HBO makes ‘Game’ worth playing through social media

Rather than drive people away from television, the Web has given viewers a larger water cooler around which to discuss it. Networks have taken notice and the savvier ones are taking advantage.

HBO’s handling of online marketing for “Game of Thrones” is the gold standard in social media management for a television show. It’s not just the breadth of its online presence, but also the depth — viewers who like the show’s Facebook page (and 2.6 million people have), for example, get regular access to behind-the-scenes features, photos, posters, quizzes, wallpapers and interviews.

The show’s GetGlue profile is also extremely popular; check-ins for its season premiere were enough to disrupt the site’s service. It’s sailed past a million check-ins, and fans who love the show can earn stickers for watching not just the episodes, but also the various trailers that led up to the show’s premiere.

And of course, what self-respecting television show these days is without its own YouTube channel? “Game” has a YouTube presence loaded with content: recaps, interviews, features, maps, previews and more. The cross-promotion between Facebook, YouTube, GetGlue and Twitter (followers: 316K+) is nearly flawless. GetGlue check-ins show up on the Facebook feed; YouTube videos are promoted on Twitter. The cohesion of the social media strategy is very impressive, in terms of visual style and voice.

But surely any show with a clutch marketing team can make that sort of thing happen, right? Which leads to HBO’s ace up its sleeve: “Game of Thrones” knows who its fans are, respects them and gives them a role in the marketing.

An entire playlist on the YouTube channel is devoted to fan-submitted covers of the show’s gorgeous theme. My personal favorite is Jason Yang’s violin cover, which has racked up more than 2 million views. The guy who runs the show’s Twitter account says that he’s a fan of “A Song of Ice and Fire” in the bio, and his tweets demonstrate a love and appreciation of the source material beyond mere content-shoveling. He finds ways to appeal to both newer fans, those who just watch the show, and older fans, whose knowledge of the story goes beyond “Game of Thrones” and extends into the five books and their author, George R.R. Martin.

Where some shows would ignore fan-submitted art entirely, “Game of Thrones” embraces it, regularly featuring fan-made drawings, paintings and even posters on its Facebook page. Notably, two fan-made posters — one featuring a reimagining of  the Stark direwolf sigil, and another making great visual use of Sean Bean’s severed head — became integral parts of the show’s second-season marketing.

One does get the impression that, if you’re a fan, the show really does want to hear from you. And that, in turn, only cements viewers’ loyalty to the show. It is known.

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The day the Web went dark

Visit Google lately? Or Wikipedia? Or WordPress?

On Wednesday, each of these sites (and others, including BoingBoingTwitpic and Reddit) will “go dark” in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Both of these bills have seemingly innocuous names (piracy is bad), but a measured dissection shows how damaging they would be to the Web and to free expression.

Chris Heald wrote an excellent criticism of SOPA on Mashable, providing clear positions and using layman’s terms to explain just what about SOPA is so troubling. Heald makes his opinion clear: “If a programmer on my team wrote code as convoluted as this bill, I would fire him on the spot.”

Here are some of the bill’s provisions:

1. The attorney general could take action against any site found to “facilitate” copyright infringement. As Heald points out, the site need not be solely for content theft. Text and photos on otherwise law-abiding sites could be targeted, as could links. This would include sites like Facebook, Gmail, Google, YouTube, Tumblr and God only knows how many others. Want to upload a video of yourself singing, say, “Rolling in the Deep”? Heald points out that, at $1 a pop (what the song sells for as a legal download), if your video gets 2,500 views, you’ll have committed a felony. This is without any monetary gain on your part, by the way. (Obligatory joke about, “Most YouTube performances are terrible, but this is ridiculous!”)

2. Search engines would have to scrub the offending sites from their listings, and advertising services would have to cut ties.

3. Your ISP would have to censor your access to foreign sites that the U.S. government could not take down on its own. One such site? Wikileaks.

The overall gist? This bill would effectively cripple Web development by putting it under de facto government control, gut online advertising potential, give the government (or more precisely, the corporations buying off the government) a frightening amount of censorship authority and criminalize virtually … everything, nearly anything you or I do in day-to-day Web use, no matter how innocent. The big push for the legislation comes from the RIAA and the MPAA in an effort to curb music and film piracy, respectively. What it actually does is aim a bazooka at an anthill, targeting content pirates and innocent-but-unlucky Web users alike.

Being a journalist, I’m extremely wary of anyone who would try to deny me or anyone else access to information. It demonstrates a troubling willingness to assert unilateral control over citizens’ Web-usage habits and I believe that it discourages Web innovation, because the fear of reprisal would prevent start-ups from attempting to get off the ground. Look at how many great American tech companies would be affected by this legislation. It’s enough to scare off anyone else.

Thankfully, it looks like SOPA may not be long for this world. However, I think it’s important for people to still understand what it is and how critical it is that it or something like it never be allowed to pass. This is the information age, and information is power. Don’t give it up so easily.

The full text of the bill can be found here

I’m reading “A Song of Ice and Fire”

When I’m not working on my dissertation, I’m barreling through George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. You may know it better as the basis for the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

I love it.

Even though I’ve been familiar with the series for a while, it took the television show to get me to read the books. The fifth novel, the long-awaited (for longer-term fans, that is) “A Dance With Dragons,” comes out next week. I decided to try to read the first four before then.

While the novels most definitely fall into “fantasy” territory — their entire world is fictional and includes magic and supernatural creatures — they stand out to me for two reasons. The first is their extreme realism, or as much realism as a fantasy series can get. They have a depth, a moral ambiguity and a complex social and cultural fabric that would be impressive in a mainstream fiction novel, let alone one in which virtually everything stems from the author’s imagination.

The second reason I love them is that they contain what I like to think of as a dog whistle for British history enthusiasts. It’s completely possible to read and love the series without ever thinking about its real-world parallels, but I loved reading it and picking out its historical counterparts. Martin based the series at least in part on the Wars of the Roses, and you can plainly see our own world history in the story.

  • Westeros, the continent on which most of the story unfolds, was originally settled by rural “children of the forest” and subsequently invaded by the First Men, Andals and the Targaryens. I interpreted these to be the Celts/Picts, Romans, Saxons and Normans, in that order. Like the Normans, the Targaryens came from an eastern landmass and brought their own language and culture. Like Aegon the Conquerer, William the Conquerer consolidated independent kingdoms and clans.
  • The southern kingdom of Dorne, the last to join the Seven Kingdoms, reminds me somewhat of Wales.
  • The brother-against-sister civil war in the series is a clear parallel to Matilda and Stephen in English history, and even had the same outcome (the brother defeated his sister, but her son succeeded to the throne).
  • Like the long Plantagenet line, the Targaryens ruled for several hundred years. A dynastic shake-up in the series that occurred roughly two generations before the novel’s present could be a parallel to Henry IV overtaking Richard II.
  • Robert Baratheon and his line appear to Yorkist, overthrowing their Lancaster/Targaryen cousins, and sending the surviving heirs into hiding/exile. By plotting her return to Westeros from across the Narrow Sea (i.e. the English Channel), Daenerys Targaryen reminds me of Henry VII.
  • Henry VI suffered from a mental breakdown, and though he never became murderous, it is easy to identify him with Aerys II Targaryen, the murdered Mad King.
  • Robert Baratheon is a clear Edward IV figure, a warrior-king who eventually fell into excess. His victories in the Trident, where he first won his crown, and against Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion remind me of Edward IV’s Towton and Tewkesbury.
  • Robert’s queen, Cersei Lannister, and their son, the eventual king Joffrey, appear to be a composite of Margaret of Anjou and Edward of Lancaster (Edward VI’s wife and son), and Elizabeth Wydville and Edward V (Edward IV’s wife and son). Like Margaret, Cersei is the real power behind the throne and “scheming.” Like Elizabeth, she’s protective of her children and has to contend with outside interests when her son becomes king. Like Edward of Lancaster, Joffrey’s parentage is suspect and he has violent, cruel tendencies. Like Edward V, he succeeds his father as king at a young age.
  • Robert’s brothers, Renly and Stannis, and Cersei’s, Tyrion and Jaime, display various aspects of Edward IV’s brothers, George and Richard. One is blamed for his nephew’s murder (Tyrion, like Richard) while two openly defy the line of succession (Renly and Stannis, like George and Richard). Another killed the previous king (Jaime, like George and Richard, allegedly).
  • Tywin Lannister is akin to Warwick the Kingmaker, in that his immense wealth sustains the crown, and his loyalties shift based on expediency. Mace Tyrell, a powerful lord whose daughter weds three kings in succession (like the Neville girls wed kings and/or heirs to the throne), is also reminiscent of Warwick.
  • The basic geography of Martin’s world is extremely similar to our own. Westeros is Britain on a larger scale, while Essos is the mega continent of Europe and Asia, and Southros is like Africa. The free cities of Essos are very similar to the duchies and city-states of Germany, France and Italy, while its eastern desert is like the Middle East and the mysterious Asshai is Asia (they even look/sound similar).
  • Northern Westeros is divided from the south by an ancient wall (similar to Hadrian’s), and is home to tribal groups that southerners consider socially inferior — a nod to the Scots. Like England, the Seven Kingdoms also have a distinct north/south dichotomy in terms of wealth and culture.
  • Finally, and perhaps most tragically, Ned Stark reminds me of William Hastings, Edward IV’s honorable friend who ended up on the wrong side after the king’s death and found himself short a head.

I’m sure that other similarities exist, but those are the principal ones. Other characters in the series, such as the Stark children, do seem to be relatively independent of exact historical parallels, but the groundwork is there, plain as day. That just makes it more interesting and adds a different perspective to the reading. Note that I’m not sure that those exact parallels are the ones Martin had in mind; they’re just what came to me as I was reading. The series is long and grueling in places — the third book, though the best, is also a beast — but well worth the time and energy for a great story. I can’t wait until next week when I can pick up the fifth book. And yes, I’m a geek.

This is news?

Full disclosure: For a long time, probably a good 5-6 years, CNN was “my” news station. I had always thought of its journalists as being fairly on-the-ball and objective (or at least, my version of objective, which may or may not be someone else’s). It was also the only news channel I could get in my dorm room, so it was convenient.

I haven’t regularly watched it in quite some time, mostly because I’ve been out of the country. At the time I last watched it, though, I had noticed a marked — and, to my mind, fairly rapid — descent into inanity.

Call me a snob, but I never did like the whole iReporter thing. Some people really appreciate “citizen journalism” and think it has value. To my mind, members of the general public, especially those on the scene of major events, can and should make great sources, and time and again their photos and video make compelling supplementary material. But that’s what it should be, in my opinion — supplementary. It should not replace the work of journalists — people not only trained in writing, editing and news-gathering, but also in ethics, judgment and legal theory. Likewise, Twitter trends can be a good starting point for news items, but they should not be the news item. Not only because Twitter can suffer from herd mentality, but also because a lot of what’s on it just isn’t true (according to Twitter, Johnny Depp died, like, four times last year).

So this trend toward relying on people-on-the-street for news items had already somewhat turned me off. Imagine my horror when I got on Gawker earlier today and saw this. Jon Stewart, bless him, ripped CNN a new one over some of its segments. They range from corny (Stream Team, which … I don’t even know) to borderline offensive (You Choose the News). The example of the latter segment involved an anchor (read: glorified infotainment card-reader) giving the audience three possible story topics. People would text to pick which one they wanted to know more about.

This concept might be cute or funny if it was for animal stories or some other fluff. But the topics to choose from were: the Afghan government’s takeover of women’s shelters, homeless female Iraq/Afghanistan veterans and the arms trade in Abu Dhabi, which has implications for Africa and the Middle East. As Stewart said, “Those all seem kind of important.” Someone in the comments helpfully pointed out that in the time CNN spent shilling (I almost wrote “whoring”) the segment, they could have covered all three stories in a fair amount of detail.

Granted, it’s not just CNN. It’s an easy target because Stewart did such a good job ridiculing it. After spending almost five months living in the UK, I think maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the BBC. The BBC has its share of cute stuff, but more often than not it covers the world hard-core. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, even Wisconsin: The stories are there. Analyses of fashion, technology, film and music sit next to market reports, biographies of world leaders and multimedia coverage. Reader input is requested and used, but it sits alongside the coverage, giving it depth and perspective.

I wondered, how could the BBC (and even other sources like Al Jazeera English) get things so right and CNN and its ilk get things so … tone-deaf? I believe the answer is that the BBC is considered a public good. Its budget comes from license fees paid in by anyone with a TV set or access to live broadcasts. It is beholden to the British public (and Her Majesty, by Royal Charter), not to any corporate behemoth. Granted it has its own problems — people still accuse it of some bias and some of its anchors’ salaries are under fire — but I don’t think it would ever treat serious news like some sort of raffle prize. Despite accusations of bias (which you’ll find anywhere), it strives to be as non-partisan as possible given its structure and funding. And it’s everywhere.

On the other end is CNN (and Fox and MSNBC and to a somewhat lesser extent the networks), taken to corporate news’ inevitable conclusion: the watering down of issues and news turned into entertainment and entertainment trying to pass itself off as news.

Into “The Pacific”

If you have HBO and aren’t yet watching “The Pacific,” I highly recommend it.

I watched “Band of Brothers” on HBO when it aired eight and a half years ago, right before the Sept. 11 attacks. I remember it feeling larger than life, sprawling and “important.” On the other hand, I also remember losing track of the characters and having a difficult time forging connections with many of them, just because of how many of them there were.

“The Pacific” succeeds in that area where “Brothers” faltered. Rather than following an entire company, “The Pacific” focuses on three specific men: Robert Leckie, John Basilone and Eugene Sledge. That makes it feel much more intimate and personal. It’s easier to become engaged in and committed to the three men, who are all interesting and unique in their own ways.

It also helps that the three leads (James Badge Dale, Jon Seda and Joe Mazzello, respectively) have all so far been pretty outstanding. You’ll probably find yourself favoring one guy above the others, and for me it’s Badge Dale, whose Leckie is smart, cynical, ornery, just a shade less than insane and deeply poetic. (For my film geek friends, Badge Dale played a significant role in the elevator scene at the end of “The Departed;” yes, that elevator scene. He’s also quite cute and may follow me on Twitter at any time.)

Speaking of film geekery, if Joe Mazzello looks vaguely familiar, it’s because he played little Timmy in “Jurassic Park” back in 1993. And for my fellow “Eurotrip” lovers (it’s one of my favorite guilty pleasures), try to spot Jacob Pitts, aka Cooper, among the Marines in Leckie’s company.

The series is about halfway done. Guadalcanal, Melbourne, Cape Gloucester and Pavuvu are behind, while Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the endgame are ahead. Even knowing what happens, who lives and who dies, I’m eager to see how it unfolds.

I make no secret of being a military history enthusiast, and WWII in particular. It’s something I can share with my dad — we’re watching the show together — and I believe it’s something people my age know appallingly little about. In the end, though, I don’t read and watch WWII material out of patriotism or duty or anything like that. At its heart, it’s a series of great stories that need to and deserve to be told. And I’m a sucker for good stories.

“The Pacific” airs new episodes at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT Sundays on HBO. Older episodes are available on demand, and repeats air throughout the week. April 11 will be the show’s fifth episode of 10. Here’s the official trailer from HBO.

If you’re interested in reading more about the individual men, you can pick up “Helmet For My Pillow,” written by Leckie, and “With The Old Breed,” written by Sledge. Right now I’m reading “Guadalcanal Diary,” by embedded journalist Richard Tregaskis. There’s plenty of good reading material out there.

Semper fi.

My dad, me and World War II

Last week, the History Channel had a five-night, 10-hour series, “WWII in HD.” My dad and I watched it together, as part of a bonding experience between the two of us and as fellow history nerds.

The series, if you haven’t seen it, is a must-see. Gary Sinise does the bulk of the narration, with 12 actors narrating for individuals whose stories have been singled out. The footage is mostly full-color, digitally restored for the presentation. The series also uses maps to illustrate the action, and interviews with some of the 12 featured individuals (those who are still alive). The people are fairly diverse — an Austrian Jew fighting for the U.S., a Tuskegee airman, a nurse, a Japanese-American who became a POW, a fighter pilot and a collection of Marines, Army recruits and naval soldiers.

My dad and I discussed the action and the tactics. A portion of my political science coursework in school was in the areas of military strategy and ethics, which allowed me to critically analyze and understand what was happening.

My dad said something to me during one of the programs that stuck with me.

“I’m proud of you for taking an interest in this. Most girls your age don’t care about this, or most guys, for that matter.”

That really made me think, about how there are people my age who don’t know what the Holocaust was, or Iwo Jima, or D-Day. I’m sure they’d be shocked and appalled to know that the American government herded American citizens of Japanese ancestry into internment camps while fighting to free Jews, Gypsies, POWs and other political prisoners from the Nazis.

It’s also a bitter pill to swallow knowing that war-based video games are so popular (including among many of my friends), while the young people who play them are oblivious to war’s actual cost and the staggering amount of logistical detail necessary to win one. It’s also eye-opening to see outrage at a dozen or so American deaths in Afghanistan each month, when the casualty toll on any given island in the Pacific could be in the thousands. That’s not meant in any way to diminish the losses sustained in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it does make me wonder if we’d have the iron will necessary to win WWII if it were fought again tomorrow. Of course there are differences in perceived legitimacy, goals and politics between those conflicts, but I don’t think Americans today would tolerate thousands of deaths in a two-week span, no matter how strong support for the engagement was.

I got emotionally invested in the series. When the sad fate of a few of the featured individuals was revealed — John Doe was killed in action — it actually hurt. I think this series would do great things when it came to teaching WWII in schools.

Studying war and military strategy as I have, I try my hardest not to glorify war, glamorize it or elevate it to some noble standard. I do believe in St. Augustine’s theory that there is such a thing as a Just War, and that WWII would be one such conflict. But seeing the death, tension, fear and misery in that old yet surprisingly crisp footage makes me think that, yes, war is hell, and it’s a hell people need to be aware of, lest they send men and women to their deaths too easily.