I traditionally write about television, but I recently spent some time watching Steve James’s wonderful documentary, Life Itself, about the life and death of Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert. The experience was so powerful, so intense, that I felt compelled to write. If it helps, then I did watch it on AppleTV. That counts, doesn’t it?

The documentary chronicles the last few months of Ebert’s life as he battled valiantly against the many ailments that plagued him. We are presented Ebert’s beginnings, his improbable rise to fame as a film critic, and his end. We get to know his wife Chaz, the love of his life. In the saddest moment of the documentary, it is Chaz who relays the final moments of his life in a joyous and yet still obviously painful recollection. We get a peak into the hospital room in which he died and are made to feel as if we were standing there with Ebert and his family. I’m not sure I drew a breath as it was an intense way to close the documentary. The only way it could have been done.

To say that this film hit me like a ton of bricks would only show how the English language sometimes fails to capture the true range of human emotions experienced. It took me to places I hadn’t visited in years. It made me face life events that I’ve chosen to ignore. As the best documentaries do, it told me a great deal not only about the subject but also about myself as a human being. It shamed me as Ebert himself once did. Let me explain how.

I grew up in a rural area of North Carolina. The only child of hard-working parents, I was often left alone with my imagination and penchant for theatrics as my only companions. With cable television not available in my area, my parents bought a massive satellite dish – the kind one sees in films about scientists trying to study life on other planets. To me, it was my lifeline to a greater world.

I had been to movie theaters before, of course, as my mother often took me to morning matinees at the local 2-screen multiplex. This was before the days of VCRs or DVD players, so I was able to see big screen presentations of the Disney classics like Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio. Later, my father discovered that father/son time would not involve shooting hoops in the backyard, as I was not an athletic child. Instead, he took me to the original Star Trek (the one with the bald chick), to ET (where I screamed and cried for two hours), and to movies he wanted to see such as the Richard Pryor remake of Brewster’s Millions and (later) Platoon.

This education was supplemented by the advent of the satellite dish. The first film I saw when the installer plugged the receiver in was A Christmas Story. My cinematic education blossomed from there, and what it taught me was that I wanted to contribute to that language. I wanted to become a writer and a director, giving back to the world that saved me as a child.

Enter Roger Ebert. I discovered Siskel and Ebert in the late 80s. This bizarre pair of Laurel and Hardy-types instantly became my first film professors. They taught me that there was a difference between movies and great cinema. They taught me about great actors and powerful directors, including introducing me to the great Martin Scorsese. I gravitated more toward Ebert’s opinion. He seemed to understand that there was a place for almost any film and seemed to appreciate film’s intrinsic value more than Siskel.

And, as a heavier child, I saw someone on television whose weight didn’t seem to bother him. He didn’t seem to be embarrassed by it. He had greater things on his mind. Still, I remember the day Siskel harangued Ebert for liking the 1993 film Free Willy. Siskel accused Ebert of relating to the whale. It was the lowest blow I’d ever seen on television, and Ebert brushed it off.

In college, I carried on a brief email communication with Ebert. I’d been obsessed with Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, and I questioned its merit and its rampant violence. I never dreamed that Ebert would actually respond, but he did. We exchanged two or three emails about the film, discussing its meaning and the filmmaking behind its message. He recommended other films that I’d never seen. He took his time with a total stranger, and it made me feel genuinely special. As if I were the only person he’d ever emailed in his life.

And, then, he shamed me.

Anxious to carry on the discourse, but still cinematically naïve, I asked him the most pointless question you could ask a film expert. A question that, later, I discovered true lovers of film would never ask. I asked, “Do you think The Lion King will be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar?”

It wasn’t that he shamed me by responding negatively or scoffing at my naivety through email. It’s that he didn’t respond at all. The silence was truly deafening.

I’m sure he received thousands of emails a week from kids just like me, but, to me, the exchange was akin to talking to God himself. To have that relationship severed, on my end so abruptly, was a devastating event. I was still a kid, after all, and was reaching out to someone who could help me understand. I’d blown it.

But I moved on. When Siskel died, I cried, and the Siskel and Ebert show was forever lost. I still loved film, but I started to move my life in different directions. I focused on a career and wrote less and less. I got married and focused on raising a family. Film became something I started to share with my wife and children rather than something I wanted to use to build a career.

Until this weekend when Ebert shamed me again.

I remained disconnected from Ebert’s life through his struggles. Embarrassingly, I could not look at him after surgeons removed his lower jaw to stop the spread of cancer. It wasn’t personal. When my own uncle rapidly declined from colon cancer, he became a shell of the man I’d known since birth, and I couldn’t look on him. When my grandmother developed Alzheimer’s and deteriorated in a nursing home, I would not see her wallowing in filth and decay. Death and I, we didn’t get along, and I wanted to preserve the memory of these people so close to my heart as I’d known them in their prime. So, it wasn’t a personal thing against Ebert. It was a pattern. How I did things then.

Watching Life Itself, you cannot look away from Ebert. I had no idea that the removal of his jaw allowed you to see through his mouth to the bandages wrapped around his neck. I saw the nurses drain fluid from his throat. I saw him struggle to walk. Struggle to communicate. And rage against those there only to help him. I saw a man die. And, again, this man shamed me.

Through it all, not only did I realize there was still a vital, intelligent, productive man behind the distorted visage, but this man continued to write. To live his dream. To produce more meaningful content than he ever had before. I couldn’t help but look to myself, of sound mind and able body, and think about all the time I’d lost to my passion.

I do not regret getting married and raising a family for these people are vital, critical parts of my life, and I love them deeply. What I regret are the days I’ve wasted, doing nothing. The hours I’ve let drift like petals on the wind with nothing to show. The apathy and laziness that creeps in with depression. I let it get to me. When I look at Ebert in the documentary, he did not let it affect him. He pushed through and stayed true himself.

I will always be grateful to Roger Ebert, my greatest teacher. He had no idea even who I was save for a brief email exchange most assuredly long forgotten. But, to me, he was the greatest professor I have and will ever have. He taught me the difference between movies and cinema. He taught me to not to obsess over silly things but, instead, focus on deeper subjects. And, finally, he taught me about life itself and, despite the challenges and hardships we face, we should never give up on who we are and what we love.

Lately, I have been lucky enough to be welcomed into a community where I can express my thoughts and opinions through my writing, allowing me to waken and hone muscles I haven’t used in years. Watching the great Life Itself has only reaffirmed that dream, my passion for writing.

It is a passion I will never again ignore, and dream I will doggedly pursue.

I have you, Roger Ebert, to thank for that.

When it got to be time to write about Elaine Stritch, I immediately thought of her stage credits.  Being a dramatic child of the musical the-ah-tah myself, Stritch 101 is essential to your education.  Even if you didn’t know who she was, you’d soon learn when you turned on the original cast recording of Stephen Sondheim’s classic, Company.  She begins “The Ladies Who Lunch” with an invitation for a toast, and she blares on and on about society women with…that voice.  That song quickly became an anthem and cultural reference for musical theater nuts and gay guys everywhere.  Beyond her stage work, however, is an accomplished resume of television credits that puts almost everyone else in Hollywood to shame.  There is one role that I will always cherish forever: Colleen Donaghy on NBC’s 30 Rock.

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CBS’s summer trash perennial Big Brother returns tonight after leaving an unforgettably bad taste in the collective mouths of viewers last year. For the uninformed, the competitive reality show houses an assortment of mostly white, mostly young, mostly attractive contestants as they vie for $500,000 by hustling and backstabbing. The unique gimmick here is that they are filmed 24/7 for mass consumption.

Paying online viewers are given the ability to eavesdrop on the houseguests, although there have been many complaints that CBS blocks anywhere from 25-50% of the feeds to preserve the “integrity” of the broadcast show. Like most competitive reality shows, Big Brother heavily edits the raw footage to create a season arc that features heroes and villains. Often, the show you see on broadcast TV wildly differs from the unfiltered live footage.

And this is how CBS found itself in very hot water last year.

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Austin, Texas may be known as a live music capital of the United States, but from June 5 to June 8, it was the TV capital. The ATX Festival highlighted current series television (“Justified,” “Orange is the New Black”), upcoming ones (TNT’s “Legends”), and even the recently canceled (RIP Fox’s “Enlisted”). But in its third “season” of the festival, ATX did something pretty monumental: It reunited the cast of Nickelodeon’s “Hey Dude.”

For those not familiar, “Hey Dude” was the second live-action scripted series on Nickelodeon (the first being “Out of Control” with Dave Coulier) that followed a group of teenagers working at the Bar None Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, over the course of one very long summer (five seasons’ worth of episodes). Airing from 1989 to 1991, this reunion marked the 25th anniversary of the series.

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First of all, congratulations to television for offering a larger venue for more amazing female performances than one generally finds in movies, but shame on Emmy for repeatedly failing when it comes to nominations. The fact Tatiana Maslany, the star of BBC America’s Orphan Black was ignored last year despite playing multiple yet subtly distinct roles is a massive black mark on a group of awards that all too often rewards the safe and familiar while filing to recognize the new and interesting.

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Mediate breaks down all the different important stories Al Jazeera America squeezed into the 14 minute space rival network CNN devoted to it’s ongoing obsession with the missing Malaysian airliner yesterday. Check it out and be angry.

There was a time when broadcasting news was the responsibility of  every network in exchange for their free use of the public airwaves. It technically still is. The networks have to devote a certain amount of their broadcast day to “news,” but over the years the definition of that word has changed dramatically. These days, even on channels supposedly devoted to the cause, news is just fact-based entertainment. Drama and attention getting headlines win out over thoughtful analysis of difficult to digest but vital information. Why talk about the ins and outs of policy debates in Washington when you can glue your audience to the tube with breathless speculation on a missing airplane?

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While you were all busy thinking about something else the FCC made the tragic (even if inevitable) decision to allow ISP providers, or content providers, who pay more to give speedier access to customers. That is really how they are describing it to people. So you might think, hey great! I can pay for faster download speeds for my streaming content. Here in America what we really want is to be plugged into our various pleasure devices as the world literally collapses around us. But that is who we have become. That is what we are. So no one is going to protest this if they actually want this change to take effect. But those of us who have become comfortable with the freedom of choice – the freedom of speech – the equal access for all just lost big. Really big. What’s depressing about this? How few people give a shit. The only way to stop this if people get mad. Really mad. Like protesting with signs and pitchforks mad. Is that going to happen? I doubt it. Maybe Anonymous or 4Chan can do some serious damage to block this or protest this. But other than that, Americans don’t give a damn.

From Mother Jones:

The Federal Communications Commission plans to propose new open Internet rules on Thursday that would allow content companies to pay Internet service providers for special access to consumers, according to a person familiar with the proposal.

The proposed rules would prevent the service providers from blocking or discriminating against specific websites, but would allow broadband providers to give some traffic preferential treatment, so long as such arrangements are available on “commercially reasonable” terms for all interested content companies. Whether the terms are commercially reasonable would be decided by the FCC on a case-by-case basis.

…The FCC’s proposal would allow some forms of discrimination while preventing companies from slowing down or blocking specific websites, which likely won’t satisfy all proponents of net neutrality, the concept that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. The Commission has also decided for now against reclassifying broadband as a public utility, which would subject ISPs to much greater regulation. However, the Commission has left the reclassification option on the table at present.

So Google and Microsoft and Netflix and other large, well-capitalized incumbents will pay for speedy service. Smaller companies that can’t—or that ISPs just aren’t interested in dealing with—will get whatever plodding service is left for everyone else. ISPs won’t be allowed to deliberately slow down traffic from specific sites, but that’s about all that’s left of net neutrality. Once you’ve approved the notion of two-tier service, it hardly matters whether you’re speeding up some of the sites or slowing down others.

This might have been inevitable, for both legal and commercial reasons. But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

This is simply not right. The blocking of sites they say won’t be allowed? That’s coming next. This is a slippery slope and once the freedom is controlled by money the freedom ends.

Sign a petition if you can. Have a fit publicly. DO SOMETHING.

Here are a few things you can do:

Write to the FCC and tell them you simply do not accept any action that hinders, controls or limits the freedom available on the internet:

Go here

This site has a lot of useful action you can take as a citizen to prevent this from happening.

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I’ve just about had it with the internet. I used to think, wow it’s so great that there are so many young strong voices protesting things that matter. I used to think that the youth’s collective outrage over things like sexual assault and racism was a good thing. But what it has turned into, what it is in danger of becoming is about as helpful to the collective well being of people overall that driving a hybrid SUV does for the economy. You see, this outrage at Stephen Colbert, for instance, or the worst of these – Lena Dunham – or now, Game of Thrones reminds me of the tragedy that online discourse has become. You see, none of it means anything. None of it changes anything. None of it helps anyone anywhere. These are examples of people who really have too much time on their hands because no one has yet tuned them into the real problems — the devastating station of many real life issues here on the planet earth. Every time one of these controversies, so-called, bubbles up I want to put my head through a plate glass window.
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It’s the heat of Oscar season and all anyone can talk about is House of Cards and True Detective. When did it become all about TV? It’s hard to say when but television has provided a global community in ways that film can’t quite match. David Fincher’s Netflix series House of Cards has revolutionized how production companies roll out TV shows but it has done more than that. Not only does House of Cards offer a seamless array of diverse cast members – women, African Americans, Asians – it does this without breaking a sweat, proving that it really is about how minds open and close that determines casting, not a white-centric ticket-buying audience or television viewership. Moreover, two of the episodes from House of Cards Season 2, are directed by women – Jodie Foster and Robin Wright. The strongest characters on the show are easily the women. Anyone who binge-watched the show recognizes this – and not girly women, straight up, strong, adult women.

While it’s true that television affords that luxury more than film – the power center isn’t determined, as is the Oscar race, by a mostly oldish, white male consensus. Television is more democratic. Film relies only on the box office numbers, particularly opening weekend. House of Cards, for instant, is simply not beholden to that crippling restriction. Art is flourishing on television. It is dying on film, where the box office is being driven only by big effects movies, dumb comedies, and the occasional Oscar movie. There are directors who are still making vital films worth seeing but a dumbed American public buying tickets on opening weekend should not be the determining factor is what kinds of films Hollywood makes. And yet…it is.
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Speaking before the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961, FCC Chairman Newton Minow famously called television a “vast wasteland.” As a commercial medium, television was only in its 20th year at that point and it consisted of three national networks that didn’t even broadcast 24 hours a day. Today of course there are hundreds of channels delivering content over the airwaves, along cable lines, via satellite and across the internet. Minow wouldn’t recognize today’s landscape, but would he still consider it a wasteland?

The interesting thing is that over the years, and especially in the last 20, the fragmentation of the TV audience has led to both an increase and a decrease in quality. Instead of having to appeal to a mass audience in a gigantic middle of the road, programmers carve out niches that can pander to the lowest common denominator or cater to those of us looking for something closer to high art. Between those two extremes, there are seemingly endless permutations. With DVDs and internet streaming, TV series no longer need to be stretched out to a magic number of 100 episodes so they can be packaged and resold as reruns to make a profit. With older episodes of many shows available on demand, a series can spin complex, connected storylines without having to worry about alienating new viewers. As a result, a good series can take on the richness and depth and nuance of a great novel.

If Minow turned on his television set today, he’d find on one hand absolute bottom of the barrel reality shows like Duck Dynasty, Keeping up with the Kardashians or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. On the other, he’d find sublime entertainments like Breaking Bad or True Detective. There’s something for every taste and a surprising amount of it is very good. Some still call it the Boob Tube, but TV no longer cultivates an audience of boobs nor are its sets made up of vacuum tubes. Once a distant bastard cousin of movies, television today is where the most interesting things are happening.

With that in mind, let this be the beginning of an expanded focus on television from Awards Daily. I’m Craig Kennedy and for the time being I’ll be your cruise director. Going forward, the shape and content of the coverage will be a work in progress. Does the world really need another show recap? I don’t know, but there’s more to watch than ever before and a lot of it deserves a bigger audience than it’s getting. At the very least, I hope to be of service in picking the gems out of the muck. For example, have you checked out Broad City on Comedy Central yet? You should. Are you jazzed for the upcoming 2nd season of Hannibal on NBC? I recommend it.

Drop me a line (craig@awardsdaily.com) and let me know what you’re interested in talking about when it comes to the small screen. I can’t watch and write about everything, but over time new voices will be added to the mix. I look forward to this turning into a vibrant community of lovers of good television. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go binge watch the 2nd season of House of Cards on Netflix.

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