Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The "King" of the Big Screen?

I suspect I wasn't the only one surprised to see that Paul Blart, Mall Cop earned more than $30 million in its opening weekend. To put this in perspective, this is more than twice the box office returns earned by "King of the Box Office" Will Smith for Seven Pounds or by mega-star Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It is also close to what pre-sold Marley and Me earned in its first week out as well.

How can this be explained? Is there a massive Kevin James fan base out there? Has this untapped audience been waiting quietly in the wings, biding its time until James was given the appropriate cinematic showcase in which to display his comedic skills? Does this suggest the potentially powerful (and relatively unexploited) box office prowess of CBS sitcom stars?

Perhaps big screen features should be fast-tracked for fellow sitcom actors Julia Louis-Dreyfus (The New Adventures of Old Christine) and Johnny Galecki (The Big Bang Theory) -- not to mention the highest-paid sitcom star on TV at present, Charlie Sheen...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Another way to raise your cable rates (and your blood pressure)

The issue of retransmission consent is not sexy, and as such, it is often relegated to the back of business and technology sections of newspapers (when it's covered at all). Only occasionally, when a cable MSO and a broadcaster fail to reach some sort of compensation agreement (with the cable company agreeing to pay the broadcaster a certain amount for the right to "retransmit" their signal), do people become aware of or hear use of the term. Such was the case, for instance, when a number of Lin Broadcasting stations could not reach an agreement with Time Warner last October. Thus residents in such cities as Austin, Buffalo and Dayton suddenly found their NBC affiliate "going dark." After a few weeks, they finally reached a deal.

As the traditional business model for broadcasting continues to break down, broadcasters have started to view compensation for carriage on cable as a potentially untapped (or at least, not sufficiently tapped) area for additional income. Thus these battles between cable operators and broadcasters were expected to become increasingly high-profile events in 2009. However, a recent article in Multichannel News suggests that in fact, these two stakeholders are working behind the scenes to resolve their issues.

On the surface, this might seem like a good thing -- those of us who receive a clear broadcast signal through our cable service can rest assured that we will continue to get this signal in an uninterrupted fashion. But in fact, because these debates aren't being aired publicly after all, the implications of these arrangements aren't being publicly discussed either. As the aforementioned article notes, part of the reason that cable companies and broadcasters are eager to make these deals happen quickly and quietly is because:

"...Both sides, in an effort to avoid confusion for consumers surrounding the upcoming digital transition of broadcast signals, had proposed a “quiet period” for retrans negotiations prior to the Feb. 17 [digital] transition deadline. While no formal agreement was reached, it appears that broadcasters and cable operators decided to keep the vitriol in these negotiations to a minimum for the time being. Both sides are also wary of attracting too much attention from a new presidential administration that has sent some signals of its desire to further scrutinize the media industry."

While it's all well and good that broadcasters are being compensated for their signal, the way that these deals are being financed is quite problematic. In short, the cost is likely to be passed on to consumers in the form of even higher cable bills. Not only will we have higher cable bills, but we are going to be indirectly paying broadcasters in yet another way (at the very same moment that the government gives these broadcasters digital spectrum on which they can multicast, no less).

Even more troubling is that these deals are being struck in a fashion that bears a striking resemblance to the block booking practices of the studio era: the very article I cite above, for example, states that CBS has agreed in some cases to take less money for its stations in exchange for higher license fees for Showtime, which it also owns. This means even though Showtime is likely to provide viewers with fewer films than before (due to the end of output deals with three major studios), it will be paid more money by cable companies. (Given these circumstances, is it any surprise that the new mantra of Showtime executives is "original programming is the thing?")

Sure, I enjoy Weeds, Dexter, and other new original programs aired by Showtime. What I don't enjoy are these back-door dealings. Even more frustrating is the extent to which the attention being directed toward an already mismanaged D-TV transition is helping to distract us from some more questionable business practices taking place in the media industries.

We'll Miss You Gil...George, Not So Much

It's interesting to think that Gil Grissom has been with us almost precisely as long as President Bush has been in office. Grissom (and CSI) first appeared on CBS on October 6, 2000. The 2000 election took place the following month (although, of course, it took a bit longer for us to know who would be in charge of the country).

Based on the ratings for last night's CSI (in which Grissom bade his farewell), the US is much more interested in seeing him say goodbye than we are President Bush.

According to The Hollywood Reporter:

"Thursday's ratings were marked by the twin farewells of President Bush and Gil Grissom, with the president's departure drawing fairly average viewership and William Petersen's final episode of "CSI" attracting potentially season-high crowds.

William Petersen's final episode as a regular cast member of “CSI” was seen by 24.3 million viewers -- the series' largest audience since the show's 2007 premiere. "CSI" received a 6.6 adults 18-49 rating and a 16 share. “Eleventh Hour” (13.2 million, 3.4/9) also performed well, its second-largest audience of the season.

Bush’s live address totaled a 20.9 metered-market household rating across four networks, which is in the rough ballpark of 25-33 million viewers and doesn't count cable news coverage.

The speech had to compete with news coverage of the US Airways crash, which seemed like an oddly appropriate bookend to his presidency (a sort of inverse Sept. 11, with another commercial aircraft crashing in New York City, only this time the event concluded wonderfully)."

It is fairly stunning to consider not only what has happened in the world, the country (and even the show) during this time, but also on "television" more generally. And intriguing that our new president and new CSI leader both start in earnest next week.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

On the Golden Globes...

I'll just say kudos to Fox Searchlight's marketing team...it looks like it may be their biggest awards year yet.

Meanwhile, some reminders of recent bad Time Warner decisions at tonight's PR event (aka awards ceremony):
  • Slumdog Millionaire was dumped by Warner Independent, only to be picked up by Fox Searchlight
Of course, when you have The Dark Knight and John Adams/True Blood/In Treatment, maybe you don't mind so much...

All Things Watchmen

A couple of months back, I had the privilege of sitting on a panel with media scholar Henry Jenkins and Watchmen production designer Alex McDowell at MIT's third Futures of Entertainment conference. The conference was fantastic, and a wide range of videos from it can be viewed online now at http://techtv.mit.edu/collections/convergenceculture/videos

For interested parties, the video for the panel that I was on is available for viewing here:

McDowell addresses the legal battles between Fox & Warner Bros. over Watchmen a bit during the panel -- interesting to see now, in light of all that has happened since the event took place in late November.

For more recent Watchmen-related legal info, take a look at:

An Open Letter from Watchmen Producers
David Poland's take on the letter from The Hot Blog
Ongoing legal analysis from Film Esq.
Watchmen talks in progress (Hollywood Reporter)