TV

Televising The World Cup Around the World

Two media stories which have interested me a lot about the World Cup so far.

In the UK, we’re fortunate to still have Ofcom’s Listed Events. This is a list of sports events that are considered national events, and must be available to audiences free-to-air. Despite various attempts to either redefine the list, or scrap it altogether, the list is still in place.

What that means is that if a broadcaster wants to buy the rights to the World Cup, they have to make it available to everyone. That essentially prevents Sky or BT from buying them – at least unless they also used Freeview space to broadcast the games. Hence the BBC and ITV share the rights to big tournaments such as these.

But while Listed Events are common in Europe, elsewhere in the world they are less common. Here are two stories about markets where there have been problems as a result.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Arabian national team may not have covered themselves in glory during their 5-0 defeat in the opening game in Moscow, but of course there remains high interest in the team and the tournament as a whole back in Saudi Arabia. This is the first appearance for the country since 2006.

However, across the Middle East and North Africa, BeIN Sports has the rights to the tournament. BeIN is the Qatar-based sports broadcaster that has been growing in size in recent years both in the Middle East and beyond. And this time around there are no fewer than four North African teams in the tournament: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.

This is where politics gets involved. As you may be aware, Qatar is currently facing a blockade from some of its Arab neighbours. Notably these countries cutting off diplomatic relations with Qatar include Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

I’ll let others get into the whys and wherefores of this dispute, only to point out that it’s now been going on for a year. But of relevance to football, this affects access to BeIN in some of those countries.

Egypt had been demanding access to at least some of the games, arguing that the fees that BeIN was charging were beyond many Egyptian’s means (US$90 for the tournament plus an $89 decoder if they don’t already have one). BeIN did eventually agree to make 22 games free to air.

Meanwhile, a new station has appeared on satellite – BeoutQ. It’s essentially taking a pirate feed of BeIN Sports and rebroadcasting it on satellite TV, even going so far as to put its own logo over the top of BeIN Sports pictures:

FIFA is obviously upset about this.

The problem is that the Qatar blockade has prevented the import of BeIN decoder boxes into states like Saudi Arabia, and essentially the population is prevented from subscribing to the channel. The same has been true in the UAE, although the difficulties may have been eased a little of late with existing subscribers being allowed to continue. That doesn’t help new subscribers however.

I’ve no doubt that if you know who to talk to, there are ways and means around this, but for the average viewer, watching the World Cup has suddenly become a lot harder.

You might think that operating a pirate satellite channel isn’t that easy. It’s not as though you can put dodgy gear on the rooftop of a high-rise. You need to up-link to the satellite from an official site. BeoutQ is carried on Arabsat, which is a Saudi company. You might infer then, that’s some kind of official support for this piracy. I couldn’t possibly say.

FIFA’s probably between a rock and a hard place, having sold the regional rights to BeIN, but I don’t have an enormous amount of sympathy for them. They sell rights for the maximum they can get, regardless of reaching as many viewers as they can. And whatever they claim, I seriously doubt that a lot of that cash is being reinvested in football around the world.

In the meantime, I’m told by colleagues that Arabic websites are full of links to VPNs and various European and global sites that offer streams of World Cup games.

Australia

In Australia, the public broadcaster SBS held the rights to the 2018 World Cup. But public broadcasters like SBS have been under financial pressure, so in 2016 they did a deal with telecoms provider Optus. Optus held the rights to English Premier League games, and would sub-licence one match per week to SBS. SBS in return sub-licenced 39 of the 64 World Cup fixtures for 2018 exclusively to Optus. SBS itself would only broadcast 25 games over the air, including all Australia’s fixtures and the final.

Optus in the meantime, sold access to their exclusive games to Australian viewers for AUS$15 a month.

Things have not gone well.

It seems as though the infrastructure that Optus is using is unable to cope with Australian demand, and subscribers have had to put up with constant buffering and other issues.

Optus have said it was, “Unprecedented demand,” that has caused the problem. Although as many have pointed out, the World Cup is the single most popular sports event in the world, so demand was probably not likely to be “Unprecented.” And it’s not as though Aussies are exactly disinterested in sport.

As a stop gap, SBS is now showing all the games in the tournament for 48 hours while Optus tries to fix their problems. Whether that’s enough time to get things right is another question. If there are fundamental technology problems, then those will take longer to fix. In the meantime, questions are being asked in the Australian parliament.

As an aside, it’s an ongoing story that big audiences and streaming always cause failures – at least first time around. If England gets through the group stage, then ITV has the first knockout stage exclusively. I hope the ITV Player is robust…

The Complications of Streaming

I was as disappointed as many fans were when SF series, The Expanse, was cancelled by SyFy in the US a couple of months ago. Outside the US, the show airs on Netflix (on a six month delay), but it was Amazon that revived the series. Non-US viewers like me were left wondering whether Netflix will continue airing a show that Jeff Bezos himself is said to be a fan of.

Today comes news that Fox show Lucifer has been saved. Fox had cancelled the show that was also shown on Hulu in the US. This time it was Netflix that has come in to save the show. Yet in the UK, Lucifer seasons 1 to 3 have aired on Amazon.

So in the UK we’re left with a Netflix show saved by Amazon, and an Amazon show saved by Netflix!

Now it’s never quite that simple, and rights will often reside with various production bodies. What’s more, Netflix and Amazon might well have done “run of life” deals with the intellectual property owners of those series. For example, when Longmire was saved from cancellation by Netflix in the US, it never reached Netflix UK. Instead, the series made by Warner Horizons, continued to air on TCM.

It’ll be interesting to see whether these saved series continue where they have been airing, appear split between streaming partners, or quietly switch sides and move to the other platform.

World Cup 2018 TV Coverage – A Few Early Thoughts

We’re only a short period into the third day of this World Cup, and we’ve already been lucky enough to see a World Cup classic in the Portugal v Spain fixture. That had it all, and although I really don’t like Diego Costa, and I really really don’t like Cristiano Ronaldo, I do recognise class when I see it. And we saw it. Danny Murphy will have to live down his line that Ronaldo couldn’t get that free kick up and down over the wall from that distance, before the man did precisely that with a spectacular free kick that gained him a Spain equaliser and his hat-trick.

But I’m not really going to talk about the football, which has been mixed thus far.

Let’s start with the worst aspect of this World Cup so far – the graphics. They are awful.

The pictures are provided by a company called Host Broadcast Services who cover the game as FIFA dictates. HBS provides the world’s TV stations with its pictures, and these come adorned with FIFA’s graphics. Those graphics during the game are limited to the lower third of the screen, allowing broadcasters to insert their own scoreboxes and logos in the top left or right hand corners.

I assume FIFA’s marketing people has dictated the font which is called Dusha (see an example at the top of this post) and was created especially for this tournament by a design agency called Brandia Central. It’s obvious been designed to convey both a Latin alphabet with design elements that convey the Cyrillic alphabet. FIFA is using it on all its marketing materials in this World Cup.

But the problem is that it’s not very legible – especially so for those with less than perfect eyesight. And FIFA is using it for many of the graphics packages in the coverage.

Choice of typeface is not my main complaint however. That’s the “Goal Scorers” information. During games, the HBS feed brings up the current score in a ‘lower third’ caption (or chyron). It appears at roughly 10 minute intervals, as well as the end of each half and after goals. The end of halves caption is fine because the action has finished and the designers seem happier to take up more screen real estate. If there are multiple goal scorers for a side, then the caption takes up more space.

But the mid-game captions, which are useful for those coming late to the game who want to see the scorers, the captions are terrible. Instead of showing all the goalscorers at once – as Sky, the BBC, ITV and BT all manage to do – they show one scorer at a time, with them slide on and off the screen. They’re too fast to easily read in a small font, and they’re on a loop. So when the score was 3-2 to Spain last night, we saw the following on the screen during the loop:

Ronaldo 4′ (P) – Costa 24′
Ronaldo 44′ – Costa 55′
Ronaldo 4′ (P) – Nacho 58′
Ronaldo 44′ – Costa ’24
Ronaldo 4′ (P) – Costa ’55

And so on until the caption disappeared.

It’s confusing and useless. How many had Ronaldo scored at that moment? I saw his name and lots of 4s.

I don’t doubt that it’s complicated to not include so much information that you fill the screen with goalscorers, and that you keep fonts at a size that works for the whole world (Graphics also have to be ‘4:3 safe’ for those watching on older non-widescreen televisions). But the solution here is a mess, and it needs to be changed immediately.

ITV’s highlights package is disappointing. I was still buzzing from the Portugal v Spain game last night, so I thought I’d catch ITV’s highlights too. They have some good pundits and it’d be nice to hear from them. And there was a highlights show at 10:45pm so I tuned in. What a waste! No studio presentation at all, and a commentator, Joe Speight, who I wasn’t familiar with. At first I thought this was a World Feed commentary (The default English language feed that any rights owner can take from HBS), but it wasn’t. I think the commentary was done ‘off-tube’ from the Broadcast Centre – an increasingly common practice for less relevant games. The commentator often has several screens to look at beyond what we see, but they’re obviously not actually in the stadium. For what it’s worth, most of the games being broadcast in the US on Fox will be done this way. Of course, Russia is a big country, so it can be a logistical nightmare trying to move people around.

However, it was less about the commentary, than hearing what Gary Neville, Lee Dixon et al thought about it. Or not, because ITV didn’t put together a full show. They will for highlights on England’s game on Monday which the BBC has live.

Other things:

  • I’n really bored of Mark Lawrenson being a professional grouch. It’s the World Cup and you’re lucky you’re there. I’m not saying you should sugar coat poor games, but let’s try not to be completely miserable from the first game. So yes, I do want to see the VAR graphics showing the ball crossed the line. Because you know what, another couple of centimetres, and it’d have been ruled offside.
  • Where is ITV’s studio? [Update: Next to the BBC’s. See more details below] They’re not in a mobile studio in Red Square like the Beeb. But it’s so nondescript that Mark Pougatch and co could be in London.
  • The BBC lets you choose the 5 Live commentary on their games (or no commentary at all), but watching via Sky at least, you’re forced to watch in SD. I want HD and the choice of audio!
  • I’m liking the fact that interviews with non-English speakers are being subtitled rather than dubbed. It feels much more modern.
[Update: I’m told that ITV’s studio is right next to the BBC’s in Red Square. Indeed, as I suspected, there’s an entire temporary structure with several nations’ studios. Fox Sports is also there.

You can see rear of the structure in a photo in this piece. So why did I wonder otherwise? It’s because ITV’s window out to the square can be turned into a “green-screen” where they project images from the ground they’re about to go to. ITV loves using this kind of technology – see the News at Ten, which is one big virtual studio. Seemingly they’ve done something clever with their windows to turn them into a green-screen when they want to. Either there’s some kind of clever reflectivity going on – or they just lower green blinds. Anyway, it’s strangely disconcerting, whatever the Radio Times thinks. And I’m not even going to get into the pseudo-dome they’ve virtually added to their studio. Still – at least it’s not Matthew Lorenzo in an underground studio in Dallas, as ITV was in 1994 for no obvious reason.]

Premier League Football Rights – Addendum

Four months after the winners of the main TV packages for the 2019-2022 Premier League domestic football rights were announced, the final two packages have now finally been sold with Amazon and BT picking up the “remnants.”

First a reminder that previously Sky and BT essentially maintained the status quo in this rights period, while managing their costs. Cumulatively they were paying around £600m over three seasons less than they had previously, with the proviso that the final two packages remained unsold.

Why didn’t those two packages get sold first time around? Essentially, the Premier League’s reserve price was not met. That wasn’t surprising since the packages were poorly conceived, offering multiple matches on a single date meaning that one broadcaster couldn’t maximise the number of potential viewers. Yes, digital technology means that viewers can select what they watch – as we see during early rounds of European club competitions – but they offer a limited number of viewing opportunities.

While the packages haven’t been enormously tweaked since those reserves weren’t met, there is one noticeable change in the new format.

BT has bought Package G which is now 15 fixtures from two midweek fixture programmes, and five matches from the “split weekend.” The “split weekend” is a single weekend’s worth of fixtures spread over two consecutive weekends allowing for a short mid-winter break in upcoming seasons. In effect 10 teams will get a ‘bye’ one weekend, and the other teams the following weekend. That allows for the thick end of two weeks’ break for players of any given club. But it also means that viewers get football every weekend during the “break.”

BT’s five fixtures from that split weekend won’t be simultaneous, so they get a decent bite of the cherry with them. The other 15 fixtures are more complicated. Assuming that midweek fixtures are spread over two nights – Wednesday and Thursday – it means BT would be looking at 3-4 games per night during those midweek rounds. The issue here is that a viewer can really only watch one of those games, assuming the Premier League doesn’t start having kick-offs at 6pm as per the Europa League. Furthermore, some of those games will be ‘unattractive’ to mainstream viewers and therefore unlikely to have been TV picks previously.

BT is paying £90 for these 20 games – or £4.5m a game. That’s significantly down on the £9.2m a game it was paying for its other package. But it bolsters BT’s Premier League offering, enabling it to promote 52 rather than 32 fixtures, so it makes some sense.

Amazon is more complicated. I have not seen any reports on how much Amazon has spent, but it would surely be much less than the £90m BT is spending, since it has bought Package F, with games from one Bank Holiday and one midweek rond.

While the Bank Holiday games could be spread out into as many as four time periods – e.g. kick-offs at 12pm, 3pm 5:30pm and 8pm – a further six games from the round would be played simultaneously with other fixtures. And even the most die-hard fan is unlikely to stay glued to their sofas for four consecutive matches.

With the midweek round, it’s again hard to see how a viewer can see more than two fixtures – one on Tuesday and one on Wednesday. The remainder will need to be played simultaneously.

In both cases, some less glamorous games will be included, so the rights fee should be lower – in the £50-60m range I would guess. That leaves the Premier League with perhaps £450m less over three seasons than previously.

As I said previously, when I mused on Amazon buying rights, I could envisage a sales push from Amazon with something like: “Buy a Fire TV stick this Christmas and get free access to Boxing Day football – only with Amazon.”

But this is a marketing challenge for Amazon. They have games on only three dates within the season. So they’re going to have to spend a lot on advertising to reach viewers for such a short period.

The Premier League was desperate to get a digital player like Amazon on board, because since there’s no obvious competitor to Sky or BT right now, they need deep-pocketed global players like Amazon to come in and shake things up (aka spend even more cash!). But if Amazon bid for the bigger packages, they didn’t go high enough, and global operators like them or Facebook really want global rights. Given the value of Premier League football, it’s probably still a better business model for the league to sell rights on a territory by territory basis. Sum of the parts is worth more than an Amazon whole.

That may not remain the case forever, but aside from the prestige in owning the rights, there has to be a business model where it makes sense for Amazon or another digital giant to buy these rights. And I’ve struggled to find one. That said, Facebook did bid for Indian Premier League rights. They didn’t win, but those rights might make more sense since India is probably still a growth market for Facebook. Is there anyone left in the UK who might use Facebook that isn’t using it? (It’s true that post Cambridge Analytica, a bigger issue for Facebook in the future might be retention of some of those users.)

I’m certain that next time around, we’ll get a different set of TV packages that makes more sense to more broadcasters and digital operators. I’ve argued all the way along that these were badly formulated and indeed were a misreading on the Premier League’s behalf.

I will be interested to see who gets mobile goal flash digital rights since those are yet to be allocated and might indeed be of value to a new player.

The Premier League probably looks jealously at the way the NFL can sell the same rights to multiple platforms. For example, Thursday night games next season will air on Fox TV, the NFL’s own NFL Network (which gets cross promotional branding on Fox), and Amazon who have renewed a previous deal. Now Amazon is reported to have spent perhaps $50m for the 2017 rights, so pocket change in the scheme of things, but it’s amazing that the NFL can sell the same games multiple times.

The NFL also repackages other games that it has “already sold.” While Sunday afternoon rights holders like CBS and Fox cover games in multiple territories, adhering to complicated rules about which fixtures have to be covered in which “local” market, nearly all the games are available to subscribers of DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket package. DirecTV obviously pays healthily for these rights – as do its subscribers.

Beyond that, NFL Network also offers Redzone (viewable in the UK on Sky Sports), which is ad-free coverage of all the afternoon’s fixtures, hopping from game to game as teams get closer to scoring. While the NFL owns NFL Network itself, it’s still effectively redirecting some viewers away from networks like CBS and Fox to its own network, where viewers are not exposed to those networks’ ads!

In some ways it’s remarkable that the NFL is able to do this, but American football is an in-demand product, and networks need it on their schedules. I’m sure that the Premier League would love to do something similar.

Bulletproof

Oh dear. Sky One’s big new glossy action drama is pretty awful.

Before I explain why, I will admit that I’m not the target audience for this show. But nevertheless, this show is just all over the place.

Bulletproof is trying to be a 2018-vintage action cop show set in London. Imagine The Sweeney or The Professionals, mixed with the buddy-cop smart dialogue of films like Lethal Weapon or Bad Boys.

You’ve got Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke as the two bodies, their hard nosed boss, their girlfriends and their co-workers. Then you’ve got the baddies in the first episode, some Slavic car thieves (Gone in 60 Seconds?), who are tooled up to the max. Walters and Clarke and co-creators with Nick Love (The Football Factory, The Sweeney (2012)).

From the opening credit sequence, which has big bold graphics, and lots of shots of our heroes in full action mode as if from a 1980s TV show, we know exactly where we are. Or do we?

Very early on, an informer gets murdered in front of them (with some slightly dodgy CGI), and they’re on the tail of the car thieves, starting with a car chase. It’s not entirely clear why heavily armed bad guys would run over an informant right in front of the police, when they could quietly murder her at their own convenience some other time, but let’s not get bogged down with such details right now.

There are, however, instantly massive problems with the script.

The buddy-buddy side of things runs throughout, but having seen a character horrifically murdered in the first few minutes, nobody really seems to care about her much, given everyone gets sidetracked with other japes and tomfoolery. Then someone remembers that they have to catch the criminals because of the senseless murder.

Noel Clarke’s character in particular seems to be the most useless policeman in the Met. He suspects his girlfriend of cheating on him, and rather than paying attention on a stakeout, he broods over who he thinks the culprit is.

Having crashed their car in the chase – well, set off the airbags anyway – they have to get a lift home, and to win over their uniformed colleagues, Clarke’s character says, “Keys, plod,” to the first uniformed official he meets. Yes – I bet that goes down well in the station.

Later, he inadvertently shoots a colleague in the shoulder during another chase. But no worries, he’s soon drinking and joking with Walters at takeaway van somewhere. Only later does he discover that the bullet just missed a major artery. Phew. Especially as they’d disobeyed orders to take on the villains rather than waiting for backup.

Their colleagues actually get captured by the bad guys since they stupidly joined a case conference via a video link while they were staking out the bad guys. I’d have thought that standard procedure when hidden in the bushes is not to distract yourself with Skypeing your colleagues.

And needless to say that Clarke and Walters, when not practising on the gun range, walk around their Met office with their guns in shoulder holsters all the time, because that’s what American cops do. None of this signing them in and out of the armoury for them.

Look, I get what this is trying to be. A big action series with characters who appeal to a younger and more diverse audience. We’re not supposed to take it seriously.

But the tone is just all wrong.

Clarke’s character is miserable throughout, except when he’s on the phone trying to sort out whether to get free-range chicken for their family meal or not. So those scenes jar, even though they feature Clarke Peters no less. The handbrake turns in mood are just wrong. You have to go one way or another. You can have stupid silliness – all the villains having sub machine guns, even though they’re just loading cars onto a container ship – but you have to do that all the way through. The relationship elements just get in the way and feels wrong – particularly as we’re straight into a failing relationship. Don’t overload the episode with backstory – we can learn more about the tricky relationships as we go, not the whole hog in episode one. And especially, only once we know that they’re good at what they do, can we start to emote with them, when their flaws are revealed. In a US series, you know that this would bookend the episode, and not get placed into the middle of the episode.

Mostly importantly, to root for our heroes, we need to see proof early on that these are good cops who are great at their job. Instead, we quickly find out that one of them doesn’t like high speed car chases even though we’re going to get a lot of them in this series. This is a curious characterisation to give one of the leads in an action series anyway. The joke is going to wear thin very quickly.

Why not introduce the characters being really good at their jobs by way of introductions. Sure, it’s a little hackneyed, but it gives you action up front, and shows the viewers that these are good cops who can do the job brilliantly. Coming away from episode one, we more have the feeling that they are utterly useless at what they do, getting their informant killed, their colleagues kidnapped and then shot, ignoring orders and generally endangering the public at large!

The action sequences are fine, although they don’t feel as expensive as they want to feel. Just because you have a drone, it doesn’t make things look automatically glossy. Cars don’t crash during chases – they just end up with a loose boot and deployed airbags.

And although this is firmly set in Laaandaaaan, it seems to have been mostly filmed in Liverpool. Which explains why the locations feel a little off. The Sweeney and The Professionals were firmly shot where they were set. Again, that feels like a bit of cost-saving going on.

First episodes are hard – you have to set up the characters and give us enough of a story to get us hooked, but this missed the goal by a mile.

Big action series aren’t trivial to make. The same channel that showed this also showed A Touch of Cloth. We know the tropes of action series and the police procedural. We’ve seen Hot Fuzz. But most of all, the tone of the world we’re in needs to be consistent, and there simply isn’t the lightness of touch that a series like this needs.

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.