Capital Musings

Politics, Business, and Innovation

Category: Leisure (page 1 of 2)

Is great TV doomed to be niche?

As some viewers may be aware, summer is when the networks (even the internet ones like Netflix) are taking breaks from their anchor programming. We thought these doldrums were a good time to revisit some of the media industry’s inflection points as a way to put our era’s media disruption into historical context.

The late ’70s and early ’80s were a particularly groundbreaking time. We were digging up the archive on the NBC turnaround—in particular, Time Magazine’s “Cool Cops, Hot Show” and “Coming Up from Nowhere”—which became a commercial and critical success in the ’80s:

But Emmy winners, confoundingly, ranked extremely low in terms of raw ratings, even in this age of three network television:

Ratings notwithstanding, NBC was satisfied with these shows because they captured a more upscale demo:

Mad. Ave. ad mavens were discovering that a rule long applied to magazines–that 1,000 New Yorker readers are more valuable than 1,000 National Enquirer readers–made sense in prime time as well. Says Tartikoff: “When you pull a tab on the St. Elsewhere audience, you find that many of them don’t watch any other entertainment show on network TV. They’re well-educated, well-paid people whom certain advertisers are eager to reach because they can’t be reached in these numbers anywhere else on TV. So we can make a very good living off St. Elsewhere even though it earns only a 24 share.”

The shift in thinking from the blockbuster model to the long-tail model has reached its logical conclusion in our current era of high fragmentation.

As an example, take look at the AMC network. In upscale viewership, Mad Men ranks first with 50% of viewers having incomes greater than $100,000. And yet, Mad Men has never really had great Nielsen ratings.

Another factor leading to poor overnights is timeshifting. Viewers now have the option to suit TV to their schedule and not the other way around. And poor numbers don’t necessarily translate to poor engagement. On the contrary, viewers engaging with television much like they did with the novels and epic operas of earlier eras with a phenomenon known as “binge watching” shows viewers have amazing attention spans when it comes to great content.

In the upscale demos, the timeshifting seems particularly extreme. The Mad Men finale increased by triple-digits in key demos between the Live/Same Day (L/SD) and Live+3 Day (L+3) measurements. Compare that to mass market NCIS, whose L+3 lifts are a fraction of that percentage-wise.

Similarly, another show on AMC, Halt & Catch Fire, has had L/SD viewership dip as low as 550,000. Based upon that metric, this show should have been cancelled. However, with an L+3 timeshift bump of over 70% and ranking third in upscale viewers with incomes over $100,000 at 42%, AMC decided to renew the show.

In summary, headline Nielsen overnights mean very little when you are programming prestige television. Even the epic TV deck from Luma Partners earlier this year devoted a neglible amount of space to the Nielsen numbers.

On the big screen, one analogue is The Weinstein Company’s reluctance to give Snowpiercer a traditional blockbuster release because they were concerned audiences in Iowa and Oklahoma would not understand it.

Thirty years ago, St. Elsewhere was attracting upscale viewers other shows could not, influenced a generation of creatives, and yet barely anyone watched it. The case is the same with shows like Mad Men today, and it is arguably more pronounced. Is great TV doomed to be niche?

A few more thoughts
  • The one-line pitches of these NBC shows are simultaneously ridiculous and brilliant.
    • The A-Team: “Road Warrior, Magnificent Seven, Dirty Dozen, Mission: Impossible, all rolled into one, and Mr. T drives the car.”
    • The Cosby Show: “A black Family Ties.”
    • Miami Vice: “MTV Cops.”
  • A great sound bite, applying not just to programming, but also much of business: “All hits are flukes.”

Through the Silicon Mirror: Our world through games

Surveying one of Tropico’s cocoa plantations.

Surveying one of Tropico’s cocoa plantations.

I was examining the cocoa plantations of the Republic of Tropico in the middle of its election season when I received a push alert that Ukraine had elected a chocolate magnate. You might not have heard of the Republic of Tropico, a sovereign nation located on a Caribbean island in the vein of Cuba or Jamaica, because Tropico is an island that exists only in virtual reality. And there are also millions of others like it living in the pulses of electrons flowing through the silicon on our desks and in our pockets.

Technology has progressed to a point that we can now start to render virtual reflections of reality with high visual fidelity. On one end, you have the open world simulations, which are still relatively impressionist in their fidelity, but wide in their scope. Most notable is the multibillion dollar Grand Theft Auto franchise in which players can pursue fantasies vicariously through characters living in satirical facsimiles of New York (“Liberty City”), California (“San Andreas”), and Miami (“Vice City”). While those cities have heretofore been rendered as isolated islands, hardware permitting, Rockstar eventually plans to connect those cities to create one giant virtual world.

There are also developers that don’t go the satirical route—perhaps because their subject matter is less controversial—and actually create outright replicas of our world. The Microsoft Flight Simulator series included airports from Addis Ababa to Zurich, complete with radio frequencies and approach procedures. The later versions even downloaded real-time weather information that rendered in the simulation. An entire ecosystem of third party developers arose as well, working to make the simulation more immersive, ranging from detailed roads, so you could navigate under Visual Flight Rules, to airports rendered at a higher fidelity than the vanilla version.

On the ground, developer SCS Soft has received critical praise for what might not seem like a blockbuster premise at first blush: a trucking simulator. They really hit their stride with Euro Truck Simulator 2, which created a stylised version of Europe. It was successful enough to warrant the development of an American version, whose game world will eventually include more than 100 cities.

While it is by no means a matrix incarnate, but rather a stylised version of our reality, the breadth of world modelling hasn’t been this ambitious outside the flight simulator arena. It is this type of work that will develop the skills necessary to create a truly immersive next-generation virtual reality system. In fact, Oculus Rift almost seems tailor made for this use case. A search on YouTube of footage of Oculus Rift usage with Euro Truck Simulator 2 brings about some fairly immersive results.

The highest fidelity replication though can be found in simulations that contain the scope of their location modelling. In the Project Gotham series, neighbourhoods are modelled with street-by-street accuracy. Even closer to reality are the Forza and Gran Turismo racing simulations, so much so that we are arguably several years into the Ender’s Game era. The developer of Gran Turismo, which sponsors a real world racing team, uses its product as a talent search tool for its new driver development programme. Its drivers have actually performed remarkably well.

Aside: Self-Driving Cars

These ground level simulations also overlap with one of the hottest problems in artificial intelligence right now: autonomous driving. While the objective of the game developer is to pass the Turing test, the objective of the self-driving car developer is to keep the cars from getting into an accident. The games have heretofore used relatively simple algorithms. Follow a racing a line and brake if a car cuts you off. Introduce a few errors to make it seem more human. But the development paradigms between the two disciplines have started to converge. Elements of machine learning, which is the basis of real-world autonomous driving development, are reflected in the most recent release of Forza. While at this point, it is really just a form of asynchronous multiplayer competition, all that data could, theoretically, be used to teach an artificial intelligence how to race. Emulate the fastest drivers who drive clean laps and don’t emulate the drivers who get into collisions.

But simulation doesn’t just apply to the simstim of William Gibson or the virtual reality headset known by the moniker Oculus Rift. All the backtesting done by quants on Wall Street are, in fact, computer simulations. Even in investment banking and fundamental research, Excel models are really just simulated abstractions of real world businesses.

When you take away the graphical veneer of computerised gaming, at its core, we are merely interacting with complex mathematical equations, albeit in a multisensory manner. Considering that, why haven’t we seen games that can inform our knowledge about political economy in the same way doing laps around the virtual Nürburgring makes you a better driver—or vice versa, where going to Skip Barber at Laguna Seca will make you a better gamer?

Actually, there have been more than a few games which handle that subject matter, and they do it brilliantly.

Do virtual ministers dream of Tron bikes going through the streets of Sim-Davos?
Patent Drawing for The Landlord’s Game

Excerpt of The Landlord’s Game from the U.S. Patent Office.

Greg Mankiw created a presidential game to illustrate some basic economic concepts. And the Swiss National Bank has a monetary policy game that simulates some harrowing liquidity traps. Even the best economic board game ever created—The Landlord’s Game, an illustration of the evils of rent seeking—could be put through a Monte Carlo simulator. But you’ve probably never heard of those games unless you’re a die hard economics nerd. And you’re probably not interested in learning about them.

This is because positioning simulations as primarily pedagogical in nature don’t tend to result in boxes coming off the shelves. In fact, The Landlord’s Game languished, until it was repurposed as a different game that turned the premise on its head: Monopoly.

Introducing extremely compelling gameplay—where the one-more-turn dynamic that is the Holy Grail of game development dominates—is what ensures commercial success. And he who reaches the greatest number of people is the one whose Weltanschauung drives the conversation. Those are the games I want to examine.

Why even look at games? Why not just learn the equations and run them through Mathematica or Excel? First, I would argue that economics and politics can never be fully reflected in equations due to the innately human nature of those disciplines. To put it another way, you can create Monte Carlo simulations of Monopoly games to decide whether Illinois Avenue or Boardwalk are better investments. But you can’t flawlessly predict what a human is going to do in a particular circumstance. These are probabilistic, not deterministic, models. While a Monte Carlo simulation can help aid in decision making, it is the implicit knowledge and intuition that can only be gained by actually playing Monopoly that will distinguish a champion.

Furthermore, while mathematical equations only express an abstraction of a sliver of an actual complex system, they are the best tools we have at the moment. And actually interacting with these complex intertwined equations in a multisensory manner will yield a far better intuitive sense of the system than just seeing numbers change on a spreadsheet. Logos must be combined with pathos to leave impressions in our minds.

In short, understanding the analogies between cyberspace and meatspace, and developing the fluency to switch your mental state from one form to another, can create a deeper understanding of both areas. And these games can also help kindle passions in often dry topics: Monopoly for future real estate moguls and Diplomacy for future ambassadors. I personally first encountered the terms “Keynesian” and “supply side” not through Paul Samuelson or even Robert Heilbroner, but in a book about becoming a better SimCity 2000 player.

There has been a rich history of economics—often intertwined with politics—since the dawn of computer gaming. From the merchant capitalism modelled by Taipan! to the grand strategy and global political economy of, say, Europa Universalis.

However, considering the timeliness of the recent release of Tropico 5, I thought I’d start with that. Expect a piece out some time in the next week.

A Thanksgiving recipe both kids and adults will enjoy

SXSW/ACL for gearheads

Tito’s Shelby Cobra at SXSW

Tito’s Shelby Cobra at SXSW

I recently returned from a trip to United States Grand Prix for the Formula One Championship in Austin, Texas. I simmed the Circuit of the Americas (“COTA”) the night before walking it and have been dying to run it. It’s supposedly $55,000 for track rental, which entails a 25 car grid. I was initially skeptical, but seeing it on the ground makes you realize it’s a world-class track layout, even though the spectator facilities are supposedly not as pampering as Abu Dhabi.

By most measurements, it seemed to be a relative success. According to various outlets like the Austin American Statesman or KXAN, an estimated 300 private plane landings at AUS this weekend. There was 113,162 race day attendance. Although it was down from 117,429, it was far better than Indianapolis’s sophomore slump of 50,000. Attendance is the same order of magnitude as Silverstone, Australia, and Montreal. I will be curious to see the final report for 2013, since it seemed like there were far less than the 2,546 helicopter rides to the Circuit during 2012. It seemed to be a success compared to India, Korea, or Abu Dhabi.

Just to give you a taste, here’s a partial clip of F1 Champion Sebastian Vettel doing doughnuts:

F1 weekend is also accompanied by tons of parties and reservation-filled restaurants. But in addition, there are also a bunch of pop-up parties that were open to the public. Red Bull’s makeshift discotheque was particularly memorable, though not for the music. They had two Infinitis hooked up to some dynos and guests could essentially drag race them against each other.

Red Bull Infiniti Drag Race

There was also an auction involving some relatively affordable classic cars:

Jaguar XK120

Basically, it was SXSW/ACL for gearheads (what Americans call petrolheads).

The hot winter arts scene of New York

There’s finally a week where I’m in New York and not unpacking or repacking for some trip. As such, I’m planning on taking full opportunity of the cultural events in the city. Who wants to join?

Monday, 9 December @ 19:00
A Chanticleer Christmas in New York

Friday, 13 December @ 21:00
Matt Baker Trio

Through 2 February 2014
Twelfth Night & Richard III
Starring Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry*

Through 2 March 2014
Waiting for Godot by Beckett & No Man’s Land by Pinter
Starring Ian McKellen & Patrick Stewart

Remember to keep in mind for June 2014
The American première of Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth

And in case anyone in London is interested:
Through 25 January 2014
“American Psycho” the Musical

Finally, as those who may be familiar, I will always be up to go to Birdland—especially Jim Caruso’s Cast Party/open mic night on Mondays—or Bemelman’s Bar. Also, anyone know a bartender who can make a good Sazerac Flip?

*The London production was sold out, with rave reviews. Mark Rylance also happens to have the most epic Tony acceptance speeches:

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