July, 2012

Olympics Day 3 – Swimming, The Orbit and Fencing

[Note: This is a first draft. I’ll drop in some photos when I get a chance to process them]
Today was a swimming day, and I had a 10am session. Having decided that security was very swift I didn’t get in too early today, but I still ended up with an hour to kill before competition started. I did use the time to discover some of the walkways and paths that are little hidden from general view and mean that the Olympic Park really is a park. With all the bridges and waterways, it’s an interesting site.
I did venture into the megastore while it was empty, and I can tell you that they have an awful lot for sale. Sadly, I can confirm that I came away with some T-shirts.
Over in the Aquatic Centre, I found that my category E ticket meant that I was incredibly high up. I mean really high. I couldn’t actually see any more that the first couple of rows of seats on the other side, I was that high. Having said that, I was quite nicely placed for the finish line, so I can’t complain.
What I will moan a little about is the shortness of the session. We had heats for three events, each 200m, and each with five heats. The session started at 10am, and was over before 11am. That’s not a great deal of time. Yes, I got to see Phelps in the 200m butterfly and there were some fine performances. But I do think that a few more events might have been scheduled in the session. I think it’s probably because TV networks want to stretch out the swimming events over lots of nights.
I also know that I wouldn’t want to be in some seats for the diving. You could find yourself an awfully long way from the board. Anyway, all the seats I could actually see were fully occupied.
Out in the park, I had more time to explore. All the sponsors of the Olympics get their own pavilions. BMW has a very smart looking one with water running down all its walls and cars on top. The public are allowed in and get to watch a ten minute ad before being allowed on the roof to see the cars, and get some nice photos. They were all very friendly and even offered to take photos of me.
Meanwhile Coca-Cola’s pavilion was all about “pin trading”. Pins are badges, and there seems to be an enormous collecting aspect to Olympic badges. Inside the pavillion there were upwards of 150 badges available just for the London games. Then there were traders inside and outside who carry books of badges they’re willing to sell. I suppose it’s the Olympic version of stamp collecting.
I didn’t come away with any badges.
The people running the Orbit statue/viewing platform to let me in early. I think they were pleased that I just came up to them with an actual ticket. You ride up the giant helter skelter in a lift and then walk down the steps on the outside.
The view is excellent from the top, but you might find that you’re better off with a compact camera rather than DSLR up there. That’s because the wire they’ve put up to stop anyone falling off the top is so fine that you can’t poke a sizeable DSLR lens through the mesh.
There are two levels of viewing platforms, and you can take photos through the glass inside too. I found it handy to use a lens cloth to give the windows a wipe to remove the smears of young hands on them!
And so onto ExCel and the Fencing. In transport terms it’s pretty straightforward getting the DLR a few stops down the line. However look forward to a bit of walking since they’re keen for you to use West Silvertown, whereas Custom House is actually adjacent to the venue. But with some time to kill, I was happy to wander around Victoria Dock including seeing people doing wakeboarding.
ExCel has loads of sport going on its enormous shell. Judo, Table Tennis, Boxing, Weightlifting and Taekwondo as well as Fencing. It’s fun to spot the athletes and sports federation officials wandering around in their tracksuits. I saw some enormous Azerbaijanis, Poles, Ukranians, and very noticeable from their tracksuits – Russians. Let’s just say, if you’re going to an 80s party, seek out the 2012 official tracksuit.
Again, there were troops on duty to carry out searches and work the x-ray machines. I had to pour my water bottle empty before going in, and then faced the challenge of finding a water fountain to refill it. They turn out to be inside each of the sports arenas themselves.
Now I can safely say that I knew nothing about fencing. The little booklet that LOCOG sends you with your tickets was helpful to a point, although it mostly detailed transport to and from the venue. My seat was category D which was the back row on one end. But it’s actually a better seat that somewhat more expensive end tickets down the front, where you may be closer to the action, but can’t actually see a great angle.
It was the women’s Epee event with two semi finals, a bronze play off and then a final. The first semi-final went fairly straightforwardly, with Ukranian Shemyakina beating the tall Chinese Sun. Matches are played in three bouts of three minutes on a piste in the middle of the arena. I’ve got to say that I was really impressed with how it looked. The lighting is dimmed so that you see the fencers against almost darkness. In the Epee, points can be scored simultaneously, and the winner is either the first to 15, or the person with the most points at the end of the three bouts.
In the second semi-final, Britta Heidemann, the reining Olympic champion took on A L Shin from South Korea. The match began slowly, and because they showed lack of competitiveness, the judge moved them straight into the second bout before the first ended – that’s something judges can do in fencing!
As we reached the end of final bout it was tied 5-5, and that means that an extra minute of sudden death is fought. The clock was running down and it was still 5-5. There are various interruptions that can stop the clock, and we reached just one second left with the scores level. Yet with one second on the clock we had three double hits with both competitors (neither scoring), and the clock remained on one second. Then the clock showed 0 seconds and we had it reset to one second.
Heidemann finally landed a strike, but there was confusion. The South Koreans weren’t happy and thought that the timing equipment must be faulty. It had seemed strange that so much had happened within just one second. It was like one of those rounds of Just A Minute when Nicholas Parsons starts to say “There’s just a quarter of a second left…”
We were in deadlock, and the judges were in a huddle.
At this point I discovered that I was sitting next to someone very senior in the US Fencing team (and Modern Pentathlon). He was a previous Epee Olympian for the US Team and was with his mother. He explained that the Germans were certainly going to win, but that the South Koreans would fight it all the way. There’s lots of money and prestige attached to fencing in South Korea, and the coach and competitor would be expected to fight it.
He’d been in situations previously and had done the same. Not only did he appeal and get turned down, but he also then put in a written appeal along with a sum of money (something like 100 Euros), and the spectators had to wait.
In the meantime, the German had now been awarded the result after a delay of perhaps twenty minutes. But while the appeal continued, the Korean fencer stayed on the piste. It was explained that she had to do this since if she left she’d effectively be conceding defeat. And South Korean athletes do exactly what they’re told by their coaches.
My chum from the US Team said that the coach would be fighting for his very future. And I should expect that it’d take several people to get her from the piste.
In the event this was precisely true.
In fact, my friend said, the Korean coach should have jumped in before a second was added back to the clock. At that point there obviously was something amiss, and that’d have been the time to argue the case. It may have been when we first saw 1 second it was actually 1.99 seconds, and therefore there might have been three opportunities to strike. But perhaps an official timer was slow.
Either way, it was all too little, and the German went through to the final.
The whole thing took about ninety minutes to sort out and a very censorial announcer kept saying that it was all very delicate and that we shouldn’t slow hand clap or otherwise try to speed things along.
Sadly for the Korean, she lost a well fought bronze medal match, while the gold went to the Ukranian Shemyakina who overcame the much fancied German. Perhaps she was having an off day.
One thing I do know is that I understand an awful lot more about fencing that I used to, and it was incredibly useful to end up next to such a nice and knowledgable chap. He headed off early as he says his team will score plenty of medals (I think he said either three or four). Epee is their weakest event – hence no Americans in the final four.
I went away from the fencing thinking that I’d like to watch some more of it.
The trip home was fairly painless with another wander around the docks to Pontoon Dock station, and by travelling via Stratford and the Javelin trains (easily the best way to get in and out of London), I was home in no time.

Olympics Day 2 – Basketball

Olympic Rings with Velodrome behind
Another early start for me, and my first visit to the Olympic Park for a couple of matches in the preliminary men’s basketball rounds.
Since the session started at 9am, I took seriously the “get there two hours early” suggestion, and found myself in St Pancras International at about 7am. By 7.20am I was in the park. While you can’t usually get the high speed trains from St Pancras to Stratford International included on your travelcard or Oyster Card, the travelcard that comes with your games ticket does include this option. The trains are frequent – all terminating in Ebbsfleet or Ashford, and at that time in the morning for me, pretty quiet. I certainly didn’t have to get in any queues – there were barriers set up outside the station in case.
The only real concern I had was the rules surrounding which cameras you could take in. Although the rules state that you can bring kit in under 30cm, which counts out really long lenses, I was well within that limit. In the event the very friendly and efficient service men and women who actually x-rayed my belongings and frisked me down were fine about it as expected. The real concern is ensuring that you don’t licence your photos for professional use or for profit. So no Creative Commons on any you put on Flickr.
The Orbit
It was a lovely early morning and I now had time to kill. Having skipped breakfast I decided to find some, which wasn’t necessarily a straightforward thing to do. For some reason the biggest McDonald’s in the world which is within the park, didn’t see to be open for business at breakfast – not even at 8am. Another branch was supposed to be open at that time but it’s on the wrong side of the park for the early sessions of Hockey and Basketball which most people were going to.
Olympic Stadium
In the end I bought some sandwiches in the “deli”. A little bit of a misnomer since it sold a limited number of sandwiches, drinks and “treats” (aka Cadbury’s sweets). The queue trailed throughout the store, and I was surprised not to be able to useless contactless technology with my Visa card – something that was being widely touted.
Filling a plastic bottle with water from a fountain was easy, and the park is pretty well signposted. There are long walks to get around it though. It really is large.
Basketball Arena
Getting into the temporary basketball arena – it has been sold to Rio after the London events are over – was straightforward. I had a category C ticket which placed me about halfway up the upper tier. The lower tier is pretty small and largely made up of higher cost tickets. Most spectators are in the upper tier. One side of the venue is for media positions. But these being preliminaries, they never got more than half full. Later games shift to the “North Greenwich Arena” (aka the O2), once the gymnastics has finished there. But the 12,000 or so seats mean that most people get a decent view of the court.
First up was Nigeria v Tunisia. At first it looked like Nigeria was going to walk it. But by the end there were only four points in it, and Tunisia made a real fight of it.
The second game on was much more anticipated. No not the USA – they played in the afternoon after I’d had to leave. But Australia v Brazil was very well supported with lots of fans from both countries in the arena. Aussies had arrived early in the morning anyway since there was an Australia/New Zealand hockey match at 8.30am. New Zealand won that fixture.
Both sides had NBA players – with “Patty” Mills being the standout player on court. But he couldn’t do enough to prevent a strong Brazilian team overcoming the Australian side. That certainly dampened the enthusiasm of people sitting near me.
One of the stories of the first few days of these games has been that of empty seats. There are certainly very few seats still on sale. At time of writing there’s a session tomorrow available. But it must be said that there were plenty of empty seats even allowing for people only watching one of the two matches in the session. In my row of ten seats, only three were occupied – my seat came via another country’s NOC, legitimately acquired I should add. And in the most expensive seats, there were up to 50% vacant. I suspect that many of these have gone to media, governing bodies and sponsors. But it’s shame that they’re sitting in envelopes or desk drawers while I know people who’d love the opportunity to see anything in the Olympic Park.
On the plus side, the guy who was the PA announcer inside the arena did an excellent job, keeping the crowd interested all the time. Although Olympic basketball has fewer breaks that NBA, there are enough that he kept everyone entertained. I’m no fan of “Mexican waves” but it was very amusing seeing him orchestrate a slow motion one.
Exiting the arena was quite slow, but it soon become clear why. It was pouring with rain outside. That also meant that anywhere with an inside was filling up. The now open McDonald’s had a massive queue, while a PA announcer apologised for long waits to get into the 2012 Megastore.
I decided that I’d avoid the overpriced food and queues, and leave the Park. I have other opportunities to visit. On my way out I couldn’t help but notice the large number of NBC people wandering around the park. I saw three NBC “guides” taking groups of visitors. Whether they were part of the 2,700 employees the US network has brought over (compared to the BBC’s fewer than 800) I’m not sure.
In summary then, it was a pretty positive experience. Everything seemed to work smoothly and people were unfailingly pleasant throughout.
Yes food and drink isn’t cheap – especially as you can’t bring the latter in yourself. But that’s par for the course at most sporting arenas. And oddly the biggest failing is perhaps that there aren’t actually enough food outlets and concessions. Obviously the park’s capacity will vary on a daily basis, but you get shorter queues at major music festivals.
Sometimes the signs are a little misleading. On exiting, I wasn’t allowed to follow the massive signs to Stratford International because that exit hadn’t actually opened. Perhaps electronic signs that could be amended would have been better. And it was a similar story at the station, where a queuing system was unnecessary, and in any case people were told to follow signs to the DLR rather than the signs pointing to Javelin trains into London. All a little confusing – especially if you don’t speak English to ask someone.
And a side-note about WiFi. BT Openzone has put pretty decent WiFi in place across the Park. It was certainly nice and strong in the venue I visited this morning. I have a contract with Orange, and that comes with access to BT Openzone hotspots.
Except it doesn’t quite. It seems that BT classifies their hotspots in three ways, and this was a business hotspot. So Orange (and Vodafone) customers don’t get access. O2 (and Tesco) customers do. I found another way to get online using a BT Broadband login, but failing that you’ll have to buy time direct. To be fair, it seemed to work exceptionally well, and at one point I was happily streaming video via the BBC Olympics app. Although I should say that yesterday I managed much the same thing using 3G. And the work mobile phone companies seem to have done across the park meant I had far better 3G coverage than I’ve ever had at any other sporting occasion. So congratulations are in order for that. However the presence of WiFi is clearly a strong benefit. Just a shame that some mobile customers who thought they had full access, don’t.
Before leaving Stratford I looked into Westfield, but couldn’t face eating there. I did wander into John Lewis, but they had a queuing system in place just to get into their widely advertised 2012 store. The queue was an hour long and started the floor below. I quickly left.
So my advice would be – get there early, but bring your own food. And if you want to visit the stores or concessions, then go early. The aforementioned Megastore was open early and was pretty empty when I first walked past it.
Anyway, leaving the site meant I got home speedily and was able to watch the last 25km of the women’s road race with Lizzie Armitstead got silver in despite the miserable rain it was fought out in.
More photos to be found here.
Tomorrow – swimming, fencing and The Orbit!

Olympics Day 1 – Men’s Road Race

Men's Road Race-32
Up early today for the first Olympic action with the Men’s Road Race departing from Central London at 10am. I got to Richmond Park an hour ahead of that and roughly twenty minutes’ later, the peleton arrived. They weren’t really racing at that point, and looked like a big colourful cycling club out for a Sunday run in the park.
Men's Road Race-10
A little later, after a refreshing beverage at a nearby hostelry, we returned, via the inevitable deer, to take up different positions to see the return of the racers.
Men's Road Race-16
By this point there was a considerably dangerous group who’d gained a minute of the peleton. Ordinarily that would be a relatively straightforward gap to breach, but essentially the GB riders were being left on their own to do the work. Even the German team who wanted to put Greipl in the bunch sprint weren’t really going for it. As a result, the breakaway group of roughly thirty were sharing the pain more successfully and maintained their gap.
Men's Road Race-27
There was some drama when around 200m from us (and out of sight), Fabian Cancellera crashed on the corner at Richmond Gate.
In the meantime, the GB team gave everything they could. At the point they passed us, Brad was giving it full gas on the front with Chris Froome and David Millar having been dropped having done all they could.
Men's Road Race-33
But it was not to be, and Alexandr Vinoukorov won fairly comfortably against Colombian Sky rider Rigoberto Uran. A little disappointing given his fairly unapologetic background in doping. Unlike David Millar, he has not come back full of remorse.
Nonetheless, it was a fun day in lovely weather in the park. More photos are on Flickr here.
A side note is that I understand that there were problems with the TV coverage. I was mostly reliant on radio and they too had very little timing information. Unlike, say, the Tour de France, where timing information is excellent and ever present, there was a real paucity in this race. From what I’ve read subsequently, it appears that for whatever reason, the GPS equipment wasn’t working, hence the lack of information. Let’s hope that they fix it for the Women’s Road Race on Sunday.
The race coverage is provided by OBS – Olympic Broadcast Services. They in turn subcontract it to various countries. I assume that they give cycling to the French, but I really don’t know.
What’s not the OBS’s fault was the terrible coverage from the BBC reporter on the Ten O’Clock News that I caught when I got back home. They included a bit of an interview with an upset Mark Cavendish was rude to the reporter, asking him if he understood cycling. Unfortunately, from his report, it was clear that he didn’t. I know it’s not easy to explain both the tactics and tell viewers what happened in a sport which they might not be familiar with. But his report was utterly misleading.
And it was also disappointing that he repeated that all too familiar mantra that we “expect” to win medals. Well guess what, it’s called “sport”. And that means that we don’t know in advance what the outcome of any given fixture will be. If we did, then it wouldn’t actually be any fun watching the action. Our athletes are undoubtedly under tremendous pressure. But that’s doesn’t mean that we should report lack of medal success as some kind of dismal failure. While the nation might have thought that it was a given that Cav would win today, unlike a stage race, a single day’s racing introduces many uncertainties. And reporters like everyone else need to understand that.

Olympics – The Torch Relay

Warning: There’s probably going to be a bit of Olympics coverage in this blog over the next couple of weeks!
Torch Relay-4
Well it was only around the corner, and I was coming back from a meeting anyway, so I had to join the massed ranks of office workers, shop workers, and tourists who came out to watch the Olympic flame come past.
People grabbed every vantage point. And of course, nobody was without either a phone or a camera.
Torch Relay-1
Torch Relay-6
View the full set here.

Le Maillot Jeune

What an extraordinarily wonderful day.
Bradley Wiggins wins the Tour de France in Paris. The first Briton ever to do so in 109 years of the race and 99 editions of it. Chris Froome, another Brit comes second. Mark Cavendish makes it three out of three on the Champs Elysees.
I just had to be there. So a plane ride later (even factoring in an overnight stay in a nice little hotel, it was cheaper than a packed Eurostar), and getting sunburnt in The Tuileries, and I found myself in Paris for the great day.
Brad, Cav, Bernie & Edvard
Roll on the Olympics next week!

BBC Olympic Deal

The BBC has just announced that it’s signed a new deal with the IOC for the next four summer and winter games through to the 2020 games in a city that has yet to be announced. It’s not immediately clear how much the BBC has paid, but
This was an interesting deal because of a number of things that have been happening recently.
The IOC has, for the first time in a number of years, decided not to sign a deal with the EBU, through which the BBC has in recent times gained its TV rights. They seemingly decided that they’d generate more cash if they dealt with each of the major European markets individually.
Separately, the recent review of the Listed Events list got shelved. However the list is likely to be revisited at some point soon. And you can expect pay TV companies and major sports bodies to all bitterly oppose various elements of the list.
The IOC, for all their failings, do have an Olympic Charter that states in section 49, paragraph 1:
The IOC takes all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games.
While that doesn’t quite promise free-to-air coverage of the games, the phrase “widest possible audience” would certainly mitigate against pay TV. Not that it’s stopped them selling rights in countries like Italy to a pay TV company (Sky Italia), who then sub-licence 200 hours of the summer games back to a free-to-air broadcaster (RAI).
If a major sport were to depart free-to-air TV, then I think that we need to rethink any “state” funding that sports receives centrally. By that, I mean National Lottery money.
Many athletes receive National Lottery funding via UK Sport. Their website explains that as well as cash funding, dependent upon how good the athlete is in their chosen sport, there are other resources made available to them including coaching, sports science and medical support.
Were the Olympics to be exclusively or largely on pay television, then I think it’d be fair to ask the question about why the state, via the National Lottery, is funding those athletes.
On a seemingly unrelated point, the UK Government has this week accepted that state funded scientific research should now be made available free of charge to everyone, and not just those individuals or members of institutions that can afford the expensive subscriptions to journals that allow that access.
I think this translates to sport in the UK. The National Lottery is a state organised lottery with a legislative requirement to distribute a proportion of its earnings to a variety of good causes.
If we pay for them, then we should benefit.
As an aside, I work for a commercial radio broadcaster, and these views are, of course, my own. As an organisation, we might have preferred the BBC not to gain exclusive rights. Particularly radio rights!

Girls – The Next Big Thing, Or Not?

It’s a blindingly obvious thing to say, but the choice of which channel airs a television series can really determine how successful it might become, irrespective of the programme’s actual overall quality and appeal.
Case in point. Sometime in the not too distant future – September or October I believe – Sky Atlantic will start showing Lena Dunham’s HBO series, Girls.
Girls is a half-hour single camera “dramedy” set amongst a group of twenty-something women in New York, painting a picture of their lives, their loves, and their problems.
It seems to have really touched a nerve in the US, where its portrayal of a group of women who struggle to hold down jobs, yet live in reasonable “hip” accommodation, sometimes with financial help, has resonated with a certain demographic. The lives they lead and the friendships they form are perceived as pretty accurate. It’s also seen as a very honest portrayal sex lives of those women – the good and the bad.
The programme is both the natural successor to, and the antithesis of, Sex and the City. Although I should say that that’s something I’m more familiar with as a book, having perhaps seen only a handful of episodes and quickly determining that it wasn’t my cup of tea. But one of the Girls characters even has a Sex and the City poster on her wall to make clear the awareness of that comparison. That too, of course, was an HBO series.
The series is also a Lena Dunham showreel of sorts. Her 2010 independent film, Tiny Furniture, did belatedly get a release in the UK and has just come out on DVD, but this is resolutely Dunham’s calling card. She writes, directs, produces and stars in it. She’s been called “brave” an awful lot – perhaps because she doesn’t have a “perfect” body, and isn’t afraid of showing it (Although it must be said, most of her friends do seem to have more traditionally “perfect” TV bodies. Like so much television, and American television especially, most people are “beautiful.”). There are no barriers for discussion and inclusion. Abortion, STDs, and parental sex-life are all addressed at various points during the series.
The series has received criticism of being guilty of nepotism, with lots of daughters of famous names in starring roles. It’s also been criticised as being too white. The former, I’m not so sure about. Dunham does seem to cast her friends in her work a bit. But I suspect that’s true across the industry. The latter, it’s probably guilty of. On the other hand, that might be more an indictment of the particular group of people the show’s portraying. Are the hip young things of Brooklyn racially insular? I don’t know.
In the UK we’ve had series like Pulling, Him & Her, and perhaps the very first series of Shameless, which do a more accurate job of portraying that kind of life with a resolutely British perspective. But these are set in a more working class environment. Characters are perhaps more likely to work in shops than to be assistants in galleries, or at book publishers as they tend to be in Girls. Make no mistake, despite money concerns occasionally voiced, these are the privileged.
Having now seen the whole of the first series, I both appreciate it as a piece of work, but at the same time, have some serious misgivings about it. In presenting a vaguely realistic portrayal of this group of women, it’s probably reasonably accurate. But like most American television, it only portrays the wealthier. True working families are rarely seen.
For me, the critical problem is that I really don’t actually like any of the characters.
Jemima Kirke’s character – the British cousin of another character – is perhaps the most interesting, but even her, you wouldn’t say that you actually like her.
In fact, the programme it most reminds me of is This Life, except they’re not all lawyers. Both sets of characters were horribly insular which just annoys me enormously. Their dislikeable traits resolutely outweigh their likeable ones. And that’s why I found myself watching in spite of myself rather than out of any sense of actual enjoyment.
Ironically, the penultimate episode actually has a plot point that revolves around this very issue. Dunham’s character, asked to read some of her writing at a soirée, decides to change at the last minute from a piece with a fairly frivolous theme, to something more important – death. Clearly this backfires. However my problem is that I can’t remotely imagine actually ever wanting to read anything Dunham’s fictional character writes! It’d be far too narcissistic and irrelevant.
I do think that the programme improves later on during the series. Obviously by then you have a better understanding of the characters. The episode mostly set in a warehouse party is really very funny. But I’m not sure that’s enough. And Chris O’Dowd’s star continues to rise in the Hollywood firmament, following his various film performances which include Bridesmaids, he gets a story arc in this too. When did he stop being the “schlubby” Roy from The IT Crowd?
I am, however certain that this series could be a huge hit in the UK.
But it won’t be. At least not initially.
I can think of plenty of groups of people who’d watch this. And I’ve no doubt that in the run up to the UK release, it’ll get acres of coverage in the press. Mad Men levels, much as Sky Atlantic has been PR-ing Veep and Alan Patridge like mad. But I don’t believe that it’ll won’t work in audience terms. At least not until the show reaches DVD.
Unfortunately, that’s because it’s on Sky Atlantic. And while Sky Atlantic is in many ways Sky’s best channel, with many of its most interesting programmes, it just doesn’t have broad enough reach. It’s not available in Virgin Media homes. And it’s certainly not on Freeview. (Just speak to someone who was “allowed” to see the first Alan Partridge special when it was re-run on the Virgin Media-carried Sky 1, a channel that won’t be carrying the other special or the series).
A show like this does have a natural bedfellow. And that’s Channel 4.
If it were to run on Channel 4, it’d be a runaway hit – I’m certain. But aside from Channel 4 perhaps picking up secondary rights, the series will get lost on Sky Atlantic. If I was Sky, I’d make those secondary rights available to a mainstream channel like Channel 4 as a matter of urgency once they’ve aired it. It’d have the effect of driving audiences to Sky Atlantic when series two arrives in twelve months’ time.
DVD could do some of that work, and I suspect that the DVDs will sell well when they arrive. But HBO’s DVD strategy is very much of a “use it to promote the next series” variety. Unlike British broadcasters, you can’t pick up the DVD boxset on the Monday after the finale aired on TV. HBO wants exclusivity, and it’ll add multiple additional airings before a retail boxset, or iTunes downloads are made available. Indeed rather unhelpfully, HBO didn’t release series one of Boardwalk Empire until after series two had aired.
Sky has taken a perfectly good marketing decision not to make Sky Atlantic available to Virgin Media customers, and that’s entirely their choice. What’s more, when they buy up big American series, they have to hope that viewers will rush to subscribe to see these shows. But I’ve yet to see an imported show reach the “big time” without getting a free to air outing. And with many more secondary and tertiary outlets for watching TV, from DVDs and iTunes to Netflix and, potentially, YouView, I don’t see this situation changing.
So Girls could be very popular in the UK. The broadsheets will be full of it and Lena Dunham profiles and interviews. But I just don’t think it’ll do all that well in ratings terms.
In any case, I really dislike just about everyone in it. But I’ll probably continue to watch.

Licencing Music

Of late, I’ve been shooting a few Super 8 films, and have really enjoyed the somewhat back to basics pleasures. I’ve still got plenty to learn about the medium however.
But I am left with a problem.
Because of the silent nature, the films work much better if I put a soundtrack on them. And that’s where I run into problems.
If I want to licence a piece of music to put on a film that I upload and may only be seen by a few people, there just really isn’t an affordable mechanism available to me – at least if I want to choose a piece of music I’m already familar with. Although I’m talking about Super 8 here, I might just as well be talking about video in general.
I can upload the video to YouTube where it’s Content ID system will probably detect that I’m using a commercial track. Then – depending on the agreement made between the rights owner and YouTube – I may, or may not, be able to leave the video in place. But there are lots of problems with this.

  • I don’t know in advance whether a given track will be allowed. I wouldn’t even attempt to use a Beatles track for example.
  • I don’t know in advance whether a given track will be viewable in my territory. Because of the way music rights are allocated, the relevant agreements might have been reached in North America, but not in Europe or the UK.
  • I don’t know how long any agreements might remain in place. If a record label “falls out” with YouTube, my video might get pulled at any time in the future.
  • My video will probably featured embedded advertising that I have no control over.

Now of course, I shouldn’t complain unduly, because I didn’t pay to licence that music in the first place. I’m actually lucky that there’s an option at all to use someone else’s music. I realise that when I say “my video” I’m using the endeavours of someone else.
But how about a system that allowed me limited rights to pay to licence some music to use on services like Vimeo, YouTube and Facebook? If I was able to pay a modest amount of money – more than 79p, but less than the several thousand dollars I’d have to pay for full commercial rights – to use the music in my essentially amateur video? £10 for a track perhaps with some limited usage rights?
Might this be another avenue for the music industry to earn revenue?
It’s not totally straightforward, since if one of my videos becomes a viral sensation (unlikely) then those digital advertising pennies that YouTube currently generates on a pre-roll could be earning many more dollars than my paltry tenner. But I’m sure there’s a workaround.
Of course, I could certainly go down a different route and use rights-free music from the sizeable array of companies that either give it away or licence it. But that’s a great deal more work. I’m almost certainly unfamiliar with all the music available, and that leaves me with a lot of work to find an appropriate track.
Occassionally bands and artists will run competitions for fans to make videos. Sigor Ros is doing precisely that at the moment.
But is there a legal, “affordable” way for me to licence a music track for a non-commercial online environment?

YouView Launch

YouView Launch
George Entwistle may be the new Director General of the BBC, but the current one, Mark Thompson, was to be found in County Hall this morning alongside representatives of the other shareholders for the launch of YouView.
Lord Sugar – chairman of YouView – kicked off procedings, although most of the demostrations were conducted by CEO Richard Halton.
It’s been a long time in gestation, but now it’s here, it’s actually quite smart. In essence, it’s a connected Freeview PVR. And there are already plenty of those on the market. But that probably underplays the power of it.
What you have is a very smart and very slick looking EPG which at first glance is just a list of Freeview channels. But the neatness comes in the way that on demand functionality is built straight into that EPG. If you go forwards in time then you can set it to record that programme as usual. It also does clever things like suggest the HD version if you’d prefer.
But if you go backwards in time, then you can see what was on TV – say yesterday – and if you select that programme (and it’s available on demand), then it’ll launch the relevant on demand service like iPlayer or ITV Player and boot up the programme. It means you can reach programmes within just a couple of clicks which makes it very powerful.
Of course if channels want to include pre-roll advertising then that’s fine too.
The search functionality is also excellent. In the demo, we saw the letters “EM” immediately suggest Emmerdale (no – not my choice) and selecting that brought up something like a month’s worth of episodes, as well as another TV show and a radio programme which both featured cast members.
What’s clear here is that metadata in programming information will be key. It’s going to be no good just saying that Jeremy Clarkson is a guest on your show. You’ll want to say “Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear” is a guest to ensure that viewers searching “Top Gear” are offered your programme’s interview!
The search functionality is really smart visually and shares the kind of “guessing” that Google does in search now. It makes the whole thing look very slick.
From the demonstrations, it was clear that the box will come with on demand offerings from the major shareholders, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. They’ll offer their usual deep archive offerings – so that means Father Ted or Black Books on 4OD for example.
However YouView won’t be offering a central payment mechanism. So if and when ITV launches its micropayment mechanism later this year, they’ll have to manage that themselves within their on demand environment. That’s also the case with other providers. Lord Sugar was quite clear on that point.
It also doesn’t seem likely that there’ll be advertising within the EPG itself. Once you get into a channel provider’s environment, that’s up to them.
Radio didn’t get much of a mention, although the results of search certainly bring up radio programmes which is great – and takes me back to my metadata point. Initially it seems you’ll be limited to stations available on Freeview. But here’s hoping that there’ll be other ways of getting radio on the device!
There are plenty of “empty slots” on the box to fill, and we were told that STV and Now TV from Sky are likely to be early arrivals during the summer. What Sky offers isn’t clear right now, but I’d imagine it’ll all be on a pay-per-view basis. We’ll have to wait and see.
There was also no sign of either Lovefilm or Netflix. I think it’s safe to say that they’ll also get onto it soon.
Interestingly the two ISPs that partnered with YouView will each offer their own branded versions of the boxes. Essentially, they’ll have their own programme offerings. I’d imagine that BT will package in BT Vision for example. What TalkTalk offers, I’m not sure, but we’re told they’ll tell us all later this month.
YouView Box 5
The first box will come from Humax, who’ve long worked in this area, producing some of the most popular Freeview PVR boxes. Lord Sugar was very complimentary about them.
It’ll cost £299 at launch, since it comes with twin tuners and a hard disk for the PVR. I think some will be surprised at that price point as it’s still quite high based on the fact that the target market is those who’ve not signed up for either Sky or Virgin Media. But clearly prices will come down, and Sugar suggested that there might be a much cheaper “zapper box” with a single tuner and no PVR functionality that could be priced at something more like £99. This technology could then be embedded into other devices including connected TVs.
And the box is likely to be heavily discounted to subscribers of BT and TalkTalk who take certain packages from them. I’d anticipate free TV “data” for those subscribers without caps. And I speak as someone who’s had to help their parents confront data “bill shock” when they ate through nearly 40GB in a month of watching iPlayer via a Sony BluRay player. Incidentally, those who buy this box and are on tight usage deals with their ISPs may need to revisit their internet packages fairly promptly. If you’re not with a partner ISP, you may find that even their “fair usage” hoves into view quite swiftly!
The Humax box will be in all the main retailers by the end of this month – which I think is sooner than many expected. In what quantities I’m not sure, although Sugar – employing some of his Apprentice terminology – said that orders from the retailers were very strong and much larger than he’d expected.
One slight disappointment with the box is that it requires an ethernet connection and doesn’t come with WiFi. That might be a hurdle for those who’s routers are not within cabling distance of their TVs. Homeplugs and the like may be the answer for those who don’t want to start drilling holes in walls. I wonder if WiFi dongles will prevail. I’d imagine future devices will include WiFi, although testing may have revealed non-optimal user satisfaction via WiFi.
Sugar claimed that new entrants could get onto YouView for as little as £50,000 and that’s a really low price point for what could be a substantial platform.
There are challenges for YouView, but they’re not necessarily that insurmountable. Connected TVs are big business and all the TV manufactures have their bespoke systems already in play. I suspect that it’ll shortly be impossible to buy a TV set without at least one included system. But that leads to fragmentation. Do I use Apple’s system? Or Sony’s? Or Xbox’s? Or Samsung’s? Or LG’s? Or, now, Google’s?
YouView could consolidate some of that fragmentation. Sony, Samsung and Apple (OK – maybe not Apple), could all make their offerings available via YouView. But I doubt they will for a while. Perhaps one lagging TV manufacturer might jump into bed early. It’s difficult to say.
But I’m certain that this is not a white elephant that some are saying it is. The UK broadcasters behind it mean that it isn’t. Apple doesn’t have iPlayer. Google doesn’t have… well… nobody really knows. And all the TV services have their own strengths and weaknesses.
Whether we’ll see Facebook or Twitter integration will be interesting further down the line, but as they kept emphasising during the presentation, this isn’t for the bleeding edge consumer who probably already has this functionality. It’s for everyone else.
Will I be buying one myself? Probably not. But that’s not because I wouldn’t like one. I already have a Sky HD box, as well as a couple of older Freeview PVRs – one of which lets me burn programmes to DVD. I’ve no need for one. But in time, I’ve no doubt that future purchases will come laden with YouView functionality if not just a standalone YouView box themselves.
And there’s no doubt that that EPG functionality is really smart.