Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Is Hillary Clinton Electable?

It seems silly to make predictions about the 2008 presidential race now. So much can happen in the next six months before the first meaningful ballot is cast (in the Iowa caucuses) and in the next 15 months before the general election. But as the field shapes up, there is a trend emerging that should be worrisome to anyone who would like to see a Democrat elected next year.

The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 is viewed in many ways as a pivotal moment in 20th Century history. People often point to his age, his religion or his style as being revolutionary. But, in thinking about the 2008 election, JFK's win stands for something else entirely: 1960 was the last time the American people sent someone to the White House whose previous highest elected office was U.S. Senator, and Kennedy was the last Democrat from a Blue State to win the presidency.

Seems odd? It's true. Follow with me:

1964 - Lyndon Johnson - President
1968 - Richard Nixon - Vice President
1972 - Richard Nixon - President
1976 - Jimmy Carter - Governor
1980 - Ronald Reagan - Governor
1984 - Ronald Reagan - President
1988 - George H.W. Bush - Vice President
1992 - Bill Clinton - Governor
1996 - Bill Clinton - President
2000 - George W. Bush - Governor
(Even if you believe Bush stole the election, Al Gore was a vice president.)
2004 - George W. Bush - President

Laid out, in black-and-white, it's a pretty powerful visual. We don't elect senators. We just don't. And, the only Democrats elected in this era were from southern states (Johnson-Texas, Carter-Georgia, and Clinton-Arkansas; and for those who believe the 2000 election went the other way, Gore-Tennessee).

You would think that after spending 20 of the last 28 years under Reagan-Bush rule, Democrats would rank electability as the number one characteristic in a presidential candidate. Hell, Democrats should support an Affleck-Springer ticket if it would win. But, year after year, it's as if Democrats just don't get it. They refuse to even begin to correctly figure out why their record in presidential elections in the last 40 years makes them the Tampa Bay Devil Rays of politics. Anyone who got a C in history (like, for example, our current president, I'm guessing) should have realized that in 2004, the U.S. was not going to elect a Democratic U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. The statistics were right there for them, and yet, somehow, Democratic voters put their collective heads in the sand and sent John Kerry to the slaughterhouse.

You see, there is no real national election for the presidency. Only 10 to 15 states are really in play. Or, put another way, if New York or Mississippi are contested, that election is going to be a landslide (hello George McGovern and Walter Mondale). To the swing states that really choose the president every four years (New Hampshire, West Virginia, Arkansas, Ohio, Missouri, etc.), the word "Senator" roughly translates to "elite insider we don't trust." And, the word "Massachusetts" (feel free to substitute "New York," "Illinois," "California" or any other solidly Blue State here) roughly translates in the swing states to "city liberal out of touch with my values who wants to take my guns away from me."

When Kerry got the nomination, Democrats told each other, "He's a war hero! He's smart! He looks like a leader!", but in the swing states they said, "He's an elite insider we don't trust and a city liberal out of touch with my values who wants to take my guns away from me. Oh, and what the hell is that sailing thing he's doing? He looks ridiculous." Democrats are from Mars, and the electorate is from Venus. Maybe we should get Dr. Phil to work on this communication problem, since Red Staters seem to love him.

Now we turn to 2008. We have a sitting president with a an approval rating of 32% even in his own propaganda arm's poll (Fox News). Republicans in Congress have continued to support the war that has made the president so unpopular in the first place. The American people were so pissed off at Republicans they handed Congress to the Democrats in November 2006. If ever America was ready for a Democratic president, now would seem to be the time. In fact, on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Tim Russert showed two polls from mid-July that asked voters if they were going to support a Democrat or a Republican for the presidency, and in both polls the generic Democrat was the overwhelming winner (51% to 27% in one, 49% to 38% in the other).

So, with the prize there for the taking, who has emerged as the two top candidates in the Democratic party? Two sitting U.S. Senators from Blue States. What about the third place guy? A former U.S. Senator (at least he's from a Red State). It would be funny if the stakes weren't so high.

What about the Republicans? Well, their front runners are a former governor (Mitt Romney) and a former mayor (Rudy Giuliani). Whose candidacy has crashed harder than a car driven by Lindsay Lohan? A sitting U.S. Senator (John McCain). The only potential front-runner who was a senator is Fred Thompson, and he, of course, wields the great get-out-of-jail free-card: he was a television star. Now, I'm not suggesting that the candidates' past jobs are the whole reason for their current placements in the race, but you can't help but notice that the GOP field looks more like the types of politicians Americans generally install in the White House than the Democrats have put together. It makes me feel like the Republicans get it, and the Democrats still don't.

While Obama has surprised observers by winning the money-raising battle and John Edwards leads the polls in Iowa, Clinton is looking more and more like the candidate to beat. On "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Russert showed the results of a national Gallup poll of Democrats taken between July 12 and July 15 that had Clinton at 40%, Obama at 28% and Edwards at 13%.

While I am a great admirer of Clinton, I do not see her as an electable candidate. In addition to her being a sitting U.S. Senator from a Blue State, for whatever reason, fair or unfair, she has as many detractors as supporters. Russert showed that the same Gallup poll revealed that 47% of respondents viewed her favorably, but 48% viewed her unfavorably. More troubling is the fact that there are so few undecided people out there on how they feel about her (only 5%). She's so well-known, people like her or they don't. There is not a lot of wiggle room.

Consider by comparison that 11% of respondents had never heard of Obama, and his breakdown was 49% favorable versus 26% unfavorable. That means that a full quarter of the electorate is either undecided or has not heard of Obama. He has more room to move. I am not citing Obama's numbers to make the argument that he can win or that Democrats should necessarily support him. After all, he, too, is a sitting Blue State U.S. Senator. Rather, his numbers help put into perspective some of the obstacles Clinton faces in addition to her Blue State Senator status.

At this point you might be wondering, "What are you all hot and bothered about? The polls show that voters will choose a Democrat over a Republican?" If only it was that easy. You see, those same polls also asked people about how they would vote on specific pairings of candidates, and the results were very different. Again, a generic Democrat defeated a generic Republican 51% to 27% and 49% to 38% in the two polls. However, when Clinton was matched up against Giuliani, he won in both polls, 49% to 46% and 49% to 44%. Obama did a bit better against Giuliani (winning in one poll 52% to 42% while losing in the other by a 49% to 45% margin), but still not well enough to make a Democratic voter confident. Clinton did a drop better against Fred Thompson, tying him in one poll (46% apiece) and edging him in the other (48% to 45%), while Obama beat Thompson handily in both surveys, 51% to 40% and 56% to 35%.

Of course, as I said earlier, it's very early to read too much into specific numbers. But I do think it's fair at this point to look at the bigger picture, including the history of presidential elections and the poll numbers given the current climate, and note some trends or issues that could be troubling down the road. NBC political director Chuck Todd said on "Meet the Press" that the numbers showed that white male independents just won't vote for Clinton. He said that it could change in the future, but right now, they're not ready to consider her. I'm not sure they ever will.

I think the time is now for Democrats to start evaluating the race with one question in mind: Which candidate has the best chance of winning the general election in November 2008. Everything else is secondary. The argument between Obama and Clinton on their positions on talking to the leaders of hostile countries could not be less the point. The amoeba-sized difference in their views is meaningless if they are both still sitting in the senate in January 2009.

When considering who can win, Clinton has a lot going against her, considering the polls and her status as a Blue State senator. With that in mind, Democrats need to think long and hard before sending her into the 2008 race. Even without a windsurfing trip, she may not stand a chance. And if she gets the nomination and loses to Romney or Giuliani, you can add another election to the list where a senator was not elected to the White House. That is a piece of history Democrats should not want to repeat.

Monday, July 30, 2007

“Mad Men” Gets Your Attention, But Can It Keep It?

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

A gynecologist performs a vaginal examination with a cigarette dangling from his lips while warning his patient not to become a “strumpet” now that he has prescribed her birth control pills. An advertising agency head asks his right-hand man if any of the firm’s employees are Jewish because he needs to make a Jewish client “more comfortable.” (He later reports that he “found one” in the mail room and makes the guy pretend to be in the art department.) The right-hand man later storms out of a meeting with the female client, saying, “I’m not going to let a woman talk to me that way.” A little girl runs into a room with a dry cleaning bag over her head, but her mother’s biggest concern is the state of the clothes that were inside the plastic, not that the child might asphyxiate herself. Two young kids climb around a moving car, free of car seats or even seat belts. A young wife suffers from attacks of paralysis in her hands, but she is sent to a psychiatrist for being “nervous” when the doctors can’t find a physical cause. The psychiatrist then recounts the key events of the session to his patient’s husband. Secretaries are sexually harassed as a matter of course, with a new hire’s supervisor advising her to identify her best body asset and play it up (even sending her to the gynecologist for birth control). Men drink all day, and everyone smokes (all the time, enough to cause the brains of the folks at thetruth.com to explode from the anger).

Are you shocked? The folks bringing you AMC’s new original series “Mad Men” sure hope so, because the show is chock full of moments like these that are meant to show you how different things were in 1960 (or at least the version of 1960 portrayed in the show). Set in the Sterling Cooper advertising agency, “Mad Men” (the nickname New York advertising executives gave themselves) explores this moment in time as an alien planet ripe for dissection and analysis. You half expect to see Captain Kirk or Captain Picard beam in at any moment. (I guess the prime directive keeps them circling overhead, out of sight.)

“Mad Men” turns on the life of Don Draper (Jon Hamm, “Providence”), the enigmatic creative director of Sterling Cooper. Don drinks, smokes, keeps a pile of laundered shirts in his desk drawer, comes to work with a hangover, naps on his office couch, and picks the brain of everyone he meets to figure out why people act the way they do so he can use the results in his advertising campaigns. He is a kind of savant of ad writing, and “Mad Men” is like a dark “Seinfeld,” in that the show lets us watch how Don draws on his life experiences to come up with his slogans and ideas that are viewed as miracles by his boss and underlings. His boss won’t stop pursuing him to run the campaign for a young, good-looking candidate for president (alas, they are talking about Nixon, not Kennedy). Don’s reticence isn’t political, though. He proudly tells his colleagues that he doesn’t vote.

Don is the type of man that will throw a psychiatrist’s scientific report on why people smoke despite the risks (the danger factor) into the trash (in front of her, no less), and then will save the day in the pitch meeting when he is hit with a lightning bolt of an idea just when things look bleakest. In other words, Don is a super cool, 1960’s man’s man.

But, Don is a difficult hero to root for. He shills for the tobacco companies, cheats on his wife (Betty, played by January Jones, who we don’t see until the final moments of the premiere episode), smokes, drinks, and seemingly has no moral problem with passive-aggressively sending Betty to a psychiatrist and then getting a briefing from the doctor that night. Just when you think he’s the good guy for defending his doe-eyed new “girl” (the 1960’s term for his secretary), Peggy (Elisabeth Moss, “The West Wing”), from the wolfish advances of an about-to-be-married account executive, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser, “Angel”), later that day he coldly rejects her awkward advances and threatens to fire her for allowing Pete to pull the smoking research report from his wastebasket. Pete is gunning for Don’s job, which makes you wonder if Don’s disdain for Pete is because the guy is a bastard even by the standards of the time, or because he’s protecting his turf (probably both).

The show’s creator and writer, Matthew Weiner, knows a little something about getting an audience to empathize with an unlikable protagonist, having served as a writer and producer on “The Sopranos.” And he does a good job of creating a conflicted central character that you still find yourself rooting for, at least until he does the next objectionable thing.

Peggy, too, is a contradiction, seemingly an innocent girl from Brooklyn that needs to be schooled on the goings on in the office world by her world-savvy, sexed-up supervisor, Joan (Christina Hendricks, “Kevin Hill”). And yet, when Pete shows up at Peggy’s door, drunk after his bachelor party, professing his lust for her, she takes him inside and sleeps with him, despite the way he embarrassed her in the office. Not to mention that she continues to pine for the married jerk despite the interest of the presumably nicer, novel-writing Harry (Rich Sommer, “The Devil Wears Prada”), who has the misfortune of “only” being a copywriter.

Don is an unknown quantity to those around him, dodging his boss’s personal questions and even refusing to answer his wife’s simple queries about his upbringing. The big whopper of a clue to his reticence comes when, alone in his office, he fondles his army medal and later has nightmares with battle noises (we don’t see what he is dreaming) while taking a nap. The only time Don seems able to reveal even a bit of himself is when he is with his mistress, Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt, “Standoff”), a Greenwich Village-dwelling greeting card designer who is sexually liberated and sees no reason to get married. She doesn’t like Don talking about his wife, not because she’s jealous, but because it makes her feel mean. Don may have been the man to utter the “I’m not going to let a woman talk to me that way” declaration when meeting with a Jewish department store heiress, but when the chips are down, Midge is the one he seeks out.

Midge’s character may be the hardest to swallow. Midge’s counterculture antics are over-the-top, presumably in an effort to separate her from the other women in Don’s life. When Don is jealous at the sudden appearance of a television set in Midge’s studio apartment, she responds by tossing it out the window to make him feel better. She is also prone to deep pronouncements that come with a disturbingly high eye-rolling quotient. When Don tells her that he doesn’t know if she has everything or nothing, Midge responds, “I live in the moment; nothing is everything.” I guess it’s supposed to make us think Midge is deep, but it caused me to feel like she was full of it.

Ultimately, “Mad Men” is original, smart and well-acted. While shows from time to time are set in an earlier era (“Happy Days” and “M*A*S*H” spring to mind), Weiner’s decision to plunge us into an earlier era (at least an exaggerated version of it), dissecting the culture, practices and philosophies of the time, is refreshing. The writing, while precious at times (like Midge’s philosophical musings), is more often sharp, observant and clever.

Despite the paucity of recognizable names and faces in the cast (everyone was unfamiliar to me except for Moss, Jones and John Slattery as Don’s boss), the actors deliver, diving with relish into the world Weiner has created. Hamm makes the smart decision to underplay Don, infusing him with a mystery and depth that keeps you on your toes. Moss does a nice job of mapping Peggy’s growth (or descent, depending how you look at it), creating a believable progression from the girl on her first day of work who was mortified at the attention paid to her by men to a woman trying to use it to her advantage. Jones is especially good as Betty, trying to hold it together while facing her problems completely on her own. In a scene where she looks at a sleeping Don and realizes how little she knows about him, her aching look tells us far more about the moment than the overwritten line given to her in the script (something like “Who is inside of there?”).

Not surprisingly given its pedigree (in addition to his work on “The Sopranos,” Weiner was a writer-producer on the criminally underrated “Andy Richter Controls the Universe”), “Mad Men” is entertaining, smart television, definitely on the high end of the scale of originality and quality. But it is its unique nature that is also its obstacle to ongoing success. One has to wonder if the show will hold the attention of its viewers once the novelty of its “I can’t believe he said/did that” moments wears off. Once viewers are past the shock value, will the characters and plot lines carry the day? It’s not an easy question to answer.

In addition to a tough protagonist to root for, there is a question as to whether audiences will be able to hang with the wafer-thin plot points that drive the episodes. While the episodes explore larger questions like “What do women want?”, the stories turn on Don’s ability to come up with ad campaigns when he needs to. Yeah, it’s cool to see the guys talk about how Right Guard has made the first deodorant in aerosol cans, and there is a bit of an “aha” moment when you see Don come up with the “any reason to get closer” tagline, but, ultimately, the show is about a guy who comes up with marketing plans. Tony Soprano may not have been likable, but criminals killing people is a more compelling activity than guys drawing and writing. It’s fair to ask if waiting to see if Don can come up with the right idea for a product is enough to keep people coming back.

I enjoyed the first two episodes of “Mad Men,” so I hope the show, much like Peggy (according to the guys in the office), has legs. Maybe if things get boring, Weiner can have a toddler Tony Soprano threaten to whack Don’s son or try to sleep with his daughter. More likely, Weiner will find a way to guide the audience through the shock factor to latch on to the characters and their travails. Let’s hope so. If he doesn’t, “Mad Men” may find itself facing a fate as gruesome as disappearing into the New Jersey Pine Barrens, never to be seen again.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

I Indulged My Game Show Sweet Tooth With "Set for Life"

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

I have a confession to make: I love game shows. I always have, and I suspect I always will. I could pretend that I was Mr. Sophistication as a kid, and all I watched was the Art Fleming incarnation of “Jeopardy,” but I’d be lying. I did watch “Jeopardy” and was especially excited when it was revived with Alex Trebek, but I also was a devotee of “Password,” “Match Game,” “Card Sharks” and “Family Feud,” as well as less heralded offerings as “Split Second,” “Joker’s Wild,” “Gambit,” and “Tattletales,” just to name a few. Pretty much, if people were trying to win stuff, I was there.

In fact, I am probably one of the few people on earth who was born in the 1960s and yet has still managed to see virtually every episode of “What’s My Line?”, which ran from 1950 to 1967, thanks to GSN, which has been running the show for years (many of the first year’s entries have been lost, but the rest remain).

Does my not-so-secret guilty pleasure translate to the modern prime-time game shows? Yes and no. In most cases, I’ll watch them if I’m around, but I won’t TiVo them. Unlike scripted series, you can kind of breeze in and out of the game shows without missing a story line. And, of course, there is only so much Howie Mandel, Jeff Foxworthy and Bog Saget any normal human being can take. But, much like in my childhood, I’m as apt to watch “sillier” games like “Deal or No Deal” as I am headier fare like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

So, of course, I tuned in last Friday to watch the premiere of the Jimmy Kimmel-hosted ABC game show “Set for Life.” The rules are fairly simple: There are 15 stations on a circular stage that looks like it was put together by the bastard child of the designers of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Total Recall.” Contestants walk to a numbered area and pull something that looks like a much shorter version of Luke Skywaker’s lightsaber out of a metal housing. Four of the lightsabers are red, the rest are white. If a contestant chooses a white light, he or she moves up one level on the prize board. A red light moves the player down a level. If all four red lights are found, the contestant is out and wins nothing. And, you can’t stop and walk away with what you’ve won after choosing a red light. You have to try again. You can only cash in your chips after picking a white light. The prize levels equate to lengths of time the show will give you your monthly paycheck, ranging from one month on the first rung to 40 years (“set for life”) in the top position.

Many observers have dismissed “Set for Life” as another entry in the “no skill” genre of “Deal or No Deal,” in which contestants don’t have to answer questions, sing song lyrics, or do anything else that would require a grade school education. In fact, the “Set for Life” page on the ABC website proudly exclaims: “This show does not require skill. There are no questions to answer.” Much like “Deal or No Deal,” which just requires you to know the first 26 numbers (11 more than “Set for Life”).

I think “Deal or No Deal” (and, by extension, “Set for Life”) has gotten a bit of a bum rap. Instead of focusing on what is not needed (i.e., any kind of knowledge), I look at “Deal or No Deal” as being about the wager, not the game itself. Think of it like Texas Hold’em, where you don’t make any choices about how many cards you want (like in five-card draw) or whether or not to take another card (like in blackjack), but only decide how much to bet and whether or not to stay in the game. The determining factor of whether or not contestants on “Deal or No Deal” make money is whether they correctly gauge the right time to get out of the game. Get out too early, and you leave a lot of money on the table. Get out too late, and you can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars (and maybe even your will to live, too). There is no doubt that playing the odds of when to take the banker’s offer and when to keep opening cases is a skill. And, ABC acknowledges this on the “Set for Life” Web page, writing: “It's all about knowing when to stop.”

“Set for Life” adds two interesting wrinkles to the “Deal or No Deal” playbook. On “Deal or No Deal,” you have friends and family members onstage to “help” you decide whether to take an offer from the banker or go on (the “help” generally involves two family members telling the hapless contestant to defy all the odds and continue on because it’s “their day” while one non-moronic family member pleads with the foolish player to take the money and run). On “Set for Life,” you have a friend or relative helping you, but that person goes into an isolation booth, out of communication range. The helper then decides, round by round, when it’s time for you to stop. Of course, we don’t find out if the helper has pulled the plug until after the contestant has completed the contest. Clearly, this can work both ways. If a player is reckless, a more sober-minded partner can save the day. Or, as happened in the premiere episode, if the person in the booth gets cold feet and pulls the person out of the game too early, it can cost the contestant money.

The second spin “Set for Life” puts on the “Deal or No Deal” formula is the host, Jimmy Kimmel. Where Howie Mandel seems to have bought 110% into the hype of the game, asking contestants if they have what it takes to stay in to the end to see if their cases have the $1 million in it, even though a four-year-old knows that at a certain point, the odds will make it impossible to do so, Kimmel offers a more realistic presence. He is funny, slightly sarcastic (enough that we know he knows he’s on a game show, not so much that we wonder why we are watching that game show), and, best of all, laid back. Mandel is in the middle of the action. Kimmel comments from the fringes, literally, as he patrols the outside circle of the game area. I like Kimmel well enough on his late night talk show, but on “Set for Life,” he really is a perfect fit.

I do like “Deal or No Deal,” as well. While I prefer Kimmel to Mandel and love the added layer of the helper potentially saving or ruining the day on “Set for Life,” I also like the simplicity of the game play of “Deal or No Deal” (take the banker’s offer or open up more cases). As the game goes on, it gets a little dramatic. Personally, I like rooting for most players, but against those that are either unpleasant or play the game really badly (“I’m here to win a million!” Uh, no, you’re here to win as much as you can without giving it all back ...).

And, of course, “Set for Life” doesn’t have the “ladies” (as Mandel calls them), the 26 models representing a Benetton advertisement-like array of races and ethnicities, who liven up the activities on “Deal or No Deal.” Sure, men like the models because most of them are pretty, but women, too, seem to react positively to the ladies, both onscreen and off. Female contestants often know the models by name and engage in friendly banter with them, almost like for a night they are members of the club. And, for whatever reason, female viewers seem to enjoy the models. Even my wife has a favorite (number 10, Anya, for those of you keeping score at home, mainly because she’s from South Florida near where my wife grew up).

I guess that makes “Set for Life” the vanilla ice cream to the chocolate of “Deal or No Deal.” The better one is all according to people’s personal tastes. Personally, I like both flavors, so if I’m around when either is on, I’m happy to pop them on my screen for an hour. But, either way, like vanilla and chocolate ice cream, they are both fun, if not particularly nutritious. Splurge every once and a while, and you’ll be fine.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Vick and Donaghy and Vinokourov, Oh My! - Headlines Look All Bad in the Sports World

Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.
- Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis the day after the 1921 acquittal of the eight White Sox players implicated in throwing the 1919 World Series

I picked up the sports section of my New York Times this morning looking forward to reading about the Yankees knocking off the formerly surging Kansas City Royals last night, but what I found was a collection of stories about sports scandals.

The banner headline across the top of the section covered NBA Commissioner David Stern's press conference to discuss the revelation that Tim Donaghy, a recently fired referee, was being investigated by the FBI for piling up gambling debts, consorting with unsavory characters, divulging information about players and teams to those unsavory characters, and, most damagingly, using the power of his whistle to affect the scores and/or outcomes of games.

Lower down on the front page, an article discussed how Alexander Vinokourov, one of the pre-race favorites to win the Tour de France, who had won two stages after suffering injuries in a brutal crash earlier in the competition, tested positive for an illegal blood transfusion, resulting in the withdrawal from the race of not just the rider, but of his entire team.

Looking for relief in the interior pages of the sports section was not much help, since Page 2 featured a story on Falcons owner Arthur Blank's reaction to the NFL banning Michael Vick from Atlanta's training camp until more is known about his federal indictment for running a dog fighting operation, including the savage execution of many dogs by especially gruesome means.

A turn of the page would, again, only reveal more trouble, this time the news that a chemist who worked with the infamous Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (better known as BALCO) and did time for conspiracy to distribute steroids told HBO that Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield took banned substances provided to them by BALCO.

Suddenly, Alex Rodriguez's "Ha!" heard 'round the world in Toronto, not to mention his stripper seen 'round the world in Boston a few days later, seems quaint. What the hell is going on in the sports world?

Based on the size of the sport in the U.S. and the gravity of what has been alleged, the NBA ref scandal is by far the most serious (at least to Americans who, unless there is a countryman wearing the yellow jersey, care less about cycling than they do about soccer, which is saying something). The idea of an NBA official altering the outcome of games (including a key playoff contest) is the greatest threat to the integrity of a professional sport since the Black Sox scandal of 1919 led the commissioner of baseball, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, to suspend the eight players involved for life in 1921 (when he made the statement quoted at the top of this piece).

While it is unknown if Donaghy actually handed games to anyone, there is some pretty compelling circumstantial evidence that there was something fishy going on. In his column on ESPN.com, Bill Simmons points out that in May after Game 3 of the Spurs-Suns Western Conference playoff series (long before there was any knowledge of a ref scandal), he wrote the following: "Congratulations to Greg Willard, Tim Donaghy and Eddie F. Rush for giving us the most atrociously officiated game of the playoffs so far." He went on to write that the crew was responsible for "the latest call in NBA history (a shooting foul for Manu Ginobili whistled three seconds after the play, when everyone was already running in the other direction)." Somebody put together a clip and posted it on YouTube that shows the announcers' reactions to some of the calls in that game.

In the Times Article, Stern said that while they do not know of any other official under investigation, he could not say for sure that Donaghy was the only one involved. With the popularity of the NBA slipping even before this sordid affair, a scandal that goes beyond one official could knock the sport down to a level it hasn't seen since the 1970s, when the finals were not even shown on television live in prime time (the games were aired tape-delayed, late at night). This is definitely a story that will bear watching, and the NBA desperately needs it to end with Dongaghy's guilty plea.

To me, the Vinokourov and BALCO stories are far less important (and not just because the Tour de France is such a niche sport in the U.S. that it airs on Versus). Both of these scandals are old news. More than half of the top contenders were not even allowed to start the Tour de France because of their implication in past doping scandals. The 2006 winner, American Floyd Landis, tested positive for steroids during last year's race and is in danger of having his title taken away. Sponsors are dropping teams left and right, and other companies are thinking seriously about exiting the tainted sport.

And yet, it's not like people haven't continued to attend and follow this year's race. Crazy cycling fans continue to run in front of the racers, even causing crashes (a search of Yahoo! photos with the words "Tour de France spectator" came up with 22 photographs). I don't get the whole thing with letting the fans so close to the riders. Can you imagine if someone ran into the street and crashed into a contender during the New York Marathon? The idiot would find himself in a room in the bowels of a New York Police Department precinct with his nose becoming intimately acquainted with the fists of one of New York's Finest. Regardless, the Tour is going strong despite the fact that the competitors have more drugs in their systems than Kate Moss and her boyfriend. Hardcore cycling fans don't seem to care. Maybe they suspect that since all the riders are juiced, it's a fair race. Whatever it is, the scandals don't seem to be killing interest in the sport.

Same with baseball. Bonds is about to break Henry Aaron's career home run record. Commissioner Bud Selig, coincidentally an old and close friend of Aaron's, looks about as comfortable as Scooter Libby at Valerie Plame's family reunion as he dithers as to whether he should attend the game in which Bonds passes Aaron (the latest is that he'll be there, but don't look for a lot of smiles). And yet, baseball is breaking attendance records. In fact, helped by a Yankees' separate admission, day-night doubleheader, baseball recorded its second highest attendance day ever on Saturday. The league is thriving, despite the steroids controversy.

Plus, Bonds and Sheffield have already told a grand jury that they took substances given to them by BALCO that might have turned out to be steroids. It's not like someone grabbed a photo of Bonds with a needle sticking into his butt. So, the BALCO chemist story is a total yawner.

Which brings us to Vick. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a vegetarian and a strong supporter of animal rights, so, clearly, I found what Vick allegedly did to innocent dogs horrifying. But, I am also an attorney and have a strong belief in defendants being innocent until proven guilty. So, the rush to judgment makes me a little uncomfortable.

The bottom line is that while the NFL is the biggest sports league in the country, and while, in the larger picture, it's nearly bulletproof, the one issue it is concerned about, and the one issue that commissioner Roger Goodell has made his signature cause, is the league's image. In the last few years, the league has had a parade of arrests and ugly incidents that have given rise to the perception that NFL players are a collection of thugs. Since Goodell took over his job last year, he has cracked down on players who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law, handing out lengthy suspensions to such serial offenders as Tank Johnson, Pacman Jones and Chris Henry, even though only Johnson was actually convicted of something.

But, the culture of NFL players is the real story here. It is not surprising that these guys find themselves in so much trouble. They are, by and large, young men who were raised without a lot of money but were told at every level of their youth that they were special and better than everyone else. Every time they got into trouble, their behavior was excused or glossed over so they could play. And, then, they are handed millions of dollars with little guidance on how to behave. Of course, they are also being paid these unsightly sums of money to participate in a sport that rewards them for committing acts of violence. If they are a maniac on the field, they are made stars. But, they are expected to turn that instinct on and off at will. And, maybe most troubling, they are functioning in a culture that glorifies criminal behavior, from illegal dog fights to drugs to antics at strip clubs that would get the establishments closed if the authorities found out about them.

Vick is a product of that environment. Of course he thought he was above the law. Of course he thought he could lie about his involvement in the dog fighting and not get caught. After all, he is Michael Vick, with sneakers named after him and a $100 million contract in his pocket. Just like Jones hit a strip club in the wee hours when he was in New York to meet with Goodell about his many transgressions, and just as Johnson was speeding in the middle of the night after he had pledged to behave so well he would be the league's Man of the Year (even if it turned out that he was not above the legal alcohol limit). Does this excuse their behavior? Hell no. The players will and should pay the price. But, the problem runs deeper than one star quarterback savagely abusing dogs. Goodell's problem is really the culture of the league that promotes, condones and encourages the players' bad behavior.

Goodell's suspensions have been a good start. Maybe they will serve as a wake-up call that the culture of the league needs to be addressed. And, like Landis (the commissioner, not the juiced-up rider) nearly a century earlier, I don't think Goodell will need a criminal conviction to send Vick packing for a while. Based on what has been reported and the conviction rate of those federally indicted (reportedly in the 95% range), it seems that Vick's biggest problem may not be an NFL suspension but a stint in prison.

In the days ahead, I suspect the headlines will be returned to on-the-field stories. I'll read about the Yankees' resurgence and, if/when it happens, their subsequent fall back to earth. Stern and Goodell are hoping that their leagues don't nudge the Yankees out of the headlines until they actually start playing. In Stern's case, if the ref scandal gets any bigger, he'll look at Goodell in envy, wishing his biggest problem was deciding what to do with Vick. At least he can look at the Tour de France for solace, since the NBA has only had one incident of fans confronting players on the court. On second thought, maybe not. I'm sure the last thing Stern wants is fans thinking of Ron Artest and Jermaine O'Neal throwing down with Piston fans. Maybe Stern should just forget his problems and watch the Yankees' progress with me. What do you think, Commish? Will Mussina get his groove back tonight?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

YouTube Debate Was Worse Than I Thought It Would Be

You know how when you really don't want to do something, like getting a root canal, you build it up so much in your head that when you actually have the procedure done, you have a sense of relief and say, "Wow, that wasn't as bad as I thought it would be!" That did not happen to me last night while watching the CNN/YouTube debate for the Democratic candidates for the presidency. (CNN has provided a transcript of the debate online, broken into a first part and a second part.)

Yesterday, I wrote about what a bad idea it was to hold a presidential debate without real journalists posing the questions. I called it "the death of news coverage of presidential campaigns," adding that: "Responsible political journalism should be the standard. Instead, it's a relic." Even with those low expectations, I found the actual event to be disturbing.

First of all, in an effort to cram as many questions as possible into the debate, the candidates were given very little time to respond. It's bad enough that the political culture of campaigning by 30-second TV ads has forced politicians to try and address complex issues in simple, sound-bite-friendly oversimplifications. Aren't debates supposed to be the place where candidates get at least a little more time to flesh out the issues? Well, not last night. I think the person who got the most air time was moderator Anderson Cooper, who could repeatedly be heard saying "time" before the participants had a chance to even begin attacking an issue.

I was disturbed by the flip tone of the evening, which I found to be inappropriate for a gathering of presidential candidates and, at times, humiliating for the participants. Choosing the country's chief executive is not a joke. The consequences of the 2000 and 2004 elections were dire. In my opinion, the ramifications of the cataclysmic failures of the Bush administration will be felt for decades, through, among other things, the fallout from the foolish invasion of Iraq and failure to finish the job in Afghanistan, the lost moral authority in the world thanks to the war and atrocities like Abu Ghraib, and the appointing of young, right-wing justices to the Supreme Court.

So, forgive me if I was appalled when aspirants for the vital, society-changing position of the presidency were posed questions by, for example, a snowman and a guy singing an awful song while playing his guitar. It wasn't whimsical or cute, and it did not serve to get to know the candidates any better. It was a disgrace to the process, and the YouTube-gone-wild tone belittled the gravity of the moment. No wonder barely half of registered voters turn out on election day. How important can voting be if we leave the questioning to inanimate objects and morons?

Similarly, everything about CNN's broadcast felt more appropriate for "Deal or No Deal" than a presidential debate. The light-hearted tone was visible even in small details, like the on-screen graphics identifying the candidates. CNN chose a kind of weathered, graying effect on the letters. The message the network sent with its production values was that viewers were watching a piece of entertainment, not an important political event. Somehow I can't picture NBC using those kinds of graphics on "Meet the Press." I think if Tim Russert glanced into the monitor and saw a fancy super identifying one of his guests, a vein would explode in his head, giving him just enough time to say "Go Bills!" before he expired on the set.

Complaining about the graphics, though, seems a bit like missing the point when Cooper is the moderator. Writing the words "moderator Anderson Cooper" attached to a presidential debate feels like it makes about as much sense as typing "Secretary of State Paris Hilton," "Senator John Mayer" or "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales." Cooper might be at home in human interest stories, reporting from tragedies like Hurricane Katrina, or sitting on a stool looking metrosexually pretty next to Kelly Ripa while filling in for Regis Philbin. But, on stage, trying to moderate a discussion amongst eight politicians seeking the presidency? Cooper looked like a JV assistant coach trying to guide the varsity. But it's not like CNN didn't know what it was getting by tapping Cooper as the night's master of ceremonies. Just the opposite. The network's choice reveals how it viewed the event, which is to say that it was thinking more about ratings and fun than conducting a serious discussion of the issues.

As I wrote yesterday, I feared that left in the hands of non-professionals, the questions would be less appropriate than those asked by a journalist. So, I was not surprised to see a flood of queries that often lacked basic understanding of government or were of such a personal nature that they did more to obscure important issues than clarify them.

For example, Melissa from San Luis Obispo, Calif. (should we start making reporters at White House press conferences identify themselves that way: "Mr. President, Terry M., Chicago, how do you respond to allegations that ..."?) asked: "In recent years, there's been so much controversy regarding dangling chads, then no paper trail in electronic systems. I know it costs money to amend things like that, but if I can go to any state and get the same triple grande, non-fat, no foam vanilla latte from Starbucks, why I can't I go to any state and vote the same way?"

Is voting reform an important issue? You bet, it's vital. Is it a federal issue? Uh, not directly. States determine their voting systems. Sure, the federal government can use the power of the purse to "urge" states to adopt certain systems, but voting is, at its core, a state issue. See, this is where a professional can help. A trained journalist would, presumably, understand our system of government and know what issues are handled by the federal branches and what matters are controlled by the states. Melissa from San Luis Obispo cannot be expected to know as much as Ted Koppel. It's no shame. But it's also why Ted K. from Washington, D.C. should be asking the questions.

As a friend of mine pointed out, you can get a triple grande, non-fat, no foam vanilla latte from Starbucks in lots of other countries, too. Does that mean their voting machines should be the same?

I keep reading how the YouTube submissions produced questions that were more "personal." But, why is that a good thing? Policy decisions should be made on what is better for the greater good of the country, not on how an issue will affect any individual. That is why a bunch of questions bugged me, from the people in the refugee camp in Darfur who asked the candidates to look at the orphaned kids, to the man who identified the flags that draped the coffins of his grandfather, father and son, all of whom died in wars (the son was killed in Iraq). Nobody is saying that Darfur and Iraq are not tragic situations. But, policy should not be made based on a grieving parent. A parent who lost a child in the war in Afghanistan feels the same pain as a fellow parent who lost a child in Iraq. But, very few Americans think the war in Afghanistan was wrong, while most U.S. citizens oppose the war in Iraq. All wars result in deaths, and those deaths are tragic. The war in Iraq is wrong because it's wrong, not because one father tragically lost his son.

It's the emotional response versus the reasoned one. Again, non-professionals are expected to be emotional. You would expect a father of a fallen soldier to view the war in a very personal way. He has done nothing wrong. That is why we have journalists who (hopefully) have been trained to view the larger issues involved.

On CNN this morning, anchor John Roberts described the debate as "groundbreaking." He was right, but I'm sure he meant it as a good thing, in which case he was very wrong. Watching last night's YouTube debate provided a very unpleasant glimpse into a future where substance and professionalism are wholly replaced with flash and oversimplified, uneducated approaches to the issues. I would have loved to watch the debate with Koppel, Russert and Tom Brokaw and followed their reactions as the proceedings unfolded. I'm sure they would not have been happy, and I have no doubt that the debate would have been far more valuable if they were asking the questions. CNN will be happy, though, since Lindsay Lohan was arrested for drunk driving and possession of cocaine this morning, so the network will be able to get back to doing the kinds of stories it does best. CNN just is not set up for the serious world of politics. And that's a shame.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A YouTube Presidential Debate Is Not a Good Sign of the Times

Tonight there will be a debate for the Democratic presidential candidates. Big deal, right? There have been a lot of them. What makes this one different? Well, it's the first one sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. Not impressed? Wait one second. It's also co-hosted by CNN. Still nothing? Okay, here is the kicker: The other co-host is YouTube.

That combo of presenters means that Anderson Cooper will host, and questions will be posed by ordinary citizens via YouTube video submissions. I suppose the effort is to look like the party is operating on a 21st century level, and the idea works, only not for the reason the organizers intended. Instead, this unholy alliance is actually the death of news coverage of presidential campaigns as it was practiced in the 20th century. And that's not a good thing.

That's what you get, I suppose, when you put a presidential debate in the hands of an organization that thinks new items about Anna Nicole Smith's death, Paris Hilton's prison sentence and Lindsay Lohan's partying are more important than, say, topics like the war in Iraq, global warming and a White House that is far more skillful at assaulting the constitution than it is at administering any successful policies, and a website that specializes in music videos, pet tricks, and hand-held, shaky, home-produced videos of every minute piece of people's boring lives.

What am I so upset about? Well, you see, for the benefit of the youngsters reading this, there was a time when television news practiced what was known as "journalism." A group of people who practiced "journalism" professionally, known commonly as "reporters," performed functions like doing "research," conducting "substantive interviews" with "knowledgeable sources," and using their "professional education and training" to elicit answers on "important issues" from candidates. Practitioners of this lost art, from Edward R. Murrow to the last triumvirate of real television anchors, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, had something called "journalistic integrity," which caused them to approach the presidential campaigns as substantive, important events.

I understand, all of that seems terribly 20th century. And, unfortunately it is. Responsible political journalism should be the standard. Instead, it's a relic.

Now we have Anderson Cooper, an anchor whose primary qualities seem to be his good looks, his amiable personality and his ability to stand up straight in a hurricane. And rather than have professionals asking questions of the group of individuals seeking the nation's highest office, the queries will come from people with no journalistic training. Okay, I can hear the protests now: Can't the people have a say? Am I such an elitist that I think people's views aren't important? Aren't journalists out of touch with what people really care about? My responses would be yes, no, and the good ones shouldn't be. But, to an extent, those questions miss the point.

As a country, don't we regularly rely on experts with training to help us with our toughest, most important issues? If you get sued, don't you seek out a licensed attorney to counsel you? If you get injured, don't you seek the assistance of a trained physician? You don't even usually book a hotel room without consulting some kind of ratings guide. But with the most important decision we make as citizens, choosing the country's chief executive and commander-in-chief, we suddenly want to go it alone? Great.

Not to mention, we all have our own personal interests, but those concerns do not always translate to what best serves the country's collective needs. Remember in school when that one selfish student would go on and on about something only he or she cared about or failed to understand while the rest of the class was left to sleep, play hangman, or dream of ways to kill the offender? Well, think of that on a presidential scale, and that is tonight's debate. I mean, I'm very sorry the dry cleaner in your town is closing, but do you really think that presidential policy should be dictated by that one event? As opposed to, say, the war in Iraq that takes money out of everyone's collective pockets, puts everyone at increased risk of terrorism, and continues to kill the soldiers who have volunteered (or been back-door drafted) to protect us?

It's not like the American people did such a great job the last time around of figuring out what was important and what was nonsense. All those people who voted for Bush based on the gay marriage issue even though they disagreed with him on Iraq and the economy, how are they feeling right about now? Sure, there may not be gay marriage in their states (there wouldn't have been if Kerry won, anyway), but now we're mired in a no-win situation in Iraq and the middle class is shrinking faster than Scooter Libby's prison sentence. Not exactly a home run for the American people. And it's not just me, as Bush's approval ratings in the low-30s can attest.

No, I'm sorry. Call me crazy, but I think it's time we bring in the pros. I do not trust amateurs to pose the right questions to the candidates. There is nothing wrong with saying that the people can use some help in sifting through the issues. If it means dragging Brokaw, Rather and Ted Koppel out of basic cable exile, I'm fine with that. I want a trained journalist interviewing the candidates. I trust them to cut through the crap and try and get these overly scripted politicians to take real positions on real issues. Forgive me, but I trust Brokaw and his peers more than the ever-smiling Cooper, and certainly more than PartyAllNightWooHoo2007, whose only qualification to pose a question is his ability to successfully hook up his video camera to his computer (and whose last YouTube submission was probably something like his solo acoustic off-key cover of "Every Rose Has a Thorn," performed while sitting in his living room in his boxer shorts).

Even if you want to hear from the people directly, how does the video submission angle improve on the traditional town hall-style debates that have been held for years (going back to Bill Clinton answering the famous boxers-or-briefs query on MTV)? If the technology is being used because it's there, not because it adds anything to the process, that's not progress, it's a gimmick.

Call me an elitist, if you must. But, I'd rather be an elitist than be ignorant. Knowledge is a good thing, a fact that has been wholly lost on this administration. And we saw how well they did at running the country (into the ground) the last six years. This time around, I want to see professionals asking the questions. Leave YouTube for the homemade wrestling videos. At least when amateur grapplers go to work, the only thing they can damage is their own health. There is far more at stake in 2008, more than the video submitters and Anderson Cooper can handle.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Lifetime and VH1 Offer Sunday Summer Love

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Four new summer shows debuted on Sunday night, and all four are about the search for true love. Two were from Lifetime, no surprise there. The other two? Well, those were courtesy of VH1, the home of D-level celebrities reduced to whoring out their "realities" for a gig. Wait, it gets better. Who are the wise sages taking you through your VH1 lessons on happily ever after? Dr. Phil? Dr. Ruth? No. Not even Dr. J. This is VH1, after all. Your doctors of true love for the next few Sunday nights are none other than Bret Michaels (the lead singer of Poison) and Scott Baio (Chachi on "Happy Days").

In the opening segment of "Rock of Love With Bret Michaels," the "Talk Dirty to Me" singer explains his philosophy on love: There are a lot of women you want to be friends with, and a lot of women you want to sleep with, but if you can find one who is both, "that is the rock of love." Putting aside the math problems with his deep declaration (if each group is large, presumably, the cross-section would be significant, but I’m definitely over-thinking this), I immediately noted to myself, "And where does one go to find this elusive soul mate? Why, a basic cable reality dating show, of course." VH1 has provided 25 women for Michaels to choose from. He is confident one of them will be his true love. He said it on TV, so it must be true.

Michaels's arrival at the posh rental house for the women who are vying to be the next Mrs. "Every Rose Has a Thorn" sums up the nasty tone of this rock and roll spin on "The Bachelor." Michaels leaves his head of security, Big John, with the "ladies," who are a mass of fake boobs (we learn later in the episode that all but two have implants), dyed hair, facial piercings, and desperation, and the mountain of a man immediately picks five of them and informs them they don't cut the mustard and are going home. One, named Tiffany insists on staying, declaring that she is not leaving without "her man." (Yes, her name is Tiffany, and it should come as no surprise that the gaggle of women includes a Lacey, a Tawny, a Raven, a Rodeo, and two Brandis, both with an "i.") In what seemed to be a poorly scripted, planned-out "twist," Tiffany talks Big John into letting her back into the house, much to the chagrin of one of the Brandis. Another jilted girl complained that she was brought out to Los Angeles from Chicago just to be humiliated. I've got news for her -- all 25 contestants were brought there to be humiliated, and she should be grateful her humiliation was quick and now it's over.

Plus, I couldn't help thinking to myself, "Nice, Michaels left the scene while his muscle did the dirty work. Now all doubt is removed. He is going to hell."

The girls, some of them in the neighborhood of 20 years Michaels's junior, talk about how he's the hottest rock star and how much they want to sleep with him (they use far more graphic verbs, usually requiring VH1 to insert a bleep). Their reactions were entirely appropriate, if it was, you know, 1990. In 2007, not so much. It seems apparent that half the girls didn’t even know who Michaels was the day before they applied for the show. It occurred to me that nothing is real about this reality show, even by reality show standards.

If watching incredibly vacant young women discuss their implants at length as if the issue was as important as global warming (including one of them with a baby doll voice giddily cooing that she is happy her parents bought her fake breasts for her last birthday), then "Rock of Love" is the show for you! But, for those of you who feel like you need a shower after reading the last few paragraphs, you may want to steer clear.

Meanwhile, over in Scott Baio's world, the title pretty much sums up the premise of the show: "Scott Baio is 45 and Single." Baio seems to fancy himself as the Frank Sinatra of his dork brat pack, which is made up of two old friends and a fellow child star, Jason Hervey (Wayne on "The Wonder Years"). The four men golf, smoke cigars, and discuss women, which often involves discussion of Baio's best friend, Johnny V., only getting girls because of Baio. It's bad enough when you have to rely on Scott Baio's cast-offs in 2007. But, you've really hit bottom when you agree to broadcast that fact on national television.

The show's premise is that Baio has been unable to commit to his past girlfriends, so, to avoid making the same mistake with his current girlfriend, Renee (who seems fairly normal until it hits you that she wants to be in a serious relationship with Scott Baio), he hires a life coach, Doc Ali, to help him figure out why he is a commitment-phobe. The TV-friendly prescription Doc Ali (or Dark Alley, as Baio calls her) imposes on Baio is that he has to spend two months away from Renee, refrain from having sex with anyone, and go back and talk to his ex-girlfriends to figure out what he did wrong.

In the first episode, the wreck-on-the-side-of-the-freeway moment of his journey is an unbelievably awkward meal with Erin Moran, his "Happy Days" co-star. We learn during a conversation with Doc Ali before their meeting that Baio lost his virginity with Moran when they were teenagers. Exploring why a 45-year-old man broke up with a fellow cast member when he was 15 doesn't seem to be an extremely productive therapeutic course of action, but it sure does make for some prurient television thrills!

On its face, Baio's quest, spending two months trying to figure out how he can commit to a woman he says he loves, is far more relatable and admirable than Michaels's let's-party-'til-we-puke-in-a-swanky-house-while-inducing-cat-fights mission to find a woman. Of course, it then hits you that Baio, too, has decided to embark on his journey under the scrutiny of reality television cameras, which cheapens the integrity of his plan. Yes, I know, I used the word "integrity" while talking about a reality television show starring a past-it actor. My apologies. But, I have company. In the premiere episode of "Scott Baio is 45 and Single," Baio's agent seems appalled at the thought of his client whoring himself out for VH1, even going so far as to pull him into a conference room for a "private" meeting (the cameras peer through the glass, and he had to know that Baio would be wearing a microphone) and tell him it's not too late to call the whole thing off.

I hate to admit it, but I'm kind of glad Baio decided to soldier on. He's not always likable (you can understand not wanting to be pigeon-holed as Chachi, but his lack of appreciation for what the role brought him and his disdain for his fans are pretty off-putting). And Johnny and Baio make equal fools of themselves when they run into actor Clint Howard (brother of Ron, the film director who was also a former "Happy Days" cast-mate of Baio's). Baio bitches about Ron not casting him in any of his films, while Johnny didn't even register Clint's existence until he was told that he was Ron's brother.

And yet, there is something interesting about following someone like Baio, a once-famous guy who has mostly slipped into anonymity while still retaining some last remnants of his notoriety, as he goes through his kind of normal life (albeit a leisurely one, as he doesn't seem to have a whole lot of responsibilities). While he clearly has relationship issues, he's not a train-wreck of the Britney-Kevin/Jessica-Nick variety. I guess that's why it doesn't feel as wrong to watch some of Baio's struggles, like when he attends an autograph signing (Moran convinced him to do it), talks on the phone with Henry Winkler (who sounded surprised to hear from him), and listens to his agent tell him about how he has a chance at a role in a Hallmark movie with a gusto that makes you wonder if you misheard him and Baio is really up for a part in Scorcese's next film. I found myself, against my better nature, rooting for Baio to pull himself together, grow up, and make a commitment to Renee. The fact that I doubt he is capable of this growth made it all the more engaging.

The bottom line, though, is that watching "Rock of Love With Bret Michaels" made me feel like I was doing something wrong, while watching "Scott Baio is 45 and Single" just made me happy I wasn't as emotionally stunted as Scott Baio. And isn't that what celebrity reality television is for? To make you feel like the famous people are no better than you are?

If reality television is not your bag, your Sunday night "search for true love" options lie in the hands of the good folks at Lifetime, who debuted two shows with remarkably similar premises and styles. Indie film stalwart Lili Taylor, who's previous foray into television was in the decidedly more serious work of "Six Feet Under," is the star of "State of Mind," playing a therapist who has to address the demons in her own life when she catches her husband having sex with their marriage counselor. The discovery leads her to question if her husband was her true love, and what the nature of love is, in general. We watch as she berates a couple from hell during a session, telling them, "If I had to live with either one of you, I'd cut my throat." I doubt the authorities would approve of that kind of therapy, but the tough love works. After a lot more speeches by Taylor's doc and soul-bearing by the man and woman, the couple leaves hand-in-hand. Horrified, but hand-in-hand.

Those thinking of giving "State of Mind" a chance on the idea that Taylor's presence in the show demonstrates that it is a step above the soapy level of other Lifetime offerings are more apt to find that her being on the program actually demonstrates that even actresses that are critical darlings have to pay the bills. But, there is no doubt that Taylor's work, while maybe too good for the show, does provide the show with a quality other soaps may lack.

Lifetime's other Sunday night offering, "Side Order of Life," is also an estrogen-friendly look at the nature of true love, with Marisa Coughlin (late of "Boston Legal") as the woman examining her life and Jason Priestly as the man not fulfilling her needs. Coughlin plays Jenny, a photographer for a weekly magazine that seems like a classier version of "People," who is engaged to a wealthy businessman (Priestly) that you've seen in every romantic comedy or drama where the guy is nice enough but not of sufficient depth to deserve the love of the leading woman. When Jenny's best friend informs her over lunch that her cancer has returned and the prognosis is not very good, Jenny reassesses her life, writing her first piece for the magazine (the improbable story of a woman with three husbands and a lover) and postponing her impending wedding.

Both "State" and "Side" feature leading women who experience "Ally McBeal"-style flights of fancy, with Taylor's character's visions running a bit darker, while Coughlin's photographer experiences more "Twilight Zone"-light events (things in photos that aren't really there, mysteriously crossed phone lines, etc.). Both shows feature characters giving wholly false-sounding, overly dramatic, not particularly insightful long speeches (especially the cancer-stricken friend in "Side" and a child psychologist played by Scottish actor Derek Riddel in a creepy pedophile/abuse subplot in "State"). And, neither show seems to care too much about the plausibility of its characters' activities (e.g. Coughlin's photographer still shoots on film and uses no lights when shooting her subjects).

But, you don't go to Lifetime on Sunday nights for dark, gritty, real stories. You go for soapy fluff. Taking that into account, both "State" and "Side" deliver. They feature solid acting, decent plot lines (again, except for the pedophilia/abuse arc, which felt out of place), and the occasional clever line. Both shows will keep your attention, even if no Emmys will be forthcoming for these easy-to-swallow confections. "Side" runs more to the frothy, "State" to the melodramatic, but both get the job done, filling their roles as Sunday night, back-to-work entertainment, mostly for women.

Best of all, nobody in "State" or "Side" talks about how much they like their (or anybody else's) breasts, nor do they compare them to Gummi Bears. At least not in the first episodes. I guess anything is possible when you're searching for true love.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Democrats Pull All-Nighter to Make a Stand

I bet I can stay up longer than they can.
- Sen. Tom Coburn, (R-Okla.) on the Democrats' all-night Senate session to highlight the Republicans' failure to allow a vote on a bill calling for removal of troops from Iraq

It's perfect, if you think about it. The Democrats in Congress, who have shown no stomach for hanging in the fight with President Bush over pulling troops out of Iraq, found a way to be strong that suited the party's nature. Was it a tough challenge to Bush accompanied by threats of impeachment? Hardly. No, the Democrats decided to throw a slumber party. Now here's the funny part: It's a great idea.

There is no doubt that a majority of Americans agree with the Democrats' position on the war. The country is tired of more than four years of mismanagement, bad planning and bad predictions by the Bush war team, and they want a change. The electorate said so, loud and clear, when they voted both houses of Congress into the Democrats' control last November, and every poll says the voters feel the same way now.

Republicans up for re-election in 2007 and 2008 are in full panic mode. A handful have jumped ship from the Bush bandwagon and joined the Democrats' position on the war, namely Olympia Snowe of Maine and Gordon Smith of Oregon, two moderate senators representing blue states. But most GOP senators are walking a fine line, advocating a change in policy without actually agreeing to vote for any legislation that challenges Bush's position.

That's really the crux of why the Democrats' let's-order-a-pizza-and-pull-an-all-nighter-like-we're-back-in-college-studying-for-a-political-science-final strategy is such a great idea. While the Democrats have the votes to pass anti-war legislation, they don't have the votes to override a Bush veto. And, in the Senate, they don't have the 60 votes needed to close debate and move to a vote.

So, until there is a full-scale revolt in the GOP, the Democrats alone cannot enact legislation that will end the war.

However, the U.S., despite the best efforts of the Bush administration, is still a democracy, and in light of the November 2006 elections, it seems clear that there is a price to be paid for siding with Bush on Iraq. Since the Democrats cannot end the war on their own, their next order of business should be (and seems to be) forcing Republican lawmakers to be accountable for their actions and go on the record with their votes. This way, when their elections roll around, Democratic challengers can say to the voters, "Your senator voted with Bush to continue the war, while I oppose continuing the war, so who do you want to send to Washington?"

It is for this reason that Republicans don't want votes to occur on Iraq. The issue is treacherous for GOP incumbents standing for re-election soon, especially in traditional battleground states like Maine, Minnesota, and Oregon, but also, if polls are to be believed, in normally safe states like Kentucky. The longer they can avoid putting their vote supporting Bush on the record, they can talk of concerns and needs to assess the situation without actually breaking from the White House. (Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota is playing that game now, and it would seem that getting a vote from him on the record is a goal of the Democrats.)

The Republicans are crying foul, calling what the Democrats are doing political gamesmanship. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said about the all-nighter, "This is nonsense," according to a Yahoo!/AP article. The same article contains the Sen. Tom Coburn quote that appears at the top of this piece. On the surface, of course, they're right. The Democrats are following a strategy to curry favor with voters. But, what makes me angry is that it's not like the Democrats are building a strategy around true nonsense, like, say, if a president received oral sex from an intern or did something wrong in an ancient land deal, which is what the Republicans wasted time on when they opposed a Democratic president.

Instead, what the Democrats are doing strikes to the heart of democracy and involves the single most important issue the country is facing, namely whether or not to continue to surrender the lives of American soldiers and half-a-trillion dollars a year on a war that was started on lies and remains unwise, poorly planned, and has descended into a sectarian civil conflict. As Sen. Snow says in the Yahoo!/AP article, "We are at the crossroads of hope and reality, and the time has come to address reality."

This is not gimmickry. It's forcing elected officials to go on the record on how they want to handle this pressing issue. That is what democracy is all about, isn't it? Holding elected legislators accountable for the votes they cast? The true gimmickry is the Republican strategy of avoiding a vote on the substance of war strategy.

There was an article on the front page of yesterday's New York Times Metro section that, while obviously tangential to the issue of the current activity in the Senate, made me think about the larger point of the cost of the war. The feature describes the work of the federal Fraud Detection and National Security unit that investigates false statements in immigration applications. The department is meagerly staffed with six investigators, even though 150,000 applications are filed in New York each year. Despite the lack of resources, the unit has 500 open cases and has referred 187 matters for criminal investigation. Even though few are eventually prosecuted, the unit's work can lead to the denial of suspect applications.

Few if any of the files worked on directly relate to terrorism. Nevertheless, it occurred to me that these investigators are essentially border agents, standing guard to prevent criminals and other people who shouldn't be granted visas from gaining legal status. Clearly, in light of the 9/11 attacks, scrutinizing who comes into the country and why they are coming is an important thing. And yet, all that is budgeted for this on-the-ground, in-the-trenches, front-line operation is six people.

Contrast this to the $500,000,000,000 being spent in 2007 in Iraq. And for what? For a war making us less safe. Al-Qaeda was not present in Iraq before Bush's foolhardy invasion. Now, Bush's latest push defending the war is that we have to fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Why are they there? Because of the war Bush started. It's like a classic Abbott and Costello routine, only it's not even a little bit funny. I can't help thinking how much more useful in making us safe that half-a-trillion dollars would be spent on security programs in the U.S. like the one in the Times article rather than on Bush's folly in Iraq.

All week we've heard in the news about this renewed threat from Al-Qaeda (this Yahoo!/Reuters article was one of many). The Bush administration has a small but successful playbook, and scaring the bejesus out of Americans when things are going badly for the administration is for the White House what the Student Body Left was for USC in the 1970s: a simple but devastatingly effective play.

So, forgive me for cheering on the Democrats in the Senate while they stage the theater of the political slumber party, because as silly as it may seem, there is nothing silly about forcing elected senators to put their policy votes on the record. It won't happen, though, so long as the Republicans continue to stage political theater of their own. I would give the GOP play no stars, finding it false, contrary to democracy and dangerous to our country. I'll bet that's something Ben Brantely doesn't get to write very often in his Times theater reviews. He's lucky.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Beckham: Big Salary and Big Media Mean Big Expectations

Hey, what kind of game is this? For old ladies and fairies? I quit.
- Canadian prisoner Capt. Robert Hatch (Sylvester Stallone) after not being allowed to tackle players during a soccer game in the 1981 film "Victory," screenplay by Evan Jones and Yabo Yablonsky

Americans don't like to be told what to do. The folks at the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer will have to come to terms with this lesson as they market the arrival of one of the few athletes to have his name appear in the title of a feature film, David Beckham.

In case you have been holed up with Cheney in his undisclosed location for the last few weeks, the Galaxy signed the 32-year-old Beckham, a former captain of the English national soccer team who has played for arguably the two most storied football clubs in history, Manchester United and Real Madrid, to a five-year contract. Reports often value the contract at $250 million, but Beckham's actual salary is $5.5 million per year (the balance is projected revenue from merchandising and marketing). MLS has occasionally brought in stars at the end of their careers, but none had the name-recognition of Beckham, nor a wife who is a Spice Girl (she was Posh Spice, but based on her skeletal appearance, I think she should now be forced to swap Spice names with Scary Spice).

The Galaxy's ownership, Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), has been at the forefront of a massive media blitz announcing Beckham's arrival, which included a one-hour reality special chronicling Mrs. Beckham's move to Los Angeles that ran last night (and was about as entertaining as watching groundskeepers mowing the Galaxy's practice field). It's been all Beckhams, all the time, as if the couple are filling the celebrity news vacuum created by the lack of any recent outbursts by Paris, Lindsay and/or Britney.

While AEG might be happy with the unprecedented amount of media attention for one of its MLS clubs (the company operates three of them), it may not be happy with the backlash that seems to be forming.

As a soccer fan, I get it. I can attest that Beckham's arrival is a big deal for MLS. He can still play, having recently regained his place on the English national team, and his skills and mental approach to the game will raise the playing level of his teammates (including U.S. international Landon Donovan, who, while undoubtedly talented, is in sore need of some lessons on how to play with grit, determination and desire, all qualities Beckham possesses). Beckham is also charismatic and won't falter under the spotlight of being the "savior" of U.S. soccer. As a soccer player, nothing is more pressure-packed than wearing the captain's armband for England. Beckham's arrival will absolutely help the league.

What Beckham's arrival will not do is suddenly turn soccer into a major American sport. Here is where the idea of Americans not wanting to be told what to do comes into play. It seems to me that U.S. sports fans love the idea that the world's most popular team sport is an afterthought here. There is a pride in resisting the calls of the world to embrace what other countries call "the beautiful game." As I have listened to, read and watched the reactions to the media blitz surrounding Beckham's signing, it seems to me that the average American sports fan is more than just indifferent. Rather, the average Joe (or Josephine) is pushing back, delighting in saying, "Who cares?" as a way of really saying, "Don't tell me I'm supposed to care about something I don't care about."

You also have to factor in that U.S. sports fans tend to be suspicious of soccer as a sport. The line from "Victory" quoted at the top of this article, uttered by the ultimate man's man of the era, Sylvester Stallone, is what a lot of American football fans think of soccer. Rather than starting from even with a lot of men in the U.S., soccer begins with a stigma of not being a physical or tough enterprise (even though that point of view is wrong, especially in tough leagues like the English Premiership).

Let's face it, it's not like Americans are open to new sports in general, or even new leagues in established sports. Essentially, in the U.S., there is the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, NCAA football, NCAA basketball, NASCAR and PGA golf. Everything else lags far behind in viewership. The National Hockey League has tried several times over the last 40 years to break through, but fewer people watched the NHL finals on ABC in June than watched weekly Arena Football games on NBC. Speaking of football, the trash heap is littered with the carcasses of failed leagues, from the WWE-sponsored XFL (who gloriously brought us the player known as "He Hate Me") to the Donald Trump-dominated USFL. There really are no openings in the wallets and hearts of most Americans for another major sport. MLS is destined to remain what it is right now, a fairly successful (15,000 fans a game) niche sport.

MLS has another problem based on its quality of play. Americans are spoiled in that our major leagues, by and large, represent the top level of competition in the world for those sports. The best basketball players from all over aspire to play in the NBA. The elite baseball players from Asia to South America to Central America to the Caribbean flock to MLB. MLS isn't even one of the top five (maybe not even top 10, and possibly not even top 15) soccer leagues in the world. The economics of the league do not allow the teams to pay a competitive wage to players (Beckham was signed under a new rule enacted before this season that allows each team to pay one player a lot of money without it counting against the club's salary cap). As long as MLS is a minor league, it will be treated as such by the American public. Most of the soccer fans I know think like me, in that we would rather watch our favorite European teams (Arsenal for me) than an MLS game. The quality of play in the big European leagues is just better.

The Galaxy is using Beckham's arrival as an opportunity to bludgeon U.S. sports fans into becoming interested in soccer. It seems to me that this is a bad approach. Such a task would be next to impossible on its own, but when you throw in the niche nature of MLS and its minor league status, the job becomes a suicide mission. As a result, the media blitz, instead of luring sports fans, is pushing them away.

A low-key approach would have been more effective. The Beckham signing called for just enough publicity to let America know that an elite player nearly in his prime would be, for the very first time, plying his trade in MLS. Curious sports fans would then be drawn to check out what the guy who can bend the ball so well a writer named a movie after him was really all about. Now, people will be checking out Beckham's debut with an eye towards trashing him. "I'll bet you the pretty boy isn't even that good."

Also, soccer is a sport that generally does not allow for a lot of spectacular individual SportsCenter-friendly efforts. People are going to be tuning in expecting Beckham to take over a game the way Michael Jordan did, scoring at will. That's not how soccer is, and it's not how Beckham plays. He is likely to make some eye-popping kicks off of free kicks (the genesis of the whole "Bend It Like Beckham" thing). He is also likely to deposit some devastatingly accurate passes onto the feet and heads of his teammates. But, for the most part, his influence will be subtle, possibly so subtle that the average U.S. sports fan might think, "What's the big deal?"

From a financial perspective, the Anschutz folks did their homework. Bloomberg.com reported that the increased revenue associated with the Beckham move has already covered the player's salary. But I think AEG miscalculated in its marketing plan. Time will tell how much impact Beckham's arrival will have on the popularity of MLS in the long-term. It seems that in the short-term, many Americans are put off. Most of the polls I have read online agree that sports fans don't care that Beckham is coming to MLS.

When Beckham makes his Galaxy debut in a friendly (that's a soccer term for an exhibition game) against English powerhouse Chelsea, a lot of Americans will be watching (assuming Beckham shakes off an ankle injury in time to play). The question is, will they continue to watch the rest of this season, and in the four seasons to come? A slow build is no longer an option. AEG has treated Beckham's arrival like a major U.S. sports event, so expectations are now through the roof. The pressure is on. Things have to pop for MLS very quickly, or the whole move will be talked about as a failure. It didn't have to be that way, though. And that's a shame, because from a soccer point of view, we are lucky to have David Beckham playing in MLS. Thanks to the relentless marketing blitz, it doesn't always feel that way.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Nobody Talks About the True Dilemma in Iraq

And the only people I fear
are those who never have doubts
Save us all from arrogant men,
and all the causes they're for
I won't be righteous again
I'm not that sure anymore
- Billy Joel, "Shades of Grey," from his 1993 album "River of Dreams"

President George W. Bush's world is very simple. There are good guys and bad guys. You're either wrong or you agree with him. And, you never change your mind, no matter how much evidence is presented to you. Taking reconsideration of your positions out of your daily routine must make life blissfully simple, and being happily ignorant must be quite peaceful. But, it's no way to run a country.

Republican senators, remembering the loss of Congress in the 2006 election over the Iraq issue and fearing another electoral drubbing in 2008, have started to slowly move from under Bush's coattails on the war. For example, a Yahoo!/AFP article from Saturday discussed how GOP Senators Richard Lugar of Indiana and John Warner of Virginia on Friday released a plan that called for the beginning of troop withdrawals from Iraq by the end of the year. Bush's response? Of course, he's not changing his policy, even at the behest of members of his own party, saying that there are two courses on Iraq: Either you believe U.S. forces will fail there, or you believe America can still succeed.

Again, everything is simple to Bush. You're a winner or you're a loser, period.

The problem with the Iraq debate is that nobody, not the Democrats nor the Republicans, have moved off that basic bipolar approach to the situation. As with most things in life, the issue is much more complicated than Bush would have you believe. Remember, this is the man who couldn't predict that the three hostile groups in Iraq -- Shias, Sunnis and Kurds -- would be at odds with each other once they were released from Saddam Hussein's iron fist. (There is no shortage of people who wonder if Bush even knew there were three kinds of followers of Islam when he made the decision to invade Iraq.)

I would love to hear a politician, from either party, realistically look at where we are in Iraq and then make an argument of what we should do next, rather than repeating the same "should we stay or should we go?" arguments that have come out over the last few months.

Maybe we could come up with an effective Iraq strategy if a bipartisan group of moderate Republicans and Democrats chose to frame the issue this way: "The United States is caught in an ethical dilemma. The President skewed intelligence to drag the country into a war that was wrong, and he executed the operation with a total lack of planning for what would happen once Hussein fell, so America is clearly responsible for what is happening in Iraq. But, no matter what cause of action we take now that the mess has been made, we risk acting immorally and in a way that will cause repercussions for the nation down the road. On the one hand, every day that we remain in Iraq, we are perpetuating our mistake by staying in the country and putting the precious lives of U.S. soldiers at risk for no good end. Plus, the Iraqi political leaders, despite having a U.S. military presence for more than four years, have done nothing to solve the underlying issues that will have to be addressed before there can be peace. But, on the other hand, despite the initial invasion being a mistake, the fact is that we're there, and there are people fighting each other because of us, and it is up to us to stay there as long as possible to give the Iraqi people a chance to settle their differences and to avoid the possibility of genocide or a full-on civil war with millions of casualties."

Such a positing of the issue, to me, is the most honest and accurate way of assessing the situation, and lends itself to a more productive discussion of what the right ways forward are. In such an argument, it would be hard for one side not to respect the position of its opponent. You can reasonably make either argument.

Instead, Bush acts as if the Iraqi invasion was not a mistake, as if we are not bogged down in the middle of a tragic (more than 3,000 dead U.S. military personnel) and costly (as I wrote on July 10, a Yahoo!/AP article put the cost of the Iraq war at half-a-trillion dollars this year) civil war, and as if he has not played right into Osama bin-Laden's arms and acted as the top recruiter for Al-Qeda. Bush keeps moving forward, ignoring the reality of how his policy has failed, and how his actions are viewed in his own country, Iraq, and the rest of the world.

Instead of strongly rising up to move the debate to a place where the premise is that Bush has presided over one of the biggest foreign policy catastrophes in the country's history, the Democrats have been tepid, caving on the funding legislation when Bush held firm against them earlier in the year, and never really recovering enough to provide a strong counter to the White House's policy of "stay the course ... further into hell." It will not be lost on voters, I fear, that no real pressure was put on Bush until Republican senators started breaking ranks in the last few weeks.

The current debate on Iraq has to change. We need a new voice. We need to accurately assess what has happened the last five years, and how we now find ourselves in a virtually no-win situation in Iraq. The total fabrications of the administration, all perpetuated in the service of political posturing and the pursuit of now-discredited ideologies, have to be dismissed. Without knowing where we really are, any discussion of what we should do next lacks a basis in fact and is doomed to fail.

I am a proponent of the "it's time to go" approach to Iraq, but even I could not be too upset if someone made the argument we had to stay, so long as that person acknowledged the disaster of what has gone on up to now. But, there is no excuse for Bush's head-in-the-sand, full-steam-ahead policy.

Bush is the ultimate "arrogant man" Billy Joel wrote about in "Shades of Grey." But while our president may like his world black and white, the world, in real life, is far more grey. He should not be allowed to continue on a course of failure for one day longer. Each day that he does, the situation in Iraq gets that much worse. Bush may not seem to notice or care, but the rest of us certainly do. It's time for us (and the members of Congress of both parties) to show it.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Battle of the Network Karaoke Shows

[NOTE: The following article will also appear in my regular television column for WILDsound.]

John Edwards likes to say that there are two Americas. I would argue that there are also two network television worlds. In the scripted sphere, executives are more than willing to roll the dice on innovative, edgy ideas that take the medium in different directions. The last few years have brought us shows like "24," "Lost," "Desperate Housewives," "Veronica Mars," "My Name Is Earl," and "Heroes" that took traditional television concepts and pushed them into previously uncharted territory. Sure, once ideas proved to be hits, then programmers played follow the leader, resulting in a schedule last year that seemed to be limited to police procedurals, serialized dramas and soaps (with sitcoms as scarce as an atheist in the Bush administration). But, that didn't stop the networks from trying new things for this upcoming season.

Meanwhile, over in the reality television department, the executives are like the ultimate high school cheaters, copying off of everyone else's papers, with nobody daring to write down a response of their own. It's a two-part stealing process, really. Step one, you buy the rights to a successful European reality/game show (or remake an old U.S. one). Step two, once it's a hit, your competitors change it slightly to come up with their own versions of it. Dropping a new idea in a reality pitch meeting is about as well-received as dropping a bag of roaches in the kitchen of a five-star restaurant.

So, it should come as no surprise that NBC and Fox are currently engaged in a war over karaoke shows, which, of course, are the modern heirs to the classic game show "Name That Tune." NBC announced its version first. Fox then jumped in, declaring they also would dive into the karaoke waters, and would even premiere it before NBC launched its program. NBC, feeling it had to go first, rushed production (even when they had yet to choose a host) and introduced "The Singing Bee" to America on Tuesday, a day before "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" bowed on Fox.

I know what you must be thinking: Which one is the VHS and which one is the Betamax? Because, really, you are still probably scarred by having to choose between "Wife Swap" and "Trading Spouses," not to mention the "Sophie's Choice" horror of deciding whether to throw your allegiance behind "Nanny 911" or "Supernanny." Worry not, my friends. I will be happy to put your aching minds at ease.

The Great Karaoke Show Showdown of Summer 2007 is a first round knockout for your winner and champion: "Don't Forget the Lyrics!"

While "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" is pretty good, the reason for the lopsided victory is that "The Singing Bee" is one of the ten worst television programs I have ever had the misfortune of seeing. Ever. From top to bottom, and at every step in between, "The Singing Bee" is amateurish, grating and just plain doesn't work. It's the 20-car freeway pile-up of television programs.

The carnage all starts with the host of "The Singing Bee," former 'N Sync member Joey Fatone, who is smarmy and clueless to the point of distraction. It just looks like he has no idea what he's doing, what's going on around him, and why the tour bus hasn't come to get him yet. Fatone reminds you of the guy that is too much of a joke to be a wedding singer, but at other people's weddings, he will get drunk and insist on jumping in to play with the band. He displays a complete lack of personality. If Fatone was the best NBC could do in its rush to beat Fox onto the air, the network should have delayed production until a competent professional could have been signed. It's not like the bar is that high for game show hosts. Being first with this lox bringing down the entire vibe of the show just doesn't seem worth it.

As jaw-droppingly useless as Fatone is, it's not like he's getting a lot of help. NBC bills "The Singing Bee" as a "variety-competition show," but if Donny and Marie, Barbara Mandrel and Tony Orlando were watching at home, I hope they had a steady supply of anti-depressants, sedatives and Pepto-Bismol, because this is not the variety shows they remember hosting. The variety aspect, I suppose, is the presence of a large band and a rotating group of singers to perform the snippets of the songs, and a gaggle of scantily clad dancers to gyrate in the background. The result is more off-the-Strip Vegas than anything resembling the 1970s heyday of network variety hours. The band reduces every song, regardless of genre, to an in-your-face, Vegas lounge cheesiness that leaves you cringing. The singers, who over-emote and ham it up, don't help matters. And, the dancers, rather than providing some wholesome sex appeal, come off as kind of raunchy, making you feel a little dirty for watching. Like you've been caught at a lapdancing bar by the airport.

By now, you are probably thinking, "Wait, if this is a karaoke show, why are there singers in the band?" Excellent query. You would think it was something that NBC would have thought of. But, you would be wrong. You see, despite this being a karaoke competition, the contestants don't actually sing the songs. Rather, they mouth along with the words, looking incredibly awkward, waiting for the band and singer to stop. At that point, it's their job to jump in with the next phrase. Yes, on each song, the contestant sings about five words max. That's it. How is this karaoke?

With six contestants and almost no singing, there is virtually no chance for the guests to show any personality. This leaves viewers with no rooting interest (the heart of any game show) and, ultimately, bored.

The competition rules of "The Singing Bee" just don't work, leading to the proceedings being a drag. Six contestants are chosen to come up on stage, and the first four to get a lyric right go on to the next round. What if you go late in the rotation? Sucks for you. Not shockingly, the two women eliminated in the first round of the debut episode were in the fifth and sixth positions. So much for drama.

More importantly, the answers almost uniformly turned on whether the contestant got an article, preposition or conjunction right in the lyrics, making the competition feel more like a school assembly than something, you know, fun. For example, four contestants missed the lyrics to Bananarama's cover of "Venus" because they left out the "at" before "your desire" at the end of the chorus. Wow. With drama like that, who can turn away! Makes you long for your high school mathletes competitions.

When the six contestants are whittled down to one, the big finale involves the winner trying to win (insert drum roll) $50,000! Dr. Evil from "Austin Powers" must have come up with that amount. On a network that gives away hundreds of thousands of dollars on "Deal or No Deal" and "1 v. 100," it's hard to bite your nails wondering if that night's victor will be able to haul in the grand prize of 50 grand. It's as if there was directive from NBC to make sure that absolutely no element of the show could provide drama or hold an audience's attention.

There was obviously a lot of curiosity and interest in the concept of a karaoke game show. Tuesday's episode of "The Spelling Bee" drew 13.3 million viewers, making it the highest-rated new show of the summer. My question is, after it turned out to be such a bore-fest, how much of the audience will come back?

If they're smart, they'll watch "Don't Forget the Lyrics!", which debuted the next day (Wednesday) and will run on Wednesday and Thursday nights. If you can get past the admittedly lame title, you'll find that where "The Spelling Bee" does everything wrong, the Fox entry does nearly everything right.

Wayne Brady hosts "Don't Forget the Lyrics!", and the show's format provides a perfect showcase for his upbeat enthusiasm and love of singing and dancing that he displayed for years on "Who's Line Is It Anyway?" (Apparently, he has a thing for shows whose titles end in punctuation marks.) Where Fatone is stiff, smarmy, off-putting and boring, Brady is warm, fun and engaging, knowing just when to get involved in the action (in the first episode, he pulls a guest out of the audience to join him in singing and dancing back-up for the contestant when she sang the Jackson 5 hit "ABC"). He's part tour guide, part party host and part cheerleader, making sure everyone is having fun.

Nothing about "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" is really original, but the show's format uses game show conventions to keep the drama up and viewers involved. A single contestant plays at a time, making a "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" style trek from low-value songs (you start at $2,500) up to a $1 million dollar lyric. Just like "Millionaire" and its progeny ("1 v. 100," "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?", etc.), three helps are available if the contestant has trouble with a song. And, like those shows, you have the option after each round of walking away with what you have or risking it by going on. Like "Deal or No Deal," two friends and/or family members sit on stage (one of the helps is asking them). These game elements may be recycled, but they are used so often for a reason: They work. They produce drama and keep viewers interested in the action, wondering if the contestant will blow a ton of money or win a fortune (rooting for one or the other, depending on whether the person is likable or not).

The creators of "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" also made some smart decisions about the game's format. There are categories of songs for the contestant to choose from, and within each category, the singer can choose one of two songs to perform. This element also keeps you interested as you root for the singer to choose the hit you want to hear. And, most importantly, "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" realizes that it is a karaoke competition. As a result, once the music starts (the band is subtle, ceding the spotlight to the contestant and never drawing attention to itself, which is a very good thing and a lesson the band on "The Singing Bee" could stand to learn), the singer croons along, following the lyrics on the giant in-studio message board (the words are also superimposed on the screen for the viewers at home). We watch the guest sing a good part of the song before the band stops, and the words disappear. It's then up to the contestant to fill in the next four or five words (indicated by dashes).

The "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" rules work because we want to see the guests sing, equally hoping for them to be good or horrible. We get to enjoy their energy, awkwardness and/or talent, as the case may be, and wonder to ourselves if we could do better. The filling in of the lyrics is natural, because the guest is already singing. And, the answers less frequently turn on a missing "and" or "at." It's a better test of whether the singer knows the words. Simply put, it's just more fun.

The format lets us get to know the contestants and gain a rooting interest. For example, in the first episode, we learn that Katie, an adorable, spunky grad student, likes to knit and study bugs, and if she wins money, she will use it to buy a giant microscope and an ant farm. Because she is required to sing the whole songs, she is able to get comfortable, dancing along, in way that the contestants in "The Singing Bee" never get to do. You are brought along on her journey and care more if she gets the lyrics right or wrong. When she was terrified that she might have gotten one of the words of the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" wrong, I found myself a bit tense during the inevitable pause for effect before the correct answer was revealed (she correctly got the line "and they cross the floor," whew).

In the end, it's the money -- what can be won, and what can be lost -- that lifts "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" above its NBC counterpart. (Well, that and the absence of a fun-sucking host like Fatone.) The show provides the same moments of drama and tension found in games like "Deal or No Deal" or "Millionaire." The money element provides the structure that keep you around to enjoy all the singing.

The only thing that interrupts the drama a bit is that the show feels like it was supposed to be an hour long, but was chopped into two 30-minute installments after it had already been shot. Katie was the contestant for the entire first half hour, and yet she only got about two-thirds of the way up the board. I suppose that works to bring you back the next episode, but it just felt abrupt. Of course, that's just a quibble. While certainly not new or innovative, "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" is good piece of fun entertainment, something "The Singing Bee" cannot come close to claiming.

So there you have it. "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" is the clear, decisive winner in the battle of the karaoke game shows. The clash should teach networks two important lessons: Don't rush shows onto the air, and never hire a host whose only claim to fame is "singing" in a boy band. No good can come from either of these courses of action.