Wednesday November 19th saw the seventh of the BBC Future Media’s Online Briefings, once again held at the storied Radio Theatre in New Broadcasting House. The half day session was admirably hosted by Naga Munchetty who kicked off the morning by showing a video interview with FM’s director Ralph Rivera, who, in awards show parlance, couldn’t be with us today.

Ralph reiterated the five priorities which stand from the last briefing in the spring:

  • BBC iPlayer
  • myBBC
  • Innovation at scale
  • The BBC, online
  • Continuous Delivery

Ralph also discussed some of his favourite recent initiatives, including apps for BBC Weather and CBeebies and the brilliant work FM had done around the WWI centenary. He also took on some tricky questions that had been sent in by indies, including whether the criteria for participating in Connected Studio had changed (short answer: no; for more detail see below).

Ralph was followed by Knowledge and Learning’s Tim Plyming (our old friend from BBC Radio & Music Interactive) and Chris Sizemore. Tim talked in detail about the WWI season (the largest season on which the BBC has ever embarked) and how it’s playing out digitally, including a series of brilliant, engaging and informative short-form documentaries commissioned specifically for online. But Tim dwelled on a highly innovative interactive TV episode of the Our War series that asked the user/veiwer to participate in a series of questions that would determine – in real time – the course of a drama based on a real life infantry charge on the Somme in 1916. Powerful stuff.

Chris talked more widely about K&L’s work, and in particular the launch of the the iWonder guides, which aggregate BBC content – from Learning and beyond – around specific topics and questions, all designed to both stimulate and exploit curiousity in the reader/viewer.

Jon Howard and Martin Wilson then talked us through Make it Digital: an initiative to get young people coding. Now in general I’m a little skeptical about such schemes, or at least the school-based ones. For one thing I’d like to see far more emphasis on STEM subjects than on the more modish coding, and for another I agree with The Register’s line that we are never going to be able to take on the developing world as a coding power house (nor indeed have their considerable arbitrage advantages). Rather we should think about coding in the wider context of entrepreneurship and the development of new ideas.

But, but… to my great relief all the projects Jon and Martin discussed did precisely this, presenting kids with problem-solving challenges that would use code solutions rather than simply teaching basic coding (whatever that is!) A video compilation of hightlights from a CBBC roadshow in the North East showed the process in action and was really quite moving.

Robin Cramp, now an old hand at these events, talked about the last – and the next – six months on the BBC’s open innovation programme, Connected Studio, which regular readers will know we’ve worked with, and reported on, pretty closely. Significantly, CS now has five pilots live with several more in pipeline, and, (arguably the most crucial bit of news of the day) is about to launch a brand new platform that will allow pilots to go live without the need for dealing with’s necessary restrictions. Robin discussed how some new approaches had been trialled lately that moved CS away from the open Creative Studio>Build Studio model, but this was a simple matter of trying out new approaches where strategically and editorially relevant, but didn’t set a new precedent.

Robin was followed by Maureen Gore who gave a brief overview of the current procurement process – and some upcoming changes – that managed the seemingly unlikely feat of being simultaneously succinct, informative and funny.

After a short tea break, BBC R&D’s Head of Operations Jon Page reintroduced us to the theme he’d discussed at the summer’s briefing, what he terms “Broadcasting as a System”. He outlined the defining characeristics of modern broadcast as being: immersive, pervasive, data-driven and interactive/personal/adaptive.

He then showed us how this thinking had played out in actual pilots run at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in the summer. Examples included a studio based entriely on IP infrastructure and standard, off-the-shelf computer kit (something that impressed me more than perhaps anything else all morning), the use of Oculus Rift and binaural sound to creative immersive “viewing” of certain events in the mains stadium, and the transmission of 4K (or UHD) broadcast from key events.

The final presentation of the morning was from Carmen Aitken, FM’s Head of Audiences. Carmen has presented audience research at previous briefings and today was presenting recent detailed research work looking at “Digital Needs”. Based loosely on Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, these comprised characteristics summed up by these verbs:

  • Unwind
  • Energise
  • Manage
  • Inform
  • Reassure
  • Connect

Carmen pointed out that all of these corresponded more or less to “Love/belonging” layer within Maslow’s triangle:

Screen shot 2014-11-20 at 17.05.03

I personally felt that I’d like to see something that related to Self-actualisation at the top of the triangle, and wondered if the verb “challenge” might fit the bill. But then, I’m something of a grumpy middle-aged man, a representative of what was, Carmen pointed out, the demographic least likely to use digital media to “Connect”. I suspect she’s right.

Carmen went on to break down what she termed “digital genres” that might apply to short form viral content: Cute, Win, Fail, OMG, LOL and Moving. She also discussed “emotional snacking”, and pointed out that while of course the BBC was hardly going to use this breakdown in how it conceived content, it could tap into it to get existing content to new audiences, which strikes me a smart thing to do (although left me feeling very old indeed).

The session wound up with all the morning’s speakers taking the stage for and audience Q&A, which took in the importance of design skills, the conversion rate from TV views to interactive participation (around 2-3% on average), the importance of the viewer “seeing themselves in the story”, the importance of open source (actually it turns out the BBC takes an appropriately pragmatic rather than ideological approach to open source), further uses of and metadata visual overlays on content and the small percentage interactive took up of overall BBC income (something of a red herring for me, but one I’ll have to go into at some other juncture).

Congratulations to the Market Engagement team and Jake Bailey in particular for pulling off such an enjoyable and genuinely thought provoking morning.