Trans-disciplinary Science Communications (9):A Collaborative Journey of Learning: The OU and BBC Partnership[1]

Author|蔡明燁 (Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley)
Research Fellow
Institute of Communications Studies
University of Leeds

The collaboration between the OU and the BBC has not been flawless. However the partnership is able to withstand the test of time because of their continued willingness to find new ways of forging common grounds based on common interests despite the changes of circumstances……

Introduction: From Frozen Planet (2011) to Proposed Study

Following the award-winning nature documentaries The Blue Planet (2001) and Planet Earth (2006), the latest sequel filmed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Frozen Planet (2011), has generated a tremendous amount of interest and critical acclaim around the globe. As suggested by its title, Frozen Planet centres on life and the environment in both the Arctic and Antarctic and brings the frozen wilderness to the small screen. It is one of the most audio-visually stunning and intellectually stimulating nature programmes in recent years. In the final episode of the seven-part series, presenter David Attenborough points out how global warming is rapidly transforming the landscapes of both polar regions and some of the disastrous impact it may bring to the rest of the world if no actions are taken to prevent the current trend. When the US Discovery Channel originally announced that they would only air the first six episodes of the show but not the final instalment, it provoked an outcry from viewers and triggered heated debate on climate change. The Discovery Channel later amended their decision and added the seventh episode to the broadcasting schedule.

Frozen Planet(Photo source ﹕ http://www.bbc.co.uk)

Television documentaries of such a magnitude today are rarely achieved by one organization alone. The production partners of Frozen Planet include the BBC Natural History Unit, Discovery Channel Canada (in association with Discovery Channel), Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF) of Germany, Antena 3 of Spain and Skai TV of Greece. In addition, there is one educational partner whose role must not be ignored, the Open University (OU). As the OU and the BBC have enjoyed over forty years of making prize-winning programmes together, Frozen Planet can be seen as yet another landmark series that testifies to the success of the partnership formed between these two prestigious British institutions.

Geneticist Steve Jones once commented that “the entire structure of scientific enterprise depends on communication”.[2]Appropriate communication of scientific discovery allows the dissemination, examination and deliberation of ideas and expands human knowledge and application. Hence there seems a mutually beneficial common ground for knowledge enterprise (such as the OU) and broadcasters (such as the BBC) to collaborate because the latter requires substance of knowledge to produce quality-driven programming, while the former needs communication tools, skills and channels to reach a wider audience.

However, the OU as an institution of higher education and the BBC as a public service broadcaster have different priorities. In fact, it is important that educational and broadcasting goals remain clearly defined for viewers may lose their interest in a TV programme with dominant educational messages. On the other hand, when entertainment becomes the major concern, intellectual content may run the risk of being overly simplified or being seen as dumbing down. Therefore the focus of my investigation lies in the following questions:

  • How do the OU and the BBC work together to reach a balance between pursuing an educational agenda and promoting entertainment values?
  • What mechanisms are in place to facilitate the decision making process of their joint projects to ensure the best outcomes endorsed by both partners?
  • What are the funding and copyright arrangements between the OU, the BBC and other independent production companies involved?

The partnership between the OU and the BBC has been established within a unique British context. While the purpose of my enquiry is not to duplicate the OU/BBC model in other countries with completely different sets of socio-cultural imperatives, the experiences generated by the thriving and long-lasting collaborative relationship between the OU and the BBC may offer important lessons to other organizations and initiatives with similar aspirations. More specifically, the SHS Program supported by the Ministry of Education in Taiwan aims to promote trans-disciplinary education and dialogue between social sciences, humanities and sciences. A trans-disciplinary ambition clearly requires active participation from multiple trans-disciplinary contributors. The strategies adopted by the OU and the BBC may provide the SHS Program with invaluable insights on how to facilitate the cross-fertilization of ideas, as well as to explore a variety of media technologies and platforms to ultimately enhance educational quality and to maximize communicative effects.

An Adaptable and Evolving Relationship

The remit of the OU is to deliver university-level education and education for the general public through methods of distance learning. This means that the OU shares part of the BBC’s public service ethos which aims to inform, entertain and educate. Thus the OU becomes the only organization written in the BBC’s Royal Charter that is allowed to fund programme transmission on the BBC. When the OU was first established in 1969, the BBC became the only organization written in the OU’s Royal Charter to produce and broadcast programmes on its behalf. However the two organizations continued to conduct robust negotiations regarding transmission schedules and other practicalities periodically. For example in the early years of their collaboration, the OU programmes were mainly shown on BBC2 during the early mornings, late evenings and at weekends. The BBC had the right to change pre-arranged schedules due to unexpected events of national interest, even though the definition of national interest might not be agreed between the two partners.

OU(Photo source ﹕http://www.open.ac.uk)

The model of collaboration between the OU and the BBC is constantly changing and evolving, which turns out to be the key that enables the OU programmes on the BBC to advance with time. For instance, a special branch of the BBC was established within the OU Milton Keynes campus in the late 1970s. The purpose was to enhance the interaction between the academics and the broadcasters so that the latter became more astutely informed of the research, teaching and learning designs of the former. As a result, the format of the OU programmes on the BBC during this period appeared strongly educational.

The OU was later equipped with the capacity to produce course-related audio-visual materials directly sent to their students due to the proliferation of new technologies (e.g. video recorders, CDs, DVDs, and online resources, etc.). Meanwhile the BBC experienced serious challenges in the mid-1980s and the 1990s when the ideals of public service broadcasting were again debated in the UK. This led to dramatic reorganization within the BBC, including increasing independent production to 25 percent in the 1990s and the digital expansion in the 21st century. Moreover, the pressure of ratings has become much higher for the BBC as it needs to justify the requisition of the license fee. These internal and external factors must be taken into account and reflected in the Framework Agreement between the OU and the BBC, which constitutes the partnership between the two organizations and is renewed every five years.

The partnership is currently under the 6th Agreement, signed in 2011. Several significant practices are worth noting:

(1) The partnership has moved away from a model of co-commissioning to one of co-production. Until relatively recently, the OU paid two executive commissioners to sit within the BBC to co-commission OU-funded projects. But the BBC has now assumed all commissioning responsibilities regarding programmes to be shown on its channels. In my view, the current co-production model developed by the OU and the BBC is ingenious. It is a consultative process that entails an extensive learning journey. I will elaborate on this point later.

(2) The BBC and the OU remain the sole institution written in each other’s charter, which guarantees the strength of their partnership. However both organizations enjoy greater flexibility to work with others today. For example, the BBC has been developing new partnerships with different knowledge sectors (such as Victoria and Albert Museum). Not only does the OU have its own communications unit which is capable of producing course-related audio-visual materials, the university has also been exploring opportunities of collaborating with other broadcasters (such as Channel 4). In addition to their normalized collaborative route, the OU can also follow the BBC’s ordinary commissioning channel and propose programme ideas to the BBC. The latter type of collaboration may take longer to achieve because of the nature of the BBC commissioning process, but it is not the focus of my proposed study at this stage.

(3) There is a clear distinction between business meetings and editorial meetings so that the business side of discussions is separated from creative conversations. While the creative process may be different each time, the OU and the BBC have aimed to standardize their business arrangements as much as possible. For example, there is a standard credit for the academics involved in the progrmmes, as well as for the logo of the OU, the BBC and independent production companies to appear at the end of the programmes. There is a standard rate-card about funding. Projects are typically categorized as small, medium and large-scale productions. The rate-card specifies a percentage of the total budget required for the OU to invest in different categories of productions. There is also a standard set of rights to the OU for educational purposes. However the OU often seeks to commission extended interviews with programme contributors, further filming footage and materials, etc. in order to fully exploit the co-production endevours for the use of teaching and learning. The additional requirements and rights will involve further negotiations regarding time and budget with production teams.

Consultative Process and the Learning Journey

The Open Media Unit was established within the OU in 2002 to coordinate all the university’s media efforts in public service engagement. The range of media activities includes broadcast, podcast, iTuneU, Youtube, an expansive online portal Open Learn, and so on. This paper concentrates only on its broadcasting capacity, especially the OU television programmes on the BBC.

The OU contains seven faculties. Each faculty has an academic representative who is designated to spend two days per week working with the Open Media Unit. This is to ensure that the Open Media Unit is keenly aware of each faculty’s research and teaching agenda and is able to devise a list of university priorities accordingly.

The BBC (represented by the Controller of Knowledge) and the OU (represented by the Open Broadcasting Unit) hold quarterly meetings, during which the partners try to map out common interests between the OU’s current priorities and the BBC’s commissioning strategies. When promising matches are identified, the BBC will show treatments of three or four pages of the potential programmes to the OU for consultation. Academics with suitable subject backgrounds from the OU will be asked to comment on the treatments and perhaps request further information. When an OU faculty agrees to support a particular programme proposal, they will send a faculty supporting statement to the BBC via the Open Media Unit. The BBC will then draft an initial contract with a standard set of rights to the OU as mentioned in the previous section. Moreover, in the co-production agreement between the OU and the production team, the OU will identify and nominate academic experts to participate in the project as consultant, who will attend editorial meetings and whose expertise will be consulted by the progrmame director and the executive producer at the BBC. There will also be a project manager from the OU to join the production team to ensure the smooth operation of the entire process from the business and procedural perspectives.

The OU consultant will be asked to make detailed comments on initial programme proposals from the BBC, the development of scripts, rough cuts and fine cuts. The degree and manner of academic involvement in a programme may vary depending on the nature of the joint project. For example, OU scientists who were involved in the making of Frozen Planet went to the Arctic with the crew. On other programmes such as Bang Goes the Theory (2009–present), a weekly science magazine which is currently into its 6th series, the communication between the production team and the OU adviser can be easily conducted via email. Nevertheless, it is important to note that while the BBC may try its best to accommodate suggestions from the OU experts in all their co-productions, the final editorial control of a programme always remains with the BBC which must maintain its editorial independence as a public service broadcaster.

Furthermore, the process of collaboration between the OU and the BBC does not end with the completion of a television programme. From the OU’s point of view, the motivation to collaborate with the BBC is two-fold: (1) to fulfill the OU’s mission of public service engagement by offering opportunities of informal learning to the general public; and (2) to inspire where possible informal learners to eventually become formal learners in a university context. From the BBC’s perspective, not only is the provision of funds and academic expertise from the OU useful, but also the OU’s capacity to help BBC viewers complete their learning journey online after the screening of a show is particularly welcome as it enhances one of the major public service remits of the BBC – to educate.

In order to satisfy both partners’ desire to enrich the viewers’ learning experiences and to convert informal learners to formal learners, a call-to-action will be agreed upon and designed in the programme at the start of the co-production. The call-to-action may be programme-related print items, posters, an online game or other web-based content, which acts as a cue to direct BBC viewers and web users to OU resources. The BBC and the OU will then cross-reference their data and decipher how many people watch a particular programme, display an active interest by ringing the OU to request a specific item or to browse the OU websites, etc. The statistics will be analyzed and reported at the OU and the BBC annual review meetings to demonstrate whether or not the partnership has been successful in what way. For example, on top of the documentary Frozen Planet, the OU designed a free online introductory course and a university credited science course, “The frozen planet”. Both courses prove to be popular. Another long-standing co-production documentary series, Coast (2005–present), was originally designed mainly to promote the social sciences. Therefore, although this series has been successful in attracting viewers and in covering a variety of subjects relating to the natural and social histories of the British coastline and that of Britain’s near neighbours, a post-production review process is in place to ensure that the content of Coast remains relevant to the social sciences and to monitor the enrolment in the OU’s social science courses.

Conclusion

The collaboration between the OU and the BBC has not been flawless. However the partnership is able to withstand the test of time because of their continued willingness to find new ways of forging common grounds based on common interests despite the changes of circumstances. Interestingly the wisdom may lie in the differences instead of the similarities of the OU and the BBC and the fact that they are able to recognize and respect each other’s distinctive expertise and priorities. Hence the broadcasters assume the ultimate editorial control of the co-production while receiving knowledge input from the educators. Meanwhile the educators take charge of developing research-led, timely and quality learning content closely linked to the co-production to entice both viewers and learners alike. This can only be achieved by rigorous mutual consultation throughout the course of the cooperation from the initial discussion of identifying suitable collaborative projects, to the production of TV programmes and finally the joint review process.

The first phase of my study helps offer an overview of the OU and the BBC Partnership and sketches what a consultative relationship may entail and achieve. Further studies are necessary to answer my proposed research questions in greater detail and accuracy, as well as to discover the possibilities of adapting the collaborative model between the OU and the BBC in different social and cultural contexts.

Although my study so far can only provide limited knowledge on how educators may successfully work with broadcasters, it shows a tentative blueprint that the SHS Program may be able to take reference. When a trans-disciplinary initiative such as the SHS Program is able to find innovative ways to work with willing partners on a variety of common interests, a similar level of success to the OU and the BBC may be realized.

Reference:

喻溟,〈BBC紀錄片特色〉,《中國廣播影視》總471期,頁43–46。

喻溟,〈BBC紀錄片「大片化」策略〉,《中國廣播影視》總471期,頁47–49。

喻溟,〈BBC紀錄片的運作模式〉,《中國廣播影視》總471期,頁50–53。

Bang Goes the Theory (2009–present, UK), co-produced by the BBC and the Open University, presented by Liz Bonnin, Jem Stansfield, Dallas Campbell and Yan Wong. Further information available on http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00lwxj1 (BBC) and on http://www.open.edu/openlearn/whats-on/ou-on-the-bbc-bang-goes-the-theory (Open Learn).

BBC Radio 4, “The Life Scientific: Interview with Steve Jones”, 7 August 2012. Available for download on http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/tls (accessed 27 August 2012).

Asa Briggs (1985), The BBC: A Short Story of the First Fifty Years. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Coast (2005–present, UK), co-produced by the BBC and the Open University, directed by Jonathan Barker, Oliver Clark, Paul Barnett and Nigel Walk. Further information available on http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006mvlc (BBC) and http://www.open.edu/openlearn/profiles/the-coast-web-team?page=4 (Open Learn).

Frozen Planet (2011, dir. Rachit Dalal, UK), co-produced by BBC, Discovery and the Open University, narrated by David Attenborough (the BBC version) and Alec Baldwin (the Discovery version). Further information available on http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00mfl7n (BBC) and http://www.open.edu/openlearn/whats-on/ou-on-the-bbc-frozen-planet (Open Learn).

The Open University (2011), The OU – where we are: Annual Report 2010/11. Milton Keynes: the Open University.

The Open University (2012), “Our partnership – the learning journey”, available online: http://www8.open.ac.uk/choose/ou/bbc?OFFPR=bbc&MEDIA=inc_bbc (accessed 29 August 2012).


[1] I would like to acknowledge the support of the HEIF V funding from the Faculty of Arts, University of Leeds for allowing me to conduct a series of interviews in 2012 to begin obtaining an understanding about the unique partnership between the Open University and the BBC. I would also like to thank all my interviewees for sharing with me their knowledge and experiences.

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