April 10, 2007

The “Today” show’s Al Roker said Tuesday on his show’s official blog that it was time for Imus to go. “I, for one, am really tired of the diatribes, the ‘humor’ at others’ expense, the cruelty that passes for ‘funny,'” Roker said.


A Noxious Fusion

March 26, 2007

…of every awful, content-less faux-centrist narrative, applied here in a lengthy, fawning Washington Post “will he run?” article on New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg:

“He’d be a candidate almost in the progressive tradition,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York political consultant. “He could make the argument: ‘A pox on both their houses.’ He’s a celebrity by definition because he’s a billionaire.”

But why should he be president? Because it’s remotely possible?

He’s a party-switching, uncharismatic billionaire. His running for president sure sounds exciting to Washington media – who adore nothing more than slagging off Democrats, but are finding it increasingly difficult to apologize for incompetent and corrupt Republicans – but that’s about it. The truth of the matter is that most Americans do prefer one party over the other – there’s no great silent consensus out there for people like Michael Bloomberg.

Ech…there’s more, now not just in quotations:

…if he ran as a Democrat, he might sacrifice his reputation as an independent-minded businessman who is above politics.

Save us from politicians who are “above” politics, and from those writers who would imagine such a thing possible.

The above passage follows an observation on the impossibility of Bloomberg’s  securing the GOP nomination. So I ask again – just where is this great silent majority that exists in neither party but would be able to elect a man like Michael Bloomberg president?

Bloomberg himself is quoted towards the end, and supplies the answer:

“How can a 5-foot-7, divorced billionaire Jew running as an independent from New York possibly have a chance?” he has asked.

He can’t. And that’s fine. Politics is the business of disagreeing about what to do. If Bloomberg can’t find constructive ways to disagree, then there’s really no reason for him to think twice about running for president.

In Which I Criticize CBS for Doing Something Good

March 18, 2007

For this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, CBS is broadcasting all of the first three rounds on its website, for free. Except that it isn’t. Due to blackout rule – which, er, CBS made up (and, to their credit, explain forthrightly on their website) – users cannot see any of the games being broadcast by their local CBS affiliate. This is due – again, helpfully explained by CBS’ website – to the local CBS affiliates’ having “exclusive rights” to the broadcast of whatever it is they happen to be broadcasting at any given moment. And good for them.

The thinking behind this decision is straightforward enough: CBS pays a lot of money for the NCAA tournament broadcast rights; affiliates pay a lot of money to CBS for the exclusive rights to content, including the tournament; hence, the affiliates want people watching that content to be watching it through them, to maximize eyeballs and therefore maximize advertising revenue. Inherent in the assumption driving the blackout policy, then, is that there is a more-or-less finite number of possible viewers for the content. Any viewer watching the small, grainy window on their computer (a PC running Internet Explorer) is one not watching the local CBS station, so it only makes sense to give them access to content they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

This works great for someone who either doesn’t much care which game they’re watching, or someone simultaneously watching the TV and the PC. But let’s posit that there’s another kind of viewer – let’s call them ‘JKD’ – who doesn’t own a television and without access to the content online, might not watch it at all. Obviously, CBS and its affiliates are within their rights to say to this hypothetical user, “Screw you – buy a TV”, or force them to a local bar (though when CBS got in the biz of encouraging bar patronage isn’t clear to me). But why would they want to do that? Seriously – why? What’s the margin in, having constructed a method and venue for expanding access to content – for expanding total possible audience past what existed previously – then introducing an artificial and relatively arbitrary barrier preventing some or much of that possible new audience from accessing relatively arbitrary categories of that content?

I’d offer that, while CBS has introduced this great new service they don’t really understand what they’ve done. Which is odd, especially given how basic what they’ve done is. But since I’m a helpful guy, I’ll tell them what it is they’ve done: they’ve put television on their website. Really! It’s pretty cool. It also makes a lot of sense, given that CBS is primarily in the business of producing and distributing content that is television, that their website feature…content that is television.

It’s kind of dawned on TV people recently that the Internet isn’t really going away – that it’s in fact something that a lot of people do rather than watch television, and that rather than using their websites to convince people using the Internet that they should stop doing so at particular times of day on particular days of the week and instead watch television, it’d really much easier to bring their primary product to those people. It’s refreshing, the lack of obtuseness.

Except as the strange and arbitrary blackout rule demonstrates, they really don’t quite get it, yet. I’m not exactly sure why, but then I’m not and never have been in the business of running a television network and am, after all, just Some Guy With a Blog and without a television. But wouldn’t that make me a perfect customer? Evidently yes, but only to a certain point.

Politics is “Amusing” to the Press

January 25, 2007

In a chat at washingtonpost.com today, Michael Fletcher makes an unwitting but very revealing comment sprining from President Bush’s (latest) use of “Democrat Party” to refer to the Democratic Party:

Toronto, Canada: Is using “Democrat Party” instead of “Democratic Party” dog-whistle language aimed at the Republic, I mean Republican base?

Michael Fletcher: Funny. I find that whole controversy amusing. But it really does get some people riled up.

The controversy is “amusing” to Fletcher, the observer from on high, though it does get “some people” (people, presumably, not as mannered as Fletcher – dirty fucking hippies perhaps) riled up. Haha, a great laugh.

As Hendrik Hertzberg detailed last year,

“Democrat Party” is a slur, or intended to be—a handy way to express contempt. Aesthetic judgments are subjective, of course, but “Democrat Party” is jarring verging on ugly. It fairly screams “rat.”

Luntz, who road-tested the adjectival use of “Democrat” with a focus group in 2001, has concluded that the only people who really dislike it are highly partisan adherents of the—how you say?—Democratic Party. “Those two letters actually do matter,” Luntz said the other day. He added that he recently finished writing a book—it’s entitled “Words That Work”—and has been diligently going through the galley proofs taking out the hundreds of “ic”s that his copy editor, one of those partisan Dems, had stuck in.”

This is no mystery. “Democrat Party” is, as Hertzberg says, a slur intended to inflame Democrats. And it does. These are the facts, the facts of modern American political discourse: Republicans do many things intended primarily to annoy Democrats. Fletcher, a political reporter at one of the United States’ most prominent and influential newspapers (one that conservatives still assail as part of the “liberal media“), finds this personally “amusing”, the corrollary to which is that it is inconsequential – nothing to truly be concerned with – blown out of all proportion – by “some people.” Those people being Democrats, whose proper role in Fletcher’s universe is, presumably, to sit by and be insulted by Republicans while the news media laughs.

On Anonymity

November 28, 2006

At the end of an excellent interview/bio-piece in Rolling Stone (excerpts only), Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G, aka Borat) makes the following remark:

“I think that essentially I’m a private person, and to reconcile that with being famous is a hard thing. So I’ve been trying to have my cake and eat it, too – to have my characters be famous yet still live a normal life where I’m not trapped by fame and recognizability.”

This is a good jumping-off point for something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Two points are converging:

  1. Fame has long been a good way to destroy one’s privacy
  2. The last several years have seen the shrinking of the private sphere for everyone

On point 2., it actually tends at the margins to increase 1. – see Michael Richards’ racist rant of the other week, numerous celebrities’ sex tapes, etc. But there’s also the untold hours of CCTV footage, to say nothing of the information on our online lives that Google et al. are constantly gathering.

Borat is a way out – a highly visible, totally outrageous self that aspires to a lack of privacy, and takes (often unwilling, as the hotel clerk who unwittingly appeared in the film) others along for the ride. It’s a way of hiding in plain sight – and for someone who’s famous, that’s often the only way to do it.

But what about the rest of us? How can we hide in plain sight?

On the Internet, if you’re clever and diligent enough, you can surf more or less totally anonymously – but really, most of us aren’t doing that. Out in public, though, it’s becoming harder and harder: ATM records are linked to security footage; cell phone GPS data (i.e., your physical location) is tracked and recorded, as is your car’s location if you’ve got OnStar or its bretheren. It’s not practical for most of us to detatch from the system entirely, and playing a character constantly isn’t really an option, either – for one thing, we don’t all have a Hollywood studio and PAs to pay for everything.

We all leave traces, everywhere, and there are a lot of people (and not-people) watching. I don’t have an answer to the problem of privacy, exactly, but I do have a solution: stop viewing it as a problem. Accept that, at least for right now, there are massive amounts of information about you that are out there, and that lots of people can, if they want, find out lots of things about you. In exceedingly rare cases, they might even try to defraud you (though most of the time, you can get your money back).

But ya know what? This has always been true. People could go to the public records office, or follow you around, look in your windows with binoculars, ask your friends about you, or even mug you. In fact, all of these things happen still. They’re not great, but mostly people do not live in existential fear of unknown others finding out about their home purchases – nor should they do the same about their clickstream data.

What we should do, however, is begin to form sensibilities about just what people ought to do. Peeping-Tom-ism is generally accepted as Not Cool and is, in some cases, potentially illegal. But we got there without mandating that all windows be one-way or that binoculars have a sensor that blurs human forms to counteract potential acts of perversion. We got there through common sense

Similarly, rather than accepting our fate as constantly-trackable name-numbers in a surveillance society, we ought to apply common sense measures for those things that people, non-people (computers), corporations and governments ought to watch us doing. Is my life and liberty threatened by Amazon.com tracking everything I click on in their site and giving me recommendations? No, not really. Do I care particularly about the fact that, when I’m in a city, I’m on camera? Not particularly, no; if I were so paranoid to believe that They were out to get me, I’d hope that I’d also be smart enough to realize that They would probably be able to find me easily even without CCTV. But should corporations be able to buy and collate massive amounts of personal information from governments, and sell the information you give them in, say, warranty registrations, for profit? I’d say probably not.

Not everyone will agree on all these counts, and that’s fine – it’s to be expected. We all make different judgments about a wide range of issues about public and private conduct of people, corporations and government. What we ought to realize is that while there’s no realistic way to hit the “off” switch entirely as concerns availability of personal information, the total-surveillance society is also not a foregone conclusion. We can have opinions and make decisions about these things, and ought to do so.

UPDATE: Apparently there’s something in the miasma around SILS today, because Fred just checked in with remarkably similar thoughts, pertaining specifically to Google’s role in all of this.

Rupert Murdoch’s Kingdom of Kitsch

November 23, 2006

In a column that takes the latest lowpoint in American life and letters – O.J. Simpson’s now not-to-be-published “hypothetical” confessional, “If I Did It” – as its jumping-off point, Sidney Blumenthal offers the following observation on Rupert Murdoch:

Murdoch’s media empire is a kingdom of kitsch. Whether as entertainment or news, talk shows or song contests, the aesthetic is consistent. (The ironic social commentary of “The Simpsons,” not to be confused with O.J. Simpson, is the exception that proves that rule.) Murdoch’s programming almost invariably traffics in faux-populist identities of the privileged and powerful battling phantom (liberal) elites. Murdoch-ism aims to unmask the great and the good as charlatans, frauds and crooks, proving that even as they masquerade as worthy they are really as cynical as he is. The programs delight in bullying and humiliating little people to provide vicarious drama for viewers similar in social background to those being embarrassed but who feel bigger and stronger and identify with the cranks posing as domineering father figures. This sadomasochistic exchange appeals to the authoritarian conservative personality. The hip Simon Cowell, host of “American Idol,” is just a variation on the theme of Bill O’Reilly, with the notable difference that he has an actual talent as a music producer. [emphasis added]

This is a key aspect of any authoritarian political project – the recruitment and inclusion of a segment of those to be ruled over as being “in on it.” Murdoch, as usual, is a few steps ahead of the game here – his media empire promotes all the attitudes necessary for an authoritarian culture: deference to authority above all else; mockery of outsiders/minorities; creation and fuelling of moral panics, real and imagined (see the endless coverage of “Amber Alerts,” missing white women and the “War on Christmas”).

What’s both most depressing and most hopeful about the column and a study of Murdoch’s career is just how quickly he has effected many of these changes, especially in American media culture – Fox News is only a decade old. There’s no silver bullet to create a more responsible discourse, but Murdoch’s success shows that a determined effort (and, yes, lots and lots of money) can move the ball pretty far, very quickly.

The Changing Media Landscape

November 22, 2006

Bill Simmons is doing some of the best current American writing right now – and it’s for ESPN.com. He ostensibly has a sports column, but really it’s free-form cultural commentary with sports as the jumping-off point – he frequently (more or less constantly) uses pop-culture analogies to explain sports happenings, and then will turn right around and use sports analogies to explain pop-culture events. This is high cultural-literacy stuff, so it’s not surprising that he provides one of the more cogent analyses of the current state of play in television content that I’ve seen, anywhere, in a recent Friday mail-bag column:

Q: “Friday Night Lights,” the show — your thoughts? I figure it might be up your alley given your love for the “90210,” “O.C.” and such. I’m hooked and I’m not even into those kind of shows. Guilty pleasure.
–Jon Smith, Seattle

SG: I’m sure you’re right. Here’s the problem: I bailed after one episode because the ratings were so low that I assumed the show was getting canceled. After the Sports Gal’s experiences with “Reunion” and “Love Monkey” last year, I didn’t want to get sucked into a show, get attached to the characters, then have it get yanked after seven episodes. So I bailed. Naturally, NBC decided to stick with the show because it built a small but rabid fan base, and now there’s no way to catch up on old episodes because it would be too logical for them to either rerun them two at a time on Saturday nights or on the USA Network so latecomers could catch up (or people like me who gave up because they thought they show would get axed). Now I have to wait to spend $30 on the Season 1 DVD to come out next summer, which is ridiculous because I never wanted to stop watching the show in the first place.

The larger issue: TV networks spend so many time/money/energy pushing their new shows (look at the “Day Break” commercials over the past few weeks), lack the patience to stick with those same shows once they’re on … and then they wonder why we aren’t watching as much TV anymore. I mean, why would I start watching a serial show like “Kidnapped” or “The Nine” when I know there’s a 90 percent chance it’s going to be gone within four weeks, or even within a year? Would you buy a book in the store if you could only read one chapter a week and knew there was a chance the last 20 chapters would disintegrate within six weeks if there weren’t enough people that bought the book? These stupid TV networks blame DVDs, video games, Internet, iPod downloads and everything else for declining ratings, but the real reason more people aren’t watching them is because nobody trusts free networks to keep their shows on the air. At least with HBO, if they’re launching a season of “The Wire” or “Rome,” I know that I’m getting every episode from that season if I start watching. Like with “Friday Night Lights” — if that was an HBO show, I never would have stopped watching after one episode. Since it was an NBC show, I bailed. What does that tell you? [emphasis added]

That’s exactly right, and it’s also exactly the feelings shared by many, many people (something that Simmons is excellent at doing). The broadcast networks have to know this at some level but, because of entrenched procedures and their ad-supported funding structure – and the fact that they almost all use sports as a loss leader, essentially a guaranteed chunk of audience with which to hawk the rest of their (crappy) products – they’re starting from a deficit they fear will grow larger, while the cable networks have their guaranteed pot of money (from subscriptions) and can budget and build from there.

Something, it would seem, has to give. Will the broadcast networks just stop producing original scripted content? It could happen – in fact, NBC has already announced that they will no longer produce scripted content themselves. NBC News President Steve Capus said upon that announcement, “We’ve been a TV business that dabbles in digital. Now, we’re positioning as a news content-production center going forward that happens to do television.”

That seems to be a pretty broad admission that amounts to – yup, we got beat. So now, only a few years removed from total content dominance (“Seinfeld,” “Frasier,” “Friends,” etc.), NBC is giving up the ghost to focus on its more profitable properties – the evening news and its cable news channels, supplemented by reality TV and gameshows. Except – the evening news continues to hemhorrage viewers, and the number of viewers of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC combined is a fraction of any of the old broadcast networks’ audience. In other words – in its retreat to safe territory, NBC (and the other broadcast networks) might find the territory no longer so safe.

Viewers – rightly – no longer have any particular loyalty to any particular media channel. If it’s not delivering, there’s always another place to look, and the cost of changing is, more or less, zero. The networks, or any other media outlet, are only as good as their latest content, and if they stop even trying to differentiate their content – to take risks and be different – what good are they?