June, 2008

AM-FM Broadcasting is ‘A Form of Piracy’

Here’s a remarkable story from Wired. It refers to ongoing talks in the US where the record industry is trying to make the radio industry pay royalties to singers and musicians. Unlike the UK, where both songer writers and the performing artists separately get paid by radio stations, in the US only the songwriters get paid. Performers are unpaid on the basis that radio station airplay is giving them free publicity to sell their product.
And so one side or another has been posting tins of herring (“red herring” – geddit?), a dictionary, and a set of digital downloads (including “Take the Money and Run” by the Steve Miller Band and “A Change Would Do You Good” by Sheryl Crow).
Thanks to my employer’s new owners’ blog, I should also point you to this report commissioned by the National Association of Broadcasters who look after radio stations’ interests. It attempts to put an actual value on the cumulative sales that radio stations generate. It concludes that between 14% and 23% of music sales can be directly attributed to radio, and that any change in the status quo might disrupt this income stream (approx $1.5 to $2.3 billion annually).
“If a new performance fee were enacted, stations could reduce the amount of music airplay, change formats and even cease to operate, resulting in the loss of much of this promotional benefit.”
I’m not entirely sure I buy that given that most of the rest of the Western world pays performers. Some of those US stations must really be struggling if they’d close down ahead of paying a small percentage of their income to the performers whose work their entire livelihood is based on!
What other industry doesn’t pay for the main constituent of its business? If I want to make a film based on a Stephen King novel, I don’t just say to King – don’t ask me for any cash, but think of all those additional book sales you’ll get when my film comes out!

I Think I’m Being Watched

I Think I'm Being Watched
You’d think that this was an incredibly ironic statement on our society, but if it is, it must have passed TFL by.
You can see the original work here – it’s part of an exhibition called About 60 Miles of Beautiful Views by Anna Barriball. The phrases in the series come from the back of photos found in an album.

“These ambiguous texts, now divorced from their original context, hint at personal narrative yet are dislocated enough to connect with the millions of private thoughts customers carry with them on their daily journeys.”

This particular phrase certainly “connected” with me!

Digital Radio Working Group – Interim Report

If you’re at all interested in the future of radio in this country – then you might want to read this interim report which has just shown up on the DCMS website.
In summary there are two sets of key things to take from this:
– DAB should become the primary platform for all national, regional and large local services. So that’s all the BBC national, commercial national and major local and regional services going to DAB exclusively.
– Community and smaller local stations will need to remain on analogue as the most cost effective way of delivering radio. But a plan for migrating them to digital should be worked on.
– In places where DAB rollout is not economic (especially rural areas), listeners should not be disadvantaged, and restructuring the FM network should take place. People in those areas are not going to lose their current services.
– A concerted effort needs to be made to ensure that all future digital radio sets can receive and decode all variants of Eureka 147. That is to say, get manufacturers producing sets that will receive all forms of digital radio.
– All services will be migrated from MW onto either DAB or FM.
For this to happen a timetable will need to be set, but:
– A precise timetable cannot yet be set, but a set of circumstances for that to happen should be layed out including trigger criteria
– The criteria should include the amount of DAB listening. Determining exactly what level this should be will be examined by the Group in the second half of this year, although it’s likely to be around 50% (Currently it’s around 11%, so there’s a way to go).
– 2020 looks like the very latest date at which migration should have taken place.
– There must be “further consideration should be made of what mechanisms can encourage greater investment in new and high quality digital content. One such mechanism might be to allow greater economies of scale in the commercial sector by allowing for greater consolidation of ownership and coverage, particularly of local multiplexes, which in turn may free up investment for increasing coverage and more digital-only content.”
And today, the BBC has published its response to Ofcom’s Second Public Service Broadcasting Review. In a statement from Mark Thompson we get this:
“The challenges facing DAB: Some tough choices had to be made at the time of the BBC’s six year plan about the funding available for DAB. However, beyond its current commitments, the BBC could support a bold set of measures to develop DAB on behalf of the whole industry, including extending the coverage of the BBC’s national multiplex beyond 90% of the UK population; developing a plan for extending the coverage of the BBC’s Nations radio stations; and initiating a stronger marketing effort co-ordinated across the industry.”
I suggest you go away and read, in particular, pages 38 and 39 of the PDF. I found the following especially interesting:
“Initiate a strong marketing effort co-ordinated across the industry, including active industry coordination to rebrand digital radio and by developing a national coverage database based on a single planning model made available online to the public (as for DTT / Freeview).”
If there were some substansive changes to how DAB is formulated – and we may yet see that – then this mightn’t be a bad idea. Freeview has been very well marketed, and a similar pattern is now being adopted with Freesat.

Wimbledon Live Online

So today is the start of Wimbledon, and as ever, the BBC has enormously comprehensive coverage. On digital TV they have the exceptional service that allows you to pick and choose which game you watch, and this is all replicated online (for UK users). Five Live and Five Live Sports Xtra have commentaries available throughout the fortnight – the main service hosted by the estimable Simon Mayo.
Then there’s the official site which is run by IBM. There too you can listen to commentaries from Radio Wimbledon. It has three services this year (as previously noted, since they’re broadcast locally on FM too) which are free to listen to online. You’re also offered an even more comprehensive video service than that offered by the BBC (not that any significant match won’t be broadcast by the Beeb), which costs subscribers £12.90 for an “all access” pass. Only a diehard would pay up for this surely, although the catch-up service might be worthwhile for some (at this stage it’s not clear how many BBC games will be later available via the iPlayer).
All well and good. But then I had my weekly email from ITV.com with the following subject line: “Listen to Wimbledon live on itv.com!”
What? The BBC has a long-term deal in place, so what’s ITV up to?
The HTML email that ITV.com send out doesn’t render properly in Gmail, so I had to go exploring on ITV’s website, and sure enough, if you click through to the Sport section you get this:
“Listen now to live Radio Wimbledon coverage direct from the Championships
“The grass has been cut, the lines have been painted, the strawberries are ripe and the sun is out (hopefully). It can only mean one thing… Wimbledon is back and this year you can follow it right here on itv.com
“Throughout the next fortnight you can keep up to date with all the twists and turns from SW19 with a choice of three radio commentaries direct from the Championships.
“You can choose to follow the top seeds with commentaries from Centre Court and Court Number One, while we’ve also got the best of the rest from the outside courts.
“Remember to turn your speakers on, turn them up – and enjoy!”

Essentially ITV.com is rebroadcasting the official Radio Wimbledon coverage. It doesn’t launch neatly in a player like it does from the official Wimbledon site, but it’s certainly there.
It’s curious that ITV should enter into this arrangement. Tennis quite evidently isn’t core to them – indeed it’s impossible to actually think of a sport that’s “more” BBC and “less” ITV than tennis, and Wimbledon in particular.
Of course there’ll be a financial arrangement in place, and I’m sure that ITV.com will be happy with any additional pageviews. But you can’t help think that the BBC might be a little miffed, and it’s still an odd move.
[UPDATE] Media Guardain has the full story about this, seemingly last minute, deal struck between IMG on behalf of Wimbledon and ITV.com. I still find it slightly odd that non-exclusive audio that can also be found via the official Wimbledon website would generate such interest.
But the news release does explain one thing. It struck me that Wimbledon was putting an awful lot of effort into its radio offering by producing three radio streams seemingly for the website and some local RSLs. It seems that these are syndicated offerings made available to English language broadcasters throughout the world. Radio anorak that I am, I’d love to know where these services are being rebroadcast.

TV Tonight

The Guardian’s blog has one of those impossible discussions at the moment about how terrible TV is these days.
In terms of quanity there’s undoubtedly more dross to be found. But I can remember when we only had four channels – or even three – and there was still rubbish. But it was dull rubbish rather than inane rubbish.
Anyway, here’s a picture of tonight’s TV listings from the Radio Times once I’ve finished scrawling over it with a marker pen. I haven’t so much highlighted what I’ll watch as much as what is actually watchable on any level.
TV Tonight
So immediately out are any soaps, most “lifestyle” programmes, dreadful comedies that should never have been “promoted” to late night BBC 2 (I think we know which one I’m talking about don’t we). Also immediately struck off are reality shows that dare not speak thy name, cooking programmes, cookery “lifestyle” programmes, unfunny comedites, property shows and most digital shows.
Any shows set in an auction room are next to go. As are programmes featuring Andrew Neil. While I’m happy for the BBC to run Sign Zone shows into the small hours (one feels that digital TV should be able to support signing as an option), most other channels’ late night offering would undoubtedly be improved by the reintroduction of the test card. Five’s US sport is fine, but the money grabbing show that precedes it should be shot.
Channel 4 is showing My Name is Earl, but I’ll never see it, as I won’t be watching anything on Four after the news until a certain show finishes its run. It’s just too risky to hit the channel button.
What about digital? Well forget ITV2 – that’s obviously not made for me. Likewise BBC 3. They might have “next week’s” episode of Heroes, but that just bumps their share up and destroys any semblence of a water-cooler moment the next day when you discuss the previous night’s show with friends or colleagues. Of course everyone really into it has long ago downloaded it anyway so…
ITV3 just reminds you how good ITV once was. ITV4 is great if you can’t get enough of The Professionals or The Sweeney. My tip – by the DVD box sets. E4 is pretty useless. A couple of decent shows hidden amidst a morass of repeats of Friends and spin-offs of the show that dare not speak its name.
More 4 does have The Daily Show, but an over-reliance on Grand Design and other property nonsense as well as Four’s coterie of cooks makes much of it avoidable. A shame really.
Film 4 is not the channel it started out as and the odd premiere of films like This Is England does not do enough. Sky One has Lost, 24 and Battlestar Galactica. You can put as many Shane Ritchie, Noel Edmonds and Dick & Dom shows on it as you like, I’m still not watching.
Now there are still some un-crossed out entries in my RT. There’s the football, and that single hour of Ofcom stipulated local non-news programming a week. Because of the football they’re both on tonight – in London a Suggs chatshow shot for about 50p in the back of a pub somewhere and in Anglia, another Suggs fronted show. He’s a good presenter you know.
There’s also a repeat of some Isle of Wight Festival highlights which are fine – but I was there at the weekend anyway.
The BBC has a decent looking documentary as a football alternative – Britain’s Lost World looks as though it’s trying to combine Springwatch with Time Team or something, but I expect I’m doing it an injustice. Question Time can be good (although frankly the interactive element is as pointless as a Victoria Derbyshire phone-in on Five Live). Euro highlights are fair enough. BBC 2 has some early evening light history and nature before a Springwatch spin-off entitled Springwatch People. The longest day of the year in the UK is this Saturday so I think “Spring” probably isn’t the most aposite title.
Heroes is fine, and will sit on my PVR until I get around to watching last week’s. The Graham Norton Show seems to have bumped the Heroes making of programme into a post Newsnight slot because half an hour (as this programme was originally scheduled for) just isn’t enough for Norton’s so-so humour.
Of the terrestrials we’re left with House which can be pretty good, Grey’s Anatomy strikes me as something I have no time for.
Then we’re into the murky world of digital. Leave BBC Four alone thanks a lot (although a bit more foreign TV drama wouldn’t go amiss – there’s simply nowhere in the UK to it apart from here. Bring on series 2 of Sprial please). And I think I’ve mentioned everything else.
So there’s enough to keep someone at least partially entertained if all they have is a TV and a Freeview box. There’s a lot of rubbish though, and PVRs will become ever more important for delving through the list to find it.
That means listings guides and even – goodness – TV reviewers (and previewers).
EPGs are all well and good but they’re a mess really. Sky’s new TV guide is fine, but the recommended shows are a joke. I doubt that there’s ever anything on Living or UK Gold that I’m going to want to watch thanks.
So the thesis that we’re at a low point is provably untrue. But it’s becoming harder to tell.

Product Placement

Mark Kermode of Five Live and The Culture Show has a great rant about Sex and the City, exposing it for the product placement-fest that it is. And product placement is only growing in films. It’s long been accepted in the Bond films, but since The Matrix every blockbuster has done a mobile phone deal, and while Waynes World so memorably parodied the whole industry way back in 1992, the references are about as subtle in 2008 – look at Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk for starters.
Yesterday, Culture Secretary Andy Burnham, spoke out against a proposal from the EU to allow product placement on British television:

Another test of standards that is coming round the corner is product placement. As you know the Government is obliged to consider this as part of the implementation of the new Audio Visual Media Services Directive.
I can see the arguments and benefits of product placement and understand why people feel it is an inevitability given the pressures they are under. But applying the same test, I can also see the cost and the very high costs that might be paid in the long term. I feel there is a risk that product placement exacerbates this decline in trust and contaminates our programmes. There is a risk that, at the very moment when television needs to do all it can to show it can be trusted, that we elide the distinction between programmes and adverts.
As a viewer, I don’t want to feel the script has been written by the commercial marketing director.
If Jim Royle gets out of his chair for a Kit Kat, I want to think, ‘he fancies a Kit Kat’ – not, ‘Kit Kat my arse!’

The full speech is here.
I’m not sure and have yet to be convinced by either side. The ITV view is that if it’s done badly viewers will vote with their remotes. I’m not sure. Watch any number of US series and you’ll see product placement already in place. Sometimes it’s subtle – a lot of times it’s not. And those blockbuster films I mentioned earlier are frankly embarrassing.
There’s also the reality that props are supplied by agencies to producers free of charge. It keep the cost of set dressing down, but it might mean that your office is fitted out completely with Apples, or perhaps Dells. That might be realistic. But it might not.
TV broadcasters are going to need to look for different revenue streams having largely screwed themselves out of premium rate phone line revenues, and with spot airtime becoming ever easier to skip through. But they’re really going to have to be careful if they want this to work.

Cliq

UBC today announced that it was closing down the phone service Cliq while it continues to look towards “connected” radios which will become available later in the year for its future business model.
Cliq worked by installing a JAVA app on your mobile that used the data network. The service monitored the output of 28 partner stations (including Heart and Galaxy networks), and allowed you to buy and download the music you heard for a price of £1.25.
Allowing your listeners to buy the songs that they’ve just heard is a perfectly sensible thing to be doing. So why has the service failed?
Well the takeup was low, and they had technical difficulties that they found hard to overcome. I know one person who simply couldn’t get the service to work. I did have it running on my previous Windows Mobile device, but never actually used the service.
The fact that the music was encrypted with DRM, meaning that I had a limited number of devices to playback the music was the main reason, but the £1.25 price point is unattractive when iTunes is selling the same songs for 79p. That’s a 58% premium! I believe that un-encrypted downloads are the only longterm solution that’s going to be accepted by the public. We’re already seeing that with iTunes beginning to unlock some of its inventory. Play.com is already up and running selling mp3s in the UK, with EMI the first of the big four record companies working with them. Amazon has announced it’ll be selling downloads later this year, and it’ll undoubtedly have done deals with all the majors, and Napster in the US has gone down the mp3 route for its sold tracks (subscriptions obviously work differently).
As a consumer I want to be able to listen to my music on my iPod, my mobile, my PSP, my Xbox, my PC and even my SatNav if I want!
But price is important as well. The music industry has undoubtedly taken a hit in recent years with albums seemingly as cheap now as they were when I was growing up. I read reports that Coldplay’s new album, supposedly the saviour of EMI this year, is going to be sold for just £7 in Asda (and no doubt other supermarkets) tomorrow when it’s released. But record companies lost control of the market when they left it to Apple to launch the iTunes store and didn’t offer the service their consumers were crying out for themselves.
Linking your music sales offering with a radio station still makes sense. I’m concerned about developing hardware around a specific sales offering though. Requiring me to buy a new device in order that I can purchase your product is a brave move to make.
That said, wi-fi radios have yet to reach a significant level in the UK, and if they have DAB chips in them too, and are offered at a reasonable price point, then there’s certainly a possibility. I believe that wi-fi is still a bit of a black art for many people. How many subscribers who have a BT Home Hub realise that they also have a wi-fi base station I wonder?
Anyway, I’ll look forward to seeing the devices when they’re released later in the year. But your product has to be priced in line with the rest of the industry, and when Amazon opens its mp3 store, we’re all going to hear about it.

The Death of TV Reviewers

There have been a couple of pieces recently wondering about why we’re losing TV critics in our national newspapers. Ray Snoddy in Marketing magazine wrote about it last week following the ditching of daily TV reviews by the Daily Telegraph. He noted that the Mail on Sunday and the Daily Mail have also ditched them. Now those latter two papers can do anything they like because I’m not likely to see them (even when I’m suckered into picking one up for a free DVD). But I’m surprised that the Telegraph has gone down this route.
Personally I find that the TV review column is one of the first I turn to when picking up a paper, and the column’s loss would be akin to the removal of the crossword (something that wouldn’t worry me, but I know would impact on sales overnight).
So why are they doing it. Well everyone whoops and chears if a drama gets 6 million viewers these days – mass audiences are not what they were, but 6 million is still a lot of people. As Radio Times editor Gill Hudson notes in a blog over at The Guardian, it’s significantly higher than any newspaper’s readership.
As others have noted, papers are happy to run reviews of classical music and theatre – activities that are far less popular.
I think it’s actually a bad mistake on those newspapers’ behalf to stop their TV columns.
It’s true that some writing can become stale after a time. I got fed up in the end by Victor Lewis Smith in the Evening Standard. The facile jokes meant that I tended to join the review in paragraph two or three to skip them. But then he also reviewed programmes other than those provided by PR departments for that week. So if that meant a review of an hour of Ideal World, then so be it. And if something was good, he spoke up for it as well. I also dislike Sam Wollaston a lot of the time in The Guardian. He can be too much of a show-off far too often, and when he recently moaned that coming in at the start of series 4 of Battlestar Galactica was too confusing, I felt like throttling him. Having a complicated ongoing story is something to be applauded not moaned about. I’d also advise starting The Wire at episode one too. Finally on the moan list there’s the appalling Kathryn Flett at The Observer. As a commentor on the Guardian’s blog noticed, she doesn’t seem to be writing her column for that newspaper’s target audience.
But that’s enough moaning. I like plenty of others. Charlie Brooker’s Screen Burn is well worth a read even if he’s likely to have a tendency to concentrate on tat like B*g B*****r. But he’s happy to write about good programmes from time to time. Nancy Banks Smith is still great, and the Independent’s reviewers remain good.
I think my defence for keeping reviewers is that TV is still incredibly important to a large proportion of the population. We spend over three and a half hours a day on average watching it according to BARB. Britain’s Got Talent seemed to have a large proportion of the population held in rapture for a week or so recently, and the winners of anything from X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing or The Apprentice are devoured by reality TV obsessed media. So people do actually care about television.
Despite the advent of the internet, DVDs, video games and a plethora of other things fighting for your attention, people pretty much watch TV to the same extent as they did ten years ago.

Source: BARB
Of course a review of The Apprentice isn’t the same as documentary on Early Music on BBC Four. But they’re both important.
When I was younger, it used to confuse me that most TV reviews came out after the programme had aired. You’d not be able to watch the great show that the reviewer loved, but you might thank your lucky stars that you missed the one the reviewer hated. Either way, it was gone into the ether. There might be a repeat in a few months’ time, but unless you knew someone who’d videoed it, you were out of luck.
These days programmes on digital channels tend to get multiple same week repeats, so if you missed the latest episode of Lost, you can catch up during another airing. And then there’s the iPlayer and its equivalents. Missed an episode of The Apprentice? Watch it online and get up to date. You might have Sky+ed a show and not have watched it – the review may help you decide whether to bother watching it, or free up some space on your device and hit the delete key.
So why give up on them? I really don’t know.
Some argue that anyone can comment on TV via their blogs or on forums. Well so they can. But they do the same with films, and I don’t think anyone’s rushing to dump their film reviewers. I can only think that it’s snobbery that considers TV not one of the arts (it’s instructive to look at newspaper websites or sections where TV is its own section and not part of the “Arts” section).
Well I can be the biggest snob in the world, but in this instance they’ve got it wrong, and I think it’ll cost them sales in the long term.

The Incredible Hulk

Back in 2003 one of my favourite directors, Ang Lee, gave us Hulk, a film that I never saw. It’s not that I don’t like superhero films – I’ve probably seen most of them. But I’d heard so much negative press about it that I just couldn’t bring myself to see it.
Anyway, it didn’t do especially well at the box office, but now we’ve got a “reboot” of the series with The Incredible Hulk. From the opening sequence, which in many ways mirrors the old TV series’ intro, you realise that we’re not going to get a slow build up to the hows and whys of Bruce Banner getting experimenting on himself with gamma radiation. All the backstory you need is basically covered during this opening sequence.
We then see Banner (Edward Norton) in a Brazilian slum trying to live in secret. He still loves Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross, but he’s trying to blend in with the locals working in a soft drink bottling plant. Unfortunately some of his blood gets into a drink, and when an old American gentleman (no less than Stan Lee in a customary cameo) falls ill, that gives William Hurt’s General Ross all the information he needs to chase after Banner. His crack team of commandos are led by Tim Roth’s Emil Blonsky, who for some reason is Russian but was educated in the UK – hence his no attempt at a Russian accent. There were a few titters in the audience when Blonsky announces that he’s 39 (Roth’s 47).
And so the chase is on, with Banner returning to the US where he’s still trying to find the serum that will reverse his changes. We get a massive battle on the green lawns of an Ivy League university, and it all leads to a rather inevitable showdown.
Overall, it’s all quite good fun, but more so than with most recent superhero films, you simply feel at times that you’re watching an animated cartoon. I mean you are watching animation – CGI animation. But it always feels like that another really reaches reality. Now obviously when you’re a ten foot tall green muscled green thing, you’re never going to look real, but actually I was really disappointed with the CGI, and it doesn’t feel as real as Gollum or even King Kong – two other CGI characters who we’ve felt empathy for. There’s one scene between Ross and the Hulk which feels like a direct lift from Kong as Ross calms the beast it some sheltered rocky outcrop.
Add to that the fact that helicopter gunships are also routinely CGI without ever feeling real, and some poor and unrealistic green-screen work, and you feel that for all the reported rough edges of the previous Hulk film, not a great deal’s been learnt.
There are some nice cameos. As well as the aforementioned Lee, there’s a scene where Banner is flicking TV channels, and briefly the original Banner, Bill Bixby, is seen. And there’s Lou Ferrigno, the original TV Hulk, getting a couple of lines as a security guard (IMDB tells me that he got a similar cameo in the previous Hulk film).
There are also two very clunky product placement deals. We all know that the operating systems in films are never usually Windows or OS X – they’re some clever different OS that usually involves not using the mouse, but using the keyboard quite a lot (perhaps because the users know keyboard shortcuts really well?). Anyway in this film at one point somebody logs into a system to find some data, but first we see Norton 360 protecting this non-Windows/non-Mac computer. Clunky. Then later Ross takes a photo of Banner using her Panasonic Lumix camera. There’s no real reason for it. She just does. Later we see the camera battery go flat and her picture disappear in another scene that makes no sense since who leaves their cameras in playback mode? And anyway, even if your battery is flat, it’s not as though you lose the picture.
The opening for the sequel is so wide that you could drive a truck through it. But there is one nice little scene right at the very end that sits alone from the main film. It works alongside a very similar scene at the end of Iron Man – although it’s interesting that they didn’t put it post-credits this time around. Anyway, the idea that two of the summer’s superhero films are somehow linked and might be involved in an ongoing story is interesting, but I’ll say no more (even though there’ll be spoiler ahoy all over the net, and if you were brought up on Marvel comics, you might have a good idea).
Overall, a disappointing film. Not bad, but by no means good. Iron Man was much better.