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Predicting the Present

it's getting scarier

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, December 28, 2005.

Today, we turn to the front pages of the internet, and see where King Kong is considered a disappointment. This despite the $120 million ticket sale income in only two weeks here in the United States, something I daresay would pencil in well on my books. There is more to it than meets the eye. Hollywood is in a twitter that tickets sold for the movies are down 7% this year below last year, and that obviously it’s due to video pirates and all sorts of nefarious creatures sucking the lifeblood from this most American of art forms, soon to die. Sad. So sad.

And untrue, so untrue. It might accurately reflect a decline of theater patrons, but you should know that movie companies only acquire about 15% of their income from ticket revenue, such a low percentage it seriously surprised me. The rest come from video sales, product tie-ins, television and cable leases. We’ve simply ceased going to theaters where you can get sick sitting next to sniffling children and their parents on the cell phone, and we’re on the verge of being able to put on wraparound eyeglasses that serve as movie screens with full spectrum sound and watch a movie in perfect 3D after a broadband download. So while they can point to declining numbers of enlarged American butts in the theater seats, that figure – as well as the century and a half old institution of the movie theater – is almost irrelevant. Movie producers can also count on DVD sales ad infinitum. Setting aside the nefarious activities of accountants, it’s almost as if the template of discussion about cinema is limited to its connection to movie theaters. But the connection has long been severed.

Theaters receive almost nothing from ticket sales, and depend totally on popcorn and soda sales. That’s why a chain of theaters sued Mel Gibson, because much of the ticket sales to The Passion of the Christ were mass buys by churches that never actually produced people in the seats, an observation buttressed by the relatively poor DVD sales of that movie. Movies exist and thrive outside theaters. It’s possible that within a decade, the movie theater will be gone, absent from social reference just like the drive-in, stage plays, and, well, broadcasting may be.

KGNU, my long time station, bought a Denver AM signal a while back for mostly simultaneous broadcast, and because of a financing opportunity, old concerns were recently reopened and discussed. One of the underlying concerns was this, or at least this is my formulation of it observing at great distance: What is the future of not only KGNU, not only public radio and broadcasting, but broadcasting itself? After all, is the mission of KGNU welded to broadcasting or to the community service and information it provides by any means available to it? Would the entity called KGNU exist, or its progressive mission change, if technology suddenly made broadcast passé?

Does KGNU as a community and as a service vanish if people stop listening to broadcast, AM or FM, but only to future variants of podcast or wildly divided live sources? When you can tune in directly to Radio Jamaica by satellite or internet for free, do you retain dependence and affection for local Reggae DJ’s. And when independent DJ’s with their cutting edge recordings of bands who just left the studio go on line, and search engines can be taught to find the sort of stuff you’ll like, and computers, for that matter, can be taught to compose the very songs you’ll like, what is the attraction of the public radio station or, for that matter, public presentation and performance? Well, we have no idea, because a lot of performance and broadcast survives because it provides a shared experience in the company of others, often the sole if unadmitted goal. But because technology changes so increasingly fast, we are deprived of the time needed to bend things to needs of the species. Does that sound pretentious? Wait…..

Look, for example, at how incompletely the Indians incorporated the horse in the two hundred years they had them before the reservations opened. Horses were legal tender, they were status symbols, they allowed all the old patterns to be done faster, and at greater distance. But Dog Soldiers still staked themselves to the ground, which no longer seemed brave but merely stupid when your enemy was mounted.

I’d be willing to bet that right now, a computer could mimic the voice and mannerisms of a blues singer and compose and record a song that many people, maybe all people, could not distinguish from a live human. Western music is math, has formulas and variants, and although it’s difficult for us to admit it, we’re pretty predictable. Blues are easy math. If it can’t be done yet, it can be done soon. Go see King Kong – apparently they can use your business – and tell me it can’t be done. Tell yourself it isn’t being done now while you down your popcorn. Assure yourself that when discussing the future you aren’t really channeling the present. It’s changing that fast.