Posts Tagged ‘wisdom of crowd’

“A New Idea For How The BBC Could Work” …Not

February 22, 2009

I’d wish I’d been to Beeb Camp 2 last week, as from all the posts I’ve read it sounded fascinating. I really should have been there.

It inspired Jason Da Ponte to write this: (“BeebCamp gave me a new idea for how the BBC could work”):

Each year you pay your license fee to the BBC in exchange for programming that you own and control the destiny of. YOU decide what gets made because YOU decide which ideas, programmes, themes, seasons, etc you want to invest in. This could be done via an online marketplace that let’s you manage the money in your account and that links you to what other people are doing with the money in their accounts.

Incidentally I work with Jason. I think he’s great (he understands the BBC’s complaints system a lot better than I do) so my reply is not intended as a criticism of him personally.

I read “the Wisdom of the Crowd” a couple of years ago and enjoyed it. While I didn’t understand the stuff in it about economics the insights about narrow group think in institutions was spot on (and certainly seemed true to some of the situations I’ve been in at the BBC).

There’s certainly a lot to be said for collaberating more, inside and outside the BBC. Collaberating with different audiences to make content is a good idea.

But I draw the line when it comes to the money.

You can’t apply those ideas to the BBC at the point where the money is spent. Because:

1. Markets are very bad ways of commissioning public service content. Just compare the free market system in the US to what the BBC produces.

One of the abiding arguments for the BBC is market failure. The market will not deliver Radio 3, Radio 4 or even the range and depth of BBC ONE (as we can increasingly see in the plight of ITV).

2. This is because people don’t always know what they want. They know what they like and usually want more of the same. They sometimes say they want innovation or creativity (usually they just mean fewer repeats). Would they prepared to spend their money on promises of innovation, technical or editorial?

If we knew every programme had an eager audience before it was made, would we ever have another ‘flop’?

Says Jason. In fact, some of the BBC’s biggest sucesses of recent years have not been popular or critically esteemed when they started. If a focus group with commissioning power had been deciding whether The Office should have a second series they would have said no. Doing a second series was one of those creative decisions which Commissioning people who are paid to make those judgements are good at.

3. People don’t always know what they need. Some research done by OFCOM some years ago revealed that audineces thought Eastenders was more public service than arts programmes.

“Public service” often means “what I like”. Expecting audiences to have a sophisticated understanding of the BBC’s public purposes so they can build them into their money choices is I think unrealistic.

4. Jason’s idea is really just a complicated version of subscription, a kind of micro-subscription. Underneath it is the argument you sometimes hear from people who say “I only like Radio 4 and Radio 3 so why can’t I just pay for that?”.

The answer is “because there probably aren’t enough of you to fork out the millions of pounds to keep them on the air”. Under Jason’s scheme and in particular Jonas Klevhag’s comment that this be done at the channel level (which definitely is subscription) Radio 3 would go out of business and Radio 4 would be severly depleted before it even got going.

5. Subscription leads to a series of niche services with nothing in common, and the BBC is not a niche broadcaster, it’s a mass broadcaster/content creator.

The BBC is driven by a strange, but ultimately very creative tension between audiences, policy makers, creatives and commissioners (and increasingly technologists). If one group gets all the power then the result would be blander, more atomised and wouldn’t deliver a full range of services.

If MPs decided how the licence fee was spent there’d be no Eastenders. If audiences did there’d be no BBC Parliament. If Commissioning Editors decided on their own without thinking about anyone else the BBC would probably resemble a poor quality Channel 4. If creatives did on their own you’d get a high number of badly thought through ideas scattered across fragmented schedules, few of them with much impact. If technologists did on their own it would all work perfectly but be incomprensible to anyone who didn’t know how to write code.

The BBC exists to bring things people didn’t know they wanted to mass audiences.

Radio 4 gets more money than it probably would as a subscription service. That forces it to be constantly looking outside itself, to be accessible to as many people as possible.

Because the person who may not listen to it pays for some of it in their licence fee, Radio 4 is forced to try and appeal to them while at the same time retain the quality and values that it already has. This is a tricky job (Mark Damazer‘s doing it brilliantly), but absolutely what makes the BBC the BBC. (“Making good things popular and popular things good”).

The BBC is for everyone not just a series of niche groups. The brilliance of the Licence Fee is that it forces this to happen.

6. This system sounds hideously complicated to me. The commissioning system at the BBC is labyrinthine enough without adding an added layer of dysfunction.

Let’s apply Jason’s idea to his own field of expertise: mobile. Would enough people think mobile important enough to place their money on it? What if the BBC decided that spending more money on mobile was a prority but audiences didn’t understand it and disagreed? Would it be better for them (and everyone else) if they had commissioning power over what the BBC did on mobile?

Call me old fashioned, but I think it’s better if Jason and his colleagues do it.


Wikipedia’s Values Are The BBC’s Values

June 5, 2008

Over the past few days I’ve read both the BBC Trust’s Service Licence Review of and the BBC’s management’s submission.

It feels like the BBC is hovering on the edge of a conceptual leap forwards, scared about making the leap.

I quote (management submission p.98):

The BBC grew up in and often shaped the age of broadcasting. Over the last 10 years, it has been thrust into the age of computers where it has made important but fewer defining contributions. It has been a rapidly-evolving age, in which many of the truths of the broadcasting age have been contested. These are the truths on which the BBC has built its global stature – that professionals know best, that control is the way to ensure quality, that audience contributions are valuable but must be crafted or editorialised to release that value, that the audience must only be given the finished product, that professionals will create more content than the audience.

To fit itself for the future, the BBC must demonstrate a willingness and an ability to engage in the discussion about the new world. The internet will help it to do so by enabling a direct dialogue by which it can be held to account and develop greater responsiveness.

The BBc has to do a lot more than just “enter a dialogue”.

From the BBC Trust’s review (p. 31):

“The encouragement of user participation by means of user-generated content (UGC) will need to be managed carefully so that BBC news’ brand values of impartiality, accuracy and independence (which we have found to be particularly strong online) are not challenged.”

There’s an underlying anxiety that if we collaberate with licence fee payers in places not controlled by the BBC, or allow them to help make or influence BBC content it will somehow damage BBC values and traditional strengths.

It may be true that there are some places which the BBC should not go.

But to choose an example Wikipedia is not one of them.

Wikipedia’s values are almost exactly the same as the BBC’s.

What’s the difference between Wikipedia’s value of neutrality:

“Neutral point of view is a fundamental Wikimedia principle and a cornerstone of Wikipedia. All Wikipedia articles and other encyclopedic content must be written from a neutral point of view (NPOV), representing fairly, and as far as possible without bias, all significant views that have been published by reliable sources.”

and the BBC’s value of impartiality including this:

  • we strive to reflect a wide range of opinion and explore a range and conflict of views so that no significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or under represented. “
  • The difference is not in values or principles but in how you do it.

    Wikipedia says “we want to search for the truth. And we want everyone to help us find it”

    The BBC says “we want to search for the truth. But ONLY professional BBC people are allowed to do it.”

    We’re wrong.

    In practice there is at least one recent example of where the BBC used the wisdom of the crowd to change and improve its journalism. Last year the Newsround webpages about 9/11 were changed after some concerted lobbying from various bloggers. Here’s what Sinead Rocks said on the Editors blog. Here’s what I said at the time on my internal BBC blog. You won’t be able to see my blog outside the firewall so here’s a quote:

    “Is (this) an organised lobby of people with an axe to grind about the BBC’s output? Is it a example of “networked journalism”? Or perhaps both? …

    Has the conversation made what’s on Newsround’s website better? On balance I think yes, although I would be interested to know what others think.”

    This was an uncomfortable experience for the BBC. But how practically was it any different from the kind of often fractious debates and editing that go on in Wikipedia?

    We have to come down off our pedestals and realise that some licence fee payers are cleverer than we are. Anyone who shares the BBC values should be welcome to make or help make BBC content whether they are professional and paid by us or whether they are not.

    Doing this does not undermine BBC values. It strengthens them.

    What would it be like if licence fee payers not only understood and believed in impartiality (which they do), but also actively helped make the BBC’s content more impartial?

    Isn’t that an exciting prospect? Let’s jump!