Game of Clones: online streaming is killing quality TV

Online video services are broken. Consider the case of Eureka, a fantastic science fiction show about a silly town full of super scientists, which is being canceled like most quality SF because it could never find an audience on broadcast TV. If you want to watch Eureka online, you’re in semi-luck, it’s on Hulu (Plus). However, there’s a catch:

For Syfy scripted television, the first four episodes of every season will be made available online the day after they air. Every episode after the initial four will be available 30 days after air.

5 episodes will be available at a time.

This is an entirely arbitrary limitation that means that I won’t be watching Eureka even though it’s online for at least a month – a month in which newer shows might come along and eat into my limited availability for watching new and exciting television – like Game of Thrones. This, in a nutshell, is why online streaming is no saviour of quality television: because the content is still slaved to broadcast economics. And for the purposes of this discussion, anything on basic cable might as well be broadcast TV. Unless we get true a la carte pricing on cable (which will never happen), this will always remain true.

Erik at Forbes wrote a deservedly widely-linked piece lambasting HBO for refusing to make GoT available outside a premium subscription, pointing out that the restriction has only encouraged rampant piracy. Later, Erik called for HBO to at least allow folks to subscribe to HBO Go as a standalone service, only to later realize that this is untenable from HBO’s perspective due to their business model. In a nutshell, piracy isn’t a threat to HBO’s ability to create quality TV programming – online video services, however, are a mortal threat, especially “cord cutting” (as an excellent rebuttal by Trevor Gilbert at Pando Daily also made quite clear). It’s also worth reading HBO co-president Eric Kesseler’s thoughts on the matter.

The problem is that quality TV is expensive. Great shows like Awake, Terra Nova, and Eureka are all lost, while nonsense like Lost gets renewed for a milion years and people actually were fooled into thinking that’s good television. Once in a while you get something great like Battlestar Galactica that survives barely long enough to tell a story in depth and in full, but these are rare events built on the fertile ground of corpses of superior concepts like Farscape and Firefly.

The rush to the web means that most content companies are reactionary – they grudgingly put the shows online, but they do it half-assed (as in Syfy’s case with Eureka) with inane restrictions that hamper building a viral audience. Netflix doesn’t have any current television at all, the only game in town is Hulu or buying videos from Amazon or iTunes, which rapidly makes even the expense of cable television seem like a bargain. The end result is that the video go online (at significant engineering and overhead cost) but they fail to generate any viral interest – and cannibalize broadcast views, which hurts ratings.

Yes, Nielsen supposedly does count DVR views towards ratings now, but it’s doubtful that’s equally weighted as a faithful viewer sitting down at the annointed timeslot. But even using a DVR is like flying the space shuttle compared to ease-of-use of online, given that every device in your family room has an internet connection now: Wii, XBox, Playstation, smart TV, Roku, Apple TV. All of these support Hulu and/or Netflix or both and most support Amazon video. DVRs are dinosaurs in comparison.

But if DVRs are not counted as equal to a traditional view, then surely Hulu etc is even less. It’s trivial to ignore ads on Hulu by opening a new window and checking your email, or laying the iPad aside and goofing off with your phone for 30 sec. Hulu is very helpful in even giving you a countdown for how much commercial remains.

No matter how you argue yourself an an exception to the rule, it’s a no-brainer that online viewing of television means less ads, less engaged consumers, and lower ratings. And that hurts good TV across the board. It’s harder to persuade a studio to take a risk on a new concept because they know that even if it’s good, they can’t sell as many ads as they used to so the cost-benefit calculation is going to be worse than it was a few years ago, and will get worse further still ahead.

There’s only one alternative for quality television, outside the Clone ARmy of online streaming services, and that is premium television. If SyFy were a premium channel we would be watching Firefly season 5 by now. As long as we circle around the drain of online streaming we are going to see fewer and fewer shows outside that paywall worth watching, and the few that do make it will be short-lived. The cancellation of Awake really burns in this regard – a show that had an incredible idea but just didn’t have the time to mature. Look at the difference between Encounter at Farpoint and Yesterday’s Enterprise or The Offspring, for example. We don’t get to see that kind of maturation anymore because teh economics of ratings has driven it into the ground, and online streaming is the bloody shovel.

The techsphere is all agog over everything mobile, streaming, real-time, immediate gratification, and cheap. But that’s a formula for dren rather than quality. This is why we can’t have nice things.

Obama and Uhura – the Great Communicators

I hope that the sheer awesomeness of this photo transcends politics. Actually, I know it does:

The Great Communicators

via Nichelle Nichols herself, who tweeted at the time:

I’ve always thought Obama had a bit of that Spock Cool about him – that classic photo of Nimoy and his Buick somehow encapsulated the character better than any on set.

Spock's Car

and of course, now in the “Alternate Reality” Spock and Uhura are getting it on. So there’s cosmic resonance.

Cumberbatch is Smaug! (h/t @Sherlockology)

Buried at the end of this tidbit about Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch being cast as principal villain in the next Star Trek movie, is this awesome news: Cumberbatch will be the voice, and the body (based on motion-capture) of the mighty Smaug in The Hobbit!

Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch has been cast as the principal villain in the sequel to 2009’s Star Trek, according to Variety and trekmovie.com.

A source is quoted as saying that the 35-year-old impressed director JJ Abrams and his team with an audition that “blew them all away”. Benicio Del Toro had been previously considered for the role of chief adversary but talks apparently broke down about a month ago.

Cumberbatch’s most recent big-screen projects include Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and War Horse, and he will also be providing the voice and motion-capture for Smaug the dragon in Peter Jackson’s forthcoming Hobbit film. Filming is expected to begin on the Star Trek sequel in a couple of weeks, with the movie scheduled for release in 2013.

Frankly the Star Trek news is less interesting, though the movie will be better for having Cumberbatch run amok in it. I discount the rumor that the baddie is Khan as the timeline would require it to be Space Seed and not Wrath, and let’s face it, Space Seed was pretty lame. Also, I personally believe that the events of Star Trek: First Contact created the new timeline well before Spock’s return, which is why suddenly we had an Archer-captained Enterprise come into existence, and so the entire Trek prehistory is probably askew anyway. And if they are going to use Khan anyway, then there’s absolutely no excuse for not using an Indian actor – my preference is Shah Rukh Khan, but Fahran Tahrir would also do nicely. But I digress. Cumberbatch! Smaug! OMFG!

Scotty’s send-off

The remains of James Doohan have been sent into space (briefly):

UPHAM, N.M.–The cremated remains of actor James Doohan and U.S. Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper soared to suborbital space yesterday aboard a rocket.

It was the first successful launch from Spaceport America, a commercial spaceport being developed in the southern New Mexico desert.

The Canadian-born Doohan was most famous for portraying engineer Scotty on Star Trek. Cooper, one of the original Mercury astronauts, had been in space twice during his lifetime.

Doohan died in July 2005 at age 85. Cooper, who first went into space in 1963, died in 2004 at age 77. Doohan inspired the legendary catchphrase “Beam me up, Scotty” – even though it was never actually uttered on the popular television show.

Suzan Cooper and Wende Doohan fired the rocket carrying small amounts of their husbands’ ashes and those of about 200 others at 8:56 a.m. local time from the launching grounds near Truth or Consequences, N.M.

During the 15-minute flight, the rocket separated into two parts and returned to Earth on parachutes – coming down at the White Sands Missile Range – with the capsules holding the remains. The maximum height reached was about 116 kilometres. Capsules containing the ashes are retrieved, mounted on plaques and given to relatives.

While nicely symbolic, I think a far more powerful memorial to Doohan was his final turn as Scotty in the TNG episode Relics. In a way, that episode really closed the book on the old Star Trek for me. And whose heart didn’t leap when Scotty walked onto the holodeck and recreated the Enterprise bridge, “no bloody A, B, C, or D!” ? It’s hard not to think that Scotty’s words to Picard on that recreated bridge of legend weren’t as much coming from Doohan himself.

Star Trek Online – temptation

UPDATE – the sale is over. Star Trek Online is now priced at $39 (still $10 off retail).

Excalibur class starship - looks familiar
It’s bad enough that I got hooked on World of Warcraft. Now I see Amazon is selling the new Star Trek: Online MMO for a ridiculous 45% off – $28instead of $50.

Man, though, it looks cool. I haven’t seen a decent space combat sim since the X-Wing days. And they are integrating it into the timeline of the original series/movies and the reboot. The Klingons are at war with the Feds again, the Romulans are creeping around, there’s the Borg and even Species 8472. No mention of Section 31, though, unfortunately…

star-trekkin’ across the universe

Sometimes there’s a visible gulf between geekdom and academia, despite the stereotype of these two realms being congruent. I am reminded of this gulf by this odd story about a paper by William Edelstein, a senior and distinguished physicist (in my own field of MRI research), who has calculated the lethality of interstellar travel:

Interstellar space is an empty place. For every cubic centimetre, there are fewer than two hydrogen atoms, on average, compared with 30 billion billion atoms of air here on Earth. But according to William Edelstein of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, that sparse interstellar gas should worry the crew of a spaceship travelling close to the speed of light even more than the Borg decloaking off the starboard bow.

Special relativity describes how space and time are distorted for observers travelling at different speeds. For the crew of a spacecraft ramping up to light speed, interstellar space would appear highly compressed, thereby increasing the number of hydrogen atoms hitting the craft.

Worse is that the atoms’ kinetic energy also increases. For a crew to make the 50,000-light-year journey to the centre of the Milky Way within 10 years, they would have to travel at 99.999998 per cent the speed of light. At these speeds, hydrogen atoms would seem to reach a staggering 7 teraelectron volts – the same energy that protons will eventually reach in the Large Hadron Collider when it runs at full throttle. “For the crew, it would be like standing in front of the LHC beam,” says Edelstein.

The spacecraft’s hull would provide little protection. Edelstein calculates that a 10-centimetre-thick layer of aluminium would absorb less than 1 per cent of the energy. Because hydrogen atoms have a proton for a nucleus, this leaves the crew exposed to dangerous ionising radiation that breaks chemical bonds and damages DNA. “Hydrogen atoms are unavoidable space mines,” says Edelstein.

The fatal dose of radiation for a human is 6 sieverts. Edelstein’s calculations show that the crew would receive a radiation dose of more than 10,000 sieverts within a second. Intense radiation would also weaken the structure of the spacecraft and damage its electronic instruments.

All well and good and I have no reason to doubt Dr. Edelstein’s calculations (we medical physics types do have a professional interest in radiation dose and shielding, after all). But clearly Dr. Edelstein is not a fan of Star Trek, because even the most newbie of Trekkies knows about the Navigational Deflector Array. In addition, Starfleet vessels also have Bussard Collectors on the warp nacelles, which are the sci-fi-ified version of the Bussard ramjet.

My point is, physics geeks and sci fi geeks clearly aren’t as overlapping sets as I had assumed. But where a medical physicist might see errant hydrogen atoms as dose, a different kind of physicist might see them as fuel. In a way we scientists do bring our own biases to the table…