Category: Television

Dear Sidney aka Allan Arbus

[Ideally, this space would feature an embed of this Storify published Tuesday evening: “Dear Sidney aka Allan Arbus”. Unfortunately, I got stuck between the modern equivalent of a rock and a hard place — Storify and WordPress. I finally gave up.]

I met Mike Farrell as a young reporter when he came to St. Louis to help raise money for Harriett Woods’ successful race for Missouri lieutenant governor. The two quickly realized I spoke fluent M*A*S*H and Woods, a former reporter, even insisted I get Farrell’s autograph. (I was mortified.) Not long after, a manila envelope arrived at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch bureau. Inside, a blue-covered script and a handwritten note (with my name spelled right) from Farrell: “This is the one we talked about. Enjoy.”

The script I've kept close at hand since it arrived as a gift from Mike Farrell & his note.

The script I’ve kept close at hand since it arrived as a gift from Mike Farrell & his note.

Dated September 3, 1976, it was the second revised final script of Dear Sigmund — the episode that I’d mentioned as my favorite. I can’t remember but my guess is I kvelled at least a little about Allan Arbus, whose recurring portrayal of Dr. Sidney Freedman was a constant thread of sanity — and a spotlight on the right kind of insanity — throughout the series.

He was a mensch who drank Swamp martinis, played poker and could pull off a practical joke. He knew how to listen and when to act. Written by Alan Alda, Dear Sigmund is constructed as a letter from a psychiatrist fighting depression under brutal circumstances to the deceased Dr. Sigmund Freud because “who better than he would understand?”

It is completely absurd and makes total sense.

Talking about the episode, perhaps his best script, in the clip below, Alda said he often forgot Arbus wasn’t a psychiatrist. More than any of the doctors on M*A*S*H, I often wished Sidney Freedman was real.

Reading the script for the first time in a long while, it’s hard not to think of the events of the past week and how we cope — or don’t cope — with horror and grief. How we can cry in the afternoon but desperately search for a laugh before trying to sleep.

From "Dear Sigmund" by Alan Alda, 9/3/76

From “Dear Sigmund” by Alan Alda, 9/3/76


Excerpt: 'Dear Sigmund' by Alan Alda

Excerpt: ‘Dear Sigmund’ by Alan Alda

I have no research to back this up but I’ve always believed Arbus and his alter ego paved the way for many of the psychiatrists we’ve seen in pop culture since then, just as M*A*S*H made China Beach possible, He was the white hat to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Catch-22. Though I’ve never had the chance to ask Adam Arkin, I thought he channeled a little Arbus as Freedman when he was on West Wing.

I’m probably not alone in wishing Sidney Freedman was real. Here’s a Freedman mashup from YouTube that includes some of Dear Sigmund:

The reel illustrates what Daniel E. Slotnick wrote in The New York Times obit:

“He treated wounds of the psyche much as Capt. Hawkeye Pierce treated surgery patients: with a never-ending string of zingers.”

The genius of M*A*S*H was Hawkeye, Sidney and the others were more than a series of zingers or running gags. They were human. Even Frank. (I draw the line at Lt. Col. Flagg.)

While M*A*S*H is how so many of us know him, Arbus, who died today at 95, had a life outside of fictional Korea. He was a fashion photographer with ex-wife Diane Arbus and he saw war firsthand as a photographer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II.

The scarily talented Diane Arbus committed suicide in 1971, after their long separation and divorce. She would have turned 90 in March.

The professional moment that sends Sidney Freedman to the #4077 for Dear Sigmund comes when he thinks he has helped a young soldier face his demons. Freedman tells Hawkeye and B.J.:

“Actually the straw that broke my back was this one kid who heard voices telling him to kill himself. I spent a lot of time with him. Then one day he was very calm, relaxed. That’s sometimes a signal that they’ve made a decision, only… somehow I missed it. And that night after I went to sleep that sweet, innocent, troubled kid… listened to the voices.”

Freedman is at the #4077 to wake himself up as a doctor, as a person. He leaves reminded that even though he can’t beat everyone’s demons, he has to be able to beat his own to help.

I put the script back in the envelope, this thoughtful gift from a busy actor with better things to do, and think of all the ways we touch lives. Thank you, Mike Farrell, for understanding what this would mean to me. Thank you, Allan Arbus for being Sidney Freedman — and Alan Alda and all the other artists who brought M*A*S*H to TV and to us.

Sidenote: Diane Arbus was the younger sister of poet Howard Nemerov, who lived in University City, Mo., a few blocks from where I am typing.

The Onion’s Edgy Oscars Humor Goes Over A Cliff

Seth MacFarlane delivered the kind of Oscars humor you’d expect from him. I laughed at some of his jokes and heard more than a few that made me cringe — misogynistic is almost kind — but I’m not a fan and I’m not in his target audience. If it had been Saturday Night Live, I may have changed the channel.  I hung in because it was the Academy Awards, probably proving the point to ABC and the Academy that there is an audience that will come no matter what in addition to the audience they’re trying to pull in with a host like the creator of Family Guy and Ted. I did mention one joke on Twitter that fell particularly flat for me — and predictably was accused of not getting that it was a joke.

Meanwhile, the folks at The Onion were doing what they do 24/7, churning out topical humor that taps into the zeitgeist of the moment with varying degrees if taste or lack thereof. Often that humor is simple parody that draws a quick laugh; sometimes it’s knife-sharp edgy. Sunday night during the Oscars, The Onion went off a cliff with the last tweet in the image below, using a coarse epithet that someone apparently thought would-be funny when paired aimed at nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis They quickly found out that even  some of their biggest fans have more boundaries than they do. Following an immediate uproar, the tweet was deleted nearly an hour later.


If the only people who cared were those who already don’t like The Onion, well, consider the source. But when people who like your brand feel betrayed, you have a different problem. They think they know what to expect, even if sometimes it’s not funny or the taste level of something that makes them giggle is below 1/8 of a tank. They don’t want to think they have anything in common with someone who would toss the C word at a child as a joke.

Deleting it doesn’t make that go away.

As for the notion that pushing back at humor equates to being humorless,

Update: The Onion deleted the tweet Sunday night. Midday Monday CEO Steve Hannah apologized to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences via its Facebook page. (The apology is now on too.) Hannah said new and tighter Twitter procedures are in place and promised disciplinary action.

It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting.

No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.

The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.

In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.

Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.

Hannah strikes the right notes, especially for a publication not known for apologies or retractions.

No one who enjoys The Onion wants its sense of satire to be degraded. Many who enjoy it think The Onion can avoid that without being degrading.

Not everyone thinks an apology was warranted or that the tweet should have even been deleted.

Some of the responses are worse than the original tweet. Not posting them here but you scan Facebook or search for the C word and onion on twitter.

One more thought for now: I didn’t see the initial tweet as racist but as Oscar satire gone awry. Here’s the “commentary” “by” Best Actor winning Daniel Day-Lewis that went up minutes later:

I still don’t think it was racist but I can’t ignore the number of people who quickly saw it as racist

or as an example of continued racism by The Onion. If someone at The Onion thinks it’s ok to use the word about a woman of any age or about a child, I don’t think race would have held them back. I’m not going to dismiss their response, though. It’s from their perspective, their experience and it’s not up to me to say it doesn’t hurt.

“I did not …

“… I did not say this thing did not affect the CNET brand. I said that CBS was the brand that took the blame for what happened. Not disputing there was an effect on the CNET brand as a result of what happened. Nor are we saying we will just blink our eyes and act like this never happened. Just said we can get through it. ” — CBSi President Jim Lanzone in internal message to CBSi staffers via Jim Romenesko, who has the latest on this increasingly toxic situation.

CBS Limits On CNET Editorial Independence Cause More Damage

A ham-fisted decision by CBS to force its tech news network CNET not to review devices that are part of active litigation looked bad when it emerged late last week. Now a new report from CNET competitor The Verge shows that the damage by CBS runs even deeper.

According to sources familiar with the matter, the Hopper was not simply an entrant in the Best of CES awards for the site: it actually was chosen as the winner of the “Best of Show” award (as voted by CNET’s editorial staff).

When CBS corporate found out, The Verge says, orders were sent to the edit staff to revote. They attribute it directly to the office of CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, the same CBS exec who acquired CNET in 2008 for $1.8 billion and championed its value.

Moonves is also fiercely opposed to anything that strikes at the economics of CBS and the company is among those suing Dish over the family of ad-skipping DVRs that CNET’s editorial review staff finds so appealing. Whoever thought it would look bad in court if CNET gave the newest Hopper the CES seal of approval as “Best in Show” had no clue how bad trying to stop it would look. In the immortal words of Julia Roberts, “Big mistake. Huge.”

Fallout starts

The way CBS interceded in CNET editorial accomplished something other news orgs have been unable to do: convince veteran CNET reporter Greg Sandoval, who I know has been recruited often, to leave.

This specific event doesn’t reflect badly on any of the reporters at CNET. But now that CBS execs have shown how willing they are to reach in and twist CNET editorial, Greg is right to realize that anything and everything can start to seem suspect. That doesn’t mean I think less of the reporters and editors who stay but I understand why he feels the need to go.

More to come.

Pushed by CBS, CNET Drops Dish Hopper From CES Awards

My first reaction when I heard CBS banned the Dish Hopper with Sling from the CNET Best of CES awards was it has to be a mistake.

Unfortunately, it’s true — and yes, it is a mistake. It may be legally pragmatic to avoid giving the opposition in a lawsuit homemade ammunition but the CBS corporate decision to ban reviews of products it is in litigation over may do more lasting damage.

CNET Best of CES promoCBS and other programmers concerned by the potential economic impact of the “record anything, watch everywhere with easy ad skipping” technology used in the Dish Hopper are suing over the device and the concept. That’s going on at the corporate level. At CNET, litigation like that is a running news story, the kind you try to be objective about and post with the right disclosures to make sure your readers get the news and info they need.

CNET, which has a near-impeccable reputation for independent reviews, reviewed the device and liked it so much that it wound up as a finalist for a 2013 Best of CES award. The review, with the headline “Dish Hopper with Sling: HD DVR almost has it all,” is still up but the device was yanked from the awards lineup. The review and the awards page have this statement now at the bottom:

The Dish Hopper with Sling was removed from consideration for the Best of CES 2013 awards due to active litigation involving our parent company CBS Corp. We will no longer be reviewing products manufactured by companies with which we are in litigation with respect to such product.

That’s the same statement I got from CNET PR when I asked about the decision. The statement stresses reviews, separating that aspect of CNET from news coverage. There’s no editor’s note on the Dish press conference post from CES.

It’s a legalistic sleight of hand that doesn’t really work. Instead, CBS undermined CNET’s credibility and diminished one of the tech news site’s marquee events by trying to avoid a positive note for Dish that could show up in court.

Meanwhile, Dish gets to brag about the device and take a jab at CBS at the same time via a press release about the disappointment. Dish frames its argument for the Hopper and similar battles with programmers as Dish=consumer. This statement from the release is a shining example:

“We are saddened that CNET’s staff is being denied its editorial independence because of CBS’ heavy-handed tactics. This action has nothing to do with the merits of our new product. Hopper with Sling is all about consumer choice and control over the TV experience. That CBS, which owns, would censor that message is insulting to consumers.

DISH is not afraid to stand up for consumer rights and we think that Hopper with Sling will do well, despite the network’s questionable actions.”

This isn’t just about Dish. It covers reviews of products from any company CBS is suing or is being sued by. For instance, this new CBS-mandated policy would block reviews of products from Barry Diller-backed Aereo, the over-the-air-to-broadband streaming video service CBS and other networks.

It’s actually limited to active litigation so might not happen often but unless CBS finds a way to walk this back, it will continue to erode CNET’s credibility and authority.

Jason Kilar’s Epitaph As Hulu CEO: He Made It Work

The quickest way to set off at least one media exec I know is to praise Jason Kilar for making Hulu work. I can almost set a timer for the refrain. Look at what he had to work with — content from equity partners NBC Universal & Fox , eventually joined by Disney, plus many other key content and distribution deals done before he entered the picture.

Fair enough. Amazon vet Kilar,  who announced his long-anticipated departure as CEO of the video portal today, had a lot to work with when he was hired in the summer of 2007 to make sure NewCo, known as ClownCo in media circles, didn’t fall flat. The launch valuation of $1 billion, cemented by a $100 investment from Providence Equity Partners, preceded him too. He had top-level champions who wanted to see Hulu work in News Corp. COO Peter Chernin and NBCU CEO Jeff Zucker, and other key execs at the founding partners who were committed enough to overcome those who weren’t. (You can’t overestimate the value of knowing that the CEO had to come from outside their companies and from a different perspective for the joint venture to have a prayer.) And there are a lot of ways you can gauge his success or failure; he looks better by some measures than others. 

But by one very important measure, Kilar did a lot right. Unlike a lot of other bright media ideas (and plenty that weren’t so bright), particularly those requiring cooperation across usually competitive companies, Hulu launched and grew. It avoided the tech meltdowns that could blunt consumer interest, starting with a highly usable player.  Kilar drove some distribution partners crazy and precluded deals with others by insisting on that proprietary video player. He also angered some consumers, particularly cord cutters, by keeping tight controls on the way Hulu was delivered.

As a private beta user turned Hulu Plus subscriber, I’ve seen my share of glitches but from the start it simply worked without the level of frustration I’ve felt with so many other media products. (Amazon Unbox, anyone?) A lot of people contributed to that but Kilar’s often single-minded insistence on the best user experience possible, including pushing back the public launch by months, was at the core. That sounds like such a basic, common-sense thing — but technology, common sense and television network all too often are words that don’t belong in the same sentence.

Bad user experience can tank a startup but, as is the case with access to top content, a good one is no guarantee of success. It takes more than content and usability to build a 600+ person company with nearly $700 million in revenues last year, high-profile  placement across devices and platforms, and a growing paid subscription base. In his blog post announcing plans to leave this quarter, Kilar said Hulu added a record 200,000 subscribers in the past seven days; he claimed more than 3 million Hulu Plus subs in his Dec. 17 year-end report.

Kilar leaves with some lovely parting prizes, including a reported $40 million buyout of his equity following the partners’ decision to stay in the video portal business for now, and a high ranking in the media-tech CEO candidate pool. My educated guess is that he will take a family break before a next public step.

As for Hulu, the choice Disney and News Corp. make for a successor  (Comcast NBCU is still on the post-merger sidelines) should say a lot about the video JV’s post-Kilar direction. Think money, not product.

CNN’s Sit Room: Deja Vu All Over Again

Reading about the new CNN Situation Room and the other interactive efforts underway, I had the strangest feeling we’d stood and talked like this before. (Apologies to Rogers & Hart.) We had — the CNN show was called TalkBack Live and it broke the ground the others stand on today. And yet it’s as if the show never happened. I’ve posted the full article I wrote about TBL seven years ago in extended comments; here are some excerpts.

On any given day, participants can join a live audience, enter an on-line
chat room, send e-mail, phone in or fax in. By late August, "TalkBack Live‘s" newest access point — video conferencing — should be out of testing and ready to go. And computer users with a fairly fast connection, a decent video card and the right software don’t have to turn on a TV to watch the show via Webcast. …

When "TalkBack Live" debuted on Aug. 22, 1994, the reviews were not all kind. Some were downright dismissive of the techno-gimmickry and the addition of yet another talk show. One reviewer described it as CNN’s "’Larry King Live‘ crossed with ‘Donahue’ with just a hint of talk radio." …

It may be hard to imagine, but the show began before the Web was a household word. Back then CNN’s major on-line presence was through CompuServe, where "TalkBack Live" hosted a forum. E-mail, faxes and phone calls were all part of the mix. The show even tried video conferencing, but the technology was too slow to be of real use. …

I’m not suggesting the Sit Room is a TBL remake or that it isn’t worth attention in its own right. But it didn’t spring from Zeus fully formed, either, and a lot of what’s being tried now isn’t new.

\r\nThat way there are no commercials, though CNN does run a promo every time you
\r\n"tune in."
\r\nSoon, viewers may even have a direct say in the topics to be discussed on
\r\nthat day\’s show.
\r\nWhen "TalkBack Live" debuted on Aug. 22, 1994, the reviews were not all kind.
\r\nSome were downright dismissive of the techno-gimmickry and the addition of yet
\r\nanother talk show. One reviewer described it as CNN\’s " \’Larry King Live\’
\r\ncrossed with \’Donahue\’ with just a hint of talk radio."
\r\nToday, however, the concept doesn\’t seem so far-fetched, says Teya Ryan, vice
\r\npresident of program development for CNN Productions and the creator of
\r\n"TalkBack Live."
\r\n"A lot of it came out of the \’92 campaign, when you started to see the
\r\ncandidates going around the media and to the public trying to create a direct
\r\nline. . . . It seemed the public was really responding," she says. "They wanted
\r\nmore direct access to people that influence their lives, and those people could
\r\nbe the president, members of Congress, the head of a corporation, anyone whom
\r\nthe general public generally doesn\’t have direct access to."
\r\nCNN, she thought, was in a unique position to make this happen as a network
\r\nthat has room "to go beyond the experts and create a direct link between the
\r\npublic and the people who have power in the country."
\r\nA live audience in the atrium of CNN Center in Atlanta was the core of the
\r\nidea, but Ryan thought the show could do more. "People were beginning to
\r\ncommunicate in ways that were really different. If I was going to open this up I
\r\nthought we should do it in a way that acknowledged that."
\r\nAnd, she added, "I felt that we shouldn\’t close the doors to anyone. If you
\r\ncouldn\’t come to Atlanta but could send in a fax, you should get on the show."”,1]

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