TV or Not TV

And that’s the news

Upon receiving word President John F. Kennedy had been pronounced dead, Walter Cronkite  removed his glasses and shed a single tear as he reported the news to America. Cronkite was chastised for his emotional/partisan display, because — back then — a journalist’s opinion was never to be injected into a story.

Times change.

No journalist in history has ever been entirely objective — such is an impossibility of human nature. However, at no point in the history of information gathering and dissemination has partisanship been so flagrant. Conservatives like to pretend FoxNews isn’t biased, and liberals do the same with MSNBC. However, I’m not about to state the obvious, because there is a greater evil than biased journalism, and that is journalism devoid of journalism. In short, today’s journalists aren’t very good at their job.

Math has no bias

Three recent examples illustrate the flaws in the fifth estate. We’ll begin with the FoxNews coverage of the election, specifically the network’s reaction to a madman in deep denial. Everybody on the left had a good laugh over Karl Rove, but the incident left me sad. A network purporting to be a news gathering organization had supposedly collected the facts, done the math, rechecked the math, then reported Barack Obama as the winner once he had acquired Ohio’s electoral votes. What happened next was the aforementioned source of comedy, as Rove refused to accept the news. It was at this moment that the journalists of FoxNews ceased to be journalists. Rove offered no facts at all — nothing to back up his assertion that the news was wrong, but instead of dismissing Rove’s baseless accusations and ushering him off the set, FoxNews was compelled to treat his opinion as a valid “side,” and was therefore obligated to present his side along with the side backed up by the truth. They had to give equal time to a bitter old man, only they didn’t have to.

Nate Silver is the new “it” guy in the media because he uses math. That’s really kind of sad. He merely used basic addition and division to combine polling data to determine the most likely result based on those numbers. I followed Silver’s 538 blog studiously throughout the ’08 campaign, and I was skeptical when he aligned himself with the Times a few years ago. I should have known better; math has no bias. Yet the media reporting his data felt compelled to pair it against a single poll, or – even worse – some prognosticator with no actual data.

There are two sides to some stories, but other stories have one side, while still others have multiple sides. By the logic of offering equal time regardless of circumstance, the media should consider Charles Manson’s ideas no less credible than — well — a sane human being. Some viewpoints, the ones that have no basis in reality and no facts to back them up are to be dismissed before clouding the issue. The birthers, the 9/11 truthers, and the UFOlogists don’t belong in a legitimate news gathering organization. To summarize this point: Nobody should ever listen to anything Donald Trump says.

Rumors are only good if you are Fleetwood Mac

The second example of flawed journalism is more recent and more cruel. Several months ago, a man came forward alleging Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo, had engaged in a sexual relationship with him when he was still a teen. Months of investigation uncovered no evidence of this, but when TMZ was poised to leak the rumor, supposedly more reputable journalists took that as a cue to report it in mainstream media. The USA Today and The Detroit Free Press openly lied when they ran headlines which stated Clash had been charged with a crime. No charges were filed. No charges will be filed. In order to be first, journalists didn’t bother to be journalists. This time, that means they didn’t bother to check the facts.

When I studied journalism in college, I was told in order for a fact to be reportable, it must be verified by three independent sources. For the record, stating, “ABC News is reporting that CNN is reporting that TMZ is reporting Elmo is a pedophile…” is not using three sources. It is using a single source with all the credibility of my back acne. Yesterday, Kevin Clash announced he was leaving his dream job — the media destroyed his career with allegations and rumors. And the media seemed to take pleasure in being the first to destroy a man’s reputation.

Don’t fart if you don’t have the sh*t to back it up

The final example is the most tragic and most frightening. One of the biggest stories of the last month was the terrorist attack on a US embassy resulting in several deaths. It was a major news event with geopolitical repercussions that will be felt for months if not years. The problem is the event in question occurred on the other side of the world, and — despite news organizations claiming to bring you the world in 22 minutes, budgets and bureaus have been cut, meaning there were no experts on-scene. So when the White House and the State Department issued statements the attacks were brought about by a cheesy, unwatched YouTube video, every news organization in the US ran what was basically a press release word-for-word, no questions asked. In case you hadn’t guessed, the journalists ceased to be journalists because they lacked the manpower and expertise to accurately report on a story. It turned out the attacks were planned out by terrorists who couldn’t care less about what is posted on YouTube.

Most have heard the role of a journalist is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that, but I do believe a journalist exists to ask hard questions of important people, to hold them accountable. The entire nation was spoon-fed a convenient lie by both the government and the press. The government did so knowingly, but the press – having nobody on scene to confirm or deny anything – just went along with the party line because they felt it would have made them look bad to admit they lacked the personnel needed to cover the story.

CNN used to have bureaus all over the world, but now they are more likely to use stringers to cover global events – stringers with no proven track record – stringers who won the job by virtue of being on scene with a Skype account. The result is an incomplete story, or a made up story – and those things make news outlets look worse than admitting they don’t have anyone on scene.

The new normal

These are three examples, but they are not isolated. This is the standard now, the new normal. People can blame a 24-hour news cycle, but a journalist isn’t hindered by matters of time. The Watergate scandal didn’t unfold in an hour or a day or a week. The collapse of the Soviet Union unfolded over a decade or more, and the facts are still not yet all in. Even the circus that was the OJ Simpson murder trial was covered more professionally, and that is just sad.

You need a license to practice medicine. You need a license to drive a car. And in both of those cases, the licenses exist to help ensure the safety and well-being of everyone. And yet we don’t require journalistic licenses. Journalists whose words can incite war and wreck someone’s life can be anyone from anywhere. We exist in a wiki-world where everyone’s opinion is equally valid. In case you hadn’t guessed, I find fault in that idea.

Just the facts

A true journalist is an expert in what he or she is reporting. Information is collected from expert sources, and a journalist takes as much time as needed to untangle a complicated issue. The benefit of a 24-hour news cycle is a story can be filed any time of the day or night; deadlines have become almost irrelevant.

To conclude, I’m going to state what ought to be obvious but isn’t. I’m also going to use the word “facts” a lot, so brace yourself. To be a journalist:

  • Facts are paramount.
  • Facts must be independently verified from multiple sources.
  • Facts that cannot be substantiated are not facts.
  • Facts based in rumor and allegation are not facts.
  • Facts that present a bias do not require another view be presented.
  • Facts released by the government are not facts until they have been confirmed.

Future Tense

I own a record player and a modest collection of vinyl LPs. I also own an iPhone, iPad, and laptop with thousands of songs and hundreds of hours of video. There is something about the sound of a needle placed on a record and the resulting pops and cracks that cannot be duplicated, but there is something to be said for the convenience and progress of the devices that make media more easily accessible. And when it comes to those devices — and how people use them to produce and distribute media — we’re only at the tip of the technological iceberg.

In the not too distant future…

A writer once theorized that predicting the distant future was easy (flying cars, lasers, living on Mars, etc.) but predicting changes in the near future is much more daunting. Still, it is helpful to attempt both. The original “Star Trek” series was set several hundred years into the future, but it would be hard to deny their handheld communicators and PADDs inspired the cell phone and the iPad. On a grander scale, the folks at the LHC are running experiments that could one day lead to faster-than-light travel (a.k.a. warp speed) and one enterprising engineer has designed and is seeking funding to build a working replica of a galaxy class starship. Not science fiction — science fact.

When it comes to media, predicting the future (or future trends) is easier in the long term versus the short term. One assumes the world will be wirelessly connected, all media will be available on demand, and something akin to what is now labeled cloud storage will almost certainly exist. Furthermore, there is a form of acoustics that does not use traditional soundwaves, but launches sounds directly to one location. Harnessing this technology and creating an infrastructure in which it can prosper, the logical progression would be the elimination of physical devices needed to playback sound. No more speakers or headphones; you could simply request a song and it would be beamed directly at your ears, and not even the person sitting next to you would hear it.

In recent years, screen resolution has improved beyond what the human eye can actually perceive. Screen width has been reduced to that of a credit card in some cases. I’d speculate the next step in viewing will be projecting images into thin air with total clarity and uncompromising resolution. Again, no physical device would be needed.

But all of these predictions aren’t likely to occur anytime soon. In my estimation, the best way to predict closer future trends is to take a hard look at the present and the past. The death of film as a recording medium represents a monumental shift in the entertainment industry. By all rights it should have happened years ago, but some within the industry were fond of the “feel” of images on celluloid and were reluctant to part with it. Just as vinyl purists like me refuse to do away with the medium, directors clung to film as the holy grail of visual experience. Forward advancement literally had to wait until those nostalgic for film either died or retired. Based on this, we can extrapolate that changes in industry technology are going to occur slowly.

The future is here today, tomorrow at the latest

Currently, a lot of money is being thrown into podcasting and livestreaming. Some innovative content is emerging from those sources, and people are listening. However, the need to host media, and the subsequent cost of maintaining servers to meet public demand, is still hindering true independent artists from competing with the big boys.

The best model for new artists to follow right now would be that of comedian Louis C.K. who produced and distributed his own standup special, selling a digital download on his website for $5, which meant nobody received a percentage of his profits. He was able to undercut competitors, bypassing large distributors like Amazon and the iTunes Store, and the money actually went to the creator of the content instead of some middleman (or middlemen). This model does require an initial investment, but since the success of Louis C.K., a whole subsection of the industry is being created to make it easier for others to follow suit.

No look into the future of the media is complete without a look at interactive media. In the 1980s, “choose your own adventure” novels were a fad, allowing readers to decide the outcome of a story. Early text-based computer games essentially did the same thing on a grander scale (I was partial to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game by Infocom). But experience teaches us that the overwhelming desire to be passively entertained remains prevalent in society. For all the talk of virtual reality and totally immersive experiences, most prefer to sit back and watch/listen as opposed to being an active participant. Video games will continue to advance, with more realistic images and sounds, but Angry Birds demonstrated that a basic (even silly) concept can outsell the most advanced, highbrow ideas. The 8-bit world of Minecraft proves this, as well.

The big companies are reluctant to switch to an entirely on-demand method of distribution. It is costing them money fighting the inevitable, but their delay offers a benefit to new artists. While major labels and studios fight the changes taking place, they are unwittingly allowing other, less conventional ideas to be worked out without having to compete directly with the big companies. The iTunes Store proved effective at creating a destination for people to retrieve high quality media easily, legally, and (compared to media bought in a big box store) inexpensively. However, all attempts to undo Apple’s virtual monopoly of the concept have fallen flat, or face legal if not moral problems. Expect to see a new distribution model emerge in the next few years. It will start on the fringe of the industry, but quickly build. If I had to make an educated guess, I’d say it will first be tied to broadcast and cable news and sports outlets, which have faced the huge issue of how to remain relevant and provide timely content.

Movie theaters aren’t going anywhere, but they are evolving as well. There will always be a percentage of the population who prefers to see theatrical releases on a big screen with a crowd of strangers laughing, cheering, or crying together. The shared experience is powerful to people, and it remains a cheap date for teenagers. But we can expect the gap between theatrical release and home video sales to lessen in the short term, and to be eliminated entirely in the long term. Social media spoilers and piracy are threatening the industry as never before; the studios will have to accept the change and theaters will have to adapt as well.

Whither the Book of Face?

On the subject of social media’s continued rapid evolution, the next few years will see a shift away from loyalty to particular websites like Facebook to an app that combines all of your social networks into one central hub. This is already being done on a smaller scale (Meebo was working towards this goal, but Google acquired it and the concept was mothballed… for now), but look for the idea to expand.

Think of it in terms of how the DVR has changed a viewer’s experience. A few years ago, to watch or record a show, you had to know what channel/network it was on, as well as what day/time it started. But with a DVR you simply enter the title and the system does the rest. The concept of network loyalty is mostly dead because most don’t even know what network their favorite shows are on, despite the bug/logo in the corner. Follow that concept through to social media, and it won’t matter if your friends are on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc, because whatever they post will be visible to you. Shared text, photos, videos, and sounds all under a single umbrella, and you control the flow and even the look of it all.

The day the music died… then came back to life… then died again

The music industry has already begun the process of growing into a new century — for better or worse remains to be seen. Studios and labels have closed and consolidated. Radio as a viable business model is on its last legs; corporate ownership has wiped away the community connection audiences once had with radio stations. Absent that essential ingredient, radio cannot compete with mobile devices that contain playlists targeted specifically to the individual user. Streaming web services face legal challenges as they have a different (or nonexistent) method of paying license holders for the music they share with others.

What is happening in the music industry as a whole is a slow transition away from the manager/artist dynamic into an expert/apprentice dynamic. Seasoned artists are shepherding young talent into the industry, taking a percentage of the new performer’s profits in exchange for showing him/her the ropes. Consider how Usher was able to craft Justin Bieber into more than a YouTube sensation. Consider the way Lil’ Wayne has allowed other hip hop artists to ride on his coattails. It is not a new idea; Madonna signed Alanis Morissette to her record label years ago and worked with her to shape a brand that appealed to a specific demographic. The Beatles signed James Taylor to their UK label and helped make him a success in England as well as back in the states. But the industry will see a significant shift in power. Those with money will be dethroned and replaced by those with talent and ability, who will — in turn — nurture new talent. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

The cost of doing business

The business we call show will undergo massive changes in the near future, as the concept of a middleman becomes a thing of the past. In the short term, it will lead to more unemployed people within the industry, but the unemployed people will not be content creators. Instead, they will be the guys in suits in offices who collect royalties for work conceived and executed by others. A studio executive who isn’t actively involved in the projects being created will be put out to pasture. An agent who isn’t hands-on in the marketing and promotion of his/her client will be ousted. These are welcome changes. It reduces the levels of industry bureaucracy and ought to facilitate an environment where those responsible for creating art see a bigger share of the profits from that art.

As for monetization, without as many empty suits to pay for, the cost of doing business is going to go way down. The purchasing power of a dollar in the industry is going to go farther than ever before, and advertising will have to adapt — to become more creative and personal. Podcast listeners have undoubtedly heard their favorite hosts promote a product the way an old-time radio host used to promote Ovaltine during The Lone Ranger. That sort of hard-sell by a person audiences trust is one obvious method, but more subtle, viral concepts are blossoming as well. Niantic is something emerging from Google, but at present they are merely piquing interest, eluding to it as some sort of underground project.

In the so-called “golden age” of cinema, actors were often reclusive, refusing to give interviews, preferring to let the art speak for itself. News agencies respected this for the most part and maintained a discreet distance. In what ought to be the most obvious statement printed herein, those days are long gone. Any modern artist who erects a barrier between he/she and his/her fans has no fans. The best form of promotion right now is self-promotion. A professionally maintained presence on social media is an invaluable tool in this industry. A Twitter feed or Facebook page that engages fans and makes them feel directly linked to an artist can do more for an artist than a mid-level agent. A viral campaign on the internet can do more for the launch of an album or feature film than a 30 second spot in the Super Bowl. Kevin Smith’s film Red State was promoted almost exclusively on Smith’s Twitter feed, doing away with studio-led marketing campaigns that can sometimes double or triple the cost of the film itself. The entire Muppet brand was successfully relaunched because of an aggressive online strategy across multiple platforms. The future will bring new advertising strategies that rely less on traditional spots on networks and more on creative and customized strategies. The ad-men of Madison Avenue will need to not only think outside the box, but be entirely without form if they are to function in a new media environment.

The certainty of uncertainty

Nothing is certain; progress can be slow or rapid, depending on the whims of artists and consumers. Some changes such as the switch to HD will be forced upon the public. Other changes like hybrid engines become viable only after being deemed socially popular. I’d like to believe some of my long-term predictions will actually occur sooner than I anticipate, but I would also understand if some of my short-term ideas took longer to come to fruition. However, an inescapable certainty is change is coming; in fact, change is already upon us. While knowing where we have been helps to determine where we are headed, there is no room for someone overly nostalgic for the past.

Vinyl is dead. Film is dead. Radio as in industry is near death. Broadcast TV networks are near death. The cloud beckons. On demand beckons. Apprenticeship is poised to replace management. Viral campaigns are poised to replace traditional advertising. And physical devices will one day vanish into the thin air that replaces them. If you aren’t ready for those harsh realities, then you aren’t long for the entertainment industry.