FOCUS - BROADCAST PR: Net gains - Could the Big Brother multi-media phenomenon contain valuable lessons for PRs tackling convergence media? Peter Simpson reports

Where were you that Thursday lunch time when Big Brother's Nasty Nick slunk off to his bedroom, crawled beneath his rumpled duvet and wept those infamous tears of disgrace and humiliation?

Where were you that Thursday lunch time when Big Brother's Nasty Nick slunk off to his bedroom, crawled beneath his rumpled duvet and wept those infamous tears of disgrace and humiliation?

Were you glued to your PC, cursing the faceless officials at the Channel 4 ministry of information - mistakenly accusing them of deliberately 'pulling the plug' whenever the Big Brother webcam blacked out, as it did so many times during that long, long lunch?

Truth be told, so many of us - an estimated ten million (an unofficial global record according to web monitor Intel) - logged onto the live web broadcast that day, the system appeared to crash every time Nasty Nick snuffled back another salted droplet.

But it's a sure bet you'll remember where you were, perhaps transfixed at your desk-top portal, or rushing back to it from the coffee machine as someone shouted across the open-plan floor: 'Nasty Nick's about to leave the house!'

Matt Baker, head of press and publicity at C4, knew what he was doing.

Exercising caution.

'We still haven't delivered what I would call 'Big Brother: the phenomenal success'. I'm still very cautious about the whole thing. I'm not counting my chickens. It's not over yet,' he says.

He wouldn't, he adds, for one minute compare Big Brother to the Coronation, or the first moon landing.

'But yes, it's been a successful PR campaign so far,' he continues. 'Before that Thursday, the internet had not broken into the public conscientious as a broadcasting medium. The great events that had previously brought us all together had been broadcast on television.

'It's that 'talked about' quality that brings people together, and in this instance, it's been the internet that has driven the word of mouth phenomena beyond our expectations,' Baker adds.

It is the medium of the internet, combined with a core broadcast strategy that can teach the PR sector some lessons. As Stephen Watson, managing director of Burson-Marsteller's broadcast division, CTN, says, it is the convergance of these platforms that holds the future for broadcast PR.

As the process of convergence takes place the internet is becoming increasingly of consequence.

'We are on the verge of a broadband environment', where eventually the web will offer picture quality that can match that of television and video.

CTN has already used the net to stream company events such as analyst meetings.

At the moment the internet is primarily a text and graphics medium, but what Big Brother has stressed is that this is changing: the two can be used in conjunction with one another, ultimately creating one visual and audio platform. Digital technology is marrying broadcast with a greater element of interactivity. 'Traditional lines are being blurred. Convergence is the way forward.' So anyone putting together a broadcast strategy must set it alongside an internet strategy.

Real Networks have predicted that revenue from 'stream new media' will be worth pounds 21 billion by 2008.

The advent of ADSL technology draws ever closer. ADSL is a broadband technology that essentially means faster, and ultimately high quality, video streaming.

Mark Leuw, managing director of The Television Consultancy, says that it promises so much to some and not so much to others. Until it delivers good quality moving pictures then it is not really a viable option.

However, what any broadcast PR outfit must realise is that the internet is the way forward and anyone ignoring that is going to be left behind.

There is a whole new wired-up generation out there who are going to demand broadcast via the internet. Big Brother has singularly created the first massive surge in public awareness of the internet as a visual medium.

Big Brother's success has also, undoubtedly, been its proposition: ten strangers imprisoned in a house and whose every movement is under scrutiny, while viewer interactivity comes in the form of a weekly eviction vote.

The show's producer, Endermol, the C4 press office and its outside agency, Avalon PR, have arguably created the most successful combination of TV and internet entertainment to date.

The Big Brother website has been averaging three million visitors a day, rivalling BBC.co.uk - Europe's most successful on-line news service, which broke the 100 million users per month barrier in June.

And C4 welcomed a record six million viewers to its niche channel the Friday night after Nasty Nick's departure; populist TV soon erases the serious frown of high-brow scheduling chiefs hungry for unprecedented ratings.

But can TV and internet convergence be used to create and support PR campaigns for less 'sexy' topics - and over a longer period than two months?

Joanna Humbly, marketing manager at Bulletin International says she disagrees with the view that the TV programme is a 'long-running ad for the website'.

'The show as a TV programme has been the main driver of the Big Brother success. However, the way it is paralleled on the internet has certainly helped to fuel its success,' she says.

She believes the programme has signalled exciting opportunities for broadcast public relations per se: 'Not least the chance to provide content - traditionally a PR fundamental - and scope for interactivity on a much grander scale. I think you can apply the TV and the internet to other campaigns.'

Bulletin incorporates an online element into the TV mix for many of its clients, says Hambly.

'As broadband technology becomes more commonplace, it is easy to see how TV and internet campaigns will merge as these media converge.'

Quadrant Broadcast senior partner Bill Jenkins says the broadcast PR industry cannot afford to underestimate the importance of the internet, and how it will increasingly interact with conventional TV, radio and press.

'In many cases, it will replace television. Being able to converse directly with audiences and not having to use a medium such as the traditional press creates huge opportunities for communications specialists,' says Jenkins.

'It does not mean that anyone can directly handle their communications needs, no more than desktop publishing enables companies without writing and design expertise to produce good quality reports,' he adds.

Vicky Thomas, co-director at Maxworks, says caution is needed when examining the internet angle and its success post-Big Brother.

'From a PR point of view, the phenomenon of Big Brother is a fascinating case study. It's been an imaginative and remarkable campaign and has caused a buzz in the TV business,' she says.

'But I'm sure the C4 press office would admit the mass coverage has astonished them, although interactivity will soon be a regular part of our viewing experience.'

Medialink director of global sales and marketing, Ivan Purdie, says the company is already employing such strategies by addressing identified audience needs 'over the television, over the radio and over the internet'.

'This is the first time we've seen what I call a public domain programme merge within the internet and television. It's a niche-market medium joining with a mass-market medium in a very effective way.'

The Big Brother example is 'by no means the last opportunity', says Purdie.

'The beauty of the internet is you can take all the material content you have created and re-purpose it. It's a primary tool now for disseminating information.

Its major advantage is you have the opportunity of the brand or corporation being able to talk directly to the consumer without a gamekeeper.

'We currently have a campaign starting for a company where we are producing programming for the internet, promoting off-line to drive on-line,' he adds.

Associate board director at August.One, Simon Thompson, says many more PR campaigns will run simultaneously on the radio, TV and internet once interactive TV is 'working to its full effect'.

'For a PR firm to forget about using the internet could prove fatal.

They will be restricting a highly effective communication channel, as it will soon be possible to use all media in tandem for a campaign. Interactive TV will make it easier to reach the majority of your target audience.

You will be able to run your internet campaign behind your TV campaign on the same screen,' he says.

But amid all the euphoria, Craig Breheny, associate director at Brunswick, says a downside to the media convergence and the creation of the virtual press office will be ever-shortening deadlines.

'There may be an endless demand for information and this could create many problems in terms of what is significant and what is not in a given campaign. The demand creates a danger where you might be bounced into saying something that you have not had time to think about.'

Avalon was appointed in January by C4 to work across the Big Brother media convergence project.

Managing director James Herring soon found himself expanding his PR team of three to eight to work on the five figure-sum account.

'Nobody had any idea how big Big Brother was going to be,' admits Herring.

'From a broadcast PR point of view, the use of the internet in the campaign has blown away the old, clanking system of sending out review tapes, leaking story lines, photographs, et cetera.

'The Big Brother campaign has shown an integrated internet strategy is now absolutely essential, and broadcast PR agencies who think they can use the internet as just an tag-on to any campaign are fooling themselves.'



CASE STUDY: ROYAL HORTICULTURAL SOCIETY

Many companies and organisations are already using the internet as well as broadcast PR to support their communcations.

In May of this year the Royal Horticultural Society's (RHS) Chelsea Flower Show was broadcast live to the UK on Channel 4. CTN was hired by the RHS to support the event's core televisual drive with a concerted internet strategy. For the first time it enabled daily live and recorded video images of the one of the world's leading gardening events to be broadcast on the internet.

The web casts featured celebrity gardener and TV presenter, Monty Don plus one of the world's most knowledgeable plantsmen, Roy Lancaster.

The web site was designed by CTN and offered a 360 degree virtual tour of some of the show's 20 or more show gardens. Users could also vote on line for the best small garden.

The previous year's TV coverage of the event had attracted millions of viewers. This year's integrated internet coverage meant that what is an event that attracts global interest could be viewed globally.

Stephen Watson, managing director of Burson-Marsteller's broadcast division, CTN, says that a web site typically draws a user in for a matter of mere minutes. Video draws people in for longer. CTN's web coverage of the show generated an average single user time of 20 minutes.



CASE STUDY: BIG BROTHER WEB SITE

The Big Brother website has been produced by Victoria Real. It hosts a mix of editorial about the show and its participants, latest news, photos, chat forums, archive footage, house plans and popularity ratings - plus access to the six webcams which monitor activities 24 hours a day.

The custom-designed hardware and software intranet located within the Big Brother house allows real-time encoding of the TV feeds into Real format, which uses Real Network G2 systems encoded for 28, 56 and 300 Kbps modem rates.

The Real Trade Big Brother Content Management System is used to create editorial content. Seven Dell PCs are used for the encoding and four Dell workstations and three servers for the Content Management System.

The web host serves all the static web content located at the Intel On-line Services UK data centre. The video streams are delivered via a system of 'edge splitters' - servers installed at the main UK ISPs. These take in one stream at one end and serve copies of that stream at the other, thus decreasing the load of any one central point, and pushing the content 'close to the user'.

Every movement and every word of all the contestants in the house is recorded by state of the art audio and visual equipment record. 15km of cable have been used in the technical construction of the house; 2,000 radio mic batteries will be used by the end of the series; and 9,000 hours of tape will have been recorded.

Other technological highlights include:

- Five handheld Hitachi broadcast cameras following housemates from behind one-way glass and soundproof runs within the house;

- Producers in the control room operate an additional ten cameras fitted to remotely-controlled pan and tilt heads;

- A further ten fixed cameras ensure every area in the house and garden is under surveillance;

- Over 30 microphones provide comprehensive audio coverage;

- A tannoy system allows Big Brother to issue instructions to house members;

- 35 monitors in the control room are watched constantly by a 24-hour production team of directors and vision mixers.



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