Setting Radio Alarms with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant

Across the rooftops at dawn

First a note of caution. This piece was published in November 2018, and it’s entirely possible – indeed probable – that things will have changed if you’re reading this at any point after that date. It’s also worth noting that I’m in the UK, and these solutions may not work in your region. Also, I’m doing this with the Android Apps for Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. iOS apps may vary – but hopefully not very much.

It’s not entirely clear when the first radio alarm clock was created, but the Bulova M-781 from 1932 seems the most likely.  It was a grandfather clock with a radio built in that did indeed switch on according to a timer.

What is more certain is that over time, the radio alarm clock became a significant category in the radio world. Most manufacturers of radios built at least one, and probably more, radio models. Most still do. Having a radio turn on and wake you up in the morning is a basic use case for radio. Recall that the biggest radio audiences are to be found in the morning.

Fast forward to 2018 and what do you do to wake up to the radio in the morning?

Well, you could still go out and buy a radio alarm clock. While there are still a disappointingly large number of basic FM models that don’t look like they’ve had a refresh in thirty years, you can at least buy DAB models on most of Europe.

Many people use their mobile phones. But you’ve been busy buying smart speakers to kit out your home. Can you use these to wake up to the radio? In general, they sound better than your mobile’s speaker.

Well, yes you can. But it certainly isn’t easy. Indeed, when I asked a few owners smart speakers if they did it, I was usually informed that it wasn’t possible.

Before I started, I did a fair bit of Googling to see how easy it was. The methods I describe below have only become available relatively recently. So prior to that, the preferred solution was an hilarious hack. It involved recording yourself on your mobile phone saying something like “Alexa, Play Radio 1.” Then use this recording as an alarm sound on your phone. So at 7am or whenever, your phone pipes up: “Alexa, Play Radio 1” and then the nearby Alexa in your bedroom starts blasting you with Greg James. 

Of course if you happen to charge your phone away from your bedroom Alexa, then you could be in trouble. And let’s hope that you didn’t leave your phone in a jacket pocket or a bag the night before, or you forgot to put it on charge so that it went flat and as a result your alarm failed to go off. 

We’ll assume that your use case is that you’d like the radio to switch on perhaps 5, 6 or 7 days a week, with the station of your choice, at the volume of your choice. And perhaps you’d like to have different alarms set for the weekend. 

I don’t think that’s anything too complex. Before we continue, I should note that all the major radio apps have this basic functionality built in by default. BBC iPlayer Radio, Radioplayer and Tune-In all have this functionality – they all also have sleep timers too (BBC Sounds, for some reason, has not yet added this functionality).

But you want to do this by voice. Let’s see how easy it is with the Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. Note that I’m using Android apps throughout.


Google Assistant

To make this work, you need to use Routines from within the Google Home app. It might be possible to set this up purely by voice (as you can with Amazon Alexa), but if it is, I’ve not worked out how to do it.

I’ve got to be honest: while it has improved in recent iterations, I find the Google Home app particularly messy. I think it needs a top to bottom redesign since too many important things are buried away in sub-menus. I suspect that most users don’t use the app all that regularly, mostly using it when they set up new devices on their home network. So even if you work out how to do something, when you use the app again some weeks or months later, you won’t remember exactly how to repeat processes you previously worked out.

To set a routine, you should be on the same WiFi network as your Google devices. In other words, you’ll need to be at home to do this.

Within the App you go to your Account, and then Settings. From here you choose Assistant, and then scroll down to Routines

By default, Google has set up a number of example routines – Good Morning, Bedtime, Leaving Home, I’m Home etc. But all of these are voice activated. In other words, it would rely on you saying “Hey Google, Good Morning” to activate the Good Morning routine. 

You need to create a Custom Routine – and it’s entirely possible that in some regions, this isn’t yet possible. Google’s own help page claims that Custom Routines are US only at the moment – but it worked for me in the UK.

Click the + in the bottom right corner to set up a New Routine.

This is the key screen for setting up your routine, and the first box is perhaps the most confusing. Google wants you to have a spoken command for your routine – and that’s not optional. 

Now obviously, if you’re using this routine to wake-up, you’re unlikely to be in a position to say anything to kick-start the whole thing. The good news is that although you have to provide some words, they’re not the only way to fire off the alarm.

So click on Add commands and fill in the box with some text which you’re unlikely ever to need to say.

Press the left arrow to go back and next go into Set a time and day. This is pretty easy to complete, choosing a time and then selecting which days you want it to apply. You also need to select a speaker. And if you’ve grouped several speakers together into a Group you can start this routine on multiple speakers. In the example below, I’m using the speaker I’ve named Bedroom Mini. You can choose whether or not you want your phone to be notified as well.

Use the left arrow again to get back to main screen and you’ll have something like this.

Now press Add action.

Here you’re presented with a text box and a couple of suggestions from Google about setting a volume or giving you the weather. Again, you’ll be able to add multiple actions, so if you do want the weather before the radio kicks in, then here’s the place to do it.

Rather than use written words to set the volume, we’re going to go into Choose Popular Actions. Scroll down to the Your Devices section and select Adjust media volume.

Then press the cogwheel to set a volume level.

Use the top left arrow to navigate out of that menu back to the main screen, being sure not to press it again. That’s because you need to press ADD in the top right hand corner.

You should now have a routine that looks something like this:

Go to Add media and select Radio in the options.

Click on the cogwheel and you again get a blank box asking you type a radio station. Google gives you two BBC examples, but we’ll choose another station.

Again, if you’re uncertain what to type, try a voice command with your Google device first to ensure that you get the right station, and the right version of the right playing. You’ll want to make sure you get the right Capital or Heart!

Use the left arrow to get back to the main routine screen.

At this point you could add additional actions like switching on light bulbs or other smart home connected devices. We won’t bother here.

Then be sure to press the tick-mark and not the left arrow again to save your changes.

Your routines screen should now look like this.

And that should be it. Your radio alarm should be set. 

However, there is a lot I’d like to see improved in the Google Home app to make this easier. Not least the completely non-intuitive way to navigate it. Starting with my profile, then settings and then another sub-menu to even find routines is madness.

My biggest issue, remarkably, is timing! In my tests, the radio didn’t quite come on when I expected it to do. It would be perhaps one to two minutes late. This seems quite extraordinary, and I’ve no idea why, unless there’s some processing time on a Google server somewhere between me updating my routine and Google being in a position to serve it on my Google device.

As a result of this, I would suggest setting your timer early particularly if you value every minute of sleep you get.

I would also note that in at least one instance, my device failed to play the radio at all. An initial beep sounded indicating that the routine was starting, but then nothing happened.

Then there is an issue of zombie routines. In my tests, I twice created a test routine, then having finished with it, I deleted it. But later it returned unwanted and I had to delete it a second time – this time seemingly permanently. 

The next issue is the confusion about requiring some command words for a timer. It’s fine to have the option to use these, but for some routines, you just want them to work at the times of your choosing regardless.

Another key issue is that I can find no way to set the duration of the radio once it has turned on. Many radio alarm clocks will time out after a period of time, and as we’ll see, Amazon lets you do this. It could be particularly annoying if you fail to turn off an alarm when you go away for a few days. 

Finally, there’s no volume fading – the radio just starts instantly at your set volume. Google is not alone with this, but it would be nice to fade in the audio gradually.

Overall, it’s not a great experience using the alarm, with them not starting on time and even failures to start at all. I’d be nervous using it alone. Furthermore, the app is not intuitive, and even finding the right place to set them up is not simple. 


Amazon Alexa

In general terms, I think the Alexa app is somewhat ahead of Google’s right now. It’s slightly more intuitive. and overall I had less difficulty setting it up. Again, this is probably easier to do when you’re on the same WiFi network as your Amazon devices.

You can actually set an alarm by voice with Amazon Alexa! Thanks to Daniel for pointing that out. You won’t have quite the control that going through the app gives you, but this is by far the easiest way to do it.

If you say something like: “Alexa, wake me up every weekday at 8.00am with Radio 4” it should confirm the time and indeed set an alarm.

You can confirm this by going into the Alexa app and looking in the Reminders & Alarms section and selecting ALARMS.

You can go into the alarm and make adjustments to days of the week or the time.

Note that you can’t set up an alarm on the app this way if you want to listen to the radio! You have to first set it up via voice.

Also note that you have no control over the volume, which will be the previous volume set, or add in additional functions like switching on lights or reading the weather to you. Finally, the alarm will come through the device you set it on.

If you want more granularity, then you need to go into a different part of the app. You want to ignore Reminders & Alarms. Instead we now want Routines. 

Hit the + icon to create a new routine.

Then choose the + icon next to When this happens

Select Schedule from the list of options.

And on the Set Time page choose Select next to At Time.

That opens a screen that is mostly blank with a tiny time in the middle of it, defaulting to the current time. Press it and (in the Android app) you get the familiar Android clock allowing you to set the time e.g. 07:00.

Click Done in the top right hand corner of the screen when you’re happy and then choose Select next to Repeat. The default is Every Day but you can change it to specific days, weekdays or weekends. Of course you can set multiple routines for weekdays and weekends. We’ll stick with the default for now.

Select Done and you should have a screen that looks a little like this.

Now you need to Add Action. Press the + next to it. And you get a choice of things you can do.

It’s worth noting at this point that you could add multiple actions here. Alexa could say, “Good morning!”, then play you your news via whatever choices you have set in your Flash Briefing. 

But in this case we’ll just turn on the radio.

So you need to choose Music. Yes, even if you want to listen to Radio 4 when you wake up.

In Song, Artist or Playlist you need to spell out your preferred radio station. And an important note here is that it needs to be available on TuneIn. If it’s not, then this won’t work. If you’re not sure, try using your Alexa to see if it selects the right station.

Then in the Provider section under the word From, choose TuneIn.

Finally, you can set the duration of the timer. The default is 30 minutes. Press Set Time and choose a duration.

When you’re done, you should have something like this:

Click Next and you now have the opportunity to add further actions.

The one other thing we’re going to do is set the volume of our Alexa. Click the + next to Add Action and select Alexa Devices.

Select Volume and you get a slider to choose your volume.

Choose a number you’re happy with, then click Next and Add. You’ll notice that the volume is set ahead of playing the radio. If not then you can move them around using the = buttons.

Finally you need to choose the Echo device that the radio comes from. If you have multiple Echo devices, choose one in the From list. I don’t believe it’s possible to have routines play on multiple devices at time of writing.

Press Create and you should be done. A message will say that your routine has been saved and it will appear as an Enabled routine.

If you need to delete or disable a routine, select it and then use either the disable button to turn it off, or the menu dots in the top right to delete it altogether.

Note that you can also test the routine by going into the routine, pressing the menu button and choosing Play Routine. That should ensure that that TuneIn really does manage to pick the right station for you. This will also let you fine tune your preferred alarm volume.

In general terms, this solution works well, but I don’t think it’s completely intuitive. You might have worked out that you can wake up to a track, or a Spotify playlist (although for me that makes me think of Groundhog Day) but not realised that you could choose a radio station. 

The only key thing I’d like to be able to do is fade up the volume. It starts quite abruptly and a little bit of a fade might be better – although few radio alarm clocks do that.

If you have other smart home devices, such as light bulbs, you could switch those on too by adding a further action to your wake-up routine and choosing Smart Home. Again, it’s not perfect though. I have some Hue bulbs and the Hue app lets me brighten them slowly over time. The Alexa app just allows me to turn them on – albeit I can choose the brightness. A gradual increase in brightening might be nice. The Google Assistant is similarly limited in this regard. 

Other Options

The other thing you could try is IFTTT – the service that allows you to connect devices and apps together using the various APIs the companies make available. 

The only trouble with this is that it can be non-trivial to build these connections, and in any case, I’ve not found a way to do it. 

Summary

I’m really not sure why such a simple use case is so hard to achieve. I really shouldn’t have had to write a tutorial to explain how to do it.

When smart speakers first emerged, they quickly became the best internet radios you could buy – assuming your voice was understandable by the devices, and your choice of radio station was available to stream. Adding alarm functionality to these radios should be trivial.

As I note at the top, all of the above is true at time or writing in November 2018. Undoubtedly both Google and Amazon’s apps and devices will improve over time, and I trust that it will become easier to set a task like this.

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly

Possibly my favourite show on Amazon Prime Video is Bosch, based on the Michael Connelly series of novels. The fifth season isn’t due until next year, but the good news is that Amazon has already renewed it for a sixth season!

Harry Bosch has now appeared in something like 21 novels now, and Dark Sacred Night is the latest novel to feature the Los Angeles based detective. Having been forcibly retired from the LAPD a few books ago (he’s still within the force in the TV version which tends to use older titles for each season), Bosch has been working on a part time basis for the San Fernando PD exploring cold cases. Meanwhile LAPD Detective Renée Ballard, who was introduced in her own first novel last year, The Late Show, crosses paths with Bosch as he’s following a case that’s a bit more personal to him.

Bosch and Ballard then join forces to try to work out what happened to a young girl who’s body was found some years ago, but who’s murder was never prosecuted. Bosch feels that he owes it to her mother, who he’s been trying to help overcome her own addictions, to find out.

Connelly’s novels are always contemporary and fairly free and easy to read. Here we alternate perspectives from Bosch and Ballard as they both go about their day to day business – particularly in Ballard’s case – and together work the bigger case. Bosch, as ever, is causing trouble.

I always enjoy these novels because they feel like they present something of the real LA, and less the version we have so commonly gotten in TV and film. It feels more like a real character. The same is true of the Amazon series incidentally.

Being part of a long running continuing series, we get small developments in some of the characters’ long running relationships – notably between Bosch and his daughter Maddie, who these days is in college. The only problem I ever have with Connelly’s books is that I read them far too fast, and then have to wait another year for the next one – although last year we got two novels.

At least there’ll be another Amazon series in the meantime.

Greatest Hits Radio

Interesting news from Bauer Media this morning. They’re launching Greatest Hits Radio nationally from January 7th, to sit alongside Hits Radio. Together they will form the Hits Radio Network.

It sounds like this new mostly networked service is being positioned as a slightly older version of Absolute Radio Network. It will target 40-59 “Reclaimers,” playing “the biggest songs of the 70s, 80s and 90s” from artists like Queen, Blondie, INXS and Michael Jackson.

The station is going onto national DAB, but interestingly is also going to replace Absolute Radio on the West Midlands 105.2FM frequency, as well as 105.9 FM in Liverpool (where Radio City 2 was already effectively this format).

This will also be the default AM service across Bauer’s city brands, but with separate English and Scottish breakfast shows.

This looks to be part of a larger dual-pronged approach to radio brands under Bauer. There are the big national brands like Absolute, Magic and Kiss, and now Hits. But importantly, they can sell national, regional and local advertising as Global can do with its brands.

But Bauer looks to be retaining local FM stations across primarily northern England and Scotland. And while I suspect that Global will jump fairly early “nationalising” its stations to a large extent, it’s not certain that Bauer will do this in peak. 

Trends in Podcasting: Cults and Cult Leaders

This is a sort-of follow up to yesterday’s piece on daily news podcasts. It may become an occasional series.

In March this year, Netflix launched a documentary series called Wild Wild Country. It’s a six part series exploring an Indian guru and his followers in a county in deepest Oregon.

There’s no obvious way to see how successful the series was, but like Making A Murderer before it, it definitely caught the cultural zeitgeist. A popular documentary series exploring one story in great detail.

Now I’m sure it’s coincidence, but there have since been something of a string of podcasts based around cult leaders that have since come along. Of course, the cult subject matter is fascinating to any kind of documentary maker. Why would people follow a cult leader and their sometimes devastating belief systems?

Fairly soon after Wild Wild Country launched, ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast series launched a 5 part series on Bikram Choudhrey – he of Bikram yoga fame. Not quite the same thing as Wild Wild Country, but there are definitely similarities. Both were gurus originating in India. The series launched in May, and its production pre-dated Wild, Wild Country. Indeed in an episode on the making of the series they talked about the issues surrounding two similarly themed programmes coming out at the same time. It was simply a coincidence.

Last week, as the BBC launched its new Sounds app, they also launched a new podcast from the Five Live team that had previously made Beyond Reasonable Doubt. That previous podcast was about the murder of Kathleen Peterson, and told the story of Michael Peterson who was charged with her murder. This is the same story that had been told in a TV documentary series, The Staircase, a series recently continued by Netflix.

The same radio team has now made End of Days, an eight episode series about David Koresh, the cult leader in Waco, Texas and the tragic siege in 1993. Specifically, it looks at the 30 Britons who were part of his group.

The podcast is initially a BBC Sounds exclusive – so strictly speaking, it’s not actually a podcast just yet. The BBC says that it will be made available on all other podcasting platforms at the end of the month, after a period of exclusivity on BBC Sounds. All eight episodes are available to listen to now for UK audiences.

I suspect that, again, this podcast has been long in the making, and it’s just coincidence that it followed so swiftly on the heals of Wild Wild Country.

But then, another new podcast has just launched from Slate. Standoff is a podcast about the Ruby Ridge siege in 1992. This wasn’t of the same scale as the Waco siege a year later, but it’s no doubt an interesting story. Slate is releasing this podcast on a weekly schedule.

As I say, it’s quite probably an accident that we’ve had a slew of podcasts on religious cult leaders all coming within a few months of one another. Given the popularity of true crime, it’s likely that podcast producers have been scouring the true crime bookshelves in search of interesting subjects, and there have been plenty of books and TV movies on all of these subjects.

It’s also notable that many of these stories happened in the early nineties or earlier, and therefore aren’t quite as well known but a millennial, podcast-consuming generation.

When Beyond Reasonable Doubt was first released, I mentioned to a colleague that it didn’t appeal to me since I’d already seen the extensive TV documentary series on BBC Four. I wondered why the same story had been chosen for the podcast. My colleague pointed out that for many of the audience for this podcast, this was a new story for them, and they probably weren’t BBC Four viewers. And it remains true that while some of these series are exploring things older listeners may already know about, for many more, these are new stories.

Trends in Podcasting: News Podcasts

In January last year, The New York Times launched a new podcast called The Daily. Spinning off to an extent from what the paper had been doing during the 2016 Presidential election, The Daily quickly developed a following. With a strong voice – both authorial and audible – in Michael Barbaro, it grew quickly. For a certain demographic, it became a must listen.

The Daily is excellent at digging into stories that The New York Times has covered in that day’s paper. A usual episode will deal with one or perhaps two stories, speaking with the Times’ journalists involved, and using clips and other archive material to give the story colour. The production quality is excellent. It’ll end with a summary of other things you need to know. The podcast is released early in the morning US time, so it’s available to listen on listeners’ commutes.

The Daily is by no means the first attempt at a daily news podcast. Lots of broadcasters have been doing lots of news things for an awfully long time. Many of them were spin-offs of radio programmes, but there were also standalone podcasts including ones from major newspapers like The Guardian. And there are certainly popular news podcasts. The Global News Podcast from the BBC World Service is the BBC’s single biggest podcast in terms of downloads, by a significant margin.

But somehow The Daily took off when others haven’t (or at least hadn’t).

Since its launch, The Daily has also become a syndicated public radio series, with episodes airing on a number of public radio stations after 4pm the same day, allowing it to remain a podcast-first property. Meanwhile the FX channel has ordered 30 episodes of TV version called The Weekly, with episodes going onto Hulu the day after broadcast. The series is due to start later this year. All in all, The Daily has become a very multimedia property for The New York Times.

To nobody’s great surprise, lots of other people want to get into the mix.

Recently The Guardian announced that it was launching a new daily news podcast presented by Anushka Asthana. Today in Focus has just launched. As with The Daily, Today in Focus concentrates on a single big story, although it is also carrying a second supplemental story too. In the first week Today in Focus has concentrated on Brazil’s new far right president, and the upcoming mid-term elections. The podcast is available early each morning, in time to be listened to for the morning commute.

The Guardian’s podcast managed to launch the same week that the BBC launched it’s new daily news podcast – Beyond Today. This launched at the same time as BBC Sounds, the big new audio app was formally launched by the BBC (it has been available in a public beta for a few months now). 

Beyond Today also follows the well-trodden path of concentrating on a single story. And as with Today in Focus, the podcasts tend to be around 20 minutes in length (The Daily tends to run twenty-something minutes a day). 

In the first week Beyond Today had episodes about Britain’s finances, ahead (or in fact just after) the budget, a very sad story about an Iraqi Instagrammer, middle class drug use (Although I think that episode missed a trick concentrating largely on a dealer and a real addict. It should have looked more closely at general users.), WhatsApp and a piece about who makes the news with Amol Rajan. Incidentally, although Rajan sometimes feels a little over-exposed appearing everywhere from The One Show on BBC1 to The Media Show on Radio 4, this episode is worth a listen, since it examines a real class issue in the media which often gets overlooked in issues of representation and diversity.

The one thing I’m slightly curious about is the name. When I first heard the name, I thought that it was a Today programme spin-off. But it’s not really, in that it has its own presenters – Tina Daheley and Matthew Price – and that it doesn’t sound at all like it’d appear on the Today programme. That said, I believe excerpts have indeed aired on Today this week. But I’d actually say that in tone, it’s closer to Five Live rather than Radio 4.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Slate has been running What Next, a

Interestingly, both What Next and Slate’s other daily podcast, The Gist, get published later in the day rather than earlier.

Earlier this year, Vox launched its own competitor,Today, Explained which it very much pitches as a more fun version of The Daily. You won’t be surprised to learn that it runs around 20 minutes. So you can maybe listen to three of these daily news podcasts if your commute lasts an hour!

Today, Explained is definitely more casual than some of the others, although the stories are always interesting. In the last week it has run episodes on white hat hackers (i.e. hacking for good, often identifying vulnerabilities and reporting them before bad guys can use this), universal basic income and fracking in Colorado amongst others.

Elsewhere, HotPod alerts us to The Washington Post hiring producers for its own upcoming daily podcast. It already has a daily political podcast – The Daily 202’s Big Idea which has been running for a while now. 

These are by no means the only news podcasts of course. There are plenty of news podcasts out there. But many of these are more like traditional news programmes. 

The BBC, for example, makes available in podcast form several of its flagship news programmes including the World At One and The Six O’Clock News from Radio 4, and Newshour from the World Service. All of these are the same as the broadcast versions.

The BBC’s flagship news programme domestically, is the Today programme. But that has a rather odd podcast presence. The radio programme runs for three hours Monday to Friday, so is too big to simply put out as a podcast – at least, not if you want people to listen.

Instead, Today publishes 3-4 separate podcasts a day. The first is inevitably the business news of the day, while the remaining 2-3 are based on segments of the programme, or gather together different segments on the same news story. The issue here is that the offering feels very piecemeal, and there’s little urgency in publishing the podcasts. Given the importance of the 8.10am interview – usually with a leading politician – the podcast may not appear until late morning, if at all. (Also, I’d love the podcast to lose the phrase, “You can listen to more free content from Today…” for obvious reasons.)

Of course the success of The Daily is in part due to it being available in time for listeners’ commute, so simply re-purposing morning news radio programmes leaves podcast rebroadcasts of radio news programmes at a slight disadvantage. But then, you probably shouldn’t be using podcasts to get “breaking news.”

As long as producers realise that they’re not trying to compete with 24 hour news channels that are rushing to break news, then podcasting publishing timescales can work well.

Publications like The Financial Times and The Economist do publish regular news programmes, but they have more weekly than daily output. Perhaps the closest equivalent I know of in UK radio is the BBC World Service’s Business Daily which is a Monday to Friday radio show that is nicely re-edited into a daily podcast. It’s business in its very broadest, and like The Daily has a deep dive into a different subject each day.

Could LBC do something interesting with Eddie Mair? A sharply edited 15-20 minute version of his 2 hour radio show? For some reason, there doesn’t yet appear to be an Eddie Mair podcast at all. LBC has had good success with viral videos, but I’m not sure that’s true in the podcast world. Interestingly, LBC is now winding down its paid-for download operation in advance of a new app that will let people listen-again, no doubt with targeted audio ads.

There is certainly room for a UK-focused daily podcast, and I’m sure other outlets aside from The Guardian and the BBC are working on them. I shall be listening.

[Update: Brett blogs about news podcasts and highlights a CBC called Front Burner.]

Note that these are my personal views, and do not reflect those of my employer.

Things I Hate on News Sites

I’m something of a news junkie, and I spend a lot of time reading stories on a reasonably wide range of news sites. I pay for a number of those sites, but appreciate that advertising revenues alone aren’t enough to support any sites – with the possible exception of the very largest.

But there are a number of “features” that we find on many news sites that I find incredibly annoying. This is by no means a complete list!

Video only stories

Depending on what day of the week it is, video is either in or out of vogue. When Facebook was paying everyone to do Facebook Live videos, many sites instantly set up video units to supply these. Then Facebook fell out of love with video and they stopped paying, so everyone stopped making all those videos. Then Snapchat came along, and video was back in the ascendancy. Then it wasn’t. Now we have Facebook Watch and something that nobody is watching called IGTV.

Anyway, I especially hate it when a “story” is published that consists only of a video. The thing is, I can read a lot faster than I can watch a video. I would say that 9 times out of 10, I bail out at this point. No matter how interested I am in the story – I don’t watch the video.

Of course those same videos have subtitles which some have dubbed the return of silent cinema, since producers know we don’t always have access to headphones at time of watching.

But just write the story below the video and give me the choice of either medium!

Music on Videos

Sometimes there are news videos that either don’t have sound at all (perhaps dash-cam footage), or are packaged up to include music. For rights reasons, commercial music (i.e. music you might recognise) can’t be used. So we get library music – that is, music that can be paid for once with no further rights issues arising. That’s useful in the digital realm.

There’s perfectly good library music of course – but it takes time to dig out. More often than not, we get generic “muzak” and it’s just awful. Worse are the videos where the person who made them isn’t aware of sound levels and mixes the music too loudly.

Music can be a very powerful part of a video, but used badly  it draws attention to itself and is just awful.

Unnecessary pictures

There’s a certain daily newspaper site that’s worst at this. Any article they publish includes large numbers of mostly irrelevant photos. Here’s an article about someone. Here are ten photos of that person when a maximum of one was required.

And because that site has been successful, others have mirrored it.

Creating Pages Where There’s No Story

This is common in the breaking news environment. You see a Tweet that might say something like “Politician John Smith has resigned – [URL]”

You click through to the URL to discover that there’s no more story than the Tweet contained. Now I realise that in due course, the newsroom will build out that story and add more detail and context. And I also realise that just because I’m clicking the link at time of initial publication, others may be clicking later. But if you have no further information, why not send a second Tweet when you can offer more details? I’ll be more inclined to click through that way.

The danger otherwise is that I’ll assume all your breaking news links are empty and won’t click. Yet sometimes, the story has been written ahead of time, and the release of it has been carefully timed. E.g. a big investigative piece. If my learned behaviour is not to click the link on breaking news, then you’re not getting me to read a story when you have actually published it in detail!

Creating Pages for Stories That Aren’t Stories At All

I’ve written about this before, but there are two key examples of these stories which can be summarised as:

“What time is the World Cup Final?” and

“Who is Oskar Schlemmer?”

What both of these are doing is relying on the fact that Google prioritises news sites in their search results. So if a “respectable” news publisher has written a piece on “What time the World Cup Final starts” then it’ll get in that news carousel at the top. News sites all know that people will be Googling basic information like this, and so they write a news story to get the clicks. The answer to a question like this should simply be a time. But that’s not good enough for Google’s algorithm, so a writer puts together 500 words on the World Cup final, which somewhere includes the kick off time.

Google has countered this to some extent with its own top level search results for basic information, but it doesn’t stop the news sites.

Needless to say that such “stories” do not end up in print products.

The second example above is from a recent Google Doodle – those cartoons that Google regularly place on their home page where their logo would sit. They invariably celebrate the anniversary of someone interesting, and clicking through on the doodle will take you to a page of search results.

More often than not, the best result is probably the Wikipedia page for that person. But again, if a news site writes a piece about the Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer, then that ends up at the top of the search results page. When a viewer clicks through.

I can only assume that it’s someone’s job to monitor Google around midnight to see if they’ve put a Doodle up, and if they have, bash out a quick “news” story – probably based solely on their Wikipedia page for background info.

Taboola, Outbrain et al

I loathe these sites. Really I do. The problem is that they’re crack cocaine for news sites, offering both revenues and clicks.

In essence, they’re those “Around the Web” boxes you get at the bottom of news stories from often incredibly respectable sites. They offer supposed further reading opportunities and have a list of stories. But those stories are invariably the most salacious and often misleading stories around. Somehow the murky world of digital advertising means that the economics work. Dubious sites claiming to offer cheap iPhones or whatever, pay these companies to promote their sites of little merit. Outbrain or Taboola pay the host sites on actually quite good rates – that’s why so many sites use them.

There was a great Reply All episode a few months back that told one person’s sad story which was being used by these clickbait organisations for their gain. They couldn’t get the story taken down. But the resulting episode really explained how these “chumbox” services work.

What’s interesting is that these companies do offer more premium versions with less clickbait, but that few organisations seem to take this option.

And I do know that they pay handsomely for those boxes, so news sites invariably keep them up despite dragging down the overall quality of the page.

“Feedback” Stories

Something aired on television and people have opinions on it. Perhaps an actor took his top off on a period drama, or a celebrity did a disgusting challenge in the “jungle.” A story needs to be written, and some junior reporter trawls Twitter looking for comments that back up whatever angle they’re taking. This is particularly the case for any BBC-bashing story, because no matter what, there will always be someone who has a view on Twitter that meets the needs of the writer.

And so we get stories with random members of the public saying things that support whatever thesis the publication is trying to present.

Twitter in Celebrity Death Reports

This is what happens. Someone famous dies. A story is put together. If they’re really famous and really old, then an obituary might already be ready. But there’s the general news story about their death to write. News site writers instantly trawl Twitter and Instagram looking for other famous people’s nice words about the person who has died.

And there lies the problem.

All too often, the first people to comment are not necessarily the people you’d want to hear from. A famous old actor dies, and someone who was knocked out in week 2 of Strictly quickly Tweets their thoughts. I’m not saying that the thoughts of said failed dancer aren’t genuine, it’s just that they’re not someone who’s opinion I’m truly interested in.

All too often the stories are filled with the remembrances from whichever celebrities have Tweeted first rather than looking for the dead person’s peers or family members.

Surface Go – Review

SurfaceGo-1

In 2015 Microsoft released the Surface 3 and I bought one. It wasn’t the most powerful Windows PC ever. Indeed, it was very much under-powered. But it was light, portable and ran full Windows applications. I bought it to allow me to run full Windows applications when I was travelling. Although it had limited on-board disc space, I managed to use both Lightroom and Adobe Audition on it without problem. I would never have wanted to run anything too powerful, but for doing some edits on-the-go, before importing my temporary Lightroom catalogue into my main one when I returned home, it was fine.

While tablets are great, and Chromebooks are wonderful, they simply can’t do everything, and in particular run more powerful applications like Lightroom and Audition. Even with the inclusion of Android apps, in my experience, they’re not enough. 

So the arrival of the Surface Go was intriguing for me. I’ll say at the start that I certainly don’t think this device is right for everyone. If you’re more of a consumer rather than a creator, then I suspect an iPad is your best bet – perhaps with a keyboard attachment for emails.

The previous Surface 3 had an Intel Atom processor which meant it was slow. However, even then, I could run Lightroom and I certainly edited audio quite happily in Audition. I was even able to run bespoke software that crunched radio ratings figures in a fairly acceptable timeframe. It ran Office applications at an acceptable speed. 

Given that the Surface 3 basically got me over the line with my needs, why did I feel the need to update? Well it was by no means perfect. The keyboard was below average and the battery power was very iffy. On a recent trip I would find it randomly dropping from 60% to 0% in a few minutes – essentially shutting down on me. I’d be scared to take it anywhere without a wall-socket. It was also very slow. Slow to boot and slow to launch applications.

SurfaceGo-2

Microsoft sells the new Surface Go in two versions: the headline £379 version, and the version that you should actually buy at £509. That extra cost gets you double the RAM – 8GB instead of 4GB – and double the drive space – 128GB SSD instead of 64GB eMMC. I can’t think of a reason why anyone apart from the lightest of web-user would want the cheaper model.

The processor is an Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y. I confess that the name ‘Pentium’ concerned me a little, since it’s not a processor that I’ve come across since my old desktop days. But it’s a Kaby Lake era processor with dual core. 

The actual device itself feels very premium indeed. A lovely solid aluminium body with a kickstand that folds out to your preferred angle (the Surface 3 had three fixed positions, limiting your choices). The screen is gorgeous and of course touch sensitive. It’s an 1800×1200 panel covered in Gorilla Glass 3. So not quite full HD, but then this is a 10 inch device, so that would really be overkill. 

I bought one of Microsoft’s £125 Type Covers. There’s a £100 black model and then a few choices of colours which use Alcantara – a material that does feel nice on the hand. As with previous Surface devices, a powerful magnet ensures that the keyboard and Surface Go are locked into position properly. To separate them, you just firmly pull the two apart. They keyboard is a significant improvement on the Surface 3 keyboard in that the touchpad is bigger and better, while the keys are firmer, as is the case itself. Given the size of the device, this is a small keyboard. But it doesn’t take long to get up to speed with it. 

The only slight negative I have is that it’s not a backlit keyboard – my Surface Go keyboard was.

SurfaceGo-3

I’ve yet to buy a new Surface Pen because the one I used with my previous Surface 3 works absolutely fine. In truth, I didn’t use that pen a great deal, because it wasn’t a terrific device for taking notes or trying to draw with (I am not an artist). However, the slightly smaller form factor of the Surface Go means that writing on it is more achievable. But I confess that I’m still looking for that perfect note-taking app. I’d also like a “learn to draw” app while I’m at it!

You can launch one of a selection of apps by clicking the button on the top of your pen. The app that allows you to annotate a webpage can be especially useful. But there is minimal lag when writing on the screen, and Microsoft’s in-built handwriting-to-text converter is pretty decent. How well it works for you will partly depend on your handwriting.

The front facing camera on the Surface Go has built in Windows Hello, meaning that you can use it to unlock the device. I found it to work superbly in even very poor light. 

The Surface Go comes in Windows S mode – a limited version of Windows that only allows you to install applications from the Windows Store. This is of no use to me as I wanted to install Chrome and applications from Adobe’s Creative Cloud, neither of which are in the Store. Fortunately it is relatively simple to switch to Windows 10 Home, and I was happily installing the apps I wanted. 

I found that Chrome runs seamlessly and I detected no slowdown or delays even with plenty of tabs open. Microsoft Edge is a very ‘needy’ application of course, and you’ll get plenty of notices suggesting you give it a go, but Chrome works very well across multiple devices for me. 

But perhaps more usefully, here are my experiences of running more powerful Adobe applications. It’s the ability to run these apps that made want to still have a portable Windows machine that’s powerful enough to do some creative work.

Adobe Audition – Unless you’re in radio or podcasts, this might be a bit niche, but it’s an application that I use regularly on the go. The Surface Go accomplishes this with ease – although I should note I probably don’t use more than six tracks simultaneously. Your mileage may vary if you’re creating a 128 track masterpiece with lots of processor intensive 

Lightroom Classic CC – This is perfectly useable. I was able to use Lightroom on my old Surface 3, so this didn’t come as a surprise. Again, it depends what you’re trying to do with the application. As mentioned previously, I create small temporary catalogues on the Surface Go, and then import them into my main catalogue when I get home. The application launches fairly fast, and it really only slows down if you’re trying to do a lot of batch processing – e.g. applying a filter to every photo you import. Your bigger concern will be how many RAW files, for example, you can store on the machine while you’re using it. It’s entirely possible the cards in your cameras will be larger than the space available on the Surface Go.

Photoshop CC – You can actually use Photoshop reasonably well. I wouldn’t recommend it on a mega-pixel image. And obviously there are some screen constraints (although these go away if you plug in an external monitor). I wouldn’t want to do anything too intensive – 3D for example. But some quick editing of images on the go, it’ll work just fine. The slowest part of using it is actually launching it. In my tests, it takes around 30 second to start up. It’s worth noting that Adobe has a Touch interface for Photoshop, with touch gestures as well as support for the Surface Pen.

Illustrator CC – This is an application that you might well want to use if  you’re artistically inclined. As with Photoshop, there’s a Touch interface which by default launches when you remove the keyboard. Again, I found Illustrator useable on the Surface Go. I suspect that other lighter applications, such as the pre-installed Sketchable are better suited for pure drawing (the app is free, but many premium features need to be unlocked at a cost of £24.74).

Premiere Pro CC – This is probably at the extreme end of what I’d want to attempt with a machine of this power. It’s clearly not designed for high-end video editing. But you may be out and about, and want to put something together. You might want to think twice about editing 4k 360 video on this, or anything. As with Photoshop and Illustrator, it takes a while to launch. As with other Adobe CC apps, Premiere takes about 40 seconds to load, and I did run into a difficulty. It seems that the Open CL GPU Acceleration on the supplied Intel video driver is incompatible with the current version of Premiere (and After Effects). This is instantly noticeable because it my tests, the video was streaked in green and pink. The workaround is to enable the Software Only playback engine. That’s probably not great long-term solution however. With any luck either an updated Intel driver and/or an updated version of Premiere (which is due to be released within the next week or so) will solve the problem long term. I did look for updated drivers on the Microsoft site, but couldn’t even find Surface Go drivers listed.

That all said, editing a 30fps 4K video from my phone was fairly painless, and for quick edits, I’d be happy to use this machine. Again, I would avoid anything too processor intensive such as stabilisation effects with Premiere, but otherwise, it’s very usable. The bigger problem you’re likely to face is having much storage space for video editing. Video will eat up the limited space very quickly – especially on the 64GB model. One option would be to use a USB-C SSD such as the Samsung T5 range. 

I didn’t try After Effects because that would have been daft to attempt. I suspect that this is the most processor hungry application I use, and it can sometimes struggle on my i7 enabled Dell XPS with 16GB of RAM. That said, I would expect the same short-term video issue as above.

NB. I’ll let others tell you whether or not you can play games on this machine. Personally, I’d be looking elsewhere for a gaming machine. I’ve done some very occasional PC gaming in the past, but this wouldn’t be my go to. 

There are two other things you’ll probably want to buy alongside the keyboard. The first is some kind of case. I ended up with a case that was designed for an iPad Pro. I bought a Tomtoc 10.5 inch sleeve which fits the Surface Go perfectly. It has a super-soft interior which should fully protect your device, and there’s a zip pocket at the front which is able to accommodate a Pen (assuming you have the older non-magnetic one like me), and a dongle. 

The great thing about the Surface Go’s size is that even in this case, it feels very small, and will happily slip into all but the very smallest of bags. Even “fully-loaded” with the Surface Go, case, pen and dongle, the weight only comes to 1020g. The Surface Go on its own, excluding the Type Cover, is 522g, but I think 1020g is a more realistic “real world” weight that you’ll be carrying around.

Dongle? Yes – this device comes with a micro-SD port (into which I put a 128 GB micro-SD card for additional storage), and a single USB-C connector. While the Surface Go comes with its own bespoke Surface charger, with a unique connector, the device can also be charged using a USB-C charger. In practice I found that my Pixel 2 charger worked absolutely fine. That’s really useful if you want to travel light. But that also means that to get USB-A ports (e.g. for USB dongles), or external video connections, you’re going to need a dongle. I bought a Lenovo dongle that had just about the right connectivity options for me at a reasonable price. In my case, that was SD, micro-SD, USB-A and HDMI. It also has a USB-C through power connector. Pricier versions are bigger but include Ethernet and even VGA connectivity, which might be useful when presenting on the road. Note that the USB-C port is just that. It’s not a Thunderbolt 3 port. So don’t think of plugging an eGPU into it (You wouldn’t want to do that anyway, but it’s worth saying).

Still, I won’t complain too much about the USB-C inclusion. Microsoft has since refreshed the rest of its high-end Surface line, and none of those devices include so much as a single USB-C port! 

One issue I did have with the Surface Go was during my initial Windows 10 set-up. My finger slipped on an early dropdown, and I selected Germany rather than the UK. This then sent the set-up into German, and didn’t allow me to go back and correct my mistake! I couldn’t escape out of it, and had to complete my set-up in German. Then, although I should have been able to change language to English, I didn’t fully get the machine working in English. Some system messages still came up in German. 

After fighting with this for a while, I ran a Windows ‘Reset’ which after some time, put my machine back into it’s initial state. This time I managed to click the right country and set-up continued unhindered. 

This is more a problem with Windows 10 rather than the Surface Go. Why no back button?

Battery life seems good. Microsoft claims 9 hours of video playback, but I’m wary of too many claims on battery life since it’ll clearly depend on what you’re doing and how old the device is. But I think that there’s probably enough battery to get you through a non-intensive day.

Pros

This thing is small and light. You can put it into just about bag, or even a large pocket, and not really notice you’ve got it.  The screen is excellent, and the keyboard is very usable – a step up from that on the older Surface 3.

The Surface Go is very capable at most basic tasks. Microsoft Office runs well, so for those for whom either the online versions of Office or Google Docs aren’t quite enough or are too reliant on connectivity, this will do very nicely. I’d say that it’s perfect for travel, fitting neatly onto fold-up tray tables on trains and planes.

You can actually run some quite power-hungry applications with relative success. And Windows Hello is amazing – even if I’m not looking face on to the camera, it recognises me, and logs me straight in.

Cons

You do need to buy a few accessories. First off, there’s the keyboard. Since the whole device is smaller than the Surface 3, my Surface 3 keyboard doesn’t fit – the connectors are different. So you’ll need to spend another £100-£125 for that. And if you want to use a mouse, be sure to get a Bluetooth model – not the more commonly available wireless mice that use a USB-A dongle. I found a nice Microsoft Surface Mouse in a matching cobalt for £30 at Argos.

I wish there was more on-board storage and that Microsoft had made 128GB and 256GB models. But you can use a micro-SD card which should be sufficient for video and music download needs.

You can obviously get cheaper laptops that are more powerful than this. But they’re not as portable. So getting a Surface Go is very dependent on your specific use case.

Summary

If you want a highly portable full-fat Windows laptop for browsing and Office-type tasks, then this is the perfect machine. It really isn’t much bigger than an iPad, but with that much more flexibility that full Windows applications allow. Throw it in your bag and go.

Obviously if you don’t need fully featured Windows applications, then an iPad and keyboard might work better for you (I remain unconvinced about the need for an iPad Pro). But for my use case, which involves a wider array of applications from Office to Adobe’s Creative Cloud, this actually works really well.

It wouldn’t be my primary PC by any means, but as a portable addition, it’s excellent.

Of note: Microsoft subsequently announced its new range of Surface laptops and an upgraded Surface Studio targeted at designers. These are respectively Ultrabooks and aimed at graphic designers and artists. As such, they don’t really compete, and are not comparable. In any event, as things stand, I prefer Dell’s XPS line to Microsoft’s Surface line for this class of PC. Asisde from anything else, they come with USB-C, as the Surface Go does!

For the Missing by Lina Bengtsdotter

The search for a missing girl in rural Sweden forms the backdrop to this intelligent crime story from Lina Bengtsdotter. A teenager, Anabelle, has not returned home from a wild party in a down-at-heel town in deepest Sweden. DI Charline “Charlie” Lager and her colleague Anders have been sent to investigate.

Nearly everyone involved in this procedural is troubled. We first meet Charlie recovering from a monumental hangover and one-night stand. But that’s as nothing to the goings on in Gullspång, where the town’s teenagers are drinking nearly as much as their parents, everyone reliant on the local paper mill for a living, and under-age sex and drugs are very much on the cards.

Inevitably the police initially get nowhere, but not everyone is being as helpful as they might. At the same time, Charlie is facing up to the face that she’s returning to the town of her childhood – somewhere she hoped she would never return to again.

Everywhere you turn in this novel, there are ghosts of what happened before, and it probably wasn’t pretty.

The book moves along quite nicely, and it has a structure that sends the reader forwards and backwards in time as we learn what really happened. I found the book highly readable, with it portraying a depressing picture of a part of the Swedish countryside that I found convincing.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher Orion, for an ARC. For the Missing is published on 13 December.

Where the Truth Lies by M J Lee

Ten years ago, a junior detective accidentally captures “The Beast of Manchester.” In the present day a series of dead prostitutes in turning up on the streets of Manchester. Is there a relation between the two in this pacey police thriller?

Now a Detective Inspector, Ridpath is recovering from treatment to cancer and has been given the task of working as an officer for coroner’s court. This should be an easier route back into full-time detective work, but things don’t quite go as easily as planned. When an exhumation of the body of one of the Beast’s victims reveals an empty coffin, things are turned upside down.

This first in a new series of books is set in and around Manchester, and we get a good flavour of the area: snarled up traffic on the Oxford Road; the emptiness of Media City. Being set in the world of the coroner’s court is unusual and creates a point of difference from other police series.

The book is real page-turner, with short punchy chapters jumping between Ridpath, another young detective, DS Clark, and the evil doers. The story is fast paced, never standing still for more than a few moments. Ridpath’s recovery from cancer is omnipresent, but it’s his wife who is more worried about it than him. And the police world around the story feels authentic.

This isn’t a book for the squeamish, but it rattles along and it reaches a very satisfying conclusion.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher Canelo. Where the Truth Lies is out now.

The Dark Ages of Film History?

I was recently talking to a some colleagues at work about one of my favourite films of all time, the classic Howard Hawks screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby.

Made in 1938, it stars two of Hollywood’s biggest ever stars, Kathryn Hepburn and Cary Grant, both giving terrific performances in a classic of the genre.

How can we see this film I was asked by my colleagues? 

Both of them have Netflix and Amazon, and one has Now TV from Sky. Needless to say that Bringing Up Baby is on none of these platforms. It’s not available to buy in the UK iTunes Store, it’s not on the Google Play Store, and nor is it available to buy from Amazon’s streaming platform.

There is a DVD available on Amazon, but the price  has been fluctuating wildly. When I looked for it at the time of my conversation it was £26.89, and according to Camelcamelcamel has been retailing for as much as £30! It has now dropped back to £11.99.

That’s for a third party “Fufilled by Amazon” copy.

There are cheaper non-UK copies of the film on DVD, but they’re mostly NTSC, and are sometimes region-locked. That’s assuming that either of my colleagues still have a DVD player at all.

Bringing Up Baby is listed by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. But you essentially it’s incredibly hard to get a legal copy of it in the UK in 2018.

That hasn’t always been the case. That disc that’s being sold for nearly £27 was released by Universal Home Video in the UK in 2007, and for many years it sold for between £2 and £5. Judging from the chart at CamelCamelCamel, sometime around late 2014, the title went out of print at Universal and over time the dwindling remaining stock in circulation saw its price rise.

But in recent years, DVD sales have fallen off a cliff, and there are fewer and fewer retail outlets selling physical discs. Aside from Amazon, there are just HMV and Fopp left on the High Street – both with many fewer stores than in years gone by. Big releases still sell decent quantities via supermarkets. But with the exception of specialist mail order sites and labels, that’s about it. 

The answer should be that all these titles have moved to digital. And with the bigger budget blockbusters, that’s been the case. But significant chunks of the archive have not been uploaded.

They’ve not been leased to the streaming giants like Netflix or Amazon Prime, and nor have they been made available to buy from the Google Play Store or Apple iTunes Store.

It’s as though we’ve entered a “dark ages” period, where unless the title was made recently, it’s lost to us and is no longer available. It feels as though there are fewer titles available to watch than DVD and Blu Rays sales peak in 2007/8.

The chart above, based on data from a Netflix scraping website, shows you the number of films, by release year that Netflix UK offers subscribers. Obviously this data will change daily, but at the time of writing, of the 3,522 films with release dates (all bar one film), 73% were made 2010 onwards.

This second chart summarises this by decade. 

To be specific, there is one film from the 1920s on Netflix – Cecil B DeMille’s first version of The Ten Commandments. 

There are zero films from the 1930s, and the 17 films from the 1940s are nearly all war films, I believe mostly to accompany a 2017 three part WWII documentary from Steven Spielberg, Five Came Back. You won’t find any Oscar Best Picture winners from this period on Netflix.

There are fewer films from the 1950s than the 1940s – just 13. But they’re all minor titles with only Some Like It Hot and Touch of Evil being especially notable.

From there, things slowly improve, with more classics finding their way into the catalogue. But it’s a lean selection.

(I should again emphasise that I’m critiquing the UK selection. US reader may well have a deeper and better stocked catalogue.)

While as a Netflix subscriber, I can and will moan about the selection, they’ve never set themselves up as a classic movie service. And to an ever greater extent, they’re moving towards owning more of their own properties and relying less on renting catalogue material from studios. So I expect that the paltry fare currently offered will actually further diminish over time.

Now it’s true – there is the BFI Player. And while researching this piece, I came across FilmStruck which notably has access to the Criterion Collection (although the latter’s UK catalogue is vastly smaller than its US cousin). But today we learnt that Warner Media is shutting down FilmStruck. Whether on its own it was uneconomical, or whether this is more a move by TimeWarner ahead of it building a more singular streaming vision led by HBO; we don’t yet know.

Both the BFI Player and FilmStruck are/was rental offerings. And from the abrupt closure of FilmStruck, we can see the issue. A corporate change of direction and suddenly there’s no place in the market for classic films.

Also streaming services invariably don’t have the range or consistency of offerings. A film that there this month is gone next month. If I want to see The Maltese Falcon, I’m going to have search a lot of different services to see who has it available – if anyone.

Another operator who specialises in quality classic films, MUBI, goes out of its way to minimise choice to a rolling list of 30 films that sees one title added and one removed every day. Intelligent cinema, yes, but an incredibly limited choice. If I’ve got something in mind to see, these aren’t necessarily the places I’d go.

Films are less of an overall offering of the bigger free-to-air channels – BBC2 is more likely to be showing repeats of Bargain Hunt than an old black and white film. And while we have got the welcome addition of Talking Pictures TV, the quality of the prints they show can vary (Seriously! Get the Criterion Collection Blu Ray of His Girl Friday, or the Columbia Classics DVD. Don’t watch the “public domain” copy that Talking Pictures TV uses, or that can be found on Amazon), and they have a relatively low bit-rate for broadcasting which doesn’t help either.

Other channels tend to keep the same popular fare repeated on hard rotation. You’ll know when you hit ITV4 if you go channel surfing at 9pm.

The problem is that the retail model made sense for a lot of studios. Over the years, they dug deeper into their libraries and they released just about anything they thought they could sell. Costs were relatively contained, and even manufacture and storage costs were lowered as just-in-time manufacture of discs became more achievable. The Warner Archive Collection is a great example of this.

In theory, that should have followed through to the digital sales stores of iTunes, Amazon and Google. If you’ve gone to the ‘trouble’ of digitising a film you own the rights to, why wouldn’t you just upload copies to iTunes, Amazon, Google Play Movies and others? Set a price and watch those sales trickle in. 

Sure, nobody’s going to get rich overnight, but you’re working your assets, and fulfilling demand.

Yet for some reason, it doesn’t seem to have been worthwhile for studios to do any of this. It’s hard to understand. Unlike physical products, there’s no warehousing cost, or indeed physical manufacture of any sort. You take a digital asset, upload it to the sites and even if the film only earns a few dollars a year, that’s money that would be left on the table otherwise. But there are a vast range of films, including some relatively recent titles, that simply haven’t been uploaded to these services.

The trouble is that in the meantime, consumers have moved increasingly towards subscription models for all their entertainment. They rent their music, and they rent their TV and movies. And there isn’t necessarily room for all that many competing services. There is ‘subscription fatigue’ when you realise just how many things you’re subscribed to.

The real difference between the movie/TV model and music is that Spotify and Apple Music make all the music available (or nearly all, anyway). Now that just about all the biggest holdouts have given in, you don’t tend to see albums or artists drift in and out of the service the way movies do on Netflix. I know that I’ll be able to hear The Beatles on Spotify today, tomorrow and next year (probably).

What I don’t know is where I can watch Inception, or Star Wars, or Psycho, or Gone with the Wind, or Bringing Up Baby on any given day. Are they on Netflix or Amazon? Maybe. Maybe not.

For at least one of those films, I know it’s not on any of the services.

And that’s surely a problem. I shouldn’t have to wait until the BFI runs another screwball season to watch a film I want to see.