Hand of God

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The TV and Movie business is changing, and it’s for the better. Netflix started the ball rolling for real with its excellent original production of House of Cards, and we’re seeing some great television being launched without the benefit of the networks. Much like when Oz, the gritty prison drama, premiered on HBO, and introduced us to shows not constrained by Broadcast Television’s language, violence and content rules, once we got a taste of disintermediation, where the producers of programming had a little more direct access to the consumers of their creative output, we knew we wanted more.

A lot more television gets produced than ever airs. Between late January and late March, Hollywood enters “Pilot Season,” where there’s a mad dash of activity on sound stages anywhere television is produced. It’s the busiest time of year for actors who have decent agents, and it’s not uncommon for one to work on several projects. The hope is, one gets picked up by a network and becomes successful. A few attract enough good attention that they get a shot, and every so often, one becomes a Cheers, Seinfeld or 30 Rock. Usually though, they become a Roll Out, the decidedly unfunny sitcom that tried to cash in on the success of MASH* in a show about race relations among American troops in World War II. Didn’t work. Twelve painfully boring episodes were produced and aired before the whole project was quietly thrown into the trash. Don’t ask me how I remember it. Believe me, the thought that I’m using brain cells to retain all this disturbs me greatly. Regardless of the show’s failure, there was apparently a pilot that led people to believe the show would make it. I’d hate to see the shows that Roll Out beat to make a spot in its network’s lineup. The point is, a lot of pilots get made. A very few get picked up. The vast majority are never seen by the public.

Amazon recently began a bold and innovative program that provides a pathway for independent productions to gain commercial release. Here’s how it works:

The pilot is produced, and made available to Amazon Prime Video subscribers. Amazon customers can watch it, and based on the success of the show, Amazon either picks it up as a regular series or not. It’s putting the decision of whether a show becomes a thing or not a little closer to the people who truly matter, the audience. It’s not perfect, since Amazon Prime Video customers don’t necessarily reflect the tastes of the video-watching public, but it’s a hell of a lot closer to reality than some group of Hollywood TV industry guys deciding what you and I get to watch.

Amazon’s most recent Pilot is excellent. Really. Hand of God tells the story of a judge, (Sons of Anarchy’s Ron Perlman) who loses it after his son attempts (and mostly succeeds in) suicide. The first scene shows a police officer, played by Emilio Rivera (Sons of Anarchy, Gang Related, and one of the Priceline commercials where William Shatner plays a long grey bearded biker – Emilio’s one line is “Hey, those guys ain’t no Dragons,” which he wisely delivers with a bandana worn to almost cover his eyes – you have to be an Emilio fan to recognize him, which I am), who wades into a big fountain to coax Perlman’s character out. The judge has shed all his clothes, and is in the fountain speaking in tongues. Obviously, this is a problem, not just for the judge, but also for his wife, played by the magnificent Dana Delaney (Desperate Housewives, Body of Proof, China Beach, and his business partner/Mayor, played by Andre Royo (The Wire). Judge Harris is obviously unbalanced, and claims to be in communication with God. In his court, he finds an acolyte to command and inspire, a heavenly henchman, if you will, in KD, played by Garret Dillahunt (Life, Burn Notice, 12 Years a Slave). Dillahunt is perfect. My exposure to him to date has been as recurring characters in the excellent ABC series, starring Damen Lewis, Life, and the successful USA Network spy series that ended a great run last year, Burn Notice. In both cases, Dillahunt played complete psychopaths, and he does it well. Perfect for KD in Hand of God.

Perlman as the damaged Judge Harris is wonderful. As big and bold and unique as he is as an actor, the subtlety with which he brings his characters to life is really incredible. As satisfying as it was seeing Clay Morrow die last season in Sons of Anarchy, I have to admit, the show feels Perlman’s absence. I’d like to think Sons show-runner Kurt Sutter intended that, but as good as KS is, I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. Sutter has admitted the audience’s reaction to the loss of Jax’s best friend, “Opie,” in the previous season was a surprise, and if it was in his plan to eliminate an evil character, but then have an even darker, denser evil rush in to fill that void, then my outlaw-black half-helmet is off to him. Well played, indeed, sir. I am shocked at how much I miss Perlman on Sons. The point is, when you have an actor as skilled as Perlman in your cast, you have a brush that can fill entire sections of canvas with paint in seconds, but still highlight the crow’s feet on a face we see from several yards away.

I’ve often remarked that Al Pacino is such a great actor, because we can see him play, not only Michael Corleone, the quiet, yet ruthless crime family head but also the sad, passed over wiseguy, Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero, without any hint of the other character present in either performance. Pacino is amazing. And so is Perlman, I’ve come to realize. Though some mannerisms are similar, the raised voice of Clay Morrow is the raised voice of Pernell Harris, but they’re different in a way I can’t identify. I don’t expect Judge Harris to walk out of the courthouse and swing his leg over a Harley Dyna-Glide. Even when Perlman hammers down his gavel from the bench, issuing his ruling as KD stands before him as a defendant, it prompted no flashback at all of Clay Morrow gaveling an end to a SAMCRO meeting around the reaper table on Sons of Anarchy. Amazingly, I didn’t even notice the gavel connection until I was writing this. Two different guys, using two different gavels for two completely different purposes.

Hand of God is great television. Well-written, cast and shot. It’s absolutely top-notch television. GOD, I hope Amazon decides to pick the show up. The twist at the end, completely unexpected, and game-changing, makes leaving this story untold something that will seriously disappoint me.

Science

Watching the most recent film version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine tells a much different story about why humans study the world and why we invent.

The original book is about a man of science inventing a time machine, and the adventure he has testing and then using the device. The protagonist discovers how to travel in time, creating a machine with spinning wheels and big levers that allows him to go into the future. At first, he relatively slowly advances through time, finally getting to a future Earth that has suffered some sort of apocalypse, or perhaps steady decline, and is populated by a simple people with no technology, living off the land, and trying to survive under the thumb of the underground dwelling “morlocks,” a vicious species who apparently feed on the above-ground living folk.

In the late 70s, Malcolm McDowell played H.G. Wells, as a writer/inventor, who travels to the future in pursuit of his friend, who turns out to be Jack the Ripper, who has used the invention to get to modern times. This trip gives “Jack” a brand new hunting ground, where he quickly targets Wells’ new 20th century girlfriend. Rather than use the original title, this movie version is called Time After Time.

The most recent telling of the story, starring Guy Pierce (The Hurt Locker, and the excellent Count of Monte Cristo) reverts to H.G. Wells’ title, and the protagonist’s construction of the time machine, but inserts as motivation, the untimely death of his fiancee, the device’s purpose now to change history and restore her to life. He’s depressed over her loss, and seeks to use science to correct the tragedy.

More dramatic for today’s audiences? Absolutely. And herein lies the sad truth that discovery for its own sake is no longer that interesting to us. In H.G. Wells day, inventing a machine that allowed the scientist to travel through time was its own reward, the adventure that results a bit of added drama. We’re sadly, no longer thrilled by exploration and scientific advancement, and need a personal stake in the pursuit to make it worth doing. In today’s world, the individual is all that’s important, and something that doesn’t necessarily derive some personal gain, whether it be a huge payday or keeping our girlfriend alive isn’t worth accomplishing. Why can’t Pierce’s character’s development of this amazing step forward in scientific study of our universe be its own reward? I think the filmmakers correctly understood that today’s film-going public wouldn’t care, unless there was something in it for the character they’re being asked to identify with. It’s unfortunate that we’re so self-centered that we have to have more skin in the game than pure scientific advancement to spend our time and money and potentially risk our life on.

I understand that in order for a story to be embraced, the audience must want to do what the protagonist does, and am disheartened that not enough of us would believe in the purity of the motivations of a character who didn’t stand to gain something other than discovery in their endeavors. I think that’s one of the reasons we haven’t been back to the moon, or pushing to travel to the stars. When proponents of space travel have to talk about all the everyday products that we wouldn’t have, if not for the space program, we’re on the wrong track. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to live in a world without Tang and the Space Pen, but scientific advancement and the opportunity to travel to the stars should be enough to keep going, shouldn’t it?

Leaf Blower Culture

imgresComing home after dropping my son off at school this morning, I turned onto our street and was again assaulted by the noise of two or three leaf blowers being fired up by landscapers getting a start on their day in my neighborhood. I often wonder what happens when the landscapers of next-door neighbors show up to do their work at the same time. I’m assuming that, by mutual agreement, they turn their blowers away from each other toward the houses on the other sides, otherwise, unless one of the landscapers had a much more powerful leaf blower, they would be there all day.

Because leaf blowers don’t really clean anything up, they just transfer the ownership of a problem (leaves) from one person to another. Hey, I’ve got some junk on my lawn. I’m going to blow it on yours, ok? Except there’s never an “ok?” involved. The landscaping industry has really done something brilliant here. They basically get paid to litter, and create more work for their fellow landscapers. My landscaper blows leaves and dust onto my neighbor’s property, which means my neighbor’s landscaper (who used to be mine, until I fired him because his work sucked) has work, mostly involving blowing dirt and leaves toward the neighbor on the other side, or (more probably) toward the lawn of his former customer (me).

It’s the same thing as “dusting” inside the house (or, as Amelia Bedelia calls it, “undusting”). I never got that, either. I mean, when you use a feather duster to brush the thin coating of dust on tables and furniture, unless you’re brushing it toward a teeny-tiny black hole that sucks in the dust, sending it through a wormhole to another point in the space-time, you’re wasting your time, creating a temporary sense of clean. When the dust settles back down, however, you’re right back to where you started. When science does give us the ability to create tiny black holes, we’ll be recreating the landscaper problem, sending the dust from our fireplace mantles, end tables and lamps into either another part of the universe, or a different universe altogether. I hope whoever lives there don’t have huge space battleships that could trace the small black holes back to our universe/planet, and come and kill us. I’d hate to see the end of the human species be over a desire to have dust and crumb-free living room furniture.

Now of course, there are those landscapers who use leaf blowers to gather lawn detritus together so they can scoop up, bag and transport it. But, the vast majority are just walking around, leaf blowers blowing, making their customer’s problem someone else’s.

Unfortunately, this strategy isn’t limited to lawn work, and we’re increasingly applying leaf-blower techniques to other areas of our life. Think about the things you do today, and ask yourself, am I really solving problems and getting things done, or am I just “leaf-blowing” away the things that get in my way? Take the example of Crypto Code. Many people think it’s a quick fix, but what’s really important is its longevity and staying power — which can only be achieved if you really take to heart how this industry works.

One of the biggest examples of this, is debt. The United States has anywhere from $17 to $30 TRILLION in debt (depending on who you ask and how honest they are). Our government spends more every year than it collects in tax revenue, and puts the difference on a big credit card that they get to determine the credit limit on. Doing this is just like firing up a big leaf blower and blowing it to where are kids and grandkids will be living when they grow up and start working (if there are any jobs left). We need to stop this.

First of all, we need to put someone in charge to collect all the leaves (debts), bag them, and find a way to, in an environmentally kind way, get rid of them. To overextend the metaphor, I’d recommend not burning them (defaulting), but finding a way to use them as we cut down on the number of leaves that fall in the first place. Okay, the metaphor is officially over-extended. That would mean cutting down the tree and replacing it with a plastic tree-like structure. Bad idea. But you know what I mean. Right now, we’re blowing the leaves mostly into the yard of the Chinese family that lives next door. If we start burning the leaves we’ve sent them, it may catch their house on fire, and that’s a bad idea, because they’ve got more than a billion relatives, and lots of nuclear weapons. Who wants to piss off neighbors like that?

Hey, maybe this metaphor has some legs after all.

At any rate, lets try and start to go easier on the leaf blowers, but in the meantime, let’s not piss off the Chinese people next door.

Gray Eagles and Dead Trees

I’ve always loved to read. At times, my dedication to consuming the printed word rivaled my son’s devotion to Minecraft, as hard as it is to believe. A couple weeks after Amazon introduced the first Kindle, I bought one, and over the next couple years, transitioned to first mostly, then completely, ebooks. I don’t buy bound (dead tree) books anymore, but it’s not out of a sense of ecological responsibility, just the desire for simplicity. I love having virtually my entire library on a small device that’s with me all the time, whether it’s a Kindle, a tablet, or my phone.

Reading recreationally is no longer a thing that requires preparation (did I remember to bring the books I’m reading? All of them? Jeesh, this bag is heavy).

One of my favorite novels of all time, is by Duane Unkefer, titled “Gray Eagles.” It’s the story of a group of former World War Two Luftwaffe pilots who are invited to a flying vacation complete with fully restored Messerschmidt 109s, not only painted up like the planes they all flew three decades before (the story is set in Phoenix in the 1970s) but armed to the teeth. Naturally, they proceed to use the terrible warplanes as they were intended, striking one more blow for the Luftwaffe.

The action in “Gray Eagles” is good, the flying sequences accurate and believable, the characters well-drawn and likeable. It’s a really good novel. I first bought and read “Gray Eagles” right after the paperback came out, in 1986, and loved it. A few years ago, I went on Amazon, looking for a hard cover edition so I could make it a permanent part of my collection. Despite the book being out of print now, I found a hardback and bought it. I came across that book a few days ago, and decided to read “Gray Eagles” again, and it’s just as delightful, thrilling and suspenseful.

It’s also a pain in the ass.

I’ve become so accustomed to the convenience of reading on a Kindle, iPad or Nexus 7 tablet, that flipping pages and trying to keep the book propped open so I could read without my hands having to be constantly engaged proved to be a challenge. Sad to say, it’s really annoying. In many circumstances, I like old-school tools, pens, notebooks, and my beloved Blackwing pencils, but reading the printed page, ink on paper, machine bound, is simply…A pain in the ass.

I love “Gray Eagles,” but as soon as I’m done with it, I’m back to my Kindle. I’m a little bummed about this, and not completely comfortable abandoning the tactile joy of a well bound book, but the benefits definitely outweigh the loss.

Digital Advertising, the Good, the Bad and the Fake

There’s a gold rush on, and it’s still going strong. No question about it, there is much money to be made, and a few participants are raking it in. Like California Gold Country in the middle of the 19th Century, the ones scoring the really big bucks are the digital shovel dealers. Don’t get me wrong, the digital marketplace is the one to be in. From news to social media to movies and television, more and more modern consumers (and even those not-so) are doing their consuming online, through computers, tablets, smartphones and video boxes. Advertisers are increasingly motivated to shift their marketing mixes from “traditional” media like Radio, TV and (ahem) newsprint. But, one only has to look at evidence like increased rubber band sales (I’l explain later), Radio listening levels, and the way TV viewers use the DVRs that sit under televisions all over the country, to see using digital platforms to connect with potential customers makes sense.

Unfortunately, in this brave, new digital world, many advertisers, and too many ad agencies haven’t figured out how to separate effective advertising from effectively worthless schemes. It’s difficult to tell the legitimate digital “shovel vendors” from charlatans all too ready to steal hard-earned money marked for expanding a company’s profits. Unfortunately, that situation is going to be very slow in changing, and the waste will be incalculable.

Traditional advertising has been based on interrupting the content consumption process, whether it be a radio station requiring a listener to sit through a seemingly exponentially expanding quantity of :30 and :60 second commercials to hear their favorite song, or a TV station sticking spots in between acts of a favorite drama or comedy. Newspapers rely on distracting their readers with pictures and bold headlines hawking products they may or may not be in the market for. These platforms rely on a business identifying the content their customers may be looking for, and hoping they can interrupt that consumption in such a way the consumer shifts their attention from doing what they intended to do, to doing what the advertiser wants the to do.

When Television was born, the programming offered on the new medium was, for the most part, Radio shows with pictures added. That’s human nature. In the early days of something new, we tend to use that new tool pretty much liked we used the old one, while experimenting and learning about what the future holds. Advertising is no different. Too many advertising dollars end up funding hideous pop-ups that cover up what the internet consumer is trying to enjoy, until the user interacts with the ad enough to figure out how to make it go away. The hope is, the pop-up catches the consumer’s attention, not only making them forget about being thwarted in their effort to read, watch or listen to the content, but also interesting them in the product being offered.

Banner ads work on the distraction method, but let’s face it, consumers are getting good at not being distracted, not to mention how easy it is to install ad block plugins that take the offending ads completely away.

Search

Everything starts with Search. A quick glance at any successful website’s referer logs will show that a great deal of traffic comes from Google, Bing and Yahoo, search engines that help digital consumers find the content they are looking for. Google, the industry’s leader, does a lot of cool, cutting edge stuff. They get a lot of attention developing new technologies, whether head-mounted screens or driverless cars, but Google’s revenue comes from search advertising, delivering ads on query response pages or affiliated websites delivering content that matches what the consumer is looking for. Done right, search advertising works, provided no one in the process is fraudulently gaming the system (more on this later).

Contextual

Another effective form of digital advertising is closely aligning product marketing with content consumption. A good example of this might be a website that specializes in product reviews. If a consumer is looking for a new smartphone, their web browsing may lead them to a site reviewing appropriate phones, and providing links that can be used to purchase the devices, earning the site’s owner a commission when the site sends the consumer to a site that sells the products reviewed, which may or may not lead to a sale.

I believe there are huge opportunities in this form of advertising, and as long as content creators are above board and disclose their financial connections with the product, it’s entirely legitimate. Smart marketers don’t try in any way to influence reviewers to only voice good opinions of their products. They know that almost all exposure is good exposure, a lukewarm review sometimes being more effective than a glowing recommendation, adding authority to the process and lending even more credence to the good reviews. In building web traffic and awareness of a brand, the more a product is mentioned, the better, even if that mention isn’t five-star.

Interestingly, contextual advertising can be very effective in traditional media as well, and those advertisers who use it in the right way are reaping big returns, which I’ll cover in a future post on this blog.

The Problem

Unfortunately, a lack of understanding of how to measure the results generated by digital advertising is allowing unscrupulous outlets to waste their customers’ money, making it look as though the advertiser’s goals are being met, when in fact, their efforts often accomplish nothing more than enriching the publishers of the platforms.

Just like a brand new gold miner lacked the technical sophistication to tell a high-quality steel pick and shovel from cheap aluiminum hardware, a digital advertiser often can’t discern whether the money they are spending is actually leading to product exposure and sales. Advertisers need to be very clear with the platform they’re spending money with about what success looks like, whether than metric is sales, exposure or, (and in my opinion, most importantly) engagement.

A case in point involves a media company in recent years, that convinced advertisers the views and exposure generated by their platform were worth the dollars being invested by their advertisers. The problem was, the traffic being reported to the advertiser was completely faked. Web metrics usually measure how many visitors visited the site, when in reality, they are measuring how many times the platform’s servers are sending the page to a web user’s computer. A “view” doesn’t necessarily mean the user ever saw the page. In this particular case, the advertising platform had struck a deal with a (sadly) successful pornographic website network. The pornographic websites included a few lines of code that embedded the company’s websites as part of the adult content, “displaying” them in invisible frames that measured one pixel by one pixel. Web users couldn’t possibly see the advertisers’ ads, since the pages the ads resided on were reduced to the size of a single pixel among millions on a page, and then rendered invisible. The software that measures the distribution of the website can’t tell the difference between what is and isn’t seen, only what is delivered to the user’s computer. The result was the appearance of a much greater volume of traffic than was actually earned, which increased ad rates for all clients, even though no advertiser benefited in any way from this arrangement.

In the short-term, the result is simply that the advertising dollars spent are wasted, but without tracking and vision of what success looks like, the much more important long-term ramification is the conclusion on the part of the advertiser that digital website advertising doesn’t work.

As long as digital advertising campaigns are simply thrown together without any thoughtful strategy, or any understanding of what constitutes success, and are based more on the inventory available, rather than what the client needs to accomplish, advertisers will be wasting their money. The accumulation of these failures will eventually damage the credibility of the digital advertising platform, and the industry will lose a potentially game-changing opportunity to reach users where they live.

Stamping out the waste and fraud that is dragging down digital advertising industry as it exists today is imperative. Fortunately, the platform is, by its nature, open for the world to see. Because the primary tool used to consume websites, the internet browser, is really just a rendering agent that interprets the typographical and stylistic code used to describe how a site is to be displayed, it’s often a relatively straight-forward operation to uncover these shady manipulations. Anyone with sufficient skill to design and code a modern website, and a talent for basic, logical thining can uncover these nefarious tactics. The digital advertising community must support those who uncover these things, and will have to self-police to make sure digital advertising dollars are spent fairly and effectively. It’s the only way the platform will remain viable and grow as it should.

A fairly large industry, devoted to helping unscrupulous website managers artificially inflate their numbers has developed. Fake traffic is quite inexpensive, and ironically, often starts with real people, usually in third-world countries, who are paid pennies to browse sites that have paid for traffic. An advertiser can ask for website referer logs, if they suspect something isn’t completely legitimate. Heavy usage of a local, regional or even national website from China and the Philippines is a red flag suggesting bought-and-paid-for fake traffic is involved. Searching the source code line by line of websites that send lots of traffic to a platform an advertiser is paying to advertise on may yield clues in the form of embedded code snippets or iFrames that generate fake traffic. Again, the web is for the most part, all in plain sight, and it’s not too difficult for a knowledgeable coder to uncover what is going on, and how the suspect traffic is being generated.

The advertising community must do what it can to stamp out these abuses, and support the viability and integrity of this new digital advertising platform. Doing this will help advertisers reach more customers, and will help develop an important and lucrative advertising platorm. Failure will set us all back, and kill a potential golden goose forever.