Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Review – The Chernobyl Diaries

Obnoxious, quarrelsome twentysomethings pay for a guided tour of the reactor-leak-ravaged ghost city of Chernobyl, where naturally they end up in a life-and-death struggle with irradiated mutants. So this could either have been an awesome use of a creepy location for a well-planned creature feature, or it could have been yet another feature-length parade of obnoxious twentysomethings quarreling with each other. Any guesses as to which path the filmmakers chose? A damn shame, too, because some of the effects shots early in the picture suggested that they could have made a good monster movie if they’d been inclined to do so. See if desperate

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Eight media moments to watch in 2013

Let me start by confessing that my crystal ball is faulty at best. Of all the items on the 2012 list, I would have predicted few if any of them 12 months ago. Still, the following eight items deserve attention even if they don’t turn into major media moments.

The current month is likely to leave a couple of interesting points unresolved. In early December the United States backed out of talks about a new international telecommunications accord. At the outset of the consideration the terms seemed completely uncontroversial, the sorts of things that would interest only telecom nerds. But then a coalition led by Russia and China began building references to the Internet into the language. Though the accord wouldn’t have imposed an actual duty on any government to censor the net, the idea of incorporating content restrictions into a purely technical bargain rubbed the United States and several other countries the wrong way. As of this writing the deal looks dead, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. At least it’s nice to know that someone in our government understands the issues at stake.

Less comforting is the FCC’s current stance on ownership deregulation. Rumors from DC suggest that the commission is poised to further relax the rules governing how much of the country’s media markets may be dominated by a single company. The name Rupert Murdoch keeps coming up in criticism of the anticipated move, though of course Newscorp isn’t the only player that stands to benefit. So far the commission hasn’t made an official announcement, so this stands to be big starting early next year.

With the election over and politicians less immediately concerned about their popularity with voters, we need to watch closely for a brain-eating-zombie resurgence of SOPA. Recall that big media companies want this draconian crap something fierce, and folks with that kind of money generally aren’t great at taking no for an answer.

The net neutrality question will also probably continue to percolate. AT&T’s back-track on the FaceTime front feels more like a strategic retreat than a genuine surrender. I don’t know exactly where the next battle will flare up, but I nonetheless feel it coming.

A couple of media industries bear watching in the coming year. For some time now I’ve been wondering exactly when non-media corporations were going to start taking a closer look at the value of advertising. With budgets tightening and audiences migrating, I expect more and more companies are going to start asking hard question about the effectiveness of spending money on ads. I’m not predicting some sudden, momentous collapse of the entire ad industry. Still, this is an area worth keeping an eye on.

The movie industry also may be making some changes. For decades now Hollywood’s revenues have steadily increased with only a few relatively small hiccups here and there. But in 2011 the studios saw a decrease in box office receipts for the first time in years. The final numbers for 2012 aren’t in yet, but if they show continuing downward progress then we may start to see some changes.

One of the more disappointing trends to emerge during the election this year was wholesale disregard for media aimed at Hispanic audiences. Spanish-language and other Hispanic-oriented TV networks saw only a small fraction of the total money spent on campaign advertising. This was likely tied to efforts by the parties in power to prevent Hispanic people from voting (because if you can’t vote, why would anyone bother trying to talk you into voting for his candidate?). That might reflect the short-term status of this crucial demographic, but it isn’t sustainable in the long term. This segment of the population is growing too rapidly to be successfully marginalized forever. So wise media planners will monitor the growth of Hispanic-oriented media.

And finally, I’m counting the days until Google Fiber actually arrives. The company’s web site currently indicates that I can expect my fiberhood to get hooked up sometime this coming fall. Let’s hope the process stays on schedule. Because if it does, the “biggest moments” list in 2013 is likely to have at least one obvious entry.

And on that cheery note, I wish you all a happy new year.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #1: AT&T caves on FaceTime

Speaking of American Telephone and Telegraph, the company rounds out the 2012 list with its early December decision to cave (at least in part) on its block of FaceTime use for its cell subscribers. FaceTime is an Apple app that allows users to video chat between Apple devices (especially iPhones). Neither Sprint nor Verizon had trouble with the app, but AT&T blocked it based on the claim that users would occupy too much bandwidth.

The claim was technically questionable. Worse, the decision was barred by the FCC’s net neutrality regulations. Though a service provider could conceivably charge users extra for excessive use, it can’t block software entirely. Only Ma Bell knows for sure whether the decision was prompted by potential legal woes or the possibility of losing customers to less assholish competitors.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Review – Cleanflix

Part of this documentary is fascinating stuff. A few years ago in the conservative haven of Utah, DVD distributors and rental stores started specializing in Hollywood movies that had been re-edited to remove sex, violence and profanity. Naturally the practice raised some interesting legal and ethical questions, such as “what kind of morality makes it a sin to swear but isn’t bothered by stealing?” The serious issues get a fair treatment here. Unfortunately the picture also devotes an excessive amount of time to the personal shortcomings of Daniel Thompson, Cleanflicks store owner and convicted child molester. Hypocrites are common enough that they aren’t all that interesting. Mildly amusing

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #2: Fiberhoods

In early September Google set its “fiberhoods,” the neighborhoods in KCK and KCMO that will get hooked up to the new fiber optic network. The run-up to the official announcement was exciting stuff, as neighborhoods competed first to get enough pre-commitments to meet the company’s minimums and then to get enough pre-commitments for a prime spot on the installation timetable.

The run-up was also disturbing stuff. The map on the Missouri side revealed a sharp division between the gonna-get-its and not-going-to-get-its, a literal “digital divide” running right down Troost. Faced with criticism about who would get connected and who wouldn’t, Google extended its upcoming reach to neighborhoods that likely would not have qualified on their own. That partially resolved the backbone issue, but it should keep us all mindful of the social, cultural and economic differences between those who can consume the most up-to-date digital media and those who can’t.

On the plus side, at least I now have a general idea of when I’m finally at long last going to be able to fire AT&T.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #3: The Olympics

The non-election half of the quadrennial Landru-commands-it festival of media mania is of course the Olympics. NBC hit a down note when it ran an ad with a gymnastics-performing monkey right after Gabby Douglas won gold, but otherwise we all had fun watching talented athletes from many countries competing at the top of their games.

Oh, wait. No we didn’t. Plug pullers like me got to see little or nothing of the Olympics. Even the stupid ad with Her Royal Majesty and James Bond failed to play properly, crapping out in the middle and leaving me to wonder why Betty Battenberg, Daniel Craig and a gaggle of corgis walking down a hallway was such a big deal.

I already griped about this when it happened, so at this happy time of year I’m prepared to let the matter rest. However, when the festivities move to Sochi in 2014, I’m going to be quite put out if Comcast’s atavistic self interest deprives me of my beloved biathlon coverage.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Review – Clerks

I loved this the first time I saw it. Of course back then I was a little less distant from the “customer service” phase of my own life, so perhaps I found it easier to empathize with some of the things the protagonist endures. Though I still laughed at my favorite lines and still enjoyed the general sense of absurdism, this time around I was less tolerant of the production’s many weak points. Perhaps now I just know too much about what became of Kevin Smith after he made this. Mildly amusing

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #4: Gangnam Style

 This video came out in July. By my presentation in November, it was the number two video in YouTube history, rapidly gaining on Justin Bieber. As of this writing, it’s now number one by a substantial margin and likely to become the first video in YouTube history to get more than a billion views.

Its immense popularity has a few lessons to teach us about media in the 21st century. First, it reminds us that our media marketplace is global. One of the few things the United States exports more than imports is media products. And here we have a piece of K-pop fluff surpassing sophisticated efforts from big record companies.

The source is also significant. South Korea tends to live in the giant media shadows of Japan and China, so PSY’s success at least got the world to recognize that Korea exists. A big part of the video’s popularity comes from viewers throughout East Asia.

Except Japan, where it seems to be more of a “meh.” Anti-Korean racism aside, the Japanese may be forgiven for their luke-warm reaction to the whole “Gangnam Style” thing. After all, Japan has been producing weird goofiness like this for decades. PSY’s magnum opus (op-op-op-op-oppa Gangnam style! damn this thing gets stuck in my head) isn’t particularly different from literally thousands of Japanese animations, music videos and other pop culture offerings.

And that’s the real million-dollar question: what makes a video that isn’t really much different from a lot of other videos suddenly catch on and “go viral”? This drives Big Media nuts. In most other realms, they’ve got success formulas all worked out. They know what makes a blockbuster movie turn a huge profit. They know which singers are going to sell tracks and get airplay. They know what works and what doesn’t in just about every medium. Sure, sometimes they guess wrong. But they’re right often enough to maintain their considerable profit margins.

But not with stuff like this. There’s no apparent formula for raising a PSY out of peninsular obscurity and selling his performance to hundreds of millions of people. This lack of predictability makes web-based media one of the most interesting things going on now and an area to watch closely in the future.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review – Assassin’s Bullet

A State Department factotum falls in love with a belly dancer who is actually an English teacher slash Manchurian Candidate who kills terrorists and ... okay, I admit it. I lost interest in this thing early on and just let it run for background noise. So at least it was fairly noisy. See if desperate

Review – The Adventures of Tintin

Like The Spirit, Tintin entered and exited my life when I wasn’t yet old enough to appreciate its distinctive nuances. Fortunately for people like me, though there seemed to be a thing or two here that only a devotee of the comics would truly appreciate, for the most part this was a what-you-see-is-what-you-get bit of brainless action cinema. This is also director Steven Spielberg’s first foray into computer animation. His work reminded me of the heady days of the 1990s when amateur speakers first discovered the fancy transitions in Powerpoint. Suddenly everything is about what the technology will do rather than what makes for a good production. The result is video-gamey, which is a shame to see from a veteran director working with plot- and character-intensive source material. Mildly amusing

Review – The Desert Rats

Billed as a follow-up to The Desert Fox, this picture features James Mason only briefly and as more of a villain than in the earlier, Rommel-centered movie. An English officer (Richard Burton) leads a unit of Australian commandos during the extended siege of Tobruk. As war pictures go, this is par for the course. Mildly amusing

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #5: Penn sues The Star

Last year The Star fired Steve Penn, a columnist for the metro section. Penn had worked for the newspaper for more than 30 years, which made the termination seem odd at best. However, the editors’ allegations were damning: they said Penn had been copying sentences and paragraphs from press releases, pasting them into his stories and passing them off as his own work.

News folk have always had an uneasy relationship with press releases. In an ideal world, a reporter would start with a press release from an outside source (company, government agency, charity, etc.) and – convinced of the story’s newsworthiness – use it as a springboard to go out and find her own facts and quotes. Someone lazier – or more pressed for time, if we want to give this practice a positive spin – might use quotes directly from a press release, provided of course that the source was clearly identified in the story.

Back in my days working PR, I heard stories about newspaper folk doing what Penn did. In fact, I heard about some reporters who copied entire releases, stuck their bylines on them and passed the whole thing off as their work. At least Penn didn’t go that far. Still, what he did was bad enough, a clear violation of the ethics we all learned in J-school.

If the firing had been the end of the story, it would at best have been one of the Eight Most “That’s Just Sad” Media Moments of 2011. But then Penn put the mess on this list by filing a wrongful termination suit in June. His most disturbing allegation was that he shouldn’t have been fired for plagiarism because what he did was common practice at The Star and in the newspaper industry.

Though I hate to see a big media company get away with firing someone who worked for it for decades, I hope he loses his suit (or at least wins it on grounds other than his “common practice” argument). I’d really hate to see him successfully prove that news writers everywhere are parroting corporate spin rather than going out and gathering the news. As if the newspaper industry isn’t already beset by enough trouble. The last thing it needs right now is erosion of confidence from the few readers it has left.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Review – The Crucible

Many years ago my wife and I first met in a high school production of this Arthur Miller classic, so I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the play. But that only goes so far. This film version is badly infected with scenery-chewing celebrities, particularly Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. Perhaps they should have aimed this at Broadway where such play-it-for-the-back-row performances would have been more at home. Acting aside, the story remains a poignant portrait of the potentially evil effects of mass hysteria. Mildly amusing

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #6: Political ad files on the Internet

Once every four years we can all count on two big media moments: the Olympics and the election. On the latter front, most of the public’s attention focuses on attack ads. “They’re awful. Everyone hates them. Why do the candidates even run them? Still, what are ya gonna do?” Collective shoulder shrug.

But one of the biggest moments on the political ad front went largely unnoticed, taking place months before the non-stop onslaught got underway. In April the FCC ordered broadcasters to make their political advertising files available online.

By virtue of their use of the public airwaves, broadcasters are subject to a lengthy list of regulations that don’t apply to other media. In the realm of political advertising, broadcasters are required to accept ads from candidates and run them at the lowest rate available. Stations must keep records of all such ads and make the records available for public inspection. The new twist this year was the requirement that the records be made available via the Internet.

The National Association of Broadcasters challenged the change in court, but the suit went nowhere. Now anyone can go to the FCC’s web site and find out exactly how much each campaign is paying each TV station. Of course a lot of advertising – such as ads from pressure groups – isn’t subject to the rules. But at least now it’s possible to track at least some of the doings on the airwaves without a trek to broadcasters’ offices.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #7: The death of SOPA

Congress kicked off 2012 with a couple of eerie efforts to smother free speech on the Internet. The version in the House was called the Stop Online Piracy Act, and the Senate’s was the Protect Intellectual Property Act. Of course the two versions differed in some details, but the main idea was the same: extend copyright “protection” well beyond the already-generous boundaries established by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (a.k.a. The Mickey Mouse Protection Act) more than a decade ago.

The Mickey Mouse law was bad enough, but this pair were plain crazy. They would have introduced the principle of “guilty by accusation,” allowing big media companies to run crying to the federal government and get entire sites shut down based on a simple claim of copyright violation. The edges of the law’s protection are fuzzy enough – particularly in the realm of the fair use exception – to require proper adjudication, not censorship based on mere suspicion.

But more interesting than the proposals themselves was the reaction to them. Big Media (with Disney and Time Warner in the lead) lobbied hard, but they found themselves up against Big Internet (particularly Google). And worse, they faced a sudden groundswell of grassroots opposition from Internet users. After a 24-hour protest that blacked out Wikipedia and several other popular sites, legislators turned tail and removed the bills from consideration.

That alone made it a big moment. How often do you see Congress pay attention to anyone other than lobbyists?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #8: The Media Survival Guide

Last month I did an Academic Symposium at the college where I work. The subject was the eight biggest media moments of 2012, and my goal was to cover things that might have gone unnoticed by people who don’t follow the media for a living. Many of the things the communications industry gets up to behind the scenes have a strong influence on our daily lives as consumers. I decided to do the events in chronological order, which I admit led me to lead off with the most self-serving item on the list.

In January 8sails officially released the Media Survival Guide. I wrote the bulk of the text while on sabbatical in the fall of 2011, and in the spring the guide underwent a largely successful “beta test.” In the summer I added a downloadable PDF and a Kindle edition. In the future I hope to release it as an iBook and on the web in a format customized for mobile devices.

Based on the “bite-sized learning” model, the guide is designed for easy reading in smaller chunks, customized for students who need to study in short bursts between other activities (such as during a break at work). If a particular topic happens to pique the reader’s interest, she can delve further by exploring the links at the bottom of each page.

Amazon makes me charge 99 cents for the Kindle version, but everything else is available free of charge, a considerable savings over the $80 or so the textbook publisher charged for the textbook I used to use for my Intro to Mass Comm class. And that’s the real importance here. In the old publishing world, creating a textbook was a costly proposition requiring students to pay the substantial costs of production. Now content is key and distribution is free (or near enough to free that publication costs don’t have to be passed along to those least able to pay them).

I’m not ready to proclaim “behold the future of textbook publishing” just yet. Too many people (professors and publishers alike) are still making too much money for this new approach to learning to instantly catch on. But at least now such a thing is possible.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Review – Beauty and the Beast (1991)

The end of this story always breaks my heart. If she falls in love with the Beast, why does he have to turn into a handsome prince? Why can’t he just be who he is? Further, this picture came out at an awkward time in movie history. Disney was trying to make the transition away from princesses who wait helplessly for their princes to arrive and toward a more reasonable portrayal of women. It kinda works, but then it kinda doesn’t. Of course it didn’t help to start with the screwed up sexual politics of a story about a monster who changes and becomes a good man because a woman loves him. It seems like setting up a generation of girls with abusive relationships with monsters who just get worse because now they know they can get away with it. On the other hand, the musical numbers are cute. Mildly amusing

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Review – Alice in Wonderland (1951)

“Alice in Wonderland / How do you get to Wonderland / Over the hill or under land / Or just behind a tree.” I hadn’t seen this movie since I was a kid, and for years I’ve been convinced that I misremembered the words to the opening theme song and substituted simple-minded nonsense the way kids sometimes do. But no, those are the real words. Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories supply Disney’s artists with plenty of fuel for the vaguely hallucinogenic fantasy stuff popular with animators in the 1950s. Do I even have to mention that this was extremely popular on college campuses in the 60s? Mildly amusing

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Review – The Amityville Curse

The curse must go something like this: “For now and forever, let all movies with ‘Amityville’ in the title have nothing at all to do with the original tale of demonic house possession. Instead, may they all be cheap attempts to market moronic ghost stories. So mote it be!” See if desperate

Review – Alexander the Great

I’m beginning to think that they could have cast Richard Burton in a movie about Batman fighting Godzilla and it still would have come out boring. At the very least they might have considered making more than half the film about Alexander’s conquests rather than his Byzantine battles with his father. It doesn’t help that this is one of those movies that should have been an epic except they didn’t have the money for the cast or the extras or the sets or the effects. The inevitable result is an empty-looking production that screams “a cast of dozens.” See if desperate

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Review – Airborne

The last flight out before a hurricane closes the airport. A mysterious package. A gun merchant and his thug bodyguards. War criminals. Art thieves. Sinister government agents. An ancient curse. A skyjacking. Demonic possession. Mark Hamill. And really that’s just a quick start on a list of all the junk packed into this movie. To the surprise of no one (other than perhaps the folks who made this mess), the result is a chaotic crowd of subplots that never fully develop because they keep stepping on each others’ toes. And that’s a shame, because with a little more breathing space some of the twists and turns might have made for a decent story in a general Twilight Zone groove. Mildly amusing

Friday, December 7, 2012

Review – Dead Season

Ladies and gentlemen, here we have the cutting edge of horror filmmaking. The geniuses who cooked this up are truly the masters of innovation. They start with the premise that some calamity has brought the dead back to life as flesh-eating zombies, leaving a small band of survivors struggling to make their way in a dangerous new world. And to avoid the smothering influence of the studio system, they shot this on the cheap with bad production values, using their friends rather than professional actors. How did they ever come up with such a brilliant, creative movie? Wish I’d skipped it