Interstellar

A new Christopher Nolan film is always something to welcome. He’s been on quite a winning streak for a while now. And while I might prefer the original Norwegian Insomnia to his perfectly fine remake, and think that Christopher Priest’s novel of The Prestige is better than the film, I’m actually a fan.

Interstellar is a film that I’d been deliberately avoiding. There was that curious teaser trailer from a year ago, and then there have been more recent trailers, although I think I’ve only seen one, and even then I’ve only watched it once.

In general, I actually knew very little about the film’s plot. Obviously Matthew McConaughey’s character looked like he was going into space, and the film’s title suggests that it’s a bit further than Mars, but I really managed to go on knowing very little.

I don’t want to spoil anything in this review, so I just want to give fair warning that while I will be very careful revealing plot elements, I perfectly understand if you don’t want to read any further.

We’re at some indeterminate point in our future, and ex-pilot Cooper (McConaughey) is bringing up his family on his mid-western farm. He has two children, Tom and Murph. Their mother has died and he’s doing his best growing as much corn as possible because the Earth is dying – massive dust storms are killing the remaining crops. Society seems to have retracted as they put all their efforts into food production. We don’t get to see much of that society, but we must imagine that cities wouldn’t be pleasant.

But strange things are happening. Cooper daughter, Murph, seems to be seeing ghosts, he captures a drone that has lost its bearings, and his automatic combine harvesters need constant rebooting to function.

In a last ditch attempt to save the planet, a secret group of NASA scientists have been sending people through a strange wormhole near Saturn that has recently appeared. Wormholes are a theoretical way to travel inconceivable distances by taking shortcuts through space and time. The scientists believe that there may be a habitable planet in this distant galaxy. And if so, that might offer a future for the people of earth.

This is serious science fiction. Cooper is persuaded to leave his children behind and head into the unknown, piloting their last shot at finding a new home in this distant place. He will return, he promises Murph.

And to say much more would give away too much plot. But know that space and time are played with heavily. I wouldn’t like to say that the science is robust, but it’s certainly interesting. And there are definite parallels with 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Nolan deals with some familiar themes, and he cuts back and forward across galaxies seamlessly. This is a long film at 166 minutes, but it zips along. It might take a spaceship two years to reach Saturn from Earth, but we’re not going to be delayed by long shots of spaceships just flying. Indeed he’s very careful not to show us too much external detail at first. We get far more first-person shots. And the space elements are constructed to be as real as possible. Space is silent, and so are some chunks of the film. The rocket launch feels like it’s using stock footage of an Apollo mission launch.

The effects are of course wonderful. They take those we saw in Inception to another level. Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is vital to the film, and it’s interesting how cues pass between scenes in a way that few other film-makers would dare. Nolan likes to work on film, and the credits proudly boast that it was shot and finished on film – although the heavy effects work mean that film would have been digitised before being output back to film. But I loved seeing the return of cue marks.

The performances are strong – particular McConaughey and Jessica Chastain’s character. Anne Hathaway’s character I found to sometimes be annoying, and I’m afraid that one speech she’s given didn’t really work – you’ll know it when you see it.

I also thought that occasionally we had slightly too much expository dialogue – including one sequence towards the end.

But this is a smart film – a bold film really. Because, like Inception, it treats its audience as intelligent.

Does it completely work? I’m not sure it does, but I really liked it regardless. The ambition is remarkable, and the scope is quite daunting. Like many Nolan films, it probably deserves another viewing too.

Well worth watching.

Note: Usually I’d link to IMDB with a film, but Interstellar’s entry is actually full of spoilers if you even look at some of the details, so I’ll avoid linking this time around.

Playlist Reversal

Since I got a Chromecast, one thing I’ve found really useful is the “Watch Later” playlist feature on YouTube videos. Someone sends you a link to a video, but you don’t have time to watch it now, and anyway, you’d prefer to watch it on a big screen. You simply click “Watch Later” and you can catch up from the comfort of your armchair.

But there’s a problem. New videos always go on the end of the Watch Later playlist. That means after a while you have to scroll through many old videos to get to the latest.

There is an option to trim a playlist of played videos, but I might want to keep them in my list. The only solution I’ve found is to manually remove videos from the playlist.

I understand that some people add multi-part videos to Watch Later, and if you always used the most recent additions first, you’d have to add the videos in the reverse order. My solution is to just have a switch so you can choose the order.

In the meantime, it’s a frustrating “bug” as far as I’m concerned.

I note that Vimeo also has a “Watch Later” playlist functionality. Except their’s behaves much better – the most recent additions go to the top of the playlist.

Serial

Back in 2005 there was a terrific series on BBC Four called Death on the Staircase (known elsewhere as The Staircase). Here’s what I wrote about it at the time, and what I wrote about the follow-up in 2013.

Essentially a French film-maker spent many months following the real-life prosecution of Michael Peterson, a crime writer, who was arrested for murdering his wife. The film-maker got wide access to talk to parties on both sides of the case, and it unfolded in a remarkable manner. Last year BBC Four aired a follow-up, because there are always appeal processes.

All in all, it was a fascinating project covering a case that wasn’t black and white, but full of shades of grey.

Now we have the new podcast Serial. If you listen to podcasts, you’ve probably already heard of it. It comes from the This American Life stable, with the difference being that over multiple weeks we follow a single story. In this instance, it’s the 1999 murder of a young girl, Hae Min Lee, who attended a Baltimore High School, and the conviction of Adnan Syed, an ex-boyfriend, of her murder.

Although the jury at the time took very little time to convict Syed, it’s again clear that not everything in the case makes sense. So slowly, over a number of weeks (How many? On the website it simply says, “We’ll stay with each story for as long as it takes to get to the bottom of it.”), we’re learning more of what happened or what might have happened.

Sarah Koenig presents the programme, and she’s spent many months working on it. As well as unravelling who the cast of characters are, we get audio recordings of interviews with the suspects and witnesses from the time, as well as interviews with many of the people now. Not least, we hear repeatedly from Syed who is currently incarcerated in a Maryland prison.

In some respects, this reminds me of some of David Simon’s work. Not so much The Wire, as the book he wrote prior to Homicide: Life on the Street being made. Obviously there’s the Baltimore setting, but there’s also the fact that not every case was solved, unlike the average detective TV show. And the system can be flawed.

On the website, it says the following:

“We’ll follow the plot and characters wherever they take us and we won’t know what happens at the end of the story until we get there, not long before you get there with us.”

If that’s actually the case, then it’s an unusual format to not know where you’re ending up when you start. While that is often the case with documentary makers, they wouldn’t ordinarily start airing their programme before they’ve reached a conclusive point from which they can start structuring their production.

I would imagine that the success of This American Life must leave some radio/audio producers insanely jealous. You just have to listen to the credits at the end of an episode to hear how many staff they have on the programme. And the liberty and ability to devote many hours on a single story is also very unusual. I can’t think of a similar series in this country that works in this way.

We did have Rough Justice on TV for many years, and a lot of work would go into those. But even then, a single case usually only merited a single episode. Commissioners would be nervous of stretching a single story like that over many episodes. We also get documentaries set in single locales with “characters” we follow over multiple episodes, but they tend to have narrative strands attached to each week’s episode: the Christmas party; the new launch.

Of course This American Life has had the ability to do things like this. They embedded two reporters into a Chicago High School for five months to make a two-part episode about life there. That’s a lot of commitment and resource that few would get. They famously throw away programmes (or at least early drafts) if they’re not hanging together. Again, that’s a privilege that I suspect few really get. While a documentary maker working in, say, a hospital might have to shoot stories that won’t make it to air for lots of reasons, they’re know that their hospital series overall will air, even if all the stories within it don’t. And that’s not quite the same thing.

Anyway, back to Serial. It’s a terrific radio series, and it’s well worth spending several hours of your time listening to it. As I type, episode 6 has downloaded to my phone, so I know what I’ll be listening to later. And of course the beauty of podcasts is that you can easily catch up and listen to the whole story chronologically.

Thoroughly recommended.

Payments and Data

When Tesco first introduced its Clubcard in 1995, it was to enable it to capture data on its customers. Most people who use loyalty cards realise this. In return for the retailer being able to tie specific sales to an individual, that individual earns some kind of loyalty points.

It seems to be a win/win. As long as I’m happy giving you my information, you give me discounts or money off. I’m likely to spend more of my money with you, you learn even more about me. And so the cycle continues.

Of course many people aren’t really aware of how their Clubcard data is uesd. Dunnhumby is a wholly owned subsidiary of Tesco (it started out helping them to launch the service), and they sell data based around purchasing to anyone interested – including retail manufacturers. I might be shipping hundreds of thousands of boxes of cornflakes to Tesco each week, but I don’t know who is actually buying them. I could do a survey, but Tesco has their names and addresses!

The curious thing about the introduction of loyalty cards like the Tesco Clubcard is that retailers didn’t already know this information. Given that the vast majority of purchases made in a supermarket are with either a debit or credit card, you would think that it would be easy to maintain a list of cards used, and even in the absence of other data, they’d know that the person with your card number bought a box of cornflakes once a fortnight.

Well it turns out that some of them do track your spending patterns by card number. From a Guardian article last year:

“Waitrose and Asda also admit analysing aggregated payment card data to monitor “customer shopping patterns” (for example, items purchased) over time. Both stress this is common practice in the retail industry and that card numbers are not connected to an individual or an address. Sainsbury’s and Tesco say they do not track or monitor their customers’ payment cards.”

It’s true that they don’t know precisely who you are unless you’ve somehow furnished them with that detail – hence they still love to sign you up for a loyalty card. But there is information in your purchasing patterns, and the power of promotions etc. Even your absence from stores can be noted.

Which all takes us to what’s happening in the US and why it’s interesting at the moment. Because Apple Pay is launching over there, and it’s not being universally accepted by retailers.

There are a few things happening, and they’re related to card merchant charges and information capture.

First off, the US system of payments really needs upgrading. They don’t widely use Chip and Pin or NFC contactless payment methods. It’s mostly swiping a magnetic strip and then paying next to no attention to the signature. Cards are routinely taken away by restaurants to swipe, whereas in Europe we’re told never to let our cards out of our sight.

New schemes like Apple Pay would seem to address some of these issues. But of course it’s not as simple as that. When retailers accept cards, they have to pay for the privilege. Exactly how much they pay depends on the agreements they’ve struck with a third-party who will carry out the transactions for them. A massive retailer with many branches will do a good deal and pay relatively little. A smaller independent retailer may have to pay more. That’s why they sometimes require a minimum spend for a card to be used. The fees differ between debit and credit cards, and it’s why American Express isn’t always accepted.

Muscling in to that market to generate revenues from transactions is good for a company like Apple – and bad for incumbents. There is the small matter than iPhone 6 users are only a small subset of the market, but then we live in a world where Visa and Mastercard seem to co-exist.

Apple is cutting out the card merchant companies, and we must assume that since they regularly sell 79p/99c tracks in iTunes, they’ve done a good deal to make those transactions of value. And because you’ll be tying a single card to your phone (initially anyway), all the card suppliers want to make sure it’s their card your phone defaults to – ideally a credit card because there are fees to be made on that. Apple says that it doesn’t keep your data. But that’s not the case for others…

In the meantime, a bunch of retailers in the US are “clubbing” together to launch CurrentC, and they definitely do want to keep and share the data. In the first instance, those stores won’t accept Apple Pay. They want you to tie your NFC device – probably your phone – to your bank account, a bit like PayPal prefers you do. Then everytime you spend, the money is withdrawn directly, rather than through some kind of Visa or Mastercard network. That cuts out the card charges the merchants charge. And CurrentC definitely want to see what you’re buying. Their coalition will be able to share data with one another and provide a “Clubcard” style environment. You’d imagine they’ll incentivize consumers to use CurrentC once they launch.

You’d imagine that there will be other companies waiting in the wings with their preferred systems.

Personally, I’m not wholly sold on using my phone to pay for things. Contactless cards seem better – “card clash” notwithstanding. And I certainly won’t be participating in any scheme that collects my data like that (nope, I don’t have a Clubcard, a Nectar card or a Waitrose card). Mind you, according to this piece from Rory Cellan Jones at the BBC, even using cash, you can be tracked nowadays…

Selling Your Sport Short

There’s an interesting piece in yesterday’s Guardian hypothesising that by selling itself nearly completely to pay-TV players, rugby union could be very short sighted and diminish the appeal of the sport.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I think the English Cricket Board has done precisely that, and we’re ending up with a sport of diminishing appeal (in spite of a few big crowds at Twenty20 fixtures). And that’s before their recent ineptness over the whole Kevin Pietersen business including the leak of some kind of internal document that they were compiling.

I’ve always held up rugby to be slightly different to that. But an hour of highlights on ITV4 on a Sunday night isn’t enough for club rugby. The BBC has the Six Nations, and ITV has the World Cup – solidly sold out next year it seems (£70 to sit in the gods at Twickenham to see England? I’ll watch on telly thanks). But most of those could go behind the pay-TV wall if organisers accepted the Sky/BT shilling. Six Nations events need only have highlights broadcast free-to-air, and only the Rugby World Cup Final is guaranteed a live free-to-air showing. The rest of the competition could go to Sky/BT.

The new European Champions’ Cup is shared between BT Sport and Sky Sports, after a protracted wrangle between the big pay-TV operators over the future of what was previously the Heineken Cup. Only the Welsh, it seems, get any kind of free-to-air highlights of the new competition (head to S4C if you have Sky, Virgin Media or Freesat).

My nephew has just started secondary school and is the rugby squad. He’s going to be limited to lots of highlights until early next year – the Aviva Premier League and the Autumn Internationals (England anyway). I wonder if that’s enough to encourage him to want to stay with the sport?

You might argue that the same could be said of football. We’ve never had top division live football free-to-air, with the exception of a brief period when ITV broadcast live fixtures – Liverpool 0 – Arsenal 2 anyone? But football is much bigger.

It would be an interesting experiment if during the next round of Premier League rights somebody came in and say broadcast a few games on a willing free-to-air station – Channel 5 say. They might do a revenue share deal surrounding advertising. We still have to see how BT Sport presents its free-to-air Champions’ League coverage next season. Champions’ League football is not a listed sport. It’s only the needs of the advertisers really, and possibly visibility of the tournament adding to its value to BT, that means we’ll get any free-to-air coverage at all.

I mention this because I can’t help comparing the UK with the US, where it’s free-to-air networks that pay the top money for NFL coverage. Three of the four networks broadcast games weekly. Similarly, packages of MLB and NBA games are sold to basic cable networks. And local stations might also offer coverage free-to-air. Live sport is ratings gold, with unskippable advertising opportunities.

Inbox from Google – Quick Thoughts

I’ve been playing around with Google’s new email solution – Inbox – for a few days now.

As is usual with these things, it’s invitation only at the moment (and no, I don’t have any invites right now). But registering directly with Google doesn’t seem to take too long.

But what do I think of it so far?

Well I think that really depends on how you use Gmail, and this is a “Gmail” product. If you broadly speaking do nothing more to your inbox than Google does, then it’s probably pretty good. But if like me, you use a healthy number of filters to ensure emails skip your inbox and get nicely labelled, well I’m not so sure.

The design is very clean with few distractions. So no row of Google labels across the top (Social, Updates, etc), and no list of user defined labels down the side. No hint of any advertising.

The design is consistent between browser and mobile app. I’ve used it exclusively in Chrome and on an Android phone and table.

It makes adding reminders, and appointments spectacularly easy – you can begin to live your (non-work) life through it – assuming much of your life surfaces as email.

It smartly batches together similar emails. In “old” Gmail, you’d find the most useful stuff in your Primary tab, but you had to go hunting to see other email hidden within different top-tier tabs. Inbox gathers those other emails together and just politely reminds you that there is a batch of stuff there when you’re ready.

So overall I like it.

But there are some issues:

– It hides emails that you’ve filtered away from the inbox. For example, I still have lots of Twitter emails turned on. Twitter stopped them for me for a while, but I find them useful. I just hide them a little. Similarly, some discussion group emails I send direct to a folder to keep the discussions out of the way. There are various other regular emails that I similarly send away. Gmail lets you know because the folder name will turn bold and display down the left hand side – “You have new Twitter emails” it’s effectively telling me. But those rules with Inbox ensure that I don’t even know the emails are there. Clicking on the menu button on the top left will reveal your folders, but it doesn’t indicate if there’s any mail in any of them. I ended up going back to Gmail to see. You can then choose to break your filter and surface those emails in Inbox, but that means that a busy discussion group keeps your Inbox buzzing all day long, because while those emails remain labelled, they do return to your inbox. In other words, it’s worse than Gmail.

– One of Gmail’s worst features is Contacts. It does a decent job of storing your contacts, and of course they sync neatly with your Android device’s contacts. What I mean is that it is thoroughly unintuitive where to find them. I once had to ask Twitter to help me. In Gmail you have to click on the word Gmail and it’ll give you the option of going to Contacts. Very obtuse.

contacts

Still, Inbox is worse. I can’t find my contacts for the life of me. I don’t think they’re actually there.

– Marking as read. Maybe I’m just a bit OCD, but I like to mark my “done” emails as read. Inbox uses a tick or swipe process on mobile to mark an email as “done”. This effectively archives the email and hides it from your inbox. They might be done, but only if you’ve actually opened the email are they marked as read. The problem comes when you’ve used labels in Gmail. For example, I label any cycling related email as “Cycling”. That includes lots of marketing emails. If I use Inbox and swipe them away without opening them, as “Done”, they remain unread. So it still looks like I’ve ignored them. Such is the volume of marketing stuff I get, I regularly use the “Mark as read” functionality of Gmail. There’s no equivalent here. You’re going to have to either open every email or just accept that some will remain unread.

– More mobile alerts. Because of the issue with hidden/unhidden emails, you can end up with many more email notifications from Inbox than you ever had from Gmail. To be fair, you can go back and turn many notifications off. But it feels a little bit of a hassle.

– Spam is hidden by default. I hate spam. You hate spam. Who cares? Well I do actually. The problem is that while Google is pretty damn good at highlighting spam correctly it occasionally gets it wrong. The odd marketing email that I do want to see gets marked as spam (probably by other users) and I have to go and fish it out. Because Spam is hidden, I’m less likely to see or think of checking this folder.

– Screen resolution. This is an odd one, and perhaps more of an issue with my 15″ 4:3 radio work laptop than anything. But on a 1366 x 768 screen, when you actually open an email you don’t have a great deal of room to read the email. Gmail has some settings to change your “look” and make things more compact if that’s appropriate. I can find no equivalent in Inbox. Obviously this issue will lessen as screen sizes go up.

screendisplay

There’s a lot of grey space in that image above that I’d love to be able to utilise. Instead, I have to do more scrolling than I would in Gmail.

Now to be fair, Google suggests you go “all-in” with Inbox and replace Gmail completely. In an Inbox-only world some of these issues wouldn’t matter, although I still believe Gmail’s filters are very powerful, and depending on how you use email, and Gmail in particular, you might have a different Inbox experience.

Perhaps I’m being unduly negative, I know. Inbox is brand new, and there will be iterations. Inbox is cleaner, and it’s a lot smarter. It uses the power of Google Now to show you what’s important. I love being able to “Pin” emails to my inbox. For example, at the weekend I needed to use some details from an email several times on my phone. With Gmail, I’d have had to search for that email each time. Now it’s there at the top of my Inbox until I unpin and forget about it.

Although labels don’t seem to be relevant any longer (and can I emphasise that I love labels), you can still use the same search terms to find things using labels (e.g. “saddles label:cycling”).

But I’m not sure that I’m ready to fully ditch the Gmail app just yet.

Digital Powerhouses

This post is brought to you in association with RALF from DP Software and Services. I’ve used RALF for the past 6 years, and it’s my favourite RAJAR analysis tool. So I’m pleased to be able to bring you this analysis. For more details on RALF, contact Deryck Pritchard via this link or phone 07545 425677.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about the RAJAR that was released last week, is that the two most interesting stories have come from digital stations. Both BBC 6 Music and Absolute 80s have seen their best ever reach figures. But aside from the platforms they broadcast on, and the music they play, they’re actually quite different beasts.

If you look at the raw numbers, then it looks as though 6 Music and Absolute 80s are quite similar. The former has just short of 2m listeners, while the latter has just short of 1.5m listeners. They’re both digital, and have seen growth as digital audio platforms have evolved. OK – only one has been threatened with the chop.

But 6 Music listeners are closer to traditional station listeners than those to Absolute 80s – because for them, their station is more likely to be their primary station. In radio-speak they have a lot of “P1″ listeners – that is people for whom it’s their favourite station.

37% of the 6 Music audience are P1’s – they spend more time with 6 Music than any other station. Whereas for Absolute 80s it’s just 1.3% of the audience. That’s a massive difference.

That’s because Absolute 80s serves a different purpose. You tune in when you’re in the mood for 80s music. You don’t listen all the time – you pick and choose when you want to hear it. It’s a party station. You listen to it alongside your other station.

One key metric to compare is the average hours spent listening to each of the services. For Absolute 80s it’s 4.8, whereas for 6 Music it’s 9.2 – nearly twice as much time spent listening.

Another thing to look at is listeners’ repetoires – the number of different stations they listen to in the course of a week. The chart below shows that the average radio listener only hears 2.9 stations a week. They’re really rather conservative. But it’s easier if you have a digital set, with a display letting you know what you’re listening to. Remember, some people prefer never to move their “dial” in case they lose their favourite station.

You can see from this chart that listeners to digital stations like 6 Music and especially Absolute 80s, are very happy listening to other stations (perhaps the big surprise here is Radio 3). Absolute 80s listeners tune around – perhaps to other Absolute Radio services.

Now Absolute Radio has done some clever things. They always used to simulcast the Christian O’Connell breakfast show across all their services. But that meant that everyone got the same music. Sure there’d be the odd 80s track in there, but there’d be much more contemporary stuff. Earlier this year, they introduced a new process whereby you only heard relevant music from that decade on the station. So 80s music on Absolute 80s, 90s music on Absolute Radio 90s and so on. The system – styled Project Banana – won the TechCon Technical Excellence Award recently at the Radio Festival.

Some radio purists will be a little upset about the system. Surely that means Christian can’t talk about the music he’s playing if it’s different on each station? Well, yes. But then when was the last time you heard a breakfast presenter talk about the stream of hits they’re playing? Breakfast shows are all about the other stuff. In any case, this has long been the way things are done in the US where a big breakfast show might air on an A/C station in New York and a Country station in Nashville.

Which all means it’s interesting to see that Absolute 80s sees 462,000 listeners at breakfast out of a total of nearly 1.8m. But look across the rest of the day and see where the peaks are compared with “ordinary” radio.

The chart below lets you switch between the Absolute 80s, BBC 6 Music and All Radio, to demonstrate when people listen to the radio in general and those two stations in particular.

The Monday to Friday peak for Absolute 80s is actually after breakfast and during mid-morning. I’ve not plotted it here, but I’d hazard that a decent amount of that listening is at work, probably via a PC with headphones, or via a DAB radio for which Absolute 80s is a happy medium for a mixed age-range of workers.

Look at BBC 6 Music, and there’s a similar, but subtly different pattern. 6 Music is all about daytime (again I’m ignoring weekends here, when listening patterns can be markedly different) too. But because it’s a more solid listen. While the peak is at about 10am, it’s pretty flat through until 5pm when there’s marked drop-off. Absolute 80s sees more of a decline over daytime, and instead actually spikes at 5pm. Neither station really competes in the evening.

Now look at All Radio. This is your traditional radio chart. There’s a peak between 8.00 and 8.15 only to drop away during the day before a slight bump at 5pm, and another samller bump at 10pm (which is often speech based).

There’s no doubt that it remains hard to listen to either of these stations in cars. But we should neither under-estimate nor over-estimate what that means. According to RAJAR, 83% of the adult population owns a car. But 84% of BBC 6 Music listeners have a car, and a massive 88% of Absolute 80s listeners have one.

In other words, these strong listening figures are despite the fact that it’s pretty hard to listen to digital radio in the car. Certainly new cars are more likely than not to have a DAB radio, but most cars on the road don’t have one. And while you can hook up your phone to the car’s speaker system, that becomes an expensive way to listen to the radio unless you have a good data package.

20% of listening to the radio is done in car. That means that 80% isn’t – plenty of time to be able to generate a decent audience.

In the past people have compared the relative successes of Radio 3 and 6 Music (I’ve done it myself). 6 Music is now a bigger station, and for some reason that has led to some people suggesting that it should switch FM frequencies with Radio 3.

What a strange idea.

The 6 Music audience has already found the station. They’re listening. While Radio 3’s digital listening is high – with 43% of the station’s listening being digital and 48% of its listeners hearing the service via a digital platform for at least some of the time – that still means a sizeable part of the audience wouldn’t be able to hear it if they switched today.

While a switch from analogue to digital is something for the future at some point, it would be very backward thinking to switch from digital back to analogue.

The more interesting question is the relative sizes of Absolute Radio and Absolute 80s. Absolute 80s is about 430,000 listeners behind Absolute Radio. Should Bauer maintain its AM transmitter network, might they consider switching Absolute Radio for Absolute 80s on that platform?

Relatively few listeners would be affected as RAJAR suggests as little as 20% of Absolute Radio’s listening is via AM. It’s almost certainly less than that, since much of that “AM” listening is found just outside London – in other words, in areas where you can probably quite easily still get an FM signal which is what I believe that listening actually is. So a switch to something different probably wouldn’t cause that big a blip in listening figures. This’ll be something to watch.

So there you have it. Two digital station doing very well, but performing different jobs.

Source: RAJAR/Ipsos-MORI/RSMB.

Disclaimer: These are my views alone and do not represent those of anyone else. Any errors (I hope there aren’t any!) are mine alone. Access to the RAJAR data is via RALF from DP Software as mentioned at the top of this post.

Hrafn: Conversations with Odin

Hrafn

What did you do as the sun set on Sunday evening?

I found myself lying under a pine tree at the edge of Kielder Forest in Northumberland, near the village of Stonehaugh, listening to a roost of ravens.

The sun went down, the wind was up, and a soft rain fell. But about 80 of us were listening to the ravens.

And they weren’t even there.

We were listening to a recording, pieced together from live recordings made in a Welsh forest by Chris Watson. Hrafn: Conversations with Odin was a sound installation in the forest itself. Above our heads, well camouflaged, were speakers creating a remarkable acoustic effect. Slowly but surely, two thousand ravens were arriving in the forest.

It was quite an hypnotic experience lasting a full forty minutes as the sun set in the cloudy sky above us.

As you might anticipate, mid-October in rural Northumberland, the weather could be mixed. But in fact, the wind and the rain added to the experience. I’ve no idea how they secured those speakers into the trees, but I know they were there hidden beyond our gaze. And I know firsthand that pine trees sway an awful lot in the wind.

The whole production was produced by Chris Watson (who’s course I attended recently) and Iain Pate. It was funded by Jerwood Open Forest, comprising of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation and the Forestry Commission.

Ravens do seem to be an interesting bird. At “Hrafn” (which is Old Norse for Raven), we were told of Hunginn and Muninn, the pair of ravens from Norse mythology who would fly across the land listening out for information that they would report back to Odin. Ravens are some of the most intelligent birds, and they have larger brains than many species, and use a broader range of calling sounds. Could their communication be deeper than that of other birds? That was a suggestion we were left with

They’re use in ancient mythologies from many places, which probably explains why authors from Edgar Allen Poe to JRR Tolkien and George RR Martin have used them in their literature.

The hope is that more ravens will repopulate our landscapes. Have a liten to “ravens” as they featured at the start of the year on Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day.

So was it all worth me leaving home at 7.45am on Sunday morning, getting the train up to Newcastle, and then going on an hour long coach trip to reach the forest, before heading back?

Certainly. Although you’ll have to take my word for it, as the day I was there was the last of the four days of the installation.

But I also now know that I need to go back to Kielder sometime – a beautiful area that I’ve never visited before.

Putting YouTube and Twitter Into Perspective

Recently Enders Analysis released a report detailing why television advertising isn’t likely to be losing out to the internet in the near term. Enders believes that television will remain the key advertising medium for the foreseeable future.

Part of that reason is that its scale is unmatched. Ray Snoddy, on Mediatel, expanded a little and talked about the “hysteria” surrounding Over the Top (OTT) services like Netflix and Hulu.

It’s important to remember this, because I’ve seen a few instances recently where commentators have leapt a little too fast into a future that isn’t quite there yet.

Election Debates

A case in point is the ongoing discussion surrounding the leadership debates ahead of the 2015 General Election. There are currently two proposals on the table: a BBC/ITV/C4/Sky proposal that would see three debates featuring four, three and two leaders; and a Guardian/Telegraph/YouTube proposal.

The former has caused controversy because UKIP’s Nigel Farage would be invited to participate in one debate (yet no Green or SNP leaders), while another would see just Cameron and Miliband but no Clegg. I suspect that there is still some work to be done before any conclusions are reached.

The other debate(s) seems less clear. When the bid was announced earlier in the year, there was lots of talk about reaching more voters via YouTube and opening up the debates due to the lack of broadcasting regulations in the online world.

But it just doesn’t all hang together. A “YouTube” debate could be embedded into any site (“www.adambowie.com hosts a Prime Ministerial debate”), but could also be made available to any TV channel. Up to a point Lord Copper. A TV broadcaster could only carry it if it did abide with broadcasting regulations. And let’s not forget that the various parties need to agree to a debate’s rules. They will want to be wary of being blind-sided by someone randomly (e.g. Diana Gould and Margaret Thatcher in 1983).

That’s not to say that this hasn’t been done before. In the US there have been CNN/YouTube debates in the past as the Republicans and Democrats chose their leaders. They allowed people to upload video questions.

But importantly, the debates were also carried on CNN. I just don’t believe that YouTube alone would deliver the audiences that the parties would want.

The first election debate in 2010 on ITV was watched by 9.4m, the second on the much smaller Sky News (also simulcast on the free-to-air Sky 3 and BBC News) reached 4m, and the third on BBC1 8.6m according to Wikipedia. Cumulatively, 22.5m people watched at least 3 minutes of any one of the debates.

That reach is fundamental. YouTube just doesn’t have that (yet).

Let’s not even get into the value of comments in the YouTube community. While some newspapers have appallingly negative comments under stories, YouTube’s comments seem to be some of the most inane anywhere on the internet, despite Google’s attempts to clean them up. Will I really get a worthwhile discussion there?

What will happen?

I expect a debate will end up on YouTube. But importantly it’ll be broadcast on one of the main broadcast channels. Sky News is on YouTube anyway. BBC News has the iPlayer. I don’t think we’ll be in an STV position where somebody will broadcast something that many interested people can’t watch. The biggest issue would probably be around “sponsorship” of such a debate by YouTube, The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. That might cause an Ofcom headache for television broadcasters who want to carry it.

Question Time

Elsewhere, I’ve also heard the bald assertion that “everyone” is second-screening Question Time and taking part on social media.

Well, my personal Twitter timeline might light up around 10.35pm on Thursdays, but that just indicates that I follow a lot of “meeja” types. I am abnormal.

Over 40% of the Question Time audience is aged 65+, with another 20% being 55-64. I strongly suspect that a small group of people spend a lot of time on Twitter during the programme. Indeed, I’m sure that it “trends” upwards compared with other shows. But the vast majority of the audience are not using social media.

On the 9th October edition of the programme, Second Sync has Question Time ranked number 1, with more than twice as many Tweets as the second most Tweeted programme, Celebrity Juice on ITV2. That’s 32,450 Tweets, with a strong male skew.

But that episode was actually watched by 2.42m people, and the male/female ratio was 51.5% to 48.5% (based on consolidated BARB figures).

Even if we very generously assume that Tweeters only sent a single message each (which in my opinion is highly unlikely), that means that a maximum of 1.3% of the audience was on Twitter.

OK – this excludes Facebook and other social media. And many “view” Twitter and don’t participate. But that’s still the vast majority of the Question Time audience not participating online. And this is a show that actively encourages social media usage, with hashtags, an extra guest on Twitter, and a follow-up radio show on Five Live.

Digital Day

Back in August, Ofcom released their very useful, if dry sounding, Communications Market Report. It contains an awful lot of valuable research into the UK media landscape. And of particular interest is their Digital Day research.

Here’s how people spend their “watching” media time across the week. Live TV is still massively dominant.

Can you see that pale blue line right at the foot of the chart? That’s YouTube and similar. And the dark green line just above it? Netflix and Amazon Prime (or Lovefilm as it still was when this research took place).

While I don’t doubt that they will grow over time, they have a long way to go before they usurp “old” media.

But that chart is “All Adults”. Aren’t all those young people spending all their time online now?

Well, they spend more time with YouTube, but somehow I think they actually made up a decent chunk of last weekend’s live X-Factor and Strictly audiences.

The Ofcom data tends to support this [Play with the dropdown to try different age groups].


Average time spent is the total average daily time spent watching media, including simultaneous
activity

So do young people use digital media more than others? Certainly.

Does that mean you should switch all your focus to those new media to reach young people and to engage them? Well… not really.

It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do that as well. And for nebulous things like “engagement” it might be a really good way to reach people – but define what you really mean by the word “engagement”.

However, we need to recognise that actually “traditional” or “old” media still reach more people. And they still get the lion’s share of the time spent with media too.

[A question: I did spend a fair amount of time looking to find an open source of YouTube data online - specifically for UK audiences. I really couldn't find it. I thought that Google might have it themselves, but even their case studies are decidedly out of date in places. Obviously there are people like ComScore who publish data, but that's not open to all. Any suggestions would be welcome.]

Jumping the Gun

Over the weekend, there was something of a kerfuffle in cycling circles over some allegations that a cycling company had ripped off someone else’s designs.

You can read the story here at road.cc.

The accused company, Wiggle (who I’ve bought a decent amount of cycling accessories and clothing from), has responded on Facebook, and have very politely rejected the idea that they’ve plagiarised anyone.

A few thoughts come to mind from this affair:

– In the design world, it’s never easy to say who came up with an idea first. “Inspiration” comes from lots of places.

– It’s probably best to conduct these sort of things behind closed doors. If you don’t get a satisfactory response in a fair and reasonable time, then shout from rafters.

– Don’t make your complaint on a Friday evening or over a weekend. It’s just unfair on the other party. Give them a fair timetable to get back to you.

In a socially connected world, consumers do hold a lot of power. But without full knowledge of the facts of a case, we can be pushed into making rash decisions. Walk away from the keyboard, and have a think before you post. This is a good idea in lots of cases.