April 15, 2021

One Last Cringe for ‘The Office’ Finale

Not the actual documentary about the Dunder-Mifflin paper company of Scranton, Pa., that a fictional camera crew shot for what turned out to be nine years, he decided — but a reunion show, in the fashion of the post-competition cast rehashes familiar from reality shows like “Survivor.”

“At one point I actually approached Jeff Probst,” the host of “Survivor,” Mr. Daniels whispered as the big reunion scene unfolded here in the auditorium of an ATT office building. Standing in for the Scranton cultural center, it was one of many locations for the ambitious one-hour finale, to be shown on May 16 on NBC.

Onstage at the reunion were most of the prominent characters — minus the biggest one, Steve Carell’s Michael Scott — arrayed in a long arc of folding chairs. They were answering questions about how the documentary, supposedly recently presented on Scranton’s PBS affiliate, had changed their (fictional) lives.

Why PBS? “I tried to think what outlet would shoot something like this and take nine years to do it,” Mr. Daniels said.

That idea is almost as improbable as the notion that a comedy adapted from a British sitcom and initially poised for oblivion (after NBC’s screening of the pilot, it was headed for exile on Bravo, one executive related) would become a bellwether of many of the changes that have overtaken television today.

As the anchor of NBC’s once-heralded Thursday-night lineup, it played a role in pioneering alternative entertainment forms like TV offerings on iTunes and Webisodes on the Internet. It helped executives recognize the value of delayed viewing. Equally important, it opened broadcast television to a new concept in humor: the sitcom that makes you uncomfortable.

The Office,” never qualified as a blockbuster hit (though it attracted one of the most affluent audiences in television). Yet it clearly paved the way for a style of filmed comedy — smart, multilayered and subtle, sometimes so much so that a portion of viewers never understood its humor. The genre has since been embodied by other highly regarded comedies like “30 Rock,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Community” and “The Mindy Project” (starring an “Office” graduate, Mindy Kaling).

The show also had striking worldwide appeal. The original British version, starring Ricky Gervais, has been copied in places as disparate as Chile and France, proving that office life under a bumptious boss is apparently universal. “ ‘The Office’ was like a high-wire act,” said Ken Kwapis, the show’s first and last director. He cited, among other things, the absence of a laugh track, the exclusion of any kind of background music and a completely untraditional filming style.

“Some of the things most compelling about the show aren’t even funny,” Mr. Kwapis said. “But they make you cringe. Now I go to pitch meetings where executives say, ‘I want that cringe-worthy comedy.’ ”

That any of this happened is mind-boggling for almost everyone who was involved at the show’s inception, beginning with Ben Silverman, the executive producer (and later, head of NBC’s entertainment division), who chased Mr. Gervais all over London to secure the American rights. “What was required to get this show on was almost herculean,” Mr. Silverman said.

The NBC chief executive at the time, Jeff Zucker, had proclaimed that no single-camera comedy could ever be a hit show. (Single-camera shows are shot on sets and locations and feel like movies; three-camera comedies like “The Big Bang Theory” are shot on stages in front of audiences and feel like theater.) Mr. Zucker was not an initial fan of NBC’s version of “The Office,” and he wasn’t alone. “A lot of people didn’t get it,” Mr. Daniels said.

John Krasinski, who memorably inhabited the show’s male romantic lead, Jim, recalled that during the shooting of the first six episodes, a network executive would show up every Friday and say, “This episode is so good — unfortunately, it’s the last one we’re going to do.”

Expectations among critics were also low because the British version, created by Mr. Gervais and Stephen Merchant, had been deemed an instant classic, and NBC had misfired two seasons earlier in a remake of the British comedy “Coupling.” Mr. Daniels recalled watching the British “Office,” with its ironic tone, and thinking, “Oh my God, how did they pull this off?”A breakthrough came when Mr. Daniels realized that between Americans’ newborn fascination with reality shows and their growing habit of recording even mundane events in their own daily lives, “being in front of a camera and talking to a camera became a most relatable experience.”

The idea of allowing characters to speak directly to the camera, another device straight out of “Survivor,” also opened up possibilities, Mr. Daniels said, because “you can tell stories in a first-person point of view.” That technique is now commonplace on shows like “Modern Family” and countless commercials.

With his own experience in the reality genre, Mr. Silverman reached out to camera operators with reality-television credits to film the pilot. To direct, Mr. Daniels hired Mr. Kwapis, who had cut his teeth on observational single-camera comedies like “Freaks and Geeks,” and especially “The Larry Sanders Show.” And Mr. Kwapis brought in Peter Smokler, who had worked on the beloved mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap,” as director of photography.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 1, 2013

An earlier version of this article misstated after which season Steve Carell left “The Office.” It was after Season 7, not 5.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/05/arts/television/the-office-finale.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

DealBook: JPMorgan Shows Strength in Quarter

Jamie Dimon, the chief of JPMorgan Chase, at a Senate panel last year.Larry Downing/ReutersJamie Dimon, the chief of JPMorgan Chase, at a Senate panel last year.

JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest bank, reported a 33 percent rise in first-quarter earnings on Friday, bolstered by gains in the investment banking business and a surge in mortgage lending.

“All our businesses had strong performance, and our client franchises did exceptionally well,” Jamie Dimon, the bank’s chief executive, said in a statement.

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As the economy recovers slowly, demand for loans remained stagnant. JPMorgan said total loans at the bank fell 1 percent. Yet gains from investment banking allowed JPMorgan to record 12 consecutive quarters of profit.

Within the investment banking unit, assets grew by 8 percent to $19.3 trillion for the first quarter. Fees rose 4 percent, to $1.4 billion.

The net earnings of $6.5 billion, or $1.59 a share, exceeded Wall Street analysts’ expectations of $5.41 billion, or $1.40 a share. Revenue was $25.8 billion, compared with $26.8 billion in the same period a year earlier.

The report kicked off the bank earnings season. As the nation’s largest bank by assets, JPMorgan is often looked at as a bellwether.

A bright spot for JPMorgan’s earnings was mortgage lending, fueled in part by federal programs that have helped damp interest rates. Those low rates have prompted homeowners to refinance. In total, the mortgage banking group posted a profit of $673 million for the first quarter, down 31 percent from a year earlier.

Mortgage originations rose 37 percent in the quarter, to $52.7 billion. Still, application volumes were down, 1 percent from a year earlier, settling in at $60.5 billion. Appetite for loans was dampened, the bank said, by an uptick in interest rates earlier this year.

“We are seeing positive signs that the economy is healthy and getting stronger,” Mr. Dimon said. “Housing prices continued to improve, and new home purchases are also starting to come back.

The bank’s credit card business also improved, with sales volume rising to $94.7 billion, an increase of 9 percent from the same quarter a year earlier, but down 7 percent from last quarter. Auto lending also grew by 12 percent from a year earlier to $6.5 billion.

The results point to some of the larger challenges facing the nation’s biggest banks. As low interest rates continue to undercut profits, banks like JPMorgan are under pressure to cut expenses.

JPMorgan said on Friday that its total head count continued to fall, reaching 255,898. Non-interest expenses plummeted by 16 percent to $15.42 billion from a year earlier.

The bank has pinned some of its hopes for future profitability on its asset management business, as profits from riskier businesses like trading get undercut by a spate of new regulation. The asset management business reported net income of $487 million for the quarter, up 26 percent from a year earlier.

JPMorgan continued to gain business in private banking, accumulating $2.2 trillion in assets under management, up 8 percent from a year earlier.

Some of the strength in earnings, however, were helped by JPMorgan’s decision to reduce reserves for mortgages and credit-card loans. By moving money from the reserves, which cushion the bank against potential loses, the bank got a net 18 cent gain a share.

Addressing questions on Friday about whether the earnings are deceptively strong, Mr. Dimon said in a conference call that even after the reserve reductions, “we had really good numbers everywhere.”

Another quarter of earnings offers JPMorgan another chance to move beyond the multibillion-dollar trading loss that has dogged the bank. During the bank’s quarterly earnings call in January, for example, Mr. Dimon said that the latest quarter signaled the end of the trading debacle. “We are getting near the end of it,” he said.

Since announcing the trading loss last May, JPMorgan and its influential chairman, Mr. Dimon, have struggled to reassure skittish investors and defray a series of federal investigations related to the bungled wagers on complex-credit derivatives. Mr. Dimon has testified before Congress, vastly reshuffled its executive ranks and fortified risk controls. In January, JPMorgan’s board slashed Mr. Dimon’s compensation by 50 percent to $11.5 million.

More recently, Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, grilled current and former senior executives at the bank about lax oversight policies and gulfs in risk management. The Congressional hearing, which lasted for nearly four hours, renewed pressure on Mr. Dimon and the bank. At times, senior executives floundered as they tried to combat lawmakers’ accusations that the officials misled investors and regulators about the soured bet. The hearing came just a day after a scathing 300-page report into the losses.

Mr. Dimon has struck a more contrite tone, seemingly chastened by the continued fallout from the trading losses. In his annual letter to shareholders, released on Wednesday, Mr. Dimon repeatedly apologized for the losses. He described the losses as the “the stupidest and most embarrassing situation I have ever been a part of,” vowing to continue to bolster risk controls and rout out problems.

Rather than taking a combative tone toward regulations that rein in Wall Street, Mr. Dimon expressed regret for how the trading losses “let our regulators down.”

In his letter, Mr. Dimon also warned shareholders that the bank would continue to face regulatory challenges in the “coming months.” JPMorgan, Mr. Dimon said, will deploy resources to improve firmwide controls on risk and compliance. “We are reprioritizing our major projects and initiatives,” he said.

The earnings on Friday come just a month before JPMorgan’s annual shareholder meeting, where the results of a crucial vote will be announced. Shareholders will decide whether to strip Mr. Dimon of his chairman title, a role he has held since 2006. Ahead of the nonbinding vote, JPMorgan has been working behind the scenes to make their case to shareholders that Mr. Dimon should keep the dual roles.

Article source: http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2013/04/12/jpmorgan-shows-strength-in-quarter/?partner=rss&emc=rss

Oracle’s Profit Climbs 18%

The results were an improvement from Oracle’s previous quarter, when its revenue fell slightly from a year earlier.

The latest quarter spanned September through November. That makes Oracle the first technology bellwether to provide insight into corporate spending since the Nov. 6 re-election of President Obama and negotiations to avoid a fiscal crisis began to heat up in Washington.

Oracle said it earned $2.6 billion, or 53 cents a share, in its fiscal second quarter. That compares with net income of $2.2 billion, or 43 cents a share, a year earlier.

If not for charges for past acquisitions and certain other costs, Oracle said it would have earned 64 cents a share. On that basis, Oracle topped the average earnings estimate of 61 cents a share among analysts surveyed by FactSet.

Revenue increased 3 percent from last year to $9.1 billion, about $900 million more than analysts had projected.

In a particularly heartening sign, Oracle said sales of new software licenses and subscriptions to its online services climbed 17 percent from last year to outstrip the most optimistic predictions issued by management three months ago.

The flow of new licenses and subscriptions, which represent about a quarter of Oracle’s revenue, is closely tracked by investors because they lead to more revenue in the future from upgrades.

In the current quarter, which ends in February, Oracle expects software licenses and subscriptions to increase in the range of 3 percent to 13 percent from the previous year. The company, based in Redwood Shores, Calif., predicted its adjusted earnings in the current quarter will range from 64 cents to 68 cents a share on revenue ranging from $9.1 billion to $9.5 billion. That would be a 1 percent to 5 percent increase from the prior year.

Shares of in Oracle rose 1.28 percent in extended trading after the numbers came out. They ended regular trading at $32.88.

In Tuesday’s conference call, the chief executive, Lawrence Ellison, said some of the erosion in the hardware division has been by design as Oracle weeded out some of the less profitable equipment. He assured analysts that hardware revenue would start increasing in the final quarter of Oracle’s fiscal year, the period spanning March through May. Sun’s Java programming language already has been paying off for the software side of Oracle’s business, according to Mr. Ellison.

“Sun has already proven to be the most strategic and profitable acquisition Oracle has ever made,” he said.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/19/business/oracles-profit-climbs-18.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Europe Gets Some Reassurance in Auctions of Debt

And while the central bank left its benchmark interest rate unchanged at 1 percent Thursday, the bank’s president, Mario Draghi, indicated he was prepared to take further steps to ease credit, if necessary.

The Italian Treasury found brisk demand Thursday in selling 8.5 billion euros ($10.9 billion) of 12-month bills at an interest rate of 2.735 percent. It was the lowest interest rate Italy has been able to sell one-year debt at since an auction in June — and less than half the 5.952 percent Italy had to offer at the last sale, in early December.

In Madrid, the Spanish Treasury said Thursday it sold a total of 10 billion euros ($12.8 billion) of bonds — twice the amount it had set as a target — with yields down from previous auctions. For example, $4.3 billion in three-year notes were sold at a yield of 3.384 percent, compared with 5.187 percent in December for three-year notes.

Both Spain and Italy have been under intense pressure from investors because of their public finances, with recently installed governments scrambling to push through additional austerity packages to rein in deficits and debt levels.

Both countries’ longer-term debt yields, which reflect higher risk and uncertainty, remain relatively high. Another bellwether of the crisis comes Friday, when Italy tries to auction more than $9 billion in longer-term debt. The question remains whether enough investors will bid on that debt and feel confident enough in Italy’s fiscal health to justify declining yields.

The interest rate on Italy’s 10-year debt has dipped to 6.6 percent from 7.1 percent earlier this week, though it is still unsustainably higher than the 4 percent to 5 percent it traded at for much of the last two years.

But Thursday’s solid auctions were the latest sign that shorter-term government debt has become more attractive to commercial banks and other investors since the central bank last month began a program of offering low-interest three-year loans to commercial banks in the euro currency region.

While a large portion of that money has been used simply to pay off other lenders, it has clearly eased pressures on the banks and helped free up cheap money the banks can use to purchase sovereign debt.

“We do think this decision has prevented a credit contraction that would have been much more serious,” Mr. Draghi said Thursday.

He said the central bank would continue to support commercial banks in the euro zone and predicted that the bank’s next refinancing operation, in February, would attract even more lenders.

The central bank, based in Frankfurt, left its benchmark interest rate unchanged Thursday, after having cut rates by a quarter point twice since Mr. Draghi became its president at the beginning of November. The rate cuts have been meant to help slow an economic downturn in the 17 countries in the European Union that use the euro. Mr. Draghi said the bank was pausing in its rate cutting amid what it called “tentative” signs of increased economic stability. But he indicated the central bank was prepared to take further steps, if necessary.

Analysts took Mr. Draghi’s comments as a clear sign that the central bank stands ready to reduce its benchmark interest rate below the already historic low of 1 percent to counter a recession.

“He kept the door open,” said Jacques Cailloux, the chief European economist for Royal Bank of Scotland. “He made a very clear statement that the E.C.B. stands ready to act.”

Earlier Thursday, in London, the Bank of England kept its benchmark interest rate at a record low of 0.5 percent as the British government’s tough fiscal measures and the crisis in the euro zone exacerbated economic problems.

The Bank of England also voted to continue with its existing bond purchasing program of £275 billion ($422 billion). Many economists expect the British central bank to expand the asset-buying program at its next meeting in February in a bid to pump more capital into the economy.

Some economists expect the central bank to move as early as next month for a rate cut. But others predict that the governing council will hold off until March, when a fresh growth forecast for the euro zone is to be issued.

Reporting was contributed by Julia Werdigier from London, David Jolly from Paris and Raphael Minder from Madrid.

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Digital Domain: Consumer Reports, Going Strong at 75 — Digital Domain

Well, “business” is not the right word, as there are no profits or losses to track: it’s a nonprofit. But the magazine and Web site generated $182 million in revenue in the 2011 fiscal year, which ended May 31. That pays for a lot of professional testing — of cars and trucks, washers and dryers, televisions, children’s car seats, mattresses, treadmills and cellphone plans — all told, more than 3,600 products and services a year.

Consumer Reports started its Web site in 1997; by 2001, it had 557,000 subscribers. That number has grown to 3.3 million this year, an increase of nearly 500 percent in 10 years. It has more than six times as many digital subscribers as The Wall Street Journal, the leader among newspapers.

And in August, Consumer Reports started generating more revenue from digital subscriptions than from print — a feat that must make it the envy of the print world struggling to make that transition. Even more amazingly, Consumer Reports has enjoyed success on the Web without losing print subscribers — those have held steady since 2001 at around four million.

Subscribers who sign up for access to the Web site pay $26 for a year or $5.95 monthly. A smartphone app is available, and this month an iPad version was introduced, with varying price levels.

“Five years ago, the Web site was just the magazine put online, word for word,” says Kevin McKean, Consumer Reports’ editorial director. Formerly, products were tested in batches, but today testing occurs whenever a new model is released. Results are quickly available online, instead of being held up for the once-a-year roundup of reviews of a particular product category in the magazine.

Consumer Reports’ online success is not necessarily a bellwether for other Web sites seeking paying subscribers, says Bill Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and formerly managing editor of WSJ.com.

“It isn’t much of a leap for people to pay $5.95 a month for access to a database that will help them make a wise purchase of a $500 dishwasher or a $25,000 car,” Mr. Grueskin says. “It is much harder to get consumers — particularly those trained for the past 15 years to expect content for free — to pay for coverage of metro news, football games or politics.”

Consumer Reports has been helped by consistency in its payment policy, he says: “I don’t recall them ever taking the subscription wall down and then rebuilding it the next year. So customers understand that they can’t ‘wait it out’ while the publisher vacillates between paid and free.”

A consistent policy of not allowing advertisements has helped Consumer Reports protect a reputation for clearsighted recommendations, untainted by commercial considerations. It also keeps its name away from use as an endorsement. Merchants whose products earn a spot on the recommended list would like nothing better than to mention it, but Consumer Reports forbids them from doing so.

Well before the term “crowdsourcing” arose, Consumer Reports supplemented its lab testing with surveys of subscribers, asking them to report on their experiences with various products. Its 2011 annual questionnaire drew 960,000 responses, more than double those in 2001, and included reports on the respondents’ 1.4 million vehicles.

When it comes to helping consumers buy a used car, Consumer Reports owns the mother lode of useful data. But consumers can find useful, free information elsewhere on many products. Amazon’s customers, for example, post reviews and all sorts of information that doesn’t always fit into the slots used by Consumer Reports. Mr. Grueskin gave an example: when setting up a Wii game console recently for his daughter, he ran into a problem. “I found the solution on an Amazon chat board, not on Consumer Reports’ site,” he says.

Consumer Reports is rather set in its ways. The confusing symbols it uses for its ratings — the filled-in, partially filled-in or empty circles, in red or black — violate plenty of graphic design principles. Mr. McKean says that he is aware of the shortcomings of the circle, referred to internally as “the Blob,” but that it has been hard to discard because many subscribers regard it as “a critical part of our DNA.”

The organization has moved to inject some youthful creativity into its culture: in 2008, it acquired Consumerist Media. The Consumerist gets three million unique monthly visitors, who snack on summaries of news stories about defective products, horrendous customer service, billing outrages and other delectable morsels.

Mr. McKean says the Consumerist pulls in younger people who are then exposed to Consumer Reports’ promotions of subscription products. He doesn’t expect them to sign up, though, until they find themselves “enmeshed in sweaty-palms buying decisions.”

Consumer Reports continues to supply the kind of authoritative information that can ease purchase-decision anxiety. Robust at 75 — and more digital than not— it’s the spry graybeard of the information age.

Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University. E-mail: stross@nytimes.com.

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Wall Street Banks Bracing for Drop in Trading Revenue

As if the troubles in Europe were not enough, two months of the most turbulent markets in decades are expected to seriously damp trading results for the nation’s largest banks.

In a bellwether for other large financial firms, JPMorgan Chase warned that third-quarter trading revenue was likely to fall about 8 percent from a year ago. Investment banking income is also expected to drop by one-third from a year earlier, as corporations get cold feet about acquisitions as well as stock and debt offerings.

“I think you can safely expect a decline in our markets revenue,” Jes Staley, the head of JPMorgan’s investment bank, said in remarks at the Barclays financial services conference on Tuesday.

There are still 13 trading days left in the third quarter ending Sept. 30, and Wall Street firms will not release their final numbers until the middle of next month. But a sharp fall-off in summer trading seems poised to weigh heavily on the banks’ earnings — and perhaps accelerate another round of layoffs expected in the coming months.

After helping lift Wall Street’s results during the financial crisis, trading revenue is projected to fall for a second straight quarter. On average, it is expected to be down by about 7 percent from a year ago, according to Credit Suisse research. Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are also expected to have weak third-quarter results.

Investors shrugged off the latest bad news as shares of the biggest banks rose slightly on Tuesday in relatively calm trading. But bank stocks have been pummeled recently. The KBW index, a widely cited gauge of the banking sector, has fallen more than 28 percent since January.

Although Wall Street firms can land windfalls making speculative bets with the banks’ own capital, the bulk of their trading revenue comes from transactions made on behalf of clients.

But with the heightened volatility over the summer, many companies and investors remained on the sidelines — causing a significant slowdown in trading activity.

The lackluster trading results come at a bad time for the industry, when profits and revenues have slipped to the levels attained before the housing boom. Many are bracing for a slowdown in lending, as consumers grow nervous about their job prospects and businesses put off expansion plans. Banks still face an endless stream of legal headaches and litigation fees from the foreclosure mess.

In addition, new regulation has ratcheted up compliance costs and caused once-lucrative income streams, like debit card swipe fees and overdraft charges, to vanish. And all that is not counting the impact of the Federal Reserve’s pledge to keep interest rates low for the next two years — a move that will erode lending profit margins in the months ahead.

In anticipation of leaner times ahead, banks are looking to cut costs and streamline their operations. On Monday, Bank of America announced plans to cut about 30,000 jobs across the company, or nearly 10 percent of its work force. Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Barclays, Credit Suisse and UBS are among the major Wall Street firms that have started laying off employees in the last few months.

JPMorgan’s investment bank is more than halfway through a five-year plan to save about $1.3 billion a year by consolidating its trading operations — a move that will involve shedding as many as 3,000 workers, some of whom will be employed elsewhere in the bank.

But so far, Mr. Staley said the bank does not anticipate a major round of layoffs beyond those previously announced. “We have had a very good first half of the year,” he said at a banking conference in Frankfurt last week. “We will see how this plays out.”

Still, the numbers at JPMorgan may foreshadow more pain ahead. JPMorgan was among the first major banks to sound the alarm bells over souring subprime mortgage loans in early 2007. In 2008, the bank flagged concerns about ballooning losses on its large portfolio of home equity loans ahead of many competitors and has moved quickly to shore up its reserves against legal claims stemming from the mortgage mess.

In his remarks, Mr. Staley said investors could expect equity and fixed income trading revenues to decline about 30 percent from the second quarter, putting them at about $3.85 billion. Investment banking fees are expected to fall to about $1 billion, down from $1.9 billion in the second quarter. He also said that the bank’s private equity business would face a “moderate loss” of about $100 million and that its asset management business would see trading-related declines.

Other banks may see a similar fall-off in trading. Citigroup, which has a giant fixed-income business, could see core trading revenue drop 47 percent from a year ago, according to Credit Suisse research. Overall trading revenue at Morgan Stanley is expected to fall about 1 percent from a year earlier, while revenue at Bank of America is expected to rise about 11 percent. Both banks had relatively weak third-quarter results in 2010.

Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs’s trading income is expected to fall about 7 percent from a year ago, according to Credit Suisse. But that may not represent the full extent of the declines it can expect.

Richard Staite, an analyst at Atlantic Equities, wrote in a recent report that the bank could face more than $3.2 billion in losses tied to its investment and lending businesses, which include private equity and other investments made with the bank’s own capital. That is because it must adjust its accounting to reflect the market’s recent round of wild swings.

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