The BBC's plans for gen AI and Doctor Who - smaller on the inside than they are on the outside

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan March 11, 2024
Summary:
Exterminating a social media storm in a tea-cup...

 

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The BBC is planning to test the potential of generative AI on one of its biggest global brands, Doctor Who. Or so social media would have it over the weekend - and not in a favorable manner! In reality, it’s a story that is smaller on the inside than it appears on the outside. 

Travel back in time a few months to October 2023, when the BBC published three principles that it said would shape its approach to generative AI use. These stated that the BBC would: 

  • always act in the best interests of the public.
  • always prioritise talent and creativity. 
  • always be open and transparent with audiences when we use AI to support content-making. 

At the time it also committed to running 12 test pilots to explore the use of gen AI, built around three main themes: 

  1. Maximising value of existing content.
  2. New audience experiences.
  3. Make how the BBC does things quicker and easier.

The vast majority of these pilots were to be internal-facing and would not be used to create content for audiences until the BBC had an opportunity to learn. But the Corporation appears ready to go public with one major initiative, involving Doctor Who. 

The plan is to use human-written marketing copy for a Doctor Who push notification, email subject line and in the promotional rail on BBC Search, then use gen AI to suggest copy variations which are then reviewed and approved by the marketing team before being shown to the audience. Their success will be measured by click- rates, open-rates, and post-impression conversion-rates across each channel.

According to David Housden, Head of Media Inventory at the BBC: 

Experimentation is at the heart of how we approach marketing at the BBC. Testing and learning on how we let audiences know what BBC content is most relevant to them and we know they might love underpins our digital marketing strategy.

However, experimentation in marketing typically requires more time spent on the creative work to make extra assets. Generative AI offers a great opportunity to speed up making the extra assets to get more experiments live for more content that we are trying to promote.

We’re going to take it one step a time, starting simple and learning as we go. We have chosen to start with Doctor Who, as it is a joint content priority for both BBC Public Service UK and BBC Studios marketing teams. There’s a rich variety of content in the Whoniverse collection on iPlayer to test and learn with, and Doctor Who thematically lends itself to AI which is a bonus.

That sounds like a big deal. What's strange then is that the original post subsequently vanished from the BBC Media Center and has to yet to re-materialize.

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My take

Doctor Who’s global profile has never been higher thanks to the international distribution of the series by Disney+, so there’s a lot riding on the success of the coming seasons. 

It’s possible that the original statement wasn’t precise enough in its wording. Certainly it caused a lot of fuss on social media with people voicing alarm that a show built on creativity should be turning to AI.

That fuss came in the wake of comments made by James Hawes, vice-chairman of Directors UK, to the effect that soaps could be produced by AI within the next three to five years. 

In reality the BBC appears to be moving on with gen AI with a lot of caution. Last month, Rhodri Talfan Davies, the BBC’s Director of Nations responsible for bringing teams together across the BBC to shape its response to the technology, said: 

Our principles commit to harnessing the new technology to support our public mission, to prioritising talent and creativity, and being open and transparent with our audiences whenever and wherever we deploy gen AI.  Since then, we have updated the BBC’s Editorial Guidance on the use of AI. This is for all content-makers to ensure any use of AI supports our editorial value. They have been designed to ensure we never undermine the trust of our audience, and to ensure that all AI usage has active human oversight. 

That’s the case with Doctor Who.This can already be seen in practice as the disclaimer to the official BBC Doctor Who online  newsletter notes: 

As part of a pilot to improve the effectiveness of our communications, some of this email may have been written with the assistance of AI (and reviewed by our team). 

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The world’s longest-running sci-fi series, now in its 61st year, is gearing up for a new era starring the 15th Doctor, played by Ncuti Gatwa. Gatwa debuted on Christmas Day on BBC1, BBC iPlayer and across Disney+ outside of the UK, but his first eight episode season kicks off in earnest in May. 

A big marketing push will the order of the day. In the latest Doctor Who Magazine, show runner Russell T. Davies commented: 

Wait! Hype to come. Season One’s not quite here, yet. We had a marketing meeting about it the other day, where the question was asked, ‘After launching the [2023 60th anniversary] Specials and then Christmas, can we really manage another big launch, so soon?’ But then the BBC One team unfurled their magnificent plans, and the answer was, oh yes!

But that marketing campaign isn’t what this generative AI pilot relates to. Whatever it does involve will certainly be more creative than gen AI tech can manage at present.

Will that change in the future? Gartner reports that 87% of marketers are worried about tech replacing them. The BBC, along with every other organization, will be interested in experimenting with the potential productivity gains to be had from gen AI, but without the Tardis to hand, it’s hard to tell if the rise of the Cyber-Marketers is imminent or not.

But as of today, it seems safe to say that the main threat from AIs in Doctor Who with be more of the Elon Musk ‘robots are coming to kill us’ variety and safely on screen. Now, roll on May! 

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