A Very Social Moment #NBCAGT

It’s fascinating to watch an old dog learn a new trick… almost as much fun as watching him chew toffee. The incident I refer to was my experience at the Pantages Theatre in LA. If you haven’t been there it’s an excellent old theater in the unfashionable end of Hollywood where the homeless meet to mingle. I was there to watch a recording of Americas Got Talent. Ever since Howard Stern (blessed be his name) joined the show, I have become a firm fan of its eclectic mix of dancing dogs, jugglers, comedians, and singers. A long time a go I worked at a TV studio for a year. I was mostly the “Studio Gopher” (Gopher Tea, Gopher coffee, lunch, etc), but I did get to see a lot of recordings and it’s almost shocking to see how little the entire process has changed in 30 years. It’s still lots of very important people talking into headsets and ordering the poor benighted studio audience around; much like the guards at a WWII POW camp… come here … go there… no food or water for you… stop screaming!

The tickets were free and I’m always looking for interesting and exciting new places to fight with my lovely wife at, so we grabbed a hotel and went on an AGT adventure. On a side note, I used a new app called “Hotel Tonight” to get a room. It only sells hotels for that day, and doesn’t start selling until 12 noon local. Unlike Hotwire, it let’s you see the hotel before you commit. It has some decent deals and the price actually dropped as I was booking.

We arrived at the theater to begin several hours of waiting in line in the sun and general hanging about before we were brutally strip searched by the camp guards, given a change of clothing, deloused, tattooed, and finally admitted to the theater to be further bossed around.  I was actually pleasantly surprised at how they managed the process of recording the acts, the delays between each contestant were manageable and the audience wrangler did a good job of keeping us reasonably entertained. At the beginning of the recording, they asked the entire audience to learn a simple mini dance routine to “living in America” for use in the opening credits (maybe). It was all fun and games for the first dozen or two runs but by the time we had passed 20 the natives were getting restless… we were about three more forced repetitions from an all out camp uprising.

So what about the old dog learning new tricks? Well, it wasn’t much of a trick…but it was interesting to watch. The audience is patrolled for the entire show by what can only be described as video bouncers. They watch avidly for anyone trying to sneak a pic or video of a dog dancer or belly dancer (yes we had one and yes she went through to the next round). Any attempt at video is leapt upon, water cannons are turned on the audience the offending person is dragged out, beaten senseless and in some cases water boarded on stage. However in a massive break with tradition, they did allow the audience to video the judges’ progress from the back of the theater to the stage. In fact, the audience is actively encouraged to do that… and post the pics or videos on their Facebook, Twitter, Vine or Instagram. In a further concession to the real world, all the busy and bossy crew wore t-shirts with #NBCAGT emblazoned across the back. They plugged the heck out of the Hashtag, and from the number of followers and tweets they are getting it seems to be working reasonably well. In my video (attached) of the King arriving, it’s interesting to note that you can hear cheers from the crowd but not much applause… for the simple fact that you can’t clap when you are recording… and fully 75% of the crowd was recording.

What would have been much more interesting would have been for them to let the crowd film anything they wanted, publish, and be damned. What I suspect would have happened is they would create tons of buzz on the show long before its real broadcast driving people who want to see the event in HD, as opposed to shaky phone cam – but baby steps still count as progress.

Rolling Back Search?

I’m a huge Amazon fan…most people are…what better way to avoid California sales tax on the widest range of electronics at great prices? I was interested to read today that Walmart is rolling out their new Polaris shopping search for their online properties which have always struggled to keep up with the much sexier and frankly less overweight Amazon. That’s a slightly odd name as Polaris is the name of the ICBM nuclear missile program prominent in the Cold War…the might just as well have named it their new engine “The Brezhnev” but I guess their assumption is that nobody studies history anymore so what the heck.

Just in case you care, they are featuring several things which are interesting if not necessarily useful. The first is semantic search which essentially tries to figure out what were really searching for as opposed to what you actually searched for and give you more options. This isn’t new. We were working on this back in the late Middle Ages (2002) at Fast Search and Transfer my Alma Mata of search. It’s subsequently been done a dozen different ways by just about everyone in search…but good for Walmart for catching up. The second is using social signals as indicators of quality. Essentially they collect Pinterest posts or Facebook likes along with a range of other social signals and use them as a scoring factor when delivering results. It’s not a bad idea, thou not one without potential challenges.

The premise that something is good because it has lots of likes is open to debate. Justin Beiber has over 46 million likes even Toddlers and Tiaras has three quarters of a million. The other problem with likes is that they cost so little effort to garner and are open to corruption that the moment it becomes clear how likes can be used to twist rank to commercial advantage you can be sure folks will be doing it in their droves (is that like spam?). Perhaps a better indicator is the review metric. I bought a new laptop on Amazon yesterday and the reviews were an important factor. In fact what I did was sort the result set by number of positive reviews then manually scanned down it for a laptop from a manufacturer I like at a price point I could afford. I like reviews as they are inherently more effort to carry out and potentially less open to corruption. If I went by likes I would be pushed towards Dell who has over three times as many likes as Asus. However if you compare the Amazon user reviews between the Dell equivalent of the Asus I ended buying the Asus is a hands down winner.

I took a quick swing through Polaris today and overall it’s pretty good. When I gave it very general searches like “Gold” it came back with gold jewelry, books, some music, xBox live gold membership, a blue and gold tent even a gold metal detector. Not bad for an almost impossibly vague query but in truth all over the map. What it doesn’t do is give a “more like this” option to allow you to zoom in on what you did mean. With a difficult query with relatively few good matches like “Private Parts” it returns the Howard Stern movie first then an interesting range of stuff ranging from books for children on how to avoid abusers “keeping private parts private” to Saving Private Ryan, a Shirley Temple movie and a twisted metal curtain rod where it appears to be ranking based on having the phrase “Includes all necessary parts.” In contrast the same search on Amazon also yielded a range of choices but the results presented many more choices focused on the more likely intent options those of gold jewelry and the Howard Stern Movie. That was an awfully cursory test but initial verdict? “Close but no cigar”.

A Very Sirius Moment

Last night was cool. Not in a “Oh look, that dog looks like her owner” cool, but “OMG! teenage-girl-squeal” cool. I was on the Howard Stern Superfan Roundtable Show on Sirius satellite radio. I have been a dedicated fan of the King Of All Media pretty much since I arrived in this fair country. I admit that, especially a few years ago, he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But in my experience people who don’t like him have never actually listened to him. His consistently smart, funny and dry read on life in general and pop culture in particular has me horribly addicted.

In any event I was escorted into the Stern Mega Plex and found myself in a room with three other fans who were complete strangers, a computer screen of callers and an hour of national satellite radio to fill. It was amazing. The show flowed well and we got great calls (most of whom loved what we were improvising). The time just flew by. We had way too much fun. For those of you not in the Howard cult I can best liken it to four diehard sports fans getting together over microphones to chew the fat over the most recent games of their beloved team. We speak the same language, get the same dumb references and finish each other’s sentences. It was a bit weird on occasion.

Here’s the media angle. I firmly believe that apart from the Stern component, Sirius is a busted flush. Several years ago, before Howard announced he was leaving terrestrial radio and the FCC for Sirius, I was convinced that he was going to jump to satellite. I told my “stock guy” Howard is going to satellite and I wanted in. My guy thought that Sirius needed him more so I bet on Sirius. I rode that stock from a buck to $11 and bailed just in time. Sirius is now languishing around $2. The company’s problem: (as always) the Internet.

Sirius started as a technology play long before 4G and immersive Wifi. Back then (in the late 90s) the idea of launching an expensive satellite to beam music to drivers was cool. Now it’s absurd and getting more absurd every day. The irony is that although I have Sirius in two cars (to hear Howard when I drive) I mostly listen to Sirius on my iPhone or through the horrible Sirius desk streaming utility. The world of (nearly) commercial free streaming of music has gone way beyond Sirius. My personal preference is for Pandora, but there are many others. Pandora now includes comedy that makes Sirius entirely redundant apart from Howard. Sirius does have various sports content franchises and some avid sports fans will subscribe for that. However, in my mind, Sirius is the house that Howard built and when he’s gone they will be, too.

For the mathematically inclined here’s a back-of-envelope value analysis. I pay about $40 a month for Sirius pretty much exclusively for Howard. With his new and reduced schedule that amounts to about 48 hours of content. I pay about $100 for about 300 cable channels (including several premium packages), which in theory amounts to about 200,000 hours of programming options and another $40 for Internet and $8 for Netflix. In reality, I probably consume about 90 hours of TV, 30 hours of Internet and 4 hours of Netflix per month. That’s roughly a buck per content hour. In comparison I pay $40 for 12 hours of Howard or $3.30 per hour. Put another way, 21% of my content spend goes to just 12% of content consumed. One goofy, out spoken guy and his team drives twice the relative value of the rest of all media consumed.

If you ever wondered why Howard Stern is the King of all media, it’s the math.