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.

Making holiday memories.

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.

Taking a hit from The Big Pipe.

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.

E-gads!

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?

Chunky leftover bits.

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

There’s more on our website.

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.