When the BBC transmitted its latest wildlife blockbuster "The Blue Planet," there was a quiet revolution in the way that we think about maximising our output.
The TV series created an enormous impact, but it was just part of a package of new ideas in interacting with the audience. On digital satellite TV, viewers could add informative text written specifically for the program. And on the Internet, there was a parallel experience--seven modules of interactive content corresponding to the programmes' themes that were posted alongside the transmissions. The animated games, quizzes, and video as well as text and stills allowed the audience to explore the wildlife of the oceans in their own way, in their own time, and as deeply as they wished.
Making the Switch
It was at school that I first got interested in biology--and of course, that was because of an excellent teacher. I was 12 when I decided I wanted to work for the BBC (rather than being a long-distance lorry driver, my previous ambition), and after a degree in zoology at Bristol University and a librarianship course, I wheedled my way in. After 18 years in natural history TV, moving into interactive media takes me closer to the audience, producing in a new way. Instead of creating a linear stream of pictures and sound to watch on TV, the aim is to create media that people can use as they want, when they want, for as long as they want.
Education is a key part of the BBC's mission to inform, educate, and entertain, and education is changing. It's grown into "lifelong learning", with the emphasis on learning tailored by the individual, not taught by a figurehead. It's about engaging, inspiring, and empowering. So a potent factual series such as "Blue Planet" was a fairly obvious place to start in delivering a new kind of educational experience. The big question was how you move on from the series itself. For the Web team of myself (the producer), four researchers, a technical manager, and six designers, the task in creating "Blue Planet Challenge" online was to connect a keen but casual audience with an attractive learning experience that could take them as far as they wanted to go, right through to enrolling on a marine biology course--a "learning journey".
Each programme covered a different type of ocean environment from the deep to coral reefs, so each interactive module broadly matched the subject. The decision was made early to build the experience around quizzes and games designed in "Flash" software and to carry over some of the visual values of the TV series. When you've come to the Web from a BBC One prime time programme, "education" may not be a massive attraction, and dry information would be an absolute turn-off. So we needed to create a design that was lively, fast, and, where possible, really felt like an arcade game.
The design teams worked on creating scenes that had the look of the real ocean, with simple animated creatures and with the sense of three dimensions on a flat screen. With that working, a lot of effort went into the gameplay. It had to be simple, but enjoyable. Unfortunately, the scientific advisors (academics working for the BBC in a consultant capacity) who had helped the TV team never had cause to think like this before, but it was vital that the site had scientific credibility. So the Web team was often caught between designers dealing in the detail of what could be done with Flash, and scientists who could only say "Well, it doesn't really happen like that...." The solution was regular brainstorming, many rewrites, plenty of feedback, a few horrendous deadlines, and spreadsheets full of the text that carried the weight of the factual content.
Paul's Career Tips
This is demanding work, so you have to really enjoy it. The toughest thing is getting the first break, and my advice is simple. Write down everything you've done that's relevant. Do you take pictures? Have you travelled in demanding places? Do you write? Do you tell stories? Do people laugh at your jokes? Do you get excited by contact with animals? Do you use the Internet? Do you understand good design/good TV/good radio?
Opportunities are few, so you'll have to out-compete other people, who have their own sheet of experiences. So rank yours in order of importance for every job application. How persuasive is your list? Any gaps that need filling? Fill them. I really wanted to do it, and I have, so there's no reason you can't, if you're right for the work.
As a graduate biologist, I learned a great deal from those spreadsheets. And because we were using multiple-choice questions, the right answer was often accompanied by two plausible but false alternatives. And if you think creating those sounds easy, just try devising a few yourself!
The aim was to attract a wide audience, so whereas we got used to balancing the scientific jargon with ease of use, the subject matter we were dealing with grew in complexity. How do you explain the energetics of a coral reef in a way that would make sense to a 10-year-old ... and his grandma?
The answer is design. In the same way as the TV commentary is spread across sequences that tell a visual story, the simplicity of instructions and visual interest carry you through the interactivity. In my favourite game, "Dive to the Abyss," you don't have the time to worry about what you're learning, because it's implicit in the task. You simply have 8 minutes to collect sample animals that appear in front of your submersible. But you have dive objectives to check whenever you come across a creature, and have to decide which fit the bill whilst the time runs away. Pretty soon you've memorised the key characteristics of about 25 different deep-sea fish, squid, or jellyfish just to cope with the task. And once you've made the effort, that information sticks. Safely back on the surface, you can check them out in more detail on a fact file database that runs video from the TV shows to display the bizarre and potent creatures that live in the ocean.
Interactivity is in the developing stage, and the skills needed to do it well change as it matures. It is technological, so at the entry level, experience and understanding of the design and coding software is important. But communication skills--picture selection, writing, and concept structure--are also part of the mix and will become more important as the communicative potency of the Web develops.
Producers have to be organised, enthusiastic, and visionary, but a key aspect of life in an organisation is that you can't do the job on your own. Recognising and drawing on the skills of others is central to making the best product. And that means knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
We're really just getting to grips with this medium, so every element has its problems. BBC Web sites use RealPlayer to serve video on the Internet, but right now the image quality isn't great. Recording, digitising, editing, and coding even a 30-second clip can be very time consuming. You simply have to keep the faith that when broadband Internet finally arrives, the pictures will look better and the experience will be more rewarding. People without the RealPlayer facility on their machine have to be directed to the RealPlayer site, and reassured that although the first thing they see there is a banner ad for the $29 version, there is a free download too. Honest! But for many users, that's just too much hassle, and we lose them.
There's no doubt that digital technology and the user control and true interactivity it offers are here to stay and will grow in power. But right now, working here feels like TV probably did 50 years ago. What keeps me going is the power of combining mass and personal communications. When your mates are talking about "Blue Planet" in the pub, we want to put you in the position to casually mention your interest in firefly squid bioluminescence or the navigational skills of Ridley turtles. We aim to give you privileged contact with the stuff of prime time TV; you may even have had an online chat with the series producer. What's important is that now you own that knowledge. The passive fascination of the TV show is a springboard into an active enthusiasm. On the Challenge Web site, you can find out where to see marine creatures or how their navigational skills are mirrored in the birds that fly from Africa to your garden. You can contact the listed museums or research institutes for more information. You can take the experience way beyond the initial 50 minutes on the sofa.
For those who want to communicate their enthusiasm for science or nature, being the media for that empowerment is seriously rewarding. Check it out for yourself at www.bbc.co.uk/nature!