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.

Somewhere between comedy and drama, other TV worlds exist

Here's the third piece of the TV season preview, ranking some hybrid shows. The previous blogs list the comedies and the serious dramas:



There really is an in-between world that TV keeps trying to

On one end are the heavy-duty, cable-style dramas; on the other
are c­­omedies. Somewhere between are dramas that add youthful bursts of humor,
romance or boom-bang action.

Now the CW network – which is rarely best at anything –
seems to have found that spot. Here are some of this fall’s hybrids, rated on a
0-10 scale:

“Jane the Virgin” (7)

For the first time since “Ugly Betty,” someone has found a
charming, witty way to adapt a Latino telenovela. The story is broad – a doctor
accidentally inseminates a virgin. Still, “Jane” makes it almost believable,
while adding extra touches. Gina Rodriguez – unknown outside Sundance Film
Festival circles – is wonderful; other characters, especially her mother and
grandmother, add humor and emotion.

(9 p.m. Mondays, CW; starts Oct. 13)

 “The Flash” (6)

After a childhood of trying to outrun the bullies, Barry
Allen is struck by lightning; he’s soon the world’s fastest human. Some scenes
– including a motivational speech by The Arrow – get in the way; also, super-speed
tends take the fun out of chases. Still, there are spectacular effects and
strong emotions, some of it centered on Barry’s dad, played by John Wesley Shipp,
who was the TV “Flash” in 1990.

(8 p.m. Tuesdays, CW; Oct. 7)

“The Red Band Society” (5)

Hollywood has a fresh interest in youth and mortality, via
movies (“The Fault in Our Stars,” “If I Stay”) and TV (“Chasing Life”). Now
comes a sort of medical “Breakfast Club”; in a hospital ward, mismatched teens
have nothing in common except illness. They argue, laugh, party, cope, aided by
a sharp-tongued nurse (Octavia Spencer) and a kindly doctor (Dave Annable). The
result is erratic, but interesting.

(9 p.m. Wednesdays, Fox; Sept. 17)

“The Mysteries of Laura” (5)

In the TV tradition, Laura (Debra Messing) is a smart cop
with a crumbling personal life. Her sons are nasty, and not in a TV-funny way; her
estranged husband is oblivious. It would be easy to dismiss the show, but “Laura”
has a charming star and a talented producer-director. As he did with “Chuck” and
“Human Target,” McG gives the show a jaunty feel.

(8 p.m. Wednesdays, NBC, starting Sept. 24; but debuts at 10
p.m. Sept. 17)

 “Scorpion” (4)

CBS is already Genius Central, thanks to “Big Bang Theory
and “Elementary.” Now it has high-IQ sorts who are hired by a Homeland Security
to occasionally save the country. In the “Big Bang” tradition, there’s also a
beautiful waitress (Katharine McPhee) to explain life to them. Created by the
people who did “Fringe” and “Sleepy Hollow,” it’s a good concept that strains
believability during its first hour.

(9 p.m. Mondays, CBS, Sept. 22)

ALSO: Alongside the 23 new scripted series, the commercial
broadcast networks have exactly one new reality show. “Utopia” dumps 15
eccentric strangers in the wilderness and gives them a year to build a
civilization. Fox debuts the sow from 8-10 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 7; then, for a
while, gives it one-hour spots at 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays.