Media

The Business Models of MoviePass and cPass

Over the weekend, a new company raised its heads above the parapets. cPass is a new subscription cinema going scheme that allows members to see one film a day at the cinema for a monthly fee of £9.95.

Cinema membership schemes aren’t unheard of, but they tend to be more expensive. Cineworld has its Unlimited scheme that costs £17.90 a month, rising to £20.40 if you want to include central London cinemas. My local suburban Cineworld charges £12.10 for a regular ticket in peak times. So I need to see 2 or more films a month to make a Cineworld membership worthwhile for me. But under the cPass scheme I’d only need to see one film to start making savings.

Odeon has it’s Limitless scheme and it’s very similar to the Cineworld offering. It costs £17.99 a month, or £19.99 if you want central London cinemas included. Note that the flagship Odeon Leicester Square is currently closed for renovations, although a single visit to that cinema can easily exceed £19.99 alone. However my nearest suburban Odeon charges £12.50 for a regular ticket in peak time. So as with Cineworld, I’d need to see two films a month for it to be worthwhile.

So how is cPass offering a seemingly better deal than either of two of the UK’s largest chains offer on their own, with the advantage that I can see films in any cinema (subject to terms)?

Well, they’re copying nearly precisely the US MoviePass model. That is, they’re not working directly with the cinema chains at all. What they do is send their members a debit card – I assume either Visa or Mastercard – and when someone books a ticket on their app, it puts some money in the debit card’s account for a limited time and lets you buy a ticket as you would with any regular debit card. The cinema gets paid, and you get a ticket.

But if I’m paying £12.50 for a ticket, yet have only paid £9.95 for an entire month, how does that make any business sense?

The Recode Media podcast recently interviewed the CEO of MoviePass to try to understand the model, and a few things emerge, whilst others remain unsaid.

The Gym Membership

Part of the model is the assumption that we won’t all be trying to see 31 films in a calendar month. The average person probably sees 2-4 films a year. i.e. not that many. Everyone knows that gyms are packed in January and then settle back down to a more manageable level shortly thereafter. Gyms have more memberships than members they can cater for. They hope that while some are going 5 days a week, more are going much less frequently and are too lazy to cancel their memberships. We’ve all heard the tales of onerous cancellation procedures – there was a whole Friends episode about this.

MoviePass are quite honest about the fact that when members first get their cards, they rush to see lots. But fairly quickly they drop back to a more modest level of film going.

We’ve all got subscriptions to things we don’t use as much as we should. Part of MoviePass’s model relies on that.

Different Areas – Different Prices

I live in Greater London and the price of a visit to my local cinemas is just more than £12. Other parts of the country may charge closer to £6. So the maths can be different, and even if they make a loss in London, it could be offset elsewhere.

That all said, cPass says it’s launching in the capital.

Growing the Market

On this week’s Kermode and Mayo podcast, the thorny subject of film piracy was raised again. It’s clear that lots of people are using dodgy streams to serve pirated films – much more so that downloading torrents of a few years ago. Kodi boxes with the right (i.e. “wrong”) plugins have made it simple to watch recent releases on your TV at home, perhaps having to suffer some dodgy pre-roll adverts.

Mark Kermode’s solution to this is the day and date multi-format release. That way, you could choose to buy the DVD or Blu Ray, stream for a fee on your preferred service, or go to the cinema.

I suspect that wouldn’t work very well and would swiftly see the end of cinemas altogether. How many families would honestly spend £25-30 or more for a trip to the cinema with all the add-ons when they could get the DVD, Blu Ray or legal stream for closer to £10? Visits to the cinema would drop away massively, and they would start closing. I don’t deny that the right film seen with a large audience is great fun, but I’m uncertain that this is enough to prevent a serious dent in cinema attendance.

While I’m not certain that the music model is quite right at the moment, it is true that the likes of Spotify have removed the reasons for downloading music illegally. You get high quality music either for free with ads, or for a relatively modest monthly sum, ad free.

Part of the cPass/MoviePass model is that more people will go and see more films. They grow the overall market and encourage those who see relatively few films to see more. In turn that generates more tertiary revenues for cinemas – i.e. popcorn sales.

The downside is that the likeliest people to take up something like cPass are those who already go to the cinema a lot. Indeed, subscribers to current unlimited schemes would surely swiftly cancel their current memberships and move to the cheaper model.

Scale and the New Normal

Scale is what it’s really all about. These companies want to become dominant in the market place and have their members become a significant part of the overall audience. That gives them an awful lot of power with the chains (see next section).

You need deep pockets to play this game, and the backers of these services are clearly spending to get to a certain level whereby they can start to use this scale to their own advantage. This is the familiar Silicon Valley model of spending heavily to get an audience or user base, and then turn it around to monetise it.

At the same time $9.95/£9.95 becomes the new normal for pricing schemes. As alluded to at the top, this is close to half the price of existing schemes that are generally limited to a single chain. It instantly becomes harder for Cineworld to market Unlimited when there’s a cheaper, better option out there.

As it stands the chains know who you are, how often you’re going and what you’re watching. That’s valuable data. They instantly lose that as patrons move to the cheaper non-affiliated deal.

Deals with Chains

This is the big unspoken bit. MoviePass in the US is already negotiating with smaller chains and indies to get both discounted tickets and even kickbacks from sales of food and drink.

If a large proportion of the population is using something like cPass or MoviePass, then a certain amount of power is wielded by those companies. They might try to “incentivise” members to use one chain over another by temporarily or permanently removing certain cinemas.

If this result in sizeable declines in box office takings at the removed cinemas, these companies could throw their weight around and “force” the chains to provide them with deep discounts.

This has happened in the US with MoviePass, who have excluded some AMC locations, seemingly to pressure AMC into giving it discounts.

It’s worth noting that deep discounts do already exist in the marketplace. Many corporate “perks” websites and other third-party membership deals offer significant discounts to cinema tickets. 50% discounts aren’t unheard of. You can safely expect that these pass companies will be pushing to get discounts at least as deep as these, because they can redirect audiences away from anyone who doesn’t play ball with them.

It’s a fine line of course, since if none of the chains play the game, then the pass companies could be left out in the cold, haemorrhaging money. But it’s going to be interesting to watch.

Would the chains consider themselves as being “held to ransom,” and being forced to co-operate when they don’t want to?

Marketing Opportunities

These pass companies will also be chasing revenues from film distribution companies as well. They can do deals to heavily promote certain titles and push their audiences towards them.

The data they collect on their subscribers viewing habits could potentially be used to point consumers to relevant films – or at least do as good a job as people like Netflix can.

Summary

This isn’t by any means a proven business model, and if the big chains hold firm on their pricing, then it’s unclear how it can ever be. If lots of people don’t go and see many films yet continue to pay $9.95/£9.95 a month, then the sums work anyway, but I suspect it’ll take more than that. Particularly if these cards become popular among the younger demographics for whom money is tight, but demand is high.

The strange thing is that cinema owning isn’t as profitable as it might be. Deals with distributors mean that for big releases a large proportion of the ticket revenue, particularly in early weeks of a release. It was reported that in North America Disney wanted 65% of box office revenues for The Last Jedi, and also required that the film played for at least four weeks in the largest auditorium. Failure to do this meant that the share would rise to 70%!

Lots of cinema chains are desperately seeking reasons to get people to upgrade their seats and spend more. We have premium seats, 3D films, IMAX and more recently 4DX – all trying to get you to spend more. These pass schemes mostly push for the cheapest tickets. Does this work against the needs of the chains?

And what does this mean for overall box offices? If tickets are being sold at cheaper price points, then even if there are more people on seats, the overall value might fall if a high proportion of movie goers are paying what are effectively discounted prices.

The pass companies would counter that they’re about growing the market. And that might be the case. But as mentioned above,the first group of people who are likely to jump on these schemes are regular cinema goers who can quickly save lots of money. Just as the early adopters of Spotify were those who in the past had spent a lot of money each week on music, now only had to spend a tenner a month for the same quantity!

A really interesting scenario would be if some of the UK chains formed their own cross-chain pass. In other words, merge Unlimited and Limitless with any other schemes out there. It’d potentially be cheaper to operate since you wouldn’t need to get any banks involved and all the costs of processing debit cards.

Making those unlimited/limitless cards cheaper would certainly grow the market, but would distributors be happy? Do the sums add up to fuller cinemas and a net increase in box office?

I find the whole model curious, and I’m really uncertain that it’ll work. But I’ll be paying close attention!

Netflix: $8 Billion and 700 NEW Shows?

How much programming is Netflix actually making?

The answer is a lot, but I think that the widely reported numbers are a little misleading.

Heavily retweeted earlier today was this:

I’m not trying to pick on one person; these are figures that have been reported elsewhere.

Most pieces reference a Variety story: Netflix Eyeing Total of About 700 Original Series in 2018. But you’ll note that the Variety headline includes the word “total” in it.

The key section of Variety’s report is this:

The “700-range” figure [Netflix CFO, David Wells] cited includes 80 non-English-language original productions from outside the U.S., such as psychological thriller “Dark” from Germany and “Club de Cuervos” from Mexico. The total encompasses both new and existing original series (such as “Orange Is the New Black” and “Narcos”). [My emphasis]

In other words, this is a cumulative figure and represents the total number of original series on the platform.

It does not mean an additional 700 originals!

The Variety report is based on an investment call that Netflix had, and as is the way with these things, the transcript of the call is available online.

Here’s the relevant section:

Unidentified Analyst
Right. So moving from maybe the big-picture stuff to more into here now. What are your priorities for 2018? Where are you focused and where is the team focused in making sure the company executes this year?

David B. Wells – Netflix, Inc. – CFO & Principal Accounting Officer
Well, I think — a lot of what you hear many of us say is internal execution, right? So we think we have a large market. We just talked about there’s so many more nonmembers than there are members, and so our focus is really to continue to improve the product that we have. We’ll be adding increasingly more and more of our originals in our global content. This year, we’ll have 80 originals in the global category, meaning these are non-English language original produced content things, like Club de Cuervos, Dark — O Mecanismo is a new one coming from Brazil. And so the — our muscle in that area is increasingly being built and exercised, and I’m excited about lots of great stories coming from different parts of the world. And again, people seem to love high production quality and a good story. It doesn’t really matter where it comes from. So I think our focus is building out our production muscle, building out our global production muscle, increasing our product in various parts of the world. We’re the newest in Asia. So I’d say it’s continuing to sort of localize pieces in Asia, continue to improve the product there. But we also have an eye towards not losing our leadership position in other parts of the world as well. So it’s not like we’re not also improving the Americas.

Unidentified Analyst
You mentioned 80 global originals. That’s TV series, so that’s distinct from your film strategy?

David B. Wells – Netflix, Inc. – CFO & Principal Accounting Officer
Yes. That’s distinct to film, and it’s even distinct from television series that you might describe as sort of global, like Orange Is the New Black or Narcos. These are things that are produced in a non-English language market. So I just want to make that distinction. So there’s even more than 80 that are sort of for the global market. If you think about the total number, it might be somewhere in the 700 range.

That makes clear that there are 80 original “global” originals – non-English language originals. And there are 700 in total. They obviously measure movies differently, and categorise them separately, but then they are still both commissioning original movies and also buying them outright after festivals such as Sundance, beyond the regular licencing of movies from studios. Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer has previously said that they will release 80 original movies in 2018.

But how do you even determine what is a Netflix original? It’s not that simple.

Stranger Things or Narcos are relatively simple. They’re 100% Netflix. But for others it’s less clear. For example, in the US, the science fiction series The Expanse appears on SyFy, but it counts as a Netflix original in much of the rest of the world. Star Trek: Discovery appears in the US on the CBS All Access streaming platform. Everywhere else it’s a Netflix Original. Troy: Fall of a City is currently airing on BBC One and was co-commissioned by both the BBC and Netflix where it’ll appear globally.

Even seemingly homegrown series like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, aren’t strictly Netflix exclusive. Orange is the New Black is currently airing on the Sony Crime channel in the UK, having done a deal with Lionsgate the producers. In France House of Cards originally aired on Canal+ since there was no Netflix in France and the producer, MRC, was able to sell it to them. On more recent 100% Netflix commissions, it has reportedly tightened contracts to prevent that programming appearing elsewhere – unless they choose to allow it.

In any event, a Mashable report makes clear that this 700 number includes some of these co-commissioned series:

A Netflix representative told Mashable that this content budget includes properties we already know and love like Stranger Things, as well as licensing content from partners like AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Note that The Walking Dead is not available on, for example, UK Netflix, because Fox International has the rights and they distribute it on Sky’s platform in boxsets.

It should also be pointed out that “originals” can include one-offs as well as series or seasons of shows. Think about all the stand-up comedy specials that Netflix is commissioning.

So to summarise, there will be 700 originals in total at the end of 2018, which includes new commissions, previous commissions and co-commissions.

Netflix is definitely spending a lot, although it’s in the ballpark of what other large media companies also spend each year. But it’s not launching new series at the rate of two a day!

They’re also losing money – negative free cash flow in the parlance. I’m not arguing that there isn’t an underlying business model that makes sense, but it’s worth noting all the same. The theory is that as they build up their library of originals, they don’t have to licence as much third party material (See also the recent news that Disney won’t renew their Netflix deal and will shift their output to their own new streaming platform).

Netflix faces the issue of needing to have relevant programming in multiple local territories, and while there’s value in older series, viewers will continue to seek new programming. Netflix will have complex calculations about how much it needs to spend on new programming versus catalogue versus subscriber growth versus how much it licences. It’s a complex grid.

The Tabloid Guardian

It has now been over a week since The Guardian, and sister paper The Observer, both rebranded. Perhaps more saliently, they also reshaped themselves, moving from the unique “Berliner” format to a tabloid.

Now in some respects I feel unusual these days in still buying a physical printed paper.

“It’s all online.”

“You can get it free.”

“Why do you pay for it?”

These are some of the responses you get when people see you with a newspaper.

It’s true that my station has a well-stocked bin of Metros in the morning, and I can easily pick up an Evening Standard on the way home. That’s before you consider editions of Time Out, NME, Stylist, Shortlist or a load more freebies in central London.

I have a phone and a tablet, so I can get the news on that.

And it’s also true that sometimes when I get to the paper, even in the morning, I find I’ve already read the article on line the day before. Sometimes with arts material it can be several days before (The Guardian seem to put its book coverage up around Thursday ahead of the Saturday “Review” supplement).

But printed papers are great for lots of reasons. You can get them all over the place, and you can read them anywhere. They don’t go flat, and they (can) have powerful design.

There’s also the editorial nourishment. When presented with a digital list of stories, we tend to click on the things we’re interested in. Actually these days, we probably don’t even go to a homepage (although with Facebook’s recent announcement about downplaying news in people’s feeds, we may see a greater importance of these), but tend to get to stories via links shared in social media.

I buy The Guardian because it has strong editorial. Much of the news in free newspapers is bland agency copy. Metro is never going to invest in major investigations like The Paradise Papers for example.

A week in, my first impressions of the paper is that it looks an awful lot like The Independent did once it had gone tabloid. Not so much in content as in style. It seems slightly harder to differentiate papers in a tabloid world than it is in a broadsheet one.

The new version of the paper has obviously had a major redesign, beyond simply shrinking the paper, with a new masthead and new fonts. The Guardian has always been more likely to go through redesigns than other papers. When The Times went tabloid, it was more about how they could continue to use the same fonts and stylistic devices in the “compact” format.

The Telegraph has not really had a major redesign at all. With the FT, it is now alone as a broadsheet (The Sunday Times notwithstanding). Of course, it is a hollow remnant of what it once was – a bit like one of those new-builds where they’re required to keep the front facade.

There’s a strapline above the masthead on the first day said that the paper had two pullout sections. Originally I thought that these might be G2 and Sport as previously. But Sport has returned to the back of the paper, which is probably a good place for it to be, since in truth, some days it really felt as though it was being padded out to fill even 8 pages.

G2 is a pullout as before, but the second pullout is Journal – essentially the opinion parts of the middle of the paper, alongside obituaries, and the puzzles that used to form the back of the main Berliner section of the paper. Indeed the back pages of both pullout sections contain puzzles now.

Having Journal as a pullout does mean that one of my favourite features of the Berliner format paper has been retained – Eyewitness, which acts as a double-page spread for a featured photo.

Seeing photos printed big is another reason that printed newspapers remain superior.

The new tabloid Guardian is now printed by Mirror Group presses – part of the cost savings that the shrinking of the paper is designed to help with. I was a little worried that the printing quality might deteriorate, but in fact it’s perfectly fine.

I’m less certain about the new masthead’s design, but as with previous iterations, it’ll no doubt grow on me. All lowercase does feel very “90s”, and the return to proper capitalisation is to be admired. But the change of font, masthead, paper size and overall design means that everything has changed at once. This isn’t a half-hearted measure.

What you can’t help noticing is the number of advertisements in the paper – or lack of them.

Print advertising continues to decline across the industry as digital advertising cleans up. While I think print always did well, over-achieving for its readership, advertising was and remains a vital part of the mix for a publisher, and those advertising declines must hurt.

Diamond Geezer notes that fewer “newsagents” carry print at all, becoming convenience stores rather than purveyors of printed material.

In fact, I don’t think lack of access is the real killer for newspapers, but it almost certainly is for magazines. Newsagents carry ever diminishing ranges of magazines, meaning that if you don’t subscribe to a title, you may struggle to find it on any shelf space anywhere. Even W H Smith, the last bastion of magazines in the High Street, seems to allocate less space to them. (W H Smith is a bit of a basket case anyway, not knowing really what it wants to be. Only the travel branches in stations and airports seem to have got the mix right, even if they wildly overcharge for confectionery)

Friday’s paper is always a late week highlight since it carries film and music reviews. The revamped G2 still carries these but somehow there feel, at least in the first week, to be fewer of them. Not so much films as music. Previously you could expect perhaps a couple of pages of pop/rock reviews and then a page of other music including classical, jazz and, well, non-pop music.

There seems less of that now, and I’m going to miss that. I still like reading printed music reviews, and while I know that I can find music blogs to help, they often feel like they serve certain niches. I want to read about a folk release alongside the big mainstream pop release, and a new classical album.

Saturday’s Guardian was always my favourite day of the week, even if I shed certain sections as quickly as I could. I barely ever opened the Family section, while the Travel section would only grab my attention if there was somewhere I was interested about on the cover. The Cook section would always get recycled unread. I’d flick through the magazine, and get stuck into The Guide. But key for me were a chunky main section, a good sport supplement and most important of all, the Review section.

The new-look paper has been rejigged a bit. Cook becomes Feast and is printed on higher quality paper. They expect people to hang onto these as they’re even selling boxes to collect them in! I must admit that it does look good, and they’ve poached Grace Dent as their restaurant critic, and she’s always worth a read.

The Guide is broadly speaking the same, although sadly it seems that David Hepworth’s radio column has bitten the dust. (It feels there are barely any radio critics left. Gillian Reynolds has just left the Telegraph after 42 years, although she’s apparently taking over Paul Donovan’s position at The Sunday Times, even though she’s 82! There’s also Miranda Sawyer at The Observer, who now covers podcasts as much as radio, if not more. Is there now actually anyone else?)

Sport is still in place, and the main section of the paper seems to be broadly unchanged. None of the features I liked to read seem to have gone anywhere.

And I’m especially pleased that although the Review section has had a massive redesign, it’s importance remains. It’s now printed on high quality paper and although it too may have slimmed a tiny amount, it treats its subject properly and is probably the best newspaper book section.

The Observer also has a new masthead, making it clear that it’s the Sunday edition of The Guardian rather than a separate entity. The main section stays largely in place, while sport is as good as ever, even if it has an unhealthily skewed belief in the importance of rugby union. The New Review is largely as it was before, just rejigged and resized. And the magazine remains largely unchanged, in that I rarely even bother to open it up (although it does at least review the odd bicycle alongside cars in their transport bit).

Also notable in the rebranding has been putting the new branding into all The Guardian’s various digital assets. That seemed to happen very smoothly even though you know it must have been a complex procedure.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with things. I’d like the new font to be a little more different to those used by The Times and The Independent (when it was still being published), and it’ll be interesting to see if they ever succumb to the temptation The Indie had to keep using the front page to cover single issues.

(As a sidenote, I saw The Post last weekend, the new Steven Spielberg film starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, covering the story of The Washington Post and the publication of the Pentagon Papers. What remains amazing to me, and is largely still the case today in the US with the New York Times and The Washington Post, is that even when you’re breaking the biggest story in a generation, the story shares the front page with a lot of other stories. Even today, that remains the case.)

What’s really key about all of this is that the paper stays on track in reducing its losses and gets to a break-even point so that the money in the coffers there to support the paper doesn’t run down.

Digitising My Life in 2018

Life is digital. We’ve known that for a long time. Digital offers lots of convenience, but it brings with it complications. In particular, safe storage.

In 2018 I need to try to fix three or four problems/issues I have coming up.

1. Cloud Storage

As longtime readers might know, I have a couple of Synology NAS drives at home, each with a RAID 0 arrangement with pairs of matched hard drives storing my data. In total they store just over 4TB of data, with a further 1TB of headroom between the two NAS drives.

While I have local copies of music and other documents, space is really taken up by photos (in RAW format) and videos. As more devices move from HD to 4K, those video file sizes aren’t going to be coming down much any time soon.

All of this NAS drive storage is backed up to Amazon Cloud – more of which later.

Beyond this storage, I have a further 4TB drive of older files sitting on a new standalone 4TB external HD. This data is not backed up in the cloud, but is duplicated on a series of older “passport” sized portable HDs.

Amazon introduced its unlimited cloud storage system last year, and I jumped at spending £59.99 for a year’s worth of unlimited storage. I could use an app on my NAS drive to upload files in the background and keep the two in sync. My older NAS drive didn’t really work with this method, but I managed to create a virtual link between the two NAS drives from the drive that did work, and I safely backed up all my files.

But the writing was on the wall for the Amazon deal almost from the start. In the US, where they’d had the initiative for a longer time, Amazon had cancelled it because some users were storing vast quantities of data. It would only be a matter of time before Amazon UK followed suit, and sure enough, I got an email announcing the end of the scheme towards the end of last year.

Because Amazon will continue to store photos free of charge, I would only require 3TB of data for video and other files. Amazon prices that at £237 a year.

But that excludes my other 4TB of data. Even if some of that is also photos, I’m probably looking at 5TB at £400 a year to be fully backed up with Amazon.

So my first job is to find a robust backup provider that can help, ideally coming in at well below £400.

One alternative is to buy an 8TB external hard drive, sync my drives to it (I would estimate that will take at least a week), and then store that drive at work, returning it home fortnightly or monthly to do intermediate syncs.

Another suggestion via Twitter was:

I do kind of like the idea of this. In reality, I’m probably not going to find a friend with unlimited data willing to put my Raspberry Pi/USB HD combo under their stairs or wherever, but it’s definitely an idea. Nextcloud in particular seems interesting application to enable this.

I will continue to explore paid for options and see what I come up with.

2. Scanning Photos

Yes – just about every photo I take these days is digital, and even those shot on film get scans at the time, so I have digital copies of them. But I still have a few thousand (I think) printed photos.

Included amongst this is a historical archive of old Virgin Radio pictures – mostly press photos – saved from the bin around the time that Virgin Radio was rebranded as Absolute Radio.

I’ve been meaning to scan this trove for years. But I’ve always been stuck since although I have a reasonable scanner, it’s only USB 2.0 and doing a decent scan of a photo takes quite some time. Even if you place half a dozen or more photos on the flatbed at the time, it’s a painful process. Invariably I choose to scan at high quality – probably higher than I’ll ever need.

The other option would be to scan negatives – as I usually still have them. But that involves dust removal and other slow to process issues.

One popular alternative is to pay a third party company to do the scanning for me. That involves boxing the photos off, sending them off, and getting a digital download or USB stick back with the results. It’d safely cost me several hundred pounds.

My 2018 solution is to not be quite as fussy about the quality of my scans. Anything really worthwhile I may spend more time with. But in the main, we’re talking about photos that have barely seen the light of day since I took them (I’ve never really had physical photo albums).

I own a Fujitsu Scan Snap iX500 which I bought to scan a large number of documents. It’s really good at this, and I also save things like cycling or walking routes from magazines, or other things that might be useful to hang on to.

Importantly, it has a sheet feeder that means you can scan things pretty quickly. For documents I make searchable PDFs using optical character recognition at the time of the scan.

But I’d not used it for photos because – well – I was concerned about quality issues. But it will scan to 600 dpi, and while that might not be enough to print billboard sized photos from, it should be fine for regular use.

I will report back and let you know the findings.

[Update: Well I did a bit of a test run through with 800 Virgin Radio photos that I, er, acquired when the station rebranded as Absolute Radio, and it was fairly painless. The quality is decent and it didn’t take an inordinate amount of time to do. This should be very achievable.]

3. Digitising Video

I also have something approaching 100 MiniDV video tapes with various footage on them. While I’ve already captured and digitsed all my oldest Hi8 video footage, this MiniDV footage needs capturing. I have a working camera to play the tapes back from, but the only way to capture is in real time. In reality that means a dedicated PC (fortunately I have such a beast), and regularly running tapes through the camera to capture the material.

There are no short cuts for this one that I can see.

4. Supplemental

I found a load of 3.5″ floppy discs the other day. I suspect that there’s little to nothing I really need to keep from them, but I’ll probably pick up a cheap USB drive and run through them anyway. I’ll keep a handful for posterity, but probably ditch the others – especially the numerous covermount discs!

The other job I have is to properly digitise the family’s Super 8 films. Many years ago, I pointed a digital video camera at a projection screen and captured them that way. I have that now converted to mp4. But it’s dreadful quality. Again, third parties can do this, but the costs are high. I’ve been quoted £600-£1000. So at some point, getting a machine like this Reflecta Super 8 scanner might be a good idea. It looks like it’ll create HD video from footage, although a bit of post-production will be required to correct the frame rate.

5. Summary

One thing I’m aware of is that all the scanning and capturing from 2 and 3 will create a bigger haul to store in 1. Such is the way of these things.

I should also note that I still have unripped CDs to capture, old cassettes I might digitise, and never mind my ongoing DVD/BluRay collection just about none of which is in a pure digital format.

I can see format conversion and digitisation being a theme for the rest of my life somehow…

Note: Just because I’ve digitised something, it doesn’t mean I’ll be throwing the originals out. They don’t take an enormous amount of space, and it would be foolish to do so.

2018 Media Predictions

It’s that time of year when, because not a lot else is going on, and pages need to be filled, everyone is busily predicting what might happen in 2018.

So here are my bold and not so bold predictions in the coming year across the media industry.

  • A streamer will win some Premier League rights. Having written at length about this process, and not really come to a strong conclusion that it makes sense for any of the big players to get involved in the Premier League rights auction, I can still foresee 1-2 packages going to them just because the Premier League probably thinks it has rinsed as much as it really can out of BT and Sky.
  • Digital advertising will continue to grow, but continue to have major questions asked of it. How much of digital advertising is fraud? How much of it actually works? Does anyone at all actually click on an advert unless it’s a mistake? Google Chrome is introducing it’s “ad-blocker” in February, and advertising that doesn’t adhere to the Coalition for Better Ads guidelines will get blocked. That will clean up part of the problem, in that the worst offenders will be disincentivised some of the worst practices. But that’s not really enough. Lots of agencies are getting asked lots of questions, and yet the money keeps flowing their way. Incidentally, an ever greater part of the digital advertising world is becoming owned by IT services companies like Accenture. Could Publicis or WPP actually get bought by one of these?
  • Radio listening among younger audiences will decline. I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag with this one. While overall reach has held, and probably will continue to hold up, time spent listening to those services will decline amongst younger audiences. They’re spending too much time on YouTube, Spotify and Amazon. See every RAJAR summary I’ve published in the last couple of years for more.
  • Smart speakers will be everywhere. With the basic models going for £35 this Christmas, and near enough every portable BlueTooth speaker likely to include either Google Assistant or Alexa in the coming months, these speakers will be everywhere regardless of whether you think you need one or not. I’m not certain that everyone will be controlling their lighting and heating with them, as that involves spending considerably more money on technology, but it does make audio listening easier, and for things like news, sport and weather, they’re terrific. Some naysayers think the impact is overblown, but while they won’t reach everywhere, they definitely will be of use to a decent proportion of the population. And you can definitely expect an uptick in internet listening overall. I’m less certain that devices like the Amazon Show or worse, the Amazon Spot (alarm clock with an internet connected camera that you’re supposed to put on your bedside table) will quite hit the mark however.
  • No real changes in UK radio’s structure. DCMS recently published a fairly groundbreaking document that sets out to remove most regulation surrounding UK local radio. Stations will broadly speaking be able to do what they want. So expect Capital and Heart to go fully networked for example, while programmers will be able to play whatever music (or speech) they deem their audience wants to hear. Except that none of this will happen in 2018. Primary legislation is required to do it, and for the most part, Brexit is tying up nearly every part of Government. If anything, the pressure is only going to ramp up in 2018 to get that work done. “Unimportant” things like radio deregulation will have to sit and wait.
  • We will reach “Peak TV.” Many might think that we’re already at “Peak TV” with every network under the sun commissioning “original content” as a way to stand out against IP delivered interlopers like YouTube, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. But now Apple and Facebook are entering the game, and the volumes will be ridiculous. I do think that some of these players will be challenged. Facebook isn’t going to be able to do edgy fare, so it will find it as hard to cut through as a US network might. In other words, it will take many attempts to get a hit. I don’t see Apple really having the ability to do that either. It’s worth remembering that you don’t just make good TV by throwing money at the problem. And making these shows work globally is near impossible. Different parts of the world have very different expectations. Nonetheless, TV reviewers are going to have their work cut out. In the meantime, as Disney swallows Fox (including Sky TV and Star TV), they will be transitioning their business from broadcast to IP at a faster rate. Others will follow.
  • Local news will reach a crisis point. More major stories will be missed in UK regions because, aside from the BBC, and a handful of modestly sized regional news operations, there will be no journalists to cover them.

From my own perspective, I’m vowing to do at least some of the following:

  • Watch back everything that’s still saved up on my Sky+ unwatched (including a couple of things recorded off the BBC HD channel!)
  • Get through a few more DVD boxsets that I have kicking around.
  • Books. Always books to be read.
  • Listen to more radio – in particular music radio. I spend too much time listening to speech, and while I listen to both my own music and streaming music, it doesn’t introduce me to nearly as much new music as the radio can, by placing it in context.

11 Reasons I Hate Listicles – Stuck in Draft #5

Here’s a short piece I wrote years ago. Published here as part of my Stuck in Draft series.

First things first – I’m not even sure that “listicles” is a real word. However I expect it pop up in the OED in due course because so much “journalism” is today being built around lists. So I’ll use the word anyway.

  1. Listicles are those things that sites like Buzzfeed has made inordinately popular. Although popularised on the web, they really come from magazines where lists have been a staple for many years. There was a time when the average woman’s magazine had to have lots of numbers all over the front cover to persuade readers to buy it.

Wait, wait, wait.

I’m not going to continue in list format, especially as it’s so reductive.

The main problem I have with this list-format of writing is that it’s very simplistic and doesn’t allow writers to build or develop arguments. Instead there are 15 reasons for this, or 7 reasons for that. There are the best 38 things of a certain type. It’s arbitrary, and is a pointless marketing exercise. Has anyone read the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Yes, they become very easy to read, and for a certain type of website, they drive an awful lot of page views. It’s impossible to imagine Buzzfeed even existing without listicles.

Lists have their place. They can be an effective way of managing or presenting information. The top ten is indeed a list, in order, of the best selling tracks this week (assuming it’s based on sales). In that regard it’s a useful and accurate portrayal of something. A list of the longest rivers in the world makes a great deal of sense (assuming you can determine where the sources of either the Amazon or the Nile truly are). But arbitrary lists based on the whim of an author working desperately to deadline are just a waste of space.

Faster, Faster, Faster!

There was a Buzzfeed piece recently, exploring those people who listen to podcasts at super-fast speed. I don’t just mean 1.2x or something, but some of them listen at 3x speed or even faster.

Elsewhere, a Guardian writer thanked Netflix for allowing him to skip all the intros to TV series and the ability to skip the end credits.

To me, both of these are problematical, and not really to be encouraged. My biggest question would be, what are you trying to get out of what you’re listening to? Are you listening or watching for pleasure, or is it more a list ticking exercise?

“Yesterday, I did Ozark on Netflix, and I burnt through all of S-Town at 3x speed!”

The pacing of these series is important. While I wouldn’t pretend that every series needs all 13 episodes it was commissioned for, I have to wonder what kind of enjoyment you’re getting out of it if you’re racing through. It can be the equivalent of picking up a paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings, and then deciding that the Wikipedia plot summary is all you really need.

Recently I’ve been seeing adverts for a company called Blinkist which claims to boil down the ideas of business books into packages that take 15 minutes to read! While I’ve no doubt that some business books probably do only really contain one idea, and it perhaps should have been boiled down to something simpler, I know too that reading a book for several hours lets the ideas contained within seep into your mind better. The quick hit approach is not going to have that effect, and I wonder whether the ideas taken from such material might stay with you.

It’s like reading the York’s Notes of Julius Caesar rather than the Shakespeare play itself.

TV series introductions are key to setting the tone of the programme you’re about to watch. At their best, they can be beautiful artefacts that lower you slowly into the world that you’re about to enter. They say to, “Settle down and join us, where serial killers/dragons/mafia gangsters reign…” You put down your smartphone, and let the story takeover.

Similarly, at the end, the closing music brings you back to reality slowly once more. Certainly the credits also recognise the dozens or more people who were involved in the programme’s creation, but the tempo is a nice outro from what you’ve been watching. Of course on some network shows, this is instantly interrupted by trailers or continuity announcers desperate to keep the audience from channel surfing. And in the on-demand world, you have perhaps a three second window before the next episode starts automatically. I find myself desperately flailing around looking for the remote – particularly with Star Trek: Discovery where I might have the obnoxious After Trek start streaming. As far as I can tell, Netflix has no setting to let you turn this off. [Update: Thanks to James in the comments pointing out that there is a way to turn this off. Go to https://www.netflix.com/HdToggle and turn off Auto Play. Update 2: I found the same setting in Amazon. In the UK at least, go here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/video/settings?ref=atv_surl_aiv_settings and scroll down to Player Preferences and Auto Play.]

I understand that if you’ve just spend your Sunday afternoon binge watching all 8 episodes of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel back to back, you might be a little fed-up with intro sequences, but I wonder more what that says about you? Perhaps you should take a break between episodes?

And who on earth wouldn’t want to watch the pitch perfect Stranger Things opening credits each and every time it comes on? That series simply couldn’t have had a better opening sequence in all its simplicity.

What about podcasts? Well technology means that we can speed up audio without making every show sound like it’s voiced by people with ADHD on helium. And software will also take out silences – you know, the bits of space where you’re supposed to think about what has just been said. If you’re listening to a podcast with someone who has an especially languorous way of speaking, then that is surely part of the show? Are you listening to ideas and thoughts, or a horse race commentary?

I suspect that for many, this high speed reading/viewing/listening is really to enable them to say that they have “done” such-and-such. Tick another one off the list. You’re a complete-ist and in an age when new works never stop coming, you feel you must run just to stand still.

I say slow down.

Appreciate things for what they are.

You might actually get a little more out of it.

Diversity in Media – Measuring Social Class

On Sunday I wrote a piece on Ofcom’s Diversity in Television report, and in particular, noted my disappointment that it didn’t measure social class.

The feedback I got can basically be summed up with the question: “Yes, but how do you measure class?”

So I thought it was worth exploring the issue a bit further.

Measuring social class isn’t easy. What you can’t do is simply ask people to mark themselves on a form. You need to collect proxy information that can provide you with some kind of methodology to measure it.

Here we come to census v survey.

A census is a record of every single employee, whereas a survey is a sample of some of the population. While ordinarily you’d want to measure the responses of all your employees, if your company is big enough then a survey may suffice. Not only that, if you know that some employees are likely to feel uncomfortable answering certain questions, then you’re likely to need to use a survey.

It’s for this reason, by the way, that surveys conducted about sensitive areas such as sex, should be treated with extreme caution, since many do not wish to answer, and indeed may be answering untruthfully.

Of course, there are rightly concerns that this is sensitive data. What right does my employer have to know about my parents’ education, or jobs? And as an employer, do I feel comfortable asking employees to collect this data?

It is sensitive information, and it needs to be collected and measured responsibly. So that probably means that it shouldn’t sit as a field in an employee’s record on an HR system, anymore than you’d record someone’s sexual orientation or religious beliefs on such a system.

Yet we also collect data on those sensitive areas. It’s usually collected in survey form, and on an anonymised basis. The collection is probably best handled by a third-party specialist research company who can assure employees that the data is not being used for anything other than measuring diversity in the workplace.

It’s important that social class data is collected as it impacts on many behaviours across societies. So while it’s hard to do it, groups like the Office of National Statistics have to collect this data, and indeed they have their own methodology for doing so. Notably, these are based around employment status (employer, self-employed or employee), organisational size and supervisory status (does a person supervise others, and in what context?).

As The Guardian reported over the weekend, the BBC has made the decision to use a staff survey which measured parents’ occupations, noting that its staff showed a higher likelihood of their parents having achieved higher managerial and professional occupations than the wider population, suggesting a class imbalance compared with the wider population.

Now it’s certainly true that an organisation the size of the BBC is able to get an external research company to measure such indicators, and provide norms to compare against. But Ofcom’s report was based on UK broadcasters who all had turnover’s of £1bn or more, so I’d argue that each of them is in a position to do a similar job.

On the other hand, a small indie isn’t in such a position, and the size of that indie might make such data relatively meaningless anyway.

Yet if the media industry is serious about diversity, then this does need measuring, and doing so on a pan-media basis with some central funding, could mean that the broader industry could be surveyed.

Mind you, as a friend of mine said to me, if you banned unpaid “internships” tomorrow, it may fix the problem quite quickly.

Diversity in UK Media – Ofcom’s Report Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Last week Ofcom published the first in what it says will be a regular series of reports into diversity and equal opportunities in television. It focuses on the biggest UK television broadcasters: BBC, Channel 4, ITV, Sky and Viacom (owner of Channel 5 amongst others).

Diversity remains a key concern in the media industry, from representation throughout media organisations, to issues surrounding pay discrimination based on sex.

But I really do have a bone to pick with this, and nearly every report on diversity in UK broadcasting. They don’t go far enough.

Sharon White, Ofcom’s CEO says in her introduction to the report: “Too many people from minority groups struggle to get into television. That creates a cultural disconnection between the people who make programmes, and the many millions who watch them.”

This is undoubtedly true, despite schemes that are set up across the industry.

The report breaks employees into the following categories:

  • Gender
  • Racial group (BAME)
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion and belief

The report dutifully compares each of the measured broadcasters against both the population at large, UK based industry, and the average amongst the peers. From this we see, for example, that Channel 4 does well amongst BAME staff, while Viacom does well with women in leadership roles.

But there’s a glaring hole in this analysis, and it’s one that pervades UK media.

Social class.

It’s just not measured. And without that we’re missing something fundamental from our broadcasters.

I’m not saying the other factors aren’t important – they are. And sometimes those other measures can be indicative of social class. But while media has a widely acknowledged considerable issue with new entrants coming into the sector, unless they’re supported by family members (bank of mum and dad), and can support themselves in London while they do unpaid “work experience”, then for all those other measures, we’re going to only get people who come from wealthier backgrounds.

Everybody knows this. It was mentioned in a good episode of The Media Show from the RTS Cambridge TV Festival this week.

So I’m not at all sure why it’s not included in Ofcom’s report. It’s critical that this is measured to truly show diversity in the media.

[UPDATE: I wrote a follow-up to this piece, detailing some ways this data could actually be collated.]

Dwindling Choices

A couple of weeks ago, Ofcom released its annual Communications Market Report. It’s always stuffed full of information about the UK media marketplace that can be fascinating to dissect.

In 2016, ownership of DVD players (including Blu Ray and games consoles with DVD functionality) was 67% of UK households. This year, it’s just 63% of households. That’s still most homes, but it’s indicative of the way that physical media is in decline as consumers move to streaming services.

Then yesterday, Amazon announced that it was closing Lovefilm. You may recall that Lovefilm was originally the UK’s version of Netflix in that it was a DVD rental by post business (Yes – that was Netflix’s original model too). Their basic service saw users renting films for a flat monthly fee and then posting them back when you’d watched them. In time, Lovefilm added a movie streaming service, so that by the time Amazon swooped in to buy them, it was the streaming service that Amazon was really interested in. That morphed into Amazon Prime Video, but the Lovefilm postal service remained.

And it still worked well, because unlike streaming services, customers had the ability to watch just about any film or TV series released on disc. That included classic films, genre titles and world film titles that never make it onto major streaming services.

And there’s the rub.

We have ownership of machines to play discs falling, and yet digital is not a direct replacement.

It’s all very well have a Netflix or Amazon Prime Video account, but those do not represent a full range of choice. In a Guardian piece bemoaning the death of Lovefilm, the author likened the film selection on the streaming services to the DVD selection in a petrol station. A handful of decent titles – all of which you’ve seen – and a load of trash you’d never want to watch.

That’s a little harsh, but it’s not far from the truth. Yes, the catalogues are slowly improving, but the reality is that on any given day, it’s hard for anyone to actually know what films are available on what services.

Distributors package up groups of films – some are good, some less so – and licence them to the online streamers for certain periods. That period might be measured in months, or it might be measured in years. By and large, the same film is unlikely to be streaming on both Amazon Prime Video and Netflix at the same time. So which do you buy? Both?

The reality is that the all-you-can-eat streaming services offer a fairly meagre range considering the vast breadth and wealth of cinema history. There are a few choice morsels alongside a lot of filler.

Furthermore, you can’t be certain on any given day, that a service you subscribe to will have the film you want to watch available to you.

Ah, but that’s OK. I can get everything else I want to watch from iTunes, Amazon Video (the rent-per-film part) or Google Play Video!

Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

If the film was pretty popular and released in the last twenty years or so, then yes, for around £4.49 for a rental, you probably can stream a copy, with luck in HD. But I think you’ll find there’s an awful lot missing.

Older films, classic films, mid-list films, genre films, TV series and many more.

Question for Film Distributors

If you’re a bit of a film fan like me, then from time to time you suddenly have the urge to watch a film. Assuming you don’t have your own Blu Ray or DVD copy to hand you head to the streaming services and search for it. Only to find it’s not there.

Why in 2017, is not a distributor’s entire catalogue online?

It seems to me that if you own the rights to a film, then you’re deliberately leaving money on the table if you do not at least make it available to purchase digitally in places like the iTunes and Google Play Video stores.

I’m not talking about things you’re holding back to repackage in various ways for maximum revenue – Disney, I’m looking at you!

I’m talking about average films, that if I wait long enough will pop-up once every couple of months on FilmFour or BBC2 anyway. I’m talking about solid mid-range titles, that once upon a time, I could happily find in physical format in a largish branch of HMV or the Virgin Megastore.

Here are a handful of films that I have genuinely wanted to stream but not been able to find on streaming services when I looked, all from within the last thirty years, and all currently or previously released on physical media.

  • Truly, Madly, Deeply
  • The Grifters
  • Rambling Rose
  • Enchanted April

If I started searching for older films then the list would get much longer much more quickly.

What I really don’t understand is that the costs of making catalogue movies available on these services is surely basically nil. You don’t even have to worry whether HMV will give up shelf space to a title, or Amazon warehouse space. You just list the film and let the money run in (or at least trickle in).

In 2017, if you’re a bit of a movie buff, then while the streaming services might sate your appetite a little, you’re not getting the full picture.

What you can’t do is draw an analogy with music. Spotify has a catalogue of ~30m tracks, so perhaps you could ditch your physical music collection and rely solely on their service (I wouldn’t personally, but many do). The same simply isn’t true for films, and we don’t seem to be close to that point.

Indeed if you don’t own a DVD or Blu Ray player, you’re limiting yourself enormously. And that’s before getting into the lack of extras that most streaming or download services offer.

As a consequence of all this, my physical film collection continues to grow.