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Digital Revolution: BBC experiments with Open Source Documentaries

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BBC2 is currently producing of a series of 4 one hour documentaries about the World Wide Web (next year it is the Web’s 20th anniversary!) – to be broadcasted early 2010. But for me the real news is: the BBC has decided to experiment and to involve the web community in this project. How?

Well… they call it an ‘open source documentary’: “It is our ambition to open up the production process as much as possible; to share as much of our thinking as possible, as the production team strive to create a cohesive, accurate and relevant documentary about the World Wide Web. We’ll be blogging as we go; we’ll share our theories; we’ll be putting up rushes from the filming; we’ll be asking for advice and stories from you as we go along.” (quote from the programme’s blog).

From what I understand during pre-production the BBC is in constant communication mode with “us” (blogging, twittering, youtubing, deliciousing… you name it)  and in exchange we can come back with ideas, comments, interviews… but more importantly STORIES (“tell us the stories you think we should be covering”, they say in their website). So… in a way: we help them while they inform us. This is up to a point an interactive process: we are in contact, but is it really an open source dynamic? Our stories suggestions do not directly change the programme (we are not  adding a layer of code to a software) and more importantly we do not know how our suggestion will be used (contrary to what happens to an open source software where any change has been designed by its author to do a precise task). What is happening here is that the control stays in the hand of the BBC: what we suggest is considered by a producer that has the power to do what he/she likes with it. I might be over critical here… but more than an open source documentary this resembles to a partially freely researched documentary!

Obviously the fact that BBC is involving “web people” while documenting the web is laudable… for such a big corporate it is a courageous decision… but the risks are still very much under control, to the point that I wonder how much this open source documentary is a marketing trick more than a real shift of thinking. Brett Gaylor, the creator of opensourcecinema.org, has been experimenting for years now on ways for people to collaborate online towards the common production of a documentary. RIP: a remix manifesto is the result of people sharing footage, remixing other people’s rushes and re-editing material over the web.  Brett’s idea is to open up the entire process of the film production… and not only to ask its potential audience for good ideas…

The BBC too promises to make their rushes available online… but where are they? I have been looking for the rushes of programme one, the first been produced that, following the published schedule, should start its editing on the 28th of September. Now… it is today the 17th of September… I can’t find them… either I am thick, or they are well hidden, or maybe they will be published at the last minute… but if they do not publish them before editing the final programme… how are we supposed to deeply “influence” or “collaborate” in the production process?

Maybe the BBC has some hidden ideas that will make its project a little bit more open sourced – and a little less free sourced…

To be honest though, there is one line on the programme’s blog that seems to suggest that there will also be a parallel interactive documentary:  ” your input, your comments, and your links will be read by the production team and will shape the direction the story takes. And everything will be part of our online interactive documentary that launches alongside programme transmission” (quote from the programme’s blog). What will be the shape, form and intention of such online project is quite mysterious… and definitively unclear (but definitively exciting, don’t get me wrong!).

I am really curious to see how this BBC project will evolve and, since I already have too many questions about it, I think I will address them directly to the production team. Actually, if they could use the web tools, and comment directly on my blog’s entry, it would be a great clin d’oeil to the topic of their programme!

Stay posted, you will maybe have some answers soon…

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This entry was posted on Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Comments

  1. On September 17th, 2009 at 17:23 Dan Biddle wrote:

    Hello. Many thanks for this considered post. All fair questions – mostly at least ;) – I hope I can explain a few of our productions aims and possibilities. Forgive me if I go on too much…!

    but is it really an open source dynamic? Our stories suggestions do not directly change the programme (we are not adding a layer of code to a software)

    Actually they can and they do. We have already taken information from links and information shared by the users: we were engaged by Wikipedians in the project’s early stages during our blogging programme one – around our search for deletionists (although I don’t think this eventually led to finding a UK-based deletionist to interview – but the search goes on. And later, Wikipedia again, we found a Wikipedian travelling to Wikimania 09 in Buenos Aires who agreed to film some of the event for us – crowdsourcing? A crowd of one? You be the judge, but we’re certainly open to others’ involvement.

    At this very moment Molly Milton, director of programme four, is asking for people’s examples of Internet Distraction, connected schools, generational gaps in tech uptake, application and comprehensionPlease read this blog post and join in the scripting.

    and more importantly we do not know how our suggestion will be used (contrary to what happens to an open source software where any change has been designed by its author to do a precise task).

    In this regard, I think it’s fair to use the open source terminology. Many sites are open source, but just because a person writes a new ‘improved’ or ‘useful’ piece of code for a site or application, this doesn’t mean it will be applied by the site owners. Likewise, if a person submits an idea to the Digital Revolution project – we can promise to read it / watch it, but we can’t promise to include it.

    Remember, there’s a lot of footage the BBC teams will create that will eventually meet the cutting room floor. (Although, we’re hoping, through the online version, we will be able to include extra footage for users to enjoy and use).

    And herein lies another open source aspect. We don’t have an API as such to open up and share for others to adapt and program new applications around, but we are releasing rushes under a unique BBC permissive license. People will be able to take our rushes, interviews, footage and download them and create their own documentary, their own blog piece, whatever their (reasonable) imaginations and technology allows. Not unique to the online world, but a revolutionary step by the BBC. Users could create the Digital Revolution documentary – or their version of it at least – long before ours goes near BBC Two in 2010.

    So in response to the sceptical: ‘What is happening here is that the control stays in the hand of the BBC: what we suggest is considered by a producer that has the power to do what he/she likes with it. I might be over critical here… but more than an open source documentary this resembles to a partially freely researched documentary!’ – yes, perhaps there’s some truth to that, but as our blog comments (very few fools there, you’ll find), much of the web works on an ethic of concerned and committed parties working above and beyond the call of duty or renumeration; Wikipedia – whom do the majority thank? Each author, each editor? Or Jimmy Wales?

    We have been very open about the fact that ultimately there is a BBC Two landmark documentary series intended here. The offer has always been that we are making the process of its creation as open and disclosed and collaborative as possible, but there will come the time that the edit locks down and an authored documentary is created for a BBC Two audience. That’s what the BBC does. It’s what ultimately the BBC Two audience wants – what they pay their license fee for. We deal with expectations on many levels. That’s what makes this project so exciting and challenging.

    But what we’ve also promised is for those early adopters of the project, for who engage, access via the blogs, opportunities to share stories and help make the documentary a better documentary (as evidenced with our sanity checking our graphical explanations of packet sharing and blocking), in the style that coders work up hacks and add-ons to make the web or its sites a better, more functional environment for the vast majority who just use it without thinking about the guys and women who constantly strive and patch behind the scenes.

    Brett Gaylor, the creator of opensourcecinema.org, has been experimenting for years now on ways for people to collaborate online towards the common production of a documentary. RIP: a remix manifesto is the result of people sharing footage, remixing other people’s rushes and re-editing material over the web. A great project!

    As I say – we’re sharing our rushes (although I state now not comprehensive rushes – these will be rushes clips, but they won’t be the cast-offs and deleted scenes the programme won’t be using. As I say – until the edits finish in December 09 there are no deleted scenes – everything’s in play.

    But this you know – ‘The BBC too promises to make their rushes available online… but where are they? I have been looking for the rushes of programme one, the first been produced that, following the published schedule, should start its editing on the 28th of September.

    The first team actually only went out into the field two weeks ago. We got the very first drives-ful of footage back from Heathrow today. These are gigabytes, possibly terabytes of HD digital content – we can’t just upload them via a hotel broadband connection. Or simply sling them raw online. Please be patient – the rushes are coming. And just because an edit may start September 28 that doesn’t mean filming stops. And that’s just programme one’s edit. Programme four doesn’t pick up a camera for another three weeks. That script hasn’t even made ink on a page yet.

    And finally – I wonder whether your comments have a character limit – maybe they should after this ;) – (slings and arrows withstanding) there will indeed be a larger, interactive, unique version of the documentary online. This will be rich in the data, the links, maps, images, youtube clips, mash-ups and all else created on the collaborative, open journey of the production and the story of the web – a story that was considered and created by many in the process of Digital Revolution.

    Apologies for the length of this comment, but you raise interesting and valid points / concerns. I hope that I’ve not come across as defensive – it’s not meant that way; we want to be interrogated; we want to be challenged – but I wanted to meet the matters you raised as completely as I could.

    Many thanks for asking these questions – please do stay involved.

    Dan Biddle
    BBC Digital Revolution, Assistant Content Producer

  2. On September 18th, 2009 at 12:11 Sandra wrote:

    Hi Dan
    first of all thank you very much for your prompt and VERY exhaustive answer!!! I can see that you are really committed to the Digital Revolution project!! this is great, passion is always a good sign!

    So…let me summarize the main points of your answer (or at least what I have understood):

    1. yes, Digital Revolution is an open source project insofar any open source code, or content, is always vetted and approved by its “owner”

    2. yes you will publish the rushes, it is only that you are not there yet in your production stage.

    3. yes there will be an interactive documentary online that will contain all the possible data that has formed your project (including rushes, remixes, comments and web collaborative content)

    4. the BBC is paid (licence fee) and therefore has the duty to deliver a “BBC standard quality” documentary for television broadcast. A less “standard” documentary will be released, but only online… and for a niche audience.

    I take your points on board… and I agree, for the BBC this project is really quite revolutionary… and it shows that the BBC is aware that if it wants to keep the 15-30 yrs old audience on its side it needs to start thinking differently.
    This being said, allow me to go back to your answer and develop a few points:

    > on point 1:
    who said that open source code/content always has to be accepted by its owner? This is definitively true for a majority of commercial digital products (websites and softwares) but this does NOT need to be seen as a fix norm. When SimCity released its code it opened itself to all sort of mutations of its original concept, and I am sure that the various artists that played with it did not have to ask for Will Wright permission!!!

    > on point 2:
    It is great to know that you will publish the rushes, but what interest me is the “why”? What do you want/hope that people will do with it? the people that participated to “RIP: a remix manifesto” have a good reason to do so: they have some sort of activist drive. They have a political agenda. What is driving people to remix BBC footage? The hope for fame? The fun of participating? I am a strong believer that interactivity allows us to have more and more options… we can always do more… but then it becomes too much and it looses its meaning. This is why the real question today becomes the “why” question: why and how people should/could participate so that it gives some precise sense to the project (a sort of direction, or a meaning).
    My question here is: has the production team thought about what type of participation would be useful to people (not to the programme)? I undertand why some remixes of your rushes could be useful to the programme… but what is the meaning of this for your web collaborators?

    > on point 3:
    Point 2 and 3 are linked together. I know perfectly well (as an ex television producer & journalist) that the dream of every producer is to use the digital format to make public all the rushes that have not been used -and all the research that has costed so many hours of work. Would it not be great if everybody could have access to all the stuff that we have seen, shot and read during all this project?
    Well… I am afraid that most of the time the answer is “no”. I know, it hurts for the producer, but the reality is that people have no time, and often no interest, in our production dustbins. So the challenge in interactive TV products is to refrain from “putting it all” and in thinking hard about the MEANING of the interactivity and the choices we are going to give.
    This brings me, yet again, to another question: have you thought about the “whys” of your online documentary? What will be new/ usefull/ challemging / grabbing about it for its audience?

    > on point 4:
    I agree that the BBC has hight production standards and that those are the one that most people pay for: a good majority of the audience wants to be reassured that if the tune into BBC they will not see the same type of trash that is elsewhere. Fair enough. This being said the 15-30 years old watch less and less television and stay instead glued to their computers.
    What is the duty of the BBC for that target group? Is it not to demonstrate that public money is also spend to push ahead the medium of the future in an “intelligent” way. The same commitment to “non trash” needs to be present in BBC online. And, although I am convinced that your online documentary will be of high standards, I am wondering if it is repeating what others have done (put it all online and trust that this will be interesting enough) or if you have a vision that goes beyond that.

    There you go: more answers do bring to more questions!!!
    But I think that this is getting really interesting now… because we are questioning the basic questions that are core to any interactive documentary.
    if you are willing to continue this discussion we’ll hopefully discover something that is new to both of us!!!

    Sandra


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