October, 2015

Google and Podcasts

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This week we heard the first news that Google is starting to get into the podcast game. Recode had the first decent report on the move.

Currently, Apple dominates podcasts. Indeed, the word “podcast” might seem to imply to casual listener, that listening to a podcast means having an actual “iPod” to listen to them on. It doesn’t, although Apple’s inclusion of podcasts into iTunes fairly early on gave the medium a massive boost. At a time when you had to sync your mp3 player with some software on a PC, podcasting was technically complicated business. Tying it into the same system that got your music on your portable audio device was a smart move by Apple.

But in a mobile world with WiFi networks and 4G, podcasting should have become simpler. Apple spun out its Podcasts app, and a myriad of apps appeared on Android devices.

So why then are podcasts listened to on mobile devices still so heavily skewed towards Apple? It’s reported that Libsyn-hosted podcasts see more than five times as many iOS downloads as Android ones! That’s astonishing. And awful.

It’s so skewed because Apple fully supports podcasts, and when you turn on a new iPhone, you have the Podcasts app waiting to go. You can browse easily within the app for something to listen to, and when podcasts you might have caught because someone shared a link on social media, suggest you subscribe, they invariably mention that this podcast can be found in iTunes – where you can leave a review!

And so it becomes self-fulfilling. Indeed, too many people continue to believe that if they’ve got their podcasts in iTunes, then a simple link to that page is all they need to share. (See also my Top Tips for Podcasters.)

Yet while all of this is going on, there are more Android handset owners than iPhone owners in pretty much every market. Way more.

Podcasters are missing out. More to the point, they’re missing the opportunity to more than double their audience. But it’s not their fault. There’s just an in-built bias towards Apple in the podcasting ecosystem.

If we assume that an Android user is no more or less interested in audio than an iPhone user, then that leaves a lot of low hanging fruit ready to be picked. I’ve written about this in the past as The Android Problem. Yes, I know that iOS users buy more games and spend more money per device – maybe their more engaged with smartphones overall. But that doesn’t account for those massive discrepancies.

Earlier this year when I last wrote that piece, I was hoping that Google would get into this game, because podcasts are the obvious part of the iTunes store that the Google Play store is missing.

But what Google is talking about, as far as I can see, is something a bit different to Apple. Apple essentially allows anyone to place their podcast on iTunes. You complete a form, upload some graphics and meta data, find a host to serve your podcast and you’re away. If you have a podcast, you have to place it on iTunes.

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But Google looks like it’s suggesting something a little beyond this. Yes, they want podcasters to upload their wares. And yes, they say that you’ll be able to search for and browse for podcasts by category – the same ones as Apple. But from what they’re talking about in their blog piece, they also want to automatically recommend appropriate podcasts – which sounds a little more like services such as Stitcher.

Since Google bought Songza, they’ve been implementing smart technologies to deliver music appropriate to the time of day and what you’re doing. Initially this was solely available in the paid-for Google Play Music subscription offering, but in the US, there’s now also a free version of this, with advertising support and limitations on how much music you can skip. (Regular readers may recall that as a UK listener, I was tortured with getting access to this, and then losing it for several weeks!)

Incorporating podcasts into this sort of thing is interesting, and listening to Google Play Music product manager Elias Roman on The Feed, it’s clear that this is a major part of what they want to offer. Indeed, it’s worth noting that as well as Android, there will be iOS and web apps to enable wide adoption of what they’re planning.

But at the moment, there’s nothing to actually listen to, and in any case, only US podcasters seem able to upload their podcasts to the site. I understand that a service that’s potentially supported by advertising may want to launch on a regional basis, but whisper it: Americans do listen to podcasts from outside America too!

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Google also seems to pushing very hard the fact that their app – presumably Google Music – will be the default pre-installed way to listen to Podcasts.

Anyway, this all leaves lots of unanswered questions:

1. When will anyone be able to upload a podcast to Google, regardless of geography? At the moment the site geo-blocks non-US uploaders. Even if the service isn’t available outside the US, it’d be nice to be able to get international podcasts hosted there!

2. Will podcasts in Google Play be essentially open to all as with Apple, or is Google looking for premium suppliers only? It would seem to be the former.

3. Advertising – how will it work, if at all, and what might I earn? The US-only free Google Play Music service is ad-supported. There’s obviously a revenue-sharing operation currently working with music rights holders. I assume that’s why this whole thing is limited to the US at the moment as it’s the advertising market Google is most comfortable with. But what kind of deals will be on the table for podcasters, if any? Who can earn what? And in the longer term, what if anything will that mean for podcasts and podcast networks that already have very profitable ad operations? I note that the likes of Panoply and Gimlet are already on board with Google, and they are already ad-supported. The episode of The Feed I mentioned above is well worth a listen because a lot of basic questions are answered, but advertising was not – aside from the fact that Google will not be dicing or slicing your podcast or removing adverts already embedded into your podcasts. [See my follow-up post for more on this]

4. What does this all mean for other podcast app providers on Android? Is Google effectively killing them off? Do the likes of PocketCasts or Doggcatcher have enough points of difference to keep going? iOS has other podcast providers – PocketCasts is one of them. Will I be able to directly subscribe to a podcast in PocketCasts from Google Play – in the same way that I get to choose my choice for apps like browsers and music players. It doesn’t sound like it’ll work that way.

5. Are we going to end up in a messy world of platform exclusives? Let’s hope not.

6. Might this pave the way for better metrics? I think this is critically important from an advertising and accountability perspective. Google says that it will be taking a copy of your podcast from your feed, re-encoding it themselves, and then hosting it for listeners. That means that your metrics will come from Google, and at this point that sounds like a basic play count a la YouTube. What Google is talking about doing is different to iTunes. Apple does not host your podcast – you sort out your hosting requirements yourself – perhaps with a specialist like Libsyn. That provider may well offer a measurement service so you can see detailed statistics on your podcasts’ performance. Now Stitcher also caches a local copy of podcasts, but I understand that it pings your feed so that your host’s stats are broadly correct tallying Sticher plays with wider downloads (Stitcher also has a bespoke stats platform you can view). Will Google do this? I must admit, that I don’t know what happens with TuneIn, and whether it caches a copy or just redirects to your host. And there are a myriad of other places of varying scales. Some hosts provide some of this, taking account of duplicated and failed attempts to download. But if podcasts are held in multiple systems with multiple sets of metrics, coming to a cumulative picture of your podcast’s performance becomes hard. Every podcast provider would love to be able to determine whether just because a podcast was downloaded, was it actually listened to, and was it listened all the way through? That really helps support advertising. Google could potentially supply that information back to podcasters as it does to YouTube creators via their analytics platform.

7. How will Apple react? In some respects, they’ve never really developed podcasting beyond separating the app out of their overall music player. Will they be incorporating podcasts into their Apple Music offering?

There are just some of my initial questions.

Further down the line, it’ll be really important to see how Google promotes the very existence of podcasts in its software. This is how consumers can be motivated to at least try podcasts and see if they’re something they find interesting. I still have a feeling that Google needs to work hard to promote Google Play much more – particularly its Music offering which is where podcasts will sit. That will be key to how successful this is.

But overall it can only be fantastic news that Google is properly supporting podcasts now.

Oh, and Google is sticking with the name “Podcast.” So no need for anyone to reinvent the terminology now.

[I wrote a follow-up post covering advertising in particular]

RAJAR Q3 2015

RAJAR Q4 2013

This post is brought to you in association with RALF from DP Software and Services. I’ve used RALF for the past 8 years, and it’s my favourite RAJAR analysis tool. So I’m delighted to be able to bring you this analysis in association with it. For more details on RALF, contact Deryck Pritchard via this link or phone 07545 425677.

The end of October brings Halloween, and also the latest set of RAJAR numbers. Insert your own joke about the two of them here.

Let’s have a canter through the numbers and see how stations have done.

National Stations

At a time of intense scrutiny over Charter Renewal, BBC radio has had a really good RAJAR with increases nearly across the board.

Radio 1 has seen its second increase in reach in a row, heading over 10.5m listeners again, and even seeing a fractional year on year increase. Hours are very marginally down, and I fear that it will be this measure that people should really be looking at, or average hours per listener (currently 6.3) rather than reach itself.

Radio 2 has also recorded a second consecutive rise, and is heading back towards the dizzying heights of 15.5m listeners. Listening hours have fallen a little this quarter, but are still up on the previous year. The average Radio 2 listener listens for 11.8 hours a week.

Radio 3 experienced its traditional Proms uplift, and is once again just north of 2m listeners. While Radio 4 has also had a a decent result with 10.8m listeners, although like Radio 3, saw some listening dropoff over the summer.

Radio 5 Live is also looking to finally recover a bit from its big schedule changes, now a year ago. It’s back to 5.5m reach, although it’s still down on last year.

But it’s the BBC’s digital channels that really bear some examination, as they continue to grow massively. Radio 4 Extra has just broken its own record reach of a couple of months ago, with 2.2m people listening a week. Over on 5 Live Sports Extra, Ashes cricket would seem to have been the catalyst for yet another record reach for that station, with 1.7m listeners and nearly 7m hours (also a record). And 6 Music has also had record reach and hours with just fewer than 2.2m listeners a week, and it has passed 20m hours for the first time.

All of that means that BBC Radio accounts for 53.3% of all radio listening in the UK (with Radio 2 accounting for 17.5% on its own).

Does that mean commercial operators have had a dreadful quarter? Well not exactly.

Classic FM has had a very decent quarter, up 4.0% in reach to very close to 5.5m, as well as a similar increase in hours.

Talksport has also had an excellent quarter with a 3.9% increase in reach, taking it very close to 3.2m listeners. Indeed, both Classic and Talksport are very consistent players.

Absolute Radio has had an excellent quarter. It’s reach is up to over 2m for the first time since 2008 – in other words, for the first time since it rebranded from Virgin Radio. Hours are down a fraction, but that needs to be put into perspective with the network performance (see below).

Absolute 80s had a slight fall from last quarter’s record reach. On the other hand, Absolute 70s saw its reach climb to a new all time high.

Kiss had a good quarter, up 5.2% in reach, although listening hours fell. Like Radio 1, I fear that these need to be monitored very carefully.

Kiss Fresh did well getting over 500,000 again in reach, while Kisstory was flat at 1.3m.

Capital Xtra saw a big jump this quarter, up nearly 25% in reach, and nearly 20% in hours. I can’t really explain that change – although in the London market we’re used to that sort of thing.

LBC was flat in reach with just shy of 1.5m listeners – still equalling its record reach since turning truly national. Hours did dip a little however.

Xfm became Radio X on 21 September, the day after the end of this RAJAR quarter. As such, although Radio X appears in the survey for sales purposes, in actuality, it was recorded by listeners as Xfm at the time. But the impending closure of Xfm perhaps piqued listeners’ interest because reach across the network surged up to over 1m – a 14% increase on the previous quarter. Otherwise there’s simply no information in this survey as to how Radio X is performing.

Networks

As alluded to above, the Absolute Radio Network achieved a new all-time high of nearly 4.2m listeners. Hours dropped off a little, but the strength of digital performance has been key to Absolute Radio’s success.

The Capital Network has performed well this quarter up 4.9% in reach, and also seeing an increase in hours. In this period, Capital’s owners, Global Radio, bought Juice FM in Liverpool from UTV. The rebranding is apparently due for early next year, so look for the Capital Network to continue to grow.

The Heart Network also had a good quarter with its reach up 3% to just over 9.1m for the first time. It’s a new record for them.

Overall Global Radio now reaches 22m people a week listening for 194m hours.

Bauer Radio reachs 16.7m people listening for 146m hours. Both major groups are up. It’s a competitive landscape out there.

It’s worth noting that both Global and Bauer actually sell even larger audiences since they operate as sales houses for some other groups.

UTV is the third biggest group, and following the sale of the television assets to ITV, and that of Juice FM to Global, I would expect a corporate rebrand will be forthcoming, particularly with their D2 services due to launch next year. They did suffer a little unlike their big competitors, down 2.5% in reach, although broadly flat in hours. They reach 4.4m people a week delivering 32m hours.

Overall Radio Listening

Overall, radio listening is down a fraction on last quarter, but flat on the year. 89% of the population listen to the radio at least once a week, spending 21.6 hours doing so.

Breakfast

It’s breakfast that gets a lot of people excited, so here are a few highlights from this quarter.

Nick Grimshaw has seen his audience fall a small amount, with a 1.0% drop from last quarter, set against an overall increase for the station.

Chris Evans has also seen a a drop, losing about 275,000 listeners on the previous quarter.

The Today Programme on Radio 4 is of course the second biggest “breakfast show” in the country, and it has increased a little to nearly 6.8m listeners this quarter (up 1.2%).

In the commercial world Christian O’Connell saw a big jump, up 6.2% to 1.8m listeners across the entire Absolute Radio Network of services.

Aled Jones on Classic FM has nearly 1.7m listeners, up 1.8% on the last quarter. But Alan Brazil has seen his reach drop to just below 1.4m listeners on Talksport (again, against an overall station rise).

The Kiss breakfast nationally has fallen nearly 10% this quarter, and LBC will be disappointed with Nick Ferrari falling 12% this quarter to just over 900,000.

London

London listening is always interesting, with a competitive marketplace and a surprising degree of change from RAJAR period to RAJAR period (disturbingly).

The chart above shows the reach of the main commercial stations in London, as well as BBC London (or BBC Radio London as it is now known).

What this chart shows in particular is that Capital and Kiss are neck and neck in reach terms. In fact, Kiss shades Capital by 3,000 people this quarter. But Capital will also be able to say it’s the biggest [commercial] station in London with more listening hours than Kiss.

This chart also illustrates to what extent Heart’s reach has bounced around over the last few quarters. From a record low in Q3 2014, they bounced up in Q4, bak down in Q1 2015, then surged in Q2, before falling down again this quarter. You could make a decent rollercoaster out of Heart’s performance chart.

Otherwise LBC and Magic have had disappointing reach perforances this time out, with Absolute flat, and both Smooth and Xfm seeing increases – the latter again perhaps because of its imminent demise towards the end of this period.

Finally BBC London got its best result in a couple of years just ahead of its rebrand. There’s a new schedule coming there soon too, so it’ll be one to watch.

Finally, because people tend to forget it, it’s worth reminding ourselves that Radio 4 is actually the biggest station in London with 2.7m listeners and 31m listening hours (i.e. 3 times what the largest commercial station gets!). Radio 2 is actually number 2, while Radio 1 slots in behind Kiss, Capital and Magic.

Digital

The big news here is that 41.9% of listening to radio is now via a digital platform. This figure had been threatening to creep over 40% for a while, and it’s now onward to 50% which is what gets people talking about digital switchover in radio.

At the same time, those who say they listen via AM/FM has fallen to below 50% for the first time (The difference is made up of people who don’t state their platform).

Both DAB and internet listening are up to record levels with 27.7% of listening being via DAB, and 6.9% of listening via the internet, including mobile apps.

The chart above really makes clear the growth in internet listening, although broadcast DAB is still much more important.

The chart below shows listening through the day (Mon-Fri average) by the different platforms. AM/FM listening is the most normalised, while the morning and evening drivetime peaks for DAB aren’t as clearly defined because we’re less likely to have DAB in our cars.

Internet listening tends to be a post-lunchtime thing, with a peak at around 5pm. One could surmise that a lot of that is at work, but the listening on that platform continues into early evening.

On the other hand, digital TV has a clearly defined daytime trend.

Listening Location

It’s a while since I last looked at this, and although it rarely changes much, I thought it was useful to put some updated information out there on where people listen to the radio.

It doesn’t move around massively, with listening at home making up the vast majority of listening.

But with the growth of digital in-car offerings, as more and more people connect their smartphones to their car’s entertainment system (Or “infotainment” system as the manufacturers would have it), I thought it was worth seeing the extent to which internet listening in-car is growing.

We know that services like Apple Carplay and Android Auto are coming soon, and already in select models, so this will be something to keep an eye, particularly given the range of audio options the connected car will offer the driver.

The numbers are a little “fuzzy” since some of the sample sizes, particularly for 15-24s, are low. But this shows that digital is beginning to make an impact in-car, with nearly 20% of in-car listening being via a digital platform. That drops to just 1.0% for internet radio, although it’s 3.0% for the younger 15-24 demographic. Something to keep an eye perhaps, as people get better data plans, and they find it easier to hook-up their phones to their cars.

Further Reading

For more RAJAR analysis, I’d recommend the following sites:

The official RAJAR site and their infographic is here
Radio Today for a digest of all the main news
Go to Media.Info for lots of numbers and charts
Paul Easton for analysis including London
Matt Deegan has some great analysis
Media Guardian for more news and coverage
The BBC Mediacentre for BBC Radio stats and findings
Bauer Media’s site.
Global Radio’s site.

[Updated to correct a 1Xtra/6 Music figure]

Source: RAJAR/Ipsos-MORI/RSMB, period ending 20 September 2015, Adults 15+.

Disclaimer: These are my views alone and do not represent those of anyone else, including my employer. Any errors (I hope there aren’t any!) are mine alone. Drop me a note if you want clarifications on anything. Access to the RAJAR data is via RALF from DP Software as mentioned at the top of this post.

The Stone Tape

Nigel Kneale is perhaps not as recognised a name as he should be. He was one of the UK’s major screenwriters for 50 years writing popular fare including in particular the Quatermass series. He adapted George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in perhaps the definitive 1954 Rudolph Cartier screen adaptation (still unreleased on DVD despite at least two major attempts to do so). In 1968 he wrote The Year of the Sex Olympics, a play that is now widely thought presage the rise of reality television like Survivor and Big Brother.

And in 1972 he wrote The Stone Tape, which was made into BBC2’s Christmas ghost story that year. The cast includes Michael Bryant and a young Jane Asher as a group of scientists who are working on a new recording medium in an old building. Strange things begin to occur in this sometimes claustrophobic play that deals with the paranormal and science.

It’s this play that Peter Strickland (Director of The Duke of Burgundy and Berberian Sound Studio) has chosen to adapt for his part of Radio 4’s upcoming Fright Night on Halloween.

And indeed it lends itself well. The play deals with sound itself, and as with Berberian Sound Studio which was like The Stone Tape set in a 70s setting, the world of analogue sound recording suits the radio medium. Here Strickland is working with Life on Mars’ Matthew Graham.

And then there’s the binaural sound.

This play, and its Fright Night sister, an adaption of Ring, have both been recorded using binaural recording techniques. So if you listen back via a pair of headphones, you will hear an immersive 360 degree surround sound version of the play. To be clear, you don’t need special headphones. Good ones ideally, but any will do.

If you’ve never heard binaural audio before, then head over to YouTube and plug some headphones in for a few demos. I’ve recorded one or two things in binaural myself in the past.

In The Dark held a series of binaural previews of the two Fright Night plays last week, and I went along to one in a church crypt in Holborn. We took our seats wearing wireless headphones (think “silent disco” without the dancing), and then the lights were turned off and we listened to a spooky play.

The play makes excellent use of the space and the sound capabilities. A recurring audio motif of someone running and then screaming works really well (the screamer gets her own credit!). As I mentioned, the play maintains its 70s setting, and that means lots of analogue recording gear, all dutifully name-checked. If you’re an audiophile, you’ll love those details.

Sitting in a darkened room, with just the glowing green LEDs of other attendees illuminating things, worked really well. Radio is traditionally a secondary medium – you’re doing something else while you listen. It’s nice to be able to sit back without distractions and just listen. That, of course, is the raison d’etre of In The Dark.

The cast is strong with Julian Rhind-Tutt playing Dr Cripps and Romola Garai as Jill Creely. In the original TV production, her character was played by Jane Asher. In a nice touch, Asher has a cameo as Creely’s mother on the end of an authentic sounding analogue telephone line.

As I say, the production sounds amazing so congratulations to all concerned with the music, effects and sound mix.

Listen out for it on Saturday evening, along with its sister production. And ideally listen with headphones, in a darkened room with no distractions…

[Update: The Guardian published a good piece on making The Stone Tape, and BBC R&D has explained in some detail how the productions were made. Although they used a dummy head to record some of the atmosphere, because the production uses lots of audio sounds effects that aren’t actually there in the room (this isn’t a documentary after all), they used some clever bespoke audio techniques to create an apparent binaural audio image. This included using the mid capsule in a mid-side microphone – a stereo microphone that ordinarily allows more control over the stereo spread of sound, even after the recording has been made. The work that BBC R&D has been doing into binaural is clearly a critical part of this. Thanks to Eloise Whitmore who produced the sound mix, Chris Price from BBC R&D and Tony Churnside who helped record The Stone Tape for the extra information.]

Cycling Lights

The clocks have gone back, and so, while it was getting dark before when I returned home, we’re now in guaranteed darkness – at least if you finish work after 5.30pm or so. And as ever, it appears a lot of fellow cyclists really haven’t thought about their lights for a long time.

Yesterday, as I was riding a longer than usual route home, I was disappointed to see so many fellow cyclists not having lights.

One woman had a little rear light on her bike yesterday, but it wasn’t properly attached, meaning that most of the light was pointing forward. I tried to tell her at a set of traffic lights, but she just nodded and ignored me rather than spend two seconds righting the light.

I would actually have no problem if the police targeted days like yesterday along common cycling routes and gave warnings/fines to cyclists who weren’t illuminated. I believe that some police forces in the past have issued such tickets, with cyclists able to avoid the fine if they prove they’ve been out and got a light. It’s not as though lights are expensive either, with sets of lights available for less than £10.

MC Escher and Lee Miller

Last weekend saw me visiting a couple of exhibitions that don’t really have a great deal in common – although both artists will have been vaguely contemporaries – but are both of interest.

The Amazing World of MC Escher is said to be the first every exhibition of Escher’s work in the UK.

The exhibition is actually curated by the National Gallery of Scotland where it has been for the last few months, before transferring down to the excellent Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.

Maurits Cornelis Escher is probably most famous for his repeating patterns, that have a mathematical slant.

Escher himself wasn’t really that much interested in mathematics, although mathematicians were interested in him. A particular exhibition in the 1950s in the Netherlands that coincided with a mathematics conference meant that a number of mathematicians including Sir Roger Penrose and his father Lionel ended up getting in touch with him with new impossible things to feature in his woodcuts.

The skill of Escher in his print production is remarkable. He handprinted much of his own work over his career, and it must have been so technically complicated with the repeating patterns, having to match everything up perfectly.

Perhaps his most famous work comes later on in the exhibition. Ascending and Descending dates from 1960 and features the Penrose stairs – a seemingly ever climbing set of stairs arranged in a square. In the Escher image, some monk-like characters are seen either ever-ascending or ever-descending, as we view from on high.

Overall, a thoroughly good exhibition, and it works well with a recent BBC Four documentary, presented by Sir Roger Penrose himself, on Escher. Unfortunately, by the time you read this, it’ll have dropped off the iPlayer. But look out for a repeat in due course.

I should warn you that this is a popular exhibition, and therefore you may well want to book your tickets in advance – especially if you’re planning to attend at the weekend. You will need a bit of time in front of the pictures, and be able to get relatively close in to see the details in the prints.

I must admit that I’ve been a bit slow coming to photographer Lee Miller. There was an excellent Man Ray exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery back in 2013, which used one of his portraits of Miller as its “hero” image in publicity. In fact Miller was working as a model at the time, and went to him to study photography.

The superb new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum – Lee Miller: A Woman’s War – concentrates mostly on her war work, but it does encompass her early life, including her troubling upbringing (she was raped at young age by a family friend, and her father seemed to take a large number of nude photos of her when she was young), and early years living around the world, before her most important work during the war.

Miller, a US citizen, was living in London, and worked her way into Vogue magazine where most of the photographers of the time were male. At the outbreak of war, many of the men became war photographers, and so Miller managed to start getting assignments in the UK, concentrating initially on female workers. Most magazines started supporting the war effort, and when, for example, the ATS was running short of recruits, Vogue would publish a feature on the ATS to help drive recruitment. When cloth was in short supply, it was essential that Vogue backed fashions that utilised less material.

Assignments Miller gained included women taking on new responsibilities in the workplace, including munitions factories and various supporting jobs in the war effort. Miller went around the UK recording this, taking often absorbing photos, or bringing to bear some of the Vogue glamour to otherwise mundane jobs, sometimes bringing workers back to Vogue’s studios for the full shoot.

By the time of the Normandy landings, she had become recognised as a War Photographer – one of just handful of women to gain that acceptance. It’s fantastic to be able to see the uniform she had made for her in Saville Row.

Just three weeks after D-Day, she was in Normandy and recording the work of the field hospitals. Before long she was accompanying the troops as they crossed Europe, recording a liberated Paris, including photos of collaborators having their heads shaved, and finally into Germany.

By now Miller was not just filing Vogue with war photos, but she was filing her own accompanying copy. She even arrived at the concentration camps, which clearly affected her greatly.

One of the most famous photos of Miller is one she constructed with a colleague when they found themselves sleeping in Hitler’s apartment in Munich. The photo is of Miller having a bath in Hitler’s own bath-tub, her muddy boots on the floor, and a picture of Hitler propped up on the edge of the bath. It was a two-fingered salute to the tyrant.

The exhibition ends post-war, but Miller’s own work died down then too, and she suffered from depression in her later years, dying in 1977 at her home in East Sussex.

She was a remarkable woman, and the work speaks for itself. And a photography fan like me might lust after a Rolliflex or Zeiss Contax II such as the cameras she used – the newly printed exposures for this exhibition are so fresh.

I can’t recommend a visit to this exhibition enough.

The Program

Right at the beginning of The Program, the BBFC certificate popped up. The film is rated 15 for “strong language, use of performing-enhancing drugs.”

Quite. (And I realise, I’m not the first person to note this.)

The Program is Stephen Frears’ new film about Lance Armstrong, the seven-times winner of the Tour de France, before being stripped of those honours when he finally admitted to cheating and taking drugs throughout a large part of his career.

As such, the film is completely on target for me. As I’ve written in the past, I was one of those people who was essentially hoodwinked by Armstrong, and bought the Kool-Aid. Why would someone who nearly died of cancer, come out the other side and take potentially dangerous performance enhancing drugs? And to be clear, there were dangers. EPO – the drug of choice – increased your red blood cell count, and hence provided you with a performance boost, but they also increased the viscosity of your blood, potentially leading to blood clots and the risk of stroke or death.

But what I’d not at the time really understood is how driven Armstrong was. In many respects, sportsmen and women have to be more driven than the rest of us. We might give up, but they’ll continue, because only that way can they reach the top of their game.

I also didn’t really understand quite how nasty Armstrong was. He was ruthless. He understood the cycling omerta – the code of silence that meant that even if you weren’t taking performance enhancing drugs, you didn’t drop anybody else in it.

Frears’ film, based on the book by Sunday Times journalist David Walsh, and written by John Hodge, follows Armstrong’s complete career. And the film tells the story in fairly basic A to B to C steps. That means that an awful lot of story has to be compressed into 103 minutes.

We start with a relatively novice Armstrong showing up in Belgium where the other riders don’t like the cut of the Texan’s jib. Armstrong was already a World Champion, and his fellow cyclists, including Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet) plan to leave him for dead, which they then do.

Armstrong (Ben Foster) realises that he needs to talk to the key doctor working in the field Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) and get on “The Program.” Ferrari takes one look at Armstrong’s physique (a curiously CGI’d body attached to Foster’s head) and declares that his power to weight ratio will be all wrong. He’s too big.

Then disaster strikes as Armstrong suffers from cancer. He recovers and slowly gets back on his bike. One entertaining scene shows him being overtaken by a middle-aged lady on a sit-up-and-beg bike in the US.

From there the story follows, to me, familiar path of Armstrong on the road to recovery, now working with Bruyneel, fully adopting drugs, and then proceeding to win the Tour de France seven times in a row.

Set around this story we have the incident with Armstrong admitting to taking drugs in front of teammate Frankie Andreu, and his wife Betsy. And then there’s the introduction of perhaps the oddest of characters, Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), brought up in a strict Mennonite home, but willing to be Armstrong’s number two. We also see how “Mr Moto” drove around dropping off the drugs to the US Postal Team, and how even a soigneaur like Emma O’Reilly became implicated in the lie.

Set against all this is David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), initially impressed with the brash American, thinking perhaps he can win one day races, but slowly being amazed as he returns from cancer, stronger than ever and taking on the Tour. As he begins to have suspicions, key scenes are played out including Armstrong and Walsh confronting one another at a press conference.

The film follows right through Armstrong’s return to the Tour in 2009, and ends with his admittance on Oprah, that he did indeed take drugs.

If this whole story is new to you, then I think you might enjoy this film more than me. But if it’s not, then the story is better told in either The Armstrong Lie, or one many books on the subject including Walsh’s own.

The problem is that the story is necessarily involving and complicated, and it’s not something that easy to pare down. And that makes the film a bit lumbering. That’s not to say that they’ve not done a decent job of it, and I prefer this to somehow bringing things together too neatly around a smaller stage. But to be honest, the film did need more focus.

Foster is decent as Armstrong – he looks a lot like him for one thing – although I’m not certain he’s totally captured him. We do get the light and dark of his character – willingness to drop everything to spend time with a kid suffering from cancer through to drawing his finger across his lips to “zip it” (on camera no less!) when a fellow cyclist starts talking to an inquiry. But I think books like Walsh’s or even team-mate Tyler Hamilton’s give a deeper picture of Armstrong’s real character. We don’t quite get that here. He’s clearly a driven character who saw winning as more important than anything, but I’m not quite sure we see the sheer ruthlessness.

The film takes an interesting perspective on presenting the actual cycling sequences with a combination of re-staged action and archive footage, including the full Phil and Paul commentaries. It sort of works, and at the same time doesn’t.

There’s a problem just about every sports film I’ve ever seen has – and that’s the fact that the film camera takes you places that the TV camera can never take you. So it just feels odd, because sport is something we’re all very familiar with from its televising. And that’s a bit of a problem in cycling because cameras on the back of “Motos” can take you pretty close. I’m surprised that more films don’t instead recreate a TV experience, adopting the same camera angles and talking the language of sports TV coverage rather than the language of cinema. The problem often there is that they’re desperately trying to avoid showing the lack of thousands of extras in the crowd, by cropping closely. That’s the case here too. We get some great alpine climbs, but it’s all too clear that the budget has not extended to the vast crowds you’d get on such race stages. Indeed it sometimes looks as though we’re watching a rural little cycling event somewhere.

The producers have done very well technically, getting the right jerseys at various points in Armstrong’s career. While what his team is called is hardly important in the scheme of things, you know that they’ve put enough attention to detail to get those things right. But in the end I’m left wondering whether they shouldn’t have just stuck with the archive footage.

Overall it’s certainly not a bad film, but it feels just a little bit average. I think sports films are a hard genre to pull off, and despite the significant milestones in Armstrong’s life, it all feels a little undercooked. I think in the end, you’d be better off seeing The Armstrong Lie if you only had to choose one film. Not a failure, but not great.

The Joys of Online Streaming Sports

Picture the scene.

You’re travelling and Twitter tells you that the final rugby World Cup quarter final is a tight affair. There are just minutes left, and a single score could send the match either way.

The final “northern hemisphere” side are fighting to stay in the competition.

You fire up ITV Player on your mobile. Be damned the streaming data cost! You’ll watch the last few minutes online as your train travels along a largely 4G route.

But first a pre-roll advertisement… which has to buffer before it plays.

You’re not interested. Time is ticking away. Sure, you know that commercial television is supported by commercials, but come on!

The ad ends and a loading icon appears… and appears… and appears…

Time passes.

Finally a second ad begins to play.

This is getting frustrating now. But you watch the ad as you have no other choice.

The ad ends and… another loading icon appears.

Oh COME ON! Not a third ad surely?

Well I couldn’t say for sure, because after about 30 seconds of that, I abandoned ITV Player, switched to iPlayer Radio, launched Five Live which booted up instantly and listened to what were now the final three minutes of the fixture.

Radio trumps TV.

(Or at least in the app world it does, particularly if it doesn’t carry ads).

Here’s a thought – if you’re down to the final scheduled few minutes in a live sporting fixture, then ditch the pre-roll ads. Because while pre-rolls are something the audience knows it has to “endure” ordinarily, they become a serious frustration at the end of a major fixture when the clock is ticking. And people swearing at your app and then going somewhere else is probably not what you’re after.

The Martian and Sicario

There seems to be a spate of pretty decent films coming all of a sudden at the moment, so after a bit of a barren period when endless super-hero films haven’t inspired me to go to the cinema, I’m suddenly going a little more.

The Martian is Ridley Scott’s new film, based on the book by Andy Weir. I must confess that although I’d heard many good things about the book, even buying a copy when it first came out, I’d not quite ever got around to reading it. That was until the bus-sides for the film started appearing and I decided I should give it a go before the film arrived.

That was no hardship since it’s a terrific page-turner. Mark Watney is part of the crew of Ares III, a NASA mission to Mars. The crew are supposed to spend about a month on the surface, but a sudden storm means that they have to leave in a hurry, and an accident during that departure means that Watney is seemingly dead and they have to leave him behind.

But he’s not dead. And now he’s alone on Mars with limited supplies and the need to survive perhaps four years before the next planned mission is due to arrive at the planet.

To say that the book is full of science is to do it a disservice. The book is all about science. Basically Watney’s survival is going to require him to solve problems and use the limited resources he has at his disposal. In the novel, the scientific background to generating water or planting potatoes is explained in quite some detail. You feel as though you could survive on Mars with, perhaps an illustrated copy of the book.

The film necessarily simplifies things. We understand that it’s science that Watney is working with to hack together tools and materials, but we’re not worried too much by the detail. In the novel, when Watney starts fitting out his rover, this is quite a detailed undertaking. The film simplifies this.

But that’s not to do the film any disservice. It’s a pacy, at times funny, and others nail-biting tail. Many have commented on the fact that there are no real bad guys in this film. NASA must love it because it paints them as having a real can-do attitude. They managed to announce more proof of the presence of water in the run-up to the film’s release, which I’m sure was just a coincidence. More than once you recall that scene from Apollo 13 when a filter problem is solved by a roomful of scientists and box containing all the materials the astronauts have. (In the novel, there’s a reference to that in that Watney says that all fixings have been standardised since Apollo 13.)

Like the book, the film flicks between earth and Mars, where NASA belatedly realises that Watney is alive and have to set about building communications with him and coming up with a plan to rescue him. I thought that this was really well handled, and the earth-bound actors are all excellent including Jeff Daniels, Kirsten Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean.

Meanwhile there is the “guilt” of the crew to deal with Jessica Chastain in Watney’s commander. But the film also has a great deal of humour. Watney isn’t sitting around feeling sorry for himself – he’s solving problems, watching Happy Days re-runs and listening to a diet of 70s disco music, because that’s what his fellow crewmates brought with them as digital files.

In terms of tension, I must admit that I was more on edge with the book than the film – but that was because I genuinely didn’t know how the story was going to end, whereas by the time I saw the film, I did know how at least the book ended.

As an aside, I saw The Martian in 3D, and it really wasn’t worth it. I don’t believe that it was actually shot in 3D, and it added nothing to the experience.

The film, however, is very much worth seeing and is Scott’s best film in ages. It looks great, and the story moves along nicely.

Sicario, we are told near the beginning of the film, means a hitman, particularly in Mexico and Latin America. Exactly why it’s called that is not explained. But this is a film that only reveals itself slowly.

Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent who we see at the start taking place in the first of a number of fantastic set-pieces. She’s part of a big operation, raiding a house in Arizona where they believe hostages are being held. The FBI team actually drive what is effectively a tank through a wall of the house, and once they’ve secured the site, they make a horrifying discovery.

The story moves on and Blunt is signed up to a multi-agency taskforce that seems to be targeting some Mexican druglords. But there are a couple of interesting characters who seem to be leading this. Quite who they are, and which agency they work for is never entirely clear. But all of sudden they’re part of an operation to transfer a prisoner from a Mexican court back across the US border.

The sequence that sees this happen is superbly handled. The ominous tones of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s outstanding score; the long aerial shots, often looking down vertically; the thumping sound of helicopters monitoring the operation; and then all of sudden we’re on the back of an armed Federal police vehicle being driven at speed as part of a convey through the mean streets of Ciudad Juárez.

Exactly what is going on is never quite explained. How does this all link together?

Slowly things become clear, and a bigger operation is revealed. This task force seems to have permission from the very top. Josh Brolin’s character could be CIA, but if he was, he shouldn’t be carrying out operations on US territory. And who on earth is Benicio del Toro’s character? He seems dangerous.

There follow another two outstanding sequences and everything is ramped up, and slowly the picture reveals itself.

What’s great about Sicario is that you never quite know what’s happening. Like Blunt’s character, you’re drawn along for the ride. She want’s to do something to curb the gang warfare, but is this it?

I don’t think I’ve seen anything previously made by director Denis Villeneuve, but he loves holding a scene. There aren’t fast cuts – scenes just play out. And Roger Deakins’ cinematography is to die for. The aerial shots are outstanding, and whether it’s helicopters showing the border fence, the camera revealing the city of Ciudad Juárez, or in one amazing shot, seeing a group of soldiers silhouetted against the setting sun, this film looks gorgeous. I could bask in this film.

Blunt, Brolin and del Toro are all superb, as is the rest of the cast including Daniel Kaluuya as Blunt’s partner who’s even less in the picture than she is, and Victor Garber as Blunt’s boss. We also get a bit of a picture from the other side of the fence as Maximiliano Hernández’s flawed policeman’s life is revealed to us in short scenes.

A fascinating film that deserves lots of attention.

Not Predicting the Mercury Music Prize

Here’s an oddity.

Music Week has published a list of albums that Google Play Music says represent the volume of streams that albums eligible for the Mercury Music Prize have achieved.

So they’ve looked at acts that released albums between September, 9 2014 and September 25, 2015. The official shortlist is published in a couple of days.

Google Play Music says it’s not trying to predict the outcome of the nominations but is looking at what’s popular on its service. But I find the list a little curious.

I should say up front that I’ve only personally listened to one of the shortlisted albums (Jamie xx). But the list seems very heavily skewed. So I thought I’d add the album release dates to the list. Here’s what you get.

ArtistAlbum% of StreamsRelease DateEligible Days
Bring Me The HorizonThat’s The Spirit24.16%11 Sept 1514
Jess GlynneI Cry When I Laugh17.95%21 Aug 1535
FoalsWhat Went Down11.33%28 Aug 1528
Years & YearsCommunion10.32%22 Jun 1595
James BayChaos & The Calm8.62%23 Mar 15186
The LibertinesAnthems For Doomed Youth5.29%11 Sep 1514
Krept & KonanThe Long Way Home5.02%3 Jul 1584
Catfish & The BottlemenThe Balcony4.69%15 Sep 14375
Mumford & SonsWilder Mind4.16%4 May 15144
Florence & The MachineHow Big, How Beautiful, How Blue3.28%29 May 15119
Jamie xxIn Colour2.63%29 May 15119
Everything EverythingGet To Heaven2.56%22 Jun 1595

A couple of things immediately jump out at you. The sum of the percentages comes to 100% (100.01%, but that’s rounding error). So these percentages are within the universe of these albums only. I imagine this is to hide the relative sizes of these albums to others.

It also seems very curious that the albums released most recently have the highest percentage of streams. That’s The Spirit apparently achieved a quarter of all streams, yet was only available for two weeks. Whereas Mumford & Sons’ Wilder Mind has been out for a good 6 months yet only got 4%.

That means either those most recently released albums have achieved astonishing playback in a short period of time, or someone has only sampled data from the very recent past, and unsurprisingly, the newest music got streamed the most.

If you chart these figures it becomes a little clearer

It’s by no means a perfect relationship, since popular albums will do well, but it’s clear that the most recent releases get the most plays.

In other words, Google Play Music used a very recent sample to determine its list, which hardly seems a fair way to produce a list as it skews the data towards recent releases that have lots of buzz.

Oh, and of course the Mercury Music Prize is judged on slightly more than popularity, or (I would hope) albums with the biggest marketing budgets. But hey, any PR is good PR right?

[Update 16 October: In completely unsuprising news, the actual Mercury shortlist looks nothing like this list, with only Florence & The Machine and Jamie xx appearing on the real list, and five of the shortlisted albums not having charted at all, which is probably part of the point of the awards.]

From Darkness and Unforgotten

In the last week or so, two new dramas have started on BBC One and ITV with on the face of it similar themes. Both are essentially crime dramas, and both deal with dead bodies from years earlier being dug up. Who are the bodies, and how did they get there. We get brief flashbacks in both during the discovery of the bodies.

The two series also share themes that, well, seem “inspired” by those of Scandi dramas like The Bridge, and Broadchurch. You know, all strings and chorals.

But from there, the two series depart. Unforgotten on ITV has gone out of its way to cast a big name in just about every role. We open with Nicola Walker’s detective talking to her dad, Peter Egan. Her fellow detective in Sanjeev Bhaskar, and then we get into the various characters who are somehow involved in the over-arching crime. These include Tom Courtney, Trevor Eve, Ruth Sheen, Bernard Hill, Gemma Jones, and Cheri Lunghi.

I’m not ITV is quite saying it, but I very much suspect that they believe that they might have another Broadchurch on their hands.

In fact, it’s a very decent drama, and while some of it feels a little unlikely – Trevor Eve’s parliamentary bits for example – overall it’s a show I’ll stick with. Even allowing for a team of forensics scientists who like to unveil their findings a little slowly to keep the detectives on tenterhooks.

Meanwhile From Darkness is trying for something a little more psychological. Unfortunately it seems to have many more genre tropes, making it decidedly average. The lead detective, Johnny Harris, is a gruff Londoner who on the discovery of several bodies on a building site, immediately heads up to the Western Isles, because he’s got a hunch that it’s related to a series of prostitute disappearances from 16 years earlier. He needs to talk to Ann Marie Duff’s character, who has long since left the police and started a new life in remote Scotland, where she trains for triathlons (although we’ve seen her swim and run a lot, there’s been no sign of any cycling just yet).

I’m sure there are Londoners who’ve spent 16 years with the Greater Manchester Police, but that’s not a good start. Oh and when he heads to Scotland, he takes his wet-behind-the-ears newbie DS, Anthony Boyce, with him. We know he’s wet because he asks for sweetener, can’t stand dogs, and doesn’t like blood. Even the script acknowledges that the police seems like an odd option for him. Of course he’s an Oxbridge type, and gruff Londoners who’ve seen it all, have to rub up against such types.

Even the boss, is the stereotypical hard woman who gives her detective a bit of leeway. I mean, he’s the kind of person who, upon seeing some bones in the mud, has instantly identified that they must have been prostitutes. There was a serial killer before, and there may be another one now! Can they catch him?

It’s just all a bit lazy, and decidedly average. Unforgotten is much the more interesting programme.