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Z on TV
Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV
Frontline offers harrowing, revealing look into ISIS tonight

There have been times the last few years when it has felt like "Frontline" was the last, hard-hitting journalistic outfit left on American television.

Screening its latest report, "The Rise of ISIS," was another one of those moments for me. It premieres at 10 tonight on PBS. Don't miss it.

This is a superb work of journalism that explains how the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria came to be and where it might be headed. It's harrowing, informative and thought-provoking. Nothing I have seen about ISIS on cable or network news comes close.

A big part of the story, which is carefully reported, involves the failure of the Obama administration to act on the information about ISIS that was available.

As Martin Smith, who reports the piece for "Frontline," puts it, "This documentary lays out ... the buildup of unheeded warnings, failures, and missed opportunities that allowed al-Qaida in Iraq to become ISIS."

This is not Fox News saying the Obama administration failed us. This is Martin Smith...

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'Orange Is the New Black' author talks about today's Big Change Baltimore event

Piper Kerman, author of "Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison," will be one of the featured speakers at the Big Change Baltimore forum from 3:30 to 7 p.m. today at Center Stage, 700 North Calvert St. Her book has been adapted into a Netflix series for which she is a consultant. She and Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times and now editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, will be appearing together at today’s event, which is presented by Open Society Institute-Baltimore. Other speakers include professor and author Ian Haney Lopez, UMBC president Freeman A. Hrabowski and actress Maria Broom.

Q. Can you tell me what your role is going to be in the Open Society program in Baltimore?

A. Well, the Open Society Foundation, as I’m sure you know, has been investing in Baltimore for a number of years, and has made Baltimore part of their criminal justice reform strategy, a proving ground in a lot of ways.  And I’m really looking forward to this conversation....

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Greg Gumbel, Trent Green make Ravens' loss all the more painful to watch

I keep waiting for something good to say about Greg Gumbel, but I’m starting to think it’s never going to happen.

Forget the gaffes he’s been making this season. I finally came to understand late in the Ravens’ 27-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals what I really dislike about Gumbel this year: what a pompous gasbag he’s become after all those years of studying at the feet of his former partner Dan Dierdorf.

The moment of revelation came during the replay of the fourth-quarter play everyone in Baltimore is sure to be talking about for days: the touchdown pass to Steve Smith that was called back for pass interference. As the first and second replays of the controversial play rolled, Gumbel said of Smith and the call of pass interference, “That’s pretty clear… He gets a grab and a push, and the football comes, and he does the rest….”

Except it wasn’t that “clear” to Gumbel’s partner, Trent Green, who focused on Bengals defender George Iloka, who was covering Smith.

“Iloka does a good job,...

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With 'Olive Kitteridge,' HBO does what PBS should be doing

HBO's "Olive Kitteridge" opens with an older woman walking into the woods on a fall day. She is carrying a blanket, radio, envelope, revolver and one bullet.

She spreads the blanket on the ground, turns the radio to a classical station and places it on the blanket along with a sealed envelope that is addressed "To Whom It May Concern." Then she puts the bullet in the cylinder of the gun and looks up at the vast, distant, cold blue sky.

If this description of a possible suicide is turning you off, I can tell you right now "Olive Kitteridge" is not for you. Maybe something along the lines of "Family Guy" or "Sunday Night Football" would make for happier viewing.

But you should still know that "Olive Kitteridge" is the deepest, richest and most daring miniseries on American TV since "Mildred Pierce" in 2011 and "John Adams" in 2008. And as fine as the lead performances were by Kate Winslet in the former and Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney in the latter, none approaches the transcendent...

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WBFF-TV to launch 4 p.m. newscast, digital weather channel

WBFF will launch a 4 p.m. weekday newscast starting Jan. 12, Bill Fanshawe, the station's general manager, confirmed today.

Fanshawe also confirmed that the Sinclair-owned station is going to launch a 24/7 digital weather channel in conjunction with Weather Nation perhaps as soon as next week.

The weather information will be carried on channel 45.2.

The 4 p.m. newscast is an important move for the station and a good one for the market. Generally, the more news and competition, the better. And Sinclair, with its vast national acquisitions, can bring more resources to its Baltimore coverage.

And I cannot help but wonder, for example, if Kai Jackson, who left WJZ after two decades last December to join Sinclair in Washington, will be back in Baltimore at the WBFF anchor desk.

If he had a one-year non-compete clause in the WJZ contract, he'd be free to return to the market in January. And he'd be going head-to-head with his former station.

Fanshawe declined to comment on Jackson.


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Ravens fans hated Fox telecast even more than I did

I thought I was pretty hard on Fox Sports in my Monday column headlined "Fox hits bottom with Sunday telecast of Ravens."

I said the broadcast team of Justin Kutcher and David Diehl was so bad it made me long for those fourth-string crews from CBS Sports that I've regularly ripped in the past.

I added that when I first saw Kutcher and Diehl onscreen Sunday, I thought I had stumbled upon a regional cablecast of a Division III college game instead of Fox coverage of the NFL.

But apparently I was not hard enough, according to some of the totally tuned-in readers of Z on TV, who wrote to me about the telecast.

Here's an email from Stephen, in Ownings Mills, and note what he says about the image of the USS Constellation that Fox showed as it was coming back from a commercial in the third quarter.

... As I was watching yesterday’s game, I also noted the absence of any discussion about Will Hill.  The [Halloween] costume discussion was beyond belief.

During the game I commented on the absence...

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