The Weekly Media Monitor 01.01.04: Read This! It’ll Make You Feel Better…

“An optimist stays up until midnight to see the New Year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”
-Bill Vaughan

News: Earthquake in Iran Kills More Than 20,000 People, U.S. Sends Humanitarian Aid Despite “Axis of Evil” Labeling

In the media:

The Associated Press filed the following updated report regarding the devastating earthquake that rocked Iran on Friday, December 26, 2003:

BAM, Iran — Hopes of finding more earthquake survivors in Iran’s ancient city of Bam faded Sunday as the sharp, foul smell of death permeated the pulverized rubble, confirming that the mud-brick houses became instant tombs for more than 20,000 people.

Rescue workers from around the world joined Iranians in searching through powdery debris that left little room for air pockets allowing people to survive while awaiting help.

More than 20,000 bodies, including one American killed while visiting the city’s 2,000-year-old citadel, have been retrieved since Friday’s 6.6-magnitude earthquake shook the city and surrounding region in southeast Iran, a local government spokesman said.

Still, the interior minister said the search would continue.

“We have not lost hope for survivors, and our priority remains to find them,” Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari said.

Asadollah Iranmanesh, spokesman for the provincial governor’s office, said one man was pulled alive from the rubble Sunday. A day earlier, officials reported freeing 150 survivors.

Planes from dozens of countries landed in the provincial capital of Kerman with relief supplies, volunteers and dogs trained to find bodies and survivors in the debris. U.S. military C-130 cargo planes were among them, despite long-severed diplomatic relations and President Bush’s characterization of Iran as being part of an “axis of evil” with Iraq and North Korea.

Traffic clogged the roads leading in and out of Bam, 630 miles southeast of Tehran, the Iranian capital.

Survivors with any kind of motor vehicle loaded furniture and whatever else they could salvage and headed for other cities. Incoming traffic brought relief supplies, volunteers and relatives desperate for news of their kin.

Mostafa Biderani and his wife, Zahra Nazari, wept in front of a destroyed police station in the center of Bam, slapping their faces and beating their chests in an Islamic expression of grief.

“I pulled my son out of the rubble this morning,” said Biderani, who drove from Isfahan, 470 miles to the northwest. “But all my hopes were dashed when I saw the police station had collapsed. I pulled out my son with my bare hands.”

The traditional sun-dried, mud-brick construction of the houses doomed many occupants, as it has for centuries in earthquake-prone Iran. Heavy roofs, often sealed with cement or plaster to keep out the rain, sit atop mud-brick walls that have no support beams. When the walls crumble, the roofs smash down, leaving few air pockets and crushing or suffocating anyone inside.

Friday’s quake struck about 5:30 a.m. when most people were still sleeping. Experts say that people can survive up to 72 hours, sometimes longer, in the rubble if they have enough air to breathe. Bam will have passed the 72-hour mark by sunrise Monday.

“In these conditions, we are not optimistic of finding anyone alive. Hopes are dwindling fast,” said Barry Sessions of Britain’s Rapid-UK rescue group, which did not find any survivors in 24 hours of searching.

“The earthquake reduced most of the buildings to something like talcum powder. Many of the casualties suffocated and there are few voids or gaps left in the buildings where we would normally find survivors.”

His thoughts were echoed by other relief workers.

Luca Spoletini, spokesman for the Italian Civil Protection, said its teams found nothing but corpses after a day spent probing the rubble.

Describing a visit to Barazat, a town with a population of 20,000 a few miles outside Bam, Spoletini said, “There is nothing any more. Not one single house, not one single building stands upright. It is like the Apocalypse. I have never seen anything like that.”

By Saturday night, enough tents had arrived to accommodate the thousands of homeless. There was even a bit of normalcy, with people complaining they had to share a tent with another family.

Looters were also out, grabbing food from warehouses and grocery shops. Police tried to control them by shooting in the air.

In addition to Italian and British teams, rescuers, supplies or pledges of aid arrived from Austria, Azerbaijan, Britain, Finland, Germany, Russia, Turkey and dozens of other nations.

The United States arranged an airlift of 150,000 pounds of food, water and medical supplies. Four military planes flew into the country from Kuwait.

“The reception was beyond expectations,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jeff Bohn, who was on the first plane. “The warmth that the Iranian military and civil aviation workers gave us was truly incredible.”

An Iranian navy helicopter crashed 30 miles southwest of Bam on Sunday after delivering tents and blankets, the regional governor’s office said. All three crewmen were killed, he said.

Bam was best known for its medieval citadel, considered the world’s largest surviving mud fortress. Most of the fortress, including a massive square tower, crumbled like a sand castle when the quake hit.

Credit: Associated Press via Fox News Online.

Chris’ Commentary:

In my last column, I reprinted the AP story on Saddam Hussein’s historic surrender to U.S. forces. Ironically enough, I now have the responsibility of reporting the news of the tragic earthquake in Iran and commenting on the fascinating under-story that coincides with the U.S. government’s decision to send humanitarian aid to a country that remains a terrorist threat to our people.

This is where the whole thing gets tricky.

On the one hand, I am elated to see humanitarian aid being offered to a country that has just experienced a huge and indescribable loss of its civilian populace, not to mention a severe blow to economic and cultural resources.

On the other hand, however, one realistic question remains: For all the good that goes along with using our humanitarian instincts, what are the negative implications of providing aid to a potential terrorist threat?

I am pretty sure in this case that using our resources to reach out to the Iranian people in their time of need is a generally good gesture that will be acknowledged by the other nations in this international effort, if not the Iranian government itself. However, before I start sounding too optimistic, I do think that Iran will continue to remain a thorn in our side in regards to terrorism.

With that said, then, I kind of equate this issue (at least in pop cultural terms) to that scene in Saving Private Ryan where the Tom Hanks-led unit allow a captured German soldier to go free, only to find him back in action, fighting against the American troops, later on in the movie. I am not saying that the people we are helping in Iran are going to turn around and harm us. I am still very much weary, though, of harbored terrorists in Iran pulling one over on us – at some unidentified point in time – in the near future.

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Sports: A Decade Past — Tonya Harding & Nancy Kerrigan Revisited

In the media:

Filip Bondy of The New York Daily News wrote a Sunday feature story looking back on the desperation that drove Tonya Harding to plot an attack on Olympic silver medallist Nancy Kerrigan ten years ago this week. This story also analyzes the lives of both women since the assault heard around the world, a pop culture frenzy that thrust them into completely different directions:

You meet Nancy Kerrigan at a high-end AIDS charity event inside a MAC cosmetics store in downtown Manhattan, where the full-time mother and part-time celebrity is trim and prim, dressed all in black. You track down Tonya Harding somewhere very different, across the country in a hotel room in Vancouver, Wash., where she is training earnestly between boxing matches.

So they are worlds apart, 10 years later. Tonya is an athlete, alone and bruising her way through life. Nancy is an actress, a homemaker. Nancy will never climb into a ring, never get smacked in the nose. Tonya will never be invited to a mainstream ice show. They are still the Good Witch of the North and the Wicked Witch of the West; still the elegant Vera Wang skating dress and the homemade, low-cut affair frowned upon by judges.

And yet, a decade after an associate of Tonya’s ex-husband struck Nancy atop her knee on Jan. 6, 1994, the two women remain forever linked by crime and imagery. Theirs is the strangest sports story of them all. First names will always suffice.

“We were friends back then,” Tonya says about Nancy, about Michelle Kwan, about all the skaters. “Everybody was always friends. You tour together. You room together. That’s what really hurt. Everything was such a tragedy. You want to cry, but there’s nothing you can do. God had my life planned out for me, and I took the wrong path.”

That path led Tonya to all sorts of dark places where no other world-class athlete has tread, before or since. It led her to ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (now Jeff Stone), who arranged the assault on Kerrigan by indirectly paying a mercenary named Shane Stant to smack Nancy an inch above the right knee at a Cobo Hall practice during the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit. It led Tonya to plead guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, to accept $110,000 in fines, 500 hours of community service and three years’ probation.

She has endured three broken marriages and an eviction from her home, then three days in jail and more than a week of tending grave sites – her sentence for punching and throwing a hubcap at the head of one of her ex-husbands, Darren Silver. Finally, that journey has led her somewhere more compatible, to the one sport on Earth that rewards such gall and ferocity.

“Without being too blunt, the biggest difference between figure skating and boxing is you have to have the balls to get punched in the face,” Tonya says. “I just let everything out that’s been bottled up. I think of when my truck breaks down. Or me hitting my trainer Paul. I want to pound on him.”

She is irrepressible, this woman with the broken homes and the beat-up pickup truck. Her veteran trainer, Paul Brown, spotted Tonya this year at the Grand Avenue Gym in Portland, Ore. She’d been in some brawls, but didn’t really know what to do in a ring.

“She was having a tough time getting through a four-minute training program,” Brown says. “Now, we work right through the asthma.”

You may remember the asthma. Tonya chain-smoked cigarettes, which didn’t help.

There were always things going wrong for her on the ice. Her shoelace snapped or her dress strap snapped. But Lord, how she could jump. A 5-1 acrobat, she landed triple axels years ahead of her time. She won Nationals and captured a silver at the Worlds in 1991, beating Nancy both times, fair and square.

“I always had the strength and not the skills as a figure skater,” she says. “Just having that strength makes me a great boxer.”

She is not a great boxer, not yet. Her record is 3-2, not counting the whupping she put on Paula Jones in an ill-conceived “Celebrity Boxing” match. Her last match in the parking lot of a Dallas strip club was something of a disaster. Melissa Yanas charged across the ring, knocked Tonya down twice. Tonya kept getting up, but the ref ruled a TKO after 73 seconds.

Defeat never sat well with Tonya. She insists now that Yanas wasn’t who she said she was, quite literally.

“At the weigh-in, I was eye to eye with her,” Tonya says. “In the ring, I was looking up at her. Whether it was even the same girl, I can’t say. I lasted one minute, 13 seconds with this big, humongous woman. That took a lot of guts.”

She will fight again on Jan. 24 in a pay-per-view event in Boise, but this time about five pounds lighter, as a bantamweight at 118 pounds. She says she’ll intimidate her 18-year-old opponent, Beth Westbrook, by turning her baseball cap around and staring down her young opponent.

“Then I’ll put her down,” Tonya says.

This is the very same passion that Brown hopes to market. Tonya made nearly $14,000 for her last fight, and Brown predicts she’ll be fighting for a title soon.

“Because of the notoriety over the knee, she may be worth millions,” he says.

That notoriety cost Tonya plenty. She finished a distant and disappointing eighth in the 1994 Olympics, when Kerrigan took silver. She was banished, ostracized by the U.S. Figure Skating Association. Everybody wondered then, still wonders, how much she knew about the assault.

She won’t talk about that now. Back then, Gillooly and one of his accomplices said Tonya was in on the attack from the beginning. She steadfastly denied it all. During the past 10 years, those shadowy former associates have tried to reach her, through those closest to her.

“Several have tried, but I ignored them,” she says. “My brains have been scrambled a bit, but not that much. I’ve only talked with my father, plain and simple. And it’s been a very smart choice. I’m not bitter at the figure skating people. Not at all. They made a choice, you have to live with it. You find something else.”

She’s lost the boyfriends, the husbands, settling for a kitten she calls Smalls. “I consider myself the Energizer bunny,” Tonya says. “I can pursue this career at least four years. I can make my bills right now. I’m making it, being selfish. It’s about me. Just me and Smalls.”

It’s like a dream, that Olympic week at Lillehammer in late February 1994, about six weeks after the incident. After she threatened to sue, the U.S. Olympic Committee allowed Tonya on the team, and Tonya and Nancy were suddenly practicing in the same rink, at the same time. Reporters and photographers jammed the little arena, arriving at 5 a.m. to reserve a spot. Nancy was still receiving therapy on her right knee, and nobody could promise her complete recovery.

“It was a very strange deal, a traumatic deal for all of us,” remembers Nancy’s coach, Evy Scotvold. “It was overwhelming.”

By this time, Nancy’s camp did not think much of Tonya’s chances. She was seen as a has-been, somebody who had frittered away her ample talents. She was a distraction of the worst sort. “We were beyond her,” Scotvold says. “We knew she was an undisciplined athlete, that she had weight problems.”

Scotvold says he feels sorry for Tonya, to this day.

“She’s embarrassed herself,” he says. “She’s a foolish person. There’s a sadness of what she was and could have been. It speaks to the makeup of her family and background.”

The media and fans picked sides back then, chose between the goody-goody New Englander and the naughty Oregonian. The telecast of the short program drew the third-largest television audience in the U.S. for any sports event, behind only two Super Bowls.

Tonya melted down, with a heavy-footed, sloppy performance. She demanded and was granted a re-skate on her long program, because of the broken skate lace. It didn’t help. Nancy skated like a consummate professional during both routines, and was nosed out by Oksana Baiul, a spry ballerina from Ukraine who had suffered her own misfortunes.

“It was the most heroic thing I ever was part of as a coach,” Scotvold says. “I will always respect Nancy so much for that. She was on a mission. She absolutely was going to fight back. She’s always been my heroine.”

While Tonya, 33, reinvents herself, Nancy, 34, follows a more conventional path for an ex-Olympian – with one or two plot twists. In 1995, she married her agent, Jerry Solomon, 14 years her elder. The couple has a 7-year-old son, Matthew, in Lynnfield, Mass. They hope to have more children, though People magazine reported last year that Nancy has suffered through several miscarriages.

She is busy with pottery, with singing lessons, with charity work. Nancy has skated in ice shows, has written an instructional book. She does voice-overs and commentary for several skating competitions. She rarely skates anymore herself, except to take her son out for a spin.

“There’s not much time to practice,” she says. “It’s quite fun to be back on the ice, but the next day I’m sore. I’m a different person, and this is a different life now.”

She hasn’t spoken to Tonya since the two women met on a photo shoot as part of the U.S. Olympic team in Lillehammer. Back then, Tonya said to Nancy, “Can you believe all this fuss?”

Kerrigan answered, “No.”

She was taught to restrain herself, because there was so much at stake. She harbors no ill feelings toward Tonya. If anything, Nancy sounds angrier at the judges who voted, 5-4, to award the gold medal in 1994 to Baiul.

“I was happy then for the silver,” Nancy says. “But I look now at what we did, and technically I did so much more. It would have helped to get rid of all the crooked people in the sport.”

Oksana was a sprite, an improviser. Nancy was a mature skater, who sometimes appeared too practiced and mechanical. That perception cost her dearly, cost her the millions of dollars that a gold medal might have brought. Nancy remembers some chilling moments from that time, 10 years ago. She and Solomon were given copies of the FBI transcripts, including the interrogation of Stant. It included the bumbling strategies and mistakes of Gillooly and his buddies. One of the thugs, Shawn Eckardt, casually suggests knocking off Kerrigan.

“In the transcripts, it was almost comical the way they went about things,” Nancy says. “Except it wasn’t comical when they talked about wanting to kill me. At the time, I had huge support from friends and strangers. They wrote me letters, got in touch. It just shows there’s so much good in the world.”

After the assault in Detroit, Nancy screamed, “Why me?” on the floor of Cobo Hall. She said later she should have yelled, “Why anybody?”

That image of a sobbing, egocentric skater never entirely disappeared, especially after she was caught on camera whining about Baiul and later at a Disney World parade.

In the end, though, she is both a victim and a heroine. Nancy performed at her best, at the most difficult moment of her life. Ten years later, she remains the picture of elegance and straight, white teeth. She has appointments to make, charities to support, a child to raise.

On this brisk day in New York, Nancy is still somebody very different from Tonya, who has a bout coming up in Boise.

Credit: The New York Daily News

Chris’ Commentary:

I think it’s compelling to look back on a real-life story that once grabbed America by the balls and see how lives have unraveled since. The assault orchestrated by Tonya Harding and her then husband Jeff Gillooly on Nancy Kerrigan was one of the most absurd true stories in sports and Olympic history.

However, what’s even more fascinating as I look back on the way everything unfolded after the attack is that Nancy Kerrigan blew one of the biggest opportunities in her life. Instead of becoming America’s sweetheart for years and years to come, Kerrigan proved that she was nothing more than a snooty little rich girl who was as immature in real life as she was polished on the ice. Not only did our sweet Nancy rip into Oksana Baiul – who had suffered more hardship as an orphan in Russia than Kerrigan ever experienced in the States – during the medal ceremony in 1994, she also managed to mumble harsh criticisms of Disney World to a Mickey Mouse mascot during her trip to the amusement franchise later that year. Once again, darling Nancy didn’t realize that microphones were within earshot of her whiny voice.

I give Kerrigan all the credit in the world for donating her time for charitable causes, but something tells me that if she just kept her mouth shut at the appropriate time, she could have further parlayed her assault into more than the requisite 15 minutes given to her as a result of the Harding scandal.

As for Tonya, well, she has enough problems without my intervention. Besides, I kind of admire her grit in becoming a boxer, and hey, maybe she’ll make something of herself after all. Now, if only she can get Kerrigan in the ring at least then her punches would be legal, as long as they remain above the belt, of course.

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Entertainment: Cynical Bostonian Puts Pessimistic Pop Culture Wrap On 2003

In the media:

Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe thinks that 2003 was a flat year for popular culture. I disagree with his main point, as there were plenty of juicy gossip nuggets and shows worth watching. While I do think that Mr. Gilbert needs to reexamine his overly pessimistic stance, he does make some valid points in this year-end recap:

Amid the raging celebrity soap operas and “breaking” tabloid “news,” you may not have noticed that 2003 was a dull year in pop culture. There were no artistic fireworks during this E! True Hollywood Year, no entertainment breakthroughs signaling our creative future. There was just the endless rat-a-tat of overly hyped scandals — the shocking claims against Pete Townshend, R. Kelly, and Kobe Bryant, for example, and the awesomely self-destructive behavior by Rush Limbaugh and Courtney Love. There was the twisted sequel to “When David Met Liza,” the de- and then re-throning of Queen Martha, and the video debut of a blond stick figure named Paris Hilton. There was Scott Peterson.

If it’s possible for tabloidism to top its own lows, it did so this year, with CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News covering Operation “SURRENDER MICHAEL” as passionately and seriously as the capture of Saddam Hussein. Early in the spring, country singer Darryl Worley crooned, “Have you forgotten when those towers fell?” — and the answer has turned out to be yes, well, kind of.

Our minds have consistently turned from real-life turmoil in Afghanistan and Iraq to the “Surreal Life” turmoil of accused killers Robert Blake and Phil Spector, or to the really hot talk show “get” of the year, kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart, or to the cheesy reality spectacle of “Trista and Ryan’s Wedding.” Two weeks ago, Hilton’s flighty Fox series “The Simple Life” actually drew more TV viewers than an ABC interview with President Bush. Flashbulb-flickering footage of Ashton and Demi at a premiere? Give us Moore.

Indeed, celebrity matchups kept us inordinately distracted this year, as the infotainment TV shows stalked Ben and Jen as eagerly as Ben and Jen stalked them. Even when “Gigli” rivaled “Ishtar” as the movie flop of all flops, we didn’t tire of J.Lo and B.Aff. And Bennifer-styled rock-acting romances were all the rage. Chris Martin of Coldplay landed Gwyneth Paltrow, Drew Barrymore hung with Fabrizio Moretti of the Strokes, Justin Timberlake lucked out with Cameron Diaz, Nicole Kidman hooked up with Lenny Kravitz, and Jack White of the White Stripes courted Renee Zellweger — when he wasn’t beating a singer from the Detroit-based Von Bondies, that is.

In short, the year was a Gwyntin, Fabymore, Justeron, Nicovitz, and Jackweger media orgy.
One of the most linked websites of 2003 had to be The Smoking Gun, which served up enough tabloid dish to keep the syndicated likes of “Celebrity Justice” and “Entertainment Tonight” fat for a few more years. In 2003, legal troubles were as prevalent and persistent as Coldplay’s piano progressions. Tommy Chong was sentenced to nine months in jail for bong trafficking, Bobby Brown was charged with beating Whitney Houston, and Scott Weiland was arrested again, for driving under the influence. Less predictably, legal issues trailed Al Franken, who was sued by Fox News over his use of the phrase “Fair and Balanced,” as well as OutKast, after Rosa Parks got Supreme Court permission to sue the duo for its 1998 song “Rosa Parks.” The year’s most curious legal twist, though, has to be the class-action suit against Fred Durst and limpbizkit brought by audience members at a July concert near Chicago who felt ripped off when Durst left the stage after 17 minutes.

The fans’ breach-of-contract complaint, posted at www.thesmokinggun.com, also alleges that Durst yelled “disgusting homophobic and anti-gay statements” at the crowd. Durst, by the way, spent the year generating tabloid attention, claiming a romantic relationship with Britney Spears despite her denials and causing a post-Grammys debate about whether “agreeance” is a word. Alas for Fred, none of his misbehavior turned his band’s new album, “Results May Vary,” into a hit. The controversies came fast and furious all year long, even when they were about mediocre product. Unable to resist Reagan supporters, CBS’s Leslie Moonves caused a brouhaha by refusing to air a silly movie called “The Reagans” because, like most biopics, it was dishy and unflattering. The nation cared little about the shallow “8 Simple Rules” until the death of its star, John Ritter, when ABC caused a fuss by keeping the sitcom alive. Many watched and defended the poorly glued-together TV movie about the Jessica Lynch rescue, “Saving Jessica Lynch,” more because of their emotional connection to the real Lynch than because of the movie’s quality, or lack thereof. And the Dixie Chicks hatched a great debate not for their music but for their criticism of President Bush at a London concert. Yes, folks, in 2003, Natalie Maines was compared to 1960s radical Jane Fonda.
Many of us were waiting to be wowed by the next “Sopranos,” a series that didn’t air any new episodes this year, or to find a few good movies not built for teenagers. But our prayers for a cultural makeover were met with a pair of mangled “Matrix” sequels, yet another leg of Timberlake’s campaign for post-‘N Sync credibility, more TV dating dolts with names such as “Joe Millionaire” and “Average Joe,” and still one more Harry Potter book. The annual Madonna pseudo-transgression occurred at the MTV Video Music Awards, when the icon-for-hire sapphically smooched Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, which probably moved many of MTV’s teen-male viewers — as well as more of Madonna’s best-selling children’s books.

The Fab Five of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” goosed the entertainment world, but even they couldn’t save it from putting on the same old duds. They couldn’t restyle Spears’s plastic “In the Zone” or David E. Kelley’s not-so-fantastic new series, “The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.” They couldn’t trim the impact of “American Idol,” as Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, and Ruben Studdard sold millions of records and sang at any awards show that would have them. “Raggedy Andy” Aiken may have lost to Studdard, but he won more sales — as well as the best-manners prize from the National League of Junior Cotillions.

OK, there were exceptions. Thankfully, there always are. Maybe the new did not arrive in pop music, but there was more driving post-punk from the Strokes and the White Stripes, and more felt emo from Dashboard Confessional and Brand New. To counteract Spears’s “In the Zone,” there was bionic rapper 50 Cent’s irresistible “In Da Club.” And while Liz Phair may have sacrificed originality to get a hit single, “Why Can’t I,” OutKast gained artistic scope with “Hey Ya” and the rest of “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.” The duo inspired all kinds of demographics to shake it like a Polaroid picture — the year’s most acceptable bit of product placement. This, in turn, inspired Polaroid to shake a check in their faces for some promotional work, which will find them incorporating Polaroid cameras in their stage act.

Meanwhile, the music industry wisely began to adapt to the new e-scape, compensating for declining record sales with a growing number of sanctioned downloading services. More than ever, iPod-wearing music lovers became their own happy DJs.

At the movies, Johnny Depp and Jack Black got well-deserved attention in “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “School of Rock,” respectively, and Sean Penn was the awards contender to beat with his peak performances in “Mystic River” and “21 Grams.” Sofia Coppola gave Bill Murray the vehicle of his career with “Lost in Translation,” a quiet, ambient film that was as far from the box-office-busting spectacle of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” as you can get. “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” was an engrossing high seas adventure and a testament to Russell Crowe’s subtle interpretation of fearless leadership. It reminded us that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s transition out of action movies won’t leave us short of action heroes.

Television, on the other hand, offered little to compensate for its third year of reality offenses, which included Shannen Doherty’s heart-attack-inducing “Scare Tactics” and Monica Lewinsky’s nausea-inducing “Mr. Personality.” OK, MTV did provide brief schadenfreudian amusement with the Lucy-and-Ricky-esque adventures of “Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica” and Ashton Kutcher’s candid camera on the stars, “Punk’d.” David Letterman had another high point when he had a son — and a corresponding ratings spike. And HBO continued to charm, with “Angels in America,” “Six Feet Under,” and “Sex and the City.”

But none of the networks’ fall series became appointment TV, which only contributed to the increasing drift of viewers to the cable regions. If audiences didn’t want to see CBS’s interview with “preppie killer” Robert Chambers, they could easily cross the great divide for shows such as USA’s “Monk” and FX’s “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck.” While video games, DVDs, and the Internet have been cited as reasons for the defection of young male viewers from TV, there’s no denying the role of network programming in their flight. If network executives really think guys between the ages of 18 and 34 will settle for a mess like “Coupling,” they’re sadly in for more rude awakenings in 2004.

Credit: The Boston Globe

Chris’ Commentary:

There is so much in this article to comment on, but one point that sticks out is Gilbert’s claim that 2003 was a dull year in the world of popular culture. It’s kind of ironic that he would make that statement at the beginning of his story, and then proceed to discount his own claim by noting exception after exception after exception. I agree with the idea that reality TV had a lot of misses this year, but even Gilbert himself gives, well, some notable exceptions, such as The Simple Life, Newlyweds, and Punk’d. I would also have to throw in the Spike TV reality spoof The Joe Schmo Show as a personal favorite of 2003, as well as Survivor: Pearl Islands, thanks to Johnny Fairplay’s antics and Rupert’s prowess.

Gilbert also made the assertion that there were no new network shows that became appointment television in 2003. I don’t know about you, but everyone I try to call on a Wednesday night doesn’t return my calls unless it is before or after The O.C. airs on Fox. This show has blown up big in just half a season, and I am sure that there are O.C. get-togethers now, the same way y’all had Dawson’s Creek and 90210 gatherings either at your friends’ houses or in your college dorm rooms. (Yeah, you know who you are.)

My last point of criticism here pertains to the music side of pop culture. Now, I don’t know about you, but watching American Idol this year and getting to vote for who would get a recording contract was a guilty pleasure of mine that I now call a valid way to feel powerful while being entertained. Some people think that Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, and (especially) Clay Aiken are responsible for what’s wrong with American music and its fans. I wholeheartedly disagree with that sentiment, because I truly feel that there is no greater thrill than seeing three genuinely friendly and talented people go from stark anonymity to sheer superstardom. The bottom line here is that Kelly, Ruben, and Clay won the hearts of America in their own idiosyncratic ways, and because of that – and the fact that they actually flip on the microphone when they perform a song live – they have earned and deserve the utmost respect and support.

They certainly have mine.

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Chris’ Wild Card Commentary:

Ten Pop Culture Predictions for 2004

10. After new surveillance video footage is released of Michael Jackson molesting a child, he will, in fact, slit his wrists, with the sharp edge of a half-eaten candy cane.

09. Peter Jackson will finally secure the Oscar for Best Director for his exemplary work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. At an after-party, he will proceed to melt the Oscar with the intention of using the liquid gold to create a new evil ring to rule them all. However, during a bathroom break, a wasted Whitney Houston will see the gold, think it’s a new type of liquid crack, and try to smoke it.

08. As TV ratings decline for Paris Hilton’s reality show, “The Simple Life,” a second version of the infamous sex tape will be released to rekindle interest in the hotel heiress. This time, the tape will feature dark blue lighting that is equally lame and hard to watch.

07. At the 2004 Video Music Awards, Clay Aiken will kiss Ruben Studdard during a controversial performance of “On The Wings of Love.” Ruben, in turn, will eat Clay whole and then audition for the part of Audrey II in the Birmingham, Alabama production of “Little Shop of Horrors.”

06. Saddam Hussein will go on “60 Minutes” and reveal that he would rather slit his own wrists than kill any American.

05. In an unprecedented move, Fox will reveal a Fall TV lineup that contains just two original shows: The Simpsons on Sundays at 8:00 pm; and The O.C. on Wednesdays at 9:00 pm. The rest of the lineup will be filled in with multiple variations of Joe: Millionaire, The Simple Life, and American Idol. Hey, anything’s better than Skin, right?

04. The Olsen Twins will go to college and blow their 300 million dollar fortune on sorority parties, beer, and upscale orgies. They will have no other choice but to become pornographers, and their first movie, “Full House,” will star Dave Coulier, Bob Saget and child actor turned porn star Scottie Schwartz as Uncle Jesse. John Stamos will not be available for the film, since he has a hot wife already, who would also happen to kick the living shit out of him.

03. Notorious Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman will be arrested for attempting to assassinate former Yankee bleacher creature Jeffrey Maier with baseballs being shot from an automatic pitching machine.

02. Bravo will fail to generate another ratings hit with the spin-off reality series, “Straight Eye for the Queer Guy.”

01. As now allowed under the new International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules, at least one male athlete will have a sex change in order to compete at the 2004 Olympics as a transgendered woman. He will be from East Germany.

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Before I sign off, I want to wish everyone a happy and healthy 2004. As always, you can drop a line or two about this column or anything else in the world of current events and popular culture by emailing me at chris411wrestling@yahoo.com.

That’s all for now PEACE.

-Chris Biscuiti

Chris Biscuiti is also a columnist for the 411mania wrestling zone and for moodspins.