Friday, April 30th, 1999
Yikes. Jerry Springer is on his own show and Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect at the same time. There’s no escaping this incarnation of pure television evil. He’s daring me to write about him. He’s laughing in my face. He’s…ah, I just need to get some sleep.
Hi from a cool, rainy Atlanta. Some would say cold. Ms. Sam’s asleep upstairs with extra quilts right now, and that’s starting to sound real comforting right now.
But no, I’ve set my mind to updating the site, even though I think I’ve scared off the five to ten people who came here regularly expecting regular updates.
Worse, I’m just another person who has had a site for several years now, and maybe the novelty has worn out, or maybe the rest of my life has risen up to fill the gaps, but I find things just a little too fast-paced to sit down and set out a few well-chosen words.
And me, I’ve always valued well-chosen words over complete babble, so it pains me to descend to that level.
And it is cold. And late. And the sounds of nighttime are downed out by the dozens of computer-fans in this room, and of course, Maher and PI in my left ear.
So calling it a night is the better part of valor. And as a more complete peace depends on my street, I can only wish you a warm night.
Tuesday, April 27th, 1999
Can you feel it? The May sweeps—they started Thursday—are in the air, full of hyperbole, special investigations, exclusive television events, and
well, as much as the traditional nets (and their local affiliates) clamor and hype for your attention, the results at the end of May will no doubt be continuing in the trend we’ve witnessed—fewer people watching, more people drifting off to cable and satellite alternatives, more people bored by it all.
Or maybe not bored. Maybe desensitized, comfortably numb.
So why do they, the programmers, the fillers of time, bother?
Well, they’re looking at spreadsheets. They’re watching the ebb and flow of advertising revenue, of course. And as advertisers sneak off cableward in search of their audience, broadcast stations are forced to cut what they charge for advertising, and so the ebb continues.
Sign after sign points to the decline of many aspects of traditional broadcast television. News has been dumbed down and over-promoted to the point of being staggeringly repetitious and content-free. Where once Dan Rather was confidently predicting that CBS Evening News would expand to an hour, now its continued existence has been put into question.
Whole genres of entertainment are being talked about as hopelessly passé—sitcoms, for example. The idea that anyone wants to watch the antic adventures of just one more dysfunctional family is, well, laughable. "Creative" people in LA are trying to come up with the next Friends and Seinfeld just as the nonstop reruns of those two shows have us crying uncle. Oh yeah, please give us more of that same.
Sports producers are trying to hold onto dwindling audiences with gimmicky high-tech devices—virtual first-down lines, glowing pucks, and the like—as well as (again) a promotional spin that puts every ball game in the pantheon of great American battles.
Even the traditional success stories like the staggeringly expensive ER are not immune from the decline. We (as a collective people) just don’t want to sit down and make an appointment for televised anything., it seems. We aren’t much of a collective people at all these days, I find myself thinking.
And then, something happens like the Cotton Mill Fire, or the school shootings in Colorado, like the Oklahoma City bombing before it—that seems to punch through the static in a way that intangible bomb-dropping in Kosovo hasn’t.
For that, we can turn to the media, to somewhere on television, talk radio, even the newspaper, and we find that there still is, amazingly, a communal moment or two of grief, disbelief, outrage, or triumph that can be wrenched out of us.
And wrenched is the operative word, because like the kids playing Doom, I feel desensitized sometimes. There’s just so much of it. We’re way beyond the intimacy of television, where a story about a single killing could grab us. It has to be carnage. Then we re-connect.
Tuesday, April 20th, 1999
Live from a midnight flight to Las Vegas, it’s time to catch up on some old business. I’m on my way to briefly visit this week’s National Association of Broadcasters convention. It’s a gargantuan show, straining at the seams of the Las Vegas infrastructure, and if the thought of that many TV people in one place doesn’t scare you, perhaps it should. In order just to enter the convention, you have to run the gauntlet through an enormous parking lot filled with the latest in microwave and satellite trucks, jammed nose to nose with gleaming helicopters and colossal sports remote trucks, all as overlogoed as the Coke museum.
Yes, I’m descending into a fake town crammed to the gills with people whose mission is to create the continuing illusion of television, available whenever you click the remote. They’re shopping—looking for the latest digital doohickey or camera or wireless microphone or super doppler mega 2000 radar thingie, and me, I’m just browsing, meeting, and, oh yeah, recoiling in horror at the whole idea.
But I digress.
I got an email from someone at the Journal Constitution who read last week’s about the live television coverage of the Cotton Mill fire rescue, and they wondered, um, how I thought the AJC did covering the story.
Well, we don’t get the paper at home for the simple reason that I can’t bear the thought of throwing away that much ad-covered newsprint every day just to get to the actual news content. (Instead, I shamelessly and regularly scavenge for news sections at restaurants, coffee shops, airports.) I’d probably pay a premium to order the AJC Lite, where just the news sections are home-delivered, sparing me and my recycling bin the shame of wasted ink. (Would they sell it that way? I think not.)
But I digress again.
The rescue. Actually, I did get a look at the local section on Tuesday (yep, discarded out on Concourse A) , and I was pleased to note, alongside attempts where the AJC tried to be television (with huge color photos) they had some space to be a newspaper and indeed gave us some interesting background on the AFD unit that was trained for high-altitude rope work, the Mill, both historically and as a trendy development project, and on the effects of the fire on Cabbagetown in general.
The other email that gave me pause (perhaps it’s in this issue’s letters section) asked if Media Rare is just some lame local-only column because I haven’t talked about the shameful boosterism in print and on-air Kosovo coverage. Yep, true: when the US goes to war, some headline-writers and broadcast news producers get a jingoistic tingling and before you know it, it becomes we, the home team, against them, the evil empire-du-jour. But what seems to make this conflict a little different is that NATO’s deadly handiwork is under day-to-day scrutiny: we hear about bombs that went astray almost the moment they do. Yes, it can be argued that all bombing is misguided, misplaced, and deadly to the innocent, but it’s not journalism’s job to argue that case—it is, instead, to bring us reports of what all the parties are doing. Our outrage, pride, fear, anger, and horror should then be strictly grown locally, and voiced globally.
Monday, April 12th, 1999
My wife walked into my office Monday afternoon and issued a terse bulletin: "The cotton mill in Cabbagetown is on fire—it’s completely ablaze. There’s a guy on a crane."
Sure enough, most of local television was on the story (although Channel 46 er, CBS Atlanta, seemed not to be paying attention.) I snapped the TV on to WXIA, and there were vivid live pictures high over a would-be huge trendy loft-complex-to-be going up like the second burning of Atlanta. We both watched transfixed as a crane operator clung for dear life as choppers were mustered for a rescue.
We witnessed most of this drama through the lens of Bruce Erion’s 11Alive Skycam, for the simple reason that when it comes to stories involving aircraft and air rescue, Erion tracks and reports the story better than anyone else. A former Vietnam chopper pilot, Erion understands the problems rescuers faced intimately, and he’s able to communicate to us Earth-bound folk in a remarkably clear, jargon-free manner. Everyone else in the air over Atlanta (with the exception of Keith Kalland, who, after all, isn’t piloting and talking) have the crippled communication skills of, well, pilots.
If WXIA had left good enough alone and stuck with their early team—Bruce talking with weatherguy Royal Norman back at the studio—they would have won the afternoon. But no, they brought in insipid reporters on the ground who didn’t seem to be tracking the information Erion and Norman had before it was their turn. We saw Bill Liss and Kevin Rowson saying absolutely nothing of interest, poorly. We saw Jennifer Leslie trying the patented consultanty "the crowd’s prayers were with the crane operator" crap.
And WXIA’s last shred of credibility disappeared when Wes Sarginson and Brenda Wood where connected live to a hoaxer—one of those Howard Stern fan-weasels—who claimed to be in charge of the mill. I tried to warn them, screaming "Hoax! Hoax!" at the TV, but, did they listen?
Meanwhile, over at WSB, the quality of ground reporting was better if only because anchor Richard Belcher and reporter Sally Sears seem to have some inkling of the history of this town. Sears reported that her vantage point in Oakland Cemetery was "roughly on the line between where the Union soldiers and where the Confederate soldiers are buried," and for a moment, this "Breaking News" event was happening someplace other than Genericville.
By my count, Fox 5’s Sharon Crowley wins the award for saying "as you can see here" the most times in succession during a live shot— sometimes four to five times in one sentence while trying to gather her thoughts. Fox 5 folk in general trotted out the phrase "raging inferno" most during the live coverage. On the other hand, they deserve big credit for having enough perspective to put together a lengthy historical piece on the mill and Cabbagetown in general. Real background information, cool!
Later Monday evening, both 20/20 and Dateline did sum-up pieces that used extensive amounts of their Atlanta affiliate’s video—with scant acknowledgement. And in a promo faux pas, nanoseconds after Dateline showed us the climatic moment, WXIA told us to "stay tuned for an amazing rescue you’ll have to see to believe "
Uh no thanks, we just did. In fact, by midnight, if you had a television on, you shared the experience with a whole bunch of your neighbors. It was a reminder to me that there are some kinds of "Breaking News" that can hold you riveted to your screen, connected with your fellow viewers, compelled to find out what happens next.
Monday, April 5th, 1999
It’s springtime in Atlanta, and the airwaves are filled with the smells of ballpark franks, Skip Caray’s aftershave, and, of course, all those turtles.
I’m walking down Highland Avenue, dodging smokers in the sunshine, NPR’s WABE in my ear in between innings of the Braves opener. Bruce Dortin reports: "Georgia has 134 miles of turtles. That is, 134 miles of coastline." Ah, we need radio of this caliber to make news operations like WSB radio’s actually seem sophisticated.
I thumbwheel my walkperson back to Newstalk 750, WSB, where you get traffic reports from a guy who has earned his psuedo-military rank under decidedly mysterious circumstances, and where reporters bellowing "depend on it" just make me nervous.
But it’s also where listening to Braves Baseball is about as close to the best of what commercial radio can be these days. Pictures actually form in one’s mind, and unlike most morning radio shows’ image-conjuring, they’re not the kind you slap your temples to eject from your skull. There are just those four familiar voices, and the aural aroma of the game. Pete’s encyclopedic perspective and Don and Joe’s insights are just gravy—I listen for Skip Caray’s distinctive cadence, laden with just how he’s feeling right now. He is, by turns, a 12-year-old kid in love with the ballpark life and a curmudgeonly old man who really doesn’t want to say it’s the Ikon Office Systems scoreboard, even if that’s what’s on the damn card.
Later the same evening, I stash the radio and force myself to stay up to watch The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn—just for just for just what is the point?
There, at 12:37 in the morning, when there really aren’t all that many people awake, we have Craig, the new boy. He’s wearing a Conan O’Brien pompadour, he’s sitting in a fine-veneer set that seems cobbled together from the old Greg Kinnear Later digs and where Charlie Rose sat for CBS News Nightwatch, circa 1988.
There’s a two-shot—it’s the Letterman shot, precisely. Craig waves goodbye a la Dave. Vaguely creepy music plays. I’m baffled. The overnight ratings say the timeslot’s audience hasn’t increased, but he has attracted—you guessed it younger viewers, who, I must conclude, lack the time-depth to detect the recycling of sets, hair, and ideas.
The lengths that CBS will go through to buy some young demographics seem, well, ruthlessly capitalistic. No sooner does CBS CEO Mel Karmazin again express his FCC-prohibited deep desire and longing to acquire NBC, then rumors pop up in Monday’s San Jose Mercury News that AOL would like to absorb that tasty morsel CBS.
CBS owns a heavy majority in about a zillion—okay, about 160 radio and TV stations (including Z-93, WAOK, and V-103 right here). They’ve got TNN and CMT (sewing up the country cable acronyms.) and now, in no April Fool’s joke, they shelled out something like $2.5 billion in stock last week to buy King World Productions, the syndicators of Oprah, Wheel, and Jeopardy. (How valuable will this pricy grab be after Ms. Winfrey leaves?)
And why should you care?
Visualize the classic eyeball logo. The announcer speaks: "This is AOL."
Well, it makes me shudder.