Television, Addiction and Netflix

8 03 2013

I am always super suspicious when professional pundits draw sweeping conclusions based on their own personal experiences. I’ve heard tons of podcasts in which the panelists assume that their children’s Internet habits are those of every teenager, or that the way they navigate their web pages is the way that everyone does.

I doubt it. I truly truly doubt it. (Even though, truth be told, my blog posting will often fall into that trap)

The latest “We Know Eveything” topic is “binge viewing.”

House of Cards

Those of you who don’t have an addictive bone in your body might have missed out on the discussion about Netflix’s distribution of “House of Cards” – the 13-part series, based on the English drama about scheming politicians. Aside from the merits of the series (and there are many) the biggest news about the series is that Netflix released all of the episodes at one time, so you could theoretically have watched the entire series in one day.

And that’s what “binge viewing” is all about. (Even the New York Times has leapt into the fray, so you know that it’s official).

But, if I may be so two-faced as to make my own broad generalization, the focus on binge viewing misses the larger point.

As I’ve said before, many of us are in the process of creating our own networks — we don’t know when our television shows air because we watch them when we want to, either through DVRs or online. We aren’t as aware of what network they aired on because of syndication at search menus.

The point with Netflix isn’t so much that they made it possible to watch all of “House of Cards” in one day but that made it possible for us to choose to watch it in one day if we want to. My wife and I watched two episodes a night for a week. Others watched it all in a weekend. Still others watched it one a night over several weeks. It’s our choice. NBC can kiss their “Thursday evening comedy block” goodbye, because large segments of their audience don’t watch it on Thursday. We used to define “appointment tv” as shows that were so good that we made it our business to be in front of the television to watch them. Now it means something different — the shows make it their business to be in front of us when we want to watch them. The entire fallacy of the present network/advertiser model is that it’s based on grabbing eyeballs at defined times (which is why movie distributors used to run their ads on THursday nights, before Friday openings).

Sure, plenty of people still watch television that way, but an increasing number are creating their own personal networks, without regard to original network programming decisions.

So, the value of a Netflix/Hulu/etc. model is that it puts more options in our hands. Distribution models, like those of Roku, YouTube, and Apple TV, are acknowledging the trend lines established by DVRs. We want ubiquitous libraries of materials available when we want to view them, not doled out by intermediaries like the networks.

The true revolution isn’t going to be figuring out how to produce series that we will watch whenever and wherever we want. It’s going to be in figuring out how to pay for them, and at what level. It will be in discovering how to create shows that may be watched out of order, or over enormous spans of time. It will be in shaping stories that cannot count on the viewer spending six months waiting for a new season — with all of the attendant anticipation and fan activity.

In short, it’s about how those of us who produce and distribute entertainment can adapt to those of who watch it. Regardless of how my daughter watches it.

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Mass Media Goes New Media (and vice versa)

8 03 2012

It only took about five years, but the folks who program and distribute television are finally waking up to the idea that most of us don’t know or care what network our favorite programs are on. As I’ve said many times before, most of us use our PVR/DVRs/TiVo/TiVo-like boxes to select our programming not by network, but by name of program, time of day we want to watch, show cast or some other metadata that has nothing to do with the network that it’s on (I’d say that’s even true of HBO and other major pay cable networks). If it weren’t for that damned network logo usually annoyingly jumping away on the bottom right of the screen I’d hardly even remember what network the program was from.

The issue is further exacerbated by the fact that many of us are watching partial and whole programs online now. And while the networks would love to restrict our viewing to their own websites, that’s simply not the way that it’s happening anymore. More of us are watching whole seasons of shows way after they aired — on iTunes or Netflix, for instance.

(In fact, there’s a whole post that I could write about how the creators of episodic programming need to rethink their storytelling techniques, now that episodes are increasingly watched two or three at a time, rather than one a week.)

In yesterday’s New York Times, there’s an article by Bill Carter and Brian Stelter about how DVRs and streaming are changing how shows are rated. The article, which may be behind a paywall by now, depending on your relationship with the Times, makes the case that when these time shifting factors are taken into account, shows like “American Idol” lose their ratings dominance that they claim in the overnight ratings race.

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Update on March 10, 2012

After I wrote this article, I saw an article on Techopinions by Tim Bajarin , called Why the TV Industry is Vulnerable to Apple, in which he talks about the slow movement of the TV barons industry to accept what true video on demand really means. The piece dovetails nicely with this post.  Here is just one excerpt from this must-read piece.

But to be clear, while they are starting to embrace the Internet as a vehicle for distribution, they are doing so reluctantly. If they had their way, they would keep total control of this distribution for themselves and drive their viewers only to their dedicated sites for viewing their shows.

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This is no surprise to anyone under the age of 92, of course. Even my Mom timeshifts her daily dose of “Jeopardy” (though she does it with an amazing technology called VHS tape — which she still can buy and reuse, despite its alleged death). Yet, until recently, advertisers believed that viewers who watched shows later skipped through the commercials, making them useless. Over the years this attitude softened to credit viewers who watch shows slightly after their airdate. Advertisers and networks have agreed on a measurement called “C3″ which takes into account viewers who timeshift up to 3 days after a show’s initial airing under the theory that those viewers watch shows the way that live viewers do — top to bottom without skipping commercials. (Paul Lee, the president of ABC Entertainment, said ABC is able to “capture about 93 percent” of the value of the “Modern Family” audience with the C3 ratings, according to the Times article).

Viewers who watch a show a week, a month or years later — well, we didn’t deserve counting.

Read the rest of this entry »

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The Future of Television – Finally!

16 07 2009

Last week I ran a panel at the NATPE LATV Festival. NATPE, which is the National Association of Television Program Executives, describes itself as representing companies and people who are “involved in or wanting to become involved with the creation, development and distribution of television programming.” Along the way they promote discussion about television programming. And that’s what I was doing at the conference. Promoting Discussion. Hey, I’m all about talking (as anyone who knows me will sadly attest).

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Hey, unless I’m doing reality television, what the hell is there to talk about? Is there any television industry for me to create programming? And why should I care?”

Well, here’s why those of you who are in any part of the entertainment industry (or who would like to be) should care. The really interesting thing about the conference was just how aware the entire industry has finally becoming aware of the sea change. Of course, you’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to see the changes. There are editors who I know who haven’t worked in eight or nine months; some are looking to sell their houses to make ends meet, and nearly every single person I know now says that they are working “below their rate” (which means, working for less money than they used to and waaaay less than they’d like to). And those changes are going to irrevocably affect how we all make and distribute our media.

The overall takeaway I got from the panels I visited and the one that I ran (“Animation: The Web Levels the Playing Field” with Chuck Williams, Producer, Walt Disney Animation Studios;  Allen DeBevoise, CEO, Machinima.com;  Uri Shinar, CEO & Founder, Aniboom;  Lifeng Wang, President, Xing Xing Digital Corp.) was that the television industry is changing mightily and those of us who can’t accept that change are totally hosed. That’s what I twittered after the conference.

I know, I know. But it’s interesting that this was coming from the real players in the industry.

There was much discussion about the collapse of the syndication market and the precipitous drop in ad revenue. The combination of these two things — the foundations of how this content gets paid for — means that content can’t be produced at the same level as before because it can’t be sold for as much money as before. There was plenty of discussion about the change in the broadcast model — 22 episode orders for (essentially) two network runs of a show, running primarily on broadcast with some nod to web streaming models like Hulu.

There was some discussion about how the web is beginning to suck away some of the ad revenue as well as some of the distribution, but the general consensus is that there’s no real money on the web yet — at least not at the levels that the Big Boys are used to. Uri Shinar, who runs Aniboom, said on my panel that he has to look at moving into traditional media to supplement his online, crowd sourcing method of distribution. Chuck Williams, who is directing at Disney Animation, said that they are approaching the dual distribution mode from the other direction — spreading into online to keep their franchises alive during the years in between theatrical releases.

The web is an established tool and it is growing in importance, the players agree. But there are still many people who don’t get it. For those of you who believe that you’ll be able to work below-the-line as you always have been (one show at a time, for a very good wage, guaranteed for 22 episodes a season), well you might as well line up at the state unemployment office now. Shows that once shot for eight days will move to six or fewer, episode orders will shrink to ten or so episodes with the possibility of renewals. That means that our contracts as editors won’t guarantee us more than two or three months of work.

We’re going to working on more things (sometimes simultaneously), for less money, than before. And that’s actually going to be exciting and dynamic. We need to embrace that reality.

Paradoxically, this means that those of you who are now graduating from college, with a decent skill set and some work behind you, are really going to be in a much better place than Old Farts (Disclaimer: I Am An Old Fart of a type), who have kids and mortgages and big car payments. We won’t be agile enough to catch the wave. More likely, we’re going to be buried under it.

Someone responded to my tweet about the conference with another one that “They’re five years behind.” That’s true. There are some people who began establishing a base in online programming years ago. They were greeted with jeers: “There’s no money in that.” Even today, people who are all about following the money will challenge us with the accurate claim that very few people have figured out how to make money on the Web with content or programming.

But those days are fast going away. The cable/phone company’s Four Play strategies (in which they will sell you a phone, your television programming, your wireless and your internet/data all through the same pipe) are moving your computer screen into your living room. The recent court decision to allow Cablevision to keep remotely storing viewers shows on their servers rather than our DVR boxes, will only accelerate that move. Within a few years, it won’t matter where we decide to watch our shows — on a large television screen, on our computer monitors, on our cel phones, or on a screen built into our refrigerators. The future of the Apple TV is finally here.

This means that there will be a million channels out there to fill with programming. No, make that an “unlimited number of channels.” There is always the danger proclaimed by Bruce Springsteen (“57 Channels and Nothin’ On“) but that depends more on who’s watching than who’s programming. As companies like Revision 3 show (check out their very cool Film Riot, a how-to-make cheap VFX show with Ryan Connolly), the real future is going to be creating much much cheaper content for a much smaller niche market.

If you guys want to have a future in the film world of the future — you should figure out how to do that. Then you’ll be way ahead of the professional Television Programming Executives and maybe be able to set your own agenda.

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iPhones, Sundance and the Loss of Rabbit Ears

28 01 2009

One thing that seemed to be epidemic at Sundance this year was not the famous Sundance cough, but the iPhone cough.

This isn’t really an earthshaking technology point I’m making here (and those of you looking for trenchant analysis can skip down a paragraph or two), but for the first day or two up at Sundance, when thousands of Cool-Groovy-Industry-Types flooded Park City, iPhone 3G service came crashing down.  People with the original iPhones could get service — phone and data — but the rest of us had trouble getting phone signals and had horribly erratic, mostly non-existent, data/web access.  Blackberrys weren’t affected. Neither were old crappy AT&T phones.

I guess it took AT&T a day or two to get additional cel sites up and running, and the problem eventually was solved.  But this technological hiccup once again raises the point about adoption of broadband into areas that aren’t early adopters.

We all know that a large percentage of the American population still watches television over rabbit ears (6.5 million homes) and that moving some people off of dial-up is a painful process (a recent article in Ars Technica says that 19 percent of dial-up users say that “nothing” would get them to upgrade, not even lower prices) . Yet these are exactly the audiences who watch large amounts of television. That’s why we’ve seen Comcast give free cable to these households — you can’t leave that audience behind (too many advertisting-ready households), even if they see no reason to jump ahead.

Yet, at a recent get-together, I was talking with some friends about the various web video sites and what each one offers.  One of the people there made the point that no one is making any money off of video on the web — especially User Generated Content. And he is probably rights about that and it’s that reality, compounded by the large number of people who don’t know or can’t be bothered to make the switch to digital television, that will ultimately make it much harder to attain the much vaulted web-based delivery of media.

I like plugging my computer into my television and watching high quality shows from Hulu (when my DVR refused to record the second night’s worth of 24 it was no big deal — since it was on that web site the next day). I regularly download and pay for shows from the iTunes store. It’s easy and fits within my budget (the day when teachers pay moves into the area when we can actually afford to live in Los Angeles doesn’t look in sight right now). Many people, like Daisy Whitney, have dropped their cable altogether and watch everything from the Web. But the advertising is never going to come over to sites like Hulu en masse until the rabbit-ears people do.

So, how do we get that to happen?

I have to admit, I’ve got nothing when it comes to that. But it isn’t going to happen until the experience feels like our “real” televisions. That means we’re going to have to be able to switch on our Apple-TV’s and not wait at all for the program to start. We’re going to have to watch without stopping for “buffering.” And it’s going to have to be as easy as turning to a channel and hitting the POWER button. (My wife still complains about all of the remotes we’ve got lying around the house.) When all of that happens, then Mom and Grandpa might move over to Daisy Whitney’s virtual television neighborhood.

I’m not suggesting that everyone out there is going to switch to iPhones and that every town needs to figure out how to get themselves out of the Park City Problem. But I’m close.  If we want to get to the goal of ubiquitous broadband the way Ken Rutkowski talks about South Korea or Alex Lindsay talks about Japan, we’re going to have to have better wireless, better wired, and better experiences than I did in Sundance.

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Online Television Reaches The Mainstream

2 09 2008

Gemini Division (image courtesy of newteevee.com)

Gemini Division (image courtesy of newteevee.com)

When I was growing up, long ago in the dark ages (read the 1970s) there was one thing that we could always rely on. When the mainstream media, usually Time or Newsweek magazines, had an article on a rising trend, it was always dead by about a year. The media was always a year or two behind, and by the time their editors figured out what was “hip” and could safely be reported on, it was time for the rest of us to move on.

I remember reading an article about “youth speak” which purportedly described the “lingo” that we “younger generation” actually talked in.  The article got passed around at school, usually at parties when we could bearly see straight and needed something to laugh at. No one, of course, had ever heard of most of the “hip lingo” and those terms that were vaguely familiar had been dumped years ago.

And this was before the Internet.

So, it is with a major grain of salt that I bring up an article in today’s New York Times by Mike Hale entitled “Television Keeps a Hand in the Online Game With Serialized Shows“. In it, Hale talks about several shows that the mainstream media is producing in an attempt to get viewership on the web. Shows such as “Gemini Division” the Rosario Dawson starring vehicle that seems to have learned none of the real lessons of lonelygirl15, and presents its form without its content.  A few weeks ago, Virginia Heffernan, in the Times’ Sunday Magazine attempted to compare the failure of many web serials to television and radio shows like “The Shadow” and “24″, somewhat missing the point. In one section of the article, entitled “Serial Killers” she says:

Time will tell, but right now Web serials — no matter how revealing, provocative or moving — seem to be a misstep in the evolution of online video. Introduced with fanfare again and again only to miss big viewerships, shows like “Satacracy 88” and “Cataclysmo” have emerged as the slow, conservative, overpriced cousins to the wildly Web-friendly “viral videos” that also arrived around 2005, when bandwidth-happy Web users began to circulate scrap video and comedy clips as if they were chain letters or strep. Top virals — “I Got a Crush . . . on Obama,” “Don’t Tase Me, Bro!” “Chocolate Rain” — never plod. They come off like brush fires, outbursts, accidents, flashes of sudden unmistakable truth.

Now, I’ve written about Internet memes several times already, so I like pontificating on the subject as much as Heffernan does, but she doesn’t seem to get the difference between web serials and memes. To compare a series like “Satacracy 88″ to “Chocolate Rain” is about as misguided as comparing the Ed Sullivan Show to a Beatles concert (to keep the 60s/70s thing going).

Still, both Hale and Heffernan score a few points as they talk about how nobody seems to know what to do with web video. Talking about the web series “Steven King’s N.” (which comes from King’s publisher and is meant to attract interest in King’s new short story collection, coming this fall). Hale says:

What “N.” really demonstrates is that the Internet could use more Stephen King. The story, involving therapy, obsessive-compulsive disorder and an evil presence trapped in a New England field, is C-grade King. (It was adapted for the serial by Marc Guggenheim, a creator of “Eli Stone.”) But it still has enough narrative pull to drag you from snippet to snippet, even when there’s less than a minute of new material.

The emphasis on the word “narrative” is mine, and completely shows my point of view.  I create content and firmly believe that you cannot divorce story from the economic equation of what will work for audiences.

What is interesting about these shows is not the content themselves, but the advertising and business model behind them.  Frankly, I almost gave up on Gemini Division because it seemed so-much watered down network television.  It’s bad cinema — with too much narration and not enough visuals. There has been a lot of discussion in content creation circles about just what the new rules of content should be — are wider shots not viewable on mobile phones?  Is faster cutting too much for the compression and bandwidth? Are three minute episodes too long?  How long should the pre-rolls be? NBC is, obviously, still experimenting.

The results — if Gemini is to be believed — are to take properties destined for wider distribution, create cheap pilots for them (as opposed to the standard dictum, which is to spend loads more time and money on the pilot than they’ll ever be able to put into the actual pattern budgets of the shows) and flush them out on the web.  Looking at lonelygirl15 without understanding the mindset behind it, leads to static “talk to the webcam/phone” shows which might as well be radio. They’re copying form here, not content.

The King series is more interesting — it is a trailer for the book, in some ways.  An expansion of the market outwards, rather than a contraction simply as a pilot.

I’m far more interested in web series like “Drawn By Pain” and “Satacracy88” which focus on a single character in bite-sized bits, but present those bits in interesting, cinematic ways (even if the cinema is on a small screen). I can watch these series on my iPhone without losing anything, largely because they don’t talk down to me. There is a real arc of character in their episodes, other characters that don’t seem paper thin, and plenty of story places for the audience to explore. It’s not handed out in prescribed dosages. It also helps that they work in genres that lend themselves to introspection and, therefore, storytelling closeups.

So, what are the major companies doing in my opinion? When I worked over at Universal Music Group, I remember an exec there saying that since no one knew anything about the web, they would just keep throwing ideas against a wall to see what stuck. That’s not a terrible strategy, I suppose. It’s the sibling of the strategy of buying every company you can find/afford and seeing which ones survive. The basic problem is that the MET space needs a combination of technologists with ideas, entrepreneurs with commitment, and artists with energy and passion and stories that they need to tell.

Simply putting Rosario Dawson in front of a camera, plastering Microsoft and Cisco logos all over the place to spread the financial exposure around, isn’t a real content strategy.  It’s more of a safe business strategy, one in which no one is going to win in the long run. It also violates everything we know about storytelling, especially in bite-sized pieces.  We know that we need to grab them early with your concept, not slowly. We need to suck them in with something interesting, not voice-over dialogue that happens to be spoken on camera.

They’ll keep trying.  They’ve got the money for it and that will certainly help (the Steven King series benefited from money, along with an interesting idea, though I lost interest after a few episodes because of its stilted format).  But, right now, the more interesting work is still being done in the independent, unsupported market.  I can’t wait for the two sides to meet.

Phew, I didn’t mean to go on for that long. Remind me to tell you about what Cisco is doing on our campus here to develop their own content.

[TRUTH IN ADVERTISING DEPARTMENT: My upcoming book, THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, uses both "Drawn By Pain" and "Satacracy 88" as examples and I've contacted both filmmakers about that usage. So, I guess you can say that I "know" them, in a 21st Century, Webby kind of way. But I'm using both series here for the same reason I used them in the book -- I think they're great examples of the form.]

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Marshall Herskovitz talks about “Quarterlife”

12 06 2008

For those of you who’ve been watching Big Time Movies instead, let me explain what Quarterlife is/was. Producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick created an Internet-only, self-referential series about a group of twenty-somethings who hang out and get crazy when one of them starts keeping a video blog on a website called “quarterlife.”

The series did well enough on YouTube that NBC phoned up the two producers. They knew their phone number because they had previously teamed on such mainstream television shows as “thirtysomething,” and “My So-Called Life.” So they weren’t exactly unknowns. Anyway, the show went on. They called it “Quarterlife” (no sense in screwing up a good thing, right?) and it lasted exactly one episode. And now Herskovitz talks about the process and what he’s learned in a long interview on Debra Kaufman’s new but increasingly valuable blog mobilized.tv. (As an aside, Debra is a journalist with years of experience in publications like The Hollywood Reporter, TV Week, Film & Video, Editor’s Guild
Magazine, Wired,
The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and American Cinematographer.)

When the show tanked there were tons of think pieces about how Internet content couldn’t move into mainstream media. Which, to me, sorta missed the point. Nobody ever said that Internet entertainment was the equivalent of mainstream entertainment. The translation from one to another isn’t just as simple as adding 19 minutes of running time. There is no real equivalent to the Numa Numa guy on network television, and there’s no real equivalent to the complexity of “Lost” on the Internet. There are some mobisode series that are interesting and plot-detailed, but the very nature of watching for three to five minutes and then going away for a week or two or three makes the type of twisted plot and timelines very hard to do. Lost actually has a pretty interesting web presence but it comes from doing added and different types of content, rather than trying to replicate their winning television formula.

And that’s the real thing that Quarterlife teaches us. Translation isn’t what new media platforms are all about. Addition is what makes sense. There are a lot of different types of screens out there. We need to take advantage of each in their own ways.

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David Duchovny Gives Editors Ultimate Power

12 06 2008

David Duchovny, from thetvaddict.comIn yesterday’s Hollywood Reporter, there was a roundtable of Emmy-winning and potentially Emmy-nominated actors (deadline for Emmy nomination ballots is in about a month, and the trades are both publishing many articles pertinent to the process as well as reaping beaucoup bucks from For Your Consideration ads).  The discussion, which was actually pretty interesting (and you can read at the Hollywood Reporter website), included Ted Danson (FX’s “Damages”), Alec Baldwin (NBC’s “30 Rock”), David Duchovny (Showtime’s “Californication”), Blair Underwood (HBO’s “In Treatment” and ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money”), Mark Harmon (CBS’ “NCIS”), David Spade (CBS’ “Rules of Engagement”), Neil Patrick Harris (CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother”), Bryan Cranston (AMC’s “Breaking Bad”) and Rainn Wilson (NBC’s “The Office”).

The discussion, at one point, veered off into talking about whether the divide between television and feature acting is breaking down. Spade talked about going where the good scripts are, Baldwin talked about the immediacy of the acting process in television (“a movie really is about sitting around”), Wilson talked very intelligently about the audience’s investment in watching a film and how television doesn’t require so much of their attention on character arcs.

Duchovny finished that part of the discussion with the following:

Duchovny: Ultimately, I think film becomes an editor’s medium. You give them 15 takes and then release control over it. On TV, the actor really has more control over the whole process.

Wow. I’m rocked on so many levels by this.  First of all, it’s nice to see that someone who has produced, written and directed as well as acted, is aware of the importance and power of editing. It’s also interesting to see that he feels that the actor has more control over the process in television.  Surely, the secondary characters in THE X FILES and even every other actor in CALIFORNICATION (a great series in which Duchovny’s “control” may come more from his executive producer role) might disagree with him.

But the innate point that he is making is really quite fascinating — that from the point of view of the actor — television elevates the actor’s involvement above what they would normally have in a film.

Now, I’m not sure that I agree with him on this. The stories, for instance, of Edward Norton’s involvement in the upcoming HULK and on AMERICAN HISTORY X are legendary by now and any star of significant power is going to be involved in the editing process, if only through intense notes with the director, producer or studio.

But the interesting point that Duchovny raises is whether, from the actor’s point of view, having too many takes of a performance removes that actor’s ability to shape a performance.

I’m actually going to be discussing this point in more detail in my book, THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT (Peachpit Press), so you’ll have to wait until the end of the year to see how I figure this all out. But I have to say that, on balance, I agree with him in the hands of a mediocre or bad director or producer/showrunner. The point is to put everyone on the same page, so that the actor’s performance works within the context of every other creative art on the film. Improvisation has a great part in filmmaking. Editing is all about shaping a story from a multitude of choices.

I’ve seen both students and professional directors be stymied by too many disparate choices. Sometimes that comes from basic indecisiveness as a personal trait. But more often than not, it stems from being unsure about the kind of film that they wanted to make.

More about this in November/December (you can keep track of the progress of my book by looking at the Lean Forward tab on this blog).

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