If the leaves are falling and there's a nip in the air, that can mean only one thing: The Houston Chronicle is once again bemoaning the Fall of Western Civilization, a fall entirely brought on by dirty TV shows.
Longtime television critic Ann Hodges hasn't let us down this year. Everywhere there is pornography, even -- believe it or not -- on shows that air on Sunday.
Take a series called Hype. (We have no idea if this show is still on the air or not.) "Hype is the WB's unforgivable offering of the season, a disgustingly smutty sketch non-comedy show," Hodges wrote October 7. "Blame the former Mad TV writers for the gross, sub-juvenile sketches about royal potty time and worse. Blame the WB, not just for putting them on, but also for putting this show on Sunday nights. Shame."
Or take just about the entire Fox network. "Two new shows test how deep Fox can dig into TV's trash barrel tonight. The muck is pretty deep," she wrote November 1.
Hodges uses the word "potty" more than any adult we know who isn't involved in toilet training. As far back as the first Bush administration she was using it to describe network depravity: "Think sitcoms and dramas awash in sex talk, potty humor and anatomically correct terms," she wrote in 1992.
Three years later, she was bewailing that "Potty jokes, sex jokes and increasing use of foul language are everywhere in the shows" being screened for TV critics. A year after that: "Broadcast TV has been on a fast track to lowering standards...potty jokes, body part jokes, sexual situations and locker-room language." Two years ago, she wrote of a show called Holding the Baby: "The potty habits of the baby -- and occasionally of these so-called grown-ups, too -- are the big one-liners for every occasion."
OK, OK, we get the point. When scholars look back on how America's decline began as the 20th Century ended, the word "potty" will be used extensively.
But how do we know what the standards are? Can the Chronicle not offer specific guidelines as to what is good taste and what isn't?
We know what good taste is, of course -- Hodges regularly hands out top grades to Masterpiece Theater or PBS documentaries or heartwarming Hallmark Hall of Fame specials.
But it has been left to the Chron's other TV critic, Mike McDaniel, to tell us exactly when things have gone too far.
He published a faux memo to the head of Comedy Central November 8, addressing the issue of South Park's premiere episode. "I have been a consistent defender of South Park," he harrumphed, "realizing that there are plenty of people who enjoy juvenile humor and potty-mouth talk." (There's that word again.)
"But the episode airing Wednesday is offensive even to my seen-it-all senses....Have fun with Janet Reno. Saturday Night Live has. But exercise some limits. Giving the Reno look-alike dangling breasts and a pornographic name crosses the line for me," he thundered.
(Reno was apparently depicted as a teacher named Ms. Chokzondik.)
So there you have it: Portray Janet Reno with dangling breasts, fine. Call her a pornographic name, we can live with it. But do both those things, Buster, and the wrath of Houston's Leading Information Source shall not be contained.
A Death in Texas
For the past seven years, The Wall Street Journal has put out a weekly regional insert called the Texas Journal, a four-page section devoted to business and political matters in the Lone Star State.
They won't be doing it anymore. Journal executives announced November 15 that they are killing The Texas Journal and the other five regional editions that eventually followed it, effective immediately.
The news came as a shock to the five Texas staffers, who work in Houston, Austin and Dallas. They'd always been told the regionals were operating at a profit, although the most successful one -- in California -- apparently subsidized some of the others.
In a memo to the staff, Journal managing editor Paul Steiger said the paper faced the choice of expanding the regionals to cover 48 states or killing them and concentrating on national advertisers. The inserts had been started partly as a way to offer cheaper ad rates to businesses; with the flush economy of the past few years, the Journal is having little trouble finding companies willing to pony up for big ad buys in the national edition.
Some of the regional reporters will be able to stay on with the national paper, Steiger told staff, but most are hunting for new gigs.
Radio Ga Ga XVIII
KTRH-AM, the city's leading newsradio station, has a new boss. As does its onetime competitor KPRC-AM, which now happily coexists under the same mega-media-merger umbrella called Clear Channel Communications.
Ken Charles, the program and news director for Atlanta's WGST, is coming to town to oversee operations at the two stations and KBME, Clear Channel's other AM station.
Charles, who worked at KTRH for a few years in the early `90s, says he's "not one of those guys who's going to come in and whack everybody. There's strong talent here [at the Houston stations]."
He says the main problem he sees with KTRH is that the station seems to have trouble getting listeners to stay tuned for long periods of time. They'll get a traffic or weather report, then hit another button on the radio.
"A lot of people come to us and they know what to get, but they don't stay," he says.
He'll take a couple of weeks before figuring out how best to address that. But for the moment, at least, he talks a good game when it comes to the importance of putting out a solid news product -- including spending to keep and hire newsroom staff.
If he can just get rid of the car-crash sound effect that introduces each traffic report, he'll already have made giant strides in our book.
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Tune In Tonight
KPRC-TV continues to assault viewers with hyperventilating advertisements promoting their latest sweeps-month news pieces.
On November 13, radio listeners heard this: "He sees dead people: A psychic in Houston claims that he can commune with the dead. Skeptical? He'll make a believer out of you!"
We watched. He didn't.