July, 2008

BBC Fined 400k By Ofcom

As a consequence of the BBC running fraudulent competitions, Ofcom has fined the Corporation £400,000.
Undoubtedly, mistakes – whether deliberate or not – were made. And some kind of remedial action was necessary.
When ITV or GCap were recently fined, you didn’t hear me complaining. But both of those organisations are commercial companies, and therefore fines have to come straight from the bottom line. Shareholder’s receive lower dividends as the company makes a smaller profit.
The BBC is funded by us – the licence fee payers. £400,000 is equivalent to complete licence fees for 2,867 homes. And the cheques (the total amount is from several separate instances) have to be made payable to HM Paymaster General.
In other words, as a result of this fine, that’s £400,000 less that can be spent on programming. Storyville, for example, had a budget cut rumoured to be around £1m. Depending on how it was spent, that money could have made several hours of programming.
Did the BBC do wrong? Absolutely. Should those responsible accept the blame, and even in extreme cases, be fired? Certainly. But should the viewer foot the bill? I don’t think so.
Now I don’t have all the answers. What kind of powers should be available to a regulator to ensure that the state broadcaster doesn’t repeat these things in the future? Well job security of responsible people is one, although it’s usually the people at the bottom who feel that force. Is a particular producer solely responsible, and in any case, does that prevent other cases ever becoming exposed. Firing someone is simplistic but very extreme.
I don’t know what should be done aside from making right financial wrongs (e.g. reimbursing viewers or listeners who paid to enter competitions they had no chance of winning). But it seems to me that the BBC has reacted properly as the various frauds became apparent. It has in place now incredibly detailed systems – arguably too onerous – to prevent similar things happening again. It’s wearing its hair-shirt. Fining the viewers and listeners is not the answer.
As a postscript, please go over to The New Yorker’s website and read Charles Van Doren’s account of the quiz show scandals on the fifties, as depicted in the film Quiz Show. It’s a fascinating inside account of the first big competition scandal, and how it impacted Van Doren himself.

Hulu

For the most part Hulu is pretty useless for UK residents since it’s geo-locked to the US. We can’t watch re-runs of NBC, Fox and Comedy Central shows.
But there does seem to be an exception – Dr Horrible is available on Hulu and doesn’t seem to be restricted to the US which is just as well because it’s not available through the UK iTunes store so this is about the only legal way to see it. It’s thoroughly good fun coming from Joss (Buffy, Firefly) Whedon.

[UPDATE] Oh well – it was good while it lasted. It’s no longer available in the UK.

Countdown to Countdown

So Channel 4 has managed to get itself into a bit of a mess with its longest running series – Countdown. Just before the weekend, Des O’Connor announced that he was retiring from the show. And this was followed quickly by Carol Vorderman announcing that she too was leaving.
Over the weekend it became clear that Vorderman, who’s been there since the start, was being asked to take an enormous pay cut as the overall budget of the show was dramatically reduced. It’s safe to imagine that Vorderman was on a decent wage having spent so long with the show, but didn’t fancy a salary reduced to perhaps as little as 10% of what she was previously earning.
“Executives at the broadcaster are said to be bemused by the publicity surrounding Vorderman – who has claimed she was told to take a 90% pay cut to stay on the show.
“Channel 4 insiders questioning how much sympathy daytime viewers would have over her salary, which sources have put at £1.2m for 40 days’ filming a year. Previous reports put her salary between £900,000 and £1m a year.”

This must be hard given that Firstplus, the debt consolidation firm for which she was the public face (and faced a sustained campaign against her working for the secured debt business) has now stopped seeking new business.
Still at least she can fall back on the sales of some of the products she markets like Eat Yourself Clever (A 28-day Plan to Help You Lose Weight, Improve Brain Power and Boost Wellbeing), Detox For Life (also available as a DVD) and her many Sudoku games.
It was entirely natural, I guess, that when the initial wave of the sudoku craze swept the UK, Vorderman should get involved in this number-based game. Of course there’s precisely no mathematics involved, but including numbers is close enough for any self-respecting marketeer.
Which brings me to a neat little sub-story emerging from Channel 4’s press office in the aftermath:
“Among the plans to shore up Britain’s favourite afternoon parlour game, Channel 4 sources have suggested they will launch a nationwide search for Britain’s “brainiest maths graduate” to replace Vorderman.”
Can we please just get one thing straight – having Britain’s “brainiest maths graduate” is not really going to be a great deal of use of Countdown. The numbers game on the programme is simply a mental arithmetic game which, while undoubtedly involving a certain degree of skill, does not remotely require a top maths graduate. Indeed most maths graduates (and I include myself) would tell you that they probably stopped doing mental arithmetic of this type in primary school. Adding, subracting, multiplying and dividing are the foundations of arithmetic, but they have little to do with what graduates will have been doing for the past three or more years at university. Playing the numbers game on Countdown requires little knowledge of pure mathematics, applied mathematics, algebra, analysis, probability, cryptography, topology, number theory, logic, set theory, cosmology, stochastic modeling, wave theory, statistics or optimisation amongst many many other aspects of undergraduate mathematics.
I think this goes someway to explaining why so many people have so little understanding of maths and the sciences in general, a malaise not helped by the lack of coverage on television of these subjects – watching Numb3rs on ITV3 doesn’t really count.
That all said, I’m sure some will apply even if they’re not actually Britain’s “brainiest maths graduate.”

Knock It Off, Nigel

Good news all – there’s a new “Knock Off Nigel” campaign airing on TV and radio (in reality this has been running for a few weeks now, but since ITV has seemingly given up for the summer – apart from ITV4’s Tour coverage – and Channel 4 is a no go area for me with its horrific BB programming, I’ve not seen the ad at all). For the uninitiated, this is a campaign targeting people who download pirate films from the internet. The campaign targets them as being “Knock Off Nigels” because they’re so cheap. Both radio and television campaigns are accompanied by an annoying catchy ditty that’s sung in a variety of styles. Obviously, during a credit crunch, being “cheap” is probably a wise and sensible attitude to take – just as long as you’re not downloading films. Thinking about it, perhaps I won’t spend £19 to see Batman in the Odeon Leicester Square after all. After all, it’ll be cheaper on Blu-Ray than that when it comes out, and that’s for one solitary person (OK – the most expensive seats, but really!).
I say the ad’s “catchy” – but it’s only catchy in the same way syphilis is. It has the same broad appeal as someone running their fingernails down a blackboard. I suppose that means that it gets noticed. But is it effective?
Well undoubtedly piracy of films and DVDs is a big problem, but equating the people who do it to people who steal cash from their mum’s purse (as the official website does) is just unrealistic. Are people who download movies social parriahs? Not really any more so than people who buy dodgy DVDs from blokes outside pubs or at car boot sales. I guess that’s what the ad’s trying to do, although you might question the effectiveness of it from some of the comments accompanying the ad on Youtube (I refuse to embed the ad because it’s hideous).
The problem they face is that downloading films comes across as victimless. If I did steal a tenner from my mum, then she’d be down ten pounds. But if I download a film, only the film companies are going to be out any cash, and we all know that they’re vast corporations raking the cash in and paying their stars ridiculous amounts of money for minimal amounts of work. I’m not saying that this is the right attitude, but it’s a prevalent one.
When it comes to it, I want to see The Dark Knight in all its widescreen Dolby Digital IMAX glory and not see something somebody shot with their Handycam in a busy cinema.
Anyway, I should leave the last word to those fine folk over at BrokenTV who came up with the poster below.
piracybig
“And for the DVD buying public, we can expect to suffer the perpetual indignity of being treated like filthy criminals no longer, being able to watch an episode of Arrested Development on shiny disc without having to suffer an unskippable lecture. Every. Single. Time.”
Incidentally, the Knock Off Nigel website allows you to download their “catchy” jingle as a mobile ringtone. Someone obviously sat down and noted that “kids” like downloading ringtones, so why not make it available? In real life it hasn’t really become more popular than the Nokia ringtone has it?
The real final word comes from The IT Crowd:

Is Google Advertising Dodgy Adobe Products?

We all know that internet advertising is booming, and much of that growth is coming from “search” – that is, advertising that you see dependent on your search terms on Google, Yahoo, MSN or wherever. But to what extent should the advertisers be checked out by Google and its ilk before that advertising goes live?
I ask this because I’ve seen some “interesting” ads recently on Google services. A recent search via Google Shopping for a particular model of camera threw up one online store that offered a suspciously cheap camera. I searched around, but couldn’t easily find a contact at Google Shopping to report the dodgy site to. The service is automated and Google explicitly explains that you can’t get a position on the service via payment. Fair enough, although it’d be nice to at least get a human to check out suspicious sites.
Then this morning I saw this sponsored link in my Gmail:
Suspicious Sponsored Link
Photoshop CS3 for £29 sounds just a little suspicious. Amazon charges £500 for the same product!
I decided against spending £29 in pursuit of my investigation. I suspect that they’re either selling trials that can otherwise be downloaded free from Adobe’s site, or cracked versions of the software.
Is it fair for me to ask whether or not Google should be at least running cursory checks on their advertising? Such is teh size of the market, that it would be expensive, but should they still do it? Expense or not, Google has a reputation to maintain, and being used to advertise pirated software is not smart. I work in commercial radio, and as far as I know we’ve never run an advertisement for an illegal product. Indeed in radio and television, there are services to check through adverts to see that they adhere to all the rules of the land and aren’t liable to offend or distort the truth. We also credit check new advertisers when they come on board to ensure that they’ll be able to pay for advertising, although this is largely because we charge in arrears and want to make sure they don’t run off without paying. Google usually takes money up front but I’ve got to tell you that finding the right place to complain was not easy.
Eventually, after quite a bit of searching, I came to this well-hidden page and submitted a complaint. It’ll be interesting to learn if they follow up my complaint, although difficult to prove either way since it may be unlikely that I see another ad from them anyway. I also contacted Adobe.
It’s important that complaints about advertising are taken seriously by the likes of Google. If I distrust ads that I see served, then that’s counter to my belief in the whole medium as a place to advertise. I’m sure Google will take my complaint seriously and stop this infringer. But the process should really be simpler, and even if Google has to employ more people to check the veracity of some of its copy then that’s a small price to pay.

DRM Free

2008 really is proving to be the year that we finally lose DRM – in music at least! Earlier this week Sky announced that it had done a deal with Universal to be part of its forthcoming music subscription service. Seemingly, for a monthly fee, subscribers will be able to stream what they like and download a set number of DRM-free tracks. It’s an interesting proposition and I think that the really important part is the "DRM-free" part.

We’ve reached a point where consumers know that when they download music it’s not just going to be for their iPod. Their mobile also plays mp3s, as does their Xbox, their SatNav, their LCD picture frame, their PSP and of course their PC. In the same way that when I buy a CD, I know it’ll work in a number of devices and I can quite readily convert it into a format that works in more devices, consumers expect their music to work beyond their iPods.

It’s no accident that Play.com launched its music download service with mp3s, and Amazon’s forthcoming UK download service will also be mp3 based. eMusic has been around for a number of years solely offering mp3s, and Random House now allows mp3s of its audiobooks to be sold via various suppliers. Naxos offers its music and audiobooks as mp3s, as does Deutsche Gramaphone with its classical music offering. Even Apple has finally got on board offering a so far limited range of tracks in a DRM-free format.

It’s interesting that Universal has taken an equity stake in Sky’s new service. Sky will undoubtedly be looking to sign up the other major labels before launching, but the labels realise that they need to try different things and no end up beholden to Apple’s iTunes store where it sets the price and the rules.

The reality is that physical music sales are falling, and the shortfall is not so far being made up by digital downloads. iTunes maybe the biggest source of music in the US, overtaking Wallmart, but that’s not enough.

Where does this leave non-Apple, DRM’d tracks, and by that I mean the only real alternative DRM system – Windows Media? Not in a great shape to be honest. While there is a wide variety of music players available that support the WMA format, combined they make up only a fraction of mp3 player market share. These businesses to work hard and fast to turn themselves into DRM-free services. That’s all but impossible for those that offer unlimited download rentals while a monthly subscription fee is paid, but that’s only part of the market. Apple is always rumoured to be offering a similar service, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they launched a subscription scheme at some point in the near future with full downloads as part of that offering.

In the end, DRM really doesn’t work anyway. It simply works to infuriate people who’ve legitimately purchased music and then find themselves having to dig out weird and strange workarounds to get their music to play on the players they want to hear it. And it does nothing to stop piracy. Are kids still going to trading CDs packed with mp3s in the playground? You bet they are. Will torrent sites continue to exist full of new and old releases? Yes. The industry needs to work at other methods to stop that (Although it’s instructive that even Feargal Sharkey of the BPI admitted recently that he traded cassettes at school and recorded the top 40 off the radio. Somehow the CD equivalent is different).

One short coda: DRM can and still does work for movie and television downloads. There’s no real demand for the iTunes store to offer its video offerings on a DRM-free basis yet. But the keyword there is "yet."

Please Apple – Do Something

No – this isn’t yet another post about the release of a new mobile phone. This is far more important. This is about Apple’s iPods.
Actually, it’s not even really about that. You see love or loathe Apple, broadly speaking the iPod is a great device. It does the job it was designed for simply and effortlessly. It’s a joy to use. But it has one fatal flaw – an almost unforgivable flaw. It comes with the most useless headphones imaginable.
How dare you package your pride and joy with such a useless set of audio accoutrements to listen to your music with.
I’ve owned two iPods so far, and both times I basically threw away the unwanted headphones without even unpacking them. Instead I’ve bought Sony and Sennheiser earbuds to get decent sound into my head. But it’s not actually even the poor quality audio that is the worst crime of Apple (although that’s pretty bad).
No, it’s the fact that they leak so much!
This is a failure that actually affects non-iPod (or indeed other mp3 or audio devices) more than it does Apple’s customers. If you have the misfortune to sit on public transport somewhere near somebody listening to their iPod with the original Apple accessories then you have my pity. It’s not fair on us! I listen to my iPod a lot travelling to and from work. But sometimes I don’t wear it. Yet if my neighbour is listening to their iPod with their Apple headphones then I’m faced with either singing along to their song (might as well – I can hear all the words), or more likely being forced into wearing my own headphones to block out their racket (you can bet your bottom dollar that the music they’re listening to is not to your tastes).
This is your fault Apple. Seemingly you’re selling lots of Macs, iPhones and iPods at the moment. So please put some decent non-leaky headphones into their packs or Steve Jobs name goes to the top of my list for first up against the wall come the revolution.

Misinterpreting Research Figures

If you read the right sort of newspapers, you couldn’t help but fail to notice that the fifth and final series of The Wire premiered on FX channel in the UK this week.
Then this morning, the various media sites, including Mediaguardian publish the fact that “only” 38,000 people watched the show last night. More people, it seemed, had watched Family Guy and NCIS earlier in the evening.
So is this as disastrous a figure as the reports might have you think, even if they don’t out and out say that? Well of course not. There are several things to consider when reporting overnights for shows such as this:
1) Unlike Channel 4, the repeat on FX+ later that evening wasn’t included. Ordinarily, perhaps because they have an alert press office, the Channel 4+1 figures are reported for major shows on that channel. OK, so a midnight repeat probably didn’t garner many extra people, but it will have gathered a few.
2) FX will be repeating this show on several occassions throughout the week. We don’t all watch at the first opportunity, and in the multi-channel world, same week repeats are important.
3) BARB really can’t cope with overnights of a single programme at 10pm on a channel like FX. In total there are just 5,100 homes on the panel. I don’t know how many of them are multi-channel, but let’s be generous and assume that 4,500 of them are in multichannel homes. As I say, I don’t have the actual figures, but run with me. At 10pm last night something like 21m people were watching one or another channel out of a total population of perhaps 50m. So roughly 1,890 BARB “boxes” were recording viewing. We learn that FX had a 1% share at that point in time so we’re talking about roughly 19 boxes being in play. Perhaps just 19 homes then. That’s simply not a statistically significant number to be working with – it only takes a handful of people to massive affect FX’s viewing figures. So the 38,000 should probably be taken with a certain amount of salt.
4) In any case, channels like FX will be looking at an overall weekly or monthly average share. Programmers there will be looking at the broader picture and selling their airtime accordingly.
In reality The Wire, for all its plaudits, has never had strong viewing figures, including on its home network HBO, where it was something to be proud of rather than to gain viewers as other shows might. That’s the only way it has managed to win 5 seasons. I suspect that many more people are watching the DVDs than watching on FX.

Bonekickers

Victorian street somewhere. Indeed I recall once watching a now forgotten film in Bath’s Little Theatre which actually featured that very cinema!
So it was exciting to learn of a major new BBC1 drama series set in and around Bath, using (an un-named) Bath University as a major location. What’s more, the drama comes from the people who brought you Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, and has a first-rate cast including Adrian Lester and Hugh Bonneville.
Unfortunately, that series is Bonekickers.
It’s really quite impossible to explain how dreadful this series really is. It’s about a group of archaeologists who get involved in strange stories.
The series seems to have been conceived one Sunday when the creators, having been out to watch one of the National Treasure films the night before, they nursed their hangovers watching Time Team. Hugh Bonneville is supposed to be Phil Harding, a grumpy curmudgeonly character who wears a hat much like Harding’s. He doesn’t have the thick West Country accent, but that doesn’t matter as the series is shot in the West Country.
In and of itself, archaeology is full of drama as viewers of programmes like Time Team and Meet the Ancestors will know. When you can tie finds together with other known facts about an area you can begin to tell a story. What you can less rarely do (unless you’re dealing with recent history), is have some kind of modern day element to the story you’re unfurling. That’s particularly going to be the case if you’re dealing with the Knights Templar or slavery around the time of American independence as the first two stories in Bonekicker did.
In both cases, therefore, some kind of modern-day idiots had to be included to give some kind of danger and relevance. And this is where any kind of realism is left well behind. We get CIA shootouts with a Barack Obama-type presidential candidate and beheadings surrounding stories about the cross of Jesus.
The series is really, of course, the bastard son of The Da Vinci Code, but it’s so poorly done, you just can’t help but laugh at the ineptness. Things are pulled out of the ground with wild abandon; seemingly nobody bothers to photograph or record a site. And seemingly small stories are given massive significance – it’s no secret that Bristol became successful as a result of the slave trade, so if the bones of slaves were to surface in the Bristol Channel, I don’t suppose it’d really become a hot political potato. It’d just be a reminder of our past.
So OK, it’s not realistic, but does that prevent it being good drama? Well it doesn’t, but it’s terrible. The script is poor and tension really isn’t achieved, with little real character motivation – in particualr Adrian Lester’s character just drifts through procedings. The series is also shot in HD, but pretty poorly to my eyes on a non-HD set. It reminds me of the first series of Torchwood when they were still learning how to properly use the new characters. It appears smeary and feels very much like it was shot on video – which it was. That’s especially the case in low-light conditions of which there are many given the nature of the series.
Bath University doesn’t have an archaeology department, and they’re unlikely to want to set one up off the back of this series!
On another matter entirely can someone please explain this? The latest series to examine a dangerous job (following Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Catch) is Ax [sic] Men. Like the aforementioned shows, this follows several groups of people in a dangerous profession as they try to earn a living in the logging industry. All very watchable, but can someone please explain why this is on the History Channel? That’s not just its UK home, it was a US History Channel commission, yet it’s only history if last summer is now considered history. Sure, the episode that I watched aluded to how logging was once done, but that was about it. But I suppose it gives them something to break up the endless programmes on the pyramids, the Romans and the Nazis.