August, 2011

Strike Back: Project Dawn

I know, I know. You’ve been missing Ultimate Force. It ended its run in 2006, with Ross Kemp moving onto bigger things as he took on gangs for Sky One. In the meantime, if you wanted a military action adventure series set around the world, then you were left short.
Well Sky One is here to help you out with Strilke Back: Project Dawn. It’s a follow up to last year’s Strike Back. But if you missed that series (and despite a healthy advertising campaign supporting it, Sky did strangely “burn off” the six part series over three weeks) then there’s not a great deal to worry about. All you need to know is that all the cast are back with one major exception.Richard Armitage is otherwise engaged in bigger and better things these days – not least The Hobbit. So in the first episode he very quickly gets killed off by terrorists holding him as a hostage, while our heroes are heading out to fail to rescue him.
Strike Back is based on a sereis of novels by ex-SAS soldier Chris Ryan. The unit this team comes from isn’t the SAS – so no sign of “Henno”. Indeed, “Section 20” seems to be based in the MI6 building if the establishing shots are to be believed. But it does have a healthy contingent of women, which I suspect is not actually true of our special forces. And they mostly operate in regular clothes, which is again useful, since one man or woman in full combat gear is much like any other.
As this series has been co-prodcued with HBO’s downmarket younger brother, Cinemax, then we get a “Dempsey”-style American co-star in Sullivan Stapleton. Nope – me neither. But he’s perfectly good as the ex-Delta Squad guy who was kicked out for unexplained means. In some cirlces Cinemax is known as “Skin-emax” for the station’s “erotic” fare. So in their first ever original series, they seem to have ensured that a decent quantity of “skin” – mostly female – is on show.
Ensuring there’s a decent quantity of nudity in the pilot episode of any new premium cable series seems to be par for the course, and despite the series being largely an action series, it doesn’t fail. There’s one laughable scene where the main British character’s wife literally undresses in front of her husband to “remind you what you’re missing.”
But what about the plot? Well it’s “ripped from the headlines” time as we get an opening two-parter set against a terrorist attack on an Indian hotel. Remind you of anything? Otheriwise there are evil Muslim terrorists seeking weapons of mass destruction MacGuffins (Don’t worry – we get a speech from a captive who’s a Muslim and gets to explain that not all Muslims are evil in case we were a bit slow. And we get subtitles in the Impact font which is an unusual choice.
The series does have good production values, being made largely in South Africa, where they seemingly have Indian-styled hotels available for filming in. I’d imagine that the South African locale will also
Plenty of series are locating to South Africa for their seemingly rather good production incentives and cheap extras which keep costs down. Entertainingly though, the South African Government seems to insist on a disclaimer denying any responsibility for the plot. I don’t think there’s any doubt that we thought otherwise. I don’t believe the Isle of Man forces this on productions based there…
Elsewhere in the cast we have chisel-jawed Philip Winchester as Stonebridge, our main man. While back at base there’s Amanda Mealong as hard-nosed-women-in-charge and Eva Birtwhistle who gets to go on a few missions. Jimi Mistry also shows up for at least a couple of episodes. He doesn’t get to dance.
I know I sound a little disparaging, and this is by no means a great series. But it’s harmless enough stuff. And Sky/Cinemx/Left Bank are probably onto a good thing as this series clearly has vast international appeal if Ultimate Force was anything to go by. With a decent sized budget, this series will undoubtedly work in many territories. Expect to see it dubbed when you’re next in foreign climes.

The Skin I Live In

As the ads and trailers finally came to an end, the BBFC slide appeared on screen: “La Piel Que Habito – The Skin I Live In.”
“So is this film in Spanish?” asked the man behind me very loudly. I tried not to laugh out loud.
“Yes,” said the lady I presume was his wife, and who’d clearly determined what film they’d be watching on a Saturday night.
I’d suggest that they may have relationship “issues”, but the second the credits at the end of the film started to appear, the man who didn’t know how to speak quietly then said “They make mad films, the Spanish, don’t they?”
I think he enjoyed it.
The most important thing to know about The Skin I Live In is that you really need to go in knowing as little as possible about the storyline. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to follow this advice having inadvertantly read something online a couple of months ago that turned out to be full of plot spoilers. You need know no more than the information provided in summary at IMDB:
A brilliant plastic surgeon, haunted by past tragedies, creates a type of synthetic skin that withstands any kind of damage. His guinea pig: a mysterious and volatile woman who holds the key to his obsession.
The plastic surgeon is played by Antonio Banderas who hasn’t worked with director Pedro Almodovar since Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down back in 1990 (I recently watched this again on DVD and it’s terrific). Banderas’ surgeon is very wealthy and has one of those labs in the basement of his massive house that wouldn’t look out of place in a super-hero film. He’s proud of his new skin invention, although the authorities aren’t as pleased and suspect that he might now have just been testing it out on mice as he claims.
The mysterious woman who he’s been working with – Elena Anaya – is trapped in her room wearing a bodysuit of some description. Who she is, how she got there, and why she’s in what is effectively a prison is unclear.
Timelines jump around a little in this film as go back a few years at various points to allow backstories to be filled out. In time it all comes together…
In essence this is a science fiction film – the ability of Banderas’ surgeon to both create this remarkable new skin which we are told is both imperveous to heat and also mosquitos. But the themes are isolation, and what our physical bodies actually mean to us.
There is one nagging question which I couldn’t really answer when I came out. And I can’t go into it here. But it did leave me feeling a little unstatisfied. But overall this Almodovar truly on form. The performances are excellent, and the film looks fantastic. Although it runs to 120 minutes, the film never dawdles or dwells too long. And even though some of the subject matter is gruesome, this is no horror film. And if you felt unable to watch something like 127 Hours, you’ll be fine watching this (at least unless you’re truly squeamish about any kind of blood).

Disappointing Tone in Discussion on Libya Reporting

I like Steve Hewlett on Radio 4’s Media Show, but I’ve just been catching up with this week’s edition and was really unhappy with the centrepiece discussion about Sky News v BBC News last weekend as the rebels (if that’s what we’re calling them) entered Green Square.
Make no mistake, Sky News undoubtedly scooped BBC News (and everyone else) with Alex Crawford sending compelling live pictures back from Libya. But Hewlett’s aggressive tone seemed to me essentially as suggesting that the BBC were cowards for not pushing their own reporters onto the frontline.
It’s quite clear that the individual teams on the ground made the decisions as to where they’d go and when. But events happen in a very unpredictable fashion – with fighting still taking place several days later in Tripoli. Places previously thought safe become dangerous again. Information is sketchy and unreliable. Reporters need to be able to take their own sensible decisions.
While Sky had some brilliant pictures, getting those pictures also comes with a risk. The tone that Hewlett took on the Media Show seemed to suggest that the BBC reporters and editors had failed in their duty and should have driven in with the rebels.
I wonder to what extent this ceaseless need for everything “live” and “now” is driven by internet commentary that was indeed very pro-Sky News’ coverage on Sunday night? They got the scoop. Great! What more needs to be said?
A TV executive may have told Hewett that Sky “creamed” the BBC that evening, but that’s not really the point. ITV and BBC channel controllers can worry about the performance of X Factor versus Strictly when the overnights come in on Monday morning. No harm is done. No blood is lost. But news in a warzone is surely different?
As we saw a couple of days later, when another BBC reporter came under fire travelling with a rebel group, this is a matter of life and death. Reporters can, and do, die in the line of fire. There was concern only this week, for international reporters trapped in the Rixos hotel until eventually they too were finally freed.
Putting pointless pressure on reporters to be somewhere first to get those grainy shots, and to not worry about their own safety is frankly unethical. The tone of the discussion was completely wrong. It should have been more about what Sky did and how they scooped the rest of the world. It shouldn’t have been about some perceived failings of a rival news organisation.
Does every discussion have to be framed in such a confrontational and belligerent tone?

Channel 4 and List Programmes… Back Again

Back in April, I noted that I thought it was foolish that Jay Hunt had said that Channel 4 would no longer be making list programmes.
I pointed out that in 2007, Kevin Lygo had said the same thing. And that subsequently, Channel 4 had continued to make list programmes.
Memories are terribly short in the TV commissioning world, especially when you’re looking for cheap multi-hour programming.
Fast forward just five months, and what do we have?
Why, I do believe it’s a Channel 4 list programme.
This time around it’s by Stephen Fry. So that’s all right then. Perhaps it shouldn’t even count? Well Fry himself likens it to other top 100 programmes. So I think it does.
Memories are short in TV. But this is ridiculous.

London Riots

Enough has really been said already about the looting and rioting that took place last week, without me needing to wade in with any more “insight”. That said… I’m very disturbed by all the talk of “shutting down” social media if such events arise in the future. Do we also close down the Royal Mail and the phone system? And 4 years for posting a stupid Facebook status? Hmm.
Anyway, here’s a gem you may not have heard. A few weeks ago, Radio 4’s Voices From The Old Bailey series looked at riots in London through the ages, and in light of recent of events it’s really worth a listen (indeed it would have been worth a listen either way). In Voices From The Old Bailey, court transcripts from the Old Bailey Online website are used to bring to life the voices of people from the 18th century, shedding light on the past. It’s a really clever idea.
In the Riots episode, which at time of writing, is still available to Listen Again to, several riots from different points in London’s history are examined. There were riots against brothels, political riots, and nastiest of all, the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780. 285 people were shot dead in some appalling instances.
Interestingly the programme visited Our Lady of Assumption and St Gregory on Warwick Street – which backs onto Golden Square which, as a Catholic church, was attacked. It was allowed to operate because it functioned as the chapel of the Bavarian embassy.
The programme also examines the element of “fun” that was part of many riots. Although at a base level, “rioting” was almost a legitimate form of protest at a time when there were few opportunities for ordinary people to have their voices heard.
All in all, it’s well worth a listen.

Why Local Television Plans Are Doomed

Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, has just released details on the latest part of his plan to start very local television services in the UK. I talked a little about this earlier in the year. Allow me to expand a little more.
As you may or may not be aware, local TV is something of a hobby-horse of Hunt’s. He’s been talking about it for years – in the past repeatedly drawing comparison with Birmingham, Alabama, which he says has eight local TV services compared to none in the UK.
I always found that somewhat misleading, since the affiliate nature of US television means that all the four major “networks” are built from local affiliates. Indeed, that’s what ITV used to be until they were allowed to effectively drop the vast majority of their local requirements.
In fact, from what I can tell, Birmingham, Alabama has the usual four network affiliates, each of which – like ITV and the BBC – runs local news programming in the mornings and evenings, as well as a PBS affiliate, and a unique service owned by the University of Alabama. Beyond that, other stations available locally do not provide news or local programming, or they duplicate programming from sister networks. The other thing that’s important to note is that the local affiliate nature of those stations means that their local news programme provide a disproportionately high percentage of their incomes.
In other words, Birmingham AL is not the bustling centre of local television production that it’s sometimes presented as.
Anyway, back to the UK and Hunt’s latest proposals.
He’s listed 65 towns and cities which would be technically capable of supporting a local TV service. By that, I mean that there could be space found on Freeview.
Originally, there was the idea that there’d be a national “spine” that could supply the local TV services supplementary programming to fill out the schedule when they were not able to provide local programming. It’d be foolish to believe that any new local services could run local programming 24/7. The problem was that it became obvious that whoever ran the spine probably wouldn’t want to give up prime space to local affiliates during peak time – precisely when those services would want to broadcast their programmes. So rather than get into the internal wrangling that this might introduce, the idea was ditched. Of course any new service still has to find at least several hours a day of nearly free programming to complement whatever it can produce daily itself. A testcard probably isn’t enough.
Now Hunt has devised a framework whereby a multiplex operator can bid to provide the distribution infrastructure for all the services with £25m available from the BBC licence fund. Whether this is enough to support what might be an expensive set of services with a significant number of transmitters isn’t clear. But that’s what’s on the table.
Technically there don’t seem to be many problems with the transmission side of things. The government is suggesting that geographic interleaved spectrum is used. In other words, spectrum otherwise used by Freeview but available in localised patches. The list of areas in this consultation is based on that availability.
However, I do think that the whole scheme has a number of fundamental flaws:

  • DCMS is saying that the new services will “gain appropriate prominance” in electronic programme guides. They talk about gaining a high channel number on Freeview. Just to be clear – beyond 1-5 on Freeview currently, only channel 8 is currently unused in the first 16 slots. That sits between BBC Three and BBC Four. On Sky, it’s a lot harder, and I can’t see that Sky themselves will want to hand over the primary positions they have for Sky One, Sky Living and Sky Atlantic, all of whom they invest significantly in. Furthermore, the DCMS document talks about Sky offering the new services space in its yellow “Anytime+” service. That’s tantamount to burying the service. The service is only available to a sub-set of Sky subscribers since users have to also buy Sky’s broadband offering to take advantage. While IP will undoubtedly form a part of all these services, it’s still early days for IP as a full distribution methodology. Furthermore, slots of Sky are at a premium since the EPG is effectively “full” (Older Sky boxes do not have enough memory to cope with additional services beyond what we currently have). And aside from acquiring – at considerable cost – a slot on the Sky EPG, there are some not insiginificant fixed costs for broadcasting via satellite. Virgin Media isn’t cheap either.
  • There really isn’t much money in this. The money from the licence fee is going to be invested into the actual transmission chain. There’ll be a “beauty contest” to determine who gets the contract. The only other money is a BBC agreement to acquire up to £5m pa of programming from the new services each year for three years. I think we can probably assume that this will come in the form of local news acquisitions. But spread over a significant number of suppliers, that will almost certainly be a low six figure sum for each service. All other income is going to have to come from advertising.
  • ITV used to “local” local. It still does – to an extent in their largely excellent local 6pm bulletins with opt-outs at other times of the day. But financial imperatives have meant that, as the network became a single company, they’ve tried to get out of this as much as possible.
  • These new TV services will need to be advertiser funded, and that’s not something that has become easier to find locally. The internet has wiped out many local newspapers who, in particular have lost much of their lucrative classified advertising. That leaves display advertising – precisely the advertisers these new TV services will target. In cases where the local newspaper group is not the company running the television service, that will lead to diminshed revenues for all parties.
  • There’s a strongly held belief that when the Radio Authority was busy licences dozens of new services in the 90s, they actually introduced too many stations. In recent years we’ve seen groups pressure Ofcom to reverse the trend and allow more networking. Recently that has seen Heart, Capital and Kiss network more and more programming. The profitability is to be found in national and quasi-national networks – not local ones. Note that obviously there are some very good, very local services, but in medium to larger markets, localness in radio is undoubtedly disappearing. What’s more, a significant number of small stations actually lose money, and we’ve seen licences handed back to Ofcom.
  • The initial 65 areas identified for local television services have been determined, seemingly, on a technical level. While it’s entirely defendable that there should be room for a London TV service, there surely isn’t a large enough footprint for areas like Elgin, Bangor, Haywards Heath, Barnstaple or Salisbury to sustain a service? Is the population large enough? Is the advertiser base locally significant enough to support a high cost medium like television?
  • Even when done cheaply, television is expensive to produce. While it’s entirely possible for one person to record the pictures and sound, and even to appear on screen, the time and resources required are significant. And that adds to your costs.
  • National advertisers almost certainly won’t be able to use these services. For them to place their advertising on local services, the stations will need proper research. The BARB data that the television industry works with can only be broken down to a regional level. That’s due to sampling. BARB has something like 5,100 homes. While that seems like a lot, it’s broken out across each of the thirteen TV regions. So you have to have a statistical reliable sample in each region. For BARB to provide data for small local TV services in the same manner as it does for national services, the panel would have to increase many-fold. By way of comparison, the radio ratings body, RAJAR, hands out diaries to 100,000 people a year. While the two numbers aren’t directly comparable as radio respondents only keep their diaries for a week, they only produce numbers four times a year. Either way, the scale of BARB would have to increase substantially, to an unsustainable cost level. The reality is that local television services will miss out.

Set against all these negatives, I realise that there are a handful of local television services around the country that are making ends meet to a greater or lesser extent. Internet delivery is the future, and would strip out the enormous broadcast costs, although IP delivery isn’t free. Especially not for video. Furthermore, there’s the not-inconsiderable issue of rural areas having disappointingly slow broadband connectivity.
It’s possible that local newspaper or radio groups might find a viable way to run their current businesses alongside a television operation. But I don’t believe that this really needs government intervention. I’ve no doubt that expressions of interest will be made. How serious they’ll be and how economically viable is another question altogether.
I’m deeply sceptical.

It’s Not Rioting – It’s Looting

I’ve been a bit disappointed in the coverage we’ve had so far about the events of Sunday evening. What became very clear from following reports on news media and the internet is that this was organised criminality.
I was returning to Enfield Town station from a lovely day out cycling when I saw reports of something happening on Twitter. As we arrived at the station (the end of the line) at about 8.00pm, there was a line of police in riot clothing blocking the entrance to the station. They let us leave, but it was clear that they were trying to contain events.
I knew from pictures posted online that various shops in Enfield town centre had been looted – notably HMV.
Once I’d negotiated my way through a second line of police, a lady who’d also come off the train asked if she could walk with me. She was nervous about roaming gangs. And frankly, as became clear, she was right to be nervous, because a chemist I walked past at about 8.10pm which had been undamaged, was later shown on Sky News as having been broken into, the cash register robbed (incidentally – no shop leaves money in their till overnight, so that was utterly pointless).
At home I logged onto Twitter where Paul Lewis of The Guardian and Billy Kember of The Times, both of whom were using Twitter to a substantial extent to report on what they were seeing on the ground in Enfield and later Ponders End and Edmonton beyond.
What became clear is that youths had been oraganised with Facebook, Blackberry Messenger (someone on LBC said that they it had been “broadcast on BBM” – I take that to mean that discussion was rife [Update – In fact, as I understand a Blackberry Broadcast is a message sent to all someone’s BBM contacts simultaneously. I suspect that it was then rebroadcast]) and Twitter.
They were a mobile group, many of whom had cars. They moved onto retail parks, and other shopping centres. Shops seemed to be targeted for phones, electrical goods, designer clothing and cash.
This was not rioting.
It was wanton looting.
The perpetrators knew that the police couldn’t be everywhere, and were essentially playing catch-up. More copycat violence took place at other points across the capital. This was not violence and anger caused by the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham. This was opportunistic robbery. Nothing more, nothing less.
Listening to Five Live this morning, I think they missed the full story of what happened last night across London, and indeed what happened to a large extent in Tottenham the night before. While there was real anger about what happened in Tottenham, that was just a tiny part of things. Mostly it was pictures of people stealing bags of merchandise from sports stores that made the idiotically minded realise that they could do the same. The radio coverage was trying to get to the bottom of reasons why it’d been happening. But social deprivation does not provide the answers. This isn’t about the breakdown of relations between the police and youths of today.
And now the danger is that we’re now going to probably see more copycat actions.
Who gets hurt?
In town centres where shops have been trashed, money will be lost, and businesses wrecked. That means livelihoods. Shops targeted included local independent traders. Their insurance won’t cover all their costs. Some will close down (and one in six shops in high streets is already closed), and jobs will be lost. This morning, lots of businesses are having to needlessly get windows and replaced, and generally clear up.
Meanwhile in Tottenham we see locals who have had their homes destroyed and are left with the clothes on their backs.
And for what?
A phone, a TV, a pair of trainers or a handful of DVDs.
Finally, a word on the media coverage. The best coverage came via Twitter from Paul Lewis and Billy Kember as I mentioned above. People like Sky News’ Neil Mann Tweeting as fieldproducer was also excellent at retweeting reliable sources. Because there were a lot of unreliable ones around. On LBC one caller claimed a major bed warehouse was on fire, yet I’ve not heard anything about any buildings being burnt last night. Rumours also circulated that the Cineworld in Enfield was set ablaze. Again – unfounded rumour.
LBC’s coverage in general was based almost entirely on listeners. But you don’t know the quality or the accuracy of what you’re getting. However I was a bit disappointed by BBC London who seemed to be having a deep debate about why things were happening. It felt to me that this should have followed later. Live reporting would have been better.
I only heard a bit Five Live, but they too seemed to have to rely on non-BBC sources for reports – including Paul Lewis of The Guardian. Over on the BBC News channel, there was little to no live coverage, with no reporter anywhere beyond Tottenham High Street. Recorded camera images came through eventually. Meanwhile Sky News had a reporter live in Enfield, but he wasn’t really able to follow a fast moving story from his fixed position. And he kept talking about footage he’d captured on his phone, but we never saw it!
I do know that it’s a lot tougher for news crews with cameras to fly around north London keeping on top of the story. But I did find it odd that the BBC didn’t have at least someone on the phone keeping viewers up to date. They could have probably dropped Hardtalk last night at 11.30pm and stayed with the news.
Anyway, let the clean-up commence.
But let’s get one thing one straight. This civil disobediance is nothing more than wanton criminality without an iota of an excuse.
[Update] A couple of good pieces from The Urban Mashup and TechCruch about the use of Blackberry Messenger – BBM – to organise the civil disobediance. What’s clear is that BBM is closed. Twitter is open to all (and it’s not that hard to track back to who even a fake name really is). And Facebook can have a wider circle of friends – including family members who might not appreciate certain nocturnal activities. I’m not suggesting that provate messages need to be intercepted or should be (without the requisite court orders), but I trust that the police are monitoring the right social networks and getting involved in the right ways.
Incidentally “blaming” a messaging service is ridiculous. Does anyone “blame” telephones for all the illegal activities that are arranged through them? Or even letters?
The misuse of the communications media is nothing new. Let’s not worry about whether people are sending texts, emails, written letters or instant messages to organise themselves. Instead let’s get to the core of the issue and address the people doing this.

Some Good Recent Radio

I sometimes find This American Life a little irritating. It’s hard to quite put my finger on why I find it this way, but I do. That said, it’s mostly excellent and well worth subscribing to their podcast. A couple of weeks ago they broadcast When Patents Attack – a thorough look at the patent system in the US and why it’s thoroughly broken.
I’ll leave it to others to fill in the details, but essentially the patent system – at least in the US – no longer encourages innovation as it was created to do. It actively prevents companies – particularly small ones – from creating new ideas. You only have to look at a recent post from Google about the perceived threat to Android from vast hordes of patents being stored up by companies created for the primary purpose of “taxing” competitors. Of course, Google openly admits that it too has acquired large numbers of patents.
As the episode explains, not only are there these “patent trolls”, but many of the very patents that they’ve been awarded are spurious at every level. Really worth listening to.
Peter Day’s prodigous output sees him presenting both Global Business on the BBC World Service and In Business on Radio 4. While they sometimes share episodes, they often don’t. The BBC thoughtfully collates all his programmes in a single podcast stream. New Dimension examined 3D printers, and in particular the fundamentals of manufacturing that can change as a result of these technologies. Since the manufacturing of the Model T Ford, producing in massive quantities has been the preferred way to produce things. Now, 3D printing means that spare parts, for example, could be “printed” on demand.
Finally, I’m sure everyone here has listened to Danny Baker on Desert Island Discs. But if you haven’t head straight over to the website, and listen to a cracking edition of the programme.