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Planning in Broadcasting – at the BBC

Tuesday night saw the inauguration of a new kind of APG event – the first in a new series of semi-educational evenings that we’ve called ‘Theoretical Futures’. The idea is to show how Planners are finding new uses for their skills and aptitudes and new homes to practise them in. These talks are meant to be enlightening and useful: a way of helping you find out more about what Planners actually DO in different areas of business and how it differs from the traditional skill-set in both theory and practice.

The front doors of the BBC’s spectacular new building have had more than their fair share of TV coverage this week so it felt pretty momentous to be penetrating the inner parts for ‘Planning in Broadcasting’. If you were one of the 80 or so APG members who’d been lucky enough to get a ticket, you could see the BBC still at work and go on a guided tour. For those who didn’t get to the Eventbrite site fast enough to be there in the flesh – don’t worry we’ll be uploading a film of the evening.

So open to all will be the inspiring talks given by Jane Lingham, Head of Audience Planning and Brand Measurement at the BBC; Clare Phillips, Head of Audience Research and Insight at Channel 4; and Dan Cook, Director of Planning and Research at ITV. They formed a wonderfully collegiate and harmonious panel and talked eloquently and enthusiastically about the potential for Planning and Planners in their respective organisations, and the similarities and differences in the practice of Planning at each.

All three have a background in classic agency Brand Planning and all three had cut their broadcasting teeth at the BBC before going their separate ways.

Clare Phillips who is in charge of the nascent discipline at Channel 4, started with a review of why broadcasting needs Planners. Like any other sector the competition is fierce and in broadcasting you’re competing to get people to watch your content against the challenges of technology offering open access to other content, a myriad of other channels and the impact of delayed viewing on catch up TV.

Happy times for viewers indeed – but faced with the explosion of choice the need for navigation via channel is paramount and that’s where Brand Planning comes in. She talked about the growth of ‘reheating’ channels like Dave and Good Food and of the planning challenges that lie in making people opt for content they’ve already seen and bringing together disparate shows into a coherent whole.

She also spoke of the really gritty challenges of planning for greater loyalty, to programmes and to channels, when you’re faced with ad breaks, lulls in programmes and conflicting schedules.

In broadcasting the barriers and opportunities thrown up by new technology are just as acute as in the rest of the commercial communication worlds: Watching TV on your mobile; the impact on types and lengths of show; how to co-opt social media? How to incorporate 2nd screens? In her view the demand for intelligence, audience understanding and strategic direction that Planners can give can only grow. Why market detergents when you can obsess about Homeland instead…?

Next up was Jane whose theme was What Planning in Broadcasting actually is. Here there are differences between commercial and public service broadcasting. At the BBC the remit is developing creative strategies for programme and product ideas. Jane outlined the changes in the remit over the last 10 years:

…When we first introduced planning a BBC, the role was really about working with the idea developers (the creative teams who came up with content ideas themselves). Our role there was to help inspire their thinking by running workshops and trend sessions about the audience and the market. Whilst we do still do some of that, we soon realised that there was that actually a bigger job to be done working with the people who are responsible for commissioning the ideas themselves, helping them to write the initial briefs against which the development teams work, and now particularly at the BBC, a lot of our efforts are directed towards helping to set the creative agenda with the people who run the different genres and the channels upfront, by which I mean helping them to answer big strategic questions like, what should our factual content look like in the digital space, or how can we attract younger audiences to Saturday night TV?

They get to address some meaty strategic questions: “What should science sound like on R4?’ ‘How is drama on BBC1 distinct from Drama on BBC2?’

As in an agency there’s a development cycle for ideas and strategy and planners get involved at the stage of setting the creative agenda and writing briefs with channel controllers and commissioners, working with the development teams who come up with the ideas, with the production team to make sure they are delivered on brief; and of course at the evaluation stage where the impact is content is reviewed and assessed.

From Jane’s perspective the role of the Planner in the BBC is a lot more entrepreneurial than in an agency (although there are plenty who would argue that it’s hard to be an effective Brand Planner now without having a hefty entrepreneurial drive about you…). You’re charged not with responding to a problem but actually identifying problems and co-opting stakeholders to address them with you and it’s then your job to convince them of the rectitude of your recommendations. It means building very strong relationships across departments. Planners also write briefs (or ‘blueprints’) collaboratively and need to make sure everyone is aligned behind an agreed idea of what’s required.

Jane made an interesting observation that when you are not being paid directly for your thinking by a client, it’s that much more important that your opinions are backed by high quality insight and knowledge or you’re just another voice amongst many….

It is all of course quite different in the commercial world, where Planning has a more direct role working with marketing…and Dan was unequivocal. Any good idea – like Audience Planning – has to contribute to profit and in a commercial environment, Audience Planning needs to ‘demonstrably and empirically contribute to the bottom line’

So in commercial audience planning there are 4 main areas: Cultural Forecasting (understanding where the broader culture is moving and seeing why baking-off should suddenly attract millions of views), Targeted Development (understanding audience needs), Risk Management (testing out concepts – with lovely the descriptor, ‘industrial qual’) and Targeted Marketing (looking at a programme’s intention against different audience).

At heart it’s about understanding what audiences feel and think – and understanding it better than your competitors.

Dan was great on the subject of cultural forecasting and how easy it is – in the age of technology – to believe that changes in technology will drive a fundamental change in human behavior; witness the tiny 8% or so who have ever accessed video on demand through their connected TV despite all predictions to the contrary. Indeed TV viewing continues to grow, despite all the warnings and as Dan outlined, the need for story telling, gathering together, the sharing of social and cultural capital all persist – and we watch telly when we feel like it, so 9pm is the key slot because we want it to be:

‘Linear, original, scheduled programming works by giving us a small range of choices that are roughly the right options for most of us at the time we want them. The technologists failed to understand that people love watching the best television on television – and the best television is scheduled, original and brought to you by major broadcasters. So, at ITV, we are not dreaming up ideas for Internet-only programmes, ideas for tiny, fractured audiences or worrying about the end of linear, scheduled television. We’re looking for hits because hits are what most people want – that’s why they are hits’

Planners at ITV get involved in the nitty gritty of programming types, understanding that in recessionary times of make-do and mend it is not surprising that Paul O’Grady’s programme about Battersea Dogs Home gets 5 million viewers and we’re turning our collective back on Wife Swap. It’s the Planner’s task to use this kind of cultural understanding to bring people the programming the reflects the prevailing mood and builds audiences.

Test and learn is also a growing phenomenon, using the so-called ‘Industrial qual’ – a panel of 450,000 through YouGov – to get readings on pilot programmes. It’s also used for daily polling on how the viewers are responding to the schedule overall and a micro understanding of the effectiveness of individual programmes, minute-by-minute.

So old skills, I guess, but fundamental ones; and new and fascinating ways of putting them into practice, particularly given the breadth and depth of the stage that Broadcasting offers and the nature of the challenges facing the medium.

Our thanks to our 3 excellent speakers and the graciousness of their teamwork, and particularly to the BBC for hosting such a sparkling event and offering some memorable tours of the new building.

Watch out for our next Theoretical Futures event early in the New Year.

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