News in Brief

PBS creates controversy with profile of Prophet Muhammad; Liza Minnelli sues VH1 over reality series; U.S. market moves one step closer to digital TV
December 19, 2002

The Alexandria, U.S.-based Public Broadcasting Service has downplayed negative response to its December 18 broadcast of Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet, a profile of Islam’s key figure. ‘The great majority’ of feedback has been positive, PBS spokesman George Abar told RealScreen Plus. PBS issued a statement to that effect after the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations said it had learned PBS was ‘receiving heavy pressure’ over the positive portrayal of Prophet Muhammad. A New York Post columnist called the doc lopsided and recommended PBS have its funding pulled.

Liza Minnelli, upset at VH1′s cancellation of a reality series based on her life (and modeled after MTV’s The Osbournes), has launched a lawsuit against the U.S. music cable channel. According to Reuters, Minnelli and her husband, producer David Gest, filed the suit on December 16 in New York against VH1, MTV Networks and Viacom (parent of the two channels) seeking more than US$10 million in damages. They contend VH1 breached the terms of their contract, and that Gest was defamed by an anonymous Viacom employee in an interview. Producers shot more than 60 hours of footage, and the couple received advanced payments of about $1.35 million, before production was halted. Producers said the couple was too difficult to work with.

Television makers and cable operators in the U.S. reached a deal December 18 that clears some of the hurdles in the switchover to digital television in the country. The Consumer Electronics Association and National Cable & Telecommunications Association have agreed to equipment compatibility standards that allow simplified ‘plug-and-play’ hook-ups of televisions to digital cable by 2004, reports Reuters. The pact needs Federal Communication Commission approval.

Subjects interviewed in Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death, a film by U.K. doc-maker Jamie Doran, claim that U.S. special forces soldiers stood by while Northern Alliance troops killed as many as 3,000 Taliban prisoners last year. According to Reuters, Doran interviewed dozens of eyewitnesses to the separate massacres as part of a one-year investigation for the 55-minute doc that aired on Germany’s ARD Television December 19. Reuters reports his requests for interviews with the Pentagon went unanswered. The U.S. embassy in Germany has rejected the film’s claims. Afghan Massacre has been discussed in several newspapers and magazines in the country, and Doran has been asked to screen the doc before the German government.

The popularity of formatted reality programming may be peaking in the U.K., according to figures calculated by The Guardian. The paper’s numbers reveal the finale of the BBC’s Fame Academy format drew 7.7 million viewers on December 13, and the climax of the second series of ITV’s Pop Stars was watched by approximately 8 million people. Those figures compare to an average audience of 12.8 million for Pop Stars earlier in the year. I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! on ITV drew a strong 10 million in the summer, and Big Brother 3 on Channel 4 also pulled in a respectable 9.4 million Britons.

The Guardian also calculated a top-10 list of formats in the U.K., based on audience numbers for a show’s finale. The top draws were ITV’s Pop Idol in February (13.1 million) and Popstars in February 2001 (12.8 million), followed by ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! in September (10.5 million), Channel 4′s Big Brother 3 in July (9.4 million) and Big Brother 1 in July (8.8 million), and ITV’s Popstars: the Rivals in November (8.4 million). ITV’s Survivor 1 in July 2001 and the BBC’s Fame Academy this month tied for seventh (7.7 million) followed by C4′s Big Brother 2 in July 2001 (7.5 million), ITV’s Survivor 2 in May (6.4 million), C4′s Celebrity Big Brother in November (5 million) and ITV’s Mr. Right, also last month (2 million).

The New York, U.S.-based Independent Film Channel has launched a multi-pronged distribution plan for its documentary A Decade Under the Influence, which will premiere at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival (January 16 to 26). IFC said the doc, a history of U.S. cinema in the 1970s, will be distributed in theaters by IFC Films in the spring, followed by a three-part transmission (including tie-in interviews and programs) on IFC TV in August. It will then get a video-on-demand release.

The Associated Press reports that Egypt’s state television allegedly vetoed the re-broadcast of a documentary critical of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Mohamed el-Bolouk, who hosted the 20-minute Sharon, Bloody Record, told AP that the broadcaster’s Cairo office received a memo in early December saying the transmission was ‘completely prohibited.’ The director of Nile News Channel, Sameha Dahroug, denied issuing such an order, AP reported.

American actress Angela Bassett (Sunshine State) will host the relaunched ‘Independent Lens’ strand on PBS in the U.S. The strand profiles American activists, artists and athletes and runs international docs with humanitarian themes. The spring season will run from February 4 to June 3, 2003.

The Australian Film Finance Corporation announced December 18 a new slate of films it is funding. Five docs are receiving money, including three series: The Airships (3 x 55 minutes) by Rob McAuley Productions, Fine Line (4 x 26 minutes) by Suitcase Films, and The Science of Miracles (4 x 27 minutes) by Electric Pictures. The one-offs are John Moore Productions’ Bushfire (55 minutes) and Becker Group’s Unfit for Command (55 minutes).

The Library of Congress in the U.S. has added two docs to its National Film Registry. Added under the rules of the National Film Registry Act, the two non-fiction films are From Stump to Ship (1930) and Through Navajo Eyes, a series (1966). The registry now totals 350 titles, mostly dramas.

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