Jon Reed Goes Off On... March 2004
Thursday, March, 25 2004
CBS on the clock: another timeout, another commercial
March Madness is a great time of year for the big-time sports fan. But there are a few other problems besides Billy Packer, who's already been covered in this blog. Most of the glaring issues come back to CBS Sports, the NCAA broadcasting partner. Can you imagine if ABC got its hands on the tournament? Believe it: you'd be able to catch more early round action on ESPN and ESPN2, having your choice of nail-biters instead of having to put up with Greg Gumbel, Master of Ceremonies, juggling us through multiple simultaneous games. Every year, there are early round coverage problems that ABC would be able to handle so much better. But since we're stuck with CBS for now, let's hammer away at the sacred law of CBS coverage: that a basketball timeout requires a commercial. NBC used to really nail this on their NBA coverage, and the new NBA sponsor, ABC, has been pretty decent as well. What NBC used to do in the late game stages: the first couple of timeouts would go to commercial. But after the third timeout within the same sixty second interval, NBC would stay with the game instead of ramming commercials down the viewer's throats. Cutting away from a game takes away from the buildup of late-game tension. When you stay with the game, the analysts can discuss late game strategy and set up the options for the final plays. Yes, I would much rather hear Billy Packer blather along than see some paid shill jumping for joy over Viagra or Microsoft Office. Hearing the roar of the crowd is so much better than switching away to a heavy-rotation crabgrass commercial. If CBS cared as much about the viewer as they did about kissing their sponsors' asses, they could meet the needs of both groups. Sure, cut away to some commercials. But after two or three commercials in a row, show some class and stay with the game. And in this high-tech age, can't CBS do any better than bringing a viewer back from a commercial, switching to Gumbel, switching the viewer to another game, and immediately sending us to that game's commercial? "OK, folks, we know you've been watching some commercials. But now we're going to switch you over for some commercials you might have missed." Wouldn't it be better to switch the viewer back to the other game at that point? I'd rather watch the second-best game (which I'd been watching all afternoon anyhow) than watch the commercial break of the best game. Heck, switch us back and forth several times if you need to. Just get your fucking shit together.
Stuart Scott, grab your playbook, coach wants to see you in the locker room
So "Dream Job" is shaping up a little better than average reality fare. But there are problems. The good news first: despite its smack-talk marketing, the show has actually eased up on the contestants. As per my previous "Dream Job" blog entry, that's as it should be. But this show would have been a LOT more watchable if the grand prize was not to win a SportsCenter anchor job, but to get Stuart Scott's job. Thus the winner of "Dream Job" would turn to Stuart Scott and say, "Stuart, grab your playbook, coach wants to see you in the locker room" - the same stupid phrase that Stuart has uttered to booted contestants on most editions of "Dream Job." There are so many things wrong with Stuart Scott. I hate the player AND I hate his game. I'm sure there was a time when his hip-hop play-by-play was cutting edge, but the guy has crusted over. Instead of impressing us with new raps, he churns out the same old banal catch phrases. But Stuart Scott the hack anchor is ten times preferable to Stuart Scott the stuffed shirt reality t.v. host. Of course, the real problem may be the schlock that ESPN is asking him to read. One thing I'd like to clarify with Stuart and ESPN: "America" is not watching "Dream Job." A small subsection of ESPN viewers and the friends and families of the participants are watching. "America" is not voting for the contestants. A small online subsection of that smaller viewing subsection is voting. America has better things to do than tune in to "Dream Job." So Stuart, when you ask ESPN viewers to vote at the end of the show, don't call them "America" - they might get confused and show up to work on Monday thinking their co-workers were breathlessly watching the latest developments. I'm guessing that the water cooler gets pretty lonely when the subject of "Dream Job" comes up. Stuart, grab your playbook, America wants to see you in the locker room.
Thursday, March, 18 2004
Billy Packer, jackass
Those who argue college basketball over pro always point to March Madness, and I always point to Billy Packer. If you're going to make your case, you must first account for this first class, no-class idiot. Some NBA analysts are better than others, but is there an equivalent to Billy Packer in the NBA? Someone who has a stranglehold on how games are analyzed and interpreted? Someone who feels as if he is as important to the game as the game itself? For Exhibit 10,232 in the case against Billy Packer, look no further than the recent St. Joe's/Phil Martelli debacle. For anyone who missed, Billy Packer took up major airtime on CBS's "Selection Sunday" show to go off on St. Joe's lack of qualifications as a number one seed. I happen to see his point, but Packer would not get off his unbelievably high horse. He goaded coach Phil Martelli into an escalating war of words, all of which was irrelevant, due to a highly revealing live interview which revealed a shocking bit of news: Oklahoma State's late Sunday conference tournament victory was not taken into account in the seeding because of the pressure to get the seeding done in time for the princess of March Madness, CBS television. Therefore, the reason St. Joe's got a number one seed in the first place was almost certainly because of Billy Packer's own network's desire for a lucrative "Selection Sunday" broadcast.
Despite the obvious, Packer held firm. Packer scales heights of hypocrisy on a regular basis, but this was a high peak even for him. Of course, Billy Packer would never concede a moment of his precious airtime to anyone, so in the years to come, he will continue to deride undeserving number one seeds that were, in fact, partially attributable to his own network's policies. But he'll never speak out about the hands that feed him. He'd much rather pick on small, gutsy college programs than take on the large corporate behemoth that pays his parking tickets. And don't get me started on Packer's lame-brained game analysis. Here's how a typical Billy Packer game goes: early on, Packer seizes upon a few "keys to the game" and hammers them home, using the game as an opportunity to flaunt his basketball savvy, ignoring all signs that go against his analysis. Because he's reluctant to abandon his pre-formed game template, the casual viewer spots the shift in the game faster than Packer does. Packer seems to think that the real reason for the NCAA tournament is for us to count the number of times he utters bland insider phrases like high post... "he's got to work the high post if he wants to win/he's gone away from the high post/he's got to get back to the high post-low post game/he missed a chance to dump it into the high post...." Thanks Billy. I love college basketball, but let's not kid ourselves, it's just as flawed as the NBA. March Madness has its share of aggravations, and one of them rhymes with hacker.
Monday, March, 15 2004
ESPN's "Dream Job": A nightmare for contestants
I'm going to pick on ESPN a lot in this blog, but ESPN deserves its props for being an innovator. Readers should keep in mind that I don't take Fox's "Best Damn Sport Show" to task because that show is completely beyond redemption. A celebrity-fawning, Sharpie-signing celebration of the cult of amoral personality, "The Best Damn Sports Show" is a pretty good case study for everything that is wrong with sports today. So now that we know how I feel about that, we'll return to ESPN and the "Dream Job" reality show. I've been watching each episode with car-wreck fascination, and it's clear that ESPN is making up reality television as they go. Watching a few episodes of "Survivor," or even "Fear Factor" or "Temptation Island," would have been a good idea for the ESPN production staff. It's going to take multiple blog entries to take a full survey of this weekly wreck, but let's start by citing the utter lack of class by which ESPN treats the contestants whose only crime was a passionate desire to work for ESPN. I've been trying to figure out why it's so painful to watch people get criticized and get kicked off this show, versus other reality programs, and I finally figured it out: it's because ESPN "Dream Job" participants are not screwing each other over and behaving badly; they're not no-talent wannabes who just want to be famous - they're just people who are working their asses off solely for the opportunity to be a SportsCenter anchor.
Now, I've said before that this is hardly the most noble occupation to aspire to, but so be it. These folks love sports. There's not massive pile of cash at the end of the rainbow, and there's lots of work ahead even for the contest winner. The show's producers should have realized this distinction and anticipated the desire of the viewer and the contestant for a better sense of closure after being "voted off." ESPN pats itself on the back because those who get voted off get to do a highlight on SportsCenter after being kicked out, but in reality, it's beyond awkward to watch these seriously deflated folks swallow their pride and run through their highlights one more time for eternity. Much better would be to dedicate a full SportsCenter segment after each show where the "booted" contestants had the chance to talk about what the experience has meant to them and meet with an ESPN executive to get advice on where they should put their career aspirations next. Many of these contestants, while not suitable for SportsCenter anchor, have potential for other careers in sports. And some just need more time to perfect their moves. A thoughtful segment that allowed the viewers a chance to see these people recover some pride and get some helpful direction would really take the edge off the cruelty of the current show. Some of the judges take this into account, but overall, it's hard to watch a show that is so badly produced and puts people who are working hard for their first break at the mercy of a sour jerk like Al Jaffe, who couldn't do a highlight to save his life. Supposedly Al's Simon Cowell-like comments are what give this show an edge, but I think it's offensive and I don't care if it's Al's chance to get revenge for all the times he was picked last for dodge ball. "Dream Job" has too many problems for one blog entry, but that's a start.
Tuesday, March, 02 2004
Bob Dylan, father of the modern song whore
Bob Dylan has received his fair share of good press in recent years, and deservedly so. By all accounts, his recent tours have been outstanding. It seems Bob has finally found a way to play the songs his fans want to hear, but in a way that does not make him feel like a circus monkey. Experimental (but no longer deliberately esoteric) arrangements of old chestnuts, combined with vigorous new material, has made Bob's tours seem relevant again. He's come a long way from the caricature of himself he seemed to be when I last saw him live in the early '90s at UMass, where he seemed on the verge of just falling off the stage. Bob has reached an age where the "elder statesman" role really seems to suit him, and judging from his recent recordings, it looks like he's setting himself up for a great Johnny Cash-esque life as a rock and roll elder who seems more relevant than most musicians half his age. But having said all those nice things about Bob, he was also one of the first to sell one of the songs that mattered, an event that ushered in the modern era of corporate song whoring. The year was 1994; the song was "The Times Are a Changin'." He sold it to the global accounting firm Coopers and Lybrand. Most revealing was the press release announcing the song's purchase, wherein a high-ranking marketing executive boasted that "This song used to be about changes in the social order, but now it's about changes in the world of commerce as we move into a new era of global business." This is a paraphrase, but I remember the quote well enough to feel confident I captured its essence. This quote underscores the whole argument behind the "corporate whores" blog: the purchase of a song is not a harmless or neutral event. The sale of a song changes its meaning. Indeed, if we accept the premise that it is possible to sell your soul, and if we agree that some (though not all) songs have a soul, then you can literally "sell the soul" of a song when you take it to the wrong marketplace. Songs are a reflection of the fierceness (or lack thereof) of the artist who created them at the time they were recorded. But as times change, so does the fierceness and integrity of the artist. Now, it may be that the "fierceness" that makes music so powerful was just an "image" to begin with. And that is true in some cases. Artists project images that sell, and if rebellion sells, then that's what you're selling. But when you listen to the original version of "The Times They Are a Changin," the passion of the song implies that not only is this song not for sale, but that it will never be for sale.
Now, let's clarify: commercial interests are almost always a part of what motivates professional musicians. No doubt, Bob Dylan wanted to be a rock star. No doubt, when he recorded "The Times They Are A Changin'" he wanted as many people to buy it as possible. But the song was purchased because it inspired people to take stands, and it had this power because it had a soul. And those people who loved that song loved it in no small part because they sensed that its performer would NOT have sold that song at any price to the wrong buyer. Thus, this was a song that mattered. Of course, not all songs matter. Just as there is no harm in disposable cinematic entertainment like "Spider Man," there is no harm in a disposably entertaining song. Was anyone upset when Fine Young Cannibals sold "She Drives Me Crazy" to a large cable company, or whoever bought it recently? (you try keeping track of all these song sales. It's a full time job) No. Well, maybe a few die-hard Cannibal fans felt a little chaffed. But most people understand that this song was written with making money in mind, along the lines of "Tonight She Comes" or "You Might Think" by the Cars. Such harmless songs exact a much smaller psychic price when they are sold. They were never meant to fire and inspire, only to entertain. When these kinds of songs show up on car commercials, nobody cares. So if you don't accept the premise that there are certain songs that matter, that these songs have something intangible we might as well call a soul, and that there is a special pact (and ongoing mutual interests) between the fans who supported those songs and the artists who created them, you might as well move on from this blog, because you won't see the point. But if you're somebody who sees the arc of your life punctuated with songs that came out of the radio at just the right time and maybe saved your soul, and if you'd prefer that these magnificent songs not be linked in your mind with a variety of lowest common denominator products and services, then watch this space, because this blog is for you. No, we probably can't stop the corporate whoring. But we can at least make it clear that whether it is rational or not, we feel betrayed by artists who engage in indiscriminate song whoring. They deserve to have this infraction defined and spelled out to them, and they deserve to be put on notice that these things don't go unnoticed, but in fact affect their stature as artists and change the meaning of their own work. As that executive gloated about Dylan, the purchase of a song can forever change its identity and meaning. And is it a coincidence that so many of the songs that mattered, the ones that seemed to have the most subversive power, have been snapped up? No, there's no conspiracy here. But the business interests that felt threatened by social movements are certainly having the last laugh, or what appears to the last laugh, at the expense of the songs that strengthened the resolve of those who would defy them. What better way to celebrate the undeniable victories of big business than to neuter and cauterize the very songs that gave people the courage to dream and the guts to say "enough!" And as for Dylan, no, he is far from the worst corporate song whore. He hasn't sold nearly as many songs as some of his peers. But as far as I can see, he was the father of the modern era of song whoring, and his callous indifference to the implications of allowing an accounting firm to redefine one of his most important songs earns him special mention in this blog.
We know Dylan makes obscene amounts of songwriting royalties already, so when we ask ourselves, "how could he do it?" all the possible answers are brutal. One is that he never believed in this crap to begin with, and that his rebellious image was just that. The marketplace changed, but he didn't. Since his sole intention was to make money, the nature and intentions of the buyer are thus irrelevant to him. Thus the song meant a lot more to us than it ever did to him. Another possibility is he is just a greedy fucker who needs an excessive (and I mean excessive) amount of money to support a gluttonous lifestyle. The only other option, which I find the most appealing (and devastating) of the three, is that Dylan sold the song as a self-deprecating way of expressing his own disillusionment with all the shattered hopes of that era in his life and ours. Essentially, the song was still shouting in his ear, and selling it made the volume go down. I know that's how it felt to me when I sold my artistic work for bad money. It was the right Novocain for the hard questions. But Dylan's motivations are all speculation, because none of these artists ever come clean on why they sell their music. In fact, they all feel that they have no accountability to their fans on this matter, and that they have absolute right to sell any song they want to whoever they want under any circumstances. They are wrong, and someday I'll explain why. But that is a topic for another blog entry at another time.
Monday, March, 01 2004
The Ramones finally dial it in
Add another to the extensive list of fallen idols. Up until now, the (ex) Ramones have always done things the right way. They've had an unimpeachable sense of what's right and what's not throughout their career. They always did it their way and never lunged for fame. They let success come to them, and it did. Not Def Leppard or Journey kind of success, but something much sweeter: a rabid, die-hard following and a rock-solid place as one of the most influential rock bands of all time. So why they decided to sell "Blitzkrieg Bop," one of their most beloved songs, to AT&T, now becomes one of the head-scratching mysteries of our time. If these guys are hard up, there are other opportunities to score besides selling out to a massive telecomm giant. The basic ad rundown: as "Blitzkrieg Bop" blares in the background, a woman's voice confidently proclaims, "Life is about options." And she's right about that. Life is about the option NOT to sell your song to AT&T. Life is about huge multi-nationals having the option to go around buying songs that really mean something until there are no fierce songs left that aren't compromised by the numerous products and services they are now (and forever) affiliated with. When corporate America appropriates a song that used to epitomize the subversive power of art at its best, we know that the gauntlet has been thrown down to the next generation: you're gonna need to come up with something new to fire us up again, because the old stuff with attitude has now been sold to grease the wheels of commerce and prop up the status quo. When I crank the Ramones, I want the wind in my hair; I want to think about a bunch of punky guys who found their way to greatness without backing down. What I don't want is to think about whether I should have switched to a new cell phone provider with more night and weekend minutes. If life is about options, as AT&T says, what happens when all the options suck? Of course, the biggest losers of all are the poor schmoes who sign up for AT&T even though they're about to be acquired by Cingular. It's always great to sign up for a service provider right before they become part of history. Hey, ho, let's go.