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3D TV: If you build it… then what?

September 23, 2011

Most of the discussion I read about the advent of 3D TV centers on the technological advances.  While LG, Samsung, Panasonic and most of the other major players have already released 3D capable sets, they all require glasses.  Horizontal passive shutters don’t have any moving parts, but you lose half the resolution of your set per eyeball.  The battery powered active shutter glasses produce a superior full picture, but they are considerably more expensive per pair.  And who wants to keep a drawer full of goofy eyewear just so you can have the gang over to watch the Super Bowl anyway?  A glasses-free experience is by most measure at least 5 years away, likely accomplished using a decoder at the consumer end.  But for me, this timeline and indeed this path is almost beside the point.  Many other factors from production to distribution are also going to have to evolve in order for there to be any there there in 3D TV land.

I had the pleasure of attending a seminar about 3D technology at Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco last weekend.  The featured speaker was stereographer Grant Anderson from the Sony’s 3D Technology Center in Los Angeles.  As an established producer, visual effects supervisor and digital artist, his talk focused on the thought process behind directing features, but I kept my television ears on.  More well known directors are shooting in and thinking in 3D, so it’s safe to assume at least a few of them are contemplating how the creative approach involved would work on the smaller screen.

The initial problem is a matter of bandwidth.  Most cable companies already only distribute programming in 1080i or 720p, not full HD.  Furthermore, there is movement towards decreasing that bandwidth to make room for more stations.  3D would require these businesses to reverse course, and we’ve all seen how “quickly” they do that.  Cord cutters shouldn’t be doing their happy dance just yet since many internet providers are starting to put caps on downloaded bytes.  Discs are more likely to be a satisfactory delivery method for 3D content, but it’s hard to imagine that any programming not initially produced in 3D would go through the expense of conversion just to sell what many consider to be a vanishing format.

Let’s be utopian and assume that somehow the bandwidth were to become available.  The next hurdle would be changing the way almost all television is directed.  The smaller screen and home viewing space provide a bigger “comfort zone” than a typical movie theater for viewing 3D without eyestrain.  Nevertheless, the pace, movement and editing would all have to be slowed down.  Standard practices of interchanged close-ups, documentary-style hand-held camera work, and quick cuts could become rapidly sick-making.

Further, there would be a host of new and expensive design considerations.  3D is easier to scale down than up and home theaters, not to mention standard living rooms, provide a much more controlled environment that suits the 3D experience.  However, stage sets would have to convey more depth to support an impactful effect.  And those matte paintings used for low budget background would need to be converted so they didn’t look like, well, matte paintings used for low budget background.

Then there is the storytelling to consider.  Television is still a writer’s medium, after all.  Providing an enjoyable 3D episode would necessarily influence the tales told.  Not every program would be a good candidate for 3D anymore than every feature is filmed that way.  But it’s hard to imagine anything among the current fall favorites as a genuine contender for a worthwhile 3D upgrade. 

So what are we watching on these 3D TVs?  Football?  Clash of the Titans?  Call of Duty: Black Ops?  I realize that for a few of you I have just described the ideal weekend.  But I doubt I’ve summarized a line-up that defines a new industry.  Then again, I would never have predicted a successful Banana Republic clothing line built around a drama with less than 3 million viewers.  So as Dennis Miller used to say when he was still a liberal, I could be wrong.

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Character Chatter: Second Screen at a Glance

September 7, 2011

I’m old enough to remember sitting down in the living room to watch television as a family.  When I went off to college, I continued this shared experience, first with my sorority sisters and then with my friends off campus.  My gal pals would join me for wine and cheese evenings built around the viewing of Frank von Zerneck’s latest “Portrait of…” TV movie (Yes, I was quite the little hostess). Now, the solo viewer is king; everyone’s watching something different on his/her own screen.  And the exchanges I used to have by turning to my left or right have moved onto social media and fan sites.  It’s rather like those women who wax their eyebrows off and then draw them back in with a pencil.

Being a devotee of all things television, I knew I had to start taking part in the Social TV sensation.  As a fan of USA Network’s summer line-up, I selected the “Character Chatter” site as the perfect place to begin.  It had it’s pluses: I  didn’t have to dust and there were no arguments over pizza toppings.  And whatever I said was forever memorialized (the “plus” of which is TBD).  I followed up my initiation with a phone chat with Ralph Marx, VP of Business Development for Arktan (and sometime commentator on this site.)  They’re the B2B live blogging service behind “Character Chatter,” pulling together the feeds from Twitter, Facebook, and other sources into a single page per show.

As a communication consultant, I appreciated the dual effect of the site’s organization.  Fans can easily participate in the conversation using their social networking tool of choice and get a fuller picture of what’s being said by the entire community.  Better yet for true enthusiasts, the stars and members of the creative team are all social media users, so their comments end up in the feed as well.  This, as Marx pointed out to me, adds flavor to the content that was never available from my sorority sisters.

From the network’s perspective, their marketing department can better grasp the overlap and connections among comments, turning them from disparate streams into useful intel.   As Marx put it, “Social media is almost too successful. Everyone has their own favorite and it can be difficult to manage the information and gain insight into what’s being said about you.”  A site like “Character Chatter” is a neat solution to the expansion challenge.  While they won’t give out specifics, USA apparently saw an almost immediate rise in “live” ratings.  The network also saw an increased interest among fans and a huge uptick in the time viewers spent on their website.  Because of this shift, USA made a major commitment to the current redesign, which now includes high quality images so you can remember the gleam in Matt Bomer’s eyes while you try to keep yourself together until January.

Another obvious advantage over the “having friends and family to your house” model, is the gabfest continues 24×7.  I logged onto the White Collar page two weeks after the mid-season finale and found messages that were a mere 5 minutes old.  Not every remark is filled with stirring insight, I grant you.  I learned from Marx that the live feed is curated by automation, using spam and negative word filters.  These can’t stop people from repeatedly writing, “I LOVE THIS SHOW!!!!!!!!!”  or simply “AHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!” There is also a curated feed, which is sorted and rebranded by a human.  It’s easier to follow, but significantly less colorful.

I admit it’s been kinda fun to keep an eye on speculation over Max’s murder on Burn Notice and see who else missed Boris on the latest installment of Royal Pains.  I’m not about to give up my Golden Globes Party or Grand Slam Tennis with my Dad.  But I am looking forward to securing some much needed help unearthing those darn pineapples when Psych returns in October.

The Surge of Piracy and a Call for Industry CLOs

August 24, 2011

Janko Roettgers’ GigaOm article predicts a new rise in piracy because of the current economy. I’m not sure where he got the idea that Hollywood is treating the issue as “passé.”  Within the Directors Guild, it’s been a hot topic at our last few meeting and headline news on our website.  Yes, it’s been helpful that services such as Netflix and Hulu provide entertainment at a more reasonable price.  But there are still many challenges to fair distribution that need to be addressed.  From what I see, a contributing factor to the surge is a misunderstanding held by many viewers concerning who is affected by these free copies, the sharing of which gets easier all the time.

I learned how grave this misunderstanding had become when I read the comments addressed to GigaOm guest writer Alex Swartsel.  A member of the Motion Picture Association of America, Ms. Swartsel’s blog piece accused Mr. Roettgers of promoting piracy.  (GigaOm staff writer Ryan Lawler explained that their intent was exactly the opposite: to alert the studios to the need for viewers to have easier access to better legitimate sources.) Readers were absolutely livid that Swartsel and the MPAA were given a say on a site like GigaOm and many stated plainly that they do not have much respect for current copyright laws.

Let me make a few things clear before I go any further.  I don’t love the MPAA either, but mostly because I think their ratings system is absurd.   (The Kings Speech an R?  Really?)  And most of what Swartsel said, including her unfortunate shoplifting analogy, inflamed more than informed.  Clamping down is a pointless response to pirating; just ask the music industry.  Further, I 100% agree that it’s wrong to ding honest viewers multiple times for the same content.  But P2P sites shouldn’t be considered the best source for material just because the audience is frustrated.

That piracy has become “socially acceptable” comes in part, I think, from putting much of the available content under the banner of Big Hollywood.  As I pointed out in my piece There’s Nothing Cute About Pirating, it’s the little guys who get crushed first and worst when content is distributed illegally. The way the system is set up, the revenue from secondary markets is what helps fund salaries, healthcare, and retirement for over 300,000 workers who have very everyday jobs that just happen to be in the film and television industry.  These earnings are syphoned off every time someone helps themselves to a free download.  So in many ways, the people who are losing money aren’t very different from the people who are trying to beat the system.

Obviously, the providers need to get real about the way viewing habits have evolved.  Finding, retrieving and sharing content has to be made much easier and priced within reason.  It’s time for companies to rethink their current adversarial relationships – easily developed when you’re fighting over the same eyeballs and same pot of money – and work together more effectively and efficiently.  As the saying goes in the US market, Bulls and Bears both get ahead, but Pigs never do.  By now, Chief Liaison Officer, someone comfortable and conversant with broadcast and technology, should be a common position in the convergence space.  There’s been plenty of tech giants buying cooler widgets and media giants buying cooler product, but not as much collaboration between the two worlds as obviously needs to happen. I applaud the concept posted by  Kelley Mitchell, a commenter on Roettgers’ piece, that companies should start thinking of piracy as a competitorThat would indeed be motivating!

It’s also time for a group-effort campaign putting a face on piracy.  Not everyone in entertainment is Big Hollywood or greedy or trying to “screw over” the audience.  Many are just doing the best they can to make the next house payment and take care of their kids.  I’m not saying piracy will ever go away, but it would be preferable if we could head off this new surge, resulting from the worsening economy, and didn’t generate more unnecessary job loss.

 

Cable, Disconnected

August 11, 2011

During a recent conversation with a deeply respected colleague, I was taken aback to hear him say that many television providers have “contempt” for consumers.  Certainly that would explain the less-than-satisfactory channel selection, the sometimes-iffy customer service, and the prices that inch up like pounds over the holidays.  Then yesterday, I read Ryan Lawler’s well researched article on the shedding of cable customers in Q2 of this year.  Clearly, cord cutters are no longer just those who are raging against the Industry Machine.  The 47 comments (and counting) by visitors who add detail to Lawler’s conclusion illustrate how quickly the cable operators’ value proposition is breaking down.

Many of the comments railed against the available line-up.  The various “packages” offered by almost all of players only make sense when you look at their cash flow.  Operators use popular channels to bootstrap “minority programming”: shows that appeal to a small but enthusiastic audience.  In order for me to receive BBC America, I also have to buy a bunch of channels aimed at little kids, outdoorsy types, and what some networks think of as women (although who these women are remains a mystery to me).  With Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and others continuing to expand their libraries, it’s become easier for viewers to build a highly personalized a la carte menu.  So I expect to see more subscribers at least downgrade their accounts.  Theaters have widened their audience by offering flex tickets and mini subscriptions.  Why can’t cable find a cost effective way of doing the same?

Service complaints were featured in many of the comments to Lawler’s piece.  I know the speed and quality of my provider’s signal never came up when I was picking out my new equipment.  I suppose I’m ready for whenever they get around to sending 1080p at 120Hz , if I live that long.  At least my TiVO is easy to use and does what she’s told.  My poor parents, on the other hand, have a box rented from their operator.  They are on their 5th in less than a year, having experienced problems ranging from the remote not working to the picture freezing.  And they get dinged with a $75 charge for every house call.  They pay for several premium packages, so by Lawler’s account they should fall at least somewhat into desirable customer territory.  Additionally, they are too uncomfortable with the internet to go the wireless route, which in my opinion would make them even more within cable’s target market.  It’s hard to tell from the outside whether this is a training or procedural problem, but it’s obviously a gap in good, smart customer service.

As for the cost creep, I agree with those who used words like “sneaky” in their descriptions.  The name of my service keeps changing.  Each time it’s rechristened, a few more dollars are added to my bill.  My friends who bundled their phone and internet with their cable are getting hurt even worse.  A few are paying double their initial fees.  On this subject, I’m going to bang the same drum I’ve been playing since I launched this blog.  If more of this money went back into developing high-quality content and picture or any clear indication that we were benefiting, I think there’d be less complaining.  But what most folks see is a huge increase in cheap-to-produce reality shows, leading many to conclude there’s nothing on television anyway.

My reaction to all of this is mostly sadness.  We are living in tough times when television should be enjoyable, affordable, and shared.  Yet, when I look at the careers page of the most popular providers, I don’t see any positions advertised that indicate cable is making a purposeful attempt to (dare I say) connect with its customers.  I am prepared to say that at the very least Comcast, Time Warner and their brothers and sisters don’t understand us very well.  Whether this ignorance stems from “contempt” or just living in a cave too long, in practical terms, makes no difference.

The Killing: Who Didn’t Do It

July 28, 2011

I don’t want to write a piece about The Killing, if for no other reason than I hate calling further attention to this drama.  But even though the last episode aired over a month ago, I’m bothered by the troublesome way the network and the producer handled themselves.  Given recent articles in the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, I am not alone.  For background, I recommend reading Tim Goodman or Tim Goodman or listening to Tim Goodman.  (Have I ever mentioned that I really love Tim Goodman?)  To summarize, this freshman series was a murder mystery without a conclusion (although one will be provided sometime in Season 2.)  Certainly there are loyal fans who will tune in.  Generally, though, AMC is in the uncomfortable position of having to stand firmly behind a show that’s experiencing backlash from all corners.

1) Your marketing should be based on your true product, not on glamourous spin.  The mistakes made with The Killing began the moment AMC decided to build their press releases almost exclusively on the positive response in Europe to Forbrydelsen, the Danish program on which The Killing is based.  Each season of Forbrydelsen ends with the killer being revealed, and the implication was the same structure would be used to craft the American version.  The network’s executive Charlie Collier recently told Entertainment Weekly that it was never their intention to misguide the public.  That may be true since Senior VP Joel Stillerman divulged at today’s TCA panel that the network didn’t know that showrunner Veena Sud wasn’t going to reveal her killer.  Certainly, I know zero people who weren’t expecting a solution.  Now no one behind the scenes is sharing information about Season 2, not even to reveal which actors have been signed to continue their characters.  So audience expectations are still being mismanaged.

2) Breaking with tradition doesn’t necessarily make you an artistic genius.  Sud claims to have been “fascinated” by her “novel” process.  But well executed slow-burn writing has to captivate the audience, not just enthrall the writer.  Instead, we were sent down blind alleys and forced to snort a boatload of red herrings.  Contrary to Sud’s assertions, not all disappointed viewers were seeking the basic procedural which wraps up neatly in 60 minutes.  I loved Murder One, which had the misfortune of being knocked off in the ratings by the real-life O.J. Simpson trial.  It was leisurely paced, but never lost excitement.  I count The Wire  among the best television I have ever seen.  While many questions posed in year one weren’t answered until year five, each season felt complete and satisfying. In this case, the plot stalled and many viewers have simply stopped caring where it’s headed.

Why? The artistic tools Sud chose were developed to find the killer/solve the mystery.  Not doing so is akin to using a chainsaw to smooth out the edges of an antique hutch.  The ending felt less like a cliffhanger and more like an “incomplete” in English Comp.   A mystery writer friend of mine, A. E. Tyree, shared, “The actors did a great job, but in service of what?  I don’t mind people moving outside the rigid structure of a specific genre, but if you didn’t want to solve the murder, make your show a character study about an obsessive female detective, not a murder mystery/police drama. There is such a thing as stepping too far outside a genre.”

3) Never talk down to your audience in public.  Sud has added fuel to the post-finale fire by talking down to displeased viewers.  In hindsight, AMC should have provided her with some media training.  Without our eyeballs, bills don’t get paid.  Publicly at least, they must stand by her; It’s critical to their lineup that The Killing be a success.  With Mad Men delayed and The Walking Dead’s budget crunch costing them a strong showrunner, the network is hurting.  Maybe when the profits are counted, the powers behind this exercise in frustration will make the necessary changes.  Surprise us, sure!  Shock us, even better!!!  Leave us empty handed, we’ll reach for the remote.  DVD sales are likely to be weak given the season’s lack of resolution(s) and some Emmy voters have gone on record saying they withdrew support for the program (although thankfully not the actors).  I don’t believe in development by mandate, but I do believe in wise creative leadership.  This talented cast and poor dead Rosie Larsen deserve a product worthy of the initial buzz.

Netflix and The Evolution of Our “Must See” TV

July 18, 2011

Netflix used to be the boyfriend I wanted to marry: incredibly varied, courteously attentive, and fair to his very core.  Then the email arrived announcing their 60% price hike.  Now they’re just the guy I’m going to cheat on the first chance I get.

Anyone who has read my blog for a while knows that I believe that all providers of television content should be contributing to the production pipeline.  In my piece on the high cost of drama, I talked about a show that was canceled in part because much of the audience was watching on Hulu.  I knew that Netflix couldn’t go on charging so little and keep its selection broad and current.  I just thought they’d do a better job of laying some public groundwork and establishing a more obvious collaborative relationship with the production community before handing the audience a bill.  I also anticipated that they’d offer some reward to those of us who signed on for both DVD and streaming services now, even though one relies on the unreliable post office and the other (at least at my house) conks out at intervals and doesn’t have that much in it at the best of times.

Some critics have remarked that Netflix should have expanded their streaming library and made the service more reliable before raising the cost of a combined subscription.  Others have suggested that an incremental raise would have captured less negative attention.  Based on media reports, they cannot improve that side of their business until enough of us fork over the additional money.  And time is of the essence.  Several of their studio contracts had already expired or been drastically reduced before last week’s big announcement.

In fact, for the first time in three years, I recently called customer service to complain about the content.  I had been indulging in an encore viewing of Showtime’s The Tudors when suddenly every other “disc” was pulled.  Episodes 1-3 and 7-9 of Season One were still available, but I’d have to get the DVDs for 4-6 and 10.  The streaming then picked up again with episode 4 of the second season.  Henry was onto a new wife and a large number of supporting characters had been separated from their heads.  Among other things (like extreme annoyance) this meant I couldn’t recommend one of my favorite series to any friends who had streaming-only plans.  It seemed a downright goofy move to make with a program that was no longer on the air.  Obviously, the person on the other end of the phone didn’t have any decision-making power, but she did share that they were having multiple problems with Showtime.  Criticism was particularly vehement about the abrupt disappearance of Dexter.  More money would likely restore this premium content to the lineup.

I agree with those who say that Netflix is unlikely to lose many customers over the new fees.  Folks will growl and grumble to be sure; then they’ll remember that a movie in the theater costs $11 and put things in perspective.  But I also think the company greatly miscalculated how much the rate increase would erode the loyalty people have to their brand.  No one can feel it’s fair to pay so much more next month for exactly what they received last month.  I expect many viewers to more actively explore other options among Netflix’s growing field of rivals.  We can no longer depend on them for a certain level of behavior, so they’d better not depend on us.  How would we have taken the news had they also granted us exclusive access to Something Special once they moved to an exclusively streaming model: their ultimate goal?  Something, anything for helping them regain their competitive edge.  I’d have felt more like a tiny investor in their future and less like an insignificant serf forced to support my lordship’s castle expansion. For an enterprise famous for skating to where the puck is going to be, Netflix has taken what strikes me as a huge public relations misstep.

Market Research: When a Stranger Calls

July 5, 2011

Market Research is an indispensable tool for finding out what goods and services people actually buy and use.  Many of my clients depend on well-conducted market research to help make their business decisions.  I, therefore, participate enthusiastically when I have something to say about a company.  Just ask the good folks at Lucerne (makers of yummy dairy products for Safeway) or any of my small local theaters how thoroughly I answer their questions.  I do not, however, trust telephone surveys and after a recent experience I like them even less.

Somehow my unlisted phone number was randomly selected by Scarborough Research, a nationwide media research company that gathers information on radio, newspaper and TV preferences.  As a research firm, they do not have to abide by the terms of the FTC’s Do Not Call list and were entitled to ask me to participate in their survey.  But they continued to call me —  usually at dinner or bedtime — even after I told them 1) I do not participate in telephone surveys and they should remove me from their list.  2) I work in media and do not feel comfortable answering surveys about my industry and they should remove me from their list.  3) They were disturbing me by calling during dinner/at bedtime and they should remove me from their list.  4) They should attempt to do something biologically impossible while simultaneously removing me from their list!!!

The final straw was having an interviewer tell me that the calls could stop if I completed their survey.  My answers might trigger my removal from the list, she claimed.  It seemed impossible to me that this technique could be a valuable tool for securing statistically reliable information.  I understood that I was potentially a typical sample of the households in my neighborhood, but it should have been clear from my reaction that there was little chance I’d give my honest opinion, much less represent others.

In desperation, I contacted the Council of American Survey Research Organizations, CASRO, for help.  Their policy is clear. Respondents to survey research should be:

a.  willing participants in survey research;
b. appropriately informed about the survey’s intentions and how their personal information and survey responses will be used and protected;
c.  sufficiently satisfied with their survey experience;
d.  willing to participate again in survey research.

Since I was obviously none of the above, CASRO followed through promptly and thoroughly.  My name and number were removed from Scarborough’s database.   A week later, I received a follow-up from the Better Business Bureau that included a letter to me from Scarborough Research. The new piece of information it contained was that the interviewers who had called were not permitted to touch the database.  When I had asked them to remove me from the list, they literally couldn’t.  As my favorite market researcher Jean Durall put it, “I’m sure it makes sense that interviewers (who come and go) should not have access to the sample lists.  But, it does not make sense that there is no procedure for reporting issues that come up in the interview.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

My thoughts exactly.  It is my sincere hope that the leadership at Scarborough Research will review their procedures so that they tap only willing representative households and get a clear vision of viewing, reading and listening habits.  Otherwise, they are in danger of collecting garbage data created by busy people who just want to be let off the phone.  If my neighbors claim they all want to drop USA Network (a personal fav), I’ll have no one to blame but myself.  Frankly, I’m just relieved that dinnertime is mine again.   There’s some Lucerne sharp cheddar calling my name.