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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Is PBS Still Necessary?

Correction Appended

FOR the eighth straight year the Bush administration has ritually proposed taking a hefty whack out of the federal subsidy for public broadcasting. The cuts would in effect slice in half the money that public television and public radio get from the government. If we follow the usual script, this means it’s time for upset listeners and viewers to rally to the cause, as they have in the past, and browbeat Congress into restoring the budget.

Every year, though, it gets a little harder to muster the necessary outrage, and now and then a heretical thought presents itself: What if the glory days of public television — the days of “Monty Python,” “Upstairs Downstairs,” “The French Chef” — are past recapturing? Lately the audience for public TV has been shrinking even faster than the audience for the commercial networks. The average PBS show on prime time now scores about a 1.4 Nielsen rating, or roughly what the wrestling show “Friday Night Smackdown” gets.

On the other side of the ledger the audience for public radio has been growing: there are more than 30 million listeners now, compared to just 2 million in 1980. “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” NPR’s morning and evening news programs, are the second and fourth most listened to shows in the country. Go figure. Who would have guessed 40 years ago, when public broadcasting came into being, that the antique medium, the one supposedly on its way out, would prove to be the greater success and the one more technically nimble. You can even download NPR broadcasts onto your iPod.

Radio benefits of course from being a smaller target, and from attracting fewer political enemies. In public television especially it used to be axiomatic that attacks on the budget were retaliation for perceived liberal bias. Newt Gingrich was quite upfront about punishing PBS when he began his budgetary onslaught back in 1995. By now, though, that war ought to be over. These days the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is run by Republicans, and a few years ago, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who was then chairman of PBS, wasn’t the least bit shy about trying to arm-wrestle stations into running a program whose host was Paul Gigot, editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Unless you count occasional outbursts of hand-wringing earnestness on the part of Bill Moyers or David Brancaccio on “Now,” it’s hard now to see anything resembling liberal excess on PBS, if there ever was such a thing.

Scanning the PBS lineup, in fact, it’s hard to detect much of a bias toward anything at all, except possibly mustiness. Except for “Antiques Roadshow,” all the prime-time stalwarts — “The NewsHour,” “Nova,” “Nature,” “Masterpiece” — are into their third or fourth decade, and they look it. Every now and then a one-off like “The War,” Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s World War II documentary, the most-watched PBS series in 10 years, comes along and makes a huge splash. The broadcast of the first episode was watched by some 7.3 million people, or about as many as tune in to the “NBC Nightly News.” But such projects are few and far between, and they’re so overwhelming and time-consuming that for many people they mostly serve as lengthy advertisements for the boxed DVD set, which you can view at your own convenience and your own pace.

More typical prime-time fare — if you watch WNET, Channel 13, in New York, anyway — is the weekly rerun of “Keeping Up Appearances,” a BBC sitcom about class snobbery that was old 10 years ago. With her permed hair, dowdy clothes and fluty accent, the main character, Hyacinth, is practically a parody of a certain strain in public broadcasting: the one that puts on airs and wants to pretend to singularity.

Forty years ago it really was different. There were only three networks, and none of them were known for challenging or high-minded programming. Indeed, public broadcasting came into being out of collective despair over what had become of the airwaves. Cable has changed all that. There are not only countless more channels to chose from now, but many offer the kind of stuff that in the past you could see only on public TV, and in at least some instances they do it better.

The stunning (and stunningly expensive) BBC documentary “Planet Earth,” for example, which in the old days would have been a natural for PBS, was instead broadcast on the Discovery Channel, which could presumably better afford it. The Showtime series “The Tudors” is just the kind of thing — only better produced and with more nudity — that used to make “Masterpiece Theater” (now simply “Masterpiece”), once the flagship of PBS, so unmissable. Now it’s so strapped for cash that it has pretty much settled into an all-Jane Austen format.

If you’re the sort of traditional PBS viewer who likes extended news broadcasts, say, or cooking shows, old movies and shows about animals gnawing each other on the veld, cable now offers channels devoted just to your interest. Cable is a little like the Internet in that respect: it siphons off the die-hards. Public television, meanwhile, more and more resembles everything else on TV. Since corporate sponsors were allowed to extend their “credit” announcements to 30 seconds, commercials in all but name have been a regular feature on public television, and that’s not to mention pledge programs, the fund-raising equivalent of water-boarding.

In a needy bid for viewers, public television imitates just as much as it’s imitated, putting on pop knockoffs like “America’s Ballroom Challenge.” Even though a number of surveys suggest that a large segment of the viewing population still wants the best of what public television has to offer, there isn’t as much of that as there used to be, and when it is on, it often gets lost amid all the dreck.

Considering how much it costs to create new topnotch programming, the best solution to public television’s woes is the one that will probably never happen: more money, not less. Here too public radio has an edge, because giving listeners what they want doesn’t cost nearly as much. NPR has benefited, moreover, from a huge bequest from the estate of Joan Kroc, widow of the longtime McDonald’s chairman, and you could argue that it has spent its money more wisely than PBS, spiffing up existing shows rather than trying to come up with new ones. Listeners complained mightily when Bob Edwards was booted as host of “Morning Edition” in 2004, a month before his 57th birthday, but the change invigorated the show and ratings are up. (Jim Lehrer, 73, has been with “NewsHour” since 1975, so long that some of his early viewers are now in assisted living.)

But by far the greatest advantage of public radio is that, by not trolling after ratings, it has managed to stay distinctive: it does what nothing else on radio does and sticks to its core: news and public affairs and the oddball weekly show like “Car Talk” and “A Prairie Home Companion.” At the same time, public radio thrives, in a way that public TV does not, from internal competition: in addition to NPR, the old standby, there is the newer, hipper PRI (Public Radio International), importer of the invaluable BBC World Service news program and distributor of innovative shows like “Studio 360 With Kurt Andersen” and “This American Life,” which NPR did not fight for.

Where would we be without this stuff, gathered so conveniently at the low end of the FM dial? How would we fill those otherwise empty hours when we’re held hostage in our cars? At its best public television adds a little grace note to our lives, but public radio fills a void.

Jon Krause

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The Ten Best Oscar Best Pictures Of All Time

On Sunday February 24th, 2008, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences will be holding their 80th Oscar ceremony to honor the year’s best achievement in cinema. The telecast/infomercial is one of the biggest worldwide events, and according to Wikipedia, “holds the distinction of having won the most Emmys in history, with 38 wins and 167 nominations.”

Of the 79 Best Pictures named, some films have stood the test of time and remain classics while others are have become duds that leave the viewer scratching their head, wondering what the voters of the time saw. While it’s completely unfair to compare the spectacle of Ben-Hur alongside the intimacy of Marty, this hasn’t stopped the Academy from their annual apples-to-oranges competition.

With this list, I chose to attempt to showcase the breadth of the honorees. Having the list reduced to ten means a great many titles are left out.

10. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The Best Picture award for Peter Jackson’s final chapter in the Lord of the Rings trilogy was really an award to recognize the work done on all three films since it was in essence one giant project. It is one of four films to sweep the categories it was nominated in, going 11 for 11, tying the record of wins held by Ben-Hur and Titanic.

9. All About Eve

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ film of deceit and betrayal is still compelling as the world of celebrity and show business forever continues to fascinate and draw people to take part. Eve pretends to be a fan, but she’s really come to take the life of Margo Channing in a figurative sense. Hard to believe Bette Davis came in to replace Claudette Colbert shortly before filming because it’s one of her greatest roles. The film won six awards.

8. Midnight Cowboy

Even more so than Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, Midnight Cowboy displays a stark, gritty realism rarely seen in Hollywood films even today. Joe Buck has come to New York City to ply his trade as a male prostitute, but has a tough go of it. Ratso Rizzo is a crippled con man who lives on the streets. Together, they maneuver through the mean streets as best they can. The film won three awards and it is the only X-rated film to ever receive an Oscar.

7. Unforgiven

Clint Eastwood’s film reveals the reality behind the accepted myths of the Western genre. The heroes and villains aren’t clear-cut, violence has ramifications, and alcohol not bravery or nobility fuels the fighting. The film won four awards and is the last Western to win Best Picture.

6. West Side Story

Stephen Sondhiem and Leonard Bernstein’s take on Romeo & Juliet transports the story to the streets of New York with the warring families replaced by street gangs. There’s a purpose to Jerome Robbins’ choreography beyond dancing for its own sake. The film won 10 awards and in addition Robbins was presented an honorary award for Brilliant Achievements in the Art of Choreography on Film.

5. Annie Hall

The film is the perfect synthesis of Woody Allen as it retains his sense of humor like the early, funny ones, but he stretches out as both a writer and director, using the medium like he never had before. While the events as presented in a fantastic manner, it is a realistic love story. The film won four awards.

4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Based on the brilliant novel by Ken Kesey, who initially wasn’t happy with the loss of the narrator or the casting of Jack Nicholson, the film tells the story of McMurphy, who fakes insanity so he can serve out the rest of his prison term in the perceived comfort of a mental institution. There’s a surprising amount of humor for a film that plays out like a classic tragedy. The film won five awards.

3. The Godfather

Marlon Brando leads the Corleone family and an amazing cast in Francis Ford Coppola;s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s novel. The film spans ten years and presents the transformation of Michael from civilian to Don. While some understandably find Part II to be a superior film, it needed The Godfather to lay the foundation. The film won three awards.

2. Lawrence of Arabia

David Lean’s glorious epic based loosely on the life of T.E. Lawrence and his time in Arabia during World War I. Freddie Young’s amazing Super Panavision 70 cinematography and Peter O’Toole’s star-making performance are the standouts in this film whose story of war in the Middle East unfortunately still resonates today. The film won seven awards.

1. Casablanca

Voted the best screenplay of all time by the Writers Guild of America, west in 2006, this classic film tells the tale of Rick and Ilsa, whose relationship was interrupted when she discovered her husband Victor was still alive. Their love triangle plays out in Morocco as Victor and Ilsa are on the run from the Nazis and need the letters of transit Rick has obtained. It’s a flawless film about love and sacrifice. The film won three awards.

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A Consumer's Cheat Sheet to HD DVD's Death and Blu-ray's Victory

HD DVD is dead. Officially. That may mean a whole bunch for the early-adopter tech geek crowd that's been wading in the kiddie pool of technological bickering and backhandedness for years, but what does it mean for the average consumer with only a cursory interest in high-def DVDs? Here's our cheat sheet Q&A for you to whip out if you ever have to explain the high-def format wars to your parents.

Q: I chose sides early in the HD DVD/Blu-ray shenanigans and unfortunately, made the right decision and supported HD DVD. What do I do now?
A: Try and sell your HD DVD player or Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on as fast as you can. Go list it on craigslist or eBay already. The mainstream hasn't heard about HD DVD's demise just yet, which means you can find some chump to buy your player and movies on the cheap. How soundly you sleep at night is up to you.

Q: Really? You mean my player is useless? Won't there be any more movies released on HD DVD?
A: A few more releases that are already in the pipeline might trickle out in the next couple months, but just watch as all the studios abandon the format and go exclusively Blu-ray. You're better off just selling off all your stuff unless you want to keep it around to win our retro Gizmodo tech contest of 2028.

Q: But what if I already have a gigantic HD DVD library?
A: It depends on how gigantic it is. If it's not too big, you can re-buy your library on Blu-ray. If it's huge, you might want to buy a combo player, like the one from LG, in order to ease your transition. Either way, you're going to be out a bit of money. You might want to just shoot yourself in the face now and be done with it.

Q: I chose sides early in the HD DVD/Blu-ray shenanigans and chose Blu-ray. What do I do now?
A: Besides calling up your grandmother to rub it in her face, there's not much you need to do. Just sit and wait for your favorite movies to come out on Blu-ray.

Q: Right, but how long do I have to wait, exactly, before I can watch Batman Begins on my PlayStation 3?
A: Beats me. Now that Blu-ray is the de-facto format, the studios should be falling over themselves trying to remaster their already released HD DVD movies onto Blu-ray. If we had to guess, it'd be within the year.

Q: OK, now that the war is "officially over," is it time for me to buy a Blu-ray player?
A: Maybe. It's still relatively early in the technology's lifespan, which means prices for Blu-ray players are still quite high when you compare it to the sub-$100 upscaling DVD players you can find at Wal-Mart. Plus, the BD library is incredibly thin when compared to DVD, so you might not be getting much use out of the player in your day-to-day movie watching. But if you really do want to get into the HD game (and have an HDTV to back it up), it's finally safe to buy a player.

Q: So you're saying that I'm going to be paying more for these movies on Blu-ray? When will the prices drop to DVD levels?
A: That's tough to say. For example, Superman Returns is only $14.98 for the DVD version but $23.95 for the Blu-ray version. It's going to take a few years yet for that 23 to drop to 14. If you had to force us to guess, we're going to say about three years. That's 2011.

Q: I don't buy movies, I rent them. When are Netflix and Blockbuster going to get in gear and stock a bunch of Blu-ray movies?
A: As soon as the major studios start releasing Blu-ray movies in bulk. If you recall the VHS to DVD transition, it took quite a while for VHS tapes to phase out, and this transition will be quite similar. Again, if you forced us to guess, we'd have to say 2010.

Q: Screw it, I'm convinced. I'm going to go out and buy a player today. Which player should I buy?
A: Unless you're morally opposed to gaming or having a gaming device in your living room, you should go with the PlayStation 3. It's software-upgradeable, plus it's relatively cheap even when compared to standalone Blu-ray players. You even get a gaming system thrown in.

Q: Speaking of gaming, what if I already purchased an Xbox 360 and want to be able to watch Blu-ray movies? Will I have to buy a PS3?
A: Maybe not. Even though Microsoft backed HD DVD and released an HD DVD add-on, they weren't staking their entire console on the format (hence, the add-on). This means that Microsoft has a big minus in their column when comparing the 360 to the PS3 in terms of high-def DVD playback. It's a hole they're going to want to patch up right away, so don't be surprised if you see a Blu-ray add-on for the 360 some time in the near future.

Q: Can you sum up what I, the average consumer, should do at this point in one sentence?
A: Wait one more year for the Blu-ray format to mature, for more titles to be released, and player prices to drop before jumping in.

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The Biggest Star Wars Collection in the Galaxy

Rob Foster has almost all the Star Wars figures and models known to mankind, Hutts and Bothans. He and his girlfriend share their home with an overwhelming army of Star Wars collectibles, from vintage 1977 figures to full battalions of the latest Storm Troopers and giant Ultimate Collector LEGO models, in and out of their original boxes, in formation or reenacting movie scenes. Amazing 134-image gallery documenting every figure and angle, plus an exclusive interview with Rob after the jump.

It's Toy Fair 2008 and Rob Foster is looking for what figures and models to get next. Every year, companies like Hasbro, LEGO or Gentle Giant release new products related to Rob's favorite toy franchise ever: Star Wars.

Jesús Díaz: Hello Rob, stunning collection. The sheer scale, all those figures forming on the shelves, the models hanging everywhere, even all that LEGO stuff... it's just amazing. As I was going through each image, my only thought was: "omfg, it can't be real." So first of all: how many figures does your collection have?

Rob Foster: In terms of 3 3/4" figures, I'd say that there are a little under 2,000 open figures, and 800 or so that are still in the packaging.

JD: When it all started?
RF: I started collecting in 1995 when Hasbro brought the line back. I was 15 at the time.

JD: Long time. How much do you calculate it is all worth now? Something along the lines of the Transformers $1,000,000 collection?
RF: To be honest, I have no idea. The vintage and Gentle Giant products do well when you're trying to sell them, but the modern stuff is over-produced compared to the 1970's and '80s. It's not about making money, so I don't worry about that.

JD: You mention overproduction and I see that you really enjoy getting massive numbers of troopers as well as different models... inside all this plastic horde, are there any favorites?
RB: Probably my favorite is actually the custom vintage Gargan. She was the fat dancer in Jabba's palace and was set to be made into the vintage line before it fell apart in the mid '80s. She was sculpted by Ryan Shaw to match the vintage style, and to my knowledge only about 25 of them were made.

JD: What's the oldest one?
RF: The oldest ones are the first series of vintage toys that came out with the movie in 1977.

JD: And your latest acquisition?
RF: I've slowed down a bit recently, but the latest items I picked up were Hasbro's new wave of figures, the 2008 models, wave 1.

JD: What's the one that took longer to collect? You know, the one(s) you really went the extra mile to grab.
RF: I've been very picky about the loose vintage set. I've been working on it off and on for about six or seven years now. It's taken a long time because they have to be perfect when it comes to paint chips and discoloration. Also, the accessories have to be original vintage too, no reproductions. I hope to get into that later this year.

JD: So no reproductions whatsoever, all originals... what about custom pieces from independent model makers?
RF: Apart from Gargan, I've stayed away from customs for the most part.

JD: How often do you get there figures? Or in other words, are you done yet?
RF: I'm certainly not done yet. I've been slowing down because I'm running out of room (everything has to be contained in that one room), but I want to get more into collecting vintage, and as long as Hasbro keeps making a solid product, I'll stick with the new figures too.

JD: Do you think this is the most complete Star Wars figure collection in the world... or about to get that title, this side of Skywalker Ranch?
RF: No, not at all. A lot of people tell me that it's way up there, but I've seen some pretty incredible collections over the years, lots of them with much more money sunk into them.

JD: I also see you have the LEGO stuff; do you have them all?
RF: I don't have everything Lego has put out, I've just picked up those here and there. The Ultimate Collector Series on the other hand, I actively collect. I just need to get around to buying the Death Star and Naboo Fighter to have them all.

Once you are inside the gallery, check the other pages to access the 134 images. The interview continues below, after the gallery

JD: I see the Ultimate Collectors... and the Falcon. How long did it take you to build it?
RF: I'm guessing it took about 25-30 hours. I worked on it for a weekend and then in evenings after work for a few days.

JD: I see you have many of the figures in their package yet. Does every figure (or almost every one of them) have the equivalent still inside the original packaging?
RF: If a figure came on a regular card, I have it open and in the package. If it came in a big box like with a vehicle or a 5-pack, I only have them opened.

JD: I think the only question left is how the heck do you support this amazingly dedicated hobby—what's your job?
RF: I work in the Art Department at a visual effects / animation studio called Reel FX Creative Studios although my department is now being called "Radium Dallas") doing Motion Graphics work. We do a lot of commercials, but the most recent thing that I worked on that had anything to do with movies, was the opening credits for Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. I animated about half of it.

JD: And what does your other half thing about this?
RB: She's great about it. When my girlfriend and I started shopping for a home, the only thing I asked for was an extra room to put the toys in. She fell in love with this place we live in now, which only has one bedroom and one large main room. I told her the toys were going in the bedroom, and she said that was just fine. So that's our shared bedroom and has been for the last five years. She's a champ!

Indeed, she is. In fact, I can guarantee Rob—whose favorite Star Wars movie is Empire Strikes Back and recently bought a Blu-ray player, just in time—that if she is going through all this, they will go through everything together. Or at least, that's what I tell myself every time I look at all that LEGO. [Jedi Defender]

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