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Monthly Archives: August 2016

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As Labor Day approaches, most of us past the age of consent are realizing we’ve been denied one of the season’s sweetest pleasures: that great summer film that everyone’s talking about.  It was left to television to produce 2016’s only terrific summer movie, “Stranger Things,”an homage to the great films of the ‘80s. Unfortunately it wasn’t shown in an actual cinema, but only on Netflix.

Film was the great mass communication medium during the first half of the 20th century, with the average American attending two to three movies per week.  The introduction of television in the 1950s dealt Hollywood a body blow, stripping away its monopoly on visual entertainment and significantly cutting into movie attendance.

But early TV didn’t kill the movies.  If anything, by drawing away viewers interested only in mindless entertainment, TV did cinema the favor of making it a more serious and ambitious medium.  For Baby Boomers, going to movies in the ‘70s and ‘80s was akin to attending the opera or the museum a century earlier, and going to a summer movie with your friends was a rite of passage.

Well, that was then.  By the time 2016 rolled around, the major movie studios had almost abandoned any hope of attracting adult audiences.  To the extent there are still serious movies, they are generally produced by independent film companies and shown in art houses to discerning but small audiences, or released at Christmas so they can be eligible for the Academy Awards.

For the last dozen years or so, Hollywood’s business model has been to create blockbusters that generate hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.  To get a blockbuster, you need to attract repeat viewing, which has generally meant developing movies for teens or kids who are eager to get out of the house (it’s no coincidence that the groups most likely to go to the movies also watch the least amount of TV).

There was a time when blockbusters meant exciting original content (“Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” etc.) Today the industry is fixated on franchises, remakes or sequels.  So it’s no surprise that the top 10 movies of the year to date are literal or figurative cartoons (i.e., animation or action movies based on comic books.)  What’s a little bit of a surprise, however, is that box office receipts are down from last year.  Maybe even kids and teens have had their fill of sub-par films.

Is television to blame for this sorry state of affairs?  Has it finally finished off what it started in the 1950s?

In some respects, TV didn’t kill cinema. The film industry itself committed suicide.  No one forced Hollywood to stop making movies that appeal to adults.

And yet you can’t help feeling that much of the talent and energy that would have gone into making general-appeal movies 20 years ago is now focused on TV.  The best blockbuster of the year is not “Captain America.”  It’s “Game of Thrones.”  And the best horror experience is “The Walking Dead.”  And the best documentary is ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America.”

Hollywood’s fate may have been doomed by the artistic and commercial success of “The Sopranos,” which demonstrated there was a mature audience hungry for adult storytelling.  Soon thereafter, Alan Ball, who had won a screenwriting Academy Award for “American Beauty,” took his talents to HBO to produce “Six Feet Under.”  A decade later, David Fincher, the Oscar-nominated director for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Social Network,” created and produced “House of Cards” for Netflix.  We’ve reached a point where Martin Scorsese, the world’s greatest living director, is now doing occasional TV work, directing the series premieres for both “Boardwalk Empire” and “Vinyl.”

But what’s really drained Hollywood has been the renaissance of the TV mini-series and the anthology series.   Hugely popular in the 1970s and 80s, with such shows as “Roots,” “The Thorn Birds” and “The Winds of War,” these self-contained, multi-episode TV shows have returned with a vengeance.  Mini-series were once a rare and special TV event, but have now become a regular part of the TV diet.

It’s the mini-series that is really drawing star power to television.  Major movies stars like Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn agreed to do TV work on “True Detective.”  And Billy Bob Thornton and Kirsten Dunst appeared in “Fargo.”

Storytellers have always craved time to tell their stories.  Exactly 100 years ago, D.W. Griffith brought forth the three-and-a-half-hour blockbuster “Intolerance,” and in 1924 Erich von Stroheim infamously produced the eight-hour-long silent movie “Greed.”  Since then, some of Hollywood’s greatest films (“Gone With The Wind,” the earlier, 1959 version of “Ben-Hur,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Godfather”s, part 1 and 2, and “The Lord of the Rings”) have all clocked in at three hours or more.   Hollywood rarely has the nerve to do that any longer, but HBO and Netflix, with hours to content to fill, are happy to give their storytellers as much time as they need.

Maybe the slate of fall movies will surprise me and the year will redeem itself. but it will be hard for any film to beat the experience and joy of watching “Stranger Things” this summer.

Good luck, Hollywood.  I like to get out of the house, too, so I’m rooting for you.

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TV remotes

I recently received a message from Amazon urging me to watch its video programming, which is included in my Amazon Prime membership.  That certainly seemed like a good suggestion — until the time came when I actually wanted to watch something.

The video-viewing apparatus in my living room consists of a stack of machines and devices — but to my disappointment, none of them offer Amazon Prime, not even my much-hyped Apple TV.  Sure I could watch Prime on my laptop, and last year I did, in fact, watch Amazon’s “Catastrophe” that way, but the experience convinced me that watching “TV” on a laptop while seated bolt-upright in front of a desk is about as satisfying as eating dinner standing in front of the sink.  From a utilitarian perspective they both accomplish their main task, but the aesthetics leave something to be desired.

Preferring to watch video entertainment on my HDTV monitor, I decided to solve the Amazon Prime problem by ordering a six-foot HDMI cable, which I can hook up to my computer when I want to stream onto the TV.

But what a pain in the neck.  Already sitting on my viewing stand are five remotes that control: 1) the monitor; 2) the DVR; 3) the DVD player; 4) my Apple TV; and 5) a cable-splitter device to switch from cable to cable. Now I have a separate cable to connect my laptop.

And it’s not as if these other devices are that easy to master.  The navigation on the Apple TV is so sensitive that I’m constantly landing on the wrong icon or the wrong show.  Of course to get even this far I needed to go online many times to check Apple TV instructions, since there was no manual with the device itself.  And even now, after all these years, I don’t understand why the DVR will sudden stop recording shows on my watch list, or why I get reruns when I specifically set the directions to record first-time-only broadcasts.

Whenever I complain about the complexity of watching TV, I feel like the old coot yelling at the neighborhood ruffians to stop playing on his grass.  Why can’t I be more like my Millennial son, who watches TV while lying on his bed with his laptop propped on his stomach?  Get out of the way of progress ,you geezer!

Of course we have to be careful not to romanticize the past.  One of the earliest television clichés was the image of the 1950s dad on the roof trying to position the antenna just right, so TV was frequently a pain the neck even in the days of yore.  Cable solved the antenna problem but created its own challenges with the cable box, which required its own remote control.  And the VCR was so complicated that most people only used it to play videos, not to record anything.

It seems like every time we master one form of technology, the device industrial complex invents another must-have machine. We now live in a world when no one can go into another person’s home and confidently change the TV channel without screwing up the system.  That’s a lesson I’ve learned over too many Christmas visits to my parents’ house.

Figuring out how to work the devices is bad enough — but finding something to watch is even worse.  I know there’s a ton of content to watch, but where to find it?  I’d really like to watch “Orphan Black,” but have no idea how to do that.  I see from a Google search that it’s on BBC America.  Is that part of my cable package?  I guess I could look, assuming I can find my channel guide?  Or maybe it’s on Netflix, but the search function is really hard on Netflix.

I’m glad there are so many great shows to watch and so many ways to watch them, but it seems like “television” is about to collapse on itself from the weight of its own complexity.

In the meantime, maybe I’ll just stick to Colbert.  He’s on every night and is waiting for me on the DVR whenever I get home.  Sometimes the path of least resistance is the best option.

Ailes

So Roger Ailes has been ejected from his throne at Fox News and even barred from entering the News Corporation building.  You won’t find me shedding a tear because eight years ago he tried to get me fired.  What happened to me wasn’t as bad as what has allegedly happened to Fox’s own employees, but it did provide a brief glimpse of Fox’s modus operandi.

At the time of the events in question I was the chief spokesman for Nielsen and caught in the middle of one of those adolescent spitball fights that periodically erupts between media companies.  In one corner was Fox News, which had recently launched Fox Business News, a financial cable network that was supposed to do for financial reporting what they had done to political news.  In the other corner was CNBC, which Ailes had once led before being ushered out the door in 1996.

In 2007, Ailes launched Fox Business with great fanfare. This included a huge ad campaign that took direct aim at CNBC.  The day the network launched Fox even sent a reporter to stand outside CNBC’s headquarters and announce that it was “hunting season.”

The problem is that the shenanigans that made Fox News a political powerhouse didn’t work with financial viewers, who, since they are making investment decisions involving real money, tend to prefer their financial news to actually be fair and balanced.  The result was that the ratings for Fox Business News were in the toilet.  For the first two months it was on the air, it had an average audience of 6,300 viewers, about as many people as you’d see at a small town’s Thanksgiving Day football game.

The folks at CNBC and NBC were overjoyed by Fox’s flop but here’s the rub: under Nielsen rules, which had been carefully negotiated with all the media companies, no one can release viewing numbers with a rating below 0.1 (or 0.1 percent of the viewing audience), which in this case would have represented about 35,000 viewers.  This rule is designed to protect nascent cable networks so they aren’t humiliated by low numbers as they’re trying to get on their feet.

This rule usually protects networks that no one’s ever heard of, but Fox Business had launched with so much publicity that everyone in the TV world knew who they were.  CNBC wanted them humiliated but Nielsen wouldn’t release the 6,300 number and CNBC itself could have been sanctioned if they made it public.

Despite this rule, I was not surprised when someone actually did leak the number to New York Times media reporter Jacques Steinberg.  For years The Times and Fox had had a contentious relationship, to say the least.  Their values and biases were diametrically opposed and if there was any publication motivated and powerful enough to stand up to Fox it was The Times.

Steinberg’s call to Nielsen asking for confirmation came at the end of several weeks of furious calls among senior Nielsen, Fox and NBC executives, with NBC pressuring us to make the number public and Fox demanding that we squash the story.  Emotions were running high, with both networks acting like this story was on par with the Pentagon Papers.  Nielsen decided to stay neutral and enforce its own rule; eventually I ended up telling Steinberg that I would not confirm the number.  But I also reminded him that I would steer him away from erroneous information, which is what I would do for any reporter.

The resulting story reported the embarrassingly low numbers for Fox Business, with the Times sourcing it to “a person who saw those internal reports [and] vouched for their contents on Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.”  CNBC “declined comment” and Fox didn’t answer emailed inquiries.  I was quoted in the piece by name as confirming the rules around the minimum reporting requirements.

I don’t think I’m breaking any confidentiality agreements when I reveal that Fox is (or at least was) full of vindictive bullies.  Fox News almost always got great ratings but whenever there was a dip, Ailes and his lieutenants would call and complain, threatening some kind of unspecified retribution.  Eventually there would be a war or terrorist attack to drive Fox ratings back up and things would be fine again, but for those months when they were slumping Ailes would make life miserable for Nielsen.

Ailes and the rest of Fox News either believed, or pretended to believe, they were the victims of a left-wing conspiracy, which was ridiculous as far as Nielsen was concerned.  Our CEO David Calhoun was, according to public filings, a steady contributor to Republican candidates and the rest of the executive team on balance leaned moderate right, to the extend they leaned any way at all.  As for me, it’s right there on my LinkedIn profile that I worked for a right-wing Congressman, served in the 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign and spent time in the Reagan White House.  So I had no ideological problems with Fox News.

In any event, Ailes (or his PR team) was exorcised enough about the story to send Nielsen a letter, which, among other things, demanded my head.  The logic of the letter was that since CNBC and Fox had declined comment and I was quoted in the story explaining how the reporting requirements work, I must have been the one to have leaked the number to The New York Times.  I doubt that even Ailes believed this bit of fallacious logic; instead I think the purpose of the letter was to punish me for refusing to play along with Fox in killing the story, which would have been impossible without outright deception.

Surprise! Nielsen didn’t fire me, viewing this as another Ailes tantrum, and he seemed to get over his fit of pique pretty quickly since the name “Gary Holmes” never appeared in any future Ailes correspondence or conversations.

Jacques Steinberg was not quite as lucky.  Fox launched a nasty on-air campaign against him and at one point even featuring him in an anti-Semitically doctored photo.  Nice.  With Ailes gone will bullying these tactics also disappear?  We can only hope.