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.