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Richard Deverell

Speeches

Richard Deverell

Controller, BBC Children's


Speech given to Showcomotion Young
People's Film Festival


Saturday 8 July 2006
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Hello and thank you for welcoming me to the conference today.

 

I'm Richard Deverell, the Controller of BBC Children's. I joined the department about a year ago as Alison Sharman's deputy. A lot can happen in a year!

 

Personally, I've learnt an enormous amount. Children's is very different to BBC News where I spent ten years.

 

I've been struck by the sheer diversity of what the BBC and other broadcasters provide for children and the passion and commitment of the people who work in this area.

 

I've also learnt that it's a lot more competitive than BBC News; audiences have more choice, the market is more fragmented. We all have to work hard to attract the best talent and to win the attention of children.

 

Most of all, I've been struck by just how enjoyable it is to be working in an area where – in essence – our remit is to delight children. Ideally, to do so with wonderfully distinctive and original ideas that enrich, engage and enthral them.

 

I have a simple remedy to cheer myself up whenever the BBC's "complexities" get me down. All I do is to visit a programme that has a live audience or children participating. They are what it's all about.

 

To me, the most powerful thing about television has always been its ability to open someone's mind to new horizons – to open new worlds. Nowhere is this more important than for children.

 

Everyone in this room will have different constraints and frustrations about what they do. However, we are united in one thing – and that is that we are offering children the very best television programmes and interactive content.

 

At BBC Children's we aspire to excellence in everything we do. And I know all of you here today would share this ambition to aim high – the BBC has no monopoly of virtue.

 

Looking back over the past years' agendas for Showcommotion it's interesting to see how the discussions have evolved but the themes of the conference remain fairly constant.

 

By this I mean no offence to Greg and the Showcomotion team. I believe that we are grappling with the same emerging issues as two years ago when the topic was a World Without Schedules.

 

This examined how PVRs, Video on Demand and non-terrestrial channels are sweeping away children's reliance on the schedule.

 

Last year the themes included whether new technology is changing childhood, how personal choice will affect how we deliver content and how to embed cross-media into programming.

 

What I want to do today is to build on these themes by describing my view of the way in which the environment for our programmes and services will change profoundly in the coming five years and to outline some of the ways that we might prepare for this very different world.

 

As many of you will know, the BBC has been working on a vision of this, called Creative Future, over the past year, which has some clear recommendations for each area, and will have an impact on the way we organise ourselves going forward.

 

Today, I want to describe the fully digital world that, I believe, is maybe five to 10 years away.

 

Those of us working in Children's media will be the first to enter this very different world. At BBC Children's we've been explicitly asked to pioneer a lot this work for the BBC.

 

I'll return to the point of partnership, but I will emphasise that we simply cannot do this without the help of a strong independent sector.

 

And we simply do not want to do this without a thriving children's media industry.

 

Anything that curtails the healthy competition curtails our ability to deliver for our audiences now and in the future. And that is bad for the media industry as a whole.

 

I believe we are on the cusp of a revolution. A revolution that is being driven by three powerful forces:

 

- The rise of on-demand consumption

- The proliferation of media devices

- The emergence of participatory media as a mainstream phenomenon

 

This will be a world where audiences will face limitless choice; where anyone can create or distribute video, audio or text and where broadband access to content is near-ubiquitous.

 

For many, this world will be exciting; for some it will be daunting and others will be excluded.

 

It is a hugely exciting time to be working in media – particularly, media for Children. This is because children are, to a large extent, already in this new world.

 

Also the habits they adopt as children will, I believe, remain with them and therefore will, over time, become the new mainstream.

 

I will talk about each of these three in turn –

 

The rise of on-demand consumption

 

I believe that the most important change facing our business in the coming decade will be the move from broadcasting to on-demand as the way much, if not most, of our content will be consumed.

 

What do we mean by on-demand? We mean that programmes will be watched or listened to at a time chosen by the audience – not by us as broadcasters.

 

Once upon a time, way back in 1922 we had the first BBC radio services and for television in 1936 with the first transmissions of what became BBC ONE. We might call this an age of linear channels and limited choice.

 

Then came the age of the proliferation of choice. This started in 1989 with the launch of multi-channel TV from BSB and Sky. 1995 saw the arrival of digital radio.

 

And now, we might say that we are in the third age - the age of on-demand: This is the fully digital world where on-demand is a mainstream way by which people consume video and, to a lesser extent, audio. In addition, increasing amounts of media consumption will be via portable devices. This is a world of near infinite choice and global competition.

 

The impact on broadcasting of this third age is an earthquake compared with the mild tremors that marked the transition to multi-channel.

 

My apologies to those who have heard me use this analogy before – but I believe children of the future will look back at our linear, scheduled TV world with some bafflement.

 

It seems to me the way we currently provide television is rather like going to Tesco in search of – say – Colgate toothpaste only to be told "I'm sorry, we only stock Colgate Toothpaste between 7.30 and 8.00pm on Wednesdays and if you missed it then it's gone for ever". That's how we package most of our best television programmes.

 

But, it is not, of course, how iPods, or Amazon, or games consoles or Google video work.

 

- Ever faster broadband is fundamental to the rise of on-demand consumption.

 

Today about 45% of UK children have access to broadband. That is growing rapidly. And broadband used to mean 500kb/sec – that was fast enough for text web pages but painful for video.

 

Increasingly broadband means 3mb/sec – or much faster. There is a poster at the end of my street offering me broadband access at 18mb/sec and the best offers around offer 24mb/sec for less than £20 a month.

 

Back in 1995 someone showed me how you could download video files over the internet. I was shown a postage-stamp sized flickering image that froze regularly and had appalling sound.

 

Everyone else watching this was gasping with wonder but I thought – "this is crap – why would you want to watch that?" But, what amazes me now is how fast things have improved.

 

Last year – ten years after my moment of disappointment – I was in Seattle at Microsoft. They showed me a commercial service that is up and running in the States that delivers high definition movies over the broadband internet direct to your living room TV.

 

This is a live service – not a technical trial carefully crafted by Microsoft's finest engineers. I was amazed at the quality of what I was seeing – it happened to be one of those magnificent battle scenes from the first Lord of the Rings film. And it was all in glorious high definition.

 

This is the leap the internet has made within just one decade. What will the next decade bring?

 

Broadband will be truly revolutionary. It enables the distribution of TV-quality video via totally open networks. And it is "always on". It liberates content from the limitations of schedules, professional content creators and geography.

 

My prediction is that the broadband web will be the most disruptive technology the television industry has ever witnessed.

 

Another major factor in the increase in on-demand is the increase in local storage. By "local storage" I mean systems that store content on set top boxes or portable devices such as Sky Plus and iPods.

 

Sky Plus, currently in around one-and-a-half million UK homes, is growing rapidly. Their latest box offers 120 hours of TV capacity.

 

If current trends continue, this will be 1,000 hours within five years. To put that in context, that is almost all the peak time programmes from your five favourite channels from the last year.

 

Imagine the space that would have occupied if you'd been trying to keep it all on VHS! Put simply – this is vast choice.

 

So what are the implications...

 

For starters these technological changes are forcing new alliances – often creating odd bedfellows of the old and the new.

 

NBC has formed what was described as an "uneasy alliance" with YouTube to promote their television programmes.

 

Brightcove – a company providing tools to distribute video over the internet – have teamed up with TIVO – a leading PVR service to enable internet distributed video to go directly to the set top box, so you don't have to have any technical knowledge to be able to watch stuff from the web on your TV.

 

How long before Sky strikes a similar deal in the UK? Sky announced a few months back that broadband is their top priority this year and they have warned analysts they will spend £70-£100m building their position in this market.

 

And, Sky delivers – they have a formidable track record on technical innovation and customer service.

 

On-demand also challenges concepts of broadcaster and producer - RDF media have announced that they will be the first indie to offer programmes directly to audiences via broadband from the end of this year.

 

On-demand provides audiences with far greater choice and new forms of content. It affects the kind of content we need to create and how we'll package and distribute it.

 

For example, programme duration can be editorially determined rather than dictated by the needs of the schedule. This is an opportunity.

 

We also need to think about the quality throughout a programme, and how it will be broken down to be consumed.

 

Think about albums – who now would listen to the filler tunes – it's the two or three favourites which will be on your playlist.

 

Similarly we shouldn't assume that the audience will want to watch our programmes the whole way through.

 

I think there will be a flourishing of short-form content – the most popular clips on YouTube tend to be less than three minutes in duration.

 

And of course this will be driven by different distribution methods too as the resurgence in shortform animation, for web and now mobile, is starting to indicate.

 

For content creators there is yet another challenge in the sudden emergence of content created by audiences. FlickR had 55 million photos posted within its first year, and it's a truism that a blog is created every second.

 

And user-generated content is becoming the next big thing in computer gaming, according to Sims-creator Will Wright.

 

Life certainly is getting more complex!

 

The proliferation of media devices and gateways

 

The second trend is the proliferation of media devices.

 

It used to be simple – children had access to just a television, typically the family set in the living room.

 

Today almost nine out of ten children have their own listening equipment (ie, a CD player, radio or MP3 player), and more than a quarter own all three.

 

Almost three quarters of children have internet access at home, and more than a third have their own PC or laptop.

 

The numbers for games consoles are still rising with 85% owning one, whilst almost all children over ten years old have their own mobile.It's not just the older age-group either – 30% of 7-8 year olds have one too.

 

And... perhaps most surprisingly one in eight children has their own fridge in their room!

 

We did some research recently asking what children would like from the media recently and at lots of different ages they came up with some great pictures of integrated devices.

 

Phones with big screens that let you MSN your friends whilst watching television or, to quote from some research Showcomotion did last year, children want "one mobile type device that will do everything for me".

 

Their wish is coming true. Within five years portable media devices will be ubiquitous. Most will have radio, live television, local storage, broadband connectivity and GPS enabling the delivery of location-specific content.

 

Children will increasingly regard BT, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft as some of the main paths to television and radio content.

 

In general, there will be a proliferation of ways to access content. Many children will use user-ratings or other forms of recommendations. Sophisticated software will enable tailored services that actively seek out relevant content.

 

There will be only a few mass-market aggregators of content but these will be complemented by a large number of others catering for niche interests.

 

Standard definition TV will be regarded as the poor relation to high-definition. The latter will be widely available, including via broadband.

 

Meanwhile physical formats for media distribution (CDs, DVDs etc) will have been almost entirely replaced by digital download.

 

Many of the new devices will be portable and personal. This brings opportunities for targeted and tailored content. Much of this is not new – you know this.

 

But, to me there are two big points here. The first is that in the child's mind there is equality across all these devices that we as adults may never understand fully.

 

This is already happening. For example, every month 1.4 million children watch the CBBC digital channel but four million use the CBBC website. Audiences to the latter are growing far faster than for the former.

 

The second point is that we, as content creators and commissioners, have to focus on great ideas first and distribution media second.

 

Great ideas can, and should, work across all relevant platforms and devices. I'll talk more about this in a moment.

 

The emergence of participatory media

 

The third trend is the emergence of participatory media.

 

By participatory media I mean the ability of children to create their own content or to manipulate or interact with content we, as professionals, have originated.

 

Whether writing their diaries or posting in their blog on Bebo, children have been content creators since time immemorial. So it should be no surprise that one in six children already have their own website.

 

We, working in the children's sector, are incredibly well placed to capitalise on this trend. We have a 60 year heritage of asking children for their stories, their pictures or even their monsters.

 

I wanted to show a recent example from CBeebies where, as part of Space Week, more than 5,000 children sent in their pictures.

 

RUN VT

 

I think that's a particularly nice example because it demonstrates how the simplest activities can generate fantastic television, and give even our youngest audiences the opportunity to see their creations on screen.

 

Involving the audience is totally engrained in the culture of children's programme-making. Even people of my generation will remember the anticipation each week as the camera panned across Tony Hart's gallery on Take Hart, hoping against hope that their picture would appear.

 

I think we're getting more sophisticated at using this type of send in or competition too.

 

More ambitious was Blue Peter's competition to design one of the monsters in the last Doctor Who series. This was won by nine-year-old William Grantham who came up with the rather horrific Absorbaloff... who, like a giant amoeba, simple absorbs his enemies. If only it were that easy!

 

Those of you who saw this on Doctor Who will remember it was the comic but still very scary character played by Peter Kay. Let's have a look.

 

RUN VT

 

So whilst we need to adapt to the new media – audio and video – in which children are working, we do not need to adapt culturally. We are already highly receptive to their creativity.

 

This world is not without problems. We need to ensure we provide secure areas for children, free from access and abuse and inappropriate material. We have responsibilities.

 

These three trends – the rise of on-demand consumption, the proliferation of media devices and the emergence of participatory media will, in concert, change our business profoundly.

 

But don't' take my word for it, to understand this changing world you have to ask the people who use it. So I'm delighted to introduce Callum who's sent this via his webcam.

 

RUN VT

 

Thank you Callum, yes we are listening.

 

Implications of these trends

 

So, what are the implications of these changes and what should we do to prepare and succeed in this world? The truth, of course, is that I don't know.

 

But, in the BBC there is an odd aversion to ever admitting you don't have an answer. So I feel obliged to share my best guesses on some priorities for the fully digital world.

 

So, with some trepidation, here are my four tips for success – but I feel the need, as with those ads for financial services on radio, to bolt on a stream of disclaimers and caveats!

 

To me, the most important requirement will be a relentless pressure on innovation and creativity. In a world of great choice only the truly distinctive will register.

 

This applies as much to presenters as programmes. This is why, in our commissioning rounds at BBC Children's, we are placing great emphasis on ideas that bring outstanding originality and distinction.

 

Television programmes and other forms of content that fail to intrigue, delight, surprise or satisfy will simply be invisible. They need to be the sort of thing that you wouldn't expect for children – only the brilliantly unexpected will stand out.

 

It is also why, in some areas, we will reduce the number of titles we commission but aim to increase the impact, quality and run of those that are commissioned.

 

For example, in Drama, last year we commissioned 12 titles; this year we are aiming at nine.

 

To me, Serious, LazyTown, Balamory, Tracy Beaker, Beat the Boss, Dick ‘n Dom, Charlie and Lola, NewsRound with it's Press Pack, Level Up, to name but BBC examples are all titles that absolutely create impact and loyalty with viewers.

 

They achieve this because they capture the attention of children by being original and distinctive and they capture their loyalty by the excellence of their storytelling and production.

 

Later today we will broadcast That Summer Day – a docu-drama produced by Hat Trick and directed by Jon East that looks at the impact of the London bombings last July on the lives of children in a north London school.

 

It is a wonderfully original idea that has been thoughtfully and sensitively brought to life. It's a difficult and unorthodox subject for children but I mention it today as, to me, it is a great example of the BBC's commitment to innovation and originality for children.

 

The initial idea was inspired by the huge amount of traffic to our message boards that day and we researched it with children like those in the film, so it's a real example of putting children at the heart of what we do.

 

My second tip for success in the fully digital world is to adopt a multi-platform approach to content creation.

 

From what I said earlier, children will be the first to move seamlessly across many different devices to access content. So they will expect us to offer services across all these devices and to do so in a joined up and compelling way.

 

Level Up, shown in the earlier clip, is a great example of how a television programme and a website can each strengthen the other – with children and their ideas as the glue binding these two together.

 

Crucially, it was conceived as a pan-platform proposition. Too often we have good ideas for television programmes with an "interactive bit" crudely bolted on as a late after-thought.

 

We have to move beyond that approach. It's not necessarily receiving the highest ratings, but it's a great experiment for many reasons, not least the traffic to the website and the blogs we are trialing.

 

Recently I was shown a fascinating example from Holland called the Blackbeard Connection that married the best of linear TV drama with a rich, immersive online world where players competed to solve clues to solve the mystery of the location of Blackbeard's last treasure.

 

I would love the BBC to innovate further with this interplay of web and TV content – building on the unique strengths of each medium. We need great ideas!

 

The requirement for a pan-platform approach to content creation was the main reason why I introduced two Creative Directors at BBC Children's: Anne Gilchrist for CBBC and Michael Carrington for CBeebies. Their role is to commission across all platforms for their respective services.

 

It is also why we are creating pan-platform production teams. The latest example is NewsRound where we have recently appointed a single editor to run a unified team producing content for TV, web, radio and iTV.

 

Tip number three is about talent. Invest in it. Nurture it. Love it. This industry is nothing without the ideas, energy and commitment of its people.

 

The competition for talent – especially production talent - will become ever more intense. We are all chasing outstanding ideas. At BBC Children's I want to attract the most talented and exciting creative people.

 

I am keen to draw in more people from grown-up TV – they can learn more, faster in BBC Children's than in any other BBC department. We can offer them great opportunities.

 

We've also, by the way, been commissioning from indies who have had no previous children's production experience, so this applies across the board.

 

I want to move people around more to ensure they have a greater diversity of experience. In particular, I want to ensure people work on interactive and on-demand services.

 

There will be a premium on those who understand the creative opportunities made possible by new technology.

 

We are thinking hard about novel ways to develop and reward our people and to ensure we attract people from a full diversity of backgrounds.

 

We still have much to do on the latter. We need to challenge our assumptions about production talent: are technical staff the new "creatives"?

 

It's striking that Yahoo, eBay, Friends Reunited, Wikipedia, MySpace, BeBo and many more were all started by what we – in media - would call "technical" people.

 

I believe successful media organisations will deliberately blur these distinctions and ensure that the brightest and best software engineers work in integrated teams alongside traditional television production staff.

 

We in the children's media industry should be at the forefront of this.

 

Marketing and findability

 

My final tip is to invest in marketing. By marketing I don't mean trails and posters.

 

I mean understanding your audiences and ensuring they understand what you are offering and can find it amidst this ocean of choice.

 

As children's media habits change we are going to have to work harder to understand their world. By this, I don't mean fat surveys full of columns of numbers.

 

I mean really valuable and granular insights that tell us about what matters to children – how they behave and what they aspire to. These original insights will be the fuel for effective creative development of great ideas.

 

In a world of near-limitless choice search, personalisation and recommendations from friends will all become important routes used by busy children to find the content they want.

 

All of these require content to be effectively labelled and described – yes, metadata as the boffins call it, is really is a core part of your business now.

 

Not only do we as professionals need to label our content but we need to let our audiences describe and rate it too.

 

It is impossible not to be impressed by the ease with which you can find relevant photos on Flickr – yet all of that indexing has been done by the public.

 

We are only just starting to scratch the surface of what we might do with this "social tagging".

 

We need to invest in the technical systems that will enable us to do this and we also need to take the rather large cultural step – it certainly feels a large step in the BBC - to open ourselves up in this way. But the opportunities here are intriguing.

 

One final thought. I believe that organisations that succeed will be those that offer consistent, simple and effective services. They will know exactly what their brand stands for – and so will their consumers.

 

We are working hard to define the brand positioning for both CBBC and CBeebies and then to ensure this is consistently realised across all the relevant content and communication.

 

In particular, despite the success of the CBBC brand, it has the potential to feel a little confused – and confusion is a dangerous place to be in this competitive market.

 

We need to sharpen it up and we also need to ensure it is spot-welded to our programmes so that, whether you find Raven on BBC ONE, Google video or – illegally – on a Lord of the Rings fan website, you will know it came from CBBC.

 

Partnerships

 

Finally, the foundation for many of the points made in this speech is the need for us to have strong and effective partnerships.

 

We cannot and will not succeed in this starkly different world if we try to go alone. We need many partnerships – for example, with Google to ensure our video and websites are findable and with mobile operators to ensure ready access to mobile content.

 

However, there is one partnership that is faraway the most important – and that is with the indies and other content suppliers. The creative excellence from independents is as fundamental to our business as that from in-house.

 

Our approach to commissioning is that the best idea should win. Early indications are that the independent sector will have won more than 40 per cent of our commissions for 06/07 – if not a majority, a very significant part of our business.

 

I want to reiterate that I believe in a vibrant and successful commercial sector – both broadcasters and indies – it is an important factor in sustaining our drive for excellence.

 

We want to move into this "third age of broadcasting" with strong companions taking the journey with us. It will be an uphill climb if we try to take it alone.

 

Conclusion

 

I've argued today that the transition to this fully digital world on-demand world presents all of us with some complex challenges. It's easy to feel daunted.

 

But, to me, it is more exciting than daunting. This world offers wonderful opportunities to innovate, to experiment and to learn.

 

For the first time we can engage in a creative dialogue in which children are active, inspired participants.

 

I am confident we can offer richer, more engaging, illuminating and entertaining formats and treatments in the 21st century than we ever managed in the 20th.

 

We have to be nimble – to be a bit more confident with risk and uncertainty. We need to embrace experimentation – and maybe spend a bit more on audience research and pilots. But the prizes merit the effort.

 

I have argued that much will be different in this new world – but I want to end by stressing that actually, the most important thing will not change.

 

This, of course, is our collective ability to create and deliver great ideas that capture the imagination of young minds.

 

Great ideas are, and will remain, the bedrock on which all our successes are built.

 

And the children who consume, interact with and produce our content will be the final judge of those successes. Thank you.



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