Wednesday, May 17th, 2000
My wife, as usual, made the cogent comment: if a newspaper sells enough advertising, it doesn’t matter how good or bad it is, right?Right. Exactly. Because after all, the first amendment has always uncomfortably shared a bed with the capitalist ethic in this country. You raise money to publish, or you perish. There are a couple of other newspapers in town, one weekly, one daily that stay fat and happy because of the success of large advertising staffs. Congratulations to them. But do their ad-filled pages mean that the people of Atlanta seek them out for the best that journalism can be?
Before you answer that, sit back a second and consider a few other questions. Is Atlanta a place like Austin, Seattle, or Boston, where weekly papers can thrive with a mix of controversy and commerce? Do we live in a place where we clamor for more sources of information? Or are we complacent enough to passively take whatever is placed in front of our eyes and ears?
When a paper folds, when a bookstore closes, when an eclectically-programmed radio station goes off the air, we all lose.
This week you lose more than a home for the chronicles of the growth of Hollis’s baby and the deterioration of Chris’s liver. You lose a place to hear voices—yours, your neighbors, ours, those of people you disagree with. It’s up to you to fill the gap with something more than Friends reruns and Lottery Coverage You Can Count On.
Read—or write—a book. Talk back to your newspaper. Grab a camera and put your own ideas on videotape.
Tuesday, March 14th, 2000
I’ve got a long letter in the works right now to the consumer affairs department of Continental Airlines following a massive screwup that started with me booking a ticket on their website—or so I thought. It’s the kind of mess that probably should have me calling in Clark Howard or some other consumer reporter, but at this point I’m trying to deal with it myself.
I mention it to you only because it involves the latest trend when old-line companies want to move fast to develop an on-line internet presence. If they can’t figure out how to do it fast, they outsource—hiring an outside expert company to process the transaction or provide the help or implement the search engine or whatever—all in the name of the hiring company.
We are indeed in an age that you can’t assume you’re dealing with employees of company x when you do business with company x—especially when services are involved. Get cable installed, and likely as not, the installer is not a Media One employee, they’re a subcontractor. Same deal with DSL service from Mindspring. Call and talk to the subscription department of a magazine (and many newspapers), and chances are that person doesn’t have any real connection to that publication—they’re off in Marion, Ohio or someplace else and they’re working from a script—telling you what they’ve been told to say. This is the crux of my problem with outsourcing. The people you’re dealing with often don’t have any expertise outside the narrow window of what they’ve been asked to do—and if you really need help with a transaction, it tends to involve departments and dependencies way outside their scripted, limited
When I booked the ticket on Continental, I was actually booking a ticket from cooltravelassistant.com, which as far as I’ve been able to determine, actually is a operation run by the folks at expedia.com, which used to be part of Microsoft, but they’ve spun it off, and by the way, they’re based here. And every time I talked with someone at that operation, they answered the phone Continental Airlines—but when I asked who were they—really—I got different answers each time I asked. And then the Continental people, who said well, we can’t help you because these folks are not really us at all, so you’ll have to go through them to make the changes.
But I digress. And rant. And worry.
But yeah, it is a concern when I see new companies cropping up all the time like liveperson.com, which offers to give your site a real human your customers can chat with, live—but those real humans are, like the other service droids, trapped within scripts as well, playing the part of being part of the organization you think you’re doing business with. Yes sir, I am indeed the voice of AT&T!
And when CBSAtlanta..er..WGNX puts together a site that is basically hosted by CBS in New York with some local content, or when some of the pages at 11alive.com are actually from NBC’s corporate sites, the questions of who is responsible for what content—who stands behind what goes out under their logo—become increasingly relevant.
I guess I don’t care who you outsource stuff to—as long as you—the main company, the mothership—are willing to take full responsiblility for the actions of those others. You don’t get away with well, actually that’s some other company. You pretend—in certain contexts—they’re your company, you stand up for their mistakes, too.
Phew. Where’s Clark’s number?
Monday, March 6th, 2000
A recent Wired brought us the success story of Times Digital, the soon-to-be-independent arm of The New York Times. Under the command of Martin Niesenholtz, they were able to bring the oldest and most venerable of old media—the great gray lady of New York—into our new age. The Times site is everything a newspaper of the future should be—comprehensive, intelligently organized, easy to use, innovative, up-to-date, and, oh, yeah, profitable.So when I think about all the energy that’s been expended down on Marietta Street in the name of creating a presence for the AJC and their sister broadcasting operations, I applaud their efforts and ponder their failure.
I think a big part of what’s behind this digital mess is the underlying fear of all traditional publishers: the new media will gut the old. If we put all our good stuff out on the web, people won’t buy the dead-tree version. If we build it too well, too many people will come.
Interestingly, the Times succeeds at this in spite of erecting a gateway between the world at large and the wealth of its content. They make you register, but it’s perfunctory, non-intrusive: can we have your name and e-mail and zipcode once in exchange for a cookie? Thanks, go on in. Once inside, it’s a unified, sensible, deep site. They’ve got some basic demographic information, and a very desirable audience to sell to advertisers. And they do it by placing ads beside articles you really want to read.
The Cox Interactive folk took a different approach. They created AccessAtlanta, an entity that is confusingly an umbrella for the AJC, and WSB TV and Radio (and their other radio stations)—and yet independent of all of them; vaguely commercial and untrustworthy, and despite some apparent depth of content once you start exploring, the place feelslike it’s an inch deep—a creation of the sales department. AccessAtlanta comes off like the online equivalent of those unwanted roto ad inserts that clog the arteries of the Sunday paper.
So they plop this wannabe portal—in between us and the real content providers—the paper and the stations. But once you struggle to the ajc.com page, you’ll find it links to some stuff that’s really from the paper and then these entities called News@tlanta’ and Biz@tlanta’ and the X-site’ and then there’s Today’s Paper’ and Today’s Read’ (which isn’tthe same as Today’s Paper’) and—excuse me, I just want to find the damn front page!
All this fast-shuffle seems to do is keep us from getting at the information we want. No, I’m not saying that they’re not offering full-length articles from the paper—the multipart piece on Atlantans driving way, way too fast (there’s breaking news!) was dumped into the site one day at a time, in sync with the printed AJC, more or less. Jim Auchmutey’s multipart history of Peachtree Street got this treatment, too. But there seems to be some of the paper here, and some there, as if a virtual dog knocked it off our coffee table and scattered the sections willy-nilly before we had a change to get to them all. How do we know which stories will be in Biz@tlanta and which will be in the Business section of Today’s Paper’? How much overlap is there? Do we need to read both to get the whole picture? There is no reliable place—that I’ve found, at least—to give us that information.
Wanna search? The Today’s Paper’ part offers something called the Stacks Archive, (a page in dark green and blue) which lets you search the paper from 1985 to present—but you have to pay to read the full-text of an article. If you start from ajc.com though, you have to click on different-looking button labeled Look it up and then you’re uh kinda at the Stacks Archive, but with different colors and typography, a different gateway to the same search.
Try that search from an AccessAtlanta page, however, and you’re off in a whole different realm—they’re offering you a search of their Best Atlanta Sites which contains none of the newspaper content at all. If the AJC wrote an article about one of these places, there’s no link or connection to it. But hey, they’ve got chat rooms!
Then go to the classifieds. These show up on a page called atlantaclassifieds.com, but appear under the banner of AccessAtlanta, followed by another logo for ajcclasifieds.com and a third, sub-logo that says a product of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a fourth tiny dude that says powered by Thomson Interactive Media.
So who’s on first, again?
You see why I keep getting lost? I’ve got to keep that dog away from the coffee table, or I may never make it out of this site.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Sunday, December 19th, 1999
So I’m trying to put myself into the mind of my seven and a half year old niece. Would she be captivated with Olive: The Other Reindeer, the “contemporary” holiday offering from the nice people at Fox? Honestly, that’s what was going through my mind as I watched last week.
I was trying to get back to that elusive place where holiday offerings from the 1960s had their chance to make a lifetime impression on me. A Charlie Brown Christmas. Mr. Magoo in A Christmas Carol (the inspiration, I’m sure, for Patrick Stewart’s recent bravura TNT performance.) And even the bizarre Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a musical filled with stop-animated dolls and puppets (one of whom resembled Burl Ives.) These framed my childhood Christmases, and their regular reappearance on our TV was as much a signal of the season as the first snow.
So that’s the role I was looking for Olive to play. Would the tale of a slightly baffled dog who gets the idea that she’s needed as a backup reindeer for Santa be one that kids will be showing to their kids 20 or 30 years down the road?
Yeah, I think so. It’s cute. It works. It’s fun. I smiled.
I didn’t realize the story was actually adapted from a book by Vivian Walsh and J. Otto Seibold until I did some web-surfing to back up my viewing impressions. Walsh and Seibold are husband-and-wife writer/designers who have a distinctive visual style that’s best described as a cross between kid’s construction paper cutouts and those bizarre early 1960s cartoons where the characters eyes’ kept to the same side of their noses. Some designers might also characterize it as “Adobe Illustrator run amuck.” It’s also, in this special, quite charming and affecting, despite my best efforts not to like it. (Avid surfers can check out this interview for the story of Seibold and Walsh’s success, entertainingly told in their own words.)
Part of the reason Olive works, of course, is the all-star cast of voices—everyone from Drew Barrymore in her first canine role to Ed Asner as Santa to Michael Stipe—Stipe!—as Schnitzel the reindeer to the man of a million animated voices, Dan Castellaneta as some sort of deranged, evil postman. Drew’s California articulation sets some type of tone for this extravaganza (just this side of “like, whatever”) which, combined with the “abstract, neo-cubist” quality of the book’s original illustrations makes it a challenge for anyone to pull together.
I’ve always appreciated the efforts of the behind the scenes production companies who make animated works like this work. Animation pioneer Lee Melendez and jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi brought the “Peanuts” specials to life—solving the tough questions of how you make those two dimensional drawings move.
In the case of Olive, Matt Groening’s The Curiosity Company turned to Dallas-based DNA Productions, who took on the task of computer-animating these complex-looking characters in a flat sort of 3D. The end result is vivid, dimensional, offbeat, and visually quite engaging.
Will it look silly in 30 years? I’ll check with my niece.
Tuesday, December 14th, 1999
It’s only in these waning weeks of the 20th century that I feel as if I’m really beginning to experience The World Of The Future that was promised us in science museums back in the sixties. This is not my beautiful self-cleaning house, this is not my personal rocket pack, heck, this isn’t even my picturephone, which Bell Telephone (who?) guaranteed us by 1970.
But I did get Mindspring to hook our beautiful non-self-cleaning house up to ADSL, and in the past few days, my laptop is starting to resemble the flat-pad communications device seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, using the same phone line we talk on, data flows inward at T1 speeds, and flows out of here, at, well, a very respectable pace.
Bandwidth, it’s so damn liberating. The power to squander bits! The power to connect to sounds and pictures from far away! The power to do simple things, like enjoy programs that local public radio WABE neglects to carry (like Sunday Weekend Edition orThis American Life) just by tuning in my college radio station in Athens, Ohio (as a bonus, I get the local newscasts from there, enjoying the illusion that I’m not living in a traffic-choked metropolis.) Want Fox Sports? Wham, it’s there, without cable TV.
Care to view a movie trailer for a film that won’t be released for six months? The stream of pictures cascades into your machine faster than you can watch. Business news and real-time sports? Get back, stuff is dumping into to your PC from one fat pipe indeed.
Yeah, it’s still a little pixelated now and again, and occasionally the parade of data packets gets mixed up, creating colorful mosaics before my eyes, but in general, it feels like the realization of what multimedia idealists have always promised for the internet "experience." Bloated web pages slam onto my screen, near-instantaneously-most of the time. My email now tolerates those huge, bizarre attachments people insist on forwarding to all their friends and acquaintances.
But my favorite part of it must be the ability to surf radio stations and TV channels, and to download large MP3 music files, almost without thinking (which, of course, describes my usual online brain state.)
Functional streaming audio and video lets Atlanta media outlets become ambassadors to the planet at large-I’ve walked into offices in Oregon where Mac-bound designers were listening to 99X ("you mean you can hear it on the radio in Atlanta?") , and The Weather Channel, in Vinings, pumps out as much web-based data as it does actual cable channel programming. Then there’s CNN. After a bunch of experiments with websites complex and simple, the CNN Interactive folk deserve credit for refined, sophisticated Content You Can Count On, offering big handfuls of fresh, just-cooked news product in all the popular multimedia formats-QuickTime, RealPlayer, and some sort of Bill Gates kludge. The pages are simpler, clean, understandable, and for me, a great way to watch CNN the way without the happy talk peripheral stuff (like commercials.)
Yes, it’s another honeymoon with technology for me. And yes, fickle critic that I am, when it breaks down, I’ll label it as a technological Frankenstein.
But this week, it hasn’t broken down. Cool.
Tuesday, December 7th, 1999
They almost look like the result of some sort of switching mistake in master control-these commercials seemingly out of the Lawrence Welk and Bing Crosby past-genial sweatered singing white guys at holiday time. The look-and the tinny monaural sound-is just what you’d expect from a rerun from the sixties, when color television was in its infancy.
But then you notice they’re singing about the Palm Pilots, MP3 players, and camcorders you can get at Amazon.com. And you realize, then, that you’ve been reached by the huge holiday ad campaign planned by they yet-to-be profitable internet startup. For them, this holiday season is now or never, and they’re doing everything they can to convince you that a trip to their website is easier, better, and perkier than a trip to the mall.
Me, I don’t need a lot of persuading that a mall visit is a brutal, grueling experience this time of year. What’s harder to buy into, however, is that the e-way is uniformly a better way. At some sites, the concept of "browsing" involves a major-league understanding of the mechanics of search engines-if you type in "DVDs", the search engine won’t match "DVD players" because the folks who programmed them were idiots-or maybe just engineers-and the idea of users as flawed, unpredictable variables in their neat equations just doesn’t occur to them. Then, there’s the mystery of shipping-at many places, you have to go through almost all the steps of the purchasing process-including entering your credit card number-before the brain-dead software tells you how much you really have to pay to bring that UPS truck to your door. Since what I usually do is calculate "Okay, is the cost of shipping less than the cost of sales tax?" as my primary determinant of using the web versus a local merchant, not knowing what the damn charges are makes me way less willing to do "what-if"s with some e-merchants.
The funny thing is that these mundane considerations about commerce on the web are far removed from the images of e-shopping we’re presented with in print and television ads. No, what we’re getting from the pasty white guys in colorful sweaters and print ads filled with young, active people who appear to have just paused between workouts to order a new mountain bike online is a comfortable feeling, as if ordering online is as old and familiar as a Bing Crosby Christmas special rerun, or as darn near as easy as thinking "mmmme want something."
The reality is, of course, nothing like that at all. For me, it’s more like a multiwindowed web browser assault on mysterious companies located far away with all the Consumer Reports wisdom I can bring to bear. It is a laborious, multistep process (even with Amazon’s "One-click buying") that ends with the ultimate leap of faith-handing some unseen server your credit card number, which you can be darn sure they’ll keep forever and ever, tabulating your purchases and even your near-purchases into a huge database that will, someday, come back to haunt you.
But, hey, why worry? Time for choir practice. Honey, where’s my bright red sweater?
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.