Endowing the News

David Swensen and Michael Schmidt make the case for turning newspapers into non-profits funded by a university-styled endowment. But is it necessary to characterize print news as what’s saving us from the dirty internet, that “‘cesspool’ of false information”? The New York Times is, after all, by all international standards one of the least credible sources for foreign news. Would it be so bad if it slipped away?

Readers turn increasingly to the Internet for information — even though the Internet has the potential to be, in the words of the chief executive of Google, Eric Schmidt, “a cesspool” of false information. If Jefferson was right that a well-informed citizenry is the foundation of our democracy, then newspapers must be saved.

Although the problems that the newspaper industry faces are well known, no one has offered a satisfactory solution. But there is an option that might not only save newspapers but also make them stronger: Turn them into nonprofit, endowed institutions — like colleges and universities. Endowments would enhance newspapers’ autonomy while shielding them from the economic forces that are now tearing them down.

Bollywood, Rick Astley, and the Israeli Arms Industry

Amid growing international concern over the India-Israel arms trade, the Israeli firm Rafael unveiled the below marketing video — described by Stephen Trimble of The Dew Line as a “catastrophic collision of Bollywood and the arms industry” – at the Aero India 2009 defense convention in Bangalore. In the months since its posting, the video has become the errantposter-child — even earning a reprimand from The Jerusalem Post — for the new age of covert international arms trading.

Noah Shachtmann of Wired‘s DangerRoom has deemed it “the most atrocious defense video of all time, just days into the Iron Eagles — our celebration of the awesomely bad videos of the military-industrial complex”.

Every element of the promotional film is just plain wrong. The sari-clad, “Indian” dancers look all too ashkenaz and zaftig. The unshaven, hawk-nosed, leather-clad leading man appears to be a refugee fromYou Don’t Mess With the Zohan. Then of course, there’s the implication that the Indian military is somehow like a helpless woman who “need(s) to feel safe and sheltered.”

But for my rupees, the worst thing about the video is the damn theme song they’ve concocted for the thing. To pimp its weapons, Rafael produced a sitar-heavy twist on Rick Astley’s love letter to Satan, “Together Forever,” complete with a new chorus: “Dinga dinga, dinga dinga, dinga dinga, dinga dinga dee.” The rest of us now have to suffer for that bad, bad choice.

The video may be as offensive to our tastes as to our morals, but it’s also, perhaps, a sign of things to come. As a kind of post-modern pastiche of traditions and fads, light-hearted pop songs and mechanistic war, the video seems to embody perfectly the brazen disregard — where anything goes, and nothing is sacred — that we would expect from an arms dealer. Even more remarkable is the fact that these videos are themselves the product of a formula of sorts, where diverse archetypical cultural affects are combined, to easy effect. Saurabh Joshi of StratPost, the South Asian Defense news site, inquired further into Rafael’s marketing practices:

StratPost spoke to Assy Josephy the Director of Exhibitions for Rafael about how this video came about. “In Israel we have Jewish people from India, so we know about Bollywood and the song and dance numbers. Israelis are generally aware of Indian culture. This video is to help build familiarity between India and Israel and Rafael,” he says.

But this is not the first time Rafael has exhibited something of the sort. Josephy says Rafael has displayed such videos in many countries with various themes customized to the culture of the locations. “In Brazil we did a video of football. Football is very big there. In Paris the video had a theme that included Napoleon and the Renaissance. In Poland our video had themes of Chopin and Copernicus. In England it was about Shakespeare,” says Josephy.

Though we can only hope to one day get our hands on the Shakespeare defense video — an odd phrase to be sure — the greater point to be taken here is that even arms dealing can be “Epcotized”. The Rafael video is, no doubt, a classic case of a capital enterprise creating an image of cultural understanding that disguises its opposite, a generic, reproducible schema that can be ‘customized’ to capture any given culture. Only in this case, the product is a missile, not international cuisine, and the means for marketing — “culture” in quotes — is also the target.

The Art of the Commercial Break

Now that I’ve switched from Comcast to AT&T, and seem to only watch pre-recorded programs off the DVR, I’ve become a little more attuned to the importance of the commercial break. We may say we hate it, but when it’s gone, or artificially eliminated rather, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something important is missing. And sure enough, in  two new studies reviewed by The New York Times, researchers who study consumer behavior argue that, in fact, “interrupting an experience, whether dreary or pleasant, can make it significantly more intense”.

“The punch line is that commercials make TV programs more enjoyable to watch. Even bad commercials,” said Leif Nelson, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of California, San Diego, and a co-author of the new research. “When I tell people this, they just kind of stare at me, in disbelief. The findings are simultaneously implausible and empirically coherent.”

Whether or not Nelson’s findings are intuitive on some level — our anticipation for the commercial break to end does, after all, reinforce its existence — it’s the interpretation that really matters. Now, one could of course read these results as evidence of some ‘deep’ psychological function that thrives on “interruption”, which seems to be Nelson’s perspective, but even if this is the case, generally speaking, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the TV drama itself is written for commercial breaks — which is to say, the commercial’s interruption is less random and disruptive than strategic and productive.

As a matter of fact, every guide to writing for TV spends considerable time discussing how to account for the commercial break in the structure of the plot and timing of events. (Which perhaps explains why the researchers found little variation in results across all kinds of content. In this regard, the interruption is hardly an interruption.) So, technically speaking, the commercial break itself is built into, on a deeper level than otherwise suggested, the story it’s supposed to ‘interrupt’.

In this guide, for instance, Evan Smith devotes a chapter to negotiating the distinction between ‘dramatic structure’ and ‘broadcast format’. The tension between them — irreconcilable, to be sure — in many ways reproduces the familiar struggle between commercial conditions and artistic endeavors (–which despite their presumed animosity must ultimately come together). As Smith puts it, rather succinctly:

“Here is where things get confusing. The timing of commercial breaks does not necessarily coincide with the transitions between threedramatic acts in a typical episode.” (99)

As TV watchers, we know this intuitively. How many times have we seen an old movie written in anticipation of its eventual consignment to TV, only to find that the commercial break structure they expected has since changed? The awkward flash-fades to black peppered throughout (almost unnoticeably), followed by cuts to a resumed action that the writers clearly wanted us to have to anticipate, are in this regard strange, archaeological signs of a former age, not evidence of a permanent, evolutionary form of ‘interruption’.

It’s this kind of subtle, almost meaningless, dissonance that reveals just how conventional, and non-interruptive, the commercial break really is. There’s an art to it, after all. So much so that it’s practically a credit and a compliment to the writers that their work is now attributed to our brains instead of theirs.