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The Dark Ages of Film History?

I was recently talking to a some colleagues at work about one of my favourite films of all time, the classic Howard Hawks screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby.

Made in 1938, it stars two of Hollywood’s biggest ever stars, Kathryn Hepburn and Cary Grant, both giving terrific performances in a classic of the genre.

How can we see this film I was asked by my colleagues? 

Both of them have Netflix and Amazon, and one has Now TV from Sky. Needless to say that Bringing Up Baby is on none of these platforms. It’s not available to buy in the UK iTunes Store, it’s not on the Google Play Store, and nor is it available to buy from Amazon’s streaming platform.

There is a DVD available on Amazon, but the price  has been fluctuating wildly. When I looked for it at the time of my conversation it was £26.89, and according to Camelcamelcamel has been retailing for as much as £30! It has now dropped back to £11.99.

That’s for a third party “Fufilled by Amazon” copy.

There are cheaper non-UK copies of the film on DVD, but they’re mostly NTSC, and are sometimes region-locked. That’s assuming that either of my colleagues still have a DVD player at all.

Bringing Up Baby is listed by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. But you essentially it’s incredibly hard to get a legal copy of it in the UK in 2018.

That hasn’t always been the case. That disc that’s being sold for nearly £27 was released by Universal Home Video in the UK in 2007, and for many years it sold for between £2 and £5. Judging from the chart at CamelCamelCamel, sometime around late 2014, the title went out of print at Universal and over time the dwindling remaining stock in circulation saw its price rise.

But in recent years, DVD sales have fallen off a cliff, and there are fewer and fewer retail outlets selling physical discs. Aside from Amazon, there are just HMV and Fopp left on the High Street – both with many fewer stores than in years gone by. Big releases still sell decent quantities via supermarkets. But with the exception of specialist mail order sites and labels, that’s about it. 

The answer should be that all these titles have moved to digital. And with the bigger budget blockbusters, that’s been the case. But significant chunks of the archive have not been uploaded.

They’ve not been leased to the streaming giants like Netflix or Amazon Prime, and nor have they been made available to buy from the Google Play Store or Apple iTunes Store.

It’s as though we’ve entered a “dark ages” period, where unless the title was made recently, it’s lost to us and is no longer available. It feels as though there are fewer titles available to watch than DVD and Blu Rays sales peak in 2007/8.

The chart above, based on data from a Netflix scraping website, shows you the number of films, by release year that Netflix UK offers subscribers. Obviously this data will change daily, but at the time of writing, of the 3,522 films with release dates (all bar one film), 73% were made 2010 onwards.

This second chart summarises this by decade. 

To be specific, there is one film from the 1920s on Netflix – Cecil B DeMille’s first version of The Ten Commandments. 

There are zero films from the 1930s, and the 17 films from the 1940s are nearly all war films, I believe mostly to accompany a 2017 three part WWII documentary from Steven Spielberg, Five Came Back. You won’t find any Oscar Best Picture winners from this period on Netflix.

There are fewer films from the 1950s than the 1940s – just 13. But they’re all minor titles with only Some Like It Hot and Touch of Evil being especially notable.

From there, things slowly improve, with more classics finding their way into the catalogue. But it’s a lean selection.

(I should again emphasise that I’m critiquing the UK selection. US reader may well have a deeper and better stocked catalogue.)

While as a Netflix subscriber, I can and will moan about the selection, they’ve never set themselves up as a classic movie service. And to an ever greater extent, they’re moving towards owning more of their own properties and relying less on renting catalogue material from studios. So I expect that the paltry fare currently offered will actually further diminish over time.

Now it’s true – there is the BFI Player. And while researching this piece, I came across FilmStruck which notably has access to the Criterion Collection (although the latter’s UK catalogue is vastly smaller than its US cousin). But today we learnt that Warner Media is shutting down FilmStruck. Whether on its own it was uneconomical, or whether this is more a move by TimeWarner ahead of it building a more singular streaming vision led by HBO; we don’t yet know.

Both the BFI Player and FilmStruck are/was rental offerings. And from the abrupt closure of FilmStruck, we can see the issue. A corporate change of direction and suddenly there’s no place in the market for classic films.

Also streaming services invariably don’t have the range or consistency of offerings. A film that there this month is gone next month. If I want to see The Maltese Falcon, I’m going to have search a lot of different services to see who has it available – if anyone.

Another operator who specialises in quality classic films, MUBI, goes out of its way to minimise choice to a rolling list of 30 films that sees one title added and one removed every day. Intelligent cinema, yes, but an incredibly limited choice. If I’ve got something in mind to see, these aren’t necessarily the places I’d go.

Films are less of an overall offering of the bigger free-to-air channels – BBC2 is more likely to be showing repeats of Bargain Hunt than an old black and white film. And while we have got the welcome addition of Talking Pictures TV, the quality of the prints they show can vary (Seriously! Get the Criterion Collection Blu Ray of His Girl Friday, or the Columbia Classics DVD. Don’t watch the “public domain” copy that Talking Pictures TV uses, or that can be found on Amazon), and they have a relatively low bit-rate for broadcasting which doesn’t help either.

Other channels tend to keep the same popular fare repeated on hard rotation. You’ll know when you hit ITV4 if you go channel surfing at 9pm.

The problem is that the retail model made sense for a lot of studios. Over the years, they dug deeper into their libraries and they released just about anything they thought they could sell. Costs were relatively contained, and even manufacture and storage costs were lowered as just-in-time manufacture of discs became more achievable. The Warner Archive Collection is a great example of this.

In theory, that should have followed through to the digital sales stores of iTunes, Amazon and Google. If you’ve gone to the ‘trouble’ of digitising a film you own the rights to, why wouldn’t you just upload copies to iTunes, Amazon, Google Play Movies and others? Set a price and watch those sales trickle in. 

Sure, nobody’s going to get rich overnight, but you’re working your assets, and fulfilling demand.

Yet for some reason, it doesn’t seem to have been worthwhile for studios to do any of this. It’s hard to understand. Unlike physical products, there’s no warehousing cost, or indeed physical manufacture of any sort. You take a digital asset, upload it to the sites and even if the film only earns a few dollars a year, that’s money that would be left on the table otherwise. But there are a vast range of films, including some relatively recent titles, that simply haven’t been uploaded to these services.

The trouble is that in the meantime, consumers have moved increasingly towards subscription models for all their entertainment. They rent their music, and they rent their TV and movies. And there isn’t necessarily room for all that many competing services. There is ‘subscription fatigue’ when you realise just how many things you’re subscribed to.

The real difference between the movie/TV model and music is that Spotify and Apple Music make all the music available (or nearly all, anyway). Now that just about all the biggest holdouts have given in, you don’t tend to see albums or artists drift in and out of the service the way movies do on Netflix. I know that I’ll be able to hear The Beatles on Spotify today, tomorrow and next year (probably).

What I don’t know is where I can watch Inception, or Star Wars, or Psycho, or Gone with the Wind, or Bringing Up Baby on any given day. Are they on Netflix or Amazon? Maybe. Maybe not.

For at least one of those films, I know it’s not on any of the services.

And that’s surely a problem. I shouldn’t have to wait until the BFI runs another screwball season to watch a film I want to see.

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.

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.

Faster, Faster, Faster!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I say slow down.

Appreciate things for what they are.

You might actually get a little more out of it.

Premier League TV Rights – 2019-2022

The new Premier League TV rights auction for the UK has just got under way, with bids due in at the end of January, and the results announced in early February. Such are the scale of these rights now, that the announcement tends to be made to accommodate the stock market. If a PLC is spending several billion pounds on something, this is “of note.”

Where do we stand, and where are we likely to go?

At first glance, there really doesn’t feel like an enormous growth left in the UK market. Last time around, the value of UK live rights rose a colossal 70%, from £3bn to £5.1bn!

This increase in cost didn’t come without consequences. Subscribers to both Sky and BT have seen increases in their subscriptions, while Sky in particular (who’s packages increase the most in value), has cut costs elsewhere, reducing some coverage – notably tennis.

But different players have different needs from Premier League football.

Sky

As the bid from 21st Century Fox for complete ownership of Sky continues to navigate regulatory hurdles, Rupert Murdoch himself is selling out to Disney. While the Disney deal itself will need to overcome any US regulatory concerns, the general feeling is that it will get through unscathed (While it shouldn’t involve the US President, Trump is reportedly more concerned about the future of Fox News than anything else, and Murdoch keeps ownership of that). Meanwhile, the prospect of Sky News being a Disney property rather than a 100% Murdoch owned, is probably more palatable to more people. The separation organisationally from the unsavoury practices at Fox News is probably helpful too. There perhaps remains a question of when the various deals go through, so that waving the Sky deal through before the details of the Disney deal have been finalised might be problematic.

But returning to the Premier League, for Sky the rights are an important – not to say critical – part of its overall offering. Sports also remain an important part of Disney’s offering.

ESPN has for many years been a substantial revenue generator, but of late it has began to suffer. So-called “cable cutters” don’t all want ESPN. It had been regularly bundled into all basic cable offerings, taking a substantial share of a household’s monthly cable bill, regardless of whether that household actually wanted to watch sport. As such, it became a cash cow. That’s still the case, but as younger subscribers choose their digital offerings in a piecemeal way – Netflix here, HBO Now there – ESPN was beginning to miss out. It was losing overall subscribers, and has of late announced a series of redundancies to cut costs.

In part to bolster that, Disney has picked up Fox’s regional sports networks as part of the Fox acquisition, qne they provide very solid ratings revenues.

The problem with all sports for broadcasters is that in large part, they are not actually owned by the networks. Every few years, the rights are put out to tender, and the rights owners tend to expect big increases.

That extends from the Premier League to the NFL, the IOC, the ICC, the NBA and so on. Sport has become disproportionately important because for the most part, the value is in live rights, and an audience that advertisers love being unable to skip the built-in advertising.

Sky needs the Premier League, and it has to pull out all the stops to maintain the crown jewels of the packages offered. But at some level there will be a red line beyond which it doesn’t make sense to bid.

BT

BT is in a slightly different position, as it built its TV offering as much as anything to support its broadband proposition. This has developed further when BT trumped Sky to buy Champions’ League and Europa League rights. Unlike previous minority rights holders of Premier League football, BT was clearly a serious player with serious cash available. By offering sport initially free, and later at a discount to its broadband customers, it was able to stem the flow to other broadband providers.

In TV terms, BT does still feels like a smaller player in the wider marketplace.

There may be a slight shift at BT now, as it develops a stronger TV offering built around IP delivery, but the company is really in the business of running wires and cables into your home.

Sky and BT Making Up

Interestingly, Sky and BT have recently reached an agreement to properly wholesale their packages to each others’ customers. While BT Sport has been available to Sky customers since launch, viewers had to deal separately with BT to view the channel on their Sky box. The new agreement will make it easier for Sky customers to add BT Sport to their existing Sky package, buying it directly through Sky. In return, BT will make available Sky’s Now TV offer via its own BT TV platform. That effectively provides a mechanism for BT to offer the full range of Sky Sports channels through its platform.

Commentators have suggested that the pair have reached this agreement in part to mitigate the chances of the pair outbidding one another in the upcoming auction. While I doubt they’d collude (which may be illegal anyway), it’s likely that the status quo would suit both parties just fine. The pair do potentially face some opposition however…

Sidenote: One curious consequence of the Disney takeover of Fox (and in turn Sky), is that BT currently has a deal with ESPN for much of its US sports programming. In essence this leaves Disney with at least a small foot in both camps.

The Packages

Note: This is based on published information. Precise details of first picks is likely to appear in the tender documents which aren’t ordinarily made publicly available.

Under this contract, we will be up from 168 matches to 200 of the 380 total Premier League fixtures being broadcast live on UK TV.

Previously, there were five packages of 28 games, and two packages of 14 games. BT won the rights to 28 Saturday 1730 fixtures, as well as a further 6 midweek matches and 8 Saturday matches. Sky won all the remaining fixtures.

This time around the seven packages are built somewhat differently, with Saturday evening primetime being added into the mix, as well as some intriguing midweek packages.

2019-2022 Packages
Package A: 32 matches on Saturdays at 12:30
Package B: 32 matches on Saturdays at 17:30
Package C: 24 matches on Sundays at 14:00 and eight matches on Saturdays at 19:45
Package D: 32 matches on Sundays at 16:30
Package E: 24 matches on Mondays at 20:00 or Fridays at 19:30/20:00 and eight matches on Sundays at 14:00
Package F: 20 matches from one Bank Holiday and one midweek fixture programme
Package G: 20 matches from two midweek fixture programmes

Packages A and B are the same as before, but increase from 28 to 32 games. Package C had previously been exclusively 2pm fixtures, but now has eight primetime Saturday night games.

Package D tends to be the most valuable package, in the past containing the majority of first picks (in other words, broadcasters can put the biggest matches in this slot, other considerations such as police advice notwithstanding).

Package E now gets some 14:00 Sunday games as well as Monday and Friday night football.

But, beyond an overall increase in fixtures and the Saturday night slot opening up, it’s packages E and F that see the biggest changes. Previously these were a mix of mid-week and Bank Holiday fixtures throughout the season. But under this auction they will account for four individual programmes. For example, when there’s a full midweek fixture list, all games are usually played on a Tuesday and Wednesday. But by offering rights to all these games in a given week, any one viewer can only really watch two of them, since multiple games take place simultaneously. So while there are 40 games in total across the two packages, there are potentially only 8 opportunities for a viewer to watch a game, with the other 32 happening during one of those 8 timeslots

So while it’s technically innovative, you wouldn’t expect this package to go for a vast amount of money compared with the others. It’s fewer games than other packages for starters. But it also seems squarely aimed at getting streaming services involved.

Both Sky and BT would be able to offer this choice – they both did or do similar things with Champions’ League group stages. But a decent number of the games are not fixtures a broadcaster might ordinarily choose to televise – think of those matches towards the end of an average edition of Match of the Day.

But if this is aimed at getting digital players involved, it would seem to require an awful lot of marketing for just 8 opportunities to watch on as few as 7 individual days.

The Premier League can only really show all its fixtures in midweek slots because there’s a blackout during Saturdays at 3pm to support the wider football world. But I wonder whether by 2022, we’ll see every Premier League game played outside the 3pm Saturday window? That would enable all matches to be shown live, and perhaps a 2pm Sunday slot having the majority of fixtures.

Potential New Entrants

A bit like the broadcasters, different digital groups have different reasons to use video. Are they looking to increase dwell time on their services, are they looking to grow their user numbers, or are they looking for something else altogether?

Sport isn’t out the question with streaming services, bringing with it loyal fans. But it also brings issues with having a robust technical backbone, and excludes those who don’t have solid broadband.

Furthermore, only UK rights are being sold. While the UK remains an important market for most of the big players, being able to offer streaming to multiple territories is preferable to global operators. The Premier League, of course, sees greater value in selling international rights in different territories to different operators rather than bundle them all together.

What is certain is that the Premier League is desperate for one or more of these companies to enter the market. If Sky and BT would be prepared to stick with the status quo and only offer modest increases in their bids compared with last time, it would take a third party entering to push bids upwards. The only possible existing TV group who might be persuaded would be Discovery via its Eurosport channel. But it’s just not clear that the rights make sense for that brand. While Discovery has spent big on the Olympics, it doesn’t have much of a UK footprint at all in football beyond various secondary UEFA and FIFA competitions.

Facebook

Facebook notably did bid for Indian Premier League cricket rights for a large number of territories, but the deal the IPL eventually did with Star India (also being sold to Disney as part of the Fox deal) included global streaming rights, so they lost out.

You wouldn’t count out Facebook from bidding for Premier League football, but the challenge for them is that these are UK rights. While Premier League football potentially offers increased dwell time on the platform, assuming that the games are broadcast free to viewers, there’s relatively little in it for Facebook in terms of gaining new subscribers.

However Facebook is investing in premium video, and they have money to burn, so a bid isn’t out of the question.

Google/YouTube

YouTube has bought sports rights in the past – cricket immediately springs to mind. Google is constantly evolving its offerings, with a rumoured reversioning of its music offering in both audio and video terms, due to be launched soon.

As with Facebook, Google doesn’t face any problems in being able to afford rights, but it’s not clear what it really gains for them. YouTube is already phenomenally successful, and Google’s reach is nearly complete.

Again, that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t bid, it’s not entirely clear why they would.

Apple

Apple is also making a play to develop a premium video offering, but it hasn’t as yet entered the sports arena. It’s platform is much less developed in the UK, and if made available exclusively via Apple apps or devices, any bid would curtail audiences a bit.

It seems much less likely that Apple would bid compared with other digital players.

Amazon

Amazon may be interested. Their model is slightly different, and they’ve not yet achieved the prestige in the video marketplace that others have. They’re certainly jealous that Netflix has developed stronger video brands than they have. The recent acquisition of The Lord of the Rings rights shows their ambition in this area – spending $250m on the rights alone to make a series, before they spend a single cent on production.

Notably they have now bought a range of tennis rights, outbidding Sky for the men’s ATP tour rights, as well as buying US Open rights. However we should be careful here. The entire ATP rights package cost Amazon less than Sky pays for a single Premier League fixture.

Tennis feels like a toe in the water for Amazon. They also stream Thursday night NFL games – something Twitter did previously, but outside the US you may not have noticed (games happen after 1am local time in the UK, and 2am in central Europe). It should also be remembered that Thursday night NFL is the least valuable package, and Amazon shares the rights with CBS and NBC in broadcast.

Amazon certainly has the technology to offer streaming, both via its Amazon Prime Video platform, as well as Twitch, potentially allowing it to reach a younger audience.

As such, it feels the likeliest bidder of all the digital platforms, even if the strange nature of packages F and G don’t really seem to make sense for anybody.

Twitter

Twitter has played with live streaming, offering everything from an alternative election night programme with Buzzfeed, to eSports and, as mentioned above, some NFL games last season.

Of all the digital players, it feels like Twitter perhaps has the most to gain in terms of getting new sign-ups from something like this. However it’s not trivial to get Twitter video onto your TV set.

As a company, Twitter is a scale lower than other digital businesses (see also Snapchat, who I’ve not even considered here), and so cost may be an issue.

Netflix

This feels to be the least likely digital bidder. Their business has not been built on sport, and as mentioned above, the real problem with sport is its lack of repeat-ability. If you’re paying £10m+ for a property, then they want to sweat that asset over a number of years. The value of a live match is a one-time thing, and really doesn’t seem to fit their model.

Outcome

We’ll find out the answers to all these questions in a couple of months’ time. Would the Premier League leave Sky and/or BT without games or a severely reduced offering? If the money was right, then yes. How would pubs show games “broadcast” on Twitter? Someone’s phone hooked up to a TV set?

Just because these businesses have the cash, it doesn’t mean that it makes sense for them to bid for rights. There has to be a reason. It might be adding value to a wider package such as Amazon Prime; it might be growing the number of users, or increasing a site’s dwell time. But many of these services are doing quite nicely already.

I can’t see BT and Sky increasing their bids at anything near the level they’ve previously managed. The value just isn’t there. Sky has managed to diversify its offering with originals and exclusive deals with providers like HBO. Renewing that HBO deal feels almost as important as doing another Premier League deal.

In the end, it’s probably best not to second guess these things too much. All will become clearer in February when consumers will discover just how many subscriptions they need to get the full range of Premier League football on television.

Facebook, Amazon and the Premier League

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBC Store is closing; Streaming v Ownership

Back in 2015 I took a look at the then new BBC Store. It had opened in a blaze of publicity after a relatively long gestation period. Visitors could buy to own BBC catalogue programmes as well as some of the latest dramas and comedies. Since then, announcers have mentioned the ability to buy programmes from the BBC Store (and other outlets) regularly over the end credits of series.

In 2015 I wrote:

“And of course everything is full of DRM meaning that long term, I can’t be certain I’ll have continued access. From the help section:

We cannot guarantee that you will be able to stream or download content that’s in My Programmes forever. However, when our right to make content available is due to expire, we will do our upmost to inform you of this by email so that you have the opportunity to download and then continue to playback the content through the BBC Store Download Manager.

“If I had DRM free copies of course, I could make them part of my back-up regime, and should the BBC Store ever close down, I wouldn’t lose anything, or be reliant on technology that might have limited or no future support. This is the key issue with all DRM-d media, and it’s why for the most part I continue to purchase physical copies ahead of DRM-filled downloads. Even though there is encryption on DVDs and Blu-rays, they can be ripped, and I can maintain access once players become redundant (I confess, I’m not looking forward to days of ripping however).

This week we learnt that the BBC Store is closing down in November after around two years in operation. Those words about DRM have proven to be prescient.

The first series I bought from the BBC Store was Tender is the Night, a 1985 Dennis Potter dramatisation of the F Scott Fitzgerald novel. This has never been made available to buy on DVD. It may have been on VHS for a period, but the only streaming version of the novel is a 1962 film.

After November, I will lose all access to this TV series. The DRM locked version that I bought will no longer play.

Now it’s true that the BBC Store is giving me a full refund, or slightly more if I accept Amazon vouchers. But the problem is that there is no DVD for me to buy.

The chief reason given for the store closing is that ownership isn’t the preferred model for consumers. They prefer the all-you-can-eat offers from the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

But while that works for popular fare, that leaves a vast proportion of the longer tail of TV and film out in the cold.

A site called NewOnNetflix reckons the UK version of the site has 4,228 films and TV series across all genres. That sounds like a vast figure. But actually it’s a drop in the ocean. Go to the page that lists films by year and you will quickly discover that prior to 1941 whole years are missing.

In 1939, for example, the following films were released:

Gone With the Wind
Mr Smith Goes to Washington
Goodbye, Mr Chips
The Wizard of Oz
Gunga Din
The Women

Classics all, yet none are on Netflix. Now I can certainly buy all of those on DVD, and Amazon Prime may have one or two, but the point is that both Amazon and Netflix are offering highly curated – and limited – catalogues. Films and TV series come and go from the platforms. Aside from programmes they funded themselves, they acquire the rights for limited periods of time. I can’t be certain with rental that I can absolutely watch Gone With the Wind on any given day.

Now of course I can go to somewhere like the iTunes Store, or the Google Play Store, but even there, the range is surprisingly limited. Google Play doesn’t have Goodbye, Mr Chips or The Women, for example. (I will in fairness note that Amazon doesn’t carry a region 2 DVD of The Women, but does make it available to stream or own digitally, while Goodbye, Mr Chips is available as an inexpensive DVD, as well as digitally to own or rent).

In the end, its market forces that determined that the BBC Store needed to close. If not enough people are using it, then the business model doesn’t work. But I do dispute the idea that a Netflix or Amazon subscription is a complete solution. So while bona fide hits like The Night Manager, Line of Duty or War and Peace are available on the various platforms, other series very definitely are not. At this point in time, physical media is still the providing the greatest depth of range – with a significant number of specialist labels ranging from Network DVD to Second Sight and beyond, offering a vastly greater depth of catalogue than streaming is currently offering.

Streaming may well be the future, but right now I wouldn’t be without my DVD/Blu-ray player!

Meanwhile all of this is another case to prove that DRM is fatally flawed in the longer term. While I may be getting a full refund, I’d have preferred to have kept the programme.

The Perils of Alexa!

This story started earlier today when I got a notification from Amazon’s mobile app that my order of a Lost in Translation DVD had been sent out for delivery.

What?

It’s a wonderful film, but I hadn’t ordered a copy. Indeed, I already own it on DVD. I was confused, and a little worried. Was it fat fingers in the Amazon app that had led to a purchase? Had I accidentally clicked a one-click purchase online somehow?

I went into my email, and found an email from Amazon dated at 4.13am. It confirmed my order!

Now, I should confess that the previous evening I’d gone for a couple of drinks with friends, but I hadn’t gone to bed that late, and I certainly hadn’t got up in the middle of the night to order a film that I already own. As a rule, I don’t wake in the small hours and make random DVD purchases.

I couldn’t tell from the email or from my Amazon order history, through what means the DVD had been ordered. But I began to wonder if it had somehow been ordered via Alexa. I’ve heard of other people “accidentally” ordering stuff that way. But that’s never happened to me.

So I opened the Alexa app to see my recent history. And then things got really crazy.

I use Alexa a reasonable amount, but the previous evening I’d got in late, and left early the following morning. On neither occasion had I really used Alexa.

But my Alexa history showed a lot of interaction since the last time I remembered using it to listen the radio the previous morning.

Amongst other things, it seemed I’d asked:

  • Alexa to introduce her/it-self
  • What is bluetooth?
  • How do you get along with Siri?
  • What the weather is
  • To buy an Amazon Echo Dot (this didn’t go through fortunately)
  • Are you sexy vehicle costume? (Nope?)
  • What is five plus eleven?
  • What is pi to the dress? (No idea)
  • Do you think I’m handsome? (Er…)
  • What is the weather? (Again, it seems)
  • What the New York Knicks score was? (I’m not especially interested in either them or the NBA in general)
  • To play Drake? (I don’t especially like Drake)
  • To play Grace? (I don’t know who this is, but Amazon does)
  • Tell me a joke
  • Set a timer for one minute
  • Would you like to go on a date with me? (“She” is an inanimate object)
  • Where can I hide the body? (Worrying)
  • Do you know Siri?
  • What is the weather? (I’m clearly very interested in this)
  • Tell me a joke
  • Trending story
  • Riley party (Absolutely no clue)
  • Convert cups in grams
  • Set a timer for one hour (I assume the one minute timer finished)
  • Play You Give Love a Bad Name by Bon Jovi
  • Okay Google (That’s not going to work on Alexa)
  • Order “Lost in Translation” on DVD (This went through, and I got a confirmation email at 4.13am!)
  • Hello
  • What is an Xbox on?
  • Add milk and eggs to my shopping list (I’m OK for both thanks)
  • Play Dire Straits

Now I was worried. The Alexa app doesn’t time-stamp these queries that I can see. But clearly this activity had happened in the middle of the night based on that Lost in Translation order.

I was confused.

Had another Alexa ended up on my Amazon account? Was some neighbour asking stupid questions through my letterbox? (I don’t have a letterbox, and the only children in my block are very young and unlikely to be playing around in the middle of the night.)

This was actually a bit disturbing.

And then I remembered that I had started a YouTube video on my TV before I fell asleep. I’m a heavy sleeper, and can fall asleep to background audio. But the TV would have been turned down.

I consulted my YouTube history.

I had been watching a video about the Raspberry Pi.

Yes, I know. At night, after a few drinks. I’m a nerd. What can I say.

But YouTube autoplays more videos when one has finished, and here’s a list of the following videos “I” streamed. I think this explains the otherwise unfathomable behaviour:

  • Echo Dot Impressions
  • Amazon Echo Dot: A week with review
  • Google or Amazon? Which is better? (Meaning Alexa or Google Home)
  • Google Home vs Amazon Echo – Which is Best?
  • Why you should buy Google Home over Amazon Echo vs Siri and Sonos
  • 4 things Google Home can do to beat Amazon Echo in 2017
  • Google home adds 70 new features
  • Google Home hacks for the smart home
  • Home automation: a beginner’s introduction
  • Google Home and App Setup + IFTTT Guide
  • If This Then That (IFTTT) Tutorial

Basically I “watched” a lot of videos about Alexa and Google Home, and my Echo tried to respond to various audio cues that came from these!

The DVD I didn’t want only cost £2.90 and I’ve tried to cancel it online. But it won’t be the end of the world if I end up with a second copy. I’ve learnt my lesson and disabled voice purchasing in the app.

The moral of this tale?

Don’t leave Alexa or Google Home alone with YouTube tech videos reviewing what Alexa and Google Home are capable of.

Sneaky Pete

I only seem to write about television very occasionally these days. I suspect I struggle because there’s so much to catch up on at any given time, there’s no time left for writing.

Sneaky Pete is a new series from Amazon Studios provided free to their Prime customers. The hook as far as Amazon is concerned is that the series comes from Bryan “Breaking Bad” Cranston and David “House” Shore. To my mind, the most important behind-the-camera talent is the executive producer, Graham Yost, who has most recently been responsible for the excellent Justified, and also excellent The Americans. He actually took over Shore as showrunner when the pilot, originally ordered by CBS, moved to Amazon. As a result, the pilot has been around on Amazon’s service for 18 months now, ahead of the series finally arriving.

Marius (Giovanni Ribisi) is a con-man completing a short prison sentence for holding up a bank. His cellmate, serving a longer sentence, is Pete. Pete endlessly refers to his idyllic childhood, boring Marius to tears. But we soon learn that Marius had attempted to con Vince (Bryan Cranston). So instead of returning home, where Marius remains $100,000 in hock to Vince, he decides to head to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he will impersonate his former cellmate Pete.

Family relations had long broken down, and Marius/Pete now thinks that he might be able to score some cash from the wealthy Bernhardt clan, led by Audrey (Margo Martindale).

Can our fake-Pete convince the family that he is who he says he is, inveigle his way into their home, and then raise the money he needs to save his brother Eddie (Michael Drayer) from Vince’s clutches?

Along the way, we meet the dysfunctional Bernhardt family including grandfather Otto (Peter Geraty), and cousins Julia (Marin Ireland), Taylor (Shane McRae) and Carly (Libe Barer), who work in the family’s struggling bail bonds firm, the local police or are a troubled school child.

In some very limited ways, this does remind you of the set-up to the very different Banshee in which a new sheriff was impersonated in a small north-eastern town.

The real hook in this series is that Pete is a con-man, and we see him thinking on his feet, stealing wallets, phones and watches to further his cause. I’m a complete sucker for this kind of thing, loving the references to The Spanish Prisoner, the mark, long and short cons, convincers, ropers and inside men. I will happily watch any series or film that plays out like this.

The real problem, though, is that so many of us have seen The Sting, Grifters, House of Cards or Hustle, that it’s hard to do something genuinely different. So Sneaky Pete is not about a con-of-the-week setup. Instead we have someone utilising their confidence trick skills to keep their head above water, and one or two larger cons playing out over the ten episode run of the series.

In particular, you have some well drawn characters who don’t always behave the way you expect them to. Police officer Taylor is shown to be a bit of a clown earlier on, but he’s not really anybody’s fool, and Marius/Pete’s relationships with some of the previous women in his life isn’t as one dimensional as would sometimes be the case in this kind of series.

Cranston really only has a supporting role in this series, but he’s properly nasty as Vince, while Ribisi seems to inhabit the role of a confidence trickster perfectly. Lots of faces are familiar from other Yost series, including the peerless Martindale, Julia’s ex Lance (Jacob Pitt) and Vince’s lover and ex member of Marius’s gang, Karolina (Karolina Wydra).

The series does a nice side in colourful supporting characters. I’d have liked to have seen more of Marius’s parole officer James Bagwell (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) who drives around listening to motivational tapes, and categorising his parolees as “eagles” or “shitbeards.” Michael O’Keefe is wonderfully sadistic bent cop, and Virginia Kull is great as Katie, who’s trying to lead a normal life, but kinda still loves the thrill of the con.

Alison Wright, familiar to fans of The Americans, shows up as another confidence trickster, Marjorie. I confess that when I heard her accent, it seemed to be the one duff note of the show. Was she trying to British? Perhaps Irish? I couldn’t place it. Whatever it was, I thought “She needs a dialect coach.” Then I realised that Wright is actually British (from Sunderland), and that was her real accent. Ah.

The series concludes nicely but ends in a way that lets them go straight into a second series, and Amazon has wasted no time in renewing it which pleases me a lot.

Amazon Echo – A Longer Term Test

Amazon Echo

I bought my Amazon Echo on its official UK release back in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, but I thought it might be worth checking back in here to see exactly how I’m using it. Right off the top, I’ll note here that I use Alexa multiple times a day, every day.

The first thing I’ll detail is how I have my Echo(s) setup. My original Echo sits in my living room. In fact it rests fairly close to the television. But interestingly, because of the direction of the TV speakers, the Echo will still hear me even with the TV on in many cases.

But more recently I also bought an Echo Dot to go in my bedroom. I have a very old hifi system there which still sounds amazing and has a single Aux socket. Until buying the Dot, I had a Chromecast Audio device dangling from the socket, since Chromecast serves most of my audio needs. I keep music on Google Play Music, and apps like iPlayer Radio and PocketCasts both support Chromecast.

I was faced with a dilemma when I got the Dot though. I wanted the audio from that to come through my speakers as well, but I obviously didn’t want to be plugging and unplugging wires every time I wanted to switch device. A single Aux socket, with the device permanently switched to that presented a problem.

The solution was a small mixer. This might seem like overkill, but it allows you to plug two (or more) audio sources into a single auxiliary socket and hear audio from both sources at the same time. So I can play music from Google Play Music via Chromecast, while also checking the weather via the Echo Dot. The only downside is some extra kit (and attendant audio cables), and that my mixer has quite bright LEDs (I used some LightDims tape to darken them. Yes, they are expensive, but I’ve used them on a couple of gadgets around the house).

With two Echo devices, it’s interesting to see them work together. If I stand in my hallway, I’m within range of both the Echo in living room, and Dot in the bedroom. But the two Echo devices decide between themselves which one should handle the request, and the other will go silent. In practice, this means I don’t actually have to worry which device I speak to.

I’d be tempted to get a further device for my kitchen where I have a very decent DAB and BlueTooth equipped radio. A fullsize Echo feels like overkill, yet a Dot really needs an auxiliary speaker to function. We’ll have to see. And as I said in my original review, the sound from the Echo itself isn’t great, in that it’s not the best standalone Bluetooth speaker ever. It’s slightly perverse that my much cheaper Echo sounds so much better because audio from it is passed to a decent pair of speakers with good stereo separation. So music does sound good on it.

But how about some specific use cases?

Radio

There’s no getting away that the Alexa environment is fantastic for listening to the radio. It’s just so easy to say “Alexa, play Radio 4” or “Alexa, Play 6 Music” and hear the station at a moment’s notice. As I mentioned previously, the default radio service is TuneIn, and it can very occasionally get muddled, but in general terms it works well. I installed the RadioPlayer “skill” (adding “skills” is the means to adding specific additional functionality to Alexa, and something done through the Alexa app or website), but it’s unquestionably more wordy to say something like, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute Radio.” Yet, it is more likely to work.

At the weekend I asked Alexa to play TalkSport during a football match, and for some reason I got what I assume is TalkSport’s ex-UK streaming feed via TuneIn since it didn’t contain football. Going via RadioPlayer fixed it, although then I went back to the default TuneIn version and that seemed to be working too. Strange.

One thing you don’t seem to be able to do is simulcast radio (or other music) throughout your home on multiple Alexa devices. So if I start listening to the radio in my bedroom, I can’t seamlessly continue listening in my living room. I can start up a stream there, but it will be out of sync. In essence I have to stop the bedroom stream and start a living room stream.

I’m not aware that I can stream the same music throughout the home either. On the other hand Google Chrome does allow this, by creating groups of speakers you can send a single audio source to. And of course, this is famously a major selling point of Sonos.

I think that these Voice User Interface controlled devices will undoubtedly drive additional radio listening, since tuning into a station is so easy. But there is the qualifier that people need to know and remember your service in the first place. My DABs radios at home receive upwards of 120 radio services, and I can’t remember them all. I can browse them fairly easily though, and I might stumble upon something I like, similar to the way you might scan through stations in a car. With Alexa, you need to know what you want in the first place. That favours big brands.

Lights

This is the real game-changer for me. I have a Hue Bridge and bulbs, controlling the lighting in my hallway and living room, and it’s still wonderful to get Alexa to turn lights on and off. Hue allows you to group lights together as “rooms” or groups of rooms. For my set-up I have two lights in the “Hall,” and three in the “Living Room.” Together they are know as the “Flat.” But I do need to annunciate properly to get them to work. If I drop the “H” on “Hall” (I’m a north Londoner after all), it won’t work. Sometimes I concatenate “Flat lights” to “Flatlights” and that won’t work either. I just have to moderate my voice a little. But overall it’s wonderful.

Alarms and Timers

I realise that I’m using some very expensive technology to do something that a £5 Casio watch is quite capable of, but it’s still really nice to be able to say just before settling down at night, “Set alarm for 7am.” And for cooking you can just shout, “Set timer for 20 minutes” when you slam the oven door shut on something. I confess that it was actually an Apple Siri advert that made me realise I could do this!

I will admit that I’ve asked it on more than one occasion what the time is. Yes, I wear a watch. But no, it’s not always on my wrist. And when you’re rushing around in the morning, barking out a command to Alexa is surprisingly useful.

Weather

I use Alexa’s weather forecasting all the time. “What’s the weather?” “What’s the weather tomorrow?” Yes I have weather apps on the homescreen of my phone. And breakfast radio and TV is full of weather forecasts. But it’s nice to have, and it’s highly localised.

The only issue I had was with my precise location. In the app, you enter a postcode and that determines your location. I live in a town, but five miles up the road from me is a tiny village. For whatever reason, Alexa was convinced I lived in that village. Now the weather in both places will be identical, but having Alexa say, “The weather in Botany Bay is 5 degrees…” was just annoying. I ended up giving an alternative local postcode to get it to say the name of my town correctly.

News

I use Alexa a certain amount to give me the news headlines. There is now a reasonable selection of news in there from the default Sky News, to a selection of BBC national and World Service offerings.

The one thing I would say is that not everyone wants quite the same type of news. There is a world of difference between Radio 1’s Newsbeat and a BBC World Service summary. While at the moment, there is a reasonable range of offerings (try BBC Minute for something a little different), in audio terms, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sport

Sport remains a real shortcoming for the Alexa environment. When I first got my Echo, I was shocked to discover that the only British teams I could add as favourites were English Premier League clubs. What’s more, the only data that Amazon seemed to be taking was from the Premier League. No other clubs or competitions existed. And while we’re at, no other sport existed either.

Even very recently, when I looked again, there were no Championship sides, Scottish Premier League sides, or indeed anyone outside of the 20 clubs in the Premier League.

Looking today, I see that finally Amazon has added additional football clubs. A quick search suggests that there’s a pretty full range of football clubs that can be selected – right down to some non-league sides. But it still seems to be an exclusively football selection. I couldn’t find any cricket, rugby union or rugby league sides. I can’t find a favourite tennis player, an F1 team or track and field athlete either. Amazon at least needs to add other major UK team spots to Alexa to give a proper rounded offering.

They do at least seem to have more data sources that they subscribe to. I can get the latest Champions’ League scores for example – something that was missing back in September when I first bought the device.

A lot of work still required, and therefore I mostly rely on apps to deliver me accurate and up to date sports scores.

Music

Oddly enough, despite this being a killer application of Alexa, it’s probably the functionality that I’ve used least. You can choose from “My Music Library”, “Prime Music” and “Spotify” as music sources (curiously, they also list TuneIn in the app), while you can also have “Amazon Music Unlimited” (Amazon’s Spotify competitor) if you subscribe to it. Despite lots of imploring to give it a test-ride, and the ability to get a cheaper subscription for a single Echo device, I’ve not bothered. Similarly I only very rarely use the free Spotify service. My music is stored in the cloud on Google Play Music, and locally on a NAS drive. As a result, I mostly use Google Play Music via a Chromecast device to listen at home.

That said, I’ll occasionally try something from Amazon’s “Prime Music” offering. The problem is that I simply don’t know what’s in the Prime music catalogue and what isn’t. So rather than be disappointed, I’ll look elsewhere.

It’s worth noting that “My Music Library” is largely made up of any music you’ve bought via Amazon as either digital tracks or auto-ripped CDs. You are also able to upload a 250 tracks from iTunes which hardly feels generous. I can add a quarter of a million more for a further £21.99 a year. I’d be tempted were it not for the fact that Google lets me store 50,000 tracks free of charge.

The other thing to consider is that you need to know what you want to hear to launch it. That means remembering an artist, or playing a favourite playlist. It’s not so great for discovering new music or exploring the outer reaches of a music collection.

Bluetooth Speaker

I found it to be a fairly painless process to pair my smartphone with my Echo, and it will usefully let you switch that connection on and off by voice. “Connect to device,” or “Disconnect from device” will do the trick. The only thing I’m not sure about is how many devices you can set-up to be connected to an Echo, and more importantly can you make sure the right device is connected?

The advantage of having this connection of course is that audio that won’t work with Alexa can be played through its speaker. In general terms, I’ll still use Chromecast ahead of Alexa for this, especially since the speakers I have my Chromecast dongles plugged into, sound much better. But it’s nice to be able to connect.

Travel

Alexa is keen to get you to detail your commute so that it can provide travel information. But by default, it assumes that a “commute” is a car journey, and the only information it will give you relating to said commute is traffic information. That’s great if your commute is a drive, but useless if you use public transport.

The National Rail skill is an essential add-on for me. While navigating it to work out a specific train journey can be difficult, it is fairly straightforward to set up a commute. This results in me being able to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gives me details of the next two trains (with more available) from my local station.

There are also third party tube skills to allow you to check the status of your preferred London Underground line, and I’ve recently used Bus Stop which also uses the Transport for London API to query my local bus stop. Every London bus now has GPS and every stop a unique code meaning that TfL can generate real-time data for when your next bus will be at your nominated stop. Again, useful for timing departure from your home.

Now it’s not as though there aren’t mobile apps and websites that can give me all this data, but in the morning when you’re rushing around trying to leave on time for work, the voice interface is perfect for giving you up-to-date information.

Podcasts

In truth, I don’t use Alexa for podcasts. It’s not that it won’t play them. It will. However the selection is based on what TuneIn supplies. But for my personal use, I need an interface with PocketCasts which is my preferred podcasting app. I have both the Android and web apps, and between them, they keep me in sync with what I have and haven’t listened to. I can pause a podcast on my mobile app, and pick-up on a laptop. For me to use a podcast app on Alexa, it would need to take account of all of that.

If PocketCasts were to build an Amazon skill then I’d be there. But PocketCasts is paid-for software, and I’m not sure whether currently Amazon Skills can be sold, or whether the developer is working on something.

Other

I do wish the Alexa app was better. It’s slow to load – perhaps because it’s checking to see whether it’s in range of devices or not. And some key functionality is buried a little deep within the menu structure. For example, to change news sources, you have to go into the Settings. It’s not a top level menu item.

The addition of IFTTT was nice, and opens up a wealth of potential. However, so far, I’ve not used it properly on my device.

There are a number of really bad skills that you can install, and Amazon probably needs to do a slightly better job in highlighting useful skills and downgrading poor ones with limited functionality, often feeling like they’re the result of people hacking together personal tests.


Amazon Echo Speaker Grill

Alexa Summary

Amazon sends out a weekly email newsletter highlighting new skills or phrases to try. Sometimes these are themed, or include jokes, which is fun. The reality is that you will get more out of Alexa the more time you spend with it. You need to recall specific key words and phrases to get the desired results. It can be frustrating if you forget how to do something.

The key to having a good experience is for Alexa to respond in an appropriate manner to your request. If you have to think too hard about how to frame a question for Alexa, then you won’t do it.

It would be nice if Alexa had a more flattened structure. Currently it seems to work with a number of base level skills built in, but for more complex requirements you have to remember to invoke a particular skill.

So if I ask, “Alexa, how’s my commute,” it will ask me to set up my drive to work. I then have to remember to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gets me the response I wanted.

I’d like Alexa to intelligently realise that I invoke the National Rail skill far more than the similar sounding built in skill, and to therefore answer me with what I really wanted. Think of it as a kind of audio auto-complete.

And Alexa needs to understand context a bit better. If I’ve just asked one thing, then the next question might be in response to the answer I’ve just received. Outside of specific skills, Alexa treats most questions in complete isolation. Google Home does seem to achieve this better, allowing you to string a series of questions and answers together in a more natural manner. Speaking of which…

Google Home

We know that Google Home’s UK launch is around the corner. In many respects, from demos I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, the skillset of Google and Amazon’s devices are actually very similar. The difference is perhaps the backbone of Google Assistant which lies behind Google’s voice interface. It can use everything Google already knows about me to deliver more personalised responses. Google has a distinct advantage here. It already knows my football teams, the locations I travel to, the news I want to follow and my appointments calendar.

Furthermore, I’ve invested in the Chromecast ecosystem, and have my music on Google’s servers (Although I don’t pay for Google Play Music Unlimited, and as a consequence, frustratingly I don’t get all their playlists built around the technology they bought from Songza. This, despite that being available to US users.).

Maybe in time, I will transition across to Google? Google Assistant will be built into future devices. Whether it comes to my HTC10 (now running Nougat) I’m not sure. But I’m led to believe it will be coming to the Nvidia Shield which I use for a lot of streaming. But always listening microphones do come at a power cost, and excess battery power is not something many phones have right now.

Conclusions

What I do know is that I’m satisfied where I am at the moment, and Amazon’s technology works well, some specific shortcomings notwithstanding.

Do I have privacy concerns with all of this? Absolutely. If it were shown that either Amazon or Google was uploading audio outside of when I specifically asked it a question, then it would be leaving my home instantly. But they seem to have been good to their word thus far.

As I was finishing up writing this piece, I read two separate pieces from writers who think Alexa has been oversold: a very contrary view from a Forbes writer, and another from Quartz. Both writers are frustrated that Alexa isn’t smarter than it currently is, that it can’t understand language better, and that generally is should be better out of the box. Another complaint is that Alexa doesn’t handle context too well, and that you have to utilise skills properly to get the best out of Alexa. I agree with both writers on some issues, but to my mind Alexa is extraordinary out of the box. It’s certainly not a “glorified clock radio” as the Quartz writer puts it. It will clearly get better over time.

Addressing a couple of specific concerns: I’ve certainly had no issues with transport details – I use the separate skills that I noted above. More importantly I’ve not ordered nor accidentally ordered anything so far from Amazon with the Alexa. In fact, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly useful way to do shopping aside from a few staples – the kind of things I’m unlikely to use Amazon for regardless (Grocery shopping on Amazon in the UK really isn’t a great experience just yet, and I’ve got better options using a UK supermarket to fulfill such shopping).

Terms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) get bandied around far too much right now, when what they really mean is that the business is adopting algorithms to help with personalisation and the like. But beyond that, there is machine learning or deep learning, and that is meant when the term “AI” is used. But this isn’t AI as in the Spielberg film – autonomous thinking robots or whatever.

However the deep learning techniques do mean that speech recognition is improving in leaps and bounds, and the current range of devices should grow with it. The Echo, after all, is broadly speaking a speaker, some microphones, and an internet connection. While some work is done locally, the heavy lifting is in the cloud. These things will improve.

Five months in, and I’m very happy with Alexa, and use it a lot.