The Decline of Streaming Services and the Exploitation of AI for Profit
Friday, 14 June 2024 06:38

The Decline of Streaming Services and the Exploitation of AI for Profit

Dennis Broe explains the decline in the quality as well as quantity of streamed series, and the exploitative use of Artifical Intelligence by the industry. Photo above: SORA’s “artificial” creation of a walk in Tokyo 

Last year’s retrenchment in the world of streaming TV is continuing with Netflix holding even on bankrolling series at $17 billion but with all the other streamers cutting back. The big money players are searching for, as one studio exec put it, the “right show shot in a cost effective location,” where “it is possible to make a whole series for the cost of an indie film.”

The industry way of portraying these cutbacks, seeing the glass half full, is there is now an emphasis on “quality over quantity,” but when one observes what is coming down the road it’s hard not to see these cutbacks as simply less quantity amid decreasing quality. The new emphasis on safe investments is being translated into increased concentration on what the industry terms IP, intellectual property, ie going with what has already been established in another medium (books, films, music) or in television itself.

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Baywatch uber alles: beefcake meets cheesecake 

One look at the low end of production, that is the TV network pilot season, is a scary reminder of what this trend entails. CBS is chiming in with: Matlock, perhaps with an AI Andy Griffith; a Young Sheldon spinoff with the original, itself a spinoff of Big Bang Theory, having just ended; a Young Sheldon version of NCIS titled NCIS Origins with Mark Harmon’s narration (like Sheldon’s in Young Sheldon) of his on-screen younger self; and Watson, a Sherlock Holmes series without Sherlock and with the good doctor taking up the crimefighting duties.

Fox, in an even less daring move, is reviving the sexist Baywatch and NBC, besides Suits: L.A., a spinoff of the cable series, is dressing up its revivals as St. Denis Medical could easily be St. Elsewhere and Dr. Wolf’s gruff medical practitioner is supposed to remind viewers of House.

The high end of this lack of originality was on display in a Max (Warner Bros) presentation which trumpeted Season 2 of Game of Thrones, The Penguin from the DC Batman franchise and a series based on the Harry Potter books and films. All three of these fall into the blockbuster category, that is the streamers copying the Hollywood studio format that began in the ’70s while shelving original series, which were what brought Max subsidiary HBO to prominence in the first place, as recounted in Peter Biskind’s new book Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile and Greed upended TV.

As more and more series rely more and more on IP or already proven material, what was once a “Golden Age” of originality begins to skew close to the now partially abandoned Hollywood studio format of sequels and comic book adaptations, a format that is working less and less for the movie studios as audiences decline, because of the lack of creativity.

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Gone Producer, a synthetically created game show 

The other major trend, which has creators terrified and investors and studio executives “excited”, is the rapidly expanding use in every phase of the business of artificial intelligence, AI. Perhaps the scariest projection of the technology, described by one longtime independent film assistant director as “nothing but plagiarizing software,” is a new gameshow on Korean TV titled Gone Producer. In this nightmare gameshow scenario, the entire series is cast, directed, and produced by AI which also judges the videos that contestants submit in a competition.

According to the studio, “The fun factor is not only that the show is produced by AI, it is also the contestants getting confused and bewildered confronting the AI.” In other words, the show not only uses the service to replace jobs, it also makes a virtue of the fact that, as everyone knows, AI often “hallucinates,” that is returns incomprehensible information and opinions.

The contestants and the viewers are asked then, as the media critic Theodore Adorno put it, to participate in their own demise. Korea is well-known for its game show formats, having produced a “spin off” of the Emmy-winning fictional series Squid Game and Gone Producer has already been sold to Sweden and Norway.

Less Is More?

These observations about the business come from two recent French TV festivals, Lille’s Series Mania, one of the largest of its kind in the world, and Cannes’ MIPTV, with this year’s meeting of buyers and distributors ending the convention’s 61-year run. The latter had 130 companies represented but was still a shell of its former self, a sacrifice to the new austerity where, because of the entry fee and the Cannes boardwalk prices, buyers consolidated by going to a February conference in London or to the larger MIPTV conference in October.

Walking through what was once production house stalls and was now an empty space that looked like a parking garage, one former attendee mourned the passing of a place in which she said she had spent many years.

The streamers and television magnates in general are attempting to combat churn (subscribers signing in watching the few creative series on the streamer then signing out), the fact that working-class audiences have less to spend because of continuing inflation, and the streamers’ raising of their subscription rates.

The way they are choosing to combat this situation though betrays a lack of imagination, with the same assistant director suggesting that instead of AI replacing writers and actors, the technology might better be used to replace CEOs and studio executives.

At the Series Mania Forum, discussing the business of television, it was reported that “Peak TV” was over, because in the U.S. the number of series declined from almost 600 two years ago to 516 last year. In Europe not only are the number of series declining, but so are the number of episodes, by an average of one episode per series – and also the length of each episode, now cut by almost 10 minutes. One of the original promises of streaming TV was both would be determined by what was needed to tell the story and that priority is vanishing.

 S4 Isabelle

Isabelle Adjani on television 

There is also more monetization of back catalogues, using former material to create series and the sale of catalogue entries, so that subscribers who are looking for a show on their service may find that it has been sold to another service.

European series are trying to nab viewers by bringing to television now more faded film stars, a trick that was formerly used on American TV. In France Isabelle Adjani (The Story of Adele H.) is starring in a series about family secrets and in the Netherlands Famke Janssen (Golden Eye) heads a cast in a series on the Amsterdam marijuana scene.

Another way of monetizing content without the peril of trying something new and original is selling the format to a different market, as the BBC has done with Ghosts, a hit on CBS in the U.S., harking back to, or trivializing, Hawthorne and the New England horror tradition and now being developed in a German version which commercializes the Romantic tradition in that country.

Sony TV’s Wayne Garvie explained to the Series Mania forum audience that the answer to the end of peak TV, “the boom,” is not necessarily “a bust” but rather just fewer shows with more quality. He almost immediately contradicted himself by then citing the superhero series The Boys which he said with its spinoffs “will go on for years”. In the same vein he noted that the problem with single season series, which have often been some of the most creative and awarded (think Chernobyl) is that “you can’t build a business on mini-series.”

The result of this cost-cutting and budgetary as well as creative retrenching, described at the Forum as the industry “looking for more reassuring content,” plus a demand on Wall Street that streamers show a profit, is that streaming audiences are declining to the point where the S&P accounting firm recently downgraded Paramount’s debt to “junk.”

The race is now on to see who will buy the streamer or if it will simply go under, since any buyer is now saddled with the company’s debt. In Europe the French streamer Salto is now defunct while the Scandinavian Viaplay, which was expanding into the U.S. and Britain, has had to cease that effort and return to its local audience.

Here Come The Machines

A main topic of both events was AI which, as in other industries, is being touted as a money-saving, cost-cutting entity. The “buzz” at the industry-oriented MIPTV centered around what the technology could do for producers and studio profit margins. Pre-conference,  The Hollywood Reporter ran a full page on AI’s “Buried Perils” without mentioning the thrust of its creators toward job destruction – and nowhere was there a conversation about how the lost jobs will be replaced.

The Series Mania Forum debated the issue but began with an opening presentation from two shills for the practice, who showed articles from the business press, including Bloomberg News, “proving” that AI was a boon to job creation. In The Future of Work, the French theorist Bernard Stiegler, citing an Oxford study predicting an ultimate 50 percent loss of employees when the technology was fully developed, decried the development as “the negation of know-how itself,” inducing “a functional stupidity.”

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Shoshana Zuboff in Surveillance Capitalism described the technological solution which is dreamed of by producers and studio execs which offers the illusion of “omniscience, control, and certainty” but where “the idea is not to heal instability – the corrosion of social trust and its broken bonds of reciprocity, dangerous extremes of inequality, regimes of exclusion – but to exploit the vulnerabilities produced by these conditions.”

The Series Mania Forum day was titled benignly “AI: The Technology We’d Love to Like” with one panel called “Past the Sideration,” a French word that the panel defined as “fascination” but which equally – and in this case more accurately – means “disturbance.”

A YouTube representative, a company owned by Google which is a leader in the race to dominate the field, proclaimed AI would allow “unprecedented speed” and its use would be “bold and responsible.”

Curbing the power of the unions

Clearly the implementation of AI is one part of a studio attempt to curb, in the wake of last summer’s writers’ and actors’ strikes, the growing power of the unions. Kate Ballard from the U.S. Writers’ Guild acknowledged that AI is moving faster than any contractual or legal limits that can be imposed on it, and said that the Guild had done the best they could to ensure that AI be a tool for writers, not a way of getting rid of them and that they would revisit the situation again in two and a half years, when the current contract expires.

One of the claims for AI in job creation is that the machines need “prompters,” since it is crucial that what is fed into them be specific and limited, but the host of one of the panels revealed that she had just read an article stating that AI creators were now working on machines that could learn to prompt, thus eliminating the most fruitful arena for new jobs.

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The Cotton Club, the movie and not the AI fabrication, erroneously set in Chicago

At MIPTV, one developer, who claimed that AI could be used in every phase of film and television production, listed for example programs such as Storyfit, designed to predict whether a story will be commercially successful; Storyboarder, which produces storyboards for shooting; and SORA, which creates synthetic AI images and which produced an intriguing image of a smoky 1920s nightclub but which claimed that The Cotton Club, the title of the film, was in Chicago, not in New York’s Harlem.

A scarier development was that another CEO had trained AI to identify the predominant emotion of each scene (happy, sad, fearful, joyful) in a film or series and select clips aimed at enticing particular audiences. The ultimate goal, one CEO claimed, was “to be able to make a complete film from your bedroom.”

Craig Peters, from Getty Images, stated that the answer to controlling the device was not in legislation, such as the recent European Union Artificial Intelligence Act, but rather through “all of us putting our collective minds together.”

We are not in severance 1 

Perhaps the unions will also put their collective minds together?

This solution seems like a naïve way of warding off legislation in the U.S., but what Peters did explain was that with the drive to feed more and more data into the machines to train them, the IP of books, movies, films, songs would soon be exhausted. The current drive is to feed as much personal data into the machines as possible, that is, to turn each of our individual experiences into training vehicles and to “harvest” this “personal IP.”

It wasn’t long ago that the major catchphrase in the information industry was “big data” used for its predictive capabilities. Now that has been replaced by the quest for synthetic creation, which might someday eliminate the human element entirely and which would be the next level up in current cost-cutting.

Instead of, as the writer and showrunner Frank Lipsitz (X-Files, The Man in the High Castle) put it, making “us as writers, better, faster smarter”, studio heads envision using AI to ‘scale’ creativity, that is to simply produce more, faster.

The battle is on around AI in the film and television industry, like everywhere else. Will it simply become a cost-cutting tool fostering mass unemployment, or an enhancement to creators in the industry, enabling leaps in original and relevant content?

The Way: confused resistance rather than class consciousness, in a muddled mix of genres
Friday, 14 June 2024 06:38

The Way: confused resistance rather than class consciousness, in a muddled mix of genres

Dennis Broe reviews The Way. Above image: Owen brandishing King Arthur’s sword - Mandalorian much?

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore,” about-to-be-fired news anchor Howard Beale screams in a television rant, urging everyone to go to the window and yell the same thing.

This scene from the film Network, much honored and claimed to be prescient, in fact represents simply mindless, ungrounded fear, vaguely articulated, not drawn from the specific material aspects of people’s lives and thus open to a kind of manipulation that can easily be converted into simple resentment and will become the basis of today’s populism.

Unfortunately, these ungrounded impulses, now 45 years on in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Reagan, Thatcher et al.’s austerity and neoliberalism, are the basis of the BBC series The Way. Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis helped conceptualize the three-part series, and there’s evidence of his strengths (eg in tracing advertising industry manipulation in The Century of the Self) but also his glaring weaknesses (eg in the more recent anti-revolutionary, rabidly anti-populist documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head).

The Way blends a loosely constructed family fiction around the Welsh steel and former mining town of Port Talbot with documentary footage of the 1984 Miners’ Strike, and a mythical otherworldly aspect that summons King Arthur’s pulling the sword from the stone, the lifting of the series title phrase “The Way” from the Star Wars’ Mandalorian code of conduct, and Scottish folklore of a proselytizing Red Monk who kickstarts a town rebellion.  

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Howard Beale’s populist rant in Network 

Into this soup of inluences is thrown the actual condition of the steelworks, with an Indian owner, in the series Japanese, who is always on the verge of closing the plant. The problem – and this is a Curtis mainstay – is that the characters are utterly deceived by a passive mediatized lifestyle. Owen, the lead character, who “can’t remember the last time I felt anything,” is, as his love interest describes, “a drug addict in recovery dealing drugs” to which her response is “I don’t care, it’s not my business.”

This passivity and foolishness influences their actions, as workers in the town strike the plant before it can close, though no immediate closing is threatened. Owen tosses a lead pipe which ignites the carnage with the police, which of course echoes the bone thrown across the ages in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Only this time it signals the utter breakdown of civilization rather than its terrifying advance, as in Kubrick’s film.

Wales is sealed off from “Britain”, and thus episode two begins with the family’s own odyssey as they attempt to march to safety in a now open police state. In the series, much hostility is summoned but it remains vague (“The British don’t revolt, they gripe”) with the actual problems of deindustrialization and a devastated economy expressed in generalized slogans.

These slogans do not directly confront the power structure and the massive redistribution of wealth that began in 1980 with the launching of the neoliberal era, just after Network premiered. In that film, people start throwing their televisions out the window, when they mighthave done better by storming the television station and taking over the means of production of the media.

Writers Guild of America 2023 writers strike rev

The 2023 Writers' Guild strike 

The ungrounded populism expressed in both Network and The Way does accurately convey the very real grievances felt by the population – but behind each lies the firm conviction that workers are too coddled and deceived by omnipresent media to be able to do more than threaten irrational action. But this mindset was just recently disproved by the massive strikes in the entertainment and service industry in Los Angeles, and which continue throughout the U.S.

These campaigns and strikes in the U.S. have specific demands, and represent a growing understanding and awareness by workers, not only of their situation but of how to use today’s media for their own purposes. This understanding is not present in The Way.

If the Port Talbot steel plant, along with another plant closes, Britain will only be fashioning steel from scraps and leftovers, rather than making it. The Way, with its muddled mix of genres and its deceived chaotic individuals is also fashioned from scraps – that is, the leftovers and the detritus of the entertainment industry and the subjectivity of its victims, who in this telling offer only confused resistance.  

Challenging the Corporate Lords of Film and TV
Friday, 14 June 2024 06:38

Challenging the Corporate Lords of Film and TV

Hollywood writers and actors are on strike, the first time both unions have been on strike at the same time since 1960. It’s thrown the industry into an uproar, as both groups are subverting some of the main precepts of not only the Hollywood film and television industry but the way work as a whole is constructed and managed in the digital age.

The first precept being challenged is that unions and union solidarity is a dead letter in the era of Artificial Intelligence and the ever-increasing corporate power and prestige as the twin answers to solving the world’s ills. The high profile of the two striking unions has drawn more attention and produced much more publicity for unions. The news stories in The New York Times, for example, have doubled since the actors joined the writers on strike, with most major publications feeling the need to generate stories from the picket lines, where formerly the major news outlets concentrated mainly on the beginning and end of strikes.

This has produced a kind of reverse Blacklist effect. In 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee decided that it would launch its campaign against radical elements in the labour force by first attacking Hollywood, and thus ensuring maximum publicity in its campaign of fear. Here the opposite is happening. In the wake of the Occupy Movement, and using some of that language, the coverage of the strikes of the two unions, largely favourable in the press since its readers are avid followers of films and television series, have prompted more favourable coverage of other strikes. Teamsters and nurses have shown up on the picket lines at the Hollywood studios, with the former helping to stop production in some cases, while the leaders of the Writers’ Guild joined hotel workers in a July 4th strike for higher wages.

Serfs serving corporate lords

On the actors’ picket line Fran Drescher, President of the Actors’ Guild, employed the Occupy language of the 1 percent to criticize executive salaries. She described one of the most powerful men in the industry, Disney’s President Michael Iger who makes $27 million annually, as a dazzling example of the rampant inequality in pay structure. She claimed that she was on the line representing “the 99.9 percent of the membership who are working people who are just trying to make a living to put food on the table, pay rent and get their kids off to school” while labelling the Hollywood executives as “land barons of a medieval time.” This labelling not only echoes the language of the Occupy movement but is also drawn from a popular left characterization of a new Feudalism, with the majority of the population now in the position of serfs serving corporate lords.

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The new feudalism

One of the main claims of the writers is that they can no longer afford to live in a city they helped build, as Los Angeles rents skyrocket. This claim in similar to the hotel workers who say they have to live outside the city and sometimes travel 90 to 100 miles to work. The writers’ claim was validated by a studio executive who, anonymously, told Deadline that the studio producers would “bleed out” writers and force them to “start losing their apartments.”

The second major tenant of Hollywood and the television industry which the strikes are challenging is the attempt to conceal profits and keep from paying residuals. For over 70 years the vast majority of television series operated on the principle of deficit financing. Producers and talent (writers, directors and actors) understood that the vast majority of money being made on any television series would come after the series was sold into syndication. The “magic number” that would trigger these sales was 100 episodes. The show would then become profitable in perpetuity with its creators and financiers able to live off of these sales.

Part of the drive toward online subscription services, where the studio or streamer locks content behind a solid wall, is the elimination of these residuals or the limiting of them since the creators can no longer track how their work is being monetized. The streamers, on the other hand, have much more data and can track viewer habits minutely, down to the second where the viewer continues to watch or tunes out. The old system, with the Nielsen Ratings and with syndicated contracts, was much more transparent and allowed creators to track profits, though the studios often tried to conceal their gains.

A major demand of both strikes is finding a way to reclaim residuals in the age of streaming. The battle here goes beyond film and television writers and actors and encompasses the problems with monetizing digital work as a whole. Journalists, for example, often work for less or for nothing on internet publications while search engines such as Alphabet’s Google and Microsoft’s Bing accrue value by appropriating stories from news outlets and only reluctantly pay for this content.

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AI Eats Brains 

The third major precept which the strikes are challenging is the parceling of work, a trend that is going on throughout industry as a whole and which is being exacerbated by experiments with Artificial Intelligence and programs such as ChatGPT. The idea of breaking all kinds of work into tasks has of course been around since the Taylorist experiments with assembly lines in the 1920s. What is new, or as the owners say “innovative,” is the potential ability, once the work is broken down into its component parts, to have labourers replaced with robotic replicators of their work, or to reduce work to “smaller, more degraded, poorly paid jobs.” 

From careers to gig work

One of the complaints of the actors, echoed even more strongly by the writers, is that their careers have been turned into gig work. The meteoric rise in streaming has been fed by the work of writers creating television series of high quality and moving themselves into all aspects of production, to make sure, like the Hollywood directors of old, that all aspects of the series (costuming, makeup, set construction) form a seamless whole. This expansion fuelled the rise of more and better showrunners, responsible for the overall concept of the series.

Instead, the producers are attempting to limit the writers to just their time in the writing room, and then release them. Their preferred model is to pay a single creator an exorbitant salary (Shonda Rhimes-Bridgerton, Ryan Murphy-American Horror Story, Taylor Sheridan- Yellowstone) and dispense with the rest. The Writers’ Guild has been tracking this trend and says that writers’ time on a series has decreased because they are let go faster and that in 2022 over half of the writers, stripped of their producing jobs, are being paid at the weekly minimum, as opposed to one-third eight years ago.

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Tom Cruise vs. The Entity 

Contrary to the Tom Cruise version of AI in Mission Impossible – Dead Reckoning where an all-powerful “Entity” threatens a machine takeover of the earth, the real challenge of AI, which this Hollywood fantasy version conceals, is that it will be used to un-employ workers in all kinds of industries as well as forcing them to work harder through its monitoring capacities. Thus, warehouse workers describe being tracked minutely, pressuring them to skip breaks, while setting them up for disciplinary actions if their goals are not met. The personal touch of service workers, who one worker described as providing “a kind of therapy” to their clients, is discounted as their work is automated. A recent Biden administration summit to “regulate” AI rather than impose restrictions allowed the seven major makers of the service to voluntarily agree to guidelines. None of the restrictions even mentioned AI’s power to eliminate, tame and discipline the U.S. workforce.

2Maverick

Maverick

A long-term goal for Hollywood’s use of AI is potentially to use the machine to grind out scripts that are then “created” not by the writer, but by the studio/streaming service. The scenario for this goal involves the studio plugging in a basic concept with AI or ChatGPT which then churns out a (highly unworkable) script. A writer would then be hired to turn the script into a workable scenario but the credit, and the profits, would then go to the studio. This is an attempt to turn television production back to the 1950s when, for example, Warners cheated the “showrunner” Roy Huggins out of the “Created By” credits for both Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip, two shows which kept the studio afloat. For Maverick, the studio bought the rights to a book that a plot turn in the pilot employed and thus claimed it owned the property. With 77 Sunset Strip, Warners screened the pilot in a cinema outside the U.S. and claimed the studio then owned the rights to “the film.” Huggins himself addressed this ignominy in his next contract with Universal which granted him the “Created By” credit and established it as a norm for the industry.

An actor on the picket line described AI as “a tool to generate wealth,” noting that the main task of the “Entity” was “cutting jobs for corporate profit.” While another writer’s guild member summoned up the end game as “creating material in the cheapest, most piecemeal, automated way possible” so that “one layer of high-level creatives take the cheaply generated material and turn it into something.” The demand of the Actors’ and Writers’ Guilds to have control of how this process is used, is a crucial attempt to counter this thrust.