Eric Deggans, “St. Petersburg Times” critic: Mr. Media Interview, Pt. 1

Eric Deggans is easily one of the smartest journalists I know. Okay, okay, I know some of you connect “smart” and “journalist” and chuckle the way other people combine “military” and “intelligence.” But trust me, Eric is really bright. He has his own way of looking at any topic and bringing aspects of it to light.

Currently the television and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times — and author of a media savvy blog called “The Feed” — Eric is filling a job the newspaper created specifically for him. Before serving as media critic, he sat on the newspaper’s editorial board and wrote bylined opinion columns specializing in race issues, pop culture, media, and national affairs. From 1997 to 2004, he worked as TV critic for the Times, crafting reviews, news stories, and long-range trend pieces on the state of the media industry, both locally and nationally.

Eric is also the president of the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists. And, if you search his name on myspace.com, you’ll find he also worked in the 1980s as a professional drummer touring and performing with Motown’s The Voyage Band throughout the Midwest and in Osaka, Japan. He continues to perform in the Tampa Bay area with local bands and recording artists as a drummer, bassist, and vocalist.

You may also recognize Eric as a recurring panelist on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

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ANDELMAN: Eric, welcome to Mr. Media.

DEGGANS: Thanks. I’m going to spend the next half hour disproving everything you said about me being smart.

ANDELMAN: I have to build you up before I start to tear you down.

DEGGANS: Bring it on, pal.

ANDELMAN: You know how the media works. Let’s start with a big question: If you could change network TV in any way, what would you do?

DEGGANS: I would make the season shorter for new episodes, and I would more strictly enforce the decency guidelines, but I would make them looser at the same time. What I would do is, I would be a little more strict about trying to keep explicit content out of the 8 PM, the 8–9 PM hour in prime time, the first hour, but I would relax it a little at 9 PM, and I would really relax it at 10 PM, so that we would see more FX and HBO-type shows on network television, and they would have shorter runs, so you wouldn’t be forcing the guys from “Lost” to come up with 25 episodes of stuff when they really only have thirteen episodes of decent material in them. We would get more series, and frankly, I think they’d be better.

ANDELMAN: It’s interesting that you brought that up. We both have kids. Your view of these things changes once you become a parent.

DEGGANS: Definitely.

ANDELMAN: Ten years ago, I found the 8:00 – 9:00 family hour, which is what it was really referred to then, a real pain in the butt, because there was never anything on that I wanted to watch, and now in that hour, there is plenty of stuff I’d want to watch, but I can’t because I have a 10-year-old daughter, and we’ve found you really can’t watch… pick a show. It seems like in this climate for some reason, in the “family first” climate that we’re in and family values, there is no respect for that hour anymore. Does that surprise you, and have you changed your views since you’ve been a parent?

DEGGANS: I probably have changed my views a little bit because if you’re not a parent, then obviously you don’t care when explicit content airs on television, because it doesn’t affect you; you’re an adult. Once you become a parent and you are responsible for raising a child and sort of moderating and guiding their exposure to media, then it becomes more of a concern, because if you want to sit down with the family and watch TV at 8:00, what do you watch? And that’s the reason why these reality shows and these game shows have become so popular, “Deal or No Deal,” “American Idol,” “Dancing with the Stars,” “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?”

One of the reasons why these shows are so popular is because the whole family can sit down and watch them without fear. It’s a singing competition, or it’s a game show, so there is not going to be any cursing, there is not going to be any sex, and it’s interesting enough that everybody in the family wants to watch it. Why the networks have not figured out how to do that with fictional programming, I don’t know. My hunch is that sex jokes and curse words are an easy crutch for lame comedies and overly complex dramas. Frankly, I think it’s possible to do a comedy where there is not necessarily a lot of sex or where the language isn’t totally explicit. I let my kids watch “The Simpsons,” I let my kids watch “Seinfeld,” I let my kids watch “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Those are all shows that have some sex in them, and they have some explicit words in them occasionally, but it’s not a mainstay of the show, so I feel pretty good about watching it with them.

ANDELMAN: “Raymond” is a good example, I think.

DEGGANS: The best example.

ANDELMAN: It seems like on the whole, it’s a fun family show, and now it’s in repeats from like 7:00 – 8:00 PM, so it’s even earlier than the so-called “Family Hour,” but so many episodes start with Ray and his wife in bed, and he’s trying to get a little something, and that’s the opening of the show. My wife and I sit there looking at each other going, “Hmmm, we should change the subject. So Rach, what’s new? What did you do in school today?” Watching her with the left eye, and the right eye, we’re waiting to see if they’ve moved off of….

DEGGANS: I mean, from my standpoint, I have a two-year-old and she doesn’t pay attention to situation comedies. If it’s not a cartoon, she’s not interested. And then I have a 10-year-old, and I have a 12-year-old, and frankly, by the time my kids are at least 10 years old – know about sex, and they know that mommy and daddy have sex, and they know other people’s mommies and daddies have sex. So if there is a scene where Ray and his wife are in the bedroom and he’s making jokes about wanting to make love to her, they get that, they understand that.

ANDELMAN: I hope it mostly goes over their heads, since they’re not at that point. It’s like a lot of things as you go through the day that it just doesn’t strike them.

DEGGANS: Well, I don’t know. My experience with my girls is that they understand that, and they understand it in a way that totally makes sense. I mean, mommies and daddies do that. They get the humor of it. Frankly, I’m much more concerned about them seeing really violent stuff on TV, really bloody stuff….

ANDELMAN: Plenty of that at 8:00 o’clock.

DEGGANS: On TV, I am not concerned about the sex stuff. As long as the sex stuff isn’t really crude, and as long as it’s not really explicit, you know. One of the problems we have, for example, is that we like to watch “Law & Order” re-runs, and I don’t let my girls watch that with us, because there are too many mature themes in those shows. And you know, what 10-year-old needs to be aware that there are elements of that kind of stuff in the world?

ANDELMAN: Well, now, that’s interesting. I won’t watch those shows because I swear, it seems like every time – and my wife watches all of them – every time I sit down to watch one, it’s a story about a child endangered, a child killed, a child abused, a child molested, and I just think, there’s gotta be something else these script writers are thinking about!

DEGGANS: Well, I think maybe you just had bad luck, because I watch them a lot, and I don’t see a preponderance of those kinds of stories. But they do push the envelope in terms of explicit themes, so I don’t let my kids watch those shows with me. But I do think we ultimately need broadcasters to be more responsible about when they use explicit content in their shows, and if they were, I have a feeling that they’d be allowed to use it more often, and they’d be allowed to introduce material that is more explicit. But the problem is, we can’t trust them. They put “Friends” on at 8 o’clock, and there are lots of curse words in it, there are lots of explicit sexual situations. It was a great show, and because it did really well at 8 o’clock, that just created a whole trend that we have never been able to get away from.

ANDELMAN: That probably was the show that opened that up.

DEGGANS: It definitely was. It was a huge success at 8 o’clock. “Spin City” moved to 8 o’clock right after that, and because both of those shows did well in those time slots, the next thing you know, even the slight hesitation that the networks had about putting explicit content at 8 o’clock went away.

ANDELMAN: Let’s move to a related topic, something I think that is near and dear to your heart, and that is…

DEGGANS: Bill O’Reilly?

ANDELMAN: No, actually, save Bill for later.

Let’s talk about the shrinking number of opportunities for actors of color in network television. You’ve written about it a number of times over the years that I can recall. Is it still dropping, and why is that an issue, and who should we be concerned with, the programmers or the people who watch, if it is an issue?

DEGGANS: You know, I don’t think that the numbers are dropping. We had a situation probably five or six years ago where that was definitely the case where show runners, the guys who create and oversee the production of network TV shows, the top producers, were telling me and other journalists – off the record, of course – that they felt if they had too many people of color in the casts of shows that they were trying to sell to the networks that it would keep them from getting picked up. Now whether or not that was true, the industry thought it was true, so you wound up having….

ANDELMAN: Perception becomes reality.

DEGGANS: Perception becomes reality because nobody wants their show to be the show that got rejected, and if it gets rejected because there are too many black people in the cast, no network executive is ever going to admit it, so you’ll never know that that’s why your show got rejected. They’ll find some other nonsensical reason. So people were just not casting people of color in pilots, and then what they were doing is they would advance the pilot, and it wouldn’t have any black people in it, or it might have one person of color in it, and then once the show was picked up, then they would go in the back end, and they would add a couple of characters to try to make the show more diverse because they’d get criticized. And the problem with that process is that the characters never feel like they are part and parcel of the show because they have been sort of added on as an afterthought. So you had a lot of bad shows that had characters of color that were kind of grafted on, and they could have anybody, they were interchangeable, and so it was awful, because you had less people of color on TV and then the roles that they were offered were awful. But what has happened since then is that the networks have kind of gotten religion about diversity. And, as always, it has just taken the success of diverse shows. “Lost” was a big hit with a really diverse cast.

ANDELMAN: An almost impossibly diverse cast.

DEGGANS: Well, you know. If you buy the conceit that it’s an international flight coming from Australia packed with a bunch of different people… I mean, I could buy that it’s a relatively diverse crowd of people who land on this island, but yeah, they were incredibly diverse, just about every type of person you could think of.

ANDELMAN: “Heroes.”

DEGGANS: Yeah, but I’m thinking “Heroes” is not quite the start of this trend. “Heroes” benefited from this trend. I would say it was more “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” and then “Ugly Betty” and the success of those shows…. “Ugly Betty” was just the reinforcement. It was really “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” that came with casts that were pretty diverse, and they were blockbuster…

ANDELMAN: Wait a minute. I have to interrupt. “Desperate Housewives” was diverse?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, you have four leads, and one of them was a person of color, which for network television is pretty diverse, when 25% of the cast is… Eva Longoria is Hispanic.

ANDELMAN: Okay. I think that’s a stretch. I mean, I know she’s Hispanic, but…

DEGGANS: Well, it’s not a stretch. She’s Hispanic, and her husband was Hispanic.

ANDELMAN: I guess I was thinking of the season they introduced…

DEGGANS: You’re thinking about Alfre Woodard.

ANDELMAN: Alfre Woodard, and that introduction of the character seemed completely grafted on, and once they got in there, they tried in the worst way to make it as awful a match as possible.

DEGGANS: Well, it’s hard to know what happened there. I mean, clearly they wanted to add her to the cast, and you know, they had a core of four characters that the viewers cared about, and they tried to bring in this fifth person, and it just didn’t make any sense. And “Grey’s Anatomy” is another show I forgot to mention that’s also pretty diverse.

ANDELMAN: Now, that’s a show where it seems like it’s been handled very well.

DEGGANS: And was very successful. Well, you know, this whole issue is very complex. The good thing about “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Lost” – they’re the two biggest shows – and then also, “Desperate Housewives” to a lesser extent, is that the characters of color are integral to the show, they have great story lines, they really matter. That’s the great thing about the diversity on their shows.

The bone I pick with “Grey’s Anatomy” is that I think the race of their characters of color doesn’t really matter. I think for the most part the black characters on “Grey’s Anatomy” could be white people, and it wouldn’t make a difference. The Asian character on “Grey’s Anatomy” could be white, and it would make no difference. And for I think many people of color, that’s not how their life is.

I think “ER,” as a matter of fact, has done a much better job of bringing in characters of color and showing how there are times when their race or their culture impacts their lives, and then there are times when it doesn’t. And you look at the Greg Pratt character who is played by Mekhi Phifer. Sometimes the fact that he is a black man who was raised in the hood has a significant impact on what’s happening in his life, and then other times, it doesn’t, and then there’s times when it has a small impact. That happens because they have created a fully realized character, and that character reacts to different situations in different ways. And I think that’s sort of the final barrier for diversity in television. We’ve gotten more characters of color in casts, but now they need to be fully realized, and we need to see their culture appear when it’s appropriate. Because most of the writers in Hollywood are white people, a lot of them have not figured out how to do that.

© 2007 by Bob Andelman. All rights reserved.

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