Once fat "Today" ratings lead down to skin and bones

There’s a heaving sea of despair splashing around NBC’s Manhattan headquarters these days. It seems its morning stalwart, the “Today” show, is getting smacked around in the ratings war trough.The foaming chaos swallowed up the show’s executive producer Tuesday. Tom Touchet got axed with the network’s biggest money-maker in a ratings slump and feeling the heat from ABC’s “Good Morning America.””Today’s” position of unchallenged dominance in the morning has eroded. Its margin over second-place “Good Morning America” is roughly half of what it was last year.To NBC, this all is terribly embarrassing, like suddenly finding a huge bump in your kitchen linoleum while hosting a dinner party. The network is finding out that the viewing public can be a witch’s brew of loyalty spiked with attention deficit. Consequently, they’re passing the Kleenex around at 30 Rockefeller Center.As a veteran “Today” viewer, I think the show has exhibited diminished energy and charm. I’m bored with Katie Couric, Matt Lauer, Al Roker and Ann Curry. The mystique of “America’s First Family” has vanished. So its ratings are suffocating from breathing the same stale air.Or perhaps it’s Katie’s glasses. They’re a big turnoff. The librarian look isn’t chic. Actually, when I do watch “Good Morning America” on occasion, I’m not all that impressed with Charles Gibson, Diane Sawyer, Robin Roberts and Tony Perkins. Roberts is OK, but I’d rather spend a morning getting flogged in monastic gloom than watch the syrupy, pseudo-sophisticate Sawyer. I think “GMA” is doing better because ABC’s strong prime time programming is giving its morning show a yawning boost … and because folks have noticed that “Today” is oozing vitality from its pores. Actually, I think all network morning shows are overrated anyway. They’re crammed with commercials and their viewers are too busy prepping for their day to actually engage with both eyes. People watch these shows with one eye while the other eye is focused on breakfast or the morning newspaper or packing lunch. Nobody casually sits and watches TV at that hour while picking at a scab.Perhaps if Matt and Katie started picking at scabs while on the air, it would jack up the ratings and stem the mutation of fear at NBC.

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Conservative plumes of smoke herald new pope

Far be it from me to question God’s will. And I assume the conclave of cardinals follows God’s will when electing a pope, even if there are political overtones to the process.After all, we Roman Catholics believe the pontiff to be God’s chief conduit to all of us.Granted, popes aren’t mere marionettes. They all have their individual styles and substances. I believe the election of the conservative and ancient Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany today gave the world a dramatic glimpse of hard reality. The Roman Catholic Church is not ready to feel the scorch of fundamental change. Spontaneous combustion doesn’t happen in the Vatican. The new Pope Benedict XVI was the dean of the College of Cardinals and it was his job to make the faithful and theologians — they aren’t mutually exclusive, by the way — toe the dogma line. He has a history of clashing with liberals. His age clearly was a factor among cardinals who favored a transitional pope following John Paul II, rather than a younger cardinal who could have another long pontificate.Personally, I would have preferred a younger, dynamic, liberal communicator as pope. But I will try to think positive about Benedict XVI. After all, if you look hard enough, you might even be able to find the gleam in the eye of a hurricane.And perhaps Benedict XVI already has softened his image with the selection of his new name. Benedict XV, who reigned from 1914 to 1922, was a moderate following the conservative Pius.So perhaps the church won’t retreat into cobweb darkness under a new hard-line pontiff. Right now, only God knows.

Caught in a draft

If you’re an NFL nut job like me, every connection with the real world this week has been snipped. This is draft week. Nothing else truly matters. In fact, I can’t imagine how the cardinals in Rome can even concentrate on electing a new pope.The NFL’s meat market/lottery is this weekend and I’ve been blitzed by streams of online and printed copy detailing every microscopic positive and negative concerning this year’s crop of studs. Plus, of course, reams and reams of speculation on just who is going where.Drafting talent, you see, is more complex than calculus. Scouts, general managers, coaches and draftnik pundits do everything but watch these wunderkinds eat their Wheaties. They break everything and everybody down into symmetrical pieces. Top draft prospects can’t do anything that isn’t viewed under a microscope. As you can imagine, these microscopes are industrial size.Indeed, this talent hunt scopes out physical evolution carried to the ultimate. Tracking gifted prodigies and predicting NFL performance take more than spotting impeccable talent and eyeballing genetic marvels. The exquisite smorgasbord of abilities that make up an NFL superstar is so vast that infinite measurables must be evaluated.It’s a shame we aren’t so thorough when it comes to picking presidents. After all, do you think George W. would have measured up? But I digress. We draftniks all are bloated with profile overload. All of it brimming with enough jargon to fill a bottomless abyss. My eyeballs are spinning like casino slot machines from reading endless player profiles detailing character issues, big bubbles, vertical threats, vertical leaps, intangibles, bursts, happy feet, arm strength, RPMs on the ball, velocity, touch, accuracy, bench presses, 40 times, cone drills, Wonderlic football IQ tests, height, weight, hand size, arm span, low pad levels, stiff hips, vision in the open field, and guys who look like Tarzan but play like Jane.Yep, looking for Galahads of the gridiron is a high-risk, high-reward proposition. Picking plums that turn out rotten smells awful to a team’s fans, not to mention the horrid impact on the team’s bottom line and won-loss record. This year there supposedly isn’t one true superdooperstar who stands out as the utterly obvious No. 1 pick. Still, quarterbacks always are coveted. Teams perpetually look for top guns who can make secondaries bow like butlers before them.However, this year’s top two QBs — Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers — aren’t the type of passers you can strike a match on their crisp spirals. But Smith is a natural athlete whose chromosomes all are shaped like varsity letters. And Rodgers’ mechanics have been so finely tuned that he can pass for big scoops of yardage in his sleep.The San Francisco 49ers, unless they trade down for multiple picks and/or bodies, are on the clock with the top pick. Speculation had been rampant that they would pluck Rodgers. Now the pendulum has turned toward Smith.Well, I can’t wait for Saturday at high noon to see what happens. And I can’t wait for Monday when the two-day draft is history. I need to see the sun again. Because to me and countless others this week, draft mania has been purpling the skyline.

A memory wrapped in a bun

I imagine there was a bit of a hot dog in George Molchan. And why not? It was his job and he did it with relish.Which is why — and I’m not making this up, folks — mourners sang “Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener” and then blew short blasts on miniature, hot dog-shaped whistles during Molchan’s funeral in Merrillville, Ind.Molchan, who died Tuesday at 82, helped market Oscar Meyer for 36 years. Molchan, who played a character known as Little Oscar, would travel from town to town in the 27-foot-long Oscar Mayer Wienermobile back in the days when medical experts hadn’t yet done a lawn job on the negative nutritional aspects of hot dogs.In the true vagaries of coincidence, I happened to check out the obits today and saw Little Oscar’s farewell story. Which immediately brought into focus in my mind’s eye a treasured image from yesteryear.Yep, the first celebrity I ever met was Little Oscar. I don’t remember the precise year, but it was somewhere in the mid-1950s when I was a mere tyke. I recall that my mother and I had just left Joseph’s, which sold men and boys clothing, at Fourth and Penn. And there parked on Penn Street was the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, with Little Oscar working the small crowd.In the cold light of hindsight, I should have asked Little Oscar for his autograph that day. I don’t remember why I didn’t. Perhaps he didn’t have a mustard-colored Sharpie. I don’t recall, since time’s winged chariot has clouded my memory.I do remember being almost as tall as Little Oscar, which was no big feat. And I do recall being quite impressed with the Wienermobile. After all, it was in color. It sure looked more vibrant than it did in the commericals on our black-and-white TV set.Truth be told, I hadn’t given Little Oscar much thought until today. I don’t eat hot dogs that often anymore. But the next time I have one, probably at a Reading Phillies game, I’ll observe a moment of silence for Little Oscar.

The sky is falling on road construction

Highway construction and maintenance in Berks and beyond seemingly abound everywhere every year. Like dandelions, there’s no escaping it. So all of us are sentenced to waste away in clogged corridors of lost time.Or are we?In my brooding and bemused manner, I gave that question considerable reflection on a lazy Sunday morning. The Reading Eagle had knocked some cobwebs off my brain this morning with the news that a 2.5-year, $55.4 million reconstruction project will begin Tuesday on Interstate 78 in the Hamburg area. The project will reconstruct I-78 from the Route 61 interchange (Exit 29) to about 3 miles east of Hamburg. The Hamburg interchange (Exit 30) also will be reconstructed, and ramp configuration improvements are planned at Route 61.Short-term lane restrictions are expected during off-peak travel times from May until Labor Day, when long-term single-lane restrictions will take effect. This section of I-78 has an average daily traffic volume of 31,000 vehicles.Ouch! And the Route 222 project south towards Lancaster still is incomplete. Yikes!Anyway, back to the cobwebs falling from my brain cells. I suddenly recalled the network cartoon series “The Jetsons” that premiered on ABC in 1962 and transported all of us to the future of 2062.

Granted, we aren’t at 2062 yet, but it’s just a few blinks of fast-forwarding time away. After all, we crossed the threshold into the 21st century five years ago. You can look it up. It was in all the newspapers.

But back to my point: The Jetsons — beleaguered bread-winner George, loving wife Judy, hip daughter Judy, fun-loving Elroy and loyal dog Astro — didn’t motor around in a landlocked car. Rather they soared through the friendly skies in an atomic-powered bubble. And so did everybody else, including George’s irritable boss, Mr. Spacely.

Yep, they all zoomed around in the sky, with nary a construction delay or even a pothole to mess with their serenity. They just floated along blithely in the air like so much sweet smog.

Ignore the picayune details and let your imagination run wild. Instead of investing millions in never-ending road infrastructure issues, why not use the money to produce cost-effective atomic-powered flying bubbles for mass consumption? Where’s Detroit and NASA, not to mention the Japanese, when you need ’em? Such a quick shift in approach would obviously eliminate oodles of high gasoline prices, traffic jams, road construction and PennDOT coffee breaks.

Plus, imagine how cool it would be if we all were driving around in the Berks County skies, scoping out the spectacular vistas and getting a bird’s-eye view of how suburban sprawl is strangling all of us.

I concede that nothing is perfect in the world of reality, and the “Jetsons” wasn’t a reality TV show (that particular genre, I believe, had yet to be invented in 1962 unless you count the “Wonderful World of Disney”). So in a real world of flying cars and/or bubbles, exit signs obscured by clouds could be a problem. The same would go for kissing-the-sky billboards, mounted on towering poles raised by huge hydraulic lifts. And when accidents would occur way up there, vehicles would hit the ground like so many raindrops hitting an umbrella. Except the splash would be a tad more frightful.

Of course, perhaps we could cover all of Berks County with Styrofoam to cushion falls from the sky. That could be a job for displaced PennDot workers. And they also could find work as air traffic controllers. We’d probably need several thousand of them on duty at all times.

Don’t you just love win-win situations?

Save the yard work for Mr. Greenjeans

Up front, just let me inform you that I’m a hypocrite. Now that spring has crawled out from under the covers of winter, I’m one of those countless landscaping laborers populating Berks suburbia. And I despise every microsecond expended cutting grass, growing grass, pruning, planting, yanking weeds, mulching, sweating, sneezing and swearing.I sometimes wonder if all the other backyard dirt-splattered warriors really do have an affinity and affection for yard work or are they grass-stained hypocrites such as myself. I suspect there are more of the latter.You see, we all get sucked into the foreboding and ruthless hell of social expectations. Since all the neighbors have gussied-up lawns and flower beds and gardens and whatever, we do, too.So there we are, grouchier than Cinderella’s stepsisters, outside looking in. Granted, nice sunny spring days are OK to toil in the yard. But just how many are there of those? Not too damn many. I know that weather whiz Ed Hanna over there at WFMZ-TV Channel 69 must know this, but why have our Berks springs in recent years had the bleak feel of a Russian winter?Much of my landscaping ventures are spent shivering in the wind. I like my drinks chilled, not my blustery breezes.And the sun can be a most elusive partner. The sun is like a wife with a not-so-discrete passion for shopping. It’s never around. So I’m sentenced to do all the grit-and-grime work under slate-gray skies.Nevertheless, fueled by the great expectations of my neighbors and rationalizing in the belief that genius truly must be perseverance in disguise, I continue to attack my yard chores with the outward zeal of a battalion commander. Indeed, I consider my gun-metal lawn mower to be an assault vehicle. When I look closely, I can see the blades of grass flinching in fright as I approach with my trusty killing machine.Well, I’ve squandered enough time on this sunny, beautiful spring Saturday. I can hear the symphonic percussion of my neighbors’ lawn mowers, weed whackers and chainsaws. I’ve procrastinated long enough. It’s time to plunge into the treacherous whirlpool of lockstep social behavior or risk being ostracized. After all, the nail that sticks out gets hammered. And we suburbanites are honeycombed for survival in an environment where conformity is as prized as lush landscaping.

The measure of a man

Sometimes the news is so fascinating that it transcends fiction in terms of dramatic denouement.For instance, I almost dropped my spoon into my cereal bowl this morning when I read in the Reading Eagle that a Lancaster County man unhappy with his penile-enlargement surgery mailed explosives to his Chicago plastic surgeon, according to an indictment handed up by a federal grand jury in Philadelphia.Blake R. Steidler, 24, Reamstown, fashioned dental floss, gunpowder, a carbon-dioxide cartridge, a 9-volt battery and a model-rocket engine igniter into an explosive device inside a jewelry box, then wrapped it and sent it to the doctor, authorities said Thursday. OK, I thought, size must matter to some gentlemen. Which probably explains why some guys smoke a cigar the size of an oboe. But I digress.It’s a matter of biology and psychobabble that the penis cuts to the raw ganglia of manhood. Evidently, some men will go to unreasonable ends to enhance what Mother Nature gave them. And not having achieved that, it seems it’s all downhill for their psyche thereafter as they tumble through life like a terrible skier.Sounds like a stiff price to pay to cynics like myself who consider penile enlargement to be the worst scam since gabardine.Still, a lack of size apparently enfolds some men in its relentless psychological embrace, dipping all braggadocio into a hot broth of tears.Now authorities are saying a Reamstown man reached his flashpoint over not getting a bigger bang for his buck, which lit a fuse that turned his heart into a potential engine of destruction.