Great Britain

Here’s something a little unusual – a play that was written and rehearsed in secrecy, only being revealed at the culmination of the hacking trial, with the first performances at the National Theatre taking place just a week later.

This certainly ticked all my boxes with the subject matter.

This a fictionalised account of the phone hacking scandal, from Richard Bean, with everything happening at The Free Press, a tabloid paper edited by Wilson (Robert Glenister) and with a newsroom led by the ambitious Paige Britain (Billie Piper). In a story that parallels, but doesn’t quite replicate reality, Britain learns from a concerned reader that it’s very easy to listen into other people’s mobile phone messages – especially if you know the network and the default PINs.

Throw in an Irish proprietor with big television ambitions, a corrupt police force subservient to the press and willing not to investigate unless they really have to, an MPs’ expenses scandal, an inept Metropolitan Police Commissioner, a journalist looking to get scoops by dressing up as an Arab prince (amongst others) and a PM who’s desperate to win the support of the press, and you have… well… something that’s not a million miles off the truth.

Oh yes, and there’s an editor with long curly hair, who simply has no idea how her paper’s stories are being generated and is genuinely shocked when it all comes home to roost!

This is a rambunctious play with everything dialed up to 11. If you’re looking for delicate performances then this really isn’t for you. It’s only a few steps away from some kind of pantomime for Guardian readers (See – I told you it ticked all my boxes). In tone, imagine an elongated version of Drop the Dead Donkey set in a newspaper rather than TV newsroom.

Piper is great playing an over the top, stop-at-nothing career obsessed news editor, never overly concerned with morals, and nearly everything else is played for laughs.

There are some great comic moments. Glenister’s news conferences are basically excuses to crack lots of bawdy gags, and that’s no bad thing. Meanwhile Aaron Neil’s Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sully is just goes from disaster to disaster. Every time he gives a press conference or television interview, you know you’re in for a treat.

The production design is simple but very effective with glass walls doubling as office dividers and projection screens for interstitial videoed sequences. These include Free Press TV ads (“Is your vicar on gaydar? We have the answers.”) through other newspapers’ headlines (“Guardener: We think, so you don’t have to,” and a Daily Wail who’s headline has to include the word “Immigrant” regardless of the story), and short video extracts from TV news or in one wonderful scene a select committee.

Overall, it’s a very fun way to spend an evening, even if it’s not the greatest piece of work ever. It encapsulates the madness and hideousness of the whole phone hacking debacle, and is generally a good night out. The rapid response nature of the production feels smart too. So it’s perhaps not surprising that there’s already a West End transfer taking place.

London Live

I’ll begin by admitting that I’m not and have never been a fan of former Department of Culture, Media and Sport minister Jeremy Hunt’s plans for local television. I think it speaks volumes that when the applications went in, there were remarkably few radio or newspaper groups involved in bids. Here are media organisations already in those communities with resources that could be shared across platforms, and yet they mostly stayed away.

In general, I believe that in 2014, if I want to start a TV station based on a local community, there’s very little to stop me. I certainly don’t government incentives to force the issue.

The one city I thought might be able to get things to work was London. Certainly there had been past failures, but I still feel that a city the size of London should be able to support some kind of local TV presence. The question is whether London Live is the right presence.

The fact that it comes from the same stable as the London Evening Standard (and The Independent) should have meant that it could share resources. The Standard, which as managed to turn around its fortunes by going free, still has a sizeable reporting staff who could potentially serve dual duty.

But the direction that London Live has gone, is not quite in keeping with that view. Starting anything other than a very focused channel seems a foolish thing to do in today’s age. Are you a news channel? An entertainment channel? Do you serve a demographic niche? London Live feels as though it’s trying to be all of these, and that’s just not way channels operate today. Yes, it’s smart trying to reflect the young and ethnically diverse audience that reflect London to a greater extent than more mainstream broadcasters. But they should have honed the offering more.

The trouble is that television is expensive. And that’s why many radio and newspaper groups didn’t bid. So you end up having hours to fill with little money to do so. In London Live’s case that means repeats of dramas and comedies from the BBC and Channel 4 set in and around London.

Then there were the mistakes like going onto the television ratings system BARB too early. On the one hand, getting BARB figures means that you can start to sell advertising to big agencies, it also means that anyone can look at some of your dismal performances. For a fledgling TV service that is only really available in one part of one region to go onto a national ratings service feels foolhardy. It would have been more sensible to get up and running before paying significantly for BARB ratings.

Now we read that London Live has applied to significantly vary its licence to remove lots of the local programming its made from the schedules – including peak. Partly, that’s probably the right thing to do. All those cheaply made documentaries on food, music and entertainment are probably not worthwhile. But on the other hand, they could be doing other things differently. Their most serious news programmes go out in the middle of the day. Why not the evening? And why even bother competing with the BBC and ITV during the 6.00-7.00pm hour? Instead, use the fact that Londoners have a longer rush “hour” than many other parts of the country, and that we’re not all home available to view at 6.30pm. Put something on at 7.00pm. And then repeat it at 8.00pm and 9.00pm. It can still be a bit entertainment led if need be. I’m not expecting hard news. But something reflecting the very broad diaspora of London.

There is a common argument that London is too big to be “local”, but however you define it, people want to know what’s going on around them.

And be prepared to drop everything to broadcast non-stop at a major breaking news event. Sure, you won’t have the manpower or resource of BBC News or Sky News, but social media means everyone can get involved.

A few other pointers:

- If you’re going to buy series like The Shadow Line or Ultraviolet, then sort out your EPG so it includes episode numbers. I know that they’re getting plenty of repeats, but if I can’t work out where to start, then I’m not going to watch a serialised shows. (Yes, the online schedule has this detail, but it’s missing on the Sky EPG).

- I wouldn’t really expect an HD version of a startup channel like London Live, but don’t go for the cheapest carriage possible. The SD encoding of London Live on satellite looks dreadful. Think about how many of your urban affluent viewers have large TVs to show up this shortcoming. It makes viewing painful.

- And The Evening Standard really needs to change how it treats London Live. Yes, plug it daily. But don’t put it to the left of BBC1, BBC2, ITV and C4. That’s nonsense. It’s not more important than those – it needs to earn its place with your readers. Certainly include it – Murdoch titles long ago added Sky 1 just past Channel 5, but even they didn’t somehow make out the channel was “bigger” than the terrestrials. Similarly, don’t try to make some TV previewer find something worthwhile to watch every night on your channel. There’s only so many times an old episode of Peep Show can be considered as one of the best things to watch tonight on telly – even in the height of the summer.

If Ofcom does allow London Live to substantially vary its schedule it’ll be interesting to see what happens in its place. Because if it’s just going to end up a low-rent version of Dave or Comedy Central, then it won’t be able to compete – and it shouldn’t be able to. Those are better funded and much more focused channels. Let’s not forget that ventures like this are receiving £40m of Licence Fee money – £25m for transmission costs (via Comux), and £15m for acquisition from the local TV operators. Incidentally, it’d be good to know what the BBC has acquired thus far for rebroadcasting…

If you were going to start with a local “TV” service today, my first thought is that it wouldn’t be on television – not in the traditional sense. I’d start a YouTube channel and let Google pay for my distribution costs (and viewers through their ISP subscriptions). I therefore don’t need to fill 24 hours of every day with something – just a tightly produced ten minutes daily, or less, would suffice. I’d get interested locals to help, and local colleges and universities.

Using YouTube, I’d automatically find myself “available” on every digital platform as well as many smart TVs (and non-smart ones via Chromecast etc). I’d build a social media presence – Facebook and Twitter would be a large part of the operation.

Indeed I’d do what a large number of enterprising people are already doing – the so-called “YouTubers”.

Elsewhere: Roy Greenslade picks up on a good piece from John Myers on the lack of viability of these channels’ business plans.

Au Revoir Le Tour

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 3 - Cambridge to London-10

The third and final stage of this year’s Tour de France in the UK was the fast(ish) and flat Cambridge to London run. And this time, I actually cycled out to meet the Tour from home. That meant carrying just a small camera, and unfortunately the proof is in the pudding. I entirely missed taking a photo of the breakaway because I didn’t have my camera out. And the photos I did manage aren’t always in focus. C’est la vie!

What was great fun afterwards, was cycling a 10km or so stretch of the route back into town. It was completely closed to traffic, so it was just a question of cycling past many village parties getting the odd cheer or high five.

All in all, a wonderful three days.

Come back soon!

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 3 - Cambridge to London-2

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 3 - Cambridge to London-8

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 3 - Cambridge to London-11

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 3 - Cambridge to London-15

More photos on Flickr.

Tour de France 2014 Stage 1 – Yorkshire En Fête

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 1 - Leeds to Harrogate-5

Depart London 5am.

Arrive North Yorkshire 9.30am.

Get lost a little because of road closures, and then find a nice little place to park. Then take a three mile hike onto Grinton Moor (or Cote de Griton Moor as the French both renamed and mispelled it).

Realise that you really should have brought your bike in the small hire car you rented because nearly everyone else is cycling.

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 1 - Leeds to Harrogate-7

Find a spot that’s actually significantly above the official finish of the category 3 climb (Nope – I’ve no idea why they didn’t put it at the actual top).

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 1 - Leeds to Harrogate-16

Delight in discovering that your portable TV works and gets good reception to watch live ITV/ITV4 coverage while you wait – remembering that there’s only a two hour or so battery life.

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 1 - Leeds to Harrogate-23

Watch the very prepared Scottish chap next to you paint an elaborate King of the Mountains jersey on the road using special spray can chalk, that washes away in the rain, that he bought specially from Germany.

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 1 - Leeds to Harrogate-24

Watch two very industrious little girls spend many hours writing the name of every cyclist they – or their father – can think of. Ironically one of the names is that of Jens Voigt, who was captured right in front of us, after yet another heroic escape that saw him take the King of the Mountains jersey.

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 1 - Leeds to Harrogate-26

Take photos.

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 1 - Leeds to Harrogate-31

Walk back to the car in time to watch the last 10km on your portable TV, including Mark Cavendish’s terribly unlucky crash.

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Drive to hotel.

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Discover hotel’s WiFi is down. But Leeds’ 4G is good (on EE). 0.5GB of photos uploaded.

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Rinse and repeat.

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 1 - Leeds to Harrogate-39

Twice.

Tour de France 2014 - Stage 1 - Leeds to Harrogate-46

Plenty more photos on Flickr.

Big Data Really Works

Two great examples!

Despite a wealth of left-leaning and liberal titles bought from Amazon over the years, yesterday they sent me this special one day deal:

farage

More on the money was the fact that I like a bit of folk music. So a targeted Amazon folk email seems sensible, especially as it highlights the brand new Bellowhead album, Revival, that was released this week.

amazon2

However I actually pre-ordered and bought the album from Amazon – I received it on Monday!

OK. The Kindle daily ebook email is a standard thing and it’s the same for everybody. For whatever reason Amazon chose a Nigel Farage title to promote yesterday. Today it’s a Jeffrey Archer novel incidentally. Not sure what that says about the Kindle team’s political leanings.

And the reason for the Bellowhead duplicate? Well I bought the “deluxe” edition (i.e. with an extra CD), and I’ve no doubt that Amazon’s system somehow sees this as a different product altogether. After all, it has a different ASIN (Amazon product identifier).

On DAB and Five Live

It was a really interesting day for radio today with several important announcements.

Of most interest to me was the formal announcement of the advertisement for a second national DAB multiplex. You may remember that back in 2007, this multiplex was previously advertised with Channel 4 winning it ahead of NGW the transmission supplier (since bought by Arqiva). Channel Four promised a lot, but after winning the bid, the whole thing fell apart when Channel 4 decided it needed to shore up its television offering without heading out into the great unknown of radio. The timing probably wasn’t great, just ahead of the 2008 downturn. And indeed, shortly thereafter, the existing national DAB operator, Digital One, was struggling to fill its capacity.

Ofcom went away a bit battered and bruised from the experience, and it’s clear that they weren’t going to return to the field of play until they could be certain that a new licensee would launch successfully with a range of services.

Flash forward to today and Ofcom is again announcing a second national multiplex. Given where we are today, and the fact that Digital One is full, I don’t anticipate any problems finding bidders and filling this multiplex with services.

As is required by law, the winner will be awarded the multiplex via a “beauty contest.” That is, what in Ofcom’s view is the best mix of services appealing to a wide range of audiences, as well as having a sound business plan and a plan to roll out the service to a good proportion of the population.

Interestingly, while the multiplex as a whole needs to be complementary – i.e. services all need to be a bit different – you can directly target services carried on Digital One.

One other thing I noticed is that in Annex I of the announcement, Ofcom lists the currently licenced services on Digital One. These include:
“TBA: A service featuring music from the 70s, 80s and early 90s with particular appeal to audiences aged 35-54.”

The mooted Heart Club Classics/Heart Extra that has yet to launch from Global? Or the also mooted move of Magic to a national DAB platform? [See comments below]

Allied with this announcement is a revised set of technical requirements for DAB. They’re mostly important but minor things that I won’t comment on further here. But of particular note is the fact that D2 can use up to 30% of the new multiplex’s capacity for DAB+ broadcasts. What’s really strange is that they’ve limited it at all. It seems that pretty much everyone who responded to Ofcom’s initial consultation on this matter thought that there really shouldn’t be a limit to this and the market will dictate it.

This is certainly true. Trials aside, a broadcaster is very unlikely to broadcast in DAB+ until they are certain that there are a decent number of potential listeners in the marketplace with compatible sets. If nobody can hear you, then you can’t make your commercial station work. Broadcasters can make that decision for themselves.

Ofcom is going to look again at the limit in 2018. Which is fine, but feels like it’s making work where none is really necessary and overall is a little nannyish.

And DAB+ is only going to be initially allowed on D2. For everyone else, you have to apply to Ofcom on a case by case basis if you want to either launch a new service in DAB+ on your existing multiplex, or switch your current one to the new technology. Again it feels over-regulated. If allowed to do as they liked, broadcasters would very carefully weigh up the pros and cons of switching technologies, well aware of the fact that they would almost certainly lose audience at this stage. Ofcom somehow thinks that broadcasters might deprive listeners of current DAB services by replacing them with DAB+ ahead of consumer uptake. Again, that’s wrong thinking.

That all said, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a test here or there on a multiplex that otherwise has plenty of space.

Let’s not get too side-tracked about the relative merits of DAB and DAB+. I always feel that it should be likened to Freeview and Freeview HD. If you’re still watching digital television using a first generation OnDigital box, then your viewing is pretty limited now [Update: Thanks to James Hamilton for letting me know that those old OnDigital boxes were completely broken by DSO if they hadn't been already]. Today, however, pretty much every television comes with Freeview HD built in, and many can also receive Freeview Connect and similar streaming services. As for the range of channels? Well nobody is going to get too excited by Channel 4+1 HD or 4seven HD which were recently announced as coming soon to Freeview. But that’s a commercial decision for channel operators and multiplex owner Arqiva.

Anyway, if you want to bid for the second national DAB multiplex, you have until the end of October to get your application in with your £50,000 application fee.

The other big news was the announcement of major changes across BBC Radio Five Live’s weekday daytime output. This sees the departure of big hitters like Victoria Derbyshire, Shelagh Fogarty and Richard Bacon.

The station is shrinking three shows down to two – which I imagine is part of their DQF savings – with the multiple-award winning Derbyshire being replaced by Adrian Chiles for part of the week and Peter Allen for the other part of the week. Once ITV’s contract with the Champions’ League has ended, Chiles is going to have more time to do things like radio, although there’s still a season of that to run, so Chiles may be heading to Manchester airport sharpish on Tuesdays if he’s still in the chair for away games next season.

The morning show extends to three hours, and then an extended afternoon show begins with Dan Walker and Sarah Brett replacing Richard Bacon. I’ve always liked Richard Bacon, as he knows his stuff – but he’s perhaps not the world’s greatest sports fan which can be a problem on Five Live. And sometimes he feels a little uncomfortable during breaking news when he has to segue seamlessly from what’s on TV this week to some court case verdict. There were rumours that he was up for ITV’s breakfast relaunch. One way or another, he’s going to pop up somewhere else fairly soon, I’ve no doubt. On Twitter this afternoon, Bacon said that it was his choice to leave Five Live.

I’d also imagine that Victoria Derbyshire and Shelagh Fogarty will show up either on Radio 4 or TV fairly soon, with an unnamed TV news project for Derbyshire first up.

Perhaps, because this would seem to remove some high profile women from the schedule, as well as Sarah Brett co-presenting afternoons with Dan Walker, Eleanor Oldroyd gets a Friday lunchtime show ahead of the still-two-hours Mayo and Kermode Film Review.

The lack of solo female shows is also going to be highlighted, with two staples disappearing, especially following previous announcements that suggested the BBC wanted a much more even male/female presenting split. I’d also argue that lack of racial diversity might also be an issue.

Tony Livesey is perhaps the big winner. He’s progressed from late nights, to weekend breakfast, and now taking over Drive with Anna Foster. While I can never quite forget that he was once the editor of the Sunday Sport and famously appeared in a Channel Four Cutting Edge documentary about the paper. But he’s very good, and will slide pretty comfortably into the role.

There are a range of other changes including a new pair of Fighting Talk presenters for next season, as well as some other presentational changes. Five Live certainly doesn’t do things by halves.

As a fairly regular listener – it’s my default station – I’ll be paying close attention!

Disclaimer: As always, these are my views, and they do not reflect those of any past or current employer. They are mine alone. Just so we’re clear! Also, I listen to a lot of Five Live.

Podcasting – What Next?

Tomorrow evening, there’s a Radio Academy event taking place in London looking at podcasting. As I’ve written previously, you always feel that podcasting is the perennial bridesmaid and never the bride in the digital media, and digital audio world.

I suppose I’ve been thinking a little more about it recently because one of my favourite podcasts has stopped production. The Guardian recently ceased its regular weekly Media Talk podcast, for reasons never quite specified. One can imagine that it was financial though, with the podcast taking some time, and perhaps more importantly some production money to make each week. And in return, they were probably seeing little direct financial benefit. Sadly it does sometimes feel that the only people who truly believe in podcast advertising over time have been Audbible, and latterly Squarespace. And those deals are almost certainly all direct response.

As my past piece said, there are some fundamental issues with making money from podcasting, and I can only think that these are partially the reason why the Guardian made its decision.

Media podcasts interlude

As for Media Talk? Well it’s reappeared in an entirely unrelated guise as The Media Podcast. But there’s a difference – Matt Hill who produces it, and previously produced the Guardian’s podcast, has decided that crowdfunding is the way forward. He’s duly launched a Kickstarter to make a year’s supply of programmes. That’s actually a pretty modest £9,000 that he’s trying to raise. Nobody is getting rich off the back of this, but it costs money to host audio and find studio space.

Anyway, at time of writing they’re at about a third of the money needed, with just sixteen days to go. So get over there and give it some love. While we all enjoy The Media Show on Radio 4, they’re much drier, and sometimes spend just a bit too much time on certain subjects (Yes – I’m talking about a replacement for the PCC. Honestly, thinking of news media as just the press is so outdated. Never mind what happens if The Sun prints something untrue, what about if Buzzfeed gets it wrong?). And obviously, the programme was certainly “inspired” by hearing the Guardian’s podcast.

Anyway, let’s have some choice. (And yes, I know there’s the Media Focus podcast too!)

What next?

Given the need for advertisers to have some kind of proof of delivery – regardless of whether or not those digital ads they are buying are actually delivered – and The Ad Contrarian is well worth a read on this – it does seem leave the idea of ad-supported podcasting in something of a flux, with its lack of proof-of-delivery. Indeed it’s sometimes a worry that a new release of iTunes might actually push podcasting down in their hieracrchy. For an example of this look how iTunes Radio has become “Radio”, while actual broadcast radio services became “Internet Radio”.

Assuming that it costs me to make a podcast, and ideally I’d like to at least cover my costs, employ talent and production people to make it properly, and invest in kit to deliver a decent audio quality, and pay for my hosting, even a modest means of making money would be great.

So what’s to be done?

Well I suspect that podcasting will never be completely mainstream, but it can be super-niche. And that doesn’t mean that those super-niche audiences shouldn’t be considered very valuable. They can be very valuable indeed. A year or two ago, I was producing a session for the Radio Festival and that session’s speaker was Google’s Matt Britten, VP for Northern and Central Europe. It turned out that he listened to Media Talk – a valuable listener indeed.

And it was interesting to hear Emily Bell in the final edition of the Guardian’s podcast suggest that there’s been something of a resurgence in the form in the US. Incidently, the much suggested Slate Money podcast with Felix Salmon is an excellent addition to my listening. Slate is obviously ad-funded, but they also have a listener subscription scheme to remove the ads and for some of their podcasts, add additional segments.

Slate’s subscriptions are voluntary, but another option is that taken by Velocast, a cycling podcast I’ve listened to in the past. They offer a selection of cycling podcasts based on a monthly fee. It seems to be a successful plan, although I must admit that I currently only hear the free daily news edition they put out.

Rumour has it that Apple is trying to help boost its podcast section of iTunes. They could provide some generic information about how much people actually listen to the podcasts, and other metrics that they almost certainly have from their iOS device usage stats. While that would only be part of the overall podcast audience – ignoring usage on other operating systems such as Android, and usage in apps outside of iTunes (e.g. Stitcher) – it would still be very indicative, and might help podcasters monetise their productions.

So is the future for podcasting bright or not?

I don’t know.

Looking beyond the regular ad-supported model does feel to be the way to go right now. And perhaps in a world where every part of the internet is trying to support itself with advertising, that’s right.

Overall, I’m modestly upbeat.

Future Thinking and Unthinking

A couple of big US tech firms made some big announcements today.

Amazon will get the lion’s share of attention for its new Amazon Fire Phone. Essentially it’s a mini version of their Kindle Fire, using their forked version of Android, but with a phone. The big excitement is that it’s 3D. Well all phones are, but this one has four front facing cameras to do all sorts of clever things with.

From a technical perspective it’s mildly interesting, although there are some fundamental problems.

- The kind of person most likely to be interested in this kind of future-thinking in phones, is likely to be the sort of person who understands the benefits of adopting a regular Android or iOS device. There are many more apps, and much more support.

- The Firefly feature – which uses Amazon’s cloud resources to identify objects that you scan with the phone – seems to be a way to turn the remaining shops on our high streets into showrooms. Jeff Bezos demoed the phone scanning a physical book. You can then buy the book on Amazon, either the physical product or a Kindle version. You can just imagine that those remaining shops on the high street, who already probably have enough customers checking their phones to see if the book they want is cheaper online, will be thrilled that this job is being made easier. And the same goes for other kinds of businesses.

- I’m very surprised that the phone is only being made available, at least initially, with a single mobile supplier. At this point, only a US release has been announced, and Amazon can be quite slow rolling our products internationally (no sign yet of the Amazon Fire TV). But if this is to be a mass market product, then making it available on a single network on contract only, really isn’t the way to go. It’s old school thinking. Other Amazon devices have really attempted to fight on price. But as Rory Cellan Jones points out in his piece, the price that Amazon is selling their phone at is the same as the high end iPhone 5S or Samsung Galaxy 5. One school of thought is that it needs retailers to demo the 3D nature of the device as it’s just not easy to see on the web, hence the deal with AT&T. But surely it should be sold SIM free and unlocked? Sure – do deals with networks too. By going with a single network, you’re automatically excluding a large number of potential customers. For lots of reasons, many don’t want to change networks.

Elsewhere, Adobe was announcing a major update of its Creative Cloud applications. That’s essentially everything that Adobe makes.

- A major part of the revamp is mobile. Indeed the Adobe presenters were careful to say the generic “mobile devices” rather than any specific manufacturer’s devices. But that’s a bit strange because every mobile app they demonstrated was iOS only. And while I completely understand that the design community is heavily Apple focused, I’m not sure that’s still true in the mobile space. Indeed their key desktop applications are ALL made available for both Windows and Mac. So why Android is missing is beyond me. Yes – at some point – there’ll be an Android version of Lightroom. But there’s been no mention, so far, of any other apps for Android.

Still, I will point out that if you’re into photography, their $9.99 a month (+VAT) is really good value for Photoshop and Lightroom. They’ve now made that a fulltime offering.