Blogs Play the Access GameRobert MacMillan
Byline: Robert MacMillan
Running the guest list for the hottest show in town means that sometimes you have to deny access to some people. Otherwise it wouldn't be the hottest show in town anymore.
The center of the world today -- as far as "hot" is concerned -- is the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the video game industry's annual trade show. E3, as everyone calls it, is ground zero between now and Friday for unmitigated dealmaking and boasting from hardware and game developers, set against a backdrop of seizure-inducing flashing lights, video screens and general game mayhem. It is the chief meeting point for the movers in a $7.3 billion industry whose star seems to do nothing but rise.
For the video game fan, it's a vision more alluring than the prospect of two hours in a room alone with a copy of "Virtually Jenna." After all, E3 has first-person shooters AND sexy booth babes to entice passersby. Add some junk food, a few cocktails and a smattering of exclusive parties and it's enough to inspire visions of Halo 3...
But there's always a catch. While the organizers of the show don't include a specific proscription against bloggers, they limit media passes to journalists who work for established members of the mainstream media. That definition, as far as E3 is concerned, doesn't include blogs.
The Cohn & Wolfe PR team that runs media affairs at the expo was unable to make anyone from E3's parent, the Entertainment Software Association, (or anyone else for that matter) available for comment.
The idea, according to an anonymous source, is that E3 is one of those shows, the ones that are so popular that people are willing to do whatever they can to finagle their way in. Exhibitors, rock bands, developers, the press and all manner of other bigwigs mingle in a heady assortment that excludes the public. That predictably makes it all the more interesting for people who want to get a piece of the action. As a result, the PR folks must be stingy with the press passes to keep out the riff-raff.
A representative from the Cohn & Wolfe told me that bloggers who represent a legitimate business do stand a chance of getting in, as evidenced by Jason McCable Calacanis, chief executive of Weblogs Inc. Calacanis, who financed the 18-month-old company along with Dallas Mavericks owner and regular blogger Mark Cuban, said that blogs occupy distinct classes from disjointed mutterings to slick, professionally-run operations. The latter, he said, tend to be known to the industry folks who make the decisions about who crosses the velvet rope. Among them, as you might expect, are Engadget and Joystiq, both run by Weblogs.
"You have to be a real blog, not someone who created it last week to go to the event," he said.
Calacanis said that conference organizers do this as a filtering device rather than a wall. "I sympathize with them because every salesperson and PR person now has a blog. Those are the people who used to buy tickets to events," he said.
Some people don't buy that reasoning. Insisting on a business plan is not the best way to establish legitimacy, said Jay Rosen, a professor at New York University's Department of Journalism and one of the nation's preeminent blogging experts. "I'm part of the Media Bloggers Association, which is a loose network of bloggers. Just looking across the membership, which is several hundred at this point, most have not even started down that road."
"Filtering" isn't such an irrational idea from a logistics standpoint. E3 attracted 65,000 attendees in 2004, along with 4,000 reporters. Handling that many scribblers seeking exclusive access, free food, free computer time and, well, free everything-they-can-get-their-hands-on -- that can be tricky. Factor in the accompanying egos and the coddling required for some of the more highly self-regarded members of my profession and you can see why any flack worth his or her salt would want to keep us at bay.
It's particularly extreme at the most popular press conferences, said Ankarino Lara, director of Gamespot.com, a game publication run by CNET Networks Inc. "People want to get into the Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft press conferences," he said. "People would be willing to sell their firstborn."
Those conferences are where the big gamemakers debut hot, new products, each outdoing the other in an endless escalation during the past decade. Even before E3 officially kicked off, Nintendo debuted its Game Boy Micro at a crowded presser at the Kodak Theater on Tuesday. Sony, meanwhile, cut down on the space rental by using its own studio to show off the new PlayStation 3.
E3's organizers can't be expected to grant all-access passes to everyone who wrote a sentence in their life about video games and posted it on the Internet. But doesn't it seem strange that we can put a blogger in the White House and still have trouble getting one into a technology fair? Heck, even the Gray Lady herself is considering revenue-sharing agreements with bloggers.
To be fair, E3 isn't the only trade group that resorts to razor wire to keep out the unaccredited. The organizers of the North American International Auto Show held every January in Detroit is grappling with how to deal with bloggers as they make more aggressive bids for press passes.
"I didn't even know what a blogger was until last April," said Richard Genthe, co-chairman of the 2006 edition of the auto show and a Chevrolet dealer in Southgate, Mich. "It kind of passed me right by." He said that the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which owns the show, will review bloggers on a case-by-case basis and institute a more formalized system by the time it starts taking media registrations for the January event. "We're going to have to come to a much deeper understanding of the role they play," he said.
The auto show runs for two weeks, one of which offers full public access for $12 a pop. The problem is, gawkers want to show up at the first two days of the show, which are reserved for press. "A lot of the people will come out of the woodwork" to get face time with the muckety-mucks, she said. This is an even more difficult problem to deal with in Detroit, where more than 800,000 people tend to show up.
All this raises the question that's on a lot of media types' minds these days: Where do you draw the line between a journalist and a blogger? If bloggers check their sources, strive for accuracy, dot and cross the necessary letters and make sure someone reviews and changes the copy to read better, then are they just a freelance journalist with a hipper name? Who decides? Is it time for Cohn & Wolfe to drop the charade and let in Gwyneth Paltrow when she decides she wants to interview Bill Gates about the Xbox 360?
The Consumer Electronics Association faced this problem at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. Drawing more than 100,000 people and nearly 7,000 credentialed reporters to this year's CES, the CEA is well aware that blogs are taking their place in the mainstream online media pantheon. Where is anybody's guess, but the group is working with its members to come up with a blogger accreditation system, said spokeswoman Leah Arnold.
Sometimes pure persistence pays off. Amit Runchal, who blogs about games at damnedmachines.com, said he wrote several times to the E3 organizers after they failed to respond to his query for credentials. Eventually he got them and is now posting from the show.
And persistence, as anyone knows, is the good journalist's distinguishing characteristic.
E3 is without a doubt the runway on which the world's top three game console designers parade their new models. As someone who has written about the expo off and on since 1996 but is not a video game nut, it's difficult for me to keep straight who is debuting the new box, who is lowering the price to undercut the other and just who's involved. (The triumvirate used to be Nintendo, Sega and Sony, as many of you remember.)
The Wall Street Journal's three-man crack E3 squad -- Nick Wingfield, Rob Guth and Phred Dvorak -- provide a solid article in today's paper that breaks down exactly who is doing what to whom, where and when. Make sure to scroll toward the bottom of the story where a simple graphic lays out each console's selling point side by side.
People like to send me the e-mail message about how life would be if our cars ran on Microsoft's Windows operating system. Seems the old saw about life imitating art is coming true, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times: "The typical passenger car has 70 or more tiny but powerful computers onboard that control audio systems, air conditioning, brakes, air bags and other functions. And the systems are complex: Software for the average car can have more than 35 million lines of code, 100 times or more the code needed for a full-color, action- and sound-packed interactive computer game."
The article goes on to list a litany of bugs that have plagued the Toyota Prius, the Mazda RX-8, Mercedes-Benz's E-Class cars and BMWs with the iDrive joystick.
Speaking of transportation issues, give a hearty round of applause to Boston, whose transit authority made the big leap into paper technology. Now T riders are beginning to use "Charlie Tickets" instead of tokens, the Globe reported. (I'm not linking to the Kingston Trio anymore. Look them up with "Charlie" to get the story behind the name.)
New Hampshire, Massachusetts's neighbor to the north, is upgrading from tokens as well, but on its EZ-Pass system. Unfortunately for the Granite State, questions about how much subscribers will save are keeping the transponders in the warehouse. More from the Globe: "The Executive Council was to vote Wednesday on a proposal intended to get the automated highway toll system running by July 4, but Gov. John Lynch held it up. Lynch said he wants more financial information to make sure neither drivers nor the state lose out. ... Many drivers now use tokens, which are sold at a 50 percent discount, instead of cash at the state's toll booths. The council was ready to vote on giving E-ZPass users a 30 percent discount and getting rid of tokens." Ain't the 20th century grand?
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