Tag Archives: entertainment

An Untold Stories Tax?

Carnivale - Season 2HBO canceled Carnivàle, a serial show with deep mythology, after two of a planned six seasons. The remainder of Creator Daniel Knauf's story was never told.

The AV Club :: Daniel Knauf tells us his plan for the end of Carnivàle

AVC: Have you ever considered trying to do it as a novel or a comic book [of the remaining story line]?

DK: Constantly. Yeah. Marvel, we had it all set up. At one point, they wanted to go forward and do a series of graphic novels, and they just couldn’t turn the corner with HBO. Since then, yeah, I’ve considered it. But one of the things that makes me a little crazy about Hollywood is, they’re idiots when it comes to their contractual stuff. If I write a novel, it’s like Random House publishes the novel, copyrights it, but when you do business in Hollywood, they say, “Everything in this thing, in all forms, in all potential forms invented and uninvented…” The language is draconian! “…throughout the universe. We own everything in your head. We own everything.” And it’s like, “If you own everything, at least exploit those rights, please. Could you please exploit the rights? And if you’re not going to exploit the rights, can I at least have them back, so I can exploit them?” It’s just a silly way of doing business. [...]

It didn’t make sense to spend $3.5 million an episode. So let’s do a graphic novel. Let’s tell the story!” But they’re on to other toys now. It’s like doing business with that kid down the street whose parents give him really bitchin’ toys, and he’d just leave them broken in the backyard. It makes me crazy, Hollywood.

I think you could make an analogy to Georgist taxation here, or perhaps more generally Gobry's argument in favor of the French wealth tax.

If property ultimately derives from mixing your labor with things, it's not unreasonable to suggest that people have an ongoing responsibility to continue doing so. If you hold some property, most especially land, you may have a responsibility to society to put it to productive use. (We're talking about theory here, not practice. The arbitration of what counts as responsible, productive use is nearly impossible in practice and so even if you had such a responsibility in theory it is likely best if that responsibility is never legislated into reality.) Gobry's argument is, briefly, that capital gains taxes discourage people to put their resources to use, while wealth taxes do the opposite. In essence, capital gains taxes makes it more expensive to put your resources to work, so people do less of that. OTOH if you're going to loose %1 of your accumulated resources anyway to a wealth tax that gives you reason to put your resources out in the world to try to get them to grow more than the amount you'll lose.

If a studio owns the rights to further adaptations in other media, do they have a responsibility to society to actually use those rights? Land may be a special case of property, because people aren't making any more of it. Or so I gather the Georgists, the Diggers, etc. would say. But people aren't making any more Carnivàle either. That idea can only be invented once, only to be owned by one person, just like a particular acre of land. Does that put an extra responsibility on HBO to do something with it? If an owner of arable land has a onus to see it cultivated, does the owner of fecund IP have a similar onus to see it reified?

I have absolutely no idea how you would actually structure this as a policy. Doing so in a way that wouldn't put the actual tax burden on the creators rather than studios would be harder yet. Even so, I think it's an interesting way to look at the ethical responsibility of content owners, if not a way to structure their legal responsibility.

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Roman Mars

The latest episode of Bullseye includes a great interview with radio producer and podcaster Roman Mars.

99percent-invisible-logoMars is the man behind the wonderful podcast 99% Invisible. (No relation to OWS.) 99% Invisible is about the design and architecture of both the extremely weird (Kowloon Walled City, Razzle Camoflage) to the entirely prosaic (broken Metro escalators, check cashing stores, culs-de-sac) to the outright awesome (The Feltron Annual Report, Trappist ales).

I had always thought Mars had a background in architecture. Turns out he actually went to grad school to study genetics. A lot of what he said about studying and learning and why he went to grad school really resonated with me, which is why I'm writing this post. (Besides wanting to evangelize 99% Invisible, which I couldn't recommend more.)

The only complaint I have with the interview came when Mars said that if you simply read a list of his podcast topics without listening to the show you'd think they were the most boring things in the world.

I couldn't disagree more. The topics he chooses are exactly the sort of thing that lead people like me to descend into hour-long Wikipedia spelunking expeditions. (Except his investigations of them have way higher production value and are told much more artfully than the Wikipedia writing-by-committee process produces.) Don't you want to learn about how Gallaudet University designed buildings suitable for the deaf? Or how audio engineers sound-design the Olympics? Yes. Yes you do.

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Netflix, again: HBR misses the point

I don't intend for this blog to be nothing but commentary about Netflix. I promise. But this is the intersection of business and technology and art, so it's got my attention.

HBR :: Grant McCracken :: Will Netflix Flourish Where Hollywood Failed?

So does Netflix have an edge? Is there any reason to think they can flourish where so many have failed? The apparent answer is data. Netflix has lots and lots of data. They know what we watch, when we watch, where we stop watching, where we repeat a scene, where we reach for the fast-forward button, and most critically, when we break off and move on. They know which movies sell well at 8:00 on a Friday night and which ones we like to watch on Sunday afternoon. They can surmise which directors, writers, and stars produce the most watchable entertainment. They have magnificent data.

(1) Yes, data is their edge. (2) They don't need to make better content than everyone else. They just need to make content good enough to give them bargaining chips when they strike deals with other content makers and distributors.

And that's a tragedy. Netflix has so much data that they are going to be tempted to climb into the creative tent and start offering "advice."

This is almost exactly wrong. Or not wrong, but useless. Producers are constantly offering "advice." The difference is that Netflix's advice will be based on numbers, while other producers' advice is based on sophistry and illusion. ("Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Consign it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.")

They can claim to know exactly what works and what does not. Well, sorry, no. Knowing that something works leaves us a long way from knowing why something works. And this leaves us a long way from knowing how to reproduce it in another movie. The only thing this data can be absolutely sure to produce is arrogance. We have seen this mistake before.

Yes, they can claim to know exactly what works and what does not and why. Or they could not. There's nothing inherent in a quantitative approach that rules out epistemic humility. In fact, there's much to quantitative reasoning that makes it more humble. When's the last time you saw someone run a t-test on an executive's intuitions or gut feelings?

This means that whatever the data say, Netflix cannot tell a director, "We need a fight scene here." And it really can't say, "We need a fight scene at the 14-minute mark." Doing so, will not only drive creatives away, but viewers as well. As Henry Jenkins has said, viewers are newly sophisticated and critical. They can see formula a long way off. They can see plot mechanics the second they hit the screen. And the moment this happens, they are off.

Hold on a minute. Why would you assume that Netflix's results would be more formulaic than the traditional Hollywood approach? Humans can only sort out cause and effect when there are a couple of moving pieces. Computerized pattern recognition can do so in much more complicated environments. Doesn't it stand to reason that Netflix's discovered patterns will be more complex, and therefore less formulaic and noticeable, than the patterns that intuition- and tradition-guided producers hew to?

Netflix, therefore, will have to temper their itch to intervene. Naturally, we are not talking carte blanche here. We are not saying that we take any artist and turn them loose. Because we know a great deal of capital has been squandered by creatives keen to prove how artistic and avant garde they are. No, what we need are culture producers who are — in the language of Goldilocks — "just right." They need to be able to tell a story and obey some of the story-telling conventions even as they do new and interesting things to break and bend those conventions. Only then will painters paint and patrons watch.

The advice in this post true for every company producing creative output. It's masquerading as being specifically about Netflix. It's not only more general than it's made out to be, it's arguably less applicable to Netflix than to their competitors.

I'm also more than a little weary of critiques being made against numerical decision making without any consideration of the faults of the non-numeric decision making it's displacing.

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Netflix Marathon

Tyler Cowen :: Will marathon viewing become the TV norm?

On Friday, Netflix will release a drama expressly designed to be consumed in one sitting: “House of Cards,” a political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Rather than introducing one episode a week, as distributors have done since the days of black-and-white TVs, all 13 episodes will be streamed at the same time. “Our goal is to shut down a portion of America for a whole day,” the producer Beau Willimon said with a laugh.

Ad-financed shows — still a clear majority of viewing — may prefer to have impressions from the ads spread out over weeks and months rather than concentrated in one long marathon sitting.

On the other hand, when watching an hour long show — or even a half-hour — I routinely see the same ad multiple times. Not ads for the same product or service, but the very same advertisement. I am sure there is a lot of literature about the trade-offs between repetition and staleness to doing this. (Note to self: ask about this at the next marketing quant lunch.)


Cowen continues:

Furthermore the show itself relies more heavily on an effective and immediate burst of concentrated marketing, with little room to build word of mouth and roll out a campaign with stages.

Yes, you lose word-of-mouth, but you also lose the inevitable week-to-week decay as people drop out of the viewership pool. Most TV shows show a remarkably consistent exponential decay in viewership. It's not at all clear to me that the gaining from WOM and the losing from audience decay is preferable to having neither.

This is being framed as a contest between watching 13 episodes in one day and watching them over four months. My wife and I have been watching one episode of "House of Cards" every day or so. I think this middle ground may be a better solution than either extreme. A two week roll-out keeps viewers focused and concentrates marketing, but doesn't roll the dice on one big push.

Note that Netflix has an advantage that other outlets don't: they can continue to advertise the show for free through their service. This won't drive new members to subscribe, but I think they benefit even when existing members watch the show. True, it doesn't boost revenue, but racking up higher viewership both makes it easier for them to create high-quality shows in the future, and it strengthens their in-house productions as a bargaining chip when negotiating with other content producers and distributors, which I think is the real value of "House of Cards."

One media market which is still highly serialized and has clearly not come to grips with the implications of that is comics. Here is just one recent piece about this. People have been fretting over the serialization-vs-collection transition and the friction it causes since I started reading comics six years ago, and they don't seem any closer to resolving the tension.

PS "House of Cards" is very highly recommended. I haven't had a show I was this excited about binge-watching in a couple of years.

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