Welsh universities enter the entertainment world

Angela Graham reports on some new approaches that are connecting broadcasting with academia






Media-student

Swansea University will host this year’s Cyfrwng Media Wales conference this coming Thursday and Friday (for the conference programme see here) There will be a session on Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and opportunities for collaboration between higher education institutions, the arts and the [Creative] industry. One of the speakers is Euryn Ogwen Williams of media production company, Boomerang+. A two-year Knowledge Transfer Partnership project between Aberystwyth University and Boomerang+ began in April 2010. The progress of projects such as this are of great interest in the rapidly burgeoning world of Knowledge Transfer, Knowledge Exchange and the range of schemes to foster closer relationships between academia and the business world.

Dr Merris Griffiths, an expert in children’s television audiences, has overseen the Boomerang+ Knowledge Transfer Partnership from the academic side and  written an account ‘so far’. This is due to be published in the journal  Cyfrwng 9, co-authored with the project research associate, Helen Davies. It gives an idea of how academic research skills can, in this case, help a television company refine its approach to targets.

In 2010 Boomerang+ was commissioned by S4C to produce programmes for the 7-to 13-year-old (‘tween’) audience: Stwnsh. The company engaged in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership in order to better understand the media preferences and practices of this audience and to assess how it was receiving the offering. Such knowledge would play usefully into their longer-term strategies and future creative decisions. An emphasis was put on multiplatform issues and the relationship between television and the internet. The market for children’s media is far from static and children these days are aficionados of the digital world. So the company was keen to expand on its capacity to undertake audience research.

A Knowledge Transfer Partnership project aims to allow academic knowledge to impact on business. In this project, the academic researcher dialogued with creative teams at Boomerang+, making the research findings relevant to production processes and practices. The researcher was able to confirm that the company’s newly launched programme, Stwnsh ar y Ffordd, was favourably received by the target audience. The first series had envisaged the content appealing mostly to younger audiences but given that the research showed that the appeal was broader, with enthusiastic responses from 11 to 13-year-old children, the company decided to target the second series at both primary and secondary school-age viewers. Dr Griffiths comments that in this type of project the research team were

“… adapting traditional academic research methods for an industry setting and ensuring a degree of sensitive responsiveness when bridging ‘audience’ and ‘industry’. This is a complex and potent combination of factors which, potentially, has significant commercial repercussions and illustrates the unique benefits that can result from Knowledge Transfer Partnership projects.”

These benefits have just been taken a step into new territory by the Department of History and Anthropology at Queen’s University, Belfast. At  a conference at Queen’s on history and the media in June (see here) I spoke about relationships between academic historians and producers of television history. The department at Queen’s is determined to think creatively about Knowledge Transfer and Knowledge Exchange. For the first time a documentary film has resulted from a combination of resources in this context (here.)

But Queen’s has gone even further in being inventive about Knowledge Transfer and Knowledge Exchange. The Head of the School of History and Anthropology, Professor Peter Gray, and historian Dr. Olwen Purdue, have secured a three-year project, fully funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which includes a novel element, the production of a five-minute ‘taster’ or pilot for a documentary. This can be used to demonstrate to commissioning editors the attractiveness of committing to a full documentary. Their research is on Poverty, Welfare and Public Health in Belfast, 1800-1973. Dr Purdue explains that the taster,

“… using a well-known presenter and high quality production techniques will be prepared for presentation to mainstream broadcasters such as BBC Northern Ireland, Ulster Television or the Documentary Channel. Further funding will be actively sought in order to develop this aspect of the project and make it more financially attractive to potential broadcasters. The documentary will draw on a range of records … to build up a picture both of life (and death) among the city’s poor and of the responses of philanthropic and official bodies to ongoing problems of destitution and disease and, in particular, to times of social and economic crisis in the city.”

Alongside the conventional outcomes of such a research project (lectures, website, exhibition) this commitment to the mainstream medium of television for the dissemination of knowledge is an imaginative step. It is also a far cry from regarding the media as obstacles to rigorous presentation of historical research. Indeed, it shows academics taking the initiative and has implications for the amount of editorial control they could retain over the content.

It is also a welcome embrace of an important aspect of Public Engagement and a potentially striking way of demonstrating impact of research on the public – potentially, because the mechanisms for measuring impact via the media are still controversial. To its credit, this approach does not shy away from these difficulties. The assessment of the impact of arts and humanities research on the public is an intriguing, tantalising challenge but one that goes hand in hand with explorations of how to link universities and industries happily.

At a seminar on academia/media relations which preceded the conference, television executives discussed the pros and cons of the approach. It will be interesting to see how the ‘taster’ fares in the pragmatic hands of commissioning editors. The historians also acknowledged their need to learn how long-form TV ‘works’ and how they can present their knowledge in ways suited to that form.

For an even newer initiative in academia/business relationships see here for information about the Creative Exchange Wales Network which was launched on 25 June. This will be introduced at an event in Chapter, Cardiff on 9 July at 6-7pm following a Sandbox event organised by REACT in Wales, the Knowledge Exchange Hub at Cardiff University. Places are limited so e-mail cewn@glam.ac.uk in advance.

Angela Graham teaches documentary-making at the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University.