Abortions, Literal and Figurative

October 13, 2011

I know I promised you coverage of some seventies crime shows and, trust me, it’s coming.  Soon.  But first, there are a few follow-ups to old pieces that merit reporting.

Last year, I wrote about how abortion and atheism were topics that television drama rarely tackles any more, because the people who make (and pay for) entertainment programming know that they’ll get more grief than they can handle from all the right-wing dittoheads.  In particular, it seemed as if no television show was willing to let a female character choose to have an abortion without undermining that decision with a “family values” message, whether stated or unstated.

Now, according to this cogent piece by Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara, that barrier may have been broken by Grey’s Anatomy, in which its best character (Sandra Oh’s Dr. Christina Yang) terminated a pregnancy that would have interfered with her career.  McNamara points out that Dr. Yang did not suffer from any of the mitigating factors (rape, poverty, being underage) that softened the question on other shows (like Friday Night Lights last year), and that Yang “did not seem particularly agonized” in a way that would encourage the audience to believe she was making a mistake.   McNamara seems as gobsmacked as I am that Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes allowed Dr. Yang to have the final word on her choice.

I haven’t watched Grey’s Anatomy since its first season, which I found melodramatic and dull, and I wish this breakthrough had occurred on a better show.  But Grey’s is now in its eighth year, and these kinds of things tend to happen on series that nobody is paying much attention to any more.


So now we know: the complete DVD set of The Fugitive will have nearly all of its original music restored, plus a mouth-watering array of bonus features.  As long as I don’t think too hard about what that “nearly” means, I consider this a marvelous outcome.  CBS hasn’t put together this elaborate a TV series package since Paul Brownstein was producing Gunsmoke special editions for them, and its home video staffers deserve congratulations.  Yes, we had to wait longer and pay more than we should have.  Doesn’t matter.  The Fugitive is worth whatever it takes.

Ivan Shreve, who gives CBS’s home video division no quarter, argues that we owe this DVD release to the misguided suckers who knowingly bought the Heyesified Fugitive DVDs; it was their dollars that affirmed the financial viability of the show on home video.  He’s probably right.  But, at the same time, it had to have cost CBS some dough to untangle the legal issues around the original scores.  CBS wouldn’t have parted with that money if it didn’t think that there were a lot of us holdouts out here who would only purchase The Fugitive in an unmolested form.  So I still can’t work up much sympathy for anyone who shelled out for the now-worthless Heyesified DVD and has to decide whether to re-buy the whole series.  If you eat at McDonald’s, don’t whine about the indigestion.

Update, 10/14/11: Please see the comments section for some troubling news about the new edition of The Fugitive.  If this information proves true, the new DVD set probably won’t be worth buying after all.


I’m going to give myself credit for some prescience in my two complaints, from March and August,  about the troubling moves Netflix was making in its relative support of physical and streaming media.  Since I filed those editorials, Netflix has experienced an unusually public meltdown and stock devaluation.  The company alienated subscribers by splitting the two platforms (this was marketed, bizarrely, as a price hike, although that was only the case for certain customer segments), then threatened to shunt its disc business into an offshoot with a goofy name, and then abruptly abandoned this plan to split itself in two.  Customers went batshit over each new development.  Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, once viewed as a Steve Jobsian corporate sage, experienced an Obama-in-the-middle-of-2009 moment: we all realized, all at once, that he didn’t have a secret, brilliant master plan, that he was just a good talker being pushed around by forces with a lot more capital and power.

My only personal interest in all of this is the fate of Netflix’s disc business . . . which is why I’m dismayed by the outcome.  Most analysts smelled a sell-off in the segregation of two video channels.  Netflix, presumably, was angling to unload its physical media and go exclusively online.  A sale could have ended with any number of disasters, but Netflix’s treatment of its disc renters has become so shabby that I found myself rooting for it to happen.  In a best-case scenario, the disc business might have been sold to a smaller entity that would have cared about it and turned it into a viable niche business.  Now it looks as if the discs won’t be going anywhere, and the Netflix library will continue to wither on the vine.  Hastings hates DVDs so much that I’m already envisioning apocalyptic outcomes.  Don’t be surprised if you wake up one morning in the near future and read that Netflix has landfilled a few million movies.

I’ve tried to keep an open mind about streaming video, since it’s obviously not going away, and in my first post on the subject I emphasized the few positives I could find.  But over the last few months I’ve come to believe that the issue is cut and dried: streaming video is an unambiguous enemy of cinephilia.

As a fer instance: Over the weekend I landed a paid writing assignment that required me to see a lot of films within a very short time.  I found several on Netflix Instant and a few others for “rent” from Amazon.  All of the Amazon streams were highly compressed and waxy-looking, on the order of Youtube videos.  That’s especially outrageous given that Amazon uses a la carte pricing (between $2 and $5 each for the movies I purchased), which, on the whole, comes out to a lot more than Netflix is charging.

Netflix fared a little better, but not much.  One recent film was in “HD” and it did in fact look gorgeous, whenever the image was still; but all the lateral motion was just a mite too jerky to seem natural.  Another film had an acceptable image but, at the time I chose to view it, either the Netflix servers or those used by my streaming device were having an off day; the movie froze up every few minutes.  A third film had also looked adequate, probably about the same as a DVD would.  But that film is available on Blu-ray, and if I hadn’t been on a deadline, I certainly would have preferred to wait until I could acquire a copy of the disc.

Because it was for work, streaming these films, rather than schlepping around to the few remaining video stores in New York in search of them, was indeed “convenient.”  But not one of those six viewing experiences would have passed muster had I been watching the films primarily for pleasure.

It’s still possible that the baseline standards for streaming video will improve beyond what I encountered this weekend.  But I actually think they’ll get worse, as more people avail themselves of streaming and compete for the same finite bandwidth.  You’d think – or hope – that audiences wouldn’t settle for this, but then I consider all the people I know, my age or younger, who claim to “watch” movies regularly, but don’t own television sets.   Instead they’re using laptops or, as David Lynch famously moaned, their telephones; and although they haven’t actually seen the movies they think they’re watching in any sense that has value, they don’t know that.

My prediction: In five or ten years movie buffs will be in the same boat as the audiophiles who, today, disparage MP3 and cling desperately to vinyl.  We’ll be paying outrageous prices for out-of-print DVDs and, if we’re very lucky, there will be a handful of independent labels who continue to issue a small number of key films on Blu-ray for our sad little niche market.  If there’s a silver lining, it’s that by then we’ll probably all be too poor to worry about such first-world problems any more.

9 Responses to “Abortions, Literal and Figurative”

  1. Mike Rice Says:

    I’ve got all the Fugitive episodes now, with the music, gathered from independent stations by Fugitive-O-Philes. The commercials have been extracted, they’re in avi form, but I have a DVD player that will show that format on a projector or anywhere I like. I got them from a video sharing email list. It was pretty organized up to a year or two ago but there’s no activity at all on those lists anymore. I never joined in the round robins where an initial set of disks was passed from one email group to another and copied to CD. The music is intact, the William Conrad voiceovers sparkle, the winces and looking over the shoulder at a past that recedes each week is still there. I’m very satisfied with this. I just wrote one guy I knew had the whole set and asked for it. I got copies of One Million B.C. and I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang, from an Irishman who left the surrounding British Isles Cable programming on the I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang copy.

    In short, I’ve had a good experience with the Fugitive and with accomodating people helping one another in the face of the usual industry stupidity and dumbing down of product. Which leads right to the discussion of a declining Netflix and the rise of streaming, which I believe will be something of a bust on all fronts unless its cheaper by far than cable. Streaming new videos isn’t really different from Cable and Satellite Pay Per View which are not big
    cash cows. The reality is Joe Sixpack doesn’t know anything about quality or technology and will accept any dumb product concept. But streaming new videos isn’t going to be a movie alternative. Its more likely to be a cheaper form of cable and satellite that will probably lead both industries to finally start offering channels ala carte.

    So after Netlix Disks are history, will these same email lists rise again against the businessmen who run the industry? I don’t think they will in a big way. I have a video projector with which I show films on a white wall. It works well, cost only $600. I’d buy a High Def version if I thought I could trust it, and probably will eventually anyway. I’m getting disks from libraries, Netflix, Red Box, but I expect all of these modes to just get drearier. Which is ironic because the DVD, particularly as the marketplace has priced it, is a real value in a video world that mostly sucks. I’ve got over 3,000 films and am gathering new ones at the rate of 40 and more a month, all of them inexpensive copies, of course. Disks I copy cost 40 cents or $1 to rent or I get copies free at the library.

    I suspect though that the DVD will refuse to die as a film and TV medium. As Mr. Micawbers says, something will turn up!

  2. Robert Dahl Says:

    A report from a FUGITIVE music expert given access to CBS ‘check discs’ indicates that audio technicians restored original cues in those locations previously occupied by Heyes cues, but apparently did not do a side-by-side comparison with the original soundtrack, thus missing those instances where original music had simply been deleted, without a Heyes cue being inserted. (Think ACT 1 of NOT WITH A WHIMPER.)

    And by the time that these ‘check discs’ were sent out to Fuge music experts, CBS’ dvd manufacturing cycle was already ramping up for mass production. What’s the point of sending out check discs if it’s too late to make any changes?

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Robert —

      Well, if that turns out to be true of the actual release, then I’ll retract most of what I wrote above and issue a “DO NOT BUY” recommendation. Yeah … another one.

      • Robert Dahl Says:

        Stephen, I think that it would be an overreaction to change your recommendation to “DO NOT BUY”.

        After all, those of us who are Fugitive “purists” have long known that CBS would never be able to release a “night of original broadcast” version. There is still the problem of securing rights to the Capitol Library cues, so we always knew that those cues would be replaced.

        It’s also a given that much of the incidental music (radios, jukeboxes) would be replaced. There are also oddities such as the little boy’s toy gun that plays “Pop Goes The Weasel” in SET FIRE TO A STRAW MAN. Could CBS afford to secure the music rights to “Pop Goes The Weasel”? Nope, so *that* little bit of incidental music gets replaced too.

        But the fact that CBS has made a good-faith effort to restore 98% of the underscore — mostly Rugolo cues and CBS library cues — makes this set, in my opinion, good enough to recommend purchasing.

        Yes, it’s regrettable that CBS isn’t perfect, and that their audio technicians have missed some obvious instances of missing music that we purists found long ago.

  3. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Robert, thanks for the additional clarification. But your original point was that some of Rugolo’s cues were not restored due to sloppy work on CBS’s part, correct? If that’s the case, then I would have a hard time encouraging anyone to purchase this (especially for the second time), although I guess I would want to wait for the experts to report on exactly how much is missing before I weigh in again.

    (As for the incidental music replacement, I can live with that, reluctantly; it’s been a problem throughout the home video era and it would be perverse to hold it exclusively against The Fugitive.)

  4. Lynn Reed Says:

    Stephen — Just wanted to say a quick thank you for writing about the Grey’s Anatomy abortion storyline. Like you, I quit watching the show years ago, and I had missed the scant press coverage on the story. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. — Lynn

  5. Larry Granberry Says:

    You may already know this, but CBS has now recalled the Complete Series set due to “technical issues.” It will not be released now on November 1. Very interesting.

  6. Neil Says:

    You’re probably right about the decline of video quality. My children are going to grow up in a world where all video is pixelated with DCT errors, and freezes on occasion. Compared to that, a little snow on a B&W TV doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

  7. Mike Rice Says:

    Is it bigger than a Breadbox?

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