Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Baby, Bathwater and now the tub...TWIT changes continue

Watching today's TNT episode with new lead, Mike Elgan, at the helm it became obvious that changes at TWIT aren't quite done yet.

With Iyaz Akhtar's sudden departure for CNET last week, only Sarah Lane and Jason Howell of the Merritt era crew remain.

Leo Laporte attempted to soften the blow by heading up the New Years Eve episode of TNT alongside new TNT boss Mike Elgan.  Watching the episode one  thing became clear.  Where Tom Merritt was about collaboration,  Mike Elgan is all about a certain way of doing things...that being,.his way.

Politlely deflecting commentary to the contrary it was obvious that the edict has gone out.  My way or the highway will likely be the order of the day.

The strange thing was, that his delivery was about as interesting as a wet dish rag .  A more passive and submissive tone seems to surface around Laporte's bravado.  His stage presence lacked charisma and at times it seems he'd be more suited to stamping driver's licenses at a DMV window. In short a newsman but not an anchor.

What we do know is that Elgan is a willing tool of Laporte to push his grand plans of recreating TNT as the CNN of tech with a focus on "breaking news"   As such there wasn't anything new there.  It's a mantra that Laporte has droned so many times in the month since the announcement of Tom Merritt's departure.

With a playful yet overt dig at Sarah Lane for breaking into tears during Tom Merritt's last address to TNT fans yesterday (Dec. 30), it was obvious that Laporte was desperately trying to move away from the topic of Merritt's departure.

Soon after came Laporte and Elgan's gentle but obvious chorus of what they thought TNT wasn't doing well enough.

After which the first hints at tension began showing through the cracks when Lane rose to the defense of TNT's previous work.  After Elgan commented that he wanted TNT to be more "global" and didn't want to just be "reporting American tech news for Americans." Lane instantly responded with, " I don't think TNT was ever doing that!".  Elgan's response, "Right"

Apparently, award winning or not, TNT wasn't living up to Leo's expectations under Merritt's rule.
It's obvious that the remaining hosts (Sarah and Jason Howell) will not have as prominent a role as they did under Merritt and it's likely a reason Iyaz Akhtar chose to make such a curiously timed exit from the show.

It makes sense, TWIT has literally thrown the baby out with the bathwater and will have to move fast to fill the vacuum.  That means nothing of the Merritt era at TWIT can remain if they don't want to be constantly hampered by his ghost.  The painful part is to see the significant contributions of TNT crew past and present be devalued for the sake of a whim AKA: breaking tech news.

In the end don't be surprised to see Mike Elgan sitting with a completely different TNT cast by this time next year. Whether that's a good or bad thing is dependent on whether or not you can accept the changes Elgan brings to TNT.

I know what I think but make up your own mind.  The episode in question is provided below... Advance to 36:21 for Elgan's commmentary on the old TNT.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Has TWIT finally thrown the baby out with the bathwater?

I'm not sure what's going on at Leo Laporte's TWIT network but it seems change is in the air again.  This time, however, it seems it's more than a minor schedule shakeup. 

2013 has seen a number of changes at TWIT the most obvious of which is Laporte's handoff of hosting duties on shows including "Know How" and the relatively new "This Week in YouTube" and next year "The Giz Wiz."  The year has also seen an increasing presence of Father Robert Ballecer hosting the new "This Week in Enterprise Tech" as well as co-hosting "Know How" with Iyaz Akhtar.  (Update: Akhtar has since left TWIT for CNET)

Another new arrival, Chad Johnson, originally showed up as a board operator for the ill fated "Game on!" and has been slowly groomed for host and producer duties over the past year.  He now produces "This Week in Tech" and hosts "OMGcraft" as well as co-hosting "This Week in YouTube" with Lamarr Wilson. (Update: The show has been put on hiatus) Johnson will be picking up hosting duties for "The Giz Wiz" alongside Dick DeBartolo.

Laporte has long said he wants the network to be less reliant on his star power but in the process it seems the programming has been in a constant state of upheaval because of it. 

That's somewhat understandable.  After all, a broadcaster devoted to technology subjects has to stay as nimble as the newsmakers they cover.  Change is part of the DNA but lately it seems to be a self-serving entity at TWIT.

It all makes me wonder if the whole exercise has TWIT throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

Of course I'm talking about the imminent departure of one of the few hosts on TWIT capable of shepherding the network toward Laporte's vision of a self sustaining entity without his presence.

Tom Merritt will be leaving the TWIT network at the end of the year.  With him goes the popular show "Framerate" he co-hosts with former "Game On!" and "NSFW" host Brian Brushwood. 

Merritt, the host and creator of the popular and award winning "Tech News Today" who was once referred to as "Leo 2" is by far the most professional and popular of any of the personalities on the network.  Unfortunately, the writing was likely already on the wall over a year earlier.  I'll get to why I say that in a minute...

On a posting on the "Inside TWIT" blog Laporte wrote,

 "After some soul searching, I've decided that we do need an in-studio anchor for Tech News Today, and a News Director who can help us build the kind of organization you can count on for authoritative tech news and information."

At the beginning of 2013 Merritt was forced to move to Los Angeles when his wife and former producer of the "This Week in Tech" podcast accepted a position with Google.  That change dictated Merritt's appearances on TWIT be "phoned in" instead of in studio.

Laporte has often said that he prefers in-studio hosts and his investment in a million dollar production facility supports that.  Still, in the new media, location should have little to do with the quality of the content.  It would seem on this point, Laporte has conflicting visions.

More than half of TWIT shows rely on hosts connecting in via Skype but Merritt's former status of TWIT heir apparent became diminished by it.  As early as June 2012 Merritt became less of a fixture with Laporte when Laporte began solo hosting of "Triangulation" saying that the "Tri" in triangulation was the guest, Leo and the chat room.

Around the same time "Fourcast," Tom Merritt and Scott Johnson's (frogpants.com) quirky techno-clairvoyance hour, found itself cancelled.  Although both hosts claimed declining viewership (a death knell to any TWIT show) the timing seemed less than coincidental.

The changes were subtle but there was no doubt that either Laporte or Merritt (or both) began distancing themselves from the other as Merritt's move to Los Angeles grew closer.  As they say, long distance relationships rarely work out and 400 miles is a pretty long distance.  As TWIT heir apparent it would be unacceptable for Merritt to oversee daily operations with only skype and a dropcam to survey the minions.

Fast forward to the present...

With the now imminent departure of Merritt the question of who would fill the void needed an answer.  It came with a second posting on the Inside TWIT blog,

"We are pleased to announce that Silicon Valley technology journalist Mike Elgan has joined TWiT as our News Director and the Lead Anchor of our daily news netcast, Tech News Today (starting January 2, 2014).

His hiring is part of a planned 2014 transformation and expansion of TWiT’s News Division, which includes our Breaking News coverage, as well as the launch of our new evening news show Tech News 2Night on January 13, 2014."

Elgan is a frequent guest pundit on Laporte's "This Week In Tech" podcast as well as other shows such as "MacBreak Weekly."  While his news credentials surpass those of the TWIT staff, his previous appearances on TWIT have projected anything but an affable presence.   

A no-nonsense and sometimes abrasive personality that seems to run counter to TWIT's culture.  He often exhibits a dismissive tone to those that he disagrees with.  As a news director those characteristics may serve him well but as a host?

The premise of expanding the news component of TWIT is also questionable.  Considering the bulk of tech news found around the Internet is comprised largely of editorials scraped from other outlets and fluff riddled press releases written by marketing departments, it seems an exercise in redundancy to have even more of the same on a daily basis. 

Many of the more targeted tech shows on TWIT already include topical news on their subject, the addition of a tertiary presentation seems unnecessary.

Unless Elgan's expanded news department will field journalists collecting actual news instead of just hipster personalities parroting information his selection seems like overkill. 

It wouldn't be surprising to see the departure of other popular TWIT personalities over the next year as a result of the change.  Elgan is a hard news man, most TWIT hosts are not. (Update:Akhtar left TNT and TWIT)

Merritt is a popular personality outside of the TWIT arena and it's likely his future pursuits will be fruitful if the outpouring of support from his fans is any indication.  Many of which vow to abandon TWIT precisely because he won't be there.

Fans of Leo, Tom or any other of the TWIT hosts know full well that the information provided can be obtained in triplicate from multitudes of sources.  People chose to be informed by those they feel most comfortable with.  The news may be the same all over but a Fox news viewer won't easily switch to getting his content from MSNBC. 

It's far less certain what the future holds for TWIT with such radical changes.  Keeping a very fickle online audience engaged in your content is difficult enough under the best of circumstances.  Alienate them at your own peril.

History is peppered with brilliant concepts ultimately brought to fruition by someone other than their creators.  It's the reason why most company founders rarely hold the reigns after their company goes public.  Innovators are all about advancing the concept but not necessarily the best candidates to handle the execution.

Now that the prototype has been created, perhaps it's time for someone other than TWIT to bring the dream to reality.