June, 2011


Byliner is a worthwhile new website.
It’s purpose is twofold:

  • to link to and promote long form non-fiction
  • to sell original ebooks in that genre under the Byliner Originals imprint

The site came to prominance when it released Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer a couple of months ago. Krakauer wrote Into Thin Air and Into The Wild, amongst others, both of which have been filmed – the latter by Sean Penn. Three Cups is an investigative piece of journalism into the deeds of Greg Mortenson, a man who’s become famous – especially in the US – for raising money for schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
For the first few days, the piece was given away free. It’s now a $2.99 ebook.
It’s been followed up by a further series of original pieces all available for between $0.99 and $5.99.
That’s their business model – promote these pieces. But surrounding it, there’s the recommendation engine and the ability to track favourite authors.
And suddenly, that made me think. I remember that I used to use a site a few years ago that allowed me to track favourite authors. And wasn’t it called… Byliner?
Yes it was. Phil Gyford created the site sometime around 2000, and it finally closed in 2008. I used Byliner quite a bit for a handful of authors, getting the relevant RSS feeds into Bloglines.
The new Byliner is a very different beast. And it’s good to see another worthwhile site using the URL.
Over on BoingBoing they reacted to news of the site with:
This could be inspiring, or the set up for a joke. You pick.
But that referred to a Nieman Journalism Lab blog post which described it thus:
Byliner.com, which launches today, wants to be the Pandora of narrative nonfiction.
I think they use the Pandora comparison in terms its ability to let you discover new material. In fact the Nieman piece by Lois Beckett is well worth a read.
The one thing I will say about the model that Byliner is attempting – it does persuade that perhaps… just perhaps… I might find use for an ebook reader. And that’s something I wasn’t sure I’d ever say. The free Krakauer piece was available as a PDF and I carefully printed it out (even using the “booklet” function of a photocopier). But DRM being what it is (although could JK Rowling of all people, be challenging that?), follow up Byliner Originals only appear to be available in Kindle format (or, occassionally, as audiobooks). I think it’s because despite having piles of magazines littering my flat, just waiting for those articles to get read, the format is more transient. The magazines will eventually be thrown out. So I don’t mind longform articles only existing being on a digital reader.
One small issue is that the site only links to the Amazon.com version of books where I’m prevented from purchasing titles as a UK resident. Amazon doesn’t even provide direct links to the same ebook on the UK site. You have to search for it once you’ve clicked through to Amazon.co.uk. Furthermore, Byliner’s current bestselling title – The White House Wants to Get Him by Glenn L. Carle – is, for unfathomable reasons, not available in the UK until July 15 [Update: It’s not out anywhere until July 15. And John at Byliner tells me they’re looking into improving international links.].
Nowithstanding all of that, I very much hope that the site suceeds.

Where’s Current TV’s Big New Show?

In January this year, liberal-leaning TV pundit, Keith Olbermann announced that he was leaving his MSNBC show in the US. He was appearing on a news network that, in some way tries to “balance” the otherwise “fair and balanced” Fox News. Both networks – as they appear from this side of the Atlantic – appear to be full of commentators and blowhards, and don’t really compare with either CNN International or certainly the BBC in terms of range and depth of coverage.
Anyhow, Olbermann announced that he was moving to Current TV, the station set up former Vice President Al Gore. This week his new weekday Countdown show debuted on Current TV. Or rather, it does so in America.
Current is broadcast in three territories – the US, UK and Italy. Most recently Sky Italia kicked the service off its platform after falling out with Current TV in a dispute that it claimed was ratings and revenue based, but that Current argues was directly related to Olbermann joining Current TV. Both sides debated the issue a few weeks ago on Radio 4’s Media Show.
Olbermann’s show has never aired in the UK, so I’ve only really seen it through the lens of The Daily Show, although I’ve watched the odd segment online. It certainly is very US-centric in its outlook, but it covers big issues that effect all of us; let’s face it – what America does tends to effect all of us whether we like it or not. It’s worthwhile knowing what the US is up to.
So I was still very surprised to find that it was not being carried by the UK version of Current TV. Indeed, given all the Italian discussions, it doesn’t seem to be broadcast in Italy either.
I’ve scoured the listings and it’s just not there. Now 8pm Eastern, is 1am UK time – a not particularly popular slot. But even CNN International “treats” us to peak time repeats of Piers Morgan’s show.
Olbermann is quite clearly the biggest investment in programming that Current TV has made to date, and in spite of the US focus of the show, I still find it odd that they’re not making it available in the UK. Are satellite costs so high? It’s not even as though Current TV couldn’t do with some fresh programming.
Instead we get, er, Tim Shaw.
PS. And yes. I do still miss The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Why is nobody broadcasting this nightly?

Taking Your Twitter Followers With You

A few weeks ago, Matt Deegan wrote an excellent piece about radio and usage of, and infatuation with Twitter.
He argued cogently on many aspects of stations’ use of Twitter. But towards the end of his piece he raised a question that I’m sure many stations think about depending on how their presenters are using the medium:
Also from a cynical business perspective, presenters are plugging their own accounts on your time, to [station owners’] audience. Their growth in followers comes directly from them being on your radio station. The numbers they amass and the relationship built can then be transferred to your competitor radio station.
When Chris Moyles finally disappears off Radio 1 to a new station, he’ll be giving 1 million Radio 1 fans reasons to switch radio stations.

Matt’s solution is to have presenters host the stations’ account while they’re on the air. They pass on to the next guy or gal and so on. This may work in some places, but I’m not sure it’s really what the audience is after. Part of the fun of following one of your favourite personalities – and that includes DJs – is hearing their thoughts on The Apprentice or learning about the mundane details (or otherwise) of their lives outside their broadcast hours.
But Matt absolutely has a point about potentially sending a presenters’ biggest fans off with him when he ups and moves across to a competitor.
We’ve already have Jonathan Ross take his @wossy fans away with him when he left the BBC. And now there’s a very interesting question (and answer) arising in television.
Today it was announced that the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg has been lured away to ITV, becoming their business editor.
On the one hand, it’s just the usual movement of people around their industry. But on the other, it raised the possibly the first major case of someone with a signficant Twitter following being poached by the direct opposition.
As The Guardian’s piece says, she’s a significant user of social media, primarily on Twitter as @BBCLauraK where she has nearly 60,000 followers, and her Twitter username has been promoted on BBC News programmes.
Did Kuenssberg set up her Twitter account herself? Or is it a BBC sanctioned account?
I’d guess the latter, since she has now tweeted:
As you’ve discovered I will become @ITVLauraK in September! Thanks for all the lovely tweets – Back in Westminster tomorrow
While it’s relatively straightforward to change your Twitter name – as long as the new one isn’t already taken – it seems as though she’s starting afresh. Currently the new account is dormant but already has 443 followers at time of writing.
In this instance, then, the BBC seems to have ownership and she’ll be rebuilding her following from scratch.
She being in the BBC News department, there are some undoubtedly strict rules about what you can and can’t do with regard to social media accounts. But what would happen if Rory Cellan-Jones upped and departed? His “official” Twitter account has 12,600 followers, but his older “personal” account has nearly 27,000 followers.
[Update] Interesting thoughts from The Guardian’s Jemima Kiss.

TV Scheduling and Piracy

If there’s one thing that UK TV broadcasters have largely worked out in the last few years, it’s that the ease of accessing television shows through nefarious internet-related means makes it smarter if you try to minimise the risk.
Sky has learnt this lesson the hard way in the past, and now regularly schedules its major US acquisitions as close to their US airdates as possible. On Monday HBO’s fantasy saga, Game of Thrones, ended its first run, being broadcast less than 24 hours after it had aired on the US mother network.
When Lost finished last year, Sky ran a simultaneous early morning broadcast of the final episode. It meant that fans could read the message boards safe in the knowledge that they weren’t going to run into spoilers (or at least no more than usual).
It’s noticeable that science fiction and fantasy series are peculiarly susceptible to this kind of thing. With their complicated story arcs and sometimes rabid fanbases, the UK networks have learnt that the larger the gap between the initial broadcast in the US and the UK broadcast, the more that their viewing figures might be damaged by fans who simply can’t or won’t wait and hit the torrents.
It’s not always easy mirroring the US completely. There’s a reason why UK networks have traditionally started new series of US programming in January, three or four months after the series premiered in the States. US networks regularly run re-runs mid-season. So few original epsiodes air in December and January, while busy “sweeps” months are packed with fresh programming. Then there are US holidays that mean that even networks like HBO take a week off.
This year BBC America started broadcasting Doctor Who the same weekend as its UK airings. Clearly BBC America bosses believed that their potential audience was being eroded by US fans downloading ahead of time. Even a week was too much.
Indeed Doctor Who’s executive producer Steven Moffat hit out at people who release spoilers on the internet. He may have been referring to those who’ve caught early glimpses of episodes, but it’s still a spoiler if you’ve not seen the show.
So with that all mind, what on earth is going on with the scheduling of the forthcoming new series of Torchwood?
This new series has been shot to a large extent, in the US. It’s a co-production with cable network Starz (home of sex’n’swords series Spartacus), and they’ve long been dangling the start date for the new 10-part series: The 8th of July.
That’s a Friday, which perhaps isn’t the best day for the BBC to run a major drama series. I suspect that they’re thinking more Monday-Thursday for their scheduling. But Sunday might also do.
However, as the new series received a public launch last night, we read this:
The series will air in the US in early July and be shown later in the summer on BBC One.
Now that might mean the following week: the BBC has not released schedules for Week 28 (9 – 15 July) yet. But if that’s the case, then why not say now?
As it stands, it sounds as though the scheduling between Starz and the BBC hasn’t been “synchronised”. And that’s what I don’t understand. If you’re going to make these kinds of co-production deals, joint agreement on a scheduling pattern should be part of those discussions. Perhaps it was, and the BBC, for reasons of its own has decided to schedule separately. But I’ll be amazed if that doesn’t impact on ratings.
The poorly received Prisoner remake was scheduled nearly six months after its US airing by ITV. But then little might have helped that series. Channel 4 is showing Camelot at the moment, with episode 3 shown on Saturday. But Starz (yup – them again) has already concluded the 11 episodes of the first season earlier this month. But to be fair to Channel 4, they just acquired that series – they didn’t co-produce it.
In the scheme of things, none of this really matters. But in a world where even Hollywood has realised that global release dates make sense, it seems foolhardy to do otherwise. Ratings will be impacted, and that might affect whether future series get commissioned.
[Update] In the end, the BBC has scheduled Torchwood for July 14, 6 days after its US airing. We also hear that UK version will be a little different to the US version. I still believe that’s 5 days too late, but better than 10 days or two weeks.

The Apprentice

This week’s episode of that most upmarket of reality shows was decidedly downmarket.
OK. It’s probably not that upmarket a show.
The two teams were set the task of creating a new premium free magazine (or “freemium” as Lord Sugar miscalled it) to give away. They also had to pre-sell advertising for their first issue based on a dummy.
There are multiple problems with a task like this.
First of all, it’s not something that any of them would ever be asked to do in real life. As far as I can tell, none of them has worked in publishing, or indeed in advertising of any sort in their life. Therefore, nobody would expect them to come up with a magazine format. They wouldn’t be expected to supervise, in person, the cover shoot. They wouldn’t be standing over the graphic designer’s computer giving input into the masthead (although they might give feedback later), and they certainly wouldn’t be expected to go out and flog the advertising.
All of these jobs would be handled by professionals or specialists in their respective fields. The overall task might be managed by them, but that’s completely different.
The second fatal flaw is that this new magazine is never actually going to see the light of day. In two days they’re not going to fill the magazine with self-written editorial (it was never entirely clear what the magazine was filled with beyond a single article each, a cover and perhaps a contents page). That also means that the media buying agencies, who are spending their clients’ marketing budgets, aren’t spending real money either.
So we ended up with a lads-mag – a type of product that’s dying in the marketplace, and last really saw its day with the likes of Loaded in the mid-nineties, perhaps with a brief renaissance when Nuts and Zoo arrived on the scene – and a magazine aimed at the elderly. In the latter’s case, we didn’t even get into the singular fatal flaw that free magazines tend to be distributed at rail and tube stations – places where the retired are unlikely to be found during rush hour (if only because their Freedom Passes don’t allow rush hour travel). Mind you, it was such a condescending publication on every count, the mechanics of how it would actually be distributed to its target audience pale into insignificance.
Which brings me to an interesting question: is it a good idea to help the producers of The Apprentice out?
Surely yes! All that free publicity on primetime BBC1. You’re portrayed as experts in your field, and nobody ever says a bad word about you.
But it’s not that simple. We’re obviously presented with a very simplified version of the rules by which the teams are playing. We don’t even know whether there was a shortlist of genres of publications that the teams had to choose between (thus simplifying the need to find relevant focus groups or cover models at short notice). Moreover, the three buying agencies that had to receive “pitches”, clearly had to “buy” at least some advertising. In the real world, both teams would have been given short shrift and sent packing. But in a make-believe-Apprentice world, one agency “bought” £60,000 worth of advertising.
Leaving aside for a second the fact that both the voiceover and Lord Sugar mispronounced media buying agency Carat’s name, which has a silent “t”, rather than as in “Carrot” as we heard it, I’m not sure it was actually the best advertisement for the agency.
Most viewers, I’m certain, would have been left in no doubt that both magazines were terrible. Therefore it was probably going to be a question of which was the least worst. In that regard, the lads mag was probably the fair winner.
But the £60,000 buyout that Carat gave it seemed too good a win. A quick Twitter search revealed the following messages after the show:

“Doesn’t reflect well on Carat… glad they aren’t buying media for me”
“Do you think everyone from Carat is hanging their head in shame? Or were they being ironic?”
“I’m not sure that decision will reflect well on Carat”
“Fairly embarrassed to be working at Carat (silent ‘t’) after than decision!”

Now personally, I think those are all being a little unfair. Carat’s not really spending their clients’ money, and indeed wouldn’t. We didn’t even get into agency commission. The prices being bandied around were almost certainly unrealistic – and of course we never even heard about trivial little things like print runs or distribution. But it does go to show that it’s not a one-way street when you sign up to help out The Apprentice.
Disclaimer: These are my views, and not those of my employer, who does business with the fine folk of Carat. As I say, I’m certain that they’re a very responsible media agency who make excellent buying decisions about which media they use. Like Absolute Radio for example.

Sky’s Acquisition Strategy

Yesterday came news that Sky has acquired the Showtime series, Nurse Jackie, starring Edie Falco and Eve Best (recently seen giving a terrific performance in The Shadow Line). This is the latest in a long line of Sky acquisitions that have come after the show has performed strongly on what we used to call “terrestrial television” but should probably call “free to air” television.
In this instance, there’s a good reason for not being too disgruntled that the BBC has lost the series. Here’s how the show was scheduled on BBC2 Saturday nights for the second series:
22 Jan – 2240 – Episode 1
29 Jan – 2240 – Episode 2
05 Feb – 2250 – Episode 3
12 Feb – 2250 – Episode 4
19 Feb – 2250 – Episode 5
26 Feb – 2320 – Episode 6
05 Mar – No episode so BBC2 could air Brideshead Revisited as part of World Book Night.
12 Mar – 2340 – Episode 7
19 Mar – No episode. BBC2 ran a one-off drama, followed by The Tudors.
26 Mar – 2255 – Episode 8
02 Apr – 2255 – Episode 9
09 Apr – No episode as BBC2 was showing The Masters golf
16 Apr – 2305 – Episode 10
23 Apr – 2300 – Episode 11
30 Apr – 2250 – Episode 12
So three interruptions, and no more than three episodes running at the same start time on consecutive weeks. Sky Atlantic will undoubtedly treat it better.
But this news comes a few days after it was confirmed that Sky had outbid E4 for series 3 of Glee, and a few months after Sky also bought the rights to Mad Men following four series on BBC2/4.
Then there are other shows like House (Channel 5), Lost (Channel 4), and of course 24 (BBC2) all acquired by Sky once their success had been built on free to air telelvision.
Making these kind of acquisitions is a game that Sky is very good at.
What tends to happen is that sometime during May each year, when new US series have yet to air anywhere in the world, international broadcasters are brought in to advance purchase series which have thus far simply had a pilot made. At this point, nobody really knows if a series is going to be a hit or not. The networks have placed orders and are hopeful. Marketing campaigns are drawn up. And various international broadcasters take punts on series, without even knowing whether the US networks will make much more than a handful (last year, one show only go two airings before it was pulled off the airwaves).
While a show like Lost might have an enormous buzz surrounding it, nobody really knows how well a show will do until those first ratings come in. At that point the series is just hoping for a full season run of 22 or so episodes. The UK network that owns that show may or may not have a hit on their hands.
A few years back, Channel 4 found itself with two hits from the same network in the same season: Lost and Desperate Housewives. A year down the road and Sky got its chequebook out. Channel 4 had to make a choice to keep one or the other as they couldn’t afford inflated prices for both. They chose Desperate Housewives, and Sky got Lost. In retrospect, I’m not sure that was the right decision.
It should be noted that UK networks can – in advance – commit to buy the rights to as many series as the US networks make. In other words, promise to keep buying a show no matter how well or badly it does. But that’s a tough committment to make up front. That said, when it works, it works well. I believe that this is the deal Channel 5 made for CSI. Sky Living only has secondary rights. On the other hand it can backfire. The BBC did a strong deal for Heroes, a series that burned brightly only in its first couple of years, before quickly fizzling out. The final series was pretty well buried at the weekend late at night by a BBC that had to continue buying the series as long as NBC made it.
So Sky – now with several major channels to fill, including Sky One, Sky Atlantic and Sky Living – is able to come in and “poach” a series that is performing well amongst the various different demographics that they’re interested in. That’s because the original UK broadcaster only committed to the first series.
Simplistically, this would seem to be a good strategy. Mad Men fans might be persuaded that a combination of the fifth (and all subsequent) series of their favourite show, alongside the global HBO deal that Sky’s done to fill Sky Atlantic, might be enough to make them take out a subscription to Sky. The low hanging fruit of sports, movie and science fiction fans long having been plucked by Sky.
But in an era of DVD boxsets, I wonder if this isn’t just a move that will ensure stronger sales for the DVD rights holder in the longer term – usually the same studio that makes the show. Mad Men might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and tips you over the edge into purchasing a subscription. But a £30 DVD boxset might be the easier choice to make.
You should always be wary of small samples, but I know at least two fans of Mad Men and Nurse Jackie, for whom the news that Sky now owns the rights of those respective series,was simply met with talk of DVD boxsets. And as services like Lovefilm and iTunes flourish, there are other ways to watch your favourite programmes.
Not only that, but Sky being the “playground bully” actually creates resentment amongst those programmes’ fans, and might not lead to the conversions that corporately they’re hoping for to continue their growth.
What’s more, it’s surely going to create a climate where non-Sky outlets are going to be more risk averse, and take fewer punts on programming. The BBC has already announced that it’s going to be buying fewer imports. I’d imagine that other non-Sky outlets are willing to spend less money now on imports so that the risk/reward case is lessened should the programme become a hit, and rampant Sky come in with its big wallet.
I think other parts of Sky’s strategy are much better. The deal with HBO is already reaping dividends with the likes of Game of Thrones which reaches its conclusion on Monday. When I talk about how good I think that programme is to people who don’t have Sky, it makes them interested to learn more. No – they’ve not really had a chance to sample its wares (aside from the odd “free” weekend on Freeview, which, if properly promoted is a good vehicle to use), but the first thing that comes to mind isn’t “oh they’re the company that took away…”
And the recently announced massive investment into original programming is to be applauded. I look forward to seeing what it brings to the screens. I’m really pleased to see that they’re now putting their money into original programming. Not everything will work from the outset, but given the scale of what they’re talking about, I’m confident that we’ll see some good TV come out of it.
Note: These are my views, and not those of my employer, who does a great deal of business with Sky. I pay for a personal Sky subscription, and was lucky enough to receive hospitality in a Sky box recently at the O2. In fact, in more ways than not, I’m a big fan of Sky. In particular, their sponsorship of cycling is fantastic, and it was great to see Bradley Wiggins win the Dauphin√© at the weekend as part of the Sky sponsored Team Sky cycling team. But I’m probably getting wildly off-topic now.

Myers Report

Yesterday, Tim Davie presented the Myers Report into Radio 1, 1Xtra, Radio 2 and 6 Music. John Myers, CEO of the Radio Academy and someone who’s for a longtime been involved in commercial radio, had been asked to look at ways for the services to reduce costs while maintaining quality.
Responses have largely been as expected. Many – myself included – were surprised to learn that Newsbeat has 52 people working for it (in the 80s there were 15), which does seem very sizeable. We don’t know how these numbers are broken down, although obviously things like the web might require increased staffing levels. And it’s certainly true that Newsbeat strives to do different public service things that commercial radio would never attempt.
Then there was the discovery that Radio 2’s newsreaders don’t apparently do much more than read a script that somebody else has written once an hour. That’s pretty indefensible on any level.
Whether the BBC would move Radio 2 into Broadcasting House, and put them in the same physical location as Radio 1 will be once it too has moved, I don’t know. But Myers does suggest that the same things are being learnt and relearnt by two disparate staffs.
And there’s really no excuse for so much of Radio 2’s output being pre-recorded at the weekend. Most of those presenters are star names, no doubt earning decent salaries (not part of Myer’s review), and therefore should “earn” them by working live. For most music programming, that seems sensible.
Myers also addresses Radio 2’s comedy remit which does indeed seem to duplicate Radio 4’s. I must admit that I’ve never quite understood why it exists. And with Radio 4 Extra being much more heavily comedy focused, I’d argue that comedy should be removed from the service licence and perhaps something a little more “public service” introduced.
The other area he identifies is the significant number of studio managers that Radio 2 employs compared with Radio 1. That’s because Radio 1 tends to employ people who can operate their own desks. That’s not always true for Radio 2.
There are always some people who’s skills lie in what they say on the radio rather than the buttons they can press, but there’s probably room for improvement as far as Myers is concerned.
There’s an underlying suggestion, which you certainly hear from BBC staffers, that compliance is a real issue. It’s frankly bizarre that broadcasting live should involve less compliance than pre-recording, when it comes with all the dangers that “live” brings with it. Yet it seems to be an issue – particularly with Radio 2. While that’s obviously where the Ross/Brand affair took place, I would defy anyone to prove that Radio 2 is actually that dangerous.
Radio 2’s most expensive show is Friday Night is Music Night – largely, one imagines, because it includes lots of live performances including the BBC Concert Orchestra. This is the kind of programming that only the BBC can make, and while tendering programmes to independent production companies is to be welcomed, it’d be very easy to diminish a programme like this (in any case – since so many of the programmes use significant BBC resources, including the aforementioned orchestra – I wonder if there are real savings to be achieved).
I think that like others in commercial radio, it is a very welcome report, and I certainly hope that it won’t just be filed in a drawer somewhere. I doubt that’ll happen though, since the BBC has to achieve some very real savings, and Myers has certainly highlighted them.
(As an aside, I was amused that UTV’s response to the Myers report, as reported by eRadio, concentrated solely on a station that wasn’t in the remit of Myers, and is a direct competitor to TalkSport, Five Live).
Myers report
Tim Davie: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radio/2011/06/johnmyersreviewbbcradio.html
The report: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radio/downloads/john_myers_report_june_2011.pdf

Keep An Eye on the FT

Anyone with any sense in publishing will be watching very carefully what the FT is doing.
They’ve decided to forgo platform-specific apps, sold through app-stores, and instead produce a compelling, HTML5 compliant mobile-oriented website.
OK – they’re not actually dumping their apps. But they are actively trying to persuade their readers to go direct. And for good reason (as their MD explicitly spells out in this Media Guardian piece).
Firstly, if you sell through the market leading app-store – Apple’s app-store – you have to pay a pretty healthy 30% of revenues. And in a subscription based business like newspapers or magazines, that’s a very healthy return to Apple for not much work.
While a newspaper in a shop uses valuable shelf-space, an app in an app-store is but a few megabytes on an infinitely large server. Yes the app-store is a go-to environment for potential customers, but that’s still a hefty chunk of potential profits.
While Apple has just launched Newsstand to allow publications to get into subscriptions, there are lots of problems which many publishers don’t seem to like with Apple’s model. While your local newsagent gets a cut of any paper you buy from them, Apple is getting a serious cut of a digital purchase where the overheads are much lower. It’s not hard see why the FT found this unacceptable.
Then Apple doesn’t provide full details of who your publications’ subscribers are. This is perhaps the single most important piece of information that a publisher can own. It’s the direct link between the publisher and their customers. It allows them lots of opportunities – for upselling; for renewals; for partner-marketing; for selling on to others. Publishers want to know an awful lot of about their customers. In any business, you need to know as much as possible about your customers, and historically the publication industry has been very good at it.
Then there’s the flexibility in pricing models. Apple wants to ensure that the deal offered via their app-store is the best there is. You’re not supposed to undercut it elsewhere. Except that publishers want precisely that kind of freedom. Most service providers do. Sure – there’s the rate they’d love to sell you a subscription. But you’re a lapsed subscriber, so they’re willing to cut you a deal. If you’ve ever been in that position with a print magazine you’ve stopped taking, you’re surely aware of all the offers that get mailed to you to persuade you to resubscribe. My father has a drawer full of cheap Time magazine branded watches that can attest to the power of those offers.
Or think of software upgrades that come through via email if you’ve ever bought something that requires a further payment for the updated version. (My favourite recently came from Nero, keen for me to upgrade to version 10 of their disc-burning software. The email had a subject line that read: “Last chance: Accountant on Vacation means big Savings for You”. Very creative.) It’s absolutely right that your business has the flexibility to slice and dice its subscriber base in any way it wants to, and to fashion appropriate offers to parts of that base if and when they’re required.
You only have to look at how much control a regretful music industry ceded to Apple and continue to cede to them to realise how vital it is that the publishing industry remains in charge of its own destiny. Certainly Apple created a central store where there’d been a void before – due to the general uselessness of the music industry. But then Apple had enough power that it was able to set price points at its own preferred levels rather than levels the music industry might have liked. Even now, with more competitors around, the major music labels still don’t really have a great deal of ability to price their own product in one of their most valuable marketplaces.
Now I’ve not seen the FT’s new product – it’s not optimised for Android devices yet. And to what extent the HTML5 experience is better or worse than a fully cached app is also not clear. I know that the FT’s app does allow offline reading, but we’ll have to wait to learn what, if any, shortcomings it has compared with a more bespoke offering.
But what is clear is that the battle lines have been drawn, and it’ll be really interesting to see how other major publishers deal with Apple, Google, Blackberry or anybody else. From a development angle alone, I can see why this is perhaps a more sustainable model in the medium to long term for the publishing industry.
As I say, this is something worth watching.

iCloud Cuckoo Land*

As regular readers will know, I’m a frustrated iTunes user. So what should I make of Apple’s announcements yesterday – in particular those associated with iCloud?
I tend to still buy quite a lot of music on CD, if for no other reason than you get nice album covers and booklets to look at. It’s certainly true that as soon as the plastic has come off the CD case (slowly because the tabs never work, even though cigarette manufacturers always seem to manage this quite well having long ago worked out that it was bad for business if their customers couldn’t reach their cravings quickly and effectively), the disc goes straight into a PC and is unlikely ever to be played in a CD player again**.
So putting aside the fact that like Google Music Beta, iCloud is not going to be available to UK users in a hurry, what is one to make of Apple’s $25 a year service, iTunes Match?
Let me just return to that CD-ripping fun I have.
The CD goes in, and more often than not, Apple/GraceNote manages to identify the track titles and into the library go the files. There then comes the small matter of the album artwork. I can’t tell you how many times Apple’s iTunes fails at this point – even with quite big-selling material. Now it might be that some of my musical tastes are a little off-the-wall, but the bigger problem tends to be that some finer point of the track titles/album artist/artist/genre doesn’t quite match up with what Apple thinks that collection should be. So even though the same album is available to download in the iTunes store where it comes with album art, iTunes fails to match it up.
The is fixable by using a Google Image search, or perhaps visiting Amazon, and getting a nice decent-ish resolution version of the album art. I note that forward thinking magazines like Word and Songlines even supply those images for their cover CDs on their websites (sadly BBC Music magazine doesn’t for copyright reasons which is a shame).
Anyway, I can manually add the artwork, even though I’m reasonably sure that it’s less economical this way, with the artwork seemingly copied into each track rather than a single image being associated with the whole album as iTunes does when it does manage to find one.
All this is a long way around of saying that since iTunes fails quite dismally at matching album art with CDs it knows about already, I’m really not sure how well iTunes Match is going to work when it comes to matching up tracks that you’ve imported into your library (from whatever source) with iTunes’ own database.
This is the big sell of iCloud: if you’ve got a fairly ropey 128k version of a song in your library, iTunes Match will replace it – in the cloud – with a nice shiny 256k version of the same. In other words, Apple is offering to clean and upgrade your library – assuming it can identify the tracks in the first place.
Unlike Google, Apple is able to make its cloud service much more economical to run by not having to store hundreds of thousands of duplicate tracks of something popular. Instead it can effectively offer hundreds of thousands of account holders access to a single copy of a given track if it has detected it in your library. We all use the same copy of Poker Face rather than Apple having to maintain thousands or even millions of copies on its servers.
I guess that we’ll have to wait and see to find out how successful Apple really is in matching these things up when it launches, although since I’m not in a rush to buy more Apple products, and streaming my collection doesn’t seem to be on the cards, I’m not clear that this offers much to me.
But I wonder how arcane remixes or live versions are going to match-up. It’s not for nothing that a whole sub-industry of add-on products exists to help tidy up iTunes libraries.
Google Music looks more useful, although I’m still faced with an enormous initial upload to get my collection into the cloud in the first place. My iPod tells me I currently have 13,462 “songs”*** on it. That’s within the 20,000 Google will let you upload free in the first instance. Quite how they’ll charge beyond the beta period is unclear at the moment however.
Finally, of the big players, there’s Amazon Cloud Drive. Again, it’s not available in the UK. It’s effectively just a hard-disk in the sky, although it does allow streaming. But the cost could be considerable. I’d fall into the $200 a year bracket with my music library. Not insignificant. For a couple of years’ fees I could buy a NAS and some hard-drives, connect the thing to the internet and build my own streaming option. Indeed, if I spent some time playing with code, I think I’m already in a position to do this.
At the moment, it’s all academic, as none of these services are available in the UK****. But none of them initially appear perfect.
*Sorry – I just liked that title, even if it is a little unfair.
**Unless such time comes that I need to re-rip my collection.
***Some of those “songs” are complete symphonies, but there you go.
****No doubt there’s some small service that is availble to UK users that I’ve not mentioned here. But the problem is that if I’m going to the trouble of uploading my entire music library, I need to be sure that it’s a company that’s going to be around a while.

RAJAR Adopting Digital

Over at the Onegoldensquare blog, I’ve written about what RAJAR is doing to upgrade its methodology and include a proportion of respondents completing their RAJAR diaries online.
I should point out that I sit on the RAJAR Technical Management Group who implemented this, so I’m generally speaking in favour of its introduction!
You can read RAJAR’s press release here, and the BBC’s Torin Douglas on the same issue here.
[Update] I’ve linked to this in the comments, but it’s well worth reading Paul Easton’s piece on where and why we are where we are currently with RAJAR in the UK.