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Comcast has outbid 21st Century Fox for Sky

Comcast has won an auction to acquire UK telecommunications company Sky, bidding $38.8 billion to overtake Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox after a lengthy bidding war this summer. Comcast’s win paves the way for it to acquire Sky and its 23 million European subscribers and entertainment assets. Sky’s shareholders will now need to approve the deal.

Over the course of this year, Comcast and Fox have been locked in a titanic battle over their futures, one that will define the nature of the industry as a whole. Last summer, Disney CEO Bob Iger spoke with Murdoch about an acquisition of Fox and made its first offer in December, and while Comcast made its own overtures this spring. The two made several bids this spring, but after Disney later upped its offer, Comcast dropped its plans to acquire Murdoch’s company.

Simmering in the background of this was Murdoch’s ambitions to completely acquire Sky — Fox already owns a 39 percent stake in Sky, and Murdoch has been working to fully acquire it since 2016 — to better position the new version of Fox in the larger telecommunications world. He wasn’t the only one: Comcast was also interested in acquiring Sky, and another bidding war ensued this summer. In August, government regulators set up an auction for the company, which pitted Fox (and by proxy, Disney, which would swallow up Sky during its Fox acquisition) against Comcast.

The Wall Street Journal notes that Comcast’s win will give it a huge new pool of international customers, but it comes at a steep price: this summer’s bidding war boosted the final cost for Sky’s cost far above what it was willing to pay months ago. The acquisition will also give Comcast Sky’s major television and programming assets, which will help it compete against the likes of Netflix and Amazon, which have invested heavily in original entertainment.

Ultimately, the sale is a loss for Disney, which is working on its own streaming service. Disney still owns Fox’s 39 percent stake in the company, and it remains to be seen if it’ll hold onto it. The deal will now go before Sky’s shareholders for their vote.

Disclosure: Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company.

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10 hr.
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A new report outlines Apple’s reluctance for mature content on its streaming service

This morning, The Wall Street Journal released a report that details the state of Apple’s yet-to-be-unveiled streaming service. It highlights some of the difficulties Apple has faced in striking the right tone for its content, particularly when it comes to “gratuitous sex, profanity or violence,” and cites sources who expect the launch of the streaming service to be pushed further back.

The report opens with Apple CEO Tim Cook’s reaction to Vital Signs, a show based on the life of Dr. Dre. Apple picked up the show back in 2016, but when Cook viewed it a year ago, he told Apple Music executive Jimmy Iovine that it was too violent, and that the company can’t show it.

Apple has some big plans for its original content ambitions. It brought in two seasoned Hollywood executives to oversee its video streaming project, and invested $1 billion to develop new a slate of new projects. Judging from those acquisitions, the company is swinging for the fences it’s picked up a reboot of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, a space show from Battlestar Galactica’s Ron Moore, a network drama starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, a show based on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and more. The WSJ report notes that Apple’s preference is for family-friendly projects that appeal to a broad audience, and that it’s trying to avoid weighing into overly political or controversial territory with the content that it’s producing — only a handful of those shows “veer into ‘TV-MA’ territory.”

This has caused problems and delays for some those shows: showrunner Bryan Fuller stepped down from the Amazing Stories reboot after reportedly clashinv with Apple over its approach, and the WSJ says that the Aniston-Witherspoon drama faced personnel changes and is being delayed amidst scheduling issues with Witherspoon. Apple has been widely expected to begin rolling out its original content in March 2019, and people who spoke with the WSJ said that they expect it to be pushed further back.

Apple’s approach doesn’t come as a huge surprise: it’s been described as “conservative and picky”. The company has long forbidden adult content from its App Store, rigorously removing Apps that even display NSFW content, like Vine or 500px. TV executives note in the report that where streaming services can simply weather a boycott or lose some subscribers, alienating audiences could prompt viewers to boycott Apple’s hardware.

But Apple’s attitude runs counter to the current trends in the TV industry. Streaming services and cable news channels like Amazon, HBO, Hulu, and Netflix, HBO haven’t shied away from sex and violence in their shows. The WSJ notes that some of Apple’s LA team have begun “calling themselves ‘expensive NBC.’” Other Hollywood producers note that while Apple has said that it’s interested in quality projects and didn’t want agents to “edit [themselves], they note that the company wasn’t been clear with what its expectations are, although gratuitous sex and violence is off the table.

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A draft executive order targets social media companies for anti-trust violations

A draft executive order from the White House surfaced last night that would direct federal authorities to “thoroughly investigate whether any online platform has acted in violation of the antitrust laws.” However, White House officials say that the document hasn’t gone through any sort of formal policymaking process.

Bloomberg obtained a copy of the draft executive order, noting that it directs antitrust officials and other federal agencies see if any “online platform” has violated antitrust laws. The publication notes that the document didn’t specifically name companies that have attracted Trump’s ire, but it’s not hard to imagine that Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter wouldn’t be a subject of such an order.

Following the publication of the report, The Washington Post said that the White House has “sought to distance itself” from the draft, with deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters saying that the “document is not the result of an official White House policymaking process,” and it’s not clear if the draft will actually go through such a process and be signed by the President. The Post explains that the draft been floating around for a while, and notes that it could have come from outside of the White House. It’s also not clear if the draft would actually be workable.

We’ve reached out to Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter for comment, and will update this post if we hear back.

This summer, President Donald Trump has taken aim at various social media companies, complaining that he and his followers have been the subject of a censorship campaign. In August, Trump told reporters that companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter were “treading on very, very troubled territory,” and that he’s lost followers because of censorship — although those losses seem to stem from Twitter’s efforts to get rid of bots and spam accounts. Trump has continued to bang this particular drum in recent weeks, floating ideas that search engines like Google need to be regulated, and that he sees the influence of these types of companies as a “very antitrust situation.” Given Trump’s anger against Silicon Valley and the social media platforms that it’s produced, it’s hard not to see the existence of such a document as a potential escalation against them.

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Destroyer is a guilt-ridden detective story made by one incredible director

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

Tackling the leap from directing low-budget indies to tentpole features is no easy feat, and Hollywood has a history of being particularly unforgiving when the filmmakers are women. Case in point: director Karyn Kusama, who burst onto the filmmaking scene in 2000 with her debut feature, Girlfight. Five years later, she took on the feature-film adaptation of Aeon Flux, but the movie ended in disaster. After a studio regime change, Paramount Pictures balked at Kusama’s original vision, taking the movie away from her in order to hack it into the confusing mess that eventually arrived in theaters.

In an industry where male directors are often able to jump from a flop to a new blockbuster gig without issue, Kusama’s career took a different trajectory. After eventually landing the Megan Fox vehicle Jennifer’s Body, she stepped away from directing entirely for a while. But she re-emerged with a vengeance with the 2015 film The Invitation. Stylish, disturbing, and incredibly unnerving, The Invitation was a reminder of Kusama’s colossal talent, and she swiftly began working on TV shows like Masters of Sex and Halt and Catch Fire.

Now Kusama is back with her fifth feature, the arresting modern noir Destroyer. The story of Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman), a burned-out LAPD detective on the hunt for vengeance against a gang leader, it’s a gripping, stylish film, filled with standout performances. The script is a little too overwrought, but it’s a tremendous piece of filmmaking, fueled by Kusama’s fearless creative vision and Kidman’s transformative performance. It’s yet another sign that we need more Karyn Kusama films in the world, whether big or small.

What’s the genre?

Sun-bleached neo-noir. Destroyer is a Los Angeles movie, but rather than setting noir tropes against the backdrop of Los Angeles nightlife, or leveraging 1930s nostalgic affectation, it uses the deserts outside the city and the omnipresent Southern California sun as a weapon. Everyone in this film is weary and worn out, beaten down by too many years hunting for things they’ve never been able to find.

What’s it about?

In the present day, LAPD detective Erin Bell receives a package in the mail that lets her know gang leader and bank robber Silas (Toby Kebbell) has resurfaced. Bell and Silas have a history, it turns out. Back in the 1990s, Bell was deep undercover along with her partner Chris (Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s Sebastian Stan), trying to bring down Silas and his gang. But something terrible happened, and the film cuts between Bell’s present-day quest to track Silas down and exact her revenge, and the time she spent with Chris some 20 years ago.

The summary is relatively simple, but there’s a lot going on in Destroyer. Characters leap between decades, the twisty-turvy machinations of any good detective story are in play, and Bell is also trying to navigate her contentious relationship with her daughter. It’s a dense film, with a lot to dig into.

What’s it really about?

It’s a movie about how grief, regret, and self-blame can eat a person alive. The younger Erin Bell has her own set of problems, but she’s relatively hopeful about what her future might hold. The modern incarnation of the character, however, is a burned-out shell. When she’s first introduced on-screen, she’s spent the night sleeping in her car, and the film suggests that’s how she begins most days. Her entire present-day journey is fueled by the idea that if she can just right a few wrongs, she will eventually find something approaching peace — but the events from two decades ago have irrevocably defined her, and her singular focus on addressing them makes her toxic to anyone who might cross her path and want to help.

Thematically, Destroyer has some things in common with two other films that screened at TIFF this year: David Gordon Green’s Halloween and Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself. One of those films is far more successful than the other, but both tackle the idea of how traumatic events shape and define us, and get passed along to those we care about like some defective gene. Destroyer offers another riff on the core theme, and manages to strike a balance between the laughable romanticism of Life Itself and the grim nihilism of Halloween. Bell is driven and self-destructive, but it’s by her own choice. She intentionally chooses the paths she walks down, and while unpleasant outcomes may result, there’s never a question that her own agency brings her there.

Is it good?

It’s a strong film, directed with confidence and a trust that the audience will be able to keep up, no matter how convoluted the narrative becomes. Much of the film rides on Kidman’s performance, and she’s all but unrecognizable as modern-day Erin Bell. Makeup designer Bill Corso used prosthetics to transform her physically, but the way Kidman moves and speaks really brings the character home. It’s a performance unlike anything she’s attempted before, and while it’s mildly disorienting at first — any time an actor is this deeply ingrained in the public consciousness, a transformation this extreme can bring along a moment of dissonance — Kidman soon disappears into the role.

Her performance will no doubt receive the lion’s share of attention, but the entire cast is filled with strong actors doing great work. Kebbell’s Siras is a mix of charisma and danger, while Stan’s empathetic performance continues to prove he’s more than just a Marvel superhero. Even the smaller roles are filled with standouts: Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, Halt and Catch Fire’s Scott McNairy and Toby Huss, and Get Out’s Bradley Whitford all appear. From Erin’s estranged husband (McNairy) to Silas’ gangland girlfriend (Maslany) they’re all gritty, grounded, and believable.

The weakness comes in the third act, where the film gets lost on the way to a fully satisfying conclusion. Destroyer is a little too long, with just a few too many narratives twists from screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, to the point where the audience is likely to get ahead of the film. And its final operatic moments, while beautiful, veer away from the grounded realism that makes the rest of the film so successful.

What should it be rated?

I suspect this one is going to be an R, primarily due to violence.

How can I actually watch it?

Destroyer opens in theaters on December 25th.

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Soul Run Free Pro Bio review: a running coach in your headphones

Tracking every step you take

If you’re an avid runner, would a pair of wireless earphones with voice coaching improve your runs, and even minimize injury? Soul thinks its Run Free Pro Bio running earphones can pull it off with a built-in voice coach that tracks your gait and coaches you, correcting your running stance and posture. They cost $149, last around nine hours on a charge and since they’re IPX5 water-resistant, can withstand water sprays and human sweat.

Egregious naming aside, the Run Free earphones actually surprised me with how informative the voice coaching was during my runs. However, this coaching feature also can distract you, and is a demerit for the music listening experience.

These are far from the best-looking (or best built) running earphones I’ve tested. That title would go to the Jabra Sport Coach, which had better ergonomics and styling than the Soul earphones. Besides coming in a shade of candy red — my favorite color, just not on earphones — Soul also sells the Run Free Pro Bio in a muted gray tone.

Regardless of color, both sides of the earphones’ wire have a reflective strip for added visibility in the evening or at night. It’s a nice touch for added safety, but I was puzzled by Soul taking safety a step further and attaching a whole LED lantern (also containing the battery) to the left-hand side.

It’s bulky, weighs down the left earbud, and can’t be removed, but at least can be turned off within the app’s settings. However, I’d just rather it wasn’t there because it ruins the otherwise slim profile.

Looking at the Soul Run Free Pro Bio’s earbuds closely, you’ll find there’s a lot of padding for your earlobe. This comes in handy for myriad reasons, because it ensures the earbuds won’t ever fall of out of your ears while running on pavement, a treadmill, or up a flight of stairs.

If there’s one thing I’d give Soul credit for, it’s the fact that these earphones have a snug, comfortable fit at all times. And if their default size doesn’t fit your ears, there are six pairs of replacement buds, in varying sizes.

Okay, so they’re ergonomic — which is great — but so what? For $149 running earphones, there also has to be great noise isolation, so you can actually hear what’s playing, and better than decent sound quality; it has to sound good and feel good to listen to. When you’re working out, everything you listen to should have a punchy, energetic, yet clear and easily discernible sound so you can feel motivated.

The Soul Run Free Pro Bio ticks all the boxes for audio quality on running earphones. They’ve done justice to my favorite tracks — EDM from the earlier part of the decade, as well as hip-hop and K-pop that energizes you by just hearing it — with a sound reproduction that’s clear at the mids, has tons of punchy bass that you can feel, and yet doesn’t come across as blaring noise. That’s all really important and I’m glad they got that part right.

The sound quality is even better than that of Apple’s AirPods; yes I know, they’re not meant for running, but it’s worth noting because the AirPods cost $10 more than the Run Pro Bio.

Obviously, these are headphones designed for listening to music, but their big differentiator is the voice coaching feature. Soul claims that not only can the Free Run Pro Bio track your gait (your manner of walking), but audibly coach you while running.

You have to set up an account in Soul’s mobile app to enable the voice coach, and I had some issue doing that in the Android version of the app. An update eventually fixed the problem; I had no issues using the iOS version.

Soul calls the voice coaching feature the “Beflex BiomechEngine.” Basically, it tracks and coaches you on the following running variables: head angle, vertical oscillations of each leg, cadence, step width, symmetry, and shock.

I started my test by running in place, then setting off on a short jog, and was immediately reprimanded by the voice coach in my ears. “Too much shock,” it said. Apparently, my steps were too heavy and affecting my knees, so after I softened my step, the voice coach complimented my correction. But the BiomechEngine voice coach wasn’t done with me yet.

After running two blocks, the voice coach noted that my right leg was oscillating too high, my step was too wide, and that my cadence was too fast.

Almost immediately, I realized there’s a problem: the voice coach constantly speaks over music you’re playing. The wildest part about all of the various tracking abilities is... it works! But it’s also distracting.

After making corrections to my running stance, I stopped and set off again — “too much shock” — okay then. I decided to start my run a third time, with all of the corrections in mind for every step. I had no interruptions, instead getting a compliment from the voice coach that urged me to keep running with my current stance.

What this all tells me is that Soul has a competent coach that will track my steps with accuracy and provide corrections. It’s smart enough that it wasn’t fooled by my attempts to trick it: when I took a big step, then gently put my foot down on the ground, I was told there was a “high oscillation on the right.”

The issue, though, is listening to music and having the voice coach enabled simultaneously — your coach will always be louder than your music, interrupting it and any momentum you might’ve built if you were running to a rhythm.

Of course, an easy fix is just to not play music, have the voice coach enabled, and keep running. But these are running earphones designed for both listening and coaching — not one or the other. And yet, there’s no option to specifically control the volume or frequency of coaching. That’s a bummer. Unless your gait is consistently correct, the voice coach won’t stop bugging you, or interrupting your music.

If you’re going to spend money on running earphones, there’s gotta be a way to review stats from your runs. The Soul Run app isn’t the most attractive fitness app I’ve come across, but it has a clear and organized view of statistics from your workout.

The first page includes details like distance, speed, calories burnt, pace, etc., which is useful if you want basic stats on your run.

 Image: Soul Fit

On the second page, you can analyze your running form, head angle, step width / length, and flight time (time spent off the ground). That’s all great. I’m able to visualize and understand with numbers how my running stance was corrected, but it’s the third results page that raised my eyebrow.

Dubbed “Injury Risk,” the last page in your after-action report relates to the force you’ve exerted on each leg, or whether or not you’re taking balanced steps. The report told me that I had an uneven distribution of weight between my legs — 51 percent left, 49 percent right — which lines up with the guidance the voice coach was giving me during the run.

Soul advertises 11 hours of usage, but doesn’t say if this is with the voice coach enabled. Between wearing them for several runs and my work commute, I reached a solid nine hours of total usage with voice coach enabled.

This leads me to believe you could squeeze more usage out of it if coaching was disabled for the sake of the battery, or if you aren’t running.

The Soul Run Free Pro Bio isn’t the only pair of wireless running earphones out there — there are tons of alternatives, most of them being less expensive. If you have a smartwatch, FitBit, or some other fitness tracker, then your reasons for buying into the Run Free Pro Bio are even less than before. Besides the voice coaching about your gait, most of its features are already available in another smart device that you might already have.

Though I have to say, it’s fascinating just how accurate the voice coaching is. Now, whether or not a real running coach would agree is an argument for another run.

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13 hr.
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