The BBC is getting closer to its sources – really close.
The race to stream more content from and to smartphones is creating a host of challenges for Auntie, as the broadcaster is affectionately known in Britain.
One of them is getting interviewer and interviewee to sit close enough together to be viewed in portrait mode on their phone – where more and more of us are getting our news.
So they are having to snuggle up together for the benefit of our phone-viewing pleasure. It seems many of us just cannot be bothered to tilt our handsets into landscape mode.
It is the digital age equivalent of having to get up off the sofa to look for the remote.
And it means the interview becomes less like a traditional face-to-face studio exchange – and more like two spies sitting on a London Hyde Park bench talking sideways while looking straight ahead, in this case at the lens of an iPhone rather than the ducks on The Serpentine.
It is a long way from the polished and dignified delivery of the BBC television studio experience, where presenters spoke the same and giant cameras moved ponderously like Daleks on Prozac.
But then that is at least partly the point.
The aim is to be more edgy than edifying. Or, in the language of the executives developing the latest version of the BBC News mobile app known internally as Project Newstream, content that feels “native”. It is a difficult trick to pull off, agree the BBC bods working on it.
Like saying “innit” in received pronunciation, nobody has quite cracked mobile video news yet. But by going native, the world’s most famous broadcaster hopes to do so.
There are many more questions the BBC needs to grapple with as it moves towards using a wider range of platforms through which to live stream video, including issues of privacy, security and editorial control.
Newstream sounds like the sort of project plucked from a plot line of W1A – the Bafta award-winning sitcom which lampoons life at the Beeb. Power-crazed middle managers with titles such as “Head of Better” interact with a clueless intern and a brash PR woman named Siobhan Sharpe who says things like: “Let’s nail this puppy to the floor.”
Offices are replaced with hot desks and interactive spaces called Frankie Howerd and Tommy Cooper.
Jim Egan, the chief executive of BBC Global News, insists he is not sitting in the Frankie Howerd interactive space when our conference call starts. Over the course of the next 30 minutes he proves to be disappointingly jargon-free, unlike his W1A peers.
“I think the only rules are you have to be fictional or dead for a room to be named after you,” he says.
The backstory of W1A is of an institution in transition, which is of course happening not just at the BBC but in every newsroom around the world.
For broadcasters, part of that transition is about news moving from the telly to the phone.
But it is also about video news being consumed increasingly through platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and especially chat apps like WhatsApp, Viber and Snapchat.
TV news is now not only being consumed on the phone, but in the case of shows such as Outside Source, it is being produced on the phone as well.
Late last year, the interactive news show that launched in 2014 did the BBC’s first live feed broadcast direct to its Facebook page – an interview between Ros Atkins, the presenter of the show, and Frank Gardiner, the veteran BBC security correspondent. It generated a quarter of a million views in half an hour and 9,000 comments.
Videos like this are being shot on an a iPhone 6, supported on a small tripod with two lapel mics running via a splitter in the audio jack on the phone – about Â£250 (Dh1,313) worth of kit.
Both presenter and viewer can watch in real-time comments scrolling underneath the shot on the phone, as well as a video counter that shows how many people are watching. When those numbers start to slide it is a good cue for the presenter to wrap up and cut to another segment. The comments should also guide the direction of the interview.
Jim Egan sees the move to mobile as just the latest phase of change at a broadcaster that has transitioned from radio to black-and-white TV, then to colour TV, teletext and so on.
But does he agree that what makes this latest phase of the corporation’s evolution different is the speed of that change, as well as the array of social media platforms and chat apps to target and prioritise?
He does not.
“Technology has always been an important thing for the BBC as well, of course, as the programmes and content we are making. I suppose people always say things have never been changing as fast as they are right now. What makes it complicated but also reassuring is that the new technologies don’t seem to replace the old technologies. Radio and TV are not dead. We are layering on these additional technologies.”
But another key difference is the difficulty of measuring the commercial benefits of focusing on social media sites, chat apps and streaming apps. It was easier in the era of television and radio commercial breaks.
“It is very complicated from a financial point of view,” he agrees. “It makes things quite difficult with so many different outlets that come along at such dizzying speed, and all of which requires some sort of dedicated investment in them.”
In such a fast-moving social-media landscape, some of the biggest emerging traffic and brand drivers, from Snapchat to Periscope, have been around for just a few years.
So to what extent are broadcasters like the BBC anticipating the future media landscape or merely just planting flags?
“In all honesty we are having to place a number of affordable bets on a variety of different opportunities rather than betting the farm on one thing,” Mr Egan says. “Some of the chat apps in particular are perhaps more about audience and brand building than they are about monetisation.”
Within the BBC and, to some extent, within every modern newsroom there is a tension between the intersecting worlds of old and new platforms – between story getting and presenting, between counting clicks and meeting contacts, posting top 10 lists and breaking news. The measurement of editorial achievement and success through such metrics as unique page views, likes and shares on social media is at the heart of that tension.
“Having more data more quickly about how you are performing and what the audience, or the customers to put it crudely, think of what you’re offering, can only be a good thing,” he says.
“It’s a dangerous thing if that feedback data is used to replace finely balanced editorial decision-making. In general, data and feedback is very helpful, but it can be dangerous if you use that instead of following proper journalistic instincts.”
Has he encountered push back from some of the old BBC hands as the corporation develops new approaches to news gathering and presentation?
“There’s no one answer,” Mr Egan says. “If we talk about news gathering and newsrooms slightly separately, for our people out in the field, although life has got a bit more complicated, it has also got a bit more exciting and cheaper and more flexible. People don’t need to drive around with satellite trucks anymore.
“An iPhone is a broadcast-capable device and that allows people to use some live broadcasting platforms like Meerkat and Periscope direct from the scene of a story.
“In the newsroom there’s more of a dilemma, and I suppose it goes back to that balance where more established platforms such as radio and TV continue to be a very important part of what we do.
“It is not as simple as saying ‘Right, we’re turning broadcast off and everyone is an internet journalist now.’
“It is very important to recognise specific craft skills and requirements. What works well on television can’t just be chopped up and dumped on the internet and hope that people will lap it up. There are specific requirements and expectations for people on a mobile or a tablet or a desktop that are not the same as television,” Mr Egan says.
“So we are hiring people from a different range of skills and people who have been working for us for a long time are acquiring new skills.
“It would be crude and inappropriate for us to say to people who have been working at the BBC or in journalism for ages that everything you know is wrong and now you are just a multimedia journalist.”
The ability of correspondents to live-stream news from their iPhones also raises other questions of editorial control and security – both their own and the people around them – especially in conflict zones. It is these institutional, technical and content-related questions that the broadcaster is now chewing over.
Newstream is about to be released into “beta mode” to a limited internal BBC audience, says Mr Egan.
“That is the word people use when they haven’t quite finished it,” he jokes. “But I don’t want to be flippant about it as it’s a central plank of our digital strategy – it’s about bringing in video to mobile devices which feels like it is made for and native to the device and the sort of mindset and usage habits people have with their mobile phone.”
The BBC has spent a lot of time looking into such habits. Some findings are more revelatory than others.
It found that the biggest spike in viewership comes between the hours of 6am and 9am, as people wake and catch up with the big news of the day.
That in itself is perhaps not surprising. After all, scoops and startling news have long been known as “marmalade droppers”, underscoring the significance of the breakfast hours in the daily news cycle. As consumers of news, we want it quick and dirty in the morning. Later spikes come around lunchtime and at about 10pm, when it is more of a lean-back experience before we head for bed.
It is also becoming apparent that the sort of chat apps that tend to be associated with millennials are also being increasingly adopted by their mums and dads. Neither is it established that the news appetites of the young are more parochial than the older.
“The idea, whether in the UK or US or UAE, that people are very parochial and domestic at the younger end of the age spectrum doesn’t seem to be holding up,” Mr Egan says. “Younger people are always the most enthusiastic and rapid adopters but certainly Facebook is a pretty mature platform in every sense of the word. Some of these adoption patterns vary in the different regions we operate. Certainly in the Middle East and the UAE there are incredibly high rates of smartphone adoption and usage, and social media is extremely popular there, so we see very rapid take up there, particularly WhatsApp, which is very dominant right now.”