Archive for July 2005

A Very Postmodern 4th of July

July 7th, 2005 — 6:13pm

I went to the 4th of July con­cert on the Esplanade this past Mon­day, for the first time in sev­eral years, expect­ing to show some inter­na­tional vis­i­tors gen­uine Boston Amer­i­cana. After all, 4th of July cel­e­bra­tions are sin­gu­larly Amer­i­can expe­ri­ences; part sum­mer sol­stice rite, part brash rev­o­lu­tion­ary ges­ture, part demon­stra­tion of mar­tial prowess, part razzle-dazzle spec­ta­cle as only Amer­i­cans put on.
I sup­pose a unique Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence is what we got: in return for our trou­ble, we felt like unpaid extras in a tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion recre­at­ing the hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions for a remote view­ing audi­ence miles or years away. It was — de-centered — hol­low and inverted. It’s become a sim­u­lacrum, with a highly unnat­ural flow dri­ven by the cal­cu­lus of supra-local tele­vi­sion pro­gram­ming goals. The cen­ter of grav­ity is now a national tele­vi­sion audi­ence sit­ting in liv­ing rooms every­where and nowhere else, and not the 500,000 peo­ple gath­ered around the Hatch Shell who cre­ate the cel­e­bra­tion and make it pos­si­ble by com­ing together every year.
Despite all the razzle-dazzle — and in true Amer­i­can fash­ion there was a lot, from fighter jets to fire­works, via brass bands, orches­tras, and pop stars along the way — the expe­ri­ence itself was deeply unsat­is­fy­ing, because it was obvi­ous from the begin­ning that the pro­duc­tion com­pany (B4) held the inter­ests of broad­cast­ers far more impor­tant than the peo­ple who come to the Esplanade.
There were reg­u­lar com­mer­cial breaks.
In a 4th of July con­cert.
For half a mil­lion peo­ple.
Com­mer­cial breaks which the orga­niz­ers — no doubt trapped between the Scylla of con­trac­tual oblig­a­tions and the Charyb­dis of shame at jilt­ing a half-million peo­ple out of a sum­mer hol­i­day to come to this show — filled with filler. While the com­mer­cials aired, and the audi­ence waited, the ‘pro­gram­mers’ plugged the holes in the con­cert sched­ule with an awk­ward mix of live songs last­ing less than three min­utes, pre-recorded music, and inane com­men­tary from local talk­ing heads. We felt like we were sit­ting *behind* a mon­i­tor at a tap­ing ses­sion for a 4th of July show, lis­ten­ing while other peo­ple watched the screen in front.
I bring this out because it offers good lessons for those who design or cre­ate expe­ri­ences, or depend upon the design or cre­ation of qual­ity expe­ri­ences.
Briefly, those lessons are:
1. If you have an estab­lished audi­ence, and you want or need to engage a new one, make sure you don’t leave your loyal cus­tomers behind by mak­ing it obvi­ous that they are less impor­tant to you than your new audi­ence.
2. If you’re enter­ing a new medium, and your expe­ri­ence will not trans­late directly to the new chan­nel (and which well-crafted expe­ri­ence does trans­late exactly?), make sure you don’t dam­age the expe­ri­ence of the orig­i­nal chan­nel while you’re trans­lat­ing to the new one.
3. When adding a new or addi­tional chan­nel for deliv­er­ing your expe­ri­ence, don’t trade qual­ity in the orig­i­nal chan­nel for capa­bil­ity in the new chan­nel. Many sep­a­rate fac­tors affect judg­ments of qual­ity. Capa­bil­ity in one chan­nel is not equiv­a­lent to qual­ity in another. Qual­ity is much harder to achieve.
4. Always pre­serve qual­ity, because con­sis­tent qual­ity wins loy­alty, which is worth much more in the long run. Con­sis­tent qual­ity dif­fer­en­ti­ates you, and encour­ages cus­tomers to rec­om­mend you to other peo­ple with con­fi­dence, and allows other to become your advo­cates, or even your part­ners. For advo­cates, think of all the peo­ple who clear obsta­cles for you with­out direct ben­e­fit, such as per­mit and license boards. For part­ners, think of all the peo­ple who’s busi­ness con­nect to or depend upon your expe­ri­ence in some way; the con­ces­sions ven­dors who pur­chase a vend­ing license to sell food and bev­er­ages every year are a good exam­ple of this.
For peo­ple plan­ning to attend next year’s 4th of July pro­duc­tion, I hope the expe­ri­ence you have in 2006 reflects some of these lessons. If not, then I can see the head­line already, in bold 42 point let­ter type, “Audi­ences nowhere com­mem­o­rate Inde­pen­dence Day again via tele­vi­sion! 500,000 bored extras make cel­e­bra­tion look real for remote view­ers!“
Since this is the sec­ond time I’ve had this expe­ri­ence, I’ve changed my judg­ment on the qual­ity of the pro­duc­tion, and I won’t be there: I attended in 2002, and had exactly the same experience.

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