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Sub-Genre Media Newsletter:
Weekly musings on indie film, media, branded content and related items from Brian Newman.

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In the Public Interest

November 11, 2021

A couple of weeks ago, the WSJ ran a series on "How we should fix social media," most of which was pretty dumb; but Nicholas Carr's response was right on - to treat them like broadcasters (the article is probably behind  a pay-wall, sorry). As he says, "A hundred years ago, the arrival of radio broadcasting brought an upheaval similar to the one we face today. Suddenly, a single voice could speak to all Americans at once," and government convened panels about it and came up with two laws to address the problems - the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communications Act of 1934. "These laws defined broadcasting as a privilege, not a right. They required radio stations (and, later, television stations) to operate in ways that furthered not just their own private interests but also “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Broadcasters that ignored the strictures risked losing their licenses." He proposes that we do this again, but with social media companies. I agree, but with all the hysteria aside, I recommend we also apply these to the streamers - they too are becoming monopolies who should also serve a public interest.
This may sound like crazy talk, and in today’s society, it is! But the streamers are using a public good, that was built largely with government support. And many of the current broadcasters moving into streaming in a big way, built their business on the backs of the public airwaves. And contrary to Ted Sarandos’s own claims of the lack of cultural influence from content, we all know that what we watch online is influencing culture just as much as what’s coming from social media or the news. Just as radio, TV, and cable needed a mandate to serve the public interest, so does streaming. And just like these predecessors, we are seeing consolidation into a small set of monopolies who control most of what we watch – sure, there are ten million streamers and OTT channels, but admit it - a handful are actually in control of the content world.
I’ve proposed before that we need a new public television. We do, but we also need laws that would compel the current lords of streaming to serve the public interest in their programming, especially as they all rush towards the most sensational content and lowest common denominator stuff in search of ever more eyeballs. I doubt we’ll get much thinking like this out of our current government “leaders,” but we might have a slight glimmer of hope in a newly appointed FCC commissioner, who understands the need for more diversity of voices in media (of all types), and the perils of consolidation and monopolistic behaviors. 
That would be Gigi Sohn, who scares the shit out of the WSJ Editors... which is a great sign. I mentioned in an older newsletter that my old acquaintance Gigi Sohn is now nominated to be an FCC Commissioner, after working at Ford on media policy, then founding Public Knowledge, serving as a senior advisor to the FCC, and more. This has scared the bejesus out of the WSJ editorial team, as evidenced by this Op-Ed they just ran. Give it a read and note that everything that scares them is what makes her the best choice, and she's someone who might do something about the monopolies in broadcast and streaming, too. 
Oh, and as I was writing this, the conservative (hard-core) owner of OAN came out in support of Sohn - seems even he notices that there's too much consolidation in the industry. As he is quoted in Deadline: “as an executive of an independent, family owned business of two national networks, One America News Network and AWE, I’ve found myself advocating for more open markets in an environment that is arguably a quasi monopoly. I’ve fought in the trenches side-by-side with Gigi Sohn for a number of years on multiple issues. I’m fully aware of Gigi’s personal views, yet I’m even more knowledgeable on her strong belief and advocacy for diversity in the programming lineup, especially in news, regardless of conflicts with her personal views.” We can hate the man and the networks, but he’s got a point. 
What also might help is if the foundations who support public media stopped just thinking about it as PBS, and started thinking about what “public interest” should mean in modern society. Hint, it ain’t about requiring Netflix to show some ITVS funded works, it’s about reinventing the space. It might also help if filmmakers, who tell stories so well and advocate for change, thought about making media about the public interest – it’s under attack not just in media, but everywhere you look – from public libraries, to public parks, to public land… the list goes on. This is not just a US issue, of course, as we see now in the UK and elsewhere, so the fight is a broad one. We need to reinvigorate the conversation on the need for public space and public good. That won’t be easy, but it’s a fight worth starting.

Stuff I'm Reading

Your Agent Is a Con Artist: I love this interview that IndieWire's Eric Kohn recently did with filmmaker Jim Cummings, ostensibly about his new film The Best Test, but that's really about how agents are con artists. Or as he explains best, " They grew up watching “Entourage” and want to be those cool fuckers. That version of Hollywood is dying, so they’re becoming more desperate." and also: "The story of the movie is that agencies don’t actually care about independent film. They care about money and power." Read the whole article for more truth bombs. (BN)

Apple is Playing a Different Game Than Everyone Else in TV: Smart title and article from John Cassillo in TV Rev - last month, but just hitting my feed now. He points out that Netflix wants to replace all TV, while places like Peacock just want to replace their (slowly dying) channels. But Apple wants to be a premium product that also markets its own self - much like the Apple stores. It's a subtle but very different game, and the article is worth a read. (BN)
Branded Content
T Brand Launches “Soul of Us”, a Storytelling Journey into the Black Experience in America: “T Brand, the branded content studio within New York Times Advertising, presents SOUL OF US, its first ever creative franchise which delivers a multi-part storytelling journey into the Black experience in America.” In a celebration of Black life, the SOUL  OF US team, which consists of Black artists, freelance writers, and photographers “[enables] brands to take part in extensive thematic storytelling to elevate the conversation of representation in America through stories of Black experiences”. Vida Cornelious, VP, Creative at New York Times Advertising explains that this kind of branded content storytelling is a means to “begin to close the cultural empathy gap.” You can check out the SOUL OF US platform to read brand-sponsored narratives about what it is to be Black in America. For more details, check out the NYT’s announcement here. (GSH)

‘We’re willing to try everything’: How a startup snack brand is leveraging meme culture to reach shoppers: As social media use and culture evolves, so must brands and the ways they reach their audiences. Take Muddy Bites, a startup snack brand, as an example: They’re using memes as a primary mode of advertising and outreach. While a good meme or short TikTok video can go viral with the right ingredients, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Aaron Goldman, Chief Marketing Officer explains, “the results of doing a branded meme poorly can sometimes be worse than not doing it at all once the ridiculing commences.”  If a brand isn’t up to date with (Gen Z) internet culture, they’ll get tarred and feathered on platforms like TikTok and Instagram which could be catastrophic, relatively speaking. The quick takeaway: Brands need to stay with the times in order to stay relevant. Today, that means speaking the same language (i.e. TikTok videos, memes...etc) as their consumers, thus brands need to be thoughtful about where these campaigns take place (Facebook? TikTok? Roadside billboards?). Digiday’s Kimeko McCoy has the story. (GSH)

Product Placement in AppleTV+ Shows - The above TV Rev article (mentioned in the Film readings) also clued me in to this great, two month old, WSJ video piece on just how much product placement, of its own devices and ecosystem, Apple puts into its own shows. It's obvious, but it's even more often than you probably think. I am not a fan of product placement, and think Apple is taking it into comical territory, but the Prof cited in the clip would disagree. (BN)

Marvel, Skydance New Media To Build Narrative Action-Adventure Game: “Disney’s Marvel has partnered with the new-media unit of Skydance Media to build “a narrative-driven, blockbuster action-adventure game, featuring a completely original story and take on the Marvel Universe.” It was only a matter of time, right? We should be excited: More and more, we’ll experience the recycling of original and familiar stories into new forms (from novels/comic books, to film, to videogames, and the other way around). Forbes’ David Bloom has the news.   (GSH)

Epic Games and Tribeca Team Up on Unreal Engine films: Tribeca Enterprises and Epic Games have partnered to train indie filmmakers to use Unreal game engine — a real-time 3D tool used in game development — through a workshop called “Writing in Unreal”. Filmmakers will work closely with Unreal game engine experts and filmmakers who’ve benefited from using the engine, they’ll learn how to use Unreal as a tool to enhance scripts, to storyboard, and to worldbuild. The partnership attests to the growing trend of gaming converging with film — the two fields are no longer disparate. The takeaway: Experts in gaming and film have so much to learn and gain from each other, their tools, and their methods. VentureBeat’s Dean Takahashi has the story. You can check out the Epic/Tribeca promo video here.  (GSH)

(GSH = Articles written by Sub-Genre's Gabriel Schillinger-Hyman)
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