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Is BBC’s ‘Fewer: Bigger: Better’ an approach for publishers?

Could the BBC’s approach of creating digital content around its biggest brands, a policy it describes as Fewer: Bigger: Better yield interesting results for book publishers?

The BBC and publishers have something of a shared history when it comes to digital.  At the dawn of the digital age neither were in the content business, the BBC was predominantly a broadcaster and publishers created physical books.  However, both were aware this new age was going to dramatically alter the way their audience interacted with their products.  Now, as the digital age settles down to an early lunch, both entities have realized the critical nature of grappling with all things digital to win.

Early BBC digital created a great deal of content, including filmed series designed purely for the web. However, the BBC’s desire for quality meant the production values for what was their extremely short form drama had to be to broadcast standard.  But, if the series was broadcast quality in writing and shooting, then, went the argument why not create the series for television where all license payers had a chance to view it.

There was a secondary problem: a perception underpinned digital content that, because the technology was high tech, the experience should be too.   However, the typical viewer of TV drama was happily passive, they didn’t want to edit and write their own show, they just wanted to watch it.  Even the almost apathetic click of a ‘like’ is a big effort for this audience: ‘The Shadow Line’ unofficial facebook page has just six thousand likes despite having a prime place in the drama budget and schedule.  Similarly, Holby City can boast one hundred and fifty thousand likes which sounds ok, but Twilight, the book, has twelve million.

It was at this point the BBC realised that certain audiences, particularly the teen demographic were not so passive, in fact, they could be described as hungry for digital content.  ‘Sofia’s Diary’ the Sony/Campbell-Bernardo production, which launched without an initial TV platform got millions of views, and tens of thousand fans interacting on its Bebo pages.

This social media friendly demographic lapped up this cross platform model, but the BBC traditionally produced little such material, and was worried about creating new, expensive license fee risking ideas. Instead it started looking at some of its existing shows, to see if the content could be easily adapted or supported to satisfy the demand.  Then, it was just a case of waiting to see which series were taken to the teen hearts of the BBC demographic.

This softly-softly approach had other benefits, it allowed the program makers to get on with what they did best, rather than simultaneously trying to answer the question ‘but what about digital content?’ with no additional resource.  It also allowed the initial broadcast series to bed in and find it’s audience, one if piqued would come to the website looking for content rather than the BBC additionally having to find marketing spend to go 0 – 60 to the nebulous digital community.

So by the time ‘Being Human’ (a Toby Whithouse led production involving a good ghost, a reluctant werewolf and a complex vampire in a house share) was gearing up for a third series, the writers and the BBC digital drama content department were ready to go fully integrated.  There was unofficial buzz for the show on-line, and their limited stand-alone supporting content, which was made available during Series I and II, had done well.  However, they were not interested in a spin-off series or a separate web series from the show, they wanted to remain true to the storyworld, and so they created ‘Becoming Human’, a web series with focused resource to build up the community around it.

This series was written alongside the broadcast series and was in production terms was essentially another episode.  However, it was divided in to eight mini-episodes and ran laterally, only springing in to life when it’s hero, Adam, a secondary character in ‘Being Human’ was told to ‘go back to school’ at the end of Episode 2.   Then, the digital audience is invited to go with Adam and help him to solve a murder, accessing the additional content via the red button after the TV transmission. Sarah Clay, Editorial Executive for Indies explained this mass-market approach was deliberate, anticipating the time when computer and TV will be one and the same.

The mini-episodes were also supported by fully intergrated collateral content: emails, CCTV footage, and mobile phone films which all sat on the blog. Each week a different character appeared in the frame as a potential murderer, the audience worked out their motivations as a community, with ten thousand fans actively engaging with the plot points.  As this content was fully integrated from the beginning of the series, it allowed integration with the broadcast script, graffiti was written in to appear in a bathroom scene in the TV series, adding little for the broadcast viewer but a critical clue for thousands of viewers in the digital world.

The BBC has rolled out this approach for other big branded dramas.  ‘Waterloo Road’ always faced an inherent problem as its favourite characters routinely grew up and left school, so it created a storyworld beyond the remit of the school in the show.  A social network drama was created and unfolded around key events that would bring those popular characters together again.

‘Dr Who’ created an interactive, immersive game, based on the idea that the Who audience wanted to be Dr Who himself – so they brought linear story-tellers together with games writers, who enabled players to have a limited but enjoyable experience as a Time Lord.

The BBC and digital publishing share some common ground, particularly in terms of coming out bright and early with new content, only to be bewildered by an audience that didn’t live up to the technology.  However, like the BBC, by waiting to see which ideas resonate with which demographic and developing new ways of working writers, they can be successful in creating a digital strategy which supports the right content, at the right time, and in a way the audience wants it.

Other features by Helen Bagnall:

Passion for the Pixel – BBC’s Immersive Writing Lab

The Inquisitive Nature of Audience – a look at immersive theatre creators Punch Drunk


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