Century’s Dawn.

Tuesday, January 25th, 2000

I watched the sun set over the Portuguese coast and the sun rise on the South Island of New Zealand. I watched Peter Jennings change outfits and now here we are.

Happy new year. Let’s keep it at that.

I received e-mail from friends far away, little electron-drawn portraits of their life thus far. A silent but warm hello, delivered in packets—a wonderful thing, this Internet. There were the wonderful cards and xeroxed here’s-where-our-life-is letters as well, but the e-mails, as unpersonal as they may seem on one surface, hold a real, okay, tenderness for me.

Here at home the Christmas tree is still up, but showing signs it would like to be chipped and spread as mulch around some landscaper’s master plan. We would then, of course, carefully de-string the lights and re-box the ornaments—some as old as Sammy’s mother’s youth, some as modern as our niece’s handiwork.

And here—no I mean here, on this platter of sectors spinning inside a Macintosh about 4 miles away from where I actually sit to type these words, sits, unscathed by the year-crossing, my virtual home, the place I share with you, summoned by your computer in a cascade of http requests, pushed down a sluggish connection and formed into a picture of bits on your screen.

It’s a home in need of refurbishment, much like our real home. A coat of fresh paint, clearing out the cobwebs of dead links and so on, but there (no surprise) hasn’t been time. or has there? That’s what I’m saying, anyway.

But for now, the days are cooling in respect of January, and I’ve got a few other projects to tackle. Some I’m even paid for. So, soon.

And so, enjoy your January.

On ice, again.

Monday, January 24th, 2000

The cosmic confluence of jetstreams, dewpoints, and topography did its trick again, and left our fair city with a fine coating of ice over trees, cars, and power lines this last weekend. And when Georgia’s wimpy trees get some ice, they tend to come crashing down, yanking power, phone, and cable lines in their wake.

That didn’t happen to us this time, but that’s only because we were amazingly lucky. Just blocks away, even this evening, two nights later, houses and businesses lay dark. It really is the worst kind of mess for a power company to deal with—zillions of local outages, some just one or two houses at a time. My brother and family were in the dark. So was Bill’s house, and Tom’s. Here, the lights flickered a couple of times and stayed on.

As I said,we were lucky, this time. I think about how natural crises strike so many people so easily, and I’m grateful we slid by. We’ve had friends and relatives hit by storms, lightning, hurricanes, and just plain cold bitter winter weather. I guess it just wan’t our turn.

Hey, life on the Internet continues to improve. Despite plans for major renovations, the basic structure of this site remains un-renovated. That’s the bad news. The good news is hey, we’ve added a search engine on every page, just for this site. It’s there on the left side of the screen—right over there. Give it a try! Type in your name! Type in my name! Take it around the block! Find chunks of things I haven’t updated in years!

In other good news, the folks at Atlanta Press who publish Media Rare now actually let you access the issue in full on their site. So even though you can still read my assembled scribblings here, you can also check out what else fills the pages of this fine, well-meaning Atlanta weekly.

Iced coverage, on the rocks.

Sunday, January 23rd, 2000

The next time Atlanta gets some freezing rain and ice, I wish the city’s news directors would treat it as a four-way stop.
Around 3 am early Sunday morning, a series of cracking sounds led me downstairs to turn the TV—and my web browser—on, just to see how bad things were outside. What I could see through the haze on our upstairs windows was the beginnings of ice forming on the utility wires, and some slick-looking streets. Would my trusty television clue me in? Well, WSB offered me Xena and Baywatch Hawaii, WXIA had a Saturday Night Live rerun from 1978 (I guess that was a particularly cold and nasty winter), and FOX 5 had an X-Files repeat—ah!—with a weather crawl that basically said "Ice Storm Warning, be careful." CBS 46 had some informercial that seemed exceedingly bright—things were either screwed up at the tape machine or at their transmitter. WXIA’s signal dropped and came back up a couple of times. Great.
As morning light came, television coverage of the "crisis" was as up to speed as it would get. Bottom line: the two stations who normally do pointless Sunday morning news (that would be WSB and WXIA) had production crews in place and went and stayed live with it throughout the morning. The two public stations were off the air; WUPA 69 chose to broadcast color bars all morning.
Channels 11 and 2 called in a few extra reporters and outposted them to do the usual: talk to people who’ve had car accidents and dropped tree limbs on their houses. Every five minutes, weatherpersons Monica Woods (WXIA) and David Chandley (WSB) showed us the big picture (the one I was able to see at 3 am on the web)—Atlanta was right at the freezing point, things north of town were icy, things south of town weren’t, and in between, your mileage may vary. Chandley’s tragic flaw: maps emblazoned with huge words in bright pink and green—his favorite colors? Woods, meanwhile, was still trying to figure how to pronounce the names of some small Georgia towns.
FOX 5—which stuck with regular programming until 11 am, eventually brought us a sweatered Ken Cook with intermittent updates. After 11, Cook anchored their coverage for a while from the weather map—mostly a collection of phone interviews with emergency officials and a couple of live shots from third-string reporters who asked homeowners "how are you going to get that tree off your house?" Gee, I don’t know, maybe lift it with my superhuman strength?
WSB’s weekend traffic reporter Mark Arum (who referred to anchor Warren Savage as "Mr. Savage"—what southern courtliness!) delivered a completely confusing map that showed little circling arrows going around all the freeway signs (signifying baffled signs?) WXIA’s traffic reporter Frank Pritchard—on the phone—provided some real information about tree blockages—and concentrated on roads northeast of town,.
WSB is the only station who shamelessly displayed a "StormWatch 2000" logo throughout their coverage—the other stations were either unprepared or have wised up that viewers just don’t care about blatant branding of a crisis. WXIA—okay, 11 Alive—took a slightly different approach, using the storm as a chance to give shamelessly promote their people. We were treated to a pointless live shot with Al Deal in DeKalb County repeating nearly-word-for-word what in-studio anchor Keith Whitney had just said ("Overpasses may be slicker…") and then Bill Liss, reporting via cell phone from what probably was his bed, told us if we need more information on airline delays, call the main Delta Air Lines number. Gee, thanks, Bill, my phone book isn’t at my bedside.. These egomaniacs grabbed face time away from actual reporters like Denis O’Hayer—consistently one of the city’s best reporters, who did a good job telling us what everyone else wasn’t saying.
By 11:30 am, dressed-for-a-dinner-party Paul Ossmann had taken over the anchor chores at WXIA, pointlessly taking phone calls from uninformed viewers. Tana Brackin (and later, Cory Thompson) showed up at the FOX 5 anchor desk, and the cameras at CBS Atlanta were finally warmed up, bringing us prime anchor Calvin Hughes paired with Helen Neill. They joined the branding parade late: welcome to "Ice Storm 2000." Unfortunately for them, the rain at this point had pretty much…stopped.
Meanwhile, WSB’s live coverage seemed to more completely reflect the metro as a whole. Deidra Dukes showed us a downed tree embedded in an apartment building in Southeast Atlanta. Denise Dunbar brought us the story of a house trailer that burned to the ground overnight in a poorer neighborhood in northwest Atlanta, and up in Cartecay (in Gilmer County) with a fogged-over lens, Richard Elliott reported on folks who had some much more serious weather to deal with.
?And I still shake my head when I heard WXIA repeatedly suggest that, in a situation that has hundreds of thousands of homes without power, that viewers check their website for school and church closings and other details. Makes me want to yank the power lines to their newsroom: how’s your website now, guys?

America’s dumbest time to watch.

Saturday, January 15th, 2000

I dunno. Maybe I shouldn’t sit down to write at 3 am with the TV more-or-less on. WATL is offering ("please, enjoy this with our compliments") America’s Dumbest Criminals, a show I actually (oh, why am I admitting this?) enjoyed watching a few years ago when it had no budget at all. It was cheesy, raucous, and cut together rapid-fire without an ounce of fluff—because they couldn’t afford any. It was, in other words, exactly the show it should have been, no more, no less. But now…they’ve clearly made some money on syndication rights—so this season it has "better" music, an audience, an augmented fake laugh track, and better clothes and a haircut for the host—and a perky co-host to boot. They have, of course, ruined it.
Folks have to learn not to add excess to success. Take wrestling. I mean, really. How many people are watching WWF/WCW/NWA Nitro Smackdown Killer Grunt Havoc or whatever the heck it’s called for the fog, varispots, lasers, and Time Tunnel-like sets? Audiences are up, but they’re not there for the overblown production values—they’re watching for the babes and profanity and wanton psuedo-violence—the stuff they miss from the old Jerry Springer. Adding fancy 3d animation and heavy metal hoopla doesn’t really contribute to the essence of what the program is.
I contend that they could shoot the same show with the same wrestlers in the dingy old WTCG studio on Tenth Street (now used by Media One for public access, I think) and have huge audiences—because that is exactly what wrestling is supposed to be. A mildewy old rink set up on Friday nights by two old chain-smoking guys, roll in three beat-up TV cameras, and hire a director who knows how to put a tight shot of a braying wrestler right in your face. "Let me tell you, Gordon Solie…"
Yes, clearly I’m coming off like the old curmudgeon of the television world here, but think about the revised and "improved" versions of Star Trek, Chicago Hope, and of course, Headline News. Sometimes the changes come just because new producers want to make their mark. Sometimes the show doctoring happens because there’s panic over the ratings. But what bothers me is the change that happens just because a program’s makers becomes bored with their own product.
Do we really need the little animated trunk, complete with "dling!" bringing on the prices on the Antiques Road Show? Is our sense of Atlanta’s weather more complete because Glenn Burns insists on whipping us around through the upper atmosphere in 3D?
Even Oprah has suffered from an excess of slickness and production value. You have someone who is a compelling talent—put that person there on a simple stage and let them do their work.
Enough embellishment—from them and me. Here are a couple of tidbits left on my un-rebuilt desktop:
* * * * *
The CBS 46 promos for their Morning News ("See mornings in a whole new light") are pretty, but perhaps they thought we wouldn’t notice that they’re showing us sunset behind the city skyline—we’re facing west.
* * * * *
The supporters of WGKA ("Atlanta’s cultural/arts station") are still puzzling over what to do in the wake of the station’s sale. There’s talk of an Internet-only station. On the other hand, the station has sold off much of its record collection a piece at a time to its listeners. I wonder what keeps cultural radio enthusiasts from turning their energies toward WRFG, WABE, or WCLK—public stations, more or less rambunctious, that could use an infusion of volunteer spirit.

Big merger, big city.

Monday, January 10th, 2000

NEW YORK—Walking through the canyons of Times Square at sunset, I’m struck how this part of New York is doing its best to head into the Blade Runner future. Now, a couple of weeks past the celebration of whatever-the-heck-that-was, my neck creaks as I look at the towering displays of electronic frenzy that light up the rain-soaked streets. Signs, logos, models, slogans—brands blast and flicker and sparkle downwards from dizzying heights—just add a few hovercraft police cars and an advertising blimp or two and Philip K. Dick’s vision will be fully realized, more vividly than Arthur C. Clarke’s more sanitary future. Cultures swirl, stock prices and headlines cascade past, and tourists like me gawk at it all.
There’s the home of ABC’s Good Morning America, looking dazzling yet somewhat smaller than on TV (as everything does). A gargantuan Tom Brokaw (he’s live!) tells me a silent story from a huge screen across the way, and over there at MTV’s splashy home in the Viacom building, they’re doing uh…something that involves bright TV lights.
Media? You’re soaking in it!
Of course, I didn’t come to this much colder city to bask in the glow of transmitted pop culture. I do have a day job sometimes, and on this day, it was doing design work for Time Warner. (That’s my disclaimer.) Time Warner: a media company so large it swallowed up Ted Turner’s TBS/CNN empire without much of a belch a few years ago. A company so massive, I’d be hard pressed to tick off the various components, household names all…HBO, Sports Illustrated, CNN, Time…ah, forget it. Huge. Huge, I say.
And I picked a heck of a day—Monday—to show up. The Time Warner folks in New York were—to say the least—preoccupied with the news that their massive company had been bought, absorbed, assimilated, by AOL—America Online.
Yes, they were calling it a merger, but the numbers don’t lie. The internet firm bought the mass media company with roots stretching back to the Luce family and the staid first issues of Time and Life magazine.
Resistance is futile, and these folks weren’t resisting. They were either celebrating or shaking their heads in amazement. Steve Case, AOL’s chairman, who bragged to a Wall Street Journal reporter a decade ago that he’d be running the biggest media company in the 21st Century, seems to have engineered a realization of just that dream. AOL’s previous swallowing of huge internet firms like Netscape and CompuServe (remember them?) seemed like big deals at the time, but it pales to this step, touted as the first merger of (say it with me) the new century, or, as Case is promoting it, "The Internet Century." There is no denying that this is just the latest sign that the internet and mass media—both formed in the tradition of a symphony of lots of different voices coming from lots of different places—are now controlled and owned by fewer and larger enterprises. Steve Case will get up and explain why this is a good thing, but it’s a sell we’ve heard from Bill Gates before.
And Ted Turner, once a struggling entrepreneur with an inherited billboard company and a barely functional UHF TV station, is (no surprise) now richer than ever, and today he described his delight in this merger as comparable to…his first sexual experience.
Leave it to Ted to explain why these deals really happen.

Sit back and watch the world go round.

Tuesday, January 4th, 2000

What better way to wrap up the television century? Yes, at millenium’s end (version 1.0) I was, like many of you…watching television. And the box with the blue light was filled with images both spectacular and mundane. It transmitted both the best and worst of what human beings are.
And on Channel 2, it began and ended with Peter Jennings.
Jennings! Our urbane anchor from the land up north. Mr. Dual Citizenship, Mr. Former Foreign Correspondent, supposed author of "The Century" (rapidly being marked down at bookstores across town), and now, apparently in a bid to outdo Barbra Streisand or Cher, a man who went through four costume changes in slightly less than 24 hours on the telethon-length ABC2000 broadcast.
He stood! He sat! He looked out the window on Times Square and waved! He called Stephen Jay Gould and Howard K. Smith on the phone! From suit to 007-dapper black tie to Dan-Rather-casual sweater he presided over a bunch of ABC correspondents who were charged with reporting what is basically not news: the new year was coming, and did come, to a succession of cities in a succession of time zones. Yes, there was the darker subtext of what might happen with that computer problem…what the heck was it called? Y-2-something? How quickly we forget.
Despite their inner cravings, local news broadcasters could not put ‘Breaking News’ banners on a predictable story like this—so they had to content themselves with simple Y2K alarmism. Here, is the long and the short of the local coverage, all the way up and down the dial: they stuck one unfortunate at the Georgia Emergency Management Agency headquarters to report "7 pm and all is well." "8 pm and all is well." and so on. They plopped one crew at Georgia Power, one at the airport, one at BellSouth—and then they covered the Peach Drop and First Night. That would be all of it.
My heart goes out to the Richard Belchers and Jon Shireks of the world who had to stand for hours in front of a bunch of folks playing solitare on their computer terminals at GEMA to report…well, nothing.
In lieu of a digital meltdown, the ABC elite (Charlie Gibson in London, Barbara Walters in Paris, Cokie Roberts in Rome, and so on) were reduced to travelogues and exchanging "my city’s better than yours" jibes across the KU band. And when things got real quiet, ABC let Barbara Walters report on Paris fashions that designers created just for her. Hand me that five-day-old baguette!
But lest it sounds as if I scoff at undertaking this kind of program, let me stop and swivel: I think just about the best thing that television can do on a day like December 31, 1999 is to fire up every darn satellite dish and camera they have around the world—and then get out of the way and let us watch.
ABC did this often enough to earn credit for trying; PBS actually got much closer with their simple presentation of cultural events—performances of dance, opera, and song from around the world (with the help of the BBC and other public broadcasters.)
Watching the sun set, and the dawn come, again and again in these beautiful places as people sang, danced, and held each other was the best kind of global lesson—the best of what television can do—and something I wish TV would attempt at every year’s end.