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March 7, 2012

Luck's Tough Love: Could David Milch's Unflinching HBO Series Assist in Horse Racing's Revival?

Patrick Reed

Patrick Reed has contributed to several projects for the Lear Center over the last 10 years and also works for Thoroughbred Times in Lexington, KY.


One week after the post below, Luck's producers and HBO cancelled further production of the series, two episodes into shooting its second season. The press reported that another Thoroughbred was euthanized on-set, upping the total to three for the show's duration. The latest horse fatality reportedly occurred away from the racetrack as the animal was being led to the barn area at Santa Anita - an accident that could have happened in any situation, at any location, and one that did not come about as a result of simulating a race or any other high-intensity activity. Speculation immediately began to percolate as to whether the accident provided an opening for producers to halt filming of a series that had failed to draw strong ratings, but official statements by Milch, Mann, and the cable channel brass expressed regret over the decision and stressed that their commitment to equine welfare was absolute.

At any rate, the promise of Luck and its willingness to present an unflinching but affectionate portrait of contemporary horse racing to viewers will not be fully realized. The series will now likely be remembered more for its fine acting performances throughout the cast and especially for providing icons Hoffman and Nolte emotionally complex characters to inhabit as their careers wind down. As for horse racing, the search continues for the next gambling innovation, pop culture tie-in, big-event promotion, or - best of all - a new star on the track to recapture the interest of a general public that has, over the past quarter-century, largely abandoned the sport. Optimism remains a constant presence in the industry - despite all of the negative trends, there's always a next race.

LUCKposter125.jpgSix years ago last week, a two-year-old by Forestry sold for the highest price ever at a Thoroughbred auction - $16-million at the select Fasig-Tipton Florida sale. The price (a result of a bidding war between two titanic international breeding and racing operations) easily surpassed the previous record of $13.1-million set in 1985 and in retrospect was the most egregious indicator of unsustainable excess within the industry - particularly in the breeding sector - that paralleled the overall economic insanity of the late 'aughts and portended the collapse to come. (The regally bred colt, later named The Green Monkey after a Barbados golf course, retired to stud in 2009 after racing three times without a win and with career earnings a shade above $10,000).

2008 brought a bracing across-the-board correction, and the U.S. Thoroughbred industry has been grasping for a lifeline ever since. While ample evidence exists that the bottom has been reached in the auction market over the past year and a half, and stallion fees have plummeted from their ridiculous heights in the mid-2000s to more affordable levels, the crucial long-term problem plaguing the industry remains: horse racing continues to lose fan support to other forms of entertainment. Thoroughbred racing may never regain its status as one of the three leading American pastimes that it shared with baseball and boxing during the middle of the last century, but currently the challenge facing the industry is much more basic, and dire: finding a way to carve out and maintain a foothold as a viable entertainment option against an endless, regenerating tide of slot machines, "SportsCenter" updates, handheld device games, and other touchstones of our instant-gratification zeitgeist.

Horse racing's steady decline in popularity is easy to understand in this context - because at its core,

Continue reading "Luck's Tough Love: Could David Milch's Unflinching HBO Series Assist in Horse Racing's Revival?" »

March 15, 2012

Entertainment's War on Bullying

Adam Amel Rogers

Adam Amel Rogers is a Project Specialist at the Norman Lear Center.

Our nation's young people are living in a war zone. School bullying is at epidemic levels, educators largely lack resources to intervene and cyberbullying ensures that the tormenting continues well after the school bell rings.

No one has the silver bullet answer, but the search for solutions has launched anti-bullying efforts from the White House, Facebook and numerous education groups at every level. However, the most visible soldier in the battle against bullying has indisputably been the entertainment industry. While being visible is not necessarily synonymous with being effective, there is no doubt that the entertainment industry has brought unprecedented awareness to the issue.

In recent weeks, this entertainment-induced awareness evolved out of Dan Savage's celebrity-laden It Gets Better campaign. Harvard University hosted the official launch of Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation, which serves as "a bottom-up movement to try to make it cooler for young people to be nice." Gaga has been a leading voice in anti-bullying efforts-including her notable lobbying of President Obama for stronger anti-bullying legislation. Also, an upcoming documentary from the Weinstein Company titled, Bully has created a major buzz with a haunting trailer and a growing battle with the MPAA, which has produced over 300,000 petition signatures to reduce the film's "R" rating so young people can actually watch the movie.

One entertainment event that has already had a major impact is the emotional climax in the teen bullying storyline on Glee. The show forces audiences to suspend disbelief a bit more than most shows, and it has addressed many important issues in arguably problematic ways (e.g., teen sex, disabilities, etc.), but Glee has handled each step of the bullying storyline with extreme care. Most recently, in a beautifully shot three-minute sequence, high school football player Dave Karofsky was outed as gay, bullied and cyberbullied, which caused him to attempt suicide. Though many have criticized the show for jamming so much important content into an episode that also contained a singing competition, a teenage wedding (almost) and a texting-while-driving car accident, the suicide attempt was portrayed in a realistic and powerful way. Max Adler, who plays Karofsky, brilliantly conveyed how hopeless and scary the situation was and how the character could have thought there was no other way out. Thankfully, after the longest commercial break ever, it was revealed that Karofsky's father found him before it was too late. The choice to have the suicide attempt fail is extremely important because the real life situation is already so hopeless that it would have been irresponsible for the show to resolve the storyline with tragedy.

The episode also displayed the aftermath of educators and friends searching for what they could have done to prevent it. Administrators proceeded cautiously out of fear of copycat attempts and the lack of acceptance from Karofsky's mother was shown to play a role in his suicide attempt. Perhaps most importantly, a public service announcement about The Trevor Project featuring Daniel Radcliffe aired during the episode. A leading suicide prevention hotline, The Trevor Project reported a 300% increase in phone calls and a 667% increase in web traffic on the night the episode aired. Overall, the episode delivered bullying and suicide prevention awareness to 7.4 million people in one fell swoop.

At the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, we study how entertainment impacts society and in our recent study of the film Food, Inc., over half of respondents said the film "changed their life." This is the latest in a long list of scholarship showing that entertainment can cause behavior change. This is why it is so important for shows like Glee to tackle important issues in poignant ways.

March 26, 2012

Rock Me Art Museum?

Veronica Jauriqui

Veronica Jauriqui is Special Projects Manager at the Norman Lear Center.

LACMARockTweet.jpgThe LACMA Rock and a case study in museums and online engagement

I'll admit it. I caught Rock Fever. It was the same mania that possessed large swaths of Los Angeles County just a few weeks ago, compelling people to leave their homes, take to the streets in wild celebration and pose for photographs with what was referred to (with a touch of overkill) as the city's newest rock star.

Of course I'm referring to the LACMA Rock, the 340-ton granite slab that will become the heart of artist Michael Heizer's sculpture "Levitated Mass" opening this summer at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

I didn't exactly join the city revelers who en masse followed the rock's 100+mile route from a Riverside quarry to the Miracle Mile. But I meticulously tracked its progress online - on LACMA's own Levitated Mass blog, through photos shared on Flickr and via one of the best Twitter anthropomorphs I've seen in a while, the @LACMARock. The Rock's unofficial twitter feed (according to a LACMA spokesperson, it originated from L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe's office) was a pitch perfect online supplement to a much-publicized spectacle that galvanized a city around a piece of modern art.

The momentum spawned marriage proposals, a "Rockapalooza" street party and an upcoming documentary.

Whether you loved it like me or wearied of the daily play-by-play, LACMA's star exhibition built some serious online engagement. And kudos to LACMA for embracing the madness and allowing the Rock to literally take on a life of its own.

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