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.

RAJAR MIDAS – Winter 2016

It has been a while since I’ve properly looked at RAJAR’s MIDAS survey, and it really does bear some close attention because it gives the most accurate picture of audio consumption in the UK right now.

As a reminder, MIDAS is a separate survey to the main RAJAR measurement, in which over 2,000 respondents are asked in detail about their audio listening habits by platforms, location, device and who they’re with.

It’s there to provide additional listening information and generally add ‘colour’ to the main RAJAR survey. Over time it allows some tracking in behavioural changes.

The full dataset is only made available to RAJAR subscribers, but RAJAR publishes a very good summary, and this provides plenty to get stuck into.

The key measure is Audio Share – the percentage of time spent listening to various types of audio. This is also known as “Share of Ear”, although I believe this is trademarked by Edison Research who carry out similar research in this area in the US.

Of course, simply saying “audio” is too simplistic because, for example, watching YouTube music videos is undoubtably a competitor to traditional audio sources for some audiences. So MIDAS does measure video as well as audio, although in most of the charts below, visual media has been excluded.

Share of Audio % (excluding visual)

The topline results show that live radio accounts for 76% of all audio consumption. The next closest category is digital music (downloads) at 9%. To put this in context, here is how radio’s share has performed over the most recent MIDAS surveys:

Careful examination of this data would seem to suggest a few things:

  • Radio remains vastly important in the audio world. While the last couple of MIDAS releases showed it declining a touch, it seems to have bounced back this time around. I’d be surprised if it didn’t fall some more over time since there are such strong radio competitors. But there’s still only one gorilla in this room.
  • Online Music Streaming (OMS in the above chart – e.g. Spotify, Apple Music) is growing. They seem to be growing as digital music tracks and CD listening is declining. Do you pay 99p at iTunes for a track or £9.99 a month for as much as you like? Consumers are shifting towards the latter.
  • Listen again is growing a bit, while podcasts remain static. The latter in particular definitely suggests something different in the UK, from say, the US.
  • Vinyl and cassette is basically static (although the graph doesn’t really show that it was at less than 1% at the start of the period displayed). You can safely treat all those news stories about vinyl’s resurgence as the hyperbole they truly are. Yes, a few albums are being sold as nice to have items, but in the scheme of things, they don’t amount to much in behavioural changes.

Now this chart doesn’t show the whole story. As I say, only RAJAR subscribers get the full dataset of MIDAS, but RAJAR publishes different aspects of the data in each release. And this time around they’ve published the demographic breakdown of listening. Indeed I think some of this has been presented at the Salon de la Radio in Paris over the last couple of days.

This shows some really clear differences by age group.

  • 15-24s spend 51% of their time listening to the radio (the green bar above) compared with 88% of 55+’s time. Radio is still the clear leader, but in time spent listening there is a competitor on the block.
  • Online Music Streaming is vastly more popular amongst 15-24s than other demographic groups. 15-24s spend 21% of their audio time on these services. This drops to just 9% for 25-34s and right down to 1% for 55+. This is as clear a behavioural change by age as you’re likely to see.
  • If you’d asked me to predict which age group spends the biggest proportion of their time listening to CDs, I have definitely said it was an older group. But in fact, the actual biggest group is 15-24s! Are they borrowing others music, or perhaps they can’t yet afford a Spotify subscription?
  • Podcasts are most popular amongst 24-34s, spending significantly more time than other age groups.

One thing to be careful of is that these are percentages within each age group. It’s important to note that overall volume of time spent listening will be different by different groups. So amongst CD listening, 5% off 55+ listening might be significantly more hours than 6% of 15-24s (the data doesn’t let us see).

What will be interesting to see is future growth of streaming. While there are free/bundeled streaming options – notably Spotify, or Amazon’s free offering for Prime members – there is surely a top limit to those prepared to pay £9.99 a month for music? There are ways to reduce the cost including family plans and logins shared with others; and some will happily bounce around different services taking advantage of free three month trials, creating new disposable email accounts as necessary. But continued growth within the UK market still isn’t clear.

Hours isn’t the whole story of course, and it’s worth looking at reach too. That shows that usage is much closer for most of the platforms. So while 90% of 55+ listen to the radio accounting for 88% of their listening, 82% of 15-24s listen to the radio but it accounts for just 51% of their listening.

Audio Reach % By Age Group

A couple of other charts. Ever wonder what people are doing when they listen to the radio?

Live Radio by Activity

Most radio presenters will recall being told to broadcast as though they were speaking to a single listener. There’s a good reason for that. A slight majority of radio listening is done alone, although this changes for younger listeners who listen more socially.

Live Radio by Who Listened With

Other things of note:

  • While most services are split evenly by sex, podcasts are notable for being significantly more male than female – 61% v 39%.
  • While laptops and tablets are used a lot for live radio, on smartphones the majority of use is for digital tracks and on demand audio.

There’s more in the original presentation which you can download on the RAJAR website.

Source RAJAR/IpsosMori. Sample 2,191. Conducted November 2016.

“We’ve Updated Our Privacy Policy”

Occassionally you get an email with the subject line above. It’ll be from some digital service provider that you use. The company has made some changes, and is letting you know.

I got one of these yesterday. The essence of it was: “We’re making some changes for [REASONS] and we’re just writing to let you know. Please take some time to review the new policy. Thanks!”

Of course they know you’re not going to do that.

But the company has discharged a legal responsibility.

What do you mean you didn’t read the 5,000 word document they linked to? Well it’s your own fault.

How about this? If you make changes to your privacy policies, you explain the broad changes to users in straightforward language.

A recent report, Growing Up Digital, detailed issues facing todays kids in a digital world. Within it was a great rewrite of Instagram’s terms and conditions. They normally run to 5,000 words, but a lawyer from Schillings rewrote them as a one page summary in language applicable to not just kids, but just about anybody. It’s on page 10 of the report. You might want to check it out if you use Instagram.

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.

Fen Drayton Lakes

At the weekend I was out in Fen Drayton in Cambridgeshire making use of some good weather to take some photos of the landscape and big skies. The area is easily reachable by taking the Guided Busway from Cambridge in the direction of St Ives. Only a handful of buses run along the route, but it also has a nice cycleway, used for commuting into Cambridge, taking social rides, and for general fitness (there are a lot of joggers on it too).

Looking North Along the Great River Ouse near Fen Drayton

Looking Over Fen Drayton Lakes

Before the Sun Sets

NB. I do consider issues surrounding flying a drone near a nature reserve – avoiding mating times, and for the most part staying very high to minimise my impact. (Indeed this site is close to an airfield that probably has considerably more impact on the wildlife). I also flew from public areas rather than the reserve itself. On the day I flew, I suspect that whoever was very nearby with their shotgun was the bigger issue.

Tube Strike Day

An all-out London tube strike seems to be quite a rare thing these days. While individual lines can be affected, or a percentage of services disrupted, the full network doesn’t go down all that often.

But today is one of those days when nearly the entire network has stopped working.

For many it’s a question of whether or not they actually need to be in the office. “WFH” or Working From Home is much more common these days, with many able to work one or more days away from their workplace on a regular basis. A laptop, mobile and internet connection, and you’re all set.

It certainly felt that many must be doing this when I started my commute on a Great Northern train. Aware that people who might otherwise use a tube may travel over to use the national rail service, I was prepared for crowds. But in fact the carriage felt slightly emptier than usual.

The train did fill up though, and by the time we reached Finsbury Park – where hundreds usually disembark – we were instead joined by locals who were looking for a train onwards to King’s Cross. Ordinarily my trains would head underground from here, by way of Drayton Park, and into Moorgate. But those are all shared Underground stations, and therefore they were shut. So trains were all redirected to King’s Cross.

This had the knock-on effect of our train becoming a bit like planes circling Heathrow in a landing pattern at a busy time, patiently awaiting a slot. There are 12 platforms at King’s Cross (Platforms 1-11 and, of course, Platform 0), and they’re ordinarily pretty full. Adding dozens of local commuter services into the mix isn’t easy to manage.

From King’s Cross it was more chaotic. I calmly unfolded my Brompton and then had to navigate hundreds of nomadic commuters, looking lost in an unfamiliar place, and with their noses buried into Google Maps on their smartphones as they worked out their onwards routes.

If you’re a black cab, mini-cab or Uber driver, you’re on duty today, and the roads outside King’s Cross were jammed up with cabs. A long queue of people snaked back at the taxi rank, but it was the weight of traffic rather than lack of cabs that kept the line stationary.

Crossing the Euston Road from King’s Cross without using the underpass is pretty fraught at the best of times. But with the tube station shut it appeared that the underpass was closed as well. Crossing the road means navigating as many as four sets of traffic lights – all separately. Cars have the priority here, not people. My fellow cyclists and I had to use the combined might of all our bells to stop people walking into the road when the lights turned red for pedestrians and ours green.

Many may have hoped to use hire bikes. TFL have upped the number of docks around King’s Cross of late, but they were all empty when I passed, all the spares kept in a nearby warehouse having been hired out. There were still a few bikes temptingly sat in their docks, but as you got nearer, a tell-tale red light showed that they were damaged in some way and not working.

The back streets of Bloomsbury are well suited to cycling, but wayward pedestrians meant there was a constant requirement to “keep your wits about you” as then Mayor Boris Johnson once said untruly of Elephant and Castle.

Walking whilst simultaneously reading your phone is a bad mix at the best of times.

Cars and other motor traffic were less of a problem, for the most part because they were all stationary. I would imagine that for the most part walking rather than taking a bus or car would have been the better bet today.

Some people still took a few too many risks – either because they didn’t usually cycle, or were impatient and late for work. That doesn’t really excuse playing chicken with a car when you’re on a bike. There’s only ever one winner in that game. And nipping behind a reversing lorry, as I saw several do, isn’t too smart either.

If you had managed to pick up a hire bike, you had one further issue – full docks in central London.

Broadly speaking, bike hire commuters come in from a ring around outer London, and dock their bikes near their workplaces in the middle of town. The reverse then happens in the evening. TFL try to manage this by shifting bikes around and freeing up spaces as necessary, but there’s a natural equilibrium usually reached – just enough central docks to manage the commuters. On a day like today, everything is disrupted. I was seeing people looking lost and confused at full docks, vainly attempting to find somewhere with space. A colleague had to travel to Regent’s Park, a good half an hour away, to find somewhere to dock his bike.

At work, talk was about how people “beat” the strike. Walking, for the most part. Someone mentioned their partner paying 4.8x “Surge pricing” on Uber. I bet most of that trip was spent stationary too.

BBC London posted a video that perhaps showed why driving around London doesn’t work:

The population of London increases by 10,000 every single month.

(It’s at 8.7m up 469,000 in four years.)

That explains why we need increased and greater diversity in our transport. Roads get clogged instantly with motor traffic, so that doesn’t work. Cycle lanes do work, and there’s scope for a massive increase in the number of cyclists on the roads. But we could also do with more secure parking facilities.

That’s also why Crossrail is essential, and we need to get a move on with Crossrail 2.

It also means that petty squabbles over who runs London’s transport are ridiculous. One organisation – TFL – needs to be in charge of as much of it as possible, whatever our cyclist-hitting Transport Secretary thinks.

Days like today remind Londoners how much transport is on something of a knife edge in keeping the city working.

Instax Share SP-1

In the back of my fridge is a packet of Polaroid 600 film. Polaroid stopped making it back in 2009 and it’s well past its sell-by date. At some point I’ll find a good reason to shoot this last packet. At the point that Polaroid fell by the wayside, it felt as though that was an end to instant film. Certainly there was the Impossible Project, a group who tried to remake Polaroid films, and have indeed managed and continue to sell it. But it’s very expensive, and seemingly a bit more temperamental than the tried and tested original.

But in fact, Fujifilm has been making their own Instax cameras and accompanying film for quite some time now. There are two formats the Wide and the much more common Mini. And they continue to make cameras that can shoot these formats. Despite the growth of digital, and the reduction in the overall range of film that Fujifilm continues to sell, the instant range seems to remain quite vibrant in the market, with regular new camera releases.

For a while now, I’ve been tempted into buying one of these cameras. But do I really need another camera?

I’ll get to the answer of that shortly.

Earlier last year, Lomography ran their latest Kickstarter for the Lomo’Instant Automat. I’m never quite clear why a company the size of Lomography needs to use Kickstarter to get what to me look like “sure things” off the ground – but that’s their regular business model, so I’ll leave them to it.

I didn’t put up any money because for a while I’ve owned an Instax Share SP-1. It’s simply a printer for your phone rather than a camera itself. So instead of going out and buy a new social camera (because let’s face it, these Instax cameras are aimed at social occasions rather than, say, landscape photography), why not employ your current camera and utilise that? More than likely, that’s the camera in your phone.

Furthermore, because you’ve already taken the photo and decided that it’s fit for printing, you don’t have the wastage that you might normally get. It’s true that part of the fun of instant photography was never knowing what you’d get exactly. But with the SP-1, you’re getting something new and different.

There are other advantages too. You can use the full range of image editing software that your phone has at its disposal. So if you like to you use Snapseed, Flickr, Photoshop, VSCO, Pixlr or whatever, you can make the amends before committing your picture to print. And you can make copies! Gone are the days when only one person got a copy of a Polaroid. You can either print multiple copies of a picture, or the device actually has a button on it that will print a duplicate of whatever it last printed.

Instax Mini paper is fairly widely available, at around £15 or so for two packs of ten pictures online. That means about 75p a picture. Certainly not cheap, but not beyond the realms of what’s reasonable.

You use the instax SHARE app on your phone to do the printing – Android and iOS versions are available. The app has various editing functionality itself, as well as the ability to overprint other information and use various templates. I didn’t bother with either, just using the app to print. It actually connects with the printer via WiFi rather than Bluetooth, and in my experience it connected flawlessly, with my phone happily switching between my home network and the printer as required.

The photos get sent through pretty fast, and the printer takes just a handful of seconds to spit out a print. A set of lights on the top of the printer shows how many images are left inside.

The pictures themselves take a Polaroid-like few minutes to properly develop. Indeed, the full richness of the photos doesn’t come through for quite a few minutes after printing. My suggestion is to put your pictures aside and return to them a bit later.

And whatever you do, don’t “shake it like a Polaroid picture,” as Outkast famously sang. When someone did that with one of these pictures with me, I found that the colours were a lot more faded than they should have been, and because of the nature of the photos, the “enclosure” slipped a little meaning there was a black bar down one side of the resulting picture.

Be patient and put them down somewhere.

The printer runs on a couple of CR2 lithium batteries which are rated for about 100 prints. I’m in two minds over this, since on the one hand it means that when you pick up the printer after a while it will probably be charged, on the other hand, disposable batteries wouldn’t appear to be the way forward. Overall, I’ll take the convenience of knowing that the printer is charged over the need to charge it in advance.

(Incidentally, I have previously used the Polaroid Pogo printer, which used Zink technology. I bought mine very cheaply when Polaroid discontinued them, although the principle of that printer is very similar, and the prints became very cheap with online suppliers practically giving them away. However holding a charge from repeated Bluetooth connectivity became a real issue, and the need to charge the printer before use on any occasion removed a lot of the spontaneity of using a device like this. So maybe the certainty that the printer holds charge whenever you decide to grab it is a big plus.)

So is it worth getting? Well, I think it’s your best bet for an instant camera right now, with all the benefits of your phone’s camera (assuming that’s any good) with the fun of instant photography. And let’s face it, far too few of your digital photos ever get printed.

A purist may complain that it’s not really proper analogue photography the same way it would be if it was a proper camera. But I was more than happy with it.

Whether all of that is worth £140 to you is a question that only you can answer, but I really like mine!

[Note: I originally wrote this review some time ago. I’ve revised it a little, but the SP-1 has now been superseded by the SP-2. The key differences seem to be a lack of direct WiFi camera to printer connection (I never used this, always going via my phone), and the inclusion of a rechargeable battery which is a good thing.]

GIFs

I really don’t like GIFs.

Nobody even seems to know how to pronounce the word.

Or rather, I don’t like the way they’re used most of the time. They’re incredibly lazy, and just seem to take out of context “hilarious” emotions or actions.

I think my real problem is they scream “look at me!” When I read an email that has a GIF in it (and Gmail will play GIFs), then the gurning face in the GIF detracts from the words around it. I find myself scrolling to get rid of the animations.

In that regard, they’re like auto-playing videos. And nobody likes them apart from advertisers – even though everyone who sees an auto-playing advert instantly curses it.

I realise that I’m probably on my own a bit with this. But I’d just ask that the makers of Gmail, Tweetdeck and so-on include switches to turn the animations off.

A Tale of Two Ferries

I thought I’d document a few of my more interesting rides from last year. So here’s one I made over the August Bank Holiday weekend.

The ride is a circular route starting and finishing at Colchester railway station. You quickly leave Colchester and head north into Dedham Vale where there are both a few hills and some stunning scenery. Climbing out of Higham, and leaving Thoringdon Street and Raydon behind, you then head towards Ipswich.

The route through Ipswich is fine, and there are the usual city-centre cycle routes to follow which aren’t terrible, but aren’t too great either. On balance the signposting is slightly better than normal. There is a section of busy road leaving Ipswich that isn’t easily avoidable, and then you cross over the A12 (never a fun road), to head towards Woodbridge.

You’re not far here from Sutton Hoo, which is well worth a visit. But this time around, I cycled on along a fairly flat road in the direction of Butley. Here I encountered plenty of other cyclists, and this part of the Suffolk coastline is well catered for cyclists. I also really began to feel a headwind, which had become a bit of a nemesis since I’d turned east in Dedham Vale.

Eventually the road drops down to Orford itself, a small village nestling above a key. I’ve visited Orford a few times before, and if you’ve never been, a trip across the water to Orford Ness is a must. As well as being a nature reserve, there’s also all the remains of the military presence, especially from WWII, when lots of monitoring took place here. A fantastic and unique place.

I stopped for some food in the village, buying snacks from the busy village store. Then I retraced my route a few miles before heading south towards Butley and Felixstowe Ferry. This was the first of my ferry crossings, where a small ferry runs across the estuary of the River Deben. They happily take bikes and there were small queues on both sides of the river to make the three minute crossing.

The area is full of yachts, and there are plenty of places to stop for a bite to eat, but I back on land, I was heading a few miles south and into Felixstowe.

I’d never visited Felixstowe before, and that was largely because I thought of the place as a major port and not as a tourist destination. Yet clearly that’s not the case. The coast here is geared up entirely to holidaymakers and daytrippers with all the amenities and attractions that you’d expect in any seaside town.

It’s true that at one end, tall cranes tower over the town, but even the sight of a container ship heading into the North Sea doesn’t dampen the place’s spirit.

I was heading to the southern end of the thin peninsula, with tourist attractions eventually giving way to industrial units and security fences. Even though I’d checked in advance, there were no signs advertising a ferry service, and the best I could see were signs for Landguard Point and Customs House. The road ended with a car-park, and a fort which housed a museum. There’s also a very smart café with views across the estuary. Discovering that I had just missed the hourly ferry, I settled into the café for some very reasonably priced drinks.

The Harwich Harbour Ferry runs between Harwich, Felixstowe and Shotley, crisscrossing the area around the docks where the Stour and the Orwell meet. This is where the container ships come ashore, with the vast cranes to unload them. The small ferry easily accommodated my bike and those of two other cyclists who were returning to Harwich having spent a few hours in Felixstowe. The landing in Felixstowe is a little more precarious than at either of the other two stops, with the need to board direct from the stoney beach rather than pull alongside a harbour. Nonetheless it was handled easily and we were soon crossing the harbour, passing yachts and heading towards Harwich where my I got off.

I was now in the home stretch. And the headwind I’d suffered earlier was now magically a tailwind. The A120 is the direct route from Harwich to Colchester, but that was a major road, with I suspect, a lot of heavy goods vehicles running along it. Fortunately National Cycle Route 51 runs a little south of the A120 and takes you through pleasant Essex villages on a parallel but much quieter track.

Only right at the end did I depart the cycle route, and wended my way through Colchester in search of the train station.

This is a nice solid day ride, with lots of opportunities to stop and do interesting things, for the most part on pretty quiet roads.

My Strava measurement below, unfortunately shows a straight line along the coast where I must have accidentally turned off my Garmin. But the route above shows the way I went.

The trip could be made a little shorter by starting and finishing at Manningtree, but you wouldn’t then head through Dedham Vale which would be a shame.

Finally a word on taking your bike on the train on Abellio Greater Anglia. While the operator (owned by Dutch railways) is said to be a good citizen in supporting bikes on trains, I found the information online to be somewhat obtuse.

At time of writing, there’s a page on taking your bikes on trains on their network. It details two types of trains:

– Intercity London to Ipswich and Norwich services
– Local services in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire

Colchester is served by both local services from London and intercity services. Reserving tickets isn’t possible less than 24 hours in advance seemingly, and since I delayed settling on my route until the weather was a bit clearer, I’d seemingly missed the chance to book a bike on a service. In any case, the return time would be uncertain because I wasn’t sure how fast I’d complete the ride.

Not that it’s clear from Abellio’s page, but there are also “local” services from London. These don’t require booking on the basis that there’s not really a specific place for cycles on these trains. I used a disabled area on the train out. But this was at 7:02 on a Saturday morning so the train was basically empty.

But if you read their page, it wouldn’t make any of this clear.

On the return, I was planning to get another “local” train back, but the first train to arrive was an intercity. I didn’t have a reservation, but I stood in the right place (at the back of the train), and the guard let me put my bike on anyway. I saved the better part of an hour getting back since this train was non-stop to London.

Whether other guards would want to check, I’m not sure, but the guard’s van on these trains is still sizeable, and there was only one other bike on the train. (Curiously, nobody collected the bike at Liverpool St, until just as I reached the ticket barriers, another passenger heard my wheels, looked around, said “Oh sh…” and ran off down the platform to collect the bike he’d completely forgotten he’d brought!)