The Pull: Digital Commissioning #4

In my previous post, Part 3: World Enough and Time, I talked about the problem of focusing on kids and educational digital projects; commissioners being too busy; not competing against the best; and being unduly influenced by big tech companies. In this post I’ll explore why, given all of these issues, independent companies continue to pitch for digital commissions from the BBC. Also, I’m aware this series is getting a little long, so I’m going to be a little briefer from now on.

Given the litany of problems I’ve talked about with digital commissioning at the BBC, why do independent companies continue to work with them? Clearly projects still get made, so it can’t be that bad, can it? There are indeed a few solid reasons why indies choose to pitch the BBC; however, not all of them are very good news, though.

Money

Getting commissioned by the BBC means that you’re guaranteed to get paid, whether or not it’s successful or popular. In comparison, trying to self-publish your own game or app comes with a hefty degree of risk. So, if you can’t compete in the commercial marketplace but you are good at pitching to the BBC, this is a great way to run a business.

Learning

Commissioned projects can be a good way to learn new ways of designing and developing projects while still getting paid. Never made apps about the weather before? If you can get commissioned to do something for the BBC, you can learn on the job. The downside here is that what you learn at the BBC may not be applicable in the commercial sector, but even so, it can still be a useful experience.

Exposure

The BBC is one of the biggest and most respected global brands, and shows like Doctor Who and Sherlock have tens of millions of viewers. Creating websites or apps related to those brands can expose your company to a wide audience; you can also get access to conferences and festivals which will help with networking and sales. Whether or not your project is any good or not hardly matters; conferences love getting speakers from the BBC since they can attract attendees. However, as people become increasingly aware that the real action online is happening with ‘original’ apps like Candy Crush, Minecraft, Angry Birds, and Snapchat (apps that can make hundreds of millions of dollars from hundreds of millions of players), the glow that’s associated with the BBC is starting to fade.

Excitement

It’s exciting to work on projects for the BBC! Where else do you get to work on something like Doctor Who or the Olympics? The BBC’s TV and radio shows still regularly attract audiences in the millions – something you’re unlikely to achieve for your own app or website. A commissioned project allows you to shortcut the uncertainty and grind of making your own thing and immediately get in front of a lot of people.

But, of course, it’s not all roses…

In my next post, I’ll explore some of the problems faced by digital indies including low pay, and lack of prestige, reach, and creative control.

World Enough and Time: Digital Commissioning #3

In my previous post, Part 2: The Magic Roundabout, I talked about commissioners moving in and out of the BBC all the time; why there’s a strong incentive to mislead everyone on how awesome your commissions were; and why the BBC is so risk averse, particularly for digital projects. In this post I’ll explore the problem of focusing on kids and educational digital projects; commissioners being too busy; not competing against the best; and being unduly influenced by big tech companies.

Education, education, education

If you’re under 13, the BBC offers a veritable cornucopia of games and interesting digital projects; everything from simple quizzes to experiments in live TV-synced mobile gaming. I’m not totally clear on why, as soon as you turn 13, the BBC completely loses interest in making lots of games for you, but I think it’s related to the erroneous belief that ‘kids’ like to play games and use digital devices in a way that adults don’t. Because it’s so important to hook audiences while they’re young, it’s justifiable to use any means necessary – including making games – to get them to love the BBC.

Now, it would be anticompetitive for the BBC to make a bunch of fun games freely available to the public, so usually there’s some semblance of educational content in each of them*. That ethos of ‘we can do digital or gaming stuff as long as we can justify it as an educational project’ has infected the entire corporate such that pretty much every game ends up having some kind of educational content crowbarred in.

One notable offender is the Doctor Who Adventure Games. There are many problems with these games; one of the most egregious was that when you encountered some historical artefact such as a black cab, the Doctor spout some Wikipedia-style text about how there used to be 40,000 back in 1940. Not only was this completely irrelevant to the small matter of killer Daleks roving the environment; not only was the factoid utterly dull; but crucially, you never hear the Doctor crowbarring in such education in the TV show.

No doubt some commissioner decided that it’d easier to justify the game’s existence (and budget) if they pretended that it was educational, but it had the effect of worsening the overall experience. My pet conspiracy theory about why the BBC likes making educational games is because it gives them internal cover when the audience figures are disappointing. Precisely because you can’t quantify the educational benefit of something, you can always suggest that your expensive game that only got 10,000 players was still worthwhile because it was ‘educational’.

Finally, I don’t have anything against educational games – I’ve designed some for the BBC that I consider to be pretty neat, in fact – but believe me, they are super, super hard to do in a way that isn’t either boring or non-educational.

Solution: Stop requiring that games include educational components. We don’t require that of all TV shows, and we don’t even require that of all CBBC games either.

We don’t have enough time!

I once worked with a commissioner who asked us to email detailed status updates to her before our regular meetings. No problem – perfectly reasonable thing to ask for. What wasn’t reasonable was that when we sat down to meet and looked at the printouts, she was clearly reading the status updates for the first time. Since these updates could be quite long, there just wasn’t enough time for her to properly take them in, so she’d ask us questions that were already answered in them; or she’d pick out a single particular detail and comment on that.

I remember becoming pretty upset about this; why did she ask us to prepare all this stuff if she wasn’t even going to read it properly? It was only later that I realised that she – and many other commissioners – really didn’t have the time to read and comment on status updates. These days, commissioners don’t just commission TV shows and digital projects – they’re off giving talks at conferences and workshops across the country, they’re performing outreach to schools, and they’re in the multitude of meetings and reviews that comes with working in a big bureaucracy.

Of course, she could hardly admit that she didn’t have time to do her job properly, so she continued to ask for the status updates and continued not to read them properly. I believe this hectic scheduling also means that commissioners don’t have the time to write detailed or interesting briefs; to research new ideas; to read through the many, many pitches they receive for every brief; and just as importantly, to understand what’s happening in the wider industry. It’s not the worst job out there, but the BBC and Channel 4 and other corporations don’t make it easy for them.

Solution: Give commissioners more time for their core responsibilities. If necessary, require that a certain minimum number of hours per month is spent on each brief or commission.

The right competition

Speaking of understanding what’s happening in the wider industry, I’ve found that some commissioners (not all) have an incomplete idea of what’s popular and what’s state-of-the-art when it comes to digital projects and games. This is a particularly bad problem with higher level executives (e.g. bosses of commissioners) who really don’t have the time, or perhaps the interest, to keep up with digital happenings as much as they might do for TV.

As a result, not a day goes by without seeing some internet person at the BBC or Sky or Channel 4 claim that their new app or website is the best in the world, when a cursory examination of the market would reveal otherwise. It doesn’t help that industry awards like the BIMAs and Digital Emmy Awards confine themselves to TV or video-based interactive projects without comparing them to the usually far-superior products found outside those industries. The sort of media conferences that commissioners speak at are also pretty bad for finding out what’s state-of-the-art, simply because the creators of those projects aren’t interested in those conferences.

Solution: Hire people who have a genuine interest in the field of games and digital projects, and are not liable to be taken in by flashy but ultimately mediocre projects. This is hard to do if the people doing the hiring (e.g. controllers) have no idea what constitutes ‘genuine interest’; in which case I’d suggest the board (or BBC Trust, or whoever) try and hire a good digitally-minded controller. Of course, they themselves may also have no taste, in which case you’re pretty screwed.

Bad influence

Google, Microsoft, Apple, Disney – they’re big successful companies, all involved in media to some degree. Surely the BBC could learn a lot from them? Surely it’s worth high-level execs at UK broadcasters visiting them for fact-finding missions?

I’m not so sure. The practices of tech companies (Google X, 20% time, etc.) are often not applicable for the BBC due to its completely different mission and its wider range of stakeholders. The BBC, for better or worse, cannot move fast and break things; and more easily implemented ideas like making offices fun and colourful in order to stimulate creativity are sadly mistaken. These things may be suitable if you’re raking in billions, but they’re better seen as lagging indicators of success. The filmmakers at Pixar and the writers of The Simpsons used to work in featureless white rooms, and they were plenty creative.

The BBC doesn’t have the luxury of spending money like this. I’d prefer them to trust their own developers and technologists to figure out what’s right for the BBC, not what’s right for the latest tech startup.

In the next part, I’ll explore why, given all of these issues, independent companies continue to pitch for digital commissions from the BBC.

The Magic Roundabout: Digital Commissioning #2

In my previous post, Part 1: Setting the Scene, I talked about how it’s difficult to judge the success of any commission (digital or otherwise) particularly when the BBC’s many conflicting stakeholders mean that the definition of ‘success’ is highly debatable. In this post I’ll be looking at commissioners moving in and out of the BBC all the time; why there’s a strong incentive to mislead everyone on how awesome your commissions were; and why the BBC is so risk averse, particularly for digital projects.

The Magic Roundabout

Like civil servants and politicians, BBC commissioners frequently move between the public and private (independent production companies) sector. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; moving to an indie is a good way to get promoted, get more experience, and of course, get a higher salary. Indie companies, for their part, get the benefit of the commissioner’s experience of how the BBC operates and their relationships in the sector.

This means that if you ever hope to advance your career it doesn’t pay to make enemies. Being open and honest about the failure of a particular TV show – even if you didn’t commission it – means that the indie company that produced it is understandably going to be pissed off with you. It won’t endear you to other indies either, since if you did it once, maybe you’ll do it again to them. Some regard it as a good thing not to publicly criticise other TV shows or companies; if you don’t have anything nice to say, why say anything at all? I disagree, of course, because I think that’s the only way we learn. In any case, there’s not much to be done about this tradition of omerta – humans are humans, and the TV world isn’t so big in the UK, where trust is important.

Unfortunately it goes further. This magic roundabout of moving between the BBC and the private sector generates a strong incentive to mislead or misrepresent the success of projects you’ve commissioned so that you get more credit and get promoted quicker (e.g. “The website got five million unique users in just three days!”). I don’t know whether this misrepresentation necessarily happens within the BBC, but it most definitely happens at public forums and conferences. Particularly with digital projects, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will contradict or challenge your misrepresentations because:

  1. There is no independent authority that measures the traffic of digital projects; this is in contrast to TV ratings which are very public and allow everyone to understand what’s been popular and what hasn’t (and of course, the BBC doesn’t readily release online traffic numbers either), so they can’t prove anything
  2. They don’t want to make enemies or be labelled as a troublemaker
  3. They don’t care

Eventually the truth does come out, usually when all the old commissioners have left and a new crowd want to pin every problem on the previous regime, but of course by then years have passed and millions have been wasted.

Still: there are good reasons why commissioners would want to move to the private sector, and I’m not suggesting that misrepresentation is common, or that people do it knowingly. But even assuming that everyone is an angel, very fact of commissioners’ mobility means that knowledge and experience are continually lost; it takes time to understand how to navigate the BBC, how to commission good projects. Compare this against institutions like Pixar and Apple where staff will stay around for a long time. It is unusual that the BBC has this level of mobility given that it has a sense of a mission that many commercial companies lack; but perhaps the problem is that that mission has been weakened to the point where other factors (money, power, excitement) matter more and can be found elsewhere.

How to fix this? You could either:

  • Encourage commissioners to stay longer by: paying them more; providing tenure (although of course that means that bad commissioners could stick around longer; making the institution a more attractive place to work (tautology) OR
  • Make it so that individual commissioners coming and going can’t ruin everything by: spreading responsibility; building up a Pixar-style brain trust, where institutional experience and skill is better retained and spread

Risk Aversion

In large companies that have many different stakeholders (including but not limited to the BBC), long production timescales and bureaucracy mean that it can take years between making a commissioning decision (“Let’s make a user-generated chat show for BBC Three”) and getting the results. The longer this process takes, the longer it’ll take you to learn any lessons. That’s a fact of life for TV, but it’s worse for digital projects and apps because the BBC just doesn’t make that many.

When you finally do get the results, you get the classic problem of overcorrection. As Wikipedia says:

Negative feedback is often deliberately introduced to increase the stability and accuracy of a system by correcting unwanted changes. This scheme can fail if the input changes faster than the system can respond to it. When this happens, the lag in arrival of the correcting signal can result in over-correction, causing the output to oscillate.

In other words, if your commission was a big success, let’s make five more; and if it was a failure, let us never speak of it again for the next decade. Perhaps if there were five or ten times as many digital commissions being made, the signal would be stronger and the BBC could tolerate outright failures since they’d hopefully be balanced out by huge successes. As it is, if you’re a commissioners with a small budget, then you’ll want to be conservative and only do what’s been proven to work.

(This risk aversion doesn’t apply to every aspect of broadcasters though; in my experience, the BBC and Channel 4 legal departments were always very accommodating with the weird things we wanted to do online. In fact Channel 4 legal actually encouraged us to put more swearing in our game for teens!)

How to fix this? Increase the number of projects being made and/or make them more frequently; this probably involves spending more money. Also, develop a better system of fast internal feedback as employed by Valve and Pixar, who have consistently managed to make incredibly successful big-budget games and movies every few years without the apparent feedback of the market.

In the next part, I’ll explore: the problem of focusing on kids and educational digital projects; commissioners being too busy; not competing against the best; and being unduly influenced by big tech companies.

Setting the Scene: BBC Digital Commissioning Pt. 1

In my previous post, I presented ten apps that the BBC should make, ranging from an augmented reality stargazing guide to a hybrid video documentary/strategy game that would examine the effect of the High Speed 2 train line. Most of the apps would be affordable and straightforward to make, and they would be distinctly different to existing BBC apps like iPlayer that focus on repackaging existing content.

People inside and outside the BBC liked the ideas. Crucially, no-one doubted that the apps were technically feasible or that they would break the bank. So why isn’t the BBC making apps? Why aren’t there already five or ten apps by the BBC that we can point at?

It’s not for want of money, although more budget for digital activities wouldn’t be amiss. And it’s not as if the BBC hasn’t made app-like products (e.g. rich interactive websites and Flash games) before – some of them running into the high six and low seven figure range.

Part of the problem is the lack of strategic will; making digital products other than iPlayer and straight-up educational or kids stuff just isn’t a priority right now (and the reason for that is a discussion for another time). But just as important is that when the BBC has made app-like products in the past, they usually have been neither widely popular nor critically successful. But why haven’t there been hits? How does the BBC decide what gets made and which companies make it?

It’s through commissioning. Commissioning sounds like an inside-baseball subject, something that doesn’t matter to the normal person, but commissioning lies at the heart of the BBC. The corporation spends half a billion pounds every year on TV commissioned from independent companies. Its digital budget is much smaller, but there are still millions spent on outside digital commissions.

So here’s how it works, broadly: senior BBC execs (e.g. channel controllers) will set overall priorities once a year or so. From there, commissioners will create briefs based on those priorities (e.g. “We want something to do with the centenary of WW1”), and then independent companies will pitch their ideas. The successful ones get picked and then get made.

Yet for such a simple process, things can get awfully complicated and problematic. It’s those problems that I want to explore here, with a particular focus on the commissioning of digital products that are *not* about repackaging or redesigning existing content.

My bona fides

I don’t have complete knowledge of the BBC’s digital commissioning process – but then again, who does? From 2007 to 2011, my company, Six to Start, won – and lost – several commissions from the BBC, receiving sums totalling well into the six figures. We’ve also won multiple large commissions from Channel 4, and have worked with The Open University, Penguin Books, Disney Imagineering, Microsoft, eBay, and many other companies – and we have won a lot of awards.

I wrote and delivered many of those pitches, and subsequently led or was heavily involved in the design and production of the projects, during which I liaised with commissioners, producers, and researchers at the BBC. While our last commission for the BBC was at the end of 2011 (The Code for BBC Two), I’ve stayed in contact with many people at the BBC right up to this day.

For the last three years, however, Six to Start has focused on developing and self-publishing our own games and IP, so I’m very comfortable in being honest about the commissioning process because our income doesn’t depend on it any more. Am I fishing for future BBC commissions? No. Would I like to work with the BBC in the future? That would be very nice as I admire the BBC and its ideals, but even if we did I doubt the BBC would ever represent the primary income stream for the company.

So while I’m certainly open to accusations that I don’t know the full picture, I do know enough to take a good hard look at how digital commissioning works, why it works the way it does, and how it might be improved.

This series of posts is split into three parts – problems from the commissioners’ side, problems that independent companies face, and potential improvements and alternatives. This post is part one of part one (oh god…).

A commissioner’s lot is not a happy one

Let’s say you commission a new science fiction TV drama. Congratulations – it gets millions of viewers, way more than usual for the channel timeslot it aired in! Clearly you are a genius and the TV show is great. But wait: why did it get those viewers? Is it because it’s a Doctor Who spin-off and people would watch anything remotely connected to Who? Is it because the BBC spent a lot of money marketing it? Is it down to the actors? Who knows?

That pretty much sums up the issue with commissioning — even after your show (or app) has come out, you don’t really know why it was successful. Just imagine trying to predict the success of a pitch before it gets made; it’s not easy. Commissioners’ predictions aren’t wild stabs in the dark; they’re obviously informed by surveys and focus groups and viewing figures from similar shows. However, commissioners ultimately have to express a personal informed opinion, otherwise they’re literally just following the audience; in which case we might as well directly feed in the results of those surveys to the disbursal of money and remove human commissioners from the loop.

Now, let’s say we did remove human commissioners. Let’s say we just distributed money to the most popular shows and withdrew money from the least popular ones – sure, it’s simplifying things massively, but wouldn’t that at least give audiences what they want?

Not exactly – and even if it did, it’s very unlikely that it’d result in the best shows being made. Viewing figures aren’t perhaps the pure signal of audience desires that we might think they are. Certain types of marketplaces can be easily manipulated or are highly sensitive to starting conditions, especially when ‘discovery’ of new content is difficult.

One such marketplace is the iTunes App Store, where people primarily discover apps through the Top 50 download charts. Featured apps will also get a boost due to increased visibility, but being in the top 50 or top 10 free or paid apps isn’t simply about people seeing you; it’s about people knowing that other people think your app is worth downloading. There might be other good apps out there, but the absence of other forms of discovery (that also allow you to download apps) means that whatever is popular stays popular; and so, extraordinarily, “all of the top-ten-grossing apps in 2013 were over a year old,” according to free-to-play design consultant Nicholas Lovell. There’s a huge incentive to try and get to the top of the charts by any means necessary – including paying for downloads.

One of my favourite studies on this ‘bandwagon effect‘ effect was by Columbia and Princeton University, where, as the researchers describe:

[We artificially inverted] the true popularity of songs in an online “music market,” in which 12,207 participants listened to and downloaded songs by unknown bands. We found that most songs experienced self-fulfilling prophecies, in which perceived—but initially false—popularity became real over time. We also found, however, that the inversion was not self-fulfilling for the market as a whole, in part because the very best songs recovered their popularity in the long run. Moreover, the distortion of market information reduced the correlation between appeal and popularity, and led to fewer overall downloads.

TV isn’t as bad as the App Store or as artificially manipulated as the experiment above, and audiences don’t just use viewing figure charts to decide to what to watch. But it’s just as easily manipulable because the big broadcast channels such as BBC One, ITV, Channel 4, and Sky One all have a lot of loyalty and marketing muscle, meaning that any half-decent, reasonably-promoted show at 9pm on Sunday night will easily ‘attract’ millions of viewers.

Yes, shows can do better or worse for their timeslot, but the scarcity of timeslots means it’s impossible to perform proper experiments – and that means that just because a particular show is popular doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better or more popular than another programme that was pitched but not produced in the same slot. Ultimately, the popularity of a show is not merely a very weak signal of its quality, but also of its comparative popularity against other hypothetical shows.

Here’s a practical illustration: imagine if you’re a company pitching a game or TV show idea to the BBC. You don’t win; someone else’s show gets made, and it does fine. No-one knows for sure whether your idea would have done better. But the point is, there’s only one person – or at least, a very few people – who are deciding what gets made and what doesn’t. That’s a major point of failure, whether it’s for TV, games, or apps. And I’d argue that because the BBC has been making fewer apps with less money for a shorter amount of time, the fundamental problems of commissioning are even more acute for digital commissioning.

(Note that you can’t draw a direct analogy with BBC websites or games, precisely because there aren’t ‘timeslots’ on popular ‘channels’ — not unless the BBC started aggressively cross-promoting their new websites and games from their most-trafficked pages, e.g. BBC News Online, BBC Weather, iPlayer, etc. But if they start doing this, then the same problem will apply.)

Changing Priorities

The BBC and its commissioners serve (explicitly or implicitly) many different stakeholders with conflicting and sometimes rapidly changing priorities. These stakeholders include but are not limited to:

  • Licence fee payers
  • Politicians
  • The media
  • Religious leaders
  • OFCOM
  • BBC suppliers (e.g. independent producers)
  • BBC staff
  • BBC executives
  • BBC Worldwide (its commercial arm)
  • The BBC Trust

Today, politicians and teachers want to focus on science and technology; tomorrow, coding is a priority; the day after that, it’s robotics. BBC Worldwide wants to fund projects that will work internationally (read: US) so if you can get an American actor, that’s great! Audiences are more fickle than ever, being exposed to a limitless stream of TV shows from across the world, all better than ever before. They want Game of Thrones set in the UK; they want a British Boardwalk Empire; they want a British-Scandinavian drama. What’s more, audiences don’t want the BBC to only make popular, mindless TV and apps, but neither do we want them to make highbrow shows that don’t attract an audience.

There isn’t anything wrong with these demands; I’d like a British Game of Thrones as well! The entire point of having a public service broadcaster like the BBC is that it responds to things other than profit or popularity. I’m not suggesting that private broadcasters like Sky have it that much easier, since they’re far more exposed to competition, but the BBC is certainly caught in a web of maddening contradictions — and you’d better believe it that commissioners are also driven mad as a result. It certainly doesn’t help that priorities change as frequently as day becomes night — or that commissioners themselves frequently jump from the BBC to the private sector and back again.

What would be ideal is giving commissioners the security and budget to make long-term plans while also ensuring they have the flexibility to respond to genuine short-term opportunities. A rolling multi-year budget, along with a portion that can be used on smaller, faster commissions could work. But that wouldn’t solve everything…

In the next part, I’ll explore: commissioners moving in and out of the BBC all the time; why there’s a strong incentive to mislead everyone on how awesome your commissions were; and why the BBC is so risk averse, particularly for digital projects.