Author: Todd

The coming ubiquity of home assistants – choose wisely!

As I’ve written before, I am very bullish on the inevitable adoption of home assistants in most homes. After seeing my parents’ new Comcast remote with voice recognition, and then watching the Amazon Echo in action at a friend’s house, I knew this was a game-changer.

There’s been a flurry of announcements in the past few weeks introducing new devices and added features, with the lion’s share coming from Amazon. Here is a sampling:

Google is reportedly working on a screen-equipped Amazon Echo Show competitor – Business Insider

Google is working on an Echo Show competitor – Business Insider

Amazon announces new Echo devices for the whole home – Business Insider

Amazon’s new Fire TV gives Alexa one more place to live – Wired

NFL’s Amazon deal could be test for more streaming games – The Los Angeles Times

No matter who you are, Amazon wants you to be using Alexa – The Washington Post

Amazon’s New $99 Echo Is Part of Its Quest to Continue Dominating the Voice-Assistant Race – Slate.com

It seems inevitable that these will soon become ubiquitous, in much the same way that TVs entered the home in the 1950s and 1960s, or the phone message recorders did in 1980s. But will your choice of device condemn you to a Google-centric or Amazon-centric household?

My take has always been that technology companies see these devices as a means to get a foothold in your everyday life, connect you to their ecosystem of interconnectivity, and have direct access to your living and buying habits, in an effort to grow their databases and deliver advertising. They understand that the big bucks will not come from you buying any devices themselves, but from them selling advertising data to those trying to get your attention.

It’s an old joke in the TV industry that programs are just to fill the space between commercials, and that same idea applies to the new technology invading your homes, cars, phones and apps. When you think about it, who has the most access to your lifestyle habits? I would certainly put Google, Amazon and Apple in that category, but would also urge you to not ignore Facebook, the 800-lb. gorilla in this space. I will be watching carefully as to how they position themselves in this increasingly crowded arena. Will they attempt to sell hardware, software or platforms?

This is a look at the obvious players, but I guarantee that others will be stepping up, and they will either succeed as upstarts, or get acquired. I could list those already in that category, but most know about them. Which brings me to the looming question that remains to be answered… Will these devices be interoperable, or will they remain siloed? Microsoft and its Windows operating system, and Google with the Android OS, both work (mostly) well with others, and reaped those rewards, while Apple’s iOS pretty much sticks to iPhones and Macs . But will Alexa speak to Cortana at some point? Or will technology behave like 7-year old boys in the back seat of a car, continually fighting for supremacy and causing frustration for all?

Entertainment and the Fickle Finger of Fate

There has been much hand-wringing over the anemic box office this summer, with receipts near record lows.  This article spells out some of the reasons for why this might be happening, but the last line reveals what most in Hollywood already know:

“The New Hollywood of the ’70s begat the blockbuster age begat the indie rebels of the ’90s begat the superhero globalization of this century. This summer in Hollywood—by turns crass and inspiring, confounding and crystal clear—could trigger a new era. But more likely, it’s business as usual.”

In other words, it reflects the quote that I first read in William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, which says that “nobody knows anything.” And when you see the quote in its entirety, it becomes obvious how it applies to entertainment in general, and filmmaking specifically:

“Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess — and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

I read Goldman’s book before I even moved to Los Angeles, and find myself constantly advising people to read it. I’ve even mentioned it on this blog before. And that’s because it’s a lesson that people need to relearn every few years. The advent of new means of distribution is good news to many in Hollywood, but one bad summer does not a paradigm shift make.

The industry has weathered new technology before. Theater survived the emergence of radio and film, just as they survived television’s rise. Books are still around, and a good storyteller can make a living on podcasts or live events. The core of  entertainment is conveying a narrative that captures the zeitgeist of the moment, and we are in an era of new politics and uncertain times.

What will be the next trend? Well, who knows? If anyone did – with certainty – then they’ll likely get very rich. But we know that’s impossible, so just roll the dice and go with your gut. Just remember this other quote:

“Ambition drives you on, ability certainly helps, but the fickle finger of fate and luck are great things.”

As for that fickle finger, I will never forget when I was going out with a fantastic action thriller set aboard a hijacked airliner… then 9/11 happened. You just never know.

Good luck!

Apple’s missteps and future

I’ll admit to feeling a certain sense of vindication when I read this recent column on Bloomberg Businessweek about the sorry state of Apple’s TV initiatives (or lack thereof):

“After 10 years, Apple TV is pretty much the same. Meanwhile Amazon, Google and others are leading the way in revamping how people interact with TV sets by speaking to them or mixing live television programs with libraries of older shows and movies.”

Ever since it became apparent to me that digital delivery of TV programming was the inevitable future of distribution, I have thought it was a nearly-perfect fit for Apple to purchase Sony. It would deliver them a source of IP that spanned from videogames and music to television and film content, as well as the know-how to produce new material.

In the mid-2000s (like now), Apple was flush with cash and should have spent a chunk of it to acquire Sony, which to this day, still struggles with its own line of businesses, from the Vaio to the Walkman to the Betamax. Even their vaunted televisions are now second-banana to upstarts like Vizio.

Granted, I may be overstating the predicament that Apple finds itself, but it seems to be strategically challenged in the arena of digital content delivery, especially with regard to streaming video. A purchase like Sony would be a bold statement from this parent of the smartphone to enter the next phase of innovation.

In fact, I suspect (hope?) they’re working on the next entrant to the home digital assistant market. Will Siri’s home-based device – whatever that may be – serve as a viable and successful challenge to the likes of Alexis, OK Google, Cortana and Bixby? I won’t hold my breath, but hope springs eternal, right?

 

Here they come… the inevitable march of digital assistants!

Apropos of my last post, I was reminded that Samsung has recently introduced “Bixby” on its Galaxy S8 – now, with an English version! – that portends yet another entrant into the digital assistant marketplace. More importantly, it will try to lure you into the Samsung ecosystem, as opposed to the Amazon, Google or Apple ones. In fact, I just received an email from Capital One with this little snippet:

Your Capital One® credit card comes with lots of great perks and benefits, and we’ve teamed up with Samsung Pay to reward you with a little something extra the next time you use your card in Samsung Pay.

Clearly, there are incentives being provided to draw you ever more into these respective ecosystems. From smartphones, to digital payments, to entertainment (media), to content, there are growing signs that we are facing a fractious technological future.

My big question is how Samsung will manifest Bixby into your digital life. Clearly, there is a trend toward having a separate device that stands alone in your home environment. Alexa (aka Echo) was first, with Google Home and Apple right behind. But will we see a standalone device – separate from the smartphone – which will incorporate Bixby’s functionality and permit voice commands to run appliances, televisions, and more (many of which Samsung manufactures)? Or could you simply have a stand for your phone that recharges it and also responds to voice commands?

It would appear that other home devices have distinguishing characteristics, from ultra-high quality speakers to screen touchpads. But I can envision Samsung having all these options contained in a dock or port of some sort, which will use the Galaxy smartphone as its core.

There are so many ways that things can go, and with power players like Amazon, Apple and Google behind them, it will be fascinating to observe which rise to the top, or fall to the wayside. Regardless, things continue to change at a rapid clip, and I believe the evolution of the home assistant will greatly determine how it proceed. Stay tuned!

p.s.  – Just saw this about Amazon and Sears getting into business (poor retail!), and it reinforces the growth of this tech giant into all sorts of business – data acquisition, entertainment, consumer goods, retail, and so much more. How will it get into social media? and where does Facebook figure in this whole new universe?

 

 

The next big thing in home media… and everything else!

It seems that every few months, talk around tech is predicting the next big thing. A while ago, it was 3-D television. Then it was virtual reality. But now I feel confident in my prediction about the coming ubiquity of the home assistant. First manifested in Amazon’s Echo (aka, Alexa), and now including devices from Google and Apple, these units will recognize commands and respond accordingly when activated.

I have been saying this since I first saw the Echo in action – as have many other prognosticators (I’m hardly exceptional in this regard) – but it was reaffirmed recently when I read this article TechCrunch.

Alexa’s latest trick is offering a hands-free TV viewing experience, that will allow consumers to turn on or off their television, change inputs, fast forward, rewind and more, without having to first invoke a specific skill, or even press a button on their remote.

A friend recently asked about the wisdom of investing in this Amazon device, and while I endorsed its utility in the technophile’s household, I also cautioned about being lured into the Amazon ecosystem. In much the same way that Apple has created a successful universe built around its devices and software, Amazon is doing the same, but with a much broader consumer component, as evidenced by its recent acquisition of Whole Foods. It also has a very robust media segment, with the Washington Post Group under its control, and a growing amount of entertainment IP. Perhaps its smartest move is a very intentional efforts at developing a children’s programming slate, which will pay huge dividends as these tiny consumers become free-spending adults.

This points to the biggest fault I’ve detected in Apple’s strategy since Steve Jobs’ passing (although he isn’t absolved of blame completely). While they had (and still have) the cash reserves, I always felt that purchasing a media giant like Sony would have given them the expertise, content, and breadth to deliver a wide spectrum of content, gaming and skills to compete with the other players out there.

It will be interesting to see how the various companies develop and transform their businesses to become their own ecosystems, uniting the devices, software, IP, market strength and ingenuity, to deserve loyalty and capture users. For now, at least, Amazon has the early lead, but it is early and things change.

To that end, I am reminded of the early days of VCRs. Sony had the technological edge and qualitative superiority with its Betamax, but the VHS won the war by being less greedy in the short term and ultimately bringing in the lion’s share of the content, along with a corresponding price drop driven by the number of manufacturers of the VHS players.

All this is to say, watch the home assistant market. I believe that how a company develops the technology, how good its voice recognition is, its ability to play well with others, and its ease of use, will greatly improve the chances of widespread adoption.

 

Secrets to success

I read this article a few weeks ago from the LA Times about a writer/director who managed to beat the odds and get a movie produced. Listen, I’m all for success stories, but everytime I read one of these, I find that the true secrets to someone’s success are ignored or misstated, leaving the aspiring artist to wonder what it was that actually made it happen.

In the case of Stella Meghie (as described in the article), the one line that stood-out for me – and obscures the true secret behind her success – was this:

“Shortly after graduating, she sold a number of TV projects.”

Now, this may sound like a throwaway line, and one that the writer penned without really considering its implications, but I see it more as the gateway to getting “Everything, Everything” made. In other words, had she not been able to sell “a number of TV projects,” it is unlikely that she would have had sufficient legitimacy to garner any attention to finance her first film project, and – in turn – an agent from CAA.

Having been through the big agency meat grinder, I have seen artists get ignored and cast aside without so much as a cursory read because they didn’t have a famous last name, or an industry referral, or some other mitigating factor in their background that opened the gates. When I first moved from the mailroom (yes, it’s not just a cliche) of UTA to an agent’s desk as his assistant, I was the sole barrier for anyone getting to him.

Perhaps the second most important lesson is to be nice to the assistant. The first is that tales of success often ignore the true reasons for how someone’s career was launched. And that is the primary failing of articles like this. I am reminded of reading about how “Gran Torino” got made, having been written by a Michigan no-name. The article said he got it to Clint Eastwood, and I immediately groaned, thinking that it takes a very special set of circumstances to get something to the revered actor/director.

Yes, this is a bit of a rant, but one that I think may prove helpful to aspiring writers and directors (even actors) who don’t understand why they can’t catch a break in Hollywood. Often, there is more that isn’t mentioned in articles like this that really tell the whole story.

One quick caveat – I am writing this making my own assumptions, and there may well be other considerations that I just don’t know about. Which is why I always try to make the creative process less of a mystery than it already is.

Good luck!

Thick skins and fragile egos

I read the other day about the passing of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The first line of his obituary in The Los Angeles Times reads:

In the nearly five years it took Robert Pirsig to sell “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” 121 publishers rejected the rambling novel.

If you are a seasoned writer, this should come as no surprise. The business of creative arts require you to risk – perhaps, invite – criticism and rejection in pursuit of success. And this stems from a universal truism that was best explained in the classic Hollywood tome titled, Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting by William Goldman. The author is probably best known for writing such masterpieces as The Sting and The Princess Bride. And while it’s a rich and humorous journey through the vagaries of making movies, he repeats a phrase that every creative type should commit to memory: “Nobody knows anything.”

This does not mean that people who produce, finance and/or distribute films are stupid (and this goes for publishers, editors, agents, etc.). It is a simple distillation of the fact that there is no certainty about what makes a movie, book, series, etc., hugely successful, or a colossal bomb.

Think for a moment about My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This was an inexpensive film with no A-list stars, yet it was a box office phenomenon in 2002. There is no algorithm, no formula (despite the current superhero craze), no secret sauce in differentiating success from failure.

I have read scripts that were so-so, but became huge hits because of the cast, the director, or maybe just the public sentiment at the time of release. I’ve also read scripts that were brilliant, but these same forces resulted in a dismal failure. One of my favorite examples is Die Hard. Based on a book by Roderick Thorp, titled Nothing Lasts Forever, and was originally optioned as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra. It languished in the vaults of 20th Century Fox for years until producer Joel Silver found it while searching for a starring role for Bruce Willis. Who knew?

Anyway, not to belabor the point, suffice it to say that perseverance is necessary (but not sufficient) to achieving success in entertainment. But remember – it’s also important to keep creating. You never know when lightning will strike!

NBC Sport’s “no sh*t, Sherlock” moment…

Apropos of my post yesterday, it was announced that NBC will air the 2018 Winter Games from South Korea completely live. As noted in this article – and the source of my blog title – it was mentioned:

“Live viewers are more likely to sit through commercials.”

And that is the point. It is all about the advertising. As a few cable companies are learning, if you make sports programming a paid exercise, you may lose quite a few viewers. Just witness what has happened here in Los Angeles with both the Dodgers and the Lakers. Plus, getting viewers onto your platform gives a great advantage to promoting other programs that the public might not otherwise be aware of.

There’s also this predictable tidbit about the value of airing awards shows live:

 “Awards shows — which have become major drivers of traffic on social media — have increasingly moved to live telecasts across the country. The Golden Globe Awards on NBC have aired live coast to coast since 2010. CBS gave its West Coast stations and affiliates the option to take the Grammy Awards live starting in 2016.”

The question of expanding sports programming into things like e-games may not hold for awards shows. There seems to be a intrinsic limit to what the public appetite is for more awards programs. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

How sports rule the media world…

I’ve commented on this many times before, but with March Madness almost concluded – and being a graduate of two ACC schools – this article simply reinforces what I’ve been saying time and again. If you need advertisers, and said advertisers don’t want viewers skipping their ads, then sports seem to be the best cure-all for that.

Of course, this is no secret, and the leagues know that. Disney, which owns ESPN, has been feeling the pinch of greater competition and, in turn, higher programming costs. Disney’s stock price peaked in 2015, and pressure from the likes of Facebook, Twitter and even Snapchat has been driving sports programming costs up. Here’s one example of that.

With the advent of so-called “e-sports,” other digital players are seeking out new area’s that will eventually compete with legacy sports. Here, you can read about YouTube’s investment in this new arena, following the lead of singular startups like PewDiePie (which is an incredible story in and of itself). Perhaps we should have seen this coming when watching people play high-stakes poker entered the scene a few years ago.

Granted, the very definition of sports is in flux right now, but it is clear that the drive for viewers that won’t skip commercials are in great demand, and unless we are prepared for a completely ala carte world of consuming content – and that doesn’t seem realistic – we must prepare and predict the future of sports programming.

Two tales of sports domination

As television continues to splinter, with more entrants into the fray on a regular basis (see YouTube TV), what is becoming clear is the struggle of broadcast networks to maintain a hold on their traditional audiences. And the power of popular sports to attract viewers that will sit through advertising is almost unquestionable. There are two recent articles in Ad Age that echo this sentiment.

First, in this article about the IPO of Snapchat (aka, Snap) makes clear that their dependence on sports programming is a paramount concern. The revenue stream depends almost solely on advertisers, and Snapchat has devised a way to make it a preferred source for watching sports.

“In many ways, the NFL is the quintessential example of Snapchat’s dream of becoming the next TV — top media partners producing original content and selling that to advertisers in upfront multimillion-dollar deals.”

For broadcasters, the news just keeps getting worse. As this other article mentions, every traditional broadcast network has seen a decline in viewership, with the sole exception of Fox. And in their case, this is revealed:

“Pull sports out of the mix and Fox’s ratings struggles become even more self-evident.”

So, what does all this mean? It’s not entirely surprising, and with digital platforms like Twitter and Facebook, as well as mobile providers like Verizon, all trying to get a piece of the sports action, it is no wonder that Disney stock is suffering mainly due to ESPN, which must now face higher license fees for sports because of the competitive bidding.

The real winners continue to be the owners, and I expect the players will also get a taste. The question becomes, what sport will emerge as demand for programming grows? UFC? Drone racing? Spelling bees? One can only speculate…