December, 2008

Recent TV Bits

So a few interesting things are going on in television at the moment. I’m going to come back to Kangaroo because I think it deserves a bit more detail.
But I’m not exactly impressed by Five’s recent hiring of Richard Woolfe from Sky One. But then Dawn Airey herself fills me with dread a bit.
Most visibly, she returned the Five logo to our screens, and in doing so, lost me as a viewer. More than that, she’s been busy commissioning “fast-turnaround” documentaries – i.e. worthless tabloid-esque garbage. Out go those worthy early evening arts programmes, and in come filler that might wash for a digital channel that’s looking for an occassional hit, but don’t really work for a major “terrestrial” channel.
Five’s schedule is lazy at the moment.
Sky One is a channel that has never done what it has promised. It doesn’t help that it continually shifts gear and can’t decide what type of channel it wants to be. At the moment it thinks it’s a big entertainment channel, so we have Noel Edmonds and Shane Ritchie presenting big audience shows. And Gladiators is coming back for a second series, although not with all the first series’ line-up and the long standing referee.
At other times, Sky One has aspired to be like HBO. But it no longer seems to commission drama. It’s been a while since Dream Team was cancelled, and while Mile High and Is Harry On The Boat are regularly repeated on Sky Two and Sky Three, there’s not been anything along to replace them for a while. We’re now limited to the odd Ross Kemp series which actually isn’t as bad as I thought it might have been, and the odd big budget Terry Pratchett dramatisation – most recently The Colour of Money.
For the most part it relies on The Simpsons and big budget imports like Lost, 24 and Prison Break. Fringe is the most recent of these. That’s not a bad plan, and they’ve bought well. But they need more in the schedule. It’s not a destination channel. Last week’s Media Talk podcast mentioned the programming on FX which is effectively a sister channel that often feels hidden away. I agree that merging Sky One and FX would give it a stronger programming footing. Currently, the Australian miniseries Underbelly, is superb.
Elsewhere Sky Real Lives is getting a vast amount publicity over a documentary it’s putting out this evening about someone who commits suicide on camera. I’ll leave the rights and wrongs for others, but I’d be very curious to learn about how this documentary ended up on such an obscure channel. As far as I know, Sky Real Lives isn’t known for its original documentaries. Surely it can’t just be a ratings grab?
Screenwipe last night looked at those dreadful “mission” documentaries that clog up too many networks and are often just sleazy attempts to get people to tune in to see naked people. I’ve never watched a Gok Wan programme in my life, and I’m not about to start now. But The Observer’s TV critic Kathryn Flett was one the “judges”. This doesn’t surprise me, as she’s by far the worst critic on that paper, and when she’s “away” I leap for joy and read someone who knows about television beyond the world of Big Brother and I’m A Celebrity. Brooker also concentrated on Dawn Porter who makes abysmal television too. I always point anyone interested towards her woeful Broadcast magazine blog entries.
Spooks finished on Monday night, and although the final episode wasn’t as strong as the penultimate episode, because we all knew London wouldn’t suffer a nuclear attack just yet as it’d spoil the continuity of Spooks: Code 9.
I did wonder how, when escaping Russian FSB agents in the tunnels under London, at the last minute the party broke up with Lucas ending up in Charing Cross, while Ros and Connie somehow ended up at London Bridge. Last time I looked, that was quite a hike. Not as much as a hike as it was starting at Liverpool Street which is also an awful long way from Charing Cross.
But when all’s said and done, roll on the next series…

Televised Sport Update

Last week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided that it wouldn’t award the EBU the rights to the 2014 winter Olympics and the 2016 summer games. In the past the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) has collectively bought the rights to the Olympics for the past fifty years. All the public service broadcasters chip in and they get the rights between them.
But the IOC is something of a money grabbing beast, and they’ve decided that they can do much better if they individually negotiate with each of the countries in Europe rather than go with a single deal.
Reports talking about the BBC not getting the rights to the games are probably very wide of the mark. In the UK the Olympics are still a protected event, and as such, have to be made available free to air, to the whole country. So ITV could bid in theory, but that seems incredibly unlikely – they’ve just decided that even the relatively low costs of covering the boat race are too much and have pulled out after next year. They’d be hard pushed to garner enough advertising to cover the costs. The production costs alone are enormous, with thousands of hours coming from Beijing this year, and even more likely to come from London.
In theory, an operator like Sky could bid for the games, but it’d have to broadcast them free-to-air. That might mean using DTT (the only service it’d have full national coverage with) to broadcast to most people with more on satellite, but that’d probably cause an outcry. That said, I noticed that Trevor East, previously head of sports at Sky and now with Setanta, doesn’t see anything wrong with Sky going for the rights. He correctly points out that Sky Italia has the Olympics in Italy. However, Sky Italia is required to subcontract free-to-air rights, probably with RAI (the state broadcaster).
It seems a strange time for the vultures at the IOC to playing fast and loose with their games. We’re entering a global recession which means that everyone’s re-examining what they’re able to bid for, or to what extent they expect advertising to cover costs of future games. And with London getting the games in 2012, the 2016 summer games will almost certainly not be at a favourable time for Europe. We won’t know until next year who will be getting the games, but if most events take place in the middle of the night or during the day, that’s not going to make European broadcasters want to pay more.
Of course UEFA and FIFA have done the same thing recently.
And all of them would like to see the review of sporting “crown jewels” be reviewed with significantly fewer events on the schedule. David Davies just been appointed by culture secretary Andy Burnham, to review the list. Currently it looks like this:
Group A – must be covered live:


  • Olympic Games

  • FIFA World Cup finals tournament

  • European Football Championship finals tournament

  • FA Cup final

  • Scottish FA Cup final (in Scotland)

  • Grand National

  • Wimbledon tennis finals

  • Rugby League Challenge Cup final

  • Rugby World Cup final


Group B – highlights must be available free to air:

  • cricket test matches played in England

  • non-finals play in the Wimbledon tournament

  • all other matches in Rugby World Cup finals tournament

  • Six Nations Rugby Tournament matches involving home countries

  • Commonwealth Games

  • World Athletics Championships

  • Cricket World Cup

  • Ryder Cup

  • Open Golf Championship


FIFA and UEFA would like only the final, and perhaps semi-finals and other matches involving the home nations to be included on the list. They’d happily sell the rest of the tournaments to Sky or Setanta.
Meanwhile England tests don’t have to be broadcast live. Has interest in the national summer game lessened since it disappeared from free to air? I think it has.
The boat race isn’t on either list, and Premier League highlights aren’t guaranteed either. I’d be surprised if we saw much change. Ofcom recently published the equivalent list for the rest of Europe and they’re equally as comprehensive with some events specific to their nations – e.g. The Tour de France or Giro d’Italia, and even the Ialian Grand Prix in Italy (F1 is otherwise free to go where it likes).
What’s still clear is that if your event relies heavily on sponsors, you probably still want to stay free to air, as the coverage dwarfs anything that paid for television is able to give viewers. Indeed, if I was in charge of a sport, I’d perhaps be thinking more about how I can persuade the BBC or ITV to cover it rather than lusting after Sky’s millions and forshortening my sport’s future (Yes, cricket, I’m looking at you again).

Southbank

Two a couple of great concerts in the Southbank Centre over the weekend.
On Saturday it was John McCusker’s Under One Sky. McCusker has put together a fascinating group of performers of Scottish and English origin who together make some wonderful music.
So on stage, alongside McCusker we had Julie Fowlis (who I saw a few weeks ago), John Tams (who’d brought a fan club), Roddy Woomble of Idlewild, and even Graham Coxon of the now reforming Blur (tickets onsale this week!).
Emma Reid, a half Swedish violinist was exceptional, as was Jim Causley. Indeed all the performers were, and although I did pick up the forthcoming Under One Sky CD I evidently have much more to look into.
On Monday it was a slight change of pace as I saw the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Sir Simon Rattle perform perform the first of two nights at the Royal Festival Hall playing Schumann’s symphonies.
It was a terrific concert and it’s remarkable that you can get tickets for as little as £9.50. I still find it wonderful to go to a concert and see absolutely no sign of any speakers or microphones. By the way, during the interval I just fancied a glass of water so braced myself to fight to the bar to get a mineral water. But no! The RFH actually lays out dozens of plastic glasses of tap water for anyone who wants one. What a wonderful idea.
Anyway, this all makes me realise that I must visit the Southbank Centre a little more frequently (although I must also visit the much closer King’s Place soon too).

James Whale on Talksport Verdict

Earlier this year, Talksport fired James Whale, their long-serving (and high rating) evening phone-in DJ after he made some comments which were seen to be in favour of Boris Johnson in the run-up to the London mayoral election.
At the time, it was all a little unclear. Whale himself was vague in his accounts. Even at the Radio Festival in Glasgow, it still hadn’t been publicly spelt out exactly what he’d said (well – unless you’d happened to have been listening at the time).
Following his dismissal, there was talk of Whale taking his previous employers to court. But he backed out of that, seemingly because of the costs.
Finally, today, Ofcom has announced that Talksport should be fined £20,000 for breaking rules of impartiality.
The transcript is fascinating:
James Whale: Now in the run up to the mayoral election in London, I don’t think we’re supposed to show any, any preference one way or the other. But in an interview earlier today, I heard Ken Livingstone being championed by the prime minister. Gordon Brown said if Londoners didn’t vote for Ken Livingstone, if they voted for Boris Johnson, who I by the way, think would make a fantastic leader of this city. If Boris Johnson was the London mayor, people would have a far better quality of life and would not be ripped off nearly so much, if at all. And for anybody that doesn’t vote for Boris, you’ll get what you deserve because what you’ll get is Ken Livingstone. Now, I’m pretty sure we’re not supposed to champion one…
Producer: Yeah, you’re not allowed to do that.
James Whale: But I don’t give a stuff, I couldn’t care less. If the prime minister feels that he can champion Ken Livingstone, and let’s face it, Ken Livingstone has been nothing but a complete and utter tragedy for the capital city…I think Ken Livingstone running London again will be a complete tragedy. If you don’t walk, you’ll be a non-person.
Producer: It’s good for some people what he’s done.
James Whale: No, not good for anyone. Boris Johnson…
Producer: If you’re a roller blader.

James Whale: “Boris Johnson for mayor of London” that has to be the mantra…
Producer: You’re not allowed to say that.
James Whale: I couldn’t give a stuff.
Producer: You can’t do, sorry you can’t. He’s a nice bloke though, he did the show here when you were off. Really, really, really, nice genuinely nice guy.
James Whale: Vote him in.
Producer: You can’t say anything about his politics. You’re not allowed to.
James Whale: Make sure that he’s the next mayor of London because quite frankly, Gordon Brown…

There’s a further section which you can read for yourself.
What’s clear is that Talksport was very quickly concerned about what had happened and the seriousness with which it would be taken by Ofcom. They’d had a previously incident with George Galloway. The consequential firing of Whale was inevitable. Indeed, it was used in mitigation of the eventual fine.
I suspect that Talksport are pretty pleased with the overall outcome. But, they’re going to need to be very careful in the future – that much is clear. So perhaps that’s why Jon Gaunt recently got fired over a much less important incident (the rights and wrongs of which I won’t go into).
As for James Whale? Well he’s back at work on LBC where one of his fellow presenters is Ken Livingstone. I suspect for them, it’s water under the bridge because in the end, a one-off rant on a single station doesn’t determine who wins an election. But it doesn’t make it right either.
[As always, these opinions are my own and don’t represent those of my employer.]

Photographic Exhibitions

Over on the BBC News website, they have an audio slideshow with Eamonn McCabe detailing what he’s found out in his Writer’s Room project. Over the last couple of years McCabe has been busily photographing the rooms in which novels are written. They’ve been published in the Guardian Review, and are now the subject of an exhibition.
It’s fun looking at them, but it’s also interesting to hear McCabe mention that he tries not to shoot more than two rolls of film per room – 24 photos. In other words, this isn’t digital, and he’s using a medium format camera.
This was interesting, because so much photography is digital these days. Two other recent exhibitions have piqued my interest. The first was the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibtion at The Natural History Museum. This year was the first time I’d visited, and what a fantastic exhibition is is. The way they’ve displayed the photos is amazing with lightboxes behind transparencies of the photographs.
There truly are some stunning photos, and the exhibition really is worth a look. What I especially liked was the fact that full details of every photo taken were listed. So you could see which camera the photographer had used, the lens, and quite often, even the brand of tripod.
Of course you find a certain amount of jealousy comes out.
“If I had that camera and that lens, maybe I’d be able to take such awesome photos!”
That’s not entirely true. What’s evident is that these people had been to some remarkable places and often taken extraordinary amounts of time over getting the photos.
The overall winning picture of a snow leopard took literally months to get. The photographer, was working for National Geographic, so he could probably afford to spend that amount of time on assignment, but even then, his winning photo(s) were actually shot using a bottom of the range Canon DSLR. It’s just that he used quite a lot of them and left them with automatic triggers to attempt to get the shots.
I must also admit that I was jealous of some of the junior entries. There are categories for all sorts of young children, and some of the shots they’ve captured are amazing. But again, they’re quite often borrowing mummy or daddy’s lenses. Either that, or they get significantly more pocket money than I did.
So essentially, I came away from the exhibition jealous… But what I really meant to mention was that barely any of the photos were taken using film cameras. There was one honourable exception from a photographer who took panoramic shots of Namibia, but that was really it.
Over at the Royal Festival Hall they have the World Press Photo 2008 exhibition. The photos are presented here on boards, and are often larger than the images presented at the Natural History Museum. What I find is that this really shows up when photos are digital and have perhaps been over-enlarged. That’s not by any means the case with all of them, and since many are “action” photos of news events, you get what you can as safely as possible.
Disappointingly, the full photographic information is not displayed alongside each print. But this free exhibition is worth visiting if you’re down by the Southbank in the coming weeks.
Just a word of warning. If you’re bringing young children, you might not want them to see Time magazine’s portrait of Vladimir Putin taken for their Person of the Year 2007 cover story. I know that I’m going to get nightmares.

DAB/WiFi/SD Card Followup

A little while ago, I mentioned that I was seeking a DAB digital radio with recording facilities (ideally to SD card), and WiFi.
You can buy a DAB/WiFi radio. And you can buy a DAB/SD radio. But you can’t buy one with all three. What a shame.
But because new sets are always being designed, I thought I’d write to the major manufacturers – in particular Roberts, Pure and Revo, all of whom make devices, separately that do the things I was looking for. Were they planning, I asked, to produce a device of this nature?
First the good news. The customer service or enquiry departments of all three companies replied to my emails quickly and politely.
Roberts told me that there was nothing on the drawing board, “but never say never.” So we can live in hope.
Pure told me that they didn’t offer such a device at the moment. The person who replied said he wasn’t aware of anything in the pipeline either.
Reevo told me that there wasn’t a device on the market that met my needs. I pretty much knew that. They also said that due to podcasts and listen again features, there isn’t seen as being a requirement to add recording facilities.
That’s not true, as you can rarely podcast music-based programming, and even speech podcasts have an annoying habit of disappearing after a week if they come from the BBC. Listen Again facilities are likewise limited in time of availability, and you simply can’t transfer them to your portable mp3 player without some very awkward workarounds.
Now perhaps it’s only radio anoraks like me that are interested in this kind of technology. But I had a couple of comments from other people who were also interested.
Manufacturers tend to keep quiet about new products for competitive reasons, so I’m hoping that somebody somewhere is developing such a device.

More or Less Returns

07/12/2008
More or Less has returned for a new run. Well worth subscribing to the podcast if you want to understand a little more how numbers really relate and their general misuse in the broader world.
That probably doesn’t do a great deal to explain what the show’s about, but it’s well worth a listen – honestly.

Little Dorrit Scheduling

BBC One took an appalling decision this week. They cancelled an episode of Little Dorrit to show a “fast-turnaround” episode of Panorama. Thousands of viewers have rightly complained.
Now I have no problem with current affairs programming taking precedence over drama, soaps or comedy, but there were two major problems this time around.
1. They’re not rescheduling an episode of a serialised drama. That’s right. Because the schedules are already so tightly woven up before Christmas, they can’t squeeze it in. So instead, viewers will have to watch the Sunday omnibus. They’ll either have to watch the whole thing, including Wednesday’s episode, or come in roughly around half way through and hope that they don’t miss anything. I’ve been using Series Link on Sky+ and as I type this on Sunday morning, no new entry for the Sunday omnibus has been put in my planner. I would have missed this altogether. Continuity announcers telling you to watch at approximately 6.45pm on Sunday just aren’t enough.
2. The tabloid nature of the Panorama that replaced it. We got an hour long primetime show on something that frankly isn’t all that important. It’s tabloid fare. A stupid couple effectively kidnap their own child because of something they saw on an episode of Shameless. The story does not warrant the exposure. The reason that the episode was rush-released was because the court case had ended and the people concerned had been found guilty. The only “rush” was to beat the tabloids (and, sadly, broadsheets) who’d next day be printing page after page of nauseating detail.
Do you honestly think that if the night had been jam packed with Eastenders followed by Strictly… followed by Spooks, that one of those shows would have been postponed? Too right they wouldn’t.
The only reason the BBC did this is because unlike the previous attempt at doing something like this – Bleak House, a couple of years ago – the viewing figures haven’t been that great this time around. So suddenly, a ratings hungry BBC will piss off 2.5m loyal viewers, and instead hope to grab 6m viewers for a one-off Panorama.
I sort of expect this kind of behaviour from a commercial channel, but there’s no excuse for the BBC. It’s lowest common denominator scheduling of the worst kind. It was poor editorially, and frankly if there are any apologies being made by the BBC, they shouldn’t be for stupid things that happened on the radio with John Barrowman. They should be apologising to viewers who’ve invested in time in watching a 14 part drama series.
(PS Happily, viewers in Scotland were able to watch the missing epsiode on Friday as originally scheduled. It seems to have been beyond the wit of anyone at the BBC to at least tell my Sky+ this. It could have easily recorded the episode. That still doesn’t help other viewers though).

Amazon’s MP3 Store

So the long awaited Amazon MP3 store is finally here – with just days to go until the end of the year deadline. They’ve got quite a lot of music on it with a claimed 3.5m tracks on there at the moment (so they’ve been busy).
Tracks are recorded as 256 kbps MP3 files – usually variable bit-rate. That’s not bad, although Play.com uses 320 kbps. And eMusic uses a disappointing 192 kbps (again VBR).
Apple’s default AAC is at 128 kbps, so a like with like comparison isn’t direct – contrary to what you might glean from the BBC News report.
There’s plenty of variable pricing which is sensible, but one thing that Amazon, like iTunes is bad about, is allowing you to re-download music you’ve later bought. Since they know who you are and what your buying history is, quite why I can’t download music again after a hard disk failure or similar is beyond me. Piracy can’t be the answer, because once I’ve got the MP3, I can do anything I like with it anyway. Obviously there may be watermarks within the audio files – I don’t know.
That’s one area where eMusic has the upper hand. I can download music I’ve already bought again and again. Anyway, nothing’s taken my fancy just yet, and being an old fogey, I in any case prefer the physical comfort of a CD to a large extent (That said, if there was something I wanted in their £3 offer, I’d be downloading it right now).