The Fall Of ESPN

Is ESPN the Blockbuster of broadcast TV?

Those of you who are over, say, 35 probably remember Blockbuster.  It was the place where you went to buy, or rent, new video releases.  For a time in the ’90s, you couldn’t go to any suburban strip shopping center without seeing a busy Blockbuster store thronging with people eager to get their hands on the new releases.  But then . . . things changed.  New methods of getting entertainment delivered directly to our houses were developed that made going to the Blockbuster store seem inconvenient, and expensive, and clunky, and kind of a pain in the ass.  And before you knew it, all of those Blockbuster stores were gone.

sc2ESPN seems to be following the same path.  From the new station that padded its programming with weird sports events like Australian rules football games, ESPN grew into a glitzy, multi-channel cable TV megaplayer that had an enormous impact on the sports segment of American culture.  Athletes would make a great play and mimic the Sportscenter theme song, hoping that their play would be broadcast on that nightly highlights show.  ESPN broadcast anchors became celebrities.  In 2011, ESPN had 100 million cable TV subscribers.

But then . . . things changed.  ESPN is down to 88 million subscribers, and those numbers continue to decline.  Ratings are down, and the channel has had to make some very public layoffs of some of its familiar on-air talent.  Even this NFL draft weekend, when the coverage on ESPN used dominate the sports conversation, ESPN doesn’t seem to be quite so significant anymore.  Why is this happening?  In part, it’s because people are giving up on standard cable TV in favor of watching content on the internet.  Cable TV packages are expensive, and watching events on the internet is free.  So why sign up for increasingly expensive cable TV programming with a standard package filled with channels that you don’t watch, when you can save that money and watch what you want on the internet?

Doesn’t that sound familiar, in a Blockbuster kind of way?

There are other proffered reasons for ESPN’s decline — the high salaries it pays on-air talent, the rising cost of obtaining broadcast rights for sports events, and even the theory that ESPN has increasingly injected “liberal” political views into its broadcasts, irritating sports fans with more conservative political views — but I think the real reason is the cultural change in people’s viewing habits.  When cultural shifts occur, companies can go from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the ditch in a hurry.

Who knows?  In a few years, even that iconic Sportcenter theme song might be as forgotten as the once-familiar Blockbuster logo.

Dead Or Alive?

Don Rickles died today.  The insult comedian who was a mainstay on The Tonight Show and the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts and who delighted in calling people “hockey pucks” was 90.

abc-don-rickles-obit-jc-170406_mn_4x3t_384And this sounds terrible to say, but my first reaction to the news was:  “That’s interesting.  I guess I thought he was dead already.”

I feel very guilty about this reflexive response, but it happens all the time these days.  Some musician, comedian, movie star, or sitcom actor from the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s kicks the bucket, and you could have sworn they’d already gone to meet their maker.  I think the reason for that response is that, during their period of great fame, those celebrities are seen so frequently that they become expected, everyday sights on talk shows, in magazine articles, on game shows, and in guest roles on sitcoms.  Then, when their period of fame ends, as is inevitably the case, you associate their ongoing lack of presence on the popular scene with . . . death.  In fact, the only way you know for sure that they’re not in fact dead is if they suddenly get hauled out to award an Oscar or give a tribute to one of their just departed colleagues.

So, Don Rickles is officially dead.  Doc Severinsen, on the other hand, is still with us.

Reality, Of A Sort

I don’t watch “reality” TV shows.  They all seem so contrived, with their deliberate plot lines and forced conflicts, all occurring while the cameras roll.  It seems to be about as far from true reality as you can get.

But a British “reality” show called Eden may actually have unwittingly exposed the contestants on a show to reality, of a sort.  The typically silly, wholly contrived plot sent 23 people out into the wilds of Scotland, to a desolate area called the Ardnamurchan Peninsula.  There, they were supposed to be totally cut off from the outside world, so they would have to use their survival skills, live for a year on food they trapped and caught, and create a new community from nothing.

eden-lead-xlarge_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqv30ccb2vduhjw47nmzf9bznxedyfs9ixtxv7dtwrcjuUnbeknownst to the contestants, however, the show was cancelled and taken off the TV schedule after only four episodes, months ago.  But the show’s producers kept the cameras rolling, apparently without telling the contestants that no one was watching.

Now that the year in the wilderness is ending, the truth about the show apparently has begun to emerge.  Ten of the 23 people quit, with one contestant who threw in the towel calling the show “a load of rubbish.”  And according to a Scottish newspaper, at least some of the other participants “resorted to smuggling in junk food and booze.”  According to one resident quoted in the newspaper, “[s]ome of the participants were even seen in the dentist at Fort William needing treatment after eating chicken feed grit.”  The paper also reported that the show’s failure was due to “sexual jealousy, hunger and feuds.”

There’s something richly satisfying about this.   Contestants on “reality” shows seem to be stunningly self-absorbed and convinced that everyone will be keenly interested in their thoughts and feelings and plans as they talk to the cameras.  From their carefully crafted poses in the publicity photo above, the Eden contestants seem to be as phony, calculated and absurdly self-conscious as the rest of reality show “stars.”   It’s not hard to imagine them spending time during their year in the “wilderness” wondering which of them was really connecting with the audience back home, and whose antics were making them the sentimental favorite or the hated villain — when in reality no one was watching and no one cared.  I think you could say that they’ve been exposed to reality of a sort.

The producers say that a show about what happened will be broadcast later.  Who knows?  Maybe the news stories about the wilderness reality show that was cancelled without telling the contestants are all part of an elaborate plan by the producers to drum up viewers for a show that was a ludicrous dud, so they can recover some of their losses, and the rest of us are being played.  I guess that would be reality of a sort, too.

Publishing Actors’ Ages

Let’s say you were concerned about age discrimination in Hollywood, where male stars seem to get roles no matter their age, while female actors — other than the peripatetic Meryl Streep — seem to have difficulty getting cast once they hit 45 or 50.  Would you:

(a) notify everyone in the film industry that you were assigning an extra investigator to specifically focus on enforcing existing laws against age discrimination in the industry;

(b) decide that current federal and state law wasn’t sufficient and therefore enact new legislation directly regulating age discrimination at the movie studios that make the films; or

(c) enact a law preventing internet sites, including specifically the IMDb website, from publishing actors’ ages and date of birth information.

Weirdly — or maybe not so weirdly — California chose option 3.  Yesterday a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against the law, finding that “it’s difficult to imagine how AB 1687 could not violate the First Amendment” because it bars IMDb from publishing purely factual information on its website for public consumption.  And, the court found that although preventing age discrimination in Hollywood is “a compelling goal,” California did not show the new law is “necessary” to advance that goal.  The judge added:  “In fact, it’s not clear how preventing one mere website from publishing age information could meaningfully combat discrimination at all. And even if restricting publication on this one website could confer some marginal antidiscrimination benefit, there are likely more direct, more effective, and less speech-restrictive ways of achieving the same end. For example, although the government asserts generically that age discrimination continues in Hollywood despite the long-time presence of antidiscrimination laws, the government fails to explain why more vigorous enforcement of those laws would not be at least as effective at combatting age discrimination as removing birthdates from a single website.”  You can read the judge’s pointed, three-page ruling here.

This conclusion is not surprising to anyone who understands the First Amendment, and presumably didn’t come as a surprise to the lawyers trying to defend California’s law, either.  All of which begs the question of why California legislators enacted it in the first place — and that’s where the “maybe not so weirdly” comment from above comes in.  I’m sure the Hollywood community is, collectively, a big-time contributor to political campaigns on a California state level, just as it is on a national level.  If you were a politician who wanted to say that you had done something to address age discrimination in Hollywood, but without doing anything that might actually, adversely affect the rivers of cash flowing to your campaigns from the big studios, supporting a law that affects only an internet website that actors hate because it discloses how old they really are is a much safer bet.

It’s nice to know that we have federal judges who understand what the First Amendment means, even if California’s elected representatives are clueless.  And if those legislators are so concerned about age discrimination in Hollywood, maybe they’ll actually do something about it — rather than just taking steps to block speech they don’t like.

Super Unfunny

Super Bowl LI will be the stuff of legend, but the commercials during the game?  Not so much.

I can’t say that I saw every commercial broadcast during the game, of course, but the ones I did see weren’t very memorable.  Basically, in this Super Bowl as in other Super Bowls, the commercials fell into two main categories:  the tedious “story” ads that hit you over the head with a message, and the ads that are supposed to be funny.  (There’s also a third category of weird, one-off ads from companies that simply want to get their name out there during the Super Bowl, even though there is basically no chance that 99.99% of the viewing audience will ever purchase their product or service.  This year, the Morgan Freeman ad for Turkish Airlines aptly represents that category.  Turkish Airlines?  Really?)

The enormous Super Bowl audience endures the “story” ads, and accepts the perverse notion of large corporate sponsors lecturing us on the proper way of thinking about something, in hopes that the ads that are trying to be funny will make us laugh.

This year . . . not so much.  I like seeing Melissa McCarthy slammed around as much as the next guy, but her ad was symptomatic of the flaws that seemed to infect all of the wannabe funny ads — a thin premise that gets beaten to death and tries way too hard.  You sit and watch them, kind of shake your head, and marvel that this is the best that a huge ad agency and a million-dollar commercial buy can do.  I didn’t see anything clever or original in a way comparable to the classic “Doberhuahua” ad from a few years ago, for example — and because we could all use a hearty laugh these days, I’ve linked to it below.

Who knows?  Maybe a symptom of aging is that you think the commercials during past Super Bowls are better than the current crop — but I doubt it.

Smug And Annoying

There’s nothing more annoying than an annoying commercial pitchman.

That’s why I’m grinding my teeth at the commercial TV reappearance of the former Verizon “can you hear me now” guy — this time as a spokesman for Sprint.

0c9df173f01d6b91-822x512I didn’t particularly like the guy during his first 15 minutes of fame, because the constant “can you hear me now” questions became incredibly irritating.  But at least in that incarnation he was a uniformed blue-collar guy, apparently an engineer type, out there in the hinterlands, hiking around in remote areas and personally testing the geographic range of the Verizon network.  He was a working man just doing his job.  You got what he was doing and the message he was sending, and it made his irritating catch phrase a bit more bearable.

But he apparently lost the blue-collar, working man identity when he switched sides, and now he’s just a smug wise guy walking down the street and drinking lattes in a Christmas tree lot, trying to tell you that you’re a colossal idiot if you still use Verizon rather than paying less with Sprint.  And all the while, he’s got this insufferable I’m smarter-than-you smirk on his face — probably because his dormant commercial career has been resurrected due to his willingness to switch sides in the ever-present cell phone wars, and he’s now getting paid a boatload of cash that he wouldn’t be making otherwise.  His commercials are as unlikeable as the historically obnoxious “Jake from State Farm” ad.

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I normally wouldn’t take the unsolicited advice of some know-it-all buttinsky, on the street or in a Christmas tree lot, and I don’t exactly trust the lectures of people who’ve peddled their opinions to the company that pays the most cash. Wouldn’t you like to know whether this cell phone Benedict Arnold is moving the needle on Sprint subscriptions?  I’m betting that his ad campaign is a flop.

Goodbye, Mary

I was deeply saddened to learn of the death this week of Mary Tyler Moore, at age 80.  She was a television icon and, through The Mary Tyler Moore Show, an inspiration to a generation of young women who saw, through her example, that living and working as a single woman in a big city was a viable alternative to more traditional paths.

It’s not a coincidence that Mary Tyler Moore starred in two of the very best situation comedies the small screen has ever produced.  I loved her as Laura Petrie in the Dick Van Dyke Show; she was talented and funny and a perfect foil for Van Dyke’s classic brand of physical and facial comedy.  (“Oh, Rob!”)  But The Mary Tyler Moore Show was also a lasting, brilliant contribution to the medium of television, with one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled and some of the greatest comedy writing as well.

In my view, the “Chuckles Bites The Dust” episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is arguably the funniest single episode of any network sitcom in the history of television, period, and its final scene, shown above, demonstrates Mary Tyler Moore’s enormous range as a comedic actor.  For those who haven’t seen the episode, a local TV personality named Chuckles the Clown is killed in a mishap — dressed as his character Peter Peanut, he is brutally shelled by a rogue elephant — and for most of the episode the characters make jokes about Chuckles’ demise while Mary Richards, the soul of rectitude, is offended by their cavalier attitude about Chuckles’ death.  In this final scene, though, Mary just can’t hold it in any longer, and the result is one of the great turns by any TV actor, anywhere.

Mary Tyler Moore was one of the giants.  She will be missed.