Monday, April 30, 2007

SplashCast MyPodcastNetwork

Mightily impressed with SplashCast's new feature MyPodcastNetwork, which enables you to playback podcasts via an embeddable Flash player. Below is my favourite podcast, Mark Kermode's Film Reviews, followed by this blog's podcast (provided by text-to-speech service Talkr) which hopefully won't cause a rupture in the space-time continuum when it comes to playing back this post...

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The digital water cooler

One of the oft-presumed casualties of the digital, on-demand era is the 'water cooler moment' - that totemic discussion of the previous night's (normally televisual) entertainment, nominally carried out around the office water cooler. The Scotsman recently ran a piece headed 'Last chance to share a TV moment' in response to the launch of Sky Anytime on TV and bloggers are also starting to warm to the theme.

However the advent of digital isn't actually precipitating the death of the water cooler moment. To the contrary, it might just be its saviour. Whilst the explosion in choice that characterised the first era of digital has undoubtedly contributed to diminishing audiences for live linear TV, the second era of digital, focused around greater control for the user, is helping the water cooler moment evolve and adapt to the new media landscape. Below is a discussion of some of the key characteristics of the new digital water cooler.


One of the false assumptions of those decrying the death of the water cooler moment is that synchronous viewing is a prerequisite for water cooler moments. The Scotsman article references the Only Fools and Horses episode where Del Boy falls backwards through the bar. Whilst those lucky enough to catch this comedy gem live would no doubt have eagerly joined the water cooler discussion at work the following day, those who missed it would have had to wait till the BBC decided to schedule a repeat or include the clip in an compilation programme. Had that episode first aided in the digital era, it would have been all over YouTube within the hour and been emailed around offices up and down the country the following morning. Thus, the water cooler discussion is no longer limited to those who caught the programme live (you can view the OFAH clip here).

Another erroneous assumption is that the discussion also has to be synchronous. Pre-digital, the water cooler moment tended to happen just once, the day after the programme's first broadcast. If you were off sick the day after JR got shot then you would would probably have missed your chance to contribute to your colleagues' forensic dissection of events. The Internet enables those conversations to continue as new people discover the programme. Sites such as, Television Without Pity and Tape If Off The Internet create separate discussions around thousands of individual episodes, enabling you to join the discussion around whichever episode you've most recently watched.

In addition to enabling asynchronous water cooler moments, digital is also facilitating new types of synchronous viewing and discussion. YouTube recently starting trialling a feature called Streams, which enables users to set up a 'YouTube room' where they can watch and interact with other users in real-time whilst sharing videos. Sites such as and are taking this further with user-generated content, whilst new and established broadcasters are also starting to dip their toes in the water (e.g. NBC's Heroes Two-Screen Experience and Joost's chat widget. Factor in the increasing amount of unsolicited viewer conversation that goes on via SMS and Instant Messaging whilst people are watching TV and you start to realise that the communal viewing experience is being reinvigorated, not destroyed, by digital technologies.


Another key way in which the digital water cooler moment differs from its analogue predecessor is that the conversation can be a whole lot bigger. The Internet's fundamental disregard for territorial boundaries means that anyone with a broadband connection can access a programme premiered on a US television network either live or soon after broadcast and then instantly join the online debate. The water cooler has gone global.

As well as the macro conversations around the latest episodes of Lost and 24, the digital water cooler is also facilitating the most micro of water cooler moments. Asking around the office to see if anyone caught that interesting Tetris documentary on BBC Four last night is likely to be met with blank stares, but go online and you are sure to find groups of people having their own virtual water cooler moments about that very programme.

The challenge for broadcasters is to help facilitate water cooler moments of all shapes and sizes and in all locations (both real-world and virtual). Interestingly, Channel 4 has created a Water Cooler Moments page on it's News site although its disappointingly free of video and appears to be editorially determined rather than based on what users are actually talking about/rating/linking to. A more genuine gauge of water cooler moments are sites like which scans several million blogs a day to see which online videos people are talking about the most. It's interesting that the second most viewed video on the BBC's domestic YouTube channel to date is an 8-second clip of Dr. Who kissing Martha - a classic water cooler moment which became so before it was broadcast on TV.

The aforementioned Scotsman article contains a choice quote from one of their television critics, Paul Whitelaw: "While I think services like [Sky Anytime on TV] are a good idea in theory, I think it's a shame that watching television has become such an insular thing". An insular thing? What Paul is missing is that the advent of digital is broadening out the water cooler moment beyond its traditional temporal and geographical boundaries to create an ongoing, global debate around must-see video. Not, in my opinion, something to be sad about.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

VHS videos - free to a good home

Somewhat belatedly (and more than two years after technical laggards Dixons) I've decided to clear some shelf space and bid a final farewell to what's left of my VHS collection. Rather than spend hours listing the tapes on eBay/Amazon or carting them down to my local Blockbusters (only to be offered a derisory sum for what are some of my favourite movies of all time), I've decided to give them away for free on a first come first served basis. Just email me (dan at stating which video(s) you'd like (freeloader pays postage). Will be interesting to see whether the VHS market has now dropped away to the point where you can't even give tapes away for free. Will give it a couple of weeks then whatever's left will be dispatched to a charity shop on the Walworth Road...

8 Mile
The Big Lebowski
Boogie Nights
Close Encounters on the Third Kind
Dr. Strangelove
Fight Club
Get Shorty
Ghost World
The Godfather Part II
The Graduate
Jackie Brown
L.A. Confidential
Live Flesh
The Negotiator
Pulp Fiction
Raging Bull
Rain Main
Reservoir Dogs
Stand By Me
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Taxi Driver
The Truman Show
The Usual Suspects
Wonder Boys
Wallace & Gromit: A Close Shave

Friday, April 20, 2007

In defence of PowerPoint

Only two contributions seemed to meet with widespread audience approval at last month's MediaGuardian Changing Media Summit. One was Lord Puttnam voicing his concern over the educational deficiencies / moral vacuity of video games (somebody buy that peer a copy of Everything Bad Is Good For You); the other was Emily Bell's promise that the day would be "practically PowerPoint free". Whilst only the former elicited a round of spontaneous applause, the latter certainly prompted a sigh of relief from a roomful of seasoned conference attendees.

What struck me about the audience reaction to these two contributions is just how easy it is to fall into the trap of blaming the medium for the message. Neither games consoles nor Microsoft PowerPoint should be held responsible for the proliferation of poor quality content. They are simply two forms of media which (like the the printing press, the television, the Internet and, for that matter, all other forms of media) can be used to create products of wildly varying quality.

On the basis that video games aren't short of articulate defenders, I will focus on the not inconsiderable challenge of speaking up for PowerPoint, for which the knives appear to be well and truly out. It's been bubbling along under the surface for a long time (see Wired's 2003 polemic PowerPoint is Evil) but the PowerPoint backlash is now in full swing. You could of course argue that the products of a multi-billion dollar software giant neither need nor deserve to be defended but I'm a firm believer in everyone receiving a fair trial (or maybe it's just a perverse desire to defend the indefensible).

The nub of my argument is that bad PowerPoint presentations are the fault of the creator and/or presenter not the software. Put simply, most of us don't know how to use PowerPoint effectively. One of the most elementary errors is replicating the content of the verbal presentation in textual form (usually as bullet points but sometimes, dear God, in full). This was highlighted by a recent piece on The Register, Official: PowerPoint bad for brains, which reported the findings of a team of Australian researchers that the human brain is ill-equipped to process the same information presented verbally and visually at the same time. What is extraordinary is that, like much research, we already know this (by virtue of having sat through such tedious presentations ourselves) and yet show little sign of implementing that knowledge.

Of course, reading out your slides is just one of a litany of common PowerPoint misdemeanours, which include wildly inappropriate use of clip art, illegible font sizes and gratuitous animation to name but three. So, what's to be done? A few years back I ran a training session at work called 'How To Sex Up Your PowerPoint' which included some tips for avoiding death by PowerPoint. Below are my '8 golden rules'. It's notable that they are mostly just common sense (PowerPoint seems to engender a curious leave-taking of senses amongst even the most intelligent of presenters). So without further ado...

The 8 Golden Rules of PowerPoint

1. Plan your presentation before opening PowerPoint

The first thing most people do when they hear they have a presentation to give (after the weeks of procrastinating), is to fire up PowerPoint and start knocking out some slides. This tends to result in 84-slide presentations without any discernible structure. Force yourself to write down answers to these two questions:

- What is your objective for the presentation?
- What key messages do you want your audience to take away? (ideally 3, but definitely no more than 7 as people can only hold 7 things in their brain at once)

It might seem ridiculous but you'd be surprised how often you get half way through creating a PowerPoint presentation and forget what you're trying to achieve with it.

2. Exploit your colleagues

Not in a general sense of course, but when it comes to sourcing images, audio, video or facts and figures don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you've taken the time to plan the presentation you'll know roughly what assets you're going to need and can fire off a few emails asking people for their help in finding them well before the presentation is due. Don’t be afraid of reusing slides or assets (yours or other peoples). If someone has already made a slide which illustrate your point, don’t reinvent the wheel. It’s easy to feel that PowerPoint presentations are like wedding outfits – you have to have an entirely new one for every occasion. You don’t – at the very least you can wear those shoes again. That said, you mustn’t forget Rule number 3…

3. Be ruthless

From when you are first planning the presentation to when you do your final run through, ask yourself "does this slide enhance my point?“. If it doesn't, change it so it does or get rid of it all together. Visuals can be distracting, especially when the alternative is listening to someone talk, so don't use them for their own sake or because it took you ages to build. Chances are they’ll come in handy later on.

4. Be consistent

There are few things more disconcerting in a PowerPoint presentation than fonts which change size, colour and location for no particular reason. Keep your headings the same size and in the same place. The easiest way of doing this is to copy and paste a slide and change the text. If you have a series of screengrabs, keep them the same size and in the same place. Using templates can also help consistency as can the Slide Master.

5. Keep it simple

Chances are you will know a great deal more than your audience about the subject on which you're presenting and its easy to misjudge the amount of knowledge you are assuming or the amount of geek-speak. A very complex presentation can actually be more boring than a simple one. Visually, try to use a little text as possible on the slides and avoid using text smaller than 28-point as your audience won't be able to read it. Don't be afraid of continuing a series of bullet points over two slides (assuming you've already edited them down as far as possible). If the second greatest PowerPoint crime is reading out verbatim text to an audience then the greatest is pointless animation. Try and avoid using animation unless it illustrates your point. We've all sat through presentations where all you can focus on is the hideous slide wipes.

6. Illustrate your points

They say a picture paints a thousand words and they may just be right. An image can make a point more simply and more effectively and be more memorable. However visuals can also be distracting so be sure to apply Rule 3 (Be Ruthless) to your use of images. Also consider using audio or video - a well chosen piece of media can be very powerful. Also, it breaks the monotony of one person talking. Try to use examples which will resonate with your audience, which brings me onto Rule 7…

7. Talk to your audience

Be sure to tailor your presentation to your audience. It’s easy to reach for an off-the-shelf presentation that you’ve used before but your audience will usually be able to tell. Of course, it’s not only what you say but also how you deliver it. Try to talk to your audience not your PowerPoint. It may feel a bit weird at first. Use prompt cards if necessary. If you are going to give out handouts, do so at the end.

8. Rules are there to be broken

The final golden rule of PowerPoint is that rules are there to be broken. Having said earlier on that a presentation should only aim to convey no more than 7 messages, I’ve just tried to give you 8. So, I guess they’re more like guidelines than rules, but 'golden guidelines' doesn’t have the same ring to it…

Postscript: In an attempt to put my PowerPoint where my mouth is, embedded below is a presentation which I created to accompany my post on Key technology trends for 2007. Unfortunately the font (Cooper Black) got lost in the uploading...

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Why Heroes raises the bar for multiplatform media

Last year Dan Hill (ex-BBC, now director of web and broadcast at Monocle) wrote an extremely erudite post on why Lost is genuinely new media. One year on and multiplatform media has a new poster child in the form of Heroes which has taken Lost's exploitation of interactive platforms (and the web in particular) to the next level.

First let's look at NBC's 'official' online offering (which, tellingly, is increasingly hard to delineate from 'unofficial' offerings). In addition to the text-based staples of plot synopses, character/actor profiles and interviews, the site has ramped up the content offer in three key areas: video, take-away content and participative features.


As well as the usual video clips, full episodes can be watched on-demand (in the US) via an embedded Flash player, with added functionality appropriated from the DVD experience of chapter points and exclusive cast commentaries (you can even change the audio levels and size of both video windows - see below screengrab). The site also offers video character profiles and behind the scenes footage. This sort of 'value added' content, coupled with on-demand streaming of full episodes, gives users a compelling reason to watch online.

Take-away content

Another key element of NBC's Heroes site is take-away content, from bog-standard wallpaper downloads (both PC and mobile) and e-cards, to more innovative instant messenger icons, widgets (embedded below), MySpace skins and graphic novels (downloadable in .pdf format). Enabling users to take a manifestation of the brand away from the site and display it on their desktop/mobile/blog/MySpace page/IM client and share it with their friends clearly has significant benefits for building brand loyalty and exploiting the power of word of mouse.

Participative features

One of the most impressive aspects of NBC's Heroes site is its range of participative features. In addition to simple quizzes and an interactive map the site runs the full gamut of user participation tools (message board, blog, wiki, user-submitted video). It even features a gallery of Heroes fan artwork, although the most innovate participative element of the NBC site has to be the Heroes Two Screen Experience which actively encourages users to log on during the broadcast to take part in polls and quizzes and interact with other viewers. The extent to which visitors can leave their mark on the Heroes site is unprecedented for a flagship programme site from a major broadcaster.

Whilst arguably cluttered in places, the site is also successful from a presentational point of view, combining consistent navigational elements with randomised promo slots which showcase the breadth of content available on the site.

Web as canvas

Of course, the official NBC site is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to sites from syndicated broadcasters around the globe (e.g. SCI-FI UK), there are a number of semi-official spin-off sites. 9th Wonders (in addition to being a metaphysical comic-book drawn by one of the characters within the drama) is the name of the "official/unofficial fan site", Beaming Beeman is the blog of Director/Producer Greg Beeman and, and are all dummy sites which form part of the Heroes 360 Experience alternate reality game, which "through original content created specifically for TV, online, and mobile...lets you explore, interact, and discover exciting new characters, sneak peaks, new and expanded storylines and much more."

The Heroes 360 Experience probably warrants a separate blog post. For the moment I'll link to its Wikipedia entry and a video of Heroes' creator Tim Kring discussing the multiplatform ambition and how they use the online chat around the programme as a feedback loop to find out what worked and what didn't.

In Dan Hill's aforementioned post on Lost, he talks about the 'web as canvas'; a notion which Heroes epitomises, not only through it's official daubings (which include a MySpace profile with 45,000 friends and the Zeroes viral video spoof, embedded below, which was seeded to various video sharing sites without any NBC branding) but also through huge swathes of unofficial audience created content.

Audience as creators

In addition to the content aggregated on television sites such as BuddyTV, TVRage and CNET's, Heroes boasts a huge number of unofficial sites, message boards and blogs. Below is a snapshot of just some of the English language sites devoted to Heroes.

Like Lost, Heroes also has an unofficial wiki, which currently comprises almost 1,000 articles (significantly more than NBC's official Heroes wiki) and the series has already spawned at least 10 podcasts (The 9th, The 10th Wonder, 3 Heroes, Cranky Hero, Hero Worship Podcast, Heroescast, Podcast Heroes, Save The Cheerleader Podcast, Sidekicks and The Heroes Podcast with Jeremiah).

More innovative user-generated offerings include a Heroes Character Map, which charts the relationships between the various protagonists and Incidental Heroes - a weekly fan-produced online video series (Episode 1 embedded below).

Below is a broad-brushstrokes attempt to visualise the growth in official and user-created content around Heroes over time (click for enlargement). Note how the user-created content builds in anticipation of the first broadcast, rockets once the show is on air and accelerates in response to new markets (e.g. SCI-FI premiere) or official content initiatives (e.g. Heroes 360 experience).

In view of the volume and diversity of interactive activity around Heroes, it's impressive to note that NBC aren't resting on their laurels, with an expansion of the 360 Experience concept and a suite of social networking tools both in the pipeline. Would be interesting to know both investment and traffic levels for the official Heroes site which is reputedly the biggest driver of traffic to

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Born to pun: Is the advent of digital precipitating the death of creative titling?

If once is an accident, twice is a coincidence and three times is a trend, then I've noticed a trend over the last few weeks concerning the impact of digital on the titling of media content.

First up was a fleeting discussion in the 'Democratising content in the user-in-control era' session at last month's MediaGuardian Changing Media Summit about the impact of online search on headline writers (predominantly journalists and bloggers). Ben Hammersley suggested that the best headlines as far as search engines are concerned are those which adopt the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin approach (e.g. Scottish Cup result: Caledonian Thistle beat Celtic), which runs counter to the puntastic tradition of tabloid journalism in the UK which has given us, amongst other gems, the oft-quoted Sun headline 'SUPER CALEY GO BALLISTIC CELTIC ARE ATROCIOUS'. Not what you'd call Google-friendly.

Next came my girlfriend's reaction to my suggestion that we give BBC flagship Sci-Fi drama Life on Mars a go, which was along the lines of 'I don't much fancy a drama set in space' (its actually about a time-travelling policeman). The arrival of multi-channel, on-demand television (plus countless other media options) presents us with so many choices that we don't have time to thoroughly research each one. Instead, we must increasingly decide on the basis of title alone. This was confirmed to me by a piece of audience research on another BBC drama series, Spooks, in which a respondent claimed they'd previously avoided the series on the basis that they'd assumed it was about ghosts (the series was retitled MI5 when it was shown in the States).

Finally came a presentation from Leigh Aspin, Interactive Editor for BBC Radio 4 at an internal BBC event, in which he explained how the "clever, sometimes cryptic" titles of some of the station's programming were making it difficult for listeners to find the content of interest to them in an increasingly crowded on-demand media space. The example he used was a programme called 'Out of the Ashes' which the audience sportingly volunteered would most likely have been about cricket. The programme's original title was in fact 'Foot and Mouth: Five Years on'.

So are we destined to endure a mediascape dominated by channel Five-style Ronseal programme titles such as When Pilots Eject, The Woman Who Lost 30 Stone or Selling Houses Abroad (that last one's actually a Channel 4 programme, shame on them) or, to borrow a phrase from NatWest, is there another way?

I believe there is another way, but its not a quick fix. Part of the solution was outlined by Leigh in the remainder of his presentation, which focused on how richer search and navigation can be facilitated by term extraction run on programme descriptions. In other words, your programme can still be called 'Out of the Ashes' if the keywords pulled out of the programme description and flagged to you (and search engines) include 'cattle' and 'foot and mouth'. Similarly, your punning tabloid headline need not change if the correct metadata can be extracted from the article and supplementary contextual information.

Another weapon in the fight against tedious titling is the power of social software. The title of a YouTube video clip or a Flickr photo can be as inventive as its author's creativity allows as my main routes into the content will be via recommendation or tags, not by title.

These are baby steps that we need to start taking towards equipping our content for the digital age. The giant leap is the semantic web, which promises to deliver a greater understanding of the content of digital media, without getting tripped up by the idiosyncrasies of language. If and when the semantic web can start delivering on this bold promise remains to be seen. In the meantime we may well see a shift in media titling away from the cryptic and the punning towards the more functional and descriptive.