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.

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