Monday, May 24, 2010

I was "Lost" but Now I'm Found

Several years ago I gave up on ABC's "Lost". In a couple seasons "Lost" had devolved into a most enigmatic and unsatisfying series. Last night's concluding episode left me confused and most grateful that I did not waste more time on the program.

I applaud innovation. I am attracted to strong story lines, great writing and powerful characters. But following a strong start "Lost" veered off the road into the marshes. There the program became mired in absurdity, ambiguity and obfuscation. It is unclear whether the show rigidly followed the producer's original outline. Whatever the circumstance, it always felt like it was being thrown together on the fly. Worse, its twists and turns truly challenged even its most ardent fans.

The concluding episode felt self-indulgent. I would have never in a million years guessed that "Lost" would have ended that way. All dead? All reunited? In a church? So this got me to thinking, what would I have done?

Locke, Desmond and Jack enter the cave and find Marlon Brando, reprising his role as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, sitting on a rock sipping on a bowl of Vietnamese soup. Brando says, "I expected someone like you. What did you expect? Are you an assassin?" "Yes," says Locke, "I have been sent to free the island." With that he stabs the Kurtz character and frees everyone on the island.

Or Locke, Desmond and Jack enter the cave, attracted by the bright light visible from miles away. Inside they come upon a waterfall and drop Desmond down by rope. There Desmond encounters Morpheus who says, "We've survived by hiding from them, by running from them. But they are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors; they are holding all the keys. Which means that sooner or later, someone is going to have to fight them." Desmond's face turns ashen as he responds, "Good luck with that," and scampers back up the rope. Then a huge explosion destroys the island.

Or Hurley enters the cave with Locke, Jack and Desmond. They decide that since Hurley won millions at the lottery he should be the one remove the rock plugging the light below. All three of them strain to lower him by rope. Hurley wades through the pool of water, pulls the plug and is sucked into the hole. Then Hurley is awakened from a deep sleep thanks to a friend who splashes cold water on his face. Hurley is sprawled on the ground in an alley. The friend says, "Hurley, Hurley, I am sorry you didn't win the lottery." Without missing a beat Hurley says, "Dude, you won't understand, but I am thrilled I didn't win the lottery!"

Or Locke, Jack and Desmond enter the cave and are greeted by Jimmy Hoffa and Judge Crater who instruct them to take a seat. Suddenly the music begins and Elvis walks out into the bright lights, his sequined jacket ablaze, singing "Amazing Grace".

To paraphrase the final words of Jack's father, "It's time to move on."

Friday, May 21, 2010

48 Hours Update

48 HR Magazine has indicated it will cease and desist from using the name 48 Hours. Details are to be worked out, but their next issue, which is released in August, will have a different name. Meanwhile, don't forget to watch 48 Hours/Mystery Saturday nights on CBS.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"48 Hours" Infringement

There's a new web-a-zine on the Internet called "48 HR Magazine". But CBS is already claiming title infringement because the creators of the new site have chosen the name of CBS News' long time Saturday night news magazine "48 Hours".

Amazingly, one of the web magazine's founders, Mathew Honan, said, "To be honest, none of us even knew that there was still a program called '48 Hours", so it never crossed our mind."

Ever heard of Google? Search "48 Hours" and most of the top results are the CBS News magazine "48 Hours". (By way of full disclosure, my wife, Susan Zirinsky, is the program's executive producer, and I used to oversee the program when I was an executive at CBS News in the early 90's.)

When launched in January 1988, "48 Hours" was the innovative idea of Sony's CEO Sir Howard Stringer, who was then President of CBS News. His concept was to assign reporters and cameramen to follow a subject for 48 hours and then produce a compelling and vividly real one-hour news program on a topic. These teams would capture all the energy, drama and tension while recording dynamic and powerful video from which to produce a riveting hour. Hence, "48 Hours on Crack Street" was the premier episode. Other subjects included life in a hospital emergency room or with the police out fighting crime.

Over time the producers found the program would be more complete if they did not have to limit themselves to a rigid 48 hour shooting schedule. That is because some aspects of a story, or crucial interviews, could not be acquired in that tight a window. Having more time to produce an hour meant producers could choose from a broader array of topics and could reduce costs by minimizing overtime.

The program was originally hosted by the CBS News anchorman Dan Rather and then "60 Minutes" correspondent Lesley Stahl. An ensemble cast currently presents each hour. Now known as "48 Hours/Mystery", it is also frequently the most viewed television program on Saturday nights with about 6 million viewers.

The program has had an important influence on how video news magazines are shot and edited. "48 Hours" reruns have been appearing on cable for many years now, with a version currently on Discovery. And "48 Hours" spun off a website last year called "Crimesider". In fact, it is pretty hard to miss "48 Hours".

So San Francisco freelance writer Mathew Honan is either disingenuous, lazy or amazingly naive. However, here's a suggestion, how about calling the new site "2880 Minutes"?

By the way, CBS has just announced that "48 Hours/Mystery" will be on the schedule again next fall, for its twenty-third season, right there in its regular Saturday night time slot.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Offshore Reform?

"I will not tolerate more finger pointing or irresponsibility," an angry President Barack Obama said at the White House Friday, following a meeting on the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The president said all parties, including the federal government, should accept responsibility. President Obama also announced steps he was taking to end the "cozy relationship" between the oil companies and the regulators.

The president's frustration was a stark contrast to earlier comments made by the head of British Petroleum, appearing in today’s Guardian newspaper. "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean," observed Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP. "The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume," he said. Mr. Hayward should be fired.

The Gulf oil disaster resulted in the deaths of eleven workers and untold damage to the region, its wildlife and small businesses along the coast. Not to mention that the spill, which began three weeks ago, continues unabated to wreak havoc on the region because BP can't find a way to stop the leak. In fact, BP doesn't even know how much oil is pouring into the Gulf each day.

One estimate is that the total oil spilled into the Gulf exceeds by five times the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska. Damage from the Exxon Valdez disaster is still visible twenty years after the incident. And many claims made against Exxon resulting from that incident took twenty years to settle.

Mr. Hayward notes, "Apollo 13 (the aborted lunar landing) did not stop the space race. Neither did the Air France plane last year coming out of Brazil (which crashed) stop the world airline industry flying people around the world. It's the same for the oil industry."

The Apollo flight was known as a "successful failure" because its crew returned safely to earth. But there is no way that BP's failures in the Gulf will be characterized as successful. The same applies to its failures in 2005, when fifteen of its workers died in an explosion at BP's Texas refinery.

Representatives from three companies involved in the accident appeared at Congressional hearings earlier this week and each of them tried to shift blame elsewhere. Today President Barack Obama slammed the companies for what he described as a "ridiculous spectacle" of representatives of BP, Transocean and Halliburton "falling over themselves pointing fingers at someone else."

A deeply infuriated President Obama nine times called for the leak to be stopped during his brief remarks. He reaffirmed that "BP is responsible for the leak and it will pay for these spills, not the taxpayers." He estimated that one million feet of barrier booms have been deployed, four million gallons of oily water have been collected and 13,000 people are working on the spill.

Of course, today oil is an important commodity for all Americans. But the Gulf of Mexico and the life it sustains are not commodities. So while the president reaffirmed his commitment to offshore drilling as part of a comprehensive energy policy, he most urgently called for top to bottom reforms of the industry and its regulators. Even as the leak continues, several important investigations are underway and many more will follow.

Meanwhile, in his remarks President Obama said, "I will not rest until the leak is plugged and the oil spill is cleaned up." BP CEO Tony Hayward seemed more confident in his Guardian interview, "We will fix it. I guarantee it. The only question is we do not know when."

As a sign of good faith and its recognition of BP's full responsibility, Mr. Hayward should put BP's first quarter profits, $5.6 billion, in a special "Gulf Oil Spill Cleanup" account. After all, there are plenty of reasons not to trust BP.

The Gulf oil spill of 2010 is certain to change the oil industry forever. But oil company lobbyists are already busy working hard to mitigate future damage to their businesses by courting elected officials in response to this crisis. So the question is, just how much change is really in store for the oil industry?

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Closing Bell

The anticipation was electric. A surge was building; the pressure was growing as the opening bell approached. Suddenly with a resounding clang the market took off like a rocket, rising more than 3% in minutes. And in short order the market regained loses incurred on Friday due to still inexplicable market glitches. Market leaders and regulators were in the process of putting measures in place to avoid such hazards in the future.

Meanwhile, across the pond, this rebound was also being driven by global confidence. The European market countries raised a trillion dollars to backstop Greece, whose economy teetered near default. Portugal, Spain and Italy also were hanging on by a thin margin, and this fund would if needed keep them above water.

Near the end of the day the Dow Jones Industrial average was up more than 4% and the mood on the floor was surreal. I know because I arrived with a team from the Mental Health Association of New York City, where I am a chairman of the board. I was joined with representatives of C.B. Richard Ellis, a powerful commercial real estate company based in New York. CBRE had made a generous donation to the MHA-NYC for its annual gala, which was being held at the NYSE that evening.

The rooms of the NYSE are all ornate, grand and large. The floor is massive, filled with cubbyholes and monitors. I saw mostly men dressed in blue trading jackets and wearing badges often on their toes poised to leap into action. The pace is intense, as traders are either on the phone, scanning terminals or viewing monitors. There is no rest here.

We crossed the floor and ascended a rear stairway up one flight and turned to our right and walked through a worn wooden door. Suddenly we emerged onto a narrow balcony overlooking the floor where scanned the traders and MHA-NYC staff members below. Here's the drill. We arrived at our position at 3:57, or three minutes to closing. One of our party of five was to ring the bell and the other was to pound the gavel. There were five of us crammed onto the small balcony, which was made smaller by the console housing buttons and the gavel.

At 3:59:20 we were instructed to start clapping, and our audience below joined in. At 3:59:45 we were instructed to press the button that rang the bell. As the clanging continued, at 4:00:00 we were instructed to pound the gavel closing the exchange. We lingered for a moment more on our perch and then descended. It was a pretty exciting day because the Dow Jones Industrial average closed up more than 400 points! And MHA-NYC not only had a wonderful and financially successful gala.

Take a look:

Monday, May 3, 2010

Oil Exploitation

British Petroleum's Chief Executive, Tony Hayward, was all over the airwaves saying his company accepts responsibility for the disastrous oil leak off the Gulf Coast. At the same time there is a growing chorus of irresponsible and absurd comments from the far right linking the oil leak to possible sabotage.

First, President Barack Obama basher and radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh pointed the finger at "environmentalist wackos." He opined, "What better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants, than by blowing up a rig? I'm just noting the timing here." Then Dana Perino, the former White House Press Secretary under President George Bush, said on Fox News, "You have to wonder whether there was sabotage involved." No Ms. Perino, Americans wonder why you and Limbaugh are so reckless with your comments.

Maybe Americans should wonder if Halliburton had a hand in this "sabotage." You know, the very same company where Vice President Cheney served as Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer from 1995 to 2000. The Wall Street Journal reported, "Scrutiny on cementing will focus attention on Halliburton Co., the oilfield-services firm that was handling the cementing process on the rig, which burned and sank last week." The company says, "It is premature and irresponsible to speculate on any specific causal issues." Apparently Perino and Limbaugh didn't get the memo.

Or maybe Vice President Dick Cheney himself played a role when his energy task force decided against requiring remote-control shut-off switches, at $500,000 apiece, because they are too costly, ineffective and the rigs had other backup plans. Brazil and Norway require the switches. But the United Kingdom, where BP is based, doesn't require the devices.

Were it not for the oilrig disaster, BP would have had a fabulous first quarter. They reported their profits had risen 135% from the same period a year earlier, to about $6 billion. With 11 oilmen dead and almost unimaginable destruction to wildlife, coastal areas and the devastation to fragile businesses that rely on the Gulf, BP may need every penny.

In a statement BP said it is "Committed to pay legitimate and objectively verifiable claims for other loss and damage caused by the spill - this may include claims for assessment, mitigation and clean up of spilled oil, real and property damage caused by the oil, personal injury caused by the spill, commercial losses including loss of earnings/profit and other losses as contemplated by applicable laws and regulations."

But one has to wonder just how much BP will actually pay in the end to the families of the dead, to small businesses, to the citizens who live on the Gulf Coast and to the American taxpayers. Especially considering that, while they have publicly accepted responsibility, they have said the accident is not their fault because they contracted with other companies to do the work.

Countless Congressional hearings, investigations and lawsuits will likely drag on for years. But corporate greed, lax regulations, transparency, oversight, and powerful political connections are likely to be at the bottom of this calamity. Sound familiar?

This massive disaster is far from over. The gravity of the destruction has yet to be fully realized. The people of the Gulf Coast are desperate for answers and an end to this nightmare. They must not be exploited for political and personal gain.