From Fiddlers To Franklin: The Showbiz Dilemma
From Fiddlers To Franklin: The Showbiz Dilemma
From Fiddlers To Franklin: The Showbiz Dilemma

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    The entertainment industry today is
    caught in a kind of purgatory, somewhere between Zero Mostel and
    Franklin Roosevelt. It’s an odd place to be, and not sustainable to
    be there for much longer.

    From Mostel, comes the line, “Without
    our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as… as a fiddler
    on the roof!” from the play, “Fiddler on the Roof.”
    The industry respects, and clings to, its traditions. It is simply
    trying to scratch out a simple living without breaking its neck, and
    because of its traditions, the industry has more or less kept its
    balance for many years.

    Even so, the industry’s lives are
    becoming increasingly shaky and the balancing act more precarious.
    In the face of ever-changing audiences and environments, the industry
    has maintained the never-faltering tradition of steadfast opposition
    to any technological change whatsoever that would disrupt their
    business — even if it eventually profits from those changes. Rather
    than see technology as an opportunity, the industry always sees it as
    a threat.

    BusinessWeek broke the story of the latest chapter in a long saga, as
    the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) admitted it feared
    the arrival of Google’s high-speed network in Kansas City. The
    headline is instructive: “Google Fiber in Kansas City Makes
    Hollywood Nervous.” A follow-up in Ars Technica conveyed the
    same meme: “Big
    Content eyes Google Fiber deployment in Kansas City warily.”

    Rage Against The Machines

    going to Kansas City to check out what’s on the industry’s mind, it’s
    important to remember just how the traditions have evolved in just
    the last 100 years or so. John Philip Sousa wrote in 1906, of
    player pianos: “I foresee a marked deterioration in
    American music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical
    development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in
    its artistic manifestations, by virtue — or rather by vice — of the
    multiplication of the various music-reproducing machines.”

    for years fought rear-guard actions against the perceived threats to
    their livelihood — whether it was the player piano, or radio, or
    recorded music, or “talkies,” with a musicians’ union
    eventually barring their members from playing on records as late as
    the 1940s. Record companies barred artists who recorded with them
    from performing on the radio, a free service with which records had
    to compete. (Sound familiar?) When FM radio entered the picture,
    existing broadcasters on AM fought to keep the new service out of the

    course, TV was its own disruption. For years, studios barred their
    stars from appearing on TV or from having their movies shown on the
    rival medium, thus opening the way for lesser actors and production
    companies to gain entry. When NBC aired “Saturday Night At The
    Movies,” it was a big deal in 1961 when, up until then, movies
    were only seen in theaters.

    Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) did a wonderful capsule
    history of the entertainment industry’s attitudes through the decades
    in a poster the group published in 2006. It had the Sousa quote, as
    well as quotes disparaging radio, the video-cassette recorder and
    cassette tapes, spanning 1925 through 1982.

    course, the most famous,immortal quotation, came
    from Jack Valenti, the late head of the MPAA, who told the House
    Subcommittee on Courts, Civil Liberties and the Administration of
    Justice on April 12, 1982: “I say to you that the VCR is to the
    American film producer and the American public as the Boston
    strangler is to the woman home alone.” The hearing came at a
    pivotal time, following the decision of the U.S. Appeals Court for
    the Ninth Circuit to find there was infringement from use of the VCR,
    overturning a lower court ruling, and before the U.S. Supreme Court
    two years later overturned the appellate court.

    testimony started another grand tradition, one followed to this day
    by his successor, former Senator Chris Dodd. What Valenti said then
    has been echoed time and again since by MPAA, by studio and by their

    “I am merely coming to start off by talking about
    the American film and television industry, not as an economic
    enterprise, but as a great national asset to this country, to the
    U.S. Treasury and the strength of the American dollar. And I am not
    just talking on behalf of people whose names are household words,
    like Clint Eastwood and some of his small band of peers. I am
    speaking on behalf, as he is, as he will no doubt tell you on behalf
    of hundreds of thousands of men and women who without public
    knowledge or recognition, who are not besieged by fans, but who are
    artisans, craftsmen, carpenters, bricklayers, all kinds of people,
    who work in this industry, not only in this State but in the 50
    States where American films are shot on location. And they deserve no
    less, Mr. Chairman, than the concern of the Congress for the
    preservation of their industry.”


    March this year, Dodd said: “It’s simple: When content is
    stolen, the working men and women who labored to produce it —
    carpenters, truck drivers, accountants — are not fairly compensated
    for their work. And the small businesses that also benefit from film
    production — caterers, dry cleaners, and so many more — are
    robbed of that revenue.”

    The Fiber Threat

    so now we come to Kansas City, (both Kansas Cities, actually) the
    latest chapter in the saga, where Google is building its test-bed
    network with blazing speeds of 922 mbps, must faster than anything
    else. Howard Gantman, the MPAA spokesman, acknowledged such a
    network would be a great opportunity for consumers, but added that in
    South Korea, “the home entertainment marketplace was decimated by
    digital piracy” that the story quoted Gantman as having been
    “enabled by the widespread availability of high-speed Internet.”

    most accounts, however, MPAA’s assessment of South Korea, one of the
    most wired countries on earth, is off. Fueled by high-speed
    broadband, there’s a “booming digital music market” that’s
    driving up sales.

    no certainty that such high-speed broadband will achieve anywhere
    near the widespread deployment that would give the entertainment
    industry heartburn. Verizon has stopped building out its fiber
    network. It will no longer sell even its slower DSL service without
    bundling it with voice service that most people don’t want.

    isn’t breaking any records with U-verse, a copper-based service that
    is laughably regarded as “high speed.” And wireless will
    be constrained for years in the speeds it can offer. The big
    carriers, landline and wireless, are putting caps on data “usage”
    that threaten to slow down, not speed up, the development of
    alternative delivery systems for video and music.

    The Illusion of Comfort

    developments must, for the time being, give the entertainment folks
    some measure of comfort. But the heart of the industry’s problem is
    its attitude. If it now takes its cue from the Fiddler, it should
    learn to take inspiration from Franklin Roosevelt. On March 4, 1933,
    in his first inaugural address, FDR said: “So, first of all,
    let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear…
    is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which
    paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

    entertainment industry should no longer fear technological change.
    It should no longer cling to a precarious balance on the roof of an
    industrial structure constructed long ago. It’s time to look on
    technology as an opportunity, and to conquer its fear of the unknown.