Sunday, December 5, 2010
This blog has two main functions: to serve as an exercise in writing, and to entertain and inform readers of matters pertaining to mass media culture by way of someone who works within it - albeit on a relatively small scale. Yeah, I'm harsh when it comes to criticizing those in managerial positions in the media because I feel they've got it coming. Radio, television, and so many other branches of mass media and entertainment are essentially run by salespeople, and many of these people only look at their chosen profession as an advertising delivery system and forget about or pay little attention to the end user, the audience, who actually make it possible for their companies to make sales goals. I target these alleged professionals, not the lay person who is the intended general audience of this blog.
Why do I feel compelled to apologize? Well, let's just say that recently I've been on the receiving end of some Internet snark via certain on line forums related to one of my hobbies, vintage watch collecting. This is an arcane pursuit - sort of like Jay Leno collecting cars - and in reality I don't really need any one's approval of anything in my collection. But it can be helpful to commune with fellow collectors. Lately I've found that some posters on the forums don't really appreciate my contributions. So, I'm backing out of those forums... at least for a while. I can enjoy my hobby without a heaping plate full of snark. And in the cold light of reflection, it occurs to me that the pendulum swings both ways, and maybe this is karma kicking me in the pants.
Once upon a time, we lived in a mass media world that used "Input Only" technology. You turned on a receiver, and you took in the message. Any response you had to that message was limited by the technology being one-way in nature. You could laugh at a joke on "The Tonight Show," but you couldn't instantly tell Johnny you liked tonight's Carnac bit. That's one of the reasons TV shows used a studio audience: the performers needed instant feedback from somebody to tell them the show was going over well... or not.
And then we started trying out a two-way model for mass media - namely, talk radio. When I started in radio in the 1980's we were working in the prehistoric era of Anger. People called in to talk shows to complain, but in reality the goal was for the host to pick a fight. The host was the angry white guy, mad as hell and not taking any more. We used our primitive telephone technology to release the Anger... mostly back at the audience. The gatekeepers were doing the bitching, and in the case of Rush and Beck they still are, but they don't pick fights with the audience these days. The phone lines are screened. The agenda is locked in. We the audience can participate, but on a limited basis. Talk radio, for all its bluster, is still pretty much an "Input Only" medium: host talks, you listen. This is the world in which I am familiar.
Then along came the Internet. And with it came the Age of "Output." Everybody is an expert; everybody is an authority. I can blog, Twitter, FaceBook, text, and email almost anything I want out to you, while at the same time you can return the fire. And we don't have to listen to each other if we don't want to. In other words, I can "Output" all day, every day, and never bother to invoke the "Input" side of the equation. (Technically, this blog is not a push medium, but chances are if you're reading it, it's because I pushed a posting to you via FaceBook. I sent "Output" to tell you I've created even more "Output.")
The thing is, as any married guy will tell you, in real life the "Output Only" mode doesn't really work... at least not if you want to stay married. My wife has some "Output" of her own to share, and she'd appreciate it if I would shut up for a minute and listen to her. The same is true in the workplace. I know I've exercised my "Output" at work. We all do. But there's a point where I need to switch over to the "Input" mode if I'm going to get anything accomplished. You probably know a few people at work who have the "Output" part down pat, but really need to switch over to the "Input" mode more often before the boss does some "Outputting" of his own.
As for me being an expert, well, if you think I'm wrong about something, post a comment below. I'll switch over to "Input" and wait at least a day before I tell you you're wrong. That's a joke. I'm only kidding. See the smiley. :)
I got some suggestions via FaceBook for more "How To" postings... one of them from my boss. Look for those in the coming weeks, but probably after the holidays.
Got an email from Cathy who wants to know why, why can't the networks run classic animated Christmas specials such as Rudolph WITHOUT overlaying promos (snipes) during the show for upcoming programming that is not suitable for children? My answer: I don't know, Cathy. I just don't know. Maybe the Bumble oughta bounce some network execs off a cliff.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
These days, Puff would have a Facebook wall and Witchiepoo would be hacking his website. But even in the Internet age nothing gets a station manger's attention quite like a good old-fashioned hand-written letter. That's because hard copy ink-on-paper correspondence must be kept on file for the FCC. So, if you want to be able to read your letter in our public file and enjoy watching the receptionist try to remember where the public file is, you need to know how to write a letter to your local TV station.
Step one: know to whom you are writing. A vague "Dear Sir" will get you nowhere, and shows you didn't take the time to do your research. Indicate to the station manger with your very first words that you are a person of intelligence and decorum.
ex: Dear Liberal Scumbag,
Step two: get to the point. No long-winded introductions here, just tell the manager in a clear, succinct manner the nature of the problem you wish to address.
ex: You're channel sucks.
Step three: back up your statement with concise facts. Stay on topic, and avoid rambling off on a tangent. Provide specific information in order to clarify the time and subject to which you refer.
ex: Why dose you're station hate Jesus?
Step four: indicate any actions you feel the station should take to alleviate the issue, and welcome the opportunity to seek a compromise to reach a satisfactory resolution.
ex: Im going to tell my frends to boycoot the advertizers on you're channel.
In your closing, make sure to provide a means for management to reply.
ex: I know where you live.
And that's all there is to it. Follow these simple steps, and I guarantee your letter will be kept on file by the proper federal authorities in Washington, DC.
Oh, and if you're sending a letter during the holidays, be sure to include a fruitcake. The agents just love fruitcakes. And nuts.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Once again, the battle cry was sounded to oust NPR from the American airwaves. The flash point this time is the firing of NPR news analyst Juan Williams, who made it known on Fox News Network's "O' Reilly Factor" that he feels nervous when seated next to a devout Muslim during a flight. To quote Chandler on "Friends," can open; worms everywhere.
As a result, NPR - that's NPR, not National Public Radio, for heaven's sake, don't mention radio anymore - fired Williams because...
"Juan's comments on Fox violated our standards as well as our values and offended many in doing so," said NPR President and CEO Vivian Schiller in an internal memo obtained by Fox News.
"This isn't the first time we have had serious concerns about some of Juan's public comments," she wrote. "Despite many conversations and warnings over the years, Juan continued to violate this principal.”
Bad air talent! No biscuit! But improper use of the word "principal" aside - so much for NPR being elitist - Ms. Schiller has the authority and a track record to back her firing of Williams. This is exactly how it's done in any media organization, be it public or private funded, including Fox. If I worked for Fox and went on CNN and said "George W. Bush is only saying things right now that will sell his book," my boss would call me in and say, point one: what the hell were you doing on CNN? and point two: You're fired.
Ah, but what about the first amendment? Didn't NPR censor Juan Williams when they fired him? Yep. The same way CBS censored the Smothers Brothers, and the same way the cast of "Saturday Night Live" has to run everything by Standards and Practices before the next show goes out. Being on a mass medium is a privilege, not a right. You gain that privilege by agreement with those who own control of that particular medium source. If you work for Disney, you answer to the Mouse. If you host a radio show sponsored by the NRA - yes, there are - you better not get caught at a rally for gun control legislation. Let me put it another way: let's say you work at Ford. Now, as an American citizen, you have the right to buy and drive any brand of car you want. Yes you do. But just try parking a Kia in that UAW parking lot.
Which is why the ballyhoo to drive NPR out of existence is a silly spotlight grabbing bit of congressional theater. Like it or not, NPR was exercising the same managerial tactics any other media organization uses. Oh, and even Mike Huckabee knows Congress doesn't "cut checks" to NPR or PBS or any other media organization. That would be a state run media, and we don't allow that in the USA. What Congress does allow is a federal funding go-between called The Corporation for Public Broadcasting which provides some funding for non-profit broadcasting for everything from "All Things Considered" to "Sesame Street" to "Antiques Road Show." The CPB funding accounts for something between 1% to 3% of total funding collected by public broadcasters, so yeah, cutting federal dollars would hurt, but not wipe NPR from the face of the earth. I wouldn't mind if public broadcasters were to be weened off of the CPB, but shutting off the spigot would only increase on-air fund drives and tie up Congress in a Battle Royale over something that isn't really a priority over, say, health care, or our troops in Afghanistan.
And besides... isn't outlawing an entire national radio network censorship?
Saturday, November 13, 2010
To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, a good story is real life with the boring parts cut out. "Apollo 13" would be pretty boring if we had to sit through the hours of waiting while Walter Cronkite interviewed NASA officials. The crew on "CSI" get their results without making us suffer the monotony of lab work. And even the best episode of "Law & Order" skates past just... how... damn... boring... a real stakeout can be. These are justifiable omissions in the name of pacing and storytelling. We, the viewer, appreciate the dissolve to the next day, or the Bang-Bang black screen graphic insert to get us to the next plot point. The story is believable, we just cut out the boring Real Life stuff.
But sometimes it seems like Hollywood cuts out all connection with Real Life altogether. It was pointed out at the time of the film's release that the opening scene in the Sylvester Stallone yarn "Cliffhanger" could only occur in real life in the perfect storm of 3 Stooges like malfunctions. this did not reassure me into going mountain climbing, but it did make me wonder if the opening scene is complete codswallop, why should I care about the rest of the story?
The movie "Unstoppable" leads the box office this weekend, and it's easy to see why. It's got the total package: Denzel Washington being heroic, lots of CGI action, and absolutely no connection with reality whatsoever. The story was inspired by a Real Life runaway train that somehow broke away in Toledo and headed down the tracks south towards Columbus. The Movie train tears through populated area in speed-blurred CGI smashing anything that gets in its way. Oh, and to up the ante, there's dangerous materials on board that will wipe out all life as we know it
OK. Here's the reality:
My wife, news reporter for WIMA radio, easily intercepted the train in Hardin County while coworkers and I back at the station wondered why they didn't just route the damn thing into Springfield, blow it up there, and do us all a favor. According to Deb, "Unstoppable" got as fast as 15mph... downhill. Bicyclists were outrunning it. Floats in the Tournament of Roses Parade pose a greater threat to pedestrians. The area the train traveled through was sparsely populated enough that railroad and other officials considered intentionally derailing the train before it could reach Bellefontaine. The main HAZMAT threat was the possibility of a diesel fuel spill from the locomotive. An engineer simply jumping on board was eventually the method used to stop the train. It ended up stopped without any loss of life or property in Kenton, Ohio, blocking a highway. As for wiping out life as we know it in Hardin County, I can't see a down side.
Finally, let me just say that, while Heather Leigh is a fine looking woman, this is not a true representation of what a real radio news reporter looks like.
In reality, this is what my wife looks like.
PHOTO REMOVED BY BLOG ADMINISTRATOR
DUE TO THREAT OF DIVORCE :(
Oh well. Reality bites.
Monday, October 25, 2010
I'm younger than that now.
I don't know what your first boss was like, but mine started water pistol fights in the halls, stole memos from competing stations out of dumpsters, and called certain stupid people boneheads on the air. I would arrive in the morning to a talk studio festooned with empty beer cans and reeking of cigar smoke. And we always... always rolled air check recordings for legal protection, and ran all talk shows through a 7-second delay. Such were the working conditions at WLW in the 1980's when your boss was Randy Micheals.
It was paradise for the 20-something radio geek. I ate sponsor-delivered fried chicken at 10AM in master control. I took a hotline call from Pete Rose. I met Johnny Bench in the hall where he asked me for directions to the can. I fetched coffee for Joe Nuxhall. My name was playfully slandered on a fifty thousand watt signal by talk show hosts. And I drove the station van to live broadcasts and parked wherever the hell I wanted because I'm with WLW, sunshine. I was in the center of the universe where we could freely misquote the cowboy in "Blazing Saddles" with the line, "Piss on you. I work for Randy Micheals."
It worked at WLW. For one thing, the timing was right. Ronald Reagan was starting his second term as president. After the turmoil of the 1960's and the shame of the Watergate and in the eyes of many losing in Vietnam, America was feeling good about itself again. Superman, Rocky, Rambo, and Lee Iaccoca. It was in this era that Rush Limbaugh's show was born, while in Cincinnati The Big One began shaking things up on the radio.
By 1983 WLW had become the real-life WKRP: a sorrowful under performing AM radio station with an image stuck in the the Eisenhower era and an overabundance of agriculture programming. The personalities were playing Englebert Humperdink, and telling us news was coming up at the top of the hour as they voiced-over Herb Alpert's "Rise," rocking the volume up and down with each inane comment. The programming was boring on this three-call letter old lady of the golden age with tremendous signal coverage in the Midwest; the station relying heavily on being the flagship of a floundering baseball franchise whose fans still yearned for a bygone play-by-play man. It was nowhere near the top of the ratings. Something had to give.
What gave was Randy Michaels. After a successful stint programming rival WKRC to top billing in the market, Michaels gathered the finances to start a company to buy WLW, at a bargain price. From there on, it was simply a matter of luring away the best talent from WKRC and keeping those with promise already at WLW. Michaels paid big bucks for his air talent, going against the trend in most local radio. His philosophy was simple yet elusive for others in mass media to comprehend: The audience comes first. Without an audience, you have no ratings. No ratings means no sales, and no sales means you end up working at The Finish Line. Give the audience a reason to tune in, and everybody wins.
So, while other stations threw money at the cubicle farm hoping to raise sales revenue by offering incentives, deals, giving away sponsor mentions and naming the studio after a client as "value added," while firing well-paid talent and replacing them with a revolving door of mediocre card readers and wondering why clients balk at paying higher rates for lower ratings, Randy Michaels' "Audience First" approach propelled WLW to that rare position in the current radio status: a radio station that makes a profit.
By now you know how things turned out at Tribune. The same techniques that worked at WLW in 1983 didn't work in 2010. And I'm sure the phrase, "This ain't Cincinnati" was spoken more than once in the halls of the Tribune Building. True, it's not. Chicago, with its heritage of broadcasting legends and near legends, can be every bit as insular as any small market, and the infusion of Ohio upstarts invading the Trib was probably not well taken either inside or outside the studio. In the beginning of the "Audience First" approach on WGN-TV episodes of "WKRP in Cincinnati" aired back-to-back, interspersed with recollections by former Cincinnati DJ Pat Barry. I'm sure this was a ratings coup for cable viewers in Cincinnati, but even there a person has to be at least 45 to remember Pat Barry on Q102. For Chicago viewers, the closest this guy ever got to their hometown was a 1970's stint on WMEE in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. For Channel 9 viewers Barry was not exactly on the same level with Larry Lujack or Steve Dahl.
Of course, what really led to Michael's downfall was what's been described as a frat house atmosphere under his management. Lee Abrams' emailed PG-13 video was the last straw on the camel's back... or the last beer can in the studio trash can, if you prefer. You should know that Lee Abrams, the man who took underground FM in the 1960's, gave it a playlist, and called it Album Oriented Rock, is considered a god in radio circles. Many in the biz would sell a vital organ in order to work for this man, even if "Chief Innovation Officer" is the most fabricated title in the history of Mankind. Sending a porno email is neither smart nor correct, but it is Radio. If you pursue a career in Radio, you pursue in order to, among other things, work in an informal - dare I say frat house atmosphere. Female air talent I have known don't just put up with this sort of thing, they give it right back. As I've said more than once, sexual harassment in this workplace is not tolerated... it is expected. Going to work in a radio station and complaining about the atmosphere is like joining the Army and then complaining that nobody else in your company likes show tunes.
But maybe I'm wrong. Time moves on, and these days I'm not sure I want to be a part of that sort of thing anymore. I thought about sending Randy a resume a few months ago. But family matters intervened along with an overall sense of - no, I won't call it maturity. Maybe it's just that I've moved on. The world has. We don't rely on radio like we once did, before the Internet and HDTV. To work in radio now one must admit to something that Garrison Keillor has said before: radio is an antique. To work in antiques means you must love the object for its own sake. And in the case of radio that's an awfully expensive hobby. So, I've freed myself from thinking of what I can do as a career simply in terms of radio. Call it adapting to the New Media if you like.
Randy Michaels may have thought he was trying to force Tribune to adapting New Media, but perhaps what was really in his heart was a chance to play with WGN radio, and once again revive a boring three-call letter old lady of the golden age with tremendous signal coverage in the Midwest; a station relying heavily on being the flagship of a floundering baseball franchise whose fans still yearn for a bygone play-by-play man. Randy wants to dabble in antiques.
I hope he finds one. It would be nice if there was at least one radio station somewhere that was fun again.
Friday, October 15, 2010
So why does the current trend in "advertiser creep" seem more annoying than ever? Did I miss a subtlety somewhere - an ironic twist that sent up the whole affair - or was Thursday Night's installment of "Community" nothing but a 28 minute commercial for KFC? What was the point of that episode? Was there a media awareness message in there somewhere? And the live "30 Rock" got a plug gag in as well. They've done it before, and as before they handled it deftly. They made the joke, got the laugh, and moved on. The key difference here being "30 Rock" got the laugh.
But for the most part, advertiser creep is just annoying. You can make a game out of counting the plugs during major - or minor, for that matter - sports events. I would suggest drinking games based on taking a shot with every plug, but the danger of alcohol poisoning would be too great a risk. Every move on the field is sponsored event. The players now enter the Verizon Red Zone. Really? They've found another way to squeeze another dollar out of football. Most stadium names are now product placement, some of them causing no end to befuddlement to the national network announcers who have to enunciate the corporate market research-based idiosyncratic name of the home field. It's my understanding that being sent to Qualcomm Stadium is considered a punishment for past transgressions.
There's a fine review in the The New York Times that points out the issue in NBC's "School Pride." Here's a brief quote from the article:
No science classroom or computer laboratory is refurbished without getting a huge Microsoft logo over the door. The camera lingers on a Hewlett-Packard logo; students and teachers shriek with delight during shopping trips to Wal-Mart and Home Depot.
OK, so these sponsors are footing the bill for these school makeovers, and they certainly deserve credit where credit is due. But the question comes to mind: is this the right place to give credit? It's one thing for the show host to drop a sponsor name. It's quite another to have a corporate logo permanently affixed to a classroom door for students to see day after day. Aren't schools meant to be one of the few sanctuaries free of sales pitches and underage marketing? Isn't it bad enough scores of little girls walk the school hallways carrying Hannah Montana book bags, lunchboxes, and the like, while the boys trade Pokemon cards that tie-in with the computer games, that tie-in with the cartoon? I'm not sure I would like the idea of my child being subjected to corporate product placement in the classroom. I would think local school boards would take a similar view, but let's face it, many schools can't turn down the offer. I think that fact that a show like "School Pride" can even be made in this country is a sad, sad statement of our priorities in America. Someone watching this show would not be blamed if they came away from it believing that in America children are not gifts to be treasured and nurtured, but rather fledgling consumers to be exploited and manipulated.
And Another Thing...
A Fox News commentator (I won't mention his name in order to avoid making a star out of him) just had to make a joke out of the Chilean minors being trapped for 69 days. Really? Did they teach you that in journalism school? Or did you just forget you're not in the frat house anymore?
It appears most people prefer to get their news from the Animal House News Network. Fox scored just over 7 million viewers Wednesday night from 8PM - 9PM, compared to CNN's 2.67 million.
Sunday, October 10, 2010
Not "#&^% My Dad Says,"
Not "S___ My Dad Says,"
And not "Beep My Dad Says," as it comes down on the CBS affiliate timing sheets.
The legal title of the show is "$#*! My Dad Says." That's the title that must be printed on every single program log of every single CBS affiliate across the country.
During last Thursday's broadcast of "Private Practice" on ABC we were still seeing credits for co-executive producers at 16 minutes into the show. I don't know how many co-executive producers were credited, but I stopped counting after four. At 17:30 into the show ABC triggered the affiliate transparent logo because the program finally stopped putting up credits. The show started at 10:01 Eastern, which means we had credits from the content up to 10:18:30 on the clock. What I want to know is what exactly is a co-executive producer? How do I get that job? If I fetch Courtney Cox's Aquafina do I get a co-executive producer credit 19 minutes into "Cougartown?"
And now it's time for a visit from the man who loves to ruin action TV shows, Mr. Physics. The special effects in "The Incredibles"... sorry... I mean "No Ordinary Family," are quite good. But watching the wife run at Mach 2 would be far more believable if she wasn't doing it in heels. Those shoes would be melted down to nothing in about two miles. When she blew past the Arizona state line sign I kept expecting the coyote to light the dynamite.
Public service announcements (PSA's) tend to get loaded into the computer automation and are forgotten. They only pop up in the rotation at unfriendly hours when the station needs a time killer, so nobody in a responsible position notices the cobwebs growing on them. Some cable networks and local stations are still airing a public service announcement that's meant to inspire us to volunteer to help feed the hungry. It features President Obama speaking to an audience telling us that Elkhart, Indiana has been hard hit by layoffs and economic downturn. Yeah, it was... back in 2008. What's next, the Indian crying by the side of the road?
Sportscaster quote of the week: My wife caught Herbstreet on ESPN emitting this nugget of genus.
"I think Auburn can win this game, but they'll have to outscore Kentucky."
I wonder how much ESPN pays Herbstreet for that kind of in-depth analytical expertise?
And we end with a Lima sighting in "Glee." People have been sending local stuff to the show, and finally, after all these years, the impossible happened: a local Lima radio station got love on TV. Check this enhanced photo. (You'll have to click on it to really see it. Many thanks to the Gleek who made it.)
Saturday, September 25, 2010
At a recent meeting of broadcast engineers in our part of Ohio, the conversation at one point turned to the issue of wild audio levels on television. I've commented before on this site about the problem of audio spikes: those sudden surges of loudness that blast your TV usually when programming cuts to commercials. The problem has always existed to some degree, but has been made worse with the advent of digital television and its higher dynamic range. The broadcasting industry is feeling pressure not only from viewers but from congress, believe it or not, to bring these audio spikes under control. Believe me, we'd love to. But nobody seems to know how.
The obvious cure would be for TV stations to employ the same kind of balls to the wall audio processing many radio stations use. Your neighborhood radio station - especially the AM stations who have a hard enough time being heard - route the audio through a series of devices that act as an automatic volume control with the end result being you don't have to keep juking the volume knob up and down to hear the radio over the road. (Chances are your car sound system has its own auto volume control that adjusts based on your speed or, on more sophisticated systems, ambient cabin noise.) That is unless you're listening to NPR, who feels adding such artifacts to their product would be an insult to the audience, so trying to hear All Things Considered over the traffic noise requires listeners to serve as their own master control engineer.
The side effect of radio's power processing is that radio listeners rarely experience audio spikes. Problem solved.
And yet, in TV, we're still struggling to keep our viewers from getting a sonic lobotomy every time a local car dealer takes to the air.
Most TV engineers I know loathe to strap on the heavy-handed audio processing used in FM radio. Some networks want local affiliates to air their programming via an audio chain bypass. They claim that such processing adds to a feeling of bombardment for the audience - what we call audience fatigue. They have a point. Years ago, many TV stations did use the same audio chain as a radio station, and I recall the side effects could be awful. Prolonged silence on a movie caused the auto gain to crank up, bringing up the background noise. Then somebody would finally talk, and it sounded like a cannon shot.
This issue still crops up from time to time. The worst show on television - for more than one reason - is Poker After Dark. A bunch of guys sit at a table and stare at their cards... for ten frickin' minutes at a time. Nobody talks. The only audio content during this time is the poker chips, shrill plastic clacking, over, and over, and over, and over. And then they go to commercial. BLAST!
This reveals the root cause of much of television's difficulty in controlling volume spikes. In radio, programmers attempt to keep the medium engaged in constant activity. (Except for NPR, of course. Your tax deductible contribution pays for a lot of dead air.) Silence is not golden; it's death. Consistency is key. Keep the meters moving. In television, however, audio often serves to underscore the visual. It's considered perfectly acceptable for actors, particularly in dramas, to stare at each other just long enough for the master control room's silence alarm to beep.
Advertising agencies are also well aware of the inconsistencies of TV sound, and use it to their advantage. Consider this scenario: an episode of Law & Order goes to commercial. You get up to go to the kitchen for a snack. You're not watching, but your ear is still following the TV audio, but not really listening, just hearing the "buzz" of activity. Now, about a minute into the break, a clever spot comes on where the actors just stare into space. No sound. No sound. No sound. And then at about 15-20 seconds into the 30 second spot, the one actor yells. "YES! I WIN!" Our two actors were watching two snails as they creep towards a finish line. Snail racing. It's like waiting for your email on Brand X's broadband internet service. Clever. I should be a copywriter.
Think about how the viewer responds.
We've had a consistent buzz of audio activity over several minutes. Your ear has grown accustomed to it the same way you might grow accustomed to the hum of the fan in your computer... until there's a power failure. The silence is deafening.
The sudden silence gets the viewer's attention. Something's wrong. Did the TV station go off the air? Is there a problem? I gotta look.
And you look... just in time for the punchline and the commercial's message. GET CRAPCOR HI-SPEED INTERNET.
Meanwhile, for viewers just sitting there, and for master control who just woke up and reached for the switcher just in time for "I WIN!" to blast him to the edge of losing bladder control, this whole commercial has been nothing but an annoying exercise in lame comedy being used as a conveyance for another overexposed product or service I have no interest in. And this happens at least once a half-hour, for all of prime time and well into the late night lineup, every night, for usually two or three weeks.
And every time it airs, the station transmits another 30 decibel audio spike that could get us in trouble with the FCC.
Since it's highly unlikely that the FCC will tell content producers to watch the audio, or send a reprimand to the agency that produced that Mountain Dew spot where guys whisper for 15 seconds and then a woman emits a 30 decibel spiking eagle screech (oh yeah, that doesn't get old after four hours) broadcasters have little recourse but to use whatever means available to clamp down on the wild volume surges. Don't be surprised if your local TV stations start sounding like ROCK 96.3.
It's either that or master control operators start wearing Depends.
Monday, September 13, 2010
(Section 11.45 Prohibition of false or deceptive EAS transmissions.
No person may transmit or cause to transmit the EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency or authorized test of the EAS. Broadcast station licensees
should also refer to Section 73.1217 of this chapter.)
Back in 1938 Orson Wells had the good sense to preface "War of the Worlds" with a disclaimer. The problem was many listeners tuned in late and didn't hear it. The FCC has been kinda touchy about triggering panic ever since.
OK. That seems pretty clear; don't imitate the EAS. What's so hard about following that rule? The problem crops up when an advertiser, in this case BP/Arco, who isn't exactly known for their good judgment these days, tells their ad agency, "We want to sound like an emergency so people will respond. Make fun of the EAS. DO IT! Or we'll find another agency who will." So, the agency's radio producer finds actual EAS data bursts, apparently from a station in Tampa based on location codes, frequency shifted them (sped them up) and talked over them.
It shoulda worked. Problem is some brands of EAS decoders can still read the data bursts in spite of the distortions added, and that causes those stations to log an "unknown event." And that causes funky log entries for the FCC to read when that station gets inspected. Remember that rule posted above; this ain't supposed to happen. Phones ring. Tempers flare.
The FCC was notified, but an official statement has yet to be made. Most in the business don't expect much more than some finger wagging and a reminder to station managers that they are ultimately responsible if something illegal airs on their stations. Problem with that is station managers aren't very likely to tell an advertiser "Your commercial will get us fined. We won't air it." Much like the way the illegal use of copyright protected music in commercials is winked at, managers are more likely to tell sales reps "Do it until we're told to stop, if we get caught at all."
After hearing from various people with scary titles behind their names, BP/Arco's agency Ogilvy and Mather released an alternative spot sans violation that could be run in place of the original. If you care to hear the offending spot, listen here. (Opens a player.)
At the end of the day, it's an infantile radio commercial that only caused problems for several radio and TV stations unfortunate to have installed an inferior brand of EAS equipment not capable of filtering altered codes. We did not accidentally declare war on anybody, and nobody in the listening public was greatly inconvenienced with the exception of, I'm certain, a few misguided persons incapable of discerning an authentic emergency message from a lame attempt at comedy most likely written by a college intern. Radio commercials are, by and large, not produced to engage the emergency management community, first responders, or anyone with an education beyond the ninth grade. They are produced for the stupid. This one clearly hit the bullseye.
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
During the 1970's feminism had been the rule of the day. Women sought equality in every sector of life: equal pay and nonstereotypical roles in the workplace, at home, and in the media. Helen Ready sang "I Am Woman." Cher told Sonny to hit the road. Maude was more than a match for Archie Bunker. And Billie Jean King handed Bobby Riggs his male chauvinist hat on the tennis court. Woman were not to be disrespected anymore. Women were smart. Women were strong. You don't tug on Superman's cape, and you don't mess with Linda Carter as Wonder Woman either.
That all got flushed down the toilet with a single weird novelty song and a 14 year-old girl named Moon Unit.
Zappa's song was meant as a poke at the SoCal subculture known as Valspeak: a corruption of the English languish bred in the well groomed San Fernando Valley where female teenage angst usually centers around not having enough shoes or just the right color of nail polish for a sweet sixteen. These girls, born in the mid-1960's, had somehow grown up knowing nothing of Vietnam and thinking Watergate was some form of birth control. Zappa was astounded by the shallowness of these people's lives, and his daughter was able to supply the lingo that brought it all to life. He never intended to have by 1983 every girl in high school sprouting "Gag me with a spoon."
But that's what happened. The age of irony and arrived, and those who were in on the joke inflected their daily conversation with Valspeak the same way we might do the Homer Simpson "Doh!" when we make a mistake or do Doctor Evil's slow "Rrrriiiight," when we hear something nonsensical. We never meant for it to become a national trend, and we certainly never meant to make this a role model for our young women. But the damage had been done.
Soon, Madonna was proclaiming herself to be a Material Girl in a video that echoed Marilyn Monroe singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." Cyndi Lauper took it in a slightly different direction, but basically the message was the same in "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." Julie Brown sent it all up again with her novelty song "I'm a Blond." As time wore on supermodels became full-blown celebrities, Paris Hilton became famous for no apparent reason, and female tennis stars now emit such extreme vocalizations during a match that I blush and hit the MUTE button when my wife enters the room.
Guys are not totally blameless. Somewhere along the line it became OK to call women "chicks" again, but in our defense we picked up on it only when women started calling themselves by that name. (ex: The Dixie Chicks) And speaking of country music, nobody was more surprised than the group Confederate Railroad back a few years ago when they released a song called "I Like Women Just a Little On the Trashy Side" and fans started requesting it at their concerts. Female fans. Dressed, you know... a little on the trashy side. You've come a long way, baby - in the wrong direction.
So, the next time you turn on your TV and scan into something like The Hills, Laguna Beach, Top Model, Gossip Girls, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Dating in the Dark, or anything where girls are sitting around having OMG moments over what dress to wear and what purse goes with her Benz, just remember it all started with "Valley Girl." It's the Zappa Curse, and we're still living with it.
Here is the original just to prove my point. Tell me this isn't the prototype for every girly reality show on the air. At least it's less than five minutes. That's more than I can say for its television offspring. Rated PG for being a bad influence and for being like grody to the max.
Sunday, August 29, 2010
Oh, and these will be the Special Edition releases of the films, not the original cuts. For me, that's not really a deal killer, but I'd rather see the original cut of "A New Hope" and watch Han Solo fricassee Guido the way it really happened. According to Sound and Vision Magazine:
"Unfortunately, Lucas said that the Special Editions would be used for the original trilogy, because transferring the original cuts of the film would be too expensive."
Huh? Too expensive? To put both versions out on Blu Ray? You gotta be kidding. This is Star Wars we're talking about: the biggest movie franchise in history second only to that 007 guy. Since when is anything too expensive for Star Wars? Hell, George Lucas could buy the frickin' moon and turn it into the Death Star (TM), fly the 1977 negatives up there, move Technicolor up there to process new prints, and build the world's biggest 70mm projector and show the original cut to the entire western hemisphere. Too expensive? Yeah, right. More like you don't want to admit the less-than-perfect original cut was better.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Welcome back. First, let me say it was a pleasure to be asked to participate. I do not pretend to hang in the higher circle who record musicians in project studios, although I've worked in such studios in the past, mainly as an assistant. I work in broadcasting and operate my home voiceover recording studio. It's not in the same league, but we do have much in common. Mainly, we want the best sound for the project.
Each reviewer brings a certain number of prejudices and expectations when he listens to a microphone. No two people agree exactly on mics. For every person who thinks the AKG C12 in it's current state is a shrill disappointment, there are those who love it. For figure. All I can say is the Avatone knock-off served Taylor Swift quite well at a fraction, and I do mean fraction of the cost.
With vocals, I bring my radio and voiceover background, which wouldn't truly serve the needs of a vocalist and would run counter to much of what a musical producer is trying to achieve. Voiceover guys want clarity above all else. I'm willing to sacrifice a little low-end grunt in order to be heard against the clutter. I'd be OK with the Sennheiser MKH 416. But, for me, the perfect mic adds low-end grunt within reason while keeping the clarity. In other words, I'm a U87 kinda guy. Fine. But that's just me.
When I hear a folk/country vocal, I tend to think back to Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Simon and Garfunkel as my benchmarks. As it happens, these legends recorded at Columbia in the '60's - thanks to Mitch Miller. So, my bias is based on the techniques of the Columbia house style of another era. And, while this is embarrassing, I also herd a great deal of John Denver in the '70's. That's going to leave a mark.
I know even less about recording acoustic guitar. All I know is I know what I like. Usually, in a pop or country recording, the guitar is processed to stand up to the mix. String scrapes are avoided because the average listener thinks they shouldn't be there. (Hear any on the original Classic Gas?) Think of that power strumming in the Electric Light Orchestra's Fire On High. That's not natural. Very little about ELO is. And yet, that's what our ears can become accustomed to hearing. The only cure is to pick up a Gibson and strum a while. Learn what a real guitar sounds like. In my opinion, the person most knowledgeable to record the guitar is the person who actually plays one.
I truly believe all the reviewers' opinions reflected their preferred method of listening. I like to do critical listening on AKG K240 headphones. My JBL nearfields are not powerful and lack the complete low-end reach. (A sub would cure that, but then I have to upgrade my amp.) Speakers vs. headphones could make all the difference between thinking the Gemini II was great or just so-so.
As for the mics themselves, I have found a new respect for MLX, a brand typically thought of as a bargain knock-off. The Revelation is one serious recording tool. I'd love to A/B one to an AKG C214 or just about anything from Neuman just for fun. BTW: I've seen a 100 dollar price drop on the AKG. Somebody's nervous.
The Gemini we reviewed hasn't quite won me over, but it definitely has some chops. I'd like to hear a jazz vocalist try it out. Definitely got to hear it on a VO. It has potential. If you're mic shopping, try it out.
The real sleeper of the bunch was the MXL V89. Priced at around $330, this mic held its own against these U87 contenders. I absolutely MUST audition one of these for VO work. It could be the best bargain out there.
Saturday, July 31, 2010
I remember commenting at the time that I had rarely run into the issue even in radio unless someone had tinkered with the mic processing. In my home studio the only curious knob turner is me, so things just work. But I couldn't help but wonder why some people had more trouble with breathing than others.
A few days ago, I was reminded of the issue while listening to a recent hit song via CD. The trend nowadays in the studio seems to be to pump up the compression - probably at the mastering stage - to the point where I can hear the vocalist's every breath... along with his mouth noises and even some plosives straining against the pop filter. Now, you could say a good vocalist should spot the problem and make an adjustment to fix it - change how he addresses the mic, back away during big breaths. But I found myself wondering why the producer thought I wanted to hear this guy breathe? Furthermore, this band does a lot of concerts. Surely, this vocalist doesn't huff at his audience all night, especially when he's eating a dynamic with the low end trimmed and the sound guy is using-
Of course. That was the answer. Sound guys on the road use expansion on the mics to prevent feedback and reduce the comb filter effect when multiple mics are open in a given space. In broadcasting, we use expanders as noise gates for the same reasons and to cut unwanted noise in the studio or the booth. Coming from a broadcasting background, it was automatic to me set up and use the expander/gate on my mic processing and not give it a second thought.
Expanders work like compressors in reverse. While a compressor reduces the gain of a signal once it passes above a certain threshold, an expander reduces the gain of a signal once it passes below a certain threshold. The overall effect, depending on how the expander is set, will be to increase dynamic range of something that needs to decay faster after it's initial attack, some percussion instruments, for example, or to allow only desirable signal levels to pass while cutting out anything that just lies there trying to cause trouble.
In broadcasting, the ultimate example of expander/gates doing their job is during The View. Without expanders set to serve as gates to stop the mic leakage, the whole show would sound like a cat fight in a parking garage. Watch Mike and Mike In The Morning on The Deuce and see how they eat those RE-20's. Again, that's live sound configuration with the mics EQ'd to filter off the low end to stop popping and excessive proximity so that the talent can eat the mics to break open the expander/gates. Without the gates, the studio ring (comb filter effect) would drive the radio listeners right up a wall.
So, how does an expander help the voice over artist? Easy. With the threshold set properly, the gate will "close" whenever you stop talking, thus reducing your breathing. No more breath cutting sessions in the DAWS. Plus, you're eliminating studio background noise so that your ambient "open mic" noise is virtually no noise at all. That makes editing much easier, especially if you're punching in something you recorded today into something you recorded last week.
Setting the expander isn't all that difficult, but it does require a bit of trial and error. And the setting you choose may be a bit of a compromise. You don't want the expander slicing off the trailing edges of your voice, and setting it too fast can make you sound like you have a cold, but you also want it to kick in fast enough to stifle the breaths. Some practice and experience voicing with the expander will help. A tweak here, a tweak there, and you'll get it. Just two rules to remember: don't set the expander threshold near or above your compression threshold, and don't set your compression threshold so far down it enters the threshold of the expander. Break these rules and you'll hear the expander working, causing a click or thump every time it attacks. A good starting point for your expander is -40db. Hopefully, you can tweak it down from there.
An expander does not solve all your problems. If there is noise in your mic cable, you will still have noise in your recordings, just only during the times you were talking. Same goes for bad acoustics. An expander can eliminate that last stubborn bit of room ring, but it's no substitute for proper room treatment, especially if you work farther from the mic.
I haven't had any success with plug-in expanders in the DAWS. They either chop words or sound like a bad noise gate on a 16mm movie. Personally, I believe in the "garbage in, garbage out" theory of production. Just like setting a high-pass filter on the preamp or using a quality pop filter instead of EQ, I believe you should eliminate the problem as early in the audio chain as possible. And besides, like front end compression, it sounds good in your headphones.
In broadcast level channel strips, the expander/gate is standard equipment, assumed to be essential to get the job done. I was surprised to find that many high-end recording studio channel strips from names like Avalon and Focusrite don't include an expander in the chain. I guess the feeling behind that is that serious project studios are quiet enough not to need gating. Maybe the practice of tracking makes mic gating redundant. Or maybe it's a way of forcing the studio owner into the "up sale" to a top-of-the-line model with expansion. Whatever. But it sounds to me like some record producers might want to look into buying a simple but effective DBX unit.
The spots aren't perfect. They have production values within the expectations of a regional marketing campaign, but they fail to transmit any summertime fair excitement. In casual viewing you have no idea the spot is about the Ohio State Fair until about 25 seconds in. With more critical viewing I become aware of stilted acting and really, really wish somebody would just announce "It's The Ohio State Fair! Going on Now!" rather than force the cute but vague "Fairtastic" hook. After 30 seconds I'm still not motivated to go. Also, based on the number of video line drops and the overall smeary look of the spot, I'd say the fair board managed to hire the one last production house still using three-quarter inch analog tape editing.
But, even with the faults, it's good to see the Fair getting the word out. Let's hope the attendance is up this year so things can get even better.
Monday, July 26, 2010
Actually, once you get past the cheese factor and the That 70's Show hair and sport coat, this is a damn good clinic on how to do an on-camera narration. Shatner is putting his acting skills to use here, using his hands at key moments and using facial expressions that feel real, not Johnny Plastic. Of course, when Shatner does something on-camera these days, he's doing a parody of himself. And that's fine because we get the joke and he's in on it. But back when this spot was produced he was still just "that guy on Star Trek" and he had to deliver this straight. And it works.
Shatner could be embarrassed by this, but he shouldn't be. This is fine work, at least in this spot. There others out there. You've been warned.
Friday, June 18, 2010
This is a Rolex Oyster Perpetual automatic wristwatch, reference number 6332, caliber A260, manufactured in late 1954. I wish I owned it. I found it up for auction only after it had been sold by preeminent Rolex historian and author James Dowling. I don't know what it sold for. As a vintage Rolex, one of the last true bubbleback models, I'm guessing it would go for anywhere from $2,000 on up. It's historic value makes it particularly interesting.
At this point you're probably wondering what does a nearly 56 year-old luxury watch with a fair amount of dial patina have to do with television. Stay with me.
Quoting from Dowling's website:
What is really interesting is the case back engraving, which reads “The Property of A. C. Nielsen Company Limited Oxford”; A. C. Nielsen are the company who monitor television viewing habits both in the US and in the UK. According to a 1956 Rolex advertisement all of Nielsen’s field operatives were issued with a Rolex watch, this is obviously one of them.
You've no doubt have heard of the Nielsen ratings. Each "sweeps" period a number of households are surveyed to find out what people are watching. This is deadly serious business, as ratings determine, for the most part, the rates networks and local stations can charge for advertising availability during a given time period. That's mighty oversimplified, but you get the point.
Advertisers ranging in size and scope from Time Warner to the Wapakoneta School System (I recently recorded a voiceover for their open enrollment spot. And yes, I can pronounce it.) pay to get on the air. That money goes to run the TV stations and networks, and also pays for those entities to subscribe to Nielsen. Ah-ha! You didn't think those ratings were handed out for free did you? Sure, the ratings become public knowledge, but if you want details, direct access, and to be able to use them in your marketing you gotta subscribe.
So, networks and stations pay Nielsen for the ratings. That fee goes to operate the Nielsen company, and apparently back in the '50's, to buy their employees Rolex watches. And now you know where the money goes.
Rest assured, here in the 21st century part of the Wapakoneta School System's budget does not end up as bling on the wrist of a Nielsen employee - except the CEO. Technology has changed, not just in how ratings are assimilated but in the fact that a $10 Timex will do what a Nielsen field rep needs it to do just fine. But back in the '50's quartz movements, electronic displays, and radio synchronizing watches was science fiction. Hell, Dick Tracy's 2-way wrist radio was still AM. These guys needed a rock solid, dependable timepiece to do the job. In the days of mechanical watches, Rolex was the choice. Rather than seen as a luxury item the Oyster Perpetual was seen as a precision tool, an accurate and reliable chronometer that wasn't grossly overpriced or made out of gold and diamonds. The estimated cost of such a watch in the day of purchased retail was $100. Nielsen undoubtedly bought theirs at a volume discount - something Rolex rarely does - which brought the price of each watch down at least a little.
Watch aficionados can argue that the Zenith Caliber 135 would've been a better choice, but let's not get into that.
This 1956 ad from England reveals some interesting facts. This was the fledgling days of ITA, the only competitor to the BBC at the time. Two channels. And yet they actually conducted ratings surveys in England. Why? Well, the BBC is government operated. Citizens pay a TV tax just to own a receiver. And like any branch of Parliament, we need disclosure, transparency. Is our tax money being spent wisely? Again, in that era the Rolex was viewed as a tool for the professional, not needless accessorizing. These days the British taxpayer would not stand for public funds ending up in the form of a Rolex.
Unless Camilla decides she wants a Datejust.
We also learn from the ad that Nielsen was actually using a mechanical devise to log viewing habits, the Audimeter. Sounds like a graph paper on a drum arrangement. A precursor to the People Meter? Setting the device to run at the absolute correct time is where the Rolex comes in. Check out that '50's era television. Anybody know the brand? You may be surprised to read that British ratings were also used to determine ad rates... on ITA only. Check out the ad rate breakout at the bottom of the page. A rate of 700 pounds for a 30 seconds spot seems rather quaint. (In those days "London Weekend" was like the Thursday night "Must See" lineup.) Ah, but it's only 385 pounds to get on the Birmingham transmitter.
Today, Nielsen has to track dozens of channels from cable, satellite and local broadcast, plus contend with recording devices in their various forms and the possibility of watching The Office on their phone. They have to squeeze their blood from the broadcasting rock, which finds itself in a revenue pinch due ever increasing viewer choices and an economy stuck in neutral. If a Nielsen employee wants to know what time it is, he can simply look at the display on his Blackberry. It took skill and talent to build those watches. Like the programming we see today, there is scarce little room for that sort of thing in television anymore.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Opening credit. The show never really gave us a reason to believe Chan was all that amazing at anything other than reproduction.
I've been wanting to post this for some time, but I've been flummoxed by digital camera technology. I can't take decent screen shots to save my life. I work in television, you know.
Anyway, this was a show I watched back when I was about 9-10 years old. The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan wasn't exactly the runaway hit of the 1973 fall Saturday Morning lineup. I'm not sure anything was a hit show that year. This was around the time I discovered just how superior Bugs Bunny and the Warner Brothers cartoons really are. Old Popeye cartoons, the ones in black and white, were cool, too. And Tom and Jerry, although Mammy Two Legs left us confused.
"Why do we see the home owner only from the butt down?"
"She's not the owner. She's the maid."
"Maid? Well how come the owners are never home? And why does she talk like that?"
"I think she's supposed to be black."
"Oh. Well, they must be in the South."
"Those cartoons are old, man. They were made way back in the '50's."
"No way! They didn't have color back then."
Well, getting back to the point, I found this episode of The Amazing Chan on one of the Saturday Morning Cartoons DVD's, and I spotted a huge goof. Now, Saturday morning cartoons are full of technical goofs. The minuscule budgets with which these shows were produced left practically no room to fix mistakes especially after they got under the camera, and so we see colors shift within a character's face as it was animated, eyes get flesh tones, Shaggy's sole patch never gets hair colored, characters seem to slip and slide all over the place relative to the background (registration errors), exposure shifts, and on the audio we hear a few lines from voice actors who were very obviously sight reading and needed one more go at it. Oh, and based on the acoustics I can hear on the audio at some point in the early seventies Hanna-Barbera must've moved their voice sessions to the back seat of a Ford LTD. Those things happen all the time. This mistake falls under the category of being a true cartoon blooper.
Today's episode takes place in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, where we see a good number of white people, lots of Asian children, but not a single black person.
The story eventually takes us to a "cemetary." Hmm... I guess they spell it different down south.
"What was that?" Two of the kids react to a spooky sound in the night. Probably it's the sound a of network censor who cut out any hint of violence or danger, but couldn't spell cemetery.
"Calm down, you silly girls. It's only an owl."
Obligatory reaction shot of the ugliest dog in animation history.
Here's what made the noise. But wait! Can you see what made me hit PAUSE? Upper left corner.
Golly. I had no idea koalas were indigenous to Louisiana. They appear to be a bit confused themselves.
Turns out The Amazing Chan was the first Hanna-Barbera series to have the artwork produced in a foreign country... Australia. I guess there wasn't enough time for the Aussie artists to do the research.
Other Chan Clan Fun Facts:
The Chan Clan musical numbers might sound like The Archies. That's because it is. Don Kirshner, the man who gave us The Monkees and The Archies was brought on to do the musical production on Chan. Kirshner engaged the services of none other than Ron Dante to cut the charts, as they say. Dante was the voice of The Archies. His "real" band The Cuff Links had a hit song "Tracy" as well. Busy guy.
Jamie Farr, better known as Klinger on M*A*S*H co-wrote the Chan series. He also performed voice work in other H-B shows around this period.
Monday, May 10, 2010
The phrase "We're not in Kansas anymore" is done. Really. I'm serious. Is there a contest of some sort among scriptwriters to see if they can find an excuse to use this cliche in every single film being made in Hollywood these days?
It's not funny, it's not ironic, and it's not original. A recent episode of Bones can be forgiven because there was an actual appropriate visual reference that gave it context, but even then every viewer watching could practically feel the line coming.
Stop it. Just stop it.
If you are writing a script right now, before putting the Kansas line in yet again ask yourself, will this line get a laugh? Will it move the story forward? If you're a trailer producer, ask yourself if this line will position this film above all the rest. Is it really necessary?
But then, if Hollywood only thought about what was necessary we wouldn't have a Sex & the City 2 would we?
Thursday, April 29, 2010
Glee continues to rule, with some growing interest in the Lima community. Name dropping local landmarks is stirring interest in those who might not otherwise watch. The big "wrong reference" in the latest episode is the upcoming article in the newspaper. The name of the real Lima newspaper is The Lima News. (Catchy, ain't it?) I also noted they were eating at a restaurant named "Breadsticks" and there's no place by that name here, but then I don't think there's a "Breadsticks" in any town. Strangely enough, at the time this aired, a bunch of guys in the Lima Fox affiliate were eating bread sticks, from Olive Garden.
I hear some Gleeks are down on Kristen Chenoweth and want her to go away. Ouch, guys.
The honeymoon is long over. If you still harbor any thoughts of a "liberal mainstream media" check out the latest word from the White House press. Reporters say President Obama and the media have a surprisingly hostile relationship. They say the White House is thin-skinned, controlling, eager to go over their heads and stingy with even basic information. Hmmm. Sounds a lot like the Bush Administration, as well as the Clinton damage control team, but the same sentence could be used to describe the Nixon White House. So, can we expect Obama to start referring to the media as those nattering nabobs of negativism?
American Idol finally acknowledged the 1990's this week with a Shania Twain night - which pretty much explains why we forgot the '90's.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
But despite my best efforts, I just couldn't get on board with Idol. First off I quickly confirmed that Ryan Seacrest is there as eye candy and nothing more. He can read that first cue card and that's about it. Watching Seacrest host a live show is like watching a squirrel run across the track during the Daytona 500.
But worst than that, I wasn't all that impressed with the singers who advanced, and as the weeks churned away we only seemed to be left with a series of alsorans. Conversations with coworkers who had ridden the Idol gravy train from the start told me I wasn't imagining things; this season of Idol is lame. The ratings bore this out when they hit their lowest ebb on Beatles Night.
So what's the deal here? After so many seasons has the Idol machine finally run out of steam? Is America's talent pool really that shallow? Or are we slowly realizing that aside from Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson the people who win pretty much get their 15 minutes on this show? (To be fair Jennifer Hudson actually won an Oscar for supporting actress and scored a Grammy for Best R&B Album, but that was in 2009, long after her 2004 win on Idol, so we don't really consider her career to be blooming due to the Idol afterglow.)
After listening to the show during this season, I have noticed one thing that might be the real source of the problem. It occurred to me at a point when Simon was complaining yet again about somebody's performance being old fashioned. Whoever had just performed had just warbled through some '80's drek during a week when the contestants could pick any song that charted at number one on the Billboard charts. That's when it hit me... I'm not hearing any newer music on Idol. Somehow, during number one week all of these contestants avoided anything that topped the charts in the 21st century and pretty much skated by the 1990's as well. One contestant did cover a Kelly Clarkson song in the early stages of the competition. It's pretty hard to not sound dated when you're singing Huey Lewis and the News.
You would think Simon would've done something to bring the show into the digital age, but instead we get Beatles Week. Now I'm a huge fan of the Beatles, and with something like 35 number one hits depending on the chart you follow it was easy to help these contestants who were clearly struggling with their song choices. But covering the Beatles is walking on sacred ground. Who wants to hear Idol alsorans mangle our cherished Beatles songs? There's pretty much only one performance of "Hey Jude" or "Let It Be" I want to hear, the original. That, along with the fact that the most recent composition they could use on the show would be from 1970, helped to sink American Idol to its lowest ratings since season one.
Could it get any worse? Oh yeah. Elvis Night. Ye cats. Get out the fondue forks, babe, because the cheese is flowing. What's next, Louie Armstrong Night?
Resorting to the Beatles in 2010 is like scheduling Lawrence Welk opposite Laugh-In. Again, I love the Beatles, and I consider much of their work to be timeless, but we have to ask ourselves why Idol keeps going back over 40 years for their music. The same can be said of the Rolling Stones week, although some of their best work came along in the '70's. If I were still working at an oldies radio station I'd be eating this up. Give an Idol contestant with any amount of genuine talent a choice of any song they can sing, they keep going back to Whitney Houston, Stevie Ray Vaughn, James Brown, Paul Simon, Janis Joplin, and anything you might hear on an All '80's Weekend on Sunny 95. And where are the country acts? It's not my cup of meat, but Country is today's pop music. Doesn't anybody show up at Idol auditions who knows who Garth Brooks is?
Granted, there may be some hidden restrictions on what songs Idol can clear for broadcast, and that's the real reason more recent hits don't make the show. I wouldn't blame some songwriters for not wanting their songs associated with American Idol, or tainted by a bad performance. Has anyone heard a Carol King tune on Idol? And maybe Idol doesn't want to pay composers what their songs are really worth. Paul McCartney has never had a problem with selling his songs to just about anybody, but he knows the Beatles are an exception to just about every rule in the business, and people will be buying "Abby Road" long after Idol becomes a piece of nostalgia, if it isn't already.
A few nights ago I met some friends for drinks at a local bar. This was not a fancy place and not a redneck dive, just a neighborhood watering hole with pool tables and NASCAR on the TV's. People kept putting money in the jukebox. I was probably the oldest person in the place. Most people looked to be in their 20's or 30's. A few guys in dusty ball caps sporting goatees may have been on final approach to 40. For the two hours or so I was in there, That jukebox never left the 1980's except for one time. At one point Aerosmith's "Dream On" played, and I was in the fifth grade. I don't need those kind of memories coming back to me after a few beers. But I had to wonder why these "kids" kept reaching back for songs older than they were? Did the bar owner simply not stock the jukebox with anything that was produced since they stopped using reels of tape? Maybe I was missing something. I also thought about what would've happened in the 1980's if I had walked into a bar and started punching up Patti Page.
I've been thinking about the exciting new sounds that were out back when I was in high school and college. It was the first generation of MTV: The Cars, The Police, Cheap Trick, The Ramones, The Pretenders, Genesis before Phil Collins became bigger than God, and of course Warren Zevon. It was exciting and new. And most of it was damn good. Why can't I feel that kind of energy when I watch music TV shows today?
Maybe I refuse to grow up. Or maybe the music business did and forgot to teach its children how to dance. Whatever the cause, I'm just glad I didn't have to spend my youth going through my parent's records to find anything worth hearing.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
What's interesting about this spot is that it was not conceived in the usual ad agency way. It was a contest entry submitted by an ordinary human. Joelle De Jesus of Hollywood, won $25,000 in the Frito-Lay Crash the Superbowl contest where muggles of the ad world submitted their entries for a shot of fame and perhaps job offers from the Hogwarts of ad agencies. (I'm sorry to say Joelle's hometown makes me suspicious. Would anyone shooting their spot in, say, Butte, Montana have as much access to acting and technical talent?) No two-hour spit balling meetings around a huge table. No "running it up the flagpole." And no inter-office ass kissing. Just talent free to do what real talent does... create something special. The difference in the approach is as clear as the difference between the reactions to the "House Rules" spot compared to Charles Barkley hawking Taco Bell.
This, by no means, spells the end for traditional ad agencies. In fact, the American Idol method of getting spots produced has been around for a few years now, and it pays big dividends for the agency. Why pay major dollars to a creative team when we can run a contest and let Joe The Producer do our work for us and get a better product on the air? Ad agencies will be just fine. Copy writers and storyboard artists, on the other hand, should be nervous.
"This agency runs on ideas, mister. Original ideas. Now you've got two hours to create an insurance spokesman that looks like that damn gecko."
The other noteworthy event in advertising this week is the boycott of ABC stations issued by some Toyota dealers in some southeast states. The president of Southeast Toyota, Ed Sheehy, of Deerfield Beach, Florida, doesn't want to talk about it, of course, but apparently ABC News Nightline coverage of runaway Toyotas hurt his feelings so he's taking his ball and going home.
ABC affiliates affected by this boycott have responded by simply switching on the network feed and running the full-minute contrition/apology spots that ran a blitzkrieg throughout all the networks' prime time Monday. Apparently Toyota national would rather confront the issue than cry about Nightline.
Although the spot comes off a little contrite and without soul to me. We needed to see the face of Toyota. Somebody needs to look us in the eye and say these things the way Lee Iaccoca did in the '80's. Instead, Toyota seems to be running and hiding from the world. News reporters have been told "politely" to leave the dealership when looking for an interview. Uh, guys... that's your opportunity to put a positive spin on the issue, or at least reassure us. When I broached the subject to my local dealer, the manager turned and walked away, leaving me with a nervous salesman. Not cool.
Local car dealers are not accustomed to this kind of controversy, and their reactions have been, in my view, mostly immature and knee-jerk. But you can't put all the blame on them, as Toyota corporate hasn't been setting the best of examples. It took over two weeks since the first recall notice for an "urgent" memo to hit local TV stations for the one-minute apology spot while an agency scrambled to cram all the sappy production values they could muster into one spot. In the meantime, local TV stations were left with no choice but to continue airing "Buy a Toyota" spots already on the schedule as if nothing was wrong. In contrast, it would've taken about a day, maybe two, to shoot a local dealer looking straight into the camera saying, "We're going to fix this. We'll do what's right."
If this situation was a murder mystery novel, Ed Sheehy's reaction would have the detective looking deeper into his character, and the reader would be thinking, "What's he hiding?"
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Papa John's Pizza
All three of these companies hired ad agencies to "think outside the box."
Monday, February 1, 2010
Which brings us to the current hullabaloo over commercials on the Superbowl. CBS has accepted an anti-abortion ad from the conservative group Focus on the Family, but said no to an ad from the gay matching service ManCrunch. Let the fur start flying. Is it fair? No. Is it a big surprise? Of course not. Is there anything anybody can do about it? Probably not. Is it all a big bunch of hooey to get you to watch a Superbowl that might not otherwise interest you? Oh yeah.
For what it's worth, CBS also gave the nix to an ad from GoDaddy.com for being potentially offensive in some way. We're not hearing much about that, probably because they had other spots in the pipeline and GoDaddy.com doesn't exactly spur hot political reaction.
Make no mistake, these advertisers have a message to get out. Focus on the Family wants a captive audience for their message that might not otherwise go beyond the already initiated. They know that Tim Tebow shares their point of view and have enlisted him to draw attention to their message because Tebow can throw a football, which eminently qualifies him to contradict gynecologists.
ManCruch has a message, too. Unfortunately, that message doesn't go over well beyond Greenwich Village and San Fransisco. ManCrunch's ad agency knew where the line was, and crossed it with surgeon-like precision to get CBS to give them the boot, and generate far more buzz than a single Superbowl would have ever done. Clever.
So, is the network that once brought us Maude wussing out? Well, let's go back to that network executive in his Mercedes listening to Anita Baker. The first thing he did when the teams for the Superbowl were confirmed was look at the markets these teams represent. It's Indianapolis vs. New Orleans. From a Midwestern point of view one team is from Venus and the other is from Mars. But what really matters to the network is the economic status of these markets from which most of the viewer interest will come.
Indy is no cow town, but it's hardly in the same league with New York, Dallas, LA, Boston, or Philly. Once you leave the beltway, you're in Indiana, buddy. All you have to do is ask Dave Letterman how that works. The Colts' secondary fan base is in towns like Fort Wayne, where the market is so depressed that the CBS affiliate there has no master control. WANE is actually run out of WISH in Indianapolis. A lot of folks like Peyton Manning, a star in his own right who may very well enjoy a fine career in the booth years from now. But I would imagine Jets fans and Patriots fans feel no love for watching the Colts win another Lombardi. New York City may just sleep this one out, leaving the largest revenue market in America watching YouTube on Super Sunday unless somebody can stir up some interest. How about the ManCrunch thing? A-ha!
And there's New Orleans. I don't need to tell you the story of that market's hard times. They deserve something positive like this. But from the network's standpoint, the problem is not just the same, it's worse. In the aftermath of Katrina and the exodus of people searching for temporary housing New Orleans saw their market ranking drop 11 places. That ranking has recovered somewhat, but the economic status is lagging far behind. It's kind of hard for a CBS ad exec to convince Lexus to run ads on a New Orleans Superbowl. Don't expect to see a whole lot of brokerage firms and major banks on the air either. They're having enough troubles as it is. And as for ManCrush... OK. You run an ad for a gay dating service in the Deep South and see how well that goes over.
Tim Tebow speaking against abortion in the highly Catholic New Orleans? It's a match made in Heaven. In fact, in much of the South the Florida Gator quarterback doesn't speak for God... He is God. Perhaps CBS was afraid if they said no to Tebow, "God's gonna get you for that."