Archive for the ‘TV’ category

Once More Into Comcast’s Breach:* KO’s KO Foreshadows Cable on the Canvas?

January 22, 2011

Cross posted at Balloon Juice

Amidst the gnashing of teeth over the suspicious coincidence of Comcast’s take over of NBC and Keith Olberman’s disappearance from the air, my first reaction was, who cares?  Or rather, who really will notice?

That’s because I’ve been feeling, without much evidence, that cable blather is reaching a diminishing returns point, at least as far as political mobilization is concerned.  Certainly, their impact exceeds their actual reach. As of November, the top rated cable news-like show was Bill O’Reilly’s, with a total viewership of about 3.5 million.  In Neilson terms, that’s a rating of maybe 3.4 or so.  Not bad — but not exactly dominant either.  Next up was Fox’s Bret Baier, someone I confess I’ve literally never heard of.  His number for the month? 2.4 million — or about 2 and change in the ratings.  Olberman came in at number 12 with 1.1 million and a bit, or a barely more than one Neilson point.

It is indeed horrifying that the top 11 programs in cable news are all Fox shows — but the point is that however successful Fox has been with its business model,** these are not impressive numbers within the mass media and in an electorate the size of ours.   Fox has had influence disproportionate to its actual reach — but it helps to remember its man-behind-the-curtain quality.

By comparison, Balloon Juice scored around 25 million total page views last year.  Obviously the two media are enormously different, and there is a profoundly distinct impact when a message is delivered in spoken word and picture over and over again.  A few hundred words on the screen, however successfully they start your rhetorical engines, can’t hope to set the same emotional hooks in its audience.***

But that’s not actually my point. Rather, it is that the experience of just this one blog demonstrates that there exists a means of distribution and engagement that reaches audiences that are within an order of magnitude of those of great big gazillion dollar media machines.

I’m not usually a technological optimist — as is appropriate for someone who can’t even be bothered to maintain a functioning author’s website or Facebook page.  But I’ve just been buying video gear for a course I’ll start teaching in a couple of weeks about making documentaries, and I’m struck again how little cash up front it takes to buy the tools of fully professional production.  The machines don’t supply the talent, of course, nor a programming strategy, nor PR or any of all that.  But as with blogging and print media eight or nine years ago, the bits and pieces of infrastructure needed to create a whole new architecture of web-distributed video are coming together fast.***

Most important, the medium has finally approached normalcy.  My kid’s Wii has a browser in it, not to mention a Netflix app.  In a month or so, after I recover from my next visit to the mechanic, I’ll finally buy a web-enabled TV to replace my 16 year old CRT — and I’ll get a wirelessly networked Blu-Ray player with it.  The rap on internet video has been that only geeks want to sit at their computers and watch TV in little boxes on some small screen.  No more.  More or less transparently, you can Hulu and Netflix and browse your way to video in the same living room in which I almost never actually watch scheduled programs any more.

That’s the missing piece.  Once it’s easy to find web TV on televisions, then the fortifications protecting  traditional content originators and distributors totter.

Which is why I think the bits and pieces of rumor I’ve heard about Olberman thinking about headlining a web network — even if they are wholly fantasy — is exactly the thought that ought to terrify Big Cable the most.

All of which is a long winded way to respond to DougJ’s prediction about liberal hosts on MSNBC in five years time.  My guess is that he’s right.  But I don’t see that I care.

The caveats:  Obviously, the mere physical capacity to create and distribute programming is no substitute for actual talent, smart program choices, tolerable production values and all the rest. It is the easiest thing in the world to make crappy, undiscoverable, utterly irrelevant web-video.  There’s already a surplus of such out there.

If a Left answer to the Right’s domination of traditional cable is to have traction, it will have to both concentrate creative talent and build a conceptual infrastrucure — some model to absorb and remake the notion of channels and shows and a programming schedule.  And of course the largest cost of anything remotely like a studio program or even a curated and organized repository of audience-sourced material lies with the people who drive the cameras, cut the footage and so on.  Cheap isn’t free — but when startup costs thousands (tens of, maybe) instead of millions, you’re in with a chance.

Most important, as we’ve seen with the print world, once the barriers to entry drop, the numbers of those who can do really interesting things grows.  That’s been true in radio for a long time — just check out stuff like the Third Coast festival or a lot of what NPR has catalyzed over the last decades. (And look at the new book Reality Radio if you want to learn about how folks like Jay Allison or Ira Glass,  the Scissor Sisters, the legendary Scott Carrier or the impossibly young Jad Abumrad — and many others all found their voices telling true stories in sound.)*****

Now the underlying elements are there for video too, in an almost zero (in television terms) cost of the acquisition and post production of video and a nearly costless network on which to “broadcast” the finished product — and in the existence (finally) of an audience equipped with the tech that makes it relatively easy to engage with what could be made with such tools.

I hope the left blogosphere takes advantage.  I’m now officially thinking about what I could do to help.  And you?  More the merrier, folks.

*Breach guys, not breeches. Geez. This is a family blog.*******

**And make no mistakes: Fox is all about the cash.  If dittohead hippies became a larger and more exploitable demographic than tea-tardists, you’d see changes.  Murdoch is vile boil on the body politic, but it’s C.R.E.A.M for him too.

***Mixed metaphor alert. It’s OK, kids.  I’m a professional.  Don’t try this at home.

****Not to gear-head up the main body of the piece, you can now shoot decent HD video on cameras that run $2,000 or less.  (You can do pretty well with a camera that runs $6-800, but if you go that route you (a) have to spend a fair amount of money on add-ons that the consumer gear does not possess and (b) have to be a really clever video person.  Smarts can substitute for money, up to a point, but the price paid is in all the work-arounds you need to deal with.)  Sound gear will run you a few hundreds more for a basic kit.  Lights — you can do a lot with “practicals” — the stuff you already have lying around — and a tolerable basic 4 head light kit is another twelve or fourteen hundred at retail.

I’m thinking like a documentary person here, not a studio guy — but the same deflators apply there.  A three camera set up with grip, lighting, and sound enough to mike two or three people could be put together on a shoestring of less than $20,000, perhaps even less than $10K if you really scrounged and dumpster-dived.  That’s a lot of scratch for any individual — but in the media landscape, in a context of blogs that reach tens or hundreds of thousands per day?  It’s not much of a reach.

As for editing — it’s become almost cost free as far as the tools go.  You need a reasonably recent laptop, some hard drives (many backups folks!  Be paranoid!), and if you are just doing studio stuff, the latest iMovie will do what  you need — at a program cost of something like $80 bucks.  Even the pro editing bundles are cheap now.

In sum:  while it is certainly possible to spend an unlimited amount on anything to do with motion pictures, the point is that  you don’t have to if all you want to do is get folks in a set talking to each other or scribbling on a black board — that’s the easy stuff, and it’s unbelievable for someone like me, who started out in the ’80s, just how many barriers to entry for creative types have dropped away.  Berlin Wall c. 1989, baby.

*****Which thought makes this perhaps the right place to let y’all know that I’ll on Virtually Speaking, hosted by Jay Ackroyd — commenter here from time to time, and an FP poster at Atrios’s place, Eschaton.  My slot arrives this coming Thursday, 27 January, at 9 p.m. EST.  I believe this all happens in Second Life — which is why, I kid you not, I’m having an avatar make-over tomorrow.  Come on down!  And now, back to your regularly scheduled blog post.

******If you missed Rocky and Bullwinkle, you missed civilization.

Images:  Trophîme Bigot, Crying Man, 1625

Johann Heinrich Roos, Gypsies in an Ancient Ruin, 1675

Poseur Alert (not to mention wallet grabbing): Ken Burns, Baseball and the 2004 magical Red Sox run

January 22, 2010

Here’s the sage of New Hampshire, opining on the spiritual genius of America’s pastime:

Baseball is a precise mirror of who we are, and I can’t recall a time that was more evident, particularly considering the deep emotional, communal, and personal impact, than during the 2004 ALCS when the Red Sox overcame the Yankees,’’ said Burns.

Arrrgh!  Bullsh*t.  Baseball is many things, and I enjoy it greatly, and I thrilled to the events of 2004, made yet more rich by the disasters of 2003.  But it is not “a precise mirror” of anything but, perhaps, itself.

It may offer metaphors, of course, and a genuinely penetrating examination of the dynamics of the game and the business of baseball could illustrate a some of what matters in America these days — no exploration of the Red Sox triumph of that year would be complete without diving into the steroid-scummed waters of the performances of Ramirez and Ortiz, for example.

But this malarky about “emotional, communal and personal impact” is an example of why I so loathe much of what Burns does as a historian.  Given the choice between easy myth and stilleto cut to the heart strings vs. actually coming to grips with what happened and why — he goes all kleenex and swelling orchestras on you.  Every time.

His stuff is superficially persuasive.  He’s got that style down, the lugubrious (“serious”) pacing, the soft musical bed, and the one aspect of his practice that is truly first rate, those exceptionally well done interviews stitched together with often brilliantly shaped archival spoken words.  But the substance is designed to coddle his viewers, not to challenge them.  He’s a myth maker, not a historian — and right now, when we are drowning in manufactured myths, just the thought of another Burns’ extravaganza turns my stomach.

And then there is the sheer greed and sloth involved in Burns’ current plans and pleas.  Now that he is no longer the largest receipient of corporate welfare in the PBS system, Burns has decided to milk the regular channels of PBS funding as hard as he can, potentially squeezing out dozens of hours of television in which the equivalent of watching grass grow — those endless pans across sepia photographs — are not actually seen as production values.

For example:  I have heard through the gossip channels that run through PBS that Burns intends to submit funding applications to the NEH in every funding cycle.  This is inside baseball I know (and as gossip, should be accorded the truth value such sourcing always enjoys), but if true, this puts significant pressure on the development and production of novel and original voices.

That’s simply bad, but rational behavior.  Burns likes making films, has certainly earned an audience, if not this pair of eyeballs, and there is no law against seeking any dollar of funds that might conceivably fall one’s way.

But recall that in this particular instance Burns proposes an update of an already broadcast and, IMHO, bloated series on baseball.  He’s doing a bit of an update — got to keep the shop going, after all — but the bulk of this broadcast and something along the lines of three to four percent of PBS’s primetime air for the entire year, will disappear into maw of a massive rerun.

That’s the sloth part — indolence on Burns’ part and on PBS’s.

The greed comes from Burns’ production plea, also contained in the Boston Globe article linked above:

“And one impactful way to capture the essence of that is to feature those personal mementos, the photographs of joy and jubilation, the celebration photos in the immediate aftermath, the fathers and sons and daughters, that picture of a Red Sox cap on a gravestone of a loved one who didn’t live to see the day,’’ Burns added. “Anything that illuminates the feeling and moment of what that was like for those who truly lived for this team, those snapshots and memories, we hope they will generously share them with us. The story can’t be fully told without them.’’

Leave aside the unlovely diction (“impactful.” Pah!) and what you have is a very well-budgeted production seeking unique visual material for free.

Burns is well known around New England documentary circles for this kind of thing, for poor-talking his crew, his artists and his sources of archival material.  I’ve worked with crew members who worked at cut rates for Burns in the wake of his pleas of poverty.  He is very good at striking enormously advantageous deals with young and inexperienced musicians — caveat vendor, of course, but still.

And I’ve run into the consequences of his enormously persuasive gift for getting people who should know better to give him unique visual resources for free.  More than once I’ve had to talk down curators who wanted to get from me all the money they felt they should have charged Burns.

Again, caveat vendor, as they now all do.  The usual grievance was that Burns underrepresented the non-broadcast secondary market into which he planned to sell work that contained images, and people supplying, as they thought, a nonprofit educational venture with material at their nonprofit rates felt deceived.

The archives don’t give that break to  any PBS work anymore — and they shouldn’t. (Or rather, they quote one price for broadcast only — which is nonprofit and educational — and another, higher one if the work is going to be marketed in secondary venues, which it always is.  It gets more fragmented and complicated than that in many cases, but that’s the broad outline.)

So here Burns is turning to another source.  Not newspapers or the commercial or public archives, but you and me.  And he asks for generosity. His prerogative, and if you want to have a shot at getting your pic on TV for a few seconds, go for it.  But don’t forget.  Burns is trying to get something for free that most people pay for.  Nice work if you can get it…but I don’t like it.

There.  I’m not sure if I feel much better, but pouring out a bit of bile helps.

I’ve been grieving this week, and yesterday’s Supreme Court decision, ratifying what will be, I’m afraid, the decisive erosion of both the American claim to exceptionalism and of American power worldwide, has left me almost unable to move one finger after another at the keyboard.

So yes, I know that in the great scheme of things, the success of a minor con man peddling wares to the network that now reaches, on average, less than one percent of American households every night, is less than trivial.  Still it gives me a start.  More rage to come.

Image:  Winsor McCay “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend,” 1908

Andrew Sullivan hates labor?

January 7, 2008

If that were Labour, it would be easier to parse, but today the ubiquitous Andrew Sullivan, star of web, page and screen, let his readers know that he’s going to appear on the Colbert Report today.

Andrew coyly describes the show as “back from hiatus,” but of course, that’s bullshit. Colbert went dark because of the Writers Guild strike, and he is returning, according to the WGA, because his bosses at Comedy Central are forcing him to.

Well, I understand what Colbert is doing, though I don’t like it. But as a member of the Writer’s Guild myself, and more, as someone who has lived for decades on what I can sell of what I think in a variety of media, I really do not like to see fellow scribblers, those who make their living selling licenses to their creative output, aiding and abetting strike breaking.

Andrew is one of the aristocracy of the IP trade, making a fine living from his work. Most who try to live by their pens (or keyboards) do not. This strike is over the question of whether the mass of writing folks who work for the screen will have access to a share of the returns from the fastest growing segment of the pictures-in-motion market, digitally distributed content. Andrew showing up on Colbert is providing material aid — himself and his views — to the side trying to deny that hope.

So from where I sit, Andrew is helping the bad guys f*ck over the good guys. I’m a works and not a faith kind of guy, so I’d say Andrew’s chances of getting into writer’s heaven took a hit today.