This week is the 1,000th episode of BBC Click. To mark the anniversary, the team has created a special show that gives its audience complete control of what they watch.
Welcome to what might be the future of television.
By choosing the route of their choice through the programme, viewers can see just what they’re interested in. And as the show learns about what they like and don’t like – it will change to suit their preferences.
It took a year to make and was a huge challenge. Not even Click is sure how many different ways there are to watch the show – it could well be in the trillions.
“I’ve never worked on something so complicated,” said presenter Spencer Kelly of the experience.
“Normally I just have to make one story make sense, now it has to make sense in a gazillion combinations.”
Click has a history of foolishly ambitious projects. A few years ago it filmed and edited an entire programme on mobile phones and tablets, after that it made the BBC’s first 360-degree video TV show. But producing this latest project has been truly mind-bending.
To create the show, Click teamed up with the BBC’s research and development wing – BBC R&D. Think James Bond’s Q branch but with cheaper coffee, no guns and a fascination with broadcast specifications.
A big part of their work is figuring out what tech the BBC might need in the future and then trying to actually build it. One buzzword that’s getting R&D boffins hot under the collar is something called object based media (OBM).
The big idea is that in the future all forms of videos, audio and even articles like this will be automatically created by algorithms, just for you.
So, you might be watching Match of the Day and because the show knows you’re a huge fan of Crystal Palace FC for example, it will make sure highlights about them are right at the start and are extra long.
While that future is a long way off, Click’s 1,000th episode is the BBC’s first major experiment on that journey.
If you explore the deepest dungeons of Click 1,000, you might find yourself in Ian Livingstone’s house – an exciting place to be for fans of role playing and choose-your-own-adventure type books.
The idea of branching narrative stories has been around for decades, and Livingstone, the co-founder of Games Workshop and an award-winning author, was instrumental in defining what was a new genre in the 1980s.
Video games were next – turning branching storytelling into a subtle art.
Finally, 40 years later, Charlie Brooker brought the idea back into the public consciousness with his Netflix Black Mirror special Bandersnatch. It was a head-hurting web of tale, as haunting as it was meta.
Click 1,000 puts a new and different spin on these ideas. As a factual programme, viewers get to choose what level of explanation they hear, how much detail they want and whether they are more interested in the tech or the people behind the tech.
It covers self-driving cars in Arizona, tech entrepreneurs in Malawi and the dark power of your data.
In a world of echo chambers and mass data collection, the prospect of personalisation on an even larger scale might not be welcomed.
But in making this episode, Click wanted to make sure that viewers still left each story with a sense of balance – having had at least a taste of both sides of any debate.
Talia Franco, a producer on Click, said: “Creating stories like this is a whole different way of thinking. The concept of beginning, middle and end go out the window. We have to think about every combination to make sure it is engaging and works editorially.”
If the “OBM future” does become a reality – and even more BBC content is created and curated by algorithms – the real challenge might be making sure audiences see what they want, but not too much of what they want.
Fighting Fantasy’s legacy
By Ian Livingstone
I co-founded Games Workshop in 1975, launching Dungeons & Dragons in Europe. After playing D&D for six years, my business partner Steve Jackson and I came up with the idea of an interactive book, one in which you, the reader, are the hero and “play” through a branching narrative story making choices and using dice to determine the outcome of fighting monsters encountered on the adventure.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was first published in 1982 and Fighting Fantasy game books became an international craze – selling more than 20 million copies.
Giving the reader control was incredibly empowering and also stimulated the imagination in multiple ways. It encouraged decision-making, algorithmic thinking, computational thinking and problem-solving.
It was subsequently found that Fighting Fantasy increased literacy levels by 17% because of readers’ engagement and empowerment.
Yet because they were “gamebooks” they were somehow regarded as trivial or worse – a view held by a lot of people today about video games, the interactive entertainment format for the digital age.
Play is natural and video games resonate with Generation Z, the connected generation, who live in an age of high-tech communications, technology-driven lifestyles and prolific use of social media. Games give the player continuous assessment and allow failure in a safe environment.
Why not let children enjoy the learning experience through a medium they understand and enjoy?
The games industry is the largest entertainment industry in the world and corporations are taking note. Interactivity creates content “stickiness” and it’s no surprise that brands and companies are actively seeking gamification of their products and services.
Life is all about choice and more than just turning left or right down a dungeon corridor. But I like to think that the current interest in Bandersnatch and other interactive media started inside Firetop Mountain.