The times, they are a-changin’

Bob Dylan, one of the most iconic singer, songwriters of our era, is cashing in. Today it was announced that Dylan was selling his song library to Universal Music Group for upwards of $200M (some are reporting closer to $300M). With more than 600 songs spanning a career of nearly 60 years, Dylan’s prolific contribution to folk, pop, and rock music is unmatched. You don’t have to take my word for it: Dylan is the only songwriter in history to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

The massive deal is a great example of why copyright of intellectual property exists. Without copyright protection, Dylan’s musical accomplishments would be worth a mere fraction of its market value. And without the financial incentives provided by copyright protection, artists would be less motivated to create original work.

It does seem counter-intuitive that the counter-culture icon would sell out to a corporate media conglomerate. Universal Music Group is owned by French media oligopoly Vivendi. According to NPR, “[the company] will collect money any time another musician covers any of those songs, and it will earn revenue for allowing the songs to be used in commercials and movies as well as when the songs are streamed, sold commercially on such formats as CDs, or broadcast.” But Dylan has always resisted labels…even the label of non-conformist.

Again according to NPR, citing Universal, “Dylan’s songs have already been recorded by other artists more than 6,000 times, including such famous versions as Jimi Hendrix’s cover of ‘All Along the Watchtower‘ and Guns N’ Roses’ version of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.‘”

Beginning of the End for Video Game Consoles?

This week Sony and Microsoft are launching their next-generation consoles in the form of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. It’s been 7 years since the last major upgrade, and this one is shaking things up with serious gamers. Some of the new technologies include: ray tracing, 3-D audio, ultra-fast frame rates, and a controller that incorporates vibration-based haptic feedback.

At the same time, some industry analysts are wondering if this is the beginning of the end for consoles with the rise of cloud video gaming services as the next big thing. Google’s Stadia (“no console, no download”), Amazon’s Luna, Apple’s Arcade and Facebook Gaming are all vying to be the future of video gaming.

To keep things in perspective, the video game industry is three times as big as the Hollywood movie industry. Yes, that’s right…video games generate three times the revenue as Hollywood blockbusters…and that doesn’t even take into account the hit that movies theaters have taken with the pandemic. But even with success measured on this level, the gaming industry needs to be nimble and quick to respond to consumer demand. Whoever comes up with the next big development in video gaming will be richly rewarded.

Bad News at ESPN

ESPN, the sports cable channel and ratings powerhouse, is laying off hundreds of employees and announcing that it will not fill hundreds of additional open positions. The cuts total approximately 10% of their overall employees.

The Covid pandemic has not been kind to TV sports and ESPN is suffering as a result. When the pandemic hit, professional and college sports were sidelined, and when the athletes returned to the fields, the viewers, for some reason, did not return to their TVs. As I noted in an earlier post, TV ratings have tanked for nearly every sport and analysts are not sure why.

The economic model for most major media channels is based on advertising revenue. Ad dollars follow audiences made up of prospective consumers of the products that advertisers need to reach. If ESPN can recapture sizable audiences for their programming, advertising revenue will follow and that will allow them to rehire workers. But until then, they have to find ways to cut their losses. And remember, ESPN has huge costs that are baked-in. According to Morning Brew (and the New York Times), “ESPN is paying more than $7 billion for the rights to air live sports in 2020, the NYT writes. But due to the Covid-19 outbreak, it basically had no games to broadcast for four months of the year.”

It is important to note that Disney, the parent company that owns 70% of ESPN, is in no position to bail them out. With motion picture production on a slow track and theme park and movie theater attendance way down, Disney has its own challenges.

Big Numbers for Democracy, and Baby Shark

It is Friday morning, November 6th, and we still don’t know who the next President of the US will be. Several states have razor-thin margins and will likely require recounts before the lawsuits can be resolved. According to all estimates, the total number of votes cast is higher than any presidential election in about 100 years (as a percent of the population).

In other news, and I do mean OTHER, Baby Shark has now had more views on YouTube than any other video. With more than 7 BILLION views, the catchy tune has delighted preschoolers (and annoyed more than a few adults) all over the world. As reported by the New York Times, the video bumped Despacito from the top spot.

These facts may be unsurprising to anyone with young kids: The children-focused parts of YouTube are among its most lucrative. A Pew study found that videos featuring children received nearly three times as many views on average than other types of videos posted by high-subscriber channels.

The Times continued…

Repetition is one reason. Children do not get tired of watching the same video over and over. Four of the top 10 most watched YouTube videos are children’s programming. And last year, the highest earning YouTuber was 9-year-old Ryan Kaji, who reviews new toys and games on his channel. He earned $26 million in 2019

Section 230 is Under Attack

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law passed during the Clinton administration, is under attack from both the left and the right. President Trump wants to revise Section 230 because of what he believes is unfair throttling of conservative news by liberal tech platforms. And liberal legislators want to revise Section 230 to make it more difficult to post “hate speech” on these same platforms.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been blamed for everything wrong about these leading social media platforms. We could debate whether they deserve the blame, but we can’t deny that they are caught between a rock and a hard place. One one hand, they love Section 230 because it removes corporate responsibility for content published on their platforms by users. On the other hand, they worry about the future of a platform that could becomes a free-for-all without any ability to control the most poisonous content. They want to be free to limit obscene pornography, dangerous speech, libel, and other content not protected by the 1st Amendment, but they don’t want to be responsible for damage that might be caused by speech that comes close, without crossing, the line. According to the Recode website…

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced that his agency would “move forward with a rulemaking to clarify” the meaning of Section 230, which gives internet platforms like Facebook and Twitter immunity from lawsuits over content their users provide. That is to say, if someone defames you in a tweet, you can sue the Twitter user but not Twitter itself. This 25-year-old law is what allows websites that rely on third-party content to exist at all. It also allows those sites to moderate that content as they see fit, which has been a source of ire for conservatives who believe they are being censored when Facebook bans them, YouTube demonetizes them, or Twitter appends fact-checks to their tweets.

The most recent fuss over Section 230 involves Hunter Biden’s laptop that was left with a computer repair shop. The shop owner turned the contents of the hard drive over to an attorney with connections to former NYC major Rudy Giuliani, who turned the information over the the New York Post, a tabloid newspaper with a less-than-sterling reputation. The last-minute release of Hillary Clinton’s emails by Wikileaks, (amplified by James Comey and the FBI), just days before the 2016 election is believed to have been a factor leading to the election of President Donald Trump, and social media platforms don’t want to facilitate a repeat of that outcome. Twitter prevented sharing of the New York Post’s stories based on the idea that the data was obtained by hacking, (not technically accurate), but a few days later apologized for not communicating more clearly and then reversed their policy. Facebook continues to restrict sharing on their platform because they claim that they are unable to verify the accuracy of the claims alleged by the NY Post.

As you can see, there is no easy solution to this dilemma…and many other current debates. Facebook just recently announced they will take a tougher stance on holocaust denialism, anti-vaccine posts, and QAnon conspiracy pages. But this is a slippery slope for platforms. Once you begin deciding what is true and appropriate and permissible, you open yourself to criticism from all sides.

Pro Sports TV Viewership Down

There has been plenty of speculation about why viewership has been down for professional sports this summer and fall. With just a few exceptions, see the chart below, viewers are NOT spending their quarantine time tuning into professional sports.

There are plenty of theories about the collapse of viewership starting with the fact that all of the sports were shifted from their regular seasons. In some cases playoff games from one sport were scheduled across from games from another sport. In fact the NBA championship game between the Lakers and the Heat had to compete with an NFL game between the Seahawks and the Vikings.

Another theory is that the politicization of professional sports has taken a toll on viewers who their sports to be a distraction from the hash reality of life. Social unrest and BLM protests following cases of police brutality became a cause for NBA players and many of their fans. But while many fans may agree with the political stand, they may also want to separate their politics from their sports viewing. The argument against this theory is that sports that have not made strong political statements have also seen lower numbers.

Still another theory is connected to the lack of fans in the stands. According to this theory, TV viewers subconsciously feel this as a statement about reduced importance of the games. Fewer/No fans = low energy = less interest.

What do you think? And if you’re not watching…why not?

Microtargeting: Political Ads Just for You

I’m sorry to bring up political ads…we’ve all seen more than enough. But we have a few more weeks to go, so better to be a savvy consumer than an unwitting victim of targeting. Here are a few steps

  1. Know that you’re being targeted
  2. Know that disinformation and misinformation is widespread
  3. Fact check political ads before believing them
  4. Be thoughtful, be informed and be aware (be skeptical, not cynical)

Here’s a video with more info…

Is Twitter’s Cropping Algorithm Racially Biased?

Recent reports are suggesting that the algorithm that controls image cropping on the Twitter app does not respond to images of dark-skinned people in the same way it does for light-skinned people. According to the TNW website, people have been noticing cropping anomalies that may have to do with the color of the featured person’s skin-tones. If you read the article, you’ll see that the jury is still out on accusation of bias, but it does raise interesting questions about our reliance on AI (Artificial Intelligence) software and how the results may reflect unconscious bias of the programmers.

While the concern about bias by Twitter’s algorithm may be unfounded, it raises additional questions about AI and facial recognition software. According to The Next Web, “Light skin bias in algorithms is well documented in fields ranging from healthcare to law enforcement.”

If you want to know more about implicit bias, see this website and take a test (I recommend the Skin-tone IAT). You may find that the best place to begin the war against bias is not Twitter’s AI software, but our own “natural intelligence.”

The Social Network: 10 Years Later

Ten years ago today David Fincher’s movie about the founding of Facebook hit the theaters. The Social Network was a box-office success raking in nearly $225 million worldwide and earning a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Movie poster from Wikipedia

According to Wikipedia, ” At the 83rd Academy Awards, it received eight nominations, including for Best PictureBest Director, and Best Actor for Eisenberg, and won three: Best Adapted ScreenplayBest Original Score, and Best Film Editing. It also received awards for Best Motion Picture – DramaBest DirectorBest Screenplay, and Best Original Score at the 68th Golden Globe Awards. In 2016, it was voted 27th among 100 films considered the best of the 21st century by 117 international film critics.”

If you’ve never watched the movie, here’s the storyline from its IMDb webpage

On a fall night in 2003, Harvard undergrad and computer programming genius Mark Zuckerberg sits down at his computer and heatedly begins working on a new idea. In a fury of blogging and programming, what begins in his dorm room soon becomes a global social network and a revolution in communication. A mere six years and 500 million friends later, Mark Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire in history… but for this entrepreneur, success leads to both personal and legal complications.

The main characters involved in the early days of Facebook have gone on to make their fortunes in the tech business. Some have denounced Zuckerberg and what Facebook have become. You can read more about their exploits here.

The Social Network is a movie, adapted from a 2009 book, about social media, that you can watch on your TV (via Netflix)…oh, and it won the Academy Award for Best Original Score. What could be more illustrative of media convergence than that?

That’s Unbelievable

Have you found yourself wondering just what to believe? Biased and agenda-driven journalism, disinformation campaigns on social media and widespread conspiracy theories make it nearly impossible for the average media consumer to know what to believe. Our brain and heart are in a constant battle, or so it seems, to sort out facts and feelings. Our natural inclination to think fast instead of slow is part of the problem. But so is our inclination to confirmation bias and its various manifestations. These cognitive deficiencies rob us of our ability to be rational and make us more likely to fall for faulty logic.

Like many memes featuring a celebrity, it’s safe to assume that the celebrity is NOT in any way associated with the message contained therein.

This is a time of great uncertainty and conspiracy theories are thriving: 9/11 was an inside job, vaccines cause autism, the Clintons have had political opponents murdered, Antifa members are setting wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, and Covid-19 is a bio-weapon developed in a lab. These are just a few of the recent conspiracy theories that are widely dismissed as untrue. 1

Media literacy is one of the goals that I hope to achieve with the Media & Society class. And by “achieve” I don’t necessarily expect fluency after a 14-week course but rather an appreciation for the idea of media literacy and a foundational understanding of what it means to be an informed consumer and producer of media content. So much of what we know (or think we know) is based on the media we consume. And like food consumption, media consumption can be improved with a few simple practices.

  • Eat slowly (chew before swallowing)
  • Avoid junk food (e.g., sources lacking credibility)
  • Add fiber/roughage (difficult-to-digest material that actually cleanses the digestive system)
  • Practice occasional fasting (a constant connection to the information stream can be toxic)
  • Don’t share found food unless you know what you’re doing ( those mushroom may be tasty, magic, or deadly).2

With conspiracy theories so prevalent we need to be extra vigilant avoid becoming a believer, or worse, an evangelist for conspiracy theories and disinformation.

1 Worth noting that the phrase “conspiracy theory” is also a rhetorical device used to discredit an idea or belief that someone else holds. If I think your belief is unfounded, calling it a conspiracy theory is my way of dismissing your view as irrational. Take, for example, the idea that Trump’s behavior and interactions with Ukraine amounted to an abuse of power. While some (mostly Democrats) believe that the President’s actions justified impeachment, his supporters dismissed their accusations as a conspiracy theory.

2 If you’re not a mycologist, eating that fungi may change your status from “fun guy” to “dead guy.”