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Pondering Potter June 22, 2003

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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I did go to the latest Potter debut on Friday night at midnight. It was a little creepy. I’d say maybe 15% of those who were there were under 18, and it wasn’t because there were two parents for every kid. Round glasses were handed out, so don’t think everyone you saw on TV had prepared their own costume. (About as many adults as kids were dressed up. I was not. I was only there to observe.) It kind of reminded me of a comic convention. I overheard someone engaged in a conversation on The Silmarillion . Ugh.

On the kids front, I have this to report: More girls, and of wider age range, than boys. Boys very geeky. And, bless you, JK Rowling, Harry Potter is a multiracial phenomenon, at least in Manhattan.

I didn’t pre-order. I had to take a ticket – mine was number 540, and I got there at 11PM. However, pre-ordering was no great strategy, since Barnes and Noble moronically passed out pre-orders in last-name alphabetical order simultaneously with the numbering system. I got mine less than an hour after midnight.

I read a few hundred pages of the book this weekend. The formula still works. The books are exciting page-turners, their world is richly realized, they’re funny, they’re nostalgic for grown-ups, and the characters are far more realistic than your average bestseller.

I also think the whole thing works subversively as a metaphor for a kids’ eye view of the adult world. Rules are random and arbitrary, and adults impenetrable and frequently misguided or even evil. Harry’s getting a little older, more rebellious, and, unfortunately, whinier. (I like the supporting characters better, anyway. See amusing Slate piece on Harry as spoiled jock.)

A friend of mine who’s a teacher but shared a common interest in children’s lit long before that, has an excellent theory that great kids’ books are age-aspirational. (Though he’d never use such a pretentious, psych-major term.) That is, a good book for 8 year-olds will have a 12 year-old protagonist, etc. He thinks the Potter strategy of aging the hero is very risky, but he also thinks that Potter’s real audience are adults. He points to unaging franchise heros like comic book superheroes, the Hardy Boys and James Bond.

I wonder. I think JK Rowlings is even slyer. I see this as a generational rather than age-based franchise. As the original fans age, younger kids will start with the series, and they’ll read it in order. So far, the books’ style does not age much though, and I agree it will be a real test to engage 12-18 year-old readers on a psychological level. But so far, it seems to be working.

Mindless Opinions June 19, 2003

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Oh my. I thought I was being cynical. Michael Kinsley seems very angry or very disgusted:

The most striking thing about polls like these isn’t how many people believe or disbelieve some unproven factual assertion or prediction, but how few give the only correct answer, which is “don’t know.” In the Fox News poll, vast majorities expressed certitude one way or the other about the existence of WMD in Iraq, the likelihood of peace in the Middle East, and so on. Those who voted “not sure” (an even more tempting cop-out than the pollsters’ usual “don’t know”) rarely broke 20 percent and usually hovered around 10. Four-fifths or more were sure about everything.

As someone who manufactures opinions for a living, it is my job to be sure. And my standards for the ingredients of an opinion are necessarily low. There may be a few ancient pundits such as George Will who still follow the traditional guild practices: days in the library making notes on 3-by-5 cards, half a dozen lunches at the club with key sources, an hour spent alone in silence with a martini and one’s thoughts—and only then does a perfectly modulated opinion take its lovely shape. Most of us have no time for that anymore. It’s a quick surf around the Net, a flip of the coin, and out pops an opinion, ready-to-go except perhaps for a bit of extra last-minute coarsening.

Still, even the most modern major generalist among the professional commentariat likes to have a little something in the way of knowledge as he or she scatters opinions like bird seed. The general public, or at least the part of it that deals with pollsters, is not so cowardly. Most people, it seems, will happily state a belief on a question of fact that nobody knows the answer to, and then just as happily do a double back flip from that shaky platform into a pool of opinions about which they are “sure.”

I love the bit about the martini. That’s my own technique.

Media Concentration June 19, 2003

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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I have avoided blogging on the latest antics from the FCC, Congress, and the industry on media concentration. Why? Because I’m a coward. I have strong opinions about both sides.

– Government regulations nearly always regulate the wrong thing. The Fairness Doctrine chilled all opinions and left us with lukewarm, least-offensive-to-the-most-people voices on television. The just-tossed legislation was created, in the 70s, to protect TV from newspapers. In the 70s!

– Clearly five or six oligarchs dominate media. While this is probably better than one dominator (or is it? at least then there’d be an obvious target to counter-program against….), it isn’t particularly representatitive. Especially since they all want to maintain the status quo, and often jointly own properties. It’s tough to break in or out.

I’d prefer a world with more voices and a way to evaluate them and navigate across them. But consumers are sheep. They want to be led. Ouch, did I say that? No, wait! Give the people what they want; the customer is always right.

You see my dilemma. I oscillate wildly between elitism and populism.

Clay Shirky has some excellent thinking on the subject. “What is clear, however, is a lesson from the weblog world: inequality is a natural component of media. For people arguing about an ideal media landscape, the tradeoffs are clear: Diverse. Free. Equal. Pick two.”

Also, we’ve done some recent research that will throw more fuel on the fire. If the Internet is supposed to allow alternate voices, well, it’s sort of doing it.

The big three (AOL, Yahoo, MSN) still soak up 40% of all the time spent online. Although several traditional media companies are in the Internet top 20 – in order, these include Disney, New York Times Co., Viacom, Primedia, News Corp., and Vivendi – AOL Time Warner is the clear leader, and it is the only one of the media oligopolies with a successful online network. And neither Yahoo nor Microsoft qualify as old media.

The Flipside of the Mouse’s Marketing Power June 16, 2003

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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I loved Gary’s story about the little girl chanting “Finding Ne-mo.” But apparently, she was under nine. The Times reports this precocious potential backlash to Potter-merch:

“None of the kids are crazy about it,” said Emma Bradford, 9, of Brattleboro, Vt. “Some people say how stupid it is that they are coming out with Harry Potter toothbrushes and things like that. I think they should just stop with the books and movies, otherwise it just goes sort of overboard into a more Disney thing.”

By the way, I’ll be at my local bookstore at midnight on Friday. I love Harry Potter, but I’d like the concept even if the books stank. Anything that makes kids read is a good thing.

And Jelly Belly’s Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans are tremendous – some of them really do taste awful, as they should. like pepper and grass. I can’t vouch for vomit or boogers, but I’ve only ever had one bagful.

Defending the Mouse June 9, 2003

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Regular readers know I am a grudging admirer of the Disney of Eisner’s first 10 years, for its discipline and, yes, synergy. So I’ve got to stand up to this piece in Slate.

But in becoming the next Disney, can Pixar avoid becoming the next Disney? Being the Mouse, after all, involves more than simply delivering high-quality, family-friendly entertainment that lasts for the ages. There’s a flip side to success on that scale: A certain minority will loathe you for your tyrannical omnipresence and your ravenous cultural imperialism.

Chris Suellentrop’s analysis proves this loathing by referencing Carl Hiaasen’s Team Rodent: How Disneyland Devours the World (no. 9,083 on Amazon’s sales list), and calls The Lion King overrated, before cleverly suggesting Pixar will continue its Disney relationship to offload all that forthcoming ill will.

Sure, Disney’s a cultural imperialist. But did you read Team Rodent? Neither did anybody else. And 1994’s The Lion King, at $313M domestic box office, according to EDI Filmsource via Variety, remains the single most successful animated movie in history, outdrawing Shrek (Dreamworks), Monsters Inc., Toy Story 2, and Toy Story, each of which came later and thus gets the benefit of inflated dollars.

Frankly, I prefer Pixar’s Toy Story (and Disney’s Pinocchio, Cinderella, Jungle Book, and, especially, The Nightmare before Christmas) to all the others listed, but I don’t count. Neither, really, does that “certain minority.”

Media Players & Browsers Hooey June 3, 2003

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech.
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The press and some analysts are proclaiming that the AOL/Microsoft “armistice” means that the browser wars are over, but the media player wars are on.

“The big battleground in software is going to be the media player itself,” said…an analyst… “The media player will become a more important link to own than the browser, and Microsoft recognizes that.”

If the browser wars were so important, how come Yahoo and AOL are bigger than MSN? This “software wars” stuff is nonsense. Yes, platforms matter, but so far browsers and players haven’t proven to be kingmakers in:

– Audience acquisition (MSN gets its traffic from execution and lots of $400 rebate deals)
– Customer lock-in (Yahoo, Google, anyone?)
– File format lock-in (HTML, MP3, or MPEG-2, anyone?)
– Revenues (again, look at the big three)

Back in November 2000, I wrote that music players were heading into their fourth stage of development. After introduction, distribution, and content acquisition stages, they were moving into the integration phase where usage would gracefully blend retail, promotion, community with music discovery and consumpution.

Media players are there, or else moving into a stage where programming – and I mean content programming, not C++ programming – matters. But even a great player doesn’t guarantee online success. The single exception that proves this rule – where platform created content success – remains Sony’s Playstation.