Russell Davies: The Beeb ploughs cash into R&D, so you don't have to
A view from Russell Davies

Russell Davies: The Beeb ploughs cash into R&D, so you don't have to

What would we do without the BBC? Seriously. I sometimes think the BBC is the reason agencies don't invest in more R&D.

We could do but, actually, if we just keep paying the licence fee, then the BBC will keep doing all sorts of extraordinary media stuff and we'll be able to steal their ideas and sell them to clients. It beats making our own mistakes. It's probably a national advantage for British agencies - we live inside the best media lab in the world.

For example, go to and listen to the little "radio play" there. It's described as "A BBC Research and Development experiment into new editorial formats" and, on the face of it, it's just a radio play with some web animation. But it's not. It's an experiment with what the Beeb calls "perceptive media". The play "knows", for instance, what city you're in, what social media you use, what the weather is like and what the news is. It's getting some of this information from your browser and some from the web, and it incorporates this into the play.

It's clearly a demo, but it suggests all sorts of possibilities. Imagine what you could do with technologies that are around at the moment - a Kinect that knows where you are in the room and who is there with you, a TV that knows what you're watching, a browser that knows what social media accounts you're logged in to and hence who your friends are and what you're interested in. Well, you're already thinking, aren't you? Of all those clever things you could do to insert brand stuff into people's media streams, or about how ads could be tuned to the people watching them.

That, of course, is one of the reasons the BBC is so good at media R&D - it has none of those grubby commercial imperatives and can concentrate on the storytelling and exploiting the awesome power of subtlety. The BBC R&D blog post on "perceptive media" is careful to highlight the importance of that subtlety, comparing what these new techniques might do with the skills of a storyteller around a campfire, who has the ability to change the story to make it relevant to his listeners without breaking the flow or the frame of the narrative.

That's all about understatement, tiny cues, little references - just enough acknowledgement of the specifics of the listener and their situation. And brand-led media innovators aren't always famous for such subtlety. They want to shout about their achievements, make sure no-one misses their brilliant idea - and, in doing that, they often undermine its effect. So, next time you're paying your licence fee, remember the slice of budget most companies devote to R&D and be grateful you don't have to.

And smile. Subtly.