Streaming TV Boxes

So here’s a question. You live in the UK, and you want to buy a cheap streaming box to pop under your TV and get all the main channels. Perhaps you don’t have a smart TV, or it’s not smart enough and doesn’t have the features you really want. There’s a plethora of devices hitting the market. Which should you get?

For the sake of this piece, I’m going to suggest that you’re particularly interested in having access to:

– BBC iPlayer
– Netflix
– Amazon
– Now TV

That’s not a complete list by any means, but a device that worked with all of those services would be really useful and I would suspect cover most people’s bases. iPlayer is free for licence fee payers. Netflix and Now TV let you subscribe for short periods of time – binge House of Cards or watch Super Sunday on Sky Sports. And Amazon bundles Instant Video with Prime, or will sell you films on a pay-per-view basis.

Well there’s a problem, because there’s not actually a box or stick that natively supports all of those devices (at time of writing). There are workarounds involving laptops, tablets or phones. But I’m after something that natively streams from all four services.

I spent a bit of time and came up with this table. You’ll note that I’ve actually looked at a wider number of apps/services. You’ll also note that it’s not all black and white.

DevicePrice (RRP)WiFiEthernetBBC iPlayerITV Player4ODDemand 5NetflixAmazonNow TVPlexYouTube
Now TV£19.99Single BandNYYYYNNYY (hack)Y
Amazon Fire TV£79.99Dual BandYYN (STV)NYYYNYN (web)
Amazon Stick£35.00Dual BandNYN (STV)NYYYNYN (web)
Chromecast£30.00Single BandNYN*N*N*YN*YYY
Nexus Player£79.99Dual BandNYNNN*YN*YYY
Roku 3£99.99Dual BandYYYYNYNYYY
Apple TV£59.00Dual BandYN*N*NN*YN*YN (partial hack)Y

* You can access services using screen-sharing technology either using AirPlay Mirroring or by Casting a tab in Google Chrome. However this can mean slower response times and reduced battery life. It also means having access to third party devices within the same ecosystem.

Obviously, if you live within a single ecosystem such as iTunes or Google Play, then devices within those ecosystems work well. But I’m going to assume that not every TV show or film you want to watch is in iTunes or Google Play. You’re going to need a variety of options.

Perhaps the closest any of these devices gets to meeting my not-unreasonable needs is the most expensive – the Roku 3. But it fails the Amazon hurdle – I have Amazon Prime, why wouldn’t I want access to that?

Now TV is great and very cheap – the price quoted here will come bundled with some limited vouchers for films or entertainment (watch all of Game of Thrones for example). It’s actually a Roku box built to Sky’s specifications. But Sky, who owns Now TV, isn’t interested in supporting rivals Netflix or Amazon. There is hack which allows you to get into the box’s development mode and install things like Plex. You really can’t complain about the price – they even bundle an HDMI cable. Note that they will make you register with a credit card for their services, but you can cancel these afterwards.

Amazon’s Fire TV would be a good bet, but it fails on Now TV. That might just be a question of Sky not having produced an app for it yet. Were they to do that it might become the winner! However, other UK channels have been slow supporting it. iPlayer was late to the party but is there now. However for ITV Player you have to hack around and use the Scottish STV player. On launching it, the first thing it asks is for a postcode – give it a fake Scottish one or you won’t get access. There’s no bespoke YouTube app which is poor, and the Vimeo app that is there is a bit rubbish compared with the same offering on Now TV.

The real question must be why you would buy it ahead of the upcoming much cheaper Amazon Stick which is half the price. Indeed it was available for a couple of days for just £20 as part of a limited deal. Well the included remote doesn’t have voice search, and it has less memory and a lower-powered processor. But it looks like a bargain if they can get those other services working.

Chromecast works in a slightly different way to the rest of this set in that it requires an Android device (phone or tablet) to properly use. Some apps have Chromecast built in – meaning that throwing programming to your TV is easy, and the data actually streams direct and not via your device saving you battery power. For non-optimised apps, it’s possible to cast your entire tab. But that’s not a great experience. While I’d be happy to do it for a presentation or something, I wouldn’t use it to watch Bosch on Amazon Prime video. Chromecast works really well with the Google ecosystem of course, and things like Google Play Music work wonderfully.

Apple TV also talks wonderfully to Apple devices. But it’s nobbled by the lack of British apps. There’s no iPlayer which is critical, and nor is there Amazon. You can use AirPlay Mirroring, but that requires another device, and is sub-optimal. But it’s perfect for iTunes of course, and even on a PC, you can fire off music or video to it directly. But if you’re about to buy one, you should know that there’s a much updated model due later this year. (I did laugh recently when someone moaned that the recently announced HBO Now app was US only. Er, well Now TV has a native app, and you can watch nearly everything from HBO via that for less than HBO Now will cost a month.)

The upcoming Nexus player would seem to have the same set of apps as Chromecast, but removes the requirement for an Android device to control it – you get a remote. And like some of the other pricier boxes, has an ethernet port in case WiFi near your television isn’t what you’d want it to be.

The Roku 3 is the most expensive device here, and I included it just to compare it with the rest. There are cheaper Roku options though. It is fully featured but bizarrely fails the Amazon test as mentioned.

For me personally, none of these devices actually meets my needs as I’ve alluded to. I’ve managed to accumulate three of them over time, usually taking advantage of special offers. I have them all attached – via an HDMI switch – to my smaller TV.

Now TV does well with UK channels like ITV Player and 4OD (soon to be All4 for reasons that still escape me), where others fail, and it curiously has the best app for Vimeo. Amazon Fire TV is beautifully made device, and voice search works well. The games are all rubbish and all seem to be “freemium” – stick to mobile or consoles. But it works great with Netflix as well as its own Amazon service. It talks nicely to my Plex server too. And I have some music on their cloud courtesy of CDs and downloads I’ve bought over the years. But most of my music is on Google, so Chromecast wins there. It also has the best YouTube functionality, and it’s very portable. Throw one in your bag when you’re travelling (although Amazon’s newly announced hotel-friendly WiFi signing in update sounds very useful practically for travel).

What this does all show is that however good the hardware is, and however cheap you make it, it’s really about who you’ve done deals with. I think this is the difficulty that largely American tech firms have in the UK. Have they made enough effort to get services on board? Apple would probably have shifted a lot more Apple TVs if they’d ever properly integrated BBC iPlayer into it. But they haven’t.

Depending on your use case, different boxes might work for you. I’ve completely ignored games here for example. And as I’ve mentioned, where you keep your music might make a difference to you (I have my music duplicated locally on iTunes and in the cloud with Google Music. I use the latter almost exclusively). I’ve not talked about Spotify or Sonos for example. Or your TV, games console or BluRay player might do the trick, and you don’t need one of these boxes. But keep an eye out for special offers as nearly all of these devices have been sold at lower prices than presented here.

Why Doesn’t The Chart Show Adopt An Opening Weekend Model?

This week came news that with the change in release dates of music – shifting from Mondays to Fridays on a global basis – the Radio 1 Official Chart Show will likewise shift. So that instead of going out at the end of the previous week (i.e. the previous Sunday to Saturday) it will air on Friday evenings and represent sales/streams from the previous seven days (i.e. the previous Friday to Thursday).

While this sort of makes sense, I think I’d have shaken up how UK charts are compiled.

The reason for the move to Fridays is apparently because so much more music is sold at weekends, and they can sync worldwide releases together on that day. I must admit that I used to enjoy a Monday lunchtime mooch around HMV – while there still were a reasonable number of HMVs – but I understand that Friday makes sense in an online world. Video games have been released on Fridays for years for the same reason.

But it’s all about immediacy these days, and I’d look to how cinema works. Instead of getting a full week of box offices, we actually get the opening weekend the following Monday/Tuesday. Yes, some distributors mess around by having “previews” the weekend before, or releasing a film on Wednesday to give them 5 rather than 3 days opening. But effectively we’re looking at three day totals when we see cinema top tens. Those who go to the cinema on Monday-Thursdays get added into the following week’s release.

So I’d do the same with the charts. I’d shift to an “opening weekend” model. You’d still get a Sunday teatime chart show, with the advantage that you could highlight the big new releases from Friday and see where they’ve got to while they’re completely fresh. Sales data can be generated pretty instantly these days, so the chart could be compiled at the last minute, giving two and a half days of data. And Sundays are just better for listening than Friday early evenings when there are more distractions.

Then in place of the current Wednesday “Chart Update”, I’d run something that would have a better name than “the consolidated chart” which actually had a full week’s worth of data. Ideally it’d run Thursday evening, but Friday lunchtime/afternoon would be fine too.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the commercial Big Top 40. I reckon they’ll go alone and stick with the Sunday show and do a three day model. That way, they can get in first with big new singles going to number one five days before they do the same on Radio 1. That’s got to give them a massive competitive advantage, even though I realise chart shows aren’t what they once were.

I’m old enough to be the sort of person who compiled my own “Now”-style cassette compilations – sitting there with my JVC radio cassette player, finger hovering over the Pause button to remove as much of Richard Skinner or Bruno Brookes as possible, then realising I didn’t want that song and carefully re-spooling the cassette with a pencil to get to the precise point for the next single. The chart show was also basically the background to my weekend homework – it was Sunday early evening and obviously I still hadn’t done it!.The next generation needs a chart to do its homework to!

[Updated to correct chart collection days. Cheers Sam]

Watching HD TV

At home, I have two ways to watch broadcast HD television. I can either watch via Freeview or Sky HD (Strictly speaking, my TV also has Freesat built in, but I’ve never enabled it).

In a Freeview world, should I chose to watch one of the biggest channels: BBC1, BBC2, ITV, C4 or C5 I can do one of two things:

– I can go to channels 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 for SD video
– Or if I care about HD, I can go to 101, 102, 103 or 104 (Channel 5 chose not to be in HD on Freeview for financial reasons)

It’s a pretty simple choice, and the numbers aren’t hard to remember. Freeview puts all its HD channels in one place. Additional HD channels are available between 105 and 111, with the HD versions of CBeebies and CBBC placed in amongst the children’s section in the 120s.

But I spend most of my time within the Sky world because it lets me record. And with Sky HD, it’s more complicated:

– For mostly SD channels, I go to 101, 102, 103, 104 or 105 for SD video. Except BBC2 is in HD.
– For HD channels, I go to 141, 102, 178, 227 or 171.

Huh? That’s not very intuitive. I have a big HD TV set (the average set sold these days is over 40″), so why doesn’t everything default to HD?

The main reason is cost.

All the major TV broadcasters have regional variants, and each one requires an additional broadcast stream. That means quite a lot of money spent on satellite feeds. Sky will happily serve audiences with the right version dependent on their subscribers’ postcodes, but the costs are not to be sniffed at. ITV has 23 different regions, with sub-opts within some larger regions sometimes offering localised news, but all offering localised advertising. BBC One, meanwhile, has 18 regions (all of which can be found from 950 onwards on Sky), and BBC Two has four – one for each nation. Both Channel Four and Channel 5 sell regional advertising and have several versions too.

Broadcasters have not yet paid for simulcasts of every one of those channels in HD. And because either localised news or advertising is deemed to be very important, the default versions of channels they supply – even to HD homes – is usually the SD version of the channel. That’s because they want to maximise local ad ratings. The HD versions will have London/national advertising. And for BBC One, there’s those awkward empty segments where the local news would be. The exception is BBC Two which only has four variants and carries some specific non-news nations programming. BBC2 HD England has been made available, with other nations currently getting SD – hence me getting BBC2 HD on 102. On the other hand, the other nations get BBC1 in HD whereas in England, we don’t.

Sky allows broadcasters to chose which version of their channels get highest billing. If you have a simple non-regionalised channel in both SD and HD, channels usually choose to place their HD version in the lower EPG slot in HD homes and the SD version in non-HD homes. They call this channel swapping.

The second reason for poor EPG positioning is a choice made by broadcasters.

EPG positions are paramount, and broadcasters hoard them carefully – the lower the numbers the better. The PSBs get 101 to 105 on Sky by right. Sky itself has the next batch, and it’s notable that most of the most watched channels appear at the top of EPGs in the lower positions. But broadcasters can shuffle their own decks, and that leads to some odd things.

ITV offers the following to HD homes on Sky:

- 103 ITV (SD)
– 118 ITV2 HD
– 119 ITV3 HD
– 120 ITV4 HD
– 123 ITV Encore HD
– 131 ITV+1 (SD)
- 178 ITV HD
– 179 ITV Be (SD)
– 180 ITV2+1 (SD)
– 193 ITV3+1 (SD)
– 206 ITV4+1 (SD)
– 207 ITV Be+1 (SD)
– 208 ITV Encore+1 (SD)
– 225 ITV2 (SD)

The ITV2-4 variants are Sky HD exclusive, and ITV Encore is available only to Sky subscribers in either SD or HD versions. And ITV Be doesn’t have an HD version on Sky, but does on Virgin Media!

This leads to the oddity that in Sky HD homes, ITV2, 3, and 4 are much more obvious in HD than the main channel. Indeed ITV+1 is considered more important than ITV HD judging by EPG positions. I assume careful analysis of BARB TV ratings has been used to make this decision, because it would imply that a show on ITV gets more share from a +1 channel than the HD version. If that’s not the case, then they should swap them.

Still, ITV is positively sensible compared with Channel 4’s line-up:

- 104 Channel 4 (SD)
– 135 Channel 4+1 (SD)
– 136 E4 HD
– 137 E4+1 (SD)
– 138 More 4 HD
– 139 More 4+1 (SD)
– 140 4seven (SD)
– 202 E4 (SD)
- 227 Channel 4 HD
– 231 More 4 (SD)
– 315 Film 4 HD
– 316 Film 4+1 (SD)
– 342 Film 4 (SD)
– 360 4 Music (SD)

Aside from the film and music channels, Channel 4 can reshuffle this deck to their liking pretty much. So why on earth is Channel 4 HD buried in an EPG position beyond 200? Are they really saying that E4+1 or More 4+1’s channel positions are more important? Do they offer greater share than Channel 4 HD? If not, then they should reshuffle their deck.

The question then is when are broadcasters going to upgrade their offerings?

icmr-3.7

According to recent Ofcom research, 70% of UK homes have an HD TV, yet only 45% have an HD service.

There are probably reasons for this. While it’s just about impossible to buy a non-HD TV today, there are older and cheaper models in the marketplace. Older sets and set-top boxes aren’t HD compatible, while Sky charges a premium for HD.

Looking at Sky’s 2014 Annual Report it would seem to infer (P138) that of their 10.7m homes, 5.2m have Sky+HD, or 49% of Sky’s customers.

You would imagine that with Sky’s next update, more of their customers will have HD than not. So broadcasters might want to showcase their HD offerings a little more visibly.

It’s a shame that there’s not a technically smarter solution – perhaps having a flag on the HD channel that points to SD programming at certain points to show the right programming.

And incidentally, if HD satellite capacity is expensive, how on earth is this going to work with 4K? Good luck getting your regional news in 4K via a broadcast platform any time soon!

In the meantime, it’s a bit like the old days of Ceefax: I have to keep a load of numbers in my head to watch the big channels in HD. That’s a poor solution.

[Updated following Chris’s comment below]

Trademark Issues Ahead?

Mobile operator Orange – now EE – has recently ended its sponsorship of UK cinemas’ “Orange Wednesdays” which for ten years got you 2 for 1 cinema tickets every Wednesday – a day which is traditionally a quiet day with new releases coming just ahead.

So it was interesting to read that the replacement is to be “Meerkat Movies.” Now, instead of having to be either an Orange customer, or just keeping an Orange SIM handy for the very purpose, you need to buy a qualifying product through Comparethemarket.com and, via an app, you’ll be entitled to 2 for 1 cinema tickets every Tuesday or Wednesday.

A couple of things strike me about this:

– It’s probably going to be a bit harder to find a qualifying product than it is to hang onto a SIM card with a couple of quid solely for the purposes of getting cheap tickets. So even though the promotion works two days a week, I’d imagine there’ll be far fewer people using the offer.

– More importantly “Meerkat Movies” must surely raise issues for the up and coming Meerkat app, a big hit at SXSW this year. Since that app is all about live streaming – “movies” if you like – then there’s surely potential for confusion in the UK.

It’s early days for both the app and the promotion, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some trademark/copyright “issues” that need sorting out. I’m sure that Comparethemarket has some intellectual property surrounding their comparison website and the characters they use to promote it. On the other hand, Meerkat app will also have IP.

I’m not a copyright lawyer, and have no idea where this will go, but I’d be surprised if nothing at all happened…

US Podcasting Developments

Like many people since last weekend I’ve been bingeing a series since last weekend. No not the new season of House of Cards, although I will be catching up with that very soon, but Alex Blumberg’s Startup podcast about how to build a startup podcasting company. Very meta.

It’s been sitting there on my phone for many months, unlistened to. But I was pushed into listening after I listened to a recent Slate Money – possibly my favourite podcast right now.

Slate has been busily developing a burgeoning podcast business. Although they’ve been making podcasts for a long time now, in the post-Serial world, things are really taking off. The high CPMs (cost per thousand – the rate that advertisers pay) that podcasts can charge advertisers, the spin-off live events, and the flexibility that audio offers are all being snatched up.

Andy Bowers runs Slate’s podcasting business, and he was on this episode of Slate Money talking about their new “platform” – Panoply. They’re partnering with a number of blue-chip podcast providers with some big names like The New York Times Magazine and Huffington Post, to provide facilities, editorial support and I suspect mostly, advertising sales.

They’ve built a strong podcasting business, but this perhaps allows them to scale it more, and drive listening.

[Side note: I’m not sure about the word “platform”. I think of platforms as new or bespoke technologies. If they were removing mp3 versions of podcasts and using some new technology that embedded imagery, provided metrics about how much of a podcast was actually played, or other “beyond podcast” technologies, then I think “platform” would be right. In reality, I think this is a “podcasting network.” Your mileage may vary.]

And they’re not the only ones. There’s the “Startup” business that has been honestly documented in the podcast I’ve just been listening, and there’s mighty Kickstarter success, Radiotopia (who recently published some interesting numbers about their success to date). Beyond that there are a myriad of different networks of different sizes and specialisms out there.

These would seem to be good times for podcasters.

But I’d like to see more brand advertising on podcasts. The advertisers I’ve personally experienced so far have been direct response advertisers – enter a coupon code for a free trial or money off. So I know all about Audible, Square Space, Mail Chimp and Harry’s – which isn’t even available in the UK. But I’m hearing fewer advertisers who are building brands over the longer period – “You might not be buying a car now, but next time you do, you’ll want a BMW,” or “Why not try our new flavour of Coke?” Neither of these are transactions that you’re likely to complete online. Yet a vast amount of advertising is actually this sort of thing. It’s not trackable via entering a discount code on a website. It just plants the idea that next time you’re thirsty, you’ll drink a Coke rather than a Pepsi.

To help achieve this, another interesting development is that Triton Digital and Edison Research are launching metrics for podcasts. They claim that it is to precisely support this kind of advertising model than big brand advertisers need (they get it from their other media).

Triton and Edison’s aims are bold, and to be welcomed. But I wouldn’t under-estimate the technological challenges of this. The RAIN article above says that there’ll be a combination of client and server side measurements. This suggests perhaps a panel with an apps on their phones or computers to measure listening, allied with data supplied by the podcast providers. Neither is a straightforward task, and the latter suggests that only providers who sign up with the pair will be measured. (Ordinarily you might measure the non-subscribing outlets, but just not publish the data to give them a free ride).

All of this raises a few questions for me:

For these businesses to scale, podcasts need to be made easier to listen to. What are they doing to achieve that? And as I mentioned the other day, there’s the Android problem. Is there an over-arching technical solution to this? A way we can listen on a multiplicity of devices, and importantly, share that audio with others. I’m convinced that shareability is key to podcasting’s growth.

Much of what is happening is, by and large, all happening in the US. What about the rest of the world? Yes, in the UK we speak English too, but there are only so many US political gabfests or whatever that I want to hear! Podcasting is still really driven by radio broadcasters, and the BBC in particular. Crowd-funding notwithstanding, I’m not sure that there is quite the range of advertisers buying into podcasting in the UK or elsewhere in the world, as there is the US.

So the common theme, if there is one, among these developments is that these new businesses are all coming from an NPR background. Does that impact on NPR’s audiences in the longer term? At the moment many of the big podcasts air on NPR stations, but over time that will change. And the NPR audience (or Radio 4 in the UK), is only a fraction of the audio-listening audience. Yes they are wealthy, which is why everyone is clustering around them, but true scale is going to be achieved via mass-market. Who’s targeting the wider population?

I’m excited about the future of podcasting, but I wouldn’t pretend that there aren’t some big challenges.

In particular, I’d like to see more non-broadcaster activity in the UK. Audioboom has made some movements in that area, with its recent deal with Russell Brand (ironically then getting a broadcast on conventional radio via Xfm). But it’s not clear to me yet what Audioboom’s business model really is. It’s certainly changing though.

Then we had The Guardian pull out of a lot of podcasts last year, just around the time that the US podcasting boom was underway. Will they re-evaluate a bit? I note that they’ve just launched a Startup-style behind the scenes podcast documenting an attempt to properly engage the public over Climate Change.

And podcasts are certainly feeding back into radio. According to David Hepworth in his Guardian Guide radio column this week, Radio 4 is looking for its own version of Serial, although it may not be offering quite the same budgets as that series had. At an event at the BBC Radio Theatre earlier this evening, The Media Show’s Steve Hewlett asked Dana Chivvis, producer of Serial, how much it cost. She didn’t know, or wouldn’t say, but spoke of at least two full-time salaries for 15 months plus more production costs – including her own – beyond that. It was not cheap, and they were fortunate to have the backing of the behemoth that is This American Life, even if at 6 million downloads an episode, it has now overtaken its mother-brand.

The really interesting thing is just how important audio remains, with so much of what’s happening in technology revolving around it.

Bosch and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I remain unconvinced about whether or not streaming services are really the future. They’ve certainly had more hits than misses recently, but those will come in due course. “Traditional” media never strived to create a deliberate failure after all.

But that all said, Amazon and Netflix have had a couple of stormers in the last few weeks and I’ve binged both of them. (I dislike the word “binge”, but it’s true that I devoured each series over a single weekend).

Amazon’s big new series is Bosch, a new adaptation of a series of crime novels from Michael Connelly. I watched the pilot last year, and hoped that Amazon would make a full series – which they have duly done.

Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch is a Los Angeles homicide detective. He’s longer in the tooth than many of those around him. The TV Bosch has served in Iraq (in the books it was Vietnam, putting the current literary version of the character as even older).

The magnificently named Titus Welliver plays our eponymous hero. I didn’t know him from anything previously, although it looks like he’s done a fair bit of US TV work. He plays Bosch as quiet and controlled. He doesn’t have a fancy car, but he does have some usual TV detective quirks. He likes jazz, listening on vinyl with an analogue amplifier – valves and everything. And his house reminds you a little of the Stahl House – lots of glass, high in the hills overlooking LA. He lives in this luxury, we are told, because Hollywood turned one of his old cases into a terrible film. He put the money into his home.

The fact that Bosch is an older detective is one of the more pleasing elements of this series. Many of the characters are older, and they feel more real. Amy Aquino is his Lieutenant, not suffering fools too gladly, and Lance Reddick (The Wire, Fringe) is the Deputy Chief, climbing the very greasy pole to the top.

Jamie Hector (also a Wire alumnus) is his partner, and their relationship feels real. He in turn is a properly drawn out character, even if we see less of his personal life.

Meanwhile Bosch has a daughter living with his ex-wife in Las Vegas (Sarah Clarke – known to me as 24’s Nina Myers) who plays cards professionally, using her police profiling skills now for personal gain. Again, it’s not an unrealistic portrayal.

The series definitely has its routes in noir. Despite being made in colour, and mostly set during the daytime, it has that languorous feel to it.

And it also has a real sense of place. The opening credits are outstanding. Simple, yet beautiful, using a an inversion effect to reflect the city on itself. Yes, Jesse Voccia’s theme music seems to be influenced a little by House of Cards – it has the same tone – but it works perfectly with the credit sequence.

As an aside, why is it only “premium” cable/streaming series that still invest in powerful opening credit sequences. A good opening sequence can really adjust your reality settings and set you up for the series’ reality.

I absolutely loved this series. I’ve read a couple of Connelly’s books, and he’s heavily involved in the series, both as an executive producer, and co-writing a couple of episodes. The rest of the writers are also experienced TV writers from the quality end of the spectrum.

But it’s interesting to note the extent to which Connelly has had control over this series. After he sold the film rights and watched them languish within Paramount as they failed to make a film, he eventually wrestled them back, and quickly did a deal with Amazon. There’s an interview with Connelly in the current episode of KCRW’s The Business.

The story is told well, never feeling stretched out across the ten episodes. It does that great thing of having a bit of a hook at the end of each episode that makes you want to binge watch the whole series. Here’s hoping there’s a second series.

[Update 18 March 2015: Amazon has renewed Bosch for a second season. Good news!]

Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is something quite different. It also started out different, with NBC commissioning the series from executive producer Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (of 30 Rock fame). But for one reason or another, they got cold feet, and the series was snapped up by Netflix.

Perhaps it’s the slightly unsettling premise of the comedy: four “mole women” have been kept hostage by a cult in an underground bunker for fifteen years, in the belief that some kind of apocalypse has happened outside. At the start of the pilot episode they’re rescued, and we follow the eponymous Kimmy – played wonderfully by Ellie Kemper (from The US Office) – who decides that she wants to start afresh in New York.

There she ends up sharing a down at heal apartment with room-mate Titus (Tituss Burgess) and their landlady Lillian (Carol Kane). Kimmy also manages to quickly land a job with the insanely wealthy Jaqueline (Jane Krakowski, also a 30 Rock alumnus) and her kids.

The comedy comes from Kimmy adapting to modern life – her pop cultural references ending with mid-nineties boybands – but also her determined positiveness. She dresses in vibrant colours, and most things have a positive spin on them.

This could sound a bit too twee, but there are moments of darkness too. We get lots of 30 Rock-style throwaway lines which sometimes reveal the unpleasantness of her previous situation. There are flashbacks too. But Kimmy is a positive character – glass half full.

I think I loved absolutely everything about this series. I laughed out loud – a lot. And the performances are just wonderful. There are loads of references littered throughout it, and even the slightly unusual “Autotune-the-news” styled theme music (from those very guys Wikipedia tells me) becomes insanely hummable. Indeed, the internet is already full of articles that say precisely that.

There are also guest stars aplenty – especially towards the end of the run. No spoilers here.

Frankly I’m annoyed with myself that I blitzed through all thirteen episodes of the first series over a couple of days. Thankfully, Netflix commissioned two seasons of the series from the off, so only another year to wait for more.

I’m really not disproving the notion that streaming services are all superior am I?

Staying Alive in London on a Bike

While I wouldn’t say I was a cycling activist, I am definitely a cycling advocate.

I love to talk about all forms of cycling, and have always enjoyed being out on a bike. I’ll dispense advice, rave about how wonderful Bromptons are, spend hours watching cycling on Eurosport, go out and take photos of cyclists, and suggest what kind of bike a hitherto non-cyclist might like. I even explain how the Bike Hire scheme works to people (Seriously: the credit card system is a bit nuts).

And I’ll always tell people that cycling in London isn’t that scary.

But, I’m not sure with my hand on my heart, that last statement is true.

I don’t cycle far in London. It’s a 13 mile journey door to door, which is a bit beyond comfortable to me, especially when you factor in a chunky hill in the middle, and a change of clothes at the other end. So instead, I commute by train and do the last bit on the aforementioned Brompton. There I’m lucky enough to be able to follow quiet roads or segregated cycle paths most of the journey. I don’t have to gird my loins to get around Elephant & Castle; I don’t cycle along the Euston Road; and I give lorries, and tipper trucks in particular, an awful lot of space.

But recently I’ve had a couple of near misses. There was the woman – a nurse – who just didn’t stop at the give way sign ahead of the cycle route. She braked at the very last second. I’d have been side-swiped otherwise.

Then yesterday morning I found myself swearing at a driver who just didn’t see me in the middle of the road signalling to traffic that I was trying to turn right. The reason he didn’t see me was because he had one hand on a mobile phone and that’s what he was looking at (Apologies if you had small children with you when I was effing and blinding at that driver. But he had nearly killed me.).

One in a hundred drivers was seen illegally using a handheld phone in their hands recently. One per cent might not seem a lot, but there are a lot of vehicles on the road (and overall vehicle usage is up). Seat belts were made compulsory in the UK back in 1983. They basically save the driver’s life. Using a mobile phone in your car with side-impact bars and airbag is much more likely to cause significant injury to others that the driver. Are we due a road safety campaign as big as “clunk click on every trip”?

Use a phone in your hand in a car? Lose your licence. That’s my view right now.

I don’t want it to be a “them” v “us” situation in London. I know that most cyclists are probably car drivers as well.

And despite years of cycling in London, I’ve never actually come a cropper. I’ve not hit the tarmac. And I have a bell for pedestrians (a real issue in Soho, and along cycle routes where people don’t imagine there’ll actually be bikes). I also suspect that places like Cambridge aside, cycling in London is a lot better than in many cities.

But I’ve had near misses.

And recently I have found myself Googling to see which video cameras I might attach to my bike. Just so I can shame some of the useless and downright dangerous driving I see. I’m not sure I want to be another of those cycling video commuters. But I feel the time has come for me to do so.

I do want more facilities for cyclists, and welcome the Mayor’s plans for London.

I live in a London Borough, Enfield, who have recently won a £30m grant to develop cycling facilities. I went along to one of their meetings the other week to see what they had in mind. It looks terrific. Cycling infrastructure is really quite bad in the outer London boroughs where there is more car ownership. So it was sad to see so many people worried that any of this might impact – even the tiniest little bit – on their driving way of life. Or the idea that a town like Enfield Town is massively reliant on people parking right in front of the shops to do their shopping (We have several multi-story carparks which people actually use when they come to Enfield Town to shop).

I’m not about to join the “militant wing” of the London Cycling Campaign (They don’t have one, but I am a regular LCC member).

I just want safer roads for cyclists and pedestrians. And please don’t text while you drive. You might kill me.

The Unthanks at The Roundhouse

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I went to see The Unthanks yesterday at The Roundhouse in Camden. For no obvious reason, and having been to see an exhibition at Tate Modern first (Conflict, Time – I only found it so-so to be honest), I decided to walk to Camden for the concert, taking photos as I went.

Here are a few, with the rest on Flickr.

The gig was fantastic, which isn’t surprising since Mount the Air is a terrific new album. More than that, the title track was a thing of beauty when they performed it second track in. It’s a ten minute epic and it’s just gorgeous. Rachel and Becky Unthank were accompanied by a band of beautiful strings and percussion. But special credit must go to trumpeter Victoria Rule. A wonderful night.

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Kuurne Brussels Kuurne 2015

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If Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is for the tough guys of the peleton, then Kuurne Brussels Kuurne is a sprinters’ race. The two come together over the last weekend of February or the first weekend of March, although they seem to have different promoters. That also possibly explains why no broadcaster took the more exciting Het Nieuwsblad while Eurosport covers KBK.

When I was looking at maps trying to determine where would be an interesting place to watch the race, my eyes first drifted to the various hills on the parcours. But they’re not massive, and the race is always expected to be a sprint. The peleton will let a breakaway form, gain a few minutes, and then get pulled back.

At first I was going to head down to Ronse. The only problem was that I’d need to get a train back to Brussels to make Eurostar within 15 minutes of the peleton passing through. And while the timings that the race promoters publish are usually pretty accurate, I really couldn’t be doing with missing the race altogether because I had a train to catch. So instead I headed to the eastern most part of the course – the “Brussels” bit if you will. The first thing to note is that like many classic races, the name is a little misleading. The point at which the race turned was a good 30km from Brussels.

I relied on the ever efficient Belgian railways to get me close by. I had a solid five minutes to make it from platform 1 to platform 9 at Denderleeuw. Perhaps the trains officially connect? I don’t know. I ignored the loud music the station seemed to be playing and headed quickly to waiting train. I was only going a couple of stops anyway, to a nondescript town called Ninove. All I could really tell you about the place is that most car manufacturers seem to have a dealership there.

I slowly pedalled my Brompton, this time with the full weight of four days’ worth of clothes and my assorted camera gear, the few kilometres to the edge of town where the course map suggested I’d be able to see the race.

When I said a bit earlier that the race turned at Ninove, it literally did. This was simply a road junction with an acute right-hand turn for the race.

I got there about thirty minutes before the race was due, and frankly, were it not for the tiny sign indicating the race came through, I’d have been convinced I’d made a mistake. But then a police van pulled up, and a few spectators and Sunday cyclists arrived.

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As predicted, there was a breakaway with eight riders being allowed to have some time in the limelight (That said, I Belgian TV was only just coming on air around now, and I didn’t see a helicopter camera or camera bike when the race passed).

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Around three minutes later the peleton came through. I’d taken the precaution of standing on the grass verge rather than the pavement, because so tight was the turn, various riders bunny-hopped onto the pavement to get around the corner.

But they weren’t pushing hard. They had a tailwind at this point, and were content with the break.

And then they were gone.

By the time I’d packed away my camera, the police had reopened the road, and all the spectators had disappeared.

My plan now was to cycle back to Denderleeuw and get the train to Brussels from there. I did consider riding all the way to Brussels, but crosswinds and a heavy load mititgated against it. Besides, the ride to Brussels was largely on the road, whereas the ride to Denderleeuw was along a river.

And so I spent a very pleasant 45 minutes or so cycling along a paved cycleway by the side of the river – pan flat and mostly protected from any wind.

In Denderleeuw I was hit with music once again. On heading into town I first found a fairground, before my route was blocked by what looked to me like a full blown carnival. The streets were alive with bizarre floats, marchers, dancers, and some of the loudest sound systems I’ve come across.

The kids had all come along with empty bags. That’s because every float was scattering sweets as it passed by and the kids ran to gather them up. In return, they were largely in fancy dress and there was a liberal amount of confetti being thrown by both the kids and those manning the floats.

I couldn’t help noticing there were a lot of blokes in drag on the floats – although a couple of guys smoking fags on a Disney princess themed float perhaps spoiled the illusion.

The parents standing with their kids at the roadside all seemed to having a good time – not least because they were swigging back the popular local lager, Juliper, from cans.

I navigated my way around the whole procedings, got into the station and caught an express back to Brussels. I figured that if I could find a bar, I should still be able to watch the closing stages of the race.

Unfortunately in Brussels Midi, the only place showing sport seemed to prefer speed skating. I hunted around outside and found a Turkish restaurant that was showing the last 30km (although playing an eighties radio station).

And so it was, I ate a kebab, and watched Mark Cavendish take advantage of a messy finish. Tom Boonen tried an attack but it was captured with just less than a kilometre to go. But the sprint trains which had been together for the last twenty kilometres or more, were now completely fractured, and Cav beat the in-form Alexander Kristoff to win the race with Sky’s Elia Viviani coming in third.

After the complete pig’s ear that Etixx Quickstep had made of yesterday’s stage, when a three of their riders had the odds massively stacked in their favour against a single Sky rider in Ian Stannard, the pressure on Cav from his team and an expectant Belgian public must have been immense.

All told a great weekend to go and watch some Belgian classic cycling as a Brit!

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2015

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

With a couple of days holiday to use up before the end of February, and not being too certain where to go, a friend suggested that Ghent was nice. I’d never been, and then I realised that if I did go, it’d be in time for the “Opening Weekend” of the Spring Classics – the one-day cycling races that fill the cycling calendar in this part of the world.

I’ve not been to one of these one-day races before, so I scoured the internet – without much luck – to look for suggested places to go and watch. I’d be staying in Ghent, and would only have public transport and my Brompton for company.

In the event, for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, I chose the Molenberg, the final cobbled climb of the race before the riders headed back into Ghent.

In the morning I first headed into Sint-Pietersplain, the main square in Ghent, which had been transformed into a finishing straight and a coach park for the various teams. When I arrived, the team buses and cars were still arriving and being directed to parking spots. Omloop, as it perhaps sounds, means loop or circuit, so riders both start and finish in Ghent (at least they do these days).

The atmosphere was friendly, with kids running around gathering autographs, teams riding to and from the presentation stage, and the newspaper Het Nieuwsblad, handing out free copies and souvenir cycling caps. There was little activity outside the Sky bus when I got there – the riders still inside. But of course in this part of the world, it was all about Etixx Quickstep and their superstar team – notably including Tom Boonen. Theirs was the last coach to arrive, and it felt like the crowd as one headed over towards it when it parked up. I didn’t even try to get close.

Instead, train timetables being what they were, I couldn’t wait for the start and had to head off. I headed down the hill to the station, and bought a ticket to Munkzwalm. I’d identified this as station that would put me within fairly easy reach of the Molenberg. There was the small matter of the Belgian rail website actively suggesting I try to achieve a 3 minute change of trains, but it seems that the state rail mostly runs to time, and I didn’t even have to run between platforms.

From Munkzwalm it was a 15 minute ride up a slight gradient to a small village where the route would loop through. As I rode, I had a pretty cold headwind to deal with, coming from the south, although the weather was otherwise pretty decent. I soon found the route and found myself chatting to a family who lived nearby. Before the men would arrive, the women’s race would come through and they were supporting Orica-AIS’s Emma Johansson. It seems that she stayed with the family locally quite a few times.

When I eventually found a decent spot near the top of the cobbled section of the Molenberg, I was just about the only person there, with the exception of another amateur photographer and a security volunteer. Someone had roped off the sides of the road to ensure fans stood back, but it then a question of finding somewhere with a good angle.

The women’s race doesn’t get televised live, so there were no helicopters to announce its arrival – just a handful of cars. I press photographer managed to jump from his motorbike and position himself right in front of me, but I got plenty of shots away.

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Although the men’s and women’s races are run on the same day, the routes aren’t identical. That said, the Molenberg leads the way back. And the small group of riders who were fighting it out to the top of the hill where I was were essentially the same riders who’d fight it out for podium positions back in Ghent. Anna Van Der Breggen of Rabo Liv won, beating Eleonara Van Djik. Lizzie Armistead won the sprint for third.

The women’s race was pretty spread out by this stage, and it must have taken a good twenty minutes for everyone to get through. Just when you thought the race had gone, another rider would come by. I felt enormously sorry for the final woman who was just about dying on what really shouldn’t have been a tough hill. While cobbled, it’s smoother than, say, the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. There aren’t the big gaps. A “broom wagon” minivan already had three or four riders within it.

The official results list 64 abandons in total!

(Later, although there wasn’t live coverage of the race I did spot myself in the TV highlights as a cameraman was shooting from just beyond me!)

Then the crowds basically vanished as there was a longish gap before the men would come through. I settled down for a homemade ham sandwich, and kept in touch with what was happening in the race via Twitter and occasionally the official Flanders’ Classics app.

There’s no getting away that the crowds were bigger for the men. There were groups of cyclists in full lycra who arrived and cheered any amateurs climbing the hill; there were more press photographers stationed on the hill; and there were lots of people in motorcycle leathers who’d evidently been chasing the race around Flanders. The race lends itself to being followed like that, as long as you have transport that can get you around faster than the cyclists.

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The men came haring through – there was a break with three Etixx Quickstep riders, and a sole Sky rider in Ian Stannard. They’d already got a decent lead on the rest of the field, and the peleton came through a decent amount of time further back. A second part of the peleton was further still back – I think Bradley Wiggins was bringing up the rear here, having done a lot of work capturing an earlier break.

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Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

And then the race was through, and the hillside quickly emptied. I had cameras to pack away and a bike to unfold. I was on my own! No rubbish. You wouldn’t have known anyone was there.

It was downhill all the way to Munkzwalm. I got a friendly toot from my earlier family even though Johansson hadn’t repeated her win, and then it was back to the station. I could wait 8 minutes for a train or go to the nearby bar and watch the race’s conclusion.

I made the right decision, bought myself a beer and settled in to see how the three Etixx Quickstep riders would finish off poor old Ian Stannard. There were 15km to go.

Tom Boonen made the first real effort, and Stannard didn’t immediately chase. In a 3 v 1 circumstance like this, he knew that he was seriously likely to be beaten. If the others played their cards properly, they could one-two him and exhaust him. But he’d been riding at the back of the group for many of those kilometres – as he was entitled. So he was perhaps a bit fresher. But weight of numbers should have outed.

Having caught Boonen, Stannard attacked himself, and it was only Nikki Terpstra who was able to go with him. Boonen was always just too far away.

Suddenly it was a two horse race. Stannard positioned himself well, and easily won the sprint. Remember – it is uphill at the end. A terrific ride.

I was thrilled. A couple of other Brits in the bar slipped out. Everyone else in the bar, except me, was not happy. Boonen has won just about every one day classic. But not this. A couple more beers and I carried my Brompton out of the bar to the great amusement of a couple of elderly ladies who wondered if I was cycling all the way home now.

A fun day out, and not at all muddy.

I must come back here with a fullsize bike in tow. It’d be fun.

[NB. A couple of pictures here, but there’ll be more to follow in due course.]