The Back Lot: Companies back to old habits

It’s always intriguing to see what happens when the “big sell” runs into the “big reality.”

The CEOs of the giant media companies are out there every week at investor conferences hammering home the same message: “We are hip to the emerging new platforms, we understand the nirvana of anywhere/anytime media, we know the old media’s doomed.”

That’s the message, but here’s the reality: This summer these very same digital prophets will spend vastly more money on “old media” than ever before as their mega-budget tentpole sequels roll out (yes, they’re not just movies but basically recycled old movies). So the CEOs are paying lip service to the new, but betting big time on the old.

Another example: Time Warner’s “big sell” last week in New York (they will shortly transport it to Los Angeles) is the “Home to the Future,” an exhibit reminiscent of the old-fashioned “World’s Fair” shows. It’s intended to sell the consumer on the notion that anywhere/anytime entertainment is now available interchangeably and interconnectively to Time Warner customers.

Ironically, Time Warner’s “big sell” comes along at the moment when the company is facing a firestorm of class-action lawsuits and consumer complaints that its existing services are dysfunctional. In short, the “big reality” is that the company doesn’t come close to delivering on its present or former promises.

One has to wonder, at what point will consumers say, “I want my old TV set and my old email and my old cell phone, and stop telling me I’m missing out on the future.”

In Los Angeles, not only have I been hearing about complaints against Time Warner, but lately it’s come home to me as I’ve learned about the ordeals of my own staff and, indeed, my own household. Colleagues have lost their email service for as long as two weeks and TV service for even longer.

I can understand why some of the esoterica may be hard for service organizations to cope with, but basic TV? As an experiment, I, myself, decided to reach out for “help” on some of the basic dumb-ass issues, and it’s proven to be a wild adventure.

As a former Adelphia victim, I asked Time Warner, my new provider, why most of the channels I formerly received abruptly disappeared into the ether. Who pulled the switch?

Two long phone calls with pleasant-voiced ladies residing in Colorado Springs (no, they haven’t been outsourced to Kazakhstan) provided no hint. The third had an epiphany: Your problems are tied in with TiVo, she said, and proceeded to read directly from Time Warner manuals on how to punch in the necessary adjustments. The advisories were wrong, to be sure.

Upon subsequently reaching a TiVo person, I was casually informed that “those Time Warner folks don’t understand anything,” and was then given the correct directives.

Now, TiVo is not exactly exotic technology – I wasn’t asking to marry my computer to my TV set like Home to the Future wants me to do – but it’s apparently exotic to Time Warner personnel. At least, I didn’t surrender my email in the process, as has happened to several of my colleagues.

As part of my adventure, I decided to try something even techno-dumber – place an order to install DirecTV. I already own a dish, so this would surely be a simple exercise.

Not in the brave new world of the New Media. I made two lengthy calls, in which I provided abundant information, including my Social Security number, and in each case was transferred mid-call to a dead extension. In my third call I miraculously succeeded in making an appointment – the usual 8-to-12 window. Determined to go through with this absurd exercise, I arranged for someone to stand by at my place to receive the emissary. At the last moment, DirecTV’s rep canceled my appointment.

So now I know why Rupert Murdoch decided to dump his half of DirecTV.

My point in all this is obvious: When will the typical consumer come to realize that the Big Sell always seems to be compromised by the Big Reality? It’s fine to hear about media nirvana, but what happens if the gizmos don’t work? Or if they are produced by a variety of competing companies that don’t get along and don’t want to help one another?

At the moment, the Home to the Future looks vaguely uninviting.

Fuzzy forecasts

The melodrama over “Dreamgirls” continues. A surprising number of bloggers and self-anointed Oscar gurus seem traumatized that the movie didn’t get a best picture nomination, “settling for” eight other categories.

How could their forecasts have been wrong? Their litany of explanations covers a wide spectrum: The Academy voters are too old. And pathologically homophobic. And unappreciative of African-American pop culture. Besides, they hate musicals.

Having reviewed these sophistries, I would propose another set of explanations.

– People who don’t know anything shouldn’t go out on a limb.

– The mania of Oscar “buzz” is out of control.

The truly knowledgeable “old pros” observe that Oscar campaigns, like presidential elections, seem to be subject to tides.

In 1998, one could sense the support for “Shakespeare in Love” swelling at the expense of “Saving Private Ryan.” Over the next four weeks, the same subtle tides will be in evidence in the Oscar race.

So here’s some advice to the self-styled gurus: Shut up and enjoy the party.

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