Cafe Witness

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

This Blog Is Relocating

If you're a reader or subscriber of this blog, first of all, thank you. Secondly, if you'd like to keep receiving updates, please follow me over on my new site & blog.

Years ago, I started Cafe Witness as an outlet for my casual observations. (I've always considered myself to be an armchair sociologist who just happens to make a living producing media.) But since my "personal brand" (if we must use that term) includes all aspects of my personality -- including the cynical, sarcastic and idiosyncratic side most often on display here -- I feel comfortable merging this POV with my allegedly more "professional" side.

(Also, many wise people tell me it's good SEO to merge my two sites, and I prefer to merge them into the domain I own, rather than this one that's owned by Goooooogle.)

So please, follow me here (and update your RSS subscriptions accordingly). I can't say Cafe Witness will never be updated again, but for now, let's consolidate our efforts and see where that gets us.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

I'm Bored With Your Brand

I'm bored with everything about your brand. I'm bored with your logo, I'm bored with your public outreach, and I'm bored with the endless obsession over what your brand means to others.

In fact, if I never hear another word about your brand again, I'll sleep better at night. (And I say this as someone who works in marketing.)

Stop worrying about your brand -- and, more importantly, stop making me (and everyone else you don't really know) worry about your brand.

Just do something.

Do something amazing, innovative, world-changing. Start small but aim big. Or not; small is hard, too. Just get it right. Or try to get it right, relentlessly.

The more amazing, innovative or world-changing your actions, the more likely other people will start talking about you. And they won't be talking about your brand because you want them to; they'll be talking about your brand because they want to.

Except they won't be talking about your brand, really. They'll be talking about your actions. And actions are a lot bigger than a brand.

Image by Tambako the Jaguar.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

5 Thoughts on the Future of Media

As a former agent at UTA, Barrett Garese has better insight into the future of media than most of us do, and he's blogged a fascinating essay about where he thinks film, TV and web content is headed. (In a nutshell, he believes the key is to capitalize on the inherent differences of each platform, rather than insisting on convergence.)

While reading his essay, I realized my own response would be longer than appropriate for his comment column, so I've posted it here. My thoughts will make more sense if you've read Barrett's essay as a primer, but I think these points stand on their own as well.

I'll Stop the World and Converge With You...

The convergence of film, TV and web is happening, but that doesn't dilute the power of each individual experience -- film is still film, TV is still TV, web is still web, etc. What this DOES create is a NEW experience format: the convergent format, in which content is specifically designed to either:

A) feel different across all platforms (in which your viewing experience is specifically engineered to suit the screen size or format, possibly going as far as editing with different shots or angles, depending upon the delivery method), or

B) be different across all platforms (i.e., the web version of a show is completely different, while still complementary in theme, to the film version, etc.).

Your Home Theater is Not Actually a Theater. Discuss.

Audiences anticipate different experiences depending on the distribution method. We expect to immerse ourselves in a film experience (minus the live distractions), while we expect to be distracted from the TV experience (because we're at home). Thus, we're already anticipating a different kind of content to be shared across those variant platforms -- and when the end result doesn't match our expectations, our engagement with that content may suffer. (Or, it may surprise us.)

We also expect a difference in on-screen quality relative to the effort it takes to obtain the image (i.e., driving to a theater at 7 PM should reward me with a higher quality experience than watching something on my phone at 3 AM). And we expect the content to connect with us on differing levels dependent upon our applied attention -- mindblowing films can't be processed in 5 minute increments via stolen wi-fi during your lunch break, whereas 3 hours in a theater had better provide you with a deeper and more profound experience than 30 consecutive episodes of Tiki Bar TV (which, it should be said, I love).


The biggest expense for online content should be promotions. You can create an amazing show for $5, but you're releasing it into a medium that A) not enough people are paying attention to, yet which is B) paradoxically flooded with crap (which may explain A).

If I were to produce a new web series (after concluding Something to Be Desired), I'd be sure that the promotional plan was in place before the first episode ever hit the web; the days of "throwing it out there and seeing what happens" are best left to people experimenting in their own free time, not people who are expecting to gain the necessary traction to validate (both artistically AND financially) their investment of time, money and effort into a web property.

Whither the Studios?

Eventually, existing corporate studio behemoths will become distribution companies that happen to have (presumably exclusive) contracts with production houses. Rather than focusing on producing AND distributing their own in-house content, they'll profit from their primary assets (reach and volume) and leave the creative aspects to the producers -- who will in turn be grateful to not have to worry about being both creative and ubiquitous at the same time.

That said, there will always be exceptions. In the long run, it's still cheaper for Verizon to produce its own web shows than it is for them to subcontract with a production company, and it's still more profitable for an indie prodco to bootstrap their way into self-distribution than it is for them to produce their own content but only keep a percentage of those eventual revenues.

A Soap Opera Without the Soap Had Better Be a Damn Good Opera

Content producers need to rely less on advertising and more on the inherent value of the content itself. Gone are the days when content is produced as a lure to hook viewers into sitting through commercials -- nor can content *be* produced under a presumed business model that eyeballs = advertising opportunities = profit. Cut out that middleman and what are you left with?

You're left with an audience who'll pay you directly for what you create -- or for the experience it creates in them -- rather than a vessel with holes waiting to be plugged by commercials.

This also impacts media being produced for traditionally large-scale distribution. Just because a show isn't pulling in the millions of eyeballs it needs to validate its TV time slot, it doesn't mean that show couldn't be profitable at a lower operating cost with web-based distribution. If I were the producers of a canceled darling like Pushing Daisies (and if I still owned the rights to that property), I would shrink the budget, post 15-20 minute episodes (or segments) online, and invite the fans to pre-pay for next season's DVD in advance; that initial influx of cash could be used to fund part of the upcoming season, which means the prodco isn't scrambling to line up sponsors now and then waiting for a year-end DVD windfall to break even.


Image by perreira.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Must the Show Go On?

Now that I'm moving to Baltimore, I'm faced with a very tough decision: what to do about Something to Be Desired, the web series I've been producing here in Pittsburgh since 2003.

If you've never seen STBD, you're not alone -- although we're the web's longest-running sitcom, we're also one of the smallest, due mostly to my own inability to properly promote the show WHILE producing it (WHILE also making a living). Because our extensive (and talented) cast all work for free, our only actual expenses for the show are equipment, hosting and time; otherwise -- and if we didn't enjoy it -- we never would have lasted 6+ years.

Now, since the cast can't relocate to Baltimore with me, continued production of STBD becomes nearly impossible without major restructuring. As I see it, I really only have three options:

* Keep producing the show in SOME format, which would require lots of advance planning, remote scheduling and copious amounts of driving (or flying) time -- which obviously inflates the cost of production.

* Let the cast (and whomever else would like to volunteer their camera services) continue to produce the show themselves, and I could advise / assist (within reason) from a distance.

* Cancel the show.

Still Ready for Their Close-Ups?

So far, most of the cast members I've heard from have fallen into 2 categories:

* The veteran cast members would like to see the show continue, but they don't particularly mind if it shuts down either. After 5 or 6 years, they can accept that this particular creative outlet may have reached its end. They would just prefer to see the show end on a high note, rather than as a mass of jumbled loose ends.

* The newer cast members are more vocal about wanting the show to continue, since they've only begun exploring the experience (and their characters). Then again, they also tend to be the cast members who are most actively pursuing stage and film work in Pittsburgh, so they admit this makes them even harder to schedule -- especially from a distance.


... this question of the show's future comes at a time when things have been going quite well for us.

* The fashionistas at Pittsburgh-based ModCloth have offered to outfit some of our cast members for next season's episodes.

* Last year, we were nominated as one of the Top Web Series on Yahoo's annual web video awards. (We lost to The Guild, but that's okay -- so did everyone else.)

* YouTube had begun promoting last season's episodes on the front page of their Entertainment section, resulting in thousands of new views we wouldn't have enjoyed otherwise.

* Web video press like TubeFilter and TilzyTV gave us some ink (or pixels, if you're a purist).

We'd even begun filming some scenes for Season 7 in HD, which would be a big format change for us (and would hopefully help highlight those new ModCloth outfits).

And Yet, in the End...

... it all comes down to me. Over the years, I've struggled annually with the decision of whether or not to keep the show going. Some days (or years) have been harder than others, but the fact that I was collaborating with a talented cast of actors to create something WE controlled was always enough to power me through the down times.

And now, just when it seems like the show may be finding its footing, all signs point toward how logical it would be to shut it down and start anew with something fresh in Baltimore. (Which I'm sure I'll explore regardless of the future of STBD -- there's something to be said for a local creative outlet.)

I know that as long as I have at least one actor and at least one viewer, I have at least one reason to keep producing STBD. And as long as I'm still interested in telling the ongoing story of this cast of characters -- and I am -- I also have a personal reason to continue.

The question I have to ask myself now is: Is it worth it?

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Baltimore Bound

uss constellation baltimore maryland

Last Friday, Ann and I went to Baltimore. She had a job interview that morning.

On the way home, they emailed to offer her the position.

Suddenly, I've gone from a champion of Pittsburgh to a soon-to-be transplant to Baltimore. What a whirlwind one email makes.

Since I freelance for a living, nothing I do professionally will change despite my new address. (In fact, since most of my current work comes from the New York area, I'll actually be closer to NYC in Baltimore -- maybe I can cut down on the car-destroying road trips.)

Nor will my cultural identity change drastically. To wit:

Pittsburgh is a wonderful, historic, affordable and underrated city with an identity crisis and an ongoing youth population drain.

Baltimore -- from everything I've read so far -- seems to be a wonderful, historic, affordable and underrated city with an identity crisis (namely, its "kid brother" proximity to Washington, DC) and an equally debilitating population drain.

So far, so similar.

The big change will happen in my own personal fishbowl. I've been fortunate to meet dozens of great people here in Pittsburgh whom I consider my friends, acquaintances or the regularly interesting extras in my life. I'm sure those same personalities exist in Baltimore, but our shared Pittsburgh experience won't be in place to help break the ice.

This move also has direct implications for my involvement in PodCamp Pittsburgh (i.e., not much involvement at all) and the future of Something to Be Desired, the web series I've been producing here in Pittsburgh since 2003. I haven't yet decided what that future will be, so I'll consider it over the next several weeks of apartment hunting, U-Haul packing and the waving of goodbyes.

And thus, this is the beginning of my hat tip to Pittsburgh -- a place I'll always consider to be some part of "home," no matter where I live -- and my opening bow toward Baltimore, which will become my home for the next chapter in this occasionally surprising book I'm reading called "life."

I wonder if Baltimore has pierogies...

Photo by stevehdc.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

We Need a New Water Cooler

Now that Twitter has removed a feature they claim only 2% of their users were using (and which nearly everyone I follow has been complaining about, which I guess means we ARE that 2%), something has become clear:

We need a new water cooler.

Twitter is often described as a "virtual water cooler," serving as a gathering place for people who work remotely. It's where we who don't have officemates (or who don't care to speak with the same 10 people all week long) go to bounce ideas off people half a world away, in real time, with minimal obligation or investment of attention.

But when the service terminates one of its own best reasons for existing -- the ability to stumble across other users via "fragmented conversations" (a functionality, it should be stressed, that THE USERS THEMSELVES invented) -- it becomes clear that Twitter is less concerned with serving the needs of its core users than it is with appealing to the masses. (After all, the masses bring the money; the 2% do not.)

And when the service then schedules planned downtime at noon PST on a Wednesday, those of us who rely on it for our daily conversation stream realize it's time to create a backup plan.

You wouldn't keep every document you own on one hard drive, thus stranding yourself if it crashes. So why are the bulk of our conversations contained within one service?

Seduce me, Facebook. Dazzle me, Plurk. Rise from the dead, Jaiku, and provide for us a valid alternative to the service that no one wanted until everyone had to have it.

Image by dennis.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Suddenly, I Need a Car

Last night, I was driving home to Pittsburgh from the Business Smart Tools conference in Connecticut. I was driving uphill, in the rain, and I heard a rattle in my engine. Since my heat shield has been loose numerous times in the life of my car -- a 2000 Honda Civic with 152,000 miles -- I figured I'd need to get it tightened when I got home.

Then, something shot out from underneath my car. Sparking, smoke, a THRUB THRUB THRUB noise coming from the engine...

I decided to pull over.

So, at around 9:30 on a rainy Wednesday night in the middle of I-80, my 2000 Honda Civic came to its final stop. The tow truck driver explained that I'd shot a rod through my engine block, which (if I understand correctly) means a piston escaped from the motor by way of the motor casing. That means the motor has to be replaced, which would involve disassembling (and then reassembling) the entire engine -- around a $1000 to $2000 repair for a car that's worth, at best, $1500.

Side note: I'd introduced Scott Monty from Ford at the BST Conference just a day before. At this rate, I hope I never have to introduce a heart surgeon...

So: Anyone have any car-buying advice for a guy with strictly average credit and a very slim rainy day fund?

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