Sunday, February 27th, 2000
Did you hear? Fox 5’s Russ Spencer got mugged the other day. In fact, he flew out to Los Angeles to join a dozen or so other Fox anchors—all of whom were attacked by muggers—as a stunt for the Fox series America’s Most Wanted.
Spencer, fully miked and accompanied by a camera crew, was roughed up by a gun-toting guy in a parking lot. It was, we were told, an important educational experience that we could all learn from. Uh right. What did he learn from it? "Pay attention to the guy with the gun," Spencer says. What did we learn from it? That there’s no limits to how low Fox will go for ratings. But I guess that isn’t exactly a bulletin, after their most recent audience-grabbing stunt blew up in the Fox-faces.
Oh, you know: that marrying a multimillionaire show. A concept that got so out of hand that right-wing Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch’s own New York Post ran a column from a conservative staffer who said he was worried that the Fox network may not be upholding good conservative values these days in an effort to boost ratings. These days? I’m FedExing him 920 episodes of Married With Children, with a post-it note stuck to the top: "Good conservative values? You’re soaking in it!"
The truth is that Murdoch has never had any compunctions about pandering to sex or exhibiting general salaciousness when it comes to selling newspapers or hustling TV audiences. His English tabloids have had bare-breasted Brit babes just inside the cover for years.
When Fox discovered that a series of specials with names like America’s Deadliest Police Chases ,World’s Most Terrifying Crashes and When Animals Attack! were cheap to produce and pulled huge audiences, well, they went with that flow, and didn’t spend too much time agonizing over moral questions.
So when complaints about the programs’ violent nature hit too close to home, they did what the network seems to do best—they backpedaled, and said they wouldn’t be doing that kind of stuff anymore. And they went to (this amazes me) the very same producers who gave them the car crash stuff and said "we need more sweeps specials from you—but uh this time make them completely nonviolent."
I guess you have to say the producers of Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire were just doing what they were charged to do—they came up with a compelling concept that would glue people’s faces to the screen—in spite of themselves. Compelling indeed—some 16 million people watched the show—including one out of every four young women. Viewers—we—talked about the show for a big chunk of this month, and ABC made ratings hay by sending Diane Sawyer and friends out to get the story behind the story. One word to sum the whole experience up, Darva? "Oops," she told Diane.
And when the furor over Multimillionaire flared, Fox said they were shocked, shocked and they’ve canceled plans to do anything like that again. I can picture Fox execs on the phone to those same producers: "Alright, no violence, and no poorly-researched instant bridegrooms, but beyond that, the sky’s the limit—get back out there and get us some numbers!"
Air it first, apologize later, and then go back to the drawing board and try something else. The Fox pattern.
But you’ve got to wonder when that same pattern makes its way into the newsrooms of the Fox owned-and-operated stations—like Channel 5. What happened inside Spencer’s head when his news director said "Pack your bags, Russ, you’re going to LA!" Visions of exclusive interviews with Hollywood celebs or campaigning politicians were no doubt shattered when he got the rest of it: "Something violent is going to happen to you, on camera. We can’t tell you any specifics at this point."
At one point (back in the ancient past), journalists were trained to have a loud alarm go off in their heads when they’re presented with an "opportunity" like this. Credibility alert! Psuedo-news warning! Danger, danger!
Maybe Russ has something in his contract that says "you are required to go along with any idiotic thing we come up with for sweeps." We’ll never know for sure. But I’d like to know whether those alarms went off inside his skull, even faintly. You know the same alarms that were supposed to go off for the Multimillionaire producers. The alarms that should be clanging nonstop inside Rupert Murdoch’s head. And in ours, when we tune in.
Monday, February 21st, 2000
It just doesn’t seem that long ago when I was reading in Patrick’s column a heartfelt goodbye to Rebecca Poynor Burns. The one-time Atlanta Press managing editor—and Media Rare columnist—was off to Atlanta magazine, leaving her weekly column in the hands of, well
me, some guy who hadn’t done this kind of thing in many, many years.
(Why? Some say it’s because I’m her brother-in-law. Some say it’s because I let her use the name of my old column—Media Rare—in the first place. Some say it was because she wanted to stick Patrick and friends with someone who can’t meet deadlines. Take your pick.)
Rebecca went off to Atlanta magazine and basically did what she did here—the work of three people. She edited, brainstormed, lassoed freelancers and cajoled art directors, and in her remaining free time, wrote some great pieces for the monthly.
And now, we get to say goodbye to her again, as she and her family (and three cats) head up the road to Indianapolis, where, surprise, the Emmis Communications people (Atlanta‘s owners) have their corporate offices and a magazine called Indianapolis Monthly. Rebecca is their new editor, settling in at the top of the masthead. If you read Atlanta, you’ll miss her work. If you’re a Hoosier, you’re in luck. And if you’re looking for a loft in Inman Park, there’s one more on the market.
I kinda feel sorry for Rebecca. Never again will she experience the pleasure (and pride) that our whole town feels when a new Maxie Price commercial debuts ("Look! This time he has a pig named Spot!")—they’ll be dancing in Monroe and Loganville, but not Indianapolis.
She won’t mark the seasons as we do, with the ceremonial changing of Monica Kaufman’s hair. She’ll miss the daily dose of warmth and gosh-darn-it-all goodness that Neal Boortz brings to our mornings, and we all know an afternoon without the mellow basso profundo of Clark Howard is, well, like orange juice without ketchup. (And heck, I’m sure Boortz will be syndicated up there before too long—Indiana’s a paradise for Libertarians.)
The ongoing evolution of Paul Ossman’s fashion sense won’t make it above the Mason-Dixon line, and Ken Cook’s sweaters will be but a distant memory as she layers her family for the subzero Indiana winters.
I know she’ll feel a certain lack when her transplanted television no longer beams out an endless parade of reporters standing watch outside a darkened City Hall East whenever a story with the word "police" in it breaks, and I can only hope that the stations up north have at least a Super Double Ultra Doppler 9000 on par with the fine overpromoted meteorological equipment we lucky Atlantans have at nearly all of our news stations. She’s going to miss out on those Things You’ll See Only on Two, and those Fox 5 Exclusives, and that stuff Eleven Wants You to Know.
And of course, she’ll have to make do without the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. The papers up north cover nothing like the dew, and I’m sure they don’t allot the generous space the AJC does each day to the thoughtful, well-formed civic discourse that is the essence of The Vent. Would other papers have the courage to move actual news out of the way for these ramblings? I think not. And Rebecca will no doubt want to have a copy or two of the AJC sent her way periodically to remind her if nothing else of the importance of fact-checking and copyediting.
She’ll have to make do in a town devoid of publications with "Loafing" in their titles—where will she turn to find out who’s been arrested for throwing an empty vodka bottle at a police officer on Ponce at 4 am? Well, maybe it’s on the web.
And speaking of the web—maybe it will be the tool to help ease her family’s transition. Atlanta’s media websites, live cams, and the alt.atlanta newsgroup delivers a lot of what Atlanta’s about to audiences everywhere even Indianapolis, I think. And the best news of all: now that Atlanta Press has its web act together, she’s never more than a click away from a weekly dose of Hollis.
So I think they’ll do just fine.
Friday, February 11th, 2000
It’s a warmer morning in Atlanta and I’ve just finished firing off a Media Rare to the nice folks at Atlanta Pressonly to notice about a zillion typos that warrant me sending 3 correcting emails. Yow.I used to be able to hit most of these keys on my first try.
I don’t think the reason has to do with my other obvious sign of agingmy need for reading glasses. Not that I’m getting them anytime soon, but I need them. In the classic way that many who turn forty are reminded of the passage of time, I too am having to squint at road maps and my computer screen has a bit of a fuzz to it if viewed too close.
I guess I should get them and wear them as a badge of pride and wisdom, but truth is, I hust don’t like stuff (hats, sunglasses, earrings) hanging off of my head.
Otherwise, not much to report these dayswork continues apace, and we have to orchestrate the repairs on our truck (rear-ended on I-85 late last month), deal with miscellaneous financial dealings, and, oh yeah, get Sammy’s tooth tended to so she doesn’t develop an unfortunate addiction to ibuprofen.
In the meantime, I look out my window and watch the nighborhood cat play in the leftover leaves in the back yard. Hey, he’s fuzzy too!
Friday, February 11th, 2000
To me, it seems like the ultimate shortcut in advertising—don’t have anything really important to say or show? Put a picture of a smiling person or, hey, even better, four or five smiling people on your ad, or on your website. They’re just
smiling! They’re exuding
uh, confidence! Satisfaction! Good dental hygiene!
Delta Air Lines redesigned their website recently, and along with the dubious trend of making the type on web pages smaller and harder to read ("look how much we can get on our home page now!"), they’ve added these header graphics that show smiling folks, presumably pleased that they’re either providing or using the services provided by Delta. The smiling woman on their home page (who looks to me like NBC’s Ann Curry) is supposed to be either a passenger or a non-uniformed employee, I can’t tell which. On the first version of the redesigned site (Delta had a public "preview" over the past couple of weeks) the smilers there didn’t have a 767 aircraft superimposed behind them—I think that was added when Delta realized that they were selling air travel after all.
I think websites which use this gambit are also trying to communicate "see, the site is easy to use! Look at that smiling!" And dotcoms that have not much more than vapor to sell usually bring out the generic smilers to basically fill space. You can even buy CD-ROMs full of generic clip art people by the hundreds. Most are, of course, smiling.
Well, it all made me think—and got me clicking on a quick jaunt around some Atlanta companies’ websites.
Coca-Cola: they’ve got an animated series of pictures of smiling people (and polar bears) enjoying their product—but none, interestingly, smiling directly at the camera. By the way, does anyone actually think "Coca-Cola—Enjoy!" is a new ad slogan? Did people get paid for that?
Home Depot: No smiling people (although a photo of someone serious working on a construction project appeared.) The site actually seemed to have useful stuff, categorized in a sensible manner.
Georgia Power: Silhouetted people working on a pole, and again, substantive information. A menu that says "How we can help you At home, In Business, In Your Community." Not bad, and smile-free.
Equifax’s site leaves no ambiguity on what they’re about—and it’s not smiling. "Changing the face of global commerce," they boast, and the imagery is all financial—money and more money.
Scana—the gas people. They do have a smiling mom holding a kid, who is oddly cropped below the nose. I bet he/she’s smiling, though. Their competitors Georgia Natural Gas Services have a terrifying picture of the Gas Guy smiling and shoving a box of Valentines’ candy—for you, here, take it!
BellSouth seems to have moved past a period where they didn’t know what message to put out, and present a montage of images that connote technology and communications. No smiling, no people.
UPS’s site is also all business. In fact, it’s serious enough I almost wanted a smiling UPS driver to brighten up the place.
Cox Communications (the parent company of WSB) has a smiling white family watching television, of course. In fact, they’re more than smiling—they’re ecstatic to be able to watch this TV. Mmmm TV good. Brain turning to jello.
Of the broadcast stations in town, WGNX and WSB have smiling anchors right up front, while WAGA offers a smiling whoever-that-guy-is from Malcolm in the Middle and WXIA just offers a big mess.
And finally, I thought a quick click to Kodak might be in order—yep, there’s a grinning dad and son—but I guess that’s one venue where smiling isn’t cheesy.
Sunday, February 6th, 2000
I swear, it was an accident—the television just happened to be on Sunday afternoon when ABC’s coverage of their self-created Winter X Games splattered slush onto my television screen. Usually, my instincts have been better—I’ve been able to see this kind of self-created event coming and tune the other way.
But I had my hands full yanking out cables and installing my DVD player, so I left it on a while.
The X Games. Created by ESPN (which is to say Disney.) Promoted. Sponsored. Commercial. Say it with me.
Oh, yeah, sure it looks like a couple of hours of x-er rebellion, where the cool snowboarders have taken control of a big network’s cameras. We’re treated to edgy music, wild camera angles, and announcers who make 99X’s Axel sound like Alistair Cooke. We’re shown competitors and commentators who are, like, staggeringly inarticulate. In fact, it’s, like, awesome how inarticulate these folks are. I saw this one, like, dude, on there who was talking, like, you know, about ah, forget it.
Yeah, I know. These games aren’t about words. There’s no real story here to tell, except for the athletes quest for their own world recognition and (they freely admit in interviews) those big bucks that come from endorsement deals. And even more than your typical pro athlete, these folks are willing to risk their literal necks doing it.
And pay no attention to the grownups in suits behind the scenes. For them, it’s all about the brand they’re building, nurturing. It’s about making big money off of the attention of young people with way too much disposable income. If you’re a Disney stockholder, this is certainly good news, but if you’re a kid who thinks "geez, these guys are doing this all for me," well, it’s more like they’re doing it all to reach out and touch you right where you keep your wallet.
And this past weekend’s Winter X Games are bringing ESPN, ESPN2 and the co-owned mothership, ABC big handfuls of those desirable demos. Kids. Extreme kids. Extremely bored kids.
And those selfsame audiences are convinced these games are important. A smug press release from the X Games site says it all: "According to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive, ESPN’s X Games is the second most appealing sporting event to kids aged 6 to 17." Ah, read on. Someone named Artie Bulgrin, ESPN vice president, research and sales development said "Over the past five years, the X Games have evolved into more than just the preeminent extreme sports event; but in the minds of kids and teens, the X Games are perceived to be as important as any major sporting event." Yow.
Once again, I’m tempted to hold Ted Turner responsible for this, if a bit indirectly. Back in the early days of cable, when TBS couldn’t get the rights to real sports programs, he encouraged his producers to come up with events that they would, by definition, have exclusive rights to. The Goodwill Games were born in this environment. Heck, Georgia Championship Wrestling epitomizes this concept. But ABC and its siblings have had many years of this make-it-up-than-cover-it approach to sports.
Ah, you have to hand it to the Disney’s marketeers. They’ve locked on to a trend—extreme sports—and made it what every corporation covets these days, a compelling, familiar, well-known brand that may have more power one day than the network that spawned it. As one ESPN marketing weasel said. "The X Games has become a stronger brand. It’s a year-round extravaganza which integrates several growing ESPN platforms."
Translation: You’re going to see this X-stuff all over the place, more often throughout the year, with a heck of a lot more cross-promotion and every other trick in the marketing book thrown at it.
And that means, by the way: say hello to EXPN.
No, that’s not a typo. And it’s not quite a new cable network—yet. It’s just Disney/ABC/ESPN’s attempt to create a powerful new brand name on the shoulders of their previous efforts. Check out the oh-so-flashy expn.com website. Touch and feel the touchyfeely logo. Groove on the holy trinity of "STR/H2O/SNO"—that would be Street, Water, and Snow—three cubbyholes into which all extreme sports apparently fit, neatly.
And get set for a future where the idea of covering an already-existing sporting event will seem quaint, artificial, and a thing of the past.