Station Break

Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 25, 2007; 1:00 PM

Heard or seen something on the pop culture landscape that appalled/delighted/enlightened you? Of course you have. That's what Station Break with Paul Farhi is here for. Local stations, cable, radio shows, commercials, pop culture -- they're all fair game.

Farhi was online Tuesday, Sept. 25, at 1 p.m. ET.

Farhi is a reporter in the Post's Style section, writing about media and popular culture. He's been watching TV and listening to the radio since "The Monkees" were in first run and Adam West was a star. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Los Angeles, Farhi had brief stints in the movie business (as an usher at the Picwood Theater), and in the auto industry (rental-car lot guy) before devoting himself fulltime to word processing. His car has 15 radio pre-sets and his cable system has 500 channels. He vows to use all of them for good instead of evil.

A transcript follows.

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Paul Farhi: Greetings, all, and welcome back (shouldn't you be out playing on this lovely day? Shouldn't we all?)...So I've watched about 10 hours of Ken Burns' PBS documentary, "The War," (that's five of the seven episodes, for those scoring at home), and I can say with assurance that it is very good, very long and very hard to watch. Death is portrayed in many iterations and in much detail, as well you might expect from a documentary about a conflict that took 60 million lives. There's a sub-issue here that intrigues me (and perhaps you), one that Burns has raised in various interviews: Has our latter-day media "sanitized" the Iraq war so that Americans are shielded from its true horror?

Here's Burns' comment on Keith Olbermann's program on MSNBC last week:

During World War II..."we saw caskets coming back. Today, in order to find out a sense of what the real cost of war is, you sort of feel like a pornographer on the Internet. You have to search out these desperate sites because we do not have a media in this country willing to say this is what [the war] looks like."

This is, I admit, not a very nuanced point. There is far, far more information available about the Iraq war and its conduct than anything Americans saw or read during, I would guess, any war in American history. But I think Burns is on firm ground on one point: You can READ lots about the Iraq war but you don't SEE all that much of it in the mainstream media. When was the last time (if ever) that an American newspaper or TV program ran a picture of a dead American soldier or Marine? (I'm not advocating this, I'm just sayin'). During WW II, the U.S. government--the government!--released a newsreel of dead Marines at Tarawa (it shocked the hell out of everyone back home when it was released in '43). The government HAS censored a lot of stuff (the coffins arriving at Dover, for instance) but the MSM has self-censored the rest.

This is a long way of getting to my question: Would MORE disclosure of the war's horrors change the course of American policy in Iraq?

Let's go to the phones....

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Reston, Va.: Hi -- Thanks for taking my question. I must say that I would give the award for the worst commercial of the past couple years to those Taco Bell spots where everyone has cheese hanging out of their mouths. What were they thinking? There are few commercials that will make me NOT buy something and this ad is one of those (IMO, of course). What do you think?

Paul Farhi: Cheese? Is that stuff supposed to be cheese? It looks like some kind of industrial goo. Horrific looking (the "cheese" AND the commercial).

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Bowie, Md.: Shall we observe a moment of noise for Marcel Marceau who passed from this earth yesterday?

Paul Farhi:[Sound of one hand clapping in response to your suggestion]

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Rockville, Md.: What is real reason behind the very offensive and dumb firings of longtime local veteran newsman Ira Mellman and 10-year host Diane Kepley from WTOP? Both were competent, well-liked, knowledgeable, hard-working radio veterans. So these are people who you fire on the spur of the moment, without any discussion or advance notice? How does that make a better radio station? What do you gain from firing decent people? And Ira was previously fired from WBIG -- again, for no good reason. And don't say money -- WTOP can literally afford Ira Mellman and Diane Kepley.

Paul Farhi: Well, sorry for this, but I have to say money. WTOP apparently is making room for Hillary Howard and Bob Kur, who became boat people after the wreckage of Washington Post Radio. I can't speak to WTOP's personnel priorities, or its newsroom budget (although, suffice to say, WTOP makes TONS of money), but that's the official reason, I believe.

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Fairfax, Va.: Speaking of Burns: what's with the Hispanic protests of his work, saying he's racist? Is this a deliberate snub, an artistic oversight or manufactured outrage?

Paul Farhi: The Latino thing goes back quite a few months. Some Latino vets organizations felt overlooked by Burns. I don't think he set out to snub anyone; he just didn't think to tell (or want to tell) the stories of Latino and Native Americans in the war. He DOES tell quite a bit about black and Japanese-American experiences during the war, so I can understand the feeling of being overlooked. As is, he was "compelled" to add 28 minutes on Latino and Native American contributions to the war effort.

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Columbia, Md.: Just wanted to chime in, the new Cingular commercial with Roger Clemens and his wife is the best one so far. My wife loved it, and didn't even know who Clemens is!

Paul Farhi: I had to explain the particulars to my wife, who didn't know the backstory. She wasn't too impressed.

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Arlington, Va.: Did you see George Michael's exclusive interview with Daniel Snyder on Comcast? Obviously George Michael has no shame. How could he go on with a straight face asking Snyder why the media is so out to get him and why is the media unfair to him? Hey George -- not being a shill and mouthpiece for the organization is not the same as being mean and unfair to poor little Danny! But George has been the Redskins mouthpiece for 20 plus years. Back in the 80's when Christine Brennan was the Post's beat reporter, George would regularly come on the news at night and attack columns she wrote.

Paul Farhi: I think George, and to a lesser extent the other TV sports guys in town, have made a determination that there's no point in being too hard on the Redskins. This is such a huge Redskins town/region that I think they think they'll alienate viewers if they're too tough. There's another bit of journalistic corruption here, too: The Redskins have bought time on every local station over the years and hired local sportscasters (George Michael, Exhibit A) to act as the "hosts" of these in-house promotions. They're basically infomercials masquerading as sports "journalism." Shameless.

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War Scheduling: Why oh why does PBS do this? I love stuff like this but I can't take it every day. They used to put these series on once a week and I was happy to make it appointment TV.

Now, even if I'm home every time it's on, I can't watch the same thing all night every night.

Paul Farhi: Yeah, it's a lot to take in, isn't it? I watched the DVD screeners back to back and, man, that was a lot of war and death to handle. But I think PBS has found that "stripping" (i.e., running them on consecutive nights) builds a bigger audience throughout the week than a once-weekly schedule would.

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Showing War's Costs: It won't happen in the MSM, but not because the government doesn't want it. It won't happen because if the MSM shows what's going on in Iraq right now, they'll have to include the carnage being wrought by the Islamic terrorists.

Paul Farhi: Well, we don't show death in just about any form (car accidents, shootings, whatever), so we're at least equal non-opportunity about what kind of death we'll show.

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Huntsville, Ala.: Sir,

The U.S. government did not allow photos of American war dead to be shown until late in the war. The media back then did not go around this. It was only when the government thought that support for the war was slipping, mainly due to the fact people thought it would be over soon, did they allow photos of dead Americans. I don't think you can equate the two wars, or the two medias. Believe me the U.S. media is not sanitizing the current war.

Paul Farhi: Very true. This comes out in Burns' film. The showing of the newsreel ("With the Marines at Tarawa") was a calculated propaganda move by the U.S. government. It hoped the film would inspire even more enlistment. It didn't, but it did goose war-bond sales...

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Domino's Oreo cookie pizza:...is my vote for a commercial that hypes its product in an actively distasteful fashion (guys with the "moustaches"). No way would I want to try that mess.

Paul Farhi: I am soooo with you. That stuff looks even more disgusting than the Taco Bell "cheese."

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McLean, Va.: Paul: There are two new TV ad campaigns that have to be stopped and stopped now. The one for AT and T/Cingular with the British guy "finding" the Internet everywhere and the spots for Toyota featuring the really smarmy guy talking to the farmer and circus clowns. They're so annoying and not funny I'm beginning to hate the companies whose products they're pushing. Please make them go away. Thank you.

Paul Farhi: I keep waiting for the Toyota ads to have some kind of comic payoff. They're so manic and strange that you think there's going to be some "punchline" that brings it all home. Nope. Just another stupid, loud, hit-you-over-the-head car ad.

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Falls Church, Va.: In response to your question on the effect of seeing the war on our policy -- of course it does. That was the lesson learned from Vietnam. Before it was on TV, no one but those pesky college students/hippies knew where Vietnam was. Once it was brought into the American living rooms, the course of popular opinion changed...dramatically. So naturally the current administration doesn't want to show the bodies on TV. On the other hand, how many viewers turn it off when war stories come on? For MSM, its probably a matter of dollars and cents. My opinion, for what its worth.

Paul Farhi: Well, hold on a second. TV's effect on changing minds about the Viet Nam war is greatly exaggerated (usually by TV people). Many polls at the time, before and after the advent of war footage on TV, showed little change in opinions about it. Walter Cronkite's declaration in 1968, that the war was stalemated, might have been a bigger event than anything coming off the battlefield (and by the way, the battlefield footage that did get on the air was largely sanitized, too).

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Oakton, Va.: Paul,

I have found that watching Barbara Harrison on Channel 4's morning news is getting more painful every week. I have come up with some ideas and maybe others can add more.

1 - Don't give her any words with more than three syllables

2 - Avoid alliterations such as four Fords

3 - Avoid words where the the addition or subtraction of one letter creates another word for example - black

4 - Keep her reports to 3 sentences or less.

Paul Farhi: No comment on Barbara, just a comment about your comment: Why does this news person, out of all the many millions of news persons out there, inspire such animosity/contempt/fascination on this chat? (Okay, that's a question, not a comment, but answer it anyway)...

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Limited Commercial Interruption: Kudos to NBC for running the first episode of "Heroes" with limited interruption. I actually watched the whole thing without switching channels and I can even name the product that was being advertised. I wonder if NBC lost money by doing that or if they had a special rate for Nissan. I wish the whole season could be like that because I know once the normal breaks come back, I'll TiVo the show and skip the ads. I think the nets should consider a "less is more" approach to their ad time, especially for their marquee shows which attract the most eyeballs. What do you think?

Paul Farhi: I think it would be great, but would also be impossible. I find myself increasingly annoyed by the length of commercial interruptions on network and cable shows. Any movie with commercials in unwatchable to me now; I've gotten too used to commercial-free stuff on HBO and many other movie channels. Here's why it would be impossible to do single sponsorships of regular episodes: Single sponsors pay a special premium to be single sponsors. It's cost effective, I guess, as a one-shot, but not over the course of 24, 25 episodes.

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Johnson Center, George Mason University: What do you think of the chances of 3WT (old Washington Post Radio) doing well in the ratings? Very little local, original shows; mostly nationally syndicated shows.

Paul Farhi: I think I agree with my man Dave Hughes over at DCRTV on this: It will do worse in the ratings than WaPo Radio, for the reasons you cite. These syndicated shows (O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Neal Boortz, etc.) have already been tried on local stations and found wanting. I think 3WT had better hope ol' Tony Kornheiser comes back in January (not a sure thing at this point) because the off-the-shelf stuff will never be a home run.

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Silver Spring, Md.: So, WAPO radio is replaced by something much worse.

I miss my Roxanne Roberts fix every morning!

Paul Farhi: I'll send your love to Rox. I like her on the radio, too.

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NW D.C.: What is the real skinny why Drudge is giving up his radio program?

Paul Farhi: Is there a "real" skinny we haven't heard? What's wrong with the official skinny (he's too busy and wants a break)? Do you have a good conspiracy theory to share (i.e., the "real" skinny)? We're listening...

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Commercial interruptions: Last night I tried to watch "Chuck," but the same thing happened as always does when I try to watch commercial TV in real time -- I'd get up to do something on the computer at every commercial break, then come back...but eventually I kind of forgot the show was on and just didn't go back. Surely there must be a better way to pay for television. I'm so spoiled by watching TV shows on DVD (I've been rewatching "Alias" lately) that I kept wanting to pause it, or rewind to catch a line I'd missed. Am I the only person who finds watching TV incredibly tedious and inconvenient?

Paul Farhi: This is, of course, the story of the television industry for some time. Audiences aren't showing up at the appointed hours any more. They're time-shifting, watching something else or not watching at all. This has made the fall TV "season" far less of an event than it used to be.

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Tony's return: I don't want to get you in further trouble with your best bud, Tony, but why would they bring him back if they get him for seven months or so before he goes back to football? What's the benefit in that?

Paul Farhi: The benefit is that he has a following, and does a very fine radio show. His program was the most popular thing on WashPost Radio during its short, somewhat unhappy life.

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Oreo pizza: The cookie beards are gross, but the whole idea of an Oreo pizza is just disgusting anyway. Yuck. Not everything works in pizza format. What are we going to have next? Twinkie pizza? French fry and hamburger pizza? We're going to need a Tums and Gas-X pizza at this rate.

Paul Farhi: Yep. The fast food companies just don't care about that low-fat, low-sodium, organic hippie stuff. They sell indulgence--double bacon cheeseburgers, please-- as much as food. So, as much as you or I find the very idea of an Oreo "pizza" appalling, I'm gonna go ahead and guess that it's a huge, huge seller.

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Burns said that!?: Regarding the media covering the caskets coming home, Burns is just clueless about current history it seems. Does he not know that our military is forbidding this? Did he not see the big news stories when some pictures were taken and they were released (by the media!):

It's a clueless ignorant statement by Burns. And comparing WWII and Iraq is about the most ignorant part of it. Remember the Ford segment in "The War": some 3 million cars made in 1941 in Detroit, less than 200 from 1944-1945. EVERYONE sacrificed, EVERY job changes, every life changed. This is just not true now, nor was it even close to true in Vietnam. Over 400,000 dead. Over 600,000 wounded. Get this, over 30,000 just plain MISSING! We haven't even had 30,000 dead in Iraq, Afganistan and 9/11 combined, much less just plain missing.

That said, despite Burns' ego, I am enjoying the series.

Paul Farhi: Well, that was, in many respects, his point. We're just not as invested as a nation in the Iraq war the way WW II consumed everyone's waking existence. Thank heavens for that--world wars are pretty awful, as it turns out. But he's indicting the media's role in our current indifference. His point is, if we had more reporting, more visual evidence, of the awfulness of THIS war, it might change our consciousness and opinions about it.

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Arlington, Va.: Paul:

My problem with Ken Burns is that he comes off as a sanctimonious, boring know-it-all who wastes time and money on ground that is more than well-trodden, speaking from a point of view that states the obvious in a way that he thinks is controversial. My God -- after Winds of War and War and Remembrance, Band of Brothers, Flags of Our Fathers, Sands of Iwo Jima (not to mention Schindler's List) -- what place or possible usefulness does another 14 hour documentary have?

I'm just waiting for his next project -- the shocking waste of infanticide.

Paul Farhi: That's a fair criticism of "The War"--it's very, very well-trod ground historically. But I think it's always useful for another generation to discover history (assuming anyone under the age of 40 is watching PBS). And "The War" seems less a document of the Big Picture--this battle, that general--and more a document about the emotions, anxieties, and national responses to such a vast conflict. As such, it will stand up to all of the great films and documentaries about the war.

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WETA/PBS "The War" schedule: If you don't want to watch "The War" every night for four nights this week and three the next week, starting October 3 through November 14, every Wednesday night will air a single episode of it for seven weeks. The complete schedule is here:

"The War" Schedule (WETA)

Paul Farhi: Much obliged for that.

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Anonymous:"Paul Farhi: Yeah, it's a lot to take in, isn't it? I watched the DVD screeners back to back and, man, that was a lot of war and death to handle. But I think PBS has found that "stripping" (i.e., running them on consecutive nights) builds a bigger audience throughout the week than a once-weekly schedule would."

Did they not see the ratings for "Planet Earth"? PBS executives are dopes. This is just the latest example.

Paul Farhi: Hmmm. Well, frankly, I like PBS and, moreover, think what it does is generally good for the country. I'll fall back on an old PBS slogan here: "If PBS didn't do it, who would?" (I think that's it; it might be "If you don't get it, you don't get it").

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Falls Church, Va.: During WWII we saw caskets coming back? Lest we forget, there was no TV during WWII.

Paul Farhi: Newsreels? Life and Look magazine?

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War Scheduling: This is what Tivo is for. I just tape 7 straight episodes of "The Universe" but watched them over a 2-week period.

Paul Farhi: Or DVDs. Many ways to skin this particular cat now.*

* No animal was harmed in the making of this cliche.

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Re: Limited interruption: Paul, while I agree that it's costly, do you ever think we'll see a return to the days where a single company sponsors a show? It might be viable in the current market, where ratings are down, but you can hit a key demographic with the right show. Besides, think of the possibilities ("Lost" sponsored by Orbitz, "How I Met Your Mother" sponsored by Match.com).

Paul Farhi: Yes, as a one-shot, sure. But the networks make far more money by having multiple sponsors over multiple shows over multiple night. There aren't enough single-sponsor deals out there.

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Long Breaks: I tried to do the record-fast-forward thing with a couple of ABC shows, but what I realized wasn't just that the shows now last only about 35 minutes. It's that the breaks come so often that the segments have to be short, which reduces the writers' ability to carry out interesting plotlines. So less is actually less.

Paul Farhi: I'm not so sure how much difference the length of the show makes to creative quality, but more commercials sure makes it seem worse. By the way, HBO and the "commercial-free" cable networks do this, too. Many one-hour or half-hour shows on HBO aren't. HBO just pads out those 24 minute "Entourage" episodes and those 53 minute "Big Loves" with promos.

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Columbia, Md.: Don't you think it's likely that Tony will go back to 980?

Paul Farhi: I have no inside info on this, but if I were betting, yes. Since there's no more Post connection at 3WT, he's a free agent.

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"Why Barbara Harrison": I'm not one of those who post complaints about her. (Don't care enough to do so.) But I will say...she is pretty awful as a news anchor and has been around FOREVER.

Paul Farhi: I won't defend or support her, but the fact she's been around forever suggests she has some fans, and possibly a lot of them. And I will say her long running "Wednesday's Child" adoption bit is one of the finest public service campaigns any local station has ever done.

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* No animal was harmed in the making of this cliche. : Not physically, anyway. Emotionally...

Paul Farhi: By the way, I caught ABC's telecast of "Anchorman: The Ron Burgundy Story" some nights ago. The scene in which Jack Black's motorcyle hood dropkicks Ron's Spanish-speaking dog Baxter off the freeway bridge was cut. CUT! HOw dare they mess with a classic! And why, why, why?

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Arlington:" ...would give the award for the worst commercial of the past couple years..."

The universe of "worst" commercials is too vast for any awards. It's like getting a smiley face in kindergarten for daily attendance, everyone wins.

As for best commercials, Visa wins hands down for the ones in the deli/flower shop/wherever that have the checkout going smoothly until someone wants to pay with cash. Not only is this visually tricky and memorable, it's selling something that's completely FALSE and doing it successfully. I have yet to be in a store where cash is not the fastest way. Except if the dope in front of me isn't ready but that works for cards too.

Paul Farhi: That whole series of Visa debit-cards ads is superb (remember the Christmas shopping mall ad from last year?). As for cash vs. plastic, what, you want TRUTH to get in the way of a good TV commercial? Sheesh...

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Old Fogie La, ND: Hi Paul (hey, you StaBraDancers, too)...

Just got me a new car and it has that there XM radio on it. And I'm loving it. (insert joke about my trading in a horse and buggy -- I'm amazingly unhip).

Anyhoo. What's latest with XM/Sirius merger? Which one has better programming? Would they meld channels, double them, cut them way back?

Paul Farhi: Funny, but I've yet to find anyone who says they just can't stand that satellite radio. It seems to be one of those try-it-and-you'll-never-go-back products...As for the proposed merger, both parties are still grinding away, trying to convince the government to approve it. I'm betting it won't fly, based on the politics, but maybe XM-Sirius have better lawyers and lobbyists than I think.

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Entourage: Yeah, but 24 minutes seems like an hour.

Paul Farhi: Love the Entourage! A very kick-back, guy fantasy of a show. And Ari and Lloyd alone are worth the price of admission!

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North McLean, Va.: In theory, multiple sponsors dilute the influence of any one sponsor on content. There is an old story about a show solely sponsored by a soap company who wanted "Joy to the World" replaced with "Lux to the World."

Paul Farhi: I'm sure that's true (the dilution; I dunno about the Lux thing). But I seem to recall that the FCC passed some rule long ago limiting single sponsorships. Might have been a response to the quiz-show "scandals" of yore.

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Greater Green Bay: Why Why Why? Because the network is more afraid of PETA than dog kickers. The terrorists have won.

Paul Farhi: I fear that you are correct...

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Krystal Koons: Do you think Krystal Koons is a real person or some computer generated "thingy"?

Paul Farhi: No computer in the world could come up with a creation that original and magnificent. Computers would come up with "Mark Down."

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Paul Farhi: Folks, I'd like to stay and defend Barbara Harrison longer, but still another deadline looms (perhaps that could be the title of autobiography, or maybe a steamy soap opera). Anyway, we'll have another chance at this in two weeks. So come on down then. In the meantime, check out our new TV blog, called "Channel This" (see the Washington Post's home page for details). Glad to have your comments there. Until next time...regards to all. --Paul

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washingtonpost.com: Blog: Channel This

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