Monday, September 28, 2015

Does Netflix have an October Surprise for us this week?

Let me say right away, lest I get anyone's hopes up, that I have no knowledge that it does, and I don't believe it does. But I sure hope it does.

Here's what won't be a surprise: On October 1, Netflix's deal with Epix expires, meaning scores of high-profile titles go bye-bye from Instant Watching. Couple that with the normal churn the service experiences each month, and according to my Instant Watcher tracker for Roku, at least 500 titles are disappearing this week.

Netflix is losing a little something for everybody: comedies, dramas, action movies, British movies, new movies, old movies, blockbusters, B-movies...did I mention 500?

The company says it is concentrating on original and/or exclusive content, and it couldn't (or wouldn't pay enough for) such status with the Paramount, Lionsgate, Epix originals, and other content it got through that deal. Well, Netflix has some great content, but not enough to make up for the shock of losing so many big things at once. You know how people always complain that Netflix never gets the movies people really want to watch? Well, when people counter that, "It has __ and ___," they usually cite Epix-controlled movies.

The Epix stuff will go to Hulu, so for those who have both services, the content will still be available. But what does this do to Netflix's selection? I'm still reeling from all the older television shows that left this summer and were replaced by zilch.

Observers point to the Disney deal, which is still a little vague. We know Netflix will get exclusive rights to Disney theatricals...beginning next year, not October 1. We know Netflix already has a Disney library deal...and hasn't done a whole lot with it. Hey, as a parent I am grateful that current Disney TV shows and cartoons are available for streaming, and I love the assortment of older animation that is on Instant. But it's just that: an assortment. When the deal first kicked in, each month brought a new assortment of vintage Disney. That rarely happens now.

Even the reports of this new phase of the Disney agreement are circumspect about what happens beyond the few theatrical movies that go straight to Netflix after a window. One article said Netflix gets "access to the vast majority of the Disney library." First of all, "vast majority" doesn't make me optimistic that "Snow White"  will be on the service anytime soon. And "access" is a lot different than "all the Disney library will eventually appear."

Here's one easy way to appease the customers who are gonna freak out when they see their queues decimated this Thursday: Expand the Disney back catalog offerings. Where is all the live action family movies? Where are all the classic animation shorts? Where are the rare TV shows Disney was issuing in its Treasures DVD line before it killed that off?

(There is a premium service called Disney Family Movies that offers a handful of these things each month for way too high a price; I sure hope the existence of this isn't the obstacle)


Ahem. Absent all of  that, could Netflix have another October Surprise to replace or at least take some of the sting out of all those recent theatricals? Rumors swirled last week about the Star Wars movies. Those would be welcome, but not really any kind of equivalent. No, I want to see something big. Netflix probably thinks it can easily ride out the wave of publicity it will get this week, but I sure hope it has something planned beyond Adam Sandler, "Crouching Tiger," and Chelsea Handler.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Shameless Self-Promotion: Late September Edition

It's TV Time at ClassicFlix as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of  "one of" (a qualifier left out of the headline) the best seasons in history, 1965-66, the season that gave us Tammy, OK Crackerby, Convoy, Hank...oh, yeah, and Get Smart, Hogan's Heroes, Batman, I Dream of Jeannie, Wild Wild West...

Check out the sneak peek, and click through for the whole article. Tell 'em Cultureshark sent ya!
TV TIME: 50th Anniversary of Television's Best Season TV TIME: 50th Anniversary of Television's Best Season
By Rick Brooks
We often hear how brilliant television is today, but this is the 50th anniversary of one of the most remarkable years the medium ever had. The 1965-1966 season was loaded with classic programs, legendary performers, and memorable characters. While it's certain that nothing like Game of Thrones was around in 1965, I sure don't see anything like My Mother the Car right now.

In retrospect, 1965 was a significant year in television history for two main reasons. One is the sheer number of notable programs that debuted. Also, the '65-'66 season is considered the one in which color took over the prime time schedule; the first year the majority of network shows aired as such, though standbys like Perry Mason remained (but even it aired its only color episode before the season ended). Even NBC debuted one of the most famous sitcoms ever in black (read more)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

This is an actual network, folks

While looking at the TV listings the other day, I notice ION was showing a lot of "Criminal Minds" reruns. When I say a lot, I mean a lot--like ALL DAY a lot.

So I wondered, what does Ion show these days when it isn't running a "Criminal Minds" marathon? The answer: Not a lot. What a great job it must be running scheduling at ION!

The lineup for Monday 9/14:

9:00AM--1:00PM Numbers
1:00PM--01:00AM Criminal Minds

OK, that's just one weekday. How about Tuesday 9/15?

9:00AM--01:00PM Numbers
1:00PM--11:00PM Criminal Minds

Ah, wait, now, we got to be fair. ION really mixes it up on Tuesday, replacing those last two hours with an actual third program,:

11:00PM--01:00AM The Listener

Maybe Wednesday adds some variety?

9:00AM--01:00PM Ghost Whisperer

Hey! Something besides "Numbers" for 4 hours. Well, that's something, right? So what's on the rest of the day?

01:00PM--01:00AM Ghost Whisperer


Well, Thursday is another day.

09:00 AM--01:00AM Blue Bloods

Another show is in the mix, but it's on ALL DAMN DAY.

Friday brings us:

09:00AM--06:00PM Ghost Whisperer
06:00PM--01:00AM Law and Order: Criminal Intent

WHAAA? A non-CBS show? Ooh, ION gets edgy on Friday nights!

Seriously, that's 16 hours a day for 5 weekdays, and ION runs 6 different series, and one is Canadian and only shows up for two hours. That is ridiculous. I get this, but I can't get Retro TV? At least Retro shows programs that aren't currently on the air.

I just believe that scheduling a major television outlet should involve a little bit more than going to Best Buy and stocking up when they're having a CBS Television 2-for-1 DVD sale. Even an infomercial or two would look goof in this lineup.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Streaming Showcase: Acorn TV

My Streaming Showcase series looks at both SVOD (Subscription Video On Demand) streaming services AND free channels. We took a look at the free-but-not-even-worth-the-hassle-at-that-price Crackle; today it's Acorn TV, a much, much better offering that comes at a price.

(Reminder: my judgments of these services/channels are based on viewing them on Roku 3 unless otherwise noted)

Acorn TV is a service created by what is now RLJ Entertainment to utilize the television catalog of Acorn Media, a company specializing in British TV DVDs. Acorn Online offers fairly upscale gifts along with DVDs, and for $4.99 a month (or $49.99 for a full year), you get free shipping as well as access to the Acorn TV service.

Acorn is a niche service, to be sure, and if you are opposed to accents in general or British programs in general, then you can move on (though you can get a month free). You might wonder, "Isn't all this stuff on BBC America or PBS or Hulu?" Well, not at all. Acorn offers not just recent series, but a significant amount of library material dating back to the 1970. BBC America of course doesn't bother with that sort of thing anymore, and while you can certainly see some of this on your local PBS station on the weekend, Acorn offers a lot more than just played-out Britcoms like "Are  You Being Served?" Uh, I should mention that one is NOT on Acorn at all, actually. You can also find a lot of this content on Hulu or even YouTube, but Acorn runs it commercial free in good (if not HD) quality, often with closed captioning and therefore provides a superior experience.

Additionally, Acorn has started co-producing original content that does end up on PBS but premiering it first on its own channel. As an example, the most recent series of "Foyle's War"debuted as an Acorn exclusive, as did the sixth season of "Doc Martin." The company announced last week that "Doc Martin" series 7 will premiere in October on Acorn before eventually turning up on PBS stations. As a fan of both programs, I'll warn anyone tempted to just wait for the free airings that in the past, American public broadcasting versions have been edited down, but Acorn has the full episodes.

Acorn carries many complete runs of programs, some selections of multiple seasons/"series", and some it doles out one season at a time. What kind of programming does it emphasize? If you guessed "mysteries" and "crime shows," well, you are either psychic or you have just noticed what 85% of all British programming that makes it over here is. In both the older and newer content on the service, mystery and crime reigns supreme.

You can enjoy staples like "Cracker," "Poirot," "Inspector Morse," "Prime Suspect," and "Midsomer Murders." However, Acorn has branched out by going beyond England, Scotland, and Ireland to add programs from places like Australia and New Zealand.

"A Place to Call Home," a post-WWII melodrama, is one of the more popular non-British, non-mystery shows on Acorn. In addition to the dramas, there is also an assortment of comedies, and this year Acorn has expanded its collection of documentaries and non-fiction series focusing on history, the arts, and the monarchy among other topics.

I know that the crime procedurals bring in a lot of eyeballs both here and on other channels that provide British TV stateside, and it's great to have access to so much of it in one place. Nevertheless, I find myself drawn to some of the quirkier and lesser known efforts. I just saw and greatly enjoyed the first episode of a new half-hour dramedy called "The Detectorists" with Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones as two metal detector enthusiasts. Old episodes of an outstanding comedy panel/quiz show called "QI," hosted by Stephen Fry, are available with more coming next month.

Other personal favorites: Dramedy "Cold Feet" with the great James Nesbitt, finally available to me after BBC America pulled it years ago before I could see the final seasons; "Monroe" with Nesbitt as a difficult but brilliant neurosurgeon; "Trivia," a delightful, low-key comedy about a pub-quiz-obsessed man with some social maladjustments; and "Drop the Dead Donkey," a fast-paced, dialogue-driven, topical sitcom set in a TV newsroom in the early 1990s.

Acorn TV is thankfully easy to use. You can add series to a watchlist, and while it takes a while to load up your full list, it is accessible and simple to navigate. There are options to browse and search the catalog, and I can't remember having any kind of streaming problem once a program began. Pausing, rewinding, and fast-forwarding are smooth.

Best of all is the transparency about programming. Often learning what is coming to a SVOD service like Netflix is a bigger mystery than even "Agatha Christie's Marple" (which IS on Acorn) could solve, but Acorn is refreshing in its openness about what is coming and going. Each month it announces what is leaving and what is arriving, and it always gives at least 30 days' notice so you can catch up with something if need be.

Plus the selection is stable. Acorn has about 150 distinct programs (with multiple seasons of each), miniseries, and movies by my count, and each month it adds a handful new ones, with only a few leaving in most months. I have never noticed the kind of exodus you get when a Netflix contract expires, presumably because Acorn has more control over these streaming rights.

It must be said, as well, that Acorn TV's library is much, much smaller than that of a Netflix. As I said, it's a niche product. However, it offers quality, and I think it's "no BS" interface plus lack of commercials helps provde value for your 5 bucks a month. I do have some qualms about the content; I'd like to see more variety and particular more comedies. Some lower-brow comedies like "Men Behaving Badly," with Acorn star Martin Clunes, would be nice. Hulu has only 3 seasons of that one, and I'd love to see the rest on here.

Really anything apart from the recent mysteries and crime dramas would be a nice change of pace. I continue to look for more Britcoms and more 1970s and 1980s programming.  Yes, a lot of that is in heavy rotation on PBS stations, but there is plenty of quality out there to give us. For comedies, how about the original "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin" (the remake with Clunes is on Acorn)?  I don't believe "The Royle Family" is streaming anywhere now, nor "The Thin Blue Line."

A few other suggestions: How about the brilliant political espionage drama "The Sandbaggers"? Or if you want to stick to the crime zone, how about "The Sweeney"?

Basically I love what is on Acorn and how to view it, but I only wish there were more of it. I do appreciate the fact that this channel doesn't rotate tons of shows in and out like, say, Warner Archive Instant. Folks who compare Acorn TV to some of the big boys of SVOD may balk at the subscription fee, but this channel delivers what it promises, and I think fans of British television will easily get their five dollars' worth each month.

Grade: B+ (A- in months with new episodes of "Doc Martin" and "Foyle's War")

Thursday, September 10, 2015

True Confessions: I think Andy Capp is funny

Growing up, I always enjoyed reading the adventures of Andy Capp. He played snooker and soccer (yeah, he called it football, but I forgave him), he got stinking drunk, he hit on much younger lasses, he was loutish to his wife Flo, but, hey, he was a funny little SOB. Andy was funny in the local paper and in the little paperbacks I'd get from the department store.

One night I was watching "The Simpsons" when a bemused Homer Simpson, his nose in the newspaper, said, "Oh, Andy Capp, you wife-beating drunk." Well, that's a little harsh, I thought. A drunk, sure, but a wife beater? If anything, Flo seemed to be the one throttling him.

Years later, I have accumulated a handful of older little paperbacks collecting Capp strips from the 1960s, and, yeah, Andy slugs Flo quite a bit. Sometimes they both engage in a knockdown, dragout bowl that manifests itself in a big round circle of suiggly lines with a few fists emerging on the periphery. Sometimes Flo does something to Andy. More often, though, it's Andy hitting her or the aftermath, like Flo sitting on her duff after having landed on the street.

The absolute worst ones are the strips in which Andy threatens her by cocking a fist and she cowers and acquiesces to whatever he's on about. Somehow that's even more disturbing than the occasional "BOP!" of his fist hitting her jaw.

Here's the thing, though: As repellent as the notion of domestic violence for laughs is today, it's still cartoony enough that it doesn't bother me enough to put down the book. Yes, some of the menacing ones stick out as discomfiting, but the rest of it still makes me laugh. I still enjoy lazy Andy napping on the sofa, boorish Andy trying to pick up a barmaid, and even thuggish Andy picking fights with bill collectors or opposing rugby players. If it were a real person, the knowledge that he likes to slug his wife would forever tarnish him for me. But in a comic strip, I still enjoy his antics.

Am I a bad person? Or am I a decent bloke?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Checking in with Entertainment Weekly...

"Entertainment Weekly"  made a major design change recently, and if  you guessed it involved adding more pictures and removing pesky words, you hit The Bullseye (Apologies to the mostly lame back page feature of the same name).

The mag actually has run some cool features lately, such as an oral history of M. Night Shyamalan's "Unbreakable." That one's worth checking out; it's an insightful look at an underappreciated film that offers a much different take on superheroes.

There's still a lot of junk in each issue, of course, like the repository for cheap gags that is "The Bullseye" (Hey, you're so intent on pushing Twitter, given that you're publishing all the writers' handles as part of their bylines, so why not save that material for your feed?), and the ever-annoying "Must List."

The "Must List" is a rundown of 10 things the magazine wants to promote/hype with excited blurbs, and for some reason, it's now spread out over 3 pages. The content is essentially the same, but now there are more pics, and the numbers are really big.

Here's what stands out the most to me: In the issue that offers a wrap-up of Comic Con, "EW" devotes 8 pages to pictures of castmembers of high-profile projects announced or promoted there. That's not a bad idea, as I would certainly enjoy seeing some exclusive pics from the set of "Star Wars" or "The Hateful Eight." That's not what these pictures are. They are staged shots from their "suite at the Hard Rock Hotel."  So in other words, we get a bunch of lame pics of actors and actresses standing in front of blue backdrops while pretending they're having a great time.

I'd say, "Pass," but in truth I already read the article. I'm not expecting "The New York Review of Books" here, but I think "Entertainment Weekly" can do better than that kind of ill-conceived spread.