Tag Archives: television

The Golden Age of TV: Trailer Park Boys

tpb-screenshot

I have noticed that critics of our pop culture seem to agree that we are in a second golden age of television in the United States (and elsewhere). It’s a period beginning in the late 1990s, and stretching to the present day, marked by the production of a significant number of critically and internationally acclaimed programs. The original golden age of television spanned the late 1940s and early 50s (e.g., Kraft Television Theater, Four Star Playhouse, The Clock, Alfred Hitchcock Presents).

I’m not much of a TV watcher so my credentials are somewhat dubious. But, I must weigh in to set the record straight on our current golden age. To be precise, it began in Canada on April 22, 2001, and to a fashion, continues to this day.

You see, on April 22, 2001, the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) aired “Take Your Little Gun and Get Out of My Trailer Park“, the first episode of the first season of Trailer Park Boys.

google-search-tpb-memes

I first stumbled across Trailer Park Boys on BBC America while channel surfing in 2004 (I know, 3 years late!). Unfamiliar? Trailer Park Boys (TPB) is a now legendary Canadian mockumentary comedy chronicling the (mis-)adventures of Julian, Ricky and Bubbles, and other colorful residents of fictitious Sunnyvale Trailer Park in Nova Scotia. The show now in its 11th season is a booze and pot-fueled catalog of vulgar, outrageous hare-brained silliness.

I love it. To date I have never laughed so much while watching TV. Luckily for me, and other fans, the show and related movies are now available on Netflix.

So, long may the real golden age of TV continue complete with Bubble’s kitties, Julian and Ricky’s get-rich-quick schemes, Randy’s stomach, Mr.Lahey, Cyrus the nutter, J-Roc, rum-and-coke, Tyrone, Lucy, Officer Green, Trinity, shopping carts and the rest of the madcap bunch.

Image 1: Trailer Park Boys screenshot. Courtesy of Swearnet.

Image 2 courtesy of Google Search.

Send to Kindle

Yes M’Lady

google-Thunderbirds

Beneath the shell that envelops us as adults lies the child. We all have one inside — that vulnerable being who dreams, plays and improvises. Sadly, our contemporary society does a wonderful job of selectively numbing these traits, usually as soon as we enter school; our work finishes the process by quashing all remnants of our once colorful and unbounded imaginations. OK, I’m exaggerating a little to make my point. But I’m certain this strikes a chord.

Keeping this in mind, it’s awesomely brilliant to see Thunderbirds making a comeback. You may recall the original Thunderbirds TV shows in the mid-sixties. Created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, the marionette puppets and their International Rescue science-fiction machines would save us weekly from the forces of evil, destruction and chaos. The child who lurks within me utterly loved this show — everything would come to a halt to make way for this event on saturday mornings. Now I have a chance of reliving it with my kids, and maintaining some degree of childhood wonder in the process. Thunderbirds are go…

From the Guardian:

5, 4, 3, 2, 1 … Thunderbirds are go – but not quite how older viewers will remember. International Rescue has been given a makeover for the modern age, with the Tracy brothers, Brains, Lady Penelope and Parker smarter, fitter and with better gadgets than they ever had when the “supermarionation” show began on ITV half a century ago.

But fans fearful that its return, complete with Hollywood star Rosamund Pike voicing Lady Penelope, will trample all over their childhood memories can rest easy.

Unlike the 2004 live action film which Thunderbirds creator, the late Gerry Anderson, described as the “biggest load of crap I have ever seen in my life”, the new take on the children’s favourite, called Thunderbirds Are Go, remains remarkably true to the spirit of the 50-year-old original.

Gone are the puppet strings – audience research found that younger viewers wanted something more dynamic – but along with computer generated effects are models and miniature sets (“actually rather huge” said executive producer Estelle Hughes) that faithfully recall the original Thunderbirds.

Speaking after the first screening of the new ITV series on Tuesday, executive producer Giles Ridge said: “We felt we should pay tribute to all those elements that made it special but at the same time update it so it’s suitable and compelling for a modern audience.

“The basic DNA of the show – five young brothers on a secret hideaway island with the most fantastic craft you could imagine, helping people around the world who are in trouble, that’s not a bad place to start.”

The theme music is intact, albeit given a 21st century makeover, as is the Tracy Island setting – complete with the avenue of palm trees that makes way for Thunderbird 2 and the swimming pool that slides into the mountain for the launch of Thunderbird 1.

Lady Penelope – as voiced by Pike – still has a cut-glass accent and is entirely unflappable. When she is not saving the world she is visiting Buckingham Palace or attending receptions at 10 Downing Street. There is also a nod – blink and you miss it – to another Anderson puppet series, Stingray.

Graham, who voiced Parker in the original series, returns in the same role. “I think they were checking me out to see if I was still in one piece,” said Graham, now 89, of the meeting when he was first approached to appear in the new series.

“I was absolutely thrilled to repeat the voice and character of Parker. Although I am older my voice hasn’t changed too much over the years.”

He said the voice of Parker had come from a wine waiter who used to work in the royal household, whom Anderson had taken him to see in a pub in Cookham, Berkshire.

“He came over and said, ‘Would you like to see the wine list, sir?’ And Parker was born. Thank you, old mate.”

Brains, as voiced by Fonejacker star Kayvan Novak, now has an Indian accent.

Sylvia Anderson, Anderson’s widow, who co-created the show, will make a guest appearance as Lady Penelope’s “crazy aunt”.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

 

Send to Kindle

News Anchor as Cult Hero

Google-search-news-anchor

Why and when did the news anchor, or newsreader as he or she is known in non-US parts of the world, acquire the status of cult hero? And, why is this a peculiarly US phenomenon? Let’s face it TV newsreaders in the UK, on the BBC or ITV, certainly do not have a following along the lines their US celebrity counterparts like Brian Williams, Megyn Kelly or Anderson Cooper. Why?

From the Guardian:

A game! Spot the odd one out in the following story. This year has been a terrible one so far for those who care about American journalism: the much-loved New York Times journalist David Carr died suddenly on 12 February; CBS correspondent Bob Simon was killed in a car crash the day before; Jon Stewart, famously the “leading news source for young Americans”, announced that he is quitting the Daily Show; his colleague Stephen Colbert is moving over from news satire to the softer arena of a nightly talk show; NBC anchor Brian Williams, as famous in America as Jeremy Paxman is in Britain, has been suspended after it was revealed he had “misremembered” events involving himself while covering the war in Iraq; Bill O’Reilly, an anchor on Fox News, the most watched cable news channel in the US, has been accused of being on similarly vague terms with the truth.

News of the Fox News anchor probably sounds like “dog bites man” to most Britons, who remember that this network recently described Birmingham as a no-go area for non-Muslims. But this latest scandal involving O’Reilly reveals something quite telling about journalism in America.

Whereas in Britain journalists are generally viewed as occupying a place on the food chain somewhere between bottom-feeders and cockroaches, in America there remains, still, a certain idealisation of journalists, protected by a gilded halo hammered out by sentimental memories of Edward R Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

Even while Americans’ trust in mass media continues to plummet, journalists enjoy a kind of heroic fame that would baffle their British counterparts. Television anchors and commentators, from Rachel Maddow on the left to Sean Hannity on the right, are lionised in a way that, say, Huw Edwards, is, quite frankly, not. A whole genre of film exists in the US celebrating the heroism of journalists, from All the President’s Men to Good Night, and Good Luck. In Britain, probably the most popular depiction of journalists came from Spitting Image, where they were snuffling pigs in pork-pie hats.

So whenever a journalist in the US has been caught lying, the ensuing soul-searching and garment-rending discovery has been about as prolonged and painful as a PhD on proctology. The New York Times and the New Republic both imploded when it was revealed that their journalists, respectively Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, had fabricated their stories. Their tales have become part of American popular culture – The Wire referenced Blair in its fifth season and a film was made about the New Republic’s scandal – like national myths that must never be forgotten.

By contrast, when it was revealed that The Independent’s Johann Hari had committed plagiarism and slandered his colleagues on Wikipedia, various journalists wrote bewildering defences of him and the then Independent editor said initially that Hari would return to the paper. Whereas Hari’s return to the public sphere three years after his resignation has been largely welcomed by the British media, Glass and Blair remain shunned figures in the US, more than a decade after their scandals.

Which brings us back to the O’Reilly scandal, now unfolding in the US. Once it was revealed that NBC’s liberal Brian Williams had exaggerated personal anecdotes – claiming to have been in a helicopter that was shot at when he was in the one behind, for starters – the hunt was inevitably on for an equally big conservative news scalp. Enter stage left: Bill O’Reilly.

So sure, O’Reilly claimed that in his career he has been in “active war zones” and “in the Falklands” when he in fact covered a protest in Buenos Aires during the Falklands war. And sure, O’Reilly’s characteristically bullish defence that he “never said” he was “on the Falkland Islands” (original quote: “I was in a situation one time, in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands …”) and that being at a protest thousands of miles from combat constitutes “a war zone” verges on the officially bonkers (as the Washington Post put it, “that would mean that any reporter who covered an anti-war protest in Washington during the Iraq War was doing combat reporting”). But does any of this bother either O’Reilly or Fox News? It does not.

Unlike Williams, who slunk away in shame, O’Reilly has been bullishly combative, threatening journalists who dare to cover the story and saying that they deserve to be “in the kill zone”. Fox News too has been predictably untroubled by allegations of lies: “Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes and all senior management are in full support of Bill O’Reilly,” it said in a statement.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Send to Kindle

The Benefits of BingeTV

Netflix_logoThe boss of Netflix, Ted Sarandos, is planning to kill you, with kindness. Actually, joy. His plan to recast our consumption of television programming aims to deliver mountains of joyful entertainment in place of the current wasteland of incremental TV-dross punctuated with schlock-TV.

While the plan is still in work, the fruits of Netflix’s labor are becoming apparent — binge-watching is rapidly assuming the momentum of a cultural wave in the US. The super-sized viewing gulp, from say thirteen successive hours of House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, is quickly replacing the national attention deficit disorder enabled by the once anxious and restless trigger finger on the TV-remote, as viewers flip from one mindless show to the next. Yet, by making Netflix into the next great media and entertainment empire Sarandos may be laying the foundation for an unintended, and more important, benefit — lengthening the attention-span of the average adult.

From the Guardian:

Is Ted Sarandos a force for evil? It’s a theory. Consider the evidence. Britain is already a country beset by various health-ruining, bank balance-depleting behaviours – binge-drinking, chain-smoking, overeating, watching football. Since January 2012 when Netflix launched its UK operation, Sarandos, its chief content officer, has created a new demographic of bingeing Britons –1.5 million subscribers who spend £5.99 a month to gorge on TV online.

To get a sense of what the 49-year-old Arizonan is doing to TV culture, imagine that you’ve just finished watching episode five of Joss Whedon’s Firefly on your laptop, courtesy of Netflix. You’ve got places to go, people to meet. But up pops a little box on screen saying the next episode starts in 12 seconds. Five hours later, you dimly realise that you’ve forgotten to pick up your kids from school and/or your boss has texted you 12 times wondering if you’re planning to show up today.

Dooes he feel responsible for creating this binge culture, not just here but across the world (Netflix has 38 million subscribers in 40 countries, who watch about a billion hours of TV shows and films each month), I ask Sarandos when we meet in a London hotel? He laughs. “I love it when it happens that you just have to watch. It only takes that little bit of prodding.”

Sarandos feels it is legitimate to prod the audience so that they can get what they want. Or what he thinks they want. All 13 episodes of, say, political thriller House of Cards with Kevin Spacey, or the same number of prison comedy drama Orange is the New Black with Taylor Schilling, released in one great virtual lump.

Why? “The television business is based on managed dissatisfaction. You’re watching a great television show you’re really wrapped up in? You might get 50 minutes of watching a week and then 18,000 minutes of waiting until the next episode comes along. I’d rather make it all about the joy.”

Sarandos says he got an intimation of the pleasures of binge-viewing as a teenager in Phoenix, Arizona. On Sundays in the mid-70s, he and his family would gather round the telly to watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a satire on soap operas. “If you worked, the only way could catch up with the five episodes they showed in the week was watching them back to back on Sunday night. So bingeing was already big in my subconscious.”

Years later, Sarandos binged again. “I really loved the Sopranos but didn’t have HBO. So someone would send me tapes of the show with three or four episodes. I would watch one episode and go: ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to watch one more.’ I’d watch the whole tape and champ at the bit for the next one.”

The TV revolution for which Sarandos and Netflix are responsible involves eliminating bit-champing and monetising instant gratification. Netflix has done well from that revolution: its reported net income was $29.5m for the quarter ending 30 June. Profits quintupled compared with the same period in 2012 – in part due to its new UK operation.

Sarandos hasn’t done badly either. He and his wife, former US ambassador Nicole Avant, have a $5.4m Beverly Hills property and recently bought comedian David Spade’s beachside Malibu home for $10.2m. Sarandos argues viewers have long been battling schedulers bent on stopping them seeing what they want, when they want. “Before time shifting, they would use VCRs to collect episodes and view them whenever they wanted. And, more importantly, in whatever doses they wanted. Then DVD box sets and later DVRs made that self-dosing even more sophisticated.”

He began studying how viewers consumed TV while working part-time in a strip-mall video store in the early 1980s. By 30, he was an executive for a company supplying Blockbuster with videos. In 2000, he was hired by Netflix to develop its service posting rental DVDs to customers. “We saw that people would return those discs for TV series very quickly, given they had three hours of programming on them – more quickly than they would a movie. They wanted the next hit.”

Netflix mutated from a DVD-by-post service to an on-demand internet network for films and TV series, and Sarandos found himself cutting deals with traditional TV networks to broadcast shows online a season after they were originally shown, instead of waiting for several years for them to be available for syndication.

Thanks to Netflix and its competitors, the old TV set in the living room is becoming redundant. That living-room fixture has been replaced by a host of mobile surrogates – tablet, laptop, Xbox and even smart phone.

Were that all Sarandos had achieved, he would have been minor player in the idiot box revolution. But a couple of years ago, he decided Netflix should commission its own drama series and release them globally in season-sized bundles. In making that happen, he radically changed not just how but what we watch.

Why bother? “Up till a couple of years ago, a network would make every pilot for a series into a one-off show. I started getting worried, thinking nobody’s going to make series any more, and so we wouldn’t be able to buy them [for Netflix] a season after they’ve been broadcast. So we said maybe we should develop that muscle ourselves.” Sarandos has a $2bn annual content budget, and spends as much as 10% on developing that muscle.

Strikingly, he didn’t spend that money on movies, but TV. Why? “Movies are becoming more global, which is making them less intimate. If you make a movie for the world, you don’t make it for any country.

“I think television is going in the opposite direction – richer characterisation, denser storylines – and so much more like reading a novel. It is a golden age for TV, but only because the best writers and directors increasingly like to work outside Hollywood.” Hence, perhaps, the successes of The Sopranos, The West Wing, The Wire, Downton Abbey, and by this time next year – he hopes – Netflix series such as the Wachowskis’ sci-fi drama Sense 8. TV, if Sarandos has his way, is the new Hollywood.

Netflix’s first foray into original drama came only last year with Lilyhammer, in which Steve Van Zandt, who played mobster Silvio Dante in The Sopranos, reprised his gangster chops as Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano, a mobster starting a new life in Lillehammer, Norway. The whole season of eight episodes was released on Netflix at the same time, delighting those suffering withdrawal symptoms after the end of The Sopranos. A second season is soon to be released.

Sarandos suggests Lilyhammer points the way to a new globalised future for TV drama – more than a fifth of Norway’s population watched the show. “It opened a world of possibilities – mainstream viewing of subtitled programming in the US and releasing in every language and every territory at the exact same moment. To me, that’s what the future will be like.”

Sarandos also tore up another page of the TV rulebook, the one that says each episode of a series must be the same length. “If you watched Arrested Development [the sitcom he recommissioned in May, seven years after it last broadcast] none of those episodes has the same running time – some were 28 minutes, some 47 minutes. I’m saying take as much time as you need to tell the story well. You couldn’t really do that on linear television because you have a grid, commercial breaks and the like.”

House of Cards, his second commissioned drama series whose first season was released in February, even better demonstrates Sarandos’s diabolical genius (if that is what it is). He once described himself as “a human algorithm” for his ability, developed in that Phoenix strip mall, for recommending movies based on a customer’s previous rentals. He did something similar when he commissioned House of Cards.

“It was generated by algorithm,” Sarandos says, grinning. But he’s not entirely joking. “I didn’t use data to make the show, but I used data to determine the potential audience to a level of accuracy very few people can do.”

It worked like this. In 2011, he learned that Hollywood director David Fincher, then working on his movie adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was pitching his first TV series. Based on a script by Oscar-nominated writer Beau Willimon, it was to be a remake the 1990 BBC series House of Cards, and would star Kevin Spacey as an amoral US senator.

Some networks were sceptical, but Sarandos – not least because he’s a political junkie who loves political thrillers and, along with his wife, helped raise nearly $700m for Obama’s re-election campaign – was tempted. He unleashed his spreadsheets, using Netflix data to determine how many subscribers watched political dramas such as The West Wing or the original House of Cards.

“We’ve been collecting data for a long time. It showed how many Netflix members love The West Wing and the original House of Cards. It also showed who loved David Fincher’s films and Kevin Spacey’s.”

Armed with this data, Sarandos made the biggest gamble of his life. He went to David Fincher’s West Hollywood office and announced he wanted to spend $100m on not one, but two 13-part seasons of House of Cards. Based on his calculations, he says: “I felt that sounded like a pretty safe bet.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Netflix logo. Courtesy of Wikipedia / Netflix.

Send to Kindle

All Conquering TV

In almost 90 years since television was invented it has done more to re-shape our world than conquering armies and pandemics. Whether you see TV  as a force for good or evil — or more recently, as a method for delivering absurd banality — you would be hard-pressed to find another human invention that has altered us so profoundly, psychologically, socially and culturally. What would its creator — John Logie Baird — think of his invention now, almost 70 years after his death?

From the Guardian:

Like most people my age – 51 – my childhood was in black and white. That’s because my memory of childhood is in black and white, and that’s because television in the 1960s (and most photography) was black and white. Bill and Ben, the Beatles, the Biafran war, Blue Peter, they were all black and white, and their images form the monochrome memories of my early years.

That’s one of the extraordinary aspects of television – its ability to trump reality. If seeing is believing, then there’s always a troubling doubt until you’ve seen it on television. A mass medium delivered to almost every household, it’s the communal confirmation of experience.

On 30 September it will be 84 years since the world’s first-ever television transmission. In Armchair Nation, his new social history of TV, Joe Moran, professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, recounts the events of that momentous day. A Yorkshire comedian named Sydney Howard performed a comic monologue and someone called Lulu Stanley sang “He’s tall, and dark, and handsome” in what was perhaps the earliest progenitor of The X Factor.

The images were broadcast by the BBC and viewed by a small group of invited guests on a screen about half the size of the average smartphone in the inventor John Logie Baird’s Covent Garden studio. Logie Baird may have been a visionary but even he would have struggled to comprehend just how much the world would be changed by his vision – television, the 20th century’s defining technology.

Every major happening is now captured by television, or it’s not a major happening. Politics and politicians are determined by how they play on television. Public knowledge, charity, humour, fashion trends, celebrity and consumer demand are all subject to its critical influence. More than the aeroplane or the nuclear bomb, the computer or the telephone, TV has determined what we know and how we think, the way we believe and how we perceive ourselves and the world around us (only the motor car is a possible rival and that, strictly speaking, was a 19th-century invention).

Not not only did television re-envision our sense of the world, it remains, even in the age of the internet, Facebook and YouTube, the most powerful generator of our collective memories, the most seductive and shocking mirror of society, and the most virulent incubator of social trends. It’s also stubbornly unavoidable.

There is good television, bad television, too much television and even, for some cultural puritans, no television, but whatever the equation, there is always television. It’s ubiquitously there, radiating away in the corner, even when it’s not. Moran quotes a dumbfounded Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) from Friends on learning that a new acquaintance doesn’t have a TV set: “But what does your furniture point at?”

Like all the best comic lines, it contains a profound truth. The presence of television is so pervasive that its very absence is a kind of affront to the modern way of life. Not only has television reshaped the layout of our sitting rooms, it has also reshaped the very fabric of our lives.

Just to take Friends as one small example. Before it was first aired back in 1994, the idea of groups of young people hanging out in a coffee bar talking about relationships in a language of comic neurosis was, at least as far as pubcentric Britain was concerned, laughable. Now it’s a high-street fact of life. Would Starbucks and Costa have enjoyed the same success if Joey and friends had not showed the way?

But in 1929 no one had woken up and smelled the coffee. The images were extremely poor quality, the equipment was dauntingly expensive and reception vanishingly limited. In short, it didn’t look like the future. One of the first people to recognise television’s potential – or at least the most unappealing part of it – was Aldous Huxley. Writing in Brave New World, published in 1932, he described a hospice of the future in which every bed had a TV set at its foot. “Television was left on, a running tap, from morning till night.”

All the same, television remained a London-only hobby for a tiny metropolitan elite right up until the Second World War. Then, for reasons of national security, the BBC switched off its television signal and the experiment seemed to come to a bleak end.

It wasn’t until after the war that television was slowly spread out across the country. Some parts of the Scottish islands did not receive a signal until deep into the 1960s, but the nation was hooked. Moran quotes revealing statistics from 1971 about the contemporary British way of life: “Ten per cent of homes still had no indoor lavatory or bath, 31% had no fridge and 62% had no telephone, but only 9% had no TV.”

My family, as IT happened, fitted into that strangely incongruous sector that had no inside lavatory or bath but did have a TV. This seems bizarre, if you think about society’s priorities, but it’s a common situation today throughout large parts of the developing world.

I don’t recall much anxiety about the lack of a bath, at least on my part, but I can’t imagine what the sense of social exclusion would have been like, aged nine, if I hadn’t had access to Thunderbirds and The Big Match.

The strongest memory I have of watching television in the early 1970s is in my grandmother’s flat on wintry Saturday afternoons. Invariably the gas fire was roaring, the room was baking, and that inscrutable spectacle of professional wrestling, whose appeal was a mystery to me (if not Roland Barthes), lasted an eternity before the beautifully cadenced poetry of the football results came on.

Read the entire article here.

Image: John Logie Baird. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Send to Kindle

Next Up: Apple TV

Robert Hof argues that the time is ripe for Steve Jobs’ corporate legacy to reinvent the TV. Apple transformed the personal computer industry, the mobile phone market and the music business. Clearly the company has all the components in place to assemble another innovation.

From Technology Review:

Steve Jobs couldn’t hide his frustration. Asked at a technology conference in 2010 whether Apple might finally turn its attention to television, he launched into an exasperated critique of TV. Cable and satellite TV companies make cheap, primitive set-top boxes that “squash any opportunity for innovation,” he fumed. Viewers are stuck with “a table full of remotes, a cluster full of boxes, a bunch of different [interfaces].” It was the kind of technological mess that cried out for Apple to clean it up with an elegant product. But Jobs professed to have no idea how his company could transform the TV.

Scarcely a year later, however, he sounded far more confident. Before he died on October 5, 2011, he told his biographer, ­Walter Isaacson, that Apple wanted to create an “integrated television set that is completely easy to use.” It would sync with other devices and Apple’s iCloud online storage service and provide “the simplest user interface you could imagine.” He added, tantalizingly, “I finally cracked it.”

Precisely what he cracked remains hidden behind Apple’s shroud of secrecy. Apple has had only one television-related product—the black, hockey-puck-size Apple TV device, which streams shows and movies to a TV. For years, Jobs and Tim Cook, his successor as CEO, called that device a “hobby.” But under the guise of this hobby, Apple has been steadily building hardware, software, and services that make it easier for people to watch shows and movies in whatever way they wish. Already, the company has more of the pieces for a compelling next-generation TV experience than people might realize.

And as Apple showed with the iPad and iPhone, it doesn’t have to invent every aspect of a product in order for it to be disruptive. Instead, it has become the leader in consumer electronics by combining existing technologies with some of its own and packaging them into products that are simple to use. TV seems to be at that moment now. People crave something better than the fusty, rigidly controlled cable TV experience, and indeed, the technologies exist for something better to come along. Speedier broadband connections, mobile TV apps, and the availability of some shows and movies on demand from Netflix and Hulu have made it easier to watch TV anytime, anywhere. The number of U.S. cable and satellite subscribers has been flat since 2010.

Apple would not comment. But it’s clear from two dozen interviews with people close to Apple suppliers and partners, and with people Apple has spoken to in the TV industry, that television—the medium and the device—is indeed its next target.

The biggest question is not whether Apple will take on TV, but when. The company must eventually come up with another breakthrough product; with annual revenue already topping $156 billion, it needs something very big to keep growth humming after the next year or two of the iPad boom. Walter Price, managing director of Allianz Global Investors, which holds nearly $1 billion in Apple shares, met with Apple executives in September and came away convinced that it would be years before Apple could get a significant share of the $345 billion worldwide market for televisions. But at $1,000, the bare minimum most analysts expect an Apple television to cost, such a product would eventually be a significant revenue generator. “You sell 10 million of those, it can move the needle,” he says.

Cook, who replaced Jobs as CEO in August 2011, could use a boost, too. He has presided over missteps such as a flawed iPhone mapping app that led to a rare apology and a major management departure. Seen as a peerless operations whiz, Cook still needs a revolutionary product of his own to cement his place next to Saint Steve. Corey Ferengul, a principal at the digital media investment firm Apace Equities and a former executive at Rovi, which provided TV programming guide services to Apple and other companies, says an Apple TV will be that product: “This will be Tim Cook’s first ‘holy shit’ innovation.”

What Apple Already Has

Rapt attention would be paid to whatever round-edged piece of brushed-aluminum hardware Apple produced, but a television set itself would probably be the least important piece of its television strategy. In fact, many well-connected people in technology and television, from TV and online video maven Mark Cuban to venture capitalist and former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée, can’t figure out why Apple would even bother with the machines.

For one thing, selling televisions is a low-margin business. No one subsidizes the purchase of a TV the way your wireless carrier does with the iPhone (an iPhone might cost you $200, but Apple’s revenue from it is much higher than that). TVs are also huge and difficult to stock in stores, let alone ship to homes. Most of all, the upgrade cycle that powers Apple’s iPhone and iPad profit engine doesn’t apply to television sets—no one replaces them every year or two.

But even though TVs don’t line up neatly with the way Apple makes money on other hardware, they are likely to remain central to people’s ever-increasing consumption of video, games, and other forms of media. Apple at least initially could sell the screens as a kind of Trojan horse—a way of entering or expanding its role in lines of business that are more profitable, such as selling movies, shows, games, and other Apple hardware.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image courtesy of Apple, Inc.

Send to Kindle

From 7 Up to 56 Up

The classic documentary and social experiment continues with the release this week of “56 Up”. Michael Apted began this remarkable process with a documentary called “7 Up” in 1964. It followed the lives of 14 British children aged 7, from different socio-economic backgrounds. Although the 7 Up documentary was initially planned to be a one-off, subsequent installments followed in seven-year cycles. Each time Apted would bring us up to date with the lives of his growing subjects. Now, they are all turning 56 years old. Fifty-six years on the personal stories are poignant and powerful, yet class divisions remain.

From the Telegraph:

Life rushes by so fast, it flickers today and is gone tomorrow. In “56 Up” — the latest installment in Michael Apted’s remarkable documentary project that has followed a group of Britons since 1964, starting when they were 7 — entire lifetimes race by with a few edits. One minute, a boy is merrily bobbing along. The next, he is 56 years old, with a wife or an ex, a few children or none, a career, a job or just dim prospects. Rolls of fat girdle his middle and thicken his jowls. He has regrets, but their sting has usually softened, along with everything else.

In a lot of documentaries you might not care that much about this boy and what became of him. But if you have watched any of the previous episodes in Mr. Apted’s series, you will care, and deeply, partly because you watched that boy grow up, suffer and triumph in a project that began as a news gimmick and social experiment and turned into a plangent human drama. Conceived as a one-off for a current-affairs program on Granada Television, the first film, “Seven Up!,” was a 40-minute look at the lives of 14 children from different backgrounds. Britain was changing, or so went the conventional wisdom, with postwar affluence having led the working class to adapt middle-class attitudes and lifestyles.

In 1963, though, the sociologists John H. Goldthorpe and David Lockwood disputed this widely held “embourgeoisement thesis,” arguing that the erosion of social class had not been as great as believed. In its deeply personal fashion, the “Up” series went on to make much the same point by checking in with many of the same boys and girls, men and women, every seven years. Despite some dropouts, the group has remained surprisingly intact. For better and sometimes worse, and even with their complaints about the series, participants like Tony Walker, who wanted to be a jockey and found his place as a cabby, have become cyclical celebrities. For longtime viewers they have become something more, including mirrors.

It’s this mirroring that helps make the series so poignant. As in the earlier movies, Mr. Apted again folds in older material from the ages of 7, 14 and so on, to set the scene and jog memories. The abrupt juxtapositions of epochs can be jarring, unnerving or touching — sometimes all three — as bright-faced children bloom and sometimes fade within seconds. An analogous project in print or even still photographs wouldn’t be as powerful, because what gives the “Up” series its punch is not so much its longevity or the human spectacle it offers, but that these are moving images of touchingly vibrant lives at certain moments in time and space. The more you watch, the more the movies transform from mirrors into memory machines, ones that inevitably summon reflections of your own life.

Save for “Seven Up!,” filmed in gorgeous black and white, the documentaries are aesthetically unremarkable. Shot in digital, “56 Up” pretty much plays like the earlier movies, with its mix of interviews and location shooting. Every so often you hear someone off screen, presumably Mr. Apted, make a comment, though mostly he lets his choice of what to show — the subjects at work or play, with family or friends — and his editing do his editorializing. In the past he has brought participants together, but he doesn’t here, which feels like a missed opportunity. Have the three childhood friends from the East End of London, Jackie Bassett, Lynn Johnson and Sue Sullivan, two of whom have recently endured heart-rendingly bad times, remained in contact? Mr. Apted doesn’t say.

With few exceptions and despite potential path-changing milestones like marriages and careers, everyone seems to have remained fairly locked in his or her original social class. At 7, Andrew Brackfield and John Brisby already knew which universities they would or should attend. “We think,” John said in “Seven Up!, “I’m going to Cambridge and Trinity Hall,” though he landed at Oxford. Like Mr. Brackfield, who did attend Cambridge, Mr. Brisby became a lawyer and still sounds to the manner born, with an accent that evokes old-fashioned news readers and Bond villains. The two hold instructively different views about whether the series corroborates the first film’s thesis about the rigidity of the British class structure, never mind that their lives are strong evidence that little has changed.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Video: 7 Up – Part 1. Courtesy of World in Action, Granada TV.

Send to Kindle

There’s the Big Bang theory and then there’s The Big Bang Theory

Now in it’s fifth season on U.S. television, The Big Bang Theory has made serious geekiness fun and science cool. In fact, the show is rising in popularity to such an extent that a Google search for “big bang theory” ranks the show first and above all other more learned scientific entires.

Brad Hooker from Symmetry Breaking asks some deep questions of David Saltzberg, science advisor to The Big Bang Theory.

From Symmetry Breaking:

For those who live, breathe and laugh physics, one show entangles them all: The Big Bang Theory. Now in its fifth season on CBS, the show follows a group of geeks, including a NASA engineer, an astrophysicist and two particle physicists.

Every episode has at least one particle physics joke. On faster-than-light neutrinos: “Is this observation another Swiss export full of more holes than their cheese?” On Saul Perlmutter clutching the Nobel Prize: “What’s the matter, Saul? You afraid somebody’s going to steal it, like you stole Einstein’s cosmological constant?”

To make these jokes timely and accurate, while sprinkling the sets with authentic scientific plots and posters, the show’s writers depend on one physicist, David Saltzberg. Since the first episode, Saltzberg’s dose of realism has made science chic again, and has even been credited with increasing admissions to physics programs. Symmetry writer Brad Hooker asked the LHC physicist, former Tevatron researcher and University of California, Los Angeles professor to explain how he walks the tightrope between science and sitcom.

Brad: How many of your suggestions are put into the show?

David: In general, when they ask for something, they use it. But it’s never anything that’s funny or moves the story along. It’s the part that you don’t need to understand. They explained to me in the beginning that you can watch an I Love Lucy rerun and not understand Spanish, but understand that Ricky Ricardo is angry. That’s all the level of science understanding needed for the show.

B: These references are current. Astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was mentioned on the show just weeks after winning the Nobel Prize for discovering the accelerating expansion of the universe.

D: Right. And you may wonder why they chose Saul Perlmutter, as opposed to the other two winners. It just comes down to that they liked the sound of his name better. Things like that matter. The writers think of the script in terms of music and the rhythm of the lines. I usually give them multiple choices because I don’t know if they want something short or long or something with odd sounds in it. They really think about that kind of thing.

B: Do the writers ever ask you to explain the science and it goes completely over their heads?

D: We respond by email so I don’t really know. But I don’t think it goes over their heads because you can Wikipedia anything.

One thing was a little difficult for me: they asked for a spoof of the Born-Oppenheimer approximation, which is harder than it sounds. But for the most part it’s just a matter of narrowing it down to a few choices. There are so many ways to go through it and I deliberately chose things that are current.

First of all, these guys live in our universe—they’re talking about the things we physicists are talking about. And also, there isn’t a whole lot of science journalism out there. It’s been cut back a lot. In getting the words out there, whether it’s “dark matter” or “topological insulators,” hopefully some fraction of the audience will Google it.

B: Are you working with any other science advisors? I know one character is a neurobiologist.

D: Luckily the actress who portrays her, Mayim Bialik, is also a neuroscientist. She has a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. So that worked out really well because I don’t know all of physics, let alone all of science. What I’m able to do with the physics is say, “Well, we don’t really talk like that even though it’s technically correct.” And I can’t do that for biology, but she can.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image courtesy of The Big Bang Theory, Warner Bros.

Send to Kindle

Your Favorite Sitcoms in Italian, Russian or Mandarin

Secretly, you may be wishing you had a 12 foot satellite antenna in your backyard to soak up these esoteric, alien signals directly. How about the 1990’s sitcom “The Nanny” dubbed into Italian, or a Russian remake of “Everybody Loves Raymond”, a French “Law and Order”, or our favorite, a British remake of “Jersey Shore” set in Newcastle, named “Gordie Shore”. This would make an interesting anthropological study and partly highlights why other countries may have a certain and dim view of U.S. culture.

The top ten U.S. cultural exports courtesy of FlavorWire after the jump.

Send to Kindle

The Evils of Television

Much has been written on the subject of television. Its effects on our culture in general and on the young minds of our children in particular have been studied and documented for decades. Increased levels of violence, the obesity epidemic, social fragmentation, vulgarity and voyeurism, caustic politics, poor attention span — all of these have been linked, at some time or other, to that little black box in the corner (increasingly, the big flat space above the mantle).

In his article, A Nation of Vidiots, Jeffrey D. Sachs, weighs in on the subject.

From Project Syndicate:

The past half-century has been the age of electronic mass media. Television has reshaped society in every corner of the world. Now an explosion of new media devices is joining the TV set: DVDs, computers, game boxes, smart phones, and more. A growing body of evidence suggests that this media proliferation has countless ill effects.

The United States led the world into the television age, and the implications can be seen most directly in America’s long love affair with what Harlan Ellison memorably called “the glass teat.” In 1950, fewer than 8% of American households owned a TV; by 1960, 90% had one. That level of penetration took decades longer to achieve elsewhere, and the poorest countries are still not there.

True to form, Americans became the greatest TV watchers, which is probably still true today, even though the data are somewhat sketchy and incomplete. The best evidence suggests that Americans watch more than five hours per day of television on average – a staggering amount, given that several hours more are spent in front of other video-streaming devices. Other countries log far fewer viewing hours. In Scandinavia, for example, time spent watching TV is roughly half the US average.

The consequences for American society are profound, troubling, and a warning to the world – though it probably comes far too late to be heeded. First, heavy TV viewing brings little pleasure. Many surveys show that it is almost like an addiction, with a short-term benefit leading to long-term unhappiness and remorse. Such viewers say that they would prefer to watch less than they do.

Moreover, heavy TV viewing has contributed to social fragmentation. Time that used to be spent together in the community is now spent alone in front of the screen. Robert Putnam, the leading scholar of America’s declining sense of community, has found that TV viewing is the central explanation of the decline of “social capital,” the trust that binds communities together. Americans simply trust each other less than they did a generation ago. Of course, many other factors are at work, but television-driven social atomization should not be understated.

Certainly, heavy TV viewing is bad for one’s physical and mental health. Americans lead the world in obesity, with roughly two-thirds of the US population now overweight. Again, many factors underlie this, including a diet of cheap, unhealthy fried foods, but the sedentary time spent in front of the TV is an important influence as well.

At the same time, what happens mentally is as important as what happens physically. Television and related media have been the greatest purveyors and conveyors of corporate and political propaganda in society.

Read more of this article here.

Family watching television, c. 1958. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Send to Kindle

If Televisions Could See Us

A fascinating and disturbing series of still photographs from Andris Feldmanis shows us what the television “sees” as its viewers glare seemingly mindlessly at the box. As Feldmanis describes,

An average person in Estonia spends several hours a day watching the television. This is the situation reversed, the people portrayed here are posing for their television sets. It is not a critique of mass media and its influence, it is a fictional document of what the TV sees.

Makes one wonder what the viewers were watching. Or does it even matter? More of the series courtesy of Art Fag City, here. All the images show the one-sidedness of the human-television relationship.

Image courtesy of Andris Feldmanis.

Send to Kindle