Category Archives: Media

Murdoch gets religion (finally)

In 1995 I tried (for about ten minutes) to persuade Rupert Murdoch to give the keynote speech at the Internet World London conference that year. In my address book (which is a huge and largely pointless guide to what people’s telephone numbers used to be) I’ve still got direct lines for his various PAs. Of course, that’s as close as I got to Mr Murdoch back then. I might as well have been asking him to address ‘Fruit World’ or ‘Top Hat Expo’… You see, Murdoch’s purchase of pioneering ISP Delphi the year before fooled me into thinking that he might actually be interested in the Internet. He wasn’t.

He is now, though. In a speech to a newspaper industry conference in the US Wednesday he called the Internet “a fast-developing reality we should grasp” and said “The trends are against us… so unless we awaken to these changes, which are quite different to those of five or six years ago, we will, as an industry, be relegated to the status of also-rans.” So what’s happened to finally get Mr. Murdoch’s attention? Well, it could be the unstoppable expansion of the blogosphere or the arrival of RSS as a serious news distribution platform or – more likely – it could be the research he’s commissioned that shows only 8% of 18-34s find newspapers useful. Ouch. The Newspaper publishers have got the fear because of the real possibility that their almost universal gradual decline (at least in Western economies) might turn into a collapse as the news-reading public ages. Could the newspapers turn out to be the Internet’s first real Old Media victim?

New York & India

Rush out and buy these special issues before they disappear from the shelves at the end of the week: The Economist’s terrific Survey of New York and New Scientist’s comprehensive special on science in India. Both are outstanding – the best specialist journalism in Britain and lots of clever, exclusive content. Both mags are really on form, if you ask me.

The Economist’s survey seems to be available for nothing at the web site and quite a lot of the New Scientist’s special is also free online.

How to throw away a natural advantage

The UK cable TV business is a uniquely dysfunctional family, managing to marry epic individual clumsiness with the kind of domestic chaos that continually threatens to bring the whole family down. Having (nearly) overcome the decades of forced disarray produced by its origin in dozens of separate, local companies, the industry’s getting ready for another gigantic misstep – this time into Video on Demand (VoD).

I suppose, when you own a broadband pipe into every one of your customer’s homes, the logic of VoD must be pretty compelling. It must also be immensely frustrating that, so long after Sky‘s arrival in the UK, the satellite firm still owns the multichannel marketplace despite the complete absence of a return path, no way of delivering Internet access or a phone line and the unavoidable requirement to fix a nasty wart to the side of every home covered.

Cable’s response to Sky’s continued dominance, perhaps understandably, is to push ahead with the medium’s natural advantage and try to make a go of VoD (you can’t do VoD without a network infrastructure and a proper return path so Sky just can’t play). There is, presumably, a point some time in the future when owning a fast, two-way data path into every home finally pays off and cable comes into its own but, as far as I can see, you’d need to be criminally naive to think that that time has arrived. This is still very much Sky’s market and the service of the moment is not VoD (or even NVoD – Near Video on Demand – which is a big hit on both Sky and3 cable) but Sky Plus.

The complete failure of the cable firms to roll out their own Personal Video Recorder (PVR) is perhaps partially explained by the announcement of their VoD plans but VoD won’t come close to competing with Sky Plus (or even my five year-old Tivo) any time soon. By contrast, building a PVR for cable would have been a piece of cake – the technology is straightforward, the manufacturers ready and waiting and the kit cheaper than it’s ever been. Rolling out PVRs into the cable network would be no more difficult than distributing, say, a new generation of remote controls. There’d be no impact on the infrastructure and hardly any CapEx – just a marketing and admin cost plus maybe some investment in an improved EPG (although I’m sure the Tivo people would be quite happy to share theirs). Sky has even done half the marketing job already – everyone knows what a PVR is now (“you know, the thing that lets you rewind live telly”).

So, instead of taking the easy win and, not incidentally, boosting ARPU by taking an extra couple of hundred quid a year from PVR subscribers, the cable industry has, once again, chosen the rocky road of rolling out a new and expensive technology into a resistant marketplace while Sky continues to sell PVRs like ice creams in August. Oy.

Remembering Peel

When you were a kid, did you record the Peel show? I did. Dozens and dozens of cassettes, all made – at least to begin with – by Sellotaping the crappy microphone from my cassette recorder to the crappy speaker of my Sanyo transistor radio. Of course, those cassettes are long gone (this is 25 years ago) but I bet you kept yours. You should dig them out, encode them and stick them on your weblog – that would be a good way of remembering him, wouldn’t it?

Seeking smokers…

Sad TV crew looking for smokers in Carnaby Street
This sad-looking (and slightly out-of-focus) TV crew were standing in Carnaby Street lunchtime today and – I kid you not – as I passed them I heard the reporter say “Come on smokers”. Who knows how long they’d been standing there waiting for an indignant smoker to interview about the impending Liverpool smoking ban but since nobody in London smokes any more, they’d obviously be better off jumping on a train up to Liverpool where, I understand, they’re still smoking like chimneys.

Dandy lives

It definitely cheers me up to learn that The Dandy has not only survived for seven decades (longer than any other comic) but has now emerged confidently into the glossy covermount era. The old characters have been updated deftly and there are some pretty good new ones. Good covermounts too (a sticky rubber tomato this week. Can’t argue with that).

Olympics and spectacle

TV still has the power to knock your socks off. I’m thinking about the Olympics, of course. Some people are probably calling this the ‘red button’ games (at least in Britain) but I reckon this has to be the games of the ’embedded’ camera. Big, static cameras pointed at the action are obviously history. Now you run the camera on a little train along the bottom of the pool or down the ten metre tower and – splash – into the water with the divers or out into the Saronic Gulf lashed to a mast or perched – wobbling – on the high bar or velcro’d to the athlete’s shorts as he wanders the village. The Olympic environment is studded with cameras (I wonder how many there are?) – it’s like the benign flipside of the surveillance society. There are no dark corners any more.

Sport and spectacle have finally collided and it makes perfect sense. From now on the idea of competing for any prize without perfect 360°, hi-def coverage will just seem weird. And it can only get stranger and more intimate – the barriers are down and the technology is out of control. Biometrics and blood chemistry (real-time public drug testing – how’s that for transparency?), downtime (Big Brother live from the Olympic Village). The coverage has been stretched in every direction – there’s more of it and it goes closer to the action and to the personalities. Sports TV meets reality TV. The cameras will be everywhere and the athletes will have no refuge…

Admirable Things

The admirable Things Magazine has reached its tenth anniversary. I’m a recent convert (like thousands of people, I guess, by way of the equally good New Things linklog). You can buy a copy here and you can even use the PayPal credit you’ve been accumulating selling off all those… er… things in your attic. Things is clever. It looks like one of those wise-ass cultural/academic journals that thrived in the eighties and nineties but it’s different. I think it’s kind of ‘post-theoretical’, displaying the sort of hyper-engaged pleasure in the material world that was considered disreputable when I was reading this kind of thing, when ‘theory’ closed off practice and things were reduced to signs. Back then we deprecated the literal, physical world. You might have concluded it didn’t exist at all, that it was just an ‘effect’ of the submerged sign-world we inhabited. Now we’re all recovering our pleasure in the stuff that surrounds us and Things is here to celebrate it.

MP3 thoughts

The esteemed Phil Gyford just digitised a decade-and-a-half of radio recordings from audio cassette. That sounds like a public service to me – if he now feels able to feed that lot into a respectable P2P network I think he’ll have markedly enriched the public domain and will surely one day get an MBE (Phil’s advancement can’t be far off now). Anyway, Phil’s effort reminded me that I’ve always thought it would be a pretty neat business idea to buy a little van, paint it with a groovy logo and run around collecting people’s vinyl record collections, digitising and returning them on nice firewire hard drives. The neat thing about this is that (copyright permitting – not a trivial matter), you’d be able to build a big ‘stock’ of digitised tunes as you encoded people’s collections. Ultimately, you’d hardly need to actually encode anything – you’d just pull the track from stock. Anyone got a van?

$75M well spent

Shrek 2 poster art
We saw our first blockbuster of the Summer this weekend – Shrek 2. A complete, delirious pleasure. What impresses me most about great Hollywood output like this is not so much the specific expression (which is very good) as the sheer ambition, the quite awesome unwillingness to compromise, to leave anything half done. Americans – when making movies, especially – really care. There’s not a slack moment, not the tiniest slip in the commitment to creating a giant, unarguable aesthetic unity. You might not like the final product – you might even hate its obsessive and arch re-use of movie and TV history – but you can’t argue with its life force.

• There’s something depressing about the way British stars pack the cast list: in a huge creative enterprise like this, we’re reduced to talent – support staff. We’re constitutionally incapable of making anything so grand, so monumental. We apparently can’t do epic – only cheeky, ironic, eccentric, cute (sometimes ugly, often amateurish). Once in a while I’d like to see us produce something really grand.

• Shrek 2’s audience is pretty well-defined – in our 9:45 Sunday morning screening (only bleary-eyed parents and small children permitted) we saw four ads for identikit small MPVs (those ‘flexible’ slab-sided multi-seat mini-buses for young families): Toyota, Renault, Peugeot and… er… Mazda? All silver, by the way. Must be this season’s colour…