Television

The Attention Based Economy

We live in an attention based economy.

This realization struck me a couple of weeks ago when I was speaking to a sponsorship agent. I was trying to line up a sponsor for our coast-to-coast ballet master class tours. As we talked about “markets” and “reach” I thought about all of the television commercials and the stadiums and theaters with brand names on them and I began to imagine an Uber for attention. Instead of paying networks or stadiums to carry messages that consumers might or might not see why not monetize attention directly– create an ap where a company can pay individuals directly for a bit of their undivided attention? Cut out the middle man.

Increasingly artists of all kinds are told they need to work for free in order to gain “exposure.” The Huffington Post pays writers in exposure. American Idol pays its entertainers, with the exception of the winner, with “exposure.” I think it is about time we develop actual units of “exposure” so that artists can pay their landlords with it. Maybe we could call it “FameCoin.”

Young people, especially seem to feel that this free artistic labor is worth it because exposure is so valuable. But is it really? Professor Barrie Gunter of the University of Leicester studied the question and found “The idea that being on a television talent contest is a guaranteed route to fame and fortune is not supported. While this can happen, it applies to only a minority of contestants.” Gunter points out that few winners of The Apprentice lasted beyond the first year of employment with Donald Trump and few went on to develop their own businesses.

The fashion competition program Project Runway has run for 14 seasons without launching a breakout star.  As Robin Givhan wrote in The Washington Post:

“Project Runway” returns…with yet another Emmy nomination for best reality television show, respectable ratings and a modest list of upcoming celebrity guest judges. What it does not have are bragging rights to a dazzling designer success story. There is no true-life example of the wondrous fairy tale that has been at the heart of the show’s premise since its premiere in 2004…

“Project Runway” hasn’t told a story of triumph as much as it has, over time, offered a nuanced tale about what success means in today’s fashion industry, why it is so difficult and why it mostly has nothing to do with having one’s name up in lights — or on the New York Stock Exchange.

In its particular failure to produce another Michael Kors, the show has brilliantly illuminated the realities of fashion for the public to see.

Whenever a mass shooting gets heavy news coverage people express outrage not only at the violence but that the shooter has become famous. Even notoriety is considered valuable.

A study by Adam Lackford does implicate the importance Americans place on fame as one of the ingredients that leads to our high rates of mass shootings compared to the rest of the world. So we respond with a “don’t say the killer’s name” policy. For those who would do violence in order to earn some notoriety, here’s some sobering news: It doesn’t work. Most mass shootings do not even make the national news these days.  As Shane Ryan wrote in The Daily News:

Without the audiovisual and social media elements, this would barely register as a blip on America’s overburdened radar. In an incredible piece of data-based journalism, Vox’s German Lopez showed that there have been 885 mass shootings (with at least four victims) in the U.S. since the Sandy Hook massacre in late 2012, and we’re averaging about one per day in 2015. The Roanoke killings stand out because many of us actually saw the killings take place, but aside from the strange amount of documentation, nothing about it was exceptional. It was ordinary. In fact, it barely even qualified as a “mass shooting” by Vox standards, and would have fallen short of that metric if Flanagan hadn’t turned the gun on himself.

So to the angry guy who is building up his arsenal right now with a “this will show the world” drive– don’t do it.

In the literary world authors are constantly told to get out there and blog, blog, blog. The key to success as a writer is to build up a huge social media presence. But all of this is quite at odds with the traditional role of the writer as a silent observer of life.

“It’s very important for a writer to be unnoticed,” Edith Pearlman told The Boston Globe in 2012, when she was 75. “As quiet and unnoticed as possible.”

This is, of course, the opposite of what we are told we need to do in order to have any chance of having a writing career. So we turn to social media in an attempt to earn some FameCoin. This desire to be noticed and followed has an impact on the type of work we create.

Pew Research Center shows that social media actually stifles discussion on important issues. That is probably not surprising. What is of greater concern is that the researchers found that social media users were less likely to share their opinions even in face-to-face discussions. We get used to framing things in the least controversial manner in order to avoid being unfriended or unfollowed. It is reasonable to assume, then, that writers who are frequent social media users will also get in the habit of thinking and writing in more conventional, less challenging ways.

A Cornell study makes the case that social rejection is actually good for the creative process. The act of being rejected can liberate creative people from the need to fit in and allow them to pursue their interests. Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley business school who specializes in creativity told Salon that a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”

I propose that it is time to rethink some of our assumptions about the value of attention and exposure. We are dealing in a currency that buys very little.

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What CNN Leaves Out

CNN ran a front page story today about baggage handlers caught stealing from airline checked bags.

A CNN analysis of passenger property loss claims filed with the TSA from 2010 to 2014 shows 30,621 claims of missing valuables, mostly packed in checked luggage. The rest occurred at security checkpoints. Total property loss claimed: $2.5 million. John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York topped the list of airports with the most claims of thefts from luggage, followed by Los Angeles International, Orlando International and Miami International, according to the data.

As I read the story, there was something that I wondered. I couldn’t find it anywhere in the reporting (even though it is credited to three journalists). So I looked this up myself:

Baggage handlers are paid an average of $11.92 an hour, a little more than $23,000 a year. The U.S. federal poverty line for a family of four is $24,250. A person in this income bracket qualifies for food stamps.

Maybe it’s a bad idea to put people who are paid below the poverty line in charge of making sure passengers valuables get on the plane safely.

This should at least be part of the discussion.

The Media Could Try… Reporting

What if
Meet the Press engaged in a bit of counter-factual speculation this morning. It produced a video to demonstrate what the coverage of the Walter Scott shooting would have looked like if a bystander had not caught it on video.

(This is my workaround for the limitations on embedding videos into Word Press. If you click on the screen cap above it should take you to the segment content, which you can then play.)

What struck me about this segment was how the media organization that produced it seemed to dismiss out of hand the idea that they could have done some independent reporting. The video represents “how television would have been stuck covering the story with no video…and it had to rely entirely from information from the North Charleston police department.”

I was struck by how little self-reflection there seemed to be on the role of journalists in facilitating a culture in which police shootings of civilians have been largely unscrutinized and rarely prosecuted. If police departments have sometimes made official statements with more concern for public relations than truth creating an environment of mistrust between police and the communities they serve, and if this has been the case for years, then surely the media, in not digging into the facts, deserves some share of the blame.

For almost six minutes the panel discusses the mis-information that was officially released by the police department as if there were only two possible options for a news organization– relying entirely on official and perhaps biased accounts or hoping a citizen will come forward with a shaky Iphone video. The panel seems to be in agreement that the only way the public can know what happens with police is to put body cameras on them. Only David Brooks near the very end of the segment suggests that it is incumbent upon journalists to independently verify reports from official sources. He expresses hope that the media would have done its job in this case. Given how little soul searching “the press” seem to have done on this program, I am skeptical that this would have been the case.

We are starting to have an important conversation about poverty, authority, policing and race. But there is an important element of his story that I think deserves a great deal more discussion. In an article last month The Guardian lamented what it called “the slow death of the great American newsroom” in an article that opened like this:

In the past decade, as a percentage, more print journalists have lost their jobs than workers in any other significant American industry. (That bad news is felt just as keenly in Britain where a third of editorial jobs in newspapers have been lost since 2001.) The worst of the cuts, on both sides of the Atlantic, have fallen on larger local daily papers at what Americans call metro titles. A dozen historic papers have disappeared entirely in the US since 2007, and many more are ghost versions of what they used to be, weekly rather than daily, freesheets rather than broadsheets, without the resources required to hold city halls to account or give citizens a trusted vantage on their community and the world.

For a decade or more we have been laying off all of the watchdogs and making professional news into an increasingly entertainment-driven medium. If TV news would have been “stuck” covering the story with only police reports it is because we’ve dismantled the means by which we could question those accounts.

A Quite Interesting Question. Why Don’t Americans Like Comedy Panel Shows?

1556d46c25e3ca64cd078151e136588a4d1c6aebIn the past year or so, thanks to Youtube and Hulu, I have become aware that the UK has an entire genre of program that we seem not to have, at least not that I have noticed. The best known example of it is probably QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, but there are a number of them. They are comedy panel shows, ostensibly game shows, but there are no actual prizes and no one is trying to win anything except a laugh.

A show like Real Time with Bill Maher brings a panel of smart, funny people together each week, but there the similarity ends. Real Time is a comedy version of Meet the Press. Maher’s guests are a combination of comedians and real political representatives and the banter is intended to be political satire and commentary. The guests are trying to make real points.

QI and its sisters (Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Mock the Week are examples) are a bit like a Friday game night where your pals come over and you bring out the board games and get to talking and forget whose turn it is next and don’t much care. Except the panelists are cleverer– or at least better edited– than your friends.

We do have Hollywood Game Night but the competition in that show is real and the non-celebrity contestants can take home $25,000. In this it has more in common with old game shows like Hollywood Squares, Liar’s Club or Match Game.

The panel shows are hit or miss affairs. They lack the comfortable guarantee of the set-up, punch-line pacing of a sit-com or the inherent drama of a real competition. Some groups of guests click better than others. But there is a kind of adventure in not quite knowing how it is all going to turn out or, indeed, sometimes if they are ever going to get to the point, any point, at all. (“I don’t think there’s a punchline scheduled, is there?“- Monty Python) This, I think, is what makes these kind of shows somewhat incomprehensible to U.S. audiences. We’re far too goal oriented for them.

QI has run for 12 seasons for the BBC, and surely a TV executive here has market tested the idea to American audiences. It has to be cheap to produce compared to standard Hollywood fare, and potentially profitable. Americans, in spite of our competitive DNA, embraced Whose Line is it Anyway, a British import that is set up as a competition but with no prizes and points given out at the random whim of the host.

It is hard to put my finger on what exactly is the difference between Whose Line and QI. I think it is the aspect of having a quiz and knowledge questions and not actually rewarding anyone for knowing stuff. The QI questions are designed to be almost impossibly hard and yet there is no Jeopardy champion.

The American narrative is, at its heart, a story about competition. We may not have QI, but we have Top Chef where people talk about making a winning soufle as if their lives depended on it. We have endless unscripted television dramas (reality series) which mimic scripted series. They have winners and losers, people pitted against one another. They don’t just need to survive together on a desert island– someone needs to be the last one standing. That is what a story is. It is how we understand the world. It is how our nightly news likes to frame stories. If our news consumption patters are anything to go on, we want to know which political party will be the winner in the battle over Obamacare much more than we want to have anyone to explain to us what Obamacare actually consists of. Competition is the essence of American entertainment. The idea that it can be fun watching a bunch of people not competing? That is downright un-American.

Davy Jones: My Imaginary Friend

This post was written in response to a writing prompt from The Daily Post. The prompt suggests writing about your childhood “imaginary friend.”

davy-jones-the-monkeesMy imaginary friend when I was a girl was a real person and yet he was not a real person. Already half himself, a fictional creation bearing his own name, he was transformed in my child’s mind into something even more magical. He was my own creation. A figure I could weave into my own stories.

I don’t remember the stories in which Davy Jones starred. I know the Monkees album played on my Winnie the Pooh record player in the background and that I cast stuffed animals in the other roles. There was a lot of dancing involved.

Later, during the 1980s Monkees revival, when I was in high school, I would discover an affinity for Peter Tork as I grew into an attraction for the 1960s counterculture. In case you’re of the mind that knowing a person’s favorite Monkee or Beatle tells you all you need to know about her, these are my answers: Peter Tork, John Lennon.

As a little girl, though, I somehow knew (from fairly tales probably) that being in love was the most powerful force in the world and the most transformative thing that could happen to a woman was to “fall into” it.

Davy was “the cute one.” He was presented as the one girls were to love, and dutifully I did. This is not to say that my affection was not real. It was very real. I remember coming upstairs (my playroom was in the basement) and announcing to my parents that I had something serious to tell them. I was in love. With Davy Jones.

My father laughed. I was crushed.

I have a diary that I wrote at this time. I filled every page with hearts and variants on “I love Davy Jones” and “LL + DJ.” This, I assumed, was what people in love did.

As I fell in love with the comic mop-tops the Monkees sang about “creature comfort goals” in “status symbol land” and how decisions were no longer easy there were “only shades of gray.” They even sang about suicide (see below) all topics that went over my 7-year-old head.

Incidentally, the one time I met Micky Dolenz, singing autographs at an auto show, I asked him to clarify some of the lyrics to this song, which I hadn’t caught. (This was before you could look up lyrics on the internet)  He said it was “I’ll give you three, I’ve been down nine, I’m going down just one more time goin’ down.” I looked at him with a blank expression. “You know,” he said. “Nine lives. A cat.” I said, “Oh,” and thanked him. His hand was so tired by that point that his signature read “Wing Dog.”

I also managed to get an autograph from Davy Jones too, although I seem to have lost it. I had the chance to see Davy in concert in the 1970s during what I would subsequently learn he called his “alimony tour.” It was a very small bar with tables and I was there with my parents and a couple of girlfriends. We went and stood by the door next to the stage waiting for the Monkee appearance. When he came out on stage we ran to our table. I screamed. I thought that was what you were supposed to do at a Monkees concert– it’s what they did on TV. A woman in the club said, “Calm down girls.” I think I might have cried seeing him in real life. Yet even as a child, I somehow sensed that something wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t quite as joyful as it was supposed to be. This tiny hole in the wall was a huge comedown for the boy whose 16 Magazine image had graced a million lockers. During the performance while dancing and holding up a piece of toast (his backing band was called Toast) he split his trousers. Looking back, this had to have been a low point in the life of the real Davy Jones.

After the show my friends and I waited by that same door and the “calm down, girls” woman took paper for us so Davy could autograph them. She asked my name. She must not have heard it right. The autograph came back “To Nora. David Jones.” I treasured it– until I lost it.

Davy Jones, and all of the Monkees, represented layers upon layers of illusion. Somewhere behind the masks were four real performers. They played comic characters who had only the most superficial relationships to the actors and musicians they were, and yet confusingly they had the same names. Peter Tork, who was an intelligent and sensitive musician seeped in the excesses of the 60s counterculture played the character of Peter Tork, also a musician, but an innocent and ingenuous dimwit.

They had been cast to play the roles of musicians not necessarily to be musicians. The two actors, Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, had little trouble with that. The two musicians had identity crises putting their own names on other people’s music and becoming famous for it. Like all artists the four wanted to be taken seriously and they found the loveable-mop-top image constraining.

I have since read quite a bit about these men in various articles and biographies. I get the impression that these four might not have gotten along all that well and that perhaps charming, cute Davy was the most difficult to get along with. In life the cute boys are often the most assertive and strong-willed as they overcompensate for the child-like impression created by their faces.

I am not sure my life was improved by reading the biographies. The real men who made up the Monkees were not my Monkees. The real Monkees were the imaginary friends they created on television. They were the best of friends, each member distinct in his own way, but they operated always as a unit. They were always struggling to get a gig and pay the rent but their money woes had no real-world consequences except for occasionally triggering a Monkees romp. The real Monkees were the ones who lived in a “groovy pad” with a mannequin named Mr. Schneider who spouted aphorisms when you pulled a cord. I think my idea of a dream home is still the Monkees groovy pad.

(Davy Jones’s idea of a dream home is for sale apparently.)

Performers are magical. They create new beings. The Davy Jones I loved was not the actor David Jones who married and divorced and re-married, who was forced to go on the road at the low point of his fame in order to pay the alimony. That man was connected to my Davy Jones in some way, but my Davy Jones was real and he was his own person. He was born from the images the actor David Jones created and the way the character was received in my mind.

It is common to dismiss these fantasies of childhood, to laugh at the puppy love and to pack it all away, but I believe my ability to take fictional people seriously is something important that I carry with me to this day. It is part of what makes me a writer.

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While I have you here, I would like to invite you to learn a bit about my forthcoming novel Identity Theft. It explores the theme of celebrity infatuation and fantasy. There is only one week to go in the Pubslush crowdfunding campaign to make this title a reality. Your advance order of $15 for the print book or $10 for the ebook will help make its publication a reality, not a dream. Thank you for your support.