Thinking Too Hard at PBS
PBS days at a press tour are always mentally taxing. You have to use those parts of your brain you don't have to use when covering any of the other networks -- which is to say most of your brain.
During a Q&A session with science writer Tim Ferris about his upcoming PBS program "Seeing in the Dark" the subject turned to that poor ex-planet Pluto. That almost never comes up during NBC's days at a press tour.
"This whole idea of stripping Pluto of its planetary status, was that really necessary?" asked one compassionate TV critic, though he was, we think, speaking for the room.
"Cruel, perhaps, but necessary," Ferris says coldly.
"Pluto is going to turn out to be a Kuiper Belt object, an icy object from the Kuiper Belt -- out beyond Pluto. Pluto happened to stray into this odd orbit."
The trouble with keeping Pluto as a planet, Ferris explains, is that all the other Kuiper Belt objects would then be planets.
"Kids in school would have to memorize the names and numbers of 100,000 objects. So, in the long run, we spared those kids of that problem."
But the critics, who still bore the emotional scars of having been forced as kids in school to memorize the Gettysburg Address, "The Owl and the Pussycat," the witches' big cauldron scene from "Macbeth," "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," "O Captain! My Captain!" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," were unmoved.
"Couldn't it have just been grandfathered in? I mean, would anybody really care after all these years?" the same critic asked.
"You could have grandfathered it in -- and there?s still people that feel strongly that we should," Ferris admitted.
*Not long before Ferris defended the de-planetizing of Pluto, New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz treated critics to the sight of Tyler Hinman solving Shortz's next Monday's NYT crossword puzzle as fast as he could. Hinman is three-time champ of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament -- which Shortz tells critics is an event he founded in 1978, but which PBS says was originally conceived of by a member of the Stamford, Connecticut Marriott's marketing department to help create business for the new hotel and Shortz was asked to help organize in '78. He "took up the reigns" a few years later, PBS says.
Shortz bragged the crossword puzzle editor he replaced at the NYT was 35 years older than he, and when he got the job, an editor there said that if anything appeared in the crossword that referenced something within the last 25 years, it came as a shock. The puzzle was, when he took on the gig, "an old-fashioned thing" with "words from the unabridged dictionary" and "no modern culture."
Hinman, who appears to be about 35 years younger than Shortz and who will probably replace Shortz as editor of the NYT crossword puzzle some day, says he knows cold the words and phrases that come up repeatedly in Shortz's puzzles -- like "Ara," the Notre Dame coach, which, Hinman says "is always an easy one."
Shorts admitted there are some things he would like to retire from the puzzle, though "Asta," the name of the dog in The Thin Man series, is not one of them, even though "The Thin Man" was written by Dashiell Hammet way back in the mid '30s -- the very definition of "old-fashioned."
"If you were a puzzle maker and you say 'Oh, I don't want Asta in the puzzle, that's cliched.' But I tell you, you've got your theme in place and you've got some real interesting, juicy vocabulary, and the thing that's going to make that whole corner work is Asta, you're going to say, 'You know, Asta's not that bad.'"
*Earlier in Day One of Summer TV Press Tour 2007, Dorothea Gillim, creator and exec producer of PBS's new series "WordGirl" about a 10-year-old sesquipedalian-slinging ambiguously ethnic superhero chick, told critics she's "always loved language" and has "strived to acquire one of the qualities I most admire in people -- eloquence."
And yet, when one TV critic asked why does WordGirl have to be a superhero instead of just a normal girl who was smart and had a large vocabulary, Gillim responded, "I didn't want her to be too geeky and just be smart, so she has, you know, I wanted her to be cool too, so she can, you know, do everything that Superman can do, or Spiderman, but she happens to be, also, fantastically smart."
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