Falling through the cracks.

Friday, October 30th, 1998

This is, there is no doubt, my favorite time of year. Light is filtered through falling leaves in our backyard to create an aura of messy beauty: multicolored, complex, crunchy, sublime.

Also, it ain’t 98 degrees with 98 percent humidity out there, and that’s very nice indeed.

It is a bit warm, today though. Sam and I just got back from a nice stroll to the post office, a chance to see a batch of 30306-people gathered together–sometimes a bizarre sight. We watched a lady in line in front of us for whom chatting with the guy at the counter was no doubt the highlight of her day, and she stretched that moment out as much as was possible.

Our stroll was capped by a visit to Corner Compact Disk, which is, appropriately, just around the corner from here. Picked up the new R.E.M., plus some Kate and Anna McGarrigle music that always reminds me of driving north from Vermont into Quebec.

We wandered home past Moe’s and Joe’s–the bar is still recovering from being the location of some midnight filmmaking. I wandered out a couple of weeks ago to find the whole block of Highland Avenue cordoned off, and seeded with sixties cars, to provide an appropriate backdrop to a scene being shot inside the neon-washed Virginia-Highland landmark. Big crew, gig trucks, a lotta lights, and no visible superstars…hey, not like the time a scene from the excerable Freejack (starring Mick jagger as…oh, never mind) was shot three doors down from our house.

I had lunch in another neighborhood drinking landmark–Manuel’s Tavern–with a good friend from my TBS days, and we covered about everyone we knew, politics, child-rearing, and the future of television in a couple of hours–not bad.

So we move on, through a Halloween weekend and past that voting stuff and into a November that should be quite busy for me. Here’s to your November.

What else is new? I’ve tossed a couple more Media Rares into the archive for your reading pleasure. Beyond that? Maybe stay tuned.

Retro rockets.

Friday, October 30th, 1998

As the last whoo and haw of the campaign trail gave way to the relative quiet of the voting booth, it’s time to stop and give thanks for a moment—thanks that our airwaves are cleansed (give or take a runoff) of those damnable he lied/she lied ads that marked this election year. Yes, our airwaves have been swept clean to make room for—uh-oh, November sweeps promos.

But before we kiss off politics completely, I’ve got to mention a spot that aired once or twice in the last days of the campaign that was a strange, nostalgic breath of fresh air. Libertarian Lieutenant Governor hopeful Lloyd Russell’s spots featured—hey! The old-white-guy candidate his own self, standing in front of a plain blue-sky background, talking to the camera in his best rural Georgia twang. His suit and hair seemed straight out of the WSB newsroom circa 1962 (which is, in fact, from whence he came.) His name, in non-shaky type, sat on the screen for the whole 30 seconds as he said, basically, "Vote for me, I’m the best man for the job, let’s get some things changed." How retro.

And speaking of retro (as in rockets), even though we’ve all heard the word "godspeed’ enough in the last two weeks to last us another 30 years, when a client called me up the other day to tell me that "we are go" for a project I had proposed, I knew that at least for a short while, America has rediscovered NASA chic. Dust off those tattered paperback copies of Tom Wolfe’s "The Right Stuff" (as local stations dust off the soundtrack album from the movie), and play along at home, won’t you? The reason television news has gone astro-crazy over the John Glenn coverage goes beyond nostalgia, patriotism and ratings: it’s a schedulable event. They had time to plan their going overboard, creating fancy promos and deploying team coverage drones across the countryside so that we could see the faces of kids in the high school in Glenn’s home town look around, slightly bored after the launch and say "okay, what next? Is that it?"

And in as about a retro experience as you could get, crowds of folks (well, some folks) wandered in to local appliance stores to watch the shuttle launch in glorious high-definition digital television, the miracle of our age, the future we’ll all be—wait a second, how much are those HDTV sets!? And how little programming will be up on the bitstreamed airwaves for the next five years? Oh. Ohhh. Well, maybe this future can wait.

Although it’s a luxury we can afford to avoid now, for local broadcasters, and their chief engineers in particular, this is crunch time, as they must spend millions—now—updating their technical plants (hey, engineers like spending millions, don’t get me wrong) and, as the prototype digital equipment rolls in, they’re not unlike kids starting a really big and complex model airplane kit. The parts are spread out all over the floor, they don’t all quite fit together, and it takes quite a bit of imagination to see the day when it’s all ready to fly. They are very much duplicating their television forefathers, who put together the first TV stations with a lot of tweaking and jerry-rigging for what was then a few people watching in an appliance store. Retro, indeed.


Friday, October 23rd, 1998

Sam Neill has been trapped by MCI Worldcom in a featureless gray room. The only way out, and the only color pouring in, seems to be through some sort of fancy Ethernet connection (one that MCI would be happy to hook you into.) He peers out, smug, confident; his face warmed by the rainbow of the outside world. Moments later, a guy who I almost recognize is marching around on enormous monochromatic teeth talking about the salubrious effects of Listerine, and a spectacular bottle of bondi-blue mouthwash is the only color in the scene. And then we’re treated to the gray-ghostly corridors of the Georgia Capitol, as a gravelly voice tells us that Mark Taylor is somehow more respectable than Mitch Skandalakis. He must be: Taylor’s the one in color.

Welcome to Pleasantville. Welcome to how television talks to us these days. It has become an accepted, almost mundane component of television commercials, part of the learned vocabulary: buy our product, live a more colorful life in a vivid, spectral world. From TV’s earliest days, when "brought to you in living color" signified extra effort and expense to keep you ("the home viewer") entertained, through the early 80s, when MTV rediscovered black-and-white and pronounced it "art," television’s practitioners have been controlling your horizontal, controlling your vertical, but mostly, controlling your mind through the judicious manipulation of color.

Maybe I’m especially aware of this as autumn creeps down from the mountains, pumping up and then draining our surroundings of hues, but color can carry its own message.

The somewhat clever conceit of the new movie "Pleasantville" is that the black-and-white world of 50s sitcoms represents a sort of bottled, remembered, wafer-thin perfection, a virginal state of pre-discovery that we can guarantee won’t stay that way once the characters take a bite out of a very red apple. And just as television stepped past "Leave it to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best" into the day-glo shades of "Batman" and "Laugh-In," it discarded set-piece innocence, picked up and then set aside sixties and seventies idealism, and broke a taboo or two along the way. The pastel shades of the 80s (in stereo, where available) yielded to street-edgy 90s color shot with a shaky camera-hand, and we find ourselves, well, here at century’s end.

Now advertisers, designers, and television producers have a full palette to work with. Go ahead, we’ve told them, supersaturate the picture or drain it of chroma completely—it’s your choice. They can tell stories with the dated sensabilities of "Touched by an Angel," or they can paste together bright ripped hunks of colorful construction paper into something grotesquely funny like "South Park." The limits are off. The choices are myriad. Censorship is a thing of the past. There shouldn’t be any excuse for mediocrity, right?

Well, that’s the problem with comfortable theories.

Even armed with all of the above, I can’t even begin to explain some of the stuff that’s passing for television. Not even here—on the printed page, in glorious, unsmudged black-and-white.

Keri is so very.

Friday, October 16th, 1998

Maybe it’s me. But there’s something inherently manipulative in the ad campaign—or just the intensity of the campaign—for the new WB young angst program "Felicity". First of all, of course, there’s that WB announcer guy—Don LaFontaine—the same voice we hear in countless movie trailers and, hilariously, in a parody of those trailers where he pops up behind the counter of a Hollywood Video store to narrate the plot of a movie to a customer. He just seems to care so… much…about making us believe that "Felicity" is the next hit we’ll take…into our hearts.

His intensity and caring pale, of course, next to the pale Keri Russell, who seems so very ready to show us the importance of being earnest. Although in fairness, compared to the gamut of facial twitches that Calista Flockhart uses to communicate complexity of thought, Ms. Russell wins the prize for nuance and subtlety in her acting. But are you watching "Dawson’s Creek" and whatever-the-heck-that-is-Beach and "Felicity" for the acting? Or are you going for a quick pang of recognition, a remembrance of insecurities past? An Altoid of emotion after a long day’s work.

But c’mon, don’t you feel just the slightest bit…targeted? As if beyond that two way mirror, shadowy demographic marketers are adjusting the nuances of the show’s lighting, the percentage of hair-curl, the background sadness of the string section for maximum impact based on their observations…of you. Don, give us just a little more tug when you say "this fall…on the WB." And call Paula Cole up to see if she has something for this show. (I have this image of Ms. Cole maniacally cranking out song after song to keep up with the WB’s new programming. Don’t wanna wait, indeed.) Keri, 10 percent more pout, please.

I think the folks deep within the vast Disney and Time Warner empires (it’s interesting how a tiny handful of media companies intersect to come up with this stuff) have worked hard to craft this piece’o’television. And they were proud to hire a 19-year-old writer—a prodigy!—to create several of the show’s episodes, because, like, she’s lived though it, you know? The quote in Entertainment Weekly was "In many ways, I am Felicity."

Well, yes, except then we hear in the L.A. Times and on Entertainment Tonight last week that 19-year-old Riley Weston is, in fact a 32-year-old actress who, because she looks young, has always lied about her age to get acting jobs. It’s acceptable to do this as an actress, she says. But when Disney is promoting you as the voice of your generation, well, now Disney says "we trusted her as a colleague and are saddened by her dishonesty."

So what part of the process of the making and marketing of "Felicity" isn’t dishonest?

What part of television isn’t, in that way, dishonest?

* * * * *

By the way, the evil spirit of Bill Gates who lives inside my word processor, judging my every cobbled noun, would prefer the name "Chalets Flowchart" to Calista Flockhart. Hey, not bad!
* * * * *

Going around, coming around.

Wednesday, October 14th, 1998

Hello from here, on the day Frankie Yankovic dies, from a half-Polish, half-Ohioan, half-Georgian, half-designer, half-writer, half-literate, half-wit.

Hello on the day the Braves didn’t go to the World Series.

Hello on a crisp, cool fall day, a day to take care of loose ends and get a few things done.

This page hasn’t been updated for a while, for the usual reasons relating to life, work, and so on. But here it is, an update.

What’s changed? Well, not that much. But I have added a collection of weekly columns I’ve been writing, and I’ve cleaned up a few things, especially the Previous remarks section, and, well, give me a day or two. I’ll clean some of this up as well.

Pants on fire.

Friday, October 9th, 1998

I stand before you today an optimistic man. Optimistic that if things go far enough there will, eventually, somewhere way down the ladder of messed-up-ness, be a point where people say "Enough." "We’re sick of this." Or at least, "This isn’t working, let’s try something else."

That’s kind of an all-purpose lead-in to a media column in the 90s, but what triggers my basement-level optimism today is the (gosh, isn’t it exciting) state political campaign, especially as it plays out on Atlanta television screens.

It goes something like this:

"What Guy Millner says about Roy Barnes is just plain wrong."

"Roy Barnes says this about Guy Millner, but he’s a liar."

"When Paul Coverdell says this about Michael Coles, he’s distorting the facts."

"Michael Coles is lying about what Paul Coverdell has done."

"Guy Millner’s commercial about Roy Barnes’s lying is, in itself, a lie."

"Roy Barnes is lying about Guy Millner’s commercial accusing Barnes of lying about Millner’s commercial."

Okay, okay. What have we learned from these carefully-produced messages? We’ve learned that candidates are willing to spend millions of dollars of what are, after all contributions-other people’s money-to call each other a liar over, over, and over again. That’s it. End of content. Oh there’s a few sideswipes, like "he’s more liberal," and "no, I’m not liberal, he’s the real liberal," but those are really just variations on a theme.

All these guys are saying is: "the other guy lies." (Aren’t you glad I used my years of media experience to decipher this for you?) And we’ve been hearing this for months, crammed in to almost any local spot availability on any Atlanta station that has an audience worth annoying.

In the age of the remote control, I can’t understand why they thing these things have any impact at all. After seeing them once, anyone’s remote finger is sensitive enough to yank the viewer away from the spots, to the relative safety of an episode of Friends (especially since WATL and WXIA, as a public service, make sure that an episode of Friends is airing somewhere in town, 24 hours a day.) We’re gone at the first sight of the fake Georgia geezer lady with a bar of soap. When a really unflattering image of Michael Coles hits the screen, we’re elsewhere in a 30th of a second.

So they spend this money-big chunks on producing the ads, huge chunks on paying stations to air the ads-and we don’t watch. But the same sweaty advisors who tell them to make the ads parse the polls and tell the candidates that yes, the numbers are moving in response to the ads. They really are. It’s because of the ads, I tell you, so let’s make some more.

That’s why I say this has to be close to rock-bottom, the nadir of political advertising on television, doesn’t it? Won’t we wake up early next year and say "What have we done?" and completely overhaul the way people who run for office tell us about their issues and ideas?

I mean, what other choice is there? Uh…don’t answer that.

Your TV friends.

Wednesday, October 7th, 1998

WAGA excuse me, FOX 5 Atlanta is now running a promo where an announcer runs through their daunting array of talk show hosts and other syndicated presenters as if he’s making rapid-fire introductions at a genteel Southern social: “Joe, Sally. Sally, Jerry. Jerry, Judy. Judy, Rosie” Everyone sit down and have some lemonade, why don’t you. One of the amazing powers of television is its apparent familiarity, where it seems to the viewer that he or she really is on a first-name basis with folks who tape their programs in Chicago or New York. As if you found yourself buying bagels in the store next to Rosie O’Donnell you’d be able to strike up a friendly chat, neighbor-to-neighbor. As if.

Tom Brokaw tells us “I’ll see you back here tomorrow night,” as the camera pulls back from his image towering over Times Square. See you back where exactly, Tom? Times Square? Thirty Rockefeller Plaza? Outside your lovely Upper East Side brownstone, on the stoop? Or in front of that fake newsroom backdrop where you deliver a bit of news in and around promos for CNBC and MSNBC?

And of course, none of them ever do see us tomorrow. They see the lens, the teleprompter, the bored floor manager. When my wife gets particularly exorcised about something someone has said on television, be it a factual error, an anthropological faux pas, or a poor choice of wager on Jeopardy, she loudly tells our Sony off, prompting me to say “just a second, let me flip on our TV’s special microphone so they’ll actually be able to hear you.”

As if.

The best producers and performers do create a comfortable home for us in a hard-to-define space somewhere between our heads and theirs. It’s a space that doesn’t require pictures-it can be that place where the Morning X trio shares coffee with you or a Turner Field of the mind, painted there by a few well-chosen words from Skip Caray. The comfort generated feels real. The familiarity feels comfortable.

So it makes me wonder on the other hand about some of the choices producers and scenic designers make when they decide that we’d be most at home hearing about the news from rooms decked out somewhere between The Overchromed Boardroom from Hell and the bridge of the Enterprise-D. (And who are those well-dressed young people in Aeron chairs sitting in a half-circle around Peter Jennings surfing the web while he does the heavy lifting of news delivery?) How do these images mean news?

Sometimes familiarity is just a shortcut. Why do the sets for revivals of The Hollywood Squares and Love Connection (yes, they’re back, we couldn’t get by without them) look likewell, the sets of Hollywood Squares and Love Connection? The unfortunate answer is that Those Who Decide are afraid we’d be uncomfortable anywhere else. It’s a visual shorthand, an easy answer, a way to avoid tedious re-introductions to old concepts.

Peter Marshall, meet Tom Bergeron. Whoopi, meet Paul Lynde. And come over here and say Hi to Jerry. And Judy.

Can I get you anything?