TV or Not TV

Star Trek

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.

My valentine to the space shuttle

I watched the ultimate space shuttle launch yesterday morning on my iPad, a device that even three years ago would have been considered science fiction. The prototype space shuttle was named Enterprise, after the starship that once graced the big and small screen. Gene Roddenberry envisioned a future free of bigotry and poverty, where not only were all men created equal, but all interstellar sentient species as well. “Star Trek” featured devices not unlike iPads, seemingly centuries away — yet here we are today. And the shuttlecraft seen in that show in the 1960s most likely inspired some engineer to design his own version of a reusable space ship. The future is here today, for those willing to dream.

I am 36-years-old, and I firmly believe I will not see another manned, US-sponsored spacecraft launch in my lifetime. And before you give me the party line about private enterprise doing a better job than the government ever could, allow me to quote Neil deGrasse Tyson who wrote, “Commercial Space Flight will not advance the space frontier, but enable cheaper access to where we’ve already been.” Yes, I would leap at the opportunity to ride in that Virgin space ship and experience weightlessness, if for no other reason than I cannot think of an easier diet program. However, on behalf of mankind: Been there; done that. What’s next?

It cannot be called exploration if we’ve already been there.

We will once again set foot on the moon. And we will one day reach the surface of Mars with something other than a remote control car with a REALLY good antenna. But I’ll be long dead before those things happen. It is worth noting the conquest of space is about more than exploration. Even though we were bitter rivals, the space race between the US and the USSR brought humanity together in ways never thought possible. Brave men (and eventually women) journeyed beyond our atmosphere while the entire world watched breathlessly. From those early missions to the shuttles. From Russia’s Mir space station to the ISS. Again, quoting Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Other than the waging of War, the ISS is the most successful collaboration of nations there ever was.” The dream of space connected us.

Our government no longer recognizes the importance of dreams. During the Great Depression, the government funded everything from highways (at a time when they were seen as frivolous — worse than a bridge to nowhere, more like dozens of bridges to nowhere) to theater troops (because we had this silly notion that art inspired people). In the Kennedy Era, we got over our Cold War fears by committing funds and resources to the task of sending a man to the moon. In the post-Bush/Obama era, the money is apparently better spent bailing out Big Oil and bankers.

To be honest, I cannot remember all of the shuttle launches. I cannot remember the first time I saw a launch. I can recall — however — sitting in my classroom as a child when the teacher turned on the TV so we could watch ANOTHER launch. I can recall how mundane the whole thing had become; even as 12-year-olds, the tediousness had overwhelmed and jaded us. But then somebody said, “Go with throttle-up,” and the Challenger was gone forever. The deaths of seven people reminded us that no aspect of space exploration should ever be thought of as mundane or tedious. Life has jaded me in other ways, but I’ll always remember the astronauts with fondness and respect, without cynicism. And I never took another shuttle launch for granted.

I’ve read and heard a lot of interviews of former astronauts, and not one of them was unchanged by the experience of space exploration. To borrow the phrase from Butch Cassidy, those people had vision while the rest of the world wore bifocals. Many fail to see the point of space travel. Three decades later, the point of the shuttle program seems to have been that we achieved more through teamwork than we ever could have without it. Or maybe the point was that every time mankind slips the surly bonds of Earth, we are reminded of how amazing this species can be. Or maybe the point was that Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion were enough to get that job done (literally — those laws were all it took to get mankind off the ground and safely back again). Or maybe, to paraphrase J. Michael Straczynski, the point is that one day — whether 100 years from now or a million years from now — our sun will grow cold and die, and when that time comes, if we haven’t set sail for planets beyond, all that humanity is or was will die right along with it. So maybe the point is that we owe it to Shakespeare, John Lennon, Audrey Hepburn, Beethoven, and Abraham Lincoln to do whatever we can to preserve their accomplishments.

In the end, the aforementioned Shakespeare said it best, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” We don’t know what the point of shuttle missions is yet, just as nobody in Shakespeare’s time could possibly have grasped how much influence his words would have centuries after they were penned. It may take generations for their import to be genuinely understood. Clearly, they have the potential to be a jumping off point — but to what? That remains to be seen.

For now, we have a dozen more days of a US led mission into space. Maybe their specific experiments hold no personal interest for you. Maybe the shuttle itself seemed like a relic of an earlier time. But don’t discount the inspiration the last three decades offered to those who opened their minds and hearts. Yes, the Russians were the first to send a man into space, but it took the United States to not only ask “What’s next?” but also work out the answer. In point of fact, they provided repeated answers.

I put the challenge out there to my friends with children, to my former students, and to anyone younger than I am: The future sinks or swims with you. My generation is busy fighting wars and idiot-proofing the planet. It is up to you to push through all of that, to challenge yourselves to rise above our collective stupidity and short-sightedness. More than anything, it is up to you to dream.