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24 September 2014
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John Willis


John Willis

Director, Factual and Learning

Speech given to the Toronto Documentary Forum: BBC – the Factual Future

Friday 5 May 2006
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Early this year one of my colleagues who works in Natural History was filming lions in the Masai Mara in Kenya. He saw a Masai Warrior in full tribal costume. He was using a mobile phone to herd his animals.


The interesting thing is that Masai do not have television or DVDs or video recorders because they weren't any use to them. They just went straight from nothing to mobile phones.


It's an extreme illustration of how technology is changing our world so profoundly and just how hard it is for producers and broadcasters to guess where our audiences are headed.


Like all media organisations the BBC is wrestling with the challenges of a future in which audiences will increasingly take control and want their information and entertainment anytime, anyhow, anywhere.


The balance of power is inexorably shifting to them as technology liberates them from the prison of linear TV schedules.


In parallel with volcanic technological change our audience shape and culture is shifting too. Traditional families of 2.4 children are now only 21 per cent of UK households and overall our society is more open about issues like sex as well as less deferential.


This attitudinal shift is reflected in the desire of a growing slice of our audience to be active not passive. They want to make their own films, blog and vlog.


When the bombings happened on the London underground last summer it was photos, taken by eyewitnesses not by professionals, that made the most profound impact and were the most downloaded items from the BBC website.


The BBC is a unique organisation – sharing a set of public values and purpose with CBC, PBS or ABC Australia but with funding from a licence fee for every household in Britain.



Every UK citizen has a stake in the organisation with 92 per cent of the adult population listening to BBC radio, logging on to our websites or watching our TV channels every week.


We have a global reach through international co-productions, the BBC World Service and our websites.


Of course, any organisation of our scale and history – a national icon like the Royal Family or the London bus – is bound to be complicated. Someone once said we were a cross between the Church of England and the British Post Office.


To outsiders trying to work with the BBC it must sometimes seem as impenetrable as our great national sport – cricket. Twenty-two men in white spending five days coming to a conclusion. Only for rain to get in the way.


So given our public purposes and our size how does the BBC navigate through the turbulent waters we are all in and what trends do we see as emerging?


So here's my attempt – illustrated by some clips – to show what we are up to and why these programmes illuminate important trends for all of us.


The first is sheer scale. To create programmes that take audiences to see what they have never experienced before.


This is Planet Earth made in HD by the BBC with co-production from Discovery and NHK. It reached over 12 million viewers each week with the highest appreciation from the audience ever recorded.


Clip - Planet Earth opening


The key to this success was innovation. Even a very traditional genre like natural history can't stand still.


Building on a helicopter stabilisation system we found filming freeways in the USA we adapted it for natural history. So far the first time we could film animals from as far away as 1½ kilometres using a 1,000 mill lens instead of the 350 mill lenses of the past – so far away that their behaviour was undisturbed by helicopter noise.


Clip - Planet Earth hunting dogs


Building on this amazing archive that we have created and that can be plundered for years to come, as a public service broadcaster we responded to the need to participate by allowing viewers to download clips from the series, re-cut them via a simple editing package we put on our website and send them back as a trailer. We offered a prize for the best one.


We want to open up the treasure store of our archive via the Creative Archive – a pilot project with a range of partners including Channel 4 and the British Film Institute – for viewers to generate their own content using all our rich archives – and then to post their work back to us.


We have been using this new desire by large slices of our audience to be more active viewers by creating interactive programmes for audience participation.


Here is How to Sleep Better – a Banff nomination this year.


By pressing the red button on their television sets viewers could participate in the programme and receive personalised information.


Six million viewers watched the programme on BBC ONE – our most popular channel – high for a factual programme. Two million viewers used the programme interactively.


Clip - How to Sleep Better


The history of documentary has always been shaped by technological – moving from film to tape or splitting sound from picture – changed how we made documentaries.


Now cheap light simple cameras are opening up opportunities for very intimate domestic production.


We are working with groups of schoolchildren aged seven to 11 teaching them how to use a camera and helping them understand that they have stories to tell too.


My Life as a Child was critically exceptionally well received and enabled children to reveal their emotional intelligence.


Clip - My Life as a Child


Even more miniaturised technology has radically changed investigative journalism opening up worlds usually hidden from the eye of the citizen.


For The Secret Policeman our documentary department put an undercover journalist into a police training school with tiny hidden cameras.


It was very risky but the end result was one of the most powerful and important films the BBC has ever made.


Clip - The Secret Policeman


Of course, audiences are not predictable. No one, for example, ever imagined that texting would be such a key use of mobile telephones.


One of the curious twists in audience behaviour is that just at the moment that delivering content on demand and on the move takes off with tiny screen technology like iPod video there is also a resurgence in the cinematic experience.


In the UK despite the rise of mobile devices the figures for people watching in families or in groups of friends is up eight per cent in five years. The large plasma screens dominating the sitting room is encouraging group viewing.


So some documentaries have moved into the cinema space in terms of visual ambition competing with big budget drama and film.


We have noticed that on the big European channels some of our heavily dramatised history and science programmes fill traditional movie slots on the primetime schedules.


So fact and fiction, drama and documentary are melding together, knocking down the boundaries and creating new hybrid forms and giving quite difficult subjects a greater chance to emotionally connect.


Here is Death On the Beach, a dramatised current affairs documentary about 24 illegal Chinese cockle pickers, desperately exploited, and who drowned when they were caught by the tide on the Lancashire Coast.


This shows the night their gang master was found guilty of manslaughter – in peak time on BBC ONE– a slot that pure documentary on this subject would not have been given.


Clip - Death on the Beach


As I said earlier, as viewers become more like partners and participants that mystification of television fades away.


At the same time Britain has become a less deferential, less hierarchical society: more open about language or sexuality. There is room for cheekiness and irreverence.


Here is Mischief – a great success with younger audiences. Here 100 victims of the MRSA Super bug caught in dirty hospitals are bussed as a guerrilla work force into hospitals to do their own cleaning.


No doubt inspired by Michael Moore the reporter decides to test politicians for the bug with a simple nasal swab. Here he tackles, the Secretary of State for Health herself, Patricia Hewitt.


Clip - Mischief


My final trend is the cross-pollination between formatted factual entertainment and documentary.


The film maker artificially structures a story to create a documentary situation but entertainment is guaranteed because both jeopardy and an outcome are certain.


A good example is The Week the Women Left in which we emptied a small village of all the men for a week.


Clip - The Week the Women Left


So that was my crystal ball. There is more if you look hard.


But we must not forget one thing. Whatever the device they are seen on the long-standing virtues of documentary – narrative, character, entertainment, relevance – will still be critical.


Some of this new future is scary. At the BBC the new world brings rights negotiations of mind-boggling complexity. The word metadata drops from our lips daily.


In the future our competitors will not just be ITV and Channel 4 but Google and Yahoo.


And like many documentary makers I have a more personal social concern.


There is a big risk as we hurtle into the digital universe that a large section of society get left behind and the world moves at two speeds – very fast and not at all.


That is why at a public service broadcaster like the BBC I am determined that my department serves the digitally deprived as well as the computer privileged.


In my view public broadcasters have a critical social role to play. Television can help knit society together.


This is not just about big international sporting or other events – the Olympic Games or Live 8 – where around the globe we share a common experience.


It also has a key role in conditioning society to be open and tolerant, to see and feel how others live.


So television needs to encourage a range of views to help shape a diverse and well informed society.


But the digital revolution also gives us the chance to create a more active society – to encourage our viewers and listeners to engage with society in a different way. To support democracy through participation in active citizenship – online and in person.


So the BBC wants to use its public service skills to bridge the digital divide to offer learning to children and adults, to stretch out to harder-to-reach parts of broadcasting audiences.


So we make series like My Life as a Child but also offer Computer Tutor to teach basic skills; or embed storylines to improve reading skills in our popular soap opera EastEnders or ensure modules in our schools digital service BBC jam for minority communities and those with learning difficulties.


For public broadcasters there is a challenge to use new technology to serve all our audiences even better.


In this world of multiple choice audiences will need a road map, a trusted guide through the complexity and confusion of information.


As Richard Wurman notes in his book Information Anxiety, "we are like a thirsty person who has been condemned to use a thimble to drink from a fire hydrant".


But overall there are great opportunities. As I hope you can see from the clips anything is now possible in factual programmes as genres elide and technology opens up new frontiers.


Broadband offers chances for a huge range of special interest channels and the long tail as they say at Amazon suggests that archive rights will be important.


The lifetime value of many documentaries will change dramatically. Programmes won't just be shown once – they will be up there for ever.


Our own pilot study of the BBC on-demand shows that along with comedy and drama it's documentary viewing that shows the biggest increase.


Viewers have been watching 30 per cent more documentary programmes. In the UK there are now 18 factually-based channels.


And new funding models are emerging.


I was speaking to an American documentary maker earlier this week. Every couple of years he scrapes enough money together from aunts or friends or corporations kick-started by a small start from a broadcaster, usually WGBH.


But for his last film he had 900,000 hits on his website, many of whom were people wanting to buy a DVD. Suddenly there's a new funding model for him.


In the future this more two-way relationship with viewers gives us the chance to connect emotionally in a deeper way.


In this pioneering world we have to take a few risks, to break new ground, to innovate. Break new talent and new ideas on broadband and then migrate them to linear TV.


Sometimes we will get it wrong. But without that creative renewal, maximising the potential of new technology for factual programmes will be lost. And none of us want that.


So whether we are producers or broadcasters let's take those risks.


As one British TV legend once said, "Throw your bread on the water. You never know, it might come back as smoked salmon sandwiches."



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