TV

In Advance of The Nightly Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sneaky Pete

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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

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

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

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

YouTube-ing

YouTube is a wonderful thing.

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

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

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

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

Two things brought this into sharp focus over the weekend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovery and Sky Do a Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of those works easily.

Free-to-air Ad Funded

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

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

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

Retail the channels itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

The OTT Offering

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sky/Discovery Carriage Dispute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few thoughts on this:

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

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

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

Grand Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes a network keeping you on track is actually useful.

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

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

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

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

Celebrity RIP Tweets

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

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

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

We live in a continuous 24 hour news cycle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, thanks for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Egregiously Bad Chart

chartitv

The chart above is screen-grabbed from an otherwise excellent ITV4 documentary called When Football Changed the World. It looked at the state of the game as the old First Division broke away to form the Premier League at the end of the 80s and start of the 90s. It interviewed plenty of key figures from the period both on and off the pitch.

At time of writing, it’s on the ITV Hub and is well worth watching. I’ve no doubt it’ll get a few more outings on ITV4 over the coming weeks and months.

But that chart is just dreadful for a couple of reasons.

The documentary was trying to illustrate the spiralling increase in UK Premier League costs over time. The first deal starting with the 1992/93 season was indeed worth £191m, and the latest beginning this season is worth a cumulative £5.1bn.

To put that in context, the latest deal is nearly 27 times the original deal!

Whereas, looking at the graphpaper-styled background this graphic is using, it looks like 5.1bn is about 1.5 times as big as 191m.

They’ve just not used a proper vertical scale on the chart. Revenues have risen extraordinarily, and this chart just doesn’t show it.

In fact, the chart should look something like this:

Just using proper scaling shows the quite stratospheric rise in rights.

But in fact, the value of the overall deal each time doesn’t really show the whole story. The first deal that started in the 1992/93 season was for 5 years, whereas since 2001/02, they’ve been for three years. So if we look at the rise in terms of cost per season rather than per deal, we get this.

Note that since the changes only really effect the first couple of deals, the charts look pretty similar. But the growth per season is actually 44x the price of the first Premier League deal rather than 27x if you consider each deal in isolation.

The other thing that has changed is the number of matches covered by each deal. Basically the number of matches under each deal tends to increase over time. And that does mitigate some of that inflation. The first deal saw each Premier League fixture costing Sky about £600,000 each. This season, on average games cost £10.2m each. Again, it’s a massive jump, but it’s 16x the first deal’s cost, which goes some way to mitigate the 44x increase in rights costs per season.

I think the per season chart is the fairest though. This represents the real amount going into the game from TV companies. And to the clubs, looking at their much healthier bottom lines, that’s what matters.

Note: I’ve tried to use the widely reported values of each Premier League TV deal, but the 2001/02-2003/04 deal in particular seems a little opaque with some conflicting numbers. More recent deals are widely reported because they have a material effect on PLC’s bottom lines.

The Music Industry As Depicted in TV Dramas

We may currently being experiencing peak TV, but even that doesn’t really explain the recent glut of TV series set around the music industry.

A couple of weeks ago, Netflix’s new magnum opus was released – The Get Down from Baz Luhrmann. The series is rumoured to have cost a record amount, at least on a per episode business. And based on the first 90 minute episode that I’ve watched so far, this is sort of understandable.

It’s set in 1977 and seems to focus on a group of youngsters basically discovering the birth of hip-hop. The characters are part fictional and part based on real characters like Grandmaster Flash, who is also an executive producer.

Meanwhile HBO has cancelled the at-first-renewed Vinyl. This also had a lot of weight behind it, with a pilot from Martin Scorsese, and input from Mick Jagger. This was set in a New York record label slightly earlier in the 70s, as they basically started to discover disco and punk. The series mixed fake bands on the fake record label, but was set against the backdrop of real artists like Led Zeppelin and David Bowie.

Meanwhile Showtime’s Roadies, comes from no less than Cameron Crowe, but is this time set in the present day. But even it has callbacks to the 70s, an episode featuring a flashback to one of the crew’s early life when he was supposedly working for Lynyrd Skynyrd, and in particular Ronnie Van Zant. Another episode revisited the tragedy that occurred in 1979 at a concert by The Who in Cincinnati.

It is peculiar that all of these big projects, each backed by major Hollywood directors, should all arrive on the small screen at the same time. In Hollywood lingo, they probably all count as “passion projects” because part of the reason they’re made is that big names, and often, big stars come attached. Networks love the glamour and commission them. But why now, and why all at once?

I suspect that it’s because at a certain level, studio executives are in their late forties and early fifties, and this period has a particular appeal because these people were discovering music then. Plus the music industry was rawer; there were groupies and drugs, and there was an enormous amount of money to be made.

I’m not saying that’s not still the same, but not to the same extent. Sure, if you’re Taylor Swift (who in Roadies, has seemingly performed a concert in space!) the glitz and the glamour is perhaps bigger than ever, but let’s face it, what money there still is in the music industry is far more polarised, the rich getting much richer, and everyone else having to work harder to make a living.

I confess that I’m watching or have watched all these series. Vinyl was probably rightly cancelled as its direction just wasn’t clear enough. While Bobby Cannavale’s coke snorting record exec Richie Finestra was an entertaining and off the wall character, tales of excess only go so far in storytelling. Plus when a character is murdered after a drink and drugs binge, you haven’t really got anywhere else to go. And the series missed a trick in not properly developing its female characters, with Olivia Wilde as Richie’s wife Devon, being particularly underutilised.

I’ve enjoyed Roadies a lot more. It doesn’t take itself quite as seriously, and I suspect presents the dullness of life on the road with a band relatively accurately. I’m not sure who the fictional Staton-House Band are supposed to be analogous to, but there are lots of those white middle-of-the-road bands in the US that basically don’t cut through much beyond the US market. The Dave Matthews Band perhaps? In the final episode, a number of stars playing themselves appear and I found myself Googling an awful lot of them, trying to work out who they are. Cameron Crowe has clearly pulled in lots of favours from lots of friends.

Indeed throughout, the series had a nice line in including real musicians constantly showing up to be support acts for a night or two, and they get to perform a song or two – just enough to get me to tempt me into learning more. The series is probably too reliant on a couple of will-they/won’t-they relationship teases, meaning that the through story struggles a little. But the characters are fun with Luke Wilson and Carla Gugino running the show, while Imogen Poots and Colson Baker mess around. Rafe Spall’s character is a bit one-dimensional, only slowly emerging from a caricature. And while I completely believe that labels do have someone like him constantly running a spreadsheet against tour costs, I’m not sold on the idea that he’d be touring with everyone else. If Roadies gets a second season, it’ll have to work hard to keep his character in the mix.

Interestingly, of the three series here, Crowe seems to have been most closely attached. While Luhrmann and Scorsese directed their respective first episodes, and probably determined the overall direction of their series, Crowe has directed four of his series, and is credited as a writer or co-writer on six of the ten episodes.

Having only seen the first episode of The Get Down, I can’t really determine its direction, but they’ve found a good selection of largely young and unknown actors to populate the series. The show is edited to within an inch of its life, and although that first episode runs to more than 90 minutes, it does fly by.

Conjouring up The Bronx in 1977 is never going to be easy – or cheap – and a lot of visual effects are used to manage this. But despite upwards of 10 VFX houses being listed in the credits, I’m uncertain that they’ve carried it off. They pictures are graded to appear like stock footage from the time in places – because they mix them with lots of real stock footage. But this means that when we see a city block being burned down (for the insurance), the fire just doesn’t seem real.

Of course things are never real with Luhrmann. He doesn’t do verisimilitude. That means we get at least two dazzling set pieces in the opener – one set in a club, and the other at the eponymous “Get Down.” They’re both excellent.

What all three shows share is excellent music soundtracks, and I say that despite not really being a fan of any of the genres depicted. Indeed the sheer reverence shown towards some of these artists feels a bit forced and fan-boyish. But I am enjoying listening. Vinyl seems least reliant on music, although there’s plenty of it. Roadies presents its music with complete technical assurance, and is superbly sound-mixed. Everyone sounds simply superb. Each episode features a “Song of the Day”, part of the crew’s routine, and these are standout moments acoustically, usually deftly worked into the plot. The music on The Get Down just doesn’t stop. You get a barrage of music almost non-stop. The music “sync” rights for the show must have been massive.

Roadies is on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, and interestingly Kill Your Friends recently popped up there too, the movie adaption of John Niven’s searing novel set in the UK music industry of the mid-nineties. That too was a period of excess, because Napster, Limewire, eDonkey and AudioGalaxy hadn’t quite yet arrived , so piracy was not yet rampant, and people were still buying music to own (as opposed to stealing or renting it).

The film is relatively to the novel, with its anti-hero Steven Stelfox doing literally anything to get a leg-up in the biz. In the book, there are wonderful little chapter intros that seem to be real press-releases sent out to Music Week announcing big money new signings in the 80s and early 90s. We readers, of course, know that none of these signings would pay off. Having over-dosed on versions of seventies American music, it was refreshing to see a British take on affairs. Yes, the excess is endless, but it feels believable while incredibly cynical – nobody actually seems to like music. This level of cynicism would be impossible in any of the aforementioned US series, because there’s too much musical reverence.

I’d like to see Roadies open up its world a bit more, and it’ll probably need some new characters if it gets renewed. But of the three, this is the series I’d like to see more of.