Sunday, June 17, 2007

TV: A down and up week for women

Last week was an interesting week for women and TV, one that ended on a high note. Before we could get the high note, we had to trudge through cesspool.

Enter Dan Rather who, to no one's surprise after being dumped in a very public manner by CBS, decided to seek his revenge by proclaiming (from exile, who would have him but a start up these days?) that CBS Evening News had made a mistake -- "the mistake was to try to bring the Today show ethos to the Evening News, and to dumb it down, tart it up in hopes of attracting a younger audience."

Some rushed to Dan Rather's defense when his remarks resulted in criticism. This is the man whom, as Lewis Lapham notes in Gag Rule (page 9), "enlisted for the duration" (in Bully Boy's fight against 'evil-doers'), "proud to inform the viewers of the CBS Evening News that 'George Bush is the president. Whereever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.'" This is the man that Project Censored's Censored 2004 noted greeted the news that the US military had knocked out Al Jazeera's signal by declaring that Saddam Huseine's "propaganda" network had it's plug pulled (page 225) and noted:

Indeed, 23 days after the [Iraq] war started, CBS's 48 Hours (April 10, 2003) opened its celebratory sgement, "After the Fall," with footage of the [staged] toppling statue [of Saddam Hussein]. As Dan Rather observed with evident approval, "Remnants of the regime still stand, but surrounded now by a conquering power." Rather encountered burnt-out vehilces and intoned, "In this one, there is a body. What happened, who shot him, who knows?" In the world of militainment, the "conquering power" bears no responsibility for the death left in its wake. In the chaos that was Baghdad, where soldiers served as "police and social workers," no phrase was too hackneyed for Rather: "Theirs is not to reason why, their is but to do or die."
The actual quotation, from Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," is the less melodramatic "theirs but to do and die." In either case, an ominous quoation at a time of endless war, when democracy's critical dialogue is replaced with militainment.

We could note many other examples but one that's required is from Amy Goodman and David Goodman's The Exception to the Rulers (page 165):

Let's let Dan speak for himself. On BBC Newsnight on May 16, 2002, Rather talked candidly about how he and other journalists censor themselves. "There was a time in South Africa that people would put flaming tires around people's necks if they dissented," he said. "And in some ways the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tire of lack of patriotism put around your neck. Now it is that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest questions, and to continue to bore in on the tough questions so often. And again, I am humbled to say, I do not except myself from this criticism."

We could do this all day and go back to when Rather joined CBS but we think the point is made, Dan Rather was not a brave or honest voice on American TV. (Though not brave, he did show more honesty when appearing on British television.)

So last week's declaration that "the mistake was to try to bring the Today show ethos to the Evening News, and to dumb it down, tart it up in hopes of attracting a younger audience" should have been widely condemned for what it was: sexism.

Instead, some rushed to assure that it was not sexism, as if Dan Rather meant "pastry it up"? The most damaging of the voices defending Dan Rather last week was Katrina vanden Heuvel because, to too many not paying attention, she is a woman of power who is concerned about women. So if this woman was saying, "It's not sexism" (as she did), then, surely, it wasn't sexism.

It was sexism. Those not paying attention shouldn't take vouching from a woman who, as editor and publisher of the weekly Nation magazine, has seen fit to print approximately four male writers for every one woman. Those not paying attention shouldn't take vouching from a woman who is attempting to grab on to some big bucks via the fund raiser/pyramid scheme that is The Nation Cruise -- which, this summer, includes the 'honor' of speaking to Mary Mapes, Dan Rather's former producer. In her defense of Dan Rather, vanden Heuvel failed to note either her own record of publishing women or her magazine's financial gain from her defense of Dan Rather.

That's a bit like saying you're for economic justice and then attempting to weasel out of paying taxes by taking your case as high as the Supreme Court (where you still lose) and . . . Oh, wait.

We first wrote of the organized attacks on Katie Couric (we know Couric, we know her current producer, we know Katrina vanden Heuvel and we know Dan Rather) in December of 2005. At that point, they were all "insider baseball" and had yet to reach mass saturation. Mass saturation would happen in April of 2006 and, during that time, we wrote "TV: Katie Was a Cheerleader." Now that was April of 2006 when the non-stop slams and attacks that make up a solid round of Bash the Bitch were taking place as the news came that Couric would become the anchor of the CBS Evening News; however, despite all the attacks going on then, Couric didn't do her first broadcast as anchor until September 5, 2006. Translation, five months before she ever first did the job, she was already being slammed non-stop.

Last week, we weighed in on vanden Heuvel's damaging remarks. That happened because one of us (C.I.) awoke Thursday morning to non-stop calls and messages from women in broadcasting about the outrageous thing vanden Heuvel had written. For readers of this site, let us just note that there are always women happy to pick up awards from pro-women and feminists organizations (though Katrina vanden Heuvel herself, to be clear, did not win an award from Planned Parenthood, that award went to The Nation magazine and someone needs to clean up the woman's bio) while never doing a thing to help other women. Women like that tend to, when they either ascend to roles of power or buy their way in, be the first to make sure no one is lifted up with them. (Or maybe they're just too busy trying to change the centrist Council for Foreign Relations from within?) But, though feminists have gone from low grumblings about the ratio of women published under vanden Heuvel to more loud remarks, to many in the American public, vanden Heuvel is seen as a woman who made it (up from Harlem! -- or at least her mansion there) and so when she's used to front a cover for sexism, it is twice as offensive.

While Katrina vanden Heuvel spun widly (out of her depths since she wasn't addressing reality TV again), it was left to our Manny Named Brian to note the obvious: "But the fact is the broadcast has gotten a lot better under new Executive Producer Rick Kaplan – newsier, harder, and less features oriented. Last week, according to Andrew Tyndall, the Evening News spent 11 minutes on Iraq, while ratings champ World News With Charles Gibson spent just two." (Disclosure, we have exchanged e-mails with Candy Perfume Boy and offered recommendations when asked by friends at CBS, but we have never met or spoken to Our Manny Named Brian.)

So while Katrina vanden Heuvel and others used Dan Rather's sexism to engage in yet another round of Bash the Bitch, the truth was actually that Couric's program was offering much more news on Iraq than Charlie Gibsons? Gibson, who, for the record, got his job only after ABC decided screw discrimination laws, they were going to demote a pregnant woman due to the fact that she was pregnant, not due to her abilities? Yes, unlike Katrina vanden Heuvel, we covered that topic.

A lot is made of the fact that CBS Evening News' ratings have dropped to approximately 6 million from the average of 7 million under Dan Rather. Forgetting the network's effort to alter the format (announced before they even selected an anchor), considering the fact that Katie Couric has been the target of Bash the Bitch for 15 months without let up, we think the fact that the show's held on to that many viewers is amazing. We further think that the focus on Katie Couric's ratings (which even some media watchdogs have seen as worth discussing as opposed to the content of the program) goes a long way towards explaining how Charlie Gibson can reduce Iraq to two minutes without comment from the watchdogs on the left.

For those not familiar with the week of June 4th through June 8th (Monday through Friday), Iraqi oil workers went on strike, Adam Kokesh suffered through a trumped up, kangaroo hearing, Liam Madden (whom the military was also attempting to silence) held a press conference, the number of US service members killed in the illegal war passed the 3500 mark,
tensions between Turkey and northern Iraq increased, two Sunni mosques were attacked in Baghdad (which may have been the motivation for the Samarra mosque attack last Wednesday, but people would have to know of the two mosques attacked June 7th to even consider that), a video of Byron Fouty and Alex Jimenez -- two US soldiers missing since a May 12th attack -- turned up portraying them as dead (June 5th), an unnamed Iraq veteran was publicly protesting the war by doing laps around the State Capitol Building in Sacramento, California, and those were just some of the events from the week in which Charlie Gibson could only spare two minutes for the topic of Iraq.

Now tell us again, which program was dumbed down? The one that spent 11 minutes on Iraq or the one that spent 2 minutes?

The continued Bash the Bitch proved so popular that even some women, such as Katrina vanden Heuvel, elected to go wading in the cesspool last week, facts be damned. And it didn't matter that the man they were rushing to prop up is "left" only in the eyes of the extreme right and is a "journalist" only if you abuse and self-mutilate the term. Of course Dan Rather's going to slam Katie Couric, his own reputation is in tatters and there's little he can do to salvage it so better to slam a woman and hope that takes the heat off him. Last week you saw many attempts to turn the national joke (of too many years) into an elder statesman (note the "man" in "statesman") when, honestly, his image can't be refurbished. But they were willing to try. A really bad news reader attacks a woman and too many of left and 'left' enlisted in Rather's Holy War.

But there was a bright spot as well. Friday night, Genie Francis won a Daytime Emmy for best supporting actress. Sadly, this was her first.

TV viewers owe a huge debt to Genie Francis whether they realize it or not. The TV landscape in the late 70s wasn't all that friendly to young women. Kristy McNichol was playing Buddy on Family (Francis guest starred as a skate boarding friend) and that was really about it as for women steering any action (as any episode of Eight Is Enough . . . So The Males Get The Storylines will attest). In 1976, Francis joined the cast of General Hospital as Laura. (Laura Webber eventually, then a host of other last names, don't make us go through all of this.)

There were other young, teenage females on daytime . . . and they knew their place. (Even on The Hot and The Horny -- as The Young & the Restless was known for years.)

Some pick up the storyline with the match up of Laura with Luke while some think that going back to Laura and Scotty is "historical." The truth is Laura was in sex cult before she knew either. The truth is, General Hospital was on its last legs and (new producer) Gloria Monty was the show's last chance. Surveying tapes, she infamously remarked that the cast was so immobile that she wondered if all the characters were supposed to paraplegics -- and so unattractive, that they should all be disposed of with a plane crash. Instead, she went to work on hiring (actors, directors -- Marlena Laird especially deserves noting -- and writers), went to work on lighting and went to work figuring out how General Hospital -- the typical life and love around a hospital setting show -- could be different. Early on, she seized upon the character Laura.

This included the storyline where Laura killed a man in love with her mother and went on the run (her first time on the run, a story that would repeat and repeat). She supposedly found 'happiness' in marriage to Scotty but it played like boredom (and the then not 18 year old Francis handled that storyline very well) and the ratings began to rise. Rise? We're getting ahead of ourselves.

In 1979, to the tune of Herb Albert's "Rise," mobster Luke would rape Laura. It was to be Luke's (Tony Geary) farewell to the show but he was too much of an audience favorite so, instead, Luke and Laura became a couple. (Over the objections of many, including Leslie Charleson [Monica] due to the nature of the storyline: Woman falls in love with rapist.) The show had been steadily improving in the ratings and, by this point, was no longer in danger of cancellation. What happened next shocked the world of daytime TV, shocked the world of TV and still has some pop commentators scratching their heads.

In 1980, Luke ran out on a wedding to a mafia daughter as he and Laura hit the road while TV viewers hit their TV sets all summer long to see what would happen: would the love last, would they catch on that Sally was actually Hutch (a man hired to kill them), would they have to remain on the run, on and on. Or as a top 40 'rap' song about the soap noted, "On and on it goes, where it ends up, nobody knows."

It ended up a craze and the summer of 1981 would find them on an island in a wacky sci-fi storyline during a writers' strike where all involved basically ad libbed. The show had long since passed being merely the number one soap opera and, at that point, was averaging more viewers than most programs on TV, daytime or primetime, which resulted in Genie Francis and Tony Geary landing on the cover of Newsweek. By then, the 19-year-old Francis was ready to move on and the story quickly wrapped up with a November wedding (Elizabeth Taylor guest starred as Helena Cassadine and 30 million viewers tuned in) and a January disappearance on the waterfront (and the appearance of supposed lookalike Laura Templeton [Janine Turner] and her sister Jackie [Demi Moore]). Francis was always a strong actress and deserving of attention so you have to wonder how much jealousy was involved to prevent the female face of daytime TV from even being nominated? (That's male and female jealousy.) The woman broke the industry wide, found new audiences, something unheard of in any industry.

We're not trying to take anything away from Anthony Geary who broke every 'rule' there was for daytime and remains one of the best actors; however, the storyline could have never taken off if the audience hadn't already been tied to one of the characters and that was the teenage Laura. Other soaps quickly copied with their 'teen storylines' (so much so that Francis and two other young actresses would end up on the cover of People). Genie Francis and Laura clearly influenced daytime. However, things like climbing out the bathroom window of the Campus Disco to avoid Robert Scorpio passed as "action" in those days and a line can be drawn from Laura to Buffy and beyond. Francis' impact cannot be understated and Luke was never in another super couple (Emma Samms' Holly did not make for a super couple).

The 'teen' storyline really didn't happen back then. Oh sure, back in 1970, 22-year-old Susan Lucci played a high school student. On All My Children, Erica was trying to break up Phil and Tara. As Liza would try to break up Jenny and Greg in the 80s. But on General Hospital, this wasn't a B-plot. Laura was a driving force and a focal point of teens which is how General Hospital became a craze and moved beyond the then usual soap watcher in those pre-VCR in every home days. All that came before Laura's marriage to Scotty (including the days of Laura Vining) was not the usual run of the mill storylines and "Laura Baldwin" didn't take with the audiences who were as restless as the character was. Francis' many exists and return from the show perfectly fit with Laura's restless nature and, long before there was Luke and Laura, teenagers had become a significant part of the show. When Luke and Laura went on the run, other soaps attempted to copy. There were grumblings from older cast members, such as at Guiding Light where Nola, Kelly and Morgan suddenly owned the summer. A lot of bad actors had previously held the limelight, the storyline and the show's attention (if not the audiences') due to something they'd done four or five years prior. The transformation Francis was a part of ended those days.

Francis would play many other roles and also repeatedly return to General Hospital. But she never won an Emmy. Not even a "young actor" one because they didn't have those when she started on General Hospital -- that's how much of a breakthrough the character of Laura was. Landing on the covers of People, US and Newsweek -- the latter when celebrity covers were uncommon, period, and daytime stars even more so -- she and Tony Geary changed daytime. Bringing in 19 million viewers in the summer of 1981 changed daytime. Celebrities like Richard Simmons (playing himself) and Elizabeth Taylor (among others) showing up for guest spots changed daytime.

Yet at the height of her fame, while transforming daytime, Genie Francis never got a Daytime Emmy award or even nomination. That's partly due to the fact that two of those years were years when Judith Light was doing amazing work on One Life To Live. It's also true that two other winners (and many nominees during that time period) didn't deserve any of the attention they received from the industry. Don't say from the public, they had no real attention there. They were cardboard stars of daytime. The ones who had a clever line or storyline and rode that one moment for years, usually mailing themselves repeatedly to pump up their producers' beliefs that they were popular.

Yeah, that trick worked on the P&G soaps where P&G tracked the mail, counted it and read it before it ever made its way to the performer but it also worked on non-P&G shows such as at ABC in the early 80s when an actress with serious weight issues was told "lose it or you're fired" and took to writing herself until people caught on. (We're not supposed to name names right? So we probably shouldn't note her most recent connection to the Bully Boy in a TV production.) The reality is that you're either a real star or not. Cardboard ones (including one who has too often won for best actress) take a lot of work to convince (and continue to convince) producers that they are stars. Real ones, are stars near instantly, such as Cameron Mathison who had everyone watching All My Children's attention the moment his Ryan doffed all his clothes at the office to catch Erica Kane's attention. It wasn't the body (though it's a considerable body), it was the immediate connection with the audience that made Mathison a star as he conveyed Ryan's bravado and insecurity in varying degrees.

Francis emerged as a real star early on as well. Before Luke and Laura, ABC had already noticed that she was getting more mail than most of their night time stars. That teens were writing to say they identified with Laura, they were like Laura, they dated someone who was like Laura, they knew someone (or wished they did) like Laura. There were other strong actors on the show, but Monty and ABC both knew Genie Francis went beyond audience favorite and was a genuine star. Despite this, her considerably strong acting went unnoted in her original run (and in the time since) and it did go to professional jealousy and it did go to organized voting (which went far beyond P&G's block voting 'suggestions').

Upon winning the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress Friday, Francis declared that she waited 31 years for that day. She wasn't alone in waiting and one of the few ups in a week of bad news for women was seeing the actress who mainstreamed daytime dramas, who brought in new audiences and co-created a phenomen finally get some of the credit she deserved.

We always have a great deal help on these pieces. Friends take calls at all hours of the night. As we wind down, one showed up with the script from Laura and Luke's return to Port Charles (where he buys the cigar to get the band and put it on her finger) and another showed up with a picture. We'll use the picture but we're too tired to include a cutting from the script. (And also aware that Tony Geary regularly ad libbed so including dialogue that was written doesn't mean it was dialogue that aired.) But we thank everyone who always takes our calls (often late night and mid-morning ones) and everyone who helps us. Like Barbara Walters before a taping of The View, we require a large crew to be 'camera ready.' Our friend that brought the script begged us to end with a quote and since we're not using the script, we'll use the quote. As Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin) said on Dynasty, "Score one for the good guys." Or, the good gals. That's what Francis' win Friday was. And long overdue.

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