Jana Bennett, Director, BBC Vision
Big is beautiful
Speech given at the Banff World Television Festival 2008
Monday 9 June 2008
Check against delivery
I am delighted to be here once again in Banff – the spiritual and creative home of global television.
It's the second interesting experience I've had in North America recently.
Two weeks ago I was in LA for the screenings - and I was simply staggered to see the amazing flow of creative ideas coming across from Britain. Hit after hit had been picked up, and the BBC was leading the pack on a scale bigger than ever before in our history.
I wasn't the only one to notice – the New York Times wrote a piece on upfront week citing the prominence of BBC shows like Dancing With The Stars, The Office, Worst Week and Life On Mars.
The Times' analysis had a somewhat downbeat tone – emphasising the creative drought stateside in the wake of the writers' strike and cost-cutting in response to the credit crunch.
But I don't believe those are the main reasons for the BBC's success. Another report came out while I was in LA pointing out the incredible fact that the networks in the States have lost six million viewers over the last year. Six million viewers had disappeared.
But where did they go? Well, observers say the writers' strike had an impact – accelerating the flight to cable. But much more significantly they point to a sharp increase in timeshifting via PVR.
Now, in the UK we have a lower penetration of PVR than the States – and timeshifting is about a third of US levels. But we've seen no significant drop in viewing to mainstream channels over the last year and the overall peaktime average is identical – standing at about 20 million.
Of course, we might catch up in time and patterns of viewing will almost certainly change, but I think there are more profound differences in our TV offerings.
In fact, I believe the BBC's continued and growing success lies in the range, depth and diversity at its creative heart, its ability to build loyalty in its audience and its mandate for creative risk – and, as a result, its consistent delivery of hits in drama, in comedy, in factual and in entertainment formats.
And that's what I want to talk about today – big TV. The TV hit, how we at the BBC make them and how the hit not only survives, but thrives in the interplay between programmes, platforms and audiences on offer in our brave new world.
And what do I mean by a hit? Well, here are a few we made earlier. [SHOWREEL]
Those programmes are all hits, but they fall into two broad categories: the mainstream one, requiring multiple millions of viewers – programmes like Planet Earth, Top Gear, Doctor Who, Cranford, I'd Do Anything, The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency, The Apprentice, Life On Mars, Strictly Come Dancing and Wild China – programmes designed to be hits, programmes brilliant both in their ambition and execution.
And then there's the smaller niche hit – not necessarily delivering such huge numbers but commanding high appreciation – for us. Shows like Gavin And Stacey, In The Night Garden, The Mighty Boosh, Charlie And Lola or Bloody Omaha – a hit in its own terms, sometimes a cult hit – or for a particular audience, on a particular channel, perhaps redefining a particular genre.
Both kinds have these things in common – the need to truly connect with an audience, to capture the atmospherics of the moment and to generate buzz. Audiences must love a hit. Critics don't have to like it – they all have to want to talk about it.
But the increased competition for viewer time ever since the advent of multichannels means the volume required for a mainstream hit has been dropping for years.
The fear is that timeshifting, new platforms and the vast proliferation of choice only multiplies the effect. So, for our industry the temptation is ever more carefully to manage the arrival of a hit – choose a few surefire winners, invest heavily in their production and then heavily again in their marketing to cut through. There's a higher and higher cost to risk ratio – so fewer risks are taken.
In the short term, that may work for the business end of what we do – but being risk averse is antithesis to our creative heart. That's why the BBC is structured to run counter to that trend.
And it is supported in that ambition in part by the public service broadcasting TV ecology in the UK.
British broadcasters don't launch the majority of programmes in the same week of a season, providing instead a constant feed of diverse programming across the seasons that audiences value and return to.
In fact, we tend towards complementary scheduling with other broadcasters, avoiding the head-to-head clash of hits seen in other territories. We embrace a number of 13-part series creatively – but we also protect many shorter runs in our schedules, gaining from their diversity and ensuring ideas are not overstretched, particularly in factual reality. And we place great emphasis on programming that fits in with the rhythm of people's day, like early evening soaps.
That eclecticism can be a weakness – but it's also strength. And the British example forms part of a debate about creativity now happening across the whole transatlantic industry.
What is certain is that the UK model helps maintain overall audience reach. But it's the BBC's range and diversity that is so crucial to our particular success.
Because the BBC is built to ensure every element works as hard as possible to deliver creative potential across our channels, genre commissioning and production base.
First, the channels. We have eight in all in the UK portfolio: two from BBC News, two children's channels and four mixed genre.
That portfolio of channels allows us to reinforce audience loyalty and keeps people watching within the BBC family. But the portfolio is also critical to our ability to take creative risks.
The interplay between the digital channels BBC Three and BBC Four and the terrestrials, BBC One and Two, allows us to grow talent and hits – letting a show find its audience.
The portfolio underpins the ability of channel controllers and genre commissioners to exercise editorial courage, allowing them to stay with a programme into a second series even if it hasn't done "the numbers" first time round – in fact, not necessarily expecting it to.
It gives the slow-burners room to breathe – shows that in the end may burn very bright indeed. Like this one. The comedy Gavin And Stacey is a boy meets girl story. They fall in love at a distance and, when they finally get together, they bring with them their fantastic – but frankly odd – collection of family and friends from opposite ends of the country.
Its genesis came when two performers shared a story about the extraordinary collision of people at a very ordinary wedding. These first-time writers then brought a film script to the BBC with the idea fully formed.
We suggested they turn it into a series, but beyond that we didn't meddle – when you spot writing of such quality, you just don't.
We removed it from the glare of ratings – playing the first two series on BBC Three – and it found a devoted following, averaging 1.6 million on this digital channel. This year, I'd love to see the Christmas Special play out on BBC One.
To give you a sense of just how much artistic space we've given these new writer-performers, in the three years since they brought Gavin And Stacey to us there have been nine emails between the BBC and its authors. Just nine emails in three years. Read them and weep.
But it means that when the show started to be showered with awards – and it has been literally showered with awards – including the Audience Award at the Baftas, where it took over twice the public votes of the nearest contender, we couldn't take the credit for its creative vision but we could take the credit for recognising it, backing it without reserve and letting it flourish.
And Gavin And Stacey is not unique. Its story is similar to the way in which we have nurtured other new talent and new comedy – that most high-risk and fragile of genres. The Office was allowed to grow in a very similar way on BBC Two.
A culture of creative courage across our portfolio of channels means that we can deliver the unexpected even in primetime on our flagship channel.
So, this March at 9pm on a Sunday, BBC One was proud to launch a film directed by the late Anthony Minghella. A beautifully written, brilliantly acted drama featuring an entirely black cast with Botswanan accents in an African setting for The No. Ladies' Detective Agency.
It was that all too rare thing outside Africa – a celebratory story about Africa.
Alexander McCall Smith, who wrote the original novels, puts their success down to the central character, saying: "I think that people throughout the world want to believe in such a person. …we feel the need of somebody like Mma Ramotswe, who offers forgiveness rather than confrontation and recrimination. Such people are there – we need only give them the space to breathe, the chance to talk to us."
And that's what we did.
No. 1 Ladies' drew an audience of 7 million, well above that expected for the Sunday night slot – a much higher than normal Appreciation Index and a much higher than average black audience.
Next year, it will return as a primetime series on BBC One.
Now, no market analysis would have backed that commission. But the BBC does not make hits to formula. Recently, I was intrigued to see Jeff Zucker of NBC reflecting on the impact of the writers' strike. He held up the British approach to development as a counterpoint to the US system of pilots.
He was right. We don't spend millions on pilots no-one ever sees, but we do pilot – we just do it on air.
When we revamped BBC Three, our channel for younger audiences, we transmitted six stand-alone dramas. We didn't announce it but they were all, in fact, pilots. And we planned for, and scheduled for and budgeted for, just one of them to be developed into a series.
We didn't ask the audience to comment, but not long after transmission all six of them had their own Facebook groups – not created by us - with fans clamouring for their favourite to be the one.
They campaigned for each across the web including via the BBC's YouTube channel, and a petition in favour of Being Human quickly gathered over 3,500 signatures on the website petition online.
Being Human, the tale of three flatmates who just happen to be a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost, is, in fact, the one we're making into a series – but the online uproar is only part of the reason.
Everything about the programme told us that it touched a nerve, connecting with a 20-something audience who often feel themselves to be outsiders. But it will go into production with a pre-established and expectant fanbase online, a year or so before it appears on air, and we're now in the unusual position of having a hit of sorts and fans for a series that has not yet been made – and wondering how we sustain them.
This kind of intense democratic relationship with its audience is something completely new for a television channel – and can only be delivered by the web.
The web can really build buzz about something new, and it can make something potentially small much bigger. It is the ultimate watercooler.
But it's capable of doing much more than that. That's why last year we established the division I lead, BBC Vision, a fully integrated multi-genre, multi-platform commissioning and production house – the largest of its kind in the world. The combination of this with our portfolio of channels delivers the BBC a veritable thinktank of creative R&D.
So I'd like to turn now to how that combination is playing out across other platforms. How multiplatform is reshaping the business of growing hits and redefining our relationship with the audience.
Traditionally, pretty much everything the audience sees before a programme goes to air is marketing. And this is often true on new platforms, too. The phenomenon of seeding shortform video around the web for upcoming dramas and comedies, for example, is becoming fairly well established.
But we are currently in the middle of another experiment with online video before broadcast.
Amazon will be the latest offering from intrepid explorer Bruce Parry when it airs next year. The series will tell of the epic journey from the Amazon's source in the High Andes through the places and peoples found along the course of the greatest river on Earth. You get a sense of the passion and urgency Bruce Parry feels for this trip when he says that 'the Amazon' is a metaphor for 'the world'.
But, for the audience, the Amazon experience started on the web a long time before TX and I mean a really, really long time – it started when filming began, almost a full year before the show will air.
The web lets the audience take the journey vicariously alongside the crew – with regular posts in text and video on the highs and the lows – and difficult decisions.
Like this moment captured on mobile when Chris, the team doctor, has been asked to take a look at a desperately weak child in a village the crew are travelling through. [VIDEO]
The viewers bore witness to these lives on the web –and the programme itself will be the culmination of a year of shared experience.
We tried something similar with the show Long Way Down last year, following Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boorman from the northern tip of Scotland to the southern most point of Africa. When that show aired, 52 per cent of viewers had watched online content pre-TX, 28 per cent said they first heard about it online, and three quarters said they'd told others about it after seeing the online content.
Of course, there were fears that access to this much content ahead of time would detract from the broadcast show. In fact, the programme drew 3.9 million – that's double the average audience for the slot.
Now, all that online activity clearly helped to grow a hit, proving the web can make a hit bigger, but it's certainly not marketing – not as we know it – it's the creation of a new format, a new form of cross-platform story telling.
And the ability of the web to connect with an audience before transmission, between transmissions and between series, is becoming of fundamental importance to returning hits.
Audiences for BBC mainstream shows like Dragons' Den and Strictly Come Dancing flock to their sites and rate them highly after the series ends and long before the next begins.
Some audiences, like those for Doctor Who, are so voracious that they devour everything we give them – games, video, comic book makers, trailer-makers and more – all year round. They want not only the programme Doctor Who, but the world of Doctor Who.
In fact, for some, what we give them is never going to be enough. So they make their own – and post instructions for others online.
I suggest those of you of a nervous disposition look away now. Scary…
What is striking about all these examples is the ongoing power of television to galvanise an audience. We are witnessing the changing life cycle of a hit and a changing relationship with its fans. Suddenly, we find the audience can want to be involved much earlier on, to be let in on the commissioning decisions - even the production – the parts that we thought were private, were ours alone and not for public consumption. The audience wants the show to continue to have a rich, active and developing life far beyond transmission.
Extending the window of time in which a programme is available to allow it time to engage an audience has been a commonplace of scheduling on smaller digital channels for years via a pattern of multiple repeats.
But for the BBC, in one sense, the life expectancy of our programmes has just increased significantly with the advent of iPlayer.
This delivers 400 hours of BBC catchup TV, refreshed weekly. Just to be clear, that will add up to almost 21,000 hours of TV over a year.
Since public launch on 25 December it has been a huge success, with around 90 million requests to stream and download programmes – and it's continuing to grow. We expect shortly to see it break through the barrier of one million requests in a day.
So, what cuts through in on demand? Well, comedy, drama and factual are all reflected strongly, and shows for younger audiences, but across all of these it's the TV hits.
The top 1,000 programmes so far on iPlayer are those recording a high average talkability rating of 54 in their linear slots. The top 100 iPlayer shows have an average talkability rating of 66 and the top 10 have an Appreciation Index on linear of over 80. Fifty per cent of all requests to view are for programmes in that top 10.
The news is that quality TV works cross-platform – on schedule and on demand. Nothing so far has bucked that trend.
But we are seeing some interesting patterns emerge. On average a programme will deliver iPlayer requests representing around 2 per cent of its linear first transmission audience.
But a select few shows have got a much higher percentage. And the top three of these are all related to niche hits - programmes with cult followings: The Mighty Boosh documentary got requests in iPlayer representing 30 per cent of its first transmission audience, and two of the drama pilots I mentioned earlier, Being Human and Phoo Action, got 20 per cent and 13 per cent respectively.
Those are all shows that attract younger audiences, but they are also peak time shows on a digital channel – shows that might get missed because they're scheduled up against big hitters on BBC One and BBC Two, or the terrestrial competition.
iPlayer seems to encourage planned, intelligent viewing around the portfolio. And indications are that iPlayer is additive – all of these shows performed in line with expectations at broadcast.
We know that iPlayer is capable of transforming the way in which people in the UK watch TV. It is adding to the existing means of timeshifting – narrative repeats and the still dominant PVR – all multiplying the opportunities to view, making the unmissable, unmissable.
But although it's a radical shift in our audience offer, catch-up services like iPlayer are still only an extension of that moment in time that is the transmission window.
In fact, for the BBC, the moment of broadcast combined with iPlayer catchup is the new transmission window. And that's why our approach is always to acquire rights inclusive of catchup.
But iPlayer is only the beginning of the story. Because when that iPlayer moment is over, the programme disappears and we are still having to apologise to the audience. And yet those programmes do still exist and increasingly may be available elsewhere on the web - on iTunes, for example, or in other on-demand offers like Kangaroo, the BBC's new UK commercial partnership with ITV and C4, which we expect to get regulatory approval for soon.
That fact formed part of the thinking behind this – a permanent page for every episode of every programme the BBC has ever broadcast.
Each page is dependent on the power of programme information – of data – of metadata. Now that may sound dull, but let me tell you the data captured on these pages is going to be critical for us in the ongoing story of hits.
Because these permanent pages will always direct the audience to the programme – wherever it may be on the web – first in iPlayer, then elsewhere on bbc.co.uk or on iTunes or on any number of other on demand services including Kangaroo.
Each page and clip will be promotional for that programme in perpetuity. They will offer the possibility of hits that go on and on, or are re-discovered when the time is right.
There are already over 160,000 individual pages. Eventually, we will add our programme back catalogue to produce pages for programming stretching back over nearly 80 years – featuring all the information we have on the richest TV and radio archive in the world.
The BBC is committed to releasing the public value in that archive and these pages are going to play a central role in allowing us to do that.
The controlled moments of transmission that television has permitted in the past, and the elaborate systems of temporal windows we have established after them, will in the not too far distant future seem like a period of technological aberration. A time when TV acted as if it were theatre – a genuinely momentary medium - when TV is not.
As I've said, if you are having to apologise to your audience because the content is no longer available, you know you have a problem. In time, someone else is going to see that as a missed opportunity.
But it's not only a question of restrictions in the temporal window of availability. BBC video content online is typically geo-IPed – restricted to UK viewers only.
This is what you get if you try and view video from the BBC on YouTube outside the UK. And that's met with fierce opposition.
This from our YouTube channel. The people in other countries are fans of your shows and cutting them off from videos isn't a good thing to do. From a Doctor Who fan in the US: "Why aren't some videos available from my bloody country? Hello, this is bloody YouTube not your dad's shoe store."
What seems proper from a broadcast perspective can seem parochial online. Four months ago, a shortform piece appeared on YouTube after the Timewatch programme Bloody Omaha transmitted. It was four minutes long, describing how three BBC graphic designers with one camera in four days recreated the landing and battle at Omaha Beach.
The Bloody Omaha programme did well when it first transmitted: the 'making of' short reached a high of over three million views on YouTube alone; it's been linked to by at least 1,000 other sites and favourited 12,500 times.
The combination of all these factors led to the programme being rescheduled on BBC Two. But why is the clip of unknown graphic designers at work so successful?
Not just because it was put up on a website. Not just because it's great content – though it is. Not just because it's permanently available. Part of the reason is that is embeddable – so it can be linked to and viewed from other sites, so allowing fans to distribute it around the web.
But the success of the Bloody Omaha clip isn't just about embedding. It's because it isn't geographically restricted. It's available worldwide – and so the Timewatch graphic designers have become an international hit.
Of course, many of the BBC's longform programmes go on to be international hits, and are truly global brands. Top Gear, Doctor Who, Planet Earth – and the list goes on. And bbc.co.uk itself is a major international player with around 16.5 million unique users visit from outside the UK each week.
The contributions of our global audience online add immeasurably to the value for our audience at home. In our news pages, imagine coverage of the tragedies in Burma/ Myanmar or China without the voices of the people affected. Or discussions on the credit crunch, global warming and the price of oil held only between people living on a small group of islands off the coast of Europe.
In London, above the doors of the two oldest BBC buildings there is the legend 'Nation shall speak peace unto Nation'. In the past it was the broadcasters who were doing most of the speaking. But not any longer.
And despite the talk of the web driving personalisation, niche interests and increased individualism, in fact the desire to congregate around shared interest and concern is intense.
But those same international audiences who so enrich our national conversation are mystified at being excluded from large parts of our content.
Imagine now the world communities and conversations that would congregate around programmes like Planet Earth, Wild China or Amazon - if they were available to that global audience at the same time.
People want to participate globally – and, in part, that's why this autumn, when NBC launches Heroes series three in the States, it will be aired simultaneously by the BBC in the UK.
The web is, of course, a global medium and increasingly its users are knocking at the doors of the structures television has established for territorial exploitation.
What I'm describing is the logic of the world wide web. Now there's obviously a commercial dimension to this. It isn't going to change our horizons in the near future – but over time, it will change the lay of the land and almost certainly lead to internal realignments in our industry.
Earlier, I talked about the importance of data. In television, I think we are still in the early days of recognising its potential.
Take a look at this. This is Google Trends. It allows you to see the search patterns for a particular keyword over time and within given territories. This is the global picture for the word Pompeii. You'll see a couple of peaks. And a noticeable leap on 12 May. From searches in the UK alone the spike is even more pronounced.
Just imagine if we could predict that level of interest – how we could provide programming to serve it. Create new programming or release the value in a treasure trove of existing content to satisfy a clear need.
Now you'll see that Google knows what caused two of the earlier peaks: first, Roman Polanski's exit from the film Pompeii, and then new archaeological finds. Google does not know what piqued the audience interest on 12 May. But we do. [DOCTOR WHO 29]
Television – big television, great television – has an almost unrivalled power to energise an audience. The broadcast of a single programme is capable of distorting the search patterns of the world. The broadcast will continue to be a moment of maximum impact, allowing us to lob a hand grenade or toss a bouquet into the public consciousness and conversation.
As a result, our television channels will continue to be of vital importance – so much so that the BBC now plans to simulcast all its television channels online in the UK, culminating with BBC One later this year.
But the multiplatform landscape also offers us new ways of understanding audience desires – of generating buzz, building a hit, connecting with and engaging an audience.
It offers new means of distribution that are already changing the temporal boundaries and increasingly challenging the geographical boundaries that have historically contained and constrained the potential f a hit.
But none of these things will make a programme great. At the core of big TV has to be big ideas – with big ambition and a big heart. And they will always carry with them risk.
In the light of difficult economic circumstances and a complex and shifting landscape our industry could retreat from creative risk – avoiding awkward genres like new comedy or factual programming, testing the hell out of new drama ideas before putting them to an audience, buying in the known, developing to a formula.
It is, in such circumstances, that a public service BBC with secure funding designed to foster creativity and deliver cultural value in all genres for all audiences makes more sense than at any time in its history.
For the BBC, the TV hit matters – not for the simple commercial drivers of drawing eyeballs and planting bums on seats, nor for the opportunity to bathe in the reflected glory of a truly scintillating smash, not even so we can sell the show or the format to the rest of the world.
For the BBC, the TV hit matters because we are charged with connecting with as wide an audience as possible, with bringing people together in moments of shared experience – to entertain, inform and educate – to promote understanding, to contribute to the national and international conversation, and always to create fresh and distinctive experiences – surprise and delight across all our platforms.
Because the TV hit is more than merely an industry success story. It forms part of a battle against the forces of division and fragmentation within our countries and in our world.
Bigness is necessary for collective experience. That's why Big TV is Beautiful. The world needs it.
Search the site
Can't find what you need? Search here