Review: Walker Evans: Signs

A book review I wrote for CNN.com in 1998. I was fortunate to have attended an exhibit of his work at the High Museum in Atlanta prior to writing the review. The place was packed and you could hardly see the photographs. It helped me appreciate the book and the quality of the printing.

‘Walker Evans: Signs’

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Amazon.com. I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Photographer Exposes the Layers of Truth

‘Walker Evans: Signs’

‘With an essay by Andrei Codrescu’

(CNN) — Not long ago the High Museum in Atlanta hosted an exhibit of photographs by Walker Evans. As a collector of archival photographs, I was excited to have an opportunity to see such a large collection in one place. But I went on the last day of the exhibit and had to fight the crowd for even a brief glimpse of Evans’ work.

Now the J. Paul Getty Museum — holder of over 1,300 works by Evans — has published ‘Walker Evans: Signs’, featuring 50 photographs created primarily in the 1930s. It is a wonderful sample of Evans’ work — and far easier to peruse than a traveling exhibit.

Evans grew up surrounded by popular culture and imagery, his father worked in advertising, and his photography reflects this upbringing.

The images in ‘Signs’ are built around Evans’ fascination with things that, on their surface, seem almost mundane. And to the casual observer, these photographs might not have much to offer. For those with eyes to see, however, these works reveal America at a time when the people were only just beginning to become self-aware. What on the surface appears nothing more than advertising becomes, with Evans’ careful composition, nothing less than social commentary.

As Andrei Codrescu points out in his near-poetic essay; “The ‘masses,’ that ideology-laden, bottom-heavy notion of the thirties, underwent a thorough examination by Evans’ camera.” Evans had a knack for spotting the details in a scene that revealed more than a casual glance could ever catch. And it is the details that reveal the subtle truths about a moment in time.

From the streets of Cuba to the crowds of Times Square, Evans captures the essence of time and place, exposing the layers of truth hidden beneath the veneer of popular imagery. Take time to see what at first glance is not obvious, and the experience will be different every time you open the cover.

Review: W. Eugene Smith, Photographs, 1934-1975

A book review I wrote for CNN.com in 1999. One of the best photo-books I’ve ever seen, but it’s a lot more than that.

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Amazon.com. I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

‘W. Eugene Smith, Photographs, 1934-1975’

Unforgettable book combines art, artifact

(CNN) — “My station in life is to capture the action of life; the life of the world, its humor, its tragedy. In other words, life as it is. A true picture, unposed and real.”

These words, written by photographer Eugene Smith in a letter to his mother in 1936, represent both the high ideals of a young photographer, and the paradox that would threaten to undo him.

Smith, called by one essayist ‘The Arrogant Martyr,’ is perhaps one of the greatest photojournalist America has ever produced. In the years before his death in 1978, Smith chronicled 50 years of life and everything in it. 

From death to Bob Dylan, from the hell that was the war in the Pacific to the human tragedy of environmental disaster, and from the desperation of poverty to the style and beauty of celebrity, Smith’s camera eye captured the human experience one moment at a time. 

These moments have been gathered together into a new compendium, “W. Eugene Smith, Photographs, 1934-1975”. This new volume, published with the cooperation of Smith’s son and the Center for Creative Photography, in Tucson, Arizona, (where his work is archived) represents nothing less than a chronicle of America, and much of the world, in the middle years of this century.

As a war correspondent and pacifist, Smith chronicled the immense tragedy and human cost of the campaign in the South Pacific. He dared to photograph what the censors would never allow to be published during the war — images of the dead, in particular civilian casualties. 

This experience would mark the start of a long battle for editorial control over his work that Smith would not begin to win until his second stint with Life magazine — a battle which would ultimately change the very nature and process of photojournalism.

Smith traveled the world to find his subjects, all the while focused on his goal of capturing “the action of life.” This collection, published by Abrams, retrieves long-forgotten and never-published images from the obscurity of the past, blending images from his Life magazine photo essays with the shocking realities of a war with which many Americans were only partly familiar.

And yet the book is more than a mere collection of images. It is filled with essays detailing his life, his influences, his work, and his endless search for the truth. It is a combination of art and artifacts, well rendered and completely unforgettable. The essays will inform you, and the images will stay with you long after the pages are turned and the cover is closed.

This volume will be cherished not only by those with a passion for photography, but by anyone with a love of history and a need for truth — a truth that carries an emotional impact that transcends the time and space between the viewer and the viewed. 

What Are They Eating on Mars These Days?

Another flash fiction story on Flash Fiction Magazine. I made some revisions and gave it a new title, ,check it out at Flash Fiction Magazine or read it below the embed. This one is going to grow up to be a book one day.

Farewell, Hollywood

A body on the sidewalk was a common sight by the time I moved into the Roosevelt. Some weren’t quite dead and would reach out at you, it was best to walk in the street to keep your suit a little cleaner. The street was safe; the traffic had died with the people.

The dead littered the sidewalk like leaves in a New England fall, waiting to be collected. If nobody came, the thriving rat population got to work, a force multiplier for the plague. 

The stench of excrement and pot smoke that hung over Hollywood Boulevard had been replaced by something far worse. I could always tell when it was time to replace my filters.

Before the plague, the Roosevelt Hotel had been converted into luxury flats. They were nice, but the Roosevelt had become inexpensive, in line with demand. 

The glory of her restoration faded, along with the tenants and the rents. The papered walls and polished brass once again tattered and dull, dirty carpets removed. There was no one left to clean them and scant few left to care.  

The Roosevelt had a decon chamber where its grand entrance once stood. You didn’t take your suit off, just stepped in, got hosed, and you were all set. It was the last new thing in the building, notable for its regular maintenance.

I spent a lot of nights on the roof watching ships launch from Vandenberg. Once the rockets got going you could watch them burn their way to space, bound for Mars. 

The colony went silent a year into the plague. People, myself included, thought for sure they’d abandon the place and bring everyone back home. Then one day Mars sent a message. Something like “Come to Mars, everything’s hunky-dory.”

The wealthy went first, pretty much emptied out L.A., then the price dropped. By the fifth year people were lining up to buy tickets. 

When Davy got his chance, he bought a ticket of his own and left me the house, the furniture, the near-empty bank accounts, the cars, all of it. Signed it all over, said he didn’t give a damn. 

“If you change your mind, sell everything and come find me. The colony’s not so big, you’ll be able to track me down.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” was all I said. He walked through the airlock, climbed aboard the shuttle, and that was it. I tried to cry, but couldn’t manage it. 

That night I drove up the coast and into the mountains to watch. Four hundred feet of spacecraft, accelerating into the heavens, it blasted away with so much force it shook the earth beneath me and warmed the vibrating air around me.

Hadn’t heard a peep out of Davy since.

A few months later they stopped flying out of Vandenberg altogether and only launched out of Florida. There was a time they talked about launching from Texas, but that never happened. Even in a dying world, not too many people wanted to drive to Boca Chica, and everybody knows location is everything. 

Davy always had a nose for trouble. He sold his investments early on, hoarded cash, then bought gold. Not paper gold. He went for coins, ingots, and bars. He kept everything in a safe he installed in the basement.

I used to say you never lost money on an investment until you sold it. I guess I learned my lesson. By the time I realized the whole damn game was over, well, it was over.

I was broke long before Davy left. We fought about it all the time. “I told you to unload that shit,” Davy would scream at me. 

“I didn’t have a fucking crystal ball,” I’d scream back. 

“But I told you,” is where he usually left it. He was right, but that didn’t make it easier. He left me a stack of his coins to “tide me over,” but I figured gold would be worthless like everything else before long. Wrong again.

When I did sell everything, it didn’t fetch much. But when I moved into the Roosevelt, I felt a degree of security for the first time in years. That’s when I decided to buy more gold. 

I bought jewelry mostly, and I got pretty good at it. I didn’t so much buy it as take it off dead bodies and leave a few greenbacks stuffed in a pocket. Nobody gave a damn anymore, so why not? It was easy enough to clean.

Then the price of gold went through the stratosphere and like that, I was flush again. 

It helped I didn’t have to buy food. The military would drop crates of MREs from a helicopter every so often. It had to be a mistake. What didn’t go to the rats came mostly to me.  I thought I’d won the lottery when one of those crates contained a case of filters for my breather. I could go out in comfort again.

Things were looking up for me at that point.

I stayed at the Roosevelt even after they shut down Vandy. I was one of the few paying tenants left, which made it easy to knock the price down when the time came. 

For the next year I crawled the streets in my hazmat, haunted the gold exchange, ate freeze-dried food, and spent nights on the roof drinking gin and staring at the stars. 

Then my time was up. I dropped a few coins on a dying man for an electric truck with bulletproof glass, armor plating, high-density solar panels on the roof, and the best air scrubbers money could buy.

When I was loading up for my cross-country drive to Florida, piling cases of MREs into the truck bed, I wondered what they were eating up on Mars. 

All those new arrivals, they must have figured something out.

Early Summer

[My second flash fiction piece, published by The Dillydoun Review.]

I looked once, then again after a pause, and like each time before, he was just then approaching down the sidewalk.

I spin my head back to my book as if hiding my shame from some unknown witness. Yes, I was ashamed to want him, to see him even, walking by our little stoop.

Not ashamed to see him I suppose, but to be seen looking. My eyes couldn’t possibly hide my heart. 

His schedule had become irregular and tortuous, his timing twisting me into knots as I tried to time my reading to his arrival. I could never know, and often spent extra hours on the hard stone steps rising up to my family’s brownstone, trying to focus and not focus on whatever book I had that day. 

It was strange to be so alone and feel so encumbered by those around me all at once, so public felt my presence.

Yet there I sat, day after day, well-worn pages of my paperback in hand, like a bumblebee waiting for the first sign of spring, as if that happened every day.

He was not entirely handsome, yet somehow appealed to my most entrenched desires. Not terribly tall, but tall enough. Not slender or slight, but built just so, somewhere between beautiful and frightening. Athletic to be sure, but a bit grotesque with his wrestler’s ears. 

I didn’t mind that extra flesh aside his skull. It matched all the other thick and meaty parts and pieces I could see as he sauntered down the sidewalk towards me. 

That’s how I imagined it, him walking to me, not by me. In my mind he saw me as I saw him. Not in the same way, as a thing of beauty and majesty to witness and behold. Not that, given my condition. No, as I saw him in the moment – I witnessed his movement and, in that experience, he witnessed my stillness.

One day he did see me. 

His eyes were darker than I expected when they landed on mine for the first time. I meant to take note of this when it happened, not after, but he shattered my inner life with his smile.

He stopped, there on the walk, right at my feet, where I sat atop the rampart of my family fortress.

Perhaps I only imagined the rays of sunlight splashing around his shoulders, reflecting black sheen off his glossy cropped hair. If I did, it was a sweet dream of a moment. If I did not, then it was a glorious thing to know. 

He looked up and smiled, his slight olive skin flowing effortlessly into his close-cropped cut, all that tussle left atop his head, like brambles along the edge of a freshly topped road. 

Then he spoke, his voice flowing into me like the air I’d stopped breathing when he stopped walking.

“Hi,” he said, as if he planned it, “you’re Randy, Tommy’s little brother, right?”

I’d spent innumerable hours imagining our first conversation, playing out in my mind how it might happen, how I would impress and enthrall him with my genius, my erudite wit. 

When the time came, all I could say was “Yeah, he’s my brother. He’s a jerk.”

I cringed at my utter failure, knew all my dreams had just been ruined, felt my soul caving into nothing, blood rushed to my face and I was about to bolt into the refuge of our castle and was stopped cold when he said, “Yep, that’s Tommy alright,” a smile filled with knowing writ large across his face.

“So,” he went on, “watch ya doin’?”

I held up my book, Moby Dick, for him to see, incapable of speech. 

“Oh, yeah, guess I shoulda known, book in ya hand an all,” and now he was blushing.

In that moment, everything changed, a little. The universe shifted to one direction just a fraction of an inch and I knew he was just like me. Nervous and hopeful and wanting, all alone.

“Where ya goin’,” I asked, as if I didn’t know.

“I’m goin’ for a swim, down at L Street, wanna come with?”

“What,” I say to give my heart a chance to slow, “you got a membership down there?”

“Well yeah, my pops does, I wouldn’t be goin if I didn’t,” he tells me and I feel my face burn again.

“Cm’on,” he says, “I get to bring a pal anytime, whatdya say?”

Faced with the realization of a dream come true, I’m frozen into inaction born of one simple truth.

“I don’t have no suit,” I say, and it’s the truth.

“You don’t need one down L Street, it’s all fellas, everybody goes skinny,” he says with a smile that could win lotteries.

I set free my desire so it could crush my fear and say, projecting a casual air with as much success as someone caught stealing, “Okay, sure.”

“Let’s go then buddy, the free sodas ain’t gonna last long so we gotta get a move on.”

He sweeps one arm out southward toward the water and I stand, leaving my book to flutter its lost pages in the breeze on the stoop. I step down and rejoice when I find we’re almost the same height, me just a tad shorter. 

He throws his arm across my shoulders bringing heaven down upon me and we walk south together as he tells me all about the L Street Swimming club and how we’ll have so much fun and the sodas are free and I am already there before we reach the next block.

It’s early summer, and my life has just begun.

https://thedillydounreview.com/2021/05/03/early-summer/

The Future of Media Consumption, Part 3

Streaming Media – it’s time to get personal.

Before I dive into this topic, I feel the need to define a few basic terms, at least in terms of how I use them. In the streaming ecosystem, there are streaming services, streaming devices, and streaming apps. This is in addition to all the bits and pieces that enable those services, devices and apps. For purposes of this installment, I’m focusing on the end points in the ecosystem, not the infrastructure – infrastructure is an important topic I’ll get to in a later post. For now, I want to stay focused on the consumer experience.

Netflix, Disney+, Hulu (and Hulu + Live), YouTube TV are examples of streaming services. They can exist on devices, like smart TVs, Roku boxes, Apple TV and other connected or smart devices (like your phone). You can have these pretty much anywhere and everywhere. There is no Netflix device, Disney device, or Hulu device. These services can be SVOD (subscription VOD), AVOD (ad-supported), or some blending of the two.

For me, streaming devices are those that are dedicated to the delivery of streaming services to consumers. This excludes multi-purpose devices, like mobile phones, computers, and tablets. Think Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, and Roku, in no particular order.

Xbox, PlayStation, and Nvidia Shield TV are interesting players in this game as well, but only Nvidia Shield TV puts streaming front and center as it’s primary purpose, which is probably why, of these three, only Nvidia made it into both cnet’s “Best streaming device of 2020” list and PC Magazines The Best Media Streaming Devices for 2020.

And we can add into this mix devices like Xfinity Flex and the relatively new TiVo Stream 4k. More on these two later.

Which brings us to apps – applications you install on your devices to give you access to one or more streaming services or content providers. I differentiate content providers from services by their content source and availability. TBS, for example, has an app you can install on your Apple TV, but you can’t watch the content unless you have a paid TV subscription (like YouTube TV or Comcast cable), so while this is an app, it is not a stand-alone streaming service, or aggregation of services, so I’m excluding it and apps like it from this discussion. 

That all seems straightforward, until you start talking about apps like HBO Go, or services like Apple TV+, primarily because these brands have decided to try to confuse the hell out of viewers. 

I have an Apple TV, and on it there’s an app called Apple TV+, and within that app there are other apps, like “Movies” and “Music” (spawned by iTunes) that enable the purchase or rental of content, as well as original content from Apple, which makes Apple TV+ a streaming service that you can access on other devices, like Amazon Fire TV. But don’t try to rent a movie from the Apple TV+ app on Fire TV – you have to make your purchase through an Apple device, like you phone, in order for it to show up in your library. Unless you’re using Apple TV. 

With me so far? 

Here’s my pointthe streaming space is crowded and confusing, and getting worse. The user experience, in fact, the entire device, app, and service eco-system, is in dire need of clarity and simplicity. 

Let’s look at a recent example of my own TV viewing. 

We’ve been binge watching Suits. Don’t ask me why, just try not to judge. Binge watching nine years of anything is a bad idea, take my word for it.

Binge watching Suits, via Amazon Prime Video, on an Amazon Fire TV 4k stick. One Saturday evening we finished Season 8, and the next day we wanted to start Season 9. To be clear, I knew Season 9 was the last season, but I did not know it just ended in 2019. 

Which is why I was surprised to find it was unavailable to me, unless I purchased it, in Amazon Prime Video or another pay VOD service. What? I have to pay for this to watch in Amazon Prime Video? I didn’t have to pay for it for the first 8 seasons because I’m a Prime subscriber. Now what? 

YouTube TV to the rescue! Back out of the Prime Video app, open the YouTube TV app, scroll through the live channels, click on the USA Network logo, and, like magic, there’s a menu item right there, just for Suits. Click that and you have arrived at your destination – Suits Season 9, free for the watching. 

Free, if you don’t count the ads. Your cost to watch the last season this way is to watch ads. Surprisingly, there weren’t very many! This great! 

Unfortunately, the same ad with the same music played in every break – one ad, over and over again. It was almost soul-crushing. I know the bills have to be paid, but this was rough. This issue – dynamic ad insertion and ad frequency – is a topic that deserves its own article.

Let’s look at another example from my recent experience – HBO Max. 

HBO Max is not available as a stand-alone app on Fire TV. When I was a Hulu + Live subscriber, I also subscribed HBO, which gave me access to HBO Go, plus HBO’s linear channels within Hulu + Live. 

When I switched to YouTube TV, I purchased HBO Now as a stand-alone app, which meant I no longer had HBO linear channels. When HBO Max launched, it became available as an add-on to my YouTube TV subscription, for the same price I was paying for HBO Now. Awesome! 

I cancelled HBO Now, added HBO Max to my YouTube TV subscription, and the entire Warner Media universe became available to me, instantly. Content from TCM, TBS, TNT, HBO, Warner Brothers –  a smorgasbord of media! And it integrated seamlessly with my YouTube TV subscription on my Amazon Fire TV. 

Yeah, that’s a lot. And as of July 31, all of that will change. HBO Go goes away, HBO Now becomes just plain old HBO. At least there’s movement toward simplicity.

It took me ten minutes to find “Cowboys and Aliens.” (Don’t knock it ’til you’ve watched it!)

HBO Max, when displaying content for on demand viewing, sorts titles by “relevance” – which makes is near impossible to find anything quickly. Who decided to make this the default sort order, and how they determine “relevance” is a complete mystery to me.

Where’s my content? How do I find it? What should I watch? How should I watch it? 

The problem is “findability.” 

Peter Morville, in the preface to “Ambient Findability,” talks about the massive amount of content floating around in the world and makes the point about his own book that “Most folks are more likely to win the lottery than find this book.”

The same is true for movies and TV shows. Do you decide what to watch, then go look for it, or do you go looking for something to watch, with a vague idea of what you want? Action-Adventure tonight, or romantic comedy? Movie night, or find a series to start binging? How about a nice documentary?

Either way, unless you know where to look, you could spend precious time looking, and less time watching. Start early! 

Recommendations, on some streaming services, are actually pretty good – sometimes. But these are based on factors like viewing habits and viewer profiles. They can’t account for the current “state of mind” of a viewer, and the viewer has no way to communicate this to the recommendation engine. And these engines tend to exist within an app or service, with no interconnection between a viewer’s (potentially) multiple apps, channels and subscriptions. 

The Apple TV app (not to be confused with Apple TV+) on the Apple TV device attempts to solve part of the findability problem, but falls short in that it can’t tell me if the content it’s presenting to me is actually available to me, or if I will need yet another subscription or app to watch it. Also, it has never made a solid recommendation that I’ve noticed, and it doesn’t add enough value for me to rely on it for anything meaningful. 

Both the Xfinity Flex and TiVo Stream 4k claim to aggregate content in such a way as to make it more easily searchable, across all the services on the device. Sounds great! Too bad I can’t get all my services on these devices. I get it – why would TiVo or Xfinity allow me to install YouTube TV or Hulu + Live on their devices when what they really want me to do is switch to Sling or Peacock, or, in the case of Xfinity, subscribe to cable TV?

No matter how good a device is at findability, clarity and simplicity, it’s useless to me without the services I want.

Chance also plays an important role in “findability,” at least for my household. Paramount’s excellent series “Yellowstone” had its Season 3 premiere last night, June 21. I do not have this channel on YouTube TV, so I planned to purchase the season. Low and behold, while looking for Season 6 of “Schitt’s Creek” I discovered “Yellowstone” in the live channel schedule. I just added the show to my library – problem solved. Imagine an AI trying to make sense of my viewing habits, just based on the shows, networks, and services I’ve mentioned in this article! I know it won’t be easy.

Wouldn’t it be great – and make lots of sense – if I could interact with the streaming ecosystem in my home in a way that improved both findability AND recommendations? 

My Amazon Fire TV could have awareness of my apps and subscriptions, I could provide some profile information – as much or little as I’m comfortable with – and when I wanted to watch something, I could provide basic “state of mind” data. 

It could look something like this – I have YouTubeTV, with HBO Max, as well as Netflix, CBS All Access and Prime Video. I tell my Fire TV I’m in the mood for a sci-fi comedy-action movie and the Fire TV could recommend movies like “Galaxy Quest,” “Men in Black,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” And because I have a history of watching classics and zombie movies, the list will include “Zombieland,” “Night of the Comet,” “Back to the Future,” and “Young Frankenstein.” 

And this list will not only tell me which of my services has each film, it will tell me if, and how much, it will cost me to watch them. Even better, all I have to do is select the one I want and it plays – no more bouncing through menus to get to the content, it all just happens on the back-end. 

How nice would that be?

Here’s the dark cloud hanging over all of this – this situation does not bode well for content creators. 

New shows or films are easily lost in the flood of content washing over the internet, cable TV, and, of course, streaming services. 

Poor findability, high complexity, massive volume, and the sheer cost of creating quality content – all of these combine to raise the level of risk for content creators. Is it any wonder, then, that studios tend toward known entities when choosing what to produce?  Existing franchises, content created from popular books, or even remakes of former hits, all have a better chance of making it to the screen – and getting the marketing budget to draw an audience – than new, original titles. 

I’m certain there are great TV shows and movies I’ll never hear about simply because there is so much content in so many places. I have spent more time looking for something to watch then it takes to actually watch it. Hasn’t everyone?

Which is why I’m just as likely to put on “Big Bang Theory” or “North Woods Law” until I figure out what else to watch. Easy to find, costs me nothing, and fits my general TV-watching needs (to be entertained and/or informed, or both). This. is my version of the two-screen experience: put the TV on… something…, then surf through ll my services on a tablet until I figure out what I want to watch.

So, conclusions:

The streaming media ecosystem is a mess. 

The playing field is crowded with services, devices and content.

Findability is a major problem.

Content creators have serious headwinds.

Some ideas:

Robust interoperability between services, devices and applications. Would an industry standard API help?

Improve the search and recommendation processes. Not only the processes, but the way they are triggered and the functionality of the results. Give me the ability to interact with these processes in real-time in a meaningful way, and give me results that are actionable. But is the metadata good enough for this? I don’t think so, which is both a problem and an opportunity. 

Make apps and services more social. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched a show or movie just because someone recommended it to me. Make that simpler, even integrated, and new content might have an easier time finding an audience. 

Predictions:

Some streaming services will not survive. PlayStation Vue will not be the last to shutter. This is an easy prediction because consolidation is already happening. Both StreamingMedia.com and IBC.org have excellent reporting on the challenges the industry is facing.

Along these same lines, content providers and streaming services, like Apple, Netflix and Warner Media, will eventually get their act together and declutter the eco-system. But not until consumers give them a push in the right direction. 

The findability problem will be solved, but will it be solved across services and devices, or will it be piecemeal, on a per-service basis? I think the latter, because there’s no incentive for cooperation – yet. 

I believe there’s money to be made here if a solution can be found that works across the eco-system. But without a cooperative effort, or at least an open API or common standard, it’s an uphill battle, at best. 

The Future of Media Consumption, Part 2

Linear TV is Going Places.

First, the bad news: Cord-cutting is accelerating, audience measurement methodology is in flux, networks are dying, and pay TV companies like DISH, Verizon Fios, and others, continue to do battle with content providers over subscriber fees (which never seem to go down).

Let’s take these one at at time, starting with cord cutters/nevers.

All the data points to an increase in consumers who no longer want to pay for cable TV. The number of people who say they will never pay for cable TV (the cord-nevers) is increasing as well.  Nocable.org has some interesting data on this topic for 2020, and the trend is clear as day – millions of people are either dropping their cable or satellite TV packages, or are never going to buy them in the first place. That may not seem like breaking news today, but it wasn’t that long ago, in the grand scheme of things, that at least industry leader dismissed the notion of streaming services poaching customers. (To be fair, a lot has changed since 2013).

This doesn’t mean people don’t want linear TV. It just means they want to pay less for it. And households are willing to pay for multiple streaming services to get what they want, and presumably eliminate some of the network clutter. Last October, Parks Associates released a study on this topic, the results of which were reported by Deadline. The bottom line: the trend in cord-cutters or cord-nevers doesn’t mean people are flocking to just one service. The rise in households paying for multiple services tracks pretty well with the rise in people leaving cable and satellite behind. Full disclosure – mine is one of these households. We have YouTube TV, Netflix, CBS All Access, Amazon Prime, AppleTV+, and now HBO Max. 

Now that I write that, I need to have my head checked. Some of those are gonna have to go.

Many of the services in the market today have linear networks as part of their offering, the most notable exception being Netflix. Disney+ subscribers can get linear networks by bundling Hulu + Live, and HBO Max includes the HBO linear networks if you add the services to your YouTube TV subscription. Side note here – not only is HBO Max via YouTube TV the same price as the stand-alone HBO Max service, this makes it available on Amazon’s FireTV as well, as part of the YouTube TV app. 

While it seems like a new streaming service hits the market every month, there’s just some content you want to watch live, namely sports, and that content usually comes with heavy licensing fees that large media companies are able to afford. There are exceptions, like Amazon’s (very limited) NFL offering, and DAZN’s exceptional collection of boxing cards, but ultimately if you want to watch major league sports live, you’ll need a service with linear TV channels. The same is true if you want a full slate of college sports, although direct-to-consumer may be a growth area for some athletic associations or conferences. 

And if sports isn’t your cup of tea, then consider news. One could argue there are flaws in the 24/7 news cycle, but these linear networks give us the ability to see the bigger picture, and follow live, developing stories in a more comprehensive and first-hand way than any social media platform can do, as yet. In the midst of nationwide protests, outbreaks of violence, a raging pandemic, all while approaching a national election, linear news networks are proving their worth, no matter which slice of the political spectrum you favor. 

Bottom line – viewers may be cutting the cord or avoiding it altogether, but that doesn’t mean they’re ditching linear TV. If you doubt this, then explain how four guys playing golf in the rain managed to set a cable TV ratings record. “The Match 2020” brought in huge numbers, possibly inflated by a dearth of live sports during the pandemic, but that only supports the point – people will follow the content they want, and in this case, it was a charity golf match. By the way, if you want a quick but interesting read on “The Match 2020” ratings, check out author Geoff Shackleford’s excellent piece on ratings and millennial viewers.

One important question: how does the movement toward streaming services impact advertising? 

It really comes down to how you measure an audience and, as a result, how much advertisers pay. In other words, it’s all about the data. 

I’m not going to go into detail about TV advertising in the digital age – the good people at Wingman Media have already done this, so if you want a deep dive, there it is. Given the complexity of the advertising game these days, it’s worth a read. 

Data is more than just a value-add for content providers to deliver to advertisers, it’s money in the bank. Know your audience, know their habits, their likes and dislikes, and you’ll be able to deliver ads that resonate, as well as deliver the audience your advertisers want to target. We’re already moving beyond the “18-49” demo as the gold standard. 

Data, and ever more intelligent use of it, is enabling new frontiers in advertising. Addressable TVs, connected devices, and Automatic Content Recognition (ACR) are just some of the ways content providers and platform owners can enhance ad revenue and improve ad performance. 

Way back in 2018, Alan Wolk wrote a great article for Forbes on the topic of ACR on Smart TVs – hindsight is 2020, so it’s easy for me to disagree with some of his predictions today, but the article is still a good read, and ACR will still be a game changer, I just don’t think the Smart TV revolution has ever really taken off. I’m speaking anecdotally – I have two smart TVs and never use their smart features, and the same is true for most of the people I know who have them. With that said, Wolk’s conclusion that ACR “should help get the industry to the holy grail of fewer, better-targeted ads that brands will pay more money for” is spot-on. 

The move away from ratings towards impression-based measurement is good for everyone in the industry, including the consumer. Content providers, including local broadcasters, will have more accurate data about their audience, advertisers will spend their money more effectively, and consumers will (presumably) have a better linear viewing experience via more appropriately targeted ads. 

And yet, as most people understand, advertising isn’t the only way linear networks make money. Subscriber fees are both the best and worst thing to happen to television since the invention of the remote control. These fees, paid to content providers by services that carry their networks, drove the explosive growth in the industry as cable expanded to more and more households. 

Unfortunately, these fees have been going up ever since, and have caused tremendous friction between cable companies and content providers during contract negotiations. You don’t have to look far into the past to find examples of pay TV operators and networks duking it out, publicly, as they failed to come to terms. Comcast, in its fight with Starz, pointed to that network’s “making its content available a-la-carte on Amazon Prime and Roku and selling its service direct to the consumer through the Starz app” as a core component of their dispute.

These battles, even as pay TV subscriber numbers are declining, is multifaceted. Some networks are killed off because they’ll never be profitable (R.I.P. Esquire), that’s pure economics – not enough eyes on the screen, not enough money to survive. And remember the fallout from DISH’s battle with Univision in late 2018? Nine months, and 360k+ lost subscribers later, they made a deal. The consumer, when it comes to these fights, either loses content (Univision had news and sports their viewers loved, in addition to entertainment content) or pays increased rates, or both. 

These fees exist for linear networks on streaming services, but these services, like YouTube TV, tend to have fewer networks and, based on the Comcast vs Starz throw down, one could infer the fees are lower. Sling (formerly Sling TV), a DISH product, has organized their offering into tiers designed to appeal to segments of the total TV audience. I personally couldn’t make that tier system work for my household, but plenty of other people have. 

I wouldn’t call these offerings, other than perhaps Sling’s smallest tier, “skinny bundles,” although that term can be loosely applied to all of them since they tend to offer fewer networks than traditional cable and satellite operators. Whatever you call it, these new services provide a more focused offering for the consumer, getting viewers closer to a world in which they pay for what they want, and not for what they don’t. 

These new services offer easy service start and cancellation, with no contracts, something that still isn’t true for cable TV, another positive for the consumer. 

One problem I see, as a former Hulu + Live and now YouTube TV customer – empty ad pods. This should never happen, and yet it happens with great frequency. The reasons can vary, and I could spend (and probably will spend) an entire article on this topic alone. Suffice it to say these are lost dollars, and lost dollars have to be made up elsewhere. You can’t leave money on the table in one of the most competitive games on the planet. 

A final topic before my summary – the Comcasts of the world have a competitive advantage, a way to maintain, even increase, revenue as they lose pay TV subscribers.

What traditional cable providers have, that these services don’t, is connectivity. While YouTube TV provides my linear TV, cloud DVR service and OnDemand TV, Xfinity is my internet service provider (ISP). And for now, they’ve got a virtual lock on my business, and not because they’re the only, or cheapest, provider in my area. They give me all the stable bandwidth I can possibly use, and make it easy for me to get it.

Only a few streaming service providers can make money on both sides of the coin. ATT, as an ISP, had 15.8 million broadband subscribers in 2018 and their HBO Max, to which I subscribe, looks to me like a hit, despite some early issues with branding and availability. WarnerMedia, backed by parent ATT, has deep pockets and will fix their issues in due course. If ATT can bring more customers into the fold via this offering, that 15.8 could grow quickly, especially with the promise of 5G on the horizon. 

Comcast is an altogether different beast. After adding an astonishing 442,000 broadband subscribers in Q4 2019, against a loss of 149,000 pay-TV subscribers, Comcast’s gain in broadband subscribers for the year clocked in around 1.2 million, bringing their total broadband subscriber number to somewhere north of 28 million. This puts their broadband revenue of $4.8 billion to within striking distance of parity with their pay-TV revenue of $5.5 billion. You can read more about this on FierceTelecom. No wonder then that Comcast is entering the streaming game with their “Peacock” service. Will Peacock be a winner in the streaming wars to come? Maybe. Does Comcast have the deep pockets to ride it out until other services fail? Absolutely. That’s why they made it free for Xfinity Internet customers, like me. Which begs the question, which subscription service will I drop if I end up liking Peacock?

Conclusions:

Cord-cutters and cord-nevers are increasing, but this doesn’t cut cable companies out of the game. Frankly, being an ISP looks more profitable, especially for cable companies with an already large customer base. This trend will continue, but some streaming services will get buried by the avalanche of cash some players can bring to the fight. It doesn’t matter if you have the best hand when you can’t call the bet. 

A combination of new advertising models and technology will continue to arise from the move to streaming from traditional broadcast/cable, giving linear networks new ways to better target their audiences with both ads and content. This will provide new sources of, or incremental growth in, revenue for content providers. The key will be solid, detailed, actionable data, and a tech stack that can take advantage of it, both on the provider side and the platform side of the equation. Companies that make this happen will be building a better mousetrap, and everyone will win. 

Subscriber fees will continue to be problematic. Costs go up all the time, and the cost of content is no exception, which is why it makes sense for content providers to want more for their networks. It’s a vicious cycle – great programming can cost big bucks, on top of the cost of delivering that content to the operator. But consumers have shown a willingness to pay for content they want, and streaming services may have already shown the way forward – more focused offerings, either through fewer networks or via tiered offerings. I’m not advocating for an “a la carte” model, but give me the ability to pay for just what I want, in a broad sense, and I’ll take that deal. I think enabling customers to choose sports bundles, movie bundles, news, etc., is already happening, to some extent, either within a service, like Sling, or by building a custom bundle of streaming services, similar to what Disney is offering via their ESPN+, Disney+ and Hulu bundle. This trend will continue and expand. For what it’s worth, if they offered live college football on ESPN+, I’d already be a customer of this bundle, but at $12.99 per month, I don’t see that happening any time soon – the dollars don’t make sense. One could argue that this is possible simply by adding Hulu + Live to the bundle, instead of Hulu, but that blows the entry-level price point out of the water. Still, if the price where right, I’d consider it.  

Which brings me to my last point – it’s a great time to be a TV viewer. The options are growing, even as some networks die off. There’s more content than can possibly be consumed, and more ways than ever to consume it. All of which means one thing – linear TV isn’t going away, it’s expanding to new platforms and services. No matter how many of these platforms fail or survive, linear TV will still be with us.

We’ll just be watching in different places.

Coming Soon: Streaming Media – this time, it’s personal.

The Future of Media Consumption, Part 1

Theaters Aren’t Dead – Yet.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of media consumption. What are we going to watch, where will we watch it, and what does that mean for content providers, service providers, and content creators.

For some parts of the media industry, the Golden Age is just beginning, while for others, troubled times lie ahead, or have already started. 

But not all that glitters is gold, and not all gloom is doom. 

Let’s start with theaters. 

Theaters, as an endpoint in the distribution of content, are not dead – yet. But recent pandemic-related events may be a harbinger of things to come. 

After spending most of my life in a sort of love affair with the movie-going experience, I stopped going to movie theaters. The notable exception was a visit to the TCL Theater in Hollywood during the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2019. The film was 1989’s “Steel Magnolias.” I didn’t go for the movie – though I enjoyed it. I went to experience a classic theater, and to hear the screenwriter Robert Harling talk about the genesis of the film.

I’m not alone in forgoing theaters. Both revenue and attendance at theaters were down for 2019 – 4% and 4.6% respectively. That’s not the full story – theater attendance was still an astonishing 1.244 billion – yes billion – in 2019. With an average ticket price hovering just over $9, theaters are still big business. 

Which is probably why AMC, followed by Cineworld (parent to Regal Theaters) decided to go to war with Universal and ban that studio’s movies from their theaters after NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell, when discussing pay video on demand platforms (PVOD), told the Wall Street Journal “As soon as theaters reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats.” I don’t see how this battle helps Regal or AMC, whose stock jumped at the mere potential for Amazon to consider buying them. For the record, we’ve heard this song before. I’ll talk more about Amazon in another post.

Netflix already got into the theater game when they purchased the last single screen theater in New York, the Paris Theatre, last year. Netflix followed that move with the purchase of the “legendary” Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles this year. Netflix isn’t buying a theater chain because they don’t need one. All they need are theaters in which to premier their own films, largely so they can be eligible for Academy Awards. (Although this is another change brought on by the pandemic). It helps that Netflix seems to have a genuine fondness for nostalgic venues.

Ticket prices are up, attendance is down, and people are scared. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, data indicates people would rather watch a first run movie at home then go to a theater. This consumer attitude will persist, even if re-opened cinemas take extra precautions – like limiting capacity to 60% or less. The trend runs against growth in the theater business.

The decline is not unique to the U.S. market. As recently as November 2019, the Chinese box office was predicted to exceed America’s, becoming the largest in the world. With hundreds of theaters already out of business, it’s been a “bitter winter” for the industry in mainland China, while consumers flock to alternatives, like Netflix. (UPDATE: my original post did not include the link to the CNBC article I used as source material for this assertion. My point, although Netflix is not officially available in China, was that Netflix is creating content for, and delivering content to, China and the broader Mandarin language market via a multi-faceted strategy, and viewers who would otherwise visit a theater are consuming content available on streaming services.

After all, when you can release an animated sequel that hauls in $100 million in three weeks, and only cough up 20% to the PVOD platform, the studio’s likely to take that same risk again with future releases. Disney’s decision to release its $75 million film version of “Hamilton” direct to consumer via its Disney+ platform, while based on multiple factors, further supports this notion. 

Money talks, it’s just that simple. 

But the theater experience isn’t dead, and it doesn’t have to die. Like everyone else in the business, theaters need to adapt. It’s too soon to tell if the recent drive-in movie revival will be sustained, but the success of these offerings, right now, is a good sign. People will get off their sofas and go see a movie, if conditions are right. 

Companies like AMC and Regal need to stop fighting with studios and figure out what those conditions are, or should be.

Here are some ideas to kick around:

 – Reduced capacity isn’t just a good idea during a pandemic – it’s a good idea in general. Watch people fill in seats at a theater and you’ll notice something important – people don’t want to rub elbows with strangers if they can avoid it. It’s the same reason no one likes the middle seat on an airplane. We like our personal space.

 – Lower ticket prices. This may be the third rail, but ticket prices have been going up for years – how’s that worked out so far? You don’t have to slash and burn – just offer up incentives like multi-ticket discounts for families or friend groups, or deep discounts for matinees – remember those? And I mean real matinees, not just shows before noon. Get creative! You can make it up on concessions. 

 – Lower prices at the concession stand, and deliver smaller portions. I don’t need a gallon of popcorn and two gallons of soda, or a pound of candy. I quit buying concessions long before I quit going to theaters. When the all-in cost of seeing a movie in a theater hits $25, or more, per person, staying home just makes economic sense. Add this to the logistics of going to a theater, and it’s easy to see the picture developing. 

 – Don’t just think outside the box – get outside the box. Drive-ins may not be the answer, or maybe they are. It’s worth considering, if for no other reason than to gain a better understanding of today’s movie-goer. 

Just some ideas to consider. 

Theaters aren’t dead yet, but they’re wounded. Now is not the time for theater companies to take up new fights, especially ones they can’t win. It’s also not the time to ignore the changing wants and needs of the consumer, not to mention the changing economics of the industry. No matter what, this industry will not come back completely from the pandemic-induced decline. Shrinkage was already happening and will continue, even after the current situation normalizes. Independent theaters and small chains won’t be the only ones to shutter – the big players are going to feel the pain too.

My suggestion to theaters – find new opportunity in the changing environment, and, more importantly, refocus laser-like on the consumer experience.

Because technology is already finding ways to create a shared viewing experience from the comfort of one’s home. Hulu is already testing their “Watch Party” feature, while a browser plug called Scener enables co-watching of Netflix (with potential expansion to HBO) by up to 20 users. Even Plex is getting in on the act with their new Watch Together feature.

Create something that exceeds expectations, and can’t be recreated in the living room, and the current trend could change.

But keep in mind, TV’s are getting bigger, better, and less expensive, every year. 

Up Next – Linear TV Is Going Places