Hockey Mom Scores Big on TV

Everyone expected Obama’s acceptance speech last Thursday night to garner impressive ratings…and it did. With 38.4 million viewers, Obama’s speech was the most-watched convention speech ever, according to estimates from Nielsen Media Research. To put it in perspective, 4 million more viewers watched Obama’s speech than watched the Olympic opening ceremonies or the American Idol final.

But the real surprise of the convention season was the TV audience for the Republican party’s VP, Sarah Palin. Palin’s speech on Wednesday night drew 37.2 million viewers, just 1.1 million viewers fewer than Obama’s and 13.2 million more than tuned in for Biden’s speech. According to Nielsen, these numbers are even more impressive because Palin’s speech was carried by only six networks compared with ten for Obama’s.

There are several reasons that may explain Palin’s huge ratings…the fact that she was virtually unknown until a few days before the convention, the disclosure of her daughter’s pregnancy, and the high stakes involved in this November’s election. Palin’s acceptance speech did not pull any punches as she took shots at both Obama and the media.

Speaking of the media, a fair number of Republican Convention speakers made a point to criticize the media coverage of the campaign, and more specifically, media criticism of the choice of Palin for VP. Some of the sharpest criticism of Palin and her family has been at the hands of bloggers and others outside of the media mainstream. Republicans have fired back criticizing the “elite” or “liberal” media for unfair and even “sexist” attacks on Palin by questioning her ability to be a successful woman/mother while holding an office “one heartbeat away from the presidency.” The next two months should prove to be interesting as the candidates, and the media, respond to the intense scrutiny of the spotlight.

Browser Wars: Google On the Offensive

If you’re like most people you might not pay a lot of attention to the browser that you’re using to access the internet. After all, a browser is simply a program that provides access to the real content that you’re after…kind of like your computer’s operating system provides access to the applications you use. So whether you use Internet Explorer (IE), Firefox, or Opera may depend more on what is currently installed on your computer…and for most people running the Windows OS that is IE. When browsers were brand new – in the early 90s – the battle was between Netscape Navigator and IE. But Microsoft’s dominance in the OS wars led to the demise of Netscape and the victory for IE as the default browser. In recent years their market share has slipped significantly, but they still command a decisive lead over the next most popular browser, Firefox.

Enter the new force to be reckoned with: Chrome, the new browser from Google Labs. Released yesterday, Chrome has been receiving favorable reviews for its speed, simplicity, and security. If you are partial to pictures over words, you can check out Google’s comic book for an overview of the new browser’s features! (Be warned, even in comic book format some of the technical issues are beyond my level of expertise/interest!)

But Chrome is really part of a larger strategy for Google…they want to provide a complete user experience. Ideally a user would launch Chrome, conduct a Google search, then switch over to Gmail for communication and even Google Docs for word processing and other “office-like” applications. If the only thing you know about Google is their search engine, check out their other applications…the list is about 45 and growing! But herein lies the rub. By investing more and more of our internet usage/behavior with a single company, any company, do we flirt with personal privacy danger? Google–celebrating their 10 year anniversary this week–is proud of their motto “Don’t be Evil.” But what happens if they change their mind?

Welcome to Campus: Here’s Your iPhone

At the risk of making you want to transfer to University of Maryland or Abilene Christian University in Texas, you might as well know that several higher ed institutions are giving iPhones or iPod touch mobile devices to students this fall. While the “wow” factor is certainly one part of the equation, the other reasons cited are; online research, instant polling of students, and safety (students on the network can be instantly notified if an emergency arises).

In 2004 Duke University gave 20GB iPods, equipped with Belkin voice recorders, to 1,650 freshmen and encouraged the students to use them to record lectures. The iPods were preloaded with orientation information, a calendar of events, and, of course, the Duke fight song. They even envisioned a daily audio editorial to be downloaded from the campus newspaper. According to Duke University the experiment was a success on several fronts–one of which was the publicity generated for “Duke’s institutional commitment to technology.” The positive effect on learning was more difficult to measure.

Which leads us to the question: is mobile communication technology a help or hindrance when it comes to the enterprise of higher education? Clearly there are benefits to having internet and intranet resources at your fingertips when studying. And the online collaboration afforded by portable media devices cannot be denied. But what about when communication technology in the classroom competes with the professor for the attention of the student? According to the NY Times, one professor said he would ban the use of iPhones in class because it would detract from their opportunity to develop a, “wide range of complex reasoning abilities.” On the flip side one student speculated that professors might work harder to make classes interesting if they were competing with iPhones. What do you think?

Gold medal ratings for NBC

2008 Olympics in Beijing
2008 Olympics in Beijing

Twenty years ago this month I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with NBC Sports in their coverage of the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea. I, along with the rest of the technical team, worked 32 days straight, between 12-16 hours per day. It was grueling but fun, and exciting to be a part of the biggest broadcast event in history. Every four years the Summer Olympic games are the biggest broadcast event in history…and this year is no exception. Back in 1988 we were excited to be part of the team offering up more than 180 hours of television coverage. This year they will broadcast 3,600 hours of the Olympics on seven networks — NBC, USA Network, MSNBC, CNBC, Oxygen, Telemundo and Universal HD, as well as streaming video on the Internet and to mobile devices. Just to put that in perspective, NBC reports that the 2008 coverage will exceed, by more than 1000 hours, the combined coverage of every Summer Olympics from Rome 1960 to Athens 2004.

In addition to the expansion of coverage, this year has seen a big increase in the size of the audience. According to NBC, approximately 157 million people, about half the U.S. population, watched some Olympic action in the first several days. In addition, Nielsen Media Research reports that NBC Universal’s Beijing Olympic coverage was the most-watched event in U.S. television history with more than 214 million total viewers. Starting with the opening ceremonies, TV ratings records have been falling like world records in the Water Cube. Some are calling it the Phelps effect. With 8 gold medals and 7 world records, Michael Phelps is certainly attracting TV, and web, viewers. Visitors to NBCOlympics.com viewed 1.1 million streams of the 400 meter freestyle relay in which the US came from behind to win the gold. (For more audience research on the 2008 games, visit the Nielsen website. See especially the Special Report: The Olympics’ Impact on Advertising and The Media)

NBC is hoping that they can turn those viewers into advertising revenue. After paying nearly $900 million for the rights to broadcast the Beijing Olympics to the American audience, NBC is working overtime to turn sports drama into dollars. And there appears to be no end in sight for rising costs. NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol (no “e” = no relation, I’m sorry to report) has also secured the rights to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London for a reported $1.181 billion. Makes you wonder how they ever hope to recoup that kind of money.

Outsourcing the News

Of all the professions that you would think would be safe from the trends towards outsourcing, newspaper journalism would be high on everyone’s list. But you may want to reconsider. Listen to this story from NRP’s Morning Edition (click on Listen Now). Seems that not only is ad design headed for points on the other side of the planet. Business Week reported that the Orange County Register is outsourcing copy editing and layout. Even news coverage is fair game. News about the Pasadena City Council was outsourced as reported in the LA Times. Remember Shift Happens?

Here’s a video version of Shift Happens-

Journalism: The 4th Estate

Journalism is often called the 4th Estate because of it’s role in the political process. Historically the notion of press as the 4th estate is found in 18th century French writings. At the time the three estates were the aristocracy, the clergy and the bourgeoisie. In modern times we might think of them as the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government. While these bodies set policy, make laws and interpret the law, it is the press that reports abuses of authority and defends the rights of citizens. In essence the press allows all members of society to participate in the democratic process. Without a free press to examine and critique the political process, governments operate in secret and may easily subvert the will of the people.

The release of Scott McClellan’s book* this past week provided a reminder of the delicate relationship between government and the free press. Former White House Press Secretary McClellan served the Bush administration after Ari Fleischer and before Tony Snow and the current Press Secretary Dana Perino (CSU-Pueblo/MCCNM alum, 1994). According to press reports, McClellan now claims that the press shirked its responsibility in the months and years leading up to the Iraq war. Rather than serve as the nation’s watch dog, the press corp was too easy on the Bush administration. According to McClellan…

“If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq,” he writes.

He continued, “In this case, the ‘liberal media’ didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.”

These quotes are from the man who, while press secretary, criticized the media for being too aggressive and for undermining the administration’s efforts to protect the country. Of course hind-sight is 20/20 and it is too easy to second-guess decisions that were made under very difficult conditions. Today members of the press continue to defend their performance in the period between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq war. Here’s a video clip in which the three network TV anchors respond to the question. What do you think? Does the press fulfill it’s role as guardian and watch dog, or is it too easily manipulated by the forces that control wealth and power?

* What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. Currently ranked #1 at Amazon.com

Streaming movies to your computer, and to your TV

For years the movie industry has been trying to figure out how to distribute their products to consumers. Movies that have a theatrical release have film “prints” made, which are then shipped to theaters (BTW, printing and shipping can cost tens of millions of dollars), loaded onto projects, and presented to audiences sitting in the dark listening to cell phones and small talk while their shoes adhere to the floor. Although I’m exaggerating the down-side of the theater experience (and ignoring the positive aspects such as image and sound quality, the group dynamic that allows us to laugh, scream and cringe at exactly the same moment, etc.), the economic reality is that printing and projecting 35mm film prints is destined for the same fate as the broadsheet newspaper. But until digital distribution and projection technology (and security) improves, it is still the best alternative for the group viewing experience.

Roku's interface box for NetflixViewing motion pictures in the comfort of your own home on your Blu-Ray high definition, 5.1 surround sound home theater system is another matter. With gas at $4/gal and climbing, there’s got to be a better way than driving to your local video rental store to pickup and return a movie on DVD. Cable would like you to subscribe to their VOD (Video On Demand) service to watch something in their library. But that’s part of the problem…their library is limited. Netflix, on the other hand, has a huge database of movies available. While currently only a fraction (about 10% of their 100,000 title library) are available for streaming to your computer, the good news is that more and more movies are being added, and you can purchase a piece of hardware for $100 that makes your Netflix moves available for viewing on your big-screen TV. Think AppleTV but cheaper. The Roku costs less (Apple TV is $250), and there is no additional cost per movie if you’re on one of Netflix’s unlimited plans that starts at $8.99/month.

When broadband internet connections and large-screen HD displays reach saturation, all movies will be distributed online rather than on disc. And if you want that group-viewing experience, you’ll just have to invite your friends over to the house!

Fans Idolize American Idol

American Idol is a cultural phenomenon in nearly every culture in which the franchise has been licensed (about 40 to date). American Idol (AI) came to America from England in 2002, and has spread around the globe at the speed of sound, from Armenia to Vietnam. If AI were a book it would be a best seller– if a movie, a blockbuster–and if a record, it would have gone platinum! Season after season, AI ranks at or near the top of the Nielsen ratings. As we approach the end of season 7, the two Davids are set to take the stage for the final two nights May 20 and 21. But many are left wondering what is the appeal that keeps fans glued to their sets? Can it be the lure of imagining oneself taking the stage and finding fame and fortune? Or perhaps the guilty pleasure of seeing contestants humiliated week after week. Whatever the allure, AI is only beginning to show signs of ratings weakness. While Fox struggles to tweak the show’s format, fan continue to tune in and vote.

Another interesting thing about AI is the way that it so conveniently demonstrates some of the leading trends of TV programming, such as interactivity (phone voting), product placement (Coke, iTunes, Ford, AT&T, and even Kellog’s Pop Tarts!), and spin-offs (programs that are derivatives of the original program concept).

What do you think? What makes the AI franchise so successful, marketable, and universal?

GTA IV

GTA Video GameGrand Theft Auto, version IV, is out today and according to early reports is expected to break a few records (perhaps $200 million in US sales the first week). USA Today reports that the video game industry is already on a roll, with revenues up every month for the past 2 years and last year reporting record sales of $18 billion. BTW, that’s more than the film industry. Video game critics are also suggesting that the rich narratives and increasingly realistic visual effects of games like GTA are making video games the ultimate replacement for feature films. Why just watch a film when you can control one?! GTA highlights the power of interactive media to engage the player while creating a world in which anything…and in this case it really is anything…can happen. Will Wright, the renowned game designer, calls this the game’s “possibility space.”

Of course there are always social issues that accompany any new technology and the related mass media phenomena. Rockstar Games, maker of GTA, has been in hot water since the “Hot Coffee” scandal when an earlier version of GTA had hidden content that was, a) not very well hidden, and b) clearly Adult Only in nature. I won’t get into the raging controversy about the effects of video game play right now, but if you’er interested, check out this audio podcast from On the Media.  Or, if you want, take a look at the extended trailer and you’ll get a hint of what the debate is about. Be forewarned, it is rated Mature, and some of the content is clearly not appropriate for the younger teen crowd.

Seeing Red @ NAB/BEA in LV, NV

For the acronym impaired, the second part of the title refers to the National Association of Broadcasters/Broadcast Education Association convention in Las Vega, Nevada. I attended the conference this past week along with a couple of colleagues and several students from CSU-Pueblo. As always the NAB exhibit hall was daunting…too much to see and take in in the short amount of time that I had. And the BEA conference that followed the NAB presented its own challenges. I found myself wanting to attend two or three concurrent sessions and having to make some difficult choices on which one to attend.

So, what did I see in Vegas…besides the sad evidence of thousands of people trying to get lucky? Perhaps the most impressive new tools on the NAB showroom floor were the cameras by Red. The promise of electronic cinematography has been around for a long time…Francis Ford Coppola was a leading proponent back in the 80s…but this camera heralds a new age of electronic image acquisition. With over 4K pixels horizontal, the high resolution image is suitable for delivery on everything from HDTV to film projection. And with a camera body price below $18K, some are calling the Red, “the tipping point of the democratization of filmmaking.” This year Red intro’d the Scarlet…a 3K camera below $3K. Truly amazing! Check out the YouTube interview with Ted “Leader of the Rebellion” Schilowitz.

BEA also provided an excellent opportunity to find out what’s on the cutting edge of media production, research, and instruction. I had the opportunity to attend excellent sessions sponsored by the documentary division as well as several research presentations by colleagues and graduate students. All in all, a very interesting and informative visit to this dull, dusty town in the Nevada desert.