Archive: digital

This is just a quick thought on digital radio, following my post about the BBC’s commitment to DAB.

Absolute Radio platforms

I was browsing the Absolute Radio website earlier today, and noticed just how much they push DAB. On the Listen live page, it actually highlights DAB as the most prominent option. You can see how important digital is to Absolute.

Contrast this with the recent Radio 5 Live campaign that treats digital as an afterthought.

Also, once again I was listening to Radio 4 this week when Eddie Mair mentioned people listening to cricket on longwave. But no mention of the excellent 5 Live Sports Extra service, which broadcasts the same as Test Match Special on Radio 4 longwave, just without the shipping forecast interruptions.

BBC Asian Network logo

The news that the BBC is considering reversing its decision to close down the Asian Network marks the corporation’s second major U-turn on a digital radio service closure. The first was the more high-profile threat to close 6 Music.

The dithering indecisiveness is enough. But what really annoys me about these decisions is the underlying reason behind them — ratings — and the story it tells.

Lacklustre awareness

Both 6 Music and the Asian Network had relatively poor ratings before the BBC announced that the services would close. In that sense, it was easy to see why the savings-seeking BBC was lining them up for the chop.

Then something funny happened. Ratings shot through the roof. After its closure was announced, the number of 6 Music listeners doubled from 600,000 a week to 1.2 million a week. It wasn’t just a flash in the pan either. Since 6 Music was saved from the axe, ratings have remained over the 1 million mark.

The problem is that beforehand, awareness of BBC 6 Music was extremely low. Only 20 per cent of UK adults had even heard of the station. No wonder ratings are so poor if four fifths of the potential audience doesn’t even know of its existence!

Similarly, ratings for the Asian Network have increased by a third since its closure was announced. The increase in ratings has been given as the reason for the BBC’s U-turn.

Publicity vacuum hurts BBC digital radio

The problem is that the closure threat was the most publicity 6 Music and the Asian Network had ever had. The BBC isn’t usually shy of promoting its own services, but it has completely failed to sell its digital radio stations to the public at large. In fact, it has completely failed to sell digital radio full stop.

Just look at the digital radio listenership figures — figure 3.34 in this Ofcom report (PDF) (via James Cridland).

Bar chart of digital radio listening figures

A measley 18 per cent of Radio 1 listeners listen over a digital format. The highest figure among BBC radio stations (excluding those available on digital platforms only) is 5 Live — 36 per cent. These listeners have a significant incentive to move to digital though, as otherwise 5 Live is only available on poor quality medium wave frequencies.

Meanwhile, over half of listeners to Absolute Radio listen over a digital platform. Absolute’s success in pursuing digital platforms is well-documented.

Skewed priorities

Considering that the BBC is supposed to be investing in digital radio, it is not doing a very good job of promoting it. Despite having great content on its digital services, the BBC is shy of actually promoting them.

In this department, it is being considerably outperformed by Absolute Radio, a commercial outlet that doesn’t have a chunk of license fee money set aside for pushing digital. The BBC seems to have lost all of its enthusiasim for digital, even when it is producing excellent digital services.

As James Cridland pointed out, fans following the Ashes earlier this year will not have missed a ball were they listening on 5 Live Sports Extra, as I did. Yet all over the news the following day was the fact that BBC radio listeners were deprived of the victorious moment because the shipping forecast was being broadcast on Radio 4 longwave at the time.

This provided plenty of good coverage in the shape of, “ha, that crazy old shipping forecast, eh?!” All very good. But why wasn’t the point driven home that an excellent digital service was broadcasting the cricket completely uninterrupted?

I am sure there are lots of avid cricket fans out there that rely on their longwave signal. But I have checked, and I don’t even own any equipment that can pick up longwave. I suspect if I were to go to the shops to buy a radio, I would have to make a special effort to find one that could receive longwave. Meanwhile, I could pick up a DAB radio for about £30 with no trouble whatsoever.

Where are the promos?

Why did the Radio 2 breakfast slot get a big push when Chris Evans started presenting it? The Radio 2 breakfast show is the most popular radio programme in the country, with around 10 million listeners. If there is one radio show that does not need promoting, it is this — whether it has a new presenter or not.

With radio, the BBC seems to have got its marketing priorities all wrong. Where are the big promos for stations like 6 Music, Radio 7 or the Asian Network? Why isn’t it pushing 5 Live Sports Extra harder at avid sports fans?

With radio, the BBC seems to have got its marketing priorities all wrong. Where are the big promos for stations like 6 Music, Radio 7 or the Asian Network?

I am quite a fan of DAB radio. It allows me to listen to two of my favourite stations, Radio 5 Live and Absolute Radio, in crystal-clear quality as opposed to the duff medium wave frequencies they have historically used. Two of my other favourite stations, 6 Music and the World Service, are not available on analogue radio. So DAB wins for me on two key counts — sound quality and choice.

But there is no doubt that DAB is troubled. Its future is constantly being questioned. There are grumbles about poor sound quality and reception issues. The fact that car and handheld DAB radios are still thin on the ground is no help either. Take-up has been slower than anticipated.

Moreover, technology is beginning to overtake DAB. Having been developed during the 1980s and early 1990s, DAB uses old-fashioned and inefficient compression techniques.

I am considering buying a second digital radio for when I move. But given the continued niggles surrounding DAB and the uncertainty regarding digital switchover for radio, I am beginning to wonder if buying a second DAB set would be a sensible move.

Is the future of digital radio on the internet?

I was therefore interested to read about the BBC’s new high-quality system, which they are calling HD Sound (not to be confused with HD Radio!).

At first it will be offered for Radio 3, then Radio 2. But given that feedback of the trial as so far been extremely positive — even among the demanding Radio 3 audience — this is beginning to look like a promising system.

Only one thing. It will be available on the internet only. So should my new radio set be an internet radio?

I hadn’t seriously considered buying an internet radio up until now. But it has a massive wealth of choice. There is huge flexibility. It is more future-proof. This platform has widespread adoption (you don’t see the internet disappearing any time soon — although somehow the future of DAB always seems relatively uncertain). And now it seemingly the internet has the potential to have the upper hand in terms of audio quality.

Do any readers have any experience with internet radios? Are they worth a purchase?

About ten years ago I shunned music radio. It no longer reflected my musical tastes, so I turned to speech radio stations instead — all on the BBC.

After a while, I began to get into BBC 6 Music. I was still interested in the speech elements of the station more than the music. Adam and Joe became a regular listen, but I also began to appreciate the music output more. Programmes like the Freak Zone and Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service simply would not exist on another station — which is why there was so much outrage when it was suggested that the station would be closed down.

But when considering alternative options in the event that 6 Music closed, I realised that the outlook was perhaps not as bad is it might seem. As a commercial alternative, Absolute Radio wouldn’t be a bad option.

Shedding Virgin Radio’s dad rock image

In the space of just two years, the new owners of what used to be Virgin Radio have given the station a completely new lease of life.

I would never have considered listening to Virgin Radio. Its playlist was limited, repetitive and fusty. It was wall-to-wall dad rock.

Looking back, the transition to the new-style Absolute was quite steady. But the day it ditched the Virgin brand was the day it could move on from that albatross and the Smashie and Nicey image. Today, I think it is easily the most interesting commercial radio station around.

More than music

The key selling point of Absolute Radio, as opposed to Virgin, is that it is now not just about music. Now it’s an “entertainment” station. When you tune in, you are more likely to hear a comedian than a dusty old Status Quo song. Its current presenters include people like Dave Gorman, Iain Lee, Frank Skinner and Richard Herring — all much better known for being funny than being fanatical about what Virgin always called “real music”.

It’s a template that has been successful at BBC 6 Music ever since it started. Its original breakfast presenter was Phill Jupitus, while other high-profile presenters have included Russell Brand, Craig Charles, Jon Holmes and… Richard Herring. And it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Absolute’s weekend morning programming has been heavily influenced by the success of Adam and Joe on 6 Music.

The really impressive thing about how Absolute have gone about it is the fact that Dave Gorman appears to have more influence over the music that is played on his programme than Adam and Joe ever did. As a whole, Absolute is more accessible than 6 Music, but it is a station that is unafraid to step out of the mainstream on occasion.

Determined to try different things

But gradually, Absolute is becoming something more than a commercial 6 Music-lite. Its deal to broadcast English Premier League football matches is a bold move to for a music station to make, particularly since Radio 5 Live and TalkSport are so well established in this area. Apparently it is the first time a music station has broadcast top flight football since Capital Gold brought Jonathan Pearce to the world 20 years ago.

Absolute have launched some interesting spin-off stations as well. In addition to Absolute Classic Rock, there is Absolute 80s and Absolute Radio 90s (that is a way to make me feel old — my decade is now for proper nostalgia!). There is also Absolute Radio Extra. The best thing is that the latter three are all available on DAB.

There was also Dabbl, an experimental station where users chose the content. It has closed down now, but it is nonetheless a sign that Absolute is determined to experiment with radio.

Doing new things with radio

The people behind Absolute Radio have a great website, One Golden Square, which takes you behind the scenes of Absolute Radio. The openness of the website is wonderful. It is a great insight into what makes them tick, and it’s all very encouraging.

Absolute are always at the cutting-edge, thinking about the future of radio and different ways to listen to it. That is no wonder — the traditional 1215 medium wave frequency is very poor quality for a music station, so it helps them to investigate alternative ways of broadcasting.

One Golden Square Labs outlines some of the really interesting things they are up to. There is some nifty iPod Nano integration. They are also pushing ahead with HTML5 delivery.

Compare My Radio - comparison of Absolute and 6 Music

One Golden Square are also behind the wonderful Compare My Radio. This website is a heaven for radio and stats geeks — perfect for me.

It is a treasure trove of stats about radio output in the UK. You can see what tracks and artists are popular, search for artists to find out what stations play them, and even compare the output of two radio stations — with Venn diagrams and everything.

A lot of people turned to this website to learn about 6 Music. Many defended the station on the basis of statistics collected by Compare My Radio. You can see how 6 Music compares to Absolute Radio.

The website is a fascinating service that must take a bit of work to maintain. It’s great that a radio station can take a step back and fairly allow others to compare it with other radio stations.

All-in-all, you get the impression that the people behind Absolute Radio are seriously passionate about radio. As a bit of a radio fan myself, that is a big winner for me.

Save BBC 6 Music

If the reports that the BBC will close down 6 Music are true, it is a great shame. Of course, this could be seen coming. The BBC has been utterly weak in almost every respect for the past few years, and it is difficult to escape the notion that it is too big, with too many outlets. Of course, when effectively forced to cut back, it will opt to close down the high quality products, rather than those that are merely popular.

6 Music is the only mainstream radio station where you can regularly hear genuinely experimental and alternative music on a regular basis. It is the only station that confounds expectations and delights in challenging the listener.

The Freak Zone is a jewel in 6 Music’s crown, dedicated to playing esoteric music from today and undiscovered gems from the past. For sure, it is a challenging listen at times — but that is the very point.

Similarly, Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service is truly unique. One of the most eclectic playlists I have ever heard is mixed with ponderings on, for instance, the sad beauty of abandoned Christmas trees.

I have effused before about Adam and Joe, which I think was genuinely the best programme on radio. These are just three of the must-listen radio programmes that 6 Music has brought us.

6 Music should have broadened its horizons

There is simply no commercial alternative. In short, it is precisely the sort of thing that the BBC should be doing.

In fact, I have in the past been critical of 6 Music for not being adventurous enough in the past. The BBC does, after all, already have three other major music radio stations, each of which is dedicated to playing different strands of mainstream music. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. But this should have provided 6 Music with the opportunity to explore the outer reaches of music more freely.

Instead, 6 Music has ended up being slightly unsure of its role. It has come to attain a dual identity. One is that of a genuinely exploratory musical agenda, for discerning listeners who are passionate about the music they already love, and are itching to discover new music.

The other is that of a mere weakened popular music station with a vague indie bent. This aspect made it like a transition station for listeners who have moved on from Radio 1 but can’t yet bring themselves to listen to Radio 2. Hence the travesty of George Lamb. There are plenty of commercial alternatives for these people to turn to. This is an audience that doesn’t need to be catered for by the BBC.

Instead of trying to gain listeners with gimmicky attempts to cater for the masses, 6 Music should have set its sights higher by increasing its quality. It could be transformed into a station that is genuinely dedicated to music that you won’t find on other radio stations.

And there is no need to stop at music. It could encompass culture as a whole. Why shouldn’t such a station also champion alternative comedy, experimental drama and the like? It could be like a well funded version of Resonance FM.

Instead, the BBC appears to have taken the coward’s option. Instead of setting its sights towards enhancing the station so that it becomes a great hub for alternative and experimental culture, it has weakly chosen to throw in the towel. Instead of realising the potential of 6 Music and promoting it properly, the BBC has left it in a corner to gather cobwebs and eventually die.

The BBC’s disregard for experimental culture

This would be palatable if it weren’t for the fact that experimental music has been increasingly marginalised on the BBC’s other radio stations over the past decade as well. As if the passing of John Peel wasn’t enough of a blow to adventurous music on the BBC, the corporation appears to be determined to dismantle every last piece of its experimental music programming.

A decade ago Radio 1’s evening schedule was brimming with experimental music. But the station’s few remaining programmes dedicated to experimental music have all been shunted to shorter, graveyard time slots. To take just one example, Rob da Bank’s programme is on at the truly insulting 5-7am on a Saturday. Meanwhile, Mary Anne Hobbs’s Breezeblock is on at 2-4am on Thursday morning.

New experimental music has all but disappeared from Radio 3 as well. Since Mixing It was removed from the schedules, all that has remained is Late Junction, which has itself been marginalised in recent years.

In short, the BBC is doing less of the sort of programming it should be making, and replacing it with the sort of thing that ought to be left to its commercial rivals.

Absolute to the rescue?

The Times suggested that Absolute Radio may be interested in buying 6 Music should the BBC decide to close it down. It seems to me as though Clive Dickens was merely making a point about the inefficient way the BBC has run 6 Music.

But the idea that Absolute might acquire 6 Music and keep it alive is an interesting prospect. I have find myself being increasingly impressed with Absolute. I am sure that it has taken inspiration from 6 Music as it tries to re-build itself without the Virgin brand behind it.

Like 6 Music, Absolute thinks of itself as a home for good music (although in practice it just trots out middle-of-the-road dad rock). It mixes this with the use of comedians like Dave Gorman, Frank Skinner and Iain Lee as presenters.

This is the exact model that 6 Music has used throughout its existence. The station was launched by Phill Jupitus, who presented the 6 Music breakfast show for several years. Since then, 6 Music has been home to several comedians.

I find it doubtful that a radio station like 6 Music would flourish as a commercial operation. But if anyone can pull it off, it is Absolute. It would be fabulous.

The BBC has failed to convincingly promote digital radio. The lack of publicity is the real reason why 6 Music has so few listeners. Fewer than 10% of Radio 1 listeners are listening on a digital platform. When 6 Music is only available on digital platforms, it is no wonder it appears to perform so poorly. Only one in five people in the UK have even heard of the station. Hence Adam Buxton’s joke that it is “the secret station”.

Yet, over 54% of Absolute Radio’s listeners (approximately 31 minutes in) outside of London now listen on digital. The BBC, with all its supposed marketing might, has failed to generate anything like this sort of result, despite having shedloads of cash dedicated to the exercise.

The BBC is now weak and ineffective. It has failed digital radio, and it is now failing to commit to the very adventurous programming it is supposed to be dedicated to.

A long time ago — perhaps a year ago — my Freeview box flashed up a little notice that appears from time to time. It notifies me that new software is available to download, and it assures me that this will definitely result in an improvement in the service. Or words to that effect.

Normally, that is more or less true. But this one time the software was downloaded, and my Freeview box has not quite been the same since.

The software was for the Teletext Extra service. In essence, Teletext Extra is just a really elaborate, annoying EPG. Quite why this was required when I already had a perfectly functioning 7 day EPG is unclear.

What is clear is that I have been unable to use my Freeview box in the same way since that day. Every time the box is switched on it defaults to Teletext Extra. You then have to wrestle with the remote control just to switch this blasted EPG off. It’s as though they thought I would want to switch me television on to do something other than watch television.

Mercifully, the old default EPG is still available, so you can choose never to see the Teletext Extra service. Don’t think this gets rid of all the bloat bullshit though.

If, for instance, I dare to switch it off at the mains, the next time I want to watch television I am harassed by a new message telling me that I might as well have thrown my television off a cliff. It then switches into some kind of spooky mode in between standby and full power which makes the red light flash.

It remains in this mode for several minutes, sometimes around half an hour by my estimation, downloading crap for this rubbish EPG. The EPG that I don’t use, and have actively switched off.

In these energy-conscious times, it seems like an anachronism to actually be forced to leave my Freeview box on standby permanently. And just why does it take half an hour to download this programme information when the old default EPG managed it with no bother, with no time-consuming downloads?

Even worse, should I be committing the heinous crime of watching television at either 3am or 5am, the Freeview box displays yet another message warning me that I have 30 seconds to press the ‘quit’ button on my remote control or else it will go into the aforementioned spooky mode. Worst of all, sometimes for whatever reason it ignores my button presses, and I have mashed the quit button so much in my attempts to avoid spooky mode that it is now partially broken.

I mean, is this not just immensely stupid? Is there not a way for the box to say to itself, “Oh, it looks like my owner is watching television. I guess I had better not bombard him with messages obscuring the programme, and I had definitely better not switch myself off automatically.” Seemingly not!

The worst bit comes, though, when you want to watch television when it has already entered spooky mode. You can press the power button all you want, but there is only a small chance that it will ever bring itself out of spooky mode to allow you to watch television. You know watching television. It’s that thing that I bought the blasted box for in the first place! Even if you manage to get it to stop its spooky behaviour, chances are you will be greeted by a blank screen, so you will have to try again.

Now this is becoming big news. It seems as though I am not the only person to have experienced trouble with this Teletext Extra service. In fact, several people have reported a variety of different complaints ever since Teletext Extra began to pollute the DTT service.

Given the immensely important role DTT and Freeview has to play in the impending analogue switch off, the fact that Teletext have rolled out a service that has crippled so many boxes is rather concerning. Particularly given that I never use the Teletext Extra service, nor do I ever intend to use it in the future as I already have a completely fine EPG on my Freeview box, I do regret letting the download happen.

Having said that, I can’t even remember if I had the opportunity to refuse it. I certainly was not made aware of the nature of the download — what it was for, and the implications it would have on the functionality of my Freeview box. No doubt if I did refuse the download, I would still to this day be getting the notifications every time I switched on my Freeview box.

I am quite a fan of Freeview. Even though I hardly ever watch any television these days, I think it is so wonderful to have that kind of choice fairly hassle-free for £20-odd. There have been quite a lot of changes to Freeview recently.

First came the unexpected and abrupt death of ABC1. It wasn’t a bad channel, but it always seemed like there was something that didn’t quite work about it. When it launched there were no adverts for months — so how was it funded? Then there was the distinct lack of space on prime-time on Freeview, which essentially made ABC1 a daytime-only channel.

ABC1’s schedule was therefore restricted to rather tame American comedies. The same ones. Over and over again. What’s more, they did that odd thing that digital channels sometimes do, of showing the episodes seemingly in random order. This was especially problematic for 8 Simple Rules. One minute John Ritter was dead, the next he had come back to life! And then he was dead again.

In a way this was a good thing though, because you knew what you were getting. Unchallenging, homely television. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I imagine that if ABC1 was around ten years ago, I would have loved watching it on the days when I was off sick from school.

Then came Virgin 1, which is Virgin Media’s latest little stone thrown in their big bear fight with BSkyB. “Oh, they think they’re so smart having a channel called Sky One,” some Virgin Media big-wig probably said on day. “We’ll show them! We can have Virgin 1.”

So, Ftn has been killed to death just when it was getting good. I loved Ftn in its later days. Its repeats of retro gameshows like The Crystal Maze, The Krypton Factor and Bullseye were strangely captivating. Then later at night there was always Takeshi’s Castle if you were up for vegetating a bit. While it was always Freeview’s worst channel, in the past year or so it had carved out a distinctive identity for itself.

The new channel, on the other hand, does not have a distinctive flavour. In fact, it is almost as if they looked at Sky One and decided “we want a programme like that, a programme like that, and a programme like that.”

In short, it is like a watered-down version of Channel Five. Do we really need another channel full of sub-standard American imports? I think not. I would have thought that, especially with the Virgin brand attached to it, they would have put a bit more effort in to make it more distinctive.

Then this week there was the launch of Dave. Dave is essentially a re-branding of UKTV G2, so it’s good to know they’ve gone from one silly name to another. A lot of people are going on about what a great name Dave is for a channel, but I think it is quite silly. They say that it’s based on the idea that “everyone knows a bloke called Dave”, which is true. The problem is that whenever I hear the name I think of that balloon-faced Conservative leader.

As for the programming it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Watching Dave is like being transported back to the 1990s. Have I Got News For You, Red Dwarf and Bottom are among its roster. Essentially, Dave seems to me like BBC Two 2. It’s the channel that BBC Three secretly wishes it could be, if only it could be unleashed from all of those quotas to do with repeats.

Then there is Never Mind the Buzzcocks. I can’t stand watching it, at least when it was hosted by Mark Lamarr. He seems like a genuinely spiteful person. He tells nasty jokes about people, which I don’t mind usually. But Mark Lamarr doesn’t seem to tell them in the sense of “I’m only having a laugh”. He seems to be genuinely nasty. I can’t stand watching it. For a further insight into the dark world of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, check out this blog post by Adam Buxton.

But without a doubt the worst programme on Dave is A Question of Sport. Why does this programme still exist, even in repeat form? It is just diabolical.

Fortunately, this crime is outweighed by the repeats of Whose Line is it Anyway. Now, why is Whose Line is it Anyway not on any more, huh?

Despite the patchy output, the launch of Dave on Freeview seems to add a lot of value. It is replacing UKTV Bright Ideas, which I doubt will be missed by many people. The hours for UKTV History have been cut back, which might not be very popular. But let’s face it. Everyone knows that history channels only ever get ratings if they either

  1. Show programmes that are nothing to do with history
  2. Dedicate their entire schedule to programmes about Adolf Hitler’s second cousin twice removed’s hairdresser’s pet ostrich.

I wonder if one of the great promises of digital television will not be kept in the long run. Theoretically, Freeview offers viewers more choice than the old five analogue channels. At first it was true. As well as the five channels we already knew, ONdigital launched with plenty of sport and film channels, childrens’ channels and a variety of other niche channels.

That’s still kind of the same with Freeview today. But Freeview is becoming a victim of its own success. There are dozens of channels on Freeview. But once you take away the shopping and quiz channels, many of the remaining channels spend much of their time broadcasting shopping and quiz programmes, or advertising their own subscription services.

Having a Freeview channel is like gold dust for a broadcaster now. But this means that if a company only has one channel on Freeview it has to make the most of what it’s got. Now, instead of each channel catering for its own niche, channels are scurrying around chasing the average viewer. So instead of having loads more choice than we did in the old days, we now have slightly more choice.

It’s a bit like local radio stations. There are millions of them, but as far as I can tell they are almost all exactly the same. Listeners don’t get choice here. They get the same bland middle-of-the-road pop music with over-excited presenters yelping over the top. I mean, how many radio stations have a slogan along the lines of “Classic hits and today’s best music, only on 97.3 Scrotum FM”? All of them?

Freeview still has a lot of quality channels. But most of the choice comes from the BBC, Channel 4 or (at a stretch) ITV. Even then, you sense that this is only because each of these broadcasters have multiple Freeview slots to fill.

Disney has one channel on Freeview: ABC1. Its diet of cheaply imported, inoffensive daytime-friendly American comedy has barely changed in years. Yawn.

BSkyB has three channels: Sky News, Sky Sports News and Sky Travel. That was, until they decided to replace Sky Travel with a general entertainment channel especially created for Freeview, Sky Three. So what about the fans of travel programmes? They’ll have to make do with gameshows that were originally shown on Sky One five years ago and cheaply imported American comedies. Boring. (Apart from Futurama, of course!)

Even Channel Five couldn’t manage to come up with interesting Freeview channels. Overnight it brings us The Great Big British Quiz, one of the worst quiz channels there is! Past the watershed, Five US is filled with wall to wall repeats of CSI. During the day we are treated to cheaply imported (imported from the past, that is) episodes of Happy Days and comedy backwater Joey. Pass me the pillow.

Five Life is so inconsequential, I won’t even go into it. All it ever seems to show is The Ellen DeGeneres Show (a cheaply imported American chat show). I shat my duvet out of boredom.

The latest culprit to contribute to the increasingly tumbleweed-infested airwaves is Viacom, whose sole Freeview channel is TMF. It used to be called The Music Factory. Just one problem. You’ll never find any music on it. This was understandable when it showed MTV programmes such as Newlyweds or Dirty Sanchez. For one thing, it brought MTV programmes into terrestrial homes which I guess you should be grateful for. And there was still a (tenuous) link to music.

But now TMF has brought into its schedule “classic comedies” such as Cheers, Ally McBeal and The Wonder Years. WTF!!! TMF is now even unrecognisable to what it was last week, never mind a few years ago! What do these programmes have to do with music?

Even the higher quality Freeview channels, such as ITV2, More4 or E4 show more than their fair share of American comedy and drama. Sky took off their travel channel to show more American programmes. MTV have changed their music channel beyond recognition to show more American programmes. Now Channel Five have an entire channel dedicated to it. So where has the variety gone? We may have more choice, but we no longer have variety.

But there is a silver lining! Ftn has been on Freeview almost since the very start, but it was easily the most uneventful channel on the lineup. This was despite all the potential. It could draw from the pool of Flextech channels, which surely have a few quality programmes to rub together. But whoever was responsible obviously didn’t care. Ftn was like a piece of shit on your shoe that you hate so much that you won’t even bother to wash it off, so instead you scrape your shoe all over the pavement as you walk along and hope that it just goes away. Yes, Ftn was exactly like that.

Until now, that is. On New Year’s Day, Ftn’s schedule was shaken up to include more quality programmes. The phone-in quiz shows and Thomas Cook TV segments have gone, and they’ve been replaced with repeats of The Crystal Maze, The Krypton Factor and Bullseye!

Wow! Those were three of my favourite programmes when I was young! The fact that these programmes are now almost twenty years old messes with my mind. What’s even more amazing is just how much of The Crystal Maze I can actually remember, despite it being made way back in 1990.

I know what you’re thinking. These are just cheap repeats like all the other stuff. Well yeah, but at least it’s not Dawson’s Creek. Now, start the fans please!

The media is changing very quickly, and there are a lot of difficult issues that have to be sorted out. With the massive (and still growing, maybe even still accellerating) success of blogging, podcasting and vlogging, the boundaries between the mainstream media and the pamphleteers are becoming ever-more blurred. This week Michael Grade wondered about the digital challenge.

…I do not believe we are more than two or three elections away from the moment when some commercial channels will be ready to proclaim: “We win it for Tony, Dave, Ming (or whoever).”

Grade notes the difference in culture between the print media and broadcasters:

In the UK, we have developed quite different expectations of different media. With broadcasting, balance and impartiality have been statutory requirements: democracy is judged to be served by the absence of bias and partisan editorial agendas. For print, with its long history of struggle against state censorship, democracy is seen to be served by freedom of expression, and is characterised by partisan editorialising.

Television channels are still fairly heavily regulated by Ofcom. This is designed to keep television news impartial, which is said to ensure a healthy democracy. But were newspapers to be regulated in this way it would be rightly called an undemocratic suppression of free speech.

It might seem like a discrepancy. But up until recently, broadcasters were part of a privileged elite. A television channel could have a lot of power. You don’t have to go back far to find an era where the UK had only three and a half channels. People would be stuck with what they were fed. Television audiences of over 20 million, although almost unheard of today, were not that unusual back then.

A license to broadcast was a powerful thing to have. It was a privilege, and with that privilege came responsibilities. As such it was reasonable to regulate these channels’ news output. Otherwise just two or three companies would have had a ridiculous amount of influence over the electorate.

It was very different with newspapers. In theory, anybody could publish a newspaper. It certainly had fewer barriers to entry than broadcasting did. As such, press freedoms were cherished. A diversity of opinions unimaginable to broadcasting was available in print.

Today it’s a very different story. In just a few years it will be the norm for every television owner to have access to a few dozen different channels. There are hundreds available on Sky. It is now cheaper to run some television stations than it is to publish a magazine. And there are certainly more television channels than there are national newspapers.

The traditional analogue terrestrial channels are seeing audiences dwindle. The BBC, ITN, even Sky are all becoming less powerful. Competition has increased greatly. Viewers have so many choices, and broadcasting is no longer so much of a privilege. Yes, many of the new channels have been set up by the traditional broadcasters — but this is more of a damage limitation exercise than anything else.

But it’s not just the advent of digital television that is giving the traditional media companies food for thought. A far bigger problem is being posed by the internet. Young people spend far more time on websites like YouTube and MySpace than watching television. We live in an age where the world seems to be increasingly run by large, soulless corporations. But the internet is making those large, soulless corporations run scared.

Viacom (MTV) is particularly miffed that Generation MTV is fizzling out and almost bought Bebo to try and stay hip (it laucnhed MTV Flux instead). Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation bought MySpace after being slow off the mark to adapt to a new world in love with the internet. Most strangely of all, ITV bought Friends Reunited.

But in terms of news coverage, the emergence of citizen journalism should usher in a new era of free speech in broadcasting. With the advent of vlogging and websites like YouTube, who is to say what is and isn’t broadcasting? It is conceivable that one day soon there will be a blogger or a vlogger who is just as influential as somebody on the television.

For some governments, this means that you should regulate citizen journalists in the same way as you would regulate broadcasters. This year in Singapore the government attempted to gag bloggers during the election campaign. The Indian government also ordered ISPs to block popular blogging sites Blogspot, Typepad and Geocities. Two years ago, French authorities famously arrested a blogger for criticising the city mayor. Does that not all sound like a suppression of free speech?

Citizen journalism has created a new category of person somewhere in between the traditional journalist and the pub ranter. It’s a grey area. We would expect the traditional journalist to adhere to certain standards; we certainly would not expect the pub ranter to. So what should we expect the citizen journalist to do?

People in this arena are becoming increasingly ambitious. There will soon be the launch of a new internet television channel, 18 Doughty Street. Those involved are already among the most successful bloggers around. If 18 Doughty Street succeeds (still a big ‘if’, of course), traditional media companies will have to take notice.

As I said, the reason broadcasters are regulated is because they were in a privileged position. But they are now no longer in such a privileged position. We can get our news from a growing number of different outlets. Today, anybody can write an article or make a film and reach a large audience. There is now genuine competition in the media. There will always be a place for the mainstream media, but they are surely becoming less powerful.

Soon enough Ofcom’s impartiality regulations will look like an anachronism. Soon it should be time to wave goodbye to the impartiality regulations in favour of freedom of speech. Of course, this doesn’t mean that every news outlet would have to become a Fox- or Independent-style ‘views’ outlet. Broadcasters — particularly the BBC — will always want to appear unbiased. There probably isn’t much of an appetite in the UK for a Fox News-style channel — although I can see an opinionated channel based on The Sun being successful.

The point is that we are now lucky enough to be in a position where we have pretty much unlimited access to as many different opinions as we want. So it’s time to celebrate this diversity instead of suppressing it. Murdoch wants to launch a Fox-style channel in the UK? Why not let him? There’ll be thousands of citizen journalists ready to challenge.

But should we get our hopes up?

smileTV ;-) is, apparently, “for anyone who likes to smile.” I personally hate smiling — it makes my face hurt.

That slogan doesn’t tell you very much about the content though. All we know is that it’s broadcasting from 1am–5am (part of UKTV History’s downtime) and its EPG position is 37, where Quiz Call used to be, and just past ITV Play and Quiz Call on 35 and 36. That suggests that smileTV is yet another quiz channel, which isn’t very promising…

The other guesses on DigitalSpy include a spinoff entertainment channel for Indians, and porn (due to the 5am close time). There is not even any EPG information. The only clue to the content is that ;-) logo, which doesn’t really lend itself to any of the possibilities…

What’s so strange is that it’s all come so out of the blue. Usually there’s at least some hype before a Freeview channel launches…

Update at 27/04/2006 01:37: Wow, I like this actually! It is one of the cheapest things I’ve ever seen but I like it for this fact. What we have at the moment is a programme called ‘Shortcutters‘ which is a load of really low-budget (but mostly really quite good) short films. It’s obviously been on some Sky channel before, because this is being described as a look back at the rest of the series, and we just had an ad break with no ads as well.

All-in-all, very strange. I mean, where has it come from all of a sudden? Why is it on Freeview? And how the hell is it being paid for when they aren’t showing any ads? But I’m not complaining, and it’s a good use of that previously unused Freeview space.

Update at 01:49: Oh no, I spoke too soon! Now it’s Teleshopping!