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The Disney & IRTS 2008 Digital Media Summit, Part 4

August 21st, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

The Thin Line Between Content and Promotion

I’ve waited a bit to post what follows, since it’s still thinking in progress. But, hey, that’s what a blog is, right? So here goes anyways:

All panels circled around issues of monetization in one way or another. Back during the strike, I was frustrated by the degree to which Disney and others suggested that new media were good only for promotion, and that they were barren when it came to revenue generation. This seemed a bad faith bargaining position, to say the least. But at the DMS, new media was again and again talked of as a site for promotion, for brand management, of the shows, yes, but even moreso of Disney, ABC, and ESPN, following a directive from on-high (Bob Iger, Disney’s CEO) that these core brands are what’s being sold. Thus, while I’m not ready to completely drop the bad faith notion, I do see things differently now. I think what we have is a profound shift in business logic, which results in a profound shift in languages used too. Let me explain, and in the process I hope to challenge that new logic somewhat:

If the brands are what Disney thinks it is selling, not the shows per se, then it’s meaningless to make distinctions between new media and those shows. If the “old” job of the network or media conglomeration was to attract viewers to advertisers by producing great shows, then those shows deserved special treatment, and we could easily make distinctions between shows and promotion. But if the “new” model is to regard all elements of the corporation as engaged in the same process of selling the Disney, ABC, and ESPN brands, then everything is promotional. Your station identification snippets exist on the same level as your shows. And so if you’re Disney, and you don’t pay royalties to those who make the station idents, it must seem unreasonable and annoying to have to pay those other “promo” makers, the writers, directors, and actors.

While there’s something to this logic, there’s also something wrong with it. The former first. As you may have gotten by now if you read this blog, I’m a big believer in the creativity in and importance of all sorts of paratexts. I think that designing a good trailer is a creative act. Ditto with movie posters. Even hype campaigns. If it’s done well, it contributes to the text. It doesn’t just sell the text – it makes the text. So I’m sympathetic to the notion that we should or could start to break down the conceptual wall that exists between promotion and creativity, realizing that often the former is an involved part of the latter.

However, precisely because I’m arguing that good paratexts don’t just sell the text, they make it, rather than remove the semblance of creativity from writers, directors, and actors, I’m more comfortable with making creativity a larger umbrella that also covers good trailer makers, good poster designers, etc. In other words, while Iger’s philosophy risks leading naturally to the notion that “creatives” get rolled in with “promotion,” mine is that “promotion” could be rolled in with “creatives.”

There’s a key problem here, though. Above, I wrote of good paratexts. “Bad” paratexts are just promotion. Paratexts can contribute to a text, but they can also contribute nothing. But this can be extended to the shows themselves, if we regard them, as Iger’s philosophy suggests, as promos for the brand. Good shows do contribute to the brand, and sparkle with their creativity. Bad ones don’t: they just sap money and labor, with no good return on investment (for industry dollars or viewer watching hours). Of course, different viewers will disagree on what is good and what is bad, but since I’m not using specifics here (I’m avoiding referring to Cavemen or Big Shots, in other words), that’s by the by. What I’m getting at instead is that it is only good, creative shows and only good, creative paratexts that will help or sell the brand. Reworded, as much as it may seem this way to some observers, it isn’t promotion that helps or sells the brand, it’s creativity. I can open my window right now and yell to all of Sunnyside, Queens that they should watch a certain show, but that doesn’t sell the brand. Only creativity will.

I said I wouldn’t talk specifics, but to break that rule and return to the Digital Media Summit, the panel that examined Lost as a case study was telling. Carlton Cuse noted the challenge to get good content into marketing, and many of their examples suggested that they have succeeded. Lost’s ARGs, evocative promotions, and so forth all impressed the room of largely non-Lost-watchers. Both Lost AND its paratexts sell the ABC brand, since both are good (and if you disagree that they’re good, well that doesn’t hurt my point, since that only shows that they don’t help your notion of the brand).

Going back to the WGA and negotiations in an economy where promotion and creativity are merging moreso than before, good paratexts (frequently produced by non-unionized workers) profoundly challenge the line between the supposed “creatives” and the supposed promotional side of the business. This allows the industry to conflate the two, and see the differential treatment as silly, thereby justifying (in their eyes) lowering creators to the level of promotion. Bad texts similarly (or even especially?) inspire the conflation, since a good paratext/“promo” can do more for the brand than can a bad text. But only good stuff, only creativity, will truly help the brand, and hence it needs to be compensated as such. And only royalties do this, since otherwise you are paying the producers of shows that contribute nothing to your brand the same as you are paying those of the shows that help your brand.

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The Disney & IRTS 2008 Digital Media Summit, Part 3

August 15th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

Two more posts on the DMS, this one about set and studio visits, next about the thin line between content and promotion.

On the third day, they gave us a tour of the lot, which was reasonably interesting. This included a whirl around the Brothers and Sisters set. I’ve only seen the show a few times, which produced the weird feeling of recognizing some spaces, only part-recognizing others, and not knowing others at all. What’s more, though, is that the main house seems definitively of television, being a huge, immaculately tidy, extravagantly decked-out house, the kind that they give people on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, yet that you’ve never seen off the screen. Television kitchens in particular are always so fantastic, too, with huge islands, glass jars full of tasty looking things and infused olive oils, and modern appliances. Kind of like an Ikea showroom on steroids. So I didn’t feel as though I was “really there,” partly because I’m not fully aware of the “there,” through lack of exposure to the show, and partly because the “there” seems so unreal to begin with.

That said, there are so many wires and ropes on a set when you look up, and the size of the place is so huge, with sets wrapped around each other in interesting, labyrinthine ways, that it also holds the fun of being in a massive maze. We tried to get some juicy set gossip out of our guide, but all she offered was that Sally Field rides around the lot on her bike all the time, an amusing image, and that Calista Flockhart (whose picture adorns most sets, cult figure-like) doesn’t seem as skinny in person.

It gets more fun, with pics, after the fold …
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The Disney & IRTS 2008 Digital Media Summit, Part 2

August 13th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

So I actually have three more posts worth. This one’s a hodgepodge, the next one’s about my set visits, and the third is a little more unified and analytical. Anyways, here we go:

Super Tech Geekout Section

One of the highlights of the trip was when they took us into their screening room and showed off the 3D that they’re working on. The glasses have little batteries in them and flash at an ultrafast rate, while the film runs at 144 frames per second, interlacing left and right eye frames. This is meant to hurt the eyes less than traditional glasses, and to offer a better 3D experience. It did. They showed us bits of the NBA All-Star Weekend in 3D and it was beautiful. They had talked earlier of experimenting with playing college games in theatres for admission price, to great success, and I can see how the two of these could go together well. It really does feel like you’re courtside, and they discussed how they’ve learnt to keep the stadium sounds on, rather than use play-by-play guys, to recreate the feeling of being in the stadium. Their screening room is kind of small, so extrapolate that experience onto a bigger screen, and I could see this being very popular.

They also showed us a few other tech goodies, by far the coolest being this tiny little screen, called an Organic LCD (OLCD). Our guide insisted that you could grind it up and eat it without harm (“fresh pepper, m’am? Parmesan? Organic television screen?”). But its contrast ratio was a truly remarkable 1,000,000: 1. Sheer beauty. More after the fold …

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The Disney & IRTS 2008 Digital Media Summit, Part 1

August 12th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

For those waiting for part 4 of the Malawian media consumption saga, I promise it’s coming. In the meantime, though, I wanted to write about the 2008 Disney and International Radio and Television Society Foundation’s Digital Media Summit in Burbank, CA. This was a three day event that I attended last week. In this post, I’ll set the thing up and give some data about Disney’s online Full Episode Player. In the next, I’ll list some random things overheard, and I’ll yabber on about the hazy line between promotion and creativity.

Granted, at times I felt like I was in a cult indoctrination program, with some insisting that Disney was the only true source for all that is good on this planet. However, it was also a fantastic opportunity if not to see behind the curtain, at least to be allowed into the front row, where peeks behind the curtain were possible. I met some tremendously helpful individuals whose brains I picked with joy. I finally got on a TV set (take that, Bob Rehak! Sorry to anyone not at MIT’s MiT5 conference: an inside joke there). I got a bunch of data. I saw some cool new tech toys. I met Damon Lindelof and got an Apollo candybar t-shirt. I got fed well. I got to hang out with Jenn Holt and Kevin Sandler. And as much as cynical Jonathan could gripe, I’m very thankful for the experience, and applaud Disney and IRTS for shelling out the time and money to produce the thing.

More after the fold …
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