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Austin Chronicle TV Eye

The Web of Life

By Belinda Acosta

JANUARY 31, 2000:  Television stinks. That's been the clarion cry of media watchdog groups of all stripes and colors for some time now. Television takes plenty of knocks on the chin, sometimes trading places as the medium-to-condemn with certain factions of the music industry (gangsta rap and Marilyn Manson come to mind) or artists whose work perturbs the tastes of certain powerful, yet narrow-minded, public servants. Now, another small screen is coming into focus as a potential Death Star to cause brain rot and moral decay, not to mention the demise of books and the newspaper you're holding in your hands.

The World Wide Web, the Internet, cyberspace, the information superhighway -- whatever it's called, it's so new, its growth so phenomenal, there's barely been time to stand back and ponder it. Fortunately, two opportunities are available this week: one on local PBS affiliate KLRU and the other on cable network The History Channel.

Consider these Internet factoids: The Internet only dates back to 1969. Over 200 million people use it. It is responsible for one-third of the total U.S. economic growth in 1998. And, unlike the few moguls who rule the other media, no one owns or controls it, according to History Channel press material for The Internet: Behind the Web (1/31, 9pm, The History Channel).

Placing the Internet on par with the invention of fire, the wheel, and the printing press, Behind the Web explores the beginnings of this one-time defense department research project to its current role as the leading communication tool of the 21st century. Of special interest are spotlights on the men who took part in engineering the now vast communication system.

Most computer users think nothing of dialing up a Web site to check their savings account balances, send a greeting to a loved one, order merchandise, get stock quotes, chat with strangers on fan sites, meet future husbands or wives, download recipes, porn, or photos of the Vatican, and read articles from nearly every major publication that, in spite of the doomsday predictions for the printed word, requires reading skills. A world of information is available with a few key strokes. Yet there is a large number of people for whom the Internet and computer technology has little or no direct impact on their lives. It is this group of people that is discussed in the PBS program Digital Divide (1/28, 9pm and 10pm, PBS).

Digital Divide is a two-part program that explores how young people in particular are affected by computer technology. Emphasis is on the role of computers and computer literacy in education, employment, race, and gender. "Is everyone participating equally, if at all, in the Digital Revolution?" asks Queen Latifah, narrator of the program.

Part one, "Computer Classes," examines the use of computers in the schools. While many "model" or "magnet" schools have the latest equipment and teacher training, this is not the norm. Because computer technology changes rapidly, and poor school districts lag behind in upgrading existing equipment, many schools work with out-of-date technology and/or teachers with inadequate training. Other issues explored in part one include the role of corporate partnerships in education, how the clamor for computers may leach funding from other subjects, and whether computers really enhance -- or hinder -- learning.

Part two, "Virtual Diversity," looks at computer access initiatives in community settings, where some low-income and predominantly minority youth get their only hands-on experiences with computers. The episode also examines the alienation that some girls and students of color share about computer technology. "If technology is race- and gender-blind, then why are there so few women and even fewer minorities working in the computer industry?" the program asks. The answer lies in giving attention to the dynamics of the co-ed classroom and in the content and design of computer software.

Similarly, diversity and access have been live wires in the television industry since fall of last year. While the issue focuses on behind-the-scenes development of network programming and on-camera presence, another issue goes nearly unspoken: the ability to buy quality programming. Sure, cable television has its share of pap, too. But what does it mean if the best and brightest television programming is available only to those who can pay for it? How does pay-TV widen the chasm between rich and poor, the definition of "high" and "low" culture, or have a hand in sculpting popular culture?

While ABC's Who Wants To Be a Millionaire is the current star of network prime time, The Sopranos, a considerably more dynamic and sophisticated offering, is the critical heavyweight of the already strong HBO lineup. In the end, I'm not sure being a Millionaire junkie is any better or worse than pining for the next episode of The Sopranos every Sunday night. The sure thing is that it will be interesting to follow this arc in television history. As always, stay tuned.


Speaking of diversity... Movie-channel Showtime is gearing up for Black History Month (February) and has recently announced the creation of the Latino Filmmaker Showcase.

Now in its eighth year, the Showtime Black Filmmaker Showcase will showcase the work of four "up-and-coming" filmmakers, including the work of Niva Dorell, Showtime's 1999 Black Filmmaker Grant recipient. The showcase includes: Kings (Dorell), about a Buppy (Black Urban Professional) who is given the opportunity to examine his lean childhood in the hood; Louisville, directed by Joy Lusco, starring the incomparable Andre Braugher as a man estranged from his father; The Wedding, written and directed by Isaac Webb, features an elderly woman making plans to renew wedding vows -- with her long-dead husband; and Next Afternoon, written and directed by Pamela Gibson-Lee, features rapper Heavy D as a couch potato who foils the plans of two crooks posing as federal agents. Black History Month features begin airing February 6.

Following the success of the Black Filmmaker Showcase, Showtime recently launched the Latino Filmmaker Showcase to solicit and support works by Latino filmmakers. Short films by Latino filmmakers are being accepted through February 28. Three films will be selected for a subsequent showcase, and one filmmaker will receive a $30,000 Latino filmmaker grant. Films for the Latino Showcase will be selected by director Gregory Nava (Mi Familia), Edward James Olmos (Stand and Deliver), actor Nestor Carbonell (Suddenly Susan), producer David Valdes (The Green Mile), and producer Moctesuma Esparza (Selena, Gettysburg). Written requests for more information should be sent to: Lorie Hope, Showtime Latino Filmmaker Showcase Program, 10880 Wilshire, #1600, in Los Angeles, CA 90024.


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