Tuesday, May 22 2007

The Death of American TV

It has come to my attention recently that American TV is doomed.  Doomed, I tell you!  The End is Nigh!!  Repent!!!   Ahem, sorry about that.

Anyways, Ace of Spades HQ posted a list of the proposed Fall TV line-up, and it looks completely horrible.  Not that I watch much on TV anyways, but there's no reason for me to even start up again.  Every so often, someone tells me about some must-see TV show that's "one of the few things good still on TV" and it's never something that sounds interesting enough to watch.

Here are my conclusions based on my observations on the subject:
1.  There is a growing percentage of the American population that is getting disconnected from traditional media such as TV.  It's a group that by and large share traits that make them difficult to represent in surveys.  How do you accurately survey a group that shares a trait that they don't show up in surveys?  You can't, so the trend is going unreported and likely distorting viewership statistics.

2.  The growth of this group is fueled by the decisions of TV network executives.  TV programming is largely being focus-driven to appeal to the largest groups of TV viewers.  Those viewers that do not fall into these groups are left with little to attract them to TV as opposed to other forms of entertainment.  Right now, one of the largest groups of TV viewers are reality show fans.  So all networks started making reality shows.  If you don't like reality shows, there's not much for you to watch.  This means that more of the remaining viewers are reality show fans, and the networks have to compete among reality show fans for viewership.  Therefore they segment down to the groups within reality show viewers, further distorting the market.

3.  Whatever process is used to come up with creative show ideas is failing, so new shows are uninspired.  A show written to appeal to the largest possible audience is likely to not appeal to any of its intended viewers.  The creative minds are trying to insure success by repeating what was successful in the past, however, this is more often a recipe for failure than success.  I also suspect that TV executives that have to approve these shows are not likely fans of any particular genre of TV and hence have to approve shows without much understanding of what actually appeals to most viewers.

4.  The practice of canceling mediocre shows, especially mediocre niche shows in genres such such as sci-fi, is further souring fans on future shows.  Those few niche shows that get greenlighted are likely to be uncreative, written to appeal to a broad audience (and not actually appealing especially well to anyone), and fans who might otherwise be interested are unlikely to invest time on a show that can be canceled even if it is good.

5.  Marketing is subject to the same progressive failure that the creative process is.  In order to advertise that a show is out there, the networks invest in commercials and tie-ins.  Since most of the shows that are hyped end up being mediocre, viewers distrust the marketing.  What do the marketers do?  Step up the marketing.  So marketing gets less and less effective as time goes on even as more and more effort is expended on it.  Word of mouth recommendations would be a way around this, but TV networks have alienated the die-hard fan base by killing shows that had a small but devoted following.

The same problems can be applied to modern movies, with a few additional issues:
6.  Movie studios seem to be unable to determine why a movie succeeded.  Too often, the success is placed on the star or stars on the top of the marquee.  This leads the stars to demand more movies written for them, and more money devoted to hiring the star.

7.  Success is determined entirely by box office intake.  While, yes, in a market this is a good example of success, it's not a necessarily a good way to determine what the next successful movie will be.  Further complicating things is the Hollywood tradition of obfuscating just how much of the money the film made is actually profit.  A movie that makes $100 million may be more successful than a movie that only makes $20 million, but if that $100 million movie costs that much to make and the $20 million picture only cost $10 million to make, the picture isn't looking as good.


Posted by: Civilis at 08: 25 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Sunday, May 20 2007

France and the Rules of Nations

I love reading the letters to the editor in the Washington Post.  I know the paper has a liberal bias, the editorial page especially, but because I know it's biased I can read it without too much guilt.  Sometimes, I suspect that whomever chooses letters to the editor to appear on the editorial page
has a secret conservative bias, as some of the liberal letter writers do their own cause more harm than good.

Case in point: a letter from Joan Salemi that appeared in today's Outlook section.  She calls into question a recent columnists' argument that Tony Blair was a better leader than Chirac, as Blair used his power to benefit the world while Chirac used his power to benefit France. It's a short letter, but the relevant passage is here:

"Would that President Bush had adopted Mr. Chirac's worldview. The United States would not be tied down in the deadly Iraq war."

Uh, hello?  France with Chirac at the helm certainly had no problems acting unilaterally to intervene in other parts of the world.  Chirac has emerged as a reliable ally for dictators around the world.  Although, ironically, she may be right about one thing... if Chirac had been president on September 11th, we probably wouldn't have invaded Iraq, though I don't know if his favored approach would be viewed by Ms. Salemi as being any better.


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Thursday, May 17 2007

I'm Still Here

I'm still around, but basically since I only have two readers, myself and McGurk (go visit his blog!), I haven't been hit by the creative bug recently.  Been trying to write some sidebar filler pages, but those are still IN PROGRESS.

I tend to think all the time, but without a catalyst for my thoughts to build around, the resulting output is rambling and incoherent.  Okay, it's more rambling and incoherent than usual.  I like to write, and I need to learn to put my thoughts on paper.

Posted by: Civilis at 07: 35 PM | Comments (1) | Add Comment
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Thursday, May 10 2007

Non-Discrimination, Sexual Orientation, and the Politics of Groups

Sorry for the delay in posting serious posts.  Work took a while to catch up on.

Recently, there has been talk of expanding anti-discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.  My interest in in this debate is in the political and cultural implications of legally favoring certain groups.  My concern is that the practice of legally favoring certain groups with special statuses creates impossible to resolve legal complications and paves the way for government social engineering.  By allowing groups to play politics with special statuses, we increase the amount of corruption and destructive political infighting in society.

Quick theoretical question:  It has recently been established that employers in states with "at-will" labor laws can fire people for any reason except membership in a protected class, such as gender or race.  Some examples of this rule in use are businesses firing employees for smoking at home, on the grounds that smoking is a health risk.  Suppose I am an employer in a state with "at-will" labor laws and anti-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation as a protected class.  I put in effect a policy that my company will not employ any man that has had sex with another man, citing health reasons relating to the spread of blood-borne diseases and as part of a larger set of policies relating to minimizing workplace exposure to communicable diseases, something akin to the list of restrictions on who may donate blood.  Further, I enforce these policies evenly as written.  Am I discriminating against homosexual men on the basis of sexual orientation?

The problem is this: If, legally, I am discriminating against homosexual men, then a religious conservative can look at that policy and see government protection afforded to a particular behavior, and particularly a sexual behavior, not some vague "sexual preference" protection.  I look at the current legal climate and don't see how such a policy could be viewed as anything other than discrimination.

Although Catholic, and someone who believes in the fundamental tenants of his faith, I'm a libertarian, a Heinlein fan, and an anime fan.  I don't care what you do in the privacy of your own home as long as the others involved are able to give proper consent.  I am unlikely to ever get even a date, so it's all academic to me anyways.

I see a growing split in America between the faithful religious and the secular intellectual, and I see that both sides have their own valid points.  To some degree, I think I have a foot in both worlds, and the annoying tendency to just ignore the obvious contradictions between my own principles.

One of my friends teaches school.  He's big on encouraging his kids to read.  He's not religious himself.  He occasionally brings up stories of one of his evangelical Christian co-workers that is vehemently protesting the presence of Harry Potter books in the school. To my friend, this is a travesty.  He sees kids wanting to read, and the popularity of the Harry Potter series as a good starting point, and thinks his evangelical co-worker is  ruining a good thing for no reason.  And my friend isn't alone.  In a recent survey, 53% of university professors though poorly of evangelical Christians.

I recently thought about the situation and came up with an explanation for behavior like that of my friend's co-worker.  Evangelical Christians are trying to fight the culture war by the same unwritten rules that the secular intellectuals have been using.  It has been established that if you don't like something in your kids' school, be it prayers at graduation or the pledge of allegiance, if you throw enough of a fit, the school system will give in.  Evangelical Christians have seen things they approve of removed from the system in this manner.  If that's a valid way of getting things removed, they should be able to use it to their advantage, so they throw a fit about Halloween, Harry Potter, and Evolution.

And therein lies the problem.  You can't satisfy everyone's wants.  If schools are able to teach values, why should one set of values be taught over another?  Who decides which values are the correct ones?  And as long as the religious faithful feel they are losing, they are either going to push back politically harder to get their way, or change the system in their favor.

Which brings us back to the politics of sexual orientation and of groups in general.  Evangelical Christians see a group gaining government enforced protection on the basis of what they see as sexual behavior, and get indignant that the privileges they have are being taken away, and this drives the destructive political split in American culture.

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 54 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Saturday, May 05 2007

Weekend Anime Review: Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha Striker S

The always interesting Jeff Lawson is back with a bunch of quick reviews of current series.  I was struck by his quick take on the new installment of a series I've quite enjoyed, Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha Striker S (I'll refer to the overall series as 'Nanoha' from this point forward).  His take on the series, unfortunately, matches my current impressions almost perfectly:

As much a fan of this franchise as I am, I’m having a difficult time getting into the third installment. I don’t necessarily want to go so far as to say the magic from the first two seasons is gone, but it sure feels that way at times.

Warning: This post contains mild spoilers for the following anime:
Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha
Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha A's
Mild spoilers generally do not contain information about secrets in the plot of the anime, but may contain information about general overall plot threads and character development.

First, the general nature of the plot seems to have shifted from the original two series.  The original series was a retake on the general Magical Girl anime series, one that maintained its originality by doing a new take on the conventions of the series.  In general, a magical girl series should have one or more schoolgirls, who after an encounter with a mysterious talking cute and fuzzy animal, are given the power to save the world from the forces of darkness.  This power is embodied by a trinket, which turns into a magical item of power capable of destroying the darkness, and provides the hero with a more impressive outfit and other useful abilities.  In order to save the world, however, the magical girl must use their own inner goodness to defeat the enemy as well as the power they have been given.  The magical girl must also balance their responsibilities as magical girl with their normal school life and friends as these two facets of the hero's life will be forced into conflict by the plot, and it is this conflict as much as the struggle against darkness that provides the heart of the series. 

Nanoha follows this formula right down the line, only the forms taken are almost never what would be expected and are often thought out more than one would expect.  Nanoha A's generally follows the same script, right down to providing Fate with her own cute and fuzzy talking animal, although the big picture is starting to take form as more details of the way the setting is constructed emerges.  Nanoha StrikerS drops most of the genre concepts.  The characters are full-time members of a public, quasi-military organization, and are basically a hero team backed by massive amounts of support.  Their magic items have been essentially reduced to mere technological toys.

Additionally, the series has too many major characters.  This was unavoidable, given the exponential growth of major characters between the series.  The first series started with two protagonists, Nanoha supported by Yunno, and introduced a balanced pair of antagonists, Fate supported by Arf.  The second series, Nanoha A's, had two major protagonists, Nanoha and Fate, with Yunno and Arf in support.  They faced off against two major antagonists, Signum and Vita, who were supported by Schmal and Zafira.  When I first heard a third Nanoha series was in the works, I was afraid it would turn out to be Nanoha, Fate, Signum, Vita, Hayate, and support against a balanced team of antagonists.  Instead, all the characters in StrikerS seem to be loaded into the good guys from the start, so we have Nanoha and company from the first two series and four additional new characters at the start of the series, for 12 major characters in all.

Finally, we have the antagonists of the series.  Nanoha started with the cliche monster of the week enemy while the setting was established, but the meat of the story begins when Fate is introduced as the main antagonist.  We are presented with two magical girls with comparable powers facing off against each other.  We quickly find out that Fate has a developed if very quiet personality, her motivations are complex, and that while opposed to the heroes, she is presented in such a way that the audience feels for her.  In Nanoha A's, we are quickly introduced to a pair of magical girls, Signum and Vita, as the main antagonists for Nanoha and Fate.  Again, they have interesting personalities, their motivations are complex, and they are presented in a way that the audience feels some sympathy for them as well.  So far, the enemies in Nanoha StrikerS have been machines, with no personality, no motivations as such, and no need for any empathy from the audience.

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 41 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Tuesday, May 01 2007

Please Stand By...

I'm sorry, but posting will be light this week.  I'm not feeling too well to start with, and the Chinese I had on Friday put me out of comission for a few days, so I'm catching up on work.

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 26 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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