July, 2018

The Death of MoviePass?

A few months ago, I tried to work out what the business model of MoviePass (and putative UK equivalent cPass) might be.

I concluded that the operators were going to need very deep pockets, and there was absolutely no certainty that the model works.

And that seems to have been an accurate prediction. The service recently nearly ran out of money, and had an emergency $5m injection last week. As Techcrunch reports, that wasn’t enough for the operators to block MoviePass subscribers from buying tickets to the weekend’s big new release – Mission Impossible: Fallout. And according to reports from a company meeting, the same restrictions will apply to some forthcoming big releases.

With the share price of MoviePass’ owner falling like a stone to below $1, the outlook is not good. I would imagine that at this point, the owners will be looking at some kind of fire sale. But even that doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

In the meantime AMC has launched its own subscription sevice – AMC Stubs A-List – which might be a mouthful, but offers three films a week for $19.95 a month. That puts it on a par with long standing subscription schemes in the UK like Cineworld’s Unlimited or Odeon’s Limitless offerings.

It’s unclear where that leaves cPass. They continue to offer a “waiting list” system to invite new subscribers. But I suspect that their investors will be carefully monitoring the losses of MoviePass, and may well decide to abandon ship rather than launch a loss-making product of their own.

It was hard to understand the business model of MoviePass in the first place, and that turns out to be because there really wasn’t a workable one. At least there wasn’t a workable one that accurately reflected movie-goers habits at a price point that made sense. All the more so, when MoviePass had deals with neither cinema chains, nor movie distributors.

The film industry does need disruption, but it’s already happening. It’s happening in how we watch films, and the type of films that get made. Most importantly its happening in where we watch films. As was highlighted in the book, The Big Picture it’s happening with Netflix and Amazon. Those mid-budget films are more and more skipping theatres, and showing up on their services. Cinemas are left with blockbusters at one end and art-house films at the other.

Will cinemas as we know them now survive another 10-20 years? I hope so, but I’m not certain. But MoviePass certainly won’t be the game changer it thought it’d be.

This is a fun read from The New York Times back in May.

RideLondon Classique 2018

This last weekend saw a massive collision of all things cycling. It was the final weekend of the Tour de France – fabulously won by Geraint Thomas. That had been pushed back a week to stay clear of the World Cup. Meanwhile it was also the Saturday night of the Dunwich Dynamo, from London Fields to Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. That always takes place around the July full moon. And then it was also RideLondon, with the FreeCycle on London’s closed roads on Saturday, followed by a series of races on a circuit around St James’ Park and Whitehall. RideLondon collided with the Tour de France this year, which was good in some ways – a likeable Brit/Welshman winning the Tour and getting front pages – but it meant that there was no avoiding the men’s RideLondon Classic finishing on the Mall at almost the exact moment that the Tour de France was finishing on the Champs Elysee.

The final stage in Paris has ended up becoming an early evening affair in recent years, in large part because Tour organisers like to finish the race in the mountains, either the Alps, or this year, the Pyrenees. Both mountain ranges are a long way from Paris, and even though the riders get a plane transfer, much of the rest of the Tour’s infrastructure has to drive hundreds of kilometres across France. So a late start is essential.

Meanwhile in London, the professional race is run on many of the same roads as the amateur sportive earlier in the day. So the race takes place after the roads have been cleared of slower finishing riders.

This did mean the bizarre circumstances of men’s professional cycling being on both ITV (which had moved up coverage from ITV4 for this final stage of great interest nationally) and BBC One simultaneously. Indeed, the BBC had to make do without David Millar taking his usual place on the back of a motorcycle for their coverage (Yanto Barker ably filled in), while Chris Boardman was also in Paris and not alongside Jill Douglas. More complicated was the fact that the BBC’s coverage had to acknowledge Geraint Thomas’ win, while at the same time not pushing viewers to head over to ITV!

On the other hand, we did get a few sprinters in London who’d been forced to leave the tour when they didn’t make the time cut. Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipal were in London even if neither ended up on the podium.

But enough about Sunday – which was wet and windy, and I watched from the sofa rather than the streets. What about Saturday?

I headed over to the race just ahead of its start, and as usual there was good organisation out on the roads. The final FreeCycle riders were being cleared off the route, and the women’s teams were exploring the course of the circuit. It was a slight variant on previous courses with a start/finish on The Mall, heading up and down Constitution Hill, doing a 180 degree turn just ahead of Hyde Park Corner. Then it took a loop around St James’ Park before looping up and down Whitehall, back around Trafalgar Square and into The Mall.

It is a shame that the women only get to do what is essentially a glamorous criterium circuit. But for spectators, there are lots of chances to see the riders.

One thing those spectators need to spend some time working out, is how to navigate around the course, since there are limited crossing points and it’s not always obvious. Get a map in advance is my recommendation.

Saturday was a bright but very windy day. Dust clouds blew up from time to time, and although it was still the end of July, the wind had detached many leaves from their trees following 8 weeks of hot weather, and it had the look of autumn. The wind meant that at one point a Brompton branded gazebo blew over, while race organisers had left on the ground the signs indicating the last few hundred metres distance before the finish. It was too windy to keep them standing up.

Unfortunately, that wind also had an effect on the race which stayed together from start to finish. And there’s nothing worse that a criterium where no groups or people get away. There are a number of sprint competitions that were well contested along the way, but nobody ever got off the front, and that doesn’t make for a great race. The most exciting thing that I saw happen was a crash on a corner, which held up a number of Canyon SRAM riders including Alice Barnes. She drafted the neutral service car enough to make it back on, although others didn’t.

The final spring itself was a good one, with riders across the road. Marianne Vos’ Waow Deals team, marshalled by Dani Rowe were in a good position, Sunweb were trying to repeat last year’s win for Coryn Rivera, and Alice Barnes did manage to fight her way back into the mix. But in the end it was Wiggle High 5’s Kirsten Wild who won the race. That came in the week that team owner Rochelle Gilmore announced the end of the team (Although I’m slightly confused both by the way this was announced and what it actually means, since she slightly backtracked in the BBC’s coverage suggesting that although she wouldn’t be part of it, something else might emerge. We’ll have to wait and see).

I’m not too sure what needs to be done to make the race a better competition. Perhaps some kind of financial reward for the most aggressive rider or team? There’s a lot of cash in this race, which means they do get the entrants. But there wasn’t much of a break last year either as I recall. I wouldn’t underplay the effect of the wind on the weekend’s race, but it was a shame it wasn’t a better race.

I took plenty of photos, some of which are here, and the rest can be seen over at Flickr.

Geraint Thomas Wins the Tour

Geraint Thomas - Tour de France 2007 - London - Prologue

It has been thrilling over these last three weeks to see one of cycling’s real Mr Nice Guys win the Tour.

I couldn’t say exactly when I first became aware of him, but Britain’s success on the track meant that I’d seen him pick up medals ahead of his gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 as part of the Team Pursuit – something he was to repeat in 2012.

In 2007, he took part in his first Tour de France, as part of the Barloworld team that also featured a certain Chris Froome. I was out in London and the next day, Kent, to watch that Tour start in Britain that year, and digging through my pictures from the time, he features.

He finished second last in that Tour, but he was much heavier, and was only 21 (the same age as Egan Bernal is today – suggesting that the young Colombian will be an extraordinary future talent). But he did finish, which was the important point.

Geraint Thomas - Tour of Britain - London - 2008

In 2008 he was still riding for Barloworld at the Tour of Britain – Team Sky remaining at that point a twinkle in Dave Brailsford’s eye.

Geraint Thomas - 2014 National Road Race

Flash forward a few years, and Thomas was at the National Road Race in Abergavenny. I somehow managed to get there and back for a day trip to watch that competition. These days Sky doesn’t always let their riders race the nationals because it’s a week ahead of the Tour and injuries can happen. That day, the race was swamped with Sky riders – Peter Kennaugh beating the rest, with only the Yates brothers preventing complete Sky domination.

Geraint Thomas - 2015 Tour de France - Stage 10

A year later, and I was out at the Tour in the Pyrenees where with Froome already in yellow, they entered the mountain stages properly. It was very warm on the roadside that day – and had been when I’d ridden a few km up the mountain before pulling over to conserve energy and water, and to wait for the race.

A couple of years ago, his book came out and I went to an entertaining Q&A. As with these things, there was a long queue to get the book signed, and I was towards the back. The queue moved slowly because everyone wanted a picture – something he was happy to do. I wasn’t going to bother, but the guy next to me in the queue basically bullied me into it. I had to take a picture of him after all!

I’m quite pleased I got that photo! (I also got him to sign a copy of the photo just above, which now hangs on a wall at home.)

Me and Geraint Thomas

A great day, and a great rider. A fantastic sense of humour, and it doesn’t harm that he’s an Arsenal fan.

Virgin Media and UKTV (And ITV) – Continuation

On my commute to work this morning, I saw a digital outdoor sign advertising a programme on Yesterday. I can’t recall the programme, but I can tell you that at the bottom, a large blue strap had added “Not available on Virgin Media.”

Things are ramping up in Virgin Media and UKTV’s dispute. The Guardian reports that Virgin Media is now sending out letters to interested other broadcasters to bid for UKTV’s slots on their EPG.

That feels like quite a hardball move from Virgin Media, since once those channel slots are gone, they’re unlikely to return. It’s obviously supposed to drive UKTV back to the negotiating table.

However in the meantime, The Guardian is also reporting that ITV and Virgin Media are also in dispute, with ITV reportedly suggesting it might pull all its channels from the platform by this weekend. Loss of ITV would be massive, with the channel responsible for lots of the biggest programmes on television. Even the loss of ITV2 on its own, at a time when Love Island continues to ride high in the ratings, is enough to make most platforms reconsider.

You suspect that ITV is pushing home a strategic advantage at a time when Virgin Media is already weakened from a consumer perspective with the loss of UKTV’s channels. If ITV’s channels were to drop off the platform, then there’d be a massive hole in what Virgin Media is offering viewers.

Certainly, most of those channels would remain available to viewers on Freeview, but the loss of on demand and recording functionality, along with the annoyance of having to flick around to jump between DTT and Virgin Media, is a disincentive.

This seems to be the result of an ongoing dispute between Virgin Media and ITV going back months. Last year, the Telegraph reported that ITV wanted between £45m and £80m in retransmission fees following a change in the law.

In April last year, the 2017 Digital Economy Act came into law, and it allowed for retransmission fees from cable operators – but notably, not satellite. Fees paid to broadcasters for otherwise free-to-air channels are the norm in the US, but hadn’t been the case in the UK. Indeed, broadcasters tended to have to pay platforms to ensure their services were covered.

This had become something of a bone of contention among commercial broadcasters, and ITV has been moving ahead most strongly.

As well as fees, prominence in the EPG and how catch-up offerings are presented are likely to form part of the negotiations. (As an aside, I note that Sky has recently been giving significant promotion to BBC programming, something it has not previously done on a regular basis).

The fees issue with UKTV and retransmission fees issue with ITV suggests that Virgin Media, under owners Liberty Global, is playing a really tough game at the moment, beating down channel suppliers as much as possible.

Losing ITV as well as UKTV could be a massive challenge for Virgin Media. I would imagine that groups like Sky and BT TV will be moving up their summer advertising campaigns (usually built around the upcoming football season) as a result.

[UPDATE] – It’s really worth listening to Virgin Media and UKTV slug it out on-air in this week’s episode of The Media Show. Both sides make their case, with Virgin Media very happy to carry the free-to-air channels for no money. UKTV want to sell them the entire package of channels – free and paid for. From their perspective, Virgin Media charges viewers to receive the channels, so they should get some subscriber money.

There was no mention of plans to sell off UKTV’s slot numbers. Nor was there any mention of ITV’s dispute, although that only really re-emerged following the programme’s recording.

Virgin Media and UKTV

We seem to be in the middle of a real old-school rights agreement brouhaha at the moment. Virgin Media has just removed all UKTV’s channels from its platform after what we must assume was a lengthy period where the two parties failed to meet terms.

UKTV is 50% owned by the BBC, and 50% owned by Discovery (following Discovery’s recent completion of its acquisition of Scripps). And UKTV is pretty successful. It has trodden the line of being both a pay-TV and free-to-air operator very carefully. It has a total of eight channels: W, Dave, Alibi, Gold, Eden, Drama, Really, Good Food, Yesterday and Home. Of those, five are also available on free-to-air platforms like Freeview and Freesat. The remaining channels, including Gold, Alibi and W are only available on pay platforms.

When the entity that would become UKTV was first set-up, it was heavily reliant on licencing repeats of notably BBC programming. But in recent years, it has made a lot of headway commissioning its own exclusive programming, and acquiring exclusive programming, or contributing to production budgets of international programming. That mix has seen it deliver strong ratings and revenues.

According to BARB, over the first few months of this year, it has average between 5.0% and 5.5% of viewing, placing it sixth behind the BBC, ITV, C4, Sky and 5 groups of channels. The biggest channels are Drama and Dave, which each get about 1% of viewing. To put that in perspective, it usually makes them bigger than any of Sky’s own channels including Sky 1 or Sky Living.

So why is there is a fight with Virgin Media? Well it’s cash. Who knows what Virgin Media pays for UKTV’s channel bundle, but it’ll be a handful of pounds a month per subscriber. From press reports, Virgin Media is seeking a steep discount on what it has been paying and UKTV isn’t happy.

Virgin Media’s key argument is that UKTV isn’t able to offer on demand rights to much of their programming.

This is true. The BBC does place limits on what programming can go onto the UKTV Play platform. That’s because the BBC is also selling those rights to streamers like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. However, that doesn’t mean that UKTV play only carries their original programming or their acquisitions. You will find BBC programming on the platform. At time of writing, they have episodes of Sherlock, Silent Witness and Waking the Dead available to stream. However, there do seem to be limitations on what can appear in box sets. And obviously, UKTV’s own programming can stay available for much longer.

(Incidentally, this isn’t a situation unique to the UKTV/BBC agreement. Sky/Now TV sees HBO programming come and go in various windows. Game of Thrones will be there for a while; then it will drop off, perhaps coming back later in the year.)

However Virgin Media complaining is unlikely to change the BBC’s position. BBC Studios who maintains the stake in UKTV and also monetises programming on other platforms, is unlikely to budge just because Virgin Media would like it to.

In the short term, viewers lose out. Virgin Media is hoping that while it’ll lose some subscribers, they save money in the longer term. Their so-called replacements are, of course, nothing of the sort. And Sky will no doubt enjoy signing up a few new subscribers.

But this is a dangerous game. Channels like Dave and Drama are popular, and viewers will get upset. While those two are available on Freeview, others like Alibi and Gold aren’t. Some die-hard crime TV fans may indeed up and switch platforms. UKTV is an oddly powerful platform to have a falling out with. Perhaps they were pushing their luck with increased fees to support their continued investment in new programming. We may never know.

I suspect in due course, sense will prevail and a new agreement will be met. Recall that when Discovery and Sky had a big falling out about 18 months ago, it was resolved only at the 11th hour.

Radio is Fastest

If you wanted to know what was happening in Moscow as fast as possible last night, your best bet was the radio.

I’ve mentioned before that when a big fixture goes to penalties, I always listen on the radio, because I get the news first. More regularly, if there’s a match that’s both being covered by Five Live and Sky TV, I might have the TV switched on in my lounge, but the radio on in my kitchen. If I hear a goal described on the radio, I know that I can take my time strolling into my lounge to see the goal scored.

This was beautifully illustrated in a Tweet that showed some Brazilian fans watching a game on a big screen, with one fan listening to the radio:

During the England semi-final, at a point of tension, I decided to see what got me news from Russia fastest. Here are my non-scientific findings in order:

Fastest to Slowest

BBC Radio Five Live AM

— ~0.2 seconds ahead of —

BBC Radio Five Live DAB

— ~5 seconds ahead of —

ITV Freeview SD
ITV Freeview HD
ITV Sky HD

(All TV roughly the same)

I didn’t bother with streams because they introduce too many variables based on the technology I’m using, the internet speeds I have, and so on. But I do know that UHD is especially slower than other streaming options. I also noted earlier in the tournament that BBC’s VR experiment delivered video faster than regular iPlayer! (I was, however, completely underwhelmed by the VR experience)

Note that I can’t accurately measure the time because I comparing things I can see myself with things that are being described by a commentator. In other words, radio is perhaps even further ahead than I’m estimating here, since the radio commentator has had to see and describe something before I hear it. On TV, I can simply see the net bulge with a goal.

What’s more, I’m told that AM is deliberately delayed by about a second – perhaps to keep it closer in sync with DAB.

I suspect that the overall delay is closer to 10 seconds for events happening in a stadium and me seeing them on a television. There will be uplinks and downlinks from the venue to the broadcast centre, then more from the broadcast centre to the UK broadcaster’s playout systems. Then that signal too is probably propagated by satellite to many transmitters and direct-to-home satellites. Each satellite “hop” might take 250 milliseconds, and then there encoding and decoding delays to account for. Finally a broadcaster may deliberately introduce a delay to ensure that they can cut the picture in case something happens that they don’t want to show (the equivalent of the “dump” button in many radio studios).

All of this shows that if you want to know what’s happening fastest, radio gets there first.

Is IP TV Really Ready for Primetime?

Last night YouTube TV went down for an hour. That’s not YouTube the platform, but the premium TV service that YouTube offers customers in the US a range of broadcast TV channels in exchange for a monthly fee. The service went down right in the middle of the England v Croatia World Cup semi-final in Russia.

Every time a set of major sports rights comes up for sale, there is more and more discussion about whether a major internet platform like Amazon, Facebook, Google or Apple will be bidding. So far, there have been a few toes dipped in the water. Amazon has a small package of Premier League games from the season after next; Amazon also has ATP tennis in the UK from next year, and has had a few tennis tournaments this year; Amazon has streaming Thursday Night NFL rights, sharing them with free-to-air and pay-TV ; Facebook has bought Premier League and La Liga rights for a handful of Southeast Asian countries.

But at the same time, there are ongoing problems with many of these streaming technologies. In Australia, Optus had massive issues with its World Cup rights as I’ve mentioned previously. They’ve ended up refunding subscribers, and allowing all their games to be shown on free-to-air broadcast TV. ITV Hub has had various issues during earlier games in this World Cup (although I’ve seen few reports for the semi-final last night). Hulu’s stream of this year’s Super Bowl went down towards the end of the game. There are plenty of other examples.

Streaming is hard, and the resources to ensure no breaks are not to be understated. You might get angry if you can’t stream an episode of GLOW on Netflix because something between Netflix and your ISP isn’t working right. The worst that might happen is that you have to wait a bit and watch it later. But that’s not a remotely satisfactory solution for live sport.

If a company the size of Google can still have a major outage during a global event like the World Cup, then you know that this isn’t easy. During the Sweden v England quarter-final, the BBC reported a record 3.8m live streams at one point. And of course, there were also reports that the stream fell over towards the end of the game for some.

It’s notable that for the World Cup, the BBC’s UHD streaming experiment was initially limited, to ensure that those who got a stream weren’t going to be disappointed half way through when too many other viewers caused the whole system to fall over (Of course, viewers would quickly find out that they were well behind other versions of the picture meaning that you could be hearing your neighbours cheering a goal minutes before you saw it yourself).

The same fixture had broadcast viewing figures of over 19m, with many more watching in pubs and at outdoor events. And while we need to be careful about comparing audiences (1 stream does not equal one viewer; they are not measuring exactly the same thing), it’s clear that the vast majority still watch via the more robust broadcast systems. The question is, for how long?

Talk to a TV engineer and you’ll begin to understand why broadcast is still better. The Freeview transmitter network is very robust with built-in redundancy to ensure that TV channels’ signals reach local transmitters. While local transmitters can fail, these tend to be extraordinary events, and their “up time” is high. If the transmitter is working then the only reason you don’t get a picture at home is down to your set-up (e.g. a faulty antenna on your roof). Satellite transmission is also remarkably robust – with perhaps only extreme weather causing picture degradation.

With IP, there are many places that the system can fail. Broadcasters are reliant on large Content Distribution Networks (CDNs) to distribute programming. And that complexity increases with live. Then there might be a local problem with your “exchange”, or even the local fibre cabinet near to your street. Perhaps your the free router your ISP gave you has failed. It can be hard to diagnose, and there are many potential points of failure.

For the most part, service will probably resume quickly. But just how quickly is another question.

I’m not arguing that IP can’t fix some of these problems, or be more robust. But I do think that it’s going to be a significant technical challenge, with many parties involved, and broadcast is better in many respects. From a broadcaster to transmitter might only involve a couple of specialist companies. The pictures arrive faster, and there are fewer places for things to break. One viewer or 30 million viewers? It makes no difference.

On the other hand, some future live event will take the record for streaming again, but these will be more worrying moments as systems are put under bigger pressure than ever before.

I’m not ready to give up broadcast as efficient video and audio propagation methodology just yet.

Marketing TV

If you’re a TV channel and you’ve got a new show you want to tell people about, it should be relatively simple. You make a trailer or two for it, and then you run that trailer around programmes that the audience for the new show are already watching.

You might want to be a bit cleverer than that, perhaps pulling in viewers of less obviously related programmes. Indeed if you’re really clever you might make different trailers to target different audiences.

But for the most part, TV companies use their own channels, which makes a great deal of sense. Or perhaps did. Because as the audience becomes ever more dis-aggregated, it’s getting harder to reach potential audiences. Viewers are spread far and wide, and you can’t be certain that you’ll reach a large potential audience just using your own channels.

It’s instructive that if you visit a big US city like New York, you’ll see advertising for movies and television shows everywhere. When I visited in April, even the city’s bike hire docking stations had advertising for Showtime’s Billions.

TFL Have Missed a Trick

Yes, Times Square has historically been full of movie and TV billboards, mostly elaborate digital screens, but it was interesting to see just how many Netflix and Amazon shows were being promoted. Beyond those, you have bus sides, taxis, and subway carriages. Traditional media. Ads were everywhere.

Times Square Ads

Tourists

Americans

Bosch

Compare and contrast with the UK, where advertising budgets seem more modest. Yes, BBC One advertised Troy reasonably heavily on posters, and indeed their current World Cup coverage (I’m not at all certain that the latter is the best use of marketing spend incidentally). Sky has put significant budgets behind Bulletproof and Patrick Melrose in recent weeks. And ITV and Channel do occasional campaigns for bigger shows. But there’s not the same consistent spend as you’ll see in the US.

Yet even those US spending levels aren’t enough.

A really good piece in The Information explains that although Netflix is upping its spend on marketing alone to $2bn, that’s not always enough to gain cut-through.

The story cites a Netflix show called Disjointed, that they promoted via a pop-up weed store in Los Angeles costing $20,000. I would point out two things from that. Yes, it will have created some local buzz (pardon the pun), but that doesn’t particularly do anything much for viewers outside of the Los Angeles area. Secondly, the marketing had zero impact outside the US. I like to think I pay reasonably close attention to the television landscape, and have never heard of this show, even though it had a big star in Kathy Bates! That $20,000 might have been better spent on regular advertising.

It’s also worth noting that the story compares Netflix’s $2bn spend with CBS’s $246m. The difference, though, is that the former is spending across the globe, while the latter is mostly spent in the US.

Netflix today has dozens of original films and series that I simply know nothing about. Unless I’m willing to watch a trailer to learn what a title I’ve never heard of is about, then they are heavily reliant on traditional routes to media. That could be sending stars onto the promo circuit, or just word of mouth. But as the volume of production intensifies, things are much more likely to get lost.

Even a couple of years ago, a die hard Netflix viewer would probably have been able to name most of their big dramas. Today, I no longer think that’s possible – assuming you’re not an industry exec with a professional interest.

“The most common complaint I hear from fellow Netflix showrunners is that they would make a great show, and no one would know that it was on,” said a creator whose show is currently being produced by Netflix.

I don’t know what the answer to Netflix’s problem is, with their vast number of productions, from all over the world, fighting to break through. But I do think some British networks need to probably invest more in off-network promotion.