Tuesday, November 30th, 1999
Some chunky bits from the recently-vacuumed floor around the Media Desk today …
As the November rating book ends, media buyers, those folks who purchase commercial time and space for advertisers, are complaining that ABC’s liberal airing of the "special"Who Wants to be a Millionaire have "tainted the book." Yep, the show was a big success. Does its "abnormal results" give advertisers any sense of what ABC’s regular schedule (and those of its competitors) will be? Well, no, unless ABC ends making Millionaire a regular thing (and they may well) instead of keeping it as a sweeps twinkie. For those who calculate who will be watching from who was watching in November, well, they’re grumpy, damned grumpy.
Locally, the news operations’ sweeps promos took an interesting turn. Instead of veering off into lurid ("Sex for Sale") or fear-mongering ("Your Kitchen May Kill Your Child") ratings-grabbers, we were instead barraged with a series of heavily-promoted "exclusive" interviews with everyone from Hosea Williams to JonBenet Ramsey’s parents. If they weren’t pushing interview scoops, local news promos take on a ominous-music, teasing, abstract Dateline or 20/20 tone-clearly these tabloidy newsmagazines continue to influence the idea of what is news.
WGNXer..CBS 46’s promos continue to baffle me. They touted something like "only the third exclusive interview recorded on alternate Fridays with JonBenet’s parents where, for the first time, they hop up and down one one foot, barking" (or something like that) and endlessly reran painful promos on circumcision and odd ones on health with annoying actors ("Dr. Mom"). Is this what their research says people want? Most CBS 46 spots conclude with an extremely uncomfortable-looking smiley-shot of their still-new anchors, Jane Robelot and Calvin Hughes. It must be working-I’m beginning to feel very sorry for them.
As we turn the corner on the holiday season, the big easy story to do has always been "holiday shopping." Send a reporter out to the malls, and you’re half done. This year’s popular variation (and you’ll see it in newspapers, magazines, and on TV) is "e-commerce for the holidays". This is even easier, of course, because you just have to send your reporter offto his or her desk. Will this be, they breathlessly wonder, the year that buying presents on the internet makes a big dent in the economy? Will people forsake the mall crowds for the peace and quiet of home? I was in Seattle on the official first-day of the shopping season-the day after Thanksgiving, and I can report that in that extremely e-connected city, news choppers showed the area’s malls parking lots were two-thirds full at 7:30 in the morning. Yow. I’d say e-commerce has a long way to go before it has impact to match the hype.
A quick consumer tip, though: because they want to get your habits to change, some retailers, and, more importantly, credit card companies are offering huge discounts, free shipping, and other incentivesso before you buy online, double-check the Visa, Mastercard, Amex, or Novus sites to make sure there isn’t a clever code you can type in to zap ten percent or so off your bill.
Gosh, I feel so Clark Howard-y. Happy clicking
Tuesday, November 16th, 1999
Peter Jennings finishes up a report on troubled youth and says "there’s much more on our website at abcnews.com." Sure enough, there is a lot more there-research, charts, interviews, a heck of a lot of work-but is anyone reading it? Have you ever shut off your television and raced to your PC to get the story behind the story?
Same thing with cnn.com-they get lots of hits from people surfing for headlines (as an alternative to TV), but when it comes to the in-depth material (huge chunks of material, for example, related to CNN’s epic The Cold War documentary series), who’s actually clicking through and enjoying that content?
A few students writing term papers, maybe. But the truth is, this rich mine of information-the work of untold numbers of information-age web drones-is going unappreciated, mostly because it’s not yet the habit to get in-depth information that way.
There are few long-form shows on PBS these days that don’t have a little animated cursor graphic at a couple of key moments encouraging us to hit www.pbs.org for more on, say, that night’s Nova topic. Again, lots of research, lots of work. And maybe the payoff is down the road when our viewing habits change.
But so far, has that happened at your house?
Notice the little "WebTV Interactive" logos placed by Microsoft at the beginning of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune lately? They’re the cue for the few who have WebTV or one or two other little-used systems to click and get thiswell, stuff at the bottom of the screen. A chance to play along with the show you’re watching (what, you don’t play along now?)
The same evil Microsoft behemoth will soon be plopping a flashing ‘I’ (for "interactive content") icon in the middle of commercials in the assumption that you’ll be so intrigued by that bouncing Ford Explorer that you’ll want to immediately go through a little interactive program that will let you know the Ford dealer nearest you-and maybe even let them know you’re looking for them. (Gee, maybe they’ll call you.)
There are a surprising number of people out there-many of them make their livings here in Atlanta-scratching their heads, fumbling with their mice, and inventing some form of the future. These strange hybrids, these synergies, these connections between old media and new are what huge media megacompanies are investing millions in-in the hopes that they’ll be more and better ways to make money-chiefly by bringing some mutant form of advertising before your eyeballs.
There’s nothing new about this-the first Media Rare I wrote talked about an ancient (late seventies) experiment in interactive TV in my home town. It sure seems-on paper-that the worlds of television, the web, and print media should converge. But some of these early attempts smack of Frankenstein gone wrong-and there are times I worry about the legions of new media "content developers" who may find themselves on the streets as the failed early experiments slam into corporate bottom lines.
For me, I embrace television. And the internet. And newspapers. But separately, for now, thanks.
Tuesday, November 9th, 1999
Is it really an Ally McBeal kind of world out there? I usually catch the last five minutes of the way-too-popular Fox show, in search of Fox 5 News at 10 (or bored with my other alternatives.) There she was at the end of Monday’s episode, happy without Prozac, dancing with Al Green, as Al sang a duet version (with an off-camera female voice) of "To Sir With Love" that became "To You With Love." (What the?) Damn near Singing in the Rain, with the overhead camera angles and the generally romanticized light and the lush orchestration and, well, there’s Al Green, dancing with and singing to our late nineties everygal.`
This show speaks to the inner Gene Kelly in many women, and well, um, I can respect that. Every time I’m trapped in a clog of traffic at Cheshire Bridge and LaVista, it seems there’s yet another young, single in a large yuppie scummobile (no, larger than our yuppie scummobile) who, safely ensconced behind tinted windows, is singing and swaying quietly to a muffled beat. She is, in every sense, into herself, happy with herself, pleased that although she might seem trapped into a horrific management or protoprofessional job unimaginable to her a few short years ago, she still has this private place where she can tune out everything outside her skull and dance to the music that may or may not right now be coming from the car radio.
I guess I’m not really complaining. Better a fantasy pas-de-deux with the 70s musician of her choice than becoming an oblivious careen-while-cellphone-chatting driver. But it does seem that Ally has, as they say, "given permission" to a whole generation of fantasists of every gender to tune out of brain-numbing meetings and drift off into the land of choreographed escapism, where a seemingly real Barry White is hiding behind the meeting-room potted plant, ready to burst into song.
(Well, some of those plants are really quite large.)
I suppose one way to look at this is that we’re being treated to the inner dancer of David O. Kelley, who probably sat through one too many mind-numbing conferences during his lawyer days. Yep, I can see him fantasizing about transforming into an anorexic young lawyerette who dreams up musical numbers at the workplace. (And don’t get me started on his private detective fantasies that somehow begot the misguided Snoops.)
Tuning out through tunes and dance is probably more interesting to watch on television than the real way officeworkers zone out-by surfing the web. Check your Hotmail. How’s your retirement fund doing? Download some MP3. And then, after lunch, maybe you’ll have some time to do some real work.
Ah, the productivity of the American office worker. Zoned out during the day at the office, dancing with one’s self in traffic, and then, after a light dinner, fully launched into the evening escapism of Ally McBeal (and don’t miss those spinoff shows Ally, Al, and the latest, A.)
With Calista around, who needs Calgon to "take me away"?
Friday, November 5th, 1999
It’s kind of a tidbits-scribbled-on-crumpled-sticky-notes week, first, an advertisement: tune to WUPA, channel 69, right now for the best of television as it used to be! Well, sort of.
You see, I was working and watching (that would be television) the other night around 1 am and there, in a sea of infomercials was James Earl Jones-a very, very young James Earl Jones as the president of these United States, in "The Man," the kind of old movie even TBS is embarrassed to air now. It exists in that limbo between "new enough to be run on the big networks" and "old enough to be deemed a classic"-it was released in 1972 (and is available in avocado and harvest gold.)
But wait. It was written by Rod Serling-maybe the best guy ever to bat out teleplays. And, wow. Jones is quietly powerful, not yet a voiceover cliché. The supporting cast-Martin Balsam, Georg Stanford Brown, Janet MacLachlan, William Windom, and Burgess Meredith as a wicked Strom Thurmond type-are as strong an ensemble as you’d ever expect to see decked out in early seventies bad fashion. Heck, there’s even a Jack Benny cameo-what a refreshing change from Jay Leno turning up on every movie character’s TV. (Odd, fictional characters don’t watch Letterman or Nightline. Hmm.)
For every lousy rerun, for every time their transmitter blows a fuse (they’re now rivaling WPBA/Channel 30 for most outages), they up and go and do something great like run "The Man."
It’s these little stations, like tiny WNGM Channel 34, run out of an industrial park in Athens, and WPXA Channel 14, licensed to Rome that make surfing the fuzzy UHF band an occasionally rewarding exercise. Yes, if you do have cable, they’re being carried these days, coming in bright and clear (more or less), but what’s the fun of that?
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You notice those "Closed captioning sponsored by" ten second blurbs on most syndicated shows these days. Yep, you guessed it-another ad. More revenue. What next? "The appearance of the color green on ‘Friends’ tonight made possible by"
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Holyfield vs. Holyfield. I’m sorry, I just don’t get what WXIA’s trying to communicate in these promos. Okay, Evander talks with Brenda Wood, we get that. He’swhat? A man of contradictions? A divorced guy? All of the above? And then there’s that profundo tagline from the champ himself: "If someone asks me, I’ll tell them the truth." Wow, compelling. The 11Alive folks seem increasingly lost these days, and the attempts to stick hip music behind nonfocused promotion does little to help. "Right here, right now!" Uh..yeah. Please, stop.
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If you have hypertension, do not take happy fun ball. If you’re pregnant, do not look at the package in direct sunlight. When ads for prescription drugs started appearing on television, I didn’t realize it was the start of a burgeoning trade for voiceover announcers. Apparently there are those out there who advertise that their specialty is reading those novel-length medical disclaimers in a non-threatening way: "This product in some cases causes your liver to explode, but hey, live a little!"
Tuesday, November 2nd, 1999
The winds blow, and the leaves (and small limbs) come down on the roof of our house. Autumn blows into Georgia, several months after the first fall we enjoyed this year in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
It’s fun having the chance to enjoy two or more seasonal changes through the miracle of travel. We’re fortunate to be in a position to do so. The thing I haven’t been as good at planning is coordinating work projects with the season. Doing a job in Rochester, New York in the winter is almost as insane as doing Austin, Texas in the summer, and yet, there you go.
I’ll work on it.
We’ve been doing some infrastructure upgrading around the house, and Sammy’s machine is now a much zippier blue-and-white G3. Now we’re looking on getting a faster pipe to the rest of the world. ADSL? Cable modems? We’re still making comparisons and thinking about possibilities. Then there’s the whole issue of higher-speed routing–going to 100-base-T Ethernet.