August, 2009

BBC, Ofcom and James Murdoch

The Edinburgh TV Festival is all very depressing isn’t it. The stories coming out, during a recession that’s probably hit TV today to a greater extent than ever before, all seem to be about shutting things down, and leaving well alone.
James Murdoch has come out swinging with his McTaggart lecture and it’s depressing stuff. Poor little Sky is being set upon from every side. This is the same Sky, by the way, that recently announced record numbers of subscribers including many who’ve been shifted over to HD (for which there’s an additional monthly cost).
I think that Richard Sambrook (yes – of the BBC) really hits the nail on the head in his blog entry.
Allied with a good piece from David Chance in the FT the other day, it really shows where an embattled Murdoch is really coming from.
The printed media is embattled to put it politely. Rupert Murdoch’s answer is to make everything paid-for. If he can just make this happen, then everything will be OK. But that won’t work if everybody else doesn’t go along with him. As even Murdoch will acknowledge, in a market like London, consumers seem to prefer the “news-lite” Metro to bargain-price 20p copy of The Sun. While clever things with subscription models and access to the web probably could make a difference, micro-payments (also beloved of many others in the TV industry who believe that we’ll somehow go through the rigmarole of paying 10p to watch Susan Boyle or whoever sing on our laptops) have yet to really emerge, and quite possibly never will. (Robert Peston talks about an adjunct of this in his very long, but well-worth-reading blog.)
Meanwhile he feels the pressure from two sides in the TV business. None of the Murdochs have ever liked Freeview – ironic as they’re a stakeholder in the consortium and continue to supply three free-to-air channels. Ofcom turned down their proposal to switch them over to a sports/movies subscription option, and so the stake sits there as Sky fumes, plots and schemes its next move. In the meantime, the forthcoming Freeview HD is likely to cost Sky subscribers in churn.
Ofcom really became unpopular with Sky the moment it announced proposals to force the broadcaster to wholesale some of its premium programming – sport and films – to other broadcasters. Yes, you can buy those channels on Virgin Media, but other platforms such as Top-Up TV and BT Vision don’t have access. BT, for example, would love to sell Sky Sports to consumers in a way that doesn’t force them to buy dozens of other channels to access the sports package as Sky effectively forces consumers to do.
Ofcom also talks about rights that Sky is unable to use, yet holds the rights to such as subscription films on demand. You pay a monthly fee for recent releases (a la Sky Movies) and watch them as you want. The main issue is that Sky does not have the bandwidth to offer this kind of service. Indeed, the return path is still largely reliant on phonelines. Cable companies and internet operators can clearly offer these kinds of services.
To say that Sky is furious at Ofcom’s intervention here would be putting it lightly. It’s livid. It could change the fundamentals of their entire business model.
Is it surprising, then that suddenly David Cameron has talked about limiting Ofcom in the future. Anyone would think that one or more of the Murdoch clan has a word with Mr Cameron…
Historically British broadcasting has been world class, and that includes commercial as well as public sector broadcasting. Yet, as Sambrook says:

What’s missing so far is discussion of the public good. Because many commercial operations are struggling, the answer for some is to close or pull down the BBC’s activities. A lowest common-denominator approach. Surely part of the justification for public funding and public media is to provide during conditions of market failure?

The argument is always to take down the BBC. But will we be left with programming that is as good? Will we have the information and resource available to all?
We’re living in a wonderful age. The internet allows the licence payer to watch, listen and read so much of what we’ve already paid for. The BBC is just about the only news organisation in the world with a significant number of foreign bureaux beyond the agencies like Reuters, AFP and AP. We laugh when we see what we think are, say, ill-informed Americans not understanding the world view on issues, yet it’s only because we get that world view ourselves via news organisations that employ staff in these locations.
James Murdoch talks about “unaccountable institutions” like the BBC Trust, Channel 4 and Ofcom. Yet he works for a very unaccountable company himself. Yes, I can buy shares in the business, but what I say or believe counts for nothing. I can at least have a say so in the next government with my views counting equal to those of the very rich. Sky and News International pretty much do as they wish (and they reportedly don’t pay a great deal of tax either).
I find it amusing that Murdoch attacks the EU’s attempts to force competition into football rights by forcing them to be sold to at least two companies should be attacked. Of course he’s right that prices went up rather than down as consumers had to take out a second subscription, but is that really the EU’s fault or Sky’s? It still has the dominant share of matches including every single “glamour” tie. Setanta didn’t play along and despite trying just about everything, went out of business (they made plenty of mistake to be sure). ESPN is not making those mistakes and has quickly climbed into bed with Sky who now handle everything from subscriptions to production on ESPN’s behalf. It’s clear that you get along or you die.
Has the BBC gotten too big? Sometimes, yes. I think that the provision of free video to various newspapers hasn’t been the smartest thing. I can quite see why commercial providers like ITN, Reuters and PA would be furious. They’re having a market removed from them.
Similarly, the Lonely Planet purchase really wasn’t smart. Although I think that BBC Worldwide existing as a commercial operator who’s job is to plough profits back to the BBC is clearly exactly what the BBC needs.
Murdoch’s MacTaggart speech was based around a “creationism” theme which didn’t really work I felt. But calling the UK “authoritarian” is misguided at the very least, and obnoxious in the extreme.
Somehow, I found his closing sentence to be fearful rather than fill me with support with his viewpoints. Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko sprang to mind:
The only reliable, durable, perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.

All The Broadcast News That’s Fit To (Re)Print

As the Edinburgh Television Festival approaches, and Autumn line-ups begin are announced and begin, this week’s Broadcast magazine is chock full of exciting, and mostly slightly less exciting news.
The big story is ITV reworking Blind Date into a new speed-dating format. Since even C4 who have previously piloted show called it “the cattle market of dating shows” I’m not at all sure that this is for me.
Five’s big news is that they’ve signed up Justin Lee Collins in a golden handcuffs deal. That’s great news – because it means we’re far less likely to run into Collins on any other channel in one of those dreadful “Bring Back…” format shows. I always liked the fact that the Friday/Sunday Night Project starred both Collins and Alan Carr, meaning that by never seeing it, I could avoid both these people in one fell swoop.
Everyone by now knows that C4 has scrapped Big Brother. It has finally realised that it can do a hell of a lot better with the silly money it had to pay Endemol for it following a bidding war with ITV back in 2006. Indies around the country are dusting off proposals to grab their share of the cash. Incidentally, if you missed Paul Jackson’s history of the UK independent TV sector on Radio 4 recently – Soho Stories – then you missed an excellent documentary series (Yes. That’s the same Jackson who’s going to be responsible for Justin Lee Collins’ first Five series – Heads or Tails – based on coin tossing…).
Sky One is going through one of its periodic upheavals as it goes out and tries to take on the likes of ITV, C4 and Five by commissioning big homegrown shows. So it’s moving The Simpsons and busily commissioning daytime programming, factual (bird watching from Bill Bailey) and drama like the forthcoming Chris Ryan Strikeback.
People even occassionally mention “HBO” in the same sentence as Sky One, despite the US behemoth not ever producing light entertainment programming, and what it does make tends to be more challenging and less like the mainstream. And let’s not forget that Sky has bought the big new HBO series The Pacific (a kind of Band of Brothers sequel) but which is being shown on Sky Movies, also home to the Star Wars TV series, Clone Wars. And Sky Arts is where you’ll shortly find another HBO series, In Treatment. Sky One certainly isn’t aspiring to be HBO.
I predict that ratings bankers like The Simpsons will be back in place before you can say Gladiators…
Meanwhile Julian (Gosford Park) Fellowes is writing Downton Abbey for ITV1 next year. It’ll be set in an Edwardian countryhouse, sounds quite interesting and probably won’t be shown in Scotland.
The BBC is tracking the “buzz” of shows via a website called shownar.combuilt by Shulze & Webb for the BBC. It’s not altogether clear to me why some of those terribly clever BBC types couldn’t do this themselves via APIs from Twitter et al.
That said, it’s an interesting idea and well worth a visit, since the information seems to all be out in the open. Being Human is the show with the most buzz at the moment, as it continues its BBC1 run.
According to the Broadcast piece it could include non-BBC programming at some point although there are currently no plans.
Given the long times between RAJAR reports, tracking this kind of buzz can give you a good feeling about how programmes are going down with the digitally enabled. Although clearly buzz does not equal ratings. Being Human is by no means the BBC’s biggest TV programme of the week.
Elsewhere, More 4 has bough HBO comedy drama Hung, and it seems that they’ll be showing the next series of Curb Your Enthusiasm in October which would seem to be simultaneously with its US screenings, a smart move recently adopted by ITV2 with Entourage. Hulu’s now not expected in Europe until 2010, although ITV is in talks. Meanwhile Arqiva’s purchase of Project Kangaroo assets means that it wants to get into the game too.
I couldn’t find any radio specific news in Broadcast magazine.

STV plc v ITV plc

Back in the summer of 2008, the radio station I work for was then called Virgin Radio which in turn was owned by SMG plc. Once upon a time SMG was a media force to be reckoned with. It also owned the Glasgow Herald, the cinema advertising group Pearl & Dean, an outdoor advertising company called Primesight, and of course STV and Grampian – the ITV franchises in Scotland.
Then there was something of a boardroom coup in 2007. The Herald group had already been sold off, and there were disposals on the cards for other businesses, as the share price crashed, and there was a general retrenchment.
Virgin Radio was finally sold to the Times of India, and became Absolute Radio. And SMG, having got rid of nearly everything with the exception of Pearl & Dean (which it has been unable to sell for various reasons), renamed itself STV.
The new management was led by Rob Woodward, and he decided that STV needed a new focus which meant producing more local programming. This came at a time when the rest of ITV was doing the reverse, and no longer making local programmes and closing regional studios and production bases.
STV has traditionally done well in Scotland, but ITV has changed over the years. Where once upon a time it was a network of seperate groups who’d meet every so often and divvy up who would make what programmes for the network, it slowly merged into one large company, with just some smaller players like STV in Scotland and UTV in Northern Ireland remaining outside ITV plc. However everyone continued to play out broadly the same programmes across the entire network.
In recent months STV has changed. Rob Woodward says he’s trying to focus on more local programming. Ordinarily STV has to pay its share of production costs of any ITV network productions that it shows. But opting out of expensive dramas saves it money. Drama just happens to be the most expensive type of programming on television (possibly with the exception of something like X-Factor which is also expensive to produce).
In recent months this has meant that the most recent series of Lewis and Kingdom did not reached STV’s viewers’ screens. Seemingly these dramas – set in England – are of limited interest to Scottish viewers, despite garnering good ratings in earlier series. The fact that they’re very expensive to produce is neither here nor there seemingly.
Then, when ITV relaunched The Bill as a weekly 9pm drama a few weeks ago, STV dropped that series as well – after 25 years. ITV responded this time by scheduling a same-week repeat on ITV3, which is available free-to-air to all digitally enabled homes in Scotland.
Today Broadcast reported that nearly all of ITV’s Autumn drama schedule (excluding the soaps) will not be carried by STV. At the weekend, STV didn’t show the one-off drama Gunrush, starring Timothy Spall I’ve yet to watch but awaits me on my Sky+ and has been well-reviewed). Nor will STV be showing Doc Martin, The Fixer, Wuthering Heights, Agatha Christie’s Marple, Collision, Blue Murder or Midsomer Murders. These include some of ITV’s most popular and upmarket dramas.
The only major ITV dramas that STV is going to show will be Murderland which stars the very Scottish Robbie Coltrane and is produced by Touchpaper Scotland, and the Quentin Crisp follow-up, An Englishman in New York. Not airing the former would have been a real kick in the teeth to Scottish viewers!
Not living in Scotland, I’ve not seen the full scale of displeasure that may (or may not) have been raised at these decisions to date. Not showing The Bill was probably the first instance of a show going missing that people noticed (viewers may not realise that they’ve not seen new series of Lewis or Kingdom just yet). I’d be amazed if there wasn’t a bigger viewer reaction to this news too. There are plenty of very busy message boards though.
In today’s Broadcast piece, STV’s Broadcast Services and Regulatory Affairs Director, Bobby Hain, said that not showing these productions was not purely a financial decision. Yet it’s odd that STV seems to be mostly opting out of dramas and not much cheaper factual programming.
STV has been busily talking up some of its home-grown programming including a documentary on Susan Boyle, and the fact that they took live coverage of the Scottish Parliament reaching a verdict on the Lockerbie bomber who was returned to Libya. But will audiences really hold up?
Tomorrow, in place of The Bill, Scottish viewers will be treated to Scotland’s DNA Secrets (and it’s Scotland Goes To War next week). On Sunday and Monday, when ITV’s new version of Wuthering Heights starts, STV will be showing Sirens, a repeat of a 2002 crime drama made by STV. On Tuesday, when ITV begins the second series of The Fixer (from Kudos, producer of programmes like Life on Mars and Spooks), STV will be showing an episode of Fitz, the 12 year-old American Cracker remake which was cancelled after 16 episodes.
Incidentally, STV’s website is so poor that I couldn’t actually find out what was on TV beyond today’s programmes. I could see no facility for seeing future programmes. I had to use the Radio Times website to see future STV listings.
While on the one-hand, it’s admirable that STV still shows some locally produced documentaries when the rest of the ITV network has pretty much given up, it’s clear that this absolutely is a money saving device. It’s palpably nonsense to try and claim anything else. Other replacements include imported programming like South Park and repeats of films which were clearly acquired cheaply (although I do think Michael Grade’s recent tirade against STV misfired a little when he mentioned Gregory’s Girl as one of STV’s replacement films. Clearly that does hold a lot of Scottish resonance. Actually it holds a lot of resonance for viewers across the UK).
The bigger question for STV is whether or not the audience is maintained over the longer term.
Bobby Hain, again, on Radio 4’s Media Show (you can still listen) a few weeks ago was confident that they would. But the reality is that if STV can save its £60,000 contribution towards the £1m cost of an hour of Wuthering Heights, and show a seven year-old repeat at a fraction of the cost, then it can afford to lose some ratings and still come out ahead financially. But it does occupy the third spot on EPGs and peoples’ sets, and that kind of thinking is how channels like G.O.L.D. and Dave are programmed, and surely STV has a higher purpose than repeats channels like those. I wonder how Becoming Jane will fare on BBC1 on Sunday night in the Scottish region while the rest of the UK gets to watch a new Bronte adaptation?
Something very interesting has happened on digital television as a consequence of this stand-off. Sky Digital viewers usually have their local ITV service determined for them by virtue of their postcode. Unlike the BBC, other regional options are usually hidden in the EPG. You can find them if you manually add a channel but it’s difficult if not impossible to record shows from those channels, and they appear in a different part of the EPG. But recently ITV London appeared on 993 for non-London viewers. In other words, Scottish Sky viewers can watch these programmes with relative ease if they go looking in the outer reaches of their EPGs. And the same has happened with Virgin Media customers who can now find ITV London on channel 853, while Freesat viewers can get ITV London on channel 977. Watching ITV’s HD service might also get around the problem, although I’m unsure given the fact that it’s only reachable via the red button currently.
Who loses? Well Freeview and analogue viewers obviously. But also Scottish advertisers. If more people start watching ITV London, then local Scottish advertisers will receive fewer viewers than they might have hoped. That in turn hits STV’s finances.
But potentially all Scottish viewers of ITV and STV lose out. They’re going to need to stay alert to even know that programmes like Wuthering Heights are even being shown. I’d be fascinated to see next week’s Scottish edition of the Radio Times. The London edition has a big three page feature on that very programme with “(not STV)” alongside it. I suspect that feature sits in the Scottish edition too. Viewers will just have to wait for the DVD. If I was ITV, I’d actually simulcast that programme on ITV3 and look very carefully at the ratings for that channel in the Scottish regions.
Otherwise local versions of listings magazines and Scottish newspapers won’t mention them. So how would a viewer even know about ITV showing these new series? Perhaps via ITV2, ITV3 or ITV4?
The other danger is for the long-term futures of talented producers, writers, actors, directors and other staffers working on Scottish drama productions. Since Rebus was cancelled, STV has been left with Taggart, the long running detective drama as its sole ITV drama commission. And as far as I know, that’s not yet been recommissioned by ITV with un-aired episodes dropped into the schedule at seemingly random intervals, hardly helping the series maintain a decent audience following.
ITV might become reluctant to commission drama from STV if STV refuses to show any of its dramas in Scotland. So perversely STV viewers could actually end up with less Scottish-made drama as a consequence; frankly, STV is not going to be able to produce £1m an hour dramas without the support of the rest of the network.
STV announced its interim financial results this morning. They’ve reported a steep decline in profits, but unlike ITV, they’re still reporting a profit.
I found this part of Media Guardian’s report very interesting:
STV said that it remains in discussions with ITV over the future commission of Taggart, a hugely important revenue and profit driver for the division, and that the company “remained confident” about the future of the series. Analysts predict the cost to STV if Taggart is not recommissioned to be in the region of £3m.
Finally, in good journalistic measure, I should note that I do actually have some shares in STV as a result of working for them during their ownership of Virgin Radio. I’d completely forgotten about them! However since the value of my shares would leave me hard pressed to buy a round of drinks for my brother and sister in a Wetherspoon’s pub, I don’t think that my ownership of them makes me anything less than objective.

Some Recent Films

Here’s the latest in my somewhat infrequent rundowns of recent films that I’ve seen.

The Hurt Locker is the latest film from Kathryn Bigelow, who always seems to go quiet for a bit between films. Previously she made such fare as Point Break, Strange Days and Near Dark.

This film is set in Iraq and it’s terrific. To say that this film keeps you on the edge of your seat is really doing it a disservice. We follow a group of three unexploded bomb experts – or more accurately one, and his two "team-mates." Bomb defusing is tense enough, and put it in a film where you’re never entirely sure which characters will live and die, and you have something that even the most die-hard horror fans will find uncomfortable.

The film opens with Guy Pearce leading a team as they send a robot in to defuse an IED somewhere in an Iraqi street. Something happens that means the company need a new bomb specialist and in comes Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renny). He’s a bit gung-ho and Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are immediately concerned that their lifespan might be colossally foreshortened. They only have just over a month left before their tour of duty is completed – getting blown up now is not on the agenda.

But we begin to learn more about the individuals through both a series of bomb defusing/detonation jobs and their evening rest and relaxation.

Despite being set in the army, we rarely venture beyond the threesome, with just an army psychologist and a handful of fellow soldiers ever seen on screen. Even then, the film creates a sense of claustrophobia and conversation rarely if ever extends beyond the three. There’s no radio chatter and no big scenes in mess halls or anywhere.

In one sequence our trio run across a group of British special forces out in the desert led by Ralph Fiennes, but even then there’s minimal communication between the groups, and the Brits are deliberately missing from the action. It’s a very purposeful device from Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who based this film on experiences he saw as a journalist shadowing real bomb specialists.

In terms of story, the development is really to do with our characters, who just take on the jobs they’re given. To that end, the only real objective is to simply stay alive. Every so often you wonder why there aren’t hundreds of other troops backing up the team, but we’re left on our own.

The performances are exceptional and the whole film feels enormously real.

One final note – the posters feature Lost’s Evangeline Lily. Now while it’s true she’s one of the few "names" in the film – Pearce and Fiennes having brief roles – Lily is also only in the film for less than five minutes. But don’t let that stop you seeing this film.

Mesrine is part one of a two part French gangster epic, and I’m impatient to see the second part. Vincent Cassell plays the title character and the film is based on a true story. We’re to believe that his "qualities" were based as a torturer in Algeria during the fifties, before Mesrine returns to France and gets mixed up in criminal activities. The level of crime ramps up and before long he has to escape to Quebec to avoid capture from both the police and other criminals.

The film has some excellent performances, and part two is imminent.

Frozen River has taken an awful long time to reach these shores. Starring Melissa Leo who won an Oscar nomination that nobody now remembers as Ray Eddy and Misty Upham as Lila Littlewolf, it’s set in upstate New York close to the Canadian border. When Eddy’s husband runs off with all their money just before Christmas leaving her with her kids, she ends up getting involved in cross border smuggling making use of the laxer law enforcement in the Native American territories and the frozen river of the title along the US/Canadian border.

I’m not surprised Yeo was up for an award, and if the Oscars weren’t just a mainstream marketing exercise, perhaps she’d have won. I remember her from David Simon’s first fabulous police series, Homicide: Life on the Street. And I see that she’s now working on Simon’s latest production Treme, set in New Orleans.

Finally a mention of Once Upon A Time In The West which was recently showing in a new print at the BFI Southbank. It’s still a visually stunning piece of work, and Morricone’s score is supreme. If you get a chance, this is the kind of film that simply isn’t the same on the small screen and needs to be seen in a cinema.

The Ashes on TV

Yesterday evening, England won the final Test at the Oval, and doing so regained the Ashes.
It was a fine moment.
And it was a moment that I experienced via the radio listening to Test Match Special on Five Live Sports Extra.
As it happened I spent most of the weekend at the V Festival in Chelmsford where Absolute Radio had an exclusive area. What we didn’t have was a satellite dish, although thanks to the Sky Player, I was able to keep checking on the score when I wasn’t listening to the radio (and watching and listening to bands playing obviously). I’ve moaned before about Sky’s Player only being available to those Sky Sports subscribers who either buy a triple-play package from Sky or pay a supplement for an extra box – multiroom as it’s called. I’m happy with my phone and internet providers, and living by myself, I don’t need multiroom thanks very much.
But for July and August, Sky extended access to Sky Sports on the Sky Player to all subscribers meaning that all the Test cricket has been watchable via your PC.
But back to yesterday. Media Guardian this morning reports that Sky Sports’ audience peaked at 1.92m viewers as the final Australian wicket was taken. An hour or so later, 2m watched Five’s highlights of the same event.
These are both excellent numbers for the respective stations. But in 2005, when Channel 4 still carried live Test cricket, 7.4m viewers watched England win.
As I’ve made clear previously, I’ve no bone to pick with Sky who’s coverage is excellent – particularly from a technical point of view. Although I much prefer Aggers and the TMS radio team to the dull David Gower and over-eager David Lloyd (his ridiculous trailers for the laughable England XI/Stanford Superstars damp squib have permamently lowered my apppreciation of him). And Mark Nicholas on Five’s highlights is very good indeed. In the end, that’s all a matter of taste.
The key point here is that far fewer people got to see any cricket this time around. And this cannot be good for the game.
Defenders of the ECB’s short-sightedness will talk at length about how Sky’s money is being ploughed into the roots of the game. But over the same period we’ve also seen an influx of highly paid overseas players.
We should also remember that cricket is state-sponsored. Sport England gives the ECB a lot of money (details of a recent £37.8m deal can be seen here), so I think that public at large should see some benefit of its munificance.
And even if we remove the “emotional” part of the equation, in pure commercial terms, do sponsors like Vodafone, Buxton and nPower really get full value for money by having their potential audience limited?
With cricket having been off-air to the “free-to-air”* masses for a number of years now, I can’t see Test cricket making a return even if it wanted to. Channel controllers aren’t eager, getting better ratings for vapid fare like Deal or No Deal, The Weakest Link or Loose Women.
But the lack of even one-day or Twenty20 games is surely going to cause the game long-term damage.
Are more schools playing cricket than before? Or have they sold their playing fields to developers (a major issue for all school sports)? Can they afford to maintain cricket pitches and have practice nets? And even if they do have the kit, do kids aspire to be the next Freddie Flintoff or Stuart Broad? Or have they perhaps never seen them do their stuff?
Which other Test playing nations in the world have no live cricket on free-to-air television?
Football’s clearly the biggest sport in the country, and even though the Premier League is not live, there is free-to-air coverage of FA Cup, Champions’ League, Europa League, international and now Championship fixtures. Rugby sees decent pay-TV returns from the Guinness Premiership and Heineken Cup fixtures, but highlights are available, and the Six Nations and Rugby World Cup are still free-to-air.
Other “minority” sports like tennis, golf, and athletics all reach much larger television audiences than cricket does, even if they only have a handful of tournaments broadcast every year.
Yes, some of those events are protected, but others aren’t and the sporting bodies, rights holders and sponsors understand the value of making at least some of their sport available to a far broader audience. Even boxing has slowly realised that they simply won’t attract a new audience in if they price the next generation of fans out.
The ECB should realise that now they’ve placed all their eggs in Sky’s basket, they run the dual risk of both losing a potential new fanbase of young cricket followers, and lose cash in the medium term as sponsors don’t reach wider audiences, while Sky can effectively hold them over a barrel next time around (if there’s nobody else interested in your sport, then you’re not going to maximise returns). It should be a matter of priority to get at least one tournament onto free-to-air television.
For slightly different reasons, horse-racing actually pays to ensure that Channel 4 continues to cover their sport. Yes – that’s for betting income purposes, but it comes down to keeping an audience interested.
But in the end, the proof will be in the pudding. In 2005, the streets of London were lined wtih thousands of people who cheered on the winning side as they paraded in an open-top bus, culminating in a packed Trafalgar Square. Will we see the same scenes this time around I wonder?
[UPDATE] Just after posting this, I notice that in fact there’ll be no open top bus tour this year:
“The team still have a packed schedule ahead of them and are flying to Belfast on Tuesday for a one-day international.”
*Some ECB defenders will point out that TV in this country isn’t “free-to-air” because we are all required to pay for a TV licence. This is true, but in the same way that car drivers have to pay a vehicle licence tax, there’s a difference between most “free-to-drive” roads and “premium” toll-roads. I also have to pay for my TV set, and electricity to run it, so that’s frankly an irrelevant point.

Avatar Preview

In a genius masterstroke of marketing, Twentieth Century Fox today persuaded hundreds of thousands of people to go to the cinema to see 15 minutes of footage from the forthcoming new film from James (Terminator 2, Titanic) Cameron.

And of course I was one of those who happily clicked on the free link and went along to see this footage at the sold out screening in the BFI IMAX in Waterloo. People were being turned away from the cinema when I got there. (Congratulations to the BFI, by the way, for a very well handled system of exchanging our printer tickets for reserved seat numbers in the cinema itself).

Much of the pre-publicity about this film has based around the 3D process, about which I’ll say more another time. But I will say that I run a bit hot and cold over 3D wondering to what it extent it genuinely adds to the experience of going to the cinema versus just being a gimmick that effectively minimises the impact of piracy and lets you charge the customer more.

The trailer for Avatar was released to the world online yesterday and is in cinemas today, but I’d avoided it just so that this experience was fresh. Similarly, I didn’t really know anything about the genesis of the film or the plot. I just knew that Cameron’s not made a traditional film for an awfully long time – unless you live in the world of Entourage where Vincent Chase starred in Aquaman!

So what did I think?

It was pretty spectacular for sure. The footage we saw seemed to be made up of short unedited sequences from various parts of what Cameron himself in a filmed introduction told us was from the first half of the film. The first couple of sequences took place in a familiar "real" world before the "Avatar" world took over and we were fully immersed in CGI.

We saw a series of action sequences featuring a very unusual  looking hero and heroine, and bizarre alien beasts including some kind of distant elephant and tiger creatures as well as some that were akin to pterodactyls or even dragons (a taming sequence reminded me of SF books where dragons are tamed to fly). The action was fast and the CGI top notch.

Yet somehow I wasn’t as completely bowled over as I’d perhaps liked to have been. There were a few too many "pointy" incidents where sequences had been filmed in such a way as to purely show-off the 3D. While things weren’t quite coming out of the screen in a cheesy manner, they were clearly there for no other reason than to remind the audience that it was watching a 3D film.

It’s possible that this is because Cameron has edited together lots of sequences that exaggerate this to an audience that’s only seeing 15 minutes, but it was overdone in my view.

The other issue is that while the world Cameron’s created is bizarre and thoroughly imaginative, it’s also a little – well muddy. I don’t know if it’s the 3D process and the polarising lenses in the glasses as opposed to the colour palette Cameron has used to portray this imaginary world, but it all felt like it needed brightening up a bit. I’d love to compare the same footage in 2D and 3D to see whether this is the case. Remember that I was seeing this footage on perhaps the best IMAX screen in the UK with representatives of Fox in attendance. I don’t think it was any shortcoming of the screen/cinema itself (Fox, incidentally, was grabbing video vox-pops from people on the way out. I snuck past. They were also taking plenty of photos of people wearing 3D glasses in the cinema itself).

The Cameron film that this feels closest to is actually The Abyss, which I did enjoy and is one of his better films – in particular the extended version where there was more time spent with the underwater aliens. I’ll certainly go and see this film when it comes out, although I’m not actually sure that I want to see it in 3D on the basis that it might actually sparkle a little more in 2D.

It’s impossible to judge on a film on the basis of an extended trailer, and the final film may capture my imagination to such an extent that any perceived technical failings will be irrelevant.

The London Paper’s Closing Down, Closing Down, Closing Down

London Newspapers
Having launched three years ago (when this photo was taken), News International has today announced that following a £12.9m loss, it’s closing down.
Obviously this is sad news for everyone who works there, including the street vendors (although I have mixed feelings about them). But I can’t say that I’m surprised.
First, Associated launched the London Lite as a spoiler vehicle, and so it became something of a battle between the two to see who’s proprietor had deeper pockets. Commuters were unlikely to pick up both of the papers on a regular basis. We’ve obviously entered a recession, and if your product relies 100% on advertising, now’s not a good time for you.
But more obviously, if Rupert Murdoch is truly going to start charging for access to all his newspapers’ websites, then he can’t have his cake and eat it by claiming that news has value to consumers, yet giving away that same news in printed paper form.
Will I miss the London Paper?
It was rubbish.
On those few times I picked up a copy, I found that by the next tube stop I’d read everything that was worth reading in it. The news values were low-brow, and it made Metro look postively good. Page after page of “celebrity” coverage, along with dull columns and pointless space fillers.
Not only that, getting through the West End unmolested by distributors was next to impossible. The only thing that could be said for it was that it was better designed than the London Lite.
The London Lite is equally as bad in all other respects of course. And between them they accounted for gargantuan quantities of waste paper on the tube. Despite signs saying not to, people leave the papers on escalators and you just know that when they’re sometimes out of service it’s because of newspapers clogging them up.
So the question is, what will happen to London Lite? Well Associated sold the Standard so it no longer protects that paper – it actively competes with it (using material generated by the Standard themselves under the bizarre deal that was done).
Perhaps the market will sustain one of the two? Or perhaps Associated would quite like to kill off the Standard? If we come out of the recession soon, then it might be a fitter and stronger property.
Metro, I’m sure, is perfectly safe for the time being. But whether London Lite remains open or closes, the Evening Standard has been massively damaged. Many commuters have got out of the habit of paying for a paper. And that’s not a habit that’s easy to get back into.