Mark Thompson, BBC Director-General

Date: 19.01.2011     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 17.51
Category: Corporate

Access All Areas: The BBC and the defence of public space – speech at the Oxford Media Convention
Wednesday 19 January 2011

Check against delivery

There are so many things to talk about in broadcasting right now. The Secretary of State's plans for local media which he announced today. The amazing global potential of UK media. Jeremy was kind enough to mention the success of Strictly this morning. It's turned out to be a kind of national secret weapon – the Americans have Hollywood and Silicon Valley, we have Ann Widdecombe. Again I could talk about how we are developing our plans at the BBC in the light of the recent licence fee settlement.

But instead I want to focus on an area which often takes a back-seat at gatherings like this. Not the question of content, but that of network, in other words of distribution and platform.

Isn't distribution, after all, merely a means to an end? A means, moreover, which digital will soon render functionally and economically trivial? Shouldn't broadcasters like the BBC concentrate on their knitting – investment in great British output – and leave the whole question of the conveyance of that output and the technologies by which it is conveyed to others: to Sky, to Virgin, to Arqiva, to the ISPs, to the fixed and mobile phone operators, to the set-top box and TV and radio manufacturers?

Content investment good, distribution investment – well if not actually bad, then at best a necessary evil which should be kept as low as possible.

And as for the idea of free-to-air broadcasters playing an active role in platform and network innovation: well that's not just bad – it's considered by some as completely unjustified as a public intervention in the digital era.

Wrong.

Of course content is central. At the BBC, we plan to boost pure content spend to more than 80% of the licence-fee and to make that content as original and impactful and valuable as we can. That will always be our primary aim.

And, of course, all other things being equal, distribution costs should be kept to a minimum.

Of course if you can buy the right distribution or platform technology on Tottenham Court Road, you should just go out and buy it.

But don't kid yourself that that is the end of the argument.

At the heart of the public service broadcasting contract is the promise of as close as we can get to universal availability – delivery of a broad range of outstanding content to every household in the land, free at the point of use, unthrottled, unfiltered and with the same quality accessible by all.

It is this universal availability which underpins the idea of public space in broadcasting and it's just as relevant, just as socially and culturally important, in a fully digital world as it was in an analogue one.

The mistake many people make is to assume that the character of the digital revolution – the progressive reduction of bandwidth constraint, the apparent plethora of content choices – makes the need for active public policy intervention to secure this kind of public space no longer necessary.

Far from it. The universal delivery of high quality free-to-air content faces immediate threats and a future which is by no means certain. Unless the broadcasters take an active role in defending it, it could disappear entirely.

The battle for the living room

Today in the UK we have a mixed economy of TV platforms: digital satellite and cable and in addition, in Freeview, another modern digital broadcast platform. As we begin 2011 there are nearly 19 million homes using Freeview making it by far the most popular way of receiving digital television.

Some households use Freeview for some TV sets and satellite or cable for others. Others rely entirely on Freeview. In particular, Freeview is the platform of choice for the majority of the last cohorts who are converting from analogue. Digital switchover is proceeding so smoothly that it scarcely gets a mention any more in policy debates about broadcasting – that smoothness is in large measure down to Freeview and its sister Freesat.

But none of this happened by accident. We still have thriving free-to-air options for television in this country because the broadcasters – and especially the BBC – decided to engage and work together to turn things around some eight years ago. And both Freeview and Freesat launched successfully at least in part because of breakthroughs by scientists and engineers in the BBC's Research and Development labs.

Those same scientists and engineers have ensured that the platforms have continued to develop and improve. It was they, for instance, who led development of the catchily-titled DVB-T2. T2 may be a bit of a mouthful, but it's enabled us to launch high definition on Freeview. It is a standard which is now internationally recognised and which is of immense future potential as a digital broadcast standard not just in the UK but across Europe and the world.

People who think that the BBC and the other PSBs can safely forget about platform innovation and concentrate entirely on content presumably believe that we should abandon research and development. But think where we would be today in terms of consumer choice, in terms of switchover, if we'd shut down our labs at the start of the last decade. No Freeview, no Freesat, no iPlayer, three major innovations that have delivered immense public value.

YouView, the partnership between the BBC, the other PSBs, BT, TalkTalk and Arqiva to create a simple standard to deliver internet-TV services like iPlayer to main TV sets, is the next chapter in our broadcast innovation story.

It's founded on the belief that broadcast PLUS the internet will offer the audiences of the near-future dramatically more choice, more quality and more interactivity and that the openness of the platform – with many different content providers and different business models – will encourage the widest and most plural relationship between those who make and want to distribute content and those who want to consume and interact with it.

Over the coming years, we're going to see an intense battle for the living-room.

Many of the participants in this battle will seek to control the user experience of TV and on demand audio-visual content as far as they can. They will focus on households and demographics which offer the best potential to drive pay revenues. They will try to make sure that the public encounter all content inside EPGs and search and navigation environments which favour their brands and proprietary technologies. There will be little incentive for them to support or to share their technological advantages.

YouView will be different.

There will be no choke-points in YouView. The user-experience and search and navigation environment will not unfairly exclude or favour some content players. Sky, Virgin and all other mainstream players will be able to offer channels and content to the public via YouView and we'd be delighted if they take up that opportunity.

Like everyone else, on YouView the UK's pay-TV operators will be able to choose whatever business model they want for any content or channels they offer. The only things they won't be able to do is to determine the economics or the business model by which others gain access to the platform or to gain differential proprietary advantage through ownership of the user experience.

Those who have unsuccessfully complained about YouView have argued that it is in some way uncompetitive. But that's the opposite of the truth.

YouView is an open standard. Because anyone who meets the standard will be able to build YouView boxes, TVs and other devices, it will encourage genuine competition in the consumer electronics market, just as it will in content and in the provision of broadband services. This competition will benefit consumers, give content providers more control over the monetisation of their intellectual property and encourage new entrants and new investment.

None of this is to criticise pay-TV services which have extended choice for British viewers immeasurably over the past twenty years. They have opened the public's eyes to what digital television can offer and what choice means, much in the same way iPlayer changed public attitudes to video on demand.

But without partnerships like YouView and without the continued active engagement of the BBC and the other public broadcasters in platform development, the danger is quite simply that free-to-air broadcasting will become obsolescent and get squeezed out – and the future will belong to the closed systems.

Net neutrality

Well, you say, perhaps that danger is true of TV, even of web-related TV–but surely it's a different story when you come to the web itself. Surely here at least, content providers can concentrate on just that and not worry about platforms and networks. After all, everyone knows that the web is the most open garden of all, a garden in which a website – Skype, Facebook – can start from nowhere and conquer the world.

Again, not so fast. As the web becomes a vehicle for the transport of richer and richer content, the question of whether all content from all providers is treated equally by the networks becomes ever sharper.

Use of the BBC iPlayer continues to grow at a remarkable rate. The BBC website as a whole grew 14% in the UK last year, the iPlayer by 27% with 145 million requests for BBC TV programmes in December alone. This year we begin the roll-out of the international iPlayer, beginning with a pilot on the Apple iPad.

But we know ISPs routinely dampen speeds well below published headline rates. They also have the capability – which they have used in the past, though no major ISP is using it currently – to convey some content from some providers at slower speeds than others.

Don't assume then that the web itself is naturally immune from the technological and economic forces which could limit quality and restrict rather than expand choice in the home and elsewhere, and stifle innovation. The net neutrality debate is a real one.

Do content providers like the BBC have responsibilities in that debate? Of course we do. A responsibility to work with the ISPs to understand and minimise the stress we place on their networks. A responsibility to work with them and the whole industry to create an environment which encourages the take-up of high speed broadband and which ensures that those who invest in it benefit from it.

Supporting net neutrality does not mean being against premium high speed services which households can choose to subscribe to and which guarantee the very highest quality experience of catch-up and other internet resources. Such premium services are a good idea, could help de-commoditize broadband and make the business case for infrastructure investment.

But net neutrality does mean that, no matter how many fast lanes there are, the basic internet service – standard lane, if you like – should itself provide a very good, and consistently and fairly delivered, service.

Just as in the case of over-the-air broadcasting, the objective should be that, once we've achieved universal broadband roll-out, every household – not just those who have elected to pay for premium services, nor just those who want to access content in which the network provider has an economic interest – should enjoy a quality service.

In addition to technical innovation, standard-setting and partnership, however, the PSBs and especially the BBC have another duty when it comes to both TV and web platforms: which is to encourage take-up of these new technologies and all the benefits they can bring by all of the public. Not just the enthusiasts, or the high-ARPU households, but guaranteeing access to everyone.

It's what the BBC has been doing as – alongside others – it's played its part in delivering analogue-to-digital television switchover.

It's what we tried to do this autumn with our First Click campaign, which involved The One Show, Breakfast, The Archers and many other BBC outlets and was simply aimed at encouraging those who are not currently on-line to give it a go. 30 million adults watched the First Click promotion in October. We believe more than 100,000 people went on-line for the first time because of the campaign. There came a point where our partners asked us to pause in the campaign because their call centres couldn't cope with the sheer volume of demand.

Switching the whole of the UK not just to digital television but to the web is a settled piece of public policy. It's a colossal task which will require the involvement of many agencies.

Here too, though, the free-to-air broadcasters have a special role. Because of the high levels of trust the public place in us. And because – that same point again – we reach everybody. For the BBC, First Click is only the beginning.

Digital Radio and the future of broadcasting

If the role of the public broadcasters is disputed in the case of TV and internet networks and platforms, at least in radio it is, I think, universally accepted that it is only if the BBC makes a massive effort alongside the commercial radio industry and government, that switchover is possible.

We support DAB and we want to play a full part in ensuring its success, but we have finite resources. We plan to build out DAB to move towards robust national coverage, approaching FM equivalence for our UK wide services. So far we have always taken up slots in local multiplexes as they launch to broadcast BBC local radio in DAB – we expect to continue to do so. We are looking hard at our own radio portfolio to find more effective ways to encourage more people to take up digital.

We don't believe it's wise for anyone – government or industry – to get ahead of radio listeners, but we want to move as quickly as possible to a point where take-up is such that rapid progress to switchover is possible.

In the meantime, we want to help the UK's radio industry innovate in other ways. A good example is the launch next month of the Radio Player, a simple application developed by the BBC which enables computer users to find and listen to a very wide selection of British radio stations, commercial as well as BBC, on their desk-tops.

But even when switchover to digital is achieved, we will still face searching questions about the future of broadcasting.

I am one of those people who believe that – even in a future with very widespread high-speed wired and wireless broadband – broadcasting over the air has a good future. Because of its universality and flexibility and ease of use on the move as well as in fixed locations. Because of its resilience and widespread availability even during disasters and emergencies. Because I believe we can already begin to see what an effective complement it can be to web-based content and interactivity.

But if we want free-to-air broadcasting to have a future, we have a lot to do and a lot to prove. We need to find and deploy standards and technologies – T2 may be part of the answer – which will enable us to achieve universal distribution as well as state-of-the-art content quality and innovation with maximum efficiency of spectrum usage. We need that efficiency not least to ensure that our own distribution costs – which have soared in the recent years as platforms have multiplied – can be first contained and then reduced. We need to understand better how linear broadcast and web-delivered content can work both together and independently to satisfy users best. We need a clearer sense of the convergence between the use of radio, TV and every other kind of content on the move and the world of the smart phone and tablet.

In a word, we need more analysis but also fresh creativity from our research and development teams and our platform and distribution specialists. There may come a day when all the questions have been answered. Right now there are more questions than ever.

Conclusion

The commissioning and production of brilliant content is the single most important mission of the BBC. Last week we launched Delivering Quality First, a BBC-wide debate about how best to implement our strategy between now and 2016 in the light of the new licence fee settlement. It will deliver proposals to the BBC Trust in the summer. Quite properly, it has content questions at its core.

But great content is only valuable to audiences if they can access it freely and conveniently.

Those who seek to be digital gatekeepers would be only too happy if the BBC and other broadcasters left technological innovation and platform and network development to others. They argue that the market can provide. What I think they actually mean is that they would like to provide and indeed control.

The BBC, however, has a tradition of innovation and implementation in platforms and networks which goes back to the 1920s. We have contributed more breakthroughs and more new standards to broadcasting than any other organisation in the UK. We have world-class teams of scientists and engineers wrestling with the new digital challenges I've raised this afternoon.

But critically, we're not going to do any of this just for ourselves. In TV, in radio, in the world of the web, in wired and wireless environments, we want to work with others, especially those players who for reason of scale or economics, cannot afford the costs of research and development themselves.

And, as far as possible, everything we do we will do through open standards, platforms and systems. There's nothing wrong with closed systems in themselves – and they may well co-exist and thrive in the digital future. But it is only through open systems, and the resources and commitment to ensure that those open systems continue to innovate and develop, that we can be sure that no one will get left out of digital and that we really can guarantee access to all.