Flash News — first impressions

Flash is Australia’s newest television service, and this is one with a difference: the only thing it does is news.

The service is run by Foxtel’s Streamotion company, which is best known for Binge (TV shows and movies), and Kayo (live sport).

It offers a number of different live news channels from across the world, including BBC World News, CNN, Sky News Australia, Sky News UK, FOX News, Bloomberg, France 24, CNA, Times Now, GBN, NHK World Japan, i24, RT, and a few others.

Price

In terms of pricing, it’s $8/month. Initial reaction from others is that this is quite expensive; but to me it appears to be relatively good.

Foxtel runs Sky News Australia, a “sensible by day, full of mad people at night” news service that some have compared to Fox News in the US. But, if you want (legal, decent quality) versions of Sky News Australia, Sky News UK, CNN or FOX News, then Foxtel has the exclusive carriage for these channels in Australia. Up until now, the cheapest way to get them was to spend $49/month on a base Foxtel subscription; so this is substantially better value.

Indeed, if you were to buy all three services (Binge, Kayo and Flash) then you’d be paying $47 against the price of a Foxtel subscription, including sport, of $79/month.

But what you get isn’t all exclusive, nor very comprehensive

France24, AlJazeera, CNA, GBN and RT are all available free on YouTube, which will be available on most televisions these days. NHK World, Sky News Extra, Ausbiz, and a few others are available on websites for free, too. So at least half of Flash’s content is available for free elsewhere.

Euronews, Africanews, CGTN, teleSUR and TRT World are all on YouTube, but they’re not here. Ticker News, a news channel from Melbourne, isn’t here. Also, the three big American news networks run free, open streams on their website — ABC News Live, CBSN and NBC News Now are all freely available in Australia, and would offer welcome additional coverage.

The catch-up is impressive

Flash isn’t just a set of news channels, though: the service offers many shows on catchup, and when tuning into any live channel, you’re offered the opportunity to “watch from start” as well as “watch live”. This is particularly useful for sitting in front of the TV and wondering what the top news story is, since you can start the bulletin from the top story.

They’ve also grabbed some of the larger programmes from the channels, like Panorama and Newsnight from BBC World News, as one example, and made the shows available on-demand. This sounds good in theory: in practice, it’s a glorified DVR, and (as with many DVRs) it doesn’t always work right. Particularly, when I tried Newsnight, it cuts into the middle of a promo, then you see a different programme altogether (Our World, anyone?) which wasn’t what I wanted to see. I can only imagine that daylight savings is going to make that service quite tricky to keep working right.

And they’ve also got latest stories, too, from each/some of the channels. That’s a nice idea, though I can’t help but think nobody will use that.

Finally, for some reason, some of the output is their own: nameless newsreaders, in front of a blue wall with a Flash logo on it, reading some agency copy for 40 seconds. That seems a very strange content decision: you can play them, but the last ten seconds has an overlay telling you what you’re about to watch next, and it doesn’t really work.

On a tedious anoraky note: the BBC World News logo is a year out of date (using the GillSans font, not Reith Sans). Yes, I am that person.

Not everything is great

In some views, it skips channels from the listings; and the user-experience is very much intended for catch-up rather than live.

The output of CNN, RT and NHK are all 576p SD streams, which is disappointing. All those channels have very good quality HD streams available elsewhere, and there seems to be no reason to have these channels looking so poor on this service. Perhaps Streamotion think that they’re fine on mobile at this resolution, and they’re probably right, but on a TV they really don’t look good.

Frustratingly, there’s no Android TV app available at launch: so I’m stuck with ‘casting’ from the phone rather than using the Android TV box. This seems a mistake (but customer service confirm they don’t have an Android TV app quite yet). Binge’s app is good, so it’s surprising that they haven’t been able to port it over to Flash.

And, most frustratingly, the streaming isn’t actually very good. I watch a lot of streaming TV — whether via a Fetch box, or increasingly through a Chromecast. I’ve a rock solid connection, and never notice any refreshing or buffering: but Flash seems to buffer and rebuffer on both my phone and on the Chromecast. It stops, thinks for a bit, reloads a 30 seconds behind, plays for a minute or so, stops, reloads 30 seconds behind, and so on. This behaviour is not just poor buffering, it’s, I think, a faulty M3U8 playlist, or worse. Reporting it to customer service just gets a robotic response asking me to clear my cookies, which is not that helpful.

Is it for you?

If you want (legal) streams from Sky News Australia, CNN or FOX News this is the cheapest way to get them in Australia. Fetch has access to BBC World News and a few other channels for $6/month, but only after you’ve bought the set-top box.

If you would rather just channel surf, then services like https://livenow.news (which is mine) might end up being just as good, and $8/month cheaper.

If it were me running this, I’d be filling it with as many news channels as I can find, so it is truly a news lover’s dream. I’d switch up the UX to take you into a “wall of news", showing a view of all the news channels on the system, and allowing you to use that to navigate your way around: would be very helpful for big news events.

I can see this being a cheap way for corporates to get live Sky News Australia into their reception areas; but then, an even cheaper way is to use ABC News channel, which is free and available with an antenna. It also doesn’t turn to nonsense after 6pm.

But for me, I wasn’t using it. No Android TV app, and unsatisfactory live streaming, meant that it really wasn’t the right thing for me, and I’ll go on fiddling about with m3u8 files, personally: they work, and they’re $8/month cheaper.