08 July 2011

Spitzer Channels Rough Rider In The Arena Finale

Elliot Spitzer’s nine month foray on television has ended as CNN cancelled his program “In the Arena”.  Originally, left leaning Spitzer came on the air paired with alleged right leaning  Kathleen Parker and was billed as “Parker-Spitzer. But Parker left him at the end of February to “concentrate on other things”. Spitzer’s show  is being edged out by “Anderson Cooper 360".

In some ways, it is remarkable that  Spitzer lasted as long as he did, as the Manhattan Madam panned his performance on the boob tube by opining “Spitzer is as boring on television as he is in bed”.  CNN made Spitzer his flagship prime-time anchor, and went so far as to make media buys on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program.  But the viewers never materialized and CNN constantly was behind both Fox News Channel and MSNBC. 

Aside from the low ball ratings for CNN, Spitzer could not live down his risque reputation as Client Number Nine. News of Gov. Spitzer's penchant for hiring high end escorts with the Emperor's Club caused Spitzer to quickly resign his office in March 2008.  Media critics noticed that when Parker was part of Spitzer’s show, there were many tight shots featuring the CNN couple.  It also was hard not to think of Spitzer’s political sins during the Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY 9th) Twitter cybersex scandal this spring. 

Spitzer chose to sign off his final show by citing President Theodore Roosevelt, as his 1910 “In The Area” Sorbonne speech that inspired the show’s name:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

When one associates Eliot Spitzer with Rough Riders, it less likely that one thinks of 26th President of the United States and more of a playboy’s aids.

If Spitzer is still looking for a new outlet, perhaps he can land a show on channel nine.

02 July 2011

Glenn Beck's Mercury Rising?

Glenn Beck recently ended his eponymous television show after two and a half year run on FNC.  The often emotive Beck managed to complete his final broadcast without tears, but during the After the Show Show for Insider Extremists, not so much.

Critics of Glenn Beck chortle that he was pulled off the air due to ratings.  The ratings belie that ranting.  Others contend that Fox News fired the controversial commentator for being a loose cannon who alienated advertisers.  This progressive perspective seems to forget their concerted campaign to sponsors to boycott the Glenn Beck program.  Once liberals had convinced enough corporations to not sponsor “the five”, they used the stature of Congressman Anthony Weiner (sic) to attack Goldline, a loyal Beck advertiser.  Beck was insistent that he was moving on without bad blood with Roger Ailes and FNC.  So much so, Beck pointed out that his entire final hour show was broadcast live.  This is not something that a network would want to do with a proven bad actor like Keith Olbermann, or without needing to liberally use a dump button as MSNBC should have recently done.

Beck believes that he is no longer called to continue his commentary from Rockefeller Center. So at the pinnacle of a media career, he is willing to risk it all to do an internet video venture which stops analyzing and starts acting on the problems which he perceives are forthcoming.  For this analysis, It is inconsequential whether you consider Glenn Beck as he had self-effacingly described himself as a “rodeo clown” or if you think that Beck is a Tea Party Incarnation of UBS anchorman Howard Beale from Network.  The question is really about the sagacity of Beck’s vision of  new media marketing and delivery as being an effective communication strategy.

Several media players have tried to launch subscriber based internet content, with varying degrees of success.  The New York Times has twice tried to force subscription for reading its content online, with the latest push occurring in March.  But the last time they tried having a hard subscription wall, the paper lost prominence, did not boost their dead tree subscriptions and had to abandon their attempted internet monetization. The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times have been successful with cyber subscription models, but they have specialized content and an affluent target demographic to pay for it.  Many talk radio hosts have internet subscription platforms, mostly for distributing podcast, which generally cost $5 a month or $50 for the year.  Rush Limbaugh has been quite successful with Rush 24/7 at the same price which features podcasts, the live “Dittocam” and access to his show prep reading colloquially known as “the stack of stuff”.

Glenn Beck is augmenting a subscriber internet model largely for video distribution.  Prior to the finale of his FNC show, Beck had the Insider Extreme package for his three hour morning radio show running at about $7/month or $75/year.  Subscribers could obtain audio podcasts of the show to listen on their own terms.  But the Insider Extreme also included live or on demand video of the radio program from a six camera system from their Radio City studio in mid-town Manhattan.  The subscription added a 4th hour featuring his long time sidekicks Stu Burgurie (also executive producer) and Pat Gray.  Early this year, Beck gave S.E. Cupp her own show on the Insider Extreme.  Beck threw in Fusion online, his comedy magazine. Beck did a few live performances of his comedy shows on the road.  Many part of his 8/28 Restoring Honor Rally were covered online.  In addition, Beck had been producing web documentaries on complex current event and historical subjects and there were mostly historical “classes” as part of Glenn Beck University. This lineup of programming has garnered 80,000 subscribers.  Not a bad chunk of change.

The Mercury Radio Arts (the corporate name for GBTV) model can only really be compared with Pajamas Media PJTV venture.  The venture got its name from the derisive dismissal of bloggers who caught Dan Rather’s sloppy and false journalism  about President George W. Bush’s National Guard Records as being “[G]uys in their living room, sitting in their pajamas.  When Roger Simon launched PJTV in 2008, they wanted to move away from being a news aggregator into being a subscriber based internet news alternative.  Instead of being part of the liberal Lamestream Media, PJTV sought to be a conservative network which was self supported by subscriptions.   Even though PJTV landed some prominent figures, such as Glenn Reynolds and Joe the Plummer, PJTV did not have a sustainable financial model.  PJTV continues to produce some online videos but new material seems free for the taking and is supplementary to associated Pajamas blogs.

Beck’s multi-media vision goes beyond television.  Beck believes that he has reached everyone he can via standard television, but that audience is mostly over 50 (prime Tea Party demographics).  Beck yearns to reach an audience under 30, who rarely sit down to watch conventional television, even if it is recorded on a DVR.  Beck thinks that by tweaking his programming and changing his delivery system, his message will be free to reach the wizened and those comparatively wet behind the ears.

Considering what the Insider Extreme already offered and what the Beckian dream machine has already alluded, there might be enough to program a typical television network.  But that won’t due, as there could be battles for carriage.  I would imagine that NBC/Comcast would not be too cooperative to host a Glenn Beck inspired network, especially if it challenged MSNBC or Al Gore’s CurrentTV with Keith Olbermann. The SorosSchlessinger

Conventional networks usually require partners that can put the kibosh on anything controversial.  While the FCC is supposedly scrapping the Fairness Doctrine for broadcast media, there is always concerns about the nanny state strangling undesired conservative/libertarian ideas.  So Beck moving the base of operations to the internet is a facile but flawed plan.  The FCC is floating semi-final drafts of net-neutrality regulations, which indubitably would impact free internet sites, but it is a hard argument to require balance for a subscription site.

Glenn Beck has voiced concerns that GBTV might be slightly ahead of the curve on new media models  "[b]ut I’d rather be ahead of the pack than part of it."  A subscription model allows content to be unfettered with the added virtue that the programming is truly viewer supported (unlike PBS).  PJTV failed in part due to the delivery system, as it had high definition picture, but it could have streaming hiccups and it required subscribers to sit in front of their computers.  GBTV is partnering with MLB Advanced Media, which reputedly has perfected high quality internet delivery of video and ancillary data to computers, televisions (via Roku) and cell phones and mobile devices.  It is very ironic that a sports neophyte like Beck chose bet the farm and chose to partner with Major League Baseball for his network, but he swears that it is the best.  So it is multi-platform delivery of live and on demand programming.  That should get enough youthful and seasoned eyeballs for the programming. Better delivery of programming is not enough as they must want to watch.

On September 12th, when GBTV officially kicks off, Beck will do his own show from 5pm to 7pm.  Supposedly the focus will less be on bemoaning Spooky Dude and more upon activism supporting preparations for what Beck believes will be tough times for the nation.  That preaching to the choir may satisfy and marginally add voices to the choir.  But based on comments in the blogosphere after the GBTV announcement, that won’t be enough to grow the subscriber base to a sustainable financial level.

GBTV is offering a two tiered pricing structure-$5 a month/$50 a year for a basic package that includes Beck’s new streaming show and on demand viewing or eventually $9.99 a month/$100 a year for the full package. Casual viewers bristled at paying to see what was previously “free”.  The tough economic times makes adding another subscription service as a tough sell.

 But where Pajamas Media failed was relegating PJTV to being just a conservative alternate news source.  Beck wants to make things entertaining too to win over younger viewers.  Beck cagily told the New York Times “If you’re a fan of Jon Stewart, you’re going to find something on GBTV that you’re going to enjoy. If you’re a fan of ‘24,’ you’re going to find something on GBTV that you’re going to enjoy.”  Those plans certainly must include a satirical news show with Tea Party and Libertarian sensibilities.  This would be most welcomed as Joel Surnow’s “The ½ Hour News Hour” comedy show on FNC was stillborn nearly four years ago.  And Greg Gutfeld’s Red Eye is amusing, but it’s on at 3 a.m.  Adding drama/action shows that fits a Tea Party sensibilities has a chance at winning over the key youth demographic, who’s tastes can be influenced and generally who spend more discretionary income on entertainment.  Beck also wants to do an animated series that updates lessons from the Founding Fathers.

Aside from a flexible and quality delivery platform and a variety of programming aspirations, other advantages that the Mercury Radio Arts crew has over the likes of PJTV is a front man with an established operation.  The incremental building of Insider Extreme content gives the Opinion and Education arms a head start and an established audience of paying subscribers.  While the Instapundit is great, Glenn Reynolds or Joe the Plumber are not Marquee Men.  Beck will never be mistaken as a matinee idol, but he does sell out theaters in periodic live performances, has written or co-authored many bestselling books, has the 3rd most listened to talk radio show and had a widely successful 5 pm TV commentary show featuring 21 minute monologues and chalk boards.  Rest assured, he is quite a credible front man.  But Beck claims that his new hire, Raj Nair, is the face of GBTV.  That might be a stretch but it does signal that GBTV is not intended to be ego gratification or all Glenn all the time.

One is left with the impression that there will not be overt advertising on GBTV, especially as it is a subscription service.  But considering the powerful reach that Beck has demonstrated, there might be other ancillary ways to monetize.  Merely by mentioning F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (1944), Beck turned an obscure academic economic analysis into a bestseller merely by mentioning it on his TV show.  Beck’s motivated audience are readers so look out Oprah’s Book Club!  Beck has been designing the 1791 line of clothing, which he seeks to give profits to the charitable arm Mercury One. So the monetization may not  be simply lining the entertainment entrepreneur’s pockets but helping out communities.

An exciting, but roughly hewn detail of GBTV is the viewer involvement.  Beck wants his new show to be about activism.  GBTV is teasing viewers prior to the launch with hand-held POV confessionals about the making of a network.  While it is in the offing, Beck visions interactivity, which would allow viewers on a computer to pause on unfamiliar terms and look up prior shows to get back up to speed before continuing.  Moreover, Beck hopes to establish a platform which allows viewers to create video segments of things they catch and pass it on to the producers.  So instead of being mind numbed drones watching the boob tube, they can be active Watch Dogs contributing to the cause.

Obviously, many these pursuits are praiseworthy.  Moreover, the DCBarroco blog shares the aspiration to meld enlightenment with amusement, fostering idea sharing through interactivity and encouraging the audience to “connect the dots”. But this analysis is neither a paen nor propaganda. The question essentially is “Will it work?”

Glenn Beck’s unbridled dreams personally reminds me of the soaring refrain from  “I Sing the Body Electric” from the original version of Fame.  These themes of self confident affirmation of individuality are echoed in the 2010 Glenn Beck Program radio theme.

 While it was created by an uncredited Stephen Lyons, it reminded many listeners of Muse’s anthematic "Uprising”.  But the theme certainly was not made by Muse because when Beck expressed his admiration for this European “Libertarian” oriented group, Muse responded that: "[Beck] is a crazy right winger".  So things don’t always work out as planned, which might end up being the refrain for GBTV.

The Mercury Radio Arts mission is some pretty ambitious stuff.  It is unclear if a new network can be launched in a little over three months using a subscription streaming internet model remains to be seen.  Can quality conservative news and entertainment programming draw audience away from the mixed bag of viral videos on Youtube or streaming Netflix?  Is it an impossible dream to turn an audience into activists?  Can charitable pursuits comfortably interlock with capitalism and community activism?   Will Mercury Radio Arts rise in the horizon swiftly delivering messages of hope and homespun values.  Or will it resemble Icarus, the Greek legend who flew too close to the heavenly blaze and crash landed. It remains to be seen. Stay tuned.

01 July 2011

Spreading Sunlight on the Central Florida SunRail

In February 2011, newly elected Governor Rick Scott (R-FL) derailed the planned $2.4 billion Orlando to Tampa high speed rail project.  This rejection of the Porkulus Project agitated the Obama Administration and mass transit maniacs.  Yet after contemplating the situation for four months, Gov. Scott gave the green light to the $1.2 billion Central Florida SunRail project. This decision embittered Tea Party supporters. Why did he warm up to SunRail?

Part of the problem with the Orlando to Tampa train is that it was a top down decision coming from Washington to spend part of $847 billion Porkulous on projects that promoted the agenda of the self described most train-friendly administration in history, namely the Obama/Biden Administration. The fact that it would be under the auspices of Amtrak did not help as House Transportation Chair John Mica (R-FL 7th) likened Amtrak to the “Soviet styled train system” and probably was just as financial inefficient.

The fact that the Orlando-Tampa route would only have been 84 miles long with five stations along the way did not help as it could not reach “Supertrain” speeds yet it would require laying the special new tract.  Compared to a car trip, the proposed HSR section would not have markedly cut travel time nor would it have been cost efficient. Florida would have been responsible for potentailly $3 billion in cost overruns and the state would be on the hook for ongoing operation subsidies when it did not meet the criteria for successful HSR lines. In addition, residents of Tampa and impoverished agrarian Polk County would have needed to raise their sales tax by 1%.

Four months later, Gov. Scott approved the SunRail project.  Why?  The genesis of the SunRail was local.  Unlike the “Supertrain”,  the SunRail was conceived of locally in 1993 as a 61 mile commuter rail connection between five central Florida counties.  The Florida Legislature held a Special Session for the SunRail project in 2009 which stipulated that state would be responsible for 25% of the costs. State lawmakers in Tallahassee approved SunRail by votes of 84-25 in the House and 27-10 in the Senate.  Four of the five Counties (aside from Osceola) involved have already given near unanimous approval to the project and their associated costs.

Source: WOFL
Funding may have been another way to grease the rails.  Under the Federal Transit Administration’s “New Start” program, SunRail received 50% of the estimated $1.2 billion in funding from Uncle Sam.  The central Florida counties involved are responsible for another 25%. Even though the FTA ranks SunRail near the bottom of priorities, the influence of a Congressional Cardinal like Rep. Mica ensures action for his pet project.  Localities have also benefited from the Mica touch.  Chairman Mica’s hometown of wealthy Winter Park will have a new $1.8 million SunRail/Amtrak station thanks to the largess of federal taxpayers.

Source: Jacksonville Business Journal
A third facilitating factor was logistical.  SunRail is a commuter rail project, not a High Speed Rail extravaganza that required laying new track. So once Tallahassee blessed SunRail, it could buy the tracks from freight train carrier CSX for $432 million (including $150 million for track acquisition and $198 million for S-line improvements).  CSX embraced the SunRail change, as the commuter rail project will prompt a shift of the terminal out of Orlando to a $100 million new terminal in more rural Winter Haven, thereby improving its freight operations in central and southern Florida.

Anti corporate critics charge this CSX deal as being crony capitalism, as CSX is the largest corporate contributor to Rep. Mica.  In a similar track, liberal watch hawks note that other major Mica campaign contributors are central Florida real estate executives, who stand to benefit from building housing and commercial developments around the commuter rail stations.  This may be more than serendipity, but how many liberal good governance types are aghast that Joe Biden seems to treat Amtrak as a placement service for friends and family ala Freddie Mac?  And have these progressive politicos shined a spotlight on the connections that GE has with diesel locomotives and how they stand to profit from green ventures?  Not surprisingly, not many if any.

While it is refreshing that SunRail is not irrationally exuberant about rider-ship predictions, initially predicting 2,100 daily riders for the Phase I Deland to Sand Lake Road section, that seems shockingly low.  This lowball prediction is despite fares have been speculated to be $2.50 one way with a $1 per additional county traveled.  Area employers like Disney and Sea World have promised commuter connections to their workplaces.  While there is no stop at Orlando International Airport per se, nearby stations will have a bus connection.

The prospective low rider-ship has Tea Party activist steaming, as they are worried about a repeat of Tri-Rail, the commuter rail between Miami and West Palm Beach.  The 70 mile South Florida commuter rail has not come close to turning a profit since it opened in 1987. Even though it averages 13,000 passengers a day, Tri-Rail loses between $13-15 million a year.  Wags have speculated that for the amount of subsidy that state and local governments put into Tri-Rail, they could lease Nissan Altimas at $199 a month for all its current passengers.  With significantly less rider-ship, what prevents this from being another white elephant that binds Florida’s taxpayers.

Tea Party critics are concerned that after the FTA “New Start” funds are expended, there is no guarantee of future Federal funding.  But the state of Florida is obligated to cover any unanticipated cost overruns, and rail projects typically cost 40% more than the starting price.  The Federal matching funds only cover the first 32 miles of the project, which only includes 1 stop in Volusia County and no stops in Oceola County.  Localities are required to contribute even if Federal funding is delayed.  If there are problems after Phase I, Volusia and Oceola might reneg, which would require the state to cover, but by then Gov. Scott will most likely already have left Tallahassee.

The Federal funding agreement forces two changes to the SunRail plan which makes it more costly and less green.  Firstly, the fine print requires SunRail to operate between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. on weekends during Phase I.  This is stupid for a commuter rail system to operate on a WEEKEND, but maybe resort workers might not have typical work schedules.  The funding agreement does not authorize Self Propelled Units (Diesel Multiple Units), which Rep. Mica championed (and had campaign contributors in US RailCar) .  Instead, SunRail must commit to using old style polluting Diesel Locomotives.  There is no such thing as a free lunch.

The SunRail plan commits the state to purchase CSX’s rail lines.  Cost conscious critics question why the lines were not leased instead.  Was this a touchy liability issue or perhaps some crony capitalism?  Another suspect cost of SunRail is FDOT picking up $23 million cost for CSX to move from the Orlando Taft Freight Yard to Winter Haven.  CSX has promised to reinvest all of the $432 million from the sale to their Florida operations–surely some costs could have been lifted from Florida taxpayers. After all, Sunshine State Citizens are likely to pay 70% of the costs of the project.

Doing a cost benefit analysis on SunRail is complex.  The localities through their elected representatives supported SunRail, and it was approved by the Florida legislative and executive branches.  So as the axiom goes, they made their bed so now they can sleep in it.  Most likely, the Commuter side of SunRail will not be fiscally self supporting.  With such low rider-ship, it is dubious that commuter congestion on the I-4 will be significantly alleviated.  But the rerouting of rail freight through Winter Haven may make commercial transportation more efficient.  Moreover, it may lessen the danger caravans of eighteen wheeler trucks barreling down US 17/92 and the I-4 competing with resort workers and clueless tourists driving around Metro Orlando.

While Floridians may be concerned about the costs of SunRail, it pales in comparison to the extra $330 that the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority wants to assess on participating governments to bury the Dulles Airport metro station, so that it does not interfere with the aesthetics of the Eero-Saarinen designed terminal.

Gov. Scott has vowed that if SunRail proves to be a big boondoggle, it will kill the future of trains in Florida. Unless they are convinced otherwise by a slick monorail shyster.

McCotter Jams Into Presidential Primary Race

Five term Congressman Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI 11th) will immanently announce his candidacy for the Republican nomination for President in 2012.  McCotter is known in Republican circles for being a conservative who is culturally attuned and new media savvy.  While serving on the Hill McCotter formed a rock and country band “The Second Amendments” which played for the troops and at a White House picnic. To that end, President George W. Bush called McCotter “that rock and roll dude”.

McCotter has a way of mixing wonkiness with rocking.  His Rock Solid interviews show McCotter answering policy questions while riffing on his Star Spangled Telecaster guitar.  When making House floor speeches, McCotter has been known to quote Led Zepplin.  To protest the Democrat drive to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine on talk radio, McCotter produced an innovative youtube video that was an homage to Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues.

McCotter is the third sitting Congressman to run for President this cycle. McCotter is jamming into an already crowded race.  The Republican field may further further expand soon if the persistent rumors about a forthcoming campaign from Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) prove true and the strong signals from former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK).

Even though McCotter has a lifetime ACU rating of 86%, he does cause some rankles in the conservative base.  McCotter’s district is filled with autoworkers, hence he has a union friendly voting record for things like the automotive bailout of G.M. and Chrysler.   Granted, that it is a inside the beltway baseball thing, but when McCotter was the head of the conservative leaning Republican Policy Committee, McCotter sought to abolish it to save money and was replaced by Rep. Tom Price (R-GA 6th). While McCotter is mostly a well spoken conservative, his tough talk on trade puts him at odds with most free market conservatives.  Moreover, McCotter will have to explain his HAPPY proposal (H.R. 5310 Humanity And Pets Partnered through the Years legislation to give a $3,500 tax credit for pet care).

So why is McCotter jamming into the Presidential fray?  His people can say that he is in it to win it, but surely they know that it’s a long shot at best. The virtual Gingrich campaign implosion offered an opportunity to pick up some movers and shakers in Iowa.  The Ames Straw poll is in August and McCotter’s agents spent $18,000 to get the position where former Gov. Huckabee (R-AR) was located. Still McCotter polls 2% in Iowa, despite jamming with Huckabee on FNC.  But as the Paulistians (sic) often prove, straw polls can be won by dumping cash and mobilizing partisans to something that garners publicity but no delegates.

Now that Michigan Congressional redistricting has been finalized, McCotter’s district will be more secure and less union oriented.  While it is nowhere near national levels, in the last election, McCotter raised five times what his opponent did.   Even though political junkies and viewers of FNC’s Red Eye know the quirky but endearing Rep. McCotter, he might not have the statewide exposure. McCotter, like most other top tier GOP candidates,  passed on running against two term Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) this cycle.  Perhaps McCotter is looking to the future and sees that six term Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) will be 80 in 2014 and may not like being a back bencher again.

But as Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-MN 6th) meteoric rise in the Presidential polls has shown, a candidate who is intelligent, engaging and appealing can catch lighting in a bottle during the New Hampshire Debate and can reach for the top.  To somewhat of a lesser extent, the same was true for Herman Cain after the first debate in South Carolina. Perhaps McCotter is counting on scoring big points during a debate along with his pop persona to make him a political rock star.  And if McCotter does not become American Political Idol, then he is well positioned for House re-election, GOP cabinet consideration and possibly a Senate run in the near future.

McCotter may be a huge Beatle fan, but he would be advised to bone up on Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer”.