advice from a fake consultant

out-of-the-box thinking about economics, politics, and more... 

Thursday, November 29, 2007

On Media And Money, Or, Thoughts for Striking Writers

There is no doubt the landscape is forever changing for those who wish to create and distribute “new media”-and for those who wish to profit from that creation.

In a scene reminiscent of the breakup of the Hollywood studio system, the “old media” gatekeepers are falling by the wayside…and the economic changes that have rocked the worlds of film exhibition, newspapers, network television, and the music industry in turn have now descended upon Hollywood’s content creation community in the form of the Writer’s Guild of America strike.

What’s the strike about, what sort of solutions might emerge…and what if the ubiquity of digital content distribution makes it impossible to earn money with the current economic model? Those are the subjects we’ll look at today.

Here’s the “why” in a nutshell:

Writers for television and film are employed by producers, and the Writer’s Guild represents (and negotiates for) those writers.

When distributors of content show a particular program, a payment is made to the producers, who then distribute some portion of that money to some of the persons involved in the show’s production-most notably, actors, writers, and directors. Those monies are called residuals.

But there are exceptions-and one of those is the Internet.

As of today, writers do not receive payments for programming distributed online.

There are two ways online distribution can make money: companies like Netflix (or the current TV networks themselves-here’s Fox and NBC/Universal’s joint effort) charge to view content delivered by download and a portion of that revenue is paid to producers; or the media is shown on an ad ad-supported service not unlike atomfilms or YouTube.

In that second model, there is no clear rule on how, or if, a producer will be paid for the showings-some media is being shown with no payment, and some deals are presumably being made that involve the distribution of ad revenue…and presumably there will be many more.

Anyone who has seen the demise of VHS and the rise of DVD (and today’s efforts to move us to Blu-Ray and HDDVD) knows that Internet distribution will eventually become the distribution method of choice…until some other media replaces that.

And thus the strike.

Writers feel the only hope they have to get paid in the future is to derive income from the distribution method of the future.

But what if the fate of the music business is the future of all media?

Courtney Love eloquently explains (with detailed math) exactly why signing a contract with a record company, recording albums, and touring is a career that pays more or less the same as working at Wal-Mart. Or, as she puts it: “sharecropping”.

As a result, for artists the real money in music has become the revenues those artists retain from their live performances…and the alternative methods artists and distributors have discovered to sell their media. It’s not just iTunes, either; ringtones have become a major new source of revenue, as Thomas Dolby and Nokia well know. Games, too.

And then there’s Jill Sobule and the QiGO key. Sobule is selling the keys at her concerts, and the keys provide access to a downloadable version of the same concert that she makes available in a few days at her web site. (By the way, she’s also providing a free download of her excellent live show from Joe’s Pub in NYC last July for anyone who is interested as a means of encouraging you to purchase a ticket for a future show.)

As for the record companies: just like cell phone airtime, there is less and less revenue in the thing, despite the fact that use of the commodity has exploded. (Something’s being played on all those new MP3 players, after all.)

So how does all this relate to the writer’s strike?

Well, consider this: if the money in music is in the live performance, and the media has become a near-valueless commodity item; and film and TV producers are hoping to hoping to earn a living by selling media, and have no outlet for live performance…well, basically, in an iTunes and YouTube world, what’s the future of writers, or producers, or any major visual programming company, anyway?

Is it possible that eventually the only media “stars” who really achieve great fortune are those who can parlay a “brand identity” into lifestyle products…and that the real “new media” may turn out to be a conglomeration of Jimmy Buffet, Jay-Z, High School Musical, Starbucks, and The Simpsons-and the next mega-intergalactic garage band or comedy animator or Jackass imitator with perfect fashion sense that finds their way through the clutter of iTunes?

In the end, it may turn out that distribution of the derivative rights is the only battle worth fighting-especially in a world where writers risk becoming wage-workers for producers of programming fighting for attention and decreasing revenues in an ever-fragmenting market…that occasionally yields a new cultural icon in which the writer/owners can all catch a wave of profit and finally, in that most Hollywood of clichés, ride their newfound wealth off into the proverbial sunset.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

On A Different Thanksgiving Dinner, Or, The Cranberry And Sweet Potato Reconsidered

The American Thanksgiving Day holiday rapidly approaches, and in homes across this land we will be treated to the sights and smells of the holiday feast.

In millions of homes we will also celebrate with sound.

What sound is that, you ask?
Why, of course, the slurping sound of cranberry sauce sliding out of the can in all its quivering, cylindrical glory.

For some, this is the sound of happiness, but for others it’s a sound to be tolerated at best-and we come before you today to offer easy and fun alternatives…not just for your cranberry consideration, but also for those most humble-and most delicious-of tubers: yams and sweet potatoes.

So who hasn’t passed those bags of whole cranberries and thought “what do they do with those?”

To find out, you’ll need to grab a bag or two of berries (a small bag is good for 2-6 people…but if someone really likes the cranberry sauce, grab an extra bag), sugar (plain old white is okay, Demerara or raw sugar is better, cane juice works great as well, but the darkest sugars might be avoided…and you’ll need an amount more or less equal to the amount of berries), orange juice (only a few ounces, so you may already have it in the house), a bit of red wine (cabernet and merlot and shiraz are fine, port is better…and we’ll have lots left over to drink), and a bit of ginger root.

(If you can find “young ginger”, all the better; but any ginger root will do in a pinch. Grab a medium root. Powdered ginger? Not so much. Candied ginger? An intriguing possibility that I’ve never tried…but one that could be quite good.)

Now let’s talk preparation: the hardest part of this recipe is prepping the ginger…and that’s quite easy. All we have to do is dice it into tiny pieces. First, cut off a “bulb” of the root. Now take a thin-bladed knife and peel off the “skin”, exposing the yummy interior. Trim the excess off to create a “cubish rectangle” shape.

Now here’s the cool part: Make several parallel cuts almost, but not completely through, the ginger. Now roll it over clockwise (or counter…I’m easy) 90 degrees, and repeat the process of slicing the ginger. When you’re through, you should be holding on to one piece of ginger with many parallel slices and one end which is unsliced.

Now all we have to do is hold onto the unsliced end while cutting across the slices we’ve made (cross-cutting, if you will)…and we’ll have tiny little cubes of ginger (hint: this also works great for anything else you need to dice…especially onions). If this does not work out perfectly…who cares? This is supposed to be fun, and if you choose to chop your ginger into minute slivers with a chain saw it will eventually work out OK, so no worries.

(Helpful hint: If any of this is stressful…we have wine…and this recipe will require only about a glass or so. Need I say more?)

The last step in prep is to wash the berries.

The entire preparation process now complete, let’s make cranberry sauce:

Grab a saucepan, and apply more or less medium high heat, When the pan has heated, toss in a splash of oil and the ginger, and allow it to sauté just a bit. Do not allow the ginger to change color to brown or it will become bitter.

As soon as the ginger begins to change to a less raw look toss in those berries and darn near all the sugar. This is not an exact science, so we are holding back a bit of the sugar for now. If it turns out the sauce is not sweet enough we can add a bit later as we taste. Add a bit of orange juice now as well. More or less 3 ounces (or 90 ml for my world readers) per pound (500g) should do nicely…but a little more can’t hurt.

You’ll begin to notice the berries “breaking down” and becoming “saucelike” over the next few minutes-and if you trust them around the stove, keeping the sauce well stirred is a great job for the child cooks in the family who want to help. It is mildly hazardous (risk of burn), however, and you want to be careful that no one’s going to dump the sauce on themselves, or use a finger for tasting, as it will be quite hot. (The correct first aid: cool the affected area rapidly…and dipping that finger in a bowl of ice water is quite effective.)

The entire cooking process takes about 30-45 minutes (did you have one glass of wine or two…that usually makes the difference), and as you taste, add the wine (more or less the same amount as the orange juice you added earlier) and a bit more sugar if you wish.

The sauce can be served cold or warm (make it a day ahead to save work on the big day), and it will thicken up as it cools.

Now let’s talk about my friend the tuber.

We have two choices for your consideration today: a variation of the traditional mashed and covered with marshmallows sweet potatoes (mmmmm!), and a more avant-garde interpretation that still ties to times past.

(Helpful hint: the alternative version is sautéed on the stove, and if oven space is at a premium-what with the large meats and pies and bread and all-this could be a huge advantage compared to the traditional method.)

Sweet potatoes, yams, either one is gonna be fine for this-I‘m using Red Garnet yams, but there’s no need to be all high-faloutin’ about the thing. Pretty much any extra-sugary root will do-except beets, of course. (If you can roughly “match” the potatoes, they will all bake at about the same time.)

For the traditional preparation you’ll need exactly what you expect in addition to the sweet potatoes: those tiny marshmallows. But here’s where we flip it up…grab a bag of shredded coconut, and a bottle of ginger ale.

For the avant-garde version, we’ll need a bag of frozen corn, some onions (more or less an onion for every three of four potatoes. I use sweet onions like a Vidalia or Walla Walla for this…but red Italian or Maui Sweets offer potential I’ve not yet investigated), a bunch of green onions, and raw pumpkin seeds.

If you really love the cranberries dried cranberries are a great addition to this recipe as well.

Bake and peel the chosen produce, and if you’re going with the avant-garde recipe, dice (1” dice is about right…any smaller and you may end up with mashed potatoes) the potatoes and chill them in advance.

We’re also going to roast off the pumpkin seeds now: rub a sheet pan with oil (any common oil will do except extra virgin olive oil), lay out the seeds (one thin layer only!), and sort of rub them around so that they are lightly coated with the oil. Sprinkle the seeds with a bit of paprika and salt (fine grain sea salt is best, the big rough stuff…not so much. Table salt is okay, too). This is another great “kid job”; but ensure they don’t overdo on the oil.

Toss the pan in a 275 degree (135 Celsius) oven, and be patient…and give the seeds a stirring around every so often. You’ll see them start to brown up nicely in more or less 45 minutes, and they can also be held overnight. They won’t need refrigeration.

(I used to do this at 350 degrees (175 Celsius), but I got tired of burning seeds…the lower temperature takes longer, but the results are great.)

So now it’s the next day, and all you have to do is sauté the whole thing together: the diced potato, your freshly diced sweet onion, the pumpkin seed, the corn, the cranberries…let it all work for a few minutes, lay it out on a platter, and top with the green onion. There’s great color in the dish, the mix of textures in the potato and seeds and corn is interesting, and it does not have to be done in the oven.

All good stuff. (And remember, the key to good sauté is to start with a hot pan, and don’t overcrowd the food. The idea is to brown, not to steam…and that’s the outcome in an overcrowded pan. Better to sauté twice with small batches than to “steam” once.)

Sweet potato traditionalists…now it’s your turn.

Spread the coconut out on a dry sheet pan (it can be in a thick layer…we’ll be stirring, and coconut is more cooperative than pumpkin seeds in this regard) and bake the pan at 275 degrees (135 Celsius). This takes about 45 minutes to an hour (or more, if there’s lots of coconut), and requires the occasional stirring of the pan’s contents.

You’ll see the color change…when it’s nicely golden, pull out the pan and hold the coconut overnight. It won’t need refrigeration…and it’s dandy to munch on, so make a bit extra for yourself. It can get stale, so keep it in a covered jar or your favorite Tupperware-ish container. (Another handy hint: it’s also great on salads and vegetables and curries, and you might find yourself making little jars of toasted coconut all year long, and using it almost like a spice.)

Bake and peel (yes, I said peel. Leave the peels in the mashed potatoes.), and, while they’re still hot, mash the sweet potatoes. Anyone who’s ever mashed a potato knows a liquid is helpful at this point in the process-and that’s where the ginger ale comes in. (A side note: there are a lot of recipes that add brown sugar or butter at this point in the process. I don’t, but adding more flavors can’t hurt, and Thanksgiving is already the unofficial Cardiac Day, so if you’re inclined, bring on the butter, I suppose.)

Add enough of everything to bring the mixture to the consistency you’re looking for, stir in the coconut, and load the baking dish.

This is another one of those jobs that can be done the day before, and the infusion of ginger and coconut flavors (as with so many foods) is more noticeable the next day.

Everyone knows what happens next: kids steal half the marshmallows, the other half get put on the sweet potatoes, and parents have to fight later to get the same kids to eat the potatoes under the marshmallows at the dinner table.

And hopefully, great fun is had by all.

So that’s our holiday story: we offer some new ways of looking at old foods, and we do it in a way that leaves an extra glass of wine available to the cook.

As for my family…this will be the first Thanksgiving since our godson left for Kuwait, and I expect that to be a major part of our next conversation.

And as for all of you…enjoy your holiday (or try on an American habit for the first time…), and we’ll see you back here in a few days.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

On Balance, Or, Running A Business-And A Government

Todays will be the first of a series of stories in which we will explore an unusual Government, the Port of Seattle. This municipal corporation is the Nation’s first to be charged with operating a port facility in the public interest; and the challenges of aligning the interests of the Port’s customers and the interests of the owners (the voters of King County, Washington) will be the focus of the conversation.

It is a complex story that describes a Government in change, a Government affected by new patterns of voting, and a Government that is involved in creating regional transportation solutions while fighting a history that has engendered considerable public distrust.

We don’t today know where the story will end, because the outcome is yet a work in progress; but we will hopefully create a conversation that revolves around what Government can or can’t do for us, and how it sometimes gets done.

We’ll start with some history, and today we’ll start to introduce the important staff and the Port Commissioners as best we can-but as I said, some of this is still a bit of a mystery.

So let’s start with that history...

Seattle is a city that is defined by its relationship with maritime commerce: the 1896 Klondike gold rush brought the city into the 20th Century, fishing and shipbuilding have waxed and waned over time, and the evolution to container shipping has had its impact.

In an effort to take control of that relationship, the local citizenry voted in 1911 to create what the Port reports was:

“...the first autonomous municipal corporation specifically tasked to develop harbor and port facilities to encourage commerce.”

The proximity of Seattle to the Pacific and the rich fishing grounds of Alaska caused the Port to open Fisherman’s Terminal in 1912 (and for my Brit friends, true cod fish and chips right off the boat that were to die for were served at the Terminal’s tavern for many years...mmmm, sooo good!). The Seaport Division began to open commercial facilities to supplement their operations in 1915; and in 1949 Seattle Tacoma International Airport (SeaTac) entered into the Port’s purview with the creation of the Aviation Division.

More recent history has seen the port open public marinas, cruise ship terminals, a grain shipping terminal (Eastern Washington is a giant farm, producing crops as diverse as wheat, onions, apples, hops, and grapes that produce some of the finest wines found anywhere), and a conference center.

Changes in the way the Port does business has also created the need to manage relationships with tenants, lessees, customers and other stakeholders in new ways; and in the newest chapter of its history the Port is proposing to embark on a reorganization that will create a new Real Estate Division for that purpose.

A fourth Division (Corporate, Professional, and Technical Services) is also proposed, and its name offers a pretty good idea of its functions.

There are at least two other histories of the Port that should be considered: the recent history and near future of the Port’s capital plan, and the highly contentious history that surrounds the Port’s relationship with the other stakeholders.

Let’s start with the easy one first: let’s follow the money.

For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll be working from the proposed 2008 Port of Seattle Budget...which, as the lawyers say, will be herein referred to as “the 2008 Budget”.

More or less $3 billion is in the capital budget for the period 2007-2012 (table III-1 of the Budget), and $619 million of that is proposed for the 2008 Budget-the Aviation Division spending just over 55% of that, the Seaport and proposed Real Estate Division each spending about 20% of the total.

A series of capital improvements are underway at the Airport that include terminal upgrades, a baggage handling system upgrade, and the construction of a third runway-which has been the source of a great deal of tension between the Port and the local residents who live in the flight path. (Issues relating to the baggage handling system pose a problem of lesser intensity.)

The Lora Lake controversy, as the troubles with the local residents have come to be known, is a topic we’ll explore further...but for now, back to the money.

The Seaport is also investing in its real estate holdings, and about $25 million is projected for container and cruise ship terminal improvements, and another $6.5 million for security and “Green Port Initiative” improvements in the upcoming year.

In a move similar to the Alameda Corridor project in Southern California, the Port of Seattle, King County, State of Washington and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway are involved in a process that is intended to dramatically increase the amount of freight that can transit the Pacific Northwest by train by raising the height of the railroad tunnel that bores through the granite of the Cascade Mountains at Stampede Pass; thus allowing “double-stacked” container trains to transit the mountains at that point.

Land swaps and cash payments by the various parties will create a rail right-of-way that also supplements a series of hiking trails, creating a recreational and commercial asset.

This action, far from the port’s terminals, will allow the Port to move far more cargo...and as the current capacity of the existing rail lines has nearly been reached, this is a project of great importance to the Port’s future.

The Port is allocating $103 million to this project in the 2008 Budget, and it is the largest of the Real Estate Division’s projects by far-all other spending by the Division totals $12 million. (The discussion of whether this $12 million is being invested in projects that remove jobs from Union jurisdiction is the current iteration of another long-running controversy that we will discuss further as well...but not today.)

The Port is allocating $40 million to debt service for previous Seaport improvements.

Balanced alongside those expenses are projected combined 2008 operating revenues of $476 million and expenses of $306 million; of which $42 million will be allocated to paying off the capital improvements.

The Port also has the ability to levy taxes. The King County Assessor collects those taxes based on the value of property in the County and the percentage of the “levy” on those values that voters have authorized.

Some of the expenses we discussed above will be paid from current tax levies, and some from general obligation bonds, which are funded from future income.

Income from tax collections is projected to be $78 million in the 2008 Budget (not all of 2007’s budget will be spent, so there’s also $23 million carrying over from last year)...and the question of whether the Port should be collecting property taxes while making an operating profit is also controversial...but also a discussion for another day.

(Just for the record, the Port anticipates employing a bit over 1700 “FTEs” in the Budget.)

That’s hardly a complete picture of the Budget, but it gives us place to begin the discussion.

Let us now return to the Lora Lake controversy.

Rather than reciting the history of the project myself, I’m going to invite a surprise guest: Port of Seattle Commissioner Lloyd Hara (who was kind enough to answer my questions last night even though he was throwing a party at the time...thanks, Commissioner!), who sent the following description of the problems in an email from August 22nd of this year that presents an excellent example of how it can be very tough for an elected official to balance the competing interests of a variety of stakeholders:

“I came into office believing the great Third Runway disputes were finally settled - but this smoldering legacy erupted into a political firestorm when time came to demolish the Lora Lake Apartments.

The Commission (3-2, I voted with the majority) decided to demolish the units, per our year 2000 agreement with the City of Burien and King County. King County Housing Authority filed suit and got a stay to block demolition. It's now a no win situation, where any outcome could end up in lawsuits brought by King County or Burien. We are reviewing our options.

Background: In 1999, under FAA mandate to clear all residential units in the Runway Protection Zone, the Port purchased Lora Lake Apartments. As Third Runway litigation delayed construction, the Port found itself holding usable property that could be occupied in the interim.

We could have had these units managed privately (underlined in original) for market rate rents, and then demolished without controversy, but all parties felt it would serve the greater social good to have KCHA manage them as public housing.

Housing advocates questioned the wisdom of operating public housing so close to the airport, but the Port, City of Burien and KCHA signed an agreement for the Housing Authority to operate them. All parties agreed they would be vacated (underlined in original) and demolished at the end of this five year term (later extended to seven).

With demolition deadlines approaching, KCHA orchestrated a political campaign and mobilized interest groups to agitate for preserving Lora Lake. (KCHA informed us of their new posture only when vacate notices went to tenants in March of 2007.) This left everyone scrambling for last-minute solutions.

When the Commission learned of KCHA's intent to breach the agreement, we decided to honor Burien's wishes on the matter. Burien then chose to proceed with demolition, and we concurred. Then, as time ran short and political pressure mounted, two Commissioners up for re-election switched their position and opposed demolition. I came under pressure to join this faction.

I have worked hard to restore public trust and improve the Port's public accountability, and my personal trust was on the line with Burien. I weighed all the facts, and decided that it was very important to keep our agreements. We have similar agreements with other cities around SeaTac, and dishonoring the Burien agreement would invite other lawsuits on all sides. [See Tay Yoshitani's op-ed.]

Criticize my vote if you will, but I have built a career upon trust and do not feel that this issue merits breaking that trust. I am also disappointed in KCHA's breach of faith, housing activists theatrical string-pulling ("lamentations" and lock-ins), and my colleagues enthusiasm for political football.

I look forward to working our way through this mess, and it may be possible to preserve some housing in the process.”

(to the extent possible, emphasis is presented as in the original email)

To close out today’s conversation, a few words about the changing of the players:

Recent events, which are numerous and “spicy” enough to warrant their own story (perhaps even two), have created a feeling that change is warranted at the Port. Alec Fisken and Lloyd Hara’s elections to the Port Commission were the first of those changes.

The Port’s former CEO, Mic Dinsmore, has recently “left the building”, and he was replaced by the abovementioned Tay Yoshitani.

Our final topic for tonight’s story is related to the changes in how we vote.

Two of the five Port Commissioners stood for election this November 6th, but because many voters now use absentee ballots (voting by mail) the results of those elections are not yet known.

Two of the candidates are considered reformists, two are not (these are non-partisan positions); and the results are so close as of this writing that a mandatory recount is entirely possible.

At this point, today’s summary:

Seattle’s residents, conscious of their maritime tradition, took it upon themselves to own their own Port...and that Port has evolved to include an Airport, to be involved in freight mobility on a regional level, and to engage in real estate development.

There are major capital improvement projects underway funded by operating profits and tax collection.

There are so many contentious issues to be resolved that we aren’t even bothering to list them all today, but they are of sufficient severity that the Port has a new CEO-and of the five Commissioners one’s a reform Commissioner, and the two Commissioner’s elections that were held this year are currently too close to call.

And we saw an example of an elected official facing a series of bad choices that took a tough vote-and then took the time to explain why.

Next time: we introduce more of the stakeholders...which will inevitably lead to more discussion of controversy...and, if we’re lucky, some discussion of compromise and progress.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

On Greener Torture, Or, These Days, Environmentalism Matters

There is no doubt that America, and the world, are changing the way things are done. Oil prices approaching $100 a barrel is part of the reason, but the concerns about availability of water and the potential for climate change are also foremost on consumer’s-and Government’s-minds.

The solution has been to “green up” in a thousand ways-everything from compact fluorescent lamps to “toilet bricks” have been offered as solutions; and they are becoming more and more an accepted part of our daily lives-and our future.

With that in mind, I come before you today to offer some ideas that can help “green up” an often overlooked area of Government operations-torture.

And why not?

Consider that “extraordinary rendition” alone has an enormous carbon footprint that is ripe to be reduced and you have some conception of the scope of the problem.

So let’s talk solutions.

For starters, there’s lots of “baby steps” we can take that would get us on the right track, and “waterboarding” offers a perfect example.

By now we have all seen the images of “Men In Black” pouring water over the face of the torture victim...but left unanswered is the question of where that water goes after it drains. For many years now, car washes in the US have moved to recycle their water through a system of drains and recirculating pumps, and I’m here to propose the military and other “associated entities” consider such an approach in their own work.

Of course, the naysayers amongst you will point out that oftentimes torture must be conducted under “field conditions”; but I would reply that there’s no reason not to think greener-and there’s no reason why the waterboard can’t be placed over a collection barrel and the water reused.

After all, we do want to show the world we care.

Another energy-intensive aspect to torture is the application of electricity in uncomfortable ways in an effort to extract information. This is another area where we can easily reduce the carbon footprint through simple means.

For starters, let’s change the “Nazi Interrogation Lamp” that always shines in the victim’s face to a “Fluorescent Interrogation Lamp”. With the advent of fluorescent replacements for the incandescent PAR 38 lamps, there’s no excuse for using the old technology anymore-and we reduce electricity usage by a quick 90%.

And the same is true with the old “car battery attached to the mattress” technique and its variants, which generally involve attaching jumper cables to various body parts. Surely we can improve on this inefficient means of providing field power. Why not move to solar, or wind energy?

The technology is already there, just waiting to be applied. The military already uses solar panels for powering up some field do many others, including the Nation’s highway administrators, who have found them very useful in powering remote call boxes and other roadside infrastructure.

But let’s get out-of-the-box here: why not improve the efficiency of the entire torture process at the same time as we reduce its carbon impact? Couldn’t we, for example, put a second victim on a bicycle generator, blindfold them...and in a variation on the movie “Speed” tell them that they’ll be killed if their speed drops below the minimum needed to generate the amperage required to “impress” the first victim?

Of course, the biggest carbon waster of all is the process of “extraordinary rendition”. Moving a single individual to a foreign country for torture often involves unmarked aircraft of substantial size, a “transport team” that must be sustained, and a foreign destination facility that must be kept “powered up” as well.

I considered a number of options to resolve these problems, including a sort of “Con Air” approach that would put more of the victims on the same flights...but in the end I’ve become convinced the only real solution is to create a sort of “Hollywood enhanced” prop aircraft and “foreign” torture facility right here in the good old USA. This allows us to offer a realistic experience of rendition without the annoying burden of dumping soot into the atmosphere-and it saves the taxpayer a ton on per diem costs that would otherwise be going to support bars, hookers, and restaurants in foreign economies.

Colocation seems to be the key to this approach, and we have available facilities from Fort Meade, Maryland, to Groom Lake, Nevada, and points in between...including a certain hollowed out mountain that would be a perfect site if we want to increase the supervisory opportunities for our unofficial Secretary of Torture, Dick Cheney.

Not all the news is bad, of course. The holding facility at Guantanamo is a perfect example of a “green” prison-virtually no money spent on heating or cooling, and the “roach hotel” aspect to the facility’s management (“terrorists” check in, but they usually don’t check out) helps to keep down the “rendition impact” of the facility on the environment now and in the future.

Which brings us to the end of today’s story...and to the beginning of a new paradigm...a sort of “Jack Bauer meets Walden Pond” approach to torture that is, admittedly, morally reprehensible-but much more environmentally responsible.

Because, when it’s all said and done, the future will be green.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Markets Are...Well, We're Watching Them Closely, Or, Fox Business News Debuts

The news addicted have for some time had the habit of keeping CNBC on one of their monitors throughout the day; and those who follow news professionally will keep more than one of the channels they offer on multiple screens, so as to better track the activities of business markets around the world.

Many in the community of viewers are highly wealthy, highly influential...and likely the best demographic group available to advertisers anywhere outside of a polo match.

In an effort to tap into the wealth of the “polo crowd”, Fox Business has launched its rhetorical yacht into the media ocean, and we’ll compare the two channels today.

For the purposes of our discussion, I’m going to be comparing just the two flagship channels: Newscorp’s Fox Business channel, and NBC/Universal’s CNBC. There are additional international channels CNBC offers, but today our conversation will revolve around these two “brands”.

You do not have to watch the Fox Business channel long before it becomes evident that they are not seeking the same viewers as CNBC. To be more specific, it appears the Fox channel is targeting relatively unsophisticated “amateur” investors, as opposed to the highly sophisticated audience that CNBC appears to be targeting.

Evidence of this is found in the type of financial information each chooses to disseminate. For example, Fox Business does not report any information beyond stock prices and index averages during the day (including its proprietary “Fox 50” average). I did not observe any data being reported regarding interest rates on Treasury issues, no data on commodity prices, and no information on foreign exchange throughout the trading day.

After the markets closed, the Fox graphic only displayed the Dow Jones 30 Industrials Average, the S & P, and the NASDAQ, as opposed to CNBC, which offered a rolling graphic that shows the major US market indexes, gold, silver, oil, RBOB, 2-, 10-, and 30-year Treasuries, and on and on.

A visit to the websites confirms this difference in focus. CNBC’s site places considerable emphasis in reporting “technical” market data, but at the Fox site there was no evidence of reporting on things as basic as daily interest rate movements.

The other major difference you quickly note is the lack of charting. Every time you see discussion of a “product” on CNBC the screen fills with a chart and data showing the current price and relevant trends. The “talking head” will often move through several charts in a segment to graphically compare across an industry, or over a period of time. This almost never occurs at Fox, and in fact I only noted one chart over the several hours I spent today doing the “flip between” comparison.

Fox also offers a more “lifestyle” oriented broadcast-for example, much of today’s field reporting was based around visits by the reporter to several luxury goods shops in Chicago, with the goal of demonstrating that sales of high-end shoes and chocolate are as yet unaffected by the potentially impending recession. (It is fair to report that CNBC has also taken such a tack in the past, including “on the road” reports from several cities recently.)

An even more fundamental divide is found in the combination of two issues-the personalities of the presenters; and the manner in which set and “off-set” are integrated-or not-on both broadcasts.

Fox offers the more traditional “anchors at a desk” format, supplemented by cutaways to panels and a newsroom “reader/analyst” who fills in stories along with the anchor. There are, additionally, cutaways to reporters on the New York Stock Exchange floor, but this seems to take up less than five minutes an hour.

And how I feel for poor Liz Clayman.

She moved from CNBC to Fox Business, and my suspicion is that she questions that decision daily. As CNBC was discussing the impact of the FOMC’s recent interest rate cuts measured against the new employment numbers, Clayman was discussing Singapore Airline’s recent difficulties in convincing First-Class passengers on the new A-380 that joining the “Mile High Club” is inappropriate, despite the addition of private bedroom suites featuring double beds to the new aircraft’s cabin.

Her co-anchor was lost in peals of laughter during the entire story (and the panel discussion that followed), and, to be frank, it’s hard not to imagine that this is less of a news channel and more of a TV show spin-off that’s waiting for Ricky Gervais to come in and finish off the effect.

CNBC offers a far different look and feel, with shows being anchored from an anchor desk, cubicles, and finally directly from the floor during the last hour of the day. Much of the broadcast day (perhaps as much as 25%) originated directly from the floors of the NYSE and other Exchanges as well, including the Chicago Board of Trade’s open outcry pits.

The network has considerable history, and presenters such as Joe Kernan, Maria Bartaromo, David Faber and Mark Haines have become financial “celebrities” in their own right. This has raised questions in the past, and a regular viewer might wonder if the presenters are as much network news representatives as they are cheerleaders for the markets.

The experts are of a far higher caliber as well, including the slightly-right-of-Karl-Rove Lawrence Kudlow and other former Fed Board of Governors members, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, tons of investment bankers, brokers, traders, and whoever else can be snatched up for an interview.

And then there’s Cramer.

CNBC has a show called “Mad Money” starring the aforementioned Jim Cramer, which, to be kind, is best described as strategic investment advice for the ADD generation. Tons of useful (and sometimes self-admittedly erroneous) information presented at a machine-gun pace, with wacky hilarity provided by props, sound effects, and the rather quirky Cramer himself.

As of this moment, the equivalent show on Fox Business seems to be "The Dave Ramsey Show", a program that can be described as more of a personal finance show, where listeners call in for advice like “pay off the credit cards first” or “I would find a way to keep the dog” which appeared to be the answer to a question relating to whether an expensive dog should be kept or sold.

Some additional notes: Stewart Varney has migrated from CNN, and in an oddly Foxian quirk, the other “American” anchors make fun of his (Brit) accent...and, perhaps less oddly, Varney then proceeded to make fun (and not in a particularly friendly way) of the Australian reporter’s accent that was in the cutaway pitching the next story-literally changing his own voice to mimic her voice. (To those of you who are Scot, or Irish, or Welsh, or Australian, for that matter, a native of India, I can now say that I’ve had a glimpse of a part of your culture I never fully understood before...and it wasn’t pretty.)

There is also a question of the ethical approach each network takes.

CNBC functions in an environment that acts as though it is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission: guests are queried as to their ownership interests in the stocks they pitch; questions are asked when guests offer analysis (“does your company offer services to company XYZ?”), and news about General Electric is accompanied by the statement that “GE is the parent company of this network”.

Fox Business takes a different approach. A visit to their website shows the top two stocks on their “Watchlist” are Newscorp and Dow Jones & Company-one the parent company of Fox, the other the company’s most important recent acquisition. No disclosure of these relationships are offered at the site.

And then there’s the matter of the edited reviews.

Those who follow Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” will recall Novenber 1st's "Worst Person In The World" describing how Fox had distributed a promotional brochure with negative reviews edited to make them appear positive. My favorite: the Toronto Globe and Mail’s assessment that Fox had changed business news...and that they should change it back. As you’ll recall, the Fox brochure contained an edited version of the review that did not contain the admonition to “change it back”.

Believe it or not, I witnessed Fox Business run a spot showing the same edited review-even after they were called on it.

Which bring us to another interesting point for the future: CNBC, several years ago, created a close relationship with Dow Jones, and Dow Jones reporters have forged a long-term relationship with the CNBC audience. The presence of each so closely intertwined with the other has given CNBC increased credibility and Dow Jones an important daily audience all day long...instead of just through the paper before the work day.

Fox is attempting to build the same relationship by linking to Forbes (who is, ironically, partially owned by the singer Bono), but the question for the future is: will the recent acquisition of Dow Jones by Fox change this relationship...and will the evidence of a lower ethical standard at Fox Business translate into the lowering of ethical standards at Dow Jones?

Fox is hoping to make a two-pronged approach into the serious business market with the business channel and their ownership of “The Wall Street Journal”; but if the Fox Business channel is the template by which that is to be done, it would suggest that the paper will either be less influential in the future with its current audience, or that it might need to change its focus from the business paper of record to the personal finance daily...a sort of Money Magazine meets Robb Report in newsprint form.

As I write this, both networks are out of their broadcast days, and oddly enough, both are running the exact same infomercial in sync...meaning it is possible to flip from one channel to the other seamlessly and watch the same program-which may be more of a commentary on American television than either network cares to admit.

So here we are: while CNBC represents the “traditional” style of market news as they and competitor Bloomberg view things, the Fox Business channel has come along to offer a new vision, the future of a major acquisition is at stake, and either Fox will be facing trouble ahead...or “Happy Hour” might indeed be the financial wave, waiting to be caught by market surfers disaffected by the previous norm.

In closing, a final word about the title of today’s story: it was an exact quote from a Fox Business “anchor” who was attempting to tell the viewers what the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up to as he was leading out to a commercial.

And it seemed to be allegorical for the entire Fox Business experience...a bit uncertain, a bit uncomfortable, and a bit more like “Fox and Friends” than real business news.