The other day I was shocked when I saw an interview done on MSNBC. True, the production quality was poor. But that's been going on for years with more and more video reports from cell phones and other murky video phone platforms and devices. As the TV news mantra goes, good pictures are great but live pictures rule.
What shocked me about this interview, one no doubt enabled by the stream of video sneaking, crawling, bursting out of Iran these past few weeks, was two fold:
First, there was the setting of the interview. The woman interviewed was Iranian, an author and political commentator. I don't recall her name, but such women are in great demand nowadays, helping to "explain" Iran. She was not in Iran. She was talking from London. No big deal. Most Iranians criticizing the Iranian government on TV do it from a safe distance.
But here's the catch. The woman wasn't in a studio and she wasn't appearing via satellite uplink. She was Skyping the interview.
That's right! She was sitting in front of her monitor looking into her webcam, talking to the MSNBC desk jockey. She was giving her take on the uprising and where Iranian women fit in all this, especially in light of the on-camera murder of a 27 year old Iranian woman, Neda Agha Soltan, allegedly at the hands and rifles of paramilitaries working for the government.
(Neda has become both icon and symbol of the election protest and its violent suppression by the state. This cell phone video will now rival that of the brave young man who stood up to the tanks at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, in 1989. Symbols are valuable political and revolutionary tools and have incredible shelf life in a media conscious world.)
Second, it is the staggering implications of this Skype-conducted interview that commands immediate attention. Just the financial implications are stunning:
The additional operating cost to a news network to do a video interview via SKYPE is essentially zero. By comparison, and looking at the low end of the cost scale, the costs of doing a bare bones, traditional, remote, nonprime time 30-minute studio-based satellite interview starts at around $1,900 and goes up from there. If the interview requires location shooting with the attendant satellite uplink enabled trucks, personnel, etc., the dollar costs can rise into the multiple thousands.
Thousands vs. zero (or the cost of a webcam and mike). You can see where this is going, can't you. Pretty soon, everyone will be able to be interviewed by everyone else. The entire world becomes a green room and the population just waits for their own personal, "heeeere's Johnny" or Sally, Shoshona, Indira, or Qhang Chu before they slide into a desk chair, and smile as their home becomes their personal sound stage.
As viewers, we'll tolerate bad or no make-up, cheesy sets and lighting, fish-eye camera angles on faces and the halting quality of computer based telephony. Eventually it will get better, of course. Vanity demands it! Indeed, there are already video cameras which can electronically add suntans and, to an extent, erase blemishes, so we can all look telegenic, TV-presentable. HD will complicate matters but that obstacle will be crushed by need and creativity.
As I said, I was shocked by the interview; even stunned. But it didn't surprise me. Five years ago, when my wife and I were talking about moving away from L.A., I had one BIG reservation: How will I continue to do TV interviews if I leave this media capital of the world. For years, I would and could just roll out of bed and land at CNN, CBS or ABC or NBC, even PBS, do an interview, then roll back home again, all without raising a sweat.
Further, reporters had been to our house, many times, to do quick and dirty interviews. Same for reporters from Germany, England, Australia, Sweden, you name the country. To be a media psychologist in L.A., especially from the 70's through the 90's was to be at the center of the media universe.
And I adored that. I loved it. I can't help it. I can't be demure about it. Or modest. I did interviews. I did them often. I did them well. I even shared a radio mike with the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. That was a thrill. Despite the fact that he seemed in a drug haze. Prescriptive drugs, I hasten to add. Anti-psychotic medication advocated by his subsequently-defrocked therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy.
I liked the minor celebrity that it accorded me with my students, my colleagues, and the very occasional-man-on-the-street or the waiter-at-the-coffee-house-in-Silverlake. Hell, it even got me a few moments in Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. He took the clip of me off an archived TV interview. Yes, I was totally misquoted and misapplied but at least, as the saying goes, they spelled my name right.
So the issue was this: If I leave L.A., my media interview career could be near-fatally damaged, the party over, the thrill gone. If I stay in L.A., that might happen anyway because in L.A. television, aging is a felony.
In the end, adding up the pluses and minuses, we decided to leave L.A. I resigned myself to the real possibility that my TV "career" could be over. My wife, playing the prophet, the seer, the optimism fluffer, tried to reassure me that pretty soon being in L.A. wouldn't matter since people will be able to do TV interviews from their homes, probably via satellite uplinks.
I allowed myself to be reassured by her optimism but, deep, deep inside, I figured she was seeing rainbows where I saw bad moons rising.
Over the next 4 years I did one TV interview. That's it. One. With a remote crew out of St. Louis. So much for my wife's gift of prophecy. Producers would contact me, find out where I lived (two hours from St. Louis, the closest major market), find the local university facilities inhospitable, and move on.
I kept hoping for a new tomorrow, when the TV interview swallows would return to my personal Capistrano. Pretty soon, though, hope became despair, mañana became jamás;. The curtain descended and the lights went out.
Yes, I did print interviews, some radio interviews; but even they dwindled down to a trickle. I went spiraling down from doing about 100 media interviews a year to about 10.
And then, along came Skype. My wife, it appears, was actually quite prescient. Therein lies the other shocking implication of the Skype interview on MSNBC: TV interviewing has been democratized.
With Skype and looser broadcast quality standards, I'm back in the interview game. Yes, probably a billion people are in the game as well. With Skype, now everyone effectively lives in L.A., even if their mailing address is in North Dakota, Trinidad or Kabul.
With Skype technology, the world of televised communications tilted just slightly on its axis.
So, Mr. DeMille, once again I'm, ready for my close-up...