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In January 1980 a respected researcher from Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, having traveled to Nantucket Island to celebrate a breakthrough that she was convinced would garner her a Nobel Prize, left her home in the middle of the night and was never seen again.  The island was frozen-in, no planes left that night, and no body was ever found.  This was a major story for several months while I was working at the local newspaper and I eventually wrote a long piece for Boston Magazine.

A Nantucket reporter recently called me to say he’s working on an update to this mystery.  No one still has any idea what happened to her, but it did cause me to pull out the piece and read it again.  It’s still perplexing.

You can read the story here: Kilcoyne Story

 

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[Note: This post was originally published on another platform on April 6, 2011)

Graceland Mansion Living Room

Graceland Living Room, Memphis Tennessee

William Faulkner and Elvis Presley, two sons of the South born 15 miles apart in Mississippi, were mama’s boys, barely high school graduates, champion substance abusers and of course artists at the pinnacle of their fields. They were also property owners, each purchasing large estates as soon as they could scrape the money together.

I recently visited both Graceland, in the Memphis suburbs and Faulkner’s lesser-known home, Rowan Oak, about 90-minutes south in Oxford, Mississippi. It was impossible to approach these places – especially Graceland – with an open mind, but that turned out for the best, because the contrast between what I was expecting and what I saw actually intensified the experience.

First consider the fact that they even have names.  You would expect a nouveau riche rock-and-roll star to give his new home a fancy title, but you wouldn’t really think that the greatest American novelist – a true artistic soul – would be so pretentious.  In fact it’s worse; Graceland is named after Grace Toof, the aunt of the original owner, so Elvis had no part in choosing that metaphorically apt name.  In contrast, Faulkner himself came up with “Rowan Oak,” which is also the name of magical tree in Celtic mythology.   Faulkner gets points for originality and romanticism, but still, it’s the kind of affectation you’d expect from the plantation owners in Gone With The Wind, not a Nobel Prize-winning writer.

What I did not expect was that Graceland and Rowan Oak would be about the same size.  Graceland is really not that big.  A classic Colonial built in 1941, it’s a comfortable home, but it’s smaller than about a dozen houses within a ten-minute walk of where I live.  Probably considered a mansion in its day, by today’s standards it’s only a lower-upper-class home.  The rooms are nicely proportioned, but there aren’t that many of them.  And the kitchen?  Well, let’s just say that this would be the first thing to go in any HGTV makeover.

Rowan Oak Living Room

Rowan Oak living room

Rowan Oak, a Greek Revival home built in the 1840’s, is almost as big as Graceland, with large spacious rooms and a gentile atmosphere. (To be fair, Graceland is definitely larger if you count the subterranean space – it has a huge cellar with numerous game and trophy rooms).  Faulkner bought the property in 1930, when he was only 32 and barely supporting himself with his writing; he struggled for years to pay for the upkeep and repairs, at one point even taking a job as a maintenance man at the local power plant.   In other words, he wanted to be true to his Muse, writing novels that were barely comprehensible to a popular audience; but he also wanted to live the life of a country squire even if that meant diverting time from those novels to churn out semi-trashy short stories for popular magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and spending years writing Hollywood screenplays.

Rowan Oak

Rowan Oak entrance

What’s most striking and unexpected about Graceland and Rowan Oak is their handsome grounds.  Both are 15- to 20- acre estates set in average middle class neighborhoods where the other houses sit on half- and quarter-acre lots.  They have beautiful sweeping lawns with paddocks and riding areas.  They are both fantasies of how landed gentry would live.  One of them even has a “meditation garden” – and it’s not Rowan Oak.

What makes them different is their overall ambiance and how they reflect on their owners.  Each is decorated to appear as they did when Elvis and Faulkner lived there and this has not been a benefit to Elvis’ overall image. As a poor boy who suddenly found himself rich, he spurned antiques and other classic decor as “old,” insisting instead that all his furnishings be new.  Unfortunately, he had the bad luck to die in the 1970s, a decade that now appears to be a bad joke all the way around.  I doubt that many of us would emerge with enhanced reputations if our 70’s interior decorating were exposed to the rest of the world.   To be fair to Elvis, though, much of the house, especially the living room and dining room, is actually quite tasteful (although I bet that, as in many homes of that period, these formal rooms were rarely used).  The famous Jungle Room is certainly over the top, but kind of fun and the TV and game rooms in the cellar are not that different from the game rooms of my youth.

In contrast to Graceland, which is frozen at the moment of Elvis’s death, Rowan Oak hearkens back to a period before Faulkner was famous.  Faulkner died in 1962 but it is clear that no fifties or sixties decorators ever set foot there.  I wonder if this is really the furniture that was left there in 1962 or if an attempt was made to recreate the years (in the 30’s and 40’s) when Faulkner was writing his masterpieces?  The furnishings aren’t the high-end antiques that Elvis scorned; these are just old tables, chairs and couches that were probably in the family for generations.  The house does have a lived-in feeling (lived in by the Waltons maybe) but there’s nothing to suggest anyone lived there after World War II.  The most revered item in the house is Faulkner’s Underwood manual typewriter, which could have come off the set of The Front Page.  The two concessions to modernity are a radio from the last 1940s in his daughter’s room and an air conditioning unit installed in his wife’s room the day after his funeral.

Elvis gets a bad rap for tastelessness and trying to rise above his station – kind of like the Beverly Hillbillies – but I think people should cut him a break.  Graceland is a little garish but not as bizarre as I’d heard;  what critics really object to is the 70’s itself and the refusal of Elvis’ fans to treat it as a joke.  Maybe some of that cynicism should be directed Faulkner’s way.  He too aspired to rise above his station but he worked harder than Elvis did at creating his own myth.  Or maybe we ask too much of our artists.  In the end they are human too, with the usual delusions, dreams and ambitions.  It’s one of the reasons we go to see where they live: to remind ourselves not just that they are people, but to hope that a little bit of the immortality they created will rub off on us.

Mike Wallace

CBS Correspondent Mike Wallace arrested while covering the 1968 Democratic Convention

Well, it looks like those of us who’d so ardently hoped for a “contested convention” this summer will be denied again.  And if this wasn’t the year that a party convention ended up choosing the presidential candidate then maybe we should come to grips with the fact that it’s just not going to happen again in our lifetimes.

But that doesn’t mean these quadrennial events won’t provide good television.  Over the years some of the most exciting television moments have occurred at a presidential nominating convention.  Here are my nominations for the ten most memorable convention events of the television age:

1. Riots in Chicago (Dem 1968) – With the country in shock over the Kennedy and King assassinations and the party convulsed over the Vietnam War, the Democrats met in Chicago to nominate Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The result: the Chicago police beat up anti-war demonstrators as a civil war broke out inside the convention.  The footage is still shocking.

2.  Reagan Speech (GOP 1976) – The 1976 Republican convention was the last real contested convention, with Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford nearly tied heading into the voting. As the sitting president, Ford prevailed, and in a gesture of unity, invited Reagan to the podium. For most party regulars, who had, in this pre-Internet, pre-cable era, never heard Reagan speak, this emotional oration generated significant buyers’ remorse, as they realized they’d backed the wrong horse. Four years later they nominated Reagan and he went on to be elected.

3. First Obama Speech (Dem 2004) – Barack Obama was a little-known Illinois state legislator when he delivered an electrifying keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, the one that nominated John Kerry. This speech, with its message of hope and inclusion, eventually powered Obama’s own drive to become President just four years later.

4. Cuomo and Jackson Excoriate Reagan (Dem 1984) – With Ronald Reagan riding high in 1984, two of the most gifted orators of the 20th Century – Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson – rose to assail him as heartless and too beholden to the rich. Throughout history, most of the most memorable convention speeches have been delivered for losing causes, as was the case that year, but Cuomo laid the groundwork for “Occupy” rhetoric 27 years later and Jackson inspired the Rainbow Coalition that ultimately elected Barack Obama.

5. Clint Eastwood Interviews a Chair (GOP 2012) – In 2012 the Romney campaign was so eager for any hint of star power that they didn’t insist that Clint Eastwood clear his convention remarks beforehand. Instead of a standard convention speech, though, what they got was a bizarre piece of performance art in which Eastwood used the rhetorical device of asking questions to someone who wasn’t there (in this case President Obama).   Nice try. Stick to acting.

6. Reagan picks Bush as VP (GOP 1980) – The choice of a Vice President isn’t usually very exciting, unless it mobilizes part of the base, as it did with Geraldine Ferraro (1984) or Sarah Palin (2008). But in 1980, there were serious discussions about Ronald Regan choosing former President Jerry Ford as his VP.  That seemed to be the operating assumption until suddenly it wasn’t, to the shock of Walter Cronkite and Leslie Stahl.

7. Jeanne Kirkpatrick and the “San Francisco Democrats” (GOP 1984) – Reagan’s U.N. Ambassador, was a former Democrat and University professor and her foreign address in 1984 was little more than a lecture on the evils of Communism. Denouncing the “San Francisco Democrats” who were prone to “blame America first,” she managed to rouse the GOP convention through the sheer power of her analysis.

8. Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech (GOP 1964) – Goldwater was the Donald Trump of his day, considered too erratic and extreme to be allowed anyway near the nuclear codes. Like Trump, Goldwater doubled down, and to the howls of the convention, declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” He then went on to receive 38% of the popular vote.

9. The Al and Tipper Gore Lip Lock (Dem 2000) – What do you do when you are perceived as a nerd and a stiff? If you’re Al Gore, you go on national television and give your wife a long and ostensibly passionate kiss right after being nominated for president.  Ick.

10. Sarah Palin’s “Lipstick” speech (GOP 2008) — Before there was the Tea Party and its disdain of intellectualism and elites, there was Sarah Palin. What is forgotten now is how she revived the moribund McCain campaign and injected energy into his convention.  The speech itself, obviously not written by Palin, blistered Barack Obama with disdain while presenting herself as a just-folks representative of traditional America.   (“You know the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”)  As she spoke, the camera focused on her family: her pregnant teenage daughter Bristol and Bristol’s “fiancé,” her infant son with Downs Syndrome being cradled by another daughter, and her military son about to be deployed. This was one of the first acknowledgments that political families need not be perfect.

Will something bizarre and exciting happy at the conventions this year?  My money is on the Trump coronation, with riots in the streets and the possibility of Trump extemporizing the biggest speech of his life.  But then again, who knows how the Sanders supporters will react at the Democratic convention.  Either way, it will be worth tuning in to see history made again.

 

 

 

 

tv-truth-advertising-intext

This year’s upfronts produced the usual amount of hand-wringing about the future of television advertising.  Oh, for the days when it was only the DVR that was going to destroy the TV business model!  Now we have to worry about digital devices, cord-averse Millenniums, unreliable online measurement systems, and other end-of-ages issues.

It fell to CBS’s David Poltrack, one of the smartest people in TV, to calm everyone down.  According to Poltrack, more people are watching TV than ever before, Millennials haven’t abandoned television in hordes, and TV advertising is more valuable than ever.

Of course it’s Poltrack’s job to make that very case so advertisers will keep coming back to TV networks, but he backed it up with data instead of anecdotes, which is how most of the rest of us develop our opinions.

Nothing he reported was particularly new.   Nielsen data have shown for years that a huge number of people still watch commercials, that only about half the people who play back DVR’d shows skip through the commercials, and that Millennials are still watching a lot of network TV.  What was great about Poltrack’s presentation was the consolidation of previously known and new data into one easy-to-digest package.

Poltrack also tried to make the case that “people like advertising.”  According to Poltrack, “They’re not craving for a world without advertising.” What audiences don’t like, he said, are “ads that aren’t relevant to them. But they enjoy ads that are relevant to them.”

Well, this is one of those assertions that’s hard to prove, no matter how many surveys you give.  Respondents may respond, but they might only be parroting back what they think they’re “supposed” to say. Or more likely they don’t really know their own minds because they simultaneously hate and love ads depending on their mood or how recently they’ve watched TV..  Probably the only way to know for sure is to hook consumers up to a brain scan for a week to see whether the pleasure-experiencing areas of the brain are stimulated by ads.

Regardless, if advertisers are mad at consumers for fast-forwarding through their commercials, here’s a suggestion: Make better ads.

People will watch ads they like.  Often multiple times. One of the reasons the Super Bowl is the highest-rated broadcast of the year is that even people who don’t like football know they will be seeing the best ads that Madison Avenue has to offer.  The post-mortem for the commercials is almost as intense as the analysis of the game itself.

Obviously the advertising world cannot sustain Super Bowl intensity all year long – or across 500 different channels, no less.  But the reason people skip commercials is that they are annoyed by so many of ads and then get in the fast-forwarding habit.  Isn’t it possible to make them less irritating?

And what’s annoying about the ads?  How about: lack of originality, repetition, unappealing or overexposed spokespeople, repetition, unrealistic situations, shouting, moronic behavior, repetition, cheesy production values (especially in local ads),  confusing messages, outdated formulas, people acting like idiots, repetition.  Then there are erectile dysfunction ads when you are trying to watch baseball with your son, or adult diaper ads when you’re watching the news with your parents.  Awkward.

Familiarity breeds contempt, which is why running ads too many times is such a turn-off.  An ad that was once charming can become odious after 20 or 30 viewings.  I know there’s a science to the number of impressions necessary to imprint a message on a viewer, but certainly there must also be research on how many impressions it takes to make viewers hate the product.

With that in mind, here’s a hint to network executives: Put the best and freshest ad at the beginning of the commercial pod. Especially the show’s first pod.  My personal experience is that if I if like the first ad, I’ll watch more of them until it finally becomes unbearable.  Then I might not watch another ad for the whole show.

I’d also like to see research into whether people who watch alone or in the company of others watch the most ads.  And whether it makes any difference whether the husband, wife or kids control the clicker.

In my home, I usually manage the remote control. It’s my wife’s job to yell if I let too many ads slip through, but I don’t know if that’s a universal condition.  I would guess that the more people watching a show, the more likely it is that someone in the room will give the remote holder a lot of grief for poor fast-forwarding skills.

It’s easy to say “make better ads,” especially when you’re not the one worrying about budgets, production schedules and making clients happy.   But if advertisers really want people to watch their ads, they should up their game.  The Golden Age of Television should be supported by a Golden Age of Advertising.