21 October 2009

let them build the biggest sandcastles.

As one of the many that feel they are staring into the brink of what could be Hollywood calamity, the "Media Maverick" posted a warning to all the cogs in the industry machine, playing soothsayer to the studios' Caeser and positioning the internet as its conspiratorial assassin. This foretelling of doom, however, is a bit overwrought. Although kudos go to the Media Maverick for including the "apocalyptic rantings of Silicon Valley propeller heads" line so that it seems like any naysaying belongs to the ignorant buffoon who refused to heed the warning of the vague Ides of March deadline.

Yes, parallel industries are collapsing under their own weights. Newspapers and music vendors have seen dramatic drop-offs over the past few years as they transition into less bloated, more-with-the-times versions of their former selves. Hollywood seems positioned for the same fate as the internet Changes Every Aspect of Our Very Lives. However, to say this is something that should instill horror and a downward-spiral of depression is a little premature.

The supposition that the entire viewing audience is ready to jump into watching all their television exclusively online, via pirated material even, is preposterous. With Hulu still a relative unknown (despite heavy marketing pushes) and the ever-present "digital divide," heck, even DVR penetration is only at 33 percent, it would take a leap of faith to believe the entire audience is ready to watch their stories on the computer, let alone hook it up to their television. That's not to say the transition won't happen. It'll just happen a lot slower than many of the soothsayers would have their readers believe.

What these editorials should be saying to Hollywood is that NOW is the time to act.

The transition to a user-set schedule empowered by the internet will generally impact the television market hardest. Through hard times movie theatres abide since they are an event. No one has a movie theatre quite like the local multiplex in house and Transformers isn't the same on a smaller screen with tinnier speakers.

Media Maverick's article cites a young woman who catches up on Mad Men through a non-studio-sanctioned site. The idea is that these sites contain the collected volumes of a wider selection of entertainment by holding libraries of properties from various sources, eschewing windowing agreements (like when Hulu only provides the last five episodes of a show so they don't conflict with DVD sales). And while this might be true for "Alexandra," there's still time to establish a place on the internet for the far more prevalent number of people still on the internet-TV sidelines. There are a few things Hollywood should look at.

Fully embrace television properties on the internet: First things first -- studios have to admit this TV on the web thing is a good idea. Not only does it allow for more people to see it on their own schedule, it lets new viewers catch up on a series on their schedule without terrible expenditure. Think of the drop-off curve for series like Lost or 24 and how much more shallow that curve would be had this been available to everyone earlier in the life of the series. A viewer wouldn't have to debate buying DVDs or even renting for a show they don't know they'll even enjoy. Instead they can happily enjoy a show with commercials without any risk on their part. And the possibilities in mining viewer demographic information alone should be enough for the industry to shove people onto the internet. The web has been able to get better data on users/audience since its inception, from approximate geographic location (via IP address and ISP location) to browsing trends (via cookies) to windowing (via browser/client announcements). Layer a user profile into the mix and, suddenly, the possibility of targeted marketing is a reality and a viewer can watch commercials that actually matter to the viewer. The trouble with the audience using DVRs to fast-forward through ads evaporates when the viewer can be singled-out for products and services that matter to him/her individually. Networks will wonder how they ever got by with stone-age blanket marketing. Keep DVDs around for people who want a hard copy when they aren't around reliable internet but make shows available to the people so they can watch those commercials again and again. And again.

Stop looking at illegal sites as terrorists and see them as competition: If there is anything studios know about is how to deal with competition. The industry has spent far too much time trying to shut down the illegal sites and not enough time examining why they are popular. Many of these sites are run by individuals or small groups. Though the narrative is appealing, these small pockets undermining the conglomerate, with its army of workers and reams of cash, should be a long shot, especially if the conglomerate can identify why people go to these sites instead of using traditional methods of watching (TV) or legitimate sites (Hulu, Joost). People go because they can find more episodes of the shows they want to watch; expand the library. People go to avoid commercials; offer limited commercial interruption or commercials they actually would like to see (see above). And then the conglomerate can provide things the illegal sites can't. There's always an encoding turnaround (since the illegal sites have to record the show then turn that recording into an internet file) so offer an episode simultaneously to the broadcast and cut out the middle man. Offer higher quality video, exclusive content (outtakes, behind-the-scenes, etc), recommendations for other shows, maps and guides for the more complicated storylines on television. The opportunity to improve on what these little guys are doing is sitting in the open. Networks just need to capitalize.

Let the people build sandcastles: If there is anything that can be learned from Twitter's astronomic rise in the past three years it is that closing doors and building barriers does not make for a successful web venture. So much of Twitter is created and influenced by the user and the people at Twitter proper let it happen organically, opening doors to inspire more development, codifying the stuff that works, embracing the natural progression of the service. What about a Hulu API? Why not build a giant sandbox for developers to play in, using the different television properties, the already-present tools people can use to embed and share clips, and include more ways for people to develop on top of the site. Let them build giant sandcastles using your sand. Let Hulu and Joost propagate across the internet in ways that are unimaginable to comparatively technological plebeians. Open up the windows so mobile users and other devices can spread these television properties (and the commercials that go with them) around like so many appleseeds. Look at what Netflix is doing and know that the networks can do that, too, only without the subscription barrier.

In the end, it's not the future described in the Media Maverick article that can be contested but rather its dystopic vibe. Don't get lulled into thinking change is not coming but don't get fooled into believing all is lost. This is an opportunity.

15 June 2009

finales without finality.

1 year, 8 months, and 14 days ago, Pushing Daisies premiered on ABC, introducing a show with bright colors and a quick-talking cast much in the tradition of Brian Fuller's previous gifts to television. Narrated by the guy who narrated those Walgreen commercials, there was a storybook feel to it, the cast speaking in overly-constructed, almost archaic structure spiced with modernity, like an adult fable minus the "adult" connotation. Positivity in a sea of bleak, saturated police procedurals. Unique. Original. Cancelled mid-2nd season.

Lots of shows get cancelled, especially in today's landscape (as Bill Lawrence said at the "Produced By" conference: "A hit is a show that you manage to keep on the air.") Lots of Brian Fuller's shows get cancelled (Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me). It's a scary landscape for television these days to hang on to a show that isn't performing as well as American Idol or The Mentalist. But the fans suffer.

Television isn't like a book or a movie, mostly because of the spelling. But also because television properties are generally episodic. Books and movies are self-contained; one sits and takes in the whole story within a specified unit. Television, on the other hand, has to deal with constant scrutiny as its story develops. If the investors think the story is underperforming (from a business standpoint at least), the story gets broken off in the middle. The justification is that no one is watching it so why not fill the space with something that people like?

And that's the industry. We've grown up with that mentality in television, even grown accustomed to its escalating brutality. When a sit-com gets dropped, some people are sad but accept the nature of the beast. It's just business.

Some shows, however, keep people involved not just with clever situations every week but a continuing storyline and developing characters. That's the power of episodic television, to create these sprawling worlds full of any number of endearing (or malevolent) characters for an audience to fall in love with in a way films are incapable of doing. How can a film compete with 22(ish) hours a season? Audiences become invested over years of living with a character. Great for business. But then, when statistics start to show audiences are dropping off and there's some negative feedback on the Greatest Though Slightly Inaccurate Feedback Engine Ever Conceived, the interwebs, studios feel forced to make a decision. And the fans who stick around despite the falling numbers suffer.

Using this same Feedback Engine, the fans have started to coalesce, starting movements to save programming that may be on the bubble. Chuck is a recent example that used Twitter (and the #savechuck hashtag), websites (renewchuck.com), and even lots and lots of boxes of Nerds candy sent to NBC. NBC ended up bringing Chuck back (on a limited budget and only buying a 13-episode slate for a show going into its third season). Other shows, like Pushing Daisies, aren't so lucky.

So the fans are deprived of the ending. Sure, there is an end in that existential, everything-has-an-end kind of way. But you look back on shows like M*A*S*H that had such an emotional ending and even Mad About You (seriously) with such a creative end to give the fans (or the fans they had left) some peace. Newhart did a great job, ending its show with a wink to Bob Newhart's longtime fans of his previous show. There are other shows that fritter that power away (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air comes to mind with its Will-turns-the-lights-out ending, or even The Cosby Show with its over-emotional Boyz II Men "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to the Cosby Show" ending), sometimes even on purpose (I'm looking at you, Seinfeld). But there are some shows that aren't even given the opportunity to fritter.

Carnivàle. The title alone should strike a "Yes!" chord in so many on this subject. Such lofty goals, such a driving force, a show finally getting its act together, HBO had trouble sustaining a show that traveled across the dust, setting up full, working carnivals all the time. But season 2 ends with what everyone has been waiting for only to see nothing come to fruition. There was talk for a while that the rest of the storyline would come out in comic book form (much like what Joss Whedon would do for Buffy, Season 8, later) but that never happened (that I know of ...).

But that brings up an interesting point. Should these cancelled shows with a fanbase be allowed to continue the storyline in an alternative format? Would it be feasible to bring that fanbase to the emerging internet television market? Put out a book, a graphic novel, a movie, a radio show, something to finish the story? ABC allowed Pushing Daisies to rework the last three episodes so that it could sum up every storyline in the last five minutes of its series finale, drastically different from the ornate storytelling to which viewers were accustomed. Would it have been better to release a book (a pop-up book?) to let the story finish naturally instead of this unceremonious sum-uppy coda? Media has become so diversified (stratified?) that there are more outlets than ever to push out a product. So, I suppose the real question is: is there any money in transferring a dying brand to a different medium to live out its last days?

04 June 2009

i don't know what to write here.

Seriously, I don't.

It's been a year since I've posted in this blog. That's not to say nothing has happened or I've not had anything to say. Sadly (or gloriously, depending on your perspective), a lot of the "random thought" initiatives that brought about so many blog posts have been the subjects of titleless nanoblogging, making a blog the new internet "long-form" (blogs : Twitter :: Virgil : E E Cummings). So, with there being a more appropriate outlet for off-the-cuff remarks, this blog becomes what a blog already has for so many: an opportunity to plan and write short essays.

But what about? Do I make it about one subject? Should that one subject be me? Film? Television? Writing? Should it include expanded versions of my tweets (Synergy!)? Should I wait until I have something to get off my chest, grumble about it for days, and then compose a lengthy invective/praise?

Platitudes? Should I come up with some platitudes to discuss, such as my thoughts on getting older, fading beauty, kids these days? Should I be more personal, discuss my graduating college 10 years after I started, finally starting the life I always wanted to live, my continued obsession with distraction? My constant disappointment in pop culture? The unique experience of living in downtown Atlanta, an urban environment by all appearances but without most of the conveniences?

Maybe something I usually never write about. I've never been inspired to write about politics, which leads people to believe I have none. Maybe this is an opportunity to write about the things people don't believe are part of my personality. Although that would leave me with just talking about politics and sex. So many people that don't believe I have sex. I do. Sex. It used to get me into trouble.

I tried posting my writing up here for a while but heard nothing back about that. Not even spam. I also realized that (a) what I was writing about was terribly uninteresting to anyone else (really niche audience), (b) what I was writing about I had only the vaguest idea of what I was discussing, but, most importantly, (c) nobody cares, Nick.

I don't have a plan. I do like the title "The Essential Nick Campbell" and it still comes up in the top 10 Google results when one searches for Nick Campbell (listed under the more prolific Nick Campbells). So maybe that should be my theme. I should post things that are essential to the understanding of Nick Campbell and/or Nick Campbell's oeuvre. Not every piece that comes from his (excuse me, my) desk but the stuff I feel is important. I'll leave my ephemeral complaints about MARTA and my charmed comments about Gilmore Girls for Twitter. Here will be the organized, beefier versions of my thoughts, sometimes even narrativized (word? I think so).

But what are the chances I'll actually decide on what to write here?