The BBC plan for changing the way we view its shows
Film clips, music tips and social networks will help bbc.co.uk to grow.
Monday 25 May 2009
Fans of Mad Men might regret that the first episode of the second series is no longer available on the BBC's iPlayer. Nonetheless, the episode, For Those Who Think Young, retains a dedicated web page, with a synopsis of what happened and much else besides.
Next to a cast list, the page records that the episode's soundtrack featured the track "Song of the Indian Guest" by the Russian composer Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, as well as "Let's Twist Again" by Chubby Checker. Mad Men, remember, is not even made by the BBC. Mine down further into the site and there is not only a biography of Rimsky-Korsakov but the revelations that Checker's real name was Ernest Evans, his first album was 1962's For 'Teen Twisters Only and that a cover version of his hit "The Twist", by the Eighties hip hop group The Fat Boys, was recently played by Suzi Quatro on BBC Radio 2 (with a link to Suzi's site).
This is the sort of thing that Simon Nelson does. The head honcho of multi-platform at the BBC has ensured that every one of the BBC's shows, every episode indeed, will have its own web page "for now and ever more".
Nelson is at the cutting edge of what the BBC is doing online. When he watches The Apprentice he sits there with his laptop on his lap, playing the bbc.co.uk Apprentice Predictor game, trying to guess which of the candidates will next be fired. He is not great at this, rating 904 out of a possible 1000 when one would be the top score.
Otherwise, Nelson is pretty astute at working out what happens next. It was he who seven years ago pioneered the BBC's listen-again Radio Player, which ultimately led to the iPlayer. He led the corporation's adventure into podcasting – the first European broadcaster to go down that path – by making Wole Soyinka's 2004 Reith Lecture available for download.
His plans for developing the big BBC radio networks as online entities ran into considerable internal opposition. "There was huge scepticism from most in the organisation about the potential for the Radio 1, Radio 2 and Radio 4 brands to operate in the online space. I was told don't do a Radio 1 website do a BBC Music website because brands are dead in this new world, and of course that's utter rubbish." It is now difficult to imagine Radio 5 Live "without the email SMS and now Twitter engagement with its audience", he points out. "And Radio 1 generates phenomenal user feedback every minute of the day".
Nelson fulfilled his ambition to move across to television two years ago, and was horrified by some of what he found. "We typed not exactly an obscure little programme – Friday Night with Jonathan Ross – into Google and looked at what came up," he recalls. "Top of the list was TV.com, an American site, second on the list was someone else. The BBC site was in third place but you clicked on it and got an error message because once the programme had been transmitted we deleted the page. So many things are wrong with that in the way the internet works."
He has now introduced a system by which "every single episode of every programme we do from now and for ever whether locally nationally or internationally has a website and that website and the programme pages are largely automatically generated."
Nelson wants to make these pages far richer through the use of short form film clips, which are less vulnerable to the complications over rights that so delayed the iPlayer project.
"Our rights teams make sure that we are consistently within the comfort zone of our partners while stretching that comfort zone," he says. "Our rights owning partners regard the BBC an organisation with whom they can experiment, push the boundaries and evolve their businesses and our businesses to meet the challenges, but we're a trusted partner who they know is not going to use their material in inappropriate ways. Clip usage is something they've been much more comfortable with for promoting programmes beyond the transmission dates."
The web page for the BBC 1 show Nature's Great Events features a three-minute clip showing a shoal of sardines being corralled by dolphins and then gobbled up first by gannets and then by sharks, as David Attenborough makes sense of the whole incredible scene. "The table is set for the mightiest predator of them all," observes Sir David as a humpback whale arrives, rather like the BBC itself in the current media environment, and swallows up the largest share of the fish.
For Nelson, the value in offering such quality content in bite-sized pieces goes well beyond improving the look of an individual web page. It's clearly branded to the BBC and encourages users to send the clip to their friends, helping to get a younger audience to "reappraise the BBC", he says. "Making it available and accessible means that people don't have to necessarily rip it off and use substandard versions and we can provide all this ancillary data and recommendations that drive people to experience more of what the BBC offers."
Listed soundtracks of BBC shows such as Ashes to Ashes are being linked to clips of vintage footage of the featured artists performing on Top of the Pops and Nelson believes that in time the BBC might tell users where they can buy music. "It isn't something we'd rule out," he says.
His team has gathered all the recipes mentioned in BBC programmes on to a single site, BBC Food, where "you can type in what ingredients you have in your fridge and as likely as not we will have a recipe that uses those things." More ambitiously, he hopes that every oil painting in Britain will be archived online by the BBC, including the 80 per cent that are not on public display.
Nelson talks of doing more to "marshal mass audiences", whether that means subjecting the viewers of The One Show to a giant "memory test", or encouraging "the whole concept of social viewing".
"It's trying to create an event out of the live broadcast and a sense of community with all the other people who are watching."
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