January, 2009

Chris Martin

30 January 2009
(Needs to be seen large)
Lots of live streaming (now over obviously) of Chris Martin from Coldplay at work.
Strictly speaking, I shouldn’t have been taking photos, but I was standing behind non-performing band members, and couldn’t really resist. Most of the other photos have him gurning or are otherwise unlikely to be cleared by his PR, but they’re on Flickr nonetheless.
Anyway, listen out for an interview with Christian on air from Monday, when you’ll also be able to watch the whole 30 minute set. It’ll also be available to view online.

RAJAR and All Things Digital

28 January 2009
Everything happens at once. Yesterday, saw the publication of Q4 2008’s RAJAR results, and the eagerly awaited Digital Britain report.
They’re not really related, but I should probably say something about both. From close to home, my employer, Absolute Radio, published its first results, and they clearly don’t make for comfortable reading. The numbers show significant falls in most measures, but it’s to be expected. As James Cridland notes, RAJAR diaries require recall of station brands, and that’s not something that’s easy to do when a service has been on air for such a short period of time. In spite of marketing, it takes time for a new brand to seep into public consciousness.
There’s a lot of rebranding happening out there at the moment. Global has rebranded most of its FM services in the East of England from the start of this year. Broadland, Chiltern, SGR et al are now called Heart. And at the end of March, the next tranch of services will get the rebranding treatment – this time in the West of England, from 2-Ten and Fox FM to GWR and Plymouth Sound. Again they’ll form part of the Heart network. It’ll be worth watching RAJAR results for these services too in coming quarters to see how figures change. I know what I think will happen.
But there were some very positive signs to be found in RAJAR. Despite continued negative press surrounding DAB, the news is encouraging. Ownership of DAB digital radios has increased to 29.7%. So getting on for one in three homes has at least one DAB radio in it. That’s a great start, but I don’t think anyone believes that it’s anything more than a start. That’s in line with the 32.2% of the population who’ve listened to at least some radio via a digital platform (DAB/DTV/Internet), accounting for 18.3% of all radio listening.
The disparity between those figures is explained by the vast number of radios that still need replacing.
I should at this point also point out that Absolute Radio is doing enormously well in the digital sphere, which explains why my employer remains a very keen supporter of digital, and DAB in particular. Let’s face it – you don’t want to listen to a music radio service on AM do you? Our national service now has 45% of its listening via a digital platform compared with that All Radio average of 18.3%.
And that digital listening is predominantly DAB. Of that 18.3%, 11.4% is DAB, with 3.2% DTV, and 2.0% via the internet (the other 1.7% of hours aren’t stated). In other words, roughly two thirds of all digital radio listening is via DAB.
The same is true for Absolute Radio. For our national service, that 45.0% is made up of 32.0% DAB (71% of all digital listening), 6.8% via DTV and 5.8% via the internet. Even if you look at our overall service which includes London and so has lower overall figures since the service is also available via FM, digital listening overall still accounts for a very impressive 28.8% of all listening. That’s made up of 20.6% DAB (72% of digital listening), 4.4% via DTV and 3.8% over the the internet.
If that jumble of numbers has left you a little confused, it just shows that DAB is by far the most popular digital format to listen to the radio. And for Absolute Radio in particular, it’s a vital service accounting for a very significant proportion of all listening to the service.
And the DRDB has just released data indicating that by the end of 2008, the total number of DAB sets sold had reached 8.53m.
I’ve highlighted DAB to this extent because yesterday saw the launch of the draft Digital Britain report. I somehow expect that you know this already, because there’s been lots of coverage of it all over the place. Stephen Carter used to head up Ofcom, but he was enobled and now he’s been tasked with the job of building a blueprint for ensuring that we have a fully digital economy. With our manufacturing industry growing more defunct by the day, digital is an opportunity too good to miss. Indeed the report makes clear that if we don’t do something, countries like the US and France will overtake us.
Obviously the major story is about the provision of broadband internet access to “every home by 2012” with a speed of at least 2 Mbps. Seemingly, this will be paid for by the £130m a year “digital switchover surplus.”
Anyway, more of this anon, but let’s get back to radio, and see what the Digital Britain report has to say about a medium very close to home for me at least.
Last year’s DRWG report was fed directly into Digital Britain, so unsurprisingly this new report speaks of DAB as having become “the platform of choice for digital radio listening.”
In truth, I’m not sure that the Digital Britain report really goes a great deal beyond what the DRWG report before it suggested. But those plans are now to be implemented.
Specifically, the actions the report outlines for radio are as follows:
We will take action to support DAB digital radio in seven areas:
a. We are making a clear statement of Government and policy commitment to enabling DAB to be a primary distribution network for radio;
b. We will create a plan for digital migration of radio, which the Government intends to put in place once the following criteria have been met:
– When 50% of radio listening is digital;
– When national DAB coverage is comparable to FM coverage, and local DAB reaches 90% of population and all major roads.
c. We will create a Digital Radio Delivery Group which includes the retailers, the Transmission Networks, the BBC, the Commercial Radio Companies, the Car Manufacturers, consumer representatives and the device manufacturers whose role would be to increase the attractiveness, availability and affordability of DAB and to advise on the Digital Migration Plan.
d. We will work with the BBC to explore how they could extend their digital radio coverage to replicate at least current FM analogue coverage.
e. As recommended by the Digital Radio Working Group, we will conduct a cost-benefit analysis of digital migration.
f. We will consult on new legislation to allow a one-off five-year extension of existing community radio licences, to bring them in line with other radio licences and recognise the important role they have in delivering social gain. We also intend to re-consider the rationale for the current restriction of 50% of funding from any one source.
g. We will commission an independent expert examination of the economic viability, continuing social contribution of, and most effective delivery methods for, local radio services and existing localness legislation.

a and b above are directly from the DRWG report. The creation of a Digital Radio Delivery Group is to be welcomed, although we’ve had a number of groups over the last few years. We do need the will of all concerned to drive this forward.
Extending DAB coverage to meet current FM coverage is essential – especially for BBC licence payers. But as the population gets more spread out, the harder and more expensive this becomes. Nick Piggott has a great explanation of how DAB was launched in the UK and why this has been made harder, and therefore more expensive than was perhaps necessary.
One key area that still needs addressing is how some of this will be achieved. As mentioned before, the only cash “swilling” around is the BBC’s switchover surplus, but broadband is getting this.
The report rejects a proposal to allow an automatic further extension of analogue and multiplex licences, but will keep this under review if the industry is able to come up with a compelling and agreed “drive to digital” plan. In other words: it’s up to the radio industry to show Ofcom what it can offer for this incentive.
But Ofcom is carrying out a cost-benefit analysis of digital migration, and it’s some of those costs that still need addressing.
The full Digital Britain report is now in due in May, and there are likely to be changes before then: not just in radio, but in some of the other industries it covers. I’ll try to put together a wider summary of my thoughts coming out from this report later.

Digital Switchover – US Style

What on earth is going on in the States?
As UK readers will almost certainly know, we’re currently embarking on digital switchover. That’s to say that by 2012, nobody will be able to watch TV in the UK without some kind of digital box. Sky hopes that will be via their system (and they posted excellent results today), Virgin Media through their system, but for perhaps the majority of people (if not TV sets) it will be via Freeview.
According to Ofcom, 88.2% of households currently have digital TV in some form or another, which is a great place to be, but 40% of secondary sets like those in bedrooms, kitchens and offices, have yet to be converted.
It’s a challenge, and one that’s concerned me for a while. But the plan has been to roll full switchover out on a channel by channel basis, region by region. It started in the Borders region which is lightly populated and allows time to take learnings from it before attempting big metropolitan areas. As far as I’m aware, everything remains on track.
In the US it’s a different story. Many more people receive their TV via cable, and that’s relatively unaffected by digital switchover. Far fewer homes use rooftop aerials or set-top “rabbit ears” to receive over-the-air pictures. But those who do still use such methods are inevitably older and poorer.
The method the US decided to take was to set a single date, February 17 2009, for the whole country to switchover. They put in place a coupon system: you could apply for a coupon with a value of $40. This could then be put towards a digital converter box (effectively the equivalent of a Freeview box) which plugs into your TV as normal. Of course, like Freeview, many recent model TVs have this receiver technology built-in, although that information doesn’t seem to be as widely known as it might.
But there were some problems. First, when the coupon system was introduced, no cheaper boxes were available. Consumers were expecting some boxes to priced as low as $40, effectively making them free. But the cheaper boxes came online relatively late.
The scheme also had finite funding. Coupons expired after 90 days, so you had to buy promptly when you received them. And now, as D-day approaches, the scheme’s run out of money. Upwards of 100,000 people are on a coupon waiting list. They’re waiting for unused coupons to expire before the cash set aside can be put towards new coupons.
The date set was in February, and of course TV stations have been preparing for this date for a long time. One problem with the February date was that it falls in a “sweeps” period.
The US TV market isn’t able to measure all stations in the country all year around – overnight data is only available for larger markets. So four times a year, a diary method is used to measure every station’s ratings. These are the sweeps periods, and key to them is desperately ensuring that you have your best and newest programming available during them.
[As an aside, to my mind this is a fundamentally flawed system. The ratings that come from these periods are used as the basis for vast advertising sales, yet stations have used every trick in the book to maximise their ratings during this period. They might have saved up new episodes of series that had otherwise been in repeats, and they have special guest stars and events that aren’t representative of other times of the year].
Such is the concern over digital switchover that the February sweeps period this year has been moved to March. And big events like the Oscars were considered for moving. Broadcasters were concerned that a significant proportion of its audience simply won’t be able to see its programming.
Estimates of how many people are unprepared vary, but it’s clear that the number is in the millions of homes.
Criticism has been widespread.
Then on Tuesday, the Senate voted to delay the switchover until June 12.
So all of a sudden, something that was going to happen in just over two weeks, is getting a five month delay. Obama was said to be in favour of this. More time would be available to get those last homes converted: as I always say, who wants to be the politician that takes away someones TV?
But now the House has voted against this delay.
Digital transition will take place in two weeks’ time after all.
Confused? You will be… after this week’s… digital switchover.
I’m not sure that anyone could have made a bigger mess over this if they’d tried. Will it happen on February 17 now? We’ll just have to wait and see. But you can be sure it’ll be the poor, the minorities and the elderly that will lose out.
(Oh, and of course this isn’t the biggest story in US media – they’re more concerned about adverts in this Sunday’s Superbowl…)

Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler

You do watch Flight of the Conchords don’t you?
What do you mean, you’ve been meaning to? Stop wasting your time on the internet and either go and look it up on YouTube, or better still go and get the DVDs of the first series right now (and the Radio 2 series, and the album).
As well as Jemaine and Brett, the series features a fantastic set of secondary characters – especially Rhys Darby’s manager Murray, and Kristen Schaal’s somewhat stalker-ish and not to say psychotic fan, Mel.
Schaal has a wonderful face for some extraordinary expressions, so when I read the other week that she was appearing with fellow comic Kurt Braunohler, I had to get tickets.
What a brilliant night. I really just can’t begin to describe the bizarre and eccentric nature of the show. We got a play in reverse chronological order: Double Down Hearts. There was phone sex featuring Pocahontas, and a remarkable song featuring the unforgettable lyric (with accompanying dance): Kirsten Schaal is a horse. There’s some terrifically uncomfortable sections, not least the member of the audience who wins a date with Schaal.
All round, it’s brilliant. I suspect it’s thoroughly sold out, but do see these two next time you have the opportunity. I know I will.

Doubt

Doubt is another “Oscar” film adapted and directed from his own play by John Patrick Shanley. And up front, it’s fair to say that it feels very much like a stageplay adapted to film. It’s claustrophobic and has powerful set pieces that scream “play” at you.
Meryl Streep is a strict nun who’s principal of a Catholic school in 60s New York (I’ll be honest – I had to look up whether it was New York, Boston, or somewhere else on the north eastern US seaboard. It wasn’t immediately clear to me). She begins to suspect that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s priest might be behaving inappropriately with one of the boys.
Given the recent history of the Catholic church in the US, and the number of awful cases of priests who were indeed behaving like that, you might think that either this piece is about the unmasking of such a priest, or a role-reversal film – perhaps he’s the priest who’s not stepping out of line.
Because we follow the action from Sister Beauvier’s point of view, we’re not sure. And that’s really the point of the piece.
There are some nicely observed sections of the film. Streep’s character is feared by all who come before her. She knows when kids are misbehaving and strolls around smacking kids and dishing out punishment without hesitation. She reminds me of a teacher at my primary school (not a nun) who managed to maintain a similar fearful hold over all who faced her.
And the sections where the boys act as altar servers also reminded me of my own experiences. They even dressed the same as we did.
Everything is nicely observed and the performances throughout are excellent. I liked the development of Amy Adams’ Sister James who’s told to pin a framed picture of the Pope on her blackboard by Sister Beauvier. “But it’s the wrong Pope,” she complains. “He passed away.”
“You can use the refelection in the glass to see what the children are doing behind you when your back is turned,” she’s told. “They’ll think you’ve got eyes in the back of your head!”
Amy Adams is up for a best supporting actress role for her performance which is fine, but I’m much less sure about Viola Davis who’s in the same category. She has a couple of good scenes and that’s about her total contribution. Yes, they’re important and powerful scenes, but others who have less obvious “drama” are equally as good – if not better. With Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona the only performance I’ve not seen in the category, I’d have to give it to Marisa Tomei for The Wrestler; a much deeper and more polished performance.
Overall though, it’s another good, if not great film.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I saw a preview of this at the weekend, although it was a close run thing. When I turned up at the cinema at 10.30am on Sunday morning along with a hundred and fifty or so other people, my local multiplex seemed to know nothing about it.
Cue lots of delays and uncertainty about whether we would see this film, another, or any. But they managed to get it sorted out, and so we saw one of the award season’s most nominated films.
But I’ve got to ask why it’s so nominated. It’s certainly a decent film, and it’s very unusual. But award winning? I’m not so sure.
It’s about Brad Pitt’s character, the aforementioned Benjamin Button, who is born as an old man and as he gets older, his body gets younger. In other words, the plot’s utterly bizarre. But you fairly quickly forget about that and get into the interesting ideas the film presents, as he falls for a family friend who’s the same age as him in years, if not in body. That means that there’s a sort of “sweet spot” somewhere in the middle of the film. But it’d be a shame to spoil the story any more.
I’ve no idea to what extent this film really is based on an F Scott Fitzgerald story, but it’s interesting if a tad long – it’s getting on for three hours.
Cate Blanchett plays Daisy, the aforementioned friend, and a fine job she does too. While Pitt’s is pretty decent. But I’m just not sure that these are the best performances that I’ve seen in the last twelve months. They’re assured, certainly, but I’m really not sure that’s enough.
The most interesting part of the film is that set in Russia as Button meets Tilda Swinton’s somewhat more interesting bored diplomat’s wife. The relationship the two have is much deeper than anything else in the film, but in reality it’s just a sideshow to the main story.
To be honest, this film has been better made by the French. It has the feel of either Amelie or A Very Long Engagement – the playfulness it sometimes employs.
None of this should put anyone off seeing the film, but it’s just not as strong as some of the others.
Oh yes, and it’s nice to Julia Ormond on the big screen again? Where’s she been for these last few years?

One More Moan…

Given the general lack of science programmes on TV, it’s a bit of a shame that when they do come along – they clash.
Last night Horizon returned with an edition entitled “Why Are Thin People Not Fat” (I’ll just leave that there…) while at the same time on BBC Four we had the first in a season of Darwin programmes – What Darwin Didn’t Know.
OK – I realise that the BBC Four programme will get about fifteen repeats across the week, although sod’s law says that the edition I record will have signing. And at time of looking Horizon is going to be available on the iPlayer for just another 84 days!
Sense prevails next week when Horizon moves to Tuesday nights.
And while I’m talking about television science, what happened to the popular BBC 1 science programme that we were due?
In the meantime, the BBC has announced some bigger science programmes: History of Science, Seven Wonders of the Solar System and Professor Regan’s… [insert one of four subjects here].

Things That Currently Annoy Me

Sky emails me to tell me about the “Exciting New Improvements” they’ve made to the Sky Player (aka Sky Anytime – but since the success of the iPlayer, everything has to be similarly named). I can now watch if I have a Mac (or “MAC” in Sky-speak – isn’t that something to do with WiFi?), and they’ve added extra channels. They’ve also removed the previous restriction allowing it to be used on only one PC.
But it’s still fairly useless when the single thing that I’d like to be able to do is the one thing I can’t – I’m not allowed to stream Sky Sports. Now while I’m not saying that I’d waste valuable work time watching the cricket of Masters tennis, I’d like to be able to make that choice myself thanks. But Sky won’t let me unless I either take out a multi-room subscription (I live in a flat on my own so, no thanks), or I take their Broadband Max package. I already pay Sky a considerable amount of money a month, so no thanks.
Of course, I could just go out and buy a Slingbox which would do the job for me, but since Sky is worried that someone would be watching Sky One at home while I watched Sky Sports at work without them seeing any more cash, then I can’t. Rubbish.
Meanwhile, wasn’t the terrestrial FA Cup coverage poor at the weekend. I don’t mean the quality of ITV (or Setanta), but the limited number of games. When the BBC and Sky shared FA Cup coverage, the BBC had three matches while Sky had two. And I believe I’m right in saying that the BBC got first two picks as well. That’s clearly not the case with the ITV/Setanta deal where Setanta marginally has the upper hand.
On Saturday ITV had Hartlepool v West Ham at lunchtime and the main pick of the round, Man Utd v Spurs (Man Utd is always a channel controller’s pick of the round due to inevitable ratings). But that was it. The second choice fixture was probably the Liverpool derby which was on Setanta, as was the Notts Forest v Derby clash on Friday. Finally, Setanta also had Cardiff v Arsenal. I’d hazard a guess that ITV got first pick, Setanta picks two, three and four, with ITV getting the final choice.
All in all, the terrestrial viewer loses out, and I can assure the folk at Setanta that there’s no way I’m taking out a subscription with them – I’ve heard the horror stories of people who wanted to cancel later (you had to write a letter…).
Finally, yesterday’s Observer carried a story saying that culls of geese might be needed around Heathrow where they were causing more of a threat recently. This, of course, following the downed plane in the Hudson in New York a week or so ago.
The number of Canada geese in Britain is expected to rise to more than 200,000 by 2010, according to the British Trust for Ornithology, which monitors bird populations. That compares with just 3,600 in 1953.
and
Some scientists claim that they are now choosing to winter in Europe because of global warming.
So let’s see. Global warming causes geese to fly to Europe where they cause a hazard at Heathrow. We cull them, and then… build another runway at Heathrow, thus putting more CO2 into the atmosphere, speeding up global warming… You get the picture.
(But I am quite pleased that my employer will be playing the DEC Gaza appeal on air).

Welney

In Flight - Sunset at Welney
I went to Welney today, and apart from discovering that a simple five mile cycle from Littleport station took far more out of an unfit me than it should have done, I took dozens of photos.
This is possibly my favourite, but there’ll be more appearing over at p.

Sport and Media

Andy Burnham has today announced the committee that will determine which sporting events will remain “Listed”.
At the moment, there are two groups of sports that are protected. That is, they must be offered in one form or another free to air to all viewers.
Group A – Full Live Coverage
The Olympic Games
The FIFA World Cup Finals Tournament
The European Football Championship Finals Tournament
The FA Cup Final
The Scottish FA Cup Final (in Scotland)
The Grand National
The Derby
The Wimbledon Tennis Finals
The Rugby League Challenge Cup Final
The Rugby World Cup Final

Group B – Highlights on “Terrestrial” TV*
Cricket Test Matches played in England
Non-Finals play in the Wimbledon Tournament
All Other Matches in the Rugby World Cup Finals Tournament
Six Nations Rugby Tournament Matches Involving Home Countries
The Commonwealth Games
The World Athletics Championship
The Cricket World Cup – the Final, Semi-finals and Matches Involving Home Nations’ Teams
The Ryder Cup
The Open Golf Championship

* Terrestrial’s probably not the right term as we go digital, and that might be something that gets re-defined.
We obviously do get live coverage on free-to-air channels of every event in Group A, and some in Group B (e.g. Wimbledon, Rugby World Cup, Six Nations etc.).
This committee will be looking again at that list. I know for a fact, as I’ve said before, that FIFA and UEFA want to limit which games in their competitions are in Group A, with the rest of their tournament in Group B. The IOC would also like to see their events moved. Indeed, given that you effectively frozen from selling your sport to Sky or Setanta exclusively if you’re in Group A, pretty much every sporting body would like to see their events out of Group A.
So what do we make of the panel? I don’t personally like Eammonn Holmes as a presenter, but I guess he’s knowledgable. However I can think of any number of other Five Live presenters who might be better suited: Mark Pougatch or John Inverdale for example.
We – the public – will be invited to contribute to the review which will report later this year.
In the meantime, The Guardian has the first of a two part series on where the economic downturn will leave TV sports rights, and football in particular. I wonder if we are going to see the end of the stratospheric increases in football rights, although there are still new players who are declaring a hand and joining the fray like ESPN, and perhaps BT.