DATE December 24, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: John Powers discusses his list of top 10 cultural
trends from 2007
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
As you get ready for the holiday, we're going to take two looks back at 2007.
A little later, our TV critic, David Bianculli, will talk with us about some
of the best and worst TV shows of the year and the impact of the writers'
strike on 2008.
First, our critic at large, John Powers, is going to run through his list of
10 cultural trends that emerged in 2007. John is also a film critic for
Well, John, let's start with what qualifies as a cultural trend. Like, what
are the criteria, so to speak, for landing on your list of 10 cultural trends
for the year.
Mr. JOHN POWERS: Well, I was looking for things that happened in the course
of a cultural and media year where we're all overwhelmed. I was looking for
10 things that stood out as either representing something new or something
exciting or something that everybody was talking about, which defined this
year as opposed to certain other years. I mean, I guess what I was trying to
do, because so many trends actually continue over time, was to try to choose
the things that might have hit some sort of tipping point this year where
everybody noticed it. Or just something that happened that had so many people
talking that I felt we should talk about it.
GROSS: I just want to say, I'm glad you said we're all overwhelmed. I
thought it was just me.
Mr. POWERS: Oh, no, no. And I spend my entire life thinking, `How do people
watch 1/10th of 1 percent of all the things that are out there?'
GROSS: Yeah. Well, I have a copy of your list, and number one on the list is
"the permanent campaign." What's different about this campaign year from other
Mr. POWERS: Well, I think the striking thing is that it started a year
earlier. I remember that I knew we were in new territory when, at the end of
March, the networks were covering who'd raised the most money for the primary
campaigns more than a year before the election. In most of our lives, we've
had election things happen in the year of the actual general election. Now it
is continuous, so that there were all the debates and debates and debates, all
the discussion of money. I mean, I'm really curious to see whether Americans
will become sick of it or whether, in fact, most of them haven't even started
paying attention yet.
I was talking to the governor of Montana who was saying, you know, most people
actually have lives. And it's only the political class and the media class
that care about this. So that for them this is the biggest thing because
they're bored by governing, but they love politics and the horse race of
politics. And so what that means is--in media terms and cultural terms--is
that we now have a period where the people in charge of the official discourse
of the culture, of what we hear on the air, is fascinated with politics. So
the election cycle seems to go on endlessly.
GROSS: Well, let's look at number two on your list of 10 cultural trends of
2007. And you've headlined this one, "Iraq movies fail at the box office."
Which movies failed and how to you interpret that?
Mr. POWERS: Well, you know, if you started "From the Valley of Elah," to
"Rendition" to "Redacted," there have been a whole series of films about
Iraq--"Lions For Lambs" is another one--or Iraq or the war on terror in
general; some of them are about Afghanistan as well--you could see that
Hollywood was wanting to weigh in on the big historical moment and the big
facts of the war, but Hollywood movies are very slow. So what has happened, I
think, is that all these movies have come out this autumn, a year after all of
these things had come out as books and been discussed on shows like FRESH AIR.
So the people who might be the most interested in seeing these films, they're
kind of tired of it. These stories aren't really telling us anything we
already didn't know. I think the majority of Americans have decided that
things had gone very badly in Iraq and so to then go to a movie that then
proves this is of no great interest because that's just a depressing story.
It's worth mentioning historically, you know, that during the Vietnam War, you
didn't have, you know, for example in the fall of 1969 six movies coming out
about the Vietnam War. But you could feel the pressure in Hollywood. They
want to have something to say about this, but because what they're doing is so
incredibly slow that what they're saying seems behind the curve. So I think
people like when presented with a film like "From the Valley of Elah," we just
think `We already know this. We learned this last year.'
GROSS: Well, on the other hand, there's a lot of dark movies that have opened
this year and a lot of dark movies opening that have opened for the holidays.
So do you see a connection between the movies about Iraq that didn't do well
and the dark movies that have opened this year?
Mr. POWERS: Well, I think, you know, that three of the most interesting and
best movies at the end of the year are "There Will Be Blood" and "No Country
for Old Men" and "Sweeney Todd." And they're all incredibly dark movies. And
I think part of what you see is that Hollywood is capturing some of the mood
brought on by war in Afghanistan and Iraq and they're reflecting that in
movies that are in fact only metaphorically linked to what's actually going
on. And it's, I think, no surprise that these are actually better movies as
movies than the ones that are addressing Iraq directly. Because Hollywood in
general's always better at somehow capturing the mood of the country or a
feeling of apocalypse or a feeling of danger or a feeling of a violent world
as a metaphor than they are in directly addressing a political thing. And it
must be said that, you know, that it's hard for me to imagine three bleaker
good movies than "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood," and "Sweeney
Todd." I mean, "Sweeney Todd" may be the most upbeat of the bunch.
GROSS: My guest is John Powers, FRESH AIR's critic at large, and he's put
together his list of 10 cultural trends from 2007.
Number three on your list is what you consider to be the TV moment of the
year, which is?
Mr. POWERS: "The Sopranos" ending, which in fact is not a trend. I have to
admit it, but so many people talked about "The Sopranos" ending, it was
impossible to not mention it. I mean, the idea of having the most talked
about show, perhaps in television history, end with the screen going black and
people thinking that HBO had suddenly had its service broken down or their
cable company had failed, was such a radical thing to do because it's the kind
of high art move in the midst of popular culture. And I was one of the many
people who thought, `Dang, my cable went out.' And I was enraged. And then
when I realized, `Oh, that's actually what they've chosen to do,' I thought,
`Oh, that's interesting.' And it took me several weeks to decide whether or
not I was enraged or pleased by it.
You know, months later, I think it's a brilliant move for two reasons. One
because, how do you end a show that's talked about that much in a way that
will have people talking? Well, one way is to just cut it off. OK, the other
reason it's brilliant, is it was always an anti-mythic show, and a film like
"The Godfather" or "The Godfather" cycle, let's say "Godfather II," has to end
with the big tragic ending. But in fact, the whole point of "The Sopranos"
was that it isn't that. And so to therefore have the anti-mythic ending,
where in fact you just stop in the middle of things with the suggestion that
it could go on forever or maybe Tony will be killed or maybe he won't, is in
fact a brilliant move in relation to what the show's trying to do.
GROSS: And yet part of me still feels a little cheated. I think David Chase
is such a great storyteller. I wanted him to commit to an end of the story.
Mr. POWERS: Oh, I know, and I understand completely. We all want the
closure, and I think that this became sort of a meta message about how we want
closure. Which, as I say, is a high art move. You know, it's the kind of
thing you'd expect Jean-Luc Godard to do rather than HBO.
You know, I think the other great irony of it is, I mean, when people thought
`Did HBO lose its feed at that moment?' And in some metaphorical sense it did,
because since "The Sopranos" left, they haven't found anything to replace it.
So it's almost as though HBO went off the air when "The Sopranos" ended.
GROSS: Number four on your list of cultural trends from 2007, "two stories
about hitting the road." What are they?
Mr. POWERS: Yes, well, only a few weeks apart you had the 50th anniversary
of "On the Road," the Jack Kerouac novel about bumming across America in
search of transcendence and friendship and all the rest, and the release of
the Sean Penn film of John Krakauer's book "Into the Wild," which is the
updated, maybe extreme generation version of this. And what I was struck by
in this was the way that our idea of the road has changed, because in "On the
Road," it is in many ways a joyous, liberating voyage of discovery where
people are actually moving towards something positive, yet the version that we
now have is of the kid who goes up to Alaska all by himself, cuts himself off
from humanity, going to the end of the line, and winds up dying. And you
realize that somehow our sense of what the road is has been transformed over
You know, when I was a kid, it still seemed like you could drive to Montana
and you'd be away from everything. Whereas now, today's kid think, `Maybe I
have to go all the way to Alaska, where there's nobody around.' But there's so
much more darkness in that than there is in "On the Road," and I thought that
actually says something about our perception of maybe moving around the
American landscape, that it moves towards something bleaker and more isolated
than it did before.
GROSS: My guest is our critic at large John Powers. We're talking about
cultural trends that emerged in 2007. We'll continue his list after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is John Powers, FRESH AIR's critic at large, and we're
talking about his list of 10 cultural trends from 2007.
Number five on your list is "the TMZing of America," and I think before we
expound on that, you should explain what TMZ is.
Mr. POWERS: Well, TMZ started off as a Web site which basically captured
lots of video footage of celebrities being stupid, you know, that whenever
Britney Spears did something idiotic or Paris Hilton, it would be online and
we'd see it. So it's pure celebrity gossip, "Insider," kind of prying, it's
almost like a paparazzi Web site with slightly greater delusions of grandeur,
but it's essentially a paparazzi Web site. It then later became a television
And no one in America can turn on their television or go on the Internet
without noticing that we now have endless access to the most trivial details
of celebrities and pseudocelebrities and clowns alive, that nothing that
someone like Britney Spears does is ever happening in private. Now, at one
level you might say this is just because we're a corrupt, nasty culture
interested only in trivial people. And that may even be true partly, but what
struck me more about it was that the celebrities that are constantly on these
sites being followed by cameras and having their antics shown on the Internet
is that they are the cutting edge of a transformation in our culture where
we're breaking down the old ideas of what is public and what's private.
Because what's spooky is not just that Britney Spears gets followed, but that
if you go on YouTube or something, sometimes somebody will actually post
something of people having an argument at a restaurant, and they will post
that argument on a Web site, and they will have taped it on their cell phone
or recorded it on their cell phone, and putting it on a Web site and these are
people who aren't famous. That one of the strange things that's happening
between that and the facebooking of society, the myspacing of society and
people photographing everything so that now every car chase is photographed by
scads of people is that the idea of there being a zone of privacy that we all
have around us is being whittled away, often deliberately and happily.
You know, one of the differences between me, say, and film critics who are,
say, 20 years younger than I am, is that film critics 20 years younger than I
am are much happier going online and blogging their every response to a movie.
And I think, `Oh, no, you can't do that. In fact, you should save yourself
for the review,' and they think, `Oh, you old square. Everybody blogs.
What's the matter with you?' And it's partly because I have this sense that my
private and public space is very clearly defined, and their sense of what it
is, what I consider private space, they consider public space.
GROSS: Number six on your list of cultural trends from 2007, "jocks gone
Mr. POWERS: Well, I mean, everybody knows this one. I mean, you know, we've
recently had the Mitchell report, which may be the classic example, which is
you realize that huge numbers of famous baseball players have been taking
steroids and human growth hormone. Earlier this year, Marion Jones admitted
to doing it. You have Michael Vick doing that ghastly--you know, murdering
dogs in ways that are even unpleasant by the normal ways that people murder
dogs. You have the NBA ref.
One of the interesting things that's happened here is that what people used to
think of as some sort of refuge from the corruption of ordinary life now is
pushing in your face the corruption of ordinary life. You know, that people
routinely cheat. And, I mean, the sympathy I have, if I can say, at least for
some of the steroid people, is that it's cheating and so therefore it's wrong,
OK? But if you're a great player, the idea that there could be something that
could make you greater and entice you into a Faustian bargain. I mean, you
think that somebody like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens, they're playing at such
a high level, the thought that you could be even higher, I think that many
people who are good at something could actually understand the impulse to do
the something that might make you that little bit better.
And then as for the other people, you know, they're just trying to survive in
the business. You know, there's money to be made and careers to be made, and
if a lot of people around you are taking steroids, either you'd better do it
to or you'd lose your job in the same way that, you know, in the old days you
would hear lots of talk about truck drivers using amphetamines. You can
actually drive longer and faster using amphetamines. To me, it's the
essentially the same thing. If somebody told me that I could become, let's
say, a Nobel Prize winner by injecting myself with something, you know, I
can't swear that I wouldn't do it.
GROSS: My guest is John Powers. He's FRESH AIR's critic at large, and we're
talking about his list of 10 cultural trends from 2007.
Number seven on your list is "hip sentimentality." What are you referring to?
Mr. POWERS: Well, I think one of the things that's happened these days is
that we have a lot of sentimental things in the culture, and I was thinking
particularly about some movies this year, which I think are sentimental
movies, something like "Knocked Up" or "Waitress" or "Juno." And these are
movies that people really like, but they in fact are very kind of squishy soft
at the center, but they're surrounded, especially in the case of "Knocked Up"
and "Juno," by something that seems very kind of edgy. So in the case of
"Knocked Up" it's just deeply, deeply obscene. And in "Juno," you have
everybody speaking in a kind of hip patois. So like nobody just talks about
something. They actually are speaking this lingo that gives it an aura of
Yet what's striking in these films is that there's a very basic situation that
happens. You have three women with unwanted pregnancies. And in these three
films put together, there's perhaps 30 seconds spent considering the
possibility of abortion, that in fact the whole thrust of all these movies is
to not deal with what it might actually mean to have an unwanted pregnancy but
to find ways of bringing together unlikely characters or to find ways of
smoothing it all out so that you can have a happy ending. So in the case of
"Knocked Up," which is a film I should say that I liked, what's sentimental in
it is that if you live in LA, you know that the Katherine Heigl TV person
would never sleep with the Seth Rogen character, no matter how drunk she got.
Mr. POWERS: OK? The second thing is, that if she was pregnant with it, she
would instantly be discussing abortion, even if she decided she wasn't going
to do it, and it would be a serious discussion. And third, they wouldn't wind
up binding in the same way. I think that's a very sentimental idea. And
"Juno" has another version of that. It hasn't been out so long, so I don't
want to spoil it for people. But there's that idea that somehow, underneath
it all, everything can be smoothed out in an emotional way, even though
they're dealing with things that are really, really difficult.
GROSS: So under this umbrella of hip sentimentality, do you think that hip
and sentimentality are two words that used to not go together?
Mr. POWERS: I think that it used to be that hip was anti-sentimental. And
probably in some sort of way, sentimentality was anti-hip. But I think that
one of the things that's happened is that we have learned as a culture--and
cultures are very clever--how to take something which is old fashioned, which
I think is a sentimental crowd pleaser, and dress it up in all the styles and
lingoes of hipness, so that you can simultaneously look like you're really
edgy and sharp and at the same time be presenting something that they would
have been presenting back in the 1950s; and if it was presented in the way of
the 1950s, which seemed hopelessly square. So I do think that's the new
cultural trend, or cultural skill, which is to make something that seems
perfectly mainstream and safe look slightly dangerous.
GROSS: Number eight on your list, "the nightly ideological news."
Mr. POWERS: Yes. I think what struck me this year was that we finally had
the thing that was probably sort foreshadowed by the arrival of Fox News. You
know, when I was growing up, the news networks were ideological in some sense,
but nobody felt about it that way. They thought that CBS, ABC and NBC were
essentially presenting the news straight. CNN came along, and for a long time
people felt that, but it was clear that people on the right felt as though
everything was slanted toward the left. And Fox News addressed that. For
several years, Fox News was the only network that presented itself--or didn't
present itself, but clearly was identified by people as being a conservative
his year, two other networks clearly took on some sort of ideological slant.
The more obvious of the two is MSNBC. Because of the success of Keith
Olbermann's show, which appears every day, where he's been known to not only
present the news but to actually give editorials in a kind of Edward R.
Murrow style, dressing down President Bush, that that show became successful,
and it nudged MSNBC toward becoming the liberal network. Suddenly Chris
Matthews sounds more liberal on the show that he had before Keith Olbermann
was so popular. And then, almost at the same time, CNN began getting sort of
populist. It's kind of right wing populist, a little bit left wing populist.
And that's the figure of Lou Dobbs. And so just as Fox used to be identified
mentally, I think, with Bill O'Reilly, MSNBC is now identified with Keith
Olbermann and CNN is identified with Lou Dobbs. And they're all carving out
different areas of the ideological spectrum in a way that that wasn't true
even two or three years ago. You know, two or three years ago, all the
articles in the media were about how CNN and MSNBC were trying to copy Fox and
be conservative in that way. And that's no longer the case.
GROSS: And I think one of the things that might be going on in the actual
news shows as opposed to the opinion and analysis news talk shows is that the
news shows seem to be getting more and more about features, self-help, things
like along those lines.
Mr. POWERS: Well, I think actually, one of the trends I was actually going
to talk about was the decline of news as news. So just as the nightly news
things are now more likely to tell you about how to cure your cancer or how to
lose weight rather than covering straight news. And newspapers are doing the
same thing, and magazines are doing the same thing. You know, it's really
eerie to pick up a copy of Newsweek and realize that it's supposed to be a
news magazine, when it's constantly talking about something that doesn't
really seem like news.
What's scary in it for the culture is that the movement away from people
actually reporting hard news means that we're going to less and less hard
news, especially if newspapers start failing. Because it's much easier to
have opinions. I know this. I'm a professional haver of opinions. I know
it's easier to do what I do than it is to go to some foreign country and
actually dig up what's actually happening. It's easier to do what I do than
to do an investigative piece about the Pentagon or about some corporation.
Those are hard things to do. To sit here and talk is pretty easy. You know,
we're having a culture where increasingly the media is filled with people who
do what I do and fewer and fewer people can make a living doing the important
stuff that gives the information that allows me to do what I do.
GROSS: Our critic at large John Powers will be back in the second half of the
show. He finishes his list of 10 cultural trends that emerged in 2007. John
is our critic at large and film critic for Vogue. I'm Terry Gross, and this
is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with our critic at large,
John Powers. We're making our way through his list of 10 cultural trends that
emerged in 2007.
Number nine on your list is "atheist chic," which means?
Mr. POWERS: Oh, I guess what it means is that, you know, for a great many
years we have been hearing about religious fundamentalism abroad and
evangelical Christianity here. And it was inevitable that there was going to
be some sort of, I guess some sort of dialectical opposition to that. And
it's taken the form of a series of big best-sellers that are arguing for the
atheist point of view. I mean, Christopher Hitchens has one called "God Is
Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." Richard Dawkins has a book
called "The God Delusion." And what you're actually seeing happening now is
sort of our own mini-version of Enlightenment, where you have the battle
between those who defend religion and the battle between those who say, that
in fact, religion is the enemy.
Now, what's strange about this is that you're now seeing things, for example,
on television that you would never see. I can't remember in my entire
lifetime turning on a TV show as I did recently to see Lou Dobbs talking to
Christopher Hitchens, and they're discussing whether or not God exists and
whether or not every established religion is essentially a dangerous and bad
thing. That's something we haven't had before. And it's clearly a response
to the pure power of religiousness in our national life because, although many
religious people in America feel the US is startlingly unreligious, if you go
to any other modern developed country in the world, we are probably five or 10
times more religious in public than they are.
GROSS: Number 10, the tenth and final item on you list of ten cultural trends
of 2007 is "the writers' strike." What do you have to say about it?
Mr. POWERS: Well, I guess the first thing I would say is that, as a writer,
I defend the writers, but I think it has something to do with everybody. I
mean, you start off with the writers--if you take the writers' strike at the
beginning, what that strike is essentially about if that, as the way you
deliver things to people changes, as you go from DVDs to, say, the Internet,
the writers want to have their share of the money that's made from this. And
if the old contracts continue to exist, they won't get their share.
Now, that shouldn't ordinarily matter to people out in the world except that
writers, in lots of respects, are like lots of other ordinary people whose
jobs can somehow be outsourced, who new technologies can replace their work,
that there is a way in which the writers really are like millions of other
Americans who find that the shifting landscape of work is often leaving them
behind. And that's what really is at the core of the writers' strike. You
know, there's a deeper emotional core where writers feel they've been kicked
around forever. And, you know, the great jokes--you know, Hollywood is filled
with jokes about writers. You know, the most famous joke is, probably, about
writers in Hollywood, is about the starlet who's so dumb she sleeps with the
writer rather than somebody powerful.
GROSS: You know, one thing I find interesting about the public support that
seems to exist for the writers who are striking is that this coincides with a
time when a lot of people think that everything on the Internet should just be
free. We shouldn't have to worry about musicians getting paid for their
music; their music should just be free on the Internet.
Mr. POWERS: Yes. I think that's actually one of the most interesting trends
of probably the last 10 years, or maybe 15 years, is that you have a
generation that has been raised with free content who expect it to be free,
but rather--and this, actually, if I may say, brings us back to something I
was mentioning about the newspapers, which is that there's all this content
being created in the world by people who are being paid to do it and spending
long hours doing it. And if you actually stop paying them for that, they
won't do it in the same way. You will still probably have rock bands, I grant
you. But you probably won't have journalists. You won't have good, well
written TV shows if people aren't going to get paid doing it.
So there's an illusion somehow that you can actually make it all free because
information wants to be free. But in fact, information may want to be free,
but the people who create information want to be paid. And I'm certainly one
of those people, you know, that I, you know, that it terrifies me a little bit
if people thought that everything I wrote they could instantly use for free
just because they could post you on the Internet. I mean, I'm definitely
opposed to that.
GROSS: We've been looking back at 2007, particularly at cultural trends of
2007. I just want to spend a moment looking ahead to 2008 because early on
next year in January, a show that I know you love, John, and that I love, "The
Wire" returns. And I can hardly wait.
Mr. POWERS: Oh, I know. It it the thing I am most excited about in the
culture that's coming up in the next six months. I think it's really my
favorite TV show ever, partly because I think it does all the stuff that you
want a TV show does, which is engross you and involve you and unfold in a way
you can't quite guess and at the same time reveal the world. And people, I
guess, divide in life between mythological types and non-mythological types.
I think for the non-mythological type, which I consider myself, a show like
"The Wire" will always be better than a show like "The Sopranos" in the same
way that all my more mythologically-inclined friends will always say that "The
Sopranos" is better than "The Wire." The one thing we both share in common is
we all think "The Wire" is a really great show.
GROSS: Well, John, thank you so much for talking with us, and I want to wish
you happy holidays and a really happy and healthy new year.
Mr. POWERS: OK, and happy holidays to all our listeners. Thanks.
GROSS: Thank you.
John Powers is our critic at large and film critic for Vogue.
Coming up, our TV critic David Bianculli runs down his list of the best and
worst shows of the year and considers how the writers' strike will affect
2008. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: TV critic David Bianculli talks about his list of the
best and worst TV shows of 2007
TERRY GROSS, host:
The year in television has ended with a lot of reruns. Our TV critic David
Bianculli is here to talk about how the writers' strike is likely to affect
what we do and don't get to watch in 2008, and has brought with him his list
of the best and worst TV shows of 2007. David is also the editor of and TV
critic for tvworthwatching.com.
Well, let me start by wishing you a Merry Christmas, David.
Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: You, too.
GROSS: So what made your list for the best shows of the year?
Mr. BIANCULLI: It was a fun list to put together. The 10 best, so there's
no suspense, I'll just give you the names, five network and five cable, in
order where I tried to rank them top to bottom: "30 Rock" on NBC, "Friday
Night Lights" on NBC, "Dexter" on Showtime, "Lost" on ABC, "Heroes" on NBC,
"Nip/Tuck" on FX, "Pushing Daisies" on NBC, "Sopranos" on HBO, "Mad Men" on
AMC and "Damages" on FX.
GROSS: Now, is this evenly divided between cable and broadcast networks
because you are such a fair person or because you really believe that half of
the greatest shows were on cable and half of them on broadcast?
Mr. BIANCULLI: I tried to pay no attention to where these programs came
from. And actually FX was more represented than I expected it to be,
especially when I kept going.
GROSS: Now, how well represented is HBO this year? How are they doing? Like
they don't--you know, "The Sopranos" is over. I mean, it ended this year...
Mr. BIANCULLI: Right.
GROSS: ...so it's still represented on your list, but "The Sopranos" is over,
a lot of their shows are in hiatus or ended.
Mr. BIANCULLI: Yeah, you're sensing a shift that actually I think is
occurring. Now, HBO could bounce back with some new stuff that it has coming
up in '08. But in the interim, as "The Sopranos" was ramping down and "John
from Cincinnati" didn't really do anything for anybody, and there was so much
time between seasons of "The Wire," there was actually an opportunity. And
Showtime hit it really big with "Dexter," the most successful program they've
had; and, you know, "Brotherhood" is a good show and they've got other things
on. FX, almost every show its done, even the shows that have failed and
haven't come back--Andre Braugher in "Thief"--have been really good programs.
GROSS: We talked about some of the best shows of the year. What about the
Mr. BIANCULLI: It's been a long time since I've seen a show as bad as
"Cavemen." And this was such a bad idea. It was based on the Geico cavemen
commercials, which were really good. I hated the show.
GROSS: Couldn't we have guessed it was going to be bad?
Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes. I don't know how they said yes to this.
GROSS: What else was really bad this year?
Mr. BIANCULLI: "Big Shots" and "Fat March," both from ABC. "Fat March"!
Just the title: "Fat March"!
GROSS: What is it? I didn't get...
Mr. BIANCULLI: It's a reality show about fat people marching to lose weight.
This is the show, "Fat March." You know, you should be ashamed of yourself for
missing this cultural zeitgeist. It came, it went. I hope it's never coming
back. But somebody said, `Yes, "Fat March." Let's do "Fat March."'
GROSS: Is reality television starting to bottom out? Because the shows are
becoming so ludicrous and there's so many of them.
Mr. BIANCULLI: It was starting to bottom out a little. It used to be in the
first few years, and this in only--this is since the year 2000, so it's in
this century--tt used to be any show that came up, you know, "Joe
Millionaire," just because of the novelty factor could be a hit. Then there
were copies, copies, copies, copies. Now they aren't necessarily hits. But
if they hit big they hit really big so the networks are still trying. The
hope is the strike.
GROSS: Right. And speaking of the strike, there's been very, very little in
the way of new television lately because of the writers' strike. Why is the
writers' strike so hard to resolve, David?
Mr. BIANCULLI: It's because the last time there was a strike 20 years ago
the Writers Guild of America basically gave themselves a ridiculous deal
thinking that, who cares about these new media. And so they got what amounted
to like four cents on each DVD, thinking, well, you know, I mean, VHS, DVD,
what's the big deal? How many of those are going to be sold? And it's
everywhere. So now they're saying, `the Internet, what's happening with
downloads, with streaming, we want a piece of that.' And the big network and
studio conglomerations, they don't even want to give them the same percentage
that they got for DVDs because they're thinking maybe it is lucrative, while
arguing that it isn't and that their positions are fair. So both sides
realize there's a lot at stake for the next generation.
GROSS: The late night hosts are coming back...
Mr. BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...but they're coming back without writers. And then a lot of people
are saying maybe they'll be coming back without a lot of guests to choose from
because a lot of their guests won't want to cross picket lines. Do you have
any idea what kind of late night shows we're looking at now, and this includes
"Letterman," "The Tonight Show," "Conan O'Brien," plus Jon Stewart and Stephen
Mr. BIANCULLI: Yeah, there are a little bit of differences within that
overall general arena. Letterman and Ferguson, because Letterman owns his
shows, may be able to still negotiate a last second deal where he brings his
writers with him. As we're talking, that's still up in the air. But the rest
of them are going back without writers. "Jimmy Kimmel" used to be on the
up-fronts doing improv for a half hour, 45 minutes with guests as they came
into the ABC up-fronts. I mean, he can make things up. Ferguson is really
great off the top of his head. Letterman is a natural broadcaster. And Leno
has had decades and decades of stand-up. These guys can do it. It's what
they'll be able to do, and, as you said, with whom, because a lot of guests
are nervous about crossing.
GROSS: Why are the hosts coming back? I mean, and some of them are writers,
too. So I'm not sure whether they're being pressured to come back or whether
they want to come back to protect their programs.
Mr. BIANCULLI: It's not only their programs they're protecting, they are
protecting their staffers. If you think that the writers are only like 5
percent of the overall--it's like an anthill. When you knock one of these
things over, there's people everywhere that are involved with this. And a lot
of those are the people that can least afford to lose their salaries. So
after a certain point and a certain show of solidarity, they should want to
come back. I understand that. Plus, my argument. There's so much happening
in the world right now we need topical comedians.
GROSS: Say the strike, you know, ended at the end of 2007, which it is very
Mr. BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: How long would it take to get new programs back on the air?
Mr. BIANCULLI: Some would be able to ramp up almost immediately, others
would take a couple of months. Again, you have a lot of variance from program
to program. But if you were able to say, OK, olly olly oxen free in January,
you might be able to see a real semblance of a fall season. But much past
that, and any fall season you see will probably be a winter season in 2009.
GROSS: You're looking at a new spring season, is that a possibility?
Mr. BIANCULLI: You mean spring of '08?
Mr. BIANCULLI: No. No. I don't think so. I mean, some of these...
GROSS: Are we going to be keep doing reruns through...
Mr. BIANCULLI: Well, there's--some shows have been held back because they
weren't thought as highly of originally, but now they're sudden little jewels.
Programs like "New Adventures of Old Christine" and "Medium" and "Law & Order"
are going to be coming back in January. And, you know, you get really
excited. I mean, HBO has "The Wire" coming back in the beginning of January.
And ABC has "Lost" at the end of January. Those are big, exciting things.
Fox has "American Idol." So there are some tent poles to keep people coming.
But the rest of it, there's going to be some really, really bottom of the
barrel reality shows coming at you.
GROSS: I wonder if you think that this strike and all the reruns risk driving
people away from television for the long haul, that they're going to find
other alternatives and not come back.
Mr. BIANCULLI: Oh, I think it will. I don't think it's even just a chance.
The last strike when there wasn't much else but network television, there was
no Internet 20 years ago..
Mr. BIANCULLI: ...the networks lost 10 percent of their audience because of
a six month strike. If this strike goes six months, they could lose 10
percent again or more, and people could discover the Internet and go to other
places, not come back. And the networks don't have the luxury of losing 10
percent. Now they're losing 2 and 3 percent of their viewers a year on
average as it is. They don't have than many years left to be able to claim to
be a mass medium.
GROSS: You know, what are advertisers doing? Advertisers buy time way
Mr. BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...for programs that they expect to be on the air but that aren't
going to be on the air because of the strike.
Mr. BIANCULLI: Yeah, they're getting nervous, they're getting angry and
they're getting cautious. NBC has such low ratings that they're already
having to do some buybacks and give back--nobody writes checks to give money
back to advertisers, but that's already happening in this strike. And what's
happening if you expected to be, you know, advertising new episodes of
"Smallville" on the CW, and instead you have to do a reality show called
"Farmer Wants a Wife," you know, it's pretty scary.
GROSS: So the networks are giving back money to advertisers because the
networks aren't providing what the advertisers thought they were buying?
Mr. BIANCULLI: There are a couple of individual cases so far where they are
giving back money. Most cases they're just signing up and saying make goods,
which means you will get future advertising.
Mr. BIANCULLI: If I promised you this number of viewers and you got 20
percent less, then you get 20 percent free in another program.
GROSS: What do you recommend we television watchers do during the interim of
Mr. BIANCULLI: DVDs are the biggest thing. I mean, this is really the time.
It's sort of like summer vacation or Christmas break anyway. Just stack up
things that you read about, you've heard about but you never saw or that you
lost touch with early. And go back and, you know, watch three seasons of
"Sports Night." Watch the first four seasons of "The Wire." You know, you'll
be amazed at how entertained you'll be and how great television can be without
commercials or interruptions or being able to watch as much or as little as
GROSS: Aside from the television strike, were there other big changes or big
issues that emerged in television in 2007?
Mr. BIANCULLI: The biggest one, I think, is the Internet, specifically the
way Youtube is affecting not only what makes a hit on TV but what makes us
talk about TV. And, you know, I've actually--I may be wrong about what I've
been thinking for a long time, that as the TV audience dwindles that we lose
our last mass medium. But, for example, "Saturday Night Live" did the Justin
Timerlake "Blank in a Box," I'll say for the sake of public radio, just a
little digital music video, and within two days it was seen by more people on
the Internet than it was on NBC. And when NBC showed it on its own Web site,
it showed it unedited. You know, what it didn't show on its own air it was
able to show on the Internet on its own Web site, which means there are
different rules. And so you eventually have this mass where lots of people
know it. They're not necessarily coming back to "Saturday Night Live," but
the dialogue is there.
GROSS: Now, is NBC making a lot of money from its Web site?
Mr. BIANCULLI: It hasn't yet, but everybody wants to. Nobody can figure out
how to make money from it yet, but they all figure out that's where the money
is. It's, you know, it's Deadwood. Everybody's going there with a scheme and
trying to come out a winner.
GROSS: You know, I don't follow TV really as closely as you do, but it seems
to me as cable network like HBO and FX and Showtime get better and better at
presenting dramatic series...
Mr. BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...that the networks are getting deeper and deeper into reality
programming in answer to that, or maybe just coincidentally, but it's kind of
strange. It's almost like, are there networks giving up on a certain type of
Mr. BIANCULLI: Well, they have. They've already given up, for the most
part, on miniseries and on made-for-TV movies. I mean, over the past 10 years
the vast majority of those have come from cable and not from broadcast.
Broadcast used to own that stuff. This sounds really cynical, but I think
there's truth in it, that the people who are running the networks these days
want to please the stockholders, which means you're thinking the next fiscal
quarter, you're thinking fast return. And if you can get a quick hit with one
of these reality shows, they're so cheap to make, the profits are so big,
everybody's happy. But what does that make your network?
And, you know, when I talk about DVDs to watch or shows from 10, 20 years ago
that are great, or you still watch "I Love Lucy" and "The Honeymooners"?
Nobody's going to watch, you know, "The Apprentice: Celebrity Edition" 20
years from now. You know, if they watch it in two weeks from now, NBC has
made a good call, but not for the long run, not for the legacy.
GROSS: We're going to take a short break here, then I'll be back with our TV
critic, David Bianculli, and we'll find out what shows he's most looking
forward to in 2008. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is our TV critic, David Bianculli. We've been looking back
at 2007 and ahead to 2008.
It's hard to look ahead right now not knowing how long the TV strike is going
Mr. BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...but given the uncertainty, what are you most looking forward to on
television in 2008?
Mr. BIANCULLI: I loved the way "Lost" ended last season, so I'm looking
forward to "Lost." And "The Wire" this year.
Mr. BIANCULLI: You know, each year looks at a different phase of Baltimore
as a microcosmic of what's wrong with the whole country. And this year it's
looking at the media. It's looking at TV and newspapers. I'm not going to
advance review it right now, but nothing makes me happier than that. So I
can't look forward to anything more than that at the start.
GROSS: Well, speaking of newspapers, this was a big year for change in your
life, David. And the changes in your life kind of represent larger changes
going on in the culture. Change number one is that you're no longer at the
newspaper The New York Daily News where you were for years. Change number
two, you have your own, and I might say really good, interesting television
Web site. And that seems to be a direction the whole culture is heading in.
Explain that particular change in your life.
Mr. BIANCULLI: OK. Alright, so yes, I'm a microcosm, too, apparently. And
I really am. What happened with me, I got quoted once in another New York
paper as saying that I was reverse-Godfathered and, you know, they made me an
offer I couldn't accept, which is the nicest way of saying that I'm not there
anymore because I could have stayed there, but to stay there doing things they
wanted me to do under the conditions and the ways they wanted me to do it just
wasn't going to work. But, you know, they're going in a different direction,
and I wasn't going to be a part of that direction, I don't think.
So then I had to say, well, alright, what direction do I take? And when I was
out in LA just saying goodbye to people that I'd dealt with in the business
for more than 30 years, the first two or three of them said `you should start
a Web site.' And I thought that was something uniquely Californian. And then
finally so many people said it that I tried it. So it's tvworthwatching.com,
and the idea is to be positive about TV. And the fact that the domain name
"TVWorthWatching" was still open all these years after the Internet started
shows you how few people actually try to take a positive approach to TV. And
so it's been interesting. It's been so much more work than I expected it to
be. It's ridiculous, but it's fun.
GROSS: So are you spending more time on the Internet now than you ever did
Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes. And more time reporting than I have in years because I
used to rely on the other reporters in the newsroom. Now, if I've got to find
out what the latest thing is about the strike. I've got to call people and do
it myself. So that's trickier. But it also is the freedom of, if I'm
interested in something I actually can write about it. And no matter what it
is or if it's far afield and I'm doing Broadway with Aaron Sorkin or something
else, and that's been invigorating. I didn't even know I needed invigorated,
but it's been kind of refreshing.
GROSS: Well, David, I want to wish you a Merry Christmas and a very happy and
healthy new year.
Mr. BIANCULLI: Well, you too.
GROSS: And thanks for talking with us about television.
Mr. BIANCULLI: Thanks, thanks, thanks. You know I love being here.
GROSS: Love having you.
David Bianculli is the editor of and TV critic for tvworthwatching.com.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. Merry Christmas from all of us at FRESH AIR.
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