January 2011 Archives

National Portrait Gallery Workshop

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National Portrait Gallery Workshop-6

Back in November I visited the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. The museum had also put on a number of talks and events surrounding the prize, and on Saturday I was part of a small workshop group there to learn a little more about what makes a good photographic portrait. The session was led by Anthony Luvera, an Australian who teaches as well as being a working professional photographer.

It was a practical day, and so after another look around the exhibition itself, we were soon set loose onto the streets of London for a couple of assignments.

The first was to take photographs of people without consent. This isn't a million miles away from street photography, and just to be clear, as long as the place you're taking photographs isn't private property and you're not causing an obstruction, this is totally legal.

Now I'm not saying that this is always a comfortable experience. I preferred the up front and honest approach rather than holding my camera at waist height or something. I was using my old Sony A100 since my more recent camera is sadly still being fixed. But it was interesting and not to say, quite liberating going out on the streets and doing something like this.

I took many of my photos around Covent Garden which is a tourist area, so people with cameras are everywhere. But with mostly just using my 50mm lens, it was clear I wasn't taking the scenery, but people.

The second assignment was further outside my comfort zone. That entailed going up to complete strangers and asking if they would allow me to take a photo - i.e. with consent.

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Surprisingly, it wasn't that hard, and I'd guess with repetition it'd become easier. Again, part of me wonders that if you're in central London with many people being visitors, that makes it easier, but people generally didn't mind posing for a few seconds. Only one group of three men sitting having coffee in a café turned me down.

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I was a little more selective about who I asked, avoiding young children and young women largely, but it was an interesting experience. One to repeat?

More photos here.

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John Barry

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It'll be for others to write proper obituaries, but I wanted to acknowledge the wonderful John Barry, who's death was announced this morning at 77.

From James Bond to The Persuaders, Born Free to Dances With Wolves, and The Ipcress File to the Midnight Cowboy, Barry's music was exceptional, and reached hundreds of millions. He'll forever be associated with James Bond, working on 11 of the films, but there was plenty more to his oeuvre. Anyone who's ever seen films like Midnight Cowboy or Born Free, will understand how important his score was to those films. And perhaps most successfully in latter years, the same is true of Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves.

He won five Academy Awards and was made a Fellow of BAFTA. He wrote musicals, and had his work feature in the singles chart.

I can recommend Themology as a good introduction, and at just £3.99, you should jump at it. Although this version seems to have a couple of fewer tracks than mine does. Nonetheless, everyone should have some John Barry in their CD collection or on their iPod.

More at the BBC and Reuters.

True Grit

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In 1985, I won two tickets in a local newspaper comeptition to see the new Clint Eastwood western, Pale Rider, at the ABC Enfield (now Tesco). It was the first time I'd been in a cinema to see a western. That was partly because westerns didn't appeal to a 15 year old boy, and partly because they simply weren't being made any more. Westerns were something you ran into when BBC1's Grandstand or ITV's World of Sport didn't have anything worth watching on a Saturday afternoon - probably horse racing on the former, and "all-in" wrestling on the latter. BBC2 would probably be showing a western. I'd either return to the horse racing, or probably just go out.

That archetypal Saturday afternoon western almost certainly starred John Wayne. It seemed to be the law. I wasn't interested. In later years, I'd come to appreciate films like Rio Bravo and High Noon. The former even stars John Wayne. But I wasn't a fan. Perhaps at some point in the future I'll reappraise Wayne, but I'm not there yet.

One of his most famous roles is as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. While I can picture Wayne in his Marshall's uniform and wearing an eye-patch, I think that's more from stills and clips rather than actually seeing the film. I have no memory of the actual story.

I always look forward with great anticipation to any new Coen brothers film, but in this instance, I decided that it was worth reading the original Charles Portis novel. It's a short book, and tells the tale in a first person narrative from the viewpoint of the 14 year old Mattie Ross.

The opening paragraph is one of those gripping ones that just stick with you as soon as you've read them:

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.

That pretty well lays out the story of the film in a simple and effective manner.

The edition of the novel I read with a film tie-in cover, comes with an introduction from Donna Tartt for whom this is a favourite book (Incidentally - she's not the fastest writer is she? It's been a while since The Little Friend). But I could immediately see what she loves about the book which incredibly went out of print for a while. At least that won't happen again - in a digital ebook age anyway.

Getting back to the Coen brothers' version of True Grit - it really is another exceptional piece of work. It sticks rigidly to the narrative of the book, introducing only a couple of minor elements of difference which don't affect the flow especially. I loved it.

Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn, the marshall that young Miss Ross believes shows the most "grit" and is therefore the right man to avenge her father's murder. He has such a drawl, that to my British ears, it took a little while to attune myself to his dialect, but he's a terrific character and Bridges' performance is excellent.

When I first saw the trailer to this film, I watched it intensely and then reached the end where the stars' names appeared on-screen. Suddenly Matt Damon's name appeared. Huh? I didn't recall seeing him in the trailer. Perhaps he hadn't featured very much. But he had. He plays the supercilious Texas Ranger LaBeouf ("la-beef" as opposed to the way Shia pronounces his name). He swaggers around in the most enormous spurs ever seen, telling tales about how proud he and his fellow Rangers are. Anyone who's seen Damon cameoing on things like 30 Rock knows that he can do comedy well, and it's a fine turn here.

Finally there's Hailee Steinfeld who plays the young Mattie Ross. Her character is the very epitomy of head-strong as she's determined to accompany Cogburn on the manhunt that she has hired him for. She's great in her first film role. What I do find extraordinary is that even though she's essentially in every scene of the film, she's only been nominated in the Supporting Actress category in the Oscars. According to the LA Times this is purely Paramount playing the odds game. They didn't think someone so young could ever win Best Actress in Leading Role, so they put her in the Supporting Role category. Utter nonsense. Her role is the equal of Bridges and Damon. BAFTA are somewhat tougher about such things, and she's nominated in the Leading Actress category. For what it's worth, I suspect she won't win in either awards as they're both tough categories.

Anyway, the film is excellent. The book is excellent. And you should definitely read or see one of them. You should probably do both.

The BBC and Marketing Speak

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Yesterday a BBC blog entry from Daniel Danker, the Programme and On Demand General Manager at the BBC, caused something of a stir.

It referred to a new "product" and there was much gnashing of teeth and concern as a result.

I've got to say that I think that this probably isn't the clearest communication I've ever read. You only need to read listener comments and Tweets to realise that this has confused a lot of people who are concerned that Listen Again might not be available in the future, or they won't be able to hear BBC Radio on their internet connected devices.

Currently, if you stream a live BBC Radio service, or "Listen Again" to a previous programme, you do it in a player that's branded "BBC iPlayer". Because, in the future, iPlayer is going to be for television services only, keen radio listeners are suddenly concerned that features and functionality they currently enjoy will be lost.

However, if you read carefully, and cut through some of the language, aside from changes on some websites as a result in the cuts to BBC Online, overall services will actually improve.

For live listening to BBC radio services, the Radio Player which is being developed by the BBC alongside commercial competitors including Global Radio, GMG and Absolute Radio (my employer!), will become the default platform if you're streaming from a BBC website.

But what of this new "product"?

"Yes, we do plan to build a new product for radio but this isn't to cut corners, or downplay what we do for radio online - as with everything we announced yesterday it's because we want to make the service better, not worse. In the case of radio and music, we think this means giving radio its own home."

Well I think this is another unfortunate case of "marketing-speak" being used in consumer communications. And, yes, I'm aware that I'm using a certain amount of that language in writing this sentence. But this is slippery slope that we're already well-down in some areas. Back in 2007 I talked about "premium" being used far too much in the mainstream. "Content" is another word that has also strayed out of the marketing and management arena, and into widespread usage.

The issue here is that if somebody talks about a "product", I think most people expect a "thing." If that "thing" is just a revamp of websites, and that's what I really think that the BBC is talking about here in essence, then "product" is the wrong word to use.

That's why some people are half expecting the BBC to build another pop-up player to sit alongside the Radio Player. But I'm certain that's not the case. I think that the BBC is essentially going to be doing a lot more behind the scenes to build social elements into its websites, be cleverer about using metadata attached to programming to build links between different parts of stations' sites and link together similar programming across different networks, and simplify the "Listen Again" experience.

Disclaimer: I could be wrong about the above. I've not directly talked to anyone at the BBC about this, but this is based on feedback I've seen online, and from other conversations I've had.

Further Disclaimer: These are my views and don't necessarily reflect those of my employer.

And finally a plea: Can someone please get Frontier Silicon to update their list of on-demand BBC programmes (referred by them, using rather unhelpful nomenclature, as "podcasts" irrespective of whether they're downloadable), on a DAILY basis? As things stand, you get a sometimes rather random list of recent programmes including broken links to some programmes to which listen-again rights have expired, while recent editions are missing. Ideally, this list should be generated hourly.

Oh, and finally, does anyone really think visitors to the BBC Radio entry page can really tell the difference between the two Five Live logos they're presented with?

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Yes - I know that one is for Five Live, and the other for Five Live Sports Extra. But I can't tell that from the logo. Indeed, it's unclear to me why Extra needs its own website at all [Correction: It doesn't have it's own website, but the carousel page from the button above does include links to things like it's schedule].

[Update] Chris Kimber's comment below is well worth reading. I think I may be wrong in my suppositions here about what the BBC is working on. What's clear is that it's a way off. And I guess what really intrigues me is how, if at all, it fits in with Radio Player...

Sexism and Sky Sports

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Tonight Richard Keys has resigned from Sky Sports following a last ditch attempt to apologise in the form of an interview on Talksport this afternoon (Kudos to Talksport for getting that interview). He joins Andy Gray who's already gone.

There are lots of interesting question raised in this affair.

How sexist is the regime at Sky Sports? I think this piece in today's Guardian sheds a lot of light on how things operated there. And all three clips that have so far emerged were not broadcast. That means at least one individual, and possibly more, who works at Sky Sports, has been incensed enough to dig out the footage. From Sky's point of view, this is can't be acceptable in the workplace. The writing was on the wall as soon as the clips emerged. I wonder what will happen internally at Sky Sports? Is there a hunt on for the leaker?

But Sky management can't be completely blameless. What place to "soccerettes" really have on Soccer AM? And there was undoubtedly a policy of hiring a certain kind of presenter on Sky Sports News. Remember this video from last summer promoting the channel's move to HD? Low-cut leathers for the female presenters while the men get sharp suits. Hmm.

I wouldn't like to pretend that sexism in football is limited to parts of Sky Sports though. I suspect that if you look around enough, you'll find it in plenty of areas of the game. But this whole incident might drag a few individuals kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

I suspect that Rupert Murdoch is fuming right now. While he tries to use all his influence to ensure that Jeremy Hunt doesn't refer his desire to buy the remainder of BSkyB that he doesn't own, he's also facing the ongoing mobile phone hacking row that will not die. The Sky Sports issue is completely separate, but all told, there's far too much of Sky being the news rather than reporting the news.

The phone hacking story is clearly going to run and run, with more individuals at the News of the World surely being implicated. The suspended Ian Edmondson has been sacked, and I wouldn't surprised to see more. I also think that it's highly likely that a lot more about the "dark arts" is going to be revealed, and it won't be limited to the News of the World. If phone hacking was happening there, it was happening elsewhere, and that's almost certainly why the other tabloids have been reluctant to report this story fully.

[As ever, these are my own views, and don't represent those of my employer. Not that my employer is sexist. Our HR team might have something to say if it were.]

10 O'Clock Live

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So what to make of Channel 4's new "it's not The Daily Show that we just cancelled" comedy current affairs series?

Well it's not all bad, and it's not all good. There seemed to be quite a few first night nerves and a generally quite disjointed feel to the programme, but that's something that will probably have come together much more later in its fifteen week run.

In general it just about walked down the news/comedy line OK. It was unfortunate that the really big news of the week was the following day, but they took on Tunisia and the Alan Johnson resignation fairly decently.

I think I was most disappointed in Jimmy Carr who was there purely to make gags. His style of rapid-fire jokes doesn't really lend itself to a more in-depth look at what the stories really mean. And it was odd that Carr made a series of just silly jokes about Tunisia without getting into what it actually was about. Yes, superficially most people know that tourists have been leaving the country because there have been riots. But it was left to Charlie Brooker, in an entirely different segment later in the show to try to explain the context of Tunisia.

It's that careful weaving of both news and comedy into The Daily Show that means that it remains on the pedestal that it sits.

When I said that I was most disappointed in Jimmy Carr, I lied. TheIone truly bad sketch was the "World News Now" piece that featured Lauren Lavergne. It was simply awful, and it's best not to think about it any more.

David Mitchell was given the interviewer role and it did feel a little uncomfortable. I suspect that he'll get better in time, and he clearly knows what he's talking about. The live aspect of the show meant that he had little time to breathe, and both of his big set pieces about bonuses for bankers and student fees, the conversation came to a crashingly violent end when time ran out and we had to go to a commercial break.

And that was the other flaw, the show had no real theme. So we lurched backwards and forwards from Sarah Palin to bankers' bonuses to Tunisia to student fees to Alan Johnson and so on.

I thought that perhaps they could have done with a few more pre-recorded pieces, and a thematically stronger structure rather than just desperately trying to cram in every gag that could as though they were at a recording of Have I Got News For You.

In the closing roundtable amongst the presenters we got a few random Tweets or emails scroll past in a way that I'm sure David Mitchell has railed against in Mitchell and Webb. Hmm. The pointless unscientific and otherwise worthless survey should be dropped immediately. Even in a comedy show about news, if you can't do a survey properly (robust samples weighted across the population - not an opt-in one on their website) then they shouldn't do them at all. And they probably don't need to desperately try to make gags about the next day's newspaper headlines at the end. Or if they do, make them good ones.

As an aside, this was the first time I've seen those fancy new Capital Radio ads "in the wild" rather than on YouTube. Obviously I saw them a 32x speed, but it's nice to see them getting an airing. I'm not 100% certain about the targeting, although I'm sure that C4 has been selling 10 O'Clock Live as 15-34 buy.

Perhaps the programme's biggest issue is its scheduling. At 10pm, it's up against the two main news programmes which means that it's already losing some of its audience - people who care what's actually happening. I know that survey after survey in the US shows that x% of people actually get their news from Jon Stewart. But the reality is that many will also watch network news broadcasts. In the US Stewart is up against the local news shows at 11pm.

Not only is this up against the main news programmes, it's also up against Newsnight and Question Time. Some news junkies already have to make an unenviable choice at that time about what to watch - both with their competing Twitter hastags - and Sky+ can only record two shows at once (And for younger viewers, E4 is showing the new series of Skins at 10pm on Thursdays too - they even promoted it straight after 10 O'Clock Live).

It's not terrible, but not great. The scattergun attitude to subject matter needs refining, and undoubtedly confidence will come in the future. If I was C4, I'd move the programme to Friday night where I notice they're already carrying a late night repeat. Give David Mitchell's interviews more time - this is an hour long show after all - and I'd add in a couple more pre-recorded bits.

Groupon's Having a Laugh!

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A report in the New York Times recently revealed that Groupon, the social buying site, is looking at generating $15bn in a prospective IPO.

We're surely back in internet bubble days with valuations like that! If Facebook's valuation of $50bn is questionable, then it's surely not even remotely credible that a business built around coupons is worth $15bn.

So why is there so much news and hyper surrounding Groupon? Their business model is built around offering daily discounts to their subscribers. The discounts are normally very healthy, and the basis of the model is that the special offer will drive footfall (or web-clicks) to the business in question. Customers will do repeat business, and like any loss-leader or promotion, initial losses will more than be made up for in the long term.

But, as this very good piece at the Columbia Journalism Review points out, there are some serious flaws in the long term viability of the model.

  • The losses sustained by your offer are considerable. In the CJR piece linked above, Groupon takes 50% of the discounted price. That means that if you offer 50% off, you only get 25% of the price. If you run your own promotion, you're at least limited in your "losses".
  • You need a significant local sales force. While some offers can be "sold" (or perhaps "negotiated") at a national level, making them relevant to subscribers everywhere, the major product categories that Groupon deals with are smaller local businesses or groups. So I might be able to do a deal with a London based chain of restaurants, but I need to do further deals in Manchester and Glasgow. That means people on the ground in those locations. Other media are much better placed since they already have local sales forces.
  • It's not a unique business. When Google failed to acquire Groupon, CJR says they set about building their own version. We'll have to see. In the meantime, there are already competitors out there such as LivingSocial.
  • Repeat business. Most sales teams spend most of their time going back to their regular customers. Yes, there are new clients to bring on board, but mostly you're serving your existing clients. Groupon has to effectively develop a new client every day in every area it works. If I'm a local restaurant chain, I might do a deal with them once, but I'm not likely to want to work again with them the following week. Even if I do repeat business, it's a law of diminishing returns.
  • The business opportunity seems finite. Restaurants and spa treatments - which are the mainstay of businesses like Groupon - have relatively "nebulous" values. What I mean by that is that the difference between raw materials costs and purchase price is quite high. If I spend £20 on a meal, I know that the actual cost to the restaurant in raw ingredients is probably less than £5. I'm paying for the premises, the people, the ambiance and so on. Similarly, if I have spa treatment, the only real costs are the premises, the people, and perhaps some cosmetics (which have their own ridiculous mark-ups). What that means is that there's a lot of leeway in my pricing model before I actually lose money on each transaction ignoring for a moment, fixed costs. Beyond those areas, there are few services or products that have such room to manoeuvre.
  • The coupon culture damages businesses in the long term. We've always had coupons, although in the UK they've not really attained the levels that they have somewhere like the US. Indeed until relatively recently, I'd suggest that there was actually an unwillingness to use coupons. But that has changed. Businesses like Pizza Express and Gap have gone so far in the other direction that I now feel like I'm being ripped off if I'm not using a coupon. In some circumstances I'm sure that new customers have been generated by offers through Groupon, but I tend to believe that many will treat them as one-off visits. Because don't forget, Groupon is going to email you another offer tomorrow.

Is Groupon a sustainable business? I'm sure it is. There's more growth to be achieved in locations that it operates, and the number of subscribers it has. And like any coupons or gift-card business, the levels of coupons that remain unredeemed add to the business's profitability. That's not always for the right reasons of course. A couple of colleagues of mine redeemed a coupon for a lunchtime meal recently and the queue was so long, they didn't actually return to the office within the lunch hour. As a result, even though they still have further coupons to redeem, they've yet to return to the outlet.

One way or another this is a business area that's only going to get tougher - a lot tougher. That's why putting ridiculous valuations on the business when it's still very young just seems utterly mad.

Local TV

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Today, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt gave his backing to a new network of local TV stations built around the hub of a national spine. In other words, it'll be a national service with local opt-outs at various times of the day.

Hunt has been talking about this for ages, often with hackneyed references to Birmingham in the West Midlands not sustaining a local TV service, but Birmingham, Alabama sustaining several. That particular argument is specious. US network (i.e. non-cable) television is built around a patchwork of local affiliates to networks. Major local stations affiliate themselves with a major network and take that company's programming in exchange for handing over much of the advertising inventory. They get to keep some, but if they want to make money themselves locally, they're largely reduced to their local news shows. That's why stations that often carry nothing but re-runs, might still have local news and weather.

Anyway, this has been Hunt's bugbear for some time. He wants local television, even though it's uncertain that it can be sustained. For starters, there's the spectrum. Channels on Freeview (and in a post 2012 world, TV will be 100% digital) are sold for an awful lot of money. A full 24 hour space can retail for upwards of £10m a year. That's before you've kitted a studio anywhere or shot a single minute of programming.

Everyone is convinced that there is local advertising money to be found. That is, money that's not already being taken by other media - local press, local radio, the internet (which is becoming ever more localised) and outdoor. I'm just not certain that it's there. Yes, there are advertisers in somewhere like London who can't afford to go on television because the prices are just too high. But if they go on a local "channel 6" then that money is going to come from somewhere. Will it further damage local press that has already lost vast chunks of its classified revenues to the internet? Or local radio, which is largely going in the opposite direction, removing as many local responsibilities as possible and broadcasting in national or quasi-national networks.

Indeed, if I was a local media owner, I'd be distinctly unhappy that a government sponsored new entrant was entering my market to compete with my privately owned business. There just aren't advertisers kicking around with cash burning a hole in their pocket that would otherwise be unspent. It is fair to say that some of those local media owners might want to apply for these licences. Indeed, I find it very hard to determine how the services might be achievable were the news gathering operations not serving multiple media.

Hunt seems to have adhered to the findings of the Shott Report which placed a far more conservative limit on the number of sustainable services than someone like Greg Dyke. Shott talks about 10-15, whereas Dyke thinks more like 80 services is achievable, a notion I find laughable.

It's unclear to me how Hunt is going to force digital EPG like BSkyB's and Virgin Media's to place a new local network high up their respective guides. For one thing, there are some substantial costs to having upwards of ten additional channels being broadcast by satellite. And only this week BSkyB unveiled its new revised line-up of channels that's obviously been years in the making to get some bigger services into higher EPG positions. Do they really want to bump everyone back down a position? For years, BSkyB has battled everyone before it to give credence to the notion that Sky1 is channel 6. And Virgin Media's infrastructure will take some significant, and therefore costly, upgrades to cope at a sub-regional level.

The real problem as I see it is that the national spine of the channel - those parts that aren't bargain basement hyperlocal news segments - is going to surely be pretty poor. There is going to be barely any money for new programming, so look forward to a schedule filled with cheaply acquired US programming; reruns of sitcoms and action series. I'd expect it to mostly be US programmes. There might be the odd gameshow if a format can be created cheaply enough. And given that two of our current three "terrestrial" commercial broadcasters already fill their night-time schedules with gaming and teleshopping, you can expect vast hours handed over to those occupations.

If a channel is as unappealing as I've just highlighted, then why would a viewer ever turn to it? While television is "appointment to view" and we switch to a programme when it's scheduled, we're far less likely to even discover the programme if we never watch that channel in the first place.

And how will these local channels be measured? Television is set-up on a regional basis at the moment, and the BARB panel is built to reflect those ITV regions. Going smaller than that is not an easy thing to do. Indeed, it's very expensive. But without BARB, you don't know who's viewing. And that's what determines ad prices. Of course in the US, they still have "sweeps" periods which use paper diaries to measure viewing. Is that we're going to have here?

While this idea is nice in principle, I'm not sure that it's practical. And at the worst end of the spectrum, it could actually be harmful to other local media providers. If local TV services in London and Manchester have failed - even if they were trying too hard to fill a 24 hour schedule with locally produced programmes - then I fear that even more local television will fail much faster.

The answer is surely to ensure that ITV maintains its local programming requirements and to stop backing down every time they make demands about reducing the levels they must produce. The notion that they could cut their hour of national and local news down to thirty minutes for example. CRR probably does need looking at as a quid pro quo.

In the meantime, I expect we're going to see a few years of licence fee payers' cash being wasted - because that's where the money comes from.

World Cup 2018 Redux

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Broadcast magazine has a really interesting story relating to England's failed bid for the 2018 World Cup. The story is here (behind a paywall).

In summary, it seems that in its bid proposal, England agreed to remove the 2018 World Cup tournament from the Listed Events which would have effectively let companies like Sky and ESPN bid for the tournament. It seems that neither the BBC nor ITV were aware of the inclusion of this in the England bid.

The excuse made is that this, along with plenty of other legislative amendments, or "Government Guarantees", that FIFA would demand, were required in order to stand a chance of winning. The government was seemingly going to try to seek a compromise with FIFA in the event that it won the tournament. There's a good list of those guarantees on Andrew Jennings' site, released publicly as a result of the Dutch government's joint bid with Belgium.

What this could have meant is that despite UK taxpayers footing significant bills for the honour of staging the event, UK viewers might have missed out entirely on seeing the finals played free-to-air.

In a post-digital TV switchover world, more channels than just the BBC and ITV would be eligible to broadcast World Cup games under the current listed events. But this story suggests that it's not just the ability of a channel like Sky or ESPN, both of which have space on Freeview (albeit ESPN is encrypted and Sky's is in the form of Sky News, Sky 3 and Sky 3+1), to broadcast free to air, but to actually end up with the game purely on pay per view television.

And while this list of 2010 World Cup TV broadcasters suggests that free to air dominates, there's plenty of pay television in that list too. And in some cases more matches are on pay television than free to air.

Anyway, much as I'd love to experience a World Cup in England during my lifetime, the more I learn about FIFA, the more I'm relieved that we're having little to do with them.

Yes, I'm well aware that the picture above, while being of Wembley stadium, is actually taken at one of their annual NFL games.

Ed Reardon's Week: Series 7

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Ed Reardon
Photo: BBC Radio 4

Have I mentioned that Ed Reardon's Week is back for a new series? I have? Oh well, there's no harm in mentioning it again. Every Monday at 11:30 and then on the iPlayer. In The Current Climate is available until Monday.

And a single episode will be available in Radio 4's new Monday comedy podcast next Monday. Sadly "for rights reasons" - i.e. because we plan on selling these shows later - only a single episode will be available. But one is better than none.

In the meantime, Ed's also "penned" another Radio 4 blog.

That is all.

More On Cars (And Mobile Data)

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Wrecked cars

CES has been taking place recently and one of the themes seems to have been the increased amount of sophistication in the in-car audio market. In particular Pandora is getting a lot of support from major manufacturers like Toyota and Ford. But there are plenty more besides.

Last month I wrote a piece about in-car listening in the UK. I tried to compare the UK's 19.3% share of radio listening taking place in-car with the US, but it quickly became clear that getting accurate data to compare wasn't going to be straightforward.

Now this raises a number of questions. Firstly, I think I need to take issue with some of the stats being bandied about. In this piece from the BBC's Maggie Shiels at CES, Pandora's founder Tim Westergren is reported as claiming that "Half of all radio listening is in the car. If you want to be a truly anytime, anywhere complete radio solution for someone, you have to have something for the car."

While that sentiment is certainly true, the "half of all radio listening is in the car" statement is almost certainly not true. I bow to the superior knowledge of Vision Critical's Jeff Vidler and Edison Research's Larry Rosin who commented on my previous piece to between them point out that in the US, Arbitron doesn't actually measure in-car listening (PPMs aren't smart enough), but that the last data for 2008 gave a 35.5% share of listening as being in-car. A substantial amount, but not nearly "half."

Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently for the UK market, following the retrenchment of T-Mobile in the last few days to offering only 500MB like most of its peers in the sector (although they now say that current subscribers will maintain their contracted entitlement of up to 3GB a month, at least until the end of their current contracts), listening to a significant amount of in-car audio in the UK delivered via mobile phone networks is pretty much a non-starter. While there are differences of opinion about how much internet radio you can stream a month with a 500MB allowance, it's clearly not enough.

Global's Nick Piggott calculates that you can perhaps listen to 34 minutes a day for a month on a 500MB mobile data plan, but unfortunately, UK radio consumers currently listen for an average of two and a half hours a day.

The mobile networks tend to be more concerned about video than audio, although that's still an issue for them. I wonder how these moves will play with car manufacturers who are investing significant amounts in implementing in-car internet listening devices which their customers probably won't be able to afford to use for any meaningful durations? And where does that leave the mobile advertising market? The geo-location facilities that an always-on internet enabled smartphone offers for mobile marketing suddenly aren't so attractive if consumers are scared to even switch on data for fear of running up huge bills if they stray over their monthly data quota.

It'll be interesting to see how this plays out over time. In the meantime, the radio industry probably does need to maintain a broadcast model...

[Update] James has written about this too!

[These views, as ever, are mine, and don't necessarily reflect, blah, blah, blah]

Musicality

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DSC00983

I must admit that I enjoyed taking the new BBC Radio 3 Musicality Test.

In a series of questions both written and based around audio, your musical knowledge is tested. Not in the sense of who composed what, or who was in which band, but whether you can determine melodies or tempo, as well as the importance of music in your life. A fun way to spend twenty minutes or so.

For the record, here are my results:

51% for Enthusiasm
69% for Musical Perception
34% for Emotional Connection
20% for Social Creativity (i.e. I don't play an instrument)
94% for Musical Curiosity (I do like an awful lot of different types of music. Thrash metal must be that last 6%)

And I was particularly good at detecting melodies.

A few other scores to be found here.

Data Reductions Hurt Mobile Media

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The news that T-Mobile is dropping its mobile data usage limit to 500MB from 1GB is not great news. This is not just about one operator, but a trend across the industry.

While T-Mobile says that "over 90%" of its customers use less than this a month (does this include customers without smartphones?), it's not actually an enormous amount of data to be getting through each month. They say that this brings them into line with sister company Orange who already sit at that same level. Of course Orange could have increased its limit, but the reality is that as more people use more smartphones more of the time, the networks just can't cope. And putting limitations on data usage is their way of coping. Of the main providers, only Three still has decent usage levels left.

But this isn't great news for any media suppliers, and by that I mean anyone serving video or audio. As one person wrote on a phone blog I follow wrote:

When I first got my Android phone a few months back I installed 3G watchdog just to see exactly how much I used (having had a Sony Ericsson, then Nokia phones I wasn't really interested up until this point). Within the calendar month, my "normal" usage (surfing, market, 24/7 push email and *the biggie* internet radio) I hit ~1GB. This has been pretty steady since.

Personally, I get through my 500MB without much use beyond email and a bit of surfing. I have WiFi at work and at home, but nonetheless, I get through "a lot" in the operators' eyes.

My employer has been very successfully developing apps for many handsets, but these data limits do have the potential to limit growth for every media supplier. Of course, there is WiFi, and depending on your plan and location, you might get inclusive WiFi from someone like BTOpenzone which is helpful. But that doesn't help me on the train in the morning.

The same data issue is true for streaming services like Spotify or (should it ever launch here again) Pandora. You can buffer music in advance to an extent, but downloading is still part of the deal. And this is going to become harder, or more expensive, for consumers.

[These are my own views, and don't necessarily reflect those of my employer.]

Television I Have Been Watching

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A few programmes that did or didn't entertain me in the last few days:

Penn and Teller's Fool Us was everything The Magicians wasn't. With the straight magic show being considered far too straightforward for a 21st century audience, producers are constantly looking for spins that'll make programming "acceptable". Sadly, for BBC1's The Magicians, the route they've gone down is using celebrities. In the second episode that meant Peter Jones from Dragon's Den, Adrian Edmondson who was once of the Young Ones and Bottom, but is now more regularly appearing with his folk band, and Amanda Byram who was fresh from the preceding programme, Total Wipeout.

This was an improvement on the first programme, and it's not really the quality of the tricks that's wrong, it's the use of the celebrities. The reality is that most of these tricks have been performed many times before by the magicians involved, and they're not used to working with these people. They're generally surplass to requirement, and it shows as they have to be forced into being part of the illusions. That's particularly the case with Barry and Stuart who already have ready banter between the pair of them as part of their act. Shoehorning a third person into it is therefore nearly impossible. And the forced banter actually makes the acts more awkward and brings down the impressiveness of some of the tricks.

The reality facet that's been applied in Penn and Teller's one-off is the judging aspect. I wouldn't pretend this show is perfect, but it's a lot better than The Magicians. We have Jonathan Ross completing a hattrick of appearances across major channels this week (Channel 4 for the Quiz of the Year, and BBC Two for Stargazing) who presents fairly deftly, while Penn and Teller invite British magicians to "Fool Us" - by which I mean, perform a trick that Penn and Teller can't explain.

The thing I was wondering most about going into this show was how Penn and Teller would explain how a trick was done without actually destroying the trick entirely for that magician and indeed others performing the same trick. This aspect was reasonably handled with Penn - never Teller as he's the silent partner - either throwing a technical phrase out or suggesting how it was done without quite explaining, such as a trick deck.

In practice this meant that they mostly knew how the tricks were done. They did get very annoyed that one comic magician with a trick involving money in envelopes was baffling to them. It was probably quite simple, but they were forced to concede defeat. But for another magician it was less smooth. Backstage there was an independent arbitor who was also a magician and had obviously earlier been let in on the techniques employed in all the tricks. It was his job to determine whether or not what Penn and Teller thought was the process was close enough to the actual process used. That fell down with one competitor where Penn and Teller believed that they knew how he did the trick, while the arbitor said that they hadn't properly explained it. There was almost an argument on stage, and producers, perhaps sensing that a bad taste had been left in viewers mouths shot a "backstage" piece of Penn talking to Teller and agreeing that they knew how he did bits of the trick, but the big finish had indeed fooled them.

I suspect that if this one-off went to series, they'd develop a better understanding about how to get through that section of the show.

The programme was topped and tailed with some great Penn and Teller tricks employing their brand of sort-of-explaining how tricks are done, and then wowing you anyway.

Above Suspicion was back for a third series and the writers have been watching too much Ashes to Ashes - let me explain what I mean. These stories are based on Lynda La Plante novels and she obviously has a certain view of the Metropolitan Police. That is that they're a sexist backwards organisation where lots of people shout and march around a lot, not necessarily doing any detective work. The sole female detective (Kelly Reilly) smoulders around driving all the men around her wild with desire, but essentially technology is an anathma to these people. Indeed it's almost as if it becomes a class issue with the working class detectives and the upper class forensic scientist. When a witness with a photographic memory provides a list of 40 or so number plates, it's considered a massively time-consuming piece of work to go through them. Obviously popping them through a computer as fast as they can be typed doesn't appeal. I'd have thought that it'd take 15 minutes at the outset to check them all - at least superficially.

The story is fun involving a dangerous new drug hitting the streets, lots of murders and someone who seemingly escaped from Miami Vice in the eighties. Julian Sands even makes an appearance at one point. Ciaran Hinds is at his "cor blimey" best, and can basically only bark orders. Everyone who works for him are idiots. I did feel sorry for a sequence right at the end where he has to chase a light aircraft along the runway on foot. He's probably past his best sprinting days.

I think I'd point Lynda La Plante towards 2009's excellent The Force from Channel 4 which shows the real way a murder case is detected in a somewhat more humdrum and scientific manner.

Episodes is the new BBC comedy in association with US premium cable network Showtime. The two channels are showing the series just about simultaneously with Showtime airing it on Sunday evenings (alongside Californication and their new US version of Shameless) while on BBC Two it follows Horizon. The premise is that Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangen play Bev and Sean, the successful writers of a BBC hit comedy series, Lyman's Boys. An American TV exce signs them up to write a US TV version and they're whisked off to La La Land where they're opulantly housed as they cast and write a US version. Matt Le Blanc only appeared minimally in this episode, but he will become the person cast in the lead role replacing the somewhat older Richard Griffiths ("Julian"). Hilarity will no doubt ensue.

Depsite the pedigree of the producers who include Friends' David Crane, I'm not yet sure about this. They had a lot to set up, and we do need to get beyond that. So I'll give this a chance. But there weren't quite as many laughs as I'd have liked, and the performances perhaps weren't as subtle as you'd have found in other behind-the-scenes comedies like Entourage or Larry Sandler (I'm afraid to say that Daisy Haggard was particularly annoying, looking utterly gormless everytime the camera cut to her). Still, comedies always take an episode or two before they're firing on all cylinders.

One programme that you certainly didn't need to watch was BBC Three's Great Movie MIstakes 2: The Sequel. This two hour show was one of the laziest bits of television you could imagine. I only watched about five minutes of it, and that was plenty. Essentially this is the "goofs" section of IMDB made into an interminable programme all linked by an unfunny dead pan Robert Webb commentary. The section I caught showed various tiny continuity errors in various James Bond films. They're not "Great" in any sense of the word. A tie's not present in the close-up. A stunt man was used for a stunt - and if you freeze frame the action, you can see. There's no snow on a dam. It's pointless. And there's TWO HOURS of it. The reality is that in every drama you've ever seen there are continuity errors. You mostly don't notice, and generally don't care. So why does Robert Webb take part in these programmes? How big is his mortgage? This comes hot on the heals of the equally unfunny Channel 4 series, Robert's Webb, in which Webb produced an unfunny dead pan commentary to accompany various viral videos taken from YouTube and the like, with a smattering of out of context Tweets from various people. To say that this is lowest common denominator humour is unfair to numerators and denominators everywhere.

If there's one programme you do need to watch if you haven't already, it's The Secret Life of Bob Monkhouse. To be honest, I found the title very off-putting, but powerful reviews from others after the Christmas break meant that I caught the weekend BBC Four repeat of this, and it's terrifc. Monkhouse was a serial collector, and he kept tapes and videos of everything he did, often being the only person to still retain copies. So while this was about Monkhouse and his life, it was illustrated terrifically, with useful and reelvant interviews with people who knew him. Really worth catching on the iPlayer before this weekend.

Analogue Afternoon

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Polaroid1

Polaroid2

Sadly my DSLR is winging its way back to Sony to be repaired. I could have reverted to my old camera, but there were a shots at the end of a pack in my Polaroid, so I thought I'd shoot them. Clearly they're well out of date and these images have been tidied up digitally a little.

The Ashes on the Radio

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3 May 2009

There are probably few who'd argue that Test Match Special is an incredible institution. For many, despite Sky's exemplary coverage, it's far preferable (for many more, it's the only way to get live broadcast coverage of cricket). It's just quite hard trying to sync up Sky pictures with TMS audio. The only way I can think of is by getting that

And so to the coverage of The Ashes from TMS for the last couple of tests. In the fourth Test in Melbourne, England won early on the fourth day. Their victory meant that England retained the Ashes. Not as good as a win, since England were only 2-1 up with one Test to play, but nonetheless enough to retain the trophy as the side holding the trophy has to actually be beaten for them to give up the urn.

TMS is broadcast on 5 Live Sports Extra, and Radio 4 LW. The former goes out on all the digital platforms, while the latter is the "old-school" way of listening*. For years Roberts has sold a TMS "branded" radio to allow for precisely this LW listening. However, the gods were against listener to the LW signal that night.

Radio 4 LW jumps away from regular Radio 4 programming twice a day to serve the shipping forecast. In particular, there's a 12 minute bulletin nightly at 00:48. Since the final wicket fell at about 00:55,

Bad luck if you were following the action on LW. Jonathan "Aggers" Agnew had even mentioned a few minutes earlier that he hoped the final wicket partnership would last long enough for LW listeners to come out of the shipping forecast.

Step forward to the fifth Test in the early hours of this morning. This time it's the fifth day of the action in Sydney, and England have a day to take the final three Australian wickets to ensure that they win The Ashes 3-1.

And do you know what? The gods were once again against R4 LW listeners. The last wicket fell at 00:54 or thereabouts. Again, plum in the middle of the shipping forecast. Very unfortunate.

Listen!
Audioboo coverage from Piers Scholfield

Now to be fair, coverage was uninterrupted on 5 Five Live Sports Extra on DAB and other digital platforms. And for the final hours of both Tests, 5 Live broadcast commentary between about 11pm and 1am, so unless you're living in very remote parts of Wales or Scotland, you should have been able to hear analogue coverage and the England wins.

I should also mention that I personally listened to DAB coverage of the final minutes of the fourth Test, whereas I had Sky on TV for the fifth Test. So personally, I didn't miss out.

In most respects this is just unfortunate timing - only 12 minutes during the entire day's coverage are missed by LW listeners. It's just that they've managed to miss two key moments. On the other hand, the shipping forecast is considered pretty vital. I'm not sure to what extent that's really true - since technology is quite prevalent in many boats and ships these days. But nonetheless, I'd not argue against its existence.

As for missing the moment. It's not as bad as ITV HD missing the England goal in the World Cup or the previous ITV1 incident where viewers in the south missed the winner in an FA Cup replay. But it might persuade a few people to go digital for this summer's tests. Some cheaper portable DAB radios might be nice though.

[Update] Sorry - I missed the fact that England's first win in the second Test also came during the shipping forecast. Now that's really bad luck!

[Update 2] Plenty more on the web about this: James Cridland, The Guardian, the Today programme and a useful Radio 4 blog piece.

* Actually for me, the real "old-school" way of listening was on Radio 3 MW. But that's where you'll find Absolute Radio these days!

Photographic Exhibitions

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I went to a couple of different photographic exhibitions the other day - although only a hundred metres or so separated them - they were massively disparate in style.

The V&A is hosting Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography until February 20. Using a variety of styles and techniques, the five artists featured work directly onto photographic paper to create imagery - removing the actual camera from the form. Sometimes that can be identifiably physical things like leaves, ladders or even a baby. And sometimes it's the experimentation with and use of chemicals to create shapes.

Meanwhile, across Exhibition Road, the Natural History Museum continues its very popular annual Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. To say that this is really popular, doesn't really do "popularity" justice. The exhibition actually runs for about six months of the year, and the photography is, of course, stunning. A certain amount of jealousy tends to envelop me when I look at these photos - since a good number are from professionals who were working on assignment in far flung corners of the world. When you read a label and the photographer explains that they had to keep revisiting a place over several days or weeks, then you realise that this imagery is slightly out of the way of us mere mortals.

But that shouldn't detract from remarkable images. The one small issue I always have is with the Young Photographers' section. While I've no doubt that the kids in question did a great job, they do have some awesomely expensive gear to shoot with. You absolutely don't need a great camera to take a great photo, although an expensive camera in the hands of a child does suggest a professional, or serious amateur parent willing to entrust their offspring with many thousands of pounds of kit. Canon 500mm lenses which run at over five thousand pounds a throw, are remarkably popular throughout this exhibition (although to be fair, one photo did seem to be have been taken with an entry-level Canon and kit lens).

I'm just bitter, twisted, and insansely jealous. Go and see the exhibition if you get the chance. And if not, Waterstones has the accompanying book for just a tenner in its current sale (a fiver cheaper than Amazon).

Some Christmas Television

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Overall I thought that there was some pretty good stuff on at Christmas. I can't claim to have watched all of it; just a little here and there. But here, in no particular order, are the things that have stood out for me over the period:

The Magicians. I love magic on the television, and there simply isn't enough of it. Idly flicking through the international section of Sky's EPG, I stumbled across a trailer for what is France 2's big New Year's Eve show - Le Plus Grand Cabaret du Monde presented by a chap called Patrick Sébastien. TV5 Monde was simulcasting this. The show opened with a big number from the dancers of the Moulin Rouge (topless at 8pm - not a problem with me, although the fact that they stood behind Sébastien during his opening piece, meant that my eyes weren't necessarily on the host). Most of the show is taken up with acts either live in the studio, or seemingly from previous editions of the show. The acts are in the main, acrobats, and of particular interest to me, magicians. In between the acts Sébastien talked to a number of French celebratories in the studio there to plug various books, CDs and films. My lack of French meant that I largely fast-forwarded these sequences. That, and the fact that I didn't recognise any of them. Magic, of course, is one of those things that can be appreciated largely without dialogue.

Incidentally, like all French studio productions, fitting clip-on microphones is a big no-no. If you watch Jonathan Ross or Graham Norton, when guests come on, a technician has already fitted a microphone and wireless pack to them before we see them. Nobody aside from sound engineers need worry about their microphone technique. But the French love something to hold. So everybody has a hand-held microphone, including the host. Sometimes they forget to use them, and other times they put them too close to their mouths, but it's something to hold.

Anyway, the magic was largely of a high quality, and some of the tricks had me thinking. Yes - I'm one of those people who have to work out what's going on and how the trick is done. It infuriates me if I can't work it out. The advent of PVRs and slow-motion does mean that I go back and forwards trying to catch things. And I did.

But back to The Magicians. This was the first primetime magic I can remember on UK TV for many a year - David Blaine "stunts" notwithstanding. Yes we have Derren Brown - and I see Channel 4 has a Derren Brown day lined up next Saturday - but he's on in late evening. This was the first big early evening magic show since perhaps Paul Daniels. Sadly I was a bit underwhelmed. I'm not sure why we need to make magic competitive. Why does there have to be a gimic? Lenny Henry is fine as a presenter, but he was a bit too over-enthusiastic. And I'm not quite sure about the need for celebrities. Getting them involved in tricks is fine, but as no more than guests. Having them learn tricks and inserting some kind of false jeopardy seems a bit pointless. I'll carry on recording the series, if only for the tricks. But this isn't quite the winning series I thought it might be. Oh, and is Saint-Saëns' Dance Macabre now the only music we can use for magic since it was used as the Jonathan Creek theme? Perhaps ITV's one-off featuring the awesome Penn & Teller will be a bit better later this week?

Whistle and I'll Come To You. I was looking forward to this, as in the last couple of years, BBC Four has been doing a sterling job of reintroducing us to the Christmas ghost story, including some new productions of MR James stories as this was. But I've got to say that I wasn't totally taken with this version of the classic story. It was famously made previously in 1968 and starred Michael Hordern as a scholarly professor who takes an off-season break in a bleak Norfolk holiday resort. That version was splendid and stuck pretty tightly with the original story.

In the new update, John Hurt is excellent, but lots of other elements are wrong. The story has been updated, and Hurt now has a wife who he's just placed in a home. He goes to the coast, but it's a southern coast with towering cliffs, not an eastern one with dunes. The setting just isn't as bleak. And the story has been filled out to an hour which means that it does drag a bit. I liked it, but it was nowhere near as good as the 1968 version, and it needed to be tighter. Oh - and it could have done with a whistle rather than a ring. It's in the title after all...

Upstairs Downstairs. The prevailing wisdom about this programme was that it was all a bit pointless after Downton Abbey. Upstairs Downstairs might be the original tale of upper class folk and their serving staff, but that was a long time ago. I certainly don't remember the series at all, although it's famous theme tune I certainly do know. That's probably, as much as anything, down to the fact that one of the relatively few LPs we had when I was young was a TV Times Hit Television Themes LP which featured such classics as Black Beauty, Van Der Valk and of course, Upstairs Downstairs. In this updating, with the original series' tenants having moved on and Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes moving in, only series co-creator Jean Marsh's Rose Buck character has remained.

Of course, there is no doubting that Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey are similar in theme, although they are separated by about twenty years. Downton Abbey concluded at the outbreak of the First World War, whereas we're dealing with Oswald Mosley and his fascists in 1936 London in Upstairs Downstairs. I loved Downton Abbey a lot, even if at times it was essentially a very glossy soap, but I was more intrigued by the political ramifications of Upstairs Downstairs and the time that it was set in. The involvement of real-world characters such as Wallis Simpson (also recently portrayed in Any Human Heart, and coming very soon in The King's Speech), von Ribbentrop, Eden and the aforementioned Mosely made it quite fascinating. I should also mention that I watched a great old Newsnight report from Robert Harris dug out by Adam Curtis on his wonderful BBC blog about American spies and others trying to keep the US out of the war.

I hope we'll get another series.

Entertainingly, I note that both series are PBS Masterpiece co-productions - and Downton is about to start airing this week in the US (no, Daily Mail, it's not been substantially cut).

Zen. I've been a long time lover of Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series - we miss you Michael. And now, in the absence for the time being, of a new series of Wallander (while Kenneth Brannagh directs Thor), we get another non-English detective in the Venetian Zen. The first thing to say is that this isn't the most accurate adaptation I've ever seen, and quite knowingly so. The marvellous Rufus Sewell plays Zen, and he's too young and somewhat more swathe than Dibdin's detective. But the plot is reasonably close to the novel (although it's been a while since I read it), and his honesty come over pretty well in a society that's depicted as being generally corrupt on every level. Indeed some of Dibdin's earlier books do have complicated plots that aren't easily distilled down to 90 minutes. So you do lose something along the way and the ending was a little too perfunctory.

With any series where the protagonists are foreign, but the series is made for the UK eyes, there comes the knotty problem of what to with the accents. Like Wallander, they've plumped to give everyone British accents - the cast is largely British after all, with the exception of his love interest, Caterina Murino. I think this is fine, and will seem natural soon enough. It's better than giving everyone faux Italian accents. I still have memories of what I believe was a pilot for a British TV series called The Marshall starring Alfred Molina. You just don't get taken seriously doing cod accents.

The series, which is co-produced Italian broadcaster RTI (itself part of Mediaset, and therefore part of the Berlusconi empire) as well as German public service broadcaster ZDF, is filmed entirely in Italy and looks beautiful. You just want to book your 2011 holiday to the hills surrounding Rome immediately. And I definitely feel the need for a sharp Italian suit - it was criminal what Sewell did to his suit jumping down caves and into streams in his.

All said and done, I did enjoy it. Although I also enjoyed watching, for the first time, a couple of Inspector Montalbano films from RAI which BBC Four first broadcast a year or two ago. While these are a little dated (in one episode a stolen DVD player looks like a desktop PC), they're still good fun and decently made. I'd be happy to see more of these. And aside from Spiral, I'm sure that there are a few decent French "flic" series that'd be quite watchable by UK audiences. Come to that, I'm pretty certain that German TV has a decent track record in this area.

Eric and Ernie. I must admit that much as I love the channel, I wish that it'd sometimes do one-off dramas that weren't just about dead comedians. We've had an awful lot of them, and I see from trailers that Ruth Jones' is soon to be Hattie Jacques. So I was a little uncertain about whether or not to watch Eric and Ernie, but I'm happy that I did. It was a really nicely delivered piece, and I hadn't quite realised the age that the pair of them had first got together. Victoria Wood was great as Ernie's mum (and I believe largely an instigator of the film, which probably explains why it aired on BBC 2 rather than BBC Four), while Vic Reeves (or Jim Moir as he was billed here) had a finely judged performance as his dad. The horrors of a tour called "Youth Takes a Bow" which was filled with junior performers, and is the sort of thing I'd have stabbed my eyes out to avoid watching, and their career-threatening first TV series were all fascinating. Yes, there was the odd clunky bit such as when Eric's mum gets inspiration to change his name from Bartholomew to Morecombe (she was reading the local paper), but those aside, it was nicely done.

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. They're back on the BBC after a journey off to Five for a couple of years, although they do seem to be a bit hidden away in the 8pm hour on BBC Four. These are for kids after all. Yes, I'm sure that every parent who persuades their youngsters that these would be good to watch, probably has BBC Four as their go-to channel, but I remember watching these, unbidden by parents, on BBC Two. Mark Miodownik was a great presenter this year talking about Material Sciences, and although sometimes the series works just a little too hard to shoehorn an experiment in, it's still excellent.

Stargazing LIVE. I'm not quite sure why "LIVE" has to be in uppercase, but it is. One of the problems with living in London, in a flat, is that it's basically not very sensible for me to get a telescope. I'd love one though, and at some point, I will - especially if I can take pictures with my DSLR (none from the partial solar eclipse today sadly - it was too cloudy outside Alexandra Palace at 0810 this morning). Prof. Brian Cox can do no wrong, with his excellent Wonder of the Solar System from last year, and he's ably abetted by Dara O'Brien who's better in this than the slightly long in the tooth Three Men format. Over Christmas, their Scottish exploits were aired, and while they replicated quite a bit of the Scottish journey I made last year, albeit with more boats and fewer bikes, it was still a bit too much like pantomine - Rory McGrath, I'm looking at you.

We're due a follow up from Cox, and in the meantime this three parter could essentially be a sister programme to Springwatch and Autumnwatch, filling the same space in the schedule. Presented from Jodrell Bank, they were blessed with clear(ish) skies on the first night. But of course, although it is live, the programme is mostly filled with pre-recorded packages. Nonetheless, any bit of science pre-9pm is welcome these days. I did find it a tiny bit odd that Sunday night's The Sky at Night didn't reference the programme at all, although it was immediately followed by a trailer for Stargazing. I do wonder about the future of The Sky at Night when Sir Patrick is finally forced into stopping (hopefully no time soon). While there are a couple of obvious successors in Chris Lintott and Pete Lawrence, I do sometimes think that the programme is essentially allowed to continue purely because it's been on-air since 1957, always presented by Sir Patrick. A monthly astronomy programme late night on BBC1 probably isn't top of the channel controller's considerations.

Murder on the Orient Express. I must admit that I'm only a very occasional viewer of ITV's Agatha Christie series. The recent Marples simply don't hold a candle to Joan Hickson's versions with their re-arranged plotlines, and in the case of one episode over Christmas, simply dropping Marple into a story she never appeared in in book form. Poirot is different, and although the standard remains high, I've only really ever dipped in and out. In the early series, every Art Deco building in London and home counties must have at some time appeared, and I still miss Hastings. At this point I'd also mention Tommy and Tuppence which I enjoyed years ago - probably because I fancied Francesca Annis like mad. But back to Poirot - this was the big one. Murder on the Orient Express.

The problem is that we all know who did it. If you've seen the Albert Finney film featuring its glittering all-star cast, you'll definitely remember. Indeed there's probably not a more famous whodunnit in existance. ITV's version also had a pretty decent cast, with Toby Jones being a miserable Samuel Ratchett who gets killed. The film was shot in Malta and made good use of its location. It also employed a certain amount of CGI to greater or lesser success; not great, but not terrible. In fact, this is quite a down at heel and dark story. Poirot is essentially miserable. The film couldn't escape likenesses to the Finney film, but I still enjoyed it, and Suchet is the definitive screen version of the detective (although I will admit that I enjoyed Ustinov's version in the same way that I like Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes despite Brett being the definitive version). There are only a handful more Poirots to film, and I trust that ITV will see them through.

Of the rest, Doctor Who had one of its better Christmas episodes, and The Royale Family had another vintage seasonal special. I didn't catch the new Lucas/Walliams comedy Come Fly With Me because it's going to take a lot to get me to watch them after Little Britain (hint: I wasn't a fan), and Toast is still sitting on my PVR.

There are a few things starting this week: BBC1 and ITV1 seem to be determined to annoy procedural fans everywhere by running their two/three-parters at the same time on the same nights. Hustle is back for a seventh series on Friday, although it might be a little long in the tooth. Not Going Out is back from the dead on Thursday, and I've set the PVR for that. And there's BBC2's two parter The Sinking of the Laconia on Thursday and Friday which I shall certainly be watching.

Happy New Year

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January 1st-3

January 1st-2

Empty Shop Fronts

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My local council has an initiative called "Dressing Vacant Shops" which I only noticed today.

January 1st-4

January 1st-5

January 1st-6

Of course it's somewhat ironic that the photos they're using are of shops of the sort that have basically been driven out of business by supermarkets and large chains that make too many of our High Streets look identical.

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