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

 

 

Stuck in the Middle

100bannertransIt might not mean much to people who don’t buy paint to create artwork, or ink to make prints, but Dan Smith’s company went ahead with a big decision this month. They stopped selling art supplies. That is, they stopped selling art supplies made by others, and decided to bet the farm on the paints, inks and other supplies that they make and sell under their own name.

Leisel Lund PrimTek Paintouts by LiesalPutting this another way, Daniel Smith Art Supply decided to leave the business of being a middleman. The company didn’t have much to say about the change, apart from the warehouse clearance notices that now arrive in my email box every day. On their website, one statement clearly expresses the company’s purpose: “Daniel Smith is a leading manufacturer of superior-quality lines of watercolor paints, sticks & grounds, acrylic paints & gesso, oil & water-soluble oil paints. Our products are available worldwide.” This is not a new idea: when Brooks Brothers has been selling its own clothing, in its own stores, Zachary Taylor was our 12th President.Brooks-Brothers-History-600x270

And that made me start wondering about Ken Burns, and a guy who worked for me twenty years ago who just showed up with his own documentary. If the connections are not immediately clear, please bear with me.

UnknownThis week, millions of Americans are spending their evenings with the Roosevelts. That is, they are watching a series of documentaries made by Ken Burns and his Florentine Films staff, a series that tells the story of Theodore, Franklin, Eleanor, their families, and their political careers. Burns is closely aligned with WETA, a public television station in Washington, DC, but neither Burns nor WETA is the distributor. Instead, that job first falls to PBS, and then, to nearly 200 local television stations. That’s the way it has worked since The Civil War, or, at least, since around 1990. I didn’t think much about that until someone I know ranted about missing the first half hour of one of the episodes. I figured the episode was available online, did a bit of exploring, and found that all of the episodes were available online, even before they were released on television. And that made me wonder about the chain of distribution. Quite reasonably, there is a website devoted entirely to The Roosevelts. The site’s logo is the show’s logo. The top menu items seem to be focused on the project, not on the distribution. Scroll down to the bottom and the site is copyrighted by WETA and Florentine Films. In fact, there is a modest PBS presence, and in fact, there is no real need for a middleman here at all. Ken Burns has made a fine series of films, and now, with the miracle of web distribution, he can distribute those films directly to his (admiring) public. Something feels right about PBS’s relationship with Ken Burns and his work, but look closely, and it’s clear that PBS, Burns, Florentine, WETA, and PBS’s member stations are taking this new digital distribution idea one step at a time.

And that made me think about the guy who used to work for me who produced an independent documentary. It’s a lovely documentary about the nasty behavior of a big company, and, of all things, a public passion for a particular soda pop. The produce and I were exploring how this documentary gain some exposure. In essence, the producer was seeking a middleman, a Netflix, an exhibitor to bring the film to the public. Old habits die hard. New thinking would probably involve, somehow, contacting every person passionate about the soft drink, and encouraging them to (a) watch the film, and (b) tell their friends. This is a new kind of magic, and it only works sometimes.

And that made me think about a friend who is wondering about the future of the music business. In times past, record labels signed and marketed artists. Now, artists communicate directly with fans, and many record labels are struggling to find their way. At the same time, authors are publishing their own books while dreaming of the money and marketing clout that a large publisher could provide (no more crates of books in the garage, no more handling every detail).

neon051-580x326UnknownSo here we are, caught between two ideas, two eras. In the former, large fortunes were made by the middleman. In the latter, there is no middleman. Make what you sell—the old American way (and, in fact, the way that many people in undeveloped nations continue to operate, with no clear path to a digital future). And then I think about Macy’s, Wal-Mart, and going back a bit, the much-criticized market domination of A&P and Rexall Drug. All of them hawking their self-branded merchandise, all of them making a fortune by selling other companies’ stuff.

Usually, I finish an article with a sense of direction. This time, it’s more complicated. Kudos to Dan Smith for doing something that makes sense instead of doing too many things that don’t. Kudos to the musicians and the authors and the documentary producers who have figured it out, and to Ken Burns and WETA for working within and beside and around the system as they invent a future that sustains everyone in their food chain. Let’s not pretend that this is easy, and let’s accept our era as the mass of contradictions that our world has become. In fact, some of our greatest internet success stories have been stories of middlemen with eBay and Amazon leading the way, and plenty of successful companies including Pinterest, Etsy, and Netflix populating a very long list of middleman enterprises.

At first, I thought I’d be writing an article entitled “Death of the Middleman,” but as I wrote, I realized that my initial approach was naive. Now, I suspect there will always be a role for the middleman. That’s the reason why the altogether excellent Brattleboro Food Co-op exists, to create a marketplace for local farmers and small time operators who make, but cannot directly market, their local cheeses (imagine visiting every creamery for every block of cheese, every week). And thank goodness for the local artisinal ice cream makers who have opened small shops nearby, more than compensating for the closing of the century-old country dairy that closed before its time (and sold only its own ice cream).

Has the digital revolution washed over the middleman? Nope. Not yet. He’s still traveling from town to town, still making the same sales calls he did a century or so ago. Looks a bit different now, made and lost a few fortunes along the way, but he’s still a part of the landscape, not about to give it up any time soon, near as I can see.

checkout-700x250

The Other Stuff

Tubi TV Teaser from adrise on Vimeo.

Although Netflix, YouTube and other video providers offer a whole lot of stuff, I’ve often wondered where the other stuff resides, why we’re not seeing so many old TV series and movies, and why so little that is produced and distributed outside of the U.S. is offered to U.S. audiences.

TubiTV (dreadful name) is about to change that, or, at least, some of that. It’s a new video-on-demand service with about 20,000 titles in its startup library. According to Variety, “Tubi TV content partners include Starz Digital Media, Cinedigm, Shine International, Jim Henson Co., Hasbro Studios, Film Movement, ITV, Endemol, Zodiak Rights, DRG, All3Media, Kino Lorber, Korean TV network MBC and Korean studio CJ Entertainment. In addition, Tubi TV has lined up several digital content partners, which include Newslook, AP, Reuters, anime distributor Funimation, Havoc Television, ACC Digital Network, Viki, Anyclip.com and Wochit.”

When it launches in the U.S. this summer on multiple platforms, it is expected to be free (ad-supported).

 

 

Mysteries of the TV Spectrum Auction

Let’s say you live in Columbus, Ohio, and you’re watching TV with rabbit ears or a rooftop antenna, not via cable or satellite. If you live in the green area, you won’t have any trouble receiving a clean signal. In the yellow, you may need an outdoor antenna. If you live in the orange or red zones, you will certainly need an outdoor antenna, and if you’re red, you may still have a tough time. Of course, every over-the-air TV channel broadcasts with its own distinctive coverage pattern— the result of the physics of the specific channel frequency, the antenna height and location, terrain, quality of your home antenna and home receiver, interference with other signals and with physical objects like buildings and mountains. Television broadcasting is a complicated business!

Let’s say you live in Columbus, Ohio, and you’re watching TV with rabbit ears or a rooftop antenna, not via cable or satellite. If you live in the green area, you won’t have any trouble receiving a clean signal. In the yellow, you may need an outdoor antenna. If you live in the orange or red zones, you will certainly need an outdoor antenna, and if you’re red, you may still have a tough time. Of course, every over-the-air TV channel broadcasts with its own distinctive coverage pattern— the result of the physics of the specific channel frequency, the antenna height and location, terrain, quality of your home antenna and home receiver, interference with other signals and with physical objects like buildings and mountains. Television broadcasting is a complicated business!

For most Americans, the story was pretty much the same from the early 1950s until June of 2009: turn on the TV, and watch a handful of channels, perhaps a dozen if you lived in or near a big city, for free. In 2009, the number of channels began to double, then triple. Now, I can watch about fifty channels without the help of cable, satellite, internet, mobile technology, or any other means. I just need a TV set, and a decent TV antenna. These days, there is a difference between a television “station”—a license to operate a portion of the local television spectrum (6 MHz, in case you’re keeping score) within a specific geographic area (say, for example, Syracuse, New York), and a “channel” (in technical terms, a “program stream operating on a portion of the 6MHz channel; this is why you see, for example, channels 10.2, or 14.3, when you use an over-the-air television tuner).

So that’s the new status quo. But it’s about to change. Within the next two years or so, the FCC (the government agency that provides and monitors television, radio, and other broadcast licenses) will, in essence purchase, very roughly, 1 in 10 television stations, maybe more, maybe less. They will buy these television licenses in order to sell them to wireless mobile internet operators so that the television spectrum may be used, for example, to stream video any time, anywhere, on to your smart phone or tablet. Most likely, the smallest and weakest of television stations will cease broadcast, including the few that are affiliated with any national broadcast network.

For several reasons, the situation is strange. As a rule, these licenses do not belong to the owners of these television stations, any more than your fishing license belongs to you. It is a permit to operate a broadcast television station, provided at no cost to the broadcaster in exchange for a promise to provide a public service: local news, programs for children, emergency information, and so on. Of course, broadcasters don’t want to simply give the licenses back to the government—why would they, unless they were either required to do so, by law, or, paid a handsome incentive to surrender what is, for many, a valuable asset. This is why the FCC is going to the buyer—the wireless internet provider who will use this spectrum—for the funds needed to encourage the current licensees, the broadcasters, to give up their chunk of spectrum. Why can’t the local TV station contact, say, Verizon, and say, “hey, want to buy our spectrum?” Yeah, that’s a good question, and no, there is no good small answer to that question. There is, however, a good big answer: there are thousands of local television stations, and the FCC is playing middleman in order to maintain some degree of rational organization.

Why? Also a good question, especially when you consider that about 90 percent of U.S. television viewing has little, if anything, to do with the local television stations and their broadcasts. Nearly all of us ignore the thirty or forty free television channels available via any good recent TV set and a connected antenna, and instead choose to pay Verizon, Comcast, or similar companies about $1,000-$1,500 per year to receive nearly 1,000 channels, plus DVR services, on demand, etc., as well as home internet service. So we’re protecting an asset that is vital for about 10 percent of us, and, largely, irrelevant to the rest. Except, of course, when there is an emergency, or so we’d like to believe. In reality, television is probably the fifth most important communication medium in an emergency situation (for example, Hurricane Sandy): first comes word of mouth, probably followed by cell phone, then internet and mobile, then radio, and then, if the power is on and the television stations’ antennas and transmission systems haven’t been zapped by power or ice or other maladies, there’s TV. Certainly, TV does a better job with storytelling—the term “team coverage” comes to mind—but communication of details is better handled, in 21st century life, by other media that are less needy in terms of power and complex operation.

Which leaves us…where? It leaves us with FCC auction in which wireless providers will bid, market by market, to provide the FCC with the funds needed to purchase the spectrum and associated licenses to broadcast on that spectrum, by some companies (and nonprofits) that currently hold those licenses. I am reluctant to use the term “sell the license” because the term suggests that the operator owns something other than a right to operate for a period of time, but the vernacular has the FCC “buying,” so I guess stations are, somehow, selling.

Will this matter? It’ll matter if you have a favorite small television station that struggles to pay its bills, or simply wants to move past the 20th century notion of local television broadcasting in favor of a different idea. Some state or local colleges own noncommercial educational licenses, and provide PBS service, for example, and some of these could go away because the colleges may decide to “sell” and put the money to other use (for example, establishing a new distance learning scheme for the 21st century, or building new facilities for other educational activities, or hiring many more professors, or just endowing their future). An owner of commercial stations—perhaps even a group of stations—might sell to raise capital, and then put that capital to work in another part of the media business, or another business altogether. The FCC is positioning the auction as a means to raise capital for these kinds of opportunities.

Will this really happen? And might it happen again, until most or all of the broadcast television stations are gone? Yes, it will really happen, unless the new FCC chief, Tom Wheeler, can either politically maneuver in another direction (always possible), or some other part of the Federal machine shifts into an unexpected direction. If all goes as planned, some local broadcast channels will go dark (especially in the top 20-30 largest markets), and many channels will find new homes, new channel positions on the broadcast spectrum, a change that will probably be invisible to most consumers who (a) watch on cable or satellite anyway, and (b) see their over-the-air channels “masked” with channel numbers that do not represent spectrum position, but instead, reflect convenience and tradition (for example, channel 10 in Philadelphia has always been channel 10 in Philadelphia, but it has been broadcasting on channel 34 for several years). As for future changes, there is nothing in place to support the contention that this will not be the final auction, but anything is possible, and the need for over-the-air broadcast stations in the top 20-30 markets is doing the opposite of growing. (In areas that are poorly served by cable, broadcast remains viable in small regions.)

So that’s the story, for now. The FCC plans to release a plan in May, and that could change half of what I’ve just written.

My Favorite Rectangles

imagesThe old ratio was 3 by 4: a reliable compression of reality, the extra window in every household that looked out at the world. It offered a limited view, controlled by powerful producers and directors, versatile performers, intense journalists who learned the trade by explaining why and how the Germans were bombing the guts out of London during World War II. Very few people were allowed to put anything into that window: NBC, CBS, ABC and a few local television companies controlled every minute of the broadcast day. It was radio with pictures, a new medium that learned its way through visual storytelling when the only colors were shades of grey.

The new ratio is 16:9, and it seems to accommodate just about anything anybody wants to place in that frame. And the frame travels with us everywhere: on phones, tablets, on Times Square, on airliners and in half the rooms of our homes. In offices, too. There is little cultivation or careful decision making. If you want to make a video, you point your phone at anything you please, press record, and then, fill the frame with stuff that moves and makes noise.

The more video that YouTube releases—that would be 100 new hours of material every minute of our modern lives—the less I pay attention. I am overwhelmed. I cannot keep up with the two dozen new websites or apps or YouTube videos that friends and colleagues supply with the very best of attentions. I am fascinated by the range of material, frustrated because the lack of a professional gatekeeper means I must be my own programmer, and I just don’t have the time or interest in doing that every day. I want curation. I want the 21st century equivalent of a television channel, just for me. I don’t want to watch pre-roll commercials, and I don’t want to “skip this ad in 5 seconds.”

As curmudgeonly as this may feel, I think I’m happier reading a book. In fact, as media abundance increases, I find myself withdrawing into a very different series of rectangles—ones that don’t include advertising, don’t include pictures, don’t move or make noise. I’m now buying books by the half dozen—about as many as I can carry out of the increasingly familiar gigantic book sales that offer perfectly good volumes for one or dollars a piece.

I like the idea that the person who wrote the book is either an expert in his or her field—otherwise, the publisher never would have agreed to the scheme—or a superior storyteller—one that the editors, and the publisher, deemed worthy. I love the idea that the author writes the book and then hands it off to a professional editor, one with literary taste and an eye for clear, precise phrasing, and that the book then goes through yet another reading by a copy editor who makes sure the words and sentences are provided in something resembling proper English usage, and that, after the book is typeset, another editorial staff member proofreads the whole book and causes any number of errors to be corrected. When the book reaches my hands, I am confident that the work is, at least, well-manufactured.

Might it be any good? At a dollar or two, I’m not sure I care, but I do choose my books, and my authors, with care. Somehow, I feel that my side of the contract is to spend a bit of time selecting, just as I do before I decide that I should devote two hours of my life watching a motion picture.

When I find a wonderful film—not always easy, but always worth the effort—and it fills a 60-inch Samsung plasma screen with magic—I am thrilled. Most often, those wonderful films are made by people in other countries, or by smaller companies in the USA, or by animators. Just as it’s unusual for me to stumble into something wonderful in the land of books that is newly released, the films I watch are usually a few years old. Not really old, though those are fun, too, but old enough that I can get a sense of whether they had any staying power beyond the echo of their opening weekend. I was happily surprised by the depth of the storytelling when I watched Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks pretend they were P.L. Travers and Walt Disney during “Saving Mr. Banks,” for example. Do I care that a film was an Academy Award contender this year? Not really, but when I see the words Pulitzer Prize or Man Booker Prize on a rectangular book cover, I always give it a second look. There is a qualitative difference, I suppose, even if it exists only in my own prejudiced, confused, 20th/21th century mind.

What about flimsier rectangles? Magazines remain interesting, and it’s difficult for me to get on a train without finding something I want to read at the newsstand before boarding. Whether it’s The Atlantic, The Economist, The New Yorker, Harper’s, MIT Technology Review, or a dozen others, I sense that I am reading the work of a well-organized editorial culture, and that is presented in a form that suggests substance. When I read an article on a screen, the medium itself feels temporary, and rarely impresses me with the gravitas, or the well-honed humor, that these magazines (okay, some of these magazines) routinely provide.

The other flimsy rectangle—very, very flimsy in its form, in fact—is the newspaper. Sadly, few local newspapers possess the resources or clarity of focus that they did decades ago. Their industry has been devastated by technology and wickedly poor leadership decisions. Then again, there is still nothing better than reading The Sunday New York Times for half of the weekend, often with enough left over for Monday, or maybe, Tuesday morning, too. Except, perhaps, a good fresh New York bagel beside the paper. In a pinch, I can find similar joy in the morning with the Boston Globe, The Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, or whatever quality paper is nearby when I’m away from home. The Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition is every bit as good; after I finish today’s Times, I will work my way through the remaining sections of my new Sunday habit.

Interactive rectangles are something else again. Tablets, and smart phones, are wonderful, and I use them every day, but mostly for media creation (I write this blog, etc.) than for reading (eBooks, HuffPost, etc.). If I want to read, to seriously read, I guess I’ve learned to prefer it in print. And if I want to watch a movie, or a TV show, unless I’m on a train or plane, I would just as soon watch it in a comfortable chair with a nice large screen to fill part of a family room wall, and not listen to it through dinky speakers or a less-than-comfy headset or earplugs.

Who cares? Not sure, but I thought I’d put some ideas on a digital screen that I, for one, would prefer to read in another medium. Since that other medium has gatekeepers, and because few print publishers would allow me to zig from media theory to watercolors to interest gadgets to public poverty policy, then zag to book reviews or notes about recent jazz CDs that I think you should buy, I’m happy writing into a glass box, and I hope that doesn’t cause you too much inconvenience or discomfort.

Sorry to go so long this time. Without an editor, or an editorial hole to fill (love that term), I just wrote until I felt I had made said my piece.

Done.

The News About The News

the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Germany license. Attribution: Kai Mörk

News coverage of a press conference, not a TV camera in sight. But most people still get their news from their TV sets. Attribution: Kai Mörk. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Germany license.

During the past twenty years, each of the network’s evening newscasts have lost half of their viewers. These days, about 18 million Americans—that’s 18 million out of 240 million American adults—watch the nightly network news on ABC, CBS or NBC, with another 1 million watching PBS NewsHour. Still, most Americans still get their news by watching local and network television—that number hovers around 60 percent. If online is the second most popular source, it won’t be second for long, and it may have overtaken television in many peoples’ lives. Despite its convenience, radio is on a steadily decline; since 1991, it has lost about half of its role as a news provider. Its decline roughly matches the decline of newspapers, down.

For the most part, we pay for our news by watching and reading advertisements, and clicking on some, too. Advertising accounts for more than 2/3 of financial support for news. The second largest segment? Direct payments from the audience in the form of subscriptions, roughly 1/4 of the pie—the portion of your cable bill that pays for CNN, your subscription to a newspaper, your contribution to NPR or one of its member stations.

In the U.S., the news business is a very substantial: about $64 billion per year. That’s about 1/10 more than Google, which is, of course, just one company. Starbucks is about 1/4 of the size of the U.S. news business, but the global video game industry is about twice the size, so maybe Americans (alone) spend as much money on videogames as they do on news.

About 1/3 of all Americans now watch news video online, and that fraction increases to 1/2 for those in the 18-49 age group, but this is still a very small part of the whole news business—less than 10 percent of revenues, in fact.

Newspapers are changing—essentially eliminating their printing presses, trucks, ink and other 19th century concepts in favor of digital distribution. Among all newspapers, 1/4 to 1/3 of readers are using a digital device regularly, and among the 15 largest newspapers, nearly 1/2 of readers are enjoying their daily or weekly editions on screens, not on paper.

In just six years, Time Magazine and The Economist have lost about half of its newsstand sales—once a common model, picking up the magazine at the newsstand, now seems hopelessly old-fashioned. The New Yorker and The Atlantic have lost only about 1/4 of their newsstand sales. The decline is steady, and probably inevitable, but it’s difficult to explain why certain magazines have lost so much more than others. During the same period, revenues for Fox News Channel have doubled (but both CNN and MSNBC have shown only modest gains). In case you’re curious, it costs about $800 million a year to run Fox News, and about the same amount to run CNN (MSNBC costs less than $300 million.)

Five or six years ago, many journalists panicked because their industry seemed to be disintegrating. Some decided to take action. Since 2008, more than 100 digital nonprofit news outlets have popped up all over the country (in just about every state except Utah, the Dakotas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Utah. The San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston have been especially well-served. Some are sponsored by universities or nonprofits, some are independent, some are foundation funded. It’s certain a significant trend, albeit a new and fragile ecosystem. Many began with the financial assistance of a startup grant, typically under $100,000, that renewed only some of the time for a second go-round. Still, foundation funding is the principal source of funds for many of these fledgling operations. They deserve our support—especially during the critical early years. Happily, most surveyed felt that they would succeed in the long run through a combination of advertising, sponsorships, live events, individual subscriptions, and other forms of economic support. This an interesting phenomenon, and you can read more about it here.

The biggest change? Digital news sites are now strong enough to hire top journalists from newspapers, and entrepreneurs (Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar) are investing in the future of news gathering and distribution. The good news: this once-doomed industry is again showing signs of life, imagination and energy. As you time permits, I encourage you to fully explore the SPECTACULAR collection of reports that comprise the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project’s State of the News Media 2014 report. It’s all online. Or, download Overview PDF here.

 

 

 

 

 

The Future is Ours to Lose

And in exchange for free internet searches, discounts on books and other merchandise, posting pictures of family and friends, and playing games, we’re giving it away. Giving away our means to earn a living. Giving away our privacy and most personal information. Giving away copyright protection, our health care data, our time. Making large companies and internet entrepreneurs wealthy. Waving goodbye to economic opportunities that could, in the mind of non-economist but future thinker Jaron Lanier in a creepily fascinating book called Who Owns the Future. From the book jacket, a clear explanation of a complicated book:

Lanier asserts that the rise of digital networks led our economy into recession and decimated the middle class…In this ambitious and deeply humane book, Lanier charts the path toward a new information economy that will stabilize the middle class and allow it to grow. It is time for ordinary people to be rewarded for what they do and share on the web.”

futureukuscomboCertainly, creative professionals have seen new opportunities, but many jobs have disappeared, crumbled, or become so easy for amateurs to do, there is little perceived need for professional work. Two examples: illustration and another is photography. What about people who drive for a living? Lanier: “A great portion of the global middle classes works behind a wheel. Many have entered middle-class life as a taxi driver or truck driver. It’s hard to imagine a world without commercial drivers. A traditional entry ramp into economic sustenance for fresh arrivals to big cities like New York would be gone. Wave after wave of middle class immigrants drove New York taxis. And I’m trying to imagine the meeting when someone tries to explain to the Teamsters that nothing like their services will ever be needed again.” You see this in the battles between the everyone-can-be-a-cabbie service Uber and the people who actually make their living by moving people.  Soon, cars will move without drivers. Lanier: “Both cabbies and truckers have managed to build up levees…they’ll be able to delay the change…there might be a compromise in which a Teamster or cabbie sits there passively, along for the ride, perhaps to man a failsafe button…the world of work behind the wheel will drain away in a generation.”

Lanier: “What about liberal arts professors at a state college. Some academic will hang on, but the prospects are grim if education is seduced by the Siren song… The future of “free” will beckon. Get educated for free now! But don’t plan on a job as an educator.”

Lanier’s Siren server combines a Siren’s song with a server that collects information, provides appealing benefits, and causes tremendous destruction as it is managed by a wealthy few. The Siren server is portrayed as a monster stomping the life out of everything in its path. Health care? Empathetic robots empowered by Big Blue’s encyclopedic database of knowledge, the processing speed of a digital chess champion, and unbelievably precise motor skills. The list goes on.

So what’s to be done? It’s tough for anyone to survive in the modern world with a “just say no to the Siren servers!” philosophy. So much relies upon credit cards, EZ-Pass, Android, and, yes, Netflix (now my most-used television “channel”). What’s more, there’s the “Pervasive Creepy Conundrums: online security, privacy, and identity.”

Lanier builds his case for divergence with a disheartening disclaimer: he cannot explain the idea simply. In fact, he can, and somehow, his editor did not delete most of chapters 16-20 because they take too long to set up a very good, very simple idea: two-way links. He appropriately credits an early home computing visionary, Ted Nelson, whose name may be familiar because he was the guy who originated HyperCard, which Ars Technica describes in a wonderful article entitled “25 years of HyperCard—the missing link to the Web.”

hypercard_tutorial_posterLet’s continue down that path: “The foundational idea of humanist computing is that provenance is valuable. Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for value they contribute that can be sent or stored on a digital network.” I agree. For more about why and how I agree, see my recent articles about Google Books.

Simply: “If two-way linking had been in place, a homeowner would have known who had leveraged the mortgage, and a musician would have known who had copied his music.”

Lanier is right: That changes everything!

It’s a complicated fix, a change in the architecture of so many things digital, but it’s worth the shift. Here’s a straightforward example of why: “When you buy a physical book, you can resell it at will…” It is yours to own, sell, repurpose. “You can get the author to sign it, to make it more meaningful to you, and to increase its value.” With an eBook, you have only purchased “tenuous” rights within “someone else’s company store.” And so, “Your decision space is reduced.” It’s just not a fair deal. What’s more, this kind of thinking leads to the kinds of big company, big brother control that makes nobody comfortable (and few people wealth).

Lanier’s theory about “commercial symmetry” places everyone—companies and individuals, governments and other institutions—on a level playing field. Rules apply in both directions. People’s rights are not reduced. There is fair play. I am not required to subsidize ESPN on my cable bill; I don’t watch, and probably will never watch, most of the cable channels that I am required to fund each month. We’re trying to do something like this with health care—patient rights and all of that—but the health care system is not likely to share information about its economics. Students are graded by teachers, but (most of the time), teachers are not graded by students or (much of the time) by their employers or the larger body of taxpayers who fund their salaries, benefits and pensions.

Still, there is that looming question: is the value that we provide to, say, EZ-Pass or Netflix, transferable to real income for individuals who must earn a living. If Netflix discounted its services in exchange the data that we provide, would that result in more or less employment overall? Less, I suspect—but I’m operating within a present-day reality, and if we’ve learned anything from the future’s past, paradigm shifts change all of the rules.

Lanier probably doesn’t have the answers, but he writes in a way that makes you think, and he ignites meaningful conversations like this one. Smart guy, interesting book.

Lanier

The New Economics of Quality Television

The scheme worked. And it’s about to work again, this time in a way that nobody anticipated.

First time out, it was the early 1980s, and the new cable industry was winning a lot of franchises from municipal governments, and making a lot of promises. Among them: all sorts of new television channels. The scheme: customers pay a few dollars each month, and if enough households subscribe, there will be enough money for lots of new television programs. These days, over 100 million subscribers pay over $150 per month—that’s $150,000,000 x 12 months each year, enough money for Comcast to buy NBC and Universal Pictures.

Alpha House

Here comes the next scheme, the next game changer. You’ve probably heard about Amazon Prime’s entry into the television programming space. According to the NY Times, here’s how the process worked:

After an invitation by the company, some 5,000 scripts were submitted last year, and in the spring, 14 pilots were commissioned. Amazon then stood back and watched what 215 million active customers clicked on.

There are no commercials. There is a kind-of, sort-of subscription fee. Amazon is a company that sells a lot of products by mail. They compete with other companies that sell a lot of products by mail. One way to encourage Amazon customer loyalty is with a loyalty program that involves discounts. Amazon’s discount program is called Amazon Prime. You pay $79 per year, and you don’t have to pay for shopping. As an incentive, you can watch a growing number of television shows and movies. Some are free. Most are available pay-per-view for a few dollars.

In days past, television programs were produced to “sell soap.” The commercials paid the cost of operating the network and the cost of producing the program.

Now, television programs are being produced to “pay the shipping cost of the soap.” Somehow, this seems lower on the food chain. Will it work?

Amazon Prime offerYup. Why? Because Amazon, and Netflix, and to some extent Hulu, are not carrying 20th century baggage. They operate by analyze the actual viewing habits of real customers. It’s a good model and a not-so-good model. The good: their judgments will be right much more often than they are wrong. And that provides a solid foundation for a business. The not-so-good: gut instinct, loyalty, and softer judgments will ride a rougher road. In an extreme situation, where machines make all of the decisions, there would be no Seinfeld, no situation where an eager program convinced other executives to stick with a show despite its crumby ratings. In real world, that programmer’s ability to persuade will be blunted, not all of the time, but often, because the “data doesn’t lie.”

Of course, the arguments crumble when the actual process of making television programs enters the argument. Writers don’t much care about data, they care about story. As long as the distribution is reaching a large audience with sufficient promotion, and as long as they are paid a good fee, actors and directors don’t much care about the intricacies of new media distribution. Or do they? That’s the part where the game could change. The economics of Amazon and other data-based program services are vastly different from advertising and subscription models.

Why? Because data-based services do not solely rely upon the old-school revenue streams. Amazon’s game is global branding to drive mail order purchases for every available product in the world to every country in the world. If they need to pay John Goodman a dozen times what NBC would consider reasonable, that’s fine with Amazon. Their purpose changes the economics of the game. And because Amazon and its kin are working with data and  operating without the need to fill a 24/7 schedule, they can focus their resources on actual viewing habits, actual consumption patterns, and they can provide producers and writers and directors with moment-by-moment viewer data (when the viewer paused, when the viewer dumped out, how often the viewer re-watched the episode). When creative people learn to use this information in a productive way (imagine the creative battles before all of this settles down), the paradigm will shift, and no film student will graduate without a thorough understanding of data analysis in the creative process.

Armed with endless data, a global marketplace, (effectively) endless cash, and the ability to engage the biggest stars for whatever purpose Amazon deems necessary, the game change is about to begin.

BTW: I thought the Alpha House pilot was very good, entertaining, unpretentious, avoiding the nasty tedium that ultimately limited my fascination with House of Cards. Whether a computer made the judgement, or some clever program executives made it happen, I’ve gotta say “good job.” I look forward to watching the episodes in series, and discovering what else Amazon is unleashing.

“The forced, bloated expanding bundle”

I like the phrase. It was used to describe the way Americans are forced to subscribe to cable television–if you want cable, you must pay for a tremendous number of unwanted channels. In the industry, the result of unbundling is called “a la carte” cable service because the operator allows you to select, and pay for, only the channels that you will actually watch. Bundled cable is, of course, the reason why Comcast accumulated enough money to buy NBC and Universal Pictures. It’s a sweet deal for cable operators, and for the cable industry, which is funded by selling products to people who don’t want them, but cannot do anything except, to use an example, buy everything in the store in order to make sure they have access to the loaf of bread and the jar of peanut butter. It’s a brilliant marketing scheme, and an utter failure of anything resembling consumer protection in the United States.

I could go on and on, and I could also make a case for why some aspects of the bundling business have utterly changed the television industry for the better. Mostly, though, I wanted to introduce you to an article about shifts in Canada’s cable television business that was published by Reuters last week. Here’s the start of it… to read the whole article, click here:

Subscribers to Rogers Cable in Canada can select from these a la carte channels. Most are not big name channels, but once the a la carte habits gains a foothold, the entire cable business may change.

Subscribers to Rogers Cable in Canada can select from these a la carte channels. Most are not big name channels, but once the a la carte habits gains a foothold, the entire cable business may change.

Analysis: Canadian Cable TV’s ‘a la carte’ menu begins to take hold

By Liana B. Baker and Alastair Sharp

NEW YORK/TORONTO | Thu Sep 19, 2013 12:49pm EDT

(Reuters) – A transformation in how some Canadian cable TV companies sell channels to consumers might be a sign of things to come in the much bigger U.S. market.

With “a la carte” pricing, cable companies are offering Canadians an alternative to “take-it-or-leave-it” bundles that effectively force viewers there – and in the United States – to pay for channels that they do not watch in order to get access to those they do.

(and so on)

AM, FM, UHF and the Future

Two weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article entitled “A Quest to Save AM Before It’s Lost in the Static.” The average listener to NPR is 56 years old, and new ones aren’t coming on board so quickly because of music services like Pandora. The big question that broadcast television executives are asking is whether there is a future for local television broadcast stations. In fact, the FCC is asking the same question, anxious to buy back a bunch of local television spectrum and sell it to the wireless operators because they say they represent the future. A century ago, we were trying to imagine a world where broadcast radio and television stations might someday exist. Now, we’re wondering whether we need them at all.

I really love this picture of a 1965 AM radio. It comes from a Ford Mustang. To see more, click on the radio.

I really love this picture of a 1965 AM radio. It comes from a Ford Mustang. To see more, click on the radio.

I suspect AM and FM radio are easier to defend because they provide news, sports, weather, emergency information, and entertainment for people on the road. Half of  radio listening happens either in a car or a truck (the rest happens at home, and to a  lesser extent, in workplaces). Once an also-ran, FM  is now the most popular part of the radio band. Music sounds much better on FM than AM radio, so AM is used, mostly, for talk, news, and religion (you knew that). Following the audience, many sports teams have moved to FM, leaving the AM landscape that much more barren. The New York Times article describes an effort to upgrade AM radio, an improvement requiring the replacement of every car and home radio. That seems as unlikely as the replacement of analog television seemed just a few years ago. But we did it.

The digital television transition moved some local broadcasters to other channels (“masked” with their old TV channel IDs so you never noticed), improved some signals for some households (worsened some signals for other households), and greatly increased the available television channels that could be transmitted by a single television station. Most network affiliates have made little meaningful use of  additional bandwidth, but MeTV, retroTV, and Antenna TV are among the entrepreneurial newcomers that make use of the additional bandwidth.  A handful of new non-commercial public networks have emerged, including several importing programs or full channels from other countries including Japan and France.

Jeannie_Bewitched_Website-960x445Where does  this lead? And how do we even begin to think about the future when so much television viewing is now on-demand and so much audio listening is via Pandora, podcasts, Sirius XM, and audible?

Let’s start with the audio side. Traditional radio listening is probably entering its final innings. The disruptive technology is mobile internet. It’s no longer a techno-stretch to include an internet device in an automobile or truck. Hundreds of channels are replaced by thousands. On-demand replaces scheduled programs.  ANy smart phone doubles as an audio file server, easily replenished via the cloud, and, with increasing reliability, the cloud itself becomes the server as the driver enjoys a live stream without considering its source. Program your vehicle with voice-activated instructions, and the car will know  you prefer Car Talk on Tuesday mornings during your commute. Brands matter, podcasts matter, but 24/7 feeds of country music and local news breaks don’t, or won’t. Press a button to see and hear local traffic conditions with appropriate automated warnings, and suggested re-routings. Sirius XM is trying to stay ahead of the curve by selling its own internet channel packages, and starting its own on-demand services. Good idea, but a half dozen companies will offer, more or less, similar subscription services, and, of course, everybody is competing with free (free has been the standard for AM and FM radio, and old habits are hard to change). Add audiobooks and podcasts to the mix, and the AM/FM prognosis becomes even more gloomy.

What about TV?With few exceptions, people watch programs, not networks. New matters less than buzz. If you haven’t seen it yet, last season’s Boardwalk Empire trumps  this season’s Girls. There is so much product,  so much fragmentation of viewing time, everyone plays catch-up almost all of the time. Catch-up has the potential to transform large numbers of viewers into video library consumers , not television viewers who know or care what’s on NBC on Wednesday nights at 9PM. In fact, if there was no broadcast television, viewers would quickly find alternatives on cable, on demand, and various internet services. Which is to say, 20th century television is probably enjoying its last laps. We just don’t need what we had before–there are better alternatives.

With broadcast radio and broadcast television, we established and continue to enjoy a public trust. As members of the public, we provide broadcast spectrum, at no charge, to the likes of CBS and its local affiliates, and they provide a mix of news, entertainment, and other useful or interesting stuff at no charge. The whole thing is monitored by an FCC that is not perfect, but generally watches out for abuses, and the public’s interests. That’s all good, and that’s in the process of going away.

In its place, there is no public trust, no assurance of an appropriate mix of news, entertainment and other useful or interesting stuff, and almost none of it will be provided at no charge. We are making a VERY POOR choice. We have missed a step. We are handing our mass communications to companies whose principal business is collecting monthly fees for services, not attending to the needs of the communities they serve, not attending to any national agenda or public interest. We have already seen bad behavior from operators who wish to constrain what is and is not made available through their commercially-controlled networks. We will see more control–all quite reasonable because these companies are not required, nor encouraged, to do good. They are required (by shareholders) and encouraged (by advertisers and subscribers) to keep the public interested, to capture our imagination and attention, but not for anything resembling good reason.

In short, we are missing a step. You and me, we have some interests to protect here. We should be unwilling to transfer control of all media to companies with no meaningful public interest requirement.

Let’s think about that. And let’s continue the conversation in the  near future.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 222 other followers