May, 2009

Dreadful Dreadful Television

The most recent issue of The Word magazine, and most recent edition of their podcast both discuss “Monkey Tennis” – the phenomenon best illustrated by the Alan Partridge clip where he desperately attempts to win a commission from a BBC controller:

Jump to 4:55 for the really good stuff – although it’s all excellent.
In both the article and podcast Aris Roussinos talks about exactly how TV programmes are commissioned and frankly that Alan Partridge pitch seems pretty accurate. It’s horrifying, it really is.
Commissioners have such a low opinion of the general public that all those “says what it is on the tin” series which clutter up most channels these days. I’ve said before that I’ll never watch another show, no matter how brilliant, if it’s called “The Real…” anything.
Flicking through this week’s Broadcast, just brought more of the same. The big story is Shine US’s commission of something called The Marriage Ref. Despite having the input of Jerry Seinfeld, this show in which a comedian judges which of a husband or wife is right in a discussion sounds like lowbrow daytime television rather than primetime entertainment.
But what other great TV have we got to look forward to?
Virgin 1 has commissioned The Naked Office, in which a Newcastle ad agency has run an “experiment” that involved everyone removing clothes to “improve communication and break down hierarchies in the office.” It’s being considered for a potential series. And it’s not just an excuse to look at people naked.
They’ve already commissioned a programme about Jim Davidson entitled So You Think I’m An Arsehole. Actually, I’m more inclined to believe that of the commissioner… And there’s also Why Men Watch Porn in which “medical experts” try to measure the effect of watching lots of pornography. Groundbreaking stuff.
Still, that’s all Virgin 1. What about the BBC? You wouldn’t get that kind of garbage on a licence fee funded channel would you?
Well BBC 3 is sending Snog, Marry, Avoid overseas for 12 episodes with an ex-Atomic Kitten. Challenging stuff. And the same channel has commissioned Clever v Stupid: “Clever v Stupid explores the notion that you can be brilliant without engaging with Aristotle” according to the executive producer. Just as well, since Aristotle died over 2,300 years ago which is going to make “engaging” with him quite challenging right now.
And there’s yet more BBC 3 news – their budgets must have just been agreed or something. Dancing On Wheels will pair wheelchair users with able bodied partners in a dance competition. I’ve no problem per se with this – if I honestly thought that it was being commissioned for the right reasons. You just know that the programme title was created first, and a format shoe-horned into it.
Over on ITV, following her success with the Gurkhas, Joanna Lumley is presenting Cat Woman. Sounds enthralling. Well it would perhaps, if it was a remake of either 1942 or 1982 versions of Cat People. Sadly, I think this is more about her looking at, well, cats. Let me know when the DVD’s out.
I know that nobody has any cash on TV at the moment – although ITV should at least have earned a pound or two this week, but coming up with halfway decent programmes which cost
Incidentally, tonight on BBC1 is a documentary called Tourettes: I Swear I Can’t Help It. As we all know, this medical condition never gets any airtime, and this must surely be the first documentary covering this subject? Well, apart from Teenage Tourettes Camp (ITV), Tourette de France (C4), Tourettes on the Job (Five) and Extraordinary People: Tourette’s Rewired (Five) all of which have aired in the last three years. Then there was the Big Brother contestant suffering from it.
I’m sure that this wasn’t commissioned just because there’ll be an audience for people swearing at inappropriate moments.

Fun Bits Of Audio

Here are a couple of nice pieces of audio from recent programmes. The first comes courtesy of Axegrinder at Press Gazette, and considers what those scary Yorkshire folk have been up to:

Bearing in mind that BBC Radio Five Live is shortly to move to Manchester, not with entirely unanimous support of everyone who works there, have a listen to this recent extract of Simon Mayo when Jason Isaacs came in a month ago:

Well they amused me anyway…

Some Recent Music

I’ve seen some great concerts recently which were all very different, but all worth mentioning here.
15 May 2009
15 May saw Icelandic “Music Through Unconventional Means” which featured the Southbank’s artist in residence, Shlomo, who’s a beatboxer, performing with one of my favourite groups, Amiina, and another Icelandic performer, Valgeir Sigurdsson.
The first half of the concert allowed each of the groups to perform a couple of songs of their own, on their own. As I say, it was Amiina who I was really looking forward to seeing, and they had a fabulous array of instruments. As for Shlomo? Well I’d not seen beatboxing before and he gave us a gentle, and fascinating introduction to it. It’s amazing what you can do with the human voice.
The second half was where it got really creative, with various combinations of artists working together, on one anothers’ songs, and also on a couple of completely new pieces. I really enjoyed it.
17 May 2009
The following Sunday was another unique experience with the (BBC) Radiophonic Workshop performing live in concert. OK – that’s a bit of a strange thing to say about a group that was built large of individuals and based almost completely in various studios.
But this was the coming together of several members who worked there over the years, backed by a team of talented musicians. An excellent evening of electronic music.
There aren’t many times where you hear excerpts of music you remember as the original John Craven’s Newsround theme, alongside those of Words and Pictures, and of course Doctor Who. We had many other less familiar pieces of music too – unfamiliar unless you’ve got hold of the excellent recent releases and re-releases of Radiophonic music.
Over the course of the evening we saw short videos with music of some of the other forces of the Workshop including John Baker (check out the recent Trunk Records releases) and, of course, Delia Derbyshire.
As well as the videos, there were some excellent graphics and lighting to enliven what would otherwise have been middle-aged men playing synthesisers.
Earlier, I was fortunate to get into a fun Q&A with the performers who were able to give us a bit more background and understanding.
And I must admit that I really enjoyed the support – Andrea Parker remixing music from Daphne Oram; enough that I went out and got a recent CD of hers afterwards.
20 May 2009
The following Wednesday it was off to revisit Ane Brun who was back in town and back in the Union Chapel where I saw her a couple of months ago. She was back, and this time had better support (although the chapel wasn’t as full as it had been previously).
She played some of the same songs, but also a few different ones. And she was again joined by her “Diamonds” – who are all singers in their own rights. In particular we heard Rebekka and Jennie Abrahamson do a few support songs each.
But she’s a terrific performer, and worth watching next time she’s in town.

Guardian’s Listings Get Worse

What has The Guardian done to its daily listings this week? They’ve got substantially worse – especially for radio.
To give you an idea what I’m talking about, here’s an example of last Thursday’s radio page:
Guardian Radio Old
And here’s the equivalent page today:
Guardian Radio New
The more observant may notice that it’s now only half a page. We’ve lost the Pick of the Day column which used to highlight one or more programmes to listen out for.
We’ve also lost loads of stations. Previously, The Guardian had detailed and easy to read listings for Radio 3, Radio 4 and Radio 7 – arguably the three channels that needed that detail the most. Then there werer also schedules for Radio 1, Radio 2, Five Live, 6Music, Classic FM, TalkSport, 1Xtra, Asian Network, Absolute Radio, BBC London, Xfm, Capital Radio (these latter in my London edition) and the World Service. A total of 16 services.
Today’s edition carries just Radio 3 and Radio 4. That’s your lot. The detail for these is about the same as before, but of the other 14 services, there’s no coverage.
This comes at a time when more people are listening to the radio than ever before. And a quick run of the figures shows that of people who “almost always” read The Guardian, 165,000 are Radio 1 listeners, 282,000 are Radio 2 listeners, 224,000 are Five Live listeners, 53,000 are 6Music listeners, 75,000 are Radio 7 listeners, 191,000 are Classic FM listeners, 38,000 are Absolute Radio listeners and 33,000 are Talksport listeners. That’s a lot of readers who are no longer served (Source: RAJAR Q1 2009).
I’m sure that The Guardian would point you in the direction of The Guide and say there’s more coverage in its Saturday listings supplement, but that wasn’t as detailed as we used to get.
In fairness I should say that the loss isn’t just radio’s. Many digital TVservices have lost their listings too. Gone are all the TV sports channels listings (seemingly a subject so popular it deserves a daily section, but not any listings info), Comedy Central, Sky Movies Premiere, Sky Movies Indie, Sky Movies Drama, Sky Movies Comedy, Sky Movies Action Thriller, Hallmark, and GOLD. There’s also no longer a daily film pick selection – perhaps unsurprising since so many film channels are no longer included.
I suspect that overall page saved is something to do with decreasing revenues and expensive newsprint, but I’m sure those savings could come from elsewhere.
[Disclaimer: Yes, I work for a commercial radio station, Absolute Radio, but I’m writing in my personal capacity here]

CCTV Is Everywhere

Last night BBC Two aired the first in a three part series – Who’s Watching You. It examines the surveillance state that we’ve been walking headlong into over the last few years.
Despite a very annoying production technique of sending everything in and out of focus like a small child was operating the camera, it put together a fair – sometimes “too” fair – look at what’s happening and how that data is being used.
I was thinking about a very similar subject when I stood atop Beacon Hill yesterday surveying the Chilterns and beyond. I took this photo:
25 May 2009
It’s not in any way Photoshopped (beyond usual processing stuff).
It’s only fair to add, that I later realised that my walk took me along the edge of the Chequers estate, and it’s entirely possible that this very subtle CCTV camera is part of that estate’s security system. Despite thinking that Gordon Brown doesn’t use Chequers, it turns out that he does most weekends so I expect he was off somewhere behind where I took this photo.
Given the fact that I took about a dozen photos, and the propensity of our law enforcement officials to approach people taking pictures of the most innocent subjects, I should count myself lucky to continue my journey unscathed (or perhaps they missed me because I took photos of the back of the camera!).

How You Can Use Parliamentary TV Coverage…

…or not.
I’d completely forgotten this, but then I saw last week’s edition of Have I Got News For You presented this week by Alexander Armstrong.
The MPs’ expenses scandal is the gift that keeps on giving as far as satirical programmes go, but when illustrating the resignation of the Speaker, Armstrong pointed out that programmes like this one were explicitly not allowed to use parliamentary footage. (He went on to use an “artist’s illustration” to make the point).
I’ve just been looking around, and that’s completely true:

no extracts of Parliamentary proceedings may be used in any light entertainment programme or in a programme of political satire;

I really hadn’t thought about this for years. But it’s in the Rules of Coverage.
So while over on More4 we can nightly watch Jon Stewart mercilessly taking apart C-Span coverage of US politicians, we’re simply not allowed to the same here.
Interestingly, this doesn’t prevent magazines such as Private Eye, taking stills from the video feed and putting them on the front cover with words coming out of the speakers’ mouths.
Meanwhile Sky News is running a promo for itself which uses an extract of the (soon to be retired) Speaker saying nice things about it. Curious in itself, but seemingly not against the rules:
no extracts of Parliamentary proceedings may be used in any form of advertising, promotion or other form of publicity, except in the form of trailers for programmes which use extracts within the requirement of these guidelines and where the trailers also comply with those requirements;
As Sky News obviously can run extracts, it can use extracts to promote itself.
Here’s The Daily Show’s take on it:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis Political Humor

(Not at its best to be honest) But they didn’t use clips from Parliament – probably more by luck than judgement.
It’s worth noting that More4 will make the odd edit – there’s a rant about that over here.

Nokia’s Ovi Store

Now I’ve genuinely been looking forward to a decent competitor to Apple’s iTunes App store, so today’s launch of the Ovi store by Nokia has been something to look forward to.
Sadly, all is not that great with it.
Early in the day there were issues of too many people hitting the servers too frequently. The store was falling over. That’s partially Nokia’s fault and partially not in my view. Yes – lots of people coming from high traffic tech sites like Engadget or Slashdot mean that even the most robust sites can struggle, but this is the biggest mobile phone operator in the world we’re talking about. Nokia really should be able to cope.
Accessing the store can be done in three ways as far as I can see. You can either visit via a PC, visit by going to the site with your mobile’s browser, or use a specially designed app that lets you browse the store.
My first problem was logging in: I have a Nokia account, had a MOSH account, and also have an Ovi account – that is, the Ovi that was there to sync data and let me backup contacts etc. Earlier today, using my current details just didn’t work. That was fixed later in the day, but the site still seems to know very little about me. In particular, it took a while before acknowledging what phone I have, despite me having tied a model to my account previously. Again, that now seems fixed.
OK – never mind all that. What about getting an “application.” As others have noticed, there are a lot of videos and ringtones amidst these apps. And Nokia seems keenest to push it’s various Star Trek related downloads – the worst thing about the recent Star Trek film was the clunky product placement. Is it really worth film companies’ while doing these deals?
From the website on my PC’s browser, there’s a handy “Send to mobile” link that sends a text message to your phone with a direct over-the-air link. The first time I tried it there was a significant delay of about fifteen minutes, but the next time it arrived fairly promptly. But on neither occassion could I download the application. The first time around, I was told that it was no longer available. Well it had been fifteen minutes earlier. There was not a lot I could do.
The second time, it was available, but wanted me to log-in with my registered details. I’d done this on the website anyway, but now I had to do it again on the phone’s browser. But it wouldn’t let me: “Sorry, you cannot sign in at this time. Try again later.”
So no download.
There’s no PC download ability even though I have the requisite cable. They’re pushing over-the-air downloads and I just can’t get them to work for this log-in reason.
While I’m moaning about that, I’d have thought it’d be nice for Nokia’s text messages to come from the “Ovi store” or similar. Instead, they come from “1234.”
There’s one other way of getting to the store. That’s via their application. I know that others either already have the Ovi app pre-installed (on recent phones), or can get to it via the Download! application. I have the latter, but no matter how much refreshing I do, it doens’t make the Ovi app appear. And searching for Ovi on the Ovi store doesn’t seem to show the app itself (not that I’d be able to download it anyway).
So as it stands, I can get to the store one of two ways – but they all route to my mobile browser. But I can’t log in when I get there for no obvious reason preventing me from downloading anything.
Now it’s early days, and some of these problems can be fixed. But really they should have been ironed out during beta testing. I really want someone to take on the Apple app store. I get enormously fed up that people consider the iPhone to be the only smartphone on the market – perhaps alongside the Blackberry. So I can’t tell you how frustrating this all is.
I know they’ll get this sorted out, but how quickly? And will I bother going back.
Others have made their own comments here, here and especially here.
As an aside, isn’t it a ridiculously stupid thing for Palm to make their Pre available solely on O2? That puts it in competition with the iPhone which is also exclusive to that network. Even if, as rumoured, the iPhone goes non-exclusive, that leaves a lot of people on two-year iPhone contracts unable to upgrade, and everyone who already wanted a state of the art smartphone, already on the iPhone.
Surely going to another network would have been best for Palm if they really had to do an exclusive deal?
Or how about this – going on all networks to build market share? It really seems daft deliberately limiting your market share unless you really don’t think you can reach projected sales levels beyond a single network. If Kellogg’s launches a new cereal, they don’t tend to do an “exclusive” deal with Tesco. Not if they want to shift lots of boxes. So why do the same with phones? I know others have done deals in the past, but I don’t mind so much if the Nokia xyz is available “exclusively in black on Orange.” I don’t change my electricity provider because I want to use a Sony Vaio. And I won’t change my mobile supplier just for a handset.

Radio Head

I’d completely missed the fact that this book existed until I saw a reference to a Daily Mail extract via a friend’s blog (obviously I wouldn’t ordinarily link to a Daily Mail extract – it’s not as though I was surfing the site or something).
Written by John Osborne – no, not our John Osborne – it details one man trying to liven up his dull data-entry job by listening to a different radio station each day.
The radio anorak in me, meant that I had to read this book. I really do love radio. It’s why I work where I work – and I’d listen to lots of radio wherever I happened to be.
When the book arrived, the first thing I had to do was see if there was a reference to the station where I work. The list of contents didn’t show Absolute Radio, and I was scouring it for Virgin Radio – surely it must be there – when I realised that it formed Osborne’s very first chapter.
And so we get a listener’s experience of Virgin Radio, as it was about a year or so ago, from Christian O’Connell at Breakfast to Geoff in his then late show. He seemed to quite like the station, but he especially enjoyed a caller to Christian’s show who’s story transcended the entire show that day – a woman had basically married a complete stranger; and as a man of good taste, he loved The Geoff Show.
We get a canter through plenty of other stations in a fairly breezy way including Asian Network, TalkSport, theJazz (that helps date it a bit), and Resonance.
Osborne has also managed to get interviews with various people to talk about the importance of radio to them. He spends time at the Radio Times, drops into Manchester to see Mark Radcliffe, chats to Tommy Boyd, Nicholas Parsons and Five Live’s Arlo White.
Against all this, is the backstory about his dreadful sounding office, where all he has to do is enter data and fantasise about an attractive co-worked. The only place to walk to at lunchtime is an out-of-town branch of Comet. No wonder he started writing this book.
What truly becomes apparant from reading this book is the tremendously dull everyday stuff that some DJs fill their programmes with. Jo Whiley is quoted as having enjoyed watching Lost on DVD, and asking listeners to text in some of their favourite TV shows. That’s really not a great radio feature.
Osborne seems to find Radio 4 slightly scary (ironically given it’s current serlialisation – see below), and doesn’t seem to be able to make it through a full day of Classic FM or Radio 3.
But overall the book’s a galloping read and doesn’t take that long to read at all.
My only complaint with the book is that there are more than one or two typos throughout it. It really hasn’t been properly proofed. Since it’s from a mainstream publisher – Simon & Schuster UK – that’s really not acceptable in a book with a £9.99 cover price. There are couple of real clangers. At the start of one chapter, the word “I” is replaced by two words from the previous paragraph. And in another place, “presenting” appears as “preventing” which is slightly different.
Oh, and the cover could be better. While they’ve chosen a perfectly good picture of a radio on the cover in a caravan park, it’s got a poorly Photoshopped Union Jack stuck on its antenna. Even worse, the font for the author’s name seems to be Comic Sans (and despite what The Guardian wrote recently, that’s a crime), while the rest of the title is in seemingly whatever random font they first came up with, with a curious white stroke and a drop shadow. It just makes the book appear to be self-published as opposed to something that’s from a major publisher with national newspaper and Radio 4 seralisations.
Don’t let those things put you off though!
As I mentioned, the book is currently the Radio 4 Book of the Week. The first episode, aired yesterday, and featured Virgin Radio (although the nice bit about The Geoff Show was cut from Radio 4’s adaptation) while today’s features Wogan and TalkSport.

Teleshopping… Coming To A Channel Near You Soon

Over at Media Guardian, their big Ofcom news is that C4 has been cleared of any bullying on Celebrity Big Brother, but I don’t think that’s the big news from Ofcom today.
The really interesting news is the changes in advertising that are being announced. There are some smaller changes like the number of breaks allowed in programmes longer than an hour – they’re going up for PSB channels. So if you thought that you saw more breaks in longer form programmes in the multi-channel world than you did in the “terrestrial” world – you’re right. You did.
But the really interesting/disheartening news is the relaxations on shopping channels.
Against the background of falling advertising revenues, Ofcom has made changes to allow broadcasters to generate additional revenues from teleshopping.
It will be allowed for the first time on PSB channels, but only between midnight and 6am. The rule that limits non-PSB channels to broadcast only three hours of teleshopping a day will be relaxed.
In limiting teleshopping on PSB channels to overnight transmissions, Ofcom balanced the recognition that teleshopping services could contribute to PSB funding with its view that teleshopping content does not contribute to the public service remit.

In other words, you might soon see shopping after dark on ITV, C4 or Five.
In some respects, that can only be better than the dreadful Quiz Call which still pervades on Five when they’re not showing overseas sport. But as anyone who’s seen daytime TV on many digital channels will tell you, the extended “advertorials” for exercise machines and cleaning fluids are pretty tawdry. They’re not QVC quality.
Anyway, my prediction is that ITV puts together a decently produced show with a “name” presenter fairly quickly. We’ll have to wait and see.

And What Is Andy Duncan On About?

Channel 4’s Chief Executive, Andy Duncan, has been appearing in front the House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee.
He’s been complaining about the BBC buying acquired – that is to say, American – programming.
C4 was outbid for the 13 episode Harper’s Island, which is still to air here.
That may be so, but overall his argument really doesn’t hold water. The BBC’s acquired programming basically comprises of Heroes, Mad Men, Damages, Medium, The Wire, and Family Guy.
Damages and Mad Men had no competing bids when they were acquired. And Heroes was first picked up by the SciFi channel in the UK. That means they got it for relative peanuts. The BBC came in later and bought terrestrial rights with no competitors at that point.
The Wire has been run in full by FX, and been available on DVD for some time. Was C4 really going to bid now?
I suspect that only Family Guy might have had some competition.
Of course, as shows become popular, then others are interested (see my last post), but that’s not really the BBC’s fault.
C4 outbid the BBC for both The Simpsons and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Although Duncan says foreign acquisitions, he really means American. Because if BBC Four didn’t show Spiral, the Swedish version of Wallander or the Inspector Montalbano shows we had before Christmas, you can be certain C4 won’t be (once upon a time it did run foreign shows!).
The US distributors wouldn’t like the market distorted. And as the BBC has already said when C4 came at this before, only 1.5% of its programming is acquired.
In fact – and I’m sure Duncan knows this – the competitors for acquired programming are Five, Sky One, ITV’s digital channels as well as secondary channels like Virgin 1, FX et al. Lost started out on C4 after all, but they couldn’t afford both it and Desperate Housewives at the same time.
If I thought C4 treated the imports it has had with more respect then I might have more time for them. But they’re run in the small hours if at all when the channel loses interest in them. Why doens’t The Big Bang Theory run at 10.00pm on a Friday night for example?
The idea that C4 would have bought The Wire at this late stage is laughable. I’m still bitter from the fact that the channel stopped showing David Simon’s earlier series, Homicide: Life on the Street before the series ended. It took Hallmark to air those last episodes first. E4 was the first channel to show The Corner – Simon’s mini-series that predates The Wire. But they buried it. FX is showing it now, with much more gusto!
Acquired programming has a place on Channel 4 like it does everywhere else, but if they hadn’t paid so much more to Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal than they’d been getting at the BBC, and not spent quite so much money on the overblown and very-long-in-the-tooth Big Brother, they might be able to make a US acquisition work well for them.
Maybe they could have bought the fun HBO vampire series True Blood. But they let FX get that.
As far as I know, nobody’s showing Friday Night Lights in the UK.
I’ve just started watching DVDs of the excellent HBO show In Treatment. No UK channel has picked this up, and it must surely be pretty cheap. Writing aside, the cast is either two or three people for each episode, and there’s a single set. Series 1 had 42 episodes. It’d work beautifully on More4.
I’ve not seen Eastbound & Down, the new HBO Will Ferrell comedy, but surely a UK channel’s interested?
Better Off Ted, a new ABC sitcom, is showing promise. It has no UK home that I know of.
Southland, the new NBC cop drama, sounds a little out of the ordinary and has a strong cast and comes from John Wells who made ER. No UK interest so far.
Showtime’s United States of Tara comes from Diablo Cody who wrote Juno, has Steven Spielberg as Executive Producer, and stars Toni Collette. Why is it not on UK screens?
Oh, and FX has just let its contract to buy The Colbert Report lapse. Can someone please buy this for me. Otherwise I just have to go looking elsewhere.
Loads of US programming. None of it – to the best of my knowledge – yet acquired by a UK station. And Duncan moans that he couldn’t get Harper’s Island which is only going to run for 13 episodes as a closed series anyway. Everything else I’ve mentioned here is certainly aiming to be a repeating series. And that’s what C4 wants.
Except they seemingly have no cash to buy a series this year anyway. So I’m not sure what the complaint is.
The Stage had a great piece on all this earlier in the year.