Writing

writing and editing and spelling and punctuation

TV Programming Has Gone Haywire – And Isn’t It Magnificent?

TV content

TV contentAs a young boy, I could count my home entertainment options on three fingers: ABC, CBS or NBC.

Those were the Big Three networks that served up the TV shows I – and most other folks – cared about.

When my buddy Greg convinced his parents to subscribe to a new universe known as HBO, I looked forward to spending the night and enjoying an endless stream of (mostly R-rated) films.

The universe was truly my multiplex — at least when Greg invited me to share in the magic of his set-top box.

In high school, my folks agreed to sign up for the “expanded basic cable” package, which served up a burgeoning network of non-stop music videos known as MTV. Suddenly, I catapulted toward coolness and ordered an $8 logoed T-shirt so I could parade around school pretending I had arrived.

Exciting as these entertainment options seemed, however, they still required me to plant myself in front of the tube at a specified time to catch whatever program I craved – usually Mork & Mindy or The Love Boat (pitiful, I know).

VCRs were in their infancy, TiVo was a couple decades away, and content on demand was a concept straight out of The Jetsons (another one of my TV faves).

Teleport to today, and the options are dizzying…hundreds of TV channels, thousands of web options, and the potential for anyone – and everyone – to become a producer, director, lead actor, critic, or nonstop virtual couch potato. Thanks to the accessibility and portability of technology, compelling content is always just a couple of clicks away.

The big three networks still exist, of course, but they’re much smaller and less powerful than they once were.

And they sure are fighting like crazy to remain relevant to new generations of entertainment junkies who are no longer held captive by the notion of tuning in to prime-time TV.

Those traditional broadcasters also are scurrying to figure out how to connect with viewers who want to participate in programming through real-time engagement (a la Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other platforms yet to be pioneered). I’m still amazed that mainstream TV shows are embracing the use of hashtags and that serious news programs regularly feature viral videos. It makes perfect sense, of course, but it must be somewhat humbling for the formerly almighty oligopoly to be taking cues from young social media upstarts.

It also makes you wonder who’s really in the driver’s seat shaping the future of entertainment. One thing’s certain: the field is vastly wider and more diverse than it used to be.

The Great Content Explosion

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As entertainment platforms and producers continue to morph and multiply, what’s surprising to me is that the most engaging programming is coming from unexpected sources.

Cable TV networks that originated as broadcasters of existing content are broadening their appeal by producing original programming. Can you say MadMen? The Walking Dead? Game of Thrones? Bates Motel? You can’t see any of them on ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox.

Netflix, which began as an online subscription service for distributing DVD movies, recently debuted a new model for delivering an original TV series. By releasing the entire first season of House of Cards concurrently, Netflix granted subscribers complete control over when, where and how they view it. (I’m counting down to May 26, when they usher in the triumphant return of Arrested Development, Season 4).

And it’s hard to deny the growing influence of alternative and user-generated programming being spawned by online platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo.

Meanwhile, the old guard is fumbling to discover/create their new reality amid a sea of tired franchises and blatant rip-offs of previous ratings bonanzas. I mean, how many different singing, dancing and/or dating reality programs can broadcast TV legitimately support???

You might say that the whole world of TV entertainment has been turned on its head.

What hasn’t changed is that the strongest programming will endure – and the quality of content is rarely based on who produces it, where it originates, or how much money is spent bringing it to market. Rather, it’s evaluated on how well the characters, narrative and plot resonate with our minds and emotions.

In other words, the best stories will win the day.

Underneath the sexy technology and glitzy marketing campaigns, we humans love a good yarn – whether it’s spoken around a campfire or streamed directly on our smartphone.

Not only do stories entertain and captivate us; they connect us with each other and to our shared humanity. It doesn’t matter if the protagonist is a close relative or a fictional TV character, we are naturally drawn to compelling storytelling.

Nothing Compares 2 Real Words

I blame Prince. And Sinead.

A couple decades before texting ever captivated a generation, these two colluded to legitimize ridiculous abbreviations for already short words.

Instead of writing “Nothing Compares to You,” Prince penned “Nothing Compares 2 U.” And Ms. O’Connor played along with the gimmick when she recorded the song that ultimately put her on the mainstream map.

Those seeds eventually germinated into the lexicon that has crept in and degraded our language.

I’m no living language denier, but I don’t see the purpose of substituting “ur” for “your” or “l8r” for “later” or, heaven forbid, “enuf” for “enough.” These replacements are neither clever nor necessary.

If efficiency of letters were the sole goal, then we wouldn’t be saddled with stray letters inserted at the end of certain words, a la “No wayyy.”

But we are. And it’s not just those rebellious teenagers who are doing the misdeeds. Middle-aged moms and dads are adopting the texting habits of their youngsters – and it ain’t becoming.

I have slightly more patience for those common texting acronyms like “LOL,” “IDK” and “brb.” Annoying as those bad boys may be, at least they function like real acronyms, with each letter representing the first letter of the corresponding words.

But the intentional dropping of letters or substitution of numbers for letters…not cool.

A notable exception to my hard line against compressed words is my affinity for using “U2″ as a replacement for “you too.” It’s just too irresistible and reminds me of an obscure band from Dublin. Besides it’s not actually a misspelling.

In fact, spelling is one of those rare notions that I take very seriously. Like God. And Chipotle chicken burritos with black beans.

Which, incidentally, both go quite nicely with some good old-fashioned Prince:

Are You a Curator or a Packrat?

Curation

At first glance, the contrast between these two handles couldn’t be sharper.

A curator is a specialist who oversees a cultural institution’s collections. (S)he makes decisions about what objects to collect, oversees their care, and conducts research to share with the public through exhibitions and publications.

Conversely, a packrat is a disparaging term for an undisciplined hoarder. (S)he’s named after a bushy-tailed rodent that uses its well-developed cheek pouches to store food and miscellaneous objects.

Seemingly disparate terms, yet in the unwieldy world of digital content, there’s a fine line separating the two.

Most of us, of course, would much prefer to don a curator’s hat. We aspire to be that cultured – somewhat snooty – expert who has a skill for selecting and sharing content that’s ideally suited to whatever audience we seek to reach.

But who or what determines what’s OK to share? How much is too much? Is there a specific formula or general rule of thumb?

The frustrating truth is: it depends. One person’s trusted curator is another person’s annoying packrat.

Each morning, as I scour news sites and blogs for content that I think may be of interest to my Twitter community, I wonder which moniker I most embody.

Some mornings, it’s slim pickings. Others, it’s a bountiful harvest and I find myself fighting trigger-finger tendencies.

Regardless, it’s really hard to gauge whether I’m viewed as more of a curator or a packrat. I suspect the answer depends on whom you ask.

In many ways, trying to organize and serve up digital content is much more challenging and murky than it is for any cultural institution. Holdings don’t fit nicely within a discrete, climate-controlled environment. They never will. 

Instead, the goal is to cast a focused net within the seemingly endless ocean of internet content (estimated to reach 20 billion items by 2020).

The role of digital curator is in its infancy. It’s messy. Imprecise. And often like chasing the wind. 

But it’s an increasingly valuable — and valued — function.

So if you’re wondering whether you’re more of a curator or a packrat, you’re probably a bit of both. 

Welcome to the family.

Packrat

Nouns with a Nasty Case of Verb Envy

Grammar_police

Call me a grammar purist, but I was taught that nouns should act like nouns and verbs like verbs. 

Apparently, that’s far too limiting a concept, as nouns are increasingly encouraged to masquerade as full-fledged verbs.

I suppose life as a mere person, place or thing isn’t nearly as dynamic as that of a carefree action word like “jump” or “sashay.”

I’ll be first to acknowledge that it’s far more efficient to “Google” something than to “conduct a Google search.” And it’s way cooler to “Skype” with a friend than to “engage in a video conference call.”

But it’s a slippery slope, folks. If we’re not careful, we just might find ourselves facing a full-on syntax free-for-all.

Case in point:  a recent press release whose headline stated that the company wanted to “obsolete” cash registers. Now why in the world is this once-proud adjective stepping out of its zone to demand some action of its own?

Think it may be time to call in the Grammar Police, before we slip into complete word anarchy.

So who wants to join me in restoring some order to our lexicon?

Oh, by the way, don’t forget to friend me on Facebook.

Some old-school preaching from Schoolhouse Rock.

See Spot run. Help Spot help.

Seespotrun5

See Spot run. Run Spot run.

These simple statements helped teach several generations of American children to read, as part of the reader series that featured the legendary Dick and Jane.

Two sentences. Six words. Six syllables. Twenty letters.

Contrast that clarity with the opening two sentences of this representative press release:

“Mavenir Systems, the leading innovator of mobile infrastructure solutions for LTE operators, today announced the VoLTE Edition of its mOne™ Convergence Platform. Available now, the Mavenir mOne Convergence Platform – VoLTE Edition provides operators with three options for quickly and cost-effectively deploying voice and messaging services over LTE.”

Huh?

I’d say we’ve lost our way, trading simplicity and clarity for cumbersome prose laden with jargon, hyperbole and empty-calorie phrases.

This is progress?

As our world becomes increasingly polluted with bulky, incomprehensible writing, there’s a simple way to reverse the trend and stand out from the fray.

By returning to Spot-like simplicity.

That’s one of the reasons I am such a fan of Twitter. It imposes discipline. Each thought is limited to a tidy 140 characters.

But I’m dismayed by the recent introduction of services like TwitLonger, which touts its service as “a way to let you post to Twitter when 140 characters just isn’t enough.”

Rather than forcing you to edit and synthesize your ideas into a shorter, more cohesive thought, it just facilitates your chronic lack of discipline.

In the words of Mark Twain and/or Blaise Pascal, “I would have written a shorter letter but didn’t have time.”

I’m reminded of the majority of my classroom teachers, whose essay assignments carried with them a required minimum number of words (or more commonly, pages). At the time, it seemed like a perfectly acceptable guideline for defining the assignment and establishing a consistent expectation for students.

Now, I think it’s a lazy technique that teaches students to value volume over substance.

Who among us hasn’t done some creative stretching to achieve page minimums – only to be rewarded with an exceptional grade? Not only did we learn that filling space is valued more than economy of thought, but also that length is one of the most significant arbiters of writing success.

It isn’t.

I’ve discovered that limits are much more effective than quotas in forging writers. I have become a much stronger writer and editor from having to shave down an article to fit a precariously tight word count. Painful as the process may be, the resulting piece is immeasurably stronger and more readable.

Do you think Hemingway would use TwitLonger?

Spot thinks not.

Seespotrun3

 

My Exclamation Point

Exclamation

I’d stop short of calling it a full-blown crusade. It isn’t like I want to banish them completely. It’s just that I think there are far too many untamed exclamations.

Can’t we just agree to scale them back a bit? (OK, in some cases, A LOT…)

Don’t mean to come off as some punctuation buzz-kill, but my journalistic training taught me to use extreme restraint when ending a sentence.

I liken it to yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded auditorium, when you merely noticed a pocket flashlight. You definitely gain attention, to be sure, but the next time you emit that panicked declaration, it’s not likely to have the same effect. (I illuminated this principle further in my recent post on the overuse of “amazing.”)

Of course, my formal schooling took place before the dawning of the digital age, when so many grammar ground rules would be stretched, ignored or ripped off their hinges.

Nowadays, exclamation points are doled out like Tic Tacs® after a spicy meal. 

E-mail is particularly ripe for these symbols of enthusiasm. Although I’m willing to loosen my collar for this more casual medium, something’s wrong when the exclamations outnumber the periods (or perhaps the sender should be dialing 911 instead of crafting breezy e-mails to work colleagues).

So, let’s get practical…

I believe it’s appropriate to use exclamation points when expressing:

– joy (“That’s terrific!”)

pain (“Ouch!”)

excitement (“Hooray for Jimmy!”)

– surprise (“That’s a real shocker!”)

– indignation (“How dare you!”)

Conversely, I believe it’s inappropriate to use exclamation points to convey:

– simple declarative statements (“The company store is closed Thursday!”)

– false fun (“Get ready for the United Way kick-off!”)

– recognition (“Betty Sue completed the task in record time!”)

– reminders (“Don’t forget to vote today!”)

– general commands (“Please wipe your feet before entering the building!”)

Thanks for reading!!! Sorry, couldn’t resist…

If Everything is Amazing, then Nothing’s Amazing

Word_amazing

Behold the fading power of “amazing.” Seems wherever you turn, the word is being carelessly flung, describing everything from charming individuals to musical performances to restaurant entrees.

Clearly, the same forces that ruined “awesome” many years ago are at play once again to dilute yet another once-mighty adjective.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite childhood TV shows – That’s Incredible! – which featured all sorts of stuff deemed “too extraordinary and improbable to be believed” (though some of it was absolutely more deserving of the label than others). The show was a smash during its first few seasons, but when the incredibleness started running dry, so did the ratings.

Given the estimated 100,000+ available adjectives in the English language, why must we obsess over a select few?

We really need to preserve and protect our words, or risk diluting their meaning and forever zapping their punch.

If EVERYTHING is amazing, then NOTHING’s amazing.

In fact, it’s downright humdrum. 

 

Plodding Through a Cranker-Friendly World

Over the course of my 20-plus years practicing PR, I’ve observed two primary classes of professional writers: those who crank and those who plod.

I fit squarely into the latter camp. And it can be a real bitch.

Let me explain the distinction.

“Crankers” turn out quick, passable copy in a smooth and efficient manner. They ease into any assignment and can write seemingly on cue. I’m insanely jealous of these individuals.

“Plodders,” on the other hand, obsess. Obsessively. And we daydream. And trudge through even the simplest of projects. Some of us may even concoct some sort of ridiculous ritual or try connecting to an imaginary muse to unleash inherent writing talent.

Make no mistake, both writers get the job done. But the crankers do it with aplomb (and dignity), while the plodders finish said task in a puddle of sweat, tears, sometimes blood.

And the reality is, we’re living in an increasingly cranker-friendly world, where speed trumps just about everything else (including attention to detail and nuance).

So what’s an old-line plodder to do – besides beat his weary head against his desk? Although I haven’t completely decided whether crankers are born or made, I do know that I’ve failed in my ongoing attempts to morph into a fully-functioning one.

Hence I continue to plod. One. Labored. Word. At. A. Time.

Writers-block5

 

 

 

When Typos Taunt…

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I’m one of those annoying people who feels compelled to locate and publicly disclose every typo that crosses my path. If I’m being honest, I get a certain smug satisfaction in pointing out someone else’s foible. 

Seems the lexicon gods have sought revenge.

Now I’m forced to confront a big honkin’ typo every day as I pass the mail bin that bears the name of my department. Corp Communitcations” it reads  (the first “t” is silent, of course).

Here’s hoping it never loses its sting. I’m keeping this handy, just to make sure.

Omit Needless Egos.

Kissproduct

With all due respect to Mr. Strunk and Mr. White for their profound contributions to vigorous writing, I’d like to propose an essential corollary to their now-legendary commandment to “Omit Needless Words.”

This one has the potential to restore the joy — and sanity – of many a PR person by enabling us to do our jobs without the need to dance, flail, tiptoe around or walk on eggshells.

My proposed addendum to Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style: Omit Needless Egos.

Three simple words; one out-of-control dilemma.

Who’s ready to join me in calling for the eradication of over-inflated egos in the workplace — wherever they may reside???

Ego1