TV licensing: i-Playing fair

BBC iPlayer

BBC iPlayer

As expected, the government have decided that the BBC should meet the cost of providing free TV Licences for over-75s. Also as expected, to soften the blow of an effective £600m a year cut in revenue, the BBC has been promised a change in legislation to allow the TV Licence to cover the BBC iPlayer. Leaving aside the rights or wrongs of making the neutral BBC pay for a government policy that exists for political reasons, I would like to focus on the practicalities of licensing the iPlayer.

It seems fair enough to close the loophole, which exists only because catch-up TV services such as iPlayer did not exist when the law was drafted. Extending the law to cover catch-up TV isn’t straightforward, however. It’s important to remember that a TV Licence is required to watch any broadcast TV, not just BBC channels. Even if a viewer has subscription-based pay TV and never watches the BBC, a licence is required in order to stay within the law. Extending the same principle to catch-up TV throws up the question of which sites would be covered. If it only applied to the BBC’s iPlayer, that would be a departure from the principle of universality: that the BBC is free to everyone at the point of consumption, and that there is no specific subscription charge for watching the BBC. But if the law is to encompass other catch-up sites, the line between catch-up TV and other online video is rather blurred. It seems clear that ITVPlayer should be covered, but what about the BT Sport app? How about videos on a newspaper’s website? What about video sharing websites such as Youtube, which sometimes show TV episodes on a pay-per-view basis? And what about shows from foreign TV stations that are available online?

Across the different news sources, there seem to be a range of suggestions as to what the new law could cover. Some suggest only the iPlayer; others that servies such as ITVPlayer would be included. There have been suggestions that iPlayer would be offered on a subscription basis, with TV Licence holders entering a code to watch for free, or that there would be a cheaper “digital only” TV Licence that would cover iPlayer use. At the moment, there are actually no details of the proposals, so all these are speculation. Let’s look at what the minister, John Whittingdale, actually said:

As part of these new arrangements, the Government will ensure that the BBC can adapt to a changing media landscape. The Government will therefore bring forward legislation in the next year to modernise the licence fee to cover public service broadcast catch-up TV.

The key phrase is “public service broadcast catch-up TV”. This doesn’t necessarily only apply to the BBC. I believe ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 all to varying degrees have public service requirements as conditions of their licences to broadcast: for example to broadcast news, children’s programmes and the arts. It seems likely that a change in the law would therefore also cover, ITVPlayer, 4oD and Demand5. It presumably wouldn’t cover Sky, BT Sport or Youtube as these can’t really be construed as public service broadcasters. That would be a slightly narrower coverage than the Licence as applied to broadcast TV. However, trying to make it broader could open a can of worms, as it could then apply to all manner of online video that few people would consider television at all.

The final question is whether the new licence requirements would be enforced by the BBC by requiring a licence number to be entered before watching programmes via the iPlayer website or apps. Technically, this should be fairly simple to implement. However, the BBC may not want to go down a road that could form the basis of a subscription model were the BBC’s Charter not to be renewed at some point in the future.

While the whole saga has been prompted by the funding arrangements for over-75s, it may be worth noting that one group of people who would be hit hardest by a licence for iPlayer would be university students. Students have always been required to buy a TV Licence for their individual rooms in university accommodation, but many now avoid this by using iPlayer to watch only catch-up TV. Given the huge increase in university tuition fees in recent years, students may resent having to pay more money out of their student loans in order to watch television, while wealthy over-75s all receive a non-means tested free licence. We therefore are back to where we started, with the question of whether making the BBC fund free TV Licences is really fair in the first place.

James Horner (1953–2015)

James Horner in 2015 - photo by StarCards, public domain licenceIn March, I was fortunate enough to see the première of Collage, which was to be James Horner’s last concert work, at the Royal Festival Hall. At the end of the performance, the composer came on stage to take his bow, the same smiling, bearded gentleman as in the pictures accompanying his many obituaries this week. Appropriately for someone with the name Horner, the work was a concerto for four horns. The composer had once played the instrument himself, and had known the soloists for this concert for over 20 years.

Collage was a great piece of orchestration, although perhaps sounded like film music transplanted into the concert hall. Towards the end, it features the tinkling Titanic watery effect. That begs the question: was Horner a one trick wonder? The Titanic soundtrack is still the best-selling orchestral soundtrack of all time. It reached the top of the pop album charts – Henryk Górecki only managed number 6 – and My heart will go on, one of many movie songs Horner penned with lyricist Will Jennings, scored a number one hit for Celine Dion. But remembering James Horner only for Titanic and the perhaps thematically similar scores for the likes of Avatar and The Perfect Storm doesn’t do him justice. He wrote such a wide range of music, many people won’t realise some of the soundtracks are by Horner at all. I was certainly surprised to read a list of his compositions.

James Horner’s output ranged from more tender scores such as Iris and A Beautiful Mind to bombastic sci-fi soundtracks for the likes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Aliens. It also included films as diverse as How the Grinch stole Christmas, Field of Dreams and Patriot Games.

When approached to do the Star Trek sequel, he was apparently told the studio couldn’t afford to have Jerry Goldsmith back. He also succeeded Goldsmith in the Alien(s) franchise, this time with long-term collaborator, director James Cameron. The experience nearly led to the pair falling out, a story repeated in other famous director–composer partnerships such as Hitchcock–Herrmann and Burton–Elfman, although happily not ending as acrimoniously as the former, as then we may never have had Titanic.

Although born in Los Angeles, James Horner spent much of his childhood in London, and studied piano at the Royal College of Music. He returned to the US and completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and doctorate in California. His grounding as a serious composer is evident in his scores. He composed at a desk with pen and paper, and unlike many film composers, did most of his orchestrations himself. The result is a much more colourful orchestral palette in his scores than perhaps in the soundtracks of some of his contemporaries.

A recent revelation in an interview was that Horner was originally asked to write the music for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He told interviewer Tommy Pearson that he was asked to do “the trilogy”, to which Pearson jokingly asked which trilogy he meant. Horner declined to work on the films as his daughter had recently undergone surgery. Horward Shore was chosen instead, and went on to win three Oscars. Horner commented that he would have approached the films differently, but that Shore’s music does a brilliant job in the films. The fact that, despite all of this, he said he didn’t regret his decision to turn down the films says more about him as a person than any analysis of his music ever could.

Happily, with many of the films he worked on set to become classics, audiences will enjoy James Horner’s music for generations to come, and his name will always have its place among the greats of film music.

Idiotic Brits abroad and their tabloid defenders

Mount Kinabalu - photo by Wikipedia user Oscark, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Mount Kinabalu

It’s infuriating that whenever a British person is charged with committing a crime abroad, the British press, particularly the tabloids, respond in such an indignant manner. “How dare a foreign country accuse a Brit of doing something wrong. They can’t possibly receive a fair trial in another country, and anyway the crime they have supposedly committed isn’t something we even consider a crime in our superior homeland.” It’s as if they think British people can’t do anything wrong, we are exempt from local laws in foreign country, and that it’s somehow a newspaper’s duty to defend our citizens, irrespective of the facts. Yet it is the very same newspapers who will write stories about crimes committed by immigrants, and complain how they are treated too softly, and how difficult it is to deport them.

A recent example is the case of Eleanor Hawkins, the British woman who was among a group who stripped off to take photos at the top of Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu. Although there were reports of individuals in Malaysia blaming the recent earthquake on their actions, it was clear that they were simply going to face a minor charge and then be asked to leave the country, under a perfectly fair and proportionate legal system that, indeed, is still based on the system of English Common Law. Yet the tone of the reports in the British media seemed to imply that the group were being mistreated, and that we should all feel outraged that westerners should be detained in that way in a country such as Malaysia. (Reading about wealthy and spoilt Ms Hawkins, who attended an £11,000 a year private school, “waiting to pay” her £860 fine before leaving made me think of the film Quadrophenia, where Sting’s character mockingly tells the judge, “I’ll pay now”.)

The other infuriating aspect of coverage of this case is the people who have defended the actions of the group, claiming that it’s just a right of passage and that it’s the sort of thing everyone does. Again, there is an implicit superiority of western people, who are entitled to act according to their own values when they are abroad, with no need to take into account the customs or sensibilities of the locals.

There really has been a progression in the spread of British tourists ruining foreign destinations. With the emergence of the cheap package holiday in the ’70 and ’80s, the Balearic islands were transformed into a destination for people from the rest of Europe to indulge in drinking and “partying”, with any local culture squeezed out. Then in the ’90s and ’00s, the stag and hen parties discovered eastern Europe, turning picturesque capital cities of culture into riot zones every weekend. Now it seems the “gap yah” travellers are similarly afflicting south-east Asia.

Any claim that “travellers” such as there are at all interested in different cultures is clearly nonsense. Where were the Malaysian, or any Asian, members of their group? They were all from the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, etc. They stayed in a hostel frequented by western travellers, travelled with other westerners, and when their local guide told them to keep their clothes on, they ignored him. Were they interested in the unique flora and fauna, or taking in the breathtaking views from the regions highest mountain? No, they preferred to behave in a boisterous and offensive manner, just as they would on holiday in Tenerife or Tallinn, and to post photographs documenting their behaviour online. Sandi Mann, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, sums the situation up quite nicely in a BBC News article:

It means that Westerners are imposing themselves on other peoples and “trying to demonstrate to people on Facebook, Twitter and other sites that they’ve had ‘wild experiences’ rather than actually experiencing a culture, which is the whole point of travel in the first place”.

Star Wars without the fanfare

20th Century Fox logo - click to play Star Wars opening on Youtube

As today is Star Wars Day, and marked with a public holiday in the UK, I’ll start with some reminiscing. When I was a child, the only place you could see a Star Wars film was on TV. The excitement and anticipation while waiting for it to begin were immense. Then finally, the screen faded to black, and there would be the famous drum roll, before the 20th Century Fox logo came into view. In 1999, the same excitement was transferred to the cinema for the release of the first of the prequel trilogy. The trailers ended, and there was a brief pause in the darkness as the screen extended, before those drum beats sounded. See what the opening sequence looked and sounded like on Youtube.

The accompanying fanfare is the only music in the original Star Wars films not to have been written by John Williams. The Fox fanfare was composed in the 1930s by Alfred Newman, head of a whole dynasty of composers and musicians that includes his son, Thomas Newman, the current James Bond composer. Newman wrote an extended version of the fanfare in the ’50s after the introduction of the CinemaScope widescreen format, with the second half accompanying text reading “Twentieth Century Fox Presents a CinemaScope Production”. Here is a clip showing what it was like at the start of the 1954 film River of No Return:

Twentieth Century Fox CinemaScope opening - click to play on Youtube

In the Star Wars movies, the second part of the fanfare accompanies the Lucasfilm logo, and so perfectly does it fit into the opening sequence that many people believe this part was composed by John Williams. It is said that George Lucas liked the old fanfare, which had fallen our of use once CinemaScope became commonplace, so decided to use it for his film, and that John Williams deliberately composed the Star Wars theme in the same key as the fanfare, B flat major. For the original 1977 Star Wars (later titled A New Hope), Alfred Newman’s own 1954 recording of the fanfare was used. For The Empire Strikes Back, John Williams re-recorded it with the London Symphony Orchestra, and this recording was used for many other Fox releases afterwards.

The opening sequence remained the same when the prequel trilogy was released in the ’90s and 2000s. Despite Fox having moved on to a 3D, rotating version of their logo with a lighter, less militaristic-sounding version of the fanfare, Star Wars retained the classic static logo, which left room for an updated Lucasfilm logo during the CinemaScope phase of the music, and Williams’s recording.

The Disney era

With the announcement in 2012 that Disney was to purchase Lucasfilm, it became clear to some fans that the opening of any future Star Wars films would have to change. With the films no longer distributed by 20th Century Fox, they could naturally no longer begin with the famous fanfare. This led to much speculation about what would take its place, with suggestions such as the Disney castle with the Death Star in the background. The assumption was that we wouldn’t find out until Episode VII is released later this year.

However, last month saw the release of all six existing films in digital streaming format for the first time, and purchasers soon discovered that Disney have already removed the Twentieth Century Fox opening from all but Episode IV. Distribution rights to all of the other films came as part of the Lucasfilm deal, but Fox owns the original in perpetuity. Now, I feel company logos and music are very much part of a film, and these are rarely changed in re-releases. One can watch the James Bond series and see all sorts of old United Artists logos, rather than them being replaced by the MGM roaring lion. And if you see an old Paramount movie, you are informed that it is “A Gulf+Western Company”, despite that industrial conglomerate having disintegrated by the end of the ’80s. By all means, stick a new logo before the film starts on the DVD release, but the original logos and music should stay with the film. Unfortunately, there is a precedent for all aspects of the Star Wars to be altered with each new release, often not for the better, so it should come as no surprise that Lucasfilm should remove the Fox opening at the earliest opportunity.

So what replaces the old logo and fanfare? The films now begin with the Lucasfilm logo alone, accompanied by a re-edit of some of the closing title music from The Empire Strikes Back.

New Star Wars opening fanfare

They have clearly made an attempt to reproduce some of the grandeur of the original opening, with a trumpet fanfare and ending in a timpani roll. As it’s Star Wars music written by John Williams, it fits the bill. It’s a pity they couldn’t have found something in B flat to match the opening theme. I reckon it is actually in the key of E flat. Unfortunately, no-one has uploaded a clip showing this new fanfare followed by the Main Theme, and uploading and conversion between different video formats often seems to result in them sounding a semitone higher than they should. Here is another clip showing someone who has purchased all six films on iTunes comparing the new opening to A New Hope, which is the only film to retain the traditional Fox opening:

New Star Wars Fanfare AND 20th Century Fox both on iTunes

It could have been a lot worse. At least they have retained some sort of fanfare, and not added any other logos or music. The Disney Castle with their traditional music, despite having the title When you wish upon a star, wouldn’t really be in keeping. But will this be how Episode VII begins, when it is released later this year? Not necessarily. John Williams is due to record the soundtrack for the new film with a group of orchestral musicians in Los Angeles – sadly no longer the LSO, apparently due to scheduling constraints. He may well have written a brand new fanfare, or at least re-record this one, perhaps transposed into B flat. We are really none the wiser about how the film will begin, but the signs are that it will follow the traditional form of a fanfare followed by “A long time ago…” then the Main Title. Now, if only they could add a drum roll to play as the logo faded in from black…

Aldi: refreshing lack of cigarettes on sale

Didcot's new Aldi under construction last year

Didcot’s new Aldi under construction last year

Until last year, I knew little about the Aldi supermarket chain. Surely it was one of those stores selling strange, unheard-of, cheap brands of goods stacked up on the floor, at rock bottom prices?

However, in July 2014, the newspapers featured obituaries of Karl Albrecht, the co-founder of Aldi and reportedly Germany’s richest man, who had died at the age of 94. These gave a brief history and explanation of the chain’s business model. Aldi was founded by Karl and his brother Theo, the name standing for Albrecht Discount. The aim was to sell goods at the lowest prices, but that didn’t mean they were poor quality. The brothers negotiated deals to buy items in bulk from suppliers, which were sold in simple stores, often from the cardboard boxes they were supplied in. They carried far fewer items: one type of each, as it were, meaning the stores could be smaller and the profit per square metre higher.

In the 1960s, the brothers fell out over the issue of whether to sell tobacco products in-store. As a result, the chain was split into two: Aldi North, run by Theo, which sold cigarettes; and Aldi South, owned by Karl, which did not. When they expanded overseas from Germany, they divided the countries of the world up between them, and it is Karl’s Aldi South that runs the Aldi stores in the UK. (The two chains share a global website which has a map showing which countries each covers.)

As a result, Aldi stores in the UK do not sell cigarettes, unlike most of the conventional, big supermarket chains. There’s something seedy about the tobacco counter in a supermarket, usually up a corner somewhere near the main entrance. It’s slightly better now the law requires them to have shutters hiding the product, but even so, supermarkets generally have a family feel to them, and it seems inappropriate to have tobacco products on sale there. It’s hard to understand why they continue with it. Surely the retailer can’t make much money from selling cigarettes? For small newsagents and corner shops, it’s clear that they depend a lot on impulse sales, and let’s face it, anyone who smokes is unlikely to have strong willpower when it comes to other items by the till, however overpriced. But it’s hard to imagine the availability of a tobacco counter being the deciding factor as to whether someone does their weekly shop at a particular supermarket.

Given that many of the big supermarkets have reported falling sales recetly, perhaps they need to take some lessons from the discount chains such as Aldi. I hope they will also take Aldi’s lead and banish cigarette sales from their stores for good. In the meantime, I suggest giving Aldi a try. It’s not for everyone, and for most people won’t replace the big supermarkets entirely, but you will probably save some money, and I feel any company founded on the principle of not selling tobacco in its stores has to be given some credit when deciding where to shop.