Many millions of licence fee payers are keen and active users of social media and the BBC has run large numbers of official branded social media accounts for a number of years to interact with them. At a time of new opportunities, with more social viewing and more use of “second screens”, programmes increasingly want to work more closely with social media and this goes further than simply creating more off air opportunities to interact. They also want to be able to tell viewers and listeners how and where they can do this and to encourage them to share their comments and thoughts and eyewitness accounts for use on air. This guidance is designed to help programme makers achieve these ambitions, on the right occasions and in the right way.
But not everyone will want to “like” or “tweet” or “share”. There are still millions of licence fee payers who just want to be able to enjoy their programmes without any unnecessary distractions or the feeling that they are only getting access to part of the experience they’ve paid for. So we need to be aware of the expectations of our various different audiences when we decide what, if anything, to say on screen about social media and how to say it.
We need to recognise that social media platforms offer audiences some very powerful and popular new ways of interacting which are simply not available on bbc.co.uk. But they are owned by commercial companies who have an interest in promoting themselves on air and off air. So while we must experiment and adapt and work closely with them, we also have to be clear eyed about what the specific editorial justification is for each on air call to action and reference to social media – embracing the new opportunities while remaining true to the BBC’s Values.
The BBC’s Fair Trading Guidelines require that “BBC brands [and content] should not be used in a manner that might reasonably be interpreted as endorsement or promotion of the activities of the BBC’s Commercial Subsidiaries and/or third parties.” The BBC’s activities may, on occasion, have an impact on competition in the markets in which it operates. This impact can be positive or negative. The BBC Trust’s code on Competitive Impact requires that we should have regard to the competitive impact of the BBC’s activities on the wider market.
To avoid impressions of endorsement and to ensure we are not unfairly favouring one social networking site over others, Fair Trading requires that the BBC should always aim to work with a range of online platforms and social media sites across the market. This will also help to ensure we remain platform neutral and are compliant with our Fair, Reasonable and Non Discriminatory guidelines.
We should not mount calls to action for, or trail, or give out the URLs on air for, personal accounts. This guidance is intended to apply to accounts which are run by the BBC or commissioned by and run on behalf of the BBC (i.e. by independents).
Do they already know we’re there?
Adding the right on air references at the right times can help our audiences enjoy social media during, and between, programmes, both as participants and consumers. This may be most valuable when a call to action by the BBC invites viewers and listeners to share their thoughts and comments to be used live on the air in that programme. Eyewitnesses to news events may add great value to the story in similar ways. But many of the more active social media users may already know how to interact more broadly with our TV programmes and radio networks so it is important to get the rhythm and the tone right. For example, we should aim to get our content talked about on social media most of all by making it compelling content, rather than by trying to tell the audience to talk about it.
It is not necessary or appropriate to display the logos of social media companies on screen when making an on air call to action or publishing user generated content from social media platforms on air. If BBC guidelines or guidance conflict with the rules of any social media companies on this point, our guidelines take precedence.
Trails are designed to promote BBC programmes, often with high profile campaigns, so the risk of undue prominence is likely to be greater than in editorial time. We should normally avoid references to commercial products or services in programme trails. This includes on air references to social media. But the use of hashtags for example may be appropriate in some trails. Any such use should be discussed with the Head of Editorial Standards and Compliance (Marketing and Audiences) and may be discussed with Editorial Policy.
On Air Calls To Action In Programes
On occasion, it may be appropriate to mention on air that there is a BBC presence on an external social media site. This may be visual (displaying part or all of a social media web address) or verbal (e.g. “you can join the conversation on Twitter”) or both. But we must avoid undue prominence and there would need to be a strong editorial justification for doing so; this would require an active editorial presence for that programme on the site and the editorial justification should be pertinent to that broadcast. See section below for advice on hashtags.
Strong Editorial Justification
See separate section below with details of different levels of editorial justification and examples.
Active Editorial Presence
The programme should have an active BBC presence i.e. a host or curator of an official BBC account engaging visibly and regularly with the users in that space. There may be additional content from the programme or network on that site. The BBC space should normally have a significant number of active users.
On air calls to action should not normally be used to get things started from scratch with a brand new account but to draw attention to a BBC space which is already rich with interaction. If we routinely used on air references to drive the very first users to e.g. a brand new BBC Twitter or Facebook account, this could give the impression that we were simply using our airwaves to market Twitter or Facebook, without the proper editorial justification.
The Editorial Justification Should Be Pertinent To That Broadcast
If we are prepared to point viewers and listeners on air to an external social media site, they should normally be able to expect to find something on that site which is pertinent to that broadcast. This might for example be additional comments or information or material about the programme, timely news updates from the relevant correspondent or behind the scenes pictures or access to talent.
On Air Calls to Action and Editorial Justification
There needs to be a strong editorial justification for mentioning a specific social media site or platform on air. The editorial justification for doing this depends largely on the type of connection between the programme and the social media site.
There are broadly three different types:
1. Live programmes with a format which depends on audience contributions.
This is where the programme uses a lot of audience comments made e.g. on Twitter and Facebook in the same programme where the call to action is made. It is likely to provide the strongest level of editorial justification. For example, where a live TV programme like Sunday Morning Live publishes a large number of viewers’ comments in a crawler at the bottom of the screen, these come in via text, phone, email, Twitter and Facebook. Viewers need to know how they can interact early on in the programme so there is a short graphic with an accompanying voice over close to the start of the programme which specifies external URLs (e.g. of Skype and Twitter). This is backed up by a rolling DOG (Digital On-Screen Graphic) during the programme which displays the URLs on screen in legible text together with other ways of interacting e.g. by text and phone. The external URLs appear infrequently and are on screen briefly.
A TV programme in this category where a range of audience comments are read out three times during the show, and may be published visually as well, might have one verbal and visual mention at the start of the programme and another verbal reference (with the possibility of another visual reference at the same time) in the middle of the programme, for example immediately after the second set of comments has been read out.
2. Live and recorded programmes which encourage “second screen” interactivity and consumption.
This is where a programme encourages users to interact simultaneously with the programme. For example, Question Time has a big following on Twitter and users participate in the debates on Twitter while the programme is on air, one form of dual screen simultaneous “play along” activity. There is typically one verbal reference to the Twitter hashtag (along with other routes such as the text number) with astons for the hashtag and the official QuestionTime account, @BBCQuestionTime.
A News correspondent working on a big breaking story may appear live on the News Channel and their handle might appear on screen briefly as an aston, without using the word “Twitter”. Viewers could then follow that correspondent's news updates on that story on Twitter in between their appearances on air. The editorial justification would have to be strong enough to merit the on air reference.
Strictly Come Dancing has a very active social media presence that interacts with fans before, during and after each TX, offering behind-the-scenes photos that capture the reaction and emotion of the dancers as they leave the dance floor and disappear from the TV screen.
3. Programmes where live audience contributions or simultaneous “second screen” activity are not an integral part of the audience experience
This is where a programme does not solicit comments etc. to use live in that programme and where dual screen interaction while the programme is on air is not part of the established appeal of the programme.
This call to action would normally be intended to encourage viewers and listeners to interact with the programme’s official social media presence while the programme is not on air, for example until the next transmission. It might encourage viewers and listeners to interact with the programme's page on e.g. Facebook to share likes, thoughts, discussion, comments about the programme or about the contributors, the talent, the performances etc.
The editorial justification for an on air reference in 3. is likely to be less immediate and less strong than with 1. and 2. above. If we regularly ran on air calls to action for every single programme account, our on air references to e.g. Facebook might become cumulatively unduly prominent quite quickly. However, it would normally be appropriate to run an on air call to action in the last programme of a series where that programme has been recommissioned and has committed itself to actively curate the space while it is off air.
When deciding whether it would be appropriate to run a call to action in other circumstances e.g. to stimulate conversation until next week’s edition, having an additional element of editorial justification such as interaction which might help shape or develop or make up part of the next programme, or offering additional content to the most passionate fans of the show, can help. Offering a variety of routes for people to share news stories or eyewitness accounts with the BBC including via social media may also be relevant. There may be other occasions where the features of one social media platform are uniquely valuable editorially in pursuing the objectives of the programme e.g. helping young people who were looking for work to interact online with a large number of companies which have all offered to give advice and who already have active presences on that platform.
If we are going to draw attention visually or verbally to an external social media site on air, we should normally mention the URL of the relevant BBC webpage and mention it first e.g. in graphics. Users will then get the choice of engaging with us on whichever platform or platforms they want to use, which should increase the opportunities for engagement overall.
Remember that programmes can freely highlight the URL of the relevant BBC webpage on air visually and/or verbally without the risk of undue prominence. The BBC website can then offer links to and feeds of external social media while also hosting other relevant content and information. This can also help keep the on air message simple, particularly if a programme is active across a number of different social media platforms.
Where the BBC webpage has no provision for interactivity, it may on occasion be appropriate to point to the relevant BBC email address.
Programmes and Channels
The editorial justification for an on air reference should normally be in relation to a specific programme with its own specific content rather than to a TV channel. This is because the specific content will usually relate much more closely and strongly to a specific programme rather than to an overarching channel brand. An exception may be where the channel brand is leading the social media support for a programme, as is often the case on BBC Three and our national radio networks (e.g.; Radio1, 2, 3, 4 and 5Live), where social media has been largely centralised into a single channel account.
Calls to Action and Hashtags
A hashtag (a hash symbol attached to a word e.g. #bbcthree) normally refers to the tagging method most clearly associated with, and made popular by, Twitter, though it is also used on other platforms including Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Google+ and Facebook. A hashtag signals that the comment which includes it is about a particular topic or event. Any comments using the same hashtag can be grouped together and monitored en masse. Social media platforms like Twitter automatically turn hashtags into links that bring up a search for that term. Hashtags are often applied by users around TV and radio programmes e.g. #eastenders, #thearchers, #BBCQT.
A programme can decide what hashtag it would like people to use and then use that term in programme comments and, where appropriate, on screen. But audiences can create their own hashtags and they often do. Several popular tags may coexist. You don’t control a hashtag or ‘own’ it just because you came up with the name.
A hashtag can work like a campfire around which people gather to chat and debate and gossip so it can be a good way to follow a discussion around a TV or radio programme.
It can also offer topical updates about current events, for example when used as an aggregator for several different BBC News correspondents as well as user comments, as with #BBCBudget.
But the stream of comments which run under a specific hashtag won’t have been moderated by anyone before or after publication; some are funny, some are wise, some can be very offensive and sometimes they can end up being nothing to do with the original subject matter.
When Should I Consider Using a Hashtag On Air?
We have no editorial control over the comments which contain a programme hashtag so we need to think about the expectations of the likely audience for the programme and the likely content in the hashtag stream before we decide whether it would be appropriate to point people to that stream.
If we have our own active official programme account on a social media site and we regularly use the hashtag, we can have some curatorial influence over the overall tone of the stream but we should not overestimate it. Before putting anything on screen, it’s a good idea to search for the proposed hashtag to see if it is already in use and if so, what content is running on it and how frequently. Sometimes even a familiar acronym can have another meaning.
Licence fee payers who see hashtags on screen sometimes complain about undue prominence, particularly if they just want to watch the programme undisturbed. There is also evidence that large numbers of people who want to talk about compelling BBC programmes on social media will often create their own hashtags and congregate in very large numbers around them without the BBC ever showing a hashtag on air e.g. as with Frozen Planet and again with Africa.
So when might an on air call to action using a hashtag be editorially justified?
NB If we do show a hashtag on TV, it will normally be sufficient to show it once on screen, as a small superimposed symbol, for a few seconds, early in a programme, with no verbal reference. But more extensive use may be appropriate in some circumstances. In such cases, you should go to the relevant Divisional Social Media Editor who will confer with the relevant Commissioning Editor/Editor (or equivalent) or Channel Controller.
1. If your programme is using comments in the show
If your call to action is to invite users to generate content which may be featured on the programme via social media, then the best way to do that is probably to invite them to submit their comment via the relevant BBC @programme account rather than by using the relevant hashtag. If they use the programme account, they will have opened up a two way line of communication with the programme, which you may want to use on other occasions. Plucking comments from a hashtag stream creates no permanent or interactive relationship with any member of the audience, although they may be pleased that you selected their contribution.
It may be appropriate to use a hashtag rather than a programme account when the BBC does not have a programme account and the programme event may be a big one off occasion e.g. the Comic Relief Mile. There would be little incentive or rationale to spend months growing an active BBC account when it would only get used a lot for a very short time.
Remember that you should normally offer your audience a reasonable choice about how they can contribute. You might offer some or all of: bbc blog comments, email, SMS/text or Facebook posts as well or instead of Twitter.
Offering a hashtag like #BBCBudget can also help signal to users that if they include the BBC hashtag in their comment, it may get used on air.
2. Your programme may not be live but is actively engaging on social media throughout tx and throughout the week. It might be a new programme without an established programme account but with an active channel or genre account.
If your programme has no social media presence or engagement, there is unlikely to be any editorial justification to promote social media on screen. Using a hashtag here could risk undue prominence.
On Air References to Social Media
This is where radio and TV programmes use social media output like tweets or comments on air. For example, members of the audience may offer their views about a programme or a performance or debate a topical issue or share their eyewitness account of a current news event.
We need to avoid undue prominence when we use social media output on air and make sure that all on air references e.g. to brands or tweets are editorially justified.
So, when using output from social media on air, we should normally see if we can do this in a platform neutral way. For example, with limited screen space available on TV, it isn’t necessary to tag every comment in a graphics crawler with where it came from or to use symbols or furniture from one platform. Most viewers will be much more interested in what another viewer has said about the programme rather than what platform they said it on. While different programmes may have different styles and will reflect their different demographics, it is worth asking ourselves the question whether attributing each remark by platform really is necessary. For example, if a programme keeps talking about X’s tweet and Y’s tweet and Z being on Twitter, the cumulative effect can rapidly become unduly prominent, particularly if the programme is not also making a point of inviting and featuring comments or emails or texts as well - which don’t come with a commercial brand attached. It is normally just as effective to say “James from Bolton says that …….” instead of “I’ve got this tweet from James from Bolton who says that……” An occasional verbal nod to the specific platform as a form of fair attribution may do the job just as well.
However, there are times when it may be necessary to name the source where the source is part of the story e.g. if the Prime Minister announces a new policy initiative on Twitter.
References to social media as part of the News e.g. business stories about the companies Twitter or Facebook should be handled just like any other News subject.
Trending On Twitter
When people talk about a topic or a keyword “trending on Twitter”, some will take it as a convenient shorthand for saying that this topic or keyword is the most frequently mentioned or the most popular on Twitter. But that’s not what it means.
Trending on Twitter is not based on the volume of tweets which are flowing through the network. If it was, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga or their successors would come top virtually every time. To prevent this happening, Twitter uses an algorithm to compress the most popular terms and phrases into a constant unremarkable background noise, leaving short spikes of unusual activity to break through and send an event or a topic trending. Sometimes just a few hundred tweets at the right moment will do it. A television or radio programme where millions of people do something together for a short period of time is just the sort of occasion which is likely to cut through. Trending is a very good sign of genuine audience activation but it doesn’t mean what many people think it does. So we shouldn’t invite our audiences to help us trend on air because that will sound quite desperate to those who know and it will have no editorial justification. Creating compelling content which people really want to talk about will do that job much better.
Before any on air call to action involving social media, including hashtags, can appear on air, the appropriate referral should be made.
The relevant Commissioning Editor/ Editor (or equivalent) or Channel Controller must be consulted and advice should be sought from the relevant Divisional Social Media Editor (or equivalent). Programmes with an established format which routinely make on air calls to action can agree overall frequency and format of these when they refer e.g. 5 Live Drive with the network Controller. Programmes will need to refer again if they want to do more.
Programmes making on air references to social media should normally do so in consultation with their Divisional Social Media Editor (or equivalent), particularly where this use is new, extensive or integral to the programme.
For further advice about on air calls to action or on air references to social media, you can contact Editorial Policy or Fair Trading.
Cumulative Undue Prominence
While programme editors are responsible for what appears in their own programmes, they cannot individually determine how many on air calls to action or hashtags or references to social media there are across an entire broadcast network over any given time. For this reason, TV and radio network controllers will be responsible for seeing that the cumulative effect of these calls to action or hashtags or references to social media across their individual network is not unduly prominent.