XFL Ratings Get Body Slammed

What a turnaround. Three weeks ago the XFL posted ratings that were the highest NBC had received for a Saturday evening broadcast since it had the Olympics. Last week ratings fell to a 5.2 share, which was the league’s goal, and this weekend’s broadcast earned a very weak 3.8 share.

An even bigger problem is that the XFL is not keeping the young male demographic that it wanted. Rather than kids tuning in to see a WWF spectacle, the XFL seems most popular with older men hoping they might see a football game in between all the T&A shots. Unfortunately, that’s not the market that NBC promised to advertisers.

In today’s USA TOday, Rudy Martzke asks the obvious question: how serious is NBC’s two year, $100 million commitment? Probably not serious enough to stick with ratings this low.

Now things should get interesting. Vince McMahon knows how to get ratings, but the question is whether or not NBC will allow him to do the things that the XFL would need (i.e. pander, pander and pander some more) to really bring in the WWF audience. I was watching a documentary on McMahon the other day which explained how McMahon had emerged victorious after Ted Turner and the WCW almost destroyed the WWF.

McMahon’s solution — he could take the WWF into the sewer and garner ratings while Turner, because of his numerous partnerships and associations, simply couldn’t follow him there. Somehow I don’t think NBC will give McMahon the free reign he needs either.

Which is probably a good thing. In an interview a couple weeks ago, somebody asked McMahon about the cheerleaders and the sophomoric sexual innuendos that Jerry “The King” Lawler made on the initial broadcast, to which McMahon replied that it was impossible to have too much sex on television. Maybe not for the 11 and 12 year olds he markets the WWF to, but the XFL is often painful to watch because of these ridiculous antics (I should add that I simply don’t get wrestling either — a couple minutes of the current incarnation of the WWF is more than enough to completely disgust me).

I still think, however, that the idea of a small second tier football league is viable. A lot of the rules changes the XFL uses make a lot of sense and some of the broadcast methods the XFL uses are innovative, but need to be used more sparingly. For example, unlike a lot of critics of the broadcasts, I liked some of the sideline stuff, but it needs to be used more sparingly and to enhance the understanding of the game not for sheer shock value.

What is becoming clear is that the same thing that brought the XFL to life is the same thing that’s probably going to kill it: McMahon. On the one hand, few people aside from McMahon could step up and say he’s going to create a new football league out of nothing and be taken seriously. On the other hand, I think NBC probably underestimated what a liability McMahon’s involvement would be to the success of the XFL (i.e. most sports news outlets don’t take the league seriously, largely because of McMahon).

Unfortunately, when the XFL finally croaks it will probably mean the death knell for any attempt at an alternative league for decades to come.

Clay Shirky on the Potential Revolution at FCC

Clay Shirky surprised me with his excellent look at Michael Powell, Bush’s candidate to run the Federal Communications Commission. Powell is Colin Powell’s son and, aside from Gail Norton, the closest thing to a libertarian in Bush’s administration.

Shirky points out that Powell’s biggest opponents are likely to be Republicans who have a vested interest in the status quo at the FCC. Shirky doesn’t mention it, but it was Republicans in Congress, for example, who pushed through a bill essentially overturning the FCC’s decision to approve low power radio.

Add to that the faith that Democrat lawmakers have in state-run air waves, and Powell will likely become a whipping boy for Congressional hearings once he announces that the First Amendment actually applies to broadcast media.

The Internet has demonstrated the sort of diversity that communication systems can have when they are made widely available. If Powell succeeds, he could make radio relevant again. If not, radio will continue its long downward spiral into mediocrity.


Disappearing Act. Clay Shirky, FeedMag.Com, February 9, 2001.

The Off-Line Version of Banner Ads

Kuro5hin wonders about the seemingly endless trend of selling naming rights to buildings. The Los Angeles Lakers play in The Staples Center, the Super Bowl was played in Raymond James Stadium. According to the New York Times, visitors to the St. Louis Zoo this summer will be able to visit the Anheuser-Busch Hippo Harbor along with the Monsanto Insectarium.

Unlike some critics of this, I could care less whether or not the local zoo carries the name of corporations. What does puzzle me about this, however, is why corporations are pursuing these sort of sponorships.

The New York Times suggest that large corporations view it as a form of alternative advertising. If that’s the case they might as well blow their money on web banner ads — they’d probably be as effective.

Does anybody really watch a Lakers game and then feel a compulsion to shop at Staples? Or switch your investments to Raymond James because they paid millions to name Tampa Bay’s stadium?

Personally I think this is the latest advertising industry scam to fleece corporate wallets. Which means it’s time to get in while the getting is good.

I wonder if there isn’t an angle here for us poor independent web masters. For example, for a small donation I’d be more than willing to turn the Search page here into The McDonald’s Search page. Or how about the AT&T Article Directory?

This reminds me of people who were aghast at the recent spate of stars selling the rights for photographs of their wedding to tabloid magazines for six figures and up. Are those people insane?

Tell you what, for $100,000 my wife and I will have a completely new wedding providing XLF-style access and we’ll plaster corporate logos so extensively over the wedding and reception that even NASCAR fans will wince at the product placement.

Hmmm…anybody know how to contact Rupert Murdoch? Sounds like it would make a great Fox special.

Greenpeace vs. Golden Rice

Several times over the past couple years I’ve written about the amazing potential of so-called “golden rice.” This is a genetically modified strain of rice that contains a relatively large amount of vitamin A. Normal rice contains vitamin A, but it is lost in the processing necessary to make rice edible. As a result, in areas where rice is a food staple, vitamin A deficiency is common. Upwards of 500,000 children go blind ever year, for example, due to vitamin A deficiency.

Dr. Ingo Potrykus managed to genetically modify a strain of rice so that it retains a vitamin A and has been working tirelessly to begin tests with the rice. Unlike other genetically modified organisms, this one will essentially be given away to farmers in the developing world. This would seem to be an outstanding development on all counts.

Not so for Greenpeace, however, which is waging what appears to be a largely religious vendetta against anything related to genetic engineering. Several weeks ago it attacked the golden rice effort saying it was just a public relations gimmick by the biotechnology industry which would do nothing to reduce the problem of vitamin A deficiency. Unfortunately, Greenpeace’s logic here is typical of the radical environmental movement. Benedikt Haerlin, International Coordinator of Greenpeace’s Genetic Engineering Campaign, has this to say about the golden rice initiative.

The Genetic Engineering (GE) industry claims vitamin A rice could save thousands of children from blindness and millions of malnourished people from vitamin A deficiency (VAD) related diseases.

However, a simple calculation based on the product developers’ own figures show an adult would have to eat at least 12 times the normal intake of 300 grams to get the daily recommended amount of provitamin A.

Syngenta, one of the world’s leading GE companies and pesticide producers that owns many patents on the Golden Rice, claims one month of a delay in marketing Golden Rice would cause 50,000 children to go blind.

Greenpeace calculations show that an adult would have to eat at least 3.7 kilograms of dry weight rice, which results in about nine kilograms of cooked rice, to satisfy their daily need of vitamin A from Golden Rice.

This means a normal daily intake of 300 grams of rice would, at best, provide 8 percent of the vitamin A needed daily. A breast feeding woman would have to eat at least 6.3 kilograms in dry weight, converting to nearly 18 kilograms of cooked rice per day.

There is some controversy over these figures, but for the moment lets assume Greenpeace is correct in how much vitamin A will be available. Haerlin is essentially arguing that improving vitamin A consumption in the developing world is an all or nothing proposition — either scientists come up with rice that provides the complete recommended daily allowance of the vitamin or it do nothing at all. Since Greenpeace estimates that golden rice would only increase vitamin A intake by 8 percent, it is completely worthless in their view.

As Potrykus responded in an article of his own, this claim is absurd.

As I would assume you know, there is vast difference in the amount of vitamin A needed to reduce mortality, vs. that needed to prevent blindness, vs. that needed to prevent night-blindness and other like symptoms, vs. that which satisfies actual metabolic needs, vs. that which is equal to the recommended allowance, vs. that which might be considered for optimal intake, vs. that which might trigger toxicity symptoms. The vastness of those quantitative differences is further exaggerated in individuals whose metabolic need for this essential nutrient has been modified by an extended period of deprivation. Clearly in individuals whose diet is almost devoted of vitamin A, dietary intake at levels representing only a small fraction of the “recommended allowance” offers the potential to have a significant impact on both morbidity and mortality.

As Potrykus goes on to say, this is especially the case since golden rice will service in a complementary role to other efforts to fight vitamin A deficiency.

But are Greenpeace’s claims about bio availability accurate? If Greenpeace and other anti-GM activists have their way we might never know. Potrykus freely admits that just how much vitamin A is available to the human body is still an open issue and one that can only be resolved through small scale nutritional studies.

Unfortunately to do such a nutritional study, Potrykus will need to grow test beds of the rice and anti-GM activists have been destroying such crops around the world. The activists will apparently not make golden rice an exception to this policy. Greenpeace has said it will not rule out targeting small test fields of the GM rice for destruction.

Save the planet, turn your back on the developing world. Or as Potrykus warned Greenpeace,

If you plan to destroy test fields to prevent resposible testing and development of Golden Rice for humanitarian purposes, you will be accused of contributing to a crime against humanity.


Greenpeace and Golden Rice. Ingo Potrykus, letter posted to AgBioView ListServ, February 15, 2001.

GE rice is fool’s gold. Benedikt Haerlin, Greenpeace, February 9, 2001.

Is Puberty Really Starting Earlier for Girls?

I consider myself a pretty skeptical person, but I have to confess I accepted at face value claims that girls were reaching puberty. Surely such a claim, based on studies published in some relatively prestigious journals, had a lot of data behind them. Most of the debate in the media over this claim was what was causing early puberty. Environmentalists suggested manmade chemicals as a possible cause, some doctors suggested the high levels of obesity in children, while some feminists and conservatives suggested that the high level of sexual images in contemporary media might somehow be responsible.

It turns out, however, that the alleged evidence for early puberty is severely flawed and the quick acceptance of early puberty may be preventing some girls from obtaining the best health care available.

The New York Times‘ Gina Kolata, who has helped debunk other junk science issues in the past, reported on the debate over early puberty this week. The evidence for the phenomenon is appallingly absent. The claim is based entirely on a single study by Dr. Marcia E. Herman-Giddens that was published in Pediatrics in 1997. Herman-Giddens study looked at 17,077 girls aged 3 to 12. The girls had gone to a pediatricians office from July 1992 through September 1993. Herman-Giddens managed to persuade 225 health care providers at 65 private practices in the United States to evaluate any girls they saw for early onset of puberty.

As she reported in her 1997 article, of that sample population, Black girls began developing breasts at 8.87 years while white girls began developing breasts at 9.96 years. Many pediatrics textbooks, taking these numbers at face value, pushed back the lower end of normal puberty to age 6 for black girls and age 7 for white girls. But did they have a good basis for doing so? No.

The first major problem with the study is that the sample is incredibly biased. By focusing exclusively on girls who were brought to see a pediatrician, it is possible that Herman-Giddens is simply measuring the rate of premature puberty brought on by other health problems. After all, parents who are worried that their daughters are experiencing puberty early are more likely to bring their children to see a pediatrician about that problem. In statistics this is called a selection bias.

The second major problem is that the only marker of puberty for which reliable data exists for a long period of time — the onsent of menstruation — has remained steady for the last 50 years. There simply is no reliable long-term data on the average age that breasts start developing, but there is reliable long-term data for menstruation. That age has remained stable, even in Herman-Giddens study, at 12 years and 8 months for white girls and a bit earlier for black girls. If puberty is starting earlier and earlier it is very odd that the average age of menstruation has remained so consistent.

A group of pediatric endocrinologists wrote a letter to Pediatrics recently lamenting that doctors who believe this data are giving incorrect health advice to young girls. As they note, early puberty can be the result of serious health problems, such as brain tumors and other disorders, but parents who bring in girls who are experiencing early puberty are simply told that this is normal and no further tests or investigation are warranted. As Dr. Laura K. Bachrach told The New York Times, “You don’t just dismiss a child in that age range [under 7]. I think it is potentially medically dangerous.”


Doubters fault theory finding earlier puberty. Gina Kolata, The New York Times, February 20, 2001.

Rape on Campus: 1 in 33

Campus rape statistics have become highly politicized over the past decade. Campus feminists and rape advocates often cite figures claiming that as many as 1 in 4 college women are victims of rapes. Critiques of such high figures, including this author, argue that such statistics are based on problematic surveys that vastly overestimate rape incidence among college women.

The U.S. Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice and Bureau of Justice Statistics joined the fray recently with their report, “The Sexual Victimization of College Women.” The report is based on data obtained from interviews with college women. Like a lot of reports, the media chose to sensationalize the reports finding that 13 percent of college women said they had been stalked in the prior year, while downplaying the fact that only 1.1 percent said they had been the victim of an attempted rape, while 1.7 percent reported being victims of a completed rape in the previous year, meaning that about 1 in 33 were the victims of rape or attempted rape in the previous year.

On the one hand the survey backs up other evidence that large numbers of rapes and attempted rapes go unreported to police. On the other hand it also provides evidence that many women’s advocates overestimate the incidence of rape among college women.

Which is not to diminish the extent of the problem. Based on these statistics about 1 in 14 women will be the victims of rape during a four year stay at an American university or college. This is way too high.


Rape on campus. Geraldine Sealey, ABCNews.Com, January 26, 2001.