Category Archives: TV

Should sacking Clarkson mean the BBC lose their charter?

With over one million people signing a petition for Jeremy Clarkson to be reinstated by the BBC, representing two thirds of the amount of people who watch an average show, and a 25th of the entire license paying public, should the BBC lose its charter for not therefore renewing his contract? Well the answer is obviously no. The BBC should not lose their Royal Charter and publicly funded status because of sacking a man who assaulted his co-worker. But the subject raises some interesting considerations in terms of the corporation and its responsibility to the public at large.

After the incident of the alleged assault, the BBC had to take action. There is no denying that Clarkson seems to lack self control and, after so many incidents with the presenter over a prolonged period, they had to stamp on his behaviour. He left them in an untenable position, but that a million people very quickly signed a petition to reinstate him clearly shows that the public thought he shouldn’t have been sacked because of it. What that actually means is that one million people couldn’t imagine a worthwhile Top Gear without him involved. They are right to think that, the idea of a Top Gear without Clarkson, and therefore without May and Hammond as well, would clearly mean that the show will have to undergo a reinvention. But the main consideration this raises here is, when should a publicly funded organisation, with responsibilities to the public at large, listen to a public outcry and when should they feel that they can go against the public opinion and act on their own beliefs?

The BBC’s Royal Charter details under what conditions it should be allowed to be publicly funded and the debate has raged for quite sometime about whether or not it still meets the requirements handed to it. The basic premise is that the corporation should produce a range of content to meet the large majority of the interests of the general public, catering for minorities, niche audiences and the general populous. This should be delivered under the three principles of educating, informing and entertaining. It is this foundation which means they operate multiple channels, with multiple focuses and run specialist radio stations that cater for Pop, Classical, News, Alternative Music, etc. It is also the reason why regional news used to be a key and substantial part of the news delivery on the BBC. For many decades the main reason for the Royal Charter was to make sure that the limited television service available to the public, limited to only a couple of channels, provided a variety of content that everyone could enjoy (at least parts of), rather than producing content that would only ever appeal to a small proportion of the population.

Whether or not the BBC should remain publicly funded is a debate that has raged on for quite some time. Since commercial television became a power, and freeview means that hundreds of channels are available and specialist content across these channels caters for almost everyone, there have been questions asked about whether the BBC continues to fulfil a vital roll. What is clear is that the corporation is no longer required to provide varied content simply because it would otherwise not be available. In fact, the reality is that people now get the vast majority of their specific needs from other networks and specialist channels that far better meet our taste needs. With this in mind, the BBC should be more focused than ever at producing content that meets their requirements under the charter. But are they? Do they meet the needs of the general public and are they even listening to the public? Are they even asking the public for their opinion? In my opinion the answer is no.

The nature of the BBC is that in so many ways it is an outdated institution that needs to be reformed. Many would argue they have kept current but that would be in their output, but in the way the institution operates it is still very archaic. At the end of the day they need to make sure they are meeting their objectives and they need to put the public first. That means listening, and not just to the one or two people who are writing in to points of view, but to every one of the 25 million license payers.They should be required to undertake a census style research program, which is a rolling project that aims to have feedback from the majority of their license payers. This would be the only way to guarantee they are on the right track.

A good example of this is the BBC news output, which in many ways you could argue is industry leading. But as I mentioned before, one of the major benefits for people in the past has been the regional coverage. This used to be a substantial part of the news broadcasts but recently has been reduced to a five minute bulletin like segment, which barely scratches the surface of local needs. To replace it they have increased coverage on things like major sports. It is a clear example of where the public have been put behind the pandering of executives to higher profile stories. It is also an example of where they are clearly not meeting their requirements under the charter.

The BBC needs to become a more agile institution rather than an old fashioned corporation. This means listening to the people it serves and having people in positions of authority who are new thinkers rather than old hands. This means reform and a change in culture. It is imperative that they become more independent, driven by opinion and less wasteful. And that means actually understanding what people want and what they need. It needs to be more regional and more on demand.

The problem with the BBC is that is sits in a system that has allowed it to stay stagnant and pretend it is evolving when below the surface it is not. It suffers from the same thing as the NHS, the rail network and the power network, where profits drive decisions rather than customer needs. All of these institutions need to be reformed. The public need to be put at the heart of their delivery rather than relying on the opinion of those who are out of touch, or have never been in touch. If a strategy of understanding actual needs was at the heart of all of these organisations then there wouldn’t be any debates about profit-mongering in the NHS or power suppliers not passing on cuts in prices. Perhaps one of the parties vying for government at the moment should focus on that, instead of arguing with each other over things that don’t really matter. But then, if there was ever an example of an institution that doesn’t actually listen to the general public, then government is it!

Freed from the device vice

One of the great things about the digital world we now live in is that there are literally thousands of devices out there for us to choose from. Whether it be for entertainment (playing games through to consuming media), communicating or organizing (or any blend of the above) there is a plethora of devices out there that can help. But one of the major drawbacks of the digital digital world we now live in is that there are literally thousands of devices out there for us to choose from.

No, you haven’t just entered groundhog day…the availability of a wide range of devices is great. It means we, as consumers, can select the one we feel is right for us. We don’t have to be either a Windows loyalist or otherwise an Apple advocate. There are so many makers of both hardware and software that we can mix and match to our hearts content. This is true for phones, tablets, TVs, games consoles, I could go on and on. But the problem with the variety is that often when we buy in to a specific model we then exclude ourselves from some of the benefits of the makers we didn’t choose.

Let me give you an example. The world and its oyster have recently gone crazy for the online broadcast sensation Breaking Bad, which is now exclusively available on Netflix. I, on the other hand, am a subscriber of Love Film. Both Love Film and Netflix provide largely the same service, except that I would now have to subscribe to Netflix just to get Breaking Bad…and I want to get Breaking Bad because everyone is talking about it and saying it is the greatest TV show ever made (caveat: I haven’t seen it so it may not be the greatest TV show ever made!). My choice to consume on demand content through Love Film excludes me from accessing Breaking Bad unless I subscribe to Netflix. I am reluctant to do this as I would either have to switch or subscribe to both and I happen to think that Love Film through my Smart TV is a good service.

It is therefore great news that Sony have announced this week that they are soon to make some of their Playstation console games available to play without having the console (i.e. through a smart TV, other conosle, mobile device) by streaming it over the web. Why is the significant? Because it is the first time a major console company has decided to decouple their entertainment product from their hardware. Previously, if you wanted to play Playstation games you would have to own a Playstation, and games producers would have to produce versions of games for each console.

The line is now drawn in the sand. Is this the first step towards content, applications and devices being completely agnostic? I would like to think so, although I am under no illusions that there is a long way to go before we get to that point. But the reality is that users want to be able to consume everything but on their own terms. I am an iPhone user and I would like to be able to access the same functionality as people on other devices but with the interface of the Apple device. Similarly, I would like to be able to play games from various consoles without having to have a living room full of different pieces of hardware. The age when you have to choose a piece of hardware and live with the limitations that imposes (or accept that you will also have to spend more to get other devices as well) is coming to an end. Companies are beginning to realize that how a user consumes content (channel) and the actual content they are consuming does not need to be linked. A user should have the choice about how they consume content and not be limited. Companies in turn need to realize that their content should be available to the widest group of people possible if they wish to capitalize and the best way to do that is to make it device agnostic…even if they have a shiny new device that they want you to own as well.

Towing the on-line

Much has been made in recent months of the shift to on demand servicing, particular with the likes of online streaming companies like NetFlix and their high rolling TV programs ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Breaking Bad’. Many of the big networks probably shrugged this off at the time, assuming that streaming companies cannot challenge the established TV industry big names. Indeed, Sky and Virgin Media seem to have been more interested in staving off BT’s foray into Television rather than keeping an eye on this new snake in the grass. So the big names will have been shaken buy the world’s reaction to the hit series ‘Breaking Bad’, which some on social networks are even saying is the greatest TV series ever made. This might be a bit of a stretch but one thing is for certain, everyone wants to watch a show that is only available by NetFlix. Whether or not this is a flash in the pan is yet to be seen, but a line was drawn in the sand in September when NetFlix became the first internet based provider to win an Emmy. Following this BAFTA have announced that they will recognize internet based shows now as well.

Personally, I think this is a sign of things to come. It is no surprise that the first two major series produced by NetFlix were of such high standard. They wanted to make a mark and show that they are serious contenders in the entertainment market, and they have certainly done that. How long it will be before a major blockbuster movie is made for release in the same way remains to be seen…this may be biting off a little more than they could chew currently, but in time who knows.

This interesting development got me reflecting on how the internet has drastically changed our lives in the last couple of decades. At the weekend I helped my parents setup a new computer and dad produced some old CDs, asking if any of them were of any use. One of these was an Encarta Encyclopedia CD and memories came flooding back of a Windows 3.1 PC that ran programs off floppy disks and a CD ROM was the sign of the future. In those days Google hadn’t really been heard of and Wikipedia wasn’t even a glint in Jimmy Wales’ eye. Encarta was a world of discovery that seemed amazing to me. In those days we would all crowd around the hulking computer in the corner and when we wanted to connect to the internet the modem would screech like a dying cat.

How it has changed since those cold dark days when the internet was a rare commodity. Now we are fast relying on it for our daily existence. I no longer wear a watch or carry a diary, instead using my iPhone for both. My media largely exists in the cloud and I can’t remember the last time I wrote a letter, instead using email which some said would never take off. In fact email is possibly going to be the downfall of of postal services, which have unfortunately gotten too expensive to be viable. Last Christmas we finally made the decision not to send cards as the cost to us would have been well over £50 just in stamps!

The digital world has accelerated massively in the last few years. Apple now produce a mainstream laptop in the MacBook Air that doesn’t have a DVD drive, largely because we no longer need install disks. Instead we use an activation code and download the programs over the internet. Similarly, MAXIS have develop the new  SimCity game to be played online, a move that is not unique but was highly publicized due to the popularity of the game. The world is sprinting towards an online existence which is both convenient and full of security risks. I have previously written about an online world that reacts to our ‘profiles’, detected from the mobile devices that we carry around with us (or that are a part of us!). This reality is not far away now, it is just that at the moment most of us interact with the internet still via out computers. But that too is changing. Now we stand in shops and fire up our mobile phone to check prices online before buying. This is behaviour evolving to the environment we now have around us…and also becoming reliant on it.

So what is my point, you may well ask? The world is moving towards a more online existence and with it our behaviour is changing as well. In a very short space of time we have come to rely on the internet to help us with everyday tasks and soon it will become more and more part of our lives. Whether or not this is a good thing is for you to decide, I personally think that by and large it is good. It will be important for each of us to engage with this evolving world, rather than shun it, lest we be left behind. We should be prepared for a change in the way media is delivered to us. Instead of taking it for granted that it will all be through television providers we should factor in entertainment from online sources. And as the online world gains importance we should also be ready for companies that move completely online and forego offline interactions…it will happen.

For my part though I think it is important to also maintain some time for the simpler things in life as well – there will always be a place for a paper back book, a glass of whisky and the sound of the rain on a dark winters night in my life.

You’re in High Definition Demand

Back in July last year I wrote a blog article about the concept of on demand film and television and my view that it won’t be that long before the model of delivering entertainment to us will shift from a schedule basis to a on demand basis. It is interesting that only 6 months on from that blog article the shift has already started. Anglo-Yanky Kevin Spacey has recently announced a USA remake of the ‘House of Cards’ TV series, the political drama that was so popular in the 1990’s in the UK. But what is significant about the announcement is that it is intended to be released, at least initially, via Netflix online rather than via a television network. The show, which premieres on 1st March in the US, is a typically modern television feast with big budgets, big names and no doubt big expectations for success. So it is either a daring experiment or a Sky Atlantic style marketing ploy that it is being launched on the online subscription service, rather than on an open TV network. Either way, what is assured is that the entire TV industry will be carefully watching how this show does to see if on demand, online, is the way forwards.

What is very interesting is the prominence of services like Netflix and LoveFilm, to name but two of the brands avaialable. Having watched Blockbuster recently demise it is clear that the way we want to consume films and television has changed. Take my household as an example, we bought a new TV at Christmas to replace the behemoth old thing in the corner with a shiny new flat screen HD LED, with 3D and more significantly SmartTV. We are fans of LoveFilm and use their DVD by post service, but this new television now means that instead of waiting for the DVD we can simply login through the television and pick from thousands of films and television series to watch there and then. We don’t have to wait until the following week for the next episode because they are all avaialble and a lot of the films are very recently released. As we have children and are in the middle of the recession we don’t often go to the cinema so instead we can wait just a little longer and watch the film on demand, without having to pay £5 for a packet of Maltesers!

Blockbusters failure to see the power of online, and more importantly that TV’s would move online, was their own doom. But it appears that some of the leading lights in TV and Film are already beginning to embrace this, with the backing of the production companies. And that is, I believe, the key point and what will ultimately be what leads to the shift towards on demand being the norm. Once the production companies and re-sellers see the potential and start to focus on the online, on demand market rather than the showcase of cinema and scheduled television then things will change rapidly.

There is a lot of talk, plenty from me as well, that 2013 will be the year of mobile but by the looks of things it could also be the year of on demand as well. Watch this space!