Monday, June 26, 2006

The BBFC: cutting down on cuts

Whilst trawling the BBFC website for the previous post on film advisory notes I came across their stats area which details the number of films they have cut every year since 1914. I've charted the percentage figures (click on the above image for a larger version) which makes for fairly interesting reading/viewing (assuming you're a film geek, that is).

That the early-mid '50s should come out top in terms of raw numbers (1,770 films were cut between 1950-55) is perhaps unsurprising, especially when you consider that almost 1,500 films a year were being classified (almost three-times the current volume). More surprising, to my mind, is the year with the highest proportion of cut films: 1974, when over a third of all films released in the UK fell foul of the censor's knife (although bizarrely some of the year's most notorious releases escaped the chop; Badlands, The Exorcist and Chinatown were all passed uncut in 1974, albeit with X certificates).

While you wouldn't necessarily guess it from the hysterical rantings of the red-tops (actually, maybe you would), BBFC cuts have been on the decline ever since '74 (with a couple of modest spikes in the early and mid '80s) and now stand at their lowest level since 1930. Just 7 films were cut last year and 5 the year before.

To what extent this decrease is attributable to an active change in the BBFC's approach (artistic merit and context started entering the equation in the late '70s) or simply a reflection of UK society's shifting moral compass is ultimately impossible to determine, although the Student BBFC site has a rather splendid history of UK film classification which pin-points some of the landmark decisions over the years.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Mild peril: The inadvertent humour of film advisory warnings

I saw a trailer for new Dreamworks animation Over The Hedge the other day which caught my attention partly because it features songs by the mighty Ben Folds, but also because of the quite brilliant advisory warning that the film contains "some rude humour and mild comic action" which was frankly more of an inducement to go and see the film than the rest of the trail.

Once upon a time, the life of the censor was a bit dull, dishing out U, PG, 15 and 18 certificates and demanding the odd cut with only the occasional tabloid controversy to spice things up. The advent of the 12A certificate and the associated advisory notes changed all that. Describing the potentially disturbing content of a film in a few measured words has now become something of an art form.

Much of the challenge (and consequently the humour) derives from the seemingly limited range of adjectives at the censors disposal which, in the main, appears to be restricted to 'mild', 'moderate', 'strong' and 'disturbing'. It is the combination of these adjectives with the equally limited choice of nouns which results in vaguely oxymoronic terms like 'moderate sex', 'mild peril' and 'comedy violence'.

However, it is when they are forced to abandon generic terms to address a specific indecent that the most surreal guidance notes are produced (for example, The Cave of the Yellow Dog 'contains one scene of sheep skinning').

Below is a selection of some of my favourite advisory notes:

contains potentially dangerous behaviour
contains mild slapstick
contains frequent moderate sports violence
contains dangerous motorcycle riding
contains very mild comedy violence

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Lost without Lost

With the latest seasons of Lost and The Sopranos both over I'm on the lookout for a new drama/comedy series to fill the occasional TV-shaped gap in my evenings. Below are my Top 10 US and UK TV series of recent years to give an indication of what floats my boat when it comes to the gogglebox (note: no sci-fi). At the moment, it's a toss up between House, Deadwood, Arrested Development and Curb Your Enthusiasm, all of which I've heard good things about. Any recommendations gratefully received...

Top 10 US TV drama/comedy series

1. The West Wing (1999 - 2006)
2. Six Feet Under (2001 - 2005)
3. The Sopranos (1999 - 2007)
4. The Simpsons (1989 - present)
5. Lost (2004 - present)
6. Friends (1994 - 2004)
7. 24 (2001 - present)
8. Desperate Housewives (2004 - present)
9. Dawson's Creek (1998 -2003)
10. Scrubs (2001 - present)

Top 10 UK TV drama/comedy series

1. Blackadder Goes Forth (1989)
2. Our Friends in the North (1996)
3. The Office (2001 - 2003)
4. This Life (1996 - 1997)
5. Cracker (1993 - 1996)
6. Inspector Morse (1987 -2000)
7. Prime Suspect (1991 - present)
8. House of Cards (1990)
9. Agatha Christie's Poirot (1989 - present)
10. A Touch of Frost (1992 - present)

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Channel 4 Radio

Thoroughly intrigued by the recent launch of, not least because of its eagerness to play an active role in the redefinition of the word 'radio', lacking both live programming and a presence on the FM dial (although a DAB multiplex bid is in the pipeline).

Not only is it a wholly on-demand, it's also predominantly downloads (with the exception of the 'T-Mobile Street Gigs' and the meager 30-second preview streams which start at the beginning of the programme and therefore rarely take you past the opening credits - doh!). Potential listeners must register before they can download programmes, which is no-doubt attributable to a commercial broadcaster's desire for a trackable demographic (yes, date of birth is a compulsory form field) but nevertheless does function as a barrier to entry and indicates Channel 4 aren't gunning for a huge audience at this stage.

Another indication that this launch is on the soft side is the decision to effectively exclude the downloads from the influential iTunes Podcast Directory by offering personal (and therefore unique) RSS feeds rather than programme specific podcasts. Whilst this does enable Channel 4 to keep control of the subscription process, they're forfeiting a significant shop-window in the burgeoning podcast marketplace.

So, what about the content? Well, there's not a huge amount of it yet. Navigation is by genre (Arts, Comedy, Entertainment, Music, News & Current Affairs and Racing) and the programme selection is unsurprisingly dominated by no-brainer TV spin-offs (e.g. Lost, Big Brother, Richard and Judy's Book Club), although it's exciting to see some original speech formats being developed in the commercial radio sector and it will be interesting to watch how their Co-Creation space progresses.

There's no advertising on the current site and the main revenue models appear to be programme sponsorship and pushes to featured content (e.g. the audio book being discussed on Richard and Judy's Audio Book Club) which will be made available as DRM-protected Windows Media files (the free stuff is MP3).

It's clearly early days for the site and Channel 4 seem genuinely keen to shape the offering in response to feedback from the audience. My personal plea would be to lose the audio ident which plays every time you hit the homepage and make a definite decision on branding (the site is branded 4radio, but they don't own

Aggregating user profile data

Some nice new Web 2.0 action going on over at Threadless, which has overhauled it's profile pages to incorporate feeds from Flickr,, and MySpace, plus a generic RSS option.

The net result is far richer profiles with minimal additional effort from the user. It's a neat illustration of the power of syndication feeds in aggregating personal data and it's just the tip of the iceberg. A profitable next step could be the development of an XML-based standard for tagging individual elements of a user's profile (e.g. their favourite books) to facilitate the easy sharing of this data and save them from having to enter it countless times on different sites.

There may even be call for a service with the sole purpose of aggregating users' feeds and providing them to other sites via a single login. Imagine if, rather than having to build a fresh user profile every time you start using a new site, you could just type in a single username and password which would automatically retrieve all relevant profile fields.

Aggregating user profile data inevitably raises some interesting privacy questions. Maybe you don't mind someone accessing your Flickr photo stream in isolation, but when it's coupled with your history, your links, your MySpace page and your blog posts, someone has a whole lot of insight into your life: the photos you've taken, the music you've listened to, the friends you've added, the sites you've bookmarked and the thoughts you've blogged, which, when you put it like that, is kinda scary...

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

To my mind the most interesting thing about the BPI's latest bete noire,, is not its alleged illegality but the way in which it has effectively demonstrated the commercial viability of DRM-free downloads and inadvertently test-driven a new business model for a largely reactionary and unreceptive record industry. has demonstrated what most of us already suspected; that people will happily pay for MP3s (which they could acquire for free from friends or illegal P2P networks) if the service is good and the price is low enough. The site has also challenged received wisdom about viable business models in the music download space, by charging by volume of data downloaded, rather than per track or monthly subscription.

Sadly, I suspect the major record labels will be too fixated on legal action to learn any lessons from about future music distribution models, which, in the words of Miss Shirley Bassey, is all just a little bit of history repeating...

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Next generation music discovery

The latest generation of internet-based music apps are facilitating the biggest transformation in music discovery since the introduction of the wireless radio; not only by successfully emulating the characteristics of traditional music discovery mechanisms (e.g. radio, television, magazines, record shops, mixtapes, live concerts), but also by capitalising on the internet's inherent qualities to introduce genuinely new means of music discovery (e.g. collaborative filtering).

Where the first-generation of internet-based music apps were primarily concerned with the acquisition of music (Napster v1 was geared toward searching for and then downloading a track that you already knew you wanted), the new breed of online music services are far more focused on discovery, with ownership becoming increasingly less important.

This focus on discovery can be broken down into three key areas:

  • Discovering music which is new to you
  • (Re)discovering the music you already own/know
  • Discovering people who share your taste in music
Below is a view on the top 10 music discovery apps/sites currently in the market which cater to these different facets of discovery to varying degrees. The key assessment criteria I used were:
  • User experience
  • Caliber of recommendations
  • Integration with users' off-line music libraries
  • Listen/purchase options

Still the daddy of music discovery services, keeps track of all your personal listening (via the unobtrusive Audioscrobbler Plug-in), offers consistently astute recommendations (based on collaborative filtering) and provides a comprehensive personalised streaming radio service.

Pros: Takes account of day-to-day listening, wealth of data and options, integration of community features
Cons: Site infrastructure sometimes struggles to keep up with volume of traffic resulting in slow-loading pages and out-of-date listening charts

2.) MusicStrands

Heavily indebted to, MusicStrands offers a slick, feature-heavy interface and brings much of the functionality onto the desktop in the form of the MyStrands player download, which integrates with your default media player (supports iTunes and Windows Media Player) to provide real-time recommendations and tagging.

Pros: Integration with desktop media players, real-time recommendations (including music from Independents), mobile version, innovative labs development area
Cons: No streaming of full tracks - 30 second clips only, some dodgy metadata matching - 982 of the 5401 songs in my library weren't recognized

3.) Pandora

Streaming radio service which eschews the collaborative filtering model in favour of musical expertise, providing recommendations based on musical attributes as defined by the Music Genome Project, although you do get to choose an artist as the starting point for your musical journey and can vote on individual tracks.

Pros: Unexpected but apposite recommendations, insights into musical tastes
Cons: Lack of integration with personal off-line music collection, unsophisticated rating system

4.) Indy.TV

Small but perfectly formed, IndyTV is a 612Kb desktop app which downloads and plays you MP3s of independent artists and invites you to rate them out of 5 stars, learning your tastes over time. It then saves the MP3s in folders according to your ratings.

Pros: Simple but effective way to get exposed to new music, links to artist websites, tidy coding
Cons: US-bias, can be slow to download MP3s, variable quality, no-one you've ever heard of!

5.) Yahoo! LAUNCHcast Radio

Personalised streaming radio service based on initial user preferences, collaborative filtering and on-going ratings, compromised by intrusive upsell, poor browser support and paucity of alternative artists

Pros: Fully-featured pop-up player, wide selection of stations
Cons: Free version is ad-heavy, limited browser support, dominated by mainstream artists

6.) Soundflavor

Entirely web-based and structured around playlists, Soundflavour offers copious and surprisingly accurate recommendations based on your selection of tracks with 30 second clips and links to buy via iTunes or Amazon.

Pros: Broadly relevant recommendations, integration of music from Independents
Cons: No streaming of full tracks - 30 second clips only, lack of integration with off-line music library

7.) Mercora IMRadio

Billing itself as "the world's largest jukebox", Mercora IMRadio offers peer-to-peer streaming (not downloads) of user radio stations (not individual tracks) underpinned by Instant Messenger. The upside is a wide selection of stations, supported with extensive artist metadata. The downside is not being able to search for specific songs or skip tracks, which feels slightly retrograde in this environment. Mercora recently introduced Radio 2.0, a browser-based version of the desktop app with they're labeling as Alpha (I guess that's one way of standing out from all those Betas!)

Pros: Utilises open-source Ogg Vorbis format, includes podcasts and extensive supporting information (biogs, pictures, user reviews) courtesy of All Music Guide
Cons: Can't search for individual tracks, can't skip tracks, not available for Mac

8.) liveplasma

An arresting graphical representation of relationships within the musical universe let down by a limited database and limited access to the music (just links to Amazon)

Pros: Innovative, engaging interface, also covers movies
Cons: Limited database of artists, no streaming option or integration with off-line music library


A very basic web-based recommendation engine which consistently produces good recommendations but fails to offer any meaningful integration with the actual music beyond purchase links through to assorted online retailers.

Pros: Provides reliable artist recommendations
Cons: Lackluster design, no streaming option or integration with off-line music library, first time I tried to access the site I got an SQL server error

10.) Audiobaba

The bizarrely monikered Audiobaba is a plug-in for iTunes or Windows Media Player which promises to grant the user "3 musical wishes", namely a Playlist Generator, Crystal Ball Recommendations and an Auto DJ. Unfortunately I can't comment on any of them as I gave up after the plug-in estimated that it's initial scan of my music would take 4 hours! Frankly, life's too short...

Pros: Unknown
Cons: Time-consuming initial scan

Other music discovery apps (not reviewed):
Audiri - exclusively for unsigned and indies, features streaming radio and some downloads
The Echo Nest - not yet live - music from indies
GenieLab - lo-fi web-based recommendation site
Goombah - closed beta test
MusicIP Playground - nice flash interface enabling you to find "tracks that sound like..."
Musicmatch Music Discovery Engine - feature of Musicmatch Jukebox
Foafing the Music - developed by The Music Technology Group of Pompeu Fabra University