The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley

Alex Gibney’s new documentary has been something I’ve been looking forward to watching for some time, since he takes on the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos.

Now, he has a tough act to follow, because John Carreyrou of the the Wall St Journal’s book, Bad Blood, is the definitive telling of the story, coming from the reporter who essentially got the scoop about Theranos’ deceptions.

The story is complex, and there are many layers to it. Necessarily, Gibney can only touch on a few of those issues in his new documentary feature. He plays heavily on the “Edison” motif – after Thomas Edison, the renowned inventor of so many devices from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

There are a number of critical inteviews that Gibney uses to explain what was going on, including with one with Fortune’s Roger Parloff, the writer who first put Holmes on his magazine’s cover. Parloff is a man who looks as though he’s still coming to terms with the deception that was done to him.

There is also an interview with Ken Auletta of the New Yorker, who also wrote a key piece that helped create the Elizabeth Holmes mythology. Auletta’s piece does include the following paragraph, which is referred to more than once in the documentary:

What exactly happens in the machines is treated as a state secret, and Holmes’s description of the process was comically vague: “A chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.”  [My emphasis]

But creating a mythology is something that Holmes was set on doing, and Gibney’s film shows us at one point how she repeatedly used the same story with multiple interviewers as part of her origin story.

The documentary also features interviews with ex-employees – notably Tyler Schultz, the grandson of former US Secretary of State George Schultz, a man who had become one of the directors of Theranos. Tyler had to take on his own grandfather in trying to reveal to him what was actually happening in the company’s labs.

The documentary didn’t really address just how litigious Theranos became, and it only really used a limited number of former employees. Carreyrou’s book does a much better job at showing the lengths that they went to in order to scare former employees from saying anything.

My biggest problem with documentary was their labelling – or rather lack of labelling – source material. This is really important and a failure on the part of the makers.

The documentary opens and closes with Elizabeth Holmes speaking directly to camera, and it’s not at all clear whether she has for some reason granted an interview to Gibney and his team.

In fact, reading between the lines, it seems as though Gibney has got hold of all the material shot by the creative agency who at a certain point was hired to make commercials and other marketing material for Theranos. And much of this was shot by another documentarian – Errol Morris.

There is also a wide range of behind the scenes footage of a company meeting and Holmes wandering around her building. This all seems to have come from the same shoot and will have been shot at roughly the same time. Yet we never really are told this, and at a bare minimum, I’d have liked to have seen some kind of on-screen caption giving a date and the provenance of footage.

Likewise, there’s a brief on camera interview with David Boies, a fierce lawyer who for a period was used by Theranos to chase former employees the company believed were sources for Carreyrou at the Wall St Journal. But the source of that interview and the timing of it isn’t made clear. Boies was still defending Theranos in it, yet that doesn’t feel to be likely to be case in 2019.

Fundamentally, the documentary returns more than once to the “fake it until you make it” ethos of Silicon Valley. For many platforms, that doesn’t really matter – you might tread on other people’s copyright or have unsustainable business models, but nobody is going to die because you got it wrong. As we move into a world where that same kind of start-up mentality affects things that have real safety issues, that kind of thinking has to change. The documentary notes self-driving cars as another intersection of Silicon Valley with a largely safety-conscious existing industry.

In conclusion, I would say that the film is worth watching, but it doesn’t really get to the bottom of the story, and the lack of sourcing of footage is problematic.

However, you should definitely read Carreyrou’s book, Bad Blood, which has just been released in paperback in the UK.

Note: I haven’t yet seen Rebecca Jarvis’ ABC documentary, The Dropout, as it’s geo-blocked in the UK (and my VPN wouldn’t get around that), but I have listened to her accompanying podcast of the same name. The podcast format works well for this story, because there’s so much to it that the time spent.

717s

Great Northern, who operate the trains on my daily commute, have just introduced some brand new Class 717 rains. These have been long in the coming, but various issues have meant that they’ve come into service a few months after they were initially expected to.

In fact, they’ve been running a limited service for a while, but it was a non-timetabled service, and ran in mid-mornings for a couple of trips. Today was the day when the first they’ve properly been introduced to peak-time commuters.

The above video was shot with an Osmo Pocket in slow motion, and edited on my phone with Adobe Clip.

The trains in general are very nice and make a massive change from the old, and somewhat failing Class 313 trains that have run for something like 40 years now.

Obviously, having only taken a single journey on the new train, my experience is limited, but here are a few pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Aircon! This will be really appreciated on some of those hot summer days when services are packed.
  • Very smooth starting and stopping.
  • Lots of space – you can walk all the way through the trains. And all 717 services will have six cars and not just three as a number of 313 services had.
  • WiFi – I tried it and it worked. Although the 50mb limit will mean that you won’t be streaming Netflix with it. Indeed downloading the odd podcast might be troublesome. (To be fair, there’s good 4G mobile coverage along most of this route – tunnels excepted.)
  • Power sockets – I didn’t get a seat today (see below), but I know they’re there.
  • Internal displays – There are display screens everywhere which should include London Underground updates. None of the screens were working this morning however.

Cons:

  • Fewer seats. The old 313s had sets of 2 seats on one side, and sets of 3 seats on the other. These trains are all 2 seats a side. That means fewer overall seats, and more standing room.
  • Limited luggage space. Although this is primarily a commuter line, there seem to be few spots for buggies, wheelchairs and bikes. I carry a Brompton folding bike with me most mornings, and I’ve not yet found a suitable place to keep it. There were two perfect spots on 313s that all Brompton owners knew about and used.
  • No toilets. The operators have clearly maximised space over ‘conveniences’, but even a single toilet would have been useful.

The proof of the pudding will come in the eating, so we will see how things go. I’ve yet to sit down on a service, but the seats look to be on the harder side.

The removal of seats meant that when I took the 0800 service this morning that began at Hertford North, I couldn’t actually get a seat. It’s unusual for me not to get a seat at all at this time, although services regularly won’t have seats just a couple of stops later.

This is all inevitable though. There are increasing passenger volumes, but few of the stations along this route can accommodate trains longer than six cars. That’s particularly the case when it comes to the section of the line from Drayton Park to Moorgate, where all the platforms are underground and limited to six cars. It would take major work to increase them.

There’s definitely room to increase the number of services though, and in particular, there’s room to adjust which services stop at which stations. At the moment, many of the peak Hertford North-Moorgate services stop at most stations, while relatively few Welwyn-Moorgate services stop at every station. That branch of the service also has faster trains running through to Cambridge, but note the number of lines indicating skipped stations on Welwyn services compared to Hertford ones.

Extract from Hertford North – Moorgate Mon-Fri timetable
Extract from Welwyn Garden City – Moorgate Mon-Fri timetable

I will simply note that near my station alone, there is currently a 500-home construction site, a large number of whose residents is likely to use the local station.

The Office of Rail and Road publishes estimates of stations entries and exits, so you can really see the growth in rail usage on this particular part of the network.

Over the period of this chart, there has been a 62% increase in footfall!

Anyway, the new trains are nice, and the entire fleet of old 313s should be replaced by them in the coming weeks. But on its own, that won’t be enough. We’ll also need more services, and smarter timetabling to accommodate ever increasing commuter numbers.

The Legacy by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Having recently read and enjoyed The Absolution, the third in the ‘Freyja and Huldur’ series, I returned to the first book – The Legacy – in my ongoing Icelandic crime fiction reading marathon.

A prologue begins with three children being split up by social services – something that will clearly have ramifications later. And indeed, when we move forward to current-day Reykjavik, a woman named Elisa suffers a particularly grisly fate.

Huldur is sent to investigate along with members of his team. Finding a motive for the crime seems to be key, but there doesn’t appear to be one. There is a witness in Elisa’s daughter, Margrét – but the child is understandably traumatised. So the police need to work with ‘Children’s House’ where we meet Freyja.

Iceland is a small place, and it’s particularly unfortunate that Huldar and Freyja had a one night stand that ended with Huldur running away in the morning. Things are going to be a little frosty.

One key component of this tautly told tale is a shortwave numbers station, which unusually is broadcasting in Icelandic. What could it mean? And how is it linked to the case?

A good start to the series, with a few sharp barbs along the way.

The Island by Ragnar Jónasson

It’s 1988, many years before the events recounted in the first of the Hidden Iceland trilogy, The Darkness. A pair of teenagers have headed out to a remote summer house for a weekend of passion – but things don’t go quite the way they’d planned. Next thing, the girl’s father has been arrested and charged with the murder of his daughter.

We fast forward another ten years, and Hulda Hermannsdottir is in America, trying to track down her father. Her mother never told her who he was, but he was stationed in a US base in Iceland and she has a first name.

Meanwhile, back in Iceland, the friends of the girl who’d died ten years earlier have gathered together to celebrate her – this time on a remote island. Again, things don’t quite go as planned.

It’s into this mess that Hulda returns from America, looking to work out whether a new death was an accident or murder. And how are two events related?

It’s not uncommon in crime novel series for the individual titles to be relatively standalone for new readers, but in this case, I’d strongly recommend going back to The Darkness and reading these titles in order.

We know from the earlier book that Hulda is someone who’s a bit of a loner, and feels as though her career is stagnating. Once more, it feels as though there’s been sloppy detective work –  Jónasson does not portray the Icelandic police service in glowing light in these books. And as ever, there are lots of hidden things below the surface, brooding away.

What’s absolutely certain is that the story is another real page-turner, and the remote settings provide a distinct flavour. My only frustration is that we’ll need to wait until 2020 to learn the conclusion to this series!

Thanks to Penguin UK, Michael Joseph and Netgalley for the ARC. The Island is published in hardback on 4 April 2019.

The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson

Following on from the latest Yrsa Sigurðardóttir novel, I thought I’d stay in Iceland and catch up with Ragnar Jónasson who I’ve been meaning to read for a while. His latest series of books are the Hidden Iceland trilogy, and The Darkness is the first of the three novels.

Hulda Hermannsdottir is approaching her retirement, and isn’t really sure what she’s going to do. She lives alone, her daughter and husband both having died years earlier. A friend in a rambling club has shown a little interest in her, but she’s disappointed that her career spluttered and others have long passed her by getting promotions in Reykjavik’s CID.

Suddenly, even her final retirement is upon her, a new younger guy being able to start in just a couple of weeks. Her cases are removed from her and she has nothing to do. She persuades her boss to let her look at one cold case before retirement finally arrives, and she re-opens a case of a Russian refugee who was found dead at the foot of some remote cliffs. The case had been called a suicide and swiftly closed.

Has she got enough time to get to the bottom of what really happened? What will her colleagues make of her reopening something they thought they’d already dealt with? And then there are her actions involving a hit and run that the book opens with.

As the book’s title implies, this is a darker tone of crime novel. We learn more about Hulda’s own circumstances; her frustrations and lack of willingness to work with others. But a sexist police environment is also there – slapdash work done to get cases closed.

This is a fine opening to a new trilogy, and it keeps you turning the pages until the gripping conclusion, about which I will say nothing.

The Absolution by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

The Absolution is the third in the “Children’s House” series of books from one if Iceland’s leading crime writers. 

A teenager has been brutally murdered, with the perpetrator first capturing some kind of apology and then sharing the video to victim’s friends on Snapchat. The police race to capture the video while it’s still there and to try to understand why a seemingly popular girl should have been targeted. 

Police detective Huldur is tasked with some responsibilities in the case, although he feels ostracised. A brief affair with his boss has gone wrong, and office politics are getting in the way. Freyja from child services gets involved because the police need a liaison when interviewing kids. Between them, the two begin to suspect that bullying might be involved. 

Bullying is a very relevant theme, and given the magnitude of what can be done digitally, it’s not such a stretch to believe that it might be a rationale for murder.  

I came to this series fresh, not having read either of the other books in the series, although I have read several of her Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series. Sigurðardóttir conveys enough backstory to get newer readers quickly up to speed, and ongoing storylines properly developed.

Icelandic crime writers do have plenty of challenges specific to that country to keep readers engaged. Collectively writers have created vastly more murder victims than the country actually has in 2017 there were a total of four murders, which was twice the usual rate. The country’s population is less than 340,000 which means that while everyone doesn’t literally know everyone else, it’s not far off. And then there’s the deCODE database, which famously featured in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City, which has DNA profile of a large proportion of the Icelandic population. As such, it’s a bit like mobile phones in horror films – you have to work around the problems that they can present. 

This book is thoroughly engaging, and I shall go back to the previous two titles in the series. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Hodder & Stoughton for my ARC. The Absolution is out in hardback on 18 April 2019.

NAS Upgrading Fun

I’m documenting this, just in case there’s someone out there for whom it’s useful.

I had two NAS drives, both made by Synology. I have a DS210j that I bought back in 2010. It had a pair of 2TB drives in it with a mirror RAID array, and perhaps the most important thing stored on it is my offline music library. The drive was about 75% full. The RAID setup means that if one drive fails, the data should be safe on the other. I can then replace the failed drive and get back to parity.

The other drive is a DS214se bought in 2014. This had a pair of 3TB drives also in a mirrored RAID array. This was over 90% full. It’s home to a lot of my archived video projects as well as much of my substantial Lightroom photo library (essentially, everything I’m not currently working on).

Diskstation Manager (DSM) is Synology’s software that runs on these NAS drives, and it was not happy that I have less than 10%. In any event, it was clear that I needed to expand my storage in the near future. So I’d been keeping my eye out for cheap large format hard drives. I reckoned that 8TB is probably the sweet-spot at the moment in terms of value per TB. But there’s a very odd thing in the hard disk market.

If you go to somewhere like Amazon, and look for a WD Red 8TB drive or Seagate Ironwolf 8TB (both versions of their drives designed to run in NAS drives), the drives will cost you around £218-240. Now those prices can fluctuate, but north of £200 is common.

However, having spent some time in the Reddit Datahoarder group, there are plenty of folk on there who will tell you that the drives that come in some WD MyBook or WD Elements external drives are actually pretty good for using in NAS drives. Indeed at one time, they were actually Red drives. These days, they’re not strictly the same drives as you can buy on their own, but they’ll still pretty good.

More importantly, the price of these things can drop very low indeed. If you use a service like CamelCamelCamel to keep an eye out, you can stay ahead of the game. Last week, the price dropped to as low as £129 for an 8TB WD MyBook. I didn’t get onto it in time, and the price jumped back up to over £150. But then it came back down to £139, where at time of writing it still is. So I jumped in and bought two.

When they arrive, they’re of course designed for use as external drives. They come with smart plastic cases and power adaptors. Fortunately, there are YouTube videos that show you how to open these cases non destructively, a process called “shucking.”

This video worked well for me – the design in the video still being the current WD design. You just need a spudger or knife, and something to keep the tabs open. In the video, he uses guitar picks. I used a few business cards.

Then it’s just a question of sliding the case apart and unscrewing the drive from the plastic container.

Obviously you could use brute force, but that runs the risk of damaging the drive. Furthermore, if you keep the drive cases intact, you can re-purpose your old NAS drives as external hard drives. I put my two 3TB drives back into the cases as 3TB external hard drives are useful to have around. However, at time of writing, I’ve yet to work out how to format them away from Synology’s Hybrid RAID format.

Now you have your two new 8TB hard drives out. So it was a question of replacing the drives in my newer DS214se. Now I did wonder whether it was worth upgrading my NAS at the same time. As I mentioned above, my NAS is now getting on for 5 years’ old. There’s only 256mb of RAM in it, and it’s not powerful enough to do anything fancy like host 4K video and then transcode it. But in fact, that’s not a problem. I do keep some videos on my NAS for Plex (the in-home streaming platform), but I use an Nvidia Shield TV to run Plex server (i.e. run the main software) rather than run it on the NAS drive itself – something that many more powerful NAS drives can do. Instead, I just point the Nvidia Shield TV towards the video library stored on one of my NAS drives.

Similarly, I’m not doing anything like hosting a website on NAS (again – something that’s completely do-able). But I asked the question. The equivalent Synology NAS today to my DS214se is probably the DS218j. This is another £150 and in actual fact, isn’t that much more powerful than my older one. I’ll probably upgrade at some point, but not today.

Instead, I needed to replace the 2 x 3TB drives in the existing DS214se with my 2 x 8TB drives. This is relatively straightforward – but it just takes a while.

The process is basically:

  • switch off your NAS (actually – it quietly shuts itself down properly)
  • open it up (give it a good clean while it’s there – I had lots of dust in mine)
  • take out one of the 3TB drives, and replace it with an 8TB one
  • close it all up and switch on

Once it boots up, it start beeping at you. It’s noticed that one of the drives has “degraded.” It hasn’t really of course – you’ve just taken one away. Nonetheless, your next step is to “repair” it.

In essence, “repairing” it is just a matter of backing up all the data from the remaining 3TB onto the new 8TB drive.

This takes some time. 8+ hours in my case.

So I went to bed.

The next morning, there once the final couple of percent in the process had completed (you can monitor it all within DSM), it was time to switch out the other drive.

Another 8+ hours later, I was out. But the device sends an email when anything major happens. So I got the email and knew that all was fine.

At this point the system also notices that it has 8TB on each drive, so it ups the overall size available, and I was only using 35% or so of my space.

But I wasn’t quite finished. My older DS210j has been annoying me of late. While it’s not full, the discs rattle constantly – it’s noisy. Remember, you need these drives on at all times if you want to access the data, and in general, I tend to leave them on. Indeed, I can remotely access files on them if I need to.

For me, the next step was going to be copying all the data across from one NAS to the other.

The key thing with this process is not to do it via your PC (or Mac). Certainly, I have both NAS drives attached to my PC and I could do the whole thing in File Explorer in Windows 10. But that’s not smart. Instead, there’s a built in app called FileStation.

You just need to make sure that from your destination NAS (the DS214se in my case), you’ve mounted a remote drive to a folder on it. Once you’ve done that, you can then copy (or move) the files from one drive to another.

My older device actually has two Volumes on it – effectively two separate drives, although the second volume is tiny. I chose to do this one step at a time. Copying the first volume across resulted in FileStation telling me it would take 17 hours or so. A little more than making a cup of tea. And this is only an unfilled 2TB drive. But it’s a one time thing. While the estimate was initially 17 hours, the process actually took more than 24 hours. I had to leave it copying files for two consecutive nights.

Fortunately, I didn’t need the second volume – system files for a Plex server I was no longer using. So finally, I was able to retire the older NAS drive. I’m left with one NAS, and I still have about 46% of space left.

A final note is to say that I sync my Lightroom library to Amazon Photos – mainly because it’s an inexpensive bolt-on for Amazon Prime members, giving unlimited storage for photo files (including RAW photo formats). What it doesn’t include free is video.

I used to use Amazon Drive to back up both NAS drives completely, when Amazon Drive allowed unlimited storage. But that’s gone. I have to pay a modest extra fee for all the sidecar data that Lightroom stores. Non destructive editing requires a lot of these files. But it’s not too bad.

My ideal would be to securely backup all my files offsite. This is very do-able, and there’s an app within DSM precisely for that. However the costs begin to mount up. For 4.5-5TB of storage, you’re looking at £/€300-350 a year. Getting the data back might increase those costs. Amazon, for example, has Amazon Glacier. I assume that it’s stored on a tape format. The idea with Glacier is that you don’t need to get the data particularly regularly – just know that it’s there. That’s as well, because recovering the data is actually quite expensive.

In my instance, this is really about securing photos, music and video – with a few documents thrown in. If my flat where to burn down, or someone steal my NAS drive, then I’d know I could recover everything. But doing that in a cost-effective manner is tricky.

One solution is finding a friend with a big internet pipe who’s willing to let you put a second NAS drive in their place. You could then keep the two in sync. You could obviously “host” a NAS drive for your friend in your house at the same time.

A previous “off-site backup” solution I’ve used in the past is to simply buy another external hard drive (perhaps one of those 8TB WD MyBooks!), back the NAS up to that, and then keep that drive securely in your workplace. If you then brought it home once a week/fortnight/month, you could update the backup and return it to work the next day. You’d never be more than a week/fortnight/month behind if the worst happened. Indeed, you could buy two drives and shuttle them back and forth – keeping one at home and one at work at all times. But that may be over-kill.

I realise that this isn’t the most exciting thing to write about. And when I talk to people, I realise that relatively few people really look after their data. If you don’t have all that much, you can perhaps rely on cloud storage services. Google Drive, Dropbox and iCloud all give you a bit of free space, and will charge you for more. OneDrive can be good value if you want Microsoft Office. But many of these max out at 1TB in space. Even Google, who used to be quite generous with Google Drive space, giving it away with Android phones or Chromebooks, seems to be more inclined to charge these days.

Your parents’ or grandparents’ photo albums may seem quaint, but those albums will be much safer than a lot of photos that are only stored safely while users hang on to their social media accounts…

Orchids – Colours of Colombia at Kew Gardens

Kew Gardens Orchids-34
Kew Gardens Orchids-45

Somehow it has been years and years since I last visited Kew Gardens. I managed to visit on the penultimate day of their Orchids – Colours of Colombia exhibition, which seems to have proved wildly popular. I got down to Kew just after opening on Friday and the guy at the ticket desk suggested that if I wanted to see the orchids I head straight there.

Kew Gardens Orchids-23

This proved to be a smart move. Sure, there was a slightly noisy school party who didn’t seem quite as excited by the vivid colours of the plants as their teachers were, but later on, once I’d left, I saw a queue snaking right back down the path towards the nearby lake, long past the “25 minutes from this point” sign I’d walked past on the way in.

I brought two lenses with me to shoot with – my regular “walkabout” 16-50 lens, and a 90mm macro lens. While I didn’t explicitly see anything on Kew’s website about tripods, I didn’t bother bringing one because I knew it’d be busy and tripods would get in everybody’s way. However, shooting macro photos without a tripod isn’t especially easy because you really need to manually focus, and the focus range can be fractional. My workaround was to shoot high speed while fractionally adjusting the focus ring on my Tamron lens. That gave me a better likelihood of capturing sharper images.

The bigger challenge photographically was the change in humidity between inside and outside. Camera lenses don’t like rapid changes in humidity, and as I strolled in from around 8C into the humid Princess of Wales Conservatory, my lens instantly fogged over. Wiping it with a lens cloth doesn’t help much either – it fogs over again. You just have to wait a bit for the lens to acclimatise.

Anyway, as well as the shots here, there are plenty more over on Flickr.

Kew Gardens Orchids-48
Kew Gardens Orchids-37

Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe

It’s the early 1980s and our narrator, Lizzie Vogel, is about to leave home for the first time, and move from her village into the city of Leicester. Her first fulltime job is to be a dental assistant working for the awful JP and his partner Tammy. The job comes with its own flat, and initially reluctantly, Lizzie leaves the family home and moves in.

There is much humour to be had early 1980s dentistry, the introduction of McCain’s Oven Chips and freemasonry.

This is the third book in Nina Stibbe’s wonderful series about Lizzie, although they all work as standalone novels. It follows Man at the Helm, when Lizzie and her sister tried to find a partner for their newly single mother, and Paradise Lodge where Lizzie worked part time in an old people’s home while still at school.

The details are as ever pitch perfect. Lizzie devours waiting room copies of magazines like Women’s Own, tells horror stories of meals in Fenwick’s department store, and notes that a local accountant has built his own nuclear bunker, but it’s supposed to be secret.

As well as moving out, Lizzie is dealing with having her first proper boyfriend and learning to drive. But Lizzie moving out has meant that her mother is able to get on with a novel, a science fiction epic that she is determined will be published by Faber & Faber.

Stibbe handles all this masterfully, and it’s the eye to detail that absolutely convinces you.  

Thanks to Penguin Books (UK), Viking and Netgalley for my ARC. Reasons to be Cheerful is published on 28 March 2019. And no, this book is nothing to do with the excellent Geoff Lloyd/Ed Miliband podcast of the same name!

BritBox

ITV plc has just reported its annual results, and it was for that reason that we got the announcement of BritBox pretty much simultaneously. Because, from the careful phrasing the in the press release, you can tell that the deal hasn’t quite been done and that there is a final bit of finessing to do: “The BBC and ITV are in the concluding phase of talks to establish…”

Leaving aside both that and issues surrounding the name, which would seem to work better outside the UK rather than within it, BritBox has been a solid success in the US, where it now has 500,000 subscribers to it’s Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) service.

We have to be a little careful here, because the US is an enormous market. There are something like 120m homes there, so 500,000 has to be seen in that light. Nonetheless, there’s solid demand there.

What we don’t know yet is how much the service will cost, nor what will be available. That means it’d be rash to make any kind of judgement at this stage. And will Channel 4 come on board?

So we’ll take what clues we can get. The image that appears on the BritBox homepage (above) has stills for Victoria (ITV Studios/Mammoth Screen/Masterpiece), Broadchurch (ITV Studios/Kudos), Les Miserables (BBC Studios/Lookout Point/Czar TV) and what I think must be James Norton from McMafia (BBC Studios/AMC/Cuba Pictures).

I include those production companies, because they begin to become quite important in determining where a show might end up, and whether it could be included in BritBox.

“The service will have everything from old favourites to recent shows and brand new commissions,” doesn’t really help too much.

We can look at the US service, but that could be misleading, as rights are regularly negotiated by territory. The US service offers things from Coronation Street to Poirot. And it’s worth mentioning that there’s another SVOD service in the US that directly competes with BritBox offering its own range of TV from the UK (and beyond) – Acorn TV.

There are clearly a lot of shows that could fill up BritBox from the start. ITV already has its premium version of the ITV Hub and that includes all those classic ITV shows that get shown on hard repeat on channels like ITV2, ITV3 and ITV4, and you imagine that catalogue will be folded into BritBox offering. There are all kinds of shows that the BBC could do the same with, although many of them do get airings on UKTV channels, and a recent disagreement between UKTV and Virgin Media was around how much UKTV material was made available on demand.

The big streamers like Netflix and Amazon tend to be most interested in only the highest profile shows. There’s plenty more to go around. But the service will need some of those big shows to drive viewers. 2000 episodes of Homes Under the Hammer and Tipping Point probably won’t shift many subscriptions.

Beyond that, there are a number of financial issues this new service’s owners must face.

Turning Down Co-Production Money – At the moment, if the BBC or ITV commission a top drama series, they tend to use deficit financing. In other words, the commissioning channel does not pay the full production cost of the series. Instead, the production company, a distributor or its financiers take on some of the risk, funding the remainder of the cost. In return they offset that by being able to market with the show beyond its first window on the commissioning TV channel, including its streaming rights. That’s why, when you watch something like Blue Planet II, you see a host of other broadcasters names at the end of the credits. They pay money up front in return for certain rights in certain territories.

The issue is that in recent years, significant amounts of this funding has come from the likes of Netflix and Amazon. Last year’s biggest drama series, Bodyguard, was commissioned by the BBC, but made by World Productions, an independent producer owned by ITV Studios. In turn, ITV Studios got Netflix on board as a financing partner. Netflix took all the ex-UK rights, and the series ended up on Netflix globally (but not in the UK) fairly soon after the drama had finished airing in the UK.

It seems likely that Bodyguard will show up on Netflix in the UK in August or September this year, once a 12 month BBC exclusivity window has closed.

(We’re also beginning to see the reverse of this behaviour. This May Good Omens will appear on Amazon Prime, only following some months later on the BBC. This also happened with later series of Ripper Street that the BBC had otherwise cancelled at that point.)

What all of this means is that if the BBC or ITV want to make a premium drama, they might have to find production or sales partners who don’t have distribution outlets in the UK, if they want that drama to end up on BritBox and not Netflix etc. And as budgets get bigger and audience expectations increase, that becomes harder.

Now to be clear, just looking at the production credits on a series really doesn’t reveal the whole story. Only the contracts between the commissioning channel and production companies will fully detail who has what rights for what windows in what territories.

Turning Down the Licencing Money – This is similar to the above but really comes from programming fully owned by the BBC or ITV. Doctor Who would be an example. At the moment, it’s licenced to Netflix who carry all but the most recent series. Netflix didn’t put money into it; they just agreed a licencing fee for a period of time. Both the BBC and ITV have been licencing their programming in this way for a while. Netflix has viewer data to help determine whether they should licence a property, or renew an existing licence, and they attempt to make agreements with the rights holders to licence or re-licence programming.

There was a fascinating example of this earlier in the year with Netflix and the Warner’s series Friends. Netflix’s previous deal had expired, and meanwhile AT&T, Warner’s new owners, had announced its own upcoming SVOD service to launch later in 2019. Keeping Friends exclusive to their forthcoming service might pay dividends for Warner’s. But there was an offer from Netflix of between $70m and $80m for the rights to the series for 2019 alone. Warner took the money and Friends remains on Netflix (Friends is also on Viacom channels in the UK, including Channel 5).

Independent viewing data suggests that Friends is still heavily viewed on Netflix – perhaps as a kind of “comfort blanket” sort of programming. That and the volume of episodes available means that it’s one of the most watched shows on the platform. I doubt Netflix would have ever gone out marketing the fact that they had Friends, but its presence keeps subscribers happy.

It’s now expected that Friends will leave Netflix in 2020 and become exclusive to the new Warner’s service – in the US anyway. But these are the kinds of dilemmas that the BBC and ITV are going to have to face. If you get a really good offer for Sherlock from Netflix, do you take it? Or do you make Sherlock BritBox exclusive?

A Boxset Future

It’s worth thinking of BritBox in the context of audience desires. The BBC has recently opened a consultation on iPlayer and boxsets. In particular, their stated desire is that 12 months, rather than 30 days will become the catch-up norm. Currently series drop off iPlayer relatively fast, although you might then have to wait for 11 months for them to appear elsewhere.

One may envisage the future as being a series getting a 12 month iPlayer window, free to licence-fee payers, before the series moves over to BritBox on a more permanent basis, where you might have to pay £6.99 a month for access, always assuming that the rights for BritBox are available.

I don’t think that this is a complicated proposition. I’ve seen a few people questioning the idea that BBC viewers in particular might have to pay for something that their Licence Fee already paid for. But this is really a 2019 replacement for DVDs or even videos. There has long been a tacit understanding that if you really want to watch and rewatch a favourite series, then it’s going to cost you some money. The same happens with films, and other TV series. The average Sky viewer never has a clue when Game of Thrones is going to be available as a boxset. Sky’s deal with HBO sees shows come, go, come back and go again from Sky’s own boxset offering. Films drop off Netflix and Amazon. You learn to live with it.

(NB. Of course, a streaming service absolutely isn’t a replacement for owning the media – ideally offline. Shiny discs are under-rated.)

A Multiplicity of SVOD Services

How much do you currently pay for your TV services?

A full Sky or Virgin Media package, including sport and movies might cost £100 a month. But let’s cut the cord and start adding up what everything costs.

Netflix starts at £5.99 a month, although you’ll pay more for better quality streams or more simultaneous logins.

Amazon Prime costs £79 a year, or £7.99 a month and obviously includes free next day delivery as well as other benefits including a music streaming offering.

What next? Now TV because you can’t do without access to Game of Thrones or Premier League football. The Entertainment Pass costs £7.99 a month, while movies cost £9.99 a month. Sport is £33.99 a month! Notably, Now TV always has a number of offers so it pays to shop around with them.

That won’t quite do it for me. I want access to cycling on Eurosport, so I’ll pay for their player too. That’ll cost me something like £4.99-£9.99 a month, or £39.99 a year.

We’re actually getting close to £75 a month at this point. Although some services don’t give you full 1080p HD (let alone 4K) at those prices.

Obviously, I’ll also have access to free or ad-supported services like iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4 and Demand5.

The question then is, how many services will one household pay for? I’ve heard 6 mentioned as a baseline to work with in the US. But that really must assume that you’re not paying a big Sky or Virgin bill to start with. According to reports, Enders Analysis says that the average number of services in the UK is just 1.4. That may be the case now, but it’s surely a number that will increase in the coming months, because there are more big services due to launch.

Disney+ will launch later this year, and will offer things like Star Wars TV spin-off series, as well becoming the home to all those Disney, Star Wars and Marvel movies. They are going to really push the boat out on this offering. They will leverage their IP aggressively to support this service.

NB. In the UK, Sky renewed a deal with Disney in October 2015 that has given Sky exclusivity over Disney, Marvel and Star Wars movies for a minimum of 18 months. It was not reported what the duration of that deal was, and it will be interesting to see if Disney declines to renew that deal in the future, keeping everything for its Disney+ service. That has been the pattern in the US. Comcast outbid Fox (itself being bought by Disney) for Sky ownership.

Then there’s Apple, which is going to launch some kind of service, probably in the next month or two. What it actually is, what you’ll get access to and how much it costs, is a subject of much discussion in the industry. They might bundle it with an Apple Music subscription, or limit access to Apple hardware. We’ll have to wait and see.

In the US at least, AT&T will be launching its own SVOD service towards the end of the year too. AT&T has bought Warner’s (Friends, The West Wing, ER etc) and that comes with HBO and its library too. Reports suggest that HBO is going to be delivering more hours of programming in future, in part to service this new offering. Game of Thrones prequels are not to be sniffed at.

NB. It’ll again be interesting to see what this means to UK viewers where Sky has “output” deals with both HBO and Showtime – the latter owned by CBS. The HBO deal was last renewed in 2014 and ensures that Sky remains home to HBO programming (unless it’s co-produced with another partner) until 2020. A drama co-production deal was signed in 2017, but it’s not clear whether that output deal was further extended. Does AT&T want to take ownership of the HBO relationship with viewers in Europe? Sky is now owned by Comcast who are direct competitor of AT&T in the US. Those Game of Thrones prequels may or may not end up on Sky Atlantic first.

Beyond all of these, there are other specialists like Shudder (horror), Hayu (reality), BFI Player (films), StarzPlay (film and TV) and many more. In the US, Hulu is an important platform, there is CBS All Access (New Star Trek series etc.) and NBCUniversal is expected to launch a service too.

How many will people pay for? In the new world, this is untested, but it’s clearly a competitive arena that BritBox is entering.

But it is worth noting that these new players have the potential to strip a lot of programming away from the incumbents. This explains why Netflix is trying to become ever more reliant on its own properties. It will lose Friends et al at some point. It has not renewed its pricey Marvel deal. Studios from other groups may not want to sell to Netflix in the future, preferring to supply their own platforms. (A slight wrinkle in this comes with a recent adjudication in the US, where Fox has been found guilty of self-dealing in its own corporate interests, but against profit share participants in the TV series Bones. This may play out in interesting ways.)

For consumers in the future, this probably means a need to subscribe to a multiplicity of services to get a reasonable range of programming. Netflix and Amazon on their own probably won’t be enough.

Summary

In retrospect it was a terrible decision from the Competition Commission in 2009, when the predecessor to this service, Project Kangaroo, was prevented from launching. It was seen as too much of a threat to the third parties entering the space. You can read the report from just ten years ago here.

Of course, what happened subsequently was that Netflix morphed from being a DVD rental business to becoming a global streaming powerhouse. Amazon came in and bought LoveFilm (another DVD rental business) and it too became a global streamer. And audiences flocked to these services causing particular anguish at the younger end of the market with existing broadcasters.

Audiences expect ever increasing production values from their drama, and at the same time as its becoming globalised, with viewers happy to watch a Latin American set drama like Narcos, where half the dialogue is in Spanish. However, at the same time programmes are arguably becoming more homogenised. A Netflix series is expected to work in more than one territory which impacts on characterisation, setting and casting. So far, Netflix’s UK originals have not felt terribly British in tone.

Netflix subscribers probably now outnumber Sky subscribers in the UK, and few producers can resist their lure. Netflix has signed up Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy to blockbuster deals to make new shows exclusively for them. Amazon will perhaps spend as much as $1bn on its upcoming Lord of the Rings TV series.

There’s no way to determine at this stage how well BritBox will do, but between ITV and the BBC, but they do have a decent amount of marketing muscle available to them (I suspect there’ll be limits to what can be done on BBC TV however).

The question of original commissions is interesting. When ITV Encore existed, ITV made a few shows for that, like The Frankenstein Chronicles and Harlots. And the BBC indirectly creates original shows via its UKTV subsidiary, Flack being a recent W launch, while Alibi enters some co-production deals and is making a new Val McDerrmid series, Traces.

None of those would count as flagship shows though – being enough to get your wallet out to pay for. That will be interesting to watch. My guess is that they will be looking at a few lower budget genre series – crime or SF – which can develop loyal audiences.

But it would be wrong to think about BritBox in terms of original commissions. This is about providing access to quality British programming and not ceding the SVOD world solely to US players. I would hope that the rights owners can experiment a little, and dig into the catalogue. However it will be the big hitters that get viewers in. It’ll be intriguing to see how it develops.