If you’re looking for 15-second sound bites to summarize complex world issues for you, Austin Bay’s Arena Academy is not the place to go. And if your tastes run to hundred-page, statistics-packed policy papers describing every facet of a problem in excruciating detail, it is not the place to go either. The Arena seems specially designed to fill the niche between the airhead coverage TV provides and the tedious egghead coverage of professional policy analysts. Arena Academy’s pilot offering, a 22-minute video which examines seven scenarios that could follow a rapid U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, illustrates an attempt to provide comprehensive information while remaining in a popular format.
Anyone can view the pilot by clicking on the “guest login” hyperlink on the main page. The Iraq episode looks familiar enough. It starts in a simulated network newsroom setting where Austin Bay proceeds to walk the reader through a comprehensive examination of what could happen if U.S. troops were brought back before full stability has been achieved in Iraq. The presentation gives a short history of Iraq, recounts the events leading up to the invasion in 2003, provides a thumbnail of the various phases of combat to date, and finally looks at each of seven scenarios following a rapid American military withdrawal. With a quality soundtrack and Austin Bay appearing to be “on-location” in several scenes, it looks indistinguishable from any professionally produced television documentary.
But what’s different about the Arena is that the episode runs in two synchronized windows. While the left pane plays the video, with normal controls for pausing, skipping ahead or back a chapter, etc., on the right pane there is a large, synchronized PowerPoint-style slide show with live links. This synchronization means viewers can pause the video at any time and examine the slides, including their accompanying hyperlinks, at their leisure. And underneath the video screen is a navigation pane with an outline tree of the entire episode, which is also synced with the presentation. These technical innovations mean the viewer not only can navigate at will around the presentation, but tarry in places when they want to explore the issue in greater detail. Finally, there’s a feedback feature tucked into the lower corner of the right-hand pane so that you can send questions or feedback to Austin Bay.
The technological benefits of the format are immediate. For example, it is possible to cut and paste any part of the outline tree into a document, as I will do below. Rather than listening to a video with a pad in your lap, ear cocked forward, and a finger shifting between the play and rewind buttons, it is possible to extract the main points of the presentation directly. Cut and paste.
Scenario 1: Three New Countries — Kurdistan in the north becomes an independent state; southern Iraq becomes a Shia state; and Anbar province becomes Iraqi Sunnistan.
Scenario 2: Regional Sunni-Shia War — Iran extends its border into the economically productive regions of southern Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait immediately react as Jordan and Egypt prepare for action.
Scenario 3: Turkey Expands — Turkey reclaims control of territory all the way to Kirkuk, creating a new Southern Turkey: The Ottoman Empire once controlled Mesopotamia.
Scenario 4: Shia Dictatorship — Shia Arabs conduct an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Sunni. They create a condominium state with the Kurds. Iranian influence increases.
Scenario 5: Chaos — The region becomes a cauldron. Iran and Turkey exert “regional influence.” Local warlords rule by fear as al-Qaeda builds training camps for Middle East and European operations.
Scenario 6: The “Gang Up” — The Shia and Kurds, who are now over 80 percent of the population, decide to eliminate their main enemy, and the source of most of the terrorism — the Sunni community.
Scenario 7: The Iraqi Government Holds — Iraq’s new democratic government is just responsive enough and its security forces are just strong enough to withstand attacks by extremists and give Iran pause.
The software used to assemble the presentation is called Knowledge Publisher and describes itself as a solution that “enables a non-technical producer to simply and quickly assemble and upload video, audio, PowerPoint slides, photos, Flash simulations, with test and polling questions into a common user interface creating an engaging synchronized show.” It is nothing special in itself. But combined with the expertise of Bay, whose long career as an Army officer, Iraq veteran, columnist, and academician makes him better qualified to discuss issues like Iraq than any ordinary media figure, the result can be extraordinary. Austin Bay’s Arena Academy pilot on Iraq proves it is possible to create a product with most of the slickness of a television documentary combined with much of the thoroughness of an academic presentation. Most viewers will not only come away convinced that Scenario 7: The Iraqi Government Holds is the best outcome, but more importantly be able to explain why and trace out the logic underpinning their conclusion.
For many decades television networks held an insurmountable presentational advantage over real experts. Television producers became masters at boiling down complex issues into short segments combining selected phrases with arresting images and, where necessary, a compelling soundtrack. This transformed the sound bite into a mental convenience food so easily marketed to the public that junk news became a staple diet of millions. And like its food analogue, the consumers of junk news forever felt full without the benefit of being nourished. With the advent of the Internet and the arrival of sophisticated production software, experts could close the gap in presentation value to a significant degree. Today real experts can produce intellectual products that are not only nourishing, but tasty as well.
But the primary impact of the tools behind Austin Bay’s Arena Academy may be not on television, but academia. They allow an enterprising subject expert to compete directly with the MSM for a mass market. They allow a professor to redefine the boundaries of his classroom.
The Internet, through the blogs, has already made it possible for Michael Yon, a person without the normal journalistic credentials, to become a recognized expert on Iraq and write a book that is now at the top of the Amazon charts — to become an author in the mass market. Austin Bay’s Arena Academy is a preview of the new products that can be created in the age of the New Media. His pilot episode on the seven scenarios that could follow a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq should be viewed by every presidential candidate with the same degree of interest they might accord to some network news flagship product. And why not? Bay’s product is better than the networks in most measurable ways.