August, 2008

The Wire Sans Commercials

I’ve just been watching an excellent episode of Dexter on the FX channel – at a slight delay via my Sky+. I let the playback run at the end and up popped a couple of things of interest.
First, I see that Generation Kill is coming to FX in the UK soon which has got to be a good move (Indeed FX seems to show just about all my favourite current US TV shows at the moment).
But then they ran a promo for The Wire. Now I’ve not really blogged about it here, but it really is everything everyone says, and I really enjoyed the fifth season on the media. Anyway, the promo consisted of David Simon the show’s creator, giving answers to Charlie Brooker in an interview evidently conducted somewhere like the NFT BFI London. A good idea, since Brooker is a notable fan of the show and made a pretty good behind the scenes programme for FX a year or so ago.
On screen during this promo we first see on screen and then hear Simon say: “I can’t watch a storytelling medium that breaks every 13 minutes to sell you soap and iPods and cars.” He says that he can’t watch network television, and he uses the analogy of breaking up a story around the campfire to pause and introduce his sponsors.
What Simon’s getting at is the fact that HBO shows its programmes uninterrupted and without ads or on-screen distractions like BUGs and other logos. That’s fine, but over here it’s on FX, and they do take commercials since they’re not a premium cable channel like HBO which relys on significant subscription levels. So it’s utterly bizarre that FX should use that particular statement in this promo.
The one coda I should make is that for various reasons, I’ve caught up with The Wire on DVD, and so just maybe, FX run the show ad free. The fact that it’s scheduled for about an hour and ten minutes tomorrow night when the show runs about 56 minutes tends to suggest that like all the rest of their programming, they do run ads in The Wire, but having not seen the programme on the channel, I can’t be 100% certain. Still curious.
I did love the story in the promo about Obama saying that The Wire was his favourite show and that he loved Omar the most – the murdering thief Omar, that is.

Gustav Coverage

I don’t mean to underplay the potentially serious nature of Hurricane Gustav when it hits the US coastline, probably tomorrow. But Bush and Cheney not going to the Republican convention this week, answers a lot of the questions that Carl Hiaasen raises in his column this week.
It’s a good get out. Bush gets criticised for over-flying the aftermath of Katrina rather than being down on the ground. So this time he’s proactive.
In the meantime, as the media coverage here in the UK escalates, and impending arrival of the hurricane dominates the news, we shouldn’t forget that more than eighty people have already died – especially in Haiti. In Cuba, 300,000 people were moved and there are no reports of any casualties. Say what you like about Castro (Raul that is), but the regime does seem to know how to look after its citizens.
And let’s not forget that elsewhere in the world, there is plenty of ongoing suffering – especially in Birhir, India, where widespread flooding has left over a million people homeless and a frankly unknown number have died.
While in China, the Sichuan province, still getting over its terrible earthquake earlier this year has suffered a further quake killing yet more people.
For some reason, these natural disasters don’t quite merit the on-the-hour coverage from multiple places of events with live satellite two-ways.

Convention Season

In the US it’s convention season. That is to say that the Democrats and Republicans are holding their quadrennial events. In the UK we have party conferences, but really the two cannot be compared.
In the UK we have access to all this malarkey on BBC Parliament which nightly shows two hours of live coverage between 2am and 4am each evening (and then repeats it at 4am, 6am, 8am, 10am… 6pm, 8pm, 10pm and 12am – so you should be able to catch it). Happily, that means that the conventions’ coverage runs between 9pm and 11pm EST – right in the middle of primetime.
But what a curious affair these conventions are. So far I’ve watched the first night’s coverage and bits of the second where Hillary came on and spoke for Obama.
In the US, all the networks cover these events, but while the word “convention” might suggest some sort of meeting, the outcome of which is possibly not completely known, the reality is that these events are choreographed to within an inch of their lives.
It seems to go something like this:
– Off-stage band plays music while convention goers chat amongst themselves or bop around like they’re really enjoying themselves.
– Somebody comes out and reads a speech from the autocue quite badly. The speech basically says that Barack Obama is brilliant.
– Another musical interlude to allow networks to run some ads and then some kind of analysis of what they’ve just heard. But BBC Parliament is showing the unadulterated CSPAN coverage which is unsullied by punditry.
– Someone quite dull comes on and gives a speech. Nobody’s interested and you realise that the networks (all of whom are carrying this live along with the cable news operations) are still in pundit mode and aren’t interested. They might have cut from their studio at the edge of the arena to someone 10 or 15m further into the arena for their take. The audience isn’t really interested and the mics clearly pick up lots of background chatter.
– Someone vaguely interesting introduced someone slightly more interesting. But first we have to watch a professionally put together five minute video.
– More interesting person – e.g. Edward Kennedy – comes out and is given applause that’s carefully timed so that the event runs smoothly. Audience members carefully hold up Placard A from their Placard Packs that all read “Kennedy” just so everyone knows.
– Speech is finished and more applause is received, perhaps with family in tow.
– Muzak begins again as we reach commercial/punditry time and the chatter begins.
– Repeat from the top.
Nobody says anything interesting. The convention – at least this public face of it – is simply there to give an hour of free coverage. Compare and contrast with the annual British party conferences where occasionally a dissenting voice is heard (OK – they’re rare) and where speeches are only ever scheduled during the daytime, because you’re lucky if BBC2 actually shows it live – let alone BBC1 or ITV1 in the evening.
Ted Koppel gave a cracking report on it all for BBC News America which you can watch here. Well worth your time.
Well – I better get back to last night’s coverage as the third night starts in a little over two hours’ time.
Or maybe I should just break out my Tanner ’88 DVDs again.

England Match Not On Terrestrial?

Well – as things stand, England’s World Cup qualifying games against Croatia and Andora will not have so much as highlights coverage on either BBC or ITV according to a piece in The Times.
It comes down to the fact that while England’s home games were sold to ITV as part of a larger deal that ITV and Setanta signed with the FA which included coverage of FA Cup fixtures, away fixtures are sold by the various overseas rights holders. In this instance, Setanta purchased the majority of those rights last year following the draw for the qualification groups for the 2010 World Cup. In reality, they were probably bundled together by a rights organisation and sold on behalf of the Croatian, Andorran and other football associations.
Anyway, Setanta paid top dollar for those fixtures and they’re now in a position where they want to use them as a big driver for subscriptions. Arguably, this is Setanta’s make or break season. With those rights, the FA rights previously mentioned, and their Premier League rights, Setanta needs to reach a critical mass of subscribers.
There was talk about Setanta being sold – perhaps to BT or ESPN. But the market isn’t right for that, and with a recent rise from £9.99 to £12.99 a month for the Setanta package, they need to start earning some of the money that they’ve paid out.
So the question is this: can they hold ITV or the BBC to ransom to pay something for highlights. Or do they consider it worthwhile to keep the price out of reach and try to gain subscribers. England’s been looking a little lacklustre of late – friendlies are not being sold out. Would you pay £30 to see England play Kazakhstan for goodness’ sake?
But on the other hand it’s embarrassing for the FA to see the majority of the interested population only able to catch goals from news highlights. I suspect that a deal will be done at the eleventh hour, but you can’t be too certain.

White Goods Via The Internet

At work a few weeks ago, we had a nice chap come in to talk to us about the consumer behaviour at the moment, in light of the credit crunch and a falling housing market as people tightened their belts. It was all a little gloomy if you work for a company who depends on advertising as I do.
He also talked about who he thought might do well, and obviously internet companies are set to do even better. One of his examples was white goods retailers who have struggled with the internet so far in his opinion.
I’ve got a couple of recent experiences with white goods retailers to share in light of this.
A few days after I his talk I was due to take delivery of a washing machine, and seeing how strongly retailers had grasped the digital domain was to prove interesting.
First off, I had been expecting the washing machine the previous weekend, but Comet had called me at work to let me know that it’d be delayed a week as they’d run out of stock. Since the particular model I had chosen was a special offer, this wasn’t perhaps surprising.
Ordering the machine had been reasonably painless. They’d offered a fitting service and could take away my old machine both at modest additional cost. But since I live on the second floor, this is a useful service to which I had to avail myself. In fact, this had been the main reason for choosing Comet ahead of other retailers. I don’t simply want a washing machine to be delivered – they have concrete blocks built into their bases, and my old one isn’t going to leave my flat on its own.
As is the way of these things, you get a delivery window – in this instance it was Sunday 8am-12pm. I must admit that offering a Sunday delivery is somewhat surprising, but the four hour window is less so. I obviously had to be up and ready to receive them at 8am, but guess which end of the window they arrived?
I was expecting a call to let me know when they’d arrive, however I didn’t get one. This wasn’t surprsing because on arriving at the following Monday morning, I discovered a recorded message on my work phone, despite having supplied both mobile and home numbers as well.
Delivery of the new machine and the collection of the old one was painless, and there were two of them so I didn’t have to help out. Indeed overall, I’d probably use Comet again despite communication issues.
What I would suggest is that considering I ordered the product online, they should also communicate with me electronically – at the very least sending email confirmations of my new delivery details alongside the phone call. They later emailed me a post-delivery service questionnaire and I told them this.
Then yesterday, I needed to replace a DVD player. My first DVD player was a Samsung and it cost £250. I’d had a £50 voucher, but that still made it pretty expensive.
More recently, with the exception of my very nice Sony Freeview hard disk/DVD recorder, my DVD players have been closer to £20. But then you get what you pay for and my third cheapo failed on me. What should I replace it with? DivX playback is useful (my Sony does this) and obviously it should be trivially easy to make multi-region. I settled on a Philips DVP5980 which ticks all of the above boxes with the added advantage of a front mounted USB socket from which you can play movies, music and JPGs from a memory stick. It also upscales to HD TVs – not much use for me currently, but worthwhile for the future.
It was available in-store from Currys for a reasonable £40. Like the other major electrical firms, Currys allows you to reserve online. Frankly, unless you have serious stock issues, every retailer should allow this. It means that I can go to the store safe in the knowledge that the product I want is in stock. Otherwise, I might as well just buy online. With my confirmation slip in hand, I headed off to the retail park where my nearest Currys sits.
Inside, on a Bank Holiday Saturday afternoon, the place was deserted. This is a sector that’s in real trouble. Before making my purchase, I thought I’d check out the other DVD players they had onsale. They had a reasonable range, but curiously, the model I’d come in to purchase wasn’t there. I double checked, but no, it wasn’t on display anywhere in the store.
I began to worry. Perhaps the computer system had lied to me and they were out of stock. I went to the tills where at least three sales assistants were milling around with little to do (me being the only customer). Much typing on the computer and a failed attempt to get me take out an extended warranty (never!), and I was in possession of a receipt. I simply had to go to the collection point to complete my purchase.
I headed to the back of the store where two assistants were chatting. One immediately took my receipt and disappeared off behind a locked door. The other returned to some administrative computer-based task. Another customer came over and when he approached this second assistant, he was simply told to ring the bell. He, personally, wasn’t able to help.
He rang the bell and waited.
We both waited.
I stared at washing machines and fridges to relieve the boredom. Eventually five to ten minutes later, the first assistant appeared with my DVD player, and took the receipt from the other customer to find his purchase. I left the store without much good feeling.
Why was my model not on display? You’re not going to sell stock that isn’t displayed. Why were the tills over-manned, and the warehouse under-manned? If there’s nobody buying anything, at least make the process comfortable and quick for those who are actually contributing to your bottom line. It’s just very poor all around.
With Best Buy taking a stake in Carphone Warehouse before it expands into the UK, the whole marketplace is ripe for being thoroughly shaken up in this country. Shopping should be pleasant. If you can do that, then more people will end up going online. At the moment, the big-box retailers still have a bit of an advantage in that they have trained employees who can install a washing machine for me. Much as I love Amazon, that’s not yet something I’d give to them. But they can do better. Supermarkets’ delivery windows are pretty tight these days – albeit the service they providing is simpler. But it won’t take much to improve on what we currently have, and then the retailers will be in big trouble.

Olympic Golds and Looking Forward To 2012

This morning saw three more British golds, particularly a pair in the sprints at the Velodrome with Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy winning.
But I’m now beginning to get concerned about the logisitics of 2012. No, I’m not thinking about how we can possibly top the Chinese opening ceremony, it’s more to do with the timing of the events.
As has been widely pointed out, US network NBC got the IOC to move the swimming finals into mornings local Beijing time, so that they’d be able to broadcast events live in the US primetime (8pm – 11pm eastern time).
But 8pm eastern time is 1am UK time, and 2am for most of Europe.
A short piece in today’s Guardian speculates that NBC might put the IOC under similar pressure in the UK to reschedule events into a post midnight slot. The Olympics have been phenominally successful for NBC so far, and all the more important given that they spend $1 billion for the rights to the summer games. But they do things like not broadcasting the mens’ 100m final live, but holding off several hours to show it in the much more lucrative post 8pm timeslot.
Could the 100m or swimming finals be scheduled for post midnight or 1am? I just can’t see it. It would screw up the athletes’ body-clocks for starters. And, as I say, it wouldn’t just inconvenience British viewers, but also the rest of Europe and Africa, all of whom have had to do without live evening coverage of the games this time around.
I know that boxing takes place in the UK at incredibly unsociable hours, but the blue riband events of a UK sport in stadia full to capacity in the small hours? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
I think atheltics finals are likely to be scheduled for around 9pm local time in 2012, with key events like the 100m and 200m taking place on Saturday or Sundays. That allows US broadcasters to carry them in late afternoon slots when sports viewing is traditionally strong. And if they want to delay coverage for a few hours then so be it. It seems likely that the 2016 games will be in a timezone more suited to the US anyway (and I’m guessing Chicago will get it one way or another), so they’ll just have to make do. There’ll be an incredible outcry if they do otherwise.
While NBC might be spending $1bn on the 2012 games for coverage the UK government is spending £9.3bn ($18bn) on putting on the games. So let’s keep things into perspective.

Old Virgin Radio TV Ads 3

Here are a batch more of Virgin Radio ads from the archives – being put up here in advance of the station’s rebrand in the UK.
The first one features Beau the dog as he goes about his day. Realistic typing I think you’ll agree.

I think this compilation of three ads from 2005 is actually one of the best ads Virgin Radio did.

In 2006 we ran a promotion called the Big Star. Here’s the teaser:

The reveal can be found on YouTube.
Back in 2003 Virgin Radio had the strapline “Better Music – More Of It” and here’s an ad from that time.

Another similar execution can be found here.
By the way, there’s one ad that I can’t find anywhere which was used around the launch of FM in 1995 and featured a fat man dancing with the voiceover threatening that if you don’t listen he’ll go nude. If anyone’s got a copy – I’d love to see it.
More still to come!

Old Virgin Radio TV Ads 2

Here’s an ad that I’m 99.999% certain that you haven’t seen.
It’s a Russ and Jono ad for Virgin Radio that was never actually aired. This is a rough cut without final graphics or sound, but it still gives you a good idea of what they were trying to do.

The Launch of DAB Digital Radio

Today there are over seven million DAB digital radios in use in the UK, although it’s future still has a few question marks hanging over it rightly or wrongly. But it’s fascinating to go back and see how the system was first launched.
So amongst some of the videos I’ve recently been going through at Virgin Radio, I was interested to find the following.
The first is a BBC TV News report covering the BBC’s launch of services to actually listen to. Edward Stourton tells us that the first radios won’t be available for a couple of years when they’ll cost £700. And there’s a cracking shot of a group of people on a coach all listening via headphones to the service in this report from Torin Douglas.
Ironically, the main technical advantage that’s given in this report over FM, is the ability to listen to DAB in the car, when in reality that’s the main obstacle that’s still to be overcome with in-car radios still relatively rare, and audio cutting out in a more irritating fashion than FM does.
It’s also interesting to hear that the cost of DAB was a worry for commercial radio from the very start with Virgin Radio’s own David Campbell concerned about costs.

A couple of years later and consumer DAB sets were very nearly ready. So Tomorrow’s World covered DAB in this report. The sounds a bit poor, I’m afraid, as the VHS tape it was captured from was pretty poor and quite possibly a second generation tape.
It’s probably best to gloss over references to “CD quality”, but again there are lots of references to the poor quality of FM on the move. And I wonder where you can get one of those DAB Renault Espaces?
Sadly we never have reached the point where we can choose between five different football commentaries, but then the rights holders probably preclude that to an extent (in TV of course we have interactive Olympics on the BBC, and Sky offering nearly every Champions’ League game).
And we’ve still got a way to go before we see screens like those demoed by Peter Snow at the end of Jez Nelson’s report.

Old Virgin Radio TV Ads

In the run-up to Virgin Radio rebranding as… – well, we’ll have to wait and see what precisely it becomes – I’ve been digging through the vaults to see what old TV ads I could find.
Here’s the first second ad which ran sometime after the launch of FM in 1995 featuring Russ and Jono. There where lots of very subtly different versions depending on whether it was the 1215AM or 105.8FM frequency that was relevant to viewers, the amount being given away (£10,000, £15,000 or £20,000), and whether the prospective listener should tune in on “Monday” or “tomorrow morning.”
Anyway, without further ado, here are three variants to give you a flavour.