Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Going Cheap Or Going Bust?

Just in case you weren't aware of the matter, dear blog reader, today is 9 June. The day on which, one hundred and forty seven years ago, in 1862 - 'on a summer's afternoon' - an annual day of horse racing took place at Stella Haugh in Blaydon in the North East of England. It was then that a local songwriter called George Ridley celebrated the event with a comic music hall song about a charabanc trip by a group factory workers from nearby Newcastle upon Tyne to attend the races and all of the many events (and disasters) they encounter along the way. The 'heavy laden' bus travelled, as the song describes, from Balmbra's Music Hall in The Cloth Market, along Collingwood Street and then 'gannin' alaang the Scotswood Road,' across the Chain Bridge crossing the River Tyne and into Blaydon itself. Local landmarks like The Robin Adair public house, the St James' Infirmary and Armstrong's munitions factory were mentioned, as was the rainy weather which occurred that day and several real-life locals characters like Doctor Gibbs, Coffee Johnny, the bellman Jackey Brown and even Geordie Ridley himself, performing his new composition at 'the Mechanics Haal in Blaydon,' made it into the song's lyrics. A song which has since become a genuine regional anthem, always sung in the dialect in which it was written and closely associated with not only Tyneside in general but, also, more specifically the local football team, yer actual Keith telly Topping's beloved (though unsellable) Newcastle United.

Our - soomewhat bewildering - story now moves on one hundred and forty five years, to 9 June 2007. On that very day Mike Ashley, a billionaire retail entrepreneur in the sporting lesiurewear trade, in the guise of a registered company called St James' Holdings Limited, was currently homing in on a seventy five per cent shareholding which would give him complete control over his recent acquisition, Newcastle United Football Club. A business with, reportedly, the fourteenth biggest turnover of any football club in Europe (bigger than, for example, Bayern Munich, it was reckoned) and with regular crowds of more than fifty thousand per week (that's more than both Liverpool and Chelsea manage). Albeit, a club which hasn't, actually, won anything worth noting for close-on forty years. Ashley was said to be, let us remember, the twenty-fifth richest man in the country at that time. A somewhat reclusive and shadowy figure, a man so shy of publicity that The Sunday Times' Philip Beresford had recently described him as 'Britain's answer to the late Howard Hughes.' The gentleman from whom Ashley had just wrestled control of the club, previous chairman Freddie Shepherd, released a press statement which says the following:-
    "The time since Newcastle's flotation in 1997 has seen a radical transformation in the club and its fortunes, with the club now being one of the twenty wealthiest clubs in Europe with one of the finest stadiums in European football, a Premier League participant and a regular participant in UEFA competitions with a fantastic fan base. The offer from SJHL is at a level which fully reflects both the performance of Newcastle and its prospects and ambitions for the future. The board believes that SJHL and Mike Ashley will be excellent custodians of Newcastle United's heritage and will provide the best possible opportunity for the club to flourish in the future, to the benefit of the company and its fans." [My italics.]

After many, many years of gross mismanagement and of, frankly, being taken for granted by a succession of previous boards it seems that, at long last, United's many loyal and hard-working supporters now had something positive to look forward to in the coming years. We had been bought by someone with cash to spend and, seemingly, some proper honest-to-God business sense to bring to the table. Well, you know what they say, dear blog reader - be careful what you wish for, it might just come true. Two years - one relegation and more hurtful back (and front) page headlines than you can probably count - later and, this morning, the Sun newspaper has the following back-page story which shows just how far a once proud football club with 'one of the finest stadiums in Europe ... and a fantastic fan base' have fallen. I do find the story about the guy who e-mailed Ashley with an offer of two Oasis tickets and a Curly Wurly for the club quite amusing, let it be said. I'm not entirely without a sense of humour. What I don't like is the fact that this appears to be the best offer he's had so far. This blogger, therefore, should like to thank Mister Ashley, personally. Thank you, sir. That you so much for turning a club that I have spent forty years - and God knows how many tens of thousands of pounds; money that, frankly, I could do with right now - following since 1969 into a laughing stock. I can't tell you how much that is appreciated by myself and my fellow supporters. I'd also like to offer you my sincere congratulations. Two years it took you to completely destroy the soul of a football club that remains at the very heart of both a city and a community - something you never, seemingly, understood (along with plenty of other things, it would appear). Just two years. It normally takes decades of crass mismanagement to achieve something as impressive as that. Listen, when all this is over and you've found some mug to take the wreckage of what you've left behind off your hands and you're back in your nice big house in Buckinghamshire (or wherever), please do me one favour and spare the odd thought for fifty thousand mugs like me who now genuinely understand what it's like to be screwed with their pants on. And then, you know, catch a horrible wasting disease or something.

On a marginally-related sports note, I must admit I'm thoroughly enjoying the World Twenty-20 Cup at the moment. I loved brave, plucky little Holland and then England's win-or-bust game against Pakistan. I loved the West Indies discovering some fire in their bellies. But, most of all I loved the Sri Lankan-spankin' that the Aussies got last night. Ricky wasn't lookin' tricky, Bracken was slackin', it was back to the net for Brett ... and as for poor old Nathan Hauritz ... he was having a terrible time.

By the way, did anybody else notice the BBC using Joy Division's 'Shadowplay' as mood music during yesterday's Panorama? Style.

Let's start the latest batch of Top Telly News with something very pleasing indeed. Ashes to Ashes, starring the Godlike genius that is Philip Glenister, will return for a third and final series, the BBC confirmed yesterday. Producers have revealed that the climax of the next series will reveal who the character of Gene Hunt really is. Writer and co-creator Ashley Pharoah said the series will offer 'intriguing twists and turns to keep viewers guessing about the final outcome.' The finale of the current series, was a major success - both in terms of the episode itself and its hilarious dialogue ('Taking one bite out of a deep-fried penis doesn't make you a bad person, Ray!') and in term of ratings, ending strongly with six and a half million viewers (and a 29.2% share).

The Gruniad reports that Channel 4 is to become the first UK broadcaster to put its entire back catalogue online completely free of charge – giving viewers the chance to watch every episode of homegrown shows such as Brass Eye, The Camomile Lawn and Father Ted without having to buy a DVD box set. From July, more than four thousand hours of the channel's archived content – about ten thousand titles – will be added to the 4oD catchup service. Other much-loved series to be made available include Queer As Folk, Shameless, Vic Reeves Big Night Out, Ali G and Teachers, as well as old episodes of lifestyle and property shows such as Location, Location, Location and Grand Designs. There will be a selection of episodes of the now defunct soap Brookside, featuring what it calls its 'most important storylines,' including the infamous body-under-the-patio episodes (expect, therefore, yet another rash of Beth is innocent graffiti to appear on a wall near you, soon) and the first lesbian kiss to be shown before the 9pm watershed. Six million viewers tuned in to see Anna Friel's character, Beth Jordache, lock lips with Margaret Clemence, played by Nicola Stephenson, for all of eight seconds in 1993.

The catch-up service currently offers viewers programmes for thirty days after they broadcast, but Channel 4's decision to put such a huge amount of older content online represents a major development, as more viewers choose to watch online at a time that suits them. It echoes the views of the communications minister, Lord Carter, who is leading the team producing the final report into the UK's digital future. Earlier this year, he said Britain was on course for a 'different world' of media use away from scheduled programming. 'In less than ten years, we will be in a complete "on demand" television world,' he said. The move could put pressure on the BBC, which offers programmes via its iPlayer service for only seven days after they air. The appetite for Internet video content is soaring. One in every thirty five UK internet views in February was to a video site, according to the Internet traffic monitor Hitwise, up from one in fifty a year earlier. The BBC's iPlayer service was the twenty second most popular website in the UK in February and the second most visited video site after YouTube. The ad-funded video site Hulu, which streams primetime US shows such as Family Guy, Heroes and The Simpsons, is now the second largest web-video site in the US. It served three hundred and fifty million streams from February to March, despite being only a year old. Hulu, which is jointly owned by NBC Universal and NewsCorp, is talking to potential partners about a UK rollout.

Some of Channel 4's content will not be made available online because of rights or legal issues. US shows such as Friends will not be included, nor will Channel 4 News, because some bought-in news clips form part of a rights agreement which only allows the broadcaster to show them up to midnight on the day of transmission. The 4oD service was revamped in April, and since then has recorded an one hundred and eleven percent month-on-month increase in viewing, with shows such as The Inbetweeners, Hollyoaks and Come Dine With Me performing particularly strongly. Jon Gisby, the director of future media and technology at Channel 4, said: 'We were the first broadcaster to launch a comprehensive video-on-demand service in 2006, and since that time 4oD has become one of the UK's most popular VOD brands. We are extremely proud of the improved service and think the combination of fantastic content that's easy to find and view will prove compelling for all users.' The BBC described the move as 'great news for viewer choice.'

James Nesbitt is being forced to look for Hollywood acting roles because of the funding crisis in British drama, the actor has claimed. The Cold Feet, Jekyll and Murphy's Law star, who is appearing in the BBC's new Iraq drama Occupation next week, told the Radio Times that the UK TV industry was in a 'desperate state,' and that he was having to look to the US for work. He said Hollywood did not naturally appeal to him – 'the notion of waiting six months to play a baddie in a bad film just wasn't my idea of career utopia' – but that he had now employed a US agent. 'I was challenged here, I enjoyed what I was doing. But the British TV industry is in a desperate state - not creatively but financially,' he said. 'There's so little work happening here, it [Hollywood] is not a door that I'd slam shut,' he said.

Ah Jimmy, if only you hadn't been so quick to turn down Mr Moffat's offer ... But, perhaps I've said too much.

British shows have won nine of the twenty three prizes handed out at the Banff World Television Awards in Canada, including the best comedy gong for BBC2's Beautiful People. The awards, known as The Rockies, are held annually at the Banff World Television Festival, which is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year.

The list of British winners at Banff are:-
Comedy: Beautiful People, BBC
Reality format: Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts, BBC
Wildlife and natural history: The Gorilla King, Tigress Productions for the BBC and WNET
Arts and performing arts documentary: The Curse of the Mona Lisa, Channel 4
Music or variety programme: Peter Kay's Britain's Got the Pop Factor, Channel 4
Political documentary: Dispatches: Warlords Next Door?, Channel 4
Sports documentary: Thriller in Manila, Darlow Smithson for Channel 4
Youth programme: Battlefront, Channel 4
Social and humanitarian programme: The Qur'an, Juniper Communications for Channel 4

Other winners included US drama Lost in the continuing series/serial category for the episode The Constant while HBO's John Adams also took home a prize in the mini-series category.

ITV executive chairman Michael Grade has rejected claims that executives on Britain's Got Talent did not do enough to protect runner up Susan Boyle, saying that blaming production staff is 'simplistic.' Speaking with The Times, Grade said BGT producer, Talkback Thames, could not have predicted the rapid speed with which Boyle's worldwide fame grew, and the pressure that brought with it. 'You imply the production company should have said "Sorry love, we are not going to let you sing in the final." Would that have helped her health?' he said. Grade added that there would be a comprehensive review of processes, but added that 'the idea that someone is to blame for it is simplistic.'

Channel 4 has scrapped charity donations on Big Brother phone votes, which generated £300,000 for its chosen causes last year. The broadcaster is to hold phone vote charges at 35p, but every penny will now go towards limiting operational losses as part of its efficiency drive. Charities have received ten pence from every vote cast since 2006, when C4 cut the cost from 50p to 25p. Previously, C4 made a profit from phone votes and changes to the Big Brother policy paved the way from a blanket not-for-profit policy on the practice. This was instituted on all shows in 2007 amid the wider scandals over voting irregularities on shows across several broadcasters, including C4's own Richard and Judy. Last year, Big Brother accounted for one fifth of C4's one and a half million pound charity donations, with the rest going towards voluntary industry training bodies. Scope, youth suicide charity PAPYRUS and Cystic Fibrosis Trust received £300,000 from Big Brother phone votes. Charity income from the show rose from £200,000 the previous year.

Setanta faces administration 'within days' unless backers provide more funds to pay thirty million pounds it owes to the English Premier League, reports have suggested. The broadcaster has already failed to pay the Scottish Premier League three million pounds owed in television rights money. Setanta, which also shows cricket, golf and rugby union, has about 1.2 million subscribers, but is losing up to £100m a year, analysts say. Deloitte is set to step in to run the firm if it goes into administration. The rights to show the English Premier League - and the subscribers that this pulls in - lie at the heart of Setanta's business model. But the firm had only about sixty percent of the subscribers it needed to break even, said Professor Chris Brady of the BPP Business School. 'They have predicated the whole thing on getting those subscribers. The problem is they are taking on Goliath in BSkyB,' he told the BBC. Not only did Setanta have only a small percentage of televised Premier League games, but they tended to be 'weaker' matches, he added. There had also been problems with customer service, Professor Brady added.

Setanta's viability was cast into doubt earlier this year when it lost the rights to show forty six live Premier League matches from 2010/2011. In future it will show only twenty three games per season, compared with BSkyB's one hundred and fifteen, with industry observers saying that thousands of customers would give up their subscriptions. It is expected that a rival broadcaster - perhaps ESPN - would buy up its Premier League football rights. But the worsening economy has led observers to suggest that the rights to forty six games which Setanta holds for next season, the final year of its current contract, would not be worth as much as they had been. There are also doubts about whether the Premier League could match the £159m Setanta paid for the right to screen twenty three Premier League games each season from 2010-11. A shared deal with ITV saw them secure rights for England and FA Cup matches for £425m - and it is likely another firm would buy up these rights.

If the company collapses it will have serious consequences for Premier League clubs in England and Scotland, which are awaiting payments totalling millions of pounds. One three million pound instalment due to the Scottish Premier League is already a week late, prompting fears that Setanta has finally run out of cash. Sky has been British sport's major benefactor since the late eighties with four dedicated sports channels but Setanta has assembled an impressive portfolio of rights, wooing less high-profile sports with the promise of more money and spending close to £500m in under five years. As it attempted to build a compelling offer for its 1.2m subscribers, some sports' dependence on Setanta's largesse increased. The US PGA golf tour, boxing figures, the Indian Premier League and Premier Rugby are all owed money by the company. So, too, is the Football Association, which signed a four-year deal with Setanta and ITV for England games and FA Cup matches. If Setanta goes into administration, it may not receive a penny.

The most powerful sports bodies, including the FA and Premier League, privately claim they have water-tight contracts with Setanta and argue its City backers, who include the private equity firms Doughty Hanson and Balderton Capital, have effectively guaranteed Setanta's payments. If Setanta does go under, that claim could ultimately be tested in the courts. The Premier League is confident it can resell the rights to the forty six games Setanta holds for the 2009-10 season, the final year of its contract. Many experts do not agree. One City consultant, who asked not to be named, said: 'The Premier League believes football is like crack cocaine. They are wrong.' Well, yeah. One's an addictive drug which is impossible to live without, the other is white stuff you sniff up your nose that gets you momentarily high. Claire Enders, founder of the media research company Enders Analysis, said: 'The FA has a view it will re-farm the rights for the same amount of money or more … It would be a miracle if that occurred.'

Setanta could overhaul its entire business model by ditching its retail customers and instead becoming a supplier of programmes to firms such as BSkyB, BT Vision and Top-Up TV. Prominent among the options being considered is a restructuring through which Setanta would wholesale its channels instead of retailing them direct to Sky and Top-Up TV customers as it does now. Setanta already wholesales its channels to Virgin Media. Customers of the cable-TV provider gain the channels as part of its top TV package, XL, at no additional cost. While such a move could mean Setanta receives less revenue than by selling its channels direct to subscribing customers, a wholesaling move could open up a potentially much larger market by relying on Sky's marketing clout to sell its channels. It would also allow Setanta to save millions of pounds by slashing its marketing and customer service functions, as well as ending its encryption payments to Sky.

ITV Global Entertainment has sold a fifty-hour package of drama, including Agatha Christie's Poirot, into the US. The slate of British and Canadian drama series has been sold to US public television distributor APT and was negotiated by John Norman, ITV Global's Senior Vice President, Americas. The deal means that the content will be broadcast to a potential US public television audience of sixty five million viewers. The package includes Shaftesbury Productions' crime drama Murdoch Mysteries, season eight of medical drama The Royal and contemporary crime drama Rosemary and Thyme, which stars Felicity Kendal. Noel Hedges, head of drama at ITV Global Entertainment said, 'Broadcast in more than one hundred and eighty' territories, Murdoch Mysteries and Agatha Christie's Poirot have established themselves as worldwide favourites. This deal is a superb example of ITV Global's portfolio of innovative, high-quality and independently produced drama.'

And lastly, here's my favourite headline of the week: MP Blunkett injured in cow attack. Which, this blogger reckons is marginally funnier than this one: Sugar makes first visit as tsar. Bloody hell! I know power can go to people's head but now he seems to think he's The Boss Of All The Russias.

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