Thursday, March 20, 2003

War Watching Journal

Here in St. Louis, the first bulletins of attacks on Iraq coincided with a major thunderstorm. It was eerie seeing reports of cruise missiles falling on Baghdad while hearing the very loud rumble of thunder and flashes of lightning outside our own windows. I knew we weren't being attacked, but I'll admit I did go take a peek through the blinds just to make sure.

With stories like this, I go into total news junkie mode. Watching several networks at once is standard procedure now, but while doing so, I thought about how different it is from previous crises.

There I was last night, sitting in my home office, constantly changing channels on my Dish Network receiver, pulling in five different all-news networks along with the four broadcast networks, plus two live feeds from the BBC. I also had the radio tuned into my station, to see what they had, and simultaneously clicking around the internet to find even more information -- and to see who had what and when -- from newspapers' sites and the bloggers.

That's markedly different from the first Gulf War, when the internet was in its nascent stages and useless for real-time info, so we had to rely on the three main TV networks and CNN, which was the only cable news outlet.

But even that was light years beyond the experience of a decade earlier. I vividly remember driving home early one afternoon in March, 1981, and hearing that President Reagan had been shot. As soon as I got to my living room, I pulled a chair up to the TV -- and I mean right next to the TV -- and, with no cable and no remote (!) clicked and clunked the tuner back and forth between ABC, CBS, and NBC.

The advances in technology aren't just at home, of course. In '91 we got reports from stationary correspondents, wired to phone lines at their hotels. This time, we're seeing reporters going live from the battlefield with the troops, and what's so remarkable is how much most viewers take it in stride, as if they expect nothing less.

This morning, I heard several reports from Rick Leventhal of FNC, who is embedded with the Marines of the 3rd Light Armored Recon Battalion (they call themselves the "tip of the spear"). He was live from the Kuwait-Iraq border, and was broadcasting via satellite phone while the troops around him engaged in a live firefight! Rick is the one who broke the news that the Iraqis were lighting up the southern Rumaylah oil fields. Even without live video, it made for compelling TV to hear him describe the Marines engaging the enemy with lots of heavy weaponry on the ground and Cobra helicopters flying close overhead as they aimed at targets on the horizon.

I used to work with Rick's sister, Leigh, and he's been on my show a few times, so I know that this is exactly where he wants to be -- as close to the action as possible. He's that kind of reporter, and I could hear the adrenalin in his reports.

There were other correspondents whose coverage stood out, including some elder statesmen. Ted Koppel, of all people, was live with some Marines in the Kuwaiti desert, painting pictures with his words, as usual. And you can always count on Peter Arnett to stick his head out the window and describe a missile attack half a block away.

Richard Engel of ABC may be gutsier that Arnett in his live reporting. CNN's Nic Robertson was first to debunk the story about the US taking over the state-run radio to announce to Iraqis, "This is the day you've waited for." He knew that was wrong because he was actually listening to the radio in his room.

Kyra Phillips of CNN was on the air live from the USS Abe Lincoln, showing F-18 Super Hornets taking off. There's always been something unbelievably cool about the notion of planes landing and taking off from the deck of a ship at sea, even before "Top Gun."

It was stunning to see video of Tomahawk missiles launching from the USS Constellation and headed towards those "targets of opportunity" in Baghdad. What made it more stunning is that the video (looking just like a scene in "Under Siege") had been sent back to US broadcasters from the ship by e-mail!

David Martin, CBS Pentagon correspondent, may have had the line of the night when he explained how expensive each Tomahawk missile is. He said, "we just spent $50 million trying to get whoever was in that bunker."

Walter Rodgers of CNN was with the 7th Cavalry, who hadn't even heard that the war had started until he lent them his shortwave radio. They were surprised to hear the news, but said they were glad it had started, because they were ready to fight. The desert must be a very boring place.

Who didn't distinguish themselves? Peter Jennings, for one. While Brokaw and Rather were on the air as soon as their networks broke in with bulletins, Jennings was nowhere to be seen. Maybe that's why ABC was more than 10 minutes behind the others in even getting on the air, but even then, it was with Chris Wallace for the next 15 minutes until Peter finally slid into the anchor chair.

Also on the "ought to be ashamed" list is KDNL-30, the ABC affiliate here in St. Louis, which dumped its entire local news department over a year ago. That meant that, at 10pm, when the networks broke for their stations to insert their own local newscasts, KDNL went to an episode of the lame syndicated game show, "The Weakest Link." That should be their official station slogan.

As I write this on Thursday afternoon, the Pentagon still hasn't launched the "shock and awe" phase of the war. That seems to be disappointing to most TV anchors, because there isn't nearly as much rich video for them to exploit. In the opening hours, the only shot of Baghdad was from the single stable camera, which provided video to all the nets, focused on that mosque with the phallic-looking steeple on top.

I couldn't help but thinking that, with the number of bombs and missiles that will land in Baghdad over the next few days, that steeple may end up needing some Viagra.

If I were a top Iraqi official, and knew that the US was going to bomb the hell out of the city while trying to protect innocent civilians by only attacking military posts and command and control centers, I would have spent all my time in someone's nice private home somewhere. My colleague, Frank, said he'd go one further, and make camp at a KinderCare facility. Maybe that's what Saddam was doing, and still is.

If that wasn't Saddam on Iraqi TV, it was the best lookalike I've ever seen. He may not have the world's number one military, but there's no doubt that Saddam Hussein does have the world's largest eyeglasses. Each of those lenses looked bigger than the monitor on most laptops -- at one point, I swear I saw his left eye re-boot.

Aren't you glad we don't live in a country where our leader wears a military uniform? There's something comforting about the top guy in a suit, but dictators like the uniform look, for some reason. It's not like Saddam is going out into the desert to fight the invaders, after all.

What was odd was that on Thursday afternoon, President Bush did a photo op with his cabinet, which wasn't carried live, but replayed for the press a few minutes later on tape delay. With the questions about Saddam's TV appearance the night before, why didn't we see our own President live?

One last question, for now: when did we start pronouncing "Qatar" like it follows "Welcome Back..."?

Sunday, March 09, 2003

The Ultimate Reality Show Contest

With the lack of ratings success for Fox's "Married By America," and the utter disinterest on the public's part in viewing ABC's "I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here," we may be seeing the beginning of the end for the TV Reality Show genre. Of course, the networks refuse to give up and, in fact, have more than a dozen lame ideas ready to hit the airwaves this year.

Not to be outdone by network nitwits, I asked the listeners of my show to come up with The Ultimate Reality Show. The entries filled my e-mailbox for a week and the panel of judges (okay, me and my producer) pored over them for nearly 12 minutes before deciding on the winners.

Two notes before I reveal them to you.

First, to make sure we're covered legally from here on out, this column is copyrighted, and I'm retaining the original e-mails. In the event some producer reads this and wants to steal one of the ideas, we'll make sure that both credit and cash payoffs go to the original creators -- and I'll take my standard fee of 90%.

Second, we've chosen a winner and two runners-up, because you never know when pictures of the winner in a compromising situation will show up on (personally, I think that can't hurt in this line of work). In the event that occurs, the two runners-up will be permitted the opportunity to divulge a scandal from their own personal history, and we'll turn that competition into the winning Ultimate Reality Show.

Here then, your Top Three:

#3..."Miss Personality" (created by Tony Crowe)
A la "The Bachelor" or "Joe Millionaire," a guy chooses someone to date from a pack of 20 or 25 females. The twist is that the women are prohibited from using beauty enhancers of any sort. No one is allowed makeup, curling irons, blow dryers, or eyelash curlers. No high end Herbal Essence shampoos or Bath 'n Body Works body washes; everyone must use Suave shampoo and Dial soap. No hair dye; the women must let their roots grow out. Everyone wears the same clothes much like a prison would issue the same type of outfit to its female inmates. When they go out, the ladies must choose from a limited wardrobe provided by the producers. Now, let's see who the guy picks based just on their personalities.

#2..."Cabbie" (created by Adam Ulrich)
Contestants are flown to cities that they have never been to and are unfamiliar with, where they become a taxicab driver for a day. A caveat would be that the contestants cannot use any maps or ask directions from anyone (kind of like me and most other men). Imagine the frustration that unsuspecting passengers would have in trying to get where they want to, when the driver doesn't know how to get there. You could even have people go to other countries where they not only don't know where they are going, but also don't know the language (this could play off of the stereotype in the US that cab drivers are from foreign countries and speak little or no English).

#1..."Joe Terminal Millionaire" (created by Yale Hollander)
Twenty young ladies are flown to Rochester, Minnesota, where they vie for the affections of a terminally ill patient at the Mayo Clinic. The contestants are told that the soon-to-be-deceased is fabulously wealthy and looking for companionship in his waning days. A spirited competition which could include spongebathing, spoonfeeding, and bedpan changing would narrow the contestants down to one lucky woman who will be married to the patient at his bedside. Now the dramatic twist. Upon the death of Joe Terminal Millionaire, the secret is revealed. The newly-crowned bride/widow is informed that not only was her husband not a millionaire, he was in fact broke and as the surviving spouse she alone is now responsible for his medical bills. This is where it gets fun. The widow must now engage in a series of goofy stunts, physical challenges and any other types of "Fear Factor"/"Dog Eat Dog"/"Survivor" tasks which require her to don skimpy swimsuits or clingy tops in order to earn forgiveness for portions of the debt. The possibilities are endless.

Honorable Mention: to Don Fogel, who commented, "While watching the group of has-beens they threw together for 'I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here,' all I could think was, when are they going to do a celebrity version of that show?"