Thoughts on Facebook’s plan for a TV device

The Information*’s Alex Heath with an exclusive on Facebook’s plans to create a TV set-top box:

The device, which Facebook is aiming to release this fall, will use the same video-calling technology that is in Facebook’s camera-equipped smart speaker, called Portal, which has a screen of its own and is designed to sit on kitchen counters and desks, according to two people familiar with the project and documents viewed by The Information. The new device, code-named Catalina, will also come with a physical remote and streaming video services similar to other television boxes like Apple TV.

Remove its negative PR image and Facebook would be a formidable hardware company by now. Portal is excellent tech for normal people. Oculus Quest is thrilling. In this context, a TV offering incorporating some of that ease of use and marketing budget isn’t a bad idea.

But then, it’s Facebook. As I suggested recently, the company’s punishment for Cambridge Analytica is a lot bigger than $5bn.

(*Subscribe to The Information. It’s terrific.)

Be patient with the LA Times’s low subscriber numbers

Nieman Labs has some interesting analysis around the low digital subscriber numbers for the LA Times, which currently stands at fewer than 200,000, compared to 2.7m New York Times paid members, and 1.7m for the Post.

There is a business to be had selling digital subscriptions to newspapers. But it’s a business dominated by two papers on the East Coast. Papers that used to have competitive scale in print — where the limitations of physical distribution gave them market power — just aren’t able to play on the same field as the big boys in digital. That’s the barbell shape: a couple heavyweights on one end of the spectrum, a lot of small fry on the other, no one in between.

The LA Times could be the “in between”, the piece suggests, but more investment in attracting readers is needed.

I’d argue a few things in defence of the newspaper and its efforts. First, it’s surely too early to be judging the “new” LA Times just yet – it was only brought under new ownership last year. Second, the paper had shrunk into something much more damaged than what Jeff Bezos picked up when he acquired the Washington Post – so there’s a lot more of the basics to rebuild first to get the LA Times back on track.

And third, there is an unquestionable Trump bump for the papers on the East Coast, and subscribers have flocked to them in the hope of understanding a crazy political world. The LA Times really can’t compete with that. It just feels too distant.

The communities most affected by politics in Los Angeles are, for reasons of lower wealth, not your typical newspaper subscriber. The middle classes seem more content to casually keep up with news about the city, rather than subscribe to a paper that still has work to do to show readers it is turning things around and becoming a vital read.

And the most wealthy people in LA… well they live on a different planet altogether.

As ever with subscriptions, the strategy must be to be distinct. The LA Times needs to look at its product, and its city, and find out what they can put in their paper that nobody else can offer.

New driverless shuttle injures elderly man

A new driverless shuttle is being tested in Utah. In what was called an “incredibly unfortunate incident” by the state’s Department of Transport, an elderly man was hurt:

Gene Petrie, 76, was thrown from his seat Tuesday when the autonomous shuttle came to a sudden stop. His face hit a handrail near the door, bruising him badly and causing black eyes.

The top speed has been reduced from 12 to 9mph,  and the DOT is investigating what went wrong.

UK kicks Huawei can down the road

As had been expected, the UK’s verdict on whether Huawei can be trusted to provide telecoms infrastructure has been delayed. The reason? America’s move to place Huawei on the entity list of banned companies.

BBC News:

Mr Wright said the US decision “could have a potential impact on the future availability and reliability of Huawei’s products, together with other market impacts, and so are relevant considerations in determining Huawei’s involvement in the network”.

Last week, MPs said the government needed to make a decision on Huawei as “a matter of urgency”, warning continued delays were damaging international relations.

As Rory Cellan-Jones points out later in that piece, the indecision is of great concern to the UK’s mobile operators who may need to rip out and replace some Huawei equipment that is already installed. With this latest delay, the decision will now be made by the next Prime Minister – who also has the small matter of Brexit to deal with.

Newsweek: “Don’t Tell Me This Rant About Ilhan Omar Isn’t Shocking.”

A new new line has been crossed, argues Madeline Peltz, a researcher who watches Tucker Carlson’s Fox show every night. The public should not lose sight of that. Excellent opinion piece here on the importance of recognising racial escalations:

For media consumers who wish to see Fox held responsible for its recklessness, we cannot afford to be worn down by the dull repetition of racist propaganda. Instead, it is imperative to remind advertisers time and time again that we see they are paying for on-air fascism.

 

The media is still covering Trump’s campaign rallies. They just don’t realise it.

Within all the soul-searching that took place after Trump’s election win in 2016, one of the consistent themes was anger around disproportionate air-time owing to The Donald’s celebrity status.

Cable news outlets were eager to broadcast Trump rallies at length. At the time, it was hard to blame them: they were an undeniably gripping spectacle, even to those who despised him. Other candidates would see their rallies broadcast, sure, but only for as long as viewers could keep stay awake.

On top of this, programmes would trip over themselves trying book Trump onto their shows. The campaign relished in this attention, and took to offering phone interviews, a scenario which made it easier to appear on more shows, and much harder for interviewers to interject. (And with no cameras, it’s easy for aides to feed Trump information – a technique enthusiastically adopted by certain under-the-kosh technology companies, incidentally.)

All told, the pull of Trump added up, according to one estimate, to $5.6bn-worth of “free airtime” during the 2016 campaign.

That won’t happen again, broadcasters said. Here’s a report from Newsweek last month, marking that change of mood:

News coverage of President Donald Trump’s Orlando, Florida, rally Tuesday showed cable news networks and the media in general appear reluctant to give him the same $5.6 billion of free airtime he received during the 2016 election. Both CNN and MSNBC dropped live coverage of the president’s Orlando rally even though Trump had not finished his speech to the raucous crowd.

Fox News was the exception – it carried the rally in full. Fox News gonna Fox News, as they say. But, as far as the other broadcasters were concerned, they weren’t going to just let the cameras roll like they used to.

But, and excuse me for sounding like a stark-raving YouTuber, here’s the real truth the media doesn’t want you to know. It is covering Trump campaign rallies. Perhaps with even more fervour than in 2016. They’re just… different.

There were several this week: a White House Social Media Summit that didn’t involve a single social media company, but did include a Trump stump speech – carried live – in front of his biggest, most influential supporters. Everyone covered it, myself included. In case you missed it, you can watch it in full on the Washington Post’s YouTube channel.

Then on Friday, the campaign – and the cameras – moved to McAllen, Texas, where Vice President Pence took a tour of a migrant detention center. Pictures, beamed on cable news all day, included young children watching television on a bench, and grown men who seemed uncomfortable, but ultimately able to handle themselves. Pence remarked to reporters that he was not surprised by the trip as the system is overwhelmed.

Mission accomplished: a rally event designed to portray conditions as fine, actually, and to suggest the was – as ever – too many migrants. As the footage is seen all over the country tonight, on every channel, Trump knows the message will be this: “I told you there was a crisis.”

And then, it’s the weekend.

Trump told reporters on Friday that ICE would carry out raids to round-up and deport illegal immigrants, adding there was no need for it to be “secret”. This despite warnings from former officials that making plans public, even vaguely, “puts officers in a disadvantage and the agents that are out there in harm’s way”.

So why do it? It’s a campaign rally. In fact, it’s better than a rally. Speaking to the LA Times, public policy Professor Roberto Suro put it this way: “One audience is supposed to feel like something is happening, and the other is supposed to be scared to death.”

**

I’m not going to pretend to have an answer to this issue. It’s the media’s duty to cover what a nation’s leaders are doing – and as President, there will be no avoiding giving Trump 2020 more air time than any other candidate.

His political opponents will need to think deeply, and innovatively, about how to handle that, while editors, producers and reporters will need to keep learning how to fulfill their obligations, while simultaneously finding ways to call a spade a spade.

On the French tech tax

I appeared briefly on PRI’s The World earlier today to talk about the implications of France’s new tech tax, and the subsequent investigation by the US. Listen to it here.

Ultimately, France seems keen to make this the starting point for global tax reform, rather than standing alone (for now) in taking on this issue. Next month’s G7 meeting in Paris will be the next significant step.

Before that, though, eyes will now be on the UK, which has expressed interest in bringing in a similar tax. Will a country desperate to seal new trade deals for a post-Brexit world be as willing as the French to provoke the Americans?

The picking apart of Netflix

This piece, by CNBC’s Todd Haselton, looks at AT&Ts plans for expanding HBO’s on-demand offering – a move that will pull even more content off Netflix. This is the final paragraph of Haseton’s piece:

The service is just one of many new streaming products set to launch in the coming years. Disney’s $6.99/month Disney+ will launch this November and will include 18 of Pixar’s 21 movies, Marvel films, 30 seasons of the Simpsons, Disney animated movies and the Star Wars franchise of films.

I’m starting to wonder if Netflix’s approach, the most walled-garden of all the on-demand players, is beginning to be a weakness.

Its decision to neither become a portal service, with add-on channels like HBO for an extra fee, nor allow itself to be part of someone else‘s portal, risks leaving Netflix isolated.

Its Originals are successful, but incredibly expensive to keep producing year-after-year. Netflix is putting incredible pressure on that part of its business, as its back catalogue is being whittled away: Disney, Pixar, Star Wars, The Office, Friends – all going or gone as competitors have started to go it alone, making their own channels which are then made available through portals like Amazon Prime Video or Apple TV.

How long can Netflix keep up the investment its making in Originals? Good question – and one this piece in The Information examined recently, suggesting the company might be getting a little more budget-conscious:

[Ted Serandos, Netflix head of content] told the group that spending on film and TV projects, particularly big budget movies, needed to be more cost-effective, according to people familiar with the meeting. Netflix has long measured the efficiency of its TV shows and movies using a ratio of their cost to a measure of viewership that gives more weight to new subscribers and those viewed at risk of canceling, say former employees. Mr. Sarandos made clear that in the future big-budget projects should bring in lots of viewers, a shift from the past when they might have gotten a pass if they were expected to get buzz and build industry credibility. 

In other words: acting like a normal TV company, even down to ordering pilots of shows before going ahead with a full series.

The Information ultimately concludes that the big spending isn’t over yet, but investors might want to question how long it can continue:

This kind of programming blitz has helped Netflix maintain subscriber growth—it hit 149 million global subscribers in the first quarter, up 25% on a year earlier. But it has also kept the company spending more money than it brings in, requiring it to continue borrowing money. Last year, for instance, Netflix had a cash shortfall of $3 billion and has projected that will increase to $3.5 billion this year. Netflix has said it expects this cash burn to decline starting next year.

Connecting Glasto

Good quick read on Wired UK about the logistics behind getting the Glastonbury Festival – a temporary town of around 200,000 people – connected to mobile networks:

The key part of each site is the antenna. In most built environments, antennae are installed on rooftops, but this isn’t possible in a field. Instead, they are raised five to ten metres high on lattice towers. This year, EE is trialling a pneumatic system that uses air pressure to push the antenna up on a telescopic pole, reducing the risks incurred by engineers climbing and rigging the towers. The sites are delivered on trailers two weeks before the festival and each has its own power generator. The network is monitored at all hours by an operation centre based in Bristol, and an engineer stays on-site with a set of spare parts.

The piece was written before this year’s festival. Apparently the biggest spike in data traffic in 2017 (2018 was an off year) was during the Barry Gibb “legends” slot.

Hah hah hah hah stayin’ online, stayin’ online…