Thursday, September 25, 2008

Emmy honors go to programs that have found a niche

So, did you watch the Emmy Awards on Sunday night? Me neither.

This year’s awards telecast was the lowest-rated Emmy ceremony in history, and not just because of its five lackluster hosts: Ryan Seacrest, Heidi Klum, Tom Bergeron, Howie Mandel and Jeff Probst. You’d probably find more talent in a police lineup.

In Hollywood, the Emmy Awards show’s low ratings didn’t come as a surprise.

“Industry insiders expected the awards to sink to a grim new watermark given that AMC’s low-rated ‘Mad Men’ was the most-nominated drama and NBC’s modestly rated ‘30 Rock’ was the most-honored comedy,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. “Some of the other shows — such as FX’s ‘Damages’ and HBO’s ‘John Adams’ — likewise drew niche audiences.”

But as they say in computing, this is a feature, not a bug.

If programs aimed at niche audiences are finally attaining the level of quality necessary to rack up Emmy nominations, then we’re finally seeing the promise of having upwards of 100 cable channels from which to choose. This is how it’s supposed to work.

Say the words “golden age,” and most people instinctively think of some period in the past. That’s because they remember the good parts and forget the bad. But as I’ve written before, the Golden Age of Television is now.

If you like comedy, there are at least two cable channels devoted just to comedy. If you like cartoons, there are at least three cartoon channels. How about sports? There are five flavors of ESPN alone, never mind the other sports channels. If classic movies are your thing, you have two channels from which to choose. If you like gritty dramas about morally ambiguous characters who swear a lot, FX is the place for you. And if you like sci-fi, there is a channel called Sci-Fi that has, on occasion, been known to show sci-fi programming.

There’s a Travel Channel, a Golf Channel, a History Channel and a Food Network.

And if you’re still nostalgic for the television of your childhood, there are at least two channels for that. Sometimes I, too, am a sucker for 40-year-old repeats of “Mission: Impossible” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

Anyway, my point is that in this sea of channels, each one aimed at some niche audience, it’s inevitable that we’ll get a decent number of daring, well-made, risk-taking shows.

AMC is a channel that has struggled to find its place. It began as American Movie Classics and aired classic movies without commercial interruption. But it was pushed out of that market by two other channels with stronger movie libraries — The Fox Movie Channel and Turner Classic Movies.

It took several years, but AMC seems to have found its niche with a format of recent movies and original dramas. Two of those dramas won big at this year’s Emmy Awards. “Mad Men,” a period piece set at an ad agency in the 1960s, won the award for best drama series. Meanwhile, Bryan Cranston took home the Emmy for best lead actor in a drama series for “Breaking Bad,” in which he plays a terminally ill man who becomes a meth dealer to support his family. Neither is the sort of show that would have found a home back when there were only three broadcast networks and PBS.

The only thing that could ruin this Golden Age is the Federal Communications Commission, which is considering mandating that cable systems offer channels on an a la carte basis, meaning customers would pay only for the channels they want. The FCC claims that would lower cable bills by letting people drop channels they don’t want. Some in Congress have been agitating for a la carte cable TV, too, including presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.

Whether your total cable bill would go down with a la carte is debatable and depends on how many channels you want. What is not debatable is that the per-channel price of cable TV would rise and some channels with niche audiences wouldn’t have enough viewers to survive.

That would be bad news for shows like “Mad Men,” and for our new era of diverse TV programming.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

No link can be found between crime and video gaming — again

I know this may come as a disappointment to some people, but when it comes to violent crime, you have less to worry about than a decade ago.

Why would good news like that disappoint anyone? Well, as it happens, there are people who have made their careers by trying to scare the rest of us. There is an entire industry of child psychologists, “public health experts” and lawyers whose livelihoods depend on Americans being scared to death that we are raising a generation of dangerous criminals reared on violent movies and video games.

The numbers, however, tell a different story.

According to FBI statistics released Monday, violent crime was down in 2007. That follows two straight years when violent crime increased slightly, but it also continues the overall trend since 1993, when the violent crime rate plunged for 10 years before leveling out and remaining mostly stable ever since.

You certainly wouldn’t get the idea that violent crime is falling or stable from watching a typical episode of “Nancy Grace” on Headline News. You might, however, think that “Grand Theft Auto” is turning the nation’s children into vicious gangsters with no regard for human life.

Yet while violent crime stubbornly refuses to skyrocket, more American children are playing video games than ever before.

A new study released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds that 97 percent of American children play video games. Now, I don’t want to seem judgmental, but if your child is in that remaining 3 percent, he is probably going to be shunned by his peers. You might want to invest in a Wii.

Not all video games are created equal, of course. While there are some child psychologists — I suspect they are shilling for the theme park lobby — who insist that all video games can turn children into snarling sociopaths, most of the focus is on violent games.

Well, fully half of the boys in the Pew survey listed games rated either M (mature) or AO (adults only) among their favorites. That means efforts to keep M and AO games away from children have failed miserably. It also means it doesn’t matter. Mature and adults-only video games aren’t creating delinquents any more than comic books did during the comics scare of the 1950s.

As a rather antisocial person, I don’t regard “civic engagement” as a particularly great thing. Still, for those of you who do, I have good news: The Pew study shatters the conventional wisdom that video games make children into antisocial hermits.

The study found that the young people who spent the most time playing video games were no less likely to be involved in their communities than the young people who spent relatively little time gaming. That surprised even me because you would expect some sort of trade-off. But whatever it is gamers are giving up to have time for their video games, it doesn’t appear to be community involvement.

As an aside, do you think that when books were invented, people worried about books making children antisocial? There’s no more solitary activity than reading.

Ultimately, despite claims to the contrary, no study has found hard evidence that watching or participating in violent entertainment leads children to be more violent. The studies claiming to find such a link don’t account for the fact that naturally violent children might be drawn toward violent games.

There are, however, studies that have found children are more aggressive right after playing violent video games or watching violent movies, but that effect is only temporary. It’s nothing that would lead to an increase in violent crime, which is why there isn’t an increase in violent crime. And it’s no different than the increased aggressiveness most people experience right after watching an exciting sporting event. Anything that gets you excited is going to make you temporarily more aggressive, whether it’s “Halo 3” or the Auburn/Alabama football game.

Personally, I tend to become temporarily more aggressive after watching the evening news.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Don’t worry; it’s only the end of the world again

If you’re reading this, it means the world didn’t end when scientists in Europe fired up the Large Hadron Collider on Wednesday.

The 17-mile-long particle accelerator constructed beneath the border of France and Switzerland will seek to unravel the mysteries of the universe by smashing particles into each other at nearly the speed of light. With any luck, scientists might even create tiny, artificial black holes, which will exist for a fraction of a second before evaporating. Assuming these black holes don’t destroy the Earth, like something out of a bad sci-fi movie.

Those crazy scientists, always tampering in God’s domain. But, hey, someone’s got to do it.
Coincidentally, a few nights ago, I saw for the first time “The Quiet Earth,” a 1985 sci-fi movie from New Zealand. Its premise is that a science experiment gone wrong causes nearly all animal life on Earth to disappear. Only three people survive — two men and one woman — which leads to exactly the sort of sexual tension you’d expect. And one of the men just happens to be a scientist who worked on the ill-fated science project. After all, someone has to tell the other two — and the audience — what’s going on.

I learned three things from “The Quiet Earth.” First, if you don’t actually like people, being the (almost) last man on Earth isn’t so bad. Second, I have a low tolerance for full-frontal nudity and cross-dressing when it involves an unattractive, middle-aged man. Third, no matter how unattractive the last man on Earth is, the last woman on Earth is guaranteed to be at least cute, if not a supermodel, which takes me back to my first point.

Ever wonder what it would feel like to be the last person on Earth? If you went to a movie theater this past weekend, you might know. The few people who did go to the movies during the first weekend after Labor Day found themselves surrounded by a lot of empty seats.

Yes, the summer movie season is over. Dead. And Nicolas Cage killed it.

His new movie, “Bangkok Dangerous,” was the weekend’s top grossing movie, but it took in only about $7.8 million, making for Hollywood’s worst weekend since “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star,” starring David Spade, stunk up theaters in 2003.

Rest assured, when the end of the world comes, Cage will still be here, and probably still making terrible movies, along with a cast of post-apocalyptic mutants. If “Bangkok Dangerous,” “Next,” “Ghost Rider” and “The Wicker Man” can’t kill his career, nothing can. He could make “Zandalee 2” and someone would still hire him.

(If you’re too young to remember, “Zandalee” used to be in heavy rotation on late-night Cinemax. And, actually, it’s better than Cage’s “Wicker Man” remake.)

With the 2008 blockbusters behind us, the Internet gossip turned toward next year’s movie slate, and “Star Trek” fans celebrated the franchise’s 42nd anniversary by dissecting the latest rumors surrounding next year’s new “Star Trek” movie.

So, what is this new “Star Trek” movie, anyway? It has a young cast taking over the roles made famous by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and the rest. But is it a prequel? A sequel? A reboot?
Actually, it seems to be all three. Spock (Nimoy) will travel back in time to stop a plot to kill a young Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine) before Kirk can do all of the things that will make him a Starfleet legend — like save the universe and have sex with dozens of alien species, not counting the androids.

Presumably Spock is only partly successful, as rumor has it that he creates a totally new timeline. If we’re lucky, it’ll be a timeline in which “Star Trek: Voyager” never happens.

Hopefully, Old Spock will try to avoid running into Young Spock (Zachary Quinto) because bad things happen when a time traveler meets himself.

How bad? Well, you could cause the end of the world.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

That announcer guy from the movies dies at 68

In a world where a movie’s opening weekend could mean the difference between a blockbuster or a flop, one man held the key to box office gold.

You probably don’t know his name, and you probably never saw his face, but you know his voice.
Don LaFontaine was the voice of Hollywood. Not just any voice, but  “a deep voice that sounds like a 7-foot-tall man who has been smoking cigarettes since childhood,” as he put it when parodying himself in a movie trailer for “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

But that voice fell silent Monday, when LaFontaine died of complications from a lung-related illness. He was 68.

Still don’t know who I’m talking about? If that’s the case, I have three words for you: “In a world.”
With those three simple words, LaFontaine became more than a man, more than a voiceover artist, more than the Picasso of movie marketing hyperbole. He became a legend.

In a gravelly baritone that made even romantic comedies seem ominous, LaFontaine narrated more than 5,000 movie trailers and more than 350,000 television commercials, according to his Web site. Some of his best known trailer voiceovers include “The Terminator,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “Batman Returns.”

LaFontaine’s voice was everywhere, as was his “In a world …” catchphrase, which became such a running gag that he parodied it himself, playing “that announcer guy from the movies” in a TV commercial for GEICO insurance: “In a world where both our cars were totally underwater …”

In a 2007 interview, he explained why he came up with his “In a world…” gimmick.

“We have to very rapidly establish the world we are transporting (the audience) to,” he said. “That's very easily done by saying, ‘In a world where ... violence rules.’ ‘In a world where ... men are slaves and women are the conquerors.’ You very rapidly set the scene.”

In a world where you have only 60 seconds to grab people’s attention, LaFontaine was king. He redefined what it meant to be a voiceover announcer. So, if he wasn’t narrating a particular trailer for some upcoming movie, nine times out of 10, it was someone who sounded a lot like him.

Probably his closest competitor in the voiceover business was the somewhat mellower East Coast announcer Hal Douglas, who for years was the voice of Miramax, A&E, The History Channel and The WB. Before The WB merged with UPN to become The CW network, you could always count on Douglas to alert you to that “very special episode of ‘The Gilmore Girls’ ” airing later that night.

In one of those showbiz twists, Douglas probably has gotten just as much mileage out of “In a world…” as LaFontaine did, which is why they’re both known, depending on whom you ask, as the “In a world” guy. And when Jerry Seinfeld wanted to parody over-the-top movie trailers in the trailer for his 2002 documentary “Comedian,” he turned to Douglas, who dutifully rattled off such movie clich├ęs as “In a world,” “In a land,” “In a time” and “In a land before time.”

In 1997, LaFontaine and Douglas teamed with four other voiceover artists for the short film “5 Men and a Limo,” which was shown before the 26th Annual Hollywood Reporter Key Art Awards and satirized each artist’s various catchphrases.

“5 Men” is now a popular video on YouTube, as is a short film about LaFontaine himself, “Don LaFontaine: The Voice,” which opens with LaFontaine solemnly intoning these words:

“Throughout history, man has marveled at the vast complexity of the universe. Without a single unified voice, humanity has been left searching for answers to the unknown. Now one man has the power to change that and to spread his voice across the Earth for all of mankind to hear. One man — me!”

In a world without Don LaFontaine, the movies are going to seem a lot less exciting.