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.

Virgin Media and UKTV

We seem to be in the middle of a real old-school rights agreement brouhaha at the moment. Virgin Media has just removed all UKTV’s channels from its platform after what we must assume was a lengthy period where the two parties failed to meet terms.

UKTV is 50% owned by the BBC, and 50% owned by Discovery (following Discovery’s recent completion of its acquisition of Scripps). And UKTV is pretty successful. It has trodden the line of being both a pay-TV and free-to-air operator very carefully. It has a total of eight channels: W, Dave, Alibi, Gold, Eden, Drama, Really, Good Food, Yesterday and Home. Of those, five are also available on free-to-air platforms like Freeview and Freesat. The remaining channels, including Gold, Alibi and W are only available on pay platforms.

When the entity that would become UKTV was first set-up, it was heavily reliant on licencing repeats of notably BBC programming. But in recent years, it has made a lot of headway commissioning its own exclusive programming, and acquiring exclusive programming, or contributing to production budgets of international programming. That mix has seen it deliver strong ratings and revenues.

According to BARB, over the first few months of this year, it has average between 5.0% and 5.5% of viewing, placing it sixth behind the BBC, ITV, C4, Sky and 5 groups of channels. The biggest channels are Drama and Dave, which each get about 1% of viewing. To put that in perspective, it usually makes them bigger than any of Sky’s own channels including Sky 1 or Sky Living.

So why is there is a fight with Virgin Media? Well it’s cash. Who knows what Virgin Media pays for UKTV’s channel bundle, but it’ll be a handful of pounds a month per subscriber. From press reports, Virgin Media is seeking a steep discount on what it has been paying and UKTV isn’t happy.

Virgin Media’s key argument is that UKTV isn’t able to offer on demand rights to much of their programming.

This is true. The BBC does place limits on what programming can go onto the UKTV Play platform. That’s because the BBC is also selling those rights to streamers like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. However, that doesn’t mean that UKTV play only carries their original programming or their acquisitions. You will find BBC programming on the platform. At time of writing, they have episodes of Sherlock, Silent Witness and Waking the Dead available to stream. However, there do seem to be limitations on what can appear in box sets. And obviously, UKTV’s own programming can stay available for much longer.

(Incidentally, this isn’t a situation unique to the UKTV/BBC agreement. Sky/Now TV sees HBO programming come and go in various windows. Game of Thrones will be there for a while; then it will drop off, perhaps coming back later in the year.)

However Virgin Media complaining is unlikely to change the BBC’s position. BBC Studios who maintains the stake in UKTV and also monetises programming on other platforms, is unlikely to budge just because Virgin Media would like it to.

In the short term, viewers lose out. Virgin Media is hoping that while it’ll lose some subscribers, they save money in the longer term. Their so-called replacements are, of course, nothing of the sort. And Sky will no doubt enjoy signing up a few new subscribers.

But this is a dangerous game. Channels like Dave and Drama are popular, and viewers will get upset. While those two are available on Freeview, others like Alibi and Gold aren’t. Some die-hard crime TV fans may indeed up and switch platforms. UKTV is an oddly powerful platform to have a falling out with. Perhaps they were pushing their luck with increased fees to support their continued investment in new programming. We may never know.

I suspect in due course, sense will prevail and a new agreement will be met. Recall that when Discovery and Sky had a big falling out about 18 months ago, it was resolved only at the 11th hour.

Radio is Fastest

If you wanted to know what was happening in Moscow as fast as possible last night, your best bet was the radio.

I’ve mentioned before that when a big fixture goes to penalties, I always listen on the radio, because I get the news first. More regularly, if there’s a match that’s both being covered by Five Live and Sky TV, I might have the TV switched on in my lounge, but the radio on in my kitchen. If I hear a goal described on the radio, I know that I can take my time strolling into my lounge to see the goal scored.

This was beautifully illustrated in a Tweet that showed some Brazilian fans watching a game on a big screen, with one fan listening to the radio:

During the England semi-final, at a point of tension, I decided to see what got me news from Russia fastest. Here are my non-scientific findings in order:

Fastest to Slowest

BBC Radio Five Live AM

— ~0.2 seconds ahead of —

BBC Radio Five Live DAB

— ~5 seconds ahead of —

ITV Freeview SD
ITV Freeview HD
ITV Sky HD

(All TV roughly the same)

I didn’t bother with streams because they introduce too many variables based on the technology I’m using, the internet speeds I have, and so on. But I do know that UHD is especially slower than other streaming options. I also noted earlier in the tournament that BBC’s VR experiment delivered video faster than regular iPlayer! (I was, however, completely underwhelmed by the VR experience)

Note that I can’t accurately measure the time because I comparing things I can see myself with things that are being described by a commentator. In other words, radio is perhaps even further ahead than I’m estimating here, since the radio commentator has had to see and describe something before I hear it. On TV, I can simply see the net bulge with a goal.

What’s more, I’m told that AM is deliberately delayed by about a second – perhaps to keep it closer in sync with DAB.

I suspect that the overall delay is closer to 10 seconds for events happening in a stadium and me seeing them on a television. There will be uplinks and downlinks from the venue to the broadcast centre, then more from the broadcast centre to the UK broadcaster’s playout systems. Then that signal too is probably propagated by satellite to many transmitters and direct-to-home satellites. Each satellite “hop” might take 250 milliseconds, and then there encoding and decoding delays to account for. Finally a broadcaster may deliberately introduce a delay to ensure that they can cut the picture in case something happens that they don’t want to show (the equivalent of the “dump” button in many radio studios).

All of this shows that if you want to know what’s happening fastest, radio gets there first.

Is IP TV Really Ready for Primetime?

Last night YouTube TV went down for an hour. That’s not YouTube the platform, but the premium TV service that YouTube offers customers in the US a range of broadcast TV channels in exchange for a monthly fee. The service went down right in the middle of the England v Croatia World Cup semi-final in Russia.

Every time a set of major sports rights comes up for sale, there is more and more discussion about whether a major internet platform like Amazon, Facebook, Google or Apple will be bidding. So far, there have been a few toes dipped in the water. Amazon has a small package of Premier League games from the season after next; Amazon also has ATP tennis in the UK from next year, and has had a few tennis tournaments this year; Amazon has streaming Thursday Night NFL rights, sharing them with free-to-air and pay-TV ; Facebook has bought Premier League and La Liga rights for a handful of Southeast Asian countries.

But at the same time, there are ongoing problems with many of these streaming technologies. In Australia, Optus had massive issues with its World Cup rights as I’ve mentioned previously. They’ve ended up refunding subscribers, and allowing all their games to be shown on free-to-air broadcast TV. ITV Hub has had various issues during earlier games in this World Cup (although I’ve seen few reports for the semi-final last night). Hulu’s stream of this year’s Super Bowl went down towards the end of the game. There are plenty of other examples.

Streaming is hard, and the resources to ensure no breaks are not to be understated. You might get angry if you can’t stream an episode of GLOW on Netflix because something between Netflix and your ISP isn’t working right. The worst that might happen is that you have to wait a bit and watch it later. But that’s not a remotely satisfactory solution for live sport.

If a company the size of Google can still have a major outage during a global event like the World Cup, then you know that this isn’t easy. During the Sweden v England quarter-final, the BBC reported a record 3.8m live streams at one point. And of course, there were also reports that the stream fell over towards the end of the game for some.

It’s notable that for the World Cup, the BBC’s UHD streaming experiment was initially limited, to ensure that those who got a stream weren’t going to be disappointed half way through when too many other viewers caused the whole system to fall over (Of course, viewers would quickly find out that they were well behind other versions of the picture meaning that you could be hearing your neighbours cheering a goal minutes before you saw it yourself).

The same fixture had broadcast viewing figures of over 19m, with many more watching in pubs and at outdoor events. And while we need to be careful about comparing audiences (1 stream does not equal one viewer; they are not measuring exactly the same thing), it’s clear that the vast majority still watch via the more robust broadcast systems. The question is, for how long?

Talk to a TV engineer and you’ll begin to understand why broadcast is still better. The Freeview transmitter network is very robust with built-in redundancy to ensure that TV channels’ signals reach local transmitters. While local transmitters can fail, these tend to be extraordinary events, and their “up time” is high. If the transmitter is working then the only reason you don’t get a picture at home is down to your set-up (e.g. a faulty antenna on your roof). Satellite transmission is also remarkably robust – with perhaps only extreme weather causing picture degradation.

With IP, there are many places that the system can fail. Broadcasters are reliant on large Content Distribution Networks (CDNs) to distribute programming. And that complexity increases with live. Then there might be a local problem with your “exchange”, or even the local fibre cabinet near to your street. Perhaps your the free router your ISP gave you has failed. It can be hard to diagnose, and there are many potential points of failure.

For the most part, service will probably resume quickly. But just how quickly is another question.

I’m not arguing that IP can’t fix some of these problems, or be more robust. But I do think that it’s going to be a significant technical challenge, with many parties involved, and broadcast is better in many respects. From a broadcaster to transmitter might only involve a couple of specialist companies. The pictures arrive faster, and there are fewer places for things to break. One viewer or 30 million viewers? It makes no difference.

On the other hand, some future live event will take the record for streaming again, but these will be more worrying moments as systems are put under bigger pressure than ever before.

I’m not ready to give up broadcast as efficient video and audio propagation methodology just yet.

Marketing TV

If you’re a TV channel and you’ve got a new show you want to tell people about, it should be relatively simple. You make a trailer or two for it, and then you run that trailer around programmes that the audience for the new show are already watching.

You might want to be a bit cleverer than that, perhaps pulling in viewers of less obviously related programmes. Indeed if you’re really clever you might make different trailers to target different audiences.

But for the most part, TV companies use their own channels, which makes a great deal of sense. Or perhaps did. Because as the audience becomes ever more dis-aggregated, it’s getting harder to reach potential audiences. Viewers are spread far and wide, and you can’t be certain that you’ll reach a large potential audience just using your own channels.

It’s instructive that if you visit a big US city like New York, you’ll see advertising for movies and television shows everywhere. When I visited in April, even the city’s bike hire docking stations had advertising for Showtime’s Billions.

TFL Have Missed a Trick

Yes, Times Square has historically been full of movie and TV billboards, mostly elaborate digital screens, but it was interesting to see just how many Netflix and Amazon shows were being promoted. Beyond those, you have bus sides, taxis, and subway carriages. Traditional media. Ads were everywhere.

Times Square Ads

Tourists

Americans

Bosch

Compare and contrast with the UK, where advertising budgets seem more modest. Yes, BBC One advertised Troy reasonably heavily on posters, and indeed their current World Cup coverage (I’m not at all certain that the latter is the best use of marketing spend incidentally). Sky has put significant budgets behind Bulletproof and Patrick Melrose in recent weeks. And ITV and Channel do occasional campaigns for bigger shows. But there’s not the same consistent spend as you’ll see in the US.

Yet even those US spending levels aren’t enough.

A really good piece in The Information explains that although Netflix is upping its spend on marketing alone to $2bn, that’s not always enough to gain cut-through.

The story cites a Netflix show called Disjointed, that they promoted via a pop-up weed store in Los Angeles costing $20,000. I would point out two things from that. Yes, it will have created some local buzz (pardon the pun), but that doesn’t particularly do anything much for viewers outside of the Los Angeles area. Secondly, the marketing had zero impact outside the US. I like to think I pay reasonably close attention to the television landscape, and have never heard of this show, even though it had a big star in Kathy Bates! That $20,000 might have been better spent on regular advertising.

It’s also worth noting that the story compares Netflix’s $2bn spend with CBS’s $246m. The difference, though, is that the former is spending across the globe, while the latter is mostly spent in the US.

Netflix today has dozens of original films and series that I simply know nothing about. Unless I’m willing to watch a trailer to learn what a title I’ve never heard of is about, then they are heavily reliant on traditional routes to media. That could be sending stars onto the promo circuit, or just word of mouth. But as the volume of production intensifies, things are much more likely to get lost.

Even a couple of years ago, a die hard Netflix viewer would probably have been able to name most of their big dramas. Today, I no longer think that’s possible – assuming you’re not an industry exec with a professional interest.

“The most common complaint I hear from fellow Netflix showrunners is that they would make a great show, and no one would know that it was on,” said a creator whose show is currently being produced by Netflix.

I don’t know what the answer to Netflix’s problem is, with their vast number of productions, from all over the world, fighting to break through. But I do think some British networks need to probably invest more in off-network promotion.

Sexist Coverage of the World Cup

No, I am not talking about Patrice Evra’s applauding of fellow ITV pundit and England footballer Eniola Aluko (nor his muttered “no clapping” moan in a subsequent match).

Nor am I talking about the various people who are upset that women deign to commentate on a football match.

(Incidentally, “Remote Controller” in the new issue of Private Eye needs to take a long hard look at himself)

No. Instead, I want to talk about the coverage itself. As I mentioned previously, this tournament is covered on behalf of FIFA by Host Broadcast Services, who provide the pictures that every broadcaster takes.

Basically, it’s pretty sexist.

Let me explain why. I don’t have the demographic breakdown of ticket buyers for the World Cup, and I don’t doubt that it’s a mixed crowd. However, I would argue that it’s predominantly male. There are definitely females there. How many I couldn’t guess. But I would need strong convincing otherwise to be persuaded that there weren’t more males than females in the crowd.

But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the TV pictures. The TV cameras, when they show close-ups of people in the crowd, are as likely as not to show a women. Probably quite an attractive woman. Failing that, it’ll be a child. But mostly women. They might be wearing the team shirt, and perhaps have face paint on or be adorned with flags. But they will be a woman.

Essentially there are one or more camera operators during each match whose job seems to be to find the prettiest, most colourfully dressed people in the stadium, and put them on camera for the world to see. It’s utterly blatant.

It gets worse. Danny Baker related on one of his radio shows that when he was in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup he happened to sitting near a women who featured on the coverage. She was a paid model, and, he recalled, she had been alerted in advance when she would be on camera so that she was whooping and cheering when they cut to her.

Is FIFA still populating the crowd with models who’s job it is to look pretty for the cameras? I don’t know. But I do find the coverage objectionable. I might not especially want to see a shirtless beer-bellied supporter in particular, but that might be a more accurate representation of the crowd. This does seem to be a FIFA problem. You don’t tend to see it Premier League coverage, and nor does it seem especially prevalent in UEFA Champions’ League coverage. But who would have thought it? FIFA seems to have retrograde view of the game that they want to spice up.

As it stands, it feels very creepy – a long lens camera scouring the ground for pretty girls to zoom in on. It’s the sort of thing the Daily Mail does on a hot day.

There are also some tell-tale giveaways. If the crowd member is wearing a lanyard of some description, then they’re probably a VIP. Perhaps they have tickets via a sponsor. They almost certainly didn’t go into some national federation’s draw for tickets.

I’m not saying FIFA is the worst. Formula 1 might have got rid of “pit girls,” but too many cycling events still have “podium girls” who have to give winning riders a big kiss. For the Giro d’Italia, they seemingly have to apply a particular kind of lipstick guaranteed to leave marks on a rider’s cheeks.

Even worse is the Indian Premier League. The crowd shots there seem to exclusively be of the wealthy cricket-goers in the executive levels. Lots of glamorous men and women do that usual feigning of wanting to be on screen, while you know they love it. Rarely do cameras head higher up into the stands where the cheaper seats are, unless a six is landing in that section.

Worse still is the fact that they employ cheerleaders. This does not sound like the most edifying experience from comments made in 2015 AMA conducted by one of the dancers.

“I hate the racism. Why is my team made up of 99% white girls? Why do Indians feel it’s ok to dress white girls up in skimpy outfits but they won’t let their fellow Indian women do it? It’s messed up.

“I’ve asked my managers [about why no Indian girls as cheerleaders] and they don’t know. I’ll keep asking around, though, because I’m curious too. They could probably just get good dancers and train them; there’s no shortage of those.”

Sexist and racist? At least the latter is, thus far, missing at the World Cup, and FIFA hasn’t, to my knowledge, suggested adding cheerleaders to the mix.

But let’s stop the leering crowd cameras. Show us regular fans cheering or sobbing (but skip the kids doing that please). And leave the models at home.

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.

[UPDATE] It seems that it’s not only FIFA that’s annoyed about BeoutQ. UEFA has weighed in now, since the channel has been illegally rebroadcasting the Champions’ League. And now F1 is getting upset because their output is also getting rebroadcast.

Incidentally BeoutQ seems to be a whole package of 10 HD channels sitting on the Badr-4 satellite operated by Arabsat. And the link to the UEFA story above shows a business with full retail packaging selling decoder boxes to receive the channel package. Lots more in this NY Times story.

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…

[UPDATE] It turns out that 48 hours is not enough time to fix underlying IP streaming issues, and SBS is showing all the remaining group games. Will Optus have fixed things by the time the knockout stages start? Hmm.

[UPDATE 2] And SBS will now be broadcasting the rest of the World Cup as well. Eat humble pie time for Optus.

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.]