March, 2009

The Prisoner – Coming Not So Soon?

Broadcast Magazine has a new picture of Sir Ian as Number 2 in the ITV/AMC remake of The Prisoner.
Slightly worryingly, the piece says that AMC is planning on airing it later this year, while ITV is showing it in 2010. Might I suggest that this is a bad idea if ITV wants to avoid rampant piracy?
Simultaneous broadcasts – or as near to as possible – is the only way to show this kind of event TV. Not doing that will just reduce the available audience. That’s especially true with genre programming, and is why Sky One has been showing Battlestar Galactica as near to the US screenings as possible.

Radio Radio

A couple of worthwhile pieces in today’s Media Guardian for those interested in the radio industry.
Global’s Stephen Miron gives an interview. The subject of licence roll-over is brought up. Classic FM is the first of the three INR licences to be renewed, expiring in September 2011. Global would like an extension rather than the highest bidder mechanism – something that’s currently legislated.
The piece also highlights two speculated national services for DAB, including a talk station. Miron won’t talk about that, so we’ll have to wait and see.
The bit I’m unsure about is the comparison between the Heart network and Radio 2. Miron positions Heart as a Radio 2 that you can advertise on. Given the recent issues Global’s had with Ofcom in regard to contemporary music levels, I’m not sure that the comparison is quite there (although Radio 2 certainly does play a significant level of contemporary music). Many of the services that have recently become Hearts were actually more chart based than Radio 2, and they’ve not had their formats changed.
Meanwhile Martin Kelner – recently employed by TalkSport – addresses the marketing surrounding the introduction of Heart in the last week to lots of towns and cities west of London. Toby Anstis, who’s morning show is networked across all 29 Heart services, had been rolled out to places such as Oxford, Plymouth, Exeter and Reading to explain why his show was relevant to local audiences. His reasoning was indeed a little flawed – he’d visited some of these places before, been on holiday there, or his brother had been to university and so on.
The only way to really win this argument is to provide compelling programming to those audiences – something better than they’d been getting before.
Kelner, meanwhile, wanders off in an odd direction at the end, suggesting that the BBC scraps local radio to let commercial radio have a proper go. I’m really not sure that this is a great solution. In most parts of the country BBC local radio is targeting a much older audience – witness the furore surrounding Dave and Sue a few years ago.
Dave and Sue
As Kelner notes, many local services really aren’t doing as much journalism as they might once have, so is it a good idea to scrap the one type of service that is doing local news? Particularly at a time when local newspapers and downsizing or shutting down throughout the land.
The BBC Trust ruled against the BBC’s local video plans last year, amid great protest from local newspapers and radio services. Ironically, I can see there actually being a significant hole in coverage in the future, as many stations rely solely on the Press Association or Sky News for their journalistic requirements. David Simon in The Guardian this weekend pointed out that a loss of local media means it’s easier to get away with things like political corruption. While the nationals may catch Jacqui Smith’s TV viewing habits, do they catch agreements between local councillors and supermarket chains, or developers? Is that something that bloggers will catch if there are no journalists?
Any destruction of the coverage of local news is something to be opposed at every level. It’ll be bad enough if there’s only a single source of news – the BBC.
[As always, these opinions are mine, and do not reflect those of my employer.]

Knowing

This is a film I went into completely blind. I knew it couldn’t have had the best reviews of the week, but I hadn’t seen a trailer and didn’t really know anything about it.
First things first. Nic Cage’s hair is very strange in this film. At some point soon he’s going to have to acknowledge it’s receding, because hair cuts like this don’t really, umm, cut it.
To the film. I suppose not knowing what the film’s about is a strength in this instance. We open in 1959 school where there’s a very strange little girl. She’s suggested that their school celebrates its opening by placing a time capsule in the ground. Her classmates all draw pictures of spaceships and robots to bury, but little Lucinda writes two sides of seemingly random numbers. They all get buried.
Flash forward to 2009 and Nic Cage is John, a lecturer at MIT who seems to give quite facile lectures. He also looks at Saturn in his garden with lights all over the place, surely making it really hard to see the night sky. He doesn’t believe in god, and hasn’t talked to his pastor father for an indeterminate period of time. He’s a widower with a son, Caleb (a very biblical name for a non-believer, but then Caleb appears in the Book of Numbers, so that’ll be the reason).
Strange things begin to happen when the time capsule’s opened up and Caleb gets Lucinda’s scribblings. Late at night John spots the date of 11 September, and then manically finds loads of other dates, along with spookily accurate numbers of people who died in each event (are the total fatalities for 9/11 even known that accurately?).
He shows his findings to his cynical physicist friend. It’s all numerology. But there are three dates left, and each date has some more numbers attached which haven’t been decoded.
And so we embark on something that’s not too clear, and feels as though it might have strolled in from an M Night Shyamalan film. There are some strangers who are following Caleb around. He’s seeing strange visions.
The first date arrives and there’s an almighty accident that’s a little too CGI for its own good.
I won’t spoil the film any more as the direction it follows is uncertain, but anyone who’s watched the films of Steven Spielberg should have a good idea where it’s heading before it gets there.
Rose Byrne, seen most recently in Damages, gets an interesting role that doesn’t inevitably become a romance with Cage – Byrne might be 15 years younger than Cage, but that wouldn’t stop such a plot development in any other film.
What can I say about the ending without giving anything away? There’s too much CGI that feels out of step with the rest of the film. I’d have saved the money and gone for something simpler.
The story didn’t hang together well enough, and even when disaster was striking, Cage was seemingly able to stroll around with impunity. When everybody else’s mobile phones were down, Cage’s was up. Having Cage’s character drink from a bottle of whiskey at any given evening was fine, but it wasn’t really followed up. This was no Leaving Las Vegas.
All in all, interesting, but not great. Not terrible, but just OK.

A One-stop Audio Shop – Cons (and Pros)

In this week’s Broadcast magazine, Emily Bell suggests that it’d be a good idea for there to be a one-stop shop for audio. She’s referring, of course, to Tim Davie’s interview with Media Guardian on Monday suggesting that the BBC works with commercial radio to build a single “radioplayer.”
“I’m talking about getting radio fit for the on-demand digital age. Why shouldn’t we be able to live pause, put it on hard drive, grab stuff from the past seven days and pre-book on radio as well as TV,” he says.
That’s all pretty exciting, and there are some interesting ideas there. A core technology backbone for all radio offerings would be a good idea.
But a single radio player?
The problem is that he’s coming at it from the point of view of a public broadcaster who’s job is simply to get the Corporation’s audio out to as many people as possible. But while that might be a major aim for commercial operators who also want their radio to be heard by as many people as possible, their prime aim is to make money via the medium. If one can’t be done with the other, then it’s not a solution.
And websites make money for radio stations – groups have digital sales teams. Once upon a time, a radio station’s website might effectively have been classed as a line on the marketing budget. But no longer.
Commercial radio stations quite like it when stations listen to their service online via their own website. That’s why you’ll hear presenters drive listeners to stations’ websites to interact, watch videos, enter competitions, find out more and so on.
Websites’ radio players can also do smart things like be “skinned” by advertisers, have video or audio pre-rolls, and provide links to other popular fare like videos or social networking tools.
The idea that a listener instead goes to a generic ‘www.radioplayer.co.uk’ and goes direct to the stream is not something that’s obviously commercially workable.
In her piece, Bell notes that we all go to YouTube for video. Most providers, even if they initially held firm, end up putting something on YouTube and hope that viewers come back to their sites for more. Thus the BBC put clips up and so on. But that’s also the reason that Comedy Central in the US, for example, gets you to go to its own site for clips of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. It’s all there and embeddable (indeed embedding clips is about the only way of watching outside the US), but those page impressions drive advertising direct to the producers.
I know that a viewer might prefer it if if they went to one place – a bit like their digital TV service’s EPG to get programming. And maybe one day, individual station websites will seem as quaint as stations sending out magazines at regular intervals to members. Hastening their demise doesn’t really help in the medium term. Not when it’s the one certain revenue growth area in any media.
For some providers, of course, the idea might be good. The Guardian produces a lot of excellent programming, and would probably quite like to have The Guardian Daily show up in the same player that houses The Today Programme, have Media Talk sit alongside The Media Show, or Football Weekly somewhere in the vicinity of Five Live.
But even The Guardian might be concerned if it started to have an overall impact on page impressions of their otherwise very popular main site. Audio and video, to The Guardian, are not core components – they’re nice extras that they’re trying to grow.
Newspapers have had a difficult time with Google News, but most at least are clear that the page views are returned to the individual papers with their stories. That said, is The Guardian or The Times really comfortable with the fact that some (potential) readers head to www.google.co.uk/news rather than www.guardian.co.uk or www.timesonline.co.uk for their news needs?
At the moment, if someone wants to listen to Absolute Radio, they visit our website, and they aren’t tempted by Xfm or 6 Music sitting just alongside.
I don’t want to sound overly negative, but some very careful thought has to be put into how such ideas might work. Sharing some of the knowledge that the BBC has built up, and the developments it has made seems very sensible. The idea that I could set something to record a radio programme for me ahead of time is very interesting. And if I listen via a WiFi radio, then of course I’m not going to be visiting anybody’s website and it’s all moot anyway.
But in the current tough climate, radio groups are going to be ever more reliant on additional revenues generated away from simple spot airtime, and that means digital revenues. Anything that damages them is not going to be welcomed with open arms.
More on this from Matt, earlier in the week.
[As ever, these views are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of my employer]

What I’ve Been Listening To This Week

Third Reich & Roll is a cracking three part documentary from Radio 2.
Stephen Fry narrates this story about how Nazi technology helped develop tape recording technology, and then the post-war development of multi-track technologies and stereo.
Part 2 is available until Monday and details what kind of technologies various classic albums used, from the fact that The Beatles were limited to no more than eight tracks – sometimes using two four-track devices in parrallel to achieve this – to the incredible tape layering required by Queen to achieve Bohemian Rhapsody.
I suspect that this Monday’s final episode will get into the digital realm where tracks are now limitless.
Thanks to Speechification for the heads-up.
David Mitchell’s The Unbelievable Truth is back for a third series this week. Not to be confused with the not-at-all-the-same yet not-all-that-different-either Would I Lie To You on TV, it’s another Monday night comedy panel game.
From a few weeks ago, the Radio 4 book of the week was The Decisive Moment. This shouldn’t really still be available on the iPlayer, but epsiode 3 is strangely still there. Anyway, it’s quite an interesting listen, and no doubt a good read. That said, I thought that it jumped around a little bit, and I’m always a tad suspicious of the science in books like this. It always feels like someone has tried to retro-actively fit a bit of science around an otherwise interesting story. That might be the serviceman who decided that a radar blip was a missile rather than friendly plane, or the fireman who came up with a life-saving wildfire survival technique in a moment which was otherwise counter-intuitive.
And our very own Frank Skinner podcast is doing quite nicely in the suspicious iTunes podcast charts (Suspicious because it’s never entirely clear how they’re generated).
Still to listen to: William Boyd on Raymond Chandler on this week’s Open Book.

The Boat That Rocked

23 March 2009

Obviously, any film that was going to set itself on a pirate radio station in the swinging sixties was going to pique my interest. And so it was with the new Richard Curtis film.

Richard Curtis films are big affairs – you don’t make films like Love Actually and Notting Hill and decide that your next project is going to be a small one. So despite the relatively niche interest in something as obscure as British radio broadcasting history, we still get a sampling of some of our finest comic actors and a top American actor to boot.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is the obvious star, playing The Count, an American DJ broadcasting to the UK. The film tells us that something like 25m people a week were listening to pirate radio, and although I’m not sure how accurate that figure can possibly be, it’s clear that for a long time before the BBC gave us Radio 1, Brits had to look elsewhere: legal or otherwise.

Is this an accurate history of what it was like to be on a pirate ship in the North Sea? Almost certainly not. They all look like they’re having far too much fun, and of course the boat is manned by just about nobody else but DJs (there are other people who work at a radio station believe it or not). But that’s not really the point. Curtis’ films are never framed as social documentaries. They’re supposed to give you a good time and leave you smiling at the end.

And The Boat That Rocks does that. It’s laced with music from the period, and for the most part – despite some sexual escapades between the locked up men, they all get on well. The laughs are broad – sometimes too broad for my liking – but it all looks like fun.

If anything, the story is too slight. There’s evil Kenneth Branagh, the government minister who’s trying to close down the perverted pirates, and his henchman "Twatt" (Jack Davenport). Branagh is clearly having a whale of a time being evil with a Hitler-esque moustache to boot.

But aside from that, and Bill Nighy, the station’s owner trying to combat the government, there’s not really a lot to say. A young lad joins the boat, falls in love, and gets his heart broken before… Well you know. It’s a Curtis film. Then there are some fallings out between DJs – I’d love to see two DJs sort out their differences by, say, climbing to the top of the Crystal Palace transmitter as the two do in this film.

Throughout the film we get cutaways of swinging Britain listening eagerly to "Radio Rock" from their transistor radios, quite often dancing around in public. We get montages of them at various points as the plot unfolds. But mostly it’s just all about having a good time, and finding some appropriate music to play.

It’ll do pretty well in Britain with a cast that includes the excellent Rhys Darby, Nick Frost, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Chris O’Dowd (playing a DJ, unlike his character in ITV2 comedy FM who is… a radio DJ) and Katherine Parkinson. But I wonder how it’ll be sold in the US? This is a big film that’s had a few quid spent on it, and although it sets up the story and explains why there were pirates, it’s not part of the heritage.

Still – who cares (apart from Universal and Working Title)? I’m here to talk about the film, not worry about its commercial viability.

Overall, I’d say it’s definitely worth catching, even if it’s not the funniest comedy you’ll see this year. It’s a tad too long to be honest with a few surplus scenes, and some of the plot is just a little predictable.

The end sequence of the film explains that by the summer of 1967 the pirates were over (I’m not spoiling anything – you should know this). It doesn’t then point out that Radio 1 launched using lots of DJs who’d been on pirate ships. But the film does then say that there are now 299 music stations playing rock and pop twenty-four hours a day (It’d be churlish to point out that on the day that another batch of Global services turn into "Hearts" that’s probably over-egging it because so many sound alike, and indeed, are alike), but it then goes on to say that in the subsequent forty years, the music has had a good innings. And we get a feelgood montage of clips of the characters and classic album covers from the period – starting with Sgt. Pepper.

Ignorant Reviewer

Friday night saw the first in a new series of Genius on BBC2. It’s a TV transition of the popular Radio 4 comedy presented by Dave Gorman. The radio series is very funny. The TV version is also very funny, being basically the same, except that you can see some of the mock-ups they’ve built of various “Genius” ideas suggested by viewers/listeners.
Now I’ve had bad things to say about Sam Wollaston’s TV reviews for The Guardian here in the past. He’s obviously angling for his own column rather than being really interested in television. So perhaps I shouldn’t have been so disappointed.
But I think that one sentence really gives him away in his Saturday review of Genius:
This is not about real ideas; it’s about comedy. Actually, it’s already been a Radio 4 comedy (three words that have rarely sat together well in my book) for a while.
[My emphasis] Do I take it that Wollaston thinks that all Radio 4 comedy is bad? Does he actually ever listen to comedy on the radio?
I wouldn’t for one second say that every comedy that Radio 4 puts out is comedy gold, but I think it covers a lot ground with a “something for everyone” approach. While there are certainly duds, the quantity that it commissions means that it does get quite a few hits. Whatever you think of The News Quiz – it’s pretty much the same as Have I Got News For You.
The Now Show’s always entertaining; “Clue” is recording a new batch sadly without chairman Humph; Ed Reardon is unfailingly excellent; and I enjoy Clare in the Community. Then there’s other returning series like Heresy and The Unbelievable Truth (on tonight). And I’ve just picked up CDs of series 1 of Bleak Expectations following Barry Cryer’s recommendation at a Radio Academy event last week. Then there are Armando Iannucci’s Charm Offensive, Down the Line, Nebulous and Chain Reaction.
Has Wollaston listened to any of these? Is none of them funny in his eyes (or ears)?
Saying something like that is just a display of his own ignorance. He really doesn’t deserve to share a column with Nancy Banks-Smith.

Streetmaps in London

Google Streetmaps has launched in London, and I was keen to see if I featured.
A few months ago I saw the Google car taking photos:
Google's Street View Car near Piccadilly Circus
But sadly, it wasn’t taking pictures on Glasshouse Street where I saw it.

View Larger Map
The above photo was taken in front of the Jewel nightclub at the back, just next to “Donuts.”
What is clear is that Google has painstakingly blurred out anyone identifiable in their photos.
A potential moment of fame gone forever…

A Celebration of Radio Comedy

Earlier this evening, the Radio Academy had one of its regular events – this one was a celebration of radio comedy.
Jon Holmes hosted the evening, speaking to two excellent proponents of comedy on radio: Barry Cryer and Steve Punt.
Radio Academy 1
Barry Cryer picked some his “desert island” comedy classics and we were treated to excerpts. So we had Around the Horn which is a fantastic show that I learnt about via BBC cassettes, the peerless Armando Iannucci’s Charm Offensive, and of course, I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue. The only programme of his that I really didn’t know was Bleak Expectations; I can see that I’m going to have to educate myself.
Via the medium of video, Adam and Joe talked about an influential piece of comedy in Peter Cook’s calls to Clive Bull in the guise of Sven the Norwegian (I listened to a lot of LBC around that time, but never heard about Sven until it was too late. I did, however, hear Clive Bull’s “talent show” radio of the same period. Bull’s still with LBC!). Adam and Joe mentioned that it was a regular thing that comics phoned in radio shows. Shocking!
Radio Academy 2
Steve Punt had an interesting selection of influential radio comedy in that it’s not quite the usual selection of Radio 4 comedies. So he mentioned Kenny Everett’s Captain Kremen (something I tried listening to as a child but never really got. I didn’t listen to Capital either), and Adrian Juste’s Saturday lunchtime radio comedy show featuring lots of cut-up clips of comedy records interspersed with Juste’s own jokes and music. I do remember listening to that, and Juste was in the audience this evening.
Punt also referenced Steve Wright and his then original zoo format show with a cast of regular phone-in characters: Sid the manager et al. And finally, there was one Radio 4 comedy in amongst them all – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Finally Lauren Lavergne appeared via the medium of video and told us she’d effectively just discovered On The Hour. Well the CDs were released just before Christmas!
What I did find interesting was that both Cryer and Punt had access to, at various times, “writers’ rooms” of sorts where comedians of the day gathered to talk to one another, exchange ideas, and make outgoing phone calls at the BBC’s expense.
And this kind of environment is important, we were told, since although you can become famous to an extent via YouTube today and get yourself discovered, until you’re produced by someone experienced, it’s hard to become fully formed.
I must admit that I came out enthused about listening to more radio comedy. I guess it’s a shame that commercial radio just isn’t able to do scripted comedy. Of course there are comics on the radio – and my employer has quite a few – but fully fledged scripted comedy is still exceptional.