If you’ve been paying attention to any of the internets lately, you’ve probably heard about the recent (belated) controversy surrounding the sex scene in BioWare’s Mass Effect. It was first lambasted by a little known writer for its “virtual orgasmic rape” among other things that aren’t actually in the game. Said columnist later apologized for his errors (and he made more than a few) but the train kept a-rollin’ and the next to attack was none other than Fox News. Fox aired a segment about the game, also making false claims about its actual contents, even running a headline that claimed “New videogame shows full digital nudity and sex.” As the hordes of gamers who’ve actually watched the scene (NSFW) can tell you, Mass Effect does no such thing. Far be it from journalists (or psychologists) to actually play the game they’re defaming.
All of this has now led to EA — BioWare’s new parent company — sending Fox a letter regarding the false claims about their new property. The letter comes from EA’s VP of communications Jeff Brown and asks that Fox correct the claims made in its report. Brown takes particular exception to the claims that the game shows full nudity and sex, noting that the game shows no “explicit or frontal nudity” and that what is on display is no worse than what’s seen on Fox’s own programs like The OC. He further take exception to Fox’s assertion that Mass Effect is “marketed to kids and teenagers,” by noting that the game is rated M and that ESRB ratings “work as well or better” than ratings placed on television content.
Brown then takes the four person “panel” that discussed the game during the segment, saying “They have had zero experience with Mass Effect and are largely ignorant about videogames, the people who play them, and the ESRB system that governs their ratings and sales.” He concludes the letter civilly, “This isn’t a legal threat; it’s an appeal to your sense of fairness. We’re asking FNC to correct the record on Mass Effect.”
So basically, Brown has said what we were all thinking. The difference is that this message comes from EA, one of the most powerful and most recognized faces of the video game industry. Here’s hoping someone at Fox takes notice.
It’s official: Hollywood has run out of original ideas. If you thought 2006 was bad, just wait. In 2007 the studios will give up on birthing blockbusters and instead concentrate on cloning them, with sequel after sequel after sequel. Familiar titles will be followed by so many numbers that filmgoers looking for a Friday night flick will need a calculator just to figure out which of the threequels and fourquels they want to see—if any at all.
Oh, and if the year of living sequentially doesn’t destroy the movie biz, then the expected labor strike (also a sequel) will. Trapped in a horror of its own making, Hollywood is scared witless by the looming prospect of negotiating with not one but two labor unions in 2007: the Writers Guild of America, whose gangsta refusal to begin talking early with the studios already foreshadows a retread of the disastrous 1988 walkout (which shut down production for 22 weeks and cost the industry about $500 million) and the Screen Actors Guild, whose bargaining may begin in January but could mean squat. Both writers and actors are still bummed over being stiffed by the studios during the DVD era and are determined not to be bullied again in this downloading age.
As for next summer’s sequel orgy, Hannibal Rising (the fourth Hannibal Lecter pic, this one a prequel) and The Hills Have Eyes II will get the foreplay started, followed by Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, another Pirates of the Caribbean, Hostel: Part II, Fantastic Four 2, Evan Almighty (follow-up to Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty, this time starring Steve Carell), Live Free or Die Hard (Bruce Willis as John McClane for the fourth time), Transformers (a live-action sequel to the animated original), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (fifth in the series), The Bourne Ultimatum (no. 3, which is actually no. 4 if you count that cheesy Richard Chamberlain version from 1988), and Rush Hour 3. Sequel frenzy climaxes at the end of the year with (get that Marlboro Ultra Light ready) Resident Evil 3, Mr. Bean’s Holiday (Bean II), The Golden Age (a/k/a Elizabeth 2), Alien vs. Predator 2, National Treasure II, and Halloween 2007 (too many to count).
And those are just the ones I know about.
Yes, in 2007 the very idea of original screenplays will become increasingly quaint, like real butter poured on popcorn. (Good timing, because the writers will be camped out on picket lines anyway.) There will be a few non-sequel movies, but those are mostly remakes, biopics, or book adaptations. (At least we can all be thankful that, unlike previous years, there’ll be almost no TV spin-offs. The complete tanking of Sony’s Bewitched in 2005 saw to that.)
The major studios are downsizing their own egos since they no longer have the luxury to green-light unprofitable made-for-Oscar movies; those pics might have pleased Academy voters and film aficionados but not necessarily shareholders or even the public at large. Instead of attempting something—hell, anything—new, studio moguls are more content than ever to do, and redo, and redo yet again the familiar, especially after the disastrous moviegoing year of 2005, which heavily influenced decisions for 2007’s lineup, since it takes two years to fuck up a film from start to finish. But don’t blame the moguls; blame their bosses, those hedge-fund-loopy tools who find it easier to schmooze Wall Street about another low-concept, comic-book film like Fantastic Four than to debate production on a potentially challenging film like Charlie Wilson’s War, the Tom Hanks–Julia Roberts biopic about a boozin’, hot- tubbin’ U.S. congressman that is scheduled to debut in December 2007. These are the bigwigs who insist that their studio’s upcoming slate contain several bankable movie franchises—or else—and whose underlings invented the prequel as a way to invigorate played-out franchises (and, in the process, cast younger—i.e., hotter—stars like Christian Bale as Batman). And just wait for 2008: Universal thinks there’s still life in
Jurassic Park, and Paramount is reviving not just Star Trek but also Indiana Jones (and maybe casting a new star for Mission: Impossible after Sumner tossed Tom).
Studios used to be embarrassed by their sequels. No more. When this past summer Disney announced a huge cost-cutting plan to appease financial analysts, the mega-company promised that in 2007 it would devote its resources to those films that have the potential to generate money-minting sequels. And did I mention that sequels are virtually critic-proof? Reviewers who gave thumbs up to Pirates 1 and flipped the bird to Pirates 2 didn’t affect box office at all. The sequel was beyond huge, and Pirates 3 will be too, even if Johnny spends the entire two hours channeling Lance Bass instead of Keith Richards (who’s playing Depp’s daddy in the threequel). It’s not only the studios who are to blame, but also the actors and directors who used to bail on franchises as soon as contractually possible, but are now addicted to sequel cash. Depp has said he’ll do Pirates 12, and Tobey Maguire, who had to be dragged into Spidey 2, has said he wants to keep going.
See, it simply takes too much moolah to create awareness for new concepts— in marketing parlance, this is known as “audience creation.” It’s a given that with franchises and remakes, the awareness for under-25 males—the most coveted category of moviegoers—approaches 100 percent. But with original stories, that awareness level drops below 60 percent. And when the overall budgets of movies (as of 2005) stand at $96.2 million each and marketing costs $36.2 million per pic, it stands to reason that studios are loathe to gamble on unproven product. Riding coattails takes the risk out of a notoriously risky biz, which means moguls can have fewer Maalox moments in what is tantamount to a life on meth. Production has dwindled to just a dozen films from each major each year, most of them sequels.
Also on the horizon and with some buzz is a spate of biopics, most of them set peculiarly in the 1970s. Nick Cassavetes wrote and directed Alpha Dog, which debuts in January and is based on the misadventures of Jesse James Hollywood, one of the youngest criminals ever to land on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Then there’s David Fincher’s Zodiac, a thriller about the notorious San Francisco serial killer starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hoax, starring Richard Gere as Clifford Irving, who was sort of the Jayson Blair of the 1970s, only sleazier, as if that’s possible. Brad Pitt is the original Missouri good-ol’-boy outlaw in The Assassination of Jesse James, and J.Lo and hubby Marc Anthony bring salsa star Hector Lavoe’s life to the screen in El Cantante.
It’s clear that the problems plaguing Hollywood will only grow worse in 2007, including piracy, which the movie industry says is stealing $1.3 billion from its U.S. revenues alone; new media, though no one at the studios has yet figured out how to make money online; and young Hollywood, better known for their Page Six performances than memorable roles.
My prediction? Hollywood moguls will find ways to pay themselves bigger bonuses while cutting the pay and perks for everyone else. And that’s certainly not an original idea.
But now I say, “Hallelujah!” Break out the bubbly and do a little jig on the table because the powers that be at Yahoo! News have shut down the News Message Boards. The “Discuss” link has been replaced with a link labeled, “What happened to the “Discuss” option?” The message at the other end of that link takes you to a short explanation of how the boards were dominated by a few, links were difficult to embed and something bigger and better is soon to replace the old board system: “Over the next few months, we plan to offer new discussion forums based on topics in the news and incorporating the latest features to foster a better discussion for all of our readers.”
BAGHDAD, Dec. 25 — Hundreds of British and Iraqi soldiers assaulted a police station in the southern city of Basra on Monday, killing seven gunmen, rescuing 127 prisoners from what the British said was almost certain execution and ultimately reducing the facility to rubble.
The military action was one of the most significant undertaken by British troops since the 2003 invasion, British officials said, adding that it was an essential step in any plan to re-establish security in Basra.
When the combined British and Iraqi force of 1,400 troops gained control of the station, it found the prisoners being held in conditions that a British military spokesman, Maj. Charlie Burbridge, described as “appalling.” More than 100 men were crowded into a single cell, 30 feet by 40 feet, he said, with two open toilets, two sinks and just a few blankets spread over the concrete floor.
A significant number showed signs of torture. Some had crushed hands and feet, Major Burbridge said, while others had cigarette and electrical burns and a significant number had gunshot wounds to their legs and knees.
The fetid dungeon was another example of abuses by the Iraqi security forces. The discovery highlighted the continuing struggle to combat the infiltration of the police and army by militias and criminal elements — even in a Shiite city like Basra, where there has been no sectarian violence.
As recently as October, the Iraqi government suspended an entire police brigade in Baghdad on suspicion of participation in death squads. The raid on Monday also raised echoes of the infamous Baghdad prison run by the Interior Ministry, known as Site 4, where more than 1,400 prisoners were subjected to systematic abuse and torture.
The focus of the attack was an arm of the local police called the serious crimes unit, which British officials said had been thoroughly infiltrated by criminals and militias who used it to terrorize local residents and violently settle scores with political or tribal rivals.
“The serious crimes unit was at the center of death squad activity,” Major Burbridge said.
A little over a year ago, British troops stormed the same building seeking to rescue two British special forces soldiers who had been captured by militants. A mob of 1,000 to 2,000 people gathered in protest, and a widely circulated video showed boys throwing stones at a burning British armored fighting vehicle parked outside the station. The soldiers, who were being held in a nearby building, were eventually freed.
Although some local officials, including Basra’s police chief, publicly condemned the action, local residents privately said they were grateful, and described what they said was an organization widely feared for its brutality.
“They are like savage dogs that bite when they are hungry,” said one resident, who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution. “Their evaluation of guilt or innocence is how much money you can pay.”
Residents said that people were afraid to challenge the officers because they were backed by powerful militia groups, including the Mahdi Army, which is led by the rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr, though the extent of his control is unclear.
“Everyone wants to avoid the mouth of the lion,” one resident said. “From this, they became stronger and stronger.”
Major Burbridge said that the dismantling of the serious crimes unit had been planned for months.
As far back as 2004, he said, there was a growing realization that the police had been widely infiltrated by members of various militias and elements of organized crime. To combat their influence, the British have been trying to cull them from the forces in a campaign that began in September.
After trying to determine who was fit to serve in the police, the British began outfitting trusted officers with sophisticated identification cards meant to limit the access of impostors to police intelligence, weapons and vehicles.
In late October, gunmen — believed by the British to have been connected to the serious crimes unit — ambushed a minibus carrying 17 employees of a new police academy and killed them all. Their mutilated remains were dumped in the Shuaiba area of the city in an effort to intimidate the local population.
“It had simply gone beyond the pale and it was clear it was time for the serious crimes unit to go,” Major Burbridge said in an interview.
While they had planned to take over the station on Monday, British forces had to speed up the operation by several hours. “We received information late last night,” Major Burbridge said Monday, “that the crimes unit was aware this was going to take place and we received information that the prisoners’ lives were in danger.”
More than 800 British soldiers, supported by five Challenger tanks and roughly 40 Warrior fighting vehicles, began their assault at 2 a.m. on Monday. They were aided by 600 Iraqi soldiers.
The British force faced the heaviest fighting as it made its way through the city, coming under sporadic attacks by rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. Of the seven guerrillas killed, six were gunned down as the unit made its way to the police station.
Upon reaching the station, British troops killed a guard in a watchtower who had fired on the approaching forces, but there was little other resistance.
The members of the serious crimes unit who had been occupying the building, several dozen, according to the British military, fled and were not caught. The British forces turned over the prisoners to the regular Iraqi police, who put them in a new detention facility.
The two-story building, once used by Saddam Hussein’s security forces, was then demolished, in an attempt to remove all traces of the serious crimes unit, Major Burbridge said.
The battle lasted nearly three hours. There were no British casualties, but the streets around the station were littered with bombed-out cars and rubble.
The violence in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, is different from that in Baghdad to the north or Anbar Province to the west, Major Burbridge said.
The killing in Baghdad in recent months has primarily been the result of sectarian violence, as Shiites have sought to drive Sunnis from mixed neighborhoods and Sunnis have retaliated. On Monday, at least 10 civilians were killed and 15 were wounded when a car bomb exploded in the mixed neighborhood of Jadida.
In northeastern Baghdad, a suicide bomber with explosives tied to his body blew himself up on a crowded bus, killing 2 people and wounding 20 others.
An American soldier also died Monday in Baghdad in a roadside bomb attack.
In Sunni-controlled Anbar Province, where the fighting is mainly between insurgents and American troops, two American soldiers were killed in fighting on Sunday.
In southern cities like Basra, dominated by Shiites, the fighting is a combination of battles between rival militias vying for power, warring tribes and organized crime, Major Burbridge said.
“In northern Basra, the fighting is mainly between three warring tribes,” he said. “The death squads are typically related to political maneuvering and tribal gain. Then there are rogue elements of militias aiming attacks on the multinational forces. You throw all those elements into a melting pot and you get a picture of the complexity of what we are facing.”
Megadeals signaled realignment in the IT industry and foreshadowed the Internet’s multimedia future. A much-delayed Vista debuted amid speculation that it would be the last of the old-school, big-bang product launches. As software giants announced support for Linux, and manufacturers switched chip allegiances, the open-source and chip industries were thrown into turmoil. 2006 was a transition year, as IT giants positioned themselves for a new era of global competition in the post-PC era. Here, not necessarily in order of importance, are the IDG News Service’s top news stories of the year.
HP Spy Scandal: Board, and Broad, Implications
A board feud at Hewlett-Packard hit the newspapers in September, leading to the resignation of Chairman Patricia Dunn. The board spat erupted over an investigation to see which board members leaked information–including arguments about the ouster of former Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina–to the press. The company used “pretexting,” where investigators pretend to be the people being investigated in order to access private information.
Criminal charges were filed against Dunn, legal counsel Kevin Hunsaker, and outside investigators. Users are unfazed: Under Mark Hurd, CEO and newly appointed chairman, HP has overtaken Dell as the leading PC maker and IBM as the biggest IT company in revenue terms. However, the scandal has broad implications. Congress may make pretexting a federal crime. Oversight of corporate governance is a rallying cry.
Microsoft Cuts a Deal With Novell: Embrace and Devour?
Microsoft’s November deal with Linux distributor Novell created turmoil in the open-source world. Microsoft will offer sales and support for Novell’s Suse Linux, work on interoperability, and indemnify Suse users and developers from potential Microsoft lawsuits against copyright infringement.
Industry insiders say that Microsoft is driving wedges into the open-source community, protecting only some users from legal reprisals. The open-source world had already been rocked in October, when Oracle’s move to offer full support for Red Hat Linux had industry insiders worrying Red Hat’s business model would suffer. Ultimately though, the software giants’ embrace of Linux is a sign that no one can ignore open source. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said the impetus for the agreement came from customers. Though that’s an old line, there’s no doubt that open source has truly come of age.
Alcatel-Lucent: M&A Mania Grows
The merger of Alcatel and Lucent Technologies, announced in April, formed a $24 billion networking giant and signaled trends in global mergers and acquisitions. The hookup was necessary to face down competition in growth areas of the mature enterprise market–such as Voice over IP–while Chinese manufacturers put pressure on the West on the low end.
2006 is expected to yield 3945 M&A deals, up from 3455 in 2005 and the highest number ever, according to investment firm Innovation Advisors. Globalization and changing demand are fueling M&A in networking, the Internet, the chip industry and enterprise software. 2006 examples include Advanced Micro Devices and ATI Technologies, Red Hat and JBoss, and EMC and RSA Security.
Google-YouTube: Convergence 2.0
Google’s ability to afford the $1.65 billion price tag for its acquisition of YouTube, announced in October, underscored its status as the Internet’s superstar revenue generator. The deal itself confirmed video’s importance in the evolution of Web 2.0: the mashing together of user-generated content and multimedia applications.
“Anybody who wasn’t interested in YouTube was either asleep or not being honest,” said Jonathan Miller, who was deposed as AOL chairman after the Google-YouTube deal.
Competitors scrambled. Lycos launched a movie-streaming service mixing elements of social networking and online video, while movie studios and TV networks rushed to put video online. Legal issues between Internet sites and content producers need to be worked out, but one thing is for sure: Convergence of video and the Net has hit prime time.
AOL Search Data Release Fans Privacy Debate
AOL’s July release of search log data on 658,000 subscribers, meant for research use, became a cause celebre in the privacy-rights debate. Coming amid reports of corporate data leaks and phishing scams, it was yet another reminder of the general insecurity of data. The AOL records contained sensitive information like Social Security numbers.
In September three people sued the company in what their lawyers claimed was the first such lawsuit seeking national class-action status. They asked the court to instruct AOL not to store users’ Web search records. But the request is not likely to be granted. Law enforcement officials want service providers to retain user logs to aid investigations, and new data retention rules may be proposed. The ability of technology to store an ever-increasing amount of data will ensure continuing debate. Jurisdictional issues also come into play as the U.S. and Europe clash over different privacy standards.
When Batteries Attack: The Great Battery Recall of 2006
It was the biggest recall in the history of IT and consumer electronics. Sparked by reports that lithium-ion batteries could short circuit and catch fire, Dell in August recalled more than 4 million laptop batteries. The move was soon followed by manufacturers around the world including Apple Computer, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Lenovo, and Toshiba. More than 8 million batteries were recalled, leading to yet another black eye in an annus horribilis for Sony, the manufacturer of the faulty cells. The recall, startup costs for the delayed PlayStation 3 game console, and poor PlayStation Portable sales pushed Sony’s operations into the red.
Mac on Intel: Chip Industry Realigns
Apple’s January launch of the first Mac PCs running on Intel chips was historic. For decades, Apple’s insistence on going its own way has been its strength, and also its weakness: the company has traded seamlessly designed products for market share … at least, until the iPod came along. But Intel chips have breathed new life into the Mac line. A 30 percent jump in fiscal fourth-quarter Mac sales helped the company generate $546 million in profit and blow away analyst expectations. The company’s profit margin is great: in their last reported quarters, Dell had more than 300 percent greater revenue than Apple, but only 24 percent greater profit.
Meanwhile, in a blow to Intel, Dell announced in May that it would for the first time use chips from Intel archival Advanced Micro Devices, in multiprocessor servers by the end of the year.
Patent Wars Singe BlackBerry
After the U.S. Supreme Court declined in January to hear Research In Motion’s appeal in its patent battle with NTP, industry watchers started sounding the death knell for RIM’s BlackBerry. A $612.5 million March agreement between the companies, however, ensures that RIM will never have to worry about NTP patent claims again.
The case is emblematic of the disruptions caused by patent disputes, which often lead to near-automatic injunctions that prevent companies from selling products that allegedly infringe on patents–even before final patent rulings have been made. Many industry insiders found wisdom in the U.S. Supreme Court’s May ruling that courts need to look at multiple factors instead of immediately awarding injunctions. The court sided with eBay in a patent infringement case brought by online auction company MercExchange. But patent wars continue: NTP sued Palm in November.
After numerous delays, Microsoft in November launched Vista, along with Office 2007 and Exchange 2007.
Though Microsoft CEO Ballmer called it “the biggest launch in our company’s history,” it didn’t have that feel. Consumer versions of Vista and Office won’t be available until the New Year, thus missing the holiday buying season. The products are important: among many other things, the level of interoperability among them is greater than ever before. But the launch may go down in history for another reason: it could be the last of the traditional big products launches. With more people tapping into hosted applications, Google experimenting with Internet-based productivity applications, and users receiving a steady stream of product updates over the Web, big-bang launches may fade into the past.
Gates Steps Back … to Plunge Into Philanthropy
Bill Gates’ June announcement that he will step out of his daily role at Microsoft in July 2008 was a milestone that comes at a transition time. While he will remain chairman, Gates will focus on philanthropy.
Microsoft was rarely if ever a first mover, as for example Apple has been. But by combining technical acumen and business brilliance, Gates embodied the quintessentially American entrepreneurial knack of seizing a great idea and commercializing it beyond people’s wildest dreams. His deal to provide the operating system for the IBM PC in 1981 fueled the personal computing revolution. Over the next 25 years Gates led Microsoft to embrace the graphical interface and bring it to the masses, conquer the desktop market, and ultimately navigate the shoals of the Internet era. Microsoft faces further battles in the Internet age, against Google and other companies that will spring up. Meanwhile the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has assets of about $30 billion. The world watches to see if Gates can revitalize philanthropy, as he did computing.
Several companies have been exposed for launching fake blogs — known as “flogs” — in a practice that coincides with an increase in the number of real bloggers secretly paid to endorse products.
Blogs, a term derived from “Web logs,” are rampant on the Internet and are considered online journals in which people post personal opinions, musings, rants and more.
Online firm Technorati reported on Thursday it was tracking more than 63 suspicious blogs.
Wily marketers have infiltrated the blogging world, paying for favorable commentary on products.
However posting product commentary without alerting readers that bloggers were compensated for their opinions is unethical and potential illegal, according to US Federal Trade Commission rules.
Sony Computer Entertainment America, a subsidiary of Japan-based Sony, admitted last week that it created a bogus blog baptized “All I want for Christmas is a PlayStation Portable.”
The blog was passed off as the work of an amateur hip-hop musician named “Charlie,” who enthusiastically praised the PlayStation.
In a short message on the Charlie blog, Sony apologized for being “a little too clever.”
The world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, came under fire in October for a blog portrayed as an online journal kept by a typical US couple, named Laura and Jim, as they traveled across the country in a motor home.
The couple’s blog praised Wal-Mart for letting them park their hulking recreational vehicle overnight in store parking lots and told of encountering Wal-Mart workers nationwide that praised their jobs and their employer.
Business Week magazine revealed that the couple’s cross-country trip was sponsored by Wal-Mart — a fact unmentioned in the online postings.
Companies such as PayPerPost and ReviewMe, which link bloggers and advertisers, are fueling the phenomenon.
PayPerPost, a five-month-old pioneer in the practice, is true to its name regarding favorable online blog postings.
On ReviewMe, bloggers in any language can offer to post their thoughts on products for 500 dollars a review.
ReviewMe explains on its site that it cannot guarantee favorable reviews, but that most of the posted opinions are positive.
“We do not allow advertisers to require a positive review,” the company said in a statement. “The vast majority of reviews are measurably positive, although many do contain constructive criticism.”
Blog-for-hire publicity campaigns can be comprised of thousands of postings, according to a PayPerPost spokesman that wished not to be identified.
Fake “independent” blogs by companies or secretly manipulated by advertisers break US law by misleading consumers, according to federal regulators.
The FTC warned this month that “such connection must be fully disclosed” and that its staff “will determine on a case by case basis whether to recommend law enforcement actions to the commission.”
Faced with the FTC threat, PayPerPost announced this week it would change it service agreement to require bloggers who were being paid to say so in their postings. Previously they had left it to the blogger’s discretion.
Many PayPerPost competitors have yet to adopt such a rule, and the torrent of user-generated videos, images, and text flooding the Internet has aspiring advertisers navigating uncharted waters.
Attention seekers from fledgling music bands to major corporations have seen clever online content “go viral” — lingo for being spread for free worldwide by people using e-mail and online links.
Both video-sharing website YouTube and teen-oriented social networking MySpace, for example, have become venues for companies to establish promotional pages.