Shales on TV Live: Predicting a Blu-ray Christmas

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Tom Shales
Washington Post TV columnist
Tuesday, December 8, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, Dec. 8, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

Today's column: At last, Blu-ray poised to change the big picturel

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 and thank you for dropping in, or whatever the proper terminology might be -- thanks for uplinking yourself? Anyway, we have a healthy heapin' of questions waiting ... so here it goes.....

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Evanston, Ill.: Tom, as a woman of a certain age, I'm curious as to how you liked "Men of a Certain Age," which premiered last night on TNT. I thought it was somewhat understated but I liked it on the whole. I thought the acting was excellent.

Tom Shales: i LOVED it and thanks so much for reading my preview. I'm teasing you, I am not offended when people say "What did you think of the So-and-So Show even though I had a big fat review of it in that morning's paper and on-line. I love the show but I know it might partly be because I AM a man of a certain age ... but I think women, who are always curious about men (and vice of course being versa) may like it too -- as you seemed to. I can tell you the next 2 episodes are perhaps even better than the premiere.....

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Classics in Blu-ray: I hear ya'. Got the Blu-ray 70th anniversary edition of the Wizard of Oz, watched it with a group of kids. As Dorothy stepped out into Oz, a 12-year-old blurted out, "It looks fake!"

I loved it anyway -- so much better than the network broadcast I saw for so many years on my parents' B&W TV!

Tom Shales: "It looks fake." Well yeah -- that first scene in Oz, after all the singing, and Dorothy is clearly skipping off down the yellow brick road and right toward a yellow brick wall. That is a huge backdrop painting that depicts the road winding into the distance. One irony of Blu Ray and hi-def is that shortcomings of special effects and make-up are much more readily revealed -- and naturally older, pre-CGI spfx are likely to suffer a bit because of the superior translation. Does that make sense (I mean, as much as these answers ever do)???

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Washington, D.C.: To take advantage of the Blu-ray, you need to have an HD TV (obviously) and you need to have the HDMI cable (not as obvious). Most BRs and the PS3 do NOT come with this cable. I have always thought that having you buy an additional cable a rip-off, but once you see a Blu-ray through a HD TV with the HDMI cable, your jaw will drop. Or you are blind.

Tom Shales: I certainly hope I mentioned the HDMI cable in my column. If I didn't, then a mean old editor cut it out (I joke; what is life if one cannot joke?). You should also have the appropriate inputs on the back of your TV set which should be a newer (5 years old or less, approx.) model and so on. There are many little details that can help make the BluRay or any hi-def picture really blossom. I have seen those cables go for as much as 60 bucks a pop by the way - OUCH! Don't pay that much whatever you do....

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Takoma Park, Md.: Tom, with the announced cancellation of "As the World Turns," I have a soap opera question for you. Why hasn't a network, broadcast or cable, tried to run a nightly soap opera in this country? It's a staple in Latin America and Europe and probably much of the rest of the world. I mean, if Jay Leno can get an hour in prime time every night ....

Tom Shales: Of course we do have precedent -- prime-time soaps that go back to "Peyton Place" with Mia Farrow (not every night though -- once or twice a week, as I recall) and I think they even tried making a prime-time soap out of the movie & play "Bus Stop." Then later came "Dallas" and "Dynasty" and that whole era of primetime soaps. But they weren't daily, which is probably why you aren't counting them. I'm sure some cable channel will try this eventually - and some of the Latin-American channels must be doing it already. You have an idea whose time WILL, I think, come......

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Woodbridge, Val.: I don't think the studios are going to get much financial boost out of Blu-ray. The huge leap in picture quality that we saw between VHS tapes and DVD led people to repurchase their collection in the new format, but that just isn't happening with Blu-ray. As the price of Blu-ray players drops below $100 it is just becoming the replacement to DVD, but not creating additional sales.

Tom Shales: I think you're right on the money, so to speak. First of all the difference between Blu-Ray and regular DVD is not as dramatic as the difference between DVD's and VHS tape. VHS tape was pretty dreadful. Blu Ray was expected to do what you suggest, revive the sputtering DVD industry, but they've found out that the most DVD's almost anybody but an insane movie nut (such as I) is 80. After that, guilt sets in, or something, about spending so much dough and devoting so much shelf space to movies. I do not understand why DVD sales are down otherwise. Oh I have been corrected on Blu-ray. It's spelled & capitalized thus: Blu-ray. Kind of a cool name for it, I guess..

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Washington, D.C.: I would never have watched MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE without your preview so thanks for that. I am not sure it is a classic for the ages but it is definitely better than the usual dreck. I will keep watching for a while if only to see if Andre Braugher's character can get back into shape and prove his worth to his father and if Scott Bakula's chatacter manages to keep his day job. If I showed up for work at 12:30 p.m. and then left for a snack while my boss was waiting for spreadsheets, I'd be unemployed.

Tom Shales: Yes few people have that luxury of arriving in time for lunch and then -- going out to lunch. The relationship between the Bakula character and his boss is intriguing; the boss is obviously a pushover for Bakula's laid-back, seemingly super-hip, ladies' man shtick. If Braugher gets back into shape, that will be a drama of its own -- assuming he gained the weight on purpose for the role and will lost it on purpose when/if the time comes. He is one of my favorite actors and I was sorry to see him reduced to stock roles in action pictures while he waited for something serious -- but it DID come along......finally....

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re Takoma Park: We do have night time soap operas, there just called reality shows. ie Jon and Kate, etc. ...

Tom Shales: Right. Soaps by any other name can still be considered soaps. Don Hewitt said the secret to TV is "Tell me a story." Probably "Tell me a continuing story" is even more popular with advertisers, thrilled at the prospect of people being compelled to return week after week to find out "what happens next."

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Nighttime Soaps: MyNet (The former UPN) did try this in 2006-2007 with Wicked Wicked Games, Fashion House, American Heiress, etc. The ratings were not good and they were canceled. A.H. was recently the #1 show in Bulgaria, though. Don't hold your breath for anyone to take a chance on this format in the U.S. again soon.

Tom Shales: Bulgaria!! I guess there may be a market for everything if one searches far and wide enough. I had forgotten the UPN soaps if indeed I ever really noticed them. I don't think one would ever fly on broadcast-network TV because the audience seems limited -- then again, they used to say that sci-fi would never ever work on the broadcast networks either because no women would ever watch it.

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Off the wall question: I'll be babysitting my nieces/nephews next weekend (ages 8-13) and thought we'd order in some pizza and watch a movie -- specifically, "A Christmas Carol." Do I go with Mr. Magoo or Alastair Sims or G.C. Scott? Which version of the classic do you prefer? (That is, if you were aged 8-13?)

Tom Shales: If I were 8-13, I would want it to be in color, it's pretty much a fact of life, so the George C. Scott one (a Hallmark Hall of Famer, I think) is perhaps the best bet. As I've mentioned before in these pages (are they pages?) I'm fond of the musical "Scrooge" with Albert Finney, but I seem to be in a definite minority on that (one song, "Thank You Very Much," almost became popular). The old MGM one made in the 30s is to me the most reliably satisfying version. Forget Mr. Magoo and Donald Duck and all the other cartoon characters who've taken a quack at it. I mean a whack at it (oy!). The story now seems so generic, so fundamental, that I'm sure many kids & some adults think it is a folk tale passed down by generations, a tribute to the genius of Dickens. Imagine dashing off a story that the world would love for at least a hundred years......

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Hanover, N.H.: Although it's lost a lot of buzz and ratings, FX's Nip/Tuck was pretty much a prime-time soap opera. Actually Fox's Glee, from the same creator Ryan Murphy, is pretty soap operaish too.

Plus, I read your chats regularly, and The CW's The Vampire Diaries is pretty much Romanian folklore meets teen soap operaish.

Tom Shales: Yes, it could be said that any series with a continuing story line is at least soapy if not an out-and-out soap.

Pro wrestling with its ludicrous plot lines -- rises and falls, love affairs and such -- definitely has that element. Remember -- was it "As the Stomach Turns" on the Carol Burnett Show? Hilarious -- especially Harvey Korman in drag as an old yenta.

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Then later came "Dallas" and "Dynasty" and that whole era of primetime soaps: Um, what do you think "Brothers and Sisters" is?

Tom Shales: Why I don't know -- pray tell what is it? OH, a SOAP?!! Well there you go. I have the feeling this discussion is becoming a soap.

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Rockville, Md.: Tom -- appreciated your piece on Blu-ray. Having just purchased a player during a Black Friday special, am interested in your thoughts on must-have discs?

Thanks!

Tom Shales: You know of all the discs I have - not that many really, because I'm determined not to be wiped out by another gadget -- one of the best for showing off Blu-ray is not a Hollywood movie but a British documentary -- "Planet Earth," which has sequences of absolutely stupefying beauty and visual power. And if you opt for that (it's nine or ten episodes long, I believe) try to get the original British edit with the original British narrator -- NOT the Americanized one with Sigourney Weaver. Fine actress but not good at narrating documentaries. David - David - David somebody was the original narrator. Please forgive these memory lapses; they bother me more than they irritate you, most likely......

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Athens, Ga.: Alastair Sims's version has been colorized.

I admit that Michael Caine is "A Muppet Christmas Carol" is way better then expected and actually enjoyed it as an adult. Funny/sad how those Muppets can more compelling the human actors.

Tom Shales: Hello Athens, where I used to visit once a year for the Peabody Awards (University of Georgia). I was a judge for whatever the term in office is, five or six years. Very enjoyable and even fascinating to look at entries from all over the world. Oh sorry - what was the question? Colorizing an old chestnut like "ChristmasCarol" seems perfectly OK with me as long as they do a passable job. If colorizing will encourage more kids to watch, then color away say I. And yes, those Muppets are nothing if not dependably entertaining no matter what.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think of "FlashForward"? Not sure if you're a fan of Lost but that's what FF is aiming for -- being another Lost. It's okay and it's best episode was last week's, which was of course it's lowest ratings ever. Sigh.

Tom Shales: Yes and I suppose it's something of a soap. And frankly, I fell away after a few weeks. Very hard for me to clear space in the schedule for a TV show every week no matter what -- unless it's Twin Peaks and so novel and compelling (and trailblazing) that I believe it would be almost critically irresponsible not to watch. Even Twin Peaks ran out of steam, however, and became a chore after a few months. I liked "Flash Forward" very much when it started but feared there would be a problem sustaining fascination, and there has been. Would love to hear how other die-hard fans feel. I sometimes confuse it with the movie "Jumper" which I loved and which I think could make a series, the hero hippity hopping all over the globe -- but hard to do on a weekly series budget, I suppose.........

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State of Dyspepsia: Please buy your HDMI cables online, where they are less than $10, and not from the store, where they are as much as $90. It's shameful, really...

Tom Shales: Thanks for the tip. Yes absurd to pay almost a hundred bucks for a wire.

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Planet Earth : Narrated by David Attenborough

Tom Shales: Thank you. I think it would have come to me but it's more expedient to depend on the kindness and good memories of our trusted chatters. And here comes another kind soul.....

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Sir David Attenboro is the original narrator of PLANET EARTH.

Tom Shales: ...but I think previous contributor had the spelling right -- Attenborough, right? I hope I haven't opened a can of worms with this.

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Charleston, S.C.: Hey Tom, love your chats. I was late to last week's chat, but I have a suggestion for the person who wanted to know what to watch on TV in the morning. I highly recommend The Weather Channel. Stephanie Abrams and Mike Bettes are a hoot! It's nice to have a fun couple to listen to as I try to get myself moving.

Also, I think you mentioned something about the PBS American Family series from the '70s; any idea when this might be available on DVD? I am dying to see it!

Tom Shales: "American Family" would be a real curiosity today, wouldn't it? I don't know why it hasn't turned up on home video but when this happens it's usually a case of clearing the rights. Sometimes just the rights to background music can hold up a release for months or years. One of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest films couldn't be transferred on TV until they found out whom to pay for the rights to the original story on which the screenplay had been based. It's all very complicated. I will try to check this out, though: American Family seems a natural for DVD, what with all the other "reality" shows it helped inspire....

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McLean, Va.: When we got our new HDTV set last year, instead of going with Blu-ray, we got a good quality "upconverting" DVD player. It gives us a near-Blu-ray quality picture (the difference is almost imperceptible) and cost less than $70 (with the HDMI cable included!).

As to "Christmas Carol," the George C. Scott version is great, as is the Patrick Stewart version that came out a few years back. I agree, though, that the Michael Caine/Muppets version is also very good -- especially for kids.

Finally, "Men of a Certain Age" has now joined "Modern Family" as proof that quality scripted entertainment is still being created.

Tom Shales: Under 70 bucks???? That sounds incredible. Meanwhile so glad you liked "Men of a Certain Age." I think it is first-rate all the way, and agree that such shows, and "Modern Family" too, give hope for the future of scripted television. To each his/her own favorite "Christmas Carol." Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life," with Lionel Barrymore very Scroogey as the town's resident rich old grouch, has become almost the classic that "Carol" is.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Hi Tom,

I conducted an experiment recently -- put two large screen TVs together, one playing Blu-ray, and the other playing an upconversion DVD(Batman Begins). I noticed very little difference in the picture or sound. I just don't see the reasoning behind buying yet another electronic item, and then having to replace all of my current DVDs with Blu-ray (as I did when I replaced all of my VHS tapes). What do you think?

Tom Shales: Well you sure don't have to replace "all" of your DVD's unless you are a truly fanatical perfectionist ... I would imagine it makes sense though to replace the films or TV shows or whatever with unusually strong visual appeal -- you know, the "Star Wars" films keep getting more spellbindingly gorgeous with each advance in playback equipment. Or the "Godfather" films, they're so rich looking that the improvements in picture quality are genuinely helpful. Bad word for it -- but you know what I mean.

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Ithaca, N.Y.: RE: FlashForward or Lost

Is the idea of episode being entertaining in and of itself dead?

I mean I watched "Seinfeld" or "The Simpsons" or "Law and Order" or "ER" episode and though they have continuing storylines, the episode itself was entertaining. I find today it's all about the DVD sales and the idea of just having an entertaining 40-something minutes rather then explaining whatever happened 4 episodes ago or setting a storyline that won't pay off for another 5 years.

Tom Shales: I don't think that a continuing, open-ended storyline means that individual episodes can't be rewarding; to me, that doesn't follow at all, but it's a matter of one's personal feelings, I guess. I prefer anthologies that are self-contained each week, however, because they don't make such great demands as a serial or soap.

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Daily soaps: "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."

Okay, it wasn't in prime time. But it also wasn't daytime.

Tom Shales: Very good! And it was a parody of a soap opera rather than -- well no, it was a real soap AND a parody somehow, if that's possible. I'm not sure if anyone could really get wrapped up in the plotlines, however, or that any of the characters, even Mary, inspired much emotional investment from viewers. Or did they?

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Arlington, Va.: Attenborough

Tom Shales: Thanks. I thought we got it right before,

but maybe not....

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Rockville, Md.: Got my first HDTV (Sony Bravia) a month or two ago. It came with a free Blu-ray/stereo surround system (Sony too). I love DVDs on it. Good enough that I'm not buying Blu-ray discs to replace DVDs. When we buy a new movie, it'll still be DVD as the other players in the house (and the portables for road trips) are all DVD players.

As Rob Pegoraro recommends, www.monoprice.com for all your cable needs.

Tom Shales: I may have committed a boo-boo by passing along a plug for a business concern ... but there it is. I was a big fan of Pro Video in Rockville, but this is no plug because they've gone out of business. They really knew how to explain high-tech stuff to fellow experts or to an all-thumbs doofus such as myself. But even at Best Buy you can run into salespeople who are knowledgeable, patient and understanding (if for instance I break down weeping because I can't afford the 65-inch Sony)

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Better than A Christmas Carol: "A Christmas Story" is far and away the one must-see of the Christmas season. Especially since TNT now shows the Grinch the day after Halloween.

Tom Shales: Noted. Not a fan but I truly understand the appeal of the film. As for the Grinch -- the original TV cartoon by Chuck Jones was terrific, but the live-action 'cartoon' with that public nuisance Jim Carrey struck me as abominable in every way.

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HDMI Cable Tip: Buy them online. You can get them for like 5 dollars instead of rip off prices in store.

Tom Shales: thank you

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Tempe, Ariz.: RE: Ithaca, N.Y.

I think that's why my granny loved "Murder, She Wrote" or sitcoms like "Frasier" in her later years. She barely had the memory skills to remember what was happening that morning, let along follow last week. So I'm happy there are shows like that out there for the grannies of the world.

I think you have to have both?

Tom Shales: Yes, good point, and I would think quite true. The only time I was in Tempe it was a dry 108 degrees -- but I kinda liked it. As for Ithaca, whoa. But isn't it the locale for the great William Styron play-into-movie "The Human Comedy"? A real beauty from WW-2. Now I wonder how many mistakes I have packed into this brief commentary. Maybe we should offer a prize to the most accurate goof-spotter. I said "maybe." No prize, no prize!

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State of...: Your Best Buy guy may be more empathetic than Oprah, but he's charging you $90 for a wire...

Tom Shales: Hmmm. I don't understand the Oprah reference (well yes, I know who she is but -- oh never mind) but I am shocked, shocked to find price gouging going on there. I think the internet is the best advice.

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Washington, D.C.: Will Stephen Colbert and The Colbert Report ever get out from under the shadow of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart?

Before you tell me never, picture the scenario: leaves Comedy Central for late night network. He wouldn't be as "in your face" nor he could he still have on people promoting books rather then famous and non-famous actors plugging their films.

Tom Shales: You know, that is a question I have never asked myself but you fortunately supplied your own answer. Thank you! And we'll see if you're right...

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State of Dyspepsia: An upconverting DVD is very nice (with cheap HDMI cable of course), but it is NOT Blu-ray.

Tom Shales: True. I believe that's our second contribution from a Dyspeptic today! Not counting myself, who had a few too many pretzels (during the past 30 years)........And thank you and goodbye and have a great week. Please return

if you have a chance......

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