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.