Of course, we were doing that seven years ago

“The BBC now frequently commissions project to run online elements ahead of the broadcast date”, according to the Guardian. Hmm. I’d suspect something was amiss, only it’s quite possible that the BBC have only recently realised that this is the case. They’ve been doing it for years, of course, apparently by accident rather than intention. Which explains a lot.

Science Shack was an Adam Hart-Davis vehicle for BBC2, filmed very close to transmission in autumn 2001. Close enough, in fact, that I had a heated telephone discussion with the BBC’s tech review department following their receipt of the first programme: “You can’t send us something this close to transmission! It’s a breach of your contract!” / “It’s a requirement imposed on us by the controller of BBC2. You can tech the tape, or explain to him why there’s a 30-minute hole in tomorrow night’s schedule. Your call.” (I paraphrase. I almost certainly wasn’t that heroic at the time).

The reason for the tight turnaround was that we were intended to be incorporating feedback from the series’ website into the programmes themselves. That is: the site was to go live a few weeks before filming/transmission, and be trailed on BBC2. We’d develop ideas and solicit help from the audience, and even drag some of them along to the filming. Thus, we’d foster a community of people discussing science topics, including academics from the Open University, who’d help answer all the questions that didn’t make the cut for the TV show.

Well, that was the plan.

In the event, the website did go live before the TV show. A year before. Thanks to an almighty scheduling cock-up, it had been running for a year, been a bit of a giggle, had built a decent-size community, and shut down before production on the TV series even started. BBC Online, doubtless slightly narked that they’d done their bit and where-had-the-broadcast-muppets-been? declined to extend the site. So we were left with trying to make a TV format that contractually and practically required an integral website, but whose website was being actively torn down.

Compromises were reached and, somehow, a modicum of funding was found. Then the real bombshell – marshaling viewers’ comments and responses from the OU academics and TV production team was clearly a workflow/content management problem, and the Online team got back to us with their ideas. Implementation cost: twice our total budget. Schedule: test deployment February 2002.

This was in early September 2001, with broadcast scheduled from mid-October. Spot the snag.

In the end, the public BBC website was entirely static (!), and I lashed together an admin back-end in the then-new Geeklog, which received questions and comments and allowed a researcher we took on to work out what to do with them. The OU panel had access to parts of that, and used it to answer queries (so they could see what each other had written). When they were happy, the researcher wrote up their replies into something resembling English, and published them on the public site.

Online were aghast: this was not a robust, scalable, secure system. On the other hand, I countered, it had the benefit of extraordinary flexibility: if we wanted sweeping changes we could simply ask Jess, the researcher, to do things differently. Much of her job was crappy copy-and-paste between disconnected systems, but for the sake of a ten-week project that was an acceptable limitation.

We had another staffer on the web team, Toby: he and Jess shot photos and bits of video, and updated the site from location while we were shooting. Today, we’d say they were live-blogging the recording… but hey, this was late 2001. Movable Type wasn’t even out yet. Besides, thanks to the baroque BBC Online approvals system, the web team’s updates often took days to actually go live to the world – I think in one case the BBC2 broadcast beat them, not that this was their fault.

If this all sounds like a total farce… well, that would be about right. But from the audience perspective it wasn’t too bad, and it amused me at the time that a series based around gaffer-tape-and-string experiments should have a website built in the same sort of way. I still think the decision to replace code with a real person was crucial, and some of that sort of approach continues to inform my thinking about web systems. Too much flexibility and you can’t get anything done; too little and you can’t move if you get one tiny thing wrong in the design; in some circumstances, people are both cheaper and faster than code.

And yes, it was experiences like this that led, ultimately, to things like the ‘360 commissioning’ mantra, and the television world getting better at integrating online and broadcast production. However, I’m still not convinced the BBC is genuinely good at this beyond their work on a handful of key properties – like Doctor Who. Also, I can’t see that much has really improved from the perspective of indy producers, in that the BBC’s web platform is still rather closed. While they do have valid concerns about long-term stability, it seems there’s little scope for doing things quickly.

Right now, I’m much preferring the fleet-of-foot feel one gets from working online to the turning-a-supertanker feel of broadcast. Perhaps this is why I rail against hideous monolithic content management systems that get in the way rather than smooth the workflow? They’re too reminiscent of the broadcast world I’m trying to leave behind.

But anyway, the real joke about Science Shack was why the first series was in 2001, but the second didn’t happen until 2003. In autumn 2002 I was at a conference of science TV producers, and Science Shack’s original commissioner, by then in another rôle at the BBC, was surprised to see me there. “I’d have thought you’d be at the frantic stage right about now, if you’re going to make transmission.” I was confused, and the chap went on to explain that he’d been pleased to see Science Shack 2 appear in the advance broadcast schedules.

This was news to me. Only the previous week I’d spoken to the owner of the production company, and things were looking pretty thin for them. So former-commissioner-chap and I toddled over to current-commissioner-chap, who was also at the conference. We put the conundrum to him: could he explain the discrepancy?

He blanched.

“Oh shit!”, he exclaimed, “I commissioned the second series, but forgot to tell the production company!”

True story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.