Wednesday, November 1, 2017

I don't know why I expected anything better

by Don Keith
If you are a friend on Facebook or frequent some of the more popular amateur radio hobbyist groups  there, or if you follow me on Twitter, I owe you an apology. Yesterday I received a tweet from ARRL letting us know that the very popular CBS Network TV show "NCIS" would have a strong plot line featuring ham radio. Since I'm always excited when people are exposed to a hobby I have enjoyed and benefited from for better than half a century, I posted the news everywhere I could.

I wish I had not. I don't need any help from Mark Harmon to get my blood pressure up.

I should have known from past experience that most portrayals of our hobby are bogus and ill-informed, from Herman Munster to the space alien Alf, though they were light years better than the pitiful mess on "NCIS" last night. 

There have been a few decent ones: "Last Man Standing" on ABC (Tim Allen even got his ham license in real life because of his character's interest in the hobby) and the movie "Frequency," even though the characters transmitted on an old Heathkit RECEIVER throughout the film. But at least the characters were not depicted as socially challenged dweebs who "perfectly fit the stereotype," an actual line from "NCIS."

Okay, I confess I have not watched a full episode of any of the flavors of "NCIS" because I found the situations totally unrealistic and what few I have spent more than a few minutes with were just downright silly. Therefore I should not be surprised that this attempt to include ham radio was just downright wrong at best and mean-spirited in actuality.

For the life of me I can't understand why, if they are going to make amateur radio a key element of the story line, they don't get a little input and get it right. A quick visit to the ARRL web site could have helped immensely.  Asking the local ham club to give input would have kept them from being absolutely insulting.  Maybe.

  • Hams don't use "handles." That's CB. Common mistake but why do it? Oh, that did fit into the plot somewhat since they had to use direction-finding to locate one ham they wanted to talk with about a murder. And they couldn't have just looked up a call sign on or the FCC database. That would have made the geniuses at NCIS unnecessary.
  • There are plenty of real but unused call signs they could have used instead of that silly mishmash they came up with. 
  • The two ham "shacks" they showed must have had a dozen transceivers in each. That was just an effort to further demonstrate how crazy these hams were.
  • The log book they showed would have had call signs in it, not "handles," and it would have been a snap to look them up on many web sites or in the FCC database. 
  • "His antennas have a range of 80 square miles." Ridiculous! The conglomeration of radios the murdered guy had and the big beam antenna and ham gear at his buddy's house can reach the other side of the planet. But they had to keep the dead guy's coverage down in order to determine that there were 630 licensed amateur radio operators that could possibly be able to talk to the poor fellow. And a quick look at their names instantly gave them the likely "handle" of the person they wanted to speak with. Wow!

But the worst parts were the constant references and portrayals of the amateur radio guys in the story as socially repressed loners, holed up in their shacks, grown men living with their mothers, unable to function except for jabbering for hours on their radios. Such a stereotype is absolutely untrue and, frankly, insulting. I have no data but I'd bet the number of socially non-functioning personalities in our hobby is actually less than in the general population. 

See, we communicate all the time, not just via radios but in many other ways, too. 

What they said about amateur radio often being the only means of communications during disasters is absolutely true. We've seen plenty of that in the past few months in flood- and hurricane-ravaged areas. Thanks for throwing us that bone anyway, NCIS. 

But when you consider the premise for this episode is that the drug cartel is hauling in cocaine, mixing it with sand, and dumping it into the traps on a golf course...well, again I should not be surprised at the hatchet job they did on a fine one-hundred-year-old hobby that almost a million-and-a-half of us enjoy and that does so much good for so many.

I've seen some scathing posts on many of the group pages this morning already. Many have written the network expressing their disappointment.  Hey, I know everyone is easily offended these days, and being politically correct seems at epidemic proportions, but why does a network, a show, its writers and producers feel they can malign a group of hobbyists as they did.  Here is just one such note to CBS that I believe says it well:

"You have insulted over 1,352,000 Amateur Radio Operators. Or Ham Radio, if you prefer. Did your writers do ANY research? The profile you depicted on tonight's program of NCIS was wrong on so many levels, it is hard to begin to correct. Most Hams are average people with normal jobs and normal life styles and families. We belong to clubs and churches. I know several doctors and police who are Hams. We volunteer with local Emergency Management Agencies as well as the National Weather Service and FEMA. Also, Tim stated he used a "Handle", and Ham operators do not. (CBers do) He also used a really bogus call sign that would never be issued. The equipment shown would have worked stations all over the world, not the 80 mile distance Tim said. Not only did you do us an injustice, you did the American people an injustice by misleading them. Who do you think has been providing the communications out of the islands hit by the recent hurricanes? I am very disappointed in your writers and I am seeing some bitter comments on social media. But then again, that's Hollywood. Don't let the facts get in the way of a good (or bad) story." 

As noted, I've never watched a full episode of this show. Now I'm glad I haven't wasted all that time if this is typical of the silliness they propagate. If you recorded it to watch later, don't bother. At least not for the amateur radio content. Or the goofy crime and how they eventually solve it, for that matter!

I'm just glad I decided to watch the World Series and give out candy to trick-or-treaters. After DVRing "NCIS," I was able to fast-forward through about a half hour of commercials and watch the silly show during breaks in the game.  

Even so, that's time I can never get back!


Anonymous said...

I am writing the studio today. Going to compliment them on their use of HAM radio, as well as their spot on description.

Don Keith N4KC said...

Your opinion and you are certainly welcome to it. But you are absolutely wrong. They weren't even close. Not even in the same universe.

Even if you accept their position that hams are all socially inept (which is slanderous at best), their depiction of the hobby in general were way, way, way out in left field. And completely unnecessary.


QRP - When you care to send the very least! said...

Thanks, Don. You're thoughts and comments mirror my own. You articulated this in a better manner than I ever could have. 73 de W2LJ

Don Keith N4KC said...

Thanks, Larry. I'm typically not easily riled but this thing really got to me.


Don N4KC

Blake - N4BWR said...

I completely agree here. I don't even watch the show, but I had to find it online and watch it after reading the complaints everywhere. They put zero effort into research, and did more damage to the image of amateur radio than they realize. I actually have started a petition to get CBS to air a special about what hams have been doing in Puerto Rico. I don't have many signatures yet, but I'm hoping it takes off.

Don Keith N4KC said...

Good idea, Blake. I signed and shared the petition.


Don N4KC

mal said...

I imagine that if you spoke to someone who actually works for NCIS (assuming that's a real organisation) they'd feel the same way about the whole show as you do about this one episode.

I doubt the network will be too stressed about a few angry letters. They probably get them flooding in about all sorts of stuff every day.

Jerrry, AI0K said...

Mal, unfortunately, I'm afraid you are correct. We can (and should) send letters letting them know of our displeasure in their depiction of hams and ham radio in general. I will do so, as soon as I see the show (my XYL loves it but it's on the DVR right now).
At the same time, I don't think it will do any good. However, maybe I'm wrong - as my XYL tells me every day :).

Don Keith N4KC said...

Thanks, Jerry and Mal. I agree that letting them hear from us probably won't cause anything to happen but it is worth the time and effort anyway. If nothing else, it made me feel better!

You know, they never would have done such a hatchet job on an ethnic group or a religious sect. But somehow, they thought amateur radio operators were fair game for such a biased and inaccurate hatchet job, just to try to come up with some clever story line.

Unknown said...

Where do I find this patition to sign? This was the worst thing I have ever seen. 73, N4DLT

EddieShurbutt said...

Don, those are my comments to CBS that you posted. If anyone else would like to send them comments, they can use the CBS feedback site at:

Don Keith N4KC said...

Thanks, Eddie. I was going to give you credit but when I went back to see where I found the comments, I couldn't locate it. But you had said it so well, I went ahead and used it.

Again, thanks and 73,

Don N4KC

Don Keith N4KC said...

David Westphalen,

The address is contained in N4BWR's post back up the way. But here it is again:

Thanks and 73,

Don N4KC