Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Support Mission

Since NATO took control of the Libya operation in late March, the Obama Administration has insisted has U.S. forces are playing a supporting role, focused on such capabilities as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and aerial refueling. Comments from the White House suggested that American pilots were no longer flying strike missions against the Qaddafi regime.

But apparently, that description of our support mission wasn't quite accurate (what a surprise). Turns out that U.S. fighters have flown hundreds of missions over Libya since the hand-off to NATO. Many of those sorties have been conducted by Navy EA-18 "Growlers" and F-16CJs, which provide suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD).

As anyone with a cursory knowledge of air ops will tell you, SEAD involves much more than stand-off jamming; assets like the Growler and the F-16CJ are embedded into most strike packages operating in hostile airspace, and those platforms employ ordnance (usually anti-radiation missiles) against ground-based air defenses.

More from Air Force Times:

Air Force and Navy aircraft are still flying hundreds of strike missions over Libya despite the Obama administration’s claim that American forces are playing only a limited support role in the NATO operation.

An Africa Command (AFRICOM) spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday that since NATO’s Operation Unified Protector (OUP) took over from the American-led Operation Odyssey Dawn on March 31, the U.S. military has flown hundreds of strike sorties. Previously, Washington had claimed that it was mostly providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and tanker support to NATO forces operating over Libya.

“U.S. aircraft continue to fly support [ISR and refueling] missions, as well as strike sorties under NATO tasking,” AFRICOM spokeswoman Nicole Dalrymple said in an emailed statement. “As of today, and since 31 March, the U.S. has flown a total of 3,475 sorties in support of OUP. Of those, 801 were strike sorties, 132 of which actually dropped ordnance.

Obviously, that doesn't exactly square with the administration's carefully crafted images of a support role. The comments of the President (and senior officials) suggested that our air mission was largely limited to the in-flight refueling of other NATO aircraft, along with intel support from platforms like the RC-135 Rivet Joint and Predator drones.

Lumping SEAD support in the same category is bit more difficult. True, aircraft like the EA-18 and the F-16CJ can perform some of their duties in a stand-off role, but they typically operate as part of a strike package, often leading the charge into hostile airspace and firing anti-radiation missiles to suppress or destroy enemy air defenses. Sounds like a combat mission to us.

And, the administration's narrative took another hit before the disclosure about our SEAD aircraft. Earlier this month, both the Washington Post and The New York Times reported that military members were receiving imminent danger pay for duties performed in Libyan airspace, or the waters off that nation's coastline. Perhaps someone should ask if the Growler and CJ pilots are receiving hostile fire pay for their flights over Libya, since their targets sometimes shoot back.

Presidents and their military commanders are entitled to a certain degree of discretion in conducting operations, but the taxpayers (and Congress) also deserve a fair measure of transparency. That quality has been notably absent in Mr. Obama's explanation of our objectives in Libya, and how our armed forces are carrying out their mission. All the more reason for Congress to demand answers--and for the administration to come clean, once and for all.
ADDENDUM: It's worth noting that our combat missions in Libya may go beyond SEAD. Air Force Times reports that F-15E Strike Eagle crews at this year's Paris Air Show refused to discuss their activities in Libya, saying they couldn't talk about current operations. You don't need to be an air power expert to know that the Strike Eagle isn't a true SEAD platform. But it's very useful in dropping precision weapons--like those employed against Qadaffi's compound. We're not saying that American warplanes have been flying missions that targeted the Libyan leader. But don't discount that possibility, either.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Through the Roof

Iran's latest missile drill began today, with a literal bang. From Reuters, via Haaretz:

Iran's Revolutionary Guards tested 14 missiles on Tuesday, the second day of war games intended a show of strength to the Islamic Republic's enemies in Israel and Washington.

The Iranian-made surface-to-surface missiles, with a maximum range of 2,000 km (1,250 miles), were fired simultaneously at a single target, the offical IRNA news agency reported.

The head of the Revolutionary Guards' aerospace division emphasized Iran's preparedness to strike Israel and U.S. interests in the event of any attack on Iran.

"The range of our missiles has been designed based on American bases in the region as well as the Zionist regime," Commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh told the semi-official Fars news agency.

The missile launches were anything but unexpected. Iran often conducts war games in the early summer and had previously announced plans for military exercises this week. Participation by the IRGC and its ballistic missile forces were a virtual certainty.

Still, the current drill (or at least video from the exercise) appears to confirm a long-suspected capability with Iran's missile forces. Take a look at footage that accompanies the Reuters article (you can also see it on YouTube). Most of it appears to be a VIP tour of an underground missile silo, along with video of actual missile launches.

And, as is sometimes the case, the Iranians forget a few important details. If you watch the video closely, you'll see cables running from the missile, through the open silo access door. Some of the cabling appears to be attached to the missile itself. In that configuration, neither the silo nor the missile is operational. However, Iran clearly has built underground silos for its medium-range missiles and it is believed that some of today's launches were conducted from underground complexes.

From our perspective, the most intriguing element of the video begins at about the 2:41 mark. You'll see a very brief snippet of a missile launching from an underground facility. But the complex appears to be larger than a typical missile silo and the roof appears a bit irregular. That suggests the launch came not from a silo, but a larger subterranean bunker.

The intelligence community has been following Iran's underground missile facilities program for many years. Imagery of at least two complexes (one near the central Persian Gulf coast, the other outside Khorramabad) revealed a rather interesting feature: large portals in the "roof" of each facility. Analysis suggested those openings were too large for such normal functions as ventilation. Given their size (and location), experts concluded the portals were intended for another use--the underground launch of a missile.

For years, there has been some speculation as to whether Iran had ever launched a missile through one of those portals. There were some indications of a possible launch more than five years ago, at the facility near the Persian Gulf. That complex is believed to be associated with Iran's Scud force; if the footage was taken at that facility, it was almost certainly a Scud-type airframe.

But the missile UGF at Khorramabad supports a Shahab-3 unit. That medium-range missile is capable of striking Israel (and U.S. targets throughout the Gulf region), so Khorramabad has always been a high-value target. Interestingly, that complex (part of the Iman Ali Missile Base) was heavily damaged by a series of underground explosions last year. Tehran never officially confirmed the blast, but it occurred not long after computers at several Iranian nuclear facilities were hit with the Stuxnet virus. Those events raised suspicions about possible Israeli sabotage, aimed at crippling Iran's long-range strike and nuclear capabilities.

If the launch in that video was from the current exercise (and recorded at Khorramabad), it would suggest the launch chamber was unaffected by the blast, or has since been repaired. On the other hand, it's difficult to determine the type of missile in that snippet; if it is a Scud derivative, it could have come from the other complex, which was unaffected by the blasts that struck Khorramabad. We should also note that while it's impossible to tell when the video was recorded, there have been no previous confirmations of launches from the larger launch chambers, so the footage may have been recorded during this week's exercise.

With construction of actual missile silos, the larger, underground launch chambers may be viewed as something of an anachronism, but they still figure in Iran's strategic planning. The larger UGFs allow for the sheltering of larger numbers of missiles, and the full range of support functions can be carried out below ground as well. And in some respects, it's more difficult for us to monitor the bigger complexes, which have multiple entrances and provide concealment for missiles, support equipment and personnel. Additionally, the convergence of those elements give Tehran another "bolt from the blue capability," allowing them to launch a surprise attack on Israel (or U.S. interests in the region) with minimal warning.

Obviously, a missile silo gives Iran a similar capability. But in some respects, a silo is more easily monitored. Missile loading, unloading and certain maintenance functions can be detected by overhead platforms, with the appearance of support equipment and personnel providing an immediate tip-off. We never really know what's beneath those portals at Khorramabad and the Scud facility along the coast. It may be an empty chamber--or a missile loaded and ready to be fired against the enemies of the Islamic Republic.

Friday, June 24, 2011


When President Obama spoke at Fort Drum, New York yesterday, he committed a rather glaring faux pas, involving a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. From the blog of Dana Ritter, White House producer for CBN News:

"Throughout my service, first as a senator and then as a presidential candidate and then as a President, I’ve always run into you guys. And for some reason it’s always in some rough spots.

First time I saw 10th Mountain Division, you guys were in southern Iraq. When I went back to visit Afghanistan, you guys were the first ones there. I had the great honor of seeing some of you because a comrade of yours, Jared Monti, was the first person who I was able to award the Medal of Honor to who actually came back and wasn’t receiving it posthumously.

But as Ms. Ritter reminds us, Jared Monti died in combat and his family received the medal posthumously--from President Obama--less than two years ago.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney confirmed the flub. He said that Mr. Obama was speaking without notes, and had previously honored Monti in remarks made in Afghanistan last year.

An honest mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. No wonder some of those soldiers at Fort Drum looked uncomfortable during Mr. Obama's remarks. In fairness, the President did present the Medal of Honor to SSGT Salvatore Giunta at the White House last year; Gunta received the nation's highest award for valor for his actions in Afghanistan back in 2007, while assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, not the 10th Mountain Division.

Where's that Teleprompter when you need it?
ADDENDUM: As far as we can tell, the only press outlets who've covered the gaffe are CBN and Military Times. Wonder what the media reaction would have been if George W. Bush had made a similar mistake?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

No Surprise

Call this the non-surprise of the year: as Bashir Assad continues to slaughter anti-regime protesters, the Syrian dictator is getting a little help from his friends:

A senior Israeli source says Iran is involved in the suppressing of the anti-regime demonstrations in Syria. Iran's Revolutionary Guard and the Al-Quds force, commanded by Gen. Qassem Suleimani, are operating throughout the country, the source says.

The source told Haaretz there is clear information on Iran's involvement in the crushing of the protests, as well as the participation of Hezbollah. Their role is not limited to shootings; Iran has also supplied equipment to the Syrian army, including sniper rifles and communications systems for disrupting the Internet in the country, the source said.

Syrian residents and media reports say men in military uniforms have been heard speaking poor Arabic or Farsi among themselves.

"In the Syrian army there is a ban on beards, so when we see military people with beards we can assume they're not part of the regular Syrian army," the source said.

Iran's involvement reached a new zenith, the source said, when the Revolutionary Guard organized the demonstrations against Israel on the Golan Heights as part of the events on Nakba Day on May 15 and Naksa Day on June 5.

As we noted more than two months ago, Tehran has compelling reasons to help Assad. Syria is Iran's most important ally in the region, and plays a key role in helping the mullahs advance their interests. Given its geographic location, Syria represents Israel's most immediate military threat, forcing Tel Aviv to devote a significant portion of its military resources to the menace from Damascus.

While Syria's conventional forces are no match for Israel (in a one-on-one fight), the scenario changes when you factor in the possibility of multiple, simultaneous conflicts with Syria, Hizballah, Iran and even Hamas. Damascus also has hundreds of short and medium-range missiles (along with demonstrated capabilities in chemical and biological weapons), further complicating Israel's missile defense challenges.

Syria also provides a convenient conduit for resupplying Iran's terrorist proxy, Hizballah (and the government it dominates in Lebanon). Without the assistance of Assad and his thugs, Tehran would find it much more difficult to control Lebanese affairs and might even risk another "Cedar Revolution," which ended Syria's decades-long military occupation and briefly brought democracy to that troubled country. And without Hizballah and Syria, Iran would lose its ability to put pressure on Israel, by creating problems on its borders.

Little wonder that Tehran is pulling out all the stops to keep Assad in power. The Iranians understand that the battle for the future of the Middle East is being fought in the streets of Damascus (and other Syrian cities), not Tunis, Cairo, or Aden. Iran's leaders know that an overthrow of the Assad dynasty would not only change the region politically, it would also re-energize pro-democracy forces at home. With a stagnant economy, high unemployment (especially among the young) and a fossilized, repressive regime that has been in power for more than 30 years, Iran is ripe for revolt--and the ruling class knows it.

That's why the ruling class in Tehran will do whatever it takes to prevent a successful revolution in Syria. They understand that Iran and Syria are vastly different--culturally, politically and n spiritually--but they also know that domestic discontent is rising in both countries, and a growing number of ordinary citizens are willing to risk their lives for the cause of freedom.

As goes Syria, so goes Iran. If Tehran succeeds in helping Bashir Assad crush the current revolt, it will not only secure a vital alliance, it will also send a powerful message to regime opponents at home. Since the late 1990s, Iran has become proficient at putting down internal dissent and it is gladly sharing that expertise with Damascus.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration remains largely silent on the matter. The same government that voiced outrage over the deaths of regime opponents in Libya--and used it to justify NATO military action--has said little about the death toll in Syria. At last report, Assad's goons (with likely support from their Iranian allies) were rounding up civilians who were attempting to flee into neighboring Turkey.

Once again, the silence from Washington is deafening. Sadly, that too, is no surprise.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Life Imitates Art

...or going from "Jackass" to "Six Feet Under" in the blink of an eye.

Reality TV star Ryan Dunn, who appeared on the MTV series for several years, died early today in a car crash near West Chester, Pennsylvania. Details from WPVI-TV in Philly:

According to police, Dunn lost control of his 2007 Porsche 911 GT3, veered into a wooded area next to the road and collided with a tree. The impact resulted in the vehicle bursting into flames.

Both Dunn and a passenger were killed. Investigators say both bodies were burned badly and that they are still trying to determine the identity of the passenger.

The preliminary investigation revealed that speed may have been a contributing factor in the crash.

Alcohol may have also played a role. A few hours before the fatal crash, Dunn posted a photo of himself, drinking with friends, on his Tumblr account.

Given his proclivity for dangerous behavior, it's no surprise that Mr. Dunn departed this mortal coil in such gruesome fashion. Investigators say they identified the reality TV star by bits of his facial hair and tattoos on his remains.

And sadly, Dunn will (at least for now) become an even bigger celebrity in death--a hero to the slacker crowd, willing to do almost anything for the fame and money that put Dunn behind the wheel of a Porsche 911 on a winding road in southeastern Pennsylvania. From what we can tell, Mr. Dunn had no real training as an actor or stunt performer--just a willingness to risk life and limb in various hare-brained activities, while the cameras rolled.

Among his various contributions to the culture, Dunn may be best remembered for a skit from Jackass: The Movie where he inserted a toy car into his rectum, then visited a doctor complaining of pain in his tailbone. Hilarity ensured, or so we're told.

Years ago, one of my broadcasting professors confidently predicted that TV would one day air a "live" execution. The man wasn't a snob or cynic; in fact, he had spent most of adult life working in the industry and loved the TV business. But he understood the nature of the beast, and its inevitable slide towards the most base elements of our culture.

My former professor died almost 20 years ago, so he never saw Jackass and its various TV, film and DVD spawn. But he wouldn't be shocked by what passes for "reality" programming these days. And, thanks to the "work" of Ryan Dunn, we've inched a little bit closer to that "ultimate" television show.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

False Alarms

Call it the emergency management question of the year: why, in this era of Doppler Radars, advanced forecasting tools, cells phones and the internet, why have more than 500 Americans died in tornadoes since January?

We've heard several theories on the subject. First, the global warming crowd chimed in, claiming that the rise in the earth's temperature is fueling more thunderstorms, which (in turn) means more tornadoes. Unfortunately for Brother Gore and his camp followers, spikes in severe thunderstorms and tornadoes are often associated with a cooler, La Nina pattern, like the one we're experiencing now.

In fact, some long-range forecasters (notably Joe Bastardi) believes we're returning to a pattern similar to what we saw in the early 1950s, which was marked by a series of deadly tornadoes in places like Flint, Michigan; Waco, Texas and Worcester, Massachusetts. Of course, tornado forecasting was in its infancy back then. The weather bureau (as it was known in those days) was reluctant to use the word "tornado" in its forecasts, fearing it would incite mass panic.

Obviously, the weather service has overcome its early hesitancy, and now issues hundreds of tornado watches and warnings each year. And maybe that's part of the problem. Broadcast meteorologist James Spann of ABC 33/40 in Birmingham has a lengthy post at his weather blog, criticizing the NWS for the high number of "false alarm" tornado warnings. A few salient paragraphs:

*I firmly believe apathy and complacency due to a high false alarm ratio over the years led to inaction in many cases that could have cost lives.

The FAR (false alarm ratio) for many NWS offices when it comes to tornado warnings is in the 80-90 percent category. I say this is simply not acceptable. Sure, the POD is excellent (probability of detection), but if most of the warnings are bad, then what good is a high POD?

I ask the NWS to consider stopping the use of tornado warnings when trying to catch small spin-ups within a squall line (or QLCS). These tornadoes rarely last more than a few minutes, and are next to impossible to detect in advance. And, in most cases, the greatest damage from a QLCS is from widespread damaging straight line winds, not tornadoes.

These kind of warnings force us to go on the air for 40-45 minutes, often after tornado signature has vanished from the radar. Sirens sound, the NOAA Weather Alarm goes off, severe weather apps on smart phones alert users. Getting these kind of warnings over and over and over again totally create an ocean of people that won’t be paying attention when a real tornado emergency is in progress.

I heard it over and over as people described their April 27 experience. “I hear those sirens all the time, and nothing ever happens”. The cry wolf syndrome is very real, and very dangerous.

*Too many people believe they should hear a siren before a tornado strikes."

I'm not a meteorologist, but as someone who's lived much of his life in Tornado Alley/Dixie Alley (and chased countless storms as a journalist), Mr. Spann raises very good points. Sirens are grossly inefficient as a warning system (as he notes in his blog); often, they sound across an entire county, when the storm is only threatening a fairly small geographic area. Many of us have heard the sirens sound on a sunny day, in conjunction with a tornado that's 30 miles distant, and moving away away from our neighborhood.

There's also the problem with power supplies; on several occasions, sirens failed to sound because the tornado knocked down electrical lines and the neighborhood was in the dark before the storm arrived. Residents waiting on the siren to take cover were surprised, and some paid for that delay with their lives. Spann believes that sirens should removed, and its hard to disagree with his reasoning. Without them, residents will be forced to rely on more accurate warning systems and (the theory goes) seek shelter sooner.

While NOAA weather radio is more reliable, it has similar problems, as Spann observes. The system needs a GPS upgrade so the NWS can deliver warnings to threatened areas, and not neighborhoods that are in the same county, but face no threat from the storm. Spann advocates greater reliance on social media and technology like Ustream (which words on any smart phone), or the iMap weather radio app, which delivers warnings to individuals inside the warning "polygon."

But there is a drawback to all of this. If you live in tornado country, you have more options than every for severe weather coverage and warnings. And collectively, we've reached the saturation point. For whatever reason, residents switch to cable channels that aren't carrying weather bulletins, surf away from weather-related websites, and push warning calls to their voice mail. The federal government wastes plenty of money on junk studies; how about investing in research that's actually worth the cost--Send teams to places like Oklahoma, Alabama and even Massachusetts to determines how many people in a warned area actually receive notice that a tornado is coming, and take necessary precautions. Compare that to the number who ignore the warnings and decide to press their luck.

That type of research--perhaps more than anything else--may determine why some people make the fatal mistake of ignoring tornado warnings, or delaying action until the last possible moment. Bottom line: there's a certain amount of individual responsibility that (partially) determines who will survive the storm. You can deploy every bit of warning technology known to man and some people won't act until they hear the sound of an approaching tornado. By then, it's often too late.
ADDENDUM: James Spann is one of the best at his craft; we watched some of ABC 33/40's coverage on April 27th; it was masterful, and worthy of a local Emmy or even a Peabody Award. But broadcast mets must also ask if their wall-to-wall coverage adds to the overkill. Spann is correct when he notes that some of the non-stop coverage is unnecessary. But it's hard to find a news director in Tornado Alley who's willing to forego that level of coverage, realizing that ratings jump an average of 10% during a severe weather event with wall-to-wall coverage. And, if you're lucky enough to have a James Spann in front of the camera, the audience figures go even higher. We haven't seen the ratings from Birmingham on April 27th, but it's a sure bet that ABC 33/40 led the pack--and by a large margin.

That's the secret of TV tornado coverage. You throw out hours of programming (and commercials) to keep the public informed, but stations also create a "brand" that will bring viewers back, over and over again. Ask a TV news consultant about the value of a Gary England (KWTV, Oklahoma City), a Dave Brown (WMC-TV in Memphis) or James Spann in Birmingham. There's a reason for those non-stop "weather orgasms" on local TV and it's rooted (in part) in attracting viewers to a particular weatherman on a certain station.
While many of Mr. Spann's suggestions have merit, some are non-starters, for legal reasons. The NWS is deathly afraid of "missing" any tornado that might kill someone, or inflict serious property damage. The weather service office in Peachtree City, GA (Atlanta) made that mistake on March 20, 1998, failing to detect an F-2/F-3 storm that struck portions of Hall and White County around 6:30 am, local time. Warnings were finally issued, but only after the storm was already on the ground.

This wasn't the first time the weather service has made such a mistake, and it won't be the last--weather forecasting remains an inexact science. And while the courts have generally ruled that the NWS is immune from lawsuits triggered by its errors, it only takes one judge and jury to open the floodgates. That's one reason the wether service errs on the side of caution and issues many tornado warnings based strictly on Doppler radar indications, without confirmation of a funnel on the ground.

Website of the Day

You paid for it. According to, the federal government gave Alaska Airlines $500,000 to paint one of its Boeing 737s like a salmon. The artwork supposedly depicts the airline's role in transporting fresh seafood to the rest of the country.

When you have a moment, surf on over to, and prepare to be outraged. The site does a remarkable job of showing how the government wastes your tax dollars. Rooting through the budget and other expenditure records, DirtySpendingSecrets found that federal employees cost the taxpayers $146 million a year by upgrading their official travel from coach to business class--and over half the upgrades weren't authorized.

Want more? How about $500k to Alaska Airlines to paint a Chinook salmon on one of its Boeing 737s (gee, Southwest has one painted like an Orca, and managed to do it on their own dime). But here's the kicker (at least for today). According to the folks at DirtySpendingSecrets, your federal government also allocated $2.6 million to teach Chinese hookers to drink more responsibly on the job.

As the late Everett Dirksen once observed, "a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money."
ADDENDUM: In fairness, we should note that the federally-financed airline paint job was approved during the administration George W. Bush. That affirms the biggest Dirty Spending Secret of Them All: Pork is the only truly bi-partisan issue in Washington.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Failing Up

Once upon a time, baseball was one of the few businesses where you could "fail up" or at least keep failing as the same, well-paid level. The sport has a long list of players who bombed after signing big free-agent contracts, and managers who kept getting rehired to run big-league clubs--delivering the same, mediocre results.

But now you can also fail upward in broadcasting as well. The current example is Katie Couric, late of the CBS Evening News. After five years in the anchor chair that once belonged to Walter Cronkite, Ms. Couric left the network. There were reports that "The House that Murrow Built" tried to keep her on the roster, but it was a half-hearted effort at best. Couric's plans to leave the network began making the rounds months well before her official departure.

And the one-time "Tiffany Network" wasted no time in naming 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley as her replacement--and getting him on the air. In his debut broadcast Monday night, Mr. Pelley tried to maintain a low-key, no-nonsense approach. He did not mention it was his first night on The Evening News, and Pelley said absolutely nothing about his predecessor. Buh-bye, Katie.

But don't feel sorry for Ms. Couric. According to various industry publications and websites, The Perky One spent her last weeks at CBS entertaining offers from other networks--including her former employer. She eventually decided on ABC, where she will host a daytime talk show beginning in the Fall of 2012, and participate in other projects for the network's news division. Insiders say the 3 pm hour on the network's broadcast schedule has already been cleared for the Couric talk show, meaning that General Hospital, ABC's most popular soap opera, is facing cancellation to make room for Katie.

And if that's not enough, Ms. Couric's production company will be a co-owner of the daytime show, meaning she will split the profits with ABC. In other words, the daytime venture could earn Couric even more money than her CBS contract, which paid her $15 million a year to anchor the Evening News. That's the same sort of deal that created the foundation for Oprah's media empire and made Ms. Winfrey a billionaire. Obviously, Katie needs to add a few zeroes to her bank account to reach that tax bracket, but her new deal with ABC is very lucrative, to say the least.

Of course, everything hinges on the performance of that new talk show, which won't hit the airwaves for another 15 months. But ABC is apparently desperate for a new program that will attract female viewers, and provide a strong lead-in to local news programming. Many stations (including those owned by ABC) have replaced Oprah with more local newscasts. Those broadcasts are relatively cheap to produce--compared to the syndication fees paid for the Winfrey show--but many are struggling in the ratings. ABC and other station owners believe the time slot one occupied by Oprah would be best-filled by another talk show, fronted by a media "star." Enter Ms. Couric.

But, as we observed in recent posts, daytime TV is far different animal from the evening news, or a morning program, where Katie Couric made her mark. Oprah's ratings steadily decreased over the last decade of her run, and her program was actually #2 in daytime (behind Judge Judy) for the past three years. Couric claims the new show will allow her to do "the kind of storytelling I like," but unless she's willing to "Baby Daddy" segments (like Maury Povich) or interview The Most Dysfunctional Families in the World (a la Dr. Phil), her show will likely tank.

In fact, many local TV executives offered a ho-hum reaction when news of the Couric project was announced. Some cited the failure of another former Today anchor, Jane Pauley, who entered the talk show wars back in 2004 and lasted less than one year. According to Broadcasting and Cable , potential Couric affiliates have a number of concerns about the project, ranging from the host's recent stint in "hard news," to expected high fees for the program.

We'd also add that Ms. Couric's recent resume has been less-than-impressive. She was hired to pull the Evening News out of the ratings cellar, but during her tenure, the broadcast registered some of its lowest numbers in history, remains mired in third place. Meanwhile, the Today show never missed a beat, remaining in first place for over a decade--including the five years since Couric weighed anchor for CBS. Hmmm...maybe format is just as important as the talent in front of the camera.

Still, you've got to give some credit to Ms. Couric and her management team. They parlayed her dismal performance on the Evening News into an even bigger payday with ABC. Which brings us to another question: what will the network (and its corporate parent, Disney) do when the talk show bombs? Will they simply write a large check and send her packing, or try to get some return on their substantial investment? And, if they choose the latter option, where does Couric fit into the ABC News schedule?

For starters, you can forget about World News; Diane Sawyer shows no sign of giving up that chair anytime soon, and its doubtful that Couric would be a willing substitute after her own failure at CBS. They could park her at 20/20 (is it still on the air?), or send her back to morning TV. Katie Couric as co-anchor of Good Morning America, circa 2014? Don't bet against it. But wherever she lands, Couric is definitely "failing up." Only in American media.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Meanwhile, Back in Tehran

While Americans remain transfixed on "Weinergate," and the Middle East focuses on revolts in places like Yemen and Syria, Iran is edging closer to its first nuclear weapon.

Two new reports, released in recent days, say Tehran may be only two months away from being able to create a nuclear bomb. From Peter Goodspeed of Canada's National Post:

Using data released last month by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran’s enriched uranium stockpiles and the operations of its nuclear program, U.S. weapons expert Gregory Jones calculates it could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb in just eight weeks.

And here's another sobering assessment. According to Mr. Jones, there is nothing the U.S. or Israel can do to stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons--short of a military occupation. Since the odds of that happening are virtually nil, Jones believes an Iranian bomb is a foregone conclusion.

“The reality is that both the U.S. and Israel have failed to prevent Iran from gaining the ability to produce nuclear weapons whenever Iran wishes to do so. It is time to recognize this policy failure and decide what to do next, based on a realistic assessment of Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Rand Corporation, (where Mr. Jones works as a part-time researcher) which has released its own, similarly pessimistic report on the Iranian nuclear program.

“Iran today has largely acquired the materials, equipment and technology needed to develop a nuclear weapon,” the RAND report says.

“International efforts to control exports and interdict trade can now only hope to slow Iran’s progress and possibly deny it the specific technologies needed, for example, for nuclear warhead miniaturization and for mating a warhead on a missile.”

The goal of U.S. foreign policy should now shift to dissuade Iran from taking the next step of making a weapon, the study says, adding if that fails, Washington should have a back-up strategy to deter a nuclear-armed Iran.

“It is not clear that Iran has made the decision to create actual nuclear weapons,” it goes on. “Three future nuclear postures are possible: (1) Iran could achieve a ‘virtual capability’ by developing the know-how and infrastructure to assemble a nuclear weapon but stopping there, (2) It could develop nuclear weapons but leave this capability ambiguous, or (3) it could acquire nuclear weapons and declare their existence through withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or by conducting a nuclear test.”

Authors of the Rand study believe the U.S. can still influence events in Iran, using a mix of sanctions, military pressure and "incentives" to "lower the perception of a military threat."

Obviously, those tactics stand little chance for success--assuming that the U.S. and its allies could actually agree on some kind of comprehensive strategy for dealing with the problem. Sadly, the international community lost focus on the Iranian nuclear issue, and Tehran made the most of that opportunity.

Reading between the lines of the two reports, there seems to be a suggestion that (perhaps) the West (and Israel) will have to "learn to live" with an Iranian bomb. That proposal has been floated before, and quickly rejected as "unthinkable." The notion of a nuclear-armed Iran is still unacceptable. Trouble is, no one in the west has even offered a viable regimen that would prevent Tehran from getting a nuclear bomb, or creating significant delays in its development program. And time is clearly running out.


ADDENDUM: If Mr. Jones's timeline is accurate, it suggests that highly-publicized cyber attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities did not inflict as much damage as first reported. Initial claims suggests the carefully-engineered cyber strikes might have delayed Tehran's nuclear efforts for several years. Those assessments may have been overly-optimistic, at best.

UPDATE//7 June// Then, there's this bit of disturbing propaganda from Iran, courtesy of the UK Guardian, via Drudge. A Revolutionary Guards website has posted a rather unusual (some would say stunning) article, anticipating world reaction to an Iranian nuclear test. As Julian Borger of the Guardian observes, the piece breaks an important taboo. Iran has long claimed its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes, but the article clearly describes responses to a weapons test by Tehran.

One thing is certain: the post isn't the work of some obscure IRCG functionary. Placing such an inflammatory article on a Revolutionary Guards' web site required the permission of high-ranking officials within the organization, and likely, the upper levels of the regime. Their purpose is clear: to assure the Iranian populace that a nuclear test is coming, and life will go on, as normal, after the device is detonated. Tehran has apparently calculated that neither the U.S. or Israel will respond.

Friday, June 03, 2011

James Arness, R.I.P.

Actor James Arness in a title card for Gunsmoke. The TV legend died early today at the age of 88 (CBS photo via Wikipedia).

Someone over at Free said it best; if America was still entertained by shows like "Gunsmoke" and not the "Real Housewives of New Jersey," this country would be in far better shape.

Sadly, we won't see another show like that iconic western, which ran for 20 years (1955-1975) on CBS. And we won't see another TV star like James Arness, who starred as U.S. Marshal Matt Dillion during its entire run. Mr. Arness passed away earlier today in Los Angeles, only 13 months after his younger brother, actor Peter Graves.

It's been almost 40 years since Gunsmoke left the airwaves, but during its heyday, the show was appointment television for more than 40 million Americans every week. And Arness was perfectly cast as Dillion, the laconic lawman who, in the words of The New York Times, "never got the girl, did not love his horse, wore only one gun and fired it reluctantly, usually drawing last but shooting straightest in dusty street duels."

The story of Arness and the show is classic Americana. Gunsmoke actually began as a radio drama. CBS founder William S. Paley, the very embodiment of urbane sophistication, asked his programmers to develop a frontier version of the popular Phillip Marlowe radio series. But the project was shelved when the actor selected to play lawman Mark Dillon (Howard Culver) couldn't get out of his contract on another radio serial. CBS resurrected the idea in 1952, hiring producer Norman MacDonnell and writer John Meston to develop the series.

MacDonnell and Meston envisioned a "western for adults," with an emphasis on realism. Radio's Matt Dillion (William Conrad) was depicted as a lonely man, hardened by a tough life on the frontier. Doc Adams, played by Howard McNear--best known as Floyd the Barder on TV's The Andy Griffith Show--was an alcoholic and something of a quack. Georgia Ellis, who portrayed bar maid Kitty Russell, described her character as a "prostitute, pure and simple."

As a radio serial, Gunsmoke was a critical and ratings success for CBS. So, it was only natural that the network would adapt it for the relatively new medium of television. While the radio cast was experienced (and talented), CBS had doubts about their suitability for the small screen. William Conrad was already struggling with obesity, and the network quickly rejected him as TV's Matt Dillon. Other actors from the radio series were granted perfunctory auditions and passed over as well.

By comparison, James Arness was hardly a household name in 1955. He caught the acting bug after serving in the Army in World War II (he was badly wounded at the invasion of Anzio) and working as a disc jockey and radio announcer in his native Minnesota. Arness arrived in Hollywood in 1948 and found work in science fiction films (including a memorable turn in The Thing). But his big break came when John Wayne cast him in Big Jim McLain, and signed Arness to a contract with his production company.

It was also Wayne who recommended Arness for the role of Matt Dillon. Hollywood legend says The Duke was approached about starring in the series, but Gunsmoke's original producer and director, Charles Marquis Warren, said Arness won the role on the strength of a previous film role. Wayne encouraged his protege to take the part and took the unusual step of filming an introduction for the series, and touting Arness, predicting "he'll be a big star."

While the introduction was pure hype, it was also prophetic. Gunsmoke proved even more successful on television than on radio, reaching #1 in the ratings by 1957 and remaining there through the 1961 season. Arness became a huge star, and the series made him a wealthy man. By the early 1960s, Gunsmoke was being filmed by "The Arness Production Company," though Arness (characteristically) never claimed an on-screen producer's credit. When CBS bought him out a few years later, Arness became a millionaire.

And, in an era when many TV stars (such as Richard Chamberlain and Pernell Roberts) hungered for movie stardom, Arness remained loyal to his show, appearing in all of the series' 633 episodes. Not surprisingly, the actor became synonymous with the role, though Arness did appear in later shows, most notably the ABC mini-series How the West Was Won.

While Dillon's character dominated the series, Arness (by all accounts) did not have a "star complex," and enjoyed playing practical jokes on his fellow cast members. He was also supportive of his co-stars. When Buck Taylor (who played gunsmith Newly O'Brien in the series) asked for a higher salary, the network declined. When Arness found out about it, he told a network executive he "didn't want to interrupt his vacation to bitch [at CBS] about the situation." Taylor quickly got his raise.

Arness also encouraged Gunsmoke's writers to shift the focus away from Dillon's character and let other actors share the spotlight. This led to some of the series best episodes, and gave Arness a break from the weekly grind. But regardless of his amount of screen time, Arness insisted on quality, and the show consistently delivered. For a TV series, Gunsmoke offered characters that were remarkably multi-layered and complex, tackling issues that included mental illness, racism and child abuse.

It made for great television and Mr. Arness was instrumental to its success. Gunsmoke is easily the greatest TV western of all time, and Matt Dillon ranks high in the medium's pantheon of unforgettable characters, thanks to the work of a former infantryman from Minnesota. CBS is reportedly working on a "prequel" for Gunsmoke, encouraged by the success of its recent revival of Hawaii 5-0. At some point in the near future, viewers will get a chance to see someone else in the role of Marshal Dillon. No matter how talented that actor might be, he faces an unenviable, (some would say impossible) task.
ADDENDUM: Watching later episodes of Gunsmoke, viewers will notice that Arness runs with a slight limp, the results of his war wounds. Walking point on a night patrol at Anzio, Arness was hit by German machine-gun fire that shattered the bone in his lower right leg. The injury left that leg about 5/8 of an inch shorter than the left, and pain that afflicted the actor for the rest of his life. Mr. Arness was discharged from the Army in January 1945, with a $56 a month disability pension.

Also, as many fans of the series know, Gunsmoke narrowly avoided cancellation in the mid-1960s, when its ratings began to slip. The series was saved largely through the replacement of producer Phillip Leacock, and the intervention of CBS Chairman William Paley. A network talent executive was instructed to send letters to the cast, informing them of the series' cancellation. She asked if Mr. Paley had approved the move. No, she was told, but that was a mere formality. Knowing that Gunsmoke was one of Paley's favorites, she put the letters in a desk drawer and decided to wait. Paley reversed the programming department's decision, and Gunsmoke remained on the air for another decade.

Finally, the TV version of Gunsmoke retained much of the realism of the radio series, offering some surprising visual details for the 1950s and 60s. In an era when network censors dictated that Lucy and Ricky Ricardo sleep in separate beds, Gunsmoke viewers occasionally saw Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty descending the stairs at The Long Branch, or a bar girl leading a cowboy to an upstairs bedroom. Those scenes left little doubt that Miss Russell's watering hole was also a House of Ill Repute, but (amazingly) the censors never caught on.