Pam charges the camera

Sunday, January 31st, 1999

Maybe I wasn’t the only one who noticed that WAGA…er, Fox 5 was eating everyone’s lunch when it came to the Falcons march to the Super Bowl. The slumbering promo machines at WXIA and WSB came to life, claiming that no, they were your station for the Atlanta Falcons. They had the inside dope, the reporters players trust, and saturation coverage that would annoy even the dirtiest of early 1960s Ford compact cars. (Hey, my Dad drove a 1964 Falcon; consider that reference a brief tribute to him.)
But that’s the problem with promos, and the challenge for all promo people, be they television, radio, or print. Deep down beneath all that hype there has to be the slightest germ of truth…a tiny nugget of veracity that the rest of the wretched excess can hang on, and when it isn’t there, it’s easy for the viewer to take one look and say "Naaah," and hit the remote.
You can have Pam Martin come charging at the camera from across the newsroom at full tilt, but when all she has to say is "live, local, latebreaking, that’s Channel 2 Action News," she has just delivered a completely content-free fastball that went sizzling toward my head—leaving nothing in its wake. Back to your desk, Pam…live, local, sheesh. Channel 2 needs to have an emergency operation and have at least two of its dozen or so slogans surgically removed.
And then there are those spots for a certain large Atlanta daily that show us how people who want it all can do it all—they just have to cook up recipes from the paper while reading the business section about where their boss should build their next project (the actress points to Gwinnett county and says something like "This is a real growth area." Really? Alert the media!) and, oh, by the way, check your horoscope to find the mate of your dreams. The nugget of reality may have been in this commercial at one time, but it left in disgust.
And so do we, switching the channel.
"Hi folks, we’re here for another two hours…"
Look, you can have Tom Park and the lovely whoever-she-is in their winter overcoats making as if the Atlanta Toyota spot they’re slamming your way is happening right now, live from the car lot, but when you turn the TV on in Florida and see the same duo pulling the same hustle for Toyota of Orlando (and how many other dealerships?) the whole "we only have two left" thing seems a little lame.
It’s back to that germ of truth, and you might laugh, but it can be found in the most pathetic places. The guy on the Wolfman Furniture spots really is just about that much fun to be around; his on-camera awkwardness is that tiny tidbit of real that lets you work with the rest of the contrivance.
Yes, I am saying I’m more likely to buy furniture from the Wolfman than a car from Tom Park.
Just not very likely in either case.

What’s the frequency of eeee-vil?

Saturday, January 23rd, 1999

During the first season of the incredibly bad Nightman (seen Saturday nights and every so often at 2 in the morning on channel 46) they had a weekly recapitulation where a lab-coated man of science explained to saxaphonist/crimefighter Johnny Domino why he was hearing these voices in his head, "and Doc, they’re all bad voices." Veteran Avengers actor Patrick MacNee gave it all he had. That lightning strike caused Domino’s head to become something like a cosmic radio, he explained in deepest profundity to the baffled piece of beefcake before him. "And Johnny, you’re tuned to the frequency…of evil."
Eeeee-ville. It always sounds…well, evil-er, with a British accent.
They’ve taken that explanation off the open in this show’s second season, possibly to avoid royalty payments to MacNee, and deprived me of just one more of my guilty pleasures. Edward J. Wood may be dead, but the tradition of really bad filmmaking continues in syndication, a land where all the dialog is just about that bad, all the world looks like Canada or Mexico, and all the implants are way below average.
Forget the first-tier productions like (I can’t believe I’m saying this) Baywatch or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. No, they have a budget. I’m talking about The Crow: Stairway to Heaven, Poltergeist: The Legacy, Air America, Acapulco H.E.A.T., Pensacola: Wings of Gold, Highlander: The Raven, and their ilk.
Oh yeah, and that Pamela Anderson Lee one.
And that Viper thing, and Psi Factor: Tales of the Paranormal….and did I mention Earth: Final Conflict?
You’ll find them lurking in and around movies on weekends, on late at night Saturday and Sunday, on plain old broadcast televison for the most part—I won’t even get into their cable cousins Silk Stalkings and the like here. Maybe it’s just that frequent ingestions of these broadcast empty calories reassure me that whatever I do in television is somehow nobler. Maybe it’s just because I like seeing familiar places in Vancouver and Toronto masquerading as the south (this, of course, was part of the fun of The X-Files before they moved south to help David Duchovny’s marriage. Who knew that North Georgia looked just like the Pacific Northwest?)
Naah, it’s just the overwhelming implausibility of it all. The superhero/crimefighter/saxaphonist and his police lieutenant babe-friend. A crack group of Canadian-accented US government investigators, led by Max Headroom, working out of a series of mobile trailers (much larger inside than out) with a deadpan narration by Dan Ackroyd at the beginning of each hour. A dead (you heard me) musician/motorcyclist/crimefighter, and his police lieutenant buddy. An immortal (oh, that’s better) babe/thief-turned-crimefighter, and her ex-police lieutenant buddy. Mr. Barbra Streisand and his crew of top gun wannabes, greased up, hair-gelled, and ready to fight for us. A secret operations force that uses Dennis Rodman as a mission specialist (at least they didn’t say master of disguise.) A protective services agency that uses Pamela Anderson Lee as their front (make up your own joke here.) A top secret force of babe operatives, led by Lorenzo Lamas, based in a nonexistent country where…oh, forget it.
It’s just plain cheese. It’s do-it-yourself Mystery Science Theater. It’s a fine way to keep Canadian theatrical unemployment to a minimum. So…enjoy all you want, they’ll make more.

There’s news, there’s information.

Monday, January 11th, 1999

There was a point when the hunk of newsprint that landed on your front door and the half-hour of transmitted pictures and sound arriving at the dinner hour were chock-full of news. This happened here. That happened there. Who did what, when. And after they told you this news (or printed it for your perusal over breakfast), they didn’t tell you again. That content ceased being news—they reported it already, so there was no need to repackage it or repurpose it. The Falcons won. Here’s the score. A murder happened last night. Here’s the who-what-where on that. Okay, done.
But somewhere in the process, a decade or two ago when clever marketers realized that what they had was not so much a service as a product, the word "news" embedded in "newscast" and "newspaper" became a more of a lie.
I hate to say it, but I peg that moment of change right around June 1, 1980, when CNN went on the air—although I could probably attach culpability to Entertainment Tonight, USA Today, and the television news consultants coming into vogue at that time.
It was about then that I began to hear the word "information" attached to "news," and my initial impression was that information was kind of a weak cousin, a non-time-specific, loose gathering of fact or spoken utterance. Compared to news, information had far fewer active ingredients. If you had news for dinner, the dog would get a nice bowl of information.
News, need I say it, carries the connotation of "new." In and of itself, it has a short shelf life. So what do "news" executives do to make it last longer? They pad it out with filler, and use the same content again and again.
Now, we hear about an event before it’s going to happen in a half-dozen different ways, then we get saturation coverage of the event itself, and then reports of that event are recycled, chopped, and pureed into a bunch of regurgitations for days after it happened. And I’m not just talking about big, long-term stories like impeachment, global conflict, and the environment. It all gets this treatment.
Just one example.
I watched WSB’s Action News Sunday Morning last Sunday, God knows why. It was, in short, a rerun of the week’s reporting on Channel 2. Not an insightful week-in-review, mind you, but an actual re-showing of the news, presented as if it might still be news to you. Falcons coverage: recycled. Health features from earlier in the week: recycled. Interminable cold weather blather: recycled. The actual amount of reporting on events that happened between 11:30 pm Saturday and noon on Sunday: 0%. And the repeat reports were so content-free to begin with that it was thin gruel indeed by the time we got it served for Sunday brunch.
Well, sure, news directors say. Nothing happens in the middle of the night on weekends. So why do we have lengthy newscasts on Saturday and Sunday mornings? A simple reason: they’re a cheaper wrapper for commercials than anything else, including kids’ cartoons and old reruns of Gilligan’s Island. It’s for the same reason that the "Sunday" paper is in fact all but completed by Friday, and is about as fresh as expired milk.
The only way this will change, of course, is if the all-holy research reveals to the execs some day that we’ve lost our taste for this stuff. Be sure to mention that you have, if someone asks…it might be news to them.

Television to milk cows by.

Monday, January 4th, 1999

I’ve come to understand that not everybody keeps my late night hours, and are therefore not as familiar as I am with the stuff that falls from the airwaves after Conan O’Brien, Bill Maher, and Tom Snyder have gone to bed. (And if you never see even those shows, clearly you get up at 6 am and are growing corn and soybeans somewhere west of Piedmont Park.)
Me, I’m just becoming lucid at 1:35 in the morning, and broadcast television at that hour is a delightful potpourri of infomercial, news rerun, and programming for the narrowest of audiences.

Take NBC’s offerings over the years. In the era when they still had Dave Letterman at 12:35, they followed it an hour later with Later with Bob Costas, an hour of simple one-on-one interviews so interesting and entertaining, they outdid Tom Snyder at his own game. Well, never one to leave a good thing alone, somewhere during Letterman’s transition to CBS and during Conan O’Brien’s shaky start as host of Late Night, NBC replaced Costas as host of Later with Greg Kinnear—a talented actor, but a lousy interviewer and at best, a Letterman impersonator in his role as talk show host. Not long after that, Kinnear’s movie career took off and O’Brien made the 12:35 show his own distinctive comedy playhouse, and Later became this weird, sad science experiment, hosted by a night-after-night succession of pathetic NBC "stars" (for example, Peri Gilpin from Frasier interviewing what’s-her-name the other woman from Frasier) doing shameless PR for the peacock network.

Worse, on Friday nights, the show once called Friday Night Videos became something called Friday Night, starring someone named Rita Sever. In this day an age there aren’t a lot of people on television who are simply untalented, but Ms. Sever is…simply untalented. Her NBC bio offers few clues why someone more annoying than anyone on network television (and I include Fran Drescher in this comparison) has been given a show of her own. It’s almost as if she was married to the head of NBC late night programming or something…what? Oh! She is married to the head of NBC late night programming.

So I guess that explains why NBC has announced that the next host of Later will be..well, her.

Bob Costas, still very much alive, is rolling in a cemetery somewhere. Tom Snyder, also not dead yet, but retiring from late night TV, is probably doing so in protest of the Sever move. And Linda Ellerbee, godmother of late night literate news programming (she co-anchored the wonderful NBC News Overnight in the early 80s) is probably just shaking her head in disgust.
So what’s a cable-free viewer to do, switch to WSB’s Jenny Jones rerun? Learn how to make Big Money Fast in real estate? Well, we latenight folks have been given a bit of a reprieve from this torture. Since after Christmas and through January, the Later timeslot is and will be filled with 16-year-old reruns of SCTV—Canada’s own latenight sketch comedy series arguably funnier and more original in its prime than anything else on the air. If you’ve never seen Dave Thomas, Joe Flaherty, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, and John Candy working together, why not stay up late—or set your VCRs, if you have cows to milk early in the morning.