Frontline Goes Digital

Anyone interested in the recent backlash against public broadcasting would
do well to try out the following compare and contrast exercise: take last
week’s Frontline story on digital marketing (funded by those Stalinists at
the Public Broadcasting Corporation), and plant it down on the light-table
with the infamous Time Magazine expose on “Cyberporn” (a product of the
free market in all its lowest-common-denominator, tabloid-mentality,
monitor-humping glory). The gap in image quality between these two should
be immediately apparent. Where the Time cover story trafficked in
sensationalism and technical errata (most notably in Rimm’s conflation of
private BBSs and the Net proper), the Frontline story was reasoned,
compellingly skeptical, and surprisingly gaffe-free. When Time went looking
for expert testimonials, it knocked on the dorm room door of a
Carnegie-Mellon undergrad; the Frontline folks dialed up Howard Rheingold,
Ray Smith, and Leslie Savan.

We suspect even our old friend Newt Gingrich (whose formative childhood
experiences lobbying for more public zoos seem to have left him with a
serious hang-up about Big Bird) will side with the government-subsidized
Frontline on this occasion. While the PBS program voiced reservations about
the consumer panoply (or was it panopticon?) promised by the silicon
marketers, its skepticism never approached the anti-Net hysteria of the
Time piece. Ironically, the “socialist” Frontline turned out to be more
consumer and family friendly than its market-driven competitor; watching
PBS, we were almost misty-eyed after the glimpse of the Virginia family
happily gathered around the electronic hearth of Bell Atlantic’s
interactive TV prototype, while Time’s Cyberporn issue only made us want to
renew our subscription to

For the most part, we’re supportive of Frontline’s decision to pitch the
piece to the more digitally-challenged members of its audience. Looking
more and more like a weathered Jeff Daniels, Frontline host Robert Krulwich
played dumb to the viewer’s dumber, gee-whizzing his way through the
technical demonstrations, while still rustling up the tough questions when
it mattered. Having taken a few college exams in our day, we know
first-hand how difficult it is to be both uninformed and informative at the
same time, and so we’re dutifully impressed by Krulwich’s performance
(though he stumbled somewhat talking about Web hits while promoting the
show on Charley Rose, and his phonetic pronunciation of “HTML” sent us
scurrying to the mute button). As it turns out, the problems with the
Frontline special had more to do with the show’s form than its content.
Take the jittery, over-textured, attention-deficit-disorder opening
sequence, with the fragmented audio of voice-operated ATMs and modem
handshakes, and the rapid-fire jump cuts between various Web pages.
Newcomers lured onto the Net by Frontline’s zippy presentation will be
severely disappointed by the stimulus underload awaiting them on the Web:
two minute file transfers of animated bananas, “whirling” in staggered
steps across the screen, interrupted by the requisite out-of-memory error.

Of course, we’re supposed to see Frontline’s turbulent, oversaturated
editing as a figure for the dizzying complexity of life on the digital
frontier. Only problem is that life on said frontier is mainly still a
matter of grainy text scrolling steadily down a television screen —
nowhere near as visually arresting as the latest issue of Raygun, not to
mention MTV. If the Frontline folks had really wanted to approximate the
look-and-feel of online experience, they might have taken their editing
cues from Warhol’s one-shot Factory films, and left the jump cuts to the
Levi’s ads. No one seems to want to talk about the decidedly sluggish pace
of the information age — all those hours spent alone reading
absent-mindedly at the monitor. Television, after all, is the medium
responsible for the sensory velocity of modern life; online culture still
feels like quaaludes by comparison. You wouldn’t know it from Frontline’s
spastic editing, but in real life the digital revolution turns out to be
one of the first technological advances to counteract the accelerating pace
of modern culture. And it’s a good thing too. We were getting tired of
loading up on the Dramamine before each episode of The Real World. Thank
god for the 2400 baud modem, the “Host contacted, waiting for response”
message, and the America Online Web Browser. Slow is beautiful — that’s
our motto. Who needs fast?

— S.J. (November, 1995)

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