How Jay Leno Might Cause your local Weatherman to Stop Taking his Medication

The lesson we learn from the Conan/Leno late night imbroglio might have more to do with the power of mainstreaming conflict than anything involving NBC, late night television, or comedy.

It’s harder than ever to get people to care about entertainment institutions, and if the current late night late conflict has shown us anything, it’s that conflict sells. (Well, it’s also taught us that NBC seems to have standards for executive performance that would make them right at home on Wall Street, but that’s a story for a different day.)

One of the key moments in the ratings battle between the Conan’s nascent Tonight Show and David Letterman’s Late Show was Letterman’s involvement an extra-martial affair related extortion plot. With real life drama supplementing Stupid Pet Tricks, what active late night viewer wasn’t going to watch?

Naturally, since NBC’s stupid human trick put Conan on the spot, his ratings have been rising every night. Hell, the conflict even got me to watch Leno once. (On the wrong night, unfortunately, as I missed Jimmy Kimmel’s unreal appearance last night.)

So, while NBC’s brand is taking a hilarious beating, when it comes to the numbers that they really care about, ratings that will later be used to determine advertising rates, their ham-fisted handling of the Tonight Show has solved the very problem they were trying to address.

I’m wondering, why stop there? If real world conflict translates to advertising dollars, why shouldn’t a local newscaster, say, announce that they were going off their meds and didn’t know for sure what might happen? (Come to think of it, I just described Glenn Beck’s show…)

We’re living in a society that’s just about post-dignity and post-seriousness. Success, even in something as ultimately meaningless as television ratings, provides a patina of respect. It took American Idol, after its premiere, about two months to turn from a carnival sideshow exploiting damaged youth by exploiting their hopes for fame into a chronicle of the triumph of the human spirit. And Mr. Beck’s nuttiness has certainly worked out well for him.

So, I wonder if the lasting legacy of this very public conflict between millionaire comedians won’t be a sizable increase in the use of real world conflict to generate interest in cultural properties.

How Jay Leno Might Cause your local Weatherman to Stop Taking his Medication

Sarah Palin is being Exploited [media]

Oprah exploited Sarah Palin.

Sarah Palin knew this, of course. She signed up for it. It’s all part of the deal that people opt in to when they’ve when got a platform that’s larger than their employment prospects.

It’s a bad deal, though. And one that tells us some things about our deeply flawed media.

The deal is supposed to work like this: A notable figure writes a book. They spend the better part of a month giving interviews to as many venues as they can in hopes that the attention will get people to purchase the book. Then they take the money earned by the book out of the bank in singles, cover their bed it in, and roll around happily.

This quid pro quo is a much better deal for broadcasters than it is for authors (as loosely defined as the term may be in this case), and it diminishes both mediums. It turns book publishing into a de facto money laundering operation. Is there any doubt that everything Sarah Palin wished to express and accomplish with “Going Rogue” could have been done just as well with a series of interviews? Or 20 pages of bullet-points?

Worse, the arrangement gives an enormous free pass to a “news” culture that’s become to celebrity newsmakers what the NCAA is to athletes. In a time when the book business is ever more troubled, and the ability to draw an audience together for anything longer than a youtube clip is ever more valuable, how does it make sense for books to serve as the near exclusive means of monetizing interest, while television newscasters get paid millions upon millions for asking softball questions in service of  news broadcasts that serve as profit centers for multinational corporations?

Orpah and other broadcasters get a definable benefit, in ratings and advertising dollars, from having someone on who brings extra eye to the screen. If Sarah Palin brought one extra viewer to Oprah’s show, or to any of the other venues she’s been on in the last couple of weeks, why shouldn’t she be entitled to payment for the value she added?

Taking the idea a step further, imagine a broadcast where the journalists and their interview subjects shared the profits, in an above-board way.

Perhaps a profit motive might lead to someone like Palin answering questions that journalists typically don’t ask, like about Trig’s birth, or how she really feels about her political future. After all, nothing sells like conflict and revelations.

Most celebrity “news” interviews these days are non-confrontational to the point of propaganda. The news could cease showing their desperation for the ratings that come with a good “get,” and fearing that showing a semblance of spine would torpedo their chances. Instead, the could focus on offering the best financial deal, and preparing a show that would create the most possible interest.

We might even get more truth out of the deal.

(I, for one, would pony up $24.99 to watch Sarah Palin interviewed by Michael Moore on Pay-Per-View. Would the integrity of the news business really suffer in that kind of deal?)

It’s time for a new method of monetizing interest. (And if it only served to save us from all of those dubious books, that would be success enough.)

Sarah Palin is being Exploited [media]

Bill Simmons represents ESPN’s Biggest Failure [sports media]

ESPN’s Bill Simmons is the most popular sportswriter in America. He’s arguably the only one that really matters anymore. He’s enough of a common denominator that if you end up in a semi-decent conversation about sports with a stranger under 45, that both of you read his column is a very safe assumption.

His popularity is such that his 700 page book about basketball went to number 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List in its first week. His book signings have attracted fans in the high hundreds. His columns’ page views are measured in millions. He’s unquestionably a star.

And his ascension represents ESPN’s biggest new media failure.

Simmons was something of a phenomenon. Hired by ESPN in 2001 to write for their web site, first as the “Boston Sports Guy” and soon as just the “Sports Guy,” his was the first voice on a major sports site to write from a fan’s point of view. And a funny fan, at that. Simmons wrote about sports the way fans actually talk about sports and he did so with a looseness of style, not to mention column length, that was unique among big-platform sports writers.

It didn’t take long before word about him spread. I know I was a early evangelist, sending some of his earlier columns to more a few friends under subject headings like, “You’ve got to check this guy out!”

Upon seeing the success that came from have a columnist torpedo the idea that sports media was about “insiders” writing for “outsiders,” ESPN decided that there was no lesson to be learned there, and gingerly stepped away from that door. Instead of introducing a “New York Sports Guy” or “LA Sports Gal” or others, and seeing if they connected with readers like Simmons had, ESPN decided that, while Simmons would continue to do his thing, his situation would be unique.

With that decision, ESPN hasted the rise of the alternative sports blog scene, one that would bedevil them, by years; put itself in a more difficult situation in terms of talent negotiation; and made harder their current effort to generate revenue through locally-oriented content.

Make no mistake, Simmons is a talented writer and it’s admirable that, in an era when most sportswriters seems to view actually “writing” as a means to a radio show or regular television appearances, he takes it quite seriously. Simmons’ success, though, was also the result of his being the right kind of voice, at the right time, on the biggest platform imaginable.

A large part of the sports blog scene rose up in opposition to the relative stranglehold on sports media that ESPN had. Since the early 1990’s, The World Wide Leader (as it calls itself) decided what was newsworthy, what was interesting, and what was funny. And it presented a world where athletes didn’t swear; managers and coaches had to do something supremely dumb to be called mildly mistaken; and, for years, the only sports with steroid problems involved either the former Eastern Bloc or bike racing.

A roster of “outsider” writers, dealing with sports culture closer to the way normal humans do (though still without swears), would have seriously lessened the market’s hunger for sites in the vein of Deadspin, The Big Lead, and With Leather.

As it happens, one of that sports blog community’s favorite pastimes is reading the tea leaves about what Bill Simmons will do when his current contract with ESPN expires in 2010. He’s already, by my reckoning, more effectively monetized being a writer on the web than anyone else. There will be competition for his talents and who ever gets him will have to open up the piggy-bank. Meanwhile, ESPN hasn’t developed any voices that might be credibly able to take his place.

Another possibility, one that Simmons himself mentioned in an interview, is that he might start his own sports web site. The readership that he could take with him to such an enterprise would be significant, and with the low overhead of web journalism, I wouldn’t bet against him.

Finally, over the last year ESPN has launched several locally branded pages, such as ESPNBoston, to compete with local sports pages for readers and advertisers. If they’d used their experience Simmons as an example of how a local focus can be used as an incubator for talent, ESPN would already have writers with the experience and platform to bolster their local efforts. Instead, ESPN has to poach talent from the newspapers they’re competing with.

ESPN dealt with the success of Bill Simmons like an old media company.

When Bill Simmons succeeded, ESPN had discovered a new paradigm for sports media on the web, but was far more comfortable just deciding that they’d found a new star.

They’ll be paying for that mistake for quite some time.

Bill Simmons represents ESPN’s Biggest Failure [sports media]

With News Worth Less, is Less News is Worth More?

Newspapers are dying all over the country. Television news, on both the local and national levels, is cutting back. We live in a news environment that has more commentary than ever but less and less original reporting.

For reporters and media professionals, this is an opportunity.

Original, investigative, reporting was once fairly standard in newsrooms and, unless the scoop was Watergate big, unremarkable in itself. The relative absence of original information in today’s market, however, and the increase in the number of outlets hungry for news about which to opine, has turned the discovery of new information into an opportunity for a multimedia platform.

Two fairly recent sports books brought this notion to mind. When Selena Roberts learned that Alex Rodriguez, one of baseball’s biggest stars, had used performance enhancing drugs, it turned her about to be released book into an event. She gave interview after interview, in print, on television, on the radio, to blogs, and had an excerpt of the book run in Sports Illustrated (where she is a Senior Writer), all based around what was essentially one fact. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams had a similar experience with their book, Game of Shadows, about Barry Bonds and his steroid supplier.

During the relative frenzy around their books, the authors seemed to me, at times, to be like a student with a particularly great science fair project who’s asked to show it to all the other classes. “Take a look at my fact. I found it myself.”

In both cases the author(s) already had a strong platform, Sports Illustrated and the San Francisco Chronicle, respectively,  from which to promote their discoveries And in years past the outcome of their work might have been a great magazine article or a series of hard hitting newspaper stories, not a multimedia blitz.

The opportunity then, is in the increased potency of new information that might not otherwise have been discovered. While such nuggets once created a news story or drove it forward, now they’re a book deal and a tour up and down the television dial.

With News Worth Less, is Less News is Worth More?

Saving the Poor by Dodging Bullets: When “Conventional” no longer equals “Safe”

In an extremely competitive marketplace, why be expensively mediocre?

I’m fascinated by the promos for NBC’s new summer series and they way they seem to embody a whole Big Media mindset.

Despite being a multitasking, distracted, TV watcher, I’ve seen enough promos for NBC’s new show “The Philanthropist” to tell you the plot (a billionaire saves a poor African boy and realizes that he should use his wealth to help people while getting shot at a lot), the actors (Neve Campbell, finally out of “Scream” residuals; the big guy from “Rent”; the fellow who quit “V for Vendetta”; Omar), and the big action beats (a helicopter is involved). What I can’t tell you is why anyone would watch the show. The previews seem determined to exactly mimic the promotional material of every show, failed and not, that’s come before.

A successful television series is a franchise that can produce huge revenues for years and years, but the failure rate for new shows is French Revolution conviction rate high. Why, then, would a network aim to create a promotional campaign that’s, but for the particulars, completely generic?

My guess would be fear.

For someone to be unconventional in their promotion of a show is to fully own its failure if it, like nearly all new show, fails to catch on. Being conventional is, on an employee to employee level, safe. Hey, you’re just doing what everyone else does.

Being conventional also makes it far less likely that a passionate audience will develop around a property.

It seems to me that media companies can no longer afford to operate from a default position of fear. If they want to stop doing so, however, they need to change their culture and how success and failure are interpreted. When the odds are already stacked against you, “conventional” is no longer synonymous with “safe.”

Saving the Poor by Dodging Bullets: When “Conventional” no longer equals “Safe”

The Nature of Political Compromise, and Bourbon

Watching the GOP on cable news fulminating about health care reform makes me think about the nature of compromise.

(Well, actually, first it makes me giggle a bit; then I get very quiet and think about America’s future; then more giggling, only bitter now; then I give the television the finger; then I grab a bottle of bourbon while muttering about John Boehner being an “asshat”; and then I start thinking about the nature of political compromise.)

Near as I can figure, there are three reasons for compromise in our legislative system.

1) To get the votes necessary to pass a bill – With the large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, compromise for votes (at least outside of the Blue Dogs) is not very needed. Also worth noting that when the Republicans were in power their approach towards this flavor of compromise went along the lines of telling the Democrats they were communistic, terrorist loving, troop hating, wusses if they didn’t tow the line, and then calling them that anyway after they did.

2) As an end in itself – The idea that bringing the other side to the table is either an inherent good, or will make generalized aspects of governing easier. Given the clubbiness of Congress, this could also be the “I don’t want anyone to feel awkward at Cokie Roberts’ next dinner party” position. We know from their recent history that the Republican Party doesn’t consider this one much of a value, hence Dick Cheney’s telling a Democratic Senator to “go [expletive deleted] himself.”

3) To make the legislation better – The Easter Bunny of political goals. Besides an impulse towards harmony as opposed to discord, I think this is at the heart of the desire for compromise on important pieces of legislation. Both in the media and Democratic leadership, there’s a tendency towards looking back wistfully at some hazy former day when both parties met, exchanged ideas, and shook hands over the improved bill. That carries over today into an attitude that posits the solution to national problems as being invariably found somewhere in the middle of what each party is advocating. Which is, of course, bunk.

With all there reasons for political compromise being either deeply flawed or fully broken, might it make sense for the Democratic Party to just quietly push away from the table and go about the business of governing mostly on their own?

The Nature of Political Compromise, and Bourbon