TV

Das Boot

I first saw the original 1981 Wolfgang Petersen version of Das Boot on TV sometime in the late 80s. But it wasn’t until a 1998 re-release of the extended director’s cut of the film, that I saw in a cinema on Lower Regent Street, that I can honestly say that I saw it properly. That version ran to 207 minutes of often great intensity – as though you were trapped inside the cramped confines of a U-boat alongside the forty or so men aboard the vessel. Petersen also produced a TV mini-series version of the film.

There’s a whole genre of submarine films that have come and gone over the years that include notable entries: John McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October and Kathryn Bigelow’s K19: The Widow Maker and probably the two of the better titles. But Das Boot stands alone at the top. So what should be made of a new version of the story coming from Sky Deutschland?

The first thing to say is that this is more of a sequel than a remake. We follow the crew of a different boat, U-612, although it too is based in La Rochelle on the French Atlantic coast. U-612 is fresh from the factory and Captain Hoffman is given his first command with the boat. It’s late 1942, and things aren’t going so well, with more U-boats being lost at sea. In fact, by this point in the war, crypt-analysts at Bletchley Park were fairly reliably breaking the Enigma code that was being used by the German navy.

To expand out the series a little, this new version of Das Boot has two simultaneous storylines. The U-boat itself is fairly quickly diverted into carrying out a secret mission – not something that everyone aboard appreciates doing. Meanwhile on land, there is a story based around a cell of communist resistance fighters trying to disrupt the German war effort.

The key link between the two stories is provided by Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps), who has just arrived in La Rochelle as a translator for at first the German navy and later the Gestapo, and her brother Frank (Leonard Schleicher) who has at the last minute been brought aboard U-612 as the radio operator.

Frank has become a father with a local barmaid who happens to be Jewish, and has started providing information to the resistance led by Carla (Lizzy Caplan), a former fighter from the Spanish Civil War.

This is a production that has had millions spent on it. It’s hard to tell where physical life-size U-boat replicas stop and CGI effects begin – I note that they shot in Malta which has the world’s largest water tanks for filming any productions of a nautical theme. The real La Rochelle U-boat base is used, as it was in the 1981 feature, and a variety of French towns and villages provide a great sense of wartime atmosphere.

There is a single director across the entire series – Andreas Prochaska – something that doesn’t always happen with TV series. But it means that you end up with a very consistent tone across the whole piece.

And the music is superb, with Klaus Doldinger’s original memorable theme being reused to great effect by Matthias Weber who has scored this TV series.

There are similarities with the 1981 film – both versions beginning with the U-boat crews spending a final night in the local brothel before they embark on what might become a months long voyage. And the cramped quarters and differences between the officers and men are the same as you always get. But then to do anything else would be unrealistic.

Sky Deutschland really is on a roll at the moment, with first Babylon Berlin and now this. The good news is that both series are returning, and I personally can’t wait!

The Not-Live BAFTA Awards

In 2002, Ant and Dec remade the famous “No Hiding Place” episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads. This was a classic episode of the sitcom where the “lads” tried to avoid learning the result of an away England game, before highlights were shown later that evening on TV.

Something that made some sense when the original version aired in 1974, and when there would have been no live TV options for such a game, made less sense in 2002 when if you didn’t subscribe to the right channel at home, you could just pop around to your local pub to catch the game.

In 2019, there are still those who stay oblivious to the day’s football results until Match of the Day is on, but that means not watching Soccer Saturday or Final Score, not listening to Sports Report or 606, not watching the news, avoiding mobile alerts on your phone, and definitely staying away from social media.

We live in an information obsessed society, where the young especially want to know what’s happening now.

So it’s good to know that there’s still a real throwback to a bygone age that eschews the need to share information instantly. Instead, it’s something that takes a much more lackadaisical attitude to audiences.

I’m talking about The British Academy Film Awards.

Last night saw this annual event, these days coming not live from the Royal Albert Hall. As ever, the actual awards in the RAH start at around 7.00pm, but the TV transmission doesn’t start until 9.00pm.

Some of the consequences of this include:

  • ITV News broadcast the major award winners in their 10pm bulletin, ahead of those awards being shown on BBC One.
  • Ditto Sky News.
  • Anyone with a non-BBC news app installed on their phone could get alerts ahead of those awards being seen on TV. (The BBC’s own news outlets were “self-censoring” the news to avoid spoilers. You could still get the results in real time from the website and app however.)
  • Anyone with any kind of social media account could get the results. It’s not exactly unheard of for someone to open up Twitter when they settle in to an awards show on their sofa, perhaps to critique speeches or outfits with their friends. If you opened Twitter at 9pm last night, most of the results were there.

It’s not as though those in entertainment television don’t understand the importance of live. Series like Strictly, The Voice, X-Factor and many others all have their finals live. Yes – they need viewer votes to work, but they also understand the importance of social media. They want you to share hashtags and keep the conversation going with your friends. If you’re not watching, and your friends are, there can be a FOMO effect. The hosts repeatedly remind the audience that they are LIVE.

I bang on about this every year, and I genuinely don’t understand why changes aren’t made. Not because I moan about it, but because the audience itself moans about it.

I continue to note that in the US, The Oscars, Emmys and Grammys are live. Even the BRITs with all their bad-boys and girls are live on ITV.

I’d love to understand the reasoning for holding out on the whole live thing. Is it:

  • The BBC only wanting a show no earlier than 9pm (Call the Midlife is a ratings hit after all)?
  • BAFTA not being willing to start the show any later than 7pm?
  • Stars not wanting to go to after-parties as late as 11pm? (Have you tried getting home late at night on a Sunday?)
  • Everyone scared that the talent will say something that simply must be edited out?
  • Concern that the show will run long, bumping the news back to 11.30pm?
  • All of the above?

For what it’s worth, the overnight ratings for last night’s BAFTA awards are the lowest ever, with just 3.53m watching. This is despite inheriting an audience of close to 7m from Call the Midlife. Over on ITV, over 5m watched the first episode of a new series of Endeavour.

To put this in context, the audience for these awards has been slipping year after year since around 2013. Could the growth of social media and smartphone app usage negate the need to watch a non-live results show?

I wouldn’t pretend that some of the reasons for the low numbers aren’t related to larger TV audience issues, and this year the big winners were a non-English language film (Roma) and a strange comedy of manners about one of our lesser-known monarchs (The Favourite). But it’s not like big film stars didn’t turn out.

My solution for making the BAFTAs relevant again?

  • Live. Live. Live.
  • Start the show at 7pm and then go live on TV into the main awards at 8pm. You can still show an edited reel of the “lesser” award winners handed out in the 7-8pm hour at a break point later in the show. The Oscars manages to do this.
  • Keep the show simple. No need for elaborate and unfunny sketches. Get straight into handing out awards.
  • Beyond a few nominated songs, and an RIP reel, strip back most of the rest.
  • Turn the Rising Star award into a phone vote. It’s an audience vote anyway, so you may as well galvanise the audience to vote on the evening rather than ahead of time. The award is sponsored by a phone company after all! This seems to work fine with things like Sports Personality of the Year.
  • The presenter’s job should really just be to keep things moving. Comedians tend to work well because they can think on their feet.
  • Plan for a tight two-hour TV show. The UK TV industry should not be short of execs who can work within the constraints of live television.
  • Work with any recipients of lifetime achievement awards in advance to ensure their speeches are the right length.

Otherwise, just remove the thing from TV, and hand out all the awards on a weekday lunchtime at a restaurant somewhere, sending out a press release with all the winners afterwards.

[A Bit Later] The Guardian publishes a very similar article to this one.

“The time delay meant viewers could not tweet along with a live broadcast and feel like they were taking part in the show, something that has helped other live events.”

And from their Winners and Losers page:

“Everybody moans about it, but nothing seems to change: the baffling practice of the Bafta telecast running two and a quarter hours later than real-world events sucks almost every scrap of excitement out of watching the thing. In the age of spoiler-tastic social media, everyone knows the results, so why bother? Presumably the BBC don’t want to give up a prime piece of early Sunday evening TV real estate, and the Baftas want to catch the morning papers’ first editions, but something has got to change. Watching the tuxed and gowned beautiful people spout sententious truisms while thanking their agents is only bearable if there’s actual excitement to be had; the Baftas appear to doing their level best to avoid anything like that happening.”

Close

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

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

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

I settled in to watch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sports TV: UK v US

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Netflix’s UK Drama Originals

One of the issues that Netflix has to face is how it can satisfy all its users in every country around the world. If you set up in France, you need to produce local French programming. If you set up in Australia, you need to produce local Australian programming.

To some extent, Netflix has been able to dodge some of this in English-language markets, because a UK audience will happily watch a US-made Netflix Original (NB. What constitutes a Netflix Original is an interesting story in itself). Netflix can get around some of this by licencing lots of BBC, ITV and C4 programming, as well as buying ex-US rights to US network or cable series. But in the end, a drama on Netflix probably has to work in multiple territories. The sums just don’t add up if they have to make substantial commissions in each territory in which they operate.

So more and more, Netflix is commissioning UK originated material. I’m going to explore some of Netflix’s higher-profile drama shows, and see what they really mean and who they’re targeting.

The Crown is probably their biggest success. It’s quite possibly the most expensive drama Netflix makes full stop, on a per hour basis anyway, and if we exclude some of their films. It’s premium quality drama and it wins lots of awards. (An admission: I’ve not got more than an episode and a bit into it. I know, I know. I will get around to it).

Of course, a drama featuring the lives of the Royal Family is going to have international appeal. This is the kind of series, that had the BBC been able to make it, would have shown up on PBS in the US too.

Safe, which was released in May last year, was a very curious piece indeed. Theoretically, it’s a British crime thriller, but everything about it was wrong. The series was created by Harlan Corben, an American crime writer. It starred Michael C Hall (of Dexter fame) playing a British paediatrician whose daughter goes missing within their gated community.

So a series created by an American (although written by the very British Danny Brocklehurst), featuring an American lead actor who has a very mannered, yet nondescript British accent, and set within the type of community that’s actually fairly rare in Britain (I’m not saying that there aren’t such places, but they tend to be more frequent in the US).

Throw in a French teacher played by Audrey Fleurot (or Engrenages/Spiral fame), and you get the distinct impression that several boxes had to be ticked to get this series green-lit. American audiences will watch for Hall; French audiences will watch for Fleurot; British audiences will watch for everything else.

The series even avoided mentioning any locations, by not really giving anyone any regional accents, and talking about going to “the city” rather than anywhere too specific. I really hope that this wasn’t because international viewers might get confused by anywhere in the UK that’s not London.

I confess that I bailed on this before the end.

The Innocents appeared midway through last year – and seemed to be aimed at teenagers. I didn’t watch most of this either, although I note that while the cast was mostly of unknowns, there’s also Guy Pearce in there.

It’s a strange supernatural tale that seems to be partly set in Britain, and partly in Norway. There are some accents, although the story is such that what producers were really going for was a sense of alienation and other-worldliness.

Which brings us to Netflix’s most recent UK original, Sex Education, starring Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson. It’s hard to know where to begin with this frankly bizarre series.

Butterfield plays Otis, the teenage son of Jean (Anderson), and best friend of Eric. They are outsiders at their local school, which is kind of understandable, because it seems to exist in some kind of strange time warp. Although the series is very much contemporary – smartphones and mentions of Ed Sheeran – everyone dresses up like they’ve walked out of a John Hughes movie from the eighties, and the soundtrack is stuffed full of the kind of music you might of heard on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack. Everyone seems to drive vintage cars, and Otis and Eric ride to school on old racing bikes.

The school itself is a curious American-style High School, with “jocks” wearing jackets and it having a swimming team – or should that be “swim team”?

And everyone is obsessed with sex. If you thought The Inbetweeners had a one tracked mind, you haven’t seen this lot. It must be something in the water.

As it happens, Otis’s mother is a sex therapist, and the premise of the series is that Otis will use what knowledge he’s gained from his mother to help his classmates out with sex-advice for their various issues.

If you think that’s a deranged premise – that anyone at school, learning about their own sexuality, would pay heed to a classmate in such matters – then you’d be right. But like everything else in this series, you have to go with it.

The series is theoretically set in a Welsh valley, although nobody actually seems to speak in a Welsh accent. Instead there’s a general you-could-be-anywhere feel to the series, even though the valley were they shot this series is fabulous looking.

Now part of all of this is clearly a kind of stylistic device. We’ve seen similar kinds of things in other series like Legion and Maniac with retro-contemporary settings. But you also wonder whether Netflix is consciously trying to make something that doesn’t completely alienate a US audience.

I do worry that so many of Netflix’s UK originals seem to have any sense of localness surgically removed from them. I’m not saying that they should only be making dramas that would give Jimmy McGovern a good run for their money in their depictions of troubled inner-cities, but providing at least some sense of place would be nice.

Last week the BBC opened a consultation on being able to keep programming on iPlayer for longer than 30 days. They note that audiences – especially younger audiences – expect to be able to watch full series as they do on Netflix.

The concern for all British broadcasters must be that Netflix dominates in due course. But their idea of a British drama is very different to current broadcasters views of drama. A British series shouldn’t just be an American series with different accents and cars on the other side of the road.

Is Bandersnatch the Future of Television?

No.

No, it’s not.

Bandersnatch is the recently released episode of Black Mirror from Charlie Brooker available on Netflix. It takes the form of a choose your own adventure book/game and I loved it!

In many respects, this episode ticked just about every box for me. It was set in the eighties, in and around writing games for the ZX Spectrum. I bought my ZX Spectrum in 1982 (I still have it), and WH Smith did look like that – on the outside anyway. The one in Bandersnatch looked more like a record store on the inside, whereas records were just one thing you could get in a WH Smith.

I also read and played lots of the choose your own adventure books written initially by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. I remember trawling around London bookshops desperately searching for a copy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain when it too was published in 1982. I seem to remember finding it in the Puffin Bookshop in Covent Garden.

I read magazines like Your Sinclair, Popular Computing Weekly and Crash. I bought games from WH Smith, Boots, or mostly frequently, a stall on my local market. We copied games with our tape to tape players, and I failed to learn assembly language from Machine Code for the Absolute Beginner.

I bought The Quill and wrote my own adventure games – including having one broadcast on LBC on a show that I have subsequently learned included Ed Miliband as a contributor!

I digress…

Bandersnatch was great. It cleverly incorporated the choose your own adventure nature of following paths into the actual fabric of the story. In other words, it’s quite a meta experience.

The real issue with choose your own adventure stories is that if you’re not careful, quite a lot of material will be thrown away and perhaps never experienced at all. When the books came out, the theory was that kids would play them repeatedly, and go through all the various endings and options. But short of being incredibly methodical and mapping out the various “paths” it’s hard to do.

An author probably hopes that most of their words get read, but when authoring a choose your own adventure book, they probably have to accept that not everything will be read. But even then, there are tricks to keep people on the main narrative. Sometimes there are just side-paths that in due course get you back into the main storyline. What you don’t want to do is have a binary choice fairly close to the start of a story and then tell two widely divergent stories whose paths never again cross: “Do you go to the city, or go to the seaside?”

That’s even truer in television, where every minute costs more money. How long should a TV choose your own adventure last? 45-60 minutes? But if you have to shoot 120 minutes of material, that effectively doubles the cost.

Bandersnatch avoids a certain degree of that wastage by taking the viewer back through some of the different choices they could have made. While I don’t believe I’ve seen every ending, I think I’ve seen most of them – and that was all in one sitting.

But in the case of Bandersnatch that sort of made sense. The structure of story worked to allow you to experience multiple options without feeling that you’ve repeated a lot of what you’ve seen (You’re not made to sit through the same 10 minute sequences on a repeated basis).

I don’t see choose your own TV programmes being a big thing because of reasons of cost and the fact that many stories don’t lend themselves to it. And nor do I really see Netflix taking great learnings from this kind of technology as a writer on The Verge suggests.

Choose your own books are much more economically viable, and yet no major novelist has, as far as I’m aware, written such a title. There are one-offs here and there, but it’s not a thing.

That all said, I loved Bandersnatch, and need to catch up with some of the Black Mirror episodes that I’ve not yet watched.

Eleven Sports in the UK Reported to be in Trouble

I wrote something on Twitter about this, but thought I’d elaborate a little here too.

There was something of a shake-up in rights prior to the start of this football season when newcomer Eleven Sports entered the UK market and snapped up rights from Sky (La Liga) and BT Sport (Serie A and UFC) amongst others. 

Eleven Sports had hired Marc Watson, former CEO of their TV operation, and were expanding into the UK. The company, founded by Leeds United owner Andrea Radrizzani already operated in a number of other markets around the world, but was now entering the competitive UK market with its OTT service. That said, it was clear from the outset that Eleven Sports really wanted to agree so-called “wholesale” deals with existing TV operators like Sky and BT. The idea with these is that when, say, Sky sells a viewer a sports package, Eleven Sports would be bundled in alongside Sky Sports, Eurosport and others, and get a guaranteed revenue per month. This would be lower than the £5.99 Eleven Sports was selling itself to consumers directly, but the slightly lower fee would be made up for in volume. 

However a report in the Telegraph, and picked up in The Guardian, suggests that these negotiations have not gone well.

Talks have collapsed with Virgin Media, and both Sky and BT have been playing a game of wait and see. They could afford to do that because, while Eleven Sports had picked up some very good rights including the next two biggest leagues in Europe (from a UK perspective) after the Premier League, these aren’t necessarily essential for a British viewer. And I suspect that neither Sky nor BT saw too many cancellations when they lost those rights.

While Eleven Sports has been in the background trying to do wholesale rights deals with the big TV operators, in the foreground they don’t appear to have been doing a great deal to sign up consumers directly – something that Netflix, for example, spends a lot of money doing. I noted at the beginning of the season that they didn’t even seem to have a TV ad. And since then, I’ve seen little to no direct to consumer marketing (It’s possible that it’s just not been targeted at me, but I’m squarely in the bracket of their potential subscribers).

The cynic in me would think that they’ve been betting the house on getting those wholesale deals through. And the TV operators just don’t need to do them. Sure, they miss out on showing El Classico, but that’s more than made up for my Manchester, Merseyside and North London derbies.

The Telegraph reports that Eleven Sports may have as few as 50,000 subscribers bringing in £300,000 a month. That’s nowhere near enough given their rights costs. But I’m amazed that they even have as many viewers as that. You imagine that these are mostly die-hard Spanish and Italian football fans, alongside those from other smaller leagues they have the rights to (Volume is not the issue with the service). I suspect that their upcoming UFC rights which are due to kick in this January, would have added a few more subscribers. But it’s not clear that these would be enough. In any event, the UFC is said to be talking to BT about a last minute extension of their existing deal in the event that Eleven Sports does close down.

The one deal that Eleven Sports did manage to do was with STV, the Scottish ITV franchise holder. Last month they announced a strategic partnership, that would see the broadcaster sell advertising and sponsorship around Eleven Sport’s programming. In a related deal, the STV Player would also get access to two games from La Liga and Serie A each weekend.

(Sidenote: The STV Player, of course, is targeted at viewers in Scotland, and there seems to be some kind of agreement between ITV and STV to politely point viewers towards the correct player depending on which region they live in. You have to supply a postcode during sign-up, and there are content restrictions on non-Scottish domiciled viewers as a result. It’s unclear if this includes the Eleven Sports games.)

But all of this feels too little, too late. The UK sports market is highly competitive, and the existing players have very deep pockets. It’s instructive that a different OTT service that operates in a similar manner DAZN Sports, has chosen not to launch in the UK for that very reason.

It’s notable that Netflix has chosen to steer clear of sports. Only last month, their CEO Reed Hastings said:

“Sports, like live sports, for on-demand adds almost no value to it. People want to watch sports now. They want to know who won. They don’t want anybody to tell them who won.”

Although he didn’t totally rule it out in the future.

But it doesn’t take much to do the sums. The most recent NFL deal in the US, was a $650m a season deal Fox paid for Thursday night football. They get 11 games for that. But that roughly means that per hour, they’re paying more than double what Netflix pays for an hour of The Crown or HBO pays for an hour of Game of Thrones. And that’s for a single market for a property with essentially zero repeat value.

Not that this has stopped Amazon experimenting. Next season it becomes home to ATP tennis in the UK, and it has bought a limited package of Premier League matches beginning with the 2019/20 season. Although the latter were certainly sold very cheaply as I’ve noted here before.

Amazon does have different strategic goals to Netflix, and it’s possible that Amazon identified a segment that they underperformed in, which tennis might help them reach.

I can only think their football investment is purely a marketing initiative that will see them give games away to viewers who use their hardware and/or their apps. There are too few fixtures for them to try to sell subscriptions, but you can get people to use an app/device that they otherwise might not use.

Back to Eleven Sports. You feel that despite the people involved, they entered the market naively, and didn’t have the killer sports package that they really needed. They didn’t get any Premier League football or even any UEFA packages, and that put them on the back foot from the start.

They may manage to turn it around. Reports suggest they improved their app, adding functionality like Chromecast to it. But the low subscriber numbers just kill them.

Sporting Value

The new Premier League season is well under way, and it’s at this time of year that the big sports TV players tend to gather up their marketing spends and splash the cash around, trying to persuade those of us who don’t subscribe that we really should be.

BT Sport has an entertaining video of a small girl taking on heroes, promoting BT Sport’s coverage of the Premier League, Champions’ League, Europa, Moto GP and Rugby Union amongst others. Everyone wants to see Gareth Bale “act” after all.

Meanwhile Sky’s ad features an army of literal “armchair fans” as they settle down for the new season of football. It includes their presenting talent in the ad, including Jeff Stelling who was seemingly contractually obliged to appear in every advert on television during the World Cup.

But there’s a new player on the block. No, I’m not talking about Premier Sports who scooped up the rights to the pre-season ‘tournament’ that literally nobody cares about, the International Champions Cup (Seriously, do you even know who won?).

No, I’m talking about Eleven Sports which has just launched in the UK.

Incidentally, I did look to see if they’d made a TV ad. But if they have, I couldn’t find it, and their YouTube page has a grand total of 13 videos, the newest of which is over a month old, and all of which seem to be about the World Cup.

Eleven Sports is a London based company that was started by the Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani. Hitherto they’ve mostly been active in other territories like Belgium and Poland. But under the management of former BT exec Marc Watson, they’ve been running around snapping up sports rights from under the noses of Sky and BT.

Sky has lost La Liga rights after many years, while BT has lost Serie A games which it has had pretty much since it launched its sports channel. They also grabbed the rights, at least this year, to the PGA Championship which had been floating around for the last year or so after Sky lost them.

These losses come at a time when Sky is about to lose its ATP tennis to Amazon, who have just begun showing this year’s US Open. And the FT reports that BT is going to be losing its NBA and UFC contracts shortly.

The only really good news for the incumbents, BT and Sky, is that as they enter the final year of their current Premier League agreement, their next three year contract starting with the 2019/20 season will be flat in terms of costs. 

But consumers probably need to ask whether they’re getting good value. BT has just put up its fees for BT Sport, while Sky’s went up in April.

Over at Eleven Sports, they’ve done a deal with Facebook to stream some of their output there (Incidentally, when I searched on Facebook for ‘Eleven Sports’ it was the second link I had to click. The first was a Burmese newspaper).

Eleven Sports’ pricing model is either £5.99 a month or £49.99 for the year, and you can get a 7-day trial. But it does all feel a bit rushed. While there is an app, the Android one doesn’t yet have Chromecast (although it’s said to be coming). That’s led to some scathing early reviews. So good luck watching golf balls on a 5″ screen. Watching on mobile is an essential bonus, but that 46″ block of glass in the corner of the living room is much better in overall terms for watching sport on.

In other territories, Eleven Sports has sub-licenced games to other sports providers. Maybe that will happen here, but I can’t see that it’s in either Sky or BT’s interests to give a leg up to a new competitor. So we’ll have to wait and see. Another FT piece says  that neither has bitten yet.

I confess that I’m slightly dubious about how many people will subscribe for La Liga or Serie A. Yes, those leagues have Messi and, now, Ronaldo, but for me they were a nice-to-have bonus. Ex-pat Spaniards and Italians will perhaps seek them out (or use vicarious VPN systems to log into local language feeds). And of course both leagues do have their hardcore fanbases. But is it all sustainable in the longer term?

There must be questions about whether they have overpaid for rights. They claim not to have, and it’s true that Premier League rights increases have left both Sky and BT with less money for other sports. BT is said to be likely to lose both NBA and UFC coverage fairly soon.

On Radio 4’s Media Show last week, Marc Watson talked about how much football Eleven Sports had put out – more than any of the other sports channels. But what is the quality like, and is there an audience for all of it? 

More worryingly a streaming-only option can be a challenging option is significant parts of the UK. I might be able to happily stream 4K* but I know I’m in the relative minority. Streaming is much easier to do when it’s not live. Netflix and the iPlayer team are able to encode very carefully to ensure that the right amount of bandwidth is used on an almost scene-by-scene basis. Fast action requires more data; a slow conversation requires much less. When you move to a live environment, particularly when there is lots of action (so sport by definition), you have the twin problems of needing high bandwidth to capture the action, and the need to encode on the fly in a sub-optimal manner because you’re broadcasting live. Netflix has a whole programme to work with local ISPs around the globe to minimise network traffic, and ensure the best experience for the end user with as little lag as possible. The BBC Research and Development also published a really detailed summary of their 4K trials with Wimbledon and the World Cup over the summer that gets into some of the challenges with live versus pre-recorded. While HD might be easier to do live, the same issues exist.

From an overall consumer’s perspective then, to watch the same sport this season as last season, both BT and Sky have increased their prices well ahead of inflation. Meanwhile they have less sport each, and to get back to the status quo of last season, the consumer needs to spend another £5.99 a month on top of those increases for some sport that they can no longer [easily] watch on their television.

In any event, I’m surprised by how little I’ve heard from Eleven Sports on a consumer basis. While soft-launches are sensible when you’re launching a new streaming platform, the football season is underway now, and they’ve not really started a major consumer marketing proposition that I’ve noticed. Compare and contrast with Amazon’s current marketing blitz for their US Open coverage.

Time will tell.


* I don’t actually, for the good reason that I don’t have a 4K TV.

Succession

I’ve been keenly awaiting Succession for a while. It comes from Jesse Armstrong who created Peep Show and more recently has done a lot of work with Armando Ianucci on things like The Thick of It and Veep, the latter being from HBO as this is.

What’s interesting is that, simplistically, this is a fictionalised version of the Murdoch family, with a powerful patriarch and his squabbling offspring. And of course, Sky Atlantic, who have an output deal with HBO giving them rights to much of the company’s programming, are in a large part owned by the Murdochs. Indeed right now there’s a complicated chain of acquisitions going on with Disney buying Fox, including its Sky assets, while Comcast tries to buy Sky and sneak it out of Disney’s hands.

I was initially surprised when this big budget drama didn’t instantly appear on Sky Atlantic. Surely they weren’t having cold feet about it? 

It turned out that Sky Atlantic wanted to put the whole series out in one go, so they waited until the end of its US transmission and all the episodes were available. And more to the point, although the series has the venere of being about the Murdochs, it’s somewhat more than that.

As an aside, it was entertaining hearing Matthew Macfayden on The One Show earlier this week, explaining that in the US there were a number of media families.

This is all true, but the Roy family is remarkably similar in structure to the Murdochs. At the head of the family is Brian Cox as Logan Roy – a cracking role. As with Murdoch, he originates from the ‘colonies.’ Scotland in this instance. He’s showing signs of age, and some of his children question some of his decision making. His heir apparent, is Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), the most business focused of the children. The eldest son, Connor (Alan Ruck) is a free-spririted libertarian, spending his time on a farm, not doing a great deal apart from overseeing the company’s annual fundraising gala dinner, and living with sort-of-girlfriend, who he’s sort-of-paying to be his sort-of-girlfriend.

Roman Roy (Keiran Culkin) is a waster who spends his time not taking anything too seriously, but it does mean he gets all the zingers. He’s only really in the business because he’s a son and therefore part of the family. Shiv (Sarah Snook) is the one family member trying to fashion her own career as a political consultant. But she’s still close. Her husband to be is the charmless social climber Tom (fantastically played by Matthew Macfayden), who knows he’s marrying into wealth… and power.

And then there’s Marcia (Hiam Abbas), Logan’s third wife, who’s mysterious background tends to make you wonder if she’s all she seems. 

Waystar Royco, the business that everything revolves around seems to have a publishing arm, a TV arm (including a news channel), a movie studio and a theme park business – the latter being the only bit that Murdoch doesn’t really have.

Given all this, how can anyone possibly equate Logan with Rupert, Kendall and Roman with James and Lachlan, Shiv with Elisabeth, and Marcia with Wendi Deng/Jerry Hall?

In fact, despite the similarities in the familial structures, the series goes off in some slightly different directions. The tone is, for the most part, surprisingly light. This is a soapy cousin of Veep, with many of the cast being caricatures to an extent. Culkin and Macfayden both get to have a lot of fun with their characters, as does Nicholas Braun who plays the dim-witted great nephew of Logan, and being pushed into the family business by his mother. There’s a fantastic scene when Tom takes him on a night out and they end up in a nightclub where Tom steers them up into an exclusive, and entirely empty, VIP section. Learning as he goes, he wonders allowed if it’s sort of like the rest of the nightclub, but without all the fun stuff on the dance floor down below. They sit there drinking from their $2000 bottle of vodka in silence.

But this isn’t solely a comedy, and there are serious questions being asked at times. I won’t spoil the season ending, but it’s played out remarkably well. 

In the end, this is a family drama with set amongst a particularly dysfunctional family. Yes, the setting is all sleek corporate offices and palatial apartments; private helicopters and glossy functions. But they’re the same kinds of rows, just played at a higher order.

I was hooked and can’t wait for season 2 next year.

Virgin Media and UKTV (And ITV) – Continuation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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