The Walking Dead

I usually reserve the month of October to partake in some “scary movies,” but this month has been a bit busier than usual with me being out of town for a conference and the Cardinals being in the playoffs.  As they so spectacularly collapsed at the end of the NLCS, I’ve got a bit more time to catch up on movies I’ve been waiting to watch…

However, I did find the time to watch the second season of “The Walking Dead,” as it appeared on Netflix a few weeks ago.  The third season has just started on AMC.

The reason I find this concept so fascinating is perfectly encapsulated in the tagline to the third season: “Fight the dead.  Fear the living.”  The story of The Walking Dead is essentially the same one that’s been told for decades in other zombie movies: an unexplained infection causes the dead to start walking, eating the flesh of the living, leaving a limited number of survivors to fend for themselves.  The distinction with this particular story is that much of the focus is on the survivors, not on the zombies.  Indeed, there are lengthy portions of the show (as in, 40 out of 50 minutes) that don’t involve zombies at all: the story focuses on whether the survivors can work together, whether they support each other, or whether they are willing to sacrifice another human in order to save themselves from “the walkers.”

“The Walking Dead” actually began as a comic book in 2003, written by Robert Kirkman.  I have never read the comic, though it continues to this day with over 100 issues.  It seems like many transitions from comics to other mediums, be it video games or movies, suffer because the interpretation by the new producer does not translate the original intentions of the author.  It took decades before Marvel and DC took a long, hard look at how their material was being portrayed in other mediums and actually put the effort into ensuring their properties were represented in the spirit they originally intended (think the difference between Adam West’sBatman” series versus Christopher Nolan’sBatman Begins“).

In “The Walking Dead,” Robert Kirkman is an Executive Producer, giving him some say in how the story is portrayed and how the feel of the comic is translated into a television format.  The series was developed by Frank Darabont, best known for his work directing “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile,” both of which also set in the deep south, much like “The Walking Dead” (which is filmed in Georgia).

Alongside the TV series, I have been playing “The Walking Dead” adventure game.  An “adventure game” is a bit different from many other traditional games in that it’s more focused on story and less on action.  There’s absolutely “action” at points, and “quick response”-kinds of reactions, but much of the game is like the TV show: conversations with other characters where you choose what to say and who to say it to.  In some instances, you can make a friend or make an enemy, and the words you choose, or the people you choose to save (you are frequently given a choice between one survivor and another: you can’t always save both) affects the course of the story.

This game is released “episodically,” so each episode is released every month or two and lasts about 3 hours.  Four episodes have been released so far, with the fifth and final episode releasing next month.  This story is completely new, not coming from the comics or TV show, but is still set in the same world with the same themes.  In that way, it’s nice because it doesn’t try to re-tell a story you already know (thus affecting your decisions as you play the game), but also introducing new characters and new problems in the same world.  The critical reception has been pretty spectacular.

So that’s “The Walking Dead.”  It’s a fascinating world to interact with, though definitely gruesome and violent.  But if you go into it wanting to experience the relationships between survivors that just happen to be fighting a zombie apocalypse, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had.  The first season is 6 episodes long and the second season has 13 episodes, both of which are available via Netflix Instant.

Waning Attention Span

Remember this? ...'cause we don't get this anymore on televisions...

We’ve noticed, in recent years, that it’s getting harder and harder to sit down and watch a television series as it happens, with weekly episodes and breaks around Christmas and March (let alone summer…) where nothing new is on TV.  I’m sure most of this is due to the fact that we don’t have cable, so we’ve had to shift our viewing habits to some degree.  But even on Hulu, which has a “regular stream” of episodes, similar to what you’d have on a television network, we have a queue of 22 episodes right now waiting to be watched, across various different shows.  Some of those are “my” shows, some are Brooke’s, and others are for the both of us.  Our varied schedules (and toddler…) make it difficult to schedule that time for both of us to sit down and watch something.

As our schedules are difficult to manage, I’ve found that I prefer shorter TV seasons now.  There was a time when I balked at the idea of a show only having 6 or 12 episodes in a season, but now I can’t imagine getting through the 22 episodes most traditional networks seem to favor.

Case in point: “The Walking Dead” is a show on AMC that is based on a comic book about the zombie apocalypse (though it’s really more about how the human survivors deal with it, and less about the zombies themselves).  The first season was 6 episodes, and the second season is 13 episodes.  The first season is on Netflix streaming.

I watched all of it on Saturday.

So, because there was a shorter season, the writers were able to tell a compact, yet full story that lasted throughout their season.  They weren’t trying to keep a story line going over 22 episodes, but it also wasn’t a serial a la your typical cop drama.  Each episode was connected, made you want to watch the next one, and kept you engaged.  There were no breaks for you to lose track of what’s going on (granted, I watched it all in one day, but the show premiered on AMC with a weekly episode over 6 weeks).

I’m having the same issue with video games now, too.  I’ve been trying to work my way through “Mass Effect 2,” a sci-fi role-playing game I picked up for $5 awhile back.  Games like this take at least 20 hours to complete, while many can immerse you in the world for at least 60 hours.  Now, it isn’t unusual to spend 60 hours playing a video game, but I’m finding it difficult to keep going back to that game because the story is complicated, it’s spread over a lengthy period of time, and if I can’t go back to it within a few days, I forget what I did before.

I guess I’m saying that my attention span, or at least, the amount of time I have to devote to things that require such attention, has waned.  I just don’t have the time anymore for 60 hour games or 22 episode TV shows spread over a full season.  I’d much rather play a shorter game, or one that can be enjoyed in shorter bits of time.  I’d much rather watch a 6-12 episode season of a show that Brooke and I can watch within a few weekends.  We can get a clearly defined story and won’t forget what happened “last time on…”

Thankfully, this is a purpose Netflix is well-suited for.  Shows like “Downton Abbey,” a critical darling recently, has 7 episodes in its first season.  “Mad Men” has 13 episode seasons.  “Breaking Bad” has 13 episode seasons.  “Doctor Who” as between 13 and 15 episodes per season.  Each one of these have a general story arc that takes place over that time frame, as well as the individual “bits” that make each episode distinct.  You’ll notice a trend that all these shows are either British or from the cable networks, both of which apparently figured out how to achieve excellent storytelling decades ago.  It’s no wonder these kinds of shows are the ones that win Emmys.

It just seems like shows along these lines are easier for me to digest now, rather than being bothered with the Law & Orders or CSI:s on network television.  It isn’t even because the subject matter is stale:  it’s because they’re just too long.

Glee-king Out Over Little Things

After we finished up most of our regular season television programming, Brooke and I decided it was about time to see what this whole “Glee” thing was all about.  The first season has been up on Netflix Instant Queue for awhile, and will hopefully be followed by the second season once it releases.

For the uninitiated, “Glee” follows a ragtag group of high school students from Ohio as they attempt to get first place at the otherwise nondescript “Regionals.”  As it is a show focusing on high school, it tends to alternate focus between characters, looking at their lives, troubles and growth as individuals, and as a singing group.  The difference from other high school dramas, however, is that each episode is marked by musical numbers from a variety of sources, including Broadway and classic and modern pop.  The show has also featured guest stars, from Olivia Newton-John to Josh Groban to Neil Patrick Harris.

I think Brooke likes the show a bit more than I do, which is somewhat counter-intuitive in that I tend to like musicals more than she does.  For me, I think my main problem comes from the somewhat “rough-shot” execution of the whole endeavor.  For example, some of the kids do a much better job lip syncing than others, and it’s really obvious to the point of distraction.  Also, the background story thread about budget cuts constantly threatening to shut down the glee club flies in the face of the elaborate musical numbers utilizing huge sets, expensive lighting and professional-grade sound systems. Some episodes feature an inner-monologue a laScrubs,” yet others don’t use one at all.  The perspective in each episode could be third-person, or it could become first-person mid-episode, only to switch around again 5 minutes later.  Finally, musical numbers tend to feature either a guy on a piano, or the school’s apparently awesome jazz band…yet you can pick out solos and effects in the music that the instrumentation presented are incapable of producing.

These are all complaints that Brooke can move past, as she will continually remind me that “it’s fictional.”  I dunno.  I watch a good deal of science fiction and I can get past some things, but for some reason, I think it’s the lack of consistency episode to episode that annoys me most.

That all said, the music is pretty good.  I do enjoy hearing different versions of familiar songs performed in context with the story outlined in the show.  You find yourself pulling for them as they deal with their disparate struggles throughout the season, despite the fact that the story really isn’t all that complex or revolutionary.  I guess I’d just like some of those rough edges trimmed a bit, not necessarily to make it more believable, but at least make it consistent from episode to episode.

We’ll watch the second season once it releases on Netflix streaming.  Not sure we’ll get it done in time for the third season to start on live TV, but we’ll try.  Until then, we have “Mad Men” premiering on Netflix Instant this Wednesday, so we’re excited to finally jump on that train a few years late as well.

Oh, and speaking of shows we’re just now getting to, we rented “Modern Family” and watched its first season, as well.  Here’s an example of a show that is unbelievable, yet is consistent enough that I don’t pay attention to it.  5 stars for that one, folks.  Hope the second season is as good as the first one.

A Year Without Cable

I realized recently that, besides the fact that we’ve now lived in Iowa for the last year, it also means we’ve lived without cable television. After all that time, what have we missed?

Not a whole lot, it turns out.

Sure, there are some things that I would like to have.  Some deficiencies I figured we would see in this newfound lack of endless channels, but there are others I didn’t expect.  For one thing, I knew we’d miss having the ability to record a program on a DVR, as we’d gotten used to having one for the previous 4 years.  I thought that we’d be fine without it, however, as most of the shows we watch were on some kind of digital service, a la Hulu, etc.  And for most shows, we were right.

Unfortunately, a select few of my shows (e.g. Stargate Universe and Sanctuary) have some silly deal with SyFy that makes them show up on Hulu 30 days after premiering.  That, my friends, is an eternity.  Those shows, however, are the only ones that seem to have this problem.  Many of the others, in fact, show up the day after premiering on television, while others show up a week later.  These are time-frames we can deal with.

One thing I didn’t think I’d miss, however, was baseball.  I don’t really watch baseball religiously, but I do like catching the occasional game on a rainy Saturday or Sunday afternoon.  For the most part, many Cardinals games are actually televised up here in Iowa, using KDSK‘s feed.  This isn’t always the case, however, and sometimes, because we’re in Iowa, we get enough wind that the TV station’s antenna is cutting in and out, making my viewing of a game troublesome.  I have considered getting service, which would allow us to watch any baseball game throughout the season in HD through the PS3, but at $90 per season, I just don’t watch enough to make it worth it.

Other than that?  I don’t think we miss all that much.  We watch quite a bit of Netflix, streamed through the PS3 or Wii, and we have a few “standby” shows in our Instant Queue at all times when we get that “we just want to veg out in front of the TV and watch nothing specific” feeling, such as No Reservations, Man v. Food, Mythbusters and Dirty Jobs.  The best part being that we can choose which episodes we want to watch, rather than being at the mercy of whatever theme that particular station is running on that day.  And, no commercials.

We are still watching Hulu through the computer, but it seems to work alright.  I’d prefer to have it on the TV, but I don’t want to run a cable that far, and the 19″ monitor we’re using is “big enough” for our purposes.

In the end, I don’t think we miss cable all that much.  We can find little things here and there that would be nice to see live, but more often than not, we’re living without it.

Not something my parents could have believed they’d ever say, methinks…

F2P – Part II

In “F2P – Part I,” I discussed the two primary forms of making money on media in today’s day and age: advertising and microtransactions.  In “Part II,” I look more into how this all applies to other media and where I see things going.  Of course, as I am no expert in any of this, you should take anything I say with a grain of salt.

Where’s It Going

Long-story-short?  Who knows.  The beauty of the internet is that everyone’s trying different things.  I think there are interesting trends, however, that are worth considering.

The New York Times, for example, instituted their “pay wall” recently.  According to them, most people only look at maybe 20 articles on the site in a given month, so they are preserving that service for those people.  For everyone else (that doesn’t have a subscription to their newspaper), they will make you pay for the service after you have hit your 20 article limit.  The idea is very similar to the microtransaction: the relative few that use the service the most are subsidizing those that use the service the least.  There are other newspapers looking at doing something similar – my hometown newspaper, the Columbia Daily Tribune, has already implemented similar plans.

I think television media is the more difficult anomaly.  Hulu, for example, pulls quite a bit of its content from NBC and FOX, and has a good deal of “back catalog” viewing.  In some cases, you will get commercials that show up during the breaks, typically either one or two.  Sometimes, you’ll get a choice at the beginning of an “extended commercial” that may be 2 min long, and then you won’t get any more commercials for the rest of the show.

Their Hulu Plus service, however, is a crazy hybrid that was released in 2010.  The licensing behind these television shows is set such that you can watch them on a computer, or you can watch them on your television through your cable provider (or your antenna), but legally setting up a system so you can watch these shows over the internet and then display them on your television is much more murky.  They invented Hulu Plus as a way around this, where you have a subscription service that then allows you to watch some Hulu content on your television, including some current-run shows (i.e. you can watch all of this season’s “30 Rock” over the service).  However, there are other shows on Hulu that you can’t watch through your television, including practically all USA Network shows and SyFy shows, to name a few.  That means you not only don’t get access to their current-run shows, but you also don’t get access to the same shows that are running on Hulu through your computer.

Let alone the fact that you are paying the $8/mo to get this content on your television, yet you still get commercials to help subsidize the licensing.

Needless to say, the New York Times and Hulu are two separate examples of different ways media are trying to figure out how to get viewers and users over the internet, and make money doing so.  In my opinion, the New York Times has a much better strategy for it than Hulu does, yet Hulu is constrained by the “Old Media” way of licensing their content, written when there was no such thing as an “Internet.”

Now For Some Speculation

As I said before, no clue, but it still fascinates me, especially as companies try to find new ways to make money using the internet.  I think they all see the writing on the wall and they are doing their best to stave it off as long as they can.

In a relatively short amount of time, there will be no phone lines or cable lines: it will all be fiber optic (or wireless) and we will not only communicate through it like a telephone, but we will also get information and entertainment from it like a television.  Your news content will no longer come on paper to your doorstep unless you pay a lot for it.  The Internet represents a complete merge of all “Old Media” into something new, and it’s been happening very slowly for the past 15 years.  Very soon, however, new houses won’t be built with copper lines or coaxial cables: they will have a single fiber optic line that serves the purpose of both.  And old houses will be retrofitted with the same technology.  The house we currently live in has that fiber optic line running right up to it, and we live in the middle of nowhere in Iowa.  There’s a good chance your houses are next.

And while all that is happening, the companies that make the content will have to merge along with it, and deal with the other companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft that have been in the game and have figured out how to make money on the Internet.  Google made a great search engine, but they made their money on advertising.  Advertising, I might add, that you barely notice as you browse their various web sites.  To the point where they can afford to provide you with web-based office software, Google Earth, Picasa image editing software, Chrome web browser, and even whole operating systems in the form of Android and Chrome OS – for free.  They figured out what they needed to do to get you to use their search technology, and they did it with advertising and made a lot of money doing it.

Effectively, whether they like it or not, cable companies aren’t going to have cable going into houses much longer.  They need to get their content on the internet, and soon.  Personally, I’d rather see this happen along the lines of the New York Times: allow a certain amount of programming for free per month over your web browser or an internet-ready TV, and then charge individuals on a per-channel basis.  This should have been done years ago (a so-called a la carte plan) by the cable companies, but they chose to create larger and larger cable packages instead.  Now it’s coming back to bite them.


How the “Old Media” guard will end up surviving, only time will tell.  But there are plenty of companies out there providing free content, subsidized by a fraction of their users.  Zynga and Turbine are developers making high-class games and making millions doing it.  And they do it using a model that provides services for free to the masses, making money on volume.

Once the “Old Media” groups figure out that they can’t continue doing what they’ve been doing for the last few decades and survive on the Internet, they’ll be better off.  Until then, they will continue to lose customers and money.

And the rest of us will simply move on.

F2P – Part I

I’ve been toying with thoughts on the “Free 2 Play” movement (“F2P”) for a few weeks now, as I find the whole thing to be fascinating.

In short, F2P is exactly as it sounds: you get a game, a program, or a web-based service for free, and then your free use of it is subsidized in some way.  In some cases, it can be through advertisements.  In other cases, it’s in the form of “micro-transactions.”  I’ll hit both of those separately, as I think they both contribute in different ways to how the internet is changing, or has already changed, e-commerce.

It should be noted that most people would look at “F2P” as applying solely to the realm of online video games, yet I think its trends extend into other media and have for a long time.


The ad-supported model is probably the oldest form of these changes, as we’ve all been exposed to it for generations now.  Very few of us could pay for all the programming on any given television channel, yet the advertisements and marketing that go into each program help subsidize it to make each program cost practically nothing to us.  In the early days of the internet, when web sites like Yahoo! and AOL were trying to figure out how to make money from consumers and not rely as much on investors, we started getting ads displayed on pages.  They started out being banner ads at the top of the screen, and were mostly un-obtrusive.  Then, our good friends Adobe established Flash as the go-to web media platform, allowing for moving advertisements.  Combined with other web-based technologies like Javascript, the dreaded “Pop-Up” ad gained popularity.

Most large web sites will tell you that their advertisements don’t make a large enough dent in their revenues to fully cover their services.  We have come to understand this primarily in the “old media” sense, including magazines, television networks, and newspapers (more on the latter in a few days).  In the case of television networks, while Hulu still displays ads during commercial breaks on their programming, the revenue they make from those advertisements barely puts a dent in the costs of production and marketing of a TV show.  Quite a few people use the service, but it isn’t exactly paying for new shows.

Enough people got annoyed with pop-up ads (and installed pop-up blocking software in their browsers…) that their development has slowed down, however advertisements still subsidize quite a few web sites, and now, mobile phone applications.  You can buy Angry Birds for $1, or you can download a version for free that has small ads on the bottom.  Amazon recently announced that they’ll knock off $25 from your purchase of a Kindle e-reader if you get an ad-supported version that displays advertisements on the home screen and screen saver (thankfully, not between pages of your book).


This is the new way of making money.  And it makes quite a bit of money.  Mostly, microtransactions have shown up in “the game space,” including free-to-play MMOs like Lord of the Rings Online or Free Realms, and free-to-play games on Facebook, including FarmVille.  In general, these games are all free, so you can usually play the majority of the content of the game simply by downloading it, or loading it up in your web browser.  However, there are some portions of the game that you can pay a small amount for.

In Lord of the Rings Online, for example, you can “die” and resurrect yourself where you died once per session – after that, you can only resurrect at the nearest town, requiring you to run back to where you were, potentially taking from a few minutes up to an hour.  Or, you can pay a small amount, like $0.50, to resurrect yourself again in that location.  To many players, that $0.50 is well worth the cost to not have to spend the extra time running back to that location.

In FarmVille, you are growing your crops and getting your friends to do things for you.  You need to water your crops in order to earn in-game currency, and this must be done within specific time restrictions.  Having your friends visit your farm for you, however, can help take some of the load off your tasks.  Of course, you can also visit your friend’s farms and carry out tasks for them, as well.  If you don’t want to wait for your friends to do things for your farm, you can pay a small amount to have it done sooner so you don’t have to wait.

This is the idea of the microtransaction.  You spend very small amounts of money, or you don’t spend any at all.  Statistically, this ends up working quite well for the company.  Zynga is the company that makes FarmVille, and more recently, CityVille.  The latter had 61 million monthly users last December, helping contribute to the company’s $850 million revenue in 2010.  For Lord of the Rings Online, their developer, Turbine, released statements saying that their revenues tripled since going free-to-play.  Where players were once spending $15/mo to use the service, they increased the number of people playing the game and actually made more money, having the users spend less.

Effectively, this is the idea of “selling on volume:” get more people to use the product by making it free, and you actually make more money doing it.  When interviewed, Turbine will tell you that almost 50% of the users for Lord of the Rings Online pay absolutely nothing, with only a small subset paying a little…and a smaller minority paying a lot.  The extreme minority ends up paying for the extreme majority’s fun.

Stay tuned for F2P – Part II, appearing on Friday.  I’ll try to apply these two models to media in general, including newspapers, television, and so on.  Then again, I’m no expert in these matters, so…take it as you will…

“In the end, it doesn’t even matter.”

I think Brooke and I were both relatively satisfied with the series finale of “Lost” this past Sunday night. In my opinion, it provided a great deal of closure without necessarily answering many of the questions asked in the 6 season show, but I still think it ended with a good (enough) sense of finality.

Therefore, I present to you, the 3 alternate endings to the series. Those of you that have never seen the show still may find it amusing, especially the third alternate, starting just after the 5 minute mark. 🙂

Getting “Lost” in Netflix


Brooke and I got into Lost awhile back after hearing things about it from a variety of people. Obviously, it’s a show that would appeal to me due to its many sci-fi elements, but Brooke had heard other people she knew that enjoyed it as well. I downloaded the first few seasons and we watched them in a few short months, in time to watch the 5th season last year as it was shown on ABC.

Well, the 6th and final season is set to begin February 2nd, so we thought we should watch it all again before the next season begins, especially while there’s mostly nothing on TV (due to the Olympics, primarily). We were able to watch some of those previous seasons on, as the entire series is (kinda) available for free. I say “kinda” because we tried to watch them and, while the site says they’re available, they apparently aren’t working. Rather than download the episodes illegally, we decided to give Netflix a try.

We had been talking about trying Netflix for a few months now, mostly because many of our friends have it, but also because once we move, we we have toyed with the idea of not getting cable TV again. Netflix costs $9/mo and has a lot of material available. The real benefit of the system is that they added “Netflix Streaming” awhile back, making quite a few television shows (like Lost) available on-demand so we don’t have to wait for a disc to arrive before we can watch them. It works on Windows or Mac OS platforms, but in our case, I’m using it on my PS3, streaming the shows (or movies) in near-HD quality to the PS3 so we can watch them on the TV. I imagine we will use mostly Netflix Streaming, but it’s nice having the added catalog of DVDs (Bluray rentals cost $2 extra per month).

So yeah, Netflix appears to be a very worthwhile service, and it’s feeding our addiction to Lost. Win-win, eh?

Happy 40th Birthday, Sesame Street!

It’s hard to believe Sesame Street is as old as it is, and still kicking.  Today marks the beginning of its 40th season, with Michelle Obama as the guest, talking about healthy eating, amongst other things. It’s crazy knowing there are literally over 4000 episodes of Sesame Street, providing quality television for young children now for generations of people.  I learned to count to 10 in Spanish from Sesame Street, amongst all the other things.  This is a show that taught kids it was alright to be different, that reading is fun, and that playing outside is good for you…oh, and cookies are yummy.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Cookie Monster
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor U.S. Speedskating

By the way, I still enjoy seeing celebrities go on Sesame Street.  You can always tell that they have fun with it, even though they’re standing next to muppets.

Brooke and I were hoping to ask for Sesame Street DVDs for Christmas this year, but at least on Amazon, it looks like you can only get DVD sets for the really early years, and some Elmo-specific compilations.  So if you run across any collections from the 80s, let us know.  That, or they’d make excellent baby shower gifts. 🙂

I was doing so well…

…until I fell off the wagon and stopped blogging. More is on the way, I promise. I just have to get around to sorting through some pictures and I’ll have a plethora of funny stuff for you. Luckily, this week is way less busy than the last few, so while I’m looking for the pineapple in every episode of Psych, I’ll sort through some stuff I scanned!