September 16, 2009
CableFAX's 2009 Programming Hall of Fame
Fans may never agree on the best science fiction TV series of all time. But Syfy’s (then Sci Fi Channel’s) Battlestar Galactica, which ended its fabulous six-season run this year, may be the first series since Star Trek to carve out its own niche of sci-fi excellence. And it was the first to do so on cable. BG never relied on mind-bending story lines or "what if" scenarios about quantum physics and interstellar phenomena. Instead, it focused almost wholly on characters, their struggles and the ever-difficult choices they (and by extension we) must make in trying situations. Space was never the star. The space between the characters and their decisions was. In the end, BG will go down as one of the best sci-fi TV series in history — until someone else does it better. What an incredible legacy that an iconic but short-lived Star Wars knockoff could become a tour de force in the hands of re-imaginer Ronald D. Moore.
Sex and the City
Is Sex and The City the iconic cable series of our time? An unscientific bit of evidence — a Google search — proves it. The series’ title yielded 122 million Google hits in early August; The Sopranos a paltry 36 million. Well, Tony Soprano, despite his considerable dalliances, didn’t bed 94 partners, but the ladies of SATC did. In fact, make it 95, since sexually liberated Samantha’s 42 partners included 1 female ( The NY Daily News recently counted). Sex aside, what propels SATC into our Hall is its evolution from a show about sex and 4 single women to something deeper. The last 3 of its 6 seasons dealt with some unsexy issues, like death, finances and broken relationships. Yes, there was always fun when Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda got together, but what keeps SATC in syndication and made its ’08 spin-off movie a success (it’s grossed more than $410 million worldwide) has only a bit to do with sex. Women (and plenty of men) identified with its characters and enjoyed its storytelling.
You could excuse Edie Falco for feeling a bit schizophrenic. The characters she plays often have dual personalities, like Carmela Soprano, which she pulled off brilliantly enough to grab 3 Emmys. But while it had its upside, life as a Soprano was less than a bed of roses for Carmela, conveyed by Falco’s facial expressions — a furled lip, a troubled pair of eyes. These well-polished brushstrokes painted a portrait of a woman trapped in an uneasy existence. Falco’s current role, as protagonist in Showtime’s new hit Nurse Jackie, is equally complicated. Yet despite playing a character every bit as two-faced as Carmela, the master artist has unpacked what seems to be a completely new set of tools, different facial expressions, modulations of voice and gait. Is this the same person who triumphed as Carmela? While a Hall of Fame award sometimes signifies the end of a wonderful career, it seems Falco’s getting started on yet another triumph.
The expression "the bigger they are, the nicer they are" fits James Lipton perfectly. We had a chance to interview him when his creation, Inside the Actors Studio, was celebrating a milestone. Sensing our nervousness, he said, "Oh, come on, let’s just talk and have some fun." We did, and it was. Now the question is how can we do justice to this academician, who’s anything but academic? Lipton’s written screenplays, novels and the book and lyrics for Broadway musicals. He’s produced TV specials and Broadway shows and studied acting, voice and dance. He’s a licensed pilot and once represented the U.S. Equestrian team in Grand Prix jumping at the Challenge of Champions. Let’s just say that while James Lipton is entering our Hall of Fame for Inside the Actors Studio, it’s only a fraction of what this renaissance man has accomplished. Most of all, he’s a nice guy. That’s a fact.
Think Dan Rather is a broadcast guy taking it easy in cable? No way. Watch Dan Rather Reports on HDNet. You’ll see Rather hasn’t slowed a bit. At a time of life when most people are retired, Rather is still a hungry bear when chasing a story. And like a bear, he’ll travel to far-off territory to hunt news, including Afghanistan and Baluchistan. "I love it," he tells us about field work. It’s not only our opinion that Rather’s doing his best work now. Just look at the slew of awards his HDNet show has amassed since it started in Nov. ’06, more than 100 episodes ago. In March he spoke of his next target: "I’d love to interview the leader of North Korea... been trying for 10 years...we want to play for big game." His goals? "I want to keep investigative reporting in our DNA. And I want to keep doing the best foreign news reporting on television." Mission accomplished.
It’s fitting that Tony Shalhoub got his big break as a lovable cab driver in the ’80s hit TV sitcom Wings. His career has flown to new heights ever since. And while Shalhoub’s star rose gradually with great roles in movies like Men in Black, Galaxy Quest and The Siege, his career went into overdrive only after he made his way to a quirky cable show called Monk on USA. His portrayal of germ-phobic, OCD-afflicted investigator Adrian Monk has delighted audiences ever since and helped catapult USA to its current perch atop the cable ratings heap. Monk won’t last forever, but we’re willing to bet that Shalhoub will be blessing video screens everywhere for years. We can only hope he devotes much of that time to cable.
It’s ironic that ABC’s megahit Lost hit the airwaves in Sept ’04 — only about 6 months after Anne Sweeney took over as co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group. After all, Disney has been anything but lost with Sweeney. In cable, her skill has overseen the unprecedented High School Musical franchise (which includes not only TV, radio, movies, publishing and music — but a licensing business sustained by thousands of high schools that perform HSM). Consider that Disney/ABC Television Group also comprises Disney Channels Worldwide, a portfolio of 94 kid-driven nets and/or channel feeds available in 163 countries and 32 languages. Then there’s ABC Family and SOAPnet, not to mention lucrative stakes in the Lifetime and A&E brands. We’re not sure how Sweeney keeps track of it all. But whatever she’s doing is working.
In a TV business that often churns through executives with almost gleeful violence, Judy McGrath is more than a survivor. She’s a leader who’s helmed MTV Networks since 2004 as chairman and CEO, but was already MTVN group president for several years before that. From her humble roots in Scranton, PA, she has risen to become a global, powerful influence (even Oprah was rumored to want her to run OWN), and McGrath’s calm demeanor and understated style have won her fans inside and outside the Viacom family. Still, McGrath has overseen some of the most tumultuous times in MTVN’s long history, including layoffs and the ouster of her friend, Viacom CEO Tom Freston. With more competition for youthful eyeballs than ever, MTVN has its challenges. But McGrath has never backed down.
Talk about noncontroversial choices. John Hendricks is one of those renaissance men who should get a steady stream of honors from multiple organizations. Oh, wait. He already does. Well, add us to the list — but let us explain why he deserves to be in the same group as Ted Turner and other cable legends. Where others saw a dusty catalog of old documentary footage, Hendricks saw an opportunity to educate the world. Where others turned up their noses at nonfiction entertainment, Hendricks saw its potential. And where others refused to believe in the unlimited future of this new medium called cable TV, Hendricks grinned and rolled up his sleeves. He was right. And now everyone wants to be Discovery Communications, with its enviable slate of networks — all with impressive carriage in the U.S. and many with extensive reach across the globe.
[We asked Cable Hall of Famer Paul Maxwell to reflect briefly on his years writing about and knowing Ted Turner. Here’s what he said.] What can you say about Ted that someone (especially Ted himself) hasn’t already said? Not much. But you can remember some times when you were along for the ride. Like watching WTCG-TV17 go up on the right satellite (RCA not WU). Like launching CNN while sitting with Bill Daniels and Irving Kahn and hearing Ted say it wouldn’t sign off until "the end of the world." Like being taken to Hartsfield Airport after a Braves game in the oldest Toyota in Atlanta. Like interviewing him at the Western Show for The Cable Center and making news. But then, Ted makes news.