Italic Anxiety

Monday, March 29th, 1999

When the lotto jackpot creeps up above $70 million the concept that people are buying lottery tickets suddenly drops into the brains of assignment editors and out of their mouths as if it were actual news, deserving of Dedicated Determined Team Coverage You Can Count On. Get those crews out there! Bring us those familiar pictures of hands, cash registers, money and tickets. Unleash those anchors, enabling happy talk on the order of “gee, I guess I should get my tickets. Time for sports. Bill, d’jou get your tickets yet?”

When Bill Gates cranks out another book of public relations tripe about e-mail, the Internet, and how corporations can be rejuvenated by installing Windows-based machines by the hundreds, who at Time magazine stands up and says “we should put this brilliant man on the cover”…? Did we hang onto every word of Henry Ford decades ago when his basic message was “the world will become a utopia if you buy enough of these basic black cars?” Well, hmm, maybe so.

And just when exactly did Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw discover that they were more than pretty-boy anchors—why, they’re authors, qualified to pontificate in print on the meaning of the century, or of the generation past? If they had so much extra time for authoring, why didn’t they instead snag a camera crew and go out and find some actual news?

Yes, these are just rhetorical questions. And no, don’t get me started. Uh-oh. Too late for that.

Did they hire Tom Skerritt to shill for Aleve because the guy looks like he’s in perpetual headache agony? I’m standing in front of the mirror, scrunching up like crazy, and no, I can’t make my face do that.

Is there some sort of gender thing going on when they counterprogram Ice Dancing Championships with Die Hard 2, or the Final Four with Something to Talk About?

Is Craig Kilborn going to tank as the new host of the Late Late Show because he refers to himself as “frat-guy fun” and “charming” in interviews?

If they pick Joel Siegel of Good Morning America to replace the late Gene Siskel, will we tune in one day to find Ebert’s hands around Siegel’s throat?

If the Supreme Court outlaws camera crews riding along with cops (as they kick the doors in of America’s shirtless and blurry-faced), will the Langley-Barbour series Cops be able to survive with only eleven years worth of reruns to syndicate? (or gee, will the Supremes require them to erase those tapes?) Maybe they’ll just require the producers to blur out the entire program.

When a station tells you that something is “New at 11,” what exactly do they mean? Are they operating from the NBC Zen Theory of Reruns that says (and I quote), “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you?”

Do the producers of Jeopardy! wail on Alex Trebek during commercial breaks when he’s spent too much time doing funny voices, helping out Canadian contestants, or pointing out the failings of hapless guests? (Seems to me as if right after he does that, we come back from break, and he’s much more subdued.)

And will I get my runaway italics corraled before next week?


Saturday, March 20th, 1999

We’re still kinda staggered around here. It was an amazing trip…two-plus weeks in Africa and the time in London, Paris, Amsterdam, and…well, that’s where I got this hacking cough that I’m still trying to (hack! cough!) lose.

But I can see the signs. We’ve turned the corner. Spring is in the air. Sam and I went by the Botannical Garden Friday afternoon, and it was a lot more colorful than the week before…not yet the proverbial riot of color, but it’s getting there. And with each degree-day of warmth, with each non-African bird singing in our backyard, I feel as if we’re getting back in sync with the forces of nature immediately around us, after exposure to the forces of nature a continent or two away.

We were sub-Equatorial, and you didn’t even get a lame t-shirt. And I haven’t put any pictures up this increasingly rusty site. I have tossed all the most recent Media Rares into the archives, giving you a nice complete set to plod through. Go! Look! Comment!

We’re going to try to get some more quality time in the out of doors in the next couple of weeks, but work is calling. There’s a 108 pound box from Chyron sitting in my office demanding to be hooked up. There’s images to make, logos to fly, web pages to design, ideas to kick around, beepers to set off, and conference calls to cough through.

And then after that, some serious maintenance on this site. I’m not kidding.

Enjoy your spring.

Message reaches…audience?

Friday, March 19th, 1999

There was a brief flurry—it may well now have subsided a bit—where every Internet company, no matter what its actual business, wanted to become a portal—that place from where (they hoped) your web browser would start on its exploration of the great .com unknown. It would, they hoped, be a friendly place, customized with the news, stocks, weather, sports scores and other junk that you wanted to see—and of course serve as the search engine—even if what it was doing was linking to another portal’s search engine, so as you typed "golf clubs" in, a piece of software somewhere would make a note the person sitting at your machine, someone who lived at zip code 30324 (you told them this to get the weather) liked golf, so maybe we should be showing him or her golf ads.
It’s always fairly creepy when a banner ad pops up on my web browser showing clear evidence of an attempt to target me based on where I’m surfing—and yet that’s the Holy Grail of advertising. Message reaches audience. The folks who sponsor NASCAR know that if you’re a Dale Earnhardt fan, chances are you want to shop at a certain kind of place, and they can conclude you’d be in the market for, say, Texaco gas and motor oil.
It’d be creepier if "hyper-appropriate" ads showed up on the television show I’m watching, since there’s absolutely no feedback mechanism about what channel we’re tuned to (another reason I like over-the-air broadcast television) —although of course media buyers, the people who buy commercial time on behalf of advertisers—are trying to make similar guesses. If you’re watching "Felicity," you may want to look at this spring’s fashions from Old Navy, for example. Watching Dan Rather? You may have bladder control problems. A recent issue of Electronic Media dove a little more deeply into that paranoid place—where the execs at the older, stodgier TV networks were complaining that since media buyers were, for the most part, folks in their mid-twenties, their personal favorites are the only shows that get advertising money. An endless parade of "Dawson’s Creek"-clones, they say, will be the result. (Not likely. Scary, but not likely.)
This ability to effectively target advertising is one of the reasons big corporations are investing heavily into these all-in-one news/portal/city guide things on the web, and why we’ll be seeing more and more "local" sites that purport to give us the "ultimate" guide to Atlanta. Cox Interactive (yes, more or less the same folks who bring us the AJC and WSB) have quite a head start in this and a handful of other markets, and I give them credit—their Access Atlanta site has a healthy dose of "here" on its zillions of pages. Contrast that with, Microsoft’s extension of a service that’s seen some success in Seattle and San Francisco and some other places out west. I don’t recognize our town in its pages. It feels like a soulless, generic template generated by a server in Redmond, Washington, operating on instructions like "insert the words ‘kudzu’ and ‘grits’ every 18.5 words."
For better and worse, Atlanta’s way more subtle, complex, and inconsistent than that.

Vast PBS Wasteland

Monday, March 15th, 1999

Just exactly when did Public Television become this vast wasteland of self-help, where any psuedo-credentialed goofball with graying hair can show up and hustle his 13 Habits of Effective Morons or 12 Ways You Can be Wealthy Without Guilt or 10 Ways of Eating More Multicolored Fiber? And why must we be force-fed this pablum interspersed with interminable pledge breaks from GPTV’s generic annoying hucksters, or WPBA’s very un-generic, very annoying, creepy, big-haired, cloying, overmanicured-fingernails-on-the-blackboard Alicia Ames?
How did these nutcases overtake the formidable walls of the great grey Corporation for Public Broadcasting? Where have all the Great Performances and American Masters and breakthrough documentarians gone? Why has this sub-genre of programming, unworthy of the infomercial format, taken over stations we support with our donations? Where’s Steve and Norm, Julia Child and Fred Rogers, Martin Yan and Rick Steves? (I’ve found all of them annoying on individual occasions—but they tower over this pledge break junk.)
And by the way—we need no more Irish dancing. How about a decent night at the theatre, or rerun some Africa footage from "Nature", or maybe even force me to sit through endless rebroadcasts of "Antiques Roadshow"—just get these fake, dangerous book hucksters off our public airwaves.
* * * * *
WGNX isn’t owned by Tribune Television Stations any more, so they’ve deep-fortysixed their call letters (trivia buffs: the WGN part stands for the "Worlds Greatest Newspaper"—the Chicago Tribune) and are now referring to themselves as "CBS Atlanta," which, yeah, I guess they are. The new owners, Meredith Broadcasting, are said to be planning to pour a ton of money into its news operation to make the station more of a contender in that silly marketplace we call Atlanta local television news. Think that’ll make you watch?
* * * * *
"That 70s Show" had its "season finale" Sunday night, but "will be back with new episodes in the summer." What the heck does that mean? I’m sorry, but if you have a season finale, you’re required by television law to sit and wait quietly for the fall. That’s just the way it is. And you’d be even more confused if you saw "Days Like These," a current British sitcom that takes the exact word-for-word scripts from "That 70s Show," changes a few cultural references, and then throws the pages to a lookalike British cast of poorly-dressed 70s kids—and, well, it works, in a strange parallel-universe way.
* * * * *
One of my favorite things to do these days is listen to newspeople choking on the phrase "Black College Spring Break" in lieu of the much more evocative "Freaknik." The purveyors of the website (they also have .org and .net) have no such compunctions—they’re busy selling the name and the idea of the party—the actual physical reality of what happens the third week of April doesn’t really make much difference to them.
I thought I’d check local media websites and see how they referred to this event—but WXIA, WAGA, and WGNX have no search engine. WSB borrows Access Atlanta’s search—and that’s where the only results came from: Access Atlanta has no problems with the "Freaknik" name, it seems.

Arf! Determined! Dependable!

Monday, March 8th, 1999

Threat of a storm sends panicked Georgians to grocery stores to stock up on…wait for it…bread and milk. Wanted murderer here, child molester there. Yes, I’m watching Fox 5’s News at 10. You know, the one with that cluttered, bricky-techy background and where the talent names are tossed in letter by letter from the right side of the screen. (Why? Because we can.) Yeah, Fox 5. The one that’s currently running a promo that throws every conceivable dictionary word ("Urgent, Innovative, Intense, Serious…" ) at the screen in 30 seconds to see what sticks to their newscast—and nothing does.
After that meaningless promo barrage, I check WAGA’s website to see if they’ve got the same pointlessness there. But type carefully if you’re trying to find it… will take you to some people trying to sell (possibly illegal) cable TV converters. The real Fox 5 site is That might be hard to remember because the folks at Fox-owned WAGA have done everything they can to make you forget the proud WAGA call letters. They want to establish "Fox 5" as the single, unified brand that you turn to for news, endless episodes of the Simpsons, and people who throw chairs at each other on talkshows. Problem is when you have something like the 50th anniversary of a station, those pesky four letters are bound to come up every now and again.
The Fox 5 site reports that the station signed on the air in April 1949, but that was contradicted by a report last week on Fox 5’s News at 10 that, indeed, the station turned 50 exactly this past Monday. I’ll go with that because I trust Doug Richards’ credibility over the anonymous fingers behind their somewhat stale web pages.
Richards’ "Closer Look" did a decent job of flashing back through the images of a bygone station. We saw the terrier named WAGA that served as the station’s mascot in the early days (hmm…maybe stations need mascots again) and we beheld a bunch of white guys in bad 60s and 70s garb reporting on the steps of the statehouse. We saw former WAGA GM Paul Raymon admit he dressed up as a cowboy TV host named Pecos Paul (but he uttered nary a word about presenting two decades worth of really bad editorials.) We beheld Lester Maddox and Hosea Williams and (if you watched very carefully) Guy Sharpe and Richard Belcher and Forrest Sawyer and some of the other people who moved on from WAGA while the getting was good. I didn’t catch images of long-time WAGA anchor success Brenda Wood, or Chuck Moore, or Ken Watts.
In fact, I was just settling in and enjoying the nostalgic hit when the report was over—no more time to look back, we’ve got news to report! And what news was that? I’m not kidding: A dog (not a terrier) comes to the rescue of an overwhelmed pig! That story coming up on Fox 5 News! And stay tuned for the Battle of the Broken Hearts on Jerry Springer—right after the news.
There’s no mistaking that television has changed, right? Happy birthday, terrier station.