Friday, January 22, 2010

On The Gray Lady Becoming a Meter Maid

It was announced this week that The New York Times plans to do what the opportunistic bartender does: buy the customer a round of shots so that they'll get comfortable and stick around for a few more--paid--rounds. Speaking from personal experience (on both sides of the bar), this ploy usually works but I believe that, in this instance, The Times is at risk of disregarding what every bartender knows: the sober consumer is hard to retain and there's always another bar opening up down the block.

By instituting a pay model that essentially punishes heavy users, The Times is in danger of losing their significant place in the cultural discourse. The goal of any major media outfit nowadays, from Facebook to TMZ to CNN, is simple: become a tab on everyone's browser. In order to increase its revenue, The Times must increase the reasons for a user to stay on its website. A flat, uniform meter system is just one big, looming reason for users not to stay put.

There is an arrogance inherent in The Times' meter plan in that it presupposes that people will always want The Times' content. Reacting to the announcement, Times media columnist David Carr wrote, "Access can be gradually ramped up or down depending on macro trends in the market. Given the dynamic state of the advertising business and how quickly things change on the Web, not so dumb when you think about it." The Times seems to firmly believe that it can operate like a natural resource such as electricity--adjusting prices depending on a changing market. The problem with this is that eventually an audience squeeze will be created. As users go to the site less and less, The Times will have to decrease the amount of content they offer for free, further decreasing usage.

A flat meter system disregards the variable values of content. In order to skirt paying for Times content, readers will save up their allotted usage by going elsewhere for generic news such as sports scores, crime stories, and election results. This will rapidly decrease The Times' market share (or, one may say, "discourse share") as well as the amount of opportunities to entice users to pay. Not all Times content is created equal: movie reviews, business columns, runway photos, and infographics are just a few examples of Times content that has a uniqueness that makes their value obvious.

A slew of young companies, from Flickr to Skype, have been successful in offering users free basic packages and generating revenue from premium services that have obvious value. The Times must commit to establishing premium content and promoting it.

Every mainstream media company, from record labels to television networks, has seen their business decline in the past decade because the number of information and entertainment outlets has increased exponentially. A meter system will only further fracture the audience. With the mass consumer adoption of Twitter, RSS readers, and news aggregators, The Times' value as a compendium of news is diminishing. That said, they still generate a huge amount of traffic and their brand equity is among the best in the news business. The Times should focus now on optimizing their significant standing in the media landscape (while they still have it) and become an even more fundamental part of a user's content lifestyle.

The Times' meter plan misses the mark because it focuses on how the users will pay and disregards why the users will pay. The Times can succeed by creating unique content and platforms that users can't live without. By building out their blog interface, producing web-savvy video, inviting high-profile guest columnists, launching multiple unique mobile applications, and creating interactive environments such as sports pools or real-time event commentary, The Times can increase usage while also converting free users to paid users.

I first subscribed to The New York Times as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin and I have been a 7-days-a-week subscriber ever since. I plan on being an A.O. Scott-quoting, Brian Stelter-tweeting subscriber for the foreseeable future. I just hope that The Times will implement a payment system that's more in line with their history of quality and innovation, a payment system that I can raise a glass to.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Pixar: The Boise State of Filmmaking

If Pixar were to create a fictional college football team it would most certainly be modeled after the Boise State Broncos. The perennially underrated and overachieving Broncos play their home games on a bright blue turf field and the team's offense makes up for its lack of blue-chip talent by regularly employing funky backyard-style plays. Besides being perfect source material for the quirky animation studio, the Boise State Broncos are also a kindred spirit of sorts for Pixar. Never quite earning the respect they deserve despite being consistently excellent, the Boise State Broncos are the Pixar of college football. Or, rather, Pixar is the Boise State of filmmaking.

As the college football season ends tonight with the matchup between Texas and Alabama, sports fans everywhere will grumble over how the college football championship system is corrupt. While an undefeated Texas or Alabama is crowned the "BCS Champion," the Boise State Broncos will be at home, wondering how they could also finish a season undefeated but be shut out of a chance for the championship. The feeling must be similar to what Pixar filmmakers experience on Oscar night as their exceptional movies watch from the Best Animated Feature category as live-action films are awarded the Best Picture prize.

The Oscars, like big-time college football championships, really come down to tradition and pedigree. In college football, every champion for the last 20 years has come from a major, booster-rich conference, such as the Big 12 and SEC. Likewise, the vast majority of Best Picture winners have been produced by established Hollywood studios, such as Paramount and Warner Bros. In addition to this, an animated movie has never won the award and, in the 81 years of the ceremony, only one film, Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," has ever been nominated.

Pixar and Boise State are outsiders who, no matter how much they succeed, are relegated to a second tier. Which is a shame since, in the last five years, no other entity in their respective arenas has better represented excellence than Pixar and Boise State.

Animation requires the involvement of a vast team of artists yet Pixar has managed to foster a significant sense of auteurism among its filmmakers. Authorship, the film quality that influential film critic Andre Bazin declared to be what defines a movie as a work of art, and that has stood as the fundamental way in which serious filmmaking is judged internationally, is evident in every recent Pixar film. Brad Bird's Ayn Randian ideology is explored in his films "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille" while Andrew Stanton's environmental concerns and vibrant color palette fortify "WALL-E" and "Finding Nemo."

The Boise State Broncos, whose uniforms draw from a vibrant color palette, just capped an undefeated season with a thrilling 17-10 victory over the TCU Horned Frogs in the Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos have a .89 winning percentage for the past five seasons which is the same as Texas and better than both Alabama (.74) and the Florida Gators (.85)--last year's national "champion."

I would argue that a lot of this secondary status comes down to one thing that both Pixar and Boise State hold dear: fun. There is an unwritten rule in Hollywood that important films must act important. Even though "Up", "WALL-E," "Ratatouille," and "The Incredibles" effectively (and efficiently) examine profound adult themes, their fantastic settings and sense of humor pooch the bid for serious critical recognition.

Boise State's similar penchant for the fantastic also works against them in the big-business world of college football. The Broncos play with a free-wheeling offensive flair that is usually reserved for games played in sweatpants and autumn leaves. The team's identity is epitomized by their performance in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Facing the Oklahoma Sooners--who have won seven national titles in their vaunted history--the Broncos used a mix of speed, grit, and luck to bring the Sooners to overtime. Down by one point, with a chance to tie and send the game to another overtime, Broncos coach Chris Petersen opted to go for a two-point conversion and the win. The Broncos lined up and ran the Statue of Liberty, a play revered by 12-year-olds everywhere. The trick play ended with running back Ian Johnson scampering into the end zone, untouched.

In the postgame melee that ensued, Johnson turned away from an interview with a Fox Sports reporter and proposed to his cheerleader girlfriend on national television. Down on one knee at the center of a roaring stadium, Johnson's proposal could be called a Pixar ending.

Hopefully such a moment, in the future, occurs at the end of a true national championship.