Saturday, November 25, 2006

BILL HICKS WAS RIGHT

This post may wander a little, but it's ultimately about the business and it has a point. Hopefully, the uphill parts of the hike won't take too much out of you.

First, the words of the prophet...




Bill Hicks was the best stand-up comedian of the 1990's; incendiary, prescient, and enormously intelligent. Tragically, he died at the ridiculously young age of 32, not long after his last appearance on "The David Letterman Show" -- a 7 minute career capping performance so inspired it never made it to air. One of his jokes (although pre-screened by Letterman's producers) was deemed, post-delivery, to "potentially offend" and his entire act was cut. Not the one joke, the whole seven minutes.

Knowing he only had a few weeks to live, Hicks self-recorded those seven minutes for posterity and returned home to Texas to die -- according to legend, never speaking again.

Bill's comedy crime was that he had crossed the one line you can never cross in television -- potentially losing a viewer who someday, somewhere might be a paying customer of -- somebody. Bill was a sacrifice on the altar of marketing.

Art and commerce are eternal combatants in the world of entertainment. Neither camp prospers without the other. For the most part, neither side understands the full purpose of the other and often doesn't even try. Oddly, this is best for everybody.

Unfortunately, lately, the commerce guys have commandeered the ship -- and in some parts of the world may take the artists down with them.

Commerce is all about selling something to somebody. The science of selling is called Marketing, a complicated combination of logic, social analysis and insight that determines who will be most encouraged to buy what through how...

Don't worry if that didn't quite make sense to you. If you're reading this blog you're probably in the art camp and not wired to figure it out. You and I simply call it -- lying.

Marketers are exceptional liars. And as a producer I say that with great professional respect. Learn to think of lying the way David Mamet's producer Walt Price explains it in "State and Main". "It's a gift for fiction."

The fiction Marketing guys create is what sells the fiction we create. This is also where things go off the rails. If what art brings to people's lives was considered as important as what money brings, there wouldn't be a problem. But it's not.

The monetary rewards of marketing have led to a belief that you can turn a profit on just about anything if enough people can be convinced to buy what you're selling. Depending on where you stand, this makes marketing people either complete geniuses or total asshats...

Let's explore my extraordinarily eventful life for a case study...

One summer sunday, left to my own devices and discovering I don't have any, I decide to finally see one of the tentpole blockbusters. Having just moved, I mis-time how long it takes to get to the theatre and turn up an hour early. No big deal. There's a pizza place next door where I can buy a slice and a brew.

Told the waitress I wanted to be out in time for the next show and she asked, "Do you want our dinner and a movie special?" Meaning, order a beer and a pizza for $15 and we'll throw in a free movie pass. Deal! My exciting evening out was suddenly half price!

The deal got a couple bucks better when I was told I could keep my trademarked NFL beer mug if I ordered what the house had on tap. No problem. I'm a go along to get along guy. The mug came with a Raiders logo (Yes!!) and a voucher for 4 free issues of Sports Illustrated.

Got to the theatre, used my pass and dropped $10 for snacks -- because it just isn't a tentpole blockbuster without popcorn. With my snacks, came a gratis ginormous chocolate bar, a free Blockbuster rental coupon and $10 off my next purchase at Roots. I'm thinking if I use all this stuff, I'm almost ahead of the game here.

The theatre crowd was small -- me and two couples, both of whom had been at the pizza joint, likely meaning all of us were here on passes.

Five people on a Sunday night. Come weekend three, tentpole blockbusters just don't seem to be what they once were.

Anyway, we happy few, we band of brothers, watched about 20 minutes of ads, 10 minutes of trailers and the movie.

Leaving the theatre, one usher handed me a single serving box of Shreddies and another presented me with a trial long distance phone card.

Okay -- so a lot of marketing here -- and a fistful of deals that grand totaled $17 more than I'd actually spent. So, who's making any money?

If you're in the "They're asshats!" camp -- nobody -- They're desperate, crass commercializers stooping at nothing...

If you're in the "Genius" camp -- a lot of people -- through the building of good will, customer appreciation, brand recognition, whatever.

Next question. What gave all those people the opportunity to offer me these bribes, incentives, free samples and tokens of appreciation?

Answer: The movie. What you and I do.

Hey, marketing guy! You're welcome! Have you noticed how well I'm driving the economy here?

Last question. A really dumb one. If this symbiotic relationship is working so well for everybody, why're you trying to put me out of business?

This week in Canada, the people who own free to air television networks told the government that they need to be paid as much as a buck a channel a month to survive.

The proverbial hit the fan. Talk radio screamed. Columnists ranted. Bloggers blogged.

Rest Easy. This will never happen.

No one, governmental or corporate, is willing to endure the public wrath that would result. This is what is known as a marketing ploy, painting the worst case picture to get what they really want, a bigger cut of cable's time-shifting pie, so viewers won't PVR and skip the commercials altogether; the chance to squeeze another commercial minute into each hour and less pressure to buy homegrown programming.

If they're lucky, they might also get further reductions in Canadian content and more credit for endlessly repeating their no budget programming.

As too many people in network marketing told us this week...

Ad revenue is down. (according to the Canadian Association of Broadcasters own figures, it's actually growing faster than the country's Gross Domestic Product).

Audiences are migrating to specialty channels (which they mostly own, meaning they're losing viewers to -- themselves).

Myspace and Youtube are stealing the young viewer away. (Okay give 'em this one -- but only because girls going wild and Jackass stunts will always be more interesting than Ben Mulroney).

The mantra is simple -- "Please give us more money so we don't have to think up ways to stay relevent and gawd, whatever you do, don't make us have to earn our audience!

These guys are so busy saving the Status Quo, they haven't had time to notice it's already gone! The page turned while they were working on their marketing campaign.

This summer the NFL decided to punt a deal with Turner Broadcasting worth $300 Million and put Turner's 8 games on their own NFL network. They're also experimenting with an online pay system to stream games, something Major League Baseball tried this summer and the NHL is testing later this season.

If this works, the sports cash cow may no longer be on free TV and given the rapidly improving technology more Kings of Content who control their product may be quick to follow. Disney taking back all their kid stuff from free to air stations sure hasn't hurt them, has it? And since the new iPod can wireless broadcast to your TV in HD, anything downloadable is now competition on the same box you flop in front of to watch your favorite shows. Forget Global and CTV becoming extinct, Expressvu and Rogers may not be far behind.

Last year in Las Vegas, I ran into Mark Cuban carrying a little black box around in the pocket of his jeans. It was a Kajillion Terrabyte USB hard drive the size of a PDA which he said could hold the entire film library of MGM. Remember that old Vegas motto "Everything, all the time"? It's apparently caught on with the public.

As of today, you can rebroadcast somebody else's programs just like CTV and Global do. How far do you think we are from a world where the people who make that programming might earn more money selling their shows, or having advertisers pay to provide it, directly to you instead of even licensing a Canadian broadcaster?

Oh wait, we're already there.

Direct Marketing just gained a whole new meaning.

Right now in Hollywood, Marketing geniuses are figuring out how much you'll pay to download the shot but never seen episodes of "Smith". They're calculating how badly you might want a "Dancing With The Stars" compilation and how many new revenue streams they can add to "24" and "American Idol".

Up in the Great White North, where they haven't bothered to make any shows since 1999, where their shopworn library was mostly shot in Super-16 and features actors in bell bottoms and a society before mobile phones; there's nothing to market. But instead of realizing the guys in the art camp can provide content nobody else owns, our commerce guys blindly believe selling what they've got harder and faster and at a higher price will save them.

It won't.

Bill Hicks was right. They'll kill us all.

And I was right on both counts about those marketing guys. Hollywood got the geniuses. We got the asshats.

5 comments:

English Dave said...

Great post. There has to be a balance between cash and artistry. Personally I think the balance has shifted way too much in favour of cash.

It's all very well the networks blaming ratings on audience fragmentation.

Guess what? Make better programmes. Ones that aren't cheaply made crass, muck for the masses in the hope of turning a quick buck.

We have the same problem in the UK. ITV are complaining that they are both losing advertisers and being stuffed by those remaining. The fee the advertisers pay is based on a ratings formula. As ratings decrease/increase so does the fee charged to advertisers.

So instead of bleating about advertisers not stumping up, how about attempting to win back viewers by increasing quality? Duh?

wcdixon said...

The Godfather has spoken...

And still on that tack:

"He's a businessman. I'll make him an offer he can't refuse."

Is there an offer 'they' can't refuse? Or are we all f*cked.

wcdixon said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
heywriterboy (DMc) said...

Bill Hicks ruled my night for a long time. Then someone I worked with "discovered" him, and ... well. What's that thing about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing?

Hacks never know they're hacks, do they?

Jutratest said...

Solid post. Gonna read it again.