BT

Sky Sports Revamp

Sky Sports is reportedly getting a bit of a makeover, losing the numbered channels currently known as Sky Sports 1-5, and instead gaining sports-specific channels.

Currently the channels are roughly being used as follows:

Sky Sports 1 – Football
Sky Sports 2 – Cricket, Rugby, Football
Sky Sports 3 – Football, Tennis
Sky Sports 4 – Golf
Sky Sports 5 – Football
Sky Sports News
Sky Sports F1 – F1
Sky Sports Mix – (Available on cheaper non-sports Sky tiers) Simulcast of one of the above, Dutch/Spanish Football or smaller sports like Netball, Drone Flying etc.

It sounds like this list is going to be rationalised into:

Sky Sports Football 1/Premier League
Sky Sports Football 2/Football League/Spanish etc.
Sky Sports Cricket
Sky Sports Golf
Sky Sports Arena (Including Rugby and Tennis)
Sky Sports F1
Sky Sports News
Sky Sports Mix (Assuming this continues)

In some respects, this simplifies things a little. It seems that what Sky wants to be able to do is offer a cheaper entry to its sports packages. Recall that BT Sport retail its sports offerings from as little as £5 a month for a streaming package, and £7.50 for those with Sky (and a BT Broadband internet connection).

Currently the cheapest way of getting Sky Sports on TV is £49.50 a month (based on taking the cheapest Sky Original Bundle before adding the full Sky Sports pack to it, with Sky only offering packages with their new Sky Q box). According to The Guardian, this will allow Sky to charge £18 for its cheapest partial sports offering.

But I do foresee a few problems with this plan.

First of all, it seems likely that the cheapest offering will not be football, rights costs for which have shot up. I would anticipate that either cricket or golf will be the cheapest offerings.

Then there’s the issue of sustaining full channels of some of these sports around the clock year long. Sky Sports F1 is something of a joke outside the season, and is largely filled with filler outside of race weekends. Quite why it didn’t become a broader motor-sport channel has never been obvious to me.

You also have the issue of major sports that don’t fit in. What about Rugby League or NFL, both of which have significant followings and carriage deals with Sky.

But more to the point, as someone who takes the full Sky Sports package, I would love to pay less and drop sports I’m not interested in. Namely Sky Sports Golf and the misery that is Sky Sports F1 (Seriously, why would I pay to hear Martin Brundle?).

At time of writing, it’s not clear when these new packages will go live, and I’ve not seen the price breakdowns across the different packages.

There’s also the not insignificant matter of third parties who currently get Sky Sports 1 and 2 on a wholesale basis. Although formal “must-offer” conditions have previously been removed, Ofcom has said that it would take a keen interest in any move that removed Premier League football from other platforms.

It would seem like that Sky would continue to retail football. But nearly all Sky’s major sport appears on those Sky Sports 1 and 2 currently – so even if golf usually finds its home on Sky Sports 4, it gets a bump up during, say, The Masters or the Ryder Cup. Lions rugby is on Sky Sports 1 right now, and next week England’s Test series against South Africa will start on Sky Sports 2.

While the Premier League channel might be one, what would the second be? At the moment, if I subscribe to, say, Sky Sports on BT TV, I can watch Premier League football, Test cricket and Lions rugby. What happens in the future? The easy answer would be for Sky to allow its channels to be retailed more fully on other platforms. (I did also wonder if the recent news about Sky and Virgin sharing Sky’s targeted advertising technology might mean that Sky Atlantic was made available to Virgin Media homes?). But we shall have to wait and see.

With the Fox takeover of Sky still in the balance following yesterday’s news that it’s being referred to the competition authorities, it will be interesting to see how Sky plays this.

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.

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.

The Amazon Echo – A British Perspective

Amazon Echo

NB. I’ve included some detail about how to connect Alexa to a BT Homehub, as it definitely seems to be causing an issue to many users who get Error: 7:3:0:0:1. Hopefully this page will help a little.

Amazon has been somewhat tardy in bringing the Echo to the UK. It launched in the US in November 2014, so it taken nearly two full years for the device to cross the Pond. So this review is nothing new and there are no doubt hundreds of others on the web. Nonetheless, localisation was always going to be a key part of the device being made available in the UK.

We don’t tend to think about it, using a service like Google Assistant (née Google Now) in the US is a vastly superior experience compared with using it in the UK. Google has tied down all the key US services, and suddenly it’s an invaluable service as opposed to an OK service as it was in the UK, although the UK has improved over time. Indeed I suspect the reason for the long delay in Alexa reaching the UK is that it takes time and resources to localise it for each market.

I’d been keen to try Amazon Alexa out since I first saw what it was capable of. It does seem that the Echo (the device), and Alexa (the service), is very powerful in interpreting spoken word English and giving you back what you want.

For those who don’t know, the Echo is basically a cylindrical speaker that’s about 24 cm tall. At its top is an array of microphones that can listen to commands from all directions, with an LED light ring indicating what it’s doing and a manual volume control sitting at the very top. A couple of buttons are there to either mute the device or to help with some set-up and pairing processes.

Alexa is the technology that sits behind the Echo, listening out for a command word – “Alexa” being the default – and then either playing audio or performing tasks as directed. These range from Siri or Google Assistant style answers to questions (“What’s the capital of Australia”, “How many yards in a mile”), to online shopping since this is of course Amazon, making diary arrangements, playing music from a connected service to controlling your smart home devices (e.g. your lights or your thermostat).

Key to all of these are what Amazon call “Skills.” These are developed by third parties such as Uber, The Guardian or National Rail, and they allow you to use their technologies to perform other tasks by voice control.

Audio as an interface is really interesting, and of course has the potential to have an impact on audio/radio services. So I was particularly curious to see the Amazon Alexa implementation of these services.

While I bought the Echo device, Amazon also sell the Dot, a cheaper device that doesn’t have a powerful inbuilt speaker. It’s designed to contain microphones, but to be plugged into an existing speaker via an Aux cable.

So what are my initial thoughts?

Well, these are based on some early experimentation with the device. I’ll perhaps return to this review, or offer additional thoughts, when I’ve played for it for longer or more services and Skills have launched.

Setup

Note: Including detailed instructions of how to connect Alexa to a BT Homehub.

Setup is designed to be simple. The preferred way is to install an app on your phone and set it up from there. The device essentially needs to be connected to your WiFi network. Unfortunately, I found it more complex than it should have been, to the point that if my problems are common, this will cause lots of headaches from the start for many users.

Once you’ve powered the Echo, you open the App, the Android version of which you will be pleased to hear, is in the Google Play Store (other Amazon specific apps aren’t).

Because I had already registered both a Fire TV and Fire TV Stick with Amazon, the app gave me lots of detail about them that at this point that I wasn’t interested in. Indeed, so cluttered was the screen that I couldn’t see how I should initially setup the device. I had to dive into the Settings menu to do it when it should really have been the first thing I was presented with.

You either have to press a button on the Echo or power it on for the first time to get into setup mode, and then it’s a question of connecting your phone or tablet to the Echo’s own WiFi network to give it details of your WiFi password. This isn’t dissimilar to setting up a Chromecast.

Unfortunately, no matter how many times I gave it details of my WiFi password it wouldn’t connect. So I tried from a Chromebook, since you don’t need to use a phone or a tablet. This failed to work too.

Finally, fearing I may have a defective unit, I setup a portable hotspot on my phone, and tethered the Echo that way. It worked absolutely fine, so I knew it wasn’t a technical problem with the device.

Trying once again to connect it to my WiFi router I noted the error code I kept receiving.

Error: 7:3:0:0:1

Googling that took me to a Reddit page which contained what I took to be the solution.

My router at home is a BT Homehub 4, and a quick search a day or so later suggests that I wasn’t alone in not being able to initially connect the Echo to my Homehub.

The Homehub 4 (and later versions) uses both 2.4GHz and 5GHz to broadcast WiFi on.

All devices will connect on 2.4GHz, but more recently 5GHz frequencies were added to WiFi and newer devices will use both.

By default the Homehub uses the same SSID for both frequencies. That means you see a single WiFi access point when you’re connecting a new device to your WiFi network, with that device connecting over either frequency. Even though the 5GHz frequency tends to perform better, I’d never seen fit to change the default, and all my WiFi devices worked fine choosing either frequency as they saw fit themselves.

But it looks like, for whatever reason, the Echo really doesn’t like that.

The solution I found was to go into the Advanced Settings on my BT Homehub router. You will need the admin password to access this menu, which unless you’ve changed it, will be attached to your Homehub device.

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Click “Continue to Advanced Settings.”

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Then choose Wireless. There are then two tabs for 2.4GHz and 5GHz. You need to change one of the SSIDs so that your router has in effect two access points for each of the frequencies.

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I changed the name of the 2.4GHz SSID to something slightly different (e.g. add “1” to the end of the name), leaving the 5GHz SSID unchanged.

On the 5GHz tab, ensure that “Sync with 2.4GHz” has “No” selected.

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Apply the changes, and then try the Echo’s WiFi connection process again.

This time the Echo connected flawlessly for me. I was properly up and running.

There are other solutions out there, but this worked for me. I’m surprised that Amazon/BT hadn’t fixed this ahead of launch, as BT is the biggest ISP in the UK, so there will be potentially millions of these routers in use.

I certainly never had that issue with either the Fire TV or Fire TV Stick, nor any other WiFi device.

Initially, I just left things as they were, with two slightly differently named SSIDs to my router. However, once the Echo was up and running, I found that I was able to rename the 2.4GHz SSID back to its original name, and the Echo still connected. This was useful as some legacy WiFi devices I own are unlikely to have the radios in them to work on 5GHz. Consequently I’d have had to have gone around and reconfigured all of these to work with the differently named SSID.

Depending on how many older WiFi devices you have that you use, you may be happy leaving two different SSIDs running on your router.

Usage of the Echo

The first thing Amazon does once you’re setup is to watch a short video. Unlike those for the Fire TV products, this hasn’t been Anglicised. We get an American video that runs through some of the things Echo can do.

Then you’re walked through some live examples, getting the news or playing some music.

The ecology of Alexa seems to be multi-tiered. At the top level are things that will work for everyone out of the box. For example, answering questions with factual information, or telling jokes.

Then there are those that are baked in as partnerships with Alexa. If you ask for a radio station to be played, it will by default be served by TuneIn. If you ask for the news, it comes from Sky News.

The third tier are the Skills, and these tend to need a second keyword to alert Alexa that she should be looking there. There can be overlaps, with broadly the same services being offered by different parties, and depending on quite what you ask Alexa, the service that responds can vary.

News is a good example. Alexa has what Amazon call “Flash briefings.” In other words, news headlines of the type a radio station might play at the top of the hour. If you ask Alexa to give you your flash briefing it will default to a Sky News bulletin from the last hour. I’ve not compared this with any radio output, but this is either an Amazon-specific bulletin, or as I suspect, a the same bulletin Sky News sends to commercial radio stations up and down the country.

The bulletin seems to be timed from the last hour – 9pm, 10pm, 11pm etc – and lasts a couple of minutes.

If you delve into the settings of the Flash Briefing in the app, you can find other news sources which you can turn on or off. Sky News is turned on by default in the UK, but you can turn others on. Annoyingly there’s no option to reorder them. So if you want your Flash Briefing to have more than one source, the default order the sources appear in Amazon’s list determines the order you hear them. This feels like something Amazon could fix.

You’re also limited to the sources that Amazon has included, but there’s a reasonable range including the BBC, CNN, The Wall St Journal and others. I had a play with the BBC sources.

First off is BBC Minute, which is a one minute bulletin produced every 30 minutes by the BBC World Service, and aimed at partner stations around the world (it’s not actually broadcast on the BBC World Service itself). The bulletin is available as a podcast and that’s how Alexa is pulling it in, serving the bulletin via TuneIn.

There is also a BBC World Service news bulletin which again comes from TuneIn. This is a two minute bulletin and is your best bet for serious news.

There’s the World Service Daily Commute, a thirty minute daily news podcast. Finally there’s a BBC Radio 4 option which unfortunately is the most recent Today Programme podcast. The Today Programme is of course a very fine morning news programme, but their podcast stream is complicated because it outputs around 3 different clips each morning – a business roundup, a more serious piece (e.g. their main 8:10am interview) and perhaps something a bit more quirky. None of those things are actually a news bulletin, and I wouldn’t really want them in my Flash Briefing.

The sports section is frankly pretty poor.

When you set it up on the app, you’re invited to select your favourite teams. A few Premier League teams were pre-selected for me. But I couldn’t find any Championship teams, let alone those lower down in the leagues. And there were no Scottish teams either! Nor could I find rugby or cricket teams. From what I could tell, this has only been very lightly localised with most of Alexa’s database filled with American sports teams of various sizes.

This is really poor and those other teams need to be added as a matter of urgency. There are no national teams either.

As I’m an Arsenal supporter, I’m OK for my favourite club. So I asked Alexa to tell me the latest score. That night Arsenal had just beaten FC Basel 2-0 in the Champions’ League. However, Alexa didn’t know that and only gave me last Saturday’s result against Chelsea, as well as alerting me to this weekend’s fixture. Good to know, but not enough. Amazon needs to buy in a lot more data sources to cover all the football competitions and plenty of other sports too.

The sport is also very team oriented. If you want general news about cycling or F1, or want to know Andy Murray’s results, it’s simply not set up for it. It would have been rubbish during the Olympics.

As well as baked in services like maintaining a to-do list or a shopping list, not necessarily just Amazon purchases either, although those are easy to manage, Alexa can also integrate with your calendar. At least if you’re calendar is a Google calendar. I couldn’t see how to make it work with Outlook or iCalc. Fortunately, my personal calendar is indeed a Google one, and you can get Alexa to tell your day’s appointments as well as add things to your calendar. What I didn’t see was any email integration. Amazon does warn you that your calendar will be available to everyone in your household, so it’s worth bearing in mind depending on who’s using Alexa.

Music playback is a key part of Alexa, and it works with a number of services – notably Amazon Prime Music (of course) and Spotify. You can choose a default service, and asking Alexa to play Coldplay will come from your choice of service. Notably, it won’t work with either Google Play Music or Apple Music, at least without using the workaround of playing via Bluetooth.

It is relatively easy to pair your phone or tablet to Alexa via Bluetooth, and then use a voice command to connect and disconnect your device accordingly. That means that you can listen to those services, but of course Bluetooth streaming does eat more battery than something like Chromecast.

Incidentally, there’s no Aux socket on the Echo, so you can’t use it as a dumb speaker for sending your audio to.

As I’ve mentioned, radio by default, comes from TuneIn. So if you ask Alexa to “play Radio 1” or “ESPN Radio” it will come via TuneIn. That does lead to some oddities. I asked, “Alexa, play Capital Radio,” and it dutifully played Capital Radio. The Madrid-based, Spanish-language Capital Radio who seem to be a speech service. To be fair, when I rephrased that as “Capital FM” it worked. Then I asked, “Alexa, play CNN Radio,” and it played CNN Radio Turkiye, CNN’s Turkish partner service. On the other hand, TuneIn selected the correct UK version of Virgin Radio when asked.

Fortunately RadioPlayer is a skill on Alexa, and that means you can get all the British services by specifying “RadioPlayer” in your command. So if you say something like “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Capital Radio,” you’ll get a local UK version (RadioPlayer asks you for your closest city when you set it up, so it will serve me, for instance, Capital London). Given the multiplicity of similarly named stations around the world, Radioplayer is the safer bet for getting the UK station you expected. The only shortcoming I could find is the lack of on demand programming which the mobile app does offer.

Having both TuneIn and Radioplayer means that I can get the same radio station in two different ways. “Alexa, play Absolute 80s,” will give me the same result as, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute 80s.” To my ears, they sounded the same. Also, in my tests, I heard no pre-rolls for any of these stations. And when I tuned into ESPN Radio, no geo-blocking seemed to prevent me listening to a baseball game they were broadcasting.

It’d be great if I could teach Alexa to use Radioplayer in the first instance, and then drop back to TuneIn if it can’t find the service I’m asking for.

Each of the Skills you enable on Amazon – and you do have to actively enable them – means learning a few new commands. I enabled The Guardian (The Telegraph and Mail were both there too), and you have to say, “Alexa, open The Guardian” to get into a voice sub-menu. Alexa reads back the top three headlines and you can choose to have an article read to you. Because these are likely to be chunky stories, it will alert you to the fact that reading the article might take five minutes. “Alexa, stop,” is a useful command.

The Guardian also allows you to listen to its sports news as well as podcasts and other parts of the paper. The key here is how easy they’ve made it to navigate their articles, and how much information they’ve put into their details in the Skills section of the app/website. The more, the better!

Sometimes the US origins of this device shine through. You can set up your commute on Alexa, but that actually means your driving commute. Alexa will helpfully tell you about traffic congestion on your drive to work. But what if your commute is via rail? Fortunately, National Rail is a partner and you can enable its Skill. It quickly asks you to set up your rail commute. As long as both ends are National Rail stations, it works (although in comments, I see some struggled with getting the right local station variant understood). If your commute is Cambridge to London King’s Cross, then it’s fine. But if it’s Cambridge to Oxford Circus, then you might want both information on the National Rail part of the journey and details about the Victoria Line. National Rail can’t help you with the latter. TfL would be a really useful Skills addition for Londoners, as would other regional transport companies.

One disappointment so far is listening to podcasts. I use PocketCasts to play my podcasts, and that does mean that I have a uniform list of podcasts across different devices and platforms no matter how I listen to them. If I listen to a podcast in one place, PocketCasts in all the others knows I’ve heard it. PocketCasts is Chromecast enabled too.

From what I can see, aside from going via a specific app like The Guardian, podcasts are delivered via TuneIn, but they seem to be very hit and miss. When I asked for This American Life, I got some kind of 24 hour This American Life stream which was obviously mid-episode. On the other hand, asking for 99% Invisible got me straight to the most recent episode. I tried getting both Guardian Football Weekly and the Telegraph Cycling Podcast, but despite trying lots of variants, Alexa failed to find either. Indeed at one point, she decided to play me an audio book from my Audible account! That’s great in itself, but wasn’t what I was after here.

One thing that is absolutely seamless is hooking Alexa up with Philips Hue lightbulbs. Yes… I have some.

At first I was confused that I couldn’t find Hue as a Skill before I realised that it was baked in. You do a search for smart devices, press the button on your Hue Bridge (key to getting the Hue system to work), and hey presto, it found all my bulbs. Alexa then lets you group these smart devices together. In my case I added two bulbs to create the “Hall” and three bulbs to create the “Living Room.” Then I added all five to create the “Flat.”

Having done this you can bark commands like, “Alexa turn on Hall lights,” or “Alexa, turn off Flat lights.” And it does so very quickly indeed.

It’s at this point that you begin to think that you’re living out all your science fiction dreams!

Other Skills I’ve yet to turn on include Uber, Just Eat, and Jamie Oliver. There is a reasonable collection of them, but they could do with more. In recent months, Amazon has been adding Skills almost daily in the US, so let’s hope they’ll take a proactive approach in the UK too.

One real disappointment is the Echo speaker itself. Whisper it, but it’s not that great. Sat next to my dumb Sony X55 Bluetooth speaker, the difference in sound quality is clear. They both cost me similar amounts. Indeed I bought the Echo at a special launch discount of £99. It’s back to £149 now.

I bought the Echo knowing it wasn’t that great sounding, but it’s a shame Amazon didn’t improve on it a bit in time for the UK release.

However the volume is perfectly good for filling a room. I wouldn’t use it for a party, but it’s fine for listening in general – aside from being mono of course. You can control the volume either with the dial on the top of the device, or by saying something like, “Alexa, volume 5.” The only problem I had was after pumping the volume up to 9, Alexa could no longer hear me above the sound of the music it was playing! I had to walk over and manually turn the volume down to regain voice control.

There’s no audio out from the Echo, so you can’t send stereo sound to a better speaker system either. On the other hand the much cheaper (£49) Echo Dot does allow you to send the output to another speaker via a 3.5mm jack. At that price, Amazon might sell stacks of these things.

The microphone pick-up is really excellent. Alexa hears her name above a certain amount of ambient sound (but not maximum volume as I say), and the range is decent enough that I’m able to send instructions to Alexa from my living room and bedroom. But then I don’t live in a mansion. I note that Amazon will be bundling 6 Dots for the price of 5, so clearly they’re aiming at a multi-room world. Using either these or Chromecast Audio devices is vastly cheaper than something like a Sonos system.

In my experience, response time of the Echo is really excellent. Amazon has obviously worked hard interpreting audio as efficiently and effectively as possible. Yes, I have a fast broadband connection, but the Echo is ridiculously fast serving you with what you want. There really is minimal delay in it doing what you asked. It’s mightily impressive.

One small downside is responding to secondary questions. In some instances, a call-response-call-response is required, and if you’re not careful, you can drop back to the main menu. There is a certain language learning curve here, and sentences do need to be formed a bit more carefully than natural language.

Another thing to note is that, so far, I’ve not heard any advertising beyond standard broadcast radio ads. The National Rail mobile app, for example, is advertising supported, but there’s none of that hear. It’s all a nice clean interface. We’ll see if anyone starts adding audio ads.

The one thing that did worry me lot before buying the Echo was the fact that I was essentially buying some kind of bug to put into my home. For Alexa to work, the microphones have to be live all the time. There is a mic-off button on the top which prevents Alexa from working if you choose, but surely everything else is being listened to all the time?

Amazon assures users that Alexa is offline when listening out for its own name. Only when it hears its name and switches on the blue LED at the top does it start sending audio to Amazon’s servers for interpretation. I’m sure that were that not the case, someone would have found out quite quickly, but clearly there are privacy concerns, and I’m certainly not going to ignore them.

I bought the Echo as much as anything to experiment. In many respects, it may have been smarter to wait for the upcoming Google Home device, which will potentially be cheaper, and more tied into Google services. In particular, my music is stored on Google, and I’m not about to replicate it on Amazon, at extra cost. And Google’s Chromecast infrastructure works well. I use it to play music in my bedroom on speakers and via my TV in my living room. Google Home will reputedly allow you to throw to TV from audio as necessary too.

But it’s a bit of an unknown, with an expected retail announcement next week, that may or may not see it released in the UK. It’ll be worth looking out for, and there could be an interesting hardware battle played out between Google and Amazon (Apple, despite Siri, really isn’t in this game just yet).

What is clear is that the usefulness of these devices is not just the very clever voice analysis technology, but also the services the various providers sign up. Getting these partners on board is key to the form’s success.

Amazon is clearly backing Alexa in a much bigger way now, with them encouraging other manufacturers to add Alexa to their devices (e.g. Pebble phones, or the Raspberry Pi project), and they’ve announced that the next generation of Fire TV Stick will include Alexa capability in the remote.

I also think that the adoption of voice interfaces is more likely to be successful inside the home or in the car than elsewhere. Despite phones having had Siri and Google Assistant for a number of years now, you rarely see or hear anyone using them in public, as you feel like a bit of an idiot. I’m much more comfortable talking to a device in the privacy of my home or car.

The other thing critical to the success of these devices will be explaining to users how they work, and what they’re capable of. While geeks like me will explore to an extent, others will need lots of demonstrations to see their value. I find that too often, functionality is there, but a bit hidden away. You don’t know what you don’t know. That means lots of examples, and good, clear, documentation where appropriate.

Champions’ League on BT

Since I had a look at the Europa League viewership the other day, I thought it was only fair to consider the Champions’ League Final – particularly as some every-so-slightly misleading press information seems to have escaped.

First off, it’s worth saying that this year’s final was one of the worst directed finals I’ve seen in ages. Technically it felt all over the place, with inappropriate cutaways, overuse of the Spidercam, using it for replays of action for which it wasn’t really suitable. Worst of all were the continued crowd reaction shots.

It’s a repeated issue at sports events that directors task some camera operators with finding people “emoting” as much as possible on screen. As often as not, it’ll be a woman the camera lands on, despite the crowd being heavily male skewed. While I’d love to think it was making the sport accessible for both men and women, in fact, it’s an eye candy thing, and frankly it’s outright sexist. See also “podium girls”, coverage of much cricket around the world, and women with umbrellas at the start of motorsport events.

Worst than all of that was the rush to cut to a young girl supporting the losing Atletico Madrid, in floods of tears at full time, when there were plenty of celebrating Real Madrid fans to show. Showing despondent losing fans is fine, but featuring a small child is outright nasty.

UEFA need to get a grip. I don’t know who was responsible, but it was a mess. The sound for the needless opening ceremony at the start was abysmal (at least watching via BT Sport), and indeed either the event director or BT themselves lost interest in Alicia Keys preferring to show players waiting in the tunnel. It didn’t get much better for Andrea Bocelli who had to sing the pointless “anthem” that Man City keeps getting fined for booing.

Leaving aside Pepe’s appalling antics, what about the overall audience figures?

Well unlike with the Europa League, there don’t seem to be actual figures easily available. The Guardian’s report, which, like that in The Drum, seem to be drawn from a BT press release, mentions 4.3m watching with a peak audience of 3.3m.

That’s a bit odd. What you normally get is a peak audience, and then an average for the whole programme. The average is necessarily lower than the peak.

Therefore 4.3m must be the number of people who tuned in for at least a few minutes over the course of the game. A reach figure. Interesting, but not how TV ratings are usually reported. You get a big number, but it doesn’t reflect the audience of the match itself.

Based on a peak of 3.3m, it suggests an overall viewership of, perhaps, 3m. (I’ll update this if I can find an accurate number, but I think I’m being generous).

Let’s put that in perspective and compare with ITV’s audiences in recent years.

DateTeamsResultChannelAudience (m)
28 May 2016Real Madrid - Atletico Madrid1-1 (5-3 pens)BT Sport Europe/BT Showcase~3
6 June 2015Barcelona - Juventus3-1ITV4.31
24 May 2014Real Madrid - Atletico Madrid4-1ITV5.16
25 May 2013Bayern Munich - Borussia Dortmund
2-1ITV3.71
19 May 2012Chelsea - Bayern Munich1-1 (4-3 pens)ITV7.00

So clearly the lowest audience, although last year’s Barcelona-Juventus game was a little low itself. The last British team to make the final was Chelsea in 2012 when 7m people watched.

Ah yes! But this doesn’t consider YouTube!

Well as I said previously, making the match available on YouTube is smart, especially since it’s far more robust than most broadcasters’ own video players. But we need to be very wary of the numbers being bandied about.

“The telecoms giant, which said that it aimed to make the finals as accessible as possible despite paying £897m for the pay-TV rights, said about 1.8 million viewers watched the match live for free on YouTube.”

Now I’ve no doubt that BT got some reasonably detailed metrics from Google on viewers. But I’d need to be persuaded that the 1.8m number is an average viewership over the duration of the programme. More likely it’s based on YouTube “views.” That would tend to mean 1.8m views of at least 30 seconds, at which point YouTube considers you a viewer. A lot of views, but not the same as a lot of people or a large cumulative audience.

If I logged in from time to time during the course of the fixture to see how it was progressing, that might mean that I was considered another view on each occassion.

If I started watching the match on TV, but was then forced to watch in another room on YouTube because someone else in the household wanted to watch Britain’s Got Talent, I’d potentially be double counted.

On the other hand, I might have Cast YouTube to my TV set and watched with half a dozen friends. YouTube views isn’t able to help with this situation either.

Video views online are not the same as a TV audience.

Simply adding together peak audiences and YouTube views across the two European finals is not what anyone should be doing.

Considering that no British teams were in the final, BT didn’t achieve a dreadful audience. But reports that say the two finals were “watched by more than 12 million across digital and TV,” are utterly misleading, counting the same people perhaps multiple times.

Whether UEFA thinks that it’s premium club competition was as available to all as much as it might have been will be for UEFA and BT to discuss. But let’s not believe all the hype and dubious numbers.

BT’s Advertising

As the new football season rapidly approaches (even though it’s still only July), so the marketing spend of the various pay-TV operators ramps up. Sky is showing some fairly well-received adverts highlighting their Premier League heritage and super-imposing Thierry Henry into the video.

On the other hand, BT is busy trying to let the British public know that it’s home of the Champions’ League and Europa League from this season. To that end they’ve created one of the worst ad campaigns in recent years.

Their recent TV ads have all been of the faux behind-the-scenes variety. So we have Ewan McGregor (who I like) hamming it up about why BT is making such a tawdry ad when “they’ve got the big films” (Only in the sense that Apple/Google/Everybody has the big films for PPV), Jose Mourinho putting up with glitter cannons and so on.

But the nadir is the BT “house party” advert featuring lots of footballers and BT Sport presenters seemingly having a blast in some mansion. Only at the very end is it “revealed” that this is another fake ad with the same characters directing it.

It’s awful.

For one thing, it’s trying to have its cake and eat it. The makers think that this is actually a good ad. It has expensive production values. It has a cast of current European footballing stars (Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, David Luiz etc.). The two second “reveal” says to me that really they just wanted to make this ad anyway.

But what this ad actually says is that overpaid footballers live hedonistic lifestyles that none of us will ever have, and they’re doing it through inflated TV deals, pricing out younger fans from games. In short, it highlights everything that’s wrong with the game.

And was it a smart idea to include Franck Ribéry in the ad given some of his own past?

The makers may claim that their tongue is in their cheek for this ad, but I really don’t think it is.

The other problem is that it really doesn’t do the job of conveying BT’s European football rights at all. The ad just doesn’t do the job.

BT has quite a complicated message to convey about how to get its new football offering. As I’ve said before, the previous message was pretty simple: Get BT Sport free if you’re a BT Broadband customer.

Simple and punchy. It probably worked too, stopping Sky from gaining broadband customers.

Now BT’s more complicated message is: Get BT Sport for £5 a month if you’re BT Broadband customer watching via BT TV or Sky, or pay closer to £20 a month if you’re on Sky and don’t have BT Broadband, or get it free if you have BT TV too (although you need fibre for the full offering including 4K), or get it as part of the XL bundle on Virgin Media, and don’t forget that you’re “opting in” to the £5 deal even if you thought it was free, but you can downgrade to free if you get BT Sport Lite which just gets you BT Sport 1.

Clear?

In the meantime, this atrocious ad played out in just about every commercial break during Saturday and Sunday’s Tour de France coverage on both ITV4 and Eurosport. I couldn’t avoid it.

I would fire AMV BBDO, the creative agency that came up with this mess.

Platform Exclusives

On Monday, Game of Thrones finished its fifth series run on Sky Atlantic with an explosive episode. Don’t worry, you won’t find any spoilers on this site (Unlike certain news sites). Anyone who wanted to, could watch it on Sky Atlantic.

Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

If you’re a Virgin Media customer, then you don’t get Sky Atlantic. Sky sees the channel as a point of difference between it’s own platforms and others. So while Sky One and Sky Living are offered to third parties like Virgin Media, Sky Atlantic is held back.

You can, as of Tuesday this week, legally access that entire fifth series of Game of Thrones via platforms like iTunes, Amazon Instant Video or Google Play. But obviously that’ll cost you.

Also this week came the announcement that AMC Networks is launching a UK offering, but that it’ll be exclusively available via BT TV on YouView. AMC in the US has been home of series such as Breaking Bad, and its spin-off Better Call Saul, Mad Men and The Walking Dead.

But who broadcasts those shows in the UK can vary quite a lot. The new Channel 4 Sunday night series, Humans, is an AMC co-production. The Walking Dead, which is the biggest drama in the US, goes out on Fox TV in the UK, with Channel 5 having had second run rights. Mad Men went out on Sky Atlantic having been poached from BBC Two in the UK, and Breaking Bad and its spin-off are on Netflix (although Breaking Bad is also now on free-to-air Spike). Other AMC shows can be found on Amazon too.

What’s interesting about this deal with BT is that they’ll have exclusive access to Fear the Walking Dead – a new spin-off series set in the same world as The Walking Dead. And to watch it, you’ll need new hardware. BT is seemingly trying beef up its non-sport TV portfolio.

Of course AMC now owns a near 50% stake of BBC America, and this means that you’d anticipate some BBC co-productions down the line between the two broadcasters – John Le Carré’s The Night Porter with Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston seems like a good example of this (although I believe this was presented to both parties by a third party who put the package together).

So how this will all fit together with regard to BT-exclusive access to AMC programming in the longer term remains to be seen. However it should be noted that despite the Sky/HBO deal, there are still instances where, say, the BBC does a deal with HBO and Sky is cut-out – The Casual Vacancy being a recent example.

But what this clearly means is that viewers are going to be faced with some hard choices.

At the moment, should I want to watch Game of Thrones, Daredevil and Transparent, I can do one of three things (or a mix of them).

– Subscribe, respectively, to Sky Atlantic (via Sky or Now TV), Netflix and Amazon Prime
– Wait until they become available through DVD/digital
– Pirate them

(I’m not advocating the third, incidentally).

Assuming I’m a Walking Dead fan who also wants to watch the other series, at least until now I could access to the OTT services through an inexpensive one-off purchase of a Google Chromecast, Now TV, Roku or Apple TV box. To see the Walking Dead spin-off, I’m going to need a full-on BT TV subscription and one of their boxes. Or I’ll have to wait until the DVD/digital downloads are made available.

This is where it gets even more complicated.

At the moment, most of these productions are actually owned by third party companies, and they simply licence their output for specific windows to services like Netflix or Amazon. But that has meant that when Netflix launched in France, they had to do so without House of Cards, because it had been licenced to another channel. That’s also why DVDs/downloads are made available of the series in due course – the studio that owns them distributes the DVDs and earns revenues from them – not Netflix. House of Cards tends to be exclusive to Netflix for about six months before the DVD/download option becomes available.

Netflix in future says it wants to own as much of its own programming as possible. In other words, it wants to close off those avenues, or at least have control of them. Holding back programming could make long-term sense in platform building, even if it leaves money on the table in the short term.

In the meantime, I’m not sure that this deal on its own is enough to make a compelling case for anyone to cancel Sky and take up BT TV – as it hasn’t been with their sports rights so far. But I can see some of those AMC catalogue programmes disappearing from Amazon in due course, and I can also imagine that there’ll be a significant amount of piracy surrounding Fear the Walking Dead when fans realise that they need a whole different subscription to watch it legally, unless they’re prepared to wait for the DVDs/downloads.

The Champions’ League – Part Two

This is a follow up to yesterday’s piece anticipating BT’s changes in packages having won exclusive Champions’ League and Europa League rights, although I’m mostly talking about Champions’ League coverage here.

Well BT has announced its new football deal and there were some things we expected, and some things we didn’t.

Yes, Gary Lineker is going to be one of their presenters – I imagine him and Jake Humphreys taking Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

Yes, it’ll cost £5 for many people (much more on this below).

Yes, there’ll be a new Freeview channel, BT Sport Showcase which will be where the free-to-air fixtures are shown. But this will be SD only for most people (everyone?), so will look absolutely rubbish on your 46″ TV (And approximately 10% of the country won’t get this channel at all on Freeview. It’s unclear if it’ll pop up on satellite).

The channel has some new pundits in Steven Gerrard (hope he’s up for some media training, because his post match interviews are awful), Rio Ferdinand and Glenn Hoddle amongst others. And there’ll be a 4K service for “select” fixtures. But that’ll need a new box and, in my opinion, a TV somewhere around 55″ or bigger to make any difference.

There’ll also be a “Goals!” show with James Richardson on Champions’ League nights that will chase around all the simultaneous kick offs and show the goals as they go in. Those with long memories may recall that the capacity constrained OnDigital did the same thing. And of course Sky had a red button service that hopped around goals.

The cost of HD is going up 33% for sports pack customers from £3 to £4 (they didn’t highlight this, oddly).

But the devil is in the detail and it’s not all clear at the moment.

BT seems to be making another play for BT TV, their television offering. The trouble is that it’s sub-standard compared to Sky and Virgin Media. The channel choice is limited and significant channels are missing from their options.

From the starting point that they’re appealing to sports fans, then there’s already a limited offering in that only Sky Sports 1 and 2 are available. And in SD only. That should get you most Premier League games, but you’ll be missing out on other sports – golf, European football and F1 immediately spring to mind. And the lack of HD becomes ever more important as screens get bigger. SD is just awful on anything from 40″ upwards. There’s no Eurosport either – which is important to me for cycling coverage. [Update: There is Eurosport, and in HD. See comments for details.]

So a sports fan watching via Sky or Virgin is perhaps unlikely to ditch their current platform.

Now there’s no mention of Virgin Media anywhere at the moment, so we’ll assume that the deals haven’t been done, and that this will happen in due course.

For the large number of Sky subscribers, there are two deals on the table, and we don’t know what one of them will cost.

– Those taking BT Broadband are looking at £5 a month for the full BT Sports Pack as the new package including the regular BT Sports channels, plus the new European one seems to be called. Then it’s £4 a month for HD. But what extra channels are they getting in HD? For Champions’ League and Europa League, there will be at least two British teams playing simultaneously in the league part of the competition. Will Sky and Virgin viewers be able to see both those games in HD? Or will there be a single HD channel and a red button SD service? It seems that the latter is likely since only one additional channel is being launched.

– Those who don’t have BT Broadband – e.g. Sky customers who have, perhaps, a Sky Broadband deal – will have to pay at least £13.50 a month for an SD package, and quite probably more. BT hasn’t released pricing. This has to be a substantial part of Sky’s football subscribers, and therefore a market that BT wants to reach. Charging perhaps £15-20 is a really steep ask, and I’m not at all convinced that many will bite. From what we can tell, the vast proportion of current BT Sport providers are BT Broadband customers getting it free. Relatively few football fans are paying £13.50 for a meagre offering of additional Premier League matches (one more year of the current Premier League deal to go), and lots will have decided that not spending the money is worthwhile for a handful fewer games. Champions’ League football does make a difference, but I wonder how much? This is the toughest sector to move.

For me as a Sky subscriber but with BT Broadband and wanting to watch Champions’ League football, I’m looking at paying £6 more a month (+£5 BT Sport; +£1 increased HD cost) for less HD football. Furthermore, depending on the draw, as an Arsenal fan, I face the prospect of seeing little HD football on the Sky platform because programmers tend to choose, say, Man Utd or Chelsea over Arsenal when highlighting a single fixture. And will I be able to record those red button channels?

Viewers of BT TV seem to get all the channels in HD. So is this an attempt to lure current Sky viewers – particularly those on BT Broadband – into getting a second box and watch via that? The “free” price point for those taking the minimum TV offering suggests that’s the way to go. Even with high-speed fibre, I’ll need convincing that sport is capable of glitch-free playback via IP. Can I do both? Get BT Sports on both Sky and BT TV for one fee?

It also looks like people currently getting BT Sport 1, 2 and ESPN free will actually only get BT Sport 1 free in future. BT Sport 2 and ESPN become part of the paid-for BT Sport pack. Because those people currently have the “BT Sports Pack” which is £0 currently, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they’re not rolled up to the £5 package. “BT Sports Lite” is a new package altogether which customers may well have to opt to choosing pro-actively.

The issue regarding months when little European football is played (e.g. January) isn’t really addressed – except you without a subscription you can’t see BT Sport 2 or ESPN during those months. This doesn’t make me want to rush to pay for August though since the Champions’ League proper doesn’t start until mid-September.

Overall, it’s a thoroughly confusing offering.

BT’s marketing material is really going to have to work hard at explaining how costs are broken down, with different prices dependent on platform and broadband supplier, and different HD and 4K offerings dependent on platform.

Their website is currently woefully short on information.

The one thing I’m pretty confident about is that the free-to-air ratings will be terrible. Unless they offer a little more in the way of “Showcased” programming, few will discover the channel on the occasions that they show games free of charge.

The Champions’ League – Part One

On Tuesday we will hear what BT has in store for its coverage of the Champions’ League and Europa League. It outbid Sky and ITV to win exclusive rights for the next three seasons.

The expectation is that they’ll announce Gary Lineker as co-presenting with Jake Humphries over Tuesday and Wednesday nights, with a £5 per month price-point for the package.

What that means for fans (and sponsors) is that there’ll be relatively little free European football on-air. At the time the bid was won, BT said that at least one fixture involving each British club in the competition will be available free-to-air on a specially set-up Freeview channel – BT Sport Showcase. This will include the final.

But whether they’ll offer the attractive games viewers want to see seems less clear. Man Utd v Zenit St Petersburg isn’t exactly a crowd pleaser, but would fulfill BT’s promise.

In the meantime Sky Sports has posted a blog that seems to say something along the lines of “We might have lost the Champions’ League, but nobody’s watching it any more and they only care about the Premier League, so we don’t really care.” Sour grapes anyone? The Guardian has more coverage here.

Is there too much Champions’ League football? Probably.

Are audiences down? Well the numbers say so.

Is this because English clubs haven’t done so well in the last couple of years? Er, I would think so.

Sky Sport’s audience at the weekend for the final might have been lower this year than last year, but it’s not clear to me that’s anything more than to do with the clubs competing. Personally I want to see Messi and co. I’m not convinced that Saturday night is the right time for the final, and wonder whether returning to Wednesday nights would see a stronger overall audience.

But I do think that UEFA is going to be the loser by selling exclusively to BT. Remember the OnDigital years? ITV had the Champions’ League exclusively then, and it wasn’t enough to save the platform. So yes, people do care more about the Premier League than the Champions’ League.

The football watching audience is divided into the following segments:

a. Free-to-air only. Match of the Day; England internationals on ITV; World Cups; Euros.

b. BT subscribers. Take BT Sport because they already have BT Broadband, so why wouldn’t they?

c. Sky Sports subscribers. Like the substantial Premier League offering.

d. Sky Sports + BT Sports. Pay for Sky Sports first of all, and then either get BT Sports free because of their broadband package, or pay because of the additional games it offers (other sports like rugby come into play here).

(e. BT Sports subscriber. Pay for BT Sport but aren’t BT Broadband subscribers. Probably only rugby or Moto GP fans, and not really football fans.)

We now need a couple of new segments:

f. Sky Sports + BT Sports + BT Sports Europe. Football die hards paying some more money for a complete football offering. This is probably the key constituent for the success of BT Sports Europe.

g. BT Sports + BT Sports Europe. Can anyone who doesn’t otherwise pay for football be persuaded to fork out £5 (or whatever) a month? This will be a small segment.

However the Champions’ League is vital for the top flight Premier League clubs. That’s why the big “four” are always fighting to be in it. Indeed, if they’re not then they’re not going to be able to attract the right players. Top players want to play in the Champions’ League.

It’ll be interesting to see how BT pitch their offering. They need to have the satellite capacity for Sky and Virgin subscribers to be able to watch as they can do now with BT Sports. And they need to persuade a lot of people to part with actual money to watch it.

I know that for me, this means my sports TV costs are going up. Sky has already announced price increases (the massive bids they made to retain Premier League rights ensured this), and now I’m facing £5 or more a month if I want to watch Arsenal in Europe (I do).

And then there’s the question of a monthly subscription fee when matches aren’t evenly spread out across the year. For example in the 2014/15 season, there was a single match in June – the final. July and August saw qualifiers – of interest to fans of the 4th place Premier League club, but few others. The group stage kicked off in September but rounds of the competition are not evenly distributed. There are no games at all in January. So how will subscribers deal with that? Do we all cancel mid-December and re-subscribe in mid-February? The Europa league has more games, and slightly more rounds to add into this mix.

In the meantime, we can look forward to a Media Guardian article this time next year explaining to us that the cumulative audience for the Champions’ League Final has fallen by x% (where x is a big number).

But let’s see what BT says tomorrow.

[Update: Here’s my follow-up piece.]

The £5 Billion League

You know how this is supposed to be austerity Britain? Well you wouldn’t know that looking at the sums announced earlier today as the conclusion of the next three years’ of live Premier League coverage were concluded.

The total cost of the rights was £5.136 billion for the seasons 2016/17 to 2018/19.

Sky has retained the lion’s share with 126 games a season compared to BT who have 42 games a season.

The Premier League tweaked the model this time around and upped the number of games they’re selling from 154 to 168 a season. Matches are sold in 7 packages: 5 packages of 28 games and 2 packages of 14 games.

The Premier League also tweaked who get what picks. There is a complicated system in place to let TV companies determine which games they put into which slots. On top of this, there are issues surrounding clubs participating in Europe and potentially issues with policing of games (ie. the times police are happy for derby matches to take place).

Let’s go through some numbers.

While the talk was of there being an increase from £3.1 billion to perhaps £4.4 billion, we in fact saw a 70% increase in rights.

If the comments of Richard Scudamore are to be interpreted correctly, other parties showed an interest in the rights (possibly Qatari owned BeIn Sports and Discovery), but BT and especially Sky maintained their stranglehold.

The cost per match – on average – goes up from £6.5m to £10.2m.

I thought it’d be fun to put this in perspective with some other TV costs.

(These are based on recently reported figures – but the entertainment industry’s economics are opaque. And yes, you get more hours of television for your money from a Premier League fixture than an episode of a TV series. That said, these rights fees don’t include production costs.)

What’s interesting is that BT has constrained its costs to a much greater extent than Sky.

BT points out that it is paying 18% more per game than under the current agreement. Whereas Sky is paying 69% more per match than previously. And because Sky has more games than before that means an overall 83% increase.

That does mean that BT has fewer first choice fixtures than previously, but the packages they have are now predominantly the Saturday 5.30pm fixtures alongside some midweek games. Whether this is because BT has already forked out nearly a billion pounds for Champions’ League (and Europa League) rights from the 2015/16 season isn’t certian.

But it does mean that BT could potentially keep their sports channels free and only charge for the Champions’ League.

While Sky has the cash to do this deal, at the end of the day, they have to make those rights pay for themselves. So do we see big increases in what Sky Sports costs to subscribers? An 83% increase has to be accommodated.

And do we see the rights paid for other sports start to diminish? Although BT has bought some rights that Sky previously had, leaving Sky with some cash in hand, it’s a drop in the ocean really. So this might begin to hurt other sports.

For example, the current Sky deal with the Football League represents a 26% decrease in what was paid previously.

Will Sky more and more want to shore up the rights they really need – Premier League football, Cricket, Golf, Rugby League, Rugby Union – and pay much less for other rights?

And you know how the Championship playoff games is always billed as the biggest game in football? Well it’s only going to get bigger. The jump from Championship to Premier League is going to be extraordinary. While getting into the Premier League could be fantastic, the fall in future could be shocking.

It’s widely reported that the NFL is the only sport earning more for domestic rights now. The NFL has deals with all three major free-to-air networks, as well as ESPN and a satellite deal with DirecTV. According to Wikipedia, that means something north of $6.5 billion per season from 2015. This chart puts the Premier League deal in perspective.

But of course the US market is something like five times the UK one. And of course it’s interesting that nearly all NFL games are played on free-to-air television. (I should note that there are local TV deals not accounted for here for the NFL. But then arguably Premier League clubs also have revenues from online video and their own channels).

But perhaps the biggest question coming from this deal is working out how do clubs stop the money just putting all this extra money straight into players’ pockets? The players deserve what they earn, but there is more than the Premier League, and fairer distribution even within the clubs will be important. In particular, some club employees are actually pretty poorly paid.

And there are still international rights to come! And those get shared equitably – which is fantastic for smaller clubs. If there’s anything like the increase in rights that the domestic rights have seen, that could be a £10bn league.

So who’s rubbing their hands today?

Park Lane car dealers; Hadley Wood and Cheshire estate agents; football agents the world over.

And who’s done badly?

Well us. If you’re a football fan, then those rights need to get paid for somehow.

At a time when inflation is low, but wages are lower, when do subscribers finally say, “That’s too expensive – I’m going to have to stop subscribing.” I’m not convinced that people won’t eventually cancel subscriptions if the costs go up too much.