29 November 2011

New Western Has Big Hopes To Reach Audiences

Story first appeared in USA TODAY.

A few miles down a dirt road from a tribal casino, a lush green valley dotted with dandelions has been transformed into 1865 Nebraska.

Caked with inches-deep mud from spring rains, a tent city has sprung, populated with horse-drawn wagons, chickens, several hundred feet of railroad track to nowhere and a locomotive made from steel, Styrofoam and wood.

It's the world of AMC's Hell on Wheels, a story of greed, corruption and revenge framed by the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Premiering Sunday (10 ET/PT), the 10-episode drama is the cable network's latest twist on Westerns, after earlier success with 2006 miniseries Broken Trail. And coupled with a comeback in critically acclaimed films (True Grit, There Will Be Blood) it marks the latest chapter in an effort to revive the timeworn genre, which dominated the early days of television but has been seen only sporadically since. But old-time Westerns were both literally and figuratively black and white: Good guys against evildoers. The new model focuses on flawed antiheroes with impure motives.

Wheels spins around Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former slave owner who, just after the Civil War, finds work on a railroad crew purely to seek revenge on the former members of Gen. Sherman's army responsible for murdering his wife. Rap singer Common plays Elam Ferguson, a former slave who forms an uneasy bond with Bohannon on the prairie.

Construction of the railroad, touted as healing the rift between north and south by linking east to west, hasn't been explored much in fiction, says Tony Gayton (Faster), who created the show with his brother Joe. Their idea is to have 'hell on wheels' — that's the movable tent city — to feel like an urban development, and to juxtapose that with the big wide-open western vistas (and) the Native Americans.

Mount, a Tennessee native, says, it's not a show about the creation of a railroad, it's a show about the building of a nation. It's a group of people from different backgrounds, different cultures, different races, who have a shared dream of creating something that's seemingly impossible.

Connecting the coasts was like saying we're going to put a man on the moon, and it's not a pretty story: There's a lot of graft, a lot of corruption, a lot of hatred. Cullen is a guy who's hellbent on revenge, and he keeps losing that battle because he gets distracted by a sense of obligation and duty elsewhere.

Distinctly American themes

At the set on the grounds of the Tsuu T'ina Nation (ironic, given the scalpings in Sunday's premiere), extras clad in mud-caked canvas mingle with crew members incongruously dressed in jeans and rubber boots. One actor, dressed as a hobo, rolls a cigarette off camera. And plenty of old-timey slurs slip off tongues, from "copperheads" and "graybacks" to "darkies" and "bogtrotters." Irish, Germans and a Swede or two are part of the melting pot.

Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney) is the only character based on a historic figure, simply because "he was too good not to use. A corrupt railroad promoter who stood to profit from government subsidies, he manipulated the stock market by misleading investors about which railroad he planned to connect with. And though desperate to build the first 40 miles of track so he could begin claiming a $16,000-a-mile subsidy, he insisted on a snake-like path to make more money.

Dominique McElligott plays Lily Bell, widowed by the murder of her surveyor husband, who spends early episodes trying to survive in the wilderness. But she's not a damsel in distress. She's sort of badass. (McElligott struggled too, having spent an entire day lying in the rain and submerged in mud. The mosquitoes would come later.)

For some scenes shot at night or in bad weather, cameras roll in a former airplane hangar a few miles away, using replicas of tents and other props.

For AMC, Hell is the latest move in its strategy to develop companion series for its top movie draws: Fans of horror films marched to its biggest hit, The Walking Dead. Despite its recent success with original series.

Original programming chief Joel Stillerman says the search yielded a lot of traditional Westerns, but none had the scope and emotional intensity of Hell on Wheels. These stories have great universal themes that are distinctly American.

Executive producer Jeremy Gold says the cost of progress is very much an ongoing theme of the show, (and) the brutality of imposing civilization where it shouldn't be.

Producers and actors cite There Will Be Blood, Unforgiven and True Grit as inspirations.

Old genre, new 'flavor'

Though scarce on TV in recent years, the notion of frontier justice has been appealing to TV programmers almost since the medium started.

In the 1960s, modernism was much more in vogue, and current generations wanted to see themselves reflected on TV, and they weren't on horses. And newly available demographic data revealed that Western fans were an older crowd that was less appealing to advertisers.

And though Gunsmoke and Bonanza endured until the '70s, subsequent efforts to revive the genre were met with disdain. Brooks recalls working as a researcher for legendary NBC programmer Brandon Tartikoff, who — exasperated by relentless pitches — printed up T-shirts picturing a horse covered with an X. "They were really run out of TV," he says.

And yet struggling NBC — in a quest for something original, says the network's entertainment president Jennifer Salke — is now developing three Western-themed projects, including a drama about Dust Bowl pioneers in which a couple goes missing, and another reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with a strong female character added in. (ABC also has one in the works.)

Salke, who's looking for a postmodern version in which the setting provides a specific kind of flavor. NBC passed last spring on Reconstruction, a pilot also set just after the Civil War. But the difficulty of launching new dramas, not just at NBC, has pushed programmers to the frontier.

Writers are incredibly challenged in drama to come up with something unique that's going to excite people, Salke says. Fans of the genre will be interested, but it's her job to come up with something that's more modern and accessible and has appeal to a broader audience. If it's a doctor and family on the range, she is already asleep in her chair.

Of course, cable has the luxury of appealing to a specific niche audience. HBO's acclaimed Deadwood had a loyal following and a three-year run. And though Elmore Leonard stopped writing Westerns, his Fire in the Hole, adapted for FX's Justified, embodies the Western tradition, and they don't shy away from it, says executive producer Graham Yost. He is a marshal and he's got a star and he gets bad guys, but it's complicated because it's 2011, not 1952. Our heroes have more dimensions, flaws and foibles.

The modern-day allegory is unavoidable: Brooks says Westerns mark a pushback on the urbanization of TV" and gives voice to a populist focus on the "other America." The symbolism, says AMC's Stillerman, is almost too good to be true.

23 November 2011

CBS Fined for Janet Jackson Exposure

Story first appeared in USA TODAY.

A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld its finding that the Federal Communications Commissions acted improperly in fining CBS over the fleeting exposure of Janet Jackson's breast during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.

A three-judge panel from 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled that the FCC improperly assessed a $550,000 fine against the network for the so-called "wardrobe malfunction" that lasted just over half a second.

During the Super Bowl performance in Houston, Justin Timberlake ripped off Jackson's bustier, briefly exposing her breast and a silver sunburst "shield" covering her nipple. In arguments last year, the FCC argued that CBS should have been aware the performers might add shock value to the act.

CBS had a duty to investigate, FCC lawyer Jack Lewis argued.

The network countered that regulators were now trying to apply different standards to words and images despite previously excusing fleeting instances of both.

The Supreme Court last year ordered the appeals panel to reconsider its 2008 decision, citing a ruling in a Fox television-led challenge, when it said the FCC could threaten fines over the use of a single curse word on live TV.

In the majority opinion, 3rd Circuit Judge Marjorie Rendell wrote that the Fox opinion did nothing to undermine the earlier decision on the CBS fine and, in fact, confirms the appeals panel's ruling.

The FCC "arbitrarily and capriciously departed from its prior policy excepting fleeting broadcast material" in assessing the fine, Rendell wrote.

The same panel initially sided with the network in 2008.

The Spread of Malicious Internet Ads

Story first appeared in USA TODAY.

The online-advertising industry is scrambling to quell a long-standing problem that has taken a turn for the worse: the spread of malicious ads on the Internet's top commercial websites.

Several new twists have made so-called malvertisements a fast-rising threat to consumers — and a big headache for publishers, advertisers and ad networks, say technologists and security researchers.

The spread of infected online ads has spiked tenfold over the past year, according to research disclosed by security intelligence firm RiskIQ at a recent Online Trust Alliance conference in Washington, D.C.

RiskIQ documented a peak of 14,694 occurences of malvertisements in May of this year, up from 1,533 in May 2010. Each corrupted ad could have infected the PCs of thousands or millions of website visitors, based on how long the ad ran, says Elias Manousos, CEO of RiskIQ.

Organized crime gangs have streamlined the process of sneaking viral ads into the distribution system run by advertising networks, causing billions of tainted ad impressions to appear on the top 500 websites over the past 12 months, say technologists and security researchers.

Website security firm Armorize recently discovered criminals selling tutorials, tool kits and ad placement services to anyone who wants to get into the malvertising game. "There is a whole ecosystem designed to do this," says Matt Huang, Armorize's chief operating officer.

A recent rash of infections have been triggering bogus security warnings, followed by an offer for fake antivirus protection.

Last month, SpeedTest.net, a site that measures home broadband connection speeds, began displaying legit ads carrying instructions to load pitches for Security Sphere 2012. Simply navigating to the site launched the promos, which locked up the visitor's PC until he or she purchased worthless "protection" for $35.

Doug Suttles, chief operating officer of Web diagnostics firm Ookla, SpeedTest's parent, says his engineers spotted the attack and cleaned it up within three hours. The criminals, in this case, pioneered a novel technique. They corrupted legit advertisements as they arrived in the ad-handling program, called OpenX, used by the SpeedTest site.

However, tens of thousands of other websites that use the free OpenX ad-handling platform are wide open to this new type of attack, says Armorize's Huang.

In another twist, consumers bedeviled by bogus anti-virus pitches have started bad-mouthing websites they believe triggered the fake promos. Armorize has documented numerous consumer complaints that have gone viral on Twitter and other social networks, causing a drop in visits to the sites in question.

Some ad networks have begun participating in a working group discussing "information-sharing about malvertisers and their ads," says Steve Sullivan, the Interactive Advertising Board's vice president of digital supply chain solutions.

The Online Publishers Association, the industry group of major website publishers, has yet to closely examine malvertising. Obviously, stuff like this is disconcerting to the industry, says Pam Horan, OPA's president. They haven't done any research in this area, and she has not specifically heard anything from the members about this.

Even so, validating ads has become a major conundrum. Web publishers trust the ad networks to continually rotate ads to their Web pages. Meanwhile, the big ad networks, such as Google, Adobe, Microsoft and Yahoo, use automation to pull ads into rotation from a series of smaller networks and agencies.

Malvertisements are also used to spread stealthy infections that quietly take full control of the victim's PC, which is then used to steal data, probe deeper into corporate networks and pilfer from online financial accounts.

Consumers can protect themselves by making sure anti-virus programs and all updates for their Web browsers and popular applications, especially Adobe Flash and Adobe PDF, are current. Consumers who want to protect themselves further can use browser plug-ins, such as NoScript and AdBlock, that block all online ads.

Craig Spiezle, the Online Trust Association's executive director, says publishers, advertisers and the ad networks realize what's at stake.

The good news there is growing interest of some of the key stakeholders — including Yahoo, Microsoft and Google — on the need to employ countermeasures. It's clear that validating the ads everyone depends on is a shared responsibility. If consumers don't trust ads, they may not go to the site, or they'll start running ad blockers, and that will compromise everyone's ability to monetize.

Andy Rooney Dies

Story first appeared in USA TODAY.

Andy Rooney, television's most celebrated curmudgeon, died Friday night, about one month after ending his 33-year run as the closing essayist on CBS' top-rated newsmagazine 60 Minutes.
He died in a New York City hospital of complications after minor surgery, according to a CBS statement released on Saturday.

Rooney was 92. In a 2010 interview with USA TODAY, he was asked about retiring and shot back his own question: "Retire? From what? Life?"

He allowed that "I suppose the time may come." It did on Oct. 2, when he delivered his 1,097th and final essay, telling his viewers, "I've done a lot of complaining here, but of all the things I've complained about, I can't complain about my life."

60 Minutes didn't replace him with another essayist — perhaps the ultimate compliment.

A former war correspondent, he wrote 16 books — from Air Gunner (1944), an account of the air war against Germany, to Andy Rooney: 60 Year of Wisdom and Wit (2009). And until last year, he wrote a syndicated newspaper column.

Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and the executive producer of 60 Minutes, wouldn't discuss why Rooney wasn't replaced, but said, it's a sad day at 60 Minutes and for everybody here at CBS News. It's hard to imagine not having Andy around. He loved his life and he lived it on his own terms.

In the 2010 interview, Rooney was asked if he did retire, who might replace him? With a straight face, he suggested another CBS legend, Charles Kuralt, who died in 1997.

Rooney liked to think of himself not as a TV personality but as a writer who merely appeared on television. With his whiny, sing-song oratory style and rumpled demeanor, his observation was a bit more than wry self-deprecation.

He could be grouchy, rude, funny, mischievous and occasionally out-of-touch and controversial. As he put it, "There's an awful lot of nonsense in this world. I'm not shy about expressing a dislike when I feel it."

In his first 60 Minutes essay, on July 2, 1978, he contended the Fourth of July weekend was "one of the safest of the year to be going someplace," and that since "fewer people are watching television over the Fourth, I suppose fewer die of boredom."

Few topics were off-limits. He debunked celebrities, consumer products, companies, hair styles, holiday traditions and human behavior with wit and a sly arch of his trademark bushy eyebrows. One of his Emmy Awards was for an essay pondering if there was a real Mrs. Smith behind Mrs. Smith's Pies.

Rooney's TV career began in 1949 as a writer for Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, but took off in the late '60s as a writer/producer for correspondent Harry Reasoner. In an interview with Morley Safer that accompanied his final essay for 60 Minutes, Rooney said the late Reasoner was a good writer but lazy.

No one ever said that about Rooney. "The single luckiest thing that ever happened to me," he said, was as an Army private in 1942 landing a job as a reporter for the Armed Forces' newspaper, Stars and Stripes. In 1943, he was one of six correspondents who flew on the first American bombing raid over Germany. Near war's end, he was one of the first American journalists to report atrocities from recently liberated concentration camps.

During the war, he met Walter Cronkite, who would become his closest friend at CBS, and Don Hewitt, who would start 60 Minutes and have the idea in 1978 of closing each Sunday night's edition of 60 Minutes with a Rooney essay.

"I never had a great desire to have my face on TV," Rooney told USA TODAY. "I don't mind it. It means more money. … I like that part of it."

Before 60 Minutes, he wrote and appeared in several prime-time specials, including In Praise of New York City (1974), Mr. Rooney Goes to Washington (1975), Mr. Rooney Goes to Dinner (1978), and Mr. Rooney Goes to Work (1977).

He didn't always get along with his bosses. In 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War, he quit CBS — returning two years later — when the network refused to air his morally questioning "An Essay on War." It aired on PBS instead.

In 1990, he was suspended for three months after making remarks seen as homophobic to a gay newspaper. He was rehired four weeks later after 60 Minutes ratings had fallen 20%.

In 1992, he angered Native Indians when he wrote in a column that it was silly for them to complain about team nicknames such as the Redskins: "The real problem is, we took the country away from the Indians, they want it back and we're not going to give it to them. We feel guilty and we'll do what we can for them within reason, but they can't have their country back. Next question."

In 1994, he complained that Kurt Cobain's suicide at 27 got more attention that Richard Nixon's death. He said he had never heard of Cobain or his band Nirvana and that "a lot of people would like to have the years left that he threw away." A week later, he apologized on air, saying he should have taken Cobain's depression into account, and read critical comments from viewers.

The same year, he blasted the French for not supporting the war with Iraq: "You can't beat the French when it comes to food, fashion, wine or perfume, but they lost their license to have an opinion on world affairs years ago," he said. "The French lost World War II to the Germans in about 20 minutes."

But he also said, "I am proud to say that no CBS executive has ever stopped me from saying anything, no matter how dumb it was."

CBS released a statement Saturday that praised Rooney's contribution to journalism.

His wry wit, his unique ability to capture the essence of any issue, and his larger-than-life personality made him an icon, not only within the industry but among readers and viewers around the globe, said Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corporation.

Rooney also won admiration from colleagues at CBS.

"Underneath that gruff exterior, was a prickly interior … and deeper down was a sweet and gentle man, a patriot with a love of all things American, like good bourbon and a delicious hatred for prejudice and hypocrisy," Morley Safer said.

In Rooney's cluttered office at CBS, one of his treasured possessions was a framed, handwritten note that said simply, "WOW," from the acclaimed essayist and children's author E.B. White, about Rooney's 1957 TV adaptation of White's famous essay, "Here is New York."

"He was the best there was," Rooney said. When White died in 1985, Rooney noted, "Seems terribly wrong, but I'm probably better known than he was. As the phrase goes in the newspaper business, I couldn't carry his typewriter."

Rooney was often viewed as an American "everyman," but he acknowledged that when he encountered fans who "want to be your best friend, I'm rude. I don't like that in myself, but I can't stop it."

He once wrote, "I'm average in so many ways that it eliminates any chance I ever had of being considered a brooding, introspective intellectual." In fact, Rooney was a bit of an elitist who drove expensive cars, dined at fine French restaurants in Manhattan, was a member of several private clubs and a regular on the New York black-tie media circuit.

Rooney is survived by one son, Brian, a former ABC correspondent, and three daughters: Emily, who hosts a public-TV talk show in Boston; Martha, who works at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md.; and Ellen, a photographer in London.

In an introduction to the 2009 collection of his father's writings, Brian Rooney wrote: "As a father, he was the product of his time. He never said, 'I love you,' and never asked about my feelings."

But, he added, "His gruffness hides sentimentality. … When my mother (Marguerite) died (in 2004, after 62 years of marriage), he curled up on the bed like a child, crying her name. He loves life and wishes it would never end."

College Students Reach Out About Debt and Job Prospects

Story first appeared in the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

Students rallying around issues of debt, job prospects.

Mo Tarafa stood before students at a small, outdoor concrete auditorium at Florida International University and called for volunteers to sit in the 10 chairs before her. Each chair, represented 10 percent of the wealth in the united States and 10 percent of the population.

The students, mostly in their 20s and wearing jeans and T-shirts on a balmy fall Thursday afternoon in Miami, took their places. Then Tarafa asked nine of the students to squeeze together into five of the chairs. This, she said, was the distribution of wealth in 1996.

Next she asked nine students to fit into three of the chairs. This, she said, is the distribution of wealth today.

She asked how they were filling and one student said "uncomfortable" as they sat piled up on one another.

The exercise was part of a teach-in that took place recently at FIU and dozens of other campuses across the country in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. As the protests have grown to cities across the United States. they've also taken root at the nation's universities, where students have staged rallies and walk-outs from classes.

On Thursday, students were among the thousands who took part in protest across the country. At the University of California, Berkeley, where 40 people were arrested in a violent confrontation with police last week, officers removed 20 tents on Thursday.
At Harvard University, dozens of students have set up tents in the middle of campus.

The student's concerns:the rising costs of tuition, seemingly insurmountable student debt and weak job prospects- issues unique to them, but which student organizers see as directly connected to the larger issues being raised by the Occupy protests.

Natalia Abrams, a recent UCLA graduate who has been helping organize students through Occupy Colleges said she loved her education and things that is was valuable, however, she fells she is not using it on a daily basis. Occupy College is a loose coalition of universities across the country. Whether the protest mark a rejuvenation of student activism in the United States is yet to be seen but already some important distinctions are being made from their involvement in politics and society over the last few decades.

In the 1960s, students held sit-ins to protest racial segregation and marched against the Vietnam War. Since then, activism on campus has tended to focus on specific issues, like rape awareness, anti-sweatshop campaigns, and equality for gays and lesbians.

There has not for a long time been a single issue like the civil rights or the war in Vietnam that brings a whole generation together.

Students at more than 120 university have participated in protest so far. They range from students from Ivy League colleges, many who come from middle and upper-class families, to those who work and attend state or community college.

Debt from college loans and poor job prospects after graduation are two of the main points of contention for student protesters. The unemployment rate for students who graduated from college in 2010 was 9.1 percent, among the highest levels i recent history, according to the Project on Student Debt, a nonprofit research and policy organization dedicated to making college more affordable. Student graduated with an average of $25,250 debt, 5 percent higher than a year before.