Culture, media, Politics and Grassroots

The benefit of fanboys and fangirls

Last week I posted something on Medium about how Walt Disney World blows other theme parks away – not by being the best theme park, but by telling the best stories. Toward the end, I made a passing reference to Disney re-invigorating the Star Wars franchise.

Maybe that comes off like a dig at George Lucas (not like he would care). It’s actually pretty common for a good media franchise or a political movement to enjoy success beyond its originator.

This year marks the Star Wars franchise’s 40th anniversary. It’s easy to pretend like that has been four decades of uninterrupted cultural significance. That isn’t the case. Sure, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Star Wars built an empire (ironic) of movies and merchandise. By the late 1980’s, though, the franchise flagged; Star Wars looked to have run its course. Something else would surely dominate the 1990s, the 2000s, the 2010s.

Then came Timothy Zahn’s book, Heir to the Empire – the first of three books which would form the closest thing to a sequel trilogy until, well,  2015 kicked off a sequel trilogy. Zahn invented characters, planets, and concepts that felt at once new and wholly consistent with the original movies.

People forget just how fringe Star Wars was circa 1990. Zahn’s novels set the foundation for a library of books, comics, video games, and other media that made Star Wars a marketable commodity again.

All of this was done with the guidance of creator George Lucas – but, notably, without his direct control. That was before the dark times. Before the prequels.

Years after that unsatisfying, CGI-heavy 1999-2005 prequel trilogy, Lucas again turned over the keys – this time to Disney. And it all happened again. The Force Awakens and Rogue One were box office hits. The Last Jedi will be released this coming December, but not before fans examine each trailer release the way Moon landing conspiracy theorists watch video of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing around in that southern California sound stage.

The Star Wars franchise is invigorated again and, just as in the 1990s, someone else is leading the charge.

It isn’t surprising that Star Wars fans connect better with the works of fellow fans.  Translating this to another industry: What images spring to mind when you think of Barack Obama’s historic 2008 campaign? Maybe Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” graphic or the “Yes We Can” video. Neither was produced by the campaign itself, though the campaign was happy (and smart) to reap the benefits of their influence.

Why does this happen?  Here’s a theory: Fans have enough detachment to see what makes their obsession interesting. George Lucas might have built an excellent story explaining Darth Vader’s motivations for his descent into evil; he forgot how much the likable characters, practical special effects, and witty dialogue had to do with drawing viewers in. Obama’s 2008 campaign was known for it’s “hope and change” rhetoric. The campaign spoke about “change,” but it was the supporters who started talking about “hope.”

 

 

media, Politics and Grassroots, Sports

Hawk Harrelson: The Donald Trump of Sportscasting (in a good way)

On LinkedIn, I just put up a post about retiring White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson, and what those in political communications can learn from him.

When I was 17, my birthday gift was the Major League Baseball package on Extra Innings. This was before the late-1990s Yankees dynasty and the run of World Series contenders that stretched into the early 2010s. It was also before YouTube, and I had never lived in an area where the local cable company carried WGN out of Chicago.

So when the Yankees played the White Sox that year and I first heard Harrelson calling a game, I wanted to throw things at the TV.

He was unprofessional. He openly rooted for the White Sox. He pathetically used terms like “us” and “we” as if he were part of the team and not just their announcer. It was like they let a fan into the booth.

More than two decades later, I appreciate Harrelson a little more. He’s part of a generation of sportscasters who got into the game exactly as the fans do. After all, it’s only a game; maybe a fan in the booth isn’t such a bad thing. (And yes, maybe it helped that shortly after my introduction to Harrelson, the powerhouse White Sox of the early 1990s became less dangerous while the Yankees’ run of excellence started.)

He wasn’t that much different than the likes of Phil Rizzuto, Harry Caray, and the Seattle Mariners’ Dave Niehaus, all of whom managed to echo the passion of the fans without taking the game (or themselves) too seriously.

Today, the sports media industry seems to reward bland, interchangeable announcers, When he hangs it up after 2018, Hawk Harrelson will be missed.

Business, Culture, media

United stock rebounded – just like BP’s did

At the close of trading today, United’s stock traded at $79.67 per share. That’s the same United Airlines whose stock dropped after social media buzzed about a passenger getting dragged off a plane. Remember that story?

Remember that story? Remember the tweets and Facebook posts about how upsetting it was that a passenger could be bumped from a flight, then roughed up to boot? Remember the days of self-inflicted bad PR? United became a cautionary tale for a few days. Yet, if you bought 1,000 shares of United on April 18 and sold them today, you’d be almost $12,000 richer.

British Petroleum had a much more dire disaster on their hands when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew in April 2010. The day of the disaster, April 20, BP traded at $60.48 per share. By June 25, 2010, share prices had plummeted to $27.02. Yikes. Yet if you bought 1,000 shares at that nadir then sold the day before Thanksgiving at $41.47, you’d have an extra $14,000 in your pocket for Black Friday (less whatever you paid to get a really nice beat-down rod to help with the crowd at Wal-Mart). While BP has never hit the pre-spill peaks, they stock has stayed relatively solid since.

For these companies, you have to wonder how much internal panic there was when each respective problem hit. In each case, a few news cycles getting raked over the coals meant short term stock drops. It’s hard to be patient and ride out the storm in those cases. Yet in each case, the stock rebounded. People kept pumping gas at BP stations. When United’s flights came up as the cheapest alternatives for a given route, people still bought tickets.

Social media vitriol might seem like it burns with white hot fire. But fires eventually burn out. That’s worth keeping in mind the next time some outrage du jour clogs up news feeds.

 

 

 

media, Sports

TV sportscasting is getting it wrong

Tony Romo is now the top color commentator for CBS football games, and Phil Simms is out.

The New York Daily News reminds us that Romo is getting this promotion despite no experience in sportscasting.

(Sidebar: It’s funny, isn’t it, that Romo had to toil as a little-known backup quarterback for years before taking on a job that generally goes to a top, high-profile draftee, but he walked right into a job that normally goes to someone who toils for a couple of years at a lower level?)

Romo might be good. He might suck. But he would have to suck awfully bad to get people to turn off the channel, wouldn’t he? People will tune into CBS to see football and tolerate the announcers. No one is turning the dial to figure skating on Sunday afternoon. So Romo’s “qualifications” and “abilities” are actually irrelevant. Unless he pulls a Jimmy the Greek, he’ll be fine.

Speaking of sportscasting, this week the Dodgers opened their season and will play the year sans Vin Scully for the first time since the 1940s. Scully’s style of calling television games was different, as anyone who watched Dodgers broadcasts will surely recall. Sitting alone on the microphone, Scully would talk and tell stories – like a talk radio host without the ferocious outrage – while incidentally mentioning the game action. It worked especially well on television.

To watch Scully succeed this way begs the question: Why do TV announcers spend so much time describing the action that viewers can see? Think about it next time you watch a game. Then, for extra fun, count how many times they read graphics to you. Michael Kay of the YES Network is particularly guilty of this sin (though I have probably watched so many of his games that my bias may be showing).

It makes sense why they do this – many sportscasters get their start in radio, where there is no visual support. But one would think that some media outlet would try something different. After all, television news programs stopped presenting the same way as radio news. We have had televised sports for something like seven decades, why do we still adhere to radio-era traditions? This is especially true for football, America’s made-for-television sport.

There might be a new model emerging from networks that use “whip around” coverage. The MLB Network does this particularly well with MLB Tonight, where a host and two in-studio analysts watch each night’s action and comment over teams’ local broadcast feeds. Their easy, joke-filled banter makes it fun to watch, mirroring conversations you might have watching games with a bunch of friends. And it’s different from most baseball broadcasts, where an announcer narrates events as you watch them.

This could work for a single team, as well. Wouldn’t that be more fun to watch than some former athlete rhythmically rattling off recaps of the obvious during breaks in the action as most color commentators do? Think of the familiarity and rapport fans could develop with the on-screen personalities.

Television sports is not a high-risk place to experiment – generally, ratings are driven by the games more than the broadcast. CBS gets that, which is why they’re willing to stick Tony Romo in a broadcasting booth with only a few postgame interviews under his belt. It’s time to try something even bolder. The radio era is over.

It’s time to try something even bolder. Sportscasting should evolve past where it was during Vin Scully’s rookie year.

media, Politics and Grassroots

Dumb politics

Last week the Boston Globe quoted me in their story about young conservative activists (despite the fact that it has been more than a decade since I organized campuses for the Leadership Institute). Reporter Dugan Arnett picked just about the perfect quote to sum up our discussion:

“There are always people who are going to say, ‘This is my ticket; I’m going to make sure my campus burns down, I’m going to be on Fox News a bunch, and that’s going to be my path to the spotlight,’ ” says Jim Eltringham, formerly of the Leadership Institute and currently a Republican campaign consultant. “The problem is: That’s a spotlight that burns out quick.”

Our discussion centered on how some campus activists welcomed controversy for controversy’s sake, provoking outrage on purpose to gain attention with little substance behind the actions. It seems like a lesson some in Washington need to learn, too: In a piece on Medium, I argue that there’s a direct link between this type of superficiality and last week’s Republican failure on health care .

media, Sports

ESPN’s bad week

In a post at Medium, I reacted to Jayson Stark’s long piece assuming that America needed baseball players to speak out on politics. The short version: We disagree. More than that, his assumption – that political rifts have created wounds in need of healing – show disconnection from the broader public who, honestly, just doesn’t care about politics.

Then came this week’s news: ESPN expects to lay off a good on-air talent. The two stories have a common thread.

It would be tempting for anyone on the center right to point to ESPN’s socially progressive programming choices and blame that for alienating its core viewership, but the reasons are a bit more nuanced. ESPN’s tunnel vision and lack of self-awareness has prevented it from adapting to a new media environment. Once the sole source of 24 hour sports on TV, ESPN’s networks now compete with national sports channels run by Fox and NBC, regional sports networks, and – notably – networks run by sports leagues themselves. On top of that, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Association all offer direct-to-consumer online packages.

That ESPN missed these changes suggests they overestimated their value in consumers’ minds. Like Jayson Stark, they’ve misread the public vibe.

Culture, media

Getting out of the bubble

NBC’s 90th anniversary show last weekend featured a heavy dose of former and current stars sharing memories of how certain shows were so “important” or “ground-breaking.”

“Come on,” I found myself thinking at various times. “This is television. This is passive entertainment we watch because it’s easier than reading and we don’t feel like putting on pants and going out.”

On Medium, I wrote about NBC’s inflated perspective – and how such a mentality might bleed over into the news division. But it isn’t hard to see how this would happen – and it doesn’t come from a place of arrogance. Anyone who works in a field, or in a given place, runs the risk of an altered perspective. People who work at NBC for years, and develop an understanding of its history, could be excused for over-inflating its importance (especially on a program designed to showcase the network’s programming). Similarly, it’s understandable why someone in the news division might conflate any attack on a media outlet as a full-on assault on the First Amendment.

Cultural bubbles exist. And while they may not pop easily, you can at least see outside of them, if you’re looking. For reporters, that’s going to become even more important in the coming years.

That’s not to say that television shows have not had meaningful cultural impact, nor that criticisms of the press could devolve into the erosion of press freedoms. It just means that the occasional dose of bubble-popping perspective is healthy and necessary.