Permanent collections - the next stage in opening up the best of the BBC

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Something happened today that should interest anyone who thinks the BBC's archives should be more easily accessible.

Alongside the BBC Trust's announcements about the Service Licence reviews of Radio 3 and Radio 4 came a new approval: an amendment to those two networks' Service Licences - and that of BBC Four - that allows all three the ability to offer programming on-demand for an unlimited period after broadcast. There'll also be an amendment to BBC Online's licence to reflect the new permissions.

What it means is that BBC for the first time has a clear, defined remit to start building a 'permanent collection' of some of its best programmes for free online access by anyone in the UK now and in the future.

That word 'defined' is important: this isn't about all programmes, on all channels. Many of the BBC's most commercially popular titles and archive classics are of course available on DVD, or via pay-TV channels or paid downloads, and long may they continue to be so.

But today's announcement confirms that in the online age the task of making more of the wealth of its fantastic archives easily accessible to audiences is an inseparable part of the BBC's mission as a public service broadcaster. That's why the new vision for BBC Online which we announced last week put archive discovery at the heart of its design.

It's also why we've chosen these three much-loved networks and channels to shape the offer. All three are well-known to their audiences for their intelligent use of material from the archives, whether it's Radio 4's Archive Hour linking past and present with topical acuity (can't wait to hear their Rupert Murdoch birthday celebration scheduled for 8th March), or BBC Four, with its smart scheduling of archive rarities alongside its highest-profile new shows. Who'd have imagined that a 1963 episode of This is Your Life with Hattie Jacques would grab 1.2 million viewers when it was shown last month?

So how would it all work? Luckily you don't have to look far or wait long to get a sense of the possibilities.

Tomorrow night BBC Four launch their Focus on Sculpture season, coinciding with a big new exhibition of British sculpture at the Royal Academy in London. It's a great example of how they're already experimenting with using collections of online and on-demand archive to support some of their theme seasons and big broadcast events.

Press Red Button on digital TV any time during the season and you'll be offered a curated selection of relevant archive content, starting with BBC Two's 1998 Henry Moore biography Carving a Reputation. Go to BBC Online's Archive website and you'll find a collection of newly-cleared and digitised sculpture programming that's been put together to enhance the season. And if you go along in person to the Royal Academy itself any Friday evening for the next two months you can see BBC archive highlights on the big screen - a classic case of how a more open approach to the archive stimulates new kinds of partnerships, to everyone's benefit.

At the moment these are all relatively separate experiences, especially online - you have to put in quite a lot of work to make the connections. But as we build the new-look BBC Online you'll gradually see the currently separate websites for iPlayer, TV channels, programmes and archive coming together into a single environment that's simple to explore and enjoy. And on internet-connected TVs we intend to make it as easy as possible to switch from live viewing of BBC Four to a menu of relevant on-demand archive, ready to play on your main TV screen.

For the two radio networks the basic principles are the same but the editorial experience will be more focussed on favourite long-running strands. Radio 4's In Our Time has led the way - the whole back-catalogue of the series is already available on-demand and every new episode enriches the mix. Expect to see more on BBC Radio's archive plans from Tim Davie and his team in due course.

These channel and network brands will act as the gateway to the permanent collection and will bring all their editorial flair to the task of selecting what goes into it. But that's just the beginning of the story.

Once published every one of these programmes will become part of a standing resource at the heart of BBC Online, linkable to by others inside and outside the BBC, re-usable by future producers and editors for new propositions as yet undreamt of, and discoverable through open search by anyone pursuing an interest in the topic of the programme. And as media becomes ever more social, individuals will find their own personal treasures in the collection, and popularise them among their friends and networks.

The current Archive website will remain live while content is migrated into the new TV & iPlayer and Radio & Music products on BBC Online. The wealth and range of what's already been built up over the last few years - cleared and selected within the limited permissions and rights frameworks we've had to date - is a tribute to the pioneering work of Julie Rowbotham and her team. They've laid the groundwork for the exciting possibilities that lie ahead.

In Putting Quality First last year we set out a vision of "opening the BBC's current and future programme library", with a permanent archive of BBC programming available online "as part of a large and growing set of public archives made available by UK institutions." As of today we have the green light to start making that vision a reality.

Roly Keating is the Director of Archive Content

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