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.

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Attack of the Three-Foot Robin

You may recall that I’m a relative newbie when it comes to really big  TV. Our family room’s western wall is now dominated by a 60-inch Samsung plasma  screen is dominated by a stunning picture of a red robin who must be at least three feet tall. There’s a common yellow throat, also larger than my dog. A bufflehead. An olive-sided flycatcher. These are among 118 birds that receive full screen credits, alongside author Jonathan Franzen, legendary Central Park birdwatcher and tour guide Starr Saphir, and other humans who, particularly during the migration months of late spring, watch birds in Central Park. You can watch them, too.

I watched Birders: The Central Park Effect on Netflix, mostly because I was too tired last night to make any sort of meaningful viewing selection. My wife found Birders, enjoys bird watching, and so, we both spent an hour stunned by the images, a pleasant story, and the depths of, well, dweeb behavior (the word used by Franzen to describe his feeling when peering through binoculars and shutting out the rough-and-tumble big city).

Birder-GirlWhen the day winds down, my wife and I try to catch at least an hour’s worth of television viewing. Apart from two or three network series, we mostly forget that CBS, ABC, FOX, and NBC exist. We watch HBO, but never when the network schedules programs. Just about all viewing is on-demand, and nowadays, most of that viewing is done on Netflix.

When we first subscribed to Netflix’s online service, it was just awful. That’s no longer true. Not with every episode of Mission: Impossible (some tedious, some superb), a wide range of foreign and independent films, and lots and lots of interesting documentaries. Recent viewing includes a doc about 1960s-1970s singer Harry Nilsson (whose life story causes every ‘and then I found myself howling at the moon’ episode of Behind the Music seem like child’s play), another about the strident, talented, and fatally flawed 1960s protest singer Phil Ochs, and, the list goes on. It’s all available any time, any where, on any device, so the idea of tuning into anything that’s scheduled for somebody else’s convenience on a plain old TV seems, well, kinda silly.

Originally, we re-subscribed to Netflix to watch Kevin Spacey pretend to be a powerful congressman on House of Cards. We’ve now watched three or four episodes. We’re done. Spacey is consistently terrific, but the it’s difficult to justify watching smarmy Washingtonians sluggishly gumming up the works of government when there are three three foot tall American Coots and Dark-Eyed Juncos in the room (no, I never tire of ridiculous bird names). I’m told the British series is excellent, and it’s likely that watching somebody’s else’s screwed-up government will be more entertaining than watching our own dysfunction. But it’s not high on the list.

Much higher, and now just completed after six one-hour viewing sessions, is Stephen Fry in America. Fry is a popular, literate Brit who travels through the lower forty-eight in his black London Cab (which made its way across the Atlantic by boat). Below, he is enjoying life in a hot tub on a houseboat on a man-made lake with nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline–“quite extraordinary” in his words.

Stephen-Fry

Fry travels to visit one of the few remaining residents of a Kansas ghost town (who remains optimistic about the tourist potential of his tumble-down main street), the man who runs Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, to paddle the Mississippi River with a man who truly loves his river, to hang out with Morgan Freeman in his blues club near the crossroads where Robert Johnson traded his soul for some superior guitar licks, spends a leisurely afternoon with a Western family that’s okay with the many nearby bears but not so much with the increasing number of aggressive wolves who have lost six of their dogs and an eleven-day-old coat to their hunger, and on from there.  We watched the series on Netflix. You can watch every minute of his adventures, for free, in high definition, on YouTube.

YouTube is becoming one my favorite “channels” (I don’t know the correct term, but video library seems clunky). This past weekend, I watched Paul Newman and Jane Curtin in an extraordinary big-screen production of Our Town, which was done on Broadway for Showtime and PBS. It’s here, and I’ve now recommended it to a lot of people because it is just terrific–a very different experience from our English class read aloud experience of the play in, what, tenth grade.

So what’s the point? Well, I’m pretty sure the point now goes well beyond binging on House of Cards (oy!), or Breaking Bad (not for me, either), or more than 250 original episodes of Mission: Impossible or Mary Tyler Moore or any number of other old TV series. There is a spectacular range of interesting programs now available, for free or at very reasonable prices, programs and films that you can watch on any device, on your own time. The only problem: it’s tough to know what’s available because (sorry to hammer this) House of Cards and its kinfolk get too much of the press. So here’s my attempt to shift the course of that river, one TV set at a time.

The Spacey McTaggart Lecture

So here’s Kevin Spacey telling the truth about the television industry, the movie industry, and the new reality that places creative people in control of their relationship with the audience. He is harsh, realistic, funny, and deeply experienced–and full of wisdom and insight gained through his Netflix deal, his work with the Old Vic theater in London, and a career that began, with the help of actor Jack Lemmon, at age thirteen.

I especially enjoyed Spacey’s celebration of “the third golden age of television” that began, more or less, with Hill Street Blues, extends through The Sopranos, on through House of Cards. Just in case you’ve missed one or two, he runs through a dozen-plus excellent television series whose connection to the audience is the result of powerful creative risks taken by creative people, and by the small number of laudable television executives with the guts to protect those creators.

Spacey connects the dots in a pattern that’s  obvious to anyone who is willing to face the truth about the television industry–and devastating to those who still believe in the status quo, appointment viewing, watercooler conversations, and television networks as the fundamental organizing principle of the home entertainment industry. Time and again, he celebrates the creative people…and resets expectations for the next generation.

The new generation of creatives is different. We’re no longer living in a world where someone has to decide if they’re an actor, writer, director or producer. These days, kids growing up on YouTube can be all of these things…

The James McTaggart Memorial Lecture opens the Edinburgh Festival. This lecture is 49 minutes long. I encourage you to watch the whole thing.

Let me tell this another way: he tells a heck of a good story.

(Here’s a link to the text version.)

The Big TV, Part Two

Yesterday, I wrote about big TVs in general. Today, it’s the specific–the 60-inch screen that we now watch every day. It’s a Samsung plasma screen with many of the latest features.

The most important feature is, of course, the screen itself. It’s extraordinary. Great color, great detail, wonderful contrast, never a ghost image, rarely any digital lag (sometimes a concern with fast-moving sporting events and slower-moving processors).

Second most important is sound. As I’ve written previously, most large TVs are made with the assumption that an external system will be added. This particular TV is fine, but on some frequencies, there’s a bit of distortion. Doesn’t happen often. Shouldn’t happen at all. A common problem, but it goes away with an external sound system. (Note the loudspeakers below.)

Samsung-2013-interfaceThird most important feature is the interface–the ways that we interact with the TV set. This requires some explanation.

Mostly, we work with two remote controls. One is used to switch the cable channels, a feature we’ve never quite mastered within the Samsung interface, so we simply switch the channel on our original cable remote and put it aside. The main remote is the Samsung, and like most TV remotes, it takes a bit to understand most of the features, and, like most remotes, it contains buttons and features that I will never take the time to comprehend. Mostly, it’s useful for volume up-down, and for maneuvering a cursor around the on-screen interface.

This interface is a point-and-click design, limited in its alphanumeric capabilities. Mostly, we select an app from the Smart TV interface, then scroll through a series of visual menus to find the movie or TV show that we want to watch. There’s an Amazon Prime app that we’ve used to watch every episode of “Arrested Development” at no additional charge, and there’s a Netflix app that we use to watch “House of Cards” and the strange assortment of movies and documentaries that is rich in niche material and (happily!) lacking in major mainstream movies. These work well enough, but everything falls apart with the oh-so-promising YouTube app–no fault of Samsung here, for YouTube develops its own software. It’s one of those circa-1983 interfaces where you must use the up-down-left-right arrows on the remote in order to choose each individual character, each space, each deletion of an error. For YouTube, with its many idiosyncratic titles, it’s simply dreadful.

There are some other useful apps–one to watch TED Talks videos, another to check the weather, another which provides access to what may be the slowest internet web browser I have ever encountered. In truth, these criticisms are beginning to melt away because each year’s models tend to improve upon the (few) weaknesses of predecessors, and here, I’m discussing a 2012 TV set, ancient in current technology terms.

If you look closely at the above picture, you’ll see that the 2013 Samsung interface is clean, easy to use, and features a tremendous number of apps (you can add or delete them at will). You are, of course, looking at the future of TV on this screen. There’s an app for YouTube and CNBC, another for USA Today and TED, one for HBO GO, and one for Netflix. Each of these is an independent experience essentially unaffiliated with Samsung, but it’s all here, all easily accessible in its “am I a TV channel or a web site? glory? There is so much video, so many images, so much text to be read on a screen that offers abundant clarity and contrast. It is now reasonable to read the Sunday paper on your TV set, stopping to check in, via Skype, with relatives calling from far away, checking email, doing all of that. At long last, we have arrived in the future, and so far, it seems to work pretty well. (See my comments about processing power in the yesterday’s post.)

And then, there’s 3D. This mystifies me. Yes, there are 3D glasses. Yes, they feel really silly. Yes, the effect is still that vaguely grainy, slightly out-of-phase experience. No, I have not felt much of a need to watch anything in 3D for anything more than a family demonstration. Maybe some time in the future.

How much does all of this cost? Less than $2,000, even for a larger screen.

So what else is new? The answer is clearly articulated, with only a modest amount of marketing-speak, on this page from Samsung’s website.

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