The Next Track, Episode #148 – Spoilers

The Next Track Blue Flat Button2 400pxWe don’t often talk about TV, but this week we discuss some TV series, how people watch TV, and in particular the disappearing experience of appointment TV. And we link this all with iTunes, at least a bit.

Listen to The Next Track: Episode #148 – Spoilers.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

Hell Freezes Over for Apple (Again)

In October, 2003, Steve Jobs announced that hell froze over when the company announced its release of iTunes for Windows. (Go to 18:45 in the video.)

Yesterday, Apple announced that an iTunes Movies & TV Shows app will becoming to Samsung TVs (and eventually to other brands as well). In addition, Samsung TVs will support AirPlay 2 (as will other brands’ devices).

Hell is freezing over for Apple because the company has finally accepted that it cannot make enough money from its video offerings just with Apple devices (ie, the iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV). This also suggests that the Apple TV has seen its last iteration. If Apple can put the same apps on any smart TV – which is, of course, not complicated – why have a separate device? I suspect we’ll also see an Apple Music app on these TVs before long (as is already the case for Android phones and tablets).

This is the biggest step in Apple’s morphing from a hardware company to a services company and one that has similar implications to their releasing a Windows version of iTunes. That software led to the explosion of popularity of the iPod, and probably 90% of iPod users were Windows users. Things are different with TVs, but Apple has realized that a standalone streaming box isn’t what people want; as more and more services are available directly from TVs, it makes sense to slim down the living room and get another device out of the way. (Of course, this change is not linked to a hardware product that could become a market leader, so Apple has a much bigger struggle ahead of them.)

On Apple’s AirPlay page, the company highlights the fact that AirPlay 2 is coming to TVs from “Leading TV manufacturers,” and this, too, makes sense. You’ll be able to stream audio from a TV to the HomePod, or to an AirPlay 2 compatible soundbar, such as the Sonos Beam, which I recently bought. Streaming AirPlay 2 to a device like that means one less cable to worry about, but I still wouldn’t want to stream to one or a pair of HomePods, at least not until there’s adjustable EQ settings for the devices.

Don’t forget that Apple controls the AirPlay 2 system, and will be extracting licensing fees from these companies, but they may be more flexible in order to get AirPlay 2 on more devices. There are already lots of audio devices that support AirPlay, many of which haven’t yet been updated to support AirPlay 2, but I suspect that those devices that can do the upgrade – that have the necessary hardware – will be doing so more quickly now, as Apple sees an interest in extending this protocol.

The big change here is that Apple has realized that their silo is no longer big enough to fuel their ambitions; that they need to branch out with their services in order to get enough users. We know that Apple will be announcing an original video content service soon, and it makes sense that users of non-Apple devices can watch it.

Also, I suspect we will see the Apple app being offered on existing TVs. While not all TVs will support AirPlay 2, I see no reason why any would not support a couple of Apple apps.

As a hardware company, Apple could afford to be exclusive; but as a services company, they must be as inclusive as possible.

The Problem with Today’s TVs

Back in the day, the most complicated thing about a TV was getting the aerial in the right position to get static-free images, and sometimes getting the vertical hold steady. You turned on a TV, selected a channel, and watched it. The picture wasn’t great, but it was what we had.

Then TVs started getting fancier. I lived in France in the late 1990s, when widescreen (16:9) TVs became popular – especially because the country was hosting the World Cup – and these massive devices weren’t very different from previous generations. By then, you could connect a VCR, or a satellite box (cable was rare in France), but TVs were still pretty much the same as they were in the 1970s, just with bigger screens and better picture quality. (Interestingly, the US seems to have missed that step in the evolution of TVs, instead catching up when HD arrived.)

When HD TVs came around, everything changed. Not only because of the image quality but also because TVs started becoming “smart.” Now, with 4K HDR TVs that have their own operating systems, and can run apps, TVs have become very complicated.

It’s not complicated to watch something on a TV, if all you’re using is the TV. You either get your content over the air (now digital, for much better quality), or over cable or satellite. You can stream content using apps on the TV, or you can connect a Blu-Ray player and watch films.

But this is where it gets complicated. I recently decided to set up a dedicated TV room in my home. It’s not a big room, about 5m long and 3m wide, but it’s great for my partner and I to watch TV in comfort. I have a 60″ LG TV that I mounted on a tall TV stand, and bought a Sonos Beam soundbar. One of my desires was to simplify my TV hardware; I’m selling my AV receiver, because I no longer want the hassle of that big box and speakers. Even though their sound is better than the soundbar, the hassle factor made me want to go small. (I long ago gave up faffing around with surround sound.)

I also bought an Apple TV 4K (I had a 4th generation Apple TV, from 2015), and a UHD Blu-Ray player. I don’t plan to buy many 4K Blu-Rays, but I did want to watch Planet Earth 2 and Blue Planet 2 in 4K.

And that’s where the problems began. It’s fair to say that with the Sonos soundbar, setup is quite simple. My TV has HDMI-ARC – the first of many abbreviations I’ll use in this article – which means that it can play sound coming from the TV, or from other devices connected to it. But the audio track on the Planet Earth 2 Blu-Rays is encoded in DTS, one of the two main ways of encoding multi-channel audio. Alas, the Sonos Beam does not support DTS, but rather handles Dolby Digital, and here’s where my problems began. When playing the discs, there was no sound.

Understanding the plethora of settings on a TV these days is impossible. There are so many settings that you don’t need, or that shouldn’t be turned on, that if you do look through your TVs settings you’ll be lost. (The producer and director of the recent film Roma, which is available on Netflix, published an article explaining which settings to turn off for viewing the film in the beast possible quality, and Tom Cruise recently went on a crusade explaining how to turn off motion smoothing.)

I tried adjusting some of the sound settings on the Blu-Ray player – it is able to decode both DTS and Dolby Digital – but I was still met with silence. I looked in the TV settings, and couldn’t find anything either. I spent about an hour Googling my issue, trying to piece together disparate bits of information, notably on the Sonos forums, but it was difficult. The manual for the Blu-Ray player was no help, nor were the on-screen descriptions of the settings. As for the TV, its manual has nothing more than information on safety and how to connect cables. None of it settings are explained.

Finally, I found a bewildering combination of settings on the Blu-Ray player and the TV that resulted in sound, but the frustration made me realize that as much as I want to simplify my TV room, this will never be possible.

There seems to be a convergence toward streaming as the optimal way to watch TV. When you stream via a TV, or an Apple TV or other streamer, the content you watch is compatible with your device, and all you need is to connect an HDMI cable to be able to get images on your TV. You don’t have to worry about the various audio formats, and certainly not the video format (I remember the issues around NTSC, PAL, and SECAM, which were mutually incompatible). But, unlike with music, not everything is available to stream. I don’t plan to buy many 4K Blu-Rays; the amazing footage of Planet Earth 2 and Blue Planet 2 are best seen in that resolution, but for most movies or TV series I don’t really care.

As TVs become smarter, users become more and more confused. Doing anything more than streaming is complex, and requires a great deal of understanding of obscure formats. The TV industry is killing itself, or, more correctly, killing off content that isn’t streamed. This will lead to fewer people buying AV receivers and surround sound systems, and the audio-video hardware industry will suffer. In exchange, things will be simpler if we just stream, but if we want to see something that’s not streamable, then we may be out of luck.

Optimize Home Viewing Settings – MyRoma

Best Practices for watching ROMA on your TV

You can find these options by accessing your television’s menu, going into picture or image settings, and if you don’t see them there, going into Advanced picture settings.

The people behind the film Roma, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, and now on Netflix, have a detailed web page about adjusting your TV’s settings so the film doesn’t look like crap. This covers more than just about the motion smoothing settings that Tom Cruise spoke about recently in a video, discussing his latest film Mission Impossible: Fallout, but with Roma being in black and white, you don’t want your TV to have a warm or cold color profile.

It’s good that people are starting to publicize all the bad settings on today’s TV sets; I’m flummoxed when I look at my settings, and I’ve used this document to tweak them a bit.

Source: Optimize Home Viewing Settings – MyRoma

It sounds like Apple’s original content is going to be really, really bad – TechCrunch

For Apple’s content business, gratuitous profanity, sex or violence are all verboten as the company tries to thread the needle between being a widely beloved producer of high quality consumer goods and purveyor of paid entertainment to a public that’s increasingly enthralled with blood and gore at its circuses.

It’s not just blood and gore; take a show like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which brought an Emmy award to Amazon. There is a lot of strong language, and, in the pilot, a scene where there are breasts visible. (And the character gets arrested for flashing in the club where she rants on stage.) Even something like that will not pass muster with the Apple censors.

To be fair, this sort of thing clearly crosses a line:

To set the table, The Journal walked readers through some of the issues Tim Cook apparently had with Vital Signs, a title the company had acquired loosely based on the biography of rap legend (and former head of the billion dollar Apple acquisition, Beats) Dr. Dre.

Reportedly, after Cook saw scenes including a mansion orgy, white lines, and drawn guns the Apple chief put the kibosh on the whole production saying it was too violent and not something that Apple can air.

But this is simply ridiculous:

If Apple’s aversion to potentially scandalous storylines is as extreme as The Wall Street Journal article makes it seem — requesting the removal of crucifixes from a set to avoid offending religious sensibilities in an M. Night Shyamalan drama

It’s funny, because some Apple staff have suggested that Apple’s video offerings would be “expensive NBC,” and even NBC has pretty graphic stuff in its police procedurals.

I highlighted this problem back in February, when I wrote:

[…] there’s no reason why excellent TV can’t be family friendly. But in today’s television climate, it’s difficult. West Wing is one of the best series ever on TV (IMHO), and it was a network show. Friday Night Lights was a brilliant series that ran on a network. And Downton Abbey was far from controversial. There are plenty of comedy series that are family friendly. But to push the envelope, there needs to be daring topics, ones that may have some swear words and some tits, and, well, some violence. Black Mirror, House of Cards, Westworld, Homeland, True Detective; all these current and recent series would not pass on US network TV.

But if Apple draws the line at family friendly TV, they will miss out on the next big series; the next Game of Thrones, True Detective, or Breaking Bad. Let’s face it, Reese Witherspoon will not be part of cutting-edge series drama.

I think all these articles miss the point; the reason why Apple is doing this. It all boils down to one thing: China. Apple wants to sell its service around the world, and in the largest market, where the company is stumbling, they can’t afford for it to be blocked. (There are other large countries that might censor risqué content as well, but none with the buying power of China.)

Source: It sounds like Apple’s original content is going to be really, really bad | TechCrunch

The BBC Should Broadcast More Theater

This weekend, the BBC broadcast a filmed-in-theater production of Hamlet, starring Andrew Scott, and filmed at the Almeida Theatre in 2017. This seems to have been very popular, judging from reactions in the press and on social media. Why don’t they broadcast filmed theater more often?

Live theater broadcasts have become commonplace in the UK, with productions from the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company beamed to cinemas several times a year. The NT Live series presents about one production a month – sometimes live, sometimes “encore” productions that they filmed in previous years – and the RSC broadcasts their Shakespeare productions, four or five a year, and has done so since 2014. (The first RSC live production was in late 2013; Richard II, starring David Tennant.) And another series, Cinema Live, produces the occasional play, along with music and dance productions.

These cinema broadcasts – part of what is called “event cinema” here, which includes operas, concerts, etc. – are now a staple of cinema viewing, but they are expensive. Tickets cost around £20 (depending on whether one is a member of a cinema, and some cinemas charge more or less depending on the event), meaning they are out of reach for many people. In addition, they tend to sell out quite early, so people who only hear about them near the time of the broadcast can’t even get tickets.

An article in the Guardian today discusses how well Shakespeare “translates to the small screen,” and suggests that if Will were alive today, he might be a show runner. This article discusses not just theater being filmed, but also other adaptations of Shakespeare plays, such as the recent Hollow Crown series of history plays, and the forthcoming King Lear, with Anthony Hopkins leading a constellation of stars.

But why not just film more plays in the theater and broadcast them on TV? The BBC being a public broadcaster could make these broadcasts more frequent than the few times a year, and they could range from Shakespeare to comedies, from musicals to popular theater. After all, theater companies such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company receive a fair amount of public money; why can’t they give back with some of their existing films so the general public can see theater in their homes?

While the RSC releases DVDs and Blu-Rays of their filmed productions, so anyone can buy them, and, presumably, libraries can stock them to loan, the NT Live productions sit gathering virtual dust in an archive. None of them are released on disc, and the only way anyone can view them is to visit the National Theatre’s archive, which isn’t very practical for anyone outside of London.

The quality of these filmed productions is impeccable; there’s a great deal of know-how and technique that has been developed in recent years, so these films aren’t just a couple of cameras switching between long views and close-ups, but are rather well choreographed presentations of the plays. They make theater come to life in a way that, while different from being physically present, is still powerful. As a regular theater-goer – often selecting front row seats to be as immersed as possible – the films are certainly different, but they are their own from of production, which can be often as good as being in the theater. (Better, if all you can get are the cheap seats.)

The main question for theaters is whether these live broadcasts cannibalize ticket sales. With the current RSC production of Macbeth being broadcast to cinemas on April 11, it’s clear that this is not the case. The production, starring Christophe Eccleston, is sold out for its entire run through September in Stratford-upon-Avon, and for its shorter run in London. Quite the contrary; it seems that, in many cases, these broadcasts get more people interested in the theater, potentially selling more tickets to the actual productions. The National Theatre had a revival of Amadeus last year, and this was so popular that they’ve brought it back again this year. The NT Live broadcast certainly didn’t reduce the demand for tickets, and may have actually helped sell more.

In the end, it’s about providing TV audiences with a variety of programming. There’s plenty of low-brow fare: weekend comedies, soap operas, reality shows, murder mysteries, and the like. Would it be that hard to broadcast, say, one filmed play a month? It’s certainly not a question of cost; it’s much less expensive to film a stage production than it is to reproduce the same play in a studio or on location, or to shoot a TV movie. The technology exists, is widely used, and there are production companies who have a great deal of experience. It’s probably more a question of the BBC not wanting to seem “elitist,” as if presenting theater on TV would be a bad thing.

As a regular attendee of theater productions, I would welcome this. I would love to see not only the NT Live and RSC productions on TV, or productions like this Hamlet, but also original productions from smaller theaters. Let the TV watching public discover the riches of theater in the UK.