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The Same Old Song

Jun
18
2008

Music is supposed to be the language of peace and brotherhood, a force that can bring the world together in harmony. But is it any freer from politics as anything else in our lives?

Just look at the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest. The musical competition has taken place since 1956, produced under the auspices of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The event is broadcast in 43 countries; the residents of each country call in to vote for the entry of any country other than their own. The EBU is a global association of national broadcasters; it has nothing to do with the European Union, which is why there were entries from Israel and Russia.

As an American, I’d never seen the Eurovision contest before, but I had always had the impression that it only generated mediocre pop songs, light and insubstantial in nature. But on a recent trip to London, I ran across the live broadcast on my hotel TV and I was excited about getting a first-hand look.

Venerable British television personality Sir Terry Wogan narrated the official broadcast from Belgrade. I was surprised at the overall quality of the entries – not great, but no worse than your average run-of-the-mill pop. The musical numbers had a greater range than I had expected. Spain’s “Baila El Chiki Chiki” was a silly dance number with less substance than your average cell ringtone. Latvia’s number looked like pirates run amok. Finland’s entry was heavy metal. Turkey and Azerbaijan entered rock songs. Sebastian Tellier‘s entry for France was clearly inspired by the Beach Boys.

Tellier’s song, like most of the others, featured lyrics sung in English (Apparently this caused a stir with French conservatives). Almost the entire international broadcast took place in English.

I was a little surprised by the narration by play-by-play announcer Wogan, who has done the British broadcast for decades. There were moments of gentle irony and sardonicism, but also hints of real bitterness. He predicted that blocs of countries would all vote for each, such as the Baltic nations. He predicted that the Russians had it in the bag.

After the performance portion ended, the call-in voting began. Fifteen minutes later, the voting results started to trickle in, as each country announced their results in turn. In addition to a series of points from one to seven from the phone calls, each country could award 8, 10 & 12 points each to three deserving countries.

Russia started dominating early. Greece and Ukraine also pulled ahead. Former Soviet Republics all voted for Russia and each other. The Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway, etc.) all voted for each other. England came in dead last.

It took a long time for the votes to be reported. During this lengthy slog, Terry Wogan kept getting progressively more bitter. He expressed the notion that no one will support “us” – in other words, England – and it felt to me like he wasn’t just talking about the Eurovision Song Contest. Towards the end of the broadcast, he threatened to never do the show again.

(more…)

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 7:00 PM | Permalink

Do Writers Still Matter?

Dec
12
2007

There are many ways of examining the Writer’s Guild strike as it heads into its second month. You could examine some of the business issues – do the studios have any credibility in claiming that new media holds no profit for the foreseeable future? Or you could look at the power of American labor and ask if the idea of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work still means anything in the global economy. Or you could take the flippant approach and assume that the writers are simply another overpaid sector of the entertainment industry asking for even more money.

But there’s a theme bubbling under the surface here, a belief that the impact of professional writers in today’s media environment has been lessened. The suggestion is that much of today’s entertainment either isn’t written at all or is nothing more than the re-writing of old ideas – shows and movies from Hollywood’s glory days – and thus not a truly creative product. There’s also that buried assumption that these so-called “writers” are already paid so much that it’s simply selfish to ask for more.

You could find some of these attitudes in stories in the media, such as the one about the “good news” of the strike: newsmagazine shows might benefit. Peter Chernin, president of News Corp., crowed about how good the strike would be for Fox, saving money on cancelled deals and unshot pilots, while allowing the network to make money on American Idol and other reality fare. A reluctantly striking writer sent an e-mail to The National Review, claiming that with “football, The Next Iron Chef, and Law and Order re-runs” who needs writers? (This attitude – ironically, from a Guild member – ignores the fact that fictional fare has long competed with sports and that the heart of the strike is precisely about residuals from repeats and new platforms.)

But while so-called “reality” shows offer competitions, game shows and human train wrecks, giving you the sense that it’s all just unspooling before the cameras, the truth is that almost nothing you see on television is presented in a raw, unedited form (And the writers employed by reality shows are not covered by the Guild, an issue which has come up in the current negotiations). Beyond the reality genre, it’s possible in the face of YouTube and other amateur online video sources to assume that craft is no longer required to create content.

But that assumption is incorrect.

Within the entertainment industry, writing is simultaneously the most and least valued aspect of the process. Since just about anybody can operate a pen or keyboard, there is often the perception that anyone can write. Whether your favorite show is a sit-com, a reality show or even a YouTube video, somebody sat down and had to figure out, “What’s going to happen this week?”

Content doesn’t happen by accident. It happens as a result of determining what kind of things will happen, who will be doing those things and what they will say as they do those things. And while it’s possible for talent and creativity to come from anywhere, online video (which is getting better all the time) has yet to produce a consistent stream of content as good as The Simpsons or Lost. While the studios may think the answer is that they can make money off of amateur online videos, saving themselves some production costs, they shouldn’t forget that the writers could also ditch the studios and head straight for the Internet.

Whether you call it content or story or anything else, it’s a skill to create it. And whether you’re J.K. Rowling or a guy with a webcam, it’s the same set of creative muscles that are flexed. The writer’s strike is about the value we place on that effort. The answer to my question ought to be that writers will always matter as long as people want to be amused and excited. We ought to acknowledge that writing is embedded throughout our daily consumption of entertainment and information, regardless of the media platform.

Once that premise is accepted, then the studios and the writers can figure out the fair compensation. But let’s not pretend the craft of writing no longer matters.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 7:18 PM | Permalink

Pretty Please, Vote For Me.

Oct
22
2007

There are plenty of clichés about children. They are the future. They are beautiful, innocent little beings that will inherit this world. Or as Jack Handy once said, “The face of a child can say it all, especially the mouth part of the face.”
And there’s something really fascinating about watching children engage in adult pursuits, to see what they do differently and what they do exactly the same – horrifyingly, the same. Forget the current reality show Kid Nation. For a look at children that also rips the lid off the flaws of the democratic process, you won’t see a program more hilarious and frightening than Please Vote For Me, this coming week’s episode of Independent Lens, the public television series that showcases independent films and videos.
Please Vote For Me is an hour-long documentary by Chinese filmmaker Weijun Chen. He was asked to contribute to the Why Democracy? project, which solicited films from all over the world with an eye toward examining contemporary democracy. Making a film on such a subject can be very dangerous in China, especially when involving adults. Then Chen heard from a friend and colleague about an election that was being held for third graders to elect a class monitor, a position previously appointed by the teacher. Please Vote For Me documents that election and captures some very familiar political techniques.
The teacher had selected the three candidates. Xiaofei is a smart, but sensitive girl. Her mother is divorced. Luo Lei is small and wiry. He was the previous class monitor and is viewed as a bully who abused his power. His father is the police chief. Cheng Cheng is physically bigger and very outgoing than the other two. His father is Weijun Chen’s friend, and works as TV producer. These kids are all eight years old.
Their school is located in Wuhan, which is about the size of London and is the most populated city in central China. The children and their parents are part of China’s new urban middle class, which only makes up about one-fifth of the population of that country, but is an influential group. Thanks to China’s One Child Policy, parents are very focused on their children’s ambitions and achievements and each of the candidate’s parents gets right to work as their campaign managers.
They push the kids to be aggressive, to be crafty. They contribute bribes, such as when Luo Lei’s father takes the class on a trip on a new monorail system. As Chinese citizens, they have little direct experience of democracy, but they clearly know what it takes to be elected.
But even though the parents start things off, most of the program focuses on the children, in the classroom and on the campaign trail. The kids figure out what works quickly. Xiaofei is clearly the candidate that’s too “nice” to be participating in politics and she’s quickly crushed. Cheng Cheng manages to intimidate Xiaofei in class and then blame it on Luo Lei. The two boys debate face-to-face and you see one trick the other into taking an untenable position. The candidates dredge up old behavior. They accuse their opponents of running nasty campaigns, while simultaneously doing the exact same thing. It’s the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest campaign you’ve ever seen – except for almost every U.S. election ever held.
Some of what we see is a product of Chinese culture. A Chinese adult’s success is mostly reflected in the achievements of his or her child. Then those children grow up and are expected to support their parents and grandparents. Clearly, the candidates in this election are pushed by their parents. But there are plenty of scenes of them in school where they’re making decisions on their own and doing what they think they need to do to win. That’s what’s funny about kids regardless of the culture in which they’re raised. Adults can push and prod them into behavior and then children will run with it. Where do adult desires end and children’s begin? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
This onscreen campaign reflects our own democratic process filtered through layers and then shot back to us from across the globe It’s unnerving how much bad behavior and ruthless campaigning feels ripped from the headlines. It’s The Little Rascals meets The Candidate. I urge you and every voting adult you know to watch this show. As another cliché puts it, “Out of the mouths of babes…”
Editor’s Note: For another look at how China’s culture filters Western ideas and ideals, see Spot-on’s Jonathan Ansfield’s report from Beijing, “Where Less is More.” To find out when Independent Lens airs in your area, check your local listings.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 3:07 PM | Permalink

Sing a Final Song for The Sopranos

Sep
30
2007

The new Fall TV Season has started on the broadcast networks, bringing us new dramas like Chuck and Private Practice, a few sit-coms, as well as a slew of reality fare. This comes at the close of a summer in which cable successfully competed with the broadcasters with shows like The Closer and Burn Notice.

It’s only been four months since The Sopranos went off the air. Four months since that ending – which you may consider either deeply satisfying or a huge cheat – echoed around American pop culture. With the curtain rising on the fall broadcast line-up, this is as good a time as any to reflect on what The Sopranos did to the television landscape and to note – exactly – where the bar has been set for quality television.

The Sopranos expanded the artistic expression of the television medium. It achieved high art while also appealing to a wide audience. It showed moments of beauty and grisly ugliness. It utilized high wit and low humor. It wasn’t afraid to swing for the fences, occasionally knocking a foul ball. It dared for greatness in a medium that has over the last 60 years largely aimed for mediocrity. For the past few years, other television shows have been pushing those boundaries as well and I think it’s safe to say that The Sopranos helped make their success possible, showing what television could achieve creatively and financially.

From the moment The Sopranos debuted on HBO in 1999, it made an impact but some network and studio executives may have taken the wrong lessons from the success of the show. It wasn’t the sex and violence that attracted viewers. It was because series creator David Chase was allowed the liberty to write what he wanted. With that freedom, he came up with a fresh twist on the tired Mob genre. And if that’s all he’d done, it would have been enough to make for a good, sometimes great, program. After all, some TV critics have observed that this is a Golden Age of Television, with shows like Lost, The Wire and House (You might include your favorite here – I’ll throw in the late Veronica Mars). But even with the presence of a number of high-quality programs, I’m hard-pressed to think of many shows on television that approached the greatness of The Sopranos. Why? Well, television is almost without exception created by committee and as a show develops, creative decisions have to by run by the studio and the network brass, who have a tendency to file away the sharp edges and complexities until the final product is soft and shapeless.

When I think of what made The Sopranos great, I reach for comparisons to novels. That’s not just because of commercial concerns; novelists are not immune from the cold realities of the marketplace. However, for writers, the work always begins with the blank page. When they pick up the pen or sit in front of the keyboard, they have nothing to answer to but their consciences. They make creative decisions and then have to make it work. Over hundreds of years, novelists have developed many techniques: the unreliable narrator, narrative events told out of sequence, novels that rely more on characters and atmosphere than on plot, and so on.

This willingness to go anywhere and do anything in the course of telling a tale can be found in novels and in The Sopranos, but not in most television programs. The Sopranos told a full, expansive story with a beginning, middle and end – the end the writer wants. The ending of The Sopranos – that magnificent cut to black that lasted for an eternity – didn’t feel the need to bring explicit closure. At the same time, the final episode reflected issues from the very first episode, circles within circles over the course of the season.

What made the show – and its successors – so different? Here’s my list.

Unlikable Characters. There is a belief in the television that the lead characters of a TV series must be likeable (as opposed to thinking that the most important factor is that they be interesting). It used to be that a show might feature a renegade cop who flouted the rules, but ultimately he only went after bad guys who deserved it. Now we have Vic Mackey on The Shield, a straight-out rogue cop. Over the entire course of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano would draw viewers in as he struggled with moral choices. But every time you might be convinced that he was a good guy caught in a difficult situation, he would kill somebody or cheat on his wife again or steal something from an innocent. Tony was a criminal and the show didn’t try to whitewash that fact.

Subtlety. Most television programming hits you over the head with its meaning, if it even has any. The Sopranos wove an elaborate tapestry and left it up to you to pick through the threads and tease the meaning out for yourself. This was done in an impressionistic manner, with short scenes whose meanings weren’t always immediately clear. Like a pointillist painting, you need to stand back from it and connect the dots in your head to get the full image. The true nature of that meaning is up to each visitor, but I saw a complex examination of American life, including politics, commerce, immigration, race, sexism, masculinity, Hollywood, honor, justice, family, and more.

A Big Sprawling Narrative. Most TV shows go on for years, a bunch of stuff happens, and then the show stops. But the landscape explored is pretty self-contained; so you miss a few weeks or months. You can pick up right where you left off an get, with a bit of close attention, the plot details you need. The Sopranos was more ambitious. Big characters, big ideas, big canvas. Remember Tony’s trip to Naples and Carmela’s jaunt to Paris? The story took detours as well, such as the infamous “Pine Barrens” episode with the Russian, which didn’t directly connect up with the larger story, but resonated with the larger themes.

The new shows have come; some will make it and some won’t. There will be next season and then the next. We can only hope that other shows are able to achieve what The Sopranos has done, but first we must first recognize what that greatness is and, possibly just as importantly, how an audience – a large audience – came to love it.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 4:35 PM | Permalink

Dancing with the Devil

Jul
30
2007

American TV often delivers a less than honest portrait of life and viewers seem pretty comfortable with that state of affairs. But in Britain, it’s another story.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is considered by many to be the embodiment of sophisticated, classy television. So elegant, so irreproachable! But they’ve been accused in recent months (to be blunt) of being filthy, rotten liars.

Before I relate the latest example, let me set some context. Over the last year, there have been a series of incidents surrounding TV quizzes and call-in programs in the U.K. The “You Say, We Pay” quiz on Channel 4′s Richard & Judy show was fined for encouraging viewers to phone in at the cost of ₤1 per call (about $2) to enter after the competition had already closed. The game show Brainteaser on several occasions announced fake names as winners or had production staff pose as winners. The BBC’s venerable children’s show Blue Peter faked a call-in when a producer allowed a child visiting the studio set to pose as a caller after technical difficulties had stopped legitimate calls from getting through.

This past week, the British public was buzzing over another form of deception. The program Born Survivor (broadcast in this country on cable as Man Vs. Wild) is under investigation by British broadcaster Channel 4 for its own trickery. In each episode, host Bear Grylls, a former member of the Special Air Service (SAS) and the youngest Briton to climb Mount Everest and return alive, is dropped somewhere in the wild and has to survive off his wits. He makes a fire with flint; he eats what he can catch, even if it’s maggots; he sleeps under the trees, covered only with branches. But accusations have surfaced that Grylls hasn’t had it all that bad. For example, in an episode where he was supposedly stranded on a desert island, he was actually in Hawaii and spent some time in a hotel. A scene with “wild” horses reportedly turned out to feature tame animals. A raft of bamboo, hibiscus twine and palm leaves was actually pre-built by the film crew.

The thing is, the first time I watched the show, my skeptic alarm went to Code Red. Grylls spends the whole time, as he wanders the wasted landscape alone, looking straight into a camera and talking to the viewers. Clearly, the guy has a big crew with him at all times. A scene where he crosses a ravine using a vine is shot from at least three different angles, so how worried am I actually supposed to be that he’s going to fall to his death? As one technical adviser to the show said, “If you really believe everything happens the way it is shown on TV, you are being a little bit naive.”

The quiz show scandals of the Fifties were a national scandal, but U.S. television viewers seem to routinely accept deception on so-called “reality” shows. Contestants are cast carefully for maximum effect. The shows utilize writers to draft scenarios. Events are shown edited out of sequence or timelines are compressed. Do you think the guy in The Bachelor actually lives in those mansions?

The difference is that in Britain, deception is illegal and British citizens know it. According the news reports, OFCOM, the British regulatory body that is the equivalent of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, is investigating 20 shows for deception. Although Born Survivor isn’t one of them, because of the call-in scandals other reality shows are coming under fire. RDF Media has taken some heat for two shows that ran on Channel 4 – Wife Swap and Masters and Servants – for manipulating events. But the production company really came under fire when a BBC documentary that RDF produced was edited to make it look as if Queen Elizabeth had stormed out of a Vanity Fair photo shoot.

I think the key problem driving all of this deception is that real life presents a real balancing act. On the one hand, people love supposedly real things. Not only is reality television a popular genre on television, one of the strongest advertising phrases that is utilized in the motion pictures is “Based on a true story.” But on the other hand, reality has a pesky habit of not going quite how you would wish. And it’s so tempting to tweak it a little and nudge it into place.

I’m not advocating more regulation in America to address this issue, but I do wonder why Americans – supposedly the savviest consumers in the world – are content to put up with a steady diet of fabrication and manipulation on the tube. Are British viewers more old-fashioned, expecting things on TV to be true? Does that make us more sophisticated or more more cynical?

I don’t know, but I hate to think we’ve made a pact with the devil: Entertain me, but I don’t want to know details.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 8:24 AM | Permalink

Eat to Live? Live To Eat?

Jul
14
2007

What explains today’s fascination with food and cooking? We all have to eat, but do we have to read an essay about it?

Today’s consumer interest doesn’t operate in the exclusive fashion that gourmet passion in the past did, when out-of-the-ordinary food and ingredients would have been expensive or difficult to procure. Today, gourmet food can be found at your local supermarket. Knowledge was also limited; at one time, you could only count on a few TV cooks like the Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child. Today, regular Americans are obsessed with food. In addition to the magazines, books and TV shows, you have a 24-hour cable network devoted to food. Even the movie theater isn’t immune, since Ratatouille, the new Pixar film, is nothing if not an animated tribute to being a foodie. Let’s get the kids hooked early, right?

Ratatouille is a completely charming and beautifully animated film. Granted, that means the lead character of Rémy, a rat, looks very rat-like, but it also means that the food looks good enough to eat. Rémy is a rat that would rather starve than eat bad food, a role model after my own heart.

While I’m all in favor of this interest in cooking, I am driven crazy by knuckleheaded wannabes. For example, like any good foodie, I’m a big fan of the Food Network.

If you like to cook yourself, and you watch the programming, you might have the occasional dream to have your own show on. The network, er, feeds into this desire with the reality show The Next Food Network Star, in which people compete to get their own show. I’d assumed that contestants would be total Food Network groupies, able to tell you easily when to chop, mince or julienne. But I’ve been watching the competition for the last few weeks and I’ve been shocked at the ignorance. One contestant had some garlic in a pan with oil, which he described as roasting, not sautéing. Another contestant said he’d used a vinegar glaze, which was clearly just vinegar. What is the point of having theatrical films, 24-hour cable networks, blogs, online videos, and books devoted to whatever topic you’re fixated on, unless you’re going to absorb some actual information and tuck a little data away in your brain?

I consider all my cultural obsessions to be important, but I have to admit that food probably trumps them all. I’ve probably seen more really great Asian horror films than I’ve eaten really great crême brulée. And I suppose it’s because exceptional food is not only rare, but so powerful.

Evidence comes in today’s news, a story of a would-be robber transformed by food. A masked gunman slipped into the patio of a Washington, D.C. home. A group of dinner guests froze as he demanded money and held his weapon to the head of a 14-year-old girl. Then, someone spoke up.

“We were just finishing dinner,” Cristina Rowan, 43, told the man. “Why don’t you have a glass of wine with us?”

The intruder had a sip of their Chateau Malescot St-Exupery and said, “Damn, that’s good wine.”

He was then offered the rest of the wine and some Camembert cheese. He eventually asked for and received hugs from the guests and left with only the filled crystal wine glass; police later found the empty wine glass unbroken on the ground in an alley behind the house.

Now you can think he was crazy and maybe he was. But I prefer to think it’s a tribute to living life for some really great eats.

Editor’s Note: PJ. Rodriguez isn’t the only Spot-on writer who cares, passionately, about food. Our food writer Kevin Weeks appears here every Monday. Here’s his take on the Food Network.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 5:32 PM | Permalink

A Dark View of Family Life

Jun
15
2007

The Sopranos has come to a conclusion, not with a bang or a whimper, but with the sudden ending of what must be one of the tensest imaginable scenes of a family gathering in a restaurant.

The attention this week has focused on that final scene, with everyone either expressing anger or trying to figure out what that abrupt cut to a black screen really meant. Those are interesting conversations, clearly the kind the show’s producers intended to create. But I’d prefer to focus not on the ending but to pay tribute to one of the finest television series of all time. It’s a show that posed, again and again, a basic question: Where is our moral compass?

And it did so gracefully. The Sopranos should be celebrated for its artistic merits alone. Its writing at times approached the brilliance of great literature, since the producers were content to suggest meanings rather then cram them down the viewer’s throat. David Chase, the show’s creator and executive producer, felt no need to wrap up every storyline or explain every detail, instead allowing for great interpretation of the material.

It’s also an important show because it choose to show the criminal life in all its filthy truth. The 1972 film The Godfather has created controversy over the years for portraying mobsters as being noble beings living by a code of honor. Time and again, The Sopranos has created fascinating characters and allowed us to indulge our fascination with the Mob – and show the Mob’s fascination with its own glamorous image – while always reminding us that these are animals, who would as soon kill you as look at you.

However, the real power of the series is its portrayal of an American middle class family struggling with contemporary issues and, as it struggles, falling prey to self-deception and anxiety. Tony Soprano is constantly chasing money, trying to pay for the huge house, the fancy cars, the college tuition. His wife Carmela frets that if Tony is killed or arrested, she will have no means to support herself, leading her into an ill-advised real estate development venture. Their children Meadow and A.J. struggle with living in the shadow of a notorious father, but still expect a comfortable life to be given to them.

So, even though this is a story of lawlessness and a culture based in larceny, murder and mayhem – literally – it feels like a part of modern capitalism: the good life in the suburbs. Even as the facade of Soprano domestic bliss crumbled, there was always a struggle to maintain the illusion. Carmela, who at one point seriously contemplated leaving Tony, made the choice to keep her lifestyle and close her eyes to the morality of it all. Daughter Meadow used to rail at her father for his sins and ends up becoming a defense lawyer because of the perceived injustice of his “persecution” at the hands of the law. Son A.J.was too mentally weak and emotionally fragile to either follow in his father’s criminal path or to build a new life of his own; he finally swore he saw through the whole masquerade of our society, built on lies and blood, but then succumbed to an easy job and a new car.

Even the authorities were no better. A state assemblyman and a former civil rights activist were caught up in the corruption. Tony’s formidable FBI foe Agent Dwight Harris got reassigned to chase the supposedly more important target of terrorists, but it’s never clear that his actions ever added up to any value. When Harris gets the news that Phil Leotardo has been killed, as a direct result of information from Harris obtained while committing adultery, he yells: “Damn, we’re gonna win this thing!”

The Sopranos portrays a world where people lie to others and can’t stop lying to themselves. A world in which people make the most selfish of decisions, while proclaiming the selflessness of their actions. A world filled with people seeking meaning, but ultimately settling to numb themselves with materialistic pleasures. Can we watch this program as mere entertainment, happy in the knowledge that its event are far from our own lives? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Because, God forbid, we might otherwise get that sinking sense of recognition of ourselves.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 10:19 PM | Permalink

From Couch Potato to Long Distance Runner

Jun
10
2007

Television is thought of as a passive pursuit. Couch potato, right? But today’s world of endless entertainment seems more like an exercise regimen. You need never stop amusing yourself, every second of every day. And it’s exhausting, isn’t it?

If you’re the sluggish types who comes home from work, kicks your feet up on the coffee table and surfs casually through your TV line-up for three hours, this change is probably more disturbing than for those of you who are always plugged in via BlackBerry, PSP or iPod. And if you’re one of the folks who only watch PBS or (God forbid) read books, well, I have some news for you.

The status quo is changing. Wherever you stand on the entertainment battlefield, either as a consumer or producer, there’s a good chance that you feel beleaguered by the changes in today’s media landscape. Established authors feel threatened by writers who give away their works on the Internet. Film critics are upset with bloggers. And everyone seems to be asking the same question (even if they use different words): Who’s in charge here, anyway?

One possible path of our rapidly approaching future is Web 2.0, a name seemingly full of the inflated self-importance of the dot-com boom years. In part, Web 2.0 simply describes this current iteration of the Internet and includes such phenomenon as blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds (which allow you to be alerted to website updates), social bookmarking (which allow you to share suggested content), wikis (online directories and encylopedia-like articles built by a group of users), social networking (sites like MySpace or Facebook), and so on.

More broadly, the phrase Web 2.0 means that form (the paper) and content (the idea) can now be separated as readers, viewers, listeners see fit. Buh-bye Marshall McLuhan; the medium is no longer the message. Once upon a time, a book meant only a bound set of pages. Remember the encyclopedia, a collection of books containing knowledge? Compare that to Wikipedia, the popular online reference site, that has never existed in print form, which is constantly changing and being updated, and has no ultimate or “final” form as its published ancestor did.

It’s pretty obvious where things are headed for the “written” word. But think about other forms of information and entertainment. It’s getting pretty complicated out there.

I asked John Bell, the head of Ogilvy Public Relations Digital Influence team, where all this is going. Bell has spent his time in the trenches, going back to the early days of “interactive” television and the Web, and he sees an inevitable merging of old and “new” media. As he put it, “Traditional media companies, including all the big media giants, are clearly trying to leverage their investments in TV-based programming while not doing anything to undermine their ad revenue model.” While old school TV encourages you to watch it from across the room, leaning back in your comfy chair to consume it, Bell points out that alternatives have sprung up: “Jetset, Rocketboom, AskANinja – and new delivery concepts like Joost are creating experiences that include video but are not anchored in a ‘lean-back’ narrative experience.”

The results are mixed; some of the efforts by old media are sort of lame and some of the new media content is too amateurish, but you can already see the two sides colliding. “Each side will look to the other for lessons to learn,” says Bell. He points to Ze Frank‘s video program The Show, which was distributed via podcast and streamed as video online. Frank, a performance artist, composer, humorist and lecturer, produced a weekday show for one straight year, which regularly solicited on-camera submissions and drew active comments on his site which then made their way onto his show. It was interactive in the way any live performer interacts with an audience.

I think of Lost as the first real Web 2.0 television program. It’s available on broadcast television, on the ABC website or from the iTunes store. It shows one of the highest gains in audience from playback through a Digital Video Recorder (DVR). That’s all pretty typical (and soon will be commonplace for most television shows) but what lifts the program above is how these means of consumption affect the creative part of the show. A scene from Lost may contain a short image, almost a subliminal flash, which can be paused on your DVR. Then you capture a screenshot and post it to your blog. You go onto a Lost forum to discuss it. You listen to the producers discuss subtleties or provide insight on the podcast. You post information onto a Lost wiki. Last summer, an alternative reality game called The Lost Experience brought the events of the show into the real world, complete with radio broadcasts from a fake DJ, YouTube video of attacks in hotel rooms and coded messages hidden around the world.

If you’re the kind of person who wants to lay back and let television wash over you in a calming wave, you may feel like you are being asked to run a marathon every time you want to just be entertained. But even if you don’t want to be more active in your media consumption, you should be aware of these trends, because they will affect what content can survive and thrive. We may well being seeing the birth of a whole new medium which combines the best of everything.

Relax, if you want. But you may find some value in slipping on some running shoes.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 8:11 AM | Permalink

The Realities of Democracy

Apr
7
2007

One controversial figure divides the American public today. Many say that he is flatly incompetent, sliding by on charm. Perhaps you saw his appearance on television this week. Members of the media criticized his performance, wondering how American voters could possibly have supported this guy, voting for him more than once.

American Idol contestant Sanjaya Malakar has it almost as bad as George W. Bush.

The 17-year-old sensation has made the biggest splash on the latest season of American Idol, not for being so good, but for being so bad. He has lasted through seven weeks of voting, confounding his critics while showing off a dazzling variety of hairstyles. He has also managed to call into question the accuracy of the democratic process itself.

For example, there was the Indian Call Center Theory; that is, Indian call center operators were phoning in votes for Malakar, whose father is a Bengali Indian (his mother is an Italian American). That got shot down pretty quickly by Spot-on’s Gopika Kaul “He’s not known here at all,” she said.

Another theory proposed that residents of Hawaii were tipping the scales, since Malakar once lived there. The more interesting factor is the reverse Swift Boat stylings of Howard Stern and Vote for the Worst. On his satellite radio show, Stern has been encouraging his listeners to voter for Malakar, in an attempt to destroy the credibility of the Idol program. The Vote for the Worst‘s site has been around for a couple years, but seems to be definitely driving votes for Malakar this season to protest the low quality of the singers in the competition. As Vote for the Worst‘s creator Dave Della Terza put it “We think, ‘Well, if you’re going to put those people in there, we’re going to vote for them, because those are the people that we like to watch.’”

But despite all of this sturm und drang, I don’t think that these efforts have affected voting much at all. The number of Idol viewers and voters each week is so large, that I believe the effect of any particular campaign for or against any competitor would be negligible. Instead, I think the more valid lesson to be drawn is why people vote.

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Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 2:26 AM | Permalink

Game On: Reality TV Plays and Players

Apr
3
2007

Forget Second Life, reality TV is the hot new video game genre of our time.

Like video games, the shows generally thrive on conflict, with little regard for how you get to the point of trading blows. The themes of the shows even sound like video game pitches. Some are quest-based (Made) or competition-based (The Amazing Race), others are based on simply throwing a group of people together in a room and watching the fur fly. Commentators have argued about whether such programming might be unhealthy for our society, but a recent incident in England provides a glimpse of what happens when “reality” collides with reality.

You’ve probably heard of the show Big Brother, which began in the Netherlands in 1999 and has since been exported all over the world. In the U.S., Big Brother isn’t all that popular, but in the U.K., it’s a really big deal; an edition of Big Brother appears on-air every night and also has off-shoot programs that cover the events of the house the players, er, “characters” live in. This may have something to do with Britain’s eternal love of fluke celebrities, such as bankrobber Ronnie Biggs, rocker/heroin addict Pete Doherty, and model/Beckham-boinker Rebecca Loos.

And there’s a spin-off called Celebrity Big Brother, although that word ought to appear like this: “Celebrity*” (*may be only marginally well-known).

During the month of January, the fifth edition of Celebrity Big Brother was televised in the U.K. The “celebrities” included film director Ken Russell, actor Dirk Benedict (of A-Team fame), Jermaine Jackson (brother to Michael and Janet), model Danielle Lloyd, Jo O’Meara (formerly of the pop group S Club 7), Jade Goody (who gained her fame by appearing on an earlier edition of Big Brother), Jade’s boyfriend Jack Tweed, and Jade’s mum Jackiey Budden. But one lesser-known contestant turned out to become the focus of public attention: Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty.

During the competition, 14 people are locked up in a house with no contact with the outside world, although they are constantly observed by cameras. One by one, contestants either leave or are kicked out by a vote of the viewing audience. The winner is the one left standing. Misbehavior occurs. People bicker and fight. It’s natural there would be a certain amount of this whenever any group of people are confined together. But it’s safe to assume there’s a certain amount of acting out for the cameras – viewer and contestants, who volunteer, have become conditioned to behave in typical reality show fashion. They know the rules. On some reality shows, the “characters” seem to have all the free will of a persona from The Sims.

On this edition of CBB, the jabs had a distinct racial tone (demonstrated by this compilation of clips). Jackiey seemed incapable of pronouncing Shilpa’s name, almost deliberately so. Jo suggested that Indian people are thin because they don’t cook food properly. Jade called Shilpa “poppadom,” after the Indian flatbread. Danielle called her a “dog.”

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Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 9:48 AM | Permalink

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