broadcasting

John Oliver on Brexit

On Sunday night, HBO in the US aired a new episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The second half of the show was a long explanation/opinion piece from Oliver about what Brexit is (this is a show aimed at Americans after all), and was essentially a 15 minute piece imploring Britain to Vote Remain. It’s very good and hits the nail on the head.

On Monday morning the HBO had posted the full 15 minutes on YouTube.

In fact some of the videos from Last Week Tonight put on YouTube are blocked in the UK by the uploader – i.e. HBO. But this one wasn’t. The reason is almost certainly because Sky Atlantic has the rights to the show in the UK, and Sky prefers to limit access to clips from the show to its own subscribers.

But in this instance, UK viewers could watch — almost certainly because Oliver and his producers knew that the piece wouldn’t be broadcastable in the UK until the Brexit referendum had finished.

I noticed quite early on Monday that the piece was unbroadcastable under UK election guidelines, and later on Monday, Sky Atlantic pulled its planned broadcast from Monday night when new episodes of the show usually air. Sky Atlantic will instead broadcast the show on Thursday after polls close.

Now if you were to believe a certain section of the “Twittersphere” this is because Sky is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and his papers in particular are rampantly “Leave.”

But the truth is that Sky Atlantic couldn’t have shown the programme whether or not they had wanted to (Murdoch doesn’t fully own Sky either, although he certainly exercises a lot of control).

In the UK we have strict rules about impartiality in the run-up to an election or referendum. The UK regulator Ofcom, publishes a Broadcast Code which all UK commercial broadcasters have to adhere to (The BBC also adheres to some parts of the code).

Section Six of the code deals with Elections and Referendums, and is based on UK law:

Relevant legislation includes, in particular, sections 319(2)(c) and 320 of the Communications Act 2003, and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Broadcasters should also have regard to relevant sections of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (as amended) (“RPA”) – see in particular sections 66A, 92 and 93 (which is amended by section 144 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000).

Ofcom told broadcasters earlier this year that the “referendum period” would run from 15 April 2016 until 10pm 23 June 2016.

Rule 6.3 is critical during this time:

Due weight must be given to designated organisations in coverage during the referendum period. Broadcasters must also consider giving appropriate coverage to other permitted participants with significant views and perspectives.

It’s pretty clear that Sky Atlantic wouldn’t have been able to balance John Oliver’s piece appropriately, and so, they postponed the episode until after the election.

Topical comedy programmes are always tricky during election periods, and it’s notable that the current run of Have I Got News For You has been interrupted until after the referendum now. You can broadcast topical comedy, but you have to have “balance” in your comedy too.

What if Sky had broadcast the programme anyway? What could have happened?

Well Ofcom regularly finds broadcasters in breach of it’s code. Only this week the Discovery owned Quest (and Quest+1) channel was found to have breached several rules when they broadcast a post-watershed programme, complete with multiple swearwords, in an early-morning pre-watershed slot.

In this instance, the finding was simply a rap on the knuckles (Discovery was extremely apologetic, and put in place new compliance procedures to ensure that the mistake was not repeated), but no further sanction. Broadcasters who repeatedly breach rules can face fines or in extreme cases, have their broadcast licences revoked. In essence they can be shut down. This is rare, and for the most part has only happened to adult channels who have repeatedly breached rules. But a multi-billion pound broadcaster like Sky, reporting to shareholders, cannot possibly risk the loss of its licence.

You can be certain that Ofcom and potentially the Crown Prosecution Service would take greater exception to rules surrounding elections and referendums being broken by a large broadcaster. The Representation of the People Act would potentially leave senior people at an infringing broadcaster personally responsible for illegal actions, and subject to being prosecuted under the law.

Indeed, here’s what Ofcom published with respect to a much smaller local election recently:

Ofcom will consider any breach arising from election-related programming to be potentially serious, and will consider taking regulatory action, as appropriate, in such cases, including considering the imposition of a statutory sanction. (i.e. the removal of a broadcast licence.)

Furthermore, the fine that Ofcom can choose to impose can be informed by that company’s turnover. Sky’s 2015 turnover was around £11.3bn.

Since broadcasting the Oliver piece without “balance” would be deemed quite deliberate by Sky, the cumulative fine, risk to broadcast licence and the potential for personal prosecution means that there was no way Sky was ever going to broadcast it.

It’s not a conspiracy — just the law.

Note: I’m not a lawyer, and these are just my interpretation of the rules as I understand them.

Live Video Streaming

Last week Periscope, the live video streaming app now owned by Twitter, was released for Android. This came a month or two after it was first available on iOS. It isn’t alone in this marketplace – we also had Meerkat which got a leap on Periscope when it was released at SXSW. But the traction seems to be with Periscope with that Twitter integration (and the “un”-integration with Twitter of Meerkat).

This is all well and good, but these two apps are by no means the only live streaming apps around. YouTube has had it for ages – you just need to turn it on for your account. And there are numerous other apps which you can find if you search the various app stores.

But I remain dubious about the long-term demand for these apps, and particularly with the latest bunch led by Periscope.

Here are a few reasons for me saying this:

1. Most of us really don’t have anything interesting to livestream.

Perhaps the best examples (and I use “best” very lightly) that I’ve seen so far for Periscope come from journalists and broadcasters. So a TV show or radio show that was already being broadcast suddenly has an iPhone propped up somewhere so you can get either an alternate view, or to see a show that otherwise had no video (i.e. radio). Whether this is any better than a webcam is debatable.

Otherwise I’ve seen some live reviews, or discussions happening on Periscope. But I remain unconvinced that “Live” is particularly important. How is this any better than just posting a video on YouTube?

2. If you do have something interesting to show, you might not be allowed to.

The biggest example of this so far was perhaps the Pacquiao v Mayweather fight last month. With PPV costs in the US running close to $100, there were lots of reports of people seeking streams via Periscope. Of course, if you really wanted to watch the fight illegally, there are probably better places to go that aren’t based around someone propping up a portrait-oriented smartphone and directing it at their landscape-oriented TV.

At the weekend I was lucky enough to go to the FA Cup Final where Arsenal trounced Aston Villa 4-0. As the final minutes approached, I thought I’d have a go at Periscoping the end of the game. I’m on EE. Wembley Stadium is “Connected by EE” – let’s see how it would cope. Not enough bandwidth was the answer. With 90,000 in the stadium that’s perhaps not surprising. Ordinarily I can barely get a text out from a football stadium, let alone use streaming video. To be fair, I thought I was doing well getting Twitter working and being able to send photos out on my feed during the match. Either way, I clearly had no rights to be “broadcasting” the FA Cup Final. At the moment, this practical limitation is probably enough to assuage some rights holders. Pointing my phone at a TV at home is something else though.

3. Most of the time I miss the event.

Yes, the app pings me to say that someone I know has started streaming, but as a rule, I’m not just sitting about hoping someone is going to stream something interesting.

I might miss the live notification from the app, or not see the Twitter message until it’s a few minutes old. By then it’s often too late. And I’m not aware that you can post out URLs in advance of your broadcast so that recipients can be ready for, say, a 4pm broadcast. All you can do is alert your followers to the fact that you plan to broadcast then and that they should keep watching for a link.

4. Much of what’s streamed is dull.

You know this is true. Yes, because it’s young, you probably get a few viewers to your broadcast. But time is short, and most people have got something more interesting to do than watch somebody else’s party.

That may not be entirely true for everyone – teenagers for example. But how many of us really want to experience your fantastic social life remotely on our phones.

If you happen to be on the ground during some kind of major news event, then great. Broadcast away. But most of us will never be in that situation. And in any case, you’re still better just videoing things on your phone and uploading the video later. At least that way you can be sure your video doesn’t expire after 24 hours – something I truly don’t get aside from more salacious uses (see Snapchat). There’s a certain false exclusivity created – you had to be there to see it – but that’s about it.

And if I’m a celebrity then I sort of get it. They could be fun Q&As, or streams from exclusive events (the event holders may have something to say thought). But most of us aren’t celebrities.

If you really do have something to say, are you not better putting your video up on YouTube?

5. Portrait.

Truth be told, this is my biggest issue of the lot. Why are we forced to use portrait? It’s mostly dreadful.

For 99% of use cases, landscape (i.e. the orientation we use computers in and watch TV) is better. We have two eyes and they are not positioned one over the other!

We see the world in landscape.

There are only a limited number of use cases where portrait video makes sense. Don’t do it. If there is more than one person in your video, it begins to get awkward very quickly. Even if your video is only going to be seen on other mobile devices, it still doesn’t make any sense.

I know that phones are mostly used in portrait mode. But it’s not as though people are incapable of turning their phones 90 degrees. (If I designed a smartphone I reckon I might mount the camera unit so that photos came out landscape if they held the phone in portrait mode, just to flummox people!)

Try watching a Periscope video on a laptop. It’s a horrible experience leaving most of the screen empty. Amusingly you can zoom right into the centre section, but that’s even worse – a fuzzy mess.

Incidentally this is also why I don’t really use Instagram. Why should I be forced to take all my photos in square format? How about letting me decide my own ratio for my photos?

Flickr’s mobile app used to prompt users to turn their camera to landscape, but sadly it no longer seems to do so.

Summary

Look I realise I’m “old” and probably just “don’t get it.” But I’m going to take a bit of persuading to be convinced that live video broadcasting like this is going to be a thing. Certainly I understand Skype and Facetime, or Google Hangouts. They make sense. I even understand – vaguely – the appeal of Twitch. Then there are the YouTubers. They’re financially incentivised to use that platform, and their ever improving production values tend to require post-production before publishing rather than an unedited stream. Doing live broadcasting decently is hard.

There may be some limited use cases where these services fill a hole. Time will tell. But I remain utterly unconvinced, and think it’s just a fad right now.