Out of Touch

070815cover2 Mark Harmon is on the cover of TV Guide, illustrating their story on the "turmoil" behind-the-scenes on NCIS. The article is tepid, out-of-date and hopelessly vague…and laughable to anybody in the TV business. It just goes to show completely out-of-touch and irrelevant the reporting on the entertainment industry is in the mainstream media and even in the trade publications like Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. Most of entertainment industry reporting, and I used the term "reporting" lightly, is driven by press releases. There is no actual reporting going on any more…much less anything approaching "investigative" journalism. This week’s TV Guide story about NCIS is just the latest, obvious example. The fact is that the "turmoil" on NCIS is hardly anything new and has been common knowledge in the TV industry since the show’s first season. Just about every writer/producer but me, it seems, has been on – and quickly off – the show at one time or another. For the last few years, stories about the script woes and costly production problems on the show could be heard at just about any casual gathering of TV writer/producers. Did any of it creep into the press? Nope. And by the time the showdown between Harmon and series creator/showrunner Donald Belisario was reported by the press in a very watered-down form, it was old news and irrelevant to everybody in the TV business. The real story is why CBS allowed the ugly and expensive situation at NCIS to continue for as long as it did…but nobody is going to report that story. It would be too interesting and informative…and embarrassing for the studio and the network. There are several other shows that have had, or are presently experiencing, more turmoil than NCIS was…and we aren’t hearing about it in the press. And we probably won’t.

I’ve been slogging through the four months worth of issues of Daily Variety that accumulated while I was shooting FAST TRACK in Berlin and am shocked by how little useful information there is. I can get the same information – maybe even more – by just browsing the web each day. I am seriously considering dropping my Daily Variety subscription…and I’ve been a subscriber since I was nine years old.

7 thoughts on “Out of Touch”

  1. I agree with you, Lee, that most if not all “infotainment reporting” is irrelevant, out of date and of little interest to anyone. Your comments about TV Guide seem especially resonant with myself. As a subscriber to (and collector of) TV Guide magazine for nearly 30 years (1974-2002), I can attest with some authority to the downward slide in reporting that the mag took after News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch) bought it. Today’s TV Guide is a vacuous tabloid rag of little or no journalistic value, especially when compared to its glory years of the 1960s and 1970s. How can anyone take any magazine seriously that includes a weekly horoscope? Even the listings, on which I counted to plan my TV watching for three decades, is today marginal at best; our local newspaper has much more thorough listings in the Sunday supplements.
    In 2002, I stopped my subscription to TV Guide in disgust, vowing never again to buy another copy. I haven’t bought one since, and I don’t miss it a bit.
    Now, what can I do with the 2000 TV Guides from 1953-2002 stored in my attic?

  2. It has always seemed that there is a unmet market for entertainment reporting that falls somewhere between the box office number crunching and press release collections of the trades and the tabloid fare of who’s in rehab and who’s having an affair with which co-star. I’ve never been able to tell whether it’s hard to find because no one tries to write it or because no one cooperates in the reporting.
    Like you said, the “NCIS” story was old news and “could be heard at just about any casual gathering of TV writer/producers.” But how many of those writer/producers would speak to a reporter on the record? Even here, on your own blog, you sidestep the details that you imply that you know about. I presume that you do so out of decorum and professionalism, but you still tease your readers with some inside knowledge that you’re leaving to some vague and unspecified Someone Else to divulge. If you don’t tell what you know because you haven’t been expressly told that you may do so, you’re in the same bind that any decent, ethical journalist is in, stuck with information that you cannot publish because no one will go on the record to confirm it. The kind of outlets that don’t care about those moral considerations, like TMZ or Perez Hilton, also don’t care about the business side of entertainment.
    Unlike government offices or even corporate boardrooms, there is no inherent right of the public to know what goes into the production of their favorite TV shows. Reporters who get repeated access to stages, locations, and cast members are those who write what publicists want to be written. Anyone who writes anything critical of how things are done is not invited back, and no FOIA request is going to get them back on the lot. Why did CBS allow an ugly and expensive mess to go on for so long? I don’t know, but as long as the show maintained its ratings and the network sold its ad spots, the show made money and the bean counters and investors were happy. As you’ve reminded many aspiring writers, Lee, this is first and foremost a business. Donald Bellisario has made a lot of people a lot of money over the years, and if the new producers don’t make the same numbers, despite creating a happy set, then the show risks being cancelled and the cast and crew put out of work — which is ultimately why a lot of people who know the details won’t go on the record.

  3. Well, I still have my TV Guide subscription, but I can’t recall the last time I used the programming schedule in it to find a program — particularly since it’s grown more complicated. It’s easier to use the on-air cable guide, or the Internet, to find shows. And I certainly don’t look to the Guide for hard-hitting journalism about the TV industry. I can get better TV coverage out of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. Some of the TV Guide columns are fun, however.

  4. GC makes a very good point. I am very careful about the “inside TV” stuff I talk about here because it could have a detrimental impact on my career. I am also careful about what I say to journalists. However, I started out as a reporter covering the entertainment industry for Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and the trade publication Electronic Media (now Television Week). Producers and execs were as tight-lipped then as they are now…but I was still able to initiate and write indepth business stories that weren’t based on press releases. For example, I broke the story about the revival of “Star Trek” in first-run syndication LONG before it was officially announced by Paramount, infuriating the studio. I was able to do it because I had close ties with television station programing execs, who were already being quietly shopped the show, and with STARLOG magazine, which was hearing unconfirmed rumbles of a new series in development. A producer even called to beg me not to announce it, offering me “exclusives” later if I kept quiet. I didn’t. The story broke in Electronic Media and then USA Today (which, I am pleased to say, gave me credit for it). I also broke a lot of other stories that later were expanded upon in the other trades and in the mainstream press. It’s not hard. It called reporting. It’s called developing your sources and looking for the story behind the other stories people are reporting on. If I was a reporter today, I’d use this NCIS pap as a jumping off point to write about how ramptant “turmoil” really is on network shows…and how much it’s costing the shows. I would talk to A.D.s and grips and freelance directors. I would talk to business affairs execs and their assistants. I would talk to programing execs. I would talk to actors and actors’ agents and managers. I would talk to writers and producers, on the record and off the record. I would get the story. But it would mean getting off my ass and actually being a reporter and not someone who sits at a computer and rewrites press releases.

  5. Lee, I understand what you’re saying. But question: wouldn’t there be repercussions for the ones lower on the totem pole to divulge negative publicity? I mean yes, a big star is almost irreplaceable on some sets and would probably love to tell what’s going on behind the scenes. But a freelance director or grip are very replaceable? Even if they went off the record, they take a chance on someone discovering their “disloyalty.”
    It’s similar to the mainstream journalists who fear repercussions when reporting on the administration and rightfully so, considering the Plame situation, where the leakers didn’t care about an agent’s life being placed on the line. So reporters tend to just re-iterate the party line or what is fed to them. The term “intrepid reporter” seems to have all but fallen by the wayside – at least that’s how it seems to me. And even infotainment reporters seem to have picked up the media fear of repercussion.


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