Friday, May 28th, 1999
Content is our most important product. We must conserve our sparse national resource-entertainment. That’s why I wholly support Fox and producer David Kelley’s decision to chop up hour episodes of Ally McBeal, add a few shots left on the nonlinear editing floor, mix, and serve-a recycled half-hour of television. Makes perfect sense, right? People don’t tune in Ally for great narrative structure. They won’t mind some regurgitation. And think of the money Fox saves-which I’m sure they’ll reinvest-in our interest-in even more World’s Greatest Car Crashes V, right?
This concept-that the Makers of Television need not waste their time with new stuff when we’re just fine with the old is hardly new or without precedent, but this is the first time to my memory that a top-rated primetime show has blatantly said "let’s serve up some leftovers" while the main airing still attracts big audiences. Of course just last week, the much-hyped finale of Home Improvement-ostensibly 90 minutes of entertainment-was in fact a half-hour of flashbacks (that would be recycling), an actual half-hour program, and then a "behind the scenes" filler half-hour of outtakes and the "stars reminiscing," and, oh yeah, the face of that guy who hides behind the backyard fence. Oh, thanks so much.
I was much more charmed by the Mad About You finale, which you didn’t see because Buffy was on against it. Somehow, the idea that Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt’s baby would grow up to be Janeane Garafolo had a certain rightness to it. Her "looking back" documentary on the turbulent lives of her parents was a great way to tie together loose ends
The finale I’m really waiting for however, is the penultimate Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and I might as well confess here that this program has been consistently my favorite hour of television over its seven year run. This past year’s episodes, taken together, form a calculated dramatic march to the finale, with major threads playing out and resolving, all leading to one entitled "What You Leave Behind" that airs the weekend of June 5th. The stories have been great, the drama has been first-rate, the computer-generated spacecraft have been blowing up in spectacular fashion, and, well, I really like the work these folks do. Simple as that. If you haven’t noticed, I’m not surprised-WGNX airs DS9 at 11:36 pm on Saturday nights-and then at 11 am on Sunday morning, one last time. However, I’m sure that, like most of Star Trek, DS9 will air in reruns well into our geezerdom.
It’s funny-unlike the more generally popular Next Generation series, Deep Space Nine and Voyager have more narrowly-defined audiences, and there are plenty of Star Trek fans who will tell you that neither show is the "real" thing. Yet plenty of Internet bandwidth is consumed with critical dissections of each episode, and, by syndicated standards, the shows do well, and Paramount/Viacom markets the franchise in the great George Lucas tradition.
Maybe they should sweep up the digital outtakes, string them together, and offer Star Trek: The Leftovers . Hey, it could air right after Ally McRerun.
Monday, May 17th, 1999
It’s the third (more or less) week of the May sweeps, and I’ve been celebrating by not watching television just as much as I possibly can. It’s probably quite an indictment of my tastes in entertainment, but somehow I’ve been able to pass up the enticements offered by NBC ("Atomic Train"? "Atomic Train"!?) and CBS (LeeLee Sobieski plays the young Helen Hunt in "Joan of Arc"), and I saw all the revealing stuff from ABC’s "Cleopatra" back in April on Entertainment Tonight.
So-that freed me to go wander the bookstore, and I returned not with great literature, but great satire-and I’ve been laughing myself to sleep every night for most of a week now.
I hold in my hand "The Onion presents Our Dumb Century-100 Years of Headlines from America’s Finest News Source."
The concept is simplicity itself. The 8 1/2 by 11 book presents us with reproductions of the front page of The Onion-one or two a year-from the past hundred years of this newspaper’s existence. We’re taken from the Puritanical, early-industrial America of the 1900s on a long march through the decades-touching somehow, on everything newsworthy, trendy, or pop-cultural along the way.
This is a particularly neat trick because The Onion has really only been around a decade or so. It’s a heretofore little-known humor publication, based in Madison, Wisconsin. Their conceit-a restrained, generic American newspaper simply reporting the news and trends of the day-makes for an amazingly effective way to satirize, spoof, and generally cause spontaneous humor combustion.
This book is so damn funny-and observant-on so many levels. It is lighthearted on one page, savage on the next; a bit juvenile one moment, and then it wheels about and out-intellectualizes the Harvard Lampoon moments after that.
A scan of the headlines for January 1, 1900-one page out of 160 or so-might give you some sense of the bounty to be had: "A New Century Dawns!/McKinley Ushers In Bold New Coal Age/ Nation’s Skies Filled With Beautiful, Black Smoke/Death-by-Corset Rates Stabilize At One In Six/Ladies Breathe Slightly Less Painful Sigh Of Relief." On the same page: "Vatican Condemns ‘Rhythm Method’", and a summary of "To-Day’s Extinctions," and a proud corner-box exclaims "Fewer Printing-Press-Men Killed Every Day."
No, I guess it doesn’t give you the idea, here, because a big part of the book’s payoff is in the presentation. "Our Dumb Century" is a beautifully-crafted design parody, too, expertly reproducing the cluttered, smudgy, old metal-typeface look of a century past, and bringing us up all the way to the USA Today-like front page of the 90s, complete with weather map, pointless graphs, and last night’s lotto numbers. Context and content had me LOL, ROTFL, and all those other Internet acronyms.
I remember thinking at the bookstore cash register "Boy, this better be 15 bucks worth of laughs." (It hadn’t been a good day up till that point.) Well. "Our Dumb Century" is so dense, so packed, so much fun that it’s a bargain at twice that price. Read this book, visit their website (www.theonion.com) regularly-support and cultivate this source of fine American satire. I have a feeling we’ll need all we can get.
Tuesday, May 11th, 1999
A friend with a small video production firm in New Mexico got a call from a large floor-wax company last month. Seems that his small website-which was basically his initials plus ".com"-carried a domain name that the large firm was interested in. They’re negotiating now for a transfer of that name, which should be worth, if not a fortune, at least a comfortable chunk of change for my friend. He sees it as found money-a reward for having that particular set of initials and the ego to have a eponymous place of your own online. If that makes you say "gee, I should go register some domain names I think might pay off down the road," you’re not alone, and you may well be late to the party. It’s a new form of speculation, as compelling, and, ultimately, as futile as playing the lottery.
Intellectual property-part of the intangible wealth to be exchanged, grown, and speculated on in the world of the Internet-is something you really can’t hold in your hand. It’s not a good. It’s not made by union laborers at a rusty car plant in Detroit. It’s just an idea-not necessarily a good idea, but one that is in the right place at the right time. Poof! It’s worth something.
It’s inevitable that the growth in the trade of intellectual property coincides with the sprawl of the Internet-the perfect medium for distributing products one cannot hold in one’s hand. What is amazing is how something like a domain name-which hardly carries enough weight to even be called an idea-is valuable. Why? It’s a brand.
The people who subscribe to industry journals like Brandweek (yes, there is such a thing) call names-for-things brands, of inherent worth in themselves, not just on the internet, but at the mall, in a car dealership, in a too hip commercial with swing dancers. They go on about "protecting the brand"-making sure that names similar to theirs aren’t being used by others to confuse the buying public, and "extending the brand"-taking a great name for jeans, like Levi’s-and putting it on perfume. Or floor cleaner.
These brands-words in fancy type, really-are what America manufactures these days, and the factories aren’t topped with smokestacks, but satellite dishes.
One of the biggest of these New Factories is here in town at CNN Center, but the zen brandmasters there aren’t working for the news channel, they’re down the hall at World Championship Wrestling, where the names of wrestlers, once novelties, have become stunningly profitable commodities in their own right. I should have become hip to this back about a decade when I noticed that the names "Obi-Wan Kenobi®" and "Jean-Luc Picard®" (do hyphenates make better brands?) started showing up with that little ® thingy next to them, and when the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle began to be very serious in protecting the use of the names Sherlock Holmes® and Dr. John Watson®.
Perhaps now in addition to getting a Social Security number for your just-newborn, you should lock up their name-as-domain (as an investment), and get them one of those ®-dudes to play with in the crib.
Monday, May 3rd, 1999
Oh, I tried to watch a few minutes of NBC’s mega-event Noah’s Ark, where, apparently, biblical events transpired in medieval times in a land where British accents prevail. But I found myself holding up my patented Left Hand of Incredulity at the glowing Sony. Just what the? Whatthe? (My all time favorite comic strip balloon: "What the?"-because no one actually talks that way-except me.)
So up flew my patented Right Hand of Remote Control Manipulation, and I was quickly out of my misery. I mean, do we care? They could have staged Noah’s Ark with the cast and costumes of Gilligan’s Island, and it still would have been hyped as the mega-event of May. Jon Voight!?
We had friends over Sunday night, television-watching friends-friends who even have cable-and I asked them who they choose for local television news these days. "We can’t stand any of it," they said. "We watch some CNN, and that’s it." Talked to another friend on the phone the next day. "Local news? It all sucks."
Well, yes, and it’s reached the point where this is the universal wisdom: who do they think they’re fooling with their breathless teasing and promoting? Who watches the news for the news anymore?
I’ll admit, for me, the best antidote to television is indeed the Internet. In my office, I had Fox 5 News at 10 on and a web browser fired up, both close at hand. Amanda Davis was doing what anchors do these days-promoting: "In a moment we’ll have details on a breaking story, a tornado that devastated the midwest." Well, where? What? Just tell us now!
As an Audi commercial ran, I typed www.cnn.com and wham, there were the details before the first thirty second spot was over. Oh. It happened in Oklahoma (is that the midwest? Not where I come from.) And then when Fox 5 News returned, we got a folksy Doug Richards feature on Vidalia Onion beauty queens before, eventually, Russ and Amanda told us what happened to some unfortunate Oklahomans.
And I don’t mean to single out the folks on Briarcliff Road-you can play this same game watching CNN itself. With a computer at hand, you can find out about what’s happening way before a conventional newscast tells you-because they’re compelled to promote it first. They have to keep you through that break, keep you up until eleven.
What I like about getting most of my news from the Internet is the ability to go wandering for other parts of the story. CNN interactive linked the tornado story to the Daily Oklahoman’s website, where I could read someone else’s local perspective. And I could, of course, just as easily hit www.bbc.co.uk and see if a devastating storm gets any attention overseas.
If I were a news consultant weasel, I’d tell my stations that eventually, we’ve got to swing the pendulum back. We must simply tell people the news, the whole story, and give them not a clue what might be coming next. The stories would catch them totally unawares–It would be, like, news to them, each and every time.