Skip to content →

Tag: TV

Spooks

51oFszpBmKL._SX500_

If you haven’t seen it already, go watch British spy show MI5 (or, if you are in the UK, it is called Spooks).

I just finished it this past weekend courtesy of Amazon Instant Video and am at a loss as I can’t imagine another TV series taking its place in my life.

The show is, as its name gives away, about Britain’s MI5 spy agency – an analog to America’s FBI in that it deals primarily with domestic threats — and follows the lives and missions of MI5’s Section D. Now, I know what you’re thinking – this is just James Bond in television form. Well, you couldn’t be further from the truth. This is not your usual spy drama. The first episode is about a pro-life terrorist (can you picture even trying to show this in the US?). There is a later episode where MI5 must run counter-intelligence against a Mossad (Israeli’s secret service agency) operation. There is another episode about all the goings on behind the scenes by the CIA and MI5 when the President of the United States makes a visit to the UK. There is one about a British government hit-job on a retired spy who wants to write a tell-all book to clear his conscience. There is even one about making a deal to help the Venezuelan secret service protect their president on a trip to the UK in return for information about a terrorist plot against a British school. These are not topics your run-of-the-mill spy film covers. Combine that with the writers’ willingness to write or kill off everybody (seriously, if you pick any character in Section D there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be killed or written off at some point), great casting, and a chance to see what people in the UK think of the US, and you have a winner :-).

So, without further ado, five things I learned after watching 10 seasons of MI5:

  • Don’t join a secret service: As I pointed out before, chances are, you’ll be killed or sent away. Even if you are not, the work itself is grueling. You don’t control your own schedule, you can’t have normal relationships with people, you spend a ton of time undercover and at risk of being discovered and killed, and your boss is likely a veteran who has, over the years, accrued enough enemies around the world to make dealing with vendettas and having veterans you don’t even know treat you like a pawn a regular occurrence.
  • If you do join the secret service, cut off all ties with family and friends. Seriously, it never goes well. Ever.
  • Don’t become the asset of anyone at a secret service. Its never worth it and there’s also a pretty good chance you or someone you know will be killed.
  • Whenever someone tells you to abandon an area because of a “gas leak” or a “chemical leak”, there’s probably a terrorist plot nearby. That was the most common way the MI5 agents evacuated regions where a bomb was believed.
  • The US and especially the CIA are nothing but bullies. The number of episodes where the CIA comes across as arrogant and pushy (sometimes to the detriment of itself) is staggering. That is apparently all we Americans are good for…

And there you have it: the life lessons of MI5 🙂

(Image credit)

Leave a Comment

Why I Favor Google over Apple

image Many of my good friends are big fans of Apple and its products. But not me. This good-natured difference in opinion leads us into never-ending mini-debates over Twitter or in real life over the relative merits of Apple’s products and those of its competitors.

I suspect many of them (respectfully) think I’m crazy. “Why would you want an inferior product?” “Why do you back a company that has all this information about you and follows you everywhere on the internet?”

I figured that one of these days, I should actually respond to them (fears of flamers/attacks on my judgment be damned!).

imageFirst thing’s first. I’ll concede that, at least for now, Apple tends to build better products. Apple has remarkable design and UI sense which I have yet to see matched by another company. Their hardware is of exceptionally high quality, and, as I mentioned before, they are masters at integrating their high-end hardware with their custom-built software to create a very solid user experience. They are also often pioneers in new hardware innovations (e.g., accelerometer, multitouch, “retina display”, etc.).

So, given this, why on earth would I call myself a Google Fanboi (and not an Apple one)? There are a couple of reasons for it, but most of them boil down basically to the nature of Google’s business model which is focused around monetizing use rather than selling a particular piece of content/software/hardware. Google’s dominant source of profit is internet advertising – and they are able to better serve ads (get higher revenue per ad) and able to serve more ads (higher number of ads) by getting more people to use the internet and to use it more. Contrast this with Apple who’s business model is (for the most part) around selling a particular piece of software or hardware – to them, increased use is the justification or rationale for creating (and charging more for) better products. The consequence of this is that the companies focus on different things:

  • image Cheap(er) cost of access – Although Apple technology and design is quite complicated, Apple’s product philosophy is very simple: build the best product “solution” and sell it at a premium. This makes sense given Apple’s business model focus on selling the highest-quality products. But it does not make sense for Google which just wants to see more internet usage. To achieve this, Google does two main things. First, Google offers many services and development platforms for little or no cost. Gmail, Google Reader, Google Docs, and Google Search: all free, to name a few. Second, Google actively attacks pockets of control or profitability in the technology space which could impede internet use. Bad browsers reducing the willingness of people to use the internet? Release the very fast Google Chrome browser. Lack of smartphones? Release the now-very-popular Android operating system. Not enough internet-connected TV solutions? Release Google TV. Not enough people on high-speed broadband? Consider building a pilot high-speed fiber optic network for a lucky community. All of these efforts encourage greater Web usage in two ways: (a) they give people more of a reason to use the Web more by providing high-value web services and “complements” to the web (like browsers and OS’s) at no or low cost and (b) forcing other businesses to lower their own prices and/or offer better services. Granted, these moves oftentimes serve other purposes (weakening competitive threats on the horizon and/or providing new sources of revenue) and aren’t always successes (think OpenSocial or Google Buzz), but I think the Google MO (make the web cheaper and better) is better for all end-users than Apple’s.
  • Choice at the expense of quality – Given Apple’s interest in building the best product and charging for it, they’ve tended to make tradeoffs in their design philosophy to improve performance and usability. This has proven to be very effective for them, but it has its drawbacks. If you have followed recent mobile tech news, you’ll know Apple’s policies on mobile application submissions and restrictions on device functionality have not met with universal applause. This isn’t to say that Apple doesn’t have the right to do this (clearly they do) or that the tradeoffs they’ve made are bad ones (the number  of iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch purchases clearly shows that many people are willing to “live with it”), but it is a philosophical choice. But, this has implications for the ecosystem around Apple versus Google (which favors a different tradeoff). Apple’s philosophy provides great “out of the box” performance, but at the expense of being slower or less able to adopt potential innovations or content due to their own restrictions. image Case in point: a startup called Swype has built a fascinating new way to use soft keyboards on touchscreens, but due to Apple’s App Store not allowing an application that makes such a low-level change, the software is only available on Android phones. Now, this doesn’t preclude Swype from being on the iPhone eventually, but it’s an example where Apple’s approach may impede innovation and consumer choice – something which a recent panel of major mobile game developers expressed concern about — and its my two cents worth that the Google way of doing things is better in the long run.
  • image Platforms vs solutions – Apple’s hallmark is the vertically integrated model, going so far as to have their own semiconductor solution and content store (iTunes). This not only lets them maximize the amount of cash they can pull in from a customer (I don’t just sell you a device, I get a cut of the applications and music you use on it), it also lets them build tightly integrated, high quality product “solution”. Google, however, is not in the business of selling devices and has no interest in one tightly integrated solution: they’d rather get as many people on the internet as possible. So, instead of pursuing the “Jesus phone” approach, they pursue the platform approach, releasing “horizontal” software and services platforms to encourage more companies and more innovators to work with it. With Apple, you only have one supplier and a few product variants. With Google, you enable many suppliers (Samsung, HTC, and Motorola for starters in the high-end Android device world, Sony and Logitech in Google TV) to compete with one another and offer their own variations on hardware, software, services, and silicon. This allows companies like Cisco to create a tablet focused on enterprise needs like the Cius using Android, something which the more restrictive nature of Apple’s development platform makes impossible (unless Apple creates its own), or researchers at the MIT Media lab to create an interesting telemedicine optometry solution. A fair response to this would be that this can lead to platform fragmentation, but whether or not there is a destructive amount of it is an open question. Given Apple’s track record the last time it went solo versus platform (something even Steve Jobs admits they didn’t do so well at), I feel this is a major strength for Google’s model in the long-run.
  • image(More) open source/standards – Google is unique in the tech space for the extent of its support for open source and open standards. Now, how they’ve handled it isn’t perfect, but if you take a quick glance at their Google Code page, you can see an impressive number of code snippets and projects which they’ve open sourced and contributed to the community. They’ve even gone so far as to provide free project hosting for open source projects. But, even beyond just giving developers access to useful source code, Google has gone further than most companies in supporting open standards going so far as to provide open access to its WebM video codec which it purchased the rights to for ~$100M to provide a open HTML5 video standard and to make it easy to access your data from a Google service however you choose (i.e., IMAP access to Gmail, open API access to Google Calendar and Google Docs, etc.). This is in keeping with Google’s desire to enable more web development and web use, and is a direct consequence of it not relying on selling individual products. Contrast this with an Apple-like model – the services and software are designed to fuel additional sales. As a result, they are well-designed, high-performance, and neatly integrated with the rest of the package, but are much less likely to be open sourced (with a few notable exceptions) or support easy mobility to other devices/platforms. This doesn’t mean Apple’s business model is wrong, but it leads to a different conclusion, one which I don’t think is as good for the end-user in the long run.

These are, of course, broad sweeping generalizations (and don’t capture all the significant differences or the subtle ones between the two companies). Apple, for instance, is at the forefront of contributors to the open source Webkit project which powers many of the internet’s web browsers and is a pioneer behind the multicore processing standard OpenCL. On the flip side, Google’s openness and privacy policies are definitely far from perfect. But, I think those are exceptions to the “broad strokes” I laid out.

In this case, I believe that, while short-term design strength and solution quality may be the strengths of Apple’s current model, I believe in the long run, Google’s model is better for the end-customer because their model is centered around more usage.

I will leave you with another reason to love Google: Google ads have helped save princesses.

(Image credit) (Image credit) (Image credit) (Image credit) (Image credit)

13 Comments

Suggestion to American TV studios

The past few weeks I’ve been eagerly watching a variety of Japanese television, and I noticed something very peculiar (for an American).

The few Japanese dramas I’ve seen actually end. They build to an end and then just stop. They don’t drag it out for season after season, allowing different seasons to suffer based on actor/actress-negotiations and writers having off-years. They don’t end on ridiculous season cliffhanger-after-season cliffhanger. They have  a well-defined endpoint and, by building to it, they keep the story fresh and force it to have a suitable length.

This isn’t to say that the Japanese dramas I’ve seen don’t go on for multiple seasons. But, I would assert that sequels (should) only happen when there is sufficient audience demand for one and when the storytellers think they have another story to tell.

Contrast that with American TV – the seasons are built not for any plot reason, but because a TV studio needs to have sufficient content to fill the months of September to May/June. Seasons are renewed, not because of a deep creative reason or even necessarily because of audience demand, but because of a misguided sense of momentum. This doesn’t always turn into a disaster (I believe House MD, despite its traditional  has maintained a reasonable level of quality each season through the quality of its casting and writing), but even series that I thoroughly enjoy like Smallville have had their fair share of “useless filler” episodes and bad seasons.

In my humble opinion, it’d be far better to adopt the miniseries format. It prevents writers from creating ridiculous plot devices to keep a story going way past its prime (and past when its actors begin leaving for greener pastures), and it maintains a quality of production which only a purpose-driven creative process can lead to.

Given the challenges of the TV business, I’d say its at least worth a shot for an American TV studio to try.

2 Comments

Tails of the TV

A few months ago, I posted on why the Long Tail hypothesis that technology would reduce the importance of general “hits” in favor of the “long tail” of niche products was wrong and how businesses should respond. In the Economist’s recent coverage of the television industry, they note how this has played out when it comes to how American studios have done overseas:

A few years ago there was much talk of localising television shows. Stung by charges of cultural imperialism, which were particularly loud in France, the big media conglomerates encouraged their foreign subsidiaries to develop their own programming. Although some still do so, it is no longer the rule. MTV India, for example, is dominated by local acts but MTV Poland is a vehicle for international music.

These days MTV International is run “more like a global multinational”, says Bob Bakish, its president. It produces local content where there is demand for the stuff. But it is also a co-ordinated distribution engine for American programming. Series like “Jersey Shore”, an oddly compelling show that trails Italian-American youths around beaches and bars, are now released simultaneously outside America. When Michael Jackson died, MTV quickly assembled a reel of the singer’s performances and dispatched it around the world.

imageHow could American hits possibly outcompete localized content? In my last post, I discussed some of the consumer-oriented reasons why this was true. First, an abundance of choices encourages consumers to make sure they watch the same content as the others in their social circles. Secondly, the same technology which makes it easier for people to access the “long tail” also makes it easier  to access and engage with hits through websites, chatrooms, online “webisodes”, in-show music, related graphic novels/magazines, smartphone apps, games, social media, etc. This sort of multi-platform content strategy even has a Hollywood buzzword to go with it: transmedia.

But, consumer-oriented reasons aside, there is also a fundamental business reason for the dominance of Western television overseas: those studios with the biggest hits are also likely to have the wallets needed to pay for better directors, better cameras, better editing, and better special effects. Combine that with the impact of Moore’s Law on television quality and you have an enviable virtuous cycle which most businesses dream of getting:

Get hold of a copy of a drama made by Hollywood for American broadcast TV—“CSI”, “Glee” or “Heroes” will do fine—and, at a random moment, press the pause button. What do you see? Handsome actors, no doubt. But also a well-composed shot that resembles a photograph, with the actors well positioned within the frame. The shot will be well lit, too. Now do the same for a show made by a foreign broadcaster. The result? Probably less impressive.

Finely crafted television like this is expensive. It costs more than $3m for an hour of drama that is good enough to pass muster on an American broadcast network. The visual acuity of Hollywood’s best shows is a big reason why they can compete against home-grown products that are more culturally relevant. Their advantage is growing as households across the world invest in bigger, sharper televisions.

I don’t think this changes any of the lessons I discussed in my previous post (build a strong PR machine, find ways to cross-sell/bundle, build an efficient and repeatable content creation engine which can survive a few failures but capitalize on a hit); it only raises the stakes – if you don’t have the PR, the bundle, and the repeatable formula: your hits won’t be nearly as big and your failures will be all the more painful.

(Image credit – transmedia diagram)

One Comment
%d bloggers like this: