Archives for posts with tag: Dave Birss

A little while ago, reporting from one of BBC Future Media’s briefing events, I discussed an exchange between filmmaker, comedian and consultant Dave Birss and the event’s host, Fiona Bruce. Dave had posited the notion of “concertina content” (if memory serves), that is, content that could expand from a two-minute soundbite to a long-form interview. It was an idea inspired by Dave’s own frustration at having to leave too much great material on the cutting room floor when making documentaries. Bruce picked up on this and pretty vigorously disagreed. From her experience, long-form interviews are messy, rambling and boring.

I have sympathy with both standpoints. I just had the misfortune of sitting through an interminable interview with Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, an extra on the DVD of Sacha Gervasi’s otherwise highly enjoyable documentary Anvil – The Story of Anvil. Jeez, Lars can talk.

But on the whole I incline towards Dave’s point of view. Specifically, I think that long-form interviews tend to be shoddy precisely when they’re intended as source material for soundbites – that is, when they’re expected to be edited. (This is almost certainly the case with the Ulrich interview.) But as with so many things, it’s a question of intention. If an interviewer knows that they’re going into an hour-long conversation that will go out unexpurgated then they’d better make every moment count.

Over the last couple of years I’ve become obsessed with podcasts. Yes, I’ve been listening to online audio for a lot longer than that but recently it’s become my overriding media source, with the possible exception of, well, books. They’ve even replaced my beloved World Service as the kitchen background ambience. Why is this? Well for one thing, given their potential reach, podcasts can – and do – cover editorial niches in depth, niches the mainstream media will do no more that skim – if that. As my own personal interests have moved more and more to the media margins – paleo, contemplation, endurance sports, opera, metal, quantified self…. you get the picture – podcasts have become the only media source that’s even vaguely satisfying. (There’s a problem here with confirmation bias and over-specialisation, I’ll grant you, but I’ll save that for another day.)

But there’s something else going on here, beyond all this fabulous niche-y-ness, and that’s that the very best podcasters truly exploit the possibility of long-form, by going deeper and deeper into any topic, or, more simply, going places “professional” journalists rarely get the opportunity go. (There are honourable exceptions, of course. The World Service’s The Interview used to be one, although sadly it’s been superseded by the pointlessly combative Hard Talk, with even a name that’s straight out of Brass Eye.)

Timothy Ferriss, the writer and lifestyle experimentalist mentioned often here has emerged, through his own podcasts on The Timothy Ferriss Show, as a really fine interviewer. Admittedly, in curating his show’s interviewees he somewhat puts himself in a stronger position than some journalists. But it’s not just that. He plainly does a huge amount of research before each show and is all over the topic at hand. He’s also a fine conversationalist: gracious, curious, explorative, emotionally intelligent. And above all interested.

If there’s an overarching theme to his interviews it’s what you might expect: human motivation. What drives interesting, creative, successful people? By what rituals do they abide? How have they got where they’ve got? Recent interviewees have been as wide-ranging as Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, historian Dan Carlin (himself a podcaster of some brilliance – check out his incredible Hardcore History), Pixar president Ed Catmull and Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner. But a standout for me is his interview with Kevin Kelly, and hour and a half interview (presented on the blog in three parts) that I sat through straight at the kitchen table after dinner a couple of nights ago. Ferriss calls Kelly possibly “the most interesting man in the world”, and he’s not wrong there. Kelly is probably best known to this blog’s readers as a tech writer in general and the co-founder of WIRED in particular. But that barely scrapes the surface; to call this man a polymath is to understate the case. Once I’ve digested the show I’ll write up some of its nuggets in a later post.

In the meantime, a heartily recommend pretty much all episodes of The Tim Ferriss Show, which can be found here*.


*Astute readers will note that this is the post’s only inline link. I explored the reasons behind that in my recent post about Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. But, lordy, I have to tell you, it’s tough eschewing them. More on that soon.

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…