The way TV was meant to be

Sunday, February 21st, 1999

When people notice that our television doesn’t connect to a cable in the wall or a dish on the roof but to a set of good old rabbit ears, I get up on my high horse and say "around here, we get television the way God intended, out of the air." They, of course, look at me as if I’m nuts, and say "don’t you want to watch CNN? The History Channel? MTV?" Well, I travel a lot and am in places with cable enough that I get more than my fill of Comedy Central and E! and Ultra-Headline News and ESPN-whatever and VH-1000. I’m fine, thanks. Couldn’t eat another bite.
What I don’t say is that I’m not very impressed with what Media One has to offer our neighborhood, and until they install fiber on our street and sell high-speed internet access along with countless channels of home shopping, I’d rather watch TV the way it’s "supposed" to work, ghosts and all. Actually, it’s not supposed to have many ghosts, but in an urban area filled with lots of shiny buildings that reflect radio-frequency energy, that’s what you get. So, for us, if we set up to get WSB and WXIA well, WAGA and WTBS suck. We get used to watching multiple Greg Madduxes (Madduxi?) on the mound. Sometimes, watching Monica Kaufman is less painful if she’s accompanied by her ghostly twins.
Yeah, I know, I’m rationalizing. The ugly truth is that television in and of itself doesn’t work that well (you heard it here first) , and people with any source of income at all (including some friends with huge piles of debt and zero disposable income) put cable on their necessity list, right up there with water and electricity. "I work hard," they say, "and this I do for me." It’s only when you start looking at the service with an anti-monopolistic, Consumer Reports-y eye that it doesn’t seem as if you’re getting that much for your dollar. How much was basic cable when the service first came to Atlanta in the early 80s? $7.95 a month. How much are you paying now?
And for those of you patiently waiting for digital television, I’m afraid I have another paragraph of pessimism to pass on. The good news is that ghosts will be a thing of the past. The bad news is, like so many things digital, your picture will either be perfect—or nonexistent. Early reports of folks trying to get their new-definition pictures out of the air (the way…oh, never mind) say that you’ve got to aim your fancy digital antenna right at the transmitter you’re trying to receive, or you’re screwed. Some cities have all their TV transmitters on one central high-place (the World Trade Center, for example.) Here, we’ve got to point at the Carter Center (roughly) for WSB, Briarcliff Road for Fox 5 and WATL, and…well, you get the idea. And plans for cable systems to transmit the digital signals are still in the very, very sketchy stages.
Kinda makes you want to rent a movie and forget about the whole thing, right?

Buffy at the Beeb

Friday, February 12th, 1999

LONDON—In my early days of public broadcasting, when I would push the buttons that brought today’s episode of Sesame Street to a close and roll Misterogers Neighborhood, I learned our traditions flowed from the motherlode, WGBH in Boston, and, beyond that, from the grandmotherlode, the noble BBC in Britain. It is through this bloodline that we get seemingly endless serialized Brit drama poured into an envelope called Masterpiece Theatre, and it is why if you watch the credits carefully, many episodes of Nova are, in fact, repackaged versions of the BBC’s Horizon. The Antiques Road Show wouldn’t be coming to a Cobb Galleria near you if it wasn’t for its even more turgid British predecessor, and without Monty Python’s Flying Circus there would be absolutely none of the humor that is on TV today.
Well, maybe not that last part.
It is true that even some legendary US commercial television shows—All in the Family and Three’s Company, for example, were remakes of British successes. But it’s amazing how now the pop culture pipeline flows both ways.
Among the top-rated shows in British broadcast and satellite viewing these days: The Simpsons, Friends, and ER. Up-and-coming: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stargate: SG1, and South Park. Ricki Lake does quite well, too, go figure. Most overused catchphrase in the UK written press of late: "D’oh!"
In fact, American programming of the style and quality (ahem) of South Park is the successful ammunition that the other television channels have against the monopolistic BBC, which, for the first time in its existence, is seeing audience shares dip below 30%. There are only a handful of broadcast competitors squeezed onto a total of three non-BBC channels. But add to that Fox via direct broadcast satellite, which in the UK goes by the name Sky—pure Rupert Murdoch, right down to the success they’ve had with Wildest Police Videos 2, and yes, some competition is happening here, thanks to Homer and his Yank pals.
So it’s amazing that the BBC continues on, in its quirky yet gigantic way, funded by the license fees levied on every television set in England. Yes, take a deep breath and consider that next time the pledge-begging Alicia Ames makes you want to kickbox your TV. It’s kind of like paying for cable, except the picture isn’t that good, and you still need an antenna. Worse, they take that money and make television by the most expensive means necessary. When the BBC goes shopping at equipment conventions, they buy the Eddie Bauer versions of cameras and tape machines, with the leather seats, the fog lights, and matching luggage. If a crew of 3 is needed, they have a dozen.
It’s the same complaint I have with religious broadcasters: if you’re spending the quarters tossed into the plate by poverty-line grandmothers, do you really need the Cadillac of cameras?
Ah, don’t get me started. Suffice to say: the BBC’s nobility and tradition rides on the backs of working class Britons who just want a little noise on in the living room after their shift.
So they may be turning to a little Buffy with their supper.

Nose job and a double room, please.

Friday, February 5th, 1999

LONDON—When I was in journalism school (and yes, I have to admit I actually went to school to be able to write these words for you), I imagined the thrill of filing a story from an exotic byline.
And, well, now I have. Gosh, it is a kick to bat words into my trusty Powerbook from the land that ice machines have still largely forgotten. The United Kingdom, where the Internet, the Simpsons, Buffy, and most other components of our pop culture survive, albeit in a strange other-side-of-the-road alternate universe.
And it’s from England’s newsstands that we get the inspiration for a new generation of "men’s lifestyle magazines," rightly skewered in a recent Newsweek. Publications like Maxim and their followers are (yes, it’s possible) even more focused on breasts and beer in their euroincarnations. The newest of these critters here: Boys Toys, which has a woman sprawled on the hood of a car, surrounded by (as I squint at the cover on the newsstand from a distance), the bold words "Sex," "Get Rich Quick," and "Win a Porsche." If you see these words above the fold on next week’s Atlanta Press, you’ll know why.
On their way to American shores is a similar horde of women’s lowest-common-denominator pubs (or their clones) that make Cosmo seem like TV Guide. Take a twentysomething gal’s magazine called…uh, Minx that screams "Be a sex goddess (first turn to page 28)" next to its Jewel-clone cover model. She sits alongside a headline that says "Nose job and a double room please," for a piece about those oh-so-popular cosmetic surgery/vacation holiday combo packages. Also inside: how to be happy—stop wearing black, buy a furby, get married, and take drugs. Oh, don’t thank me for this advice—thank Minx.
Maybe it’s just truth in advertising—yet another of these glossies (I was too numbed at this point to note the name) heralds "It’s OK to Be a Slut." Say it loud.
And memo to the AJC’s feature department: every Tuesday, the London Daily Mirror now gives women Zone—a section that is not "girly, but sexy, in your face and modern." Mirror editor Tina Weaver, speaking to Britian’s Press Gazette, minces no words. "It’s not going to be a giggly, how-to-pull-a-fella type…it is quite sexually explicit and we will cover every aspect of sex unblushingly." The launch issue had orgasms, lesbianism, bisexualitym and an imaginary diarist that out Bridget Jones-es the original exponentially.
Just imagine the ladies at Mary Mac’s tea room opening their afternoon AJC and finding that kind of garden of earthly delights!
No, I understand that editors have to do what they can to sell copies, but it is from the British tradition that we get an editor prattling on (and they all do, especially here) about the noble importance of their work and their indispensability to their target demographic—while ordering up new ways to feature sex—both the actual word and absolutely any variation on the idea—for their next cover. That duality, popularized perhaps in the States by Hugh "read it for the articles" Hefner, definitely has deep roots planted in the Old World.