Meet the Ozobots

I first met the Ozobots last year, right around this time, at Toy Fair. I thought they were the coolest thing at the show.

What’s an Ozobot? It’s a tiny robot, about the size of a ping-pong ball. You can dress an Ozobot in one of several rubber helmets, and that allows you to tell them apart. (Once you own an Ozobot or two, you will almost certainly want more.)

An Ozobot gets its power through a mini-USB that plugs into its back. Where its left ear might be, there’s a power-on/off button. On the base are two tiny wheels and the most important Ozobot feature: the color sensors.

Ozobot sensors read four colors: black, blue, red and green. Ozobot rides along a color path, sensing the colors below by scanning them. You can draw the path yourself, and Ozobot will respond to your commands.

Ozobot Path

If you click on the above, you’ll see Ozobot first moving forward, then encountering the blue-red-blue pattern, which is a coded command that instructs Ozobot to flash color blue, then flash color red, then turn 180 degrees.

Ozobot knows lots of commands. Here’s the chart (click to enlarge).

Ozobot-OzoCodes-Reference

With these commands, you can do all sorts of fun things with Ozobot. Most people probably start, as I did, by drawing lines on papers with the four broad-tipped colored markers, and simply enjoying the ways in which Ozobots follow them. The experience is not unlike watching electric trains in motion (it’s definitely more fun with at least two Ozobots, and even more fun with a whole bunch of the little guys). Of course, electric trains can’t spin around or pretend to be a tornado—so when you add the color signals, as above, Ozobotting becomes a lot more fun than model railroading.

There are plenty of pre-designed Ozobot paths and games now available on the Ozobot website, but that’s just the beginning. For curious kids, Ozobot is a hands-on introduction to computer programming. By employing a limited toolset (four colors in lines and patterns), children quickly come to understand that they can cause Ozobots to obey their commands—and that programming can be a lot of fun.

And then, we move to the tablet. There are several iPad apps — remember that Ozobot reads colors, and there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be able to read them from an iPad screen instead of paper. This makes the Ozobot so much cooler! There are several starter paths that allow you to see how Ozobot responds—and these come with color tools and pre-defined spot combinations that you can place anywhere so that Ozobot moves very slowly, very quickly, and makes other moves. A second app, called Ozogroove, includes digital dance floors, allowing Ozobot to really show off. (What fun!)

Back to the website, there are paths ready for download (to a flat horizontal screen) or paper (which always lies flat). For example, here’s a game called Mazerunner.

mazerunner

 

Intrigued? Here’s a closer look at an Ozobot:

ozobot-work1

 

An Ozobot costs about $50, but I would suggest that you buy a duo set because it’s way more fun to play with two Ozobots than just one. You can buy them directly from the website or from various toy stores listed on the site. I kinda wish they were selling them in sets of three or four, and I hope the prices will go down. Watching a dozen or more of these guys racing around a hand-drawn track, spinning around, speeding up, slowing down, blinking their little colored lights was so much fun at Toy Fair last year, the onesy-twosy experience pales a bit by comparison. But that the for the future. For now, get started with one or two, have fun, and let me know what you think.

 

 

A Blended Book about Blended Learning

bookThere is no DVD sewn into the back of “Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools,” a new book by Clayton Christensen’s acolytes, Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker. Instead, there are QR codes and URLS. If I’m reading with an iPhone or an iPad nearby, and I happen to have a QR reader installed, I can watch Clip #15, which shows how the Quakertown Community School District produces A La Carte courses to provide students with flexibility.” Sometimes, the QR code reader doesn’t do it’s job effectively, so it’s helpful to have the URL printed below the bar code. In fact, I am writing about “Blended” on an iMac, which does a lousy job reading QR codes with its built-in camera (too hard to bring the book up to the camera, then focus, etc.) So: what we have here is a blended solution, a book that relies upon videos to tell its story in an era when books lack any means to display a video except via an external device. And a free chapter to read.

Add a whole lot of scale, and many more people, and the problem of blended schools begins to take shape. We still have school buildings and classrooms, and millions of students making their way through a traditional curriculum, but many of those students now use digital devices to pursue their own interests, and most of these pursuits are individual activities, not collective learning experiences. So we do the best we can with a hybrid situation that will probably last a long while. The authors attempt to classify, codify and otherwise organize what we know and what it means, but they’re fully cognizant of the strange situation they are describing. And they are trying to make the best of it.

Quite reasonably, they begin with the now-commonplace thoughts on “Why Factory-Model Schools Fall Short Today,” and “Why Schools are Reaching a Tipping Point,” the latter detailing desire for personalization, desire for access and desire to control costs as three significant discussion points. They describe four common K-12 blended learning models: Rotation, Flex, A La Carte, and Enriched Virtual, then drill down on several Rotation models: Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Flipped Classroom, and Individual Rotation. Huh? To explain this not-so-helpful taxonomy, they break a rule of book publishing. They follow each chapter with its own appendix! Brilliant! I flip the page at the end of the chapter, and there are more pages to explain the concepts in more detail.

After reading the definitions, I was unimpressed with the current state of the taxonomy. Pretty much, some work is done online, some is done in the classroom, some involves more teacher interaction and some involves less. Lots of diagrams attempt to explain these very basic ideas—which aren’t all that different from learning during the 20th century, as some students were allowed more or less freedom based upon their own initiative and the teacher or school’s flexibility. (Important not to overthink these ideas, and also, not to rely too heavily on what seems to be impressive technology circa 2015).

The authors are Christensen people, so they tell the best stories about innovation and obsolescence. My favorite one—clearly told to agitate the laggards—goes like this:

…seeing steam’s potential, the old sailing-ship companies that specialized in wind-powered transoceanic travel did not completely ignore the new technology. The only place they could even think about using steam power, however, was their mainstream market—to help them build ships that would cross entire oceans even more efficiently. They had little motivation to refocus on inland waterway customers, given that they had the opportunity to build even bigger, more profitable ships to cross the oceans. Not wanting to dismiss steam power entirely, however, sailing-ship companies searched for the middle-ground. They ultimately pioneered a hybrid solution, one that combined steam and sails. In 1819, the hybrid vessel Savannah made the first Atlantic crossing powered by a combination approach; in truth only 80 hours of the 633-hour voyage were by steam rather than sail… The wind-powered ship companies never made a true attempt at entering the pure disruptive steamship market—and ultimately they paid the price. By the early 19o0s, the steam-powered ships, which started in those inland waterways that looked so unattractive to the wind-powered ship companies, became good enough for transoceanic travel. Customers migrated from sailing ships to steam-powered ships, and every single wind-powered ship company went out of business.”

And so, the authors ponder, “What will become of schools?,” how to design teams to innovate, “The Cost of Getting It Wrong,” and so on. This is a practical book, a companion or “field guide” to a previous book called “Disrupting Class” that is filled with the theory that makes these practical approaches work. Both are worth reading, both for educators and parents, and for those in businesses or other situations that are not yet equipped with the large-scale change that the 21st century seems destined to spread to so many of aspects of daily life.

Six Good Ideas from a Former Supreme Court Justice


The book is entitled “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution,” and it’s written by a justice who retired in 2010. While it’s difficult to read the book without wondering why Justice Stevens didn’t magically bring about change while in office, I suspect that the article that I found in The Atlantic is unreasonably harsh in its pursuit of this argument. As in:

The retired Supreme Court justice would like to add five words to the Eight Amendment and do away with capital punishment in America. It’s a shame he didn’t vote that way during his 35 years on the Supreme Court.

Those words would have abolished the death penalty by constitutional amendment. The new eighth amendment might include the italicized words:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments such as the death penalty inflicted.”

If you’re on death row, or if you care deeply about someone there, those five words make all the difference.

Similarly, Justice Stevens would add five words to the second amendment, forever clarifying the confusion about personal gun use as a constitutional right:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

So far, just ten words, and we end up with a vastly different free and criminal culture. And even if I am several months late in reviewing Stevens’ book and his ideas, I think every American citizen ought to be thinking about what we want from our amazingly effective governing document. Here’s another, this time about the practice of reorganizing election districts for political gain (“gerrymandering” dates back to 1812—it’s named for Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry). This is all new, and a bit dense:

Districts represented by members of Congress, or by members of any state legislative body, shall be compact and composed of contiguous territory. The state shall have the burden of justifying any departures from this requirement by reference to neutral criteria such as natural, political or demographic changes. The interest in enhancing or preserving the political power of the party in control of the state government is not such a neutral criterion.”

UnknownAfter reading this suggestion carefully, I’m left wondering how it would be enforced, and whether politicians would pay it any mind. Maybe it’s the wording, maybe its the concept, maybe its a matter of “giving up” on the political system. That last statement, about giving up, is the whole point. We’re giving up on a system that doesn’t work as it should, perhaps because it has been gerrymandered beyond reason or recognition. Maybe Stevens has the right idea or the wrong words.

Moving on to campaign finance…

Neither the First Amendment nor any other provision of this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit the Congress or any state from imposing reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in election campaigns.

New words, good idea, but we’re caught in the non-virtuous circle of politicians making rules for themselves and other politicians. Interesting article in The New York Times focuses on this issue, and on Justice Stevens’ book. (And yes, Stevens dissented on the Citizens United decision.)

One of the reasons I am writing this article is selfish. I want a good clean list of the former justice’s ideas, and I couldn’t find one on the internet, so I wrote it myself.

The last two are more complicated and require a deeper understanding of Constitutional law and government action. He would like to add “and other public officials” to

All debts contracted and engagements entered into, before the adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation.

This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, and other public officials, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

The final item is entitled Sovereign Immunity, and it’s more difficult to understand than the others. His suggested amendment:

Neither the Tenth Amendment, the Eleventh Amendment, nor any other provision of this Constitution, shall be construed to provide any state, state agency or state officer with an immunity from liability for violating any act of Congress, or any provision of this Constitution.”

OUnknownn the surface, this is clear, but it’s made more clear by the Justice’s twenty pages of commentary. In that endeavor, I’m sometimes a fan—his historical and contextual understanding is, well, supreme, but his ability to connect with a broad audience sometimes falters. The history becomes too complicated, the issues too tangled, nods to other justices sometimes adding complexity. On the other hand, we’re talking about a book that’s less than 150 pages and contains a whole lot of provocative, clearly presented material.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if every Supreme Court justice wrote a similar book?

 

 

 

 

More Thoughts on Digital Book Publishing

Sometimes—but not often enough—I attend a conference that really gets me thinking. That’s what happened earlier this month when I attended Digital Book World in Manhattan.

In session after session, the elephant remained in the room. Fundamentally, books are physical objects, sometimes treasured, certainly thought to be more valuable than other forms of mass merchandise because they contain ideas intended to linger in the home or office for many years, and, perhaps, a lifetime. In this regard, the physical books that we buy at a local independent bookstore, or from a bricks-and-mortar Barnes & Noble store, or from Amazon, are vastly different from the pillows that we buy from the Bed, Bath and Beyond. We associate books with stories, characters, important events, the people who recommended particular volumes, the rainy afternoon spent reading, and so on.

At the same time, books filled with text are easily digitized, and, unlike most merchandise, they can be delivered almost instantly to any connected device. These devices also serve as a reader. So books are suitable for digital distribution as files. As technology advances, books with pictures pose no less of a technology challenge. As evidenced by speakers at this particular conference, some publishers, authors and producers are attempting to transform some aspects of some books into interactive and social media.

More or less, traditional book publishing follows rules. The book is written by an author who receives either a flat fee or the promise of royalties based upon the number of books sold (some authors also receive an advance against royalties, which is a measure of the publisher’s commitment to the project). The publisher’s staff chooses its titles and authors with care, then assigns expert copy editors and other staff to the process of moving manuscript to printed book. Various marketing, distribution, warehousing, logistics and trucking companies make the business go. Physical bookstores sell books, and so do digital bookstores. Maybe 2/3 of Americans buy books, but most buy fewer than five books per year.

With digital publishing, the rules don’t apply—and for so many reasons. For example, publishers need not limit the number of titles they publish for any practical reason—there is no scarcity of shelf space. (They may limit releases due to marketing considerations, but that’s another story altogether.) Of course, bookstores are helpful parts of the marketing and distribution system, but they are no longer mandatory—Amazon ships just about any book, next day.

Still, the roadmap is fragmented. Healthy experimentation seems like the best thing to do. And so, there’s a working session at the Digital Book Conference about book trailers (kind of like movie trailers, but they’re selling books), and another about whether HTML5 is the magic bullet that will ease book production burdens, and another about subscriptions for eBooks (like Netflix: all you can read for about $100 per year, sometimes less). Maybe the solution is a game format—to engage readers who already love the characters. Maybe it’s all about brands—that’s been the key to success in so many genres, including mystery, romance, young adult, etc. No, the answer isn’t traditional at all. Instead, the focus ought to be on search engine optimization and digital means of discovery—people will find books the same way they find out about other things, on Google! Maybe authors don’t need publishers as much as they did in the past: think about indie bands and their schism with record labels. Certainly, data analysis is the key to growth—if you know who your customers are (exceedingly difficult with individual buyers of books on paper, far more practical if the merchandise is digital). Is it unreasonable for Amazon and Apple to control the digital business by essentially duopolizing both the players and the file formats? Should there be another open format and should that format be supported by an industry that promises to thrive on  independence? Maybe global thinking is the key—publish for a worldwide audience because there are so many more people outside the U.S. than inside it.

What are the answers? Gosh! There are no clear answers. Not only is every reader and every bookstore unique, every book is unique, too. The first book by a new author could be a blockbuster and the followup could be a dud. An author who makes his mark on YouTube or Kindle could become the next transmedia sensation. An Young Adult book could (and often does) become a hit among older readers. Just as hipsters rediscovered vinyl records, they might continue to propel indie bookstores as the next big thing (though readers 18-30 are notoriously challenging customers).

What do I love about this discussion? Just about everything. There’s the intrigue of large vs. small companies, comfortable analog behaviors that stubbornly won’t go away, the big bad Amazon that’s “destroying” the book business as those of us who complain love the deep discounts and free shipping, the inevitability of the end of the bookstore that’s been inevitable for as long as anyone can remember. The fact that I am writing about books on a computer’s screen so you can read about books on an iPad—without spilling any ink at all. It’s screwy, it’s fun, it’s a business that can and does move in a hundred directions at once. And that’s why I find this industry, in some ways, even more interesting that television, software, or the other dozen industries I deal with every day.

 

The Isaacson Paradox

isaacsonWalter Isaacson is one of the smarter people in the media industry. As a keynote speaker for this past week’s Digital Book World conference, he talked about the limitations of his most recent book, The Innovators. (You probably know him as the author of the spectacularly successful biography of Steve Jobs.) Nowadays, he’s the leader of the Aspen Institute, the latest in a series of senior roles that include, for example, the chairmanship of CNN and the various old and new media roles at TIME Magazine. Frustrated by the lack of innovation in the slow-moving book business, he encouraged the audience to think beyond the printed volume and its close relative, the eBook filled with the same words and ideas.

Fresh from a deep investigation into media and technology innovation, Isaacson told the story of Dan Bricklin, inventor of the spreadsheet, whose innovation story deserved more space and more attention than Isaacson’s innovation book could reasonably provide. Bricklin told Isaacson the story, and Isaacson was appropriately fascinated. Somehow, Isaacson wanted to extend the conversation with Bricklin, open the book (the whole concept of a book) up to to a broader discussion so that other innovators could tell their stories, and readers could gain a much broader, deeper, more nuanced understanding of the subject matter that so fascinates Isaacson. A book should be more than a book, it should be the beginning of a conversation, an interactive gateway to more information, a means to connect interested parties. Books don’t do that, but given the available technology and associated behaviors of the digital generation, maybe they ought to do more than they do today.

I like the way Walter Isaacson tells a story. I like to watch and listen to him on stage, and I enjoy reading his books. I enjoyed reading his biography about Einstein, and I know that I will read his book about Ben Franklin in 2015 (I bought it for my wife, as a birthday gift when it was new in 2004—so many books, so little time!). There aren’t many biographers or historians I would place next to David McCullough, but Isaacson is one of them. He is one of America’s finest authors.

Walter, you just published 560 words about innovators. You’ve made sense of the science and divergent thinking pursued by Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Tim Berners-Lee and other technology heroes. The story is neither simple nor easy to tell, but you’ve managed to put the pieces together in a very appealing package that I can buy for 20 bucks (hardcover), or 10 bucks (Kindle). Two words for you: good job!

Seriously, you do a terrific job with every book. That’s why we buy your books. You’re a reliably strong author who finds just the right details, composes just the right stories, paints a coherent picture, and provides a satisfying experience. Not many people do the job as well as you do, but plenty of people try, and some come pretty close.

At the risk of typecasting, and at the greater risk of being accused of being stuck in the 20th (or 19th) century, I’m really happy with your work. If I want to know more about Albert Einstein and his world, I can pick up Ronald Clark’s biography, or read the scientist’s own books. If you suggest another book, or perhaps a documentary or a good museum, I’ll jot it down and follow it up. I don’t need or want an expanded version of “The Innovators.” I’m sure you’ve collected far more information than you could possibly corral into a single book, and if you feel there’s a follow-on book, I’m sure you’ll write it and I’m equally certain that it will become a best seller, too. But I would prefer that you moved on, as I will do. I’ve gotten a good and healthy dose of the innovators’ story. I want you to write another great book that illuminates a part of life that I don’t know I want to know more about. I’m sure you’ve got a list of a dozen new ideas for next books. You’re going to be 63 years old in March—and your pace tends to be a new book every 2-4 years (let’s say 3). Keep writing until your 93rd birthday, and we can look forward to perhaps 10 more Walter Isaacson books.

Better for you to explore the wild new worlds of digital publishing and invent some new forms? Sure, go ahead, but do not stop writing books, and don’t slow things down too much. We need more Walter Isaacson books.

So there’s the paradox. Although Isaacson is eloquent about the future, his great value to society is in the present (in fact, telling stories about the past). And if he spends too much time on the future, we lose something wonderful about the present and the past, which diminishes the future.

Same idea, different words: Mr. Isaacson is one of the best hopes in the publishing industry for credible, popular new directions for books. On the other, we simply want him to be a wonderful author. If the author’s job is to tell a great story, does it make more sense to mess with the medium or master the message? Or to just keep doing and allow the road to lead where it may?

Reinforcing the paradox: on the first day of Digital Book World, I learned about the new interactive exploration application that children’s author/illustrator David Wiesner is going to release through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s called “SPOT,” and I plan to write about it soon. Why am I so excited about a new interactive venture from one of our best children’s authors, but so conflicted about how I hope Mr. Isaacson will spend his next thirty years? ‘Tis a paradox.

 

The New Rectangle

The old rectangle turned out to be a pretty good idea. Take a stack of papers, imprint each one, on both sides, with words and pictures, bind it all up, and sell it at a reasonable price. Printed books for children date back about 500 years (a fine article from a January 1888 of The Atlantic tells the story of the early years). Today, children’s books account for 37 percent of all books sold in the United States. In survey after survey, reading books shows up as a top activity for children from one to ten or eleven years old. About 70 percent of children in this age group read books for pleasure—compared with about 20 percent of adults. For most American children, reading books is a wonderful part of childhood.

By age 14, many children find other ways to occupy their time. Out-of-date mandatory school readings don’t help matters—“A Catcher in the Rye” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” are dubious “must reads” for 21st century middle schoolers. Is the answer a newer rectangle? Perhaps a new style of novel with some sort of built-in social network? A book on an iPad with snazzy interactive features?

Roughly 1 in 5 books sold in the United States is an eBook. Parents are interested in seeing their children read—so they buy lots of books, encourage literacy at every opportunity, and justify investments in iPads because these devices could encourage children to read more books, and spend more time reading. For some parents, that may seem reasonable, but 66 percent of teenagers read for pleasure–and they strongly prefer printed books!

And yet, I can’t help but wonder whether traditional books offer one type of experience, and iBooks / eBooks / digital books provide another. (The usual argument: when home video became popular, the movie theaters did not go out of business.) I love the idea of reading a non-fiction book and AFTER my time with the book ends, I love to do a bit more research to learn more about the concepts that the author failed to discuss in detail. Do I need all of that in one digital package? Not really—I am fine reading the book in my comfy leather chair, then meandering over to the computer, or picking up the iPad, to learn more. But that’s a very narrow interpretation of what a digital book experience might be.

scaled_OM-BookBeginnerCollection1-Screen0-w997L-(255,255,255)-iPad.jpgFor example, maybe a digital book is not a book at all, but a kind of game. Scholastic, a leader in a teen (YA, or Young Adult) fiction publishes a new book in each series at four-month intervals. The publisher wants to maintain a relationship with the reader, and the reader wants to continue to connect with the author and the characters. So what’s in-between, what happens during those (empty) months between reading one book and the publication of the next one in the series? And at what point does the experience (a game, a social community) overtake the book? NEVER! — or so says a Scholastic multimedia producer working in that interstitial space. The book is the thing; everything else is secondary. In fact, I don’t believe him—I think that may be true for some books, but the clever souls at Scholastic are very likely to come up with a compelling between-the-books experience that eventually overshadows the book itself.

And what of the attics of the future? Your child—a grandpa with a dusty old attic in 2085—ought to have a carton filled with Rick Riordan stories and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” that he can pass on to the young ones. He ought not mumble through some lame excuse about how every one of his favorite books was digital, and how those books were zapped from the cloud during the great digital storm of 2042.

So do we leave it there? Children’s books ought to be printed and saved, placed on library shelves and in attic boxes for the ages? Not when there’s a new rectangle! Imagine a book that makes sounds and flashes pictures on command, that builds a bridge to the imagination in a way that enhances the experience of a parent reading a book to a very young child (or, an older one). Gee, this must be done carefully! We want to retain so much that is special and unique about the old ways—the ways that we have perfected over hundreds of years, and really managed to get right during the past fifty or one hundred—and yet, we’re raising a digitally native population. So far, 58 percent of children enjoy daily access to a tablet (often, an iPad). Much of what will be invented has been invented—at least until there is a massive new injection of innovation. Today’s tablet probably resembles the tablet of 2018, but it might be smaller, thinner, more flexible. What we have now is a reasonably stable rectangle. But what to do, for children, within its four digital walls?

Last week, I spent a day pondering this issue with a few hundred people in the children’s book publishing industry at a conference called Digital Book World—the special section being entitled LaunchKIDS. Mostly, it was populated by people who work within the old rectangles, but remain curious about the new. Here and there, we learned about newer ones. Blloon (yes, it is spelled correctly) is encouraging people 18-34 (typically, less bookish than other populations) to subscribe to their service by using the number of pages read as a kind of currency (consumers pay for a certain number of pages, and engage in social activities to earn more). Google wants to “massively transform” the space (Google seems to say that about everything it sees or smells). Amazon is trying to make sense of analog vs. digital books, comparing the paradigm to hardcover vs. softcover books, for example.

Of course, there are no easy long-term answers. Except one. Kids like books. And parents like to buy books for their kids. So far, that doesn’t seem to be changing very much at all.

The four most popular children’s books (based upon Amazon’s sales—bookstore sales may vary).

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And, a popular Scholastic books into multimedia project, Spirit Animals.

Spirit Animals

 

A New Discovery: Curiosity Stream

For many people, two of the most powerful words in the English language are “discovery” and “curiosity.” In fact, John Hendricks combined the two words to title his 2013 biography, “A Curious Discovery.” Now that he is no longer associated with the cable network that he founded—The Discovery Channel—Hendricks is launching a new venture, Curiosity Stream. Just as The Discovery Channel (now, simply “Discovery”) was precisely the right idea for a young cable television industry in 1985, Curiosity Stream sets the standard for special interest subscription ad-free video-on-demand in 2015. With HBO, CBS News and other new “SVOD” services available for an emerging marketplace.

03_F-N-NHK-TN_01_RobotsA monthly subscription fee buys access to a library of short- and long-form programs in four general categories: science, technology, civilization and the human spirit. Some programs are produced by Curiosity Studios—mostly, these are short-form interviews with scientists and other experts, often illustrated with animation. At the start, many of the long-form programs will come from TVO (that’s TVOntario, one of the best non-fiction producers in Canada), Japan’s NHK, France’s ZED, and of course, the BBC Worldwide. With two or three years, the service anticipates 2-3,000 titles; this year, subscribers will have access to about half that number of programs. Happily, John recognizes the challenges associated with VOD navigation, and I’m hoping to see Curiosity Stream reinvent the visual interface so that their programs are easy to find.

03_F-N-NHK-TN_04_MadagascarThe assortment of programs being assembled for the March 18, 2015 launch. Many are reminiscent of what The Discovery Channel used to be—before its prime time schedule began to resemble other cable channels (“Naked and Afraid,” etc.). Among the titles announced so far: “The Nano Revolution,” “Simon Schama: Shakespeare and Us,” “The Age of Robots,” “Destination Pluto,” and “Scotland: Rome’s Last Frontier.” There will be 4K programming, too—UltraHD for those who own the newer high-resolution TV sets—including a newly commissioned project called “Big Picture Earth” by the filmmaker responsible for “Sunrise Earth.”

For a look at Curiosity Stream’s demo site, click on the image above.

For a look at Curiosity Stream’s demo site, click on the image above.

Hendricks and his team are deeply experienced in the acquisition, production, and marketing of these types of programs—so this is a startup with a high likelihood of success. The intelligence of their marketing model impressed me, and made me wonder why others don’t approach the market in the same way. For $2.99 per 01_BBC_02_Earthmonth, you can watch in standard resolution—a terrific on-ramp for viewers who are either new to SVOD or are more likely to be fairly light users, at least the start. At this price, it’s almost a trial subscription with an easy upsell to 720 HD resolution at $3.99 per month (which is all that most people probably need right now). For those with more extravagant viewing habits, 1080 HD resolution costs $5.99 per month; the 4K Ultra HD service costs $9.99 per month (but at the start, there won’t be a lot of 4K programming available—still, some is far more than most other services offer today).

When I first read about the service—it was just announced—I reached out to John Hendricks and his team. Mostly, we talked about strategy. The program acquisition and production strategy is firmly rooted in international cable deals. The right deal spreads the risk among several programmers and distributors. For 04_ZED_02_Nanoexample, let’s assume that a high quality outdoor production costs about $750K to produce. If one company foots the bill, their programming budget only goes so far. But if Curiosity, for example, puts in $250K to control North American rights, and finds two partners, perhaps one in Asia and another in Europe, and each of them also puts in $250K for their respective territories, then nobody is out of pocket for more than $250K. Rights beyond North America, Europe and Asia provide additional revenue, which is typically shared by the funding producers. This “split exploitation” concept has been around since the 198os, and it works. In the SVOD marketplace, there will be many opportunities for future exploitation, which makes the venture progressively more profitable, and steadily increases the programming budgets, which generate more and better programming, and more subscribers… the circle continues to grow.

JohnHendricks_HeadshotUnlike Ted Turner, whose approach to cable was mass market (TBS, TNT, and very broad-based news with CNN), Hendricks has always focused on nonfiction, documentaries, outdoors and reality (in the best sense, and also with many programming ventures way down market—Discovery owns TLC, so you can thank him for “Honey Boo Boo”). The point: he knows how to play the game, understands how to segment the market. His first pass: a three-bucket breakdown that includes (a) historically light TV viewers, the 1 in 8 of us, the 17 million U.S. households for whom TV is not a big part of daily life; (b) the connected world of perhaps 100 million cable and satellite homes, the ones that often complain that “there’s nothing good on TV” where he hopes to capture about 10 million households; and the rising 4K market, which he projects at 10 million households total and perhaps 5 million subscribers to Curiosity. By playing a more upmarket game from the start—he’s betting that there are enough documentary, adventure, curious viewers willing to pay at least a few dollars per month to see what Curiosity offers and to support what would seem to be a very promising future.

03_F-N-NHK-TN_06_AngkorCould he be defeated by Netflix hiring a former Discovery executive assigned to buying up lots of rights to Curiosity / Discovery -type programming from the short list of global suppliers? Sure, but it’s not likely that Netflix will zero-in on the nonfiction programs that Curiosity Stream plans to acquire. The nuanced understanding of programming for, and marketing to, this particular audience is not something that Netflix can easily replicate. Hulu probably won’t go there, and neither will Amazon. YouTube is interested in other aspects of the business, so it’s likely that John and his team will be able to build the same kind of success that they enjoyed with Discovery.

In some respects, John Hendricks is a smart guy who found the right long-term niche. Broadening the view, I suppose it’s possible that TCM will offer a similar service—a movie archive with a greater emphasis on old movies than Netflix or Amazon may offer. The days of exploiting an old Hanna-Barbera library (one of the foundation blocks of Cartoon Network in its infancy) are over, but I suppose an SVOD animation service might be able to support itself. Old TV shows are currently experiencing a nostalgic burst with over-the-air channels exploiting old libraries—I now record “Naked City” and sometimes waste a half-hour watching “F-Troop” on MyTV, or similar programs on Antenna and its competitors. Not much SVOD opportunity there. Sports wants to be live—so after-the-fact viewing of sports events doesn’t provide much marketplace power for SSVOD (sports subscription VOD?). Weather, news – same problem; neither is good SVOD product. Children’s programming works, and I’m sure some combination of Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and PBS Kids will fight it out in a battle for market share—a newcomer would find it difficult to acquire sufficient product in this brand-obssessed (“Dora the Explorer,” etc. marketplace), but the BBC’s CBeebies might move in that direction. History never found a large enough audience to sustain historical programming, so it became a popular mass appeal network. Food Network doesn’t focus enough recipe programs any more, and their competition series aren’t likely to generate large numbers of individual subscriptions. Clever marketing schemes aside, most other cable networks are mass appeal, or broad appeal, so they’re probably better as cable networks with some VOD than full-scale SVOD services. I think there’s some potential in BBC America—their airtime is focused on mass appeal but the BBC library—even discounting for rights limitations—is probably large enough to succeed in SVOD. Comedy Central has potential, but Curiosity Stream trumps comedy because it benefits from a higher degree of program scarcity (there’s no shortage of comedy product available). I certainly wouldn’t discount the potential of a music channel’s success on SVOD—perhaps from MTV, BET, or a country music source.

Which is to say: I think Curiosity Stream has chosen its niche wisely; packaged and priced its product slightly ahead of the market; that it benefits from the right visionary and management team; that is it among a short list of non-movie / non-sports programming franchises where 4K truly enhances the viewing experience; and that it promises some terrific viewing experiences now sorely missed. The idea of a truly global, any-platform, anywhere service in this programming space is extremely appealing. In short, I think Curiosity Stream is the right idea for a clearly defined audience that is probably underserved and ready to pay a reasonable monthly fee for the privilege of watching high quality non-fiction programming from around the world.

 

Ellen Rocks On

I am beginning to read what Ellen Willis wrote. Some of it is familiar, but I lost track of her sometime last in the last century. She wrote about the counter culture, and, apparently, continued on that path long after everyone else had moved on. Willisimage_mini was an extraordinarily clear thinker about things that matter. That clarity, and her passion, and her just-plain-good writing are the reasons why I will spend the winter reading every one of about fifty articles and essays in a book that her daughter Nona put together. It’s called “The Essential Ellen Willis.” I’m guessing you won’t find it in many bookstores despite the best efforts of the University of Minnesota Press, but it’s certainly available online. For someone who enjoys smart writing with more than a small dose of social conscience, it’s an ideal holiday choice.

Lots and lots of interesting material about Ellen on this Tumblr page.

Lots and lots of interesting material about Ellen on this Tumblr page. To go there, click on the picture.

Who was she? Ellen Willis was born in 1941 and died in 2006. She was the first rock critic for The New Yorker, a columnist who wrote regularly for the Village Voice, and an educator at New York University (she founded the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program). She was a feminist, and an authentic, long-term voice for what was, in the 1960s and 1970s, a movement, and became, in the 1980s and 1990s, a reasoned approach to social outrage. Her daughter Nona, who caused Willis such consternation about her own feminist place as a mother, is the protagonist in one of this book’s best articles, a Voice column entitled “The Diaper Manifesto.” Grown up, Nona Willis Aronowitz is a fellow at the Rockefeller Institute, an author, and, now, the compiler and editor of her mom’s best stuff. (This is the second effort: the first collected Willis’s rock articles and criticism in a book called “Out of the Vinyl Depths” from the same publisher.)

I wasn’t sure where to start navigating 536 pages of a writer’s collected work, so I started with an article about Bob Dylan that she wrote for Cheetah in 1967. Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” was a new release, nearly two years after his serious motorcycle accident. It’s been nearly fifty (!) years since she wrote the article. She starts at the beginning, assessing the emerging folk music scene and his place in it:

When Bob Dylan first showed up at Gerde’s [Folk City] in the spring of 1961, fresh skinned and baby faced, and wearing a school boy’s corduroy hat, the manager asked him for proof of age. He was nineteen only recently arrived in New York. Skinny, nervous, manic, the bohemian patina of jeans and boots, scruffy hair, hip jargon and hitchhiking mileage barely settled on nice Bobby Zimmerman, he has been trying to catch on at the coffeehouses. His material and style were a cud of half-digested influences: Guthrie-cum-Elliot, Blind Lemon Jefferson-cum-Leadbelly-cum-Van Ronk, the hillbilly sounds of Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers; the rock-and-roll of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. He was constantly writing new songs. Onstage, he varied poignancy with clownishness. His interpretations of traditional songs—especially blues—were pretentious, and his harsh, flat voice kept slipping over the edge of plaintiveness into strident self-pity. But he shone as a comedian, charming audiences with Charlie Chaplin routines, playing with his hair and his cap, burlesquing his own mannerism and simply enjoying himself.”

From July, 1986’s “The Diaper Manifesto,” which begins with Willis exploring her conflicted feelings about hiring someone to care for her child so that she can continue to write…

Before I had a child, I had lots of opinions on the subject. Two years afterward, some of them have stuck with me: I’m still convinced that staying home full-time with a healthy, rambuctious kid would turn me into squirrel food, that child care should be as much men’s job as women’s, that communal child rearing in some form holds the most hope of resolving the collision between adults’ and children’s needs, as well as the emotional cannibalism of the nuclear family. But for the most part, figuring out what kind of care best meets my daughter’s needs has been—continues to be—a processing of disentangling prejudice from experience.”

Progress is made.

“In the end, we hired a Haitian woman who, as a friend drily put it, ‘fit the demographic profile for the job’ and quickly put to shame all my stereotypes. Without the benefit of higher education, middle class choices, or green card, Philomese had all the psychological smarts I could ask for and tended to the baby with love and imagination…Quite aside from our own needs as working parents, Nona was clearly better off having an intimate daily relationship with another adult.”

From September 2009, outrage and clear thinking about the drug war:

According to the drug warriors, I and my ilk are personally responsible not only for the death of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix but for the crack crisis. Taken literally,, this is scurrilous nonsense: the counterculture never looked kindly on hard drugs, and the age of crack is a product not of the 60s but of Reaganism. Yet there’s a sense in which I do feel responsible. Cultural radicals are committed to extending freedom, and that commitment, by its nature, is dangerous. It encourages people to take risks, some of them foolish or worse….If I support the struggle for freedom, I can’t disclaim responsibility for its costs. I can only argue that the cost of suppressing freedom are, in the end, far higher. All wars are hell. The question is which ones are worth fighting.”

 

The End of Television As We Know It

Chromecast_dongleWhen I first saw Apple TV, I wondered what it was, and whether it was worth $100. By the time I saw Google’s Chromecast, I thought I understood what it was, and why it was worth $35. Neither device looks like much. Apple TV looks like a square hockey puck. Chrome cast looks like a thumb drive. Looks can be deceiving.

These devices expand the capabilities of a TV set by connecting it to the internet. If you want to watch Netflix on a TV set, you can connect Apple TV, receive Netflix on your iPhone or iPad, then throw the signal over to the TV screen. Many devices now contain apps that allow you to watch specific TV brands (I hesitate to call Netflix a “channel” in the old school linear sense). At first, this seemed to be a clever stunt. In time, with the arrival of “House of Cards,” it became clear that Netflix, and these unassuming devices, were a pure form of disruptive innovation—taking place on the very same screen that NBC, CBS, etc. had owned for decades.

When Verizon FiOS pixelates the cable version of HBO GO so horribly that it cannot be watched—a very common occurrence—I must choose between “Last Week Tonight with John Stewart” on YouTube, the HBO GO app on my Samsung TV, the same app on my  iPhone, my iPad, and DVD player. Apart from “NCIS”—which we watch live Tuesday nights at 8PM because my wife enjoys texting with a friend as they watch the live broadcast—we mostly disregard the TV schedule. Mostly, we watch via DVR or VOD. The TV set is becoming a remnant of past behavior. Heck, we’ve been “time-delaying” TV programs and movies since the early 1980s.

The almighty TV set was the king of center of home entertainment, and information. For news, weather, entertainment, a movie, or a sitcom, the TV set was the go-to. That’s no longer true—which changes everything. Last week, the east coast of the U.S. was covered in snow—on the busiest travel day of the year. In the past, I would have learned everything I wanted to know by watching the detailed forecast on The Weather Channel. The night before the big storm, The WeFat Guysather Channel wasn’t at all concerned with weather forecasting. Instead, TWC was running an episode of “Fat Guys in the Woods” (in case there was any doubt that TV is in its pitiful final stages…). Nowadays, when I want a weather forecast, I no longer consult the TV; I find extremely local, extremely detailed, extremely up to date weather information on the internet.

Like most people, I prefer to watch TV programs on the largest available screen. We used to own six TV sets. Now, we own just two, and we could probably do with just one.

What I need is either a cable box and its built-in DVR, and a fast internet connection.

—–

The cable box is the source of hundreds of channels—local broadcasts, speciality channels (TCM, AMC, GSN, TLC, whatever)—an extremely crowded timetable that shows which program is airing which channel at which time.

Or, I can search for the programs that I want to watch, whenever I want to watch them, and just click a button. This is the on-demand approach used by Nmarquee-promo-apps-deviceetflix, HBO GO, Showtime Anytime, YouTube, and a hundred other 21st century channels.

While their interfaces are not the best, the newer approach makes more sense than the 20th century EPG (electronic program guide) that has become so bloated, and so ineffective, that it reminds everyone why TV Guide no longer arrives in zillions of U.S. households every week.

(The TV tuner, which receives local broadcasts, offers far less than cable or the internet, but, it’s free. For the most part, that TV tuner is ignored by 80% of Americans. More on that below.)

—–

Consider the broadcaster, the network, the local TV channel. The scheduling viewing part of business is rapidly fading. The idea of watching scheduled television is becoming old-fashioned. Ratings now include post-scheduled viewing, and will eventually be dominated by it. Today, more than half of TV viewing occurs off-schedule. The large broadcast networks are desperate for appointment viewing, but there aren’t enough mega-events to keep the viewers on a regular schedule. Sure, The Super Bowl, and lots of sporting events are best enjoyed live, and there’s the occasional awards show, or special event (like NBC’s updated live theater-on-TV version of “Peter Pan”), but that’s not enough reason to keep television schedules intact as an industry standard, not by a long shot.

Consider this: Netflix has more U.S. subscribers (37 million) than Comcast (30 million). Netflix costs less than $10 per month, or just over $100 per year. Comcast costs ten times that amount (but includes a internet connection needed to watch Netflix on television). At the same time, prime time viewership continues to drift downward—for broadcasters, the audience is 1/3 the size that it was in the mid-1980s. Of course, Netflix is not a television channel, not in the 20th century sense.

MtvstationidAlthough many business leaders proceed with a comfortable pair of blinders that protect their minds from digital interference, every 21st century broadcaster, network, local TV channel must assume that the business of scheduled television is not a long-term proposition, and must also also assume that their job is to promote viewership of individual programs anytime anywhere via any device that the viewer wants to use. Apart from QVC, almost none of the original 24/7 cable experiences remains intact (MTV no longer shows music videos 24/7, CNN no longer shows news 24/7, The Weather Channel no longer shows weather 24/7, etc.) Still, the old TV channel brands face a bright future—on many platforms, not as TV channels.

We’re no longer watching “broadcasts” in the old sense (an antenna feeds lots of people within a Federally-designated geographic area, or one set up by a local municipality for cable service). Instead, we’re watching video files that are accessed, one by one, from servers all over the world.

—–

Final piece of the puzzle: As citizens, what do we need from our television and internet systems? Local TV stations, and their related licenses, and broadcast networks are no longer as useful as they once were. There are better technologies available today than there were in 1949 (when the current TV system took shape), and in 1980 (when cable TV got started in a big way).

Family_watching_television_1958The broadcast spectrum is free, but we allowed, and encouraged, the likes of Comcast, to replace the use of free TV spectrum with a service that now costs more than a thousand dollars per year. Quite reasonably, the U.S. government figures, why reserve the spectrum for television broadcasters if so few people are watching those broadcasts over-the-air. In fact, why not sell off the spectrum for other purposes? That’s starting in 2016—probably about 10-15% of the TV spectrum will be sold by local TV stations to the government, which will flip the spectrum and resell it for wireless internet use.

What about the other 20% of us? About half of that remaining 20% subscribes DISH or DIRECTV satellite services—comparable to cable TV system. The remaining 10% includes  many seniors, those under the poverty line, and some clever hipsters who do what their parents never could (live without TV). If we are going to TV away from those in need, we should provide a FREE alternative (that should include the internet).

The change is upon us. Its impact is evident at home, on the road, in government and corporate offices, in TV stations with large amounts of empty office and studio space. It’s been a long time coming, but the future is here.

 

Flying

If you read this article before the live show airs, you’ll find a countdown clock on NBC’s “Peter Pan Live” website. At the moment this article was published, the countdown clock read, precisely, 6 days, 8 hours, 0 minutes and 0 seconds. In live television, countdowns matter. Every second is precisely measured.

On Thursday, December 7, at precisely 8PM, NBC will broadcast one of the most ambitious television productions ever attempted. While the world focuses on just how wonderful Brian Williams’ daughter Allison can be, how fetching the young Darling children, how cleverly Christopher Walken dances and turns into a monstrous pirate, how great a real Broadway cast can be, it’s worth a moment to consider just what these (crazy!) people will be doing for very nearly three hours, live, on national television.

Peter Pan Live! - Season 2014They’ve been planning for at least year, rehearsing for months, and spending endless hours in a 37,000 square foot soundstage in a former, and notable, manufacturing plant (Apollo’s Lunar Modules were built there). This is the largest studio space on the east coast of the United States, and, I suspect they’re overflowing from Stage 3 to add another 14,641 square feet. (A good-sized suburban house is 3,500 square feet—so picture enough space for 15 or 20 houses—that’s their workspace!) Stage 3 is 33 feet high—which is probably just high enough for Peter, Wendy, Michael and John to fly.

Apparently, there is a company that specializes in stage productions of Peter Pan. Flying by Foy, founded, appropriately, by a man whose first name was Peter. They’re the people to do the job: “With global headquarters in Las Vegas, Nevada, locations in the Eastern United States and the United Kingdom, Foy provides flying effects, Aereography® and state-of-the-art automation for Broadway shows, London’s West End, professional and not-for-profit theatres, ballet and opera companies, high school and university theatre programs, churches, theme parks, cruise ships, concert tours, industrial events, feature films and television productions worldwide.” Apparently, they’ve done quite a few productions of Peter Pan.

So, we’ve got actors flying around. Including two boys who are not yet teenagers, and two women who in their twenties.

And there’s a dog. A dog who must perform on cue, bark on cue, on live television in the midst of a phenomenally distracting production environment. Nana is very well trained, and by all counts, Nana will be fine.

Tinkerbelle adds a bit of digital puppetry to the mix. In the midst of a production that relies, in part, upon well-placed shadows, Tink adds an interesting challenge for the actors. They won’t be able to see Tink. (She’s digital, added to the live stream.) Executive Producer Neil Meron told Entertainment Weekly: “Tink is going to be computer generated and manually guided around the screen by a technician. The actors won’t be able to see her, but that technician will be able to move Tink with the actors and change her size and color to indicate what she’s feeling.”

PeterPan-NeverlandMapThere is an enormous stage set—again, think in terms of a dozen houses or more, each one a ranch-style so that everything is on a floor that measures about 120 feet by 120 feet. On that floor, the Darling family’s home will magically (mechanically, electrically, digitally) split in two to show the vista below flying Peter and the children, with an appropriate nightside townscape below. On that floor, a pirate ship that rocks back and forth, a gigantic fantastic Neverland, the Lost Boys’ home, and a vast amount of technical equipment. There will be 17 cameras—up on fake hills, hand-held roaming about getting close-ups of actors as they’re dancing (lots and lots of dancing in this production), on jibs, on pedestals, everywhere. And they must remain out of sight for two hours and forty five minutes, lest the fantasy be broken. There are two directors and many assistants and associates, stage managers, production assistants and more. Everyone has a job. The job of Glenn Weiss is to direct the television production—you know him because you’ve seen him accept more than one Tony Award while directing the Emmy Awards. You probably know the name Rob Ashford, too. Glenn WeissHe’s a theater director and choreographer with a list of impressive, and recent, credits. This extreme form of live television began with last year’s “The Sound of Music,” which was directed by Weiss (for television) and Ashford (staging). In fact, many of the people working backstage this year also worked together, in the same facility, last year. How many people? I don’t know the answer off-hand, but I would guess the number is between 200 and 300, perhaps more. Camera operators, audio engineers, lighting directors, makeup artists, wardrobe dressers, production assistants, video engineers, dancers, nurses (just in case somebody skins a knee), scenic painters, stage hands who do carpentry, stage hands who do electric, stage hands who do props, dog handlers, stage flight specialists, (no doubt: stage fright specialists, too), network executives, producers, associate producers, Tinkerbelle’s digital team (a digital designer/puppeteer and a live musician to give her voice)—and all of these people must get it right the first time. There is only the first time.

Every one of those people is acutely aware of: (a) the countdown clock, (b) the fact that no matter what happens, good/bad/otherwise, this insanity will be over in precisely 6 days, 10 hours, and 45 minutes, (c) there are thousands of things that could go wrong, but few of them will, and almost nobody will notice anyway, (d) the fact that this will happen only one time and only for less than three hours, (c) they will never experience anything so unbelievably cool in their professional lives. Until next year, when, if the announcements are true, we’ll be watching one bass, trumpeters improvising a full octave higher than the score, bassoons, copper-bottomed tympani, double-bell euphoniums, one-hundred and ten cornets and seventy-six trombones marching all over the small city of River City, Iowa, lovingly recreated in Stage 3 in Bethpage, Long Island, not too far from Hicksville.

On Wednesday evening, NBC ran a delightful “making of” hour to promote the special. Be sure to catch the videos and the energy before the pre-show promotion site goes away!

Behind the Scenes

 

 

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