Monday, March 31, 2008

Monster Interview: Penny Ronning

Penny Ronning is an MBA who currently has 3 projects that she is producing: a fiction feature film, a feature length documentary, and a high school history curriculum in conjunction with a website inspired by surviving World War 2 Prisoners of War who were captured in the Philippines.

Her deepest life commitments are to human rights advocacy, animal welfare issues, mentoring, and educating the public on the importance of the arts as a required subject in K - 12 schools.

Advisory Board Member at The Vital Ground Foundation
Event and Programming Consultant at Missoula Performing Arts Center
Owner/Producer, Two Chocolates Productions - Independent Film Producer; Event Specialist; Human Rights Advocate

Thank you, Penny, for this outstanding interview.

1. What about Jericho appealed to you and made you such a fan?

I did not watch Jericho the first season it aired. I’m not sure why other than I think it aired opposite a show that I was already interested in or attached to. I first started watching Jericho after I heard on the news that a gargantuan amount of peanuts had been sent to CBS by fans of the show after learning of Jericho’s cancellation. That action caught my attention. I was very impressed with the creativity, but more importantly by the commitment and determination of the fans to be heard. I wanted to know what was so good it commanded this much loyalty.

When Jericho aired again I made sure my schedule was clear so that I could watch the first episode. “Blown away” does not even come close to describing my reaction after watching the first episode. I called and emailed a large number of people I knew telling them that this show was something special. I was hooked with that first episode.

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank was one of the books I was required to read in high school. Like To Kill a Mockingbird and Where the Red Fern Grows, Alas, Babylon made a lasting impression on me. Growing up during the Cold War the thought of nuclear war was very real. I remember reading Alas, Babylon and making plans on what I would do if a nuclear bomb hit near my home. Pat Frank was a wonderfully descriptive writer and his images have remained with me throughout the years.

For me, that first episode of Jericho I watched, I felt like I was watching Alas, Babylon come to life. The writing was excellent. I did not feel like I was watching actors playing characters. These characters were so well developed and the dialogue did not come across as forced by the actors. If you’ve ever lived in a somewhat small community, you know that these characters could have been your neighbors. These were people from the heartland of the United States and I liked that very much. Everything about the characters felt refreshing even though they were in the midst of chaos. I liked that the characters were portrayed as intelligent people from the center of America. Sometimes the entertainment industry likes to portray anyone from outside of a big city or from anywhere in the U.S. that is not on either coast as being simple minded or less worldly. Jericho didn’t do that.

Gerald McRaney was a big draw for me also. I like him as an actor and I really liked his character, Johnston Green.

2. Jericho was a favorite online yet got canceled after CBS had said they would look at total numbers and not just Nielsen's. Do you believe CBS simply did not want Jericho to continue or do they not know how to develop a method to count viewers online?

Having never worked on the business end of the television industry, I can comment only with my opinions based upon my experiences within the entertainment industry, in business, and my education.

The world of technology is changing so rapidly I think many industries are challenged by the effort to keep up and the entertainment industry is not an exception. Considering that part of what the writers were striking for was to be compensated for their product being viewed/downloaded on the Internet, I hope that everyone would be open to the idea that new operating templates need be written.

Not all technology advances at the same pace. For example, in the feature film world cameras are advancing rapidly, but projection systems in the majority of movie theaters are not. So, there’s an imbalance and this can create problems. One problem is who pays for the theaters’ projection systems to keep up to speed at the same pace as the cameras. Most theater owners don’t have the finances to keep up with this pace. The same kind of imbalance appears to be happening in the television world.

I believe that the current means by which television networks count viewer numbers is antiquated and in need of change. I don’t believe the current Nielsen system accurately represents program viewership. If it did, then why are the networks pumping so much product onto the Internet? Or iTunes? Or cell phones? Obviously, the television networks have learned that enormous numbers of their customers are watching their shows on a form of media other than television.

Unfortunately, it appears the system the networks use for counting viewers has not kept up with the pace of change in their own media. I believe this is something they can correct. I have 3 blog sites and a website. I know exactly how many hits, visits, and views each one gets on a daily basis. And I know which blogs I’ve written that are receiving the most reads, comments, and hits. Do I think television networks that have their products available for viewing or downloading on their own network websites know exactly how many times each show has been watched, downloaded, or received a hit? Oh yea.

The Nielsen system is out of date with the lifestyle of many people today, but I don’t believe the Nielsen system is the only problem with the rating system. From my perspective, it appears that an imbalance is taking place between the business department and the technology department at the networks. The networks’ business practices do not appear to be keeping up to speed with their own advancing technology. As a result, quality programming like Jericho is unfairly sacrificed.

3.You said recently, "Most often the people in the top positions are finance people or excellent deal making people. Most often the top people are numbers people. And that's what makes all of the numbers on Jericho so interesting."

Could you expand on that answer and tell us why you find the Jericho numbers to be of such interest?

The context of my statement dealt with the difference between creative people and numbers people. Creative people tend to reach a conclusion by means of exploration. Numbers people tend to reach a conclusion by means of a formula.

The overall numbers for Jericho appear to be good. By overall, I mean the iTunes, TiVo, downloads, online watching and Nielsen numbers combined. The combined numbers reveal that viewers are there for Jericho.

With those thoughts in mind, I find it confusing as to why the numbers people at CBS are basing Jericho’s long term potential on an antiquated formula. But, this goes back to the business end not keeping up with the technology end.

4.What has happened to quality television programming? Is it as simple as the fact that reality shows are so cheaply made?

For me, I see the loss of integrity within the entertainment programming of network television running somewhat parallel to the loss of integrity within network news programming. Every time people begin to chase numbers over integrity the hamster wheel is set in motion.

When decisions are made at the higher levels to compromise on the integrity of news programming, then it is going to be very easy at those same levels to compromise on the integrity of entertainment programming. Even though these two elements of television are separate departments, they are under the same umbrella. For umbrellas to work effectively, they must be complete circles. Compromise any part of that circle and the rain is going to start hitting somewhere and what is a natural reaction? To quickly move the umbrella to protect that area except you’ve now exposed another area.

Integrity isn’t something you turn on and off when it suits your purposes. You either have it or you don’t.

Jericho is an excellent symbol for the loss of quality art being produced by the American television industry. Television was invented in America. We should be leading the world in producing quality programming.

Art has value. Speaking from the perspective of television’s contribution to the arts in our culture, if we continue to lose well crafted artistic/dramatic programming, then we will continue to lose our culture, we will continue to lose what connects us, we will continue to lose our collective voice of expression, we will continue to lose the common language of humanity.

Having lived and traveled all over the world, I know the value of art as a means of communication. Art builds bridges, opens doors of thought, and gives a way of discovering a commonality that is difficult to find without a mutual language. Art is that language.

Storytellers have long been the people that bring us together, bring us to a place of community, bring us to a place of shared experience. One of the first experiences a parent and child actively focus on at the same time is the reading and telling of stories.

Most people remember the first time they saw The Wizard of Oz or Lucy’s vita veta vegamin episode or when the Friends all left Monica’s apartment for the last time. Discovering who shot JR and the last episode of MASH are two of the most highly rated shows of all time.

Does anyone care who was on the Surreal Life or who won Survivor 5 or if anyone has ever won the largest amount of money on Deal or No Deal? Reality TV is like fast food. Cheap, quick, and of no nutritional value. Do these programs bring a sense of investment in a shared common ground?

America has already lost the majority of what we were known to manufacture with excellence to other countries for reasons of profit. Are we to lose quality within our own invented also? Jericho is everything excellent about the artistic television media. From the writing to the acting to the work of the crew, the producers created an excellent artistic product. And again, I’m using Jericho as a symbol in this train of thought.

If I’m not mistaken, I think that Touched by an Angel was also saved through a fan based letter writing campaign. If it was, that show went on to air for 7 years, I believe. Again, another excellent show that may not have had the initial numbers, but captured artistic value with the viewing audience. The numbers eventually grew and it went on to be a hit show for CBS.

At some point, television network executives have got to take stock of their artistic value. Are they adding artistic value to our culture? Or to what extent are they aiding and abetting in the dumbing down of the American culture?

I’ve lived in a number of communities where cable or a dish were the only ways of receiving ANY television programming and neither of those options were cheap. Paying to see television programming is one thing, paying to see awful television programming is another. It’s like being on a desert island where your only source of food is a vending machine filled with Twinkies. You’re thankful for the vending machine and at first the Twinkies don’t seem too bad, but after awhile you can’t lift yourself up off the sand. You’re too stupid and too weak from the lack of nutrition.

And just because the Twinkies come in different slots doesn’t mean they’re not still Twinkies.

Between Reality TV, game shows, and the 17 identical spin offs from one successful show, I’ve come to know a Twinkie when I see one.

Personally, I believe Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt are two of the most brilliant and creative people in television today. All of their programs together or separately have been unique. Even though Angel was a spin off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it was an entirely different show. These guys get the value of good art, good story telling, and the value of bringing something fresh to an audience.

The creators of Jericho captured something unique and valuable in their ideas also and Carol Barbee and her crew brilliantly brought those ideas to life. When the American public stood up and shouted “I’m tired and I’m not going to take it anymore” with pounds and pounds of peanuts, their value of Jericho was made loud and clear.

At some point, as a country we all have to stand up and demand quality back in our culture. And that starts with each individual taking action. Whether you are the CEO of a network television station or the CEO of a television ratings company or the CEO of a major corporation that advertises on television or the CEO of your home, every single one of us is responsible within our own places of power to make decisions that add to the quality of our collective culture.

5.You have expertise in strategic planning and you have visited the CBS board. Do you see where strategic planning is being applied to fan efforts? Any words of advice?

I found the CBS message board when I wrote my first blog about Jericho, which was February 27 of this year. However, I didn’t really spend time reading the messages until I heard the news about Jericho being canceled…again. And then I wanted to know if other people were feeling the same sense of shock as I was. At first, I went back to the board feeling the need for a sense of community. I truly couldn’t believe the news. During any sense of loss or shock we tend to seek out others who’ve experienced the same or similar fate.

Then my shock began to evolve into determination. As that rose up within me, I went back to the board with a purpose. I wanted to find the plan – surely someone had a plan to turn this around…again.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to get lost in the comments left by people that simply want to vent. I understand those feelings – that’s why I started to blog! However, regarding the CBS board those types of comments can take away from forward moving progression. It’s also difficult to easily identify people when the same image is being used by multiple participants for their profile picture. When you are pressed for time, having easily identifiable imagery helps the organizational process and helps to separate the leaders out from the crowd.

That said, it was difficult for me to determine with any speed or accuracy who actually had a connection to Carol Barbee. I had to follow a number of threads before I found two different people whose writing made it appear that they were ones with a connection to the power base at Jericho.

While I have found the CBS message board to be an interesting place, a place of great potential, and a place to find information, I have not found it to be an organized place. The postings appear to be random and without much order or structure. And the board is not the most user friendly when you are looking for an old posting, but that’s a CBS website issue.

Fortunately, a number of very well written Jericho fans found my blog and left comments. Through those comments, I found a leadership base much more quickly than I did through the CBS message board.

As someone who has created and organized large scale events and undertakings, the best advice I can give is to first find out specifically what Carol Barbee and the creators of Jericho wants to do with the show. What is their number one desire? Do they want to stay at CBS? Do they want CBS Paramount to shop Jericho around and if so, where do Carol and her team want to be? The fans of Jericho need to work in conjunction with Carol and her team. The absolute best and most effective partner the fans can be to Carol and crew is to be a structured, organized, considerate, well oiled and well ordered group that is prepared to act efficiently when the time is right to act and is patient when the time is right to wait for direction. This is a fan base that understands the means by which communication can be delivered quickly. That’s evident. And that’s impressive. But it’s important that the fans are not demanding something Carol and her crew don’t want or is not best for the show simply because they want to be doing something.

What was accomplished by the fans the first time around was tremendous. Kudos to all of those leaders and everyone who participated. I am one who is most grateful. But what I am sensing from the board postings and a couple of the fan sites by this first group of dedicated and successful warriors is frustration, disappointment and just plain tiredness. All of which are understandable. I may feel the same way if I had been a part of the first group that fought for such a wonderful show. I know my own level of disappointment and I have no doubt it doesn’t compare to theirs.

To those people, I would advise to not go away, but be open to passing on your knowledge to others who are willing to take up the cause.

6. Is there anything you'd like to add?

Colin Powell once said that a good idea will never become a reality without a champion. Jericho is a good idea and it continues to need a champion. The collective fan base working to change the way networks acknowledge ratings is smart and very much needed. However, it’s equally important to keep Jericho specifically in the forefront of everyone’s mind.

In my opinion, Jericho is not dead in the water as long as the creators and producers want to keep it swimming.


ccpdppr said...

This is a very interesting article/interview, and supports my own take which is that great art whether it be books, paintings, music, theater, or whatever, is often not appreciated when it first appears by either the critics or the public at large. Nielsen, internet or itunes - those who watch and are passionate about Jericho may be in the minority because the rest of world needs more time to recognize and come to appreciate this unique piece of creative work.

Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate that Neilsen ratings dominate advertiser's decisions whether a show stys or not.

Its really strange to see quality shows getting dropped.

Shows like Jericho should either be a feature film or made for TV movie.