A famous Oatmeal cartoon showed the cartoonist making a good faith effort to buy Game of Thrones. He finds that the show is not available on iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu. He tries to buy HBO Go, but it's only available as an add-on to a cable package. Finally, the cartoonist gives up trying to pay for the show and pirates it through Bit Torrent. This cartoon is probably the best ever expression of the "piracy is a customer service issue" thesis.
In a way, this doesn't make any sense for HBO, which makes its money off subscriptions and would ostensibly welcome an opportunity to sell subscriptions to another market segment. HBO claims that (a) people aren't interested in a la carte HBO Go and (b) the transaction costs are too high to do their own billing, etc. The technical term for these explanations is "bullshit." Cord cutters are a relatively small market segment but a fast growing one and I think it unlikely that cable subscriptions will fully rebound when the recession ends since the issue isn't just price but convenience. Moreover, I see no reason why HBO can't handle billing and other logistical issues when the Metropolitan Opera and the NFL, not to mention Netflix, don't seem to have any trouble running their own separately billed streaming video services. Of course there are transaction costs associated with billing, but it can't possibly be anywhere close to the cost of a basic cable package.
And here we get to the real issue. It's not that HBO would like to cut out the middleman and sell to us directly, rather requiring you to buy basic cable is the whole point. Cable is a total cash cow and a more flexible business model means lower revenues. The reason is that the incumbent business model of cable combines the features of bundling (basic cable) and a two-part tariff (premium cable channels) for a perfect storm of price discrimination. For much the same reason as Disneyland could only lose money if it sold a la carte tickets to Splash Mountain for $20 without requiring $80 park admission (which includes access to Main Street, Jungle Cruise, etc), cable companies would lose money if you could buy HBO Go for $20 without first buying basic cable (which includes access to ESPN, Mtv, etc). Basically, economic theory (and some reasonable assumptions about the structure of demand) suggests that an a la carte video market could not make as much money as a bundled video market.
So, that's why the cable companies don't want you to buy a la carte HBO Go, but why is that HBO's problem? Let's contrast it with the NFL. The NFL offers standalone access because the credible threat of a streaming business model gives them more leverage to negotiate with the MSOs. In contrast, HBO doesn't want leverage because most of its sister companies are part of the basic cable ecosystem. (They used to have an actual MSO as a sister company but they spun off Time Warner Cable in 2009). Time Warner makes a lot of money from HBO subscriptions, but it makes even more money from carriage fees on CNN, Cartoon Network, and most of the cable networks starting with the letter "T." Unlike HBO (which would do well under an a la carte model) most of these other channels rely more on channel-surfing audiences than cult followings and so couldn't sell subscriptions on their own and would have to settle for something like a Hulu Plus or Netflix business model, probably with less money per subscriber and far fewer subscribers than they currently get through basic cable. Basically, cord-cutting would help HBO but devastate the rest of the company. For what is a media conglomerate profited if it gain a few hundred thousand a la carte HBO Go subscriptions, and lose its carriage fees and ad revenue? What can a media conglomerate give in exchange for its Turner and WBTVG divisions?
Time Warner more or less acknowledges in their investor report that disruptive innovation could screw them: "Furthermore, advances in technology or changes in competitors' product and service offerings may require the Company to make additional research and development expenditures or offer products or services in a digital format without charge or at a lower price than offered in other formats." This is on the first page of the "risk factors" section of the report, whereas piracy doesn't come up until the third. This order is consistent with my own reading of the industry and with the history of the recorded music industry, the proximate problem of which is not piracy but digital singles.
So basically, we can call this the "HBO has to take one for the team" model. We can get a similar result with a slightly weaker model which doesn't require long-term corporate cross-subsidization but treats HBO as autonomous from the rest of Time Warner. In the short-term, HBO itself is highly dependent on cable companies. The target market for a la carte HBO Go would be households with broadband but no cable, or about 5% of all US households. This is dwarfed by the 20% of households that have cable but no broadband. Moreover, although 70% of households have both cable and broadband, most of them aren't familiar with streaming video through set-top devices. So as a rough ballpark, let's say that half of US households have cable but either lack broadband and or wouldn't know how to use it with a set-top device (even if they already own a Blu-Ray player or game console with built-in streaming support). This means that the number of households HBO could appeal to with a la carte HBO Go are one tenth as numerous as the households they rely on cable companies to reach. And HBO does rely on the cable companies to reach these households through marketing promotions and the like. If HBO figures that angering the cable companies could cost them even a small fraction of these households then they're better off alienating Matthew Inman and myself rather than angering Comcast. The same logic explains why Netflix is interested in creating a cable channel and recent rumors that Hulu will switch to the HBO Go business model.
Of course for the cable companies to punish HBO would require them to forgo their half of HBO subscription revenue. This sounds like cutting off your nose to spite your face but that's not unheard of, especially if doing so deters your face from pissing you off again by flirting with a disruptive business model. We see a similar dynamic with how theatrical exhibitors react whenever movie studios suggest closing the video release window from its current 17 weeks. (Ironically in this scenario it's the cable companies who are the innovators trying to disrupt the stodgy incumbents). For instance last year, Universal floated the idea of experimenting with tightening up the pay-per-view window for Tower Heist. The theaters were livid and threatened to boycott the test film. This despite the fact that the experiment was on ridiculously unappealing terms to the consumer: $60 to watch a mediocre film three weeks after theatrical premiere and that's only if you live in Atlanta or Portland. Ultimately Universal backed down, deciding it was better to keep their old trading partners happy than try to develop new ones.
(By the way, I'm sure you'll agree it's a total coincidence that Universal was bought by a cable company shortly before the Tower Heist incident. Similarly, a total coincidence that this same cable company has a history of playing hardball with internet companies that offer infrastructure for streaming video services that compete with cable TV).
All that is to say I can understand why HBO Go isn't available yet to cord cutters. Still, let's say that tomorrow HBO starts offering standalone HBO Go subscriptions (as I sincerely hope it does), how would I explain that? I could see this happening if HBO decides that the transition will happen eventually and it is better to do it while they can still do so favorably. We saw a similar dynamic ten years ago with the recorded music industry, which acceded to a low price point digital singles market as it saw its market share eroded by piracy, but only moderately so. In 2003, when the record labels agreed to participate in iTunes, unit sales were down about 15% from the pre-Napster peak, which wasn't fun but also wasn't catastrophic. Most people were still buying CDs when the record labels agreed to a legal digital singles market that would eventually destroy the CD market. They did so in order to transition consumers to a new model before most of us had fully committed to piracy. It's a lot easier to get someone to buy singles for $1 if they're used to buying CDs for $15 than if they're used to pirating singles for nothing. Similarly, as the number of cord-cutters increases this will be an increasingly attractive market for HBO, and not just because it can get these people as customers but because it can keep them from developing the habit of pirating content that isn't promptly made available through legitimate streaming markets. We may not be at that point yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if we reach it before HBO runs out of Fire and Ice novels to adapt.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.
Dealing with misinformation, feeling powerless, and slowly getting better together
I thought the article would validate my husband’s experience. That’s why I emailed him the link to the decade-old New York magazine article about his alma mater, the American Boychoir School for vocal prodigies, where alumni from as late as the 1990s estimate that one in five boys were molested. Boys like Travis.
“It used to feel like an isolated incident that affected just me," Trav said.
It was the end of my workday on an October afternoon; I had just set my keys on the kitchen table. My coat was still buttoned.
“Now I know I spent nearly three years of my childhood at a boarding school not just with random pedophiles, but in a culture that allowed it.”
As his wife, how do I respond? That he survived? That he’s brave? That he’s a hero for letting me talk about it? That I will stand beside him with a personal mission and public vow that nobody will ever hurt him, physically or emotionally, again, the way they did during his 30 months as a choirboy from 1988 to 1990?.
A new study finds an algorithmic word analysis is flawless at determining whether a person will have a psychotic episode.
Although the language of thinking is deliberate—let me think, I have to do some thinking—the actual experience of having thoughts is often passive. Ideas pop up like dandelions; thoughts occur suddenly and escape without warning. People swim in and out of pools of thought in a way that can feel, paradoxically, mindless.
Most of the time, people don’t actively track the way one thought flows into the next. But in psychiatry, much attention is paid to such intricacies of thinking. For instance, disorganized thought, evidenced by disjointed patterns in speech, is considered a hallmark characteristic of schizophrenia. Several studies of at-risk youths have found that doctors are able to guess with impressive accuracy—the best predictive models hover around 79 percent—whether a person will develop psychosis based on tracking that person’s speech patterns in interviews.
The GOP frontrunner’s surprising staying power has inspired soul-searching and agony among party elites.
What is happening to the Republican Party? I put that question to Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina and basement-dwelling presidential candidate, who was getting ready to hold a campaign event in Hooksett, New Hampshire. “Well, the front-runner is crazy,” Graham said.
He was referring, of course, to Donald Trump, the GOP’s seemingly unstoppable chart-topper, who has survived outrage after outrage that would have ruined a conventional candidate. He commands, on average, double the support, among potential Republican primary voters, of his nearest challenger. Graham—who is running in 15th place—calls him “a huckster billionaire whose political ideas are gibberish.” And while he expects voters eventually to come to their senses, he said, “I think a certain amount of damage has been done already.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Every time you shrug, you don’t need to Google, then copy, then paste.
Updated, 2:20 p.m.
All hail ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
In its 11 strokes, the symbol encapsulates what it’s like to be an individual on the Internet. With raised arms and a half-turned smile, it exudes the melancholia, the malaise, the acceptance, and (finally) the embrace of knowing that something’s wrong on the Internet and you can’t do anything about it.
As Kyle Chayka writes in a new history of the symbol at The Awl, the meaning of the “the shruggie” is always two, if not three- or four-, fold. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ represents nihilism, “bemused resignation,” and “a Zen-like tool to accept the chaos of universe.” It is Sisyphus in unicode. I use it at least 10 times a day.
For a long time, however, I used it with some difficulty. Unlike better-known emoticons like :) or ;), ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ borrows characters from the Japanese syllabary called katakana. That makes it a kaomoji, a Japanese emoticon; it also makes it, on Western alphabetical keyboards at least, very hard to type. But then I found a solution, and it saves me having to google “smiley sideways shrug” every time I want to quickly rail at the world’s inherent lack of meaning.
On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria
On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thoughtto be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”