Saturday, September 23, 2006

Offending Christians OK at NBC, Bothering Atheists Not an Option

Yesterday we noted that NBC is leaning toward including Madonna's mock crucifixion scene when it airs her concert special in November. Catholic and Orthodox church organizations have protested the aging pop star's inclusion of the scene in her concert shows, and they will undoubtedly view a decision by NBC to run it as an insult to Christians.

As noted yesterday, NBC is probably going to run the scene, and there will probably be complaints from Christians.

NBC will undoubtedly be willing to endure any controversy and in fact expect to benefit from it.

Not so with atheists.

NBC is airing the Christian program Veggie Tales, but it has censored out all refernces to Christ and Christianity. According to the AP report,

Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber always had a moral message in their long-running "VeggieTales" series, a collection of animated home videos for children that encourage moral behavior based on Christian principles. But now that the vegetable stars have hit network television, they cannot speak as freely as they once did, and that has got the Parents Television Council steamed.

The conservative media-watchdog group issued a statement Wednesday blasting NBC, which airs "VeggieTales," for editing out some references to God from the children's animated show.

"What struck me and continues to strike me is the inanity of ripping the heart and soul out of a successful product and not thinking that there will be consequences to it," said L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council. "The series is successful because of its biblical world view, not in spite of it. That's the signature to `VeggieTales."'

The references to Christ and Christian values offended the network's broadcast standards, the AP story reported:

Two weeks ago, NBC began airing 30-minute episodes of "VeggieTales" on Saturday mornings. The show was edited to comply with the network's broadcast standards, said NBC spokeswoman Rebecca Marks.

"Our goal is to reach as broad an audience as possible with these positive messages while being careful not to advocate any one religious point of view," she said. . . .

All programs set to air on NBC must meet the network's broadcast standards, said Alan Wurtzel, a broadcast standards executive. "VeggieTales" was treated the same as any other program, he said.

"There's a fine line of universally accepted religious values," he said. "We don't get too specific with any particular religious doctrine or any particular religious denomination."

Veggie Tales DVD cover art

The program's creator/producer, Steve Vischer, said he understands the network's position:

"VeggieTales is religious; NBC is not," he said. "I want to focus people more on `Isn't it cool that Bob and Larry are on television?' "

What NBC thinks is cool is something a bit different: grabbing a particular audience of impressionable young people without offending powerful anti-Christian advocacy groups such as People for the American Way and the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

To get uncensored copies of the Veggie Tales programs, click here.

From Karnick on Culture.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Tribune Co. Joins Reversal of Media Consolidation

The nascent but distinct and ongoing reversal of the corporate consolidation of the U.S. media received another boost yesterday with the Tribune Co.'s announcement that it is willing to sell any or all of its 11 newspapers and 25 television stations.

The Tribune Co. announcement follows hard on the heels of the selloff of a dozen newspapers by Knight Ridder, which was the nation's second-largest newspaper chain (after Gannett).

“The restructuring of these partnerships frees the company to move quickly to pursue strategic alternatives to further enhance shareholder value,” said Tribune Co. CEO Dennis FitzSimons. “Under these terms, all shareholders benefit.”

The firm's newspapers have been hit hard by competition from the internet, as the New York Times reports:
The media business has been in turmoil as readers, viewers and advertisers have shifted their habits and turned to the Internet. Newspapers in particular are facing a slump in circulation and little growth in advertising revenues while at the same time facing rising costs.
The competition has depressed the media giant's stock price, and the only thing that has raised it, interestingly, has been the increasing recent rumors that Tribune Co. would divest itself of some of its holdings:
Tribune shares, like those of other public media companies, have weakened significantly over the last few years, falling 36 percent since 2003, when Mr. FitzSimons took over. But the stock has risen recently as speculation has increased that it might sell some assets, and it shot up 4.4 percent yesterday.
As reported earlier on this site, the corporatization and business consolidation of the U.S. media, which began in the 1960s and caused much anguish among leftist critics and media analysts, was in fact a positive thing that actually increased competition in American mass media. And as I noted in in the post cited at the head of this paragraph, it was always very likely that the consolidation would reverse once it became necessary in order for media firms to make themselves leaner and more effective at responding to competition. This, too, will increase competition and will ultimately be a good thing, as I suggested earlier.

The current de-consolidation, then, is a response to competition and will itself create greater competition.

That is how markets work: brilliantly.

From Karnick on Culture.

NBC to Air Mock Rock Crucifixion?

Madonna crucifiedNBC TV is pondering what to do about rock singer Madonna's upcoming TV special on the network. A video of the middle-aged pop star's latest concert will be broadcast on the network in November. The problem: Madonna sings one song, "Live to Tell," while suspended on a cross, bound by silver cuffs and wearing a crown of thorns.

Catholic and Orthodox church groups have protested the spectacle. Madonna defends it by saying that it is not "anti-Christian, sacrilegious or blasphemous." She says that in fact Jesus himself would be just like her if he were here today: "It is no different than a person wearing a cross or 'taking up the cross' as it says in the Bible. Rather, it is my plea to the audience to encourage mankind to help one another and to see the world as a unified whole. I believe in my heart that if Jesus were alive today he would be doing the same thing."

OK. . . .

NBC will probably air the scene. E! Online reports:
NBC President Kevin Reilly told several weeks ago that the scene will probably stay put because Madonna "felt strongly about it" and considers it a highlight of her show.

"We viewed it and, although Madonna is known for being provocative, we didn't see it as being ultimately inappropriate," Reilly said.
This was a foregone conclusion, really. The scene is obviously a central part of the show, and the network would be subjected to widespread scorn if it deleted it. They wouldn't have bought the program if they weren't wiling to air the scene.

As to what it all means, I suspect that most of the audience will get the message Madonna is trying to send in her usual unsophisticated, unsubtle way: that religion is all about caring about other people and doing good works.

That sounds nice on the surface, but it is very bad theology because it considers only half the story—the part about loving God with all one's heart, and all one's soul, and all one's strength is missing, and it is the foundation for the message about loving one's neighbor as oneself.

Nonetheless, I doubt that the scene will have any real effect on what people think about the Almighty, one way or the other.

From Karnick on Culture.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Hugo, Ghoul

Yesterday's peroration by Hugo Chavez at the United Nations was historic. His referring to President Bush as the Devil is more than a sideshow, a vaudeville act or a burst of insanity. It is a precedent. No one has ever ratcheted up the hostile rhetoric to that plateau. Nobody. Not even wacky old Baroody from Saudi Arabia with the two-hour rambles. And it is never good when folks stop trying to put their best face on in public.

As for the content of his message, and that of Ahmadinejad who preceded him to the pulpit, I took my scalpel to it in my patented way in today's The American Spectator.

Ironically, perhaps, their jabbering deflected attention away from President Bush's own address. The President said a series of horrific things that are neither accurate nor sensible. He declared that the Palestinians have been undergoing the "daily humiliation of occupation", which is total bullhockey. He also said that the Palestinian vote for Hamas was not a vote for terrorism but for reforming corrupt governmental institutions. That goes well beyond naive into Jimmy Carter-like duncish self-delusion.

And so yet another well-intentioned President bites the dust in the Arab-Israeli conflict, substituting wish fulfillment for sensible analysis. Something like the syndrome noted by the Wall Street Journal some years ago of people who visit the Wailing Wall and suddenly decide they are the Messiah or Elijah.

Patrick Henry Would Be Appalled

Y'know, I'm like many or most Americans these days in feeling zero responsibility if the factions in Iraq choose to fight each other until the last man, woman or child is standing. We gave them their freedom and even now spend our blood and treasure to help them keep it.

The war is over. This is now a mission of mercy, and yes, the dreaded nation-building, a distinction I deeply wish our president would make. We discharge any moral obligation every day and even if we packed up and left now, the US and the UK have nothing to apologize for.

Because the Kurdish people are free and thriving. And you know what, they're thankful to America. You could look it up. If the end result is freeing only the one-third or so of Iraq that has decent people in it, and which has taken the baton of freedom from tyranny and run with it, that is good enough. I heard a Kurd on the radio today reporting that five new universities have been built since Saddam's well-earned whacking, where before there was only one.

If the tyrants and moral cowards (yes, France, I'm talking to you) of the world hate us, and they do (and they should), as evidenced in the past few days by the pathetic circus that is the United Nations, we should wear their scorn as a badge of glory. You can judge a man, or a nation, by its enemies.

And when Patrick Henry exclaimed give me liberty or give me death, it was beyond his imagination that when both options are available anyone would choose the latter.

But if that's the way the other two-thirds of Iraq wants it, who are we to interfere?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Arnold and the Nice Sea Otters

More news from the Golden State. Governator Arnold has just signed a bill allocating some tax dollars toward saving sea otters. And how did this historic law come to pass? Well, the bill was promoted by Assembly Democrats Dave Jones and John Laird, the former of whom has a son "who cried upon learning that the threatened California sea otter population is not thriving." I am not making this up.

New York Times Redesign to Distinguish News, Opinion

The New York Times has implemented a fairly subtle redesign in its print editions today.

Henceforth the paper's news stories will have justified text, meaning that they have an even margin on both left and right. Stories that include any analysis or opinion will have a ragged right margin, in which most lines end before reaching the right side of the printed column.

The only exception will be the editorial pages, where the justified margins will remain.

The newspaper's editors say they do not expect the change to be obvious to most readers, but they think that it will have a "subliminal effect" in providing readers unconsciously with the critical distinction between news stories and opinion or analysis.


Noting that many readers had expressed confusion and dismay over the frequent inclusion of reporters' opinions in what were ostensibly news stories, and the resulting impression that the newspaper was surreptitiously trying to inculcate readers with a left-wing bias, the Times's "credibility committee" recommended the slight redesign.

From Karnick on Culture.

Competition on the Web

As noted earlier on several occasions in this space, big media companies are doing their level best to extend their current broadcast, cable, and satellite hegemony to the internet. Rupert Murdoch talked about his firm's strategy yesterday. News Corp's approach goes against the grain of current trends, which is for media firms to develop connections with internet portals.

Murdoch said that News Corp, the parent company of the Fox brands, is going to use a moden in which web surfers are expected to go directly to the firm's various sites. AP reports:

Rupert Murdoch told an investor conference Tuesday that he didn't see a need to distribute programming or other media content from his News Corp. conglomerate through Internet portals.

Murdoch, asked why he hadn't made deal with large aggregators of online content like Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq:YHOO - news) or Microsoft Corp.'s MSN portal, said he didn't see that strategy as necessary for building Internet traffic.

"We're not sure the portal model is the way of the future at all," Murdoch told a conference sponsored by Goldman Sachs. "We think people are going straight to the sites."

Murdoch, whose acquisition of the hugely popular social networking site has inspired envy among other media moguls, cited the example of Yahoo's HotJobs employment site, but noted that Internet users might go to any number of other Web destinations that also carry job listings.

Given his history, I wouldn't bet against him.

From Karnick on Culture.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Fox to Chase Christians

Still image from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the WardrobeAs I wrote in The Weekly Standard a few weeks ago, the best way for Christians to affect Hollywood is not to protest but to go to more movies, make clear their love for the medium, and praise Hollywood for what it does right.

(Regular readers of this site and the author's other writings will know that I live by those words.)

Now Fox Entertainment is showing exactly how quickly and surely such a strategy can work. The LA Times reports:

In the biggest commitment of its sort by a Hollywood studio, News Corp.'s Fox Filmed Entertainment is expected to unveil plans today to capture the gargantuan Christian audience that made "The Passion of the Christ" a global phenomenon.

The home entertainment division of Rupert Murdoch's movie studio plans to produce as many as a dozen films a year under a banner called FoxFaith. At least six of those films will be released in theaters under an agreement with two of the nation's largest chains, AMC Theatres and Carmike Cinemas.

The first theatrical release, called "Love's Abiding Joy," is scheduled to hit the big screen Oct. 6. The movie, which cost about $2 million to make, is based on the fourth installment of Christian novelist Janette Oke's popular series, "Love Comes Softly."
The production costs for this film do not sound exactly stunning, but the picture is obviously an experiment and a way of gauging exactly what the market is for such films on a regular basis, as opposed to big-budget "event" films such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings series. That makes good business sense for Fox and is good for the Christian audience in that success will not be defined as huge box office grosses but by a much more modest standard:

FoxFaith films, to be based on Christian bestsellers, will have small budgets of less than $5 million each, compared with the $60-million average. The movies each will be backed by $5-million marketing campaigns. Although that is skimpy compared with the $36 million Hollywood spends to market the average movie, the budget is significant for targeting a niche audience, especially one as fervent as many evangelical Christians.
There appears to be a huge market out there for Christian programming, the LA Times, story notes:
For instance, "The Passion" grossed $612 million worldwide, thanks in part to its appeal to Christians. Another spiritual odyssey, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," took in $745 million globally. Most recently, Christians came out for this summer's controversial "The Da Vinci Code," which has brought in $754 million worldwide.
The risk inherent in sending out a stream of low-budget films is that Fox will conclude that Christians will watch any kind of crud as long as it includes a scene in which a major character "accepts Christ into their life," which is what Christian fiction today all too commonly consists of. Fortunately, the studio seems to be after something quite different from that:
"A segment of the market is starving for this type of content," said Simon Swart, general manager of Fox's U.S. home entertainment unit.

"We want to push the production value, not videotape sermons or proselytize."

Aesthetic quality and an understanding of the subject matter will be essential to the plan's success:
"If this is something Fox is doing only to exploit the audience — or if it's something they don't believe in or are doing cynically — then there could be problems," said Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, a box-office reporting service. "There isn't a huge turnout for these films unless they speak to what Christianity is all about. People want a guide to life and Hollywood has ignored that by saying nothing or dwelling on vices."
It makes great business sense for Fox to pursue a new and strongly defined audience as movie box office intake has been decreasing in recent years:
Over the last four years, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has quietly built a network to mobilize evangelical Christian moviegoers in an era of diminishing box-office returns. The network includes 90,000 congregations and a database of more than 14 million mainly evangelical households.
Other studios are watching and considering whether to follow suit:
New Line Cinema's "The Nativity Story," scheduled to be released in December, tells the story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter to give birth to Jesus. Legendary Pictures, which has a multi-film deal with Warner Bros., is planning to make a movie version of John Milton's epic 17th century poem about the fall of man, "Paradise Lost."
The latter sounds very interesting indeed, with its clear potential for grand drama and powerful visual imagery.

One hopes that Christians have learned—or relearned—that a customer has much more influence than a scold.

From Karnick on Culture.

Microsoft to Compete with YouTube

Microsoft is developing an online video-sharing service modeled after YouTube. The Seattle Times reports:

Hopping aboard one of the Internet's white-hot trends, Microsoft introduced a test version of an online video-sharing service Monday night, with hopes it will snatch users away from market leader YouTube and generate revenue through advertising.

Soapbox on MSN Video, released to a select group of test customers, is designed to allow anyone to upload and share original videos on the Web.

Microsoft hopes Soapbox will both enhance and benefit from its other Web services to gain an edge in the explosive user-generated video market.

"The key is going to be getting a lot of users," said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. "It's one of those services that becomes more useful as more people access it. The biggest challenge will be to get people to use [Soapbox] instead of YouTube or other services."

Microsoft has an existing audience of 465 million monthly users across its various Web properties and aims to integrate Soapbox with its blogging and instant-messaging services, among others.

To keep its ad-funded business growing, it needs not only to grow its audience but also expand each user's involvement with its services, said Rob Bennett, general manager of entertainment and video services for MSN.

This is part of the continuing trend of business giants and government to harmess the Internet, as noted earlier on this site, here, here, and elsewhere.

From Karnick on Culture.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Evolution Of A Conservative: Playing Defense

One must have something in mind when applying a label to oneself. A label subject to as many divergent associations as "conservative" makes this requirement harder to meet, but no less urgent.

My preferred interpretation stems from an article written by Lew Rockwell, that appeared in Liberty magazine some years ago. Rockwell was, at that time, setting forth on the ideological journey that would put him at odds with most other American libertarians and conservatives. Yet there were several observations in that article that ought to have been taken quite seriously by members of both camps -- indeed, by members of all American political designations. Central among them was this:

Western civilization, most particularly American civilization, is eminently worthy of preservation and defense.

The key words of that assertion are the three at the end: preservation and defense. The target of such efforts, by Rockwell's lights, should be our civilization and culture as a whole and in fundamentals, rather than any detail excrescence. Thus, the top marginal tax rate, whatever it might be, is relatively unimportant, but the rule of law, a justice system blind to identity and group affiliation, free speech, free markets, and an ethic of public decency must be upheld at all costs.

To me, this expresses the core of conservatism. A conservative seeks to protect the fundamental principles from which the nation he loves has sprung. He's willing to entertain detail differences about specific policies with his fellows. He'll argue reasonably with anyone who's in accord with him on the pre-eminence of those fundamentals. But he'll brook no assault on them; that's tantamount to treason.

A conservative is a defender.

Here is where the Libertarian Party has committed its most grievous misstep. Party spokesmen and candidates have interpreted the assaults of Black Tuesday, and other Islamic terror attacks on Americans and their interests, as arguments for an American retreat from the Middle East and a return to a non-interventionist foreign policy. The milder ones argue that Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom were at best terrible mistakes; others claim that the expeditions exceeded the federal government's Constitutional authority. The question of what degree of political and military engagement with other nations would be best is debatable, but to argue that America had no right to respond to a terrorist atrocity on its own soil, thousands killed and tens of billions of dollars in property destroyed, puts its proponent beyond the pale for anyone who regards our civilization as worthy of defense.

Of course, Buchananites have taken the same position. They receive more tolerance from mainstream conservatives because of their premise: that our military expeditions have actually harmed American interests, and our ability to defend them, over the long term. Even so, the intimation that the best thing to have done was not to respond sits very poorly with the overwhelming majority of conservatives, sufficiently so that Buchanan is now considered unwelcome in mainstream conservative gatherings.

In the precursor to this essay, Tom Van Dyke counterpoised "conservative" to "progressive." Well, yes and no. Wholesome conservatism will embrace changes that are consistent with the fundamentals it seeks to preserve and defend, if those changes can be shown to yield net positive results -- progress -- by some widely accepted standard. Progressivism, historically, has been dismissive of such constraints. Its progenitors were fond of saying that "reality is inherently unfinished," and that a sufficient application of will and effort can transform it into whatever we want it to be. Such a doctrine vitiates the very notion of an enduring principle.

A classical liberal who upholds a set of fundamental principles is also a conservative, whether or not he chooses to style himself as such.

More anon.

Earmarks and the Constitution

Back from China, where, unlike California, capitalism and property rights actually mean something. Anyway, I notice today that Senator Jim DeMint argues that some 95 percent of all earmarks are listed in committee reports rather than in actual appropriation bills, that is, in actual law. And so DeMint argues that El Presidente W could simply refuse to spend, without need for an item veto.

Well, excuse me, but the last time I read the Constitution---Article 1, section 9, but who's counting?---it said something to the effect that "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law..." That means something rather different than DeMint's point: W has a duty not to spend, rather than merely the right not to do so. Of course, W, among his other virtues, seems to have forgotten that enforcement of the Constitution is his job; his casual approval of McCain-Feingold is all the proof we need. This apparently is what it means to be a uniter, not a divider.

Football Rules the Box Office

Promo shot of The Gridiron Gang movieFor the second time in th last month, a football film is the weekend's top box-office attraction. The Gridiron Gang, starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, led the way in weekend receipts with an estimated total of $15 million.

The Gridiron Gang is another in a long line of sports movies that show how troubled individuals develop character by participating in sports, where excellence is the pursuit and achieving real, visible results is the only way to succeed.

An important aspect of these films is the leadership brought by a coach who has battles of his or her own to fight. Mentorship and the responsibility of each generation to train the next one are central concerns of such films.

Movies such as Invincible, The Replacements, Friday Night Lights, The Longest Yard, and The Ice Princess all pursue this approach, and the underlying concern is the same: redemption. As such, they can be quite moving despite their often formulaic story lines.

(In fact, a great deal of their power is the direct result of their formulaic nature, about which we will write more in due course.)

The Brian DePalma crime story The Black Dahlia brought in a lackluster $10 mil in its opening week, and attendance overall for the weekend was weak, off 12 percent from the week before.

The E! Online story attributes this to school being back in session and the large number of football games available to watch on TV. The first seems unlikely, given that in most places school started at least a couple of weeks ago, and few people attend classes on weekends (although some do actually do homework over the weekends).

The likely reason for the box office dropoff is the attraction of football. Several football games were in the top twenty rated TV shows last week, with NFL games at the 1 and 3 positions.

I think that's a good thing. If you're like most people, you'll get more enjoyment and learn more about life watching a football game than in watching most movies—and what you enjoy will be the pursuit of excellence and what you learn will be true.

If only more movies were like that.

From Karnick on Culture.

This Pope's a Funny Guy

“We would ask that violence and anger subside and that serious dialogue begin.

“We are therefore planning to invite several leading Muslim religious leaders to visit us here in the Vatican where we can have detailed and inter-faith discussions."

“After that, we would like Muslim religious leaders to invite us to continue the conversation in their holy places: Mecca, Medina, Qum and Najaf for example. Our Jewish brothers should be invited to attend, too. And why not add in people of faith from the Buddhist and Hindu communities?"

As if you didn't know Mecca and Medina are forbidden for non-Muslims to enter. And while we're at it, let's bring some Jews!

Benedictus, you slay me.