March, 2008

BBC News Homepage

So what are we to make of the new look BBC News homepage that launched this morning?
It’s quite possibly my single most visited site – even more so than the Google homepage since I search from within my toolbar – so I guess it’s always quite a significant change to me when the BBC update it.
I like the use of screen real estate. You tend to find with every website update that the pages get wider and wider as the average user’s screensize increases. But I’d like to think that the space would be used a little more fully.
The top “BBC bar” has a search box and low graphics/accessibility, and that’s it. There’s vast space being wasted, and I find it especially wasteful since it used to contain links to radio and TV directly from that bar. The BBC recently revamped their overall homepage, but I never actually visited that. The news page is my default homepage and I expect to be able to get to the major parts of the BBC’s website from it. Indeed a consistent set of tabs along the top is just useful anyway.
I really miss these.
A lot.
The “BBC News bar” is also full of wasteful space. It contains a single link to the live BBC news feed (e.g. News 24, or Breakfast News) and that’s it. So there are two “wasted” blocks which could contain useful info/links or just reduce the amount of scrolling that you need to do. “Above the fold” is incredibly valuable real estate in newspaper parlance, and it should be on websites too.
The comments to the BBC Editor’s blog highlight that links to Weather are missing. By mid-morning, a link had been restored but like Sport, the link is under “Related BBC sites” which feels very poor.
I’d like to see “full” links to both sport and weather from the main tabs. Sports news is news after all. It’s part of the on-air news programmes and bulletins, so it feels a little as though the news website is disowning it even though sport does seem to warrant three headlines on the right. And what news bulletin doesn’t also include a weather update?
Overall, the front page is a lot more spaced out, but the extra real estate hasn’t been used to provide any more stories or links. Indeed with links removed, it feels that there are actually fewer things to do.
It may be that this is a work in progress and more “bits” will emerge over time – I certainly hope so.

Comments

A few weeks ago John Naughton explained some his reasons for not accepting comments on his blog. And I have no problem with that. Although it’s a lot easier for me to correct errors if comments are allowed (Photoshop Express is available to people on UK ISPs, although the dropdown when registering is limited to the US for some reason, and you need to know that Shift-2 is where the @ sign is on US keyboards. Photoshop Express is well worth playing with incidentally, and I hear that Flickr will shortly be joining Facebook, Picasa and Photobucket on the affiliated sites list). I would drop John an email noting this, but I don’t have his email address, and while I could guess it, I couldn’t be certain.
Of course we can all have fun with comments. Yesterday I posted about some poor experiences I’d had at Cineworld when going to see The Orphanage. I had a fairly aggressive commentator as a result – I suspect someone who works for the company. I’m happy to let that comment through and reply to it. But I’m also quite happy to delete comments that I don’t want appearing on my site. It’s my site and my blog, and I’ll determine what appears here!

iGizmo

Dennis Publishing has just started “the WORLD’S FIRST fully interactive digital magazine dedicated to bringing you the very latest and best in consumer technology.” The second issue is out this week.
It’s called iGIZMO, and it’s dreadful.
Dennis has previously had success with a magazine called Monkey which is a similarly interactive title aimed at people who “read” Nuts and Zoo magazines. I’m not in their target market, but I can understand how that title might have succeeded – these magazines are things that you look at rather than read. As long as it has the right number of half-naked women, it’s doing its “job.”
As I say, I’m not a fan. But iGizmo has really failed because it has tried to mimic too closely the values of its predecessor. But this time, it’s not just beautiful product shots that the reader wants (although they certainly do want those). The reader also needs to be informed about the products. And that means some kind of accompanying writing or perhaps video. Not only that, but the writing needs to be of a good standard, with an editorial voice that I can trust. If I’m expected to be spending four digits on some new high-end laptop or portable device, I really need to be sure that I’m spending it wisely. That’s why I want a trusted voice. I’m not saying that it has to be a po-faced and dry voice, but I really do need to believe that I’m going to get valuable background information to make a decision.
You only have to look at the paper magazines that are in this marketplace already to realise this: Stuff and T3. They both have great photography, but they also have reviews that at least satisfy your needs. I wouldn’t pretend that either magazine are the last word in flat screen TVs or digital radios, just as Five’s The Gadget Show necessarily covers things relatively lightly to reach a larger audience. But in each of their cases, they do it well, and I’d be fairly happy making a buying decision on the back of one of their reviews.
Of course not everyone reads pages and pages of reviews and background information before deciding what new mp3 player they’re going to buy. They might pick their device on the basis of a one-page summary in a non-tech magazine like FHM or Esquire. But then these aren’t the people who are going to read something like iGizmo either. If I’m going to read a gadget magazine, then I’m going to want it to know about said gadgets in quite some detail.
Otherwise, I’m not really a fan of the page-turning mechanism iGizmo employs, and the double page ads are full of “content” that does nothing of interest. The computer games reviews are again better handled on specialist sites or magazines. Overall, it’s just obvious that more time has spent considering the style and the look and feel of the “magazine” than has been spent commissioning pieces to actually read or videos to view. Very poor.
I’m much better off reading Wired and Engadget.

The Orphanage

I went to see The Orphanage today, and I’ll get onto that shortly.
But first, can I just highlight what a joyless experience Cineworld made it for me. It began when I phoned the cinema’s automated ticket booking line. As is the way with these things, it’s all voice activated these days, which invariably means saying “No” repeatedly when the system thinks that you’re trying to book tickets to “The Hottie and the Nottie” or worse.
Eventually the system drops away from the pointlessly flawed voice activation system when it gets my clear instructions wrong and reverts to the somewhat more sensible button system. If my mobile phone supplier believes that’s the smarter way of doing things, why do cinemas insist in continuing to use these voice systems?
Maybe it’s the cynic in me who thinks that it’s all a ploy to get a bit more cash from the 0871 phone number. It eventually takes nearly five minutes to find out what films are on and what time my selection is showing at.
I didn’t book the film over the phone incidentally, as I thoroughly object to paying a “booking fee” for the privilege of buying my ticket automatically rather than paying a (more expensive to employ) person. In any case, it seems that half the time, the collection machines are out of action meaning that you don’t miss out on queuing anyway.
I began to regret my principled stand when I got to the cinema with just a few minutes to go before the film was scheduled to start and saw a long and trailing queue. There are only two ticket windows open out of a possible six. And despite someone putting their head into the ticket office, they don’t bother opening a further window, preferring to leave their lonely colleagues to cope with the hoardes.
I purchase my tickets (the cinema hasn’t bothered with chip and pin devices – too expensive?) and with a couple of minutes spare, I think that maybe I’ll buy some over-priced popcorn and a Diet Coke. I know why the prices are high, and to an extent accept them. So I head over to the concession stand ready to hand over many pounds. There are two long queues, but a further five people are standing behind the counter talking to another but not serving. When I approach one of them, I’m politely told that they’re not on duty and that I need to stand behind the ten kids. If staff are on a break, can I suggest they retire to a staff room rather than annoying queuing patrons?
Needless to say, Cineworld lost out on my purchase. I headed into the screen.
The adverts had just started, and I couldn’t help but notice a giant stain right down the middle of the screen. It’s right in the centre, and it’s enormous, running well over half the height of the screen. Every time we see a well lit bright scene in one of the ads, I can’t help but stare at the stain which looks like it might have been made by someone throwing a soft drink at the screen.
Fortunately The Orphanage is fairly dark, so I’m not distracted too much during the feature, although the stain is staring out at me in well lit parts of the film. But there’s one final little surprise in store. During the screening, a security guard traipses through the cinema on no less than three separate occasions. At one point (and bear in mind that this is horror/thriller film that works by building quiet suspense) his radio actually goes off and he starts to have a conversation with a colleague while he’s still inside the screen. Orange spend millions on their excellent campaigns to have customers switch their mobile phones off. But security guards can wander around the screen talking on their radios as much as they like.
The question must be asked: why do I bother going to see films in such surroundings?
Well you know what, I’ll be thinking long and hard before I go back to this particular cinema. If I’m to pay a premium price for the experience of seeing a film on the big screen, then cinemas need to actually make the whole thing an easy and pleasant experience. Today, that wasn’t the case. With large widescreen high definition TVs becoming the norm, alongside digital surround sound systems, I get a better quality experience at home. And the DVD will end up being cheaper than the price I paid to watch the film. I suggest that Cineworld and others who mismanage their multiplexes had better buck their ideas up.
So what about the film itself? Well it’s excellent. I need to be really careful about what I say about it, because it could really affect your enjoyment of the film. Suffice to say that two parents and their young son move into a large house on the Catalan coast which was once an orphanage that the mother lived in.
But their son has his some unusual friends. Are they imaginary? Are they real? I’m not going to tell you, and I’m not going to say any more about the plot except to say that it’s tone is very reminiscent of The Others. It’s well worth hunting down.

Sky And The Champions’ League

Media Guardian are reporting that Sky has won the majority of the Champions’ League games for the three years beginning in 2009. It’s thought that they offered more than £240m representing nearly a 50% increase over what they had previously paid.
For that sum, they get all the games bar one – a single Wednesday night game.
It’s not surprising that Sky have launched a blockbuster bid, as with Setanta and ITV getting the FA Cup and England rights, and Setanta slowly becoming a force in televised sport in the UK (albeit, a force that’s probably still losing money), Sky just had to win this package.
But where does that leave coverage of the Champions’ League for the average viewer? What’s really worrying is the single match package which is still up for grabs could also be won by Sky.
That’d be terrible for the competition, and terrible for the British viewing public. The Champions’ League Final is not a Listed Event. It’s actually conceivable that none of the tournament, including the European Cup Final itself, will not appear on terrestrial television.
Uefa president Michel Platini is said to be keen to keep at least one fixture on terrestrial TV, but will the lure of Sky’s lucre be too much?
It’s ironic that in the run up to this round of bidding that concerns were voiced by rivals of a potential BBC bid about how the Champions’ League sponsors would be catered for on the BBC; they get the sponsorship bumpers on Sky and ITV. Well now the big risk to sponsors must surely be the lack of a big audience seeing their names and association at all. Sony, Heineken, Mastercard et al have paid tens of millions for their sponsorship packages. The value to them is much reduced if the majority of the UK population don’t see their brands.
It’d be hard to argue that the competition will suffer in the short term if it disappeared completely from terrestrial television – undoubtedly the BBC or ITV would pick up a highlights package. But you only have to look at cricket to see how a sport can shift from gaining a ticker-tape parade in London when the Ashes were won, to a vague “are England playing?” when the game moved completely off terrestrial.
So who will win that final match? Well, I can’t see them giving it to Sky. In some ways, it’s more valuable to Sky not to have that game – it acts as something to remind you that they have all the other games. And that’s something that’s especially important in the knockout phases when terrestrial viewers will only see one half of a two-legged fixture.
ITV will want to retain the rights, but not at any cost. If the lone match that’s available is to only be on a Wednesday, then arguably shifting Coronation Street is not something that ITV will really want to do. They used to, but it didn’t please their legions of fans. On the other hand, the competition undoubtedly draws viewers to the channel who wouldn’t otherwise come – young men in particular.
The BBC would love to win the matches. They must be furious that they’ve lost FA Cup and England rights – especially since they’ve done so much to reinvigorate the FA Cup in recent seasons. And they’re now without any live top-flight football (the Championship isn’t enough). Eastenders doesn’t get in the way on Wednesday nights!
Five are the dark horse, but will RTL bid?
It’s worth remembering that OnDigital once had the Champions’ League rights and it wasn’t enough to keep that platform running, so I’ll assume that there won’t be any mad fools at BT Vision or similar gunning for the games.
What is clear is that you can expect an awful lot more Man Utd on your TV. Given the choice of a Man Utd, Chelsea, Liverpool or Arsenal fixture, TV bosses will pick Man Utd every time. Supporters of the other teams might as well start saving for Sky now.

Hugh Laurie “Snubbed”

Note: I wrote this a couple of days ago, but managed to forget to hit the publish button.
If you look around on Google News today, you’ll see a few stories about Hugh Laurie:
Laurie ‘snubbed’ after US success
BBC News, UK – 1 hour ago
Actor Hugh Laurie has said Britain has turned its back on him since he became a success in US TV serial House. The award-winning star told the Radio Times …
Door slammed’ on US TV star Laurie
The Press Association – 9 hours ago
Actor Hugh Laurie said Britain has turned its back on him since he found fame across the Atlantic. Laurie is the star of US TV drama House in a role which …

Laurie: ‘Britain slammed the door on me’

Digital Spy, UK – 2 hours ago
By Beth Hilton, Entertainment Reporter Hugh Laurie has claimed that the UK “slammed” the door on him after he landed a role in US medical drama House. …
Laurie: ‘I’m off the job market’
Channel 4 News, UK – 5 hours ago
Actor Hugh Laurie has said Britain has “slammed” the doors on him since he found fame in the US. The actor, who has won a Golden Globe and Emmy nominations …

All of the above currently sit under the top search for his name on Google News.
Yet arguably only the Channel 4 News headline accurately reflects what Laurie has to say.
Let’s step back for a moment. This story has come from an interview that Laurie’s given to the Radio Times – sadly not currently on line. The interview is with Andrew Duncan, the title’s chief interviewer, and is to promote the return of Laurie’s long-running US series House, which returns to Five in the UK next week.
It’s pretty common for Radio Times interviews to generate press stories, and I’d suspect that’s because they have a great PR team who send out a release highlighting a few choice quotes from the interview to generate a “story” that the press might like to pick up on. It all harks back to Nick Davies’ recent book and his detailing how PR generates news.
All fair enough. But is it?
Does the story that the press has picked up on accurately reflect Laurie’s thoughts – at least as reported in the actual interview?
First of all go away and read the BBC’s story.
Go on. I’ll wait.
The first three paragraphs of the story are as follows:
Actor Hugh Laurie has said Britain has turned its back on him since he became a success in US TV serial House.
The award-winning star told the Radio Times the hours on the show are “relentless” and he has not been offered any work in his home country.
“The door slammed behind me, and that’s it. There’s a notion that I’ve sold out,” said the performer.

So it’s clear that Laurie’s been really busy and not offered any UK work. Then we get that quote:
“The door slammed behind me, and that’s it. There’s a notion that I’ve sold out,” said the performer.
Well Laurie does say the words. But not in that order, and not just those passages alone. Here’s the original paragraph as published by the Radio Times, with my emphasis:
Some of his friends are wryly cynical. “I understand that. I’ve been sceptical about actors going on a Hollywood adventure. It smacks of hubris: you think, no good will come of it – which is often the case. There’s a notion that I’ve sold out. Sold out what exactly? There’s a peculiar British attitude that I took an oath I wouldn’t be successful, and reneged on it.”
And then the piece continues:
Success doesn’t mean that he’s been offered cameos in American sitcoms. “I’m off the market. There’s no time to do anything else. The hours are relentless. I haven’t been offered anything in Britain either. The door slammed behind me and that’s it.”
Again, the words are there. But surely it’s important to put this in the context of his “relentless” work schedule meaning that anything else is impossible to do.
The reality of taking a lead role on a US series that runs for upwards of 22 episodes a season is that you have a hiatus in the early summer when you can either have a decent break or work on a film or other short project. That’s all you have time for.
Do no British producers really want Laurie in their series? I very much doubt it. But then again, they’re well aware of House’s success. It’s absolutely guaranteed to be returning for a fifth season in the autumn since it’s right up there with the CSI franchise as the most successfully dramas on US television, and so there’s no real point in trying to get Laurie a role in the next series of Lark Rise to Candleford or whatever.
But does the “door slammed” comment mean he’s bitter? It’s hard to tell without having been at the interview, although it does perhaps read a little like that. Yet in the context of the wider interview, it seems less so. Laurie simply knows that at this point in his life, he’s busy continuing to work on a very successful US drama production with no end in sight.

Wired – Good News/Bad News

Condé Nast is looking to launch a UK edition of Wired magazine according to Media Week (free registration required). Wired, of course, did once before launch a UK edition that sadly closed a couple of years later. But that pre-dates Condé Nast’s ownership and now they’re again readying a UK version.
Great!
But then I read this:
Paul Thomas, head of press at MindShare, believes Wired would need significant changes if it is to succeed in the UK.
“Wired as it stands will not work over here,” he said. “It is very techie and needs to be more -generalist, particularly with the advertisers it is likely to want to get in there.”

I really hope the publishers don’t pay too much attention to statements like that! It’s a bit like saying that the US edition of Vogue is a bit too fashion-centric and would need to be more generalist for the UK where we don’t like fashion as much. Nonsense.
Why does he think that people buy the widely available US edition of Wired? It’s for the “techie” aspect of it. If we wanted something “generalist”, there’s a wealth of magazines already out there. Where’s the point of difference? And I’d recommend that he looks at the calibre of the advertisers the US edition gets – they’re big companies with some serious budgets.
If I was looking at a UK version of Wired, I’d model it very closely on the US edition, reprinting, concurrently, the major pieces such as Chris Anderson’s current and very widely read “Free” piece. Otherwise, your readers are simply going to buy the imported edition.
Don’t mess with a winning formula.

ITV1 In Half-Decent Drama Shock

That title’s probably a little unfair, as there are occasionally – very occasionally – some decent dramas on ITV1, but they can be a little scarce and take some hunting down. It’s also possible that Rock Rivals is the best thing since sliced-bread, but given that it comes from the production company who I like least in the UK, Shed Productions, which has until now specialised solely in schlock, I’m not even going to give it a chance. Added to that, it’s about an X-Factor style show, and you have a total no-go zone for me on ITV1. If a channel was still running testcards, I’d watch that ahead of Rock Rivals.
But back to The Fixer, which somehow seems to have had less promotion than just about any of the other big ITV programmes since their relaunch earlier this year. If there were posters or newspaper ads for it, I missed them. And given the paucity of quality on the channel in general, it was only by diligently checking listings magazines and the EPG that meant I spotted it coming up, since I’m unlikely to catch a trailer on ITV1. As channels dilute themselves further, this is an important point for TV executives to bear in mind; they’re going to need to increase those marketing budgets so that viewers can find the programmes. If I’m largely limited to watching Champions’ League Football, then there’s a good chance that I won’t see your trailers.
Really.
Literally, the only other programmes I’m likely to watch this week are Harry Hill’s TV Burp and Moving Wallpaper (but not Echo Beach).
The Fixer has a good pedigree, coming from Kudos (Spooks, Hustle, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes etc), who have a woefully out of date website by the way, and being created Ben Richards who previously created Party Animals and wrote on Spooks. Andrew Buchan also comes from Party Animals, which although by no means perfect, wasn’t as bad as some might believe.
The premise that there’s a secret Government department that has to carry out the dirty work that nobody else wants to do is interesting. And in Peter Mullan, as boss Lenny Douglas, they’ve got a great actor. Also featuring are recent Hotel Babylon departee Tamzin Outhwaite, and from Shameless (Is that still running? A great example of an initially good programme being utterly over-stretched) Jody Latham. Finally, Liz White comes over from Life on Mars – I guess her character couldn’t continue through to Ashes to Ashes.
Anyway, it’s a good strong cast, with a decent premise, and has some dark overtones running through it. Most of the characters are, if not immoral, then certainly amoral; shagging and murdering people as they’re called to. It makes a change in British drama from being expected to fully like a character.
I’ll certainly be setting series link on my PVR and looking forward to future episodes. It’s just a shame that only six episodes were commissioned. I’d hope that once renewed, the next series would run to a minimum of 10 episodes – have the courage of your convictions!