360 commissioning: Degrees of success

Is 360-degree commissioning still deep in its 'beta' phase?
January 1, 2009

It’s been years since media mavens started predicting a massive move by content producers towards an abundance of platforms beyond television broadcast. But with the exception of a few minor successes, TV still reigns as the champion medium. Multimedia, cross-programming, or 360-degree commissioning is still in its infancy as industry players sort out how to standardize and monetize productions across a fragmented media landscape. After all this time, the question remains – how can linear television successfully align with the Web?

360 is…

Jane Rogerson, the commissioning director of factual and factual entertainment at UKTV, defines 360 commissioning as ‘how you can create not just a one-hour program, but a project which has a life and a depth beyond, both before and after broadcast.’ In other words, programming that has the potential to encompass linear television, online content, mobile, radio and podcasting.

At the heart of it, says Rogerson, there must be a compelling idea and from that comes all the other iterations. This is a marked difference from the initial trend of producers dreaming up clunky content to fit the web component.

She also says that UKTV strives for more innovation beyond the standard, although engaging, post-show blogging and online voting elements. Commissioning editors are starting to use a more organic approach to threading content through multiple platforms. Case in point: UKTV Food’s Rhodes Across China. The channel sent renowned chef Gary Rhodes to China and recruited presenters online from the website. Viewers/users uploaded audition videos, with two selected to appear alongside Rhodes on the actual series. That’s taking user-generated content to another level. And the online extension of debate show Argumental includes outtakes, blogs and a Facebook app.

For BBC multi-platform commissioner Lisa Sargood, in charge of specialist factual, arts, music and religion, factual is the perfect genre in which to apply the fully integrated methodology behind 360-degree production. ‘Factual, like natural history, history, and science tends to [take] longer in the researching and the filming,’ she says. ‘That gives you more planning time, which means that you can really look at the scope of the opportunity.’

Some broadcasters, particularly in the UK, are taking radical approaches to turn their focus to 360-degree commissioning. Channel 4 launched the Four Innovation for the Public (4iP) initiative in March 2008, a £50 million public service digital media fund. It’s a bold move for a public broadcaster to create a £50 million fund that eschews traditional broadcast in favor of encouraging digital media projects and the nurturing of, in the words of the 4iP website, ‘a post-broadcast world’.

The BBC is among the few broadcasters leading the charge of successful 360 productions. Big Cat Live – a recent 360 effort spun off of the already established popularity of the BBC’s Big Cat Diary – began when the Beeb’s Natural History Unit in Bristol teamed up with linear commissioner Emma Swain. Together Swain, Sargood and content developers working across Web, mobile and television formed one development team, and the project was quickly commissioned cross-platform. The end result was the week-long live broadcast on BBC’s linear channels in October, complemented by three weeks of live webcasting, daily video content, social networking, webcams, blogs and more.

But Big Cat Live wasn’t the first big BBC 360 commission. It was preceded by the BBC Two ‘Timewatch’ program Stonehenge: The Healing Stones, which happened almost by surprise. The production flipped the order of things by starting with live updates on the ‘Timewatch’ website in April, before the September broadcast on the BBC linear channel. The production followed the first dig at Stonehenge in over 50 years and the Web updates became a wild success. Sargood and then ‘Timewatch’-editor John Farren worked closely on the project, but neither could predict its resonance with viewers. ‘We knew it was an iconic subject and we knew the story was newsworthy because it was current research, current science and current history,’ says Sargood. ‘But even we were taken aback by how popular it was.’

Farren, who recently left ‘Timewatch’ to start up 360 Productions, says he originally wanted to air the live dig footage on the linear channel first, but recognized that the content lent itself much better to an online experience. That decision proved to be more fruitful than he could have imagined. ‘I expected it to get up to 100,000 downloads. I would’ve been quite happy with that,’ he says. Instead, the two to three-minute-long daily podcasts reached more than 10 million people, in comparison to the two million people who watched the following broadcast. The Web audience also pulled in a much younger demographic compared to the average, older skewed ‘Timewatch’ audience. Farren believes Stonehenge is the best example of how a factual 360-degree production should work. ‘We didn’t stick big chunks of our finished program up on the air and hope that people would come to them,’ he says. ‘We made those things specifically for broadcast on the Web, in a very different way.’

A completely different visual grammar is used when dealing with linear than with online. On the Web, Farren says, computer screens tend to be smaller, so panoramic, wide beauty shots don’t work there. ‘If you watch the best podcasts, they’re very information-heavy, and they’re quite often talk-heavy,’ he says. Perhaps the most important thing, says Farren, is that your online product must tap into people’s passions. ‘It’s not like the old days when a linear program could default two million viewers just because the telly was on in the corner,’ he says. ‘You actually have to pull people in. [If] you identify those passion communities, you can have an afterlife. A 360 life.’

Producers may feel that creating content for 360 productions is a formidable task, but BBC’s Sargood says producers shouldn’t overextend themselves when it comes to working in the nascent field. ‘There isn’t an expectation that every current TV producer will become a Web expert and know what code looks like,’ she explains. ‘But you would expect [the producer] to have a level of awareness about the opportunities that those Web platforms afford.’

That level of awareness can begin with re-examining how audiences are consuming content. Now more than ever, viewers are in control of accessing media on their schedule with the high usage of TiVo and DVRs. The online space is ripe for the taking, with media-savvy viewers taking in broadband streaming, downloading video content, creating and watching user-generated content and much more. A whole new breed of audience is coming, says Farren, and if you don’t have a new strategy then you risk being left behind. ‘In the realm of factual, are people that are eight-years-old now going to want to consume a 30-minute or 60-minute documentary [in the years ahead]?’ Farren advises that everyone in the factual world should be strategizing to evolve storytelling to fit multiple platforms.

Legal matters

In addition to production concerns, crossing platforms can also bring new legal and regulatory challenges. Walter G. Lehmann, managing partner of law firm Lehmann and Strobel, says 360-degree commissioning makes a lawyer’s life more difficult. More time and transaction costs are involved as commissioning editors request producers to clear more rights and producers, in turn, gain more knowledge of the value of their rights. Lehmann says that everyone is becoming more savvy about not giving away something that they themselves could exploit.

Most commission agreements require producers to clear all rights in all media, worldwide and in perpetuity, something Lehmann has always recommended. ’360-degree commissions underscore the fact that you need to clear all the rights because you don’t know what platforms and what media you’re going to use the project in,’ he says.

Those rights issues are a massive consideration for 360 commissioning, says Farren. Stonehenge became a viral sensation thanks to Digg and YouTube, which was both cause for celebration and alarm. ‘When something becomes viral on the Web, you have no control over where it’ll pop up, which for a broadcaster is a scary thing,’ Farren says. Broadcasting rights and commissioning models don’t necessarily apply to the Internet. ‘You either embrace the fact that you’re not in control of it, or you don’t,’ he says.

Broadcasters taking action by corralling people into a branded YouTube channel or deleting the networks’ content from the site aren’t exactly moving forward in the Internet age. ‘The YouTube generation doesn’t want to go into your walled garden of a channel,’ Farren maintains. ‘[Content] flourishes in a YouTube space where you can pick it up and send it off to wherever you want.’

Although YouTube is teeming with viewers, nobody can afford to just produce content for the site. ‘You can’t pack up your belongings in a caravan and start making pieces for YouTube that nobody’s paying you for,’ Farren says. Who eats these costs varies among broadcasters. Rogerson says that at UKTV, the 360 productions are rolled into an upfront deal for all iterations of the project and the project is then funded and owned by the channel.

Measuring success

Although Big Cat Live and Stonehenge were deemed rare successes, it’s hard to definitively gauge the impact of a 360 project. There isn’t any revenue to record, or any standard method of measurement. One broadcaster may use unique users, others may use page impressions or the stickiness, or length of time spent on the website.

For Sargood, Big Cat Live was a success by its very existence. She says it was a major challenge creating a wealth of multi-platform content from a very remote location in the middle of Masai Mara, Kenya. A lot of time was spent figuring out feasible technicalities and logistics which all had to be factored into the planning, production and scheduling. However, she says that every project has its own criteria for measuring success. ‘In terms of raw numbers, it’s actually quite hard to say ‘If it doesn’t get a million it’s no good.’ It’ll always be related to the numbers of the audience it’s trying to reach,’ she says.

Farren disagrees. ‘If I don’t get at least a million people watching online, than I don’t think it’s a success,’ he says. ‘If you’re making stuff that gets a million clicks, that’s not a broadcast model; it’s not just a million people leaving the television on. It suggests you’ve reached a level of viral penetration.’ Farren says that can equate to a much more engaged audience than those same numbers in TV.

For now, 360-degree commissioning is an evolving process. Models are still developing and revenue streams must still be identified. Thus, in the meantime, linear continues to pay the bills… at least in the short run.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.