Cheap, profitable, retro.

Monday, August 30th, 1999

Former ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses said "this is a terrifying time for television."
She was quoted in this week’s New Yorker, in an article about why you won’t be seeing a new series from David Lynch on ABC anytime soon. (The series: Mulholland Drive. The reason: the execs hated it.) Tarses, who brought us-gifted us with-dumped on us-Friends, Mad about You, and Dharma and Greg, resigned under fire at the end of last week. No, not because of David Lynch or anything in particular related to her job-programming-but because she wouldn’t play well with others in the "synergistic" mess that is the ABC/Disney media megalith. She hated those money guys, those Disney folks. She wanted innovative programmingshe said.
Terrifying times, where affiliate station general managers, snappy dressers all, pull into their corporate parking spaces and go upstairs to pursue the overnights over morning coffee. Slipping again, a bit more lost to the lurking cable monster.
Meanwhile, the bills are coming in for fancy new digital facilities (, CBS 46 is building a nice shiny one in midtown) and lots of high-priced new talent (you know 46 snapped up Calvin Hughes from Dallas and Jane Robelot from CBS This Morning.)
Robelot, the press release says, is originally from Greenville, SC, but "with many ties to the Atlanta community." Gives WSB an excuse to run those "Anchors who know Georgia" promos some more.
Meanwhile, a struggling network like UPN reads the cable numbers and decides to get some WWF Smackdown of its own. The transplant (WWF is usually seen on cable’s USA Network) took, placing the almost-a-network number one among kids between the ages of 2 and 11, sucking in 6.2 million viewers with programming that’s way, way less expensive to produce than a one-hour drama like ER or even UPN’s own Star Trek: Voyager.
But there’s a even cheaper way to make money, and it’s name is Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, a summer series that has captured the (apparently limited) imaginations of the viewing public-just in time for it to be yanked into cold storage until the November ratings book-or whenever anything else ABC offers starts to falter. Yep, it’s darned economical to produce a show when you scrimp on research (they already got one question wrong) and charge contestants a buck fifty on a 900 line to sign up for the show.
Cheap and profitable-that’s music to Disney’s bottom line. And I guess it’s because of the reruns, but WWTBAM‘s ratings were double those of the show that followed it on Sunday-The Practice. That’s enough to make any station manager spit coffee into the nearest potted plant.
And of course the idea of primetime game shows fits neatly into the other successful programming theme, retro. Let’s see, cheap, profitable, retroI’m going to confidently predict that the next big successes on broadcast television will be Bowling for Dollars, Georgia Retired Anchor Championship Wrestling, and Hee Haw.
Terrifying? You bet. And that’s my final answer.

Giving away the store.

Monday, August 23rd, 1999

Because we don’t subscribe to the Journal-Constitution, (despite the persistence of the nice folks who call at dinnertime to offer it to us), we certainly appreciate that the AJC folks take the trouble to send us, unsolicited, some leftover advertising material just to fill out our Monday mail. Here, you didn’t get enough credit card offers, so read about this great price on chicken at Wayfield Foods! Or perhaps you need a good place to order thousands of return address labels, or get a great deal on some roofing, or clean every rug in your house for $12.95.
Gosh, that’s nice. Of course, they may be doing it to fulfill something their ad people call "guaranteed circulation," which means that for a certain price, they assure folks like Wayfield Foods that everyone in a certain zip code-not just those who pay for the paper-get their hands on their ad. Of course, that’s just about all that happens to it-the insert sails from the mail pile into the wastebasket without making much of an impression
So why kill the trees for something they know no one reads? The newspaper’s answer is simple: the advertisers are paying them for it. Okay, advertisers, why are you paying? Because the newspapers tell them it’s effective. Okaynewspapers, why do you tell themah, forget it.
There’s actually the same kind of disconnect happening as traditional media tries to find its way in the world of new media (that would be that Internet thing.) We’re a newspaper, says (for example) the New York Timestherefore our mission of gathering and reporting the news must continue on the web. So, fine, how will people pay for it? Well, most sites give the content away in exchange for the opportunity to show readers banner ads which link to other sites. So do you read banner ads? Yeah, well that’s what the Times finding out in research-people have developed scanning instincts that basically ignore the banner ads-they become all but invisible. (I haven’t come across anything that says that the same thing happens with newspaper ads, but if that ‘Reach’ ad insert in my mail is any indication, it’s invisible advertising too.)
There’s an increasing faction in the newspaper business of alarmed beancounters: we’re giving the store away! We’re telling people what we know for free! This won’t work! (This of course, ignores the fact that advertiser-supported television networks have done quite well with this model.) Dave Barry in a recent column (which, you guessed it, you can read on the web: is firmly in the camp who says giving it away is nuts. He says "Sometimes we run advertisements in the regular newspaper urging our remaining paying customers to go to our web sites instead. ‘Stop giving us money!’ is the shrewd marketing thrust of these ads."
Well, maybe we’d give papers money for online content, Dave, if there was a small ‘pay here’ coin box attached to our computer monitors. Until it’s that easy, though, we’ll prefer free, even with those invisible ads, thanks very much.

Lessons of late night.

Monday, August 16th, 1999

"Are you involved in a sexual lifestyle so bizarre you have to keep it a secret? Call us at 1-800-96-JERRY and tell us your story."
Yeah, that’s exactly what you should do. This is the twisted logic of the nineties. Having a relationship problem? Go on television to confess. Got a secret? Only national TV will do.
Reach a crossroads in your relationship? Go on a blind date with someone a TV show staff picks, and then come on and talk about it on television…maybe you’ll have a Change of Heart. Why does that make sense to people? Yeah, honey, we should call and be on TV.
And the good news is that impotence can be treated if you go to the right place, which, apparently, is Cartersville, (the erection capital of North Georgia?). There’s a creepy guy in a white lab coat who will fix you right upand he knows, he’s been there.
These are the lessons of late night television.
It’s one AM, and although they’re closed for the night, Tom Park of Atlanta Toyota (and about a zillion other dealerships nationwide) is out there just to talk to us. Yeah, right. Whatever happened to that dogwhat was he, Spuds Toyota?
Killed in Iraq, I suppose.
"He’ll balance a motorcycle on his teeth, just for you, Tuesday on Fox." I can’t thumb the remote fast enough. "When you were a kid, who was on your lunchbox? Sir Issac Newton? Or was itthe A-Team?" What are they selling? What are they saying? And why do you care?
Owe another phone company money? We’ll hook you up for just $49! No credit needed! No ID! Oh, that’s logical. Can’t pay Southern Bell $17.44 a month, so you’ll pay these other folks 49 bucks? Mmmmok. It’s your money.
Every once in a while, one of those tough dogs hooks up with one of the pretty dogs (to the music of "Superfly.") They’re selling cars again, damned if I know which one-but these guys could care less about what lunchbox I had when I was a kid. It all blurs together. It all looks the same. It all cost someone a heck of a lot of money, and the message doesn’t stick in my mind, unlike Mr. Cartersville Lab Coat and Mr. Toyota.
Rappin’ Rosie O’Donnell leaps out of a school bus, singing (chanting?) about cheap kids clothes at something called ‘Big K.’ Is that anything like Special K? Or Kmart?
Click! Enormous bouncing coins over the landscape. Zap! Bouncing tires! We’re being hyp-mo-tized by gigantic round things. The round things morph into the Mastercard logo. Ooh, that’s priceless.
The irony emerging (as I click around) is that the classiest commercials seem to be on my old place of employment, the Superstation. What happened to Ronco? What happened to the profound wisdom that although in Japan the hand can cut like a knife, that doesn’t work with a tomato?
Then I sat straight up at the sound of a familiar TV voice from TBS past. Could that be? That is! Tina Seldin, former co-anchor (with Bill Tush) of 17 Update Early in the Morning-a landmark in Atlanta late night television. She’s apparently now recommending remedial education in various trades and computer specialties.
OK, Tina. Can I bring my A-Team lunchbox to class?

Stand by…for news.

Monday, August 9th, 1999

Random notes are piling up on the Curmudgeon Desk this week, so it’s time to take care of some of that business. Scribbled notes in one hand, nifty five-asterisks separators in the other, we begin.
* * * * *
After spending some time decrying the "Breaking News" wolf-crying of Atlanta’s TV stations, I throw up my hands as I watch their latest series of ‘proof of performance’ promotional ads. 11Alive, it seems, is your Breaking News leader! We get there first! We deploy more uninformed reporters than the other guys! We splat the whole unfinished mess onto your screen!
And you’re proud of this?
The ongoing devaluation of the phrase "Breaking News" means the verbiage-meisters will have to come up with a new term. "Mega-Super-No-Kidding-Ultra-Urgent-End-of-the-World-News"?
Which will then, of course, be run into the ground. Again, a reminder to TV news producers: when a new story comes into the newsroom, there is a term for itit’s called "news."
* * * * *
You’ve got to admire the clever construction that is "The Blair Witch Project." New York Times critic Janet Maslin said "like a cabin built entirely out of soda cans, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ is a nifty example of how to make something out of nothing." Indeedreports are that the success of the film (it brought in some $24.5 million last weekend, second only to the mega-budget Bruce Willis flick) are due to the skillful manipulation of buzz, of hype, of the promise of a scary good time, without needing the visceral depiction of blood and gore onscreen.
So I’d say these kids were paying attention in film school. And yet these filmmakers are being criticized in some corners for adroitly making terror out of vapor. Give them an A+! Give them a few million to pay off those student loans!
Oh, and by the way, the CP-16 film camera used in the movie (abandoned by the vanished young filmmakers!) is being auctioned off on the web. Of course.
* * * * *
I think I’m Paul Harvey today. Page 2!
* * * * *
A casual reference two weeks ago to WGKA (AM 1190) as a station that plays classical music earned me a testy e-mail from Mike Rose, the station’s General Manager:
"In a recent column on Atlanta radio, you mentioned AM Stereo 1190. You implied that we were an all classical station."
Well, no, I implied you played classical music. "Judging from your knowledge of our station, you probably haven’t listened to us for three years. We eliminated the stereo and all-classical format three years ago."
Uh…I listened very recently, but since my 1985 Honda has no AM stereo receiver I just assumed you were still stereocasting. I heard no announcements that said "now back in glorious mono!" Last time I punched the button for 1190, I heardclassical music.
Mike concludes: "You would enjoy The Voice of the Arts, 1190 WGKA, if you would listen."
True enough, Mike, and as many people have discovered, if they don’t listen, they won’t enjoy it. Thanks for your note.

Getting it first, without getting it right.

Tuesday, August 3rd, 1999

Just as with the Cotton Mill fire, I happened to be surfing through the channels when the earliest cut-ins hit the airwaves. Shooting in Buckhead. Maybe multiple injuries. Maybe a fatal.
Soon the parade of familiar images began. Same-yet-different helicopter shots of the Piedmont Road office buildings, festooned with ‘Breaking News" logos. Unsteady voices babbling early speculation. We think there’s a gunman still in the building. We’re not sure which building. The building has been evacuated. It hasn’t been evacuated. Disgruntled employee, we hear.
The ground units arrive, charged, it seems, with unearthing any shred of information and spewing it out live, verification be damned. Competition is cutthroat. WSB’s Vince Girasole is caught live on air screaming "Come to me now! You gotta come to me now, right now!"
We no longer watch "the news". We watch the birth and death cycle of a news event. We watch the raw information gathering. We get the misinformation along with the information. And because of this, we’re missing an essential step-several essential steps-in the journalistic process. We don’t get the part where the most experienced voices in the newsroom say "let’s verify that." Let’s get some background. Let’s make sure it’s really happening the way the spokespeople say it is. We miss out on context. But, like never before, we sure get to ride along on the search for what-the-heck-happened.
The Buckhead shootings were as prototypical an example of Breaking News, late nineties style, as you can get.
The cops deploy. They shove the ground reporters back, back, just a little further back. Their spokesman turns out to be our mayor (what are the odds?) who apparently can smell a high-visibility role for himself all the way from downtown. His arrival and every utterance is itself covered, overcovered, run into the ground. We see shots of the top of Campbell’s head via Chopper 2. It’s an angle you’ll only see on two!
The afternoon wears on. WSB presents bullet points of information down at the bottom of the screen where they usually show the traffic problems and the lottery numbers. Wes Speculation and Brenda Wisdom balance each other’s extremes on 11Alive. Bruce Erion and his chopper competitors show us great pictures of, well, the top of some office buildings, in between refuelings. And almost in spite of these efforts, the story develops. The gruesomeness of the crime becomes apparent. Numbing shock sets in as evening arrives, the news machine grinds on.
I can’t deny that watching this live unfolding is compelling-especially when revelations about the "shooter", "suspect", "gunman" come tumbling out on the airwaves-first from Washington, of all places: NBC’s Pete Williams talking about Barton’s Alabama past to Wes and Brenda. And Mark Winne’s interview with Barton’s civil suit lawyer out on Ponce laid out all kinds of juicy tidbits. But is this better than a story a week later that has perspective and a more confident accounting of the facts?
The sun set, and mumbled rumors became hard reports-they found Barton’s van up in Cobb County somewhere. The choppers raced north, and the final act played out. Someone labeled it a murderous "rampage," opening the door for several days of "rampage" coverage you can count on.
The dead were buried, not in private. Apparently we’re all supposed to mourn these people together. It gives us all "closure," or that’s what they tell us. It’s how news is done these days. And count on this: the next Breaking News event is just around the corner.