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Sean Daly, Michelle Stark and Sharon Kennedy Wynne

WFLA-AM to begin simulcasting on 105.9 FM, raising competition in Tampa Bay area FM talk

wfla-am-logo.jpegTampa talk radio powerhouse WFLA-AM (970) has begun transmitting on the FM dial, simulcasting on the 105.9 frequency immediately.

But the simulcast, passed along on a 250-watt "translator" transmitter, will only reach a limited audience, centered on Tampa and Hillsborough County.

WFLA's website Thursday featured a map of the area the transmitter would reach, including Tampa, Temple Terrace, Brandon, Riverview, Apollo Beach and parts of Town and Country. Owner Clear Channel Radio also has applied for FCC approval to switch on a similar translator in Pinellas County, but officials said that may not debut for 90 days or more.

"AM is not being discovered by the younger generation," said Doug Hamand, operations manager for Clear Channel in Tampa. "This puts a great station on the FM dial where some younger people might find it." WFLA's programming lineup, however, will still feature older-skewing conservative talk stars such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and locally-based Todd "MJ" Schnitt.

Clear Channel announced the change today, furthering a shakeup in local radio in which every major station group seems ready to dabble in FM talk.

Rumors persist that CBS Radio will soon turn its Contemporary Hits Radio station Play 98.7 (WSJT-FM) into a sports radio outlet, fueled by a story in a radio trade journal website noting that the web addresses 987TheFan.com, Fan987.com, Fan1010.com and 1010TheFan.com were all transferred in mid-May to CBS Radio servers (CBS owns WQYK-AM, known as 1010 Sports).

CBS Radio officials would not confirm or deny the rumors. But the move would follow a trend started by Cox Radio in mid-April when it converted WHPT-FM (The Bone 102.5) into a male-centered, all-talk station featuring shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem and Mike "Cowhead" Calta.

Hamand denied the translators were an effort to match rivals Cox and CBS, saying the transmitters had been in the works for two years or so. The broadcast won't affect Sarasota-based Clear Channel rock station WTZB-FM (105.9).

And why doesn't Clear Channel just flip one of its five existing FM stations to talk? "All my FMs are making money," Hamand said of a stable which includes WFLZ-FM (93.3), WXTB-FM (98 Rock) and WBTP-FM (95.7 the Beat), WMTX-FM (Mix 100.7) and WFUS-FM (US 103). "I don't have one I can flip."

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Poynter Institute's Tedx brings NYT's David Carr, Buzzfeed's Ben Smith to Florida Friday to parse journalism's future

180ce747150203f8cd939696c452d56701da9413_425x259.jpgIt's a simple sentence, weighted with a universe of possibilities.

"The future of journalism is..."

That's the statement participants in the Poynter Institute's latest Tedx series will attempt to finish on Friday, led by some of the sharpest minds in journalism.

New York Times media critic David Carr, PolitiFact editor Bill Adair, Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith and WFTS-Ch. 28 traffic reporter Meredyth Censullo are among the presenters convened for this most special of speaking series' -- developed as a journalism-centered version of the renowned Ted talks offered nationwide.

You can still register for the event today; click here for more details on scheduling and the event itself, which will be recorded, live blogged and tweeted within an inch of its life.

538748_340770235970844_1300545325_n.jpgToday at 6 p.m., Columbia University's Sree Sreenivasan is leading a two-hour social media workshop with Poynter faculty to advance the Tedx presentations the next day. Admission is $50; well worth the rare opportunity to learn from a nationally-recognized authority on journalism and online technology. 

I was fortunate enough to participate in Poynter's first Tedx, held in October. My talk -- looking at how local shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge revealed that journalism is morphing from a craft to an act -- was a fun way to look at how technology and shifting attitudes about news were affecting how journalists do their jobs and the audience consumes journalism.

Less than a year later, it feels like there's more turbulence roiling the waters than ever.

Carr has written powerfully on how a newspaper with a strong legacy of local penetration and significance, the Times Picayune in New Orleans, is nevertheless ending its life as a daily newspaper after more than 160 years. Adair has seen critics from all sides of the political spectrum challenge the very existence of the fact-checking website he runs, based on a few controversial calls.

Smith raised eyebrows in the media world by leaving Politico for a website dedicated to curating the most talked-about stories online.

They all have one thing in common, though. They're going to provide amazing endings to the sentence fragment presented above.

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What were the best TV shows of last season? Help me pick the 2012 TV Critics Association Awards

tcalogo1.gifWas Gregory House more compelling than the ladies on Wisteria Lane? Did you find the complex drama of Mad Men more fulfilling than the sophisticated soap of The Good Wife?

And is anything on TV funnier than Modern Family? (check this photo, and you'll see how biased I am)

Now is your chance to help me figure answers to those questions and more, as I vote in the early stages of the TV Critics Association's 2012 awards contest.

The awards themselves, handed out during our summer press tour, are always a hoot. The winners usually show, which meant I once got to hand a Best Drama Actor award to Dexter star Michael C. Hall, traded stories about Florida World War II vets with Tom Hanks and watched as Martin Sheen hung out telling stories so long, even the hardiest critics were ready to call it a night before he did.

But first, we have to draft a slate of nominees in 12 categories; later, we'll vote among the finals for winners -- I'll post the list of finalists here as well. I only have until Friday to register my vote, so I'm going to need you guys to work fast.

desperate-housewives-house.pngGive me your best suggestions in each category, and I'll factor them in as I vote. I get to pick two potential nominees for each award.

Fair warning: Boardwalk Empire, Homeland, Mad Men, House's Hugh Laurie and Modern Family's Sofia Vergara are already high on my lists.

Here's the categories. Let it rip in the comments section; I'll make my decisions over the next few days.

1. Individual Achievement in Drama
  
2. Individual Achievement in Comedy
   
3. Outstanding Achievement in News and Information
  
4. Outstanding Achievement in Reality Programming
   
5. Outstanding Achievement in Youth Programming
  
6. Outstanding New Program
  
7. Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Miniseries and Specials
   
8. Outstanding Achievement in Drama
   
9. Outstanding Achievement in Comedy
   
10. Career Achievement Award
   
11. Heritage Award (goes to one long-standing program that has culturally or socially impacted society)
  
12. Program of the Year

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Kevin Costner talks Hatfields, McCoys, loving Diana Ross and making westerns in Romania

bill-paxton-kevin-costner-hatfields-mccoys-ggnoads.jpgHe responds to a compliment about his recent, spellbinding eulogy for pop star Whitney Houston with a chuckle, noting he was born a stone's throw from South Central Los Angeles -- long before it became the world's gangsta rap capital, to be sure -- and found R&B diva Diana Ross to be his first big crush in life.

hatfields-mccoys-06-kevin-costner-401x600.jpgKevin Costner knows that, despite many years building his rep as a hardnosed western star in films such as Open Range, Wyatt Earp, Silverado and Dances with Wolves, looks can sometimes be deceiving.

That's why he doesn't fret much over the notion that he's slumming in TV, uncorking an epic western on the History channel, Hatfields & McCoys, at an age when many leading men are trying to squeak out that last Indiana Jones or Men in Black sequel.

"I don't do sequels . . . so I think you ought to give me a break here that once in a while I go into our American psyche," said Costner, 57, who plays patriarch William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield, a scowling authority figure grounding the four-hour-plus TV miniseries. "I think, hopefully, why I do a lot of Westerns is because people like 'em and they remember them."

Costner's instincts were confirmed by ratings showing Monday's debut of the miniseries set a record for advertising-supported cable channels, drawing 13.9-million viewers; the most of any non-news, non-sports show in the cable world.

Before the show aired, I spent time interviewing Costner and Bill Paxton, who plays McCoy patriarch Randle "Ole Ran'l" McCoy as a disillusioned ex-Confederate soldier whose faith in God is shattered by the brutal deaths his family endured through the feud.

"These things become an obsession, and obsessions are dangerous," said Paxton, also 57. "It starts eating at you like a cancer. And pretty soon, it can just eat you out."

Paxton, 57, drawn in by working with Costner and Reynolds, hesitated over one detail: The piously religious man is a character he already played for five seasons on HBO's Big Love, starring as polygamous patriarch Bill Henrickson.

"Kevin said, 'Hey, but we're going to be wearing beards,' " Paxton said, laughing. "After being the guy on Big Love I want to be the guy just killing and a total psychopath . . . just get my Nicholson on."

Costner understood Paxton's hesitancy. "I did two baseball movies in a row — Bull Durham and Field of Dreams — and I know (Paxton) worried about this religious thing," he said. "So it was a very courageous choice."

As it turns out, Paxton and Costner are pitch-perfect. Costner plays Hatfield as a laconic family man who is ruthless in protecting his interests, while Paxton's McCoy believes God will advance his family's righteous cause — until a Hatfield attack on his home leaves two daughters dead and his wife beaten.

hatfields-and-mccoys-sets-new-ratings-record-for-cable-channel.jpgThe story flounders a bit when plotlines turn to the younger characters, particularly a Hatfield boy who falls in love with one McCoy girl, impregnates her, tolerates his family kicking her out of their house and then marries another McCoy relative.

Paxton said some ideas came from reading letters by his own great-great-grandfather, Elisha Franklin Paxton, a brigadier general in the Confederacy whose missives from the battlefield were collected into a book published in the early 1900s.

The Texas native brought a copy of that book, held within his family, to the miniseries' set in Transylvania, where co-stars Costner, Powers Boothe and Tom Berenger looked it over. "He talked about how people at home are profiting off the misery of his men, and how much Christian duty and honor (means)," Paxton said. "They don't even have shoes . . . I think the war breaks this guy in half."

And yes, this sprawling American epic actually was filmed in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania, in Romania.

"When we're losing jobs in America, that's the question: Why are we here (in eastern Europe)?" said Costner, who notes tax breaks and incentives helped keep production costs down. "We could not have effectively shot this quintessential American story in America."

Read my full feature on the story from Sunday's newspaper here. The final installment of the miniseries airs at 9 tonight on History.

 

 

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Can journalists and police work out ground rules to avoid arrest during RNC 2012 in Tampa?

journalists_arrested.jpgBack in 2008, the last Republican National Convention boasted a surprising statistic: about four dozen journalists were arrested during the event, taken into custody while trying to report on protesters, police and demonstrations outside the gathering.

Some of the journalists who reported from those scenes in St. Paul, Minn. say one big problem was that police didn't differentiate between protesters and journalists, sweeping everyone up in mass arrests, even when it was obvious journalists were professional reporters simply observing the action.

Which raises an interesting question: Could this happen in Tampa?

That's why I worked with reporter Jessica Vander Velde to produce this report, taking a look at the concerns of both police and journalists about what may happen to reporters if law enforcement orders all people to clear an area where news is happening.

6a00d8341c630a53ef00e554ddf4758833-800wi.jpgTampa police say they want to avoid a repeat of what happened in Minnesota, where some journalists say they were arrested in circumstances where there was no chaos or disorder.

The city of St. Paul later dropped charges against most of the journalists who were arrested.

Most notably, Amy Goodman, host of the liberal radio and TV show Democracy Now, was taken into custody with two staffers, later sued law enforcement and negotiated a settlement for $100,000, along with promises local police would be better trained.

"It was so out of control and ridiculous," Goodman said recently, noting that she and the staffers were clearly identified as journalists.

A YouTube video showing her arrest now has over 1 million views and sparked a huge controversy at the time. Later at the convention, a large gathering of people were herded onto a bridge and arrested, including many credentialed journalists.

Journalists fear a situation where reporters are discouraged from covering conditions outside the RNC, especially when protesters clash with police. Law enforcement says it is logistically impossible to distinguish between people in such crisis situations, saying everyone should obey officers' orders to leave an area.

Jane Kirtley, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota, said the biggest problem in 2008 was a lack of training.

With a host of different law enforcement agencies providing crowd control, there were no clear rules on how journalists were to be treated.

Kirtley suggests Tampa police have press liaisons travel with contingents of officers to handle problems as they occur. She also says police or city officials might consider credentialing some journalists, who would be allowed to remain in areas where the general public has been ordered away.

"As much as I hate the notion of the government licensing journalists, I think the lack of a credential really helped contribute to the problems," Kirtley said.

But Tampa police likely will not issues credentials, declining to define who is and isn't a journalist in an age of social media where everyone carries a camera and Internet platform in their cellphone.

Below is the video of Goodman's arrest. Police plan to meet with area journalism organizations in the weeks to come to talk over the logistics of coverage and avoiding situations like the one shown below:

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Why did America's Got Talent episode filmed locally avoid mentioning St. Petersburg?

523826_10150700919009760_10646929759_9746414_73278936_n.jpgFun as it was to glimpse shots of the Mahaffey Theater and the area around the Dali museum on NBC's broadcast of America's Got Talent Monday, there was one problem for many local fans tuning in to see auditions held in the Sunshine State.

Where was St. Petersburg?

Stars on the show kept referring to the "Tampa Bay area," even though the onstage auditions for the show were held at the Mahaffey in St. Petersburg. Indeed, at times it felt like the show worked overtime to avoid mentioning the city where much of the episode was filmed.

nup_148611_2569.jpgShots of the area's skyline were filmed in Tampa; the headlines on video clips and photos also say Tampa. Even when host Nick Cannon rallied a crowd of flag-waving fans, a Tampa fire rescue truck sat parked in the background.

Times reporter Michael Van Sickler discovered that the city-owned Mahaffey negotiated an agreement with producers to mention St. Peterburg in the show. But that agreement was only operative if they mentioned where they were during auditions; instead, the host and judges gave shout outs to the Tampa Bay area without getting specific about where they were standing. 

"I was disappointed," said St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who took a photo with the show's star judges during the first evening of tryouts at the Mahaffey in April. "St. Petersburg wasn't mentioned once. But for the fact that I recognized the (Mahaffey), I would have thought that it took place in Tampa."

In truth, the show held two sets of auditions to make Monday's episode. Producers held a cattle call group audition at the Tampa Convention Center in November, where hopefuls came in off the streets to audition for producers.

Then, the show held auditions in April at the Mahaffey, bringing a select number of acts before crowds of about 2,000 people on a tricked-out stage where the celebrity judges could evaluate them.

Like Fox's American Idol, NBC's show edits together footage from the cattle call auditions and the onstage auditions to make it seem as if everything happens at the same time.

Besides the fact that people outside Florida are probably more familiar with Tampa than St. Petersburg, I suspect the show kept referencing "Tampa Bay" to gloss over the fact that they were showing two parts of an audition process which took place in two different cities.

Putting aside the weird avoidance of the town where the glitzy onstage auditions were happening, Monday's episode felt curiously devoid of actual, um, talent.

283594_170448563027005_1317960_n.jpgAs I noticed during the auditions I watched April 3, many of the auditioners were from outside the area and most seemed seriously lacking in distinctive skills. I saw the bikini dancers and escape artist featured in Monday's show; the acts put forward to the semi-finals in Las Vegas that I saw, didn't seem to be depicted in the episode.

One standout, however, was The Distinguished Men of Brass from Tampa (a.k.a. d'Mo Brass), a brass band filled with smoking local players who said they were downsized out of gigs locally at theme parks -- basically, Busch Gardens' funky band, which walked around the park grooving -- and got together to make something new.

Check the episode below to see how they turned the judges' heads.

 

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PBS NewsHour story from St. Petersburg shows how local journalism programs can change young lives

On Saturday, I sat in a conference room at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, and watched as a roomful of kids changed their lives.

The occasion was Poynter's Write Field program, an initiative which gets together a group of young males from area middle schools -- often African American -- using a series of activities based around journalism and personal communication to teach discipline, a drive for excellence and the notion that these kids can achieve anything they desire. See more here.

With various reports indicating male students of color in Pinellas County face historically high risks for dropping out of school and falling into violence, Poynter's program makes all kind of sense, allowing adult mentors like me, police officers, area doctors and other journalists -- led by Kenny Irby and Stephen Buckley at the Poynter Institute -- to spend time with youth who could use positive male role models in their lives.

The thing you learn from programs like this, is how hard it is to predict what might push a promising kid into great achievements. They have so much heart and untapped potential, all they need is the right skills, resources and confidence to learn how to channel all that energy into amazing results -- something Poynter's program does a great job of providing. 

Recently, PBS' NewsHour profiled one of our kids from the program, De'Qonton Davis, highlighting the way in which he and his classmates at Johns Hopkins Middle School have used journalism skills developed through programs co-founded and sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times.

Johns Hopkins is among nearly 30 schools across the country linked through the NewsHour's Student Reporting Labs project. Locally, they're given help by staffers at Tampa PBS station WEDU-Ch. 3, as well as their teachers in the journalism program.

Watch Fighting Chance? Students Investigate Middle School Violence on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Much as this may sound like a commercial for my employer, it's really just  a way of recognizing how all these efforts can come together to give kids tools for dissecting their world in ways even we professional journalists have trouble matching. I remember sitting on a panel of experts who helped winnow candidates for the journalism teaching job at Melrose Elementary many years ago; now the Journeys in Journalism program is established at Melrose, Johns Hopkins and Lakewood High School, giving De'Qonton and his friends the tools to speak to the world.

This story aired on PBS a couple of weeks ago, but I was reminded of it again Saturday sitting in the Write Field session, marveling at how easy it is to overlook amazing kids mining greatness from the seeds of opportunity planted by teachers and role models who care.

Anyway, take a look at this wonderful PBS story; its a great piece about smart kids in our own backyard:

Watch 8th-Grade Journalist Spotlights Violence in School on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

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America's Got Talent auditions from St. Petersburg air tonight on NBC

agt-mahaffey.jpgWhen America's Got Talent unveils footage of its auditions at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg tonight, there is one scene I'm betting NBC's summer competition won't showcase.

The time when hundreds of folks were turned away at the front door.

But executive producer Jason Raff has an explanation for why so many people, lined up for more than an hour in front of the Mahaffey with tickets, got left out of the show's first taping at noontime back on April 3.

"Normally, we expect about 60 percent of people who get tickets to not show up; in (St. Petersburg) we had 80 percent of people show up," said Raff, noting that excitement over new judge Howard Stern, who has rarely made public appearances in the area, may have fueled the fan interest.

"We were very careful in the next shows to make sure anyone turned away had a chance to see the show if they came back," he added.

Officials at the Mahaffey Theater say 10,000 people came to the venue for the four sets of audition shows scheduled over two days in April (judge Howie Mandel and Raff share a tendency to reference the "Tampa" auditions; Mandel misstated the city in a Facebook post of a photo with a pelican taken at the Pier near downtown St. Petersburg. Even NBC's promotional clip references Tampa; perhaps because the off camera auditions did take place at the Tampa Convention Center in November).

howieinstpete.jpgThe fruits of those auditions will be seen on tonight's episode at 8 on WFLA-Ch. 8. Some other St. Petersburg auditions may air June 12.

Raff said the show chose Tampa Bay, in part, because it already has visited Orlando and Miami — and our proximity to winter quarters for the circus might attract some unorthodox acts.

(Since the audition show I attended featured two abstract, impressionistic dance troupes, I'd say they can count a mission accomplished.)

"The best thing about this show, and the reason I've been doing it for seven years, is you don't know who is going to come onstage next," said Raff, who last week featured a guy who had an assistant use a sledgehammer to break cinder blocks placed on his, um, naughty bits.

agt-mahaffey2.jpg"I can see how that would be a controversial act for a family," he agreed, recalling how host Nick Cannon also kicked the guy in his private parts several times. "But it was the Three Stooges meets a little bit of Jackass."

Viewers of the St. Petersburg episode also will see a troupe of dancers clad in bikinis, an escape artist who asks Stern to tie him up, and an amazing brass band. The first two of those acts performed during the evening April 3 show I attended, along with shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.

Mahaffey general manager Joe Santiago said the show brought about 100 crew members to set up its massive stage, including the huge, lighted signs featuring each judge's name and a red "X", indicating when that judge votes to reject an act. Those who survived the Mahaffey auditions go on to further auditions in Las Vegas.

"We have attendance goals for the city, so having almost 10,000 people come here definitely helps," said Santiago, noting that new Mahaffey managers Big3 Entertainment were excited about how hosting the show might boost the venue's reputation nationally.

And although some have looked at AGT ratings, down 30 percent compared to last season's debut, Raff pointed out last week's shows beat Dancing with the Stars' finale among viewers aged 18 to 49, the key demographic for advertisers.

"It's the benefits of having Howard Stern; the media's a little more interested in a show that's been on for seven years," the executive producer said, batting aside some critics' contention that the shock jock may actually be too nice (he did, last week, make a 7-year-old cry). "On our show, you're just seeing many more dimensions to him."

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My Mad Men recap: The choices strong women make in a male-dominated world are sometimes weak

ep511-joanandcardude.jpgThere are times -- not often, mind you -- when I find myself absolutely hating Mad Men mastermind Matt Weiner.

That feeling surfaced sharply during Sunday's episode, "The Other Woman," after seeing what Weiner did to one of my favorite characters, bombshell office manager Joan Harris.

HUGE SPOILERY STUFF FOLLOWS

Mad Men seems to delight in subverting the power of Joan's sexuality in ways I have trouble accepting.

True enough, super beautiful women can have problems with loneliness and bad relationships that you wouldn't expect. But it always felt unlikely that Joan, as smart and sophisticated as she is about her appeal to men, would land a loser like her underachieving, insecure doctor husband.

This Sunday, Weiner stretched that concept even further, having Joan sleep with the head of car dealerships for Jaguar so that Sterling Cooper could get a prized advertising contract with the car company.

Of course, weaselly executive Pete Campbell was the executive who tried to bamboozle Joan into doing it, bringing the offer to Harris without blinking. And, just as predictably, our heroic antihero Don Draper is the only executive who refuses to consider the idea -- outvoted after he leaves the room by the other partners, including two guys who profess to care about Joan, shiftless heir Roger Sterling and secret embezzler Lane Pryce.

ep511-joan.jpgThis feels odd for so many reasons: Joan must know the details will eventually make the rounds, both at her firm and in the advertising agency. The firm's partners know she's married with a child; and bad as the 1960s could be, its tough to imagine a Manhattan ad firm leasing out its female employees like a high class brothel (though it does let Pete live down to Lane's description of him as a "greasy pimp.")

In reality, I think a woman as savvy and beautiful as Joan would have rebounded from her marriage to the doctor into a loveless marriage with a rich and powerful man who could save her from her tiny apartment and controlling mother. Perhaps she'd even become one in a long line of ex-Mrs. Roger Sterlings, well aware that she's just putting in time to earn entree into a higher class of life.

But this: trading her self respect for a 5 percent partnership, feels like a needless cheapening of her intelligence and growing spirit. (though I did love the way we saw Don tell Joan she didn't need to do the deed, then it was revealed that he had been too late, coming to her after she had already performer her end of the deal.)

ep511-donandpeggy.jpgContrast that with Peggy Olson, who eventually earns Draper's respect the only way she could; by getting a job somewhere else.

She had no other choice. As Draper has looked for inspiration with his wife Megan and new hire Michael Ginsberg, Peggy became the taken-for-granted work wife -- the Buick in the garage, to use an example from the TV show -- and she had to move or only be subjected to more indignities.

Expect her new situation to fizzle. She was hired by a mortal enemy of Draper, who doubtless hopes to wheedle information from her to sabotage her old firm.

I hope it's not long before she returns to Sterling Cooper; major characters in a workplace drama who move to another workplace generally don't last long.

Don's wife Megan completes the trilogy of women-centered stories in this week's episode, as she loses an audition after traveling to Boston for a interview before three guys in a hotel. We never see what happens beyond their asking her to turn around several times; given the theme of the episode, are we to assume she was made an offer for the part that she decided to refuse?

Cool as it was to see Peggy finally come out on top, using her brain instead of her sexuality to take a step forward in ways her more glamorous female colleagues did not, I found it odd that none of the other women were able to get what they wanted without acceding to degrading, sex-based indignities. Sexist at the '60s was, this stuff felt like a particularly relentless cartoon.

Still, it will be compelling to note how this all plays out for Joan, when the firm will figure out that Lane stole $8,000 from them and how Peggy will come to regret her move.

Even when he's degrading characters we love, Weiner remains TV's top showman.

 

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As New Orleans may become biggest U.S. city without daily paper, I remember lessons about Times Picayune and Hurricane Katrina

times-picayune2.jpgI remember walking into a coffee shop just a few blocks from the Le Richelieu Hotel, inside New Orleans' French Quarter, just five months after the flood which ravaged the town after Hurricane Katrina.

I was in the last day of reporting on an extensive feature story I would write about how the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper was trying to recover after the hurricane and floods -- just like the city it served.

And what struck me, upon entering that coffee shop on a Sunday morning, was that there were only a handful of people sitting inside. And every one had a copy of the Times-Picayune open, scanning for information.

So it was with a heavy heart that I scanned the stories Thursday, noting the Times-Picayune planned to cut back publication of its print product to three days a week and focus on its digital platforms, making New Orleans the largest city in America without a daily newspaper.

timespicayune3.jpgIn one swoop, owners Advance Publications managed what Katrina could not; hobbling a newspaper which served a community where, when I wrote my story, something like 67 percent of the city's residents read the newspaper. (according to Poynter.org, that market penetration rate still stood at 60 percent for the newspaper alone in 2011.)

This was something readers and staffers feared might happen in the early wake of Katrina flooding, as the city's population dipped and it was tough to know whether subscriptions would be renewed as they ran out. Poynter.org notes that the newspaper's daily subscription levels fell by nearly half after the storm; from 257,000 daily in March 2005 to 134,000 currently.

But this seems to be a strategy Advance is pursing at many of its newspapers; implemented in Michigan and announced for newspapers in Alabama.

newspapers-rip.gifFor my story, I had spent time at editor Jim Amoss' house, where a stranger's car sat curbside, abandoned, with groceries still in the back seat. I had visited with Renee Peck, the homes and garden editor who saw a tornado damage her home just as workers were finishing up fixing the destruction from the flood. And I helped pull insulation and old flooring from the home of advertising employee Charlotte Jackson,  joining a crew of Times-Picayune employees "gutting" the homes of staffers badly damaged by floodwaters.

I also noticed back then that the newspaper's web site operations had been mostly based in a building five miles away from the newspaper, established as a separate corporation. Before the Katrina flooding, there was one desk for web staffers inside the newspaper's newsroom.

But the hurricane and the flooding pushed the web site and newspaper into working more closely together -- one website staffer shed tears while showing me online video of employees and their families who had ridden out the storm at the Times Picayune headquarters, piling into delivery trucks the next day to flee the rising floodwaters. The website became the newspaper's sole voice for days after the hurricane passed.

Now Advance says it will form one corporation to oversee its newspaper and website, NOLA Media group, to shift its emphasis to digital products. But since online ads often draw 10 percent the revenue of print ads, how will they maintain the reporting staff needed to keep up coverage?

Given that it has taken Advance close to seven years to unite the newspaper and website after the Katrina example, I wonder how the company will supercharge its online products, even as it implements cuts rumored to affect 30 percent of the staff.

And I also wonder if this is a sign of the future -- given similar cutbacks in publishing in Detroit and layoffs at USA Today -- or perhaps just a sign of one company making a very risky move.

For the sake of the newspaper industry nationwide, I'm hoping it's the latter.

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Phillip Phillips continues dominance of cute, unassuming white guys as American Idol champs

phillip_phillips.jpgLet me make one thing clear: Phillip Phillips seems like a really nice guy.

Watching him get so emotional during his final, triumphant moment on the American Idol stage, I had tremendous respect for a guy who just stopped trying to sing his final number and walked off the stage to hug his family, minutes after winning the biggest singing competition on television.

But Phillips is also an example of what seriously ails American Idol these days: The backwards taste of its voters.

As a singer, Phillips should lands in third place among this season's top three contestants, behind runner up Jessica Sanchez and third place finisher Joshua Ledet. If there was any doubt, Sanchez destroyed that during tonight finale, going toe-to-toe with the biggest belter in the the business, Jennifer Holiday, on her signature song And I Am Telling You.

(To be honest, too much of that duet sounded like off-the-chain shouting, the musicality of the moment destroyed by two amazing singers breathing fire in an attempt to one-up each other.)

When he isn't coming off like a clone of eccentric rocker Dave Matthews, Phillips is an interesting artist. But on Tuesday's show, two of the three numbers he sang sounded like Matthews knock offs, leaving me puzzled as to exactly what kind of record this guy is going to create when he's finally unleashed in the studio. The ballad he sang Tuesday, Home, was a great start, touching and melodic, fitted perfectly to his style and voice (Sanchez was undone,at least in part, by some uninspired songs chosen for her Tuesday -- something even the judges noticed)

idollogo.jpgSanchez is a diva in the classic sense, able to "sing the phone book" as judge Randy Jackson loves to say (the chorus of Idol semi-finalists singing from phone books was a nice touch in tonight's finale). Ledet is another Al Green-level soul belter who can have Nee Yo's career or John Legend's.

Look at the Billboard Hot 100, and you've got to get down to #19 before you hit a singer/songwriter with a guitar -- and he's country music star Eric Church.

Once again, Idol voters -- presumably the middle-aged women who make up the bulk of the show's audience these days -- have chosen a cute, unassuming white guy singer songwriter over performers who seem more in line with the artists currently selling on Billboard's charts.

atq2ezncmampwpv.jpgAlready, I've heard from legions of Phillips fans who disagree, insisting he's a breakout artist who will transcend the long line of disappointing white guy singer songwriters who have preceded him. But Phillips is the fifth-straight white male to win the Idol crown; and before Scotty McCreery hit big on the country side, winner Lee DeWyze was the worst-selling winner in Idol history, already kicked off his record label.

Idol ratings Tuesday were down about 30 percent from the penultimate episode last year, as the relentless optimism of the judges -- who seemed to outsource most every negative comment to record label head and unofficial "fourth judge" Jimmy Iovine -- has made the contest's later rounds less than compelling.

Tonight's finale only highlighted Idol's issues, allowing judge Steven Tyler to play a song with Aerosmith so tuneless and filled with muffed guitar notes, I wondered if axeman Joe Perry was too blasted to play. Jennifer Lopez, who has turned Idol into her own personal promotional vehicle, also soaked up the spotlight with another dance tune with vocals auto-corrected to the nth degree.

Tampa Bay area singers Shannon Magrane and Jeremy Rosado made several appearances during the finale, singing in group numbers including a tribute to deceased Bee Gee Robin Gibb.

But most of Idol's finale was just too much -- trying way too hard to convince viewers it is still the massive hit it once was, whistling past the tendency by the show's audience to pick the same kind of winners over and over with diminishing returns.

 

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My take on the fall 2012 TV season (including appearances on NPR and TV One): Comedy is king (and queen) again

mk_20-mindy-pink_1994_jw2.jpgIt's the same question I always ask, just after network TV's upfronts week; when we learn what shows were canceled, picked up or hung out to dry (hint: everything airing on low-rated Fridays).

What just happened?

There's always the usual ratio of well-meaning failures (ABC's Pan Am, CBS's A Gifted Man), out-of-their-misery cancellations (NBC's Are You There Chelsea) and no-brainer new shows (brilliant Office alum Mindy Kaling's The Mindy Project on Fox).

And there's always a few head-scratchers. Another Matthew Perry sitcom (NBC's Go On)?

Still, there are some trends worth dissecting. Here's my short list of What I Learned from the Upfronts:

Comedy will be king (and queen), at least for another year. Thanks to Modern Family and Fox's New Girl, the Big Four TV networks picked up a total 17 new comedies for next season. Fox paired Kaling's show with Zooey Deschanel's New Girl; CBS moved Two and a Half Men to Thursdays behind Big Bang Theory and NBC created comedy blocks from Tuesday through to Friday. (My question: Can the network that renewed Whitney really be trusted with four nights of comedy?)

Everything old is new again, but no one admits it. In November, ABC will bring back Tim Allen's Last Man Standing on Fridays with Reba McEntire's new sitcom Malibu Country; a pairing that feels a lot like the network's old T.G.I.F. family comedy lineup. Similarly, Big Bang and Men could help CBS create a slight echo of NBC's mighty Must-See TV lineup Thursdays (though Fox's X Factor might have something to say about that).

the-voice-social-media-television.jpgSocial media remains an important talking point. Every network talked up social media to keep shows in touch with fans and avoid looking stodgy. ABC entertainment head Paul Lee noted, "There is no show now that doesn't have a massive social media component, even before we launch it…(it) gives us a critical insight into the show."

That may help explain why a viewer-challenged series such as Community, with strong online followings, survived NBC's cut.

Not all new technology is welcome. Nearly every network executive criticized Dish Network's new Auto Hop feature allowing its digital video recorders to automatically skip commercials without fast forwarding. NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert called it "an attack" on network TV's business; CBS TV president Les Mooves said it was "illegal." Network executives earn money from DVR ratings by insisting viewers still get some exposure to commercials because they must fast forward past them. Dish's feature removes that pretense; expect a lawsuit before the dust clears.

On screen diversity jumps a little bit. So far, there are two new network TV shows next season where a non-white actor is the sole star: The Mindy Project with Kaling, who is of Indian descent, and NBC's Infamous, a midseason show starring The Game alum Meagan Good, who is black. Elsewhere, actors of color appear in co-starring roles: Andre Braugher on ABC's Last Resort, Anthony Anderson among three dads on NBC's Guys with Kids and Lucy Liu as a new school Dr. Watson on CBS' Sherlock Holmes remake, Elementary.

Just 27 years after Bill Cosby led one TV's most successful comedies ever, the glass ceiling is finally splintering.

No wonder network TV so often resembles a look back at the future.

 

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Donald Driver's win on Dancing with the Stars actually makes me miss Bristol Palin and Kirstie Alley

168012_donald-driver-and-peta-murgatroyd-celebrate-winning-the-season-14-dancing-with-the-stars-mirrorball-.jpgWhen NFL star Donald Driver won ABC's Dancing with the Stars Tuesday, I realized something:

Everything I used to hate about this show, I have begun to miss tremendously.

Even though it's my job to keep up with these programs, Dancing with the Stars hasn't gotten much attention from me this season. That's because it started its run seriously deficient on one thing -- actual stars -- and finished without much of the other thing, interesting conflicts.

Back when the show was more newsworthy, snarking about tabloid fixtures such as Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, Kirstie Alley or Bristol Palin at least provided some marginal excuse for keeping up with the program.

But this season's crop of stars -- Gladys Knight, Melissa Gilbert, Jaleel White -- were both scandal-free and seriously lacking in celebrity power. Indeed, the final three dancers -- Driver, telenovela star William Levy and classical singer Katherine Jenkins -- were likely among the least-known "stars" in a crop of decidedly low-profile competitors.

Didn't help that Driver, a smoothly-chiseled wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers, fits a common mold for DWTS winners, as the seventh professional athlete and third NFL player to win in 14 seasons.

Small wonder the show is planning an all-star edition next, trying to bring back some of the celebrities it's audience sparked with before.

It may be the last move left for a show which has increasingly struggled to find celebrities big enough to fulfill the program's name.

Takes a lot to get me to miss Bristol Palin and Kirstie Alley. But DWTS just might have done it.

 

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Tampa Bay Times ends temporary 5 percent pay cut for staffers, starting July 2

times_logo_stacked_blk_url.jpgNo one can deliver this news better than Times Publishing Co. CEO and Chairman Paul Tash, so here's the text of his memo to staff about the end of the pay reductions implemented last year, announced at a 2 p.m. meeting today:

From Paul Tash

I am delighted to report this news: We are ending the temporary 5 percent pay reduction we put in place last September. The change takes effect Monday, July 2, and will show up in paychecks on Friday, July 13.

The Tampa Bay Times continues to attract new readers, and there are encouraging signs that advertisers are following them to Florida's favorite newspaper. This decision represents a bet that we can keep those trend lines headed in the right direction, and that we can keep finding ways to reduce other expenses.

With pay restored, of course, we will provide no more extra days off, but we are giving staffers an extra month --- through June 30 -- to use any days they have remaining.

In this fragile economy, I cannot promise that there is only smooth sailing ahead. But your dedication and commitment have kept the Times moving forward, no matter what. I thank each of you for your contributions to our collective success. Now, let's redouble our efforts to accelerate our gains.

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Here's why The Avengers really worked: Filmmakers embraced comics storylines instead of "improving" them

the-avengers1.jpgThis isn't my normal pop culture turf, but as a serious comic book fanboy who has seen The Avengers movie twice, I wanted to take a moment to talk about something I've noticed in how some people are talking about this film.

Comic book culture -- like a lot of so-called "genre" areas such as science-fiction and fantasy -- are often a serious litmus test for consumers: either you get it and love it, or you don't. Which is why I truly understand how some critics feel about seeing comic book heroes take over the blockbuster summer movie season; if you don't like superheroes and the trappings of the genre, it can feel like the idiots have taken over the asylum.

But then comes a movie like The Avengers (and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight before that) which flips the script by being a great movie about superheroes. And suddenly, folks who could shrug off crap like The Green Lantern have to figure a reason why this comic book movie stuff actually works (or they could just pretend it's a crappy movie, like this guy).

That's what came to mind when I read this Washington Post essay about why the film works. I have no idea if the author knows much about the comic book world, but the tone falls somewhere between bewilderment and condescension, with an odd objective: finding an acceptable reason to like this entertaining movie.

the-avengers-image-hulk.jpgHer conclusion: The actors elevate the material. His evidence is Mark Ruffalo, an actor with lots of cool cred for serious film fans, who does an amazing job playing Bruce Banner as a geeky, brilliant, cynical, tortured guy whose buttoned down exterior obviously hides something dark and scary.

"On paper, the Hulk doesn’t immediately look like the kind of material an actor of Ruffalo’s sensitivity and intelligence would be drawn to. In fact, many of Ruffalo’s fans — with visions of Nicolas Cage’s career dancing in their heads — first greeted the Hulk casting news with trepidation bordering on outrage (not Our Mark!)."

the-avengers-2012-movie-poster4.jpgWhy not Our Mark? Actors cool as Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson and Willem Dafoe have played amazing characters in comic book movies.  The fact is, these roles can be a blast if written well, and Ruffalo takes a part two other fine actors have played in recent years and wrings new substances and emotional notes from it.

I love the notion that Ruffalo's Banner is a smart, sophisticated angry guy who always seems on a low boil. That's one of the film's money lines: "I'm always angry."

But The Avengers' greatness isn't just about the actors nailing all their roles. It's about something bigger.

This movie works because the guy who made it, director/producer Joss Whedon, knows comic books intimately and embraced the way they tell stories. There was no attempt to "artify" the movie with grand ideas or dumb down the action by turning it into a succession of effects-filled fight scenes.

Most importantly, he didn't try to re-invent the wheel by coming up with new storylines; he pulled together a story from some of the most successful Avengers plotlines and characters already out there. 

Believe me, I know the love of comics is an acquired taste. I tried explaining the plot of The Avengers to a friend during lunch recently, and it sounded so geeky even I wanted to stick a sock in my mouth.

But the fact is, this is a storytelling form with literally 60 or 70 years worth of history. Captain America first appeared in comics in 1941. Thor debuted in 1962. Iron Man bowed the next year. Every one of these characters is older than I am, yet when some filmmakers take on these franchises, they ignore decades of storytelling in which concepts and plotlines have been road tested and explored.

greenlanterngreenarrow85.jpgThe great failure of Green Lantern, if you ask me, is that filmmakers ignored years of more modern stories featuring the character after its debut, copying a creaky origin story which was first published in 1959.

What gives me hope about the new Superman movie, is that director Zack Snyder is such a comics geek he faithfully translated a comic book even many fans doubted could ever reach the silver screen, Alan Moore's subversive Watchmen.

Watching The Avengers was so much fun precisely because it felt like the best superhero team-up books brought to life. These are sophisticated heroes -- at first they don't trust S.H.E.I.L.D., with good reason, or each other -- and every character gets several quality moments in the spotlight.

Imagine a filmmaker creating a western with no knowledge of classic Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah films. Or attempting a Hercule Poirot film with little knowledge of (or respect for) Agatha Christie. (that's language film nerds can understand)

For this fanboy geek, the real triumph of The Avengers is its lessons for other filmmakers.

Respect the comic book storytelling form. Because it works.

'Nuff said.

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