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Simon Nelson

Speeches

Simon Nelson

Controller of Portfolio & Multimedia, BBC Vision


Speech given at BBC Vision in-house Multiplatform Day

Wednesday 26 September 2007
Printable version

The other day I watched the BBC Four documentary on Factory Records – one of the best music docs I've ever seen. I was only aware of it because the BBC homepage had promoted it that morning. I was able to send a link from the website to my wife and ask her to set the PVR. Because there was a website for the programme it was easy for me to send a link to my old mates from Manchester to get them to watch it on demand, on the BBC iPlayer.

 

How many more programmes that I would have loved did I miss that week? How many more opportunities did the BBC miss to use me to promote its programmes for it? Because only a few programmes get that treatment – and there are far more sophisticated ways now to raise my awareness and use me as one of our marketers.

 

Helping to make sure that people are able to find, play and share our world beating content is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

 

But what brings you here?

 

Over the last two to three years we have been told repeatedly that multiplatform is important – that the media landscape is changing at a rate and in a manner unprecedented in its history; that market players are falling over themselves to jockey for position; that technology is revolutionising creative opportunity and audience behaviour is shifting dramatically.

 

So today I'm not proposing to talk about why we're all here.

 

But, what I will say is this. Neither one of these reasons for change taken individually, nor all taken together are good enough reasons for us all to be here today and for BBC Vision to be making an overwhelming commitment to multiplatform.

 

Because, if audience appetite, media market activity and technological possibility were all it takes – BBC Vision would be in the business of commissioning on demand porn.

 

For us there has to be something much – much – more.

 

And during the drafting of this strategy there was one question that we kept coming back to – to paraphrase my esteemed colleague Jeremy Paxman – the question is this:

 

What is multiplatform for? By that I mean what is its purpose for BBC Vision – indeed what is its purpose for the BBC and what is its purpose for our audience?

 

It's a question I hope to be able to answer this morning. I'll come back to it later.

 

And now here's what you'll hear from me today.

 

I will be revealing:

 

  • A new architecture for BBC Vision on the web
  • Some principles which underpin our approach to content
  • The commissioning process
  • Our investment plans

 

And – and this I believe is critical – the thinking that lies behind these decisions.

 

So to the strategy.

 

The first thing to say is this strategy does not start at Year Zero.

 

When I came to BBC Vision I was in the fortunate position of taking on responsibility for multimedia in a division that already housed some of the brightest and most talented individuals in the sector: people who had delivered ground-breaking and award-winning services on all the major platforms. And those services taken as a whole – whether on red button or bbc.co.uk – are the envy of most media organisations in the world.

 

Thinking about future platform developments and Web 2.0 in particular was already in train and endorsed at the highest level in the BBC. So this strategy does not attempt to re-invent that wheel.

 

And that thinking about future platforms brings the divisions of the BBC together with an unprecedented level of shared direction and commitment. So this strategy is one that works not only for BBC Vision but one that shares its core principles with other parts of the BBC and speaks a common language.

 

So to that common language. The starting point for our strategy was to find a framework that could stimulate a richer conversation across the business about the possibilities of multiplatform, to enable us all to focus on its wider opportunities and to categorise and prioritise the almost unlimited range of things we could do.

 

Because it is too easy to dismiss the multiplatform opportunity as simply getting our programmes onto new devices or creating websites alongside programmes.

 

So we have adopted 'find, play, share' as our framework.

 

In themselves the themes are quite broad so we've taken them down to another level of detail:

 

  • Find incorporates discovery, helping audiences find and navigate the content we make, ensuring that they know about and come across the things that they would most enjoy

  • It also means making that content vastly more accessible to our audiences than ever before – wherever, whenever and however they want to consume it

  • Play includes engage, enhancing the audience's engagement and enjoyment of our content, thereby increasing its impact, via simple interactive features

  • And then extending their experience of the ideas and issues we've introduced them to by enabling them to explore, going further and deeper into worlds we create around our content

  • Share means enabling and encouraging our audiences to participate in some way, becoming more active, able to join in and contribute to what we do, then to discuss, debate and contribute their own thoughts, ratings, recommendations

  • Finally, share also incorporates create, helping the audience to generate and share their own ideas and content and identifying and showcasing the best

 

So 'find, play, share' is the framework that we have used to assess the current state of our offer and will use to analyse our future portfolio and assess how effectively we are delivering our public purposes. Indeed, the BBC Trust is currently undertaking its service review of bbc.co.uk and this framework has already helped to inform what will be the BBC's submission to the Trust.

 

So how are we doing? Well, we believe that in some areas we were doing well – sometimes very well – most notably in the 'play' area.

 

Vision can point to, and be proud of interactive offerings such as the richly rewarding Doctor Who website, the cross–platform Springwatch events, and red button experiences like the one that allows viewers to play along with the TV quiz show 1v100. All of these deliver precisely to audience needs. However, these successes fall a long way short of being universal.

 

Only a few of our programmes are currently supported at all on any platform and these are combined with some standalone or non-broadcast related offers which enjoy very varying degrees of success from the hugely effective Bitesize to others which – let's face it – have simply failed to cut through.

 

BBC Vision's entire multiplatform portfolio has grown organically; resulting in many individual content offers with no consistent overall structure or strategy.

 

I'd like to concentrate now on just one of our platforms – bbc.co.uk.

 

On the web, the vast majority of Vision's individual sites are handcrafted – technically and editorially – in the process eating up resource. Despite not representing every programme we have still spread ourselves too thinly. And so we have delivered some services whose potential has been unnecessarily, and counter productively, curtailed through lack of resource.

 

At times, we have even forced production staff, sensitive to the constraints, to settle for proposing plans of only moderate ambition.

 

The sheer concentration of effort on producing content and handcrafting bbc.co.uk as a destination site means that we have failed to focus adequately on either the 'find' or 'share' areas to date.

 

It's not all bad news. In recent months we have made leaps forward in enabling discovery and accessibility of our content with the beta launch of the iPlayer.

 

And we have established a YouTube channel that lets users who might never visit our own site to come across content from our programming in a space they love. Our experience there has taught us a lot and is having a major impact on our thinking about short form content.

 

But it remains true that much of our content is difficult to find via third parties – like search engines – but also on our own site. There is inconsistency between the scale and richness of different sites within bbc.co.uk and sometimes, poor navigation and cross-promotion between them – even though we are handcrafting those links ourselves.

 

Until now this approach has stood us in good stead with the audience.

 

But it is an approach that is very labour intensive and simply will not scale.

 

And it is going to have to scale – and it is going to have to change – because the web is changing.

 

As Web 2.0 begins to move beyond the most technically literate and into the mainstream audience, BBC Vision runs the risk of presenting itself not so much as a skyline of skyscrapers but something more like an old-fashioned department store in a landscape that is now populated by hypermarkets.

 

While we might structure ourselves by individual departments carrying limited stock with finely crafted displays and only sufficient staff to serve one customer at a time. The Walmarts of the internet – the YouTubes and Amazons – stack 'em high and sell 'em cheap. They carry vast volumes of content, presented in a highly functional design, but made very easily discoverable and accessible.

 

These players are competitors for our audiences' attention and it's worth taking a moment to understand how they do what they do.

 

They template their design, automate their production and let their customers – knowingly or not – do large parts of the navigation work for them – and in YouTube's case the content production work too. Crucially they have made the shift that retail made to self–service in no uncertain terms.

 

The key to their success is automation – and the key to automation is metadata – information about the content.

 

Amazon doesn't attempt to marshal its offer by hand – it uses a recommendation engine to generate 'like this – try this' messages using metadata triggered by the actions of its customers.

 

On YouTube anyone who posts a clip also adds copious tags – or words that describe the video – metadata again. Then viewers add comments and ratings –more metadata. All this makes the content more findable.

 

And finally YouTube allows users to embed the videos. The video is never actually downloaded – it never leaves YouTube – but it can be viewed from these other locations. And that in turn increases the content's standing in the results of search engines – making the content more findable still.

 

Our colleagues in BBC Audio & Music experimented with embedding for the BBC Two series Seven Ages Of Rock recently. During the nine weeks of the show's transmission we estimate that pages housing the video clips in sites off bbc.co.uk were viewed 4 million times.

 

In fact, the find and the share elements – apparently at opposite ends of the framework – actually create a virtuous circle – with the share functions of rating/recommendation and embedding all contributing dramatically to the findability of content.

 

So having looked at our own activity via the lens of find, play and share we came to these conclusions:

 

  • It is essential that we re-construct the architecture of bbc.co.uk to increase findability and to do that we need to maximise the routes in to content

  • We must establish the tools that allow share behaviours – and so harness the power of our audience and the network to make our content more findable

  • We must take a radically new approach to our production processes to dramatically increase the number of programmes we support at little or no resource cost and thereby free resource for projects of real ambition whether they are programme–related or native to the web.

 

So this then is the new shape of Vision on bbc.co.uk

 

[video]

 

This will be the new architecture for BBC Vision on the web – with content split between programme enhancements and products and navigation enabled by rich channel websites; a wide array of directories; search and a suite of user tools threaded through our websites.

 

At this point it is worth noting the crucial role the channels will play in promoting and endorsing content – a natural development of the role they play in linear environments – getting people to content that they would enjoy.

 

Taking a much broader view than is possible in their linear manifestations – the channel websites will point to upcoming programmes a long way before they transmit – making connections between them and current offers in both the linear schedule and amongst the huge range of on demand programmes available via the iPlayer.

 

All the channels now have multiplatform channel editors who are building a view of how each channel's identity will be extended into the multiplatform space, not only via these websites but utilising the entire canvas of the internet and other platforms to attract audiences to their brands.

 

This new architecture will affect many people working in different parts of the BBC – not least our colleagues in Future Media & Technology who have to actually build these tools, systems and the technical infrastructure that supports them.

 

It's not trivial stuff and won't be delivered overnight but it is absolutely essential that we get these foundations in place to enable you all to create exciting propositions which we can be confident will be found and used by the audience.

 

As for those people working within BBC Vision, some of you already know that the staff in Vision's Multiplatform Studio are being reorganised so that they are aligned with the new architecture while for those of you involved in programme-making this will require commitment from you all.

 

Just as the story of metadata was fundamental to the automated systems of YouTube and Amazon. So it will become fundamental to BBC Vision's presence on bbc.co.uk and in the wider web. Some of that metadata will feed in from audiences in ratings and comments. But the lion's share of it will be down to you.

 

It will be your responsibility to provide billings information, synopses, cast lists, episode specific stills and so on accurately, in an appropriate form and in a timely fashion, and in a way that really sells your programmes.

 

This information will be of real value to our audience. Last year the majority of queries made about specific programmes to our Audience Feedback teams were for just the sort of information we propose providing in the basic level of programme support.

 

But the information will also be of real value to you. Without it your programme will not be found on the internet nor will it be prominent on other platforms – via EPGs for example. It will not be linked to or rated – recommended or commented upon. It will become invisible.

 

By next June, the programme information that will power automated pages will merge into the rollout of the Digital Media Initiative (DMI).

 

It will revolutionise our capability in linear and multiplatform production making our content more findable and usable by production teams across the BBC and by audiences on all our platforms. To find out more I urge all of you visiting here today to spend some time with the DMI team.

 

And so to the money – and how it will be spent.

 

You've probably realised that this strategy wholeheartedly endorses the 'fewer, bigger, better' philosophy. Our investment will cease to be spread thinly across the portfolio and will be focused on fewer middle-sized websites.

 

The programmes and products we commission will be much bigger and they must be much, much better.

 

Over the next three years, BBC Vision wants to almost double its investment in multiplatform – with an increase of around £30million over the period, although this is subject to the wider, pan-BBC discussions about reprioritisation.

 

The vast majority of this investment will be in content.

 

Even then, we regard this level of investment as just the start. If we are successful with this strategy then this will merely act as a catalyst to encouraging a multiplatform approach in the way that the entire budget of BBC Vision is spent – in the way we commission, produce, schedule, market and distribute our content.

 

So how will we spend it? In every conversation I've had about commissioning – with both indies and in-house producers – you were looking for simplicity and clarity of process. So there will be a single point of commission and a single route to commission for all multiplatform proposals. There are now multiplatform commissioning executives in every genre working with the television commissioners. All commissions will now come through this genre commissioning structure.

 

All multiplatform proposals whether they are programme-related or for products must be submitted through the e-commissioning system.

 

This will deliver a true level playing field for indies and BBC in-house. There's more detailed information about how the system works here today and on internal and external websites.

 

We will also be undertaking a year-long communication campaign regularly sharing audience insight, market knowledge and our requirements both in-house and with the wider independent sector.

 

Alongside this communication campaign will be training. Over the next six months we will be training nominated individuals who will become the first multiplatform champions in their areas. A more widespread programme under the auspices of the Future Now training initiative will follow.

 

For the independent sector, BBC Training already provides external courses and the BBC has partnered with Skillset to suppport workshops for freelancers subsidised by 70%.

 

Lastly the full multiplatform development priorities from each genre will be announced with the next round of linear priorities. Children's will be announcing theirs this Friday with the other genres following in early November.

 

For now I'd like to share with you some current commissions and a hint of the sort of opportunities we want to explore online.

 

The new teens project BBC Switch kicked off last week – one of its first manifestations will be Signs Of Life – from Endemol. It's a ground-breaking online drama where players move between watching the drama unfold and interacting with the plot. Where the emotional themes of each episode can be explored via interactive personality tests and the results saved by players and shared via widgets on their own social networking pages.

 

Signs Of Life takes our non-linear drama into new territory and out into the wider web. Drama commissioning are also interested in seeing ideas that expand the worlds of our linear narratives exploding out of the box and onto new platforms.

 

Comedy is re-thinking its online offer – looking for ideas for finding, reflecting and showcasing the big comedy names of the future from the mass of new talent that's exploding on the web, creating a comedy destination which will actually be funny.

 

The Buzz Index is another of the current commissions for BBC Switch – a way into the world of music buzz online exploring what music teenagers really like – by measuring blogs, streams, picture posting and so on it will give a unique take on popular music for this audience – and – will help to set the editorial agenda of Sound – the new teens music TV show on BBC Two. Buzz Index goes live as a beta later this autumn.

 

We believe there is real opportunity for more imaginative relationships like this between platforms.

 

Knowledge in particular are interested in fresh approaches – finding value perhaps by interrogating the web – in order to interpret the wider world. They would like to see proposals for, amongst other things, innovative science-based 24/7 products which encourage a deeper engagement with the subject.

 

And a big multiplatform arts and culture project to redefine the genre and re-invent the BBC's relationship with this audience.

 

The channels are also adopting a new approach. In case you haven't seen it already, please do check out the new-look CBBC website to accompany the channel rebrand.

 

It's more than just a paint job. This is firmly shifting our content to the place where kids are right now interactively. It is a move away from heavily text based content, towards one which offers a rich mix of video, downloads, programme enhancements and gaming.

 

We have big plans for all our channels. Starting with BBC Three next spring – so watch this space.

 

Many of the genre heads and commissioners will be speaking here throughout the day and will be available in the genre rooms in the exhibition area to discuss their strategic objectives in more detail.

 

Now the majority of what I have described today has focused on the web. But strategy is a living thing – and this strategy is no different. During the next few months I will be making further announcements about our requirements for other platforms.

 

For today I will talk a little bit about mobile.

 

The BBC's mobile internet site attracts over 2million unique users a month – and that number is growing every month. But I'm not sure that we have yet worked out the best ways that BBC Vision can utilise this platform as a way of delivering our strategy.

 

We will therefore be putting aside ring fenced investment for commissioning truly innovative services for mobile devices.

 

We want ideas which focus on three areas that we believe are going to be increasingly important on the mobile platform: mobile television – from video clips to broadcast TV; social media; and location-specific propositions.

 

And finally that brings me back to the question I posed at the beginning – What is multiplatform for?

 

BBC Vision and the BBC as a whole are wonderfully positioned to take advantage of the shifts that technological change is enabling. We can marshal powerful brands, mass audiences and the most creative people in the industry, whether within or outside the BBC, to create propositions of the highest ambition.

 

The lack of a commercial imperative and the privilege of licence fee funding oblige us to drive innovation and break new ground in attempting to serve all audiences in the UK. And the power of the BBC brand and the promise of our public service remit can encourage collaborations with companies, non-profit organisations, the open source movement and the public themselves which can place the BBC in the vanguard of the Web 2.0 revolution.

 

We'll be able to liberate our content from the limitations of the live linear schedule, to direct the most ambitious content to the audiences who would love it. We will empower audiences to become better informed, better able to build their knowledge and interrogate their environment.

 

We can use the two-way nature of the new media platforms to transform our relationship with our licence fee payers, becoming a more responsive organisation, able to collaborate with our audiences in the creation of content and participative experiences – and in stimulating creativity more broadly contribute to the over 80 years of cultural legacy that we as the BBC must pass on.

 

Multiplatform is capable of delivering public service – it has the potential to deliver a step-change in the realisation of public service.

 

But it is crucial to understand this ... the question 'what is multiplatform for?' Just as much as the question 'what is television for?' is largely meaningless. In and of themselves they are for nothing. They have no inherent purpose except to be what they are – media.

 

It is up to us to give them a purpose.

 

It is up to you to give them a purpose.

 

The strategy I have outlined today frees the resource to feed creative ambition and provides the framework that can express public service – I am now calling on you to deliver the ideas which bring that framework to life.



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