Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Is the future of radio and podcasting in video?

Howard Stern recently signed a five-year deal to continue his radio career with Sirius XM. The deal, Stern has said, happened because the company will make significant investment into video capability for his show. Stern envisions a “virtual world” for his listeners and watchers.

Sirius XM’s overall programming offerings may also morph into video, company executives have hinted. It’s unclear what an expanded entertainment service from Sirius XM – for Stern or any other programs – may actually look like, and whether it will be fed through an app. There also has not been any indication so far about whether the cost of Sirius XM service may increase, and by how much.

Meanwhile, Anthony Cumia, who was fired from the “Opie & Anthony” show on Sirius XM in summer 2014, has since begun his own paid video podcast network, available online, as a smartphone app, and also on Roku video boxes, for $6.95 a month, or less for six-month commitments.

These changes raise a big question for radio or podcast format entertainers and hosts. Is the addition of video worthwhile both artistically and financially? In Cumia’s case, is making his show primarily video format enough of an incentive to get subscribers at his asking price? Especially when Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime and others, with wide ranges of programs (including a lot of talk shows, in Hulu’s case) and large content libraries, are at a monthly price point that is close to $7, or not much more than that.

Stern has a bigger fan base and higher profile than Cumia, but faces a similar issue if the cost of an expanded video and virtual content offering drives up the asking price of Sirius XM service. In the case of Stern and Sirius, this is mitigated by the presence of other content as part of the service, including content that presumably will be similarly upgraded. The other question with Sirius and Stern, however, is that at about $14.99 a month, its programming offering is still rooted in audio-only fare, such as music channels and talk and interview shows, and its distribution channel (specialized car radios and an app) is more limited than that of Netflix – if the result is that Sirius XM really does become a Netflix competitor in the process of the planned changes.

The paid model now being used by former broadcasters such as Stern and Cumia differs from what most popular podcasters use, a sponsorship-based model that is closer to traditional terrestrial radio. The most popular podcasts are split between those by former broadcasters such as Adam Carolla – or current broadcasters providing expanded versions of their shows on podcasts – like Jesse Thorn or Ira Glass – and comedians turned hosts, like Marc Maron and Chris Hardwick. The free, sponsor-supported podcast model seems even less likely to support video or virtual expansion – but the audio-only nature of its programming may be what makes its appeal so strong.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

A take on "Man in the High Castle"

Last month, in “The Watch” podcast on “Channel 33,” part of the Bill Simmons Podcast Network, hosts Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald were promising to give their take on the Amazon drama series “The Man in the High Castle.” I’m not sure if they ever got to it.

Since I have binged through its first season, not too long after it was released, I’d like to offer a public service by giving a take on the show. The marketing and advertising for “High Castle” positioned the series as an alternative history story about what the world would be like if the Nazis and Japanese won World War II. This idea has been tackled in other incarnations before, namely the Robert Harris novel “Fatherland” and a cable movie that was made from that book.

Alternative history stories, however, are really more concerned with – or should be about – what the politics, society and characters’ lives end up being like in a reality that could have happened, but never did. “High Castle” is different than that, and as a result may end up being disappointing to alternative history fans drawn in by its premise as it was promoted. The DNA of its story comes from the sci-fi author Phillip K. Dick, whose mind-bending works have been adapted for film and TV with varying degrees of success.

“Blade Runner,” “Total Recall” and “Minority Report” are all based on Dick’s fiction and share certain similar plot developments in which certain actions can open up or lead to different outcomes in fantastic or unreal fashion. “High Castle” is really more about this kind of storytelling than about making the alternative history seem believable or rooted in a new reality.

A prominent element in trailers for “High Castle” is the existence of bootleg newsreels that show the Allies winning the war. One thinks that explaining how these newsreels came to be or what they mean would figure prominently in the series, but it ended up being almost a soap opera masquerading as a thriller or spy story, with intrigue around one character, and whether he is a double agent, or whether his sympathies lie with the Nazis or a resistance group. This goes on for the first six or seven episodes until the Phillip K. Dick sci-fi elements really start to kick in, revealing the series’ real intentions.

I’ll try to tell this part without spoiling anything. I’m not even sure I fully understood all the twists or the mechanics of the plotting, but the concern over the newsreels does re-surface in terms of another character, a Nazi officer who is going to betray his comrades and attempt to assassinate Hitler (still in power in the early 1960s, but aging and vulnerable, or so we think). Suffice to say, pre-cognition (a prominent idea in “Minority Report”) comes into play, leading to a different outcome than we expect. And, in parallel, one of the powerful Japanese characters (who control the western half of the former United States), finds himself suddenly in an alternate reality brought on by the actions of that rogue Nazi in the east.

In short, “High Castle” really should be thought of as a Phillip K. Dick mind-bending sci-fi story, with a very slight alternative history veneer lacquered on top of that.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

TV sitcoms recap

I had been brewing and tinkering with the following blog idea a little too long, and now it’s probably out of date. I wanted to give a take on sitcoms as the TV season wrapped up, as much as the old-school notion of a TV season from September through May is even still a thing.

So here’s a quick take on a few shows, really my favorites or what’s currently interesting to me, and where I think they stand in their run – are they continuing to build in quality and creativity, holding firm, or declining?

The one sitcom that is truly not just improving but has been consistently “killing it,” with writing and acting on such a high level that it rarely missteps, is:

The Goldbergs (ABC)

The way this show’s first two seasons have gone, it’s inconceivable that it will not continue to be an on-target re-creation of what it was like growing up in the 1980s in the Northeast, and more specifically the Philly suburbs. The only thing that could sink it is if they run out of ideas, but the personalities of the characters are so vivid and well-realized that they ought to easily complete five seasons and become big in syndication – these episodes definitely are going to bear repeat viewing.

These two are definitely on the rise, following their first seasons:

The Odd Couple (CBS) – This version of a classic walks a fine line between being a too-conventional laugh-track sitcom and having a bit more depth, as a multiple camera studio-shot sitcom. The season ended on a promising note, setting up movement forward for the characters, with Thomas Lennon’s Felix hooking up with Emily, who had long been interested in him even though he was oblivious, and Matthew Perry’s Oscar and his ex-wife realizing that reconciling wouldn’t be a good idea.

Last Man on Earth (Fox) – At a certain point in its season, most of its viewers were wondering it needed to or would keep adding cast members. But it made a key plot twist near the season’s end that set itself up very nicely for its now-confirmed second season. Having leads Will Forte and Kristen Schaal leave the growing community, and revealing that Forte indeed has a brother played by SNL castmate Jason Sudeikis, who was marooned in space when most of humanity got wiped out, opens up the possibility of better surprises next year.

And, about some others: The Big Bang Theory (CBS) and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox) are continuing to work their formulas to good effect, with Big Bang Theory throwing in another character development twist at season’s end.

I was never really a fan of 2 Broke Girls, but what I do catch of it seems to be getting worse and worse, with an ever-hackier stream of innuendos continuing to decline in quality. Might be only one more season of this before it has to be put out of its misery.

And shamefully there is not a single NBC sitcom I can think of that has any importance to discuss here. One Big Happy (already canceled?) was an even worse version of Up All Night. Yet NBC exiled Community to Yahoo, and passed on picking up Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which was so good, I just binged (smashed?) the whole thing on Netflix in a few weeks. As my friend Wayne Thomas would say, all their programmers should be fired.


Postscript (added June 7, 2015): I have to amend something in this blog item -- the last season of Community on NBC was strong, but I have now see the first episode of the sixth season on Yahoo, and something has gone drastically wrong with that show. The tone was completely off, the characters were no longer displaying their personalities as we'd come to know them over the past seasons of the show, and there were several attempts at jokes and humor that felt flat or hacky. Not sure what has happened, but if NBC had a right of first refusal on this material, it's no wonder that they would have passed.

Comedy Books Roundup

Of the upcoming books by comedians or comedic performers being promoted this year at BookExpo America, the publishing industry’s annual trade show, the common trait to most of them is that they aren’t just autobiographies or collections of stand-up or comedy material.

To begin with, titles by Whoopi Goldberg, Aziz Ansari and Dick Van Dyke all contain a self-help or advice element. Ansari’s “Modern Romance,” coming in just a few weeks (for which we hope to have an early review), finds the comedian blending research from social scientists with his own comedic angle on relationships as he delivers in his act.

In the fall, Goldberg will publish “Whoopi’s Big Book of Relationships,” her own personal take on love and marriage. And Van Dyke will publish “Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths About Aging,” a follow-up to his memoir, “My Lucky Life.”

There are a couple other comedy-oriented titles to look forward to, also being promoted at BookExpo: “Why Not Me?” by Mindy Kaling, which sounds like it might also be in the self-help genre, but has been described as personal comedic essays, and “Gumption” by Nick Offerman, a follow-up to his “Paddle Your Own Canoe,” that basically puts more of his solo comedy material out there, in the vein of his “American Ham” special.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Late Night Hosts Trading Block

Inspired by a recent Grantland column about wish-fulfillment of who should or shouldn’t be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, our longtime supporter and new columnist, Wayne Thomas, takes the same approach to the late night talk-show host shakeups of recent months.

From what I've seen, James Corden works big time. Hell, maybe he should get the Late Show, he could easily compete with Fallon and Kimmel. Fallon, beyond his music bits, his interview skills kinda suck. Why can't Stewart and Colbert stay/go back to their respective shows? They were the tops. I miss Ferguson and even Kilborn. Too bad there isn't a place for these guys.

Most of these shows would work better if they were a half hour. Maybe except Kimmel. His guests always seem relevant, his interview skills are killer, and he gets great bands (Van Halen, anyone?). So here are my late night re-assignments:

Jon Stewart: He stays with The Daily Show, gets rid of the boring guests at end of show, that's where he interviews pop stars.
Colbert: Stays on the Colbert Report, Larry Wilmore goes back to being the senior black correspondent on TDS
John Oliver: Stays exactly where he is, he is killing it.
The Tonight Show: Give it to Kimmel, the show itself is an institution, stays/goes back to California.
Late Nite: Give it back to Conan, the show is too late as it is anyway, and nobody watches TBS.
Seth Meyers: Fired.
Jimmy Fallon: He's good for some music parodies, he could show up with the Roots as a reoccurring guest on Late Nite or go back to SNL
SNL: Fire Lorne Michaels immediately. Reduce it to an hour, no musical guest or maybe one song, bring back Tina Fey & Amy Poehler
The Late Show: Yeah, Letterman needs to retire, he's overstayed his welcome just as Carson did. Give the show to James Corden.
Late, Late Show: Hmm, reduce to a half-hour, bring back Ferguson, maybe one guest per night. Definitely get rid of Reggie Watts, send him back to Comedy Bang-Bang, then cancel Comedy Bang-Bang.
Craig Kilborn: Since I took Kimmel from ABC, maybe ABC can put Kilborn back on the air, light hearted half-hour pop star interview show, which he'll probably quit in five years anyway, 'cause he's ungrateful.
Carson Daly: Fired.

Wayne, I’d have some tweaks to this – and you do know, none of this would ever in a million years happen, but anyway…


Give John Oliver an hour. 30 minutes is too short for him. They extended the recent Edward Snowden episode anyway.

With ABC tied to ESPN, ought to make Kilborn do double duty, make half hour of his show about sports and air on both networks. Or re-team him with Keith Olbermann.

More substantially, too soon to anoint James Corden ‘King of Late Night.’ Samantha Bee and Jason Jones should have taken over The Daily Show.

Why not a version of Marc Maron’s “WTF” interviews in the 1:30 am “Later”/Carson Daly spot?

What, nothing about Bill Maher?


Saturday, February 7, 2015

J.B. Smoove Reins It In

Catching comedian J.B. Smoove’s appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman on February 4, I found it interesting how this very physical comedian whose movements on stage are broad and big, adapted to being a seated guest on a late night talk show.

J.B. Smoove’s interactions with Letterman were still more physical than verbal – again, interesting, because Smoove is also very talkative as a performer. Paying tribute to Letterman because of his upcoming retirement, Smoove told Dave that he needed to strike a pose befitting his status as an icon, setting Letterman up nicely – he leaned back in his chair, arms behind his head, a “what me worry?” grin on his face and raised a blurred middle finger.

Smoove is no newbie either, and these two old pros were riffing and improvising within the physical limitations of staying seated. Smoove responded that he never wanted to be looking directly at the camera, striking a thoughtful pose of his own, then hitting on another bit of physical comedy.

“I just wanna be pointing things out,” Smoove said, stretching his arm out toward stage right, “like I’m on the grassy knoll. Something ain’t right over there!” Letterman chuckled in recognition in this surreal bit of humor that Smoove generated.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Further Thoughts About Band-Dom and Mike Doughty

Having caught up to “Circles” by Mike Doughty, mentioned in a previous blog entry, I’m very much wondering why he chose to revisit his Soul Coughing songs in the way he did here. If I were reviewing the album, I’d only give it about one star out of five. Most of the revised versions find Doughty delivering the words with less feeling and more by rote than he did on the originals, and the backing music used is more monotonous and lacks the nuance that his old bandmates, however much he despises them, provided.

Just two tracks here really do anything different or worthwhile, and those are the songs “Mr. Bitterness” and “St. Louise Is Listening.” The former makes the song something different and more mysterious with an acoustic guitar treatment, and the latter cranks up the intensity with Doughty’s vocal, which adds a portentous tone different than the original.

The new version of “Super Bon Bon,” the song that first turned me on to Soul Coughing, is really disappointing, wrecked utterly by a needless and unnecessary chattering background vocal effect that Doughty has added here – even without that and/or without the original arrangement, this version would still seem flat.

I like both Soul Coughing and Doughty’s solo work, but Doughty said in his memoir “The Book of Drugs” and elsewhere that the Soul Coughing recordings aren’t how he envisioned those songs as the main author of them. If that’s so, and this is how he imagined the sound of these songs, then he really gained something better from those collaborators, even if they never got along.

It’s possible these versions could somehow grow on me over time – the enunciation of the words is in some cases clearer – but that alone isn’t enough, and sometimes overall sound and production is more important to great music. It’s not like Doughty can’t or doesn’t do that in his solo work – check out a short track like “More Bacon Than The Pan Can Handle” or for that matter, “Golden Delicious,” the album it’s on. It just appears that in revisiting the Soul Coughing songs he couldn’t help but let his conflicted feelings about that time hamper the work. There are countless creative things he could have done with those songs that weren’t attempted.