Moyers Says “Ciao” to Now

But HBO had better not retire The Wire.

The sad news of Bill Moyers’ retirement from the PBS newsmagazine Now is all over the place  today. (He will be ceding his anchor post to co-host David Brancaccio after tonight’s episode, at 8:30 p.m. ET.) But not many people are talking about the other big change in the 3-year-old show that will take effect starting tonight: Its hourlong format will be shortened to only a half an hour per week. This in itself seems like a loss—I always liked the fact that, unlike most newsmagazines, Now had a leisurely pace to match Moyers’ Texas drawl. There was always that long reported piece at the beginning, an interview with an author or newsmaker in the middle, and then a discussion between two policy experts—often the Laurel-and-Hardy team of Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Kevin Phillips—before the op-ed wrapup at the end. I wonder which segment(s) will get the ax next season? A representative for the show told me that plans for restructuring it were still up in the air, but that on-site reportage by Brancaccio would play a bigger role next year. Whatever the new format, those extra 30 minutes will be missed, along with Moyers, who was especially astute at interviewing artists—his conversation with Maurice Sendak  early this year was among the most intimate and moving encounters I’ve seen on a TV news show.

In other news: What’s this about HBO’s The Wire possibly not being picked up  for a fourth season? It’s bad enough that this gritty, brainy show about the Baltimore drug trade hasn’t yet won, or even been nominated for, any Emmys or Golden Globes. (One reader wrote in suggesting that the awards-giving establishment might have a wee bit of a race problem … gee, ya think?) I’d been waiting to write about The Wire until I was fully caught up on all of its dense, multiseason plot arcs—I only started watching this year—but a heads-up: People, please, if you’re interested in keeping good (not just pretty-good-for-TV but really ****ing good) programming on the air, tune in for this Sunday’s third-season wrapup of The Wire (HBO, 9 p.m. ET.) If you haven’t watched before, you won’t know what the hell’s going on, but that’s OK—you can catch up with the first season (and beginning in January, the second) on DVD. … 12:43 p.m.

So it’s official: The new gauntlet-throwing catch phrase from the right is “Merry Christmas” (can’t you just see Eastwood saying it from behind the barrel of a gun?). Apparently, uttered in the right context—like on Fox News—those four syllables no longer convey simply holiday cheer, but a red-state/blue-state, my-god-is-better-than-yours challenge: I’ve got your “happy holidays” right here, buddy. This trend has been emerging all over the television dial: Last week on Scarborough Country, there was Pat Buchanan’s distinctly testy-sounding “Merry Christmas” in answer to a guest from the American Atheists association who wished him a happy “winter solstice.” And this week, there was George W. Bush’s brief speech at the end of the Christmas in Washington variety special. (Throughout which I waited in vain for one politically correct, non-Christian number: Mandy Patinkin doing “Dreidl, Dreidl”? Queen Latifah rapping about Kwanzaa? C’mon, TNT, other religions can be cheesy too!) When the performances were through, Bush took the stage to thank the singers (who included LeAnn Rimes, American Idol ‘s Ruben Studdard, and the teen pop star JoJo) and remind the nation that the purpose of the season was to “remember the humble birth of our savior.” Right, and to reach out to Americans of all faiths, in our country’s great tradition of separation of church and … ? Mr. President? Are you finished already?

Between now and the end of the year, let’s see how many warm wishes of Christmas intolerance we can gather from the airwaves. E-mail me yours at And a jolly Chrismukkah to you all.

Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2004

The story about the TiVo grammar crackdown  (which was reported yesterday both in the New York Times and on CNN) is a bit of a non-starter as far as news is concerned. The company’s Web site has long included a legal page specifying that the word “TiVo” is to be used only in its adjectival sense: not “don’t forget to TiVo Letterman!” but “do not forget to record The Late Show With David Letterman on the TiVo® DVR.”

Protecting trademarks from “dilution” is standard practice for any company. (After all, as TiVo’s Web page cheerily reminds us, “trademarks are proud of the company that owns them!”) Indeed, many of TiVo’s more bizarre grammatical prescriptions (trademarks cannot be used as nouns? So much for classic ad slogans like “Coke is it” or “Leggo my Eggo!”) come directly from the regulations of the International Trademark Association. Nonetheless, the TiVo story serves as an object lesson on the Catch-22 of brand identification: You want your brand name to be recognizable enough that everyone associates it with the product, but not so recognizable that no one distinguishes your product from similar ones made by other companies. The fact that TiVo technology has changed the very way we talk about television is a testament to its impact, but as Steve Jobs can attest, innovation alone doesn’t necessarily translate into market share.

Since TiVo hasn’t yet turned a profit in its five years of existence and is now increasingly threatened by the success of copycat brands, the company is not only getting tough on improper word usage, but also looking into new advertising models, including (beginning this March) “billboard” ads that will pop up when users fast-forward through commercials. And in an example of the increasingly popular talk-show tie-in, yesterday Ellen Degeneres gave away a TiVo—excuse me, a TiVo® DVR—to every member of the studio audience at her daytime talk show. I wasn’t tuned in to DeGeneres’ show at the time, so I’ll turn the question over to readers: When announcing the gift, did she refer to the product using company-approved grammar?