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Fall TV's winners and losers so far: Grey's Anatomy and The Voice vs Mindy Project and Animal Practice

nbc-the-voice-282x300.jpgBefore you get too far into this column, I'm going to start with an admission: Some people in the TV business won't think it's very fair.

After all, they'll say, the fall TV season has been disrupted by everything from the presidential debates to baseball playoffs, the World Series and Hurricane-turned-Superstorm Sandy. And though the season officially started Sept. 24, some network shows didn't debut until last week.

No matter. It's time to start proclaiming the winners and losers of this latest TV season, five weeks after it started.

Keep in mind: Success or failure is judged by each show's ratings with the viewers that advertisers like (usually the 18-to-49 demographic) or some other moneymaking method, like syndication sales or Netflix.

Marc Berman of said the biggest problem is most new shows this fall aren't big hits or big failures.

"Nothing has broken out," said Berman, noting highly hyped series such as Nashville, Last Resort and Vegas haven't caught fire, while widely snubbed shows such as The Neighbors and Revolution haven't bottomed out. "A lot of new shows are just sitting there. So you show some patience."

Not me. I'm picking Fall TV's winners and losers right here, right now.


NBC and The Voice - Good news for the formerly last-place network: NBC is the only broadcaster to grow ratings among viewers ages 18 to 49 from last season, now No. 1 over the season's first three weeks. That's mostly thanks to NFL football on Sundays and The Voice on Mondays and Tuesdays. "This proves one series can ignite a network," said Berman, who wondered if moderately successful shows such as Ryan Murphy's The New Normal and Matthew Perry's Go On could survive long without The Voice's lead-in audience. I'm thinking, um, not.

NFL games - Speaking of pro football, a look at the first four weeks of ratings shows six of the Top 10 shows among key viewers are football broadcasts on NBC, CBS and Fox. It may be the last place TV still draws a big crowd.

Grey's Anatomy - Surprise! It's the highest-rated drama among the 18-to-49 crowd in its ninth season. Small wonder ABC is letting creator Shonda Rhimes put anything else on air she wants; it sorely needs whatever lightning Grey's has caught in a bottle.

Comedy - The only scripted shows in the Top 10 for the 18-to-49 viewers so far are comedies: Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory. Look at the Top 20, and there are just two dramas (Grey's and NCIS) among comedies such as 2 Broke Girls, The Simpsons and Two and a Half Men. Young people, it seems, would rather laugh than cry.

Cable TV - What are the shows people are buzzing about this fall? Cable series: The Walking Dead (AMC). Sons of Anarchy (FX). Here's Comes Honey Boo Boo (TLC).

ABC's The Neighbors and Fox's Ben and Kate? Not so much.


ABC, CBS and Fox - These networks saw declines in their 18-to-49 audience, with ABC dipping 11 percent, CBS down 18 percent and Fox sinking 25 percent, according to Bill Gorman of Their bets aren't paying off.

Comedy - Though established comedies are doing well, new comedies aren't working as well as advertised. Fox's The Mindy Project and Ben and Kate have struggled with a situation made worse by baseball pre-emptions; ABC's The Neighbors sits in the middle of ratings, despite airing just before the highest-rated scripted show on TV, Modern Family. And the less said about dreck like NBC's Guys With Kids, the better.

Cancellations - In a season where networks are showing unheard-of patience, two shows which managed to get cut anyway occupy a special level of unfortunate: CBS's walking Italian joke Made in Jersey, and NBC's trained- monkey showcase, Animal Practice.

Shows older people like - By this, I mean shows that draw big audiences, but less than 25 percent of their viewers are in that 18 to 49 sweet spot: Dancing With the Stars, Castle, Person of Interest and CBS's Vegas.

That means Vegas, for example, has drawn an average 12.5 million viewers each night over the past four weeks, but just 2.5 million among the 18-to-49 demo. Analyst Brad Adgate of Horizon Media said its viewers' median age is 61. So if there's a few denture cream ads in between scenes with Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis, don't say I didn't warn you.

New York-based analyst Brad Adgate provided many of the ratings figures used in this column.

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Tampa Bay Times circulation rises in daily edition, falls slightly on Sundays

newspaperhawkerimage.jpgThe Tampa Bay Times saw circulation rise 30 percent for its daily paper and dip 6 percent for its Sunday edition in figures released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations for the previous six months ending Sept. 30.

In the same figures, national data showed a rise in digital subscriptions, with about 15 percent of subscriptions in that category, compared to less than 10 percent last year.  The biggest daily newspaper nationally remains the Wall Street Journal at 2.3 million, a rise of about 15 percent from the year before. 

According to Poynter, the ABC is discouraging from drawing too many conclusions from the figures, because there are so many changes in how digital, print and branded subscriptions are counted or how different papers choose to tabulate them.

For example, much of the Tampa Bay Times daily subscriber gain comes from counting editions of the free tabloid *tbt.

Here's a closer look at the circulation of major papers in Florida and around the county:

Florida newspapers

Newspaper                             Daily                               Sunday  (2011 figures in parentheses)

Tampa Bay Times                   313,003 (240,024)          379,375 (403,229)

Orlando Sentinel                    162,636  (171,418)         271,824 (286,982)

South Florida Sun-Sentinel    140,468 (147,860)           213,526  (224,763) 

Miami Herald**                      135,533  (160,505)         189,818 (209,116)

Tampa Tribune                       173,302 (125,867)          271,658 (254,782)

Palm Beach Post                      88,231  (95,620)           142,679 (123,488)

Florida Times-Union                 91,549   (99,280)          143,991 (159,312)

Other prominent newspapers

Wall Street Journal                    2.3M                             n/a

USA Today                                 1.7M                             n/a

New York Times                         1.6M                            2.1M

Los Angeles Times                    641,369                       962,192

Washington Post                      462,228                       674,751

* Average daily circulation Monday through Friday. ** Does not include El Nuevo Herald

Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations

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Watch Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman audience-less due to Hurricane Sandy; Brillliantly brave or awkwardly weird?

david_letterman_empty_studio_a_l.jpgWhen you're a fan of David Letterman, you learn to savor the awkward pauses.

Still, Monday night's show was unique for its awkwardness, taped without a studio audience, Letterman explained, because the show would have ended just as Hurricane Sandy was expected to really impact Manhattan. Also, with no taxis in sight and subway service offline, most in the audience would have had no way to leave the area other than walking.

jimmy-fallon-2-320.jpgOpinions about the quality of the result depends on your taste for awkward silence.

NBC's Jimmy Fallon offered a similar show, lacking an audience and several members of the Roots house band, including M.C. Black Thought.

Much as some people lauded the effort, I give Letterman and Fallon props more for their resolve and guts than the result. you don't realize how much excitement an audience can add until they're absent, and the show's really didn't have enough time to work up comedy bits to compensate.

But I was also perversely proud that these guys even tried to pull this off. Not even a hurricane can keep Dave or jimmy from their appointed TV rounds.

Take that, Sandy. Check out both shows below and see what you think.



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Race-Baiter, my new book on prejudice, stereotypes and media, hits stores today

51d37-cnz1l._sl500_aa300_.jpgAfter months of writing and weeks of anticipation, my new book Race-Baiter is available in stores and online starting today.

The book tries to take a look at the various ways some media outlets use prejudice and stereotypes to build audience, profits and power. The title came from Fox News Channel star Bill O'Reilly, who called me that term on his show, alleging I had a McCarthy-esque fixation on race issues, offering no specifics.

This, as I explain in the book, is something which often happens when you try raising conversations about these subjects. But sometimes, being called a race-baiter by the right person, only means you're on the right track.

Hurricane Sandy has unfortunately, delayed an appearance planned today on NPR's Talk of the Nation and possibly a piece planned for the Huffington Post based on the book's content. But Race-Baiter is now available online and in bookstores; locally, I know they have copies at the Barnes and Noble on 3rd Street in USF St. Petersburg campus.

And I'll be at Eckerd College at 7 p.m. Thursday, talking about issues related to the book and signing copies for any and all interested folks. Details here.

My offer first made during the Times Festival of Reading still stands: buy a copy and bring it by the Tampa Bay Times at 490 1st Ave. South, two blocks north, I'd be happy to sign it for you if I'm in the building.

creativeloafing-cover.jpgI've also got a cool signing at 6 p.m. Nov. 11 in Studio@620 in St. Petersburg, featuring a reading, discussion of the issues raised by the book, a signing and a performance by former St. Pete Times music critic Tony Green and his amazing band Jez' Grew (yeah, I might ask the sit in on drums for a number or two). More info here.

I'm also going to be at Inkwood Books in Tampa the very next night, Nov. 12, with a presentation centered on the book at Inkwood Books, 216 S. Armenia Ave., Tampa, FL 33609. More info on that event here.  

If you're not in the area and want a signed copy, we can do that too -- just send me an email with your name, postal address and preferred inscription. I'll be happy to sign a bookplate you can place inside your copy, as a long-distance inscription, for as long as the bookplates last.

For more information on the book and a constantly-updated schedule, see my website here:

times-festival-reading.jpgThere's also been lots of good press already. Creative Loafing Tampa's Mitch Perry wrote an amazing cover story last week; I appeared on liberal watchdogs Media Matters radio show on Saturday, Peter Schorsch and his SaintPetersblog did a nice preview written by Daphne Taylor Street, and a guy whose sage counsel first convinced me I could do this in the first place, author Bob Andelman, talked to me for his Mr. Media video podcast.   

Click here for an excerpt of the book which ran in the Tampa Bay Times:

At times, it may feel odd to focus on talk about race, culture different, prejudice and stereotyping. But after the election of our first black president, as he seeks re-election, its obvious that increased diversity only brings increased conversation, as America attempts something few other nations have achieved:

A free and open republic where our different ethnicities and cultures are seen as a strength, not a weakness.

Hopefully, this book provides a few tools on making that lofty goal a reality. 


CLICK BELOW TO SEE the stuff I have scheduled so far - please feel free to join us at any or all events!

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After all the ridicule, why do Hurricane Sandy reporters still stand in wind and water for live TV?

sandytv1.jpgAs coverage of Hurricane Sandy filled cable TV channels, network newscasts and social media on Monday, it was a stubborn, repeatedly recurring sight — no matter how much ridicule it inspired online:

TV reporters stumbling in high winds, big waves and harsh weather.

ABC's Matt Gutman and his crew were tossed around by waves on the North Carolina coast Monday during a report for Good Morning America. Today show forecaster Al Roker, whose on-camera tumble during a 2005 report on Hurricane Wilma remains a viral hit, tweeted a photo of himself standing feet away from gigantic waves in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J.

CNN's Ashleigh Banfield could barely be understood during a report from windblown Battery Park and her colleague Ali Velshi spent so much time outside, Twitter began filling with comments begging the channel to let him go indoors.

Even CBS anchor Scott Pelley delivered an hourlong Evening News report from a blustery New Jersey spot Monday, hair dripping with moisture.

sandytv2.jpgDoes any of this really help cover a storm estimated to cut off power for 6 million people, affecting millions more with wind damage, flooding and rain?

Helen Swenson, senior vice president of live programming for the Weather Channel, offered an emphatic yes.

"The power of mother nature is best felt through pictures," said Swenson, an Inverness-raised University of Florida alum with experience covering hurricanes for TV stations in Miami and West Palm Beach. "We're in the business of conveying that drama."

At ABC News, James Goldston, the network's senior vice president of content and development, said Gutman thought he was in a safe area, only to be knocked over by a "rogue wave" forcing his team to move to higher ground. "We don't want unnecessary heroics," he said.

Such shots are an often-necessary result of the "arms race" that breaks out when competing news outlets try to dominate coverage of the same event, said Stacey Woelfel, news director at KOMU-TV in Missouri and an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.

"Is it ratings driven?" he asked. "Sure, but it's also reporters going where the audience isn't able to go. Where it crosses the line ... if people laugh at you or fear for your life, you're distracting from the story."

Network TV morning shows were expected to devote all their time to Hurricane Sandy coverage today, following extended newscasts and primetime reports Monday. Throughout the night, reporters in NYC lit up Twitter with reports of trying to broadcast without power, with CNN's Anderson Cooper anchoring his show by cellphone, among others.

And their efforts moved beyond TV: ABC News used a social media desk to push all of its content onto platforms like Twitter and Facebook, while the Weather Channel streamed coverage of the storm on its own sites and YouTube, attracting over 1 million stream starts.

Online consumers faced challenges. The Weather Channel and CNN mistakenly reported that the New York Stock Exchange was flooded, and those surfing Twitter Monday faces a wide array of fake or mislabeled images supposedly from the storm. has a great guide for sussing out the real from the unreal here.

Newspapers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Baltimore Sun dropped their website paywalls. And news outlets ranging from the Sun to CNN and the Weather Channel agreed to avoid using the term "frankenstorm," for fear of trivializing a major emergency; the Weather Channel uses the more convention term, "Superstorm."

Several New York-based entertainment shows also were canceled Monday, including the Daily Show, Colbert Report and Jimmy Kimmel Live, which had traveled from Los Angeles for a week's worth of shows from the host's Brooklyn hometown. CBS also yanked new episodes of its Monday primetime shows.

This was a dance Florida residents know well, the seemingly endless stories about preparations and possible damage before a storm slowly wreaks havoc.

Still, those live shots where reporters warn people about the same weather they're standing in — one CNN reporter even criticized a family while showing them waving happily on camera — will be with us for a while.

"We're out to show how dangerous mother nature is," Swenson said. "For every live shot you see on the air, you don't see all the times we tell them to shut down, or reporters tell us they're shutting down."

Social media also provided lots of compelling footage, from an explosion at a power substation and the collapse of an apartment building facade.

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Hurricane Sandy's impact on TV goes beyond news; Letterman monologue, Storify here

hurricane-sandy-coverage.jpgHere's a quick look at the impact Hurricane Sandy is having on the TV industry by threatening New York City, where everything from the Daily Show and Colbert Report to The Good Wife and Jimmy Kimmel Live have suspended production for at least a day -- either because audiences can't reach them or out of concern about the storm's impact.

Below is a look at David Letterman's monologue -- delivered before an empty house three hours before their normal taping time -- as shows such as Anderson Cooper's daytime TV show conducted their shows before an audience of three people (hardy souls who ignored the show's plea to stay home).

Check it all out:


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Bubba the Love Sponge apologizes to Hulk Hogan after lawsuit settlement: was it all a stunt?

hulk-hogan-sues-bubba-love-sponge-heather-clem.jpgA New York publicist has released a statement saying wrestling star Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea has reached a settlement with onetime friend and Tampa Bay shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem dropping the radio personality from a lawsuit centered on footage made public from a videotape made of Hogan having sex with Clem's then-wife.

As part of the settlement, Clem played a statement on his show for WHPT-FM (102.5 the Bone) Monday morning apologizing for insulting Hogan and his children, saying "after further investigation" he concluded the wrestler was unaware he was being videotaped in 2006 while having sex with his now-ex-wife, Heather Cole. The terms of the settlement were not made public.

The quick resolution on this lawsuit -- according to the release, Hogan will continue his legal action against Cole and the owner of the website which first published video clips from the footage, -- will likely leave critics accusing the men of colluding on a gigantic publicity stunt.  

hulk-hogan-lawsuit.jpegThe dispute between the two men, seemingly sparked by clips published on, generated national headlines, as attorneys for Hogan talked tough from the federal courthouse steps in Tampa and Clem responded by calling his former friend a "hypocritical fraud" on his radio show.

Stephen Diaco, a Tampa attorney who is close to Clem and often serves as his personal counsel, would only say that the matter with Hogan "has been resolved." According to the press release, Clem is expected to replay his apology on Tuesday's show.

Critics say both men could use the headlines generated by their public fight, which might be an attempt to earn money on the footage via Hogan's $100 million lawsuit against Gawker and boost ratings for Clem's show. But the pair also have faced lots of ridicule online for revealing that Clem allowed the wrestler to have sex with his wife early in their marriage.

Here is the text of the apology, as provided by the publicist. 

October 29,2012
Re: Public Apology to Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea) and Retraction of Statements

After further investigation, I am now convinced that Hulk Hogan was unaware of the presence of the recording device in my bedroom. I am convinced he had no knowledge that he was being taped. Additionally, I am certain that he had no role in the release of the video. It is my belief that Terry is not involved, and has not ever been involved, in trying to release the video, or exploit it, or otherwise gain from the video's release in any way. Regrettably, when Hulk filed the lawsuit against me, I instinctively went on the offensive. The things that I said about him and his children were not true. I was wrong and I am deeply sorry for my reaction, and for the additional pain that it caused Hulk and his children on top of the pain that they already were feeling from having learned that Terry was taped without his knowledge, and the public release of the video.

I am committed to helping Hulk and his attorneys find whoever is responsible for the release of the tape and holding them accountable to the fullest extent of the law.

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Weather Channel streams live Hurricane Sandy coverage, while newspapers drop paywalls and media world gears up

hurricane-sandy-coverage.jpgAs the morning TV shows and cable news channels begin covering the approach of Hurricane Sandy to the East Coast today, the world is getting a taste of life in the Sunshine State during hurricane season -- when the danger of an approaching storm requires blanket coverage before anyone knows how bad it will be.

In an ominous sign, President Obama this morning canceled a planned appearance at a rally in Orlando not long after visiting campaign workers there, deciding to head back to Washington D.C. and prepare for the storm. Weather experts say the storm remains on track to be one of the worst to impact the East Coast in recent memory, potentially leaving millions without power for days and drenching an area stretching from Virginia to Maine with high winds and flooding.

The Weather Channel is planning to stream its coverage of the storm on its website -- see by clicking here -- while newspapers such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Baltimore Sun have all dropped their paywalls for the duration of their Sandy coverage (New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter is even streaming live video of huge waves from his post in evacuated Rehoboth Beach; check it out here).

hc-hurricane-sandys-projected-path-20121025.jpgOn morning TV, everyone from CNN's Soledad O'Brien to NBC's Al Roker were decked out in rain gear and out in the elements, recreating that time-honored practice of standing in severe weather to show how severe it really is. We can only hope that, as conditions intensify, these folks show a little more restraint; it remains an odd sight to see reporters in the elements as emergency workers urge the public not to go outside unless they absolutely must.

Today show anchor Savannah Guthrie tweeted this morning that she expected the entire four-hour span of Tuesday's program would be devoted to Hurricane Sandy coverage. The big three morning shows spent lots of time on the subject Monday morning already, continuing coverage which began over the weekend. 

Beyond the 7,000 canceled flights ABC News reported this morning, the media industry may fell the impact of Hurricane Sandy in odd ways. ABC's West Coast-based late night host Jimmy Kimmel had planned a week's worth of shows from Brooklyn long before the storm hit ; according to, Kimmel, CBS' David Letterman and NBC's Jimmy Fallon all planned to continue taping their late-night shows, though I wonder how tough it may be to get guests and audience should the storm really impact as badly as expected.

(UPDATE: Kimmel has canceled his Brooklyn show for tonight, along with cancellations by The Daily Show and Colbert Report, according to the New York Times. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper's daytime show had three audience members -- folks who showed anyway when the program told audience members not to bother coming. So far, Letterman and Fallon still intend to tape new episodes even though getting an audience with subways shut down could be a problem. But guests may not be a problem. Also according to Deadline, TV studios owned by Warner Bros, CBS, and NBC have all canceled production for today, so there may be a lot of stars with an unexpected burst of free time.)

This is a dance Florida residents know well; the seemingly endless stories about preparations and possible damage before the storm actually impacts and the wait for destruction begins. More residents will likely depend on smartphones and social media to stay informed during the storm, which could be a mistake is cellphone towers go down or long stretches without power make charging communications devices difficult.

Just as the storm evolves, expect the coverage to morph, as the world's media center battens down for a strike from a system some tabloids are already calling the Frankenstorm. Sitting on the sidelines in hurricane alley, we here in Florida can only sympathize and keep our fingers crossed.

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See full episode of NBC's Munsters reboot, Mockingbird Lane

mockingbirdlane.jpgConventional wisdom is that NBC's reboot of the classic monsters satire The Munsters is a burnoff of a busted pilot.

But Mockingbird Lane, a super-expensive test episode NBC is airing a few days before Halloween was an ambitious attempt to reinvent a TV classic.

It seems horribly miscast to me, starting with ADD case Jerry O'Connell as a more svelte, stitched-together Herman Munster and British comic Eddie Izzard as Grandpa Munster.

Check out the preview below and see what you think.


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Media debate about Mourdock's rape comments seems to miss the idea of free will

mourdock1.jpgI drew chuckles on Tuesday when I told a crowd of journalists about my schooling: I attended a Jewish middle school and a Catholic high school, sent to those instutions by my mother, an English teacher who just wanted me to get a good education.

One of the best things about that experience was the education I got on how different religions view life. At my Jewish middle school, we had sessions with the Temple's rabbi to talk about life and Jewish law. At my Catholic high school, we had a class every semester focused on the faith and its tenets (one class was actually called, simply, "faith.")

Those lessons rose in my mind again as I thought about the awkward comments and positions so many conservative candidates seem to have on the issue of rape, conception and abortion.

mourdock2.jpgAtlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates summed up the thinking this morning in a blog post called Mourdock, Conception and Theodicy, in which he took apart Indiana senate candidate Richard Mourdock's recent statement in a speech: "I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."

Coates writes: 
"It's very important to be clear on this:
    1) Mourdock believes that life begins at conception. 
    2) He also believes that whenever conception occurs, God intended it and it is a gift.
    3) He further believes that rape is one way in which conception sometimes occurs.
    4) Thus he believes that conception through rape is a gift from God and furthermore intended by God."
But I think Mourdock and some others who have expressed similar thoughts are missing an important point; something that came up often in my faith classes and discussions with the rabbis: free will.
mourdock3.jpgStay with me here. Without the ability to freely choose any action, faith is meaningless. Man must be free to choose sin for a choice to follow God to have weight.
I've always felt, based on those ideas, that crime, war, violence and many of the awful things people do to each other could be explained as a result of free will. Which would mean, for example, that conception as a result of a committed relationship could be seen as the result of a positive choice and conception as a result of sexual assault could be seen as the harmful impact of a bad one.
That would also mean that rape and many other awful occurrences in life are not the result of God's will, but of man's bad choices.
I'm not particularly observant of any religion myself. But I do fear that the limited views advanced by some conservatives not only make them look bad, but reflect badly on the devoutly religious, as well.
Because I have met many religious people who have taken the time to study and think through these issues in ways that allow more nuanced conclusions, even as they remain stalwart in their faith.
Here's what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert had to say about it:
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Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan tells 60 Minutes racist comments fed his determination

shahid-khan.jpgIn a preview clip of Sunday's 60 Minutes, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan is shown shrugging off talk recalling racist comments made in the community after his intent to buy the football team was known.

Correspondent Byron Pitts shows footage noting that some people on social media called Khan, a Pakistan-born auto parts billionaire, a "sand monkey" and "terrorist" when news surfaced last last year that he planned to buy the franchise for $760-million.

Khan has lived in the U.S. for more than 40 years, coming to America for college as a 16-year-old in 1967.

Khan also shrugged off rumors that the former owner offered to let him out of the deal when the racist comments surfaced.

Instead, Khan became the first non-white person to own an NFL franchise, earning stories about his status as the embodiment of the American dream.

Check out the clip below:


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My NPR adventure: Watching YouTube's WIGS and Yahoo!'s Suit Up! push boundaries of web series

web-series-names.jpgNot long ago, the words "web video series" brought a particular vision to mind: Low production values. A D.I.Y. look that seemed shot with a camcorder or webcam, even when it wasn't. And an eccentric, almost anti-TV focus aimed at creating a new kind of programming online.

But there's a change under way. Developed by a few of the biggest names in television and film, some online series have a production level matching anything on cable or broadcast TV. Next year, major series such as Netflix's revival of Arrested Development and its Kevin Spacey show House of Cards will debut solely on streaming video, extending the trend.

Before those big titles drop, here's a sample of couple of great web only shows hat I talked about this week on NPR. It's only going to get better from here.

Ruth and Erica; YouTube's WIGS channel. Developed as a channel filled with original shows led by female characters, WIGS has a growing roster of web series, each distinguished by the name of its lead character. Ruth and Erica is a poignant tale featuring ER alum Maura Tierney as Erica, a middle-aged woman whose lovable dad Harry (Philip Baker Hall), is suffering from dementia. Lois Smith (Sookie's grandmother on True Blood) is her steely mother Ruth, a woman dealing with the decline of her longtime partner first with denial and later with growing dread.


WIGS' best work offers details about characters doled out slowly, in tiny touches. We learn Harry might be having cognitive problems when he insists Erica call an infomercial host on the TV they're watching for a date; we suspect Erica is dating a married man (Wings alum Steven Weber) when we see a ring on his finger, but he can't remember the name of Erica's father.

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Sarah Palin and he who must not be named: When is a code word really evidence of prejudice?

barackobama_time_mag.jpgIt may be one of the most interesting legacies of having a black president: All the time we now spend dissecting code words.

Derisively called "dog whistles" for their ability to inspire some while others miss their message, these are phrases and words designed to reference derogatory racial prejudices indirectly. Such subtlety is required, experts say, because open racism has been so demonized in mainstream society, the only way to evoke those ideas with supporters is through hints and asides.

For people of color, these discussions are nothing new. When someone outside your ethnic group uses a certain turn of phrase or bit of slang, sometimes you have to wonder -- what did they really mean by that?

But when the most powerful man in America is non-white, those discussions expand to include the entire country.

Which brings us to Sarah Palin and her Facebook post Wednesday titled "Obama's Shuck and Jive ends with Benghazi Lies." 

The former governor of Alaska, now a reality TV star and cable news pundit never known for her finesse with words, was writing about emails which indicated officials in the State Department, White House and national security organizations were aware a militant group was taking credit for an attack in Libya which killed a U.S. ambassador.

She wrote: "Why the lies? Why the cover up? Why the dissembling about the cause of the murder of our ambassador on the anniversary of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil? We deserve answers to this. President Obama's shuck and jive shtick with these Benghazi lies must end."

sarahpalinfox.jpgAlex Halperin at Salon noted the "loaded language," citing a definition of "shuck and jive" from the Urban Dictionary which noted "To 'shuck and jive' originally referred to the intentionally misleading words and actions that African-Americans would employ in order to deceive racist Euro-Americans in power, both during the period of slavery and afterwards."

MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews, who I watched challenge RNC chair Reince Priebus in Tampa in August over language like "European-style health care reform, allowed that the phrase Palin used wasn't negative in all connotations, but "to throw it at the president is an ethnic shot, pretty plain." One of Matthews' guests, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, who is African American, wasn't so sure Palin was deliberately race baiting.

matthews_-gop-is-playing-the-race-card.jpg"It does work," Matthews insisted, later saying "it's a sickness by the white people."

But conservatives pushed back. The right-friendly website Newsbusters said Matthews used the term "shuck and jive" in talking to MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow about her trip to Afghanistan and that Democrats have used the term before. 

Palin herself posted another statement on Facebook denying any racist intent, writing "For the record, there was nothing remotely racist in my use of the phrase 'shuck and jive'...In fact, Andrew Cuomo also used the phrase in reference to Barack Obama, and the fact that Mr. Cuomo and I used the phrase in relation to President Obama signifies nothing out of the ordinary. I would have used the exact same expression if I had been writing about President Carter, whose foreign policy rivaled Obama’s in its ineptitude, or about the Nixon administration, which was also famously rocked by a cover-up."

Of course, context matters in judging code words. Joking that someone seems greedy or cheap can be funny; if that person is Jewish and the joker is not, suddenly it sounds a too much like a reference to a classic stereotype.

That's why Matthews using the phrase "shuck and jive" in reference to another white person -- or White House spokesman Jay Carney, who is white, using it in reference to himself -- probably isn't a dog whistle, but using the phrase to criticize a person of color can be. (as another example, consider using the "b" word to jokingly refer to a male friend, then think about using that word on a woman in your life, in any context. Applying the word to a woman surely feels a bit different, more so if the person applying the word isn't female.)

Palin insisted on Facebook she used the phrase in scolding her daughter, but it's not something I remember her saying often in public. And this is from a public figure whose many sayings have become instant catchphrases. So the sudden appearance of a phrase with such connotations also brings caution.

A certain businessman-turned-reality TV star also stepped into this mess Wednesday by making an "offer" to donate $5-million to charity if the president could produce college transcripts and passport records. (I'm not mentioning his name, because I'm tired of feeding the media beast.)

Beyond serving as a serious lesson in media manipulation, this announcement references another insulting attack on the president -- implying that there is suspicion about the validity of his citizenship and his attendance at prestigious schools such as Harvard and Columbia universities. Bringi