Dear major television scholar who appeared at the very top of my Facebook feed this morning, where I could not avoid you (and I think you know who you are): sticking the word “spoiler” immediately before a most appalling revelation about that episode I didn’t have the chance to watch last night does not absolve you of that revelation’s appallingness.

I’m not generally one to get all up in arms about spoilers, but this one was particularly egregious. Is it reasonable to ask that in the interest of general politesse, you tuck your spoilers below the fold for at least the first 24 hours, especially when they’re being pushed my way, rather than me seeking them out?

In practical terms, for FB, that would mean warning me in the main post and then sticking the spoiler in a comment. This would give me a second to make the choice of whether to continue or not. It’s just not that hard.

Sports Night

I started rewatching Sports Night on Netflix this week, and am finding myself amazed, first, at how well the show has held up, not to mention how well Josh Charles and Peter Krause have held up thirteen years later.

But beyond that, and far more importantly: I’m amazed that I’d managed to completely forget the absolutely horrid laugh track.

Pretty funny to watch an underappreciated show about an underappreciated show being made for a tone-deaf network that aired on a tone-deaf network.

Gee, Time Warner, Thanks for Asking

I’ve just gotten the following email message from my friends at Time Warner Cable:

We’ve got a hard choice…

Roll Over or Get Tough?

No one likes paying more. You don’t. We don’t.

Yet, every time our contracts with TV program providers come up for renewal, that’s what we face.

Price increases. Big ones. Up to 300% more.

Sometimes we can avoid passing them on to you. Sometimes we can’t. Sometimes, a network will threaten to take your shows away if we don’t roll over.

Whenever that’s happened in the past, we’d make the best deal we could and hope that would be the end of it. But it never was. So no more.

The networks shouldn’t be in the driver’s seat on what you watch and how much you pay. You’re our customers, so help us decide what to do.

Let us know if you want us to Roll Over or Get Tough.

We’re just one company, but there are millions of you.

Together, we just might be able to make a difference in what America pays for its favorite entertainment.

So, in effect, you’re using the power of crowdsourcing to find out whether your customers would prefer to pay the same amount for less entertainment, or to pay more for the same amount. By intimating that we all need to form a united front to stick it to the network Man.

One might also consider that the same united front could conceivably used to tell one’s cable provider where they can stick not only their bogus referendum but also their ridiculously overpriced service.

We may be your customers, but if you think you’re in the driver’s seat on what we watch and how much we pay, you might consider that piece of mail I got last week telling me that Fios is coming to my neighborhood.

Is all I’m saying.

RIP, Walter Cronkite

One of the best things I’ve been asked to do at Pomona College so far was getting to introduce Walter Cronkite before his commencement address a few years ago. He was extraordinarily kind and gentle when I met him, beginning to slow down a bit perhaps, but still brave enough to take on the Bush administration in a speech that caused at least a couple of irate parents to storm out of the ceremony. This was the introduction I gave him then; I still think every bit of it (and then some) was deserved.


President Oxtoby, friends, colleagues, and graduating seniors:

I want to begin today with two admittedly polemical statements: first, that the institution most singularly influential in the history of the late-twentieth century United States is television, and second, that the individual most singularly influential in the history of that medium is Walter Cronkite.

Mr. Cronkite began his career in journalism as a campus correspondent at The Houston Post during high school and his freshman year at the University of Texas. He also worked as a sports announcer for a local radio station in Oklahoma City and joined the United Press in 1937. Mr. Cronkite became a correspondent to CBS News in July 1950, and became the anchor of the CBS Evening News on April 16, 1962. When, on March 6, 1981, he stepped down as anchorman and managing editor after nearly 19 years in that role, Mr. Cronkite became a Special Correspondent for CBS News, which he remains to this day.

What that listing of dates and jobs doesn’t tell you, however, is what Mr. Cronkite accomplished during his distinguished career on-screen: He brought an exacting sense of professional standards to broadcast journalism, insisting that reporting be “fast, accurate, and unbiased.” That said, he was also unafraid to add an editorial perspective when necessary, to take a principled position and stand by it. As such, Mr. Cronkite is thought of by many today as the man who brought an end to the Vietnam War. On February 27, 1968, CBS aired a special broadcast, “Report from Vietnam by Walter Cronkite,” at the close of which he added the following statement:

“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion… it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out, then, will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” As legend has it, President Johnson, who was watching the broadcast, then turned off his set and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

Mr. Cronkite could always be counted upon to speak for middle America; in 1972, a national poll was conducted in which voters were questioned about their levels of trust for various politicians (including Nixon, McGovern, and “the average senator”). Walter Cronkite, the write-in candidate, bested them all, and came thereafter to be known as “the most trusted man in America.”

Mr. Cronkite has received innumerable other awards and honors, from his peers in the fields of journalism and broadcasting, from universities and colleges, from national organizations. But perhaps no other honor is quite so telling as this: so synonymous with broadcast journalism has Mr. Cronkite become world-wide, that he has entered two languages as a common noun; in both Sweden and Holland, news anchors are known as “cronkiters.”

Mr. President, on behalf of the Board of Trustees and the Faculty of Pomona College, it is my great pleasure to present to you Walter Cronkite, for the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

Insert Nippular Pun of Your Choosing Here

One wonders whether the final outcome (please god) of this debacle will get anything like the coverage (so to speak) that its origin did: the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has overturned the fine of $550,000 levied by the FCC against CBS after Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction during the 2004 Super Bowl.

There are multiple mitigations of this judgment: CBS, of course, already paid the fine, and apologized profusely. And goodness knows that the amount they’ve paid their lawyers to handle this over the last three and a half years way outstrips the fine itself.

But here’s to the Third Circuit, for pointing out the obvious: that the FCC had “arbitrarily and capriciously departed from its prior policy” of not punishing accidental, unplanned, brief, and otherwise stupidly trivial violations of “standards.”

And let this be only the first of the insanely stupid things that have happened in the U.S. since January 2001 to be undone.

The Descent

I’ve been writing up a storm in whatever stolen moments I can get, and working like a fiend at every other hour of the day, with the exceptions of the ones where I sleep (not enough, and not terribly well) and the ones where I watch season 5 of The Wire, which has completely and totally broken my heart this season by being so devastatingly good that I cannot bear the knowledge that I’ve only got one more new episode to watch ever, and In Treatment, which I began watching out of mild formal curiosity (how long can a narrative series that’s on five nights a week hold up?) but have gotten quite caught up in.

Aside from those bits of narrative pleasure, it’s sheer madness: preparing for class, producing endless amounts of administrative paperwork, responding to ridiculous numbers of email messages. And, not least, event planning.

On the one hand, I hate event planning; I don’t like the kind of organization that it requires of me, I don’t like being responsible for a bunch of details that I honestly don’t care about, and I really, really hate having to wrangle people who temperamentally resist wrangling.

On the other hand, this week’s events — Thursday, the English department’s big annual lecture; Friday, a gala celebration for the Media Studies program, its alumni, and its friends; Saturday, a day-long symposium thinking about the shifts and transitions in media production and consumption being produced by the digital — promise to be amazing.

I intend to sleep all day on Sunday, if I can possibly get away with it. I’ll hope to have something new to say thereafter.


I’m finally acknowledging this morning that the holidays are over, that there are two weeks left before classes start, and that if I’m going to get anything done, now’s the moment. I’m hoping to return to some regular writing here in this new year, and so am going to begin with a few relatively random bullets, just trying to capture some of what I’ve been pondering.

Originally uploaded by KF
  • The big-ass storm that pounded the west coast seems finally to have passed. The radar pictures I watched much of the weekend were quite dramatic — rain, at one point last night, stretching solidly from Palm Springs to the east to the coast, and from southern Orange County to well north of San Luis Obispo. Storms of that size are like a homecoming of a sort — one of a few things that I really miss from Louisiana — but they’re unusual enough to be a bit of a pain here: flooded streets, crap drivers, and a general creeping damp cold that my heating system can’t seem to overcome. On the upside, however, is that the storm has left us with enough snow that the desperation of this year’s drought might be a bit ameliorated.
  • The first episode of season 5 of The Wire already has me hooked, but that was pretty much a foregone conclusion: combine my absolute adoration for the show’s narrative strategies, its complex web of characters, and its focus on the systemic obstacles to really fixing serious social problems with the fact that, this year, the media provides the primary system in question, and I’m one hundred and four percent sold.
  • I’m back to work on some MediaCommons projects, which I hope I’ll have more to show for, soon.
  • I’m also attempting to move forward with my own writing projects, but as usual, they’re getting short shrift. I keep saying that I want to find ways to integrate that writing with posting here, and I keep not following through. I’m determined to get some blog mileage out of the research I’m doing right now, though, and some project mileage out of the blog, too. I’d call it a new year’s resolution if I really believed in those.

More from the homefront, soon.

It Goes On and On and

I suddenly find myself with about a dozen things I’d like to write about, which is a remarkable change from the blankness that I’ve experienced when pondering the blog. At least a couple of these things I’m quite behind the curve on, given our recent preparations for travel, and our travel, and our adjustments to travel, but I’m operating in the spirit of better late than never today, which seems only appropriate to my pitifully jet-lagged state.

So, the first of those things: the finale of The Sopranos. Folks have weighed in on this everywhere (so everywhere, in fact, that I’m not going to bother linking), but I found the episode’s ending compelling enough that I want, however belatedly and repetitively, to record my reaction to it. For propriety’s sake, I’ll note that one should stop reading now if one is among the three people left in the country who don’t know how the episode ended.

I understand that some folks were really perturbed by what seems like the series’s non-ending — the sudden cut to black in the midst of not very much happening. Not least of these, my mother; my phone rang four-point-three seconds after the credits started rolling, and when I answered, all she said was “I don’t get it.” The good news is that we’d watched the east coast feed, rather than waiting for the west coast, so I could give her my sense of what had just happened, at least as it was then developing.

That sense is this: the scene is filled with a very intentionally constructed and uncertainly located though not in the least vague sense of menace, a menace which emanates from some expected places, like the hinky guy at the counter who keeps looking at Tony over his shoulder and the fairly tough-looking guys apparently scouting the jukebox in one of the last shots, but also from some unexpected places: the man sitting with a table full of Cub Scouts; Meadow’s repeated inability to parallel park. The scene pays just a bit too much attention to the small details of what’s going on around Tony, encouraging us to begin guessing what’s going to happen: the hinky guy at the counter is going into the men’s room to get a gun hidden there, à la Godfather, or he’s just given a signal to the toughs at the jukebox, who are going to open fire; the Cub Scouts are going to get caught in the bullets’ path; Meadow is going to be a horrified late witness to the scene that’s just unfolded. Or, perhaps, Meadow is going to get caught in the crossfire, and the Cub Scouts are going to be horrified onlookers.

Or perhaps none of that. As Tony and Bobby Baccala discussed earlier in the season, probably you don’t even hear it when it happens, and so it’s very likely that the cut to black is that end: the shots that Tony never sees coming. But on the other hand, perhaps what’s after the black isn’t carnage, but just more of the same, and this last scene is just allowing the viewers to enter into the world that Tony will, as long as he lives, continue to inhabit: a world filled with unlocalizable menace, in which every moment could well be the last.

For both of those reasons — that you don’t hear the bullet that gets you, but that if you think it’s coming, you hear it everywhere — the only way that the series could conceivably end was simply to end, precisely because, as Steve Perry reminded us, “the movie never ends; it goes on and on and on and on.” And that, I’ll confess to thinking, was a brilliant choice, and evidence of the show’s impact: “Don’t Stop Believin'” finds itself, 26 years later, at number 22 on iTunes.

The world’s going to be a bit different without The Sopranos, but on the other hand, the world’s radically different for their having existed. There could have been no Six Feet Under, no Deadwood, no The Wire, no The Tudors — or, for that matter, no turn toward complexity in network television, either — without The Sopranos leading the way. It’s an appropriate end, I think, for the series not to end, but rather to go on in imagination and discussion and argument. Not a big fuck-you to the fans, as some have accused David Chase of delivering, but one last thing worth thinking about.

It’s Not TV

Last night, I have to say, was a heck of a night of television — the second-to-last episode of The Sopranos (EVER, as the trailer for next’s week’s episode informed us, in case we hadn’t been paying attention), followed by the second-to-last episode of the first season of The Tudors. The two episodes make for an interesting pairing; one could imagine Melfi’s dawning awareness of the manipulative uses of talk therapy made by the sociopath just as easily coming from Thomas More, with the substitution of piety for psychoanalysis.

R. and I just started watching The Tudors this last week, however, and went on a fairly minor binge, watching the re-airings of season one’s first eight episodes over the course of the week, leading up to last night’s episode nine. There are some fairly significant tinkerings with the history involved in the series, not least some key deaths that are shifted around for narrative effect. Henry Fitzroy, for instance, Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, died when he was 17, but the series kills him off as a toddler. I get the dramatic impact there: just at the point at which Henry is rolling out his “God is punishing me for having married my brother’s wife” argument, his one acknowledged son dies, a harbinger of the plague that follows. But others of the changes are less easily understood. The series’s Margaret Tudor, for instance, dies of consumption in 1533ish (after having killed her first husband, the king of Portugal, and remarried Charles Brandon, the first duke of Somerset) — when, in fact, it was Mary Tudor who married Somerset and died in 1533; Margaret Tudor married James IV of Scotland and bore a line of Stuarts, living until 1541. (So far as I know, none of the Tudors killed the king of Portugal, though I could well be wrong, and wouldn’t be a bit surprised.) Why substitute Margaret for Mary here? Did the producers just like the name better?

Such changes to the historical narrative, however, are relatively superficial; the series strikes me as a compelling reimagining of the period, if through a somewhat presentist lens. That, The Tudors shares less with The Sopranos than with Deadwood, with which series I’d also be willing to swear The Tudors also shares the producers of its opening titles, as well as the composers of its title music, though I haven’t been able to find any confirmation of that hunch.