January, 2019

Digital Movie Libraries in the UK

Buying a digital movie or TV series in the UK is an utter mess.

You can buy movies or TV series from a number of sites including: iTunes, Google Play Movies, Amazon, Sky Store and Rakuten.

But if you buy something in one of those places, you can only watch it via that company’s app and/or products. You run the risk of your hardware not being supported (e.g. no app for your new TV), or needing to buy new boxes or dongles to play a particular operator’s fare.

All taken together this means that it’s quite easy to have digital copies of films and TV series across a number of services.

And of course, if you are able to download offline copies of the films, they’re encrypted with DRM, and won’t play on other companies’ services or hardware.

Then there is the mess that is those codes that come with physical media. If you have bought a DVD or a BluRay over the last few years, it may well have come with a code on a slip of paper in the tray. You go to a website, enter that code, and get a digital copy. That’s the theory.

But this too is a complete mess.

Different studios have different options – some limit you to iTunes. Others, work only with Google Play Movies. Most commonly, you have to use Ultraviolet, which theoretically lets you then choose a service to view your films. In the UK, the reality is that this “choice” is Flixster. But this is insanely limited, in large part because they’ve shut down in the US. In the UK and elsewhere they continue to exist, but there are only very limited ways to watch films. You can use a mobile app, or via the web-browser. There’s no Android TV version available, and newer TVs don’t have a built in Flixster app any more. (And that’s before we get to the fact that you’ve probably created multiple accounts for the studio, Ultraviolet and Flixster, just to get to that point).

Further problems include unavailability of previously available films. For example, I bought a disc of the Frank Capra classic Lost Horizon which included a digital copy from Sony Pictures (owners of Columbia). This shows up in my Flixster library marked as unplayable. Clicking on it takes me to a broken insecure Sony Pictures website page. The digital copy seems to have disappeared. [Update: It turns out that I can view this film via Sony’s site. But not via Flixster for some reason, even though other Sony movies and TV are available on Flixster.]

Some studios just never played ball in the UK, with UltraViolet or anything. Notably Disney has never included digital codes in its DVDs or BluRays in the UK. The same is true for other smaller studios. It has not become the norm to include a digital copy of a film with physical media.

Anyone would think that the studios loved the idea that users had films scattered across the four winds of film services, with those services sometimes closing down or changing, and purchasers losing access to their films.

Now, in the US, UltraViolet is shutting down. There, they have Movies Anywhere, which is supposed to take all this pain away. You connect up all those disparate accounts across a number of services, and everything is available anywhere. So if I prefer to watch films via Google’s app, I can watch everything including purchases from my iTunes library.

It’s not clear that UltraViolet will be shutting down in the UK, although it’s certainly not encouraging [Update: Ultraviolet absolutely is closing down in the UK on the 31 July 2019 as with the US version of the service. See further update below]. Users instead are left with disparate collections of films across different services, playable via different devices, and generally confusing and a mess.

I find it interesting that last week, various studios got together to promote “Mega Movie Week”, a week of promotional pricing for a number of recent films. Recent titles like Crazy Rich Asians were being sold for £2.99 for a digital download. The pricing seemed consistent across the various different platforms, and it seemed like most major studios were participating. So they can play nicely together if they want to.

They just don’t seem to be able to settle on something sensible like Movies Anywhere outside the US. This may come back to haunt them in the fullness of time if a service ever shuts down and users lose access to their film and TV collections.

[Later Update] Shortly after publishing this, I got an email from UltraViolet confirming that the UK service is indeed shutting down on 31 July 2019.

The website suggests that you verify through their Retailers Services page that your library is connected to one of their services. In reality, this is a choice between Flixster, Sony Pictures and a company called
Kaleidescape who I was not previously familiar. The Sony site seems to just have the Sony owned films, while Flixster, in the UK at least, has everything else, with the exception of that one film, Lost Horizons. Interestingly, the site claims to be copyright of Warner Bros.

There’s certainly no ability to move your library to somewhere like iTunes, Google or Amazon. And there’s no sign of Movies Anywhere launching, which might take a lot of the pain out of UltraViolet closing down.

UltraViolet says that until 31 July, you can carry on redeeming movies the usual way, but that after that date, “You can continue to make online purchases and redeem codes, but these may only be available through that retailer, and will not be added to your UltraViolet Library.”

In other words, your library will become even more disaggregated.

More worrying it also says, “Your UltraViolet Library will automatically close and, in the majority of cases, your movies and TV shows will remain accessible at previously-linked retailers.” [My emphasis]

That’s not entirely reassuring is it?

Photography Portfolio

Cuddy's Crags view of Hadrian's Wall at Dawn

For those who are interested, I’ve just rebuilt my photography portfolio, which incorporates a bit of video and screen printing too.

The link at the top now takes you to an exciting new page, adambowie.photography which has a much neater design asthetic. Yes, I’m using one of those new(ish) domains. And it should be full responsive too.

For those who are interested, I built this using the Adobe Porfolio tool which is part of Adobe’s Creative Cloud. The nice part is that I can decide which albums I want publishing within Lightroom, and then sync those across to the portfolio seamlessly.

I need to tidy up a few captions, but otherwise it seems good so far.

I do feel that this blog needs a bit of an overhaul too. But that’s for anther day…

Netflix Viewing Figures

Bird Box is Susanne Bier’s Netflix film the streaming service released just before Christmas. It stars Sandra Bullock as a mother who has to protect her children from an unseen entity. Furthermore, if she (or others) see it themselves, they are done for.

Think of it as a visual companion to A Quiet Place.

I enjoyed it well enough, when I watched it over the Christmas period.

Subsequently, Netflix announced that 45m accounts had accessed the film in its opening week.

When questioned a little more, they explained that this count was derived from those accounts who had viewed at least 70% of the title, although that viewing may have occurred over different devices.

That left lots of people doing lots of maths.

Since then, Netflix has published its Q4 2018 results, which show that by the end of the quarter it had 139m subscriptions globally.

These updated some of those previous numbers some more. Netflix was now saying that 80m member households had watched Bird Box during its first four weeks on the service – and that they were seeing high repeat viewing.

Its Spanish school murder drama, Elite had 20m member households watching at least 70% of one episode, while Bodyguard, Baby (from Italy) and Protector (from Turkey) each had 10m member households watching an episode in each of their four weeks. NB. In the UK, the final episode of Bodyguard got a 17.8m 28-day viewership across all platforms, dwarfing the global ex-UK number of 10m over a similar period.

[Update 31 January – The BBC has just revealed that the most streaming requests from iPlayer in 2018. All of the top ten individual programmes were either Bodyguard or Killing Eve. Episode one of Bodyguard alone achieved 10.8m requests. Across the series it achieved an average of 7.1m iPlayer requests. And that’s streaming alone. A useful comparison with Netflix’s 10m number for the UK alone.

Note that it’s unclear how much of a video is sent before a request is counted, so these numbers can’t be directly compared with Netflix’s numbers.]

Finally, Netflix referred to You and Sex Education both of which they project to be viewed by 40m member households in the first four weeks (estimated, because neither had actually been on the service for four weeks at the time of the press release’s publication).

[Sidenote: You is now globally perceived as a “Netflix Original” when in fact it aired on Lifetime in the US where it was singularly unsuccessful. The New York Times explored this phenomenon, and tried to draw comparisons with regular TV viewing figures. However, as they note in their article 40m member households watching at least 70% of one episode globally is not remotely comparable to 12.7m people watching an episode of Big Bang Theory on CBS in the US. TV viewing numbers are averaged across the duration of a show and are per-minute. The cumulative “reach” of a show will be higher. And the number of people who watched 70% of one episode of Big Bang Theory across an entire season will be much higher again – very likely to top the 40m Netflix quote for You. And that’s just TV viewers in the US. If anyone can point me to a published reach of a big US TV series across an entire season, then please let me know in the comments.

UPDATE – 30 January: Joe Adalion tweeted the following from a CBS press release.

In particular, The Big Bang Theory has reached 51.7m people so far this season in the US. For 60 Minutes, that figure is 80m.

The Netflix numbers are global, and refer to households, but this is a useful reminder to show how big network TV still is.]

But these are all big numbers; so what do they mean?

First of all, they are global figures and not local ones. So make your comparisons carefully. And for series, they really show the power of Netflix’s own marketing. While 10m households might have watched [most of] episode one, we don’t know how many watched subsequent episodes.

These numbers represent households and not people. So viewership will be higher than these numbers. How much higher is hard to say. People watching on their phones are likely to be solo viewers. But on a big screen TV at home? I don’t know.

It’s again important to note that both the first week 45m and four week 80m figures quoted by Netflix are global figures.

But Netflix is suggesting that a over half its subscribing homes watched Bird Box which undoubtedly makes it a massive hit.

As others have noted, Netflix keeps it’s above-the-line real estate on the Netflix homepage exclusively for itself. The very first thing you see when you boot up Netflix, is whatever they want to promote. And they promoted Bird Box hard.

But compare and contrast with the figure of 26m that US ratings group Nielsen claim watched the film in the first week. Nielsen’s methodology is very different. It’s sample-based, but the sample is big enough to provide relatively robust numbers for a big hit like Bird Box. However, Nielsen doesn’t measure mobile viewing – notably on phones, tablets and laptops. So it certainly under-counts Netflix viewership. And note too that it is a US-only figure.

What all of this shows is that if Netflix goes gangbusters for a film like this, perhaps “forcing” every subscriber who opens Netflix to see it advertised – probably with an auto-playing trailer – it can generate a hit. How would that compare with a film that everybody agrees was a massive box-office hit?

In North America, Avengers: Infinity War achieved the highest opening weekend box office of all time, with $258m. By week four it had grossed $605m in North America, It would go on to gross over $2bn globally.

Money earned at the box office isn’t the same admission numbers – for one thing, ticket prices tend to increase over time. But, if we use the Box Office Mojo average ticket price for 2018 of $9.14, we get 66.2m admissions to the movie.

Now, 66.2m admissions doesn’t mean 66.2m different people. Some will have seen the film more than once – even across its opening weekend. But that’s an estimate of the seats sold in North America across a four week period for the biggest franchise currently in cinemas.

We can probably add tens of millions of more “foreign” (i.e. non-North American) viewers to that figure. Note that international box-office data is harder to come by.

We’re left with the following:

  • Globally, 80m households – perhaps 100-130m people – watched Bird Box in its first four weeks.
  • In North America, there were approximately 66.2m admissions to Avengers: Infinity War in its first four weeks – perhaps representing 40-50m individuals (assuming fans went to see it multiple times).
  • In China alone, Avengers earned nearly $360m, and using very rough calculations, might represent another 36m ticket sales there too.
  • Globally, you can probably safely double the US admissions number, and perhaps triple it, giving us perhaps 100-150m viewers in total.

Does that mean that Bird Box and Avengers: Infinity War were actually as successful as one another?

Probably not.

Bird Box will have been cheaper to make, but Netflix subscribers will have paid a fraction of the cost to see it. Netflix remains loss-making after-all, whereas last time I checked, Disney was incredibly profitable.

But Netflix is capable of launching a film with an internationally known star onto the global marketplace, and to achieve a viewership that can compared with the biggest cinema hit in recent memory.

Close

Finding something new to watch on Netflix can be incredibly hit or miss. I’ve mentioned before that I think Netflix’s marketing leaves something to be desired. While the “above the fold” promotional spot on Netflix is highly important to them and clearly drives a lot of viewing to shows or films that get that position, it can be something of a crap shoot beyond that. Particularly once you move beyond the ‘obvious’ stuff that has more significant marketing and PR.

A case in point is Close a new British (ish) film that appeared on the service with basically zero fanfare a few days ago. I spotted it in the Trending section. There was a picture of Noomi Rapace, the actress best known for being in the original Lisbeth Salander in the The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo and its sequels.

At a shade over 90 minutes, it suited me for the time of the day. The trailer seemed to promise action, and another good actress, Indira Varma was in the cast too.

I settled in to watch.

Make no bones about it. Close is a poor film. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a truly awful film, but it reminds me of the kind of film that you occasionally got suckered into watching when they had gone straight to DVD.

The film opens with Rapace looking after two quivering journalists when they’re under attack somewhere in the desert by an ISIS-type group. She shoots the bad guys dead, steals one of their trucks, and gets the journalists to safety.

Meanwhile in Britain, a very rich daughter is sulkily attending her father’s funeral. Her stepmother is ready to take control of the family’s mining business. With that business itself in competition to take over a lucrative African mining operation. The business TV news is full of nothing but this riveting news.

However, when the will is read, it turns out that the daughter and not the stepmother will be getting all her father’s shares in the business. They don’t get on, and the stepmother heads to Morocco where their family business is based.

For reasons that I don’t really understand, an entirely separate ‘close’ (hence the film’s title) security detail is to look after the daughter, and they need a woman, since the last bloke ended up shagging her and having to leave in disgrace.

Step forward a reluctant Rapace. She has to accompany the daughter to the secure compound in Morocco where she will be safe. For completely unclear reasons, she’s travelling separately to her mother. But she gets a helicopter ride for the last leg of the journey, so that’s OK.

But what do you know? On the first night, there’s an attack on the premises and it’s only due to our heroic close protection officer that the daughter escapes with her life.

The rest of the film is broadly a series of chase scenes, interspersed with moodiness and fight scenes. And none of this is done very well.

The first sign that this film is going to be a bit rubbish is the expositional funeral oration. Whoever is leading the service seems to think that nobody in the church has the first idea of who’s died, so he explains it all to us. It’s lazy writing.

There are long pauses at times. Like someone in the editing booth was checking their Instagram feed rather than deciding which frames needed to be cut. Rapace’s character is clearly supposed to be monosyllabic, but it’s just boring and moodiness only gets you so far. She has her demons of course, but it’s just dull. Early on, when they’re being hunted by the police, she finds time to just stand on a rooftop having a fag and taking in the view.

The criminals are all cartoons, and they’re not very good at their job, even if that’s just supposed to be inflicting violence. At one point one of them has the upper hand in a fight, even though a knife is sticking out of his leg. Does he just put two bullets in the desperate close protection officer he has trapped on the floor? No. He spends more time standing over her needlessly until she knees him in the groin and turns the fight around.

The action sequences are badly directed too. Fight choreography isn’t simple, and telegraphing to the audience what’s going on isn’t easy. Early on, someone gets shot, and it takes a couple of unnecessary other camera angles until the shooter is revealed.

Moments of tension are missed. With the two women suspected of murdering a Moroccan policeman, finding somewhere to hide and staying hidden should be tenser than it ends up. Of course they get found in the end but there’s no build up despite the opportunity being there to ratchet things up.

Most laughable are the scenes involving Indira Varma’s business obsessed mother, and the takeover as reported on the fictional business TV channel. Hilariously, at one point there’s a shot of people in a Moroccan bar watching this English language channel, rather than say, sport or even local news. I know, I know. In reality you can’t move for North African bars that show CNBC all the time!

At another point, Varma’s character has given an interview, in the studio, with the channel. Amazingly, she has been happy to do this, with her rival bidder in the same studio at the same time. I mean, I’m sure that the channel would love to have the two rivals alongside each other arguing, but it’s unclear why any PR would let their CEO walk into such a trap. I don’t know where the channel is supposed to be based, but you can only assume that it must be somewhere in Morocco since travel times don’t really come into play, and all the characters are in Morocco.

You may also imagine that there might be regulatory issues about giving live interviews during a corporate takeovers. I mean, it could affect share prices for starters. Apparently not.

What’s even more entertaining is that it turns out that the interview was pre-recorded. So we watch Varma’s character sitting with her board watching the interview back when it’s played out. Except, she must know that it didn’t go well. Then she turns off the TV in disgust when she sees that it did in fact not go well… which she already knew.

At another point Rapace’s character and a villain have a fight and tumble into what looks like the hold of a fishing boat. We quickly discover that the hold is full of water. You might think that this would cause the boat to either sink or be in a sunken state at the harbour side. A flooded hold has no impact on this particular boat.

An underwater fight takes place. The water is crystal clear, which to be fair, isn’t a problem unique to this film, but there’s a shoal of quite large fish swimming around the massive hold. That turns out to be super useful since she effectively wins the underwater fight when her combatant gets totally confused and disorientated by all the fish that suddenly swarm around him. This disorientation goes on for quite a long time. None of it makes any sense.

In another scene towards the end of the film, Rapace’s character and the daughter have locked themselves in a safe-room and are trying to regain control of something. They have to guess a password. The daughter eventually works out that it’s her birthday – which it always is in such cases. A few moments later, the daughter has burst out to protect her stepmother (er, spoiler alert?!), despite having no combat training. She leaves her elite combat trained close protection officer in the room, and allows the door to be slammed behind her. Rapace’s character is locked in! She needs the password to release the door. That’d be the password that she saw the daughter type on the screen ten seconds earlier; the password that at this point even I, a disinterested viewer, can remember. But rather than recall the number we saw in massive letters on the screen a few seconds earlier (a somewhat obvious lapse in this security software), she has to wrack her brain to recall the birth-date from the file she has previously memorised.

The thing with this film is that it seems like there was some money behind it. While most of the film was shot in Morocco, it doesn’t look super-cheap. It’s just that the script, editing and direction are all off.

This isn’t the worst film I’ve ever seen, but it is 90 minutes I’ll never get back, although I confess that by the end, I was fast-forwarding a bit because frankly it was boring and didn’t deserve my time.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a good action film. I like a half-decent Liam Neeson film as much as the next person. Actors like Noomi Rapace and Indira Varma are good, but they can only work the material available. And in this instance it was poor.

The other day, Netflix got a Best Film nominations in the Oscars for Roma (Which I’ve not yet watched. Yes, I know I should have been watching that rather than wasting time on this rubbish!). And not every Netflix original film is going to be as good as every other one. But a few less direct-to-DVD titles, or clunkers that the studios offload on the platform (e.g. Cloverfield Paradox) might be a smart move for them.

Another Fine Mess by Tim Moore

Tim Moore seems to love setting himself unlikely challenges, often related to cycling. In French Revolutions he rode the route of the Tour de France a few weeks ahead of the race. In Gironomo! he did something similar, with the 1914 Giro d’Italia route, but used a bike from the era to do so.

Most recently in The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold, he followed a lesser known cycling route called The Iron Curtain Trail, down the frosty arctic north to the Black Sea. And he chose an East German shopping bike to attempt this task.

In Another Fine Mess he has left his bikes behind, and is instead embarking on a cross-country driving tour of the United States, in a vintage Model T Ford. The somewhat wandering route he is planning to take is planned to take in as many “red states” as he can exploring the people and places that voted for Donald Trump.

In reading this book, it’s not altogether clear that choosing a Model T to drive in has made life any easier than a bike would have done. On the plus side, it’s a conversation opener wherever he goes – especially when they hear a British accent as well. On the other hand, reliability in a near 100 year old car is not what you might get from a Toyota or VW in the early twenty-first century.

But this does mean that he gets to meet an awful lot of tinkerers and home mechanics, which lets us get a little under the skin of why someone like Trump might have ever been elected.

There are common themes: a hatred of government; a love of guns; a slower way of life that harks back to the foundation of modern America.

Alongside this, there’s an exploration of how America became the car country that it did. The mechanisation that Ford introduced starting with the Model T was extraordinary. The changes cars brought to the lives of a hitherto predominantly farming nation are also explored – not least the thousands of miles of road that were laid, including the life-changing introductions of inter-state highways that changed lives again.

The only thing missing really, is an exploration of where cars are going now. Detroit, as we know, is a shell of what it once was, and there is a large turning point in the auto industry ahead of us: self-driving and electric cars. Indeed, quite possibly the very model of private vehicular ownership is going to be challenged.

A really entertaining and insightful exploration of Trump’s heartland.

The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts

A twisty psychological thriller than will keep you on your toes until the last page. 

In 1997, ten-year-old Laurel and six-year-old Rosie are playing a game that somehow results in the death of a baby. The country is shocked, and Laurel is old enough to be criminally responsible. She ends up juvenile detention and later prison, while her sister and parents are given new names and relocated. 

Fast forward to the present day, and Rosie is now Hazel. She had a boyfriend with a teenage daughter, and they are spending New Year’s Eve in remote Devon hotel. A little girl has disappeared from the hotel, and her parents and the police are frantically searching for her. Meanwhile, Laurel is pursuing a judicial review that might finally allow her to be released from prison. 

When a writer staying at the hotel realises that Hazel is actually one of the infamous Flower Girls, as Laurel and Rosie were known, he starts a chain of events that will change lives. 

This is one of those twisty tales where you’re never entirely sure where you’re going. The narrative jumps around from Hazel to the suspicious Detective Hillier, and to including Laurel’s defence lawyer and the aunt of the original victim who has made it her life’s work to ensure that Laurel is never released to society. 

There obviously lots of real-life parallels with child killers that The Flower Girls doesn’t avoid. But this is most certainly a different tale, and working out precisely what happened in both 1997 and the present day keeps you guessing all the way through.

Thanks to Netgalley and Raven Books for my ARC. The Flower Girls is published on 24 January in hardback, and is already out on Kindle.

Bauer Launching Scala Radio with Simon Mayo

UK radio really is quite exciting at the moment!

Bauer has just announced the launch of Scala Radio, a new classical music station which will launch digitally on the 4th March 2019.

Simon Mayo is the big name signing. He’s been keeping everyone guessing about where he might be going since he left Radio 2 at the end of last year. Would he be joining Chris Evans at Virgin? Or taking over breakfast on Smooth?

Neither. Instead he’ll be on Scala Radio which is positioning itself as a ground-breaking classical entertainment radio station, offering classical music for modern life.

Mayo’s show will be weekdays between 10am and 1pm, and will feature interviews and features like “Classical Confessions.” (That 1pm finish should allow him plenty of time for him to get across Oxford Street from Golden Square to New Broadcasting House for his 2pm film show with Mark Kermode.)

Interestingly, Kermode is also going to have a show on the station exploring film music. Other presenters will include Angellica Bell, Goldie, Chris Rogers, Charles Nove, Mark Forrest, Sam Hughes and Jamie Crick. Both Forrest and Crick have previously been presenters on Classic FM. There’s no specific mention about who’ll be on breakfast.

Bauer says the station will be on national DAB and available via all the usual streaming methods. A couple of days ago, Bauer removed Heat from the SDL national multiplex, so it would seem likely that this is where Scala Radio will go. But unless they broadcast in DAB+, expect the service to be mono on DAB. [Update: Radio Today reports that Scala will be stereo on DAB. That means either stereo DAB+ with the current spare bandwidth, or they’ll get some more bandwidth from somewhere and get to 112kbit/s or 128kbit/s stereo]

It’ll be really interesting to see what kind of audience Bauer is targeting with this new station. I’ve often pointed out that although the incumbent classical music stations, Radio 3 and Classic FM would seem to target the same audiences, they don’t really.

Crossover between Classic FM and Radio 3 audiences, RAJAR Q3 2018.

As the chart above shows, Classic FM has the larger audience, but only a relatively small proportion of either station’s audience listens to the other station. And both Classic FM and Radio 3 have fairly stable audiences.

So the question is, where will Scala Radio fit?

Well the average age of a Classic FM listener is 56, while that of a Radio 3 listener is 59. So my guess would be targeting a slightly younger demographic, and possibly a little less ABC1.

Age demographics – RAJAR, Q3 2018
Sex and class demographics – RAJAR, Q3 2018

Depending on how broadly you define “classical” music, then there might be room for reaching a younger demographic. Bauer’s press release name-checks living composers like Karl Jenkins, Rebecca Dale, and Thom Yorke (of Radiohead), as well as long dead ones like Mozart and Holst.

I suspect that the popularity of Simon Mayo will give Scala Radio a good bit of help in getting the station off the ground and running early on. But as with Virgin Radio it will be interesting to see how much marketing Bauer puts behind this station. As the Wireless Group has done with News UK titles, Bauer has a wide range of sister magazines it can use to give market the station. Simon Mayo was getting an audience on over 6m on his Radio 2 drivetime show, and while that kind of audience would be beyond the wildest dreams of Bauer, it’ll be really interesting to see what it does do.

Radio really is quite exciting at the moment! The Deloitte report published last week, that was very positive about radio, doesn’t seem to be wrong.

PS. The name is interesting. La Scala is obviously the very famous opera house in Milan. But to me The Scala is a theatre near King’s Cross that used to show cult films, but now is mostly a music/club venue. Mark Kermode mentions it frequently on his and Mayo’s film programme.

[Update] See also blogs from Matt Deegan and Phil Riley on Scala Radio.

Breakfast Show Sponsorship

In his first breakfast show on Virgin Radio this morning, Chris Evans is reported to have said:

“This show will be commercial free for at least the next 100 years…”

That would suggest that, at least as far as Evans is concerned, that his new breakfast show is not going to be taking ads for quite some time. I’d previously hypothesised that Wireless Group’s strategy of not running advertising spots during the show would last until perhaps August or September this year once the Q2 RAJAR figures had come in. At that point, the show would [probably] be posting decent numbers and advertisers would want to be there. At launch, the only numbers that Virgin has to trade on are so small, that giving up advertising is probably worth it from a marketing perspective.

You will recall that Sky is the sponsor of his new show, and interestingly, Sky is credited in the advertising surrounding the show – something that is normal for TV sponsorship, but rarer with radio sponsorship. (I once suggesting adding a small sponsor’s logo to an upcoming breakfast show outdoor campaign to show willing to the sponsor, and was considered a lunatic for even countenancing it!)

Sponsorship and promotions – or branded content – is a major part of overall commercial radio revenues. It accounted for £110m in 2017. As a result, a number of the leading UK commercial breakfast shows have sponsors – often more than one, if you also consider weather, traffic and travel, and sports sponsorship opportunities.

For example, Absolute Radio’s breakfast show has, for many years, been sponsored by Wickes, while Magic’s breakfast show is sponsored by Bensons for Beds.

As the poster displayed above shows, Virgin Radio’s marketing is going big on the benefits of being ad break free. The question then, is how is this sustainable?

Getting accurate sponsorship revenues is notoriously tricky, and precise figures tend to be closely guarded secrets. For a big ticket breakfast show with a sizeable audience, a sponsorship deal is likely to surpass £1m a year, although how much it surpasses that figure is going to be down to a lot of other things, not least of which is the size of the audience. Radio advertising executives will create detailed promotional plans that give advertising buyers details of how frequently their messaging will be heard, not only during the show itself, but in other dayparts, calculating the overall audience size. Recall too, that this new incarnation of Virgin Radio has launched a couple of sister services – Virgin Radio Anthems and Virgin Radio Chilled – that will also carry the show. Beyond all that, there will have been discussions about how deeply the sponsorship is integrated into the show, and how the sponsor might be involved in other promotional activity.

Interestingly, during Chris Evans’ first show, alongside a multitude of guests that included Cold Feet star Fay Ripley and musician Richard Ashcroft, Evans also had comedians Rob Beckett and Romesh Ranganathan who star in a new Sky One six-parter. They also had a sports guest on the phone, one Gary Neville, a football pundit who is contracted to Sky Sports.

These are all quite legitimate guests for any show one way or another, but Sky integration seems likely to feature heavily.

How much is Sky paying for all of this?

Who knows. It’s rumoured that Wireless Group were out pitching sponsorship of the Evans show at a very high number indeed. A particularly healthy seven figure fee – and certainly substantially more than any other UK commercial sponsorship opportunities. Of course, any good salesperson starts pitching high, so who knows at what price it was actually sold for. But the fact that it was being pitched also suggests that although Sky was until relatively recently a sister company of News UK (owner of Wireless Group and Virgin Radio), Sky’s advertising agency probably still took a close look at what the Evans show is truly worth.

It’s also worth noting that for many years, Sky has been a strong supporter of commercial radio, and sponsorship has been a key part of that support. It sponsored Absolute Radio’s breakfast for many years, and has also been a major sponsor on Talksport.

Sky is the third biggest sponsor in UK commercial radio spending an estimated £16.8m in the year to November 2018 according to Nielsen figures published by Radiocentre. That places it as the third biggest spender in UK radio, very slightly behind McDonald’s and BT. (Notably, those figures also show that it had decreased its spend substantially in the past year. But also note that estimating sponsorship spend is particularly tricky for companies like Nielsen.)

Is the show sustainable with Sky’s sponsorship alone, assuming Evans is getting at least as much as the BBC paid him for Radio 2, in addition to the costs incurred in poaching the rest his team from the BBC?

If Sky paid even close to that big rumoured fee that Virgin Radio was asking for, then possibly. But Virgin will still need to run adverts across the rest of the station, which may come as a rude awakening for listeners who carry on beyond 10.00am when Eddy Temple-Morris takes over. Indeed it’s notable that Virgin hasn’t [yet] announced any additional big-name talent signings.

The much anticipated marketing campaign has begun. There’s a TV ad, which is clever (even if it does bear a certain similarity to a classic 80s comedy film) and London is home to a number of outdoor posters for the show. However, it’s not yet clear how large those campaigns are, and that may take weeks or months to become clear.

Probably the biggest marketing initiative thus far has been today’s wraparound of The Sun.

As for the show itself?

I heard about 40 minutes of it on my work to work this morning. But it’s day one, and Chris Evans is a professional broadcaster who knows what he’s doing. It’s not remotely worth reviewing the first day of a breakfast show, because everyone is finding their feet and as Nik Goodman pointed out a couple of weeks ago on Trevor Dann’s Radio Today Roundtable Podcast, many of those new features will be quietly dropped in a few weeks once they’ve not worked, while other things will organically start up as the show finds its feet again. (That said, Radio Today reports that Evans has directly brought across a number of features from his Radio 2 show.)

Of course that review logic didn’t stop everyone doing just that with both Lauren Laverne’s and Zoe Ball’s first shows, and it won’t stop those reviews of Evans tomorrow.

[Update] See also a great blog from Phil Riley on the economics of running Virgin Radio – and indeed, commercial radio in general.

Sports TV: UK v US

Yesterday evening, UK time, the NFL championship games took place, deciding which teams will contest the Super Bowl. I have an on/off relationship with the NFL – but will flip over to catch a bit every now and then. So last night, when I wasn’t watching Les Miserables on BBC1, I caught a bit of these games including an entertaining overtime in the Rams v Saints game.

I also caught the start of the second game – the Patriots v the Chiefs. The first score was a touchdown for the Patriots. The pictures we got from the host broadcaster, CBS, showed the player celebrating their touchdown, cutting first from the wide shot to a handheld camera that gave us a close-up of the player. And then, the next shot, before we’d seen any replays, or any crowd reaction shots, was of the Patriot’s owner in his glassed off luxury suite applauding the score.

The owner’s reaction to the touchdown is implicitly more important than anyone else’s.

OK, it was a road game (i.e. away fixture), and there were probably very few Patriots fans in the stadium. But there will have been some. And they will have looked less like a company’s board all shaking hands after a particularly good takeover had been achieved.

Compare and contrast with the Premier League. When a goal goes in, we likewise tend to cut from a wide shot of the goal, to a close-up of the player celebrating and being congratulated by teammates. Then we get replays of the goal from a few angles, perhaps a crowd reaction shot, and probably a manager reaction shot.

What nobody is interested in is what the owners’ response is. We almost certainly won’t see them at all. There might be a cutaway at some point in the live game, with the commentator explaining who the person is. But most coverage will ignore them altogether unless there’s great fan unrest towards the owners.

The only UK sport I can think of where owners might get some acknowledgement is horse racing. If your horse wins the Gold Cup or the Grand National, the horse and jockey get most of the attention, then it’s the trainer, and then finally the owner.

I shouldn’t be surprised by the American angle on sports. These aren’t teams (implying a group of athletes), they’re franchises (like a branch of Subway or McDonalds – a business opportunity).

A business imperative is built into the very fabric of US sport.

British Cyclo-Cross National Championships 2019

Last weekend, I headed down to the Cyclopark in Gravesend to see the British National Cyclo-cross Championships. These are held annually and the winner gets to wear their national flag on their jersey for a year (unless they go on to win the World Championships of course). The event was taking place at the Cyclopark, somewhere I’d never been to before. Essentially it’s a strip of land with lots of cycling facilities on it, including a BMX track and a long road loop. Allied to all of this are changing facilities and a café.

For the Nationals, the course was designed in such a way that there were a few places where you could see a good chunk of the action. I spent my time wandering between several of these points. When you factor in the 30 minute walk from the station, my smartwatch tells me I walked about 18km on Sunday.

I arrived just in time to see Harriet Harden defend her title in the womens’ junior race, while Ben Tulett (in the World Champions’ jersey) easily won the men’s race.

The U23 and Elite races were run together, with Nikki Brammier winning overall. She was having a tough contest with Anna Kay (who is an U23 rider), until Kay’s bike suffered a mechanical and she had to run/freewheel to the pits to get a replacement. That left Brammier with an imposing lead. Meanwhile, Helen Wyman caught up with Kay and they fought it out until the end when Kay just got away from Wyman to pick up second.

In the men’s race, it was complete and utter domination from Tom Pidcock. He got away very early on, and extended his lead lap after lap. Unfortunately for other riders the “80% rule” was in place. This meant that if you weren’t getting lap-times within 80% of the leading lap-time, you get eliminated. In other words, anyone in danger of being lapped is pulled from the race. It’s in operation to avoid much slower riders being lapped – perhaps repeatedly. Over-taking isn’t easy in cyclo-cross, and with a title on the line, being slowed up by lapped riders is seen as unfair.

But the result of employing the 80% rules was that with over 100 starters, only 11 riders actually finished on the same lap as Pidcock by the end who was over a minute clear at the end and managed to do a “superman” as he crossed the line.

Anyway, I took lots of photos there – the main reason for going. A few are below, and the rest can be seen over on Flickr.