Archive for social media

John Oliver on Net Neutrality

From what I’ve seen so far, John Oliver’s HBO show is brilliantly funny and insightful. This monologue on net neutrality is a perfect example of his ability to show why an arcane concept like net neutrality matters and why some of its biggest advocates are struggling to communicate this to a wider audience. The entire thirteen minutes is worth your time and Oliver even directs his audience on how to become involved in this issue by leaving comments on the FCC website.

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Documentary, Service Learning, Video Annotation

In case you missed them elsewhere, here are a couple of recent publications where I discuss my Introduction to Film and Visual Literacy course, which I have revamped into a class focusing on documentary ethics In the course, students watch documentaries, and we discuss them, in part, in relationship to ethical principles. The course also includes a service-learning component, in which my students create short documentaries about a local community group. Here are the articles:

  • Local Truths, Tactical Pedagogies: Documentary, Ethics, and Service Learning,” Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier 2.2 (Spring 2014). This article discusses the course in general and how I responded to my university’s decision to significantly rework our core curriculum to a “literacy” model.
  • Using Video Annotation Tools to Teach Film Analysis,” Profhacker, June 2, 2014. This article focuses specifically on a video annotation tool I was able to try out, Social Book. The tool allows students to comment direct;y on specific scenes within a film. It also makes it easy to locate student comments by going to their avatar on a timer bar.

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Betting on the House

270px-House_of_Cards_title_cardMy social media feeds are practically overflowing with references to the second season of the hit Netflix series House of Cards, many of them assessing the show’s realism (or at least fidelity to recent political events) and its mechanics for maintaining suspense (we know Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood will succeed; the pleasure is in seeing how he manages to do so). The show doesn’t just confirm our perception of Washington as hopelessly corrupt, it revels in that. The show has prompted readings that identify it as feminist, while Alyssa Rosenberg identifies a far more problematic depiction of gender politics.

But even more attention has been paid (and more digital ink spilled) focusing on what the success of House of Cards means for the future of television. One of the best assessments comes from Matthew Yglesias, who offers a pretty insightful analysis of the structural aspects of the entertainment industry that currently favor Netflix over its chief competition, HBO (arguments that are not unlike some of the points Max Dawson and I raised in our essay, “Streaming U: College Students and Connected Viewing“). Yglesias points out that Netflix benefits from several key advantages over HBO: first, it’s significantly cheaper than HBO, especially for cordcutters who are not paying for a cable television subscription, and as Dawson and I argue, a large proportion of college students fall into this category. If college students are habituated into subscribing to Netflix, those habits may carry over after graduation. In fact, Yglesias astutely diagnoses that users are often likely to share HBO Go passwords (although this also happens with Netflix). Finally, Yglesias, like pretty much everyone else points out that Netflix has also tapped into the pleasures of binge watching by releasing all episodes of a “season” simultaneously, a technique that rewards the kinds of intense viewing that many fans have embraced.

This emphasis on binge watching has provoked a number of essays attempting to define binge watching and addressing whether or not the practices of binging are harmful or not. Nolan Feeney of The Atlantic offers an elaborate taxonomy of binge watching, detailing everything from how many episodes have to be watched to call it “binging” to whether binging is a harmful activity. Others, like Slate’s Emma Roller, defend the practices of binge watching by suggesting that it encourages more attentive viewing (Slate’s Alex Soojung-Kim Pang also defends binging). But the implication throughout is that our on-demand culture allows us immediate, intense, inexpensive, and uninterrupted access to texts that inspire passionate discussion.

That said, there may be some complicating factors that dislodge Netflix’s “disruptive” distribution model. As Gizmodo’s Leslie Horn reports, broadband caps that limit the amount of data that consumers can use in a given month are becoming more widespread (and with the imminent merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, likely to become even more common). According to Harris’s calculations, a particularly avid binge watcher consuming movies in high-definition, as Netflix and Amazon deliver them, is likely to use her entire data allotment in the course of a single weekend (the data costs for avid gamers would be even worse).  This potentially makes Netflix a more expensive alternative than a basic cable subscription with HBO added on. The future of streaming could follow a number of different directions, but it’s important to note that this mode of consumption may prove to be a temporary form that is upset by any number of technological, political, and economic forces. In the future, we may binge-watch the old-fashioned way: on DVD.

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Documentary, Ethics, Service Learning

To follow up my post on my junior seminar, I’ll quickly add a copy of my course schedule for my Introduction to Film course. In the English department, we have adapted the Intro course so that it will fit into the “ethics and civic engagement” competency for the new core curriculum here at Fayetteville State. With that in mind, I’ve reinvented the course to address issues of documentary ethics and to include a required service learning project in which students make a 6-7 minute documentary about a local community organization (last semester it was Fayetteville Urban Ministry; this semester, it’s the local chapter of the American Red Cross). Last semester was very much a “beta test” for the class, in that I had never taught anything like this. It ended up working out pretty well, but I’ve learned a few things that I can write up later if anyone is interested. Students will also be required to write a paper addressing an ethical concern related to documentary. For now, below the fold, is our weekly schedule.

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How Not to Win Friends or Raise Money on Kickstarter

I’ve been thinking about crowdsourcing and crowdfunding quite a bit lately for a couple of writing projects and have become increasingly fascinated by the techniques people use to ask for funds on sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. For this reason, I’ve become intrigued by the reaction to the spectacular failure of the “Katie Allen is Getting a Life” campaign. As this indieWire article illustrates (see also the Film School Rejects superb takedown), the project has become aligned with “what not to do” when seeking to raise funds.

What’s odd about the Katie Allen campaign is that it seems to have quite a bit going for it, including three talented indie film actresses, but for someone who has expertise on the industry, Linda Stuart’s appeal is otherwise completely tone deaf. Including the actresses’ names in the space for the title makes little sense, and the lack of a video also seems like a missed opportunity, especially given that Thora Birch, Heather Matarazzo, and Jennifer Elise Cox are ostensibly attached to the project. I won’t repeat all of the points raised by the indieWire piece. It’s so astonishingly bad, though, that I have to wonder if Stuart posted this precisely to provide an object lesson on the ways in which directors attempt to pitch their projects to the public.

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Technology in the Classroom

It’s syllabus time again, and I’m revising my graduate-level course, “Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom,” which I have taught several times in the past. It’s getting close to the end of summer–classes start August 22 at FSU–and I’d like to rework this syllabus a little, in part to keep it fresh but also because we have reworked the curriculum to make this course part of our professional writing certificate program, which means I’ll be addressing two very different audiences. So far, I haven’t done any serious tweaking to the schedule (which I’ve included below the fold), but I can anticipate that I’ll cut a few things.

First, Delicious and Google Reader are no longer available or no longer seem to have a significant place for most online media users, so I’ll likely cut that entire week (I only use Diigo about once a month now and rarely consult my current RSS reader). Scratch, the basic programming tool, didn’t seem terribly effective, and I had a difficult time teasing out any specific pedagogical purpose for it. If people can offer good reasons to keep this material, I will. I’ll almost definitely cut the Nicholas Carr “Google is Making Us Stupid” article. I’ve become completely unconvinced by his arguments. Oh yeah, I’ll drop the Rushkoff, too. I don’t know enough about programming to make a serious argument there, although it might be worth introducing the students to basic HTML and design skills toward the end of the semester.

That leaves at least two weeks to play with and maybe three. I do think a week on information literacy is vital but don’t have any readings that I find helpful. I’m tempted to do at least one week where we reflect on (and critique) the idea of a digital generation, using Siva Vaidhyanathan’s excellent article as a starting point. Beyond that, it would be incredibly helpful to know what tools, ideas, or concepts you might add (or take away) from my course as it is currently constructed. Facebook and Twitter comments or emails are welcome.

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Crowdfunding and Offensive Material

I’ve mentioned my fascination with crowdfunding tools like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo several times. It’s a great tool that allows people to support the production of projects they want to see, whether that entails movies, web series, books, software, or something else. There are some widely-discussed limitations to crowdfunding. Not all creative workers will be equally good at marketing themselves or their work, leaving many worthwhile projects unfunded. That said, I’m not terribly conflicted about seeing these tools become a means for people like Zach Braff or James Franco to raise money for projects that might not get funded by a studio. Sure, they’ll have an advantage over a relatively unknown artist, but I’m not convinced that the competition for crowdfunds (is that a word?) involves a zero sum game.  People may discover other projects they want to support after giving to a more familiar figure.

But one issue that (I’m somewhat embarrassed to say) hadn’t crossed my radar is the possibility that a Kickstarter campaign could be used to support a project that is not only offensive but also promotes sexual assault. This is what happened with a book project that was posted to Kickstarter a few weeks ago and which recently did achieve its fundraising goal (I’m not going to mention it directly by name to avoid giving it further publicity). Just before the project was funded, however, a group of activists called attention to the offending project and set in motion a campaign (1) to stop the project from being funded and (2) to strive to ensure that Kickstarter would be more vigilant about supporting this kind of project The blogger Casey Malone deserves a great deal of credit for writing a blog post that stirred people (including myself) to contact Kickstarter about this issue (Malone has a great rundown of why this particular project is so harmful).

To their credit, Kickstarter responded relatively quickly, apologizing for allowing such a project to appear on their site. The apology is pretty emphatic in acknowledging their error and the company has backed their apology by donating $25,000 to RAINN, an organization focused on stopping sexual violence. They have pulled the project page from their website to avoid giving it further publicity (although a cached page still exists for documentary purposes). But, claiming that they are unable to stop the funding process (which is managed by Amazon Payments), they stopped short of actually withdrawing funding for the project,claiming that it is beyond their control.

That’s probably not entirely inaccurate, but it is a little unsatisfying. It begs the question of whether Amazon would be able to stop payment, but barring that, the controversy raises a few questions about how crowdfunding functions and what possibilities are available for monitoring against harmful content. Kickstarter states that content that espouses violence against women has always been banned, but this project obviously slipped through. The reporting mechanism appeared to work only belatedly, once the project was nearly funded. So this raises some questions about how projects get approved, an issue that is extremely pertinent given the fact that crowds can’t always be trusted to be very smart, an issue that would become explicitly clear when looking at the comments section of just about any newspaper website in the country. Crowds can be manipulated through fear and other emotions to support positions or actions that are incredibly harmful.

That said, I’d also argue that there are also some blurry lines between content that is explicitly promoting physical or emotional harm and content that is disagreeable. This project clearly should be pulled, but I wonder about those gray areas (and I’m reluctant to give a specific example). At what point do you decide that something crosses the line between offensive and tasteless into something more genuinely harmful? It seems clear that Kickstarter is genuinely apologetic and that they have redoubled their efforts to prevent other projects that advocate sexual violence from showing up on their service, but other projects in the future may be a little more ambiguous.

There may not be an easy answer here, but like Kickstarter, I’d like to see crowdfunding services remain some of “the friendliest, most supportive places on the web.”

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Theater On-Demand Rising

I was fascinated to learn about the innovative distribution pattern for the indie film, Girl Rising, which tells the stories of nine young women from across the globe as they seek to improve their circumstances through obtaining an education. Each segment in the film is narrated by a famous actress, including Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, and Selena Gomez, and the website offers a powerful opportunity to explore how the subjects of the film are faring, providing a nice afterlife for the documentary.

But in addition to offering an intriguing story, Girl Rising is notable for its use of the website Gathr to generate interest in the film and to encourage people to “demand” screenings of the film in their community. Gathr–a tool I discuss very briefly in my forthcoming book, On-Demand Culture–allows people to request screenings in their city, and if enough people request the film, it will play at a theater in the area. In fact, enough people have requested tickets for the film that it will be playing in a suburb of Raleigh on Monday, April 8 (go to the website for more details). Supporters of the film have made (as of Deadline’s report) more than 17,000 screening requests and more than 65,000 people have reserved tickets for the film, and as a result of this demand, Regal Cinemas has decided to schedule a one-week theatrical run for the film on over 150 screens across the country, an impressive achievement for an independent film.

To be sure, Girl Rising has a number of advantages over other indie films such as an all-star cast, politically important subject matter, and a collection of non-profit partners who are all promoting the film, but the success of this use of an on-demand model may provide a template for other filmmakers in the future.

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Mars Landing

Yesterday, I mentioned the Veronica Mars movie Kickstarter project and suggested that it would likely get funding. I didn’t quite expect it to reach its $2 million funding goal in less than 24 hours. But I think the fact that the show had a comparatively large (as opposed to the many relatively unknown independent artists who use the site) and incredibly enthusiastic fan base shows that crowdfunding can work incredibly well for the right kind of project. As James Poniewozik suggests, Kickstarter may be a means for creators to “monetize depth, not breadth, of interest,” allowing fans to put their money where their fandom is. In my previous post, I briefly addressed the idea that crowdfunding could function somewhat similarly to the way in which “foreign pre-sales” were used to guarantee funding for independent films, and I’m trying to work through that comparison a little further. Like foreign pre-sales, crowdfunding provides money that will help get the film made, as well as a guaranteed audience that will watch the film (if you “donate” to get the movie made, you’re also likely to pony up to pay for a movie ticket down the road). There are obvious differences: the foreign pre-sales helped provide up to 20-30% of an indie budget, but the buyers were essentially paying for distribution rights before the film was released. Crowdfunders aren’t investing for the sake of profit; they are doing so simply because tehy want a project to get made.

This leads Richard Lawson of the Atlantic to complain about the ethos of Kickstarter, suggesting that it really isn’t a “donor” system because the people who are asking for money on the site don’t “really need it.” He goes on to add that donating to support professional artists and creators–he also singles out Amanda Palmer’s $1.2 million campaign to finance a folk album–ignores other charities that really deserve or need our money. Certainly, there is a reasonable point here about the needs to address global poverty, the importance of supporting political causes we find valuable, and so on, but I wonder if people who give to Kickstarter campaigns are doing so out of charitable impulses or if they are seeing it as a kind of “investment” in the entertainment they want to see. If tossing ten bucks in a hat to get a Veronica Mars movie made (and to get a couple of perks that will have collectible and, arguably, emotional value) is necessary, I think many people are willing to pay that price in the same way that we all make decisions about what concerts to attend, what DVDs to buy, and whether to pony up for a premium cable channel like HBO.

Sure, in some cases, creators make a pitch that appeals to the donor ethos, but I didn’t detect that in the Veronica Mars pitch. Instead I saw an appeal to the enjoyment that many people had–references to the show’s narrative and visual style and to the ability to spend at least a few more hours “hanging out” with these characters. I do have some concern that this will become a more standard technique in funding “independent” projects down the road, especially since Warner will eventually be involved in making the movie. What does it mean that we are paying in to support these projects–and to be fair, I’ve only donated to one Kickstarter project–to provide studios with a way to protect themselves from facing as much financial risk?

I’m skeptical about Lawson’s other contention that Kickstarter fundraising is essentially a “passive” activity. Yes, the Veronica Mars crew had to do very little during their campaign (which was funded in a day or so), perhaps, but they did spend several years developing the characters that clearly meant something to thousands of enthusiastic backers. I do think that we need better theories of what it means to crowdfund, especially in an evolving and complex media ecosystem, one in which “independence” is also a highly ambiguous term, but I think that dismissing it because it fails to adhere to an idealized notion of a “donor” system misses out on what might motivate people to support a project financially.

Update: Kieran Masterton, who worked on the distribution platform OpenIndie (among many other endeavors) has some nice reflections about this topic, addressing whether the Veronica Mars campaign is in the spirit of Kickstarter’s donor model. A point that I’d skipped earlier is the question of transparency and whether the Veronica Mars team was fully honest about their intentions for the project, and I agree with Kieran that they were. They clearly disclose their relationship with Warner and make clear that the campaign is meant to demonstrate to Warner that there is a deep interest in the film. Given how many people supported the project financially (now over 45,000), I’d also be curious to know the metrics of what that would translate into in terms of an estimated opening weekend audience, given that many thousands of people did not support the project financially but would see the film.

Update 2: Immediately after I published this, S.T. Van Airsdale answers some of my questions about the financial implications, and many, many others. If you’re interested in the math of this–including the substantial costs of the perks for donating, this post is well worth reading.

Update 3: Last one, I promise. But I’m intrigued by Josh Wolk’s reading of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter frenzy in terms of nostalgia. Of course, it’s not surprising that fans would rally around a cult show that was perceived to have ended too early, but I wonder if Wolk is correct in surmising that it’s less about wanting the show itself (although obviously fans want that) than it is about being “back at the time when you enjoyed it,” a return fantasy. Wolk is also explicit (in a way that I should have been) about the connections between Kickstarter and on-demand culture, about our desires to get even more of our favorite shows, movies, and characters, long after widespread demand for them is exhausted. Wolk’s argument builds upon an old column by Matt Zoller Seitz that admonishes fans for attempting to resuscitate dead shows.

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Kickstarting All the Way to Mars

I just learned via Facebook friends about the launch of a new Kickstarter fundraising effort to crowdfund a Veronica Mars movie. The fundraising effort is asking fans of the critically acclaimed show, which ran from 2004-2007, to donate $2 million to support film production, which would begin over the summer if the producers reach their goal. Watching the Kickstarter page this morning, I’m pretty optimistic that the project will happen. In just about twenty minutes, the total amount pledged has increased by something like $30,000, and the number of donors has also gone up considerably (by at least 800 or so). Given that this project launched only in the last day or so, I suspect that word-of-mouth (including commentaries in the tech and entertainment press) will only increase donors’ awareness exponentially, even if the show had a relatively small fan base when it first aired.

The fundraising pitch itself is pretty savvy, using some of the self-aware techniques that fans enjoyed during Veronica’s initial broadcast run, gently mocking the characters’ personalities and making references to the show’s storytelling style. The technique also helps to establish that many of the major actors (Kristen Bell, etc) are already signed on to do the movie, as well. The perks offer a range of collectibles, and for the biggest donors, opportunities to interact with cast members (including the opportunity to have Bell or one of the other actors record a voice mail greeting) or even to appear in the film and have a speaking part (sorry, that one’s already taken).

But in watching this project unfold, it raises a few questions for me about how to think about Kickstarter. First, I don’t think that high-profile projects like the Veronica Mars movie will necessarily prevent smaller projects from happening. If anything, these projects may bring further attention to the site, encourage people to view themselves as donors, and in turn to consider funding other projects. Still, I think we may need a new term to describe the massive crowdfunding practices to contrast them from smaller scale projects that ask for only a few thousand dollars.

In fact, since I typed my original paragraph on the show, probably another 200 or so donors have chipped in. This project could open up new ways of thinking about how fan cultures can serve as a new version of the “pre-sale” model that independent studios have used to finance low-budget films in the recent past.

Here’s the Veronica Mars Kickstarter pitch:

 

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Netflix Social Goes Live in the U.S.

Netflix finally has its Facebook integration in the United States. Just a few weeks after the last legal obstacle was eliminated, the subscription video-on-demand service has launched Netflix Social, the app that will allow users to share their viewing histories with their Facebook friends. The app–as I understand it from the launch video–allows two levels of sharing, one that will appear on your Netflix interface and another that will allow you to post your viewing history directly onto Facebook. While users don’t have to use the integration, if you opt in, the default sharing takes place only on Netflix, and you have to check an additional box to share your viewing history on Facebook. Users can opt not to share a specific title by clicking a box as the episode is starting or later by removing it from their social viewing history.

Once you integrate, Netflix will create two new rows to your interface. The first is called “friends’ favorites” and lists all videos that your friends have rated four stars or higher. The second, “Watched by Your Friends,” allows you to scroll through your lists of friends to see everything they’ve watched (or at least everything they’ll admit to watching). As far as I can tell from the video, the system only allows you to connect one Facebook account per Netflix account, which means I likely won’t be using Netflix Social, in part because it will be too burdensome for me to differentiate what I watch from what others in my family watch, although I’d imagine that Netflix will eventually focus on that issue.

I still wonder how widely this feature will be used, though. Many years ago, I mentioned or discussed “Nefflix Friends,” a sharing tool that I actually had used. The tool allowed you to view others’ queues and ratings for movies and TV shows. At the time, I was single and my viewing profile probably reflected my tastes more successfully. I was also somewhat less concerned about privacy and felt little need to worry about others seeing what I’d watched. Now, I’m a little less enthusiastic. When we see the video demo, it’s a little creepy to see someone looking into a friend’s queue to find that she has “been watching a lot of TED talks.”

I’ve obviously been thinking about these issues for a while, as my recent SCMS talk demonstrates, but it will be fascinating to get a sense of how people integrate this feature into their viewing practices, if they do so at all.

Update: Forgot to include an embed of the video announcing the launch:

 

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Crowdfunding, Indie, and Occupy Cannes

Like many other observers, I’ve been fascinated by the rise of techniques such as crowdsourcing and crowdfunding in the world of independent film. Both of these techniques seemed to emerge in response to the widely discussed independent film “crisis” of 2008, which saw several major studios shut down their specialty or indie divisions, as Mark Gill famously documented in his 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival keynote address, which warned that “the sky [was] falling” when it came to the financing and distribution of independent film. Gill’s speech was part of what appears to be a moment of transition, one that was shaped not only by the collapse of more traditional financing models–such as the pre-sales described by Edward Jay Epstein–but also by the ongoing shift from DVD sales and rentals to streaming video and on-demand distribution, among other issues. In this context, a number of filmmakers began experimenting with do-it-yourself approaches to filmmaking that sought to get the audience involved in the making of a movie from the very beginning, whether through involvement in the production, financing, or promotion.   These filmmakers, however fairly, were often defined directly against the so-called studio indies or “dependies” distributed by Miramax and others, raising questions once again about what it means to be an independent filmmaker.

For this reason, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the crowdfunding project being proposed by the longtime production company, Troma Entertainment, the company responsible for a wide range of low-budget genre films, including The Toxic Adventure and The Class of Nuke ‘Em High. Their proposed project is a documentary they are calling Occupy Cannes, which would depict their efforts to rent a theater in Cannes where they would attempt to sell their latest title, Return to Nuke ‘Em High. Their campaign has received an impressive level of attention from Time Magazine, where Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman reports that he hopes to show how film festivals have been “perverted,” a shift that Kaufman attributes in part to the return to business models based on vertical integration. It’s a fascinating idea and the Troma proposal asks for a relatively meager sum of $50,000 to finance the project, while also incorporating some basic crowdsourcing aspects, in which they invite supporters to choose which movie poster design they prefer for Occupy Cannes.

But what fascinates me about this project is how Troma works to define themselves as a more truly independent production company, while also highlighting their long history of making movies. During their crowdfunding video pitch, a woman takes us into Troma’s “vaults,” where we are introduced to several prominent actors–including Marisa Tomei and Samuel L. Jackson–who appeared in Troma films early in their careers. More crucially, however, we are reminded of the fact that Troma not only funds all of its films independently but also pays for and produces all of its own publicity materials (one example of this for Return to Nuke ‘Em High is a Tumblr blog ostensibly by one of the characters in the film). as you might expect, Troma is attentive to the fact that crowdfunding techniques are not viable for most independent filmmakers, especially for those who don’t have long industry careers or large fan bases to build upon. No matter what, I’ll be curious to see how Troma–a company that is very attentive to creative marketing techniques and to playing with (and parodying) Hollywood imagery–engages with this new indie economy and culture.

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Netflix, or Binge Viewing on a “House of Cards”

This week, my wife and I have been binge viewing season one of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes’ amazing drama set in the early 1900s, which depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and the servants who work for them. As fans of the show will know, the characters are beautifully drawn, and the show powerfully captures a pivotal historical era, beginning with the sinking of the Titanic but making reference to World War I and other historical events along the way. Much of the show’s drama hinges on issues of social mobility–the family struggles to navigate British inheritance laws that prevent daughters from inheriting property, while many of the servants reflect on desires for different work opportunities–a focus that has proven to be intellectual catnip for both of us (and obviously many, many others). But what has enabled us to become so engaged with the show so quickly is our ability to binge watch season one on Netflix, and we’ll finish the entire first season in four days (and then move to Hulu for season two).

For consumers like us, this is a great deal. We probably won’t catch up with the episodes in time to follow season three “live,” but it’s a nice way of watching, especially given our inconsistent schedules that might make live viewing difficult. There’s nothing new there, of course. DVD box sets started serving this function years ago, and people have been talking about on-demand TV and movies for a while now. It’s also not a bad deal for Netflix and Hulu to make this licensed programming available. I’ve binge watched a few other shows via Netflix, in particular, and there are usually enough movie selections to keep me engaged. But as Andrew Wallenstein and Alyssa Rosenberg point out, in a couple of sharp analyses, Netflix’s strategy of promoting binge watching may not be as successful or effective when it comes to their original programming. Although Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has touted the ability of streaming services to escape from the boundaries of linear TV programming, both Rosenberg and Wallenstein imply that the plan to release all 13 episodes of House of Cards simultaneously may work against getting maximum value for the show.

Wallenstein, in particular, highlights the dangers of “too much, too quickly” when it comes to Netflix. He points out that the goal of producing original programming (like House of Cards and the revival of Arrested Development) is to entice new subscribers into joining the service. Wallenstein then speculates that by dropping all thirteen episodes at once, Netflix may actually be encouraging people to join the service for one month, binge watch the original shows, and then cancel their subscription until a new show comes along that they want to watch. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. I suspect that, to some extent, Wallenstein is right. In an era of one-click, on-demand culture, people can walk away from delivery services like Netflix or Hulu simply and easily. Starting or quuitting a subscription service takes just a few minutes, and if House of Cards is all that somebody wants to watch, then it’s pretty simple to do that.

Rosenberg, drawing from reporting by Deadline Hollywood Daily, adds that Netflix is financing these productions, in part through the use of debt that will (obviously) eventually have to be paid down. Along with Netflix’s plans to expand overseas, this has led Moody’s to classify Netflix as a “risky investment,” and leaves Rosenberg to speculate that Netflix may have to increase its subscription rates to subsidize these costs and to keep investors happy. To avoid these problems, Wallenstein offers a somewhat compelling solution: instead of releasing all episodes of its original programs simultaneously, Netflix should adopt something closer to a linear programming model, in which it would release 3-4 new episodes of a show per month. Thus, users could engage in limited binge viewing, but they would be compelled to maintain their subscriptions for several months to follow an entire season of an original show (my hunch is that such a strategy would be less relevant for licensed shows like Downton Abbey).   Wallenstein also makes the point that extending the show’s run over several months would also extend its social media presence over several months and that people who learn about the show late (as my wife and I did with Downton) could learn about the show from Twitter and Facebook posts and could catch up quickly in order to be in-the-know when the next set of episodes drops.

I have some doubts about whether Wallenstein’s proposal makes sense. If binge viewing is the primary mode through which consumers encounter Netflix, then alienating these audiences through artificially producing temporary scarcity seems uncool. In addition, I wonder how many people have the energy to start and quit Netflix every time the distributor introduces a new or original show. I’d imagine that Netflix hopes that people will be drawn in initially by an original show unavailable elsewhere and that the practice of binge watching that will keep them coming back for more. Like Wallenstein, I also wonder about the “casual viewer” who may not binge watch a specific show. It’s practice that I mention in passing in my chapter on Redbox in On-Demand Culture, but I suspect that it needs even more attention.My hunch is that the scarcity techniques will have less impact on these more casual practices. People can pick up or return to a show whenever it is convenient. More than anything, this discussion shows that there are still a number of questions that we can still ask about the viewing norms and protocols that will develop in an era of digital delivery. Binge watching is obviously the most visible form of this practice–especially when Netflix automatically redirects you to the next episode of a TV series–but this practice may eventually be subject to other issues such as changing distribution practices and limited libraries and data caps.

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Sunday Links, Hulu, Video Privacy, and 56 Up

Embracing the last quiet Sunday morning before classes start back to catch up on some of my online reads. This semester will involve a number of transitions for me in that I’ll be teaching an online class for the first time (Introduction to Business Writing, which is also a new prep for me) and I’ll be preparing to teach a completely revamped Introduction to Film course next spring. I’m also in the final stages of polishing up my second book (page proofs should arrive in my inbox in the next few days). But all of these changes point toward the possibility that 2013 could be an exciting year. Here are the links:

  • I’ve been writing bits and pieces about the Video Privacy Protection Act, the 1988 law that is now being revised to allow companies like Netflix greater freedom in sharing customers’ rental habits. The bill is designed to give Netflix more freedom to create an app on Facebook similar to Spotify that would allow users to post what they’re watching in their Facebook news feeds (I’d assume something similar would be in place for Twitter, too). Think Progress has a great article on the implications for the bill, but I also wanted to highlight an Ars Technica article that documents how much (over one million dollars) Netflix has spent over the last two years lobbying Congress to pass this bill. It’s also worth glancing at some of the other media companies have spent to pay for lobbying efforts.
  • David Poland attempts to forecast where the studios will go this year in terms of cultivating new delivery systems. Since this is a major aspect of my next book, I was intrigued by Poland’s analysis. The most striking prediction is the speculation that Disney may eventually “eat” Netflix and seek to split its independent and children’s content into separate systems. I’m hoping to write further about some of these issues elsewhere, but Poland’s hunches–from my experience–have been pretty solid.
  • Hulu CEO Jason Kilar has apparently left the company. Om Malik reviews his tenure at the company and where Hulu might go from here.
  • Michael Atkinson has a review of 56 Up, the latest in Michael Apted’s long-running documentary series. I think that my introduction to the series came at around 35 Up, so like many others, I now feel as if I have quite a bit invested in the series, and I’ve also been fascinated to watch as it has evolved from an effort to document class stratifications in Great Britain to something more profound about the changes associated with aging, and how that experience is altered by having your life documented periodically.
  • For my online course this semester, I decided to use audio podcasts to deliver the course lectures. After struggling mightily with a podcast function on our university’s course management system (CMS), I had the good luck of stumbling into a slideshow instructing people on how to embed podcasts on Blogger (which I can then link to in our CMS). The cool part is that you can upload your podcasts to the Internet Archive where they are stored for free and where they uploaded very quickly. My two 7-minute mini-lectures both went up in about five minutes or less.

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Netflix Meets Facebook in the House

In my previous post, I discussed legislation that would allow Netflix to create a Facebook app that would (with your permission) publish your viewing history in your news feed. The legislation was responding to the Video Privacy Protection Act, which was passed in the wake of Robert Bork’s contentious Supreme Court nomination fight, prohibited video rental companies from publishing this information without the written permission of the customer.

But in a new wrinkle, the House version of this bill, sponsored by Virginia Republican, Bob Goodlatte, not only allows Netflix users to automatically share what they watch but also enables law enforcement officials to read individuals’ emails (or any other information based in the computing cloud, such as private social media postings) without obtaining a search warrant. There are some aspects of the bill that seem quite positive–Netflix and other services would be required to provide “clear and conspicuous” ways for users to opt out of sharing–but the loss of protections against private online communication is a big concern.

The Senate version of this bill includes those protections, but the ACLU (among other groups) has expressed concern about the risks to individual privacy when it comes to electronic communication. The Senate bill would already create tremendous value for Netflix and Facebook, who could obtain even more personal data about their customers (and I would likely opt out of any automated sharing, if only to avoid spamming my friends’ news feeds), but the House version of the bill erodes privacy rights considerably further.

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