Online Journalism

Meeting Channel 4’s digital commissioners

Today Channel 4’s digital commissioners were in Birmingham to explain their plans for 2010 and give the great and the good of the city’s creative community a run down of the dos and don’ts of pitching to the projects they’re running.

Jason Hall, head of innovation at Screen West Midlands had the job of introducing Louise Brown, head of cross platform commissioning, Matt Locke, commissioning editor, education and Tom Loosemore, head of 4ip.

Louise Brown started by making it clear that, in her role, she was looking to ‘increase the impact of Channel 4 online’. She explained that it wasn’t just breadth of impact that the channel was interested in, but ‘more interactive content’, and they would be looking to increase the depth of impact, too.
Louise used the examples of both Embarrassing Bodies and Hollyoaks to illustrate how interactivity is an increasingly important part of Channel 4’s mission and made some fascinating points about how interaction could be particularly effective with a youth audience. In particular, she said that interactivity on programmes aimed at older audiences were less likely to do well (down towards one per cent), while a series like Skins, aimed at a much younger audience, had something like 40 percent of its audience figures going online. She said that some of the online visitors may not have watched the programme on TV.

Next Matt Locke talked about commissioning ‘for attention’, keeping an audience and then, as he put it, giving that attention value. Because the channel is aware that young people spend 80 per cent of their time on sites that ‘manage the web for them’ it has looked to set up partnerships with social networks such as Bebo. He said young people are likely to come across the channel’s content in the various sites they visit. He also pointed out that visitors are more likely to return if they can leave an impression on a site, be that simple engagement through polls or feedback. He used the example of Battlefront, which featured ’20 campaigners to save the world’, and followed the lives of young activists featured. The website that accompanied the series, which operated for some time after the programmes had aired, became ‘a back office’ for their efforts, with several of the young people garnering considerable attention for their causes. Channel 4 has also experimented with gaming projects, notably Smokescreen, a sort of mock social network that attempts to teach young people about some of the effects using such sites can have in real life. In one challenge gamers are asked to help discover what one social network member is doing that evening. This gives game players an understanding of how, by using a social network, one can leave a trail of personally sensitive information

Finally, we heard from Tom Loosemore, unique among the digital commissioners in that he doesn’t have anything to do with TV! For those who didn’t know, Tom explained that 4ip is a pilot for Channel 4, and is about a year into its three year project of investment. This aims to deliver the channel’s founding values online: doing it first, inspiring change in peoples’ lives and making trouble in the public interest. Now on the lookout for ‘bigger, bolder’ projects and stimulating products, Tom said he was interested in helping hyperlocal journalism and mentioned Help Me Investigate, the Birmingham based website that has benefited from 4ip funding.
Much of Tom’s presentation was taken up with a guide to pitching successfully to 4ip. He made it absolutely clear that there are certain fundamentals that pitchers would have to meet. Firstly, any idea would need to have a clear understanding of how the project would become sustainable, either by commercial means or some other. He mentioned the example of Wikipedia as a non-commercial, but sustainable site. He also said that, so far, 4ip had never backed a project looking to find its revenue solely through advertising and pointed out that this is extremely difficult to do. It was also essential that the project is made possible by the new technologies 4ip is concerned with – that its centre of gravity is ‘participation or collaboration’. A failure to grasp these fundamentals had led to a fairly low success rate so far: out of some 1,700 approaches, only 40 or so had received funding.
Tom mentioned some themes that he’d be interested in exploring this year, including ‘holding power to account’, ‘MOT your life’ – encompassing health and well being – comedy (what Tom called ‘British fun’), art (in particular, collaboration and participation) and, finally, discoverability. By this he meant finding ways to make visible to individuals content that they might otherwise not come into contact with. One of Tom’s bugbears is ‘aggregation’ and portals. He said they hadn’t and wouldn’t be backing projects with these ideas at their centre.
He did present examples of a number of projects that have received backing, including Audioboo and Mapumental. He is also keen to extend 4ip’s interests in iPhone apps, and mentioned You Booze You Lose, a fun, but educational (he said) game that is in the process of being added to the Appstore. He also expressed serious interest in Android apps.

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