business news in context, analysis with attitude

It has been interesting to read this week about the new partnership between and TiVo that will in essence create an Amazon-driven shopping channel that will be available to people on their television screens if they subscribe to the TiVo digital video recording (DVR) service.

The initiative is called “Product Purchase,” and it is designed to allow consumers to buy products associated with programs they watch on TV; it is considered especially timely because so-called “product placement” – which has sponsored items showing up in programming without it being identified as a paid-for positioning – is becoming more and more popular.

As my friend Glen Terbeek says, this goes a long way toward closing the gap between creating demand and fulfilling demand…and toward creating what he likes to call a “frictionless marketplace.” Retailers and manufacturers that are not part of this continuum run the risk of becoming irrelevant, and so must pay attention to where this trend is headed.

While I admire the technology and the implementation, I have to say that I’m less than thrilled with the whole notion of product placement. I was watching a recent episode of “Burn Notice” that was sponsored by Saab…and there was, toward the end of the program, a completely gratuitous mention of the car brand that included a character saying nice things about Saab convertibles.

Now, I may be in the minority on this…but I don’t think that American consumers are that stupid. They’re going to be able to see what is going on, and some of them – me included – are going to be annoyed.

I recognize that DVR technology and the downloading of commercial-free programs onto iPods make it easier for consumers to skip past commercials…which forces marketers to think of new ways to reach target audiences.

But annoying us isn’t going to cut it. Not by a long shot.

The two movies I saw this week couldn’t have been more different, and I loved them both. Interestingly enough, they both sought to stretch the limits of their genres…and were spectacularly successful.

“The Dark Knight,” which is the newest Batman movie starring Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader and the late Heath Ledger as The Joker, was unlike any so-called “comic book” movie that I’ve ever seen. In fact, it didn’t resemble movies such as ‘Superman” or “Spider-Man” so much as it reminded me of “The Untouchables,” or some sort of great Michael Mann-directed crime thriller. Maybe some of that is because Chicago – where “The Untouchables” was shot, and maybe it is because director Christopher Nolan seemed to capture some of that dark energy that Mann uses so well.

Doesn’t matter, really. “The Dark Knight” is actually about making moral choices in an immoral world – and the stuff about costumed crimefighters and theatrical criminals is just so much window dressing. Great window dressing, to be sure – the Batman mythology is in good hands, and the movie goes right to the heart of the comic books I grew up loving. It is really a movie with a simple structure – The Joker is an agent of chaos, who through his perverse actions works to get people to make immoral choices. And Batman…who in his own way may be just as insane as The Joker, though he puts his madness (who runs around in a Batsuit fighting crime, anyway? To far better use. And yet, Batman and many of the citizens of Gotham are forced to make choices throughout the film that illustrate the notion of situational morality. And, at every turn, they must answer the question: Do the ends justify the means?

I loved it.

The other movie that I saw last week – and utterly adored - was “Wall-E,” the Pixar animated film that has captured so many people’s imaginations.

“Wall-E,” in case you don't know, takes place on Earth 800 years in the future, where a small robot wanders a big city cleaning up the enormous piles of garbage left there by humans…who actually abandoned the planet 700 years earlier because the various kinds of pollution had made it unlivable. Wall-E seems to be the last of his kind, and he has evolved into a sentient being…he collects things that fascinate him, he has as his only friend a small but cute cockroach, and he even falls in love after a fashion when a probe – Eve – is sent back to Earth to see if life there has become sustainable.

Thousands of light years away, a giant ship carries the descendents of the people who wrecked and then abandoned Earth…and they have devolved into fat, lazy creatures who do almost nothing for themselves while being carried everywhere on floating reclining chairs.

I don't want to give away too much here, because the way in which Wall-E, Eve and the human beings find each other and a common purpose is both imaginative and ingenious. But suffice it to say that “Wall-E” manages to include social commentary about the obesity crisis and sustainability within the framework of an animated fairy tale that is charming and entertaining.

And for those who think that the message of ‘Wall-E” will go over kids’ heads…forget it. I took my seven-year-old nephew, and he completely got it. And we can only hope that others of his generation are as smart…because maybe they’ll take the underlying message of “Wall-E” seriously and save us from that particular fate.

I’m not real worried about The Joker destroying the human race anytime soon. Obesity and pollution, on the other hand, seem like very real problems. Kudos to Pixar for addressing them in such entertaining and, yes, sustainable fashion.

I have to admit that I’ve pretty much given up on Don Imus. Since he came back to radio after having been fired for making racist comments about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, there have been two reasons not to listen to him – one is that most of the good guests seem to be appearing elsewhere, and the other (and maybe the more important one) is that his new radio station, WABC, tends to have a weak signal where I live, and the Internet streaming is hit and miss as well.

But the good news is that I’ve really begin to enjoy “Morning Joe,” the program that replaced “Imus in the Morning” on MSNBC. The cast is great – headed by Joe Scarborough, and ably assisted by the fabulous Mika Brzezinski and Willie Geist. The guests are terrific and from all political persuasions and venues, and it feels like a great radio show rather than three hours of standard morning television. For me, “Morning Joe” works because it is all about good information, lively conversation and healthy irreverence.

Of course, it isn’t Tony Kornheiser…but since I now have to wait for “Monday Night Football” to be over…or for Mr. Tony to be fired from that broadcast…to listen to him on a daily basis, “Morning Joe” will have to do. And if you’re looking for something to help you walk up in the ayem, “Morning Joe” on MSNBC is a solid option.

Have a couple of excellent wines to suggest to you this week:

• 2006 Kumeu River Sauvignon Blanc, from New Zealand
• 2007 Fritz Winery Sauvignon Blanc from California’s Russian River region

Both are wonderful for hot summer nights (or days), and seem to get better with each sip.

That’s it for this week. See you Monday.


KC's View: