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MyBBC or OurBBC? a personal view on personalisation

23 Sep 2015  |  Richard Marks 
MyBBC or OurBBC? a personal view on personalisation

Richard Marks of Research The Media asks whether the myBBC initiative is the right response to the growth of personalised content, or is it perhaps the BBC's role to give us what we didn't know that we wanted?

Last week I was lucky enough to land a ticket to NextRadio, an annual one day event focused primarily on the production side of UK radio. The Saturday just before Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party and the Saturday after Doctor Who returned to BBC 1.

How are these events even remotely connected I hear you ask? Well the three wove their way into a debate already raging in my sub-conscious about the merits of curated versus personalised content and specifically the myBBC initiative.

So let's start at the excellent NextRadio event in London. In one day we rattled through no less than 28 presenters, too many to attempt to detail them here, but with that sheer volume of presentations, if you stood back and squinted then a picture did begin to take shape, rather like individual dots making up an image.

The first impression I left with was the increasing role that social media is playing in amplifying linear radio - a number of presenters described how best to use Facebook and viral video. The other main theme, which I continued to mull over subsequently, was that of personalisation of content.

The day kicked off with a presentation from BBC 5 Live controller Jonathan Wall who referenced the myBBC initiative. Meanwhile, consultant Chris Price related how he spent far too many hours listening to Foo Fighters Radio in an attempt to get to understand how niche targeted music streaming services were programmed.

What's wrong with giving people what they want? Well, in principle, nothing. Digital technology gives us the theoretical ability to understand what people like and do and personalise suggestions for them. All very logical. In reality, so far it mostly means being chased around the Internet with flight deals to Paris long after you decided to go to Torquay.

Some of you may know that a few years ago I wrote a blog expressing my concerns about the dangers of algorithms in constraining the development of our cultural exposure, because they are unlikely to generate random elements. As Chris Price noted at NextRadio, at one point the range of similar artists on Foo Fighters Radio seemed to him to be merging into one gestalt alt-rock beast.

I won't revisit those arguments in favour of curated content, you can read the article here, but let's put it in much wider terms. Put simply, the question I am struggling with is whether it is media's role to give people what they want, or to expose them to things that they didn't know that they wanted. I would argue it is both, but personalisation and initiatives like myBBC in particular, if used in a blunt way, could be in danger of shifting that balance too far in one direction.

On the face of it the myBBC initiative makes sense on two levels.

Firstly, as people allow the BBC to recognise them via log in details it provides a valuable mechanism for interacting directly with licence fee payers in a way that the BBC hasn't been able to before.

Channel 4 raised eyebrows when it required email addresses to be able to access the fledgling 4OD (now All4) but in hindsight that seems a no brainer, as unlike BBC and ITV it has a database of over 10 million users with which it can build a relationship, tailor communications and target advertising.

That relationship element of MyBBC makes sense to me. What I am less certain about is the avowed desire to be able to target content as a result. To quote Phil Fearnley, head of myBBC:

"You'll be able to create a BBC experience that you control, recognises you as an individual, and brings you the best of our content based on what we know you'll love."

I'd argue that the role of the BBC, what makes it unique and justifies its existence is its ability to expose viewers and listeners to new content, concepts and art forms that they would not necessarily have guessed they would have loved in a million years.

I would be happier with a BBC that was bravely or accidentally exposing a 14 year-old Foo Fighters fan to opera, or a 50 year old opera fan to John Grant - creating lightbulb moments that can change people's lives - as opposed to meekly letting a Foo Fighters fan know that there is a Nirvana documentary on 6 Music tomorrow night.

It's happy accidents which make the BBC what it is - that differentiate it from Netflix and its impressive recommendation engine."

It's always a cliché to refer back to the Reithian tradition, but I would like to understand how myBBC can incorporate that mission to 'educate, inform and entertain', retain that element of serendipity that prevents cultural staleness, that stops us stagnating in a self-curated pool of similar content.

To be fair, Tony Hall is also quoted as saying:

"...We will always be doing it in a BBC way - not telling you what customers like you bought, but what citizens like you would love to watch and need to know."

Can an algorithm take risks though? As Steven Moffat has pointed out, if a few years ago we had asked people what TV show would beat even the World Cup Final in 2014 in the ratings, would they have said a primetime show about baking cakes?

Anecdotally, I know many people who watch that show who don't even cook. It's happy accidents like that which make the BBC what it is, that differentiate it from Netflix and its impressive recommendation engine.

UK politics has already been damaged by this desire to give people what they want. We are obsessed with whether politicians are electable. Is it a politician's job to reflect back on us our own prejudices or phobias or to challenge our ideas and attempt to change our minds?

In that context it could be argued that Jeremy Corbyn is very far from being a 'personalised' politician. His considerable challenge will be to change the minds of a large section of the electorate, who have been fed a particular narrative for an extended period of time.

Corbyn is arguably a product of social media in that he was elected despite, not because of, the mainstream media. However, social media also contributed to the shock of many on Twitter at the election result as their timelines had been stuffed with people who already agreed with them as opposed to seeing any dissenting views. Their news feeds were effectively being personalised. If I similarly personalise my BBC news feed will I become increasingly expert in areas I am interested in and dangerously ignorant of topics I am not?

Meanwhile, BBC flagship Doctor Who returned on Saturday night to near universal praise from television critics and online fan forums alike. As a Who fan myself I was enthralled. Yet it got over two million less overnight viewers than last year. Still a very healthy audience, but not quite the all-exterminating ratings monster of its earlier seasons. Has Doctor Who itself become too 'personalised'?

Early season openers worked like school open days, welcoming in new viewers and showing them around. The Magicians Apprentice was a fine piece of work, but featured a dizzying array of returning characters and was immersed in Doctor Who lore - a personalised experience for Doctor Who fans, but one unlikely to welcome in anyone who may have drifted from the show in recent years.

In the Game of Thrones era - which virtually requires a flow chart to understand - perhaps this is indeed the way to go with serialised drama, but the BBC can hardly complain if its appeal becomes more selective - or personalised - as a result.

My favourite quote from recent Doctor Who came in an episode called the Doctor's Wife in which the TARDIS took on human form (actually the form of Doctor Foster's Suranne Jones) leading to this exchange:

"You didn't always take me where I wanted to go."

"No, but I always took you where you needed to go."

So is it the BBC's job to take us where we want to go, to planets full of content it already knows we like, or to be an erratic blue box taking us to unexpected and challenging places? Or do I have an old-fashioned, patronising, paternalistic view of the world in expecting a 21st century broadcaster to do that?

I may be an ageing romantic, but however it plays out in practice, I hope that the myBBC initiative somehow retains that random element that can fire people's imaginations and change lives through chance encounters and unpredictable happy accidents.

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