(Bitter) Sweet Freedom: New media props up cheap hits, but at what cost?

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The Roman Empire was brutal, repressive, tyrannical, corrupt, morally bankrupt…  Well, nothing’s perfect, right?  After all, the Empire’s collapse after 700 years didn’t bring freedom or reformation, but the Dark Ages – disease, ignorance, witch trials, book burnings, illiteracy, and all that other bad stuff which made the Dark Ages so damned dark.

It’s like that line in Monty Python’s Life of Brian: a Jewish revolutionary group is plotting the overthrow of their Roman overseers, and ringleader John Cleese declares, “After all, what’ve the Romans ever done for us?”

After which Cleese’s followers offer a shopping list – a long shopping list – of the benefits of Roman occupation.  An exasperated Cleese finally concedes/concludes with, “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

To which one of his minions tentatively offers, “Brought peace?”

“Oh, peace!  Shut up!”

We’re in the midst of watching a lot of mass media empires wavering on weak legs.  If you’re old enough, you’ve already seen some of them if not fall, at least decline.  Cable, the Internet, iPods, smart phones, laptops, downloads…  A host of alternative pipelines have replaced the once tight-knit oligarchy of major studios, major broadcast networks, major record companies which used to control content and distribution.  The major studios still exist, but they release as many – if not more – titles produced by independent companies as they do homegrown product; the broadcast TV networks have lost nearly half their audience since the advent of the modern cable era in the late 1970s; broadcast radio and the rest of the music industry have been whittled down and reshaped by a listening audience which prefers to hear personalized, on-demand playlists of downloaded music from a little dingus fitting in a breast pocket.

The New Media landscape is about enfranchisement, empowerment, enablement.  No longer does the audience have to sit and swallow what the media gatekeepers decide should be passed on through.  The audience decides what to watch and hear, when, where, even how.  The phrase sometimes used to describe this new paradigm is, “democratization of the media.”

Twilight Zone fans might remember that a common TZ theme was, “Be careful what you wish for…you might get it.”  A genie, a deal with the devil, some other mechanism would make some poor bastard’s fantasy come true and it was only then – trapped in his heaven turned hell – he’d find out he’d been better off before.

The first time I’d heard the phrase, “democratization of the media,” was from a panel at a TV trade luncheon back in the 1980s, and I heard it from that maestro of TV bombast, Geraldo Rivera. Rivera made some verbally italicized statements about snobby media gatekeepers, and this being a new day when people didn’t have to sit for news the media-managing elites decided was important, but were now being offered the kind of news they were truly, actually interested in. You know; like what was in Al Capone’s secret vault, and interviews with guys who liked wearing women’s underwear.  This was the first reality TV tsunami – before we called it reality TV – of Phil and a newly-introduced Oprah and Maury and Jerry and, of course, Geraldo.  The heated competition between them led to the kind of sensationalist programming (Phil Donahue in a dress; trailer camp types throwing chairs at each other on Jerry Springer) Oprah herself once described as a TV version of “bear-baiting.”

There was another guy on that panel whose name I regretfully can’t remember.  He was the head of programming for one of the New York network affiliates and he had a somewhat different opinion of these kinds of shows.  He didn’t like them.  He didn’t like them a lot.  Sometimes he was embarrassed that his station ran them.  But they pulled good numbers, so, on the air they stayed.

The democratization revolution through New Media has only escalated and expanded since then.

Case in point:  27-year-old Amanda Hocking.  Ignored by big-time brand name publishers, Hocking went around them, self-publishing a string of paranormal romance e-books, pumping each one out in 3-4 weeks (one she even pounded out in a single week!).  Tirelessly promoting her work on her blog, Hocking ultimately ran up sales of an astounding 900,000 copies at which point the pub houses which had brushed her off a couple of years earlier came a-running waving contracts and wads of cash.  St. Martin’s won the race with a $2 million four-book deal.

Case in point:  15-year-old Rebecca Black whose mom forked out four grand to make a music video of her ditty, “Fridays.”  Rebecca and her mom didn’t go knocking on record company doors.  They went to YouTube where perky little Rebecca’s video went astronomically viral before “Fridays” broke out into the commercial music arena, eventually hitting #58 on Billboard’s Hot 100 list.

Case in point:  31-year-old Dane Boedigheimer and writing partner Spencer Grove launched The Annoying Orange, a YouTube series about talking fruit.  Orange amassed 2.2 million subscribers and netted Boedigheimer and Grove a deal to launch Orange on The Cartoon Network this year.

Flip around the cable dial:  teen moms, the Kardashians, housewives of wherever, the Jersey Shore gang…  All further cases in point.  I mean, it kind of staggers the imagination – doesn’t it? – that you could become a TV celebrity because you got knocked up and had to drop out of high school.

Could any of this have happened twenty years ago when those nasty, nose-in-the-air gatekeepers were still pulling their “You…but not you…” routine at the velvet rope separating the overnight sensations from the wannabe/never wases?

I’ve been pondering these kinds of media democratizers since reading a recent Los Angeles Times story about Paramount’s January 6 release of The Devil Inside which reporter Steven Zeitchik described as “…something rare:  an out-of-nowhere, did-that-really-just-happen, Tim Tebow-style success.”  Independently produced on a shoestring then picked up by Paramount, TDI grossed $34.5 million in its opening weekend – the third-biggest January opening ever, landing writer/director William Brent Bell and co-writer Matthew Peterman a couple of studio gigs as a bonusThis from a movie with no stars, made by no-names on a miniscule budget.  Paramount picked this movie out of the ether, shrewdly marketed the hell out of it on social networks, and produced a big, fat, unadulterated hit which will probably be – due to its small budget and minimal marketing costs – one of the most profitable movies of the year.

But here’s the thing about The Devil Inside that really got me thinking about this whole democratization of the media v. media gatekeepers thing:  the movie stinks.  I mean, really stinks.  I mean low-tide-near-the-sewage-outlet stinks.  The movie pulled an astoundingly low 6% positive score on Rotten Tomatoes.  You usually have to piss on the leg of every major film reviewer in America to get a Tomato that Rotten.  Bell and Peterman must have pissed on the leg of everybody who bought a ticket, too, because even the crowds that went to see the movie thought it stunk going by TDI’s “F” CinemaScore rating – CinemaScore’s first “F” in three years.

And that’s the thing about these New Media era hits.  The Devil Inside is a crappy movie; “Fridays” couldn’t pull a decent review at gunpoint with 87% of the people rating it for YouTube considering it an Auto-Tune nightmare; The New York Times described Amanda Hocking’s work as “literature as candy,” while Publisher’s Weekly dinged her for “…thinly drawn, enigmatic characters with deliberately poor communication and a flair for high school-style drama…”; and Newsweek feels The Annoying Orange is just that, declaring the series “unbearable.”

And yet they’re all hits.  Big hits.  Rebecca/Amanda/Bill&Matt/Dane&Spencer-here’s-your-key-to-the-Career-Club hits.

In the process, these fortunate few have been canonized by aspiring singers and novelists and filmmakers everywhere as the patron saints of The New Way to Do Things in the Era of New Media.

Among the levels of aspirants in whatever field, that’s always been a version of the Golden Fleece myth; that if there was just some way around the chokepoint of assistants and readers and junior development execs and what-have-you’s, you could show what you could do, revealing your heretofore undiscovered, unappreciated genius and – bingo! – you’d be made!

The liturgy being written around Hocking and sweet-faced Rebecca and the handful of others who’ve managed to break through to the mainstream from the cacophony of the Internet is that New Media is that Golden Fleece; that thing which finally allows the star-worthy (and the self-assumed star-worthy) to show why they deserve to be stars without jumping through the usual hoops of agencies, or playing in biker bars hoping get the ear of some record company A&R guy/gal, or whatever the traditional Old School hoops relevant to your particular creative passion might have been.

That gives me pause for thought, and it occurs to me in that thinking pause that not everything about having gatekeepers was necessarily bad.  Look, I’m not saying the Old Way was some guarantor of quality.  TV, music, film, you name it, there’s always been more junk than good stuff.  You can’t blame Michael Bay or Stephanie Meyer on New Media (although I am tempted to blame videogames for the success of Bay and his “Break Glass for Emergency Ritalin Injection” kind of filmmaking).  And there’s any number of stories about how good stuff was passed on by those who are supposed to know good stuff when they see it, like the dozen publishing houses which passed on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before it ended up at dinky Bloomsbury Publishing where it kicked off the biggest print phenomenon since the Gutenberg  Bible.

But they did keep out some unadulterated crap.  We’re a film site so think Robot Monster (1953) or any Ed Wood movie.  And the more perceptive ones did admit and nurture the likes of Scorsese, Coppola, Tarantino.

Rejection on the way to eventual – and often gradual – success served a purpose.  Upon getting the heart-piercing “No!,” a writer, a filmmaker, etc. did some crying, some sulking, some pissing and moaning about how the people doing the rejecting had their taste in their respective mouths.  But then they often went off to make their stuff better hoping to achieve a level of quality and/or market viability too strong to refuse.  Failure taught them what worked and what didn’t; it was the hammer, anvil, and bucket of water which tempered their work and their creative souls into something stronger.

New Media does away with the gatekeepers.  Hell, New Media does away with the gates!  The whole idea of rejection becomes irrelevant because New Media allows presentation without having to gain a sign-off from some intellectual snob.  Anybody with a little moxie, a gift for self-promotion, cheap video equipment and a bit of luck can become an online star.  If Ed Wood were alive today, he’d do Glen or Glenda (1953) or Bride of the Monster (1955) online, and their very atrociousness would turn them into multi-million hit successes (what’s happening on the audience end that turns a talking orange and a bunch of boozy, over-tanned shore rats into media successes is a bit beyond me).

I grant I’m speaking in generalizations.  There’s a lot of good stuff out there.  Were it not for the New Media revolution, there’d be no The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, no Deadliest Catch (a personal favorite – it’s everything The Perfect Storm [2000] wanted to be and wasn’t), no Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, no any number of good things.

But…

Back in the 1950s, when carpers picked on truly lousy sci fi stories to make the point that sci fi was just a lousy genre, sci fi writer Theodore Sturgeon responded with what became called Sturgeon’s Law.  Sci fi wasn’t any different than any other literary field, Sturgeon said.  The problem wasn’t sci fi; the problem was “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”

I accept that.  I accept that while there’s great TV, most of it is crap; there are still great movies being made, but most movies released in a given year are, to some extent or another, crap; most music — …  Well, you get the picture.

What New Media does is amplify the gross weight of the good and the crap by a multiple of Infinitely More.  Online airtime is unlimited, the costs are minimal, anybody can post anything…and they do.

All of this may sound like Old Fart crabbiness (and it probably is), with a soupcon of envy (no doubt).  But I look at the numbers and I get a bad feeling.  The Walking Dead was pulling in 6.6 million viewers at the end of its first season; The Jersey Shore finished out last season with 8.5 million.  Breaking Bad – one of the most acclaimed shows on TV, broadcast or cable — kicked off its 2011 season with 2.6 million viewers; Kim Kardashian’s gaudy wedding pulled 3.2 million (if they televise her divorce, I’ll bet that tally doubles).  Considering Rebecca Black and that damned talking orange, I’m not sure things will play out any differently on the Net.  See, it’s not just that there’s so much more bad than good – that’s been a media eternal – but that so much bad stuff is doing so damned well.  So far, the next J.J. Abrams, the next J.K. Rowling, the next Kurt Cobain hasn’t come out of the Internet ether, or at least I haven’t seen them.  Rebecca Black, yes; next Cobain, no.

YouTube is launching YouTube Original Channels – over 100 channels of niche-specific programming but not amateur stuff.  It’s coming from established TV producers like CSI creator Anthony Zuiker, and talents as varied as Jay-Z, Madonna, Amy Poehler.  Original Channels is YouTube’s attempt to compete head-to-head with TV with polished, scripted programming rather than the hodge-podge reality and homemade brews the site has long been identified with.  A breakout success among the YouTube Original Channels could be a game-changer for Internet entertainment.  It’d just be a shame after that kind of effort, and with the kind of opportunity the Net and the other New Media provide, if even a notable success is eclipsed by the cheaper, larger popularity of another even more irritating piece of fruit.

Bill Mesce

4 Comments
  1. Vlad N says

    But, in the past the 90% was also sold and marketed its just that over time the enthusiasm for it fades. While the 10% just gets better and better. It is probable that we may loose some of the best work over time as well, but I find it hard to imagine that the best of the best can get lost. Dickens was popular when he wrote, but soon he faded in popularity, yet his works have stuck with us because of their universal quality, and now are probably as read and valued as ever. You just can’t predict in the present what will truly have lasting value.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      True true, Vlad, true true.

  2. Vlad N says

    Fine article Mr. Mesce. I would say that the true test of quality is not the money a movie or books makes when it is first published and advertised. The real test is will people still buy the book 20 years after the adds and fads driving the sales have faded. Good books and good movies will stay around. The 10% of science fiction that was good in the 50’s survives to this day. Time is the ultimate test. Thus we must take the long view on matters of criticism and quality. Thanks to new media in 20 years we may very well have many more fine shows, books, movies, and songs then we otherwise would have, and we will all remember a time when things where made some how better or more thoughtfully then currently.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      I don’t doubt that we will have — and may already have — “many more fine books, shows, movies, and songs then we otherwise would have.” I’m just wondering about our ability to find them in an infinitely expanding New Media universe which — like the traditional media environment — is dominated by more disposable stuff.
      That 10% of classic sci fi you mention had publishers who archived and preserved material, knew how to market to its target audience even during re-releases, and pushed their stuff in a media landscape infinitely less cluttered than this one. How do you hear that one, angelic voice in a choir where everyone else is singing out of tune?

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