three preseason-game telecasts, 16 regular-season games and some wild-card playoffs, along with two Super Bowls, in 2009 and 2012.
And, for those of you interested in corporate synergy, the deal gives NBC's owner, General Electric, "the opportunity to associate with the NFL in healthcare technology, security equipment, electric products (including lighting) and financial services," the NBC announcement said.
But NBC is also getting something that ABC long wanted for "Monday Night Football" and could not get: a better chance at marquee games in prime time late in the season.
"MNF's" schedule is set before the season begins, and it always runs the risk of getting bad games involving teams long out of the playoff hunt as the season wears on. The network lobbied privately and publicly for a better deal, but the other networks with football were not about to give up their best games.
The recent contract window -- CBS's and Fox's current deals run out at the end of 2005, although the NFL has announced extensions beginning in 2006 -- apparently set the stage for "flexible scheduling" for the final seven weeks of the season.
"Details on the flexible scheduling will be developed by the NFL," the league's announcement said, but you can imagine how it works. If, say, Cleveland-Pittsburgh on a late-season Sunday has playoff implications, what might have been a 1 or 4 p.m. start will suddenly become have kickoff at 8:15 p.m. (the announced time for NBC games).
And I won't mind that, if it means seeing some exciting and important football.

Conclave Watch

I'm really enjoying the cable channels' picture-in-picture displays onscreen of the Vatican chimney. (Fox News Channel has had it almost nonstop this morning, CNN a little less frequently -- though steadily at this writing -- and MSNBC noticeably less than CNN.) The only other time a chimney gets this much attention is when Santa is heading down one.
It was on EWTN this morning that one announcer admitted we're going to be seeing a lot of that chimney. Now that the selection process has begun, we're not going to see or know much else from the secret deliberations until the new pope is picked.
That's making more work for the news announcers, although any trained broadcaster has by this time learned the art of filling the air even when there's no fresh news. You talk, you show pictures, you dredge up archival footage, you interview experts of varying ability, you do a lot of guessing.
We see that on a lot of stories, but the model may be old-time coverage of rocket launches with manned spaceflights. Then, you sat for hours with nothing much to see but a rocket on the launching pad. Sort of like looking at a chimney.
Of course, today the newscasters don't let themselves be limited to presenting one story at a time. By using the smaller shot of the chimney on the larger screen, they can keep viewers aware of the one real source of news from the Vatican while devoting the rest of the screen to other stories.

"Joan of Oblivion''?

When a new character arrived on "Joan of Arcadia" last Friday, the background music was the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil." I laughed, thinking it was just an odd little musical joke establishing an upcoming storyline. But later in the same episode, when Joan sees a picture of the new guy, "Sympathy for the Devil" played again -- and this time it went on long enough for the lyrics to explain the song's intent for all the viewers who haven't paid much attention to the Stones.
It felt heavy-handed, and one of the things I used to admire about "Joan" was its light touch. But I have had a hard time admiring "Joan" at all this season.
That's a tough thing to say since I loved "Joan" in its first season. Well, most of it. Amber Tamblyn, who plays Joan, was a fresh and appealing presence in prime time. And she was part of a very good cast overall: Joe Mantegna and Mary Steenburgen as Joan's parents, Jason Ritter and Michael Welch as Joan's brothers and Christopher Marquette and Becky Wahlstrom as Joan's friends.
Moreover, the show handled its premise -- about God, in different human forms, speaking directly to Joan and advising her -- in a deft way. There was never any doubt that God was doing the talking, or that Joan understood she was hearing God, even if she was reluctant to take God's advice.
But at the end of that season, the show took a grim turn, with Joan questioning her faith. That bothered me. Nor was I completely sold by the explanation I later got from series creator Barbara Hall. "Every season finale is supposed to make you want to watch next year," she said. "So I haven't done my job ... if (the finale) hasn't bothered you."
As for Joan's crisis of faith, Hall said, "I want Joan's relationship with God to always be evolving. I don't want anyone to get ahead of it. Mystery is inherent in God. Therefore, you have to keep mystery alive because if God is very predictable, it doesn't look like the God we have to contend with."
Still, that crisis set a bleak tone for this, the show's second season, and that wasn't the only way that despair set in for "Joan." Her family struggled with a lawsuit early on. And, most recently, Joan has gone through the emotional turbulence of a troubled and finally broken relationship.
That relationship seemed to be working its way back to at least friendship in last week's episode, but all the unhappiness on "Joan" seems to have driven viewers away. The series is even popping up on lists of "bubble shows" -- those series that aren't guaranteed another season (although they aren't certain of cancellation, either). The show looks to be trying to draw back viewers and set up a third season with this week's episode, the second-season finale.
CBS describes it like this: "God tells Joan that the last two years were a spiritual boot camp for her greatest challenge yet, pitting her against a man with a sinister agenda." On paper, that doesn't thrill me, especially on a show that was strongest when it was about hope, but I'll withhold judgment until I see it.
And I do want to see it. Although I drifted away from "Joan" for long stretches this season, I came back the last couple of weeks. Even with all the bleakness, the show triumphed in little gestures -- like, say, Mantegna's look of fear and bewilderment when he isn't sure what Steenburgen wants from him. If the series does come back for a third season, I hope it finds more of those moments; if it doesn't, well, we'll just have to cherish that first season on DVD.

Springer and the Bull

The following was in an e-mail press release today. Draw your own conclusions about the Springer-Bull Riders connection.

Fans of "The Jerry Springer Show" Get Opportunity To Co-Host Hit Talk Show
Auditions To Be Held Throughout U.S. and at Professional Bull Riders® Events

Universal City, CA., April 18, 2005 -NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution's "The Jerry Springer Show" and Professional Bull Riders® (PBR) are teaming up to launch the "Be Jerry For A Day" national contest, a seven month search that will award one lucky contestant the opportunity to co-host the hit talk show, it was announced today by Betsy Bergman, Vice President, Marketing, NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution.

"Be Jerry For A Day" launches Saturday, April 30, with the Professional Bull Rider's New York event, the Nassau Open, a part of the Built Ford Tough Series (BFTS) presented by Wrangler at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale. Over the next seven months at select PBR events and at several other local affiliate events nationwide, fans and viewers of "The Jerry Springer Show" will have an opportunity to audition on camera to co-host an episode with Jerry Springer by writing and singing a verse to a song or reciting a "Final Thought" (as Jerry does at the end of each episode) using "Springeresque" themes.

'"Be Jerry For A Day" will allow millions of viewers of our hit show the opportunity to take their best shot at co-hosting a national talk show," says Bergman. "We are thrilled to be working with PBR on this contest, which will be supported by a multi-faceted marketing campaign that brings together many partner stations, live events, radio promotions, text messaging and a website component."

"It's good timing for everyone to try and be me and co-host my show because that is when I will be auditioning to be Oprah," says Jerry Springer.

"Being Jerry for a day has to be one of the toughest jobs to fill in television. What better fans to tackle the challenge than fans of the toughest sport on dirt," says PBR COO Sean Gleason.

The "Be Jerry For A Day" contest team will travel to PBR events around the country including stops in New York, Phoenix, Dallas, Tulsa and Kansas City and also visit other cities including Los Angeles, Detroit and Cleveland. At select events, fans will also have a chance to meet Jerry and the show's famed "The Jerry Springer Show" Director of Security, Steve Wilkos.

(Rich Heldenfels' note: On Monday afternoon, A Springer publicist said there's not a date yet for the Cleveland audition.)

Five finalists will be flown to Chicago in September, where they will tape their final audition in front of a live studio audience, which will air on "The Jerry Springer Show" during the week of October 24. America can vote for their favorite finalist on the 'Jerry Springer Show' website ( and/or by text message. The lucky winner will get to spend the day with Jerry and co-host an episode of "The Jerry Springer Show."
Viewers and fans of the show unable to attend local auditions may also submit audition tapes directly to "The Jerry Springer Show" for their chance to win. More information on contest rules, audition details, locations and PBR events are available online at or

Sunday, April 17, 2005

My perfect job?

This is currently posted on the ABC Web site:

''Do you love television? Do you love watching television? Well, how would you like the chance to get paid to watch it ALL DAY LONG? This is not a dream. This is real. You can earn big bucks in the high-growth, fast-paced world of watching TV. Why break your back doing manual labor when you can lay on it?! You'll laugh the hours away while scouring the airwaves for hilarious TV moments - and keep on laughing -all the way to the bank! So if you want a new job, like to watch television, and you work well WITHOUT others, let us know!
''Be a professional TV watcher! It's the job you were born to do.''

I actually started filling out the application (which you can find through Kimmel's section of, especially after I saw that the search was for the laziest person in America. What, after all, could be lazier than trying to get paid for something I do anyway? And I figured that I would have a leg up on Kimmel's late-night audience since I am awake in the morning and could track shows while other contenders are busy spreading zzzz's.
I stopped, of course. I am already a professional TV watcher and I get paid year-round. The Kimmel gig is ''a week to week position,'' the Web site says. ''No contractual commitment is intended or implied.''
Besides, it wouldn't be fair to take away an opportunity for all those Kimmel fans wondering what to do now that they've almost finished their seventh or eighth year of college.

Friday, April 15, 2005

A Sports Night

Before and after "Survivor" on Thursday -- and sometimes during the commercial breaks -- I was flipping among some sports: Indians-White Sox, Red Sox-Yankees, Cavs-Knicks and Heat-76ers. I stayed up for the end of the 76ers game, which went to overtime, because it affected the Cavs' playoff situation. Also, because it was a pretty good game.
Cavs-Knicks was another matter, one of those games where you wonder if the Cavs seriously want to win, if the long season and lots of playing time have finally worn out LeBron James. Austin Carr said on TV after the game that the Cavs played as if they thought they could take out the Knicks any time; obviously, they ran out of time.
Watching that game and some other recent Cavs fiascos made me think how tough it is to be announcer for a team that isn't doing well; a long, bad season can be numbing, and a letdown has to come when a slow slide hits a team that earlier showed signs of vigor.
It reminded me of a chat I had with Michael Reghi a couple of years ago, on the eve of LeBron's arrival in the pros.
Reghi was recalling that Cavs' previous season, where they won 17 games, and the year he had just had as an announcer for the 71-91 Baltimore Orioles. He joked that he was ''the losingest play-by-play man in sports.'' And what do you do then?
''You find yourself working even harder,'' Reghi said. ''You have to create something interesting on a nightly basis.''
That's pretty much the way teams should think, too.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

"Survivor": Everybody Loves Stephenie

Last week I compared Stephenie of "Survivor: Palau" to a great pitcher stuck on a bad team. But when she finally got to be a part of the good team, it looked as if everyone else was pitching to her.
Ulong, which had shrunk to Stephenie alone, was finally declared defunct, with Stephenie joining the long-dominant Koror tribe. Under most circumstances, that would make her an easy target for elimination; why keep around a wild card when you've had plenty of time to set up your own alliances and to figure out every other competitor's moves?
But Koror has been so successful, it's like a storybook version of ancient Rome, where everyone is so fat and peaceful that the only amusement left for them is scheming and plotting against one another. (All of sudden, I'm seeing "Palau" as an updating of "I, Claudius.") And when a new player arrives, it creates an opportunity for a whole new round of rivalries as everyone tries to bring the new player into their circle.
Oh, sure, there are people who fear Stephenie because she has been so strong as a competitor. But she has also managed to avoid being either lazy or a pain in the neck.
(Note to the now-departed Coby: If you want to be a puppet master, it helps to have some puppets.)
Even more significantly, Stephenie has been a hard, uncomplaining worker who has given the show a good story by toughing it out for so long.
I was really disappointed at first when she went for the pizza instead of immunity. But I'm beginning to think it was a smart move. If she had beaten Tom for immunity first time out of the box, she would look entirely too strong -- and would probably get voted out the first time she hit tribal council without immunity. This way, she seems less of a threat -- and had some good eats. Still, there's a part of me that thinks you never pass up a good chance at immunity.
Am I too readily joining those who cheer for Stephenie? Maybe. But I like her style. And we're getting to see her a lot. I should be paying attention to, say, Caryn, since she has a local connection. But either she or the editors have made a conscious decision to move her into the background for now. So there hasn't been much to feel about her one way or another.
That may change, of course. But for now, I'm watching to see what happens with Stephenie.

A veteran critic

The New York Daily News reports that Kay Gardella, who was for many years its top TV critic, has died; she was 82 and battling cancer, the newspaper said.
That's too bad. I wasn't friendly with Gardella but, on the rare occasions when we talked in recent years, we were at least cordial. I'm glad we managed that much.
When I started going to TV critics' press tours in 1984, Gardella was not merely a presence. She was an eminence. Publicists tried to address her every concern. Many actors, having long been covered and interviewed by Gardella, addressed her by her first name. Once, another reporter was in the middle of asking something -- only to be interrupted by the declaration that "Kay has a question."
As a young smart-aleck, I didn't like the bowing and scraping to Gardella, especially since her questions were occasionally dotty and she was on the wrong side in some fights. (In a room full of fans of "Hill Street Blues," Gardella did not hesitate to complain about what she considered excessive violence on the show.)
But the more I looked into television history, the more I came to see that Gardella had earned her stripes.
You'd dip into, say, a biography of Jackie Gleason and there would be Kay, talking about what it was like to follow Gleason in the '50s. The Daily News obit noted that Gardella was "legendary for her ability to pick up the phone and get Bob Hope or Gleason." The last time we talked, she was working on a project for the Hope family.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Goodbye, Nadia

As you know, Nadia Turner was at the top of my list of "American Idol" performers this week. But, as I said in my posting last night, the show was trying very hard to get rid of her -- and voters went along with it. I'll miss her, and I think the show will, too. She was good singer with a vibrant personality, although she made some decidedly eccentric decisions along the way. (Dare we mention the Mohawk?)
Bo Bice being in the bottom three was a mild surprise, since he has seemed to be a viewer favorite, but I had him in the bottom two of my rankings on Tuesday (along with Anthony Fedorov who not only survived but stayed out of the bottom three).
Which brings us to Scott "Once Again By the Skin of His Teeth" Savol. Bottom three for the second week in a row. And I admit that I didn't pay close attention to what may have put him there -- the sharp reply to Simon Cowell's criticism.
I've been watching "Idol" so much for so long, I don't get surprised when the occasional contestant back-talks Simon. So I missed the way Scott not only fired at Simon but at the audience of would-be "Idols" who, in Scott's view, didn't have the nerve to go on the show.
It was a bad move, first of all, because Scott's old anger-management problem is now in the national record. So any time he looks even a little unhappy, people are reminded.
As for the whole "nerve" thing, Scott apparently forgot those thousands of people who had the nerve to show up at the same Cleveland audition that he and Fedorov attended.
I was in Cleveland, too, before and during auditions. Many of the auditioners were good singers -- some better than Scott -- but were rejected for reasons that had nothing to do with ability.
The show also looks for interesting personal stories, standout personalities, unusual attitudes -- and, at least until they get to the judges, some bad singers who can be compiled into entertaining lowlight reels.
Their inability to get on the show had nothing to do with "nerve." Then think of all the singers who weren't lucky enough to live in a city where auditions were being held, or didn't have the money to get to auditions. "Nerve" was not their problem, either.
So it was easy today to find Internet postings that attacked Scott's attitude instead of his singing. When I think of the people I met at those "Idol" auditions, I get pretty ticked, too. I should have remembered them last night, when Scott stood, on national TV, and dismissed people who had started out with the same dreams he has.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

"Idol" Chatter

Well, I had hoped to write about "American Idol" a little sooner. But I spent a lot of time trying to find the missing pieces of "Free Bird" and "Bohemian Rhapsody."
All right, I was watching "The Amazing Race." But I still marveled -- yet again -- at the butchery inflicted on songs to make a bunch of them fit into an hour of "Idol."
And I'm just talking about the editing down of the songs, not the performances. This may be the last bastion of the old-fashioned single, 2 1/2 minutes and out, and anything much longer is going to get snipped or sped up. (Didn't "Free Bird" sound way too rushed? No? Take a minute. Get out a lighter, hold it up high. Hear Skynyrd in your head. See what I mean? Too fast.) And that leads to jumpy performances, since the songs' carefully designed (and well-known) structures go bye-bye just so the singers can get to the parts they hope will impress the voters.
Even then, the performances may not matter as much as the presentation. And this was another one of those weeks when it seemed that "Idol" was trying very hard to get the audience to lean certain ways.
Yes, it's time to start pushing the contestants' personalities, which this week included baby pictures. But it went beyond selling-all-the-product to singling out individuals. Scott got a big dose of love the week after landing in the bottom three; the praise included nods of approval from Hall & Oates themselves after he did their song "She's Gone."
Of course, I wouldn't expect H&O to sit in the audience for this show, soak up the rampant plugging of their music and then knock a performance. Especially not when H&O are showing enough wear and tear to make me think of Chris Elliott & Chico Marx.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The night's theme: songs from the year each contestant was born. No more of that Broadway stuff that so befuddled the singers a week ago. When you have a whole year of songs from all genres to choose from, you should be able to find something to knock out of the park.
Which made it even stranger that Nadia picked a little-known song (at least to the judges). If Scott was on the favored list this week, it's becoming all too clear that the show is trying to shove Nadia out the door. She was pretty good, not as good as some weeks, but still at the upper end of the field; instead, from the comments, you would think she was channeling the now-departed Mikalah.
I could rant on but let's go to my scorecard: Nadia and the Carrie tied for first; Constantine next; Anwar, Vonzell and Scott in a cluster; Bo-ring next to last and Anthony in last place.
Not the list I would have anticipated before the show aired. But, among other things, I didn't find Carrie's rock-chick makeover any less plausible than Constantine's evolution from rocker to whatever-makes-you-love-me guy.
Now we just have to prepare to endure an hour-long results show on Wednesday...

"Veronica Mars" and Missed Opportunities

Thanks to a review copy from UPN, I watched tonight's episode of "Veronica Mars" a few hours ago and was glad to be able to.
The series, about a high-school girl who also works as a private eye, is Nancy Drew with a much grimmer sensibility, with dialogue that recalls "Gilmore Girls" both in its glibness and its load of pop-culture references.
"Veronica" also respects its characters more than a lot of shows. The adults may not always be seen, but they are still key to the younger people's lives, and the young people themselves repeatedly defy stereotyping.
Kristen Bell, who plays Veronica, is a fabulous actress; she's been out there getting noticed for some time -- and did a terrific guest-starring role on "Deadwood" its first season. Still, Veronica is a role that calls for many skills, and Bell definitely shows them all.
But there's another reason I was glad to watch "Veronica," which is that I don't see it nearly as often as I should. And the reason is often that I just forget to watch.
Tuesday night in the House of Heldenfels is packed with viewing. Shows watched live or being recorded tonight include "American Idol," "The Amazing Race," "House," "The Office" and "Blind Justice."
When they are new episodes, we add "Gilmore Girls" and "One Tree Hill." "The Shield" would also be on the list, except that FX is very good about sending out episodes of it in advance. And, before it ended its run, "NYPD Blue" was a weekly routine.
Now, that's all on one night. Yes, some of those shows are my wife's favorites, not mine. But other nights also have shows I like, and shows that as a TV critic I feel a need to monitor occasionally, even I don't like them much. There are always piles of tapes and DVDs of upcoming telecasts for possible review, and at some point I have to face the boxes of TV shows on DVD for the weekly TV-on-DVD I column I write. Then -- although all that TV might suggest otherwise -- I have a life that also involves doing things other than watching TV.
So sometimes there are shows that I like or admire but just don't get around to watching all that often. I was immensely fond of "Girlfriends" for several years, and when I've checked it out this season, it still seems pretty good. But I don't get to it very often. For a long time, I admired "Judging Amy" enough to watch it and "NYPD Blue," one in real time, the other recorded. Maybe it's still good, but I haven't seen it recently enough to say one way or the other.
I don't think I'm atypical about approaching TV this way. I suspect there are shows you've thought about watching, or that you've heard are good, but you just don't get around to it.
Maybe you already have a long list of TV favorites, and it's hard to make time for something new until one of your favorites is gone. Maybe you have a busy non-TV life, so something has to jump up big-time for you to make room for. The problem with that, of course, is that if we don't watch the good shows, they may not get enough of an audience to stick around. "Veronica Mars," at least, has been picked up for a second season. So somebody was watching.

Getting caught

This morning, I was channel-flipping for a minute before heading the office, and I got stuck. You know how that is: You tell yourself you'll watch something for a minute, only to realize that many minutes have passed. It can happen while watching sports, or catching a snippet of "Law & Order" or, well, just about anything.
Two things dragged me in: one of those HBO "Legendary Nights" boxing programs -- this one about Aaron Pryor and Alexis Arguello -- and a Showtime telecast of "White Line Fever,'' a '70s movie starring Jan-Michael Vincent. I won't make claims for greatness for either one, although the "Legendary Nights" series is pretty good, even if the half-hour episode length is sometimes too short for the story to be told.
I could give you a long rationalization for watching "White Line Fever,'' an explanation about the film's use of class warfare as a theme, and its way of making clear that economic issues cross racial lines, but I won't. Because, frankly, those ideas came to me while I was waiting to see Vincent drive his truck through a statue-sized logo outside the company that was oppressing Vincent and other truckers.
I've always enjoyed that scene, and I was willing to wait to see it again. And a lot of people spend their viewing time on things they have seen before; they like what they've seen and can enjoy it on repeated viewing. I just like seeing that truck go.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Comments? Anyone? Anyone?

For those of you new to this blog, or new to blogging in general, don't miss the chance to respond to the material here. Just click on "comments" at the end of a section and you'll get instructions on how to add your reactions. Enjoy!

Things in the mail

Once while getting a haircut, I overheard a couple of people talking about a then-new Lindsay Wagner miniseries where she played a woman who had a near-death experience and then was chased by creatures from the afterlife trying to drag her back to death. Or something like that. It wasn't a very good movie, and I have tried to erase it from memory. But the conversation has stuck with me because one of the people involved said she thought the movie was "based on a true story."
Nothing in what I had seen would lead me to think that, but this viewer did. And, when I ponder whether a fact-based movie is taking too many liberties with the facts, I remember that woman who believed there was something factual in fancy zombies chasing Lindsay Wagner.
I bring that up because of "Revelations," an NBC miniseries premiering Wednesday, which gets its thrills from setting up the ultimate confrontation between good and evil. The first hour has plenty of religious overtones, but those are window dressing in what's basically a big, fast horror movie.("Pretty standard popcorn fare,'' said the Associated Press's Frazier Moore. You can find my equally unenthusastic review in Sunday's Beacon Journal; it apparently hasn't been posted online yet.)
But when you start throwing around religious iconography, even in escapist fiction, you run the risk of hitting beliefs that some folks take seriously. And my e-mail basket included a couple of items more or less encouraging me to take a more serious look at "Revelations."
One came from a publicist for Lee Strobel, whose official biography calls him "a sought-after commentator on spiritual issues." (He's also the host of Pax's "Faith Under Fire.") The publicist said Strobel "is available for interviews to support any upcoming pieces on the increase of religious themes in TV shows; particularly with NBC's upcoming 'Revelations.' "
Another e-mail came from a representative of Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, the authors of the "Left Behind" books which, as the note said, are "based on the prophecies in the Book of Revelation." They're also big bestsellers.
In the e-mail, Jenkins calls the ideas in "Revelations" "a mishmash of myth, silliness, and misrepresentations of Scripture. Acknowledging that not every one agrees with my particular take on End Time prophecies, at least they are based on some commonly accepted study. 'Revelations' seems to draw from everywhere and nowhere."
Adds LaHaye: "This story (in "Revelations") is based on some writer's imagination about the Book of Revelation. However, the writer clearly has not studied the book or maybe even read it."
I am tempted at this point to suggest to Jenkins and LaHaye that they are giving too much attention to "pretty standard popcorn fare." By taking the show even a little seriously, they (and Strobel, for that matter) are adding to publicity for NBC and perhaps encouraging viewers to look at the movie who might not have done so otherwise.
But then I remember that woman and the Lindsay Wagner movie. And I wonder if LaHaye and Jenkins have a legitimate reason for concern -- that some viewers will take "Revelations" as seriously as others take "Left Behind."

Labels Don't Always Fit

In case you missed it, here's an intriguing bit of dialogue from the April 8 telecast of CNN's "Inside Politics":
WOLF BLITZER: While they were united today in mourning the death of the pope, U.S. Catholics are a diverse group, as illustrated by two of our "CROSSFIRE" co-hosts, the conservative Robert Novak, the liberal Paul Begala, both good Catholics -- I don't know if good Catholics -- but both Catholics. I am sure Bob is a good Catholic. I am not sure about Paul Begala.
PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": Well, now, who are to you pass moral judgment on my religion, Mr. Blitzer?
BLITZER: All right, go ahead. Go ahead.(LAUGHTER)
BEGALA: My goodness gracious, on the day of my Holy Father's funeral. My eldest son is named John Paul after the pope.
BLITZER: So you are -- so you are a good Catholic.
BEGALA: I am serious. Actually, that annoys me. I don't think anybody should presume that a liberal is not a good Catholic.
ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": Paul -- Paul -- Paul is a good Catholic.
BEGALA: The Holy Father is liberal.And, in fact, when Carlos was speaking, I was watching in the green room. Underneath, some producer had written, "Many Catholic doctrines are conservative." Absolutely correct. Many are liberal as well. The Holy Father bitterly opposed President Bush's war in Iraq. He came to St. Louis -- and I was there -- and he begged America to give up the death penalty. President Bush strongly supports it, as did President Clinton and others. Many of the Holy Father's views, my church's viewers are views are extraordinarily liberal. I mean, the pope talked about savage, unbridled capitalism, not Bob Novak's capitalism.(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: I was only teasing.
BEGALA: OK. BLITZER: Don't be so sensitive.
BEGALA: Well, it's an important day for my faith.
BLITZER: It's a very important day.
BEGALA: He's the only pope of my adult lifetime, so I'm a little emotional.
(end dialogue, back to me blogging)
Disclosure: I first read about this in an e-newsletter from Media Matters, a group which tries to combat the gazillion or so people crying about liberal bias by tracking conservative attitudes in news programming. But the transcription above comes straight from the CNN Web site,
The exchange between Blitzer and Begala will probably show up in some form in one of my columns because it addresses something that's been on my topic list for some time -- the way that, when Christianity (and not just Catholicism) comes up in news stories, it's so often in terms of conservatism. During and after the 2004 presidential election, for example, I heard a lot about Christians voting for Bush. Implied in that discussion is a contradiction between having a strong faith and voting for Kerry.
I don't buy it, any more than I think we can judge Begala's and Novak's Catholicism based on their politics. Anyone can have a strong faith, exercise that faith in a given church and still disagree with aspects of that church's doctrine.
But a discussion from that premise can be complicated. And we can all see the ways that television news in particular fears complexity. It's much tidier to reduce a philosophy to a label -- "conservative Christian,'' say -- and to make dialogue from label-tossing ("You liberal!""You conservative!"). But some ideas do not fit on one label, and one label cannot encompass all ideas.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

The weekend, TV and Tiger

The weather being as fine as it was, I didn't watch much TV on Saturday. Plenty of tasks awaited in the yard, and it was good at the end of the day to feel the beginnings of sunburn on my neck. This is Ohio, after all, where any good April day may lead to weeks of rain -- or even snow.
But on Sunday, around the time we went to church, I suggested to my wife that we make some TV time. The reason? Tiger Woods was charging at the Masters.
Tiger is the reason I watch a good bit of golf on TV. I had watched bits and pieces before his rise, but often felt a bit bored by the shots of beautiful greens, men in brightly colored pants and the stroll around a little white ball that was requisite to the contemplation of the putt. If sports can be considered reality TV -- and it should be -- then golf sometimes seemed to cry out for an editor as skilled as those on "Survivor.''
My view changed with Tiger. He brought drama. There was always a chance of something extraordinary, beautiful, dramatic.
I am not saying Tiger is unique in doing that. Certainly, for other viewers, Arnold Palmer brought the same thrill. And, of course, Jack Nicklaus. You could see the excitement Nicklaus brought to the game in a CBS special about his Masters experiences, which aired before the final round on Sunday.
Once one player captivates you, it's easy to be drawn into the game at large. Granted, I am less likely to watch a golf tournament without Tiger. But on Sunday, as he tried to cling to the championship (which he finally won in a playoff), there was even greater drama in watching Chris DiMarco try to outplay and outgut Woods -- and almost pull it off.
Of course, Sunday was also a beautiful day, and there were some things I did outside, and some other things I should have been. But the TV held out the possibility of magic -- and I'd have hated to miss it.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Long season, short runs

"Grey's Anatomy" is enough of a hit that ABC is going to keep it at Sundays and put "Boston Legal" on the bench, although "Boston Legal" will be back in the fall.
But that's not what interested me in a story about the change on the entertainment Web site I was amused by a comment from ABC entertainment boss Stephen McPherson.
Explaining the change in plans, he said: "Ultimately we decided that, without having adequate lead time or marketing dollars to devote to moving either show so late in the season, we'd continue to let 'Grey's' build on its tremendous momentum through May. We're extremely excited that this will give us the amazing luxury of bringing 'Boston Legal' back next season with an unheard-of 27 original episodes."
McPherson got to 27 by adding five episodes made for this season to the 22 to be made next year. But that's an unheard-of number only if you forget TV history.
Many classic TV shows used to do seasons that ran more than 27 episodes. A check of DVD boxes of single seasons of "The Andy Griffith Show," "I Love Lucy" and "Have Gun, Will Travel" will find more than 30 episodes of each -- 39 in the case of "Have Gun."
But the cost of making TV shows went up. Networks wanted to keep their costs under control. And networks paid studios a fee that didn't cover the cost of making a show, so the studio had to run a show at a deficit until it could make more money selling the reruns in syndication. But even a hit show is no longer guaranteed a strong syndication sale. And, in all that, we're talking about a hit; a flop is simply an expensive loss.
So now a broadcast TV series makes about 22 episodes for a full season (and cable shows tend to have even fewer). New shows can get episode orders in the single digits, since no one wants to be stuck with more if a series flops.
That's too bad for consumers, since those 22 episodes have to be spread across a season that lasts a lot longer. The result: More reruns and pre-emptions.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Smoking news

When I began telling people that Peter Jennings had lung cancer, the reaction was two-fold: surprise and the question, "Is he a smoker?'' In fact, one co-worker asked, "Is he a smoker or just unlucky?''
As a culture we've come to accept the link between smoking and lung cancer, even assuming it, as people did with Jennings. (The answer to the question, by the way, is that he used to smoke but quit -- as much as 20 years ago, according to some reports.) That's a sea change from the days when movies and TV shows were full of smokers, when cigarette ads were everywhere, when
So were newsrooms, I must admit, as this story from Newsday notes:,0,3642317.story?coll=ny-health-headlines.
I well remember getting home from work and my clothes and hair smelling of the smoke that had filled the offices of the upstate New York newspaper where I worked. (Sometimes, too, the smoke was mine. But I did a lot of stupid things when I was younger.) Things have changed in the workplace, and much is done to persuade people that smoking is a bad idea. Jennings's illness at least raised the issue again for people.
But some folks are going to take up smoking no matter how many tracts and stories and anti-tobacco ads they see. The culture still hasn't rid itself of the idea that smoking can be exotic or glamorous. Anti-smoking images bump up against pro-smoking ones. Any time you see a young actor with a cigarette in hand, it's an invitation to the actor's admirers to follow suit.

A Tribe of One

The world never stops, and neither does television. So the viewer's best friend is some kind of video recorder, whether it's an old VCR or a newer DVR or whatever other magic technology has around.
At 3 a.m. Friday, I was still asleep but had my DVR running on a couple of channels to pick up coverage of Pope John Paul II's funeral, so I could at least take a look at some point. And Thursday night, while I was at a local meeting, I hoped with nervousness and anticipation that my DVR was picking up "Survivor: Palau.''
Nervousness because there's a local contestant on the show, and if she was eliminated I was going to have file a short item for today's paper. Anticipation because I wanted to see if Ulong was going to continue to be The Worst Tribe Ever on "Survivor.''
Fortunately, I got home in time to see the end of the show, plus the DVR worked, so I've skimmed through the events leading up to Ulong: TWTE's latest disaster. I'll linger over them later, but did stop to watch Bobby Jon Drinkard -- a repeated liability for Ulong -- foul up again; the guy doesn't even know how to eat well. And I was relieved to see that Stephenie LaGrossa managed to last one more week. She reminds me of baseball legend Steve Carlton, an excellent pitcher often stuck on a bad team; if anyone deserved a trade from Ulong, it was Stephenie.
But she hasn't gotten that trade. Indeed, however fascinating it has been to watch Ulong fail itself down to a tribe of one, it's almost as interesting to think about how serenely "Survivor" let the people fail. The show has been known to shake up tribes in the past, and more than once there was a sense that "Survivor'' did it to keep one tribe from becoming too dominant; this time around, there was no clemency to be had. And you can't say that Ulong deserved a break anyway, since they were endlessly inventive in finding ways to fail. (Think of Bobby Jon chosen to manage the solution of the water puzzle.)
The decline of Ulong also demonstrates "Survivor's" knack for coming up with new twists on a pretty familiar game. I'd be watching the show anyway because I'm a fan. But I'm watching it with greater interest because of Ulong.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

``Lost,'' ``24'': Where's the shock?

So Boone is gone on ``Lost.'' Not exactly suspenseful, was it? A show that is known for its twists and turns went with the most likely character to get rid of. I mean, I keep track of ``Lost'' mostly by osmosis -- listening to fans, my wife among them -- and even I kept saying that, ``It can't be Boone! That's too obvious.''
But maybe regular viewers of TV series are just tough to surprise, let alone shock. Here's how a Fox press release described Tuesday's episode of ``24,'' which included a succesful attack on Air Force One with the president onboard: "pivotal," "shocking," "riveting," "gripping," "critical and controversial.'' The network even scheduled replays of the show for tonight and Sunday, supposedly to give viewers an extra chance to see "the most talked-about hour in the show's four thrilling seasons."
Excuse me? We're talking about a show that has set off a nuclear weapon on American soil, unleashed a deadly virus attack, killed off major characters and had viewers shouting "Nina is the mole!'' This week's episode was small potatoes by comparison.

The West Wing

My friend and colleague Alan Sepinwall has been arguing for sometime that Alan Alda's character on ''The West Wing'' is going to be the next president on the show. After watching the season finale on Wednesday, I'm beginning to be convinced.
Sure, the finale found Jimmy Smits's character get a Democratic presidential nomination that had been considered an extremely long shot earlier in the series, so there's a possibility. And the show's being based in a Democratic administration has made it seem that the show would need to elect another Democrat to keep the core of the cast together.
But the show has already gotten around some of that by portraying Alda as a maverick Republican, one much closer philosophically to President Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) than the usual Republicans we see on the show. And on Wednesday's season finale -- the show has been renewed for next year -- the series seemed to drive a stake in Smits's campaign by pairing him with the aging, often troubled Leo McGarry (played so superbly by John Spencer).
For fans of the show, and I'm one of them, Leo's selection was a sweet moment -- one more validation for a character who has come through personal problems, a serious illness and even exile from Bartlet's inner circle. But as wonderful as it was, it also made absolutely no political sense; Leo's history is laden with liabilities for any candidate running in this merciless modern era.
Of course, the whole episode was a fantasy about how politics might work, making even a convention seem exciting. And ''West Wing'' has more often than not been a fantasy, a show about the way we wish politicians were far more than about the way they are. I often watch it much the way I watch -- again and again -- ''Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,'' utterly enthralled and moved, while not really believing it all; wouldn't Mr. Smith be crushed at the polls the first time he came up for re-election?
That said, it's been a very good year for "West Wing,'' especially coming off last season, which seemed to be a long struggle to find a new voice for the show.
The presidential campaign stories reinvigorated the series, for starters. And they were one of the ways the show tried to make up for old mistakes.
During the last presidential campaign on "West Wing'' -- which you can revisit on the fourth-season DVD -- the Republicans were shadowy, distant figures; even their supposedly formidable candidate, played by James Brolin, proved as flimsy as cardboard. I've long disliked the debate episode from that season because Bartlet so thoroughly rolled over his opponent; it doesn't feel like a fair fight, or a believable one.
The campaign this season has felt not only more fair but more interesting; we get to see Alda as a fleshed-out character. So I'm ready now for the next season, no matter who ends up winning that election.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Democracy in action

Well, those of you who read my scorecard from Tuesday's ``American Idol'' know that the vote turned out a bit differently. I wasn't surprised to see Scott in the bottom three -- I had him there -- and Nikko was fourth from the bottom on my card, so him landing in the bottom three wasn't that huge a surprise. But I wasn't entirely prepared for his being voted off. And Vonzell in the bottom three? She was third best in my view, behind Nadia and Anwar. The surprisingly safe Anthony was at the bottom of my rankings -- and those of some other viewers I have talked to. He seems to give the same performance every week, no matter what the song, and it's become tiresome in the extreme. At least Bo had the good sense to be nervous; he gave a so-so performance while a lot of other people are stepping up their game. Even Constantine, who has been lousy a lot of weeks, has proven smarter tactically than Bo, moving toward a middle-pop ground and pushing a semi-goofy personality while Bo generally sticks with what got him to the dance -- even if the music on the dance floor is changing.
I could go on about the show and the contestants -- heaven knows I spend too many hours spinning scenarios with other "Idol'' fans every week -- but it's getting late and I still want to watch tonight's "West Wing.''
So let's focus a moment in the "Idol'' telecast: We can see the padding increase as the field of contestants gets smaller. While Fantasia Barrino gave a dramatic performance, it still amounts to padding and plugging (for her CD). Most people who tune in on Wednesday want one thing and one thing alone -- the information that always seems to be after the next break.
And as difficult as it is to sit through those breaks, think how it must be for the contestants: Scott and Nikko basically had to give farewell speeches before knowing for sure if they were gone or not.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Reality Tuesday

As you might guess, there's a lot of video recording of shows at our house. But there are also shows we like to sit down and watch, and on Tuesday those shows are ""American Idol'' and ''The Amazing Race.'' I hear from time to time from readers who claim to hate all reality shows, but I don't think they watch many -- and certainly not something as dramatic as these shows can be.
But this season, "Amazing Race'' has been tough for me because of the Rob-and-Amber problem. Rob Mariano and Amber Brkich from ''Survivor'' are competing on ''Race'' and their approach to the game involves ''Survivor''-like scheming that goes against the more pure competition I've come to enjoy on ''Race.''
Don't get me wrong. I like ''Survivor,'' too. And there have been unpleasant contestants on ''Race'' before. But R&A's success so far has been galling; besides their deviousness, they're smug, they already have huge ''Survivor'' winnings and their ''Survivor'' fame has given them an advantage over other teams (since people recognize R&A and want to help them). And I keep wondering when Amber is going to have to do something more than follow Rob and look helpless.
I still watch the show faithfully (although I may pass on Wednesday's recap special). And I devote plenty of energy to rooting for anyone but R&A. But that's not as much fun as it was with some previous ''Races.'' So I keep hoping they'll lose and we can focus more on the likable teams on the show.
As for "Idol,'' several weeks ago I picked Anwar to win and I still think he has a shot. But my gosh, Nadia has become more impressive by the week (even if she made a disastrous hair choice awhile back). And in tonight's competition, involving songs from musicals, she was the rare contender who actually understood how to sing a show tune.
Better yet, I could hear her. The version of the show I watched -- on Fox's HD feed -- had a lot of bad mixes of band with vocals, where the vocals were often very hard to hear. I mean, Constantine appeared to be very good -- surprisingly so -- but I'm guessing because the band was often overwhelming his vocals.
That said, if I were ranking this week's contenders, Nadia would be tops, followed in order by Anwar, Vonzell, Constantine, Carrie, Nikko, Bo, Scott and Anthony. (I know, I should give Scott more credit because he is from Northeast Ohio -- and he does appear to have a strong following based on the votes to date. But he was bad Tuesday, maybe the worst he has ever been.)
You may have a different opinion. And it's good to have one. We all know Paula Abdul refuses to have any other than ''everyone is beautiful in his/her own way.'' But we'll see on Wednesday night how the votes went.