Lunchtable TV Talk: Premature cancellation

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Do shows fail to find an audience because of (lack of or bad) marketing? Because today there is too much to choose from or just because the masses have questionable taste? (I know this to be true, and this is why I don’t much buy into the “wisdom of the crowd” or focus groups or anything that relies on tipping point-pleasing everyone logic. I, and most of my friends, are not the mass in the middle that wants to see lame singing contests on TV every night of the week or who once wanted more and more stuff like Fear Factor or Survivor or Big Brother. We’re not the ones who thought the title/concept of Big Brother was conceived with the reality show debacle that reality show “moment” spawned. We know exactly where Big Brother came from – and we know that Big Brother like tactics are exactly what are used to inform network decisions on TV cancellation.

So yeah… what about all those pleasant and sometimes fantastic shows that never found their audience, despite finding a voice?

I am sure there is a long list of television shows that I have loved – that you have loved – that saw a premature end. Then there are shows aplenty that started but could not end soon enough because they sucked that much.

Quite a few shows from past seasons were cancelled but were lovely: The Bridge, Better Off Ted, Lone Star, Party Down, Terriers. I still miss them sometimes when I think of them. And then there are some, like the hilarious The Brink on HBO. It was renewed during the first season’s run and sometime before the second season would have happened… HBO pulled the plug! I am miffed about that one and may yet be for a good while.

Somewhere in the middle were shows that were average and entertaining without being must-see. Or shows that glimmered with flashes of promise. And some things were just steadily decent.

I lament the loss of some of these – Gang Related had people like Cliff Curtis (a veteran of film of TV, who is currently a lead in Fear the Walking Dead); Terry O’Quinn (who will always make a sandwich of the bread-and-butter law enforcement style roles he commands); Jay Karnes (who is just the coolest guy in usually uncool roles). Most of these people will work no matter what. But it’s a shame when a cast comes together and works well but does not get a chance to see where it might go.

About a Boy is another similar show. Minnie Driver was sweet. Al Madrigal was silly. And overall it might have been a little mushy, but it was a mush not unlike a slightly sweet applesauce – easy to swallow and pleasant. Yes, I know – I seriously compared a TV show to applesauce.

And then I reflect on other show that I don’t miss but am not sure they would not have turned out okay – Monday Mornings, Taxi Brooklyn?

And then some, like Happy Endings, was vocally mourned by a lot of critics, who felt it was underrated – but I found it only rarely funny, often irritating and a lot less clever, funny or endearing than the aforementioned About a Boy. But still, it too might have been cancelled too soon.

But most of the actors involved in these undertakings landed on their feet elsewhere or already had well-established bearings.

Do we lose out on some of these things because we’ve hit peak TV? There’s too much to choose from or we have slow and poor attention spans? If that were true, the losses of some of these things would not still linger so many months and years after their demise.

Internet of things = Big Data – Big Brother?

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This summer, George Orwell, the frighteningly prescient author of the classic novel 1984, would have turned 110 years old. In honor of the big day, a Dutch art collective, FRONT404, decorated Utrecht’s ubiquitous security surveillance cameras with party hats in an attempt to remind us that these devices are there, always on. The artists state: “By making these inconspicuous cameras that we ignore in our daily lives catch the eye again we also create awareness of how many cameras really watch us nowadays. And [how] the surveillance state described by Orwell is getting closer and closer to reality.”

But the real surveillance state, if we want to call it that, is not necessarily as blatant as the camera on every street corner (although the cameras play their own big part). The real “surveillance” is in the data collected about you every day in your online dealings.

And contributing to the acceleration of this trend is the much-discussed “internet of things” (IoT) concept. A spate of articles about the popular IoT idea has churned through the media, mostly painting the rosy picture of convenience and ease enabled by connecting everything (did we learn nothing from the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica about the dangers of networks?), but also covering topics, such as the challenges of keeping the “things” secure and the potential lines crossed in terms of personal privacy. But if we stop to consider a few of the basic applications of IoT, such as rental cars with “black boxes” attached to monitor renters’ driving – or insurance-company customers and their driving, there are implications. What is the line between the collection of beneficial data and the violation of privacy?

A recent TechCrunch article framed the “monitored driving” angle as though it’s mostly a positive, but does – and we should all be vigilant here – sound the alarm on the caution we need to take in weighing the implications. In this article it is presented as letting you take risk into your own hands and gain from a prevention-based versus reactive insurance claim model, but what do you give up for that? The insurance industry and its relationship with drivers/consumers is highlighted as a potential source of positive change through IoT and the application of data. Insurance companies want to use data to personalize your policies, which will supposedly make coverage and claims more reflective of your personal use. “The idea of ‘connected coverage’ means that insurance companies will encourage you to take risk management into your own hands by leveraging IoT. Ultimately, that could mean saving a big chunk of cash.”

Saving cash = good news! Right? Probably, yes. But the new “You + IoT + Provider = A New Dialogue” equation demands a greater vigilance than most consumers are willing to exert. Many compare the changes and conveniences enabled by IoT and Big Data to finally living in a “Jetsons” era. But the flipside is living under the watchful eye of Big Brother. We accept it because of its potential bonuses and benefits, but I ask again: where does insight end and intrusion begin? The pool of data available to entities in all industries will continue to proliferate – how can this be managed – treating you, based on the individualized data collected about you, as a unique customer, without penalizing you for the same body of behavioral data?

A Backchannel/Medium piece by Angus Hervey perfectly expressed the ambivalence I feel and the questions we should all be asking:

“A world where our entire physical environment has the ability to exchange data with the internet and other connected objects. A world that’s more convenient, more streamlined, and more responsive to our needs. It’s also a terrifying prospect. A world of ubiquitous surveillance, a world where privacy is no longer a guaranteed right but instead a privilege you must fight for. The possibility of data breaches, backdoors into home systems, vehicles being hacked by shadowy forces, are very real.

Start thinking differently about the IoT. Make sure you place it within its larger technological context, and join the vanguard that’s establishing new design practices and principles for how we’re going to manage it. It’s not more of the same. It’s something new. And once we get past that stupid name, it’s going to change the world.”

Stat Explosion and Data Overload

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May 18 skewed my blog statistics in a big way. As someone who manages a very niche, limited-reach blog for a corporation in my professional life (obviously not THIS blog), this sudden and brief explosion was an interesting look at what immediately drives traffic (a retweet from a famous person). Or rather what won’t. The corporate blog gets readers, and the number of readers and subscribers grows slowly but steadily. It is such a specialized area that it is not as though it would ever get the kind of readership that even my personal blog gets – and my personal blog is all over the place – personal, lacking in a theme or point and not actively trying to drive anything. It started as a baking/recipe blog when my colleagues (whom I had stuffed to near-death with cookies and cupcakes) demanded recipes. It evolved into a dumping ground for my thoughts and commentary on television, news/current events and all manner of other nonsense. Even if my personal blog had a steadier stream of traffic than my work blog (makes sense because the randomness of my personal blog means that all kinds of Google searches, from Mobutu Sese Seko to white chocolate macadamia cookies, from the benefits of telecommuting, to pictures of brown sugar cupcakes piled high with mounds of maple Swiss meringue buttercream and candied bacon. might lead someone to my blog), I never achieved any great reach.

on the bacon bandwagon

on the bacon bandwagon

Until today, my personal blog’s best stats never reached more than 250 visitors – and that was when I was baking a lot and posting recipes and pictures of cakes. In the absence of that, I maybe get 30 or 40 visitors. I am not that concerned with the statistics on my personal blog – I write it for my own sake and if someone else gets there and likes it, or even doesn’t like it, that’s fine with me.

But this morning, which has felt like a neverending night now that Swedish near-endless light nights are here, I posted an article about how I finally watched the witty and insightful Inside Amy Schumer, despite the misleading, one-dimensional Comedy Central ads for it that had so long turned me off. I posted about the blog via Twitter, which was retweeted from Schumer’s own account, which then led to what is for me an unprecedented avalanche of activity. Suddenly my phone was chiming: ding ding ding ding ding ding because, thanks to Schumer’s devotees (a more pleasant word than “followers”), people were retweeting and favoriting my original tweet. (Yes, I am perfectly aware of how asinine this sounds. A non-Millennial person describing the tweet and retweet process like it’s really serious business just sounds funny – even if it does have its own importance. It’s just not the be-all, end-all.)

But more than that, the link to the blog in which I wrote about changing my mind about Amy Schumer’s show made the blog statistics skyrocket. In a couple of hours, there were well over 1,000 visitors. The downside is that this opens the door to a lot of unprovoked criticism from complete strangers. But then yeah, the world’s full of haters, and that is completely fine. I hate a lot of stuff too. It is also easy to have a knee-jerk reaction (no emphasis on “jerk” or anything) – as I did to the ads, and as the commenter had to my post. But I am sure we are both cool enough people in our real lives.

The only comment on the Amy Schumer blog entry, in fact, was a negative one, basically laying into me for my “judgmental, accusatorial” observations about an ad. But, as I commented back (and I think we’re cool now), most of our judgments and decisions are kind of “split second” in nature – especially to ads. They are meant to appeal to us on some level, get our attention and in 30 seconds to make us want to do something, consume something, watch something or buy something (I won’t even use as strong a word as “persuade” since it’s more like advertisers tease and tempt with an elevator speech – so shouldn’t it be a bit more tempting, somehow?). Of course, I don’t know who the target audience was with the Schumer ads, but it’s not me – and that’s fine. But I still had to see them, and I made a judgment that watching the show might not be the best use of my time. Or that it would be as crass and shallow as the ads made it seem. That is no judgment of the show itself or Amy Schumer. And my writing about it was more like, “Hey, I was completely wrong about this – and the two people who read this blog and generally trust my opinions on these matters should know it. Watch Inside Amy Schumer!”

With a fleeting moment of greater reach, you simultaneously become a lightning strike (gone in a flash) and a lightning rod.

I suppose a celeb retweet or starting/being part of a trending topic is the sort of thing that one has to get to gain some traction. Even if, for example, in this case, it is a bunch of clicks – not “traction”. We all know it but there’s no way to predict whether any social media activity will lead to anything. Visitors to my personal blog are nice – but much like in the corporate blog environment, it’s not like they stuck around and read other things. And for personal writing, it doesn’t matter. I write what I write, I post it online and to a limited extent in social channels, but I am not writing for an audience or to achieve something.

But for the corporate writing, you sort of want to extend the reach – establish yourself as a thought leader – but you cannot do anything to damage your credibility or try to somehow get that reach artificially. It doesn’t work and won’t hold anyone’s interest. For instance I could try to steer the corporate blog in a direction where “celebrity surgeons” (is there such a thing other than the odd Dr Oz and some plastic surgeons who show up on makeover shows??) somehow feel compelled to retweet the content, but while that might extend reach for a day, it is not delivering quality or longevity or even the target audience we’d want to reach.

In a kind of related area…

“Data data data – you cannot make bricks without clay…” –Sherlock Holmes in TV show Elementary

All this discussion of statistics should lead to an action plan on how to take advantage of statistics and visitor data to guide future blog content – “give the readers what they want”. At least this is true for the corporate blog – consumer/user/customer responsiveness and centricity is really the only way to ensure continued growth for something like this.

I have been participating in a Coursera/Wharton School online class about marketing, and this week was all about customer-centricity. Since I work a lot with the ideas underpinning “taming Big Data” to gain customer insights in my freelance work, the whole idea of customer focus as one of the only real ways to differentiate makes a lot of sense – and customer data (overload) is the key to giving users what they want.

Never mind that I am totally distracted listening to the professor, Peter Fader, deliver his lectures, because he sounds too much like Bob Odenkirk – so I am supposed to be looking at a PowerPoint slide describing a couple of case studies of companies that have put customer data to good use, but it’s like I am hearing Saul Goodman explaining customer centricity to me. (And Saul Goodman arguably did put his customers first, sometimes to his own detriment and at his own peril.)

This customer-centric, data-driven approach is finally taking root in all kinds of business segments and industries. As Fader pointed out, direct marketing has always used data to target customers – but now, in the digital age, this data is readily available to almost everyone (I won’t get into the ethics of data collection, privacy, etc. except to say that while it’s great for businesses, it’s creepy for customers – see a recent article about a pregnant woman and Princeton professor who had to go to insane lengths to hide her pregnancy from advertisers, retailers and the Big Data machine.) At first companies like Google and Amazon tapped into user data because it’s in their DNA – I have spent a lot of time looking at how old-style, traditional publishers who lost both revenue and subscribers in the big digital shift are now taking back control their data (they had ceded a lot of it to third parties who started taking an ever-larger share of the pie from them) to target their website visitors, readers, subscribers with content and advertising that is highly personalized. And just today I saw a news report about a museum in London that has begun to use all kinds of data collection (traditional and digital) to continue to attract visitors. As the report stated, “Research is a key part of the museum’s arsenal.”

The application of data and personalization is the next logical step, but I wonder about the quality and longevity of this too. Collecting, analyzing and applying user data can only go so far before people feel as though someone is always looking over their shoulder. I cannot help but wonder if that sense of Big Data infiltrating one’s life will start to feel too much like Big Brother and begin to change and influence consumer behavior?

(As advertised – I rambled aimlessly!)

Reading the Riot Act … in poetry time

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“Great minds have sought you — lacking someone else.
You have been second always. Tragical?
No. You preferred it to the usual thing:
One dull man, dulling and uxorious,
One average mind —   with one thought less, each year.”
-Ezra Pound, “Portrait d’Une Femme

I recently used the expression “reading the Riot Act” and then felt compelled to think about it and where this expression came from. How many expressions are we using every day without really having a clear answer as to where they came from? Many months ago, I referred to “Big Brother” watching us, and, if I remember correctly, the colleague to whom I was speaking replied with something about reality TV shows. (I made sure to inform her that Big Brother comes from the must-read book, Orwell‘s 1984, and months later supplied her with a copy, which she devoured and loved.) Actually the same woman and I had a talk the other day in which she described the stereotypical (and yes, it’s totally derogatory) “Shylock”, so I mentioned “Shylock” – and again got to explain the origins of this reference (as well as the reference to the oft-cited demanding one’s pound of flesh). Oh, how much of this language and its complex web of references is attributable to Shakespeare? Okay, not Big Brother, but … the English language is practically sewn together with Shakespearean expressions and imagery.

I never consider myself that literary. I am not the kind of person, in my imagination, who makes literary references (neither the highbrow kind that only certain people will “get” nor the everyday “everyone should know this” kind – lately it seems that the only reference anyone makes that anyone gets is from pop culture rubbish “lit”). Despite this self-evaluation, I tend to find a poem or line from a poem (or at least a song) that fits to every situation. And so much of it ties into memories.

I was thinking for example of a former classmate, Frank. Someone I genuinely liked and respected, but one among several of the high school era people I knew who just decided to go away and live a life disconnected from the past. I gave a lot of thought today to how much he despised being forced to read and analyze poetry in our senior lit class. Symbolism seemed the most ludicrous thing ever. He was profoundly … almost disgusted by William Carlos Williams and the reverence our teachers afforded this guy and his red wheelbarrow and white chickens (not to be confused with the chicken that my current company dubiously had in some of its ads).

We had an assignment in which we were assigned a poet to research, and Frank was given Ezra Pound. (He could have chosen another poet but probably would not have wanted to invest the time to select one.) I distinctly recall Frank claiming that there was a reference in one of Pound’s poems that read: “the monkey screams”. Where did he get this? Perhaps from Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” (“The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.”)

One year in high school we also had to analyze Pound’s “Portrait d’Une Femme” as a part of our (nerd festival, in which I participated willingly and gleefully) academic decathlon competition. At the time the poem held very little meaning for me, but over the years has assumed a bittersweet kind of importance, as I recognize in it bits of myself. Poetry and music both have a way of reaching me (and probably all people) in different ways at different times. This poem seemed so remote when I was young and had no life experience, and then suddenly, these references to being second always and yet preferring it – or the final lines: “In the slow float of differing light and deep,/No! there is nothing! In the whole and all,/Nothing that’s quite your own/Yet this is you.”

It simply cuts – and cuts the right way, however painful the realizations that come with it. I don’t know another way to put it. I know many people find poetry completely unrelatable, but for me, it is alive and takes on new lives each time I read it. Much like these expressions we adopt into our vernacular … and forget how they got there and maybe what they originally meant.