February 27, 2006

A Microsoft Primer on Creating Buzz?

Ever wish you could follow a "this is not a buzz campaign" buzz campaign instead of reading about it afterwards? The Microsoft Origami Project is a great buzz example happening right now, Monday, 2/27/06. Engadget wrote about it last Friday, linking to Scoble who talked about it as well.

A video has been making the rounds showing a new digital convergence device being used by the digitally hip. (Hat tip to Amy, a woman with whom I work.) But there's no identification on the video, which appears on a small production company's website. The only clue that it's for Microsoft is the file name "mso.swf". Is the posting a mistake, or a buzz campaign?

Blogpulse from Intelliseek charts buzz on a keyword. Here's a chart showing the Buzz for "Microsoft Origami Project." Note recent, sharp increase in buzz.


According to the Origami Project Website, details will be forthcoming on March 2nd. It also has three choices in the interface: "Week 1", "Week 2", and "Week 3", but only "Week 1" is active, meaning the website will be relevant through the second week of March, which brings us too what? The Game Developer's Conference?

I think this campaign will be an instructive one for watching buzz being created. Microsoft has pioneered buzz with their Alternate Reality Games such as The Beast, which promoted Spielberg's movie AI; the ILOVEBEES campaign for the Halo2 launch; and Our Colonyfor the recent XBOX 360 launch.

So, not only is the device interesting because of how the convergence lifestyle is depicted in the recently released movie, the buzz campaign is a nice buzz petri dish to observe and learn from, brought to you by a leader in buzz marketing.

February 26, 2006

'Interactive' TV Commercials?

Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC)'s advertising agency Foote Cone & Belding tries to circumvent ad-skipping technology not by resorting to legal measures or technology but by utilizing 'interactivity' in its latest TV commercial. The idea is very simple and, in terms of film history, age-old - a secret message is planted in a few frames of the commercial and is supposed to be 'decoded' by recording and re-playing the commercial frame-by-frame.
Interestingly enough, the technique was originally 'invented' by and used in horror films like 'The Excorcist', which insert single frames of grotesque faces or other disturbing imagery which, however, is often at least noticeable because it contrasts with the background in color, contrast or shape.
'Decoding' the secret message earns you a coupon for a 99c new KFC sandwich which should create just enough appeal for people to actually play along - except for the fact that the 'secret' message will probably soon appear on websites all over the net (which again is probably an intended side-effect for KFC).
In a way, the commercial seems to pursue the same strategy like the online banner ads where you have to 'hit a monkey', 'throw a dart' or perform all other kinds of minimalist one-button or mouse+button tasks (and basically click on that ad!), i.e. the urge to interact which still appears to be a powerful tool to override the built-in ad-sensitivity modern media users acquired over time. It probably also fits with the 'collective intelligence' paradigm of contemporary media usage. IMO, the original frame narrative of the technique in horror films, the conspiracy topos of the cold war time, does not hold any longer and does not provide enough incentive for individual viewers to actually record and 'decipher' the commercial. As a general, rather 'soft' strategy of countering the DVR threat, however, it appear to be a step in the right direction.

February 24, 2006

Indian Gaming Industry is coming of age

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) has announced the creation of a forum on the booming Indian animation and gaming industry this week. This is a second big step after the formation of the Indian Games Industry and Trade Association, apty acronymed iGITA, in January to boost Indian participation in gaming and for India to advance from Outsourcistan to a competitor in an increasingly global gaming market. Electronic Arts and Microsoft India are the only big Western names in the list of iGITA founding members and the focus still seems to lie on mobile gaming but to see the ongoing institutionalization happening so quickly is a good sign. At the same time, for the external observer, it's interesting to not what categorizations are made in the process, e.g. coupling animation and gaming (with a rhetorical focus on animation, still). In both areas combined, analysts expect, 30000 experts are going to be needed in the near future. Maybe it could be worthwhile to pick up some Hindi :)

February 23, 2006

French "Duty Tax" May Legalize File-Sharing

In an article in Next Generation, Chris Weaver of Bethesda Softworks notes that French lawmakers have come up with a plan that may legalize digital file-sharing:

A recent government attempt to impose astronomical penalties of hundreds of thousands of dollars and jail time of up to three years on "Digital Pirates" backfired as lawmakers instead voted to endorse amendments to legalize the online sharing of digital media by anyone who paid a "duty tax" of $8.50. While not the final vote on the issue within the French government, the gauntlet has definitely been thrown down.

The vote was met with a hailstorm of criticism by the entrenched industries[...]

The event would almost be amusing if it were not so serious when viewed in the context of communications technology history. Entrenched industries bar the door and clamor for government protection while technology creates new industries. This problem is not new. It is simply that people forget to pass this information on to new generations, who might otherwise avoid the mistakes of their forebears.

Chris goes on to point out that of the VCR saved the movie industry by creating a profitable aftermarket. While it's not clear that the French "duty tax" would be a magic bullet for the moral panic that's arisen around digital 'piracy', it seems like it would be a step in the right direction. Media producers would realize some revenue, and no longer need to waste astronomical sums of money (and customer goodwill) by lawyering up and pursuing ineffective and damaging DRM schemes.

It's worth noting that Chris works in the video game industry, one of the few places where piracy demonstrably *can* affect a company's financial health, due to overhead issues which can make games which move hundreds of thousands of copies unprofitable. The root problem in the games industry isn't piracy, however; it's that the big-box stores can leverage their power to extort a ridiculous share of a game's retail price for themselves. Digital distribution and alternate revenue models (such as subscription fees for MMORPGs) are vital for the game industry's future, just as adapting to the reality of file-sharing is vital to the music and movie industries. The only difference is that most everyone on the development side of the games industry knows their business model has to change, and the sooner the better.

February 20, 2006

Is It Product Placement?

Leave it to Pixar...The creative computer animation company now housed in the Disney family caught my eye with some of their shots for their upcoming film Cars, starring such creative forces as Paul Newman, Owen Wilson and...Larry The Cable Guy.

What caught my eye in particular was a detail that borders somewhere between parody and product placement. The situation got me thinking about what IS product placement...

The Pixar car has written across the tires "Lightyear" in the same font and placement as Goodyear Tires. For those familiar with Pixar's history, you will know that the "Lightyear" is a reference to the first Pixar film, Toy Story, in which one of the primary characters was named Buzz Lightyear.

The detail shows Pixar's creativity in every corner of their work, but it also bolsters the idea that Goodyear is the big name in tires...When can parody be product placement? Would a company be able to get a company to shell money out to parody its name in this fashion, when no direct product is even placed in the picture?

Product Placement and Soaps

Back in December, I posted an entry about a discussion on product placement in soaps from Michael Gill's Media Domain Board for As the World Turns.

At the time, everyone who posted on the thread agreed that product placement would be more effective, more natural, and possibly the only way for soap operas to survive, longterm, and people began to debate particular issues about how product placement should be handled.

Fast-forward a few months, and the same board has had a small mini-discussion with a few close watchers of ATWT regarding a particular case of product placement this past week.

One of the characters, Margo Hughes, came in with a bag of groceries, filled with Procter & Gamble merchandise. Only a few astute viewers even picked up on the fact that the majority of the items in her grocery bag were P&G items, which is the company that produces ATWT. In this case, the script called for her to be unloading her groceries in particular, and the types of items inside were completely plausible for a trip to the grocery. The items were never referenced directly, but it just felt natural--especially compared to the "Brand X" products used too often in daytime television.

These characters in the Hughes family live in the same branded world we do, and that's the type of realism that product placement done correctly can bring.

Of course, a few fans chimed in who were almost completely anti-P&G products being in the show, saying they were sickened by it, etc., but this seems to be more anti-commercialism rhetoric than anything. The majority of the viewers indicated that they found it natural, noticed but didn't pay close attention and some felt it actually added to the show to have those real products used. And most of them, the loyal and active viewers who post on message boards, also saw supporting product placement as a way to support the show and its sponsors.

Alec's the product placement expert around here, though, so I would love to have him weigh in as well...

Is Grape-Nuts...Nuts?

I was watching my recorded version of As the World Turns the other day when I stopped briefly on a commercial from Post's Grape-Nuts cereal for their new cereal brand, Grape-Nuts Trail Mix Crunch Cereal. The tag line for this new food offering was "Tastes So Good, You Won't Believe Its Grape-Nuts!" Hmmmm...

I had a double-take, hit the rewind button and listened to it again. I didn't hear it wrong. Immediately, my wife and I started discussing the strategy here. On the one hand, maybe Grape-Nuts has a reputation as not being tasty and just being good for you, so they are showing that they are light-hearted and willing to perform a little self-deprecation. But when it comes to attacking the taste of your staple product, and taste is one of the most important features of food (even health food), I don't know if self-deprecation is the right method.

What were the people at Grape-Nuts thinking?!? No disrespect to the cereal--I even have some sitting in my cabinet right now--but the last thing you need to do is create a new product that mocks the taste of the main product of the brand. It directly contrasts with the main page for Grape-Nuts, which calls the cereal "great tasting." Is this type of contradiction bad? Or am I wrong?

Just seems to me that, if they believe the Grape-Nuts brand is worthless enough that the own company needs to start putting down its taste prominently in advertisements, shouldn't they just drop the Grape-Nuts brand and move on? When does a brand identity become of little use?

Other people have different takes on it--I found that Tom Peters had blogged on the ad as well, and many of the people commenting there found the ad refreshing and/or brilliant. So maybe I'm just not seeing it. Anyone out there who could enlighten me? Maybe even someone from the Post division of Kraft Foods is lurking out there who could make this clear to me.

New Advertising Technology Allows Ordering Products Directly from TV Commercial

Dave Meltzer, who single-handedly writes the Wrestling Observer newsletter every week, had an interesting blurb in the 13 February 2006 issue. I waited a few days to post about it so that the Observer would have had plenty of time to circulate, but I haven't read about this anywhere else. According to Dave, World Wrestling Entertainment is preparing to "showcase a new digital prototype technology that may prove to strongly increase business, and when copied, strengthen the value of television advertising greatly."

This new technology will be tested in WWE On Demand content such as WWE 24/7 and special events PPVs. According to Meltzer, "it would allow people watching a TV commercial, whether it be for a PPV, DVD, or other house show, to click to an icon on the screen to make an immediate purchase" and will also give them exclusive footage free for using the technology.

This is exactly the kind of model that maximizes advertising impact and makes advertising cease to feel like an intrusive hindrance to the programming but instead a focused and useful tool brought to the viewer. If done correctly, if used sparingly enough, it could be a milestone in the media industry. It's exactly the kind of thing you can do online, but digital cable provides every opportunity to do the same.

Has anyone else heard of similar technology being implemented on digital cable or satellite or in any other media form? For those of you who follow the advertising industry more closely, how long do you think it would take a trend like this to catch on?

As a wrestling fan, I see this having maximum benefit for wrestling-related merchandise and also for new movie releases. If it would be possible to view a movie trailer and immediately be able to click an options to see local showtimes and buy tickets online through Fandango or a similar service, I think it could be an extremely useful tool. The same goes for selling books, movies, and TV shows on DVD.

Of course, there are plenty of advertisers that this technology wouldn't effect, especially those that provide goods more along the lines of commodities, but those are the types of products that can be utilized in product placement, so the combination of this type of technology with an increase in effective product placement could move advertising toward a model much more reflective of the needs and wants of the consumer, again where everyone could potentially win.

Pop Secret Indie Commercials

Pop Secret, the General Mills popcorn brand, is sponsoring commercials for their popcorn made by independent directors, as a way to indirectly promote their sponsorship of the The Independent Feature Project Independent Spirit Awards. Pop Secret even sponsored a pullout "The Great American Indie Quiz" in last week's Entertainment Weekly, with the Web address to their site featuring the commercials.

It seems that this is the perfect fusion of commercialism and content, where independent directors are given a chance to produce content that is distributed by the company to help the director develop a name and film fans to get to see the work of unknowns, while also directly promoting the company. It's hardly an act of goodwill but is one step closer to a model of direct sponsorship. At this point, it seems to be a win-win situation.

Check out the Pop Secret page, and tell me what you think...

Focus on the Family and The Dangers of MTV!

Maybe this is a little off-topic, but considering how focused we are on the entertainment industry and that it even involves one of our corporate partners in research here at C3, I just felt I had to write something, and this seems to be my best venue.

The topic is Dr. James C. Dobson, the brain behind "Focus on the Family."

For those of you who don't know, I write a weekly column in The Ohio County Times-News in Hartford, Ky., called "From Beaver Dam to Boston," which follows my travels from Kentucky, the place where I was born and raised (kudos to O Brother, of course), to MIT. Directly under my column every week is a column by Dr. Dobson, sponsored by the local Lawton Insurance. No one is willing to sponsor my column at this point, so I don't know what that means...

Dr. Dobson's column this particular week was about today's music lyrics leaving negative impressions. He shows how the contempt for parents in modern popular music reflects a dangerous shift in societal values and respect toward elders, evidenced by this unshakable bit of empirical evidence:

When Dr. Dobson was young, one of the most popular songs was Eddie Fisher's "Oh, My Papa," an ode to someone's deceased father and how good he treated his children. Then, in 1983, Suicidal Tendencies released "I Saw Your Mommy," which documents the narrator's watching someone's mommy bleeding to death.

Dr. Dobson's conclusion includes this: "My point is that the most popular music of our culture went from the inspiration of 'Oh, My Papa' to 'I Saw Your Mommy' in scarcely more than a generation."

Who is the cause of all this? Why, MTV, of course, which "promotes the worst stuff available." Good to know that, while some people fear that a 20-some-year-old MTV now part of a corporate conglomerate will lose its edge, Dobson finds that the network is producing "the worst stuff available." And Dr. Dobson finds that "many of the problems that plague this generation, form suicide to unwed pregnancy to murder, can be traced back to the venom dripped into its veins by the entertainment industry."

What's the point of sharing Dobson's words of wisdom in this particular forum? Possibly because I got a letter pointing out to me how are columns are adjacent to each other...perhaps because sharing just makes me feel better. But I am a strong proponent of free speech, and Dr. Dobson can feel more than privileged to share this view, and Lawton Insurance can feel more than privileged to pay for it. Of course, he may be equally appalled to know that his article runs next to someone studying pro wrestling and soap opera, in a media studies program at MIT and...gasp...partnering in research with his dreaded enemy.

But Dobson's point has two major morals for those of us interested in studying the entertainment industry and mass media in a little bit more of a nuanced approach. First, there are powerful voices like Dobson's out there always calling for censorship and for restrictions on freedom of speech, but we are currently blessed with many great entertainment venues taking a stand for shows that embrace a variety of viewpoints, from The Passion of the Christ to Brokeback Mountain to Dr. Phil to Sleeper Cell.

And, second, beware of taking evidence at face value. This semester, Henry Jenkins has assigned my class to read Darrell Huff's How to Lie with Statistics. Yet there are plenty of people who offer "irrefutable evidence" as weak or weaker than Dobson's "proof" at the change in the music industry in a generation and plenty of people who believe it without skepticism. I'm not trying to deny that Dobson may not have a small point somewhere in his tirade. But his argument is like trying to balance a Mack truck on a toothpick's worth of evidence, and there are plenty of people who accept it without a second look...

No matter who we are, on whatever side of issues related to the mass media and the entertainment industry, we need to take a more nuanced approach, explore the gray areas and always...always...be skeptical, lest the Dobsons of the world always pass themselves off as the gospel.

Brand Reinforcement or "Too Much"?

Has anyone witnessed the new advertising campaign by Chrysler, whose Chrysler 300C is used in Harrison Ford's upcoming thriller Firewall (Richard Loncraine, Warner Brothers)? The company has a Web site dedicated to the film and has taken full-page ads in entertainment magazines telling viewers to "See the Crysler 300C in Firewall, in theaters now. Go for the ride of your life with the Chrysler 300C."

Is this a good example of getting the most bang for your advertising buck by building on product placements with advertising for that product placement, or is this bordering on going too far?

The Most Important Discussion in the Entertainment Industry?

A really interesting discussion has been taking place on the official Procter & Gamble Productions message board for Guiding Light, based on a comment made by a PGP moderator on the board on what the fans mean to the show in the overall business scheme, and where the online fan community stands in contrast to the Nielsen ratings. In many ways, I think it is a discussion that should be happening not on the boards of fan communities but in the offices of the sponsors behind these programs.

To give you a short recap. The moderator, Alina, stated that "a headwriter's job is to make the sponsors happy. They're the customers who pay the bills" and that "the only way to gauge fan happiness is ratings (message boards, magazine polls and Emmys are nice, but they mean nothing if the numbers aren't there)." Fans were upset by Alina's comments, believing that this process is backward and that making fans happy should in turn lead to maximum profit for sponsors, not the other way around. It's a case of someone wanting to shoot the messenger, though.

Alina responded by pointing out that "the 1000 or so people on this board are a tiny number compared to the overall audience, right?" She suggested that fans should "try to get as many people as you know to stop watching the show for, say, a week [ . . . ] and then see if it moves the Neilsen needle. That will give you an idea of the sort of numbers TPTB are looking at, versus what we on the boards are looking at."

Unfortunately, Alina has taken the brunt of fan anger on the board for the comments, but she is getting at the heart of what is happening in the entertainment industry. Alina is one of the people who "get it" the most in the entertainment industry and develops a lot of transmedia content for PGP. She was just stating the harsh reality of the way the industry works right now, for better or for worse.

Sure, it's unlikely that a significant number of the people posting on the boards are a large number of the 5,000 or so Nielsen households that exist at any one time. On the other hand, the question is how viable the Nielsen ratings are in an era when television viewing is splintered by so many choices. Sure, 5000 households may be a good indicator of what people are watching among three or four choices, but what happens when you have hundreds? The Nielsen's are still potentially viable, but can they really be the bible to base success by?

And are Internet message boards then not a viable measurement of a show's success? I guess it depends on what you're looking for. A message board of 1000 or so actual viewers is a bigger sample than 5000 Nielsen households, if everyone on the message boards are viewers of the show. And in the soap industry, fluctuations on a show and between shows are usually only by one or two tenths of one rating point, which would be caused by the change of a channel of a tiny number of Neilsen households.

The Nielsens are probably more flawed than the logic of some of the fans on these boards, but Alina has a good point--if it is what TPTB (sponsors and not creative forces in this case) accept, how do you change the logic that surrounds it?

If you accept that most involved fans are likely to plan their days around the shows and more likely to be more profitable for advertisers and, in the long run, more economic benefit comes from increasing the number of loyal viewers than there is creating a greater number of casual viewers on a particular day.

But Alina's point is important here...As long as the Nielsen's are accepted industry-wide as the guide to go by and as long as that is what sponsors are looking at, how do you change it? It is the sponsors that should see the value in expanding the data they look at beyond just Neilsen numbers.

Sure, a lot of the most vocal fans on the Internet aren't necessarily the best indicator. You can't write too much for an online audience who is likely to complain no matter what happens, and a lot of them will say they'll quit watching but hardly ever mean it, becuase their involvement with the show is so deep there is great opportunity cost in their minds to quit watching it considering how much time they've invested in the show over the years. On the other hand, it's important to keep the most loyal fans the most happy because they tend to be your cheerleaders, and word-of-mouth is still the best way to grow your audience.

The PGP Boards are a great example of fans and representatives of the company getting together and not discussing the company line but rather having a conversation, as a group of individuals. Sure, these discussions are not smooth, but the issues aren't really smooth, either, when there's so many transitions taking place so rapidly in the media industry.

February 17, 2006

All Your Trax Are Belong To Us

Via theinquirer.net and the EFF, the RIAA has reversed its position on whether ripping electronic backups from CDs is kosher.

This is what Don Verilli said the Supreme Court last year:

The record companies, my clients, have said, for some time now, and it's been on their website for some time now, that it's perfectly lawful to take a CD that you've purchased, upload it onto your computer, put it onto your iPod.

And this is their new position:

Nor does the fact that permission to make a copy in particular circumstances is often or even routinely granted, necessarily establish that the copying is a fair use when the copyright owner withholds that authorization. In this regard, the statement attributed to counsel for copyright owners in the MGM v. Grokster case is simply a statement about authorization, not about fair use.

As Fred Von Lohmann at the EFF says, the RIAA is essentially saying that "perfectly lawful" means "lawful until we change our mind." First, that's not how the law works. Second, there's no way in the world that you're going to convince people that they don't have the right to format-shift music which they already bought. And third, even if the RIAA manages to strongarm Congress and the courts to upholding their retrograde notion that consumers are leasing their music and have only those rights the RIAA deigns to assign them, all this is going to do is encourage people to engage in piracy and hold the law in contempt. Remember how effective the Eighteenth Amendment and Prohibition were at stamping out the consumption of liquor? Now imagine how well everyone with an iPod, mp3 player, or library of music on their computer is going to take their listening habits being criminalized.

February 16, 2006

Mapping as Branding

A recent article in Ad Age desribes how HBOwill launch a Google Map to show places mentioned in The Sopranos. They're doing it to reacquaint viewers with a series that's been off the air since May, 2004. HBO says they're the first, but other brands outside the US are currently running campaigns using Google's sister technology Google Earth, including:


These examples show that transmedia storytelling opportunities are everywhere because audiences are everywhere.

But the real power comes from combining things like Google Maps with other location-based data, like what Best buy did for the Launch of the XBOX 360 from Microsoft last November. Because of limited supply, they combined Google Maps with their XBOX 360 inventory so customers could find out which Best Buy in their area had stock.

Dig a little deeper:
The Google Earth Blog is an enthusiast site dedicated to Google Earth and getting the most out of it.
The Programmableweb website is a resource for finding out about all the Web 2.0 API's available and mashups created with them.

February 15, 2006

The "Death and Transfiguration" of the Boardgame?

Philips announced in early January their prototype of the 'entertaible', a boardgame to end all boardgames, i.e. basically a touchscreen which can be used with generic, "tangible" as the claim playing pieces like pawns and dies. The idea is to tap the still existing facination for boardgames (which might be less enthusiastic in the US than in Germany but still considerable given the frequent adaptations of computer games like Diablo and even Doom as tabletop games) and combine it with the lifestyle fetishism of the ipod generation. It's a fascinating idea, emulating all conceivable kinds of board games on a reprogrammable screen with the added value of online connectivity to download new game demos (and ads?) into your 'entertaible'.
However, I'm not sure if they are not missing the point of why boardgames are still popular (and why their digital versions suck), namely the real 'tangibility' and materiality of the pieces, of the gameboard as a map which, after years of use as e.g. in the case of the 1995 Settlers of Catan, exhibits traces of its use and the fond experiences connected with such a game.
Their first test runs are supposed to take place in public spaces like bars and casinos which again might be a good idea and a clever business concept...

February 14, 2006

Sony MMO trial package

OK, so someone at Sony Online Entertainment had a fairly clever idea: Release 5 of its games for $39.99, with one month's worth of play in each of them, as a way to hook new players.

This is pretty clever, as the revenue model for these games is largely based off of continuing subscriptions, yet a player can usually only play one MMO at a time. Also, as Joystick points out,

The variety of MMOs on the market can be confusing to new players, especially if you want to try multiple games out before you subscribe. Sony appear to have acknowledged this need with their new Station Access Collection which includes Sony Online Entertainment's top MMOs in one package.

Of course, the free accounts offered on games like Planetside, and free trials on games like EVE are also good ways for people to try out a game, and it's notable that its SOE doing this and not Blizzard. Still, if I was in the market for an MMO that wasn't World of Warcraft, this box set would be a pretty appealing way of testing out different game experiences, and a good way for SOE to hook any customers who haven't already been captured by World of Warcraft or one of NCsoft's games.

Update: Through Penny Arcade, I learned that SOE is giving away the Everquest II client to Fileplanet members. The 5 client release is clearly part of a coordinated strategy to increase their customer base, either to rake in subscriptions or to lay the foundation for alternate revenue streams (as csven suggests in comments).

February 13, 2006

How iPod is a Game-Changer

Lost Remote notes that major producer Dick Wolf has bought into the new media model:

"I think this serialized show has huge potential both with DVDs, iPod downloads, everything. I may be completely out of my mind, but I think people don't even realize yet how much the iPod is a game changer." Wolf says he's also thinking about producing different versions of the same show (one "harder" than the other) as well as even shooting the series differently for smaller screens.

While Wolf states he's "drinking the Kool-Aid", I think that's an inapt metaphor. The digital future of media isn't a cult, it's a fact, which will make itself felt more and more powerfully over the next few years. And it's about time someone in major media started thinking about the demands that the smaller screens of cellphones and iPods place on the media that will be played on them. Cellphone and iPod screens have different effects on the viewing experience than TV or movie screens do, and its ridiculous to pretend that they don't.

Xbox 360 Memory Hack

From Gizmodo:

Another day, another compromised closed-source project. The XBox 360 filesystem has been cracked wide open and you can now move saved games to and from your 360 using a piece of software called xplorer360, a SATA cable, and/or a hacked USB cable. The program allows you to browse the entire 360 and even lets you drag files from your original XBox over to the 360, which, as we know, used to be impossible.

Given that this sort of thing is pretty much inevitable, why didn't Microsoft allow people to transfer XBox files to the 360 in the first place? It might've earned them some goodwill, instead of giving XBox hackers good PR among their customer base.

A New Advertising Metric: Brain Scans!

This year during the superbowl, UCLA neuroscientists mapped brain activity during the superbowl ads, as an attempt to determine which of them was most effective. Their findings?

If a good indicator of a successful ad is activity in brain areas concerned with reward and empathy, two winners seem to be the 'I am going to Disney' ad and the Bud 'office' ad. In contrast, two big floppers seem to be the Bud 'secret fridge' ad and the Aleve ad. What is quite surprising, is the strong disconnect that can be seen between what people say and what their brain activity seem to suggest. In some cases, people singled out ads that elicited very little brain responses in emotional, reward-related, and empathy-related areas.

It should be noted that Iacoboni's maps of brain activity, while suggestive, aren't definitive proof of anything yet. That said, the tests Iacoboni and his colleagues ran seem to support studies that suggest the effects of repeated exposure to ads fall off very quickly:

[I]n some fMRI runs we presented the same ad twice, just to test for habituation. We saw strong habituation effects, such that the second time around the commercial induces much weaker responses.

February 10, 2006

Uh, Sony vs. Universal Studios Much?

Gizmodo reports that HBO is trying to use a Broadcast flag to make its shows unrecordable by DVRs and conventional VHS tapes. From Ars Technica:

[In] a recent FCC filing [HBO] argues that its video-on-demand programming-and all "Subscription Video On Demand" services-should fall into the category of "Copy Never." In a broadcast-flagged world, that translate into consumers not being able to record on-demand broadcasts by HBO. No TiVo, no VCR, no video capturing on your PC, no nada.

It's too bad the courts have slapped down the broadcast flag before. Sony vs. Universal Studios (colloquially known as the Betamax case) established a precedent that timeshifting content did not infringe on a broadcaster's copyright, even if the technologies used to timeshift could be used for copyright infringing purposes. That's going to be a pretty high hurdle for HBO and strong-DRM advocates to clear, given that it's been settled law for over 21 years.

Manufacturing Online Buzz

In the wake of Penny Arcade drawing attention to the issue through a comic and two front-page posts, concerns about "manchurian fans" shilling for companies in exchange for money or products have begun to draw wide attention in the electronic gaming community.

The case that's drawn most of the attention is that of Nvidia, though recent evidence suggests that what at one point appeared to be fans shilling in exchange for hardware was actually something less sinister. Quoth Joystiq:

Stephanie Schopp, an employee of Nvidia's marketing buddies at AEG, [assured] us that "the program... is far less nefarious than your rather damaging article/blog above claims it to be." She continues, "These members were not 'paid in hardware' as your article states, but sent hardware to give us (NVIDIA through AEG) feedback, positive or negative, regarding their experience with it. They were never told what to say, nor did they sign any document forbidding them to discuss their relationship with NVIDIA or AEG. They are not actors: they were real, informed, hardware enthusiasts that could help us further understand what it was the community wanted from hardware vendors." She then directs us to two posts regarding the issue.

Even if Nvidia's wasn't trying to persuade gamers to act as company plants, however, the case highlights the fact that other companies almost certainly are. The updates to a post at Boingboing suggest that the practice (known as either Astrotufing or Ashleeturfing) is far from uncommon. In addition to being grossly unethical, it's a strategy that's guaranteed to backfire when discovered. In fan communities which privilege accurate information (such as reality-show spoilers and and those dependent on accurate reviews), there's no one more hated than a liar or a shill.

Update: Penny Arcade's posted another comic on the topic. In addition to being funny, it suggests that this issue isn't going fade from public consciousness any time soon.

February 6, 2006

Microsoft To Draw On User-Generated Content

(Via Joystiq)

Cnet reports that in a joint announcement at the entertainment gathering conference, Microsoft's J. Allard and Will Wright of Maxis (the designer of the Sims & Sim City) highlighted the role that user-generated content is expected to play in the next generation of games. While Wright's devotion to user-generated content is clear (Maxis allows Sims players to sell each other modified content, and his new game, Spore, will create a database of user-created creatures with which it will populate its universe), Microsoft's support for user-created content is a new (and welcome) development.

Allard said the Xbox 360 will increasingly encourage developers to let their players add on to worlds, and even sell their creations though a central Xbox store system.

"(Gaming) is the only medium where we yield control of the protagonist. Let's yield control of the director--and the producer," said Allard, a vice president at Microsoft. "We're going to take on the Wikipedia model. We're going to take on...the open-source model, if you will, for gaming."

Indeed, the idea that consumers have a virtually infinite appetite for customized entertainment and are willing to invest both time and money in tailoring their own experience is rippling through the media world far beyond gaming with deep financial consequences.

Sadly, that last paragraph leads into a paragraph about the $600 million ringtone market. IPTV is touched on too, but it's sad to see that the media hasn't quite caught on to the fact that these trends, in aggregate, are about more than just a customized user experience. Still, even if Cnet doesn't get it, Microsoft seems to have embraced the game's industry's consensus that encouraging modding and user-created content extends the lifespan and increases the sales of games. With game budgets skyrocketing (next-generation games, with their HDTV-quality graphics, can be expected to cost between $10-$25 million to produce), encouraging one's playerbase to help expand your game's content base may shift from just a really good idea to a vital component of any next-gen game's business plan.

More relevant quotes from Allard in extended.

Update: Csven notes in comments that the development of tools which can rip textures and 3D models from a videostream threaten the long-term viability of e-content markets. This may well impact Microsoft's ability to rake in a commission on sales of user generated content (and has an immediate impact on the sale of virtual services in Second Life). Still, the larger points regarding the value of user-generated content remain valid, since even if it's being given away for free, it still extends the shelf life of a game.

Continue reading "Microsoft To Draw On User-Generated Content" »

The Evidence

Viewers of the Super Bowl (or, more accurately, the Super Bowl ads) may have noticed a commercial for the new ABC drama The Evidence, which invites the audience to play along with the cops in the show to solve the crime. I don't know if this is actually a transmedial interaction or not. If it is, then great. If not ... it's just a trick of format to engage viewers. That reminds me of the old 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books, which upon further reflection seem to be attempting to emulate some of the interactivity of a transmedial experience while still remaining within a medium. I'm interested to see if the format of The Evidence (whatever that format may be) ends up being considered a strength of the show, or just a faddish gimmick.

Luke Snyder's Blog

The soap opera As the World Turns has begun a new story arc over the past several weeks. The son of one of the prominent longtime couples on the show, Holden and Lily Snyder, is gay, and he doesn't want to tell his parents. The son--Luke Snyder--is in high school and communicates his problems over the Internet on a blog, although he does not openly admit in the blog that he is gay but rather that he has secrets that he doesn't want his parents to find out.

The blog became part of the story when Luke's father learned about it and snuck onto his laptop while he was gone one day and stumbled upon the main page of Luke's blog. He then confronted his son about it, and privacy issues became an issue, as Luke did not expect his father to ever read the blog. (Holden doesn't seem to be that much of a whiz with computers.)

The same day the episode ran first mentioning the blog, a new blogger joined blogger.com--the same Luke Snyder, who has been updating his blog every day, corresponding with some of the events happening on ATWT. The blog makes no overt reference to ATWT, and the only direct connection is that a moderator on the official Procter & Gamble Productions message board included a link to the blog in one of her messages.

So far, the blog has attracted comments from people who do not realize that Luke Snyder is a fictional character and who are reacting to his troubles. ATWT fans have found the page and have joined in on the fun as well. Now, someone is blogging as one of Luke's friends from school, and several people have assumed the identities of characters no longer on the show but who are related to Luke--Luke's biological grandmother, Luke's uncle who was a child the last time he was on the show years ago, and several other characters from ATWT, many of whom have been gone from the show for years.

Sure, there are some people who feel really sly making reference to the writers of the show or something to destroy the suspension of disbelief, but the blog is an interesting way in seeing how integrated storytelling could potentially unfold for a daily drama like any of the daytime soaps.

Would it be permissible for someone to police the blog and eliminate any references that destroy the fictionality of it? I am not really one for censorship actions, but it seems that it might make all the difference to allow this to be a space for fans to roleplay as characters they have invented that fit into Oakdale or as former characters who might read the blog.

And, again, what are the implications on transmedia storytelling with a project like this? Right now, the blog is completely ancillary--But how easy would it be to have Holden stumble onto the blog but not say anything about what it said--so that viewers would be really curious and potentially seek out further information, only available in this form?

This relates to my previous post on Oakdale Confidential, as well as past posts on As the World Turns.

What is Oakdale Confidential?

As the World Turns is preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary--What can one of the longest-running shows on television do to celebrate its rich history? There is always a struggle between ratings and "doing the right thing" when it comes to anniversary shows like this...Long-time fans want to see a lot of old clips celebrating ATWT's history, while TV executives are worried about retaining newer viewers and not losing ratings on an overblown tribute to the past.

So far, ATWT head writer Jean Passanante has made it clear she wants to do more than one stand-alone episode, and two such episodes are planned--one that will be a parody or fantasy celebration of the show, while the other will include a lot of old clips, etc. There will likely be some storylines running during the spring that also feature the veteran actors a little more than usual as well.

Most interesting of all, though, is plans for Oakdale Confidential, a novel that is planned for release the week of ATWT's 50th anniversary. Apparently, the novel is going to be worked into the narrative of the show in some way.

Fans are already trying to figure out what the book might be. One of the characters on ATWT, Emily Stewart, run a tabloid-style magazine. Could the book be a novel released by her giving the dirt on all of the residents of Oakdale? Or could the character Emma Snyder, who long-term fans remember dabbling in fiction writing several years ago, release a book of some sort? Or could it be a character not even on the current canvas writing a tell-all about some of the more prominent residents of the town?

Whatever the case--this is another step in the right direction, if done well. How can a novel become a piece of transmedia? If done well, the television plot will in some way hinge on the contents of the book, so that the television show promotes the book but also requires viewers to read the book to understand the full implications of the impact the book has on the residents of Oakdale.

The show has been very tight-lipped about what Oakdale Confidential is, and Amazon's page on the book has next to no information about the contents...Which makes all of the fans all the more determined to find out what's going on. There's great potential here for an interesting experiment in transmedia storytelling.

Adaptation Across Media--EW's take

A quick note about a really interesting little read in this week's Entertainment Weekly. Lisa Schwarzbaum writes, in the issue's large section on the Oscars, about adapted screenplays taken from novels. In Dr. Karen Schneider's "Literature and Film" class back at Western Kentucky University a few years ago, we discussed the inevitable bias people seem to show toward the book--the book always being "better," of course. And, as any good discussion of adaptation goes, the question eventually becomes what is "the story." If the "original" work is the story, than there could never be one better at telling it, could there be? Or, as my MIT Comparative Media Studies classmate Peter Rauch might question, is it possible for an adaptation to capture more of the essence of "the original" than the actual original work?

That's the sort of question posed here, except in much more concrete terms that most college classes would probably allow for and certainly more than Peter would. She tackles ten cases in which films picked up on the subtleties of a novel and ended up expressing the stories much better than the novelist, utilizing the filmic language much more eloquently than the authors did the written language. Her examples include The Godfather, Ordinary People and Sideways...

During this time of Oscar fever, I just thought it was an interesting argument to bring up and one that is very relevant to transmedia storytelling...Any other regular EW readers have a chance to check it out?

WWE recruiting performers from Web site

World Wrestling Entertainment has found an interesting new way to start searching for its talent pool online. Wrestling companies have often been criticized for not taking into account a knowledge of professional wrestling in hiring practices, as wrestling promoters often hire writers from television or Hollywood, sportscasters for local markets, and wrestlers with "the look," whether or not the talent has a deep and abiding passion for 'rasslin' or not.

What usually results? The hardcore fan base knows when someone is hired for cosmetic reasons versus actual ones, and the best performers turn out almost always to be the one with the deepest passion for the product. What does that mean? It means that the best potential wrestling announcers would probably be those kids who grew up watching wrestling and turned the sound down to pretend they were calling matches. The best wrestlers are the guys who grew up watching the competitors from years past. And the best writers are ones who actually know the history of professional wrestling. In short, the best talent pool out there is the fans. That's not to say that sportscasters, Hollywood writers, and college athletes aren't good in these positions--they already have a track record of being very talented. But it almost always makes a difference if they are also lifelong fans.

WWE is taking advantage of this through the main page on its Web site, at least as far as in-ring talent is concerned. The main page has a "Tryouts" button, which links to a page listing WWE tryouts and requesting that fans who believe they have what it takes to fill out an online application and show up to the scheduled tryouts. The questionnaire emphasizes having experience in professional wrestling and "why you should be a WWE superstar." For me, I see this as a step in the right direction and exactly the kind of thing that the entertainment industry should be encouraging. Who knows a product better than the fans? And, contrary to popular belief, the fan base of pro wrestling includes not just kids and couch potatoes but a lot of motivated and talented people who could easily make the transition from "audience" to "performer"--which, in pro wrestling, can sometimes be a nebulous dividing line, anyway.

Stocks Down But New Developments Coming for Comcast, Electronic Arts

Peter Grant and Nick Wingfield had a pair of interesting articles in last Friday's Wall Street Journal about some major developments for Comcast and Entertainment Arts. Both companies had a sharp decline in their net profit in the last quarter of 2005. For Comcast, the decline was 69 percent, while EA's was 31 percent.

EA's decline was almost entirely attributed to shifts in the video game industry toward new gaming systems while there was simultaneously a shortage of Xbox 360s made available for the Christmas season due to a slowdown in production that didn't meet viewer demand on behalf of Microsoft. The company predicts that 2006 will continue to see tough trends like this, as the company is investing a lot of its capital into games for the upcoming Playstation 3 platform, so that a lot of money will be spent out on preparing for projects that will not see profit this year.

For Comcast, the decline was due to litigation and tax issues, as well as stock loss on the company's Sprint Nextel holdings.

The most interesting section of the Grant's article, however, is about the ways that Comcast is combatting this loss--becoming more competitive in the realm of telephone service, as cable and telephone providers continue to go nose-to-nose. We've written about this trend in reverse as well, such as this entry back in September about Verizon's entry into the cable market (based in another great article by Peter Grant). Discussing the importance os service providers just isn't as much fun as the interesting content of the actual entertainment creators (ah, but maybe that's my humanistic bias), but this could have a major impact on the communication industry as a whole...At this point, it looks like the major players in both industries are interested in trying to hang on by claiming dominance of both...Does that mean that an even fewer group of people go home with all the winnings, or is this going to create further value for the consumer--Are we headed for even more of an oligopoly or great old-fashioned capitalist competition?

Genre-Crossing and Pop Cosmopolitanism? Passions and Bollywood

Recently, the NBC soap Passions had a sequence that was done in Bollywood style. Passions is known as the fantasy soap, a show that is self-referential, a parody of sorts of some of soap opera's conventions, and the most popular soap amongst younger viewers, particularly teenagers. It revels in its excess, but it can hardly be lumped in the same boat as some of the cheesy-but-don't-openly-know-it soaps and more serious and well-acted soaps, like As the World Turns. (Is my bias showing again?)

I found the show to be a good example of what our fearless leader Henry Jenkins calls pop cosmopolitanism--(the link will take you to a splendid audio interview with Henry on Forbes about the concept). Basically, people are learning more about the world and being "cosmopolitans" today through popular culture--And what better example than a Bollywood-influenced sequence making its way into an American soap opera?

Bollywood and Passions is a perfect fit--They are both campy, celebratory of excess, and require the viewer to lower their expectations of realism. And, not surprisingly, the episode was a major success in that it garnered a lot of press for the show and a lot of feedback from the audience. NBC's daytime site has even devoted a section particularly about the Bollywood sequence. You can watch the Bollywood sequence, read reaction, backstage interviews, view photographs, etc.

Some of you all may remember a post I made a couple of months ago about a Passions episode that featured an animation sequence as well. At the time, I mentioned that the show is a great example of genre-mixing being very successful as well. By incorporating an international influence in this latest experiment, Passions is showing not only the value of mixing genres but also by mixing cultures in new and innovative ways.

If some of you all have the time, check out the Passions Bollywood site and let me know what you think...

February 1, 2006

More on Soderbergh's "Bubble"

So, in the wake of all the hype and worry about Steven Soderbergh's Bubble, Craig Mazin over at The Artful Writer concludes that (at least in this particular case) it was much ado about nothing:

B-Day happened, and shock of all shocks...Hollywood got had.

[The] Bubble strategy was clearly about hype. This is a film that, by all accounts, shouldn't have gotten a theatrical release at all. The movie grossed about $70,000 on its opening weekend. It was only in 32 theaters, but its average was a rather anemic $2200, well below what you'd hope to see for an arthouse movie.

Similarly, no one watches HD Net.

Craig goes on to argue that it's in the interests of studios to perpetuate the extant studio system for every kind of film except those they expect to bomb in the theaters:

Is there a shrinking window between [theatrical and DVD release]? Yes. Is that because of piracy? In part. You'll find that the window is much smaller for bombs. Poor theatrical runs means you can't count on much anticipation getting built for the DVD. Getting the DVD out quickly to capitalize on what little bit of cultural currency you have makes sense.

Nonetheless, it's suicidal to really consider day-and-date for studio films...unless you know ahead of time that your movie's a bomb. Even then, day-and-date may kill you overseas, where films that have been released in a true theatrical pattern are worth far more for rebroadcast than direct-to-video films.

If Bubble were the sort of film that the financial backers had real faith in, they wouldn't have done this. At least, I don't think they would have. An arthouse film with a chance for success needs a theatrical arthouse run, starting on as few as 2 screens. It needs critical acclaim, and then a few nominations for awards. Then you build your theatrical release, and cash in on the ensuing DVD release.

Until people start rejecting theaters (and a 6% downtick doesn't mean rejection, it just means a 6% downtick), to go day-and-date is to kill your chance for real success. Let the handwringers keep wringing. War, television, VHS...all touted as the death knell for movie theaters... I give Soderbergh and Cuban a lot of credit for finding some way to hype their movie, but there's nothing to fear here.

Personally, I think Craig's mostly right about this, although a multi-tiered model may emerge with DVD release overlapping the tail of a theatrical release, or DVDs being sold in theater lobbies. Hollywood's desire for instant financial gratification (and the desire of consumers to avoid nasty movie theatres by using their home theater systems instead) shouldn't be underestimated.

More DRM Wackiness

So in the latest dispatch from the DRM frontlines, Cory Doctorow of boingboing criticized StarForce, a company that produces DRM software similar in many ways to the rootkit/malware on Sony's music CDs. There was already an active boycott of games that used their DRM, which appears to be gathering momentum, especially in the wake of StarForce threatening to sue Cory. (The legal merits of the threatened suit seem somewhat flimsy. And that's being charitable.)

Also, the updates on Cory's second post indicate that game companies themselves are liking neither what StarForce's DRM does to their computers, nor the consumer backlash which including it in their software might spark. To wit:

[StarForce's] business seems to depend on people not knowing how much they suck. For example, I was on a private beta list for a new game I won't mention by name due to NDA -- but the game authors agreed to drop StarForce after an outcry from the community. You don't often hear the stories about game developers dropping StarForce in favor of their customer.

With any luck, the proliferation of these incidents will push companies to swear off invasive DRM, just like consumer pressure (and higher sales of .pdf files which lacked DRM) led tabletop RPG companies to adopt unprotected .pdf files as the industry standard.

Add to Technorati Favorites