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
  • 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.


2 Replies to “Setting the Scene: BBC Digital Commissioning Pt. 1”

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