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Monthly Archives: October 2006

The morning after

Only yesterday Comedy Central pulled all YouTube content of their shows. Now ads appear promoting the Daily Show’s posting of full episodes on the Comedy Central site. In fact, the ad says you no long have to collect pieces of each episode at “some crappy blog.” While I have little qualm with the crappy blog comment (I have work I probably should be doing), I find Comedy Central’s possessiveness of the Daily Show predictable yet misguided. While it is helpful to have one source with the full episode, this limits the viral quality of specific segments of the show. YouTube’s video software is more reliable and allows itself to be easily shared and posted on other websites, spreading the viral-ness. Comedy Central, however, wants people on their site with their content with their ads. This lessens my ability to share a particularly enjoyable Mark Foley segment, skipping the bland opening monologue. The viral sharing allows for a meritocracy of content (not necessarily high art, but footage that most people enjoy…most particularly groin hits). Blogs and YouTube are an expression of individualism. Media companies trying to govern them will only feel a backlash.

Check out Henry Jenkins’ book, the Convergence Culture, where he looks at fan involvement in Star Wars and Harry Potter. He also offers several solutions, many required on the media conglomerate’s side, to allow blogs and fans space to share and add content.

Comedy Central against YouTube

Avoiding controversy and court battles, YouTube is letting the various media conglomerates purge copyrighted material from its web site. This weekend, YouTube removed approximately 30,000 Comedy Central clips including the Daily Show and South Park.

I understand Comedy Central’s (and parent company Viacom’s) concern over copyright protection, but again the old media guard are failing to see the big picture. The Daily Show, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert all have bigger audiences online than on TV. The content created by these shows bleeds viral video and has, as a result, created a monster media influence out of a show with only 1 million television viewers. This is why logic minded Stewart has endorsed the online viewing of Daily Show content.

Comedy Central might be trying to capitalize on their online popularity, forcing people to their own Motherload site, filled with videos. This is an excellent step. But unfortunately, the internet is not about having content on your site. The web lives on linking and sharing content. YouTube’s strength not only comes from a centralized video library, but also with the ease it allows users to put those videos on their own website. Comedy Central’s Motherload offers a limited selection of their content and you’re forced to view it on their site alone.

I have already posted about video sites hosting full television episodes. I see major advertising and audience potential in this, but unfortunately the profitable business model fails media companies who prefer the reliability of DVD sales and syndication. But clips, even of fictional shows, satiate fans in between watching the shows. With more niche groups watching shows, especially cable, we need the ability to quickly share content in order to discuss it around the water cooler.

Fighting the losing battle

Movie companies vs. major retailers. While this may sound like a royal rumble, it’s really posturing of the worthless kind. Wal-Mart is rumored to have plans, which it denies, that will punish movie companies who release films on iTunes and other downloading services. Movie companies seem to be scared of this.

Even as Wal-Mart denied these rumors back in September, stock of Apple and Walt Disney Co., the only movie company with films on iTunes, fell 2 percent (Sept. 22 to be exact).

It seems no one is making the right decisions here. Movie companies seem to be hesitant about releasing movies online for fear of alienating retailers, not making enough profit, and risking more piracy. Retailers want their brick and mortar monopoly to last forever. And shareholders think Wal-Mart’s going to win. They are wrong.

New media and liberalization win in the end, and this benefits movie companies. But it seems movie companies haven’t learned from their failed fight against VHS. The changing media demands changes first by the media companies. This means, unfortunately, a possible dip in stock value over a few quarters until consumers understand whatever changes occur. But, also unfortunately, stock price is everything. Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone had his 2007 compensation cut with future pay tied to stock prices.

The internet market allows for greater access to more people with specific interests. As Chris Anderson shows in “The Long Tail,” online retailers like Amazon and iTunes are able to offer more products and reach more audiences than Wal-Mart and Target’s brick and mortar stores. But for now, this business model is scary. For non-blockbuster releases (which Anderson shows are no longer as blockbuster-y), revenue has to be looked at long term. A small movie release might only sell 2 copies a month, but over a few years. Wal-Mart and Target would never sell a title that sold that little.

Movie companies need to realize this technology shift provides consumers with more information and this includes information about their entertainment. Choice is empowering, whether choosing how to access, buy, or enjoy entertainment. The result might be less profit per unit (or feature film), but the internet will allow for a greater number of those units. And through online, these will always be accessible to a hungry audience.

Let movies be downloaded. Let them be downloaded inexpensively (as in less than the price of a takes-up-shelf-space DVD). It’s okay to put special editions in stores. Or offer coupons for in-store purchases to be used online, and vice versa. Some how, some way, embrace the new technology. That’s what the retailers are scared of. That movie companies will discover there is a better way to do business.

Most anticipated fall video games

I put together my list for the fall’s most exciting video games for Boston.com – and it’s a competitive season. I am unlikely to afford a W or PS3 just yet, but thankfully enough of the big games will cross over to other systems (us GameCube-few have to wait an additional month for the new Zelda).

Check out the list here.

The Black Box

DotTV2Henry Jenkins explores what he calls the “Black Box Fallacy” in his book, Convergence Culture.  He describes this as the fallacy that our home entertainment systems will consolidate into one box.  Instead, Jenkins says,

“I am seeing more and more black boxes.  There are my VCR, my digital cable box, my DVD player, my digital recorder, my sound system, and my two game systems, not to mention a huge mound of videotapes, DVDs and CDs, game cartridges and controllers….The perpetual tangle of cords that stands between me and my “home entertainment” center reflects the degree of incompatibility and dysfunction that exist between the various media technologies.  And many of my MIT students are lugging around multiple black boxes – their laptops, their cells, their iPods, their Game Boys, their BlackBerrys, you name it.”

I think Jenkins’ Black Box Fallacy has merit in that yes, many of us early adopters have more wires connecting our stuff to other stuff than ever before.  But I think the technology has other variables.  It seems more new gadgets are hitting the market than consumers and businesses can join and perfect.  But that utopian Black Box may be in the future.  It took several years, but the Playstation 2 included a DVD player.  My cable box also functions as my DVR and access hundreds of movies, many free (but not enough).  PDAs can be organizers, cell phones, MP3 players, and gaming systems.  Media systems come with hard drives to hold movies and music.

This trend will continue, but we need time when the tools of our entertainment and work have time to improve and evolve.  Cable boxes will come with the prevailing high-def disc drive and a hard drive to store hundreds of movies.  Internet access, a couple of USB ports, and maybe even an operating system. This will happen less for demand and more for the fringe benefits.  The competition between systems will require building on top of the basics.  Video game systems, however, will be the exception, at least for the lengthy future, since gaming companies thrive off the competition of creating their own systems.  These systems, however, are already trying to be the centerpieces of our home entertainment.  More hard drive space, more internet access, and better movie systems.  Similar to computers, video games systems would allow us to store video games.  Our cell phones will develop in the same way.

This is a ways away and possibly my own hopeful thinking.  But consolidating our entertainment systems will become more important as our systems become cheaper yet more efficient.  In order to make buying new systems worth the money, each will require new features.  Video game systems are playing this game.  So are cell phones and of course, computers.  Life will be so much simpler.

And then they’ll create something all new, and we’ll have to replace everything again.

An independent media

This Friday, the New York Times reported how soldiers and Arab reporters have been posting video on YouTube from Iraq, showing footage U.S. and U.K. news outlets refuse to air, though the company has started removing these posting because they violate the rules for posting non-violent clips.

Firstly, for a company criticized for its openness for copyright infringement (see my September 29th posting), censoring without extreme justification seems hypocritical to me (I could agree pornography is crossing the line). But YouTube and Google Video’s power is in the user created freedom to release just this kind of content – content that we can’t get anywhere else, whether its not popular enough for commercial release or it’s too controversial.

In late August of this year, Michael De Kort used YouTube to expose what he found to be security flaws in ships made by his employer, Lockheed Martin. When no politicians or media listened to him, he took matters into his own hands. The Washington Post picked up his story and congressmen got involved.

YouTube offers us an unvetted resource. And sometimes that is a benefit. Justifiably, news shows do not show everything that happens in war. But the result, especially during this Iraq War, has been a lack of understanding of what war is, regardless of the reasons for going. I have no understanding at all what war is like, but I have more sympathy and fear for the soldiers when I watch this footage simply because war is scary. And I think YouTube, beyond copyright infringement opportunities, has the chance to an unvetted bank of information, data, and emotion to sort through and interpret. It is simply a starting point.

Politicians are becoming nervous because of the website’s power, as observes Politics Watch. After Senator George Allen’s “racist” stumble was caught on video, the viral grassroots effects of YouTube caused the near implosion of his campaign. Now politicians can no longer test messages in small markets or even make mistakes. Unfortunately, instead of using this candid opportunity to their advantage, by bypassing the media and using this unvetted source, politicians are missing a new method for communication (and one that’s free).

Instead of censoring itself, YouTube could open special sections to house more violent footage, like these Iraq clips (which are less graphic and grainy than any Grand Theft Auto posting). But even this I feel is unneeded. YouTube, with its millions of video, does not force footage on users. Users have to seek out footage. The video service is a service of showing people what they want and people have to do some leg work to get it. As a result, censoring seems moot.

Here is a sample video.

Comics is entertaining business

52 Week #1; photo: DC Comics Comic book publishing is small business. Two companies, Marvel and DC, lord over 80 percent of the industry. As a result, top talent only has two top choices. The resulting competition between these two companies has been one of the most entertaining rivalries in business for several decades.

But the rivalry has reached new lows. After a few years of the biggest named comic creators signing multi-year exclusive deals with either publisher, only to be stolen away by the other, it seems the battlefield has had to widen. Now the people only super-avid fans know by name are fair game. Editors are the new turf war.

Steve Wacker, editor of the weekly comic series 52, said last week he will be moving to Marvel Comics, leaving the 52 issue series at the half way mark.

Other editors, including Mike Marts and Bill Rosemann traded places only a week apart moving to DC and Marvel respectively. But Wacker’s moves is all the more shocking because of the media attention and publicity around 52, including its creative audacity to tell a full comic book year in 52 issues.

The rivalry and near literal war for talent between Marvel and DC makes for excellent news value, and us comic fans love news to debate. But from a business standpoint, this is scary territory that only seems to be escalating.

When Joe Quesada became editor-in-chief of Marvel in 2000, one of his first tasks was getting top talent writing and drawing Marvel’s characters. He courted courted many creators from DC, including one of their editors, Axel Alonso. It took about two years for DC to respond, stealing back many of the talent that defected to Marvel. But DC signed them to exclusive contracts. So Marvel started signing creators to exclusive contracts. Now creators are specifically associated with one publisher or the other, making moves to the opposing publisher all the more intriguing.

Unfortunately, when there’s only two big publishers, there aren’t many options for comic creators who can demand big money for their work. But this business model can only last so long. The back and forth of creators will create animosity. What happens if Marvel doesn’t keep Wacker happy? DC claims they will keep a good relationship with the editor, but between the PR lines, anger most certainly lingers.

The celebrities of the industry, the creators, still get the money, but the content lacks. A huge standard has been placed on big names on big titles to generate big sales right away. But because these exclusive contracts guarantee writers and artists a certain amount of work, writers and artists are less inspired to meet deadlines for a paycheck. The most popular comics seem to suffer from inescapable lateness, from the blockbuster events Civil War and Infinite Crisis to regular series like Ultimates and All-Star Superman. Lateness contributed to the industry crash back in the 1990s and that could happen again.

The comic industry is too small to be mean. A Marvel employee will bad mouth DC until he’s at DC, then starts to bad mouth Marvel. Many industries deal with rabid rivalries, but often, the competition is greater, the business is bigger, and as a result, the damage is lesser. Even though comics seem to be enjoying rousing growth, this rivalry that is ravaging through the creative pool will do more damage good, if either company wishes to think long term.

Golden age of video games?

Final Fantasy VII, from SquareSoft It’s never too early to discuss video games’ future in the history books. How will the ages of video games be divided; what are the influential turning-point moments, etc.

A friend of mine got me thinking. He proposed Final Fantasy VII started the Silver Age of Video Games, which at first I fought on the grounds that it’s too early. But I now agree for these reasons.

Final Fantasy VII divides the video game medium between an art of visual stimulation to an art of interactive story telling. Final Fantasy VII raised the bar on graphics, cinema-styled art direction, and a rich story filled with character development, back-stories, and emotion not yet seen. Certainly games explored this style, especially the Legend of Zelda games and early Final Fantasy games, but these games, with their cute, pixilated figurines just had too many limitations visually to create the emotion needed. Early video games created these cute characters not for aesthetic quality, but because this was the best computers could do.

At first this sounds like a contradiction: early video games were visual arts without good visuals. But that, simply, was the art: It was about creating a believeable 2D world that encouraged extremely repetitive play and rewarding challenges. These games were short, often only a few hours took to beat them, and the joy of constant play came from finding shortcuts and power-ups. A friend could jump into a game of Super Mario Bro. at any point and not be worried about following the Super Mario Bro., from Nintendoback-story.

Now, a game of less than 20 hours is considered too short by critics. Games, as a standard, are expected to have compelling lead characters and a structured story. This change is most obvious in fighting games like the Mortal Kombat series which started out as the controversial blood bath where only avid fans knew the mythology. Now, Mortal Kombat has evolved into a detail story where characters die, come back to life, and players must complete role-playing styled missions to unlock new characters. These stories are rarely as fleshed out as the champion of story-telling, the role-playing genre, but the change in style is revealing.

The visual styles of older video games resemble the black and white silent pictures of cinema’s golden age. Video games manages to create atmousphere and style using limited means – no voice overs, 2D, minimal memory to save games or variety in game play. But games fought through the challenges, creating the colorful world of Mario and Sonic compared to the dark and scary adventures of Castlevenia. But we played these games for those visuals, not the story. In the end, the story broke down to saving the princess or killing Dracula. Everything else was about finding a power-up mushroom.