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Friday, April 15, 2011

Executive Troll Logic

Brian Frons, the Machiavellian head of ABC Daytime was quoted by AP as he tried to explain the network's decision to simultaneously cancel All My Children and One Life to Live, "If you have a show in severe decline, you're trying to catch a falling knife." After that comment Frons flippantly quipped that he "...pre-entered the witness protection program prior to today's events." The demise of the two venerable soaps was actually a year in the making, Frons said to insiders. "A year ago, we started to look at our projections where the ratings for the soaps would go," he said. When those projections came in pretty discouraging, the network began to aggressively develop replacement shows, 15 of them. Four of the 15 were picked up to pilot: The Chew, The Revolution and two others, a talk show and a dating show. Originally, the idea was to cancel only one daytime drama, Frons said. But "the way the ratings developed and the pilots turned out, the ratings developed negatively and pilots developed positively, so we decided to make a bigger shift."

Really Brian? Are you kidding me? You are the head of Daytime programming on ABC and for the past 9 years you couldn't bring in new producers, writers and directors? You couldn't shoot the shows digitally and cut some corners by allowing the producers and writers to edit? Why weren't the ABC soaps EVER promoted in primetime? Why did you refrain from pulling together a top notch group of marketing and public relations teams that would have put soap stars on late night talk shows, on the covers of mainstream publications and the internet? Give us all a break Brian and spare us from your absurd corporate troll logic. It's nothing more than the same old rhetoric.

The truth of the matter is, Brian Frons was never cut out to be in charge of soap operas. He didn't understand them nor did he ever lift a finger to "cross-promote" and re-envision the shows. I'm willing to bet he rarely even sat down and watched a soap opera.

As it stands, All My Children will go off the air in September, replaced by The Chew, a live one-hour show about food and nutrition, featuring two cast members from Iron Chef America and nutrition expert Daphne Oz, Dr. Mehmet Oz's daughter. Frons described it as a cross between The View and a cooking show. One Life to Live lasts until January. Its replacement is The Revolution, made by the producers behind The Biggest Loser, and will be a health and lifestyle show featuring fashion expert Tim Gunn. Each week the show will focus on the weight loss transformation of one woman.

So to clarify Brian Frons' decision, he is willing to toss away at least 5 million viewers without so much as blinking an eye or looking back. In my opinion, this is an extremely risky decision, not to mention rash and delusional. I have said this many times before and I will say it again, the face of entertainment is rapidly changing as the "digital convergence" is upon us. It's leveling off the playing field and making dinosaurs out of the networks and studios.Once an audience becomes "interactive", where THEY have a say in what occurs... they will NEVER return to being "reactive"... And the power is perpetually shifting toward the audience. Never EVER underestimate that audience as they can make or break you.

No Joy In Soapland

There is no joy in Soapland today. Two more of the once highly revered daytime serials have been cancelled. All My Children and One Life to Live, as I am certain everyone has heard, have both finally been unplugged from the life support systems... and if you listen closely enough you may just hear the dismal sound of the heart monitor flatlining in the distance. It goes without saying that daytime soap operas are a dying breed. Like Westerns before it, soaps are an undeniable American invention, and yet they are fast losing the power they once had to entertain audiences. I have said this before and I will say it again, "If you no longer relate to or understand your audience... if you are no longer a part of your audience, the audience will inevitably disconnect and move on."

This has little to do with the fact that Americans no longer find continual storytelling interesting forms of entertainment. Indeed, most of primetime television has adopted continual storytelling as part of their narrative arcs. Ever since the CBS primetime soap Dallas became a ratings smash during the eighties, televisions series have used narrative arcs as forms of storytelling, borrowing directly from a genre that has used continual storytelling with far greater efficiency. Now, shows like Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Breaking Bad and many others are using this storytelling form with greater depth. But there IS a major difference: the writers understand the audience. They "get" the fact that viewers are much smarter and far more savvy than network execs like ABC's Brian Frons (a man who should have been fired 8 years ago) does.

Soap opera stories are now so predictable and telegraphed that they insult the intelligence of the audience. I'm not making any great revelations here. Everyone in the soap industry is fully aware of its problems, but they refuse to let go of the past as much as they refuse to hire new producers, directors (who actually... wait for it... DIRECT). The soap genre has been comprised of an incestuous group of executives, producers and writers that are NEVER fired... they are merely recycled.

Producers and writers with a reputation for unraveling and practically killing shows, simply move to another soap opera. Trust me, this DOES NOT happen in primetime or film. If a writer joins a primetime show and the ratings dip... the writer is fired and more than often, they move to a lower rung. If a film producer and director puts a major studio into the red with a huge flop... the producer and the director are fired. Writers such as Irna Phillips, the dean of all soaps, Agnes Nixon, Harding LeMay, Douglas Marland, Henry Slesar and others once had enormous control over storyline directions. And while many of these writers were still beholden to network executive dictations, they were still given freedom to determine storyline and casting decisions.

That all changed during the late 1970s when executive producer Gloria Monty singlehandedly saved the ABC serial General Hospital from cancellation by modernizing story pacing and by bringing cinematic conventions to daytime. Afterwards, the executive producer became the "visionary" of daytime. Though writers continued to exercise some control over storylines during the 1980s, by the '90s and '00s that medium became largely the visions of executive producers as the same writers were shuffled from one soap to the next, creating a schizophrenic identity for each soap from which none has ever quite recovered. In the case of ABC soaps, each show is now under the micromanagement control of the head of daytime, again, Brian Frons, whose vision for the shows blurs out any distinction in favor of bland homogeneity with pretty people.  

Decisions regarding storylines, casting, production, etc. are now determined by whether they'll appeal to younger demographics under the misguided notion that younger viewers are only interested in watching stories and characters that vainly reflect their own realities. This means that older, veteran characters much beloved by longtime fans are now being shoved to the backburner or written off entirely to make way for younger actors, many of whom were cast for their good looks and not for their acting skills. These various decisions have dumbed down the medium and earned it the stereotypical reputation that non-soap viewers have regarded it over the years.

Bad writing and wildly implausible storylines now rule the day as executive producers attempt their desperate bids to goose up anemic ratings. Their efforts end up resulting in what online fans are now speculating is the self-fulfilling prophesies of the networks to do away with soap operas entirely.

But the Powers That Be's over-reliance on out-dated focus polls, the archaic Nielsen Ratings... and the misguided conventional wisdom of what they "believe" that fans want, in the long run, is what's destroying the creativity of the medium. Now soaps are merely written in a paint-by-numbers fashion, with the same stories being repeated over and over again to increasing fan dissatisfaction. In the end, it is the vision and control of the executive suits and producers who are to blame for the genre's sad state of affairs.

The one show that took a major risk which "could have" paid off in the long run was the now defunct Guiding Light. By introducing the viewers to Olivia and Natalia, two women who eventually fall in love, GL brought a much more "diverse" audience to the table. Actress Crystal Chappell gave us some incredibly heartbreaking performances in a deeply affecting, topical and brilliant storyline. But, as we all know, Procter and Gamble was far too conservative to allow some fascinating "reality" to wash over its viewers. It was a mistake of epic proportions as the storyline was reaching audiences as far away as Bangkok and New Zealand via the internet.

Television executive Tim Brooks was recently quoted as saying, “We are seeing the end of a genre..." I for one am convinced his statement rings all too true for what once was a groundbreaking part of the television landscape. As I said in one of my previous notes: I can't find much optimism about the near future of Daytime Soap Operas. If you take a moment and listen to the lyrics of Mr. Mister's, "Broken Wings" (Bo & Hope's adventure song) perhaps the Powers That Be will somehow "get it"... that the broken wings are the perfect metaphor for daytime soaps... and someone needs to wake up [AS IN RIGHT NOW], "Take these broken wings and learn to fly again..." but that, my fellow soap opera friends... would require nothing short of a divine intervention.. a miracle. I am in no way discouraging anyone from writing letters to ABC, shutting down the email systems and all of the faxes. Brian Frons, who I have had the absolute displeasure of talking with... is not an executive that connects with the audience. He sees this as "good business practice" and refuses to believe that perhaps the audience is much more "in touch" with the REAL world and what they want than he is

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Take These Broken Wings

Okay “Days of Our Lives” Fans… the year was 1985. Bo and Hope were daytime’s biggest phenom. The song “‘Take These Broken Wings” by Mr. Mister was pushing to the top of the charts. No cable competition. No Internet. It was indeed a simpler time. I was in my mid 20s at The University of Pittsburgh where EVERYONE was glued to the televisions in the dorms at 1:00 p.m. I also worked at The Beaver Valley Power Station for my Mom’s massive company, where all of the construction crews were “hooked” on Bo and Hope. There was a “spark” that ignited and we all watched as Bo and Hope rocked Daytime Television to its very core. This wasn’t “Luke and Laura” and it wasn’t just “hype”… this was something more and it couldn’t be defined by chemistry or anything else.

Bo and Hope were defining a new generation of Daytime Soap viewers. Bo (Peter Reckell) was the very first “anti-hero” to hit the daytime screen with a powerful vengeance. His long hair and scruffy beard made him stand out from the characters we had been accustomed to seeing. He dressed a bit like Kurt Cobain and wore snakeskin boots with ripped layered sweat shirts topped off with camouflage pants and a motorcycle that made us all want to beat the system and head out on the open road… while Bob Seager’s “Roll Me Away” taunted us to abandon the expectations of those poor saps who would never dare to step out of the lines.

Now you have to understand that in 1985, Yuppies had been calling all of the shots, driving the “safe status cars” and looking down their collective noses at anyone who dared to embrace “freedom”. The “suits” were everywhere. Hope, well… she was the girl who loved to cross the tracks onto the proverbial “wrong side”, where blue collar and having a beer were foreign to this somewhat spoiled “princess” who instantly saw her freedom and passion for life in Bo. Bo was a Bohemian Renaissance man who wasn’t interested in following the rules, he made his own… but the core of the character was based in the values he had been raised to respect.

There was this indefinable magic and everyone felt it as this “super couple” took us all on the road to adventure, romance and everything in between. I can remember watching the couple’s very first scenes and thinking, “This is going to become a world-wide sensation”. And sure enough, with the inclusion of Francis Reed [Alice Horton, Hope's Gram] as a hip Grandma who was routing for Bo and Hope as much as the rest of us were… it all took off and we just kept coming back for more. God it really was a simpler time. And yet it was all being strategically put together in a way that my generation knew… soap operas were now hitting “cool” for the rest of us.

As Bo and Hope struggled to escape all of the perils that seemed to show up at every turn, we were being treated to location shoots in New Orleans, Miami and New York and a breaking of the “mold” which our parents had accepted over the years… stories consisted of having coffee at each others kitchens and gossiping.

Fast forward… it is 2011 and whether anyone cares to admit it or not Bo and Hope may have grown older… but the magic has never really left, it’s just being kept in a box. It’s sad that the scope of Daytime Television has turned its back on taking risks, speeding up the storytelling process and giving its viewers something to cheer about… something to route for, care about and keep returning for more. Maybe I’ve become a tad bit cynical as I have watched its agonizing demise. The producers and writers are such an incestuous group that RARELY, if ever, do they bring in anyone with a new and bolder vision that might just soar.

I can’t find much optimism about the near future of Daytime Soap Operas. It’s going to take much more than bringing old characters back and hiring new producers and writers to write as brilliantly as they do for some of the prime-time shows… it’s going to take nothing short of a divine intervention to save all of these shows from inevitable extinction. The actors and actresses are NOT the problem. And we all know it.

If you take a moment and listen to the lyrics of Mr. Mister’s, “Broken Wings” perhaps the powers that be will somehow “get it”… that the broken wings are the perfect metaphor for daytime soaps… and someone needs to wake up [AS IN RIGHT NOW], “Take these broken wings and learn to fly again…”

Friday, April 01, 2011

Insidious— Chilling and Inventive

James Wan’s latest film, ‘Insidious’ managed to shock, scare and amuse the SXSW film festival audience during a midnight screening at Alamo South Lamar theater. The story of a family, who begin to experience paranormal activity in their new home, may seem like your typical horror film setup, but if anything ‘Insidious’ is a refreshing take on the ghost thriller genre, reminiscent of movies like Poltergeist, and the work of cult horror king Sam Raimi. The creepy visuals also call to mind the work of Guillermo del Toro. Together those inspirations create an entertaining film experience unlike anything currently out there. Josh (Patrick Wilson), a school teacher, his wife Renai (Rose Byrne), find themselves dealing with the unexpected coma of their son, Dalton.

They soon learn that their son is not in a coma but rather, his spirit has traveled through the astral plane, leaving his body as a shell to be invaded by wandering entities. The film deviates from the religious concept of ‘Hell’, instead referring to the dark realm as ‘The Further’, and using the idea of astral planes for the out of body experience.

With this, you get a film that doesn’t play to what audiences would expect most of the time, but something different, and yet familiar; a film that is not so much about exorcism, or holy water, but dreamscapes in the vein of Friday the 13th. Going in to the movie with little knowledge about the film definitely added to the thrills. During the screening I attended, there was a guy sitting next to me, who would literally flail his arms each time there was as a scare in the film. The visual, and audio impact are pretty effective, and the payoff is worth the suspense, even the most macho movie-goer would jump in their seat.

Though the family dynamic between the husband and wife characters Josh and Renai is mostly flat, and may not be the most convincing with dialogue that is mostly predictable, the film still stays on course to entertain the audience with a number of supporting characters, and visuals. ‘Insidious’ is a little bit of everything that horror filmmakers James Wan, and Leigh Whannell took inspiration from. They succeed in making a unique film that provides the goods, surely to be a favorite for anyone looking for a few chills, and thrills.

Rubber— A Tire That Kills People.

When Robert, an inanimate tire, discovers his destructive telepathic powers, he soon sets his sights on a desert town; in particular, a mysterious woman becomes his obsession. Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber is definitely one of the most quirky and ridiculous films you’ve never seen. It sets out from the very beginning to make sure the audience knows that they have never seen a film quite like Rubber. Why is this film beyond explanation? No reason. And that is exactly what Rubber is— an ode to the ‘no reason’ of cinema. In a strange prologue where one of the characters is speaking directly to the audience he explains the intent of the entire film— “no reason.” The film revolves around a tire have buried and forgotten in the middle of the desert.

The tire, for some unknown reason, wakes up and we follow is discovery of consciousness as well as discovery of his powers. Psychokinetic powers like being able to make things explode. Things like people’s heads. That’s right. A psychokinetic murderous tire that rolls about the desert making people's heads explode. This tire has a name as well. As we said, his name is Robert.

As the film rolls on (did you like that?), we start to disconnect from ‘tire’ and connect with ‘Robert.’ He becomes a sentient being— rubber or not— and the audience gets pulled in to who he is and how he feels. Yes, how the tire feels. In the film there is a group of people watching from the desert with binoculars. Watching the same thing we are watching on the screen except they are watching it live. Giving commentary as we go and basically echoing what the film audience should be feeling at that time by speaking directly to the audience almost. This meta factor of the film adds a strange layered effect to the story that makes the movie feel like a movie within a movie. Ultimately, it all doesn’t really make any sense, but for a good reason— the absence of reason.

Rubber would have made an incredible short and would have been a cult hit regardless who was reviewing it, but it definitely took a considerable risk by releasing as a feature length film. If the film doesn’t get its hooks in you from the start, you will quickly grow tired of the novelty and start wondering where in the hell it is going and how much longer is it going to take. For those seeking the genuinely absurd, Rubber will deliver on every note.

If you prefer your films, as well as what you do and how you spend your time in life, to have reason, then Rubber probably isn’t for you. Outside of those reservations however, Rubber is a completely ridiculous and fun ride where the filmmaker is basically pointing a finger at himself, as well as the entire history of filmmaking, and laughing by celebrating the asininity and pointlessness of the world of cinema. The police deputy in the film, played by Thomas F. Duffy, asks the audience in his prologue, “Why can’t we see the air around us?” No reason. Why is the president killed by someone he’s never even met in JFK?” No reason. “Why is E.T. gray?” No reason. Rubber sets out to make you realize and appreciate the “no reason” factor of cinema.

By the end you are asking yourself, “Why am I enjoying this?” or even better, “Why am I even watching this?” And the answer is most definitely— no reason... and THAT is what makes this film so cool. You just enjoy the "ride"... or the "roll" if you want to be technical about it.