Pitching ideas

Posted on March 23, 2010

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Assuming you read this because you’ve followed a tweet to it, you may be reading it at the same time I’m pitching ideas for videos on the BBC Proms website.

Most people in the content production business would shy away from sharing such things so early on in a project. I’m more of a ‘lay everything out on the table’ (or as much as I dare, at any rate).

Some might call that recklessness. Others might consider it self-aggrandisement. Take your pick. I don’t really care. At the very least it provides me with something to blog about.

It’s now the fourth consecutive year I’ve had a chance to contribute a small part to the BBC Proms, a festival which has been important to me for twenty years or so. It’s one of those dream come true things. All the more surprising when I stop to consider the seemingly bizarre way the opportunity came about four years ago.

A blunt rejection of an idea for a series of videos on the web by an executive in one part of the BBC led on to a hastily arranged meeting with Radio 3 Interactive a few hours later. I’d turned up to that subsequent meeting and pitched. What the representatives of Radio 3 Interactive didn’t realise at the time was that the idea had only been hit upon during lunch with a friend earlier on in the day.

That’s the kind of thing old-school TV producers hate. Ideas off the cuff. No thought to how one might realise an idea. Flying by the seat of our pants. Tut tut. That’s the work of commissioners not wannabe TV or radio presenters.

I can see now how my boundless if naive enthusiasm back then probably masked what must have seemed like a risky editorial proposition. I had no track record after all.

But I’m still of the mind that my thinking four years ago was sound, even if it was a little unorthodox.

I know. I’m bound to think that, aren’t I? Stick with me.

Here’s my beef.

The web should be to radio what radio is to TV: a testing ground for people and ideas. And seeing as production costs for the web are next to nothing in comparison to radio and TV and there’s no schedule to limit available time, so the creative opportunities and risks are so much greater. That’s something to embrace … still.

If it doesn’t work on the web, no one will know. If it does, then it hasn’t cost anything and you’ve got something to show at departmental presentations. Everyone’s a winner.

But the first high-level executive I pitched to originally didn’t agree.

I had no profile. I would register no hits. I had no discernible talent. What made me so special? Just because you want to do it doesn’t mean you should do it. There might be some mileage if you could tie it in with Doctor Who. Could I be more like David Tennant ? And could I make sure I put the sweety-wrapper in the bin on my way out? They were particular about litter on the sixth floor.

I wasn’t surprised by the reaction. And I certainly wasn’t bitter about it either. I remained undeterred. I wasn’t about to let one person’s opinion put me off – especially someone whose opinion differed so radically from my own. Aside from moments of bitterness and resentment, I can be really quite a resilient individual if a little self-absorbed. The idea was accepted eventually.

This would be the point in the story where the montage kicks in. Behind the scenes footage. The working into the small hours. The hands going through the hair. The panic setting in. The deadline approaching. The equipment failing. The laughter. The tears. And then cut to the hit rates. You see me pass the man I pitched to originally. The wink, the smile and the spring in my step masking the darker “I told you so I was right” look which simmering underneath the surface.

But to say all of that would be inappropriate. It would be an ugly thing. And it wouldn’t authentic. It would also only serve to show how completely sure of myself I am and how completely and irretrievably self-absorbed I am. It would also imply that I had completely turned things around since. That I considered myself an overnight success. That I had lived the struggling artist dream.

None of that is true. And even if it was, to say that here would show me to be one big smug twat. Pride comes before a fall.

I have no real idea of the world I’ve produced meets the kind of value test we all will need to strive to produce post-Strategic Review. To be honest, I’m rather scared that holding it under any of the five lenses we should now assess content may deny any future creative opportunities.

I wouldn’t want to know what the statistics are like either. I have a hunch that the statistics aren’t really that high. They don’t seem that way when I look at the YouTube figures for some of the previous videos.

To a certain extent that doesn’t matter to me personally, even though I know professionally it probably should.

If any of us did stuff in pursuit of statistics we wouldn’t do anything at all. Anyone who says they do it purely for stats is lying. And like I said before, noone wants a liar on the BBC payroll. And even if we’re OK with lying, chasing statistics isn’t necessarily the kind of BBC I signed up for when I put my scrawl on the dotted line.

The ideas I have and the work I get to do never goes viral. It was never intended to. The intention was to experiment. To produce something which deliberately broke rules. To do things with a little less planning so as to leave things to chance a little bit more. I wanted to see what we ended up with at the end of a shoot and see what we could do with the material. I wanted to be flexible instead of always going for the perfect take. John Cage is a bit of a hero of mine.

I’m only thinking of this because the day before my pitch to Radio 3 (and, I might add, there’s no certainty those ideas will be OK’d), I’ve found myself having exactly the same conversation with someone else about a totally separate idea in a totally different division.

The idea was simple: take an everyman approach to get answers to simple questions in a bid to provoke debate.

It was a tough pitch with some stimulating debate. In a world where the web is still trumpeted as the ultimate democratising public space, I was reminded that some things remain constant. In some areas creative opportunities are still dependent on the acceptance of peers, or industry professionals. And for some, reputations are built on what their own peers think of them. The agenda of the everyman isn’t regarded highly enough … yet. That seems contrary to the opportunities afford by the web and its preponderance of self-publishing tools. But to coin a present-day phrase: it is what it is.

That’s not a gripe, by the way. I’m not moaning. Nor am I having a poke at the person who prompted me to think that way.

Having the opportunity to engage in a robust discussion about differing views is gold dust. If I’d finished that meeting having persuaded that person to my way of thinking I probably would have thought less of them. The meeting only lasted 24 minutes after all.

The point is, the BBC is home to a broad range of thinking. That’s what it’s meant to be.

But I reckon a change in regard for the everyman as the “author” will have to change in time. It must. And that will be as tough for some as accommodating the new and ugly medium of television was when radio was riding its own particular wave in the 1950s.

But right at this moment in time, that necessary change in mindset is nowhere near as tough as my pitch to Radio 3. The brief was to make people chuckle. And I’m no comedian.

Oh. And in case anyone’s clock watching, it’s a lunchtime pitch. I’ll be back at my desk for a full afternoon of work as soon as it’s over.

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