From Television City in Hollywood…

Apparently, CBS is selling Television City–a complex of TV studios built in the 1950s on the site of an old stadium. This comes several years after NBC sold its Burbank studios. Television City was mostly used for variety and game shows; CBS’s facility in nearby Studio City was used for sitcoms (including The Mary Tyler Moore Show–in fact, the facility was briefly known as CBS-MTM Studios).

I mention this because CBS recently posted a gallery of CBS Television City photographs. If you’re interested in the history of American television, as I am, they’re worth a browse.

One final note: although the phrase “From Television City in Hollywood” is familiar (if anybody can name the show or shows where it was spoken, please post a comment), the facility is not, technically, in Hollywood, California. Instead, it is located in Fairfax.

 

 

 

A Credible Faker–and A Future of Journalism

I’ve never been a fan of the term “fake news” because it over-simplifies the problem of poor instruction in critical thinking and media literacy. News stories have always been fabricated, and always constructed to persuade, disrupt, or otherwise confuse the audience or the reader. And honest journalism has long existed on the far side of the spectrum. Most of what’s in between is the mediocrity that describes most of the contents of a 24-hour news cycle.

It’s always been easy to print and publish truth or nonsense under an assumed or otherwise made-up identity. The now-esteemed Alexander Hamilton did it, and so did founding fathers James Madison and John Jay. In my early days of magazine writing, I sometimes wrote under an assumed name.

And, of course, we’ve been enjoying doctored photographs for a long time. If a friend cannot attend a wedding, he or she can be Photoshopped (a new verb?) into the image. We add sunrises and sunsets, make photographic models that much prettier, and so on. Many of us are now learning to do this with video as well. “I can’t believe my eyes” seems like a good way of thinking about what we see, especially on screens.

And that brings us to the fake news anchor, with the adjective fake referring not to the news itself, but to the anchor who is confidently delivering information as a kind of digital puppet (lots of connotations for puppet in that scenario). He can be programmed to read just about anything, from any source, but he looks quite human and his delivery, which will only improve, is already pretty darned good.

Have a look. And consider the possibilities for teachers, professors, and politicians, all programmed to say what you, or somebody else, wants them to say.

The Future of Television (in Black & White)

9-14-17 NYer

As reported in a magazine that will soon celebrate its 100th birthday.

The Big Shift in Television Programming

We’ve all sensed the change, but it’s fascinating to study the numbers. Just released by FX Network, an annual count of television series produced by/for/with:

  • Broadcast television networks (such as ABC or CW)
  • Pay cable networks (such as HBO or Showtime)
  • Basic cable networks (such as USA or Nickelodeon)
  • Online Services (such as Amazon or Netflix)

In 2002, the broadcast networks produced 135 of 182 series; pay cable accounted for 17, and basic cable networks produced 30.

In 2009, there were just a few online series. Today, there are nearly 100.

Today–just seven years later–basic cable networks produce more original series than broadcast networks. In part, that’s because there are so many basic cable networks, and in part, because so many of them are now producing original material. Of 455 original series on U.S. television, online services are now responsible for about 1 in 5 of them.

Scripted Series Charts 2016 Updated.xlsxBut check out the trend: in 2013, there were 24 original series available online. In 2015, that number had basically doubled to 46, and it doubled again a year later. If the trend continues, 2017 will be the year when basic cable and online services produce an equal number of original series, and 2018 will be year when online services produce more original series than any other U.S. “networks” (we lack an English-language term that describes both online services and television networks).

Bear in mind:

  • These numbers count only “scripted original series” and do not include daytime dramas, specials, children’s programs, short-form content (less than 15 minutes), or programs not produced in English. If we add children’s programs–Nickelodeon, Disney, etc.–the numbers change, probably in favor of basic cable now, and online services in a year or two (all are stepping up).
  • These numbers do not count non-U.S., and we’re certainly seeing this shift in other parts of the world. A global chart would be wonderful, but then, so would U.S. access to programs shown throughout the world (the arrow typically points from the U.S. to others).
  • For now, the basic cable networks seem to be holding steady at about 175-185 series, and the same is true for broadcast networks at about 145-150. Ditto for the pay cable services at about 35 original scripted series per year, but look at those online services grow!

Can’t help but wonder how these supply numbers compare with demand. If we were to chart hours viewed per week, I wonder whether the horses would finish in this order: basic cable, broadcast, online services, pay cable. I’ll try to find an answer. Meanwhile, readers, if you can help with that side of the equation, please do.

The Only Thing Better Than Hairspray…

The rats on the street all dance round my feet
They seem to say, “Tracy, it’s up to you”
So, oh, oh don’t hold me back
‘Cause today all my dreams will come true

Good morning Baltimore!…
There’s the flasher who lives next door
There’s the bum on his bar room stool
They wish me luck on my way to school

A solid opening number for a solid Broadway musical. Oversized girl with a big heart is ready to take on the world. Unfortunately, the mechanical mice at her feet were too small, the flasher traded his dignity for a silly dance, and the bum overplayed his tiny scene.

Hstairspray Live cast

Hstairspray Live cast

The big show–more than 50 cameras–was in some trouble when it began. Then, Corny Collins showed up with a very snappy dance number, well-staged and glittery, and there was good reason for optimism. When Kristen Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, and Ariana Grande shared the stage with three lesser-knowns on “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” I started thinking, this is going to be fun! Maddie Baillio–Hairspray Live’s Tracy–was credible singing “I Can Hear the Bells,” but the staging (fake Christmas bells) was not appropriately cheesy–the tone of the design was off by a noticeable degree, as if the creative directors did not quite get the kind of humor that John Waters, Harvey Fierstein and others on the core team intended. Ms. Baillio looked the part, sang reasonably well, and danced well enough, but I found myself longing for the spark in Nikki Blonsky’s eyes, the sense of humor and absurdity in every word she sang in the movie version of this special musical. The subversive lines lift “Hairspray” from just another musical into something vaguely sinister. Still, Ms. Baillio did competent work on “Welcome to the Sixties”–perhaps without some of the sass, but with Harvey Fierstein nearby, I was satisfied.

The “Miss Baltimore Crabs” number has never been a favorite, and although I believe in the magic of Kristen Chenoweth, the number continued to leave me wondering why it wasn’t cut or replaced years ago. The “crabs” joke is funny, and she used her hands to suggest an absurd crab in a reasonably skillful manner, but I sure wish she had more raw material.

Oh–time for a commercial. How about a bunch of commercials? How about every song or two? No better way to enjoy a full live presentation of a musical theater show than to watch as many commercial breaks as possible. How to make that worse? How about some insipid commentary by an overenthusiastic and utterly unnecessary commentator telling us how the performers are getting on a tram, or explaining that the people we’re seeing on the screen are enhancing the home audience experience via tweeting. Ugh. NBC, how about stepping up and doing what you did before. Limited commercial interruption. This is theater, not a football game.

Ah, but Harvey Fierstein! If anybody understands the twisted humor and social activism agenda, it’s the man who so expertly performed Tracy’s mom, Edna. After suffering through John Travolta’s mugging and occasional creative success in the movie version, Mr. Fierstein changed the game for me. I finally understood the role, and he managed to clearly articulate every one of his funny little lines, asides, grimaces, body moves, and other silliness. Given the director’s overeagerness for rapid cutting, and the crew’s tendency to miss lighting and audio cues, and the overall sense that cutaways needed to be fast regardless of what the performer was doing at the time, Mr. Fierstein got every move onto the TV screen. He was uniformly terrific–so good, in fact, that I left the TV screen for a bit to check out the very limited video of him performing Tevye in Broadway’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” Gosh, he’s great. And he wrote a lot of “Hairspray” in its various versions.

I’m not much of a Martin Short fan because he often overdoes it–too much style, even for satire–but he, too, was excellent in this production. Watching Mr. Fierstein and Mr. Short perform “You’re Timeless to Me” was just about the best part of the evening. It was simple: two people on stage, singing and dancing, and sometimes, doing lines. It felt like a Broadway musical–straightforward, relying upon sheer talent and excellent material (not a gigantic cheering crowd). Producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan are old hands at staging Broadway musicals for television–and I wonder how they felt when they experienced this bit of Broadway magic sandwiched in-between, well, a dozen more commercials, and, perhaps, a longing to bring these productions back to the New York City area where, at least to my eyes, the whole company and crew treated past productions (“The Sound of Music,” “Peter Pan”) with respect and wonder. In L.A., this just felt like another bloated TV show.

But then, there’s Jennifer Hudson belting out “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and later, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” and there’s the magic again. The dancers are excellent. The sense of social change in the racial integration scenes worked, but it lacked the energy and authenticity that the movie version captured so well. I can’t help but wonder how much time it took to rehearse more than fifty cameras, and how much of that time might have been better used in sharpening the characterizations (many of the “negro” characters were rendered in two dimensions–even the knife scene fell flat) and the staging.

Worst staging goes to the jailhouse scene which was badly designed, badly lit, and badly directed–a trifecta of high school theater style in what should have been a turning point. Many dramatic moments fell flat.

But–oh wait, time for a bunch more commercials and insipid cheering from sideline crowds–okay, we’ll be back in a moment.

(Deep breath).

Give ’em a great closing and they’ll forgive you for anything. The show’s signature song, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” became a gigantic dance party, lots of fun, very messy staging, difficult to hear some of the lines, but heck, it was terrific anyway.

Except: remember Ariana Grande? Brilliant performer. Lovely actress. Great sense of style. Small, though. Small girl in a big show. Often cut out of frame, or suffering from those fast cutaways that the directing team favored. If you get the opportunity to watch this program again, keep an eye on her. She played her role with subtlety and brilliance–and I wish we had been able to see more of her. Unfortunately, her final scene (over curtain calls and credits), singing alongside Jennifer Hudson, was poorly engineered and perhaps poorly selected for her voice. Lots of unused potential here.

In closing, some notes to NBC and to the producers:

1. Cut down the number of cameras and big sets. Nobody cares.

2. Focus on performance, not spectacle.

3. More close-ups! So often, we saw a good dance number that would have been a great dance number if you added closeups. More than 50 cameras–you should have been able to get the close-up job done! (More reaction shots, too–but you need allow lots of rehearsal time to get them right.)

4. The next time you hire Kristen Chenoweth, give her a great song to sing. The next time you hire Ariana Grande, make sure we see her on camera a lot.

5. Move the production back to New York.

6. One commercial break at the beginning, one during intermission, one at the end.

7. No big sideline crowd. No extra host. Completely unnecessary.Put the money into extra rehearsal time.

8. Think twice about doing “Bye Bye Birdie” next year. The teen dancing is fun, but a show built upon the craziness of a new Elvis appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show might not possess the appeal that you imagine.

THANKS for doing this. Sorry for a review that’s not entirely positive, but given the enormity of your enterprise, we all offer congratulations for all that you did so well. And the fact that you’ve done this at all is a kind of a miracle.

Hey Netflix? Time to step up.

A Fresh Look at the Cable TV Business

LeVarBack in the 1970s, most Americans thought television would be free forever. There weren’t many channels—just CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, and a few independents—but that seemed sufficient—so the audience looked forward to the addition of even one additional channel to watch reruns, baseball games, or old black-and-white movies. At that time, cable television was a sluggish industry for four reasons: (1) there was no wired infrastructure, no way to connect most households  to a local cable television system; (2) the principal value of cable was improved broadcast reception, which was an issue for a relatively small number of viewers; (3) cable systems mostly served small cities and towns, so the economics of scale were absent; (4) apart from the few low-budget, hyper-local cable channels (“local origination”), there were almost no cable-only television channels, and no economic model to support the idea; and (5) almost nobody was willing to pay to watch television.

It took about twenty years, but by 1998, there were 171 cable networks, and today, there are nearly 1,000. In 1998, there were nearly 70 million households paying a monthly fee to a cable television system operator. How much? Nowadays, that’s not a figure to calculate because internet services and cable subscriptions are bundled, but if that number is $500 per year x even 50 million households (assume severe cord-cutting), that’s $25,000,000,000 per year—$25 billion, plus advertising and other services that brings the industry closer to the $40-50 billion mark. That’s several times larger than our U.S. automobile industry, several times the size of our retail industry, and about the size of our energy industry.

This will not last forever. In fact, it’s changing very quickly because cable can no longer protect the near-monopoly that it constructed for itself in the 20th century. The problem is Google, the problem is Apple, the problem is the cable industry itself that has grown fat and happy by collecting those monthly fees. The cable industry did not, could not, or didn’t bother to protect its essential territory: the TV screen. Sure, it controls the DVR, but that’s not enough. With every HBO Now, every YouTube video watched on an iPhone, the traditional cable industry is cut out of the equation.

At the recent INTX conference (no longer called “The Cable Show” or the “NCTA” for National Cable Television Association) earlier this month, the emphasis was not on program services (though there were small booths from large cable network operations like NBC Universal and Disney), but on hardware that combines the cable and internet viewing experience into a single set-top box. If you want to watch HBO, or ESPN, or YouTube, it’s all in one place. And often, that box is made by TiVO (which still sells DVRs, but was aced out of that sector by the cable operators).

If you’ve been waiting for a decent YouTube search interface on your TV set, it’s coming, thanks to cable. And if you’re liking the idea of TV Anywhere—watch the program on your TV, then switch to your tablet—that’s the new iteration of cable, too.

Mostly, cable has successfully pivoted. On the surface, we think of the cable industry as the provider of television channels, and now, some VOD services, and we pay a monthly fee for those services. But that’s not the way cable operators see the future. In order to survive, they must control your screen, and that means, they must control your internet service because internet services are becoming wireless, and that will, in time, eliminate the need for the physical cables that defined the industry a half-century ago.

When all of this got started, the cable operators walked a path laden with gold. They would enter a small city, perhaps Fort Wayne, Indiana, and make all sorts of ridiculous promises to local government officials (building schools, swimming pools, new government buildings, senior centers, and so on), and sometimes ease the way with skanky business practices and celebrity appearances (famous Warner Bros. movie stars visit the city, kiss the Mayor, and dazzle the locals so that its cable division could sweep up the local rights—the franchise—to build the local cable television system). Now, things are different. It’s not the people of River City who must be won over. It’s the blaze of battle against some of the world’s wealthiest companies, and they possess a technology advantage far beyond the reach of most cable operators. So: if they cannot compete against Google or Apple, they do the next best things: they buy their competitors (Time-Warner Cable was just sold), and they attempt to control the content (Comcast owns not only NBC Universal but now Dreamworks Animation, too).

We’ve seen this play before. Gigantic companies buy the entertainment companies, and then, those companies fall into the hands of the finance people who make decisions that drive the creative community to smaller, more entrepreneurial companies.

So where does that leave you and me? Paying $1,ooo-2,ooo per year for combined cable and internet services, with a voice-controlled remote control and some artificial intelligence to recommend programs we might enjoy. We’ll watch John Oliver tell us everything that’s wrong, and we’ll do our best to forget that he’s employed by a $30 billion company, one of the few that controls what we watch, what we see and what we know.

And so, we complete the circle. There are far better toys in our house than there were in the 1970s, but our viewing choices are still controlled by a small number of big companies. The only real difference: those big companies are much, much richer than they were fifty years ago. Meanwhile, we’re still kicking back for 30 or 40 hours a week devoting our free time to the less-than-satisfying hobby of watching television programs and commercials.

BTW: The man in the picture is LeVar Burton who starred in ABC’s original version of ROOTS in 1977, and is now co-executive producer of a new version which debts on several cable networks in this month, around the world.

 

 

 

Being There

While I admit to not being here for about a year—apologies, but I’ve been having fun doing cool stuff—I tend to enjoy knowing precisely where I am at any given moment.

For example, about two weeks ago, I visited Bohemian National Hall on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It’s an impressive old building, one of the few surviving ethnic community halls that provided comfort and culture to ethnic communities on the island. BNH has become the New York home of the Digital Hollywood conferences. This time, the focus was Virtual Reality, and its kin, Artificial Reality.

NYT VRThe New York Times now employs a Virtual Reality Editorial Team. They have completed about five projects, each involving high technology and a cardboard box. For the uninitiated, the cardboard box is used to house a smart phone, which, in turn, displays oddly distorted images that can be seen through a pair of inexpensive stereoscopic lenses. To hear the soundtrack, ear plugs are required.

VR is not 3DTV, but it shares some characteristics with that dubious invention. You are a camera with perhaps sixteen lenses. As you turn your head, the stitched-together video imagery simulates reality: you can turn from side to side, up to down, all around, and gain a sense of what’s all around you. (One of the new VR production companies showed off a home-brewed VR camera setup: 16 GoPro cameras set in a circle the size of a frisbee, with several more pointing up and down, all recording in synchronization, collectively requiring an enormous amount of video storage.)

VR provides is a wonderful sense of immersion, and a not-so-good sense of disorientation.

When there is something to explore, immersion is a spectacular invention. For example, diving in deep water and seeing all sorts of aquatic life. Or, walking in a forest. Or being in just the right place at the right time at a sporting event or political convention—you know, being there.

But where, exactly, is “there?” And precisely when should do you want to be there? I never thought about it much before, but the television or film or stage director makes that decision for you—“look here now!” And after that, “look here.” With VR, you can explore whatever you want to explore, but you are likely to miss out on what someone else believes to be important. There is freedom in that, but there is also tremendous boredom—that’s the point of employing a director, a guide, a writer, a performer—to compress the experience so that it is memorable, informative, and perhaps, entertaining.

Tidbits from the NY Times panel: “VR film is not a shared experience—each audience member brings his or her own perspective”…”the filmmaker must let go of quick cuts, depth of field, and cannot control what the viewer may see”…”how do we tell a story that may be experienced in different ways by different people?”…”there is far less distortion imposed by the storyteller”…”much of what would normally be left out is actually seen and heard in VR.”

In some ways, letting the viewer roam around and reach his or her own conclusions is both the opposite of journalism and, perhaps, its future. In an ideal sense, journalism brings the viewer to the place, but that never really happens. Is it useful to place the viewer in the observational role of a journalism, or does the journalist provide some essential editorial purpose that helps the viewer through the experience in an effective, efficient, compelling way?

Is all of this a new visual language and the first step toward a new way of using media, or a solution in search of a problem?

After a very solid day of listening to panelists whose expertise in VR is without equal, I left with a powerful response to that question: “who knows?”

Jenny Lynn Hogg, who is studying these and related phenomena, might know. “Imagine if the Vietnam War Memorial could speak.” Take a picture of any name on the wall, and your smart phone app will retrieve a life story in text, images, video and other media. Is this VR, AR, or something else? Probably not VR, not in the sense of the upcoming Oculus Rift VR headset, but probably AR, or Augmented Reality. What’s that? In essence, turning just about everything we see into a kind of QR Code that links real world objects with digital editorial content. Quicker, more efficient, and more of a burst of information that a typical web link might provide, AR is often linked to VR because, in theory, they ought to be great friends. As you’re passing through a VR environment, AR bits of information appear in front of your eyes.

Although AR was less of a buzz than VR, I think I could fall in love with AR—provided that I could control the messages coming into my field of view, I really like the idea of pointing my smart phone at something, or someone, and getting more information about it, or him or her.

VR, not so much, at least not yet. I’m not enthralled with wearing the headgear—even if it reduces itself from the size of a quart of milk to the design of Google Glass—but that’s not the issue. VR is disorienting, a problem now being deeply researched because the whole concept requires that your perceptive systems work differently. I certainly believe VR is worthy of experimentation to determine VR’s role in storytelling, journalism, gaming, training, medical education, filmmaking, but mostly, to discover what it’s like to be there without being there. We’ll get there (which there? oh, sorry, a different there) by playing with the new thing, trying it out, screwing up, finding surprising successes, and spending a ton of investment money that may, in the end, lead to a completely unexpected result.

Through it all, sitting in that beautiful building, I couldn’t help but wonder what its original inhabitants would have made of our discussion—people who were already gone by the time we invented digital, Hollywood, radio, television, the movies, the internet, videogames and, now, virtual reality. Wouldn’t it be fun to bring them back, to recreate their world, to allow me to walk down Third Avenue in 1900 and just explore? Yup. Fun. And in today’s terms, phenomenally expensive. Tomorrow, maybe, not so much.

 

 

 

In the future, we’ll watch TV

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.26 AMSure, there’s been a lot of hubbub about how television has changed and will change, but I think the conversation is over-rated. For seventy years, people have watched news, sports, comedies, dramas, movies by pressing a button and staring at a screen. We’ve added stereo, color, lots and lots of TV channels, on-demand viewing. Ask the average person about the revolution in the television industry and they’ll tell you that that they thought The Tonight Show was kind of funny last night. They probably would have said the same thing in 1954.

What has changed is the industry that provides the programs. Once, there were three or four. networks Now, the number is uncountable because nobody’s sure how to classify Netflix, YouTube, or HBO NOW. Kudos to Pamela Douglas for trying to make sense of a very messy industry. She wrote a book—a very good book, in fact—entitled The Future of Television: Your Guide to Creating TV in the New World. We got to know one another, and talked about why she took on such an impossible project, how she approached the subject matter, and what she learned along the way. I should explain that Professor Douglas works at USC, that she has done her share of writing for prime time television, and that she is the author of a popular book entitled Writing the TV Drama Series for the same publisher (Michael Wiese Productions, a publisher also active in the production world).

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.34 AMMoving from the old world of traditional broadcast networks through hybrid innovators including cable networks then into the new world of internet services and alternative funding models, she covers the waterfront. There are interviews with knowledgable leaders from Netflix, Kickstarter, HBO, and other companies whose work matters a great deal in 2015.

I knew she was on the right track when I read this sentence, part of an interview with longtime Writer’s Guild executive Charlie Slocum: “…some writers are introverts and they don’t want to deal with all the people who are production managers, accountants, location scouts and so forth. Fine, so partner with a producer who loves all that and doesn’t have the patience to sit down with a blank page. That’s the path to being an entrepreneur in a partnership.”

He goes on: “On broadcast, the priority is to be similar….The classic example…what they have on at eight they hope is compatible with what they have on at nine so they keep the audience. It’s audience flow programming strategy.”

And here’s the important point that informs not only the conversation, but the whole book: “…individuals pay for HBO and Netflix. So if your base is subscribers, your goal is to have as many different subscribers as you can. That means when you have one show like House of Cards, you want the next show to be as different as possible [italics mine]…On subscription TV the goal is to get as many different people as possible to be happy to pay the monthly bill. One series, maybe two, can lock you in for the whole 12 months.”

The strategy comes to life in a conversation with Dan Pasternak of IFC. “…our brand is silly and smart. Our tagline is ‘Always On. Slightly Off.’ I said let’s not try to be Comedy Central. Let’s not be Adult Swim. Let’s program content that feels uniquely like IFC. So one of the first shows I helped to develop was Portlandia. And fortunately it became brand-defining.”

(In the 2010s, brand definition is the major challenge for every cable network, and every subscription service. It’s the most effective way to rise above the competition.)

He goes on: “(Portlandia) doesn’t belong anywhere else. Sketch comedy has evolved in the era of the digital short. Essentially each episode of Portlandia is eight little movies. But it’s really one unified perspective, voice, look, and feel.

The philosophy that drives an IFC is vastly different from the strategy that drives NBC’s prime time schedule. Often—and this is the reason why Pam wrote the book—it’s about the writer’s vision. That’s confirmed in her interview with HBO’s Michael Lombardo, who explains, “HBO starts with great writing. There’s no cheat to it…that has been our mania since early on.”

In the new world, the starting place is Netflix. Pam writes, “My writer friends and I love Netflix because it provides (a) place for our best work. But this isn’t our first romance. At the dawn of the 21st century, we were sweet on HBO for Oz and The Sopranos; in the first decade of the century, we had a big crush on AMC for Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Now we welcome Netflix into the second decade.

If you’re sensing a pattern here, you’re beginning to understand why Pam wrote the book. It’s all about the writing, the stories, the characters, the writer’s vision, and, of course, a place for all of that creative energy in a well-defined marketplace.

Netflix’s Ted Sarandos: “It’s about the product. Netflix was the only way to see House of Cards.”

So that’s the key for the subscription services—the only place to watch. This is a vastly different strategy from the one employed by A&E or TBS in order to achieve their current success (they used reruns to build audience).

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.21 AMNowadays, most cable networks are coming to the same conclusion: their future is going to be defined by original programming (scripted and unscripted, both have their place), and by events (which tend to work only sometimes, in part because they’re expensive and also because they’re difficult to construct with any frequency). So there’s the conundrum for the deeper future: as each cable network, and each subscription service, develops and markets their own unique programs, the audience becomes that much more fragmented. The pie slices become smaller, the ability for any individual player to make an impact becomes that much more challenging.

If you’re a cable programmer, or you’re responsible for one of the growing number of subscription services, your job relies upon your ability to generate programs that can be seen and heard above the crowd. If you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer, you now need to understand the nuances of the programming marketplace in ways that were never required in the past. Everything is more complicated. And it’s not.

In the end, nothing has changed. A writer has an idea, pitches it, somehow survives the development and production process, and connects with an audience. That fundamental formula has been around for a century (longer, if you dig back to the days when John Wilkes Booth was widely known as one of America’s most popular stage actors).

The message: be a diligent student, but spend most of your energy dreaming up great stuff.

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

 

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