TV

Sporting Value

The new Premier League season is well under way, and it’s at this time of year that the big sports TV players tend to gather up their marketing spends and splash the cash around, trying to persuade those of us who don’t subscribe that we really should be.

BT Sport has an entertaining video of a small girl taking on heroes, promoting BT Sport’s coverage of the Premier League, Champions’ League, Europa, Moto GP and Rugby Union amongst others. Everyone wants to see Gareth Bale “act” after all.

Meanwhile Sky’s ad features an army of literal “armchair fans” as they settle down for the new season of football. It includes their presenting talent in the ad, including Jeff Stelling who was seemingly contractually obliged to appear in every advert on television during the World Cup.

But there’s a new player on the block. No, I’m not talking about Premier Sports who scooped up the rights to the pre-season ‘tournament’ that literally nobody cares about, the International Champions Cup (Seriously, do you even know who won?).

No, I’m talking about Eleven Sports which has just launched in the UK.

Incidentally, I did look to see if they’d made a TV ad. But if they have, I couldn’t find it, and their YouTube page has a grand total of 13 videos, the newest of which is over a month old, and all of which seem to be about the World Cup.

Eleven Sports is a London based company that was started by the Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani. Hitherto they’ve mostly been active in other territories like Belgium and Poland. But under the management of former BT exec Marc Watson, they’ve been running around snapping up sports rights from under the noses of Sky and BT.

Sky has lost La Liga rights after many years, while BT has lost Serie A games which it has had pretty much since it launched its sports channel. They also grabbed the rights, at least this year, to the PGA Championship which had been floating around for the last year or so after Sky lost them.

These losses come at a time when Sky is about to lose its ATP tennis to Amazon, who have just begun showing this year’s US Open. And the FT reports that BT is going to be losing its NBA and UFC contracts shortly.

The only really good news for the incumbents, BT and Sky, is that as they enter the final year of their current Premier League agreement, their next three year contract starting with the 2019/20 season will be flat in terms of costs. 

But consumers probably need to ask whether they’re getting good value. BT has just put up its fees for BT Sport, while Sky’s went up in April.

Over at Eleven Sports, they’ve done a deal with Facebook to stream some of their output there (Incidentally, when I searched on Facebook for ‘Eleven Sports’ it was the second link I had to click. The first was a Burmese newspaper).

Eleven Sports’ pricing model is either £5.99 a month or £49.99 for the year, and you can get a 7-day trial. But it does all feel a bit rushed. While there is an app, the Android one doesn’t yet have Chromecast (although it’s said to be coming). That’s led to some scathing early reviews. So good luck watching golf balls on a 5″ screen. Watching on mobile is an essential bonus, but that 46″ block of glass in the corner of the living room is much better in overall terms for watching sport on.

In other territories, Eleven Sports has sub-licenced games to other sports providers. Maybe that will happen here, but I can’t see that it’s in either Sky or BT’s interests to give a leg up to a new competitor. So we’ll have to wait and see. Another FT piece says  that neither has bitten yet.

I confess that I’m slightly dubious about how many people will subscribe for La Liga or Serie A. Yes, those leagues have Messi and, now, Ronaldo, but for me they were a nice-to-have bonus. Ex-pat Spaniards and Italians will perhaps seek them out (or use vicarious VPN systems to log into local language feeds). And of course both leagues do have their hardcore fanbases. But is it all sustainable in the longer term?

There must be questions about whether they have overpaid for rights. They claim not to have, and it’s true that Premier League rights increases have left both Sky and BT with less money for other sports. BT is said to be likely to lose both NBA and UFC coverage fairly soon.

On Radio 4’s Media Show last week, Marc Watson talked about how much football Eleven Sports had put out – more than any of the other sports channels. But what is the quality like, and is there an audience for all of it? 

More worryingly a streaming-only option can be a challenging option is significant parts of the UK. I might be able to happily stream 4K* but I know I’m in the relative minority. Streaming is much easier to do when it’s not live. Netflix and the iPlayer team are able to encode very carefully to ensure that the right amount of bandwidth is used on an almost scene-by-scene basis. Fast action requires more data; a slow conversation requires much less. When you move to a live environment, particularly when there is lots of action (so sport by definition), you have the twin problems of needing high bandwidth to capture the action, and the need to encode on the fly in a sub-optimal manner because you’re broadcasting live. Netflix has a whole programme to work with local ISPs around the globe to minimise network traffic, and ensure the best experience for the end user with as little lag as possible. The BBC Research and Development also published a really detailed summary of their 4K trials with Wimbledon and the World Cup over the summer that gets into some of the challenges with live versus pre-recorded. While HD might be easier to do live, the same issues exist.

From an overall consumer’s perspective then, to watch the same sport this season as last season, both BT and Sky have increased their prices well ahead of inflation. Meanwhile they have less sport each, and to get back to the status quo of last season, the consumer needs to spend another £5.99 a month on top of those increases for some sport that they can no longer [easily] watch on their television.

In any event, I’m surprised by how little I’ve heard from Eleven Sports on a consumer basis. While soft-launches are sensible when you’re launching a new streaming platform, the football season is underway now, and they’ve not really started a major consumer marketing proposition that I’ve noticed. Compare and contrast with Amazon’s current marketing blitz for their US Open coverage.

Time will tell.


* I don’t actually, for the good reason that I don’t have a 4K TV.

Succession

I’ve been keenly awaiting Succession for a while. It comes from Jesse Armstrong who created Peep Show and more recently has done a lot of work with Armando Ianucci on things like The Thick of It and Veep, the latter being from HBO as this is.

What’s interesting is that, simplistically, this is a fictionalised version of the Murdoch family, with a powerful patriarch and his squabbling offspring. And of course, Sky Atlantic, who have an output deal with HBO giving them rights to much of the company’s programming, are in a large part owned by the Murdochs. Indeed right now there’s a complicated chain of acquisitions going on with Disney buying Fox, including its Sky assets, while Comcast tries to buy Sky and sneak it out of Disney’s hands.

I was initially surprised when this big budget drama didn’t instantly appear on Sky Atlantic. Surely they weren’t having cold feet about it? 

It turned out that Sky Atlantic wanted to put the whole series out in one go, so they waited until the end of its US transmission and all the episodes were available. And more to the point, although the series has the venere of being about the Murdochs, it’s somewhat more than that.

As an aside, it was entertaining hearing Matthew Macfayden on The One Show earlier this week, explaining that in the US there were a number of media families.

This is all true, but the Roy family is remarkably similar in structure to the Murdochs. At the head of the family is Brian Cox as Logan Roy – a cracking role. As with Murdoch, he originates from the ‘colonies.’ Scotland in this instance. He’s showing signs of age, and some of his children question some of his decision making. His heir apparent, is Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), the most business focused of the children. The eldest son, Connor (Alan Ruck) is a free-spririted libertarian, spending his time on a farm, not doing a great deal apart from overseeing the company’s annual fundraising gala dinner, and living with sort-of-girlfriend, who he’s sort-of-paying to be his sort-of-girlfriend.

Roman Roy (Keiran Culkin) is a waster who spends his time not taking anything too seriously, but it does mean he gets all the zingers. He’s only really in the business because he’s a son and therefore part of the family. Shiv (Sarah Snook) is the one family member trying to fashion her own career as a political consultant. But she’s still close. Her husband to be is the charmless social climber Tom (fantastically played by Matthew Macfayden), who knows he’s marrying into wealth… and power.

And then there’s Marcia (Hiam Abbas), Logan’s third wife, who’s mysterious background tends to make you wonder if she’s all she seems. 

Waystar Royco, the business that everything revolves around seems to have a publishing arm, a TV arm (including a news channel), a movie studio and a theme park business – the latter being the only bit that Murdoch doesn’t really have.

Given all this, how can anyone possibly equate Logan with Rupert, Kendall and Roman with James and Lachlan, Shiv with Elisabeth, and Marcia with Wendi Deng/Jerry Hall?

In fact, despite the similarities in the familial structures, the series goes off in some slightly different directions. The tone is, for the most part, surprisingly light. This is a soapy cousin of Veep, with many of the cast being caricatures to an extent. Culkin and Macfayden both get to have a lot of fun with their characters, as does Nicholas Braun who plays the dim-witted great nephew of Logan, and being pushed into the family business by his mother. There’s a fantastic scene when Tom takes him on a night out and they end up in a nightclub where Tom steers them up into an exclusive, and entirely empty, VIP section. Learning as he goes, he wonders allowed if it’s sort of like the rest of the nightclub, but without all the fun stuff on the dance floor down below. They sit there drinking from their $2000 bottle of vodka in silence.

But this isn’t solely a comedy, and there are serious questions being asked at times. I won’t spoil the season ending, but it’s played out remarkably well. 

In the end, this is a family drama with set amongst a particularly dysfunctional family. Yes, the setting is all sleek corporate offices and palatial apartments; private helicopters and glossy functions. But they’re the same kinds of rows, just played at a higher order.

I was hooked and can’t wait for season 2 next year.

Virgin Media and UKTV (And ITV) – Continuation

On my commute to work this morning, I saw a digital outdoor sign advertising a programme on Yesterday. I can’t recall the programme, but I can tell you that at the bottom, a large blue strap had added “Not available on Virgin Media.”

Things are ramping up in Virgin Media and UKTV’s dispute. The Guardian reports that Virgin Media is now sending out letters to interested other broadcasters to bid for UKTV’s slots on their EPG.

That feels like quite a hardball move from Virgin Media, since once those channel slots are gone, they’re unlikely to return. It’s obviously supposed to drive UKTV back to the negotiating table.

However in the meantime, The Guardian is also reporting that ITV and Virgin Media are also in dispute, with ITV reportedly suggesting it might pull all its channels from the platform by this weekend. Loss of ITV would be massive, with the channel responsible for lots of the biggest programmes on television. Even the loss of ITV2 on its own, at a time when Love Island continues to ride high in the ratings, is enough to make most platforms reconsider.

You suspect that ITV is pushing home a strategic advantage at a time when Virgin Media is already weakened from a consumer perspective with the loss of UKTV’s channels. If ITV’s channels were to drop off the platform, then there’d be a massive hole in what Virgin Media is offering viewers.

Certainly, most of those channels would remain available to viewers on Freeview, but the loss of on demand and recording functionality, along with the annoyance of having to flick around to jump between DTT and Virgin Media, is a disincentive.

This seems to be the result of an ongoing dispute between Virgin Media and ITV going back months. Last year, the Telegraph reported that ITV wanted between £45m and £80m in retransmission fees following a change in the law.

In April last year, the 2017 Digital Economy Act came into law, and it allowed for retransmission fees from cable operators – but notably, not satellite. Fees paid to broadcasters for otherwise free-to-air channels are the norm in the US, but hadn’t been the case in the UK. Indeed, broadcasters tended to have to pay platforms to ensure their services were covered.

This had become something of a bone of contention among commercial broadcasters, and ITV has been moving ahead most strongly.

As well as fees, prominence in the EPG and how catch-up offerings are presented are likely to form part of the negotiations. (As an aside, I note that Sky has recently been giving significant promotion to BBC programming, something it has not previously done on a regular basis).

The fees issue with UKTV and retransmission fees issue with ITV suggests that Virgin Media, under owners Liberty Global, is playing a really tough game at the moment, beating down channel suppliers as much as possible.

Losing ITV as well as UKTV could be a massive challenge for Virgin Media. I would imagine that groups like Sky and BT TV will be moving up their summer advertising campaigns (usually built around the upcoming football season) as a result.

[UPDATE] – It’s really worth listening to Virgin Media and UKTV slug it out on-air in this week’s episode of The Media Show. Both sides make their case, with Virgin Media very happy to carry the free-to-air channels for no money. UKTV want to sell them the entire package of channels – free and paid for. From their perspective, Virgin Media charges viewers to receive the channels, so they should get some subscriber money.

There was no mention of plans to sell off UKTV’s slot numbers. Nor was there any mention of ITV’s dispute, although that only really re-emerged following the programme’s recording.

Virgin Media and UKTV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marketing TV

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

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

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

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

TFL Have Missed a Trick

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

Times Square Ads

Tourists

Americans

Bosch

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

Yet even those US spending levels aren’t enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexist Coverage of the World Cup

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

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

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

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

Basically, it’s pretty sexist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Televising The World Cup Around the World

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

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

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

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

Saudi Arabia

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIFA is obviously upset about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia

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

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

Things have not gone well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bulletproof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the tone is just all wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winding Down Local TV

In the dim and distant past of 2011, Jeremy Hunt, then Culture Secretary, kicked off “Local TV.”

“For consumers, what this will mean is a new channel dedicated to the provision of local news and content,” he said.

In due course, he saw through the legislation to create a series of local TV services. This included the requirement for channels to be carried on all the main broadcast platforms. Furthermore, the new services would find positions fairly high their respective EPGs. Broadly speaking, the higher a channel appears in the EPG, the more viewing it is able to capture.

The BBC’s then licence fee settlement included funding that it must pay to the new services, both to build out a transmitter network and provide funding for each channel over the first three years. In theory programming might find its way back to the BBC.

Famously Hunt said, “Birmingham Alabama … has eight local TV stations – despite being a quarter the size of our Birmingham that, again, doesn’t even have one.”

But the idea was flawed from the outset.

First of all, equating UK and US TV stations was an irrelevance. US TV networks don’t exist in the same way. They are networks of largely independently owned stations, each of which affiliates itself to a major network in a given market. Sometimes there are big operators who own multiple stations, while their station in one city might be an affiliate of CBS, but in another, it is an affiliate of NBC. Mornings and evenings are filled with network programming, while afternoons are filled with nationally syndicated programming (Judge Judy, Ellen, etc).

Those “eight” local TV services in Birmingham, Alabama are basically ABC, NBC, CBS and so on, with local news bulletins scattered throughout the day when they’re not playing syndicated or network programming. Pretty much the same as watching BBC1 or ITV from a viewer’s perspective then. There are barely any true local services that operate around the clock. Sure, an affiliate might break away from the main network to cover a major breaking news story in its area, or more likely a car chase live from a helicopter, but they’re not truly “local” beyond news programmes and advertising sales.

Nonetheless, a variety of people applied for the early local TV licences advertised by Ofcom and they were duly handed out, via a “beauty parade.” In other words, to a win a licence, you had to promise the best programming. Another flawed part of the process, since to win a licence, applicants tended to over-promise.

The new owners of the licences varied. In London, it was the group that owned both the London Evening Standard and The Independent that got the licence. In Glasgow and later Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Ayr and Dundee, the local ITV franchise STV (which is still independent of the rest of ITV) won the licences. They were more successful than some others because they had a large news operation anyway across Scotland, as well as a healthy library of STV owned catalogue programming. However even these channels, collectively known as STV2, are facing a review over their future.

In Norwich, Mustard TV was operated by newspaper publisher Archant. They published the major daily and weekly newspaper titles in the area, and as in London, would be able to share resources with their stablemates.

But a couple of groups emerged to run what were effectively wider groups: “Made In…” and “That’s…” Your local service might be That’s Oxfordshire or That’s Lancashire, Made In North Wales or Made In Tyne and Wear.

Made Television has six stations while its larger rival That’s TV has fourteen.

Sometimes these groups won the licences from the outset; other times, they took over failing local stations (including the aforementioned Mustard TV).

But all the time, while these quasi groups were being built, something else was happening. A series of “change requests” was going through. Each of these would see a reduction in the number of hours of new original programming each station had to broadcast. The initial bidders had been wildly optimistic about the volume of new television they could make – indeed the “beauty parade” aspect to licencing actively encouraged them to make these promises. But it’s hard to make good television. It’s also hard to make cheap television. And it’s very hard to make good, cheap television.

Every so often, the stations went back to the regulator and asked to be relieved of some of the promises they’d made. That mostly meant reductions in locally made programming.

If they weren’t making original local programming, then how did they fill their schedules? Well they could licence old programming from various parties and save costs.

London Live, for example, licences large swathes of Channel 4 programming, and fits that between cheap Danny Dyer films that it has also licenced.

Made Television is able to licence episodes of Judge Judy, It Takes a Killer and Medical Detectives – all cheap syndicated fare.

Any channel could licence a lot of this programming, but not every channel gets a prime EPG slot as the local services get. Discovery or UKTV would kill to get Freeview channels 7 or 8. Viewers find those channels much more easily.

On the plus side, local TV has probably been a boon for Talking Pictures TV, the classic film channel. It has had an agreement in place that saw carriage of its channel across a lot of That’s TV stations.

Which all brings us to today’s news that Ofcom wants to end the local rollout of new services. This hasn’t come soon enough, because the economics just don’t work.

If a group wants to start a TV channel in 2018, then they should be perfectly able to do it on their own without any government assistance. And building expensive broadcast infrastructure really doesn’t feel the way to go. While there are definitely advantages to broadcast versus IP delivery, building a community TV channel on, say, YouTube would be a perfectly sensible and viable thing to do. Committed volunteers using cheap cameras and open source software can produce decent quality video – tens of thousands of YouTubers show what’s possible.

Indeed, the idea that a small TV channel is capable of filling 24 hours a day is laughable, so concentrating on a decent quality single programme that can be watched at the viewer’s convenience is definitely the most pragmatic solution.

TV is not easy, and most of the groups that started out with local TV services have struggled. Viewing figures are low – indeed for the most part they’re not collected by the ratings body BARB (Be very dubious of claims of viewership that come from other surveys).

The only real good I can think that came out of this experiment was as a training opportunity for new people into the television marketplace which is far too London-centric. But even then, I’d love to know whether everyone is being paid or not.

The idea was flawed from the outset, and while channels that remain will probably be able to struggle by for a while, they simply can’t afford to make quality local TV programming – especially news. While some UK TV regions are large, meaning that viewers feel distant even from their local BBC or ITV news programmes, they shouldn’t underestimate how expensive that programming is for both the BBC and ITV to make. It’s hard to see how a cost effective local TV service can truly feel that void.

And anyone who’s spent any time actually watching local TV bulletins in the US will know that for the most part, they’re not high quality, often concentrating on stories that make good pictures (car crashes, fires, the aftermath of murders), and filling their bulletins with syndicated material of often dubious quality. (See, for example, the scandal surrounding Sinclair Broadcasting recently.)

The whole plan was wrongheaded from the outset, taking up resource at the regulator, and costing licence fee payers money that won’t up on the services that they’re paying for. Even in 2011, the future of hyper local services was clearly the internet, and the US TV model was both irrelevant to the UK market, and in any case, not very good.

I would never want to see services closed down, but this an experiment that has completely failed.

Netflix: $8 Billion and 700 NEW Shows?

How much programming is Netflix actually making?

The answer is a lot, but I think that the widely reported numbers are a little misleading.

Heavily retweeted earlier today was this:

I’m not trying to pick on one person; these are figures that have been reported elsewhere.

Most pieces reference a Variety story: Netflix Eyeing Total of About 700 Original Series in 2018. But you’ll note that the Variety headline includes the word “total” in it.

The key section of Variety’s report is this:

The “700-range” figure [Netflix CFO, David Wells] cited includes 80 non-English-language original productions from outside the U.S., such as psychological thriller “Dark” from Germany and “Club de Cuervos” from Mexico. The total encompasses both new and existing original series (such as “Orange Is the New Black” and “Narcos”). [My emphasis]

In other words, this is a cumulative figure and represents the total number of original series on the platform.

It does not mean an additional 700 originals!

The Variety report is based on an investment call that Netflix had, and as is the way with these things, the transcript of the call is available online.

Here’s the relevant section:

Unidentified Analyst
Right. So moving from maybe the big-picture stuff to more into here now. What are your priorities for 2018? Where are you focused and where is the team focused in making sure the company executes this year?

David B. Wells – Netflix, Inc. – CFO & Principal Accounting Officer
Well, I think — a lot of what you hear many of us say is internal execution, right? So we think we have a large market. We just talked about there’s so many more nonmembers than there are members, and so our focus is really to continue to improve the product that we have. We’ll be adding increasingly more and more of our originals in our global content. This year, we’ll have 80 originals in the global category, meaning these are non-English language original produced content things, like Club de Cuervos, Dark — O Mecanismo is a new one coming from Brazil. And so the — our muscle in that area is increasingly being built and exercised, and I’m excited about lots of great stories coming from different parts of the world. And again, people seem to love high production quality and a good story. It doesn’t really matter where it comes from. So I think our focus is building out our production muscle, building out our global production muscle, increasing our product in various parts of the world. We’re the newest in Asia. So I’d say it’s continuing to sort of localize pieces in Asia, continue to improve the product there. But we also have an eye towards not losing our leadership position in other parts of the world as well. So it’s not like we’re not also improving the Americas.

Unidentified Analyst
You mentioned 80 global originals. That’s TV series, so that’s distinct from your film strategy?

David B. Wells – Netflix, Inc. – CFO & Principal Accounting Officer
Yes. That’s distinct to film, and it’s even distinct from television series that you might describe as sort of global, like Orange Is the New Black or Narcos. These are things that are produced in a non-English language market. So I just want to make that distinction. So there’s even more than 80 that are sort of for the global market. If you think about the total number, it might be somewhere in the 700 range.

That makes clear that there are 80 original “global” originals – non-English language originals. And there are 700 in total. They obviously measure movies differently, and categorise them separately, but then they are still both commissioning original movies and also buying them outright after festivals such as Sundance, beyond the regular licencing of movies from studios. Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer has previously said that they will release 80 original movies in 2018.

But how do you even determine what is a Netflix original? It’s not that simple.

Stranger Things or Narcos are relatively simple. They’re 100% Netflix. But for others it’s less clear. For example, in the US, the science fiction series The Expanse appears on SyFy, but it counts as a Netflix original in much of the rest of the world. Star Trek: Discovery appears in the US on the CBS All Access streaming platform. Everywhere else it’s a Netflix Original. Troy: Fall of a City is currently airing on BBC One and was co-commissioned by both the BBC and Netflix where it’ll appear globally.

Even seemingly homegrown series like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, aren’t strictly Netflix exclusive. Orange is the New Black is currently airing on the Sony Crime channel in the UK, having done a deal with Lionsgate the producers. In France House of Cards originally aired on Canal+ since there was no Netflix in France and the producer, MRC, was able to sell it to them. On more recent 100% Netflix commissions, it has reportedly tightened contracts to prevent that programming appearing elsewhere – unless they choose to allow it.

In any event, a Mashable report makes clear that this 700 number includes some of these co-commissioned series:

A Netflix representative told Mashable that this content budget includes properties we already know and love like Stranger Things, as well as licensing content from partners like AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Note that The Walking Dead is not available on, for example, UK Netflix, because Fox International has the rights and they distribute it on Sky’s platform in boxsets.

It should also be pointed out that “originals” can include one-offs as well as series or seasons of shows. Think about all the stand-up comedy specials that Netflix is commissioning.

So to summarise, there will be 700 originals in total at the end of 2018, which includes new commissions, previous commissions and co-commissions.

Netflix is definitely spending a lot, although it’s in the ballpark of what other large media companies also spend each year. But it’s not launching new series at the rate of two a day!

They’re also losing money – negative free cash flow in the parlance. I’m not arguing that there isn’t an underlying business model that makes sense, but it’s worth noting all the same. The theory is that as they build up their library of originals, they don’t have to licence as much third party material (See also the recent news that Disney won’t renew their Netflix deal and will shift their output to their own new streaming platform).

Netflix faces the issue of needing to have relevant programming in multiple local territories, and while there’s value in older series, viewers will continue to seek new programming. Netflix will have complex calculations about how much it needs to spend on new programming versus catalogue versus subscriber growth versus how much it licences. It’s a complex grid.