Please come have a look at my essay for Netflix in Wired HERE.
I read with interest remarks by Maurice Levy (pictured) on how he thinks about life after the failure of the Omnicom -Publicis merger.
“We have a strategy, and we will accelerate that strategy. It calls for strengthening our digital operations to reach 50% of our revenue [from 40% currently], and investing in big data and accelerating the capabilities we have in integration.”
Levy knows much more about the industry and about Publicis than I ever will and I defer to his greater knowledge. But I have to say these remarks sent a chill through me.
There’s no question that the digital revolution continues and that it will change everything we know about marketing, advertising and communications.
It is also true, as I have been laboring to show the last couple of days, that there is a revolution taking place in old media as well. TV is changing at light speed. (See posts here, here, and here.)
It looks as if Levy is concentrating more on the digital revolution than the TV revolution. To be sure, this is a bias that has swept through the advertising business. A new generation came up, insisting that it was now going to be all digital advertising all the time, that the 30 second spot was done for, and that TV was now just another victim of the technological revolution. New media fundamentalists scorn old media and especially TV.
(Just to be clear, I am no old media apologist. My book Culturematic assumes new media. No culturematic is possible without new media as a means and an end.)
The trouble with new media fundamentalism is that it misses what is perhaps the single biggest story concerning popular culture in the last 10 years. Against the odds, and in the teeth of the hostility of the chattering classes, TV got better.
And this revolution means several things. That consumers as viewers are getting steadily smarter. That they are now accustomed to and expectant of a new order of story telling. I think it’s far to say that old media is still better at telling stories than new media. This is another way of saying that old media (both TV and advertising) may have been trailing new media…but that they suddenly caught up.
I know some readers are going to take this as the voice of reaction, an attempt to return the old order to former glory. So just to be clear. I’m NOT saying that old media is better than new media. What I am saying is that those who now diminish old media because of the rise and great success of new media are missing something. And just to be really clear: as cultural creatives, as content creators, whether they like it or not, new media fundamentalists can’t afford to make this error. They are after all in the business of NOT MISSING THINGS, ESPECIALLY THINGS AS BIG AS THIS. Sorry for shouting, but there is a new media orthodoxy in place and shouting is sometimes called for.
And no, this is not an argument that says advertising was perfect just the way it was. There is work to be done in the world of old media, lots of work. Remember when the ads on a show were often better than the show? These days have mostly passed. Now the ad surrounded a show looks shouty, simple minded and a little clueless. Like it doesn’t know what is going on around it. Like a revolution took place and the brand and the advertiser didn’t notice. Oh, if there is something that is NOT ALLOWED in the branding and advertising business, it’s not noticing.
So it’s not as if anyone wants us to go back to old media circa Mad Men and the 1950s. Old media must now evolute as ferociously as new media. To catch up. To keep up. That revolution on TV tells us that our culture is changing in ways no one anticipated at speeds no one thought possible. And anyone in the communications game (using old media or new media) is going to have evolve in something like real time.
Our culture is becoming a hot house. Those who want to contribute will have to flourish to do so. It makes me think of that Wieden and Kennedy moment after a recent SuperBowl. W+K had floated that Old Spice ad and as they looked at the tidal wave of online content they have provoked, they thought, “Damn. Better get on this.”
A group of them retired to a building somewhere and just started turning stuff out. Call and response. Call and response. Real time marketing.
This may be where we are headed. There are so many things in play, and they are moving at such speed, concatenating in ways we can’t anticipated, this is perhaps not the time to up your digital bet, Mr. Levy. In this very dynamic world, we want to use all our media all the time.
Yesterday, I suggested we’re getting better at watching TV.
This lead me to wonder: how much TV do you have to watch to get good at watching TV? And this lead to: how much TV have we watched?
If my figures are correct, we have watched around 30,000 hours by the end of our 20s. And 50,000 hours by the end of our 30s. And nearly 70,000 hours by the end of our 40s. By life’s end (assuming that’s around 80), you’ve watched over 100,000 hours. (I am discounting generational differences.)
Malcolm Gladwell says we need 10,000 hours to get good at something. We pass that figure in childhood.
But of course there is no simple relationship between watching and expertise. “Garbage in, garbage out”, as we used to say. Bad TV is as likely to “dumb us down” as it was to confer more sophisticated taste.
But I think there is some relationship. Unless we were truly brain dead, we couldn’t help noticing how bad TV often was, how wooden the characters, how much screen-time was being devoted to that paean to stupidity, the car chase. In this case, “stupid in” gave us, in some cases, “clever out.”
How many hours did this revelation (the one that said that TV was a little thin) take? Probably more than 10,000. (And of course it would in any case. Gladwell’s figure applies to the pursuit of mastery. Lying in front of a TV does not qualify.) That would be mean we come out of childhood as witless viewers, grateful for pretty much anything that’s on.
It begins with a simple act of noticing. “God, that was a long car chase” would qualify. Or, in the language of family vacation now applied to car chases, “how much longer!” And this is the first act of active viewing. Scrutinizing something we see on the screen. Seeing that something as a choice, a choice made by someone. Seeing the choice as something we might make differently, that we could make better.
This begins as a tiny current of consciousness, a small voice in the back of one’s mind. But eventually there is a kind of acceleration and the viewer shifts more and more from passive to active. We watch enough (and this “enough” might be 10,000 hours, which would make Gladwell’s condition the beginning, not the end of mastery) and at some point, we go “really, that’s it?” And now gradually, we begin to use our cognitive surplus, as Clay Shirky would use the term, to do other things. Now we always see the tedium of the car chase and we begin to use this “interlude” for other acts of noticing and contemplation. “Why do we only see her left profile?” “What is the deal with the way he says ‘immediately’?”
The necessary condition for better TV is in place. Viewers are paying attention. But the sufficient condition is better writers and producers. And this is another story. I think of these people as ham radio operators, desperately pouring a signal into TV land, hoping that someone somewhere will get this subtle bit of dialog. And eventually a signal returns.
Eventually, viewers and these writers find one another and a virtuous cycle is set in motion. A number of shows emerge: Hill Street Blues (1981), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997), The Wire (2002), Arrested Development (2003). TV gets better and by the turn of the century, writers and viewers have found one another. And now the entire system changes. With better, richer TV in place, someone has probably logged the hours they need for mastery quite early on. But the end of your teens certainly.
Thoughts and comments, please.
Rest in peace:
Ned Stark (Sean Bean) on Game of Thrones
DS Riply (Warren Brown) on Luther
Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) on Homeland
Will (Josh Charles) on The Good Wife
Zoe (Kate Mara) on House of Cards
Peggy (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and Lamar (Powers Boothe) on Nashville
James (Dan Bucatinsky) on Scandal
Moira (Susanna Thompson) on Arrow
Allison (Crystal Reed) on Teen Wolf
The characters of TV are falling. No one is safe. Zoe on House of Cards appeared to be a character so dear to our hearts, so embedded in the HoC narrative, she was safe from harm. This made her death on a subway platform in the first episode of the new season especially shocking.
The old convention was clear. TV was bound by a contract. Once the audience had connected to a character, once we had identified with that character, the character got a pass. Nothing bad could ever happen to them. They were safe from harm. Especially on a subway platform. Well, everywhere really.
But now that so many of these TV characters are dying, something is clearly up. Melissa Maerz of Entertainment Weekly sees dark motives. She believes that shows use these deaths as a way to goose ratings and build buzz. These deaths, she suggests, may be “gimmicks.”
Maybe. We could look at this another way. In the old TV, characters represented an investment and an achievement. In spite of its creaky, often predictable mechanics and talent shortages, TV managed to make a creature we found credible. Life was created. (Even if it did resemble the work of Dr. Frankenstein.)
In fact, writers weren’t all the good at creating new characters. And we, as viewers, weren’t all that good at grasping these characters. This was, after all, an era of creative scarcity. In this world, characters got a pass not for humane reasons, but because they were triumphs against the odds. Once we writers and viewers had conspired to cocreate a character, whew, job done, and let’s not put this miracle at risk.
But these days, show runners and writers are less like Dickensian accountants, and more like drunken lords of endless liberality. “You don’t like that character, well and good. How about this one? Want another? I’ll work something up over lunch.” The new creative potentiality on tap in TV is virtually depthless.
Why? Better writers have come to TV. All writers have more creative freedom. Every show runner is eager to take new risks. They recruit the writers who can help them do so. Actors are demanding new and juicier roles. The industry is a little less an industry and now a creative community, where the depths of talent are so extraordinary something fundamental has changed. This world (and our culture) has gone from one of scarcity to one of plenty.
And we viewers are helping. We got better too. We are smarter, more alert, better at complexity, unfazed by novelty, and apparently, so possessed of new cognitive gifts that you can throw just about anything at us and we will rise to the occasion.
We viewers may once have struggled to master the complexities of a show, and resented anyone who taxed us with new characters. Now that’s part of the fun. Throw stuff at us. We can handle it. Indeed, increasingly, we demand it. Viewers are happy to meet new characters and see what they bring to existing and emerging narratives.
Perhaps killing off characters is not a gimmick after all. This might be a way TV manages to keep itself fresh and engage the new cognitive gifts of their viewers.
This is one of the things we can expect to happen as popular culture becomes culture. TV was once the idiot brother of literature, of theater, of cinema, of the Arts. No self-respecting writer wanted to go there.
Then, quite suddenly, they did. (I think of David Milch as Writer Zero, the first man of astonishing talent to buck the trend and make the transition.) And in the 35 years since Milch made the move, many have followed. These days just about everyone is banging on the door. Even people who thought they wanted to write for Hollywood. And this takes us from that “make-do” model that prevailed on both sides of the camera. (TV did the best with what it had, and viewers made do with the best they could find.) Over 35 years, we have seen the death of good-enough TV.
As the migration of talent continues, everything changes. Creative scarcity gives way to creative abundance. Pity the shows that have yet to get the memo. And watch, ultimate spoiler alert, for more of your favorite characters to die. With our new creative surpluses, there are more where they came from. Plenty more.
Let’s begin here:
My Netflix research this fall tells me that the rules for making popular culture and TV are changing.
The cause? That popular culture is getting better and this means some of the old rules are now ineffectual and in some cases actually counter-productive.
Being Human is a great case study.
This is a study in fantasy and the supernatural. A ghost, a vampire and a werewolf find themselves living together and look to one another for guidance and relief.
It is a show is riddled with implausibilities. Characters skip around in time and space. They morph from one creature to another. The plot lines can get really very complicated.
And the viewer doesn’t care. (At least this viewer doesn’t.) The acting is so good that we believe in these characters and we are prepared to follow them anywhere. Even when the plot tests our credulity, we believe in the show.
The key is good acting. Without this, Being Human is just another exercise in dubiety. With it, the show holds as a story and more important it actually serves as an opportunity to ask big questions that attach to “being human.”
There is a second show in SyFy called Lost Girl. . This is billed as a supernatural crime drama. It too is stuffed with implausibility. Lots of fabled creatures and magical spells. For me, it’s pretty much unwatchable.
And the difference is largely acting. The actors on Lost Girl are not bad. They are just not good enough to deliver the emotion truth on which narratives depend, but more to the point they are not good enough to help Lost Girl survive the weight of its own implausibility.
This condition is actually complicated by the creative decision to have the characters supply the “ancient lore” that explains spells and various supernatural beastie. I found myself shouting at the TV,
“Oh, who the f*ck cares! The back story is a) not interesting, b) it does not animate the front story, c) in short, the back story is your problem, not our problem. Get on with it. Spare us the pointless exposition.”
(Yes, it’s true. I shout in point form. It’s a Powerpoint problem. I’m getting help. It’s called Keynote.)
New Rule # 1
The more implausibility contained in a narrative, the better your actors had better be.
If this means spending more time casting, spend the time casting. If this means paying your actors more, pay them more. Actors are everything. Well, after the writers. And the show runners. Um, and the audience. But you see what I mean.
And this brings us to the second new rule for story telling on TV. The old rule of TV was that actors should be ABAP (as beautiful as possible). Given the choice between someone who is heartstoppingly attractive and someone who looks, say, like one of the actors on Being Human (as above), you must, the old rule says, choose the actor who is ABAP. (The Being Human actors are attractive. They just aren’t model perfect.)
This rule created a trade off. Very beautiful actors were chosen even when they weren’t very talented as actors. Indeed, show runners were routinely trading talent away for beauty. As a result, a show began to look like a fashion runway. Even good writing could be made to feel like something out of the day-time soaps.
Bad acting is of course the death of good narrative. Wooden performances can kill great writing. But real beauty exacts a second price. There are moments when you are supposed to be paying attention to a plot point and you find yourself thinking, “Good lord, what a perfectly modeled chin!”
In a perfect world, every actress would be Nicole Kidman, perfectly beautiful, utterly talented. In the old days, when TV makers had to chose they would go for beauty even when it cost them talent. But here’s the new rule.
New Rule # 2
Do not choose beauty over talent. Beauty used to be the glue that held your audience to your show. Now that work is performed by talent. It’s not that beauty doesn’t matter. Seek attractive actors. But beauty will never matter more than talent. Make sure the talent is there, and then, and only then, can you cast for beauty. Think of this as a kind of “attractive enough” principal.
Stated baldly, this rule seems indubitable. What show-runner or casting agent would ever think otherwise? On the other hand, I dropped in on The CW recently and everyone seemed model perfect with bad consequences for the quality of the work on the screen.
A change is taking place in our culture. And over the longer term, it will provoke a changing of the guard, a veritable migration in the entertainment industry . Actors who are merely talented will have a more difficult time finding work. And, counterintuitively, actors who are blindingly attractive will have a more difficult finding work. What used to make them effective now makes them distracting.
As popular culture becomes culture, there will be many more changes. Watch this space.
For most of it’s existence, TV was designed to be “one look” entertainment. We were supposed to grasp things the first time, and if it happened that some complexity or nuanced escaped us, well, not to worry. It can’t have been that important in any case. TV was forgettable culture. Tissue thin and completely disposable.
But we are entering into the era of “second look” television. Sometimes this happens because we were making a sandwich or playing with the cat. Never mind, a simple push of the go-back button, and we are caught up.
But some TV is now created with the expectation that we will not and cannot get it the first time. If it pleases the court, I offer the following Sprint ad into evidence
Notice that it’s not just the dialog and foreign language(s) that demand the replay. This ad has got Judy Greer who is fast rising from “sidekick” standing to full blown celebrity. Plus there are parts that make no sense however many times we watch it. (The final moment when everyone looks suddenly at the hamster is wonderful partly because it is inscrutable and permanently so.)
Pam, my wife, and I spend a lot of time freezing frame and going back. “Wait, did she say what I think we said.” Or “Hey, did you notice that guy in the background?” Or “get a lot of this camera angle!” This is what it is to live with Second Look TV and the technology that makes replay effortless.
Indeed culture and technology do an attractive two-step here. The technology makes this possible. Culture (in the form of new complexity) makes it necessary. And so continues our steady transition from a pop culture to a culture, plain and simple.
There’s a small trend in the works. People are daring to recast popular shows on TV. In the image above, Entertainment Weekly dares imagine the new detectives for True Detective. Here Ryan Gosling and Denzel Washington are proposed as replacements for Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. (Apparently, HBO and or Nic Pizzolatto had always planned a modular approach for the starring roles.)
Digital Spy undertook the same recasting, proposing Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as the new True Detectives. This would count as irresistible TV, in an era of irresistible TV.
Grantland took the thing a step further, proposing a fantasy league for Hollywood.
There is a quite wonderful book called Culturematic that suggests a way to recast NCIS.
The idea is everywhere. Ok, not everywhere, but this is a gusty little trend breezing its way through contemporary culture.
This shows a new order of participation in culture. It’s hard to imagine this sort of thing happening in the 1950s when people took what TV deigned to give them and were grateful for it too.
But people now new and deeper knowledge of popular culture and they are eager to use this knowledge. Exactly this sort of thing happened in the case of professional sports. The inventors of Fantasy Football believed that only sports journalists would want to participate. What they didn’t see was that sports fans had read so much sports journalism, that they too were itching and able to participate.
This relates I think to yesterday’s post on Pharrell’s Happy video where I suggested that crowd sourcing talent is not always successful. But here when we ask people to engage not as actors but as critics that the chances of success go up. Its as producers and directors that we are most interesting, productive, and engaging.
We should also observe the presumption at work here. One of the reasons that viewers in the 50s wouldn’t engage this way is that it was presumptuous to do so. Creative decisions were things made by experts in big cities, people and worlds away from their own.
But now we are, to use the Tudor phrase, “over mighty subjects.” We take for granted our right to second-guess creative decisions. Our knowledge of culture is not passive but active. This means that even as we consume culture, we expect to produce it. If only in our heads. If only in the conversation we have with friends and family. Anyone who finds a way to engage us in this way (we shall keep an eye on Grantland’s fantasy league) is creating value for us and value for themselves. (Thus do anthropology and economics intersect.)