Thursday, April 23, 2009

(No.24) Vienna Without The Third Man

Vienna is a city that for some people of a certain age always recalls the Orson Welles movie of post-war intrigue and bombed ruins.

For me those images intersect with today's Vienna in the State Opera House, a famous structure which will celebrate the 140th anniversary of its first presentation in May this year.

To the extent that serious Opera elitists compete for status and bragging rights I suggest that attending the Vienna State Opera may be an indispensable tool.

Opened in 1869 this magnificent structure was 80% destroyed by bombing in March of 1945.
Rebuilt and reopened in 1955 the Vienna Opera House remains a mecca for opera lovers (of whom I am not one). Its September - June season runs for about 10 months, embraces 60 different productions and 20 casts.

The operas change every night so that those who came to Vienna for, say, 3 nights of opera can see a different production each night. As a result changing the huge sets (for each of 3 acts) is a continuous effort. In fact so large is the stage that it is twice as deep as the auditorium itself, which seats fewer than 2,000.

Demand for tickets is immense and the best seats go for 249 Euros, down to 4 Euros for a standing room spot. The latter can only be purchased (if one is in luck) withing 80 minutes of the performance by those willing to wait in line.

I am told that for every performance of the Vienna State Opera 20 or so gullible tourists show up with invalid tickets they have purchased on the street and are turned away.

There are large public rooms on 3 sides of the theatre itself where attendees can gather, contemplate busts of worthies like Strauss and have drinkies. They became smoke-free only in September last year, rather late to become politically correct.

The place absolutely reeks of cultural status. Busts of Gustav Mahler, the director from 1897 to 1907, remind today's Staatsoper audiences and performers of who was (and is) who in the world of opera.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

(No.23) Lows and Highs

The local supper hour newscast on the Toronto station of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has deteriorated into an irritating imitation of the accident and crime focus of the "Eyewitness News" format long in use for local television news on many stations throughout the US. It is not what longtime viewers expect of the CBC, this country's national public broadcaster, even if it is one lately directed by senior management who choose to ignore the CBC's mandate in a mindless pursuit of viewers and ratings based on lowering its position on the television food chain.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, has long been a bastion of quality theatre for large numbers of Americans as well as Canadians. It ran a large budget deficit last season, something on the order of $2.6 million. The festival has announced the likely cancellation of 30 of the Sept. and Oct performances of several of this season's plays. Because of the downturn in the US and Canadian economies this year's ticket sales are slower than needed and cost cutting is required. Where, one wonders, is the 'stimulus' spending to help the arts? Oh yes -- I forgot. That spending is largely in the hands of the Harper government in Ottawa. Their affection for the arts is not just easily contained, it approaches non-existence.

The University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa where Pat and I spent time recently is both impressive and pleasant. Like something designed for a Hollywood movie of the 1950s, it is classic in its layout, appearance and buildings. It is the sort of thing many people think of when they visualize a long established university; U of A was founded in 1831 and today has 30,000 or so students.

Unfortunately there is one major visual clanger on the campus, something so prominent it literally overshadows the architecture of the university buildings: the football stadium. It is a cement monstrosity of huge size seating 93,000. It stands out like a boil on a baby's bum. 

The University of Alabama is perhaps the archetype of an American university where football reigns supreme. It is the home of the late, legendary football coach Bear Bryant about whom a movie was made and in whose honour there is now a museum. The team he coached to fame is universally referred to as 'the Crimson Tide'.

The next step in this saga is to be the expansion of this stadium by 1o,000+ seats. I am told that there are people eagerly lining up to spend $25,000 for a chance to buy stadium boxes. Unbelievable one may say -- and so it is on several levels, not the least of which is that this giant facility exists to host only a handful of football games each year. However the team, its games and associated revenue including television are apparently sufficient to generate $90 million a year for the university. Clearly football and the Crimson Tide are a hugely successful brand for the university and a vital source of revenue to support the university.

Too bad the Stratford Festival does not have a piece of the Toronto Maple Leafs to supplement their revenue.   

Sunday, April 12, 2009

(No.22) Cable news toothache

24 hour cable news channels have the annoying practice of interrupting their 'talking head' panelists and  topic experts  as if the moderator is always short of time, but clearly is not. This approach is presumably a reflection of the opinion of the attention span of their average viewer: don't strain the viewers' brains with segments of talk longer than a few minutes. 

The cable news broadcasters endlessly play or 'loop' the same video of this or that weather disaster, campus shooting scene or traffic accident while repeating ad nauseam the few bits of actual hard news about the event in question. They often stretch out the facts of a news item that could be summarized in a very few minutes into hours of repetitive pap, all the more likely the case with CNN in the US if the story involves the disappearance of a blonde child. 

It is profoundly depressing to contemplate, for example, the hours and hours over many months CNN devoted to the unsolved murder of the American child beauty pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsay in comparison with, say, the relatively little broadcast time it offered its US audience about the genocide of a million people in Rwanda. 

The US version of CNN is unfortunately  the version broadcast in Canada via cable TV. To a Canadian viewer it can be particularly irritating in its rush to relate and reduce all stories to conform to their understanding of the prevailing American mindset. While CNN does not aim at the lowest common denominator in the fashion that the risible FOX News does, it does compare unfavourably with the CNN programming for most non-American audiences. This is clearly evident when one watches CNN in Europe, for example, offering (mostly) different programming with a necessarily more international tone and perspective on the news. If it were not significantly different, less parochial, than what was broadcast to US audiences it would be unlikely to attract much of an audience.

In Canada the CBC Newsworld cable channel, like CBC programming generally, operates on a more satsifying level, one that is indeed available in the US mainly on PBS via programs such as "Bill Moyers Journal", "Frontline" and the nightly "Newshour with Jim Lehrer". I think Moyers has by a wide margin the most thoughtful and sophisticated news and public affairs interview program on American television.

As for the CBC in Canada I have a somewhat conflicted view. I am a loyal viewer and supporter of the CBC. It has been and remains a cornerstone of Canadian culture and identity. Given the traditional role of commercial television in this country as little more than relay transmitters for US programming, the CBC has been all the more  indispensable. Indeed I miss it every time Pat and I are out of Canada. (Radio Canada, the CBC in Quebec, plays an even more central role for its francophone audience.)

Having said all that I confess that the CBC frequently makes my teeth ache with its predictable and pervasive political correctness. Imagine a broadcaster run by a partnership of the United Church of Canada and the New Democratic Party; it would be the CBC -- especially CBC Radio.

Still, it is relatively small price to pay. 

Alastair Rickard




Thursday, April 2, 2009

(No.21) Speaking to business audiences

Within the past few weeks I met with a life company's board of directors and senior management in Ontario and spoken to Professor Bill Rabel's insurance studies classes in Culverhouse College at the University of Alabama. While these audiences were certainly different I was invited to speak to each of them in order to share some frank opinions on business, especially as it involves life insurance companies and agency distribution in its various forms.

A particular focus of my remarks to these disparate audiences, as it has been to many audiences, was the reality of the life insurance business. One might well suppose that this reality is automatically understood by all those who are in the life insurance business for any length of time. That has not been my experience. What so often prevails is a combination of what is 'politically correct' and serves career management objectives within the corporate milieu.

One reality, too often either misunderstood or not understood in any meaningful way, involves the fact that for the life insurance business the PLACING of profitable individual insurance products successfully and in quantity is at root about selling and distribution, not advertising or brand awareness or call centres, etc. etc. That reality is a cornerstone of the business but one often ignored or even denied by many senior executives and misunderstood by numerous others (however sincere) who are simply unequipped with any real grip on the sales-based world they inhabit. 

One need look no further to identify a leading factor contributing to the decline in both Canada and the U.S. of the career agency distribution system. In terms of its inadequate care and feeding within so many companies the situation has been analogous to having illiterates in charge of the teaching of English composition.

At the end of the day 'selling stuff' successfully is what the business is about, certainly in terms of individual financial products. Yet I have watched again and again negative distribution system decisions in various companies made for irrelevant reasons, almost as if successfully 'selling stuff' was somehow incidental to a healthy life insurance business.   

I have certainly encountered more life company people than I care to recall who, unburdened by any real understanding of or experience with agency distribution, were able intuitively to pronounce with authority and decide with conviction on effectiveness in life insurance distribution systems. In some cases their confidence was based on the advice of consultants who, almost by definition, are skilled at providing conclusions they are expected to provide by those who hire them. But that's another subject. 

As Warren Buffett declared recently about those who precipitated the Wall Street meltdown: "Beware of geeks bearing formulas". 

Alastair Rickard