Jump-cut videos vs Slow TV

In last week’s blog on the attention economy, I alluded to the trade-off that exists between our desire for more stimulus, and the need to consume more (sponsored) content to feed that hunger. Given the increasing demands on our available attention span, and the rate at which we are having to consume just to keep up, it feels like we are all developing a form of ADD – too much to choose from, too little time to focus on anything.

Christian Marclay – “The Clock” – image sourced from Time Out

Personally, I place a lot of the blame on music videos. Initially, this format merely reduced our attention span to the length of a 3-minute pop song. (Paradoxically, there was also a style known as the “long form music video”, which stretched those 3 minutes into a 10-20 minute extended narrative). Then, in recent years, the video format has been distilled to a series of jump cuts – no single shot lasts more than a few frames, and the back-n-forth between shots often has no narrative cohesion other than serving the technique of the jump-cut itself. I sometimes wonder if the reason for so many jump-cuts is because too few of today’s pop stars can really dance, forcing the director to distract our (minimal) attention from the poor moves. (Note: pop stars who can’t dance should take a leaf out of The Fall’s playbook, and call in the professionals, like Michael Clark…)

I have previously made a brief mention of Slow TV, which made a return to Australian channel SBS this summer in the form of trans-continental railway journeys, a UK barge trip (can it get any slower?) and a length-ways tour of New Zealand. These individual programs can screen for up to 18 hours, a perfect antidote to the ADD-inducing experience of jump-cut music videos and social media notifications.

Concurrently in Melbourne, two installation works are on display that, in their very separate ways also challenge the apparent obsession with rapid sensory overload in many of today’s video content.

The first is “The Clock”, by Christian Marclay – a sequence of finely edited clips sourced from a multitude of films and TV programmes that together act as a real-time 24 hour clock. The work also manages to reveal a beguiling (dare I say seamless?) narrative from such disparate and unrelated scenes that you really do begin to wonder how the story will end…. The fact that some of the scenes are quite mundane (and whose main function is to indicate the passage of time), while others are iconic cinematic moments, only adds to our real-time/real-life experience of the ebb and flow of the seconds, minutes and hours.

The second is almost the complete opposite. “Cataract”, by Daniel Von Sturmer comprises 81 screens, each showing looped sequences of somewhat banal events. Although each video event is no more than a few seconds, and none of the loops are synchronised with each other, it does not feel like a series of jump-cut edits. This is partly because the events, despite their brevity, are all engaging in their own way; and partly because even though we know it is a loop, we somehow expect something different to happen each time (maybe because our brain is wired to find a narrative even when none exists?).

According to the gallery’s description of “Cataract”, “the world is full of happenings, but it is only through selective attention that meaning is found”. Quite appropriate for the attention economy and jump-cut culture – meaning is where we choose to see it, but if we are not paying the appropriate amount of attention or if we are not viewing through a critical lens, we risk missing it altogether.

Next week: The Future of Fintech

 

Box Set Culture

I was first introduced to the box set phenomenon in 1974, when I received a collection of novels by J G Ballard for my birthday. This led to an on-off interest in sci-fi (Asimov, Aldis, Bradbury, Dick, Spinrad, Crichton et al). It also made me aware that curators (like librarians) have an enormous influence on the cultural content we consume, and the way we consume it. Even more so nowadays with streaming and on-demand services. Welcome to the binge society.

Welcome to box set culture (Image sourced from Unsubscriber)

With network TV being so rubbish (who needs more “reality” shows, formulaic sit-coms or re-hashed police procedurals?) I am slowly being drawn back into the Siren-like charms of Netflix. More on that in a  moment.

Box set culture has been especially prevalent in the music industry, despite or even because of downloading and streaming services. It’s possible to buy the complete works of particular artists, or curated compilations of entire record labels, music genres or defining eras of music. It’s a niche, but growing, business. In recent times, I have been lured into buying extensive box set retrospectives of major artists (notably Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Fall, Kraftwerk), as well as extended editions of classic albums (Beatles, Beach Boys), and first time releases of exhumed and near-mythical “lost” albums (Big Star, Brian Eno, Beach Boys again). I like to justify these acquisitions on the basis that they are significant works in the canon of contemporary music. But only die-hard fans would attempt to embrace the monumental box set put out recently by King Crimson – comprising a 27-disc compilation of just TWO(!) years in the band’s history.

Death (and/or lapsed copyright) has become a fertile ground for box set curators and re-issue compilers, whether in literature, film or TV, as well as music. I’m sure there are publishers and editors maintaining lists of their dream compilations, waiting for the right moment to release them (a bit like the TV stations and newspapers who keep their updated obituaries of the Queen on standby). Sadly, in the case of Mark E Smith of The Fall, his death was immediately preceded by a significant box set release (tempting fate?). And as for Bowie, he had no doubt planned his legacy (and now posthumous) retrospectives prior to his own demise.

On the other hand, streaming services create the false impression we are in control of what we listen to or watch. Unless we meticulously search, select and curate our own individual playlists, we are at the mercy of algorithms that are based on crowd-sourced behaviours that are imposed upon our own personal preferences. These algorithms are based on what is merely popular, or what the service providers are being paid to promote. And while it is possible to be pleasantly surprised by these semi-autonomous choices, too often they result in the lowest common denominator of what constitutes popular taste.

And so to Netflix, and the recent resurgence in pay TV drama. Binge watching (and box set culture in general) has apparently heralded a golden age of television (warning: plug for Sky TV). But depending on your viewpoint, binge watching is either a boon to shared culture (the normally stoical New Statesman) or results in half-baked content(the usually culturally progressive Guardian). Typically, the Independent is on the fence, acknowledging that binge viewing has changed the way TV is made (and watched) but at what price? Not to be left out, even Readers Digest has published some handy health tips for binge-TV addicts. Meanwhile, Netflix itself has released some research on how binge-watching informs our viewing habits (and presumably, our related consumer behaviours). And not everyone thinks this obsession with binge watching is healthy, or even good for business – presumably because it is not sustainable, as consumers will continue to expect/demand more and more at lower and lower subscription fees.

Meanwhile, for a totally different pace of binge-watching, SBS recently tested audience interest in “slow TV”. The free-to-air network screened a 3 hour, non-stop and ad-free documentary (with neither a voice-over narrative nor a musical soundtrack) featuring a journey on Australia’s Ghan railway. So successful was the experiment, not only did the train company’s website crash as viewers tried to find out about tickets, but SBS broadcast a 17 hour version just days later.

Next week: Infrastructure – too precious to be left to the pollies…

10 Examples of Cold War Nostalgia: We Can’t Get Enough Of It…

I don’t know if any historian, politician or media commentator has ever said it publicly, but someone must have coined the phrase, “You knew where you stood during the Cold War”.

tinker-dvdlrg

There was some strange comfort to be had in knowing exactly where the geo-political lines were drawn in the days before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution of 1979* – events which could be argued to have brought about the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, but also heralded an era of constant challenge to American hegemony.

35 years after those momentous events of 1979, numerous books, TV series and films continue to feed our appetite for Cold War nostalgia. Here is a (highly subjective and selective) list of 10 such contributions from recent years:

  1. “Stasiland” (2003) – While not strictly speaking about the Cold War, Anna Funder’s  contemporary work of non-fiction on East Germany’s surveillance regime is a powerful account of her investigation into the activities of secret police operatives and their victims, and what has become of them since the Berlin Wall collapsed and the re-unification of Germany
  2. “The Lives of Others” (2006) – This film, set in 1984, is a somewhat romanticized look at events described in Funder’s “Stasiland”, but still manages to convey the numbing effects of life behind the Iron Curtain
  3. “Equals” (2014) – The year will not be allowed to pass without SOME sort of reference/homage/pastiche/exhumation/sequel to George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984”, which was published 65 years ago, and set 35 years in the future of the titular year itself. While not exactly a Cold War novel, it’s seen as an allegory for life in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and a veiled warning to the rest of us about the threat of a totalitarian regime. Upcoming movie “Equals” is supposed to be a romantic interpretation of “1984”….
  4. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011) – A movie adaptation of John Le Carre’s spy novel (itself published 40 years ago, and first dramatised for TV 35 years ago when the Cold War was very much alive and kicking).
  5. “Foyle’s War” (2000-2013) – The latest episodes in this long-running TV detective series show our hero transitioning from investigating crime during war-time to the new world of espionage, counter-intelligence and Cold War intrigue.
  6. “The Hour” (2012-13) – This short-lived TV drama series was ostensibly a behind-the-scenes look at a 1950’s news and current affairs programme, but uses the Cold War events like the Hungary uprising and the Suez Crisis as a backdrop (along with a healthy dose of “reds under the bed” which implicitly references the Soviet agent scandals that rocked the British establishment during the 1950’s and 1960’s and beyond – Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt et al).
  7. “Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK” (2013) – Geoffrey Robertson delves into the truth behind the criminal prosecution and media castigation of a bit-player in the so-called Profumo Affair, which likely contributed to Ward’s suicide in 1963. The Profumo Affair of 1961 had it all – prostitution, Cold War politics and Soviet agents. And even though it led to the resignation of the UK’s War Minister, it has been suggested that the Establishment demanded scapegoats, and Ward was seen as a suitable victim.
  8. “Solo: A James Bond Novel” (2013) – William Boyd is the latest novelist to be invited to add to the Bond canon (original Bond author, Ian Fleming died 50 years ago), and chose to set the story in 1969 with a strong Cold War context. Boyd is, of course, no stranger to this genre – nearly all of his recent novels (“Any Human Heart”, “Restless”, “Waiting for Sunrise” and “Ordinary Thunderstorms”) incorporate elements of war-time espionage, betrayal, double agents and industrial sabotage that span the 20th century.
  9. “Sweet Tooth” (2013) – Ian McEwan uses the Cold War politics of the early 1970’s as the setting for his novel about love, trust, (self-)deception, “official” propaganda and bureaucratic betrayal.
  10. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014) – Finally, bang up to date with a film version of the Tom Clancy novel. Clancy, who died only a few months ago, was a veritable Cold War warrior of the fiction world, and this latest addition to the Jack Ryan saga includes some (reassuring) Russian elements. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m sure it will satisfy my appetite for Cold War nostalgia.

* The events of the 1979 US embassy hostage crisis in Tehran, of course, were recently dramatised to great effect in “Argo” (2012). And just this month, The Atlantic described current US-Iran relations in Cold War terms.

Paywalls go up – Staff numbers go down: a tipping point for Australian news media?

Ownership concentration dominates Australia’s Mass Media

The past 12 months have been a pivotal time for Australia’s mainstream news media. Having seen off controversial regulatory reforms that would have relaxed some cross-ownership controls (but also introduced more onerous oversight of press standards), harsh business truths and painful economic reality have returned, in the form of cost-cutting, new digital subscription models, and foreign competition.

The failed regulatory reforms generated public, industry and political debate around ownership concentration and the lack of media diversity; cross-ownership and the impact of media convergence; the need for revised rules around mergers and acquisitions; and calls for more control over media standards.

What does Australia’s Fourth Estate currently look like?

There are two daily national newspapers, and 10 daily capital city newspapers; all but one of these 12 titles are owned by just two companies: News Limited, and Fairfax Media. Only Sydney and Melbourne have more than one daily local newspaper. Together, News and Fairfax account for about 88% of print media. Both companies have significant interests in broadcast media. The sole “independent” daily newspaper is owned by Seven West Media, itself a major TV broadcaster. As further evidence of Australia’s concentrated content ownership, Seven West has a joint digital venture with Yahoo!, while its rival network broadcaster, Nine Entertainment has a similar joint venture with Microsoft. Prominent in the ownership mix are the names of Rupert Murdoch (News Limited), James Packer (Consolidated Press Holdings) and Kerry Stokes (Seven West Media) – each of whose companies have various interests in Australian pay TV. Meanwhile mining magnate and Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart has been buying into both Fairfax (along with John Singleton, a key figure in Australia’s advertising and radio industries) and Network Ten (along with James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch).

Another layer of complex media cross-ownership comes in the form of Australia’s regional TV networks. The main regional networks (WIN, Southern Cross and Prime) each have content affiliation agreements with one or other of the three metropolitan networks (Seven, Nine and Ten), and each have separate interests in radio. Just to confuse things even further, the owner of WIN, Bruce Gordon is a major shareholder in Network Ten, and in the past week it has been reported that he is open to merging WIN with either Nine or Ten. Not only would such a merger lead to further concentration (subject to regulatory approval), it would also see a re-alignment of the metropolitan and regional content agreements; and given past criticism of of reduced local and regional TV news content (and the closure or consolidation of local TV news rooms), I would imagine that without suitable regulatory provisions, local news content will be even further reduced.

What are the news media doing in response to current market challenges?

First, both News and Fairfax have announced staff cuts in an effort to offset declining circulation and advertising revenues from their print editions. The overall results have seen: departures by high-profile journalists; centralized news-gathering operations; outsourced sub-editing; re-alignment of print and on-line assets; and the closure of some local and regional titles. Most recently, Australian Associated Press (AAP) announced that newswire staff numbers are being reduced by 10%. AAP (whose largest shareholders are News and Fairfax) is a major provider of news content and sub-editing services to the mainstream media. The staff reductions among in-house editors and journalists have raised concerns about quality and diversity in Australia’s highly concentrated news media. Partly in response to this perceived decline in editorial standards, The Conversation (a not-for-profit venture, backed by a consortium of universities) was launched in 2011 as a platform for in-depth, objective and authoritative news analysis and commentary.

Second, both News and Fairfax are in the process of building subscription paywalls around their digital content. Fairfax has operated a paywall around its business title, the  Financial Review, for several years; but like News it is introducing freemium models for broader on-line news content. In their latest investor briefings, News and Fairfax have outlined a renewed strategic focus on digital platforms, although neither have given definitive timelines for sun-setting their print editions. Personally, I am somewhat confused by the different subscription models on offer (print, on-line and tablet editions) and what I can access as a subscriber to one or other platform (and as a domestic or overseas reader).

Third, UK publisher Guardian News and Media has launched an Australian edition of its online newspaper. Free to readers, the site is funded by local advertising, and supported by a combined UK/Australia editorial, production and commercial team. As with News and Fairfax, I’m confused by the commercial model for digital content – is there a dedicated Australian subscription within the tablet edition? – and I doubt whether the Guardian Australia can compete effectively with domestic news coverage. The Guardian claims that Australia is one of its largest markets outside the UK, but I wonder if that readership mostly comprises British backpackers wanting to check the latest results from the English Premier League… The Guardian Australia, along with The Conversation has benefited from the staff downsizing at News and Fairfax to co-opt some leading journalists and editors to its cause. Meanwhile, The Conversation has launched a beta site for the UK.

And the rest?

Elsewhere, News, Fairfax and other smaller publishers are building specialist digital content, particularly in business, finance, politics, property, motoring, careers and sport. Most of these assets are funded by advertising and sponsorship, or underwritten by cross-media promotion. A number of these outlets appear to source their content from unpaid bloggers and commentators, as a way of offering free marketing and audience exposure to their writers.

Despite the latest failed attempts at regulatory reform, I expect to see plenty of activity within Australia’s news media (once we get past the forthcoming federal election), fuelled by renewed debates over ownership concentration; the realignment of cross-media interests (especially among Australia’s media barons and billionaires); and the re-positioning of print vs online vs mobile.

Disclosure: the author does not hold a financial interest in, or have a commercial arrangement with any of the publishers mentioned in this article..