"Koch": A life that was big and brash and kind of fun


 Some people and some cities are fascinating because of their sheer audacity. You can put New York on that list ... and you'll find the "Koch" documentary fascinating. Most PBS stations will air it Monday (Sept. 22), on the first day of the TV season; here's the story I sent to papers:


At times, a person and place seem to link neatly. That
includes Ed Koch and his city.

“New York is an in-your-face city,” Michael Powell said. As
a New York Times reporter, he will “often get the feeling that every New Yorker
has been waiting all his life to be asked to give a quote.”

And the late Koch – subject of a new PBS film – was the
extreme. Other mayors might be unavailable for comment; in New York, a newsman
coined the phrase: “Ed Koch was unavoidable for comment.”

He strolled the city, spouting his catchphrase, “How am I
doing?” He was also “hilariously funny,” said Diane Mulcahy Coffey, his
long-time chief of staff. “It was an adventure to work for him.”

That was the surface, but what about the substance of his 12
years in office?

New York “lost a million jobs in the 10 years before Koch
was mayor,” said Neil Barsky, director of the film. “The manufacturing base had
declined to nothing. People were fleeing …. It was very dreary.”

With the city teetering near bankruptcy, Koch made huge
cutbacks. When it could take out bonds again, Coffey said, he went in the other
direction. “He started his housing program for $5 billion. It’s a huge amount
of money …. That (shows) somebody who is daring and somebody who is bold.”

The steps started by Koch brought remarkable changes to the
Broadway district and the neighborhoods. A few years ago, Barsky decided to
show his daughter the city’s underside. “I remembered the rubble and
everything,” he said. “And we drove and we drove and we drove through the South
Bronx …. I couldn’t find it; it has all been rebuilt.”

But amid his frenetic dealings, Koch soon found himself
battling blacks and gays.

During his first campaign (in 1978), he had drawn black
support by vowing to preserve the Sydenham Hospital in Harlem. “Sydenham had
been a place that had hired black doctors when other hospitals wouldn’t,”
Powell said.  “It was seen as a critical
part of the black community.”

Shortly after being elected, Koch closed it. That may have
been necessary, Powell said. Koch could have admitted the promise was a
mistake; instead, he attacked protestors. “That became a real weakness.”

Also in that first campaign, Koch – who never discussed his
sexuality – raged at signs that said: “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo.” For the
rest of the campaign, he and Bess Myerson, the former Miss America, gave the
impression of a romantic relationship. “We were never going to be lovers,” he
said in the film.

That may have been a harmless deception, but critics said
the problem went further: In denial about his own sexuality, Koch failed to
confront the AIDS crisis.

Powell takes a mixed view of that. “Virtually the entire
country was very slow,” he said. “And New York City caught up very quickly ….
His greatest failure in the AIDS crisis was his inability to convey empathy.”

This was a pioneer in banning discrimination toward gays,
Coffey said. Koch championed the common man. “He started with nothing; he was a
hat-check boy in Jersey” at 12.

He savored people but – when confronted by critics – struck
back. “He was a complicated cat,” Powell said” … and a match for a complicated

“POV: Koch,” 10 p.m. Monday, PBS (check local listings).

Filming was completed before Koch’s death at 88,
on Feb. 1, 2013.

Thursday football -- big and brief and maybe forever

Right about now, CBS seems terribly excited about its Thursday-night football games, which start Sept. 11. Here's the story I sent to papers:


In the TV world, an eight-episode deal is greeted with a
shrug. Shows are tossed out quickly.

Then there’s the deal involving Thursday football – eight weeks,
nothing more, no guarantee for next year. It is “the most important and biggest
initiative (for CBS) in decades,” Sean McManus said.

McManus -- former head of CBS News, current head of CBS Sports,
son of the late sportscasting great Jim McKay – isn’t used to overstatement. So
what makes these eight weeks so big?

It’s partly that everything else gets smaller. As ratings
decline amid a sea of choices and time-shifts, football stays steady. The
Sunday games on NBC reach No. 1; Mondays on ESPN come close.

Now the NFL was offering Thursdays, as an experiment. “This
is a one-year deal,” McManus said. “It’s our job to see if we can” make it

He’ll get seven straight Thursdays, simulcast with the NFL
Network … which has the night alone during the second half of the season. The
two will also combine for one Saturday doubleheader.

The first step is to make this not seem like just another
game. That includes:

Opening music, a notion that also propels Mondays
and Sundays. In an airport hangar, CBS filmed Rihanna singing Jay-Z’s “Run This
Town”; actor Don Cheadle will add weekly narration.

Sportscasters. CBS’ top unit – Jim Nantz and
Phil Simms, with Tracy Wolfson on the sidelines and retired referee Mike Carey
in the studio – will work each Thursday, even when the games are only on the NFL
Network. On 12 weeks, they’ll also do Sunday games. Preparation will be quick,
Simms said, but in modern times, “everything is at your fingertips.”

Fresh graphics and lots of cameras. “We’re going
to have absolutely every piece of equipment you would need for a football game,”
Nantz said.

This will be more than networks have for play-off games,
McManus said. It includes a goal-line camera, a “special, high-def camera
suspended on one of the sidelines” and more. This is, CBS feels, a big deal.

“Thursday Night Football,” kick-off at 8:30 p.m.

Simulcast on CBS and NFL Network for seven
weeks, starting with the Steelers-Ravens game Sept. 11; then seven weeks only
on NFL Network. Also, a Saturday doubleheader, with one game on each network

Pre-game shows at 6 p.m. ET on the NFL Network,
then at 7:30 on both – but only on NFL Network in the second half of the season.
Post-game on NFL Network.

After football: Life gets smaller, weight gets bigger

 Visually, Scott Mitchell is a monolith; he stands 6-foot-6 and peaked at 366 pounds. Verbally, he's a soft-spoken, reflective guy, very easy to like. Now Mitchell (a former pro quarterback) and others are on "The Biggest Loser"; here's the story I sent to papers:


Scott Mitchell has already seen the human body at its best
and worst.

The joy happened on the football field. “I lived my
childhood dream,” said Mitchell, who’s featured on the new season of “The
Biggest Loser,” starting Thursday.

He was a consummate physical specimen, 6-foot-6, 240 pounds,
firing passes. In 1995, he completed more than 59 percent of them, 32 for
touchdowns, with only 12 interceptions; the Detroit Lions had a 10-6 record.
“The feeling of being in front of 80,000 people is absolutely exhilarating,” he

The bottom point came later. His weight had soared, boosting
sleep apnea, which creates pauses in breathing. “I was not wanting to go to sleep
at night.”

He began using an apnea mask six years ago, but nothing helped;
he weighed 366. In January, his father died at 76 from complications of
diabetes. “I thought, ‘That’s my future’ …. I was ready to give up.”

He didn’t. Mitchell – who grew up in Utah, in the Mormon
faith – sees the rest as a miracle. “It has re-energized and actually
solidified my faith.”

It started when he saw butterflies at the time of his dad’s
death and began to think of emerging from a cocoon. He saw ads for “Biggest
Loser” auditions in Salt Lake City, looking for ex-athletes; he E-mailed an
application, didn’t show up … but was contacted by the show anyway.

Amid a sea of former high school and college players, “Loser”
wanted some pros. It found:

Damien Woody, another ex-Lion. He was a starting
lineman for a dozen years, including two Super Bowl wins with the Patriots. But
at 36, four years after retiring, his weight had gone from 327 to 388. “I’m a
father of seven,” he said. “I want to ride a roller-coaster with my kids.”

Zina Garrison, a tennis star. She was a
Wimbledon runner-up in singles and a 1988 Olympic gold-medalist in doubles.
Now, at 263 pounds, she says she’d be happy “to be able to go out shopping and
not be out of breath.”

And Mitchell, who savors those peak years in
Detroit. “I showed up at the training facility at 6:30 every morning. I lived
in the community and was part of it.”

But each off-season, he would put on 15-20 pounds, losing it
just before the new season started. When his career ended in 2001, “the 20 went
up to 40 and up to 60.”

Pros develop a taste for good food, Mitchell said. In the
playing days, Woody said, calories burn off easily. “When I retired from
football, I retired from everything.”

Now “Loser” put them with experts. A severe apnea might
cause someone to stop breathing 30 or more times an hour; doctors clocked
Mitchell at 92 and reworked his machinery. Along with that were the work-outs …
and the promise of returning to Utah, leaner and happier.

“I live in a beautiful state where there’s a lot to do
outdoors,” Mitchell said. “I have five kids who want my attention. There’s
never a day when I can’t find a way to stay active.”

“The Biggest Loser,” 8 p.m. Thursdays, NBC.

Two-hour episodes Sept. 11 and 18, then one hour

The war against disease: Big victories and then (oddly) a surrender

Forgive me for being a huge fan of vaccinations. That's on a small level -- in decades of annual flu shots, I've only had the flu once -- and on a bigger level: In one generation, I saw polio go from a terror to virtually an unknown.

Still, there are vaccination resisters. The issue will be raised Wednesday (Sept. 10), in a compelling documentary on PBS' "Nova." Here's the story I sent to papers:


This was a modern triumph: In the U.S. and elsewhere, major
diseases dwindled or disappeared.

Science found ways to vaccinate against more and more diseases
… until the sheer quantity became a complication.

Kids, Dr. Paul Offit said, are expected to have as many as
26 inoculations in their first few years. That includes “as many as five shots
at one time, to prevent diseases that most people don’t see, using a biological
fluid most people don’t understand. It’s not surprising that there is pushback.”

The effects are harsh; with some parents resisting
vaccinations, diseases make a comeback. “In 2012, there were nearly 50,000
cases of whooping cough in the United States, which killed 20 people,” said
Michael Rosenfeld, whose company’s documentary airs on PBS’ “Nova” Wednesday. And
in the first half of this year, he said, “measles had reached its highest level
in the U.S. in 20 years.”

Typical resisters, Offit said, are college grads “who have
the kind of jobs where they’re used to being in control.” They feel they can “Google
the term ‘vaccines’ and now as much” as their doctors.

He is a doctor, head of the Vaccine Education Center at the
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Alison Singer isn’t a doctor and knows how
perplexing the Web can be. “On the Internet, every page is equal,” she said. “The
Mayo Clinic’s page comes up as often as Autism ‘R’ Us.”

Her autistic daughter, now 17, was 1 when Dr. Andrew
Wakefield linked autism to vaccinations. His report was published by “a highly
reputable medical journal (and) I took that very seriously.”

Eventually, the report was ruled fraudulent and Wakefield was
banned from medical practice in his native Great Britain. Even if it had been honest,
said Sonya Pemberton (writer-director of the “Nova” film), it was a miniscule
study with no control group. “It was 12 kids …. We have (studies) with 1.8
million kids, 500,000 kids, 400,000 kids, all over the world,” none of them finding
a link.

Her film does include two examples of vaccinations creating
trouble. A boy with Dravet syndrome had a seizure. (“Going on a trampoline
triggers his seizures; vaccines happen to be one of the triggers.”) An oral
polio vaccine (no longer used) “had a 1-in-2.4 million chance of actually
causing the disease.”

By comparison, Offit said, resisting vaccination risks not
only that child’s health, but society’s chance to eradicate a disease. “It’s a
terrible decision that can have terrible consequences.”

“Nova,” 9 p.m. Wednesday, PBS (check local listings).

New TV season: For a while, at least, the networks resume control

In the three previous blogs, I rate this fall's 24 new fall shows. Before reading those, however, catch this overview:


Each September, TV people pretend their world hasn’t

Cable retreats (briefly); broadcast networks introduce
20-some new shows and say these will change everything. Occasionally, they do.

Now the season is ready. One series (the “Utopia” reality
show) starts Sunday (Sept. 7); two arrive Sept. 17. Most wait until the week of
Sept. 21 or later. It adds up to 24 new shows; trends include:

First, NBC forfeited its “must-see” comedy stronghold on Thursdays.
(This year, it starts the night with “The Biggest Loser.”) Now CBS – the night’s
new comedy champ – is temporarily putting football games there; for eight
weeks, Thursdays will be almost mirthless.

There’s more: For a quarter-century, CBS has had four
comedies on Mondays; this fall, it has two.

SITCOM SLICE: That means fewer new comedies, There’s only
one each on CBS (a good one) and Fox (a bad one), only nine overall.

Still, networks do sometimes achieve a goal aimed at young
viewers – creating slick, movie-style comedies filled with youthful romance and
irony. ABC’s “Selfies” and NBC’s “A to Z” hit the mark.

IT’S A MARVEL-OUS/DC WORLD: The future of TV seems to be
sitting on comic-book shelves.

ABC and Marvel Comics (both owned by Disney) already have
“Agents of SHIELD”; coming next, at mid-season, is “Agent Carter.”

Now DC Comics has “The Flash” on CW (its usual stop) and
“Gotham” – a lush look at life before Batman – on Fox. And NBC has
“Constantine,” based on a Vertigo Comics tale.

BIG-SCREEN LOOK: Last season, “Sleepy Hollow” brought a
lush, movie look to TV screens. This season, “Gotham” does the same; when those
two are back-to-back Mondays on Fox, viewers will be dazzled.

There’s also a big look to “Constantine,” “Flash” and ABC’s
“Forever” and “How to Get Away With Murder.” TV may or may not be better, but
it will look wonderful.

GLOBAL TV: Two of the four networks (ABC and Fox) now have
an Englishman in charge. So it probably shouldn’t surprise us that there’s an
international feel. Fox turned a British series into the richly detailed,
10-week “Gracepoint.” It also has the American version of the Dutch “Utopia.”
And the CW has turned a Venezuelan telenovela into the jaunty “Jane the Virgin.”

There’s also more diversity, including progress for black
producers. Shonda Rhimes has ABC’s entire Thursday, with “Grey’s Anatomy,”
“Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder.” Larry Wilmore is working on ABC’s
“Black-ish,” before his “Minority Report” takes over the spot after “The Daily

Wilmore’s new show, incidentally, will be on cable (Comedy
Central) in January. By then, some of the 24 new broadcast shows will be gone
and cable will be back to seizing our attention.