Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Black Friday

Long before the sun rises on the day after Thanksgiving, a curious thing will happen.

Large numbers of our fellow citizens, still groggy from food and drink, will gather like an army of zombies and march through the darkness to the nation's marketplaces

When the doors fly open at 4 a.m. they will be transformed into shopping Marines, engaging in consumer combat until the last bargain has been snatched from the shelves.

It is no exercise for the faint of heart. Only the fast, only the strong survive.

There will be valor and bravery, cowardice and fear.

And that's in the first 10 minutes.

It's not for nothing they call it Black Friday. That term originated in Philadelphia beause of the heavy traffic on that day.

More recently, merchants and the media have used it instead to refer to the beginning of the period in which retailers are in the black (turning a profit).

In the current economic climate, most merchants would probably settle for Off White Friday.

Come to think of it, it might be called Black Friday because it reveals the dark side of human nature. Mix up a bunch of adrenalin pumped shoppers, disinterested clerks and a shortage of sale merchandise, throw them together in the pre-dawn darkness and you have all the ingredients of a Japanese game show.

It is said to be the busiest shopping day of the year although recently that factoid has been debunked. The last Saturday before Christmas now holds that honor.

And, in keeping with the times we live in, there is now Cyber Monday, a busy day for online retailers, with some sites offering low prices and other promotions on that day. It's unclear if you have to rise at 3 a.m. to cyber shop. I'm guessing you do.

Black Friday remains, however, the stuff of legends. The Internet is full of stories of those who battled and survived.

One woman told of the time she headed to Toys 'R Us at 5 a.m. As she came to the final last item on her list -- a Tickle Me Elmo -- she saw that it was the last one on the shelf and started running. As she reached for the furry red monster with that infectious laugh, another shopper reached for it as well. Neither intended to let go.

"I saw the Elmo first," she said. "She saw me going after it and all of a sudden she wanted it too, I was determined to get that Elmo for my grandson."

A sales manager took the toy away from them before it broke and said they were acting like children, she recalled. He gave the last Tickle Me Elmo to someone else who'd asked him - before the fight -- if there were any other Elmo's left in the store.

Another guy and his brother recounted how they pitched a tent in front of a store complete with propane heater and laptops loaded with their favorite movies to wait in relative comfort until the stores opened. Unfortunately, a friend who had been drinking stopped by for a visit and promptly threw up in their tent, driving them into the cold with the rest of the masses.

Other stories seem to follow a common pattern. Suzy or Sammy Shopper rise at 1 a.m. or 3 a.m. or some other ungodly hour and slouch off to Walmart or Circuit City or Sears or some other big box behemoth.

No matter what time they go, it seems, the lines are already long, the parking lots are full. People camp out and try to survive foul weather, ill tempered fellow shoppers and crafty line cutters so save a few bucks.

Store clerks usually pass out coupons to those waiting in line for the "door buster" sale items in an attempt to avoid full-out stampedes.

But there is trickery afoot. Some shoppers use carts to block aisles so they can rush unimpeded to their merchandise. Others go to the store a day early and stash goods in different departments to avoid the competition. Rules? There are no rules.

Almost every blog I read concluded that precious few of the advertised specials are in stock and many shoppers go home angry and frustrated even after waiting in line all night.

Those same bloggers seem to chalk it up to bad preparation on their part and vow to return next year even earlier and more determined which leads me to an inescapable conclusion: Americans my not be great bargainers but they are great bargain hunters, willing to undergo untold discomfort and grief to save a few bucks.

As for me, I have my schedule all planned out.

Thanksgiving day: Enjoy the family and watch football, not necessarily in that order. Eat too much, watch more football, doze off. Help with dishes then doze off before going to bed.

Black Friday: Sleep through the whole thing. Somehow, Christmas gift giving will take care it itself. It always does. Watch more football. Doze off. Think about going to the gym but nap instead. Eat leftovers in moderation. Think about putting Christmas lights up. Doze instead. Eventually go to bed hoping everyone who braved Black Friday found the bargains they sought.

Happy holidays.

Everything Worth Seeing

I was at the home of a friend who lived on L.A.'s West Side when I first viewed an ESPN broadcast.

Lucky guy, I thought. Cable TV was in its infancy and my company in Glendale basically offered a package of bad reception and frequent outages.

My friend, however, had the ability to tune in an all-sports channel 24 hours a day, the dream of every red-blooded American male. I was insanely jealous.

So he flipped on his TV set one evening and ESPN was broadcasting a women's collegiate basketball game featuring the University of Conneticut, located a stone's throw from ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn.

Two broadcasters in slick green blazers adorned with the ESPN logo ran down the strengths and strategies of both teams.

With their insightful analysis and professional demeanor, they could have been calling the Super Bowl. But when the camera pulled back, it revealed an arena so empty you could almost hear the players breathe and a game that was as devoid of excitement as it was talent.

But what the heck, it was sports.

Later, when ESPN finally appeared on my cable system, I was offered a menu of Australian rules football, Thai kickboxing, darts and a telecast of an airplane race shot with from the ground, reducing the competitors to mere specks.

It once presented a delayed broadcast of the Rose Bowl game featuring two announcers who called the action from a studio in frigid Conneticut while waxing about the great weather in Pasadena.

ESPN has come a long way since then.

The cable company and the Bowl Championship Series this week reached a four-year deal beginning in 2011 to bring the Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl and some national championship games from over-the-air Fox Sports to cable and satellite television.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the deal was worth $500 million over the four years, or about $100 million more than Fox had offered.

It also means ESPN now has it fingers in the NFL, NBA, NASCAR, professional golf, college basketball and football, major league baseball and a lot of stuff in between, from poker to bowling.

Why should you care?

- For one thing, ESPN is now the Big Dog in sports broacasting. It controls every major bowl game in the United States. It will decide to a great extent what you see and when you see it.

- This will end up costing you money. You may get ESPN as part of a basic cable package, but it isn't free. Your cable company buys ESPN's service and the price undoubtedly just went up. Of course, that will be passed onto you, the consumer.

- The ESPN deal does not officially include the Rose Bowl. Right now, the Rose Bowl has a contact with ABC to broadcast the New Year's day game. ABC and ESPN are both owned by Disney and ESPN says the Rose Bowl game will remain on ABC until 2010. No decisions have been made, ESPN said, but you can bet they plan on shifting the game to cable. If you don't have cable, you won't be watching.

- The Rose Bowl's deal with Disney (ESPN and ABC), ESPN's deal with the BCS and BCS's deal with the NCAA all expire in 2014. And then what?

I'm betting ESPN will shell out big bucks to continue televising BCS bowl games.

I'm also betting ESPN will be switching the big bowl games to pay-per-view telecasts. That's right, folks, the Rose Bowl game will no longer be a freebie. ESPN already has a pay-per-view component as part of its multimedia package so it won't take a technological breakthrough to make this happen.

While all this is not necessarily good news for the viewing public, it might very well be good news for the Rose Bowl.

Fat television contracts and pay-per-view charges all mean additonal revenue and if there's one thing the Rose Bowl could use now it is a generous infusion of cash.

The stadium is old, in need of repairs and money is in short supply for the Grandaddy of Them All.

Of course, this all assumes the BCS won't get dumped in favor of a playoff series for college football, something advocated by no less than President-elect Obama who has vowed to put his weight behind such a plan.

But the President has a better chance of achieving world peace and establishing a bull market than he does of ending the BCS arrangement.

For one thing, the Pac 10 and Big 10 don't want to further diminish the Rose Bowl game, which would undoubtedly happen in a playoff scenario.

Second, there's too much money to me made under the current arrangement. Dump the bowl games and you're dumping cash.

When contract time comes around in 2014, it will be a whole new ball game.

And right in the middle of it all will be ESPN, the little cable company that could.

The Wolves Are in Full Howl

There was a time in this country, so the story goes, when a newly elected President was granted a "honeymoon," usually a 100 day period when the new chief executive was given time to set up his presidency.

It was, like the Easter Bunny, largely a myth.

Princton professor Julian Zelizer points out that while approval ratings tend to be higher in the first months of office, there never has been the kind of honeymoon period often talked about.

"The sociologist Steven Clayman and his colleagues have reviewed the transcripts from White House press conferences dating back to 1953," Zelizer writes, "and found that the White House press corps can be extremely assertive in the first few months, particularly if the economy is struggling."

But that doesn't begin to explain the angst and paranoia that has followed the election of Barack Obama to the presidency.

He won't take office for two more months but already the wolves are in full howl.

Just this week, a Republican congressman from Georgia said he fears that President-elect Obama will establish a Gestapo-like security force to impose a Marxist dictatorship.

"It may sound a bit crazy and off base, but the thing is, he's the one who proposed this national security force," Rep. Paul Broun said of Obama in an interview with The Associated Press.

"I'm just trying to bring attention to the fact that we may -- may not, I hope not -- but we may have a problem with that type of philosophy of radical socialism or Marxism."

Broun cited a July speech by Obama in which he called for a civilian force to take some of the national security burden off the military, a plan the Bush administration had once floated.

"That's exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany and it's exactly what the Soviet Union did," Broun said. "When he's proposing to have a national security force that's answering to him, that is as strong as the U.S. military, he's showing me signs of being Marxist."

Also this past week, weapons dealers in much of the United States are reporting sharply higher sales since Obama won the presidency.

Buyers and sellers attribute the surge to worries that Obama and a Democratic-controlled Congress will move to restrict firearm ownership, despite the insistence of campaign aides that the president-elect supports gun rights and considers the issue a low priority.

If that's not enough, a group called Focus on the Family Action is predicting that under an Obama presidency, we will have same-sex marriage in all 50 states, the disbanding of the Boy Scouts, compulsory training in varieties of gender identification in Grade 1, the eradication of religious adoption agencies, the banishment of religious programming as illegal hate speech and the forced participation in abortions by medical providers who are morally opposed to them and the end of all obscenity laws.

OK, folks, let's all settle down a bit. We elected a Democrat, not the Prince pf Darkness.

Nobody is going to take your guns away. Nobody is going to unleash an army of jack-booted goons in your neighborood. In fact, you probably stood to lose more personal freedoms under the Patriot Act than you will under Obama.

Nobody is going to disband the Boy Scouts.

This wasn't a conspiracy. It was an election. And in reality is was about once issue: the economy. 62 per cent of the electorate said so.

Who did they have to choose from? One candidate had Warren Buffet as his advisor. The other had Joe the Plummer. One said the economy was priority one and that more oversight is needed. The other said, "The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I can."

Game over.

Nonetheless, we ought to be concerned that the level of disucssion in this country has reached a new low.

We ought to be concerned that we have lost all sense of civility, of reconciliation, of common sense. Polarization is the operative mentality and centerists in both parties are an endangered species.

We can point a finger at the brave new world of the Internet, instant communications, 24/7 news cycles, endless cable talk shows and partisan journalists. It is a Pandora's Box we may not be able to close.

Professor Zelizer adds to this list "the never ending campaign...

"Frankly, the campaign for 2012 has already begun. Politico has already reported that Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich will be speaking in Iowa to the Republican Governors Association. Mike Huckabee will be in Iowa to promote his new book and Gov. Bobby Jindal will make his way to the caucus state to speak to a number of civic organizations."

We should be worried.

But somehow, this country manages to get it right. This country overcomes adversity. People of good will triumph. Justice is served.

And we do it by rejecting the blatherings of extremists such as the ones we're hearing now.

The View From the Couch

Election night 2008 was the first in nearly 30 years I wasn't huddled down in some stuffy newsroom, munching cold pizza and sipping lukewarm coffee while pouring over election returns, pushing deadlines to the breaking point.

Instead, I watched from home, Joe Viewer absorbing the coverage as the electronic media tackled the most historic election since Lincoln.

What follows is a highly unscientific survey of what TV had to offer, recorded by a guy who was watching election night coverage in earnest for the first time since the Nixon Administration.

Monday: A day largely characterized by talking heads. The best, CNN, featured a cadre of pros from both sides who actually had the courtesy not to try to outshout each other.

The worst: CNBC, the business channel, who had a group that gave the Tower of Babal a good name. All spoke at the same time and then cranked up the volume in a futile attempt to be heard over the others. If you like splitting headaches, this was for you.

CNN persisted in running a scroll across the bottom of the screen that said, "Breaking News: Obama, McCain urge people to vote." That's news, breaking or otherwise?

Meanwhile, the Fox folks ran a scroll during a live feed of an Obama speech that said, "More McCain backers fear voter fraud than Obama backers."

When it comes to creating paranoia, nobody does it like Fox.

Over on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann is making fun of John McCain. I remember Olberman when he was a sports reporter. He wasn't any good at that, either.

Back at the business channel, anchor Maria Bartiromo is interviewing Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa Jr. But soon, her interview becomes a full out attack on union practices and policies. Later, CNBC's Larry Kudlow, an old Reagan hand, is in full rant about what he sees as the death of the coal industry under Obama.

In the middle of it all, Obama and McCain appear on Monday Night Football, interupting a good football game with chit chat.

Tuesday: Election day. Every network has reporters swarming around polling places like flies on a rib roast. It's unclear what their mission is. Voter fraud? Exit polling? Long lines? Mostly, you have a cadre of people looking into a camera and reporting that everything is normal.

Except in Philadelphia.

There, the Fox people have swooped down into a quiet precinct to report that Black Panthers are intimating voters at a local precinct.

Wow, Black Panthers? Haven't heard from them in years.

Fox offers video of two black men wearing leather jackets standing in front of the polling place. One carries a nightstick.

This becomes a top-of-the-page story until the Philadelphia DA's office announces that this was a "non-incident" and that there is no connection betweem the two men and the Black Panther party.

"We don't need anybody trying to trump up anything or generate any kind of excitement," said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.

The story disolves.

Next up on Fox is columninst Laura Ingrham who proclaims that American conservatives have not lost anything in this election since McCain was not a conservative.

In the meantime, MSNBC is interviewing televangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes, which seems odd since religion doesn't appear to be an issue and is never discussed.

Suddenly, it's 4 o'clock, crunch time.

CNN broadcasts from a set that looks like it came from the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, except more expensive.

It features interactive computerized maps that are so whiz bang high tech it's hard to follow the content.

If that's not enough, they project a reporter from Chicago into their New York studios via a hologram. It's kind of like having Princess Lea on the staff. Unfortunately, the technology trumps the message. She has little to contribute.

On the low tech side, NBC and MSNBC are painting states red or blue on a map of the United States superimposed on the skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza. I keep trying to imagine why you would project a presidential election onto ice. I can't.

The first projected winner in delcared at 4:02 p.m., Pacific time. McCain takes Kentucky, Obama Vermont. Strangely enough, all stations seem to make their declarations at the same time.

As the evening wears on, however, Fox seems to be a step ahead in declaring winners.

Time drags It looks grim for McCain. Many quote sources inside the McCain camp that a win seems unlikely. Even Joe the Plumber says McCain's chances are slim.

Is it anticlimatic? Not if you lived through the election of 2000.

At approximately 8 p.m., Obama is declared winner. The crowds tell the story. It is spontaneous and moving beyond belief.

"This is man on the moon," Olbermann says.

"In a country that was stained by slavery, he is now president of the United States," says David Gregory on MSNBC. "The ultimate color line has now been crossed."