Sunday, May 27, 2007

On the Set at Somerset (1976)

Ever wondered what life if like for most cast and staff of those daytime soap operas? I had some first hand experience in the spring of 1976 when I was working for NBC in Rockefeller Center in New York City as a computer programmer-analyst, while living in the Cast Iron Building.

The technicians for NABET (National Associations of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians) went on strike, and NBC offered the opportunity for non-union employees to come and operate the videocams (just becoming smaller then), books and cables necessary to produce many of the daily shows. I got assigned to a thirty-minute soap opera called Somerset, which was a crime-ridden saga about the Delaney company in Somerset, Ill. The best known actor was Joel Crothers who played publishing magnate Julian Cannell.

I operated the microphone booms, which dangled over the set from wires and poles, and the main technical problem was avoiding boom shadows. Other employees operated the cameras or pulled cable. Each morning, we were bussed from Manhattan to the studio in Brooklyn. Lunch was catered and consisted of delicious New York deli sandwiches. A couple of times there were pickets with signs complaining about “scabs.” We could finish the half-hour show in an eight hour day. Most scenes required multiple takes (“it’s a buy”). Other teams did hour-long soaps in the same time. The two directors were Bruce Minnix, who commuted from Cape May, NJ, and Jack Coffey, who directed a shooting murder scene.

With little apprentice-like training, we were pretty good at this. The strike lasted, as I recall, eleven weeks, although I got behind in my regular job and had to sweat out a couple of end-of-month accounting closings (given the mainframe computer technology of the time).

Somerset, however, would be canceled soon, by the end of 1976. Compare this to today’s “Days of our Lives” (Corday), filmed in California, running since 1965. As Ms. H says, Sami’s troubles are only beginning.

While talking about another expired soap, I want to mention the sci-fi like "Port Charles", (better than NBC's "Passions") a half-hour soap on ABC that ran at 12:30 PM EST (before Entertainment Daily and then Jeopardy took over), from 1997 to 2004. The conclusion had a woman turning to a vampire (as a tiger or some large lovable cat) and a man marrying her, not knowing what he was getting in to. Michael Easton made a name for himself as Caleb on that program; now he is a cop on ABC's "One Life to Live" in which a woman's authored murder mystery comes to life.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Life with Elizabeth and Rosie: Watch those tempers

I remember a black-and-white sitcom in the 1950s called “Life with Elizabeth.” It always ended with the line, “Elizabeth: aren’t you ashamed?” and she would shake her head. I remember a girl named Elizabeth in grade school whom I teased about this, and she changed her name to Betsy because of this show.

This week, we understand that conservative Elizabeth Hasselbeck and “liberal” Rosie O’Donnell both threw temper tantrums on the air, live, on ABC’s daytime The View (11AM EDT). Rosie’s categorization of American troops in Iraq was reportedly not too complementary. And, to be sure, The Donald got mentioned.

It’s pretty hard to believe professional entertainers throwing tantrums on the air, even more after the Imus episodes. Rosie has, supposedly, been good for ratings on ABC, and a less controversial host after she leaves will make it harder on the bean counters.

Rosie, of course, is a hero in posing the question of how gay Americans participate in family responsibility, as she has fought battles with the state of Florida over adoption.

ABC’s own story is “’View’ war of words prompts question: What can Americans say about the war? Rosie O’Donnell and Elizabeth Hasselbeck’s heated argument sparked a larger debate: Link.

CNN story: “O’Donnell, Hasselbeck let it rip on ‘View’” link.

Rosie’s own site is

English majors, check her poem (she mentions goslings – like the actor in Fracture?)


Apparently Rosie will be leaving "The View" immediately. The ABC News story May 24 was "O'Donnell Will Not Be Back on 'The View'; ABC Announced Early Departure for Host", story here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

NBC Dateline "The Accused" and John Grisham's book An Innocent Man

On Tuesday May 22 NBC "Dateline" presented a one hour report "The Accused" about two separate cases in Ada, Oklahoma, subjects of a new book (nonfiction this time) by John Grisham, "The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town", from Doubleday (2007). The MSNBC account is here.

The cases were quite harrowing. In the first one, baseball draft player Ron Williamson, and Dennis Fritz were convicted of a murder, with one death and one life sentence. A dream by one of the defendants was considered, as it had been in another case in Illinois reported on ABC 20-20 about ten years ago. The idea that an imaginary event or "fictitious" role playing could actually be used is evidence is most disturbing, but it coincides with current law concerning libel, that when fiction includes characters who resemble real people and falsely "incriminates" them, their can be a legal claim for defamation ("Bell Jar", "Touching", etc).

Grisham discussed police interrogation techniques, which can induce confession from innocent subjects in a matter of hours in many cases.

The second case included two more defendants again wrongly convicted. At the end of the broadcast, the prosecutor defended his actions and derided Grisham for his book, claiming that he, as a country prosecutor, cannot compete with a media star like Grisham.

Picture: Johnston PA, site of 1889 flood.

Monday, May 21, 2007

CBS 60 Minutes on One Laptop per Child

CBS 60 Minutes, on Sunday May 20 2007, had a major report on Nicholas Negroponte, a technology professor at MIT who has a dream to provide every child on earth a laptop computer. The reported was Leslie Stahl and the report is called “What If Every Child Had a Laptop: Leslie Stahl Reports on the Dream and Difficulties of Getting a Laptop to Every Child: Link here.

So he developed the “One Laptop Per Child” concept and designed a military-robust laptop that looks like a top but that can stand environmental abuse, and that has better Wi-Fi capabilities than most conventional laptops. It has a battery that can be charged with a mechanical crank. The laptop becomes unusable after 24 hours when stolen.

The laptop is sold only in minimum lots, with price per unit under $200. Negroponte envisions selling them individually, with a minimum purchase of two, with one computer going to a poor child.

The computer uses a chip made in India and apparently a proprietary operating system more like Linux. The report was not specific about this.

There has been controversy about competition from Intel.

This is a good example of a "geek" with an entreprenurial idea that can do enormous good for the disadvantaged. Other reports, such as Bill Gates working on AIDS, have been much more visible.

Picture (unrelated): PNC baseball stadium in Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Redux on Days of our Lives -- would a real Nick Fallon fall for bad girls?

A few months ago, Days of our Lives (NBC, Corday Productions, 1 PM EDT) introduced the geek character Nick Fallon (Blake Berris) -- first with a bar physics trick. He certainly is most appealing and charismatic (and not exactly a 98 lb weakling), and it's hard to believe that such a person would risk is own job, even jail, for the attention of bad girls like Chelsea and Willow Stark.

In this week's episodes, both Willow (Annie Burgstede) and Chelsea (Rachel Melvin) manipulate him in ways that border on offensiveness -- as when Chelsea lectures him on what she demands of him in order that she feel "protected" and "wanted". (Okay, Nick deflowered himself with Billie, Chelsea's mom, a woman 25 years older than him.) Yet, all the characters in DOOL behave as if the only important value in life was to get and keep one's spouse and family at all costs. Without one's family, one is nothing -- a state of affairs that sets the characters up for all kinds of exploitations.

We've seen this idea before. Remember when Jan (now departed) kept Shawn (then Jason Cook, replaced suddenly by Brandon Beemer) in a cage for all summer of 2004? Remember Nicole? She disappeared, too. And of course, Sami (Alison Sweeney) is always the first to be set up. "All I wanted was to be happy and have a family," she says. Mrs. H is right in saying that Sami's troubles are just beginning (she will give birth to a variation of "Rosemary's Baby" -- just so that Elvis can harvest the stem cells to save the archangel Stefano).

This is the side of the "family values" debate that no one has a good grip on. That is, you are nobody until you prove you can take responsibility for others besides yourself, and you must create your own family to prove that. So Willow and Chelsea are both determined to make Nick prove he is a "man" and can take care of them, no matter how desperate their needs. (After all, Willow is with child, right?)

Of course, Shawn and Belle are the soap opera world s idea of "Romeo and Juliet" -- they got separated by a little white lie Belle told police a few years ago to "protect" her mother, pyschiatrist Marlena (Dedrei Hall), who had been set up as the "Salem stalker." That phrase "God punishes sinners" (for GPS - global positioning satellite) is a great bit of steganography.

All of this said, Nick Fallon would be a more convincing character if he were gay. But then how could he fit into the plot? Maybe he is in the wrong soap opera.

Update: What, Nickie actually uses physical force against Willow to take the hairbrush away, and she winds up dead. Squeaky innocent Nickie won't be able to stay out of the penitentiary. What happens there will become the butt of comedy club jokes. Oops-- on June 7, Roman let Nick and Chelsea off the hook, although there will still be a coroner's inquest!

See Alison Sweeney's (Sami) blog.

Update: Tuesday, June 26. Now Kate is trying to blackmail Nick into falsifying the amnio results on Sami's twins. Kate denies his morality, claiming that Chelsea proved that for him, "the end justifies the means", just as it does for all ordinary people (sic). But remember that Roman is taking bribes now from Stefano, and may have let Nick out of a Hollywood Homicide investigation (actually, an Ohio homicide) so that he could be manipulated again later. Here we go, with crime families controlling the whole of Salem.

Passions actually does have some gay characters, who seem a bit tangential.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Dr. Phil portrays a real life "Days of our Lives"

Boy, NBC daytime Dr. Phil has some dousies on his show (3 PM EDT) (and the “Dr. Phil House” does sound like an exercise in self-promotion). But the two-day saga of “Jeffrey and Jen” and obsessive love, spanning the continent (from Virginia, to Los Angeles with the hospital Creative Care), ending up with nasty court separation hearings and restraining order (involving the kids), matches any soap opera.

While there is no need to belabor the details (they have been covered on Dr. Phil -- link here -- and local media in Virginia), they do show an important lesson (as do some of the soap operas, like the saga of Shawn, Belle, Philip and baby Claire on NBC / Corday “Days of our Lives”). For some men, the social meaning of the institution of marriage – its permanence, the kids, the idea of vicarious immortality through biological lineage – seems to become what they live for. In extreme cases the results of domestic disputes become downright dangerous. But the institutionalism of marriage (so touted by Maggie Gallagher and others) sets this up. A lot of men feel that one cannot become a man without having the responsibility for – and psychological ownership of – “wife and kids”. That seems to be the question to pop to Dr. Phil and Creative Care (as well as the writers of Days).

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Do kids watch too much TV?

Julie Steenhuysen has a Reuter news story today “Majority of babies ‘big’ TV watchers”. The Washington Times ran it on the front page on May 8, link here. or here.

The story gives detailed statistics indicating that children under two, often only a few months, are watching a lot of television and DVD’s, some of them designed for babies. Pediatricians and child authorities have often recommended that children under the age of 2 should not watch television at all, because fast moving images (even in baby programs) may compromise their ability to develop concentration skills. Here is a typical story by David Derbyshire in the UK, quoting at study in Seattle.
Another is by Lawrie Mifflin from The New York Times, Aug. 4, 1999, here.

There are many shows for very young children, such as “Blue’s Clues” dating back to 1996, from Paramount / Viacom’s Nickelodeon Junior starring (most often) Donovan Patton. The show tends to repeat the same themes repeatedly and combines animation, sets, and Patton’s acting. Children’s television is big business and very specialized in the skills it requires, to the extent that Nickelodeon offers internships in children’s writing.

I can recall, in seventh grade, back in 1955 for me, being told by teachers, “Read! Don’t watch television.” We watched some (we had our first television in 1950, and it often broke then), but on a couple of occasions teacher’s assigned programs, and often used films, filmstrips and other visual materials, especially for history and social studies.

Educators worry today that over exposure to media contributes to introversion, obesity, and poor concentration. In actual practice, students seem as varied as ever, with great extremes (just watch “It’s Academic” or even “Jeopardy” which has its share of teen champions), often related to parents’ income. Computers and Internet and media are great learning aids when used properly.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Koppel on Discovery: Living with Cancer

On Sunday, May 6, 2007 Ted Koppel (former Nightline anchor) hosted a three hour special on The Discovery Channel from the company headquarters in Silver Spring, MD (not far from the AFI Silver Theater, and visible from the elevated Red Line Metro). Koppel presented biographical stories of bicycle Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, now 35, and a war correspondent Leroy Sievers.

Armstrong's story is well known. In October 1996 he was coughing up blood and received a diagnosis of aggressive testicular cancer, already metastisized. "It went upstairs" he says. He had brain and lung lesions, and required aggressive chemotherapy with cis-platinum, with brutal nausea and hair loss. At one point he had a 50-50 chance to survive, but soon was returing to racing. This is a sport that looks a little slick, where men shave down (as in swimming) to peak and remove wind resistance, as in the 1985 movie with Kevin Costner, "American Flyers."

Armstrong has dedicated himself to raising funds for cancer research, as a second career. He says it is a perfect fit after "retirement" as an athlete. But Armstrong is also one of the most biologically gifted athletes known.

Sievers presented a harrowing story, having colon cancer surgery, and then four years later, starting to slur his speech when walking with Ted Koppel on the C&O toe path near Washington DC in Maryland. He was found to have metastises on his lungs and brain, which were treated with generations of chemotherapy. He was close to accepting his end, when another oncologist at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore offered a new treatment to cauterize the tumors on his lungs. Now, according to him, he has no visible tumors. Much of his presentation concerned the fact that, when off chemotherapy, he had no symptoms and wondered if the "cure was worse than the disease." Another female patient with pancreatic cancer was presented, as was a pregnant woman recovering from a chronic leukemia. Elizabeth Edwards (Senator John Edwards 's wife, with breast cancer) also appeared and commented on the lack of availability of top of the line treatment for everyone.

The difficulties in making top-line treatment for all victims was discussed, as was the issue of employers.

Lance Armstrong's story would obviously make a good film, probably for network TV.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

PBS: The Mormons

The Mormons (2007, PBS / American Experience / American Masters / Frontline, dir. Helen Whitney) is a monumental two part documentary film (four hours today), the first half tracing the origins of Mormonism with Joseph Smith and the persecution, and the second half covering the doctrines and the way Mormons live. Website.

It is remarkable, the film says, that the Mormons did such an about-face and externally became part of the American capitalist mainstream, particularly from the 1950s on (having had to drop polygamy and then racism). But internally, the church seems like an authoritarian, communal or collectivist “cult” perhaps, but one which is enormously successful in providing for members who believe and practice its tenets. It does present a certain paradox.

The second half of the film covers the controversial areas like Mormon missionaries, the intolerance of intellectual dissent and excommunications, the temple rituals, and most of all the eternal family. The intellectual dissent issue is quite striking. Archeology contradicts the idea that (Caucasian) descendents from Israel could be ancestors of native Americans, who are racially Mongoloid, with hairless bodies and other distinct characteristics that have persisted for thousands of years.

Mormon young men save their own money to go on missions (“God’s Army”) at age 19, two years in which their lives will be totally regimented while they “proselytize”. A film in 2000 about missionaires called "God's Army" had emphasized that male missionaires are taking their turn "doing something for somebody else", yet what they are doing (in their worldview) by "proselytizing" is giving others a chance for eternal life -- an idea that seems silly in modern secular individualism but that is dead serious to the faithful.It’s necessary to be a returned missionary to have a desirable status in the church and marry within the church. The church demands full tithes all of its members’ spare time, much of to run its super efficient welfare operation which was one of the first and most effective responders to Hurricane Katrina.

The importance of the Mormon family as a socializing unit “for eternity” was well dramatized, and what strikes one about this is that Mormonism purports to take care of and find a place for everybody. Persons with homosexual inclinations must abstain from homosexuality but may be encouraged, even almost required, to marry and have children, who are thought to have pre-existed as members of the family, which has the moral obligation to bear them. One gay man, an artist, presents the story of his marriage which ended when he was "caught" and excommunicated. One tragic case of a filmmaker whose wife died after bearing an eighth child is recounted.

The power of the "establishment" within the church (the priesthoods) is important because in theory the leadership (the church courts) can deny people eternal life through excommunications, or lesser spiritual punishments. It does seem presumptious for a church leadership (which, for Mormons, is quite secretive compared to other churches) to proclaim that is, on earth, has the power to deny salvation.

Despite the apparent "success" of Mormonism as a way of living (and charitable outreach) for many of its members, some people leave for reasons of intellectual integrity. One ex-member said, "it is not what it claims to be."

The Mormon practice of saving ancestors is shown, as is the iron mountain of genealogical records.

The success of Mormon culture raises a moral question with its best successes. Some people in the culture do so well by accepting the goals of the religion as dictated by others and becoming totally socialized by these goals and beliefs. Indeed, the culture is extremely well set up to raise children in a nurturing environment (with the Family Home Evenings, where distractions are forbidden). Yet, a culture like this really cannot thrive without impacting the freedom of others who may not wish to belong and may need to go their own ways. See my review of the film “Latter Days.”

I visited the Dallas Temple in 1983 during the "open house" period. The Mormon Temple in Wheaton, MD is an important landmark on the Maryland Beltway outer loop, near Washington DC. In October 1987 I did visit Colorado City, AZ, where a polygamous offshoot left over from 19th Century Mormonism has a settlement -- and the obvious question, besides the well-being of the women, is what happens to the young men without wives? They are kicked out, and need to leave anyway.

I recall reading a book called "The Mormon Mirage: A Former Mormon Tells Why She Left the Church" by Latayne Colve Scott, back around 1980. As I recall, in the book she claims she never knew of a "Mormon homosexual."

Anderson Cooper 360 discussed Mormon candiates (Mitt Romney) and politics on May 9, 2007. Ralph Reed was interviewed.