Online Television Reaches The Mainstream

2 09 2008
Gemini Division (image courtesy of newteevee.com)

Gemini Division (image courtesy of newteevee.com)

When I was growing up, long ago in the dark ages (read the 1970s) there was one thing that we could always rely on. When the mainstream media, usually Time or Newsweek magazines, had an article on a rising trend, it was always dead by about a year. The media was always a year or two behind, and by the time their editors figured out what was “hip” and could safely be reported on, it was time for the rest of us to move on.

I remember reading an article about “youth speak” which purportedly described the “lingo” that we “younger generation” actually talked in.  The article got passed around at school, usually at parties when we could bearly see straight and needed something to laugh at. No one, of course, had ever heard of most of the “hip lingo” and those terms that were vaguely familiar had been dumped years ago.

And this was before the Internet.

So, it is with a major grain of salt that I bring up an article in today’s New York Times by Mike Hale entitled “Television Keeps a Hand in the Online Game With Serialized Shows“. In it, Hale talks about several shows that the mainstream media is producing in an attempt to get viewership on the web. Shows such as “Gemini Division” the Rosario Dawson starring vehicle that seems to have learned none of the real lessons of lonelygirl15, and presents its form without its content.  A few weeks ago, Virginia Heffernan, in the Times’ Sunday Magazine attempted to compare the failure of many web serials to television and radio shows like “The Shadow” and “24”, somewhat missing the point. In one section of the article, entitled “Serial Killers” she says:

Time will tell, but right now Web serials — no matter how revealing, provocative or moving — seem to be a misstep in the evolution of online video. Introduced with fanfare again and again only to miss big viewerships, shows like “Satacracy 88” and “Cataclysmo” have emerged as the slow, conservative, overpriced cousins to the wildly Web-friendly “viral videos” that also arrived around 2005, when bandwidth-happy Web users began to circulate scrap video and comedy clips as if they were chain letters or strep. Top virals — “I Got a Crush . . . on Obama,” “Don’t Tase Me, Bro!” “Chocolate Rain” — never plod. They come off like brush fires, outbursts, accidents, flashes of sudden unmistakable truth.

Now, I’ve written about Internet memes several times already, so I like pontificating on the subject as much as Heffernan does, but she doesn’t seem to get the difference between web serials and memes. To compare a series like “Satacracy 88” to “Chocolate Rain” is about as misguided as comparing the Ed Sullivan Show to a Beatles concert (to keep the 60s/70s thing going).

Still, both Hale and Heffernan score a few points as they talk about how nobody seems to know what to do with web video. Talking about the web series “Steven King’s N.” (which comes from King’s publisher and is meant to attract interest in King’s new short story collection, coming this fall). Hale says:

What “N.” really demonstrates is that the Internet could use more Stephen King. The story, involving therapy, obsessive-compulsive disorder and an evil presence trapped in a New England field, is C-grade King. (It was adapted for the serial by Marc Guggenheim, a creator of “Eli Stone.”) But it still has enough narrative pull to drag you from snippet to snippet, even when there’s less than a minute of new material.

The emphasis on the word “narrative” is mine, and completely shows my point of view.  I create content and firmly believe that you cannot divorce story from the economic equation of what will work for audiences.

What is interesting about these shows is not the content themselves, but the advertising and business model behind them.  Frankly, I almost gave up on Gemini Division because it seemed so-much watered down network television.  It’s bad cinema — with too much narration and not enough visuals. There has been a lot of discussion in content creation circles about just what the new rules of content should be — are wider shots not viewable on mobile phones?  Is faster cutting too much for the compression and bandwidth? Are three minute episodes too long?  How long should the pre-rolls be? NBC is, obviously, still experimenting.

The results — if Gemini is to be believed — are to take properties destined for wider distribution, create cheap pilots for them (as opposed to the standard dictum, which is to spend loads more time and money on the pilot than they’ll ever be able to put into the actual pattern budgets of the shows) and flush them out on the web.  Looking at lonelygirl15 without understanding the mindset behind it, leads to static “talk to the webcam/phone” shows which might as well be radio. They’re copying form here, not content.

The King series is more interesting — it is a trailer for the book, in some ways.  An expansion of the market outwards, rather than a contraction simply as a pilot.

I’m far more interested in web series like “Drawn By Pain” and “Satacracy88” which focus on a single character in bite-sized bits, but present those bits in interesting, cinematic ways (even if the cinema is on a small screen). I can watch these series on my iPhone without losing anything, largely because they don’t talk down to me. There is a real arc of character in their episodes, other characters that don’t seem paper thin, and plenty of story places for the audience to explore. It’s not handed out in prescribed dosages. It also helps that they work in genres that lend themselves to introspection and, therefore, storytelling closeups.

So, what are the major companies doing in my opinion? When I worked over at Universal Music Group, I remember an exec there saying that since no one knew anything about the web, they would just keep throwing ideas against a wall to see what stuck. That’s not a terrible strategy, I suppose. It’s the sibling of the strategy of buying every company you can find/afford and seeing which ones survive. The basic problem is that the MET space needs a combination of technologists with ideas, entrepreneurs with commitment, and artists with energy and passion and stories that they need to tell.

Simply putting Rosario Dawson in front of a camera, plastering Microsoft and Cisco logos all over the place to spread the financial exposure around, isn’t a real content strategy.  It’s more of a safe business strategy, one in which no one is going to win in the long run. It also violates everything we know about storytelling, especially in bite-sized pieces.  We know that we need to grab them early with your concept, not slowly. We need to suck them in with something interesting, not voice-over dialogue that happens to be spoken on camera.

They’ll keep trying.  They’ve got the money for it and that will certainly help (the Steven King series benefited from money, along with an interesting idea, though I lost interest after a few episodes because of its stilted format).  But, right now, the more interesting work is still being done in the independent, unsupported market.  I can’t wait for the two sides to meet.

Phew, I didn’t mean to go on for that long. Remind me to tell you about what Cisco is doing on our campus here to develop their own content.

[TRUTH IN ADVERTISING DEPARTMENT: My upcoming book, THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, uses both “Drawn By Pain” and “Satacracy 88” as examples and I’ve contacted both filmmakers about that usage. So, I guess you can say that I “know” them, in a 21st Century, Webby kind of way. But I’m using both series here for the same reason I used them in the book — I think they’re great examples of the form.]

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Jury Duty, iPhones and Personal TV Programming

10 08 2008
My book, The Lean Forward Moment, coming in December (this is not the real cover, its only a mockup)

My book, The Lean Forward Moment, coming in December (this is not the real cover, it's only a mockup)

It’s been quite a while since I’ve been on the blog, an absence caused primarily by an upcoming deadline on my December book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, editing a documentary called RIVERS, and posting on another blog, Film Industry Bloggers. But two recent events, as well as a comment on the podcast Slate’s Political Gabfest, have combined to prod me into some thoughts about where we’re moving towards as media makers and consumers.

I recently sat on a preliminary panel for jury duty selection at my local courthouse in Los Angeles (a courthouse that was so satellite, so small, that it didn’t have a place to eat, if you didn’t count the hallway by the vending machine).

I never got onto a jury — they just didn’t need anyone that day — but I noticed something interesting in the waiting room. Lined up along one wall were a series of computers which were, we were told, put there so we could “play on the web” while we passed the time waiting to not be called onto a jury.  Now, that’s interesting in and of itself, since I remember when they could not have cared less if you were bored to tears.  (“Bring a book or a newspaper and read ferchrissakes!”). So, we can chalk one up for government advancement into the 21st century.

Of importance to this story was that fact that each and every one of the computers was broken. Every one (there were three or four) had a sign on its monitor explaining that the computer wasn’t working and “We apologize for any inconvenience.” So we can erase the chalk mark that I gave government for its 21st century advancement.

But what was really interesting to me is that not a single one of the 40 or so people in the room cared one bit about not being able to get onto the computers. Not one person complained.

You can ascribe that to several reasons. First, there were two people there who had brought their own laptops and were typing away the entire day. But that’s only two people. Second, you could say that most people aren’t Internet savvy enough to care, and they were perfectly happy to read their books or papers.

However, when I looked around the room, it became obvious to me that the largest reason why people didn’t care if the computers worked or not was that they were connecting online anyway. They were just doing it on their cell phones.

Nearly every single person in the room was texting, or surfing or listening to their iPods. Ironically, I was one of the few people actually reading a book (I didn’t bring my laptop for various reasons and my Treo was just a completely painful experience for surfing online).

No one cared about the broken computers because they already had all the computer they needed in a tiny little package in their purses or their pockets.

Then, a few weeks later, when my Treo 650 stopped being able to email anyone, I finally caved in and joined the second week line at the local Apple Store and got myself an iPhone 3G. Now, I live in Los Angeles where there is a lot of 3G service available (except, ironically, in a number of rooms in my house) so my experience might differ from yours. But this phone has drastically transformed the way I connect online. It is now as easy to go onto a webpage on my phone (though somewhat slower) as it is when I’m sitting in front of my computer.

The repercussions of this are huge. In the first few weeks of owning my iPhone, I’ve used it for maps, movie times, restaurant recommendations, playing Sudoku, reading the New York Times, getting weather and sports scores, and much more — all without going into the Safari browser that comes built into the phone. With Apple’s App Store for the iPhone selling and giving away a ton of separate appplications for the “Jesus Phone”, it has not only gotten possible to surf the web easily on your phone, but to do it with separate apps, something that doesn’t exist as ubiquitously on your very own computer where most applications are built to run inside your web browser (Firefox, Opera, Safari or — gasp — Internet Explorer).

This isn’t a small paradigm shift for us here in the United States. In much of the rest of the world, in places that aren’t hamstrung by conflicting cell phone standards, consumers are already using the web on their portable devices (usually cel phones) and are using it for more things as each month goes on. It’s great for the users and a bonanza for those smart and well-connected enough to provide the content.

John Dickerson, on Slates Political Gabest this week talked about the Olympics and the web.

John Dickerson, on Slate's Political Gabest this week, talked about the Olympics and the web.

Then, there was an interesting comment on this week’s Slate’s Political Gabfest, Slate Magazine’s always interesting three-person podcast examining political issues of the week.  John Dickerson, asked for  comments about the start of the Beijing Olympics, made the statement that with the 302 events being run this year, he felt that this event was ideally suited for the web. His implication was that it was no longer necessary for him to watch endless hours of television to get to the three or four events that he was interested in.

True that.

For all of you who aren’t as interested in archery as you are in kayaking, this is a godsend. (By the way, the kayak competitions start on August 11th and run through the 17th, but NBC won’t tell you just when that sport is on — it’s jumbled together with the rest of its coverage on its website) It is now possible to hone in on just what interests you in the events, and to surf around the rest of them if you want to discover other fun things.

Dickerson, however, missed the larger implications of his statement because he is a political analyst and not a techie hack like me. The brilliance of this thought process comes when NBC starts to deliver the content that you want directly to you (not at this Olympics, sadly). If you like kayaking, you’ll click on that select box and get news, audio and video of those events sent to you in discrete packages. And get charged a small amount for it.

This is the kind of programming that companies like U-Verse (the AT&T computer Video on Demand service), and set top boxes like the Apple TV, are just poised to deliver.

I’ve often said that services like Tivo have blown away the concept of television networks. Most people who have services like these can program their boxes to find the content they like and play it back for them whenever they want without every knowing where and when it originally “aired”. Except for the station ID bug down in the bottom right of the screen and the few commercials for other network programming that we don’t skip over, most of us have no idea what network the show was originally broadcast on and even less sense of when it ran. This is breaking down the concept of network loyalty.

The concept of personal delivery of sports (and other) events takes it one step further. Not only will you not care where and when the event originally ran, but you won’t give a rat’s behind about any of the surrounding events unless you want to care. You’ll get more complete coverage of the events that matter to you, rather than smaller bites of all of the events.

The idea of smorgasboard programming, where cable users can select just what channels they want rather than buy into packages, scares the hell out of most cable operators and small channel providers. They correctly assume that, in this model, many of the smaller stations would lose most of their perceived viewers and shrivel up and die. I don’t disagree with this except to note that this is going to happen anyway. Cable networks can already determine which channels you are watching and which you aren’t. Services like U-Verse are only exacerbating that. How long will it be before those networks that don’t attract many viewers are faced with the same fate, as programmers realize that they’re carrying a network that attracts only six model airplane builders?

But, I’d gladly pay for channels that come with the programming that I want. And, to take this back to its starting point, I’d gladly pay for that to come to me on my iPhone. I already receive sports score on my phone now — Sportacular is a great application. If developer Jeff Hamilton isn’t already working on business partnerships that will enable the user to connect that to video playback of the events, then he’s dumber than a brick. It is a completely directed, niche, market.

Total Personal Programming. That’s where you should invest your venture capital money everyone, okay?





Coolest Final Cut Pro trick!!

8 07 2008

Larry Jordan\'s tip about patching tracksOne of the reasons why I read Editwell and virtually anything that Larry Jordan is a part of (here is a link to Larry’s website) is that the man not only has the smoothest voice of any tutorial host/radio host, but that he is among the clearest (and most enthusiastic) FCP teachers around.

That puts him in some incredible company, by the way. I learned an amazing amount from a three day workshop that Diana Weynand taught a year or so back. And her books, along with Michael Wohl’s, are an invaluable addition to my library.

But Larry is amazing. Check out his tip from a recent posting on “Larry Jordan’s Tip of the Day” from his engaging web site. It gives a great way to repatch the track assignments from the Patch Panel at the left of the timeline (see the image at the right).





Avid Editors in Lebanon

7 07 2008

When I’ve worked in the Middle East, I’ve noticed that many of their editors use Adobe Premiere. Certainly, the area is largely PC, so Final Cut isn’t really very popular (though that is changing, as Apple begins to penetrate the area a little more). But we’ve taught there, primarily because it’s what we knew and we were teaching storytelling anyway — not just technology.

Still, it’s cool to see that there is now a Facebook group titled AVID EDTIORS in Lebanon (this link won’t work right if you’re not a member of Facebook), led by Mohamad Zoghbi and Dany Abi Khalil Aljabai. Started at the end of last month, the group boasts 80 members now (including Harroot Kasparian who has a picture of Jim Morrison as his ID picture).

Exciting!





The Password Post-It Conundrum

7 07 2008

Any of you who have worked in a cubicle-style environment will have noticed one of the biggest ironies of the Information Age. You walk around the office, checking out people’s computer monitors and nearly every single one has Post-It notes stuck to their edges. And, if you looked closely (I’m not advising you to do this, I’m just saying…), you’ll notice that a very high percentage of monitors have, on at least one Post-It, a sign-in password.

That’s right.  Most people have the keys to unlock their computer, sitting right there on their computer. That’s like leaving your front door key inserted into the lock in your front door all of the time.

For those of us who don’t want to do that, we do something almost equally moronic — we attempt to use the same exact password for all of the sites that require a password. And that password is usually something like the name of your child, or your spouse’s birthday, or something else equally guess-able.

The reason why we do this is obvious — there are way too many sites that require passwords for us to remember them all. Many sites have arcane restrictions on them (“Must be 8 characters long, contain at least one number and one ampersand.”) and require you to change them every few months.

With the rise of identity theft, this isn’t a bad idea. But the plain truth is that most sites require passwords for monetary reasons, not security ones — in order to continue producing the site, most companies need to monetize it. And that means collecting data on you. The only way to do that effectively is to register people, so that they can track what you’re doing on the site. Then they can either sell something to you, or sell your eyeballs to an advertiser (well, not literally your eyeballs, but at least the information about what those eyeballs are looking at).

This leads us to the Information Overload Password Conundrum (or IOPC, a term I just made up).

People, who are generally unable to retain a variety of complex passwords, will do their best to make their passwords less complex and less varied.

This is a problem for institutions who really need to keep your data private — like banks, medical facitilities, research institutions, etc.

There are two initiatives that have been brewing to help to make this entire process both more secure and less intimidating for users.

The New York Times, on June 24, published an article on an organization which is developing something called the Online Information Card. Companies like Microsoft, Google, Equifax, Novell, Oracle, and PayPal are trying to come up with an online version of a driver’s license ID card.

The idea is to bring the concept of an identity card, like a driver’s license, to the online world. Rather than logging on to sites with user IDs and passwords, people will gain access to sites using a secure digital identity that is overseen by a third party. The user controls the information in a secure place and transmits only the data that is necessary to access a Web site.

There are a host of problems with this, of course, most notably the fact that the consortium will have to convince millions of web sites to trust the company behind the inititative — the metnioned “third party” — with the data that the sites’ users have entrusted to them. Personally, I don’t know how I feel about that. Is there a difference between a government Big Brother and a private industry one? We regularly hand over large amounts of our personal data to companies right now. About the only thing that keeps them from abusing that data too much is that it is fragmented between many companies.

Still, it’s a laudable start to our IOPC.

Another, more interesting one, came up in today’s “Bits” column in the New York Times. Called “More Personal Password Questions” the piece talks about a new inititative at the Palo Alto Research Center (which, as Xerox PARC, developed the icon-based user interface which is used on nearly personal computers today) called “Blue Moon Authentication.”

Named under the erroneous assumptiion that you only forget your password “once in a blue moon,” this technology is used to provide reliable, but difficult to crack, “fallback questions.” These are the questions that you need to answer when you’ve forgotten your password and need to either reset it, or have the website send you an email with that information. You choose from a list of questions: what was your first pet’s name?, where were you born?, what is mother’s maiden name?, etc.

The problem is that they are very hackable, especially to someone who can automate the responses (the Times even publishes a list of common pet names). PARC’s idea is

While registering for a site, users are asked to select from a long list things they like and dislike (punk music, golf, southern food, for example). If they forget their password, they return to the site and are presented with the list of items they selected. Then they have to specify whether they like or dislike those things – a quick personality test. Forget about plumbing the depths of your brain; just be yourself. “It turns out very few people have a hard time remembering who they are,” [Markus Jakobsson, principal scientist at PARC] said.

The piece says that, in a study, the chance of someone not being able to remember the answers to those questions was near zero. No one knows, of course, what happens if you choose to dislike chocolate after liking it for many years. People change, though not as often as most sites require us to change our passwords.

Still, it is a step to solving our password problems, something that has been discussed for years. Now that we do much of our purchasing, banking, and investing online, it’s time to do something about it.





Internet Memes Expand

22 06 2008

Earlier this month I talked about Internet memes (those virally popular Net phenomena like the Numa Numa guy, or the Star Wars kid).

Now comes evidence of the power of the memes.

In 2006, a guy named Matt Harding did a video called “Where In The Hell Is Matt?” which wasn’t a parody of the Where’s Waldo? books at all. Instead, it was a video of Matt, dancing/hopping up and down in the center of the frame (usually, more or less, the same size in each frame) in dozens of countries all across the world. The video, sponsored by Stride Gum, became an Internet sensation, spawning dozens of parodies. (You can see the videos at Matt’s site, or on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNF_P281Uu4)

Now, Matt is back with his 2008 (in HD) video of him dancing in yet more countries. But there’s a difference this time — in each video he is joined by people from the cities and towns he was visiting. In many cases, it is clear that Matt (using his web site) recruited the people to dance with him and, in cities all across the world, he was joined by enthusiastic people who, for the most part, clearly seems to be aware of this Matt phenomenon, and were all too happy to join in. He starts the video dancing alone and then, right before the chorus, cuts from city to city to city, as people stream into the frame and start to dance with him.

The video, which can be found on Matt’s site, or at this link in Vimeo, is actually oddly compelling in an incredibly sweet way. Whether the dancers are in Madagascar, California, Jordan, France, Antarctica (yep, even there!) or any number of other cities and countries (there are 63 listed in Matt’s blog) they all seem to be enjoying themselves tremendously. In many of the countries it is also clear that the people came to this location specifically to dance with Matt. There is even a place in Matt’s blog for dancers to comment on the postings that Matt puts up about his travels.

It’s actually a good example of the international power of social networking and Internet celebrity.  I won’t say that this is work on a shoestring (I can’t even imagine how expensive the travel costs are!!), but it is certainly something that I cannot imagine being imagined by anyone rather than a sole person, who had the audacity and insanity to pull it off.

Take a look and let me know what you think





The Journal Just Doesn’t Get It

18 06 2008

Rupert Murdoch’s companies have, typically, been among the most forward thinking of the old media companies at getting the ideas of new media. People thought Fox was crazy when he plunked down almost $600 million for MySpace. That purchase now seems underpriced, given where Fox is taking the site — looking to expand it into music sales, film and television promotion, and a host of other social networking tools.

So it was a tad surprising to read in today’s Wall Street Journal, in an article by Rebecca Buckman about LinkedIn’s funding of $53 million by a a group of venture capital funds. In doing so, they gave the company a valuation of one billion dollars — not bad.

But here’s the quote that piqued my interest from the second paragraph.

The investment comes as rival Facebook Inc., a site that originally targeted college students, has been attracting older users, leading to speculation that Facebook — like LinkedIn — could become a destination for professionals hoping to make new contacts, recruit employees or find experts in certain fields.

I want to emphasize the word “could” in that graf.

I think that the transition has already happened. And though Facebook users may skew younger than LinkedIn’s (CPM Advisors reported in February that Facebook’s average age was about 23 — though that has probably risen, LinkedIn reports theirs as 41), who said that younger business people aren’t valuable as well. I don’t know anybody who’s gotten work as a result of a LinkedIn reference, I know many who get job offers from Facebook. Ironically, I know plenty of people who have accounts on both. Most of them use Facebook more often.

So, the idea that Facebook COULD become a place for business connections is already way out of date, and was probably out of date as soon as they opened up their membership to people outside of school. People use is for job hunting, house hunting, staying in touch, food hunting (though I prefer Yelp) and more.

Social networking does work. Online social networking does work. And, Facebook, way more so than MySpace, is providing value

[As an aside, I continue to use Digg and StumbleUpon and other bookmarking social networks to find connection. It’s a great way to see people with similar interests — not unlike the way Like works with music.]