Eric D. Snider

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Archive for December, 2005

End of the year stuff

Thursday, December 29th, 2005

I’ve posted my annual “Best and Worst Movies” article, as well as “Eric’s Media Inventory: What I Watched and Read in 2005.” The articles speak for themselves, I reckon. I wanted to say a few words about the movies, though.

There were 363 movies released in 2005 that I “should” have reviewed — that is, 363 new films that played for at least a week apiece in the markets I lived in.

I did not see all 363 of them. To the best of my knowledge, there is no film critic who reviews EVERY movie that opens in his market, not even when there’s a newspaper paying him to do so. There’s always vacation time, or a scheduling conflict, or something. Roger Ebert is widely praised (and rightly so) for seeing even the crappy stuff that surely a man of his status and influence could avoid, yet even he misses some. He reviewed 284 movies this year. Something like 250 is typical for the average critic at the average metropolitan daily newspaper, though some big-city critics split their duties with another reviewer, which considerably reduces each person’s total.

I reviewed 303 of those 363 movies. That’s 60 that I missed. Of those, nearly all were “arthouse” movies, the kind that play on a few screens at a time, slowly moving from city to city. The only wide releases I missed were “In the Mix” (starring Usher) and “The Gospel” (starring no one; it was about a gospel choir; remember it?).

The markets I lived in were Salt Lake City through June, Portland thereafter. Both cities have thriving arthouse scenes, though Portland’s is a little more extensive. It’s not for the reason you’d think, though. Portland is a more liberal, cosmopolitan city than Salt Lake — but the bigger factor is simply that it has more people. If Salt Lake had the same size population as Portland, I suspect its number of arthouse screens would be about the same, too.

Nielsen ratings, TiVo, and ‘Arrested Development’

Tuesday, December 27th, 2005

How might changes in the Nielsen ratings system help shows like “Arrested Development”? And how do the Nielsens work, anyway? Here’s how.

Some background. The Nielsen Media Research company has about 9,000 “Nielsen families” whose TV habits are monitored from week to week. Nielsen tries to get an accurate cross-section of different types of households so that from those 9,000 they can extrapolate what the entire nation is watching. For example, since African-Americans make up 12 percent of the population, they make up 12 percent of the Nielsen families.

So when they say “Lost” was viewed by 10 million households last week, they don’t actually know that. What they know is that “Lost” was viewed by 900 Nielsen households, and Nielsen extrapolated that to guess roughly how many American households watched it.

Basically, the formula works like this: There are approximately 109,000,000 households with TV in America. Since there are 9,000 Nielsen families, that means each of those families is representing 12,111 other American households — 109,000,000 divided by 9,000. So if 900 Nielsen families watch something, they take that to mean 10,899,900 households in America watched it — 900 x 12,111. Got it?

Of course, they often report not the number of households, but the number of VIEWERS. That requires even more approximating. Nielsen knows how many people live in each of its 9,000 households — but it DOESN’T know exactly how many people live in each of America’s 109,000,000 households. All it has are averages. So while reports of households might be fairly accurate (assuming Nielsen’s sample group is a representative sample), reports of total viewers are always going to be somewhat guess-y.

Nielsen claims that its sampling is a pretty darned accurate reflection of what America is watching. Every February, May, July and November — “sweeps” months — it augments its regular 9,000 families by sending out additional surveys to thousands of other households, in all 210 of the nation’s TV markets. This is to get a more detailed, more accurate sample — and Nielsen says it usually resembles its regular 9,000-family sampling very, very closely. How closely, they won’t say.

In theory, of course, a show could be watched by all 9,000 Nielsen households, and NO other households in all of America. Nielsen would report it as a phenomenal hit, even though it was actually only watched by 9,000 families (which makes it actually a huge flop). Statistically, it’s possible, but of course it’s astronomically unlikely. (Maybe if a network aired a sitcom ABOUT Nielsen families, one where ONLY Nielsen families would get the jokes….)

But what about the reverse? What if there were a show that was watched by a lot of average Americans, but for some reason NOT by Nielsen families?

UPN had some trouble with that in early 2005 when all of a sudden its shows’ ratings dropped. Why had viewers suddenly abandoned them? Turns out they hadn’t. Nielsen had merely changed its reporting methods in some major cities, and the new methods were under-representing African-Americans — UPN’s key demographic. To its credit, Nielsen took measures to improve the situation. I do think Nielsen WANTS to be accurate.

Yet until recently, a significant and fast-growing portion of American society — almost 7 percent of all TV households — was not represented by the 9,000 Nielsen families. Not represented AT ALL — as in, if you belonged to this group, Nielsen wouldn’t let you be one of its families.

The group? People with TiVo or other Digital Video Recorders (DVRs).

Nielsen’s information-gathering device, the PeopleMeter, was not equipped to handle DVRs, it said. People with DVRs were still included in the “sweeps” surveys — the forms Nielsen mailed out had a column to indicate that you had watched the show on DVR rather than “live” — but if you had a DVR, you could not be one of those 9,000 families who comprise the bulk of Nielsen’s research. Nielsen wouldn’t let you.

This is kind of a big deal. Nielsen strives to get an accurate sampling of American households, yet leaves out 7.4 million. (That’s how many have DVRs as of August 2005 — and the number is rising fast.) Added to Nielsen’s notorious lack of representation for TV viewing in non-home settings — at bars, in dorm rooms, etc. — we start to see a lot of cracks in Nielsen’s system.

Because here’s the thing: Nielsen and the networks should be paying particular attention to DVR viewers, not ignoring them. Not only are DVRs the way of the future — that 7 percent of American households is expected to rise to 35 percent within the next four years — but DVR users are also the people who CARE about TV. They’re the ones who are passionate about it, who choose their shows intentionally, who don’t watch something just because it happens to be on when they’re flipping channels.

They’re loyal, too. A non-DVR fan of “Desperate Housewives” might miss the occasional episode due to forgetfulness or being out of the house, but a DVR user never will, because the DVR records it each week automatically. Isn’t that the audience you’d want to cater to?

Nielsen has finally alleviated the problem and has done whatever was necessary to make the PeopleMeters DVR-compatible. As of this week (Dec. 26), 60 of its 9,000 families are DVR households. Nielsen will increase the number 100 per month until the percentage of Nielsen families matches the percentage of DVR households nationwide. That means it will be another six months before Nielsen is accurately reflecting DVR usage. (Seven percent of 9,000 is 630.)

It will be interesting to see how this affects the ratings. Are there shows that are watched more by DVR viewers than regular viewers? I suspect we will see these changes:

– Ratings for “The War at Home” will decline. The Fox sitcom, a wretched exercise in forced “outrageousness,” currently has a cushy slot between “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.” I suspect many of the people who watch it do so simply because they like the shows before and after it, and there’s no particular reason to change the channel (or turn the TV off) for that half-hour in between. DVR users, however, don’t watch shows accidentally. They record what they want to see, period — which in this case probably means “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” but NOT “The War at Home.”

– The lead-in effect in general will be minimized. Many, many shows remain “popular” (that is to say, they are watched by a lot of people) simply because they come on immediately after shows that are genuinely popular. Fox used this to its advantage with “House,” which struggled on its own, then became a hit when it followed “American Idol.” After gaining an audience in that time slot, the show was sent out on its own — and did just fine, thanks to all those people discovering it and becoming fans when they saw it after “American Idol.” Had Fox not taken advantage of people’s apathy — they don’t change the channel or turn off the TV when their show ends; they just sit there and look at whatever comes on next — “House” would have continued to struggle.

This phenomenon will fall off once DVR usage is accurately reported, and especially as it becomes more prominent over the next few years. Like I said, DVR people generally don’t watch shows accidentally. They record them and watch them later. At the very least, they start watching a show half-way through, so they can skip the commercials.

– Ratings for Letterman and Leno will even out. At present, Letterman’s ratings tend to go up when CBS has a strong prime-time lineup leading into it, apparently because people watch the 10 p.m. show, then keep it on CBS for their local news, then keep it on for Letterman. Leno receives a similar boost when NBC is strong. Again, this is not generally how DVR people watch TV. I don’t expect Letterman to start matching Leno — Leno has a lot of people who watch him regardless of what they were watching earlier in the evening — but I do expect the gap to lessen somewhat, being no longer influenced as heavily by lead-ins.

– Ratings for some middle-of-the-road shows will go down. I’m thinking of CBS’ Monday night sitcom lineup here, particularly the 9 p.m. hour: “Two and a Half Men” and “Out of Practice.” Both are highly rated, regularly winning their time slot and charting among the top 20 shows of the week. But does anyone LOVE those shows? Do people look forward to them? Does anyone have their DVR set to record them each week? I suspect not. These aren’t “appointment” shows. They air on a night when people are very likely to be home, at a time when there’s not much else on. Plus, they’re on right before “CSI: Miami,” which is a much more “legitimately” popular show (as in, people actually anticipate it). Some viewers, with nothing else to do, will turn to a station early just to make sure they don’t forget to watch their show. Honestly, I suspect DVR households don’t watch middling shows like that nearly as much as other people.

A show I DO think DVR people watch in greater percentages than non-DVR people is “Arrested Development.” The show is densely packed with jokes, subtle references, and even fleeting visual gags. You almost HAVE to have a DVR (or at least have recorded the show with your VCR) to fully appreciate it.

It’s also, frankly, a show that is more likely to be watched regularly by people who are willing to commit to a TV show. It requires a viewer’s careful attention, and it requires faithful viewing, each and every week. (It also rewards it immeasurably with brilliantly funny writing and performances, but that’s another article.) What kind of viewer is most likely to give a show that kind of attention? The kind of viewer who is also passionate enough about TV to have a DVR.

I don’t mean to say that ALL DVR users are passionate, selective viewers, nor that ALL people without DVRs will indiscriminately watch anything that happens to land in front of their eyes. But there is certainly a trend, particularly in the attention DVR users will pay to a show.

It might be too late for “Arrested Development,” since Fox has all but canceled it. But other shows with devoted cult followings might find their ratings improving once the Nielsen ratings start accurately reflecting DVR usage. And maybe some of those crappy shows — the ones no one cares about, but that they sometimes watch anyway — maybe those will go away. Here’s hopin’.

Two signs I saw

Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

Sign No. 1: A preacher from some church is standing on the street corner in downtown Portland, ringing a bell and collecting money for some cause. Next to the bucket where you’re supposed to donate your change, there is a sign:


Obviously, I want no part in an organization that would construct such a poorly grammared sign, so I declined to donate.

Sign No. 2: At the Rite-Aid drug store, the motto is as follows:

“For your life, Rite Aid’s there.”

Do you really want the word “AIDS” in your slogan? Yeah, it’s “Aid’s,” not “AIDS,” but still. I’m just sayin’.

‘Hollywood of the ’70s’ syllabus

Tuesday, December 20th, 2005

Some Great Movies That Were Not Required Viewing for the “Hollywood of the ’70s” Class I Took at Portland State University, Followed By One That Was

Not required:
Annie Hall
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
All the President’s Men
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The Godfather, Part II
The Sting
The Exorcist
The French Connection
The Last Picture Show
Dirty Harry

Every Which Way But Loose

Choosing my path at the movie theater

Friday, December 16th, 2005

The Laurelhurst Theatre in Portland plays second-run films and usually has an old classic playing for a week at a time, too. The other night as I approached two of the Laurelhurst’s cinemas on opposite sides of the same hallway, I saw these two choices, like signposts at a fork in the road:



I felt like I was choosing my destiny! (So is it bad that I chose “A History of Violence”?)

Angry Letter: Native American cinema

Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

I received this e-mail from someone named Gene, in response to my review of “5th World,” a film that played at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Gene writes:

I recently saw “5th World” at the Santa fe Film estival, and I must say I’m as angry as I’ve ever been in my life after I stumbled on your “review” of this film. [“Review” is in quotation marks to indicate it’s not really a review. As you know, if you disagree with something, it stops being what it claims to be. So no, I was not speeding, “officer”!]

If you’re going to cop to not knwoing anything about the rythm and pace of resevation life, how in the name of God can you have allowed a last line about “doing disservice” to navajo’s?! I libve in New Mexico, am not Nvajo, but this was as outrageous a take from a white person on a minority sensibility as I’ve ever read. A “disservice” in who’s frigging eyes? [Probably mine. Y’know, since it was my review and all.] An incredibly white point of view. [Is that an insult? It’s phrased like an insult, but all he’s saying is that I’m white and I think like a white person, both of which are true.]

Sorry if Blackhorse Lowe didn’t meet your expecatation sof teaching you something and rescuing you from your admtted ignorance. That wasn’t the film he clearly set out to make. A shame you couldn’t have reviewed it on the level he offered.

My saying the movie was a “disservice to Native Americans” was in reference to the film being dull and nearly unwatchable — facts that would prevent Native American artists such as Larry Blackhorse Lowe from finding a mainstream, “white” audience.

If the movie was only meant to interest Native Americans, that’s fine. But he probably shouldn’t have entered it in the Sundance Film Festival, then, where it played to a general audience and thus is liable to be judged against the other movies playing in the festival, many of which were much better than “5th World.”

By the way, a good rule of thumb is not to write e-mails when you are as angry as you’ve ever been in your life. It maks you mispell evry othr word.

Sad box office facts

Tuesday, December 6th, 2005

Quiz: What two things do the following films have in common?

“The Fog”
“Transporter 2”
“The Dukes of Hazzard”
“Fantastic Four”
“The Amityville Horror”
“The Pacifier”
“Diary of a Mad Black Woman”
“Are We There Yet?”

Answer: First, they’re all really bad.

Second, they were each the No. 1 film in the country for at least one weekend apiece.

That’s right, there was one weekend this year when people would rather watch “The Pacifier” than ANY OTHER MOVIE. Doesn’t that make you sorta ashamed? Especially considering that on that very same weekend, good movies like “Million Dollar Baby,” “Sideways,” “Finding Neverland,” “Hotel Rwanda” and “In Good Company” were also playing. Heck, even “The Incredibles” was still on a few hundred screens. And instead, everyone went to watch Vin Diesel being bit in the crotch by a duck.

There was a general bemoaning of Hollywood’s inferior product this year, just as there is most years. But as long as people keep going to watch the crap that comes out, why should Hollywood make anything different? If you paid money to see “Are We There Yet?,” let’s face it, you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.

I’m looking at the films liable to make my Top 10 list for the year, and I see quite a few that were box office disappointments. Is it because they’re movies that only film critics like, and that regular audiences find boring? Yeah, a few of them. But most of them are accessible, regular ol’ crowd-pleasers — that is, they would be crowd-pleasers if they could attract a crowd to please.

The fact that “Monster-in-Law” grossed $82 million while “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” has petered out around $4 million is a terrible injustice. (Maybe if Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda had kissed each other and then shot each other….)

Angry Letter: ‘Rent’

Monday, December 5th, 2005

A fellow named Chris ( e-mailed me recently in response to my review of the film “Rent.” He writes:

ITS A [swear word] MUSICAL U RETARD! [I believe that was actually the original advertising slogan.] Oops here’s another song? What did you think it was gonna be like. If there weren’t songs you would’ve said..”I didnt like this wasnt so much a musical as it was a regular movie.” And hey did u watch La Bohem? [No, but I did manage to catch “La Boheme.”] The main illness was teberculosis…the AIDS of that time. [We’ll ignore the medical incongruities between tuberculosis and AIDS and just point out that while TB is indeed the ailment of choice in “La Boheme,” only one character suffers from it.] The main characters are drug addicts, sluts, strippers, and homo-sexuals…all prone to….guess what…AIDS!!! The people that dont have AIDS are…here’s a shocker…you ready??? Mark…momma’s boy who doesnt do drugs, Maureen…dated momma’s boy, wouldn’t let her do drugs…and the up-tight lawyer Joanne…who…well…the description is pretty much says it. The peopel that did have AIDS…druggie, druggie, stripper druggie, and two gay guys…hmmm…pattern? My opinion…if you dont get the movie, don’t make dumb biast comments on it.

That an e-mail so riddled with grammatical, spelling, logical and factual errors should call MY comments “dumb” — and it happens all the time with angry-letter writers — is one of the genuine delights of my job.

For the record, my actual complaint in the review was not that the film had too many songs, but that the songs didn’t feel connected, like they were part of a unified whole. In fact, the movie didn’t have ENOUGH songs — by cutting out a lot of the singing that connected the numbers in the stage version, the movie got that disjointed feeling I complained about. ITS A [swear word] REVIEW U RETARD! TRY READING IT!!

Cedar Hills and self-righteousness

Thursday, December 1st, 2005

I recently began a thread on my message board (aka “The Online Village of Nerds”) desiring to know people’s opinions about the recent vote in Cedar Hills, Utah. An initiative had been proposed that, if passed, would require all businesses within the city to be closed on Sundays, and would ban the sale of beer completely, seven days a week.

Though a vast majority of the town’s residents are Mormon and don’t personally buy beer or shop on Sundays, there was some question over whether such personal choices should be turned into laws. Others countered that the laws would be better for the community, and that since nearly everyone in town followed those principles anyway, a law wouldn’t be disrupting anyone’s life.

In the end, the initiative was voted down, 60 percent to 40 percent.

But I was curious what others thought of it, so I posed a brief description of it, and then we enjoyed a (mostly) civil discussion weighing the pros and cons of it. Most of the people who spoke up said they would not have favored such an initiative, but several regular members of the message board community voiced opinions supporting it, too.

Then someone joined the board (you have to register a user name first) JUST to tell us how wrong we were. His user name was JonBird. He was heavily in favor of the initiative. He posted four messages in rapid succession replying to, disagreeing with, and piously mocking those who had said they were against it.

He said: “Surprised to see how many LDS in this nerd villiage got this issue wrong.”

When someone said, “The fact that you think there is a ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ here indicates you are either naive or ignorant. Feel free to disagree with me if you want to but don’t tell me I’m wrong. I won’t tell you you’re wrong either,” he responded: “I guess you are not person of faith because religious faith is all about what is right and wrong and proclaiming as such.”

When someone said, “Is there no room for different opinions in the LDS Church, even when the doctrine isn’t completely clear-cut?,” he responded: “There is room when the doctrine is not clear. But this is as clear as it gets. Are you unfamiliar with the Word of Wisdom or Sabbath day teachings?”

People would counter his arguments with questions, or point out logical fallacies, and he would respond to some while ignoring others (presumably the ones he couldn’t think of answers for).

Feel free to browse the thread to read more. (He shows up on page 3.)

The issue, of course, was not that he was in favor of an initiative that many others had spoken out against. Disagreeing is perfectly acceptable. There’s no right or wrong answer on an issue like this. It was the smarmy, self-righteous way he talked about it that was off-putting.

The surprising thing, and the point of this blog entry, was this: When someone asked who he was and why he had suddenly appeared on the message board, he said:

I’m a really long time fan of Eric’s from his Daily Universe days when we were both students. Long time reader of the boards. Usually i think the LDS on this board play it safe and error on the side of righteousness, but not today.

How can someone as self-righteous as this guy be a fan of mine since all the way back in the BYU days? Didn’t I used to make fun of self-righteous people, like, every week? Did he not realize I meant him, too?

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