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  • Rejoice! We are free! says the Heritage Foundation

    January 12, 2011 @ 1:15 pm | by Laura Slattery

    Ireland is the seventh freest economy in the world, according to the conservative US thinktank the Heritage Foundation, an organisation for which the ability of millionaires to transform themselves into billionaires unencumbered by anything resembling “government control” – or laws as they are more generally known – is paramount. Ireland, incidentally, which it describes as “mostly free”, came in two spots ahead of the US itself. (The full rankings are listed here.)

    Given that economic management in Ireland has often seemed like an oxymoron lately, I thought it might be a good idea to find out a little more about the kind of ideologues that our Government has managed to impress through the apparent chaos. On a hunch, I turned to the index of Naomi Klein’s book on “disaster capitalism”, The Shock Doctrine. Halliburton, Hamas, Harvard, Hayek, Hemingway… ah, there it was: Heritage Foundation. Pages 14, 255, 289, 295, 355 and 410.

    Klein, who is of the left, describes the Heritage Foundation as “ground zero of Friedmanism”, referring to its slavish following of the beliefs of late free market evangelist Milton Friedman, who would have privatised oxygen if he could. It was the Heritage Foundation that two weeks after the levees were breached in Louisiana came up with a list of Pro-Free-Market Ideas for Responding to Hurricane Katrina – a list packaged as “hurricane relief”, Klein writes, but comprising of such measures as the suspension of laws requiring federal contractors to pay a living wage.

    Let’s see what the Heritage Foundation has to say for itself. On Obama’s plans to reform health care, it is thoroughly alarmed: “The result of so much government control is that health care is one of the most highly regulated sectors of the American economy.” This means “less personal freedom”, it laments. It is similarly hostile to Obama’s reforms to education legislation called the No Child Left Behind act, describing them as “a reckless spending spree”.

    On poverty and inequality, it says poverty, what poverty? “Poor persons in the US have far higher living standards than the public imagines… By his own report, his family is not hungry, and he had sufficient funds in the past year to meet his family’s essential needs. While this individual’s life is not opulent, it is equally far from the popular images of dire poverty conveyed by the press, liberal activists, and politicians.” The greatest weapon against child poverty, it states, is not a living wage (or indeed a functioning welfare state), but marriage.

    On sex education, well… it’s against it: “Abstinence education programs are effective in reducing sexual activity against enormous pop culture pressures. Alternative comprehensive sex education programs disparage abstinence and teach that casual sex among teenagers is acceptable and desirable.” Freedom only goes so far, then.

    These are the people who just love what we’re doing with the economy.

  • Will Sky Atlantic be a dealbreaker for UPC customers?

    January 7, 2011 @ 7:30 am | by Laura Slattery

    It sounds like an airline chasing lost business class custom, but anyone who has spotted the prominent and kind of thrilling advertising campaign for Sky Atlantic will be under no illusions. Against a night-time New York skyline, the billboards declare “let the stories begin”.

    On February 1st, the Sky Atlantic channel will launch with the pilot of HBO’s Prohibition-era gangsterfest Boardwalk Empire, starring Steve Buscemi and directed by Martin Scorsese. Other programming rights seized by the new Murdoch revenue vehicle include Treme (the New Orleans-based series by David “The Wire” Simon), the forthcoming fifth series of Mad Men and the convoluted-sounding home-commissioned six-parter Hit and Miss, produced by Paul Abbott.

    The pedigree of the line up and initial feedback on the shows that have already aired in the US suggests that Sky Atlantic will be more hit than miss – or, as the billboard tagline phrases it, the channel will “bring iconic television to Ireland”. This suggests, of course, that without the thoughtful, altruistic intervention of subscriber-seeking BSkyB, Irish viewers would never get the opportunity to lay eyes on the best drama and comedy that HBO, Showtime and AMC have to offer, rather than enduring the usual process whereby we twitch a bit, envious of our American cousins, until they eventually end up on free-to-air channels at a later than necessary hour.

    Sky Atlantic will be free to all Sky subscribers until the end of August, at which point the channel will be part of the Variety Pack, a €2 per month add-on to the basic €23 per month package. (For new sightings of Jon Hamm, Mad Men‘s Don Draper, in glorious high definition, you will need to pay €15 extra a month for the HD Pack.) That’s good news for Sky’s 600,000-plus Irish subscribers, assuming they haven’t just signed on purely to be amused by Jeff Stelling and his posse of shouty pitchside reporters.

    Access to Sky Atlantic for the 375,000 digital television subscribers to UPC Ireland, on the other hand, has yet to be confirmed. Indeed, when I contacted UPC earlier this week, its product team said this: “It is under review with the channel provider. Until discussions conclude, we’re not in a position to comment any further.”

    Aaagghhh. (You can guess which company has my custom.)  A last minute carriage deal is still possible and far from unprecedented. On the other hand, Sky could choose to delay or restrict access to other pay-TV providers in order to further differentiate its offering, in much the same way as it does with the HD versions of its sports channels. In any case, even “iconic” dramas are unlikely, by themselves, to spark an exodus from UPC to Sky, if only because drama fans looking to score cool points by watching them before everyone else will already be in the habit of downloading the shows as soon as they are broadcast in the US. Almost everyone else who cares will reluctantly wait for the box set – an attitude that doesn’t tend to work so well when it comes to live football.

    What Sky Atlantic does do, however, is give BSkyB’s pay TV products a talking point; a hook for its flashy ad campaign, which may help it grab any growth in the market before UPC’s Borg-like contact centres can get to it. UPC’s approach to adding customers – and it is still adding them – seems to largely eschew exclusive content in favour of sucking people in under their bundling deals: buy this 100 MB broadband, for which we’ve gone to all the trouble of digging holes in the ground, and take our phone and Sky-facsimile television products while you’re at it.

    I won’t leave UPC for Sky if it can’t negotiate a deal on Sky Atlantic, but that feeling of missing out on a rich cultural glut will leave me hostile – partly towards UPC, but mostly towards BSkyB for causing all the grief in the first place. Personally, I’ve always quite liked watching Mad Men on elegant, commercial-free BBC 4. Sky’s world domination plans have scuppered that.

  • His Master’s Voice is barely audible

    January 5, 2011 @ 1:07 pm | by Laura Slattery

    Bought any 2 for €15s lately? How about a decade-old Stephen Fry novel for €5? HMV, it is feared, is “slowly being consigned to the history books”, according to one retail analyst (Keith Bowman at stockbrokers Hargreaves Lansdown) – and that was before the Christmas carnage. Today, HMV Group’s seasonal trading statement revealed a 14 per cent plummet in sales across the UK and Ireland, with the kicker being that it is to close 60 stores.

    It is expected that around 40 of these will be HMV stores and as many as 20 of them could be outlets of Waterstones, the book chain that HMV bought in 1998. Whereas 12 months ago, it was the 8.5 per cent sales drop at Waterstones that led to a downbeat January for the group and the departure of Waterstones’ chief executive Gerry Johnson, this time around it is the music, DVDs and games end of the company that is suffering the most.

    Reaction to its Christmas sales disaster has hardly been any more life-affirming than at the time of the group’s last set of figures, which saw its moves to diversify into clothing and electrical products described as “smack[ing] of desperation”, again by Bowman. To that, you can add changing stores layouts and the nagging sense that there is a perma-sale. “The market largely expected a profit warning, but the news is still depressing,” Arden Partners analyst Nick Bubb told Reuters this morning. The group is now taking about having to restructure its bank loans in order to avoid breaching its covenants, and Bubb reckons Waterstones could be sold.

    Will HMV still be on high streets and in suburban shopping centres in five or 10 years’ time? As group chief executive Simon Fox said today, the retailer is still profitable. But its status as one of the last men standing in its category doesn’t seem to be insulating it from the fear that the business model of selling hard copies of entertainment products in a physical retail location is fading fast. The brashness of its brand, mainstream stock selections and prioritisation of the DVD market means it is also unlikely to be lamented by the few remaining music-buying stalwarts in the same way as independent record shops.

    HMV’s dog and gramophone logo, adapted from a 19th century Francis Barraud painting called His Master’s Voice, tells us everything about its history and little about either its present or its future.

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