March, 2007

D2 Bids Are In

Bids went in yesterday for the second national commercial multiplex.
There are two bidders – Channel 4 and National Grid Wireless. Channel 4 we know about – James has all the details. National Grid Wireless (NGW) are one of the two radio transmission comapnies in the UK (the other is Arqiva), and the big story has been about their inclusion of Channel 4 services in their application without getting permission from C4.
It’s all got a bit tetchy with Channel 4 a little miffed about being included on someone else’s bid. In fact, it doesn’t matter who the service provider ends up being – you can rope anyone in – but they do have to adhere to promised formats.
There’s a great round-up of the situation over on the Media Guardian Organ Grinder blog. And read the comments. Could emma2001’s be common than we care to think?
Still some interesting new services promised, although I’m amazed that NGW have retained their competition station, “Radio Play,” after all the recent hoo-ha. I suppose the problem is that it’s a speech service using very little bandwidth, and finding another service at short notice would have been tricky. Still…
Disclaimer: I’m writing here in a personal capacity, since my employer does have a vested interest in the Channel 4 bid.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

I don’t quite know why, but I’m really pleased that the House of Lords chucked out Tessa Jowell’s super-casino last night.
In the meantime, am I the only person who thinks that the new Ministry of Justice sounds like a cross between something you’d find in 1984 and Judge Dredd?
I found myself not watching a great deal of the woeful Andorra v England (it may have ended 3-0 to England, but it was 0-0 at halftime), and more of Northern Ireland v Sweden last night, with a touch of Italy v Scotland. But by the times the second halves were underway, I wound up watching more of The Apprentice than anything. I know that it’s all in the edit, but these people really don’t come anywhere near being “16 of Britain’s brightest business prospects.”
Rumour has it that they’re not going to concentrate quite so much on sales tasks this series, since effectively it can just boil down to who can sell the best to consumers. Andy was voted off, but we were given plenty of opportunity to dislike both Tre and Jadine. Tre’s probably not bad, but he’s a touch arrogant (actually – they all are) and seems to get into hostilities a bit too easily. Meanwhile Jadine’s just mad. Thirty-eight minutes into the programme last night, the follwing happened (in the words of Anna Pickard’s minute by minute Media Guardian blog with Anna Pickard):
9.38: Oh for the Love of GOD! I’ve experienced Television hell, please kill me now. Hang on.
At 38 minutes in, we experienced quite the most excruciating moment of television I think I’ve ever seen. Eclipse, in a last ditch attempt to sell coffee have walked into an office (an office opposite our humble own, I note), and offered ten ‘birthday’ coffees to one poor soon-to-be-overcaffinated Woman.
In addition to the coffee, they thrust a ‘special birthday song’ upon her. This is improvised by Jadine, with ‘ooohs’ and dancing accompaniment by two embarrassed thugs, and actually made me want to crawl into the back of the sofa, throw up my dinner and just stay there in the horrible horrible warmth until this livng hell goes away.
I don’t know if that’s a firing offence, but SURELY there’s some kind of health and safety proceedure being breached there.

It was hideous. I turned back to the football unable to watch.
Finally – there’s 24. Isn’t it absolutely abysmal this year? They’re just retreading the same ground over and over again. The episode I saw this week even ended up with exactly the same storyline that was used two or three years ago (I forget which, and quite honestly, can’t even be bothered to look it up). I can “buy” unlikely and so-on, but it’s just sheer tiredness of the writing. They need to hire new writers pronto, and next year they should lose any presidential aspect to the storyline – much as I despise politicians, they can’t all be corrupt. CTU leaks like a sieve, and if I hear one more character use the hackneyed phrase “within the hour” I’ll… I’ll… well… I don’t know what I’ll do.
The series has descended into a hunt for one man after another, the next always having some hidden ultimate superior, and so the hunt continues. The writers completely ignore things that happened in previous episodes, and they’ve completely forgone any pretence at all of how long it takes to travel from a to b around the Los Angeles area.
The real problem is that the terrorists seem to be moving and acting quickly for no discernable reason at all. The bad guy still has a couple of nukes with Jack Bauer et al thwarting him for the most part so far. In reality, he’d lie low for several weeks/months and regroup. What’s the rush? He’s got a suitcase nuke and can use it anytime he likes!
24 has always been an essentially fun action series not to be taken too seriously. But you have to believe in the story and characters to some degree for it to work. Frankly, I really don’t care any longer.

Man on Train

I’m sitting opposite a man.
He’s probably in his early forties, and he’s one of those commuters who carries no briefcase; no rucksuck; no bag of any kind. He doesn’t read a book, or a free evening newspaper. He just toys with his mobile, sending and reading text messages.
His suit screams cheap, and his tie reminds me of something I wore at school rather than something I’d choose to wear.
On the lapel of his suit he wears an oval metal badge. In the middle is a star. Around the edge it reads “Superstar Performer 2006-7.”
I silently thank any listening deities that I don’t have to work in a job where they hand out badges like that to “Superstar Performers.” There’s certainly nothing wrong in praising high-achievers and handing out merit awards. My employer hands out “Hero Awards” and “Sales Person of the Month” trophies. Winners accept the acclaim of their co-workers. It’s deserved and appreciated.
But really! Having to wear it on a badge, on your commute home?

Music Industry in Decline

A couple of really interesting stories to come out of America recently regarding the state of the music industry.
First up was the report that in the US, CD sales dropped by 20% in the last year. That’s an awful lot. In real money, it’s a decline from 112 million CDs to 89 millions.
A couple of things to note about this headline – being widely touted. First of all it’s for the first couple of months or so of this year compared to last that are being measured. That’s important because obviously if big-selling albums appeared in February 2006 but not this February, then the comparison’s not really valid. I’d prefer to see stats that compare rolling 12 month periods.
What is clear from the Nielsen information is that more “Music Purchase Decisions” are being made in America than before, with 288 million individual digital tracks being purchased this year compared with 242 million at the same time last year.
What it means is that people are buying more frequently, but they’re buying tracks and not albums. This is a theme picked up upon in a piece in the New York Times.
Now this is the situation in the US, and while it might be indicative of what is, or will be happening in the UK, I think it’s fair to assume that we won’t be far behind.
The UK market is struggling, and I think the music industry itself must take some of the blame. In the high street, top forty fare has undoubtedly dropped in price over the past year, with price points as low as £6.73 for new albums in Tesco, and the same albums being sold for under ten pounds in HMV and Virgin Megastores.
I don’t have the figures to back this assertion up (I’m not giving the BPI fifty quid for a year old handbook to find out), but undoubtedly a much greater proportion of music is sold through supermarkets, and they’re obviously being supplied on very good terms to be able to offer such deep discounting.
It’s only fair, then, that the high street retailers fight back against both them and the online world where consumers can either buy digitally or from retailers like Amazon, Play or CD Wow.
So that cuts margins on the big-sellers.
But then the problem is that anything outside the most popular albums retail at more standard £14.99 and upwards which suddenly makes them appear expensive.
But the big change is that people are buying tracks and not albums.
Of course, I always think it’s a mistake to consider music sales in isolation. The chances are that the money you’re spending on music could equally be spent on a DVD, a computer game, a book or a few drinks in the pub. They’re all “leisure activities” and we only have a finite amount of time and money to spend on them. Growth in one tends to mean a decline in another.
It’s worth noting that my local HMV has handed over more space to DVDs at the cost of CD shelf space. And in the Oxford Street flagship branch, DVDs squeezed computer games from the first floor down to the ground floor – again costing pop/rock music shelf space.
Personally, I still prefer an album to a single, but then I’m in a shrinking minority in preferring most of my music to be at least purchased on some kind of physical medium, even if I’m likely to listen to it on an mp3 player.


So this weekend it was all things Spartan, and in particular the Battle of Thermopylae. Frank Miller, that doyen of graphic novels, wrote a five-parter called 300 some while back, and this morning, before seeing the newly released film, I read it.
It’s a fictionalised telling of King Leonidas leading his 300 Spartan troops into a thankless – hopeless – fight against Xerxes’ Persian Army numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
The comic version is very gritty and down and dirty. The only real backstory that we get is just enough to put the battle into some kind of historical context. There are only a very limited number of characters, and a certain stylised aspect to them. So the Oracle at Delphi is perched precariously at the top of a rock pillar and is just about impossible to reach. While Ephialtes, the Greek who’d betray that Spartans by telling Xerxes the whereabouts of a hidden goat path through the mountain and round the back, is depicted as some kind of monstrous hunchback.
But it’s a thrilling tale that’s told well – I wouldn’t have wanted to wait a month between installments when it was first published.
This has now been turned into a film, 300, which is nearly a straight retelling of Miller’s graphic novel. The sylised feel has obviously followed on directly from the manner in which the same sorts of techniques were used previously for Sin City – another Frank Miller set of graphic novels. Indeed, I did initially think that Robert Rodriguez must have been responsible for the film, so similar is the feel and SFX techniques employed to give an other worldly feel to the film. Indeed, nearly the entire film was shot against either blue or green screen and supplemented by effects.
The film does differ from the book in a few ways – most notably in the addition of a subplot involving Leonidas’ wife Gorgo.
And the film features practically no known stars, vastly reducing the production cost, and meaning that it’s likely to be enormously profitable given its success in the US to date. What this means is that you should expect to see more films such as these in the near future.
It’s a film which is exactly what you expect. Nothing more – nothing less.
Both graphic novel and film are of course inspired by true events, recorded most notably by that original historian Herodotus. These in turn were fictionalised in a 1962 film, The 300 Spartans, which was on BBC2 yesterday. It’s not a film I can remember seeing before, and falls squarely into the typical swords and sandals epic feel. It opens with a panoramic view of the Persian army on the march, which was undoubtedly made without special effects and probably employed thousands of members of the Greek army or similar. Unlike 300, The 300 Spartans takes a much more leisurely approach, with plenty of subplots involving wives and others, while the Spartan life seems much more comfortable. There are also far fewer bare-chested six packs on display in this older film.
Xerxes appears as an almost Ming the Merciless style bad guy, and the battle itself is limited to the end of the film rather than taking up most of it. Not the greatest epic of the period to be honest.
Sadly, I missed Discovery Civilisation channel’s reshowing of The Spartans, Bettany Hughes’ Channel 4 series!

Going Digital

BBC Radio Five Live is running a campaign to persuade us to go digital at the moment. It’s awful and condescending.
Have a listen yourself.

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I listen to a lot of Five Live outside work, and I’m certainly in the digital community with DAB, broadband, Freeview and Sky as ways of listening to the station. But you know what? I mostly listen on AM.
The reasons are simple:
1) My clock radio is not digital
2) My freeplay windup radio is not digital
3) My bathroom radio’s not digital
4) My kitchen radio is not digital (I have a DAB “kitchen” radio – I just choose not to put it in the kitchen)
Sure, if I listen on my pocket DAB radio, I hear it digitally, and if I listen via TV I do. But you know what? Five Live doesn’t gain a great deal by being in digital. I appreciate Five Live Sports Extra giving me additional commentary choices, but that’s really it for a speech and phone-in station.
Otherwise I just use the most convenient audio available to me. Over time, that’s likely to be digital. But not right now.

Stardust Trailer

The other day, before my screening of Blades of Glory, we also saw the trailer to the forthcoming Stardust – based on the Neil Gaiman novel (Admission: I’ve not read this book… yet). I hadn’t quite realised that this was something of an exclusive, but can say here and now that it looks stunning. I don’t know if it was a British trailer, but there was a significant amount of Ricky Gervais in it, whereas I didn’t think his part was all that big.
Anyway, it may be that we have to wait until October for the film to be released here, but it looks like it’ll be very much worth seeing.

BBC Websites Update

Following on from my recent rant, I noticed yesterday that the TV homepage is currently soliciting for some research. I dutifully filled out the survey, and at length went through some of my less than happy thoughts about.
Now I’m not suggesting that you should skew their research in any way, but if you were to visit the site, and hit refresh a few times, you might see the yellow bar appear near the top of the page asking for a few minutes of your time. You too might want to fill out the questionnaire.