Media & Entertainment

BBC’s First iPlayer-Only Film Is A Digital Manifesto For A New Media Order


Image Credits:

On Sunday the BBC released the first film commissioned for its on-demand iPlayer: a feature-length documentary about Afghanistan, called Bitter Lake, by experimental British filmmaker Adam Curtis. (If you live in the U.K. you can watch it here for the next 29 days.)

This follows a strategy update, last March, when the U.K.’s public service broadcaster signaled that more iPlayer-exclusive content would be part of its on-demand mix going forward. The BBC overhauled the tech with this in mind — improving search and responsive design, and, on the content side, identified ‘new forms of storytelling‘ as one of three creative priorities for the platform.

Curtis certainly fits the bill on the latter point, even though he has a long-standing association with the BBC, with several of his past films being broadcast on BBC channels — including The Century of The Self (2002), The Power of Nightmares (2004), and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (2011). The switch to iPlayer-only film-making is Curtis’ latest experiment on what is otherwise the establishment’s digital platform. So this is contained disruption, but an interesting development nonetheless.

Analysts characterize the iPlayer refresh as the BBC realigning itself along Netflix-esque lines — with on-demand content presenting both risk and opportunity for the Corporation as binge-viewing and content consumption on mobile devices grows. Yet at the same time the BBC is still associated with its established broadcast channels. So there’s a balancing act here. (The BBC is considering making its BBC3 channel iPlayer-only. And has more original programming incoming for iPlayer this year.)

“Over the last year, we’ve commissioned more new and different shaped content, exclusive to BBC iPlayer,” said Victoria Jaye, head of TV content for iPlayer, last week. “The intention is not to compete with our own broadcast channels and programmes, but to complement them — find the gaps, explore what’s missing, experiment

“Unlike broadcast, our starting point for innovation is the ‘on demand’ need states of our audience, rather than the requirements of the TV schedule. These ‘need states’ are essentially mood based and interest led – ‘cheer me up’, ‘help me escape’, ‘give me something thought provoking’.”

On Bitter Lake specifically, Jaye said the aim was to make space for a more emotional type of storytelling. “Adam’s approach to the iPlayer creative opportunity was to build a very different and more emotional way of depicting what really happened in Afghanistan and its legacy today. He has taken the unedited rushes of almost everything that the BBC has ever shot in Afghanistan and used them in new and radical ways to push the boundaries of the documentary form and unveil the extraordinary stories that lie behind events in a powerful and experiential way,” she said.

Dream-like mood

If you haven’t watched any of Curtis’ films before, Bitter Lake will feel different to more conventional documentary film formats. It has a patchwork, YouTube quality, with deliberately unpolished reels of footage allowed to meander over a landscape that’s more often glimpsed as staccato bursts of violence in mainstream news bulletins.

Curtis lingers on the natural landscape, and on human moments outside formally choreographed events — when kids goof around, when adults dance or bodies bleed unattended, showing the unchecked aftermath of violence without form or structure, or reflecting on the systematic horror of a riot when the camera does not cut away. The effect is curious and startling, and above all disorientingly unfamiliar.

Bitter Lake BBC iPlayer

Curtis told the London Evening Standard that his aim with allowing so much ‘marginalia’ footage to play out was to create an “immersive, dream-like mood”. “It was everything that had happened there over the past 13 years,” he says of his source material for Bitter Lake. “Some of what the camera shot was incredibly beautiful but generally only 10-second snippets of it had ever been used.”

Vast tracts of the film simply deliver visuals, sometimes set to music — lacking voiceover to anchor your viewing, or text captioning which Curtis also sporadically uses to move the narrative along. The result is a piece of filmmaking that feels reflective and multi-faceted, although he is also simultaneously imposing his own narrative on top of this — by arguing that the West’s geopolitical dealings with radical Islam have been hypocritical and disastrous for everyone involved except for those with extremist views.

This logic links the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria to the crude, regional brush strokes of Western politicians — failing to grasp the nuanced, complex realities of cultural difference even when they think they are trying to help, and being undone by their own historical self-interest (the name ‘Bitter Lake’ refers to the location of a face-to-face meeting between U.S. President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia to broker American access to Saudi oil).

A new story

At the end of Bitter Lake, Curtis asserts that what is needed is a “new story. And one that we can believe in”. In one sense here he’s referring to the need for a new geopolitical narrative that avoids the Manichean simplicity of good vs evil (or The West vs The Rest) — a narrative that attempts to engage with complex geopolitical realities in a meaningful way, rather than simplifying to the point of distortion. A simplification that he shows as implicated in the disastrous decisions and policymaking that have played out in Afghanistan for decades.

But what’s he’s also calling for is a new, more pluralist format for storytelling — one that supports the transmitting of multiple perspectives. And is not allergic to complexity simply because the narrative has to fit an edited time slot. The platform he believes will enable this new storytelling to emerge is evidently the web.

Curtis’ thesis is that linear broadcast news as a format has itself moulded and shaped geopolitical naivety by curtailing what the public perceives, and by leaving so many perspectives unseen — layers that we see glimpsed here in Bitter Lake, in the unwatched footage from decades of Western military and political involvement in Afghanistan, now being lifted online where we can see it. (So this is also a bite-the-hand-that-feeds critique of the BBC’s traditional, establishment news values and legacy structure as a media organization.)

The documentary attempts to redress the distortion by giving space to these lesser seen layers. The film itself runs to 136 minutes, inculcating a reflective atmosphere as the off-centre camera work is deliberately left to run on and on, illustrating just how much has been left on the cutting room floor. How many gaps there have been in our mainstream news narratives.

“The experience of Afghanistan has made us begin to realize that there is something else out there — we just don’t have the apparatus to see it,” Curtis says at the conclusion of Bitter Lake.

But the film itself implies the apparatus for resetting the media lens is already out there (as the likes of Vice Media might well argue). That linear broadcasting — and its over-simple stories — are already being unpicked online, and the decentralized perspectives that the Internet is broadcasting are both richer and more confusing, more complex and more true.

Finding effective, acceptable and intelligible ways to tell such multifaceted stories — whether you’re a creative, a reporter, or a politician — is the big challenge of an increasingly fragmented, on-demand, multi-screen age. But it’s also a huge opportunity to re-set the record, by lifting the media needle out of the well-worn grooves of stereotype.

Bitter Lake iPlayer

More TechCrunch

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

18 hours ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

19 hours ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo

Sony Music Group has sent letters to more than 700 tech companies and music streaming services to warn them not to use its music to train AI without explicit permission.…

Sony Music warns tech companies over ‘unauthorized’ use of its content to train AI

Winston Chi, Butter’s founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that “most parties, including our investors and us, are making money” from the exit.

GrubMarket buys Butter to give its food distribution tech an AI boost

The investor lawsuit is related to Bolt securing a $30 million personal loan to Ryan Breslow, which was later defaulted on.

Bolt founder Ryan Breslow wants to settle an investor lawsuit by returning $37 million worth of shares

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, launched an enterprise version of the prominent social network in 2015. It always seemed like a stretch for a company built on a consumer…

With the end of Workplace, it’s fair to wonder if Meta was ever serious about the enterprise

X, formerly Twitter, turned TweetDeck into X Pro and pushed it behind a paywall. But there is a new column-based social media tool in town, and it’s from Instagram Threads.…

Meta Threads is testing pinned columns on the web, similar to the old TweetDeck

As part of 2024’s Accessibility Awareness Day, Google is showing off some updates to Android that should be useful to folks with mobility or vision impairments. Project Gameface allows gamers…

Google expands hands-free and eyes-free interfaces on Android