Commissioning for audiences not platforms

I got a late call on Monday inviting me to the roll out of Channel 4 Education’s new line-up. Hats off to Steve Moore for mentioning me and getting me invited. Steve thought I should be there because Channel 4 was shifting its educational focus from TV to other interactive platforms including social networks, online games and consoles.

The Media Guardian’s Jemima Kiss has the full write up (Yes, the Guardian is my day job):

Channel 4 has unveiled a slate of “high risk and experimental” projects based around social networking sites that it says will tackle the crisis of motivation in education.

The new commissions for 2008 – announced today – are part of the £6m educational budget for 14- to 19-year-olds which involves Channel 4 dropping much of its TV programming in favour of online projects.

What impressed me were a few things that Matt Locke and Alice Taylor – both ex-BBC and now Channel 4 Education – said about the process. Matt said that when they were thinking about the projects, they focused on five characteristics:

  • About being playful. That’s not about being trivial, but about participation. Matt says that this teen audience does things without permission such as creating blogs, podcasts or their own music. They do this without training. “This is about playful exploration.”
  • A social element. Teens go through a lot of change 14-19. They are trying out different selves and normally getting feedback from other teens, their parents and teachers. But now there are so many ways for teens to experiment with themselves and get feedback from a much broader context. Many projects will have social network component, but not just because social networks are the new media fascination de jour, Matt said. Social networks will provide teens with this broader context for social feedback.
  • Exploration. BBC tells you what you need to know. Channel 4 helps you ask the right questions.
  • The projects are built around tools and spaces that teens use – Bebo, MySpace, Flickr or YouTube – instead of creating our own tools
  • They had to be fun.

But the big thing that Matt said was about cross-platform commissioning:

Cross platform commissioning is not about asking: Is it tele or is it web? But where is the audience? We have to commission for our audience wherever they are.

That’s huge. That’s platform-busting, open thinking. That’s the kind of thing that explodes content silos and realises the real revolution in digital content. It gets us past the newspaper versus TV, internet versus newspapers, this versus world of false platform choices. I also think that Matt’s formulation of focussing on the audience translates well to content makers who might otherwise be sceptical of cross-platform commissioning.

Alice did some ground-breaking research for the BBC, and I could tell both from Matt and Alice that they were excited at being able to put their ideas into practice. The Channel 4 Education projects will involve alternate reality games and Alice is keen to consider not only the internet but also consoles and handhelds.

If you’re a journalist and you think that games aren’t something to consider, look at World Without Oil. It was a “collaborative alternate reality simulating an oil shock”. ARGs can be like strategic games used by business, government and the military. They get people to consider scenarios and outcomes.

One of Channel 4’s game will be called Ministry, an online, networked ARG that challenges teens to think about online privacy and identity and how they apply to their lives. How do you develop trust with people you can’t see? Do you think about the information that you are posting online when it “remains persistent and public”? Those are issues that everyone, not just teens, should be thinking about.

They are also considering widgets not as signs of consumption but as a nuanced form of self-expression. Matt, Alice and the rest of the Channel 4 Education team have set themselves and ambitious agenda, and from the questioning, they face some scepticism from traditional educational circles. But they are moving into new areas, and they don’t have established models to use. Not everything will be a raging success, but they have a three to four year plan that will incorporate feedback from the projects and teens uptake and participation.

I also think Janey Walker, Channel 4’s Head of Education, challenged (possibly inadvertently) the idea that to cope with the dizzying array of choice that people have when it comes to information and entertainment that quality is the only solution. She said that Channel 4 Education had been making quality programmes but showing them when teens weren’t at home. TVs were being taken out of schools, and teachers were reluctant to push play on the VCR or DVD player to show a half hour programme. What happens if you make great, quality programming and no one is watching it?

As Matt says, it’s not about tele or the web, or 360 commissioning but about taking your content where the audience is. You can’t do what you’ve always done and hope or think that sooner or later people will consumer your content the way you want them to.

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