If you don’t know, the SDN stands for the Scottish Digital Network. When you hear the people, who are supposed to know, explain the concept it is still hard to understand. I am Scottish, I understand Digital and I get Network. But, it transpires that what we’re actually getting with an SDN is a SHINY NEW BROADCAST TELEVISION CHANNEL with some subsidiary web based stuff.
At the conference I was at yesterday, with the very sexed up Greg Dyke, there was a games company MD there to “represent” alternate digital realities. And Andrew Dixon, the new head of the new Creative Scotland was also there to make sure the 200 delegates understood that this was all about Scottish Culture. Even though it is really all about broadcast TV.
Blair Jenkins (ex head of BBC TV news) is very proud of the fact that two years ago the Scottish Parliament unanimously supported his proposal to set up a new public service Scottish TV channel and that Cultue Minister Fiona Hyslop has now sent him off to work out where he’s going to get the £75 MILLION required to run it (a figure Greg Dyke thought was “a bit on the low side.”).
However the real game was given away by David Smith, MD of independent production company Matchlight who called for more “real estate” so that TV production companies had more space to make Scottish programmes and get them broadcast. More real estate – sounds like a laudable ambition. But hang about, is that really an appropriate metaphor? TV channels are not like real estate. They come with responsibilities and commitments. How do you fill a whole channel with quality product when the cream will always be siphoned off by existing channels? What TV production company is going to turn down BBC Network or Scotland or STV commissions in order to get a slot on Homecoming Scotland TV? If we are going to use the real estate metaphor, how do we avoid building a Scottish ghetto at public expense dedicated to second rate Scottish programmes which weren’t good enough to be commissioned/purchased by ANY of the existing channels?
Having thought over the content of the conference today I’m going to conclude that it is the wrong idea in the wrong media at the wrong time - if we want to do something for Scottish Culture that actually works. And, I’m going to set out an alternative which will do far more for Scottish Culture for a lot less money in a way that is congruent with 21st century digital reality. And because you're all on 38minutes which featues the shinging lights of the digital intelligentsia (that' you), I'd also appeal for you support before the momentum of the SDN juggernaught turns it into reality and soaks up all the funding that might go on more imaginative projects.
In fact, let’s start with my proposal and then compare and contrast.
As some of you will know I’m a proponent of a Scotland wide resolutely WEB 2.0 digital platform for the arts. In brief, the idea is to build a digital playground in which every Arts event happening in Scotland (from the Peking Opera to a school concert) is entitled to a performer’s space which they can back seamlessly into their own website and branding. Similarly, every ticket buying member of the public can have their own space for their lifetime. From their dashboard they can get informed, buy tickets and “everything else”. Having access to Scotland wide listings (including fresh tickets going on sale, discounts etc. relevant cross-artform info) and the capacity to buy tickets for everything from the one log-in is already an improvement on where we are now. But the good stuff is in the “everything else”. If audiences can engage not only with Arts producers but also other audience members, a whole raft of opportunities opens up. The performance ceases to be two hours in a venue as these become the focal point of an ongoing virtual and physical social engagement with the exchange of personal recommendation, drinks/food before or after, transport arrangements, twitter, blogs, reviews, resources (all the stuff you get in a programme plus video, music etc.) and integration into other social networks turns every event into a social experience.
Compare and Contrast.
Broadcasting v Web.
If the web is the future why would we want another TV channel? The only answer I can think of is found in the concept of critical mass. If you want to make Scottish TV programmes which can’t be placed on the many existing channels (and there are good reasons to do this) then what are you going to do with them? YouTube? Somewhere else on the web? But these are a poor options as compared to a discrete TV channel available on all platforms – even if, after local TV has been rolled out – they’re number 104 (or somesuch) on the electronic programme guide (which will be vastly expanded with 81 channels of Local TV) However, that’s still a lot easier for the audience – that’s us – to find as compared with remembering to look up SDN.com.
If the audience is restricted to people who want to watch TV programmes of Scottish origin, then there is a critical mass problem on the web. However if TV was just part of a much bigger offering it could hitch a ride on the critical mass an all Scotland arts digital platform would generate. Such a resolutely Web 2.0 platform would have some killer stickiness that even excellent sites like here at 38minutes cans’t achieve. This is because it would not be restricted to flows of information but would have a transactional dimension that brings people back. If I want to buy a book I log into Amazon. If I want to buy or sell something I log into ebay, If I want to see a performance in Scotland I log into a Scotland wide digital platform. And before you say, “but what about the List or the EPPP” we’ve met and they’re up for involvement in the information management and web 2.0 concepts in this kind of project.
I understand why advocates of more Scottish TV want a new channel to provide the critical mass they need, but they may be guilty of thinking inside the box. Setting up a space on the web with critical mass for Scotland is fundamentally a lot cheaper and has a much bigger reach. I may joke about Homecoming Scotland TV, but such digital TV content on a broadcast channel couldn’t be accessed by an international market. Developing the critical mass of a listings/ticketing/web 2.0 arts platform for Scotland will solve the issue of where to put additional TV content and make it globally accessible.
Why TV at all?
The more fundamental questions are: Why, as a society, do we want people to watch more TV anyway? What are the pros and cons of Television as a purveyor of Scottish culture?
The web can handle anything and it will soon be directly on your TV screen and in HD and 3 Dimensions. But I’m not that interested in TV – after I’ve watched my 4.2 hours per day. I’m interested in people being Scottish by culture not passively watching Scottish culture on a screen. TV is a means of distribution not a means of participation. The Brechtian audience/performer divide certainly operates in all levels of “performance” art but this is the key intelligence of a Web 2.0 approach which extends a live performance beyond the performance time and space to include the anticipation, meeting up, being part of a group of people with a shared experiential intent, eating and drinking both before and after a show, discussing, arguing, reviewing – agreeing and disagreeing – building social intercourse – including disagreement. As I’ve noted elsewhere you can go to the theatre in Edinburgh sit through a show with a couple of thousand people and then go home again without meeting anyone. That’s hardly a social triumph, but theatre marketing departments are so intent on persuading you to buy a ticket that they’ve got little clear idea as to how to play the host. And no wonder – after you get over a thousand people it’s hard to manage things centrally. But Web 2.0 changes that because people can do it for themselves. The Scottish Audience doesn’t attend a single performance or a single artform. A digital platform for the arts would be a place where the conversation could extend across multiple artforms and transcend a single production because that conversation is owned by the people rather than a single Arts producer.
TV as a cultural instrument.
TV is inherently centralist – at least the kind of traditional TV the SDN seem to be thinking about. YouTube has already revolutionised the TV space online, but at yesterday’s conference no-one mentioned the idea of the SDN screening user generated content (and I can guess why). So the £75 million is going to buy content from professional production companies who represent themselves - not Scotland and not the Scottish people.
To me there is a difference between watching a screen on which other people do things and being part of something. I’m going to avoid the sociological analysis because I’m not well enough read, though you’re welcome to add to this. However, the difference between a centralised TV channel and a Web 2.0 digital arts platform seems to me to be profound. A digital arts platform creates something new by enabling the existing audiences to better engage with each other and with existing arts productions - it joins existing things together and expands opportunities. The additionality is at a meta-level as opposed to being just another TV thing alongside similar TV things but with slightly greater editorial constraints. By joining existing audiences and arts companies up, the public are given abundantly more choice – including the choice to stay in and watch television produced in Scotland.
There is much more to be said, but for now I’m going to stop with this “Politics is about being brave” (Greg Dyke). If the Scottish Parliament want to do something that is radical, contemporary and has the greatest cultural opportunity it should get out of TV and get onto the web. The risks are less, the cost is less and the potential is infinitely greater.
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