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Channel Hopping
CNN, 'Watching Ellie,' '24' and more.

by Mark D. Johnson
April 18, 2003

Channel Hopping_Mark D. Johnson-CNN, 'Watching Ellie,' '24' and more. It’s time once again for a round-up of random thoughts on recent television happenings.

CNN Under Fire

Not only is CNN losing the ratings battle in war coverage to Fox News, but the network finds itself with a couple of black eyes resulting from a pair of questionable decisions. First, it was learned that CNN crews in Iraq had private armed security guards for protection in the midst of war, raising concern that such practices harm the journalistic integrity of embedding reporters with troops while blurring the line between reporter and armed combatant. Next, a CNN execute wrote a piece in the New York Times admitting that they withheld first-hand knowledge of Iraqi government atrocities before the war for fear that their Iraqi cameraman and his family might be harmed or killed if the atrocities were reported. The network denies that it was silent on the matter to retain access to report within Iraq.

Both offenses are serious; the second stirs up credibility problems. We understand the producer’s concerns about his Iraqi crew members, but when reporters let significant news go unreported, it leads to the question “What else do they know that they aren’t telling us?” I'm not saying that it should have been an easy decision for CNN, but the incident will hopefully spark more thought among the media about journalism ethics.

Michael Palin’s Travels: Sahara
Sundays 7/6c, through April 27 on Bravo

You can still catch the final two installments of “Michael Palin’s Travels: Sahara” on the Bravo cable network. Best known for his comedic work with Monty Python, Palin’s prior travel shows “Full Circle” and “Hemingway Adventure” were worthwhile diversions on PBS. Though it’s not a comedic format, Palin’s sense of humor is often at play to compliment his cultural observations and the exotic scenery.

The Return of “Watching Ellie”
Tuesdays, 9:30/8:30c on NBC

Last year’s mid-season show “Watching Ellie,” featuring Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a real-time format failed to win critical praise or respectable ratings, so many were surprised that NBC put it back on the schedule for another mid-season run. Conceding that last year’s real-time experiment wasn’t working, this season’s version dishes out the familiar bland format so typical of the many uninteresting sitcoms out there. I didn’t love the show’s first incarnation, but at least it was trying to do something different. The real-time format became a strain on credibility, requiring a tireless string of clever timing conveniences to move the plot along. As I’ve noted before, I’m no fan of studio audiences and laugh tracks in sitcoms, and the new “Ellie” gives us a canned laugh track. Louis-Dreyfus, so great as Elaine on “Seinfeld” is worthy of leading a show, but her Ellie, a local jazz singer romantically involved with her married guitarist, is constantly angry and nearly unlikable. In this week’s season premiere, even her group’s jazz sound has sold out to the more popular “smooth” variety. It is all together a most unfortunate project.

“24” Keeps Ticking
Tuesdays, 9/8c on Fox

(Spoiler Threat Level: Yellow)
The real time format still works for “24” – so well that ratings have greatly improved this season, earning an early renewal by Fox for next year. The counter-terrorism thriller got off to a wonderful start this season, climaxing with a nuclear explosion a couple of weeks ago. The episodes that followed have been less spectacular, but the relatively slow and complex set-up that has brought us to a potential overthrow of Palmer’s Presidency and Jack’s torture may now start to pay off in more fast-paced suspense. Kim’s storyline, non-existent in the most recent episode (2-3 AM), will hopefully stay in the distant background for the remainder of the season. There is enough other intrigue without her implausible situations and foolishness. Keifer Sutherland is still solid in the lead role, but I’m not entirely satisfied with the explanation for the urgency of those around the president to go to war against those three carefully unnamed countries.

Imperfect Strangers

This Monday, Fox fills the 9 PM timeslot with yet another dating reality show “with a twist.” First, it was “Joe Millionaire,” then “Married by America.” Now comes “Mr. Personality,” in which a woman will choose a mate among suitors who wear a mask covering the entire face at all times. When she makes her selection based on personality, will she still be interested if he looks less than handsome? The ads imply there are some ugly guys under those masks. Viewers can also play at home in a way: see if you can guess who has a criminal record that got past the background checks. The series is hosted by none other than Monica Lewinsky. God help us.

As for “Married by America,” the “social experiment” I told you not to watch, had, in my view, a relatively happy ending. In the low-rated show’s finale last week, no one got married, which was good news for Marriage. Apparently only one heart was broken at the altar. There is faint hope that Fox will finally give up on trying to turn a wedding into trashy entertainment.

Happily Ever After?
The future of “Ed”

NBC’s “Ed” wrapped up its season early last week with Ed and Carol finally agreeing that they belong together. It was three years of “will they or won’t they,” but “Ed” finished the year in good form, providing appropriate closure to fans in the event that the show is not renewed for next year. The network moved it from Wednesdays to Fridays last month, which was not exactly a vote of confidence. Too bad. TV could use more “Ed”s and fewer “Joe”s.

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