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The failure to explain

In the wake of the recent UK elections for members of the European Parliament, I am unbelievably fed up of hearing that the rise of undesirable parties is the fault of non-voters.

All. The. Fucking. Time.

All. The. Fucking. Time.

It is not.

I am fed up of being told that if I don’t vote I am not entitled to an opinion.

I am.

Let me be clear – I have an opinion, and I am not going to stop having one because you believe that you have the right to tell me what you think I should do about it.

There are two strands here which bind together in an ever-quicker plunge into a vortex of dumb that will doom us all. Not that I want to over-cook it, but I mean it this time – this is the stuff that is going to fuck us right up… The first strand you know, already. C’mon, deep down you know it. And you know it isn’t just you or me. It’s the people you’ve been listening to, too. C’mon, it’s OK. We can let it go. Together.

1. The trend towards “I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT SO YOU SHUT UP”

You do not know what you are talking about. You looked something up on Google. You listened to a friend’s rant in the pub; you read something by that columnist you like. You took an opinion – someone’s interpretation of the facts that they arranged into a pleasing narrative – and you made that opinion your own. I do this all the time and so do you.

To pick a UKIP topic, everyone has an opinion on the EU. Do you know what makes it work? Why it exists? Do you even know that some of it might function adequately and appropriately? Or have you only been listening to all the fun, easy-to-remember bits about stupid rules and corrupt bureaucracies?

Seriously, this woman was a freak with a vision of a world that ignores what 90% of the population are actually like. And people adopt her narrative as if it's the only thing in the world worth listening to.

It’s always at least partly Ayn Rand’s fault.

What’s your take on the effect leaving the EU would have on the UK economy? What do you think about tax cuts? Interest rates? House prices? Perhaps you completed your PHD in economics after a decade of study and research and followed it up with a decade of experience in practically applying it to be able to deduce an adequate opinion.

No? Oh, so you have an economics-based background of some sort, right? Or perhaps, at least, you’ve read a good few of the classics of economic literature? You read quite a bit about economic theory other than just leader columns in newspapers or leaflets that came through the letterbox? Maybe just a few contemporary thought-leaders in… wait – hang on, I get the feeling you never did any of those things. Why do you think your opinion is valuable again? Have you checked it against the leading opposing argument to see how it stacks up? No?

Fuck off, then.

We all follow up the tendency to think we know what we’re talking about but this is going beyond mere debate and exploration and delving into deep pools of madness.

So, the latest round of politically and morally bankrupt narratives surrounding immigration and the time-honoured tradition of blaming Johnny Foreigner for everything comes around again. Never mind that nobody really knows any of the immigration facts; never mind that the reality of the economy is that it is made of many complex threads which can barely be affected by governments and policies, dependent as they are on global circumstances beyond our understanding.

Instead, people buy the pleasing, easy-to-understand narrative. And because it is pleasing, because it “chimes” they will tell you that they “know what they know and shut up.” The power of the narrative has become all-encompassing.

If the narrative sounds right to you, it must follow that it is right.

This brings us to strand 2:

2. “The Failure To Explain”

Go on, tell me why free education is important. Then tell me about the importance of healthcare. Tell me why the banks shouldn’t pay bonuses; later, you can give me your explanation of why Michael Gove is an arse or Ed Miliband is whatever he is or why Nick Clegg is just a house-can’t-use-that-word-any-more. Then you can explain why you can’t use “that word” any more, right?

Offensive? Maybe. But not as offensive as enabling the most ideological parliament in recent UK history despite that party's ideology having been voted for by a minority of the population. Good work, Lib Dems!

Nick Clegg, yesterday. Just helping out the massas.

Except for the most part, you can’t.

Because either you actually don’t have a cogent argument (because it is a belief you have grown up with and adopted – see above) or because you don’t have the ability to communicate with your audience.

Try explaining why welfare or taxation are important to a 14 year old at the bus stop. Or maybe just someone who isn’t as middle class as you are. No fucking chance, mate. Then try it with someone just as middle class as you are. Then, when you’ve listened to them drone on about whatever version of the narrative they last heard on 5 Live / Radio 4 / Match of The Day, you can deduce that there is no substance whatsoever. Mainly because they can’t quite remember the exact words, the salient points, just their own slightly corrupted, waffly and inconsistent version. They don’t have to try hard to remember these things because “I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT SO YOU SHUT UP.”

These issues were important 50 years ago because people had lived through the circumstances these policies were designed to eradicate. Now the same people these policies are meant to help no longer realise or understand that they affect them. They have no idea. And you are not helping.

Bankrupt and dead ideologies – party politics and religion alike, philosophies that were imagined to explain an era long in the past, are simply not equipped to adopt to change. And like it or not, the world always changes. And it is changing quicker than ever.

But when you combine the polarisation – which comes as a result of everyone thinking they are right without the need to hear another side to the argument  – with the failure to properly explain their own argument, then GUESS WHAT! People just drop both sides. Or take the easy argument that appeals. The pleasing narrative, the one they actually understand.

Voting? Fuck off. The old jokes of “the government always wins” are writ large; they all end up tasting like shit – just slightly different flavours of shit. A choice between a big plate of shit and a big plate of shit with extra cheese is not a choice. You want some shit? No? But it’s got extra cheese!

You want me to vote? Explain why. Explain what you have that is meant to be appealing to me and my values. Maybe explain why I should have any values at all. A lot of talk based on opinion polls is just politics, not government. There is no choice, so why choose?

The illusion of this kind of choice and why people get involved is something I wrote about a long time ago in a music magazine far, far away. At the time it was all “Kylie vs. Posh Spice” and “Blur vs. Oasis.” If you’d asked me if I liked Kylie I would have said no. Likewise for Posh. But ask me which one I’d prefer and suddenly I have to make a choice. I didn’t like either, but I did feel the need to choose. The same went for Oasis and Blue – the implicit polarisation in the question drove people to choose and this helped both sides’ record sales. Disinterested fence-sitters became fans. Nice trick. Behavioural economics at work, right?

Well, I fucking hated all 4 of them. And I wouldn’t have voted for any of them, either.

This, of course, is where people step in and say “But you need to vote for those guys – or those other guys will get in!!” So let me say this straight:

If the best reason you have for someone to vote for your party is that the other guy is shit then you have nothing worth voting for.

You are the Dave channel, showing the Top Gear rerun for the 3098th time, knowing full well that you will pick up sufficient viewers who will choose you as the least-shit thing on. And that will do. You know people won’t just shut the TV off – just like Labour and Tories,  Republicans and Democrats; they know you won’t shut off their bullshit game, either.

But the game has changed.

The masses are people you do not know. I see them in the data I work with, but they are practically unrecognised in the media. UKIP tipped the nod to many who may be unengaged with politics, but they still had to be registered to vote and know what to do. There really is a silent majority out there and they do not know how to vote or – most importantly – why the hell they should. And I’m not talking about underclasses or squeezed middles or any of that narrative-driven crap. I’m talking about all kinds of people who are out there living their lives without any reference to newspapers or news programmes, Westminster or whatever.

With thanks to a random B3ta user whose name I could not find

Plane-crashing twat.

They don’t vote because nobody has ever given them a good reason why they should. If you don’t know what it’s like not to have free education, you don’t know what it’s like to want it. If you didn’t live through polio epidemics you probably don’t have an idea what it’s like to see your friends die. The explanations that worked for generations that did experience those things are not going to work for those that did not.

The arrogance of people going around telling them that they know they should vote, that people died for it, that not voting causes cancer – whatever narrative works for them, huh? – you really think that’s going to work? That the world will change because of such weak premises?

When voter turnout is so low, when the debate is so criminally under-informed, it is time to hit the reset button. The old arguments are done; they are boring; if they are important, they need a rewrite and a re-representation. But if you are clinging to the current crop of political parties, you are the problem. You are just a ripple in the far reaches of the pond, far from where the original rock was dropped, the last dribbled smear of a once-joyful but long-spent ejaculation.

You have a point of view? EXPLAIN. Convince me using evidence you came up with through investigation, checking facts, using experience you have actually earned. Stop bullshitting based on other people’s bullshit.

But tell me again that my failure to vote for your favoured shitty candidate is responsible for whatever ills you perceive in society and watch what response you get. I assure you, it won’t be an especially democratic one.

The failure to explain is everywhere.

And that is the real threat to democracy.

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I’m not actually dead.

I got bought Skyrim for Xmas. Priorities and all that.

Thanks for the emails, though.

About 6 pieces nearly ready to go… drip drip drip.

 

You either get it or you have a life

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Why The Entertainment Industry Is Wrong About Everything Pt. 2: Sports Broadcasters

OK, I say “sports,” but I’m going to stick to the area I know best which is football (or “soccer,” if you swing that way). I think the issues are pretty much the same for all sports, mind.

Sometimes the Swiss aren't so neutral.

In some ways, I think there are easier issues to deal with here than music or film. Sporting events have the greatest audiences on the day the events are taking place – either live or highlights; only important matches or ones with extraordinary outcomes tend to make much impact in, say, DVD sales. Clubs can monetise the audience over the longer term through season tickets, merchandise and the like, whilst broadcasters tend to rely on subscription fees and the odd one-off payment for special events. And in this episode, I reckon there’s an answer to that whole interweb “problem.”

Now then. 20 years ago I was one of the first people I knew with a Sky box. For about £18 a month I could get The Simpsons, the footy (in every division and country in the world just about), “movies” (or “films,” as they used to be known) piped right into the house.

Everyone remembers that episode, right?

And it was ace. I found friends that would magically appear on a Sunday for the treble bill of football, The Bill omnibus and The Simpsons – popularity guaranteed for under 20 spons a month. Not bad.

Flip forward 20 years and surely things have got even better, right? I mean, that’s what progress does, doesn’t it, make things better? Nope. As a consumer, things are rubbish. Let’s say I want to be able to watch all the games for my chosen team – I only care about club football these days and I don’t have time to watch everything. First, I search for things like “Club X TV fixtures” or “When are Club X on TV?” and a number of related searches. The results are perplexing – smart keyword buyers have managed to associate everything from blogs to football kits and boots to website forums and comment pieces. Finding a list of fixtures and what channel they are on is not something natural search does well. So, we go to the club website and trawl through their own TV channel listings and other sundry items before finally finding a list of matches and TV channels. But wait – something’s missing:

That’s right – listings only go up to a couple of months in advance – TV channels don’t want to have to bet in advance on which teams will be doing well / playing attractive football “for the neutral” so far upfront, so the televised games are selected later in the season.* This is fundamentally troubling – after all, there is a choice between ESPN & Sky for coverage. Maybe I can only afford one – what offers best value for money? Well, I choose my subscription by the year, not month, so I could choose Sky now only to find that ESPN have all the good games later. So, I have the functionality available to bet on a match in January 2012 (which is always highlighted by the fixture), but I can’t tell what channel it’s going to be on? This situation suits the broadcasters, but not the fan. Moreover, I follow my club for the whole season, not just some of the games. I don’t like going to pubs and being forced to endure the commentary by fellow “fans” who parrot what they heard on phone-ins that morning as “opinion.” I want it in my house. And that’s going to cost.

In fact, when it comes to package selection, there is just too much choice, it’s way over-complex, and the price is unbelievable. OK, so the latter might just be me being a miserable old git, pining for the days when I could have all the channels and still have enough change from a £20 note for fish and chips and a can of Coke, but it seems like there is very little change from £100 a month.

"Sky or ESPN.... Sky or ESPN... or how about those nice chaps from Setanta... they still make football, right?"

Bear in mind this is 2011 and we have HD tellies so who wants non-HD? (I’d throw 3D into the mix but – ha- that viewing experience is just rubbish for football, so I’ll leave it out for now), but even with a deal on installation etc as a new customer, Sky plus ESPN plus a basic channel package in HD plus the ability to watch it in more than one room (honestly, the chutzpah!) comes  in at around £80 per month. The club I support has season tickets which cost around £725 a year for an adult and £300 for a child (cheap for a Premier League club). A year’s worth of telly – which is never going to be the same as going to the game – comes in at around the same price. Telly was always regarded as what you did because you couldn’t afford to go to the game – now it is priced on a par with the real thing. And that seems wrong. Sure, I get a whole load of crappy channels thrown in and that has some value, but it’s not what I want. I am a consumer – I have demands and they are not being met. My money stays in my pocket.

And so we turn to where my demands are being met. For about the last five years, I have been able – pretty much wherever I am – to switch on my PC and watch my club. At this point, someone screams “piracy!” whilst the crowd look horrified, policemen prime their truncheons and delicate ladies faint in swoons of shock. Aren’t I taking something for free? Aren’t I stealing? I wouldn’t download a car, would I?

You wouldn't download a car. Unless you were playing, say, Gran Turismo. Then you probably would.

It is a measure of the sheer genius and efficacy of entertainment lawyers, PR peoples and lobbyists that this mindset has come to pass. Sadly, it has nothing to do with reality. Firstly, “free” is not free. Secondly, stealing a car deprives someone of that object – nothing I do deprives anyone of anything physical – I don’t stop the same thing being sold to anyone else. Thirdly, I am sat here with a sum of money that would be spent on football with whichever provider decided to comply with the laws of supply & demand. I have written more about the myths surrounding “piracy” here.

Firstly, then, watching without paying is not mere “freeloading.” Setting aside the nominal licence fee (a tenner or so a month) I have Freeview. All of those 70+ channels are not merely sharing my tenner are they? Mostly it goes on the BBC and, frankly, when compared to the price of satellite / cable, I see the licence fee as a bargain for news, documentaries, Match of The Day and various radio stations alone. But those other “free” channels are surviving somehow, right? Yes. It’s called “a-d-v-e-r-t-i-s-i-n-g.” You may have heard of it. You may also be aware that different channels charge different rates for their advertising – the more viewers they have, the more the ads cost. Amazing! So when I watch, say, a Champions League match on ITV (a free channel) am I thieving my footy? I am not.

And don’t forget sponsorship. The exact amounts involved are hard to discern, but three top sponsors pay in the region of £135m for a 3 year deal.  It’s worth that much because of the numbers that will be watching the games, of course. Those numbers are partially on subscription channels, partly from pubs and, yes, partly from “free” viewers. It is the total number that is important and it is made up of significant chunks of each – no one audience is sufficient by itself. That huge audience is, then, rather valuable – which is why so many broadcasters want it.

ITV, then, who paid c. £160m for three years’ worth of rights, clearly believe they will make that money back because of the value of ad sales. A cheeky enquiry to a colleague in a media-buying agency (the people who buy ad space on behalf of their clients) tells us that the cost of a 30 second slot for a regular Champions League game is c. £45,000 for ITV as opposed to c.£15,000 for Sky. For the final it’s more like £40,000 on Sky and £105,000 on ITV. Do you see that? The audience for “free” viewing is bigger and thus the ads cost more. Oh, and let’s not forget all the ads on players’ shirts and advertising hoardings around the ground. Someone paid money for those in the hope someone is watching. And they’re happy if more people are watching, too.

In other words, when I watch something for free on a channel that sells advertising, I am not a freeloader – I am a crucial part of the channels’ & sponsors’ business plans.

So, why do people host pirated football? Because – guess what? – there are people that will pay them money for hosting adverts whilst they show unlicensed sports. But surely this will be ads for dodgy porn, malware-infested fakes and all manner of under-the-table tomfoolery?

Well here’s the fun part: UK companies are already using these illegal channels for advertising. And not small outfits, either. Big ones. The biggest. Vodafone, Disney, big pharma, the lot. It’s not a few odd cases, it’s everywhere and it’s everyone.

This weekend, I saw UK adverts for washing powders, coffee and mobile phones. And let’s be clear: these weren’t European or Chinese versions of the ads that have somehow found their way onto my machine.

The European Commission, Vodafone, more pharma, Airwick. And there's plenty more where they came from. And I mean *plenty*.

These were the same ads I see on TV, with .co.uk URLs and British accents. And these were not just video trails (which tend to be served whilst streams load) but banner and other display ads, including interactive ones. In other words, the same advertising you would see on official channels. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that most media buyers probably don’t realise that this is going on as this would be wrapped up in the lower end of the inventory they purchase – probably listed as “miscellaneous websites: reaches 100,000 people, costs £X” – and is a very minor amount in comparison to the total, so it isn’t likely to be something that gets much attention. But for their clients, unless anyone flags it, why complain? You want to advertise to a certain audience, you go where they are – and if they’re watching pirated football, who cares? They’re still consumers.

Oh look: Disney, Bonjela, gambling and more

Next, I feel obliged to point out that downloading something for free is not the same as stealing something physically. ITV & Sky can continue to sell their services to other people, I am not stopping them. It is a complete fallacy to equate downloading something from one source as somehow depriving them of a sale. They simply don’t have what I want in a format I want a price I can afford, so they are “losing” precisely nothing. I was not going to spend that money with them, so how can they have “lost” it? Perhaps, instead of wringing hands about “lost sales,” the better answer would be to examine the pricing, format and availability of the product? Because, in fact, the rights-holders (clubs, leagues, official bodies) – as well as broadcasters – are all losing out on potential revenue by not servicing demand adequately.

Which brings us neatly to the third point – that supply and demand (aka everyone’s first lesson in economics) tells broadcasters exactly what they should be doing. At the moment, my personal demand is supplied by crappy streams. Why?

  • I can see whatever match I want
  • It is a reasonable stream
  • I can choose which broadcaster I want to view it with (including which commentary)
  • I can follow just my team, I don’t need a package of things I don’t want in order to do so
  • The price is right

The downside:

  • I have to search around a bit which is a bit annoying (although I usually find it quicker to track down a stream than, say, track down figures for what sponsors paid for Champions League rights)
  • The quality is occasionally poor
  • I may have to switch streams mid-match
  • I probably miss, on average, 10-15 minutes of the match through any / all of the above.

Various broadcasting friends wanted me to add that I also risk malware, viruses, penury and lupus too, but I like to think that my level of tech expertise avoids this. However, for many people this will be true enough. If you download the necessary software for viewing from official sites, no problem; but many streaming sites have links to software that is filled with malware, frankly. That’s because they are in control of how they get money from you; it’s not regulated or licensed so they do whatever makes cash and adding spyware means someone somewhere is paying them to do so.

Even so, ultimately, when faced with a choice of all the above, it’s streams every time. Had I the simple choice of being able to follow all my team’s matches for, say, £20 a month, nothing else included with them, I’d pay it. And so would hundreds of thousands / millions of other people.

But that requires something we are not used to in commercial models: non-exclusivity. If UK broadcasters pay £400m for TV rights, it’s because they know they become the only show in town. Once other people can show those games, their rights are worth less. If Tommy Streamer can show the game on his blog page then why is anyone going to watch ITV or Sky? Exclusivity guarantees the broadcaster they will have a monopoly on showing a game; that means they are guaranteed a certain minimum audience to watch the game and that means a minimum amount of income.

But the market supports multiple types of demand. At the prices they are charging, broadcasters only service a certain percentage of the potential audience – the rest of us would be happy with less quality for less money, either as paid-for or ad-supported streams. But the only people smart enough to tap this market are the “pirates” and the advertisers who serve ads on their networks. If I was a broadcaster I would offer those networks  a license to show streams at a maximum quality of, say, 50% of the HD streams I can offer and take a percentage of the advertising revenue.

I wrote about this yonks ago when I worked for a company that became EMC (and whose blogs have been similarly assimilated) as an idea for content distribution, the principle being that nobody should care who shows the content as long as they take the ads? Reward people for doing it too – even if it’s a small share of the proceeds it incentivises them for finding an audience and your revenue goes up with the growth in total audience size. I called this “microdistribution.” It has a lot in common with the Long Tail in that it recognises that a myriad of tiny niches may add up to something huge, a la Google Adwords etc.

And there’s another reason why this might improve the delivery of football. At the moment, I am stuck watching, say, Match of The Day on the Beeb or Sky’s full match programmes. MOTD is the last resort of the desperate fan – matches reduced to highlights which are ridiculously short to squeeze in every game. Here’s the build-up play, here’s the shot, here’s the goal. The replay is rarely anything more than the final ball and shot. But what makes a goal amazing is often the quality of the build-up, the passing, the bypassing of the defence through tactical executions. All of this is lost – and the result is the barf-inducing banality of football phone-ins which consist of people making comments about matches based on the few minutes they saw on MOTD and the commentary they heard. In other words, you are listening to opinions about opinions. As a result this promotes a shallowness in the way many people engage with the game. Tactics are reduced to quick soundbites – talk about a pressing game, playing two up front or one in the hole behind the striker – but tactics go much deeper than that.

In the 1990s, before we all agreed he was a bit of a twat, Andy Gray used to do a tactics session in the hour or two before a big game – full on tiddlywink counters and pushing them around, examining why certain managers chose different formations and so forth. It was a big part of my deeper understanding of the game; what had been based solely on a love of playing, mixed with the tribalism of being a fan, developed into something more. The various tactics sections on football shows of all sorts are now lamentable. A favourite piece of utter crap was Andy Townsend’s Tactics Truck on ITV – like so many ex-footballers, a nice chap just repeats the obvious, draws some circles around defenders who have lost their man and that’s it.

But this is because TV is broadcast to such a big audience – it’s not possible to cater to all the different tastes fans might have. I know not everyone’s a tactics nerd, but I’d liketo watch a real tactics nerd doing their thing. Allowing the little guy to broadcast would allow the niche interests to blossom – tactics, Alan Hansen-a-likes who only see the defensive errors, students of the cultured pass, the different chants, partisan commentaries which barely mention a single opposition player’s name except to berate them (which, in fairness, is what it’s like watching any footy on a club’s own channel). All these would be possible.

All of this and more. I get better insights from the cat.

This creates a “long tail” of football consumption. And in the long run, it’s better for the game because everything is catered for.  Again, it’s fair to say that specialist broadcasters do make an effort to vary the programming – there’s the Saturday morning “variety show,” or the highlights reels or the fan-led shenanigans. But consumers are way more varied in type than a broadcaster alone can deal with at times. Niche interests are often what keep subjects interesting to a wider audience; I can’t see anyone likely to broadcast, say, a programme just for referees or coaches. But I bet there’d be some people who’d like it. Search the net for football blogs and you’ll find women tacticians as well as “I love Thierry Henry’s thighs”; Villa fans who only want to discuss the 1970s, others who only ever discuss one player at their club. The “tail” may be lengthening but it’s just not long enough.

Broadcaster and event owners aren’t  going to give in easily – the one thing about selling exclusivity is that you get a big lump of cash if you’re the event owner and the chance to earn a big lump of cash if you’re the broadcaster – it’s a high stakes game with big rewards (unless you’re Setanta and screw up the maths / sales).

And that’s why chasing pirates seems like a better bet – who’s going to say “Yes, this year we shall forgo our £100m income for £25m with the potential to earn an extra £150m”? You’d take the lump sum every time. I get it, but it’s clearly short-sighted.

Free market exponents will consistently tell you that free market means more choice for the consumer. And yet, here we are, us disenfranchised punters, we buy our replica kits, matchday tickets, programmes, consume advertising on hoardings round the pitch, idents and ad-breaks, we’re happy to consume and maybe even pay you some money… but all we are is “thieves.”

Meantime, I’ll just leave this here…

*EDIT : I showed this piece to a number of friends who work in sports broadcasting – amongst the points they wanted to add were that “…the TV fixtures situation is not the great TV carve-up as many people would believe. There are great number of factors why [they] can’t set the fixtures for the entire season in advance: clubs, local authorities, transport providers, and the police influence dates/kick-off times. There is the performance of the clubs in the cup competitions to consider and the sheer logistical weight of organising the fixture list. Hence it is split into 3-4 phases. [Sports broadcasters] attempt to even out each club’s number of appearances on [TV] throughout the season.” Only fair to include that. It can’t all be hyperbole and invective.

 

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