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August 15 2012

20:28

The newsonomics of breakthrough digital TV, from Aereo to Dyle and MundoFox to Google Fiber

In 1998, when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought the Los Angeles Dodgers, the storied franchise was worth $380 million. News Corp. sold the team in 2003 for $430 million. After winning the ability to negotiate a new multi-billion sports TV contract this fall, they sold earlier this year for $2 billion, blowing the lid off sports property values.

In 1994, the San Diego Padres were worth $80 million. After recently signing a 20-year deal with Fox Sports for $1.2 billion, they sold (pending league approval) for $800 million.

Meanwhile, in 2000, the Los Angeles Times was worth at least $1.5 billion when it was sold as part of Times Mirror to Tribune Company. Today, as it is newly readied for market out of the Tribune bankruptcy, it would go for something less than $250 million. The San Diego Union-Tribune, once valued near a billion dollars, sold for about $35 million in 2009 and about $110 million in 2011.

It’s a reversal of fortune: Newspaper franchises that once outvalued baseball teams by 3-1 or 5-1 or 10-1 now see the inverse of that ratio. Why?

Two letters: TV.

Those numbers tell us a lot about the continuing power of television, in worth, in value creation, and in the news business itself. If we look just at recent events in the ongoing transformation of broadcast and cable to digital, we now see multiple breakthroughs on their path to digital. They give us indications of what the news business, video and text, will look like in the coming years. While we can argue endlessly about the relative virtues and vices of print and TV news, we must acknowledge the relative ascendance of TV and think about what that means for the news business overall.

TV’s revenues are holding up far better than newspaper companies’, and TV is better positioned to survive the great digital disruption.

TV has continued to have great audience. Nearly three in four Americans tune in to local TV news at least weekly, surpassing newspaper penetration, even as Pew Research points out they mainly do it for three topics: breaking news, weather, and traffic. Further, it retains great ad strength — 42 percent of national ad spending, matching the actual number of minutes Americans spend with the medium and making it the only medium still ahead of digital spending as digital has surpassed print (newspapers + magazines this year, both in the U.S. and globally). Yes, TV remains a gorilla. While Netflix won headlines when it announced it had streamed one billion hours of TV and movies in a single month, that huge number compared to about 43 billion hours of U.S. TV consumption, according to Nielsen’s 4Q 2011 Cross-Platform report.

In a nutshell, that’s the difference between TV and video, circa 2012. Video is the next wave — incorporating TV perhaps, but still the very young kid on the block.

Today, TV is no longer a box. Sure, even with all the Rokus, Boxees, and Apple TVs, it seems like TV isn’t yet an out-of-the-box experience. But with Hulu, Netflix, and Comcast’s Xfinity, it’s emerging quickly, escaping our fixed idea of what it once was — the boob tube in the living room. If it’s not just a box anymore, it’s a platform. From that platform, we see both the disruptors and the incumbents doubling down their bets. As in most things digital, few of these launches will be huge winners — but some will drive big breakthroughs. Some of the iconic legacy companies we’ve long known will be absorbed in the woodwork as new brands supplant them. Consider the spate of recent innovation, as we quickly assess the newsonomics going forward:

  • NBC, bashed up and down Twitter, nonetheless proved out a new business model with its multi-platform approach to Olympics coverage. Whatever you think of the tape delays or the suspended reality of Bob Costas’ gaze, NBC made the economics work, surprising itself and others. Its live streaming has ratified the development of cable- and satellite-authenticated, all-access digital delivery. That reinforces cable/satellite value. Further, it whetted prime-time viewing appetites, boosting ratings and earning NBC more ad revenue than it had projected. That’s icing on the cake for NBC, which, under Comcast ownership, has rocketed forward in digital strategy. The network has made a number of moves to transform itself into a global, video-forward, digital news company, joining the Digital Dozen global news pack. Recently, it bought out Microsoft’s share of msnbc.com, a leading Internet news portal. It immediately rechristened it NBCNews.com. In short order, it appointed Patricia Fili-Krushel as the new head of NBCUniversal News Group, an entity made up of NBC News, CNBC, MSNBC, and the Weather Channel. A former president of ABC, with 10 years of experience at Time Warner, she heads a growing news operation. Earlier this year, NBC combined its sports properties into a unified NBC Sports Group, merging NBC’s broadcast sports unit and Comcast’s regional sports networks. NBC is growing out of its digital adolescence. (See “One year after she was hired, Vivian Schiller’s ‘wild ride’ at NBC is just beginning.”)
  • Aereo, the TV startup funded by media magnate Barry Diller, is expanding its footprint from its current New York City base, and starting to offer multiple promotional deals. Diller’s in-your-face challenge to over-the-air broadcasters (CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, CW, PBS) takes their signals and delivers that programming via the Internet. It charges consumers $12 a month, or as little as a dollar a day. They can then watch those TV stations on up to five devices; in addition, they can deliver these signals to a TV via Apple TV or Roku. Aereo also offers DVR capability, with 40 hours of storage. It’s classic disruption, with Aereo upping the pressure on the cable bundle and messing with the “retrans” fees that broadcasters get from cable companies to run their programming. Is it really legal, as a court recently found? It may be as legal as Google presenting snippets from every publisher and directory provider.
  • Local broadcasters — representing a broad swath of ownership groups organized in a newer company called Pearl — are bringing local TV to our mobile devices themselves. Just a week ago, Metro PCS started selling a Samsung Galaxy S phone with a TV receiver chip in 12 markets. That’s just the first push of Mobile Content Ventures, a collection of Pearl, NBC, Fox, and others. Expect mobile TV, marketed as Dyle, to be available for other phones and tablets, either with built-in chips or after-market accessories — although price points are an issue, with $100-plus premiums likely over the next year. So what does this innovation mean? Simply, that broadcasters are going direct to mobile consumers — no Internet needed, no data charges applying, and maybe providing more consistent video connectivity — with live programming; whatever is on TV at that moment is also on your phone or tablet. Broadcasters just use part of their digital signal to, uh, broadcast to us on our phones. It’s that antenna, and its cost, that’s the issue. Business questions abound. Given the timing of the launch, Dyle seems like an aspiring Aereo killer, and certainly broadcasters would like to see it do that, if further court action doesn’t. More deeply, though, broadcasters want to maintain their direct-to-consumer brand identity as they do a balancing act and try to keep those retrans fees from cable and satellite companies. They don’t want to be left out of the digital party.
  • Social TV pulls up a chair. First it was startup Second Screen, matching tablet ads to real-time TV viewing. Now ConnecTV, partnered with Pearl, is trying to corner the activity as it takes off. Its promise: “synchronization of local news, weather, sports, and entertainment programming along with social polls.” Ah, synchronicity, a Holy Grail of our digital aspirations. Last week, Cory Bergman (a man of at least three full-time digital lives, with MSNBC, Next Door Media, and Lost Remote) sold his Last Remote social-TV site to Mediabistro.
  • Then there’s the disruptor of everything on planet Earth, Google. The company recently announced it is putting another $200 million into YouTube Channels, building on its initial $150 million investment. The move emphasizes how quickly YouTube is growing beyond its homegrown, user-generated roots. Now partnering with dozens of prime video producers, creating more than 100 new channels, it is trying to establish itself in viewers’ lives as a go-to video aggregation source. Major video producers are still wary of Google getting between them and their customers, both ad and viewer, but many others are signed on. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Google Fiber TV (TV that’s healthier for you?) launches. It’s a rocket shot at the cable, telco, and satellite incumbents. It’s also a demonstration project: providing more, cheaper. The more: interactive search for TV that combs your DVR and third-party services such as Netflix. (Yes, The Singularity ["The newsonomics of Google ad singularity"] marches on.) Google Fiber TV combines DVR and third-party (Netflix-plus) search. Its DVR holds 500 hours of storage of shows in 1080p and the ability to record eight TV shows simultaneously. Bandwidthpalooza. Google’s goal: Toss a hand grenade among the TV-as-usual business models, and pick up some of the pieces, adding new significant revenue lines.
  • CNN moves to break out of its identity funk, figuring out what that powerful global brand means in this fast-changing digital news world. CNN President Jim Walton recently stepped down, clearly acknowledging that his 10-year run had reached an end. “CNN needs new thinking,” he said in a farewell note. On TV, CNN has been beaten up badly both both Fox News and MSNBC. In 2Q, CNN showed its worst numbers in 20 years, down 35 percent year-over-year. On the web, it’a a top-three news player. But overall, it’s become the Rodney Dangerfield of news entities, getting little respect. Its cable fees — the strength of its revenues — could be challenged by low ratings. Going forward and competing against other global news brands — many of which are transitioning their own businesses to gain far greater digital reader revenue — it is, at this moment, caught betwixt and between. How it brings together a single — and global — digital/TV identity is at the core of its continuing journalistic importance and financial performance.

That’s a short list. We could easily add HuffPo’s streaming initiative and The Wall Street Journal’s wider video embrace. Or Les Moonves’ digital moves at CBS. And Fox’s new MundoFox, Spanish-language TV network, taking on Telemundo and Impremedia. The new network, at birth, offers a strong digital component, working at launch with advertisers along those lines. Let’s note some quick takeaways here, all of which we’ll be talking about in 2013:

  • Note how much you see the names News Corp. and Fox here. While segregating its text assets (and liabilities), News Corp. is investing greatly in the video future.
  • Cable bundling’s longevity is uncertain. There’s a lot of residual power here, but we know how quickly that can fade in legacy media. Yes, the unbundling of cable and satellite has been overestimated by some, as Peter Kafka pointed out recently. Yet, these multiple digital strategies may still push a tipping point. Clearly, legacy TV media, despite their public protestations, sees that potential and is acting in multiple ways to prepare for it.
  • Though broadcasters are making major digital pushes, they start from a lowly digital position. Many broadcasters can count no more than 5 percent of their total revenues coming from digital. That compares to 15-20 percent or more for newspaper companies. While there are other sources of revenue have been more stable than those of newspapers, they need to grow digital revenues quickly to make up for inevitable erosion of older money streams.
  • TV ≠ newspapers. Much of broadcasters’ revenues are made on non-news programming, as much as one-half to two-thirds for most local broadcasters. While learning from TV experience here is useful, given lots of differences, the learnings must be smartly applied. As news consumers and advertisers move increasingly digital, though, that thick line that separate local TV from local newspapers thins by the day.

The all-access, news-anywhere, entertainment-everywhere era has created a new massive business competition. Which brands will be top of mind? Who will consumers pay? How valuable is news itself in this contest?

Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T — pipes companies — are in one corner. CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, HBO, Showtime, and other known-to-consumer brands in another. Aggregators like Netflix and Hulu over there. Media marketers like Amazon and Apple holding court. Google. The local broadcasters fighting for their place in this digital ring. This new battle of brands, in and around “TV,” is now joined.

September 15 2011

15:00

The newsonomics of 1, 2, 3, 4

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

Ah, the joys of print — and real world — serendipity.

Arriving in Berlin to speak at the annual Medienwoche, part of the IFA 2011 content-meets-tech conference, I took a post-flight stroll around my hotel. I picked up a Wired U.K. at a local newsstand (newsstands chock-full of magazines and newspapers seem ubiquitous in Germany, their big-city absence in America made more noticeable). It’s a good issue, exploring the top digital entrepreneurial hotspots across Europe, from a U.K. perspective.

Across from p. 82, my eye caught a house ad. It was selling all things Wired U.K., but selling them in a customer-centric way I hadn’t before seen. Reproduced below, you see how it focused on how customers may variously access Wired. It speaks “multi-platform,” “multimedia” and “news anywhere” much better than those compounded nouns (which, when you think of it, are starting to sound like multisyllabic German constructions).

It’s masterful in telling the reader simply, and with a bit of fun, what the Wired U.K. brand stands for, how you can pick your timeliness (now to annual), mode of ingestion (reading, listening, or attending conferences) and more.

In a second bit of terrestrial serendipity, it turned out that Wired U.K. Editor David Rowan was speaking at IFA two hours after my talk. He and his art director, Andrew Diprose, had already supplied a digital copy of the house ad. I told him how well I thought the ad captured a business model in the making, with a clear customer-centric approach. He thanked me for the comment, and added, “It’s just something we tossed together when we had an extra page.” Well, it may have been, but it shows how this Wired crew is thinking of their business, eating some of the digital dog food it dishes out in each issue.

The ad had particular resonance this week as I’ve been thinking about the question on everyone’s minds in the newspaper and magazine businesses: What’s the new business model — that hybrid print/digital or digital/print — going to look like? It’s clear to everyone at this point that while print has a significant role for as far forward as we can see, it’s receding in importance, and revenue, and that digital is the growth engine on which to focus.

It’s one thing to say that and quite another to say what the new business model will look like. How much revenue will come from what, when, and who?

Now approaching 2012, we see that 2011 has provided a few clues to that new business model. No one, though, even the world’s digital revenue news leader, Oslo-based Schibsted (with 30 percent of overall revenues driven by digital) will tell you that even the industry’s leader has not yet found a big, sustainable model able to support a large newsroom.

Let me propose a model I’m testing out, as we watch the rollicking developments in the industry. As paid digital-access plans roll out weekly, as Digital First becomes not just a catchphrase but a company, as tablet development moves to the front burner and as the TV business continues to outpace both newspapers and magazines, what are the common threads we can see?

It’s purposely a simplified, bare-bones structure. I call it the newsonomics of 1, 2, 3, 4 and welcome flesh to be added to the skeleton — and/or chiropractic adjustment as well.

It’s 1, 2, 3, 4, as in:

  • 1 brand
  • 2 major sources of revenue, advertiser and reader
  • 3 products: print, computer, and mobile
  • 4G, as in the coming of faster connectivity

Let’s look at each one, briefly:

1 brand

The first decade-plus of the web was all about collecting, bringing things together. That meant major wins (63 percent of U.S. digital ad revenue in 2011 is going to Google, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft — and Facebook) for those who aggregated. The act of collecting (curating if you prefer) was rewarded at the expense of those being aggregated. Now, as we approach 2012, we’re seeing a major re-assertion of brand, and its primacy.

Steve Jobs’ tablet-launching assertion that search is so yesterday was part sales pitch, part prophecy. The app is nothing if not the re-ascendance of brand, encapsulated in a few pixels. These tiny apps — from ESPN, The Atlantic, Time, the Guardian, and Berliner Morgenpost to The Boston Globe, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — all convey new promise. That promise has found a business model — all-access — to accompany. After years of wandering in the wilderness of customer confusion and self-doubt, news companies are saying: “You know us, you know our brand; you value us. Pay us once and we’ll get you our stuff wherever, whenever, however you want it”. Call it “entertainment everywhere” or “news anywhere,” or “TV Everywhere,” major media are now re-training their core audiences to expect — and pay for — ubiquity.

News companies are following the lead of Netflix, HBO, and Comcast (Xfinity), all now basing their hybrid old world (TV/cable/post office) and new world (smartphone, tablet, computer, and connected TV) on the same simple idea. In the first digital decade, news and entertainment was atomized by aggregators, dis-branded, as readers and viewers often flipped through Google, YouTube, or Yahoo without knowing who actually produced news or entertainment.

Now, we see brand re-emerging to signal top-of-mind awareness — and to earn those one-click credit card payments. These are friendlier brands, attempting to leverage and master the new social curation of news and entertainment.

2 major sources of revenue, advertiser and reader

For that first decade plus of the web, news publishers relied on one revenue source — digital advertising. That’s been like wheeling into the future on a unicycle, lots of careening and too little forward progress. As publishers have taken a long-term view of the business, the conclusion from Arthur Sulzberger and Rupert Murdoch to Dallas’ Jim Moroney and Morris’ Michael Romaner has been the same: We have little hope of creating a successful digital business without robust digital reader revenue. Reader revenue doesn’t have to be mean only digital subscriptions. Schibsted and Australia’s Fairfax are pioneering “services,” with Schibsted’s story-aided weight-loss programs prototypical. Newbies Texas Tribune and MinnPost are showing how reader-attended events are moneymakers. The tablet will spawn lots of new one-off paid reader products.

And advertising doesn’t mean just selling space. Most major news chains, from Advance to Gannett to Hearst, are becoming regional ad agencies, selling and re-selling everything from deals to Yahoo (or in Advance’s case, Microsoft) to search engine marketing to Facebook and Google to local merchants large and small. The New York Times pulled Lincoln “ad” money into digital circulation push. Sponsorships are coming back in a big way for mobile.

So, two revenues, tried, true, but twisting new. Will they be 50/50 supports of new models? Too early to say, but they provide us the rivers and tributaries to build new revenue stream models.

3 products: print, computer, and mobile

“Online,” of course, was first re-purposed print. Too much of mobile is, again, re-purposed online. Yet, the smarter all-access players, mostly national, are looking at their audience data and seeing how different usage is by device or platform. There are new products — MediaNews’ TapIn is emblematic — that are made for the tablet, with even smartphone utility in question and desktop a distant third. We’ll see three distinct ways of thinking about product: print, lean-forward desktop/laptop and lean-back tablet/on-the-move smartphone. Newspaper print becomes just another platform. This triad becomes more than a smart way to think about product development — it becomes a way of measuring costs, revenues, and metrics like ARPU.

4G, as in the coming of faster connectivity

Only in the last couple of years have we passed 50 percent broadband access in the U.S., which currently ranks ninth worldwide at 63 percent of households. We’ve forgotten the days when pressing on the play button on a website’s video player was a crapshoot. Between buffering and bumbling of all sorts, video only sometimes worked. Now, take a look at the just-launched WSJ Live on the iPad, and you see how far we’ve come. 4G is now on the mainstream horizon, and with it comes the higher valuing of news video. That’s a challenge for text-based newspaper companies, most of whom have taken only first steps to becoming truly multimedia companies. You can see the 4G glow in the eyes of John Paton’s new Digital First Media company. I’m told his New Haven Register now outproduces the local TV stations in digital video news creation; few newspaper peers can yet say the same. With ad rates for news video are still markedly higher than for text stories, any successful model must put video at the center of new products.

So, it’s 1, 2, 3 and 4, good tests of evaluating new company strategies — from the inside or out.

May 19 2011

16:00

The newsonomics of the missing link

Picture Pre-Tablet Man (or Woman). Let’s go back to the time before Palm Pilots, at the dawn of consumer digital civilization itself, a time of AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserve. Hunched heavily by the analog world on his shoulders, Pre-Tablet Man has slowly begun to raise his head, through successive innovations of laptops (!), pocket-sized cellphones, smartphones, smarter phones and early e-readers. Now, as we enter Year 2 of the iPad era, it seems like our digital man is almost standing up straight. The digital world has moved from geek chic to consumer commonplace. Our digital devices have become on/off appliances, no manual necessary.

In this evolution, the iPad is so far our human pinnacle, though it will be followed by wonders to come. It also marks a signal change in digital usage, and especially in digital news consumption. I think of it as the likely missing link in the digital news evolution. It’s a link that, out of the blue — or maybe out of the darkness — has offered news companies, old and new, the unlikely (last?) chance to get a new sustainable business model.

We’re now approaching the second half of this highly transitional year, with its multiplying paid circulation tests, continuing print revenue declines, and greater re-focusing on digital ad sales. As we do, let’s look at the newsonomics of the tablet as the missing link. Let’s do that in light of what I think are the six major realities confronting news companies at mid-year.

1. Reality: Print is in permanent decline.

That’s what 21 consecutive quarters of decline (year over year) in U.S. newspaper print ad revenue tells us (“The newsonomics of oblivion“). Consumer magazine revenue has moved barely positive, but is still substantially below pre-recession levels. Print is there to be milked, as long as it can, in the digital transition. Fewer newspapers are being sold, and they are thinner and thinner.

The tablet link: The tablet is a print-like replacement for newspapers and magazines. Publishers privately report (and an increasing spate of reports from Instapaper to RJI to Yudu) that tablet readers read the tablet much more like the newspaper than the way they read news websites. Longer session times. Longer stories. Early morning and evening reading. Pre-tablet, publishers had no potential replacement. Yes, smartphones have been a great check-in short-form reader, but that’s more of a traditional online-like behavior. Now they’ve been given a gift by the technology gods.

Caveat: The tablet is print-like, but it’s not print. It’s a new medium, first inviting — and soon demanding — that publishers make use of its interactive, video-forward, and smooth-as-silk social sharing capabilities. If publishers persist in “going slow,” sticking with cheaper-to-produce replica tablet products, they’ll squander the tablet replacement-for-print opportunity, as new market entrants from the AOLs (including flag-in-the-local-sand Patch) to the Bay Citizens surpass them.

2. Reality: Online engagement is inadequate.

The tablet link: The tablet offers a way to re-engage readers, a corollary to the tablet’s replacement potential. The biggest problem for news publishers isn’t (a) that the digital ad world only produces pennies on the old ad dollar, (b) the low share of digital ad revenue they get, or (c) a changing cabal of digital startups from Yahoo to Google to Apple that are stealing their business. Their biggest problem is online engagement.

News producers work in a world of massive cost, funding well-paid newsrooms and all the legacy supports from advertising to finance to circulation. That investment made a lot of sense when readers really engaged with their products. Consider that in the heyday, your average newspaper would command 270 minutes (4.5 hours) of attention per household per month. Consider that online, the average engagement time is five to 15 minutes per month.

So, if early tablet reading patterns persist, publishers could find themselves on the road to re-engagement. The possibility: short-form, headline-and-blurb desktop/laptop reading may have been the news industry’s nuclear winter, with a greener spring on the horizon.

Caveat: It’s still way early to know whether more engaged reading patterns will last. I believe they largely will, but that publishers will soon find themselves fighting for engaged minutes with whatever successful aggregators emerge from new crowds of Flipboard, Pulse, Zite, Trove, Ongo, and News.me, just to name a few. Ventures like Next Issue Media address may address destination buying, but not product aggregation in ways that consumers have shown they love. Aggregation won Round One of the web, as individual publishers lost. We may be seeing history repeating.

3. Reality: Google juice is wearing thin.

The tablet link: The tablet is driven more by direct traffic, by apps, and by direct browsing than by search; early publishers results show a healthy majority of tablet news visitors coming direct, unlike the online experience. Search isn’t over, but it’s being pushed aside as the beginning and the center of our online news activity. Publishers never found Google juice all that nourishing; it provided lots of calories, but too little muscle tone in new direct revenue created.

Caveat: Again, this is early behavior. While Google juice may stay thin, Facebook and Twitter juice are getting tastier, and will, in part, replace Google as important referrer of potential new customer traffic.

4. Reality: The only big growth is digital.

The tablet link: The tablet may be the path to getting print-like ad revenues.

News publishers have one story to tell, and that’s what we hear in quarterly reports and increasingly infrequent interviews: the growth in digital ad sales. The New York Times touts that 24 percent of its ad revenue is now digital, with McClatchy and Gannett just below 20 percent. Journal Register CEO John Paton talks about the digtital EBITDA his company will be able to throw off by 2014. At the same time, digital ad growth isn’t coming close to making up for print ad decline at most companies.

With current high ad rates, approaching print ones, high national advertiser and ad agency focus, tablets may be a great ad platform, unlike online or smartphone.

Caveat: Newspapers current earn more than $500 a year in Sunday revenue from print subscribers. Can tablets, if they replace print, ever come near that number?

5. Reality: Digital circulation revenue essential is essential to a new sustainable business model.

The tablet link: Consumers appear willing to pay for some kinds of tablet content. Imagine the paid proposition today without the tablet. Selling online/print? That’s a tough proposition. Print/smartphone? Well, maybe. The tablet gives publishers a much better value proposition to offer readers. All Access — including tablets — may prove to be a winning proposition.

Caveat: Early paid experiments aren’t producing much digital circulation. Why? In part, the tablet-wow products are in their infancy, and engagement remains too low. If too few readers bump into the pay wall, even fewer will pay up.

6. Reality: The News Anywhere Era is becoming real.

The tablet link: The tablet is a part of this new News Anywhere expectation. Getting news wherever we are has moved from something cool to something expected overnight. News Anywhere has offered a new playing field and a new value propostion that publishers can offer readers. In the era in which Netflix, HBO, and Comcast offer Entertainment Anywhere, news publishers have been presented a model — an All Access model — that readers can easily grasp.

Caveat: Readers grasp the model — and have high expectations. That means news publishers must more quickly satisfy those News Anywhere habits, properly formatting for each device and understanding how consumers are using news differently on their iPhones, their iPads and on their desktops. Most are simply not yet prepared to take advantage of this revolution.

Image by Bryan Wright used under a Creative Commons license.

September 27 2010

23:45

Adrian Grenier Turns Camera on Paparazzi in HBO Documentary

teenpap image.jpg

"I'm going to meet Adrian Grenier from 'Entourage' and see his new documentary," I told a friend recently. That friend is a female who's married but also a fan of "Entourage."

"Can you tell him I think he's cute?" she said.

I think he gets the message. Grenier plays Vincent Chase, the good-looking idiot savant in "Entourage" who makes the money while his crew does all the dirty work. But Grenier in real life is someone who can take that parody of celebrity culture even further. In his new documentary, Teenage Paparazzo (premiering tonight on HBO), Grenier is the director, on-screen star, and master manipulator. The story is ostensibly about a 14-year-old paparazzo named Austin Visschedyk, who lives in Hollywood and has parents that don't mind him going out till 3 am and stalking celebrities to get photos of them.

But very quickly, you realize the film is more about Grenier and his own interactions with paparazzi, and his musings on privacy in the digital age. Grenier purchases a high-end camera for himself, and with Austin's help, joins the pack to try to get photos of celebs. He becomes a catalyst of sorts for Austin, helping him become a celebrity with his own reality show on E! Though Grenier interviews media experts like Henry Jenkins (at a Boston Red Sox game where an "Entourage" fan rudely interrupts), the documentary prompts more questions than it answers.

Why is Grenier on-screen so much, interacting with the main characters and ratcheting up the drama? Isn't he having a long-term effect on a young man's future? Is that good? But more than that, Grenier leaves it all in the documentary, his own musings and even his own questions about what he is doing, and whether it is for good or ill. At one point, he stages an elaborate "date" with Paris Hilton just to get tongues wagging -- as well as good photos for his pal, Austin. And more than that, he shows the protagonists the film so far to see how ashamed they are of their actions.

While Grenier weaves the story well with the expert analysis, including interviews with stars such as Hilton, Whoopie Goldberg and Alec Baldwin, he misses an opportunity to get at the power behind the paparazzi. When he finally goes to the photo editors at the tabloid magazine, OK, he never asks them what their responsibility is when it comes to privacy and stalking. And while he shows Austin obsessively posting and editing photos on his computer, and mentions the phenomenon of sites such as TMZ, he never talks to bloggers beyond Perez Hilton.

Though it feels like Grenier is in every frame of the documentary (behind or in front of the camera), we still don't know who he is, how he differs from the cipher of Vinnie Chase. After I saw the preview showing of the documentary, I asked Grenier why I still didn't know who he was and what his emotional response was to the action in the documentary.

"That's what my girlfriend said, too," he responded. "I've always had a very objective personality, not putting my opinion up front. My last documentary 'Shot in the Dark' is very personal, about my search for my father."

Twitter Interview

I had a chance today to do a live interview of Grenier on Twitter, and asked him the question again: What makes him different than Vincent Chase?

"The difference between me and Vince is that I see irony in everything and he is more earnest," he wrote back.

So maybe this is all about irony, and Grenier definitely leverages more irony in his social media promotions for the documentary, including the ridiculous S'leb Suit infomercial (starring celebrities, of course). Below is my Twitter interview with Grenier, edited via Keepstream.

What do you think about the notion of privacy in the digital age, and rise of sites such as TMZ? If you saw the "Teenage Paparazzo" documentary, what did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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