Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Allegory in American TV series
  What Can Americans learn from Gillian
  Anderson playing the Goddess Media
  looking on the screen like Lucille Ball?

The important question coming from an allegorical TV story is: Can Americans learn anything from Gillian Anderson appearing on a screen as Media but looking like Lucille Ball playing Lucy Ricardo? (No that is not a misspelling of the name of the ancient Greek diety Medea - it is Media, the name of a 21st Century deity.)

An allegory is an extended metaphor wherein a story illustrates an important attribute of the subject, perhaps characters, places or events, representing real-world issues and occurrences. It is used because it can readily illustrate complex ideas and concepts in ways that are comprehensible or striking to its viewers, readers, or listeners. And/or it is used to convey hidden meanings through symbolic figures, actions, imagery, or events, which together create the moral, spiritual, or political meaning.

Two TV series full of allegorical meaning which appeal to limited audiences will appear on American TV this month. Both confront obliquely, as allegories do, the belief systems of modern Americans.

On American TV it is difficult to present series dramas with allegorical themes because each of the potential 100 million viewers relates to the world differently particularly as mythical or religious symbolism applies to living a virtuous life or a vile life.

If you believe or are inclined to believe in one or more deities, that will color how you see the world. It will also color how you see the world if you believe the Universe - all of time and space and its contents - is randomly evolving - meaning changing incrementally in structure, form, organization, and/or makeup over time albeit logically though without the benefit of rational choice with hindsight.

Regardless of your outlook on those matters, there is the question of "specialness" - in the context of the Universe, are humans "special."

Let's draw a simple comparison. Is there something "more special" about anatomically modern humans as compared to California red-legged frogs? Making such a judgement about "specialness" is a subjective process where "subjective" means thoughts of the thinking subject rather than the object of thought.

Individual frogs don't tell us if they are "special", but individual humans do so regularly. And it can be annoying. Sure each individual is unique, as is each individual frog and as is each individual rock. But we don't use the term "special" that way. We mean "particularly valuable when compared to others" like a diamond is particularly valuable when compared to driveway gravel.

The Leftovers

That question of "specialness" is, of course, the core question underlying the story of the HBO series The Leftovers which just began its third and final season. The Leftovers starts three years after the "Sudden Departure", the inexplicable, simultaneous disappearance of 140 million people, 2% of the world's population, on October 14, 2011.

The gnawing question is were these people taken from us because they were living a virtuous life while the "leftovers" were not?  Obviously, they were "special" but it doesn't seem like virtuousness or vileness had anything to do with it.

The billions left behind experience the impact of the sudden loss of loved ones, but because it was 2% of the population, the loss isn't very unique to you and therefore not very "special."  Then there are social and philosophical questions around what it means to be left behind, when others were "chosen" unless of course it was a random albeit logical event - much like 100 years ago we couldn't understand those large bones people found in the ground which appeared to be from animals that really weren't like animals we saw.

Why did they disappear? It can't be right, because they weren't "special" like us, of course.

The Leftovers began as a novel by Tom Perrotta. In an interview about his novel, Perrotta explained:
    I thought a lot about the Evangelical Christian worldview, and this apocalyptical vision is part of it. I thought the idea of the Rapture was both poetic and richly metaphorical. Isn’t life itself a Rapture in slow-motion? Aren’t we left behind by the people we love who die before us? ...So in the end I borrowed the Christian Rapture and used it for my secular purposes.
    The Leftovers deals with trauma on a grand scale and explores different reactions through the various characters. Some...try to re-establish a feeling of normality in the community, they cling to their former life in order to pick up from where they were interrupted. Others...believe that the ordeal revealed an emptiness in their life. They can’t go back, they have to invent a new way of life. This is the novel’s real theme, the way people are changed by events that surpass their understanding and the different ways in which they try to recover from a cosmic tragedy.
That brings us to a new 2017 Starz TV series....

American Gods

What if, for a moment, you reconsidered the phrase I used earlier "you believe or are inclined to believe in one or more deities" in the context of someone saying it is hard, perhaps impossible, to find a religion that has only one deity.

Wikipedia explains:
    The Oxford reference defines deity as "a god or goddess (in a polytheistic religion)", or anything revered as divine. C. Scott Littleton defines a deity as "a being with powers greater than those of ordinary humans, but who interacts with humans, positively or negatively, in ways that carry humans to new levels of consciousness beyond the grounded preoccupations of ordinary life".
A number of people who identify themselves as members some of the world's most significant religions think their religion is "special" because it has only one deity. And yet many who identify with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, for example, would have a hard time explaining the difference between a deity and those listed in Wikipedia's List of angels in theology, List of theological demons, List of saints, and List of early Christian saints. Particularly in an attempt to contrast to a religion that has a pantheon of major and minor deities, many of those whose mind screams "there is but one god" will inevitably fail their religious history test.

But as human life evolves deities become seemingly irrelevant, less popular. People believe in new myths, metaphorically weakening the players in the old myths. In 1988 Douglas Adams, author and creator in 1978 of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, wrote the second book in the  Dirk Gently series The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. In that book, Adams explores what it means to be a deity aging, becoming irrelevant. A key character is Odin.

Hugo and Nebula Award-winning English author Neil Gaiman said of Adams who died in 2001 at the age of 49:
    I think that perhaps what Douglas was was probably something we don't even have a word for yet. A Futurologist, or an Explainer, or something. That one day they'll realize that the most important job out there is for someone who can explain the world to itself in ways that the world won't forget; who can dramatize the plight of endangered species as easily (or at least, as astonishingly well, for nothing Douglas did was ever exactly easy) as he can explain to an analog race what it means to find yourself going digital. Someone whose dreams and ideas, practical or impractical, are always the size of a planet, and who is going to keep going forward, and taking the rest of us with him.
Also in 2001 Gaiman's novel American Gods was published. If you read my political blogs, you have read repeatedly that migration is the essence of California. Here is how one reviewer explains American Gods:
    After being released from prison to discover that his wife has died, Shadow Moon finds himself being courted for a job by a man named Mr. Wednesday. While traveling cross-country with this mysterious stranger, he discovers a world populated by ancient gods and other mythological beings that our immigrant ancestors believed in when they first came to America. Not only are the Old Gods fading from the collective consciousness, but they’re also being targeted by the personifications of America’s New Gods, who get their power from technology and mass media. Wednesday wants to rally the Old Gods for a battle, and needs Shadow’s help to convince them to fight.
    Early on in the book, Shadow asks Mr. Wednesday if he’s American. “Nobody’s American,” he responds. “Not originally.” Those four words represent the central thesis of the book: that in a nation made up of different immigrant experiences (including even Native Americans, whose ancestors traveled across the Bering Strait during the Ice Age), there is no quintessential way of being. Makes sense, considering that Gaiman himself is an immigrant and wrote the book entirely based on places he’d been while on a lengthy road trip.
    Of course, a story about legendary religious figures is also ostensibly going to be about belief and sacrifice, both of which the deities of American Gods need to survive. And it’s also about the staying power of mythology and legends, and how they are warped and shaped over time by the people who learn them and pass them along.
The name Mr. Wednesday tells us what we need to know, as Wednesday is the "day of Woden", reflecting the pre-Christian religion practiced by the Anglo-Saxons. Linguistically, Old English wōdnesdæg is really linguistically derived/evolved from the Latin dies Mercurii "day of Mercury", reflecting the fact that the Germanic god Woden (Odin) during the Roman era was interpreted as "Germanic Mercury".

Odin (from Old Norse Óðinn) is a widely revered god in Norse mythology, associated with healing, death, royalty, the gallows, knowledge, battle, sorcery, poetry, frenzy, and the runic alphabet, and is the husband of the goddess Frigg, associated with foreknowledge and wisdom. The English weekday name Friday (etymologically Old English "Frīge's day") bears her name. In Anglo-Saxon England, Odin held a particular place as a real ancestral figure among royalty, and he is frequently referred to as a founding figure among various other Germanic peoples.

The English settled what is now the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. They were, of course, avowed Christians who regularly used the names of Norse gods in common conversation. We won''t even mention who settled the part of the United States where Fargo takes place except to note that Odin and his buddy Thor (the day of the week Thursday ia"Thor's day" from Old English Thunresdæg, 'Thunor's day'), regularly appear in English language literature and stage and screenplays.

Simply, all the old gods in American Gods were brought here by our ancestor-migrants, regardless of their professed religion. The old gods worry that they're being displaced by new gods such as Technical Boy, petulant god of the Internet, part Silicon Valley punk billionaire, part cyber-bully (in the book a fat hacker kid, but in the series Max Headroom’s annoying younger brother) and Media, goddess of screens, taking the form of Lucille Ball among other TV characters.

The allegorical reference, of course, is that these creatures exist because people believe in them. The power of the old mythological beings has diminished as people's beliefs waned. New gods have arisen, reflecting America's obsessions with media, celebrity, technology, and drugs, among other things.

The regular cast is remarkable. Appearing in every episode are Brits Ian McShane, known to American TV audiences for his role as saloon owner Al Swearengen in Deadwood, who is Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle, known to American TV audiences for his role Lincoln in The 100, who is Shadow Moon. Appearing in almost every episode are Gillian Anderson, Cloris Leachman, Kristin Chenoweth, and many others you will recognize.

Stories of disputes between deities allows a culture to place all its aspects in perspective. Most significant cultures in history have knowledge deities associated with knowledge, wisdom, intelligence, language, schooling, rhetoric, invention, and the arts. We don't acknowledge our deities. So we create them without an awareness of what we are doing.

The Leftovers raises the issue by having us watch how we might struggle in the absence of any comfort from a knowledge of our deities. American Gods thrusts into our consciousness deities such as Odin, the ruler of Valhalla, who sacrificed his eye and was hung for nine days from the world tree Yggdrasil in order to gain the wisdom of the ages.

What message will Americans get from all this? For we do believe in technology more than any other deity - we recreate ourselves in the fun angels of Facebooks, Twitters, YouTubes. But real American Gods created the most powerful technology well beyond anything Thor could have dreamed of. Have recent generations forgotten the true power of the deity of technology, the power to create real Leftovers from death? Will America learn anything from a manifestation on their many and various screens of an allegorical Lucy Ricardo?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Scheduling the unscheduled
  Learning to watch streaming TV when
  switching from "normal" TV viewing

The impact of streaming TV on the television industry and the service options available now, at the end of the first quarter of 2017 were reviewed in the last two posts.

What wasn't discussed is the stressful process of scheduling the unscheduled. I'm old and I'm used to the network channels offering up their nightly schedules. For over 60 years that process meant even in the DVR era watching TV series more or less within a few days after episodes air.

Yes, choices regarding what shows to watch had to be made, but at the beginning of the Fall Season, the Winter Season, and the Summer Season.

Netflix changed that. They will release all 10 episodes of a series season on a Friday. A few weeks later they might release 8 episodes of another series on a Friday. Next month the same kind of thing occurs. Amazon joined them, although they don't release as many shows, so far. (Acorn TV tends to release two episodes a week of a new series, but will will release three seasons of an older Australian series all at once.)

Apparently Millennials, and others, binge watch these series, meaning they might watch anything from 3 episodes to a whole "season" in a day. In our learning process we've tried this.

Two things about binge watching. The weekly episodes of network TV pile up. It leaves one with an empty feeling when...
  1. you finish a "season" of a good show in two days,
  2. you know next season has been ordered, and 
  3. you know it might be 8 months or 18 months before the next season is released.
Because of the Netflix system, "cord-switching" is giving me a whole new set of headaches. But I think I'm getting a handle on it.

Fortunately, Hulu, CBS All Access, PBS, HBO, and Showtime continue to provide weekly episodes of the shows we've been watching on "regular" TV, some shows for over a decade like "NCIS." And they release for streaming each episode of these shows the day after it airs. This allows one to schedule those shows in an orderly manner pretty much as we did in 1998.

There are some "problems" with this when you have ingrained viewing habits. As I mentioned in a previous post, "CBS Sunday Morning" has been a Sunday breakfast companion since 1979. CBS All Access does provide it to us but late at 10:30 am. Even though that is more generous than if they had waited until Monday morning, it makes it late for Sunday breakfast. And HBO holds the Friday night episode of "Real Time" until Saturday. Still, one can schedule around these "problems."

But once those weekly shows are listed in a schedule, a new "problem" appears - the amount of viewing time remaining in which to watch shows from streaming-only sources like Acorn TV, Amazon, and Netflix is inadequate.

The solution is to treat all these viewing sources as "channels" and intersperse that programming into the viewing schedule. The channel Hulu replaces the listings for ABC, Fox, and NBC. CBS All Access replaces the listings for CBS.

It becomes obvious that if we want to start watching new episodes of "Bosch" when they are released by Amazon we have to reduce by one series the broadcast network programming we watch. And because many shows, particularly those from other countries, have a "season" of six episodes, we need to know in advance when event programming like March Madness college basketball preempts a significant amount CBS programming for at least a couple of weeks. And we need to be ready to intersperse episodes from Acorn TV or Netflix shows for those weeks in which broadcast network shows are either not on or in reruns.

The other reality is when we sit down to watch TV, we cannot grab this week's TV Guide magazine like we did in olden days like in 1960:

Instead, for adequate planning I had to create my own version of a TV guide scheduling system, which I keep redesigning:
Click on image to see a larger version!

As I noted in my last post, I have hopes that some of the cable channels will find a way to transition their programs conveniently into the streaming world without blowing up the streaming economic model. Right now they are locked into costly streaming packages that are equivalent to cable packages.

What I'm considering and testing is what it would feel like to not watch cable channel original programming, replacing it with that from streaming sources. It's difficult to just drop shows we've watched for several years. But streaming-only sources for original programming like Netflix do adequately provide replacements for the relatively few cable series we view.

Still, it's tough at any age to break old habits. When you're a TV viewer who remembers watching TV in 1951, it is difficult.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Mediocre-to-ok programming in danger?
  Will the cable channel fixation on
  packages end our "too much TV"

One thing "cord-switchers" quickly discover is that the "evil" of cable TV, the package, is still a problem. But its a problem only if you want to watch non-premium cable channels.

Here's what the monthly cost of an assortment of streaming TV sources looks like to us at this time:

Amazon Prime Video is $0 because just as with internet service we already subscribed before they offered video streaming and would if no streaming TV were available. When Amazon threw in the video for us it was just a free bonus.

The HBO and Showtime prices are deals we get with our Dish Network package. If we drop Dish those costs would go up about 50% except no reason exists to subscribe to both at the same time. In fact, one might only have to subscribe to each for three months a years to view series seasons

Truthfully, there is more than enough good content available from those seven sources to watch TV four hours a night. However....

For whatever reason, non-premium cable channel content without commercials the day after it airs is not available without adding a "package" streaming service to your costs. The rock-bottom price available for a scripted TV fan to get AMC, BBCA,  Comedy Central, TNT, USA, and numerous others from Dish Network's Sling TV is indicated below:

Actually that is not bad except that basically this is for streaming live programming with commercials and generally without the ability to control the flow. Depending upon channel there is limited streaming of previous shows and no DVR equivalent. Sling TV recently did launch a beta test of a cloud DVR approach which presumably will be available to everyone "soon" though I can't imagine it not being at an additional cost.

Basically, there are two other choices, Sony's Playstation Vue which does have a cloud DVR system and newcomer AT&T's DirecTV Now.

The difficulty of balancing cost with programming is that with all three you end up buying broadcast networks and with other than Sling TV no choices exist that do not require subsidizing the costly Disney/ABC/ESPN channel group. With all of them you start looking a add-ons that cost more money - what I call "the package trap."

Corporate commercial internet streaming as we know it began with Netflix. With Netflix you get "original programming" as you do from Amazon, Acorn TV, and others out there. You also now get original programming not available elsewhere from Hulu and CBS All Access. For a scripted TV fan, that programming is of value.

All of which raises a question. Why are the cable channels locking themselves into a 1980/s cable package mode that begins with live streaming? I understand that is a sports channel mode, but it chews up bandwidth. And then why don't they get the idea that the Netflix model is to watch what you want to watch when you want to watch it - without commercials and without pushing buttons to fast forward or skip commercials?

I had some hope that this situation will change as both AMC Networks and FX have agreements with Hulu that will make a number of series available. Apparently though, in some cases it will be like AMC's agreement with Amazon on "The Americans" where a season can be made available only right before the next season is to air.

But the real shadow is that when Time Warner bought into Hulu, the explanation was that shows from its subsidiary cable channels will be part of Hulu's planned $40-a-month cable-package-type service, which is expected to launch this year.

This all leaves an old guy like me agreeing with cable channel FX CEO John Landgraf: “There is simply too much television.” Well, not really. There is too much mediocre-to-ok TV competing with some very well done TV.

Not that everything on Amazon or Netflix appeals. But their offerings when added to the offerings from cable premiums like HBO and Showtime, start to crowd out the mediocre-to-just-ok offerings on broadcast and cable schedules.

Reportedly, Landgraf also said that the “TV advertising model is broken.” I agree with him on that also. And I think the idea of using the cable-TV-package model in the streaming environment is foolish. But we may all be overruled by the sports divisions of all these companies that dominate the financial models today.

Then again, maybe over time Landgraf's "too much TV" problem will solve itself.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The corporate television industry hits 70
  What we have gained is streaming
  TV high quality scripted content

In the past ten years the television industry has been full of turmoil and failure, but is ending with a robust technology system and a fulfillment of the promise of The Golden Age of Television which began in 1947.

Ten years ago I began this blog with a four part series The Screen Writers Guild strike, technology, and the future of scripted television. In part four I wrote:
While the home entertainment industry struggles to cope with changes over he next 5-to-10 years, viewers who want to watch scripted tv will need to adapt. That’s us, folks. And that’s what this blog about.
Four years ago, apparently as an old viewer frustrated because the industry was struggling through a watershed period without a clear direction I wrote:
It's not a new Golden Age of Television. It has been the Era of Television. and it seems to me its headed for retirement. Now its the Era of Mobile Diversion
Two years ago I wrote with far more optimism and understanding:
Let's acknowledge the elephant or 500 pound gorilla or whatever in the room. Our Millennial granddaughter was never conditioned to watch TV on a schedule. There was never a time in her life that the programming was not "on demand." When she was young it was on a DVR or DVD. But as she reached her teen years, streaming video was at her fingertips on the internet.

Because of technology constraints when we began watching TV, we were conditioned by ABC, CBS, and NBC to watch entertainment TV between 8 pm and 11 pm daily, while the local channels brought us news and some syndicated shows between 5 pm and 8 pm. We had to choose at any particular time what show we wanted to watch. If we picked "Gunsmoke" on CBS, we simply could not watch what was on the other networks until Summer Reruns. If there were three good shows on at 9 pm, the best we could hope for was to watch two, one during the regular season and one in the summer. If there was nothing we wanted to watch at 8 pm, we had nothing to watch.

In mid-2015 at any time we can pick from hundreds of shows. We won't live long enough to see all the things we may want to see. It may even be possible to watch a series we were forced to miss in 1975 because of scheduling conflicts. Good grief!
Last year, in December, I wrote a post titled It is likely that 2017 will be TV's "Watershed Year" for the TV industry and for our household in which I noted the controversy over a TV executive who in frustration pointed out "there is too much television" and said:
Our senior household will begin experimenting with the near-exclusive use of internet streaming through CBS All Access and Hulu along with Acorn TV, Amazon Prime Video, Crackle, Feeln, and Netflix.
Well, we're still somewhat struggling through a learning process but the truth is it works and the content choice is nothing short of a dream, or maybe a 1947 fantasy, come to fruition.

There was a period that is called by some The Golden Age of Television which began in 1947 ended when on May 9, 1961 a "Greatest Generation" attorney and politician Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Newton N. Minow told the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters television had become  a "vast wasteland".

According to Wikipedia:
The term Golden Age (Greek: χρύσεον γένος chryseon genos) comes from Greek mythology and legend and refers to the first in a sequence of four or five (or more) Ages of Man, in which the Golden Age is first....
In 1947 the television industry, having ceased to be an infant, was a toddler trying figure out how to walk and talk. It was fun to watch the kid grow. In 1961 it had just entered puberty. By 1985 it was no longer an adolescent. After 70 years, in my humble opinion the corporate television industry now is mature.

The options of off-the-air (OTA) broadcast TV and cable/satellite TV delivery systems have worked well for decades and will continue. Internet streaming TV works and expands the content choices of the OTA broadcast network and cable channels by a factor of at least 20.

In fact, "channels" has taken on a new meaning. Consider these screenshots of our 27 "channels" from our Roku menu:

Since we are experimenting we still have our Dish Network Flex Pack with Local Channels and the Hopper equipment that goes with it. But by using the Hulu and CBS All Access "channels" on our Roku we have been watching ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC programs streaming mostly without commercials.

As it turns out Hulu was a critically important pioneer. As I noted ten years ago:
NBC offers full episodes of over 20 programs to be watched live through an internet connection - with ads, of course. Members of our household can watch these episodes on our 42" plasma "TV" which is really just a monitor without a tuner that connects directly to our computer and audio system.

To expand upon this, after trying out a deal with Apple to feed shows to iPods, NBC joined with Fox to create a venture called

Is this going to change television? Zucker recently noted that had 50 million video streams in October, 50% higher than the previous record, in May. "It's become a small cable channel in our universe," he said. Of the Hulu venture he said it was a "superstore" while was a "specialty shop." He indicated that the digital issue is the biggest nightmare in his job. "Nobody has figured out the economic model yet. And if we don't figure it out soon, those dollars will turn to pennies."
Two years later Disney/ABC joined NBC and Fox in the Hulu venture as an owner as did Time Warner/Turner Broadcasting System in 2016.

It isn't perfect.

On Hulu ABC's streaming rights to "Grey's Anatomy" requires them to show very short commercials before the start of each episode and at the end of each episode. These really don't add viewing time when compared to watching through the Dish Hopper. NBC's "The Blacklist" is not available on Hulu.

CBS All Access offers all the network's prime time (and daytime and late night) programming with only the occasional commercial interruption showcasing CBS programming. Occasionally the commercial internet streams lock up before it starts which is irritating because it's in the middle of the show we're watching.

CBS All Access does provide a live stream of our local CBS broadcast channel. Somehow that eliminates some silly personal insecurity of an old guy who still remembers when live TV was our link to the world. It's silly because we have the internet to browse even on our phones.

Here's the kind of thing that does irritate an old guy. We've been watching CBS Sunday Morning with Sunday "brunchfast" since it began in 1979 with original host Charles Kuralt. Because of that we know its history. Originally offered at 9:00 am - 10:30 am ET/PT each Sunday, the San Franciso and some other Pacific Coast stations shifted it 6:00 am -7:30 am PT because of sports programming conflicts. Fortunately, by then we could record the show and watch it at our leisure. They do make the show available streaming immediately after its time zone scheduled broadcast - 10:30 am. That's later than we want to watch it.

And the fact is there are some special broadcast events that are best watched from our Dish Hopper DVR just behind the live feed skipping commercials. Award shows like The Emmys and The Oscars fall into that category. And though we are not a sports fan household, The Super Bowl is another example.

So if we drop our satellite TV service, we may have to adjust to some of the differences.

On the other hand, we have access to some "must see" programming simply not available outside streaming. And here is where we see what the future holds. Take another look at our Roku screen:

Right now we are using 27 "apps" which are "channels." The website Roku channel list is 5,190 channels long. Many are hidden from the Roku Streaming Channels menu but can still be added. Some aren't available to everyone everywhere. But there are far more than enough channels to meet anyone's needs. There are enough free channels to offer adequate entertainment to many.

For those of us who seek quality scripted TV, the number of high quality original shows offered by the cable premium channels such as HBO and Showtime has been supplemented with high quality original shows from Amazon and Netflix. Traditionally PBS has offered quality TV through its Masterpiece programming, much of which is actually British. Acorn TV provides access to additional British programming, plus some excellent shows from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and even some non-English-speaking European countries.

And the broadcast networks through Hulu and CBS All Access now provide original content not available on their broadcast network channels.

Which leaves me with the problem of non-premium cable channels in a streaming world, the subject of my next post.

Friday, December 30, 2016

It is likely that 2017 will be TV's "Watershed Year" for the TV industry and for our household

Each day when I try to figure out what to watch on TV, the internet streaming "evolution" - I don't want to call it a "revolution" - makes me feel like I walked into this store:

Really, how do you select what to watch when you have a thousand program choices?

This is, of course, a problem created by change. Let me elaborate.

The Changes

Last year (2015) we saw a heated discussion develop over a statement by John Landgraf, CEO of the cable channel FX: “There is simply too much television.”

He had been meticulously keeping count of original scripted series on TV. As it turned out Since 2009, the number of scripted series has increased 94%, rising from 211 to 409, with a 174% growth in scripted series on basic cable (181 vs. 66).

Landgraf is right. As the number of scripted shows increased even slightly more in 2016, I really do feel like every evening I walked into that DVD store pictured above. The numbers are overwhelming.

For simplicity sake, if one assumes the TV industry airs 400 scripted series with an average of 10 episodes for the season at an average of 40 minutes an episode, that is 7 hours and 30 minutes of viewing a day 365 days a year.

And that ignores the fact that I just did not get around to that new series or seasons released two years ago or last year. When I realize that the best I could do is watch an average of 3-4 hours a day, it meant not only have I missed half of 2016-17 scripted TV, I also missed half of 2015-16 scripted TV, and half of 2014-15 scripted TV and I will miss half of next year's scripted TV and the year after....

Even more frustrating is that most of those recent episodes I missed are sitting there waiting to be streamed - they don't go away. When I started this blog, I did not think its title "The Lost Scripts" meant that soon there would be too many potentially interesting series episodes for me to ever watch ... way too many ... ever.

To think that in 1962 there were only three networks and I was disappointed when shows ran opposite each other so I could only watch one in a particular time slot and maybe pick up another in the Summer repeats - we had no recorders, no internet - heck no cable or satellite.

Reportedly, Landgraf also said that the “TV advertising model is broken” and “has to be reinvented” with fewer, more targeted ads so ad-supported outlets can compete with commercial-free content providers like streaming services and premium cable.

Which brings up the most significant change in TV since HBO was launched as the first successful cable channel of any kind in 1972 - internet TV. Generally referred to as streaming TV, reportedly there are 3,051 "channels" available on my Roku receiver, excluding religious "channels" which apparently number 969.

Among others three of those 3,051 include the cable premium (pay for a monthly subscription) channels HBO, Showtime, and Starz. This means that the first cable channel, HBO, has already acknowledged the future importance of internet streaming and that cable TV is in trouble. To be clear, most cable companies are high speed internet service providers, so when I say that cable TV is in trouble I mean cable channels, like Landgraf's FX.

We are in a transition period. The streaming services which created Landgraf's problem of too much TV and broke the advertising model were the subscription services Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and Acorn TV.  While the first three deliver a mix of original content and content which has already aired on American broadcast and cable channels, Acorn TV delivers content from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, with a smattering of some non-English European content, most of which has never been seen in the United States though some older shows appeared on PBS.

The advent of these services has created a different TV audience:
  • adults called "cord-nevers" who just wirelessly stream content over the internet using devices like tablets and smart phones and who have never subscribed to a cable or satellite TV service;
  • adults called "cord-cutters" initially but who are "cord-switchers" because they have dropped their cable or satellite TV channel package services and stream content over their home internet "wire" from specific channels like Netflix using devices such as a Roku or Apple TV; and,
  • adults who have substantially reduced their cable or satellite TV package while streaming some content over their home internet and who are called "frugally connected".
A recent study indicates that 35 percent of adults ages 18 to 31 do not subscribe to a cable or satellite TV service, most of whom are cord-nevers. When you add in all age groups, what we know is that the 24 percent who don’t pay for cable are divided as follows:  18 percent are cord-nevers while 6 percent are cord-switchers.

In other words, the younger adult audience is rapidly becoming an all internet TV audience. And they are leading the way for the older adult audience.

Why 2017 is Important

The year 2017 will bring to us one more change. Because of the 2016 election, the concept of "Net Neutrality" will die except in the memories of activists. According to FCC Republicans Vow To Scrap Net Neutrality 'As Soon As Possible' (as well as other sources):
Scrapping the net neutrality rules appears to be a priority for the two Republicans on the Federal Communications Commission. This week, FCC Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly vowed to revisit those rules "as soon as possible."

What's more, even while the rules remain in effect, the GOP commissioners apparently have no intention of fully policing them. Pai and O'Rielly said as much in a letter sent to five industry trade groups: the CTIA, NTCA -- The Rural Broadband Association, Competitive Carriers Association, American Cable Association and WISPA -- Wireless Internet Service Providers.

Those groups had urged the FCC to permanently exempt small ISPs from a net neutrality rule requiring providers to transparently inform subscribers about broadband policies, including prices, speeds, surcharges, data caps and network management practices. (Other net neutrality rules include a prohibition on blocking or degrading traffic and on charging companies higher fees for prioritized delivery.)
If you don't really understand what this is all about, don't worry, the AT&T folks do and they are ready to take your money by selling you "Rules Free TV":

DirecTV Now is, of course, a satellite TV service company offering service over the internet using what I call "channel-package TV" in your home via your internet wire (which may be the same wire over which cable TV comes into your home). Early this year we were offered channel-package TV from Dish Network's Sling TV and from Playstation Vue.

Channel-package TV is different than buying streaming content from individual "channels" like Netflix or Amazon or Acorn TV purchased as à la carte subscriptions - meaning we don't have to purchase or subsidize any other "channels" and we have no contracts with penalties for a year or two year's of service.

This difference is important. CBS has gone its own way offering streaming of all its programming - including your local channel live - through CBS All Access - essentially you buy one channel, not a package.  And that channel will be offering original programming apart from the CBS broadcast network.

And ABC, NBC and Fox broadcast networks offer some or most of their programming through a single Hulu subscription (which also offers original programming and programming from others like NBCU's cable channels).

But cable channel content from the Turner channels like TNT and Viacom channels like Comedy Central are not readily available except through channel-package TV. The risk they are taking is not small. "Cord Nevers" are not a market for channel-package TV. They want specific shows to binge watch without bearing a heavy cost to subsidize kids TV or professional sports leagues.

Our senior household will begin experimenting with the near-exclusive use of internet streaming through CBS All Access and Hulu along with Acorn TV, Amazon Prime Video, Crackle, Feeln, and Netflix. For the first third of the year, we will retain our Dish Network Flex Pack and Locals Pack.

The reality is that there are likely 1,000 episodes of scripted TV available to watch during that period, some newly released each week but most are those episodes we just didn't get around to. The issue to be weighed is how many episodes won't be available without channel-package TV? 100, 200, 400??? And of those, how many are "must see TV" episodes? 0, 10, 20, 40???

Except, of course, we're stuck in that video store trying to figure out what we are going to watch each night. Can we make that work or will we in the end revert to depending on networks to set our viewing schedule, more or less in 1962 style?

It all will begin Sunday, January 1, 2017.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A New Perception: All "TV" is Streaming and Nothing is Different

The headlined screamed USA Network Goes Darker to Court Millennials. Say what??? The channel that brought us 125 episodes of "Monk" is doing what?

"Millennials" refers to the generation born between 1980 - 2000 or some slightly fewer years depending upon who is defining the term. But regardless, we've got a grandchild who is Millennial.

Yeah, we're over 70. But we're not slackers in keeping up in this age of technology. My wife and I had a business offering computerized business services in 1980. We were using satellite TV in 1988. We've kept up. Our current home network/entertainment system isn't unimpressive. Click on this representational graphic if you don't believe me:

It is mid-2015 and apparently time to embrace a new perception about TV if we are going to have access to programming that will appeal to us.  That perception is all TV is streaming, even when considered in historical context. And we all should consider the historical context.

In terms of the "everyman," our parents came of age in the era of the automobile, with the promise of a "car in every garage." We came of age in the era of the TV, offering "streaming" entertainment in every home. And somehow this year while viewing web videos on tests of the self-driving automobile, to use an analogy I realized 2015 is the year when we need to embrace the TV equivalent of the arrival of "power steering and the automatic transmission" - Netflix and other TV streaming not through a satellite or cable or from radio waves.

TV in My History

We started watching TV "content" over 60 years ago on a "device" that looked like this:

It received radio signals captured by a 40' antenna on the roof, signals that delivered an "analog" audio/video stream with entertainment "content" which we could enjoy.

It was simple to use - you basically had a few TV stations (three national networks still available today - ABC, CBS, and NBC) sending out those signals on "channels" which you could select by rotating the knob on the right. The video display, about the size of a laptop computer display, was black and white, the audio was monophonic meaning there was one speaker because there was only one sound channel.

TV evolved. Within 10 years, the video was in color. But it took 35 years to get a additional national broadcast network still available today - Fox.  It remained an analog radio signal that delivered the audio/video stream to a "device" that looked like this, though the signal came via a cable TV company which may have been providing additional "cable" channels:

You could change channels using a remote control.

But while the hardware evolved, content was both limited and scheduled.

TV Today

All TV streams today are digital. You can receive them "off the air" via a radio signal, or through the cable or satellite TV company, or through your internet service provider's cable, or through your cell phone service provider (using a radio signal). The streams for the most part provide a high definition picture and surround-sound channels.

Unlike that one "device" we used to watch TV 60+ years ago, we have multiple "device" choices at fingertips. The devices through which we can view TV include what is traditionally known as a TV screen, but they also include other electronic devices known as computers, tablets, and smart phones.

And unlike those few channels, we now have essentially an unlimited choice of content, much of it available at our fingertips as we tap remotes, touch screens, mouses and more.

The content does include scheduled TV from TV channels, in our case from the stream delivered by a satellite TV company, Dish Network. For others it could be from the cable company (or off the air). But we watch it on our schedule because we record the programming on a DVR.

And the content from scores of subscription internet streaming websites - right now we use Netflix, Amazon, and Acorn TV - is available at any time. They do release their original content TV series and movies at various times, with full seasons of TV series shows, say 10 episodes, released at once.

And then there is Sling TV, an internet streaming service that provides live streaming of cable channel content plus limited on demand content.  Cable and satellite offer the ability to record content on DVR's for later viewing plus "on-demand" streaming. But Sling TV offers a much less expensive option, albeit limited, and it offers HBO.

Technically the hardware is exceedingly more complex than 60 years ago. But you don't need our investment in technology, in devices, to watch a full range of streaming TV. Many flat screen TV's on the market provide all the "apps."

For the older viewer dealing with the content requires a new understanding.

How Do I Schedule My TV Viewing?

Let's acknowledge the elephant or 500 pound gorilla or whatever in the room. Our Millennial granddaughter was never conditioned to watch TV on a schedule. There was never a time in her life that the programming was not "on demand." When she was young it was on a DVR or DVD. But as she reached her teen years, streaming video was at her fingertips on the internet.

Because of technology constraints when we began watching TV, we were conditioned by ABC, CBS, and NBC to watch entertainment TV between 8 pm and 11 pm daily, while the local channels brought us news and some syndicated shows between 5 pm and 8 pm. We had to choose at any particular time what show we wanted to watch. If we picked "Gunsmoke" on CBS, we simply could not watch what was on the other networks until Summer Reruns. If there were three good shows on at 9 pm, the best we could hope for was to watch two, one during the regular season and one in the summer. If there was nothing we wanted to watch at 8 pm, we had nothing to watch.

In mid-2015 at any time we can pick from hundreds of shows. We won't live long enough to see all the things we may want to see. It may even be possible to watch a series we were forced to miss in 1975 because of scheduling conflicts. Good grief!

Don't get me wrong. I know "it's only TV" and there's a big wide wonderful world out there. I have advocated the idea expressed by this week's New Yorker cover:

But during a certain time, around four hours between 5 pm - 11 pm, we're used to watching stuff on TV. And if CBS, et al. isn't setting the schedule for us, who will?

Welcome to a new perception. All TV is "on demand" streaming - meaning you have to set your own schedule. The upside is it's very flexible. The downside is that the number of choices are overwhelming.

And so for the person who never sat there with the remote flipping through the channels catching pieces of programs already half completed, who knew what shows he wanted to watch, watching TV has become a scheduling "challenge."

But there is problem with many internet streaming options.

Now About Those Commercials

When the 2015 Summer season began, I initiated our one month experiment. I downsized our Dish Network subscription, adding internet subscriptions for streaming services Netflix, Acorn TV and Sling TV with HBO to our lonely Amazon Video (including Prime Video) streaming.

In terms of hardware in the home theater, the Sling TV service (which is owned by Dish) with the HBO add-on is available on our Amazon Fire TV Stick and Netflix is available through both our Dish Hopper and our Fire TV Stick. However, we view Acorn TV through our Intel Compute Stick which also has access to everything else.

In the Master Bedroom the newish Samsung TV has apps for all the services which indicates where home entertainment is going.

Anyway, in downsizing the Dish subscription our access to some cable channels became streaming only - for instance AMC which at this time is offering some shows we will be watching. And I already have learned we can't do this. It's the commercials. When you stream shows airing on advertising supported channels, you have to watch the ads, no skip button, much less "auto-hop." And that's turned out to be a deal killer in our household.

This is a problem that isn't going away. HULU execs indicate that they will be ad supported in the foreseeable future. They represent ABC, NBC, and Fox, plus a lot of other streaming content. In April they announced a multi-year deal with AMC Networks Inc. for the exclusive subscription video on demand (SVOD) rights to new and upcoming primetime scripted drama and comedy series from AMC, IFC, BBC AMERICA, SundanceTV and WE tv.

So since we want to watch shows from AMC and skip commercials, I ended the Sling TV service experiment and restored the Dish subscription to its prior level.

Maybe it's because we don't "multitask" like the Millennials. Note that for the Millennials multitasking doesn't seem to mean unconsciously knitting sweaters for Christmas gifts while watching TV.  Rather it means interacting on social media, texting, even watching video on their smart phones and tablets, all the while watching TV.

The problem is, no one, and I do mean "no one" regardless of age, can "get" the nuances and subtle messages in shows like "Mad Men" and "True Detective" while multitasking. But this is a generation that seemingly doesn't care to get "the outdoors" as indicated in the New Yorker cover above (which is probably good since we're leaving them with a warmer globe). Maybe "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" doesn't need focused attention to get what the show's about.

If you don't mind waiting a year or two, one way to watch those shows that originally air on commercial-supported channels is to use Netfix or Amazon Prime or other ad-free subscription streaming content services.

Or if you don't want to wait, and waiting is a problem when you are old and may not be alive next week, you can pay to watch many series. For instance, AMC's "Halt and Catch Fire" Season 2 airing now is available on Amazon Video without commercials for $16.99.

But watching all our TV that way would become prohibitively expensive.On the other hand, watching commercials is prohibitively painful.

The real result is that we are now just spending money for Netflix and Acorn TV, while we continue to use Dish Network to skip commercials at the same old cost.

Yes all TV is streaming, but except for those willing to watch commercials nothing much has changed yet. You just have to pay more to get all the good stuff on new "channels" such as Netflix. The only consolation is that we may be getting access to better quality TV shows. For now.

Oh, and as an observation, if the new shows on the USA Network, "Complications" and "Mr. Robot" are what appeals to Millennials, they have really good taste.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

It's not a New Golden Age of Television

Nearly six years ago, I began this blog musing about what would happen to TV within the next decade.

In November 2007, I wrote a six part series here that began with:
The Television Writers Guild strike is viewed by many as just another labor dispute. It’s not. It is the first nationally significant economic acknowledgment of the transition in home entertainment that has been under way for a decade. For this industry, 2008 is 1948 all over again.

At the beginning of 1948, the primary choices for purchased or broadcast home entertainment were (a) books and magazines, (b) 78 rpm phonograph records, or (c) radio (other than self-generated entertainment such as playing a piano or singing). About 3 million tv sets had been purchased by pioneer viewers who had relatively little to watch. By the end of 1953, that number had grown ten-fold to over 30 million with 50% of Americans having a television set in their home. By the end of 1958, the number of television sets sold had doubled again, to over 60 million, many of course replacing black and white sets with color (80,000 sold by RCA in 1958).

Television programming was just a continuation of the same categories prevalent in radio in 1940. In a manner similar to books and movies, radio and tv offered fiction and non-fiction programming. In addition to fiction and non-fiction, both offered a category comparable to vaudeville, "entertainment consisting of a number of individual performances, acts, or mixed numbers, as by comedians, singers, dancers, acrobats, and magicians." That category could be termed "televaudeville". In the 1950's, the basics of "televaudeville" were established by the likes of Sid Caesar and Ed Sullivan, plus game shows such as "You Bet Your Life" and "Amateur Hour" and the popular daytime reality show "Queen for a Day."

By the mid-1950's, television brought about the transformation of radio, reducing it down to its current formats - recorded music, talk shows, and news. Many executives, writers, and performers failed to make the transition successfully. This history is relevant to the changing economics of television.
In September 2008 I noted:
It's official now, because the Nielsen's confirm it. Broadcast TV and cable channels are competing equally for the same prime-time audience. And the Monday night competition clearly presents the picture.
I had started this blog thinking that scripted programming was going to become an endangered species. By May 2010 I had to acknowledge that despite the significant changes in the "TV" industry:
Since the Screen Writer's Guild strike in late 2007, contrary to many expectations including mine, scripted TV on cable channels and broadcast networks has made a significant comeback.
Now, a "new Golden Age of Television" is being discussed all over the web as if the idea is accepted as truth.

Labels assigned to time periods by people who are alive to remember them must be met with skepticism. This is true of home entertainment. One of those labels is the "Golden Age of Television."

According to Wikipedia, "The Golden Age of Television in the United States began sometime in the late 1940s and extended to the late 1950s or early 1960s." You can read the complete Wikipedia description, but one element is regularly "forgotten" by those remembering that time:
"TV sets were expensive and so the audience was generally affluent. Television programmers knew this and they knew that serious dramas on Broadway were attracting this audience segment. So, the producers began staging Broadway plays in the television studios. Later, Broadway authors, like Paddy Chayefsky, Reggie Rose and J. P. Miller wrote plays specifically for television. Their plays – Marty, Twelve Angry Men, and Days of Wine and Roses, respectively – all went on to be successful movies."

In other words, "The Golden Age" was an aristocratic critic's delight. My memories of television prior to 1962 were not filled with thoughts of great plays. Rather it was trying to get the antenna rotor to work right so I could see something from one of three networks through the "snow" on my TV.

As far as I am concerned television was an embryo until it became a newborn in 1948. It went through an infancy, became a toddler, and at some point around 1966 it was old enough to register for The Draft - it came of age. As it approached middle age Fox and cable broadened it the way middle age does. It went through a late midlife crisis ending with the 2007–08 Writers Guild of America strike.

Now we're hearing about a new Golden Age of Television. Except, what we're hearing about is a different generation's form of diversion. Television was something people watched on a schedule at home - it was home entertainment - and for many, maybe most, it was enjoyed in the embrace of the family.

The so-called "new" Golden Age is, in fact, a product of the internet/smart phone age. An embryo until the 1990's, this new entertainment form has reached drinking age. It's exciting and different from home entertainment. We can experience this new type of entertainment while walking in public places, at least until we fall off the subway platform because we've isolated ourselves from our surroundings that much.

This is not home or family entertainment, it's personal entertainment, it's on demand, so  much so it's made the commonality of the morning-after "water cooler" gathering passe.

It's television only in the sense that television is the movies. It does share art creation technology with the ABC, NBC, and CBS broadcast networks. After all, in the original Golden Age of Television much of the art creation technology was shared with the movie industry as does today's personal entertainment share creation technology with movies and television.

Possibly it is fair to call it television. But we've stopped calling those things we carry around with us "telephones". They are smart or cell phones with differences like IOS or Android or Windows and differing camera resolutions and apps.

Broadcast TV is still around. So are "land lines." In fact, they have something in common - they are attached to a location and were designed to be used with a television set and a telephone.

Smart phones and tablets and the related YouTube and Netflix apps are not attached to a location but to a person, a subscriber.

It's not a new Golden Age of Television. It has been the Era of Television. and it seems to me its headed for retirement. Now its the Era of Mobile Diversion with completely different perameters and effects. Find or create your own word - something like "modiversion." After all, "television" is a created word for a technology:  "Other proposals for the name of this then-hypothetical technology were telephote (1880) and televista (1904)."

Monday, May 30, 2011

Scripted TV: thriving and mostly healthy

As I noted at the end of last May, all my fears back in 2007 during the Screenwriters Guild strike that the number of scripted TV would seriously decline were wasted.

During the Summer TV Season of 2011, I am already recording or will record 46 scripted series shows: “Against the Wall”, “Alphas”, “Army Wives”, “The Big C”, “Breaking Bad”, “Breakout Kings”, “Burn Notice”, “The Closer”, “Combat Hospital”, “Covert Affairs”, “Eureka”, “Falling Skies”, “Flashpoint”, “Franklin & Bash”, “Friday Night Dinner”, “Friends with Benefits”, “Game of Thrones”, “The Glades”, “Haven”, “Hawthorne”, “Hour”, “In Plain Sight”, “The Killing”, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”, “Leverage”, “Louie”, “Love Bites”, “Memphis Beat”, “Men of a Certain Age”, “Necessary Roughness”, “Outcasts”, “Primeval”, “The Protector”, “Rescue Me”, “Rizzoli & Isles”, “Rookie Blue”, “Royal Pains”, “Sanctuary”, “Suits”, “Torchwood”, “Treme”, “True Blood”, “Warehouse 13", “Weeds”, “White Collar”, and “Wilfred”.

At the beginning of the Fall/Winter TV Season of 2011-12, I expect to be recording episodes of 70 shows: “Bedlam”, “The Big Bang Theory”, “Blue Bloods”, “Boardwalk Empire”, “Body of Proof”, “Bones”, “Boss”, “Castle”, “Charlie's Angels”, “Chuck”, “Community”, “Criminal Minds”, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”, “CSI: New York”, “Dexter”, “The Fades”, “Free Agents”, “Fringe”, “A Gifted Man”, “Glee”, “The Good Wife”, “Grey's Anatomy”, “Grimm”, “Happy Endings”, “Harry's Law”, “Hart of Dixie”, “Hawaii Five-0", “Hell on Wheels”, “Homeland”, “House”, “House of Lies”, “How I Met Your Mother”, “How to Be a Gentleman”, “I Hate My Teenage Daughter”, “Last Man Standing”, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”, “Luck”, “Luther”, “Man Up!”, “The Mentalist”, “The Middle”, “Mike & Molly”, “Modern Family”, “NCIS”, “NCIS: Los Angeles”, “New Girl”, “The Office”, “Once upon a Time”, “Pan Am”, “Parenthood”, “Parks & Recreation”, “Person of Interest”, “The Playboy Club”, “Prime Suspect”, “Private Practice”, “Raising Hope”, “Reed Between the Lines”, “Revenge”, “Ringer”, “Rules of Engagement”, “The Secret Circle”, “Sons of Anarchy”, “Suburgatory”, “Terra Nova”, “The Thick of It”, “Two and a Half Men”, “Two Broke Girls”, “Unforgettable”, “Up All Night,” and “Whitney”.

Obviously, some of these shows will turn out to be awful. And some we will not continue to watch because they just don't appeal to our taste. This is fortunate as time does not permit us to watch all of them.

Few of them are consistently critically acclaimed three-stars-or-more shows. Frequently those shows have trouble finding a large audience. To a certain extent, the premium channels provide a home for artistic quality.

Still I'm amazed at the number on advertising supported broadcast and cable networks that almost always deserve two stars or more.

In some cases, shows that consistently offer decent writing, acting, and directing "wear out their welcome." Fresh episode story ideas are hard to find. As a show ages, avoiding repetitious stories for particular characters becomes difficult. The pressure of economics sometimes requires an extra season or two for syndication sales.

Frequently, new shows on advertising dependant broadcast networks that clearly have strong writing, acting, and directing are cancelled early in the first season because of the ratings system based on the number of live viewers. This is frustrating.

But on the other hand, some of these shows could be moved to a cable channel were it not for the fact that the broadcast networks gave the showrunners a larger budget than could be allowed on a cable channel. Adapting to a significantly reduced budget apparently is not easily accomplished. And the management of a cable channel does not want to risk large sums of money on a show that failed in the broadcast arena.

But overall, for someone who remembers the Summers of Repeats back in the era when we had broadcast networks only, it is amazing how scripted TV has rebounded.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mad Men: lives carry on

Henry to Betty: "There is no fresh start. Lives carry on."

And that's what happened this year.

In this episode titled "Tomorrowland," Weiner and company had Don finally choose between being Don or Dick, and he chose Don but without rejecting all of Dick, perhaps owning more than just a nickname.

Should this episode have been titled "Fanstasyland" because Don's self-image includes being the "handsome prince" and, in his fantasy Megan, is "Cinderella?" Faye would have had trouble avoiding the "wicked stepmother" role with Sally. Megan will have trouble, but it will only be because she's trying too hard to be Maria Von Trapp.

One can't help but feel that Don is enchanted with Megan. She's the perfect French-speaking au pair (to use a word not commonly used for a "nanny" in 1965)  for the kids. And she's smart, but at 25 not "too seasoned" and therefore not yet aggressively cynical. And she's attractive even if a bit "toothy." She thinks she knows Don, and in some ways she does know Don - she just doesn't know Dick.

But all in all, Don thinks he has found a way to replace Carla and Betty. And it is a significant improvement over the latter for the kids.

We don't really know anything about Megan who at ...what, 23 or 24?... moved from Montreal bringing her French Canadian heritage to New York City. And if we don't know anything, think how little Don knows about what "Tomorrowland" means to a 25-year-old French Canadian woman in 1965 in the United States.

What are these two going to talk about? When Megan calls home all excited about her engagement, Don wants to talk but Megan points out he doesn't speak French.

Some things are clear from this episode:
  • Don/Dick has severed his formal ties with California by selling Anna's house.
  • Don/Dick wants the life he thinks Don would have had and impulsively uses the ring dead Don gave dead Anna as a charm to get it.
  • Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce may survive the Lucky Strike crisis, but it will require hard work particularly by Peggy and Joan.
  • Peggy and Joan have bonded as the underestimated women of SCDP.
  • Joan, as we suspected, did not have the abortion and is misleading her absent and fully deserving husband.
Some things are not so clear:
  • Don/Dick is a less hung up guy in California and it remains to be seen if live Don can in any way be that guy in New York.
  • I don't know why Anna gave the ring to Don/Dick but as a charm with death all over it, can it symbolize a better life?
  • Will Don and toothy Megan (played by Jessica Paré, who is either very talented or takes direction very well)  be a married couple in episode 1 of next season?
  • What year will next season be set in, as 1966 doesn't offer much background, 1967 does offer the Montreal World's Fair, and 1968, with all of its violence and death, just seems to push the kid's ages?
The future of two characters seem to have been nicely wrapped up into "so long, don't let the door hit you" moments.

In a gut wrenching scene, Betty fired Carla exerting what little power she has over the one adult she could. And she won't even write a letter of reference. (Let's hope Don will handle that.) But Carla has been a significant element of stability for the kids. Maybe that is the point for next season - no stability for the kids or maybe Don and Megan will form the perfect family ... naw, that would be too 1950's sitcom.

And poor Faye. You have to know that she's crying at least in part because at the beginning of this season we saw her, as a seasoned veteran of the office romance risks, predict Don would be remarried within a year. Yet she let Don know she was actually not married - just a ruse to avoid the problems - stepping right into the arena to become another victim of his charms. And we know he did use her.

About Peggy. This is a great character to watch. While she seems thrown by the development of the engagement between Don and Megan, her perception of getting the first new account since Lucky Strike, the  $250,000 Topaz pantyhose account, as her saving the company made me smile. Yes, it will serve as a psychological boost to the few left in the company. Saving the firm? Well, maybe a little.

The Joan and Peggy moment after they learn about Don and Megan is a classic:
Joan: “Whatever can be on your mind?”
Peggy: “Can you believe it!?”
Joan: “It happens all the time — they’re just all between marriages."
Joan:  “Well, I learned a long time ago to not get all my satisfaction from this job.”
Peggy:  “That’s bulls—!”
Roger's reaction is also amusing. Wasn't Don giving him grief for marrying his secretary not so long ago?

Unfortunate for Don, Roger, Joan and Peggy, they didn't get Ken's message: “Cynthia’s my life, my actual life."

And we all know that Don has no clue about Faye's comment: "I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things."

So, we end the season with Don staring out the window, the perfect immature teen angst love song in the background:
Cher: They say we're young and we don't know
We won't find out until we grow
Sonny: Well I don't know if all that's true
'Cause you got me, and baby I got you
Why do I find that a bit foreboding. After all, it worked out so well for Sonny and Cher, and of course for Chastity Bono.

On to next year....

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mad Men: There's a time for beans and a time for ketchup....

So the guy from Heinz tells Don: "There's a time for beans and a time for ketchup."

That statement was one theme of this episode, a theme that is dominating the last half of this season. A can of beans is food. When times are tough, you buy food. You don't buy the little things that make food taste better. This is the situation that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is in. Some members of the firm feel at risk of becoming part of this 1930's scene:

Panic sometimes crosses the faces of the partners for whom this is a real memory of what hard times means. “It’s because we’re desperate—they can smell it on us,” Don tells the partners. Fear of failure eliminates the possibility of a little humor like this:
But there has been another important theme running through this season.

“What’s it like?” Don asks. Midge shockingly explains “It’s like drinking a hundred bottles of whiskey while someone licks your tits…it’s heroin, Don, I just can’t stop.”

Addiction or "substance abuse" has been a theme this season. And it brings us to the real twist of this episode. By bringing Midge back from Season 1, we see a person who was a happy, promising, bohemian artist who is being destroyed by the ultimate addiction.

We can tell this has made a huge impression on Don and has him thinking about the whole issue of addiction.

Now bring out the other woman who frequently focuses Don's mind, Peggy. She draws him into one of the better pieces of dialog. After it's clear that they aren't going to get the Virginia Slims account (the cigarettes for women) and everyone is down in the dumps, Peggy approaches Don saying she's been thinking about the firm.

Peggy asks: "Why don't we just change our name. If this was a dogfood we'd change our name."

When Don explains that it wasn't an option as the firm had just started, Peggy plants an idea.

"You always say if you don't like what they're saying about you, change the conversation,"  she responds.

Don, dismayed, says "To what? What they're saying about us is true."

Peggy: "So there's nothing we can do?"

Don: "Sure there is, we're going to sit at our desks and keep typing as the walls fall down around us because we're 'creative,' the least important most important thing there is."

(We'll come back to Peggy in a minute.)

If we were following the dialog back when Don was talking to the guy from Heinz, we know that it ended when the guy told him to leave the negotiating to "accounts."  Yeah, right, "accounts." "Creative" got a Clio this year,"accounts" failed in a way that has threatened the very existence of the firm.

Don mulls all this over and "changes the conversation" as Peggy suggested for better or worse, without consulting the other partners. That it is a full page letter in the New York Times essentially denouncing tobacco is going to make waves.

About the letter, Megan notes, “I know it’s all about “he didn’t dump me—I dumped him’.” She also notes that it changes the feel of the firm. "I love that you stand for something." to which Don honestly replies, "That's not what it's really about."

Here we have a continuation of another theme this year - Don Draper. This Don Draper isn't interested in playing the fiddle of complaining and self-pity while his ship goes down. Of course he has to tell a lie to maybe make it all work.

At this point, we have to take a little history detour about a real life character of the period. Among the message slips Megan hands Don is a call from Emerson Foote. "I wonder who he is" she muses. That's your cue to Google his name. That Don didn't recognize his name is not likely as we can see from his 1992 obituary in the NY Times:
Emerson Foote, the outspoken co-founder of the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency and former chairman of McCann-Erickson Inc., died on Sunday....

The two agencies he led rank among the biggest in the world today, and Mr. Foote, tall and distinguished-looking, stood as one of the giants of the industry. He became known to the general public for his acerbic views of tobacco advertising, which eventually prompted him to leave advertising. He was a former chain-smoker and was a director of the American Cancer Society.

Mr. Foote resigned as chairman of McCann-Erickson in 1964, saying he was opposed to handling cigarette accounts. He was then a member of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke and endorsed the Surgeon General's report that linked cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

He ridiculed protestations that billions spent on promotions had nothing to do with people taking up the habit. "I am always amused," Mr. Foote said, "by the suggestion that advertising, a function that has been shown to increase consumption of virtually every other product, somehow miraculously fails to work for tobacco products."
He certainly should have been in Don Draper's field of vision, but this is fiction, after all. Still the firm is being approached by the American Cancer Society.

Now back to Peggy, the symbol of the changing status of women throughout this show. We learn that Faye has to leave because her firm can't risk losing tobacco company business by remaining associated with SCDP.

As she leaves, Peggy tells her:  "They respect you, and you don't have to play any games."

Faye responds: "Is that what it looks like?"

You can't tell what Peggy gets from that. We know that Faye has portrayed herself as a married woman in order to thread her way through the jungles of the very sexist business world of that period. We don't know what else she has done in her career to get ahead.

In Sunday's Washington Post an article written by Stephanie Coontz headlined Why 'Mad Men' is TV's most feminist show explains about the show:
Historians are notorious for savaging historical fiction. We're quick to complain that writers project modern values onto their characters, get the surroundings wrong, cover up the seamy side of an era or exaggerate its evils -- and usually, we're right. But AMC's hit show "Mad Men," which ends its fourth season next Sunday, is a stunning exception. Every historian I know loves the show; it is, quite simply, one of the most historically accurate television series ever produced. And despite the rampant chauvinism of virtually all its male characters (and some of its female ones), it is also one of the most sympathetic to women.

"Mad Men's" authentic portrait of women's lives in the early 1960s makes it hard for some women to watch. Over the course of its first three seasons, I interviewed almost 200 women from the same era for a new book on the Greatest Generation's wives and daughters. Many had suffered from the same numbness that plagued Betty Draper in the first season. They had seen psychiatrists who were as unhelpful and patronizing as the one Don Draper hired for his wife, or they had been married to men who displayed a sense of male entitlement similar to Don's. Those who had worked, whether before or after marriage, had experienced the same discrimination and sexual harassment as the female employees at the show's ad agency.

Yet to my surprise, most of these women refused to watch "Mad Men." Not because they found its portrayal of male-female relations unrealistic -- in fact, many recounted treatment in real life that was even more dramatic and horrifying than that on the show. It was precisely because "Mad Men" portrayed the sexism of that era so unflinchingly, they told me, that they could not bear to watch.

The rest of us, however, should tune in for a much-needed lesson on the devastating costs of a way of life that still evokes misplaced nostalgia. We should be glad that the writers are resisting the temptation to transform their female characters into contemporary heroines. They're not, and they cannot be. That is the brilliance of the show's script.
Everything else about this show notwithstanding, it can, and is, being used in sociology and women's studies classes already.

Most of the women in this show win or lose partly because of their relationship with Don/Dick. Men are not that significant for him except as foils to mislead for his gain. And that is something he has in common with the women. He has had to discard his identity to advance, he has had to lie, he has had to manipulate the men around him, all because his talent would never have gotten Dick Whitman in the front door except as a janitor.

In this episode, the men partners are livid at Don. Most particularly Bert Cooper, apparently quitting the firm in disgust, says of Don: "We have created a monster." (Does this mean we'll see even less of Robert Morse?)

Only Pete among the men sees Don's talent in terms of respect. And once Don bails him out financially, he's relieved, and though still apprehensive, willing to let Don's gamble play out.

We don't know if Don has saved the firm. Probably we won't know after next week's season finale, but it has been an intense ride this season.

As usual, there was too much to cover in this episode. But I can't ignore completely what's happening to Sally. For she has attempted in the Don Draper mold to reinvent herself in order to get along with her mother, whose neurotic mind sees male and female roles in some weird version of the traditional model. Sally's psychiatrist sees Sally's reinventing herself as progress. Really? Or as a psychiatrist does she sense Sally is in danger from her mother.

For Sally, who is after all still a child, this isn't working out too well. Betty catches her hanging with Glenn and assumes ... what, exactly? Based on her strange intimate past with Glenn the boy, of which Sally is ignorant, Betty decides it's time to move the family to Rye. She knows this will crush Sally now. So she does it, knowing that her psychologically troubled daughter is making some progress. Some mother you've got there Sally.

And as this episode ends we hear Etta James singing "Trust In Me." Well, maybe Don has made the right move....

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Rupert Murdoch - A threat to the world's TV viewing audience including you and me

Most are not aware of two burning disputes between one media billionaire and two others. At issue is the price of your monthly cable or satellite TV bill. It could go up 50% in a very few years.

Rupert Murdoch of News Corp, #148 on Forbes World's Billionaires list, has decided to take on Charles Ergen of Dish Network, #117 on the list, and Charles Dolan of Cablevision, #367. Rupert is trying to force the two Charles to charge their subscribers a 50% increase in monthly charges for his TV channels.

The News Corp owned Wall Street Journal article headlined News Corp., Cablevision Square Off explained:
News Corp.—which is seeking higher fees for its channels in negotiations with Cablevision— on Sunday began running ads addressed to the cable-TV company's subscribers, warning that if a new TV-rights deal isn't struck soon, viewers could lose Fox shows including football games and "Glee."

...Carriage contract talks have become more bruising as TV companies push for the first time to land monthly cash fees for broadcast networks. Cable- and satellite-TV operators say they try to withstand fee demands to avoid passing on costs to their customers' bills. As contract deadlines creep closer, each side blames each other for possible losses of favorite shows.

Ultimately, deals often are struck without programming interruptions. But this year, Cablevision customers lost the Food Network and HGTV cable channels for several weeks after a rough-and-tumble fee dispute with Scripps Networks Interactive Inc. In March, Cablevision lost access to ABC and some other Walt Disney Co. channels for nearly 24 hours, including during the first few minutes of ABC's Academy Awards telecast.
Regarding the Dish Network situation, News Corp has pulled all of its cable channels off of Dish including all its regional sports networks. And it is threatening to pull 27 News Corp owned or controlled local Fox TV stations on November 1, stations serving about 50 million TV households representing about 44% of the U.S. market.

In an article headlined Dish CEO defiant after losing Fox channels we learn:
With Fox and Dish also facing the end of their current arrangement for Fox's owned-and-operated TV stations at the end of the month, [BTIG investor analyst Richard Greenfield] argued that waiting to renew both arrangements in several weeks makes no business sense.

"What's the benefit of going dark for four weeks and losing subs, only to ultimately pay Fox what they are demanding," he asked. "We can only presume [Ergen] is prepared to be dark for the long-haul."

A Dish spokeswoman said in a response that programmers "are increasingly bullying pay TV companies into extraordinary rate increases in an effort to pay for expensive sports acquisition rights."

She said the Fox sports channels represent less than 2% of the content that Dish makes available in its most popular programming package. And of the hours that Dish customers spend on watching TV, less than 1% are spent on regional sports networks, she added.
Investment analysts generally are stupid and Greenfield is no exception. The Fox broadcast network's shows aren't doing all that well in the ratings and pulling them off of cable and satellite systems won't improve that. It is true that Dish is already losing subscribers. I know that those upset by the loss of the News Corp sports channels and cable channels don't understand the concerns of the few over the reach of Rupert Murdoch's tightening tentacles on the media, particularly TV.

Over in Britain concern is growing over his latest move. From The Hollywood Reporter:
BBC director general Mark Thompson has again spoken out against Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp.'s bid for the remaining 61 percent of BSkyB, this time using an interview on PBS' Charlie Rose Thursday to warn against the consequences of the deal.

Thompson's comments on U.S. television come ahead of a hotly anticipated speech later this month by News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch, who is expected to give further details of the bid when he delivers the inaugural Baroness Thatcher lecture in London October 21st.
And from The Guardian/Observer web site:
Murdoch has managed to achieve what most assumed was impossible, a more or less harmonious agreement between, among others, the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Guardian Media Group (which owns the Observer), the Telegraph Media Group and the owners of the Daily Mirror. There probably hasn't been such a disparate and determined alliance since Wellington mustered Prussians, Saxons, Polish, Dutch, Belgian, English and Irish troops to confront Napoleon at a little village south of Brussels in 1815.

This isn't Murdoch's Waterloo and, after 40 years of bending Britain to his political will, the 79-year-old probably is not losing much sleep over the new alliance. Still, even he must be aware of the unprecedented strength of feeling in boardrooms against him. There is almost no one in the business outside News International who disagreed with the director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, when he said on US television that there was a case for looking at Rupert Murdoch's media ownership systematically because of the "potential for abuse of power".

That is a glorious understatement. Give almost any politician a guarantee of anonymity and he or she will say much more but, as Peter Oborne's Channel 4 Dispatches programme made clear, most are too frightened to challenge him or his executives. Successive generations of politicians have allowed Murdoch to extend his power so, in the estimation of the respected media analyst Claire Enders, Britain has long passed the "Berlusconi moment".

No newspaper company can buy ITV because of rules against cross-ownership, but because Sky was founded after the law was enacted, these rules do not apply. The anachronism means that Murdoch can merge Sky, which has a turnover roughly three times the size of ITV's and is growing at a rate of about 400,000 subscribers a year, with his newspaper group....
This is what Americans also should know. Murdoch's media reach leaves us also with politicians "too frightened to challenge him or his executives." Murdoch manipulates political and economic power in the pursuit of his goals better than anyone else in the capitalist world, East and West, today.

For instance, we had the big uproar in June 2003 over the FCC's move to increase by 10% the number of local TV affiliates a national broadcast network could own - from 35% to 45%.

Even a Republican controlled Congress had trouble with that. But after first voting to keep the ownership cap at 35%, both the House and Senate raised the aggregate cap to 39% by attaching a rider to a massive funding bill. The 39% cap allowed News Corp/FOX to keep all their stations.

Thus I have no delusions that American politicians - liberal, conservative or moderate - have the courage to take him on. But if those two other billionaires, Charles Ergen of Dish Network and Charles Dolan of Cablevision, take him on at the same time, at least some opportunity exists to reign him in. One can hope that if the public loses it's Fox channel in New York City and Philadelphia on both the local cable system and Dish Network, politicians might take notice.

Otherwise, I have to be content with the knowledge that he's 79 and likely will die in the next 20 years. At that point, it is likely his empire will slowly lose its clout as others have done in the past.

Still, in the pursuit of his economic goals, the damage he has done to the arena of American political discourse has already exceeded that of William Randolph Hearst.

(Incidentally, this has nothing to do with partisanship. Hearst was twice elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives. Nor does it have anything to do with Murdoch's Australian origins. Hearst's patrilineal ancestor, John Hurst settled in Plymouth Colony around 1620. These guys are/were just missing something found in billionaires like Warren Buffett - a semblance of humility.)