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Last year, Channel 4 Education announced it was ditching much of its TV output and devoting its £6m budget to “high risk” cross-platform projects that could more effectively engage youngsters.
With more and more teenagers spurning traditional media, we asked the broadcaster’s commissioning editor Matt Locke about how it is planning to reach them through digital services.
He tells us if production houses are ready to fulfill its objectives and how Channel 4 is rethinking its focus towards metrics and measurement. Amen to that.
Can you give us a quick outline of Channel 4 Education's commissioning strategy for educational content this year? Why the big change?
For us, it was clear that we were not getting any impact on the audience. My job as I see it this year is to try and find out how to get that audience’s attention. That’s increasingly about going to where they are, rather than expecting them to come to the channel.
So we’re exploring a wide range of strategies about working with partners like Bebo and MySpace, looking at mobile projects and working with Channel 4 Radio on podcasts. We’re looking at a broad range of activities.
The way I see it is reaching our audience is a bit like a roulette table. They were placing all £6m on one bet and it just wasn’t coming off. This year, my job has been to spread the bets and see which ones work.
What types of projects have you been commissioning so far?
Broadly, we are commissioning across four categories. Firstly, we’re commissioning a couple of cross-platform initiatives which are time-limited and content-based, and will work mainly on other people’s platforms, not Channel4.com.
One project we are doing is called The Insiders with Twenty Twenty Television and the digital agency Holler. It’s a project about the world of work. But rather than doing a career site, we’ve hired a policeman, a doctor, a teacher, a fashion PR, a lead guitarist in an indie band and an actress and asked them to write about their lives for three months. Holler and 20/20 are creating a lot of micro-content around it.
That will launch in June or July this year and run for about three months. It’s an experiment for us about how to make content that people will want to view via YouTube or social media platforms like Bebo or MySpace. Rather than building a career site, we wanted to build a very fun project.
The second category is where we think there is a bigger need for a new tool or service, rather than a content-based project.
We are investing in a couple of new services. We have invested in SchoolofEverything.com, which is trying to create a market for informal education – people wanting to teach other people things that they know. We thought that it could be interesting because it could underpin a lot of projects we are doing this year, where we are encouraging people to use the web to share learning. We are working with them on a number of projects this year, but chose to structure that as an investment.
We are trying a couple of experiments in education about investing in start-ups where we think there is a long term need to support a community or a platform. It’s much better to do that through an investment. What I didn’t want to do was start a new community around a project that didn’t have an end date, and find I had to re-commission it each year because the community was still there. For projects with a longer term reach, I’d much rather structure them as an investment.
The third category is games. We are doing lots of experiments with different gaming platforms and genres. We are also doing some experiments with widgets that teens could use in their social network profiles. We’re not sure how they are going to work yet, they are just coming out of development right now.
What are you looking for from content producers now?
We’re doing a lot of projects which are collaborations between TV companies and digital agencies. That’s really interesting because you get the TV indies’ storytelling abilities and the digital agencies’ expertise about the digital world – how to seed audiences and grow and engage them.
That’s the sweet spot for me and what we are not seeing is a lot of digital agencies who have their own story and development team. Most seem to work as guns for hire and don’t develop their own IP.
We are starting to see that change – Mint has started its own TV arm called Menthol, for example. That is what I am looking for – the combination of the storytelling and delivery expertise.
Is there any area you think they could improve when submitting proposals?
Probably the biggest single mistake people make in pitches is they don’t tell the story about how they can build attention and interest in the project. Everyone tells me about how it will work when there are 500,000 people, but not many people talk about how they will get from 0 to 500,000.
At Channel4Education, we are not working off big brands like Hollyoaks or Big Brother and we’re not working off Channel4.com. So we really need to go out and build our audiences from scratch. What I’m not getting is pitches about how they will market projects and bring an audience to them.
What are you doing to update how you measure usage of your content? How challenging will that be?
We’re working with iCrossing in Brighton, and they are doing a pilot project to come up with a whole new range of engagement metrics about how people are using the projects we are coming up with this year.
Channel4 Education is moving from a world of BARB ratings, which are not very representative, to a whole basket of measures – sentiment analysis, conversations on blogs, friends on Bebo, delicious tags and so on.
With iCrossing, we are trying to get as broad a picture as we can about how people are using our content and how they are impacting around the web. When projects are being run across up to a dozen different platforms, it’s quite a challenge for us to capture those metrics. We’ve hired iCrossing because they are one of the first people out there doing these social media metrics.
Can you explain how Channel 4 as a whole could monetise cross-platform projects?
Across the channel there are negotiations underway with third parties about how we share content on their sites and revenue share. Those conversations are going on around the channel.
One of the reasons I was attracted to Channel 4 Education was the really open remit to innovate and find our audience. It is nice not having to worry about making money on these projects but I know the channel is looking at that very seriously.
We have a brilliant digital sales team that do very well for us online. As a channel, we need to think about how we extend those strategies onto other platforms.
What are your thoughts on the efforts we’ve seen from different broadcasters to transfer existing online projects to TV?
In a way, you need to think about cross-platform from scratch. I don’t think there is going to be a lot of mileage in upscaling content to TV, although there are a lot of people looking online to identify talent.
We are seeing a few attempts to port one to the other, but you can’t assume that if you are getting a few hundred thousand users on an online project that they will all follow you to a scheduled TV programme. Holler’s work on Skins was very good at building an online audience and getting them to watch the TV programme, but that was always the aim of that project.
Matt will be speaking further on Channel 4 Education's plans at the Thinking Digital conference in May.