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Monthly Archives: June 2015

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Wow.  “Orange Is The New Black” is already up to Season 3.  I say “wow” because I’ve been meaning to start watching ever since it became a Netflix sensation and already I’m three seasons behind.  I’ve procrastinated from one week to the next because, well, it’s on Netflix, and I can watch it ANY time, so what’s the urgency? And now I wonder if I’ll ever catch up.

Which is precisely my problem with the way Netflix rolls out its programming.  By dumping all the episodes on the public at once instead of doling them out weekly, as had been the custom with serialized programming since the dawn of the radio age, Netflix creates a huge one-day buzz for its new releases and gives impatient binge-watchers what they’ve always craved.    But I hate it.  For a charming but inconsequential show like “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” it doesn’t really matter if you watch one episode per week, one per day or all ten at once.  But an important show is a different thing and a massive content dump undermines its very seriousness.

I’m hardly the first person to complain about the Netflix model, but to create a broader context let’s examine the problem from the perspective of two socio-cultural trends.

1.  Social isolation. Sociologists have long been concerned about the fraying ties of community and civic-mindedness.  In his book Bowling Alone Robert Putnam decried the decline of bowling leagues, Kiwanis clubs and other small support groups that used to provide a sense of community and friendship.  And recent research has found that feelings of social isolation can lead to medical problems.

Television itself has long been blamed for these trends.  Why join a bowling league when you can stay home and watch bowling on TV?  But at least when there were fewer television sets and less programming, families would watch TV together and viewers could discuss it the next day around the water cooler.  With 30 or 40 million people watching the same show at once, TV was a bonding experience for the whole country.

Now with an overabundance of TV sets and narrowly targeted programming, most people watch television by themselves, with the spouse watching on the basement set and the kids watching in their own rooms (frequently on their computers.)

But if your actual family has ceased to be your TV family, at least digital and social media can step in to fill the void. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and the explosion of recappers and podcasts, a fan can share his reaction in real time and engage in a real dialogue with like-minded fans.  And in many cases a virtual community has become almost as good as a real community.

The Netflix model undoes all that.  You can’t really tweet about or comment on “Orange Is The New Black” because you have no idea how far along anyone else is, and any substantive tweet carries a danger of spoilers.  Recappers and podscasters can’t even begin to catch up with bingers, either.  And forget about water cooler conversation.

2.  Delayed Gratification. Psychiatrists have studied the importance of delayed gratification for years.  People who can put off an immediate reward now for a greater reward later are happier, healthier and more successful in life.  Regrettably, as a matter of theology and business practice, Netflix abjures delayed gratification.  Their explicit programming model is that waiting is for losers. This is the last message we need in a culture of fast food and instant satisfaction.

Part of all pleasure is the anticipation of the ultimate reward.  Brain studies have shown that the expectation of pleasure stimulates the creation of dopamine, the very chemical that induces pleasure in the frontal cortex.  Why was the podcast “Serial” such a huge hit?  Because as the details of its murder investigation slowly became apparent, listeners were driven to a near-frenzy of expectation, with a resulting dopamine rush week after week.  Can anyone even begin to argue that “Serial” would have been a sensation if it were made available for “binge listening”?

The same is true of great TV shows.  I, for one, could barely contain myself during the six days between “Mad Men” broadcasts this spring, but those were days of delicious agony, speculation, and contemplation of the previous week’s episode.  With a show like “Mad Men,” you actually needed a week to figure out what had just happened and cogitate on what it all meant. But with binge-watching the meaning of each individual show starts to blur with all the rest.

It would be too grandiose to say that Netflix is contributing to our national problems with social isolation and delayed gratification, but if the Netflix model were adopted by the TV industry as a whole, that would be the practical effect.  Disturbingly, it looks like Amazon Prime programming such as “Transparent” is being released all at once.  For now, at least, Netflix and Amazon are outliers and the business model of television still favors weekly releases.  Hold fast, HBO and Showtime!  Don’t change, ABC and NBC!  Please continue to delay our gratification.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Social networking LIKE

Oh for those halcyon pre-digital days when I wasn’t constantly worried about measuring up.  Not that I didn’t comprehend my vast inadequacies back in the Dark Ages, but at least I never quantified them on an hourly basis.   How things have changed — and not for the better.  From personal experience I can tell you: self-awareness is not all it’s cracked up to be.  There’s nothing Zen about checking digital metrics twenty times a day to establish your in-the-moment performance.

Not only is the constant review of one’s personal metrics obnoxiously narcissistic, it’s also exhausting.  At a time when I should be focusing on more important things, like what’s the matter with the Red Sox, I’m worried about my pathetically low Klout Score.

Cast your mind back to the Analogue Age, back when there were only a few ways of tracking progress. As recently as the turn of the 21st Century here’s practically the full range of how you could calibrate your own performance:

  • Hop on the scales in the morning and check your weight.
  • Track the progress on your financial investments when you receive statements in the mail.
  • Make a mental note of how many times you are praised by your bosses or co-workers (usually a very easy metric to track given the rarity of these occurrences).

And that’s about it.  Maybe you could get a general sense of your popularity by throwing a party and seeing how many people attended, or by counting the number of personal notes you received in the mail, but no one except for a psycho or Upper East Side hostess would actually measure and track this.

With the advent of the digital age I am now constantly monitoring one metric or another.  Sometimes this is out of boredom; sometimes it’s anxiety; sometimes it’s because I’ve challenged myself to a goal.  Either way, it’s led to a very serious case of neurosis by numbers.

Take my financial investments.  I used to be perfectly content to review the performance of my 401k four times a year when the quarterly statements arrived in the mail.   But now that everything’s digitized, I log in and analyze the results every day.  I’ve even gotten impatient that the numbers aren’t updated until after the Market closes at 4:00 p.m.  Really?  I’ve got to wait each day to see how much money I made (or, God forbid, lost)?

What’s up with this behavior? Partly I want to make sure that the money’s still there (i.e., to confirm that identity thieves haven’t diverted it to an account in Romania), but mostly I’m tracking the horse race angle: Am I ahead? Am I behind?  In truth I’m not much better than a miser like Silas Marner who counted out his gold every night. Not a pretty sight.

Then there are the social media metrics, which really are the devil’s work.  Oh, those golden “likes” and comments on Facebook!  I’m worse than Sally Field (“You like me! You really like me!”)   I’m like a dog constantly waiting to be patted on the head.  Getting a sugar rush of satisfaction on Facebook is easy. Whenever I ever need a jolt of personal affirmation all I need to do is post a TBT 20-year-old photo of my then-baby son.  Ahhh – Can you believe how cute he was?  (like, like like)

Would that it was so easy on Twitter. Sadly, I’m a Twitter flop, hardly ever getting favorited or retweeted.  I’ve come to realize that the only way to be a success on Twitter is to already be famous or to be an amazingly prolific joke writer.  If you’re a celebrity you don’t even need to work at it.  Last spring Jimmy Fallon tweeted “Happy Easter,” which was then retweeted by three thousand followers and favorited by another two thousand.  I do not understand why someone would feel compelled to retweet “Happy Easter” from a celebrity; couldn’t you accomplish the same thing with an original tweet of your own?  In any event, such is the power of celebrity; and as a non-celebrity, I have a very meagre Twitter following and commensurately poor metrics.

I’m not doing much better on Instagram either.  I know the young people are on it, but I don’t understand how it’s different from Facebook, other than the fact that it’s NOT Facebook.  I did create an account — to keep up with the times – and do post occasionally, but my metrics are lousy and unsatisfying.

I’ve had somewhat more success with my blog, the very platform you are reading now.  WordPress has a “statistics” page where you can see the cold hard truth of how many people read each post.  WordPress also has a “like” function, but mine must be broken since so few people like my posts.  Every once in a while, though, I’ll post something that seems to generate a little approval, which causes me to check my stats hourly to see how many more people have read it in the intervening 60 minutes.

I used to get more excited about Linked-In.  There’s an interesting function that lets you who’s looking at your profile.  Just this morning I noticed that the woman who sits three desks over from me in the office had snuck a peek at my Linked-In profile.  What was that all about?  Maybe I should ask her, but I don’t really want to let her know I was snooping on who’s snooping on me.

And then there’s Reddit, which is verily the spawn of Satan for those of us who get wrapped up in metrics.  Reddit is basically a message board upon which you post observations or interesting links that you’ve  read online (in other words, you’re telling the world that you “read it”).  There are four separate ways to measure your success on Reddit.  1) People can “upvote” or “downvote” your post, with popular posts going to the top of the message board.  2) You can generate a lot of comments, some nice, some extremely snarky.  3) You can get “link Karma,” which are accumulated bonus points based on how many people like your links; and 4) You can get “comment Karma” based on how many people like your comments.

There is nothing quite as crazy as trying to build up Karma on Reddit.  I takes a lot of time to find the perfect link (and it has to be a link that no one else has already posted) while writing a catchy observation that makes it stand out from the thousands of other similar Reddit posts.  I keep promising myself not to think about Karma, but then I notice that some guy has 20,000 Karma, compared to my own 64 and I feel my own inadequacy all over again.

Social media metrics are silly.  I get that.  You’d think that medical metrics would be more serious.  And they would be if I could ever remember to take by blood pressure.  But because my blood pressure device is in the bathroom closet, I always forget to take it, and then when I do remember, the batteries are dead.  If Apple could figure out how I could check my vital signs just by pressing my iPhone against my wrist I’d be all set.  I’d be checking them ten times a day.

What I DO check ten times a day is the health app on my iPhone.  It measures the steps, distance and flights of stairs I’ve achieved throughout the day.  But to get “credit” for your ongoing exercise you’ve got to have your phone in your pants pocket, which I don’t always do.  So I’m in the ridiculous position of being annoyed at myself for not capturing steps that I know I’ve taken, but which don’t “count” in my health dashboard. If I walk up the stairs and don’t have my phone, I want to go back down stairs, grab the device and walk up a second time just to get the credit.  No one sees this dashboard but me, yet somehow it becomes important that my real performance is fully credited there.

And the single worst thing about a serious metrics addiction is that there’s no let-up.  Every day brings a fresh demand for more and better performance.  Great, I got 25 Facebook likes for a cute baby post yesterday.  So what?  That was yesterday.  What about today?  There’s no resting on your laurels just because you had ten thousand steps yesterday.

My problem with metrics addiction would be easy enough to solve.  All I need to do is to get a real job that occupies one hundred percent of my attention.  These little metric check-ins are only possible when you’ve got five or ten minutes of downtime. Instead of getting up and going for a walk (which would generate 500 much-needed steps!) it’s too easy to switch the screen to Facebook to check out my likes.  Or maybe the answer is to just chuck the digital world altogether.  Good luck with that!

Dave's final top ten

David Letterman’s departure from late night television eliminates one of the last four decade’s two sustaining pillars of Baby Boomer humor, leaving only “Saturday Night Live” still standing as the institutional embodiment of an aging generation’s comedic sentiment.

Although ostensibly operating in parallel universes, the Venn Diagram between Letterman and “Saturday Night Live” became especially clear during Letterman’s final show, when ten A-List celebrities delivered the “Late Show’s” final Top Ten list.  Two (Bill Murray and Tina Fey) were among the most important “SNL” cast members ever; two (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Chris Rock) were so-so cast members who went on to huge post-“SNL” careers; two (Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin) hosted “SNL” so often they might as well have been cast members; two (Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Carrey) hosted five times between them; one (Peyton Manning) was the single funniest non-comedian to ever host the show; and one (Barbara Walters, aka “Barbara Wawa”) was a constant target of satirical spoofing.

It’s no coincidence that Letterman’s favorite guests were also “SNL” royalty given the overlapping sensibility of those two shows. The Baby Boomer ethos that “SNL” and Letterman both exemplified was anti-establishment, deeply ironic, absurdist and self-referential.   They became so popular because millions of people felt like they spoke for them.

Letterman famously hailed from Indiana and “SNL’s” Lorne Michael’s was just as famously from Canada – two of the nicest places in the world – but “SNL” and “Late Night”/”Late Show” were each hard-core New York City shows, and anything but nice.  For 11 years both were produced out of the same building – 30 Rockefeller Plaza – and even when Letterman moved out, it was to the Ed Sullivan Theatre, only about half a mile away.  Both actively celebrated the streets of New York, even in its dark days when many tourists were scared to visit; and of course both had powerful and emotional episodes after the September 11 attacks.

It’s hard to remember now since they became such institutions, but the ascendance of “SNL” and Letterman signified a major generational shift following the upheaval of the 1960s.  In the blink of an eye, the center of gravity in comedy shifted during the mid-1970’s from Bob Hope Christmas specials to “Conehead” sketches.  Because “SNL” and Lettermen were on so late in those pre-timeshifted days, they would be experienced primarily by younger audiences up past their parents’ bedtimes.  They were too popular to be considered cult shows but they were definitely outside the frame of reference for the older generation.

What’s surprising in retrospect is that although “SNL” and “Letterman” shared the same DNA, there was little actual affinity between the two shows.  Sure, Letterman’s band leader Paul Schaeffer was an early performer on “SNL” (and a music director on the “SNL” 40th anniversary show), and Jim Downey, an early “SNL” head writer, was a Letterman head writer for a while. And yes, Joe Piscopo, Norm MacDonald and Jason Sudekis did perform many “SNL” sketches spoofing letterman, and Letterman returned the favor by mimicking Michaels.

But despite the talent overlap “SNL” and Letterman were like two lions patrolling a common savannah, each feeding on the same wildlife but rarely acknowledging each other and never cooperating.  To the best of my knowledge Letterman himself never came near “SNL’s” studio 8H and Lorne Michaels never deigned to appear as a guest on Letterman.  Presumably they were both too self-important to appear on each other’s shows.

There was clearly a personality disconnect the uber-cool Michaels and the twitchy self-lacerating Letterman, a disconnect that certainly worsened in 1998, when Michaels bowed to pressure from his then-boss Don Ohlmeyer and fired Norm MacDonald mid-season.  Letterman, never a fan of suits to begin with (especially NBC suits), welcomed MacDonald to his show and proceeded to call “Ohlmeyer” an idiot and refer to Michaels as Lorne “Table-at-Orsos” Michaels.

“SNL” and Letterman didn’t need to cooperate to change comedy, puncture pretense and launch dozens of careers.  But it’s possible they stayed too long.  Letterman clearly lost interest at the end. I was shocked to hear thirty-somethings express bewilderment at why his retirement was a big deal.  He’d gotten so lackluster and cranky in recent years that he seemed as remote to them as Bob Hope had been to me.  SNL has similarly lost its urgency in an era of younger comics and more immediate communications platforms.

With Letterman gone, there are few comedic voices left who share his absurdist, edgy humor, although Conan O’Brien comes close.  What’s ascending now in comedy is what Andres du Bouchet, O’Brien’s head writer, calls prom king comedy.”  This is the happy humor of the self-satisfied popular kids (i.e., Jimmy Fallon’s lip-sync contests), rather than the humor of the insecure, which has dominated for the past half-century.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Fallon’s sunny brand of celebrity-fawning entertainment, as long as it doesn’t crowd everything else out.  Fortunately Letterman’s replacement is Stephen Colbert, who was born in 1964 at the very end of the Baby Boom.  He’s not as acerbic as Letterman but he’s equally as absurdist.  With luck Colbert will synthesize the best of Letterman and “SNL” and prove that it’s too early to put Baby Boomer humor out to pasture.