internet TV Uncategorized

Netflix, our hero!

The telcos are doubly damned.

On the one hand, American telecommunications companies continue to hold back TV’s natural evolution. Television service hasn’t improved for decades. To watch your favorite programs, you still have to buy overpriced packages of channels you hate. Even now, when pervasive broadband invites infinite distribution alternatives, the telcos ruthlessly stymie innovation and strong-arm content providers into antiquated deals.[1]

On the other hand, the telcos seem intent on breaking the Internet. Verizon recently won a court case against the FCC, invalidating rules that prevented ISPs from discriminating against traffic. Net neutrality—so key to free speech and healthy competition—is now on death watch. And because telcos own local monopolies in so many markets, Americans may have no choice but to accept it. We’ll pay whatever the ISP demands, accept whatever speeds are available, and put up with whatever crippled version of the Internet they deign to offer.

One company is uniquely impacted by both telco sins. Netflix, the one-time DVD-by-mail startup and current king of streaming video, has a stake in both TV’s evolution and net neutrality.

On the one hand, Netflix represents the future of television. Watch what you want, when you want it, at one low price. Give your customer a simple, intuitive interface, available on any device, anywhere in the world. Just compare Netflix’s clean design to your cable box’s tangled, unresponsive, janky mess of a menu.

Of course, Netflix depends on content providers who sit under the telcos’ thumb. At any time, the streaming service could lose its content deals, leaving behind a wasteland of straight-to-DVD movies and outdated TV shows.

That’s why it’s so important that Netflix develop its own content. House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and Arrested Development aren’t just fun side-projects. They represent Netflix’s future and the future of TV. Let the telcos lock down traditional programming. It won’t matter, if you produce original shows that the viewers adore.

Netflix also stands to be victimized by the second ISP sin: hobbling the Internet. Netflix currently accounts for a huge chunk of U.S. Internet traffic. If the telcos target anyone for “traffic shaping,” they’ll target Netflix. Imagine a world where Verizon slows Netflix to a crawl (“Buffering… buffering…”), but lets its own streaming service scream through the pipes.

That’s why Netflix has already taken a preemptive, offensive stance against traffic shaping. Soon after the FCC lost its net neutrality case against Verizon, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings posted a strongly-worded letter to investors. He vowed to fight any attempt by the ISPs to slow down Internet video. In response, Hastings warned, Netflix would “vigorously protest and encourage our members to demand the open Internet.” Want to see someone get angry? Interrupt their Breaking Bad binge.

American telcos own the infrastructure that links us to the wider Internet. But they don’t own the Internet itself. They can’t hold back new TV business models forever. They can’t escape the fact that their customers just want a big, fat, wide-open connection to the wider network. Hopefully, the telcos accept their “dumb pipe” destiny quietly. But if they can’t (or won’t), let’s hope that Netflix flexes its muscles.

  1. And even when the content companies do stream online, they often require a cable or satellite subscription. In other words, they’re scared of losing their lucrative telco contracts.  ↩

TV Uncategorized

Parks and Rec: the rewards (and perils) of a fleshed-out sitcom world

NBC’s Parks and Recreation goes out of its way to create a consistent fictional world, with recurring characters and odd local lore. For example, Li’l Sebastian, the beloved mini-horse of Pawnee, Indiana, doesn’t just headline a single funny episode. He comes up again and again, even after his untimely death. He’s the star of the town’s Harvest Festival; his demise is mourned in an elaborate town-wide memorial service. The next season, one character gives another a Li’l Sebastian plush toy. Years afterward, the parks department plans a memorial fountain in the tiny equine’s honor.

Recurrent guest stars also contribute to Parks and Rec’s faux-realism. Take the town’s local media personalities, for example. Rather than just substitute in a generic reporter every time the plot calls for it, the show takes pains to bring back Perd Hapley, Joan Callamezzo, and Shauna Malway-Tweep, familiar local celebrities (each with their own quirks).

A third example of the show’s fleshed-out imaginary world: Pawnee’s Town Hall is decorated with murals depicting famous scenes from hometown history. Unfortunately, most of these historic episodes are grotesque, shameful, and, therefore, hilarious. For example, one wall-sized masterpiece portrays a traveling magician (and his rabbit) being burned at the stake for witchcraft… in 1973. The murals typically get introduced in a single episode, but as set decoration, they appear again and again as backdrop to scenes set in City Hall.

This self-referential approach gives the show (at least the illusion of) depth, and rewards those fans who pay close enough attention to pick up on the recurring jokes. Not coincidentally, then, the show has earned a dedicated (if small) cult following. And it’s in good company; 30 Rock, Arrested Development, and The Simpsons have colored in their own fictional worlds; all three shows enjoy a devoted horde of fans.

There’s a danger to this self-referential approach, however. Layer things too deeply, and your show becomes too obtuse to approach. If a channel-surfer can’t decipher a show’s call-backs and inside jokes, she’s likely to keep on flipping. Shallow, “jokey” sitcoms like Big Bang Theory (which has often shared a timeslot with Parks and Rec) set a far lower bar for entry. Not surprisingly, then, Parks and Rec has flirted with cancellation every spring. The similarly heady Arrested Development got canned after three short seasons.[1]

On the other hand, maybe shows can afford to challenge their viewers these days. The broadcast model, which encouraged episodic plot lines and broad accessibility, is dying. The Netflix era has arrived. Now, an individual episode serves as the bait; capture the new viewer’s attention, then get them to gorge, binging on entire seasons at a time. Before long, they’ve seen every episode, and you’ve added one more cult member, humming along to “5000 Candles in the Wind” (a Li’l Sebastian tribute), or craning their heads to take in Pawnee’s magnificent murals.

  1. Arrested Development doubled down on inscrutability with Season 4, recently released via Netflix. Even devotees of the show have had trouble following the tightly-knotted plot.  ↩

technology TV Uncategorized

The best Internet TV device is still your laptop.

Hooking up a PC to a TV using cables. That’s so 2008.

So proclaims the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg, whose recent article summarizes the many options consumers have for getting Internet video onto their TVs. Xbox, TiVo, Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast, smart TVs: these devices purport to make online video just as easy to watch as more familiar broadcast television. Click a button on your remote, sit back, and watch.

Why does Mossberg exclude the possibility of just hooking up your PC to the TV? He dismisses this as the “most complex” option. But is it? Connect a single cable, and your set-up is done. Now watching the TV means simply browsing the web. There’s no new interface to learn. No peripheral device you have to buy. No flaky proprietary streaming protocol that may or may not work reliably (a la Chromecast, Airplay). No extra monthly subscription fee (a la Xbox).

More importantly, your content options are simple, too. With all other Internet TV devices, choosing one locks you out of some video services. Apple TV lacks Amazon Instant Video. Roku has no YouTube app. Use your PC, though, and you get everything. Anything that can play on the web can now play on your TV. Not only do you get the major video services (e.g. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.), but you can play live streams from the major news networks. You can peruse less-familiar sites like Funny Or Die, Vimeo, and Daily Motion. You can watch sports broadcasts using your subscription to or NHL GameCenter. You can even project your less… (ahem) “legitimate” content sources to your television.

The main complaint about this set-up? You lose that mindless, “sit-back and browse” experience so familiar from traditional TV. Hauling your butt off the couch every time a show ends can get annoying. There are options to improve this experience: hard-wiring a long HDMI cable to your recliner would work. Or you could download a smartphone remote app that lets you control your PC while sitting down.

But, then again, do you want to watch mindlessly? One of the scariest things about traditional TV is how easy you can blow your weekend, watching shows you hardly like. Conversely, an advantage of the PC-to-TV set-up is its occasional inconvenience. While it’s easy to watch what you want, it’s just enough of a hassle to discourage those lazy, trashy marathons you later regret.

technology TV Uncategorized

Betting on the binge: Netflix, House of Cards, and the future of appointment viewing

We rejoined Netflix, and I can’t stop watching.

I’ve already devoured two seasons of The Walking Dead, AMC’s zombie gore-fest. We’re plowing through Arrested Development, a show that somehow slipped under our radar back in its day. West Wing looms on the horizon, along with a half-dozen other series we never caught the first time around.

In other words, we’re binging—and loving it. It’s a pleasant way to veg. No weeklong wait between episodes. No commercial breaks. Dig into a show on your own terms, not on the schedule that helps the network win sweeps week.[1]

We love it, and so do millions of other viewers (especially the younger crowds marketers salivate over). For us, this is “TV”. Not hundred-dollar cable bills. Not frustrating slogs through weeks of reruns, waiting for a new episode. Just an easy-to-use, inexpensive service that encourages us to overindulge on our favorite shows.

Knowing how much its users love to binge, Netflix has gone all-in. House of Cards, an original series produced by the online service, never aired on a network. It was never released piecemeal, episode by episode, either. Instead, Netflix debuted Cards’ entire first season all at once: fourteen episodes—teed up for immediate binge viewing.

The binge is in, but the old model has its strengths, both for the networks and their viewers. For over half a century, the television industry emphasized “appointment viewing.” Popular shows were hyped as “must see TV”, and viewers rearranged their schedules to tune in, every week—“same bat time, same bat channel.”

This steady time slot approach helped make television a social phenomenon. Fans planned parties around each new episode’s premiere. Workers gathered around the water cooler to discuss the previous night’s shows. And as social media—particularly Twitter—ramped up, this communal conversation spilled out onto the web.

Viewers want to watch together. The desire is hard-wired into our brains. For most of human history, after all, we gathered around the campfire, huddled against the dark, and told each other stories. We still gather—only the flickering light comes from a talking box, and the stories get beamed in from afar.

Slowly but surely, the networks realized how important social viewing was to a show’s success. For a series to go viral, it needed rabid fans to share it with others. So the studios now do everything they can to encourage this conversation. Thus, we get hashtags superimposed over every broadcast.

This leaves Netflix in a precarious position, with irreconcilable agendas on all sides. Their subscribers want to binge freely and share the viewing experience with others. The networks—who still provide the vast majority of Netflix’s content—need a viable release model for the digital age and a way to promote their product.

It’s a tricky problem, but here’s one way Netflix could solve it: help users sync their viewing with each other. Make it easy for people half a world apart to watch the exact same thing at the exact same time. If one person pauses, the other does, too—automatically. And, as their mini-marathons roll along, friends would share their reactions, real-time, on Twitter and Facebook, thus recreating the hashtag effect in miniature.[2] Netflix itself might even organize some parties: “Jump into LOST with the rest of Netflix, starting this Friday at 9!”

The binge is no longer fringe. To satisfy its viewers, appease its content providers, and cement itself as the streaming king, Netflix should invite us to binge… together.

  1. In fact, if anything, the binge trend undermines TV ratings, since it encourages viewers not to watch the best shows as they air. Let the bandwagon pass you by and the seasons stack up. Then, once the show airs its finale, you’re free to enjoy the entire series. You can rocket through Battlestar Galactica in a long weekend. You can power through LOST in a fortnight. You can skip over the universally-reviled episodes to reach the fan favorites. If you can wait out a show’s broadcast run, TV works around your schedule, not the networks’ prime-time strategies.  ↩

  2. In fact, the XBOX Netflix app had something like this functionality in its “Party Mode,” until a firmware upgrade wiped this feature out  ↩

TV Uncategorized

Unpacking Jerry’s apartment(s?): continuity errors in Seinfeld’s pilot.

Television pilots are tricky things. They’re test episodes, meant to gauge whether a concept will fly or not. Seinfeld’s pilot, first broadcast in July of 1989, nearly failed the test. Screenings met with a tepid response from audiences, who complained about pointless stories and uninteresting characters. But when I go back and watch Seinfeld’s opening episode, it’s not the tediously long stand-up interludes, the unfunny writing, or the lagging pace that bug me. No, I’m bothered by Jerry’s apartment.

If that even is Jerry’s apartment. Oh, sure, it resembles the unit 5A familiar from later seasons, but something seems… off. Take the windows, for example. Most of the time, Seinfeld’s producers used this L.A. façade as the exterior shot for Jerry’s building:


In fact, in every episode but the first, this is the exterior. In that first episode, however, we get this:


Maybe Jerry’s building underwent some major renovations? And things make even less sense viewed from the inside:


Wait, what? Neither exterior shot included these tall, warehouse-style bay windows. Perhaps Jerry was the previous tenant at another show’s famous flat:


Weird. I thought the Friends lived in the Village.

It’s not just the windows that are inconsistent, though. Check out this shot from the pilot:


Now compare it to this, taken from the show’s second episode, “The Stakeout:”


The two rooms look alike at first, aside from new decor (Jerry’s taste has improved?). Harder to explain are the changes to the bathroom area. In the pilot, the door at the rear of Jerry’s apartment opens directly into the bathroom. By the second episode, however, the bathroom has shifted deeper into the set. A wide door frame leads into both the bathroom and Jerry’s bedroom (off-camera). Either the super knocked down some walls, or something’s not quite right here.

Of course, one might say that such obsessive analysis points to some mental illness on my part. After all, the pilot was filmed years before the show hit its stride; if the writing improved, couldn’t the set design improve with it? And, besides, the pilot includes much more glaring discrepancies than the apartment floorplan. Jerry calls his neighbor “Kessler,” for crying out loud.

Still, the Seinfeld pilot is canonical! Later seasons prove it. The finale playfully references the first conversation between Jerry and George–which happens in the pilot. Even the premiere’s Kramer/Kessler goof gets retconned (i.e., explained away) in a later episode. So the pilot is authoritative Seinfeld lore. Nitpicky nerds like me are left to wonder how Jerry fit a bedroom where his bathtub used to be.


Jerry’s apartment two years before the pilot, as portrayed in “The Betrayal” (season 9). Notice the full hallway behind Jerry. The mental gymnastics needed to reconcile this with the pilot floorplan are overwhelming.

TV Uncategorized

Why I still watch Seinfeld.

Every night during dinner, my wife and I watch TV. I know that’s bad. Mealtime should be a time for conversation, for connection, for relationships. A sacred, inviolable hour for the young family. So sue us. Our most recent addiction has been classic episodes of Seinfeld, king of the 90s TV charts.

We’ve restarted from the show’s earliest days, enjoying some early episodes for the very first time. Sure, the show stumbles at first. Too many stand-up clips sabotage the pacing, and scenes drag on far too long. In addition, the characters don’t quite seem themselves. George, later hapless and lazy, somehow navigates a successful career. And Michael Richards seems more Stanley Spadowski than Kramer at first. Before long (by season 3), though, the show hits its stride.

Why does the show endure? Clever writing, most of all. While Jerry Seinfeld’s “What’s the deal?” routine grates on me as nasal stand-up, it works brilliantly spun out as story. It’s inane and everyday and pedestrian (think “excruciating minutiae”), but it’s familiar and astonishingly funny, too. Funny, especially, because the characters play it so well. They’re quirky, iconic, distinct, and relatable. George Costanza, the neurotic, obsessive societal cast-off. Kosmo Kramer, the lovable, eccentric hipster doofus. Jerry’s conniving failure of a arch-nemesis, Newman. And a long list of one-hit weirdos: the Low Talker. The Soup Nazi. The Wiz.

As these infamous characters prove, Seinfeld created culture, rather than merely imitating it. “Yada, yada, yada.” “A Festivus for the rest of us!” “Man Hands.” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” The show created touchstones that haven’t yet dislodged from culture. In fact, the show was so influential, it would eventually reference itself. Meta moves were frequent; for example, in one repeating storyline, NBC woos in-show Jerry to write a sitcom based on his stand-up. Another time, Kramer creates a tour based on his own life–just as the real-life inspiration for Kramer did after the show grew popular.

All good things come to an end, of course. Maybe Seinfeld’s reruns will wear on us. Life has changed, after all: cell phones are conspicuously absent from Jerry’s world, and the Internet shows up only as a punch line there. Michael Richards’ unfortunate (and despicable) racist onstage rant certainly tarnished the show’s image–and made Kramer seem more Ku Klux than kooky.

Then again, maybe Seinfeld is something special, something timeless–more akin to I Love Lucy or M*A*S*H than shallow stuff like Friends or Raymond. According to one recent report, Seinfeld has earned $2.7 billion in syndication since it went off the air twelve years ago. That makes it the highest-earning sitcom in TV history. Not too bad for the “Show about Nothing.”