Streaming and Me

“The Future is Streaming,” trumpeted the sixteen-page special section of last week’s Sunday New York Times. I knew in my bones they were right.  “Are you ready?” they asked.

Most definitely, I learned, I was not.

Much of what I know about developments in the stories I follow, I learn from the four newspapers I read daily: the NYT, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, all on paper, and, online, The Washington Post. I especially gain from paying attention to the differential treatments in their coverage of particular stories, internal (news columns vs. editorial pages) and external (one paper vs. the others). I read parts of a lot of books, and all of some of them. I watch almost no television, hardly use Netflix and seldom see a movie at the corner theater, an old vaudeville palace now flanked by four smaller screening rooms on one side.

My budget, both time and money, began to change last week as a result of

having read the Times section.  In itself, that was no easy matter, since half of it was a 48-inch-wide pull-out (a double-double truck of facing pages, in newspaper parlance) containing a stylized map of representative content from the 271 entities in the new streaming universe, with articles printed on th other side. The idea of the map was offer guidance on various approaches to viewing, depending on one’s tastes and pocketbook: the Frugalist, the Harried Parent, the Fan(atic), the Connoisseur, the Escapist, the Omnivore.

Brooks Barnes, a Times reporter who covers Hollywood, wrote the lead piece. Four times in the last hundred years, more ot less every thirty years, every three decades, enough to define several generations, he wrote, Hollywood has experienced a “seismic shift.”  These seem to have been a matter of technological change.

In the 1920s, Talkies (and radio) supplanted vaudeville. In the 1950s, broadcast television took center stage. In the 1980s, the cable boom took over, led by music videos. Now the long-promised streaming revolution is at hand – entertainment over the Internet. Netflix began streaming movies and TV movies in 2007. Recently it financed Martin Scorsese’s gangster movie, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, betting that far more people would rather watch a three-hour epic at home, rather than in theaters.. “The Irishman” may be the first very expensive movie to depend primarily on streaming to recover its very high costs. Now, Barnes wrote, the three biggest old-line media companies – Disney, NBCUniversal, and WarnerMedia – were about to join in.

In another article, The Great Streaming Space-Time Warp, Times television critic James Poniewozik argued that “the shift from network schedules to TV-when-you-want-it may change not just viewing habits but the whole culture of the medium.”  Never mind the culture of television, I thought; with the demise of focal points like the thump of the morning paper on the doorstep and the six o’clock news, it is the culture of everyday life that has changed.

In fact, I wasn’t contemplating streaming at all when the week began.  I was thinking about cable television.  With the presidency of Donald Trump, the division of opinion in America has become profound. That’s obvious. I’m interested mainly in professional opinion, practitioners of all sorts – politicians and the journalists, film-makers, and scholars of contemporary affairs who cover and  egg  them on.

My conviction has long been that print newspapers continue to occupy the high ground of this community and likely will do so for many years to come. Myriad independent tributaries contribute to their deliberations, beginning with the online news services that have grown up to compete with them – giants like Bloomberg and Reuters, any number of startups as well, including ProPublica, Quartz, and Axios. There are the usual suspects as well, naturally: magazines, book publishers, and, yes, the entertainment machine known as Hollywood. Even a stylized map depicting all these would-be narrators would take a double-double-double truck of newsprint.

Specifically, I have resolved to pay more attention to those with whose opinions I disagree That means editorial page of the WSJ in particular. I have been reading those pages for nearly fifty years, sometimes with admiration, sometimes with scorn, never with greater bafflement than today.

Why not, I decided, try to delineate a little more carefully positions they take that seem reasonable to me, the better to recognize and perhaps understand those that do not? To this end, it has seemed for some time that I should begin watching the Friday night edition of the Journal Editorial Report on Fox News, in hopes of getting a peek behind the scene.

So last week I ordered its basic cable TV package from my Internet service provider, only to discover that its 57 channels contained in the bundle included only five of any interest to me (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and PBS), and none of the new news services that I craved:  Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and ESPN.

And that is how I became acquainted with the world of streaming. I read the Times section on “The Future of Streaming,” It turned out that I didn’t understand streaming at all. I knew that other people, chiefly the young, had long since ceased to deal with the cable television companies. I knew, too, that Comcast and GE had bought the giant content producers NBCUniversal (though I clearly didn’t understand why).

Finally I understood that I didn’t have to deal with the cable companies, either. I could turn my attention to their internet-based competitors, By then, however, I was on the way to the airport, out of time, if not endurance.  I put off the search until I returned from out-of-town meetings.

Meanwhile, as a hedge, I invested in a copy of Great Society: A New History, by journalist Amity Shlaes (HarperCollins, 2019).  Shlaes is the author of three well-regarded earlier books:  Germany: The Empire Within (Farrar, Straus, 1991); The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (HarperCollins, 2007); and Coolidge (Harper, 2013)

The book on Germany is, as I remember it, brilliant. The Forgotten Man and Coolidge. explorations of paleo-conservativism – counterfactuals in which the losers were the heroes – if only we had listened to them! The new book is an account of the beginnings of the “market turn,” at least in the US. That seems like something in which I might hope to identify plenty of common ground. It will take time. The book is 504 pages long.  I plan to read every word.

.                      xxx

New on the EP bookshelf: Great Society: A New History, by Amity Shlaes (HarperCollins, 2019)

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