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4 Reasons Why Wired’s Defense of Cable Bundling is Wrong

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1. It doesn’t meet the public’s needs. A lot of the cable cutters are leaving because cable’s programming has become redundant and doesn’t meet their needs. PBS has done a whole ad campaign bouncing off it. Cable is now high end trash, (It’s not porn, it’s HBO) and low end trash (500 imitators of Pawn Stars.)

When individuals have to subsidize a channel, there’s some incentive to give them what they want. Instead cable is now more of a ghetto than free TV used to be aiming square at a mass audience.

2. It advantages connected companies and encourages constant rebranding because bundling fees is a business model. There’s nothing equitable about that. Eliminating bundling would eliminate a lot of spam and low quality channels. It would have prevented things like the Current TV sale which should never have even been a thing. Instead bundling fees plus connections create a market in an otherwise worthless product that no one watches.

3. If channels had to survive on their own, cable would have a brighter future. Cable’s biggest challenge now is its image. It doesn’t speak to younger audiences who would rather go with Netflix or Hulu. Bundling fees maintain inertia. They make it easier to go on pursuing the same bad business model while destroying the industry ecosystem.

4. Bundling has no future. Yes, Hulu and Netflix still have their package deals, but they can get away with it because of overall content quality. Basic cable doesn’t have overall content quality. It’s an old business model and an old broadcast model tethered to prices that people no longer want to pay. The difference is perception, but it’s a big difference.

Why Netflix is Beating Hulu

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Hulu debuted as a revolutionary plan to let people watch network programming online with the support of the networks. Since then it’s become a prisoner of its own technology and I’m not just talking about the 4 or 5 commercials every few minutes.

Hulu is burying the network programs because most networks also independently offer them. And in a war for content and selling premium memberships, Hulu decided that the way to go was to push “exclusive” British, Australian and Korean programming. There’s probably a place for those things, but it’s probably not at the top.

Click to Hulu expecting to find a network series that aired this week? Good luck. Instead Hulu will push “exclusive” (meaning that it has the US rights to) some Australian, British, Israeli, Korean, Indonesian, Martian series. In the movie section, Hulu will be pushing movie trailers that it probably gets paid to promote.

I’m not going to argue the virtues of some random British version of Sex in the City or Australian version of St. Elsewhere, but Hulu is acting like a low budget local channel in the 80s. It’s not beating Netflix at its own game because Netflix’s game isn’t passing off some British series it picked up on the cheap as premium programming.

Netflix is beating Hulu because its premium programming is real. Hulu could fight back with its own rich slate of network programs and extensive library of classic shows. Until recently, Hulu was offering all seasons of Star Trek TOS, TNG, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise even for non-prime users. But few Hulu users would have even realized that because its scroll was pushing some random British shows.

Netflix has plenty of foreign shows, but it doesn’t try to make them into the centerpiece in a desperate effort to convince its users that it can compete with HBO. Hulu keeps shoving The Only Way is Essex to compete with House of Cards.

And that’s a joke that doesn’t even have to be made.

Hulu has gotten worse over the years, but now it’s become its own worst enemy.

The Following Season 2 is a Sloppy Mess

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The Following started out by swapping 24’s terrorists for serial killers. It borrowed 24’s always on the go and over the edge lead, some of its style and its messy plots. And like 24 it worked. Unlike 24, it worked because of the characters.

Season 2 of The Following is just a mess. Joe Carroll’s Arkansas retreat was a ridiculous plot. There was nothing in his character that suggested he was religiously prone. All those episodes were out of character.

But that’s nothing compared to Ryan Hardy who is determined to catch Caroll and a new cult of serial killers on his own with only the help of his annoying niece whom everyone knows is either a walking corpse or a hidden cultist.

24 always had Jack Bauer go rogue in every season on the flimsiest of premises. The premise here is really flimsy even if you believe Ryan’s claim that he wants to personally kill Joe Caroll. Even though the show puts him ahead of the FBI, and this is a fictional FBI that can call up cameras everywhere in seconds, Ryan isn’t just incompetent, he doesn’t have a purpose.

In Reflections, the last episode, he tails a member of the cult, and then instead of following her back to the mansion, he abducts her at gunpoint and tries to get her to talk. By the end of the episode, he breaks into a woman’s home and instead of identifying himself as a Federal agent, something he was until recently, he blindfolds her and acts like an escaped bank robber.

None of that makes much sense.

In only a few episodes, Ryan has interrogated two cult members at gunpoint and let them both escape. Neither of them led him anywhere. He stumbles from one encounter to the next more from luck than skill.

And the whole rogue thing never made any sense. Even if he wanted to kill Joe, he would have more luck getting close to him by using the FBI than by building a wall of clippings.

The Following Season 1 worked because it was a duel between two relentless and competent men taking place in a metafictional content with new surprises always popping up. The Following Season 2 looks fantastic for being shot in New York locations that it makes excellent use of, but has reduced Ryan and Joe to unstable clowns rambling through a slow moving plot at whose center are two obnoxious twin serial killers and not much else.

Did Post-Colonial Guilt Ruin Star Trek?

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I’m quoting Samira Ahmed who writes

“Captain Kirk was always encountering worlds where computers had gone mad and gained control and needed to be re-set to liberate a superstitious population. (Top tip: This can be reliably done by getting Mr Spock to ask the Master computer to calculate to the last possible digit the value of Pi.)

But look what happened to Star Trek. Fed, I think, by a post-colonial guilt for the treatment of Native Americans, in the 90s it fell increasingly in thrall to superstition. A Native American first officer in Star Trek Voyager has visions which get taken seriously. And let’s not mention the Bajorans of Deep Space Nine – a tribe ruled by “prophets” who live in a wormhole. For Copson it’s a strange development: “30 years ago we had science fiction that was rational and progressive. But more recently it’s irrational, mystical aliens with ancient wisdom.”

I’m not sure that post-colonial guilt was that big of an influence on TNG writers but I could be wrong. Journey’s End was a clumsy episode about Native American post-colonial guilt and it was written by Ron Moore.

It also set up the whole DMZ and Maquis thing and created Chakotay’s backstory.

Journey’s End was written by Ron Moore and it wasn’t responsible for Deep Space Nine, but Ron Moore was responsible for a lot of what happened on DS9 and you can spot the underlying attitude in Ron Moore’s hostility to Starfleet and the Federation.

Ron Moore’s quote about Journey’s End is revealing

I felt that there was a built-in contradiction in a character that we’d said was like Mozart in his appreciation of higher mathematics and physics, yet was just on the same career path as any Starfleet cadet. I didn’t get it – if Wes is truly special and gifted, what the hell is he doing at the Helm? It seemed like he was only going to the Academy to live up to the memory of his father and the expectations of Picard, not because it was his best destiny. “Journey’s End” also seemed like an opportunity to see someone walk away from Starfleet with their head held high and just say “It’s cool, but not for me.” I was tired of everyone in the 24th century saying, “All I want to do is wear the uniform and serve on a starship.” Hey, it’s cool, but it’s not for everyone.

Deep Space Nine became that “Starfleet isn’t for everyone” series. Some people want to encounter aliens. Others want to worship them as Prophets.

Some people want rational and progressive Science Fiction that explores the universe. Others want a story about a Chosen One who is picked by aliens to fight evil.

Deep Space Nine didn’t happen in a vacuum. Babylon 5 came first and it won over a lot of Science Fiction fans. Star Wars with its mysticism did better than Star Trek.

Star Trek was an older product. Its ideas were clean and uncluttered. It looked forward to a future where we could all meet on common ground. Deep Space Nine rejected that future, but TNG was already rejecting it in places. DS9 allowed TNG writers to toss aside the Roddenberry structure and make their argument against everything that Star Trek stood for.

Even when Voyager and Enterprise tried to put the pieces back together again, the writers and producers didn’t understand how to speak that language. There are online fan series that do a good job of connecting to those TOS assumptions and Manny Cotto had his moments on Enterprise, but most producers and writers didn’t get it anymore. And younger audiences also wanted something else.

The most popular space SF television show of recent years was Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica which was like DS9 without any of the restraint or last shreds of plot logic. It was all foretold and predestined and inconsistent and dark and never had to make any sense because making sense was one of those old rational and progressive things that Star Trek used to do.

Chosen ones, dark sides and mysteries that can never be solved told across story arcs dominate genre series on television today. If Star Trek comes back to television right now, I don’t think that will change.

Futurama’s End

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Meanwhile, Futurama’s series finale (second series finale) is a charming goodbye to what used to make the series great not just because it once again draws on a big idea gimmick or links it to an emotional experience for Fry and Leela, though that combination has made for great episodes before, it’s also because Meanwhile gets the small stuff right.

Stuff like going back to the moon and meeting a mascot who lives out Georges Melies’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon, the St. Koch Cathedral, Bender barfing up nuts and bolts on a theme park ride or the use of a gimmick, a time button, in a dozen small clever ways from a moment that lasts forever to footprints on the ocean.

These were the kinds of things that Futurama used to do well and then it stopped doing them. It buried itself in repetitive lines, Hermes, Bender, Zoydberg and the Professor delivering their catchphrases in episodes with B stories almost as lame as their A stories. It brought in gimmicks, but wrapped them around weak stories. Like the Simpsons, it stopped caring about its characters and its stories and was satisfied bringing out Nixon’s head to deliver a Spiro Agnew joke that its aging writers still thought was as funny as it had been in the seventies.

Futurama used to do the New York stuff well. It used to fill episodes with tiny little details and milk laughs from its creative technobabble. It used to have great character moments instead of zombie catchphrases.

Meanwhile isn’t the first good episode this season, but it’s the best of them. It’s also Futurama going out on a high note that it doesn’t really deserve. Not coming after “Stench and Stenchibility”, “Leela and the Genestalk”, “T: The Terrestrial” or “2-D Blacktop”.

This season also had Assie Come Home and Game of Tones, but those would have been okay episodes in the old Futurama. Season 7 Part 2 wasn’t as awful as Season 7 Part 1 which was mostly unwatchable. There was nothing as bad as The Six Million Dollar Mon, Fun on a Bun or Naturama here. But there wasn’t all that much good either.

Like The Simpsons, Futurama began running on fumes years ago. Unlike the Simpsons, it wasn’t popular or profitable enough to keep doing it. It also couldn’t break out of its rhythm, introduce new characters or revitalize the formula.

Meanwhile is a nice goodbye to what the series used to be, but it’s better off canceled, just like it was the first time around.

The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings, its original series finale, was a funny and clever sendoff. It also came after a season whose first half included A Taste of Freedom, Bender Should Not Be Allowed on TV and Crimes of the Hot. Were Jurassic Bark, The Sting and The Why of Fry a fair trade?

I thought so back then.  But the trade off between Futurama’s bad episodes and its great episodes stopped working years ago. And it became harder to put up with episodes that weren’t just bad, but lazy, cynical and refried.

If Meanwhile were the standard, or at least if Assie Come Here had been, Futurama wouldn’t be network shopping now. Instead Meanwhile is a nice exit.

Let’s leave it at that.

Fringe vs The X-Files

Good bye Fringe.

It’s amazing that Fringe lasted as long as it did. And now that it’s over, it’s as hard to know what to make of it now as it was when Fringe-Torvit first aired.

Oddball is the first word that comes to mind. Fringe never really worked as anything. It had interesting elements that never came together.

What the X-Files did effortlessly, Fringe struggled and sweated to do and couldn’t. Fringe brought interesting ideas and characters to the table, but somehow when everything was done, none of it felt like anything.

In its final season the series took a risk by taking us to the future and a war against inhuman human invaders from the distant future. It’s a great concept undermined by the execution. The dystopian world of the future is a place where you can wander around, plot conspiracies on cell phones, escape on trains and do most other things, even when facing an enemy that can move through walls and uses technology from hundreds of years in the future.

The resistance fighters that we meet are surprisingly blase about it. Even the old Walter who fought back with a bomb gives way to the new Walter who putters around the lab and has a plan on a bunch of cassettes to save the world with an uninteresting scavenger hunt.

The last season, like the rest of Fringe, had its moments, but not nearly enough of them. The characters are soggy. Peter’s revenge quest was the closest the last season came to coming alive. Olivia never holds the screen. She’s a weak main character. Walter is comic relief, and except for Black Blotter, is even soggier.

Fringe never got its characters right. And its stories are toned down versions of the X-Files. Where the X-Files would go for the throat, where it made the world seem like a dark and darkly funny place, Fringe always felt like a procedural, like a knockoff that didn’t know what it really wanted to be.

The X-Files was paranoid. Fringe wasn’t. The X-Files was like one of those conspiracy 1998 conspiracy websites in garish colors on a black background ranting, ranting and ranting about the end of the world. Fringe is like one of those cable conspiracy specials that wants the same audience but doesn’t have the guts to commit and instead spends its time studying goofy characters and interviewing professors.

Fringe was a show that never came together but lasted a surprisingly long time.

The Trainwreck Live Action Star Wars TV Series

About the only good thing that you can say about the live action Star TV series is that with the House of George selling out the House of Mouse, this thing will probably never see the light of day.

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What do most people think of when they think of Star Wars? Spaceships and guys with laser swords slashing at each other. Even George Lucas figured out that you couldn’t really get rid of those things and still expect anyone to show up in theaters. He made them hard to come by and drowned them in a load of other crap, but he didn’t get rid of them.

Sources say the live-action series centers on the story of rival families struggling over the control of the seedy underside of the Star Wars universe and the people who live within the subterranean level and air shafts of the metropolis planet Coruscant (the Empire’s urban-sprawl-covered home planet). A bounty hunter may be the main character.

That has some potential if you’re making a syndicated low budget series that’s trying to be the DS9 of Star Wars. Maybe.

But this was a $5 million per episode series that Lucasfilm wanted to retain ownership to and that they ordered 50 scripts for without an actual deal.

The best part is that they ordered some of those scripts from Ron Moore. So we not only have a SciFi Noir crime drama without Jedis or spaceships, but we also have the most overhyped TV SF writer, after Joss Whedon, who trashed Battlestar Galactica, on board to do it.

What’s Wrong with Futurama?

Here’s a more direct approach to the problem than mine.

It’s been happening ever since the first movie with the whole flimsy Nigerian scammer plotline, but since the show rose from the grave on Comedy Central, it’s permeated it to the core. The problem is that the show has taken a bizarre need to shoehorn literal “8 months ago” references and plot points for just about every single episode. Last week, it was the Mayan apocalypse (and, to a lesser extent, TRON Legacy).

Now that I think about it, yes, the topical references are much more out of control. That may be a function of moving to Comedy Central. It might even be a note from CC that Futurama should be more like The Daily Show.

Or maybe it’s just insecurity. The Futurama producers are old. They’re insecure about being able to hold on to younger viewers. And they also futurama sucksseem to feel the need to “say something”. Decision 3012, like the farting robots and flag burning episodes, came out of that.

But “Ripped from the Headlines” isn’t what’s really wrong with Futurama. It’s a symptom that the show has no ideas. It has “big ideas” for pulling off Science Fiction concepts that play with time and space. And those make the show seem like it’s worth watching. As with The Thief of Baghead, the show occasionally even uses them to add an interesting plot element to a show. Those are the few good episodes.

Futurama has no ideas. It has no ideas what to do with its characters. They’re here. They do the same monotonously wacky things in every episode. They’re frozen leftovers from the show as it used to be going through their routines.

Futurama has no idea how to tell a story. It takes a sitcom plot, a cheesy adventure show plot or resorts to the Simpsons’ usual “Homer gets a wacky new job” plot. The last episode about Leela’s mother was a sitcom plot. It was bad because it was sitcom plot dressed up with aliens. When the plot sucks, the show sucks.

This is why Futurama is dead. The occasional big concept makes it briefly look smart and clever, but the show is still dead. Its characters are a bunch of tics. Its plots are taken from old sitcom episodes. Its characters behave like they’re on an 80’s sitcom.

Watching Futurama, like the Simpsons, is a reminder of a show that ran on creative energy before it ran out.

Revolution is Not Revolting

Revolution has its problems, most of them involving its whiny protagonist, but it’s still about the only drama worth watching on television. The concept is big and it’s easy to question the details, the lack of modern firearms in the vicinity of Chicago, but it’s also the only show that is taking some actual risks.

On Monday at 10, what used to be a prime hour for dramas, Revolution is up against the bland Hawaii 5-0 and the nearly as bland as Castle. Revolution has its flaws, but it’s not another of the watered down crime dramas or worse hospital dramas cluttering up the networks. It steps outside the box the way that a few shows like Lost and 24 have done.

Revolution is ambitious. It doesn’t come close to living up to those ambitions, but it’s the only series making an effort to open up another world and push beyond the formula of what a network series is supposed to be. It’s the kind of show that SyFy would never budget for and that network television has been wary of.

Can a post-apocalyptic drama with horses and saber fights make it on network television? I don’t know. But considering the complete lack of Science Fiction, even on the SyFy Channel, I’m willing to give Revolution a chance.

The first two Eric Kripke written episodes have been good, for all their logical flaws. The episodes written by Monica Owusu-Breen (No Quarter) and Anne Cofell Saunders (Plague Dogs) have hovered near the terrible range. I haven’t seen Soul Train yet and I’ll see if it breaks the cycle.

Revolution is probably doomed, even on NBC, but it’s also the only thing on NBC’s programming wasteland worth watching.

Why I Like The Neighbors

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The writing is bad and the concept is uninspiring. The Neighbors is not watchable because it’s well written. It’s watchable because a cast of seasoned professionals wades through bad writing and has fun doing it.

The Neighbors is watchable for the same reason that another “Aliens come to Earth” TV show, Third Rock from the Sun, was watchable. Third Rock from the Sun was watchable and sometimes unwatchable, because John Lithgow dived into the material, got it into his teeth and chewed on it.

The Neighbors doesn’t have that kind of overacting, instead it has Doug Jones wading affably through the worst lines and Lenny Venito, Jami Gertz and Toks Olagundoye joining him. And all of them take the ridiculous material completely seriously. And somehow ridiculously, it works.

It works because the actors dive into it until the joke isn’t the punchline, but the way that everyone is running around and having fun with the ridiculous material.

The writing on The Neighbors is terrible, but writing only matters so much in comedy. Arrested Development had great writing, but was hardly ever funny because it spent too much time thinking about the joke. The Neighbors is the joke. It’s a show about ridiculous people acting ridiculously and it works.

It works for the same reason that Jerry Stiller on Seinfeld worked. Stiller’s character was supposed to be a bald repressed man living in fear of his wife. He was supposed to be an older version of George. On paper that’s a great joke. It’s the kind of joke that Arrested Development would have lived off for years. But nobody was laughing. Instead Jerry Stiller began screaming and hitting George. And that was funny. It wasn’t funny because Frank Constanza was well written, he often wasn’t, but because the whole thing was ridiculous.

The Neighbors is ridiculous.

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