July 29, 2006

Marvel's Civil War

Earlier this week, I wrote about the decision to include Marvel comics characters in the newest version of the Comic Book Creator software. But the biggest news in the Marvel universe is the current universe-wide storyline that the company has enmeshed its various heroes in--the Civil War.

I've been meaning to write about this for several weeks now when I picked up the first two issues of the flagship title that launched several weeks ago, the Civil War series, but it kept slipping through the cracks. Then, on Thursday, I saw Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada on The Colbert Report.

The main seven-part series brings together top talent in the industry to show the biggest events of what is happening in the aftermath of a supervillain blowing up the city of Stamford, Connecticut, as part of his own suicide. Now, you would think the major reprecussions would be the death of WWE Owner Vince McMahon, but the series doesn't even give World Wrestling Entertainment a mention, from what I've seen.

Instead, they focus on the political events that result in the fallout. While the X-Men stories regarding the nature of mutants have brushed on these issues, Marvel tackles questions of civil liberties and the public good whole-heartedly in this series. The government issues a demand that all superheroes must reveal their secret identities and register as employees of the national government to continue their work, or else be declared as weapons of mass destruction for letting their powers run unchecked.

In the first issue, The Iron Man leads the charge to comply with the requests of his country as a patriot, while Capt. America decides that the most patriotic thing he can do is to refuse to obey this order and to retain his own private rights as an American. As the title implies, these questions of public safety and civil liberties divides the Marvel Universe, with each hero making his or her decision based on their own circumstances.

As a cross-titled enterprise, the storyline appears to be a huge success, bringing in a lot of former comics fans or new fans and exposing them to a variety of characters so that they can get a taste of what the Marvel Universe has to offer. The storyline crosses over into 14 other regular Marvel titles and has also launched short series such as Civil War: Front Line, Civil War: X-Men, and Civil War: Young Avengers & Runaways. The profitiability of these umbrella stories that get people to collect issues from titles that they would never buy otherwise also serves as a good sampler platter to get people hooked on various series. The innovation hammers home some of the points I've made formerly about the DC series 52.

More than that, though, the Civil War storyline shows how comic books--and all works of art--can have content that means something and that makes a commentary or has impact on the culture. While any marketing plan can be neat, if the storytelling and the content is not fresh, interesting, or provocative, all you really have is a marketing exercise and nothing more. Yet, why is it that you have people worried and constantly writing about the representation of minorities in American films or gay characters on television or Christian singers in mainstream media? Because people believe that popular art matters...not necessarily that it has direct media effects in the way some sociologists have written about but that it does send messages that can influence or inform people in some meaningful way. I've written about this previously with the Green Lantern story of hate crimes against a gay character.

So, whether looking at it as clever marketing, good storytelling, or a call for political awareness and discussion, I think Civil War is a perfect example of what storytelling is capable of in the convergence culture...even when the story chiefly remains in one traditional popular media form.

From the Halls of Montezuma to Top 8s on MySpace

The director of the Convergence Culture Consortium, Henry Jenkins, has been publishing regularly on issues surrounding social networking site MySpace and the current plans in Congress that would call for a ban of the site in schools and public libraries.

But, while the government seeks on the one hand to eliminate the exposure of children to the site, another branch is trying to do everything it can to exploit MySpace in its recruitment of high schoolers to a branch of the United States service: the Marine Corps.

While the Army received a significant amount of attention for its America's Army game, the Marines are attempting to recruit by being everyone's friend on MySpace. According to a story from the Associated Press on Tuesday, the Marine Corps is the first branch of the U.S. Armed Forces to launch into the social networking site. The MySpace page for the Marines had already made 12,000 friends at the time the article was published.

The site includes an option to click called "contact a recruiter," which directs you to enter contact information so a Marines recruiter can set up a face-to-face meeting with them. In the article, Marines officials emphasized that they would never recruit someone directly through the site but would still have that face-to-face discussion. At that time, 430 people had already sent their information for recruiters.

The article also included comments from a group called the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, who (not surprisingly) attacked the recruitment methods for its creepy implications.

Now, it looks like the Marine Corps may have led the march into MySpace, as the army promises not to be far behind.

It seems that the military has been an early adaptor when it comes to using new technologies in recent years, and the Marine Corps move seems to have already been successful, no matter how you feel about the positive or negative implications of such a move.

And some other people's MySpace pages may be getting significant attention in the process. When I went to MySpace and searched for the Marines, I found a variety of other Marines pages, many of them set up by individual marines. In the process of the current attention directed to the marines site, these people have probably had increased traffic as well.

Will the Marines also draw other businesses and institutions toward using the site as a recruiting tool? We already have companies marketing, bands expanding their reach, religions proselytizing, and defniitely pornographic sites increasing their numbers through their spam invites. But the attention the Marines has received significant attention based on this decision, and that visibility may convince many other groups to follow suit.

What does the corporitization of MySpace mean for regular users? Increased opportunities or the selling out of the site, in the users' eyes? Guess we'll wait and see.

Thanks to Margaret Weigel for bringing my attention to this.

July 28, 2006

AETN Signs Deal for Measurement of Viewer Engagement

Another cable television deal with a media research firm fell in place this week to help measure the level of quality of viewer involvement rather than merely a number-of-eyeballs quantitative figure.

IAG Research, the firm that already works with five of the six current broadcast networks (excluding ABC), as well as several of the top cable networks such as the two flagship Turner stations, TNT and TBS, as well as USA, Lifetime and ESPN, has now added A&E Television Networks to its clients list.

The group will be measuring consumer engagement with product placement and other advertising initiatives, in attempt to give more concrete numbers to justify the spending of advertising dollars in the television medium.

The company measures response to both advertising and product placement, as well as programs themselves, as they air every evening on television, according to Jon Lafayette with Television Week.

A&E Television Networks include both A&E and The History Channel, among others.

The move shows a continued growth in awareness that traditional models of measurement and advertising are not working, despite what people may say in press releases. With companies beginning to measure engagement in a variety of ways (see OMD's proposal for a "standard engagement currency" across platforms or Google's proposal for minute-by-minute fan reactions through interactive television), and with Nielsen beginning to measure commercial minutes separately and offering minute-by-minute reports of viewer numbers from their sample, as well as the implementation of new measurement systems through the A2/M2 system over the next several years, we're likely to see some significant changes in the way television operates and is viewed by both producers and advertisers, on the one hand, and people themselves, as we as a culture are redefining the staple American media form in today's convergence environment.

Red Velvet Cake Only Possible with Cheap Ingredients

A few weeks ago, a film completed shooting here in Ohio County, where I'm working for the summer.

I spent a few hours on the set of this indy film--Kentucky Digital Media's Red Velvet Cake--while writing a piece for the Don Wilkins, wrote a piece for the 08 June 2006 edition of the Times-News about these products, reporting about the changes in the movie industry that now make a $300,000 indy feature-length film possible.

Don says that director Aaron Hutchings estimates that the film would have cost $1.5 million a decade ago. However, because of new digital technologies such as HD video cameras and editing equipment at reasonable prices with sophisticated software programs available on lean budgets, producers like Hutchings are able to launch into filmmaking.

Hutchings is originally from Ohio County and has done quite a bit of work for Kentucky Educational Television, a branch of PBS here in the Commonwealth. Hutchings had always wanted to work with feature-length productions and now has the resources because of switching to digital, which eliminates the need for film stock and allows content to be viewed on the spot.

The movie cast an actress who has appeared in such films as The People vs. Larry Flynt and Tommy Lee Jones, Shirley James, to play the lead role in a film about an elderly woman who lives alone and struggles to survive with both the costs of living and the costs of prescription medicine.

Because editing can be done every evening and because the digital format allows for instant checks on quality, the filming time was cut from three or four months to one month. Now, Red Velvet Cake is in post-production, and the town is waiting for DVDs to be available in the area.

While I've long been aware of this technology and how it changes the industry, it was nice to see how this manifests itself in-person. The creativity and the energy on the set and the chance to make a niche film that wouldn't get significant attention any other way makes possible a regional film industry never before possible in the country due to expenses.

Red Velvet Cake may or may not be a success in national or international distribution--that's yet to be seen--but it's already become an important part of Ohio County folklore through its use of landmarks across the county and a significant number of locals in the film. While the market has yet to be fully explored, it makes me wonder if regional film industries may have an even more vibrant future than we realize, if marketed correctly.

July 27, 2006

E! Launching Shows on iTunes

Yet another group of television series are launching on iTunes.

E! Entertainment is going to be making available a variety of new shows on Apple's distribution system, including stand-by hits like Dr. 90210, Girls Next Door, The Simple Life, and The Soup.

At this point, Apple continues to lead the race in getting ahold of this online content. Earlier this week, I wrote about Amazon's plans to challenge iTunes. Amazon may have the cultural cache and the power behind it to pose a viable threat when it comes to challenging the video capabilities of iTunes, but the ultimate decision-maker for fans is where they can get the content from. Content creators will be best served to distribute under both models, but I assume that Amazon's only way to enter the market is to keep up with Apple's breakneck pace in signing deals with various networks to get their current shows and their archives available from iTunes.

Meanwhile, E! becomes yet another company stepping into a new distribution form.

July 26, 2006

Verizon Launches Further Into Local Internet TV Distribution

Verizon Communications will be launching a new fiber-optic television service that will bring four television stations into the Internet platform with local television programming.

According to the deal announced today, the ABC affiliates in Manchester, New Hampshire, and in Boston will be a part of this new service, called FiOS, as well as the NBC affiliate in Baltimore and independent Tampa television station Hearst Argyle.

According to Michele Grippi with Television Week, the deal will be long-term and will include both high-definition rights and digital multicasting, as well as video-on-demand.

As the new Verizon plans go forward, Internet television continues with a strong drive, and this penetration for a fiber-optics television service demonstrates how quickly things are changing for the various forms available to distribute television.

For the station providing content, this will provide more chances to reach more consumers and to prepare for the future, as current models of television viewing and broadcasting are being revised through the development of high-definition television, video-on-demand, DVRs, Internet TV and multiple other methods of distribution.

July 25, 2006

Shrinking Distance from Producer to Consumer

This entry builds on some of the themes written about in yesterday's post about using the Internet as a means of discussion between content providers and fans.

David Edery, who helps manage the Convergence Culture Consortium, alerted me to an editorial on the BBC News Web site regarding the blogosphere and the new levels of interaction between producer and consumer that got me thinking about my own research initiatives regarding the entertainment industry.

In this particular commentary, journalist Daniel Pearl is writing about the relationship between journalists and their readers. In the past few weeks, I've written about how journalism storytelling has been affected by changes in increased transmedia content with instantaneous updates, increased diversity of communication platforms for exchange between news operations and their readers/viewers, and further debate about convergence and the essential characteristics of each medium and how journalists in each discipline can best be trained. This commentary brings up another essential part of the impact convergence culture has on journalism, though--reader/viewer response.

Continue reading "Shrinking Distance from Producer to Consumer" »

Marvel Jumps Aboard Comic Book Creator

The first version of Planetwide Games' Comic Book Creator was a little limited, considering that there was not involvement from major comic company powerhouses such as Marvel Comics. But the two companies announced a few days ago at the 2006 San Diego Comic Con that Marvel will be a part of an upcoming version of the software.

In David Radd's piece on Game Daily, based on the press release, both representatives with Marvel and with Planetwide emphasized the amount of narrative potential this puts in the hands of users to be able to have another tool to make Marvel heroes and villains their own.

The software allows users to use their own screenshots from video games, movies or other digital visual conten tto create comic books and comic strips. The company's plans are to build a business around user-generated comic books, with fans having a social network to come and share and compete with their own comic books. As a kid who spent a lot of time trying to write comic book stories when I was younger and get my friend to illustrate them, it was just the kind of thing that beat the PrintShop creations I was making with clip art and text back in 1995. I still think "The Chain" could have been one of the greatest comic book characters of all-time. And I still have the 33-page manuscript for the story arc of The Stroke of Death for anyone who's interested.

The company earlier released a specialized version of the software to help promote the movie Nacho Libre, according to a CNET News story from Caroline McCarthy.

The first version of the Marvel Heroes version of the software will include three characters: Elektra, Spider-Man and Wolverine, with booster backs being released at later dates containing the art for more characters. However, McCarthy writes that "The Marvel version and the booster packs won't be compatible with either the original comic software or the Nacho Libre version."

While this may only be a limited beginning, Marvel's opening the doors to fan-storytellers a little bit more really empowers fans to be able to engage with the superheroes and tell stories of their own in a way never before possible. The storyteller and comic book fan in me is excited about future possibilities, when Marvel, for instance, might be willing to look at the stories told in these fan versions of their comics for possibilities for future storylines...or future talent. All-in-all, with copyright issues behind them, it could be a real win/win situation for Marvel, Planetwide, and fans.

Thanks to David Edery for passing this along.

July 24, 2006

Amazon Branching Into Digital Video Content

While Google has stepped up its fight with YouTube to become another viable form of Internet video sharing, Amazon is ready to take on the cultural powerhouse iTunes. Apple will face competition from what has become the online site for everything pop culture related in physical form--Amazon has built its reputation on providing mail delivery of anything currently available and links to resellers to get anything that's not on the market right now.

Now, they are going to enter the fight full-fledged for downloading digital content, particularly focusing on television and movie downloading. While iTunes, by its very name, has its focus on music, Apple has been innovative in pushing content provider after content provider to move their archives or current programs to iTunes, as has been written about here and here and here and here and here.

According to the Advertising Age article which broke the story, Amazon Digital Video is planning on competing with Apple's model when the new site opens in August, providing not just download fees but also subscription options. The structure will otherwise be very similar to iTunes, in that a program will have to be downloaded to users' computers to access teh Amazon Digital Video store.

With news breaking in the past week of CinemaNow's new burn-to-DVD services, the landscape seems to be changing rather quickly for the ability to digitally download television and film content. And, with Amazon's reputation already more than solidified through all their other offerings, one has to think it will be hard for this enterprise not to be profitable for them. Just imagine, for those of us who are impatient, if we are offered a chance to view a movie immediately in a prominently placed spot on the Amazon page for ordering the DVD.

Since delayed gratification is not an American speciality, they will probably catch a lot of tempted viewers this way. And, according to the Advertising Age article, the site will offer viewers the chance to either download them to own permanently or, through the subscription service, to use the content for a short time in a relationship similar to the Netflix rental model.

The article mentions that Amazon's first foray into original digital content has been the show Amazon Fishbowl with Bill Maher, an interview show that is updated weekly and available for download as sponsored content. The site appears to be interested in expanding its reach not only into distributing extant video content digitally but perhaps, if the download model is accepted, creating further exclusive digital video content.

Loizides Says Self-Expression Powering The Internet

With all the recent talk about official programming being released by cultural producers on the Internet, either in planned marketing campaigns--such as the recent Sci-Fi campaign surrounding its pilot The Amazing Screw-On Head that Jason Mittell wrote about here last week in which Sci-Fi is putting a show they aren't sure about online for fans to help decide the fate of--or in unplanned releases of content--such as with Nobody's Watching, I have to believe that it's important to think in much more detail about the nature of this online communication.

That's why I was thankful that Siddiq Bello passed along a blog entry from Lydia Loizides from earlier this month. Lydia looks at both the positives and the negatives that cultural producers face when allowing people to have such direct early access to their content and cites times in which that seems to have made a major difference--such as the ground-swelling support of Nobody's Watching that has since led the show to be considered once again by NBC. However, on the flip side, she looks at the intense negativity surrounding the release of Blade: The Series from Spike TV.

And the examples of shows debuting on the Web either simultaneous to or before their network debut is growing.

I've said it before: the only losers in these situations are shows that likely aren't going to do well anyway when they hit the air, so I don't really see that networks have anything to do other than programs being outed for their terrible-ness well before they hit the air. If a program can't even gain grassroots support from a small market, it usually doesn't bode well for its test on a network, and Blade: The Series' negative energy can at least be a lesson in what the show needs to improve on while it is still early in its production series.

Lydia writes that "by tapping into this digital forum, the show's producers will able to gauge, in real-time no less, the response to the program. Take it for what this is worth-but how unbelievably valuable is that?"

Lydia's piece is well worth taking a look at. These are the questions we've been wondering here for some time and one that will carry me over into tomorrow, as I'm planning to write a much lengthier piece on this very topic, based on a recent news commentary from the BBC.

July 23, 2006

CBS Egg-vertising Egg-cellent?

Vincent Price's Egghead would be happy to hear this one!

Last week, news broke...pardon the pun...that CBS would be marketing its upcoming fall lineup in a rather unexpected way--on the shells of eggs. Certainly far from your typical campaign, but CBS believes that its eclectic approach may be of service in helping them as they scramble to line-up viewers for the fall 2006 war of the season launch.

According to a story in The New York Times last week by David S. Joachimin, the network hopes the originality of the campaign will hit viewers as clever rather than contrived and gimmicky.

Joachimin stated that approximately 35 million eggs will appear in grocery stores sporting the CBS eye trademark and a variety of egg-related slogans. (The ones mentioned in the article was a "Crack the Case on CBS" slogan for CSI, "Scramble to Win" for The Amazing Race, "Hardboiled Drama" for Shark, "Shelling Out Laughs" for the comedy line-up, as well as "Funny Side Up" and "Leave the Yolks to Us."

To use a phrase related to a different type of food, the campaign seems a little corny, but even the most hardboiled of critics can't help but crack a smile at the "eggvertising," as the network is calling it. While traditional ad spaces seem so crowded, the plain white space on egg shells are a fruitful place to reach audiences, the network believes.

And, for those who are rallying to keep advertising out of the little crevices of our lives, the campaigns to protect the eggs on our grocers' shelves has probably already begun. There are probably plenty of anti-commercial advocates who believe that this eggvertising is purely deviled. CBS likes the approach for its intrusiveness, using a company called EggFusion to put the messages on the eggs. That intrusiveness is, my intuition tells me, the very reason a lot of people are going to be offended by the campaign, although its cleverness and rarity may help offset some of the negative energy that could be directed toward it.

And, interestingly, the actual purpose for the messages are to assure customers that eggs are not out-of-date by putting the expiration directly on the egg and to give a way to track the egg's origin information, and advertising was the impetus that helped make that possible, since egg producers were willing to allow the expiration dates on for extra profit.

In the meantime, CBS executives are going to be walking on eggshells, hoping they don't get...egg on their face. And one has to wonder if fans, when they get ahold of the CBS-adorned eggs, might try to generate a little user-created content on the eggs' surface as well, altering some of the CBS messages creatively or decorating the CBS eyes. Will the network be thrilled with such textual poaching?

Blame Lynn Liccardo for both alerting me to this story and starting me down the trail of bad puns. But is this approach just the type of new advertising that will generate press and attention and reward the network for its originality? Eggvertising likely isn't going to make a major long-term investment akin to more substantial advertising sites, but it is a unique strategy that should generate even more creative campaigns if it is deemed a success this fall.

Nobody's Watching on Broadcast Yet...But That May Be Changing

An update on my post a couple of weeks ago regarding the series Nobody's Watching, which was never picked up by a network despite almost landing a deal with The WB, only to have the pilot show later appear on YouTube and garner a significant following.

According to an announcement on Friday, NBC is currently developing the Bill Lawrence show for a shot on its network. The Peacock Network had worked with Lawrence on Scrubs, and he created Spin City on ABC as well. And, while the NBC Universal Television Studio initially worked with Lawrence on the show, NBC said the project that it would be more appropriate for the youth-driven WB. When the WB didn't take it at the last minute when announcing last fall's lineup, the show seemed to be destined to stay forever on the shelf, until it found anonymous distribution online and garnered a significant fan following and a fair amount of publicity.

According to the announcement Friday, the show will be in contention for the coming development season. But, in the meantime, Lawrence and the other creative forces behind the show will be creating original online Web episodes with the two primary characters of Nobody's Watching to keep online fan support going.

And, while the networks are demonstrating their pleasure that they may be getting a show with a fair amount of grassroots support already behind it, they still warn that they aren't crazy about what this means for piracy issues, as journalist Robert Tur has also expressed through his lawsuit with YouTube. Nevertheless, if NBC does pick up Nobody's Watching, it further demonstrates the potential ramifications for garnering fan reactions of shows during a pilot season through these online distribution models. Already, the Sci-Fi Channel is trying this with a program that it's currently on the fence about, as Jason Mittell has written about here on the blog.

If NBC accepts Nobody's Watching, and if the show manages to be a long-term success, it may help to forever alter the way television shows move from development to the network schedule and help make the process a little more fan-friendly...if they can just quit thinking about piracy long enough to realize the benefits.

July 22, 2006

Journalist Sues YouTube

The RIAA and C-SPAN aren't the only ones raising a stir about YouTube these days. Now, the site which provides services for user-generated online video content is bein sued for copyright infringement by an independent reporter who is angered by use of his materials on the site.

This marks the first lawsuit filed against YouTube. The reporter, Robert Tur, filed the lawsuit over a week ago, angered about the use of his clips from coverage of the 1992 L.A. riots and the famous Ford Bronco O.J. Simpson slow-speed chase that pre-empted an entire Friday night of good television back in 1994. Well, TGIF might not have been that good, but it sure seemed so at the time.

In previous cases, such as the showdown with C-SPAN over the clips of Stephen Colbert's..err...tribute to the president from the White House Correspondents Dinner, the site simply removed the offending material. YouTube states in their official policy that they do not police their site but, if contacted regarding a particular clip, they will remove it if they find that the person who posted it did indeed lack the copyright permission to do so.

This journalist wants $150,000 in damages for each video clip presented. Obviously, most of this is a pretty innocent situation. The people who posted the news clips probably didn't feel they were doing much wrong, considering the massive amount of copyrighted material posted on YouTube. Most stations are not coming after the company, particularly because the copyrighted content on the site is often placing a program in a positive light, with fans sharing clips with each other. For instance, I recently wrote about the scenes and montages posted to YouTube of various fan tributes to As the World Turns actor Benjamin Hendrickson after his death. And, YouTube has become the home of many fan-produced videos that use images from real shows, such as here or here or here or here.

But this freelance journalist, Robert Tur, does not believe that simply removing the copyrighted material is enough, considering that he's taking YouTube to court in hopes of gaining a significant amount of money from them. After all, one can only wonder how permanently damaged the journalist might be from having these news clips shared among people on the YouTube site. YouTube has already removed the video footage in question and upholds its policy of not policing content unless a question is raised.

Meanwhile, media companies such as NBC and MTV2 are starting to work with YouTube, and NBC has only winkingly complained at the leaking of the Nobody's Watching pilot on the site. The mixed signals are pretty hard to understand by the fan community, but Tur's case will be an important testing site for determining which direction we'll be going--a prohibitionist strain of thought that will serve to restrict the future of convergence culture or a more collaborative stance. That's not to say that I don't think copyright should be respected, since I do, but I have seen few cases so far where I have been convinced that the types of video content aired on YouTube really destroys any bottom line for companies...or journalists.

ABC to Drop Temporality from Title of Flagship News Show

NBC isn't the only network news division that's embracing a transmedia approach to the news-reporting process that takes advantage of the "convergence culture" we're always writing about here at C3. Last week, I wrote about NBC's current changes to better reflect a transmedia approach to its nightly news program.

But, as I wrote about a couple of months ago, ABC News has also pushed aggressively into the transmedia market, first with working in tandem with BBC News in bringing more international news to its Web site and now, this week, with making great alterations to its approach to news, even changing the name of its flagship news program, the evening news broadcast.

ABC News' news program, which has been called World News Tonight for almost three full decades, will be taking the "tonight" from its program to better reflect a transmedia news process which incorporates more than just the 30-minute evening news broadcast. The new program, which will be called World News with Charles Gibson, both attempts to highlight the personality of the host while also diminishing the connotation of the show's temporality. And, as news shows have found in the past and as HDNet is hoping is the case with Dan Rather, highlighting the personality of the anchor almost always helps develop a flavor for the show. Now that ABC has chosen a steady anchor, it hopes to drive forward with its new direction in a multiplatform news approach.

The news producers are already offering an afternoon Web cast in addition to the nightly news broadcast and offers continuous news updates through its online site, similar to that of other news networks. However, the news division is pushing the envelope even further in creating a 24-hour online news presence.

The news site offers a great volume of videos and segments from prior broadcasts, as well as constant streaming of the ABC News Now channel, a 24-hour news network that is also being pushed to be made available on cable and satellite. ABC is also pushing the envelope in developing news for the mobile platform.

I've written about it quite a bit in the past week, but this push just further strengthens the ability of the television news facilities to give better coverage to viewers. Sure, there are plenty of anti-convergence people out there in journalism, and I've encountered many of them. But the true best use of a transmedia, multi-platform approach to covering news isn't to diminish the quality and increase the quantity of product but rather to give citizens the best news coverage possible, using as many different platforms as possible and fully utilizing the strengths of each.

And, while the changes in ABC's approach may not the be the only attributable factor, the network's approach to news is causing a rising improvement. For the past few weeks, Gibson has taken the thrown from Brian Williams and NBC as having the top-rated evening news show. If this is any indication, making these extra products available to keep viewers informed heightens instead of diminishes the support and loyalty of evening news viewers.

So What Happened to Star Wars Galaxies?

I posted this yesterday at my blog and thought I would cross-post it here, considering its relevance to prior discussions we've had in the consortium:

Earlier this week, Next Generation published a short excerpt from my much longer discussion of Star Wars Galaxies and user-generated content in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. The publication seems to have prompted game designer and theorist Raph Koster to blog about what he learned by adopting a more collaborationist approach to his fans. Here's some of what he had to say:

Continue reading "So What Happened to Star Wars Galaxies?" »

July 21, 2006

IN2TV En Espanol Hit the Tubes on Wednesday

AOL's IN2TV, the company's ad-supported broadband Internet television channel which chiefly airs reruns from the Time-Warner library, expanded their coverage into Spanish-language programming this past week. The Web site is up-and-running, primarily with Spanish-language versions of American television shows.

The channel, called In2TV En Espanol, is an attempt to capture the growing influence and expanse of the Spanish-language television viewership in the country that content providers and advertisers alike have been somewhat unsure of what to do with . Many television shows that have drawn exceedingly well among Hispanic viewers have not seemed to be able to capitalize on that surplus audience much in terms of marketing or in terms of further writing shows to reach those audiences, unless they were programmed at Hispanic-Americans in the first place, as a few situation comedies have been.

AOL's project shows the growing awareness at the need to invest more time in reaching these people, although I'm not sure how much of a goodwill gesture the Spanish-language version of Perfect Strangers is. Talk about a show they're just trying to give away...I got a free episode of Perfect Strangers in the box with a TV show I bought last year...Anyway, the channel also features Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Falcon Crest, Hangin' with Mister Cooper, Growing Pains, the animated version of Beetlejuice, and sci-fi hit Babylon 5.

There's also a Spanish-language version of the syndicated show from 1988 through 1990 hosted by the horror film character Freddy Kreuger, called Freddy's Nightmares, which reminds me of once watching one of the Nighmare on Elm Street films on a Spanish-language channel. Voiceover dubbing is just never quite as scary, but that's what IN2TV uses.

There are more than a dozen other shows also available on the IN2TV service for Spanish-speaking viewers.

Growing focus has been put on the Hispanic market since last year, . Late last year, both Telemundo and Univision announced that they would be tracked by Nielsen, and Nielsen has tracked the number of Hispanic viewers who follow English-language programming for some time as part of their demographic information.

It should really come as no surprise, then, that advertisers have been quick to follow the indications of these numbers, and that increases in Spanish-language ad sales in America, in addition to online ad sales, have been driving an otherwise lackluster advertising performance. Since AOL's new product is poised to be a target for both expanding advertising markets, the product could be a real winner...that is, depending on how much Spenser: For Hire Hispanic viewers really want to see.

Oh, and by hit the tubes, I didn't mean the old television tube...I mean the Internet, which, of course, is made from tubes, as you've probably heard.

July 20, 2006

The Lost Experience - Act II

I've previously written about the challenges that The Lost Experience has had in reconciling the demands of the two storytelling modes of serialized television narrative and immersive alternate reality games (ARG). One of the challenges for analysts writing about such serialized storytelling examples is that they are moving targets, evolving and changing as they are created. In looking back at my article, I realize that I discussed only Act I in what is shaping out to be a three act story, as provocatively suggested by Jeff Jensen. Thus, here is my own update on Act II of The Lost Experience (TLE) and how it points to the challenges of transmedia storytelling.

Continue reading "The Lost Experience - Act II" »

July 19, 2006

Using the Live Arcade model for Indie Filmmakers?

Edge Online had a piece on the X360 live arcade service in March, sketching Microsoft's business modell, its implications for independent game design and their outlook for the future. Even though the first XBOX-based live arcade was not quite successful and the concept seemed counterintuitive on a next-gen, graphics-oriented console, the idea of selling indie games (with an average budget of 100.000-500.000$), retro games and casual games (parlor games etc.) was a huge success since its implementation with 14 launch titles early this year.
The facts (as of March 2006) are striking - "many hundred thousand players" which apparently amounts to at least 30% of XBOX owners, an average of 4 1/2 titles per consumer (of 14 titles available at that time) and a conversion rate, i.e. the rate of trial versions upgraded to full versions, of 8.5% vs. 0.8-1% in reatil games.
Since the same titles were easily available before online, the key to this success seems to be preselection from an oversupply of titles, an easy interface, no extra entering of credit card data (which is already stored with the Live Arcade account) and, of course, the brand 'Live Arcade' combined with the MIcrosoft label resulting in a renewed interest by companies to produce 'arcade' game formats.
It would be interesting to think about whether and how this concept might be adaptable to indie video content which is still either available for free online or through file-sharing systems or other tools. The intriguing idea of LIve Arcade is to imbue the immaterial data (be it a game or a video) downloaded from the net with a profile and significance as well as to give it a product form. Content like the increasingly professional fan movies (e.g. Star Wars Revelations or the Lego movies from http://www.brickfilms.com/) would lend itself perfectly to this kind of distribution and while free quality content is always a good thing, a royalty-based support model like the Live Arcade might still be able to boost both quantity and (at least technical) quality of independent filmmaking.

NBC Previews Shows through Netflix

According to a Reuters story that just came through a few minutes ago, NBC announced today that it will make a couple of its new teelvision shows available through Netflix several weeks before the shows' broadcast debuts.

The new shows Kidnapped and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip are both going to be offered through the Netflix direct mail DVD rental system six weeks before the first broadcast airing, in hopes to drum up strong support for the shows before they ever air through grassroots word-of-mouth marketing.

The first episodes of both of these shows, in addition to trailers of other upcoming shows on NBC, will be available for rent from Netflix starting August 5.

In the past week, both Jason Mittell and I have written about the missed opportunity to promote pilots online and let viewers choose from among them. And, while some have attacked Netflix for using the outmoded snail mail system of distribution, the marketing phenomenon have changed people's relationship with movie content, damaged the bottom lines of traditional video stores, and helped enable Chris Anderson's Long Tail theory of consumption.

Will many viewers be inticed to use one of their Netflix rentals for these sample episodes and assorted trailers? My guess is that they will and that, if these shows are good, the company will get a substantial award in positive support. Of course, that support does hinge on the show's quality and--again--these types of distribution deals only work well if there is a product worth discussing. Of course, using an Aaron Sorkin show and a suspense thriller is probably a smart move on the network's part, as they are two shows that NBC already feel strongly about and are building around for the fall lineup. Once the initiative launches in August, it will be interesting to track rental numbers, but my guess is that this could further popularize these types of campaigns to gain support for shows before they ever hit broadcast television.

Wal-Mart Garners Attention with Social Networking Brand Site

Wal-Mart has gotten some attention this week with the launch of a social networking brand community site loosely based on social phenomenons like MySpace. The site--called The HUB--School Your Way--focuses on the impending back to school season and coincides with the launch of the store's school clothing lines. The likenesses to more general MySpace sites, for instance, are only a loose affiliation, however, as the site focuses on the back to school rush and Wal-Mart clothing lines.

Many responses to the release of the School Your Way site is based on Mya Frazier's scathing review of the site in Advertising Age. Among Frazier's gripes were the inauthenticity of the kids in videos on the site, the sanitzed and censored replica of MySpace that would not appeal to kids, and the focus around a clothing line that kids just don't see value in. Considering the strong degree of corporate backlash against Wal-Mart, especially by those that consider the low prices retailer as censors selling lower-quality wares, the response in the blogosphere is not surprising, and several bloggers have continued with Frazier's line of attack. Particularly, these folks are attacking the idea of trying to copy the success of a major social phenomenon in a watered-down product that only serves to make the brand seem more low-rent instead of "cool."

On the other hand, Seth Godin makes a compelling argument as to why the site may well work--even if it's not cutting edge in any way, Godin says, doesn't mean it won't work because "the early adopters out there will push hard," but "the middle of the market" is pretty profitable as well. For all the parents out there forbidding MySpace in their house, for kids who don't feel safe on MySpace after hearing all the news reports of the site's potential dangers, or for those kids who love the Wal-Mart brand (Frazier's choice of interview subjects for her story indicates that there are few teens that fall into this category, but she didn't present the most objective report, either), the site may draw well.

GSD&M, a partner here at the consortium, is Wal-Mart's ad agency. I'm not sure the involvement of the agency in this project and have not discussed it with them, but I think Seth's argument is a compelling one that we can't forget. Just because this doesn't reach out to the people in the blogosphere or to those of us who are LinkedIn and who have face time on Facebook or who have long been established in MySpace doesn't mean that there isn't a strong market out there for the product.

Of course, I'm no advocate for closely monitored censorship, even when it comes to teenagers, so I'm not so crazy about this controlled communication forum (if you aren't really allowing open communication nor private correspondence on the site, is it really a communication forum?). Wal-Mart's site may end up being successful, and it may catch a lot of new users uncomfortable with the jungles of MySpace or the more technical social networking sites out there for teens. That sanitized and protected and censored site is appealing to many parents and even teens. For the sake of trickle-down innovation, I hope the site does attract kids to the potential of social networking and encourage other old media companies to continue brainstorming ways to extend their brand into community forums. Let's just hope that the limits of the Wal-Mart site doesn't become the norm.

Thanks to C3's William Uricchio for drawing my attention to the current debate.

July 18, 2006

CinemaNow releases Burn to DVD services

The online movie distributor CinemaNow has announced that it will now make films available for download that can be burned and viewed on standard DVD players.

Late today, CinemaNow announced that it will be the first to allow mainstream films to be purchased on the Internet and burned for regular viewing, with prices as low as $8.99.

The service is to begin tomorrow with more than 100 films from the archives of several major companies, such as Buena Vista, MGM, Sony and Universal.

These downloaded and burned DVDs will contain all the features of store-bought DVDs and are set to also have technology incorporated to guard against piracy. A preview of this decision came back in April, when CinemaNow offered this service for adult video content only. At the time, many covering the industry were skeptical that the technology would be accepted by the mainstream movie studios anytime soon, much less a few months later.

Last week, the company announced a major new line of funding, led by EchoStar. If the success of CinemaNow is any indication, major movie studios are willing to stick their feet further and further in the water. While the 100 titles released tomorrow may not constitute a full-blown immersion, the studios are showing more and more willingness to flirt with alternative distribution forms.

NBC Launches Transmedia News Content

NBC News continues leading the charge to transmedia news content with its announcement earlier today that the anchor for the nightly news will be launching a daily video blog that will be released every day several hours before the nightly newscast.

NBC's star news anchor, Brian Williams, will air his on-camera video blog--The Early Nightly by late morning every day on the show's MSNBC site, shortly after the editors of the nightly newscast have their initial editorial conference call. The blog will also be available through NBC Mobile and affiliate Web sites.

NBC plans to launch the blog several hours before other network news operations release previews. ABC and CBS release short newscasts on their Web sites in the afternoon.

Williams already participates in a daily blog called The Daily Nightly that appears each afternoon previewing the night's newscast. The use of the personality of news anchors to help drive transmedia content and the use of new technologies appears to be the plan of the hour, after the announcement of Dan Rather's new show on HDNet got a lot of attention last week for a network viewed by many for their technology rather than their content, as I wrote about last week.

Back in May, NBC became the first news division to launch into iTunes, with Williams hosting a time capsule program that utilizes the news division's extensive archives, as well as making available old episodes of the long-running Meet the Press.

This video blog seems to further utilize what Aayush Iyer has written about several times: the importance of utilizing specific mediums for their particular strengths. While the nightly news is scheduled at a certain time, and the flagship show is a tradition, the video blog is a great way to give viewers a preview and break stories earlier in the day. And, with journalists debating convergence on a regular basis and J-Schools trying to decide what new media technologies can and should mean for the journalism industry, NBC's newest example will provide another interesting test--both to see the popularity of the video blog and whether journalists perceive it as adding anything to the news service offered by the network.

July 17, 2006

C3 Director Publishes Work on MySpace

Over the past several weeks, the director of C3, Henry Jenkins, has been putting part of his focus on social networking site MySpace. During that time, he has posted about MySpace on his blog and conducted an in-depth interview for the MIT News Office that appears in full on the Web site of Danah Boyd, who is working with him on this story.

Jenkins has been writing on the Deleting Online Predators Act, proposed legislation in front of Congress that would, among other things, ban MySpace from places like schools and libraries, the very places where it would be best to have professionals available to talk with kids about issues and to oversee MySpace use. It's not like banning the social networking tool from these social spaces would cause teens to quit using MySpace--it just means they'll be using it on their own, which could not be the best situation. And, considering the growing improtance of the Internet in the lives of American teens, these social networking tools cannot just be legislated away.

In an article I wrote last month for The Greenville Leader-News, Jenkins related the anecdote that, when he was a child, his parents warned him about talking to strangers on the telephone, but they didn't take the telephone away from him or forbid him to use it. Considering all of the societal angst surrounding teenage use of MySpace right now, it's the right set of questions to be asking at the right time.

A high school teacher I interviewed discussed the complications of interacting with students online and not wanting the correspondence to be viewed as inappropriate. These types of issues cause some legislators and some parents to just want to eliminate the medium instead of worrying about specific content or interaction. The truth is that MySpace is changing the ways in which people view community--on the one hand, people form virtual communities freed by geographic restraints, based on their own personalities or interests; on the other hand, people who no longer live in an area can stay connected to the people in their hometown or former residence to a degree that's never before been possible.

Jenkins' continuing work on helping people understand and navigate MySpace, while fighting governmental restrictions on the communication forum, is worth following, since this has key implications for social networking online, as well as issues that we've discussed here like transmedia storytelling through character pages, such as with Soup of the Day or The Carver on Nip/Tuck. MySpace and tools like it provide people of all ages with the unparalleled ability to be heard--a key component of the convergence culture we are talking about.

The Weather Channel Offering Minute-By-Minute Ratings

The minute-by-minute data from Nielsen which we've been writing about has already led to a television ad deal, according to Television Week. The Weather Channel was one of the first networks to be interested in the minute-by-minute ratings available from Nielsen. Considering the constant flow of their programming and the nature of their continual weather updates, minute-by-minute ratings will likely be particularly helpful, so it's no surprise that The Weather Channel would be one of the first to sign up.

Their new deal with media-buying agency Starcom guarantees make-good ads for eight Starcom clients who have placed ads with them if their viewership falls under the promised level.

The difference in these ratings is that The Weather Channel will be using true-minute-by-minute advertising, while most other networks plan to average all the commercial time within a particular program and make that data available to advertisers, rather than the particular minute containing their ad.

It says a lot about the faith of networks that most are going to average together all the advertising minutes in a program and then plan to make that average available. And, for media buyers like Magna, there are even questions as to how viable the minute-by-minute ratings will be, as I wrote about last week. Minute-by-minute data includes VCR viewers (who stastically never watch the program a third of the time, and, if they do, fast-forward through commercials 2/3 of the time) and DVR viewers who may watch the commercials up to a week later (a dangerous conception for time-sensitive ads), Magna claims that the numbers are skewed. Further, they claim that numbers will be significantly inflated because minutes are considered as "commercial" minute if they contain commercial time, even if more than half of that minute is programming instead of advertising.

If we accept the farce of Nielsen ratings as being the be-all and end-all of television viewer measurement, minute-by-minute ratings are the closest we've been offered to accountability at this point. But, considering the driving force of product placement deals and Internet ads, the true winners are those who are focusing increasing attention on non-traditional advertising forms.

In the meantime, though, the controversy rages on.

Internet, Spanish-Language Ad Sales Drive First Quarter

News from Nielsen on Monday indicated that, in the first quarter, the Internet had the largest gain in advertising revenue, jumping 46.4 percent over last year's Internet ads. In contrast, network television ad spending rose 11.1 percent, and cable television rose by only .2 percent, compared to last year. According to Jon Lafayette with Television Week, the best television performance was among Spanish-language televisions stations, which saw a 14.3 percent ad increase.

The overall increase in ad spending in the first quarter was a 5.6 percent increase in last year. A little over a month ago, I wrote about projections of ad sales for the year being down from original projections, with the year projected to see a 4.9 percent increase rather than the 5.4 percent originally projected, according to TNS Media Intelligence. The prediction is a 13 percent increase in Internet sales for the year.

At the time I wrote:

But wait...didn't all the major networks get together several months ago and tell us all that the 30-second spot is more alive than ever? Of course, we can't predict any immediate doom...However, this does weaken the stance that the 30-second spot cannot be toppled.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it...That's what the industry has said. But, maybe it's just a little bit more broke than anyone wants to admit. And there has to come that point where doing something about it becomes a necessity instead of innovative thinking. The increases in product placement, show sponsorships, and various other forms of deviation from the 30-second spot is already showing some alternate routes, even as networks claim the 30-second spot is gaining power instead of losing it.

With numbers coming in to confirm that ad increases are being driven both by Internet content and Spanish-language content, the imminent changes are on the horizon. Over the past year or two, the penetration of Spanish-language channels have quietly indicated big changes on the horizon. With the percentage of Spanish-speaking Americans continuously expanding, the market will have to continue to make appropriate shifts to acknowledge these markets. For now, that may include having the same advertisement available in both languages, but one would think that there are plenty of sophisticated alternatives in reaching these non-English speaking audiences still waiting to be capitalized on.

July 14, 2006

ABC Family Transmedia Project Launches Next Week

Next week will see the launch of an interesting experiment for the ABC Family Channel, which will be launching a transmedia experience for viewers of its two-hour television movie Fallen.

The movie itself is an adaptation of a popular series of books by author Tom Sniegoski, so the project begins with a transmedia focus in terms of adaptation. But the true nature of transmedia storytelling isn't just telling the same story in multiple platforms--rather, it is to have a story in which various parts or chapters reveal themselves in different media forms.

That's what the Fallen project hopes to do. Producers have already planned to air four more hours of Fallen next year and wanted to create a storytelling platform that would keep viewers invested in the Fallen story between installments of the television movies. Which is why they are launching an online game of Fallen that will continue throughout the summer.

The game is planned to be in real-time. It will launch after the movie airs next Sunday and will last throughout the summer, with participants being given new clues as they continue through the story. The project contains elements of an alternate reality game (ARG).

The movie will launch the game by giving a clue to the online game. All of this will propel viewers to go to the Web site, where the game will focus on the story of a character named Faith.

According to a press release on the show, the game will travel "between fantasy and reality," made possible through "a carefully designed combination of gameplay, video-rich media and online story telling which revolves around a girl embroiled in a mystery so compelling, it will shake the very foundation of humanity."

Okay. I think there could be some hyperbole there, but I will bite on the line that this is an innovative idea. ABC Family will be teaming with game producer and director Matt Wolf and online game studio Xenophile Media for this project.

I think the transmedia format sounds like a great way to keep viewer interest alive during installments of programs like this, which come very infrequently. In some ways, the project may be informed by the Matrix experiments. The key here is to make the Faith mystery be relevant to the movie experience without simply recreating too many elements of the original story. It needs to be different but involved.

In order to make this as rewarding an experience as possible, it would make sense for the Faith game to build into the television content that will launch in 2007. Events and characters introduced in the game should end up appearing to or referred to in the television content as a reward to those who participated in this transmedia product.

The jury's out until the content starts appearing, but the project certainly has merit.

Thanks to Henry Jenkins for making me aware of this project.

TV 2.0 in Action

How do you launch a TV show based on an obscure cult comic which itself parodies a fairly obscure cult genre? Let it go viral.

In another example of the emerging trend C3 has been exploring in how online video is changing the nature of television production and distribution, Sci Fi Channel has taken a cue from the online distribution of failed pilots like Global Frequency and Nobody's Watching by pre-empting failure: The Amazing Screw-On Head pilot has debuted on its online video site Sci-Fi Pulse before the channel has decided its televisual fate.

Head is quite a delight - based on a cult comic by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, the show parodies the steampunk genre of sci-fi set in the 19th Century. The hero works at the pleasure of President Lincoln fighting threats to America (and to quote the show, "and by America, I mean the world") from undead zombies and ancient demon technology; for some as-yet-unspecified reason, he is a screw-on head. The animation is vivid and unique in its visual style, and features strong voice acting by established stars like Paul Giamatti and David Hyde Pierce. It's a show that could easily gain a dedicated audience in sufficient numbers for a cable channel - it most reminds me of the classic 1990s cartoon The Tick, which is high praise in my animation canon.

But Sci-Fi recognizes that it will take some doing to build its audience. Fans of Mignola are vocal and passionate, but far too small in number to guarantee success. So they've put the pilot online two weeks before its TV debut. But more importantly, they have attached a viewer survey to the pilot to gauge reactions and help judge the potential for extending the pilot into a series. This design takes advantages of two great opportunities of online video - the video can go viral through blogging and reviews much more quickly and legitimately than other "official" online videos, and instant feedback gives frustrated fans a way to feel like their voices matter. I have no investment in steampunk or Mignola's comics, but reading an online review made me want to watch the show. I liked it, gave my feedback, and now am blogging about it. Someone reading this blog will probably do the same. Thus Sci-Fi has taken their market research out of the shadows, tracking reactions not only through the official survey but by mapping the blogosphere.

The power of TV 2.0 is that your voice matters if you opt-in to the viral stream, while TV 1.0 depends on a woefully inadequate ratings system to estimate viewership. It is especially gratifying that by embracing this model, a vision of the future seems to be coming from a likely suspect: Sci-Fi.

Three New Examples of the Old/New Media Intersection...Today

Three big announcements came yesterday regarding movements of old media companies and old media money into new media forms.

For instance, HBO will be offering mobisodes exclusively for Cingular Wireless customers. These will include three-minute mini-mobisodes for Entourage, as well as full episodes from the first season of Entourage and episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Dane Cook's Tourgasm.

Meanwhile, Atlas On Demand has now confirmed deals with other most other major video-on-demand service and measurement providers to poffer a comprehensive package for VOD ad campaigns.

And CinemaNow, the on-demand video producer, announced yesterday that it is receiving more than $20 million in funding led by EchoStar and Index Holdings. The funding will be used to expand services for mobile platforms.

All three examples show how quickly the industry is expanding into mobile media and Internet programming. However, the first example--HBO's launching of content on Cingular--continues to demonstrate what platform providers encourage but what is ultimately detrimental to both fans and to content providers--deals struck for gated content.

As I've written about before, the creation of gated content shows a prohibitive new strain in the development of new media. For fans who faithfully follow a few shows, it becomes increasingly frustrating when some of that content is provided exclusvely by one platform provider and other parts by various others. The last thing fans can afford is to pay to have a Cingular phone, a T-Mobile phone, a Verizon phone and a Sprint phone, just to be able to participate in this transmedia content. Of course, that won't happen. Fans can't afford it, first of all, and the ridiculousness of that system is apparent. Maybe gated content makes some degree of sense in this experimental phase, but it represents a dangerous path, as compared to more open development in new media forms from other companies.

July 13, 2006

Are Games Art? Wii, I Mean, Oui!

I originally posted this on my blog a couple of weeks ago but thought it would be relevant to the C3 blog as well, considering a post here about video game criticism from Alec Austin a few weeks ago. I've posted followup entries about video game criticism since the article, which will be linked at the end of this piece.

The issue of whether videogames can be considered art is a recurring one whenever gamers gather. Esquire's Chuck Klosterman has reignited the discussion this summer with a provocative discussion of why video games have attracted so few serious critics:

I realize that many people write video-game reviews and that there are entire magazines and myriad Web sites devoted to this subject. But what these people are writing is not really criticism. Almost without exception, it's consumer advice; it tells you what old game a new game resembles, and what the playing experience entails, and whether the game will be commercially successful. It's expository information. As far as I can tell, there is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like, nor is anyone analyzing what specific games mean in any context outside the game itself. There is no Pauline Kael of video-game writing. There is no Lester Bangs of video-game writing. And I'm starting to suspect there will never be that kind of authoritative critical voice within the world of video games...

Let's suspend for a moment the question of whether he's right about this: there is an emerging academic field of games studies; there are a growing number of serious books which discuss the aesthetics of video and computer games (maybe this is a good place for me to plug an excellent recent book by Nic Kellman); there are some pretty good discussions of the art of game design at Gamasutra and some good game criticism at Game Critics; and ahem, Kurt Squire and I write a regularly monthly column over at Computer Games Magazine (which as far as I can see nobody out there reads.)

Given all of that, I suspect Klosterman is still correct that games have produced many more great artists so far than great critics and nobody speaks with the authority of a Lester Bangs or a Pauline Kael about this medium.

Kael (in film) and Bangs (in music) were critics who could identify important new artists and trends. A significant number of people would give these emerging artists a chance on the basis of their critical endorsement. Kael and Bangs were thus able to provide some minimal support for experimentation and innovation. Right now, given all of the market forces that are crushing innovation in the games industry, we need every counter pressure we can find to promote diversity and experimentation.

Continue reading "Are Games Art? Wii, I Mean, Oui!" »

Battle Over Nielsen Ratings Rages On

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the new proposal for Nielsen ratings minute-per-minute that would allow advertisers to see the type of ratings that commercial time gets, as opposed to program time. Some of the television networks requested the change through a demand from their advertisers, who wanted another way to have proof that people were still watching their commercials.

At that time, David Poltrack from CBS demonstrated that he was dubious about the motives from advertisers, who were looking for ways to gets rates lowered, and also cautious of anyone espousing that the percentage of viewers who try to avoid commercials haven't changed in the TiVo and DVR age but rather the technology for avoiding commercials has shifted.

But, while the Nielsen ratings were attacked from one side by the networks even as they were asking for them, they've faced major attack this week from the other side: the media buyers who are placing commercials for advertisers.

In Wednesday's Television Week, Jon Lafayette quotes media buying agency Magna Global as calling the proposed Nielsen measurement system unacceptable as a standard for trading advertising time on. Magna calls instead for a second-by-second measurement system that would give advertisers a true indication of the number of people watching advertisements.

VCR viewers are another source of controversy. The current system would count VCR recordings of shows as views, including the commercials, but Magna argues that statistics say that 1/3 of things recorded on a VCR are never watched (especially by people who pop a tape in to record something coming on later and leave the VCR running for hours). Further, of those who do watch the tape, as many as 2/3 of them skip the commercials.

DVR viewings are another controversial topic, as Magna points out that current proposals would count DVR viewings up to a week after the show airs. For time-sensitive advertisements, such as for a weekend sale or a movie's opening weekend, the time that the viewer watches the commercial is essential to know.

Finally, Magna is angry about the way the minute-by-minute measurement system measures commercials. According to their statements in Lafayette's story, the current Nielsen system would count any minute that had commercial time in it as a commercial minute. Magna's VP points out that such a policy would allow minutes that are almost completely taken up by the program to be counted as a commercial minute, which would artificially inflate the number of viewers.

It's no surprise that people on both sides of the advertiser/broadcaster fence would fall into disarray over this issue, though. After all, the broadcasters aren't too thrilled to be going through this process in the first place, since they've been trying to uphold the status of the 30-second spot. And advertisers have plenty of reasons to be skeptical at what they see as protections built in. It shouldn't surprise anyone to hear Nielsen's policies knocked as not being an accurate reflection of real viewer behaviors, especially since it measures on quantity only and does not know how to handle new technologies at this point.

Lafayette points out that this is really round two of a fight that cropped up a few months ago regarding whether to count DVR viewers in the numbers used to determine advertising rates, and this is an argument that isn't going away anytime soon. And, as long as the industry is struggling to hang on to a system that's becoming more and more outmoded as time goes by, it's no surprise that there's going to be so much tension. The question is just how long people are going to stay on a slowly sinking ship before they decide to try something new.

In all fairness, all the evidence we're reporting here indicates that both advertisers and networks are thinking of all sorts of creative new ways to incorporate advertising and to provide funding for content, from sponsorships to product placement to subscription models for online repurposing of content. But there's still just so much time invested in the traditional 30-second spot, and the whole industry trades on Nielsen numbers.

It'll be interesting to see how debate surrounding these commercial ratings measurements continues throughout the summer in anticipation of this fall and how much these numbers change the way advertising is bought and sold.

July 12, 2006

Veoh/TNT Online TV Deal

One of our partners here in the consortium, Turner Broadcasting, has entered into a new partnership with an Internet television platform, coming on the heels of NBC's deal with YouTube and MTVN's additions to iTunes.

Yesterday, Internet television provider Veoh Networks announced that it will be working with the TNT network to promote a new television show called Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King. The site will give online viewers the chance to view behind-the-scenes content and other promotional material regarding the new Nightmares and Dreamscapes program, which debuts tonight. In addition, Veoh will be making full-length movies available on their site beginning today as well, all from TNT's film library.

This is yet another example of how new media is presenting opportunities for networks to extend their reach. At this point, TNT seems like it has a good deal in place, with Veoh providing a powerful online tool to drive people to watch TNT and to provide regular viewers of TNT with additional content for the Stephen King show. In return, TNT gives Veoh an influx of films from the TNT library to greatly expand the content available to the burgeoning online network.

With so many of these small alliances being made, it's clear that the networks are at least dipping their toes in the water, if not yet becoming immersed in convergence culture. There are too many of these deals at this point to keep them all straight, and many of them will likely fall apart or disappear, but the general consensus seems to be that these partnerships lead to an exploration of the future of entertainment and television. As always, it's important to remember that convergence doesn't mean the shift to new media platforms but rather the intersection between traditional media forms and new platform opportunities, which Veoh's deal with Turner is a perfect example of.

Dan Rather Presents: HDNet Focuses on Cutting-Edge Content

Mark Cuban's national television network HDNet has made waves among the technologically elite in the country for his all high-definition television national network, the first in the country. Since the network's September 2001 launch, HDNet has gained a significant amount of steam.

The network, along with its related HDNet Movies, now has clearance on most major cable and satellite providers, and is moving more and more in the direction of not just merely repurposing content from other networks as high-definition (especially as other networks move toward offering their own HD packages) but toward producing original programming as well.

The company already has a long list of series, including music reports and a news division. That news division got a major boost this week, as legendary television broadcast news anchor Dan Rather has announced that he will be joining the HDNet team.

Beginning in October, Rather will host a program called Dan Rather Presents, as the network moves from being seen particularly as a technologically driven novelty and into a serious content provider of its own. Despite Rather's recent problems at CBS and the discredit to his reputation through the story about President Bush's military record, he brings with him a name value and prestige that may bring a greater degree of interest and credibility in the news programming on HDNet.

The weekly one-hour program will feature investigative news and reports produced by Rather, listed in the press release as "completely uncensored." The release goes on to claim that "it will reflect the signature qualities of its host with a focus on accuracy, fairness and guts."

The move marks a key shift in HDNet's marketing that has been taking place, to definite itself in relation to its content and not simply the HD platform, which will see its originality wearing thin in the coming years. HDNet wants to market itself as innovative, and it is continuing to do that now by pushing that cutting-edge feel into content as well. In the press release, Cuban is quoted as saying that Rather will now be "finally released from the ratings driven and limited depth confines of broadcast television." Correspondingly, Rather says of moving to the network that "hard news needs backers who won't back down."

I've written here earlier this week about how journalists are debating how to best use convergence and about how journalism schools can train journalists in today's journalism environment. But this raises another intriguing question that traces back to the beginning of local television stations: how can a news department best contribute to a station's branding? Here, Cuban has found an important angle. Even as HDNet is using Rather to help bolster its station, it is blasting other networks for being profit-driven. The new direction of HDNet is focused on moving its cutting-edge reputation to content, and this press release demonstrates that new attitude. In all, it's a move that HDNet needs to make now before it is forced to, in order to retain that "cutting edge" feel.

And, while it's somewhat ironic that a 74-year-old retired network news anchor could be the one to help them do it, Rather's no-nonsense Texan personality and his recent reputation for speaking his mind about his disconnect with CBS may help develop a reputation for HDNet beyond their technology.

Fan Club: Reality Baseball

Earlier today, I wrote about the couple from my hometown who participated in the baseball wedding at the Field of Dreams, and, a few weeks ago, I wrote about how Fenway Park has driven fans to Beantown over the years to visit the famed home of the Red Sox.

However, fan tourism isn't all that baseball is driving these days. The new interactive reality baseball show that is launching online is yet another example of how America's favorite sport continues to drive innovation. This regards MSN's new interactive reality show based on the sport.

Microsoft will be launching this online series, called Fan Club: Reality Baseball. The series will be interactive, offering users the chance to help manage a minor league baseball team. The series will use real minor league team the Schaumburg Flyers in Illinois. The interactive suggestions from the fans will then be collected and used in the team's decision-making process in practice and during games. The online content for the show will include game highlights and behind-the-scenes footage from the first half of the team's season.

Also connected with the show, family members and players themselves will be blogging on MSN Spaces to help promote both the show and the team. For a minor league team, particpating in the show could be a major boon. If the show's interactivity proves not to be superficial, fans may be attracted to following the team...and, for minor league teams, convincing some of those fans to make the travel to watch their games could be nothing but a help. With tourism dollars awfully tight, minor league baseball teams can often struggle to fill arenas.

What this decision may hinge on, however, is how authentic the interactivity is. Henry Jenkins, our director, has been known to write about the "collective intelligence" of fan communities. Here is a particularly good example to test that theory, with fans helping the team make strategic decisions. But, I am sure many remain fairly dubious as to whether this chance for fans to give advice to the players and coaching staff is anything more than a publicity stunt. Will the fan advice even really be taken into account?

The program will be created by LivePlanet and will be ad-supported. LivePlanet prides itself on creating entertainment properties "that seamlessly integrate traditional media, new media and the physical world."

And, if this show works, that's what it will do. It's the perfect example of the potential of the mass media to interact with direct fan participation. Fans can interact with players, read their blogs, follow their actual games, visit the team and their home field, etc. If the Schaumburg Flyers fully accept the idea...if MSN gets behind marketing the reality show...and if LivePlanet is able to reach and interest baseball fans, it could make a major difference.

Cable television helped change sports, as it developed a chance for fans to regularly follow other teams and somewhat changed the geographic distribution of how local sports teams are supported, although it is still largely based on home areas. The Internet fully integrated these "outlying" fans into the fold through online fan communities. This reality series has a chance to take it one step further. And, if successful, it could provide the precursor to how sports franchises regularly interact with their fan communities.

If You Build It, Fans Will Come

Sorry for the lack of updates over the last couple of days. Our editor at The Ohio County TImes-News was on vacation, so I got a crash course in how to do layout for the newspaper. However, one of our stories that made the front page of this week's sports section that comes out tonight focused on a local couple who traveled all the way to Iowa to be married at the famed baseball field used for the movie Field of Dreams.

The husband, Ted Hill, is the current head baseball coach for the local Ohio County High School baseball team in Hartford, Ky. His wife, Amber Hamilton Hill, is a former player for the team. And now, apparently, the thing that brought them together--a love of baseball and a love for each other--has led them to Dyersville, Iowa, where their dreams could come true by saying their nuptuals on the baseball field.

According to reporter Neil Grant, a high school history teacher who writes sports for the local newspaper, "both the bride and groom were dressed appropriately for the wedding--in Ohio County HIgh baseball uniforms." And, apparently, records indicate that they are the second couple to travel out to the Dyersville field to be married and the first to make the trek for wedding vows since 1989, the year the field was opened and the year the film was released.

So, while everyone always talks about flying out to Vegas to be married or drive-thru wedding ceremonies, don't forget that fan affiliations can lead for people to travel for their wedding. For most people, this may seem like a gimmick, something that detracts from the authenticity and reverence of a wedding ceremony in our culture. For this couple, though, they indicated that this ceremony had that reverence for them--mentioning that "its not every day you get to wear your baseball uniform to be married" and repeating a favorite quote from the film--"This field, this game is part of our past. It reminds us of all that was once good, nad it could be good again."

And, as for the tourism industry, maybe the marriage market is something that media properties should consider further. Companies like Disney have long proven the strong correlation between fandom and travel. We've written here various times this summer already about the importance of fans as tourists, such as the focus on the birthplace of Bill Monroe here in Rosine, Ky. and Fenway Park as a tourist attraction. Unfortunately, according to Grant in this article on the couple getting married in Dyersville, the couple was not allowed to reserve the field for a wedding party. Maybe a missed marketing opportunity?

Either way, no one will dispute that marriage is one of the most important events in most people's lives, and that this couple felt such a strong affiliation to baseball culture and to a movie that they wanted to travel to a small town in Iowa to be married indicates something pretty powerful about fan communities. And, in this couple's case, they have taken aspects of the Field of Dreams film and appropriated them for their own purposes, attaching new meaning to them in their own lives and their own story. In a nutshell, that appropriation is what fans do on an every day basis...it's just not always this colorful.

July 10, 2006

Convergence in Journalism

My previous post about issues of convergence in journalism led to some contemplation of my journalism background that has brought me to the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT.

When I was a student at Western Kentucky University, graduating in Spring 2005, we had a special topics class which brought together a couple of students from all six tracks within the university's School of Journalism and Broadcasting to discuss and demonstrate projects and issues of convergence in journalism.

For those who know anything about journalism and particularly about the organization of J-Schools, it should come as no surprise that the suggestion of starting a class like this sent shock waves throughout the department. Some professors were trenchant, doing everything in their power to hold on to the sanctity of their individual discplines. Others made the claim that convergence shouldn't be happening in a separate course or a certificate program but rather should be incorporated throughout the curriculum--rather, that it already was.

Convergence as a principle was seen as the domain of the uberjournalist, an economic threat by the continuous conglomeration of the mass media to force fewer and fewer reporters to do more and more things by developing the ability to write a story for publication, post extra content online, do a radio broadcast about it, speak on television about it, carry a camera with them, etc...basically, it would eliminate the need for individual professions.

While the department was in turmoil at times trying to discuss this and ill feelings sometimes popped up, it was exactly the kind of discussion that journalism professors--and especially students need to be having--considering these are real issues. Convergence is just a buzzword, somewhat meaningless, as buzzwords tend to be, other than providing a lightning rod for discussion. But the issues that surrounded this word provoked important discussions and fears.

The fears were primarily among students finishing their training in a particular discipline, that their training would make them unqualified in a few years because they were specifically print journalists and hadn't honed their skills in other news delivery forms. Faculty fears ranged from having to work with other tracks which were viewed as inferior, being forced to dramatically alter content and, most of all, a fear that trying to create students who would be jacks-of-all-trades would make them masters of none.

And these are all legitimate fears about a very real market out there. I found the actual projects that we did to be much less valuable than just having this debate as a department, a debate I imagine still wages on at the bottom of the Hill back at WKU. But I think that previous discussions here about transmedia issues in journalism begin to get at the heart of what was trying to be expressed in our discussions about convergence--that the crux of the argument is that each medium should deliver what it is best at and that journalists in various mediums should work together--CONVERGE--to create a better news product. The truth is that, when journalists do this, it probably requires MORE people working, not fewer, to be done well.

The problem is simply that convergence, as a buzzword, is too broad. As the word is sometimes legitimately used to mean the jack-of-all-trades journalists that would look awfully good on a spreadsheet of human resources expenses, I understand why so many professors were intractable in their opposition to even discussing convergence as a department. On the other hand, as I've written about before, the best thing that could happen to academia is breaking a few of those barriers that artificially divide disciplines and people--and this extends to the journalism world as well.

Convergence culture, in the larger sense that we study, isn't about watering down content but rather expanding it. And, for journalism, convergence done well leads to a better informed public and a news world where each medium is used to its full potential. The trouble is that many things done in the name of convergence are, in reality, against the very principles of what we are calling convergence culture. And, until the society adopts a more sophisticated language to discuss these issues, debates like the one we had at WKU are going to continue.

New WWE Magazine: Moves Toward a Lifestyle Brand?

World Wrestling Entertainment is merging both their Smackdown and RAW magazines into one publication, a new lifestyle magazine that just released its first issue this month, called WWE Magazine.

As the subheading on last week's New York Times article by Noam Cohen said, "wrestling is more than just a fake sport. It's a lifestyle." With all the discussions we've been having here over the past few months about lifestyle brands, this raises an interesting question--is WWE a lifestyle brand? As I've mentioned here before, WWE is trying to reposition itself as a cool hunter for its target demographic. But can a wrestling company be a lifestyle brand, or just incorporate elements of one?

The company is hoping to change the nature of its magazine department, which has suffered from waning sales in recent years. Instead of just being focused on the current television product, as both of the magazines previously were, this lifestyle magazine is going to look instead at providing a service close to other men's magazines, such as Maxim. Previously, the wrestling magazines focused on current storylines and on being part of the fictional universe.

In years past, feuds were analyzed, explained, and elaborated on in the magazine and, on rare occasions, even started based on something that happened in the magazine, such as a 1992 feud between wrestlers Randy Savage and Ric Flair in which Savage was angered by a set of photos run in the WWF Magazine that featured his wife, Elizabeth, with Flair.

The new magazine--instead of containing the potential for these transmedia types of stories--will include reviews of new entertainment and products targeted toward the young male demographic that the WWE is geared toward.

The WWE's shift in magazine content likely stems from the fact that the publications are not as successful as they once were. Further, WWE has seemed to put a lot less emphasis on their magazine than they used to, a move that roughly coincides with the rise in popularity of the WWE's new media division. Under the direction of WWE commentator and former CBS news correspondent Michael Cole (his WWE stage name), the company Web site has taken over many of the aspects of news delivery and storytelling that were formerly the magazine's domain. Becuase the Web site can update instantly, rather than just running monthly features, the online medium is just a much better way to give fans up-to-the-minute news behind-the-scenes within the WWE fictional universe. In the past, ther have been times that injuries or other factors have caused storylines to change after the magazines had already gone to press, leading to issues that would discuss or tease upcoming matches or feuds that had already been scrapped. The company has also launched their text messaging service for breaking news, called WWE Mobile Alerts, demonstrating yet another medium that can better handle the transmedia function regarding news within the fictional universe, as opposed to the magazine.

The magazine will still heavily feature WWE wrestlers but will not rely on being within the fictional universe and will focus on the world outside the wrestling ring--the WWE lifestyle. In advertisements for the premiere issue, the cover boasts some features similar to the old magazine--insider news, discussions with returning wrestlers, etc.--but also features quizzes, reviews and more behind-the-scenes interviews. But can WWE be a lifestyle brand, centered around a wrestling product?

The Convergence Newsletter

Ivan Askwith, one of my fellow media analysts here at the Convergence Culture Consortium, directed my attention to a publication called The Convergence Newsletter, published through the University of South Carolina and originally based on the university's famed Newsplex. Now, however, the newsletter has expanded to be a driving force behind important questions regarding journalistic integrity driving multi-platform news delivery.

This discussion about transmedia delivery of news in journalism, especially in converged newsrooms, has branched off of a May column by Ed Wasseman in the Miami Herald. Wasseman said that questions about convergence in journalism are being answered by "the technies, the brand managers, the publishers, the marketers," but that the journalists needed to be the ones deciding where convergence needs to go not to raise profit margins and to create interesting marketing opportunities but to better deliver the product.

This spurned a variety of discussion in the newsletter, with professionals and educators from around the country weighing in on the debate started by Wasseman. The editors of the newsletter describe an evolution of opinion over the past few years from convergence as an experiment to convergence as an element of everything that journalists do--an important part of the new media landscape.

However, many of the professional journalists who have (very insightful) pieces in the newsletter respond to Wasseman's claims at convergence as being a potential disaster for journalism and the media, as if it were some flash-in-the-pan experiment. The problem is that people are viewing convergence as some corporate-driven drive for watering down media content when multi-platform journalism, done correctly, creates a vareity of pieces that, when working together, greatly expands coverage instead of limiting it.

Maybe I'm just ill-equipped to understand Wasseman's point, since our Comparative Media Studies department does not recognize the fundamental divisions among all the groups of people Wasseman indicates when it comes to conversations about convergence. I don't think we have an issue where journalists aren't currently at the table.

That being said, of course there are people who think only of the bottom line instead of what creates the best product--but what industry is that not true in? However, to put a cap on the idea of convergence simply becuase its sometimes misused in practice is severely limiting the potential of multi-platform coverage.

And, sure, the concern that convergence will just lead to more work for the same number of journalists is a concern. As I've written about before, at weekly newspapers with extremely small staffs, the only way that convergence can happen is often if the same number of people take on even more responsibilities--but many of these journalists are doing radio shows or television appearances, keeping up a Web site, etc., becuase they believe that they are giving their readers better coverage for it, even if there really isn't the ideal staff size to sustain converged coverage. And the new media tools available are allowing more and more voices to get into the mix of journalism, with grassroots bloggers and non-traditional podcasters and Web sites sometimes scooping the major media.

But just becuase economic realities pose problems for a concept doesn't mean that the concept should be abandoned. The current newsletter provides five interesting editorials on the issues of convergence, many of which are direct responses to the Wasseman column. They provide nuanced takes on what multiplatform journalism means for the group of people interested in content and journalism integrity.

July 7, 2006

Fans Debate How They Should React to Actor's Death

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the death of As the World Turns star Benjamin Hendrickson and how, in the lack of initial coverage from most mainstream media, the fan community spread news about the particulars of his death virally and posted tributes to him in various places, including YouTube.

Since then, shows such as The Insider and publications like The New York Post have covered Hendrickson's death, but the fans are still providing each other with important details and, as a group, trying to come to terms with the death of someone who they have watched perform consistently for the past two decades. What spurned much of the discussion was a claim made in the Post article and subsequently picked up by FOX News and others that, since the episodes currently airing feature his character Hal Munson at his daughter's bedside as she dies of complications from viral pneumonia, his depression about the death of his mother a few years ago was worsened by the material from the show and that it drove him further into depression.

Fans immediately saw the lack of logic in this claim, since the show is taped a month in advance or more. These fans have rightfully criticized these unsubstantiated claim from the magazine. Further, on the Media Domain board, a popular poster revealed that, during his year sabbatical from the show, Hendrickson had to have all of his teeth replaced by implants and learn to speak properly again. When he returned to the show, many of the fans noticed his slurred speech patterns and often questioned or commented on Hendrickson's health and the reason for his trouble speaking. According to this poster--MaryHatch--a close relative of Hendrickson's had said that his preoccupation with his appearance and speech helped drive his depression, not the content on the show, especially when Hendrickson found that some fans were speculating about his health and appearance online.

While the message boards at Media Domain are usually used to debate the show, over half of the debate has instead been regarding Ben's suicide and its repercussions. Since the show isn't recasting, how will his character leave the show? Will he be killed in the line of duty or perhaps will they depict his death from depression over his daughter's death, closely related to part of the reason the actor's death has been attributed to? And the fans are questioning their own implications in the actor's depression, especially since criticizing performances and even actors' appearances is a regular part of the discussion in online fan communities. Should fans feel guilty?

The rest of the online posts have been dedicated to online tributes to Hendrickson. Fans are organizing petitions to Procter & Gamble Productions to ask that an entire episode be dedicated to the Hal Munson character. Fans on the official PGP Soap Box fan message board are posting on a thread that will be sent directly to the family of Ben Hendrickson. And, off Newsday, fans are posting to a Legacy online guest book for Hendrickson. At this point, almost 600 fans have already posted their condolences from most of the 50 states and the Canadian provinces, as well as the Netherlands and elsewhere.

I've posted before about the power that these online guestbooks have given fans to demonstrate their dedication and concern for an actor. These new outlets give fans a way to organize and discuss their grief. Since this is an actor whose character they have grown close to over the years, how much of a right do they have to grieve? Is it considered obsessive fan behavior to be overly upset about Hendrickson's death? Is it okay to cry? Is it okay to send flowers? These online forums give fans a way to legitimately express their sympathies without seeming to overstep the boundaries of their relationship with the actor. And online fan communities give fans a way to organize, debate, and process their feelings about this tragedy collectively.

Songs from the Capeman

This past month, my favorite musical artist--Paul Simon--released his latest album, Surprise. In preparation for the new album, I began going back through my Paul Simon collection to listen to his last two albums--which I had downloaded on my iPod but never listened to in full.

While his last work--the 2000 You're the One--had several tracks on it that have become favorites of mine, I had always skipped most of the songs from Songs from The Capeman when they popped up on my iPod...they just didn't make much sense on their own.

Then I listened to the album as a whole, and I gained a new appreciation for the work. But this blog isn't meant to be simply a recommendation for the merits of Paul Simon's music--my point is that Songs from the Capeman is a perfect example of an album that actually works as an album, as opposed to most other Paul Simon CDs--or anyone else's.

The album consists of various numbers from Simon's ill-fated Broadway production The Capeman, which lost $11 million and tanked on stage due to a variety of bad reviews. However, the reviews never attacked Simon's music, and the CD shines as a storytelling device. Of course most of the tracks didn't mean much on their own when you divide them up on shuffle, but the album--when I listened to it as a whole--told a compelling and multifaceted perspective on the true story of the life of convicted murderer Salvador Agron, who was the leader of a Puerto Rican gang called The Vampires and who murdered two boys in Hell's Kitchen.

Again, while the stage musical may have not gone well, the CD works as a fairly cohesive storytelling device on its own. And it's one of the rare cases where purchasing a whole album not only makes sense but is almost essential, since most of the tracks can't be enjoyed in isolation. I know there are other examples of albums that really work only as albums, but this struck me as a reminder that--even with the iTunes drive toward single tracks--that we can't forget that there is still compelling storytelling potential in a full album, even if its a potential rarely utilized by songwriters and record companies.

Nobody's Watching? I Beg to Differ

A few days ago, I wrote about the development of a new Internet-only television show called Soup of the Day. This week, however, the television show only available online that's getting the most attention is Bill Lawrence's Nobody's Watching, the rejected WB show whose pilot surfaced on YouTube a few weeks ago and has currently received several hundred thousand downloads.

Wait a minute...a show with great artistic promise dumped by the WB Network at the last minute whose pilot later surfaces online and gains a grassroots cult following. Switch YouTube for BitTorrent and you've got a story similar to the tale of Global Frequency, the show based on the Warren Ellis comic book that was leaked online and gained support, only for the WB to send out letters denouncing watching and downloading WB intellectual property that was not supposed to be released.

But will there be a happier ending for Nobody's Watching? Lawrence, creator of Scrubs and Spin City, created the show as both a commentary on the deplorable state of most situation comedies on the networks today and as an attempt to return quality to the situation comedy genre. The show's meaning: two guys are unhappy with the current state of television and pitch writing their own sitcom to the networks. The WB accepts and decides to create a reality show based on these two guys who think they can write a show better than the WB airs. The sitcom we watch is the reality show of these two guys trying to write a sitcom. Something right out of the Larry David playbook...except these guys are aware of the camera, and the show is treated just as a reality show would be.

The premise--especially under Lawrence--has the potential to provide commentary on the current state of both situation comedy and reality television, be self-reflexive, poke fun at television creators and executives alike, and also really entertain its audience in the process, if the pilot is any indication. On the other hand, there was a fear among executives that the show was just too confusing for viewers--that this degree of self-reflexivity would be too much for the average Joe to handle.

Or at least that's the reason they claimed to pass on the show. NBC had passed it on to the WB, who passed on it for the lineup. But now, with its grassroots support, Lawrence claimed that it was being revisited by NBC and that he had had calls from both ABC and Comedy Central. And one has to wonder if the CW Network, after WB passed on the show, might now be interested in having a show with such a grassroots following built into its debut.

However, Lawrence sums up the reason why this experiment is successful and why the networks are stupid not to release their pilots more often when trying to decide how to formulate a future lineup. According to reporter Bill Carter in Monday's New York Times story, Lawrence "said he believed this was exactly the kind of development that television needed to break all kinds of hidebound traditions, including presumptions about what people will and won't watch as comedy, and decisions that are made based on small organized focus groups."

If the masses are willing to participate as a test audience, why not launch a legion of pilots on YouTube or allow people to BitTorrent them? Not only do you end up with shows developing strong grassroots potential before they ever hit the air, but you get a wider response to the show in a situation where viral marketing and word-of-mouth give the feedback as to which shows will generate the most popularity based on number of downloads.

Of course, the only shows that would be hurt with a system like this one are shows that are low in viewer interest, that are not appealing...but those are the shows that would hit the air and get cancelled soon, anyway. And, for more complicated concepts like the one in Nobody's Watching, releasing the show on YouTube ahead of time allows fans to become educated on the concept and prepared for the premise before the show is ever broadcast.

For those interested in watching the pilot episode of Nobody's Watching, it's available here.

July 6, 2006

India competing with China in Online Gaming

Wired News had an article roughly two weeks ago about India's explicit interests in competing with China in terms of online gaming, both as an industry and as sports, emphasized e.g. by an increased and increasingly professional participation in the Electronic Sports World Cup end of June this year. The article mentions the "heightened game awareness" which alludes to the highly culturally specific relationship towards (digital) games as advertising tool, medium or even art. Apparently, cultural sentiments, i.e. the long-standing rivalry with China in economic and other areas, seem to be a key incentive both for the official investments into digital game technology (e.g. growing broadband penetration) and for the players' increasing adoption of gaming as a hobby or even profession. One opposing cultural factor mentioned in the article is the focus on studying and outperforming one's peers, in Indian concepts of childhood which hamper the acceptance of games (or could be a useful trigger to promote it?). Marketing apparently is a weak point in the Indian media landscape, especially if it comes to promoting new media technologies adequately, i.e. as supplements to more traditional content like movies and music.
The most interesting aspects of the article, however, are the circumstances that must be met (or are being created) for online gaming and digital games in general to take off in India. Those factors, e.g. the development of an Indian middle class, are only mentioned in passing. Since the adoption of digital games in Western cultures is a highly naturalized process, watching the embeddedness of this new medium in a particular socio-cultural environment in a very different setting like India can be a valuable exercise. Another, quite profane aspect is the inconsistency of electricity which is even a problem in large cities where backup generators are more frequent. Since not much information like this is available at the moment, the picture still remains highly fragmented as of yet.

July 5, 2006

Soap World Shocked By Actor's Death

Soap fans were shocked when news began to break last night and became official this morning that daytime television veteran Benjamin Hendrickson, 55, had passed away over the weekend. Hendrickson, who trained at Julliard and won an Emmy for his portrayal of Hal Munson on As the World Turns, has been in the role since 1985, aside from a few brief hiatuses along the way. The cause of death has not been reported, although Hendrickson was rumored to have had health troubles for some time.

However, because many major entertainment outlets rarely report on or are at least slow to report on events that happen in daytime television, the news spread instead through the soap world, primarily via the fan community. Soap Opera Digest broke the story earlier this afternoon. A few minutes later, fans on the Media Domain message board reacted to the news. Someone had posted a rumor of Hendrickson's death the night before but it had been dismissed on the message boards as "a sick rumor" when no further information was made available.

Around the same time, fans on the official Web site of Procter & Gamble Productions, The Soap Box, posted their response to the news within the hour. Minutes later, a representative of the company issued an official release on the fan board. In the past couple of hours, fan response has filled threads at both message boards, as well as others. At this point, the fan community can do no more than address their disbelief, since he is currently playing a central role in scenes where his on-screen daughter is dying of complications from viral pneumonia. (As an ATWT fan and a Ben Hendrickson fan, I am still in shock myself.) By watching a performer play a character several times a week over decades, an even closer character identification often develops than in primetime shows, especially since soap operas are particularly about character and character relationships.

The show tapes several weeks ahead, and Hendrickson's final air date will be next Wednesday. Hendrickson has had various personal issues and rumored health problems that have taken him from the show in the past, including a year's hiatus in which Randolph Mantooth filled the role. While fans accepted Mantooth in the role as a replacement, Hendrickson was soon welcomed back to the show and received a central supporting role upon his return. The reaction to Mantooth's performance demonstrated how fans often feel about recasts of roles portrayed for such a long time by one portrayer in the soaps world. Recasting is accepted in daytime, but it is less accepted the longer an actor has been in the role. The response to bringing Hendrickson back, even though he was not a young or starring performer by that point, shows the powerful relationships actors develop with fans while portraying a role over decades.

The role of Hal Munson is not planned to be recast this time around, according to a statement from PGP. It's not yet clear how his death will be handled on the show.

In the past two hours, soap Web sites have picked up more information based on PGP press releases and more mainstream news sources are beginning to react as well. However, since mainstream news sources often pay little attention to what happens in the world of daytime television (as I've written about before) daytime fans had to spread the word themselves after it was broke by SOD. As of this posting, neither CBS's main page or even its daytime page had acknowledged the actor's passing.

Hendrickson's performance has an important place in ATWT's 50-year history, as he was among a group of 10 or so performers on that show to have lasted in a role for about 20 years or more and remained an integral part of the show. And, whether the mainstream media take note of his importance or not, the fan community and the soap opera press are mourning the loss of one of the genre's most talented veterans.

Sam Bond on Colonel Sanders

Yesterday in Louisville's The Courier-Journal, I was quoted on the transformation of the image of Col. Sanders for Kentucky Fried Chicken. The fast food chain is making moves to create a more youthful Colonel, including adding some color to his image which adorns all of their cups, advertisements, etc. The changing of the Col. Sanders picture was the focus of this article, but the company has also been utilizing a cartoon version of the colonel in its television advertisements as well. It's not yet clear if the old image of the Colonel will be replaced with the new one, but the paperwork has been filed.

I was quoted in The Courier-Journal as saying that the image of the colonel has evolved because a younger generation only knows the icon and not the actual human being. In old ads, an actual photo of the Colonel or actual footage of the Colonel might have been used, but consumers in their 20s or younger would not remember the actual Col. Sanders but only his image for the KFC brand. According to the story, by David Goetz, the move is "part of a strategy to reconnect with the baby boomers, who still have fond memories of the original Col. Sanders, while appealing to younger fast-food users who may not know who the old dude is but like his picture." Indeed, part of the interest in this new youthful image and the cartoon icon in the television commercials may be to redefine KFC as a multi-generational brand instead of relying on nostalgic images for older consumers. Putting more emphasis on Col. Sanders instead of Harland Sanders still respects his legacy while distancing the company from the man.

For those who don't know the backstory (as a Kentuckian, it's my duty to know about one of our favorite culinary sons), Col. Sanders owned a small restaurant that became famous for its fried chicken, which he then successfully franchised throughout the region before eventually being bought out by future Kentucky governor John Y. Brown Jr. Now owned by Yum! Foods, KFC is an internationally known franchise, with Col. Sanders retained as its creator.

The Col. Sanders icon has changed through the years as the company distances itself from Harlan Sanders but continues to celebrate his legacy through the Col. Sanders character (Sanders was actually a Kentucky Colonel, an honorary title here in The Bluegrass State).

When Sanders died, KFC no longer had the actual Sanders as spokesperson but instead a representation of him and, now, in their television commercials, a cartoon version. Through this evolution, you can trace Sanders' development from a human spokesperson, Harland Sanders, to a mythic figure, Col. Sanders. The new cartoon version of Sanders still references the immense history of the KFC brand through Sanders the character while creating a new version of the Colonel to further distance itself from the person.

While Col. Sanders' image is still used on every aspect of KFC merchandising, Wendy's has distanced itself from using founder Dave Thomas in commercials. Why? Maybe it's becuase, in order for KFC to remain Kentucky Fried Chicken, it needs to retain the authenticity of the creator of the food, who was actually from The Bluegrass State and whose food became popular through word-of-mouth. In other words, can it really be "Kentucky" Fried Chicken if the company moves from emphasizing its Kentucky roots?

Even though KFC doesn't include the creator's name in its title, like popcorn brand Orville Redenbacher, much of the company's legacy and brand still depends on Col. Sanders, if not Harland himself. While the company may be distancing itself from the actual creator as time goes by, they are as dependant as ever on the Colonel.

Last year, fellow C3 analyst Ilya Vedrashko blogged about this issue on the site that was a precursor to this blog, citing the company's interest in giving the Colonel a facelift to attract younger audiences.

Oh, and contrary to the CJ's story, my name is not Bond...Sam Bond. It's still Sam Ford, although I guess I could start branding myself as the 007 of convergence culture.

July 4, 2006

Soup of the Day

One of our C3 team members from MIT's Sloan School of Management, Tim Crosby, alerted me to a fascinating site last week that shows the power of convergence culture and how the Internet can serve to incorporate the style and work of another medium--an online television series, updated at regular intervals and with a continued story-arc from episode to episode.

While other series have been done online, few have captured the cohesive feel of Soup of the Day, an ongoing Web-based situation comedy that builds on ongoing storylines. The site calls itself "a relation entertainment series," with the storyline of a central male protagonist who has three girlfriends--"one man, split pea-tween three girlfriends." The show features Brandon's struggle in trying to maintain these multiple relationships and also features male supporting characters.

Soup of the Day has already made it to the 18th installment, and all the episodes are available through the archives now. All the previous shows are available in the show's archives, with the content distributed through YouTube.

The show is likely done with a meager budget, without major name talent, but has gained a following through clever transmedial marketing, through its being a unique venture in the first place, and Iron Sink Media's ability to make compelling episodes that people want to follow--and with pretty impressive production values for a small independent project like this.

When Tim e-mailed me about this venture, he pointed out that the site is perhaps the best example of how video distribution costs have dropped immensely, through the video hosting power of YouTube. And it becomes further evidence of other models of distribution that does not require a traditional broadcasting network to produce a compelling television series. Through video-sharing, grassroots networking among the growing fan community, and clever transmedial marketing by the producers, Soup of the Day could be come the hit de jour of Summer 2006.

In terms of transmedia, the site features a video log for one of the characters, and several characters have their own MySpace pages that extend the storyworld into another online space. Viewers can check out protagonist Brandon's MySpace page for continued interaction and thoughts that feed back into the series, as well as to interact with the show's characters. Their are also sites set up for Brandon's three girlfriends: Monique, and Wendy. Pretty shrewd marketing, if you ask me.

The only thing that neither Tim nor I am sure of is where revenue for the show is coming from, as the site doesn't feature significant advertising and is not a pay-for-content distribution system. But, regardless of the financial situation of the show, it's popularity demonstrates much of what we hope to see in the future for convergence culture, in terms of allowing an unprecedented number of voices to participate in production in the creative industries.

July 3, 2006

"Welcome to the Jungle of the Real": An Insightful Essay on the Survivor Phenomenon

Independent scholar Christopher J. Wright, author of a book coming out later this month from Lexington Books titled Tribal Warfare: Survivor and the Political Unconscious of Reality Television, gave a preview of his insight on the popular reality show in a poignant essay in the June 2006 installment of The Journal of American Culture.

Wright's essay, "Welcome to the Jungle of the Real: Simulation, Commoditization, and Survivor," details the way in which television shows become not just content to drive marketing but are marketed themselves. This marketing includes the ancillary products that are sold based around the television show, which seem obvious to anyone who has studied the creative industries in great detail, but also--especially--the marketing of the show's past seasons as Survivor progresses and the commoditizing of people who appear on the reality show--as Wright points out, "these days even people can be commodities" (170). I would say "especially" people can be commodities and that it's no recent phenomenon, as the immense amount of scholarship on the marketing of early mass sports stars or Hollywood star images proves.

However, Wright points out the hyperreality of reality television shows, meaning that the line between "real" and "fictional" becomes blurred so that "real" events play into the fictional world. I've found this concept immensely helpful in understanding immersive story world that try to blend reality and fantasy, including both alternate reality gaming (ARGs) and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Thanks to Ben Wright for his Master's thesis study of hyperreality in pro wrestling for helping me solidify those thoughts.

Christopher J.. Wright studies how the repeated process of a Survivor episode both commodifies the past and teaches viewers about the show's rituals, so that the Tribal Council portion of the show that originally seemed comical and absurd to some of the first season's contestants has been so effectively built in the show's production that contestants by the second season felt there was an aura around the contrived event that was created by their own viewing of the first season.

This coincides in the pro wrestling world with the development of the Wrestlemania PPV event. For the first several years, WWE promoters tried to bill Wrestlemania as the most important card of the year, as an event that would transcend time with performances that would be remembered forever. Many of the early wrestlers probably didn't view it as that much more special than other paydays...but, through the years and repeated marketing of the images from the early Wrestlemanias, most of today's performers who grew up as fans watching Wrestlemania have bought into this myth to the point that they themselves see Wrestlemania as a sacred event.

Wright's piece goes on to examine how other reality shows and Survivor itself has effectively built on itself and created the "reality television" genre that remains so prevalent today. He also gives a small amount of space to Survivor spoiler fan communities online.

For those who are interested in reading about how Survivor has developed such a passionate fan following, Henry Jenkins has a chapter dedicated to Survivor spoiler communities in his upcoming book Convergence Culture. But Wright's essay provides some key insights about how Survivor has built its history and its myths that are worth checking out.

The Plight of Weekly Newspapers

The majority of the people who visit our site may live in areas where these issues aren't quite as pressing because there are healthy daily newspapers available and vibrant alternative papers that push the underground of the journalism world. But, for anyone who is familiar with the weekly newspaper industry or who may have grown up in a rural area where the only paper of record is a local weekly, the plight of weekly newspapers is an important one.

In a lot of communities, these small-operation newspapers are the only major source of local history, the only form of accountability for local elected officials, and the only means of communication for major news stories that aren't so big that they get picked up by regional or national dailies.

In short, it's called the Wal-Martization of local communities that puts community journalism in danger. A lot of people know about the effects of Wal-Mart moving in on a lot of locally owned business that compete with the superstore, especially considering all the anti Wal-Mart documentaries that have been made about the phenomenon.

But few people acknowledge the effect Wal-Martization has had on community journalism. The local businesses that are either impoverished or slaughtered by the low-priced juggernaut are what formerly gave the newspapers the bulk of its revenue. Locally owned small-town newspapers are funded by advertising revenue from local businesses. And Wal-Mart does not run ads in newspapers, neither inserts nor paid ads on pages, except in rare cases.

While some growing communities have maintained ad support, the number of businesses that advertise are dwindling for many places...and the hopes of attracting businesses from bigger towns to advertise in the small papers of distant communities is getting more bleak when television, radio, billboard, direct mail, and other forms of advertising are joined by Web advertising. There's only so much of the advertising budget for these local businesses to give to the print media. I had a friend in the weekly newspaper business tell me recently of a prominent regional car dealer who was dropping all of his print ads for the rest of the year.

Many people are thinking about how to empower weekly journalists, such as former Society of Professional Journalists national president Al Cross at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues through the University of Kentucky.

As I've mentioned, I'm back in Kentucky working for a couple of weeklies this summer "getting back to my journalism roots," and I've been putting a lot of thought to how the long-term integrity of community journalism can be protected. And I think that, while the Web provides many potential dangers for the print media because of the emphasis it takes off the building of local community in favor of national communities built around common interests instead of geographical space, the Web also provides the potential saving grace for community journalism.

The Web may be a contributing factor to the diminished power of a sense of local community, but it also provides the only means for people in our increasingly mobile society to stay in touch with "where they are from." This phenomenon is one of the things that have fueled the popularity of sites like MySpace, as people use the social networking tool to stay in touch with friends back home.

Community journalism may be able to flourish by moving their operations increasingly into this online space and becoming a meeting place for people interested in their small town, not just among the local residents but among the so-called "diaspora" as well...those will are likely never to return to the area due to lack of good employment options but who care about what's happening in the area. Local newspapers can only gain so many readers in a small geographical space, but there are hundreds of kids moving out of these communities every year to college, many likely never to return as a resident. Sites that attract these former residents may be able to draw advertising revenue not just from local businesses but from regional or even national ones as well.

It's something worth looking into and something I'm contemplating spending significant more time researching and writing about. Do any readers have any thoughts while I'm still trying to conceptualize this?

July 2, 2006

Major Moves to Online Content--But How Will Congress' Upcoming Decision Affect Convergence Culture?

Moving into a major holiday four-day weekend, there were a lot of major announcements and events in the industry at the end of last week that affect old media companies moving their content online.

For instance, CBS announced a deal with its affiliates to help gain further network-wide support for a drive to new media content related to CBS programming. According to Michele Greppi of TelevisionWeek, the deal resembles FOX's agreement with its affiliates, in which stations receive 12.5 percent of what the network receives, after deducting various expenses, for on-demand repurposing of already-aired content and 25 percent of any content being available online before it airs on television.

CBS's deal will allow those stations who promote digital content on broadcasts to share in the revenue that results from the on-demand Web content. The affiliates are also slated to receive a fee for generating hits on CBS-owned Web sites with content supported by advertising revenues.

Meanwhile, also in the Viacom family, MTV Networks has added substantial content to its iTunes offerings. MTV's show Viva La Bam, Nick at Nite's show Fatherhood, TV Land's show Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg, Logo's Noah's Arc, and The N's Beyond the Break will all be available for $1.99 per episode, in addition to a free download of the inaugural episode of Blade: The Series, from Spike TV, offered until July 11.

Finally, also on Thursday, Google announced that its video service will now allow users to rate clips, as Google tries to continue competing with the immensely popular YouTube in the video sharing market.

But all this news of content moving online comes amidst growing fear that content providers will lose the battle on Capitol Hill with Internet service providers over what has been labeled "net neutrality," which I've written about in the past. The Senate Commerce Committee rejected the addition of a "net neutrality" clause to the current legislation aimed at easing restrictions for telephone companies to get involved in pay television...As usual, it's hard to figure out how the one thing has to do with the other when it comes to bills being put together.

Regardless, net neutrality (as is currently in place, for the most part) has already been rejected by the House and is now on the Senate floor. Online content providers and "Internet equality" types are all protesting and organizing lobbying efforts to get net neutrality onto the agenda for the bill to pass.

The debate right now is, one the one side, that net neutrality is essential to allow everyone equal access to Internet content, and, on the other side, that service providers need to be able to get extra compensation for expenses required in updating lines for increased video content, etc., and that they should be able to work out deals and charge sites for preferential treatment.

Just as we have a strong movement toward equal access online, these proposals to eliminate net neutrality--along with moves toward online gated content--damages the ability of consumers to find products. And any move that ultimately takes power away from consumers is, to me, detrimental to convergence culture.

July 1, 2006

The State of High-Speed Internet and Convergence Culture

Recently, I was having a conversation with fellow C3 analyst Geoffrey Long about a prior post in which I indicated that indecency fines raising would stifle the creative industry and cause great damage to convergence culture. Playing devil's advocate, he pointed out that a heavily policed environment on broadcast could give networks a powerful new force to drive fans to try content from online platforms, with the full or uncensored versions available there and the sanitized version appearing on TV.

It was a point well taken, and I do agree that companies may be able to find ways to use this increase in government influence on television programming to their advantage. However, on the other hand, I fear that advocating or okaying a tightened censorship on broadcast television helps open the door further for intrusion into other spaces as well, including the Internet. Censorship is like a bad house guest or Chris Farley's Herlihy Boy...once you give it an a small place in your life, it begins to take over.

However, relating to this conversation, one of the comments in that prior post about the PTC and the indecency fines questioned what these old media companies had to do with convergence culture. I pointed out that the very idea of convergence deals with the collision of old and new media. If all we were talking about were the Internet, then it would be new media culture and not convergence. Television, magazines, newspapers, films...these platforms are far from dead and hold a central place in people's lives and entertainment consumption.

And, among us who study the media or work in the media industry, it's a common tendency to think that the tools essential to participate in the new media of convergence culture are commonly available to everyone. Sure, when I'm in Boston (where I'm visiting right now), I can pick up Internet signals at almost every corner. But, I'm staying in Kentucky this summer, and I feel like a druggie in need of a fix when I'm searching for a good Internet connection.

C3 adviser Grant McCracken, C3 analyst Ivan Askwith and I were all having a conversation while visiting New York City a few months back that wireless Internet for the nation might be available in five years, and that would really help to enable the convergence culture we talk about. But, there are plenty of places where people who have the disposable income to afford the Internet not only don't have great wireless options available but are even completely dependent on dial-up Internet service. My parents and my in-laws both have and use the Internet but cannot have high-speed at home. I'm forced to sneak outside the city building of the City of Beaver Dam, parked in the alleyway, to pick up a wireless connection, or else go into work after hours at the newspaper office where I'm working this summer.

These places aren't behind the times conceptually. There's income available. But rural areas just have not been a market that's been penetrated with high-speed service at this point. And, until the majority of the nation is wired (or wireless) and ready to go, convergence culture is going to remain primarily dependent on being pushed by old media forms and placing a priority on the types of technology that are universally accessible. Not being a proponent for elitist culture, I think we have to keep this social reality in mind when fantasizing about the current or near-future state of transmedia storytelling and online content.

Web Comics and Network Culture

This blog, by Dr. Henry Jenkins, originally appeared on his blog:

I am participating in a very interesting conversation about digital storytelling, visual culture, and web 2.0 over at Morph, the blog of the Media Center, which describes itself as "a provocative, future-oriented, nonprofit think tank. In the dawning Digital Age, as media, technology and society converge at an accelerating pace in overlapping cycles of disruption, transition and change, and in all areas of human endeavor, The Media Center facilitates the process by gathering information and insights and conceiving context and meaning. We identify opportunity, provide narrative, stimulate new thinking and innovation, and agitate for dialog and action towards the creation of a better-informed society."

The Media Center has asked a fairly diverse group of media makers and thinkers to participate in a "slow conversation" to be conducted over the next month or so about creativity in the new media age. So far, the most interesting post has come from Daniel Meadows, currently a lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales, about work he has done with the British Broadcasting System to get digital stories by everyday people onto the air. He provides links to a great array of amateur media projects. I haven't spent as much time following these links as I would like but it's a great snapshot of the work being done in digital storytelling.

What follows are some excerpts from my own first post in the exchange which uses webcomics to explore some of the ideas in Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, a book I referenced here the other day.

Continue reading "Web Comics and Network Culture" »

WWE's Big Apple Takedown

World Wrestling Entertainment has launched a new transmedia product--of sorts. The new WWE Books novel, Big Apple Take Down, is a fantasy book in no way related to the fictional world of the wrestling company--it's a fiction based on a fictional work but which is acknowledged as fiction even within the wrestling world.

The premise of the book is that the federal government is trying to take down a dangerous drug operation and enlists the help of WWE wrestlers to infiltrate the drug ring. WWE writers may be trying to create a new line of books, with the premise that wrestlers would make perfect undercover agents because they travel from town to town constantly for wrestling cards and could plan their wrestling schedule around the government's agenda, with no one ever suspecting a thing.

In this case, an elite group of WWE wrestlers, led by Vince McMahon, are given the mission. According to the WWE's own story about the book in its Smackdown Magazine, Big Apple Take Down is "the first book that takes the Superstars out of their usual element and places them in an entirely new genre" (60).

The book is actually the second novel released by the WWE, the first being Michael Chiappetta's novel Journey Into Darkness. That novel, however, was actually worked into the fictional universe of the WWE, being the "unauthorized biography" of a wrestling character Kane. In short, Kane is the brother of The Undertaker, was burned in a fire at birth and spent his life believing he was disfigured, staying in hiding and wearing a full body suit. Obviously, this is not a realistic background, but the book treated Kane's story as if it were a legitimate sports biography. Kane went on to star in the film See No Evil, WWE Films' first, and he was billed not at Glen Jacobs (who portrays Kane) but as "Kane."

Big Apple Take Down, as with Journey Into Darkness, were released as paperbacks and were not heavily hyped on WWE programming or the Web site, so the WWE obviously doesn't value this on the same level as it does projects more closely integrated as "transmedia," such as the Web site, the Mobile Alerts system, WWE 24/7, Web casts, DVD releases and the company's myriad other projects.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if fans react well to this fictional story that is even fantastical within the fictional universe of the WWE. The company hasn't made the project a top priority in promotion or execution, so it appears to be a pretty low-risk investment ancillary product. But, if it turns a profit for them, it might lead the WWE to consider more of these in the future, perhaps under the same general premise.

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