BBC Storytelling in The Internet Age Event
By Renardo Jones
On the 28th of February, as part of the BBC’s Digital Cities 2019, a cluster of media and tech enthusiasts gathered at The Shed: an appendage of Manchester Metropolitan University, as part of ; for what was publicised by organisers Creative England as an “evening of inspiring discussions from leaders within the fields of broadcasting games and technology”.
The topic of the event: Story Telling In The Internet Age, was to explore what happens when a drop of sulphuric tech innovation is added to the alkaline of traditional storytelling.
The Dean informed the audience of her ever increasing workload in developing the School of Digital Arts and how the school will be front line in educating future storytellers and content creators in the undulating landscape of 21st century creative media, “ our ethos and brand position is this notion of future storytelling-creative content made in Manchester and experienced across the world”.
Will Saunders: a consultant and executive producer from Storyfutures a collaboration of companies that deals with a myriad of issues surrounding the future of story form, business models data process audience experiences, was next up; along with some inside info about the current work on going at Storyfutures he provided audiences some titbit of corporate knowledge garnered from his time as the BBC’s architect of digital transformation into litigations; he proposed to fund audiences hunger for unorthodox, stimulating storytelling “how do you affect change, how do you try and galvanise sectors and create a movement for development , you use existing funds of money that are traditional RND cash, what you do is put pressure on the sectors that deliver that cash and you try to create something new.”
With the preliminary speeches digested, what followed was the main segment of the evening: The Future of Storytelling. A panel of Dan Tucker: executive producer at Sheffield Doc/Fest; Rick Murray: managing director and executive producer at Workerbee; Paul Bason: Director of digital innovation at Manchester Metropolitan University, and Sally Bowman: senior news editor for the BBC. The chair for this segment would be Alison Norrington: founder and creative of story central.
With over 70 years of experience between them if audience members didn’t leave this event with a more thorough grasp of modern storytelling, then that itself would be a story worth telling.
In a galaxy far far away, there once was a time when you’d switch on your TV set, collapse into your threadbare sofa, and be cradle back and forth by the gods of mount media as they decide this is what you’ll watch at this time, as they rationed you to a diet of one episode a week of your favourite show and made sure you paid your tithes to idols of advertising. Those days have wondered down the same path of the Dodo, storytelling is now an unbridled beast under the command of creative mavericks and famished audiences, you can watch what you want when you want, and you choose how the story unfolds.
Streaming services like Netflix threw a grenade into the back patting session that was traditional media, and perhaps what’s most frightening for the establishment is the new wave of storytelling is only in its infancy. The question needs to be posed though, is all change always good? Alfred Hitchcock himself once said after the advent of sound to films “The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema. In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema. They are mostly what I call ‘photographs of people talking.”
Rick Murray seemed to have a lot of affection for the traditional form of storytelling “there’s something about the way long form content currently works on a TV screen in your living room..sat with your whole family, going off to get a cup of tea, having a chat with the person next to you…if there really are going to be some big changes in the way storytelling is brought to the world in people’s front rooms, it’s going to have to be something more subtle than Bandersnatch (Interactive Netflix show).” Which is a point well made, for every House of Cards there’s an Iron fist, some creators jump the gun, spend a lot of time coming up with the new never before seen concept and leave the storytelling part of the story as an afterthought, which is something Sally Bowman alluded to “if you’re going to tell a new story in a new format, my theory is you should be wary of abandoning tried and tested conventions of actually getting people emotionally involved in the story.”
With the wariness for making some outlandish TV concept and the developing technology that facilitates outlandish concepts, as a young creator you can’t help but be a little bewildered as to what basket to place all your eggs, but Dan Tucker advises “there is no one future of storytelling…you need to look at your own intellectual property and think how can I make that commercially viable to be commissioned and retain the intellectual property.”
Rick Murray chimed in with something quite thought provoking “on the future of storytelling… What I do think is really interesting is the changing nature, evolution of story, now we’re moving into a stage where we have experimental story…the next phase of story is algorithmic story, which takes things like data and designs a personalised story for you or uses the object media approach and reassembles story, which is exciting but also has all sort of ethical implications about what you are being fed, what you are being told and how much you concentrate on a story that is built for you rather than engaging with the story of others. I have this idea that there’s never been a more important time to engage with the story of others.”
If this algorithmic story telling does reach full form it’d be interesting to see how creators adapt, after all don’t most screenwriters/ directors create to express their world view to others, therefore how ironic would it be if technology created to improve the proliferation of their stories inadvertently restricts their audience base. Sally Bowers rally backed with her thoughts on the dysphoria “one of the things that is really stretching my brain at the moment is that thought that if you break out the technologist working in one corner and the creative working in another, what could we create?…if we bring people together we could end up with an amazing product at the end of it.”
Technological advancement never really asks permission from the establishment to exist, it’s normally the child of some ridiculed individual whose ideas are considered too eccentric to be fleshed out (‘a car that drives itself??? Are you sure that’s sugar you just put in your coffee?’). Until next thing you know, you’ve got Amazon Prime, you’ve got YouTube, you’ve got smart phones with cameras good enough rival industry standard equipment. By the time you’ve read this another technological advancement facilitating storytelling could have been discovered, therefore it’s no wonder Rick Murray expressed these sentiments while explaining how his company Workerbee are coping with the upsurge in tech innovations.” As a company we’re probably guilty of not being evasive enough with tech innovations. We’re sort of waiting for you guys to disrupt the technology and make it profitable so that we can come in as a company and go, well how do we use some of our greatest storytellers to make some of this amazing new wave storytelling”.
Don Tucker erred on the side of caution, although there’s a wealth of tech innovation on going, everything that glitters ain’t gold “if we looked at every single innovation and decided to develop with every innovation (and there are loads) then I think we’d find that we’ve spent all our development cash real quickly”.
Netflix aren’t quite so reserved when it comes to developing new content, the once miniature DVD rental business has grew to such a magnitude its name is now a verb; with movie standard TV shows at the tips of your fingers whenever you want, consumable in a weekend, and ground breaking storytelling that warrants the subscription, it’s no wonder the service has amassed 500 million downloads in the app store.
The streaming technology used by Netflix caught the renowned media companies off guard; they caught up now with their own re-purposed brand of Netflix, but I’m sure when Netflix first went viral uttering the N word would have been a massive taboo for them.
Netflix took another leap into the future recently with the creation of their TV show Bandersnatch: a programme slash game which allowed audiences to have a direct impact on the ending of the show.
Mark Ashmore of Future Artist was curious to know “what does the panel think of the future of linear TV when you can create gaming/TV shows like Bandersnatch?” Don Tucker weighed in with “I’m a great believer on games being super compelling, once you’re a participant not a passive viewer it can be even more compelling, I’m really excited about object based media and how that will affect television, but people need the space to play and the investment to get things wrong until they can get it right.”
With audience participation all the rave Sharpfutures Pod member Michael Sheridan inquired of the panel “how can second screening (audiences’ use of mobiles or tablets while watching TV) be utilized in long form TV?” Rick Murray interjected “I think this where most of the innovation is. Workerbee is now working with broadcasters to tie in different experiences to the second screen. To create an interactive clickable story that you can work with as you’re watching the show.”
Paul Bason shared a story that was particularly insightful, especially for anyone outside the boardroom of power in media circles “I remember a Channel 4 commissioner talking about the stuff they were doing on E4, where they were making sure the scripts had enough time to breathe, so when you reach that kind of Hiatus there’s an opportunity for you to tweet about it. That’s a simple mechanic there that’s about how we’re changing in the way which we view content.”
The times really are changing, gone are the days where TV companies measure the audience base by viewing figures alone, as Rick Murray put it “the way that we’re judging success of a programme has changed. A way that’s come into play is we can get a lot of data from what people are doing while they’re watching TV” why dedicate so much time and effort to knowing your audience inside and out..because the audience is king.
If you’re creative for the sole purpose of pleasing yourself, what you’re effectively doing is intellectual masturbation, hence the Neilsen ratings (American audience measurement system) hence why the audience is king, and said audience who having lived through the bizarreness of Lynch and the cold precision of Kubrick, demand more from their programming.
As a creator finding a way to stay ahead of the curb’s a challenge, an obstacle course when you’re audiences have already got 6-7 season worth of material out of you, but fortune favours the…In between conducting the panel Alisson Norrington shared a story she had heard about Eric Kripke the creator of Supernatural (Popular TV about brothers who deal with supernatural occurrences) who in the final season of the hit show “threw it out to the audiences and asked them to create cannon. He did include some of it in the final season. Apparently 50% of fans loved it, felt respected and brought in, while the other 50 hated it, said ‘you’re the storyteller what are you doing asking the fans to create content.”
If anyone’s ever wondered why data regulations was brought in, it’s perhaps that in the age of being In London and being able to order a package from Hong Kong and have it delivered to your house in the space of a few days, data is currency, and in an industry as awash with money as creative media transactions happen a plenty, or as Rick Murray put it “ I think the audience are getting more and more say over what’s commissioned, I’ve seen the commissioning model completely change because of the access to data”. Companies like Netflix will live and die by data, they’ll frequently commission a short form version of a potential show, throw it out there as bait and see which demographic bite, then use the data accumulated to see which if commissioning a full series of the show is a worthwhile endeavour.
An over reliance on data to shape people’s viewing experience is not always a positive according to Paul Bason “One of the scary things about adjusting storytelling so people get the stories they want is that you lose that experience like you did as a kid of going into a book shop and picking up a book you’ve never would have read before. The fact that algorithms say that ‘if you like this here’s something different’ it actually means if you like this try this exact same thing, and that could actually lead to death of storytelling”.
The story of Storytelling In The Internet Age could be summed up as one of intrigue and uncertainty, the guest speakers laid bare so much knowledge one can only wonder what they decided to keep tight lipped about; their call for caution will linger long in the mind, because when a group of people with over 70 years’ worth of experience tells you the use of innovative tech as a vehicle for storytelling doesn’t always result in better storytelling it makes you question your creative process.
Rick Murray did conclude the event with some positivity “it feels like we’ve never been quite at this point before. We’re trying something out and we don’t know whether it’s going to be successful. I think that’s fantastic, it feels like we’re all DW Griffiths inventing the dissolve and a whole range of grammar.
- Talent in Tech blog
- SharpFutures: Framed
- CSRASIA – sustainability storytelling
- Newstatesman – Why we are danger entering digital dark age
Posted by Renardo Jones