Category: Television

What should I ask Ken Burns?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is the beginning of his rather formidable Wikipedia entry:

Kenneth Lauren Burns (born July 29, 1953) is an American filmmaker known for his documentary films and television series, many of which chronicle American history and culture. His work is often produced in association with WETA-TV and/or the National Endowment for the Humanities and distributed by PBS.

His widely known documentary series include The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Roosevelts (2014), The Vietnam War (2017), and Country Music (2019). He was also executive producer of both The West (1996), and Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (2015). Burns’s documentaries have earned two Academy Award nominations (for 1981’s Brooklyn Bridge and 1985’s The Statue of Liberty) and have won several Emmy Awards, among other honors.

His forthcoming book is the lovely Our America: A Photographic History.  So what should I ask?

What to Watch

The Rehearsal (HBO): The new Nathan Fielder show has a strange premise. Fielder helps a real person rehearse an upcoming event that they are worried about. In the first episode, Kor has told a friend he has a MA when in fact he has a BA. The fib has tormented him for years. For the rehearsal, Fielder builds a life-sized replica of Kor’s favorite bar where the confession will take place and he stocks it with actors. The confession is run through multiple times, ala Groundhog Day. The rehearsal probably cost five hundred thousand or more. The enormous difference between the scale of the rehearsal and the fib is part of the point. Kor is an expert on the trivial. Fielder himself rehearses the rehearsal. It’s ridiculous but why don’t we do this more often? How about rehearsing a pandemic?

I confess that on first watching I missed that the ending was a rehearsal (like missing the gorrilla on the basketball court). Very meta. Strange but recommended. Tyler would like it and I don’t normally say that kind of thing.

The Old Man (HULU/FX): Jeff Bridges seems miscast as an action hero, even an aging action hero. Yet, the writers turn that to their advantage and make the action scenes slower, more realistic, and more brutal than is typical. The Old Man builds as it slows. Excellent performances from Bridges, John Lithgow and especially Amy Brenneman. A reverse Stockholm effect. The underlying story in which an Afghan warlord seems to control the US government at the very highest level is a bit absurd and there is an entirely unnecessary substory with another old man but the ending is superb, logical, meaningful, and deepening and changing everything that came before.

The Alpinist on Netflix. Recommend to me after I recommended 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible but I could only handle 10 minutes. Too scary. Too nuts. Like watching Roman gladiators battling to the death, it just felt wrong to watch. When I came to write this review, I was not surprised to find that Leclerc had perished.

Westworld S4 (HBO): Season One was one of the best seasons of television ever. S2-S4 are a waste of time. S4 I found incomprehensible.

Borgen, season four (only spoilers are at the meta-level)

My Bloody Valentine did a follow-up album twenty years later and it was pretty good, unexpectedly good.  Well, this reboot of Borgen, seven years later, is mostly better than the original, even if some of the original characters (Kasper) are missed.  It is now titled Borgen: Power and Glory, and can be found on Netflix.

Some people disliked the original Borgen for its possibly naive portrait of social democracy in Denmark, but season four stands all that on its head.  It represents a radical departure from political and also media discourse these days.

By far the main theme of season four is how it affects women when they hold major positions of power, in both the public and private sector.  How do their characters evolve?  How do they handle power?  What are their family relations like?  How happy do they become?  I won’t say any more here, only that I can’t imagine today’s Hollywood putting out this content.  Nor can I think of any other art work that explores this theme so consistently.  Critics might call the series misogynistic.  They might be right.

Some other themes are relevance are:

1. The nature of Danish imperialism, and how Denmark is incapable of treating Greenland as an equal partner.

2. How left parties manipulate indigenous causes for their own ends.

3. The corruption and pettiness of indigenous societies, such as are found in Greenland.

4. How the media really operate.

5. The hypocrisy of “green” politics.

In other words, what you get is “right-wing Borgen,” and with a vengeance.  Yet the proceedings are all cloaked in the same kind of superficial Danish triumphalism that characterized seasons 1-3.  I wish the content had more of “my kind of liberalism,” but maybe the right-wing cultural critique makes for better TV.  (I keep on thinking that something ought to be privatized…with apologies to David Brooks.  But it should!  You can give the government half the revenue.  And no, Russian and Chinese state-affiliated buyers do not count.  And while we are at it, how about “one billion Greenlanders“?  I’d settle for a million.)

It is no surprise that the reviews of this season are largely mediocre.  Yet for me it is the best Borgen yet, recognizing that it will not be everyone’s cup of tea.  But if any show has the street cred to deliver these messages, it is Borgen.  The show also tells us once again that Denmark is not quite the left-wing country you might think, because none of the reactionary content put on the screen comes across as unnaturally Danish.

Do you need to have seen seasons one thru three for season four to make sense?  It seems to me yes, but who knows maybe you can just start this one from scratch?

My excellent Conversation with Matthew Ball

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Ball joined Tyler to discuss the eventual widespan transition of the population to the metaverse, the exciting implications of this interconnected network of 3D worlds for education, how the metaverse will improve dating and its impacts on sex, the happiness and career satisfaction of professional gamers, his predictions for Tyler’s most frequent uses of the metaverse, his favorite type of entrepreneur, why he has thousands of tabs open on his computer at any given moment, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: As I read your book, The Metaverse, which again, I’ll recommend highly, I have the impression you’re pretty optimistic about interoperability within the metaverse and an ultimate lack of market power. Now, if I look around the internet — I mean, most obviously, the Apple Store but also a lot of gaming platforms — you see 30 percent fees, or something in that neighborhood, all over the place. Will the metaverse have the equivalent of a 30 percent fee? Or is it a truly competitive market where everything gets competed down to marginal cost?

BALL: I think neither/nor. I wouldn’t say that market power diffuses. There’s currently this ethos, especially in the Web3 community, that decentralization needs to win and that decentralization can win.

It’s a question of where on the spectrum are we? The early internet was obviously held back by heavy decentralization. This is one of the reasons why AOL was, for so many people, the primary onboarding experience. It was easy, cohesive, visual, vertically integrated down to the software, the browser experience, and so forth. But we believe that the last 15 years has been too centralized.

At the end of the day, no matter how decentralized the underlying protocols of the metaverse are, no matter how popular blockchains are, there are multiple forms of centralization. Habit is powerful. Brand is powerful — the associated trust, intellectual property, the fundamental feedback loops of revenue and scale that drive better product investment for more engineers.

So I struggle to imagine the future isn’t some form of today, a handful of varyingly horizontal-vertical software and hardware-based platforms that have disproportionate share and even more influence. But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be as powerful as today.

The 30 percent fee is definitely going to come by the wayside. We see this in the EU, whose legislation dropped yesterday. I have absolute certainty that that is going to go away. The question is the timeline. A lawyer joked yesterday, Apple is going to fight the EU until the heat death of the universe, and that’s probably likely. But Apple will find other ways to control and extract, as is their profit motive.

COWEN: Where is the most likely place for that partial market power or centralization to show up? Is it in the IP rights, in the payment system, the hardware provider, a cross-platform engine, somewhere else? What’s the most likely choke point?

BALL: There seem to be two different answers to that. Number one is software distribution. This is your classic discovery and distribution of virtual experiences. Steam does that. Roblox does that. Google does that, frankly, the search engine. That gateway to virtual experiences typically affords you the opportunity to be the dominant identity system, the dominant payment system, and so on and so forth.

The other option is hardware. We can think of the metaverse as a persistent network of experiences, but as with the internet, it may exist literally and in abstraction, but you can only access it through a device. Those device operators have an ever-growing network of APIs, experiences, technologies, technical requirements, and controls through which they can shape it.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

My excellent Conversation with Marc Andreessen

I’ve been wanting to do this one for some while, and Marc did not disappoint.  Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  Here is the summary:

Marc joined Tyler to discuss his ever-growing appreciation for the humanities and more, including why he didn’t go to a better school, his contrarian take on Robert Heinlein, how Tom Wolfe helped Marc understand his own archetype, who he’d choose to be in Renaissance Florence, which books he’s reread the most, Twitter as an X-ray machine on public figures, where in the past he’d most like to time-travel, his favorite tech product that no longer exists, whether Web will improve podcasting, the civilization-level changes made possible by remote work, Peter Thiel’s secret to attracting talent, which data he thinks would be most helpful for finding good founders, how he’d organize his own bookstore, the kinds of people he admires most, and why Deadwood is equal to Shakespeare.

And the opening:

COWEN: Simple question: Have you always been like this?

ANDREESSEN: [laughs] Yes. I believe that my friends would say that I have.

COWEN: Let’s go back to the junior high school Marc Andreessen. At that time, what was your favorite book and why?

ANDREESSEN: That’s a really good question. I read a lot. Probably, like a lot of people like me, it was a lot of science fiction. I’m one of the few people I know who thinks that late Robert Heinlein was better than early Robert Heinlein. That had a really big effect on me. What else? I was omnivorous at an early age.

COWEN: Why is late Robert Heinlein better?

ANDREESSEN: To me, at least to young me — see if older me would agree with this — a sense of exploration and discovery and wonder and open-endedness. For me, it was as if he got more open-minded as he got older. I remember those books, in particular, being very inspiring — the universe is a place of possibilities.

COWEN: What’s the seminal television show for your intellectual development in, say, junior high school?

ANDREESSEN: Oh, junior high school — it’s hard to beat Knight Rider.

COWEN: Why Knight Rider?

ANDREESSEN: There was a wave of these near science fiction shows in the late ’70s, early ’80s that coincided with . . . Some of it was the aftermath of Star Wars, but it was the arrival of the personal computer and the arrival of computer technology in the lives of ordinary people for the first time. There was a massive wave of anxiety, but there was also a tremendous sense of possibility.

Recommended, excellent throughout.

What should I ask Matthew Ball?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is some background:

Metaverse, metaverse, metaverse! You hear it everywhere. It’s mainstream, it’s a trendy buzzword, it’s even corporate strategy du jour.

But that wasn’t the case in early 2018. And this is when Matthew Ball, a former head of strategy at Amazon Studios, began writing a series of metaverse-themed essays – long, lucid, influential essays – that are almost uncanny in their prescience.

Matthew is now a venture capitalist as well and he has a forthcoming and already much-discussed book The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything.  Here is his home page and here is Matthew on Twitter.  So what should I ask him?

Television gets you to spend money

Especially on cars (and other durable goods):

I compare growth in retail sales between areas with and without local TV service over the unanticipated Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Freeze, which halted the licensing of new TV stations from 1948–52. I find three results that corroborate TV’s long-attributed role in American consumerism. First, during the Freeze, total retail sales in counties with TV access increased by 3–4% more on average than in counties without access. Second, the effect of TV was concentrated in the automobile sector, which alone accounted for a third of the total difference.

Here is the full paper by Woojin Kim, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The new equilibrium, solved for

Ticket sales for Chris Rock’s comedy shows have reportedly spiked since Sunday night.

Live event ticketing site TickPick sold more tickets to see Chris Rock overnight than it had in the past month combined, according to a tweet from the company Monday.

Rock is set to perform standup at Boston’s Wilbur Theater on Wednesday. On March 18, the cheapest tickets were sold for $46, but had increased to $411 by Monday, according to TickPick’s public relations representative Kyle Zorn.

Here is the full story.  Now solve for the next one!

Surrogates

Surrogates is a 2009 science-fiction movie starring Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike and Ving Rhames. On Rotten Tomatoes it’s rated at a measly 37% (tomatometer) and 38% (audience). When I first saw it I thought it was underrated and a recent re-watch cemented that conclusion.

Surrogates is about a slightly future world in which people predominantly interact with one another through surrogates, i.e. humanoid robots controlled from home. The premise should be familiar today in the Zoom, Metaverse, avatar age in a way it wasn’t in 2009. Surrogates touches on trans issues (your surrogate can be a different gender), the meaning of identity, age, aging and youth, the advantages of surrogates for creating low crime and even eliminating infectious diseases (good prediction!) and the sense of anxiety and fear we feel when interacting in the real world after becoming comfortable with surrogates and the sense of unrealness of interacting with avatars.

The world of surrogates is threatened when for the first time ever a human operator is murdered by “killing” their surrogate. Willis and Mitchell are detectives trying to solve the mystery and track down the killer. The film noir aspect isn’t Chinatown but it follows the formula and follows it well. A luddite cult is involved.

Perhaps one of the reasons Surrogates didn’t do well is that it’s low-budget. At the same time as this world has advanced robotics the cars are purely circa 2009! The surrogates are played by the same actors as the operators with only makeup and hair pieces to indicate the differences but in fact the make-up and surrogate acting is very well done! The contrast between young, perfectly coiffed and flattened surrogate Bruce Willis and the old, bloody, beaten but expressive Bruce Willis is well done. The ending is excellent.

A masterpiece? No. But Surrogates is an underrated gem. It’s available now on HBO.

surrogates | Where to Stream and Watch | Decider

How to find good TV shows

Chris asks:

You’ve written a lot about your reading habits in the past, but I’m curious to know more about how you find and watch TV shows. You’ve mentioned before that you watch very little TV (in explaining your productivity), and yet you speak highly of the shows you do watch. Do you have any strategies to find good TV, how to watch television “well”,  how to avoid getting sucked in to mediocre TV, etc.? And, I’d be curious to know what specific shows you think are worth the time sink to watch.

All of this comes from my somewhat-conflicting desires 1.) To not waste time and 2.) To enjoy the best art there is, in all of its forms.

Here are my rather brutal answers, noting they probably are not helpful for most people:

1. Most TV shows are not good.  The key problems are that too much quality scripting is required, and that the incentives are to try to get the show extended for another season.  Plus too much of the audience “just wants something to watch.”

2. Most TV shows that your smart friends tell you to watch also are not good.  See #1.

3. You should almost always watch a movie rather than a TV show.  If you have to, watch the movie in hour or half-hour segments.  Movies are better and smarter, at least if you can figure out which are the quality films.  But that is not so hard, as standard critical opinion does OK there.

4. “The Golden Age of TV” doesn’t change any of this, though Hollywood movies have become worse, due to tent pole franchises and pressures for serialization, which give them some of the problems of television shows.  At the margin, almost everyone should be watching more foreign films.  Do you really know them all?  How well do you know the best of African cinema?  Iranian cinema?  And so on.

5. I will try a TV show if two people I know, in the very top tier of smarts, recommend it.  Even then I usually don’t like it.  I thus infer there is at least a single dimension where I differ strongly from just about all my friends.

6. Could I name twenty TV shows that I think are worth watching, relative to the best movies you haven’t seen and the best books you haven’t read?  Not sure.  Attention is that which is scarce.  But it shouldn’t be.  Just pay better attention and read that book or watch that movie.  There is also plenty on YouTube that beats TV shows, and if you are old you may not consume much YouTube content at all.

7. For sure, there are fifteen TV shows worth watching, but you really need to have very very strong filters.  Whatever your filters may be, make them stronger.  Don’t trust those friends of yours!

8. By this point, you are probably not very interested in knowing which are those fifteen shows.

My Conversation with Chuck Klosterman

Excellent stuff, we had so much fun we kept on going for an extra half hour, as he decided to ask me a bunch of questions about economics and personal finance.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

Chuck joined Tyler to discuss the challenges of writing about recent history, the “slow cancellation of the future” that began in the aughts, how the internet widened cultural knowledge but removed its depth, why the context of Seinfeld was in some ways more important than its content, what Jurassic Park illustrates about public feelings around scientific progress in the ’90s, why the ’90s was the last era of physical mass subcultures, why it’s uncommon to be shocked by modern music, how his limited access to art when growing up made him a better critic, why Spin Magazine became irrelevant with the advent of online streaming, what made Grantland so special, what he learned from teaching in East Germany, the impact of politics on the legacies of Eric Clapton and Van Morrison, how sports often rewards obnoxious personalities, why Wilt Chamberlain is still underrated, how the self-awareness of the Portland Trail Blazers undermined them, how the design of the NFL makes sports rivalries nearly impossible, how pro-level compensation prevents sports gambling from corrupting players, why so many people are interested in e-sports, the unteachable element of writing, why he didn’t make a great editor on his school paper, what he’d say to a room filled with ex-lovers, the question he’d most like to ask his parents, his impressions of cryptocurrency, why he’s trying to focus on what he has in the current moment rather than think too much about future plans, the power of charisma, and more.

Whew!  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: I see the world as follows. Every decade, to me, is super weird, but the 1980s and ’90s pretended they weren’t weird. The ’80s pretended to be good versus evil. The ’90s pretended that good won. But when crypto comes and persists, you have to drop all pretense that the age you’re living in isn’t totally weird.

You have internet crypto, and everyone admits, right now, everything’s weird. And that, to me, is the fundamental break with the 1990s because everyone pretended most things were normal and that Seinfeld was your dose of weird, right? Jason Alexander — that’s a very manageable weird.

KLOSTERMAN: Oh, absolutely.

COWEN: Some guy in an apartment in New York City cracking sarcastic jokes — like, whoop-de-do.

And:

KLOSTERMAN: …this guy, Mark Fisher, who’s dead now, had this idea about the slow cancellation of the future. I feel like that’s one of the most profound ideas that I’ve come across in the last 10 years of my life, and it seems so palpable that this is occurring.

An example I will often use is, if you take, say, 10 minutes from an obscure film in 1965 with no major actors, and then you take 10 minutes from an obscure film from 1980 where nobody became famous, and you show anyone these 10-minute clips, they will have no problem whatsoever figuring out which one came first. Even a little kid can look at a movie from 1965 and a movie from 1980 and instantly understand that one predates the other.

But if you do that with a film from 2005 and a film from 2020 — again, an obscure film where you don’t recognize the actors — you’re just looking at it aesthetically and trying to deduce which one came first and which one came second. It’s almost impossible.

This phenomenon just seems to almost be infiltrating every aspect of the culture…

And:

KLOSTERMAN: Before I did this podcast, I listened to your podcast with Žižek.

COWEN: Oh yeah, that was hilarious.

KLOSTERMAN: Are you friends with him? It sure seemed like it. And if you are, what is it like to be with him when he is not in a performative scenario?

Recommended.  And again, here is Chuck’s new book The Nineties.

Netflix economics and the future of Netflix

Ted Gioia writes:

Netflix’s market share has been declining steadily, and has now fallen below 50%. One estimate claims that the company’s share of consumers fell more than 30% in a single year. Netflix’s recent quarterly report was a disaster, spurring a share sell-off. You could easily conclude that “Netflix’s long awaited funeral is finally here”—as Bloomberg hinted in its blunt assessment of the results.

Of course the company is still worth quite a bit, so my own view is no more or no less optimistic than what the market indicates.  Still, it is worth asking what the equilibrium here looks like.  There is also AppleTV, Disney, Showtime, HBOMax, Hulu, AmazonPrime, and more.  I don’t think it quite works to argue that we all end up subscribing to all of them, so where are matters headed?  I see a few options:

1. Netflix and its competitors keep on producing new shows until all the rents are exhausted and those companies simply earn the going rate of return on capital, with possible ongoing rents on longstanding properties of real value (e.g., older Disney content).  These scenarios could involve either additional entry, or more (and better?) shows from the incumbent producers.

2. Due to economies of scale, one or two of those companies will produce the best shows and buy up the best content.  We end up with a monopoly or duopoly in the TV streaming market, noting there still would be vigorous competition from other media sources.

3. The companies are allowed to collude in some manner.  One option is they form a consortium where you get “all access” for a common fee, divvied out in proper proportion.  Would the antitrust authorities allow this?  Or might the mere potential for antitrust intervention makes this a collusive solution but one without a strict monopolizing, profit-maximizing price?

4. The companies are allowed to collude in a more partial and less obvious manner.  Rather than a complete consortium, some of the smaller companies will evolve into “feeder” services for one or two of the larger companies.  Those smaller companies will rely increasingly more on the feeder contracts and increasingly less on subscription revenue.  This perhaps resembles the duopoly solution analytically, though a head count would show more than two firms in the market.

It seems to me that only the first scenario is very bad for Netflix.  That said, it seems that along all of these paths short-run rent exhaustion is going on, and that short-run rent exhaustion is costly for Netflix.  They keep on having to pump out “stuff” to keep viewer attention.  It doesn’t matter that new shows are cheap, because as long as the market profits are there the “bar” for retaining customers will continue to grow.  Very few of their shows are geared to produce long-term customer loyalty toward that show – in contrast, people are still talking about Columbo!

Putting the law aside, which economic factors determine which solution will hold?  My intuition is that there are marketing economies of scale, but production diseconomies of scale, as the media companies grow too large and sclerotic.  So maybe that militates in favor of scenario #4?  That to me also suggests an “at least OK” future for Netflix.  The company would continue its investments and marketing and an easy to use website, while increasingly going elsewhere for superior content.

WWBTS?

My Israel-only Conversation with the excellent Russ Roberts

Here is the audio, video, and transcript, here is the CWT summary:

In this special crossover special with EconTalk, Tyler interviews Russ Roberts about his new life in Israel as president of Shalem College. They discuss why there are so few new universities, managing teams in the face of linguistic and cultural barriers, how Israeli society could adapt to the loss of universal military service, why Israeli TV is so good, what American Jews don’t understand about life in Israel, what his next leadership challenge will be, and much more.

We didn’t shy away from the tough stuff, here is one question:

COWEN: Let me ask you another super easy question. Let’s say we think that under current circumstances, a two-state solution would not lead to security either for Israel or for the resulting Palestinian state. Many people believe that. Let’s say also, as I think you believe, that a one-state solution where everyone votes would not lead to security for a current version of Israel or even a modified version of it.

Let’s say also that the current reliance of the Palestinian territories on the state of Israel for protection, security, intelligence, water — many important features of life — prevent those governing bodies from ever attaining sufficient autonomy to be a credible peace partner, guaranteer of its own security, and so on. From that point of view, what do we do? We’re not utilitarians. We’re thinking about what’s right and wrong. What’s the right thing to do?

Do read Russ’s answer!  (Too long to excerpt.)  And:

COWEN: Now, the United States has about 330 million people, yet there are more Israeli TV shows I want to watch than American TV shows. There’s Srugim, there’s Shtisel, there’s Prisoners of War, there’s In Judgment, there’s Tehran. There’s more. Why is Israeli TV so good?

ROBERTS: I’m glad you mentioned Prisoners of War, which doesn’t get enough — Prisoners of War is in my top five. If I had to list my top five, I’d pick Shtisel, Prisoners of WarThe Americans, probably The Wire, and The Crown. Do you have a top five that you could reel off?

COWEN: The Sopranos would be my number one. Srugim and Prisoners of War plausibly would be in my top five.

We then consider the Israeli topic at hand.  Interesting throughout, a very good dialogue.