BBC Broadcast Assassins

posted 11 March 2004

On Monday, I spent an interesting afternoon taking part in Broadcast Assassins, a session run by the BBC as part of (apparently) a larger series of seminars aimed at getting managers across the BBC up to date on changes in the industry and generally "getting things done" (only the BBC could spend as much as it is apparently spending on something so nebulous). It's all very Dykeesque, and it's good to see it's living on past him -- I went to another one of these sessions, for more senior managers, back in October, before he left.

The reason they wanted to talk to me (and dozens of others like me) is because I don't use the BBC the way they expect me to. In fact, they don't understand how I consume media at all. I don't own CDs, don't (often) buy DVDs, don't watch broadcast television, don't own a radio -- and yet I listen to music, radio and watch TV shows often, using the 'net and various legal and semi-legal or totally illegal distribution tools. In this regard, the University of Warwick, where I picked up these habits, is a glimpse of the future: we don't watch TV (except live TV such as sport, but that's only because we haven't worked out how to do it yet) yet we watch media all the time, downloaded instantly, randomly and at will from the local network. That's how all TV will work in the future; and it scares them. Here's what I told them (with additions post-discussion):

The Future of the BBC, as told by me

Executive summary: Broadcasting is becoming irrelevant. The BBC should instead focus on its other core competencies. Fast.

How people consume media: why television is no longer important

  • Television is visual radio: background while you're doing something else. Studies have shown this is happening increasingly in the US, and so it's reasonable to assume it's happening here too.
  • Broadcast tv is a way of sampling new content, not watching it "properly".
  • This makes it like radio: consumers use other distribution methods to actually consume the content "properly": CDs, DVDs -- and the network.
  • These other methods are notably always higher-quality than the samples. RealMedia streaming this ain't!
  • Modern life is too busy for scheduled television to work: you can't build your life around television (you'd be sad if you did), and the chances of exactly what you want being on when you have time to watch it are near-nil (and then you only get one half-hour -- what if you wanted more?)
  • Tivo and Sky+, touted as "the future of TV" are in fact just a cute hack, an interrim solution to the fundamental problems of broadcasting: it shows what you want to show us, when you want to show it. It should be the other way around!
  • A TiVo doesn't help you if the show you want is never broadcast.

So if tv is so irrelevant, how come people still watch it?

  • There is a certain subset of the television audience who will watch any stuff you put in front of them. We call these people "stupid people". Also "tired" people, "lazy" people, and "poor" people who cannot afford or cannot be arsed to find better quality entertainment.
  • The BBC has been fighting a losing battle against "dumbing down" because people always watch dumb content. Why?
  • It's not because people are stupid. It's because only stupid people still have time to watch television. The smart people are getting on with their lives.
  • The way to get quality content to people is to provide it in a way that suits them. The demand is there, you just have to prove it by providing it first. This is something commercial broadcasters can't risk doing.

Is broadcast totally irrelevant?

  • Radio didn't die when LPs, then tapes and CDs got cheap enough to become the primary method of consuming music, it just changed
  • Radio 1 is still pre-eminent among radio stations because it's ad-free and of high quality.
  • The BBC still has a duty to get its content to people, but the answer is not still more TV channels
  • A TV channel is just a one-way, time-static, medium-bandwidth, low-fidelity media stream.
  • If TV didn't exist today, and somebody tried to sell it, nobody would want it. As a result, it's only a matter of time 'til it dies.

Is P2P distribution the way to go here?

  • The internet is where TV will go, just like radio is going and telecoms has already gone. Every transatlantic phonecall is already packet-switched, and have been for years now.
  • Internet-based media beats television on every possible front
  • It's fast, its cheap, it's higher-quality, it fits your schedule, and its surprisingly easy to do.
  • P2P is not hard. Setting up the server is a pain, but once DC++ is installed any media studies student can point and click.
  • The main problem at the moment is legality: avoiding litigation makes for roundabout anonymous methods which are less efficient
  • Just like with telephone calls, the best way to switch to Internet technology is to do it invisibly.
  • If your Internet-transmitted TV shows came out of a computer that looked like a television, which was getting them via wireless Internet access, would people even notice that anything had changed, except that they were able to choose when they wanted to see their shows?

And while we're talking about "quality content"...

(This was sort of off topic, but hey, they lapped it up.)

  • One of the most popular shows with the P2P crowd is Buffy. So what happened to my claim about smart people watching Internet-delivered content?
  • Buffy isn't just dumb fluff. Buffy is smart people doing something stupid, then making clever jokes about how stupid it is.
  • What other shows fit this mold? All the most popular shows ever produced, by the BBC and otherwise.
  • Monty Python, Fawlty Towers -- done by the best of Cambridge footlights. Silly content, but very smart people.
  • Doctor Who, Ab Fab, One Foot in the freakin' grave. These are farce, but the jokes are smart.
  • People can enjoy it on the simple level -- the dumb people like it -- but the smart people can also relax and enjoy, without their intelligence being insulted.
  • Appealing to a broad audience does not necessarily mean appealing to the lowest common denominator; that's just the easy way to do it.
  • The BBC is the only content producer that has the publicly-funded means to take the "hard road".
  • The hard road is less commericially viable -- because it's more expensive to do, and reaches the same number of people -- but it's
  • no less popular.
  • And, in the long run, quality content is more popular: it can be watched over and over. Nobody wants a re-run of Fame Academy but we are STILL watching Fawlty Towers.
  • Producing quality content has to be the BBC's role.

But how do we pay for this stuff?

  • Would a "downloading licence" be so difficult to provide as part of paying for a TV licence?
  • In any case, it's the wrong question. TV didn't make money for years; it's up to the BBC to forge new ground, doing something useful that doesn't make any money.
  • Like commercial TV, let them work out how to make it profitable later. In the meantime, give the people what they want. That's your job.

    How do we introduce people to new content?

    This was a primary concern of the programming managers. Their job is to introduce people to new shows like the office that people aren't aware they will like. How do you find new stuff in a P2P world?

    • This is the wrong thing to worry about again.
    • The 'net is very efficient at letting us know what we'll like, because the net is also circles of overlapping friends -- you find out what you'll like from your friend who already likes it
    • Fast-spreading memes like the latest funny flash animation whip around the world in days; nobody pays a cent to promote them. People find what they like.
    • The Office was popular in the states long before it reached there on BBC America, because people had been downloading it for months. Did you think it only went one way, with UK downloaders stealing US shows? Eastenders gets nicked this way, too. People find what they like.
    • How many times do I need to repeat that?

    Finally:

    There's no shortage of broadcasters. There's a shortage of content. The BBC is supposed to do what isn't being done -- and commercial broadcasting isn't producing quality, repeatable content, it's producing quick-selling flash-in-the-pan stuff. The broadcast arm was only ever supposed to be a means of getting that content to consumers cheaply, but it seems that idea has been lost somewhere. What the BBC was, and should be, is a producer of quality content.

    (And incidentally, why don't you guys know this already? Who the hell works for you? A bunch of people my age, who do this stuff. Some of the "assassins" confided in me that they were BBC employees from other areas of the corporation.)

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