Media

Diversity in Media – Measuring Social Class

On Sunday I wrote a piece on Ofcom’s Diversity in Television report, and in particular, noted my disappointment that it didn’t measure social class.

The feedback I got can basically be summed up with the question: “Yes, but how do you measure class?”

So I thought it was worth exploring the issue a bit further.

Measuring social class isn’t easy. What you can’t do is simply ask people to mark themselves on a form. You need to collect proxy information that can provide you with some kind of methodology to measure it.

Here we come to census v survey.

A census is a record of every single employee, whereas a survey is a sample of some of the population. While ordinarily you’d want to measure the responses of all your employees, if your company is big enough then a survey may suffice. Not only that, if you know that some employees are likely to feel uncomfortable answering certain questions, then you’re likely to need to use a survey.

It’s for this reason, by the way, that surveys conducted about sensitive areas such as sex, should be treated with extreme caution, since many do not wish to answer, and indeed may be answering untruthfully.

Of course, there are rightly concerns that this is sensitive data. What right does my employer have to know about my parents’ education, or jobs? And as an employer, do I feel comfortable asking employees to collect this data?

It is sensitive information, and it needs to be collected and measured responsibly. So that probably means that it shouldn’t sit as a field in an employee’s record on an HR system, anymore than you’d record someone’s sexual orientation or religious beliefs on such a system.

Yet we also collect data on those sensitive areas. It’s usually collected in survey form, and on an anonymised basis. The collection is probably best handled by a third-party specialist research company who can assure employees that the data is not being used for anything other than measuring diversity in the workplace.

It’s important that social class data is collected as it impacts on many behaviours across societies. So while it’s hard to do it, groups like the Office of National Statistics have to collect this data, and indeed they have their own methodology for doing so. Notably, these are based around employment status (employer, self-employed or employee), organisational size and supervisory status (does a person supervise others, and in what context?).

As The Guardian reported over the weekend, the BBC has made the decision to use a staff survey which measured parents’ occupations, noting that its staff showed a higher likelihood of their parents having achieved higher managerial and professional occupations than the wider population, suggesting a class imbalance compared with the wider population.

Now it’s certainly true that an organisation the size of the BBC is able to get an external research company to measure such indicators, and provide norms to compare against. But Ofcom’s report was based on UK broadcasters who all had turnover’s of £1bn or more, so I’d argue that each of them is in a position to do a similar job.

On the other hand, a small indie isn’t in such a position, and the size of that indie might make such data relatively meaningless anyway.

Yet if the media industry is serious about diversity, then this does need measuring, and doing so on a pan-media basis with some central funding, could mean that the broader industry could be surveyed.

Mind you, as a friend of mine said to me, if you banned unpaid “internships” tomorrow, it may fix the problem quite quickly.

Diversity in UK Media – Ofcom’s Report Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Last week Ofcom published the first in what it says will be a regular series of reports into diversity and equal opportunities in television. It focuses on the biggest UK television broadcasters: BBC, Channel 4, ITV, Sky and Viacom (owner of Channel 5 amongst others).

Diversity remains a key concern in the media industry, from representation throughout media organisations, to issues surrounding pay discrimination based on sex.

But I really do have a bone to pick with this, and nearly every report on diversity in UK broadcasting. They don’t go far enough.

Sharon White, Ofcom’s CEO says in her introduction to the report: “Too many people from minority groups struggle to get into television. That creates a cultural disconnection between the people who make programmes, and the many millions who watch them.”

This is undoubtedly true, despite schemes that are set up across the industry.

The report breaks employees into the following categories:

  • Gender
  • Racial group (BAME)
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion and belief

The report dutifully compares each of the measured broadcasters against both the population at large, UK based industry, and the average amongst the peers. From this we see, for example, that Channel 4 does well amongst BAME staff, while Viacom does well with women in leadership roles.

But there’s a glaring hole in this analysis, and it’s one that pervades UK media.

Social class.

It’s just not measured. And without that we’re missing something fundamental from our broadcasters.

I’m not saying the other factors aren’t important – they are. And sometimes those other measures can be indicative of social class. But while media has a widely acknowledged considerable issue with new entrants coming into the sector, unless they’re supported by family members (bank of mum and dad), and can support themselves in London while they do unpaid “work experience”, then for all those other measures, we’re going to only get people who come from wealthier backgrounds.

Everybody knows this. It was mentioned in a good episode of The Media Show from the RTS Cambridge TV Festival this week.

So I’m not at all sure why it’s not included in Ofcom’s report. It’s critical that this is measured to truly show diversity in the media.

[UPDATE: I wrote a follow-up to this piece, detailing some ways this data could actually be collated.]

Dwindling Choices

A couple of weeks ago, Ofcom released its annual Communications Market Report. It’s always stuffed full of information about the UK media marketplace that can be fascinating to dissect.

In 2016, ownership of DVD players (including Blu Ray and games consoles with DVD functionality) was 67% of UK households. This year, it’s just 63% of households. That’s still most homes, but it’s indicative of the way that physical media is in decline as consumers move to streaming services.

Then yesterday, Amazon announced that it was closing Lovefilm. You may recall that Lovefilm was originally the UK’s version of Netflix in that it was a DVD rental by post business (Yes – that was Netflix’s original model too). Their basic service saw users renting films for a flat monthly fee and then posting them back when you’d watched them. In time, Lovefilm added a movie streaming service, so that by the time Amazon swooped in to buy them, it was the streaming service that Amazon was really interested in. That morphed into Amazon Prime Video, but the Lovefilm postal service remained.

And it still worked well, because unlike streaming services, customers had the ability to watch just about any film or TV series released on disc. That included classic films, genre titles and world film titles that never make it onto major streaming services.

And there’s the rub.

We have ownership of machines to play discs falling, and yet digital is not a direct replacement.

It’s all very well have a Netflix or Amazon Prime Video account, but those do not represent a full range of choice. In a Guardian piece bemoaning the death of Lovefilm, the author likened the film selection on the streaming services to the DVD selection in a petrol station. A handful of decent titles – all of which you’ve seen – and a load of trash you’d never want to watch.

That’s a little harsh, but it’s not far from the truth. Yes, the catalogues are slowly improving, but the reality is that on any given day, it’s hard for anyone to actually know what films are available on what services.

Distributors package up groups of films – some are good, some less so – and licence them to the online streamers for certain periods. That period might be measured in months, or it might be measured in years. By and large, the same film is unlikely to be streaming on both Amazon Prime Video and Netflix at the same time. So which do you buy? Both?

The reality is that the all-you-can-eat streaming services offer a fairly meagre range considering the vast breadth and wealth of cinema history. There are a few choice morsels alongside a lot of filler.

Furthermore, you can’t be certain on any given day, that a service you subscribe to will have the film you want to watch available to you.

Ah, but that’s OK. I can get everything else I want to watch from iTunes, Amazon Video (the rent-per-film part) or Google Play Video!

Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

If the film was pretty popular and released in the last twenty years or so, then yes, for around £4.49 for a rental, you probably can stream a copy, with luck in HD. But I think you’ll find there’s an awful lot missing.

Older films, classic films, mid-list films, genre films, TV series and many more.

Question for Film Distributors

If you’re a bit of a film fan like me, then from time to time you suddenly have the urge to watch a film. Assuming you don’t have your own Blu Ray or DVD copy to hand you head to the streaming services and search for it. Only to find it’s not there.

Why in 2017, is not a distributor’s entire catalogue online?

It seems to me that if you own the rights to a film, then you’re deliberately leaving money on the table if you do not at least make it available to purchase digitally in places like the iTunes and Google Play Video stores.

I’m not talking about things you’re holding back to repackage in various ways for maximum revenue – Disney, I’m looking at you!

I’m talking about average films, that if I wait long enough will pop-up once every couple of months on FilmFour or BBC2 anyway. I’m talking about solid mid-range titles, that once upon a time, I could happily find in physical format in a largish branch of HMV or the Virgin Megastore.

Here are a handful of films that I have genuinely wanted to stream but not been able to find on streaming services when I looked, all from within the last thirty years, and all currently or previously released on physical media.

  • Truly, Madly, Deeply
  • The Grifters
  • Rambling Rose
  • Enchanted April

If I started searching for older films then the list would get much longer much more quickly.

What I really don’t understand is that the costs of making catalogue movies available on these services is surely basically nil. You don’t even have to worry whether HMV will give up shelf space to a title, or Amazon warehouse space. You just list the film and let the money run in (or at least trickle in).

In 2017, if you’re a bit of a movie buff, then while the streaming services might sate your appetite a little, you’re not getting the full picture.

What you can’t do is draw an analogy with music. Spotify has a catalogue of ~30m tracks, so perhaps you could ditch your physical music collection and rely solely on their service (I wouldn’t personally, but many do). The same simply isn’t true for films, and we don’t seem to be close to that point.

Indeed if you don’t own a DVD or Blu Ray player, you’re limiting yourself enormously. And that’s before getting into the lack of extras that most streaming or download services offer.

As a consequence of all this, my physical film collection continues to grow.

Netflix and Disney

Last week came news that Disney would be pulling its movies from Netflix at the end of the current arrangement, and that Disney would in future launch its own streaming service. This licensing agreement generated a vast amount of coverage, much of it ill-informed, and ignoring wider issues in the market.

There are a few key issues to discuss here.

Disney Films on Netflix

Netflix originally signed a deal with Disney back in 2012, whereby Netflix took over from a previous Pay TV deal Disney had with Starz. Library films became available immediately on the streaming service, while Netflix gained the Pay TV window rights for new Disney movies (including Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm) released theatrically from 1 January 2016. In reality, that means first-run films would appear from late 2016 when the Pay TV window opened.

A Note on Windowing

It’s probably worth detailing how movie studios traditionally “window” their wares.

The Theatrical Window is usually first, and theatre owners demand that films don’t get released for usually three to four months (it varies by territory, with countries like France enforcing much stricter rules). Then is the so-called Video Window with digital pay-to-own (e.g. iTunes or Google Play Video) and physical DVD and Blu-ray releases. The former is often released a week prior to the latter. Then, a few months later, comes the Pay TV window, when films end up on premium cable and satellite channels like Sky Movies in the UK, or Starz in the US. After that initial Pay TV window, films may then go into a Second Window with perhaps a free-to-air broadcaster, or streaming service like Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Obviously with both Netflix and Amazon active in making and acquiring films, they can choose to either go straight to streaming, or miss out some of the other windows. And there is talk of a Premium Video On Demand (PVOD) window between 30 and 45 days after theatrical release that would be priced high for early streaming access. Theatre owners worry about such things because if you know you only have to wait thirty days, then you might not bother going to the cinema to see a new film.

The key thing throughout all of this is that films tend to get less valuable as the windows progress.

At the time of the Disney deal, media estimates were that the deal was probably around $300m a year for Disney, and was seen as a good deal for all concerned. Netflix paid big, but got big films as a result. Disney dramatically increased what Starz (or HBO or Showtime) would have paid, but as a studio they couldn’t miss with their Marvel films alongside the relaunched Star Wars series, as well as their high-performing Disney and Pixar output.

Now the deal is coming to an end, and films released from 1 January 2019 will not appear automatically on Netflix. Furthermore Disney is launching its own streaming service. More on this latter point below.

Cue lots of words about how this could be the beginning of the end of Netflix. The thinking is that if Disney can do this, then surely others can too. And that breaks Netflix’s model.

Well only up to a point.

It’s worth reiterating that this was a US only deal. The deal does not, and did not apply elsewhere. That’s not to say that Disney material hasn’t and doesn’t appear in other territories. It does. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released just ahead of 1 January 2016, so didn’t make it to Netflix US. It did appear on Netflix in Canada however. Meanwhile Netflix UK has a number of Marvel films on its service, although these are second window films. They have already had runs on Sky as part of Sky’s deal with Disney (In the UK, Sky has exclusive Pay TV deals with most of the major US studios, usually locking out competitors for twelve months).

In Netflix’s recent earnings release, they reported that they had 94.36m paid memberships of which 49.38m were in the US. That leaves 44.99m outside the US, and that’s important. Within the next two or three quarters it seems likely that international will outstrip the US in terms of paid subscriptions. While that isn’t reflected in profits (international rollout is expensive), it’s important to remember that Netflix US is not the same as other versions of Netflix. Due to the way that the entertainment industry has historically worked, rights are sold on a territory by territory basis. Furthermore, different studios may own the rights to different films in different territories.

What this all means is that while Netflix losing Disney seems like a big deal, on further examination its notable that the deal didn’t extend to other territories. And those territories are growing just fine without Netflix serving up first-run Disney films.

Disney Already Streams

The other big part of this was that Disney announced that it’d launch a new Over The Top (OTT) streaming service once the Netflix deal ends.

A fact that has escaped many – including a large number of British news reports – is that Disney already has a streaming service. It’s in the UK, it’s called DisneyLife, launching at the end of 2015. Originally priced at £9.99 a month, making it more expensive than Netflix, in time it dropped its price to a more palatable £4.99. For that you get unlimited streaming access to Disney and Pixar movies, as well as all Disney’s TV programming. That amounts to about 400 movies available. The TV programming is both live and on-demand box sets. The service also offers Disney music and audiobooks, and it offers a 10% Disney Store discount.

That all said, new Disney films still get onto Sky Movies before they reach DisneyLife (in other words, the service doesn’t offer first run films during the Pay TV window), and Disney still sells its top films to free-to-air broadcasters like the BBC. I assume that maximising audience also means maximising merchandise revenues from those later rebroadcasts.

Whether Disney renews its Sky agreement in the future, or goes it alone in an attempt to bump up overall revenues will be worth looking out for. But it would seem that the UK has been used as a beta test market for the newly announced Disney service.

(Note that DisneyLife is a different service to Disney Movies Anywhere, which is Disney’s own brand download-to-own digital service.)

It’s notable that the UK DisneyLife does not include Marvel or Lucasfilm output. That’s likely to be either because Disney already had lucrative deals in place with Sky or others at the time of launch, or that including that output it doesn’t make quite as “clean” a service. The audience for Frozen is different to the audience for Ironman.

Perhaps, in time, Disney will want to include these properties in its streaming service, but I’m not sure. The core Disney (and Pixar) offering is very defined and a parent subscribing knows what they’re getting from a service. Offering a film like Deadpool (15 rated in the UK; R rated in the US) would not work. Yes — I know Deadpool is a Fox film and not formally part of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” but the possibility of R rated Marvel material is still there. Season 1 of Jessica Jones was rated 15 for its DVD release for example.

Finally, Disney just bought BAMtech, the streaming specialist company that was originally set-up in-house for Major League Baseball to stream their fixtures. It was spun off by them to offer streaming support to many companies around the world, and now Disney has bought it ahead of a larger rollout of a streaming service. Doing streaming well is hard as many companies have learnt to their costs, so this pay prove to be a very wise investment.

Disney Going It Alone is not Replicable

The reason that Disney is able to even contemplate a full-service streaming offering is because it has uniquely strong branding. Even the very youngest Disney film viewer quickly learns the name of the studio it comes from. They want to visit Disney Stores or visit Disney Theme Parks. I’m not at all sure that other studios have such significant branding across a wide range of output.

For example, do you know which studio is responsible for the Despicable Me franchise and its related Minions? How about Kungfu Panda? Or Shrek? Or Lego Batman?

All of those have been incredibly successful properties, but they don’t have the same consumer recognition at a studio level. I’m not saying that they couldn’t try to do the same, but that it would be hard. Most consumers, unless they work in the industry, have little to no knowledge of which studio produced which film. In today’s world, where budgets have soared, there are now multiple opening production logos at the start of feature films usually indicating many companies have stumped up the budget. What films would even be in Dreamworks or Universal branded OTT offering?

The regular concern you hear about Netflix is that its reliance on third party programming leaves it vulnerable. What if other studios pulled their output to get onto

I’m not saying that Warners, for example, couldn’t launch an OTT service off the back of their DC Universe films, but that might be a bit of a stretch. A handful of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman films does not make a full service, even if you throw in some animated and direct-to-DVD material.

A case in point might be Sony’s Crackle service which, although advertising funded, has not really broken through in the years it has been operating. Perhaps its biggest original hit, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld is moving to Netflix.

How Many Streaming Services Are Sustainable Anyway?

In the US, the market seems to have reached the point where cable cords are being “cut” in sufficient numbers to be of major concern to the industry. Where once a consumer might spend $100 a month on a few hundred channels, only a few of which they actually watched, they’re now increasingly choosing a mixture of “skinny bundles” (Perhaps $20-30 a month for a handful of key channels, possibly internet streamed), and OTT services (Perhaps HBO Now to get Game of Thrones and Veep, or CBS All Access for The Good Wife spin-off, The Good Fight, and the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery – which notably will be a Netflix exclusive outside the US). Currently, that’s a cheaper option than the $100 bill. But how many services cumulatively would a household buy?

In the UK, the market is slightly different, but beyond Netflix and Amazon, I could also subscribe to Now TV (for subscription free Sky TV), or something like Mubi for arthouse films.

Amongst many others, the BBC and ITV recently launched BritBox focusing on UK shows that are otherwise not sold to US broadcasters. There it competes with Acorn TV’s similar streaming offering.

Meanwhile sports organisations and channels from MLB to the NFL, and the NBA to NBC Sports Gold offer paid OTT options.

How many of these individual packages is one household likely to pay for? 2? 3? 5? More?

NBC has recently announced the closure of its comedy-focused Seeso network, when many might have thought that it was NBCU’s foot in the door into the paid streaming marketplace.

It’s worth remembering that the cable bundle offer meant you get quite a lot for your money, even if you don’t watch much of it. For example, perhaps you don’t watch the food TV channels

A la carte OTT offerings mean that if you’re not interested in food networks, then you don’t subscribe to them. The corollary of that is that if you do want to watch food TV networks, you’ll probably have to pay more to see them.

The economics of 100m US cable subscribing households all contributing perhaps $0.50 a month to make the channels viable with a monthly revenue of $50m. If only 5m viewers choose to watch, they would need to pay $10 month to achieve the same revenue for those channels.

It seems likely that a lot of more niche channels will become unviable without a significant number of subscribers prepared to pay a significant fee to see them.

Netflix in the Future

Netflix has made so secret of wanting to own more of its own programming. Whether it can become completely dependent on acquired programming is questionable, and perhaps isn’t really in its business plan. But beyond the not-insignificant production costs which are eating money, once it has built up a significant library, it becomes a more attractive proposition. That is, assuming that future generations will still be at least partially interested in today’s television. While Dumbo and Snow White are ageless, it’s not clear that the same is true of House of Cards.

Netflix’s international ambitions are not insignificant either. To achieve success in these markets invariably means locally produced programming. Making locally produced shows in France, Germany, India, Brazil and the UK is not cheap. But to break properly into these markets, that’s what Netflix has to do, and that does mean a huge cash burn.

It would be a fool who tries to predict the future of a company like Netflix, and I’m not a fool!

However, I don’t see the end of Netflix’s Disney deal as nearly as groundbreaking as some would position it. Netflix probably does need to broaden its portfolio in terms of earning income. Notably they made their first acquisition last week buying the comic company Millarworld which gives them access to a number of comic book characters as well as opening a new revenue stream. It seems that owning a comic-book franchise is critical for any serious studio. Could this be the start of a wider investment portfolio which supports the main subscription offering, but provides some diversity of income?

What Does “Digital” Mean?

The OED defines “digital” in five key ways, but the key definition that interests us here is as follows:

Digital technology; digital media, as digital television, digital audio, etc.

Basically, nearly everything these days is digital. Even if it ends up in analogue form like AM or FM radio, it almost certainly originates digitally.

Text is written on computers and stored digitally; audio is recorded into digital recorders and stored as a series of ones and zeroes; nearly all television and film is recorded using digital cameras.

So it’s curious that today the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has felt the need to rebrand itself as the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

We’re told:

“The department has taken on significant new responsibilities in recent years, so that half of its policy and delivery work now covers the digital sectors – telecommunications, data protection, internet safety, cyber skills and parts of media and the creative industries.”

So it has decided to add the word “Digital” to its logo. It has also decided that instead of becoming DDCMS, it will remain DCMS. So that makes life simpler then. Not that it saves on stationery reprinting costs as the logo is changing.

It’s clearly arrant nonsense that because things like telecommunications and data protection fall under its wing, that it needed to add the word “digital.”

Everything is already digital!

Other things that DCMS oversees include gambling, the National Lottery, architecture, tourism and charities. Are any of them reflected in the department’s name?

“Digital” is simply an adjective, and an often superfluous one, that describes how the world works. Using it as a noun is actually confusing, because depending on where you come from, digital means different things to different people.

  • Talk to radio people, and digital might mean DAB, or it might mean streaming.
  • Talk to TV people, and digital probably means streaming, but could mean a broadcast platform (all of which are digital), or perhaps it might be related to workflow.
  • Talk to advertising people, and it means advertising on websites and in apps. Unless you’re talking to outdoor advertising people in which case it means those big advertising screens, or cinema people who use it to describe their ad delivery mechanism, and so on.
  • Talk to publishing people and it probably means anything that is not printed on paper.
  • Talk to creative people and it’s largely meaningless because nearly everything they do is already digital.
  • Talk to telecommunications people and they’ll probably stare blankly at you and ask you to be a bit more specific.
  • Talk to architectural people and they’ll explain that they’ve been using CAD and 3D software amongst others for years now.
  • Talk to the public and they’ll want you to explain precisely what you mean.

What one organisation means by “digital” is very different to what another means by it.

Because nearly everything is digital, the word has become largely meaningless. And that means it can actually be more confusing to refer to it.

Think about how much of health or education is digital. When there’s a virulent virus or worm that can bring down hospitals’ computers, is that an issue for DCMS, or is it really a matter for the Home Office, Department of Health or the MoD? Or all of them?

Digital has morphed from being a word that made everyone think of the future and define broader changes in society, and become an almost meaningless word that requires some kind of qualifier to allow someone to understand the context of its use.

And all of this is before you get to the missing comma in their new logo…

The Nightly Show

Before ITV launched The Nightly Show into the 10:00pm weekday slot I said that we should avoid comparisons with US late evening talk shows since contrary to popular belief, it’s not trying to be one, and we should hold off looking at the ratings until it had settled into something a bit firmer.

This kind of show will never hit the ground running. There will be teething problems and the show will have to learn what kind of beast it actually is. It’s completely naive to expect that it will come to our screens fully formed no matter how much piloting there had been prior to launch.

I’m not going to claim to have watched every episode thus far, indeed I’ve only watched a handful. But I think that now we’re a few weeks in, we can get a more reasonable handle on what it should and shouldn’t be doing.

The initial round of criticism came as much as anything from ITV’s choice of first guest host – David Walliams. It really shouldn’t have come as a shock that his humour is broad and a little rude. Had nobody seen Little Britain? He was never going to be making incisive political humour at the expense of Donald Trump or Brexit. Instead we had lots of pre-recorded bits where he dressed up as women, as well as some slightly underwhelming interviews. Martin Clunes is a nice guy, but they really needed a bigger name to launch the show. The problem with Walliams is that he’s not all that interested in having a talk with a guest. Instead, he’s always looking for the next gag.

That was completely different in week two, when John Bishop took over. He’s got more experience in this area having already recorded a series of long-form interviews for W, and is recording some more for a second series. His week saw him carry out a more conversational style presentation with interviewees including Roger Daltrey and Martin Kemp. These interviews ran on a bit longer too.

In Walliams’ final Friday show, he’d had Bishop on as a guest (this would become a regular thing, as hosts passed on the baton – literally a microphone unlike any the show actually used), and when Bishop listed his upcoming guests for the new run of his W show, it seemed to be a slightly more inspiring list than guests he had lined up for The Nightly Show the following week!

Actually, the whole piece was very meta with a tacit acknowledgement that week one hadn’t worked and Bishop being ever-so-slightly barbed in his criticism of the show.

Incidentally, at time of writing, that video has less than 2,500 views. On the show’s YouTube channel, many of the videos have only scraped into four figures. Only some clips featuring boxers seem to have found any traction.

A top tip to whoever’s running the show’s YouTube channel is to include some kind of description along with the video – one video simply has the word “amazing” in the description.

Another intriguingly says “Ant and Dec get a taste of their own medici,” while seemingly having nothing to do with the dynastic Florentine banking family.

I’d guess that not properly including descriptions really won’t help people to find the videos from a Google search.

The third week saw Davina McCall take over the reins, and there seemed to instantly be a return to week one, with a pointless 60 second quiz that David Walliams had tried in his first episode (it didn’t work then, and it didn’t work now), as well as lighter guest interviews that elicited little to nothing from guests Boy George and Vicky McClure in the first show.

There is no shame in a daily show like this burning through ideas. You try something; it doesn’t work; you move on. If something does work, then great, you can bring it back another time.

In a recent Radio Today Podcast, Danny Baker mentioned, somewhat in passing when talking about the Sausage Sandwich Game on his Five Live Saturday morning show, that Chris Evans would create fairly solid “bits” each week on TFI Friday, that would then get flung away permanently in place of whatever else floated his boat the following week. He was burning through ideas on a weekly show. For a daily show, you really need to keep delivering new ideas at a rate of knots.

The only difference otherwise I could see was the addition of an Ellen-style DJ booth to the set, although the DJ seemed mostly interested in displaying his Beats headphones than doing much in the way of DJ-ing.

By the end of the week, the show seemed to have become some kind of dating show, perhaps recalling Streetmate, Davina’s breakthrough show from the late nineties, with overly produced segments of first dates and dating stories. Mel C was a guest, but Davina was barely interested in the answers to her list of questions, and Mel had been much more entertaining earlier in the week on Alan Davies’ show over on Dave.

And simply reading unfunny gags from an AutoCue does not make for a monologue.

I admit that I was tiring by week four, when Dermot O’Leary came on. He’s a safe pair of hands, but this was light entertainment writ small. He had a pianist on for no obvious reason, and was just a bit average.

Wednesday saw a terrorist attack in Westminster, and ITV dropped the show in favour of the news starting earlier at 10pm. Running pre-news on the day of a tragedy is always going to be tricky, and over on Dave, they didn’t show Matt Forde’s show either that night (even though it had been recorded the previous day).

At this point you have to wonder how successful the show is commercially. Aside from the Amazon Echo sponsorship credits, I saw barely any actual ads in the centre break. And the audience figures have not been great, being heavily reliant on hits like Broadchurch to get anything vaguely half-decent.

In my first piece, I said that we should be careful making comparison with American shows, and I tend to be in agreement with Richard Osman who explained quite clearly on Radio 4’s Media Show that he didn’t think this was an attempt by ITV to replicate that kind of show, whatever everyone’s preconceptions are.

He said that he wouldn’t be presenting because it wasn’t that kind of show. It’s an ITV show and it’s on in peak, so in effect it’s an extension of the kind of shows ITV runs on Saturday nights. Indeed Kevin Lygo, ITV’s Director of Television, said himself in his Guardian interview:

“This is a sort of LWT version of ITV. It’s loud entertainment, high-quality drama, and fun.”

In essence, this is Saturday night ITV stripped across the week.

If you’re actually looking for something a bit more ascerbic – more John Oliver than David Walliams – then you should really have been looking at Dave on Wednesday nights, where the aforementioned Unspun with Matt Forde has been running. It’s overtly political, seemingly modelling itself on The Daily Show with “correspondents” and has the traditional band that many US talk shows have. Although MP4 includes three serving and one former MP, always left me wondering how they’re always available for studio recordings, until the week when the SNP’s Pete Wishart was late to the recording due to Parliamentary business.

What next for The Nightly Show? Well they have a few more weeks to go, with upcoming presenters including Gordon Ramsey, Bradley Walsh and Jason Manford (so one woman in seven announced presenters).

I think they do need to settle on a permanent host. Having someone different come in each week to mould a show around is just unnecessarily hard at a time when the overall show’s tone is still finding its feet. Being a guest host on something firmly established, like Have I Got News For You, is much easier. There’s less of a learning curve, since the guest host knows what’s expected of them. Even then HIGNFY regularly returns to the same guest hosts each series.

The Nightly Show desperately needs that stability, as otherwise it’ll veer around week after week.

I think they probably need a larger roster of writers too. You’re going to burn through material at quite a rate on a show like this – at least you are if you’re not going to let mediocre material make it to air. That means a large writers’ room with people vying to get material into each night’s show.

That also means that you won’t end up burning out your writers, while at the same time, it keeps the quality threshold high. With all the attendant criticism, it must be really hard to be a writer on that show and not doubt what you’re doing. It also probably means they take the safe option all the time, and that’s not what that show needs right now.

And I’d also suggest that if you’re picking someone, theoretically randomly, from the audience, it does seem strange that they’re sitting in a camera-friendly place, and they’re already mic-ed up.

There is a tendency too in UK TV criticism to want to see a show fail. I don’t mean a big drama. If SS-GB doesn’t hit everyone’s critical buttons then never mind. There’ll be another Sunday night drama along in a minute.

The critical column inches about The Nightly Show have not really stopped since the show began. And I realise that I’m contributing to them in my own small way. Of course part of that is brought on by the show’s format itself. Each week a new presenter means that there’s an excuse for a new critical appraisal. Is this week’s presenter better than last week’s? Remove that obstacle and the show can settle down a bit.

I suspect that News at Ten Thirty will stay in that position. Although ratings have been hit since the move, a stronger offering in the 10pm slot could help. I’m not convinced that’s 90 minute dramas incidentally. I would imagine that they’re incredibly hard to sell internationally for one thing. And they also demand a lot more from the viewer. But a few edgier sitcoms, and a panel show or two might work there. Shorten “Play to the Whistle” for example (60 minute panel shows are always overlong); move Harry Hill to that slot; actually try something a bit more political.

There is definitely room for some incisive satirical TV, and we really don’t have it on British TV. There’s Have I Got News For You, and that’s basically it. BBC Two has just announced The Mash Report (a working title) with Nish Kumar, which is indeed coming from The Daily Mash. Certainly this will be something to look out for.

RIP Steve Hewlett

Earlier today, the death of journalist and broadcaster Steve Hewlett was announced by Eddie Mair on Radio 4. He was 58.

Since September last year, when Hewlett had announced he had cancer, he’d been giving Mair a series of interviews describing his various treatments, struggles and trials. The interviews ran fairly regularly on Monday editions of PM, and were very revealing. Hewlett also penned a series of Cancer Diaries for The Observer.

I think I first came across Hewlett in The Guardian. He’d been writing media columns for paper’s Monday media supplement, and he’d appeared regularly as a guest on the Media Guardian Podcast with Matt Wells and John Plunkett. In 2008 he was “poached” by Radio 4 when then controller Mark Damazer started a specific media radio programme. Since then The Media Show became an unmissable appointment for anyone who wanted to follow what was going on in the UK media – from broadcast to print and digital. Hewlett covered it all in his stride, returning to stories when they needed ongoing coverage. For example, he gave regular voice to colleagues of the Al Jazeera journalists held and detained in Egypt, staying with the story until their eventual release. And of course he stayed closely on top of the repercussions of the hacking scandal and the Levison Inquiry, right through to the mess that is IPSO and Impress today.

He always got the best out of his guests, getting to the point and asking the important questions. He explained the issues for a wider audience, but never over-simplified things. The Media Show is mostly live, meaning that although he’d worked behind the camera in the past including famously as an editor of Panorama, he was having to learn the skills of a live production from a presenter’s perspective. Famously, he’d ask final questions to interviewees urging them to respond “Briefly…”

I didn’t know Steve myself. I once got in a lift with him at a hotel in Salford, coming down to breakfast at a Radio Festival. He had a producer in tow, since he was later going to be presenting an episode of The Media Show live from the Festival. I think he probably chaired a session as well. I think I made a poor joke and he smiled.

Yet I know I’m going to miss his insightfulness, his professionalism, his presentational style and his general demeanour.

If you’ve not already, do listen to today’s PM tribute. There were lots of tributes to Hewlett on Twitter, and Nic Robinson, himself a cancer survivor wrote this on his Facebook page.

Broadcasting and journalism are a lesser place without him.

RIP Steve.

Amazon Echo – A Longer Term Test

Amazon Echo

I bought my Amazon Echo on its official UK release back in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, but I thought it might be worth checking back in here to see exactly how I’m using it. Right off the top, I’ll note here that I use Alexa multiple times a day, every day.

The first thing I’ll detail is how I have my Echo(s) setup. My original Echo sits in my living room. In fact it rests fairly close to the television. But interestingly, because of the direction of the TV speakers, the Echo will still hear me even with the TV on in many cases.

But more recently I also bought an Echo Dot to go in my bedroom. I have a very old hifi system there which still sounds amazing and has a single Aux socket. Until buying the Dot, I had a Chromecast Audio device dangling from the socket, since Chromecast serves most of my audio needs. I keep music on Google Play Music, and apps like iPlayer Radio and PocketCasts both support Chromecast.

I was faced with a dilemma when I got the Dot though. I wanted the audio from that to come through my speakers as well, but I obviously didn’t want to be plugging and unplugging wires every time I wanted to switch device. A single Aux socket, with the device permanently switched to that presented a problem.

The solution was a small mixer. This might seem like overkill, but it allows you to plug two (or more) audio sources into a single auxiliary socket and hear audio from both sources at the same time. So I can play music from Google Play Music via Chromecast, while also checking the weather via the Echo Dot. The only downside is some extra kit (and attendant audio cables), and that my mixer has quite bright LEDs (I used some LightDims tape to darken them. Yes, they are expensive, but I’ve used them on a couple of gadgets around the house).

With two Echo devices, it’s interesting to see them work together. If I stand in my hallway, I’m within range of both the Echo in living room, and Dot in the bedroom. But the two Echo devices decide between themselves which one should handle the request, and the other will go silent. In practice, this means I don’t actually have to worry which device I speak to.

I’d be tempted to get a further device for my kitchen where I have a very decent DAB and BlueTooth equipped radio. A fullsize Echo feels like overkill, yet a Dot really needs an auxiliary speaker to function. We’ll have to see. And as I said in my original review, the sound from the Echo itself isn’t great, in that it’s not the best standalone Bluetooth speaker ever. It’s slightly perverse that my much cheaper Echo sounds so much better because audio from it is passed to a decent pair of speakers with good stereo separation. So music does sound good on it.

But how about some specific use cases?

Radio

There’s no getting away that the Alexa environment is fantastic for listening to the radio. It’s just so easy to say “Alexa, play Radio 4” or “Alexa, Play 6 Music” and hear the station at a moment’s notice. As I mentioned previously, the default radio service is TuneIn, and it can very occasionally get muddled, but in general terms it works well. I installed the RadioPlayer “skill” (adding “skills” is the means to adding specific additional functionality to Alexa, and something done through the Alexa app or website), but it’s unquestionably more wordy to say something like, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute Radio.” Yet, it is more likely to work.

At the weekend I asked Alexa to play TalkSport during a football match, and for some reason I got what I assume is TalkSport’s ex-UK streaming feed via TuneIn since it didn’t contain football. Going via RadioPlayer fixed it, although then I went back to the default TuneIn version and that seemed to be working too. Strange.

One thing you don’t seem to be able to do is simulcast radio (or other music) throughout your home on multiple Alexa devices. So if I start listening to the radio in my bedroom, I can’t seamlessly continue listening in my living room. I can start up a stream there, but it will be out of sync. In essence I have to stop the bedroom stream and start a living room stream.

I’m not aware that I can stream the same music throughout the home either. On the other hand Google Chrome does allow this, by creating groups of speakers you can send a single audio source to. And of course, this is famously a major selling point of Sonos.

I think that these Voice User Interface controlled devices will undoubtedly drive additional radio listening, since tuning into a station is so easy. But there is the qualifier that people need to know and remember your service in the first place. My DABs radios at home receive upwards of 120 radio services, and I can’t remember them all. I can browse them fairly easily though, and I might stumble upon something I like, similar to the way you might scan through stations in a car. With Alexa, you need to know what you want in the first place. That favours big brands.

Lights

This is the real game-changer for me. I have a Hue Bridge and bulbs, controlling the lighting in my hallway and living room, and it’s still wonderful to get Alexa to turn lights on and off. Hue allows you to group lights together as “rooms” or groups of rooms. For my set-up I have two lights in the “Hall,” and three in the “Living Room.” Together they are know as the “Flat.” But I do need to annunciate properly to get them to work. If I drop the “H” on “Hall” (I’m a north Londoner after all), it won’t work. Sometimes I concatenate “Flat lights” to “Flatlights” and that won’t work either. I just have to moderate my voice a little. But overall it’s wonderful.

Alarms and Timers

I realise that I’m using some very expensive technology to do something that a £5 Casio watch is quite capable of, but it’s still really nice to be able to say just before settling down at night, “Set alarm for 7am.” And for cooking you can just shout, “Set timer for 20 minutes” when you slam the oven door shut on something. I confess that it was actually an Apple Siri advert that made me realise I could do this!

I will admit that I’ve asked it on more than one occasion what the time is. Yes, I wear a watch. But no, it’s not always on my wrist. And when you’re rushing around in the morning, barking out a command to Alexa is surprisingly useful.

Weather

I use Alexa’s weather forecasting all the time. “What’s the weather?” “What’s the weather tomorrow?” Yes I have weather apps on the homescreen of my phone. And breakfast radio and TV is full of weather forecasts. But it’s nice to have, and it’s highly localised.

The only issue I had was with my precise location. In the app, you enter a postcode and that determines your location. I live in a town, but five miles up the road from me is a tiny village. For whatever reason, Alexa was convinced I lived in that village. Now the weather in both places will be identical, but having Alexa say, “The weather in Botany Bay is 5 degrees…” was just annoying. I ended up giving an alternative local postcode to get it to say the name of my town correctly.

News

I use Alexa a certain amount to give me the news headlines. There is now a reasonable selection of news in there from the default Sky News, to a selection of BBC national and World Service offerings.

The one thing I would say is that not everyone wants quite the same type of news. There is a world of difference between Radio 1’s Newsbeat and a BBC World Service summary. While at the moment, there is a reasonable range of offerings (try BBC Minute for something a little different), in audio terms, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sport

Sport remains a real shortcoming for the Alexa environment. When I first got my Echo, I was shocked to discover that the only British teams I could add as favourites were English Premier League clubs. What’s more, the only data that Amazon seemed to be taking was from the Premier League. No other clubs or competitions existed. And while we’re at, no other sport existed either.

Even very recently, when I looked again, there were no Championship sides, Scottish Premier League sides, or indeed anyone outside of the 20 clubs in the Premier League.

Looking today, I see that finally Amazon has added additional football clubs. A quick search suggests that there’s a pretty full range of football clubs that can be selected – right down to some non-league sides. But it still seems to be an exclusively football selection. I couldn’t find any cricket, rugby union or rugby league sides. I can’t find a favourite tennis player, an F1 team or track and field athlete either. Amazon at least needs to add other major UK team spots to Alexa to give a proper rounded offering.

They do at least seem to have more data sources that they subscribe to. I can get the latest Champions’ League scores for example – something that was missing back in September when I first bought the device.

A lot of work still required, and therefore I mostly rely on apps to deliver me accurate and up to date sports scores.

Music

Oddly enough, despite this being a killer application of Alexa, it’s probably the functionality that I’ve used least. You can choose from “My Music Library”, “Prime Music” and “Spotify” as music sources (curiously, they also list TuneIn in the app), while you can also have “Amazon Music Unlimited” (Amazon’s Spotify competitor) if you subscribe to it. Despite lots of imploring to give it a test-ride, and the ability to get a cheaper subscription for a single Echo device, I’ve not bothered. Similarly I only very rarely use the free Spotify service. My music is stored in the cloud on Google Play Music, and locally on a NAS drive. As a result, I mostly use Google Play Music via a Chromecast device to listen at home.

That said, I’ll occasionally try something from Amazon’s “Prime Music” offering. The problem is that I simply don’t know what’s in the Prime music catalogue and what isn’t. So rather than be disappointed, I’ll look elsewhere.

It’s worth noting that “My Music Library” is largely made up of any music you’ve bought via Amazon as either digital tracks or auto-ripped CDs. You are also able to upload a 250 tracks from iTunes which hardly feels generous. I can add a quarter of a million more for a further £21.99 a year. I’d be tempted were it not for the fact that Google lets me store 50,000 tracks free of charge.

The other thing to consider is that you need to know what you want to hear to launch it. That means remembering an artist, or playing a favourite playlist. It’s not so great for discovering new music or exploring the outer reaches of a music collection.

Bluetooth Speaker

I found it to be a fairly painless process to pair my smartphone with my Echo, and it will usefully let you switch that connection on and off by voice. “Connect to device,” or “Disconnect from device” will do the trick. The only thing I’m not sure about is how many devices you can set-up to be connected to an Echo, and more importantly can you make sure the right device is connected?

The advantage of having this connection of course is that audio that won’t work with Alexa can be played through its speaker. In general terms, I’ll still use Chromecast ahead of Alexa for this, especially since the speakers I have my Chromecast dongles plugged into, sound much better. But it’s nice to be able to connect.

Travel

Alexa is keen to get you to detail your commute so that it can provide travel information. But by default, it assumes that a “commute” is a car journey, and the only information it will give you relating to said commute is traffic information. That’s great if your commute is a drive, but useless if you use public transport.

The National Rail skill is an essential add-on for me. While navigating it to work out a specific train journey can be difficult, it is fairly straightforward to set up a commute. This results in me being able to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gives me details of the next two trains (with more available) from my local station.

There are also third party tube skills to allow you to check the status of your preferred London Underground line, and I’ve recently used Bus Stop which also uses the Transport for London API to query my local bus stop. Every London bus now has GPS and every stop a unique code meaning that TfL can generate real-time data for when your next bus will be at your nominated stop. Again, useful for timing departure from your home.

Now it’s not as though there aren’t mobile apps and websites that can give me all this data, but in the morning when you’re rushing around trying to leave on time for work, the voice interface is perfect for giving you up-to-date information.

Podcasts

In truth, I don’t use Alexa for podcasts. It’s not that it won’t play them. It will. However the selection is based on what TuneIn supplies. But for my personal use, I need an interface with PocketCasts which is my preferred podcasting app. I have both the Android and web apps, and between them, they keep me in sync with what I have and haven’t listened to. I can pause a podcast on my mobile app, and pick-up on a laptop. For me to use a podcast app on Alexa, it would need to take account of all of that.

If PocketCasts were to build an Amazon skill then I’d be there. But PocketCasts is paid-for software, and I’m not sure whether currently Amazon Skills can be sold, or whether the developer is working on something.

Other

I do wish the Alexa app was better. It’s slow to load – perhaps because it’s checking to see whether it’s in range of devices or not. And some key functionality is buried a little deep within the menu structure. For example, to change news sources, you have to go into the Settings. It’s not a top level menu item.

The addition of IFTTT was nice, and opens up a wealth of potential. However, so far, I’ve not used it properly on my device.

There are a number of really bad skills that you can install, and Amazon probably needs to do a slightly better job in highlighting useful skills and downgrading poor ones with limited functionality, often feeling like they’re the result of people hacking together personal tests.


Amazon Echo Speaker Grill

Alexa Summary

Amazon sends out a weekly email newsletter highlighting new skills or phrases to try. Sometimes these are themed, or include jokes, which is fun. The reality is that you will get more out of Alexa the more time you spend with it. You need to recall specific key words and phrases to get the desired results. It can be frustrating if you forget how to do something.

The key to having a good experience is for Alexa to respond in an appropriate manner to your request. If you have to think too hard about how to frame a question for Alexa, then you won’t do it.

It would be nice if Alexa had a more flattened structure. Currently it seems to work with a number of base level skills built in, but for more complex requirements you have to remember to invoke a particular skill.

So if I ask, “Alexa, how’s my commute,” it will ask me to set up my drive to work. I then have to remember to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gets me the response I wanted.

I’d like Alexa to intelligently realise that I invoke the National Rail skill far more than the similar sounding built in skill, and to therefore answer me with what I really wanted. Think of it as a kind of audio auto-complete.

And Alexa needs to understand context a bit better. If I’ve just asked one thing, then the next question might be in response to the answer I’ve just received. Outside of specific skills, Alexa treats most questions in complete isolation. Google Home does seem to achieve this better, allowing you to string a series of questions and answers together in a more natural manner. Speaking of which…

Google Home

We know that Google Home’s UK launch is around the corner. In many respects, from demos I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, the skillset of Google and Amazon’s devices are actually very similar. The difference is perhaps the backbone of Google Assistant which lies behind Google’s voice interface. It can use everything Google already knows about me to deliver more personalised responses. Google has a distinct advantage here. It already knows my football teams, the locations I travel to, the news I want to follow and my appointments calendar.

Furthermore, I’ve invested in the Chromecast ecosystem, and have my music on Google’s servers (Although I don’t pay for Google Play Music Unlimited, and as a consequence, frustratingly I don’t get all their playlists built around the technology they bought from Songza. This, despite that being available to US users.).

Maybe in time, I will transition across to Google? Google Assistant will be built into future devices. Whether it comes to my HTC10 (now running Nougat) I’m not sure. But I’m led to believe it will be coming to the Nvidia Shield which I use for a lot of streaming. But always listening microphones do come at a power cost, and excess battery power is not something many phones have right now.

Conclusions

What I do know is that I’m satisfied where I am at the moment, and Amazon’s technology works well, some specific shortcomings notwithstanding.

Do I have privacy concerns with all of this? Absolutely. If it were shown that either Amazon or Google was uploading audio outside of when I specifically asked it a question, then it would be leaving my home instantly. But they seem to have been good to their word thus far.

As I was finishing up writing this piece, I read two separate pieces from writers who think Alexa has been oversold: a very contrary view from a Forbes writer, and another from Quartz. Both writers are frustrated that Alexa isn’t smarter than it currently is, that it can’t understand language better, and that generally is should be better out of the box. Another complaint is that Alexa doesn’t handle context too well, and that you have to utilise skills properly to get the best out of Alexa. I agree with both writers on some issues, but to my mind Alexa is extraordinary out of the box. It’s certainly not a “glorified clock radio” as the Quartz writer puts it. It will clearly get better over time.

Addressing a couple of specific concerns: I’ve certainly had no issues with transport details – I use the separate skills that I noted above. More importantly I’ve not ordered nor accidentally ordered anything so far from Amazon with the Alexa. In fact, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly useful way to do shopping aside from a few staples – the kind of things I’m unlikely to use Amazon for regardless (Grocery shopping on Amazon in the UK really isn’t a great experience just yet, and I’ve got better options using a UK supermarket to fulfill such shopping).

Terms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) get bandied around far too much right now, when what they really mean is that the business is adopting algorithms to help with personalisation and the like. But beyond that, there is machine learning or deep learning, and that is meant when the term “AI” is used. But this isn’t AI as in the Spielberg film – autonomous thinking robots or whatever.

However the deep learning techniques do mean that speech recognition is improving in leaps and bounds, and the current range of devices should grow with it. The Echo, after all, is broadly speaking a speaker, some microphones, and an internet connection. While some work is done locally, the heavy lifting is in the cloud. These things will improve.

Five months in, and I’m very happy with Alexa, and use it a lot.

Celebrity RIP Tweets

We have just come through 2016, and for many, it won’t be fondly remembered. Election and referendum results notwithstanding, there were a number of deaths – often of people very much revered.

Today, when someone dies, we learn about it almost instantly. The news will turn up in social feeds. Alerts on our smartphones will tell us about breaking news.

And if you don’t personally get the news that way, it’s entirely probable that someone near you will hear it that way. Then you might switch to a 24 hour news channel or put on the radio.

We live in a continuous 24 hour news cycle.

The old idea of news cycles has long since gone. And that means that when something happens, we need instant analysis and reporting.

Yet the reporting of someone’s death can really grate with me. If the name is big enough – say, David Bowie – then everything stops.

Breakfast TV and radio that day was thrown over to rolling news and reaction to his death, with the announcement having come at around 7am UK time.

But actual details about the death are initially likely to be limited. A manager will have perhaps put out a brief two-line statement saying that the person died peacefully in their sleep, and that’ll be about the long and short of it. It’s possible that it was well known that the person had been ill for some time, or it might come as quite a shock – an unforeseen heart attack perhaps.

However, the media has hours of airtime to fill. Fans want to remember their heroes.

The first thing that reports of a celebrity death will include is quotes from their peers. And these now tend to come from social media – especially Twitter.

The problem is that it can almost feel like there’s a rush on for other famous, and not-so-famous people to have their say. Now of course, the democracy of the internet means that we can all have our say, and while another artist may have been friends and worked with the deceased star, someone else might have been inspired by that person, or perhaps just loved their work.

But in the media, he who shouts first, gets quoted first. So instead of a carefully curated collection of thoughts of those who perhaps we’d be most interested in hearing eulogies from, we get the thoughts of those who happen to be Tweeting soonest.

It can be as simple as whoever wakes up and hears the news first is the person who’s thoughts lead the news bulletins over the next few hours.

“Tributes have been coming in for Deceased_Star. Talent_Show_Winner said, ‘I always looked up to them. I was really proud that I was able to sing one of their songs in the semi-final of Talent_Show. They inspired me.’ Meanwhile Twitter_Loving_Comedian said, ‘It was a privilege to work with them at Charity_Event.'”

Well, thanks for that.

I’m not saying that the comments made by said famous folk aren’t heartfelt and don’t count. I can’t tell you whether someone is posting something on Twitter because it makes them look good and relevant that they comment, or whether it’s just an earnest tribute towards someone who was important to them in whatever way.

But at 7.15am there are scores of journalists scouring Tweetdeck looking for anything any famous person says. So a politician with a reactive PR person gets in early, but older and wiser people – who would previously either actually been called by a journalist, or released a statement via an agent – don’t get heard early on. (Read a great piece by Andrew Collins based on one particular Tweet here.)

I understand the difficulty on the other side of the fence. You’re a music journalist, and suddenly every broadcast outlet and newspaper is calling you asking you to either speak on air, or write 1,500 words for tomorrow’s edition – and needing to be online by lunchtime.

There’s a brilliantly funny story by ex-Word editor and Whistle Test presenter, Mark Ellen, in his book Rock Stars Stole My Life, who relates being called by broadcasters everywhere to comment on the death of Michael Jackson. The running gag was that Paul Gambaccini – seemingly always on top of every news producer’s contact list when a musician dies – was stuck in traffic in a cab.

But they’re journalists, and that’s to be expected. And anyway, I’m not really talking about them.

I’m talking about news reports that are full of basically random famous folk. Yes, the facts can probably be summarised in a couple of lines, but there are hours to fill! And so we get pretty much whoever’s available at short notice and whoever happened to hit Twitter first.

In due course, over the following few hours, a better selection of comments is gathered. Relevant friends and artists have their thoughts collected. And the TV channels stop using the same B-roll footage that they found on YouTube, archivists delivering much better quality, interesting and relevant pictures*.

* Although this is likely to be the subject of a future blog. Despite having a vast wealth of digital material at our fingertips, it’s disheartening how many television obituary packages seem to consist of badly captured and screen-grabbed footage. When Liz Smith died recently, ITV News’ obit seemed to consist of footage simply grabbed from the BBC iPlayer of a recent Royle Family reairing. Even allowing for this being over Christmas, surely a higher quality source could have been found?

Girls on Trains

That sounds a bit creepy.

I’m actually talking about the phenomenon that is Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train.

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It has been the book that everyone has been reading for the past year or so. Indeed, it if it weren’t for the fact that everyone watches iPlayer and reads Kindles, you’d have seen the book everywhere on public transport for the last year. I enjoyed it a great deal.

And earlier this year, it became a successful film.

the-girl-on-the-train-main-quad

I’ve yet to see it, and although some were disappointed that the location was moved from the UK to the US, there were good reviews of Emily Blunt in the starring role.

But if you go looking for the book, you might just end with something else, particularly on sites like Amazon.

For example there’s Girl on a Train by A J Waines.

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Now to be clear, this was published before Hawkins’ book. But the fact that Amazon labels it a Bestseller, and that it is claimed that over 250,000 Kindle downloads have been sold, might suggest that the author is benefitting from a similar title. More than one reviewer also notes that it was purchased in error. Of course many may have read it and may not realise that they’ve read an entirely different book. Both are thrillers after all, and Paula Hawkins probably still isn’t a household name. The covers are different, and as Waines came first, the title can hardly be construed as cashing in. Just a happy coincidence.

What if you fancied catching the film? I was in a supermarket earlier this week and what did I see but this:

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This is actually a 2013 thriller starring Henry Ian Cusack. It’s an indie film that played a few festivals and got a very limited US release in 2014. Yet last month, it suddenly gets a UK DVD release, seeing it get shelf-space in supermarkets! The new cover art has been cynically designed to mirror that of the book.

Even though Amazon has very clearly labelled the film “The Girl on the Train (Not the Emily Blunt Movie)” and has a note to customers that says, “Please note that this is not the 2016 movie based on the novel by Paula Hawkins and starring Emily Blunt,” it’s clear from the one star reviews that many customers have mistakenly picked up this title by mistake.

(There’s also a similarly named 2009 French film starring Catherine Deneuvre, which is based on a horrifc true story.)

Generally speaking you can’t copyright film titles, although the major studios tend to stay clear of one another. There are plenty of books with the same titles – particularly when you get to one word thrillers. And of course, a simple phrase like “The Girl on the Train” might easily pitch up repeatedly. Indeed both the film and the book that I’ve noted here came before Hawkins’ bestseller. And when a book is a massive seller, you can expect others to try to replicate their success. So look out for lots of books with the word “Girl” in the title.

It’s just curious that this particular film and book have such notable similar titles, even if one is prospering more cynically than the other.