Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Balls

One of the ongoing pleasures of media watching is how seriously the participants take themselves and the way great importance is attached to relatively small changes. For example, the Nine Network recently tweaked its logo -- an event that prompted these snippets from News Ltd (translations are in bold).
“Acting Nine chief executive Sam Chisholm had been a driving force behind the new changes, bringing in former colleague Bruce Dunlop to work on a new logo last year.”
i.e. we’re dropping the balls.
“In a "back to the future" move, chief executive Sam Chisholm called in Mr Dunlop last May - soon after his own appointment - to start work on freshening up the image of the broadcaster.”
i.e. nothing really new you understand, we’re just dropping those balls.
“Jens Hertzum, creative directive at BDA, said yesterday that the object had been to streamline the Nine brand. But he was not in a position to say how much the campaign cost.”
i.e. we’re dropping the balls (it'll cost a motzah).
“Nine's new simplified logo, which dispenses with the familiar nine balls or dots - a feature from as far back as 1974.”
i.e. in case you haven’t heard we’re dropping the balls.

And then there’s this report on the “new look” Wheel of Fortune (hosted by Larry Emdur, one of network television’s premier meat puppets) carrying the fantastical news that:
“Emdur will be joined by The Great Outdoors presenter Laura Csortan when the show hits Channel Seven's screens at 5pm with a fresh new look. Unlike in the past, Csortan will have a microphone on at all times making her an integral part of the show.”
And you thought she was just there to show off prizes, wear designer duds and look good. What can Little Mr Square Eyes add except "Balls!"

Friday, January 27, 2006

The good, the bad and the ugly

More Sopranos episodes to come -- only 20 but I’m sure the Nine Network will dole them out as slowly as possible.

Paul Riesner is back.

Finally, the Herald Sun carried a report claiming Greg Domaszewicz was one of the first to be approached by Granada Productions to appear in an Australian version of the British series, I'm a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here. Full story here but I’m not sure for how long.

Little Mr Square Eyes is attempting to contact the Australian arm of Granada Productions to confirm these details.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Something magical

Ahh-Eeeh! – Bok!
Huh-Hrnn! – Thwock!
Ahh-Eeeh! – Bok!
Huh-Hrnn! – Thwock!
Owwt!

So it went for three sets -- and, with the contest between Tszvetana Pironkova and Venus Williams sounding more like SFX for a “Xena versus She-Ra” adult entertainment video, it was clear that Summer (or Seven’s Summer of Sport as it was once referred to) was here in all its sweaty splendour.

As with other seasons, the Summer of Sport encompasses change and renewal. The laid-back Hopman Cup gives way to the Australian Open, one-day internationals replace test cricket and the commentary teams continue to throw out the banal and fluffy.

“Some pretty bad things have happened there,” observed Mark Nicholas sagely, by way of explaining the form of a Sri Lankan player during a one dayer against Australia. You had to wonder what tipped Nicholas off -- the tsunami or the generation-long civil war.

Meanwhile back at the tennis Allan Stone and John Alexander were musing on what the tournament promised for the locals. “Shortly, the great man begins his Australian Open Campaign,” intoned Stoney employing the sort of overstatement normally reserved for advertising dietary fibre products. “Something magical happens when Leyton Hewitt walks onto centre court at the Australian Open.”

Well, yes -- usually he fails to make it past the quarterfinals. Given the artistic media milking of the fairytale wedding, new fatherhood and a seeming inability to finish off lesser players in a timely fashion Hewitt probably doesn’t need any help from Stone and JA to ‘build the drama’.

A flick across to SBS revealed another short great man had already started his campaign. “Eat is sew beautyfool et the sturt”, noted Christian Clavier playing Napoleon at the beginning of a battle, just before ordering his troops into a cannonade. Made in 2002, Napoleon the mini-series combined gorgeous locations, an international cast -- including Isabella Rossellini, Gerard Depardieu and John Malkovich -- and English dialogue for Clavier to lathe with Gallic √©lan.

In between the carnage (and John Malkovich moping in the background) a Polish princess pleaded with Napoleon to mend her broken country. What are the people like, countered the wily Corsican looking up into her eyes. The princess then offered herself as a representative of Poland. “Shee must bee a fantas-teak leetle countree,” murmured the compact conqueror, his words and eyes falling level with her upper works.

Not so 'beautyfool 'is Growing Up Gotti (ABC) the latest fly-on-the-wall, putative reality show to hoist itself onto the increasingly teetering bandwagon set in motion by Sharon Osborne a few years back. Please note, the name Gotti in this case is pronounced with an ‘r’ between the G and the o.

The only amusement Little Mr Square Eyes squeezed from the program was when he absent-mindedly switched over to a Today Tonight story on a botched facelift a woman underwent in Thailand. Clicking back to GUG, Victoria Gotti’s scarified visage suddenly made sense.

Perhaps Vicky should sic Crane Poole & Schmidt onto her plastic surgeon. Boston Legal (Southern Cross), a spin-off from The Practice (remember Bobby Shouter, Catholic Jimmy and Helen ‘Skeletor’ Gamble?) is credited with refloating William Shatner into prime time, giving him a chance to chew the scenery, ogle woman and mow and glower at male cast members. In other words, act pretty much like Bill Shatner in any lead role.

Brief, Aretha Franklin-style riffs divide the scenes and break up the bon motts. Any appreciation of the show depends on just how much you enjoy David E. Kelly’s addiction to, and deployment of, inexorable quirkiness. Not that it isn’t fun -- “My ass may lie,” declaims Shatner quietly, in the manner of George Patton addressing the Seventh Army, “but it’s all muscle.”

The same could be said of the second series of Carnivale (ABC) that has re-established itself as the Sunday night event around which all other social activities revolve. If unavoidably dragged away from hearth and telly, the VCR programming is checked and doubled checked to make sure nothing is missed. Little Mr Square Eyes hasn’t been this smitten since the he first spotted Lee Majors performing a bicep curl with an engine block as The Six Million Dollar Man back in the seventies.

Now that’s something magical.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Oh Hoppy Daze

“You can almost see,” explained Geoff Masters during the Hopman Cup final, “the min-tell in-tent-city.” By the time I’d translated this, US player Lisa Raymond had lost the point, mental intensity notwithstanding.

Minutes later for no apparent reason Geoff announced brightly, “coochindard looking very happy”, while the screen showed a pair of dour, middle-aged men sporting the sort of poker faces that suggested one of them had farted and was refusing to own up. Exactly who was Dutch player Michaella Krajicek’s coach and who was her father seemed inconsequential by this stage.

The ABC’s coverage of the Hoppy had everything you could wish for -- tangential observations, a smattering of tennis and astonishing outfits (this last was provided by Krajicek rather than the commentary team). She sported a pale, cobalt pantsuit so retro it seemed that earlier in the day she had hurriedly dressed in a pitch black room, relying solely on a wardrobe selected by Shaggy or Thelma, or possibly even Scooby.

Earlier during the week on WIN, Ricky Ponting was grinding out a double century, breaking batting records and steering Australia to an unlikely win over the Proteas. Up in the commentary box Tony Greig was grinding out diphthongs, Mark Taylor was proving why he’s the scintillating public face of Fujitsu air-conditioners and Richie Benaud quietly continued a conversation he’s been conducting with the Australian public for over 40 years. Benaud’s languid commentary had the added bonus of being intelligible.

Southern Cross responded by running some old Elvis flicks, thus posing the intriguing philosophical question -- which are the more irritating -- cricket tragics or Elvis fans? Quality is rarely an issue when dealing with the King’s oeuvre so pinpointing which movie sucked the most is difficult (particularly since I only saw the last few minutes of Paradise Hawaiian Style).

Mind you, the image of Elvis warbling across a sea of swaying, grass-skirted Hawaiians, while the following acknowledgement appeared: "Our gratitude to the peoples of the Pacific at the Polynesian Cultural Center, Laie, Oahu, Hawaii" did make an impression, particularly as the PCC was (and still is) a theme park operated by the Mormons.

Four and a half hours later and with four decades separating the production dates, RAN (SBS), navigated through slightly more complex ethnographic waters with aplomb. In terms of current Australian television drama, it contained a number of surprises.

Firstly, RAN appears to have been written by adults for an adult audience (and if you don’t think this is unusual I can only suggest you sit through an entire episode of McLeod's Daughters). Secondly, while set within an indigenous community in the Torres Strait, it managed to avoid the two fall back positions television often resorts to in this situation – either a gushy earnestness that kills real interest or convenient stereotypes, usually summed up by a grizzled old hand musing on the locals Weltanschauung via gimcrack mysticism.

Susie Porter, as remote area nurse Helen Tremain, injected the right mix of practicality, bedraggled patience and a wary curiosity -- a somewhat less vinegary version of Judy Davis. To begin with the script ran a little florid -- “This is my place: a teardrop of sand floating in Australia’s Coral Sea,” says Tremain in the opening internal monologue. “No one knows where it is and no one comes looking.”

But small, gritty pearls of realism steadied the ship -- cheeky little kids welcoming Tremain home by asking she was wearing any underpants -- the fey Myrtle refusing a foster mum for her unborn baby on the grounds she can’t sing a lullaby, “She sounds like a cat rooting.”

Another unexpected bonus was the excellent supporting cast combining professionals with local people from a variety of backgrounds. For example Louisa Taylor, who plays Myrtle, is a project officer on Thursday Island while Luke Carroll (Paul Gaibui) is perhaps best known for his recent work in The Alice.

RAN also introduces Australians to a part of their country most have never seen before and a people many of us are only aware of through the census form. For all this, it wore its responsibility lightly with veteran producer Penny Chapman (Brides of Christ, The Leaving of Liverpool, Blue Murder) concentrating on believable characters to hook in viewers.

As to the reason of featuring a nurse in the lead role -- instead of the usual doctor, Chapman sums it up succinctly: “Doctors stitch and bandage and then walk away. Nurses stay. Especially remote area nurses who devote their lives 24 hours a day to the community they work in and who front the crises on their own. No wonder they're the most respected people in our country.”

As long as they don’t ask for a wage rise in recognition of this service. Little Mr Square Eyes can only wonder if Premier Lennon will be tuning in to RAN. Speaking of appalling, moustachioed reactionaries, Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby (ABC) continues its scorched earth approach to comedy and the New Zealand education system.

Like RAN, Gormsby is another ground breaker -- the first Kiwi comedy to be shown on Australian free-to-air television -- although in comparison, its take on race relations and cross-cultural sensitivity makes Paradise Hawaiian Style look as though it was it was penned by Claude Levi-Strauss.

The show is achingly funny for reasons that must simply be filed under ‘wrong’ -- in the first episode a student does a chalkboard cartoon accompanied by the legend “Gormsby takes it up the arse”. To track down the guilty party Gormsby threatens a shy, clearly innocent pupil with an unusual punishment, or, as one of his classmates reports to the principal, “Mr Gormsby is trying to bum Bastabus!” When the true culprit is revealed the weeping, traumatised boy is gently sent on his way with, “Sit down, Bastabus. I wasn't going to roger you. This isn't a Catholic school.”

Thinking about it, Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby has something for everyone -- the left will see it as more evidence of a resurgent, culturally insensitive right (with all the attendant opportunities to whinge about it that this entails), while the right will enjoy its “defiantly politically incorrect stance, skewering the foibles of social engineering” (or some shit like that, but just how they’ll link this to the “majesty of the free market”, as they always do, is anyone’s guess).

The rest of us will have to be content with the news that a second series of the program is currently being shot in New Zealand. The one place it's unlikely Gormsby will lose his 'min-tell in-tent-city'.

Friday, January 06, 2006

WIN Television knows news (and apparently what you want too)

Originally, I intended to explore the news that Network Nine’s resident lounge lizard David Reyne had made a clean getaway and was headed to ten to replace Bert Newton, who recently moved to Nine for unspecified duties… (and when I say “explore the news” what I actually mean is shoehorn in even more bad puns involving the words getaway and Reyne).

All this changed when a brief glance at Thursday’s Mercury revealed WIN Television is scuttling its local 6pm news bulletin. The 30-minute local news service is being scrapped in favour of a composite bulletin of local, national and international news. The Mercury reported:
The station's network news director Allen Clark said the changes were in response to what viewers were saying.......
He said it appeared Tasmanians were saying half an hour of local news followed by half an hour of national and international news and then half an hour of current affairs was too much.
Apart from the non sequitur (they’re counting A Current Affair as — well… how to put this delicately — a current affairs program) my first thought was why not just lose ACA and continue with the two bulletins or better yet combine them and trim a little of the padding such as repeating the weather.

So Little Mr Square Eyes emailed Allen Clark a couple of questions and to my surprise and his credit, Clark answered promptly:
LMSE
You're quoted in the Mercury story as saying: "It's quite clear to us there isn't in Tasmania a market or expectation for an hour and a half of news and current affairs.” Given this is the case couldn't WIN drop A Current Affair from its schedule rather than the local news bulletin? If not what are the reasons that this is not a viable alternative?

AC
The ratings figures clearly demonstrate that an hour and a half of news and current affairs isn't what Tasmanians want. You prefer a half hour bulletin of State, national and international news followed by half an hour of current affairs, which is what SX and ABC both provide, and we're recognising that preference.
Fair enough, rightly or wrongly commercial television lives and breathes ratings. As to the validity of the rest of the argument, Little Mr Square Eyes recalls as a beardless brat he would often try and pressure his long-suffering mother into agreeing to some particularly stupid activity by whining but all the other kids are doing it. And, as always, Mum would deadpan back, if they stuck their hands in a fire I suppose you’d do it too.
LMSE
From what I understand, in the other states, WIN runs a local news bulletin followed by a feed of nine's network news from the relevant cap city. Will these other WIN stations also eventually start running a composite service or is this move restricted to Tasmania?

AC
The format change is driven by WIN Television's Tasmanian management to meet identified Tasmanian needs so no to your first point, yes to the second.
This was interesting because the Mercury story didn’t specifically mention the changes were instigated by WIN Tasmania management. After paraphrasing state manager Greg Rayment at the start of the article, Clark was quoted a number of times, which gave me impression the orders were coming direct from WIN’s Wollongong death star.
LMSE
Finally, you're quoted in the Mercury as saying: "We're confident we'll be able to provide a very much stronger and better service by putting all our resources into one bulletin." Given that WIN is significantly reducing the amount of airtime that can be devoted to local news (and staff levels) is it possible for WIN Tasmania to provide a better service? And if so in what ways?

AC
Your question is predicated on the assumption that better equals more; clearly the Tasmanian TV audience doesn't agree. The new format is better and stronger because it satisfies Tasmanians' preference for an hour of news and current affairs.
I thought the question was predicated on the idea that a better news service isn’t usually delivered by cutting available airtime. The idea something is improved because it gives folk what they want can only be taken so far. Keep in mind high-powered rifles, crack cocaine and the Black Eyed Peas are all very desirable to some people but that doesn’t make them better.

At this point, I emailed Allen with a supplementary question. Had WIN commissioned any market research, apart from ratings figures, that had sparked these changes? He rang back and, alluding to commercial in confidence matters, declined to comment further.

Naturally, I assumed this meant they hadn’t. For what it’s worth Little Mister Square Eyes believes that a dedicated local news service is important – as does the WIN Television website:
“Australia's largest regional broadcaster produces 21 half-hour local news bulletins across regional Australia… WIN believes local news is the cornerstone of being a part of the communities the WIN Network broadcasts to…..it is an important part of our strategy to ensure that our viewers receive the most comprehensive local news picture every weeknight."
Unless, it seems, the ratings aren’t healthy enough. Somebody should change that to "20 half-hour local news bulletins".

Footnote (20/01/06). Since writing this column WIN Television have altered their website and there is now no mention of a commitment to local news.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Where's Buffy?

In their usual slap dash fashion, Southern Cross appears to repeating early episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Little Mr Square Eyes was going to include details of when it was being broadcast but TPTB at Southern Cross have apparently decided that the Tasmanian program schedule isn’t important enough to be included with the other states on its website.

It’s difficult to accurately describe the erratic nature of Southern Cross Tasmania’s programming style**. Suffice to say, even armed with an up-to-date, dead tree television guide, surfing over to SX usually means at least one surprise (nasty or otherwise).

Haphazard scheduling aside, the return of Buffy gives me the chance to point out an amusing article on the future of TV by the program’s creator, Joss Whedon. Below are snippets. For the whole thing point your browser here.
Many people have asked me, "Joss, what is the future of television? What will we watch? And how will we watch it? Surely you must know, for you are wise, and slender."

The networks will all be creating exciting, innovative new spin-offs of today's shows. Approximately 67 percent of all television will be CSI-based….

… we'll see advances in technology….. But don't listen to the talk about having shows beamed directly into your brain. That's science-fiction nonsense. Shows will be stored in the pancreas and will enter the brain through the bloodstream after being downloaded into your iHole.

And what of me? My short-lived series Firefly was the basis for the epic action film Serenity (now available on DVD! I have little or no shame) … the future will see even more incarnations of this visionary work…. I promise it'll be as heartwarming and exciting as the original Serenity, now available on DVD. (Explain again this thing you call shame....)
Whedon apparently spent some of his formative years in the UK, which explains the little cross-cultural flourishes both Buffy and Angel exhibited. He’s also one of the few people to take a middling film and spin it into a great TV series — the Buffy movie was released in 1992 and featured Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, Luke Perry, Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman), Hilary Swank and David Arquette.

As he alludes to in the article, when he attempted a reverse ferret with Firefly/Serenity the manoeuvre was less successful. Nevertheless, Whedon makes highly entertaining television so more power to his arm


**Although if I did, the description would probably contain the phrase “the visual equivalent of coitus interruptus".

Monday, January 02, 2006

New Year Televisuals

Forgoing the attractions of the Hobart CBD on new year’s eve (drunken 20 to 30-somethings, soggy fireworks displays plus the usual gouge-orama hosted by local restaurants) and keenly aware of the need for blogging material, Little Mr Square Eyes shipped in quantities of seafood, champagne and those tiny, irresistible, marinated Huon Valley mushrooms and settled down for a night of what the old conti announcers used to call “viewing pleasure”.

And really, is there anything more sad arse than seeing in the New Year via the flickering blue glow of the telly? (well yes, that would be writing about it the following day but I digress). Various kitchen duties, including the frenzied preparation of a beurre blanc sauce meant the set wasn’t switched on until Elton was well into his second wig change for Elton John at Radio City (7:30pm ABC).

Pudgy, slightly puffy but ever the old pro, Reg — sporting an outfit so bright it threatened to interfere with microwave signal transmission — banged out his back catalogue, ably supported by a symphony orchestra and gospel choir. The highlight was Tiny Dancer and the opportunity it afforded to maliciously substitute lyrics:
Hold me closer, Tony Danza,
Judith Light never cut it any way…

Pretty eyed, pirate smile, you'll marry a music man
‘lyssa-Milano, you must have seen her, nude shots on the sand…
Over on WIN (the Nine Network regional affiliate) Lorelai and Rory were engaging in the sort of relentlessly perky banter that helps make the Gilmore Girls one of the most annoying programs of the last decade. This theme continued when Richard Wilkins popped up to host the first part of Nine’s New Year’s Eve 2005. Dick, looking more like Dorian Gray as the new century progresses, was assisted by a trio of network personalities so lacking in talent that Little Mr Square Eyes started searching the crowd shots to see if Kerry Anne Kennerley was going to put in an appearance.

A quick jump to Southern Cross (which in Tasmania broadcasts a weird mix of network Seven and Ten programs) plunged you into two hours of American national security wish fulfilment with NCIS (the swabbie/jarhead version of CSI) and Numb3rs (the Poindexter/ Professor Julius Sumner Miller version of CSI). After speculating on just how down on his luck Judd Hirsch must have been to appear in Numb3rs and singing another verse of “Hold me closer, Tony Danza” in honour of the Taxi connection it was back to Aunty for Long Way To The Top: Live in Concert.

The original LWTTT documentary series was a long overdue nod to local rockers and their determination to make music, score drugs and ensure that even someone as delusional and lumpen as Jim Keays could pull. Whether it was then such a good idea to get all the old belters together, load up the band bus with walking frames and oxygen cylinders and set off on a national concert tour is debatable.

Little Mr Square Eyes is probably just a bee’s dick outside the show's perquisite demographic and thus the emotional circumstances that allowed some members of the concert audience to applaud wildly at the sight of elderly, former rock stars strutting onto stage in leather pants. Even some of the acts that really had little to prove (and yes we’re talking about you, Brian Cadd) were infected by stage-light-swine-flu and butchered their own material with hammy, over the top performances (admittedly, Cadd was egged on by renowned serial camera hog Glenn Shorrock).

In between acts, and to soothe away any irritation, the repeat of Inspector Rex – The Early Days (9:00pm SBS) got a quick once over. You either get Rex’s shaggy charm or you don’t. Rice paper thin plots and acting so wooden you can almost see the grain are all part of the cheesy fun, and at least Rex doesn’t do reunion tours.

Back on Southern Cross, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo – A Salute to Australia (10:40pm), squealed into action. Shot in February 2005, this repeat was a clear indication from Southern Cross that when it comes to asking inane questions, keeping an eye on the big hand of the New Year's clock and remaining oddly unwrinkled around the eyes and mouth, Richard Wilkins could not be bested.

Little Mr Square Eyes’ long suffering co-viewer revealed the fake Edinburgh Castle used as the setting for the Sydney performance took 40 people four months to construct. Or was it four people 40 months?

The arithmetic seemed as impenetrable as the logic behind the notion that after transporting a 55-year military nostalgia-fest to the other side of the planet, it must have exactly the same friggin’ backdrop as all the others. Tony Squires and Anna Coren co-hosted this two and a half hour kilty knees-up, with Squires doing his usual boy-oh-boy patter.

Only a slight bugging of his eyes at crucial stages betrayed the inner struggle between Squires' mind and mouth. At one point, breezily introducing a contingent of Scandinavian cadets (The Norwegian Blues? Bjork Warriors?) the veil lifted and we got a glimpse of a man whose entire higher brain functions were on hold and silently screaming the question, “What the fuck are we doing here?”

Meanwhile Anna — another of those talented creatures who can look good, smile at the camera and read an autocue, which the television industry seems to unearth regularly — demonstrated all three of her skills, at one stage, simultaneously.

Towards the end (of my patience, not the show) the CEO or perhaps OIC of the Tattoo appeared and drawled something about tradition, duty and pride, while in the background the sound of tartan bladders being prodded and pipes being fondled gathered strength ominously. A quick stab of a button and a mumbled “good luck champ” under my breath for Tony Squires took us back to WIN.

Richard Wilkins, possibly in preparation for the countdown, did a visual gag to indicate Leo Sayer is very, very short, not as good looking as Richard, yet inexplicably more famous. The New Year was almost here but would anything change? Somehow it didn't seem likely