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..

Why we need a “Steam Internet”

1981 Alcatel Minitel terminal(Photo by Jef Poskanzer - Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike)

1981 Alcatel Minitel terminal
(Photo by Jef Poskanzer – Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike)

The Internet is passing through a period of consolidation, as befits an industry that has reached maturity:

1. A small number of mega-players dominate the market: Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, PayPal, YouTube and Wikipedia.

2. Product lines are being rationalized, as companies trim their offerings to focus on core business – the latest victim being Google’s Reader tool for RSS feeds.

3. The distinctions between hardware, software, content and apps are blurred because of overlapping services, increased inter-connectivity via mobile platforms, and cloud-based solutions.

4. The business model for Internet access and Web usage is primarily based on data consumption and/or underwritten by 3rd party advertising. Social Media and search services are often not counted as part of the usage, thus confusing our understanding of what content actually costs.

5. Since our concept of what constitutes “news” is rapidly being redefined by Social Media, and readers increasingly rely on Social Media channels to access news, it is harder for content providers to charge a premium for value-added  information services such as quality journalism and objective news reporting.

I would argue that to rediscover a key purpose of the Net (as a means to send/receive meaningful news and information), we need to reflect on how radio broadcasting repositioned itself when television came along – hence “Steam Internet”.

“Steam Radio” was a term used in 1950’s Britain to differentiate sound broadcasting (radio) from audio-visual broadcasts (television). Although somewhat self-deprecating (suggesting something slow, and obsolete – echoing the demise of steam railways following the introduction of electric and diesel locomotives), it actually helped to embed specific values and purpose around the role of radio as a simple but effective medium to inform, educate and entertain, despite its apparent limitations.

My interest in radio means that I continue to use it as a primary source of daily news and current affairs, and as a convenient means to access international content. The discipline of radio means that content is generally well structured, the format’s limitations emphasise quality over quantity, and when done well there is both an immediacy and an intimate atmosphere that can really only be achieved by the audio format.

Far from becoming an obsolete medium in the Internet age, the growth of digital stations (as well as Internet radio and mobile-streaming) means that radio is undergoing a renaissance as it increasingly provides very specific choices in content, and offers ease of access without a lot of the “noise” of many news and information websites, with their pop-up ads, unstable video and data-hungry graphics.

Over the past decade, the major growth in Internet traffic in general, and World-wide Web usage in particular, has been driven by Social Media. However, neither the Net nor the Web was originally designed to be a mass-media platform, but the success of a highly interactive, deeply personalized and far-reaching network threatens the viability of the Internet as a means to effective communication.

As Web content and functionality has become more complex, so it actually becomes harder and more frustrating to find exactly what we want, because:

  • search and retrieval is advertising-driven and based on popularity, frequency and connectivity (rather than on context, relevance and quality);
  • content searches reduce everything to a common level of “hits” and “results”; and
  • there is little or no hierarchy as to how information and search results are structured (maybe we need a Dewey Decimal system for organising Web content?). This is one reason why Twitter is enhancing its search function by using human intervention (i.e., contextual interpretation) to make more sense of trending news themes.

I’d like to offer a short historical perspective to provide further context for the need for “Steam Internet” services:

Along with bankers and brokers, lawyers were among the first to recognize the importance of dedicated Internet services for transacting data and information. The first on-line information service I ever used was Lexis-Nexis (a research tool for lawyers) when I was a paralegal in the 1980’s. Lexis-Nexis is a database that enables users to search summaries, transcripts and reports of relevant court decisions regarding specific points of law. It is a very structured and hierarchical content source. Back then, it was a dial-up service, requiring the user to place the handset of a fixed-line telephone into an external modem that was connected to the computer terminal from which the search was conducted. The reason I can remember it so vividly is because the first time I used it, I forgot to specify sufficiently narrow search terms, which meant pages and pages of text being churned out – and probably a bill of over $200, as the service was charged according to the number of results returned and pages printed.

In the mid-1990’s, when I was setting up my Internet access, the ISP was owned and run by a university, which made sense when we think that the Net grew out of the academic world. But even though I had an ISP account, I still had to download, install and configure a graphical browser (Mosaic) to access the Web – or alternatively, I could subscribe to a dedicated dial-up service such as AOL, that offered a limited number of dedicated information services. Otherwise, my Internet access really only supported e-mail via DOS-based applications, and the exchange of files. (This was pre-Explorer and pre-Netscape, and the browser wars of the 1990’s and early-2000’s – which continue to this day with Microsoft copping another EU fine just this month.)

As the Web became more interactive, but also more dependant on “push”-content driven by advertising-based search, user experience was enhanced by RSS readers – to get to the information we really needed, and to personalize what content would be pushed to our desktops. When I was demonstrating financial market information services to new clients the built-in RSS reader was a useful talking-point, because I had configured it to display scores from the English Premier League as well as general news and industry headlines. (There is an urban myth that some of the most popular news screens on Bloomberg are the sports results…)

Just a few years ago, pre-Social Media, there were discussions about building a dedicated, faster, more robust and more secure business-oriented Internet platform, because the popular and public demands placed on the Web were putting an inordinate strain on the whole system. Businesses felt the need to create a separate platform – not just VPN’s, but a new “Internet 2” for government, universities and businesses to communicate and interact.  In the end, all that has happened is an expansion of the Top-Level Domains (.biz, .mobi), with a continued programme of generic TLD’s in the works, but this is simply creating more real-estate on the Web, not building a dedicated data and information-led Internet for business.

At this point, it’s worth reflecting that only last year, France’s Minitel videotex service and the UK’s Ceefax teletext service were both finally decommissioned, each having been in operation for over 30 years. In their prime, these were innovative precursors to the Web, even though neither of them was considered to be part of the Internet. Their relevance as dedicated information services should not be overlooked just because technology has overtaken them; that’s like saying the news media are redundant because their print circulation is in decline.

In conclusion, I’m therefore very attracted to the idea of a Steam Internet which mainly carries news and information services as a way to bring focus and structure to this content.    

 

Declaration of interest: from time-to-time the author is a presenter on Community Radio, but does not currently derive an income from this activity, so no commercial or financial bias should be implied by his personal enthusiasm for this broadcast medium.