The Next Way to Watch?by Williams Cole
A recent TV ad expresses perfectly a new model of “content delivery.” Myriad hipsters lounge in airports, under outdoor sculptures, and on grassy knolls enraptured with the personal video experience on their cell phone. In a media world now consumed with the habits of the Internet and the audience fragmentation of 1000 channels, a paradigm in which people will watch content on demand, even if it means on little screens, is now tangible. With Apple announcing that their iPod can now download and play TV shows and music videos and AOL and Warner Bros. announcing that they will put 30 older television series online supported by an ad you can’t escape, it doesn’t seem like a passing fad. A recent Television Week announced in huge type, “A New Era for TV.” Meanwhile, cable operators are trying to assuage the increasing frustration viewers have with rising costs for the ad saturated and forced packages of pabulum with Video On Demand, a service already partially offered on Time-Warner Cable in NYC.
It all sounds so convenient and I can almost smell the gadget fetish that, surely, is already spreading in the suburbs where some kid really wants to show off that they can watch Lost or whatever on their iPod or call up Eurotrip on their VOD. The real question though is the same one for every new medium: who is the gatekeeper and how can there be a choice to access good, critical independent media, including documentary or, perhaps, mini-docs (instead of annoying e-mail you won’t read). Will the iPod or the cell-phone allow an easy open source download or only that sanctioned by corporate news or Apple? Will Video On Demand surpass crappy reruns and really create a substantial library so, as some have talked about, you can search for programs you want to watch almost like you do an Internet search now? Will Internet programming really be something anyone can stand to watch for more than a few minutes? Or is it all just techno hullabaloo catered to kids with money or those who will be in debt? Yet if you watch or produce visual images, the force of this tide will surely come visiting. Those who make money from re-purposing content and selling advertising (i.e. 99% of the media industry) have seemingly found the new delivery system and they want you to know that it revolves around you.
I’m not going to get sentimental about a Habermasian “public sphere,” or like a quasi-hippie lament that all those people in public with their personal media devices should be talking to each other. But I do think the image of hipsters lounging on grassy knolls—or even in subways—glued to their visual devices is far from utopian. Then again, such technology could herald an important new conduit for all kinds of information critical for a democracy. But if this isn’t kept in mind now, such an idealistic notion of new technology will only be bulldozed by techno-fetishism and pedestrian commercialism. And that’s not new.
Why We Fight
(opens January 20th in NYC and LA)
No doubt you’ll hear about this film close to its opening on the same day as Bush’s State of the Union address. Eugene Jarecki’s incisive, well-honed essay on the military industrial complex and how American democracy has been perverted by this growing monster for many decades is sure to help feed and contextualize growing disillusionment with “war presidents”—be they Republican or Democrat (see interview with Jarecki in the Express section of this issue).
The Power of Nightmares
(opening December 9th at Cinema Village)
This is an excellent complement to Why We Fight, and American (or at least New York) audiences will finally get a chance to see this much lauded and controversial three-part BBC documentary that explores the fear factor that that defined the pre-9/11 world and especially our “new era.” It’s a rousing history lesson and critical analysis of the Muslim world, the American empire and the many crossovers between the two done in a hyper-archive, graphically intense style. This is the kind of risk-taking programming that is on commercial-free TV across the Atlantic.