Is it expecting too much of the BBC to want a comprehensive, fully searchable, and indexed list of Winter Olympic sports, with video clips plus chapter markers, preferably on the web and iPlayer? It’s surprisingly difficult to find my ol’ favourite Snow Cross wacky races.
The Space is an online gallery where visitors can explore exciting new digital art, made by the most talented contemporary artists, shared around the world. We commission new talent and established artists from all art forms, as well as across the creative industries, and technical and digital worlds, through open calls and partnerships.
I have been frustrated by The Space for some time. I am all for the public funding of art, and in particular, digital art, and £16 million can go a long way. But right from the start, there were warning signs. For example, the first round of project proposals had to adhere to strict data formats; if you had video, it had to be in a particular format so it could be imported to their online portal, which would be viewable on phones, tablets, computers, TVs, etc.
Sounds sensible, right? Doesn’t it make sense to have a single website for 51 projects instead of 51 websites all being made separately (and expensively)? The answer is, hell no:
a) If you’re going to fund exciting new digital art, one might expect it to come in many different forms; forms that are going to be difficult to fit into even the most flexible template. So why force them?
b) Even if everything was video, why not just put it all on YouTube? It’s free, it works, it’s better for discovery, and it helps build your social media following.
Now, to be fair, many of the projects weren’t merely video or audio-based. One of the most popular projects was the radio broadcaster John Peel’s Record Archive. It’s an interesting website which does what it says on the tin; put pictures of his archive online. I don’t quite see how it qualifies as ‘digital art’ though, and it has dreadful navigation and accessibility issues (the note cards for each record do not appear to have any readable or alt text, for example).
Another project was Will Self’s ‘digital essay’, Kafka’s Wound, published by the London Review of Books. It is an excellent piece of writing. The digital part, however, is laughably bad. The first thing you see on the website is ‘visual index’, a network of circular pictures that link to bits of video, audio, and additional material embedded within the essay. What is it for? Are people meant to use it before the read the essay, without any context? Or should they use it afterwards, even though it has no labels and after the reader has presumably already read the material they were interested in, along the way?
The embedded media is a mixed bag. Some of it is very relevant, other bits (particularly the music) appear to there simply to make up the numbers. Worse, the embedded media is hidden behind cryptically-labelled buttons to the right of the essay. You have no idea what you’re going to get. It’s very disruptive to the process of, you know, reading.
I don’t mean to pick on the essay – like I said, it’s very good. But it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, ‘digital art’. And this is one of the better projects The Space has funded.
Now, you can expect missteps in the first year of a new organisation like The Space. In fact, you might even welcome them — but only if it looks like the organisation is learning. Sadly, an independent report by MTM, commissioned by the Arts Council and the BBC to evaluate The Space, pulled all the punches it could.
One major problem with the report lies in the people they approached to evaluate the projects. Said one arts organisation of the Will Self essay:
A completely different approach to how you experience an essay – you can interact with it and create your own navigation.
No. No. No. A thousand times, no. Anyone who genuinely believes this has no place in evaluating any kind of digital art. Another person said:
It’s such an interesting approach – it feels really new and inventive.
Really? Had this person never seen an essay online with embedded video and audio?
Or, on John Peel’s Record Collection:
It’s a wonderful archive, and it’s interactive – audiences can play and explore.
It’s a sad, sad day when ‘clicking through an archive’ equals interactive. If that’s the bar we’re setting, I despair. Once again, it’s not that I think the archive is bad – it’s that I think it’s not technically or artistically innovative, and so it’s not deserving of being funded by a body specifically created to fund ‘exciting new digital art’.
The audience figures were also, in my view, disappointing. Between May and October 2012, The Space attracted a million visits from 630,000 unique users. Now, a million sounds like a lot. But is it, really? Consider that £3.5 million was invested in 51 commissions. That means they’re paying £5.56 for each user; and who knows what the average visit time on each website was.
When you look at the audience breakdown, it becomes clear that only six of the 51 commissions attracted more than 10,000 unique users. My blog gets 3000 unique users per month. In other words, it’s very likely that my blog outperformed over 80% of all commissions by The Space in terms of audience numbers. That is awful. It’s not even a very good blog.
I could go on, but the whole enterprise just depresses me. I was recently interviewed about the possibility of the public funding of ‘art games’ (my words, not theirs) in the UK. Such a thing would be tricky, but also extremely exciting. I conjured up visions of the bounty we could expect for a mere £100,000 or £200,000 — and just imagine how many projects and how many artists could be funded with a massive £1 million! Think of the amazing Twine games, the hard-hitting Papers Pleases, the touching That Dragon, Cancers that could realised — with popular projects easily able to command hundreds of thousands of visitors each, if not millions.
And then to discover that £3.5 million was spent on these commissions, and another £16 million recently. It is a disgrace that we are spending so much money and getting so little, when we are missing the incredible opportunities that genuine digital art — not just games, but at least including games — offers.
Why have so few people spoken out about The Space? Because it’s funded by the Arts Council and the BBC. Here’s a quote from Maggie Brown’s article:
…I consulted a digital arts expert, who would speak only off the record. “It’s strange,” he said. “All that money thrown at it, and it’s bloody awful, very undercooked.”
He’d only speak off the record. We’re not talking about the CIA here, for fuck’s sake – but I don’t blame him for being worried about his career. If you’re an artist, who wants to make an enemy of the BBC or the Arts Council?
The new hotness in the podcasting world is Serial, made by the people behind This American Life. After only a few weeks, it’s already attracting 850,000 downloads per episode. It’s a fantastic show, perfectly suited to a format that allows people to follow along week-by-week but listen at a time of their own choosing.
The US is very good at making and exporting popular podcasts; Serial is #1 in iTunes UK rankings. While the BBC is no slouch, its podcasts are almost entirely shows already broadcast on the radio (usually Radio 4). I listen to many myself, like In Our Time and Thinking Allowed, both shows that demonstrate a deep level of planning and research.
Still, the fact that the BBC’s audio content is primarily made for the radio means that it necessarily needs to appeal to a much wider audience in order to justify its existence. 850,000 downloads for Serial might seem impressive to us, but your average factual or news show on Radio 4 will easily blow past a million listeners, and that’s just in the UK. So topics for radio have to be broader and of course, to some extent aimed at the existing radio audience, lest they revolt and write letters to The Times.
I’m never going to find specialised science fiction shows on Radio 4 that broadcast every single week like The Incomparable or The X-Files Files; I’m never going to get technology shows like Accidental Tech Podcast and Core Intuition that focus on the minutiae of Mac development; and there are so many others for Liverpool FC supporters and Minecraft players and Dan Harmon fans and even Serial listeners (yes, Slate actually has a podcast purely about Serial). You might well say that’s perfectly fine – the BBC shouldn’t even attempt to make such specialised and targeted shows.
And you might say that BBC Radio has been with us for almost a century, and it would be foolish to bet against them. I’d agree with that. BBC Radio will have a long half-life; but it will not last forever. Smartphones, ubiquitous mobile data, and a limitless supply of podcasters willing to work for free make it practically inevitable that the BBC’s audience be whittled away one listener at a time, as they discover the one perfect podcast that speaks precisely to their interests – a podcast that the BBC could never justify producing – and then they discover another. And another. And another.
Incidentally, if you’re listening to Serial, you must listen to this parody.
Here’s the sort of TV I watched in 1995: Red Dwarf, Star Trek: DS9, Star Trek: Voyager, Babylon 5, The X-Files – and Pride and Prejudice. I can’t recall how I was convinced to watch a costume drama based on a book genre that I had never previously shown an iota of interest in, but I’m pretty sure my mum had something to do with it. I was also prevailed upon to make a special batch of popcorn for the occasion using a US-imported popcorn maker I received as a birthday/Christmas present (one which I recently discovered is no longer available for sale on account of it potentially burning down houses due to the predictably unpleasant combination of hot metal, oil, and plastic).
Of course, I was enthralled – how couldn’t you be, with that plot, that cast, that writing? Sadly, the other boys at my all-male school were not into the Austen and so I kept my mouth shut about it for, oh, nine years, when I discovered the BBC series on Amazon Prime Video. Even better, it was in high-definition!
According to Wikipedia:
A high-definition transfer was produced from the original negatives and released as a Blu-ray in October 2008. The HD version has not been broadcast on television, the BBC refuses to broadcast anything shot in 16mm in HD. The same restored version was released on DVD in March 2009. The Blu-ray was released on April 14, 2009.
There is no citation for the claim that “the BBC refuses to broadcast anything shot in 16mm in HD,” but I’m not surprised by the decision; while many outdoor and well-lit shots in the series look perfectly lovely in HD, the noticeable grain and poor colour balance in most indoor shots is quite distracting. What’s more, the series obviously wasn’t produced with HD in mind, resulting in the actors’ make-up often looking a bit off.
Still, it’s well worth a watch if you enjoyed the original back in 1995, or indeed, have never seen it. You may want to wait another year though, as I’d be astonished if the BBC didn’t try to properly remaster the series for its twentieth anniversary in 2015.
In my previous post, Part 4: The Pull, I talked about why, given all of these issues, independent companies continue to pitch for digital commissions from the BBC. In this post I’ll explore some of the problems faced by digital indies including low pay, and lack of prestige, reach, and creative control.
I also realise that this series has taken far too long for me to write, so I’m going to conclude it here in an accelerated fashion, which will hopefully relieve everyone concerned. That means that I have not taken quite as long to proofread or edit it. But something is better than nothing, right?
Historically, I’ve found that BBC digital commissions – for apps, for websites, for games – don’t pay an awful lot. And while the pay has improved considerably in recent years, it still doesn’t recognise the significant cost involved in pitching. The BBC is not really any worse than other organisations in this regard, but pitching just sucks. I think we were pretty good, all things considered, at pitching – we had an above-average success rate at Six to Start and we won some big projects. Yet even so, we lost far more than we won, and that uncertainty made it difficult for us to hire full-time employees.
Instead, we had to use contractors and freelancers, who cost more than permanent staff and took their knowledge and experience with them when they left (making it harder to maintain projects). As a result, bigger companies that can pitch and develop for multiple projects simultaneously can significantly outperform smaller companies, which explains the drastic consolidation in digital indies of late.
Similar problems exist for indie TV producers, but the sting of pitching is lessened slightly because there’s a much greater acceptance of contract/freelance workers in that sector, and because they often get to retain some commercial rights in their shows (unlike digital indies, who usually get nothing at all).
Conversely, the cost of producing and self-publishing apps, games, websites, etc., is low and declining, so the attraction of £20k or £50k or £100k from the BBC isn’t as much as it used to be, if you can raise £30k from Kickstarter and make a decent game prototype in half a year.
People will hate me for saying this, but the vast majority of digital work done by indies for the BBC isn’t even remotely prestigious. I recognise this contradicts an earlier point I made (that indies love working on things like Doctor Who), but hear me out: the work isn’t likely to win an Independent Games Festival award, or an Apple Design Award, or a GDC Award, or honestly anything that gets you significant respect from peers. You can bullshit TV people about how many downloads your vanilla app got, but you can’t bullshit a digital person – and they won’t care that your app is about Doctor Who.
And the truth is, apps made by indies (i.e. not iPlayer, BBC News, BBC Sport, etc.) are unlikely to reach that many people. BBC TV may get everywhere, but apps don’t. Not even the ones for big TV shows, because ‘calls to action’ are hard to get (e.g. “If you liked this episode, download the app at http://www.bbc.co.uk/whogame”)
Little Creative Control
The briefs I received from BBC commissioners were often highly detailed, specifying the type of game or website required, the story beats, the characters, the educational points that needed to be covered, and so on. That’s fine – it’s the BBC’s money, they can do what they like. But as a creative person and a creative company, it’s just not very interesting.
Once again, I’ll use Doctor Who as an example – you may think that it’d be great for the BBC to do a proper Doctor Who game that tied into the TV show. Unfortunately you are unlikely to get to do anything particularly interesting as you’ll always be second fiddle to the TV show’s needs. This is perfectly understandable given that the TV show gets millions of viewers a week, whereas your game or app can only hope to get a fraction of the audience. Why bother doing anything at all for smaller platforms, why waste Steven Moffat’s time (or any of the other production staff) when it’s better spent on the TV show?
The problem is that this is a classic innovator’s dilemma, where the BBC is failing to meet their audience’s unstated or future needs for interactivity. Apps may seem cheaper and lower quality and less popular but they do many things differently and better. One day we’ll want more interactivity from the BBC but the necessary skills and experience just won’t exist there (also, I’ve never bought the value for money idea behind focusing on TV production; if that were true we’d just made radio, or perhaps books).
The TV industry is a strange beast; it has things like transmission (TX) dates where they decide – with alarmingly late notice – when a show is going to be broadcast. These decisions appear to be a dark art where channels size each other up and try to ‘win’ particular timeslots or nights. Accordingly, when we were making The Code, we didn’t know when the TV show was going to be broadcast until a few weeks beforehand; we’d finished most of the work but due to this uncertainty we had to keep the team together, idling on other work. Once again, this is expensive, it favours larger companies, and it’s not something that many indies realise when they start out.
While the commissioning process isn’t that long, the process of making a TV show can still take years. Ideally you want the digital people to be involved right at the start, coming up with the concept for the interactive stuff – and you don’t want that changing drastically over time in case it causes problems with the TV people. But in digital, speed matters; what’s cool today may no longer be cool next year, let alone after two years. To be fair, this is not true of all digital ideas, but it does rob many a project of its freshness.
Success in pitching – and in production – can depend on personal relationships with commissioners. I know this because I’ve both benefitted and lost out from my relationships (or lack thereof). Commissioners can, and will, tell you details that aren’t in the brief. This is not because they’re corrupt – it’s because they aren’t necessarily amazing brief-writers and they don’t have enough time or resources to do a good job. If I bump into them at a conference and ask them a question about the brief, then they’ll probably answer, because they’re not misanthropic assholes (so yeah, good luck if you hate conferences or networking).
Commissioners also want to work with people whom they know they can get on with and whom they trust – after all, you’ll be working together for months or even years. Newbies don’t know this happens; it’s only people who’ve pitched and lost who do. Yet the necessity for these relationships puts even winners off as their commissioners will eventually move on.
Unsurprisingly, a system that requires indies to pitch rewards those who are good at pitching. It is truly amazing how much a pitch matters. Now, in defence of the BBC, one could argue that a good pitch is a proxy for attention to detail, the ability to make good looking content on a deadline, and understanding the market. I think there is some truth in that. However, it’s easy to be dishonest in pitches, and it’s also easy to ‘cheat’ if you’re a big company, by wheeling out your big-hitter Don Draper-alikes for the pitch and then throwing a bunch of juniors onto the project afterwards.
Even the best indies will be lucky if they have a 50% success rate at pitching; a 30% or 40% rate is more likely. And good pitches can take weeks to put together, which means that while you’re producing one project, you’re probably pitching for two or three other things. Talk about distracting…
Maybe things have changed in the last two or three years, but the BBC’s tech requirements were a total pain in the ass, adding considerable time and expense. There was always some weird new bizarre problem that cropped up every week; maybe you weren’t able to use a particular subdirectory, or a module was completely out of date. Every month you’d hear about some amazing new idea like BBC ID or Games Grid that usually didn’t work well and didn’t add a lot to the end user experience, but had to be implemented for political reasons – until you complained enough that that requirement was removed at the last minute. Endless meetings, endless emails and documentation, all for a service that was massively more expensive than Linode or AWS. Yes, I know the BBC has to have rock-solid security, etc, but I sure as hell am not interested in dealing with that if I can make more interesting stuff elsewhere.
You don’t learn a lot
There is a charming belief that your experience at the BBC will help you in related industries. Perhaps that’s true if you make TV, or if you want to continue pitching for tech projects at big organisations – but it sure as hell isn’t true for most industries. When you’re selling games or apps or services to end users, the entire production process is different; marketing is different; sales are different. It requires a totally different skill set. Like Ray in Ghostbusters says, “You’ve never been out of college. You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve worked in the private sector… they expect results!”
Indies Keep Quiet
Most indies are quite rightly afraid of pissing the BBC off – who wants to burn those bridges? – so they keep quiet about all of these problems in public and they don’t share knowledge. Yes, the BBC solicits feedback, but bitter experience demonstrates that it changes little; and the cases where I have given critical feedback in public, I’ve been dismissed as a troublemaker by senior BBC staff. It would be sad if it wasn’t so funny.
Lack of Visibility for Indies
It’s hard for indies to learn about new pitching opportunities. Putting aside the execrable Bravo Solutions pitching interface, which I believe is being replaced/improved, the fact that you need to download a PDF from the Connected Studio website to learn about what the BBC is looking for is, well, insane. Have these people not heard of the World Wide Web, or Hypertext? Wouldn’t it be better to have that information on a webpage, perhaps? Or maybe create a newsletter and let indies just sign up to a weekly notification of new opportunities? You could probably do it for free with Mailchimp.
Doing roundtables and talks for indies (which are admirably held around the country) is not the same as having a really awesome website. In fact it punishes people who can’t spare time or money to attend briefing. Put all that shit online, do communication online.
At the end of the day
The best indies in the business aren’t applying for BBC digital products any more. Why would they want to work for less money, with less creative freedom, with less production flexibility, with an unpredictable bureaucracy that rewards skills and experience that aren’t applicable outside of the BBC?
Q: What about BBC Connected Studio? Isn’t that totally awesome, really transparent, and solves every problem you’ve mentioned?
A: To be fair, I wouldn’t know because I haven’t participated in it. From what I can tell, it’s not about making original interactive content; instead it’s more about new ways of presenting existing content, something I acknowledge as being important but not the only thing the BBC should be doing. Other producers and developers who have been through the process have also told me that most pitches end up looking very similar, which doesn’t speak well for the amount of room for creativity.
Q: Adrian, you criticise the BBC a lot here, but you’re actually just a blowhard. What’s your solution?
A: I have a few suggestions, some of which may not be politically acceptable, but what the hell:
1. Spend more money on more things. This allows for greater risk taking. The current situation of spending lots of cash on a few projects is a false economy. Yes, I did say that the BBC didn’t pay a lot, but that’s judged against the work required. Digital indies can still do great things with £10k or £20k providing that the scope is controlled and they don’t have to go through hell and back during the pitching/production process. (Related: Do things faster.)
2. Don’t require all the tech be built on the BBC platform. Every time I do a project with BBC tech, our developers ask never to have to do it again. Yes, the BBC is a big organisation, security issues are important, etc., but consider this: The Open University is far more flexible about hosting and tech, and I don’t remember hearing any data-loss scandals from them yet.
3. Stop changing priorities and processes all the time. Every three months I feel like there’s some new fad or technology or genre that a commissioner or controller gets obsessed with after going to some media or tech conference. It makes it impossible to pitch really good, timeless stuff.
4. Be more open and more online for commissioning and production. Gather independent criticism from the best in the business; if you don’t know who they are, look at winners of Apple Design Awards, talk to veteran developers like Dave Addey (who, sadly, has left British shores and gone to the promised land – Cupertino).
Crazy Ideas That Just Might Work
1. Run a prize (you know, like the longitude prize). It’s actually kind of a terrible idea that puts a lot of cost on entrants and usually works for things that have payoff beyond actual prize money; and it also requires easily judged criteria, and smart judges. But it’d be pretty neat to watch.
2. Inject a market signal into the commissioning of original digital projects – for example, provide matched funding to crowdfunded ideas that meet certain BBC criteria. This process is absolutely gameable – see the Ouya debacle – but it’s not irredeemable. Certainly it’s better than getting ‘audiences’ to vote (for free) on what they want, but it does punish those who don’t have the money to ‘vote’ with. Maybe you could get people to vote with shares of their licence fee, which would be doable if the BBC end up requiring people to log in to use iPlayer.
3. Multiply the number of funding bodies. There are already other groups who award money for digital commissions: The Wellcome Trust, Lighthouse, Arts Council, etc. I have helped The Wellcome Trust with judging pitches; their process isn’t perfect, but it’s far faster and no less fair than the BBC’s process. In other words: if the BBC can’t fix their digital commissioning problem, maybe others can. Indeed, this solution works better for digital projects than for TV or radio content because – thus far – the BBC haven’t claimed original digital interactive content as a core part of their strategy. Have some funding bodies focus on popularity, others on art, others on games, etc.
4. Totally abolish digital commissioning at the BBC and do some kind of blanket incentive to R&D tax credits or games tax relief. This is the Nuclear Option #1: “Commissioning doesn’t work, so we just won’t commission any more.”
4a. Totally abolish digital commissioning, and just get TV indies to do it; The Malcolm Tucker app is a great example of a good digital product for a BBC show that nevertheless doesn’t actually involve the BBC.
5. Nuclear Option #2: “Just pick winners – don’t waste time getting indies to compete against each other.” Many big, successful companies I’ve worked with don’t bother with competitive commissioning because they just hire (who they believe to be) the best. This is unworkable for the BBC for political reasons (it conflicts with the supposed aim of championing small indies) but I mention it because it’s so successful for, you know, pretty much everyone else on Earth.
6. Nuclear Option #3: “Stop commissioning, do everything in-house.” Not a bad idea assuming you can get the right people (e.g. Government Digital Service) but again, politically a non-starter in these capitalist, market-driven, competitive times. But times change…
To end on a positive note, I can unequivocally state that the BBC is not the worst organisation I have encountered for digital commissioning. That title goes to the EU’s Horizon 2020 process, which rewards projects for having – no joke – 10+ partners over 10+ countries, taking place over 3-7 years. Now that’s a real nightmare.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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
- They don’t want to make enemies or be labelled as a troublemaker
- 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
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.
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.
[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.)
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
- 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.
Amid all the anguish and strife surrounding the BBC’s Strategic Review and the news that 6 Music, BBC Switch, and BBC Blast are going to be axed, I couldn’t help think of an alternate version of Back to the Future:
Biff Tannen: …Where’s my money?
George McFly: Uh, well, I haven’t finished cutting those websites yet, but you know I… I figured since people liked them and they didn’t cost so much…
Biff: Hello? Hello? Anybody home? Huh? Think, McFly. Think! I gotta have those paywalls. Do you realize what would happen if you keep on putting that public service content out for free? I’ll get fired. You wouldn’t want that to happen, would ya? Would ya?
George: Of course not, Biff. Nah, I wouldn’t want that to happen. Now, look. I’ll, uh, cut the online budget by 25% and I’ll only make sites that are about TV and radio programmes. All right?
Biff: Eh, that’s okay for a start, we’ll see how it works. Oh, McFly, your shoe’s untied.
[jabs his finger up to George’s face]
Biff: Don’t be so gullible, McFly.
No prizes for guessing who the BBC is in this exchange (or Rupert Murdoch).
Most of the coverage of the Strategic Review has been about the audience efforts to save 6 Music; clearly it’s a station that many people are very attached to. However, the money saved by killing 6 Music is only £9 million, or 1.5% of BBC Radio’s £587 million budget. It’s baffling that the BBC would choose to kill 6 Music given its steadily growing audience and listener hours; surely, if money was the issue, they could have found that 1.5% among the other stations? But one might imagine that 6 Music was chosen on purpose, precisely to generate this kind of audience backlash and prove that the BBC actually does make valuable and popular content; but that’s just speculation.
Still, even if 6 Music were to be killed – which would be a shame – it would hardly spell the end for BBC Radio. But imagine if BBC Radio’s budget were cut, not by 1.5%, but by 25% – that’s £147 million. Here’s what they’d have to chop:
- Radio 1
- Radio 2
- Radio 3
and they’d still need to find £2 million to make up the shortfall. A 25% cut would cripple BBC Radio.
Or let’s look at TV, which the BBC spends £2.335 billion on. A 25% cut would require savings of £584 million, and for that, you’d need to axe:
- BBC 2 (including Horizon, The Thick of It, Mastermind, University Challenge, Songs of Praise, Newsnight…)
Alternatively, you could kill everything other than BBC 1 and BBC 2, which would mean saying goodbye to:
- BBC 3
- BBC 4
- BBC Alba (BBC Scotland)
- BBC News 24
- BBC Parliament
- BBC Red Button
- BBC HD
Either way, the BBC’s TV operation would be devastated.