April, 2006

Computers Have Feelings Too

As anyone who’s travelled by train knows, most platform announcements these days are automated. There’s nothing especially wrong with this, since the male and female voices are clear and concise. The system at the stations on my regular route are very listenable.
However, we, the passengers, do realise that it’s a recorded voice. So when I heard an announcment for a delayed train the other day, the wording really made me sit up.
“I am sorry to announce that the 18.47 train for Stevenage is approximately 13 minutes late…. I am sorry for this delay.”
The initial apology is just about bearable, but the end remark, “I am sorry for this delay” is just bizarre. Maybe I need to run a Turing test on the station announcing software. Everyone on the platform realises that some automated software package kicked in to tell us this information – in fact it came a few seconds after a human announcement telling us about the delay. So why include it?

Radio Programmes

I’ve been meaning to write a little more about some of the radio I’ve been enjoying recently.
First up is Nebulous, Graham Duff’s sci-fi comedy starring Mark Gatiss. Series 2 has just passed the half-way mark – it’s broadcast at 11pm on Wednesday. It’s more of the same, and very very silly. I love it. There are some great guest stars too. This series we’ve had Kate O’Mara, Steve Coogan (rarely to be heard on the radio these days, but then Nebulous is produced by his production company) and the return of the fabulous David Warner who returns as the evil Dr Klench, Professor Nebulous’s arch-nemesis.
(Incidentally, I’ve only heard the first half of episode one, but I’m loving David Warner as Steel in Big Finish’s Sapphire and Steel radio productions. Susannah Harker plays Sapphire. I’ll write more when I’ve had a proper listen to both the plays I’ve got so far).
I’ve also just caught up with a recent Radio 4 Classic Serialisation of The Code of the Woosters, starring Marcus Brigstocke and Andrew Sachs as Jeeves and Wooster… well Wooster and Jeeves actually. The PG Wodehouse tales have dramatised roughly one million times over the years in various radio and television adaptations. Obviously, I loved the Fry and Laurie Granada TV version, and that probably conditions me when I come to a new version. I had mixed feelings over this. On the one hand Brigstocke as Wooster seemed absolutely spot on, but Sachs’s Jeeves wasn’t quite as commanding as I’d have hoped. What was quite a shock to the system was the manner of the production with whizzy sound effects all over the place. You really couldn’t ignore them, and I’m not sure how much I liked them.
I see that the BBC Audio Collection is releasing a Richard Briers/Michael Hordern version in a day or so. That might we worth a compare and contrast.
Oh, and way too late now, but Radio 2 had an excellent documentary about Trevor Horn in it’s Record Producers slot over the Easter weekend. They took apart many of his famous productions and explained exactly how they came to be. An absolutely fascinating listen. Hopefully it’ll get a repeat in the not too distant future.

Peter Jones

So Peter Jones (not the deparment store) has signed for ITV to present two shows for them, one of which is supposed to be a version of American Inventor. Of course, Jones has already signed on for another series of Dragon’s Den. What a busy man. How does he get time to run his companies?
It’s going to be interesting to see how similarly formatted “British Inventor”, or whatever it’s called, is to the US one, since the US show is basically Dragon’s Den with a bit of Pop Idol thrown in. The set they used, at least in the early stages, is straight out of Dragon’s Den.
The Mediaguardian piece suggests that there’s been quite a bidding war for the format rights to American Inventor, to which all I can say is that were it not for keeping Simon Cowell happy, I’d have just gone out and “invented” my own format based around, er, inventors pitching their ideas to a panel and then me picking a winner or winners.

News in TV

As television commoditisation increases evermore, there’s much discussion at the moment about BBC1’s weak Wednesday nights. Davina’s chat show has been lambasted, and the lack of a drama series at 9pm means that even Paul McCartney on the fur trade doesn’t get as many as 2 million. ITV are putting out a stream of dramas at 9pm (currently Murder City) while BBC2 has The Apprentice – for a couple more weeks anyway.
This week’s Broadcast speculates that another episode of Eastenders might be forthcoming on Wednesdays, while we also learn today that the BBC is to make a “Holby City” cop show to sit alongside stalwarts Casulaty and Holby City. If it were to go on a Wednesday, as Mediaguardian speculates, then it’d give BBC1 a banker nearly every night of the week.
But is this what the viewer really wants?
It’s certainly what the BBC seems to be planning. The Creative Future outlined the other day promises that the BBC should “create fewer titles with longer runs, find creative space for outstanding writers and cherish the programmes audience love best like EastEnders, Casualty and Holby City.”
The problem with that is that interesting and different dramas have fewer outlets. It’s not that the schedule will then be so full that there isn’t any space for this kind of drama, but the money will certainly be used up.
In any case, can the BBC really run their Holby cop show up against The Bill on ITV? It’s not really extending choice for the viewer is it?
Looking at the full list of recommendations, it seems better than the highlights suggest.

  • Pilot and develop dramas across platforms that generate intense experiences for different audiences

  • Commission at least four major radio landmark dramas for Radio 4 a year

  • Reduce the number of individual titles broadcast and consolidate the offer, investing in longer runs of series, growing value through on demand and multiple transmission whilst retaining range and breadth

  • Maintain the BBC’s cultural legacy by nurturing and empowering writers. This will require more investment in training and new production models such as writer-producer or team-writing.

  • Cherish and invest in titles like EastEnders, Casualty & Holby City that speak to the broadest audiences

It’s just that I suspect that the emphasis, and money, will be directed towards the last item in that list. Charter Renewal’s just about over for a few more years, and the ratings game can begin again in earnest.
Meanwhile, Channel 4 is produly announcing the fact that they’ve secured a deal to let UK viewers watch episodes of Lost and Desperate Housewives on its website for 99p. Once you’ve paid, you can watch the episode an unlimited number of times within 24 hours.
This seems like an exciting deal, until you realise that ABC in the States you can either pay $1.99 to download and own episodes of both series, ad free, for your PC of video iPod. Or alternatively, you can watch streamed versions of the shows free of charge on the website. The downloaded episodes have no ads, while the streamed ones include ads and don’t let you fast-forward. I suspect that UK IP addresses will get blocked, but in an age when I can already, ahem, “get” ad-free downloads of these shows free of charge, going down a free-streaming route with ads, seems a sensible low-hassle route to go. With series that have multi-episode stories (or “arcs”), allowing your viewers to catch-up seems like a good idea.
The other thing that strikes me as strange with the 99p deal, is that there already multiple opportunities to catch-up with episodes of Lost. With at least one repeat on the main Channel 4 service and many more on E4. If I were to get a deal on buying the DVD boxset when it comes out, that might make it worthwhile, but the DVD rights are completely separate from the broadcast rights.
I don’t predict that this’ll be a spectacular success. However, some marks for at least attempting to do something. ITV really need to get on this bandwagon quick. Why aren’t all the soaps available for catch-up online? Include ads (I know there are regional and even ownership issues), and just allow pausing.
And if I was Five, I’d go so far as to actually allow full downloads to watch on iPod and PSP of, say, The Gadget Show. I reckon there could be some quite creative ways of making money out of the venture by perhaps having sponsorship credits or others. The broadcast edition I saw the other day didn’t have much in the way of actual ads anyway, and I suspect, like Fifth Gear, their premium rate phone competitions earn more cash than the ads do. Fifth Gear gives away a car each week, so I reckon we’re looking at between 50,000 and 100,000 callers paying a pound a time to enter these competitions.
There are still issues with PACT about giving away content like this, but someone needs to steal a march on this. They might be pleasantly surprised about what kind of cut-through they achieve.
As for ad-funded programming, like the Sure football programme on ITV at the moment… give it all away!

Top Drivers To This Site

There’s something terribly dispiriting about consulting your server logs – not something I do very often – to discover exactly why people are visiting your site.
Here, then, are the top three search terms that lead people to my site in the last few months:
1) Ultimate Force – And this was by a long way. And I learn this in the week before this “Ross Kemp as Action Man” series returns for yet another series. I suspect that ITV keeps making it because they turn a profit on it in international sales (although it’s not listed on PACT’s recent list of best-selling exports). A quick Google search on “Ultimate Force” reveals my review is near the top of page two of search results.
2) The Real Hustle – For some reason, I’m the third entry if you search for this.
3) Hunting Chris Ryan – Dear god. Is this still listed?
There are also various other searches for Ultimate Force listed quite highly.
So what does all this say about me? That I have really crap taste in television? That I have an obsession with the SAS?
Ultimate Force is obviously rubbish, and I don’t like it. Hunting Chris Ryan was fatally flawed by the cheating of the production team. And The Real Hustle was so-so. Not nearly as much fun as the real thing.

Daily Mail

OK – I’ve been tempted away from the straight and narrow again. The Daily Mail is running a free DVD promotion at the moment, and it’s just too easy to stop off at the WH Smith in the tube station each morning and pick up The Ladykillers for 45p. I’ve already had other Ealing classics including Passport to Pimlico, Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Cruel Sea. There are quite a few other decent ones coming up too.
Of course my pact with the devil involves me ending up with a copy of the Daily Mail. And today’s edition reminds me of why I really hate the paper.
The government, as I think we’re all aware, has a few cabinet ministers who’re facing one or two spots of bother. Most importantly, Charles Clarke is fighting for his career since it was revealed that the Home Office released 1,000 prisoners who should have been deported after serving their sentences.
Then there’s Patricia Hewitt and the repeated barrages she’s been facing at various speeches she’s given this week.
Finally, there’s John Prescott. He’s had an affair with his secretary.
Which of these three things gets the most coverage? Prescott of course. Big front page picture (courtesy of yesterday’s Mirror – the photos bear a coy “MGN” picture credit indicating that whatever the Mirror paid for them, has been recouped again and again by selling the photos on to the Mail), pages 3 & 4, pages 8 & 9, pages 10 & 11, pages 12 & 13, leader highlighting all three on 14. The other two stories get 5 & 6 and 7 & 8 respectively.
It’s one thing spending lots of time and space on the Prescott story if there was nothing else going on, but there are serious issues with the Home Office story, with resignations surely the order of the day.
Still, I’ll console myself with the fact that every DVD I pick up is costing Associated Newspapers more cash.