Home | About | Archives | Elsewhere

September 20, 2002
Pop-up ads finally pop up on TV

The WSJ reports: "The pop-up ad -- that Internet bane -- has migrated to the TV screen, despite achieving widespread disdain from lovers of the Web."

Of course, a pop-up TV ad is much less intrusive than a pop-up Internet ad -- you don't have to click it to make it go away, and it won't spawn a half dozen similar ads when it disappears.

So, all in all, pop-up TV ads seem pretty benign. And if programmers and advertisers pursue the path I suggested here, they can actually add to the viewing experience.

Posted by Greg Beato at 12:24 PM
September 19, 2002
Everyone agrees: content king again...

In the October issue of Wired, James Surowiecki writes that "AOL should lead the transition from today's Internet to the digital entertainment paradise we've all anticipated for so long...AOL could become the premier purveyor of videos, software downloads, massively multiplayer games, and whatever else people will pay for."

AOL must get its copies of Wired quick, because it already seems to be taking that advice. The Wall Street Journal reports that the next version of AOL, coming next month, "will have more so-called appointment viewing, with televisionlike shows such as 'Broadband Rocks,' which will feature behind-the-scenes footage from rock concerts every Friday afternoon."

News Corp. prez Peter Chernin says content is king too.

And another WSJ article includes this interesting bit of alleged history: "In 1996, AOL executives reportedly considered getting into [the pornography business] through the creation of a premium 'Adult Only' channel but scrapped the plans."

The article doesn't say why AOL scrapped those plans then, but an 'Adult Only' channel would have been redundant anyway: AOL users were providing plenty of adult-only content themselves, via cybersex, GIF-trading, etc. And without their patronage, AOL wouldn't be AOL today. It'd be Prodigy or Compuserve (neither of which could match AOL's chat or file-sharing capabilities back in the early '90s).

Which ultimately illustrates a point that Peter Chernin should be aware of. Content really isn't king. Users are king. And users want everything -- lots and lots of content, plus services (and hardware) that give them complete control over that content.

So on the Internet, one or two hit shows probably aren't going to fuel the success of a portal/service the way one or two hit shows (The Sopranos, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?) can sometimes fuel the success of a TV network. Surowiecki has the right idea when he implies that a successful content-oriented strategy depends not on developing content so much as licensing it, lots and lots of it, from everybody else: "A user-friendly music/video/software service that includes all the major content providers can turn you into a king (and a kingmaker) again."

(Interesting trivia: back in the mid-'90s, AOL initiated a fairly ambitious content development effort, AOL Greenhouse, that delivered a few hits like Motley Fool and Hecklers Online. And also in October 1995, "Rogue," a webzine spin-off of the Fool that promised to "deliver an entertaining and compelling look at yesterday, today and tomorrow's television, literature, music, art and politics." It was a great publication, on par with Feed and Suck and Salon and Slate, but few traces of it exist today. Its editor? James Surowiecki, back when he called himself "Jim.")

Posted by Greg Beato at 05:35 PM
Dot-com buckmaking

Here's a funny, accurate article from Joyce Slaton on what I call buckmaking, the practice of writing positive, superficial business stories when in fact some old-fashioned muckraking is in order.

As Slaton explains, a lot of factors were responsible for this situation: inexperienced reporters, private companies that weren't exactly rushing to disclose the shaky foundations of their businesses, and an unending demand for content. Ah, those were the days, weren't they?

Slaton quotes a bunch of writers and editors, who all basically say: "Yeah, we weren't skeptical enough. But you know, I was sort of skeptical. No, really..."

Well me too. I mean, yes, I wrote glowingly about the prospects of,, and believe it or not, the XFL. But none of the Internet business magazines really wanted to publish skeptical, pessimistic articles. So I saved my skepticism and negativity for and Soundbitten.

The interesting thing is how big an audience there was for skeptical, negative journalism about the dot-com world. This article here, for instance. It was killed by the magazine that assigned it, so I published it on Soundbitten. Over 100,000 people viewed it in the following months. It made me think that I should concentrate on writing only negative pieces. But I didn't have much luck pitching articles like that, and they took too much time to simply do as a hobby.

And the XFL? I wasn't wrong about that. America was wrong. The XFL was the greatest TV innovation since frozen dinners.

Posted by Greg Beato at 10:10 AM
September 18, 2002
Killer Contracts

Interesting article from Eric Olsen about the contract American Idol contestants had to sign. It's onerous -- "I hereby grant to Producer the unconditional right throughout the universe in perpetuity to use..." -- but it doesn't seem any more onerous than most contracts that aspiring musicians/writers/animators/game-show contestants have to sign.

For example, if you want to upload an animation to's Homegrown Humor section, you must "automatically grant (or warrant that the owner of such rights has expressly granted) to the Company a royalty-free, nonexclusive, perpetual and irrevocable right and license to use, reproduce, modify, publish, edit, translate, perform, display and distribute such materials alone or as part of other works in any form or technology now known or later developed, (you waive any moral rights you may have in having the material altered or changed in a manner not agreeable to you) and to sublicense such rights through multiple tiers of sublicensees."

In both cases, the proposition is the same: a creator gives a producer some content, and the producer gives the creator exposure.

In the case of American Idol, it's a little different -- because the producer reserves the right to negotiate recording, merchandise, and management contracts with the 10 finalists. Presumably the show's winner and maybe a few of the other finalists are now hot commodities, with any number of labels and management firms interested in them. But since the producer of American Idol has first shot at them, these finalists may not be able to negotiate the best deal for themselves. But that's just the producer's payoff for thinking up the show, selling it to Fox, delivering a hit, etc.

In other words, while the entertainment industry may be rife with "bad" contracts, that's only because the entertainment industry is rife with content creators who are willing to sign them. And while some of these content creators are uninformed and easily manipulated, not all of them are. So why do they sign "bad" contracts?

Because they're not necessarily really that bad, given the alternatives. These days, content is ubiquitous. Thanks to the Internet, digital production tools, and cheap storage media, we are drowning in content. It just isn't that special anymore. Really, really good content is special -- but if you can't find it, then it's no different than all the other crap out there.

So really all that matters is distribution and promotion. And whoever can offer the best distribution and the best promotion can negotiate fairly exploitative deals in return for their services. Exposure on isn't worth that much, so doesn't charge that much for it. Exposure on a hit TV show is worth a lot, so the producers of American Idol charge accordingly.

A related story: A while back, a guy from the Spike and Mike Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation contacted me about Cooking with Bigfoot: he wanted to include the Bake Stuff, Part 2 episode in the next Sick and Twisted movie.

At first, I was really excited. After all, Sick and Twisted is where "Beavis and Butt-head" and a couple other animation series made their debut.

Then, I got the contract. For a payment of $400, they wanted:

* Exclusive rights until December 2005 for theatrical performance, television transmission, Internet distribution, and video/DVD distribution

* Merchandising rights in perpetuity

* Right of first negotiation and last refusal in perpetuity for the acquisition of movie rights, TV rights, merchandising rights, publishing rights, advertising rights, etc.

In other words, they would basically have control over the entire "Cooking With Bigfoot" concept, forever. If I signed that contract, I wouldn't be able to make any other money of that particular episode for 3 years. And if any other deals materialized at any point after I signed the contract -- i.e. if a TV network wanted to develop the show as a TV series, or if an advertiser wanted to use Bigfoot in a commercial, Mellow Manner Productions could get involved if it wanted to.

All of this for $400, and the promise of some exposure...

I told the guy who gave me the contract I wouldn't sign anything like that, so he said take out the parts you don't like. I created a new contract where all I was giving them was non-exclusive theatrical, TV, and video rights -- no merchandising rights, and no right of first negotiation and last refusal.

I didn't really expect them to go for it, but they did. So I spent $150 to have the episode transferred from Flash to broadcast-ready videotape (they wouldn't cover that expense), signed the revised contract, and sent it to them.

Then, a week or so before the first theatrical showing, I got an email from the guy I'd been dealing with there saying that the episode would not be a part of the festival after all. His explanation: "We were overwhelmed with a large number of submissions this year, and we had to take out a few, and unfortunately yours was one that Spike gave the axe."

This explanation doesn't really make sense, however, because I didn't respond to a call for submissions. Instead, they specifically requested the episode. And instead of sending me a standard release form (as would be the case for an open call for submissions), they sent me a "film license agreement."

In addition, I can't help but think that perhaps the reason Bigfoot got the axe was because I didn't agree to all the terms of that agreement: if they had other material that they were able to better control for the paltry fee of $400, why not give the exposure to that material rather than Bigfoot? (Or maybe it was just pure old-fashioned anti-Sasquatchism...)

In any case, I don't hold a grudge against Mellow Manor Productions (except for the $150 I spent). They put in the time of looking for content, developing relationships with theatre owners, publicizing their festivals -- and in doing so, they've managed to create one of the premiere venues for short animation. And now they reap the rewards of that effort -- the ability to be opportunistic and greedy when negotiating contracts with content creators who are eager to obtain the exposure that the Spike and Mike festivals can provide.

Some people see the web as a means of adjusting the balance of power between content creators and middlemen (TV show producers, record labels, managers, animation festival organizers, etc.). But as I've said before (and will no doubt say again) , the web only increases the need for middlemen. It's hard to aggregate attention on the web -- and anyone who can do so is in a position to exploit others who are eager for that attention.

It's interesting that the producer of American Idol understands this so well, but that most of the record labels do not. Indeed, if the major labels weren't distracting themselves with litigation right now, they could be using the web to strong-arm new artists into contracts just as onerous and exploitative as the American Idol one.

How? By giving away free MP3s of their most popular artists. If Interscope started giving away two or three new MP3s a day (and they wouldn't even have to be "official" tracks -- they could be outttakes or live performances), Interscope would dramatically increase traffic to its website. It could then use that traffic to promote new acts (i.e., "If you want to download the latest Dr. Dre track, first you've got to listen to this new band...") And as soon as an act that Interscope promoted in that way had a hit album, it would be able use that success as a proof of concept, and a rationale for its exploitative contracts: "Sure, our terms aren't as favorable as what offers. But can make your record go platinum? We can."

Posted by Greg Beato at 11:40 AM
September 16, 2002
The Temptation of Rod Dreher

Last night, The National Review's Rod Dreher read the AP story about Bob Greene and concluded in The Corner that Greene had become "sexually involved with a minor."

Today, Dreher isn't so sure: "I'm thinking maybe I jumped the gun on Bob Greene's situation..."

Rod, let me clarify it for you: You jumped the gun.

Indeed, you say that "The story I read last night reported that the female with whom he'd had sexual contact was a 'girl'."

But the story you linked to last night actually read "In a note on the paper's front page, editor Ann Marie Lipinski said Greene, 55, acknowledged the sexual conduct with a girl in her late teens..."

I don't know how much investigative journalism you do, Rod, but here's a tip: the phrase "in her late teens" suggests that there's a fairly good possibility that the girl in question was either 18 or 19, and consequently, not a minor. (Also, for what it's worth, the age of consent in Illinois is 17.)

But instead of acknowledging the possibility that the girl wasn't a minor, or actually trying to determine if in fact she was or not, you made the immediate assumption that she was, because that was convenient for the point you wanted to make about media accountability.

The Corner is only a blog, of course, but as you recently pointed out in your essay "WWW.LIBEL.COM," blogs are "no more protected from libel claims than the New York Times."

By declaring that "a popular writer working for a large media organization through his work becomes sexually involved with a minor," and then linking to the Greene article, you essentially libeled him, didn't you?

In your libel essay, you write that "the temptation all bloggers face is to post first, ask questions later, if at all. As Fr. Rob Johansen is learning, that can be a costly mistake."

Unfortunately, Greene probably won't sue you, even though it seems he might have grounds to do so. But maybe next time you should try a little harder to resist temptation too.

UPDATE: I should make it clear that if the girl in question was 17 when Greene had sex with her -- the age of consent in Illinois -- then she was still a minor and Dreher's statement that "a popular writer...becomes sexually involved with a minor" would be accurate. Still, that wouldn't change the fact that in explaining how he concluded the girl was a minor, Dreher failed to mention that the initial story described the girl as a "girl in her late teens," not just a "girl."

Posted by Greg Beato at 01:45 PM
Greener Pastures

Bob Greene has been forced to resign from the Chicago Tribune for what the Tribune describes as "inappropriate sexual conduct some years ago with a girl in her late teens whom he met in connection with his newspaper column."

As Sherlock Kurtz at the Washington Post demonstrates, this explanation leaves all kinds of questions: "How long ago did this happen? How did Greene meet the teenager? Was she over 18? Had he interviewed her for his column?"

Actually, this followup story in the Tribune answers some of those questions, explaining that the encounters happened "more than a decade ago when the woman was in her late teens. The Chicago-area girl met with Greene in his office as part of a high-school project. Later she was the subject of one of Greene's columns..."

Where does Greene go from here? According to the Tribune, "What this means for Greene's future as a journalist is unknown. While his column no longer will appear in the Tribune and WGN-TV no longer will broadcast his weekly commentary, the fate of his nationally syndicated column and other projects was unclear."

I couldn't find any information about how many publications currently syndicate Greene's column, but Greene's syndicator is Tribune Media Services, which promises potential customers that Bob "takes millions of loyal readers places they've never been before." And apparently there's at least one former teenage girl who can vouch for that...

Like the Chicago Tribune, Tribune Media Services is a subsidiary of the Tribune Company. So if they don't see fit to print Greene in their own newspaper, it seems unlikely they'll keep offering him to others. (Of course, you never know.)

But I think this is actually a big opportunity for Bob Greene to start his own blog, don't you?

After all, the Internet is what led to his demise, when someone sent an anonymous email to the Chicago Tribune's news tip page. So it would only be fitting if he uses the web to resurrect himself. And on the web, using your column to find sex partners is not a firing offense -- indeed it seems to be one of the main reasons people blog in the first place.

So what are you waiting for, Bob? Set up a blog! You can write about whatever you want -- Elvis, Elvis, or even Elvis. And you can sex up as many teenage girls as you want, as long as they're 18 or over.

Posted by Greg Beato at 10:40 AM
September 15, 2002
Goldberg's Media Myopia

Jonah Goldberg explains his opening joke to a quick death, but surprisingly enough, he doesn't get anything too wrong in this piece about the impact of blogging. Until the last paragraph, that is:

"Should the marketplace show its appreciation by generating significant revenue for a blogger, you know what will happen? A big newspaper or magazine will offer him or her a job. That's why McDonald's sells fajitas now. And that's why bloggers aren't going to put serious media publications out of business."

If a blogger generates significant attention, but doesn't generate significant revenue, that blogger will probably be more than happy to accept any jobs that big newspapers or magazines offer.

But how many bloggers or DIY publishers who are generating significant revenue from their efforts abandon those efforts? I am pretty confident in asserting that Phillip Kaplan, who reportedly makes around $1 million a year from Fucked Company, is not exactly holding his breath until Fortune or Business Week offers him a gig as a staff writer. Would Harry Knowles close down Aint it Cool to take a columnist's job at Variety? Would Jay Stile give up Stile Project for a job as one of Howard Stern's lackeys?

Or to put it another way: if working for big newspapers and magazines is the holy grail, how come so many people who work for them do blogs in their off hours?

Which is not to say that big newspapers and magazines won't try to hire facsimiles of popular bloggers. But if you're making "significant revenue" doing exactly what you want, with no bosses and no rules except whichever ones you decide to impose on yourself, why would you give that up for a life of meddling editors, arbitrary deadlines, and office politics? They must have some really good free donuts at The National Review.

Posted by Greg Beato at 06:11 PM