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.

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