One DP’s Perspective
Our Need for Speed…And The Whole InterWeb of Things
By James Mathers, Cinematographer and President of DCS
The essays I write for our DCS eNewsletter usually revolve around how digital technology is impacting Cinematography, a subject I like to think I know a little something about after having earned my living this way for most of the 38 years I’ve worked behind the camera. However, running DCS I’ve also had to try to get a handle on the digital technology relating to the communications broadly known as the Internet.
It is perhaps changing the entertainment industry more profoundly than any new camera or postproduction innovation. After all, whether capturing on celluloid or to a digital format, the job of the Cinematographer remains largely the same, and the Editor’s talent in shaping a motion picture doesn’t depend on whether he physically slices a piece of film or pushes buttons on an Avid.
However, motion pictures are essentially a form of communication and the ways we communicate are undergoing a huge evolution due to digital technology. It is not just delivery of entertainment, but the way we share information and connect with society, the whole “InterWeb of Things.”
The Digital Cinema Society exists largely on the Net. Sure, we have regularly scheduled educational events, but while these may draw a crowd of up to 100, the coverage from these events demonstrates the power of the Internet, reaching a vastly larger audience, as they are shared and passed along via social media and file sharing services. For example, our most recent event, which happened to be on the topic of Desktop Editing, went viral and was played or downloaded more than 46,000 times in just the few weeks that it has been available on the web. We now have almost 6,000 members worldwide and most of them interface with us only via the web, but these kind of metrics tell us our reach goes significantly beyond our regular membership.
Celebrating 11 years of existence at NAB 2014, we are two years older than Facebook, and we also predate YouTube, iPhone, iPad, Netflix, Twitter, and Flappy Bird. As a group, we’ve had to evolve with the technology and it has not always been easy. For example, we tried twice to host online forums only to have them overrun by spam emailing bots. We now rely on Facebook and Linked-In as forums for members to give feedback and share their comments with other members.
Many thanks are owed to volunteers such as Christopher Knell and David Wong who help administer our Facebook pages, (one domestic, and the other international with a focus on Asia). Advisory Board member Marty Shindler has been instrumental in providing content and updates to our Linkedin page, while our Executive Director Charlene Mathers handles our Twitter feed. Cinematographer Conrad Hunziker has been voluntarily serving as our Chief Technology Officer from the very start, and his firm NightSky Hosting oversees our website.
Our streaming library has not only grown in size over the years, but the quality has also evolved. Our playback started out as only stuttering, small, and very low resolution boxes suitable for the dial up service that many people still used to access the Net at that time. Today’s higher bandwidth connections have allowed us to offer coverage which plays out smoothly in HD.
But enough about DCS. Let’s look at the broader picture.
The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks serving several billion users worldwide. The origins reach back to research commissioned by the US government in the 1960’s which developed further in the early 1980’s as a collaboration with various governments and commercial interests. By 2012, more than 2.4 billion people, over a third of the world’s population, were using the services of the Internet, which is roughly a hundred times what it was in 1995. It has reshaped telephone, music, film, and television communications, not to mention the whole new area of social media. In 2012, with less than a decade of existence, Facebook had one billion registered users as social-media traffic grew exponentially.
Connecting to the Internet has allowed today’s smartphone to become so much more than a wireless telephone with not only the ability to send and receive texts and e-mail, but also to serve as a music player, TV, motion and stills camera, geolocation device, etc., etc., etc. We can receive our news and entertainment, as well as create news and entertainment.
Speaking of news, it is interesting to note that 64.5% of Americans now consume their news online, as storied news organizations struggle to reinvent themselves. Much of the breaking news coverage we see comes from amateurs who pull out their mobile devices to shoot and upload video when they happen to be where the action is taking place. Such communication, both sending and receiving, crosses geopolitical borders and is difficult to censor, which has helped to bring down several dictatorial governments around the world, as was seen in the Arab Spring uprisings.
We access communication on the web connected via phone lines, cellular, DSL, cable, over-the-air broadcasting, or satellite, and as our appetite for faster connections grows, there is now fierce competition brewing over how we receive this data. There are also forces who would seek to reduce competition, and our governmental bodies here in the US have not been doing much to control it.
Cable giant Comcast already had a large percentage of the cable connected homes in the US. Having previously acquired the merged operations of NBC and Universal they also had one of the major broadcast networks along with ownership of several cable networks, (CNBC, MSNBC and USA Network), which also makes them one of the biggest content providers. It seems they are now hungry for Time Warner Cable’s over 11 million subscribers, which would give the combined company roughly 34 million total subscribers, approximately 70% of homes connected by cable and 30% of all Pay TV subscribers in the US.
These mergers may not seem like a problem, but it is worrying to have so much of our access to communication and high speed data in the hands of so few. With the blessing of the US government, terrestrial cable companies already enjoy a geographic monopoly over the areas they cover. Most of their customers also have Internet connections bundled with their pay TV services, and many also have their residential phones over the same connection. This connection to “the cord” is also the means by which most watch “broadcast” TV.
The word broadcast is in quotes because according to the Consumer Electronics Association, more than 93 percent of local television viewership takes place via the retransmission of programing over cable television systems, over satellite, or over broadband connections. In other words, what we know as television broadcasting is rarely reaching the viewer via a direct broadcast signal.
Comcast has also been known to throttle the data reaching their customers and already imposes a 300 gb per month cap. These limits make it difficult for the customer, who would like a la carte access to content, to choose what they like through services such as iTunes, Netflix, or Roku rather than accepting the package of channels offered by the cable provider.
In fact Comcast is now in such a powerful position that it has worked out a deal whereby Netflix will pay Comcast for the privilege of delivering the faster and more reliable broadband access that Netflix customers require. The deal is unprecedented in the history of the Internet as content providers like Netflix have not previously had to pay for any special access to their customers. Netflix, which is a data intensive site, accounts for nearly 30 percent of all Internet traffic at peak hours; not surprising as they feature binge viewing of their popular series.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this new deal between Comcast and Netflix was worked out the same week as the second season premiere of “House of Cards.” They recently announced that all such original content needs to be mastered in 4K, so we can only assume their bandwith requirements will grow as they look to offer 4K delivery at some point in the near future. Netflix will probably have to raise their rates in order to pay the cable provider to unthrottle the connection that the consumer is already paying for.
One knight in shining armor is Google Fiber, a broadband Internet network infrastructure using fiber-optic technology. They have thus far been slow to roll it out, only offering it in certain major cities in the U.S. But with cable prices rising the uproar might motivate the company to expedite the process.
The customer also loses when large companies battle for access. Last year, for example, Time Warner Cable blocked CBS and the cable channels they own, such as Showtime, for a month over a dispute on retransmission fees between the two conglomerates. Of course, the phone companies are also eager to control our access to data. AT&T, who brags about nationwide coverage, (hey, didn’t we break them up in the 1980’s?), wants to be our everything, providing our landline phones, our cellular, our Internet connections, and our pay TV programming.
I personally don’t think the consolidation of big media and telecommunications providers is in my interest, either as a consumer or as a Filmmaker. Sure, anyone can make a movie these days, but access to any significant distribution is still controlled by a small number of international big media conglomerates that we call “The Studios.” They have grown to be far more than content providers, and now own networks, cable channels, and even cable wire carriers.
The promise of the Internet was equal access for all, but my prediction is that it will become ever more difficult for independent content to reach any sizable audience.
Then there is the question of privacy, or perhaps I should say the illusion of it. Anyone who is active on the Internet should realize they have relinquished their expectation of privacy. I’m not just talking about the NSA scrutinizing our communications. Every detail of our existence seems accessible somewhere on the Internet, available to those who would use it for commercial purposes.
We like to take advantage of the free services offered by companies like Google and Facebook, but these companies need to make a profit for their shareholders and they do it by selling information about us in order to target advertising.
Perhaps it is OK that companies keep track of our likes and dislikes, so that they can deliver messages that are relevant to us. To me, it is also a little creepy to think they are watching every move we make, both online, and even geographically via our smartphones. Now that we’re even starting to wear biometric devices like the Fitbit or Jawbone to upload such personal information as how many steps we take in a day, calories we consume, hours we sleep, and even our pulse and body temperature, we have to be careful about how that data is accessed by others.
The promises of the “InterWeb” are great and many of them are being fulfilled every day. How else could I be sitting here in my underwear, (TMI?), communicating my observations and opinions, or disseminating timely educational streaming content to help keep Filmmakers current on motion picture technology?
However, whether it be news, entertainment, or our interpersonal communications, we need to be vigilant about who controls our data, our access to it, and others’ access to our personal details. With such control comes great power and our government has done little to protect us from the consolidation of such power.
As the old adage says, “He who has the gold makes the rules,” and special interests have been running roughshod over the agencies that should be protecting us. I believe we need to keep the web open, free, and accessible to all, while also respecting personal privacy and fighting piracy.
It’s a tall order, but vitally important to all Filmmakers, to our society as a whole, and a worthy goal we should aspire to.