Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Audience Knows


"You can fool everybody but the Bull."

That's a line from the very first blog post I ever published over on Will Dixon's site. It's an adage I learned as a kid hanging around the rodeo ring. It means that for all your cowboy swagger, no matter how big the silver buckle on your belt, there's somebody who knows who and what you really are.

The Rodeo Bull has always symbolized the audience for me. Wily and unpredictable, capable of being downright mean or taking you for the most exhilarating ride of your life.

Something every actor quickly learns is that the Audience always "knows". They can sense that you haven't really learned your lines or done your homework on the character. Like a wild animal, they can smell stage fright and easily recognize that "Two Gentlemen of Verona" should not be set in upstate New York circa 1919 because the director had a new take on the material.

Somehow they always KNOW. And being Bulls, one thing they know better than anybody else -- is Bullshit.

Late Yesterday, History Channel announced it would not air the multi-million dollar, star studded, eight part movie it had just completed called "The Kennedys". According to the press release, this was because "While the film is produced and acted with the highest quality, after viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand".

When you work in this business and blog regularly about television, it's very easy to get so far up inside the self-performed colonoscopy which begets that writing that you believe (or come across as believing) that you're the only one who knows, who really knows, what's going on in the business.

But you're not. The Bull knew it from the first soft sound of plopping Bullshit. Knew it before the odor even began to tickle anybody else's nose.

Around the blogosphere today and in the weeks to come, there will be reams written about how such a catastrophic reversal of network intention came to be. The tens of millions this will cost History Channel in actual dollars pales by what it has done to the industry perception of both the abilities and ethical worth of its executive class.

Some will argue that the Kennedy family or those who have built careers around the original legend got to somebody.

Others will wonder why a far from quiet about his conservative political views and eager to remove any remaining candy coating from the Camelot story producer like Joel Surnow and his "24" team were ever put in charge of such a project. Given his track record, even a complete idiot knew he was going to go for the throat on some level.

Some in TV would call it a gutsy move, putting yourself out in the unexplored territory you need to inhabit to create compelling television.

From the moment the project's first scripts were available, noted Historians and others who had been part of the real life story all claimed the production was a "smear campaign" . History Channel countered by saying any excesses or inaccuracies in the first drafts had already been corrected by their own highly regarded in-house historians and adjusted by the Production.

With the signing of a stellar cast that included Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper and Tom Wilkinson, the promise of a remarkable "first ever for the network" scripted drama seemed likely. The addition to that cast of Katie Holmes (Mrs. Tom Cruise) assured that the media could be counted on to deliver a wealth of free publicity, vastly increasing awareness of the offering.

According to friends of mine who worked on the project, History minions from those with suede elbow patches to those without sox in their loafers were all over the production, seeming to be a party to every decision and revised creative nuance from last minute script changes to the push of each edit suite button.

There's no way anybody at History did not know exactly what they were getting or going for from the get-go.


This had the makings of a major television event. The kind that can be a game changer for a network and create lifetime careers for the executives in charge.

Now it's going to become -- something else entirely.

History Channel claims it will sell the project to another network so that it can be seen by the American people. "Nothing unusual at all here. No buckling to political pressure. No hot potato or smelly turd of a final product. Just not our style." And it insists that the series will air as scheduled in Canada beginning March 6th.

I'm sure History Television here or whoever else had first dibs on "The Kennedys" broadcast is heaving a huge sigh of relief over that.

Despite being a completely American owned and operated show, it does pass as Canadian content and will keep endless channels in the Shaw constellation operating within the terms of their Canadian licenses for decades to come -- or at least until they sell off that part of the empire and get into something more lucrative like timber futures.

But given that most US nets long ago locked schedules far past March, it means that the huge public desire to either see the advertised production or simply get a look at what has wrought such controversy will only find its needs met by the bit torrent world.

When a project that will cost any network millions to acquire can be picked up for a song on DVD from a street vendor outside their own NY office months before they can air it -- well, just how valuable is it going to be…?

Some are already claiming that Tom Cruise will ride to the rescue, saving his fair damsel from any snide gossip about her possible contribution to the debacle by having his friend Oprah Winfrey buy the series for her new channel OWN.

Not a completely ridiculous concept, since many say Oprah owes Tom for past much discussed appearances. And adding this kind of jewel to her net's debut season could ensure a tsunami of new subscribers.

Others darkly hint that Rupert Murdoch is conspiring to buy it for Fox, counting on the cross-pollination of Kennedy "haters" like Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly over on FOX News to net him Superbowl level ratings.

Its fascinating the way we all use our own base political beliefs and personal cultural bugaboos to map plausible futures.

The Bull doesn't do that. He just sniffs the wind and paws the ground, getting those horns ready.

One of the reasons I give Glenn Beck a little more leeway than most is because he used to be a stand-up comic and is a self admitted Rodeo clown. If you ask me, his success is mostly due to being personally familiar with the Bull.

He's seen it at its most frightening, eye-rolling, nostril flaring, head full of buzzing angry bees glory and he knows that while you can't tame it you can at least wave something to take it in a different direction.

In looking for some insight into this story last night, I surfed the net and discovered one of the best online personifications of the Bull I've ever seen.

It's a site called "Oh No They Didn't" established for no other reason than to give internet trolls the opportunity to vent on celebrity and cultural antics. When you enter the comment thread on the History/Kennedy story, you cross through the Looking Glass into a Looney Tunes World created not by the purveyors of entertainment but by those who consume it.

It is Bullshit being called on an epic scale.

And in addition to being revealing, it is funny as hell.


"Seriously, 'Ancient Aliens' passes their strict criteria?"

"This from the channel that runs "The Mummy" at least once a month."

"Maybe if they threw in some wizards and more conspiracy theories it would be more appropriate."

"Oh yeah, why show a mini series on the Kennedys when you can show another season of "Ice Road Truckers" fucking douche nozzles."


"Backwoods jackasses shooting alligators and people driving over ice are fit for the History brand, but a series that might actually have something to do with history isn't going to work?"

And those are just from the first page...

If I had my way, this site should be required viewing on every hearing table laptop open before a CRTC Commissioner whenever Canadian broadcast executives come around to argue for rule changes and financial assistance.

It would just be so incredibly refreshing to witness one of those shameless, talentless yet enormously entitled empty suits from History Television try to justify how "NCIS" or "Pawn Stars" is a worthy and culturally important component of their preciously protected genre while juxtaposed with what the audience the Commission is supposed to represent pointing out what it really is.

Konrad von Finckenstein might stir from his professorial slumber enough to realize how publically he's being boned every time he hosts one of these Gatineau Charades.

And it would be good for us Creatives to take a step back from our own self-importance and wooly brained examinations of where the culture is going and "what it all means" in the grand scheme of things and look the Bull straight in the eye for a change.

Because they "get" us far more than we ever give them credit for doing. They know we're the guys who think we can get the better of them for a whole eight seconds in our fevered desire to attain our allotted 15 minutes of fame.

They KNOW what we really are. And maybe if we stop lying about what's going on among ourselves, we can finally give them the honesty they're looking for, and deserve -- and maybe most important -- can respect.

1 comment:

Rusty James said...

On a similar note, I had a real problem with Mario Lemieux, during the Winter Classic, referring to his Penguins as Product:

"Put a good Product on the ice..."

I think is what he said.

/just saying.

Happy 2011, Jim.