10 key takeaways from a day with the UK’s digital-first innovators.
On November 30th at the BFI, TellyCast held its inaugural Digital Content Forum. Sponsored by BBC Studios, the event attracted a sell-out crowd of digital-first studios, broadcasters, social networks and creators. With a diverse range of participants including the BBC, ITV, Meta, Snap, LADbible Group, Jungle Creations and Future Studios, the Forum was an opportunity to learn, debate and share insights about the fast-developing world of digital-first content.
Over the next few weeks, TellyCast will publish a series of in-depth articles drilling down into the issues discussed during the day’s sessions. But for anyone unable to attend the new event, here are 10 key takeaways from a day of vibrant discussion.
Digital-first is happening now, not tomorrow: The traditional content industry still has a tendency to think of digital-first production and distribution as an untried or experimental area. But the definitive message from day’s panel is that young audiences are already flocking to social platforms for their content. The digital-first content community has built a data-driven model that enables it to create content that matches the needs of its highly-fragmented audience as well as TV has ever done. Algorithmic analysis allows digital-first companies to quickly identify subjects that young audiences are interested in and then build content around it – using feedback loops to iterate towards a polished product. In digital-first production, it doesn’t matter if episode 10 of a non-scripted series doesn’t look like episode one, as long as it tracks the audience’s interests. Hand in hand with this data-driven process, the digital-first community has created a highly efficient production model that delivers good quality content at a fraction of the price of television. This was evident at the event’s content showcase The Drop.
Digital is not (always) a stepping stone to TV… It’s clear that some creators in the digital-first community want to extend their ideas into TV. But the prevailing view is that digital is first and foremost a robust and viable ecosystem in its own right. Broadcasters like Channel 4 and the BBC are now creating digital-first content for young audiences without viewing transference to TV as a core objective or KPI. Digital creators like The Sidemen are building multi-million audiences and generating meaningful revenues without ever needing to explore TV. This isn’t to say there is no pathway between the two. Danny Robins, creator of The Battersea Poltergeist podcast, has seen his work picked up by pre-eminent horror studio Blumhouse. The team at Wall of Entertainment and YouTube star Joe Sugg have now extended their work successfully into TV and film. The key point however is that digital has brought about a shift in mindset: TV is chasing digital for talent, rather than talent being desperate to get on TV.
…but it is a launchpad for 360 brand extensions: Having said all of the above, it’s clear that the biggest digital brands/creators/platforms see digital content as an opportunity to generate revenues across multiple lines of business. At its core, this is because digital content builds passionate communities, and communities are willing to support their favourite digital creators across multiple extensions. Jungle Creations’ Melissa Chapman discussed brand extensions around channels like Twisted Food while Jordan Schwarzenberger unveiled ambitious plans for extending the Sidemen brand. This covered everything from Sidemen-themed hotels to a £6.99 a month premium club.
Content formats are exploding: The range of content creation opportunities in digital is growing all the time. TikTok has spearheaded the growth in sub 1-minute content but this is also an area of interest for Meta and Pinterest, which is looking to commission originals at this length. Away from this format, typical social content usually comes in around the 10-15-minute mark but even this isn’t a hard and fast rule any more. Sometimes, content is creeping up in length so that it is not so different to a TV episode. That said, digital-first content is not as prescriptive as TV – so episodes within the same series can run to different lengths. The main rule seems to be to let the story run as long as it needs. An important point to note is that content needs to be tailored to different platforms (in terms of length and look). BBC Studios’ Athena Witter talked about the need for seven of more deliverables for a single piece of content.
Podcasters need to think about rights in, not just rights out: The last couple of years has seen an explosion in podcasts being adapted for TV. While podcast creators don’t always set out to migrate between platforms in this way, it’s a big boost when it happens –financially and creatively. For the transition to really work, however, it’s important to think about all the underlying voices that contributed to the making of the podcast, said Danny Robins, creator of hit podcast The Battersea Poltergeist. Sometimes podcasts will be based on books. Other times they will be the result of people’s personal stories. Either way, it’s important to keep these participants invested if a project looks like it’s going to blow up beyond podcast. In part, this is to head off the possibility of rival projects being developed at the same time. The podcast may have generated the noise, but that doesn’t stop a third party signing up the life stories of people featured in the podcast. For Robins, maintaining a dialogue with contributors is not just a commercial point, but an ethical one too. Podcasts that become TV series will change the lives of those involved, and this needs to be considered.
Quality control and compliance are real in the digital space: Digital content is sometimes viewed as a Wild West, where anything goes – but there are several checks and balances that stop it being an endless stream of dangerous stunts and inappropriate content. First and foremost there’s the audience itself – which calls digital-content creators & platforms out constantly if they over-step the mark. Then there’s the demands of platforms. The BBC and C4 are public service broadcasters which have very clear guidelines about what represents acceptable forms of content. Snap is similarly careful, explained Lucy Luke, because a large segment of its audience in under 18. Salacious or sensitive content won’t get on the platform, she explained. Remember also that this sector is ad-funded, and brands don’t want to be associated with inappropriate content. Just look at the debate around Twitter to see this debate in action.
DEI goes hand in hand with digital-first creativity: TV still struggles to get DEI right. Even when it has diverse talent onscreen, it is usually missing targets behind the camera. Digital-first is different for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because the barriers to entry are low, so anyone with talent can make video. Secondly, because digital is all about audience interest and engagement – which means fascinating new and diverse voices are percolating to the surface all the time. Wall of Entertainment’s Taf Makopa said there is no doubt in his mind that the digital space has proved much more open to diverse voices than the traditional content sector. Jungle Creations’ Engaged and Future Studios’ On The Record are just a couple of example of shows that deal poignantly and impactfully with the lives of women. As an anecdotal observation, it is also instantly apparent that digital-first content creation embraces a wider range of socio-economic voices than the relatively narrow world of TV and film.
Brands need to trust platforms and creatives: While subscription-based streaming has dominated the media narrative for the last decade, digital-first or social content is fundamentally about generating revenue from brands. For the most part this involves ads and sponsorship, but branded content is also a growth area. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, as discussed, digital-first skews towards hard to reach younger audiences. Secondly, there is the point about flexible editorial formats referenced above. Thirdly, digital platforms are a cheaper option than TV – despite the fact they are often delivering mass audiences. Fourthly, there’s an opportunity to explore the connection between branded content and ecommerce channels. Finally, the regulatory framework in online is more relaxed than TV around areas like brand prominence. But, there is a one way in which digital-first branded content does resemble TV – namely the need for editorial integrity. Channel 4’s Laura Marks said it’s crucial for branded content to put the editorial content first if brands wants to build an authentic relationship with the audience. Cowshed’s Matt Ford agreed, saying that brands that are too controlling dilute the content and nobody wins.
Pitching is different in the digital-first world: LADbible Group’s Thom Gulseven summed this up neatly during the Forum’s evening pitching session The Drop. Gulseven said it was unusual for him to be pitching shows because in their world there are no commissioners. If LADbible has an idea for a show, it just makes it and sees how the audience reacts. If the audiences likes it, the team evolves and iterates until they have the perfect crystallisation of the concept. The point is that digital-first creators like LADstudios, Wall of Entertainment, Jungle and others don’t hang around waiting for gatekeepers to give them the green light. They make stuff and see what happens. Of course this isn’t the entire story. Players like the BBC and Channel 4 have brought a more traditional commissioner-style model – though with a kind of democratised approach that fits the ecosystem. At the same time, digital-first creators pitch to brands and collaborators. So there is a quasi-pitching model, but it is more fluid and flexible than in TV.
What’s up next? TikTok is undoubtedly the platform to watch – and is expected to attract massive amounts of ad revenue in the next few years. But what else is on the horizon? One recurrent theme is the idea of linking social content to shopping. Pinterest’s shift into video content is accompanied by a desire to explore the world of live shopping. Panellists were relatively mute on the subject of the metaverse, but AR is regarded as a potential area of growth. Meta’s Dan Biddle sees AR as “the most accessible form of metaverse” right now and pointed to a partnership between BBC3 hit show Glow up and Met’s AR Spark technology. Snap is also driving developments in AR-enabled mobile content. There was also an interesting narrative around educationally-driven content, with pitches from History Hit and Future Studios leaning into this at The Drop.