Tuesday January 31, 2006
It used to be that to win an Oscar, you had to play someone handicapped. That all changed last year when playing famous proved to be Oscar gold, with Jamie Foxx and Cate Blanchett bagging statuettes for portraying Ray Charles and Katharine Hepburn, respectively. That trend continues—five of this year’s 20 actor nominees earned nods for portraying famous personages—but playing gay is coming on strong. With trends colliding, almost half of this year’s nominations went to portrayals of people who are famous and/or gay. Consulting the diagram below, I don’t see how Philip Seymour Hoffman can possibly lose.
The New Marketing pundits had their knives out for ESPN yesterday, when the network was caught selling This is Sportscenter commercials on iTunes for $1.99 a pop. The iTunes message boards filled up with angry posts—the commercials are now free and the posts are gone—which isn’t surprising. I saw this firsthand when AdCritic.com became a subscriber-based, industry-targeted service. I would have gotten fewer emails, I think, if I’d burned the American flag in the middle of Third Avenue.
ESPN’s price point was certainly out of whack, but I don’t think charging for sponsored content is as absurd as ESPN’s critics make it out to be. It only seems absurd because advertising’s intrusive model has allowed ads to become so bad that consumers are doing companies a favor just by sitting through them. But people buy DVD collections of music videos, which are really just ads for songs. (In England, they are more honestly called “pop promos.”) People don’t expect DC Shoes’ hoodies to be free just because they bear the company’s logo. And plenty of people have spent money to see or own Dogtown & Z-Boys, despite the fact that the documentary was paid for by Vans.
Everyone agrees that marketers have to add value to their messages or they will be ignored by consumers. But there’s no reason this value can’t exceed the bare minimum required to earn someone’s attention. In fact, smart brands will find ways to provide quite a bit more value than that.
In the magazine world, there are different kinds of circulation that have different values for advertisers, based on the degree of consumer attention they require. Paid circulation is better than controlled circulation, and controlled circulation is better than free. So, how’s this for a new agency model? Agencies should be compensated based on which level of circulation they’re able earn for their clients’ content. Old, intrusive, “free circulation” messages earn the least, opt-in messages earn more, and content consumers will actually pay for earns the most. If ESPN had packaged the “100 Best This is Sportscenter Commercials” on iTunes for $1.99, I think they would have ended up on this third tier and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Saturday January 28, 2006
Books go out of print. That’s just what they do. … Ph.D’s don’t pay, although—based on my experience—getting paid (however meagerly) to read Hegel and Kierkegaard beats temping any day. [via] … Jonathan Coulton pays tribute to NYC NPR anchor Soterios Johnson. I think this is one of Jonathan’s best songs. … My friend Colin has launched a website for his forthcoming book Operation Jedburgh: D-Day and America’s First Shadow War. Due out from Viking in May, the book tells the story of a squad of special operatives who were deployed behind enemy lines during the D-Day invasion. It’s going to be a big hit.
Friday January 27, 2006
As I mentioned in conjunction with my interview with Sean Stewart, Stewart’s 42 Entertainment coconspirator Elan Lee appeared on G4TV’s Attack of the Show yesterday. (You can grab a torrent here.) In the segment, he and clothing designer Shane Small explain the nuts and bolts of EDOC Laundry, a new line of clothes with clues to unlocking ARG elements designed right into them. (EDOC, as you might have noticed, is “code” backwards.)
Also, a Boing Boing reader points out that writer Walter Jon Williams has a long post on his blog about his experience working on “Last Call Poker” with Stewart and the rest of the gang at 42 Entertainment. He calls it “the coolest thing I’ve been involved with of late.”
Thursday January 26, 2006
This post contains radical Project Runway geekery. If you can’t take it, look away.
Could you be-lieve it when Nick’s model, Tarah, spoke directly into the camera on Wednesday night’s episode? I haven’t been that narratively disoriented since Law & Order and Homicide did those crossover episodes. It was like watching the aliens come out of the spaceship at the end of Close Encounters. I didn’t even know they could talk. The aliens or the models.
Galleycat hips me to the fact that James Frey is making a command performance on Oprah today. I’m actually beginning to feel a little sorry for the guy. I think he has now paid his debt to literary society. Here’s why.
“Big Jim” set out to become a Great American Writer by portraying himself as a two-fisted hard guy who’s been on the wrong end of a po-po beatdown, done time with a smirk on his face, and lived to tell about it. Where does he end up? On Larry King with his mom, squealing “We love you, Oprah. We love you, Oprah,” like some barren Iowa City housewife—the result being that super nebbish Jonathan Franzen now looks like Henry fucking Miller by comparison.
This could not have been what young James envisioned for himself. No, oh no. In fact, it seems that Frey has brought upon himself the worst possible outcome—worse than he might have even considered in his nightmares—given his aspirations. Sophocles couldn’t have written it better. So, that is my verdict: Time served.
Wednesday January 25, 2006
As I mentioned earlier in the week, I’m interested in alternate reality games, not just as an advertising journalist, but as a writer. While working on a recent story for Creativity, I did a long phone interview with sci-fi novelist and ARG pioneer Sean Stewart, who had a lot of interesting things to say about the future of online narrative, the “hybrid space” of blogs, and writing in general. With his permission, I’m posting a partial transcript of that interview here.
A little background: Stewart, 40, is the author of eight novels and the winner of the 2000 World Fantasy Award. He grew up spending winters in Canada and summers in Texas. He got involved with “The Beast”—the 2001 genre-defining game that was developed by Microsoft to promote the movie AI—when author Neal Stephenson recommended him to the film’s producers. The team behind “The Beast”—including Stewart’s creative partner Elan Lee and mastermind Jordan Weisman—went on to form 42 Entertainment and to create such games as “I Love Bees” for Halo 2 and “Last Call Poker” for Activision’s Gun. (Lee, by the way, is doing an interview Thursday night on G4TV.)
If you’re not familiar with ARGs, Wikipedia sums it up pretty well: “An alternate reality game is a cross media game that deliberately blurs the line between the in-game and out-of-game experiences, often being used as a marketing tool for a product or service. While games may primarily be centered around online resources, often events that happen inside the game reality will ‘reach out’ into the players’ lives in order to bring them together. Elements of the plotline may be provided to the players in almost any form” including emails, phone calls, chat sessions, snail mail, and live events. Now, to the Q&A, which continues well after the jump:
Do you see these projects as being as important as your novels?
Right now, this art form is more exciting than novels. If I had to choose, I’d do this. And I don’t say that because of the paycheck—though being a freelance science fiction novelist is not a great way to put your kids through college, so it has been nice to get paid.
I honestly believe that the gods in their infinite mercy looked down and gave me a chance —miraculously and wholly unlooked for—to be at Kitty Hawk, to be in motion pictures in 1905, to be at a place and a moment in time where something extraordinarily exciting was just getting off the ground. As much as I’d like to think it had much to do with my merit, mostly it’s this huge stroke of timing and good luck to be in the right place at the right time, working with the right people, to have a chance to be in on something at an extraordinary cultural moment.
I think that every means of communication carries within itself the potential for a form of art. Once the printing press was built, novels were going to happen. It took the novel a little while to figure out exactly what it was going to be, but once the press was there, something was going to occur. Once motion picture cameras were around, the movies—in some format or another—were going to happen.
I modestly or immodestly think that we got some things fundamentally right about the way the web and the internet want to tell stories in a way that not everyone had gotten quite when we lucked into it. What people do on the web is they look for things and they gossip. We found a way of storytelling that has a lot to do with looking for things and gossiping about them.
I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, during the winter. There are two very essential conditions in Edmonton. There’s inside and outside, and there’s no real doubt about which is which. There’s a sharp line preserved between the two.
I now live in California. California is an interesting place to me—and reminds me a bit of the South, where I spent my summers—because in California, what with the weather being clement and the price of real estate being high, you spend a lot of time in this hybrid space. We could call it patio space or—if you’re in the South—front porch space. It’s clearly inside in some ways, but it’s public in other ways.
The world of the blog clearly exists in patio space, in porch space, in that “I’m going to invite you into a level of intimacy not usually accorded to strangers, and yet you’re still a stranger. I’m going to write a blog, and you and I will communicate with one another, sometimes with startling candor, and yet in this mixed, hybrid place.”
The campaigns [I’ve worked on]—“The Beast”, “I Love Bees”, and “Last Call Poker”—one of the things that makes them interesting, artistically, to me is that they are part of a very small set of works of art that I can think of that deliberately exist in porch space. They have audiences that are literally collective and talking and engaged, both with the project and with each other. If you and I go and watch a movie, you have a unique experience and I have a unique experience, we just happen to be sitting in the same room.
The audiences that we built for those campaigns are having a different experience. They’re having a collective experience in which they literally bring different pieces, one to the next, swap them back and forth, gossip about them. They have an element of cocreation and a collaborative nature that doesn’t really have an analog that I’ve been able to think of in the arts, although it does in another place.
What is the other place?
This behavior—this sort of creative, collaborative, enthusiastic scavengering behavior—is something that we call by another name when we direct it, not to entertainment, but to the physical world. We call it science, as it’s been constructed since Newton and the Royal Society, and that’s worked out pretty well for us as a species.
Where do you think it’s going? Is this form of storytelling going to be as popular as novels?
Something will be. What will happen is, twenty years from now, someone will be using the web for a storytelling platform, and here are some of the components that I am nearly positive will be part of that art form.
One of the things that we do that I think will continue at some level is platform independent stories. They might be in print, they might be in film, they might be on the web, they might be a cellphone message. The story doesn’t care. A kid who’s 15 now, in 10 years—when they’re 25—their cellphone will be their TV, their computer, their phone, their whatever. It will be pointless to say, “I only do the kind of storytelling that happens between a printed page.”
Well, it won’t be pointless. There will still be books. God, I hope so, because I have a stake in that. But I think that the art form we will look back on as being the dominant art form of the 21st century—as we look back on film for the 20th—is one that will take advantage of the web’s basic nature, which is that it’s all ones and zeroes. It can be digitized and delivered through any kind of platform. The story doesn’t care. I think that’s going to be part of it.
Another part of that art form that I think is going to really stay with people is that sense of the collective or collaborative audience—that it exists in what we were talking about as porch space or blog space: A connected group of people who are interested in talking to one another about things and are even willing to be moved by those things. And it will be a little bit interactive, I think. This is where my crystal ball gets murky, because obviously you look at really passive forms of entertainment like TV and say, “Wow, that’s a model that works.”
It is the nature of the web that you get to click on things. I think, at some level, the art forms that evolve to use that platform will need to let people click on things. In some way or another, people want to push a little on something that happens on the web in a way they do not expect to push on their television sets.
Twenty years from now, you will look back at something like “Last Call”, and you will say, part of the engine of what is clearly a ‘57 Thunderbird was right there in that 1898 Ford prototype, and some of things they were doing are just the dumbest things I can possibly imagine.
We’re still in many ways in early, early days in considering this as an art form. The initial conceit of AI, and we did the same with “I Love Bees,” is that it’s storytelling as archeology—or, possibly, the other way around. That is, you work out a story, you create all the evidence of that story, then you smash the evidence into a thousand teeny bits and sprinkle it around and people gather it up, put it together again and argue about what it must have meant about the civilization. Everything you find is real within the fictional bubble of the story.
One of the things we built with “Last Call” is a narrator. So, we tried to move from where the novel was in the time of Defoe—in which every time you wrote a book you had to say, “I found this manuscript in my uncle’s attic and it all really happened”—to where you are by the time of Jane Austen. Actually, you see it in Pride and Prejudice. It starts out as being an epistolary novel and Jane Austen is right at the moment where they start taking a big breath and just daring to say what people are thinking, even though, how the hell would you know what they are actually thinking? In “Last Call” we show thoughts and feelings, we do movie segments of things without saying, “This was caught on a security camera.”
We just do them because we do them, because no one goes to see Gladiator and says, “Wait a minute, there weren’t movie cameras in ancient Rome.” That’s the level of formal experimentation we’re talking about. We’re solving the problems of 1815. Now, we got from 1650 to 1815 in only three years, so that’s exciting, but we are in an early stage of development about what people will tolerate.
Suspension of disbelief is a much more fragile creation in the kinds of campaigns we’re doing right now than it is in novels, where everyone has taken the last two hundred years to agree on a set of rules about how you understand what’s happening in a book. That hasn’t happened here. Right now, this is at an unbelievably fluid and dynamic stage—a whole bunch of things that have been figured out in other art forms, we’re working them out on the fly.
Did you find these games appealing from the beginning?
I did. One of the dirty secrets of doing this stuff is that I am such a better writer now than before I did this project.
Why is that?
When you work as a professional novelist, in this day and age, part of what you are encouraged to do—and part of the natural process—is to slowly work down and reach more and more deeply within yourself to find your own authentic vision and slowly get past pastiching what others have done. Pastiche always came easily to me because I read very widely from a pretty young age and enjoyed most kinds of fiction. I could do faux Cormac McCarthy and I could do faux John Carter of Mars. Gradually, as a novelist, you’re encouraged to push down through that and find your authentic voice as a writer.
With AI, we got in over our heads. We underestimated just how hungry the audience was to be entertained and how much we would need to do to entertain them for how long. I ended up getting to a point where, as a writer, I was in a bizarre need-driven zone—to the point where I punched through everything I was as a writer into the much bigger, darker, oil-well deposit of everything I had been as a reader.
I was allowing myself to use all of it—Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner and Andre Norton and Tolkien and Dashiell Hammett,1984, Little House on the Prairie, everything—because there was a cast of literally scores of characters going in scores of directions—some personal, some political. It was every kind of writing that I had ever imagined or read, let alone done myself: political posters, pamphlets, business websites, personal diaries of 55-year-old women going through relationship agonies, weddings, funerals, demonstrations. It was extraordinarily liberating, in a sense, because there was no time to worry about “Is this tasteful?” You just had to go and keep going.
Has that changed your practice of writing? Do you write faster?
I don’t know that I write the novels much faster, but I write them with a lot more assurance and freedom. In terms of how I exist as a writer and the confidence with which I approach what I do, there’s no question that it’s had a huge positive benefit, which I didn’t predict.
It’s probably because he’s about to be appointed to the FCC. Mediaweek reports that Sen. Ted Stevens, the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, is supporting Robert McDowell for the last vacant seat on the commission. Who is this guy?
Well, he is the assistant general counsel for Comptel, a lobbying organization for second-tier telecom providers. There, he works for Earl Comstock, a former Stevens aide who would have probably been named to the commission if it weren’t for nanny issues. (Nevermind that he also shares a surname with notorious puritan Anthony Comstock, the Brent Bozell of his day.)
Also, according to this site promoting his unsuccessful run for the Virginia General Assembly, McDowell was—like FCC chairman Kevin Martin—part of the Bush-Cheney Recount Team. His Republican bona fides appear to be in order, in other words. As for his stance on decency/indecency, he has no record, and Brent Bozell has not yet thrown a party. We’ll see.
Tuesday January 24, 2006
Here are three headlines from two magazines—Adweek and Mediaweek—which are both owned by one company, VNU.
What’s strange is that all three refer to the exact same story. So which is it? Are upfront ad sales strong, wait-and-see, or likely to be down, but not by much? According to the actual story—the story to which all three headlines refer—“media agency executives acknowledge they do not see the broadcast network upfront growing much beyond last year’s approximate $9 billion, but they also don’t expect it to drop much below that.” In other words, “TV ad sales are flat,” which seems like a perfectly good headline.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has decided to give Robert Altman an honorary Oscar this year. He has been nominated as a director five times but has never won.
Here’s what Altman thinks about the current state of moviemaking, according to a (somewhat) recent Q&A with Chicago-based magazine Stop Smiling:
I just don’t see any films—or filmmakers, for that matter—coming along that interest me. I find the style of the films so silly. I’m surprised filmmakers can get away with all this. The corniness of most of these things—anyone who can even do it astonishes me.
At least there will be one acceptance speech worth watching.
Monday January 23, 2006
I have written a story about so-called alternate reality games (ARGs) for the January issue of Creativity, which is out now. For the uninitiated, ARGs are complex, narrative games that start online but usually spill out into emails, instant messages, films, faxed message, phone calls, and live events. So far, most of the high-profile games have been sponsored by marketers, from Warner Bros.—which sponsored the seminal ARG “The Beast” to promote the movie AI—to Audi, which sponsored last year’s “The Art of the Heist.” People I interviewed for the piece include Sean Stewart, the sci-fi writer who is part of the team at 42 Entertainment that created “The Beast,” “I Love Bees” (for Microsoft’s Halo 2), and “Last Call Poker” (for Activision’s Gun); Steve Wax and Mike Monello of Campfire, who developed “The Art of the Heist” with ad agency McKinney + Silver; and Steve Peters, founder of the Alternate Reality Gaming Network (ARGN).
I think ARGs are interesting, not just as someone who covers advertising, but as a writer. When the novel goes, what then? What’s next for storytelling? Stewart, who is the author of eight novels and winner of the 2000 World Fantasy Award, had this to say when I asked him to compare working on novels to working on games:
Right now, this art form is more exciting than novels. If I had to choose, I’d do this, and I don’t say that because of the paycheck. I honestly believe that the gods, in their infinite mercy, looked down and gave me a chance to be at Kitty Hawk, to be in motion pictures in 1905, to be at a place and a moment in time where something extraordinarily exciting was just getting off the ground.
The full article is here, but requires a subscription. If you already subscribe, or receive Creativity, check it out.
Interestingly (or perhaps ominously), the new ARG on the block—Methargo (which appears to be unsponsored)—revolves around a mysterious “new marketing” firm where the employees are dropping like flies.
New Orleans gets all the press, but how is the rebuilding effort going on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi? Judging from these pictures taken by my former colleague Chris Davis on a recent trip to Biloxi, not so well. While Katrina hit five months ago, Chris says it looks like it could have happened yesterday. His pictures bear that out.
Friday January 20, 2006
Here’s a new term for the marketing lexicon: “God-branding.” For example, Biola University—a Christian school in La Mirada, Calif.—recently helped market The Chronicles of Narnia with ticket giveaways and an ad on the school’s website. In The Chronicle of Higher Education (sub. required for full text) Rob Westervelt, Biola’s director of brand management, traces the idea to the Bible. “In Ecclesiastes, Solomon is quoted as saying, ‘Notice the way God does things and fall into line,’” he says. “And that’s kind of God-branding in a nutshell.” He formally defines the term this way:
Co-branding is when two companies partner together in their marketing efforts. God-branding, for us, is when an organization partners its marketing efforts with what God is doing in the world. We see The Chronicles of Narnia as sharing our values.
No word on whether or not it will share the box office.
Need an “expert literary witness” with a Ph.D. in poetry or similarly appropriate field, preferably from Harvard, Yale, Columbia or Princeton, etc., to read over a piece of “poetic prose” and then testify in writing to it’s innocence and/or purely poetic (artistic) nature.
You will not need to appear in court, etc., but will need to notarize your findings. They will be used as “Expert English Speaking Testimony” in a foreign court case.
The fee is a flat $1000.
Big plus that you don’t have to appear. The whole thing sounds sort of SVU creepy.
The verdict was clear after yesterday’s decency hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee. The so-called “family tiers” cable and satellite companies are proposing in order to stave off more aggressive decency legislation would be just great if they included more sports. “I don’t know why a family has to choose between protecting their children” and watching sports, says Sen. Frank Lautenberg. “I think you’ll find the marketplace is going to want [sports channels],” concurs Sen. George Allen.
Both gentlemen seem to be under the impression that family tiers are actually about what the marketplace wants, rather than seeing that such tiers are only meant to be the second most disruptive way to keep children from witnessing MTV. That this is a matter for the government to decide is itself ridiculous. There is no right to cable—let alone to kid-friendly cable plus ESPN—and if Brent Bozell and company don’t like what they see, they should stick to broadcast TV, where the government at least has some claim to jurisdiction.
Which brings me to the most disruptive way to keep children from watching MTV: a la carte programming. Bozell continued to beat this drum at yesterday’s hearing, and FCC chairman Kevin Martin has expressed support, despite the fact that the commission—under Michael Powell—found that it would be cost-prohibitive to let subscribers choose individual channels they would like to receive. Bundling basic channels together keeps costs down, but Bozell doesn’t like paying for channels he finds offensive. The a la carte debate has created some strange bedfellows, to be sure. Howard Stern, like Bozell, supports it. Both cable companies and the Christian Coalition oppose it.
I say we give Bozell what he wants.
Allowing consumers to choose just the channels they want will have a two-fold effect. On the one hand, a lot of channels won’t pull their own weight and will disappear—and it probably won’t be the ones on Bozell’s hit list. Religious stations will go out of business, which is why the Christian Coalition opposes the plan. MTV will, no doubt, survive.
Meanwhile, a la carte will completely wreck the business model of today’s media giants. This is also, of course, why a la carte will never be adopted—Republicans can’t sacrifice that much corporate support to the fringes—but if it were, it would hasten the downfall of mainstream media and the rise of consumer control, as Jeff Jarvis has described. Sticking it to Bozell, the Christian Coalition, and corporate monopolists all at the same time? What’s not to like? Bozell needs all the support we can give him.
Wednesday January 18, 2006
Want a job Doing Absolutely Nothing? Your time has come. … Blessed be the lawmakers, for they shall write the multicast must-carry rules into law—just like the Bible says. I really can’t believe this is the Christian Coalition’s number one priority for 2006, but it is. [via] … PBS has launched a new blog called Media Shift, which bills itself as a “guide to the digital media revolution.” I will be watching it closely. So closely that observers will mistake me for Ken Tomlinson.
Last month, we had a long discussion about the future of mobile TV and about whether or not people will actually want to be seen watching television in public. According to a new study from the U.K. [via], the latter question might be irrelevant to the former. Researchers were “surprised to find that people were using the mobile TV service at home. According to their results, 36% of people used the service mainly at home, compared to 23% at work or university and 28% while on the move.”
To which, one can only say, “Huh?” Perhaps Pat was right. People won’t feel comfortable getting a TV fix in public. They just won’t realize it until they get one of these babies home.
Tuesday January 17, 2006
It looks like the second half of Thursday’s indecency doubleheader before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation has gotten a slight facelift. Three days ago, the session bore this title:
Today, it’s been changed to the always crowd-pleasing:
Is this yet another example of the right’s strategy of restricting content in the name of protecting children? Maybe. Or maybe they couldn’t handle the traffic from all the people looking for actual internet pornography. The guest list so far—which includes reps from the middle-of-the-road Internet Education Foundation and the adult entertainment industry—suggests the session might be short on hysterics, although it looks like a second panel has yet to be announced.
Monday January 16, 2006
Cable operators are scrambling to get their act together ahead of Thursday’s decency hearings before the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. According to TV Week (reg. required), executives plan to tout new family-friendly subscription tiers and unveil a PSA campaign aimed at educating consumers about, you know, the million other ways you can keep your kids from watching MTV.
Will these measures stem the regulatory tide being spearheaded by the FCC and the Parents Television Council? The PTC is already saying that the family tiers have been “designed to fail” by cable operators, but one TV Week source predicts that lawmakers will simply “claim victory and leave.” I plan to issue a full report after Thursday morning’s hearings.
And the decency debate is only going to get weirder. In an interview with Mediaweek, new NAB CEO David Rehr suggests that satellite radio should be subject to FCC regulation because such services are available, without a subscription, in rental cars! “These satellite companies have to decide if they want to truly be subscription only or face the obligation of living under FCC [indecency] rules,” he says.
TV Week (reg. required) posts a story this morning that is sure to be one of the most cited items of the day. (As predicted.) NBC is crediting iTunes with boosting the ratings of The Office. The series had its best ratings among 18- to 49-year-olds last week, a little more than a month after the show became available as an iTunes download. While this certainly seems like powerful evidence that downloads don’t cannibalize ratings, I’m with the analyst who cautions that “we are not seeing the kind of volume yet on iTunes that would show up in a ratings bump.”
My Name Is Earl, for example, has also posted strong demos since moving, with The Office, to Thursdays. Last week—the second since the move—both shows’ ratings were up 13 percent with the 18 to 49 crowd. The difference? My Name Is Earl is not available on iTunes.
There’s an “iTunes effect” alright, but whether it’s a function of the service, or of the hype surrounding the service, remains to be seen.
Saturday January 14, 2006
Fox has announced that it will air the last four episodes of Arrested Development in one two-hour block on February 10, the opening night of the Olympics. TVSquad expresses dismay, but I think this signals the shape of things to come. There was much talk about taking AD to the web, and Fox’s move is similar. They’re essentially taking the show straight to DVR, knowing that fans will find it wherever it is. As scheduling becomes less and less important, I wouldn’t be surprised if undesirable time slots increasingly became depositories for niche shows like AD—at least until TV and the net merge entirely and render scheduling completely obsolete. Here’s what to expect in the final episodes, according to Zap2it:
The final four episodes of the season will feature guest appearances by Justine Bateman, Jason’s sister, and Judge Reinhold, also seen in the “SOBs” episode (indicating that it may have aired out of sequence). Justine Bateman will play a woman who Michael believes may be his long-lost sister Nellie, while Reinhold plays himself, hired by the family’s new lawyer to act as a judge in a mock trial to help the Bluths prepare for a real court case.
The episodes will also feature Gob (Will Arnett) traveling to Iraq to perform a Christian magic act, which lands him in prison; Buster (Tony Hale) faking a coma to avoid testifying in the family’s court case; and George Michael (Michael Cera) and Maeby (Alia Shawkat) taking part in a mock wedding to entertain hospital patients. The whole thing ends up at a yacht party, which is where the series started.
Friday January 13, 2006
It looks like the Catholic Church is finally catching up with Borges. According to this article [via], Catholic scholars are looking at rehabilitating Judas in order to resolve longstanding theological questions about the betrayer’s role in God’s divine plan. In his story “Three Versions of Judas,” Borges, of course, considered the somewhat more radical possibility that Judas was the true savior—since, unlike Jesus, he sacrificed his own eternal salvation for mankind.
This used to be a favorite philosophical plaything when we were all consumed with Borges back in grad school. This Wikipedia entry details some of the cases for rehabilitating Judas. Phillip Seymour Hoffman also recently staged The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, a play by Stephen Adly Guirgis in which Sam Rockwell portrayed the conflicted traitor. The argument I’ve never seen anywhere, however, is this: Since Judas committed suicide even before the crucifixion, doesn’t that make him the most faithful apostle? Peter and Thomas both doubted before they witnessed the resurrection. Judas knew what he’d done.
In any event, whatever the Vatican does, I doubt the American Family Association is going to go for it.
Thursday January 12, 2006
James Frey, George Bush and the New Truth. … Sleeper alert: TBS’ Daisy Does America is very funny. My favorite new midseason show. I like it better than Ali G. … A snarky Episcopalian priest liveblogs The Book of Daniel. The verdict? “Jesus clearly needs better lines.” [via]
Wednesday January 11, 2006
As we speak, the career of a cocky and talented young loudmouth is at a crossroads. No, I’m not talking about James Frey. That was this afternoon. I’m talking about champion skier Bode Miller, who is expected to make a statement tomorrow regarding his recent comment to 60 Minutes about skiing “wasted.” The forces of clean-living—his coach, Nike, even rehabilitated rebel Picabo Street—are poised to welcome Miller back into the mainstream of Good Clean American Fun, if only he will admit the error of his ways. Will he cave? Of course he will. (UPDATE: He did.)
All of this reminds me of Ross Rebagliati, the Canadian snowboarder who tested positive for marijuana in Nagano in 1998, but held onto his Gold Medal by claiming to be a victim of secondhand smoke. That was probably a lie, but one Rebagliati had to tell—not just to hold onto his medal, but to stay in the endorsement game.
Back then, my friend Pat Michels wrote an astute essay for a website we ran called ADAD, explaining exactly “Why Ross Reblagiati Had to Play Lame to Stay Hip.” While written in a pre-Paris Hilton, pre-Kate Moss world, Pat’s piece is still a brilliant dissection of the rules and limits of rebel marketing—and it’s hilarious to boot. As Bode’s career hangs in the balance, I thought I’d post Pat’s essay in full. You really should read it.
Senator Ted Stevens and his Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation have a big day planned next Thursday, January 19: a second round of decency hearings—starring Brent Bozell, Jack Valenti, and some groveling cable execs—followed by a hearing on internet pornography (guests TBA). I’ve already started stockpiling supplies. Now that the Bengals have been eliminated, this is what I have to look forward to.
Tuesday January 10, 2006
Recent revelations about the truthfulness of authors JT LeRoy and James Frey have sent the book world reeling. But we would do well to remember that some of America’s brightest literary lights were sometimes less than honest about their work and themselves. For example:
Whitman’s “Song of Myself” was not actually about himself, but about a blond neighbor boy named Todd.
Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau never actually stayed at Walden Pond, relying instead on the observations of a series of stringers and unpaid interns—although he did briefly touchdown at the Concord airport to “get the dateline.”
The Belle of Amherst was, in fact, a man. A tiny, nervous man.
Mark Twain was actually a much uglier person named Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Or the other way around. I can never remember.
Despite appearances, Eliot was not an insufferable British snob. He was an insufferable snob from Missouri.
While Hemingway set out to serve in the Ambulance Corps during World War I, he got no closer to action than the 1918 Wimp Convention and Exposition in Gibraltar, where he delivered an influential (if later suppressed) treatise on fleeing. His famous wartime injury was reportedly the result of “power tanning.”
Monday January 09, 2006
One day, at a paper where I used to work, the head of sales wandered — starry-eyed — into my office. He was flipping through one of those glossy real estate circulars in which agents pay to place page after page of full-color ads. He was marvelling at this holy grail, this magazine with no editorial content at all. “It’s all ads,” he said, flushed as though he’d seen the face of God.
Publishers and account executives aren’t bad people, they’ve just had their worst instincts reinforced by the commission structure. They’re like pit bulls made mean by hunger and abuse. Anyone who doesn’t believe me should try playing around with Google’s Adsense.
I started serving Adsense pages last week, first of all to see what kind of money a blog like this might make (answer: not much), but also because I wanted to see how it works and, you know, what it’s like. Bloggers will know what I mean. Half the fun of blogging is on the stats page, where you can see firsthand how online waves crest and fall. Well, let me tell you: Adsense is like having a tiny AE implanted into your brain. You can practically smell the cologne.
I am not a gambler, but I’ve stood at a roulette table long enough to feel the temptation created by that particular economic transaction. Adsense has its own tug, and once you’ve felt it, it’s easier to understand most of the blogosphere. I mean, why shouldn’t I rename this blog the Hanasiana Digital Camera Hut? That would attract shoppers and some sweet contextual ads. And then I could replace the content, or most of it, with ads—as many ads as possible (or as the TOS allows)—and then I could increase my traffic and (more importantly) the number of ads by posting 57 items a day, and wouldn’t it be neat if I raved about a product and an ad for the very same product appeared in the sidebar? But I don’t know what ads are going to appear, so I guess I’d better rave about all the products I write about, just in case. And the next thing I know, I’m running a glossy real estate circular that’s “all ads,” like the head of sales said. It’s no wonder that 90 percent of all media is compromised junk.
It looks like I’m going to have to build a Chinese wall inside my brain—or at least find a way to keep that jerk out of my office.
Francis has reintroduced his formerly daily cartoon—“Six Things”—as a weekly feature. He’ll also be appearing at the Ritalin Readings on Tuesday. … Phil—who, to my knowledge, does not draw cartoons—will appear at the Happy Ending Music & Reading Series on Wednesday. … Andrea sets New York magazine straight on the origins of Pegacide. In north Jersey, they call it Butts Up. … Robin’s got a gun.
Sunday January 08, 2006
On our holiday expedition to Kentucky, Alexandra picked up a 1979 copy of Quest magazine, an upmarket glossy created by the Worldwide Church of God after the world failed to end in 1975, as predicted. No, really. It’s an interesting item in its own right. The cover story is about Jesse Jackson and it includes a piece by George Plimpton about a “tale-tellers’ convention” and an essay on suicide (don’t do it) by Buckminster Fuller.
But after suffering through a week of incessant blogging about the Consumer Electronics Show, I was more interested in a full-page ad for the unfortunately named “Bone Fone,” a sort of ghost of gadgets past.
The copy explains how it works:
You’re standing in an open field. Suddenly there’s music from all directions. Your bones resonate as if you’re listening to beautiful stereo music in front of a powerful home stereo system.
But there’s no radio in sight and nobody else hears what you do. It’s an unbelievable experience that will send chills through your body when you first hear it.
And nobody will know you’re listening to a stereo. The entire sound system is actually draped around you like a a scarf and can be hidden under a jacket or worn over clothes.
Friday January 06, 2006
My mission this weekend is to get our new Sirius satellite receiver up and running. I got it for Alexandra for Christmas. She’s a big Howard Stern fan, I’m a convert, and Howard starts on Monday.
We did get to sample the Sirius lineup over the holidays, however, when we rented a car in Vermont. I like radio, but I’ve been wishing it was better since about 1985. I like the serendipity of it. I do not own a copy of “Born to Run,” have never owned a copy of “Born to Run,” and do not plan to procure a copy of “Born to Run” in the future. Still, under the right circumstances—say, racing from Memphis to Chicago on I-57 at twilight—nothing satisfies and exhilarates like stumbling across “Born to Run.” That’s what radio is for.
Then there’s the communal aspect. There’s a reason watching re-runs of David Letterman is depressing. It’s not happening now. There’s no prospective pool of co-conspirators to talk about the show with the next morning. While recorded music gives you complete choice, it loses this dimension as well. You’re not part of anything when you’re listening to an iPod.
Unfortunately, the Sirius channels we listened to just aren’t good enough to compete with picking your own music. There are three stations that play so-called alternative rock, but they feel like one mediocre X format that has been blown into niches. There’s “First Wave,” which plays college rock from the early ’80s; “Left of Center,” which plays indie rock; and “Alt Nation,” which plays all those bands I can’t distinguish from Nickelback. I was most excited about “First Wave”—because I am old—but the playlist was disappointing. We heard New Order’s “Love Vigilantes” twice in less than twenty-four hours, and the selection didn’t really get any deeper than early MTV. When they played The Clash, they played “I Fought the Law,” which is really a waste when you can target listeners so tightly. Save that for AOR.
Furthermore, the channels don’t have commercials per se, but they are not without interruptions. There are channel IDs and too much deejay chatter—why have deejays when it says what’s playing right here on this little electronic box? While XM looks like they’ve got a better (and deeper) selection, Howard Stern is the only reason I can see to get satellite—which is why he’s getting paid a half a billion dollars.
While I’m in an Excel frame of mind, I figured I might as well follow through on the idea I was pitching when I started collecting data on blockbusters a few months ago. Here’s a chart that tracks the top-selling CDs, books, and movies (by attendance) for each of the last 15 years. I’ve racheted down the movie stats to represent tens of millions (rather than millions in the case of CDs and books) for easier comparison. Make of it what you will.
Note that the top book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, outsold the top record—Mariah Carey’s The Emancipation of Mimi—this year. The RIAA’s gotta hate that. Losing out to a book?
Thursday January 05, 2006
The Bloggies are now accepting nominations for their annual weblog awards. Now, if everyone who has ever visited this site told two friends, and they told two hundred friends, well, you do the math. There is a category for “Best Kept Secret,” just so you know. … More importantly, will the Iraqi people be able to vote in the Bloggies, and what does Christopher Hitchens think about it? … Personally, I think this woman quit because of how godawful her dress looked on Nicky Hilton on last night’s Project Runway. … That’s one long tail. I’ve been thinking lately that if my Technorati rank is around 30K, and Technorati tracks 2.4M blogs, then there must be a lot of blogs out there that really have no traffic. According to Top 100 blogger Steve Rubel, the slope is pretty steep at the top, as well.
I’ve gotten caught up in the blockbuster discussion over at the Long Tail that I blogged about earlier. Chris Anderson has now posted a chart showing how many Gold, Platinum, and Diamond awards the RIAA has given out each year. Predictably, the numbers slump with album sales as fewer records—both old and new—sell the requisite number of copies to earn these awards. But my question is still whether or not blockbusters themselves are dead—that is, are top-selling records selling more copies or fewer copies than they used to. As I noted before, in publishing, it’s the mid-list that has suffered as the hits keep getting bigger. Here’s a chart I cooked up that shows how many copies were sold of the top-selling album in each of the last 15 years.
As you can see, this chart does not trend downward as steeply or as consistently as record sales. In fact, the top records of the last five years averaged more copies sold than the top records from 1991 to 1995. Also notice that the top-selling records of 2003 and 2004 top those of 1997 and 1996, respectively, even though more records were sold overall in those years. So, while sales might be down, blockbusters are not dead yet. In fact, a higher percentage of the industry’s overall sales are tied up in them.
Meanwhile, in response to the question of whether it might be the case that older albums dominate the all-time sales list because they’ve had more time to sell, Anderson says that “albums that achieved Platinum or Multi-Platinum designation almost all did so within a year of going Gold. So most of the sales do seem to be in the first year or two after release.” This is not true. The top five albums on the all-time list took an average of 11 years to reach the midpoint of their current sales totals. The notable exception is Michael Jackson’s Thriller—and we all know how that turned out.
Wednesday January 04, 2006
Freelancefred has been filing hilariously detailed reports about his ongoing war with the squirrels that have infested his attic. I can relate. Francis, meanwhile, points us to a useful simulator. A passage from Fred’s (fully illustrated) battle log:
Hostilities have escalated dramatically due to an engagement at approximately 1500 hours today. Upon hearing scurrying above the bedroom quarters, I reconnoitered via a closet scuttle hatch. Hoping to frighten the enemy into retreat or perhaps encourage an epileptic seizure, I raised that hatch enough to insert the head of a work light, which I flashed in a random pattern, if there can be such a thing. Scratch that. I flashed the light randomly. Within 10 seconds a very large squirrel raced roughly 18 feet from its previous position and attempted to either jump from the attic or attack my head. Due to rapid realignment of the scuttle hatch, the squirrel’s offensive was repelled and the proper functioning of my adrenal glands was confirmed.
Michael Copps and Deborah Taylor Tate were officially sworn in yesterday as FCC commissioners, which nearly gives the agency a full boat of regulators. The commission now has two Republicans (Tate and chairman Kevin Martin), two Democrats (Copps and Jonathan Adelstein), two decency crusaders (Martin and Copps), one unknown quantity when it comes to regulating content (Tate), and a Republican to be named later. When that will be is still anyone’s guess.
Tuesday January 03, 2006
I’ve been puzzling over this chart Chris Anderson posted on his Long Tail blog. It shows the 100 top-selling albums of all time, divided up by the years they were released. Anderson concludes that the lack of best-sellers in the last five years is bad news for the record industry. While the record industry has seen plenty of bad news, and has more to come, I don’t think this chart is part of it.
I was noodling around a while ago with the question: What makes a hit? How many things do you have to sell now compared to, say, 30 years ago to have a hit on your hands? I was kind of surprised when I looked up some sample numbers. Some media displayed fragmentation, while others seemed more invested in hit-ism than ever. For example, in the latter category: Ragtime, the best-selling novel of 1975, sold a mere 292,000 copies, while the best-selling novel of 2000, John Grisham’s The Brethren, sold 2.9 million. This mirrors the complaint that the publishing industry increasingly relies on fewer titles to turn a profit.
On the fragmentation side, Star Wars sold 197 million tickets in 1977, while the most popular movie of 2004, Shrek 2, only sold 71.9 million. (Forgive me, the figures are from notes, and I don’t have the sources readily available.) Similarly, 100 million viewers watched the final episode of M*A*S*H, while only 50 million watched the final episode of Friends, thanks to the fragmentation brought about by cable TV.
What makes a hit album, however, has remained surprisingly constant. While The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), went on to be the best-selling album of all time, it sold 7 million copies the year it was released, which is less than the 8 million copies Usher’s Confessions sold in 2004. The Eagles did top Usher in 1977, when Hotel California sold 9 million copies. In 2005, the top-selling record, Mariah Carey’s Emancipation of Mimi, sold just 5 millions units, but 7 to 10 million has been the norm in recent years. Anderson titles his post “The Decade the Blockbuster Died,” but if there’s change going on in the music industry—and of course there is—it doesn’t seem to be happening at the top.
Strategy firm Agenda has released its American Brandstand report for 2005, and—as you can see—Mercedes was the brand most often name checked in top 20 Billboard hits for the second time in three years. The AK-47, meanwhile, finally cracked the top ten after steadily gaining ground.
As the full report (.pdf) notes, hip-hop’s love of Mercedes (and of AKs, for that matter) is at least as old as the N.W.A. anthem “Fuck the Police”—that ingenius work of rebel-rousing that upset middle America just about as much it aimed to almost two decades ago. I reported a story for Ad Age this week about the current crop of 18- to 34-year-olds —which are half Gen X and half Gen Y—and I talked to Agenda’s Lucian James. Other than the fact that twentysomething women call themselves “girls”—which was a great way to refer to college women if you never, ever wanted to get laid on campus in the late eighties—the most interesting cultural observation I came across was from James. I quote from the article:
“The older end of this group of consumers is Gen X and still sometimes believes that the world would be better if there were no brands and corporations weren’t involved,” Mr. James says. “But the younger end realizes that increasing parts of culture are sponsored by corporations. It’s no longer considered a good or bad thing. It’s just a thing. In a world where we need to recognize and understand each other quickly, brands are an increasingly important way we do that. Consumers know what it means to hold a Budweiser, what it means to choose Grey Goose [vodka] and what it means to drive a Mini Cooper.”
That sounds right. When I was a wannabe punk in the mid-eighties, brands were anathema. The Sex Pistols, the only other group to frighten the middle as much as N.W.A. later would, only mentioned EMI to sneer at corporations. But N.W.A.’s bile is aimed at the police—a target as touchy as Queen Elizabeth for law and order Americans—because they’re the dudes who will jack you for “rollin’ in a Benzo.” Truly anti-establishment messages, and I believe “Fuck the Police” was one, became bound to brands in a way the folks at The Baffler were always describing. The American Brandstand report is the demonstration.
I’m against reductionist theories. I don’t think marketers control people’s choices, but I also don’t believe consumers hold all the cards. I do think, however, that marketers and young consumers have never been less opposed. Today’s 29-year-olds were 11 when “Fuck the Police” was released and, for them, brands and bad-assness have always been linked. This isn’t a knock against hip-hop. Just as feminists criticized Foucault and company for doing away with identity at the same moment women were gaining access to it, the disavowal of stuff by the haves can only look ridiculous to the have-nots. As it’s become mainstream, however, hip-hop has laundered conspicuous consumption back to the white suburbanites who had begun to reject it during the Reagan years. That observation isn’t new. What is new is that today’s generation of twentysomethings has never known it any other way.
In Ad Age’s article about the American Brandstand report, adman Andrew Sacks says payment for product placement in lyrics is a highly guarded secret because, “it undermines the credibility of it. In hip-hop lingo, the street cred would be gone.” Is he kidding? That’s Gen X thinking. 50 Cent, who has street cred to burn, was the most promiscuous brand-dropper in 2005, mentioning 19 brands in 7 songs. And being number one in 2003 didn’t seem to slow his popularity a bit. For good or ill—as a cynical Gen Xer, I’ll sit this one out—brands and cred are no longer incompatible. If Gen X was—like Dada—nihilistic, Gen Y has reinvented surrealism as the projection of the id via the florid display of luxury brands.
Collateral Damage’s Constantine von Hoffman collects the best press release quotes of the year. I particularly like the one about Crisping Porter + Bogusky. (Correction: Crisping Porter + Bogusly.) Wanna bet that came from Coke? [via]… If you don’t know font history, you’re destined to, um, make some design geeks all upset. UPDATE: The Times is wrong. [via] … The American Family Association objects to a show about an Episcopal priest on drugs?!? I object to the fact that the posters look just like promos for Six Feet Under. … Jonathan Coulton does it again. Geniusness.