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Will viewers choose their own running order?

Tristram Biggs | 11:25 UK time, Monday, 22 December 2008

Historically FM&T Journalism has focused primarily on web development.  The reasons for this are many and none of them are any of my business but it is odd, because the first experiments that BBC News made with 'On Demand' started in the early 1970s and they were on television sets.  The experiment still exists today and it is called Ceefax.

The principle is relatively simple, take some text Journalists with access to agency feeds and ask them to write short news stories.  Then ask them to keep them updated, all the time.  And so On Demand Journalism was born - no printing presses or Six O'Clock bulletin to meet, just up-to-date information when the viewer wanted it.

Fast-forward thirty five years and those principles remain, albeit in a vastly improved, richer environment on the internet.  Now it's the Journalists writing the BBC News website that feed Ceefax and its digital progeny the BBC Red Button service.  And as we know from audience research, it's the Ceefax and Red Button services that are now seen as clunky and slow, particularly when compared to their online competitors.  So why do we persist with switching off analogue TV? Well the Red Button service is actually far richer than Ceefax could ever hope to be, but both services are at a disadvantage because of the underlying technology shared by analogue and digital, whether it be terrestrial, satellite or cable: Broadcast.

Television has always been about communities, the sports audience in the pubthe 'watercooler moment'  in the office or at school the next day, and now an increasing community around the iPlayer, DVRs, Twitter etc.  But if you free the device from the one-to-many model used for it's first 70 years the communities can be reached from within the TV itself, and the possibilities for programming are immense.

This is our motivation for exploring partnerships with companies involved with IPTV, and why we co-developed a prototype-application with Microsoft that was on show at IBC  earlier this year.  Microsoft Mediaroom  is set-top box software that (among other things) allows IP based assets to be overlaid on top of a broadcast signal on a TV set.  

Immediately this allowed us to replicate a number of things we offer on the web, on a home TV set.   A quick list would include:

  • On demand video content
  • Live video content (unlimited by bandwidth constraints we could offer one of as many streams as was navigationally prudent)
  • On demand text and data content
  •  Feeds of user generated content

  • Simple personalisation (local News, Sport and Weather based on postcode)

Features that would be useful to Journalism were included, regardless of whether we have the back-end systems to support them at the moment:

  • Simple linking from one video asset to another ("You've watched this - and this is related/background/might make you laugh")

  • Deeper linking from one part of one video asset to another asset ("If you need a bit of help getting your head around watching this, then watch this first and then come back here")


  • Send (a link to) the video to a friend's mobile or TV

Features not included (yet)

  • Social networking ("Enjoyed Question Time this week?  Link to it on Facebook straight from your TV.")
  • Alerts ("Your friend Jenny says - Stop watching Eastenders, look at this giant squid they've caught in Australia")

The demo continues to be shown by Microsoft at trade shows worldwide, as an advertisement for the flexibility of their platform, and I continue to show it off within the BBC as a device to get people talking about what IPTV can offer Journalism in the future.

What's been most exciting about the project has been seeing how Journalists react when they understand how they could allow their viewers to lead their own way through a story. 

The traditional News package about Karen Matthews (for instance) tells the story from the Journalist's point of view.  There are different treatments of this depending on whether you are watching The One, Newsround, Newsnight, ITN or Sky News. 

Or, you can split some of the different sections out in a linear way, on a website, like we did recently.


But if you allow the user to navigate the story themselves, from within the video, you allow them to create new versions of the story, all built from the same constituent elements and equally valid, but different in terms of tone or emphasis.

This comes down to the difference between On Demand media on the web and on TV, we're really in the dark here at the moment, as TV Platforms have some way to go to catch up with the web in terms of complexity of content offering and of audience behavior.  My hunch is that the two are very different, and eventually the preferred methods that the audience uses for "telling themselves the story" will be quite divergent.

Initial user testing on the model has been positive.  Not surprising, and we get this from all interactive TV research, is the tension between the linear TV programme the viewer was watching to start with and the interactive area they enter.  If this transition is too jarring then people feel like their 'focus' is being changed for them and they reject that. 

The TV is a device that people have a peculiar relationship with, they are normally in complete control of its functionality, but they can quickly become mesmerized under its spell.  We upset this relationship at our peril.

Tristram Biggs is Executive Product Manager for TV Platforms at BBC Future Media & Technology (Journalism)


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