TV: Just wacky

Sunday, June 27th, 1999

Stand back-and squint. A little more. There. See? From here, the ebb and flow of trends in our mass media culture look like gentle waves, sine curves arcing one way only to fall back the next. From the most significant to the most mundane, that’s the way it flows.
And some weeks I’m stationed, ever-vigilant at the "significant" desk, but this week it sure feels like I’m in the domain of the mundane.
Take helicopters, please. Seems as if one ratings book WXIA does some research that tells them that people could care less about cameras in the sky. Then, Bruce Erion nabs some great footage of a fire rescue and suddenly the pendulum swings back, and 11 Alive is the station with something called "the air advantage" (guarantee: our newscast has more air than those others.) In six months or so, if no major airborne breaking news hits, news and promotion management will again shuffle the helicopter card to the back of the deck.. What have you done for us lately, chopper guy?
Same thing happens at WSB. One sweeps they go all out promoting consumer dude Clark Howard. People get sick of it, and Clark’s promos evaporate in the summer sun. Then, they get some research that says maybe the other stations do .5 percent of a better job at consumer reporting. Oh, okay-yank Clark away from the radio mic and let’s plaster his face all over the television again.
Take Fox’s lineup. We could stick Futurama over here, and move That 70s Show to there, andno, let’s just move them back and start all over.
Take UPN. One season they decide to be the station for hip comedies. That goes nowhere. Then they go for hip urban comedies. Nope. Then they remembered that really drama was what they were all about. Uh-uh. And this fall: back to hip comedies.
And with any of the real in-for-the-long run programs-as in late night, for example, the waxing and waning of the host’s energy is just about a given. Lately, we’ve been lucky. Ted Koppel was at the top of his game covering Kosovo (I got more of a sense of the feeling of that troubled region from watching three Nightlines than about all the coverage put together. And Ted’s buddy Dave over on CBS actually seems to be enjoying having a show these days, lucky for us.
Maybe I can put all this valuable raw data (strewn over the "mundane" desk, elbow-deep in scribbled notes and smudged post-its) into a spreadsheet and try to correlate the coefficient of Dave’s mood swings divided by the delta pi of Monica’s hair, factored by the inverse square root of the frequencies Dan Rather’s been hearing these days. Add in the total number of news consultants, and put the whole mess over the exponential growth of function-alike cable channels, and multiply by the number of monitors on the new Headline News set, and, wait, I almost have it.there.
My carefully calculated conclusion: TV is just wacky.

Silicon emperors

Tuesday, June 22nd, 1999

We went over to my brother and sister-in-law’s Sunday night for dinner and a chance (for us cable-free types) to see "Pirates of Silicon Valley" on TNT, one of those made-for-television movies "based on fact" that purports to reveal the real behind-the-scenes machinations of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and other pioneer computer-robber-barons as they built empires.
I felt a certain sense of self-interest since these were empires built, in part, with my money. Yep, I bought one of those Apple 2e things back in the early 80s.a couple of grand there. I was the first on my block with a Macintosh-paying $2200 or so for a cute little beige computer (from a small store in Gainesville) with less memory than our microwave has now. I am what computer marketers gleefully label an "early adopter," willing to pay a premium for the latest and greatest. And so, during my last trip to Northern California, I paid a brief pilgrimage to Cupertino, California, home of Apple. Drove by the gleaming building at 1 Infinite Loop, and said "well, there’s some of my computer dollars at work."
And I’ve certainly kept up with the melodrama that has been the lives of these geeky millionaires, who sold what has come to be known as vaporware to anyone who would fork the cash over. They’d then work weeks of all-nighters to create what they promised as accomplished fact. They stole ideas, erected rhetorical "reality distortion fields" around themselves at computer shows,, pushed employees to and over the brink, and apparently, those were their good qualities.
This territory has already been covered in a much more non-fictional forum on PBS, where pseudonymous Robert X. Cringely’s multipart "Triumph of the Nerds" chronicled the rises and falls, vividly told by the principals themselves. So why do we need a fabricated, abstracted version of history? I suppose it’s only through the exaggerated mirror of the fabled docudrama form that we get the sense of just how manipulative Steve Jobs was-and why (according to the TNT filmmakers) his dysfunctional personal relationships, children out of wedlock, and anger over being adopted came together to create the guy who could sell America computers as appliances (now available in five perky colors!) It’s only through a marginal fiction that we can plumb the true dweebiness (and poor personal hygiene habits) of the richest man in the world, that Bill Gates guy. And of course, it’s hard to get millionaires to sit down for PBS cameras and talk about dropping acid, racing bulldozers at midnight, and infringing on each other’s trade secrets.
Then, of course, there’s the sidebar sport of docudrama-watching: rating how well the person they cast succeeded in rendering the actual person. How long did it take watching a bearded, grubby Noah Wyle pinballing around until you stopped thinking "ER doc"? Anthony Michael Hall-who was a Saturday Night Live castmember while these guys were changing the world-was easier to buy immediately as Gates. But my favorite had to be the guy who played Steve Ballmer (Microsoft’s current president) totally over the top-to great effect. Close your eyes and zero in on his voice-yes, it’s Futurama’s Bender the robot, John DiMaggio.

Smarta way to live

Tuesday, June 15th, 1999

Sometimes, things can turn on a paradigm.
I was thinking about this on my way down to the airport this morning on MARTA-the train cars had celebratory logos saying "20 years of bus and train service in Atlanta." And the scary thing is: I measure my tenure here by the arrival of those trains-we both hit town about the same time. When MARTA’s train stations opened, my friends and I rode the shiny new cars to the opposite ends of the East Line just because we could, and we bought in to the optimistic PR statements that said that rapid rail would revolutionize the city, would provide for a downtown that is living and vital, would clean up tartar between gums and teeth.
Well, downtown’s tartar is still there, and although it’s a fine way of getting to the airport, the number of places I can travel to reasonably on the s’MARTA is fewer than the places I can’t. Atlanta remains a place where people travel one-per-car along clogged freewaysand there are plenty of folks outside 285 that look at their car (or SUV) as urban protection-a shield against interaction with outsiders.
So I’m on the train, quite enjoyably passing south along old rail lines, and I’m thinking: how have other cities been able to bring mass transit to the fore? Is it simply a challenge for public relations and advertising (and if so, I can tell you right now that ‘It’s Smarta’ ain’t going to get people to park Jeep Cherokees.)
No, in towns like Portland, Oregon the very idea of mass transit has been made as fashionable as the $2.49 corn and cilantro fritter at the Whole Foods Market. It’s fashionable there, and not only because the local mass transit authority does a good job. It’s fasionable because news anchors and people who write for weekly newspapers and other "media voices" talk about it in a positive, uplifting context-and as far as I can tell, they mean it. It fits their lives like a well-worn backpack. The words feel good tumbling out of their mouths. And this may well include way-overpaid TV folk who still climb into their Yuppie Scummobiles after the newscast is over-but their talk perpetuates the germ of an not-so-abstract idea. You can ride free downtown. People take the rail or buses to events because it’s part of the group experience (same thing in London, Paris, hell, even Boston.) It’s a great place to read and watch some of the world go by.
Why can’t we say that here?
Well, to some extent the fault lies, sure, with the MARTA authorities, for their general marketing cluelessness and their unwillingness to try programs like the free-ride-in-center-city thing.
But they could have the best programs and a decent advertising campaign and the problem still would remain. So how do we turn this perception around? No, I’m not proposing mass hypnosis or mass hypocrisy, just something closer to visualizing whirled peas. Picture yourself enjoing a ride on MARTA, on the bus or on the train. Then do it. Then talk about it. Then enjoy the feeling of being a bit more connected to the city and its people.
As I did this morning.

Spots in the dark.

Tuesday, June 8th, 1999

Well, Sunday afternoon-warm, sunny, full of green trees and blooming flowers-seemed made for a wander outside to enjoy (enjoy?) the transformation of Virginia Avenue last weekend into that Summerfest thing. You know, that gathering where the object is to get as many vehicles with out-county plates to cram into an intown neighborhood, sprawling over medians and, well, mostly in front of our house. The idea is that people stroll blissfully down Virginia, which has been transformed into this corridor of art, music, and free spirit. Well, with success comes creeping commercialism in all its ugly forms-and for every worthy enterprise like artists stalls and places to get walkabout food from restaurants like Harvest and Dish, we had to run the gauntlet of countless natural gas services and cell phone providers determined to sign us up, or at the very least, to force us to shake hands with some bespectacled guy in a rotund blue costume (hey, he ain’t the real gas guy!)
As my friend Tom said after visiting the World of Coca-Cola, "What that place needs is a logo-free zone."
And in search of an advertising-free experience, my wife and I squeezed past the enormous fake climbing mountain, escaped the hubbub of Virginia Highland, and headed for the cool darkness of the moviehouse.
I guess we should have known better.
First, there were the slides, the lowest form of advertising life known on this planet. (I always say to my brother-if our work dries up, we can always make those slides in the theatres. Scrambled movie titles-how hard could it be?) For some reason, at this particular showing the slides would proceed at their usual mind-numbing pace for a while, and then speed up unpredictably, whizzing by in a blur as if the projectionist had collapsed on the remote control for a minute or so. Then, the stately march through the carousel. Then, warp speed. Go figure. Maybe this is something that market-research experts have determined will get our attention. Um…I guess it did.
But those were just a prelude to the torture to come.
Torture, as in twelve minutes of commercials before we even got to the trailers, which, after all, are nothing but commercials for movies. Twelve minutes! We were forced to watched really grainy video-to-tape transfers-an ad for talking chimps on TBS, an ad for Moviefone (Why? We’re here, we figured out the showtimes already!), a chiropractor (spend too much time in those moviehouse seats?), and, targeting our demographic perfectly, a Coke spot with NASCAR guys (auto racing and Shakespeare-great together!)
Has the cost of replacement projector bulbs gone up so much that it’s come to this: our seven buck visits to the movies must be augmented by some easy-money ad revenue? The phrase ‘captive audience’ comes to mind, of course, but do media buyers really think that just because we can’t zap these annoyances into submission, we’ll be moved to increase our yearly chiropractic budget?

We need those fine web-based movie listings services to add just one more line of data to their movie listings: how many minutes we can skip and still slide into safely our seats by the opening titles.