Over the years, the BBC — which started as a radio service — has chosen to move into new, risky platforms including television, home computing, and the internet. It’s safe to say that we’re all quite happy with how those ventures turned out, so my question is, why stop there? The BBC should raise its digital ambitions to create original interactive experiences for computers, smartphones, and tablets; experiences that inform, educate, and entertain.
I am specifically not talking about apps that distribute or repurpose existing content. While the iPlayer apps for TV and radio are very successful, they don’t involve the creation of new interactive content.
Nor am I talking about websites such as the new educational iWonder brand. iWonder is a very well-written and very nicely designed website and it has some excellent articles, but it is not fundamentally interactive.
So what am I talking about? I can best explain with ten examples of genuinely interactive apps that would complement existing BBC TV shows and properties (because, you know, it’s all about brand synergy), and are provably feasible and popular.
1. BBC News = BBC News
Credit where credit is due: the BBC News app is a simple yet decent extension of the BBC News Online website, itself an exceptional BBC property due to its world-leading, online-only nature. It’s arguable that it’s not a particularly interactive app, but then again, I don’t think that making it more interactive would add much.
2. The Sky at Night/Stargazing Live = Star Walk
Thanks to presenters like Brian Cox and shows like Stargazing Live, there are plenty of people interested in stargazing and astronomy, but do we really expect them to go outside and fumble around with a compass when they could use something much better – like Star Walk? Want to find Jupiter or identify a constellation? Just point your smartphone in the right direction. It’s augmented reality of the finest kind, providing a supremely accessible and highly educational experience. If you combined Star Walk with audio or video commentary, you could provide viewers with a new stargazing tour every week. Perhaps you could even crowdsource counts of Leonids and Perseids meteor showers.
3. BBC Learn = Khan Academy
The BBC can lay claim to have done most things before they were cool and their collaboration with The Open University in broadcasting free lectures on TV for over 30 years certainly qualifies as a proto-Khan Academy. What makes the Khan Academy so impressive is that it began as the work of a single highly committed and highly talented individual.
Perhaps the Khan Academy succeeded at first because it had a lower bar for quality (production values were very basic in the first videos) but, to be fair, so were many of the BBC’s Open University videos; I worry that today, the BBC is being held back by an unrealistically high expectation of quality for new or cheaper projects. In any case, I’m sure plenty of smart people would jump at the chance of contributing educational videos to a BBC website, especially if they were paid.
4. Doctor Who = The Walking Dead
Doctor Who is the crown jewel of BBC drama and family entertainment. It’s also represents the very worst of BBC gaming; The Eternity Clock earned a truly execrable 39 on Metacritic. But at least that was an original game, unlike the many match-3 clones and trading card games it’s also spawned. Folks, this isn’t hard: Doctor Who isn’t about shooting things or putting gems in rows; it’s about the wonder of the universe, the difficulty of making moral choices, the humour, the soul, and the character of humanity. Which game has accomplished in style that for a broad audience? Telltale’s The Walking Dead.
5. Wonders of the Solar System = Kerbal Space Program
Flashy CGI is great. But you know what’s even better? Being able to learn about orbital mechanics by building and flying spaceships in a hyper-realistic yet approachable simulation game. Kerbal Space Program is so good that NASA is teaming up with the developers to create a special downloadable asteroid-rendezvous mission pack.
6. Coast = Google Maps/OpenStreetMap
I’m not seriously suggesting that the BBC should make a competitor to Google Maps or Open Street Maps; I’m saying they should take advantage of mapping platforms to create a simple app that guides people along various special walks around the coast of Britain. Throw in some location-based audio and video clips and you’ve got yourself a very nice little companion.
7. Reith Lectures = Touch Press
Radio 4’s Reith Lectures put the ‘inform’ and ‘educate’ into the BBC’s motto (actually, Grayson Perry’s lectures this year also added ‘entertain’). They’re impeccably researched, fact-heavy, and deserving of proper study and annotation. Touch Press’ The Wasteland app is a great example of what can be done to explore a complex text, and to my mind its just as impressive as their more well-known Elements and The Solar System apps.
8. Panorama = Fort McMoney
Fort McMoney is a curious beast, a crossover between a video documentary and a strategy videogame that explores the impact of tar sands extraction in Canada. I’m generally quite skeptical of these transmedia projects but by all accounts, Fort McMoney tackles the subject in a way that can’t be done through a purely fictional game or simulation (which can lack a real human connection), or through a non-interactive documentary (which can prevent people from experimenting or exploring different scenarios). It would be wonderful to see a similar exploration of, say, the UK’s housing boom, or the pros and cons of gas fracking, or immigration, or the building of the High Speed 2 rail line.
9. Blue Peter = Minecraft
“Here’s one we’ve prepared earlier.” Maybe Blue Peter isn’t precisely the right comparison here — it’s a little too straitlaced, perhaps — but its relentless focus on working together, exploring new places, being nice, and making stuff out of household materials seems to share the same spirit as Minecraft.
10. Horizon = The Fourth Dimension
I consider myself to be a pretty decent explainer of scientific concepts, so if I had to explain to someone how a fourth spatial dimension would work, I’d draw lots of lines and nets and cubes on paper and I think I’d get there in the end. Alternatively I could give them The Fourth Dimension and they’d figure it out in ten minutes, and enjoy it an awful lot more. Not everything has to be explained in an interactive way, but when you’re trying to explain counter-intuitive facts, letting people spin around hypercubes and see the 3D shadows they cast is a hell of a lot better than expensive CGI and muddled metaphors.
That’s all very nice, but it’s too expensive!
On the contrary, these apps would represent excellent value for money. A single hour of your average documentary can easily cost £100,000, with the most expensive reaching £300,000 (plus they normally get commissioned in multi-hour blocks). Drama comes in at triple the cost. You could easily make The Fourth Dimension for the cost of a half-hour science documentary; and even Kerbal Space Program, with its high complexity and endless gameplay and potential for expansion, would cost far less than Wonders of the Solar System.
The BBC has tried making interactive games and experiences in the 90s and 00s, with very mixed results. Times have changed since then. Thanks to cheap smartphones and tablets, apps are accessible to more people than ever, and they’re cheaper and faster to make than the heavy and clunky websites of old. Production times are more predictable thanks to better APIs and services. Crucially, there’s a much deeper pool of British independent developers to choose from, including The Chinese Room, Preloaded, Touch Press, YoYo Games, Introversion, and Positech Games, all of whom have outstanding pedigrees.
These developers are so outstanding, in fact, that there’s no guarantee they’d actually want to make anything with the BBC at all unless the commissioning process was improved. They already know how to make and sell good apps. But I suspect that like most people, they like the BBC and they’d be interested in working on something original if given the right opportunity, some level of revenue sharing (from international sales), and assuming there was a minimum of fucking about in the pitch and development process (a huge assumption, sadly). Anything is possible though – just look at the success of the gov.uk team. If the UK government can assemble a crack team of developers and designers to completely overhaul and improve its digital services, I’m pretty sure the BBC is capable of commissioning ten decent apps from indies.
Everything about the BBC is anticompetitive! And yet we still love and support it. I don’t understand why we need a publicly funded production of The Musketeers when I’m sure we could get a perfectly good ad-funded version from ITV or Sky, but that’s the world we live in and I don’t think the UK’s TV or production market is suffering from it.
There is no way that the BBC could possibly make or commission so many apps that it would unbalance the UK app development market, and in any case it’s not as if we’re drowning in a sea of high quality educational or high-brow apps. In fact, I’m confident indie companies would welcome the BBC’s investment in this area, and it could well help grow the overall sector by improving skills, raising profiles, and all that good stuff. So let’s not get hung up on the anticompetitive argument unless we want to scrap the entire BBC, shall we?
(I dare say that if Douglas Adams were still with us, the story might be very different. His brainchild, H2G2, a kind of proto-Wikipedia, might have turned into something very special if he were there to take care of it, and it could have inspired other exciting website and apps. Still, here we are, and we have to make our own future.)
I don’t want to criticise the BBC’s digital efforts. It’s a big organisation with many masters pulling in different directions. We all know that people are spending more time with apps; we all know that young people in particular value their phones and tablets over their TVs. I’m not suggesting it should throw hundreds of millions into a quest to dominate the app market; I’m saying it should make ten apps for the cost of a few episodes of Doctor Who. That’s all — and just imagine the impact they could have, the lives they could change.
The BBC is perfectly free not to make apps, just as the BBC was free not to make television; not to make the BBC Micro; not to create new television channels; and not to create BBC News Online. Had it not been so bold, we would all have been a great deal poorer.