TV

Winding Down Local TV

In the dim and distant past of 2011, Jeremy Hunt, then Culture Secretary, kicked off “Local TV.”

“For consumers, what this will mean is a new channel dedicated to the provision of local news and content,” he said.

In due course, he saw through the legislation to create a series of local TV services. This included the requirement for channels to be carried on all the main broadcast platforms. Furthermore, the new services would find positions fairly high their respective EPGs. Broadly speaking, the higher a channel appears in the EPG, the more viewing it is able to capture.

The BBC’s then licence fee settlement included funding that it must pay to the new services, both to build out a transmitter network and provide funding for each channel over the first three years. In theory programming might find its way back to the BBC.

Famously Hunt said, “Birmingham Alabama … has eight local TV stations – despite being a quarter the size of our Birmingham that, again, doesn’t even have one.”

But the idea was flawed from the outset.

First of all, equating UK and US TV stations was an irrelevance. US TV networks don’t exist in the same way. They are networks of largely independently owned stations, each of which affiliates itself to a major network in a given market. Sometimes there are big operators who own multiple stations, while their station in one city might be an affiliate of CBS, but in another, it is an affiliate of NBC. Mornings and evenings are filled with network programming, while afternoons are filled with nationally syndicated programming (Judge Judy, Ellen, etc).

Those “eight” local TV services in Birmingham, Alabama are basically ABC, NBC, CBS and so on, with local news bulletins scattered throughout the day when they’re not playing syndicated or network programming. Pretty much the same as watching BBC1 or ITV from a viewer’s perspective then. There are barely any true local services that operate around the clock. Sure, an affiliate might break away from the main network to cover a major breaking news story in its area, or more likely a car chase live from a helicopter, but they’re not truly “local” beyond news programmes and advertising sales.

Nonetheless, a variety of people applied for the early local TV licences advertised by Ofcom and they were duly handed out, via a “beauty parade.” In other words, to a win a licence, you had to promise the best programming. Another flawed part of the process, since to win a licence, applicants tended to over-promise.

The new owners of the licences varied. In London, it was the group that owned both the London Evening Standard and The Independent that got the licence. In Glasgow and later Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Ayr and Dundee, the local ITV franchise STV (which is still independent of the rest of ITV) won the licences. They were more successful than some others because they had a large news operation anyway across Scotland, as well as a healthy library of STV owned catalogue programming. However even these channels, collectively known as STV2, are facing a review over their future.

In Norwich, Mustard TV was operated by newspaper publisher Archant. They published the major daily and weekly newspaper titles in the area, and as in London, would be able to share resources with their stablemates.

But a couple of groups emerged to run what were effectively wider groups: “Made In…” and “That’s…” Your local service might be That’s Oxfordshire or That’s Lancashire, Made In North Wales or Made In Tyne and Wear.

Made Television has six stations while its larger rival That’s TV has fourteen.

Sometimes these groups won the licences from the outset; other times, they took over failing local stations (including the aforementioned Mustard TV).

But all the time, while these quasi groups were being built, something else was happening. A series of “change requests” was going through. Each of these would see a reduction in the number of hours of new original programming each station had to broadcast. The initial bidders had been wildly optimistic about the volume of new television they could make – indeed the “beauty parade” aspect to licencing actively encouraged them to make these promises. But it’s hard to make good television. It’s also hard to make cheap television. And it’s very hard to make good, cheap television.

Every so often, the stations went back to the regulator and asked to be relieved of some of the promises they’d made. That mostly meant reductions in locally made programming.

If they weren’t making original local programming, then how did they fill their schedules? Well they could licence old programming from various parties and save costs.

London Live, for example, licences large swathes of Channel 4 programming, and fits that between cheap Danny Dyer films that it has also licenced.

Made Television is able to licence episodes of Judge Judy, It Takes a Killer and Medical Detectives – all cheap syndicated fare.

Any channel could licence a lot of this programming, but not every channel gets a prime EPG slot as the local services get. Discovery or UKTV would kill to get Freeview channels 7 or 8. Viewers find those channels much more easily.

On the plus side, local TV has probably been a boon for Talking Pictures TV, the classic film channel. It has had an agreement in place that saw carriage of its channel across a lot of That’s TV stations.

Which all brings us to today’s news that Ofcom wants to end the local rollout of new services. This hasn’t come soon enough, because the economics just don’t work.

If a group wants to start a TV channel in 2018, then they should be perfectly able to do it on their own without any government assistance. And building expensive broadcast infrastructure really doesn’t feel the way to go. While there are definitely advantages to broadcast versus IP delivery, building a community TV channel on, say, YouTube would be a perfectly sensible and viable thing to do. Committed volunteers using cheap cameras and open source software can produce decent quality video – tens of thousands of YouTubers show what’s possible.

Indeed, the idea that a small TV channel is capable of filling 24 hours a day is laughable, so concentrating on a decent quality single programme that can be watched at the viewer’s convenience is definitely the most pragmatic solution.

TV is not easy, and most of the groups that started out with local TV services have struggled. Viewing figures are low – indeed for the most part they’re not collected by the ratings body BARB (Be very dubious of claims of viewership that come from other surveys).

The only real good I can think that came out of this experiment was as a training opportunity for new people into the television marketplace which is far too London-centric. But even then, I’d love to know whether everyone is being paid or not.

The idea was flawed from the outset, and while channels that remain will probably be able to struggle by for a while, they simply can’t afford to make quality local TV programming – especially news. While some UK TV regions are large, meaning that viewers feel distant even from their local BBC or ITV news programmes, they shouldn’t underestimate how expensive that programming is for both the BBC and ITV to make. It’s hard to see how a cost effective local TV service can truly feel that void.

And anyone who’s spent any time actually watching local TV bulletins in the US will know that for the most part, they’re not high quality, often concentrating on stories that make good pictures (car crashes, fires, the aftermath of murders), and filling their bulletins with syndicated material of often dubious quality. (See, for example, the scandal surrounding Sinclair Broadcasting recently.)

The whole plan was wrongheaded from the outset, taking up resource at the regulator, and costing licence fee payers money that won’t up on the services that they’re paying for. Even in 2011, the future of hyper local services was clearly the internet, and the US TV model was both irrelevant to the UK market, and in any case, not very good.

I would never want to see services closed down, but this an experiment that has completely failed.

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.

On Sky Q, Netflix and BARB

Note: This is a subject likely to be of even more niche interest than many of my other blogs here. You have been warned!

Yesterday Sky announced that it had reached agreement with Netflix to add Netflix to their Sky Q platform. What this means is that Netflix programmes will appear within the wider Sky Q ecosystem. It means that individual programmes will be promoted without necessarily having to dive into a Netflix “app” as you would on many TV platforms.

On Twitter this raised a few questions: Sky’s on BARB, so might we see ratings for Netflix in due course? Does this mean that Sky will know what their customers are watching on Netflix?

The first thing to say is that this Sky deal isn’t unique. On Amazon’s Fire TV platform, for example, individual Netflix programmes are recommended alongside Amazon’s own shows. You can dive straight into an episode of Stranger Things if you want to (and have obviously previously logged into your Netflix account). And that probably means that Amazon has some idea of what programmes their customers are watching.

I’ve no doubt that the carriage agreement between Netflix and Amazon stipulates that data can’t be shared, since as we all know, Netflix doesn’t publish ratings figures. But Amazon probably has some view on that. Of course, it’s only a partial view since there are a multiplicity of ways to get Netflix on your TV, from built in Smart TV apps, to games consoles, Chromecast, Apple TV and many others. But you know, if you have a big enough sample… I’ll return to samples later.

It’s worth noting that a multiplicity of companies potentially have some kind of awareness of how Netflix is performing. Netflix has a complex Content Delivery Network (CDN) globally to ensure that you get what you want when you want it and where you want it. More importantly, some larger Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are part of Netflix’s Open Connect network. In other words, the ISPs cache Netflix’s programming locally on their own data servers, speeding up delivery time to viewers, but also saving the ISPs money in terms of connectivity with the wider internet. Both the CDNs and ISPs have the potential to understand in great detail what is being consumed (albeit there may be encryption and obfuscation to limit or prevent this).

One thing that Netflix being on Sky doesn’t mean is that there will be BARB data. Recall that Netflix is already on other TV platforms such as Virgin Media. It’s also worth noting that even if all parties wanted to, BARB isn’t really set-up to provide meaningful data at this granularity, and that’s to do with sample sizes.

There are about 26m TV households in the UK, each of which has one or more people. BARB is the UK TV ratings organisation and it recruits a panel of households that provide detailed viewer data which is used to determine overall ratings. There are roughly 5,100 BARB households, with each BARB household representing around 5,000 other households.

That’s a decent sample; it’s large enough to provide robust data on programmes across the larger TV networks. (Things do get a bit more complex with smaller channels, and I’m always wary of anyone telling you how few people watched a show on a minority interest channel, since the sample doesn’t really cater for it). BARB has to work across each TV region, since advertising is sold on a regional basis.

But back to samples, and specifically Sky Q. How many Sky Q households are there in the UK?

In late January, Sky’s results for the six months until 31 December 2017 revealed that there are now 2m Sky Q homes in the UK and Ireland. BARB only measures UK TV viewing, but we’ll use 2m as a working number, alongside 26m TV homes. BARB needs to make sure that it’s panel is reflective of how people actually watch TV – the right number of Freeview, Sky Q, Sky+, Freesat, Virgin Media homes and so on.

Sky’s figures suggest that 7.7% of UK homes, roughly, have Sky Q. If that’s replicated in BARB’s 5,100 panel, then we’re talking about 392 BARB households with Sky Q.

In a paper published in January 2018, BARB says that 7.5m homes have Netflix subscriptions in the UK, or 22% of homes (This is based on a large survey that BARB conducts called the BARB Establishment Survey. It’s used to ensure that BARB knows properly how the UK public is watching TV and video).

As things stand then, assuming that Netflix subscribers are spread evenly across all TV platforms (a massive “if”), then we need to further reduce our sample to find Sky Q homes who currently have Netflix. It seems likely that current subscribers would be able to link their accounts to the Sky Q platform, and of course Sky and Netflix would like to see subscriber growth coming from those homes.

Let’s be generous and assume that instead of 22% of Sky Q homes having Netflix, it’s likelier to be closer to 50%, based on the greater disposable incomes of those households and them likelier to be earlier adopters. That means our sample is down to 196 homes. And that’s a very small sample to start trying to model what those households are watching on the Netflix platform.

This is all moot anyway, since unless Netflix changes tack radically, they don’t need to join ratings bodies like BARB. They’re not an advertising led business (the reason commercial services need BARB), and they know precisely how much their shows were streamed.

These digital providers are rolling big dice. Netflix says that it will spend close to $8bn on programming this year. Amazon is expected to spend $5bn. Facebook and Apple have promised to spend big too.

Recode has an interesting chart that puts 2017 spends in context.

But we probably need to contextualise that a little because Netflix and Amazon are spending globally, while many of the other players on this chart are predominantly US companies with relatively little ex-US programme spending.

I’m not sure where any of this gets us except that these digital streaming platforms are going to be everywhere even more, and we’ll probably never get a clear picture of how popular much of their programming really is.

Premier League Rights Update

Yesterday evening came news that the bulk of the Premier League packages for 2019-2022 have been sold to the incumbents, Sky and BT. But revenues are actually down this time around.

Sky is paying less than it was previously for a package of 128 matches across the year, both in overall terms, and in the price per game that it pays. Indeed it has a handful more games this time around despite paying less. But that still gets it all the first picks and many of the second ones, and it includes the new Saturday night kick off package.

BT is also paying a little less for the package it currently does for the Saturday lunchtime games, although there are fewer of them this time around which means the price per game goes up.

Overall, with two rights packages still be finalised, total revenues are £4.464bn compared with a final figure of £5.1bn last time around.

The final two packages are still to be determined, with the Premier League saying that there are “multiple” bidders – for which I read that as meaning more than one.

BT is certainly one of these, and it’s conceivable that Amazon would be the other. There’s no real value in Sky buying more – it has enough to persuade subscribers of the value of its package.

But there is a massive problem with these packages, and I’m still really unclear about how the Premier League formulated them.

One package is made up of Bank Holiday fixtures, and a complete midweek round of the Premier League, while the other contains two complete rounds of the Premier League.

Those complete rounds are surely problematical for any bidder? As I said previously, the winning broadcaster gets only two real bites of the cherry for each round of the Premier League. That assumes that matches are split across a Tuesday and Wednesday. So whoever buys the rights has a very limited window to monetise them. The package that includes Bank Holiday games is a little more attractive, since they’re spread out. But the value per game to broadcasters has to be substantially lower than for any other package.

But I wonder if the real reason that these have not been sold yet is because broadcasters are valuing them lower than Premier League does? The Premier League does set a reserve. That’s precisely what the FT is reporting (£) based on its sources.

It’s still possible that Amazon would come in and buy a package:

“Buy a Fire TV stick this Christmas and get free access to Boxing Day football – only with Amazon.”

But digital rights holders would also want to spread those games out across a longer period, and ideally want global rights, not just UK rights.

There’s no way that the final packages raising anything close to the £600m or so that would at least equal what the Premier League achieved last time around.

Unquestionably, these two package were badly formulated by the Premier League. They somehow believed that they would attract digital players who would hand over their hundreds of millions unquestionably, without weighing up the true value of the opportunity. And that hasn’t happened.

No Sense of an Ending

Warning: This piece contains spoilers for the 2014 series Amber, 2014 series The Missing and 2018 series Kiri.

There has been a trend in recent years for drama series to give is slightly more nuanced endings than we have sometimes expected. Perhaps all the questions haven’t been answered. Perhaps its unclear by the end, which characters have behaved in a honourable fashion. We’ve had heroes. We’ve had anti-heroes.

And then there are series where the story just isn’t neatly wrapped up. Sometimes that might because the way the show was produced meant it wasn’t possible (e.g. Lost – where writers needing to write 20 episodes a year neither kept track nor really cared if there wasn’t an ending that made sense), or because the writer wanted to leave things that way.

We know that real life doesn’t come neatly packaged up. A terrible murder is committed, but the police never catch the killer. Years after someone is convicted, evidence shows a wrongful conviction and someone is freed. (How many other wrongful convictions are there?)

A good example of this would be the RTÉ 4-part series Amber. I saw it when it was broadcast on BBC Four in the UK. It follows the story of a young teenager who has gone missing. We saw the story over an extended period of time, starting in the immediate hours and days, and then running into weeks and months after the disappearance. In the end, we never truly discovered what happened to the girl. And that’s probably realistic in many cases of disappearance. Did the person run away? Were they murdered? Who knows.

BBC One’s The Missing also entered similar territory, again leaving us with no satisfying conclusion after eight hours of television.

It’s certainly brave television making. Audiences tend to expect murder series to resolve the key plot points – who murdered who and why. Ideally they also want to see the murderer caught.

I want my television to make demands of me. I know that murderers aren’t all caught, and missing people aren’t always found. There are miscarriages of justice, and there are cases of poor policing.

But that doesn’t really excuse not providing an ending of any kind after I’ve made an investment in a series. Jack Thorne’s Kiri is a case in point. The series is about the disappearance and murder of a young girl. She’s a black child living with white foster parents, but has let the child visit her birth grandparents where the child is able to meet her birth father despite the social worker believing the parent and grandparent to be estranged.

When the child is reported missing and then is found dead, suspicion falls on the father, who has been found guilty of neglect and other drug offences. He runs away, but is persuaded to hand himself in, and due process is then followed.

The tale is tragic on many levels, since a “good” social worker loses her job, the father is revealed not to have been the murderer and true murderer – the foster father – is never caught by the police, his family covering up his heinous crime.

The whole piece is immaculately acted by a strong cast, and the direction gives a good sense of setting around Bristol. This is a classy piece of work. It also examines race, class, social workers and the police. And the story is pacily told. This might be four hours of drama, but it never sits still. The dialogue is authentic and its genuinely a lean piece.

And yet, it didn’t have an ending that could be called in any way satisfying. As the true details of events were slowly released to us as viewers, we obviously rooted for the police to capture the true murderer, and yet as the clock ticked on towards 10pm in the final episode, it was clear that this wasn’t going to happen.

OK. So the murderer gets off. What about the innocent father? Things aren’t looking good for him, despite evidence existing that showed that the foster mother lied to police to put the blame squarely on him. Well we never find out, because the last we see of him is showing up at court.

Is he found guilty? We don’t know.

Does the foster mother, who has had the truth heavily hinted at by her oddball son, leave her murderous husband? We don’t know.

Does the son who knows everything, tell anyone what he knows? We don’t know.

I think it was the fact that we weren’t told the outcome to the trial that really annoys me. Of course life isn’t neatly wrapped up. But there is a court case, and we surely deserve the right to learn what happened. If the series was true to form, the birth father would have been wrongly found guilty, but even that we viewers were denied.

This just left me generally nonplussed by the entire story. While this wasn’t a police procedural, and a series of pat solutions would have been wrong, I just feel that the story really had no ending at all.

Programmes I Know I Should Have Seen But Haven’t – Stuck in Draft #6

Here’s a slightly enlarged piece I wrote back in 2015 or so, but never got around to finishing. So I’ve had a bit more of a bash at it, but still feel it makes the grade as part of my Stuck in Draft series.

In David Lodge’s Changing Places, the English faculty play a game called Humiliation. Basically, they have to name classic of English literature that they’ve not themselves actually read. The winner is the person who’s not read the biggest acknowledged classic.

This isn’t quite the same for me since I’m not teaching “contemporary television” or whatever such a course might be called. But I’ll admit that there are a lot of shows that I’ve not seen which others will be shocked/disgusted/surprised/pitiful that I’ve not seen. Or perhaps I’ve only watched an episode or so, but given up far too early.

Here’s some of the list, concentrating for the most part on drama, and excluding soaps (never seen an episode of Coronation Street) or reality shows (have never watched Gogglebox, for example):

  • Breaking Bad
  • Futurama
  • Mad Men
  • The Good Wife
  • The Crown
  • Peaky Blinders
  • Wolf Hall
  • Big Little Lies
  • The Leftovers
  • Catastrophe
  • Orange is the New Black
  • Modern Family
  • Last Tango in Halifax
  • Boardwalk Empire
  • Deadwood
  • Queer as Folk

Some of these I will get around to, and many I won’t. It’s not a complete list, and just because something’s not on it, it doesn’t mean that I’ve seen all of it. For example, I bailed on The Sopranos before it ended, I got lost with Lost, and I’ve never seen the final season of The West Wing.

At least two of those series are sitting with every episode on my Sky+, while for two others I have DVDs or Bluray boxsets to attack at some point.

But there’s so much decent TV now, let alone all the rubbish TV we would put up with in between the good stuff!

The Olympics: Celebrating Success or Jingoism? – Stuck in Draft #2

I wrote this over a year ago, and never quite got around to publishing it. Hence it now forms part of my Stuck in Draft series.

And so another Olympics have concluded and from where I sit it has been a success.

Let me clarify that a little. Team GB has undoubtedly been successful. But there’s a much wider context when you look at the Olympics.

These include:

  • The cost to the host nation of holding the Olympics
  • The IOC
  • The wider geo-politics of the Olympics (e.g. Russia’s participation)
  • The commercialism
  • The zika virus
  • A green diving pool
  • Competing nations’ reactions

And there are many more besides.

It’s clear that hosting the Olympics is just ridiculously expensive, and it will be interesting to see what happens in upcoming Olympic cycles. Brazil probably thought it could afford the Olympics when they won in 2006, but ten years on, and the world economy had changed not least in Brazil itself.

So while state employees weren’t being paid, and poverty is endemic, millions are being spent, perhaps unnecessarily. Winning both the World Cup and Olympics in a short space of time seems one too many global sports events at the same time.

Beyond that we’ve had the spectre of empty seats in nearly every arena. We know that tickets are vastly expensive for the local population, but surely filling those seats should be a massive priority for any organising committee? Give the tickets away if need be. Surely you make some money back on over-priced snack concessions.

It’s somehow hilarious that Irish IOC member, Patrick Hickey, was arrested for ticket-touting when from several thousand miles away it seemed that availability of tickets really wasn’t a problem (with the exception of the Maracaña for the men’s football final).

And with a reported 12% of Paralympic ticket sales sold so far, there’ll be even more blue empty seats next time around. Recall that Brazil sent the fourth largest team to London in 2012 and were 7th on the medal table. Those would suggest that it’s taken seriously.

The IOC have shown themselves to be essentially unreformed. They couldn’t take decisive action against state doping carried out by Russia, leaving it to the Paralympic Committee to show who had some balls. Sadly the Paralympics are suffering a dire shortage of cash. The IOC is rolling it, but don’t expect any bailouts. “Nothing to do with us squire…”

And they treated the whistleblower of state-sponsored Russian doping, Yuliya Stepanova, with distain. Already in hiding in the US, and not allowed to compete at these games (plenty of other ex-dopers did compete), the president of the IOC, Thomas Bach actually said the following: “We are not responsible for dangers to which Ms. Stepanova may be exposed.”

So to the average Brazilian, the Olympics may or may not have been a sideshow – at least until they won the men’s football final with a Neymar penalty, or the men’s volleyball final. But that doesn’t automatically make the Olympics per se a bad thing.

The British team has done superbly, exceeding the medal total for 2012 – something that’s never previously been achieved after a home Olympics.

They finished second in the medals table (the table being unofficial, and weighted towards gold medals), notably ahead of China.

There are two key reasons for these things: lottery money and China under-performing.

Lottery money is significant. At £4m a medal, there seems to be a fairly direct correlation between Olympic success and the amount a nation invests. In the UK this is funded by state lottery run by a for-profit organisation, Camelot. Most know that when they buy a lottery ticket, they know that some of their cash goes to these athletes and their programmes.

Indeed 25% of lottery money goes to “lottery projects” of which sport gets 20% – so about 10p of every £2 ticket.

And of course, we know that the money is targeted at sports who achieve returns on investment: cycling, rowing, yachting and gymnastics for example. Medals are targeted at almost all costs. In the track cycling, many wondered why the GB team had done poorly at the World Championships in London earlier this year, but so well in Rio. The fact was that even though the World Championships were on home turf, the team had focused on peaking their performances in Rio. If that meant under-performing before then, then so be it. Funding is dependent on Olympic success and no other!

Is that the right way of doing things? Probably not. If GB is unlikely to win medals in your sport no matter what (e.g. basketball), then don’t expect any cash coming your way soon. And while it’s great that we support our athletes and allow them to train rather than hold down multiple jobs while they compete in a world that is mostly unprofessional, that doesn’t necessarily help at grass roots levels. Those pitches and swimming pools still need to be there and accessible.

The scariest single statistic I’ve read in the last few week is that 52% of children leave school unable to swim 25m unaided. That’s simply shocking.

And what about China? Well they under-performed badly, and no doubt there’ll be inquests into why. Possibilities include a natural down-shift following a home Olympics. Everyone raises their game to perform well at home, later metaphorically breathing out when the games are over. GB seems to be bucking that trend, but Tokyo 2020 will be interesting.

There’s also the changes happening in Chinese society. Olympians are bigger stars now – and that brings with it distractions when you perhaps have some money when once you didn’t.

Finally, the cat and mouse game of drugs cheats and drug detection continues. Who knows if that is a reason.

The fact that a peak audience of around 7m people watched the British women’s hockey team defeat the Netherlands on Friday night, or that 2m stayed up until nearly 2am on Sunday morning to watch Mo Farah win the 5000m, shows that the Olympics do bring us together as a nation like no other sports event.

Newspapers are full of Olympic pull-outs and “Gold Medal special editions.” Welcome home parades are being planned for Manchester and London. The BBC Sport website saw record views with 68.3m unique browsers in the UK alone, compared with 39m in 2012.

Something to do with a post-Brexit proudness? I doubt it. If anything, the Olympics gives Britons a two-week holiday from unending political turmoil.

Are we getting value for money for our Olympic success? I’d answer yes. It’s not the be all and end all of what we need to do for sport on a wider level. The broader Olympic “legacy” of 2012 does not seem to have emerged in terms of participation. But I know I’m a lot happier seeing lottery money being spent on gold medals than public money on things like useless “garden” bridges across the Thames.

Finally, is the coverage celebratory or jingoistic? BBC coverage of the Olympics was clearly skewed towards events that the GB team does well in. How else to explain primetime Taekwondo? If you’re a fan of handball or archery, you had to look to the digital channels.

But we’re probably no different to any other nation in that regard. From speaking to friends across the Atlantic, it would seem that from an NBC perspective, there were no other nations aside from the US competing in any event! Then again, with so many US medalists, which you’d expect US TV to cover, that wouldn’t leave a lot of time for anything else.

At least we don’t get the X-Factor style sob-stories attached to every single athlete. How they overcome adversity to get to these games. Etc etc etc.

If I had a criticism, it would be a few too many montages that ran way too long, and were aired way too many times. And when commentators cross the line and become fans, that becomes awkward. That’s especially the case where they’re essentially hoping the non-British competitors make a mistake and get that dive wrong, or fail to clear that fence.

It’s always a problem when many of the commentators are either ex-competitors, and quite often friends of the athletes.

And there’s often too much expectation shown. Despite their quality, we can never be certain in events like Track Cycling or the 10,000m that our guy or gal is going to deliver the goods. Yet they sometimes were presented as nailed on certainties, and that’s simply not the case.

One other thing from a UK perspective.

Can’t we just shift Eastenders to BBC2 for a couple of weeks? It would stop a lot of needless channel changing. Stick the Ten O’Clock news there too. Then there wouldn’t be complaints about the news being delayed (complaints from people who for some reason had access to BBC 1 but curiously not the BBC News Channel, which was happily broadcasting the news at 10pm each night).

Sadly, I’m not sure that this will be an issue in four years’ time since the timings of the games will mean nothing live in peak, and it’s unclear how much digital coverage the BBC will be able to provide under their deal with Discovery/Eurosport.

TV News Channels – Political Pawns

In the last few days, both Sky News and CNN have become tangentially embroiled in ongoing media takeovers. In both cases, there could be an impact on their longterm futures to a greater or lesser extent.

In the UK, 21st Century Fox is trying to takeover complete ownership of BSkyB. In a response to the Competition Market Authority it said:

The CMA should not in its assessment simply assume the “continued provision of Sky News” and its current contribution to plurality

Sky News is widely considered to be loss-making, but nonetheless works well in Sky’s favour in terms of influence. It also obviously provides an alternative news source, has to adhere to impartiality laws, and offers the only rival 24-hour UK news service to the BBC.

Meanwhile in the US, reports place CNN at the centre of a potential block to AT&T completing a takeover of Time Warner. CNN is a subsidiary of Turner Broadcasting, part of the Time Warner empire, and there are suggestions that Time Warner might need to sell this arm to appease the Justice Department. Trump is no fan of CNN of course, calling it “fake news.”

Exactly how profitable CNN itself is, isn’t completely clear. The US version of the channel might be, but it becomes more complex on an international level. But it’s likely that it works well in combination with other Turner properties when negotiating carriage deals.

It sounds as though the case could end up going to court, as it seems likely that both the TV assets of Turner Broadcasting as well as the DirectTV arm of Time Warner (another proposed remedy sale), are key to the basis of the overall acquisition from AT&T’s perspective.

In both instance though, this shows how precarious the news business can be, with proprietors or regulators determining their future in an ever consolidating world. Once news was a highly profitable business to be in, but changes in media consumption have seen business models decline as advertising has shifted online, and there has been less willingness of consumers to pay for news.

And fewer news outlets is definitely a bad thing. When the threat to Sky News emerged, there were a lot of triumphant anti-Murdoch voices happy at the prospect of its closure. That’s despite the channel regularly winning awards, and adhering to tight impartiality rules that all UK broadcasters have to follow. Losing a voice is definitely not a good thing, however much you might dislike a particular presenter.

Likewise, damage to CNN would be a loss in democracy both in the US and globally. Competition keeps everyone honest. And at a time when impartiality is constantly threatened, with well funded government backed outfits from some countries (e.g. CCTV and RT), and other semi-independent broadcasters threatened in other ways (Al Jazeera), independent voices are needed.

Strong, impartial journalism is critical to the foundation of our democracies.

Facebook, Amazon and the Premier League

It’s nearly time for the money-go-round… sorry, merry-go-round, that is the Premier League rights auction for seasons 2019/20-2021/22. We’ve just started the second season of the current deal where Sky and BT between them have spent £5.1bn for the current round of rights. Recall that last time around, this represented a colossal 71% increase in revenues.

That money, allied with ever-increasing overseas TV rights, fuels the UK game. But there were questions about how much further rights could increase next time around. Sky and BT represent the only “broadcasters” who are likely to bid next time around, and assuming that each is broadly happy with its lot, you wouldn’t expect rights to increase substantially.

Indeed, it seems as though the current set of rights have caused some real pain to the broadcasters. Sky has broadly speaking cut back its sports coverage, losing men’s tennis, and reducing rugby union coverage. Anecdotally, it seems that more coverage is coming from Sky’s studios rather than sending production teams to events.

One way or another, Sky has tried to avoid massive increases to consumers, although prices are going up.

So if Sky and BT are fairly maxed out, how do Premier League clubs get some big increases next time around?

Today The Guardian reports that Manchester United vice-chairman Ed Woodward says that Amazon and Facebook will get into the game.

As far as everyone is concerned, these companies bring untold wealth. They could be game-changers – pardon the pun.

Well of course Woodward would say that. And I’m sure that Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple will run the numbers. But at over £10m a match under the current contract, they’d need a compelling case. With the possible exception of The Crown, that blows all top TV dramas out of the water in terms of costs.

A lot has been made of Amazon taking on ATP Men’s Tennis in the UK from next year. They’re paying around £10m – the same price as a single Premier League match – for a year’s worth of tennis. Sky is said to have wanted to pay less than last time around, so it was to all intents and purposes giving up on the sport. They’d already dropped their US Open coverage.

For Amazon, tennis is a bit of a trial. Perhaps it’ll get them new Prime memberships, or make current members happier. But it’s not a massive cost. It’s not a multi-billion, multi-year commitment.

That’s not to say that one of GAFA won’t buy rights, but that’s a much bigger step. And what does that really get you?

All of this is before considering whether every football-loving household in the UK has enough internet bandwidth to support a live HD (or 4K) stream.

I could be wrong. But I’m not convinced just yet.

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.