media

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.

The Tabloid Guardian

It has now been over a week since The Guardian, and sister paper The Observer, both rebranded. Perhaps more saliently, they also reshaped themselves, moving from the unique “Berliner” format to a tabloid.

Now in some respects I feel unusual these days in still buying a physical printed paper.

“It’s all online.”

“You can get it free.”

“Why do you pay for it?”

These are some of the responses you get when people see you with a newspaper.

It’s true that my station has a well-stocked bin of Metros in the morning, and I can easily pick up an Evening Standard on the way home. That’s before you consider editions of Time Out, NME, Stylist, Shortlist or a load more freebies in central London.

I have a phone and a tablet, so I can get the news on that.

And it’s also true that sometimes when I get to the paper, even in the morning, I find I’ve already read the article on line the day before. Sometimes with arts material it can be several days before (The Guardian seem to put its book coverage up around Thursday ahead of the Saturday “Review” supplement).

But printed papers are great for lots of reasons. You can get them all over the place, and you can read them anywhere. They don’t go flat, and they (can) have powerful design.

There’s also the editorial nourishment. When presented with a digital list of stories, we tend to click on the things we’re interested in. Actually these days, we probably don’t even go to a homepage (although with Facebook’s recent announcement about downplaying news in people’s feeds, we may see a greater importance of these), but tend to get to stories via links shared in social media.

I buy The Guardian because it has strong editorial. Much of the news in free newspapers is bland agency copy. Metro is never going to invest in major investigations like The Paradise Papers for example.

A week in, my first impressions of the paper is that it looks an awful lot like The Independent did once it had gone tabloid. Not so much in content as in style. It seems slightly harder to differentiate papers in a tabloid world than it is in a broadsheet one.

The new version of the paper has obviously had a major redesign, beyond simply shrinking the paper, with a new masthead and new fonts. The Guardian has always been more likely to go through redesigns than other papers. When The Times went tabloid, it was more about how they could continue to use the same fonts and stylistic devices in the “compact” format.

The Telegraph has not really had a major redesign at all. With the FT, it is now alone as a broadsheet (The Sunday Times notwithstanding). Of course, it is a hollow remnant of what it once was – a bit like one of those new-builds where they’re required to keep the front facade.

There’s a strapline above the masthead on the first day said that the paper had two pullout sections. Originally I thought that these might be G2 and Sport as previously. But Sport has returned to the back of the paper, which is probably a good place for it to be, since in truth, some days it really felt as though it was being padded out to fill even 8 pages.

G2 is a pullout as before, but the second pullout is Journal – essentially the opinion parts of the middle of the paper, alongside obituaries, and the puzzles that used to form the back of the main Berliner section of the paper. Indeed the back pages of both pullout sections contain puzzles now.

Having Journal as a pullout does mean that one of my favourite features of the Berliner format paper has been retained – Eyewitness, which acts as a double-page spread for a featured photo.

Seeing photos printed big is another reason that printed newspapers remain superior.

The new tabloid Guardian is now printed by Mirror Group presses – part of the cost savings that the shrinking of the paper is designed to help with. I was a little worried that the printing quality might deteriorate, but in fact it’s perfectly fine.

I’m less certain about the new masthead’s design, but as with previous iterations, it’ll no doubt grow on me. All lowercase does feel very “90s”, and the return to proper capitalisation is to be admired. But the change of font, masthead, paper size and overall design means that everything has changed at once. This isn’t a half-hearted measure.

What you can’t help noticing is the number of advertisements in the paper – or lack of them.

Print advertising continues to decline across the industry as digital advertising cleans up. While I think print always did well, over-achieving for its readership, advertising was and remains a vital part of the mix for a publisher, and those advertising declines must hurt.

Diamond Geezer notes that fewer “newsagents” carry print at all, becoming convenience stores rather than purveyors of printed material.

In fact, I don’t think lack of access is the real killer for newspapers, but it almost certainly is for magazines. Newsagents carry ever diminishing ranges of magazines, meaning that if you don’t subscribe to a title, you may struggle to find it on any shelf space anywhere. Even W H Smith, the last bastion of magazines in the High Street, seems to allocate less space to them. (W H Smith is a bit of a basket case anyway, not knowing really what it wants to be. Only the travel branches in stations and airports seem to have got the mix right, even if they wildly overcharge for confectionery)

Friday’s paper is always a late week highlight since it carries film and music reviews. The revamped G2 still carries these but somehow there feel, at least in the first week, to be fewer of them. Not so much films as music. Previously you could expect perhaps a couple of pages of pop/rock reviews and then a page of other music including classical, jazz and, well, non-pop music.

There seems less of that now, and I’m going to miss that. I still like reading printed music reviews, and while I know that I can find music blogs to help, they often feel like they serve certain niches. I want to read about a folk release alongside the big mainstream pop release, and a new classical album.

Saturday’s Guardian was always my favourite day of the week, even if I shed certain sections as quickly as I could. I barely ever opened the Family section, while the Travel section would only grab my attention if there was somewhere I was interested about on the cover. The Cook section would always get recycled unread. I’d flick through the magazine, and get stuck into The Guide. But key for me were a chunky main section, a good sport supplement and most important of all, the Review section.

The new-look paper has been rejigged a bit. Cook becomes Feast and is printed on higher quality paper. They expect people to hang onto these as they’re even selling boxes to collect them in! I must admit that it does look good, and they’ve poached Grace Dent as their restaurant critic, and she’s always worth a read.

The Guide is broadly speaking the same, although sadly it seems that David Hepworth’s radio column has bitten the dust. (It feels there are barely any radio critics left. Gillian Reynolds has just left the Telegraph after 42 years, although she’s apparently taking over Paul Donovan’s position at The Sunday Times, even though she’s 82! There’s also Miranda Sawyer at The Observer, who now covers podcasts as much as radio, if not more. Is there now actually anyone else?)

Sport is still in place, and the main section of the paper seems to be broadly unchanged. None of the features I liked to read seem to have gone anywhere.

And I’m especially pleased that although the Review section has had a massive redesign, it’s importance remains. It’s now printed on high quality paper and although it too may have slimmed a tiny amount, it treats its subject properly and is probably the best newspaper book section.

The Observer also has a new masthead, making it clear that it’s the Sunday edition of The Guardian rather than a separate entity. The main section stays largely in place, while sport is as good as ever, even if it has an unhealthily skewed belief in the importance of rugby union. The New Review is largely as it was before, just rejigged and resized. And the magazine remains largely unchanged, in that I rarely even bother to open it up (although it does at least review the odd bicycle alongside cars in their transport bit).

Also notable in the rebranding has been putting the new branding into all The Guardian’s various digital assets. That seemed to happen very smoothly even though you know it must have been a complex procedure.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with things. I’d like the new font to be a little more different to those used by The Times and The Independent (when it was still being published), and it’ll be interesting to see if they ever succumb to the temptation The Indie had to keep using the front page to cover single issues.

(As a sidenote, I saw The Post last weekend, the new Steven Spielberg film starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, covering the story of The Washington Post and the publication of the Pentagon Papers. What remains amazing to me, and is largely still the case today in the US with the New York Times and The Washington Post, is that even when you’re breaking the biggest story in a generation, the story shares the front page with a lot of other stories. Even today, that remains the case.)

What’s really key about all of this is that the paper stays on track in reducing its losses and gets to a break-even point so that the money in the coffers there to support the paper doesn’t run down.

2018 Media Predictions

It’s that time of year when, because not a lot else is going on, and pages need to be filled, everyone is busily predicting what might happen in 2018.

So here are my bold and not so bold predictions in the coming year across the media industry.

  • A streamer will win some Premier League rights. Having written at length about this process, and not really come to a strong conclusion that it makes sense for any of the big players to get involved in the Premier League rights auction, I can still foresee 1-2 packages going to them just because the Premier League probably thinks it has rinsed as much as it really can out of BT and Sky.
  • Digital advertising will continue to grow, but continue to have major questions asked of it. How much of digital advertising is fraud? How much of it actually works? Does anyone at all actually click on an advert unless it’s a mistake? Google Chrome is introducing it’s “ad-blocker” in February, and advertising that doesn’t adhere to the Coalition for Better Ads guidelines will get blocked. That will clean up part of the problem, in that the worst offenders will be disincentivised some of the worst practices. But that’s not really enough. Lots of agencies are getting asked lots of questions, and yet the money keeps flowing their way. Incidentally, an ever greater part of the digital advertising world is becoming owned by IT services companies like Accenture. Could Publicis or WPP actually get bought by one of these?
  • Radio listening among younger audiences will decline. I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag with this one. While overall reach has held, and probably will continue to hold up, time spent listening to those services will decline amongst younger audiences. They’re spending too much time on YouTube, Spotify and Amazon. See every RAJAR summary I’ve published in the last couple of years for more.
  • Smart speakers will be everywhere. With the basic models going for £35 this Christmas, and near enough every portable BlueTooth speaker likely to include either Google Assistant or Alexa in the coming months, these speakers will be everywhere regardless of whether you think you need one or not. I’m not certain that everyone will be controlling their lighting and heating with them, as that involves spending considerably more money on technology, but it does make audio listening easier, and for things like news, sport and weather, they’re terrific. Some naysayers think the impact is overblown, but while they won’t reach everywhere, they definitely will be of use to a decent proportion of the population. And you can definitely expect an uptick in internet listening overall. I’m less certain that devices like the Amazon Show or worse, the Amazon Spot (alarm clock with an internet connected camera that you’re supposed to put on your bedside table) will quite hit the mark however.
  • No real changes in UK radio’s structure. DCMS recently published a fairly groundbreaking document that sets out to remove most regulation surrounding UK local radio. Stations will broadly speaking be able to do what they want. So expect Capital and Heart to go fully networked for example, while programmers will be able to play whatever music (or speech) they deem their audience wants to hear. Except that none of this will happen in 2018. Primary legislation is required to do it, and for the most part, Brexit is tying up nearly every part of Government. If anything, the pressure is only going to ramp up in 2018 to get that work done. “Unimportant” things like radio deregulation will have to sit and wait.
  • We will reach “Peak TV.” Many might think that we’re already at “Peak TV” with every network under the sun commissioning “original content” as a way to stand out against IP delivered interlopers like YouTube, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. But now Apple and Facebook are entering the game, and the volumes will be ridiculous. I do think that some of these players will be challenged. Facebook isn’t going to be able to do edgy fare, so it will find it as hard to cut through as a US network might. In other words, it will take many attempts to get a hit. I don’t see Apple really having the ability to do that either. It’s worth remembering that you don’t just make good TV by throwing money at the problem. And making these shows work globally is near impossible. Different parts of the world have very different expectations. Nonetheless, TV reviewers are going to have their work cut out. In the meantime, as Disney swallows Fox (including Sky TV and Star TV), they will be transitioning their business from broadcast to IP at a faster rate. Others will follow.
  • Local news will reach a crisis point. More major stories will be missed in UK regions because, aside from the BBC, and a handful of modestly sized regional news operations, there will be no journalists to cover them.

From my own perspective, I’m vowing to do at least some of the following:

  • Watch back everything that’s still saved up on my Sky+ unwatched (including a couple of things recorded off the BBC HD channel!)
  • Get through a few more DVD boxsets that I have kicking around.
  • Books. Always books to be read.
  • Listen to more radio – in particular music radio. I spend too much time listening to speech, and while I listen to both my own music and streaming music, it doesn’t introduce me to nearly as much new music as the radio can, by placing it in context.

Diversity in Media – Measuring Social Class

On Sunday I wrote a piece on Ofcom’s Diversity in Television report, and in particular, noted my disappointment that it didn’t measure social class.

The feedback I got can basically be summed up with the question: “Yes, but how do you measure class?”

So I thought it was worth exploring the issue a bit further.

Measuring social class isn’t easy. What you can’t do is simply ask people to mark themselves on a form. You need to collect proxy information that can provide you with some kind of methodology to measure it.

Here we come to census v survey.

A census is a record of every single employee, whereas a survey is a sample of some of the population. While ordinarily you’d want to measure the responses of all your employees, if your company is big enough then a survey may suffice. Not only that, if you know that some employees are likely to feel uncomfortable answering certain questions, then you’re likely to need to use a survey.

It’s for this reason, by the way, that surveys conducted about sensitive areas such as sex, should be treated with extreme caution, since many do not wish to answer, and indeed may be answering untruthfully.

Of course, there are rightly concerns that this is sensitive data. What right does my employer have to know about my parents’ education, or jobs? And as an employer, do I feel comfortable asking employees to collect this data?

It is sensitive information, and it needs to be collected and measured responsibly. So that probably means that it shouldn’t sit as a field in an employee’s record on an HR system, anymore than you’d record someone’s sexual orientation or religious beliefs on such a system.

Yet we also collect data on those sensitive areas. It’s usually collected in survey form, and on an anonymised basis. The collection is probably best handled by a third-party specialist research company who can assure employees that the data is not being used for anything other than measuring diversity in the workplace.

It’s important that social class data is collected as it impacts on many behaviours across societies. So while it’s hard to do it, groups like the Office of National Statistics have to collect this data, and indeed they have their own methodology for doing so. Notably, these are based around employment status (employer, self-employed or employee), organisational size and supervisory status (does a person supervise others, and in what context?).

As The Guardian reported over the weekend, the BBC has made the decision to use a staff survey which measured parents’ occupations, noting that its staff showed a higher likelihood of their parents having achieved higher managerial and professional occupations than the wider population, suggesting a class imbalance compared with the wider population.

Now it’s certainly true that an organisation the size of the BBC is able to get an external research company to measure such indicators, and provide norms to compare against. But Ofcom’s report was based on UK broadcasters who all had turnover’s of £1bn or more, so I’d argue that each of them is in a position to do a similar job.

On the other hand, a small indie isn’t in such a position, and the size of that indie might make such data relatively meaningless anyway.

Yet if the media industry is serious about diversity, then this does need measuring, and doing so on a pan-media basis with some central funding, could mean that the broader industry could be surveyed.

Mind you, as a friend of mine said to me, if you banned unpaid “internships” tomorrow, it may fix the problem quite quickly.

Diversity in UK Media – Ofcom’s Report Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Last week Ofcom published the first in what it says will be a regular series of reports into diversity and equal opportunities in television. It focuses on the biggest UK television broadcasters: BBC, Channel 4, ITV, Sky and Viacom (owner of Channel 5 amongst others).

Diversity remains a key concern in the media industry, from representation throughout media organisations, to issues surrounding pay discrimination based on sex.

But I really do have a bone to pick with this, and nearly every report on diversity in UK broadcasting. They don’t go far enough.

Sharon White, Ofcom’s CEO says in her introduction to the report: “Too many people from minority groups struggle to get into television. That creates a cultural disconnection between the people who make programmes, and the many millions who watch them.”

This is undoubtedly true, despite schemes that are set up across the industry.

The report breaks employees into the following categories:

  • Gender
  • Racial group (BAME)
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion and belief

The report dutifully compares each of the measured broadcasters against both the population at large, UK based industry, and the average amongst the peers. From this we see, for example, that Channel 4 does well amongst BAME staff, while Viacom does well with women in leadership roles.

But there’s a glaring hole in this analysis, and it’s one that pervades UK media.

Social class.

It’s just not measured. And without that we’re missing something fundamental from our broadcasters.

I’m not saying the other factors aren’t important – they are. And sometimes those other measures can be indicative of social class. But while media has a widely acknowledged considerable issue with new entrants coming into the sector, unless they’re supported by family members (bank of mum and dad), and can support themselves in London while they do unpaid “work experience”, then for all those other measures, we’re going to only get people who come from wealthier backgrounds.

Everybody knows this. It was mentioned in a good episode of The Media Show from the RTS Cambridge TV Festival this week.

So I’m not at all sure why it’s not included in Ofcom’s report. It’s critical that this is measured to truly show diversity in the media.

[UPDATE: I wrote a follow-up to this piece, detailing some ways this data could actually be collated.]

The Nightly Show

Before ITV launched The Nightly Show into the 10:00pm weekday slot I said that we should avoid comparisons with US late evening talk shows since contrary to popular belief, it’s not trying to be one, and we should hold off looking at the ratings until it had settled into something a bit firmer.

This kind of show will never hit the ground running. There will be teething problems and the show will have to learn what kind of beast it actually is. It’s completely naive to expect that it will come to our screens fully formed no matter how much piloting there had been prior to launch.

I’m not going to claim to have watched every episode thus far, indeed I’ve only watched a handful. But I think that now we’re a few weeks in, we can get a more reasonable handle on what it should and shouldn’t be doing.

The initial round of criticism came as much as anything from ITV’s choice of first guest host – David Walliams. It really shouldn’t have come as a shock that his humour is broad and a little rude. Had nobody seen Little Britain? He was never going to be making incisive political humour at the expense of Donald Trump or Brexit. Instead we had lots of pre-recorded bits where he dressed up as women, as well as some slightly underwhelming interviews. Martin Clunes is a nice guy, but they really needed a bigger name to launch the show. The problem with Walliams is that he’s not all that interested in having a talk with a guest. Instead, he’s always looking for the next gag.

That was completely different in week two, when John Bishop took over. He’s got more experience in this area having already recorded a series of long-form interviews for W, and is recording some more for a second series. His week saw him carry out a more conversational style presentation with interviewees including Roger Daltrey and Martin Kemp. These interviews ran on a bit longer too.

In Walliams’ final Friday show, he’d had Bishop on as a guest (this would become a regular thing, as hosts passed on the baton – literally a microphone unlike any the show actually used), and when Bishop listed his upcoming guests for the new run of his W show, it seemed to be a slightly more inspiring list than guests he had lined up for The Nightly Show the following week!

Actually, the whole piece was very meta with a tacit acknowledgement that week one hadn’t worked and Bishop being ever-so-slightly barbed in his criticism of the show.

Incidentally, at time of writing, that video has less than 2,500 views. On the show’s YouTube channel, many of the videos have only scraped into four figures. Only some clips featuring boxers seem to have found any traction.

A top tip to whoever’s running the show’s YouTube channel is to include some kind of description along with the video – one video simply has the word “amazing” in the description.

Another intriguingly says “Ant and Dec get a taste of their own medici,” while seemingly having nothing to do with the dynastic Florentine banking family.

I’d guess that not properly including descriptions really won’t help people to find the videos from a Google search.

The third week saw Davina McCall take over the reins, and there seemed to instantly be a return to week one, with a pointless 60 second quiz that David Walliams had tried in his first episode (it didn’t work then, and it didn’t work now), as well as lighter guest interviews that elicited little to nothing from guests Boy George and Vicky McClure in the first show.

There is no shame in a daily show like this burning through ideas. You try something; it doesn’t work; you move on. If something does work, then great, you can bring it back another time.

In a recent Radio Today Podcast, Danny Baker mentioned, somewhat in passing when talking about the Sausage Sandwich Game on his Five Live Saturday morning show, that Chris Evans would create fairly solid “bits” each week on TFI Friday, that would then get flung away permanently in place of whatever else floated his boat the following week. He was burning through ideas on a weekly show. For a daily show, you really need to keep delivering new ideas at a rate of knots.

The only difference otherwise I could see was the addition of an Ellen-style DJ booth to the set, although the DJ seemed mostly interested in displaying his Beats headphones than doing much in the way of DJ-ing.

By the end of the week, the show seemed to have become some kind of dating show, perhaps recalling Streetmate, Davina’s breakthrough show from the late nineties, with overly produced segments of first dates and dating stories. Mel C was a guest, but Davina was barely interested in the answers to her list of questions, and Mel had been much more entertaining earlier in the week on Alan Davies’ show over on Dave.

And simply reading unfunny gags from an AutoCue does not make for a monologue.

I admit that I was tiring by week four, when Dermot O’Leary came on. He’s a safe pair of hands, but this was light entertainment writ small. He had a pianist on for no obvious reason, and was just a bit average.

Wednesday saw a terrorist attack in Westminster, and ITV dropped the show in favour of the news starting earlier at 10pm. Running pre-news on the day of a tragedy is always going to be tricky, and over on Dave, they didn’t show Matt Forde’s show either that night (even though it had been recorded the previous day).

At this point you have to wonder how successful the show is commercially. Aside from the Amazon Echo sponsorship credits, I saw barely any actual ads in the centre break. And the audience figures have not been great, being heavily reliant on hits like Broadchurch to get anything vaguely half-decent.

In my first piece, I said that we should be careful making comparison with American shows, and I tend to be in agreement with Richard Osman who explained quite clearly on Radio 4’s Media Show that he didn’t think this was an attempt by ITV to replicate that kind of show, whatever everyone’s preconceptions are.

He said that he wouldn’t be presenting because it wasn’t that kind of show. It’s an ITV show and it’s on in peak, so in effect it’s an extension of the kind of shows ITV runs on Saturday nights. Indeed Kevin Lygo, ITV’s Director of Television, said himself in his Guardian interview:

“This is a sort of LWT version of ITV. It’s loud entertainment, high-quality drama, and fun.”

In essence, this is Saturday night ITV stripped across the week.

If you’re actually looking for something a bit more ascerbic – more John Oliver than David Walliams – then you should really have been looking at Dave on Wednesday nights, where the aforementioned Unspun with Matt Forde has been running. It’s overtly political, seemingly modelling itself on The Daily Show with “correspondents” and has the traditional band that many US talk shows have. Although MP4 includes three serving and one former MP, always left me wondering how they’re always available for studio recordings, until the week when the SNP’s Pete Wishart was late to the recording due to Parliamentary business.

What next for The Nightly Show? Well they have a few more weeks to go, with upcoming presenters including Gordon Ramsey, Bradley Walsh and Jason Manford (so one woman in seven announced presenters).

I think they do need to settle on a permanent host. Having someone different come in each week to mould a show around is just unnecessarily hard at a time when the overall show’s tone is still finding its feet. Being a guest host on something firmly established, like Have I Got News For You, is much easier. There’s less of a learning curve, since the guest host knows what’s expected of them. Even then HIGNFY regularly returns to the same guest hosts each series.

The Nightly Show desperately needs that stability, as otherwise it’ll veer around week after week.

I think they probably need a larger roster of writers too. You’re going to burn through material at quite a rate on a show like this – at least you are if you’re not going to let mediocre material make it to air. That means a large writers’ room with people vying to get material into each night’s show.

That also means that you won’t end up burning out your writers, while at the same time, it keeps the quality threshold high. With all the attendant criticism, it must be really hard to be a writer on that show and not doubt what you’re doing. It also probably means they take the safe option all the time, and that’s not what that show needs right now.

And I’d also suggest that if you’re picking someone, theoretically randomly, from the audience, it does seem strange that they’re sitting in a camera-friendly place, and they’re already mic-ed up.

There is a tendency too in UK TV criticism to want to see a show fail. I don’t mean a big drama. If SS-GB doesn’t hit everyone’s critical buttons then never mind. There’ll be another Sunday night drama along in a minute.

The critical column inches about The Nightly Show have not really stopped since the show began. And I realise that I’m contributing to them in my own small way. Of course part of that is brought on by the show’s format itself. Each week a new presenter means that there’s an excuse for a new critical appraisal. Is this week’s presenter better than last week’s? Remove that obstacle and the show can settle down a bit.

I suspect that News at Ten Thirty will stay in that position. Although ratings have been hit since the move, a stronger offering in the 10pm slot could help. I’m not convinced that’s 90 minute dramas incidentally. I would imagine that they’re incredibly hard to sell internationally for one thing. And they also demand a lot more from the viewer. But a few edgier sitcoms, and a panel show or two might work there. Shorten “Play to the Whistle” for example (60 minute panel shows are always overlong); move Harry Hill to that slot; actually try something a bit more political.

There is definitely room for some incisive satirical TV, and we really don’t have it on British TV. There’s Have I Got News For You, and that’s basically it. BBC Two has just announced The Mash Report (a working title) with Nish Kumar, which is indeed coming from The Daily Mash. Certainly this will be something to look out for.

Celebrity RIP Tweets

We have just come through 2016, and for many, it won’t be fondly remembered. Election and referendum results notwithstanding, there were a number of deaths – often of people very much revered.

Today, when someone dies, we learn about it almost instantly. The news will turn up in social feeds. Alerts on our smartphones will tell us about breaking news.

And if you don’t personally get the news that way, it’s entirely probable that someone near you will hear it that way. Then you might switch to a 24 hour news channel or put on the radio.

We live in a continuous 24 hour news cycle.

The old idea of news cycles has long since gone. And that means that when something happens, we need instant analysis and reporting.

Yet the reporting of someone’s death can really grate with me. If the name is big enough – say, David Bowie – then everything stops.

Breakfast TV and radio that day was thrown over to rolling news and reaction to his death, with the announcement having come at around 7am UK time.

But actual details about the death are initially likely to be limited. A manager will have perhaps put out a brief two-line statement saying that the person died peacefully in their sleep, and that’ll be about the long and short of it. It’s possible that it was well known that the person had been ill for some time, or it might come as quite a shock – an unforeseen heart attack perhaps.

However, the media has hours of airtime to fill. Fans want to remember their heroes.

The first thing that reports of a celebrity death will include is quotes from their peers. And these now tend to come from social media – especially Twitter.

The problem is that it can almost feel like there’s a rush on for other famous, and not-so-famous people to have their say. Now of course, the democracy of the internet means that we can all have our say, and while another artist may have been friends and worked with the deceased star, someone else might have been inspired by that person, or perhaps just loved their work.

But in the media, he who shouts first, gets quoted first. So instead of a carefully curated collection of thoughts of those who perhaps we’d be most interested in hearing eulogies from, we get the thoughts of those who happen to be Tweeting soonest.

It can be as simple as whoever wakes up and hears the news first is the person who’s thoughts lead the news bulletins over the next few hours.

“Tributes have been coming in for Deceased_Star. Talent_Show_Winner said, ‘I always looked up to them. I was really proud that I was able to sing one of their songs in the semi-final of Talent_Show. They inspired me.’ Meanwhile Twitter_Loving_Comedian said, ‘It was a privilege to work with them at Charity_Event.'”

Well, thanks for that.

I’m not saying that the comments made by said famous folk aren’t heartfelt and don’t count. I can’t tell you whether someone is posting something on Twitter because it makes them look good and relevant that they comment, or whether it’s just an earnest tribute towards someone who was important to them in whatever way.

But at 7.15am there are scores of journalists scouring Tweetdeck looking for anything any famous person says. So a politician with a reactive PR person gets in early, but older and wiser people – who would previously either actually been called by a journalist, or released a statement via an agent – don’t get heard early on. (Read a great piece by Andrew Collins based on one particular Tweet here.)

I understand the difficulty on the other side of the fence. You’re a music journalist, and suddenly every broadcast outlet and newspaper is calling you asking you to either speak on air, or write 1,500 words for tomorrow’s edition – and needing to be online by lunchtime.

There’s a brilliantly funny story by ex-Word editor and Whistle Test presenter, Mark Ellen, in his book Rock Stars Stole My Life, who relates being called by broadcasters everywhere to comment on the death of Michael Jackson. The running gag was that Paul Gambaccini – seemingly always on top of every news producer’s contact list when a musician dies – was stuck in traffic in a cab.

But they’re journalists, and that’s to be expected. And anyway, I’m not really talking about them.

I’m talking about news reports that are full of basically random famous folk. Yes, the facts can probably be summarised in a couple of lines, but there are hours to fill! And so we get pretty much whoever’s available at short notice and whoever happened to hit Twitter first.

In due course, over the following few hours, a better selection of comments is gathered. Relevant friends and artists have their thoughts collected. And the TV channels stop using the same B-roll footage that they found on YouTube, archivists delivering much better quality, interesting and relevant pictures*.

* Although this is likely to be the subject of a future blog. Despite having a vast wealth of digital material at our fingertips, it’s disheartening how many television obituary packages seem to consist of badly captured and screen-grabbed footage. When Liz Smith died recently, ITV News’ obit seemed to consist of footage simply grabbed from the BBC iPlayer of a recent Royle Family reairing. Even allowing for this being over Christmas, surely a higher quality source could have been found?

Problems with News Video

Recently the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published its annual Digital News Report, authored by Nic Newman.

If you’re interested in the media, and particularly journalism in the digital age, then it’s an essential read. The report, which is supported by groups such as Google and the BBC, surveys 50,000 people across 26 countries about their digital news habits.

The report is available to download, with lots of additional resources like data tables and chart packs for deep-diving into.

I’m going to concentrate on one area of the report: video.

If you’ve been paying attention to news sites, and indeed digital media in general, there has been a lot more video in recent years. Social media and news sites more often than not playing videos by default, and spending money to push the platform. Video, the belief is, will grab users’ attention and drive increased readership.

And for the most part, this seemed like a sensible move. More people were watching more video as both home broadband and mobile 4G coverage improved. But with regard to digital news, there’s been a bit of a speed-bump on the road.

“One surprise in this year’s data is that online news video appears to be growing more slowly than might be expected. Across all 26 countries only a quarter (24%) of respondents say they access online news video in a given week. This represents surprisingly weak growth given the explosive growth and prominence on the supply side.”
(Page 19)

The real reason for the growth in video, beyond the perceived demand from users, is the higher advertising yields that can be achieved from video. Those pre-roll adverts, whether skippable or not, are worth much more than other display inventory which has not been the saviour that news organisations or others had hoped it would be. Something to do with infinite inventory I suspect.

News providers were positively driven to increase their volumes of video to meet revenue targets.

“Across our entire sample, the vast majority (78%) say they only read news in text or occasionally watch news video that looks interesting. Just one in twenty (5%) say they mostly watch rather than read news online. “
(Page 20)

And the reasons for this relatively low growth are pretty obvious. This chart is from the report:

newsvideos

I think those reasons – the first four in particular – chime with me, with the fact that I can read text quicker than watch a video being the chief one.

Yet frustratingly, more news seems to be appearing in video-only form. I read much of my news via the feedreader Feedly, and most news site’s RSS feeds limit what Feedly can see. That’s fine – whether coming from a feedreader, or much more likely, social media, news providers want to ensure they have strong branding and potentially monetise me with advertising.

But when I click through to a site and see a story that is only, or mostly, video, then I simply close the tab and click away.

Video really needs to add something to what I can read for it to be of true value. I’m not saying I don’t like video news – I watch TV news bulletins on a daily basis – but in a digital world, video is much more an interruptor.

– If I’m on the train to work looking on my mobile, I may be listening to music. Video puts that on pause so I can hear the soundtrack. Newspapers never forced that on me. I can read text and listen to music simultaneously.

– If I’m at work, then I can quickly scan a story to see if it’s important. With video I have to fumble around for headphones, or risk interrupting colleagues.

And video takes time. From hitting the play button to getting to what I want to see is not usually the best experience. Frankly, there’s nothing worse than a news provider who has built their own video platform (or bought one), and you just know it’s not going to be as fast-starting as, say, YouTube. You’re going to see a swirly “loading” graphic before an advert loads painfully slowly. At the end of the advert, there’ll be another delay as the actual video loads. 30 seconds of that before a video that’s only 45 seconds long itself doesn’t seem like a fair transaction.

Fundamentally, humans can read in their heads faster than someone can read out loud. So all things being equal, I’ll choose the most the most efficient way to get to the story. For the most part, I want to read stories not watch videos. I can quickly gauge how interested I am in a story from the text. Video is a hit or miss affair.

It’s perfectly true that some may prefer video, so by all means offer both video and text. But consider even making the transcript of the video available. As a friend pointed out on a social media, that instantly makes the video more accessible, and increases the search engine optimisation of what you’re producing.

Video is actually much more expensive than text – or text illustrated by photos – yet everyone seems to want to do it.

My suggestion is that unless video is a primary output of your organisation, I would use it sparingly. Produce only videos that really add something to the story. There are various groups who are adding text to videos and making them viewable without sound. Fine as far as it goes, but they tend to be relatively simplistic. You can’t delve deeper into a story that way, yet if I’m spending 2-3 minutes with a story which is what a video is demanding of me, then I expect to come out with a much richer understanding of the issues than I went in with.

Video is not the be-all and end-all, and news providers would do well to remember that.

Leading Questions

These are my own views, and do not represent those of my employer. Now we’ve got that out of the way, we’ll continue.

It’s fairly understood that depending on how you ask a research question, you can get different answers. In research terminology, questions that can elicit a particular response are called “leading questions.”

You see the same things in legal dramas all the time: “Objection Your Honour! The prosecutor is leading the witness!”

SurveyMonkey published a great blog on the problem last year with some good examples of leading questions:

“How short was Napolean?” rather than “How would you describe Napolean’s height?”

“Should concerned parents use infant car seats?” rather than “Do you think special car seats should be required for infant passengers?”

Sometimes leading questions can appear by accident, or through poor phraseology by whoever’s asking the questions. But other times, it’s deliberate. Perhaps a particular answer is being sought, and the research just has to back up a pre-determined view.

This week saw the publication of the White Paper on the future of the BBC under a new Charter.

Now I don’t propose to write too much about that here – it could all get a little heated and contentious. Buy me a pint or get me a cuppa if you want to know my views. But I do want to highlight some of the research that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published alongside the White Paper.

While research is always useful for a major piece of Government legislation, and indeed a research-based approach to legislation would be welcome, it was curious that the research that was commissioned was conducted in the first quarter of 2016 after nearly 193,000 consultation responses, 9,000 Radio Times responses (once the DCMS asked for the password), more than 300 industry experts and organisations had been consulted, and 9 industry round tabels had taken place.

Charter Review Timeline

But nobody can complain about additional research can they?

Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

Take this example question:

Local regional national

(The colours from left to right represent: Completely agree, Agree strongly, Agree slightly, Neither agree nor disagree, Disagree slightly, Disagree strongly, Completely disagree, Don’t know)

The question implicitly infers that because the BBC has radio stations, then commercial radio stations will not be able to get an audience. It’s binary. You either listen to the BBC or commercial radio. You can’t possibly listen to both.

That’s not an egregiously bad question, but it’s certainly poorly framed.

There are questions asked where it’s frankly impossible for a member of the public to fully know the answer. For example, is the BBC spending licence fee money efficiently?

Unless you work within the media sector, you probably don’t actually have much knowledge of this. Indeed, even within the BBC, you might need to be in finance to have a true picture.

You may have a perception of how efficient the BBC is with its money, but that might be tainted by anti-BBC press reports for example. Perception is important of course, but we need to be clear that’s what we’re measuring.

If your view on efficiency is based on disliking how much prize money is awarded on Pointless (a relatively trivial part of a single programme’s budget compared with studio and staff hire, etc), then you’re not really answering the question properly.

Distinctiveness is a key word in this charter. Some variant of this word is used 155 times in the White Paper by my count.

But how do you determine distinctiveness? Seemingly, you just ask.

Here are a pair of questions again about radio:

Radio Distinctiveness

And again they’re very leading. The questions infer the answer in the way they’re asked. The first questions seems to saying, “Radio 1 and Capital/Absolute are the same aren’t they?”

In spite of that, most people don’t actually know, because most people don’t listen to Radio 1. Now 10m people a week do listen, but 43m people don’t. The question wasn’t just asked of Radio 1 listeners, or Radio 1 listeners who also listen to Absolute Radio or the Capital Network. That would be a sensible thing to ask, since those people would actually be able to discern the differences. So the answers again come down to perception, perhaps based on no knowledge of the stations at all. And when does perception become prejudice?

The same of course applies to the Radio 2 question, comparing it with Heart and Magic. It’s asked of everyone regardless of their listening habits.

And of course all of this is before the reality of the differences between the services – a quick look at CompareMyRadio can help here on the simplest level – the range and overlap of music played by different services.

Now to be fair, I think most of the questions in this questionnaire were actually fine, and the results are pretty consistent with other responses. But when you see a few questions like that sticking out, it does make you ask deeper questions about the whole process. And when those findings are then used to frame key parts of the White Paper, you only question the process even more.