John Lennon sure had it nailed when he sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
I think of that this morning in the context of advertising. It must have been well over 20 years ago when I had my earliest conversations about interactivity being the future of advertising with Wes Dubin, who was then in charge of national broadcasting in the media department of DDB Needham in Chicago.
Much more recently, my pal Barry Frey was actually on the forefront of that movement when he ran the advanced ad platforms for the cable operator Cablevision. But as Barry eventually found out, while he and others were working on advertising’s version of “other plans,” real life was bringing even more exciting ideas to media.
And it’s in that stream of life that Barry has now hung his hat.
For the past several months Barry has been the president and CEO of the Digital Place-Based Advertising Association (DPAA).
As he explained to me the other day, digital place-based media is defined as digital video screens that exist in places where people dwell that has programming content and advertising. So it’s not static boards.
And next week the DPAA has its annual summit.
Frey explains: “We’re calling it our Video Everywhere event. It’s Oct. 22 at the New York Hilton.”
Clearly it’s a takeoff on cable’s TV Everywhere idea. As Frey says: “Video Everywhere speaks to the fact that video is being consumed everywhere by consumers, on all devices: smartphones, tablets, phablets, mobile, over the top. Advertisers need to follow the impressions from what was once just video in the living room to all these other screens. The screens of our members are a very important part of this eco-system.”
He continues: “People see our members' screens all day: at the office, at the gym, on planes, at airports and in malls. They are inside taxis, in retail, at gas stations, bars, points of care and on college campuses. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, it's over five hours a day that consumers watch these screens that are beyond the TV screens in their homes.”
Next week’s conference revolves around the planning and buying of video commercials across all screens, Barry says, noting: “To a large degree now, the decision makers and the folks that are planning and buying digital video are also either the same people, or are teamed up with the people, who buy regular video advertising.”
I asked him whether he thinks all these other screens are replacing or supplementing traditional TV advertising.
“We have examples where advertisers are spending more money against TV audiences but are topping out on their reach,” Barry replied. “So our members have been able to add reach to those executions with a very effective CPM. What’s happening is that consumers are leaving traditional television and watching our members’ screens more and more. And these screens are measured by Nielsen. So we can add reach to the traditional schedules.”
Now Barry was on a roll: “As video viewing is now becoming untethered from the living room and is spreading out to such a litany of screens and devices, our members are a way to reach people on the go, when they are on their way to make a purchase, when they are welcoming of brand awareness and brand inculcation. They are not sitting soporifically in front of the TV set -- their hearts are beating and they are very active.
“We have done a study, and we’ve found that the budgets going to digital place-based advertising are starting to come out of TV or digital budgets, in addition to what traditionally have been some out-of-home budgets.”
I then asked Frey who he thought would most benefit from coming to the Video Everywhere summit.
“Certainly advertisers, agencies, brand managers, media directors and media planners," he said. "Many of the digital place-based media companies will be showcasing their products. I’m a big believer that if you can touch and feel something you can understand it. I went to many of the upfront and new-front presentations this year, and I was inspired by what I thought was the best one I saw, which was the one for the AMC Networks. As you walked in you had zombies grabbing at your feet, then you went through a meth lab, and from there you walked into an office where you got involved in a pitch for Ovaltine. So you literally got to feel what the AMC programs were.
“And an old Chinese proverb was part of that inspiration. Here’s how it goes: Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand. So what we’ll be doing is involving the advertising community with our members' products so they will be able to touch, feel and understand them.”
Key to any conference is who's doing the talking, and Frey has lined up some interesting panels.
For example, the opening one features Robert Tas, managing director, head of digital marketing, JPMorgan Chase; Edward C. Gold, advertising director, State Farm; Bob Liodice, president & CEO, Association of National Advertisers; and Phil Cowdell, president, Client Services, GroupM. Tying it all together will be panel moderator David Verklin, a longtime advertising media maven who has always had a strong interest in how the consumer consumes media and the various implications we can draw from that behavior.
Later in the day, one of the fifth estate’s best and brightest media observers, Ken Auletta, makes an appearance at the conference.
If I’m not at my gym working out on my elliptical, with its engaging little TV screen, I’ll try to make it over there as well.
Well, that was pretty simple. Name-calling that’s easy for me as a columnist/blogger to do, and a terrific attention grabber. Thanks for clicking on this piece.
So who’s the asshole I’m referring to in the headline? Don’t have one in mind. Instead, I want to have a discussion with you about name-calling in the press, and honesty in journalism.
What got my attention was the media column published on Monday, Oct. 7, 2013 by Michael Wolff in USA Today. It became the talk of the town at NBCUniversal and at other media shops, judging from the number of folks who have mentioned it to me.
In it he skewers present and former NBCUniversal executives Lauren Zalaznick, Steve Burke, Cesar Conde, Joe Uva and Randy Falco. He also attacks Patricia Sellers of Fortune magazine, who covers media.
Over the years I’ve known Uva and Zalaznick fairly well, Burke and Falco much less so, and I’ve never met nor spoken to Conde or Sellers.
In the piece, Wolff calls the TV executives above “empty suits” and, with the exception of Falco, paints them pretty much as buffoons as he writes about their recent losing and gaining of various executive jobs.
Wolff does this with great skill and, I am sure, by the end of the piece many consumers, as well as those in media, are having a great laugh at what Wolff has painted as a travesty of a mockery of a sham, to borrow a line from Woody Allen.
But honest journalism it is not.
Wolff writes that some “personnel shifts at NBCUniversal have brought an onslaught of self-congratulatory memos from top management and slavish coverage in the press, while many sentient insiders are doubled over with laughter at the real story.”
I question whether “many” insiders are laughing hysterically at the plight of these various executives.
And here’s what I know about almost all personnel shifts in the business world. Rarely, if ever, does a company say that someone has been “fired.” And it is a rare executive who says that he or she has been “fired.”
So what most responsible journalists do, when faced with someone leaving a company, is recount the positive accomplishments achieved by the executive, as well as what are generally acknowledged to be that executive’s shortcomings.
Furthermore, Wolff writes that “media writers are often trying to sell projects to the people they are writing about.” In fact, most legitimate journalists covering the TV beat are not doing that.
I’ve been covering the TV business for more than three decades. I have rarely interviewed a top executive who I actually thought was an empty suit, and it is certainly not a fair description of the NBCU executives in Wolff’s story. As most of us know, even the failings of various media endeavors are not the result of someone being an empty suit.
Wolff, of course, knows this. He’s held a number of other jobs himself over the years. I have met him a few times and we have spoken to one another once or twice. I don’t know whether he would recall any of those encounters.
Years ago, when I was at “Inside Media,” one of my colleagues there was quite friendly with Wolff and thought he was one of the finest media minds around.
On the other hand, another friend of mine, who worked at Adweek when Wolff was in charge there, dislikes him and has described him to me as, well, an “empty suit,” and as a rather unpleasant person.
Personally, I live in a glass house and have no illusions that some people like me and that others think I’m an A-hole.
But I’d never write a piece such as the one Wolff wrote Monday morning. It’s not honest.
Yes, executives have egos. And they have sides of themselves that aren’t pretty. But it’s actually a rare executive, in media or otherwise, who is both the fool and the clown as Wolff says the executives are that he wrote about in his column.
Wolff is also wrong about what he says at the conclusion of his column: “These are, clear to all, the emperor’s empty suits, the assets who descend in the elevator each night from their phony-baloney jobs. That’s network television! As it has always been, and as it remains, even with just about everyone saying how passionately they are focused on reinventing the business.”
I don’t know what he’s talking about. The people named in his column and the jobs they have and had are not phony-baloney ones. The jobs are real, and these executives -- like most everyone involved in network TV, from those at the studios to those at the stations to those at the networks themselves -- are working their asses off trying to figure out how to put on programming that most of us want to watch and will tune in to.
THAT is actually network television. As it has always been, and as it remains.
It may be the men of "Sons of Anarchy" who suck all of the air in the room when they hold secret meetings in their clubhouse, but it is the women who provide much of the motivation for the adrenalized motorcycle gang action that happens in and around the fictional town of Charming, Calif.
Gun running. Drug dealing. Prostitution. Murder. Legitimate businesses to cover them up. It’s all there in creator Kurt Sutter’s edgy and twisted look at a gang of outlaws who continually confront threats to their way of life from corrupt law enforcement, overzealous developers and rival gangs, as well as life-and-death betrayals from within the core group.
And for all of the Emmy love that the testosterone-fueled FX drama somehow doesn't seem to receive -- and should -- audiences are making up for it in record numbers. The recent premiere episode of Season 6 is now down in the history books as the cable net’s most-watched telecast with 8.32 million viewers for Live plus 7 time-shifted viewing.
Full disclosure: I came late to the “Sons” party -- due only to the time required keeping up with all the other great dramas on television in this new golden age. But once I did, I was hooked -- drawn in by its echoes of Shakespeare and “The Sopranos.” So I jumped at the opportunity to speak with Maggie Siff (Dr. Tara Knowles) and Katey Sagal (Gemma Teller-Morrow) when they got on the phone recently with reporters.
The two actresses who play the wife and mother of lead character Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam) vie for his attention, loyalty and affection, and barely an episode goes by without their rivalry playing a central role -- and creating all kinds of ripple-effect chaos.
Sagal’s Gemma and her machinations make her the winner in the most recent round, by putting Tara in jail. It’s the same thing she did with her ex-husband and Jax’s hated stepfather, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), the former president of SAMCRO from whom Jax has wrestled the reins.
Here are excerpts from the conversation with the two leading ladies:
Q: Every character has to make a lot of tough choices and to live with the choices that they make. Thinking of all the difficult decisions that Gemma had to make through the course of the show, what action was the hardest to wrap your head around and justify and to do on camera?
Sagal: Sending Clay to prison last season was a tough choice because she knew that it was a setup. That was tough for her. She kind of comes out of the situation and she has to think on her feet right at the moment, so I think at the time she never thinks there's that tough of a decision. It's high stakes all the time. If you think about it, our show takes place in about a week. What you see in a season, it's a week or two weeks. They pretty much react instinctively and there's not a lot of time to think “Is this a hard thing to do?"
Q: Gemma seems to have some pretty complex relationships with a number of characters on the show, particularly with Unser and Tig, who has always been loyal to Clay. What do you think the relationship is between her and these two?
Sagal: I think they’re a very close-knit group. They are their own family members. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a sexual tension amongst all of them, really, because they are a very bonded group, and not by blood. I definitely think Tig has eyed her as she has him. In that culture there is sort of the unspoken acceptance that some of the guys, when they’re out of town, they do what they want with other women. I think that there’s a loose approach to all of that, but out of respect to his best friend he would never do anything like that. I think she feels the same way towards him. She feels really close to all those guys, which I think there may be a blurry line.
She grew up with Unser, and I've always imagined he's like an older brother to her. She had a very strained relationship with her parents and she wasn't close to her own family, necessarily, so he's like a family member to her. But then, he has that unrequited crush on her, which he's always had.
Q: How much do you relate to Gemma as a woman, maybe not in the situation she’s in, but as a female?
Sagal: She's all about her family and keeping this lifestyle of hers together and keeping this group together. There's that similarity. I think that Gemma tends to be vain, as I do in certain ways. What's been really interesting to play this season is not a softer side, but a more Zen-like approach, when people start to have a conscience about really where their lives are going and what's been happening. I think a lot of her viewpoint is being influenced by Nero [Jimmy Smits], who is not as ruthless, so I think that it shades her and she tends to soften a little bit around him, which I think she likes.
All these characters have been changing. Over the course of the seven years there's actual life to all the people. They're not just one way and this is the way they always are every time you see them on the show. As an actor, that's really fun to say, "Oh, this is a different aspect of that character. This is not how this character was before." But in life, we’re never the same day-to-day. I mean, we have certain codes that we live by. But our responses and reactions will change as our circumstances change. I think that these characters do the same thing.
Q: Tara has made a big evolution. What still surprises you about playing her, and what are the facets of her character that you find most intriguing?
Siff: I've been joking that Tara's like the place people go to see their dreams die, so I guess what surprises me is the darker and darker regression of the things that she sees fall away. The thing that surprises me in playing her, and in figuring out how to play her, are her reserves of strength and power. Even as her mind is sort of warping and things in her psyche are shifting in a way that I think is really negative and things are kind of breaking, there's also a fierceness in her that rises up perpetually. That's the surprise.
From the beginning, I thought the thing that's interesting about her being a doctor and a surgeon is she's somebody who has to be capable of performing surgery, of dealing with the blood and the guts of life. To me, that means she's somebody who's really fierce and tough. I could also connect it to the part of her that came from that world and was able to deal with life and death and darkness, and shadow and light. So it'll be an interesting coin to flip through the series, to see her going between these places of healing and destruction. I think she's lost right now because she's lost her ability to be a doctor and a healer. She has to turn her attention other things, and I think it's really wreaking havoc on her and bringing up the darker parts of her nature, but I don't think that part of her that is a healer has been destroyed.
Q: Fans were very upset that Jax cheated on Tara. What did you think when you read that in the script and how do you explain the disconnect between them?
Siff: I'm glad to hear that fans were upset. I was upset as well. I think at the end of Season 5 we saw just incredible disillusionment on both their parts with the other person. I think Jax is feeling the sting of her betrayal in terms of trying to set things up so that the kids would be given to Wendy and she was feeling the sting of his betrayal in terms of a real lack of support for her priorities in terms of getting out and getting her kids into a safe place and also some of the more violent and terrifying aspects of his nature that were revealed to her at the end of last season.
They're on different planes right now and she can't even see him when she's in prison. What I was playing with in the premiere episode is that she's using the time to really collect her thoughts and create a plan for herself in terms of what she's going to do to protect herself and her kids because nobody else is going to help her, and that includes Jax. Therefore, she can't expose herself to him because it would be too difficult.
Q: Then, would it be hopelessly naive to keep pulling for Jax and Tara as a couple at this point?
Siff: I don't think so. I think the thing about the show that really pulls people in is that no matter how awful things get between people, there is this deep and passionate, kind of violently passionate love between the characters, within the family, between Jax and Tara. It's hard not to, on a basic level, root for that. I think I root for that. I think we all root for that. That said, it's such a brutal and brutalizing world, God knows how it's all going to end. I guess the thing that I really wish for them is that they learn how to communicate with each other. I think they're very dysfunctional. I think the thing that I connect to with the character, and I think other people connect to, is how these two people who clearly love each other can’t reveal themselves to each other.
Q: Gemma is one of the most fascinating and boundary-busting characters on television, male or female, who is just filled with surprises -- but how does her character balance the intensity of feelings she has for both Nero and Clay?
Sagal: Like all the relationships in the show, it's a lot of duality. I think that Clay crossed some lines with her that she can't get back from. At the time when he tried to kill Tara, it wasn't even so much the beat-down he laid on her, but it was all the things he did to other people. Gemma’s very family-oriented. I think that what Jax asked her to do, which then ultimately landed Clay in jail, she had conflict about it, but she made somewhat of a peace about it. At the same time she had his new relationship with a different kind of outlaw. Nero is an outlaw too, but he may not be quite the ruthless cold-blooded type that Clay is.
Q: Getting back to Gemma’s not so lovable qualities, she manages to justify the acts of vengeance and betrayal as taking care of her family. Do you attribute this to her being in such a patriarchal society?
Sagal: You have a group of people that live outside the grid. The whole point of anarchists is that they have their own rules and regulations and responses, and this is the little world that they have created. So if you really think about what that must feel like, it's sort of you against everybody else. It brings certain intensity to protecting and honoring that group. It is her security, it is her survival. She's a person that left home, left her family, has no roots. These are her roots. Her back story is that she ran away from home when she was a teenager, she hooked up with this group of motorcycle guys that were coming right out of Vietnam and that became her life. She has babies within it, the women she knows are the women that are also with these guys, so it's their own little society. So yes, she would fiercely, fiercely protect that system. Without it, what is she? Sometimes I trip about it. These are people that don't necessarily have retirement funds, 401(k)s. That's not the world they live in. I think it's all in a mattress under the bed.
Q: Kurt seems to have great insight into the female character with the way he writes both Gemma and Tara. Does being married to him inform what he knows about women?
Sagal: First of all, he loves women. He's a very sensitive guy. I mean, nobody really wants to realize it, but for him to write the way he writes, there's a very deep emotional place that he has. He writes women better than anybody I've read before. He really has a deep understanding. He would tell you he has a strong feminine side that he is able to tap into. He's a mush at heart.
Siff: I think that what we see on the show are two very powerful and smart women who are also marginal to the life of the club and the kinds of decisions that get made. In certain respects they’re reactive to events and then in other respects they’re very conniving and right at the heart of how things get done, and what happens. I think Kurt is walking a really strange and kind of interesting line in terms of where their power lies. I have moments where I'm like “Hmmm” and then I have moments where I'm like, "That's interesting." I think they're pretty powerful women in general in terms of the spectrum of powerful women on television.
Q: We’ve seen Tara become more like Gemma over the years, and the recent prison scene where she beat someone really showed her manifesting her “Gemma-ness.” What's it been like for you playing that conflict and becoming this person that you are really trying to escape?
Siff: Yes, it's pretty fascinating. I think there's something almost magnetizing about Gemma and Tara. The way I've been thinking about it recently is Gemma is like this fierce mother figure. She's just such a powerful matriarch and she loves fiercely and will protect to the death her children, her clan, anything she feels is going to threaten the sanctity of her family. Tara is like this quintessential orphan who's parentless and she's been so in need of parents and protectors and people she can look to. So between those two things there's this magnetism, which is why I think they're so drawn to each other and repelled by each other. Gemma is the only person around who serves that role for Tara. It's a huge source of conflict, because I think while she desperately needs a parent she desperately doesn't want to become Gemma. It's just had her bouncing back and forth between states of mind over the last six years. It's really fun to play, especially with Katey, who I love. She's a very maternal figure but she's such a fierce actress we just flip in and out of these modes acting and hating each other, and then love each other as people. It's all there for us to play with. It's a fun relationship.
Q: You’ve worked on "Mad Men” and “Sons of Anarchy,” two of the best-written shows on television. What appealed to you most about the writing of “SOA,” and why do you think people connect with such a dark world?
Siff: My feeling about the script when I read it for the very first time and what I wish people could see, although I think it comes across, are Kurt's descriptions of events on the page, his descriptions of the action sequences, his descriptions of what's going on inside the minds of the characters. He writes very beautifully. It's swift, dramatic and it's funny. And it kind of sweeps you along. He's writing on a grand scale about the feeling of heart and flesh and bikes and the motion of all that storytelling. You feel about when you read the scripts.
The juxtaposition of the dark material up against his incredible sense of humor I think is the thing that actually makes the show work. He's just a very skilled that way. I think it took us a little while in the first season to figure out the tone of the show.
Q: Did Kurt tell you in the beginning about Tara’s character arc or did it just grow in an organic way?
Siff: I think he always wanted to see Tara progress towards Gemma and towards assuming the role of matriarch. I think he didn't know how that was going to happen, in particular because she was a moral compass, which I think was not necessarily what he anticipated for the character. I think it was a combination of who I was as an actor and some beginning notions that he had about her. Early on, the thing that he would say to me is that he realized that she was like the window through which the audience could see these people. Like the audience, she loved this man but knew better, and that's sort of the audience’s position as well – like you love them, but you know they're bad people.
Q: Have things changed on the set since Charlie was cast in "50 Shades of Grey"?
Sagal: There’s a lot more paparazzi there. We’re inundated now with them taking pictures of our movie star. I love Charlie. I know he thought long and hard about taking that role because he would not take it lightly. He really likes the director. I've watched Charlie work for the last six years. This is a kid that is 100% committed to what he gets committed to. So he's somewhat method-y. He embodies what it is he's done on our show, and I'm sure he's going to be just awesome and will bring all of it, whatever it is he needs to bring, if you know what I mean. It'll be great.
Q: With the show reaching its conclusion next season, can you imagine how you will feel and deal with it coming to an end?
Sagal: This season, we all kind of know the end is near. It's a great vibe on the set this year. There's something that happens when you realize that everybody really likes your show and the work that you're doing. It's really fulfilling. We think the storytelling is great and then people respond as well. It's an amazing experience. I know from personal experience that it's really rare. Everybody has a sense of that, that this just does not happen that often with television shows, that you're able to continue your story, that your audience rises each season and that we all made such close relationships and close friendships and have done really wonderful work together. It's very bonding. So yes, there's a melancholy that will start to set in. Everybody sort of clings onto every moment because we know that there's a countdown about to happen. It's kind of bittersweet, but what's really cool about our show is, I think that it's one big story. So it's nice to have that and to be at this part of it. "Nice" is a weird word to use, actually, because I'm sure it's going to be bloody.
("Sons of Anarchy" airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.)