Sunday, February 26, 2012

Local matters

While the world tunes into the Academy Awards to see who waltzes away with Oscar, I’d like to take just a minute to focus attention on the local scene. Not Michigan’s movie industry, but Detroit TV.

 As a product of the Motor City’s television industry from 1979-87, I have to confess it’s painful today to tune into Detroit’s ABC, CBS, NBS and FOX affiliates. These stations’s are skeletons of their former organizations and are generally dedicated to police blotter, scandal, weather and sports. The news departments are actually sharing footage to save costs as budgets dwindle to keep pace with declining audiences. Local programming is virtually extinct, unless it’s a paid infomercial by ahealthcare system or a telethon, with airtime bought by the charity raising funds.

 And then there’s “Let It Rip” on FOX in Detroit. It’s a low budget, bare knuckles, smash mouth gab-a-lot where the smooth and professional veteran news anchor, Huel Perkins, hosts localnewsmakers and commentators on the hottest topics, usually local. His corner man and cohost, attorney, Charlie Langton, sparred late Friday night with the co-founders of Detroit 300 -- a grass roots, community group that works the city’s streets to make them safer. They were deconstructing last week’s murder of a nine-month old boy, shot in in a gang-related incident when assailants used an assault weapon to indiscriminately pepper his home with rapid gunfire.

 The conversation was intelligent, detailing the battle to quell vicious street violence in a town where citizens are reluctant to cooperate with cops. Detroit 300 was calling on resident’s to take back their community by reporting criminals and gang bangers who are crossing the line, to kill grandmothers and babies.

 The production values were simple, but the topic was universally compelling. These ingredients are essential to successful communications and any worthwhile program. There was no screaming and shouting; just an unvarnished yet civilized exploration of an inner-city paradox. A lifestyle where neighbors are afraid of the bad guys and afraid to get caught informing the cops. It’s the most community service I’ve seen from a local TV station in years.

I’m going to be dropping in on “Let It Rip” when I can on Sunday nights at 6:30 p.m. or on demand at

 It’s easy to get caught up in the drama of the world torn by war and strife, the struggle for independence, the toxic tragedy of divided nations, including our own, and the spectacular sacrifice that achieves world championships in sports. But few things on television will have more impact on your life than genuine issues in your neighborhood, county or state. In some cases, these are matters of life and death.

 There’s a void among local media created by collapsing budgets chasing a bottomline business strategy over a cliff. The void is waiting for a financial commitment that repays viewers, listeners and readers for their loyal following.

 It’s called meaningful, regular local programming and reporting about things that matter at your kitchen table. I say, let it rip.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"A Bite of the Apple" - Season One

Have you ever watched an episode of your favorite TV series and wished you didn’t have to wait a week or even a day to see the next one? Of course you have.

And in the future, you may get your wish.

Netflix, the Web-based subscription service for viewing movies and TV shows has become a content developer. In fact, they have two original series, and viewers can access an entire season all at once via the Internet. That’s right. No waiting until next week. Watch every episode of a brand new show on the day it debuts.

“Lilyhammer” is the Netflix hit that is now Norway’s most popular TV series. In fact, it’s already the most watched show in Norwegian television history.

It features Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Van Zandt also played the mobster “Silvio” in HBO’s blockbuster hit series “The Sopranos”. A million Norwegians watched the first episode of his new show, in which he plays a New York mob boss in witness protection, hiding out in Lillehammer, Norway. His character, Frank Tagliano, chose the snowy destination based on watching the 1994 Winter Olympics broadcast from there. Now he’s an unemployed, immigrant gangster far from his territory in the big apple. If you’re a “Soprano’s” fan, you can imagine the fun.

Although a Norwegian production company produced the show for the Norwegian Broadcasting Company, Netflix helped finance it. And Americans will only see it via the Web, not over the air or on cable. But with Netflix, you can stream it to you big screen.

Hulu, another Internet-based TV entertainment source recently announced its own original series. And YouTube has paid Jay-Z and Madonna to develop YouTube video channels with fresh, unique content.

It only makes sense. If you can deliver entertainment via the Web or some other method, then why pay tolls to cable companies and satellite services. That’s obviously why Comcast bought NBC. They’re only hope for long-term survival is to create their own, exclusive content that people want to watch.

Now here’s an exciting twist to consider. Apple made news this week talking about plans to build on its Apple TV product. It’s an affordable ($200) device that allows you to stream video content from the Internet to your television. Or for that matter, it will mirror you iPad, iPod or iPhone and connect those devises to you big screen, too. So a movie you have on your phone can be viewed wirelessly on the flat screen in your living room or wherever. Apple TV can also connect you to all the content you’ve stored on the iCloud, so you have access to all the assets you own.

Up until now, Apple has made a bundle selling other people’s creative properties via iTunes, where people buy movies, music, TV shows and other entertainment to play on their various pods and pads. But, it’s only a matter of time until we’ll buy  electronic art directly from the artists or their producers.

I wonder if Apple’s next step is to begin generating its own original entertainment to sell with Apple TV. Imagine they hire Ken Burns to produce a documentary series on Steve Jobs and the evolution of his company. Maybe Ron Howard directs a movie based on Jobs’ life. If Mark Zuckerberg gets “The Social Network”, a movie celebrating the launch of Facebook, Jobs deserves an epic drama on the scale of the “Star Wars” trilogy.

At $500 a share for its stock, Apple certainly has the cash to go into the entertainment business. If they’re as good at it as they have been at re-inventing computing and communications, we’ll soon forget about traditional TV.

And if “Jobs” becomes a series, I’ll bet we watch every episode on the first weekend.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


One of the great perks of working from home is a daily walk. I’ve been taking one at lunch for over 15 years. I do a brisk 1-1/2 miles in about 18 minutes, plus a cool down to round out the half hour.

When I started in 1996, the economy was expanding faster than my waistline. As I walked quickly through my neighborhood, I stepped to the staccato beat of hammers, buzzing saws and humming machinery. Seemed like every other house was undergoing a makeover. I’d occasionally chat with a carpenter or contractor and got to know my local postal workers a bit.

By the time the economy started its death spiral in 2007 and 2008, there were very few construction projects and even fewer people on the street. Instinctively, I started taking some extra security precautions, like locking my back gate as I left the house. I’ve always locked all the doors. It’s just common sense. Plus, I had produced my share of TV features on crime and preventing it. I’ll never forget interviewing a Detroit cop who said, “you basically want to do anything you can to make it tougher for someone to break into your house.”

Most break-in artists want nothing to do with people, violence or trouble, he explained. They’re out for an easy score. When you lock your doors, turn on lights and bolt the gate, you’re making it a little tougher.

But it surprises me that my local PD hasn’t taken advantage of the Internet to up the ante with criminals. Recently, there’s been a rash of break ins in our Dearborn neighborhood. Apparently, the perpetrator is using landscaping blocks to bust in doors and windows. Curiously, the cops have found houses vandalized, but the homeowners aren’t reporting any missing valuables. Lots of damage, but the only thing reportedly taken has been a handgun, so far.

I first heard about it from my mom who had seen a TV news story. Then I read a Patch article.

My question is: why aren’t local police e-mailing and texting citizens reports about burglaries or other crime trends in the community?

At the  Dearborn Police Web site, you can file an official police report for certain crimes. You can access information to start your own neighborhood watch. But I didn’t see any links to check out crime patterns. The department’s Facebook page is virtually dormant, with a handful of likes and well under 100 visits.

If law enforcement championed a communications campaign to acquire citizen contact information, e-mails and cell phone numbers, they could tap into a powerful source of security. A kind of electronic neighborhood watch. This tactic could be especially valuable when communities are pressed for funds and resources. Taxpayers can play an important role by supporting first responders and adding a level of vigilance that is impossible for police to deliver.

Public service announcements with McGruff the Crime Dog are nice public relations. But if we really want to improve results, communities should consider properly implemented, social media crime campaigns. They might actually save lives. Photos might include sketches of the perp. Postings could feature descriptions of the criminals and their MO as well as recommended security procedures. Of course, citizens could provide tips through the site or directly to the police.

Making people aware of threats and providing very rapid, helpful information could make the difference between a foiled B&E and a violence.

Let’s take a byte out of crime.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Head Games

Somewhere inside Lucas Oil Stadium, an emergency medical team will be ready to respond to an injured player on Super Bowl Sunday. During most games at most stadiums, these first responders remain idle on the bench.

That’s not to say there aren’t serious, life-threatening injuries occurring every week in the National Football League. They go unnoticed. For that matter, those same traumas occur on the college gridiron and at the high school level.

Some studies estimate that as many as 15-20% of high school players (200,000 to 250,000 boys) experience concussions each year.

During the run-up to this week’s big game, media outlets have explored the head injury issue. Last Sunday night, CNN and Sanjay Gupta, M.D., exposed some jaw-dropping insight on the impact of repetitive concussions. A pathologist examined the brain of a deceased 17-year-old player and identified conditions of dementia. That’s right, this young victim’s brain had started to turn very old because of the beating it took on the field.

For years, HBO’s “Real Sports” has been the journalistic leader in efforts to report the connections between football head injuries and their long term affects, including causing ALS.

Although slow to acknowledge the scientific connections, even the NFL has now made a formal commitment to fund studies of concussions and improve the healthcare of injured athletes.

But despite all this data, why haven’t we seen a better football helmet?

Battle Sports Science manufactures a variety of protective gear including a chinstrap Impact Indicator TM. The technology measures the force a football player endures and if the green light goes out, it means he should sit and his coach should evaluate him for a concussion. It’s a step in the right direction, but it would be better if we could prevent the injuries in the first place.

When it comes to safety, the NFL, NCAA and governing bodies for high school sports could all take a cue from the car business. The laws of physics are the same. It’s not the acceleration that hurts you in a car crash or a smashing hit on the football field. It’s the deceleration that kills. You stop so fast in a vehicle collision that your vital organs hit your skeleton at high speed. And the same thing happens to the brain during a helmet-to-helmet hit. The organ and its surrounding fluids are battered back and forth within the skull.

The big difference is that many people never experience a car crash in their lives. On the football field, collisions occur on virtually every play. And they can add up to trouble.

Like the NFL, the carmakers too were slow to get behind advanced safety. Lee Iacocca was against airbags before he was for them.  Eventually, Detroit and the rest of the automakers responded to public pressure and federal regulation to add technologies like smart air bags, as well as side airbags and head airbags mounted in  headliners.

But the need to decrease fatalities eventually forced companies to realize it was not just important to protect occupants in a crash. But it was even more critical to prevent the collision in the first place. Crash avoidance features have exploded in an evolutionary cascade, from anti-lock brakes and traction control to electronic stability control and active rollover protection. There are now systems that alert drivers, like blind spot detection and lane departure warning.

Volvo, a premier safety nameplate, refused to market a sport utility vehicle until its engineers could counter the dangerous vulnerability of a truck with a high center of gravity. When Continental AG invented Active Rollover Protection (ARP), Volvo released the XC90. You might remember the infamous Ford Explorer rollovers. Those vehicles now include standard rollover protection.

Carmakers have even borrowed military technology to improve safety. When Cadillac first offered night vision in the 1990’s, it came from defense contractors that had developed the technology for U.S. troops.

Can sports equipment companies like Riddell and Schutt reinvent headgear to better protect football players?

Right now, the helmet makers struggle with the same challenges as auto engineers. If they stiffen the structure to sustain harder hits, the same helmet can cause head injuries at lower impacts. The car guys eventually figured out you need to avoid the crash to reduce fatalities.

With that same logic, some critics are calling for an end to football, as we know it.  They’re suggesting rule changes like the elimination of the three-point stance. That would prevent two 300-pound linemen from getting maximum leverage before lunging into each other. Some high school coaches are limiting the hits in practice to reduce the thousands of impacts kids endure.

Parents work so hard to protect their children in vehicles with car seats, it’s ironic that they allow them to suit up for football without better protection.

Sadly, there have been no significant changes to helmet standards in nearly 40 years. Meanwhile players have gotten much bigger and faster.

But if the NFL and the NCAA invest enough money someone will invent the helmet of the future. A billion dollar purse to the company that develops the ultimate football safety gear would not only generate a few high-paying jobs, it could save lives and America’s favorite game.

Enjoy the Super Bowl.