Mostly friends and sometimes family have encouraged me to tell stories about my days in the comedy, music, and tech businesses. And for all of this time I’ve been reluctant. However, with the Pandemic and the impending birth of my first grandchild, I’ve reconsidered. My wife’s passion for genealogy has reminded us that stories get lost fast. People die, forget, become estranged as they lose track of the family tree. It takes real effort to rebuild those connections as time goes on. Our kids don’t care about any of this now, but later they will. And the genealogy of friendship is the story of our times, the things we find important and the friends we choose to share. For the past few months I’ve started work on a book. From time to time, I’ll include some of that work here.
The second season of The Morning Show arrived on Apple TV+, just as our subscription to the service flipped from free with a new iPhone purchase a year ago to $4.99 a month. The first season did pretty well with its blend of inside baseball about the the broadcast TV news business. The production values were strong, reminiscent of the West Wing treatment of Washington beltway politics. The MeToo story line featured A-List performances by Jennifer Anniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, and a complicated turn by Billy Crudup. Not bad for $4.99 but even with the surprise sleeper soccer hit Ted Lasso barely enough to keep afloat in the Netflix/Disney+ struggle for streaming leadership. And there is Apple’s stake in this amid the challenges of competing with Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and the rest of the tech giants.
For me, Apple TV+ has crossed over from a question mark to a must have, much like CNN when it debuted in 1980, and HBO, which grew out of the fledgling Z Channel we enjoyed in a Malibu house David Sanborn was renting that same year. Dave had arrived in town to play on a Pure Prairie League record being produced at The Band’s Shangri-La recording studio on a hill overlooking the Pacific. I was house sitting the League’s Malibu beach house over the holidays when Dave showed up at the front door unexpectedly.
At this point I’d known Sanborn since 1973, when he played on the soundtrack for the Firesign Theatre’s Proctor and Bergman film TV Or Not TV. I’d produced the TV Or Not TV record and directed a stage version of the show on a West Coast tour that ended with a performance at a Columbia Records promotional event in Los Angeles. Invited guests included George Harrison, who greeted the three of us with the catchphrase from the Firesign’s first album: “Civilization Ho.”
After the Pure Prairie League session, Dave decided to rent another house down the street on Broad Beach. The house quickly became a rallying point for characters like Gary Busey, Richard Manuel of the Band, and Sanborn associate Marcus Miller who wrote much of the material for Dave’s records. He would fly in from touring with Miles Davis and work up the new tunes on a PortaStudio and MiniMoog I had set up in the living room. Eventually Sanborn invited me to move out of my small room at Shangri-La and into the beach house. This is where the Z Channel came in.
This was the first cut at premium television. Each month the Z Channel would show several films rotating throughout the week and multiple times per day. Busey, who had first surfaced on a local Tulsa TV station with late night B-movie comedy cut-ins with Gaillard Sartain, was a stone cold genius at riffing off of whatever was on TV. And the Z Channel turned this into an intense ritual where repeated viewings of films like Spielberg’s 1942 would take on such hilarious undertones that the only way to escape Busey’s comedy stylings was to leave the building doubled over in laughter. To casual observers, of which there were none, this suggested a new paradigm shift as improv met the Hollywood windowing system — and produced HBO.
Out of HBO grew streaming television, as original productions like The Sopranos and Game of Thrones led to the binge production model that Netflix rode to the top of the charts. Over the past several years this tsunami of economic restructuring led to the unbundling of the television networks and the realignment of studio production around the relentless demands of streaming and subscriptions. Pay TV became Pay Media, Data became the competitive coin of the realm. And the Pandemic mandated the underlying principles of a new economy we are still struggling to understand even as we vote for it with our feet and behavior.
After 15 months at home, we finally took advantage of the beginning of summer to travel by car to our bungalow in South Carolina. Our children were born and raised there until we moved to the Bay Area as tech publishing realigned and the valley bubble crashed. Software became a service, and mobile became the dominant platform. Blogs and podcasting morphed into streaming and social with the current investments in the creator economy — newsletters and live audio.
These efforts have not gone unnoticed by the remaining media giants. Substack’s year-long investment in proving a subscription basis for writers and influencers has reached some combination of yes, it’s possible and no, it’s very hard to scale. On the pro side, Kara Swisher is one of the significant contributors moving her newsletter behind the paywall of the New York Times, and bolstering Twitter Spaces with a frequent live audio show. The fact that you can’t find these shows after the fact will likely be solved by a record/replay feature Twitter is working on. Once you can’t distinguish live audio from a podcast, the next step is not distinguishing podcasts from streaming programming. This evolution is behind Rachel Maddow’s moves to straddle her daily show and her podcast-becomes-book properties. CNBC’s Jim Cramer is going there too, as I noted on this edition of the Gang:
Jim Cramer, the fabulous analyst and the Mad Money guy [adds Brent Leary]. He’s signed a new deal. This is kind of like Rachel Maddow 2.0 or 3.0. He’s doing something called CNBC Investor Club, and basically he’s delving into the creator economy. These media on camera editor types are slowly becoming engaged in creating product.
He doesn’t jump into something like that unless he sees a real opening to make money. Think of what he was doing even before he went to CNBC. And he’s not a stupid man. I think it’s very interesting that he will be able to on CNBC and probably on his new ventures, make his opinions public as long as they put a rejoinder at the end, saying this is not an opinion of CNBC, it’s just Jim Cramer’s opinion.
Brent Leary jokes about Cramer dipping into the 30% pool that the Epic lawsuit frees up for new Club members, but however the move shakes out, we appear to be on the way from cable (CNN) to PayTV (Z Channel) to the subscription+ economy. What Netflix wrought and Amazon, Disney, Hulu, HBO Max, and Paramount+ chased is being tested by Apple TV+ of all things. Apple is doing things a little different this time, undercutting its AppleTV device with streaming dongles like Amazon Firestick and platform deals with smartTV heavyweights like Roku. The AppleTV hardware is top of the line, but in price not exclusivity. The kicker is that AppleTV+ is bargain-priced but exclusive in execution.
They’ve got HBO pinned down as a cable premium service folded into HBO Max fighting off the disappearing theatrical window. Apple’s original-only strategy seemed overmatched by Netflix’s volume game, but the Pandemic knocked down production to the point where originals had to be acquired from Europe and Scandinavia to keep the pipeline open. Well-appointed binge blockbusters like The Crown and so-called limited series like The Queen’s Gambit came from the HBO playbook, but they were few and far between for nightlight viewers struggling to keep up with subtitles and mediocre dubbing.
Instead we’re in the AppleTV+ equation. With the same methodical and relentless blend of hardware and software Apple uses to dominate the mobile margins, AppleTV+ extends the platform with a product designed to wipe out the broadcast linear markets. For the first time, the Emmys were not so much dominated by the streamers as ghosting the network TV shows in nominations. CBS, long a bastion for comedies, broadcast the Emmys without a single nomination, and gave the spotlight instead to Hacks, a funny HBO Max original developed not for cable but streaming direct. We’re not in Kansas, anymore.
Where we are is watching Ted Lasso, The Morning Show, and scifi epic Foundation. Not enough to satisfy the void created by the collapse of network and cable TV, but more than a harbinger of things to come. When CNN debuted, people wondered why anyone would watch news 24 hours a day. Now they’re wondering that again, with the mute button on 24/7 and notifications telling you what’s shaking. Production is shifting from green screens to interactive LED screens that matte actors into backgrounds they can see as they perform. Projects deemed unfilmable are no longer so. Blackberry, meet the iPhone.
AppleTV+ has the aura of a linear broadcast network spiced with a tech platform. Apple’s hardware/software overlapping release schedule shifts between short range customer-facing innovations like this year’s iPhone 13 camera advances and long-range efforts to move from third party data and user tracking to a first party transaction data set. The new phone’s ability to use additional mapping to do professional-level rack focusing while and after recording augurs for more and more features shifting into software manipulation on more powerful system hardware. AppleTV+ takes advantage of a hole in the market between streaming and traditional broadcast and cable to build out the same mix of quality and innovation lock-in its physical products offer.
the latest Gillmor Gang Newsletter
The Gillmor Gang — Frank Radice, Michael Markman, Keith Teare, Denis Pombriant, Brent Leary and Steve Gillmor. Recorded live Friday, August 27, 2021.
Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor
@fradice, @mickeleh, @denispombriant, @kteare, @brentleary, @stevegillmor, @gillmorgang