Category Archives: Television

Chain Reaction


Chicago reactor team. Enrico Fermi, first row, first on left.

For more than a year, physicist Enrico Fermi and his team had been building a pile of blocks under the racquet courts at the University of Chicago.

The pile was made of alternating bricks of uranium and graphite.

Inserted into the pile were cadmium coated rods that could be withdrawn.

This was the world’s first nuclear reactor and no one knew if it would work.

On December 2, 1942, Fermi and his team began to withdraw the cadmium rods.

Cadmium has the power to absorb neutrons.  The uranium, being radioactive, gave off neutrons. And each time a neutron from the deteriorating uranium hit another uranim atom, it caused a small reaction which gave off both heat and an addition three neutrons.  As neutron hit atom and each atom in turn went from U238 and U235, the newly formed atom of U235 in turn gave off an additional 3 neutrons.  One became 3 became 9. 3 to the third over and over and over, each giving off more and more energy and the reaction took off.  The pile went critical and the reaction was self sustaining for 28 minutes.

The world’s first chain reaction.

The successful experiment under the University of Chicago’s football stadium was the foundation of the Manhattan Project and the basis of the Atomic Bombs that the US would ultimately drop on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki three years later.

New technologies do not occur in a vacuum.

Once unleashed, they, like the pinging loose neutrons in Fermi’s pile, begin to set off a series of chain reactions impacting on other technologies and industries until those industries and technologies are also changed… or simply explode.

Take the Internet.

The Internet itself was the product of the US military’s desire to protect command and control from the power of nuclear weapons. As warheads grew ever larger in megatonnage, the military had initially responded by burying their command deeper and deeper in the earth.

It soon grew apparent that it was far easier to ratchet up the megatonage of the bombs than keep digging deeper into the earth.

So the military went to the Rand Corporation and asked them for a solution.  They came up with a rather novel one: networks.

If you build a network of nodes, they said, connecting the nodes together, then even if one or two or four nodes are destroyed, the others will continue to function.

The US Dept of Defense did just that. Under their  Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPA, they built something called ARPAnet. A network of mainframe computers joined together by phone lines.  Think The Forbin Project.

This ARPAnet was to become the Internet.  Opened to the public, it’s network growing far beyond its initial 8 nodes to what we know today.

As each new node was added, as each new computer and user and server came online, as each new functionality was added, the national network of the web, formerly Arpanet, now grew, a bit like Fermi’s pile in Chicago. Each begetting more and more and each new line of code or added function or added computer adding more and more, larger and larger, until it hit critical masss itself.

Had you told the people building Arpanet for the Defense Department that their 8 mainframes and dial up telephone links would one day destroy the newspaper business, they would have thought you insane.

But it did.

Had you told them that it would destroy all the television networks in the country, they would have had you institutionalized as a raving lunatic.

But it will.

Had you told them that it would one day render Bell Telephone worthless because you could use VOIP protocols for free, they would not have had the vaguest idea what you were talking about.

But all of that was to come true.

It was the inevitable result of the chain reaction set off the day Bolt Beranek and Newman, the engineering firm hired to build Arpanet, turned it on.

As Andy Grove, the Chairman of Intel said, “listen to the technology. It will tell you where to go”.

Look at the confluence of technologies impacting now on the television and journalism business.  Cellphone with video cameras inside. A web that carries video content globally for free.  Listen to the technology.  Where is it taking us? It may not be where you want to go, but most assuredly, this is where we are headed.

And unlike Fermi’s reactor in Chicago, there is no way to turn it off or to slow down the reaction.  We are rapidly approaching critical mass.

Outside The Box


Do you have CNN?

Henri IV, King of France was one of the seminal figures in French history.

Born in 1553 and a Protestant Huguenot, he became King of France in 1589 and founded the Bourbon Dynasty.

Henri is perhaps best known for his famous quote “Paris is worth a Mass” for his conversion from Calvinism to Catholicism upon his coronation.

What he is also perhaps less well known for is his illiteracy.

Though King of France and a very accomplished and powerful and successful ruler, Henri was functionally illiterate.

This was nothing unusual in 1589.  Many rich and powerful people in government were illiterate. If they needed documents written or letters read to them or drafted, they simply dicated and an army of clerics and scribes were always on hand to do the ‘technical’ stuff, like writing.

In fact, it was more the exception rather than the rule that anyone, even the richest and most powerful, would be anything other than.

Today, Barack Obama argues for the right to keep his blackberry. We don’t find it at all strange that his predecessors were most likely computer illiterate.  Clinton, in fact, famously sent only two emails during his entire 8 years in office, and one of them was to test the email system.

Now we are embarking on the world of video literacy.

I have no doubt that in the not too distant future, (for things happen far more quickly these days), people of another generation will be equally astonished that famous television journalists like Katie Couric were, effectively, video illiterate. That they hired professional ‘scribes’ to craft any video statements or pronouncements that they wanted to make, and that this was considered completely normal.

Next week we will make our first visit to a rather small but pleasant country that his hired us, not to make TV shows or even to do anything related to the news or television at all, but rather to make their entire government ‘video literate’.  Every ministry, every minister.

We think its a good idea.

In February, we will be going to Washington, invited to present the same concept to the new Obama administration.

We also think that this is a good idea.

Video is not TV anymore.

It’s a tool of basic communication of ideas.

It’s thinking outside the box.


When More is Less


On course to wreck the Spanish economy

In 1530, Francisco Pizarro, the illegitimate son of a Spanish Colonel crossed the Atlantic with a small force of just 180 men.

Two years later, he would overthrow the 500 year old Inca Empire, and rule a population in the millions.

How he did it is the subject of another discussion. This one is about what happened after that.

Pizarro had come to The New World, like Columbus, shamelessly seeking gold. What he found was silver.  More silver than he, or anyone else, could possibly have imagined even existed on earth.  In Upper Peru, at a place called Cerro Rico, he found what was literally a mountain of silver. One of the richest veins of exposed silver on the planet.

The Spanish set to work mining their find, using and killing locals and ultimately importing African slaves for the labor.  They built a city, Potosi there, which at its height had a population of 200,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the world.

When they were done, they transported more than 45,000 tons of pure silver back to Spain.

The Spanish at first thought that they had struck it rich, really rich.  Silver and gold were the measures of wealth, and now silver by the ton was arriving in Seville every week.  It was as though they had won the biggest lottery in the world. And in the beginning, they had.

But as the years wore on, and as the silver supply continued to pour into Spain, the Spanish economy suffered a hitherto entirely unknown phenomenon.  Inflation.

As silver became more and more available, the value of an individual piece of silver began to deteriorate.  It was just less rare, and so of lesser value, because worth and value are to a great extent psychological.  What is the pure value of silver?  Any more than lead? Or brass?  Not really.  What is the value of a diamond?  It is just a stone. But because of rarity, and a kind of mutually agreed value, it has worth. But make it more common and the perceived value drops quickly.

The ironic result of the greatest silver mining adventure in the world was that it pretty much destroyed the Spanish economy – something no one at the time could have conceived of as possible.

All of which brings us to TV news.

In the 1950s and 1960s, television news was difficult to produce.

There were only 3 networks.  With limited air time. And shooting and editing and getting film from Europe or even Washington on the same day was an extremely difficult process.

So TV News was a rare item.

There was not a lot of it.  Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley and whomever ABC had at the moment.

And as a result, TV news had a very high perceived value.

The nation stopped at 7PM when the Nightly News came on.

When Walter Cronkite said he had turned against the War in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson said he knew he had lost the nation.

The value was not so much in the ‘quality’ of the news, but rather in its rarity, hence it’s pcrceived value. Like a diamond or silver, that which is rare is valued.

The advent of cable news, all news, all the time, 24-hours a day, began the process of devaluing the perceived value ofnews.  Now, suddenly, one did not have to wait until 7PM to see the news. One could see it at any time.  It was always there.  So the value of the news began to be debased. Not the quality, per se, but rather the perceived value.

So cable news began to pump the perception. “Breaking news” flashed across the screen with greater and greater frequency. And each time they did that, they also debased the value or the perceived quality of ‘breaking news’.  “This just in” became a punch line, in a kind of national joke.

And now comes video on the web, and a billion people around the world with cameras or blogs or vlogs and citizen journalists.

We are an information culture. We perceive value in being informed.

For us, to a great extent, information is what silver was to the Spanish.  A rare item of great value.

But when we pump our society full of information, all news all the time, we do to our information society what the Spanish did to their silver society – we flood it with the commodity that we consider the most valuable based on its rarity, and in so doing, we change the fundamental equation. We debase the currency itself.

Today, the three television network news shows get fewer viewers on any given night than Walter Cronkite got alone in the 1960s.  And the population is one-third greater.

It is all breaking news all the time, and so it has less perceived value.

It is not a question of ‘quality’, any more than the collapse of the Spanish ‘piece of eight’ or the German Thaler (hence dollar) was based on the quality of the coinage, though there were those who argued this point.  It was that that which is common has lesser perceived value.

Small cameras, the web and cable are our own personal Peru.  They flood our market with ‘news and information’.  There is no turning this off. There is no going back to the days of the rarity of news.

Instead we must decouple our information economy from the flood of content just as western Europe learned, over time, to decouple their economies from silver and gold.

This will not be easy to do, and it will not happen overnight or without a great deal of blood on the floor, or without the fall of a media empire or two.



Mr. Watson, come here… I need you…

Sometimes when new technologies come along, they overturn the world of conventional thinking – particularly when it comes to valuation.

Take a look at the telephone.

Before Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, value was directly married to rarity.  The more rare an object, the more it was worth.  Gold had great value because there was not a lot of it. Make gold as common as lead, and its value would plummet.  So people horded gold and nations went to war over gold. Only kings and very rich people had gold. That was how they liked it.  Open the treasury in the middle of the night and luxuriate in your wealth.

Comes the telephone.

What is the value of a telephone if only one person has it?


Who are you going to call?

If only a few kings and a few rich people have phones, the value increases, but only marginally. Now you can call a few friends,but that’s about it.

However, if everyone has a phone, right down to the local plumber, suddenly a phone is so valuable that you can not afford not to have one.

Now that’s value, but an inverse value from that which had been true through almost all of human experience. It is no longer rarity that gives value, but rather commonality.

What does this have to do with the current crisis in newspapers?

A lot, I think.

Because the crisis we are facing in newspapers and journalism in general is also a moment in which conventional thinking about valuation is being turned on its head, although we are slow to see that , as usual.

Up until now, we have thought that the primary asset of a paper or a TV station was, in fact, the station or the newspaper itself.  It was The New York Times that had the value, or CBS News. The rest, the people who worked there, were in a sense fungible.

In other words, the institution lived on and on, and readers or viewers were attracted to the institution, while the people who created the content for the institution were fundamentally replaceable or interchangeable.

This we sometimes referred to as ‘branding’.

This remained true so long as the technology of the day meant that there were a limited number of pipelines or platforms for delivery of information or content (and the advertising that went along with them).  In the words of AJ Liebling “freedom of the press is limited to those who own one”.

Because it was ridiculously expensive to even entertain the idea of having your own press.  The very cost of a press and the attendant mechanisms of distribution were a barrier to entry for competitors.  Thus, the perceived value of an institution like The New York Times was vested in that barrier to entry.  The reporters might go from paper to paper, from The Times to The Herald to The Daily News, but the paper, the institution would survive.

The reporters were marginal.

The same was true for television.

When it surfaced in the 1950s, the signal was pushed through the air.  There was limited space on the electromagnetic spectrum, so the FCC licensed the limited space to three networks, ABC, NBC and CBS and they held a virtual monopoly over access to people’s homes.

Shows might come and go, but the platform, the pipeline was in the frequency (and in all the expensive investment in infrastructure to push pictures and sound into the air).  The value was in the network, not in the content, per se.  The content was simply the filler, which was changeable depending upon taste.

When cable arrived, it as the same model, simply fractionalized over more players.

The web, however, like the invention of the telephone, changed everything.

At first, newspapers and later television stations saw the web as yet another platform for distribution – a kind of super cable, that would carry The New York Times or CBS shows into everyone’s home.

But that was not the case.

What the web did was to rewrite the fundamentals of valuation.

And like medieval kings, it was and is hard for those who once had the most precious things in the world to grasp that the very definition of value has now changed forever.

What the web did was to take away the barriers to entry. To make the ‘gold’  of the NY Times or NBC’s FCC license as common as lead.

Now, anyone, any time, and for no cost, could get into 2 billion homes. For free.

So where does value suddenly reside?

In the content.

People online are seeking content.

Quality content.

And they do not care where it resides.

iTunes is a classic indicator of what is coming.

In webworld, music is often a harbinger of where the future lies.

When I go to iTunes to download a song, I don’t care if the recording artist is signed with Arista or RCA or Decca or whomever. It does not matter a bit to me.  It is the music I am after.  The ‘studio’ goes away. It is the content that is king.

Each day I go to to read the paper, but in truth, if Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman and a handfull of others were to suddenly break away from the paper and set up their own website (and like Drudge, they might aggregate headlines), I would go there instead.

Now, the NY Times might be in financial trouble, and perhaps their website does not generate enough revenue to support their building, the presses, their trucks, their vast management and HR teams and so on. But my guess is that online revenues from The New New York Times  (aka Rich, Dowd, Friedman and Co.) would more than satisfy the writers.

That’s all that counts.

The content.

So it strikes me as more than a bit odd that when budget cuts come, which is inevitable, the first places to be cut are those who actually create the content.

It does not make sense.

It is like eating the seed corn.

Sell the building.

Fire the management.

Close down HR.

Do anything, but save and nurture the talent.

Or maybe the talent will simply leave and set up their own online ‘paper’. I mean, why do they really need management anyway?

If You Bild It….. will they come?


Email this morning from Pat Younge, President of the Travel Channel.*

He sends me a link from The Guardian, that BILD, the German newspaper has partnered with a German supermarket to sell small cameras and field an army of citizen journalists to feed the paper’s website.

Sounds good to me, but I think they need a training course!

Germany’s bestselling newspaper is looking to expand without the expense of actually hiring new reporters.

Bild has joined up with discount supermarket chain Lidl to sell a basic digital camera to a legion of citizen journalists, who the tabloid hopes will contribute images to its coverage.

“We can’t cover everything,” said Michael Paustian, a Bild managing editor. “We think it is an advance for journalism.”

The pocket-sized camera has 2GB of memory, can shoot still pictures and video, and costs €69.99 (£60). It comes with software and a USB port that allows “reader-reporters” to upload content directly to editors who will be assigned to review it for publication.

Bild spokesman Tobias Fröhlich said the goal was to encourage camera owners to seek the widest exposure for their work. “It’s not about exclusivity,” he said.

The move fits in with a broader trend for traditional media to turn their increasingly interactive readers into news providers.

Vancouver-based gathers photographs, video clips and news tips from the public and distributes them to news organisations. The trend is likely to continue as traditional news providers scramble to match the migration of readers and advertisers to the internet.

Bild, known for breaking major political stories as well as front-page splashes on zoo animals and celebrities, will use the new cameras to streamline an existing scheme that brings in thousands of photos each day by email and text message, Fröhlich said. The paper has published 9,000 of those images since 2006.

He said Bild may pay for the best ones it uses or establish a contest for the best content submitted each week; details would be worked out after gauging demand for the cameras that go on sale today.

Some worry that Bild’s new media experiment will lower standards and interfere with professional reporting.

“It poses a threat to quality journalism, the more images from non-professionals that are pushed on to the market even though professional images are available,” said Eva Werner, a spokeswoman for the German Journalists’ Association

But Paustian thought the opposite was true. “We’re not YouTube,” he said. “Every contribution will be viewed, reviewed and journalistically evaluated.”

*and this just in from NZ correspondent Alan Morrison

Hello Bolly


She’s the little old lady from Utta Pradesh now…

James MacPherson is the publisher of an online website called Pasadena Now. is causing a lot of buzz in the journalism community. Not because it’s hyperlocal news. that’s old stuff.  But because MacPherson has announced he is going to outsource the reporting jobs to India.


MacPherson believes that since City Council meetings are streamed on the web already, there is no need for a reporter’s physical presence in the room, and the goings on can be covered just as easily from Bangalore.

Well, maybe

His move has caused such as stir that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has already picked up on the story.

MacPherson’s idea may or may not work, but it gave me a moment to think about the whole notion of outsourcing video production in general.

I am on the board of a wonderful organization called Video Volunteers.

It was founded a few years ago by a graduate of one of my seminars, Jessica Mayberry, and today it is a world leader in empowering people in India with video cameras, laptop edits and the skill sets to tell their own stories in video.

Some of our trainees have now been making video for several years, and are quite good at it. So good, in fact that I think perhaps it is time for them to break out onto the world stage.

It is fine to give out video cameras and teach people to ‘tell their own stories’, but after a while, perhaps it is time for them to start and tell other people’s stories as well. After all, that’s what happens when a crew from Atlanta or New York flies half way around the world to shoot stories in Thailand or Rwanda for ITN or CBS or the BBC.

Well, maybe it is time for our Indian camera crews to get into that business as well.

Of course, in India the median income is an astonishing $115 a month.  That’s one hundred fifteen dollars a month (just in case you thought that was a typo).  So my guess is that our Indian camera crews will be pretty competitive… and quite happy to work long and hard hours and produce a superior product.

At those rates it might just be worth it to fly the crews into the US for work here, in fact.

Bollywood indeed.

The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You

First, many thanks to Buck over at for finding this.  Nice research!

Austin likes to think of itself as ‘different’ from the rest of Texas.

And now, The Austin American-Statesman takes a giant step in moving from a paper to a digital information center.   They not only reprint articles from The New York Times and The Washington Post on a regular basis (hey, this is TEXAS!), but their websites, both the paper’s and their entertainment website, Austin360 are clean and heavy on blogging, video and citizen journalism.

As for their point about local TV news vs. newspapers…..

In my experience most local TV newsrooms start their day by scanning the paper for stories to cover.  I have never seen a newspaper scan local TV news for what to cover that day.