Preston to win!

Sometimes it’s difficult when you’re writing a weblog to know how to change tone – you’ve just written something trivial and flighty, and now want to talk about something real and serious that matters to a lot of people. It can be hard to know how to handle that transition. And it’s such a challenge that I find myself confronting today, but I feel it must be done. I must stand up and state that Celebrity Big Brother is an extraordinary bit of television that’s slightly eating my brain, and that only one man is fit to win! So stand up and be counted, webloggers of Britain. It’s time to start our campaigning in earnest! Preston to win!

Apologies to any visiting Americans who haven’t got the wonder of Celebrity Big Brother in their lives. You’re really missing out. Cough. Preston to win!

Life Personal Publishing Television

On being on television…

Television is such a strange enterprise! I don’t really know how else to put it. I get an e-mail in the afternoon from Tim Levell at Sky News saying that they’re looking for someone vaguely clued-up to talk about weblogs that evening. I ask a few questions and get a bit nervous, and chat to a couple of friends and then decide that sure – even though I’m scared to death by the whole idea of live television, it’s not exactly an opportunity you get every day. So I have a shower, find a shirt that doesn’t look too bad, and scrabble around for a sweater that isn’t still damp from the wash and wait patiently for the doorbell to ring.

They’re sending a cab to collect me, which is great but still a bit weird – the journey to the studio will be about forty-five minutes, with one dedicated guy organised to drive me both to and back from somewhere west of Hammersmith. I find it difficult to believe that anything anyone could say on weblogs in three minutes would be worth however much an hour and a half taxi ride must cost, but then after two years at the BBC I find many things that go on in the world of business extravagant in the extreme. I flew Premium Economy the other day! Can you even imagine! Anyway, the drive is long and makes me sleepy and I’m stuck reading some random magazine with a big feature on Bruce Springsteen and trying to make polite conversation with the driver and desperately trying not to feel like I’m somehow an exploitative √ºber-capitalist exploiting the common man.

Sky News appears to be located in a rather depressing industrial park near a motorway, and at first impressions, the whole place is much less intimidating than I’ve been expecting. It’s a completely different kind of environment to the BBC’s news rooms for a start. Stage one is to get into the building – all you can really say is, “Er, hi! I’m coming to … er … be on the news, I guess!” They don’t bat an eyelid of course. And then – having been collected – it’s a ten-second walk directly past the studio and into make-up – the kind of walk you’d take from your front door to your kitchen. It’s that close.

The woman in make-up looks me over and asks if ‘that’s’ what I’m going to be wearing on TV, which was nice. Then I’m sat down and she starts to brush me with a variety of orange shades. “What are you going to be talking about?”, she asks. “I’m going to be talking about weblogs,” I reply. “Oh, really,” she smiles, “You have to ask sometimes, does anybody really care!?” Potentially too difficult a question to answer, I demur and we talk about where I work instead.

Tom Coates in make-up at Sky News

And then after a few seconds in an actual green room devouring biscuits, I’m out on the floor talking to the newsreader Jeremy Thompson. While the previous video feature was on he chatted to me, calming me down a bit, showing me how things worked and talking about a few of the weblogs that I’d recommended beforehand, and then I watched as he did a feature about icons of Britishness (featuring Photoshop mock-ups of the Queen). And then suddenly I’m on and he’s asking me questions and I’m stumbling a bit with my language and hopefully not looking like too much of an idiot. And then – as soon as it’s begun – it’s over! And I walk out talking to Tim again, and within a few minutes I’m full of adrenalin and back in a cab heading for Central London.

Unfortunately, I have no idea whatsoever what I was like – as my Tivo refused to record the right channel. My father said that I looked okay and that he couldn’t tell whether it was the make-up or not, but it looked like I’d shaved, which was good. Unless anyone out there happens to have access to a ripped stream of the whole debacle, the best I’ve got is a couple of photos taken by some lovely friends and posted on Flickr for people to mock:

Well anyway, there were some lovely comments on my post yesterday, so thanks for the support guys (but I don’t trust you lot either)! Anyway, there’s more detail from the other perspective over on Jeremy Thompson’s weblog (which I have now confirmed is actualy written by him), which contains some of the weblogs I recommended that might like to mention on air. I think I specifically mentioned Random Acts of Reality, Dooce and Green Fairy on air – although to be honest the whole thing’s a bit fuzzy in my head.

Design Technology Television

Eagerly awaiting an Apple Media Hub…

While I’m on a roll and getting all my wanted-to-post-but-didn’t-have-time stuff out in public, I thought I’d just put out my stall again with regards to what I think an Apple Media Hub should be like. With MacWorld only three days away, it’s really back on my mind again.

Let’s start off with a couple of links: A really rough proposal for an Apple Media Hub (Part One) and Part Two. There’s a separate page including some illustrations as well, with larger versions of images like these below:

And if that’s not enough for you, and you need more stuff about television and set-top boxes, then you should have a glance over at my pieces on Social Software for Set-Top Boxes, Future Developments in Home Media Centres or in the Television category of the site. Ooh, and an added little extra – I just found my old rather rubbish attempt to do a mock-up of an Apple Set-Top Box in Illustrator. It’s not great, but hey…

Should a new media centre from Apple not be announced, then I’m totally going to get myself an iMac with Front Row and a remote control to replace my ailing PowerMac. But I can’t help thinking that there’s almost inevitably going to be something in this territory. They’ve got such a great head-start with the iPod that I can’t imagine they wouldn’t try and extend themselves around the rest of the home. Whatever happens, I’ll be glued – as ever – to the rumour sites and IRC channels on Tuesday evening UK time. Hopefully I’ll see some of you in them…


Google become the latest to distribute TV…

A few months ago I wrote a piece called Will subscription media kill broadcast? in which I stuck on the internet my long-held belief that the six major players in the distribution of pay-for video content online (the long-term replacements for large broadcasters) would be Amazon, AOL, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!.

If I’m honest, these predictions were not enormously hard to make, and it isn’t an enormous surprise to see the number of those companies that are distributing or have announced they are going to be distributing TV shows increase to four. Google are the latest to announce their plans to open an online video store (their press release). More importantly, it’s a completely open and neutral platform that will allow anyone to sell video (again – this time a litlte more smugly – as I predicted in this line, “If they have any sense, they’ll find ways to turn their hub status into a platform for a complete democratisation of content, becoming almost neutral intermediaries for large & small companies and creative individuals to put up and distribute their programming as they see fit.”)

The most interesting part of the whole enterprise is the debate about Google DRM. They’ve announced that the video will be DRM-able, but I’ve not had an enormous amount of luck finding out information about the approach they’re taking. Has anyone heard any more about this?


On Space Cadets…

There’s an article in the Independent newspaper today that I’m trying really hard to convince myself isn’t true. If it is true, it sounds like one of the cruelest things I’ve ever heard of. A group of people chosen for their suggestability are going to be convinced that they are going to experiencer a near-space mission, trained in a fake Russian military base, and then convinced they are orbiting the planet for four days in space where they will perform experiments.

But they’re not going into space at all. In fact, the whole thing is a hoax perpetrated at enormous expense in an institution somewhere in England. The poor suckers they’ve found to inflict this ‘prank’ upon will find out the truth live on television in front of millions of people, just as they think they’ve completed what must seem to be one of the most important and impactful and life-changing experiences of their lives.

I have a tendency to identify too heavily with people on television and in films, which is one of the reasons I find media so compelling as well as one of the reasons I can’t watch embarrassment-based comedy. But I think if I went through such an experience of stress and striving – all in the aspirant desire to do something as astonishing and meaningful an experience as a space mission – I’d be devastated by the idea that it had all been a set-up. As a friend of mine said, the experience would be like one of those sudden context shifts that’s so disorientating and fascinating when suddenly realise where you are having been lost in a strange city, except that afterwards you’d go catatonic and never trust anyone ever again.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, they’ve specifically gone after people who are prone to suggestion – which seems to me like actively taking advantage of the good nature and innocence of people – in order to ridicule and humiliate them in front of the nation. The idea of a cynical media hack celebrity consoling a contestant devastated by the revelation by the idea that at least now they’ll be on the cover of Heat magazine… God the whole thing makes me almost physical nauseous.

Who knows. I might be wrong – the whole enterprise might be in the best possible taste and all the people involved might not be permanently emotionally crippled by the idea that they could have such an experience pulled out from underneath them by monstrous inhuman cynics out to make a quick buck from advertising revenues. I’ll probably watch an episode or two before condemning the whole enterprise out of hand. But I’ve found the concept alone profoundly disturbing and a significant and unpleasant shift from Big Brother towards something much much darker and malevolent.

You can read all about the project in the Independent article: Unreality TV: The final frontier. After that, why not explore The Google News related stories. It’s been on Boing Boing too, I see, although they didn’t seem to find it as repulsive as do. So just to remind you all of what the hell they’re doing – here’s a quote to help you get your head around how unpleasant the whole ‘enterprise’ is:

Several months ago, the channel advertised for “thrill seekers” to take part in a new reality TV show. A hundred applicants were invited to London for an interview before being put through a series of psychological tests to ascertain how suggestible they were.

Although the term space cadet is slang for someone who is distracted from reality, Shirley Jones, the show’s executive producer, insisted the contestants were “not stupid people”.

“Suggestibility is a psychological term that has no link with intelligence or gullibility. People who have a creative mind tend to be quite suggestible. All the tests we did have been done in conjunction with a psychologist,” she said.

Navigation Radio & Music Television

Will subscription media kill broadcast?

I just got chucked a link to some video by Kevin Marks – an early pioneer of the technology that would eventually become podcasting – in which he talks about his time in broadcast as a cameraman, working at Apple and how podcasting changes everything ( It’s a fascinating few minutes of video with an interesting thesis – that subscribable media like podcasting removes the need for streaming almost completely.

My perspective is slightly different – both bigger and smaller. Because it’s not streaming that’s most affected by a combination of on demand and ‘deliver it to me’ subscribable podcast-like functionality. The main potential victim here is broadcast itself. Those of us who have Tivos or PVR functionality are already used to the idea that we don’t have to sit in front of the television when something’s being broadcast to watch our shows. And as a consequence, I very infrequently do. I watch things time-shifted by days, or hours or sometimes only by minutes – often pausing a programme at the beginning for ten or fifteen minutes so I can later skip through all the adverts. I reserve the watching of programming live for an increasingly small proportion of shows that necessaily can be watched more effectively live – live news channels or live broadcasts from events.

My sense of the future is that the role of broadcast in the delivery of television and audio programming is going to significantly diminish over the next twenty years, and a more browsable subscribable media derived from the (fairly obvious) lessons of podcasting will replace it (with an individual either subscribing through a net interface or through a truncated remote-control based lean-back experience. And I suspect the people who are going to be maintaining the intermediary platforms for this kind of experience will be the big search, navigation and media sales companies – Amazon, AOL, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!. If they have any sense, they’ll find ways to turn their hub status into a platform for a complete democratisation of content, becoming almost neutral intermediaries for large & small companies and creative individuals to put up and distribute their programming as they see fit.

But the most interesting thing is what happens to broadcast in the absence of conventional programming. My hypothesis is that television becomes more like radio. People use radio to time-keep, to feel connected to the outside world around them, to feel like they have company. They have it backgrounded. Along with coverage of live news and live events – where broadcast is clearly the easiest distributor of the coverage – I expect TV to increasingly start fulfilling that kind of topical wallpaper and companionship role. The huge explosion of music channels and news channels in the UK over the last few years seems to bear out the desire for that kind of activity, but I suspect many more ambient, easy to digest, backgroundable media will start appearing over the next decade. In effect all programming becomes a bit like much current daytime programming – topical, conversational, relaxed – a perpetual stream of context-driven and easy-to-digest media. And when people want a challenge, they’ll just try out a new show on demand.

The death of broadcast, of course, has some other really interesting aspects. It’s pretty clear that the content creators – the people with the rights – are going to be the people able to exploit this world more effectively. And they may not need television companies or broadcasters at all to get their content out to the masses – which is likely to put the cat among the pigeons in a few parts of the industry. And then there’s all kinds of other weirdnesses – how do you get people to try your show without just broadcasting it for free? Is there a way you can open up the pilot-making process to more accurately reflect the market? I can imagine a situation whereby companies hold programmes for ransom at the pilot stage – where they wait for ten thousand people to agree to pay to subscribe to the series before they even consider making episode two. And there’s a significant question about where public sector programme-making fits into that space, and whether any of the platforms will be designed for the distribution of media free to people in a particular territory.

Anyway, I’m going to leave it there and open up the subject for further discussion. What do you think the role of broadcast is in the 21st Century? Is it on the way out? How would the market work? And what scope is there for broadcast after on-demand takes over? Anyone got any thoughts?


More 4 "Daily Show" confusion…

So changing the subject away from how great I am for just one minute because frankly it’s all a bit embarrassing, I’m watching the Daily Show on More 4 and suddenly – after a week – it’s gone all Global Edition and I’m crying ‘nooo’ at the screen – even more so when it starts with fragments of the previous week’s programming. WTF! And then three minutes in, pop, Phil Gyford appears dismayed in an IM window: “You watching the Daily Show?
I’ve travelled back in time to last Monday…” Ooooh, More 4. You’re in trouble now… The European metropolitan liberal elite are angry!

Anyway, we can all relax, because apparently – with no flagging or whatsover on the TV – it’s only the Monday episode that’s the Global Edition recap of the previous week. The rest of the week it’s the proper one-day-delayed quality Jon Stewart goodness that we’ve come to love, with none of the partially-digested-for-non-Americans baby brain food that the Monday edition consists of. The online explanation:

“Recorded on weekday evenings before a New York audience, the show will be screened the following night in the UK. Monday’s UK show will feature a round up of the highlights from the previous week, while on Tuesday to Friday nights, the US show from the previous night will be broadcast.”

Quick tip for More 4 controllers – it’s less expensive to tell us first than to deal with all the complaints and queries and confused people ringing up and e-mailing and hanging outside your house burning effigies.

This is so not a proper post. I’m really sorry about the whole thing.

Conference Notes Radio & Music Television

Supernova '05: Chris Anderson on the Long Tail…

Quick apologies – my notes and write up of Supernova have been thrown out of whack by various unforeseeable pressures. I’m going to try and get through them very quickly now. This session was held last Tuesday at 11am.

It’s getting like it wouldn’t be a conference without a long tail somewhere in evidence and Supernova didn’t disappoint. The third main act of the first day of the conference proper finds us watching Chris Anderson working through his thesis in public again. He clearly knows his schtick pretty well by now, and that he knows how to present it. But this shouldn’t really be a shock – it’s been nine months since his first article on the subject appeared in Wired (The Long Tail) and he’s taken his core ideas and extended them across a number of conference appearances since then. I myself have had the pleasure to read the article and see him talk around it at least twice.

Of course, familiarity breeds contempt, and while it’s clear that he’s not standing still and that the thoughts are developing, the conference backchannel was not positive about the whole enterprise. The idea already seems dangerously close to over-exposure in the geek community – perhaps because of the weblog of the same name and the planned book on the subject that’s supposed to emerge from it. Apparently it’s now also become a fairly standard piece of rhetoric for people working their way around venture capitalists. No presentation, it seems, would be complete without it.

None of which is Anderson’s fault of course. For the few of you who aren’t familiar with the idea (and I suppose I have to believe that there are a few of you left) in a nutshell it is that – under certain new democratised and superfluid economic circumstances – there can be as much value (normally financial) in the enormous amount of unpopular, niche products as there is in the big ‘hits’. If you can:

  • Democratise the tools of production
  • Minimise the transaction costs of consumption
  • (and) Connect consumers to amplify word of mouth

… then you can turn a market where it’s only economically viable to sell things you know are going to be popular into one where costs are so low and consumers are so connected that the true revenue comes in the millions of people buying products that almost no one else is interested in. If you’re engaged but still confused at this stage, I suggest you read the article itself. The link again is: The Long Tail.

I’m not going to go into much more detail about the whole talk, but there was one particular area (or set of observations) that he made about TV and radio distribution that I should cover. He observed that television was the industry that was going to be most strongly affected by move to a long-tail philosophy because it was the industry with the highest ratio of produced content versus available content. That is to say – an enormous amount of television programming has been produced over the last sixty years or so, but at any given time an almost trivial percentage of that is available for people to consume. The desire of individuals to open up that back catalogue – he argued – was inevitably going to be completely industry transformative. This all seems perfectly reasonable to me.

In a previous session the day before (which unfortunately I’d missed) he talked in much more detail about the implications for radio along with Dave Goldberg (VP Music at Yahoo!), Jeremy Allaire (CEO of Brightcove) and David Hornik (August Capital). I got a by-the-blows account of the whole thing as it was happening from Nat Torkington which he subsequently wrote up for on the O’Reilly Radar weblog: Supernova 2005: Long Tail Panel. There was a particularly interesting summary of some of David Goldberg’s comments which I’ve quoted below:

Goldberg: They’re closing one rock radio station per week. Audiences for rock couldn’t get what they wanted from rock radio, now getting it from other places. Yahoo has a thesis: music will disappear from terrestrial radio within ten years. Don’t know implications for preferences, but will change way artists get invested in and marketed. Major record labels and movie studios have controlled distribution. When you take away that distribution, they have to be good at either marketing or investing. Right now they’re good at neither. All these things will change at the same time.

I can really recommend that anyone interested in the future of music and programming in general reads the rest of that summary. It’s extraordinarily interesting. But Beyond that, there’s very little for me to explore here in particular depth that my full rough notes won’t articulate more effectively. So I’ll move on…


On future developments in home media centres…

A couple of days ago I was e-mail interviewed by a guy writing an article on future developments in televisions and home media centres who was interested in the piece I wrote on Social Software for Set-Top Boxes. For what it’s worth – here are my answers in full, slightly edited for clarity:

In your presentation you outlined some interesting ideas (buddy lists, watch with friends etc.) – Is anyone going down this route? Online gaming is leading this kind of hybridised social / entertainment stuff – things like Xbox Live already make it possible for you to talk and chat and play alongside people from all over the world – and to manage those relationships. Simultaneously, each of these boxes is coming closer and closer to the idea of a home entertainment hub, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the edges between the various activities you could do with them started to blur. Also, around the same time that I put up my stuff on Social Software for Set-Top Boxes, the PARC people also started talking about similar stuff. Obviously, a huge amount of the technology that we take for granted today was developed at PARC, so that bodes quite well for the future.

Is TV and PC convergence a dead idea? I think the idea of a screen in the corner of your room that you watch TV on and then completely change modes so that you can do your taxes is pretty much inevitably going to have limited appeal. There are machines that can do this kind of stuff already of course, but they’re really targeted towards people with very limited space – students and the like. I think the future looks much more interesting than that – with some of the functionality that has been associated with PCs starting to appear in entertainment appliances all around the home. The technology behind all the devices is probably going to be pretty much the same and slightly further off I think we can expect that they’ll all be talking to each other behind the scenes. The various devices in your home will be acting together to give you relatively unified access to your data and media and to the network – but each device will provide its own way of mediating that data – it’s own tailored interface.

What about the Apple media hub? Yeah, I don’t know quite what Apple are doing to be honest. With computer technology gradually moving out of the desktop PC and into the rest of the home, you’d think they’d be right at the forefront. That kind of thing – making complex concepts and devices comprehensible – is exactly what they’re great at. Sony and Microsoft are clearly making huge inroads with their gaming machines to the extent that they already have low-powered media hubs attached to millions of televisions worldwide – I really would have thought that Apple would similarly be looking to get into that space by leveraging their advantage in the digital audio space. But while there are rumours that the Mac Mini is destined to be a foundation for that kind of thing, there’s very little actual evidence of it so far.

Is D-TV more likely to see a continuation of selected internet or internet-like functions rather than fully-fledged net access? Fundamentally the interface just isn’t there for web-browsers on the TV to really take off enormously. I don’t doubt that people will continue to develop them, and I don’t doubt that there will be some people who use them, but having to have an extra wireless keyboard or input device and having to control the screen from the other side of a room makes the whole enterprise less than optimal. In the longer term, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t pretty easy to install network-enabled apps on your TV that allowed you to do things like access your Flickr photostream or the iTunes music store, but I would think you’ll probably do that kind of stuff via a different lean-forward interface somewhere else in your home.

How do the next generation of games consoles fit in to the mix? I think they’re fundamental – unlike with set-top boxes, it’s not a fully commoditised market, there’s enormous scope for technological development and each of the major players is throwing enormous amounts of money into the area – often expecting years of loss-leading before profit. Of course they’re looking to the future. Of course they’re competing to own this new critical space under the TV and at the heart of the connected home. That’s not to say that the gaming element is just a Trojan horse – it’s clearly not – but I think it’s also fairly clear that it’s not the end of the road. The set-top box space is a really powerful and important area – for a start it can potentially mediate all your media consumption. Whoever controls that has a lot of power. And the market for operating systems is huge – how many more people in the world have televisions than computers right now? Think how much money you could make by having your media centre installed on every new TV sold. And boxes like the X-box are in the perfect space to position for that final leap…


More thoughts on Doctor Who and Bad Wolf…

There are a whole ton of theories all over the internet at the moment about all the ‘Bad Wolf’ references appearing in Doctor Who. In two weeks an episode called “Bad Wolf” will air, and it looks like it’s the first part of a two-parter that will end the season. In pretty much every other episode so far there has been a reference to ‘Bad Wolf’. So obviously, people are thinking something pretty significant is going to happen. Obviously I have my theory, and again, obviously I have no interest in accidentally spoiling the experience for anyone should I inadvertantly appear to have got it right. So if you want to hear it, view the source and scroll down until you see the hidden comments…

Note added 20:00 pm on Saturday 4th June 2005: In case you hadn’t noticed yet, the BBC-owned URL of started working yesterday, full of speculation and suggestions and theories. You might also like to read this thoroughly good weblog post about all the Bad Wolf references and this incredibly spoiler-full message board thread about the next couple of episodes. I’m not completely convinced that my theory is still correct, by the way. Particularly not after the end of the episode I just watched (which totally rocked).