November, 2007

The Perils of Email

On his newsblog, Nick Robinson links to the emails and letters sent between the NAO and HMRC.
As Robinson says:
The key thing we learn comes not from the detail but the tone of all the exchanges. They demonstrate little concern from either the NAO or HMRC about data protection. The NAO wants, it would appear, simply to reduce the size of the files it is sent. The HMRC is worried about the cost of filtering information in order to send the smaller files the NAO request. What about our privacy and our rights? No mention is made of them.
But arguably even more concerning is what’s to be seen on page 6 of the PDF – somebody at Benefits and Credits uses Comic Sans as their email font. Shocking.

Analogue Switch Off Postponed?

Well, no it hasn’t, because it’s never been timetabled. But that might be the conclusion you’d get if you read this article on Computeractive.
The regulator had planned to switch off analogue (FM and AM) radio by 2009 and 2012, to free up radio spectrum which “could be used for other things, for the benefit of citizens and consumers.”
Er. No it hadn’t. It was looking at reviewing those frequencies, but nothing more. I think the author is getting confused between television and radio.
Actually the article is littered with inaccuracies. Full switch-off couldn’t happen in 2015, since licences might continue to run through until 2019.

Dirk Gently

Last Thursday I decided that I’d quite like to order a copy of the recent Radio 4 adaptation of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Produced by the same production team that made the recent Hitch Hikers’ follow-ups, I missed the Radio 4 airing, so thought I’d catch up on CD.
I headed off to Amazon and searched for it. I couldn’t find it. All I could see were various new and old editions of the books. I knew for a fact that the CD set was out – it was rush-released the nano-second the Radio 4 series had ended. BBC Worldwide were perfectly aware that this would be a big seller in the run up to Christmas.
Now when I look for audiobooks, I never know whether I should be searching in books or music. My site search had failed so now I searched in music and then books. In books, I found the audiobook section and finding it not-featured on the front page, I looked at Amazon’s top selling audiobooks. It must be in there somewhere.
It wasn’t.
Now I began to wonder if something strange had happened with the release. Perhaps there was a cock-up and the CDs couldn’t be released for some reason. I went to Play, but there they had not only the CDs, but a background video promoting the production – this was evidently a major audiobook release for play.
I went back to Amazon. I couldn’t find it. Then I looked for another high-profile BBC audiobook release – Down The Line – featuring Paul Whitehouse et al. This is another massive Christmas comedy release. It too was not to be found anywhere on Amazon.
I emailed Amazon:
I wanted to drop you a note because I’m quite surprised that Amazon doesn’t seem to stock an audiobook that I’m after. It’s the recent BBC Audiobooks release of “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” starring Harry Enfield, and recently broadcast on BBC Radio 4. I’m pretty sure that in stores it must be one of the bestselling titles currently, yet I can’t find it anywhere on the Amazon website.
I’ve searched high and low with no luck. I’ve also noticed that another high-profile BBC audiobook comedy title – Down The Line – is similarly not listed.
Is Amazon deliberately not selling these titles? Is there an issue between yourselves and the suppliers over some of these titles?
I suppose I’m going to have to shop for the Dirk Gently title elsewhere.

A couple of days later, I got a response:
Thank you for contacting us at
I’ve searched our retail catalogue, but the item you asked about is not currently listed.
Unfortunately, we are currently unable to offer this item, as we’re currently out of stock of “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” and we are not able to guarantee when or if it will be available for purchase on our website. For this reason, the item is currently not listed on our website.
I will be sure to pass your message on to the appropriate department in our company for consideration. Customer feedback such as yours helps us to continue improving the selection and service we provide. We appreciate the time you’ve taken to write to us.
We suggest checking our website from time to time to see if this item has come back in stock or if it is available from a third-party seller through Marketplace.
You could also search our Auctions ( or zShops
( sites to see if anyone is selling a copy of “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” and “Down The Line”, there.

It went on to explain a bit more about Amazon marketplace.
But it was all a little odd. Could they really be out of stock of an item that only went on sale this month? It’s not as though it’s a Nintendo Wii for which stock is always low. Why should I have to go to Amazon’s marketplace?
I did have a look in my local Waterstones. No sign of Dirk Gently but plenty of copies of Down The Line.
On Sunday evening, all was back to normal. Dirk Gently was back in stock, and I ordered a copy which has just arrived.
Now Amazon may well have run out of stock of this item, but surely all they have to do is say that they can get copies within 4 to 6 weeks or whatever is the default. This item is not likely to go “out of print” for months or even years.
I suppose, in the end, it’s more likely to be cock-up than conspiracy, but still not great service.


I must admit that I’m a bit behind on my film reviews. There are as many as half a dozen that I’ve still to write about. Anyway, without further ado, here’s the latest – Beowulf.
There are currently three versions of this film available to see: the bog standard 2D version; a traditional red/blue glasses 3D system; and an IMAX 3D system which uses polarised glasses. It was this latter version that I saw.
Technically it looks spectacular on the enormous IMAX screen, with the film evidently designed to solely be seen in 3D. Swords constantly get pointed in your direction and bits of exploding wood or rocks constantly come flying straight towards you.
But what of the story and the film itself. Well first I have to admit something. Years ago – 1999 to be precise – I bought a hardback version of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. I’ve still not gotten around to reading it.
Then a few years later, while shopping in the Norwich branch of Waterstones, I heard some students from UEA talking about the book which they were obviously studying. They were looking for the audio version of the book which their tutor had said was a good way of tackling the book. So I got hold of the audio version of it. I ripped it to my iPod. And I’ve not listened to it.
I do know the story of course, and there was the, uh, interesting version of the film – The 13th Warrior – back in the late 90s which was pretty poor but evidently based on the book.
What of this version. Well it took me a little while to get through the computer animation. I guess I was expecting something a little closer to Sin City where the actors were effectively real, but the backgrounds all green-screened in. But the actors in Beowulf have been motion captured and digitally touched up (quite a lot in Ray Winstone’s case) before being rendered in a full CGI world. It’d actually be interesting to know to what extent the actors “acted.” Were they recorded making the motions or were they animated after the event. I suspect that there’s a little of both, and perhaps when the DVD comes out, we’ll know.
But overall I liked it. The action sequences were good, and there was plenty of tension when you knew that an attack was imminent.
The film’s pretty violent throughout, but like Zatoichi from a couple of years ago, CGI blood somehow lessens the impact. I couldn’t quite draw a comparison with a Looney Tunes cartoon, but something you know is CGI means the realism is not as much of an issue.
The story’s not the most complicated tale, but it’s well told, and the 3D definitely gives it impact. I had an enjoyable time watching it.

Writers Who’ve Annoyed Me In The Last 48 Hours

Sorry – there’s no good reason for this entry apart from allowing me to let some steam off.
First of all there was Kathryn Flett in The Observer. She gets 1600 words to write about television from the last week, and she manages to waste precisely 884 of them on I’m A Celebrity. She’s so “riveted” that she’s even watching (and subjecting us to a review of) the sister show on ITV2.
Seriously. The Observer is a grown up newspaper. Surely there’s room for some reviews of some good programmes? The theatre review pages don’t bother with local repertory performances (and I realise I’m doing a disservice to some undoubtedly find repertory companies), and the music review pages don’t bother with buskers or pub performers. Yet, that’s really what we’re getting the cultural equivalent here.
It’s not even as though it’s being done with wit. I’m currently reading Dawn of the Dumb, the new compendium of Charlie Brooker columns, which regularly turns its guns to popular reality fare. But it’s done in a clever manner.
I just have to keep reminding myself that Clive James was once the paper’s TV reviewer. And I’d certainly prefer a return of John Naughton who currently is hidden away just beyond Media in the Business section.
Over in today’s Media Guardian, guest editor Peter Fincham (until very recently, controller of BBC One) had invited commenters to answer the question “What is television for?”
Now obviously there are going to be all sorts of responses to that – some I could easily agree with, and others I couldn’t. But there in the middle of them all was Peter Bazalgette who these days is the Chief “Creative Officer” for Endemol. He really is full of it.
He runs through the major television broadcasters one by one sharing his thoughts.
“BBC – needs to be debated from scratch to decide whether it gets a licence fee at all in ten years’ time. The new agenda in favour is that it should be a trustworthy voice amid the gossip, rumour and paranoia of the internet.”
Hang on. He’s suggesting that the BBC might not get a licence fee at all in ten years’ time? So it’d either be commercially funded or bye-bye if he were in charge. I find this staggering from someone who makes his money getting commissions from, er, the BBC.
Let’s assume for a moment, that he’s not in this industry for personal gain, but for the good of all mankind. And maybe, somehow, that world would be better if there wasn’t a BBC in its current, licence funded state. Where are we left. Well, either it disappears off the face of the earth, or it competes directly with ITV. In which case, we can probably look to significantly lower revenues for both companies. The advertising pot isn’t getting any larger. Simplistically, ITV’s revenues would halve. And that means far fewer commissions for companies like Endemol.
But you see, Bazalgette believes that television is to entertain and only entertain. Yes, the most powerful cultural force in our time should just be there to entertain us. Obviously Endemol is there to fill that void. Talk about dumbing down.
How about ITV?
“ITV – has to redefine its model from that of a broadcaster to a creator of branded content whose channels are just one way of distributing its shows. It needs to be freed from Ofcom’s apron strings – why is a regulator still deciding how many ads it can run? That’s for consumers to judge.”
What on earth is a “creator of branded content?” You see, I quite agree that we’re going to “consume” our programming in a whole host of ways. We might watch it live; record it for later on a PVR; stream it online; download it to a PC or playback device; or just buy it later on DVD. Indeed, we’re already doing that. But you know what? I don’t chase “brands” on TV. I chase programmes. I may see a trailer, watch an ad, read a review or preview and then discover a programme for myself. Unlikely though it may seem, I’m still happy to watch the odd drama on ITV (their recent remake of A Room With A View wasn’t bad). I don’t especially care whether it was on ITV, Channel 4 or the BBC. I liked what I heard about it, and recorded it to watch later.
What most people don’t do, is worry about who made a programme. If ITV was notorious for terrible programmes, then it might matter, but there are a few gems scattered around on the channel, so I still give it the time of day.
Moving on.
“Channel 4 – has to be the home of the individual voice (writers, directors, or even would-be celebs) which swims against the tide. And if it’s genuinely radical it’ll keep its younger constituency. If not, Gordon Brown has an alternative.”
Well he’s not saying much there. That’s pretty much the raison d’être of the channel in the first place. Patently it’s not that radical, hence the 8pm hour most weeknights. And running Big Brother 27 isn’t exactly radical either.
“BSkyB – for selling subscriptions to people who want entertainment and communications.”
“Virgin Media – see BSkyB above and dilute. All the others must find well defined niches or perish.”

Well yes. No news there. I doubt shareholders would expect otherwise.
It’s just a shame that such a powerful television producer is so cynical about the whole business he’s in. Yes, it’s a business, but it’s more than that. We’ve seen in the last year, if you stop caring about your customers, then they’ll leave you in droves. And you’ll never get them back.

NFL Network

Here’s an interesting little tale about something happening over on the other side of the pond.
We all know how premium TV works in the UK. If you take either Sky or Virgin Media services, you have to pay extra for premium sports. If you don’t, the best you might get is Eurosport, Motors TV and the odd racing channel. Now I quite Eurosport, if only for its excellent cycling coverage.
But the fact is that if you want any major sport that’s not being covered by either the BBC or ITV, you’re going to need to pay up for Sky, and now, Setanta.
In the US it doesn’t quite work like that. The nearest US equivalent of Sky Sports is ESPN, owned by Disney like the network ABC. It has a sister station in ESPN2 and there are further ESPNs around the world. It shows Monday Night Football – the NFL variety – as well as a variety of other sports including baseball and college football. It’s probably true to say that it doesn’t get quite the exclusive deals that someone like Sky might get – rights tend to be more divided between different markets and networks in the US. So there may be a local television station that shows baseball as well as ESPN. But it’s undoubtedly the premier sports TV brand in the country.
Beyond that there are other stations like TNT that show a lot of basketball while the Fox network shows a good quantity of baseball. But a sports fan is likely to have ESPN. But here’s thing – if you get cable, you almost certainly get ESPN as part of your basic cable package. A broad analogy might be getting Sky or Virgin Media in the UK and you’d expect to find UK Gold.
ESPN (like UK Gold) gets a small amount of every subscriber’s basic subscription. This is something that channel owners negotiate with cable operators. ESPN has the whip hand in the sense that subscribers expect to get the channel, so a cable operator will need to come to an agreement with ESPN. There are a few channels that are in this powerful position – perhaps including Discovery. Beyond that, like the UK, you either have to rely purely on advertising revenue, or you can try to sell yourself as a premium brand like HBO or Showtime.
Anyway, so much for the history lesson. The NFL in the US recently created its own channel – the NFL Network. NFL games are already sold to ESPN as mentioned. They also sell games to CBS and Fox who between them broadcast Sunday afternoon games – usually a total of three in any market, although what games you actually see might vary according to local interests and whether or not a ground has sold out. Finally, there’s NBC which shows a game on Sunday night. Between these four channels, the NFL earns a lot of cash. But it still wanted a bit more.
The NFL Network broadcasts repeats and profile shows for the most part. But for four Thursdays a year, it broadcasts a live and exclusive game on its nascent channel.
Cable channel operators looked at the network and decided that they didn’t want to bundle it with their basic channels. If they do they, they’d have to pay – say $1 – for each of their subscribers, which effectively means increasing their subscription packages. So they instead put it into premium bundles – either on its own or with other premium sports networks such as the Fox Soccer Channel and the Outdoor channel. Subscribers can choose if they want it.
That seems fair, but the NFL Network is not happy. They don’t get nearly as much cash if they’re not included in the basic package, since many subscribers will choose not to pay that premium. This has now reached the point that the network has been sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter by US cable operator Comcast demanding that it stops inciting Comcast subscribers to switch providers.
The network is also trying to get legislators involved, getting them to try to force cable operators to take their network in their basic packages.
From this outsider’s point of view, this whole thing is ridiculous. The NFL Network should surely stand or fall on the basis of whether viewers want to pay for the service or not. The reason Sky or Setanta can command premium prices in the UK is because you can’t see live Premier League football anyway else. But that’s because the free alternative is simply highlights. The average US viewer can watch three games back to back on a Sunday across the various networks on free-to-air television. They then can see a further game on Mondays if they have a basic cable package. The NFL Network is offering a paltry eight further games, and frankly the four most viewers can already see is probably enough. Only the real die-hards are likely to subscribe further.
Like anything else, it’s surely a question of pricing a product right on the basis of the market it’s operating in.

The Future of Radio

Today was an important day in radio, as Ofcom reported its statement on the future of commercial radio in the UK.
As most of the country is probably aware – certainly readers of this blog should be – we are just beginning a massive five year switchover from analogue to digital TV. By 2012 the analogue tuner in your TV won’t work, and if you live in the small town of Whitehaven, it’s already stopped working.
Instead, you’ll have to use either a satellite dish, cable decoder, or most likely, a Freeview box (more correctly a DTT box) to watch television. Indeed, with the BBC recently getting Trust approval for a full HD service, Ofcom has announced that by 2012 we should be able to get a Freeview HD signal too for at least three or four services.
For consumers there’s a gain to be had by going through this pain. You can get widescreen pictures, and many additional channels. The value of some of these channels may be a little questionable, but they’re undoubtedly additional. And I like BBC Four anyway.
So what should happen to radio?
Earlier this year, Ofcom consulted with the public and commercial radio, having set out a group of proposals. Some areas were more contentious than others. Most radio groups and other interested parties responded to the proposals over the summer, and today Ofcom came back with its findings.
If you listen to commercial radio on your analogue set, there’s a high probability that it’s a local service. There are some very fine national commercial services of course (ahem), but there are many more local services. A large number of these services belong to larger groups, such as GCap (who own Capital FM, BRMB, GWR and Red Dragon amongst many others) or EMAP (who own Radio City, Key 103, Clyde One and Kiss 100, again amongst many others). Each of these stations is operated locally, usually in studios in or around the centre of their transmission area, and the DJs broadcast to the local community. There are shared “networked” programmes of course – for example, the Hit 40 UK chart which goes out as a commercial alternative to BBC Radio One’s Sunday chart, or the recently launched Ryan Seacrest show on GCap stations.
Many of these radio groups have argued that they should be allowed to “network” more of their programmes, which would reduce costs of course, but perhaps lead to more “professional” sounding broadcasts with bigger names. Ofcom has decided that stations shouldn’t be able to network as much programming as station groups might want, since they are primarily licenced as “local” services, and that they should have to broadcast at least ten hours of locally produced programming each weekday, which should specifically include breakfast, with the other hours being in daytime. This could open the door for a networked drivetime show – undoubtedly featuring a big name presenter.
The rules are more relaxed at weekends with just four hours per day needing to be broadcast, although there’s probably less room for big new networked shows, since many stations still have local football coverage on Saturdays (if not actually commentary) and the aforementioned chart show is already networked on a Sunday.
Your local station may not necessarily rush to run networked shows because research from Ofcom seems to show that people do appreciate the local nature of their radio services, particularly with regard to news, phone-ins and local sports. But expect to see some changes in the future, possibly including some big names.
Other changes announced today by Ofcom include a relaxation of formats for stations. If you’re a fan of Frasier, you may remember that in one episode at the end of the fifth season, Frasier’s Seattle station management suddenly decided that the speech format should be changed to an all-Latino format putting the entire staff out of a job (this was obviously changed back at the start of season six). In the US, stations can and do make changes like this. But in the UK, stations have a “Character of Service” which determines what kind of music or speech they’re allowed to broadcast. Virgin Radio couldn’t suddenly become a Jazz station – at least not without getting Ofcom’s permission. Beyond that broad character of service, stations also have to adhere to some very specific requirements – perhaps broadcasting at least 20% speech in breakfast, or playing at least 30% of music from the seventies. That kind of detail will be removed, although Ofcom warn that stations that stray beyond their official station’s character of service will be punished. Don’t expect too much R’n’B on Magic anytime soon.
Another issue addressed involved ownership rules, which are still quite complicated with radio, whereas nearly every other media either has very simple rules or no rules at all beyond what the Competition Commission legislates. And looking forward, Ofcom is concerned that if stations’ licence renewals are placed at 12 years, there will never be a chance to reuse the FM or AM bandwidths in new – perhaps digital ways. Since stations were licenced in a piecemeal manner, so they expire similarly. But we don’t want to have to wait for the last FM licence to expire before we re-use FM in some new digital manner in the future. So limits on how long station renewals can be made for have been put in place.
But perhaps the big story is digital.
When Ofcom first published its thoughts earlier in the year, it acknowledged that it was too early to set a definitive roadmap to a radio digital switchover. DAB is not nearly as far down the road as Freeview is, and there are some significant issues that the radio industry has yet to overcome. For example, while so-called “kitchen” DAB radios are very common (those trendy wood-effect sets that tend to look nice in, well, your kitchen), other areas were not as well served. In particular, in-car DAB sets are few and far between.
Of course the future might not necessarily be simply DAB. There’s a strong likelihood that the internet is going to become ever more important in the transmission of what we currently think of as radio services. We’re seeing mobile data plans finally fall to a fair and equitable price point (even if streaming seems to be verboten on some plans), with Ofcom planning on auctioning the spectrum where analogue television currently sits, there is plenty of possibility that even higher bandwidth services may be available in the future.
But Ofcom has also realised that there isn’t yet a full replacement for AM and FM in the digital realm. If you happen to live in the Highlands of Scotland or Snowdonia in Wales, you’re quite possibly not getting much in the way of FM services anyway – let alone DAB ones. AM, which propagates well over long distances, is very important in these areas. Sadly, DAB doesn’t work well over such distances, and instead would require many hundreds of masts to meet the same transmission area, something that’s simply not economically viable.
There are other technologies out there, such as DRM, but so far it has yet to be used by any major market in the world for regular broadcast, so is too early to look at seriously.
Small stations can’t easily get onto DAB platforms even if they want to, which makes a nonsense of shutting down FM or AM until they’re given a possible future, but some companies have spent a lot of money on these new technologies and know that consumers will never fully adopt them until they’re placed onto a path (like they have been with television) with a Government led timetable. And all stations face much higher transmission costs, having to pay to broadcast, perhaps, on FM/AM, DAB, the internet, Freeview, Sky and Virgin Media. In the long term, that kind of platform spread is almost certainly economically unsustainable.
Digital is a big tangle, and Ofcom has sidestepped this issue to a certain extent by getting the DCMS to form the Digital Radio Working Group. Who will sit on this body is as yet unclear, but they’ve undoubtedly got a very fine line to walk along. There are many interested parties, and not all their aims are clear. The working party will meet over the course of 2008 and will report at the end of the year.
It’s not even as though we can look to another country and say “We’ll just do what the Germans/Americans/Japanese are doing” because none of them are there either.
Overall, I was relatively pleased with Ofcom’s findings today. I think that they did a fair job for both radio groups and consumers. There is no easy “going digital” answer for radio, and it certainly isn’t something to be rushed into when we’re still learning.
In the end, as is the way of these things, the technology will probably beat everyone to the punch, and no matter what is legislated, we’ll all be listening to our radio services in a manner that suits us based on what becomes available technologically and what’s practical.
Radio remains, however, a very important part of our lives.
[UPDATE] Being a 21st century regulator, Ofcom has put the video from yesterday afternoon’s presentation on YouTube for you to watch!

That Lost Database

I must admit that to a certain extent, I’m revelling in the discomfort that Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling are currently experiencing in regard to the appalling loss of personal data that the HMRC has been responsible for.
However, I’m still somewhat disappointed that the press and media in general are concentrating more on the political ramifications and whether Brown should apologise or Darling should go, rather than what that data actually means.
Yes, there’s lots of advice about checking your bank account for unusual activity etc, but I think that this, and the practical ramifications, are what’s really important here.

Oop. Sorry. Lost It.

I really shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. HM Revenue and Customs has lost 25m Child Benefit records. They were sent on CDs by unrecorded delivery. They didn’t reach their destination.
This, don’t forget, is the government that wants to build a national ID database.
They simply cannot be trusted with our data.
Aside from the all the reasons that building such an ID database wouldn’t work (and dishing out ID cards in the process), this incompetence just shows what actually happens when such a centralised database exists.
If you think ID fraud is bad now, it’s going to get worse. A lot worse. Data will go astray. Records will be wrongly maintained. There’ll be security holes.
Put this next to the ill-fated NHS database (£6.8bn and rising, with no end in sight), and the problems are clear.
[UPDATE] In fact, the more you think about this, the more scandalously shocking it is. I’m not even remotely interested in the political ramifications, and whether Alistair Darling is going to be out of a job anytime soon – it’s not his direct responsibility, although he’s just had a week from hell.
The real issue here is the colossal failure to even comprehend what the problems are with a system that lets this happen. Newsnight had Professor Ross Anderson on who put it all in very clear terms. It’s no good talking about a failure of procedure – procedures will always fail. The fact is that someone very junior had access to the entire database of UK child benefit claimants and their kin – in effect, every parent and child in the country – and they were able to burn a disk of that data. It’s no good saying that they should have had a manager standing over them as they did it (or whatever “procedure” should have been followed), ensuring that the file was encrypted and passed around with the security of a state secret – we all know that sometimes we do things that we shouldn’t just because we’re able to and it’s more convenient. The fact is that someone very junior had access to this data irrespective of “procedure.”
Anderson gave the very simple example of your health records. Historically, your medical record was held by your GP, perhaps at the surgery. A dozen people, perhaps, had access to it. Yes, someone who shouldn’t, may have been able to access the data, but the worst that could happen is that your local surgery’s patients’ records were compromised – a few thousand people maybe. In a national NHS database, it’s not just the dozen local receptionists and doctors in your surgery that can access your file, but another dozen at every surgery and facility around the country. And it’s not just a few thousand records that are at stake, but tens of millions of records across the country representing every man, woman and child. All our information is vulnerable to thousands of access points. There are “bad eggs” to be found in some surgeries up and down the land. I don’t know where they are, but that’s valuable data that someone, somewhere, is willing to pay for.
And finally, it’s worth noting that although this data is “password protected”, it’s not encrypted. While it may not be an Excel file (or series of files) we’re talking Excel levels of security. Let’s put it this way. I can get a password cracker for such a file from the internet in a matter of seconds. If those discs fall into the wrong hands, the data will be available to all with no problem whatsoever.
Quite simply, this breach is unprecedented in British history.