Jana Bennett, Director, BBC Vision
Enhancing and encouraging creativity in large organisations
Speech at the Manchester Media Festival
Thursday 27 November 2008
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Hello, I was delighted when Connor Dignam invited me to do a session at this new Manchester Media Festival about creativity at the BBC. He said: "Don't go into policy stuff or channel strategy or for that matter, PSB review territory, as important as all those matters are, but focus on the territory of creativity."
I was pleased to accept but then, on reflection and after the brochure was printed, slightly worried. It wouldn't feel right to reel off a set of rules or warnings on creativity, or even exhortations to "Do it more and do it better!"
No, creativity is really all about culture, or should I say, cultures. Some of it is about teams, luck, sparks, things that are hard to grab onto or describe, but I will have a go, since creativity is what we most need to nurture and cherish. And I'll do it by sharing with you a handful of recent creative projects and the insights they've given us towards embracing creativity in the years ahead.
I don't need to tell you that as organisations go, we're still at the large end of the scale nor that we face many of the same challenges that other creative organisations face every day, regardless of their size.
We find ourselves at an extraordinary moment of creative transition in the BBC – between the familiar and the new.
We have had decades to hone our craft in television so that we now have a treasure chest full of much-loved programmes: Eastenders, Strictly Come Dancing, Top Gear, Doctor Who – like the X Factor or I'm A Celebrity – they are all manifestations of the great art of television; rehearsed, refined and, in some cases, re-imagined, re-invented over time.
And excelling at what we already know is an important part of our creative responsibility at the BBC; we have to keep on re-exploring the familiar so that we can feel rightly proud of what we do.
But being creative for the true benefit of our audience at the BBC requires more. We must keep on doing the very best of the now but we must also do the very best of the new. I'm delighted to be able to announce today that we are commissioning The Day Of The Triffids for BBC One, with Patrick Harbinson as the writer and Julie Gardner the executive producer. So that's going to do both, it's a combination of the familiar and the new.
And crucially, for me, we need to know where we are on this journey so that neither is neglected.
So as I look around BBC Vision, at our commitments to public service and Value For Money and at the necessary editorial systems and processes we have in place, I am also looking for the gems of the future: the Top Gear, the Strictly and the Doctor Who of five years hence.
I wouldn't expect them to look very confident right now; they'd probably look raw, awkward and unsure of themselves as any embryonic idea has the right to be. They will emerge from unlikely places, in unfamiliar forms and on new platforms.
My job – and that of any leader in a creative organisation – is to be curious; to seek out new ideas and provide the space and support they need; to locate the sweet spot between our daily need to deliver to audiences on the one hand and the free-flowing creativity of individuals on the other.
So, what I am trying to do this afternoon is share some stories about recent creative challenges; stories which all, in their way, shine a light ahead for us.
Before we hear them, I'd really like to debunk a few myths about creativity which have been bothering me of late.
The first is this phraseology that our industry is obsessed with taking creative risks; that we love nothing better than a bit of risk-taking; that we shouldn't bother coming into work at all if risk-taking and scaring Health & Safety or Editorial Policy is not at the top of our to-do list.
I'm afraid it's not true of most people I know working in the media – within or beyond the BBC.
Most creative people I know don't spend all their time asking "have I taken enough risk with this idea?" More often their question is "Is my idea any good? What's in it for the audience? Is it different? Is it interesting?" We too often confuse creative ambition with creative risk.
Disappointment is inevitable when something we all hope the audience will love doesn't capture their imagination or attention. But this might just be because the audience didn't, well, LIKE it. It might not have anything to do with creative risk at all. So we have the debates we do when things go well or things go wrong and creative risk can be a route to success, but let's keep things in perspective and, in so doing, present a more accurate picture of the creative environment in which we all work.
The second myth is that lessons learnt from any creative project automatically provide us with a bullet-proof recipe for our next creative challenge.
Actually, it is more like Darwin's principles of evolution – gradually, one insight leads to another, or to use another image – it's like Rock Family Trees – most ideas are not giant leaps forward, and only a few things reshape everything in the future by being astonishingly and genuinely original. However, many things can be genuinely different and inspiring.
It would be wonderful if I could stand here and let you into the BBC's secret golden formula which guarantees creative success. Of course, I'd have to kill you afterwards, which could take the edge off things, but the truth is: it simply doesn't work like that.
The last myth I'd like to challenge is that only by taking risks will you win a younger audience.
There's a perception that we're pushing taste and editorial standards to the limit, bundling them together as a form of creative risk in a desperate effort to appeal to young people.
It's simply a bit insulting to suggest that young people will necessarily be pulled in by "risky" content with rubbish standards. It just isn't true of either broadcasters or viewers. Creative risk is not to be confused, in other words, with judgement of what crosses the line.
Beyond the myths and on a brighter note, I can tell you with real certainty that the BBC is full of people who are genuinely excited by what's going on and the opportunities we have to bring the best programming to all audiences. I know the independent sector agrees with this, I know broadcasters do too. After all, it's people, and the sense of creative endeavour they bring, who keep the BBC fresh and exciting and who keep us busy.
My job is to help create the right environment for them to feel confident to keep doing that. And in the current climate, which is of considerable scrutiny and a desire to get things right, it's even more important to support creativity. This is absolutely paramount, as is accepting the unpredictability that comes with creative endeavour. When you encourage individuals to try new unknown things, you have to expect that some will work and some won't. It would be too easy to retreat to tried and tested formulas. True creativity requires the courage to let go of some certainties.
Monty Python, Blackadder, The Young Ones – are examples of highly creative boundary-pushing content, in their time much criticised, challenging propositions that few could deny have gone on to become classics. More recently I am confident The Office, Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe, The Thick Of It and Little Britain have moved into that bracket of programming that has become shorthand for biting wit and observations of the human condition. These are commissions that required confidence on all sides, passion for the work and commitment to the people who created it. The kind of commissions with which the BBC has become synonymous and the quality to which we will continue to aspire.
Of course, new creative approaches are not confined to comedy or any genre close to the edge. Great rewards can also be found in territory where the paths are seemingly well worn.
Natural History is a genre in which we are fortunate enough to find ourselves as world leaders. When reputation is already high, there is always the temptation to settle for what we know we can do well. But when we decide to avoid the familiar, we also need new storytelling techniques and fresh talent. We are, after all, in the business of exceeding our audiences' expectations.
Big Cat Live broadcast this autumn from Kenya. It was not an idea that burst into being over night. It was the result of incremental work that started with Wild In Your Garden, morphed into Springwatch and then built on Big Cat Diary and Big Cat Week.
An added creative catalyst this time was a schedule change. The arrival of The One Show meant a later slot for Big Cat and an opportunity for the team to rethink and add a heightened sense of drama. So their creative challenge was ramped up:
How do you add ambition to a complex multiplatform broadcast from the Masai Mara?
And their answer was to do it live – which also meant – because of the time difference – at night. And who better to seek advice from than their colleagues in the Match of the Day team, experts in live broadcast. Here's Jackson Looseyia, the Natural History Unit's newest star and series producer Nigel Pope to explain.
Technology and a major online presence were both crucial to the success of Big Cat Live.
The exploitation of new technology, including extensive use – for the first time live – of "long-lens thermal imaging", not only gave the audience brand new insights into animal behaviour, but also informed Big Cat's entire editorial proposition.
And it's this lateral approach to technology and a sense of excitement around it that will enrich our reputation for excellence and help us reach brand new audiences.
Many people also came to Big Cat Live for the first time through the programme's website, watching Big Cat Raw and the webcams which gave thousands of viewers the first ever live web-cast of a lion kill; slightly gruesome perhaps, but technically an incredible feat. No, not for the lion – they do that stuff all the time.
Big Cat and NHU have really embraced the need to broaden their outlook and as you've just seen, they are doing so in some spectacular ways.
Another project which embarked on what could have felt like a well-worn path or rather, flight path, was Britain From Above, a series made for BBC One by Lion Television. This time they literally looked at Britain from a new angle. They also sought to use technology to bring something new to the audience. The producers wanted to look at the way Britain functions every day, as if it were a living organism. There was one aspect of the story that required a particularly innovative approach.
How do you make visually engaging content out of hard data and dry statistics?
Here's a short film about how the team went about facing this and other challenges.
For me, the hot-spot of innovation here was the way the UK was visualised in this way. Data from GPS traces on everything from London taxis to children on their way home from school was collated by the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at UCL. A graphics team then imported all of this raw data into 3-D modelling software called MAYA as a series of motion paths. The paths could then be combined and layered with photo-real satellite images – creating those impressive and memorable results.
As you heard in the film, the team that made Britain From Above thought about the online aspect of the project from day one and as a result were able to incorporate it into their editorial thinking. This holistic approach requires not just new skills, but a real shift in our approach to creative development.
A multi-disciplinary approach is also exemplified by the team behind the interactive crime drama, Townsville. Based in Glasgow, they decided to take on one of the last remaining holy grails of the online world – interactive storytelling.
Anyone who plays computer games will know of the seemingly infinite story possibilities; the high quality graphics and dynamic interfaces. The budgets are big and the production values are high; as are user expectations.
But exploring new forms of storytelling is an important creative strategy if we want a healthy connection to this gaming audience. So our creative challenge was:
How can we offer a distinct and engaging user experience with a new form of drama?
Here's Iain Ross to tell us more.
What you saw there was just a small taste of an ambitious project created by BBC Scotland's Innovation team of three – a Producer/Director, Assistant Producer and Interactive Designer. Between them they brought all the skills needed to create the drama end to end: from casting and costumes to lighting, self-shooting and desk-top editing – technical and editorial working hand-in-hand. A virtual circle of skills.
Significantly, what BBC Scotland did here was to allow the team to find each other and develop their own way of working. My hunch is that they were helped by their new physical space in Pacific Quay, which, with its open spaces and meeting areas, has really added to the creative environment. Which bodes well for MediaCity:UK when it opens here in 2011.
The puzzle of interactive storytelling may take some time to solve and there is still some way to go, although the gaming industry is pushing us on.
The Townsville team are clearly keeping a tight focus on fast-changing media technology and its benefit to the audience. It'll be interesting to see how it goes down. By the way, the four 40 minute episodes will transmit on BBC Two Scotland in the first half of next year.
CBBC is an area of the BBC that has always been out front thinking about its audience. We all know that children are tough to reach, that competition for their attention is fierce on all platforms, that they are early adopters of technology and the least loyal and forgiving if you don't get it right. Ask any parent in the room!
The need to entertain and inform children has always been paramount in Children's content production. But children have other needs too. Social networking and online sharing has never been as prevalent as our youngest generation help each other to navigate the issues they all face, but they also need an absolutely safe environment to do that.
So our question was how can we offer children a completely safe way to have their voices heard?
Can we create an environment in which they can talk about things that worry them without breaching their privacy or putting them in danger?
The answer is Bugbears. Here's Adam Kwaje, the project's producer to tell us more.
What's interesting about this project is that it seemed only to require a kind of alchemy. The spark was the coming together of two people at a weekly interactive "scrum". Marc Goodchild – Head of Interactive for Children's spotted that the latest version of Adam's lip-syncing technology would fit perfectly with avatars to bring their self-help site to life: offering support in a pre-moderated environment and a service to the much wider audience of children who share those issues but are too shy or scared to sign up.
For me, making sure people are well placed to make these kinds of connections is crucial, especially in a large organisation. It may be that we need to introduce some kind of creative "speed-dating" in the not-too-distant future, but for now people need to be empowered and have the freedom they need to turn an opportunity into something real.
The Bugbears site went live on November 12 and I would urge you all to have a look at it if you can.
Online, children can design their own Bugbear avatar and record an issue or a question they have or they can simply check out what the bugbears are talking about. They don't have to use their own voice and they're encouraged to think through how much they reveal and who might recognise what they say. Every message is pre-moderated and checked.
CBBC is doing a wonderful job looking after what we hope will be our future grown-up audience. But often we are faced with a different challenge; appealing to new audiences while not alienating our existing viewers.
In all the examples I've shown you so far collaboration has been a big part of their success. And this is particularly true of this clip I'd like to show you.
Who would've thought that shiny floor entertainment could ever get it together with khaki clad naturalists? Who ever imagined you could hear "now from the makers of Planet Earth and Strictly Come Dancing"? Well, it's happening. To the Ends of the Earth is a green-lit project that brings together the format skills of our in-house Factual Entertainment team with the world class programme-making skills of the Natural History Unit.
Their challenge was@
How can we use the inbuilt jeopardy of producing Natural History to develop a fresh factual entertainment format?
Here's the bouncing baby produced when "Entertainment met Natural History".
That's a taster film. A formidable partnership combining a gripping format and great casting with the adventure, skill and experience associated with the NHU. I can't wait to see the result. This project would never have happened if the people with the ideas did not have the freedom to think and work in completely new ways.
Actively bringing people who would never normally meet together through projects like Hot Shoes, which Peter Salmon introduced, where people can do two-week stints in different departments are incredibly profitable. There is the most unbelievable power to be harnessed in the most unlikely of alliances if people can just open their eyes to other ways of working.
We should also recognise that we don't always have to own or even forge those alliances to create great content. The web – as we know – is an extraordinary meeting place for people who want to be creative and who need no introduction.
Traditional broadcasters can sometimes be left wondering where we fit in when some of the most innovative content is being created by others and delivered by means over which we have little or no control. And it creates some challenges:
Is it possible for a broadcaster to add value to a proposition which relies entirely on User Generated Content?
The answer is yes. As always it depends on the right approach and having the confidence to facilitate relationships and creativity without being too prescriptive. Here's an example where I think we got the balance right.
Bryony's project was hers and hers alone. All the actors, writers and crew met online and the vast majority of the contributors never met IRL – web speak for "in real life" to those less familiar.
What did we do? Well, BBC Three commissioned Hat Trick to follow Bryony as she made the movie and two webisodes of her progress were posted at 3.33pm on Tuesdays and Fridays on the BBC Three website. Through that website we linked to Bryony's own site, the Facebook group and the YouTube content. A 30 minute film was made for broadcast via BBC Three and was released simultaneously on YouTube.
For Bryony, with upwards of 500,000 hits, the project continues.
So, a light touch and an explicit "hands off" approach to the creation of the content itself resulted in more people finding the content and consuming it in different ways by working in partnership.
In that sense, Bryony Makes A Zombie Movie helped us fulfil another creative responsibility: To allow creativity to be discovered, to trust it when it is found, and to help the people who deliver it reach their full potential. And to experiment.
I started by debunking some creative myths and I promised no rules! So I'm going to finish by simply sharing a few thoughts on creativity which I believe these examples illustrate.
1. Creativity isn't linear: we don't always know what we're looking for in ideas – or where they'll come from – nor where they'll end up.
2. Creativity – new forms will increasingly be found by merging technical and editorial skills.
3. Creativity comes from open spaces and open minds, helping people work in new combinations.
Creativity needs support – from our editorial leaders, from managers, from regulators. And some of this is not easy, with the financial pressures on the industry, with serious editorial lapses. But creativity needs urging on – nobody is passive in this relationship. It needs nurturing and we must allow for creative failure as well as success.
I'll leave you with a collection of what BBC Vision has been working on recently. Thank you.
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