Face-on for fuller disclosure
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Dateline: AUSTIN, TX -- In a week when we’ve again been reminded that a rich and powerful man (isn’t it nearly always a man?) too easily gets convinced he’s above the rules, it’s been almost quaint - and a tad ironic - to journey far from my troubled home State of New York, and be working in Texas instead, the longtime home of loudly-proclaimed rugged individualism.
In the world of media - whose most up-to-date and indeed future-minded denizens gather every March at Austin’s South By South West (SxSW) festivals and conferences for Film, Interactivity and Music - rich and powerful men often do their chest-beating in ugly public slugfests between each other.
This week such a posturing contest is being waged between IAC/Interactive Corporation’s Barry Diller and Liberty Media’s John Malone, over Malone’s efforts to boot Diller off IAC’s board because of his “breach of stewardship” - to choose some of the more polite language ricocheting around the Chancery Court.
By contrast, here in Austin’s enormous Convention Center, a once-powerful - and certainly still rich - giant of the communications industries, Michael Eisner (above left), who ran The Walt Disney Company for a remarkable 21 years, has been conducting himself with something disconcertingly close to humility. Discount, as well you might, the self-effacing jokes as merely a practiced speaker’s effective schtick for a room full of mainly young geeks and content-generators (as when he described himself in the category of “wheel-chaired, drooling, old mogul-type people”) and you’re still left with what Eisner unarguably possesses in bucketloads … sheer media-biz common-sense.
Since his unceremonious and hard-fought dismissal from the Magic Kingdom in 2005, accused by some Board members of acting as if a law unto himself, Eisner has been re-inventing himself -- as a mogul for sure, but one operating in the newer, internet-based forms of distribution for video material, in an already much changed and still fast-changing media landscape.
It’s a realm that Eisner describes (and many of the wisest also describe it thus) as one where “nobody knows what to do”. But Eisner seems to have learned some of what to do from those very multifarious, often spiky-haired and occasionally unruly tribe-members who proliferate at events like SxSW. He “took” - as Hollywood still insists on saying - several meetings while at the festival.
None of his approach is exactly new-universes' rocket-science, and indeed the greatest viral success enjoyed by the web-and-mobile production company that Eisner finances, Vuguru, has gone to its daily episodic teen soap-opera Prom Queen, a project that could have come directly from the playbook of his former company, which developed the High School Musical phenomenon, after all.
To state the obvious, which Eisner frequently did, 99% of the newer, cheaper, often amateur-produced material that can be seen across the web “is awful” (to quote his own straightforward assessment) while 1% “is fantastic”, and he wants to back it -- and earn revenue from it.
I’VE NEVER TALKED ONE-ON-ONE WITH EISNER, preferring perhaps perversely to maintain intact the memory of my solitary communication with him.
It was not long after Disney acquired ABC, whose news division I joined, freshly immigrated from British television, in order to make a one-off documentary on racial violence. I walked into my new empty office to find a single sheet of paper on my desk, a memo of encouragement (sent in fact to everybody in the building) from Eisner.
My good professional feeling about joining this journalistic powerhouse whose senior public face was the late, greatly-respected, and very serious-minded Peter Jennings, was instantly dented when I saw that Eisner’s message was topped with a small but bold picture of Mickey Mouse.
IT’S THE PRINT MEDIUM THAT, ALMOST COUNTER-INTUITIVELY, is a focal point for an upcoming Eisner venture.
In collaboration with venerable publisher G.P. Putnam's Sons he’s putting out, over a period of ten weeks, five daily animated web-episodes per week, whose stories are intended to provide a narrative background and generate a crescendo of expectation for a new medical thriller, called Foreign Body.
This book will appear in August when the videos finish, and will feature the same characters, taking the story onward. It’s all sprung from the imagination of that literally sickening disaster-novelist Robin Cook, who's previously noted for Coma, Seizure, Toxin, Outbreak and a score of other similarly titled New York Times best-sellers).
Sales are meant, of course, to explode virally.
IF SALES DO WELL IN BORDERS' BOOKSTORES, IT WILL ALSO BE IN PART because of a shift in in-store tactics, conditioned in turn by online marketing practices employed by Amazon.com, and by every other online bookseller that’s come in its pioneering wake.
Customers do indeed judge a book by its cover – it’s whole cover, and not just the spine that we conventionally glimpse on most physical shelving. We always get the full face-on cover in those illustrations that online sales-pages provide, of course, and also on the table displays that stores break up their sales areas with.
Borders’ research has shown that face-on displays increase sales of any given title by as much as 9%, and so they are now pumping up such full-face prominence to far beyond its current use as what they term mere “punctuation” in a store. Maybe in some cases it will even come to match the practice in Wal-Mart big-box stores, where almost every book-stand is configured to face the buyer full-on.
It comes as no surprise to me to learn that Borders' CEO George Jones was once a buyer for Dillards Inc department stores, where he learned early on that dresses sell better when customers are faced with them immediately and frontally, and don’t just see a row of sleeves hanging on a rack.
JUST TO STAY WITH DEAD TREE MATERIAL FOR A MOMENT MORE, my favorite promotion for one of SxSW Interactive's events actually concerned a book, albeit one from the decidedly cyber-based Lifehacker.com's founding editor, Gina Trapani.
It refreshes her previous publication Eighty-eight Tech Tricks to Turbocharge Your Day and gives it a simpler and more comprehensive title Upgrade Your Life (front-facing cover, above right).
Laptop-toting Interactive attendees were urged into Trapani’s reading with a provocative slogan as a come-on: “Spend more time getting things done and less time fiddling with your computer”.
- 03/13/08 04:03 PM john k:
Always good to read your glib straight talk. Your thoughts on Spitzer?
- 03/13/08 04:03 PM DT:
Too much sanctimony everywhere, John, for me to add to any of it.
- 10/06/12 02:10 PM Barry:
Hey Lance,We had the hangout on Monday; I'm fiynlg home on Tuesday. We'll have to catch up though in Providence I would make the drive for it. There is a lot of good food in your neck of the woods :-)