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Two Innovations: One Actually Helps People:

One of the silver linings of hard economic times can be an uptick in innovation. I suppose you could say that the WPA was an innovation coming out of the Depression, and its legacy is that programs like it are being openly discussed again. Last week there were two bits of news that represented different dimensions of American innovation during hard times. One of the ideas will, in fact, help people. And while it might not be fair, I guess I’m compelled to present the good idea first.

Peter Samuelson is a film producer who then became a philanthropist after success with his movies. He’s interested in improving the plight of the homeless, and so he looked at the costs of building brick and mortar shelters. But the funding required for such facilities, broken down to cost per bed, is daunting, and the problem is further exacerbated by the fact that many in the homeless population resist services and changing their vagabond patterns. So Samuelson underwrote a design contest that resulted in a contraption called an EDAR, short for “Everyone Deserves a Roof.” (It’s also a terrific sentiment for the holidays.)

The EDAR is, in fact, a mobile apparatus that folds up like a shopping cart and has bins for storing the recyclable cans and bottles that many homeless use as a resource. Then at night, the EDAR unfolds into a kind of roofed sleeping tube resembling a one-person tent of the sort mountaineers use. A user has a level of privacy, the units are sturdy, and they don’t leak in rain. Quite simply, with enough of them out there no one would have to sleep without a roof. 60 of the units have been distributed for testing.

Okay, so there’s an example of thinking and design that brings an answer to what may sadly be a growing problem in tough economic times. Now here’s another: NBC, in looking at its sinking fortunes, has decided to run Jay Leno in a talk format at 10 p.m., five nights a week. Leno will likely fill those five 10 p.m. hours with the plugging of movies and CD’s and books that is the province of all talk shows, and with the wide-spray comedy and country music that is the particular focus of The Tonight Show. That’s what we’ll get in place of one-hour, adult-level, scripted shows that have production values and acting and interesting ideas in them.

The “Carpet-Bomb with Leno” concept makes sense on paper, especially graph paper. Networks claim that one hour of a dramatic series can cost as much as $2 million. Leno can easily manufacture a week of talk TV hours for less than that, pointing to an immediate return of something like $8 million dollars a week. NBC can also squeeze all the promo it wants for other content on NBC and its related cable channels into the new 10 p.m. Leno show. While all of talk TV is admittedly built from promotional guest bookings, the moment where Leno cuts away from interviewing the cast of “My Name is Earl” to say, “And now we have some commercials” will represent a well-defined 21st century nadir in what used to be called “prime time television.”

None of this is exactly late-breaking news, and those who barely watch TV anymore or use their TV gear mostly as a jukebox for DVD’s will rightly say, “So what?” Well, can we at least feel bad about how there’s a box in every home in America that delivers pictures and sound… and there’s continually less and less worthwhile content delivered on it? Leno at 10 p.m. may just be Latin for “free content is dead.” And if so, the erosion of so-called “free” television means that those with resources will have access to information and content, and those that can’t will – well, for now, they’ll watch Jay present typographical “Headline” errors as though they were nuggets of comedy gold.

Then there’s this: NBC surely had meetings where they wrestled with all the vagaries of their programming problems. And then somebody pitched, “Hey, why are we working so hard? Let’s just take what’s already going over and pretend its prime time content!” That kind of lassitude on the part of corporate America to take care of business strikes one as the antithesis of the current “Yes, we can!” shoulder-to-the-wheel-optimism. Especially when it’s not the steel or auto industry, but picking out TV shows.

Peter Samuelson’s reaction to tough times is to pursue new innovation so that human beings don’t have to sleep in cardboard boxes on the streets of our nation. NBC’s is to exalt old concepts that demonstrate excellence and success in but one narrow area: their cheapness. And then to call that effort, as Co-Chairman of NBC Entertainment Marc Graboff did last week, “more innovative.” Perhaps there’s yet another silver lining in the economic downturn, which is that we’re going to develop a refined sense of exactly what constitutes a good idea.

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