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Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, September 8, 2009; 12:00 PM

Join Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales every Tuesday at Noon to discuss television, its cultural impact and his latest columns.

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Today's Column: For 'SNL,' Doubts Follow A Banner Year

Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.

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Tom Shales: Greetings -- welcome back to anyone who has been here before and thank you whether a first-timer or a third (this being No. 3). Good news personally & bad. A web critic called me "the doyen of American TV critics" today, or recently, and though I thought I remembered the precise meaning of the word, I looked it up: "A man who is the ELDEST or SENIOR MEMBER of a group." Aggggghhhhhh!!!!!

On that dismal note, let us dig in..........

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Tom Shales: Hello? I think I am here, and you are there. And I believe I now proceed with questions.

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Alexandria, Va.: It's your long-winded admirer from last week again. Only one comment this week.

Your column today notes the addition of a half-hour "SNL Weekend Update" into NBC's prime time schedule. And of course, an hour-long "Jay Leno Show" will be stripped Monday through Friday.

Assuming these are both successful, what do you think NBC's next cost-cutting move will be? I predict one 45-minute drama or sitcom at 9:00, followed by an "NBC Nightly News" at 9:45 and then Leno at 10.

Tom Shales: Thanks for your gala return and the longer-winded the better, though I hadn't noticed any long-windedness on your part. I think NBC will extend the "Today" show so that it ends just before "NBC Nightly News" begins. Or right after "your local news" lest the affiliates get cranky. NBC Radio had a thing called "Monitor" years ago; it was an all-day, all-night service-oriented news show, I think. Maybe the TV network will be turned into that kind of thing. Nothing is impossible, I guess.

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Baltimore, Md.: Tom, I'm loving the show Shark Tank. What's your opinion and do you think that it will stay around?

Tom Shales: I was surprised to like it, basically. Not a big fan of reality shows (actually, not a big fan of reality, when you get right down to it). I didn't see a big future for this one because there's so little happening, really, and most of it happens in a TV studio, a simulated conference room (or maybe it's a real conference room - claustrophobia-inducing whatever). It must be cheap to produce so it's future, I think, is good. Or at least not-bad. I think it's better than that Donald Trump thing, for whatever that's worth.........

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Hi Tom!: I love your writing and am SO glad you are back in this new incarnation.

So what do you think about SNL's firing of Michaela (sp?) Watkins and Casey Wilson? I think Wilson was pretty awful (her acting was like middle school drama club level, and her writing? See: Bride Wars), but will miss Watkins. You?

Tom Shales: I thought Ms Watkins looked like a model; very elegant, quite quite pretty. It seemed like maybe comedy is too messy a business for someone like her. I couldn't see her letting herself get messed up for laughs -- not that there's much slapstick any more, it's just that comedy is by its nature indecorous, if there is such a word. I'm not sure about the word "FIRED" as everybody is kind of on-approval for their first year, or their first couple of years, and these two just didn't survive the test.... (?) and thank you for kind comment

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Baltimore, Md.: Tom: As you are the "doyen" of TV critics, could you say what the best thing is to happen to the medium since you started covering it and what is the worst thing? (For me, the latter would be how cable promised to open up a whole universe of entertainment high and low, only to skew dramatically toward the low once the networks started gobbling up cable channels -- e.g., Bravo's programming before and after the NBC/Universal purchase.)

Tom Shales: Yes, well, I think it's too early in the week to do a lot of doyenning. A transparent way of saying I don't have a good answer. The biggest disappointment may turn out to be digital TV, as it's awfully susceptible to atmospheric disturbances, or so it seems to me, and is a "colder" sort of image the way CD's give a colder sound than analog LP's. I know I always backtrack on these answers, coward that I am, so maybe, as my father used to say, I am "talking through my hat." By the same token, I think HD is a wondrous improvement that makes TV truly a visual medium. I remember watching a short HD travelogue of Greece when NBC did the Olympics from there and being blown away every time by the gorgeousness. With HD, you just can't watch TV as casually as with regular TV - though when we all get accustomed to it maybe we will take it for granted no matter how beautiful the picture is.........

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Mt. Lebanon Pa.: If FOX News is a "news" network does that make ESPN one, too? Or the Comedy Channel -- news network?

It's a wonder there isn't a cartoon news network or a dead philosopher's news network.

Thanks much. (now reading Karl Popper)

Tom Shales: Well ESPN is certainly an informational network. If we substitute that word for "news," then cable can be divided into the utilitarian and the entertaining, or the allegedly entertaining. The versatility and pliability of the medium remains impressive and gets more so with the expanded number of channels; we adapt and it adapts -- so that the same technology that brings us a full-length opera can a few moments later give us instruction on how to sharpen our lawnmower blades. The sublime, the ridiculous and the merely useful. I don't know HOW I drifted into this hall of mirrors. I apologize.......

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Eye Street: Hi Tom,

I am a big fan of your writing even though I don't watch much TV. When I do watch, it is just shows that I have recorded on the DVR (I get my news from radio -- isn't that quaint?!) So, I haven't seen a commercial in about a year. My question: Is there any real evidence that the DVR is killing TV? Thanks for your perspective.

Tom Shales: DVR's killing TV? You mean economically, threatening the advertiser-supported kind, because people don't watch the commercials when they're DVR'ing? It's always been my feeling that they SEE the commercials even if they do not "watch" them -- an audio-video or at least video impression is made even if you speed thru the commercial at 10 times normal speed. And we don't know how many people slow down the DVR to watch a commercial on purpose, because they enjoy it. Like the new ad with the parents texting and twittering while their kids bawl them out. Cute.

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Arlington, Va.: If you answer local questions, was Dr. Phil doing so badly for Channel 4 that he was allowed to switch to Channel 5? I do notice that 4 is doing some all news thing in the old Dr. Phil slot and Phil will take on Dr. Oz, another Oprah creation, who starts on Channel 9. Perhaps all Oprah is the next new network but it probably exists on one of my few hundred cable channels.

Tom Shales: I was supposed to write a book about what I called the Oprafication of America - certainly of TV. What is it with her and Dr Phil? I see he's due as a guest on her show, or did that already happen, but according to the National Enquirer (OOPS! That cat's out of the bag! Well, I, um, have been known to glance at it in line at the Safeway), oh now I forgot what is what according to the National Enquirer. Except its reports that Dr Phil's life is in ruins seemed believable. Or at least I kinda wanted to believe them as I do not like Dr Phil. Big Bully.

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Westcliffe, Colo.: How come U.S. television doesn't have foreign channels on the hundreds of available slots available?

No interest? No income stream? No thinking going on with the TVocracy?

You mentioned Greece on HD. I'll betcha there are hundreds of very fine foreign programs. But not on American television.

Why?

Tom Shales: Actually, on DirecTV you can get a good many Spanish-language and Asian channels if you buy an extra package, and I do because I find the foreign shows to be sometimes fascinating. I also enjoy TV with sound that I don't have to pay any attention to because I can't understand the language. It gives part of my brain a rest (if there's still a part of it that's awake). But I certainly agree that many more foreign channels are desirable; it's just that the MadisonAvenue-model wouldn't work, I don't think, as far as financing it goes. I don't think the demand would be sufficient -- then again, we are still a melting pot with many many nations represented and many people true to their roots, maybe it would be a big success. I foolishly subscribed to a "service" on the computer that claims to pull in foreign channels from all over the globe, but it's weird; I get the feeling I am looking at things produced just for this service, not REAL foreign programming.

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New York, N.Y.: Have you had the opportunity to see any of the upcoming episodes for the new session of House MD? Is so, does the writing maintain its crispness?

Tom Shales: Sorry, I haven't seen any new House's. I do know that good friends who are more loyal to the show than I am have been dissatisfied for several months; they feel the show has become too sensationalized, the stories too hot-to-trot, or whatever an apt description might be. I'm sorry but I haven't watched often enough to have an informed opinion. But I would expect this season to be House's last, so enjoy it (or loathe it) while ye may.........

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RE that SNL question: I fully agree with the firing of Wilson (stiff, not funny), understand it for Watkins (just not the right fit), but couldn't Michaels find a single woman of color in the world to hire? It is really pathetic. Arnison in blackface is bad enough. It is offensive (and I am white, for the record).

Tom Shales: Yes, the racial diversity is lacking. But then does the producer go out searching SPECIFICALLY for a "performer of color"? Is that a fair kind of affirmative action? I can

understand an intrinsic reluctance to operate in that way. It could lead to a case in which a performer-lacking-color who is very funny & talented would be passed over simply because of their monochromatism (boy the English language doesn't stand a chance around here -- but there's not enough time always to look up the "right" word). It's a vexing problem in many businesses, of course. More should be done in the entertainment biz because of its far-reaching influence, don't you think?

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Alexandria, Va.: Before SNL, Michaela Watkins had a recurring role on Old Christine as the brother's girlfriend... perhaps she'll be able to go back there.

Tom Shales: Don't have a comment for this but wanted to "publish" it so here it is! (Or there it was)

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Washington, D.C.: You've given rough treatment in the past to over the top performers like Kathie Lee and Cher, what about Wendy Williams? How u doin?

Tom Shales: Wendy Williams ... Wendy Williams ... Now let me see .... Is she the one who -- no, not that one ... Let me get back to you on Wendy Williams. First our crack research staff will Google her within an inch of her life........

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Washington: Tom,

I just wanted to point out that on this day, September 8, in 1966, Star Trek aired for the first time.

No real question; just wanted to put that out there.

Tom Shales: Today a Star Trek anniversary. Good to know. Why is it good to know? I don't know! It would be good to know why it is good to know. Anyway, I think we do tend to go over-the-top in celebrating anniversaries, and often of course it's just an excuse for trotting out an old movie or video clip or whatever ... but this Star Trek anniversary seems to have genuine significance. Why? Uhhh -- one question at a time, please.........

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Rockville, Md.: Hi Tom. Can you tell me what effect Obama's speech will have on tomorrow night's TV? Thanks!

Tom Shales: I'm afraid I don't know -- the speech is at 8, presumably will fill the entire hour, so whether a pre-empted 8 p.m. show airs after the speech, and the networks "slide" the whole prime-time schedule, probably depends on how strong the pre-empted show is. Got that? Good because I'm not sure I do. Considering the recession and the networks needed every little drop of revenue they can get, a "slid" schedule seems likely even if it pushes the 11 o'clock news to midnight and makes the affiliates very angry.........

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Takoma Park, Md.: Tom, with "At the Movies" getting back to having real movie critics, I was reminded that it would be great to have real TV critics on a show critiquing television. You and Ms. de Moraes would be perfect.

Tom Shales: On behalf of myself and Ms. de Moraes, thank you. And now that TV's have wide screens -- no, I will refrain from doing a fat joke about Ms de Moraes. I MEAN ABOUT MYSELF! Ms DeMoraes is glamorously thin. Many years ago the Disney people tried to put a TV-critics' show together with me and my friend Elvis Mitchell but some horrid executive decided it would be too hard to get the networks and producers to lend us clips of their shows. I thought that was a preposterous reason to give up on the show - meanwhile there have been other attempts, some involving yours truly, others not. None of 'em got off the ground for whatever reason.........

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Foreigners, DVRs, and Commercials: A lot of the cable systems have specific tiers of foreign programming, especially in markets where that population is large enough to support the business.

Take another look at a lot of the advertisers when you're fast-forwarding through a commercial: the smart ones are leaving the logo up so you'll know who they are, even at 4x speed.

Tom Shales: Good points, both of them! Since almost ALL the movie trailers look alike -- cars flying thru the air etc -- they've taken to putting the movie's title at the top of the screen and leaving it there for the entire 30 or 60 seconds. That may be for DVR's and/or for regular-time viewing.

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Washington, D.C.: I counted it up once, and in an average 24-hour weekday, our local NBC affiliate (WRC 4) runs nearly 12 hours of programming that could reasonably be called "news" (yes, I'm including the third hour of "Today"). And it's more if Dateline happens to be on that night. So we're more than halfway to the "Monitor" stage.

Tom Shales: There you go. TV becomes more like radio all the time, at least some TV stations, especially network-affiliates. Did you know or do you remember that the "prime time access" rule, which took the 7 - 8p.m. hour away from the networks many years ago, was designed to encourage "local" programming? HA HA HA. I like "Jeopardy" but it is not local programming; nor is "Wheel of Fortune" or those infernal show-biz gossip programs. A well-intentioned rule change that bombed.

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"But then does the producer go out searching SPECIFICALLY for a "performer of color"?": For a show like SNL? Of course: Garrett Morris.

Tom Shales: Do we know that for a fact, that Garrett was hired to fill a "minority" spot in the cast? Maybe so, but he was a very very talented fellow (who didn't get enough opportunities to shine on "SNL," one could easily argue). Then poor Garrett discovered Drugs on the 17th Floor (of the old RCA Building, now the GE Building) and that pretty much obliterated his chances for the big time. Still, he pulled himself together and survived......

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Potomac Falls, Va.: Hey Tom - how's "Defying Gravity" doing in the ratings and where will it move when "Brothers and Sisters" comes back?

Tom Shales: Sorry, I do not know the answer to this question, but I thought we could run it up the flagpole and see if anyone else does.........

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Hoboken, N.J.: Are you excited for the premier of Sons of Anarchy tonight on FX? Great show that the network is seriously starting to promote.

Tom Shales: Hello Hoboken. By the way, I was accused by some blogger-nut of ridiculing the name Dunn Loring last week when in fact I did not such thing. I was wondering aloud what a resident of Dunn Loring (I DO hope i have that right) would be called - a Dunn Loringette? I often play that stupid game with the names of places. I have nothing against the fair city of D.L., and why on earth would I make fun of it, unless I'd been given a speeding ticket there. Oops, I ignored the question: "Are you excited for the premiere of Sons of Anarchy tonight?" Answer: No.

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Bristol, Conn.: Any idea when we can expect your history of ESPN?

Tom Shales: Bristol Connecticut???? Are you an ESPNer yourself, by any chance (who else would ever reside in Bristol?) The book about ESPN, which Jim Miller and I are doing, should be out next year. You are kind to ask -- unless you think the book is late and you're asking just to needle me. Well, needle away! I don't think the book will be late and I hope it will be very very good. Thanks for the question

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Re: SNL and race: I agree that recruiting performers just on the basis of color can be a bad practice, but the reality of SNL seems to be Michaels will never have more than one black cast member at a time. There seems to be an informal color bar at SNL that keeps black performers perpetually in a token role.

Tom Shales: Ah but he did have more than one black cast member at a time... it was a few years back and in addition to Keenan, there was a supporting player named, I believe, Finesse Mitchell. (I'm pretty sure about the "Finesse," not so sure about the "Mitchell"). It is, of course, a difficult area. I am sure there is room for criticism and certainly room for more ethnic minorities. It may or may not come as a thrill to you, but one of the two new women performers was born in Iran, though she grew up here in the U.S.

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Seattle, Wash.: The ad with the parents texting is cute? Really? Perhaps the first time, but after seeing it dozens of times, I want to boycott the advertiser... if I only could remember who it is.

Tom Shales: It's Verizon and I'm not normally a fan of their commercials. That strange meek little geek who follows people around with his scary-looking army of underlings.

And indeed, any commercial can become MADDENING if repeated often enough. Then again -- (back-and-forth I go, back-and-forth -- sorry) -- I don't think I could ever have gotten sick of that ridiculous singing mounted fish in the McDonald's fish-filet commercial, though I know that it drove many people right up that wall where the fish was residing. I just adored it....

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Doyen : Doyen is just French for Dean. You may now put shows on double secret probation.

Tom Shales: Thank you. I do think that in common usage, "doyen" and the female version "doyenne" have come to mean someone who is a widely respected leader in his or her profession -- someone whose opinions are treasured and whose jokes are almost always funny. Yeah, right. I never wanted to be called "the dean of TV critics" as indeed it does sound old. I always liked "The Pecks Bad Boy of television criticism," but nobody's ever called me that. Sadly, it is not a hotly debated national issue......

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Fall TV: What's the Not-to-Miss new show?

Tom Shales: I am trying SO hard to think of the season's do-not-miss new show. I am not so sure there really is one, though there are several "delightful" shows that you'd be better off seeing than missing ... "Modern Family" and "The Middle" both try to breathe new life into the domestic sitcom and, I think, succeed ... "Mercy" and "Trauma" are good medical shows ... "Flash Forward" is of the video fantastique genre, fascinating at first blush - but I fear it will just wander off in circles, the way "Heroes" and "Lost" have done (though I know both show have loyal fans who cling to every twist and turn)...

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RE: Foreign programming: MHZ has 10 channels of foreign programming on channels 30-1 through 30-10. Most of it is news, but I was able to watch Japan's version of Wheel of Fortune. They also have a very good series of foreign detective shows on Monday's at 9 pm

Tom Shales: Time is running short and i wanted to get this one in for its informational value.........

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Arlington, Va.: Your Colorado correspondent needs to look into what is available on his/her TV provider's collection of channels. BBC America seems to be pretty well established these days in most places. Maybe that isn't "foreign" enough? On my FiOS system we get all sorts of foreign channels on the "HD Extreme" package. Chinese channel CCTV, some sort of Taiwanese news channel, the MHz family of foreign news channels, Bloomberg which covers business news around the world. Several Spanish language channels from a variety of places. And there is the ability to pay for lots of foreign content including channels from places like Cambodia (!). So, there are options out there. But I am not sure there is much of market out there for non-English (or Spanish) channels in this country.

Tom Shales: And the same for this one ... "FIOS" looks awfully good in the ads, and it certainly has caused the cable systems to launch a nasty offensive ...

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Semantics: How is it that all the cable channels (ESPN, Fox News, TNT, etc.) get away with calling themselves "networks"? CBS is an actual network of affiliated local stations that run some of their own programming. ESPN is a cable channel that is the same no matter where you go. I suppose it's on a network of cable systems, but that seems to be a stretch.

Tom Shales: You are so right. A "network" is a group of affiliated stations that get programming from a central source and so on and so forth. But "network" has been appropriated to mean any national "channel" distributed via cable or satellite, and there's no way to un-do that appropriation. And so with Washington-like talk of appropriations, we say adieu for another week of happy bantering. I am sorry not to have been attacked as a sneaky liberal -- but maybe next week. THANK YOU very much......

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