A Dick (Ebersol) Move: What Coverage Of the Late Night Wars Says About Entertainment Journalism

If you've been following me on Twitter this past week, you know that for me, the Late Night Wars between NBC, Conan, and Leno have been absolutely riveting. Rarely in the past year have we seen such excitement surrounding these figures, and the conflict has captivated millions of Americans as well.

It might seem odd for Americans to take sides in a battle between two middle-aged white millionaires, but to me it's not that strange at all. Conan's plight is emblematic of a lot of issues that everyday people are dealing with right now, especially during the worst U.S. recession in recent memory. His fate at the hands of NBC has come to symbolize the fate faced by many American workers, who have put in dozens of years of hard work at a company, hoping to achieve some version of the American dream, only to have the brass ring unceremoniously slip through their fingers. The inimitable Heather Havrilesky has also written a brilliant, scathing piece about something else that Conan symbolizes: The concept of quirkiness/originality in the face of a world that constantly strives for monotony and conformity:

The most brilliant and original novels and works of art and theorems and discoveries of recent history were all greeted as idealistic, impractical, bizarre, delusional or utterly wrong at one point or another. This is how good things come into being: Someone listens politely to the opinionated blowhard, shakes his hand, and forgets all of that priceless advice within seconds.

Unfortunately, the man in the gray suit may quickly grow impatient. Whether you're working on your thesis or coming up with a new marketing model or writing experimental fiction or challenging the current notions about internet browsing habits, you may not have a lot of time to try out your approach. In Conan's case, thanks to Leno's spectacular failure, he had a few short months.

In fact, lots of great prose was written about the Late Night Wars (My favorites to read? James Poniewozik from Time Magazine and Rachel Sklar from Mediaite). But one piece in particular caught my attention, not for its quality but for its utter lack thereof.

In a piece "written" by Bill Carter (and I put "written" in quotes because that's a pretty liberal use of the word) and published on January 14, 2010 entitled "NBC's Ebersol Defends Leno and Zucker," Dick Ebersol essentially used the New York Times as his stenographer. Here's an excerpt:

Mr. Ebersol chided Mr. O’Brien for declining to take advice about how to adjust his show to the 11:35 p.m. slot from the style he had used on NBC’s 12:35 a.m. “Late Night” show for 16 years...They have previously defended the performance of the show, saying seven months was not a fair shot for Mr. O’Brien to hone his comedic voice at the earlier hour especially in the face of reduced audiences for Mr. Leno’s 10 p.m. show and the late local newscasts that followed it.

Mr. Ebersol labeled that a “specious argument,” saying that for much of the last five years, Mr. Leno had much lower lead-in audiences than Mr. Letterman got at CBS and yet he always won in the ratings.

“I like Conan enormously personally,” Mr. Ebersol said. “He was just stubborn about not being willing to broaden the appeal of his show.”

The article serves as an extended hit job on O'Brien, with Ebersol airing his views almost completely unopposed and with virtually no analysis or plain old common sense. In my mind's eye, I can almost see how it went down: Within the confines of some kind of Armando Ianucci movie, a high-level NBC executive screamed to an underling "Get Ebersol out there! We'll fight fire with fire! Call up your NYTimes lackey Bill Carter to take care of this!" And the New York Times, happy to get Ebersol's remarks on the record, with the attendant links and traffic that would result, happily obliged. Of course, they couldn't very well argue anything substantial against what Ebersol was saying...Otherwise they wouldn't be "objective" journalists, now would they?

I'm not the only one who has picked up on this snow job. Outlets such as Deadline and Mediaite have also pointed out the crappiness of reporting on display here.

I've written in defense of the mainstream media before, despite others' gleeful schadenfreude at witnessing their destruction. In fact, the recent events of Haiti have demonstrated that even though Gawker and other bloggers are a fantastic source of information about the goings-on at NBC, they can't exactly deploy a team of highly-trained writers and photographers to another country at a moment's notice.

But on this particular issue, when you compare the quality of reporting at the New York Times with the commentary available elsewhere, you see the mainstream media for all of its flaws: the constrictive entrenched relationships (in this case, with the higher-ups at NBC), the unwillingness for the reporter to inject his/her own analysis, and a general lack of ability to take entertainment journalism seriously. In a world where blogs can provide up-to-the-minute incisive commentary, pieces like the one found in the New York Times will continue to consign mainstream media to irrelevance in this field, during a time period when it is already fighting for survival.

Because we're perpetually discovering that, if you're a news consumer, you can't teach an old dog new tricks but you can always have that dog put down and get a newer, cheaper one.

Staggered Digital Book Release Leads to Kindle Owner Uprising

The Amazon Kindle has been out for a while now, but despite positive reviews from people who own one, I still haven't taken the plunge myself. While I recognize the advantages of being able to carry dozens of books in one device, I'm also not a fan of a bunch of the Kindle's other features (e.g. prohibitively high price, DRM books, and just the physical experience of holding one compared to holding a book).

But say what you will about Amazon's Kindle: it definitely has its share of devoted fans. I was reading about Mark Halperin's damning new book, Game Change, today over at Politico. New York magazine also published a pretty damning excerpt recently, chronicling the John Edwards campaign. While the book seems gossipy/trashy, it also seems like a gripping read for anyone interested in political theater.

I went over to Amazon to check out some of the reviews and was mildly surprised to find that they gravitated to either 1-star reviews of 5-star reviews. But the reasoning for the 1-star reviews is what really got me:

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Game Change's publishers are using a staggered release method, whereby the hardcover book is available now but the Kindle version won't be available until February 23rd. Kindle users, accustomed to getting their books instantly, were none too happy with this development.

According to one reviewer, "Gotta say, I'm joining the growing chorus. Not going to read this until its on Kindle. Don't care if its old news by then, Come one, folks! Wireless reading formatn is NOT going away! Can we all just agree that books need to be put into this format at the time of publishing?? Please?" Another reviewer titled: "DO NOT BUY WHEN PUBLISHED - SHOW THE PUBLISHER," reads "Since one of the reasons we all bought Kindles was to read the most recent best sellers, please DO NOT BUY Game Change and show the publisher that delaying the kindle version of this book until February 23rd will not be tolerated. IF this practice continues, this will hurt all the Kindle owners who have to wait 4-8 weeks for the book. IF you have to wait that period of time, why have a Kindle?"

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Are these really reviews of the product? Or reviews of what the product should be? Or negative reviews left on one product due to the fact that an entirely different product (The Kindle version of the book) doesn't yet exist? It will be interesting to see how Amazon deals with this development, as it recalls the Amazon/Spore incident in fall 2008. Amazon has shown itself very willing in the past to take down reviews that have no bearing on the actual item of sale.

Interestingly, I also found some backlash to the backlash from Kindle Owners.

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"When Jeff Bezos said that books were analog media that would soon be discarded, well, that was pretty disgusting as well. The man made a fortune selling books and destroying book stores, but now he wants to destroy books." The Kindle continues to inspires lovers and haters a like. I'll be watching the reviews page (and you can too) for further developments, as the debate promises to play out in an engaging manner.

All types of content-creators are playing with staggered release windows these days. Just last week we heard that some titles won't appear on Netflix until 28-days after they've been on sale. Two things seem clear to me: 1) When you artificially create these types of windows, you may or may not increase the possibility of earning more revenue by engineering scarcity of content, and 2) You do so at your own peril. Consumers want their content available, and they want it now. When it's denied them, they tend to get really, really upset. Good luck with that.

Brief Thoughts on Trust Us, This Is All Made Up

Last night, I had the chance to attend a Somerville Theater screening of Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, an indie film about two gentlemen, TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquasi, who put on a two-man show that is completely improvised, starting the moment they get up onto the stage in front of a live audience. It was produced by my colleague Adam Roffman, who also programs the lovely Independent Film Festival of Boston.

The film was a great exploration into the joys, the perils, and the intricacies of improv comedy. TJ & Dave speak insightfully about the process of collaboration and about the characters they try to create. But if there's one thing that the film impressed upon me, it's the following: Improv comedy (especially long-form improv comedy) is very, very difficult. What TJ & Dave do is unique and impressive, and there are moments of absolute brilliance during the show (one iteration of which is presented completely uncut during the course of the film). But there are perhaps equally as many moments of painfully awkward silences and jokes that fall flat.

Still, none of that is the fault of director Alex Karpovsky, whose great camera setup and editing faithfully capture the mood and energy inside the theater. As a "concert" film, the film was actually quite impressive. If you're into improv comedy and the process behind it, the film is well worth your time.

Also, the film's distributor, B-Side, is pursuing an interesting strategy, allowing people to receive screener DVDs to host private/public screenings before the film actually goes on sale on February 16, 2010. Check it out on their website.


The Zakim Bridge
Photo by me

There's a song by an amazing group called "Kepano Green," called "When I'm Gone." It's not really one of their best efforts in my opinion, but I certainly like the message of it (Sign up/Login to Lala to hear the entire song):

All of us are, on some level, concerned with our legacy. We don't want our lives to be inconsequential. So what will you leave when we're gone? Lives profoundly changed for the better? Warm memories of generosity? A string of broken hearts? A sense that you've profoundly changed lives for the better?

I've lived in the Boston area for over 20 years and there's a strong possibility that I won't be around for much longer. In the next two to three years, I'll be figuring out exactly what it is I'll leave behind when I'm gone and I'll write about it here. I have big plans already, but it's my follow-through that will be tested in the days to come. I hope that my next steps will be a love letter to the city that's raised me and made my life possible.

Legacy is the only thing I have left.

If You Are Applying for an Online Writing Job at /Film, or Anywhere Else...

Testing Oldcamera app: my brooding friend Matt
Photo taken by me

Due to the volume of comments we get at /Film, we recently posted an open call for comment moderators at the site. In the past 24 hours, we've already received dozens of e-mails for the job, more than I had anticipated and certainly more than we can possibly use (there is only one position available).

I've read my share of /Film applications and I've noticed some patterns emerging. Thus, I thought I'd put together a few pieces of advice for people that apply to these types of jobs. It's basic stuff that most people (should) probably already know, but this is a personal blog after all. More stuff will probably be added to this list later, potentially in another post.

Although I am writing this list, I struggle with these types of issues all the time. But I strive for professionalism in my writing, and I like it when other people do too. I also want to note that despite the existence of this list, we receive a ton of high-quality applicants. It's always difficult to decide who to choose in these circumstances, but people that make the following mistakes are easier to eliminate from consideration.

1) Do not apologize for the crappiness of the writing you are sending me - "Sorry, this isn't my best writing, but..." "I wrote this piece while I was on the toilet this morning, so..." "This writing was done while under duress and at gunpoint, and..." If it's not your best writing, why are you sending it to me? Do you not want me to see your best writing? Do you not have any access to good writing that you have done? Do you not have any good writing? Lowering my expectations will not lead me to conclude "Yes, THIS IS WHO WE WANT!" after I read what you've sent me.

2) Try to make sure there are no spelling or grammar errors in your e-mail or in your writing samples - This is pretty obvious, but try to make sure your e-mails and writing samples are spell-corrected and checked for proper grammar. Reading your e-mail will probably be my first interaction with you, ever. If you can't put proper care into this single communication, how likely will you be to be put care into the daily grind of writing for a high-traffic blog?

3) Do not include NOTHING in your e-mail - If I ask for writing samples, or links to your favorite pieces, or anything, you should try to include what I ask for in your application or at least something analogous to it.

Working "next to" someone, even in the virtual world, can be a pretty intense experience. It would be great to try to get a sense of what your style is, who you are, etc. Even a poorly-maintained blog does more to help fill in these gaps than nothing. If I have nothing to go on except for a few paragraphs in your e-mail, you probably will not hear from me again.

4) Be respectful - You are applying for a job, which is to say, you are asking someone to consider making you a part of their organization. Being curt, intimating that you think you are "better than this," and making demands will probably not leave a good impression.

5) If you have been a heinous jerk to my co-workers, members of the /Film community, and/or to me on multiple occasions in the comments sections, via e-mail, in person, in public, or anywhere else, you are most likely not going to get the job - Self-explanatory (and, perhaps, motivation to not be a heinous jerk as a general matter).

My Brother Is Good at Card Tricks

Playing cards
Photo by me

One of my favorite parts of being home for the holidays is hanging out with my brother. Some years ago, my brother and I became obsessed with the street magic of David Blaine, and specificially, his card tricks. Here's an example of a simple one:

We felt like there had to be some way to figure out how to do these tricks, and indeed, we found some pretty good answers online. Thus, we set about to learning some of them, but my brother has gotten pretty good at them over time. Here is video of him performing his tricks, in ascending level of difficulty.



Two-Card Monte

And my favorite, The Ambitious Card