Jumping the shark

I think BBC News Online jumped the shark this week. For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to the moment in Happy Days when the Fonz used a shark as a water-ski ramp, at which point the audience snapped instantaneously from ‘this show is cool!’ to ‘this is lame!’ Useful concept. Anyway…

I’ve been worried about BBC News Online for a while now. First it was the frankly bizarre editorial policy which appears to require every article to feature precisely one sentence per paragraph. Once you’ve spotted it, it’s irritating as hell and patronising in the extreme. Then there were the continuous redesigns and refinements, most of which seemed contrived to place less news on the front page. After that, the ‘most emailed/most read stories’ widget, which may seem fairly harmless, but… er… isn’t that what we pay editors for?

The final straw for me, though, is this week’s partial redesign which has bunged audio and video clips front and centre on the page (further obscuring the, you know, news). It’s not that I object to the concept – the BBC is, after all, a video-rich organisation, and using that video online should be routine. The page design isn’t bad, either, using a neat toggle-disclosure thing that takes up relatively little room (and handily illustrates a UI concept I want to use with SciCast, but that people are being thick about).

No, I’m hacked off because all the video and audio is still using RealPlayer. Which, in my experience, basically never works. Certainly, the success rate is low enough that I can’t be arsed to even bother trying, and when it does stagger into showing me frames the quality is so poor as to be unwatchable and/or the frame rate is a stuttering mess and/or lip sync is borked and/or continuous jump-cutting for web video? Are they mad? Have they not heard of ‘key frames’? Arrrrghh!

Come on, BBC. RealPlayer is arcane and, frankly, embarrassing. We know there are rights issues, we know you’re really keen on your own oh-so-clever-if-only-it-was-finished Dirac thing (the bits of you that have heard of it, anyway). But this just doesn’t work. As a result, bunging it so prominently on the news site is a waste of time. My time, actually, since now I have to scroll to see the headlines.

For now, I’ve remapped the ‘news’ keyword in my browser to take me to the Guardian’s site – yes, I really have dumped the BBC as my primary news source – but I’m not all that much happier there, with all the Flash ads and the overly-narrow page layout also leading to excessive scrolling. At least there’s some decent writing when you click through to the articles.

Anyone have a better idea, though?


  1. re: your ‘lip sync is borked’ comment: why is that so hard in digital video? It’s so common to have the audio go out of sync (and not just with ReamPlayer), and it should be so easy to fix. Just add some metadata saying frame X goes with audio bits Y. Instead, it seems that audio and video streams are launched independently and played at ‘best speed’, whatever that is, without any thought to synchronisation. Come on! This is the sort of problem computers were supposed to be good at preventing.


  2. Keeping sync is hard (as audio cards and video cards run on independent clocks fromt he computers), but it is a solved problem, which the QuickTime team managed 15 years ago, when computers were orders of magnitude slower and less endowed with memory.
    The short version is, use the audio clock for sync, and adjust the video timing to match, as a little video framerate variation is imperceptible.
    Cumulative rounding error can mess you up, as can not taking NTSC’s not-quite integral framerate into account (I’d call it irrational, but 30000/1001 is rational in the maths sense, if potty in the human sense)
    I cannot stand the dodgy sync you get from Flash video, especially the ‘drop framerate when not the foreground window, then go at many times the framerate to catch up’ they do.
    Live streaming makes this worse, as you then have 6 clocks involved, as both local and remote computers have 3 each, but it is also solvable (I had sync drift under a frame for live broadcasts over the period of a week when I was working on QuickTime Broadcasting).

  3. So, let me get this right…. you’re saying the problem’s always been with REALPLAYER, and not my computer set-up? oh happy days. (But not of the Fonz kind).

  4. Ewww! The BBC’s Bill Thompson manages to write three screens of text in one-sentence paragraphs. This is unreadable!

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