Radio Shack Nurtured a Culture of Everyday Technology

UnknownWe knew it was only a matter of time. We just didn’t know how much time. It appears as if that long dreaded day has arrived. By “it” I mean Radio Shack filing for bankruptcy. Radio Shack has been a staple on 4,000 American streets for decades. It was founded in 1921 by the Deutschmann brothers and was the destination of millions of dads, and moms, who walked into their local Shack in search of everything from batteries to diagnostic equipment to an additional cell phone charger. It was not a retailer that emerged because of a fashion trend or a personal hobby. No, no, no. This franchise was in search of a much more noble purpose. It provided a place where Americans could go to see, touch and purchase electronics and home technology. It was the first of its kind and the last of its kind.

The Shack was a savvy retailer—correction, merchandiser—that figured out long ago our country was headed for a serious case of addiction to the magic of technology. The tech then was radio and television waves broadcast across the landscape, captured by antennas and transformed into audio and video that arguably, had more to do with shaping this countries’ culture than almost anything else.

My father was an electrical engineer. He was constantly tinkering with the insides of radios and televisions. Capacitors, transistors, resistors, rectifiers, vacuum tubes; his workshop was full of them. I knew what a printed circuit board was when I was 8 years old. He used a slide rule to compute equations, not a calculator, and wired a Color Bar and Dot Generator to an early color television to troubleshoot problems.

My Father’s Slide Rule

There’s a generation today that cannot wrap their heads around the concept of a Radio Shack, let alone consider entering one. I’ve heard some bid a happy farewell, while others never even noticed. The demise of Radio Shack is not like what happened to Blockbuster Video. Blockbuster relied on late fees to prop up revenue which is never a viable long term strategy. BV was unable to weather the digital tsunami and were completely lost when it came to the internet.

Radio Shack is not the Apple Store, not by a long shot. But it paved the way for Jobs and Cook to enjoy stunning success. How? By making electronics familiar, approachable and affordable. The Deutschmann brothers likely had no clue that their desire to bring radio equipment to the public would be laying the tracks for the digital world.

The Original Radio Shack Store

In contrast Radio Shack did embrace the Web and shifted lots of their sales to eCommerce. But it’s very difficult to keep a single brand relevant for decades when you’re being drowned out by new and more interesting messages. Best Buy and Circuit City came along with more ad muscle and bigger stores, further squeezing Radio Shack into smaller spaces in strip malls. Then Amazon came along and soon the American public was trained to shop by Web search and picking up their packages off the porch instead of driving to a shopping destination.

Over the years, Radio Shack saved me many times. The need for a USB extension cord, a liPo Battery voltage meter, but most often it was their small electrical parts that I needed to keep my tinkering habit fueled.

They are not going away forever. Many stores will remain while others will be taken over by the cell phone provider Sprint who will maintain some items from Radio Shack.

Another page is turned.

The Beginning of the End for the PC? Not Exactly.

Pundits aplenty have been predicting that smartphones will be the predominant device for accessing the web in the near future. That future may be accelerating. IDC, the International Data Corporation, has reported that smartphones have now out shipped personal computers.

Source: IDC

Smartphone shipments have tripled, while PCs shipments are growing at less than 50%. In the past you had to buy a new PC every 3 years or so to keep up with innovation and performance (I’m including Apple in there). But the innovation curve belongs to smartphones now. PCs are fast enough and feature rich enough for the majority of people. Consumers can do things on their smartphone that, in the past, had to be done on their PC. New features, functionality and performance are now dominated by the smartphone. Consumers can do more with their phone than their PC and it’s completely mobile.

So is the PC dead? Absolutely not. The reality is that PCs are becoming closer to a television; mature and ubiquitous, and used for very specific activities. They will be replaced at a much slower pace than in years past, and if you have young children, they will buy less than half the number of PCs you have owned, but purchase three or four times more smartphones than you ever did.

This is what has made Apple so strong over the past three and a half years. They saw this shift coming and created the technology to enable it. Their MacPro heavy aluminum tower computers are losing sales ground to the all in one iMac model because there is less need for that purebred desktop computer. The acceleration of tablet sales will put even more pressure on PC shipments.

Brands need to be designing their experiences and business models to adapt to this technology landscape shift, or risk being relocated to the basement with the old folks, while the young, cool, hip people are tapping on the handheld device at the coolest party in town.

Walter Cronkite, the Moon Landing and Vietnam

Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11

Icons continue to perish in these dog days of the summer of 2009. Today it was Walter Cronkite, at the splendid age of 93. He was a fixture on the CBS Evening News for four decades. His sonorous voice was at once urgent and soothing; compelling to watch during triumph, but reassuring in times of tragedy. As a boy growing up in the midwest, Mr. Cronkite illuminated our television set nightly. He delivered to me the grim news of JFK’s assassination, and updated me on the painful and bloody goings on related to the Vietnam war. The sudden death of a beloved president was shocking, while the war was a shock felt in slow motion. Two ends of the experience spectrum perfectly balanced by a journalist who also practiced psychology.

But he was at his best, in my opinion, when he had a major story he could unfold over several days. Man’s first landing on the moon in July 1969, 40 years ago this week, was just such an event. I was way deep into the space program as a child and glued to the TV anytime NASA lit up a Saturn V rocket. I followed the Apollo space program closer than the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and hung on Mr. Cronkite’s every word. In this still early age of media, the broadcaster was the single most important actor in these dramas. Once there was lift off you had to rely on “artist’s renditions” of the rockets and capsules as they made their way across the vastness of space. My family had been visiting relatives in Michigan during the Apollo 11 mission. All of us crowded around the set, quiet and transfixed on the small screen. In awe as we heard, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” and watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface.


On the other hand, the Vietnam war was the soundtrack of my youth. My oldest sister had a boyfriend who was shipped off for a tour of duty. He didn’t come back. Others returned, but they were forever changed. Our middle child, also a sister, marched in protest of the war. I read about it, talked about it, wrote about it and listed to Walter report the body count every night.

Of course the news is delivered much differently today and with lightning speed through the web. It’s not necessarily better or worse than those days of the network nightly news. But there is something to be said for the relationships we developed with anchors in those days. It was like a friend who knew you as a person and told you stories; happy and sad.

Forrester Marketing Forum 2009 – The Future of TV Advertising

I give full credit for my interest in technology and media to my father. He was a self-taught electronics engineer. That’s right self-taught. He had an amazing capacity as well as the courage to take anything apart to understand how it works. He could also put it back together. This was particularly true about televisions. It was the age of vacuum tubes, resisters and rectifiers powering gigantic cathode-ray tubes.

His reputation for this talent quickly got around and when someone’s TV went on the fritz they would call my dad. I would frequently tag along with him as he went to someone’s home and loaded the set onto the station wagon. From there it would go into his workshop, a magical room with oscilloscopes, meters, soldering guns, old TVs, spare parts and a file cabinet of schematics. The schematic was the map of the electronics inside. What we would today call code. It used a special language of symbols to communicate functionality, flow and the interface of these crude devices.

Electronic Schematic for Television
Electronic Schematic for Television

In those days there were only 3 television networks; ABC, NBC and CBS, and maybe 10 stations. My current Comcast channel lineup has 215 choices! There’s a station for every thing you could imagine and it’s on 24 hours a day. I watch only about 5 of those 215 stations during any given week, but because of the current business model, I pay for all of them.

The main reason for having that box, sorry, flat screen, in your home is to sell you something. It’s called commercial television for good reason. Yes I know, there’s the DVR that allows you to fast forward through all those commercials, but no matter how hard you try, you cannot fully escape the dreaded “spot.” Damn those agencies and their clients.

Card, Clayman, Verklin, Lyles (l to r)
Forrester Panel Discussion (left to right) - Card, Clayman, Verklin, Lyles

At the end of the first day of the recent Forrester Marketing Forum in Orlando, a panel discussion was held entitled The Future of Media. It was moderated by Forrester’s David Card (VP, Principal Analyst) and included a TV exec, Greg Clayman (EVP-MTV Networks), a media advertising businessman, David Verklin (CEO, Canoe Ventures), and a consumer product goods VP, Annis Lyles (Coca-Cola, North America). I had the good fortune to have lunch with Mr. Clayman earlier that day and we engaged in an interesting discussion on television, entertainment and distribution. I found him to be gracious and smart, while very much open to my thoughts and opinions. He is remarkably grounded in the basics of his business while at the same time looking out over the horizon in search of the next model. He has a massive job that spans all kinds of content and opportunity. I was impressed with his clarity and how he is carefully charting a course for the proper confluence of TV, online and mobile as a successful way forward.

The panel began and Mr. Card was determined to find out how effective TV advertising is becoming. The discussion was dominated by Mr. Verklin who was forceful and excited, proclaiming that “TV is getting back in the game!” He sounded like a cross between Steven Ballmer of Microsoft and George Castanza. “I’m back baby, I’m back.” I appreciated his energy, but he’s focus is on transforming the advertising experience on TV, not the content. Mr. Verklin wants to turn TV into a technology platform with a decision engine where marketers can target, measure and execute inside that platform to reach the right audience. The example he used over and over was if you have a dog in the house you should see an ad for dog food, not cat food. He calls it Community Addressable Messaging and outlines three components.

  • Interactive advertising
  • Addressable advertising
  • Data overlay

So the promise once again is that TV will be a trackable, measurable platform. I’m skeptical. I work in financial services. We know a little something about  the complexity of third party data overlays on top of dozens of consumer segments across databases with billions and billions of rows. It’s not unheard of for FI’s to score their entire database of customers several times per day and when one of them logs into the website or calls the service center customers are identified in sub-milliseconds and a decision is made on what to show them at run time.

Mr. Verklin talks about targeting the 51st state. The 18% of households that make over $100,000. As a marketer I would love to reach that demographic, but how much TV are they even watching? Isn’t the bigger opportunity with the perpetual intermediate of the TV audience, middle America? What about tracking across channels and stacking your message the way online ad networks can do?

Mr. Clayman was much more on point with his comments. MTV is balancing broadcast, online, retail and mobile distribution for the greatest profit. As a content owner/publisher, his view must be different. For him content is king and careful stewardship is critical. He is fully aware of how he makes money, so of course he will be interested in these new platform ideas as a way to increase ad revenues.

Ms.Lyles, on the product side, has become a content producer from time to time in order to distinguish her brand and bring it appropriately to a particular medium. Pushing Coke is paramount and she seemed determined to leverage all media to achieve success. Her firm has brought traditional and digital media buying together.

Mr. Verklin says that online is making TV raise it’s game. Really? Well I’m glad something is helping at least lift the bar off the ground. Network TV programming, and with it advertising, has been in a downward spiral for years, driven by decades of inertia. A personal note here. I don’t despise television programming. On the contrary, I think there’s lots of good stuff out there, and I realize I am no longer the target.

It was a healthy discussion and I was quickly transported back to 1976 and the film Network where Howard Beale, a lunatic news anchor had this to say about television.

We deal in illusion, man! None of it’s true. But you people sit there—all of you—day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds. We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe this illusion we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name you people are the real thing! We’re the illusions. So turn off this goddam set! Turn it off right now. Turn it off and leave it off. Turn it off right now, right in the middle of this sentence I’m speaking now…

I plan on following Howard Beale’s advice, but will watch the progress of Canoe Ventures closely.

Photo: Steve A Furman. Quote from Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay Network

A Great Online Experience is like The Twilight Zone

Updated: February 8, 2009
5 years, 156 episodes

The classic 30 minute television drama is all but extinct, having given way to reality shows and various forms of forensics and autopsy programs. Thanks to

Me TV and Nick at Nite numerous classic (and not so classic) shows still live. There is one show from television past that has a unique brand, The Twilight Zone. A full 40 years after it first aired, the mere mention of its name takes everyone almost universally to the same place; ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. A dimension where things are just a little bit askew. The thought of TZ might even elicit chills. It’s one of the few programs that has sustained life outside the cathode ray tube. Rod Serling was the mastermind and creative genius behind that groundbreaking show and attracted a who’s who of actors and technical talent. Everyone wanted to work with Mr. Serling and be part of the creation of this new and exciting form of television.

So, how is The Twilight Zone like a great online experience? Many of the attributes that made The Twilight Zone so successful eerily overlap with the very best web experiences. Both:

  • Are easily accessible to a broad audience
  • Present a fresh, unique approach
  • Provide a consistent experience
  • Contain highly engaging content
  • Have the power to surprise
  • Capitalize on teachable moments
  • Are highly memorable
  • Transform skeptics into loyal fans

Which leads me to MCD Partners. I work with Magnani, Caruso and Dutton (New York), an independent interactive agency that places a premium on ideas and a priority on understanding their client’s business objectives and brand value proposition. They are skilled at helping firms craft and execute their digital strategy. I’ve been working with them for over two years now and have not only made a great business partnership, but numerous friendships as well. We work long hours trying to solve the latest problem or design the next generation web site experience. But no matter what the deadline or obstacle, we always try to make it fun.

Speaking of fun, here’s some, at least for me. I revisited those classic Serling episode introductions and altered the copy so I could include members of my MCD account team. Using a cool microphone called the Snowball, I channeled my best Rod Serling imitation in a series of recordings I call The MCD Zone. I know I’m opening up a can of worms here, inviting a response in kind which will be much more polished than my meager creative skills can muster. But that will be even more fun.

So turn up your speakers for The MCD Zone theme. Disclaimer. It’s not really a video.

The cast of characters on my MCD account team is diverse and I highly respect their talent and professionalism. As time permits, I plan on posting more episode introductions with members of my MCD team as the stars. So if you work there you may want to bookmark this page and check back. Who knows, You might be next!

Identity Crisis

Word Traveler

Machine vs. Man


Now I have to say, lest someone think I’m serious, working with MCD is not really like being in the Twilight Zone. No one has aged prematurely or been lost to roam an empty vortex for all time. But we do create some extraordinary online experiences together. Some of them have been positively other worldly. Thanks MCD team for your effort, energy and oh yes, your good sense of humor. It’s a relationship that pushes all of us beyond The Comfort Zone.

Special thanks to Mr. Rod Serling. He’s not dead, he’s just gone ahead.

Movie Studios Try to Reinvent Themselves in 3D

3dglassesU.S. film studios enjoyed a lock on the moving picture experience for many years before television invited itself to the party. Movie moguls were afraid that television was replicating the movie house experience so they completely changed the format from a standard 4:3 aspect ratio screen to a much wider screen. This helped them differentiate the experience in hopes of continuing to attract the public to paid showings. It was for the most part a successful strategy. But home theater has advanced significantly over the last 15 years and now many consumers have wide screen TVs that display beautiful high definition pictures. Blu-ray HD DVDs are coming close to replicating the visual acuity of the theater experience without the expensive ticket price and even more outrageous prices for tubs of popcorn and soft drinks.

The studios are working hard on 3D. Not a cheesy version usually reserved for blood bucket, low budget pics, but one that is much more refined and ready for grown-up subject matter. This potential evolution might seem radical, but these are desperate times, so anything goes. Studios think they can charge significantly more for a ticket to a 3D version of a film vs. the standard version, perhaps as much as $25 per seat. When you couple the increased profits with a unique experience and throw in world class filmmakers like James Cameron, it’s a tempting proposition for investors.

There is one minor glitch. The film houses are not ready for the switch to 3D. Exhibitors must upgrade the technology to be able to project the new format, which can cost up to $100,000 per screen. The studios hoped the exhibitors would pick up the tab, as their part of the investment, since the studios would bear the additional production expenses (shooting in 3D can add up to $15 million to a film) as well as the need to also produce and distribute a regular version of the film for the foreseeable future.Unfortunately the credit markets are a bit frozen right now, so the technology upgrade money is not available.

Of the approximately 40,000 screens in North America, only 1,300 of them are ready with the 3D technology. The story is much bleaker oversees, which is important to note, as well north of half of a film’s grosses come from that market. But Fox is readying James Cameron’s Avatar for a prime December release date. Many other major studios have numerous 3D projects in the pipeline, including Pixar, putting even more pressure on the system.

It’s an interesting problem that studios find themselves in. The entertainment world expanded so quickly and there was is much pressure to produce profits, that simply making great films hasn’t been enough for a long while. Franchises like Batman and Spiderman have helped studios stay viable. They have launched web sites that promote films using social media functionality as an accelerant to their astronomical marketing budgets. Other owned media properties are leveraged to promote and sometimes even re-purpose material for the home screen.

We have seen the television networks completely give up on drama and turn their slates over to the reality format for the last few years. The cable networks like HBO and most recently with AMC’s Mad Men are leading the way with serious subject matter that is garnering critical acclaim and engaged viewers. The movie studios must guard against over-betting on the potential promise of 3D profits only to find themselves in a creative wasteland.

movie-theaterObviously not ever project will work in 3D, and ultimately the consumer will decide if 3D is a great new format, or simply a trick to squeeze more money out of each ticket. But there is another major consideration. If it does work the studios could ruin their home video distribution channel by not being able to at least approximate the 3D experience. If someone loved it in 3D but can’t have that same experience at home for repeat viewings, will they just pass on renting or adding that film to their collection? There are firms working on 3D TV, but it’s not ready for prime time yet.

My advice to the system is be cautious and think through the life-cycle of the product. Hollywood needs more sources of value, not less. Theatrical box office revenues will not make up for lost home video sales. The infrastructure is simply not there and films have such a short shelf life in the cineplex. And above all, don’t leave the serious film projects behind.

YouTube and the recently launched MeHype site are giving rise to personal production companies. It certainly is no threat to the craftsmen in Hollywood, but consumers don’t seem to mind lower production values as long as they can be entertained. Netflix is moving quickly on their streaming concepts and partnering with LG for OEM tests. A TV is not a PC, at least not now. I will be watching this space closely.

Yet Another Format, Blu-ray

A trademark of Sony

I’ve had all the home video formats. It started with the Sony Betamax, then quickly moved to VHS, as the electronics company JVC won that war. Marketers take note, never use the word Beta in the name of your product. From my perspective Beta was superior to VHS in almost every way. Then Laser Disk came along and I was immediately seduced by the texture and depth of the visuals and crispness of the soundtrack. No more tapes to get tangled or broken, an easy way to skip to chapters/scenes, and no rewinding! Laser Disks are the size of record albums (you remember those 12″ black vinyl circles with grooves that produce music when you pass a diamond needle across the surface) only shiny. They were also much easier to store than tapes. But the format never caught on. My hypothesis is the studios knew they could eventually reduce the disk size to a 5″ optical format like CDs. And sure enough they did as the DVD debuted and put VHS and LD out to pasture. Now we have the next generation of home video in high definition; Blu-ray. My experience started with Sony and has now come full circle with Blu-ray.

The launch of Blu-ray seems well timed now that the latest format war has ended and HD sets are rolling into consumer homes at a healthy clip. When I got my first HD TV five years ago I was anxious to see what my LDs would look like on that beautiful flat screen. I plugged in the cables and fired it up. I was horrified. The TV production quality had, for the first time, surpassed the source material, making those shiny disks look like mud. I had to retire my Pioneer LD player to the basement keeping it connected to my 35″ ProScan tube monitor. It was a sad day. Not just for the financial investment, but for the many hours of enjoyment watching CAV versions and hearing the delightful hum of the motor turning the laser reader over to play the other side of those platters that mattered. I purged all my vinyl albums when CDs came along and did the same with VHS when I purchased the same movie on LD or DVD. But I’ve kept my entire LD collection. All 275 of them.

Some of my Laser Disks
Some of my Laser Disks

So Blu-ray. Video tape was primarily mechanical, LDs and DVDs were fully compatible, simple read only formats. But a Blu-ray player is computer-like and the discs are software programs. They have a longer load time and many players have an ethernet connection used to get firmware updates from the mother ship. Be sure you get one with this feature. None of this is bad, and all necessary to get to the phenomenal picture quality of Blu-ray. But it does evolve the consumer from a movie watcher who inserts a media format and pushes play into something closer to an interface user. I don’t find there is much difference in sound on Blu-ray from the later generation DVD. The first DVDs on the market had less than pristine sound, but it has been pretty reliable the last few years. The picture however is in another league all together. Blacker blacks, richer colors, amazing depth, texture and clear details from the surface to the farthest background image.

Like any display format, the source material is key. Newer films like Iron Man and The Dark Knight are solid all the way through. But older pictures, The Godfather is one, are a bit uneven. This is less the fault of the format than the horrible preservation practices of the studio system. Still, I saw dozens of visual details while watching The Godfather that I can honestly say I hadn’t noticed before, and I’ve seen that film probably over 50 times in the theater, on TV, VHS, LD and DVD. For example, when Captain McCluskey and Virgil Sollozzo are driving Michael to that fateful dinner meeting in the Bronx, they pass a commercial sign that reads Exterminating Co.

Studios are rushing to bring their films to Blu-ray to cash in on sales. The process costs money, and some will cut corners. Wen Laser Disks came out, I learned this lesson the hard way. I began to rely on Douglas Pratt’s Laser Disk Newsletter to help guide which films I would buy on LD. Mr. Pratt would watch all new LD releases and rate them for technical quality. There might be a market for this kind of service for Blu-ray, but online this time. I would strongly suggest you not go out and replace your perfectly good DVDs with Blu-ray versions. You may be disappointed in how the new version looks. Instead a good strategy would be to purchase only newer films, or favorites you have seen via rental or at a friends house. Since all Blu-ray players are backward compatible with DVDs there is no hurry and nothing to lose

Some final thoughts. Some releases come with a digital copy DVD which allows you to insert it into your computer’s drive and download a free digital copy from iTunes using an activation code. It’s like getting two versions of the movie for one price. Also noticed that you can sometimes get a rebate if you have the same movie on DVD. Send in the proof of purchase codes from both formats and get a check in the mail. These are very good marketing tactics to help consumers make the switch. I’ve also noticed one other benefit. No Blu-ray disc I’ve watched so far has any coming attractions or ads! Please, please keep it that way studios. Is it possible that this is the end of Disney’s Fast Play? One can hope.

Here’s a logo gallery of all the home video formats I’ve watched and collected for over time (so far that is).

Video Self-Portrait From SFMOMA

I had an extra hour this week between sessions while attending a board of advisors meeting in San Francisco, so I walked two blocks to the Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). I really love this structure and was here while it was under construction, then came back a couple of times after it opened. The finished product is an appropriate space for a modern art collection. It’s constructed in perfectly even layers of black, gray, white, brown and blue. The modern interpretation of geologic strata found naturally in rocks of the west. Mostly straight lines and crisp angles, with curves sprinkled in to soften the experience and direct your eyes back into the main space of the building. None of the art can be seen without taking sharp turns. It’s the opposite of the Guggenheim in NY, where the art can be viewed from almost anywhere, as if one was surveying the landscape. An oval eye is proped up on top of the structure, evoking a communications dish poised to collect radio waves from the cosmos.

There was a fascinating media art installation on the third floor entitled, Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay. The artist is Dan Graham, and it was composed of two black and white television monitors, two video cameras and two large mirrors positioned on opposite sides of a wide gallery. As you approach, the camera records you, but holds it for a few seconds before feeding the video to a small TV screen. The result is a bit jarring. You move inquisitively toward the television screen expecting to see yourself but you don’t. Suddenly you appear as you were a few seconds earlier, giving you an opportunity to study yourself in motion. It takes a while to notice what’s going on, but once you get it, the brain lights up.

It’s like that old trick where you are looking into what you believe to be a mirror, but in fact it’s an opening, and someone else is facing you (your identical twin), pretending to be your reflection. That person mimics your body movements and facial expressions exactly, hoping to keep up the illusion. You then try to outsmart the reflection by making sudden, unexpected movements. In the trick it works, but in this installation, it’s always you. I snapped this photo of me inside the monitor with my iPhone.

Eventually you start performing, to see what you look like. You move in for a close up and make faces. Travel from one side of the gallery to the other and do it all over again. The mirrors keep the image moving and changes the point of view, so you can see both your front and back. Kind of a reality show on yourself, but without the personal humiliation or prize money. Everyone that passed by was instantly engaged. This is the power of modern art; the viewer participates and the common perspectives are challenged.

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to see much of anything else, but captured a few more images on the way back to the summit.


Photos by Steve A. Furman


Jon Stewart – Sharpen Your Interviewing Skills

I’m a huge fan of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. But for all the smarts and wit there is a section of the show I don’t enjoy, and that’s the interview. It nearly always loses me. I realize it’s not a talk show, and the guests are appearing to plug their books or movies. But he could make it much more interesting. Let the guests talk! Don’t interrupt them with “settle down.” Tease out something that will be of keen interest to your audience.

Here’s a classic example. Jon recently had the writer/director Judd Apatow on the program. Apparently they are long time friends. As a result, the banter was all inside talk. Fun for them, not so fun for the viewer. I learned nothing new about Judd or his films. Am undecided about seeing his latest picture, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and this segment gave me no reason to go.

Work on it Jon, and make your groundbreaking show even better.

Hulu Raises the Bar on Social and Television

I have been having a lot of fun playing around with for the past few weeks. It’s a joint venture between NBC and News Corp. It’s in private beta right now, so you have to make a request to gain access. Here is how Hulu describes what they are in an October 29, 2007 press release.

Hulu is an online video service, offering viewers a vast selection of streaming, on-demand, premium programming on a free, ad-supported basis. Hulu content includes full-length current and archived television programming as well as clips and an initial selection of feature films.

When you first log-in the marquee promotes feature properties in a slide show. Below that, content is displayed in identical rectangular bricks down the page. The thumbnail images are chosen carefully and easily recognizable by the visitor. No need to give one or the other more weight. Since the advertising is embedded within the videos on the player page, there are no annoying banners or takeovers to avoid. This makes it inviting and you immediately feel like exploring. Looks like my finely honed “banner blindness” skills will be going to waste here.


Only three navigation choices plus a search box are offered across the top. All landing pages from these links are intuitive. You can also dive right into the clips from the boxes or links found on any of the pages. Users will be familiar with the content, so there is little risk in starting the video. How many times have you wished you hadn’t seen some of those You Tube videos? The search box is smart and the results page contains a left hand navigation with a rich array of filtering choices.


When you find something to watch, simply click and sit back. Once on the player page, a short commercial from the sponsor runs. The progress bar below the screen has small white dots, signaling when the commercials will appear. You can scroll back and forth within the clip, but not through the promotional spots. Kind of opposite of Tivo. Once a spot appears, a countdown lets you know when you can expect your show to restart. The spots are short, 10 seconds or so.

Yes this is another entry into the already crowded and confusing social network world, but unlike so many other sites, these guys are getting a lot of things right.

First, being a major media production and distribution company with popular entertainment brands, they instantly have permission to play in this space. The selection is huge and spans across dozens of content providers, not just NBC and FOX. You Tube is fun and entertaining, but the production value, or lack of ,wears me down quickly. You Tube also has a huge limitation. It will not play outside the web. Television and film can be anywhere here’s a screen and the emotion pretty much remains the same.

Second, the visual grammar of the site is crisp and clean. It feels more like a publishing landscape than a web site. Certainly not a blog. A pristine white background makes the logos, images and actors pop off the page. The copy is slightly gray but readable and easy on the eyes. The focus is on content. Everything works together as you navigate through the site.

Third, the usual social network features are available, but not in your face. One of the problems I have with many social sites, especially Facebook, is they have become very busy and confusing over the last few months. This coincides with “application mania” and dense and growing population. Facebook has introduced some new features to address this with their show more / show fewer profile boxes, but at some point they will need to redesign. That will be an ugly exercise. Hulu is absolutely full on social media, but doesn’t allow that to get in the way of the viewing experience. The user-generated content fits into Hulu’s templates, rather than allowing their site to be controlled by it.


When mousing over the screen the controls emerge. You can share the clip with a friend, even select a specific section of the show by dragging the progress bar handles. This allows the user to further customize their message. You can rate the clip, see details on what you are watching (original air date, etc.) and get an embed code for your blog (I can’t embed any of the videos here, because WordPress strips out flash tags). A feedback form is provided for quality or any technical problems. You can watch it full screen or launch a pop-up, even lower the lights (the white background fades back to gray) to simulate a TV viewing room experience. Of course you can write a brief review for others to read; a must. There are links to Amazon to buy DVDs, not a surprise, as Hulu’s CEO Jason Kilar used to work at Aamzon. We’ve seen most of these features before, but not this elegantly and intuitively integrated in the user interface.

There is a Hulu blog and I found an interesting “time capsule” post that could only be pulled off by one of the long standing networks. On February 19, 2008, President’s Day, they included clips from three former Presidents, JFK, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Fascinating viewing when you think about what we are going through this election year.

Social Influence Marketing (SIM) is buzzing right now as companies and marketers search for the business in social media. Hulu appears to be getting close. It’s not perfect (it’s Beta after all) and I am unsure of the brand play, as there is no equity in Hulu. But it’s the most excited I’ve been about Television in almost 15 years. And the best part, it’s not Television! Check it out.