Author: James Brickell, Natural History Executive Producer, Former Head of BBC Natural History Unit Digital Team
What impact has digital technology had on traditional means of telling stories and making documentaries? As we enter the traditional time of year for families and friends to sit down at the same time and watch the same thing live on TV, award-winning wildlife filmmaker James Brickell reflects on the opportunities – and challenges – for telling stories in a digital age.
Christmas time is about telling stories. The whole thing is based, after all, on stories passed down for two thousands years in a book – a collection of stories so compelling for many millions of people they define how they live. A modern Christmas is more than just these traditional stories – stories of magic, elves, snowmen and a disproportionate amount of talking animals have all appeared in our household over the last few weeks. Stories are integral to being human, passing on information and making sense of the world. And, we are all harsh critics; if a story from a family member rambles on we get bored, while people who tell punchy stories command our attention. A well-put together story told with aplomb holds our notice; a bad one doesn’t. There are so many ways now available to us to pass on our stories and our appetite for consuming them is not diminishing.
I have worked in the TV industry for over twenty years where stories are our stock trade. I spent my entire career learning the craft of storytelling for television on the BBC’s flagship channels. I felt I was just beginning to get a grip on it and then the digital world exploded, social media came along and the rules changed. Initially, broadcasters saw it as an ‘add-on’ and concentrated their efforts on their main TV channels but then our world started tilting in a seismic way as they realised there were increasing numbers of people flocking to new digital platforms.
For example, both of the two landmark TV series I have recently been involved with, (the imaginatively titled Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II), have done well on TV, regularly pulling in audiences greater than ten million. These are very high figures by the standards of modern UK television documentaries. But, in comparison to the numbers of people engaging with shorter clips from both these series, released on other digital platforms, then you might be less impressed.
Take, for example, that famous clip of the iguanas being chased by a snake in the Galapagos archipelago: if you include all the various versions, the parodies, the spoofs, the clips of people reacting to it across all the platforms (Twitter, Facebook and YouTube) then the figures start pushing into hundreds of millions. The trailer for the series, on its own, reached 92 million people. The ambition of Blue Planet II was to get a billion people globally talking about the oceans and that now appears to have been a realistic goal.
So we know that many more people are watching stuff on digital platforms than on traditional broadcast TV. Crucially, though, we also know that they are different people. To accompany the US release of Planet Earth II, we made some original films – approximately three minutes in length and tailored to the social media platform Snapchat, (reportedly with 100 million people using it every day). It’s audience is skewed more towards younger and female viewers than our traditional TV audience, which has a core demographic of 50+ male. This was an amazing opportunity for us TV producers who have spent the last few years making programmes that appeal to a younger audience; it turns out that the best way to hit a youth audience is find out which platforms they regularly hang out on and put engaging content there for them to find.
So is this good or bad, and why should any of us care?
Before we can answer that we need to ask, “does more mean better?”
Well, there is an argument that the producers of Blue Planet II would much prefer an engaged TV audience of a few million people biting their collective nails, marveling at the photography, the music cues and the well-crafted edits. The data suggests that most of the 50-million-plus people sharing Blue Planet II clip of a Giant Trevally leaping out of the air to catch a tern in flight are probably not going to watch the whole film on a BBC channel. But these snippets are reaching different people; and, if just a few thousand of them decided to dig deeper into the subject, either on another platform or by picking up a book, then that must be a good thing.
It can also create a huge buzz, which almost takes on a life of its own. Blue Planet II was referenced in the Autumn Budget speech, which would have been almost unthinkable in a pre-digital age. The effective use of storytelling got some important points across: powerful, heart-breaking revelations about the harm caused by ocean plastics, relayed to a massive new audience who sat up and took notice. This was done - not by campaigning, or pressuring people – but by telling compelling stories that resonated on a personal level.
So how do stories on social media differ?
In the early days of social media everyone made mistakes. But more and more we are learning what works on which platform.
The headline is that video is king.
Short, sharp clips that are big on the stronger emotions like wonder, shock or anger do well. Anything weird, cute and funny will be successful. So if you want people to share something, then a well-placed clip of kitten probably won’t do you any harm. If it’s either being very cute, very funny or possibly blown up, then you are onto a winner.
Clips that rely on sound to understand them are generally a bad idea: most of us watch clips without sound these days, so text overlays are now the norm.
This means that the recipe for telling a great story on social media doesn't allow for much in the way of depth or subtlety. And for that reason this way of consuming is not going to take over from TV. A big flat screen is still the best medium for driving visual, emotional stories that can dig deeper. But digital platforms do offer something new to a vast and very different audience, a new way of getting a message out – which has to be a good thing.
It’s far less restrictive. Traditional broadcast TV constrained filmmakers to a fixed duration in a restricted time slot, with only one chance to engage the viewer – then it was gone, consigned to broadcast history (until a scheduled repeat). Now, with on-demand channels and the advent of Internet subscription services like Netflix and Amazon (sometimes referred to as OTT, ‘Over The Top’ or VOD, ‘Video On Demand') the audience can watch what they want, when they want, as often as they want.
It’s good news for quality and creativity as well. Traditional TV has been steadily poisoned by fear of failure. The pressure to get good audience figures means that commissioners are less likely to commission anything that falls outside a proven recipe. This can create a climate where genuine creative decisions are frowned upon and all shows must pass through a bottleneck where single commissioners (guardians of what is good and bad) sign everything off.
It’s hard to argue that the advent of Netflix and Amazon has pushed the standard in any other direction than up. Even on the social media platforms, where a quick story is a good story, the standards can still be very high. And in the digital world the audience can interact with the programme makers in new and immediate ways.
When I first started making films, ‘audience interaction’ meant a few letters complaining about the music. My father complained about the music in the first film I every made (a Wildlife on One) and he’s complained about the music in just about every film I’ve made since. If he stops complaining, I’ll know to send him for a check up.
With the BBC social media channels, it’s now easy to monitor the public reaction to certain stories. If there is a particular reaction that demands a response, it can be handled quickly. When Planet Earth II broadcast on BBC1, there was a huge reaction on Facebook and Twitter to a specific story about turtle hatchlings being confused by light pollution from nearby cities. Thousands of people wanted to know if the crew had stepped in to rescue the turtles that they had seen falling into metropolitan drains. We were able to respond with a short film explaining how all the turtles featured in the film had been saved by the crew and volunteers …and the country breathed a collective sigh of relief. That film was tailored to the BBC social media channels rather than TV: it was the perfect example of how both platforms can be used in partnership.
Fake News has become news itself on digital platforms, with all sorts of murky political revelations in the recent months; the idea that people create entirely false stories is one problem. But the issue of truth has also become a problem in the world of documentary filmmaking in a completely different way. TV companies have had to be careful if they are planning social media output to run in parallel to a traditional television project. TV projects that deal with half-truths, mixed up timelines and exaggerated peril run the risk of getting caught out if the stories they are telling on social media and their TV channels don't match up. To counteract this, many production companies have suppressive social media policies for anyone working on a particular project: the more oppressive the policy, the more revealing it is about the kind of TV they might be making. The alternative is to have a media blackout until transmission; but then they miss out on creating a promotional buzz.
The risk is that the form a story takes on some digital platforms can simplify issues so much that it reaches a point that it becomes misleading or even completely false – in the same way newspaper headlines sometimes don't reflect the full story.
There are challenges in this new world because it’s so fast moving; it can be hard to keep up. It’s hardest of all for companies and corporations hamstrung by their own size. But the opportunities are vast. We used to have a handful of platforms available to us and now we have thousands: from short animated GIFs to virtual reality games. Digital technology has changed the way we tell stories and it’s profoundly changing the way individuals and societies connect and interact.
At their heart, most are doing the same things they always have: showing us compelling characters and taking them on a journey. That resonates, for at Christmas, when many of us will consume many more stories than we usually do – either via digital means, sitting on the sofa watching a good old film or in the most traditional way of all: talking at a table over a meal.
In so many ways, this is the most exciting time to be telling stories.