March 10, 2014

Episode Thirty Three: BBC Heaven; Shorts

1.0 BBC Heaven

In a past life, I used to do a fair amount of work with broadcasters and tv production companies. The company I founded with my brother, Six to Start, got its, ahem, start doing work for the BBC and Channel 4, two public (read: state-owned, non-commercial) broadcasters in the UK. There's something simultaneously noble and tragic about the BBC and Channel 4: the former, is a capital-I Institution, something that, like the National Health Service, inspires a great deal of pride within the majority of the populace of the UK. Originally a private, non-state-owned broadcaster founded by John Reith, in 1927, following a difficult seven years of birth, the British Broadcasting Corporation was established by Royal Charter with Reith as its first Director-General. One way of describing the BBC is of fulfilling Reith's mission of informing, educating and entertaining the populace. It's why - and how - the BBC gets away with doing a lot of what it does (which would be hard to justify, commercially). 

There is, though, it has to be said, a lot of "what the BBC does".  The BBC's total income for 2012/13 was around five billion pounds, which at just over eight billion dollars is still less than half of a Whatsapp, of which around three billion pounds came from the collection of its licence fee.

So: the BBC is *big*. And with a remit of informing, educating and entertaining pretty much seventy million people (again, a sixth of a Whatsapp), one could imagine how that remit might find it difficult to be reigned in, much like software's tendency to grow until it can read and send email. 

When the digital broadcast era arrived in the UK multi-channel TV finally arrived, too. Because of the particulars of geography, urban planning, distribution of population and communications licensing environment and existing choice, multi-channel tv didn't catch on at the same time as it did in the US with cable tv; it wasn't until cheap hardware (and compelling content, in the form of sports programming) was available through both terrestrial digital broadcasting and digital satellite broadcasting that a viable audience of households started receiving multi-channel tv. When that happened, the previous constraints of only four (and then in the late 90s, five) main terrestrial channels, disappeared and a profusion of channels abounded. For the BBC to deal with this was easy, in some respects: television programming was what they were good at, and in any case they were able run library programming. These channels included, at times BBC Knowledge (latterly BBC Four), BBC Choice (latterly BBC Three), CBBC and CBeebies and BBC News (optional 24). 

All this is merely a preamble to say that one of this newsletter's readers asked if I could do a reckon about the "closure" of BBC Three, the youth-oriented channel[1]. The internet (never mind the world) is never short of a reckon about the BBC, but here I go anyway. For all of that preamble, I'm pretty sure that this reckon is going to be pretty short.

For starters, having looked over the channel's output over the years, it doesn't look like having an audience with its own home produced a tremendously large number of hits. The ones that stand out are Being Human and Gavin and Stacey. What might be thought of as BBC Three programming like Little Britain actually got its start on BBC Radio before transferring to BBC Three and then BBC One. My particular reckon here is that for serving a younger and less affluent audience, moving online and especially to on-demand makes a lot of sense (that said, I don't know whether it actually costs more, less or about the same to deliver programming over iPlayer than it does over broadcast infrastructure). 

It's especially telling to me that in the budget announcement, the director general of the BBC said he wasn't prepared to compromise on the heart of the BBC, which he saw as drama. I mean, I take issue with *that* - the BBC does far more, and should have more at its heart than merely great drama - but the other issue is that *still* in this day and age the fixation appears to be on medium rather than content. The BBC is such an old institution it's hard to necessarily forgive them this - their name includes the word "broadcasting," for starters, and it's been an age-old debate as to whether the BBC's mission of informing, educating and entertaining must be forever tied to the medium of broadcasting. No media organization has ever really successfully navigated the transition or opportunity made available by the internet, and the preoccupation is on the "closing" of a broadcast television channel that receives an annual programming budget of over eighty five million pounds. It's a drum that I've always been banging about what you get for that eighty five million pounds and the BBC's role in both serving its audience (through whichever means?) and developing the United Kingdom's creative base. It's disappointing to me that, yet again, the focus is on television broadcast, and not the opportunity of what the internet means for the BBC to deliver its mission *especially* when we're talking about, naively, a digitally native audience.

Frankly, I'm more than a little annoyed by the comments in the article from "celebrity supporters of the channel" like Matt Lucas saying the closure would be "really bad for new comedy" given that he thinks broadcast is the only way that the BBC can support new comedy and that online isn't a stupendous opportunity. But then, if you've grown up always wanting to make a TV show, as opposed to just entertaining people, perhaps that's the way you look at the world. Again, this is the kind of thing that really annoys me: this is a way for creative people to get closer to their audience and the focus is on the closure of a broadcast medium, so the BBC does something that it could've done for a bold reason instead for a cost-cutting one. Sigh.

So there you go: a reckon, probably one that the world didn't need, on how yet again the debate is around closing a programming avenue when the programming budget could've been doing far more interesting things in a far more relevant way to its audience. But then, I suppose, it is the British *Broadcasting* Corporation.

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-26464007

2.0 Shorts

 - It turns out that that, on very large scales, the cosmic microwave background radiation of our universe (the afterglow of the energy from the Big Bang) seems to have some asymmetries - or lopsidedness. Now, our regular theories state that, in general, there should be nothing especially different about one part of the universe from another and that there isn't any particular special place because of the way the early universe suddenly inflated. It could be that we just can't see enough (we can't see the entirety of our universe, not yet) and that there's something big lurking just outside of our field of view that explains this weird lopsidedness. http://arstechnica.com/science/2014/03/is-the-universe-lopsided/

 - More Deep Structure: here's a paper on a gigantic neural network built (more accurately, built and trained) by Google to recognise numbers to help parse Streetview data. Remember that Google also has a gigantic neural network that can recognise cats. http://arxiv.org/pdf/1312.6082v2.pdf

 - Two pieces on the Quantified Self: one from my brother (http://mssv.net/2014/03/10/perfection-quantified/) and another from Kevin Nguyen (http://bygonebureau.com/2014/03/10/me-my-quantified-self-and-i/) as well as a bunch of Tweets it feels like in reaction to various announcements and talks at SXSW which get at a few important nuggets, I feel. Firstly: yes, I reckon Felton's reports got a lot more attention due to the care and quality in which the data he was collecting were presented, but not necessarily whether they were actually *useful* or not - undoubtedly, they were useful to him. Secondly, my brother's screen capture of Reporter's endless prompts "Time to Report!" recall a shrill, shoulder-perching parody of a time-and-motion clipboard-wielding analyst, certain nothing of which tone of voice indicates a collaborative process. But this may just be a by-product of the nature of iOS push notifications. Thirdly, in tweets (for whom I can't remember the author), yes, it's increasingly trivial to just store (and track) as many things as we want, but as I railed a few episodes back: I don't give a shit. I want *intelligent and contextual* analysis of the raw data, not the raw data. Because who has time for that stuff?

 - Kevin Kelly wrote an op ed in today's Wired entitled Why You Should Embrace Surveillance, Not Fight It (http://www.wired.com/opinion/2014/03/going-tracked-heres-way-embrace-surveillance/) which, as Tim Maly pointed out to me, doesn't necessarily add anything new to the debate and re-hashes views on radical transparency forged in the 90s (albeit with perhaps renewed relevance given the post-Snowden revelation as to exactly how pervasive surveillance trawls are nowadays). He repeats without criticism Zuckerberg's law, that humans want to share more than ever before and that all technology ever has enabled that, cites again that cities are merely an aberration and that in the golden age of the village and the tribe, everyone knew everything about everyone. Well, with all due respect, Mr. Kelly, fuck all of that. I am all for an equitable and symmetrical view of surveillance and what gets tracked. But I've been on the internet, Mr. Kelly, and I don't believe that the de facto availability of technology has broadened our empathy. We have so many problems to figure out, and so many divisions due to lack of empathy: technology doesn't solve empathy. People do.

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That's it for Monday. I'm tired, I have a headache, and even though I haven't seen him for only four hours, I deeply miss my son. 

Best,

Dan