In my previous post, Part 4: The Pull, I talked about why, given all of these issues, independent companies continue to pitch for digital commissions from the BBC. In this post I’ll explore some of the problems faced by digital indies including low pay, and lack of prestige, reach, and creative control.
I also realise that this series has taken far too long for me to write, so I’m going to conclude it here in an accelerated fashion, which will hopefully relieve everyone concerned. That means that I have not taken quite as long to proofread or edit it. But something is better than nothing, right?
Historically, I’ve found that BBC digital commissions – for apps, for websites, for games – don’t pay an awful lot. And while the pay has improved considerably in recent years, it still doesn’t recognise the significant cost involved in pitching. The BBC is not really any worse than other organisations in this regard, but pitching just sucks. I think we were pretty good, all things considered, at pitching – we had an above-average success rate at Six to Start and we won some big projects. Yet even so, we lost far more than we won, and that uncertainty made it difficult for us to hire full-time employees.
Instead, we had to use contractors and freelancers, who cost more than permanent staff and took their knowledge and experience with them when they left (making it harder to maintain projects). As a result, bigger companies that can pitch and develop for multiple projects simultaneously can significantly outperform smaller companies, which explains the drastic consolidation in digital indies of late.
Similar problems exist for indie TV producers, but the sting of pitching is lessened slightly because there’s a much greater acceptance of contract/freelance workers in that sector, and because they often get to retain some commercial rights in their shows (unlike digital indies, who usually get nothing at all).
Conversely, the cost of producing and self-publishing apps, games, websites, etc., is low and declining, so the attraction of £20k or £50k or £100k from the BBC isn’t as much as it used to be, if you can raise £30k from Kickstarter and make a decent game prototype in half a year.
People will hate me for saying this, but the vast majority of digital work done by indies for the BBC isn’t even remotely prestigious. I recognise this contradicts an earlier point I made (that indies love working on things like Doctor Who), but hear me out: the work isn’t likely to win an Independent Games Festival award, or an Apple Design Award, or a GDC Award, or honestly anything that gets you significant respect from peers. You can bullshit TV people about how many downloads your vanilla app got, but you can’t bullshit a digital person – and they won’t care that your app is about Doctor Who.
And the truth is, apps made by indies (i.e. not iPlayer, BBC News, BBC Sport, etc.) are unlikely to reach that many people. BBC TV may get everywhere, but apps don’t. Not even the ones for big TV shows, because ‘calls to action’ are hard to get (e.g. “If you liked this episode, download the app at www.bbc.co.uk/whogame”)
Little Creative Control
The briefs I received from BBC commissioners were often highly detailed, specifying the type of game or website required, the story beats, the characters, the educational points that needed to be covered, and so on. That’s fine – it’s the BBC’s money, they can do what they like. But as a creative person and a creative company, it’s just not very interesting.
Once again, I’ll use Doctor Who as an example – you may think that it’d be great for the BBC to do a proper Doctor Who game that tied into the TV show. Unfortunately you are unlikely to get to do anything particularly interesting as you’ll always be second fiddle to the TV show’s needs. This is perfectly understandable given that the TV show gets millions of viewers a week, whereas your game or app can only hope to get a fraction of the audience. Why bother doing anything at all for smaller platforms, why waste Steven Moffat’s time (or any of the other production staff) when it’s better spent on the TV show?
The problem is that this is a classic innovator’s dilemma, where the BBC is failing to meet their audience’s unstated or future needs for interactivity. Apps may seem cheaper and lower quality and less popular but they do many things differently and better. One day we’ll want more interactivity from the BBC but the necessary skills and experience just won’t exist there (also, I’ve never bought the value for money idea behind focusing on TV production; if that were true we’d just made radio, or perhaps books).
The TV industry is a strange beast; it has things like transmission (TX) dates where they decide – with alarmingly late notice – when a show is going to be broadcast. These decisions appear to be a dark art where channels size each other up and try to ‘win’ particular timeslots or nights. Accordingly, when we were making The Code, we didn’t know when the TV show was going to be broadcast until a few weeks beforehand; we’d finished most of the work but due to this uncertainty we had to keep the team together, idling on other work. Once again, this is expensive, it favours larger companies, and it’s not something that many indies realise when they start out.
While the commissioning process isn’t that long, the process of making a TV show can still take years. Ideally you want the digital people to be involved right at the start, coming up with the concept for the interactive stuff – and you don’t want that changing drastically over time in case it causes problems with the TV people. But in digital, speed matters; what’s cool today may no longer be cool next year, let alone after two years. To be fair, this is not true of all digital ideas, but it does rob many a project of its freshness.
Success in pitching – and in production – can depend on personal relationships with commissioners. I know this because I’ve both benefitted and lost out from my relationships (or lack thereof). Commissioners can, and will, tell you details that aren’t in the brief. This is not because they’re corrupt – it’s because they aren’t necessarily amazing brief-writers and they don’t have enough time or resources to do a good job. If I bump into them at a conference and ask them a question about the brief, then they’ll probably answer, because they’re not misanthropic assholes (so yeah, good luck if you hate conferences or networking).
Commissioners also want to work with people whom they know they can get on with and whom they trust – after all, you’ll be working together for months or even years. Newbies don’t know this happens; it’s only people who’ve pitched and lost who do. Yet the necessity for these relationships puts even winners off as their commissioners will eventually move on.
Unsurprisingly, a system that requires indies to pitch rewards those who are good at pitching. It is truly amazing how much a pitch matters. Now, in defence of the BBC, one could argue that a good pitch is a proxy for attention to detail, the ability to make good looking content on a deadline, and understanding the market. I think there is some truth in that. However, it’s easy to be dishonest in pitches, and it’s also easy to ‘cheat’ if you’re a big company, by wheeling out your big-hitter Don Draper-alikes for the pitch and then throwing a bunch of juniors onto the project afterwards.
Even the best indies will be lucky if they have a 50% success rate at pitching; a 30% or 40% rate is more likely. And good pitches can take weeks to put together, which means that while you’re producing one project, you’re probably pitching for two or three other things. Talk about distracting…
Maybe things have changed in the last two or three years, but the BBC’s tech requirements were a total pain in the ass, adding considerable time and expense. There was always some weird new bizarre problem that cropped up every week; maybe you weren’t able to use a particular subdirectory, or a module was completely out of date. Every month you’d hear about some amazing new idea like BBC ID or Games Grid that usually didn’t work well and didn’t add a lot to the end user experience, but had to be implemented for political reasons – until you complained enough that that requirement was removed at the last minute. Endless meetings, endless emails and documentation, all for a service that was massively more expensive than Linode or AWS. Yes, I know the BBC has to have rock-solid security, etc, but I sure as hell am not interested in dealing with that if I can make more interesting stuff elsewhere.
You don’t learn a lot
There is a charming belief that your experience at the BBC will help you in related industries. Perhaps that’s true if you make TV, or if you want to continue pitching for tech projects at big organisations – but it sure as hell isn’t true for most industries. When you’re selling games or apps or services to end users, the entire production process is different; marketing is different; sales are different. It requires a totally different skill set. Like Ray in Ghostbusters says, “You’ve never been out of college. You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve worked in the private sector… they expect results!”
Indies Keep Quiet
Most indies are quite rightly afraid of pissing the BBC off – who wants to burn those bridges? – so they keep quiet about all of these problems in public and they don’t share knowledge. Yes, the BBC solicits feedback, but bitter experience demonstrates that it changes little; and the cases where I have given critical feedback in public, I’ve been dismissed as a troublemaker by senior BBC staff. It would be sad if it wasn’t so funny.
Lack of Visibility for Indies
It’s hard for indies to learn about new pitching opportunities. Putting aside the execrable Bravo Solutions pitching interface, which I believe is being replaced/improved, the fact that you need to download a PDF from the Connected Studio website to learn about what the BBC is looking for is, well, insane. Have these people not heard of the World Wide Web, or Hypertext? Wouldn’t it be better to have that information on a webpage, perhaps? Or maybe create a newsletter and let indies just sign up to a weekly notification of new opportunities? You could probably do it for free with Mailchimp.
Doing roundtables and talks for indies (which are admirably held around the country) is not the same as having a really awesome website. In fact it punishes people who can’t spare time or money to attend briefing. Put all that shit online, do communication online.
At the end of the day
The best indies in the business aren’t applying for BBC digital products any more. Why would they want to work for less money, with less creative freedom, with less production flexibility, with an unpredictable bureaucracy that rewards skills and experience that aren’t applicable outside of the BBC?
Q: What about BBC Connected Studio? Isn’t that totally awesome, really transparent, and solves every problem you’ve mentioned?
A: To be fair, I wouldn’t know because I haven’t participated in it. From what I can tell, it’s not about making original interactive content; instead it’s more about new ways of presenting existing content, something I acknowledge as being important but not the only thing the BBC should be doing. Other producers and developers who have been through the process have also told me that most pitches end up looking very similar, which doesn’t speak well for the amount of room for creativity.
Q: Adrian, you criticise the BBC a lot here, but you’re actually just a blowhard. What’s your solution?
A: I have a few suggestions, some of which may not be politically acceptable, but what the hell:
1. Spend more money on more things. This allows for greater risk taking. The current situation of spending lots of cash on a few projects is a false economy. Yes, I did say that the BBC didn’t pay a lot, but that’s judged against the work required. Digital indies can still do great things with £10k or £20k providing that the scope is controlled and they don’t have to go through hell and back during the pitching/production process. (Related: Do things faster.)
2. Don’t require all the tech be built on the BBC platform. Every time I do a project with BBC tech, our developers ask never to have to do it again. Yes, the BBC is a big organisation, security issues are important, etc., but consider this: The Open University is far more flexible about hosting and tech, and I don’t remember hearing any data-loss scandals from them yet.
3. Stop changing priorities and processes all the time. Every three months I feel like there’s some new fad or technology or genre that a commissioner or controller gets obsessed with after going to some media or tech conference. It makes it impossible to pitch really good, timeless stuff.
4. Be more open and more online for commissioning and production. Gather independent criticism from the best in the business; if you don’t know who they are, look at winners of Apple Design Awards, talk to veteran developers like Dave Addey (who, sadly, has left British shores and gone to the promised land – Cupertino).
Crazy Ideas That Just Might Work
1. Run a prize (you know, like the longitude prize). It’s actually kind of a terrible idea that puts a lot of cost on entrants and usually works for things that have payoff beyond actual prize money; and it also requires easily judged criteria, and smart judges. But it’d be pretty neat to watch.
2. Inject a market signal into the commissioning of original digital projects – for example, provide matched funding to crowdfunded ideas that meet certain BBC criteria. This process is absolutely gameable – see the Ouya debacle – but it’s not irredeemable. Certainly it’s better than getting ‘audiences’ to vote (for free) on what they want, but it does punish those who don’t have the money to ‘vote’ with. Maybe you could get people to vote with shares of their licence fee, which would be doable if the BBC end up requiring people to log in to use iPlayer.
3. Multiply the number of funding bodies. There are already other groups who award money for digital commissions: The Wellcome Trust, Lighthouse, Arts Council, etc. I have helped The Wellcome Trust with judging pitches; their process isn’t perfect, but it’s far faster and no less fair than the BBC’s process. In other words: if the BBC can’t fix their digital commissioning problem, maybe others can. Indeed, this solution works better for digital projects than for TV or radio content because – thus far – the BBC haven’t claimed original digital interactive content as a core part of their strategy. Have some funding bodies focus on popularity, others on art, others on games, etc.
4. Totally abolish digital commissioning at the BBC and do some kind of blanket incentive to R&D tax credits or games tax relief. This is the Nuclear Option #1: “Commissioning doesn’t work, so we just won’t commission any more.”
4a. Totally abolish digital commissioning, and just get TV indies to do it; The Malcolm Tucker app is a great example of a good digital product for a BBC show that nevertheless doesn’t actually involve the BBC.
5. Nuclear Option #2: “Just pick winners – don’t waste time getting indies to compete against each other.” Many big, successful companies I’ve worked with don’t bother with competitive commissioning because they just hire (who they believe to be) the best. This is unworkable for the BBC for political reasons (it conflicts with the supposed aim of championing small indies) but I mention it because it’s so successful for, you know, pretty much everyone else on Earth.
6. Nuclear Option #3: “Stop commissioning, do everything in-house.” Not a bad idea assuming you can get the right people (e.g. Government Digital Service) but again, politically a non-starter in these capitalist, market-driven, competitive times. But times change…
To end on a positive note, I can unequivocally state that the BBC is not the worst organisation I have encountered for digital commissioning. That title goes to the EU’s Horizon 2020 process, which rewards projects for having – no joke – 10+ partners over 10+ countries, taking place over 3-7 years. Now that’s a real nightmare.