Roger’s Big Fat American Payout

“Gretchen Carlson Claims Victory for Roger Ailes Ouster: ‘Women Will No Longer Tolerate Sexual Harassment’.” Two weeks after she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against her former boss, Fox News Channel Chairman Roger Ailes, he resigned under pressure.

Gretchen may be celebrating but I’m mad as hell. Because along with his walking papers, Ailes is being handed a big fat payout of $40 million. His employer, 21st Century Fox, is even covering his legal expenses to fight Carlson’s lawsuit. Is this truly a victory? If someone deserves to be forced out, they do not also deserve to take home millions of dollars. The fact that fired CEOs are rewarded financially for their mismanagement is frustrating. The fact that Ailes is being paid a huge sum for his misbehavior is sickening. And he’s not even really leaving the company; he’ll remain as a consultant until 2018.

It has long been obvious that Ailes has a penchant for beautiful blondes. Just look at the female anchors on Fox News, or at his wife (who he started dating while she reported to him at NBC.) Once Carlson made her allegations public and Fox started its own internal investigation It quickly became clear that there was substance to them. Just like with Bill Cosby, after one woman was brave enough to speak out others started to do so. But instead of facing jail time like Cosby, Ailes’ “punishment” is receiving a consulting contract and millions of dollars from his employer. Sounds like a sweet retirement deal, not an acknowledgement of any wrongdoing.

In his statement, 21st Century Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch praised Ailes’ performance and did not even mention the circumstances around his departure. So why is he really being stripped of his position? Rupert’s sons, executive chairman Lachlan and chief executive James, took advantage of Ailes’ fall from grace to get rid of him. This was the excuse they’d been looking for to wrestle control of the business from Ailes.

Failing to directly address the allegations against Ailes is disrespectful to the women who were subjected to unfair treatment and a hostile work environment. I hope Gretchen wins a bundle from her lawsuit. Fox’s actions resulted in a pyhrric victory for the accuser and a big fat financial windfall for the accused.

 

Women on My Mind

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I’ve been thinking a lot about women lately. Of course there’s Hillary Clinton, the first viable female candidate for president who’s ironically having a tough time getting the support of young women voters. Old school feminists like Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright aren’t helping with their comments, which are rubbing millennial women entirely the wrong way. Albright’s been saying, “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” for years, attacking women who haze other women. These nasty chicks feel that since they had to fight their way to the top, and since there’s limited room for senior women in their given field, they’re not going to make it any easier for the women who follow them. But to young women who were born onto a still-imperfect but much more level playing field, it sounded like Albright was telling them to support Hillary just because she’s a woman…which to them is as bad as not supporting someone just because she’s a woman. Young feminists appreciate the historical significance of a potential female president but it’s more important to them to vote for a candidate on his or her merits, not his or her gender. Isn’t that really what we’ve been fighting for all along?

Another woman I’ve thought about is Jessica, who I worked with at the Grace Institute Brag Party last year. She and 104 other women just graduated from Grace’s intensive 5-month job readiness program. I was so proud of her when I received a LinkedIn notification that she got a new job as a receptionist at a law firm. Congrats to all of the @graceinstitute grads!

I’m tickled pink about the return of some of my favorite funny women on TV. Samantha Bee is killing it on TBS’s Full Frontal. Much has been said about the fact that she’s the only woman in late night comedy (which is a bit of a stretch; her show is on at 10:30pm, which is really prime time…but, whatever.) I hope whoever passed over her to replace Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show is looking at the ratings and realizing he made the biggest mistake of his life. I like Trevor Noah and think he’s doing a decent job, but seeing Bee succeed is sweet revenge for the sexism and ageism that prevented her from getting that promotion.

I can’t be too mad at Comedy Central, they did bring us Inside Amy Schumer. I was a fan long before Amy became a movie star and one of The Most Fascinating People of the Year. Amy’s right up there with Richard Pryor and George Carlin as one of the most daring and influential comedians of all time…not just one of the best female comedians. Now Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are back in season 3 of the hilarious Broad City. If you haven’t watched this show, run…don’t walk…to Comedy Central On Demand to catch up.

Speaking of women in TV, I want to give a shout out to my fellow Women in Cable Telecommunications NY chapter board members. @WICTNY has been working on a Leadership Series event titled, “Climbing the Corporate Ladder: How to Make it to the Next Rung” featuring a panel of four successful women at various stages of their careers. The event (to be held on February 29) sold out in record time and I was reminded of just how hard these volunteers work to put together helpful, meaningful programs. The benefits of WICT membership go way beyond what one can learn at our events, however. In Never Eat Alone: and Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time, Keith Ferrazzi touts the importance of networking and developing real, mutually supportive friendships for career success. As I’ve been reading the book I keep thinking how fortunate I am to have developed many great personal and professional relationships through WICT.

To keep abreast (pun intended) of all the news that matters to women I read the LZ Sunday Paper. There’s always terrific, thought-provoking content curated in former NBC exec Lauren Zalaznick’s weekly roundup of news, insights, arts and culture. Sign up at LZSundayPaper.com, it’s a great read.

OTT is HOT

It seems like wherever you turn these days everyone is talking about how Over The Top services (streaming networks) are taking over the video world. (Except, of course, when they’re talking about Donald Trump.)

To wit:

  • Netflix received 8 Golden Globe nominations for television programming this year, more than any other network. In stark contrast, NBC – host of the awards show – received 0. While Netflix didn’t take home any statuettes, Amazon won 2 of the 5 categories in which it was nominated. The streaming services’ dominance was most obvious in the Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy category, representing 4 of the 6 nominees: Orange is the New Black from Netflix, Transparent from Amazon, and Casual from Hulu, with Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle taking home the prize. The other 2 nominees were from HBO.
  • Amazon and Netflix shelled out millions at the Sundance Film Festival, snapping up high profile films by outbidding traditional distributors. Last year Amazon attended the festival but didn’t buy anything. This year their acquisitions include the drama Manchester by the Sea starring Casey Affleck for $10 million (that’s Casey, not Ben). Netflix ultimately lost the most buzzed-about film at the festival, Nate Parker’s The Birth of A Nation, to Fox Searchlight, but not before bidding the price up to a record-breaking $17.5 million.
  • Netflix has even worked its way into the millennial vernacular: “Netflix and Chill” is the new “Booty Call.”

It should come as no surprise that the most innovative content is being driven by the newest delivery platform. Historically each time a new competitor enters the ring they have had to be more agile and original than the established players to earn the respect of the creative community, viewers, and the press. Back in the early days of cable, basic networks’ lineups included a heavy dose of broadcast repeats and rejects. Cable was the Rodney Dangerfield of the television world. When the cable networks became profitable enough to invest in quality original programming, they had to break new ground to lure viewers away from broadcast. Suddenly cable shows started winning critical acclaim and awards.

HBO (and later Showtime) figured out that theatrical films were commodities. To build viewer loyalty they had to offer original programming too…and it had to be better than what was on basic so customers would pay more to get it. Unencumbered by the “standards and practices” of broadcast, with bigger budgets than basic, and without the need to pander to advertisers, the premium networks attracted the best Hollywood talent–both behind and in front of the camera–by offering more creative control. Premium became the place to be for high quality, pushing-the-envelope series.

Now the OTT services are the new kids in town, so they’re the ones willing to take creative risks. They’re out-premiuming the premium networks. I have yet to pay for a streaming service; we spend so much on our cable bundle that I can’t rationalize shelling out any more for in-home entertainment even though they’re very reasonably priced. While you pay for Netflix as you go and Amazon charges upfront for a year, they both come out to about $8 a month. If it were up to me alone I’d probably cut the cord, get a digital antenna for broadcast reception, and order up Amazon and Netflix. But my husband and son are die-hard sports fans, so cable is still the best option for our family.

To get a first-hand view of what all the fuss is about I took a deep dive into streaming waters with simultaneous month-long trials of Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. On Netflix I started the month with season 3 of Orange is the New Black (I was already a fan, having seen seasons 1 and 2 with previous freebies) and ended it with the first episode of Making a Murderer, the series making documentaries cool again and sparking a national debate about the guilt or innocence of its protagonist. I was sorry to miss the rest of the series, but not sorry enough to pony up $8 to see it. My husband, who doesn’t watch a lot of dramas, stuck with Narcos (based on the life and legend of Pablo Escobar) while I sampled a couple of episodes but never got hooked.

On Amazon I double-binged seasons 1 and 2 of Transparent. I loved that it’s unlike anything else on television but was surprised how much of the focus is on Maura’s narcissistic children’s dysfunctional sex lives rather than her own struggles as a transgender woman. Prompted by its Golden Globe win I checked out Mozart in the Jungle. I liked it enough to watch several episodes but, even combined with free 2-day shipping and the other Amazon Prime perks, opted to opt-out and the end of the trial.

Our kids like Netflix because its easy-to-use guide and recommendations for each family member make it simple to find programming that appeals to them. We’ve probably got access to just as much family friendly fare on cable (if not more), but it’s cumbersome to search through the linear channels and each network’s on demand offerings. They were turned off by Amazon’s interface and didn’t really give it a chance; they may have been more interested if we didn’t have Netflix at the same time.

Circumventing even the streaming services and with no advance warning, Louis CK just released the first episode of a new series he wrote, directed and stars in called Horace and Pete on his website. For $5 “You can download the video here. Once you’ve got it, it’s yours to do with as you like: sync it to your Zune, stream it over wi-fi to your spouse, burn it to DVD, etc.” I admire that he brings his programming directly to the people and I was intrigued enough to part with $5, but I have to say I appreciated it more than I actually enjoyed it. The superb cast includes Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Jessica Lange and Edie Falco. It’s more like a stage play than a television show, compete with an intermission, and is most definitely not a comedy.

I didn’t love it but I love that he did it. Whether direct-to-consumer, OTT, on cable or on broadcast, the less interference there is from the “suits”, the more innovative programming we’ll see.

Goin’ Mobile

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Look around you. On the street, on the subway, at a restaurant. I bet you see lots of people looking at their mobile phones. Today there are 5.2 billion mobile phone users across the globe; 2.1 billion of those are smartphones. Including tablets, there are more mobile devices in the world than people.

At a recent family gathering I noticed three of my nephews sitting next to each other on a couch, all staring down at their phones. The compulsion to stay plugged in has become so overwhelming I had to yell, “Put down the phones!” to get them to talk to the people around them. It’s difficult to look away from our texts, posts, news and scores when we hold the power of immediate information gratification in our hands.

The statistics are astounding:
• Consumers check their mobile devices 150x per day
• The average American spends almost 2 hours a day on a mobile device
• That’s more than 57 thousand hours over the course of a lifetime

In fact, time spent on mobile devices (2.8 hours/day) has surpassed time spent on desktops and laptops (2.4 hours/day). In April 2015 Google changed their algorithm to favor mobile sites. Over Thanksgiving weekend 102 million people shopped in brick and mortar stores… but 103 million people shopped with their phones. Mobile accounted for 57% of total online traffic. The kick-off of the holiday shopping season isn’t really Black Friday and Cyber Monday anymore: it’s Mobile Weekend.

The mantra for marketers is “Mobile First.” Mobile can no longer be an afterthought, it has to be our first thought about connecting to consumers. What other medium is with people virtually all day, from the time they wake up until they go to sleep, at home, school, work and play?

We need to consider the mobile experience first, but not in isolation. Mobile strategy should integrate with the rest of the marketing plan because mobile usage is integrated with the rest of our lives. Every interaction with a brand, whether in the digital or real world, is part of the customer journey and needs to present a consistent brand experience.

Coming from a traditional media background, I first became aware of mobile as a marketing platform in the form of display ads. Which kind of suck. The banners are tiny and hard to see, and approximately 50% of clicks are mistakes: people actually trying to get rid of the ads, not engage with them. But there are so many other tactics in the mobile marketer’s arsenal. Video. Apps. Mobile websites. SMS (text) messages. Email. Native advertising. Social media. Location-based services. QR codes. Search. Gaming. All of which can be monitored and measured to eliminate the guesswork of traditional marketing. With mobile, as with all digital marketing, evaluating key performance indicators can help us make informed decisions about what creative is working, whether we’re targeting the right people, and the return on our investment.

I have a love/hate relationship with mobile. As a marketer, I love the direct pipeline to consumers and ability to target audiences and offers. As a consumer, I love the connectivity, convenience and custom content. I use my phone to email and text, buy my train ticket, pre-order my coffee, get directions, find discount parking, deposit my checks and see if my son has left school yet. At this point I’m hooked and can’t picture life without it. Ask people what one device they’d want on a desert island, and I’d bet smartphones would win by a landslide.

As a member of society, however, I’m afraid that mobile devices are negatively impacting our ability to concentrate and interact with other human beings. We need to demonstrate self-restraint and set rules for our kids about when it’s appropriate to use our phones and when it’s not. Mobile devices should enhance our lives, not take them over. I know it’s easier said than done. Perhaps our mantra should be “People First, Mobile Second.”

Thanks to NYU adjunct professor @RayBeharry for most of the data referenced in this article.

Photo by nenetus

And the Winner is…

When Joe Biden announced that he would not be running for President, the reason he cited was that there just wasn’t enough time left to mount a successful campaign. This was more than a year before the election. But Biden was right; after all, the campaign had officially begun a full 596 days prior to Election Day when Ted Cruz announced his candidacy.

It seems like we’ve been hearing about the 2016 presidential race since the day the polls closed in 2012. We’re a year away and I already have campaign fatigue. I can’t face another 12 months of debates and scandals and polls (oh my!) The thought of covering another presidential campaign drove Jon Stewart off the air; he just couldn’t take it anymore.

Our neighbors to the north just held an election for Prime Minister. Unlike our regularly scheduled elections, in Canada federal elections occur when the Prime Minister asks for one. Incumbent PM Stephen Harper (who did not win re-election) was sharply criticized for the extreme length of this campaign. CBC News called it a “mid-summer marathon.” The Canadian Press reported that this “grueling” campaign was the costliest ever and the longest since 1872. The Globe and Mail said it was “endless.” Just how long was this record-breaking campaign?

11 weeks. That’s right, less than three months.

And Canada is hardly alone in holding such brief campaigns for its highest office. Many countries have laws limiting the duration of campaigns. NPR’s Danielle Kurtzleben wrote, “In Mexico, a 2007 law limited the length of campaigns. In Argentina, advertisements can begin only 60 days before the election, and the official campaign itself can start only 25 days after that. In France, the presidential campaign is generally only two-weeks long.”

Who benefits from America’s protracted campaign season? Not the candidates, who can’t possibly do the job they currently have properly because they have to spend so much time raising money and making appearances. Not the citizens, who don’t need two years to make up their minds. I already know who I’m voting for, and I’d venture to guess that the majority of Americans do too. Why can’t the Presidential race be more like the Super Bowl and less like the World Series?

As far as I can figure out, it’s the media that really win. It gives them something to talk about. And talk about. And talk about. The Atlantic put together a daily dashboard tracking mentions of the candidates on Aljazeera America, Bloomberg, CNBC, CNN, Comedy Central, FOX Business, FOX News, LinkTV, and MSNBC. As of November 1, 2015 Donald Trump had received over 121,000 mentions, followed by Hillary Clinton at almost 111,000, Jeb Bush at over 62,000 and Bernie Sanders at over 25,000. That’s a whole lot of air time.

Then there’s the media coverage of the media coverage. Post-debate analysis includes not only an assessment of the candidates’ performances, but evaluations of the network and its reporters hosting the debate. CNBC has been widely blasted for its “gotcha” questions and time-wasting banter during the Republican debate it hosted last week. Google “CNBC GOP debate” and you get over 15 million hits.

And it’s not just news shows anymore. When candidates began appearing on talk shows and poking fun at themselves on SNL several years ago, I thought it was endearing and humanizing. Now they’re EVERYWHERE, and it seems degrading to see the people vying to be the leader of the free world prostrating themselves in front of every talk show host in town. I had the TV tuned to the Today show one morning last week and Access Hollywood Live came on next. I was aghast to see the hosts of this Hollywood gossip show offering their critique of the last GOP debate. Co-host Billy Bush may be related to Jeb, George et al, but come on…it’s not Meet the Press. They discussed at length whether or not Donald Trump has stubby fingers. I kid you not. This is how we’re choosing our next president?

The media also benefit is as the recipient of all of those advertising dollars. Political TV ad spending will top $4.4 billion for federal races this year, up from $3.8 billion in 2012. Jeb Bush’s superPAC has already raised more than Obama’s main superPAC did in all of the 2012 election. As of the end of September, Hilary Clinton had raised about $75 million since entering the race…well on the way to her $100 million goal for this year, a large part of which will likely go to TV spending.

But do all those ads work? A 2010 study concluded that while ads do have an impact on voting, the return on this investment is highly questionable. 1,000 more ads for a candidate across a whole campaign resulted in a 0.5 percentage point improvement in that candidate’s share of the vote. Why spend all this money if the ROI is so low? Because if your competitors are doing it, you have to do it too just to be in the game. It’s the cost of entry.

Savvy political operatives have found loopholes in all of our well-intentioned campaign finance reforms, rendering them useless. We haven’t been able to limit fundraising by passing laws restricting campaign donations. Maybe we’d be more successful stopping the spending madness by passing laws restricting the length of the campaigns instead, and our politicians could get back to the business of governing instead of spending half their time focusing on getting elected.

The Old “New Fall Season”

I grew up in a non-television household. We owned a TV but pretty much the only programs my parents watched were 60 Minutes and Masterpiece Theatre. TV was like dessert: an occasional treat rather than a staple of our diet. Yet somehow, despite being reared in an environment that was pretty hostile to television, I developed a fascination with the medium that eventually led to a career in television marketing.

I’ve been nostalgic lately about the excitement of the New Fall Season. It was like Christmas to me, with new shows to unwrap each night. I’d study the TV listings trying to guess what my classmates would be talking about on the playground the next day. Of course there were no DVRs or On Demand so you had to choose wisely. If you picked The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour instead of The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family — and it turned out that Greg & Marcia were hotter than Sonny & Cher — you didn’t get a second chance to see that episode for weeks or months. You completely lost the opportunity to join the conversation about whether the new Chris was better than the old Chris.

The good news was that you had at least a 33 1/3% chance of getting it right since there were only three networks to choose from. In my mind the independent stations weren’t worth paying attention to and PBS was for toddlers and old people.

The competition for viewers was as intense back then as it is today, but that’s about the only thing that has remained constant. Now there are hundreds of channels to choose from and new shows premiere all year long. TV isn’t just on TV, it’s on your computer…and “binge viewing” has entered the lexicon as platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime launch whole seasons at once. Which got me thinking, does the New Fall Season even exist anymore and if it does, has it outlived its purpose?

I posed this question to Peter Gaffney, SVP of Programming for History and A&E. Pete grew up next door to me and remembers coming to my house to watch the Friday night preview show forthe new Saturday morning cartoons, so clearly my family gets partial credit for his highly successful career. He said that since the broadcast networks launch so many shows (most of which fail), promoting a whole new line-up at one time is more efficient than trying to market individual programs throughout the year. Cable networks, on the other hand, consciously avoid launching shows in the fall during the broadcast premiere frenzy (and the baseball post-season). He looks at the competitive landscape year-round for opportunities when new cable shows can get some attention.

It’s worth noting that many of the most successful series in broadcast television history did not premiere in the fall…like Seinfeld, Happy Days, All in the Family, Survivor, American Idol, Dallas and The Simpsons. Part of the reason these mid-season replacements were able to find an audience is precisely because they didn’t get lost in the madding crowd of Premiere Week promotion. Cable networks had the brilliant idea of counter-programming during the summer, launching new shows while the broadcast networks had all but given up. This strategy generated hits like Mad Men, Sex and the City, Entourage, The Wire, Weeds, Ray Donovan, and Louie, and programming stunts like Shark Week.

Fast-forward to 2015 and TV Guide’s website has an awesome Fall Preview section with show descriptions, a day-by-day schedule, trailers and more. It’s come a long way from the days of the black and white printed grid and is like crack to TV geeks like me. They consider fall to be August — November (which I think is a bit of a stretch) and include both series and season premieres.

A look at this year’s schedule reveals that cable spreads its premieres very evenly across this time period with 13 in August, 13 in September, 13 in October and 5 in early November. The Internet and satellite services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, DirecTV) also follow this model with 2 premieres in August, 3 in September, 4 in October and 3 in November. But broadcast still crowds the lion’s share of premieres into September through early October with only 2 premieres in August and 6 in November but a whopping 58 in September and 21 in October.

Audiences can’t possibly find out about and get excited about that many shows at one time. The competition for the hearts and minds and eyeballs of America makes promoting programming in smart, cut-through-the-clutter ways more important than ever. Content may be king but without marketing the king could be playing to an empty room.

Campaigns need to integrate traditional and digital tactics to build awareness and prompt sampling, with out-of-home and social media becoming more important all the time. Every campaign should include at least one unexpected element. As Stephen Colbert said, CBS plastered his face on every possible surface to promote his premiere on The Late Show…but using his voice and clever commentary on the Waze navigation app was the killer tactic in that campaign.

But what am I doing sitting here writing? I’ve got a whole lot of TV to watch!

What’s News?

It turns out I have no idea what is and isn’t news.

The path to this revelation began at 7 this morning. Instead of turning on the Today show as usual, on a whim I put on CBS This Morning, which has the reputation of being a more serious news program. September 11 isn’t like other days and I wanted to hear what serious journalists had to say.

I was disappointed to see that a remembrance of the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history was relegated to the third spot on the rundown. The top story of the day, according to CBS News, was Joe Biden’s appearance on CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert the previous night.

Any other day of the year this would have been just fine with me. I understand the importance of cross-promoting your network’s shows, especially one so highly anticipated that has just launched to big ratings and critical acclaim. (Sidebar: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert really is excellent television. Kudos to Executive Producer Meredith Bennett!) But let’s put things in perspective here: that’s television, 9/11 is life. I am also in no way minimizing the personal sacrifices made by the Vice President. I just felt that the honchos at CBS made a self-serving decision to promote their own show over one of the most important events in modern American history.

 

In fairness, because I didn’t watchToday today I didn’t know what story they led with. So I took a look at the websites of the three broadcast network morning news programs. Not surprisingly CBS News featured Biden and Colbert at the top of the page. But I was stunned to see that ABC News also led with the Biden story (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was credited at the top of the page, but Colbert’s image was conspicuously absent from the photo.)

At least ABC did have a banner above the Biden story promoting a live stream of the 9/11 commemoration ceremony and the video itself was playing in a small box below Biden’s big head. The top stories on the Today home page were an interview with the seamstress who helped two inmates escape from a New York prison, a dog story, and Justin Bieber.

So it wasn’t just that CBS was putting its own business interests above editorial credibility. Across the board, the broadcast network news directors had decided that 14 years later, 9/11 just wasn’t news anymore. Maybe, I thought, it’s because TV targets the lowest common denominator and people really do care more about Justin Bieber than 9/11. Surely the venerable New York Times would give the anniversary of the terrorist attacks the prominence it deserved, right? There was no mention on the front page; 9/11 didn’t appear until page 17, after stories including “Largest U.S. Electric Utility to Pay Fine Over Power Plan Rules Violations” and “Liberal Becomes First Female Mayor of Nashville in Runoff.”

Had people really forgotten the horror of that day? The suffering of all of those who lost loved ones? The loss of innocence we all experienced? A quick look at my Facebook feed showed me that this was not the case. There were dozens of beautifully worded tributes, images of the Twin Towers, and proclamations to Never Forget. I don’t think my friends are unique in their need to come together and publicly acknowledge the significance of this day. People want to share their sorrow and support each other.

While the news outlets may continue to focus on what’s considered news at J-school, social media reveals what’s really important to people. The national conversation is on Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram. TheToday show has its kitschy Orange Room devoted to monitoring social media. Perhaps the news directors should listen to what their viewers and readers are talking about amongst themselves. Isn’t that what news is?

7 Weeks in the Woods: Unplugged

I have taken a sabbatical from my “real” job this summer to work at my kids’ sleep away camp in the Berkshires. It’s a whole different world in so many ways. One of the many things that attracted us to this particular camp was its “no electronics” policy. Campers are allowed to have devices that play music only. My kids have more screen time than I’d like during the rest of the year so I’m happy that they get a break over the summer. The campers are so busy enjoying the great outdoors that they don’t miss their smart phones, TVs, computers, video games and iPads…right?

Not entirely. Some sneaky campers with phones or iPods ostensibly to play music have figured out how to hide their apps for inspection, then enable them when they want to use them. The camp just locked the WiFi, restricting staff to one registered device each, because the campers were using it. Why do the kids go to such great lengths for Internet access? Part of the allure is the thrill of getting away with something…the same reason they try to smuggle in candy (which isn’t allowed in bunks either). But it’s also that they’re digital natives, addicted to their portable electronic devices because they’ve grown up in a world where they’re omnipresent. Take them away and these kids are like junkies going through detox. They may know it’s good to break the habit but they’re jonesing for an electronics fix.

I have to admit that I’ve been experiencing a bit of withdrawal myself. My new surroundings have had a dramatic impact on my media habits. I have no TV or WiFi in my room, so my plan to watch streaming video on my iPad didn’t pan out (no Orange is the New Black Season 3 for me!) I have to sit near the administration building…where I am right now…to be within WiFi range. I did download a couple of shows from iTunes and an e-book so I can use them later. I won’t even get into how much time it has taken me to complete this posting, finally giving up trying to do it all on my iPad and borrowing a computer.

I feel very disconnected from the outside world. There’s no Today show while I get dressed in the morning and no New York Times app on the train to work to keep me informed. I can understand why my son once told me that he feels safe at camp. There’s no news about Isis or escaped convicts or deranged shooters here…just playing and having fun in a warm, supportive environment. It’s a wonderful cocoon, removed from the real world.

Cellular phone service is also spotty at best. Because I need to be reachable by the camp office, I’m carrying around an old AT&T phone in addition to my Verizon iPhone. Usually at least one of them works.

Once you have 24/7 connectivity it’s hard to lose it, or to discipline yourself not to use it. While on vacation with a group of friends in Jamaica last year we all used our phones, iPads and laptops to check in with our kids and work. As a group we were pretty good about not over-doing it, but I did wonder how much more relaxed we would be if we didn’t feel pressure to communicate with the folks back home simply because we had the capacity to do so. It’s like working remotely; it can be a blessing or a curse. It’s great to be able to be productive when you’re snowed in or have a sick kid, but we feel pressure to work mornings, evenings and weekends to be competitive. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

I think it’s sad when I see groups of young people who are all staring at their screens instead of talking to each other. What’s happening right around them has become less important than what else is happening, as reported via text or social networks.

We don’t ban the use of electronic devices in my home; my husband and I feel it’s important for our kids to develop digital skills to keep up with their education and eventually their career prospects. But we do hope to instill an appreciation for moderation, an understanding that there’s a time and a place for screen time. For example there are no electronics at our dinner table, at home or in restaurants.

I was talking to a parent who has a pretty strict no electronics policy in his home. He and his wife conceded to getting their 6th grader a smart phone because that’s how the kids communicate about things like homework assignments and sports practices. But they came up with a contract stipulating that the phone is a privilege, not a right, and may be rescinded at any time if the usage guidelines (such as no games) are not met.

Like childhood obesity, too much screen time is a first world problem. Having gone without easy access I can now understand how important it is for poor, remote areas of the U.S. and developing nations to have Internet and cellular service. The disparity is creating the “Haves” and “Have Nots” of the Information Age. According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports Internet access in libraries in the U.S. and abroad:

In an age where economic, educational, health, and social opportunities increasingly depend on access to the Internet, lack of access means lack of opportunity. Only 35 percent of the world’s population is connected to the Internet, and people in rural and poor communities are the least likely to have online access or the skills to navigate the digital world. Through the Internet, people search for employment, find markets for their crops and products, access government programs, learn new skills through online courses, research important health issues, and engage in social interactions with distant family members and friends.

Companies like Google and Facebook also have programs to help increase access to the Internet in developing countries. Of course they have a vested interest in maximizing the number of Internet users in the world, but they’re doing good while they’re doing what’s good for their business.

The bottom line: Too much time on the Internet is bad because people lose their appreciation for experiencing life for its own sake, not so they can post about it. No internet is bad because people don’t have access to basic tools and information necessary to succeed in today’s world economy. But moderate use of the Internet, to supplement rather than replace our social connections and enhance our academic and occupational prospects, is just right. We all need to find the balance that’s best for ourselves and our kids.

Now put down the phone, go out and breathe some fresh air, and talk to a real human being for a while. You’ll be glad you did.

a while. You’ll be glad you did.

Books About TV

As a way to combine my interests in television and books, here are my reviews of three books about television.

Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV (Brian Stelter, Grand Central Publishing)

Top of the Morning is an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the battle for dominance between the Today show and Good Morning America. Other morning shows including CBS This Morning and MSNBC’s Morning Joe are mentioned, but the Today/GMA rivalry gets most of the coverage.

I got sucked into the drama but could have done without all the silly metaphors (“the only couch in America that could itself get a mid-six-figure book deal”; “The gap was now NASCAR-speedway-size, not football-stadium-size.”)

While the book presents a comprehensive history dating back to the launch of Today in 1952, the focus is on “Operation Bambi”: the bungled outster of Ann Curry from the Today anchor chair. I couldn’t stand watching Curry’s uncomfortable banter and numerous blunders, but she was the sacrificial lamb (Lamb Curry? Sorry, I couldn’t resist) for Today’s falling ratings…which weren’t all her fault. Stelter’s take is that Matt Lauer may have wanted her out, but he didn’t push her out. The real masterminds were NBC producers and executives. Lauer took the heat because he’s the public figure.

The book also delves into Robin Roberts’ very public battle with myelodysplastic syndromes, a result of her treatment for breast cancer years earlier. The way she juggled her professional duties, helping GMA beatToday’s legendary 16-year ratings streak, with her personal trials was amazing. I guess next I’m going to have to read Everybody’s Got Something, Roberts’ memoir (also from Grand Central Publishing.)

Good Talk, Dad: The BIRDS and the BEES…and other CONVERSATIONS we FORGOT to have (Bill Geist and Willie Geist, Grand Central Publishing)

Speaking of morning television…this book was written by Bill Geist fromCBS Sunday Morning and his son Willie Geist who appears on Today andMorning Joe. It’s not really a book about TV, it’s about the relationship between a father and son who happen to work in TV. They also happen to have lived in my hometown of Ridgewood, NJ, and the book includes many amusing local references.

The day it was released I attended their signing at Bookends, our local independent bookstore that somehow attracts everyone from Clintons to Kardashians to its ugly, wood-paneled basement for author appearances. Their family and many former neighbors were in attendance, and I was struck by what nice, genuine people the Geists really seem to be. They come off that way in the book: very homespun yet quirky, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with Bill’s work.

The anecdotes in the book are downright hilarious. It’s also poignant, delving into previously taboo subjects like Bill’s service in Vietnam and his struggles with Parkinson’s. It’s a fun read and a perfect Father’s Day gift.

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country (Gabriel Sherman, Random House)

That’s a really long subtitle…and it’s a really interesting book about a really fascinating character. Ailes has been a political kingmaker, a media mogul, and even a Broadway producer. I might doubt the veracity of some of the stories if I didn’t know how spot-on chapter 9, “America’s Talking,” was. I was working at NBC Cable at the time and witnessed the Ailes cult of personality first hand. Loyalty was prized above all, as evidenced by the legions of staff members who followed him to Fox News.

The one accomplishment of this era that the book neglects to cover is the “Talk Search”: Ailes had the idea of conducting a nation-wide contest to find a host of one of the new America’s Talking shows. It was a brilliant PR stunt, and a reality competition show ahead of its time (the competition itself was not televised, but it should have been.) After the demise of America’s Talking the winner, Bill McCuddy, was an entertainment reporter at Fox News from 1996–2007 and is currently residing in the “where are they now?” file.

Ailes has proven that if you say something often enough, no matter how absurd it is, people will believe it. He’s used “Fair and Balanced” as a tagline for the most unfair and unbalanced news network on the air, helping it become #1 in ratings and profits. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny his influence on American politics and media.

Print: It’s Not Dead Yet

On Friday I attended the 15th annual BookExpo America (for my cable friends: it’s like NCTA, but with books.) In a world where authors are the rock stars, attendees (booksellers and librarians) stand in long lines for autographed copies…even when the author isn’t Christie Brinkley (who was promoting her upcoming book Timeless Beauty and looked fabulous, BTW.) We keep hearing that digital media is killing the printed word, but I believe reports of print’s demise are grossly exaggerated. Print and digital will continue to evolve but will co-exist, just as video maimed — rather than killed — the radio star, and streaming video won’t completely annihilate cable TV.

In 2010’s prescient Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart describes a not-so-distant future where printed books are dusty, musty relics of a bygone era used only by hopelessly uncool old people. Trying to avoid becoming a hopelessly uncool old person myself, I made the switch from mostly physical books to mostly e-books when I got an iPad Mini. I do most of my reading on the train commuting to work. I can take an entire library with me effortlessly on my Mini, or lug around a heavy print book that takes up half of the space in my bag.

In general I’m happy with the digital reading experience, although I just read I Am Malala (I give it 5 stars!) and kept wishing there was a glossary of the Pashtun terms that I didn’t understand. Guess what? There was a glossary, but it was at the end so I didn’t see it until I had finished the book. It would have been smart to put the glossary up front or, better yet, to hyperlink the words to their definitions.

Despite the convenience of digital books I’ve tried to keep printed books as my kids’ primary reading source for a number of reasons. They get enough screen time playing games and watching videos so it’s good to give their brains a break. And I want them to have an appreciation for the value of books, which is more difficult when a “book” is just a digital file. When Jack’s Sports Illustrated Kids arrives it’s also available on the iPad. But he likes to flip through the print magazine, read and re-read it, and tear out posters. I gave Natalie a copy of Animal Tales magazine and she loved it, tearing out pictures of cute animals that now adorn her bedroom walls. You can’t do that with digital. All of the middle schoolers in my town will be getting a Chromebook next year (high school students already have them) so it will be interesting to see how Jack’s relationship with printed books changes.

According to GeekWire, “Paper is back…’real’ books are on the rebound.” Paper book sales increased 2.4% last year, selling better than they have since ebooks took off in 2010. “The paper tome apparently hit rock bottom in 2012, but has since rallied in categories from children’s books to adult non-fiction, and formats from trade paperback to hardcover.” My client Hachette Book Group announced that in 2014 digital sales (ebooks and downloadable audio) represented 30% of net sales, compared to 33% in 2013. It may not seem like it when you see all the Kindles and iPads, but print is up and digital is down.

While Amazon has taken a wrecking ball to brick-and-mortar bookstores, there are signs of life there, too. As reported in the Publisher’s Weekly Show Daily, the number of independent bookstores has actually GROWN for the sixth year in a row. There are people who really want to go into a bookstore and browse rather than ordering their books with their toilet paper and TV shows. The shuttering of Borders in 2011 and the continuing closings of Barnes & Noble locations have left a real void for indies to fill.

What about newspapers? I’ve been reading The New York Times on the app on my Mini. I love the cleanliness factor: no dirty fingers from newsprint! The only catch is that I have to remember to open it up while I’m still in my Wifi-connected house. Once I do so it downloads immediately (a marked improvement over the last year or so.) The digital version can also be a richer experience. One day I was reading the food section on the Times app, sitting next to my father who was reading the print edition. In a piece about sandwiches he saw a couple of still photographs; I got interactive sandwiches that jumped apart to reveal images and additional information about the individual ingredients. As far as I can figure out, there are only two reasons we still get the print version: my husband likes the crossword puzzle (let’s be honest, Honey…we’re talking Monday and Tuesday…Wednesday, tops) and the plastic wrappers it comes in make great poop bags for dog walking. I don’t think those are user benefits The New York Times Company can bank on.

The Times is poised to hit 1 million digital subscribers this summer. Half of its digital readers now come from mobile. The average daily print circulation is 625,951; Sunday circ is about 1.3 million. It’s truly the best of times and the worst of times at the Times. Falling profits have meant the layoffs of many valuable long-term employees. But I have faith that the brand will adapt and survive. The Times was one of three news sources recommended by the instructor of a Social Media class I took recently, who is barely in her twenties; the other two being Mashable and Digiday. Her point was that to be an effective social media manager you need to know everything that’s going on in the world, and a general news source like the Times is the best way to keep up on a wide range of topics. Her assumption is that you’ll be consuming that content digitally, of course.

Nothing beats digital for immediacy. You can’t stay current by reading day-old news, or two week-old news in the case of The New York Times Book Review. It drives me crazy that they can’t figure out a way to print that thing closer to its distribution date. We hear about what movie was #1 at the weekend box office on Monday, but the bestseller lists are two weeks old by the time they arrive at our doorstep.

So put me firmly in the camp of preferring digital to print newspapers. When it comes to magazines, however, I still appreciate both formats. I love New York magazine and was saddened when it reduced its publication schedule from weekly to bi-monthly. I haven’t made the switch to digital partly because I don’t have Internet access during my commute. So until we get Wifi on NJ Transit, I’m stuck. I know New York magazine’s website has a lot of good digital content but I never seem to have the time to check it out. When I’m at work I’m working (crazy, I know) and when I’m at home I’m parenting; if I have any time to relax I watch TV the old fashioned way — on a TV. Plus, we need print magazines to occupy us at doctor’s offices and nail salons!

Print is cool again, and media brands known for their video or digital content are jumping on the bandwagon. Cable’s ID (Investigation Discovery) Network is distributing a series of true-crime special reports starting this summer. You can get the first issue, Women Who Kill, for $9.99 at a newsstand near you. Even tech website CNET went back to the future and launched a print magazine last November.

It all boils down to a matter of personal preference. Whether it’s on the printed page or on a digital device, keep reading. And thank you for reading Issue #2 of Thinking Out Laub.