Last Monday (June 9th) saw the 6th BBC Online Briefing, outlining the organisation’s digital activity for external stakeholders and suppliers. I was lucky enough to be asked along again so as ever, I thought I’d report back (and, yes, it’s taken a week but what can I say, we’ve been busy).

Once again we were in the BBC’s storied Radio Theatre, and the event was hosted by the thoroughly charming Fiona Bruce, who seemed to be relishing this second appearance and generally got under the skin of the discussions more than last time (sometimes provocatively so, but we’ll get to that later).

BBC Online’s current priorities – BBC iPlayer, myBBC, innovation at scale, “the BBC, online” and continuous delivery  – were emblazoned on a banner by the side of the stage and in his opening key note,  BBC Future Media Director Ralph Rivera outlined these through a series of concrete examples from across “the products”, including:

  • the roll out of the Knowledge and Learning “iWonder” guides (a huge task involving the consolidation of material from over 200 existing sites)
  • long-form journalism in News (in which I gather our good friend Paul Finn of Fitzroy and Finn had a major part in designing)
  • the new iPlayer, launched in BETA in March
  • the re-tooling of “below the waterline” features such as metadata ingest
  • the ongoing development of Playlister
  • ditto with BBC Live, which will give, over the summer, “the Olympic experience” to Wimbledon, Glastonbury, the Commonwealth Games and of course the World Cup, which I gather is happening as I write

Ralph went on the discuss the importance of working with external companies. He admitted that it was still difficult for outsiders to work with the organisation, but that the development of the new roster, broken into Testing, Design and Services, was hopefully going to be a big step in improving things. He also pointed out that the external quota is “a floor, not a ceiling”; the impressive fact that last year’s external spend in digital was 30% – around £19.5 million) suggests that this is more than just rhetoric.

Robin Cramp was up next, talking though Connected Studio‘s work over the last six months (much of which, of course, we’ve reported on this blog). Robin first introduced Matt Shearer, from BBC News Labs and Chris Rush, of the agency Realise who talked us through Referend-erm, an interactive hub about the upcoming Scottish independence referendum, aimed at 16-24 year olds, where “no question is to big, to small or too stupid to ask”. I was pleased to see that the team had opted to to create an app but rather a mobile-first, fully responsive website. Matt described the work as a “speedboat project” – enabling the the team to build something outside the organisation’s usual roadmap.

Robin was joined by CS Head Adrian Woolard. The two talked through upcoming CS projects, which would include working with the Natural History on their next behemoth series, One Planet, as well as with Radio 3, building on the work already done around classical music, and the World Service. Adrian also discussed a project encouraging coding for teenagers and hinted at a new platform to enable “innovation at scale” – but couldn’t say what it was jut yet…

John Page from R&D then presented a range of work that showed just how BBC R&D was “at the heart of reinventing our industry”, looking ahead in time frames of 3, 5 and 10 years. “Broadcast as a system” had traditionally been Create>>Deliver>>Consume, but several factors were disrupting the model, including end-to-end IP, data-centrism and new devices and interfaces. R&D are currently responding to these shifts by concentrating on projects that are:

  • immersive (a project using Oculus Rift and binaural sound to present chamber performances by members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra)
  • data-centric (overlays on sports event)
  • interactive/personal/adaptive (personalised sound mixing of live events)

John also discussed the importance of collaboration with outside agencies including tech manufacturers, SMEs, digital agencies (I was pleased to see that they’ve been working with my old firm Somethin’ Else) and academia.

The final presentation of the first half came from Carmen Aitken from BBC Audiences, who came to talk not about “the death of TV” – but rather its future, based on various in-depth audience research methods. TV, however it’s consumed, continues to satisfy four key needs: sociability, sensory stimulation, synchrony and relaxation. Interestingly, research shows that most viewers generally know what they want to watch, and find it via EPG, PVR and VOD – very much in that order. As for those of us who have given up on the TV as a device entirely – well, we are still very much outliers, although it’s worth noting that we tend to use laptops to do so rather than tablets.

Carmen posited three scenarios for the future of TV, using car-based metaphors:

  • Flying Cars model – a completely disrupted landscape
  • Horse and cart model – business as usual
  • Modified car model – some hybrid of the present and new forms of consumption

She made a cogent argument for the likelihood of the last one, of course. I personally emain unconvinced, and, as I’ve said before, when thinking about the future of media generally, we’d all do well to think about Nasseem Taleb’s “turkey graph“.

After a brief break, the stage was taken by polymath Dave Birss, who’d been asked to think about what he would do if given a digital-only network to run (one couldn’t help but think of BBC Three here, but that was never made explicit). Dave set out to test a series of assumptions, in each case taking them part fairly comprehensively. These included:

  • Assumption – “The success of a programme = the number of viewers.” Dave – why couldn’t we use the number of interactions as a success measure? Wouldn’t this tell us more about how an audience really felt?
  • Assumption: “We make programmes for people sitting on the settee.” Dave – really? Tech gives us the ability to make location-based, context-appropriate content.
  • Assumption: – “Digital stuff should be an extension of TV content.” Dave – why not start “in the real world”? What about “player-written drama” or “social-guided programming”?
  • Assumption: “Content needs to be edited to fixed lengths.” Dave – why not have expandable content”, content which might initially appear as a 3 minute stub, which might expand to 90 minutes if the viewer wanted to see, say, a whole interview.

This last point was the most compelling for me, but interestingly it’s where Fiona Bruce came in, making the observation that from her experience, lengthy, un-edited interviews led to “crapitude”. Well, I think it’s a question of intention: if you go into an interview knowing that you can fix things in the edit there’s no real jeopardy – no incentive to make a good long-from interview. But speaking as podcast junkie, I have to say that the scene is pretty inspiring – and I rarely, if ever, come across a dud. (Note that Dubner & Levitt and are doing the rounds at the moment, promoting Think Like A Freak; most of what I’ve heard on the radio so far has been soundbyte-y, but not this fabulous hour-long conversation on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Most definitely not an example of crapitude.)

The session was rounded off with a Q&A with Ralph and Matthew Postgate, Controller of R&D. Questions covered included:

  • What tech gets you most excited? Matthew – broadcasting data sets and the Internet of Things; Ralph – truly interactive, immersive video.
  • What the role of UGC? Ralph – something we can draw on, but not our core mission nor a strength; “we are the signal in the noise”.
  • What are the key qualities you’re looking for in a collaborator:P Ralph – creativity, diversity, a focus on delivery – and tenacity.
  • Will the licence renewal process affect innovation? Matthew – yes, but positively, driving innovation in areas like personalisation.

Once again, it was a thoroughly engaging afternoon, and a revealing one two. Congratulations to all involved and I look forward to the next one…

Simon

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