Monday, April 20, 2009

TV Free!

[This is a repost of a item originally posted on Tuesday, April 24, 2007]

TV Free!
Meatwad: But I thought you said TV was bad!
Frylock: Yeah, it is. But we fucking need it.
--from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, "Universal Remonster"
This is always adorable: This week is TV-Turnoff Week.

The intentions of TV-Turnoff Week are noble, as well as remarkably dumb.

Believe it or not, I think it's a good idea to raise awareness that there are things you can do with your time other than watch TV. But I find TV-Turnoff Week to be misguided; more of a political statement than an actual movement for increased physical health, intellectual growth, and family togetherness.

The implicit message is that TV is always bad. We are told that TV makes us stupid (or, at least, less apt to to learn), makes us violent, teaches us to swear, makes us fat and lazy, and makes us little more than consumerist automatons. Should you ask for any proof about this, there are plenty of studies with plenty of evidence. Of course, it's never conclusive -- a fact that is quickly glossed over -- and there are plenty of other studies that show an increase in brain activity while watching TV.

Little matter. The argument from the anti-TV people always boils down to: "Just look." What further proof do you need? Just look at all the awful things that are on TV, and how could you even deny that it's a horrible influence?

Have you ever talked to someone who doesn't own a TV? It's not simply about their personal preference. It's about their superiority. "I'm quite a bit more intelligent and disciplined than you because I find television distasteful while you find it enjoyable."

We're meant to be in awe of how cultured they are.

There may (or may not) have been a time when TV was nothing but a Vast Wasteland. But these days -- and this is hardly the first time I've pointed this out -- TV is at an all-time quality high. There are some amazing and impressive shows on right now. Audiences are savvy, and they demand more. The writing and the directing and the acting matches anything you've seen in movies or on the stage.

"Just look," they will say, pointing at some awful sitcom. "How can you defend this?"

Are there bad shows on TV? Yes, and I'll go you one better: there are FAR MORE bad TV shows than good. It's always been that way, and it always will be.

Now... show me any medium, from anywhere in the world, at any point in history, where this is not the case.

The "Intellects" who rail against TV would rather have us do what? Usually it's read books, right? Because, just as TV represents everything bad in the world, literature represents everything good. Ok, fine. Books. You're telling me the majority of books are high-class, challenging, enriching experiences? You know that most people are reading pulp mysteries and trashy romances, right? Or am I supposed to believe that the worst book is automatically better than the best TV show could ever be?

Painting? Sculpture? Photography? Movies? Music? Video games? Theatre? Junk is always the majority; quality is always the minority.

If you're watching the right shows, TV is every bit as stimulating, engaging and, yes, enriching, as any other intellectual pursuit. Furthermore, in this day and age, to deprive children of television is to do them a disservice. When your child turns 18 and goes out into the world, do you want said child to be ignorant of one of the most prominent and impactful media in the world? Whether you like it or not, TV is a major part of what's going on. It makes your child lesser, not greater, to have had no exposure to TV.

But wait a minute. My argument seems to have slipped focus from TV-Turnoff Week -- which asks only for a reduction in TV watching -- to those who go completely TV-free, hasn't it? Well, consider the following: The TV-Turnoff Network formerly operated under the name TV-Free America. They say as much on their web page. So, make no mistake about what their intentions are.

It may seem like I'm wasting my time and energy getting all worked up about this. After all, it's not like there's any danger of TV disappearing. If this were a "battle" -- which it's not, right? -- TV would be winning.

Sorry, but I consider that a negative approach. That paints TV as an unavoidable presence, rather than an accepted choice.

TV is stigmatized as brain-deadening, family-ruining, bad-habit-spreading, lowest-common-denominator-catering-to-er, and is the symbolic demon of all things consumerism and commercialism. This is the perception I think needs to be changed. While there's plenty of potential for TV to be abused, the fact of the matter is that it can -- and should -- be part of a healthy cultural diet.

Should people read more? Yes. Should people exercise more? Yes. Should the average person be watching eight hours of TV daily? Well, no. But should America be TV-free? Definitely not.

Of course, my opinion gets thrown right out the window since I work in TV, right? Well, just like everyone else, I grew up in a culture that demonized TV (while simultaneously enjoying countless hours of it), and had ample opportunity to weigh these facts and feelings before deciding that it was a worthy pursuit. Even if my income weren't derived from the creation of televised programming, I would still feel the same way. I'm not making this argument to justify my occupation; I chose this occupation after reaching these conclusions.

A couple more thoughts before I finish:

1) If you didn't know that this was TV-Turnoff Week, that's probably because they didn't publicize it on TV. (D'oh!)

2) Excellent planning: they scheduled TV-Turnoff Week on the same week that the most popular new drama of the season, "Heroes," was scheduled to return. Not that they would have any idea what "Heroes" is or how popular it's become because, you know, they don't watch TV.

3) If kids participating in TV-Turnoff Week just DVR their favorite shows and watch them next week, does it still count?

And finally, 4) When is TV-Turnoff Week going to transition into Internet-Disconnection Week? Ask any TV network executive about the decline of total viewership, and where all the eyeballs are going. Internet. Hey, maybe TV isn't "winning" the battle after all...

Friday, April 3, 2009

Sexual Harassment, Television, and You

Back in 2004, a sexual harassment lawsuit was brought against members of the writing staff of "Friends" by former writer's assistant Amaani Lyle. The complaint filed by Ms. Lyle goes into great detail about the various crude remarks, conversations, gestures, drawings, and plenty more that came out of the "Friends" writers' room. Truly vulgar stuff.

When news of the lawsuit emerged, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was very offended. How could someone in such an enviable position throw away such an amazing opportunity?! I mean, come on! Not only are you a writer's assistant, gaining valuable first-hand knowledge and making even more valuable connections to carve out a writing career for yourself, but you're a writer's assistant on what was, at the time, the biggest hit comedy show on the air. (Indeed, there hasn't been a hit comedy of that magnitude on TV since.)

Throw a pebble in Los Angeles and you're going to hit someone who would kill to get such an incredible opportunity. Ms. Lyle not only squandered an opportunity that so few are granted, but she set out to disgrace those she should have been nothing but grateful toward.

Most people who apply to be writers' assistants are aspiring writers themselves. One would assume that Ms. Lyle was not only familiar with the creative process before going in, but was eager to embrace the lifestyle that went along with it.

The crux of Ms. Lyle's argument was that the writing staff was speaking and behaving in ways far more extreme than the content of the show they were producing. In her complaint, Ms. Lyle stated: "I have never been aware of any of the 'Friends' episodes that I worked on involving pornography, people having sex on the show or nudity." That statement clearly reveals an ignorance on Ms. Lyle's part of the creative process. When you're trying to work through an idea, or get the creative juices flowing, you just spit out anything and everything that comes to mind, make yourself laugh at how extreme you can get, and then pull back and figure out a way to make it work for a broader audience. Think The Aristocrats.

As elaborated in this fantastic article on the Lyle situation:
An offensive remark ... can be "a sharp stick that you poke the room with." ... Sometimes, the jokes even move the script along. A "Friends" writer named in Ms. Lyle's suit entertained co-workers with a story of having oral sex with a prostitute who turned out to be a man; according to legal filings, this anecdote formed the basis of a story in which a character unwittingly kisses a man in a wig in a poorly lighted bar. That's what writers mean when they talk of "pulling back" a joke from a "first blurt," said Marshall Goldberg, who spent 24 years writing for shows like "Diff'rent Strokes" and "L.A. Law" before becoming general counsel for the Writers Guild of America.
Such inappropriate behavior is one of the reasons I got into this business. Not primary, of course, but an added bonus. I currently work in a specific genre where inappropriate behavior is not only accepted and encouraged, it's actually the very product we're selling. I'm speaking, of course, of reality TV.

When my coworkers run up and down the halls yelling about the shows they're working on, I'm bound to hear all about whose tits are in whose face, who gave someone else which STD, who put vodka in her vagina for someone to drink, and so on. Nobody is getting sent to the principal's office for this. It's just another day at work.

Sometimes the discussion moves away from what's on the screen and carries over into the coworkers' lives. Conversations can easily slip into where various penises have been placed (or want to be placed), how terrifyingly huge certain coworkers' breasts are, or who among us serves more as a "couch ornament" than as a valued employee. Photographic evidence is often presented.

In most work environments, this kind of thing would not be tolerated. Or at least it would only be tolerated behind very tightly closed doors. But when choosing to work this kind of job, one must accept, if not flat out enjoy, the inappropriateness. It's fun!

Recently, I was in earshot of a conversation between coworkers about "extending the act." It didn't take long for the conversation to turn from legitimate shop talk to sexual innuendo. In the midst of the innuendo, I tossed off the joke, "I guess no one reads their sexual harassment forms before signing them, huh?"

The reaction to this was unexpected. I got a strange look and, "I guess you haven't read the sexual harassment form, have you?"

To be honest, no, I hadn't. I assumed I knew the score. No means no, yada yada yada, "that's sexual harassment, and I don't have to take it," etc. etc. etc. Who needs to read all that paperwork?

When you work in reality TV, you find yourself looking for a new job every four to six months. With each new job comes 20 pages of paperwork to fill out. Even if you're working at the same company, you have to fill out new forms for each show you switch to. Even if you're working on the same show, you have to fill out new paperwork for each season. After enough paperwork cycles, you start doing it from muscle memory. You just press the pen against the papers, and a little while later they're finished. Honestly, I don't even know who I put down for my emergency contact anymore.

I've probably signed off on dozens of sexual harassment forms by now -- initial each page, sign at the end -- but I'd never really taken the time to read them. Perhaps it was time...
Company's natural workplace environment will incorporate sexually coarse or vulgar language or conduct, and exposure to speech and conduct related to race, sexual orientation, gender, national origin, religion, disability, and age not present in other workplace environments. Accordingly, while working for Company, employees will be exposed to language or conduct that may be considered offensive by some individuals. In particular, such language and conduct may include: (i) conversations among producers and other staff that refer to sexual antics and sexual situations; (ii) conversations among participants in the reality television programs about sex, sexual antics and sexual situations; (iii) participants in reality television programs may remove their clothing and may engage in sexual or vulgar conduct alone or with other participants; and (iv) conversations or conduct among producers and/or among reality show participants related to race, sexual orientation, gender, national origin, religion, disability, and age.
In other words, "Hey, you're going to get sexually harassed! Constantly. Also, your age, race, religion and sexual orientation are fair game."

What can I say? Sign me up!

The Lyle case was eventually dismissed. It's important to note that it was never a situation wherein sexual favors were demanded in exchange for job security or advancement. Even in the sleaziest corners of Hollywood, that is not accepted. (It may happen, but it's not openly condoned.) This was just a bunch of people telling dirty jokes. And when you're making a TV show, that's an important part of the job. It may not be for everyone. If it's not for you, please just do yourself and everyone else a favor and get lost! Make room for someone who could take better advantage of the opportunity. And don't try to punish or change a system that you were clearly never meant to participate in.

Additional reading: For eight amusing pages of the Lyle complaint, click here for The Smoking Gun website. Quite entertaining. (I feel sorry for Lisa Kudrow, who is conspicuously absent from the writers' sexual fantasies.)