TV

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.

BT/UEFA Rights Deal

08 March 2009

Last week, BT Chief Executive Gavin Patterson was reported as saying that “rampant inflation in sports rights” had to end.

Today we learn that BT is going to pay £394m a season for UEFA Champions’ League and Europa League rights from the 2018/19 season, up from £299m a season under the previous agreement.

By my calculation, that’s a 31.8% increase over three years.

What was that about “rampant inflation” again?

BT’s new deal also includes all rights to highlights, meaning that there won’t be any TV highlights on ITV. Instead, BT will share free highlights in social media.

Hmm.

And of course UEFA is going to an 1800/2000 GMT/BST structure on Champions’ League match days, meaning lots of UK residents will still be at work or commuting while matches are taking place, as already happens with the Europa League. Oh good.

Prior to this deal being announced there had been lots of rumours in the press that UEFA advertisers were unhappy with the loss of free-to-air coverage.

One estimate suggests that being a tier one partner of the Champions’ League costs $70m. There are eight main sponsors of the Champions’ League (Heineken, Mastercard, Gazprom, Sony, Nissan, PepsiCo, Adidas and Unicredit), and if we assume that they all pay the same, that’s $560m a year in sponsorship revenue (Approx £460m).

UEFA’s calculation is that £100m more for UK rights is worth it, set against £460m of pan-European sponsorship revenues, and any reduced reach for those advertisers within the UK market for their premier competition.

This feels like a very short-term deal.

There is a quote in BT’s press release that says:

BT will enhance its social media coverage to reach new audiences, by making clips, weekly highlights, UEFA’s magazine show, and both finals available for free on social media. BT streamed both finals last year on YouTube for the first time, taking the number of people who watched BT’s live coverage of the finals to more than twelve million. The company will also seek to bring the best of the action to its large mobile customer base.

That suggests that only the final will be made available free. Everything else will be behind a BT paywall. No BT Showcase any more. There’s the possibility of BT sub-licencing some matches to another channel, but absolutely no guarantee they will.

I’ve examined the 12m number before, and it is to be regarded very carefully indeed. First of all 12m is not 12m different people – it’s the sum of the Champions’ League audience and Europa League audience. Football fans being who they are, that’s a lot of the same people who watched both matches.

And as I mentioned in the previous article, BT is using “reach” rather than the more usual “average audience” to get as big a number as they can. Last week 3.45m watched a one-sided FA Cup replay between Man City and Huddersfield. 3.45m means that at an average of 3.45m watched the entire broadcast from 1930-2200. Audiences aren’t constant, and once Man City were well ahead, audiences drifted away to other programmes. Other people turn on late and perhaps watch the last half an hour. Overall, at any given point in the entire match 3.45m were watching. But BT is using a reach number – the number of different people who watched any of the game. This is necessarily bigger. And it’s not a number that would normally be bandied around by a broadcaster when talking about viewership of their shows.

Finally, without a great deal more information we can’t be sure what the 3m YouTube component of the audience really means. First of all, the Champions’ League final had 1.8m views, meaning the Europa League must have had about 1.2m. YouTube registers a view when someone watches as little 30 seconds. So this almost certainly doesn’t mean 1.8m or 1.2m watched the entire match. And again, many of the same fans will have watched both matches.

Digging into BT’s YouTube channel doesn’t seem to surface the complete live videos any longer. There are just highlights packages. There are a couple of short videos with several hundred thousand views each, and it’s not clear if these were once the live streams (I suspect they may have been), or just incredibly popular promo videos, but either way, we need to be careful what we’re counting. Interestingly, the CL promo has around 470,000 views while the Europa League promo has over 600,000 views. If they were the live streams, then that doesn’t total 3m.

To be fair to BT for one moment, a single YouTube view does not equal a single viewer. Many will have been streaming to smart TVs with sizeable numbers potentially watching. But online video views can be a murky business, and the methodology is completely different to the BARB measurement for TV, meaning combined audiences figures should be treated with tremendous caution.

I suppose in the end, I find it incredibly disappointing that either a single match isn’t made available to ITV, C4 or C5, and that highlights are removed from TV altogether. Saying that you’ll make highlights available in social media is a nice addition, but shouldn’t replace a broadcast channel. Many older viewers in particular will struggle to see footage now. It’s the elderly and poorest in society who don’t have access to the internet for streaming and the devices necessary to enable them.

UEFA clearly doesn’t care about those viewers. BT will pay more for complete exclusivity, which they now have. And if you either can’t afford BT, or don’t have the means or ability to watch their social streams, then tough luck. No European football for you.

If this were any other sport – I’m looking at you, cricket – you’d question the ramifications for the future of the sport by striking this kind of lockout deal. But this is football, and the major competitions are always likely to be important.

The only tiny bit of hope is that Karen Bradley, Culture Secretary, recently talked of “future proofing” listed events like the World Cup. Would free-to-air Champions’ League highlights ever be included in that list?

Incidentally, if you were in Belgium, Germany or Italy, you’d be able to see, at minimum, the finals of the Champions’ League or Europa League of a home club reached the final, because of rules regarding listed events in those countries.

A 32% increase in fees? This time next year, the next Premier League TV deal will be being announced. I bet over in Gloucester Place, the Premier League is rubbing its hands in anticipation of next year, unless BT and Sky reach some kind of appeasement in respect of their relative positions in the TV football marketplace.

More “rampant inflation” to come?

[Later] An interesting piece in The Guardian about BT’s need to win these rights following a fairly miserable year for them. Although I would make a couple of points:

  • Only in football could a 32% increase in rights fees be considered to have cooled a little. BT drove the last round of increased fees by making a knockout bid. This time, they’ve still paid a substantial premium at a time when Sky “…did not look to submit a knockout Champions League bid.”
  • The Guardian piece notes that Sky is paying £11m a game under its current deal compared with £1.1m a game for BT’s UEFA deal. But that’s not really a fair comparison because Sky’s Premier League games are not all played simultaneously. In the group stages there are sixteen matches per round, spread over two nights. Even with two timeslots a night, that means at least three out of four matches will be behind a red button. And you can only watch one match at a time. Even watching the “goals” show, it means that a Tuesday evening is costing £8.8m for BT in rights fees. Sky only schedules a couple of simultaneous games on the final day of the season if there’s something to be played for. Yes, there’s “Super Sunday”, but you can watch both games.

In Advance of The Nightly Show

This evening, ITV launches its big new entertainment gamble – The Nightly Show. They’ve taken over The Cochrane Theatre near Holborn, and for the next eight weeks they’ve also taken over The News At Ten’s slot. (Recall, this is the slot that only a year ago, the then Media, Culture and Sport Minister was wondering if the BBC should vacate to let ITV have an unimpeded run. Hmmm.)

There have been four weeks’ worth of pilots, and the USP of the show is that it will have different guest host presenters each week, beginning with David Walliams tonight. John Bishop and Gordon Ramsey are also lined up.

I confess that I’ve heard a couple of slightly off-putting things in advance of the show. There’s the suggestion that it won’t be especially political, which is odd in these political times. In an interview in The Guardian today, Kevin Lygo, ITV’s Director of Television is reported as saying:

‘”It’s not satire with a capital S,” he says. “They’ll poke fun at the news in a broad way, just as most chatshow hosts do.”‘

With a hope that they create lots of viral videos, it feels like it wants to be more James Corden than Samantha Bee or John Oliver.

But you have to set that against a time when we’ve got Brexit, May, Corbyn, Farage, Trump, and right-wing nationalism across Europe. While I wouldn’t necessarily suggest bringing it back (they already tried to an extent with Newzoids), Spitting Image was nothing if not political.

So I wonder if hidden camera japes and audience surprises are quite right? In any case, don’t Ant & Dec already do that with aplomb on Saturday nights?

Interestingly, in the US, Stephen Colbert has recently been overtaking Jimmy Fallon for the first time, with the suggestion that it’s because he’s taken a more political line following the election of Trump. Colbert comes from a background of devastating political satire on Comedy Central; Fallon ruffled Trump’s hair.

I also think we need to be bit careful making comparisons with some of these US shows.

Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel all air at 11.35pm on the coasts, not 10.00pm as The Nightly Show will. James Corden and Seth Myers air at 12.35am; long after any sensible person with a job has gone to bed.* This is also why producing viral videos like Carpool Karaoke segments is so important for Corden and his peers.

Calling a show that airs at 10pm a late-night show, is not just misleading, it’s wrong. Upwards of 10 million people are still watching UK TV at that time.

It’s also worth noting that the biggest chat show failure of recent times in the US, was when NBC gave Jay Leno a nightly 10pm slot for a while when he stepped down from The Tonight Show (before booting out Conan O’Brien and dropping Leno back in at 11.35pm, in a particularly unedifying moment in US late night TV show history). Arguably that was a different type of show, and the TV landscape at 10pm in the US is very different to ours.

However, one thing is clear. This show will undoubtedly take a bit of time to find its legs. So tomorrow’s overnights, which will be eagerly pounced upon, along with those of its leadout show, series three of Broadchurch, should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

As for the pushing back of The News at Ten – which becomes simply The ITV News, no doubt without the bongs – I would suggest ITV simply settles in that slot on a long term basis. It then won’t compete directly with the BBC, and at 10.30pm there’s no reason why both a more analytical Newsnight on BBC2, and a more mainstream ITV News can’t exist simultaneously. The downside for ITV is that on really big news days, the ratings for the BBC Ten O’Clock news will soar, while late local news bulletins and football highlights will take ratings hits.

* In the central timezone, these shows are on an hour earlier. But the over 60% of the US population gets these shows at the later time.

Sneaky Pete

I only seem to write about television very occasionally these days. I suspect I struggle because there’s so much to catch up on at any given time, there’s no time left for writing.

Sneaky Pete is a new series from Amazon Studios provided free to their Prime customers. The hook as far as Amazon is concerned is that the series comes from Bryan “Breaking Bad” Cranston and David “House” Shore. To my mind, the most important behind-the-camera talent is the executive producer, Graham Yost, who has most recently been responsible for the excellent Justified, and also excellent The Americans. He actually took over Shore as showrunner when the pilot, originally ordered by CBS, moved to Amazon. As a result, the pilot has been around on Amazon’s service for 18 months now, ahead of the series finally arriving.

Marius (Giovanni Ribisi) is a con-man completing a short prison sentence for holding up a bank. His cellmate, serving a longer sentence, is Pete. Pete endlessly refers to his idyllic childhood, boring Marius to tears. But we soon learn that Marius had attempted to con Vince (Bryan Cranston). So instead of returning home, where Marius remains $100,000 in hock to Vince, he decides to head to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he will impersonate his former cellmate Pete.

Family relations had long broken down, and Marius/Pete now thinks that he might be able to score some cash from the wealthy Bernhardt clan, led by Audrey (Margo Martindale).

Can our fake-Pete convince the family that he is who he says he is, inveigle his way into their home, and then raise the money he needs to save his brother Eddie (Michael Drayer) from Vince’s clutches?

Along the way, we meet the dysfunctional Bernhardt family including grandfather Otto (Peter Geraty), and cousins Julia (Marin Ireland), Taylor (Shane McRae) and Carly (Libe Barer), who work in the family’s struggling bail bonds firm, the local police or are a troubled school child.

In some very limited ways, this does remind you of the set-up to the very different Banshee in which a new sheriff was impersonated in a small north-eastern town.

The real hook in this series is that Pete is a con-man, and we see him thinking on his feet, stealing wallets, phones and watches to further his cause. I’m a complete sucker for this kind of thing, loving the references to The Spanish Prisoner, the mark, long and short cons, convincers, ropers and inside men. I will happily watch any series or film that plays out like this.

The real problem, though, is that so many of us have seen The Sting, Grifters, House of Cards or Hustle, that it’s hard to do something genuinely different. So Sneaky Pete is not about a con-of-the-week setup. Instead we have someone utilising their confidence trick skills to keep their head above water, and one or two larger cons playing out over the ten episode run of the series.

In particular, you have some well drawn characters who don’t always behave the way you expect them to. Police officer Taylor is shown to be a bit of a clown earlier on, but he’s not really anybody’s fool, and Marius/Pete’s relationships with some of the previous women in his life isn’t as one dimensional as would sometimes be the case in this kind of series.

Cranston really only has a supporting role in this series, but he’s properly nasty as Vince, while Ribisi seems to inhabit the role of a confidence trickster perfectly. Lots of faces are familiar from other Yost series, including the peerless Martindale, Julia’s ex Lance (Jacob Pitt) and Vince’s lover and ex member of Marius’s gang, Karolina (Karolina Wydra).

The series does a nice side in colourful supporting characters. I’d have liked to have seen more of Marius’s parole officer James Bagwell (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) who drives around listening to motivational tapes, and categorising his parolees as “eagles” or “shitbeards.” Michael O’Keefe is wonderfully sadistic bent cop, and Virginia Kull is great as Katie, who’s trying to lead a normal life, but kinda still loves the thrill of the con.

Alison Wright, familiar to fans of The Americans, shows up as another confidence trickster, Marjorie. I confess that when I heard her accent, it seemed to be the one duff note of the show. Was she trying to British? Perhaps Irish? I couldn’t place it. Whatever it was, I thought “She needs a dialect coach.” Then I realised that Wright is actually British (from Sunderland), and that was her real accent. Ah.

The series concludes nicely but ends in a way that lets them go straight into a second series, and Amazon has wasted no time in renewing it which pleases me a lot.

Hans Rosling – Forming His World View on Facts; Not Feelings

In my recent RAJAR piece, I made reference to the sad news that Professor Hans Rosling had died.

Rosling was a Swedish professor of global health, and had found fame in a series of videos and programmes – notably beginning with a widely shared TED talk – that elucidated stories behind data in a way that made that data understandable. And he did this remarkably well.

Over the weekend BBC Two repeated Don’t Panic – The Truth About Population, which if you haven’t seen it, is well worth spending some time with. Some of your preconceived notions and worldviews will be shattered.

Then at the start of this week Tim Harford presented a really superb special edition of More or Less on the BBC World Service to remember Hans. It included memories of the man from people who knew him and worked with him, as well as excerpts from some of the programmes he’s made over the years.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

In particular, I went to watch the live broadcast of a programme Rosling contributed to on the spread of Ebola in west Africa, and the ways in which it was combatted. Extracts appear in the special edition of More or Less.

Towards the end of the episode, there was a very powerful moment when producer Ruth Alexander, recalled visiting him at home at the end of last year. Rosling had appeared a number of times on More or Less, and made other programmes for the BBC. He’d still been keen to do another interview, even though he was very ill at the time with pancreatic cancer.

Alexander: “He said to me, ‘Please will you carry on this in your future work?’ And I think what he meant was, will you carry on looking at the facts, forming your world view and reporting on the state of the world based on facts. Not feelings; not what you think is probably true. But what is demonstrated by the facts and the statistics before you.”

Presenter Tim Harford agreed that this was a challenge to all of us.

YouTube-ing

YouTube is a wonderful thing.

From music, to how to’s, to clips from films and TV, to game walkthrough’s and a myriad of thousand other subjects.

But I confess, that I’ve always struggled with the “YouTubers.”

Now that’s not to say that there aren’t personality-driven YouTube videos that I watch. There are the guys at the Global Cycling Network for example, who put out new videos on a very regular basis. Or the photographic programming that Scott Kelby produces.

I suppose it’s really vlogging that leaves me stone cold. While I’m undeniably well outside the age-bracket that these channels tend to target, the relentlessly upbeat and seemingly perfect worlds feel like nothing more than a sugary-sweet US kids TV sitcom.

Two things brought this into sharp focus over the weekend.

The first is the beautifully observed new BBC Three short form comedy, Pls Like. Written by and starring Liam Williams, it’s told in mockumentary format, with “Liam” trying to win a £10,000 competition organised by James Wim (Tim Key) of “Beam” (definitely not to be confused with any similar sounding talent agencies).

Only the first episode is up at time of writing, but it’s so on the mark, that it’s unmissable.

Having watched that video, you might walk away thinking, “Yes, it’s an excellent pastiche, but people aren’t really like that are they?”

It was in this state of mind that I was trying to learn more about Super Chat, a new YouTube initiative for live videos. Essentially this is the ability for commenters to tip video makers – the sort of thing that happens a lot on Twitch. To explain how it works, I watched the following video. This is a real video, and not some kind of arch Black Mirror-esque piece.

It’s the whole hyper-hyper, ring-lighting, primary-coloured, “interesting”-background, fairy-lights, sugar-to-the-max nature of these things that I can’t fathom. It feels similar to the effect of force-feeding a five year-old two litres of full-fat Coke, and their own body-weight in Haribo, in quick succession, before running amok in the John Lewis lighting section.

I fear I’m no closer to understanding the appeal.

Discovery and Sky Do a Deal

[A follow-up/continuation of the piece I wrote the other day about the fallout between Sky and Discovery in the UK and Germany.]

On Sunday morning there was an epic final at the Australian Open. Somehow the top 8 men’s players in the world conspired not to make the final, and we got a “throwback” final of Rafa Nadal (9) v Roger Federer (17). The last time these two played in a final together was 6 years ago in Roland Garros.

The match duly ran into a tense and exciting fifth set, with Federer coming out the winner after some amazing points played at the highest level. The match was broadcast on Eurosport (a channel owned by Discovery), and no sooner had the final point been scored, than the Eurosport commentator was reminding viewers, via a prepared script, that in the next few days Sky viewers would no longer be able to watch this channel and others in the Discovery portfolio, and that viewers should either phone Sky or contact them on social media.

As it happens, viewers can now breathe a sigh of relief. Late on Tuesday, a deal between the two companies was agreed, and the channels did not go off air at midnight last night.

Quite who “won” isn’t too clear with reports that both sides claiming victories of sorts.

Set against this was the background of Fox trying to take full ownership of Sky at the moment – something that Ray Snoddy notes in his piece about the affair.

The dispute broke into the open last week, with Discovery setting up a specific site (which some Sky broadband customers reported to have had trouble accessing), and Sky hitting back with pages on its own site suggesting alternative programming that Sky provides.

Over the weekend and for the last few days, there was also a blitz of press advertising from Discovery and Sky, presenting their cases with various levels of implied aggression.

In the UK, we’ve not really experienced a lot like this. Perhaps the biggest channel carriage fallout was between Sky and Virgin Media, which saw some Sky channels, including Sky One, removed from the platform.

Of course, Sky continues to limit access to its Sky Atlantic channel, meaning that its not viewable on Virgin Media, BT TV or TalkTalk TV.

The availability of Sky Sports channels was also messy for a while. Ofcom used to force Sky to provide Sky Sports 1 and 2 on a “wholesale must-offer” basis. That meant that any provider could offer Sky’s channels at a fixed rate (a rate that might be lower than Sky was selling the channels itself). That stipulation was removed in 2015, but it’s notable that on BT TV, only Sky Sports 1 and 2 are available. Whereas Sky Sports 1-5, Sky Sports News HQ and Sky Sports F1 are all on TalkTalk TV. While football, cricket and rugby tend to be on SS1 or SS2, other events might easily float over to other channels – particularly at busy times over the weekend. More recently Sky has launched Sky Sports Mix, which is Sky exclusive although it rarely shows fixtures that aren’t on other Sky Sports channels.

But returning to the now resolved Discovery/Sky dispute, were there really any other options for either side?

When you enter the world of multi-channel paid-for TV, you enter the world of bundles. You don’t agree to take Sky or Virgin Media, and then carefully list the channels you’d be interested in subscribing to. Instead you’re presented with various bundles with different channel line-ups. Premium movies or sports channels are then offered on-top of this.

For example Sky currently retails the Sky Variety bundle for £32 a month (prices and bundles vary the whole time, but we’ll go with this value). They say that includes 373 channel (11 being HD channels), of which 250+ are free-to-air. In other words, you’d get those 250 channels anyway with a basic satellite decoder regardless of having a Sky subscription.

So there are somewhere around 100+ premium channels some of which you’re probably interested in, and they are all getting a proportion of that £32 a month. Sky obviously keeps a cut itself for running the service and its own channels. Beyond that are channel providers that do deals with Sky for some of their offerings. UKTV, for example, will offer channels like Alibi and Gold (neither of which are on Freeview) for a set price a month; ITV has ITV Encore; Viacom has a range of channels including the MTV family and so on.

One channel provider might offer both free-to-air channels and pay channels. UKTV offers Dave free, but Alibi on a paid basis. Discovery itself offers free-to-air Quest, mostly repeats of shows that have previously aired on their main channels. You probably do get bigger ratings for making a channel free, but you have to fight for advertising revenue to make it pay. It’s a fine balance. Subscription revenue is more certain, and if you do a good deal with the likes of Sky or Virgin Media, then the channel ticks over financially on its own.

When you go free-to-air, each channel you make free has to survive on its own accord. While you might try to force advertisers to not be able to buy Dave on its own, but also have to advertise on, say, Drama and Really, it’s a slightly tougher sell. The advertiser might only be after the young male audience that Dave provides.

But when you go down the paid-for route, it certainly makes sense to bundle your channels up. Discovery bundles the various Discovery channels (+1, DMAX, Shed, Turbo, History, Science), along with TLC (and its sister channels), Eurosport 1 and 2, and Animal Planet. Some of these get decent ratings, and have real investment in them (Discovery, TLC, Eurosport); others tick by largely on repeats (Shed, Turbo).

The platform operator has to decide the right mix of channels for the right price. How much of that £32 a month should go to Discovery for its bundle of channels? The operator will consider the importance of the channel (Is a must-offer channel that might mean its subscribers cancel and go elsewhere?), its ratings, investment in the channel (Are they making desirable new programmes and promoting them, helping make the platform better?), and the overall value to consumers. They also have to think about their bottom line.

The channel provider will naturally think their offering is more valuable than the platform does, but they usually hammer out a deal between themselves. Remember, there’s only £32 in total to go around, and that has to pay for some other overall costs as well.

And that’s what this battle has been about. It hasn’t been reported what Sky is paying for Discovery’s channel offering, but I’d guess that it could be anything from 50p to £2 a month per subscriber. To put this in context, in the US, the channel group with the highest monthly subscription fees is ESPN with a reported $7.21 a month of cable bills going to this channel. Unlike the UK, where premium sport is only paid for by those who choose to buy it, ESPN gets less per subscriber, but vastly more subscribers pay it by virtue of the channel being a “must-carry” on nearly all cable households.

During the hurly burly of the Sky/Discovery disagreement, there were a few suggestions made by Sky about how Discovery might monetise its channels:

  • Send channels free-to-air and rely solely on advertising revenues
  • Retail the channels itself via the Sky platform
  • Transform the business into an OTT offering

None of those works easily.

Free-to-air Ad Funded

All these channels already take advertising. Indeed, Sky’s own advertising division, Sky Media, sells Discovery’s advertising. Remarkably, while channel carriage discussions were breaking down last autumn, Sky Media, the advertising side of the businesses actually renewed a long term agreement with Discovery Networks.

But it’s likely that advertising only accounts for perhaps 50% of the channels’ revenues. While going free-to-air would mean that channels would be available in more households, Freesat homes and perhaps expansion onto Freeview, it’s not at all clear that the additional advertising revenues this availability would bring, would make up for the subscription shortfall. In turn that might see less investment in Discovery’s channels, with some of the smaller channels almost certainly needing to be closed down.

It should be said, however, that UKTV has grown its business very successfully by taking channels free-to-air. Dave, Really, Drama, Yesterday and Home have driven their business by being or going free-to-air.

Retail the channels itself

Think of this as the BT Sport solution. Market the channels directly to consumers, taking the revenues without Sky acting as an intermediary.

BT went down this route because they wanted a direct relationship with their customers. But they were in a uniquely strong position in the first place. Their original play was aimed at retaining BT customers who might have moved their phonelines and broadband to Sky or other providers, and so they were starting from a massive customer base. Then they offered an initially free BT Sport service. Stay with us or move to us, and get the channel free. They already had a large billing facility to manage the service. Customers could relatively easily add BT Sport to their channel mix, either on BT’s own platform, or via Sky. And they can market the channel easily – bombarding BT customers with email and direct mail explaining the offer.

The other thing BT had was killer programming. And I don’t mean Shark Week. They had Premier League football, and some decent games at that. Retailing the channel themselves has worked well for them.

But few others try this. There are a handful of specialist sports channels that manage this – Premier Sports and BoxNation spring to mind. But again, they are able to target a specific interest group directly. You want to watch lots of boxing? Subscribe to BoxNation (Although notably even BoxNation has now done a deal with BT).

For Discovery, this is much harder. They’d need to develop a whole new subscription team, and market the channels heavily. While Eurosport could probably reach cycling and tennis fans relatively successfully, the more general interest nature of Discovery is a much harder sell.

In short, this would be an expensive gamble, persuading viewers that they should phone-up Discovery and spend an additional £2.99 a month or whatever to subscribe to their channels.

The OTT Offering

The other route is to sell directly as a streaming service. Offer the linear channels, but also boxsets of programmes, making them available through various digital platforms. In essence Discovery already does this with the Eurosport Player.

If you don’t have a premium TV subscription, then you can pay monthly or annually for access via the Eurosport website or app. Remember, something like 40% of UK television households are Freeview only. So there’s definitely a market to be tapped if the price is right.

Again, that works for sport better than a general entertainment channel.

Summary

Only those in the room will know what really happened, but I would argue that Discovery was between a rock and a hard place. It would have been colossally disruptive to lose its main channel distributor in Sky.

On the other hand, Sky is definitely looking to reduce costs, since it simply can’t place the full 83% increase in Premier League rights fees it’s now paying solely on Sky Sports subscribers. Other parts of the business have to take part of that cost. And this is before we consider the upcoming next round of UEFA Champions’ League rights which if Sky tries to win back, will place an added cost burden on Sky.

Being seen as a “bully” probably also isn’t a good place to be right now for Sky as it seeks regulatory approval for its takeover.

That all said, it’s not clear that bundles are here to stay forever. There seems to be a movement – especially in the US, for “skinny bundles” – a lower subscription featuring a handful of core channels, and then buying “a la carte” services on top. There are “cable-cutters” and “cable-nevers” – those who cancel cable subscriptions, and those who never took one in the first place (especially millennials). They just want to buy HBO for Game of Thrones or whatever.

It’s all certainly a concern for ESPN who can no longer bank on all 100m+ US cable households each paying $7.21 a month for their channels. And if you’re not interested in sport why should you?

Yet buying each channel/subscription separately quickly mounts up. A US subscriber in an OTT world might buy Direct TV Now for a basic selection of streaming channels starting at $35 a month. They might also pay for Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. They add HBO Go for a few more dollars. And then beyond that there are things like CBS All Access if you want the upcoming new Good Wife and Star Trek spin-offs/series. You might expect similar offerings from NBC or ABC in the future. There’s also the forthcoming BBC/ITV BritBox. And only this week we hear that Walter Presents will also be available to US subscribers.

$2.99 here; $5.99 there. That’s a lot of TV that all adds up very quickly.

One way or another, resolution of the Sky/Discovery dispute means that Sky viewers are able to continue to watch Idris Elba: No Limits on Discovery. Which is as well, because Elba is also the marketing face of Sky, and it would have been kind of awkward when he’s plugging the new Sky Q box, that his series wasn’t available to Sky viewers.

Personally, I’m left having splashed out £20 for Eurosport Player before I learnt of the dispute’s resolution. As it turns out, this wasn’t really necessary. That said, that app gives me a number of additional streams that mean I can often watch sports action live, when TV will only be showing highlights later on. So perhaps it’s a fair investment.

Sky/Discovery Carriage Dispute

Channel carriage disputes are relatively rare in the UK, but we’re in for a sizeable one right now, with Discovery publicly stepping forward and saying that from the end of this month, Sky subscribers may no longer get access to a Discovery channels. It seems that the two companies have been unable to reach agreement on how much Sky pays Discovery from the subscription fees it collects from viewers.

Sky says that it has overpaid for Discovery’s channels for years.

Discovery says that it is now paid less than it was ten years ago. They claim Sky is playing hardball because of its Premier League rights inflation.

The whole dispute has become very public, very quickly. I noticed that during the BBC’s reporting of a Venus/Serena final in the Australian Open at the weekend, there was already a crawl along the Eurosport footage they’d lifted.

Discovery has set up a Keep Discovery website, and their social media outlets are alerting followers to the dispute. This is straight out of the US-playbook, where such tactics are common and often go public. Sometimes they’re quickly resolved; but other times they go on for years (In Los Angeles there is ongoing dispute between Time Warner Cable who own SportsNet LA with exclusive LA Dodgers coverage, and the major cable companies who actually reach customers in the area. As a result, most locals have been unable to watch local basseball coverage for at least three seasons now.)

Meanwhile, Sky has also added a section to its customer service website.

While I’m not sure how long discussions have been going on, this must have been a while. I know this because sometime around October last year, I completed a Sky customer research survey in which many of the questions seemed to be about how much I valued Discovery’s channels, and whether I’d continue as a customer if I lost access to their channels.

A few thoughts on this:

  • I’m sure Sky is trying to save cash after its record breaking Premier League rights bid. While they’ve not passed full costs onto consumers, they’ve clearly cut back in places, reducing coverage of some sports, and cutting overheads where possible. They do continue to invest in original programming however.
  • According to BARB, in December 2016 the Discovery Group had a 1.69% share of viewing. But this includes Quest, a free-to-air channel which is potentially unaffected by this dispute.
  • Discovery is clearly investing in Europe. It took full ownership of Eurosport in 2015, and has also bought a large swathe of exclusive European Olympic rights beginning in 2018 in some territories.
  • Sky announced a 9% fall in operating profits today as a direct result of their increased Premier League costs.
  • This is not just a UK affair. The disagreement extends to Sky Deutchland as well.
  • Eurosport calls itself the “Home of Cycling” and it does indeed carry vastly more cycling coverage than any other channel. This ironically means that the Team Sky cycling team (fully owned by Sky) will be largely invisible to Sky TV viewers post the 31st January if the dispute is not resolved. At least until the Tour de France which is also carried on ITV4.
  • My favourite FAQ on the Sky site is: “I regularly watched Eurosport. What can I watch on Sky instead?” To which the answer seems to be Premier League football, rugby union, cricket and rugby league. None of which is much use if I actually wanted to watch cycling, downhill skiing, tennis or snooker. Sky Sports and Eurosport UK have almost no sporting crossovers!
  • When live sports are affected, it’s not uncommon for viewers to look for “alternatives.” These aren’t always legal. If your favourite sport goes off-air, and you’re not willing to change TV provider, that mate who’s mentioned how easy it is to set up a Kodi box and pull in illegal feeds, might open your eyes to how easy piracy is. And that doesn’t help any sports TV channels. Why pay if you can get them free?*

In the meantime, do I pay £19.99 for a year’s subscription to Eurosport Player? It’s on sale until 31st January when the price reverts to £59.99? It works with Chromecast. Paying would be hedging my bets. And if the channels do disappear, then a conversation with Sky’s retention team might see me recouping that cost.

* I’m not advocating this, but it must surely be a temptation.

Grand Tour

We’re several weeks into Amazon’s megabudget Top Gear remake, “Grand Tour,” and you can’t fail to have noticed it has arrived. There have been ads everywhere from the sides of buses to TV, and of course, all over the front page of the Amazon website. Even Amazon’s packaging covers their grinning faces right now.

We’ve even managed to have a “presenter says something stupid” story, with mild-mannered Richard Hammond somehow implying that eating ice cream as an adult is “gay.”

Cost estimates for the new series vary wildly, but what’s clear is that a lot of money has been spent on this series.

And yet, I confess I’ve been utterly underwhelmed by Grand Tour so far.

They’ve got a lot more money, but I’m not sure they’re spending it wisely.

They’ve been hopping around the world for, well, basically no reason at all. After a few long-haul outings in the US and South Africa, they’ve stayed in Europe. But apart from a seeming product placement deal with DHL (does that PP logo need to appear in the UK streaming world?), there seems little to no point. In South Africa they managed a single short feature in which James May watched a bunch of locals do donuts, while he didn’t do any himself.

And, er, that’s about the extent of it.

Look, I realise that the bulk of the show is made months in advance, and these are just the last bits, providing an over-arching narrative to otherwise unrelated features. But really, what’s the point?

Is it really only that they have to use a tent, and can’t broadcast from a single location because that infringes the BBC’s intellectual property?

The car features are basically the same as Top Gear’s.

They’ve got a UK track to test cars and time them – the same as Top Gear.

There’s a new racing driving who does now speak but is basically a new Stig – the same as Top Gear.

We don’t have “The Producers,” instead “Mr Wilman” sends texts. That’d be Andy Wilman, the show’s producer, reinventor of Top Gear with Clarkson, with whom he went to school.

The only thing they don’t seem to have is the star interview. Instead they have a “joke” sequence that has already got very boring very quickly (along with a “drone crash” at the start of each episode).

Then there are the awful attempts at comedy. The worst of these must have been a singularly unfunny section segment the RAF with the USAF.

There are other gags, and they’re totally laboured. It feels like nobody has the ability to reign in the stars and say, “Look, this isn’t funny. We’re dropping it or editing it out.”

And I’m really disappointed that they’ve not tried to do a few more different things. If you’re going to dart around the world, do it for a reason. Do some new features that make use of your locales.

Yes, we want the presenters’ chemistry, but what we’ve got is a version Top Gear that’s as close as possible to the original without infringing the aforementioned IP, but with much more money thrown at it. And not for the better.

I’ll be honest and say that I never watched Top Gear for reviews of supercars. They were easily the dullest.

I wanted silly challenges, races, and journeys. The presenters were never that funny, but I kind of thought they knew that. Yet now we seem to be getting more of their “comic” turns.

It feels as though they’ve been given a massive amount of cash and allowed to do what they like with no Amazon interference. Indeed I suspect that’s exactly what has happened.

Sometimes a network keeping you on track is actually useful.

Their two-parter in the Namib desert was better, although a seasoned watched understands that they’re never in the peril they claim to be.

But overall I don’t think they’ve stretched themselves creatively, and indeed I think they’re just coasting doing more of their usual act. It’s not that this is a terrible series – it’s still well made and looks great.

But given the freedom and budget they have, I expected better.

In the meantime, James May’s The Reassembler on BBC Four is probably a better watch.

Radio Times – Boxing Day 2016

So you’ve made it through to Boxing Day. Assuming you’re not hitting the shops for the sales, or off to some sporting or outdoors activity, you’ll be settling in at home looking for more entertainment.

Here are my choices and anti-choices for Boxing Day from the Radio Times.

As ever, click the link below to see a larger-scale photo.

Boxing Day TV

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Boxing Day TV 2

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Boxing Day Radio

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