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Live streams of karate and niche sports are terrifying major sports leagues – TechCrunch

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Of the 100 most-watched live telecasts in the US in 2005, 14 were sporting events; in 2015, sporting events comprised 93 of the top 100 telecasts. That shift occurred because TV shows are shifting to online or on-demand viewing, and live broadcasts of the biggest sports are the main thing TV networks have left to draw in live audiences. But the need to keep those sports on TV and off streaming services is only accelerating the rate at which young people are tuning into other sports leagues instead.

The rapid adoption of subscription video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and of social live streams on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitch is enabling massive growth by sports leagues that you won’t normally see on TV. In the streaming era, more sports – and new types of sports like esports – keep thriving while interest in traditional pro leagues like the NFL and MLB declines.

OTT is where the growth is

The central narrative in the global film/TV industry right now is the response of incumbent companies to the growing dominance of Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming (aka “OTT” or over-the-top) services. The incumbents are merging to consolidate ownership of must-have shows onto a smaller number of new OTT services that will each be stronger.

The majority of American households have a Netflix subscription (i.e. access to one of Netflix’s 56M US accounts), another 20M have a Hulu subscription, the number of OTT-only households has tripled in 5 years, and 50% of US internet users use a subscription OTT service at least weekly. Almost one-third (29%) of Americans say they watch more streaming TV than linear TV, and among those age 18-29 it’s 54% (with 29% having cut the cord on linear TV entirely). People, especially young people, want to watch shows on their own time and on any device, and they get more value from a few $8-40 per month subscription platforms than a $100+ per month cable bill.

Meanwhile, social live-streaming platforms that got their start enabling people to either vlog or watch video gaming are expanding to all sorts of live broadcasting: Twitch averaged 1 million viewers at any given point of day in January, and there were 3.5 billion broadcasts over Facebook Live in the first two years after it launched (with 2 billion users viewing at least one).

We’ve hit the pivot point where media is streaming-first. Netflix is now the leading studio in Hollywood, spending $13 billion this year on content. Linear TV viewing is declining: every major cable network (except NBC Sports) has declining viewership and aging viewers. Between 2007 and 2017, the median age of primetime viewers on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox went up 8-11 years and are all in the 50s or 60s.

Major pro sporting events are the last bastion of TV networks because the dominant brands are, for the most part, only available live on TV. Beyond those, the only content getting large audiences to tune in simultaneously are a couple Hollywood awards shows and premieres or finales of a couple hit shows (Big Bang Theory and NCIS).

The exclusive broadcast rights to those live sports events – particularly the NFL, NBA, MLB, and top NCAA basketball and football games – are the last defense for major broadcast networks. They are the reason for younger Americans to not cut the cord. ESPN makes $7.6 billion per year in carriage fees from cable companies paying for the right to carry the main ESPN channel (the other ESPN channels add another $1 billion); that number is increasing even as ESPN’s viewership is declining.

Disney (ESPN’s owner) and other leading broadcasters don’t want to let people watch major sporting events online instead (at least not easily or cheaply) because doing so would pull the rug out from under their traditional revenue stream and OTT revenue (subscription + ads) won’t make up for it quickly enough. This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that TV networks are paying record sums for exclusive broadcast rights to top sports leagues out of fear that losing them to a rival could be a nail in their coffin.

This strategy is delaying, not stopping the shift in consumption habits. More and more young people are tuning out (or never tuning in) to the major pro sports on TV, and the median age of their audiences shows that: 64 for the PGA Tour, 58 for NASCAR, 57 for MLB, 52 for NCAA football and men’s basketball, and 50 for the NFL…and all are getting older. (Cable news networks, the other holdouts who are still doing well on live TV face the same situation: the average age of Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN viewers is now 65, 65, and 61 respectively.)

The major pro sports staying on linear TV has expanded the market opening for new sports to fill the open space with young people who mainly consume content online. In fact, a growing marketplace of different sports leagues (including esports) developing their own fanbases is an inevitability of the shift to OTT video as it lowers the barrier to entry to near-zero and let’s geographically dispersed fans unify in one place.

1. Lower barrier to entry for distribution

Lawn bowling is no longer your grandfather’s sports league. Mint Images/Getty Images

Niche sports leagues – or frankly, even big sports leagues that just aren’t at the scale of professional football, baseball, basketball, and hockey – have always had a hard time getting coverage on television. But you can produce and distribute video for an online audience more cheaply than for a television audience.

In fact with Facebook Live and Twitch, you can stream live video for free, and you can share clips across every social channel to attract interest. To launch your own OTT service or partner with an existing one, you don’t need to start with a massive audience from the beginning and you don’t need millions of dollars from sponsors just to break even.

Having signed over 150 new deals this year alone for its 20+ sports verticals (which will stream 2,500 live events in 2018), Austin-based FloSports has established itself as the go-to OTT partner for sports leagues with an established, passionate following that aren’t massive enough to garner regular ESPN-level coverage.

From rugby, track & field, and wrestling to bowling, competitive marching band, and ballroom dance, millions of Americans have participated in these activities in their youth and through clubs as adults but rarely see them on television. In fact, the rare instances when such sports are on TV – like their national championships – the league is usually paying large sums (potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars) for that airtime rather than getting paid by the broadcasters.

FloSports gives a home to the superfans of its partner leagues, with full coverage of the sport and commentary meant for real fans. It produces events in the manner best fit to highlight the action and turns superfans – who generally pay a subscription – into evangelists who recruit friends. There are numerous sports that have millions of participants yet no active, high-quality event coverage; those are underserved markets.

By tapping into this, FloSports properties (like FloWrestling, FloTrack, etc.) have gained hundreds of thousands of subscribers and created a surge of interest in teams like Oklahoma State’s wrestling team, which saw an 144% increase in live stream viewing and 68% growth in event attendance after joining FloWrestling (leading to them to set an all-time attendance record in the university’s basketball arena of 14,059 people). In the first half of 2018, FloSports’ various Instagram accounts collectively received 307M video views, more than the collective accounts of Fox Sports or of all NFL teams (and NFL Network).

2. Going global right away.

Johanne Defay of France at a World Surf League event. Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

The top pro sports leagues have geographically concentrated fan-bases that fit the geographic restrictions of TV broadcasters, which end at a country’s border. Online streaming empowers sports that have large fan bases who aren’t geographically concentrated to aggregate in the digital sphere with enough eyeballs (and paying subscriptions) to drive engagement with the sport’s content through the roof.

Since being acquired in 2015 and renamed World Surf League, the governing body of professional surfing has developed a large global following – with 6.5M Facebook fans and 2.9M Instagram followers – through the launch of live streams and on-demand video on its website and mobile app, plus partnering with third-parties like Bleacher Report’s OTT service B/R Live. Only 20-25% of WSL’s viewers are in the US but since its competitions are streamed direct-to-consumer online, they were able to reach surfers around the world right away. After seeing WSL’s Facebook Live streams garner over 14M viewers in 2017, Facebook paid up to become the exclusive live-stream provider for WSL competitions for two years, beginning this past March.

3. Immediate data on audience engagement.

As with all offline-to-online shifts, OTT video streaming captures dramatically more data on audience demographics and engagement than television does, and it does it in real-time. This makes it easier for emerging sports leagues to partner with advertisers and show immediate ROI on their sponsorships, plus it informs their understanding of how to produce their particular type of sporting event for maximum audience engagement.

Karate Combat is a year-old league that builds off the existing base of karate participants and fans around the world (numbering in the tens of millions) with a new competition format specifically intended for OTT. The league allows full-contact fighting and sets the match in a pit (rather than a traditional fighting ring) for better camera angles. It also replaces the traditional focus on having a big in-person audience (which is expensive) and instead sets the fights in exotic locations (like the fight this coming Thursday night on top of the World Trade Center).

Like many emerging sports leagues, Karate Combat is vertically integrated: the league organizing the competitions is also the one producing and streaming the event coverage over its website, mobile apps, and social channels. This not only means it captures the content-related revenue from subscribers, advertisers, and numerous OTT distribution partners, but it sees every data point about fans’ viewing behavior and their interaction with various dashboards (like biometrics on each fighter) so they can optimize both online and offline aspects of the production.

4. Online means interactive

Jujitsu fighting is now an OTT service. South_agency/Getty Images

Online viewing creates the opportunity for functionality you can’t achieve with linear TV: interactive displays overlayed on or next to live video. Viewers can pull up and click through real-time stats, change camera views, or switch overlays (think the the yellow first-down line in NFL broadcasts or coloring around a hockey puck to help you track it on the ice). Ultimately, a more interactive experience means a more social and more entertaining experience (and the sort of deep engagement advertisers value too).

FloSports’ ju-jitsu live streams (FloGrappling) give subscribers multiple live cameras each covering simultaneous matches on different mats so they can click between them. This is a more personalized experience than passively watching one broadcast on TV and it gets that subscriber actively engaged, with their behavior providing valuable data points for FloSports and their deeper interaction likely more compelling to event sponsors.

The display might also highlight live comments from friends or friends-of-friends in order to draw viewers into a more social experience. Discussion of a specific live stream with others watching it has been a central feature for Twitch and Facebook Live and enables the league or team streaming the event to directly engage with fans around the world.

An exception to the OTT-first strategy may be in sports that are entirely new and have zero existing base of participants or fans. Karate, surfing, and video-gaming all have millions of passionate participants around the world, going back decades. A new league like the 3-year-old Drone Racing League (DRL), which has raised $21M in venture capital to develop the sport of competitive drone racing, has to artificially stimulate the development of a fanbase if it doesn’t want to wait years for grassroots competitions to create a critical mass of fans even for a niche OTT service. It’s unsurprising then that DRL has focused on striking TV deals with ESPN, Sky Sports, ProSiebenSat.1, and others to thrust it in front of large audiences from the start, like a new game show hoping its format will entice enough people to take interest.

Power is in the hands of the league owners

Ari Emanuel, chief executive officer of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment. Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The best position to be in right now is the owner of a sports league that’s rapidly growing in popularity. The competition for audience by both traditional media companies and tech platforms leaves a long list of distribution partners eager for must-have, exclusive content – especially content like sports events that fans want to want live together – and willing to pay up.

Moreover, vertical integration to control your fans’ content viewing experience and own your relationship with them has never been easier. There are direct subscriptions, advertisers, event sponsors, event tickets, a portfolio of possible OTT distribution deals, and merchandising. The potential revenue streams a league can develop are only more numerous when you add in launching a fantasy sports league – like World Surf League has done – and the recent nationwide legalization of sports betting in the US.

Endeavor, the parent company of Hollywood’s powerful WME-IMG talent agency, seems to have recognized this and is an early mover in the space. It bought two sports leagues that have relied on TV deals and event attendance revenue – UFC for $4B and the smaller but rapidly growing Professional Bull Riders for $100M – and, since they each own their content, launched direct-to-consumer subscription platforms (UFC Fight Pass and PBR Ridepass) for super-fans and cord-cutters. (Endeavor also paid $250M to acquire Neulion, the technology company whose infrastructure powers the OTT services of the UFC, PBR, World Surf League, and dozens of others.)

There’s opportunity for new streaming platforms focused on being the media partner for these emerging sports leagues. Inevitably, the opportunity for bundling will consolidate many of the niche subscriptions onto a small number of leading sports OTT platforms, and that’s a powerful market position for those platforms.

What is unclear is if they can defend themselves as the incumbent media and tech companies come around to this phenomenon and commit billions toward capturing the market. The leading sports broadcasting companies all have OTT offerings and want to make them as compelling to potential subscribers as possible even if they exclude content from the biggest pro sports. A larger company that can afford to spend huge sums on exclusive sports streaming rights (like Disney with ESPN/ABC, Comcast with NBC/Sky Sports, CBS with CBS Sports Network, or Discovery with Eurosport) might opt to buy a company like FloSports as part of their deep dive into the space or they might just aim to outbid them when a league’s contract comes up for renewal.

The hope for an independent OTT platform devoted to emerging sports leagues is they get big enough, fast enough that they can afford to keep winning the rights to emerging leagues as those leagues grow and offers from competitors bid prices up. These dedicated OTT services will likely have to secure long-term – think ten years – streaming rights deals or acquire control of some popular new sports leagues outright to hold their own.

Like online distribution triggered an explosion of digital publishing brands and social influencers for every imaginable niche, the rise of high-quality live streaming and subscription OTT services will allow a lot more sports leagues to build an audience and revenue base substantial enough to thrive. There’s more variety for consumers and resources than ever for those with a rapidly growing league to attract fans worldwide.

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Review: Separated siblings struggle to survive a brutal world in Tribes of Europa

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The same people who brought us Dark are back with the dystopian sci-fi drama Tribes of Europa.

The folks who brought us three captivating seasons of the existential time travel thriller, Dark, are back with a new science fiction series for Netflix: the dystopian drama Tribes of Europa, featuring warring factions battling over what is left of the European continent late in the 21st century. Brutal and compelling, it’s like a German version of The Hunger Games, with bits of Game of Thrones and The 100 thrown in for good measure. In other words, we’re on familiar, well-trodden territory here, but the series is still one heck of an entertaining ride.

(Some spoilers below but no major reveals.)

The production company is Wiedemann & Berg, whose credits also include the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others, in addition to Dark. The six-episode Tribes of Europa series was created by showrunner Philip Koch, who reportedly was inspired by the Brexit vote of 2016.  Per the official premise:

2074. In the wake of a mysterious global disaster, war rages between the Tribes that have emerged from the wreckage of Europe. Three siblings from the peaceful Origines tribe—Kiano (Emilio Sakraya), Liv (Henriette Confurius) and Elja (David Ali Rashed)—are separated and forced to forge their own paths in an action-packed fight for the future of this new Europa.

The global disaster in question is known as “Black December.” In 2029, technology “started going crazy,” causing a mysterious planet-wide power outage that plunged the world into darkness. Forty-five years later, the survivors on the European continent have divided into various warring tribes, scavenging for the remaining precious resources. The Origines choose to steer clear of the fighting and live in pastoral isolation deep in the forest, trading for additional supplies when necessary with a friendly neighboring tribe. Liv is a feisty Katniss Everdeen type, good with a crossbow, as is her brother Kiano. Youngest brother Elja is more of a sensitive sort, and has just passed his coming-of-age trial to become an adult member of the tribe.

Alas, their peaceful existence is interrupted when an aircraft crashes in the forest. It is highly advanced “Atlantian” technology, and Liv insists that the gravely injured pilot be brought back to the Origines settlement for treatment. It proves to be a serious error in judgment. Meanwhile, Elja has found a strange black cube, which the dying pilot transfers to him, instructing him to return the cube to “the ark.”

Whatever the cube is, everyone wants a piece of it, since Atlantian technology seems to be the only tech unaffected by Black December. A tribe that can exploit that technology would thus have an enormous edge in battle. A brutal tribe known as the Crows soon descends on Liv’s tiny settlement, massacring most of the people. The separated siblings must each navigate the treacherous new circles in which they find themselves to survive—and perhaps even one day be reunited.

Pursued by Crows, Elja escapes with the cube, and teams up with a rakishly charming scavenger named Moses (Oliver Massucci, who played Ulrich Nielsen in Dark). Liv is gravely wounded and rescued by David (Robert Finster), an officer with a military tribe known as the Crimson, along with a Crow captive, Grieta (Ana Ularu).

As for Kiano, he and his father, Jakob (Benjamin Sadler), are taken captive and brought to the Crow fortress of Brahtok (what remains of Berlin) as slaves. The hunky, defiant Kiano soon catches the eye of Lord Varvara (Melika Foroutan), who adds him to her elite harem of consorts. Their relationship is… complicated, given that she essentially rapes her consorts, but it also becomes one of the most interesting as the power dynamics start to shift in Kiano’s favor. (Kudos to Kiano for being able to, ahem, “perform” at all with a knife pressed to his throat.) He soon becomes a favorite, much to the dismay of fellow consort—and former favorite—Dewiat (Jannik Schümann).

The show is expertly plotted, well-paced, with strong performances across the board—especially Massucci and Foroutan’s Varvara. Frankly, my only criticism of Tribes of Europa is that there is nothing here we haven’t seen many times before in post-apocalyptic fiction—at least in this first season—and thus it’s a bit predictable. But it’s also eminently watchable and a perfect length for binging. Even better, each sibling’s quest takes them to the brink of a shiny new adventure—including a big final clue as to the true nature of the Atlantian cube that would drive a second season in exciting new directions.

Tribes of Europa is currently streaming on Netflix. In German and English, with subtitles.

 

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A music video you can play: Indie rock inside the Unity engine

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For nearly as long as video games have been around, they’ve enjoyed a tight relationship with pop music. As early as 1983, Bally-Midway collaborated with Journey to make a game full of licensed songs and the band members’ digitized faces (which followed more than a decade of pinball cabinets featuring megaton bands), and that says nothing of media sensations like “Pac-Man Fever.”

Meanwhile, interactive musical experiences, somewhat outside the firm “gaming” realm, began emerging in the CD-ROM era. These ranged from simple computer-exclusive content slapped onto a normal album’s data track to full-blown multimedia software featuring the likes of David Bowie and Prince.

Thus, the synergy of gaming and pop music is littered with various “firsts,” and this week, a modest music video by a Texas indie band might not register as a particularly big deal. It’s not a Doom clone starring Iron Maiden or a hilarious light-gun game starring Aerosmith. But this “playable” music video arguably heralds a new era: one where video game engines, and thus a gaming mentality, has become utterly foundational in pop culture.

WASD to the beat

The non-interactive version of “Greatness Waitress” by Fishboy.

“Greatness Waitress” is the lead single for Waitsgiving, the upcoming seventh album by Fishboy. This long-running pop-rock group out of Denton, Texas, compares favorably to the likes of They Might Be Giants, Weezer, and Ben Folds. In its newest single, nasal vocals wistfully spin a meta-narrative yarn about a struggling indie-rock band, and the words glide over heavily percussive piano and fuzzed-out guitar: I often perform, you should come take a look / but you can’t take a look, the band’s on a break / and the time that we took was specifically taken / on waiting… on a great idea.

The single sounds appropriate for a grungy basement venue or a friend’s backyard, somehow simultaneously loud and intimate, with an animated, teenaged jubilation. Its music video follows suit, posing fictional, geriatric band members as 3D-rendered cartoon characters (drawn by lead singer and songwriter Eric Michener) on a ramshackle stage. For a hint of what the band really looks like, a series of TVs flashes pictures and video snippets throughout the song.

It’s the band’s first 3D-rendered music video, but in fitting indie-rock fashion, this isn’t the result of a Pixar-caliber computer farm rendering each frame to immaculate, ray-traced levels. “Greatness Waitress”‘s video was instead built using the immediate-rendering flexibility of the Unity 3D game engine, and its limited geometry means it’ll run on most any gaming-capable PC. To prove this, the band decided to keep the indie spirit alive by launching its video as an interactive executable; you can even “play” it within a web browser. This build removes the YouTube version’s intentional cinematography, instead allowing viewers to WASD their way around the environment.

Hang back and watch the whole band. Get uncomfortably close to the lead singer. Or poke around the entire video’s geometry, clip through polygons, and find Easter eggs.

Rock god + Dunk Lord

In an email interview with Ars Technica, Fishboy’s Eric Michener says he has previously applied his day job’s skills as a freelance video editor to prior shoestring-budget music videos. “I work a lot in After Effects, but it somehow never occurred to me to use a gaming engine in this way,” he says.

This idea emerged thanks to the prodding of director, artist, and animator Dann Beeson, who connected with Michener via Instagram as a Fishboy fan. The duo bonded over a number of things—shared love for the original Planet of the Apes films, along with the singer’s experience with multimedia album projects (particularly Fishboy albums that have come with Michener’s own full-length graphic novels).

“I didn’t realize he was a game developer,” Michener says. “I just saw cool 3D models that were their own works of art.”

Indeed, Beeson has some serious chops on his resume: most recently, he worked as the sole 3D artist and animator for the gorgeous NBA Jam homage Dunk Lords, built alongside Andy Hull of Spelunky programming fame. When Beeson and Michener began talking about a possible collaboration (which Beeson admits was a ploy to sneak an early listen to a Fishboy album), Beeson already had a workflow in mind: translating Michener’s 2D art into animated 3D characters; modeling, texturing, and rigging the “set” in Maya and Blender; and using Unity to compile the assets.

“I’ve been making games for the good part of a decade now and never really thought to merge the two disciplines” of music and gaming, Beeson adds. But the process of applying a gaming engine to a music video was a revelation, he says, especially compared to trying to make animation projects entirely by yourself. “Rendering just a second of animation can take hours,” he says. “If you need an edit on a shot, there’s your whole night.”

Meanwhile, “Greatness Waitress” worked out as a humbly scaled project, requiring “about an evening” to build looping animations for each modeled character. “The lip sync was done in a kind of weird way,” Beeson says. “I found a way to do motion sketching, or puppeteering, in Blender. I ran the song and scaled a circle up and down to make it look like a mouth. It looked way better than it had any right to.” This only took him roughly 2 minutes 30 seconds—”exactly how long the song is,” he notes. After framing the virtual set for an intentionally filmed video, Beeson and Michener gave the assets a second pass for more interactive fun—including teases about the full album’s “rock opera” story.

“More and more common”

Michener is careful in answering technical questions about the video, and he wonders aloud how many other video-production projects have leaned on popular, easy-to-use gaming engines. (If you’re as unfamiliar with the concept, Ars Technica has previously covered Jon Favreau’s cutting-edge use of the Unreal Engine on the sets of films and TV series.) But for him, that lack of technical understanding is part of the point.

“I love that you can look around at this video like it’s a virtual concert,” Michener says (without mentioning how few of those we’ve enjoyed in the past 12 months). “I know that’s been a bit of a thing lately, but probably not on a small scale like this for a tiny indie band like Fishboy.” Indeed: only Michener and Beeson did any work on the video, with the singer praising Beeson’s ability to “pivot with my ideas.”

“I’ve seen a few other short films and demos done in Unity and Unreal, but my prediction is, it’s going to become more and more common,” Beeson adds.

Thanks to its intentional simplicity, “Greatness Waitress” likely won’t win traditional “music video” awards. But how many music videos can you think of that let you take control, live inside of a miniature concert, and view at whatever perspective you want? Right now, the answer is limited; even 360-degree and immersive-VR options for concerts and videos tend to plant viewers in specific seats, as opposed to Fishboy inviting viewers to hunt for secrets (and clip through geometry along the way). But dirt-cheap Unity and Unreal access will almost certainly change that reality as more artists and musicians come up with clever ways to replicate the real-world concert experience—and as a harbinger of interactive music fun to come, this project’s charming accessibility is indeed its “Greatness.”

Listing image by Eric Michener / Dann Beeson

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Ars’ plea: Someone make this into a series

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Enlarge / Vancouver Public Central Library. Libraries are where books sleep when you’re not reading them.

The past few years have seen an explosion in high-concept, high-budget adaptations for premium TV and streaming services, like The Expanse and Game of Thrones. Following in the footsteps of antecedents going back to the miniseries based on Roots, they’ve tackled material that’s too intricate and too sprawling to possibly squeeze into a movie-length work. At their best, these adaptations have done justice to the most challenging material.

All of which has left the Ars staff wanting more. If producers and networks are willing to put that much love into works we either weren’t familiar with or weren’t in love with, what might they manage with some really good material?

What started as a watercooler chitchat morphed into an article and has now blossomed into a series of short pleas/pitches—Hollywood, we’re all easy to reach. And we’re giving you, the reader, the chance to tell us how wrong we are or to come up with some suggestions of your own.

The Chronicles of Prydain (1964-1968) by Lloyd Alexander

This series, a loose retelling of stories from Welsh mythology, was absolutely formative for me and for countless other children in generations both preceding and following mine. Given how big fantasy has gotten since the turn of (this) century—and how many tween- and teen-friendly books have hit the big screen—I’m frankly shocked that nobody in the modern “prestige TV” era has taken a run at this childhood classic yet.

A young man, bored out of his head as an assistant pig-keeper, dreams of glory—despite all his elders’ warnings that “glory” really isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. One day, the pig in his care—who turns out to have a distinctly unusual skill set for a swine—escapes, and he chases her directly into the adventure of a lifetime.

Our hero, Taran, is immediately surrounded by a cast of characters who are both archetype and individual all in one. First he meets an old veteran prince, Gwydion, followed in short order by Gurgi, a woodland denizen who defies categorization. Later, he and we meet with Fflewddur Fflam, a bard who means well but has some trouble with the truth; Eilonwy, a self-rescuing princess who drags Taran along for her liberation; and Doli, a dwarf and member of the fair folk, among others.

The books follow Taran not only as he moves through events in the world, fighting a Manichean battle against the god of Death and his lieutenants, but also as he moves through the path to adulthood, learning that the world itself is in fact not so black-and-white as he once imagined. He finds in the end that the seeking must count more than the finding and the striving more than the gain; that you cannot judge the secret heart of another, where good and evil mix, but must instead judge someone by their deeds.

It is, in short, a powerful coming-of-age tale that also has some absolutely killer action sequences lurking in it along the way, teaching all the moral lessons of a Game of Thrones with a tiny fraction of the violence and 10 times as much compassion. The series tied together by a genuinely bittersweet ending that earns its triumphs without being cloying and its losses without leaning in to nihilism.

From a business end, it’s also got five full books’ worth of stories, told episodically, with room for more spinning of stories around the edge—the perfect competition to all those young adult trilogies that get adapted into films, or Warner Media’s unending and seemingly unkillable Harry Potter juggernaut.

Variety reported in 2016 that Disney had snapped up the rights to make a film-series adaptation—a decidedly mixed blessing, considering Disney was also behind the fairly execrable and utterly forgettable 1983 animated adaptation. But in five years, that project appears to have gone exactly nowhere. Why not hand it over to someone else—even the Disney+ streaming service, which has churned out phenomenal original TV—to take another try?

—Kate Cox, Tech Policy Reporter

Ancillary Justice (2013-2015) by Ann Leckie

I would love to see Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice series done for television—and done right. In Ancillary Justice, an incredibly powerful AI named Breq—designed to control a massive starship, along with an entire army of mind-wiped human bodies called Ancillaries—has become greatly diminished. With its ship destroyed, the AI has only a single human Ancillary body available for use—and only the processing power of that single human brain to think with.

Although reduced, Breq is still a force to be reckoned with—the Ancillary body, which once belonged to a human, was rebuilt from the ground up to serve as a superhumanly strong and fast high-tech soldier. But its enemy is Anaander Mianaai, the ruler of an entire civilization—and, Mianaai is not limited to a single body, having created hundreds of clones that have been melded into a disturbed hive mind.

The quest to get revenge on Mianaai necessarily leads Breq through a rich pageantry of “barbarian” civilizations and aliens, as well as Breq’s and Mianaai’s own Radchaai Empire—the cultural differences between the Radch and the “barbarians” made the original novels one of the most initially frustrating but ultimately rewarding reads I’ve ever experienced. The “barbarians” are basically what most readers would consider normal cultures, while the Radchaai are technologically and culturally transcendent enough to come across as alien to most.

In particular, the Radchaai find gender nearly irrelevant in any context outside reproduction. Their bodies are generally heavily modified both cosmetically and functionally for strength, speed, and long life. They use gender-neutral pronouns, and their fashions do not discriminate between male and female—so it’s not obvious what gender an individual Radch is in the first place. This outlook colors their encounters with foreign cultures, leaving them puzzled by the boorish and irrelevant (to them) focus that barbarians have on gendering everything.

A typical reader of the books will be massively frustrated by this at first, flipping pages back and forth trying to catch some hint as to whether each character is male or female, despite the Radchaai (and nonhuman) narrator’s obliviousness. Eventually, the worldview clicks and the reader, like the narrator, simply stops caring. While a television show wouldn’t be able to recreate the Radchaai’s indifference towards the gender of “barbarians,” it should be able to cast thoroughly androgynous actors for the Radchaai themselves.

Besides, I’d like to see a competitor in distant-future, altered-clone, body-independent weirdness to Netflix’s outstanding Altered Carbon.

—Jim Salter, Technology Reporter

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