PhD Abstract

Finally after five years I know what my PhD is about :) Fortunately it’s reasonably similar to what it started out as, even if it hasn’t felt like that for four, maybe five of those years. How I got there is completely different to what I expected, but I realise now that if it wasn’t then it wouldn’t be a PhD. It may not be yet, we’ll find out in my viva sometime in the Spring…

Anyway, here it is in 500 words, trust me, if you’re just interested in what it’s about then you don’t really need to read the other 79,500 (unless you are one of my supervisors or examiners of course).

Audience at the Gates: How the BBC is using social media to identify talent and involve audiences in programme production

The rise of social media has changed the way the BBC broadcasts. Previous studies have examined the way major broadcasters use social media, such as YouTube and Twitter, to supplement their existing channels (Burgess & Green, 2009) and to augment newsgathering (Wardle & Williams, 2008) but, so far, none have looked at the new ways the BBC has used social media to engage non programme making staff and audiences in its programme making activities.

To that aim, this study analyses three BBC projects; moo.gateway, an internal social platform with the aim of identifying new programme making talent within the BBC; The Virtual Revolution, a BBC2 documentary series which used social media to aid content development and; World Have Your Say, a BBC World Service radio programme which uses social media to include the audience in the development of its running order. Through qualitative interviews with a mixture of senior BBC staff, frontline programme producers, and participants in the programmes, these new uses of social media are critically examined.

The analysis of the interviews shows that the reasons given for initiating new ways of working were often emancipatory in nature, consistent with the social constructivist rhetoric of digital utopian literature such as ‘We Think’ (Leadbeater, 2008) and ‘Here Comes Everybody’ (Shirky, 2009). Interview responses were also consistent with other forms of rhetoric such as ‘digital natives’ (Prensky, 2001), the ‘rhetorics of creativity’ (Banaji, Burn, & Buckingham, 2006) and ‘open innovation’ (Chesburgh, 2003).

The study finds that the success of the initiatives depended on an intersection between the everyday lives and motivations of both the participants and the project sponsors and that external audiences were less interested in the mechanics of programme production and journalism than was assumed by BBC staff. This meant that numbers of participants were limited to those with considerable interest in the stories being developed, or with an interest in developing a career in the media. The success of participants in the moo.gateway case in obtaining programme commissions and film funding both inside and outside the BBC demonstrates the usefulness of social media in identifying new programme-making talent. Critical review of the narratives of the winning and losing finalists of a BBC 3 competition run using moo.gateway indicates that a prior knowledge of the BBC ‘rules of the game’ and participants location within the BBC habitus could be considered to be determining factors in their success at the BBC.

In conclusion, it can be seen that social media can provide effective ways for BBC programme makers to identify new talent, and to engage audiences in programme development. However, care should be taken to ensure projects are framed in terms of the audience’s motivation, rather than that of the BBC. Where participants are from outside of the BBC, mentoring and coaching could help people understand the internal mechanics of the BBC, and particularly any unwritten ‘rules of the game’.