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Tuned In: PBS views porn from the front lines

Thursday, February 07, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

From guttural groans to funky background music (baum-chicka-baum-BAUM), the cliches of pornography have seeped into American pop consciousness. Regardless of whether people watch porn, they know its trappings.

 
 

Graphic: TV News Ratings

   
 

And what was once taboo has crept closer to mainstream acceptance, which goes to the heart of the issues explored in "American Porn" on PBS's "Frontline" (9 tonight, WQED/WQEX).

With at least five advisories about content popping up during the broadcast, it's an oftentimes graphic, disturbing, adults-only hour that traces the evolution of pornography from the "vanilla sex" of Larry Flynt's Hustler to violent videos of purported rape.

The program posits that the combination of technological advances (home video and the Internet) and lax enforcement of anti-pornography laws by the Justice Department during the Clinton administration have combined to make porn more accessible and acceptable.

But even porn chieftains, such as Flynt, fear reprisals from the Bush administration and are shying away from the more extreme depictions of sex acts. Of course, that means pornographers who don't have multimillion-dollar empires at stake will fill that void.

Produced and directed by Michael Kirk, the most disturbing portions of "American Porn" show teen-age girls -- one in braces -- getting into the business for the money. In another case, a woman is beaten while making a rape video and the "Frontline" crew backs away.

"American Porn" capably and soberly explains the evolution of pornography over the past two decades from the viewpoint of those who produce it and distribute it (including General Motors and AT&T through satellite and cable subsidiaries). What it lacks is any explanation of why pornography -- particularly the extreme, ultra-hardcore variety -- appeals to the masses. That consumer case study will have to wait for a future program.

Sweeps!

There's a certain variety of sweeps report that can only be called the "Duh!" story.

Despite an anchor introduction that suggested a story that "might surprise you," WPXI's Becky Thompson reported the unsurprising fact that -- brace yourself! -- food left on the stove unattended for 10 minutes can cause a fire.

Sometimes the "Duh!" story serves, if nothing else, as a reminder (e.g. time to change the batteries in your smoke detector), but too often these reports, like this most recent one, are a waste of time that treat viewers like morons.

This month's "investigations" generally have been more informative.

KDKA's Paul Martino revisited his "You Paid For It" series about the excesses of some elected officials, a worthwhile, if unoriginal, watchdog story.

WPXI's Andy Gastmeyer reported Monday on school bus safety that proved the introduction to the story ("your child could be in danger") was overblown. Gastmeyer found most area school bus companies act pretty responsibly.

Jim Parsons illustrated a "gun show loophole" in Ohio with the use of the ever-present hidden camera. The report tiptoed to the edge of legality by showing several Ohio men agreeing to sell guns to known Pennsylvania residents, before Parsons pulled back by not going through with the deal.

As for upcoming sweeps stories, don't look for WPXI to send a reporter to cover the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City after all. News director Pat Maday said "budgetary and logistics limitations" put the kibosh on the trip.

Ratings for January, which will be more representative of viewing patterns than sweeps ratings generated this month, can be found in the box below.

WPXI's 'Honor'

This year's annual Channel 11 Black History Month program, "Honor, Courage and Country: Pittsburgh's African-American War Heroes" (7:30 p.m. Saturday), is a timely and effective profile of several Western Pennsylvanians who went to battle.

Presentation-wise, "Honor" is a knock out, with excellent graphics that give the half-hour a network-quality sheen. Some of the writing is clunky, whether it's repeated phrasing in anchor introductions by David Johnson and Gina Redmond or an Andy Gastmeyer report that simplistically describes the basis for the Civil War as "largely racial," ignoring other factors at play at the time.

"Honor," written and produced by Robin Beckham, saves the best for last. The show's concluding report by Reg Chapman is the most moving. It includes an interview with the father of a local man killed in the Gulf War, a reminder of the ultimate sacrifice.

News blues

KDKA-TV unveiled a revamped set and tweaked graphics last week and the overriding color is ... blue, just like the dominant background colors on the sets at Channel 11 and Channel 4.

Makes you wonder if the ultimate goal is to make the newscasts look so much alike that viewers can't tell the difference. But KDKA news director Al Blinke said blue is simply a good background color.

"On a blue background, the talent pops out," Blinke said. "When you have monitors in the background, people are trying to see what's on the monitor and aren't paying attention [to the foreground]. Blue brings out nice skin tones on the talent, it makes people look good."

Unlike WPXI and WTAE, which have concrete images of Downtown Pittsburgh in their backgrounds, KDKA went with a more abstract approximation.

There's the hint of a bridge behind Patrice King Brown. I haven't figured out what's supposed to be behind Ken Rice in some shots. In the middle there are lots of lines that are probably supposed to be Downtown buildings, but they're kind of streaks, like a view of the city through a drunken haze.

To be fair, the abstract backdrop becomes more concrete in wider shots of the studio, but close up it's muddled.

Graphically, the biggest change is the words "Hometown Advantage" that faintly scroll diagonally behind the over-the-shoulder box next to an anchor's head. An attempt at subliminal persuasion, perhaps?

Slogan adoption

Channel 11 may have to replace its "Coverage You Can Count On" slogan sooner rather than later. A commercial last week for Depends undergarments used the catch phrase, "Protection You Can Count On."

Might viewers begin to associate WPXI with a lack of bladder control? Can Depends protect viewers from sweeps month blather?


Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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