Media

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.

41iogqrn2jl-_sx318_bo1204203200_

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.

51mcpvavmxl

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:

91k43aw4bel-_sy679_

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.

Diversity in Radio

portrait

Yesterday, two things happened.

I got an email from Sound Women telling me that the organisation will be closing down at the end of next year.

And I went to a radio and audio conference in London.

I’ll explain the link in a minute. But let’s just say for the moment, that I learnt a new word yesterday too: manel.

It’s sad news that Sound Women is closing, because I think it’s fair to say that it has achieved a lot in the five years of its existence. As their blog explains, it’s a consequence of time (of their volunteers) and resources that has led to the decision.

What’s clear is that while the issues raised by Sound Women have been tackled to some extent, that does not mean that sexism in the radio and audio industry is over.

The medium still has a lack of diversity, and when I say this, I include sex, race and social background. I trust that their legacy will live on.

I received the email as I sat in a London radio and audio conference – the RAIN Summit Europe – in The British Museum. Overall I like this event, and there are a good range of speakers including some really excellent ones.

Notably Megan Lazovick of Edison Research gave a really good talk about in-car radio listening. It included some frighteningly dangerous footage of drivers explaining how they used their mobile phones to stream audio while in the car (coming in the week that a truck driver was imprisoned for ten years after killing a family while using his phone). But there was some really good insight into usage in the car.

Then in the afternoon we got entertaining presentations from David Cooper of Spotify and Sam Crowther of A Million Ads.

But there was also this.

Yes – that’s a NINE person panel for a session. And all nine, plus the moderator, are white men from around Europe. I’d tell you what it was about, but I practically fell asleep as it was as interesting as watching a supertanker conduct a turning procedure.

This size panel does not work. Panels are generally not great at conferences unless they’re incredibly well focused. You can’t have a meaningful discussion with this many people in the room.

And if you are going to have a massive panel, or even a small one, couldn’t you have at least found ONE woman?

My Twitter feed taught me a new word at this point: Manel.

I don’t think Sound Women’s job is quite yet done…

Problems with News Video

Recently the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published its annual Digital News Report, authored by Nic Newman.

If you’re interested in the media, and particularly journalism in the digital age, then it’s an essential read. The report, which is supported by groups such as Google and the BBC, surveys 50,000 people across 26 countries about their digital news habits.

The report is available to download, with lots of additional resources like data tables and chart packs for deep-diving into.

I’m going to concentrate on one area of the report: video.

If you’ve been paying attention to news sites, and indeed digital media in general, there has been a lot more video in recent years. Social media and news sites more often than not playing videos by default, and spending money to push the platform. Video, the belief is, will grab users’ attention and drive increased readership.

And for the most part, this seemed like a sensible move. More people were watching more video as both home broadband and mobile 4G coverage improved. But with regard to digital news, there’s been a bit of a speed-bump on the road.

“One surprise in this year’s data is that online news video appears to be growing more slowly than might be expected. Across all 26 countries only a quarter (24%) of respondents say they access online news video in a given week. This represents surprisingly weak growth given the explosive growth and prominence on the supply side.”
(Page 19)

The real reason for the growth in video, beyond the perceived demand from users, is the higher advertising yields that can be achieved from video. Those pre-roll adverts, whether skippable or not, are worth much more than other display inventory which has not been the saviour that news organisations or others had hoped it would be. Something to do with infinite inventory I suspect.

News providers were positively driven to increase their volumes of video to meet revenue targets.

“Across our entire sample, the vast majority (78%) say they only read news in text or occasionally watch news video that looks interesting. Just one in twenty (5%) say they mostly watch rather than read news online. “
(Page 20)

And the reasons for this relatively low growth are pretty obvious. This chart is from the report:

newsvideos

I think those reasons – the first four in particular – chime with me, with the fact that I can read text quicker than watch a video being the chief one.

Yet frustratingly, more news seems to be appearing in video-only form. I read much of my news via the feedreader Feedly, and most news site’s RSS feeds limit what Feedly can see. That’s fine – whether coming from a feedreader, or much more likely, social media, news providers want to ensure they have strong branding and potentially monetise me with advertising.

But when I click through to a site and see a story that is only, or mostly, video, then I simply close the tab and click away.

Video really needs to add something to what I can read for it to be of true value. I’m not saying I don’t like video news – I watch TV news bulletins on a daily basis – but in a digital world, video is much more an interruptor.

– If I’m on the train to work looking on my mobile, I may be listening to music. Video puts that on pause so I can hear the soundtrack. Newspapers never forced that on me. I can read text and listen to music simultaneously.

– If I’m at work, then I can quickly scan a story to see if it’s important. With video I have to fumble around for headphones, or risk interrupting colleagues.

And video takes time. From hitting the play button to getting to what I want to see is not usually the best experience. Frankly, there’s nothing worse than a news provider who has built their own video platform (or bought one), and you just know it’s not going to be as fast-starting as, say, YouTube. You’re going to see a swirly “loading” graphic before an advert loads painfully slowly. At the end of the advert, there’ll be another delay as the actual video loads. 30 seconds of that before a video that’s only 45 seconds long itself doesn’t seem like a fair transaction.

Fundamentally, humans can read in their heads faster than someone can read out loud. So all things being equal, I’ll choose the most the most efficient way to get to the story. For the most part, I want to read stories not watch videos. I can quickly gauge how interested I am in a story from the text. Video is a hit or miss affair.

It’s perfectly true that some may prefer video, so by all means offer both video and text. But consider even making the transcript of the video available. As a friend pointed out on a social media, that instantly makes the video more accessible, and increases the search engine optimisation of what you’re producing.

Video is actually much more expensive than text – or text illustrated by photos – yet everyone seems to want to do it.

My suggestion is that unless video is a primary output of your organisation, I would use it sparingly. Produce only videos that really add something to the story. There are various groups who are adding text to videos and making them viewable without sound. Fine as far as it goes, but they tend to be relatively simplistic. You can’t delve deeper into a story that way, yet if I’m spending 2-3 minutes with a story which is what a video is demanding of me, then I expect to come out with a much richer understanding of the issues than I went in with.

Video is not the be-all and end-all, and news providers would do well to remember that.

Leading Questions

These are my own views, and do not represent those of my employer. Now we’ve got that out of the way, we’ll continue.

It’s fairly understood that depending on how you ask a research question, you can get different answers. In research terminology, questions that can elicit a particular response are called “leading questions.”

You see the same things in legal dramas all the time: “Objection Your Honour! The prosecutor is leading the witness!”

SurveyMonkey published a great blog on the problem last year with some good examples of leading questions:

“How short was Napolean?” rather than “How would you describe Napolean’s height?”

“Should concerned parents use infant car seats?” rather than “Do you think special car seats should be required for infant passengers?”

Sometimes leading questions can appear by accident, or through poor phraseology by whoever’s asking the questions. But other times, it’s deliberate. Perhaps a particular answer is being sought, and the research just has to back up a pre-determined view.

This week saw the publication of the White Paper on the future of the BBC under a new Charter.

Now I don’t propose to write too much about that here – it could all get a little heated and contentious. Buy me a pint or get me a cuppa if you want to know my views. But I do want to highlight some of the research that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published alongside the White Paper.

While research is always useful for a major piece of Government legislation, and indeed a research-based approach to legislation would be welcome, it was curious that the research that was commissioned was conducted in the first quarter of 2016 after nearly 193,000 consultation responses, 9,000 Radio Times responses (once the DCMS asked for the password), more than 300 industry experts and organisations had been consulted, and 9 industry round tabels had taken place.

Charter Review Timeline

But nobody can complain about additional research can they?

Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

Take this example question:

Local regional national

(The colours from left to right represent: Completely agree, Agree strongly, Agree slightly, Neither agree nor disagree, Disagree slightly, Disagree strongly, Completely disagree, Don’t know)

The question implicitly infers that because the BBC has radio stations, then commercial radio stations will not be able to get an audience. It’s binary. You either listen to the BBC or commercial radio. You can’t possibly listen to both.

That’s not an egregiously bad question, but it’s certainly poorly framed.

There are questions asked where it’s frankly impossible for a member of the public to fully know the answer. For example, is the BBC spending licence fee money efficiently?

Unless you work within the media sector, you probably don’t actually have much knowledge of this. Indeed, even within the BBC, you might need to be in finance to have a true picture.

You may have a perception of how efficient the BBC is with its money, but that might be tainted by anti-BBC press reports for example. Perception is important of course, but we need to be clear that’s what we’re measuring.

If your view on efficiency is based on disliking how much prize money is awarded on Pointless (a relatively trivial part of a single programme’s budget compared with studio and staff hire, etc), then you’re not really answering the question properly.

Distinctiveness is a key word in this charter. Some variant of this word is used 155 times in the White Paper by my count.

But how do you determine distinctiveness? Seemingly, you just ask.

Here are a pair of questions again about radio:

Radio Distinctiveness

And again they’re very leading. The questions infer the answer in the way they’re asked. The first questions seems to saying, “Radio 1 and Capital/Absolute are the same aren’t they?”

In spite of that, most people don’t actually know, because most people don’t listen to Radio 1. Now 10m people a week do listen, but 43m people don’t. The question wasn’t just asked of Radio 1 listeners, or Radio 1 listeners who also listen to Absolute Radio or the Capital Network. That would be a sensible thing to ask, since those people would actually be able to discern the differences. So the answers again come down to perception, perhaps based on no knowledge of the stations at all. And when does perception become prejudice?

The same of course applies to the Radio 2 question, comparing it with Heart and Magic. It’s asked of everyone regardless of their listening habits.

And of course all of this is before the reality of the differences between the services – a quick look at CompareMyRadio can help here on the simplest level – the range and overlap of music played by different services.

Now to be fair, I think most of the questions in this questionnaire were actually fine, and the results are pretty consistent with other responses. But when you see a few questions like that sticking out, it does make you ask deeper questions about the whole process. And when those findings are then used to frame key parts of the White Paper, you only question the process even more.

Satire, Parliament and Dennis Skinner

Commons

Last week Labour stalwart Dennis Skinner was ejected from the House of Commons for the rest of the Parliamentary day for calling the Prime Minister “Dodgy Dave” during his statement on his father’s off-shore affairs to Parliament. The Speaker, John Bercow, didn’t like it, and Skinner was forced to leave.

Skinner regularly entertains with his witty and acerbic comments, so this wasn’t out of character. In this instance, Skinner had a particular interest in the subject and had confronted Cameron on it previously.

What’s interesting is how the news was later reported beyond the day’s news reports.

On Friday, Have I Got News For You covered it, pointing out that Parliamentary rules prevented them from showing clips on a satirical TV programme. They instead used an “artist’s impression” as shown above.

Now I’ve written about this issue before – here in 2009, and again in 2011.

As the licences to use material from Parliamentary coverage make clear:

no extracts of Parliamentary proceedings may be used in any light entertainment programme or in a programme of political satire;

This is despite some changes in copyright legislation which, to my non lawyer’s eyes, would seem to be at odds with them.

So it was slightly surprising to sit down and watch Monday night’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on Sky Atlantic, originally transmitted by HBO on Sunday evening, and see footage of Commons, lifted from the BBC’s website, and used by Oliver for, well, satirical purposes!

skinner

Of course in the US, they have separate copyright rules and restrictions, and they don’t have to adhere to UK rules. Fair Use probably applies, and so the footage was used. And programmes like this, The Daily Show and many others, regularly use C-SPAN coverage of US government business to illustrate their stories. Only the Supreme Court remains off limits to cameras (Oliver has notably used a “court” of dogs to illustrate exchanges, alongside audio recordings which are allowed).

I was slightly surprised to see that Sky Atlantic didn’t edit that segment before UK broadcast however, since it does seem that they’re in violation of Parliamentary rules. I wouldn’t be surprised if a trimmed down version is used for any rebroadcasts, although at time of writing the full unexpurgated episode is available on Sky Go.

It’s a ridiculous rule of course, and the point is that the footage is widely available.

Last month Rupa Huq MP, sister-in-law to Charlie Brooker, requested that it was lifted, but her request was denied by Chris Grayling MP, leader of the House of Commons.

As Brooker is quoted is the Telegraph as saying, “”Have I Got News For You can’t use clips from the House of Commons, whereas This Week can – with funny music dubbed on top.”

And of course, you can very easily view the footage, including Skinner calling Cameron “Dodgy Dave” on at least two occasions before he was required to leave the Commons by the Speaker for “Disorderly Conduct.” Here it is on the BBC website for example.

I can even go ahead and make an animated GIF of it!

giphy

But for goodness sake, don’t let the footage end up on a satirical television programme in the UK. Whatever would happen then?