Tagged: Home Box Office

Becoming Mike Nichols, Reviewed

One of my first undergraduate film courses was a director’s class on Mike Nichols. As a nineteen year-old I didn’t know much about him other than he had directed The Graduate (1967), which I knew mostly because of the Simon and Garfunkel score rather than the film itself. On the first day of class, I learned that Nichols had a long career in theater and, that because the instructor, Meredith McMinn, also had an extensive theater background, she was interested in exploring the film work of a theater impresario. Nichols, who passed away in 2014, was still alive and working at the time, and this class was a rare opportunity to celebrate a filmmaker producing a new film at the time, just down the road in Hollywood.

Ultimately, I dropped the class in the second week. As a product of a working-class family, I was inherently suspicious of The Theater, and as a novice film student, I recognized that I should first take a history or genre class before delving into a “specialized master” class. I might have also picked up an extra shift at my campus job because, at the time, I could have really used the money. (Some things never change, I guess.)

Although I didn’t stick it out, I never forgot the two films we studied during my abbreviated enrollment: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, easily two of the finest films of the 1960s.

Those two films comprise the bulk of Becoming Mike Nichols a newly premiered documentary on HBO, which you can also stream on HBO Go and HBO Now. Documentary might not be the best description: it consists of two separate on-stage interviews with Jack O’Brien and is richly illustrated with photographs and extended clips from Nichols’s oeuvre. Think of it as an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio with a bigger budget for rights clearance.

As the title suggests, Becoming Mike Nichols focuses on his early work. It allows the conversation to explore Nichols’s most formative and creative years. Though Nichols worked in both stage and screen over a six-decade period, the documentary only chronicles his early work in the 1950s and 1960s: his improv acts with Elaine May, his early stage work directing two very celebrated Neil Simon plays, and his learning the film medium with Virginia Woolf and The Graduate. The results of these on-the-job training exercises were nothing short of critical accolades in the form of Grammy, Tony, and Oscar awards.1 Would it glib to characterize Nichols as a “quick study?”

Becoming Mike Nichols smartly sacrifices breadth for depth. It was much more engaging to watch his reminisce about this early work than it would have been to review his later work. Wolf (1994) wasn’t a bad film, but it was not going to get you a master class, either.

Becoming Mike Nichols
A lively conversation between Jack O’Brien and Mike Nichols that focuses on the “best years” of the late director’s work on stage and on screen.

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  1. He would get his EGOT in 2001 with an Emmy Award. 

HBO Now and the Technology We Need

Monday’s Apple event wasn’t just about an ultralight notebook computer that I really want and a watch that I don’t. There were also two announcements regarding television that were quite interesting.1

  1. The price for the current Apple TV dropped to $69. This third-generation model has been on the market since 2012 and was available for $99 as recently as this past weekend. I imagine that this is an intermediate move on Apple’s part. There are clearly better options for OTT streaming devices, even for die-hard Apple nerds, and I would hope Apple plans to release an improved version in the near future for the $70 same price. (Or not… what do I know?)
  2. HBO Now will launch exclusively on Apple devices for $15 per month. In some ways, this move is big because it marks the first time HBO is available without a multichannel TV subscription and could be a threat to multichannel TV as we know it. Consumers begged HBO to offer something like this, and now we know that it will be a full-featured service, not a crippled version that only the pay TV subscribers get.

In my most recent New Media class, I addressed the second announcement as an example of a technology adapting to our needs. We were discussing how social network sites were great for, you know, networking socially. Facebook has been great for sharing with your nearby friends, distant classmates, and obsessively doting relatives. After a while, though, we learned that our unsavory activities, such as our party pics, can be found by a potential employer, a college recruiter, or that human you are trying to date. The sharing aspect of Facebook is great, but the permanence is not. So, we now have something like Snapchat, and that is where we share indiscriminately because of its evanescence. We found a technology that better suited a particular need.

HBO Now is intended to provide stream HBO to those without pay TV subscriptions. But a lot of people I know already stream HBO programming with HBO Go. They just use someone else’s credentials to access it. As intrepid cord cutters, we already figured out how to get the product we need without HBO offering it. I’m not going to guess whether HBO Now is going to succeed. It could be a decade-long lifeline as iTunes was for the music industry or it could be as negligible as News Corp making an iPad-native Daily newsmagazine.

The Technology We Deserve

Net Neutrality plays an important role with this OTT service. Chris Morran at Consumerist speculates about the power of an ISP without net neutrality rules, where one could theoretically “throttle HBO Now while still allowing HBO Go to get through at full speed, effectively saying that the only way to get a decent HBO streaming service is if you have a cable package.” But with net neutrality rules, the two services should operate at the same level of performance. I won’t need to have my TV polluted with reality TV shows and shitty reruns in order to watch The Wire in 1080p.

The only not-neutral thing about the HBO Now service is that it will initially launch on only Apple devices, such as Apple TV, iPad, and iPhone. Roku, Amazon Fire, and Chromecast users will have to miss out on Game of Thrones until midsummer. Perhaps Mark Cuban was right when he said that we shouldn’t worry about the power of ISPs and that instead we should “worry about Google and Apple” because they make the operating systems of our mobile devices.

The Technology We Don’t Need

A few years ago, only the most devoted Internet libertarians were cognizant of that an ISP could potentially throttle or block a service it didn’t “like.” Today, even casual Internet users are skeptical about the control their ISP could potentially wield. For example, after the HBO Now announcement, Comcast subscribers were unable to access the http://hbonow.com website. It turns out that it was a technical problem caused by a DNS issue on HBO’s part, not some sinister shenanigans at the hands of Comcast. But because everyone hates their cable companies and because Comcast is as big as a cable company gets, the Internet reflexively blamed Comcast.


It’s hard to shed a tear for Comcast though. As I mentioned earlier, when a technology fails to meet our needs or desires, we move on to something else. Cable television as we know it evolved from two converging technologies: Community Antenna TV and satellite cable.2 CATV was a demand-side technology. Starting in the 1940s, CATV operators piped TV signals to TV set owners living in areas where an over-the-air signal wasn’t available. CATV was almost a necessity for people living in a valley, such as in rural Pennsylvania, or in densely populated and overbuilt area, such as Manhattan, because the terrain blocked the radio signals necessary for TV reception. Satellite cable, on the other hand, was a supply-side technology. Beginning in the 1970s, it allowed national distribution for emerging television channels, such as Ted Turner’s WTBS-TV in Atlanta and the Manhattan-based Home Box Office. In both cases, CATV and satellite cable—eventually merging as the modern cable TV industry—enabled TV viewers to get what the broadcasters were failing to provide them. Today, however, the cable companies are the ones failing to provide us what we want, and that’s why we’ve migrated to something that does.

And, I’m sorry, Apple. As of right now, I still can’t figure out why I need a smartwatch.

The above link to Amazon is an affiliate link. If you buy something that link, I will earn a commission fee.

  1. All that health stuff was not interesting. 
  2. Read Megan Mullen, The Rise of Cable Programming in the United States: Revolution or Evolution? (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003) for a great account of the evolution of the cable TV indusry. 

Silicon Valley: Satire and Solutionism

Late to the party yet again, I finally watched the first two episodes of the new Mike Judge–helmed comedy series, Silicon Valley. If you haven’t yet traded for someone’s HBO Go credentials, you can watch the first episode, temporarily, of course, on YouTube.

The series traffics in some of the most well-worn stereotypes of software engineers and Internet entrepreneurs that are familiar to even the most casual observers of the tech-business world. The series centers on three budding software engineers living in an incubator started by a veteran of the Valley. Played by T.J. Miller, Erlich cashed in on his start-up years ago. Housing these engineers is his way of giving back, but not without taking a ten-percent stake in any product they develop while in residence.

The first two episodes of the series portray some of the more ludicrous aspects of Silicon Valley. As I watched it, I kept thinking of Evgeny Morozov’s latest book, To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. Morozov argues that the titans of tech are guilty of two hubristic sins. Solutionism is the relentless need to solve problems, including those than might not even need solving, and to strive for perfection. The second, Internet Centrism, is the fervent belief that the Internet and digital technologies are the tools to solve every problem. As I am yet to finish the book, it appears that these two function as rhetorical justifications for creating new digital industries that enrich those developing these solutions. In short, it’s about getting paid.

We see the vapid speeches given at a TED Talk where audiences listen in awe of rhetorically flashy speeches on changing the world without much substance. We see an anti-intellectual venture capitalist who, like Peter Thiel, advocates that young people take $100,000 of his money to drop out of college to pursue their entrepreneurial ideas.[1] We learn that an algorithm, properly deployed, can do something as mundane as search through a compressed data stream or something as important as curing cancer, the ultimate human miracle. We also see how spiritual advisors coddle super-rich CEOs are hell-bent on disrupting everything and are out to change the world, provided they make a ton of money doing so. Real money, too, not Bitcoin.

Read the book and watch the series for two contemporary and poignant critiques of an industry that is inflated in just about every sense of the word.

The above link to Amazon is an affiliate link. If you buy something that link, I will earn a commission fee.

  1. Evegeny Morozov, To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, New York: Public Affairs, 2013, 129.  ↩

Tell HBO How Much You’d Pay For a Standalone Streaming Service


To help raise awareness of the demand for a standalone HBO streaming service, a new site — Takemymoneyhbo.com — has sprung up, allowing members of the public to say (and tweet) how much they’d pay for the service each month.

I said $8 because that’s the same price as Netflix streaming and a Hulu Plus subscription.

(Via The Next Web.)