Lockdown Notes #3 – sport, newsprint, Disney Plus and David Bowie

As has become the norm during lockdown, we chat (virtually) and one of the questions that inevitably pops up is how we’re spending our time. The phrase ‘intellectual pottering’ sprang to mind the other day. It sounds very grandiose. Really it just means pottering but not doing anything practical, such as a bit of weeding in the garden or tidying up the kitchen. It might also be called mental flossing. One of the pleasures of having more time has been doing a bit more reading, going down a few more of those Wikipedia rabbit warrens and scribbling notes down.

One of the reasons for having more time on my hands has been the absence of sport. Watching Warrington Town at home (and sometimes away) and catching Arsenal when they were on the telly filled a fair chunk of the weekend, plus the occasional weekday evening. Then of course there is reading about sport. Checking the BBC Football gossip column is pretty much a daily ritual. Like many people I’m missing sport, though I’m sure not as much as some. I imagine Liverpool fans are a lot more frustrated than I am.

We can tell how big a role sport plays in many of our lives that, even in its absence, we find ways to talk about it, read about and even watch it. Several friends avidly followed the BBC’s re-run of the Ben Stokes Ashes test. If I had to put my finger on it, I guess following sport is like following a story being told live – similar to a soap or the latest political goings on. We’re hardwired as a species to love stories and the drama, emotion and belonging associated with sport make for very powerful stories.

A previous edition of Lockdown Notes looked at ‘content’ and how the way we access it has changed as a result of technology. One of the adverts which keeps popping up on my Facebook feed is for the sports subscription site The Athletic. They have quite an impressive set of writers. I was tempted but I eventually came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t get value for money. If I didn’t have a paper copy, like a magazine or newspaper, I’d probably forget to read it. Price wise though, there was no difference to paying for FourFourTwo or getting The Sunday Times. The number of times I’ve bought a physical paper of magazine to end up not having time to read it. Just strikes me as odd that we apportion different value to physical and digital and the reasons we use to justify the difference don’t necessarily stack up.

On the subject of content, I read an interesting media column on The Guardian suggesting that newsprint editions of newspapers may not survive the coronavirus pandemic. Falling advertising revenues as businesses adjust their expenditure is one factor, but there is also the lack of sales as many shops close and people limit their visits to those shops that remain open. I have wondered whether going to the shop everyday to buy a paper (I have the time to read it after all) is acceptable, but I am erring on the side that it probably isn’t. Seeing national titles and, more likely, local titles falter will be a huge problem. As the columnist Roy Greenslade observes: ‘the biggest news story in a lifetime is killing off the very industry that exists to report it’. There is some solace that there has been an upturn in digital subscriptions, but the shifts in the industry will likely leave our media landscape changed for the worse.

Another ‘content’-related story which has amused be is the uncanny timing of the UK launch of Disney Plus. While there will doubtless be many people who allow their subscriptions to lapse post-lockdown, the global uptake figures exceed what Disney were aiming for by the end of 2024. Disney’s pursuit of streaming was driven by their CEO Bob Iger, who has also announced that he is deferring his semi-retirement until after the pandemic has passed. Only a month or so ago, The Economist profiled Iger at the time he announced that he was stepping down as CEO. As well as his ability to question his judgement and change tack, as he did over streaming, the profile also highlighted two other qualities to which Disney’s success under Iger can be attributed. One of these was Iger’s trust in talent. When Disney acquired Pixar, rather than interfering with their new studio, Iger did almost the opposite and allowed Pixar to ‘acquire’ relevant divisions within Disney and make an even better animation studio. The other quality is all about content – Iger believed in the Hollywood maxim that ‘content is king’. While some thought it was all about owning the power of distributing content, Iger realised that content creation was still key. This drove Iger’s plans to acquire not only Pixar but also Marvel and Lucasfilm, making Disney what The Economist described as a ‘content-and-technology powerhouse’ which makes and, through Disney Plus (and Hulu) distributes content.

All of these references I keep coming across regarding content, creators, distributors and technology remind me of an awesome interview which David Bowie did on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman. In the interview which is well worth watching as my words cannot do it justice, Bowie (speaking in 1999) explains to a sceptical Jeremy Paxman how the Internet will completely change the relationship between media and the audience, disrupting not only the media industry but our very ideas of how we think about and relate to content. It shows Bowie’s prescience and genius, though this isn’t surprising given his reading interests. Another link I keep going back to is the reading list of Bowie’s which formed part of an art exhibition about him. The list can be found here (although a Google search for David Bowie’s reading list throws up some intriguing and occasionally bizarre takes on the musician’s literary tastes).

And it would be impossible for almost anyone to follow David Bowie, so I’ll leave it there for these notes.

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