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 Hulu.com....

Is this going to change television? Zucker recently noted that NBC.com 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 NBC.com 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 Cordcutting.com 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.