December, 2015

A Comment-Free 2016

There’s no two ways about it. Comments are broken.

By that I mean, commenting systems on nearly any site that drives a large amount of traffic. There are too many trolls and people with little or nothing to add.

There is way too much noise, and little to no signal.

I used to enjoy comments. You’d read a piece and there might be some well thought out discussion beneath it on a website. But over time that has been simply washed away – smothered by inanity and ignorance.

There are seemingly vast hordes of people with nothing better to do than navigate around the internet shouting their particular point of view very loudly regardless of relevance.

And I’m not just talking about the wasteland that is YouTube commenting. It’s everywhere.

Various sites have tried things like up-voting good comments and down-voting bad ones. But even that isn’t good enough. There’s too much volume. When you see that there are upwards of 1000 comments already on an article, you might as well pack up and go home. Nobody but the most obsessive is going to read that much. No – commenting becomes circular and a race to the bottom.

Once you might at least have thought that comments would reflect the print readership of newspapers in the past. But no – because sites’ web traffic dwarfs their printed readership, the comments are often not reflective of the editorial values of the publication.

If nothing else, then comments have made me see the work of newspaper letters’ editors in a new light. They must have to get through a lot of chaff before they find the wheat.

Yes, some sites employ people to shut down libellous, racist, or other abuse. But it’s a thankless job, and there’s enough that steps just the right side of being considered “fair comment” yet that is less intelligent than you might find in the average pub close to closing time.

It actually becomes a question of why sites actually bother with comments. They have to employ moderators after all. But comments drive traffic and page views. That means more ad opportunities. They’re addicted to those comments whether they’re the Daily Mail or The Guardian.

Yet it must be said that even with this, more and more sites are dropping comments. They’re just not worth the effort.

There are sites with decent comments, but they tend to be smaller and more specialist. There’s more of a community. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the big boys.

And yes, I do realise that buried away in comment sections, there are actually thoughtful and well-founded points. But it’s just such hard work uncovering them, that I can’t be bothered. It’s not that I want to only read things I agree with either. Debate is healthy. But just because someone has access to a computer does not make their thoughts intrinsically interesting or worthwhile. Enough is enough.

So here’s what I plan to do:

  • I’m going to stop reading comments on all major news sites
  • If I want to comment on something myself then it’ll be in social media (Twitter largely) where others can choose to follow me or not
  • I don’t include this blog – but I get so few comments here as to make no difference (those comments I do get tend to be in the social media space)
  • I’m not talking about forums either as they tend to be better self-policed
  • To make sure I’m not tempted, I’ll try a browser extension like Shut-Up

That should save me lots of wasted hours online. The temptation is always there, but even wondering “how the population is reacting” to something will have to take a back seat. In any case, like pointless Twitter polls, comment sections have absolutely no relevance to actual opinion and just represent a keyboard-bashing minority.

So there we go. A comment-free 2016!

Boxing Day 2015 – Radio Times

You’ve made it this far through. Hopefully Santa has been kind. But it looks like rain in good part of the country, so you may be thinking twice about that walk you were planning. Here are your viewing and listening choices through my ever-so-slightly myopic lens, courtesy of the Radio Times and some Post-Its.

Here are your TV choices:

Radio Times - December 25 2015

(Click here for a larger version)

To be honest, even if it’s wet, you may as well still go out this morning…

And here are you radio ones:

Radio Times - December 25 2015 - Radio

(Again, click here for a larger version)

Christmas Day 2015 – Radio Times

Happy Christmas all!

You’ll no doubt be unwrapping presents, eating enormous quantities of food, having family arguments, and then perhaps sitting down and trying to decide what telly you should be watching.

As ever, I’ve made my own suggestions to help you. You might even want to listen to the radio.

Here’s the TV:

Radio Times - December 25 2015

(Click here for a larger version)

And here’s the radio:

Radio Times - December 25 2015 - Radio

(Again, click here for a larger version)

I do always say that it’s a shame that radio has quite so many pre-recorded specials and “Best Ofs.” Still plenty to listen out for though.

Christmas Eve 2015 – Radio Times

You’re with friends and family. But what to watch or listen to?

You know how I love to help out anyone who isn’t sure what’s worth your time. So here is my regular helpful guide to what to watch over the period, presented via the medium of an annotated Radio Times.

Radio Times - December 24 2015

(Click here to see a larger version)

And for the radio:

Radio Times - December 24 2015 - Radio

(Again, here’s a link to a larger version)

NB: I’ve been doing these since 2008.

Search Engines in Film

wile-e-coyote-acme-products-catalog

In the Road Runner cartoons, Wily E Coyote often needed to buy various bits of equipment and products to try to stop said Road Runner. Invariably those anvils et al, were supplied by the Acme Corporation, a fictional company with a curious catalogue of products. It was always fun seeing what Acme was producing next. But we all knew it was a fictional company, and that was part of the gag.

Now I know that films and television do a terrible job of representing things that nearly everyone viewing knows about on a day to day basis. People sat at computers don’t use the mouse or trackpad on film because that’s not as exciting as someone beavering away on a keyboard.

When characters get sent text messages (at least until Sherlock changed all that), we saw curious screens with MASSIVE LETTERING that didn’t look any text messages or phones any of us had ever experienced.

Newspaper headlines often, but not always, appear on fake newspapers. However, even when they appear on real ones, they are particularly expository in tone – clearly written by someone who’s never been near a newsroom and has no idea how to write a headline.

The list goes on.

But if there’s something today that annoys me more most, it’s the fake search engine.

The drama you’re watching requires a character to do some research, perhaps look up another person. They naturally hit the internet. They open up a laptop (usually a real, branded laptop), and do an online search. On a fake website.

They don’t use Google. They don’t even use Bing.

Someone has had to create a fake search engine, that’s not already a real domain, and then make it look a little like Google, but not very much.

Why do they do this?

It’s incredibly distracting for the audience, because the entire watching audience has used Google. So by not using Google, you’ve drawn our attention out of the story and into wondering why the character is using AcmeSearchEngine.com or whatever.

Put it this way. The phone the character is using is probably an Apple or a Samsung. We know that because we can see the logo. If the producers made a fake handset and put, ooh, a “Banana” logo on it, we’d think they were going mad.

Similarly, everyone drives real cars. Real, branded, cars. They’re Fords, or Audis, or Range Rovers or whatever. Nobody goes out and designs a totally different car for their character to drive, because if they did, we’d all be sitting there saying, “What on earth is that car they’re driving?”

I realise there’s a whole host of dramas that won’t even use real operating systems. I’m not talking about SF, where it’s understandable, but productions set in the present day. They’re not using Windows, and they’re not using OSX. They’re not even using Linux. Some graphic designer has mocked up a bunch of screens and they’re using that. And we’re all sitting there thinking: “That’s not like an computer I’ve ever used.”

So why do filmmakers use fake search engines?

Probably the main reason is explained on this, now slightly old BBC site:

Products, Logos & Brand Names

All products, logos, brand names and trademarks that are featured prominently in your film need to be cleared for use by the manufacturers or businesses concerned. It’s often worth getting someone you know/your art department to create fictional brands instead to avoid the hassle. If you do use real products find out who to talk to at the manufacturers via the press office. Some of the clearances can be done in pre-production, (if you have an art department they should have an idea of which products they want to use), but there will always be new products that come up on a daily basis. If the product, logo, brand name or trademark is non-distinctive in the background, you most likely (but not definitely) do not need permission to film it. For instance, if you are filming an exterior street scene and the BMW car logo happens to be in a showroom behind the action and no reference is made to BMW as a company, then you are likely not to need their permission. As a general rule though, you should avoid filming or referring to any product, logo, brand name and trademark that shows a company or its product in a detrimental way. This is essential as many companies that own the rights or trademark in brands, logos and names will have the money to pursue infringement actions against you, and may follow a strict policy of taking action against infringers to protect their brand.

And there are obviously slightly different rules that apply in different countries. So the easy thing to do is not include any brands at all.

But if you follow that through to its logical conclusion, no real brands would ever get used. Yet if a gang of villains in a drama use a black Range Rover to carry out an armed robbery, does Range Rover get to complain? Or if a character uses an iPhone to negotiate a drug deal, can Apple stop the production. Indeed if a character shoots an unarmed bystander at point blank range with a replica Glock, is that OK? There is branding to one extent or another on all of those, and in any case, the design is also trademarked.

I realise that there’s a whole history of fake and real products on the internet. In Coronation Street, Rover’s Return regulars are famously fans of the fictional Newton & Ridley beer. Eastenders similarly has a fake brand. But in both soaps, the convenience stores tend to be stocked with real products, and while the camera doesn’t linger, nobody has blacked out the Kellogg’s logo as they might on Blue Peter build.

Set against fake products, there is product placement, where brands pay for their products to be used in shot. In the UK, that’s regulated by Ofcom, and you’ll see a logo in programmes that use it. Serious dramas, as a rule, don’t tend to use it, although some soaps on commercial channesl do. In the US, the credits normally alert you to any product placement. Although if it’s done badly enough, you’ll know yourself. Music videos can be particularly egregious in this field.

But there is another sort of “placement” – prop placement or prop provision. This is acceptable in the UK and elsewhere. Essentially there are middlemen who accept payment for supplying productions with props.

If your production needs a bank of computers for a particular scene, then you phone up a prop provision company and they’ll help kit your set out for you. Need to borrow a luxury car for your lead character to drive but your budget won’t quite extend to hiring one? They may be able to supply one free.

And it turns out that there is a whole industry that will also supply productions with fake websites. Thanks to Dave Walters for pointing me to Search-Wise.net, in fact a domain owned by a company called Compuhire, a company who specialise in in-vision graphics. So as well as fake search engines, the design fake graphics for computer screens, and ensure that those screens don’t cause flicker (for example with older CRT displays, the refresh rates of on-screen monitors need to be compatible with the number of frames per second your production is filming in to ensure that you don’t get strange banding effects on the screen).

But it’s not just search engines that this fakery happens for. Consider the simple newspaper. You want your character reading a non-specific newspaper in a scene? Well Hollywood has got you covered. Indeed Slashfilm has a great piece detailing a single prop-newspaper that has been repeatedly used over the years in a vast range of productions – from Married with Children through to Modern Family. It’s clearly a copyright free and brand free paper.

Slashfilm suggests it might be a playful gag from prop-handlers in a similar way to the inclusion of the Wilhelm Scream. But the real reason is that the papers are supplied by a Hollywood props company called Earl Hays Press, who specialise in printed props, and this is just a cheap standby standard. Note that in this instance, these are papers that aren’t used for close-ups.

I know that it is possible to use brands without permission in productions. Consider, for example, The Social Network, about the founding of Facebook. That film was made without the permission of Facebook, and had to employ lots of trademarked material. Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was reported as not being happy at its production at the time. But I suspect in any case, that lawyers were heavily involved from the script stage onwards. See also the recent Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin film on Steve Jobs.

But what about the 1985 comedy The Coca-Cola Kid? The film begins with a big scrolling-text disclaimer:

Coca-Cola-Kid-Disclaimer

Yet the entirely fictional film, dealing with an American trying to sell more Coca-Cola to Australians, undoubtedly includes many many references to copyrighted and trademarked products. The filmmakers had to be explicit in their unauthorised status, but the branding is there in the film throughout, and according to IMDB, the filmmakers still had to clear the film’s title with Coca-Cola, who one would assume, insisted on the disclaimer.

And then there was the case of the indie film, Escape From Tomorrow, notable for having been shot almost entirely at Disney World without the permission the Disney company. At the time it was made, there was a belief that Disney might attempt to stop the film being distributed, but in the end they didn’t perhaps believing that the Streisand Effect might have given the film more press than leaving a small indie film alone might otherwise generate.

However a good piece by Tim Wu at The New Yorker explains that the film is probably protected by US copyright law which allows for commentary and parody.

In researching this piece, I did ask a lawyer friend of mine, why production companies were so careful at not including real brands. They told me that while many car brands, for example, won’t be cleared, it comes down to the three Rs – risk, reward and resource.

Production teams have limited resource and will decide whether or not to seek approval based on the perceived risks in using that brand. How prominent will it be in the production, and who is the audience. The brand will find out that it’s been used one way or another, so will they pursue the production company at a later date?

If the use of the brand is considered derogatory, damaging or inappropriate, then the production company can expect a cease and desist letter with intellectual property infringement claims.

There are also other considerations including the launch of new products, or even rebrands that might be happening. Notably Google recently changed its logo, and it might prefer to keep its old brands from appearing in the media.

I’ve no knowledge of whether Google is or isn’t especially litigious in this regard, but my friend did mention the recent comedy The Internship. I’ve not seen this film, but this Vince Vaughan alleged comedy scores a mighty 34% at Rotten Tomatoes.

This film was clearly made with a great deal of assistance of Google. And because of that, it’s actually possible that Google is under an obligation to chase unauthorised use of its brand elsewhere because of financial considerations made elsewhere. This can be part of agreements for product placement too, with brands contractually obliged to protect their assets.

So there you go. It seems like fake search engines, and fake social media networks for that matter, are likely to be here to stay. It seems a shame, because otherwise realistic portrayals are suddenly very fake in the viewer’s eyes, but producers usually prefer not to take a risk.

Finally, here’s a supercut of fake websites, including a number of search engines and social media sites. Obviously none of these stand out as fake at all…

Virgin Media and the Premier League

The Win

Judging from recent interviews across the media, Virgin Media CEO Tom Mockridge is out and about shouting loudly about his company’s complaint about how the Premier League sells its UK TV rights. His complaint is broadly that the league only sells 168 of the 360 fixtures each season, artificially limiting supply to keep prices high.

The media fusillade includes pieces in The Guardian, the FT, the Telegraph and the BBC. He also popped up on Radio 4’s Media Show.

But this isn’t new news. The complaint was actually made to Ofcom last year ahead of the most recent Premier League rights auction. Furthermore, Virgin Media asked Ofcom to suspend that UK TV rights sale ahead of making a decision on this investigation – something Mockridge sidestepped a little during the Media Show interview. Ofcom refused that, and the auction went ahead with the new rights deal running for the 2016/17 – 2018/19 seasons.

The Premier League currently packages up fixtures into seven packages valued differently depending on a variety of measures including which “pick” of the weekend’s fixture that package entitles the broadcaster to. There are lots of rules about ensuring that every team gets a minimum TV exposure, when games can be scheduled (particularly with teams involved in Thursday night Europa league footabll), and when is optimal for TV viewing figures.

What that means is that not all seven packages are equal. In the most recent rights rounds for the period starting next season, Sky retained its 4pm Sunday slot and got back Saturday 12:45pm package from BT. These get most of the best fixtures – along with the Sunday 2pm slot which Sky also owns. BT will be taking over the 5:30pm Saturday slot.

But let’s look at some of the arguments Mockridge makes as part of his case.

What about his argument over how rights are sold in domestic leagues elsewhere in comparison to the Premier League?

Well he’s right to say that most games in US leagues like the NFL, MLB and NBA are televised, but it’s a complicated web of sales there, combining national network TV, local TV and digital offerings.

The biggest sport in the US in terms of television money is the NFL, and it’s notable that NFL games avoid Friday nights (High school football – “Friday Night Lights”) and Saturdays (College football – itself a big TV money spinner). So games are mostly played on Sundays, with a Monday night game and more recently some Thursday night games. That’s effectively the NFL’s way of having the equivalent of having a 3pm-5pm “blackout” as we have in the UK when there is no live domestic football.

Few would argue that it’s sensible offering televised Premier League football during that window unless you want to destroy the fabric of the game down through the Football League, SPL and beyond.

Mockridge’s solution seems to be one of two things: the Premier League offers more money to the lower leagues to offset this, and to use regional blackouts as used in the US.

In the first case, I’m not sure that holds up. Mockridge is asking for something that by his reckoning will keep inflationary rights in check – in other words limiting what the Premier League can make. That would mean that the league would surely be less inclined to deliver revenues to lower league divisions?

As for regional blackouts? Well that’s complicated, and Mockridge is missing one massive difference.

The US model works something like this in the case of the NFL: home markets are broadly defined as a 75 mile radius around the team’s ground. The idea is that if a game is not sold out 72 hours in advance, the game cannot air locally. This is to encourage fans to attend live games rather than simply stay at home. Plus full grounds look and sound better on television. In reality the rules are bit more complex. But key is the fact that the FCC has recently lifted its rules on blackouts, and this season NFL teams have lifted the rules too.

Different sports have different blackout rules, but it’s really unclear to me how they’d work in the UK.

Mockridge talks in interviews about blocking out a Manchester United games to Manchester viewers and Arsenal games to London viewers if they’re played at 3pm. And it’s true, technology could allow this.

But that’s completely missing the point of US-style blackouts.

The NFL blackout rules were put in place to ensure full stadia for NFL teams, not to support a wider American football eco-system. As I’ve said, the NFL does that by not clashing with high school and college games.

In the UK, there’s no need to prevent Manchester viewers from seeing Manchester United play on TV because they, like most Premier League teams, sell out pretty much all their home games. Across the Premier League this season, grounds have been 96% full on average thus far.

We’re talking about people staying at home to watch any Premier League games rather than going out to watch Macclesfield, Brentford or indeed any teams outside the Premier League.

Blacking out United’s games in Manchester would still leave another four or so live games for Manchester fans to choose from at 3pm on Saturday. Lower division gates would suffer as fans stayed at home and watched another fixture.

Other sports leagues around the world think only of their own leagues. We actually have an ecosystem that considers the full league structure. There’s no relegation or promotion in the NFL/NBA/MLB – so the leagues don’t especially care beyond college sport.

Then there is Mockridge’s underlying thesis that offering every game would somehow curtail inflationary rights revenues. I’m just not sure that’s the case. The reason we have the inflation we do at the moment is because in the UK there are two major players in BT and Sky who have both seen sport as a core part of their offering. In fact, while broadcasters have seen massive inflation overall in rights, they’ve not actually needed to increase their subscriptions to that degree. Sky has increased its prices a little, but not remotely close to the 70% Mockridge talks about. Sky says it’ll find the savings it needs elsewhere. BT bought a lower priced package this time round, and is better able to swallow the price increase without introducing price increases (That’s not to say it won’t of course).

In the end bidders can only pay what they think the market will bear. In the same way that Virgin Media sets the price of its broadband for customers based on what they believe consumers are willing to pay for high-speed internet access. That price Virgin Media charges is based on lots of things including what it costs to provide the service, but also what others in the market are charging.

Furthermore, just because there are more games on offer, it doesn’t necessarily stand to reason that the value of each game would go down. It’d all depend on how the Premier League retailed those games. A third bidder might enter the market – Virgin Media for example. Additional bidders boost prices.

I can’t see the Premier League choosing to do anything other than offer games in packages as they do now. Currently every game outside the 3pm slot is part of a package.

In radio, there are two packages that include the 3pm slot – Five Live has one and Absolute Radio the other. Since the number of games played on Saturdays at 3pm is quite variable, and all the “top” games have already been shifted out of that slot, then I can only really see Premier League offering a complete package of those remaining fixtures. But that would probably just bring extra revenue for those games into play as either Sky or BT bid for those games as a red-button offering.

While that might mean the average price per game overall falls a little, the actual total rights payments handed over would increase. And an overall increase surely means more total cost to customers?

Virgin Media’s complaint seems to be specifically about “collective” selling. It’s unclear to me whether whether they expect every fixture to be sold independently – perhaps auctioned on a fixture by fixture basis. I’m not sure that doing that would be any more helpful to fans. You’d never know what channel was showing what game. Broadcasters are bound to stick with offering monthly subscription rather than offer fixtures pay-per-view model (Sky previously tried this you will recall).

So were more than two groups to bid, consumers wanting full access would have to pay more than ever.

And the last thing the Premier League should follow would be a Spanish model where the big sides – notably Real Madrid and Barcelona – generate the vast majority of television revenues leaving a league that is heavily weighted towards those two clubs. A per-game model would vastly favour big clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea.

Well maybe not Chelsea 🙂

Finally the claim by Mockridge that additional money generated by changing the rights sale process would deliver might be returned to fans in the form of cheaper tickets seems laughable. Much as I’d love to see increased TV revenues meaning cheaper tickets, that simply doesn’t happen now, and it wouldn’t happen under a new model. Instead, the vast majority of those revenues go straight into players’ pockets via increased salary demands.

You can’t have it both ways. If the Premier League offers more games live, then either the overall revenues increase or decrease. If they increase, then fans, overall, pay more. If they decrease, then that would seem like a massive market intervention, the likes of which has not been made anywhere else in the world. And inevitably those revenues would benefit the bigger clubs much more.

In the end, it is surely for the Premier League to determine its own best model. They’ve had their hand forced to ensure that there are at least two bidders. But as it happens, the model they have currently actually seems to work really well for them, and they’re second only to the NFL overall TV rights revenues. With trickle-down money going beyond the Premier League, that must be positive for the game in general.

If rights get too expensive, then subscribers will stop paying.

It’ll be interesting to see Ofcom’s conclusions to this complaint, but I’d be flabbergasted if Ofcom did anything aside from throw it out.

The Tow Center Guide to Podcasting

Headphones in Studio 2

There’s a terrific new report that the Tow Center for Digital Journalism – an institute within the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. It has published called A Guide to Podcasting. It’s an unashemedly US-centric view of the podcasting market in 2015, detailing the history of the medium, and presenting a series of case studies of big US podcasting operators.

It’s well worth a read if you’re curious to see where podcasting stands today.

The report is long, and I’m not going to go into it in full. Instead I thought I’d pull out a few key findings, and add some of my own thoughts to them. Some of them are things I’ve talked about before, but in each instance, I think they’re especially worthy of note.

The massive skew in mobile podcast consumption towards iPhones. The Tow document quotes a LibSync report that shows that there is currently a 5.4 to 1 ratio in favour of iOS devices over Android ones in the mobile market. Whereas the report notes that there something like one billion Android devices set against 470m iPhones.

I’ve stolen this wonderful (US focused) chart which illustrates this perfectly.

PODCAST15_clammrfuture_android

Note that this report seems to have been written before Google announced its entry into the podcasting market. But the report does note that there’d be likely to be developments between the report being completed and it being published. The Gimlet case study also misses out on their recent second round of funding.

67% of US podcaster are aged 18-34. They know how to use the technology. It’s not that it doesn’t appeal to other audiences as my septuagenarian father can attest, once he knew how to use the BBC iPlayer Radio app on his tablet. So it’ll be interesting to see how ages broaden out as podcasting increases. In the meantime, the 18-34 audience is one radio broadcasters are very worried about losing.

Podcasting really needs to broaden its user base. The previous two points are key parts of that – growing users beyond one type of phone, and getting those aged over 35 to listen. And the current audience can only listen to so many podcasts – something my inordinately sized PocketCasts library can attest to. Indeed the report suggests that it’s just six podcasts on average per week.

Slow and steady growth. As the report makes clear, podcasting has been around for a long time, and it’s had its moment in the sun before Serial came along (Season 2 out now!). The report includes a chart that shows podcasting as having had slow and steady growth since its inception.

The report goes on to note that the Serial phenomenom actually happened at time when the iPhone podcast app had just been separated out in iOS as its own app, and as the wider media was covering podcasts more. Both of these will have given it a healthy push.

I’d compare podcasting growth to UK DAB growth which has also been slow and steady rather than explosive as some consumer technologies have been. I wonder if this is a factor of audio? It’s not quite as sexy as video, but we still like it.

Searching for podcasts is an overall bad experience. iTunes is not great at surfacing podcasts beyond ones that are either popular according to its secret algorithm, or the handful that iTunes’ editors choose to feature on their site. Other podcast providers have similar issues.

The popular example of a company who manages this well is Netflix and its ability to aid viewer discovery. I’m not sure that’s the best answer – my experience is that all sorts of rubbish gets thrown at me. But I do hear very positive things about Spotify’s Discover playlist with regard to music listening.

Instead podcasters have to rely on social sharing and working within their own networks. Thus both Serial and Gimlet’s Startup launched by being included in the This American Life podcast feed.

That’s an opportunity only avaialble to a very limited number of podcasts and not at all available to those outside, say, US public radio circles. On the other hand it greatly aids those burgeoning podcast networks like Panoply and Gimlet. They can properly support and promote their own shows. An independent producer is going to struggle unless they have the budget to buy promotional airtime on those same shows – a route to market that others have taken.

One of the most exciting elements of Google enterting the podcasting space is what it can do with search. As well as utilising metadata, it’d be interesting to see if voice-to-text technology as utilised by Google Now, Siri and Amazon’s Fire and Echo devices, could be set to work on podcasts to provide more context for audio files, and enable discovery.

In car listening has its place. Cars are important, but it’s worth noting that while 44% of US radio listening is in car (according to a 2014 Macquarie Capital report), in other markets that aren’t as car-centric, it’s much less. For example it’s only 20% of radio listening that happens in-car in the UK. And in any case, new technology added in the car today doesn’t fully flow through the Car Parq (the industry term for all the cars on the road) for a number of years to come – 11 years on average in the US. In other words, just because a new off the assembly line car today comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, it’s going to take a while before everyone has the ability to seamlessly stream audio in their cars without a combination of 3.5mm jack leads, Bluetooth connectivity or even FM re-transmitters.

Data issues. Not only are mobile podcasts disproportionately listened to by iPhones/iOS devices, but the bulk of traffic is delivered via iTunes – 70% is claimed in the report. That’s both a blessing and a curse. Apple was a very early supporter of podcasting, and therefore everyone should be thankful for them. On the other hand, they have the whip hand when it comes to data. Advertisers would like more data, as would podcast producers. I’m certain Apple could provide additional data were they to choose to, but that would involve changes in user agreements and generally it’d be doing work for little to no reward. (Plus nobody needs and even longer iTunes User Agreement!)

The report notes that Apple’s most recent iOS update actually favours streaming over download, with the latter taking an additional click to play back. Streaming, of course, provides more data than consumption of a “dumb” mp3 file.

Meanwhile, as well as adding dynamic advertising into podcasts at time of delivery, another area that is being developed according to the report, is the use of tracking pixels. Now I must admit that I’m unclear how this will work. Ordinarily such pixels are used to track digital advertising in web environments where there is live data. So a hidden pixel is delivered and the fact that it was shown means that you have some data about where and when it was delivered. But pure podcasts are simply mp3 files. While they might have “album artwork” embedded within them, I’m not aware that this would allow for any tracking. Indeed, when you’re listening to an mp3 offline, there simply isn’t a feedback mechanism.

Within bespoke apps this might be possible, and certainly platforms like Spotify employ it, although the free version of Spotify which displays advertising requires internet access.

Yet both Panoply, who have purchased the Audiometric software platform, and Acast are both talking about this technology. I’m curious to learn more.

Direct and foundation support is more normal in the US. Most US public television and radio is partly funded by viewers and listeners. The audience is regularly asked to dig deep and contribute. If you enjoy these programmes, then you need to pay is the message. That’s why this has been a key way a number of podcasts have supported themselves using a direct funding model.

But this is not something that’s “normal” in Britain and elsewhere. If there’s a pledge drive happening on TV or radio, it’s for charity. For some, it’s actually a bit “embarrassing” and runs against the traditional stiff-upper-lip attitude we have as a nation.

Now it’s certainly true that the landscape is changing, and more people are getting more comfortable asking for monetary support.

There is not really a history of foundations supporting radio and television services. These foundations just don’t exist in the same way in the UK, where spending of that type might instead be focused on visual or performing arts. Instead, across Europe, much public radio is supported by various forms of licence fee. Notably the UK television licence pays for all BBC Radio as well as BBC TV and other services. This is undoubtedly changing as podcast listening is not limited by borders (Hence I hear all sorts of advertising for products that are unavailable to me). And Radiotopia’s fundraising success internationally was such that it saw fit to hold supporters parties in various parts of Europe.

But philanthropy tends to reveal itself in different ways in different countries – so the US model does not necessarily work internationally.

Podcasters need to own their direct relationships with the audience. This is an important one. The case study on the Reveal podcast makes this point well. Obviously podcasts do have a relationship between themselves and their listeners, but they don’t own it. Without direct intervention, a podcast producer does not know who you are. And that places them at something of a disadvantage.

When you hear a podcast urge you to sign up for an email newsletter, like them on Facebook or even follow them on Twitter, that’s because these are they only ways they can form a relationship with you. As it stands, that relationship is actually “owned” by the podcasting platform – so Apple in all likelihood.

The reason that magazine and newspaper publishers have always been so keen on you taking out a subscription is not just that they have a guaranteed form of income, but that they get to add a name to their database. And they can develop a direct relationship from there. That could be selling additional products and services, or learning more about the audience.

Indeed a podcast producer needs to think, “What would happen if for some reason Apple shut down podcasts tomorrow?”

No, they’re not going to do it. But they could. It would be a painful, and very probably expensive business rebuilding that audience.

The only podcast I can think of that I subscribe to that knows who I am is The Cycling Podcast, because I’ve paid to become a premium member. They have my email address.

It’s the same argument some news providers have had with Apple – sometimes falling out with them. Apple owns the relationship (and takes a healthy cut of subscription revenues). The middleman has the keys to the castle.

In subscription television, the same is often true. It’s why BT Sport went around quite a convuluted route to get Sky viewers to register directly with them to enable the BT Sports channel rather than the less painful route of adding the channel via a few clicks of the remote control. Now BT knows who those Sky subscribers are. If they hadn’t taken that route, they’d have just known how many subscribers they had.

And finally, if you know who your customers are, you can also more easily shift platforms should you ever wish or need to in the future.

The ethics of podcast advertising is not straightforward. There was a very good recent episode of Gimlet’s Startup podcast looking at money and in particular what the company would and wouldn’t do. It’s really worth listening to if you’re interested in this area, as it explores many of the issues. Indeed Gimlet has always been very upfront about how they work advertising into their podcasts.

In the US, the most effective type of podcast advertising has proved to be presenter-read adverts. They tend to be delivered in the same tone as the overall podcast rather than from a specific script. The way the advertising is weaved into different podcasts can vary a good deal – the listener sometimes only belatedly realising that they’re actually hearing an ad. Sometimes specific music is used, or words along the lines of, “And now we must thank another sponsor…” But neither of these are always the case.

The presenter-read model can also lead to a lot of implied endorsement of products. Perhaps the presenter has indeed used the product and strongly recommends it. But are we certain? Indeed an earlier season one Startup episode also examined this area.

And what happens if a product maybe isn’t best-in-class? Their money is still good though…

Another “ethical” question is the use of native podcasts, or ad-funded podcasts. This kind of advertising is considered both very effective and profitable. There are clearly lots of companies now interested in having podcasts made for them.

But how do they get promoted? What’s the mechanism for launching them? Do you drop them into your regular programme feed? Or should potential subscribers be pushed in another direction?

If you ask different people these questions, the recent Startup episode suggests you’ll get different answers.

The current case to look at is The Message, which is paid for by GE and produced by Panoply. It’s an SF drama delivered in the guise of a presenter-led podcast. I’m not aware that the full podcast was placed in any other Panoply streams. Instead there were a number of promotional trails (in radio parlance) and ads promoting the series.

But it seems clear that there are no firm rules across the full podcasting environment and what some people will do, others will be uncomfortable doing.

Networks – them and us. The way things are working at the moment, the big networks are best suited to prospering. But what about smaller or independent podcasts? Is there a way through?

The beauty of podcasting originally was that it’s very cheap and easy to do. You can make a professional sounding podcast with an inexpensive microphone, a laptop and free editing software.

But in many ways podcast networks are raising the game. They have more resources, they have sales teams to sell advertising, and they can cross-promote their own new podcasts.

If you’re not part of a big network or broadcaster, you probably are at a disadvantage. You’re not out of the game – but like indie films versus studio blockbusters, or independently published books versus those from major publishers, you’ve got your work cut out for you. On the other hand, there are ways through.

More disruption in types of podcast is needed. It does feel like too many podcasts are just public radio programmes that might have previously existed given a fair wind and a friendly commissioner. There surely needs to be a wider range of podcasts dealing with a broader set of interests? Currently many of the more popular podcasts can feel very middle class. And that’s not surprising because it does seem like every half-decent producer in the US who was working for public radio has been poached by a podcast producer or network!

This isn’t necessarily true of all podcast types, but I tend to think it is true of the bigger shows in terms of listeners and awareness.

Finally the Tow Center report is also accompanied by a very smart interactive timeline telling the podcast story from a US perspective.

Why Doesn’t Audio Go Viral?

Live On Air from the Isle of Wight

I’m a regular reader of Nick Quah’s Hot Pod newsletter on Podcasts. It’s worth subscribing to if you’re interested in the medium, even if there are slightly too many animated GIFs in the emails!

A few weeks ago, Nick addressed something that goes back to a Digg piece from well over a year ago. As he rightly says, it’s still a relevant question.

The Digg piece by Stan Alcorn in essence says that it’s a visual issue. And it’s true that if someone sends you a YouTube link you can quickly see a still frame chosen to whet your appetite and hit play. An animated GIF takes no effort to see. Even a bit of text can be quickly scanned, and accompanying pictures seen.

Audio, on the other hand, takes some effort.

You have to hit play and hope that however it’s titled is an accurate description. You can’t scrub ahead to what you perceive as “the good bit,” as people do with YouTube videos.

There’s a Digg revisit up now, and Quah goes on to make his own points. And the piece was followed up the following week – I suggest going away and reading up on the subject if you’re interested.

But I’d just like to offer a few thoughts of my own on the matter, and they boil down to audio actually being harder “to do” than video.

The Oxford English Dictionary (the online version anyway) defines “viral” in the internet sense thus:

(Of an image, video, piece of information, etc.) circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another:
‘a viral ad campaign’
‘the video went viral and was seen by millions’

The definition doesn’t specify it, but I would suggest also that something that goes viral is also quite short. That’s a relative term of course, but we’re not talking about longform here. Serial might be popular, but would you describe a multi-hour podcast as a “viral hit?” I’m not sure you would. I’d simply describe it as a hit.

Most commonly, when we think about something going viral, we’re thinking of video. And when it comes to a viral clip, it’s either professionally shot, by which I mean the source footage comes from a TV station, a production company or agency, or shot by an amateur – probably on their phone. (There are many other types of video of course, but I think this accounts for a substantial portion of viral videos.)

Yet even clips that are shot professionally are as often as not, spread virally by a viewer. The TV company might work hard to share their own clips and with pre-recorded programmes that’s very possible. Hence Lip Sync Battles and Carpool Karaoke. But if an amazing goal is scored, or a presenter inadvertently tells a reality show contestant that they’re out of the competition before they should have, that probably happened live, and the producers may not want to share the clip or in the case of sport, even have the rights to make it widely available in social media.

But for the viewer, sending that clip to the internet is easy. Somewhere a viewer hits rewind on their PVR. They point their phone at their TV and record the action. Within a couple of clicks, they’ve sent it to Twitter/YouTube/Facebook/wherever and it’s out there. There are better ways to do it, and in higher quality, but this is instant and it works.

Sure, the Premier League/ITV/Sky/HBO/Disney might get the clip taken down in due course, but someone’s put a copy up, or they’ve shot their TV from an odd angle and talked over the audio. The clip gets out there. If it goes viral, it’s watched by millions.

Maybe a couple of days later, the rights owner gets YouTube to replace to the unofficial video with their official one. But it’s probably too late by then.

Meanwhile, if the video is of your mate doing a silly stunt, or you hearing a racist outburst heard on a bus, or seeing a horrific terrorist attack in a city, then a phone is all that’s needed. Again, you get viral success if all the planets are aligned.

Now consider making audio into a viral hit.

Suppose Nick Grimshaw says something funny on his Radio 1 Breakfast Show. It’s really entertaining and you want to share it instantly.

Well Radio 1 might put it up themselves – indeed they might share some video. A producer or someone in charge of station’s social media is probably sharing a few clips, and they might be doing it really well, perhaps with visualisations. There are some excellent examples of this where studio video or even animations have been used. And there are a number of platforms available to radio stations that allow them to share audio clips E.g. Omny.

But the station gets to choose what goes up. And they might not choose to share the clip you’re interested in. Social media managers on radio shows and stations are wary of posting too much in social media over too short a time. They ration what they post so as not to overwhelm their social media followers.

And anyway, a radio clip “going viral” should not solely be in the hands of the show’s production team. As mentioned, that’s not what always happens in video, and indeed it’s a limiting factor on sending audio viral if only the original producer gets to choose.

If a listener wants to share something they heard on the radio with their friends and followers, how do they do that? They can’t just hit rewind on your radio. Yes – a handful of DAB sets do have this function. But most don’t.

For the large part, broadcast radio disappears into the ether.

A listener might be able to get the audio by waiting until the programme has finished and grab either a podcast, or rip the audio from Listen Again if it’s available. The latter in particular is not a straightforward process, with the majority of stations simply not offering it. But if it is available, and the listener has the technical knowhow to rip that audio, then they can pop that audio into an audio editor. Because everyone has access to one of those and knows how to use it don’t they..?

Then they edit their viral clip – now probably at least two hours after it went out – and share it on YouTube accompanied with a still image, since they’ve actually made a “video” because that’s what the most obviously site for sharing clips – YouTube – wants. Otherwise the likely candidates for hosting the clip are perhaps Soundcloud, Audioboom or someone else.

That’s all really quite hard and the spontaneity has gone.

A good piece of audio is still a good piece of audio. But for those, “I don’t believe that just happened moments,” the impetus is gone.

There is a service called Rewind Radio which would seem to create a solution. They’re effectively an online radio clipping service, allowing you to find an audio segment on your chosen service, and clip the audio. The resulting clips can be embedded or posted in social media. E.g.


I’m not sure whether the service is designed for consumers or radio stations themselves. Nonetheless, I was able to make the above clip without registering.

The main problem is that again, it’s down to stations to get themselves listed and therefore recorded into their system. I could find BBC Radio 1 for example, but couldn’t find BBC Radio 2 or BBC Radio 4. And there is also a bit of a time-delay issue. In my test, I couldn’t link to audio newer than that from nine hours earlier.

[And I hate to mention it, but we have to think about copyright. Can I just embed or tweet a single song clip? Music is a big part of most radio after all.]

How about someone wanting to share a podcast?

Well it’s possible. But an iTunes link doesn’t cut it because not everyone has an iPhone (see previous blogs by me ad nauseum). And some podcasts don’t have a site for streaming them. They should. But they don’t.

Even if they do, it’s remarkably rare for those players to have functionality to allow sharing to a specific point in a show – something that’s essential if you’re pointing someone to a moment in a three hour breakfast show.

There are companies like Overcast and Acast who can do the job for you with podcasts, and even let you link to a specific spot in a podcast (e.g. Here are Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg in interview on the a recent Kermode and Mayo podcast, with a timestamp to take you directly to the interview). But you have to know about Overcast or Acast to make that work. Acast’s link will also deliver an embedded player in social media which is smart, but at time of writing, Overcast links don’t do that. Overall, YouTube again has an advantage here.

In the end, many more people have YouTube accounts than Soundcloud or Audioboom ones. So sharing audio on YouTube is still the easiest place to go, even though that does mean making a quasi-movie first by adding a still and exporting a movie file to upload to the site.

WNYC in New York has been experimenting with “videos” of audio in Facebook feeds. But long-form podcasts feel wrong in such an environment. There are exceptions, but most shared video is a few minutes at most.

But what about amateur recordings? Those moments you deem interesting or newsworthy enough to share, and which might turn viral depending on what is being captured.

Well the truth probably is that if something amusing or noteworthy is happening around you and you have your smartphone to hand, you’re more likely to start the video camera rolling on it rather than the audio recording function.

Yes, if you’re getting nowhere in attempting to cancel your cable TV subscription and are recording the call, then you might go for the audio recorder functionality on your phone. But otherwise, unless you’re trying not to make it obvious you’re recording something, you’re going to reach for the video camera function.

In summary then, making audio go viral is hard because we are visual creatures, so that’s our first port of call. But audio is enormously powerful, so we need better tools to allow listeners to share audio – from radio, podcasts and life. And importantly, it needs to be shareable on the listener’s terms, not the service provider’s.

[Finally a top-tip: There used to be functionality direct in iPlayer to deeplink to a specific timecode in a given programme when sharing that link. That was taken out at some point, but you can still do it!

All you have to do is append #playt=xxmyys where xx is the number of minutes into the programme and yy is the number of seconds. So I might link to a point in this week’s Infinite Monkey Cage using this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06r4wg9#playt=9m07s

So as long as you wait for a BBC programme to finish and be made available on the iPlayer, then that allows you to share a specific point in a programme. That’s not a wider solution by any means.

Thanks to Nommo for details.]

Amazon Prime Music – Filling A Hole

AmazonPrime

Back over the summer, Amazon launched its Prime Music offering in the UK. Anybody who pays Amazon £79 a year, for it’s free next day delivery service, and video streaming service, now also has access to more than a million tracks and hundreds of playlists to stream via the web, Fire TV or a mobile app. I’ve been using it on and off since it launched and thought it was worth writing about.

“A million songs you say? That’s a bit rubbish compared to the 30 million that others like Spotify and Apple Music offer?”

Well it is, and it isn’t.

But I don’t think this is really competing with those services. If you are subscribing to one of them you’re paying three times what the UK average consumer is used to paying for music on that subscription alone.

When it launched, it was noticeable that music from Universal was notably missing. But Amazon has subsequently done the deal and added some of their catalogue to its Prime Music offering.

In any case, this isn’t a full service as Spotify and Apple would offer. It’s an “enough” service. You’re already paying for it if you have Amazon Prime, so it’s just a free bolt on to you as a user.

If you need some more convincing, look back at my piece explaining how the average UK consumer spends less than £40 a year on music. Spotify Premium or Apple Music are not mass market offerings. Those companies might like them to be, but in fact they mostly appeal to a subset of the universe of people who listen to music.

I’ve been intrigued to see how Amazon’s offering is developing. Two weeks ago, the new Adele album, 25, was released to fanfair of publicity and primetime TV exposure. Notably, the album is not available to stream on either Apple or Spotify’s streaming subscription services. On the other hand, another album that will likely be a big seller ahead of Christmas is Enya’s new album, Dark Sky Island. That album is available to stream on Spotify, but perhaps more interestingly, Amazon.

For the most part, Amazon’s one million tracks are slightly older fare – albums mostly having been out a year before they reach Prime streaming. There are a few other newer albums on the service too like new ones from “Jeff Lynne’s ELO” and, er, One Direction.

And then there’s this week’s big new release, A Headful of Dreams by Coldplay. That too can be streamed on Amazon. It’s also seemingly on Apple Music, but is not available to stream on Spotify (possibly because Spotify won’t offer different catalogues to premium and free users). [Update: Seemingly, Coldplay’s new album will be available on Spotify from this Friday, 11th December]

Amazon is making quite a big deal about all four, so I imagine that there’s some kind of marketing quid pro quo going on.

[A little side note here on Adele.

Some have suggested that Adele is just being greedy not making her album available on Spotify et al. She has in past spoken pretty naively about the amount of tax she pays, which doesn’t come across well when you’re a multi-millionaire. But I think she’s entirely within her rights to get people to buy her album for a tenner rather than stream it for tuppence. She is the minority of artists who have the clout to demand this, alongside the likes of Taylor Swift. Kudos to her if she can get her own way.

The other slightly daft comment I’ve heard is that this somehow forces people into “ye olde” ways of buying a CD and ripping it.

Er. No.

Yes, the CD is getting distributed in hundreds of stores, including places like Tesco Express where you wouldn’t ordinarily expect to see music, but it’ll also sell a bucket-load on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play, all of whom will let you instantly download or stream the album without you ever having to go near a shiny disc.

In any case, there are still an awful lot of people who listen to music, but don’t subscribe to a streaming music service, or even use a free one. And they buy Adele albums as her gargantuan sales show.]

Back to Amazon Music.

30 million tracks is a ridiculously large number. So is one million. That’s still a lot of music. In fact it’s a scary amount of music. That means that it’s interesting to see how much curation is coming into play with all the music services these days. Because unless you are a real “muso,” there’s nothing scarier than that empty flashing box at the top of the screen asking you what you’d like to listen to.

Most of us have no idea what to type, apart from a handful of very obvious artists.

So like Apple, Amazon has pre-populated dozens of playlists for you start with.

And when you consider that some popular radio stations play as few as 400 unique tracks across a month, you’ll understand that a million tracks is actually quite a lot of choice even when you dive down into your preferred genres of music.

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My main criticism of the service so far is accessing the music. It is true that there are perfectly functional apps for iOS and Android, with the latter not requiring you to download it from Amazon’s own store rather than Google Play as the do with the Amazon Video app. They’re functional rather than wonderful, but you get offline downloads and it merges purchased tracks with Prime Music that you “add” to your library.

But curiously, if you use a Fire TV, you’re mostly limited to playlists. I’ve yet to discover a good way to navigate around their offering, looking for individual albums within the Fire TV interface. If it’s there, it’s not intuitive.

The one thing I can’t try is listening via the Amazon Echo. Having recently had a chance to play with one a little, I’d actually love to buy one of these devices. But Amazon has yet to deign to release them outside of the US for reasons that aren’t really clear, since just about all the rest of the hardware, even their ill-fated phone, made it to the UK.

For me, the most useful aspect of Prime Music remains the automatic digital copies Amazon has of at least some of the CDs I’ve bought from it over the years. It’s not complete – indeed today, there are still plenty of new CDs that don’t come with Amazon’s AutoRip. But it at least gives me an immediate subset of my audio catalogue which can be supplemented with the Prime offering.

In the end, is this as good as the other streaming services? No, of course not. It was never designed to be. But if your household is already paying for Amazon Prime, then I can imagine a lot of people very happy to dip into Prime Music now and again.