Archive for February, 2011

Letter From New York February 27, 2011

February 27, 2011

Or, as it seems to me…

Two days ago my friend Beverly, who receives and reads this missive, sent me an email wondering what I was thinking about Libya. What is happening there is less covered than events in Tunisia and Egypt. The difference: there aren’t that many cameras in Libya and there aren’t that many correspondents reporting out of there.

Gaddafi invited foreign correspondents to Tripoli, the capital, to demonstrate that all was under his control. It apparently backfired as some squares and streets were filled with protestors, demonstrating that all was not well and under the dictator’s control. Correspondents were eager to see things up close, particularly after a telecast from Tripoli of a long, peculiar, rambling rant of Mr. Gaddafi informing his subjects that he was still in control, wasn’t going to leave Libya, wanted to die there as a “martyr” and that all the trouble was being caused because Mr. Obama, our President, was seeing to it that young Libyans were being provided hallucinogenic drugs. I saw some of it and it was mesmerizing in a terrifying way as it demonstrated his dangerously erratic behavior and probable madness.

He is a thug; yesterday I listened on NPR to a heartbreaking report from Tripoli from a man who described the relief he and friends felt when ambulances showed up at the scene of a melee between protesters and security forces and how relief became horror as Gaddafi’s security forces burst from the backs of those ambulances to shoot into the crowd. It is such actions that have resulted in the UN Security Council recommending that Gaddafi and his cronies be referred to the Tribunal for War Crimes while placing sanctions against them, which makes me believe that Gaddafi might feel he is going to have to really embrace that martyr role because there will be no place for him [or his sons] to run.

Reviewing online some of the African press this morning, it is clear there is concern that Libya will have a Ceausescu moment when Gaddafi falls, looking back at the execution of Romania’s dictator and his wife when their communist state collapsed beneath them.

There is a provisional government that has been formed in the east of the country under a former Justice Minister who defected to the rebels a few days ago and which is currently being recognized by the former Libyan Ambassador to the U.N. who also has renounced Gaddafi. The situation is confusing and complex and frightening. Some governments are quickly evacuating their citizens but migrant workers from poorer nations are adrift with their native governments unable or unwilling to assist them. Workers from African nations are gathering in compounds and are being guarded because Libyans are confusing them with African mercenaries brought in by Gaddafi and his boys to subdue them.

It appears that it’s only a matter of time before Libya is freed from the Gaddafi family; it is only a matter of how much blood will be lost in the process. And that is the terrifying reality. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, the army is split and some of them are firing on the Libyan people though others are defecting and turning on their Colonel.

Much of the news is coming out via Twitter and Facebook because the correspondents are not there in the same force they were in Tunisia and Egypt. And the Tweets and Facebook postings are also showing that unrest remains in much of the Arab world. The Arabian King is offering significant financial assistance to his population to quell their unrest while Yemen’s dictator is under increasing pressure with old allies beginning to abandon him. Bahrain’s monarch is shuffling his cabinet as protests continue. Oman has begun to experience its first protests.

What began two months ago in Tunisia and then swept into Egypt and has now been blown into Libya and Yemen and Bahrain and Oman and Saudi Arabia. We will have to watch closely because the world is shifting before our eyes and the eventual outcomes will undoubtedly shape the geo-politic for years to come, for good or ill.

Letter From New York, February 21, 2011

February 22, 2011

Future of TV, according to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation and Variety Magazine on February 15th in Los Angeles, CA…

As I tweeted that I was at this Future of TV Summit one wag of a friend, himself a former producer of many a series, tweeted back: TV has a future? Which I suppose was the question this Summit was called to answer. There were big names there, from legendary producer Gale Ann Hurd to the head of programming for HBO, Michael Lombardo. There were a dozen men and women from the cutting edge, those in charge of the technologies threatening the TV business. Interestingly, the regulars and the newcomers didn’t mix much on the panels. The new guys on the block were pretty much segregated from the old boys on the block, regardless of their ages.

And one would have expected, one would have thought, someone from the invasive new services like Netflix Streaming or Hulu. But they weren’t there. Though Hulu got banged around a bit by various network executives and producers, decrying that the service streamed their programs shortly after airing but they weren’t getting an appropriate amount of remuneration for that airing.

Blame that on Nielsen said some, who, as it always seems to have done, lags in measurement of the new technologies so that actual viewership is not adequately measured. And there is truth to that; Nielsen always seems to lag behind what’s actually happening. That’s one of the gripes of the folks who make their living off the network model, pretty unchanged for decades now, especially if you’re one of the broadcast networks. But it’s certainly not the only one.

The fact that technology is changing the business was voiced by all though may be just because they felt they had to make a nod to the future. Much at this particular summit seem to be about the STATE of the television business today as opposed to a clear attempt to parse the signs and see what the future might be really like. Much of that, I suspect, has to do with that most of the people on the panels are luminaries in traditional television and as luminaries in that business are earning a very good living and are not particularly eager to face a future which might not be quite so lucrative for them.

One thread through the day was the concern of network executives about how to maintain a brand in an online world. No one really had an answer but it was definitely a concern. HBO is a brand and how does it maintain the strength of the brand as the distribution streams multiply? And what is the brand meaning now of CBS and what will it be in the future? Does CBS really stand for anything? HBO does but does CBS? Brand strength is important and there is a trend happening in which producers themselves are getting brand identity in individuals such as Dick Wolf of the Law and Order franchise and Anthony Zuiker, behind the CSI franchise, which are in some ways almost larger than the brands of the networks that distribute them.

But again, this was not so much about the future of television but commentary on the current state of affairs. Was anyone talking about the future? Yes, there were. Some. Those who were out working in the fields of the future…

Two bright lights from that world were Eric Anderson, VP of Content and Product Solutions at Samsung and Brian David Johnson, Futurist and Director, Future Casting and Experience Research at Intel. Samsung is at the forefront of integrating internet connectivity into television sets. He pointed out that it used to be televisions got upgraded once a year. Samsung now has done it about ten times in the last twenty-four months. Not on a panel with anyone from the traditional side of the business, he did try to speak out to them. Did any of them realize how fast it was all happening? Unfortunately, the people who needed to hear the question asked were probably back in the green room mingling with their peers. The Futurist at Intel announced that he had announced to his peers at Intel that the future of computing was television. Which may be the reason that this year Intel has put a chunk of change into Kaltura, an open source video-serving platform [with whom Odyssey is in business at this moment].

Notable but not noticed by the traditionalists in the business is that 25% of the TV sets sold in 2010 were internet enabled and it probably will be 40+ % in 2011, which is pretty amazing and which is demonstrating where the business is going. And it is going fast, thank you Mr. Anderson. But the reality is that TV, old style TV, is still very powerful and deeply entrenched in the way we live and consume video. AOL is aware of that and is working to make traditional TV its friend, not “frenemy,” but friend, working to augment not challenge the current behemoth. The gadgets and the gizmo boys are working to challenge the behemoth, to provide alternative distribution methods that are disruptive to a traditional business. The traditional business needs to find ways to embrace the alternative distribution methods so as not to completely disrupt their business.

Because it does take real money to produce really good content; may be it doesn’t take as much as is currently spent for traditional television series but it does take money. Content is king; always has been and pretty much always will be. The AOL folks have a phrase they’re using internally these days: content is kinging, a riff on a line in The King’s Speech. Content is kinging. In the early days of any technology almost anything will sail. When television erupted, people even watched test patterns [for those who remember test patterns]. In the early days of the Internet, silly college boys putting Mentos in Coke was entertainment. But things have moved beyond that – content is king, or kinging.

And we have to figure out a way to pay for the kind of content we want whatever the technology is that brings it to us. That’s the conclusion that the Future of TV Summit seemed to come to but what it lacked was the real dialogue between the creators and the gadget and gizmo boys and girls about how to make it all work for both creators and consumers.

Letter From New York February 12, 2011

February 13, 2011

Or, as it seems to me…

As I wait for my train, I am doing what I have done most of the day today and most days for the last 18 days – keeping up with the tumultuous events in Egypt. For days, everyone in the office has paused as they pass the two big screen televisions to see what was unfolding in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the heart of the revolution which has shaken Mubarak from his perch where has been sitting comfortably for the last thirty years. No one thought this would come but it has, a cascading of events started in Tunisia, a restlessness flooding the Mid-East, challenging the status quo. Two long reigning autocrats have been toppled; serious changes in other countries have also resulted, preemptive measures taken by those in power to enable them to sustain their positions, at least for now.

Like so many I have followed this revolution on television and on the net, wishing in some ways that I was there so that I could feel the beat of the streets, though I know that wouldn’t necessarily be safe. Reporters were roughed up and arrested; a Google executive was detained, one who had organized protests via Facebook. Some died but an amazingly small number it seemed, though there have been reports that the numbers have been minimized.

Like Tunisia, this was a revolution propelled along by Facebook, Twitter and the connectivity of the net and new technologies. In both Tunisia and in Egypt the Army did not turn upon the people, for the most part maintaining order but not firing upon the crowds.

All week I have found myself contemplative. Each and every one of the people in Tahrir Square has a father and a mother, may be brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, living individuals with families and friends swarming together to gain an end, following the siren song of tweets to a destiny they could not clearly determine though they were abundantly clear about what they wanted, and eventually got, Mubarak gone.

I thought of the nameless people who are part of the news, the hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square, the dozens killed in Pakistan by a teenage boy suicide bomber and the dozen or so that were killed in a Baghdad incident. I woke up more than once this week to the radio announcing the deaths of people in bombings in this place or the other, people I would never know but individuals who had loves and hopes, were loved in return and are now gone in a blinding flash of light and pain. The dispassionate voices that announce the passing of the nameless victims help us not realize these were people like us, who got up in the morning but did not get to go home that night.

I am not sure why all these nameless people have been so much on my mind; is it that if there were an attack on the subway in New York and if that were the way I met my end, I would be one of those nameless victims in some announcer’s report? Or is it that in staring at the images of the massive crowds in Tahrir Square there were moments when the cameras did focus on the face of one person or another and I would find myself wondering what their life was like?

Whatever the reason, I have felt a singularity with my fellow man. I am concerned about what comes next in Egypt, the heart of the Mid-East and a very singular country. There are those who fear this revolution will open the door to radical Islam though that fear did not prevent Egyptian Christian Copts from taking themselves to Tahrir Square to stand with their Egyptian Muslim comrades. Time will tell whether this will evolve into an Islamic Revolution as opposed to an Egyptian Revolution.

But whatever happens, it will have reminded me that I share much with all the other human beings around the world if only that I, too, am a finite creature with hopes and loves caught in the sweep of history being made.

Letter From New York, February 4, 2011

February 5, 2011

Or, as it seems to me…

Last week in DC, the 13th Annual Real Screen Conference, a gathering of non-fiction filmmakers from all over the world, was held. Approximately 1500 filmmakers and executives gathered in DC at the Renaissance Hotel to survey the state of non-fiction filmmaking, to learn what might be coming next, to postulate about the meaning of changing technology to both the art and the business of non-fiction. It was the biggest Real Screen to date.

The meeting took place against a turbulent landscape, both inside and outside the particular slice of an industry being examined. Out on the great stage of the world, the hotel monitors displayed the ongoing protests in Egypt that are re-shaping the geo-political landscape. In that country, the unthinkable is occurring: Mubarak is falling. Now. Perhaps today. What comes next is the biting question. Out of Tunisia has come a wind of unrest that is unsettling the entire Middle East and leaders are scrambling to hold back the deluge.

All of this has been facilitated by the new technologies, by Twitter and Facebook, the presences of networks like Al Jazeera, not to mention CNN and all the other windows on the world technology has provided over the last two decades.

And technology has provided an enormous number of new outlets for non-fiction films over those same last two decades. Cable networks have been growing up and have become powerhouses. Their ratings are beginning to reach parity with broadcast networks, their stars fill the covers of the celebrity rags, and their programs are water cooler worthy. A lot has changed since Real Screen first gathered thirteen years ago to discuss Fair Use in documentary films.

You know an entertainment sector has become important when Hollywood agents descend upon its event and they were here in force this year for the first time. CAA, WME, APA, and ICM – all the big initial agencies had their minions present in numbers. It was the most commented upon fact of this Real Screen. The clubby atmosphere of years ago is fading.

What’s hot? Let me share with you something I have run by a number of network executives, none of whom have disagreed: bring a network LARGER than life characters, in interesting, perhaps exotic, hopefully life threatening situations who will give you an embarrassing amount of access to their lives and you probably have a chance at a show. That’s the basic formula right now as far as I can tell.

To me, it’s a bit sad. I admit to missing the more straightforward docs of yesteryear. But there are those executives and filmmakers who feel that today is a Golden Age of documentary filmmaking. Regardless, right now it’s all about the characters.

There is soul searching going on, wondering what the newer new technologies mean for the older new technologies and their futures, their business models and what the value of their brands will be as the proliferation of distribution platforms continues to accelerate. How big a threat is Netflix? Is it additive? Or not? Netflix now has over twenty million subscribers, second only to the world’s largest cable company, Comcast, in the number of subscribers. How can content providers monetize their investment against this kind of landscape? And not just the providers but also the creators, who are feeling incredibly squeezed by their network buyers to produce more on less money with no rights maintained for future exploitation.

It’s a tough world out there for everyone even while the business has never done better. Ratings are up for most. History Channel has pummeled its competitors and is probably the leader of the pack these days among male oriented non-sports non-fiction networks. Ice Road Truckers is a monster hit. Larger than life characters, etc.

Real Screen is an industry event. Perhaps not seemingly important to Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea unless you think about the fact that much of what you will be seeing on non fiction cable networks in the coming year will have been pitched and perhaps purchased during the last week.