Mark Thompson, BBC Director-General

Date: 10.03.2011     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.09

Speech to arts organisations at King's Place, London: Building digital capacity for the arts
Thursday 10 March 2011

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I want to start by talking about the depth of this partnership (BBC Academy and Arts Council England) and why we're doing it.

The principle that the BBC is built on is the idea of public space, of a place which has very few barriers and which anyone can enter. In this space people meet, exchange ideas and experience all sorts of things: the familiar, the unfamiliar, the challenging, the different, and the new. And in the cultural world, this is a very precious idea.

The key thing is that the BBC today recognises – more than it ever has done in the past – that it is not alone in this space; that there are other organisations, institutions and individuals who passionately believe in the idea of this space and its potential.

When you take what the BBC stands for, what the institutions and many of the other bodies in this room stand for, you realise that we have so much in common – what we believe in, what we are trying to do, and of the doors we are all trying to open. And so we began this process of trying to live it out as an organisation – in the way we interact with and connect with other institutions.

In recent years, you will have seen a lot of rather visible partnerships between the BBC and other great national institutions: the British Museum, the British Library, the Royal Academy, Covent Garden.

This partnership is like one of those natural history films where you see blue whales slowly mating. It is very large, has to be done quite delicately and can take time but it's a wonder to behold.

It is only part of what is going on – A History Of The World In 100 Objects was about that core, one individual and his particular take on civilisation. Of course, there were so many other museums and galleries up and down the country involved in that.

For us, today's event is about England, but also about the whole UK. It is about small partners, small organisations, start-ups, people whose focus is in one part of this country, one city, one place as well as other very large-scale organisations.

What are we trying to bring to the table? Well, I want to be clear about this: we have got the advantages of scale and funding and a heritage of technology innovation as well as creativity going back decades.

We know quite a lot now about the web, about how you think about content on the web, how you might make it, how you might think about how you present it to the public.

We are the biggest provider of content to mobile devices in this country. We thought hard and we learned difficult lessons about mobiles. Apps – applications – how you think about the user's experience as well as the technical challenge of how you build them. Catch-up and how you play audiovisual content out over these digital devices. An astonishing fact is that in January alone, 162 million programme requests were made on BBC iPlayer.

Also at another level it's about how, in terms of practicality, you get this content on to different devices.

If someone here wants to know how you get virtually all your experiences on their Nintendo Wii, we know how to do that. We've had to learn all sorts of things in the highways and byways of digital devices and we are wrestling with challenges like IPTV. How will people encounter it? How will they want to use it? What should the user experience be like and what are the technical challenges?

In the course of the next 18 months we want to share our learnings about that and the mistakes we make.

We know quite a lot about the economics and the politics of digital distribution, the relationship with the ISPs and we are also thinking hard about, monitisation. We are going to launch a pilot of an international version of the iPlayer on the Apple iPad later this year and we are again seeking to experiment and pilot different ways of how you encourage people to think about content and ways in which you might get them to pay for content.

And all of that is in a sense up for grabs and up for conversation and debate and sharing.

At the BBC we have research and development facilities, we have brilliant computer scientists, some of the founding fathers of the internet in this country, and we have behavioural scientists. The solutions of the future are not just going to come out of the military industrial complex.

We already know the digital story about start-ups and about how often it is one person with a brilliant idea, or a small team with a brilliant idea, who actually succeeds.

An incredibly important part of this encounter is that things work well when you bring them together, just as it is with our encounter with individual makers of radio, makers of TV, makers of drama and makers of music.

I hope that the BBC and the BBC Academy can go into this partnership ready to learn and to listen.

One of the most precious things about this particular civil partnership, if we can achieve it, is a partnership of people who are listening and learning from each other.

At the moment, this partnership is relatively modest. I hope, though, that once these seminars and masterclasses are underway, it will begin to feel like a stepping stone towards something bigger, a bigger conversation.

It is, to repeat the same message, when funding is tight or getting tighter, you have to be smarter and you have to work harder at leveraging what you have got.

What I would hope is that this becomes part of a bigger story of the whole world of the arts in England and across the UK, a story of the BBC, other public broadcasters, particularly Channel 4, working harder together to make sure, despite the pressures we face, this idea of public space can be full of more wonderful things, that rather than going backwards, we can actually go forwards.

Thank you.