April, 2011

Things a TV Channel Controller Should Never Say

If you’re a TV executive you should be very careful when you axe something or say that you’ll never do something again.
Recently Jay Hunt, Channel 4’s new chief creative officer said that the channel would no longer be making list programmes. That’s fine. They’re lazy, relatively cheap, and have run their course.
But what’s that? In 2007, Kevin Lygo – then Channel 4’s director of television and content – said exactly the same thing!
Channel 4 continued to make them because they drove audiences. And with channels like More 4 and E4 to fill, they repeated well too.
Now we have BBC1’s relatively new controller saying that he axed the generally well regarded, and well received Zen, because there are “too many male detectives” and “too much crime” on television.
He does realise that this comment is going to come back and bite him doesn’t he?
Let’s face it. The real reason he cancelled Zen, and a few other successful series, was that he needs to make his own mark. One can only hope that mark isn’t going to be made by shows like Candy Cabs and Mrs Brown’s Boys (which unfathomably has been recommissioned!). It’s what all new channel controllers do.
But the reason this comment will remerge is that he’ll find it near enough impossible to avoid commissioning crime/police series. He’s actually just commissioned one (albeit, with a female lead). If there’s one we’ve learnt from the history of TV over the years: you can’t go wrong with police or hospital dramas.

ISS

ISS
The International Space Station (ISS) is very visible at the moment, appearing as an often very bright, yet very fast-moving star.
Taking advantage of a location that has much less light pollution than home, I took the above long exposure photo this evening showing the transit of the ISS across the sky, passing through Leo. Interestingly, it was preceded by another visible object that seemed to be following exactly the same trajectory as the ISS. This, I believe is the ISS Progress 41 cargo craft which was undocked earlier in the morning. It’s currently being kept away from the ISS before being sent into orbit for a burn up.
The photo doesn’t show two objects as they did follow the same trajectory across the sky. But I think my explanation makes sense. Note that the photo is a 2 minute exposure – hence the short star trails visible in the night sky.
A handy site called Heavens Above is excellent at letting you track when and where you can see satellites, the ISS, and other objects from your local location.
There are more possible views over the next few days, and with any luck, the double-dip of the cargo craft and ISS in one viewing should be good.
The next question is – will we really be able to see Space Shuttle Endeavour in a week’s time?

My BBC DQF Proposal

Another day, another proposal under the BBC’s Delivering Quality First (DQF) – aka, what significant cuts can we make as painlessly as possible?
We’ve had plenty of them to date including the gutting of BBC Local radio, stopping late night or daytime broadcasts. Just today, the BBC News channel (or BBC News 24 as it’s just about universally still known) is the latest in line. I would like to see a few more reports from the BBC nations and regions on BBC News – they’ve been edited up and packaged already. There’s a half-hour programme just waiting to be made, probably requiring a single editor/producer. But enough of that. Allow me to introduce my proposal.
To make some key savings, you’ve got to look to television. Radio is just too small. Unless you attack the budgets of Radio 3 or Radio 4, both as culturally important to UK society as any other thing, then there’s not really a great deal to go for.
Of course Radio 1, Radio 2 and Five Live have budgets every commercial station would kill for. But in the scheme of things, we need to look bigger. I assume it was this thinking that has led to a reprieve for the Asian Network.
One of the proposals mentioned today was taking BBC Parliament online. That would save £6.5m pa according to the most recent BBC Accounts. A parliamentary channel is never going to be popular, but it’s an important part of our democracy. Saving a trivial amount of cash to deprive those who are not on the internet (that’s a lot of people, disproportionately biased towards the elderly) of that answerability, and at a time when libraries are shutting, seems futile. If the BBC can make central Government pay, that’s a possibility, although there is still journalistic rigourousness required, so it might be better being at arm’s length from the government.
I’m concerned about cuts surrounding daytime. While the over reliance on shows based around selling off antiques and doing up homes needs some serious addressing, we need to consider very carefully our elderly. Daytime repeats of primetime shows might be the way forward to save some cash here. I assume same week repeats don’t incur repeat fees for performers?
But enough of what I wouldn’t do. What would I do?
Move BBC Three online.
And by that, I mean cut vast amounts of what it does, and leave the remainder online, cutting distribution costs. Essentially, BBC Three would become a red-button service.
Allow me to expand. BBC Three costs £118.6m pa according to the BBC report and accounts (page F32).
Of that £87.5m is on “content“, with £6.8m on distribution (so very similar to BBC Parliament), and £24.3m in infrastructure and support.
Compared with that, BBC Four costs £74.0m and BBC Two £575.6m.
Quite why BBC Three and BBC Parliament’s distribution costs should be nearly double BBC Four’s at £3.8m I’m not sure. On Freeview and Sky, BBC Three and BBC Four, timeshare a multiplex with CBBC and CBeebies, while BBC Parliament is 24/7. Anyway, that’s a question for another day.
I’d chop that “content” fee right down. BBC Three is the least original of the BBC’s digital offerings, with elements of it replicated by commercial rivals including E4, ITV2, Sky One and Sky Living. It’s biggest ratings come from narrative repeats of popular BBC One and BBC Two shows like Eastenders, Doctor Who and Top Gear.
While it has broken some new comedy, for every Gavin & Stacey, there’s a White Van Man. BBC Two and BBC Four could easily fulfill this need. Dramas like Being Human could happily sit on BBC Two. And nobody at all would miss programming like Snog, Marry, Avoid.
BBC Three does produce a few decent single documentaries that make accessible relevant issues to a younger audience. And it’s this programming that I’d put behind the red button. In the same way that various sports highlight packages and concerts employ bandwidth under the red button, I’d have these programmes on a permament roll. Some would fit in that awkward post-news BBC One slot early in the week. You find exactly these BBC Three docs showing in that slot anyway.
Some of the comedy elements would exist in an online world only. I envisage a YouTube-style comedy environment to encourage new writers and performers.
BBC Two and BBC Four would widen their remits a bit – the former for drama (which it’s doing anyway) – and the latter for more comedy (something it’s seemingly about to back away from).
Freeview would gain an extra red button channel – something it really needs. CBBC could extend its hours to 8pm.
I’d run Doctor Who repeats on CBBC in the 7pm hour. Eastenders repeats could go on BBC One in the afternoons – perhaps with edits.
While I’m changing everything, I’d move children’s programming back from BBC Two to BBC One, running to at least 5.30pm. Then run something like Eggheads for the next half an hour. Hiding kids programming away only on the kids’ channels isn’t a good idea in the long term. The BBC really shouldn’t be caring about audience sizes at that time of day. Who cares if C4/ITV has bigger shows between 5 and 6? It doesn’t matter. While you could keep Anne Robinson on BBC Two, I’d look to archive or films filling the 4-6pm slot on BBC Two. Then maybe a quiz format like that Alexander Armstrong one through until 7pm.
I reckon you could save at least £80m in this way. That’s the sort of levels the BBC’s trying to achieve isn’t it?

Radio Well Worth Listening To

A couple of things that I heard over the weekend:
Into The Music Library – This documentary from Jonny Trunk is a great introduction into the world of library music. You’ve heard an awful lot of it, but mostly you’re not aware of it. The documentary concentrates on music from the sixties and seventies. It’s really well worth listening to. I’m not sure how long it’ll be on the iPlayer.
The Sea Gangsters – This is a great piece of journalism that really brings home quite how horrific the epidemic of piracy coming out of Somalia, but now spread across the whole of the Indian Ocean. The opening couple of minutes of it alone is terrifying as we hear recordings of the pleas of hostages, and hear what kind of conditions captives are kept in. The warnings are there. If we don’t properly do something about this ever increasing epidemic, then it’ll raise oil prices. As the chap from BP says in it – it’s as though there were bandits halfway down the M4 between London and Cardiff, and we were letting them just get on with it. Available for another six days at time of writing.

Titanium
– I mentioned this before, but I’ve listened to it now. It’s an Afternoon Play telling the story of Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space, from the point of view of his rival in training. A really well made play. Get in quick for this, because it’ll be gone from the iPlayer by tomorrow lunchtime.

The Dangers of the Cloud

Putting all your worldly goods into the “cloud” is brilliant isn’t it?
You simply upload, documents, music, files, pictures, movies, whatever… onto one of the many cloud based hosting sites. After all, it’s fiddly, time-consuming, and often expensive to sort out your own hosting solutions. And putting your documents in the cloud brings with it safe backups. So why wouldn’t you upload your files to a business in the cloud, whether they operate on a fee-based system or an ad funded model?
Excellent. Problem solved.
But then there’s always the little concern that perhaps the company you’re entrusting your data might not last the long haul. At this point you can go one of two ways. You can either keep a local back-up – which let’s face it, is the safe thing to do (even though the cloud is there to essentially solve this issue); or you can entrust your data to a large corporation. A corporation that’s surely going nowhere.
If you decided that using Google Video was a good solution for video hosting, an email in your inbox rudely disabuses you of that notion. Google has let users know that they have 28 days to get their videos off their service before their videos are deleted. Google Video was Google’s forerunner to YouTube when they didn’t own a video hosting service. While it was never really developed, it did have at least one thing going for it – you could upload long videos to the site.
I only have eight videos on Google Video. Most are incidental, and have been viewed less than 100 times. But one has been viewed over 19,000 times. That’s a documentary from the late eighties which is unlikely to ever see the light of day again. I captured if from a VHS copy. It’s also over 15 minutes. (Yes – it’s copyright. But the copyright owner has never approached me, and in the absence of it being available anywhere else, it seems to have lived happily on Google Video for the last three years).
And – after a couple of days when some videos weren’t available to download – I am able to download them all. Well all except one.
I shot a short timelapse video and put a music track on it. Yes – I broke copyright again. Google blocked it. The video is not viewable. But it’s also not downloadable. I certainly own the rights to the pictures, but I can’t get that video back at all. I also don’t know the details of the copyright claim. In less than 28 days, that video will be gone.
I do have local copies of this, and all my other videos, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.
Obviously anywhere where these videos have been embedded will shortly result in a broken page. I can fix my own pages, but not anyone else’s.
What I find odd is that Google has felt the need to do this at all. Mothball the site, but leave live videos live – indeed that’s been the case for the last couple of years. At the very least there should have been a one-button feature to move videos across to the Google owned YouTube.
Instead, Google suggests downloading the videos and then reuploading them to YouTube. That’s a ridiculously messy solution.
Meanwhile Archive.org is offering some space for the videos.
While it might seem unthinkable today that Google or YouTube would ever cease to exist, are you certain? How many users have bought cameras with direct-to-YouTube upload capability that means that YouTube is the only place those videos are stored. Will YouTube be around for time immemorial?
If you’d asked someone in the sixties or the seventies who the biggest airlines in the world were, they might have said Pan-Am or TWA. The airline industry still exists – it’s bigger than ever. But those two behemoths are long gone.
There’s regularly great excitement when in some dusty cupboard or attic a reel of film is uncovered with song long lost footage. We are horrified that the BBC deleted early Doctor Who tapes or film companies dumped negatives of films that weren’t successful at the time. But today we’re willfully deleting our own historical remnants. While it’s true we live in a time when more photographs, videos and pieces of text are produced than ever before, I’m not sure that we’re looking after our records any better than in times gone by. Indeed, when the collected “letters” of some important character of the early twenty-first century are gathered, they’re going to be nigh-impossible to collate. Facebook updates, Tweets, YouTube comments, LinkedIn updates, and so on.
In the meantime, do use the cloud for your data. But only as a backup. Nothing is forever. Or even for more than a handful of years.
[Update]
Google listened! I wouldn’t say that they listened to specifically to me, but they listened to their customers. The previous deadline has been removed, and they’ve vastly simplified the procedure for getting the videos onto YouTube. Now you simply press a button and it does it automatically. Indeed seemingly previous links (and embeds?) of the videos will continue to work. Interestingly, even my 48 minute video is now on YouTube (here if you’re interested).

Seagull 4B-1 TLR

Seagull 4B-1
A couple of weeks ago, I dipped into the medium format world of a twin lens reflex camera. Namely a Chinese Seagull 4B-1. It’s very much an entry level camera.
I’ve now run about three rolls of film through it, and you can see some of the results below:

The first set includes a little street photography, but it’s basically all about learning how to even use the camera. As most of my film experience has been on relatively basic cameras, the idea of having to decide both the shutter speed and aperture without any guidance at all was slightly scary. I must admit to pulling out my G10 and using that to give an idea. Essentially, it became an expensive meter.

For better or for worse, neither of these sets has any processing applied.
I must admit that of the films I’ve shot so far, those using a two year out of date Fuji Superia 100 are my favourites. The cross-processed pictures seem to leave something to be desired.
And although it might not be clear at this resolution, I scanned the first set in myself, whereas the second set was scanned professionally (at relatively low resolution – so I might need to rescan for prints). I mention this only because I patently didn’t do it in a dust-free environment.

Kindle Pricing

Interesting news emerges from the US, where Amazon has decided to release a lower priced Kindle. The base model wi-fi only Kindle was $139, but Amazon is now retailing a $114 version which comes “with Special Offers”. That effectively means GroupOn style one-off discounts and other advertising messages.
A couple of things occur to me:

  • The people who haven’t yet bought a Kindle, and to whom this is undoubtedly aimed at, aren’t necessarily the most desired group by advertisers. These are people to whom price matters a great deal. The near-$100 price point drags them into the market
  • Amazon is effectively telling consumers what their value is to advertisers. It’s the difference between the two price points plus some admin costs. Do you feel good or bad knowing you’re worth $25?
  • Is the pricing point right?

I’ll go into that third point a little more. Most of us are now aware of the freemium model, where you perhaps download a programme or application for your mobile that offers a modest set of features and perhaps some advertising. If you pay for the premium application or programme, the advertising disappears and you get additional functionality. Spotify is a prime example of this.
But in those instances, you first tend to come across the free model, and then determine whether the increase in price is worthwhile to you.
Amazon is doing the reverse. The price of the Kindle has been established. Now you’re getting a discount in return for advertising. But I’m not sure that the discount is steep enough. Irrespective of whether consumers think that they’re being valued at $25 (point two above), I’m just not sure that the $114 price is attractive enough. Surely $99 would have made sense?
It must be said that by starting out at $114, Amazon leaves itself the ability to continue lowering the price of it’s ad-supported model, but I’m not sure how many consumers are ready to jump.
I’m not an expert in the psychology of pricing – an area that is very interesting – but it would seem to me that if I was fresh in the market for an eBook reader and had the choice fo the $114 and $139 model, I might well end up getting the more expensive model since the price differential was not great, and the value to me would be worth the removal of a potential irritance in advertising.
Of course there might be a handful of consumers who see it as an overall positive that they get both a cheaper Kindle and lots of great targeted offers. But I think it’s fair to imagine that they’re in the minority.
Anyway, in the UK this is all a moot point, since the deal has yet to be replicated over here. And in any case, I’m not remotely convinced that eBook readers are right for me.

Lost and Found

It’s been a lovely weekend, so today I was out on my bike taking some photos. I headed down to the South Bank and was near the front of Tate Modern capturing a couple of pictures of the people nearby.
There were thousands of other people about. Tourists; locals; people working.
I moved on further towards the Southbank centre, cycling along Upper Ground.
At some point, I realised that my bike had lost its bike computer – a neat Garmin GPS unit. It’s not cheap.
Had I put it in my bag? No. My pockets? No. I checked everywhere twice, and then again. It was gone.
The one place I thought I might have dropped it was near the Tate where I’d stopped to take photos. In fact I’d been by the railings on the embankment there, and it’s possible, I thought, that it had gone over the edge and landed on the “beach” below. It had been low tide I remembered.
I cycled back wondering about how much a replacement would cost, with the vague hope that it was still lodged in the mud below. I found the spot where I’d stopped, and what do you know?
On the floor, just sitting there quite close to the railings in front of Tate Modern, was my blue and white GPS bike computer. This was at least half an hour later. Hundreds of people had walked by. It was upside down, which probably helped. To the unsuspecting eye, it was a piece of white plastic. But it was still there – essentially unscathed.
As I verbalised my incredulity, a chap nearby with a couple of kids just put it down to the nice weather and people being good on days like these.
Incidentally, down below the tide had come in – it’s fast along the Thames – and there would have been no chance to seek it in the mud.

Monsters

I missed Monsters in the cinema. And more fool me. It’s now out on DVD and Bluray, and it’s superb.
What director, writer, and visual effects producer Gareth Edwards has managed is wonderful.
This is low budget film-making without looking low budget. Andrew Kalder (Scoot McNairy) is a press photographer who’s asked to find out about Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able). She’s the daughter of someone important in the organisation for whom he’s a photographer.
They inhabit a world in which strange monsters live in an infected area between Mexico and the US. These monsters are more problemmatical at various seasons of the year, and there’s a constant backdrop of US and Mexican armed forces attempting to destroy these strange creatures.
But that’s not what we’re focusing on. That’s all background to the story of Kalder and Wynden as they struggle across central America trying to make their way home to their comfortable lives.
The film had a script although it’s clear that as events took place on location, elements were incorporated into the finished product. The crew was tiny consisting of five people plus the two actors. Everybody else was cast as they went on the spot. That means lots of non-professionals. They also shot in guerilla way at times without getting permissions.
Interestingly the film wasn’t shot on a DSLR. I suspect that it would be now, as even smaller amounts of kit would be used. Edwards is a technical wizard and realised what he was capable of doing with off the shelf CGI modelling software as well as Adobe Premiere and After Effects.
The quality is stunning. But it’s actually unfair to concentrate on that, because the style and the feel of the film, and especially the characters mean that the effects are not the stars of the film. They just paint the background. With a film, it’s always characters and story, and this is what this film has in abundance.

Source Code

I very much enjoyed Moon, Duncan Jones debut film from 2009.
Source Code is his follow up and it’s great that he’s stuck to his guns and made another film in a very similar vein. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Captain Coller Stevens, a member of the military. He suddenly finds himself in another man’s body on a commuter train heading into Chicago. But there’s a bomb on the train and he along with everyone else is blown up and killed.
Then he’s dropped back eight minutes, and he’s able to relive his time again, this time attempting to solving the crime. And repeat…
It’s a smart little idea that plays out very neatly as Stevens attempts various ways of finding out who’s planted the bomb, and saving (or not) the passengers on board. It feels, in large part, like a science fiction short story.
The film comes in at around 90 minutes, and it’s all well handled with a satisfactory conclusion. I’ll say no more about that here, except to say that you get from it what you want from it.
Comparisons with Inception are understandable, but unfair. That’s a different kind of film. Well worth checking out.