Sunday, June 30, 2013

A quick note on Citi-Bike

Came across this while doing background for an upcoming post.

From Wikipedia:
Yearly passes (US$95.00) are sold through the Citi Bike website. Purchasers receive an electronic key and can make trips of up to 45 minutes without added charge.
Daily (US$9.95) and weekly (US$25.00) passes are sold at Citi Bike docking stations. Trips using these passes are limited to 30 minutes before extra fees kick in.[3] 
All payments are by credit card. Citi Bike does not accept Wageworks or Transitchek prepaid commuter cards.
In case you're wondering, Walmart offers eight different adult bikes for under US$95.00, all of which allow you to make trips of over 45 minutes without added charge. You can get quite a few at Target as well.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Sadly, the follow-up "Betty Boop explains Uncertainty" never made it past the initial sketches

OK, just kidding about Betty, but the incredibly inventive Fleischer Studios did produce this interesting attempt at introducing Einstein to the masses (if you'll pardon the expression).

From Wikipedia;
Six months later, on February 11, 1923, the Fleischers released their relativity film, produced in collaboration with popular science journalist Garrett P. Serviss to accompany his book on the same topic. Two versions of the Fleischer film are reported to exist - a shorter two-reel (20 minute) edit intended for general theater audiences, and a longer five-reel (50 minute) version intended for educational use.[1] 
The Fleischers lifted footage from the German predecessor, Die Grundlagen der Einsteinschen Relativit├Ąts-Theorie,[2] directed by Hanns-Walter Kornblum, for inclusion into their film. Presented here are images from the Fleischer film and German film. If actual footage was not recycled into The Einstein Theory of Relativity, these images and text from the Scientific American article suggest that original visual elements from the German film were.[3] 
This film, like much of the Fleischer's work, has fallen into the public domain. Unlike Fleischer Studio's Superman or Betty Boop cartoons, The Einstein Theory of Relativity has very few existing prints and is available in 16mm from only a few specialized film preservation organizations.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Extrapolating Orwell

I started the day with this Orwell recommendation from Paul Krugman which inevitably ended up with me rereading "Politics and the English Language."
Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes: 
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. 
Here it is in modern English: 
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account. 
This is a parody, but not a very gross one. Exhibit (3) above, for instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations — race, battle, bread — dissolve into the vague phrases ‘success or failure in competitive activities’. This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing — no one capable of using phrases like ‘objective considerations of contemporary phenomena’ — would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (‘time and chance’) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.
Reading Orwell on language probably left me even less tolerant of the sort of writing that would come out of something called an "Ideas Festival." For that reason, perhaps I should have skipped this article by Charles Pierce listing the most mockable items on the schedule, including the following (if, like Richard Burton, you love liquor and language, it might be a good idea to take a break and indulge your taste for the first):
Tutorial Session: How We Learn: Applying Eco-Systemic Design to Transform Higher Education for a Global World. 1:20 pm - 2:20 pm MDT on Friday, June 28, 2013. Design, writ large, has always dealt with varying levels of complexity. Designing eco-systemically is more than this. It is specifically about making things that have impact in complex and evolving contexts - from impact on the most personal and intimate level to systems of action that shape contexts for possible change. Eco-systemic design is about altering the context in which things reside so as to influence how those things behave and what they mean. It is about catalyzing new practices, new perceptions, and new relationships; creating new contexts that open up radically new possibilities. In this talk, we will use two case studies to show how the tool set of eco-systemic design is applied to higher education as both a global challenge and opportunity. Ann Pendleton-Jullian, John Seely Brown. Koch Building, Lauder Room.
The sad part is Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown are smart people, but the chances of an actual thought making it through that buzz-word buzz-saw are slight indeed.

Tiger kids

I've always had the feeling that the whole 'tiger mom' fascination was driven less by cultural forces and more by feature writers' excitement at having a new buzz word to play with. A new paper that I'm not qualified to critique in a journal I'm not familiar with is not going to decide the issue for me, though I will admit that I was always a bit skeptical of the notion that really high levels of stress got kids to perform at their best.

Here's a key passage from the abstract*:
Path analyses showed that the supportive parenting profile, which was the most common, was associated with the best developmental outcomes, followed by easygoing parenting, tiger parenting, and harsh parenting. Compared with the supportive parenting profile, a tiger parenting profile was associated with lower GPA and educational attainment, as well as less of a sense of family obligation; it was also associated with more academic pressure, more depressive symptoms, and a greater sense of alienation. The current study suggests that, contrary to the common perception, tiger parenting is not the most typical parenting profile in Chinese American families, nor does it lead to optimal adjustment among Chinese American adolescents.
* Does “tiger parenting” exist? Parenting profiles of Chinese Americans and adolescent developmental outcomes. By Kim, Su Yeong; Wang, Yijie; Orozco-Lapray, Diana; Shen, Yishan; Murtuza, Mohammed Asian American Journal of Psychology, Vol 4(1), Mar 2013, 7-18.

via Yahoo

Thursday, June 27, 2013

More on IP -- why the Ub Iwerks, Gardner Fox, and Jack Kirby estates aren't worth billions

Earlier, Joseph argued that, as with taxes, the level of intellectual property protection should be set to optimize general welfare:
In both cases the extremes of the policy are as bad as an absence of any policy.  If you set taxes to ~100% then you'd end up with no economy (or a purely shadow economy).  That would be bad.  If you set intellectual property rights to too high of a standard then you have endless rent-seeking on the basis of a vague idea that was never properly developed.
This is not to say that property rights are unimportant.  But it does illustrate that the way we define and reward these rights is a socially determined decision.  The consequences of such decisions reflect the society in which the decision is made and not some sort of natural evidence of merit. 
But let's not move away from the merit point just yet. Don't the people who come up with inventions or artistic works deserve compensation from those who profit off of those creations? Put in those terms, this would seem to make the case for strong IP laws, but before we start equating broad patents and eternal copyrights with some sort of a creator-centric paradise, remember that most of the benefits of the laws do not go to the people who actually came up with the ideas.

Consider the case of Nathan Myhrvold's favorite innovator, Chris Crawford, who essentially tried to hold much of the internet hostage based on what turned out to be someone else's ideas, or, for a more representative example, look at Ub Iwerks who co-created Mickey Mouse and was the man behind many of Disney Studio's early innovations. Along similar lines, comic creators such as Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox and Jack Kirby. These three (and there are limitless other comparable cases) played a significant role in the creation of properties that generated millions of dollars in their lifetimes and are worth tens of billions now, but none of these men received more than a sliver of that money.

Pretty much anywhere you look in the IP world, you find this disparity between, to coin a phrase, the makers and the takers. Fats Waller, Gene L. Coon, Bruce Geller, too many others to count, have created works that generated tremendous amounts of money that never made it to them or to their estates. While there are certainly people who have gotten rich off of their creations, the kind of laws we're talking about now with copyrights going back ninety-five years and patents that cover sending email from your phone, have nothing to do with helping creators.

These laws are about keeping the powerful powerful with the added benefit of making it more difficult for competitors to get a foothold.

Measuring the greater fool effect

Felix Salmon had some interesting insights recently on bubbles:
The word “bubble”, at least for me, is a loaded term, with a specific meaning. For one thing, it implies speculation: people buying an asset which is going up in price, just because they think they’re going to be able to sell it to a greater fool at a substantial profit. The dot-com bubble was a prime example of that, with investors jumping onto high-flying technology stocks not because they thought the stocks were cheap but just because they thought the stocks were rising, and that they could make money day-trading these things. Much of the housing bubble looked like that too: you could buy a tract home in Phoenix with no money down, hold on to it for a few months, and then flip it for a substantial payday — even if you never expected to live in it. And certainly the bitcoin bubble fits the bill: pretty much the only reason to buy bitcoins and hold them for more than about 10 minutes is that you think they’re going to go up in value and that you’ll be able to make money as a result.
I have to wonder if there's not a way to measure at least part of what Salmon is talking about while it's actually happening. Is there, for example, some kind of survey or other instrument that could measure different expectations about the long and short term value of an investment by those about to purchase it? In a bubble, you would think that the numbers for the short term would climb relative to the long term. This is way out of my field so I have no idea if someone has looked at this.

Of course, investors might be reluctant to answer these questions honestly, even to themselves. This might be a good place to try implicit association tests. Being a relatively new approach, it's possible no one has tried this particular application yet. Not an easy test to set up but it might be worth thinking about.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Patents and Copyrights

I really liked this point by Dean Baker:

Those who like to point to the constitutional origin of these forms of property should note where patents and copyrights appear in the constitution. They are listed as a power of Congress along with other powers, like the power to tax. They do not appear in the Bill of Rights where rights of individuals are explicitly described.

The constitution authorizes Congress to create monopolies for limited periods of time "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts." In this sense, patents and copyrights are explicitly linked to a public purpose. If it were determined that patents and copyrights are not the most efficient means for promoting innovation and creative work, and therefore Congress decided to stop authorizing these monopolies, individuals would have no more constitutional basis for complaint than if Congress decided that it didn't need to raise taxes.

Once we recognize that patents and copyrights are policies to promote innovation and creative work then the question is whether they are best policy and if so, are they best structured now for this purpose. Neither assumption is obvious and I would argue that the latter is almost certainly not true.

I think the analogy with taxes is both instructive and really informs the debate.  Nobody questions that the United States government has the ability to collect taxes.  But the level of taxes are set at the threshold that maximizes the general welfare and not as high as possible.  In the same sense, intellectual property law should be set at a level that encourages/rewards creativity and not at the highest level possible.

In both cases the extremes of the policy are as bad as an absence of any policy.  If you set taxes to ~100% then you'd end up with no economy (or a purely shadow economy).  That would be bad.  If you set intellectual property rights to too high of a standard then you have endless rent-seeking on the basis of a vague idea that was never properly developed. 

This is not to say that property rights are unimportant.  But it does illustrate that the way we define and reward these rights is a socially determined decision.  The consequences of such decisions reflect the society in which the decision is made and not some sort of natural evidence of merit. 

Be wary of simple explanations of how carefully developed theory is clearly and absurdly wrong

Steve Landsburg has a rather unique take on the world, most recently manifested by this piece.  It was then counter attacked by Daniel Kuehn, Brad DeLong, Paul Krugman, and Mark Thoma.  One thing that this episode teaches us is that we should remain skeptical about simple explanations about why everything we think we know is wrong (or that well established theories immediately lead to absurd conclusions).  It can happen, of course, but these sort of amazing results are a) rare and b) usually the result of painstaking work. 

Intellectual property laws and innovation a DIY post

Beating back some deadlines at the moment so I'll leave this one as a project for the readers.

1. Read this piece by Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs called “Fake It Till You Make It,” which, as Felix Salmon puts it, makes "a strong case that Chinese piracy, far from being symptomatic of a deep-seated inability to innovate, is actually an economically vital form of innovation.";

2. Read Salmon's appreciate take, paying close attention to this to what both pieces say about Ben Franklin's copyright violations;

3. Finish up with this post from last year listing other, more recent major media empires that got their start by playing fast and loose with copyright laws.

Rooting for Netflix (no really)

I realize I've been a bit rough on Reed Hastings and the Netflix business plan and strategies. There are real reasons to be concerned about how the company is being run and how business journalists are covering it, reasons that often get glossed over in the standard narrative, but, in an attempt to add some balance, though, I'm afraid I may be leaving the wrong impression.

For all its problems, there is a lot to like about Netflix. It is, by many metrics, a successful company. In an age of free media, it has built a substantial base of paying customers. It provides a pretty good service at a very reasonable price. Most importantly, Netflix introduces diversity into the dangerously inbred world of major media.

Minor media is fine, as a musician friend of mine recently observed, the people now control the means of production. Anyone can record and mix an album or produce a movie. If, however, you need access to a large budget or a mass outlet or, perhaps most vitally, any kind of press (mandatory Weigel link), you pretty much have to deal with a handful of massive companies, some terribly mismanaged, others oblivious to the interests of the general public, all focused on creating a less and less diversified landscape.

Netflix offers a healthy counterbalance to that concentration of power. That counterbalance is particularly important given that the company's two main competitors are Amazon (speaking of unhealthy concentration of power) and Hulu (one of the most flagrant antitrust violations in recent memory).

I'd really like to see Hastings and company make a go of it. That's one of the reasons I wish they were better at their jobs.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Kevin Spacey has been playing brilliant, manipulative sociopaths for a long time -- another Netflix side note

Kevin Spacey is a stunning actor of tremendous range but as I was putting together recent posts on playing to vs. playing against expectations and how that relates to Netflix, it struck me just often often Spacey has played the sociopath (see for yourself) going all the way back to his first big national role twenty-five years ago.

Actual vs. perceived viewing costs -- side note to the Netflix

Since we're on the subject of streaming vs. traditional TV, here are some n=1 observations.

Even in the case of free (or, more generally, no marginal cost) programming, I'll wager we've all felt cheated after watching a disappointing show. "There's an hour I'll never get back" sums the feeling up nicely. Therefore, part of getting potential viewers to sample a show is creating a low perceived viewing cost and risk of wasted time.

Here's where the n=1 comes in. I've noticed when I channel surf or I realize that a favorite show is about to start, I tend to underestimate the commitment associated with checking it out while simultaneously overestimating the scarcity. Since I don't know when my next chance to see it will be, I'll just watch until Columbo comes in or the Magnificent Seven talk to the old man or Ray Liota takes Lorraine Bracco to the Copa. Invariably, though, when those moments pass, I keep watching.

From a marketing standpoint, the combination of low perceived cost and scarcity is extraordinarily powerful (check out any marketing psychology book for examples), By comparison, when I sit down to watch something on-demand there's no sense of scarcity, I'm more aware of opportunity costs and, for some reason, I feel more like I'm making a commitment to watch the whole show -- opening credits to closing credits.

What a Hulu or a Netflix does have is a selling point often inversely related to scarcity, convenience. "Watch what you want to watch it." The key piece there is "what you want to watch." Once you've made your selection, convenience becomes a big plus.

It is often useful to think of marketing as three stages of persuasion:

1. Convince customers they want a product;

2. Convince them they want to buy it from you;

3. Convince them they want it now.

Recommendation algorithms do a good job with the third and, if you're seeing the recommendation, the second probably isn't a problem. I do not, however, see them doing a good job with the first, at least not without a great deal of help.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Interview with FX President John Landgraf

I'm not a big fan of KCRW's The Business (imagine Entertainment Tonight trying to do Marketplace), but like most interview-based shows, the right subject can make it worth your time.

If you have any interest in the business of television, John Landgraf's segment is something you should check out. Landgraf is a smart guy playing the game at a very sophisticated level. Even when his decisions seem to turn out badly, you can see the sound business reasoning behind them.

The interview is about a year old but with the Netflix programming push a hot topic and the general matter of the economics of original programming getting so much attention, it seems like a good time to check in with someone who actually knows how to make money doing this.

Here's the blurb from KCRW:
President of FX, John Landgraf talks with Kim Masters about the unusually hands-off deal he made with comedian Louis CK for his show, Louie. Essentially FX wires him money and he sends them a show. There's virtually no oversight or input from the network. It's a deal that many in the industry envy but something that Landgraf says that not every creator could handle. 
Landgraf is no stranger to placing bets on shows, and a new show that he's hoping will pay off is Anger Management, starring Charlie Sheen. Landgraf tells Kim that he was prepared to pass on the show but was taken in by the pitch. He also outlines the deal points, which include an unusual arrangement where if the first season of ten episodes gets a certain ratings number then the show will be automatically renewed for 90 episodes. 
Finally, with hits like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Sons of Anarchy and Justified, FX skews towards a guy audience. Landgraf talks with Kim about this and also about why he passed on Breaking Bad.

"Things we no longer see on airplanes" from Mental Floss

Kara Kovalchik has an amusing collection of TV spots and photos from print ads showing some of the amenities airlines experimented with before deregulation. One of these days, this might be a good starting point for a new air travel thread, but for now just sit back and enjoy the flight.

Two quotes about Netflix, presented (almost) without comment

Nearing the end of the thread...

Forbes contributor Kosha Gada wrote a somewhat breathless, wave-of-the-future article up about Netflix that included the following:
Of course, the end game may well lie in pivoting away from subscriptions and distribution altogether and moving into the world of content licensing.  This would fundamentally change the company’s equation. Whether a move to content licensing is the key to Netflix’s future growth is yet to be seen, but it certainly sets up fascinating new dynamics—and ironies—for the broader industry.
Put that along side this footnote from the previously mentioned article by Rebecca Greenfield:
This post originally stated that Netflix owned the syndication rights to House of Cards. However, The production company Media Rights Capital own them.
I don't want to make to much of this. Netflix may be planning a pivot to content licensing somewhere down the road. Still, reporting like this does add to my suspicion that the standard narrative has not emerged naturally from the facts on the ground.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Burn Notice and more at Hulu

If you're tired of talking about television and would like to watch some for a change...

(though if you do want to focus on the business of television, check out the arrangement Hulu has made with the cable providers for the more recent episodes.)

I'd also recommend this (particularly the series finale Christmas episode which took things in a totally unexpected direction). Completely ruined the American version for me.

And though I have mixed feelings about Hulu-plus (and Hulu in general -- how can anyone argue this doesn't violate anti-trust laws?), the Criterion Collection really is a film-lover's dream

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Weekend blogging -- who are the Becketts in your field and who are the Pinters?

[keep in mind while reading the following that it has been more than twenty years since I read these plays. If you've read either author in this century your opinion is probably worth more than mine.]

I know there are some who would dispute this but I think most critics and literary scholars would, with all due respect to both writers, rank Beckett over Pinter. It's not a position I'm prepared to defend (though I am inclined to agree with it), but, if you are willing to go along with it, the proposition suggests a somewhat counter-intuitive result: the greater writer is the less influential.

I'm using influence here in a fairly specific way to mean later writers' use of specific elements associated with Beckett's and Pinter's work, not to mean general impact. Lots of writers might tell you that see Godot changed their life without being able to point to anything specific in the play that changed in their work.

It's not difficult to why much of Beckett's best known work isn't that widely imitated. When you've written a play where the staging consists of three actors' heads sticking out of urns with the final stage direction "repeat play" and you actually name it Play, you haven't left future generations a lot to build on. I remember being more impressed by Play than by the Birthday Party, but I had no urge to go out and write my own actors-in-furniture cycle.

Lots of writers did go out and try to write their own versions of Pinter plays and many more have incorporated Pinteresque elements, creating a sense of absurdity or menace by the strangely off-kilter use of mundane and colloquial language. You can see Pinter's influence even in popular genres like science fiction (it was actually an arc of the no-budget British time-travel series Sapphire and Steel that got me thinking about this), horror (check out the bar scene in the Shining) and even sitcom. By Beckett's pop culture presence is largely limited to allusion (an unpunctual character might be compared to Godot, for example)

If you've played along up until now, I have a question for you: in your field, who are the Becketts and who are the Pinters?

For example, in mathematics I think you could make a case for Newton as a Beckett and Leibniz (due partly to his superior notation) as a Pinter. When I asked a musician friend, he immediately suggested Thelonius Monk as a Beckett, brilliant but something of a terminal point.

Other than that the competition is open. How would you complete the sentence: Though __________ was more brilliant, _________ was more influential.

Friday, June 21, 2013

House of Cards -- either already in the black or seriously underperforming

More from the ongoing Netflix thread, but I promise the end is near.

One of the underlying issues I have with the coverage of trendy companies is the lack of interest in facts that seem to undercut the narrative and a lack of skepticism about facts that seem to support it.

Take Rebecca Greenfield's gushy story "Netflix Has Almost Already Paid for 'House of Cards' in New Subscribers":
By adding more than 2 million U.S. subscribers this quarter and another 1 million elsewhere in the world, Netflix has nearly earned back its entire $100 million investment in House of Cards — in under three months. As we explained in our breakdown of the economics of that original show, Netflix only needed about 520,834 new users — in two years — to break even on that program. But the streaming and delivery businesses have added nearly $50 million in subscriber dollars in this country alone, Netflix announced in its earnings report Monday. If you include the overseas users, that number goes up to about $72 million.

Of course, not all of these new (paying) customers will stick around for two years — and Netflix has other costs besides its high-profile leap into original programming, including Hemlock Grove, which premiered this weekend, and the comeback of Arrested Development, which is expected to offer another subscriber boost when it debuts Memorial Day weekend. But CEO Reid Hastings [sic] said in his letter to investors Monday that fewer than 8,000 new users participated in "free-trial gaming — that is, hardly anyone signed up, binged-watched House of Cards, then quit Netflix. If the company keeps building loyal subscribers at this rate into 2014, when it premieres a new series from the Wachowskis, Netflix should be able to break even on all of its original programming — by our calculations, that would take 2.6 million new paying subscribers a month every per year — and then some.
The about free-trial actually is a piece of genuinely good news for the company, but that really spectacular part raises some questions, particularly when you follow the link in Greenfield's story:
Netflix announced net additions of 2.03 million subscribers in the U.S. compared to 2.05 million in the fourth quarter — which historically is its strongest period of subscriber growth — and 1.74 million in last year’s first quarter. As a result, it said that it’s growing its subscriber base and revenues faster than its content spend in the streaming business. It reported that its domestic streaming contribution margin increased to 20.6 percent in the quarter, which was up 140 basis points from the previous quarter

In addition to its domestic streaming numbers, Netflix reported 1 million new subscribers in its international business, growing that number to 7.1 million total. That compares to 1.8 million international subscribers added during the holiday quarter, and 1.2 million a year previous. While those numbers might seem low compared to previous quarters, Netflix said it benefitted from launches in new markets in earlier quarters. The company plans to continue its expansion overseas, with a new international market to be added in the second half of the year.
Just to review, in addition to launching a $100 million dollar series, they mounted a huge and very expensive marketing blitz in an improving economy, benefited from the increasing popularity of dropping cable, and offered a heavily advertised free month trial for what is already an extremely inexpensive service.

There are a lot of reasons I might be misreading this -- being LA-based I might be seeing a disproportionate amount of marketing; there may good news if you dig deeper into the numbers; I might just be screwing up -- but looking at these stories and trying to draw reasonable inferences about the accounts attributable to House of Cards, here's what I take away:

1. There's no evidence here that the show was responsible for any of those one million international accounts given the sharp drop;

2. With the LA caveat in mind, it looks like Netflix substantially increased its ads-and-flacks budget in the first quarter ("including advertising buys for primetime TV spots and high-profile billboards"). Twenty million strikes me as a fairly conservative estimate for the increase. If that's close, we're talking significant acquisition costs for what looks like a 300K bump;

(Not just LA)

3. At least some of that 300K should probably be attributed to economic conditions and the widely noted trend away from cable and toward online viewing;

4. A good night at the Emmy's could change this, but, given the direct-to-binge model and the February debut, I'd expect most of the subscribers attributable to House of Cards to sign up sometime in the first quarter. The 520K Greenfield mentions does not seem to include marketing costs which would push it closer to 600K. This would require a substantial bump from the second season as well.

Don't get wrong. As a viewer, I'm very happy with this boom in original programming (my favorite show at the moment is Justified) and I'm looking forward to watching House of Cards. Nor should to much be read into the performance of one show. I'll even allow for the possibility the show catching on and/or of Netflix having a good run and actually becoming a major player for years to come.

What I have trouble with is declaring victory for a player who may not even be winning, particularly when that victory fits far too nicely with a dominant narrative.

Keep up with West Coast Stat Views on Twitter at @MarkPalko1

Damn, another activity I can no longer make fun of.

Yves Smith with more thoughts on the looting phase of higher education

Naked Capitalism has a post up discussing the previously mentioned Pam Martens article on NYU Law School compensation for administrators and select professors.
Now the house deal (which is rather bizarre given that NYU owns lots of nice faculty housing) might be what made [Jack] Lew’s pay deal so out of line relative to his job. But if the forgiveness of debt was not included in the total, it’s even more insane, the equivalent of $1.1 million a year.

There’s simply no way this compensation level (or the house side deal) was justified by any notion of what the position demanded. You don’t need a marquee name for an operations job. I can give a long list of people I know personally who have more relevant experience and be happy with a ton less money. Nor is there any evidence that Lew did enough in the way of fundraising to justify his NYU pay level. This was a low-stress overpaid sinecure arranged by the Rubin mafia.

And it’s important to recognize that this sort of rent extraction by unproductive overhead is a significant contributor to the explosion in education costs. When I was young, the top administrators were modestly paid. They viewed the job as quasi public service. The hours were generally not taxing, although the politics could be fractious. The faculty looked down on you but you had lots of stature in the local community, the top echelon might live in housing the school owned as a perk and you got the bennies of university life. The sort of people who took those jobs were old money who’d spent some time in the private sector and wanted a change of pace in their middle age or executives who’d lost out in corporate intrigue or via a takeover.

Benjamin Ginsberg says that 30% of the increase in educational costs over the last twenty-five years is due to administrative “growth”. That sounds low to me, and I’d imagine the overheads have attributed as much of their costs as possible to program. For instance, universities have also overspent on facilities, and a big building program not only justifies more adminisphere, but some of those costs may have been allocated to the big build rather than as ongoing overheads. I mean, why have Jack Lew types around if they can’t pretty up the books?

My feed isn't feeding

As you can see from the bottom of the page, new post (like this) aren't showing up. Any suggestions?


UPDATE: apparently the feed feeds slowly. Now if I can just get the automated tweets to start tweeting...

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Curiously, agressively anti-social

As previously mentioned Certain business models limit you to certain marketing approaches. For example, the standard model for scripted cable series is to run weekly for about three months usually following long story arcs with start dates varying from show to show. This model lends itself to promotion through blogs and social media and it may not be a coincidence that original, scripted shows have increased greatly in popularity and influence over the past dozen years along with social media. When it works well, these shows can create a powerful weekly cycle of buzz and feedback starting with Twitter traffic during the actual broadcast and building from there.

The sheer volume of tweets, posts and podcasts we're talking about is astounding and it's made even more valuable because it bypasses our normal anti-advertising filters. These are people we know recommending a show. What's more, there's a tremendous social norming aspect. Watching the show become part of what's expected.

Keeping that in mind, think about the Netflix direct-to-binge model. Social media thrives on having a critical mass of people sharing a common experience.  With a shows like House of Cards, the kind sustained build-up you see with a Game of Thrones is impossible and even an ordinary discussion requires you to find a group who are at same point in the viewing.

Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer of Netflix, responds to this concern with a truly extraordinary statement:
“No one has ever watched anything on Netflix that they couldn’t watch all at once,” Sarandos said. There was no interest in changing that model for a new group of originals. But that not only meant changing consumer behavior, it also meant dealing with the realities of today’s social network environment.

Sarandos called it a “different style of watercooler etiquette.” Rather than having to deal with the weekly conversation that is produced, viewers need to ask each other which episodes they’re watching and dealing [sic] with that. Still, the strategy seems to be paying off, as viewers are continuing to tune in.
(quick aside: "paying off" implies improvement over what would have happened otherwise. By this standard you could argue that having disgusting bathrooms "pays off" for a filling station as long as someone still buys gas there.)

Sarandos is saying that part of the company's strategy is to get viewers to engage in less word of mouth promotion. That's an amazing position, hoping that people will refrain from conversation until everyone has had a chance to catch up on all thirteen hours of a show. Of course, by the time that happens (assuming it ever does), the show will be an old topic for the people who watched it when it first came out.

In an age where social media is generally considered the inevitable wave of the future, Netflix is launching a programming model based on people talking less about their shows. It's possible that there's some method to the madness here.

Of course, it's also possible these people haven't thought this through.

He'll probably get in trouble for saying that

As you've probably noticed, I'm in the middle of a thread about the economics of television that hits on, among other things, the value of exclusive content and social media. This statement (by someone who ought to know) does a nice job of getting to the gist of one of the major points.
But the man who has directed episodes of Game of Thrones, Hung and True Blood had a lot to say as a member of a panel discussing the rise of premium cable TV channels and its challenge to novels as a format of storytelling.
Panel mediator Rosemary Neill noted Game of Thrones was the most pirated show of 2012 and that 10 per cent of the downloads came from Australia.

But [David] Petrarca shrugged and said the illegal downloads did not matter because such shows thrived on "cultural buzz" and capitalised on the social commentary they generated.

"That's how they survive," he told the crowd gathered at the University of Western Australia.

Netflix can never be the next HBO*

* given its current model

Certain business models limit you to certain marketing approaches and certain marketing approaches limit your product development. In the case of Netflix, the company is locked into a strategy that effectively prevents it from developing a Sex and the City or Sopranos or Game of Thrones or even a Fraggle Rock.

When HBO introduces and nurtures a major show, it starts with a standard advertising and PR campaign, then gives it a good prime time slot and rebroadcasts it repeatedly through the week. This last part is especially important because, even more than most non-rival goods, television series thrive on familiarity and heavy rotation. By airing Game of Thrones a half dozen times in a week, HBO greatly increases the chances that viewers who are curious or who are just channel surfing will get into the show. This also nicely complements social media. People who see friends talking about an episode have a chance to catch up before the next one airs (and, unlike with Netflix, being into an HBO show guarantees loyalty and regular viewing for at least three months, which gives the network ample opportunity to hook you another show which keeps the cycle going).

Netflix has a far narrower range of marketing options. It can pay directly for advertising and indirectly for PR, but that's about it. For all the talk of neo-programming, Netflix has few ways of getting customers to watch what they want them to watch.

Much has been made of recommendation model and it is a promising area for marketing research, but it occupies a somewhat different niche than lead-ins and surf-driven traffic and, more to the point, it is not a good fit with Netflix. Recommendations are most effective at introducing viewers to the unfamiliar, or, put another way, recommendations add more value to the unfamiliar. Someone who likes the remake of True Grit might be more likely to watch Gunsmoke or Sam Peckinpah's the Westerner. Both were great shows, but CBS Television will charge you serious money to license Gunsmoke; whoever owns the Westerner would probably trade even for what's in your wallet. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, making viewers aware of a show they might like increases its value without increasing its cost.

Netflix has a strategy of maintaining a shallow catalog of familiar titles and focusing on a small number of highly publicized original productions. This is not a business plan that works well with recommendation-based promotion.

Between that and the well-established difficulty of launching a series, Netflix has no choice but to focus on shows that lend themselves to advertising and PR. Those generally breaks down to marketable names, properties or concepts. You can definitely see these groups in the two major and one borderline major launches we've seen from Netflix up until now:

House of Cards -- Kevin Spacey playing a Kevin Spacey character

Hemlock Grove -- Teen vampire/werewolf show from gore king Eli Roth

Arrested Development season 4 -- continuation of cult hit

(I went back and forth about including Lilyhammer, finally deciding not to because it was a co-production that debuted elsewhere and, more importantly, because it does not seem to represent the direction the company has now taken, which is unfortunate since Lilyhammer is, from a business standpoint, the most interesting thing Netflix has done for years.)

What are some of the concerns with limiting yourself high-profile, easily marketed journalist-bait?

Thin margins. You generally pay much more for stars and recognized properties (Spacey knows how much Spacey is worth).

The pool is limited and the process slow. Netflix talks about passing HBO. It took HBO about fifteen years to go from Phillip Marlowe to shows like Sex in the City and the Sopranos, longer still for Showtime to go from earnest efforts like the Paper Chase to hits like Dexter and Homeland. Does anyone think that Netflix can wait that long?

Established properties certainly reduce the chances of failure but there's reason to believe it may limit potential upside as well (see here and here for some thoughts on the relationship between hits and defying expectations). Between the star power, massive marketing blitz, first rate production values and the proven quality of the source material, I expect House of Cards to do reasonably well, but it's a hedged bet when the company needs a big pay-off.

Traditional marketing and, to a slightly lesser extent, automated recommendations, tend to work best on products that customers expect to like. Walk-ins and, to a lesser extent, social media recommendations work best on products that customers like more than they expected to. (Besides if you did want to maximize social media leverage, the Netflix episode dump strategy is probably the last thing you'd want to do.)

HBO has a long history of making hits out of shows with unlikely concepts ("It's about a family of undertakers...") and people you've never heard of ("James Gandol-who?"**). It was able to do this in part because the people who ran the network made good use of all of the good, old-fashioned tricks that programmers have used for decades.

Is it possible to duplicate HBO's success without using those tricks? Probably. Is it possible with the approach Netflix is trying. Almost certainly not. The marketing is badly thought-out, the pieces of the business plan don't fit and when it comes to producing original content, the company has a dearth of new ideas.

That said, I probably will probably check out House of Cards. Kevin Spacey, evil machinations... What's not to like? (other than the $100 million Netflix paid for it -- without even getting the syndication rights)

** No disrespect intended to James Gandolfini, who passed away recently, rather a reminder that David Chase and the executives at HBO were willing to go with a talented unknown who was right for the part.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A bit of HBO trivia and a couple of take-aways

As background for the ongoing Netflix thread, I've been reading up on HBO. Lots of interesting facts for anyone who follows the business of television, but one detail, though minor, jumped out as an illustration of a couple of points about the network's strategy:

HBO's first scripted series, launched back in 1983, was Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock, beating the detective show Phillip Marlowe, Private Eye out of the gate, albeit only by a few months.

(listen at your own peril, this may have a tendency to stick in your head.)

Fraggle Rock turned out to be a huge, long-running hit, but there's a limit to how much we should read into that (the luck factor is always difficult to account for). What's more interesting in the context of this discussion is that, from the very beginning:

1. HBO understood the value of the preschooler market, something that appears to have eluded Netflix even though that market is arguably more important for an on-demand service;

2. The network went with a new property from established creators, an approach it would return to many times over the next twenty years. Netflix has leaning heavily toward established properties, which almost by definition, reduces the chances of the kind of unexpected breakthrough hits often associated with HBO.

More on the flack-to-hack ratio

Following up on this, Yahoo has another careers-to-avoid post. The second entry caught my eye:
Dying Career #2: Reporter

They say a species must adapt or die, and with the trend of the Internet replacing print journalism (you are reading this on the computer, after all), media folks who don't adjust might not survive too much longer. In short, many reporters could be going the way of their typewriters soon.

Projected Decline: Reporter and correspondent positions are expected to decline by 8 percent from 51,900 jobs in 2010 to 48,000 in 2020, for a total of nearly 4,000 jobs lost, says the U.S. Department of Labor

Why It's Dying: The Department of Labor says that because of the trend of consolidation of media companies and the decline in readership of newspapers, reporters will find there are fewer available jobs.

So, if you have a hankering for writing, you might look into...

Alternative Career: Public Relations Specialist

In the new world of Facebook, Twitter, and all things Web, the public image of a company has never been more important, and so the role of public relations specialist is a vital one. These are the people who evaluate advertising programs, write press releases, and communicate with the media and public to promote a company's public image, according to U.S. Department of Labor.

Projected Growth: The Department projects openings for PR specialists to grow by 23 percent from 2010 to 2020, which equals 58,200 new jobs.

Why It's Growing: Thanks to the fact that both good and bad news spreads quickly in the Internet age, the Department says that companies need PR specialists to respond to these news developments. "With the popularity of social media marketers, specializing in that will be absolutely critical in the future. These people will be sought after by most companies," says Susan Heathfield, a management consultant and writer of's Guide to Human Resources.

Education Options: The Department says public relations specialists normally need a bachelor's degree, with employers usually wanting applicants to have studied public relations, communications, journalism, English, or business.
Putting aside the pros and cons of the career advice, this is troubling for a number of reasons. First, it shows that the previously mentioned flack-to-hack ratio continues to grow. More importantly, it's another indicator of how acclimated we've become to the idea of substituting press releases and selectively edited news stories for impartially gathered information from independent sources.

As mentioned before, this and other trends in journalism are each troubling on their own but it's when you start combining them that they become truly frightening.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Another news story that's bigger for Netflix than Arrested Development -- and this time in a good way

I have to admit, I was starting to wonder if Reed Hastings could do anything right.
DreamWorks Animation, trying to lessen its dependence on the volatile movie business by aggressively expanding into TV programming, has decided to forgo cable television in favor of Netflix.

In a multiyear deal announced early Monday, DreamWorks Animation will supply a flood of new episodic TV programs to the Internet streaming service. The partnership calls for 300 hours of original programming, perhaps the biggest commitment yet to bring Hollywood-caliber content to the Web first.

The new programs will be “inspired” by characters from past DreamWorks Animation franchises, which include “Shrek” and “The Croods,” and its coming feature films. Series will also come from Classic Media, which the studio bought last year. Classic Media’s holdings include characters like Casper the Friendly Ghost, Lassie, She-Ra and Mr. Magoo.
This doesn't solve all of Netflix's problems -- that's a long list -- and we don't know some very important details, but this does address quite a few of the biggest concerns. It gives them a producing partner with a proven track record that can greatly step up the company's current trickle.

Here's how big a bump. According to Wikipedia, these are the future programs currently announced by Netflix (boldface added):

John Hodgman: Ragnarok' Television special Stand-up comedy
Orange Is The New Black Series Comedy-drama July 11, 2013
Turbo: F.A.S.T. (Fast Action Stunt Team) Series Animation December 2013
Narcos Series Drama 2014
Shrek Series Animation 2014
The Croods Series Animation 2014
Kung Fu Panda Series Animation 2014
Sense8 Series Sci-Fi-Drama Late 2014

And, while this does not come close to filling the hole left by Nick, particularly with preschoolers (you do not want to be the one to tell a four-year-old no more Dora... ever), but it moves in the right direction.

And since this was obviously in the works for a while, it makes Netflix's "What, me worry?" response a little less disturbing.

UPDATE: Netflix continues to add to its preteen/teen listings. That's good news but it still doesn't address the bigger problem.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Four Companies

If you've been following this Netflix thread (and, yes, there's more to come), may be wondering what it is about the company that justifies all the pixels. It provides a pretty good service for its customers (I've always been disappointed with the selection but the price is very reasonable). I don't consider it a good investment, but there are certainly worse run companies with more incompetent management.

What's important here, at least to me, is the way we discuss business. Over the past thirty plus years, we have largely accepted the central role of business in our society-- companies will solve our problems; markets will make our decisions -- but we haven't gotten very good at business journalism (wiht notable exceptions). We let hype drive investment, propping up bad companies while good ones gasp for air. We miss abuses and underprice negative externalities. We waste a lot of money.

When I look at the coverage of Netflix, I see some trends that remind me of the coverage of Groupon, Facebook's IPO, and JC Penneys, particularly:

A symbiotic hype relationship between executives and journalists, where executives would say and do buzz-worthy things and journalists would reciprocate by depicting the executives as bold visionaries even when the statements and decisions didn't really make any sense from a business standpoint.

A ddulite tendency to assume that the greater the association with cool technology (indirect but still significant in the case of JCP), the smarter the move.

A simplistic view of business. Not looking at metrics in context. Assuming that a business model that works one place will work another. Ignoring the history of the industry in general and relevant precedents in particular.

Failure to ask, or at least ask vigorously, basic questions about the company's competence and business practices.

This similarity of coverage does not mean that we're talking about similar companies; we aren't. Netflix is a company that started out with a decent business model but which is facing serious external and internal challenges. JCP was a fixer-upper nearly destroyed by spectacular mismanagement. Facebook was a great idea questionably managed and wildly overpriced. Groupon was a couple of notches away from a Ponzi scheme. What they have in common is that their problems were made worse by the practices mentioned above.

"If that's such a good idea, why hasn't anyone else done it?"

 I have really mixed feelings about that question. It can discourage creativity and kill fresh ideas and it can and generally should make you feel like a bit of an ass when you ask it, but sometimes someone really needs to say it.

Case in point, the decision by Netflix not only to release original programming in a binge-ready format, but to sell this format as a major feature.

Though the basic idea (in the form of programming marathons) goes back for decades, binge viewing as we think of it now became practical around the mid to late Nineties with the widespread availability of DVDs and the rise of the internet (the two technologies that made Netflix viable).

Prerecorded television shows were a very small part of the home video wave of the Eighties, largely due to the bulkiness of the VHS medium and the inconvenience of the short-window rental model. With the introduction of DVDs in the mid-Nineties and the shift to a retail rather than a rental model, the economics shifted and TV shows soon occupied as much shelf space in the big box stores as did movies. The concept of burning through an entire season of a show in two or three sittings caught on almost immediately.

There was, however, one area where series never caught up with movies -- direct-to-video. Though boxed sets of shows like Seinfeld and Star Trek:[fill in the blank] were popular (sometimes to the extent that people would forgo watching a new season of their favorite show till it came out on video) and direct-to-video movies were a large and lucrative market and direct-to-syndication was a proven model, no one, to my knowledge, ever attempted a serious launch of direct-to-DVD series box set.

Why did this one channel remain unexplored? Part of the answer may lie in the way television shows develop their relationships with viewers.

Smart companies look at lifecycles, both of products and of customers and plan marketing and pricing accordingly. With successful TV shows, there seem to be only a few common lifecycles and (this part is important) it has proven extraordinarily difficult to influence those lifecycles through advertising and PR. Up until now, binging has always occurred late in these lifecycles after these products have established themselves.

There are, of course, differences, but Reed Hasting is basically trying the equivalent of using massive advertising and PR to try to sell box sets of new series. What's more, he's doing it after the advent of social media which works better with incremental release schedules (Twitter, in particular, thrives on shared events).

Of course, none of this means that direct-to-binge is a bad idea, but it does give one something to think about.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Neil Gaiman was close -- it's actually two out of four

Talk of the Nation had a good interview recently with author Neil Gaiman. If you're a Gaiman fan, the whole thing is worth checking out, but I found this particular insight especially interesting:
GAIMAN: But what I tried to make clear is something I actually learned from the world of comics that, talking to people seems to apply outside of the world of comics as well, which is how you keep work as a freelancer. What I was saying to people is - what I'd learned is that you can be - there are three things you can be. You can get the work in on time; you can be good, really good; and you can be easy to get along with. And as long you get two out of three of these right, you will continue to work.

CONAN: Oh, so people will put up with your unbearable personality if you get your work in on time and you're very good.

GAIMAN: Absolutely. And by the same token, if you're really nice and you're really good, they'll probably forgive you for being late.


GAIMAN: But, you know, the problem is when you drop down to one out of three, that's the point when they're going, I don't really want to - yes, his work is good, but he's not very nice; he's always late - why should I bother. So it's that two out of three thing.
The only thing I'd add to that is the idea of niches, certain relatively specific roles that come readily to mind and are perceived as useful. People who fit these niches are amazingly employable, though they can have a great deal of difficulty advancing or changing careers.

I suspect there are niche-fillers in all professions but they are particularly easy to spot in entertainment. Certain actors and, to a lesser extent, writers, directors and producers happen to mesh with what the industry thinks the public wants or a project needs. The allure of matching elements to these preconceptions is remarkably strong.

Here's my favorite example. A few years ago, I mentioned to a friend that I was following a new show and my friend recommended not getting too caught up in it because it starred an actress named Paula Marshall and shows that starred Marshall didn't stick around very long.

I had seen Marshall in other shows but given the high mortality rate of television series I'd never noticed anything special about those featuring her. After that though, I started to pay attention and I noticed not only that shows starring her tended to do very badly but that there were a surprisingly many of them.

In the past twenty years, Wikipedia lists Paula Marshall as having had a main role in seven different TV shows:

Wild Oats Main role (6 episodes);

Chicago Sons Main role (13 episodes);

Cupid Main role (15 episodes);

Snoops Main role (10 episodes);

Hidden Hills Main role (17 episodes);

Out of Practice Main role (21 episodes);

Gary Unmarried Main role (37 episodes).

For an actor with little name recognition and no-well known roles, snagging seven leads is remarkable (and that doesn't count pilots that weren't picked up). Add to that recurring roles on other shows and numerous guest shots and you have an extraordinarily active career.

I don't want to pick on Marshall. She's a competent actor with a smart career sense and she may yet have a big break-out role, but that's really beside the point. There are certain character types that show up frequently in TV shows and Paula Marshall almost perfectly matches one of those types. There are actors working in television who could have done something more surprising with the roles Marshall got (Melanie Lynskey, Missi Pyle, and Gina Bellman to name just a few) but surprise would defeat the purpose.

The point of filling a niche is to be something people expect, to fit in well with an existing framework. The appeal of this meshing is often, somewhat counter-intuitively, much stronger for the people making the shows than for the people watching them. Audiences generally like to be surprised (fans, on the other hand, usually don't, but that's a topic for another post). That's why breakout characters tend to deviate from type in one or more significant ways.

[be advised, working from memory in this paragraph] Perhaps the best known breakout character, Fonzie from Happy Days, was originally written as tall and physically imposing. When she met the diminutive Henry Winkler, Marion Ross asked creator Gary Marshall if he was right for the part. Marshall replied that Winkler "acts tall."

You can make the case, both commercially and critically, for the expected returns of casting someone who doesn't neatly fit a type, such as a Mayim Bialik, rather than one who personifies it the way a Paula Marshall often does, but that sort of rational decision making doesn't come easy for executives facing the insane stress of trying to sell a TV show.

On top of that, unconventional casting calls attention to itself. If you make an unconventional casting choice and a show fails, people will zero in on that choice to explain the failure; if you make a conventional choice and the show fails, people will be much more likely to dismiss the failure as 'one of those things.:

Ken Levine on big stars and TV pilots

Levine has an excellent post about what really drives pilot season. If you have any interest you should take a look, but this bit, with its disparity between projects that are easy to get greenlit and projects that have the best rate of return is very relevant to some upcoming posts.
Pilots are incredibly hard to do well. You have to establish the premise, introduce the characters, tell a story, set the tone, and be funny – all in 22 minutes. Now imagine trying to accomplish all that when you only have :30 seconds. This is one of the big reasons why networks like to stack their new shows with established stars. You may not know what the show is about but Michael J. Fox is in it.

God forbid you don’t have an established name at the forefront of your series. Although the breakout hit shows generally feature new discoveries, networks prefer the safety of Will Arnett and Brad Garrett. So the star-driven shows will get more promos and hype. You may have a better show without stars but you’ll have a tougher go of things.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Weekend Kael blogging -- Was Citizen Kane ahead of its time?

We've spent a lot of time complaining about the tendency to confuse the independent with the contrarian even though in some ways they represent opposite approaches. Independent thinkers resist the urge to fall in line with predetermined narratives and conclusions. Contrarians are strongly predisposed to certain predetermined narratives and conclusions as long as those positions happen to be opposite in some way to what is perceived as the 'conventional' view.

Pauline Kael was a thoroughly independent thinker and much of the pleasure in reading Kael comes from the way she finds flaws in and counterexamples to so many standard stories. One of the more enduring of these stories is the tale of the unrecognized genius, the artists or innovators so far ahead of their time that they initially are only met with derision. ("They laughed at _____ too.")

Here's Kael's response to attempts to apply that narrative to Citizen Kane:

The picture got a thunderous reception, even in the Hollywood press. In recent years, the rumor has spread that Citizen Kane opened to bad reviews—presumably on the theory that it was so far ahead of its time that it wasn’t understood—and this is now recorded in many film histories. But it was very well understood by the press (who would understand a newspaper picture better?), and it got smashing reviews. It isn’t, after all, a difficult picture. In some ways, it was probably better understood then than it is now, and, as far as I can determine, it was more highly praised by the American press than any other movie in history.


Several of the magazines responded to [Welles'] plea for the pressure of publicity by reviewing the picture before it opened, obviously with the intention of helping to get it released. A review in Time on March 17, 1941, began:

            As in some grotesque fable, it appeared last week that Hollywood was about to turn upon and destroy its greatest creation.

It continued:

            To most of the several hundred people who have seen the film at private showings, Citizen Kane is the most sensational product of the U.S. movie industry. It has found important new techniques in picture-making and story telling…. It is as psychiatrically sound as a fine novel…. It is a work of art created by grown people for grown people.

In Newsweek, also on March 17, 1941, John O’Hara began his review with

            It is with exceeding regret that your faithful bystander reports that he has just seen a picture which he thinks must be the best picture he ever saw.

            With no less regret he reports that he has just seen the best actor in the history of acting.

            Name of picture: Citizen Kane.

            Name of actor: Orson Welles.

            Reason for regret: you, my dear, may never see the picture.

            I saw Citizen Kane the other night. I am told that my name was crossed off a list of persons who were invited to look at the picture, my name being crossed off because some big shot remembered I had been a newspaperman. So, for the first time in my life, I indignantly denied I was a newspaperman. Nevertheless, I had to be snuck into the showing of Citizen Kane under a phony name. That’s what’s going on about this wonderful picture. Intrigue.

            Why intrigue? Well, because. A few obsequious and/or bulbous middle-aged ladies think the picture ought not to be shown, owing to the fact that the picture is rumored to have something to do with a certain publisher, who, for the first time in his life, or maybe the second, shall be nameless. That the nameless publisher might be astute enough to realize that for the first time in his rowdy life he had been made a human being did not worry the loyal ladies. Sycophancy of that kind, like curtseying, is deliberate. The ladies merely wait for a chance to show they can still do it, even if it means cracking a femur. This time I think they may have cracked off more than they can chew. I hope.

Along the way, O’Hara said such things as

            My intention is to make you want to see the picture; if possible, to make you wonder why you are not seeing what I think is as good a picture as was ever made…. And aside from what it does not lack, Citizen Kane has Orson Welles. It is traditional that if you are a great artist, no one gives a damn about you while you’re still alive. Welles has had plenty of that. He got a tag put to his name through the Mars thing, just as Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote better than any man in our time, got a Jazz Age tag put to his name. I say, if you plan to have any grandchildren to see and to bore, see Orson Welles so that you can bore your grandchildren with some honesty. There never has been a better actor than Orson Welles. I just got finished saying there never has been a better actor than Orson Welles, and I don’t want any of your lip.

            Do yourself a favor. Go to your neighborhood exhibitor and ask him why he isn’t showing Citizen Kane.

The same day—March 17, 1941—Life, which was to run several more features on the movie in the following months, came out with four pages of pictures and a review:

            Few movies have ever come from Hollywood with such powerful narrative, such original technique, such exciting photography. Director Welles and Cameraman Gregg Toland do brilliantly with a camera everything Hollywood has always said you couldn’t do. They shoot into bright lights, they shoot into the dark and against low ceilings, till every scene comes with the impact of something never seen before. Even the sound track is new. And for narrative Welles has tapped a segment of life fearfully skirted by the U.S. cinema: the swift and brutal biography of a power-mad newspaper tycoon, a man of twisted greatness who buys or bullies his way into everything but friends’ love and his nation’s respect. To a film industry floundering in a rut, Citizen Kane offers enough new channels to explore for five years to come.

Hearst must have known he would be in for a bad time if the picture should be withheld; the Luce magazines—Time and Life—had always been eager to embarrass him, and certainly wouldn’t let the subject drop. (The financial backing that Welles said he had to buy the picture was probably from Henry Luce.) One surmises that Hearst decided not to try to block its release—though the petty harassment of R.K.O. and others involved went on, like a reflex to a blow.

        Here is a representative selection from the reviews:

            Variety: A film possessing the sure dollar mark.

            Times (Bosley Crowther): Suppression of this film would have been a crime…. Citizen Kane is far and away the most surprising and cinematically exciting motion picture to be seen here in many a moon…. It comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood.

            Herald Tribune (Howard Barnes): A young man named Orson Welles has shaken the medium wide-awake with his magnificent film, Citizen Kane. His biography of an American dynast is not only a great picture; it is something of a revolutionary screen achievement…. From any standpoint Citizen Kane is truly a great motion picture.

            Post (Archer Winsten): It goes without saying this is the picture that wins the majority of 1941’s movie prizes in a walk, for it is inconceivable that another will come along to challenge it…. Orson Welles with this one film establishes himself as the most exciting director now working…. Technically the result marks a new epoch.

            PM (Cecelia Ager): Before Citizen Kane, it’s as if the motion picture was a slumbering monster, a mighty force stupidly sleeping, lying there a sleek, torpid, complacent—awaiting a fierce young man to come kick it to life, to rouse it, shake it, awaken it to its potentialities, to show it what it’s got. Seeing it, it’s as if you never really saw a movie before: no movie has ever grabbed you, pummeled you, socked you on the button with the vitality, the accuracy, the impact, the professional aim, that this one does.

            Esquire (Gilbert Seldes): Welles has shown Hollywood how to make movies…. He has made the movies young again, by filling them with life.

            Cue (Jesse Zunser): It is an astounding experience to watch Orson Welles, 25-year-old Boy Genius of the Western World, in the process of creating on the screen one of the awesome products of his fertile imagination. You come away limp, much as if you had turned into Broadway and suddenly beheld Niagara Falls towering behind the Paramount Building, the Matterhorn looming over Bryant Park, and the Grand Canyon yawning down the middle of Times Square.

            Hollywood Reporter: A great motion picture…. A few steps ahead of anything that has been made in pictures before.

            Chicago Journal of Commerce (Claudia Cassidy): Anyone who has eyes in his eyes in his head and ears to hear with will enjoy Citizen Kane for the unleashed power of its stature on the screen.

Even Kate Cameron, in the Daily News, gave it four stars, and on Sunday, May 4th, Bosley Crowther (though he had some second thoughts of his own) wrote in the Times, “The returns are in from most of the local journalistic precincts and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane has been overwhelmingly selected as one of the great (if not the greatest) motion pictures of all time….” The Film Daily said, “Welles can prepare his mantel for a couple of Oscars.”

Friday, June 14, 2013

Marvel and Motown

I saw Iron Man 3 not long ago. The short verdict is: middle of the trilogy, closer to the first (which I liked a lot) than to the second (which I disliked a lot for story reasons I might go into later).

But the thing that really caught my eye about this and the other Avenger adjacent films is how carefully they've cultivated a house style. This really struck me with Thor and the Avengers. Both those films seemed like hybrids, halfway between Branaugh or Whedon and Favreau. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing (I greatly enjoyed both movies), but it was clear that the studio was making sure that the components of the megafranchise were compatible (perhaps even interchangable).

(I've spent a lot of time in marketing meetings and it has clearly warped the way I look at the world)

I mentioned the idea of house styles and cross promotion to Ultra Sonic Remote's Brian Phillips and he immediately came back with the perfect example. Motown was a company built by Berry Gordy on a house style that covered every aspect of the music from the recording to the finishing school that artists were required to attend. While the label was packed with creative people -- musicians, writers, producers -- the major decisions tended to be top-down and were designed to produce a consistent, coherent and marketable stream of quality pop music.

Like Marvel, Motown's house style was set up to promote cross promotion, whether on the radio, in the record store or on tour. This allowed them (also like Marvel), to hothouse promising acts, building them up by associating them with more established names.

There were artists who chafed at these restrictions. The most notable was probably Marvin Gaye who openly complained about both the music he was told to perform and the style he was forced to adopt (Gaye preferred to perform either standards or his own compositions, something he finally managed with great success with What's Goin' On).

Of course, lots of labels (and movie studios for that matter) have had a house style. Having one that succeeds seems to be the challenge.

High Frequency Trading

An exchange between Kevin Drum, Felix Salmon, and Karl Smith illuminates how it is possible for a group to extract rents by making the costs so diffuse that there is no clearly identifiable victim.  Karl Smith says it best:
Each time pro traders with proprietary information load up on one side of a trade they nick ever-so-slightly the return to the average Joe. Year-after-year it adds up to an environment where the average retail return is going to be lower than the average pro return. And, since the stock market is likely the best long term investment available to the average Joe, the average Joe’s best chance at financial success is diminished.
I think this conversation is a great example of how something marketed as providing a service (i.e. liquidity) can actually also be a way to extract rents from the market. 

Edging away from the genius hypothesis

There have long been two extremes in the possible views of Reed Hastings' tenure as co-founder and CEO of Netflix. The first is visionary media genius in the mode of Ted Turner; the second is someone who lucked into a couple of good ideas then started believing his own press. The Ted Turner hypothesis took another hit recently and it has nothing to do with Arrested Development not being as good as you remembered.

General interest original scripted programming may get most of the press, but, from a business standpoint the picture is quite mixed. Only a handful of cable channels have clearly turned a profit with that strategy and then only under a fairly special set of conditions and synergies. The real money in television is usually in less glamorous places like shows for kids.

Children's programming has always been one of, if not the main drivers of home theater dating back to the earliest days of television as a mass medium. Children tended to be voracious viewers and excellent (albeit indirect) targets for advertising. With the advent of cable and home video, television became even more heavily used as a quiet, unsupervised activity for small children.

Which is why this story from the Wall Street Journal is a much bigger deal than another season of House of Cards.
One day late last month, Kristin Johnson turned on Netflix Inc. NFLX -3.18% and was upset to find that programming from the Nick Jr. kids channel had disappeared from the streaming video outlet, including some of the favorite shows of her two young children.

Netflix and the channel's owner, Viacom Inc., VIAB -2.19% had failed to renew their licensing agreement covering a broad range of TV content. But on Tuesday, Viacom announced an agreement with Netflix's biggest online rival, Inc., AMZN -1.13% granting that company the streaming rights to hundreds of its shows, including exclusive rights to Nick Jr. programming.

I know we've hit this point a lot at Stat Views (particularly back when we were talking about Groupon and the Facebook IPO), but I think the topic's good for at least one more whack: press coverage drives stock prices but what drives press coverage is often weakly, and sometimes inversely, correlated with what makes a good investment. Buzz-heavy original programming would definitely seem to qualify.

If it loses its synergies with the DVD market (something it's been eager to do), Netflix will be facing an ugly competitive landscape. Hulu's a child of the big content providers. Amazon has the ecosystem and very deep pockets. All Netflix has is a big but unhappy customer base and a high profile but overrated corporate image. It can't afford to make mistakes.

A losing Nick Jr. is a doozy.

p.s. I just read Felix Salmon's recent piece on Netflix. I strongly disagree with where he ends up but it's an interesting argument. More later.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Anatomy of a spiral

While we're on the subject of costs spiraling out of control, here's a relevant post from Ken Levine (who knows a bit about television and movie production):
I once wrote an independent feature set in Bakersfield. I hired a line producer to come up with a budget. I almost passed out when I saw the final number. $10 million dollars. I was hoping for something like $40 thousand.

So I went through it line-by-line and saw that he approached this as if it were AVATAR. There were thousands allotted for plane flights… between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. First class yet. It’s an eleven-minute flight! Thousands were set aside for gifts. Towncars on stand-by, separate hair, make-up, and wardrobe people for each star.

And this was my favorite: There’s a half-page scene where a character comes out of a club at night following someone and discovers it’s so foggy he can’t see his hand in front of his face, and of course he loses the person. (Thick Tulie Fog is a Central California staple in the spring.) Again, a half page scene. The producer had it budgeted for $1 million. This was the conversation (almost verbatim):

Me: Why?

Producer: Are you kidding? Do you know the amount of fog machines I would have to rent to make fog that thick in an open area… and sustain it? Not to mention renting them from LA and hauling them up here and hiring extra personnel to man them. This is a huge undertaking. I hope I can do it for just a million.

Me: Uh huh. Okay, fine. But let me ask you, is there possibly any other way? Can you think of any other options for doing this scene?

Producer: No. Not really.

Me: (exploding) It’s FOG! We can’t SEE anything! Shoot it in the corner of a sound stage with one fog machine! Do it optically and don’t film anything! It’s FOG. At NIGHT.

Needless to say, I did not use his budget.

Required Reading

Alex Tabarrok. 

For the record, I partially disagree with this approach as I think we can go a long way under the assumption of homogeneous response and looking at average causal effects of medication treatment.  In a lot of ways this simplifies what could be a confusing nightmare to regulate.  It's a classic balance of harms: omitting some medications (false negatives) to reduce the number of drugs that are actually harmful (false positives).  Without infinite power you need to draw a line somewhere.

But if you are a defender of the traditional FDA it is actually imperative that you become familiar with the argument from personalized medication.  After all, it is the approach that is going to find all of your errors and may well lead to the updating of the current consensus.