November, 2006

Select Committee Looks At Quiz TV

Interesting report from the BBC about yesterday’s (I think) procedings in the Culture Select Committee examing “quiz TV” shows.
At first it seems curious that Sky Bet should be so vehement in its opposition to the current state of play. Surely all these channels are paying the parent BSkyB lots of cash to rent space on the EPG?
But of course Sky Bet is likely to be far more tightly controlled in what it can and can’t do as a gaming channel. Sky Bet is out and out gambling with all that comes with it. Currently Quiz TV channels aren’t.
Is there really any “skill” involved in these channels? Mostly they seem to be guessing what words the company might have thought of, or calculating sums using rules that are never explained.
However, committee chairman, Tory MP John Whittingdale, said some of the questions were dubious.
He said one programme had asked viewers to name items found in a woman’s handbag.
The winning answer, Mr Whittingdale said, to laughter from the committee, was “rawlplugs”.

I’d link to the full procedings of the session, but Hansard is not yet up to date.
In the meantime, perhaps it might be worthwhile watching last Sunday’s Panorama which examined internet gambling. Of course it’s going to mean problems down the line as websites advertise and gambling becomes the norm more and more.
I did take exception to the way the programme’s presenter played poker to demonstrate the addictive qualities. He got a lad who was supposed to be pretty good at internet poker in to try and double $2000 in a couple of weeks. Except that when he did so in 48 hours they carried on, and carried on, until all the money was gone. All a bit fake if you ask me. They were just trying to drum home the addictive qualities of gambling.

TV Criticism

Since the Daily Mail recently decided not to replace their TV critic with a regular in the job, there has been a bit of debate about the value of TV reviewing.
Today in Mediaguardian, Mark Lawson questions whether or not we need to change the way we do things. Previously, Peter Preston in the Observer, questioned the need for critics, and Jeff Jarvis noted the move too.
Overall, the consensus seems to be that maybe the Mail’s onto something and with fewer “water-cooler moments” and mass audiences not being quite as big as they once were, we need to review how we review TV.
Mark Lawson noted today that in America, the full “review” of a programme actually appeared in print before the programme airs, as opposed to the shorter previews that we get – effectively not making editorial judgments either way until after we’ve had the opportunity to watch a show.
Well, yes, audiences aren’t what they were, and the growth of PVRs like Sky+ or downloading/streaming over the net is going to mean less linear watching of programmes and more self-scheduling. But that doesn’t mean that TV criticism shouldn’t be regular.
I can see the case for bringing forward reviews to before the programmes; there’s nothing more frustrating than reading about how great a programme was when you missed it. Inevitably I start scouring BBC3/4 or More 4 listings in the hope of a repeat. A recent case in point is “How Music Works with Howard Goodall.”
But dropping the regular reviews altogether is exactly the same as not reviewing all the major new films or theatre productions. And cinema and theatre has always been self-scheduled. I choose when to go and see a film – and it’s rarely on the very first day of release. Quite often it mightn’t be for a couple of weeks afterwards. Theatre’s even harder, with months or even years going by before you get to see a new production.
Frankly, if my newspaper(s) of choice were to drop their regular TV reviews, then I’d quite likely consider dropping them. For all the rubbish on television, there are still some fine programmes on most evenings, and a TV critic always has the option of reviewing a long running programme instead of whatever last night’s new one-off documentary was. Only Victor Lewis-Smith in the Standard seems to do this – and I don’t mean reviewing just the big episodes where someone gets killed or whatever.
What I’m more than happy for is the results of reality shows to be removed from TV review columns. Lawson again mentions that the news sections of papers tend to cover who’s been voted off X-Factor, I’m A Celebrity or Strictly Come Dancing, because TV columns have much earlier deadlines and can’t be printed in time. To be honest, this kind of “news” is the same as reporting Box Office top tens. That is to say, I’m sure that some people are interested, but it’s not really in the jurisdiction of the critic.
However, just because The Sun only uses its critic once a week is not reason for others to follow suit. Only last week, Media Guardian “questioned” whether certain personalities who are paid large sums to be big-name film reviewers actually watched the films they “reviewed”. Is that the kind of pattern the broadsheets should follow?
I don’t think so. As it is, I don’t think TV criticism is taken as seriously as film criticism, and there’s no earthly reason why it shouldn’t be. You’d be doing your readers a disservice if it was done any other way.

Great Music Copyright News

Some of the best news recently has got to be that the UK is not going to extend the copyright on music beyond the current 50 years to a proposed 95 years. The rather random seeming 95 years is because that’s what it is in America.
As I’ve mentioned before, record companies are seemingly unable to make enough cash from their copyrights over a 50 year period. That’s why the poor businesses neeeded help doubling it.
Well that seems to be have been knocked on the head (although I’ll wait until the official verdict is in). Of course, whilst the first Beatles tracks come out of copyright in the UK in 2013, the songs’ composers (or rights holder – so in this instance, Michael Jackson/Sony) still get paid, and will carry on getting money until they’ve been dead for 70 years (not sure what the means for Lennon/McCartney catalogue when they or their estates don’t own it). So it’s not as though song writers will be destitute.
Mind you, I don’t know how many of his songs, Cliff Richard (one of the campaigners for the increase to 95 years) actually wrote. One way or another, I wouldn’t have thought he was very poor. So quite why he feels that I shouldn’t be able to do some interesting new things with his early songs, I don’t know.

CCTV Cameras OK – Microphones a Step Too Far

Oh the irony. Earlier this week Henry Porter presented a fine programme on More 4 (should have been on Channel 4) called Suspect Nation, examining not just ID cards, but the rash of CCTV cameras and other monitoring that’s going on. In particular, there’s the “function creep” where data’s captured and used more and more without anyone asking the questions.
So now when you use your Oyster Card on the tube or enter London, your journey details are captured.
Today we hear that the logical next step of CCTV is to add a microphone to the cameras and record the sounds, at the Olympics in particular, but you can bet your bottom dollar, it’ll be everywhere else.
The irony comes when the former Home Secretary came onto Five Live this evening to say that this was a step too far and “simply unacceptable”. David Blunkett thinks it’s fair enough to follow me around on the streets via camera, but it’s a step too far to hear what I’m saying.
Actually, it is wrong for “them” to monitor my conversations in the street, but then I don’t particularly want to be tracked around as I walk. I don’t have an Oyster Card (and if I did, I wouldn’t give accurate ownership data for it). I don’t have a car, although that’s more a lifestyle choice. I know I can be tracked with my phone even when I’m not using it. But I can at least buy an unregistered pay as you go phone, or not carry one at all. Similarly, my local shops might prefer me to use debit or credit cards now (cheques seem to be seriously on the way out now), but cash still works.
Blunkett is the man who introduced ID Card legislation to Parliament, so his concern now about civil liberties is amusing. Or it would be, if it weren’t so truly disturbing. Of course, his private life has featured significantly in the press in the past. Imagine how much worse it might have been if additional data was kicking around on databases for journalists or muck-rakers to dig through (they’d get access – they always do) looking for background on a dallying politician’s private life?

Curious New Ad Campaigns

This weekend, I’ve noticed two new print campaign ads which seem worthy of some note.
First off, Microsoft is advertising its Live search. With the strapline “Does the world need another search engine?” it explains some of the reasons that surfers might want to use Live instead of Google. Obviously it doesn’t mention Google, but you’re left in no doubt.
I find it interesting that a good new web product like this needs advertising. I don’t recall exactly when I started using Google to search, instead of either Yahoo or Alta Vista that would have been my previous favourites, but I think that it’s likely to have been on a personal recommendation. When someone else says something is good, that’s when I’m likely to give it a try. Maybe Live is really good, and we just don’t all know. In that case, perhaps they do need to advertise. I’m not sure.
Microsoft have definitely moved ahead a little in some areas of their mapping products with cool 3D pictures available in some areas. But the proof of all these things is in the pudding. If I start searching for something and can’t find it on Google, but do on Live, then that’s when I start moving across.
The other ad that has intrigued me is one for plasma screen TVs. With Panasonic taking the lead, but with Hitachi and Pioneer, there’s a new website that purports to prove with consumer research, that plasma screen TVs are superior to LCD TVs. In fact, I don’t doubt this to be the case, since the evidence of my own eyes says that LCDs aren’t that great, in particular at showing any fast moving motions. Plasma is better than this, but of course plasma screens are significantly more expensive than the equivalent LCDs. And I remain very happy with my 10+ year old Sony CRT which has a far better picture than any equivalently sized flat screen TV of either type. Yes it goes back for miles, but afforable picture quality is what counts.
The only saving grace is that of course my TV is no good for HDTV. I’d need to upgrade to get that. Except that there’s little to no material out there, and even Sky’s football coverage doesn’t really come into its own aside from in crowd scenes.
Still, seemingly the consumer doesn’t really care about quality and lots of crappy LCD TVs will be sold this Christmas which won’t be properly set up with digiboxes to correctly show widescreen, and the sound will probably be in mono. And the consumers won’t care.

Ed Reardon Series 3 – Coming Soon

Regular readers will know that I’m an enormous fan of Ed Reardon’s Week.
The paperback of what’s effectively the first series recently came out, and with any luck, next March should see the release of the CD of series one.
But more imminently, at 11.30am on Friday 15 December, the first of six episodes of series 3 is broadcast on Radio 4.
BBC Radio 4 dips back into the world of Ed Reardon – writer and liver of life at the cutting edge. Or above The Cutting Edge, to be accurate. Ed has lived on his own in a one-bedroom flat above a hairdresser in Berkhamsted since his wife and grown-up kids left him, forcing the sale of the London home.
The regular cast return for this new series of the comedy, with: Christopher Douglas as Ed; John Fortune as his agent, Felix; Phillip Jackson as Jaz Milvane; Sally Hawkins as Felix’s assistant, Ping; and Stephanie Cole, Geoffrey Whitehead and Rita May as the Pensioners. There are guest appearances from a wealth of acting talent including David Warner, Morwenna Banks and Sean Lock.
Producer/Simon Nicholls

Bush TR2015WIFI Wi-Fi Radio

I thought I’d write a brief review of the recently released Bush Wi-Fi radio. With the growing number of home networks being set up, this has to be a growth area for radio, and I’ve only really been waiting for prices to fall far enough to buy one.
This particular model can be purchased at Argos for £119.99 currently, although I also hear that it’s available for £80 + VAT at Makro if you’ve got one of their trade cards.
Anyway, back to the product in hand. Setting it up was really very simple with a quick scan for local networks and then a prompt to enter any appropriate passwords. There’s also a process for networks with hidden SSIDs so everyone should be catered for.
A couple of quick station listing updates (via Reciva), and I was away.
The three main options at the start are Stations, Media Player and Configure. I jumped to Stations, then selecting first Location, then Europe and then the UK which has 484 stations listed. First up had to be Virgin Radio. The sounds was good with nice bass considering that there’s only a single speaker on the unit.
The buffering was very quick, and under the station name, a second line told me that it’s Real Enabled. But another piece of text told me that it was actually using the 128k MP3 stream that Virgin offers. That made it sound awfully good. Plugging headphones in, just showed the quality of the audio – it was much better than our usual DAB signal, but I’ll leave that argument to others.
128k MP3 streams were also used for Virgin Radio Xtreme, Virgin Radio Classic Rock and Virgin Radio Groove, or “Virgin Radio G” as it comes up on the somewhat limited display.
Flicking over to Talksport, a station I’d never ordinarily listen to, revealed what happens when you use too little bandwidth for streaming. Their 20k WMA stream was worse than a decent AM signal. I found it pretty unlistenable. The buffering took longer as well.
Over on Capital Radio, the 32k WMA was only marginally better, but disappointing for a music station. The buffering wasn’t as bad as it was for Talksport, but really this isn’t up to DAB or FM in quality.
Similarly, Classic FM was also only on a 32k WMA stream, but the piece of music I listened to wasn’t as bad sounding as Shakira had been on Capital.
Moving over to the BBC, I tuned to BBC Radio 3. Choosing a BBC station gives you a choice of Live or On Demand. I chose live, and after a pre-roll informing me that I was listening to the streaming version of the station, it was onto the service which was encoded in a 44k Real format. I suspect that Real is the default option when there are choices, but that tends to be the BBC default anyway since it’s available on more platforms. Listening via headphones, the unit had good sound to the live concert that was being broadcast when I was testing it. You could hear a little “noise” in some quieter moments though. Reasonably acceptable, although not as good as a strong FM or DAB signal.
What’s really powerful about the BBC’s offering, is of course, the On Demand listening. Choosing On Demand from Radio 4, I was presented with an up to date list of current programmes. If there are multiple editions, then I get a day by day breakdown to choose the one I want to hear.
Some stations, like Virgin Radio, have a variety of streams available to listen, and the radio doesn’t really give you the option to choose. That’s down to Reciva picking the appropriate one.
It’s worth noting that I didn’t do anything too bandwidth heavy whilst listening. So no torrents or anything, but I did download a couple of sizeable files whilst listening to Virgin and BBC stations, without any interruptions or buffering.
Listening to the odd on demand programmes, I did notice the occasional break-up, and the BBC has that slightly annoying habit of changing bit-rates mid-stream. But it’s all very good.
There’s one more part of this radio that really needs addressing. As I’ve mentioned, Reciva are responsible for the station list. They supply the list to pretty much all the available wi-fi radios currently on the market. If you go to the Reciva website you can register your set online which creates a “My Stuff” section which lets you add your own streams and station favourites. So, although there are ten presets built in for favourites, you can have more by going to the My Stuff menu option.
Adding streams is especially useful if you want to use a higher quality version of a stream than the one offered by default. Unfortunately, none of the three I’ve tried so far has worked. I listen to Paul Harris on KMOX a bit, and CBS has an annoying new system of making you register before you get a player launched. Discovering the exact stream took a bit of detective work. But although it works in Windows Media Player, the radio fails to play the stream.
What’s really curious is that there is precisely no mention of Reciva or its website and the functionality it offers, anywhere in the Bush manual. You just have to “know” to get there.
I do think that some radio stations need to ask some serious questions about the quality that they’re currently using to encode their streams. As more people start to get these radios (and I’ve heard that one manufacturer is planning on building wi-fi into most of their digital radios in the future), sub-standard streaming is going to become as issue. And only offering streams locked into players is not going to be enormously helpful, unless the stations at least let Reciva know what the real addresses of their streams are.
The only two things I can say at this early stage that could do with improving are the size of the display, which is a little small, and the shame that there’s no way of getting some of the scrolling text that various players can offer. Obviously with no single standard for players, this latter is going to be a problem.
Still, all said and done, the ease with which you can just listen on demand to programming when you feel like it without booting up a computer, makes this a killer device. Roll on the advent of listening on demand in commercial radio in the UK.
By the way, it’s probably a bit misleading of Argos to print details on DAB Digital Radio in their catalogue in the entry for this unit. There’s no DAB or AM/FM on this product. They even print the DAB logo. Mind you, the photo shows the radio as having an antenna when it doesn’t.

Casino Royale

So finally the new Bond is with us – Daniel Craig. Frankly, after the last film, the only possible way was going to be up.
Recently we’ve had The Bourne Identity and more specifically, The Bourne Supremacy where the realism was heightened and the visceral thrill of something perhaps not working out returned to the cinema. At the time of its release, many commentators were hoping that Paul Greengrass would helm the next Bond. But instead we get Martin Campbell. He previously directed Goldeneye, and that was a deserving return to form of the series when it introduced Pierce Brosnan as Bond. I must admit, however, I was a little worried that he wouldn’t be the right man for the job, and that they really did need some new blood.
Fortunately, I was wrong to worry. This is the man, after all, who previously directed the quite wonderful Edge of Darkness – which still holds its own.
Eon Productions and the Broccoli family have seen the way films are going and aren’t going to be left behind. So this time out, we get real violence, with Bond blooded and bruised after brutal fight scenes (well, brutal enough to warrant a 12A certificate). There’s no Q with John Cleese hamming it up. Gadgets are few and far between, and are spectacularly un-sensational. His Aston Martin is not able to make itself invisible; indeed the only special features it seems to have are compartments to hold silenced pistols and emergency medical kits.
In Daniel Craig, we have a strong, tough, “real” Bond. He gets hurt, but he doles out pain too. Craig first came to attention in the astonishing Our Friends in the North where he played Geordie, and his star has been in the ascendant ever since. In many respects he reminds you of Connery, although the film is much more reminiscent of From Russia With Love (possibly my favourite Bond film thus far).
Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen plays the villain, but this isn’t a normal Bond film in the sense that he’s not out to take over the world; he’s simply a banker for terrorists. He doesn’t even have an enormous lair, perhaps hidden away on a south-east Asian island.
The music’s an improvement on last time too. Actually, that’s a little unfair on composer David Arnold, who’s now been with the series since Goldeneye. I remember when that film came out, and I really wasn’t sure, but I’ve warmed to him. The title song is streets ahead of Madonna’s nonsense from last time out. Can anyone hum that now? And indeed the opening titles, while quintessentially “Bondian” take on a 21st century tone. Sorry. No silhouettes of scantily clad women this time out. It’s just a shame that we had to wait until the closing moments to hear Monty Norman’s fine Bond theme. This was obviously because only at the film’s conclusion did Bond really attain his mantle as the fearless “00” operator that he is: dispassionate and cold-blooded.
The action scenes remain strong with the standout sequence being a long “free running” chase between Bond and an African villain. The stunts are fine, and there are only a couple of back-projected scenes that stand out to let the side down.
I’m not so sure about the opening black and white montage. I have no problem with the acting or the scene itself. However, the black and white process feels like it’s a post production thing, and it doesn’t look as good as it should. Perhaps they should have actually shot those scenes on real black and white film?
It’s a shame that the game played in the Casino Royale itself was not Baccarat, as it was in Fleming’s novel, but Texas Hold ‘Em poker which somehow feels a little base. Yes, the audience is more keenly able to follow the rules of poker and understand who’s winning, but a good script could get around this. It felt as cheap as it did when in a previous Bond, Brosnan was seen drinking Smirnoff rather than a more expensive brand. Speaking of which, would Sony perhaps like to layoff quite so much obvious product placement next time? And it was really cheap to have a character ask Bond if he was wearing a Rolex to hear him say that no, it’s an Omega. Come on. Perhaps he’d like to let us know which Saville Row tailor he uses, and his favourite brand of aftershave too?
The only piece of the film that didn’t really hang together was the way Bond got through a potential life-threatening situation to himself in the middle of the competition. Somehow, he was back at the table within an hour – just a bit too remarkable.
The supporting performances are fine with Eva Green playing Vespar Lynd with great aplomb. I noticed in the closing credits that she was supplied with a dialogue coach. As she’s French, but has spent time in England, that’s understandable. But her accent was still a little curious, and not dissimilar to that that she had in The Dreamers.
Judi Dench had much more to do as M than she’s always had in these films. Well I guess that if you’ve got an actress of her calibre in your cast, it’s a shame not use her. Caterina Murino plays a sultry Solange, and Felix Leiter reappears in the guise of Jeffrey Wright.
So overall, Casino Royale’s a great return to form for the series, and hopes should be high for the next. After all, as the end credits said here, and always say, “James Bond Will Return.”