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Erik Huggers' keynote address from the Guardian Changing Media Summit 2010

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Erik Huggers Erik Huggers | 13:10 UK time, Thursday, 18 March 2010

The creative industries are in a period of unprecedented change. The BBC's recent strategy review was about how we deliver the BBC's enduring public service mission in a digital age. What does this mean for BBC Online? The headlines are well reported. We intend to:

  • Halve the number of top-level domains
  • Reduce spend against the service licence by 25%
  • Act as a window on the web - doubling the traffic we send to others
  • Focus content on five editorial priorities
We are putting a focussed BBC Online right at the heart of the BBC's future strategy.


FM&T: What we do


As Director of Future Media and Technology, I'm responsible for the BBC Online and BBC Red Button service licences, as well as running four large departments that support the BBC as a whole.

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The first is Future Media. This department builds products such as the BBC iPlayer, TV and mobile applications, and the interactive Red Button TV services. Fundamentally it looks at the needs of the audience, and builds digital products to deliver our content to them in innovative ways.

The second is the Broadcast and Enterprise Technology Group; responsible for keeping us on-air 24-7, and building the end to end technology infrastructure for our new premises in Broadcasting House and Salford. They also support the IT requirements of our 23,000 staff.

Third is R&D. With sixty years of engineering heritage, this division has produced innovations that have become commonplace in the home: colour television, teletext, NICAM stereo, and Freeview HD.

Finally, Information and Archives: otherwise known as the BBC Archive. In the archive lies some of the greatest moments in British broadcasting history.

All of these departments combine to make the BBC fit for the digital future.


What the audience wants


In a digital age where shelf space is unlimited, BBC Online has been allowed to sprawl - partly in the absence of the natural boundaries of spectrum. We will now put boundaries on the service, because it's time to focus on what we do best for the benefit of the audience. Putting quality first is not a strapline, it's an admission that we've spread ourselves too thinly with digital expansion. The quality hasn't been there consistently across our online output and the audience deserves better - we must do less much better, and do much better with less.


The audience is increasingly migrating online. The huge uptake of smartphones, and the next generation of Internet Connected TV devices are bringing powerful computing devices into our everyday lives. Many people now access the internet without even turning on a computer.

By 2014, we expect the internet to come of age. Penetration will be up there with TV and Radio, with the medium establishing itself as a genuine third platform. Already we reach 52% of the online audience with >28 million unique users a week and we expect both the online audience, and our percentage of reach, to grow.

This is a fragmented audience. Generally speaking, older audiences view the internet as a source of information, while younger audiences view the internet more as a source of entertainment - viewing video content, social networking, listening to music. In other words, the internet is TV and radio for young people. Do we expect these younger audiences to abandon the internet when they hit their thirties? Of course not. This is a new generation, empowered by abundant choice, who expect to be able to access whatever content or services they want, whenever they want.


Pointing to a single-service future


As I've said before, Lord Reith didn't set out to make radio programmes. An engineer at heart, the best way to deliver his vision of public service - to inform, educate, and entertain - was to build a radio network and create radio programmes to broadcast over it.

From Home Service - one service, one platform, one medium in 1922 - to the arrival of TV and a second platform which spawned more services. Digital technologies ushered in the multi-channel world we inhabit today, and with them a third medium - the internet.

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And as the internet comes to the living-room through television sets, it will become more important still - and indeed, one day, may be the only platform and delivery system that the BBC needs to fulfil its public purposes. The internet is not an optional extra then; it is the future for the BBC just as it is for the rest of the broadcasting and communications sectors.


BBC Online: a pan-BBC service


BBC Online is more of a pan-BBC service than any other, as it brings together content from every single part of the BBC.

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This is both a strength and a weakness. While more representative than any other BBC service of the breadth of the BBC's output, as the content created originates from a wide range of BBC divisions this partly explains why it resembles a collection of websites rather than a single service greater than the sum of its parts.

The digital audience has more choice, less time, and a greater expectation that they can get what they want, wherever they want - so we have to work harder to make it easier for them to discover our content. In addition to editorial and scheduling, search, navigation, social discovery and recommendation will help the audience to find what they want.
This move to an internet-connected world requires changes in the way we create content, and the way in which we deliver it. Never before has a service required such a strong partnership between editorial and technology: content and products.

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Online products must be useful, simple, up to date and timely. And editorially, we will focus on five core priorities. It is through this lens we will prioritise investment in new content, as well as decide what of our existing online content will stay, go, or be reorganised. These priorities will also influence our archive strategy.


From 400 websites to 200 - and one coherent service

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The BBC's online strategy has, for many years, been to play a supporting role to our broadcast output. Programme first, website later. This is not the best way to deliver our public purposes in a digital age. We are moving away from the disparate approach of the past, and to create a single coherent BBC Online which is greater than the sum of its parts. We will look at each component part of the service through three lenses; first, the degree to which it delivers our public purposes; second, the degree to which it fits our editorial priorities; and third, like any other BBC service, how it scores in terms of reach, quality, impact and value.


Our three screen world


BBC Online is in many respects already at the heart of the BBC, and for many licence fee payers it's the core source of value from the licence fee.

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It is a service that has evolved with technology. Our first web-based service launched in 1994, was solely accessed via computers. The evolution of web-enabled phones allowed us to repurpose BBC Online content for access on internet-connected mobile phones in 2000, and the next generation of internet-connected TV devices emerging today will signal the next wave of innovation.


The portable device - mobile applications


The development of application stores, the rapid consumer uptake of devices and the consolidation of standards means that despite a messy start, mobile internet is becoming scalable.

BBC Online has had a presence on the mobile web for some time now, but at Mobile World Congress earlier this month, I announced plans to create new mobile applications for smartphones. These applications repurpose existing BBC Online content, optimised for immediacy and simple access on the move.

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We start with a news application on the iPhone in April, followed by a sport application in time for the World Cup. We will introduce these applications to a range of devices throughout the year; repurposing our core BBC Online propositions.


The shared screen - TV applications


So, to TV, perhaps the final piece of the convergence puzzle. Unlike mobile, this truly is a nascent market and like the first-generation of WAP-enabled phones in the late 1990s, first-generation broadband-connected TVs have come on to the market in recent years. The common factor is, again like mobiles and computers, the platform of delivery and the service that delivers the content: BBC Online over the internet.

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But with no common standards, we've seen a fragmented market emerge, with the TV manufacturers, set-top box manufacturers, gaming consoles, linear TV platforms, and new market entrants all looking to create a foothold in the connected-TV market.

We don't yet know how this is going to play out. It could be that, as Apple did in mobile and digital music, one company creates an end-to-end user experience and creates a de-facto market standard that the consumer and content providers will follow. Or, an open platform like Canvas can create an ecosystem that allows the wider market to set its own terms, free from third-party gatekeepers.

To date, we've focussed on bringing video-on-demand to the living room. We've enabled BBC iPlayer for the Virgin Media TV platform, and the Nintendo Wii and Playstation 3 gaming platforms. All Freesat HD boxes can now access the BBC iPlayer also. Both Samsung and Sony connected TVs will support BBC iPlayer applications and we continue to take an open approach to working with new partners.

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But this is about more than the BBC iPlayer - itself a subset of BBC Online. Canvas is an open platform which will deliver rich multi-media content from right across the internet, including BBC Online.


Consistent user experience


In thinking through our design principles for each user environment, we give careful consideration to what the audience wants when they access the content: one BBC experience across different platforms and territories.

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With this in mind, we have created a new design template for the site. This new user experience, created by the Future Media team in conjunction with creative direction from designer Neville Brody, will be integrated across the service in 2010-2011. It's a clean new design that introduces consistency of style, usability and accessibility.


The future


All media devices - whether it's the living room TV, your mobile, or your portable PC - are becoming truly connected. Not just to the internet, but to your other devices, to other people via social networks, and virtually every other web-based content provider and service. That radically changes almost everything. BBC Online is the service that pulls all this together.

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BBC Online is linear and on-demand, social and personal. The internet's dynamism and interactivity allows us to weave BBC content into the wider web, making our content part of the social web through discovery and recommendation.

BBC Online can work across multiple devices seamlessly, making existing content available in the most convenient way for audiences. Finish the programme you started watching last night on the TV, resume on your Blackberry on the bus to work. Check your favourites at your desk at lunch-time and catch up on the comedy you missed last week. Download a podcast and listen to it on the way home. All this becomes possible with a seamless service that's available whenever you want it, through whichever device. BBC Online will make the BBC relevant to every single person in the UK, and leave plenty of room for others in the process.

Erik Huggers is Director, BBC Future Media & Technology.

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