Wedged in the middle, CNN keeps re-inventing itself

This has been a hectic time for CNN, amid re-shuffling and re-inventing. The latest switch, announced this week, is to HLN (formerly Headline News), its short-form spin-off; it will become social media-oriented, forever watching what is trending,

We'll keep a skeptical eye on that, but the main channel remains solid. CNN usually does good work; at times -- with its documentaries and some upcoming series -- it does great work. Here's the story I sent to papers, shortly before the HLN announcement:


hasn’t been easy lately for CNN.

starters, it’s in an overcrowded field. “When we look at the cable news
landscape, (it’s) not a growing niche,” said Jeff Zucker, the CNN president.

he’s in the middle of that niche. Fox News (“the Republican Party …
masquerading as a cable channel,” Zucker argues) gets the conservative viewers
and leads the in the Nielsen ratings. MSNBC gets liberals; CNN gets the
in-between … and third place.

mission? “I think CNN needs to be looking out for the rest of us,” Zucker said.

Or, at
least, to find ways to be different. In his first year, Zucker has tried a lot.
He’s revived “Crossfire” and “Inside Politics”; he tried – and then scuttled –
a second Anderson Cooper hour.

He’s also
had a fresh emphasis on documentaries. Some (30-35 hours a year) are by CNN’s
own unit; others are outside projects that CNN co-produces or buys. Many, led
by “Blackfish,” have drawn praise.

are fantastic documentaries being made,” Zucker said. Other networks “that used
to be an outlet for (them) have moved more into reality … and so there was an
opening for us.”

He’s also
nudged CNN into non-fiction series, with several – two from Robert Redford, one
from Tom Hanks – coming this spring.

result so far? The best Zucker can do is to compare 2013 to 2012 – MSNBC was
down 20 percent, Fox down 5 percent, CNN even and HLN (its short-form
offspring) up. Still, CNN is third and all face the same problem: “There are
many places where you get that kind of news,” he said.

Spurlock, the filmmaker (“Super Size Me”) illustrates that. As a college
student, he watched CNN cover the Baghdad bombing. “Here was this news
organization in the middle of it; it was riveting.”

And 22
years later? “I follow multiple news organizations all day,” Spurlock said.

For CNN,
Spurlock is part of the problem – a generation that is quick to switch channels
to other news networks, the Internet, newspapers, radio and more. But he’s also
part of one solution.

year, CNN introduced some amiable series -- Anthony Bourdain toured the food
world in “Parts Unknown”; Spurlock inserted himself into situations in “Inside
Man.” This year, both will be back in April, with Spurlock’s subjects ranging
from income disparity to the quest for eternal life.

Six other
series will join them soon, including Hanks’ look at the 1960s and two Redford
series that have shown impressive pilot films:

“Chicagoland” (starting March 6) is a sleek and engrossing look at
Chicago. It’s from the people who drew praise for the Newark series “Brick
City,” using a similar approach – following everyone from the mayor to his
detractors and the people on the streets.

 “Death Row Stories” (March
9). It views people who were convicted, then freed.

While skiiers and skaters chase gold, these guys chase tuna

We really have to admire the gumption of any channel that would launch a season of its best show head-on against the Olympics. Last Sunday, AMC did that with "Walking Dead"; this Sunday, National Geographic's "Wicked Tuna" collides with the Olympics and the NBA and all those zombies. Here's the story I sent to papers:


For any fisherman who has savored a 20-pound beauty, this is
a jolt. Listen to the “Wicked Tuna” guys:

“I caught a pretty good one this summer by myself,” Tyler
McLaughlin said. It was “about 550 pounds. I fought it for about an hour and a
half. It was quite the battle.”

Sure, but he’s sometimes limited by going it alone. Ask the
guys with three- and four-man boats.

“We (had) a fish that was right around 900 pounds,” Dave
Carraro said. “We hooked up at 5 in the morning and we didn’t get him until
later that afternoon. It was actually about a 10-hour battle.”

They return Sunday, expecting a strong start despite facing
the Olympics. “’Wicked Tuna’ is National Geographic Channel’s highest-rated
series,” said Heather Moran, the channel’s programming chief.

It copies the “Deadliest Catch” formula, with guys who can
talk trash and work tough. These captains are based in Gloucester, Mass.; for
the third season, they include:

McLaughlin, who doesn’t seem to fit in. He’s a
college guy with family money that let him get his own boat early; he’s 25, was
the second-season champion and has been doing this since he was 7. “Flat out, I
catch fish …. I don’t want to come into the dock. I just want to catch fish.”

Carraro, the first-season champion. Fame is a
mixed blessing, he said; in the Internet age, there are no secret fishing holes.
“If you catch a fish in the fog, somehow everybody knows.”

Paul Hebert, who was fired by Carraro last
season. He commissioned a boat and hopes to buy his own. “The adrenaline rush –
you can’t even fathom it,” he said.

Dave Marciano, who had a tough year. He “has two
kids in college and another at home,” Moran said. “And after his boat sank last
season, he is feeling the financial strain.”

Bill Monte, who came out of retirement last year
to work a boat with his wife and deckhand Donna, one of the few women in this
rugged business.

And two newcomers to the show, TJ Ott and Bill
“Hollywood” Muniz.

Muniz got his nickname from the name of his first boat; more
unusual is his technique: Others hook a tuna, fight it with rod and reel, then
harpoon it; Muniz skips the rod and goes straight to the harpoon.

He fishes the old-fashioned way … almost. “He uses a plane
to find the fish,” Marciano said. “And the plane uses a satellite (and) walks
him right on top of the fish, you know. And then he … literally stabs it in the
back, like he might do to his best buddy.”

The tuna guys are like that, trash-talking each other. They
also show a deep respect.

“These are probably the best tuna fishermen on the East
Coast,” McLaughlin said. They “were producing when I was a little 10-year-old
kid watching them …. I just view myself as the next generation.”

Responds Hebert: “Tyler has earned our respect. He’s worked
very hard.” And this season, they really want to beat him.

“Wicked Tuna,” 9 p.m. Sundays, National
Geographic. Third season starts Feb. 16; opening hour reruns at 11 p.m., then
Feb. 22 at 10 p.m. and midnight and Feb. 23 at 8 p.m.

Before that, an hour reviewing the first two
seasons airs at 10 p.m. Wednesday (rerunning at midnight), then 7 p.m. Friday
and 9 a.m. Sunday.

For a more elaborate recap, the final seven
hours of the first season are noon to 7 p.m. Saturday; the final nine of the
second are noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Ah, the pleasures of overacting

At the right times, bad really can be good. From a "Love Story" or "Gone With the Wind" spoof by Carol Burnett to "The Californians" on "Saturday Night Live," there can be fun in starting with an exaggerated tale and then cranking the acting to overload. The latest to try are some former "SNL" people who made "The Spoils of Babylon." If you get IFC (via satellite or digital cable), you can catch the entire six-part, three-hour spoof Thursday; here's the story I sent to papers:


This is the sort of job some actors savor:

Forget about subtlety and sub-text and such. Just take a deliberately
bad drama and crank it up.

“It’s always fun to do something overly dramatic and not
worry if you’re doing a good job acting,” Kristen Wiig said. “(You’re) trying
to do it badly.”

That’s in “The Spoils of Babylon,” which some viewers can
catch in full Thursday. It’s a comically exaggerated version of an old-time,
soap-style miniseries; it also gives its cast a sort of double responsibility. “You
get to play a bad actor playing a part,” Tobey Maguire said.

In “Spoils,” he’s Devon Morehouse, the adopted brother (and
forbidden lover) of Cynthia Morehouse (Wiig). Others include Tim Robbins,
Jessica Alba and Val Kilmer; in the finale, Haley Joel Osment, as Winston
Morehouse, seeks revenge. “Getting to play the evil, sort of black-hearted
bastard in this one was pretty fun,” Osment said.

And in many roles -- icluding author Eric Jonrosh – there’s
Will Ferrell, who’s at the center of this.

Ferrell and writer Adam McKay created Funny or Die as a sort
of Internet playground, making short comedy films. Then that kept expanding.
There are TV series, a new production facility and now this short (six-part,
three-hour) miniseries.

On “Saturday Night Live,” their colleagues have done mock
soap operas, first “Casa de mi Padre” and then “The Californians.” Later, the
two “Casa” writers -- Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele – wrote “Spoils”;
Piedmont directed and they rounded up stars.

“We all had different actor names on set,” Wiig said. “We
didn’t go by our real names.”

On other days, they could take serious roles – currently Maguire
is in “Labor Day” and Wiig is in “Walter Mitty.” At Funny or Die, they could
simply be overwrought actors in the overwritten “Spoils.”

“The Spoils of Babylon” finale debuts at 10 p.m.
Thursday on IFC (formerly Independent Film Channel), generally via satellite or
digital cable; the five previous episodes rerun, 7:30-10 p.m.

Finale reruns that night at 1 a.m.; then the
last two episodes rerun from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Saturday and 11 p.m. to midnight

Entire miniseries reruns in two chunks, from
4:30-6 a.m. Feb. 13-14.

Facing steep obstacles, former Amish find new lives

On a pleasant California afternoon, Naomi Kramer visited the Santa Monica Pier. It's a place of bright lights and cheery noises ... worlds away from her Amish childhood in Missouri.

Earlier that day, she and others told reporters about the complex notion of leaving the Amish and starting a new life. Here's the story I sent to papers:


As a freshman, Naomi Kramer found everything about college
perplexing. That started with the first task – her psychology teacher wanted
everyone to send an E-mail.

“I went to a computer lab to ask them for help … and they
looked at me like I was crazy,” she said. “Like, who – at 21 years old –
doesn’t know how to E-mail?”

That was just the start of what she didn’t know. Her
education consisted of eight years in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in
Pennsylvania; she had “very basic math,” no science, limited prospects.

And now? At 28, Kramer – featured Tuesday on PBS’ “American
Experience” -- is a registered nurse with a college degree; she’s a leader of a
program that recently gave its first scholarships to former Amish people. “We
had 12 applications this year; I bawled when I read them.”

All 12 were from women, she said. “I think men do OK with
their construction skills.”

One example is Levi Shetler, also featured in “The Amish:
Shunned,” the PBS film. “I wanted to experience something greater,” he said,
“like go out, drive a vehicle or have fun – be free, basically.” Now he does
construction work and Online marketing.

By comparison, Kramer said, many women ponder nursing, finding
instant obstacles. “There are Amish women who could not complete science
courses because (science) was a foreign language to them.”

Her own upbringing wasn’t one of the most strict. Her family
had indoor plumbing; Shetler’s didn’t. Her parents also gave some leeway for
her reading. They approved the “Little House on the Prairie” books; they
reluctantly allowed the “Sweet Valley High” ones.

Still, schooling was limited. Kramer struggled to get her
high-school-equivalency degree, then for five years she worked as a waitress
while putting herself through Goshen College, in Indiana.

Now she works at the Goshen hospital. Her own parents remain
in the Amish community, but are cordial to her; “they are very nice, I’m
lucky.” She married a man who had left an Amish community with his family. “I’m
very much accepted by his family,” she said.

Others feel more personal strain. “It’s really hard to leave
(my family) behind,” Shetler said.

The people back home try to ignore personal pain, said
Callie Wiser, producer of the PBS film. “The (Amish) survived so long because
they do put their individuality below the good of the community.”

Still, Kramer said, there’s pain on both sides. She talks of
her 16-year-old brother. “He’s very smart. He would have so many opportunities,
but he … doesn’t know what’s out there.”

“The Amish: Shunned,” 9-11 p.m. Tuesday, PBS,
under the “American Experience” banner

Preceded by a rerun of the second half of “The
Amish,” at 8; check local listings

Info on scholarships and success stories:

Super Sunday: Her's the 12-hour rundown

OK, by now we should be geared up for Super Bowl Sunday. My two previous blogs offered an overview and a profile of Terry Crews, former pro football player who reaches the Super day via acting. Now here's the third of the three stories I sent to papers; it offers a chronological rundown.


Here’s a quick journey through Super Bowl Sunday; starting
at noon, everything is on Fox:

Early and late: Endless cable coverage. This is a key time for
Fox Sports 1, which started less than six months ago. “We are the network of
the Super Bowl, all week long …. We’ve always viewed this as kind of a second
coming-out party” for the channel, said Eric Shanks, the Fox Sports president.

Noon ET: “The Road to the Super Bowl,” the annual NFL Films

1 p.m.: “Football America: Our Story.” The passion for the
game is discussed by celebrities (Whoopi Goldberg, Rob Lowe) and regular
people, including five whose stories won tickets to the game.

2-6 p.m.: Pre-game studio show. The Fox people – Terry
Bradshaw, Howie Long, Curt Menefee, etc. – have a lot of time to talk. Stories
include bad-winter games, New York title games and Vince Lombardi’s New
York/New Jersey roots. Visiting the tailgate party, the show is expected to
catch music from Phillip Phillips and The Band Perry; the party also has the
Broadway casts of “Jersey Boys” and “Rock of Ages.”

Shortly before 6 p.m.: This is what Fox calls its “God and
Country” section. It has a new version of a film with people reading the Declaration
of Independence. The National Anthem is sung by Renee Fleming – the first time
the Super Bowl has had an opera star; “America the Beautiful” is sung by Queen
Latifah, who also sang it (with Carrie Underwood) in 2010.

Close to kick-off, the players come back out, Shanks said.
“The NFL has changed the timing around to make sure (they) aren’t standing out
there too long and freezing.”

6:25 or 6:30 p.m.: Kick-off, for what could be a classic
game. These are “two old-school defenses,” Long said, but the offenses are
opposites. Menefee calls it “a match-up of a classic, old-school quarterback
(the Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning) and this new generation” of scramblers
(the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson).

Halfime: Bruno Mars was hired to perform and added the Red
Hot Chili Peppers. It’s “a really cool mash-up that Bruno kind of concocted,” Shanks

Post-game: Locker-room interviews. Whooping and moaning.

Post-post game: Two youthful comedies get a chance to find a
new audience.

On “New Girl,” Jess and Cece get invited to a party at
Prince’s mansion; the guys – Nick, Schmidt, Winston and Coach – conspire to get
in. Guest stars include Prince – “he was fantastic,” said Hannah Simone, who
plays Cece – and others.

On “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” a case is worked by Jake and Amy,
who often feud. “We have kind of a sibling rivalry,” said Andy Samberg, who
plays Jake. Meanwhile, the captain and sergeant (Andre Braugher and Terry
Crews) re-organize. “We decide we’re going to do a little housecleaning in a
very, very hilarious way,” Crews said. Guests include Fred Armisen, Joe
Theismann and more.