Ken MacQuarrie - The BBC In A Connected World

Date: 30.04.2013     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 17.51
Director of BBC Scotland Ken MacQuarrie's Campbell Swinton Lecture at the Royal television Society on 29 April 2013, entitled The BBC In A Connected World.

Thank you, Henry. I know that this is your last engagement as chair of the RTS in Scotland and I would very much like, on behalf of everyone here, to express particular gratitude for all that you have done for the Society. As you pass the mantle to another, you can do so, confident in the fact that the RTS in Scotland has remained in rude good health under your ever-watchful eye.

And from me to all RTS members and guests here tonight, I wish you a very warm welcome.

Tonight I would like to talk about the BBC in a connected world. In the future, almost every device in which we receive our content will have the ability not only to receive but to send, share, to comment and to redistribute that content. That opens a number of possibilities as to how we, as individuals, communities and societies, will use that potential. Rather than connecting with new subjects and new groups, we may choose to stay in our own digital village, dealing only with what we know and those we know. However, these decisions will shape the sort of world we become. Later, I will talk about the BBC’s role in this world. But before I do, I would like, briefly, to look backwards.

Just over a month ago, BBC Scotland celebrated its 90th birthday. A lot has changed since those humble beginnings in a Glasgow city centre attic, though not everything. The broadcasting landscape has been radically transformed since John Reith first bent over a microphone to announce that 5SC, the Glasgow station of the British Broadcasting Company, was calling. And that attic is certainly a far cry from Pacific Quay where we now find ourselves. However, just as multi-skilling defines much of modern broadcasting, so, too, did it all those years ago – though if I’m being honest I would have to say it then meant that a stint before the microphone was generally combined with responsibility for making the tea and taking the guests’ coats!

On a more serious note, what hasn’t changed across the years has been the unwavering commitment of the BBC to impartiality, to maintain its role as a trusted and authoritative public sector broadcast voice and to be true to its Reithian principles. But what challenges do the years ahead hold? Well I won’t be so presumptuous as to suggest what broadcasting might look like in another 90 years’ time. But let me look forward to three important dates, for the BBC, in the more immediate future.

2022 will mark the organisation’s centenary – for us in Scotland, March 2023 will be the date in the diary. Before then, 2017 we hope will bring a new Charter. And prior to that, next year, 2014, will be a year that in many ways will carry significant import for broadcasters as it will for the people of Scotland.

Let me look, firstly, at 2014. And in so doing, let me start by answering one question that I suspect many of you may quietly be asking – what will happen to BBC Scotland should the country vote for independence? Broadcasting will feature as a topic for debate within the discussions which will take place between now and September 2014: for the BBC to take – or to be seen to take – any kind of stance on a constitutional issue would potentially damage our reputation for impartial and unbiased reporting, particularly given the fact that the independence referendum and the issues it will involve will be comprehensively covered across our output. So, in exploring some of the scenarios we as a broadcaster will face going forward, you will understand if I choose not to travel that particular path.

The title of this evening’s talk might lead some to believe that the digital world we inhabit is one in which we are all inextricably connected, part of a digital matrix that universally binds. That arguably is now more the case than ever before: however it does not disguise the fact that the digital world, for some, is still a daunting, bewildering, even frightening place. And there are those who see little or no benefit in their involvement in it. Not everyone is wedded to a life lived online, to digital connectivity via Twitter and Facebook, Hulu and Netflix, YouTube and Google.

Some clearly do see the benefits – the recent Ofcom report on internet usage revealed that older internet users are increasingly turning to social networking to keep in touch with their friends and family. And it is certainly true that broadband take-up rates in Scotland have, in the past year, started to catch up with those across the rest of the UK.

However, weighed against that, a recent Carnegie Trust report clearly points to the existence of a worrying digital divide, particularly so here, in Glasgow, where a number of the findings should give us a cause for concern.

To pick out just three:

  • the percentage of skilled manual workers, in Glasgow, accessing the internet is 47 per cent as compared with the UK average of 72 per cent
  • 40 per cent of those city householders interviewed for the survey were not online at home
  • and, of those, nearly half said they had no wish to go online in the future

Clearly, not everyone, by some margin, is signed up to the digital future.

For those of us for whom universality of access is an important principle, who aspire to helping audiences to derive the greatest benefit from engagement with emerging media, these are worrying statistics. Connectedness, inevitably, is about people, much more than it is about technology, and clearly there is a sizeable minority, and no more so than in this city, who have yet to accept the economic and social benefits that digital interconnectedness can bring.

What are those benefits? I think it is fair to say that open and unfettered access to the digital space can unlock many riches - but only if you know how to navigate that space. And that, for me, points to two important roles the BBC must play going forward – that of curator, helping to organise and make available the fantastic content that lies deep within its archive; and that of navigator, helping audiences steer their ways through the terabytes of information to find what they need and what is of particular value to them.

And allied closely to both is yet another role for the BBC - that of partner, working alongside, and connected to - a diverse range of organisations in order to maximise the value delivered to audiences.

2014 will be particularly important in this respect. It is the year in which we will commemorate the outbreak of the Great War, we will cover the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and, of course, we will report on every twist and turn of the debate surrounding the Independence referendum.

Let me take but one of these events to illustrate how I see the development path that will shape the future role of the BBC.

The BBC’s coverage of last year’s Olympics redefined how such large-scale sporting events should - and will in future - be covered. As former Director General Mark Thompson told the Royal Television Society in early 2012, coverage of the events of that year, and particularly of the Olympics, would shape the future of broadcasting. He wasn’t wrong.

For the past few years, viewers watching Wimbledon on the BBC have been able, via Red Button, to choose which tennis match they might like to watch. But, with the Olympics, the introduction of 24 high-definition channels on satellite via Red Button, in addition to comprehensive coverage on the BBC online site, offering everything from dressage to women’s weightlifting, effectively changed the game, allowing viewers to choose whether to follow the day’s mix of sports through the main BBC channels or to concentrate their attention on the sport or sports of their choice. And, interestingly, though 75 per cent of the population tuned into BBC One, more TV was viewed via the Red Button channels than via BBC Two, BBC Three or BBC HD.

The viewing statistics clearly told us exactly what the audience thought of our broadcast approach. Over 90 per cent of the UK population watched the Games on the BBC; 85 per cent felt that this shared viewing experience helped to bring the nation closer together, and 81 per cent said that the coverage made them feel more positively towards the BBC.

When asked about how they followed the Olympics, 84 per cent of respondents said via TV – good news, I know (!), for all members of the Royal Television Society – its nearest challengers being newspapers, at 16 per cent, and online, at 13 per cent. Comparatively, mobile, tablets and apps were relatively lowly placed on the table, though such increases as there were in mobile access to services ran counter to online viewing at the desktop, which actually declined slightly across the duration of the Games.

In many ways, the Games came of age in a digital world, defined to large extent by the BBC’s approach to coverage.

We will adopt a similar approach to the Commonwealth Games, during which 15 separate streams will be beamed from 17 locations around Scotland. In this endeavour, we will work closely with our colleagues in Salford and in London and with BBC teams and other broadcasters across the Commonwealth to ensure that the programming of, and around, the Games will be second to none.

We will provide content across platforms and tailored to devices, to ensure that, however you are consuming your information and entertainment, on TV, tablet, computer or smartphone, the best content will be readily available to you. All of the technical expertise and the experience gained from the 2012 Olympics will be channelled, to ensure audiences receive the best possible Games coverage in 2014.

Whether you are viewing in Shettleston, Shetland, or Sheffield, the global resources of the BBC will bring the Games to you, to access across broadcast platforms, when and where you want, at the touch of a button.

That is but a snapshot of what the coming year holds. But within it are some indicators of the future direction of travel for the BBC and for BBC Scotland.

Technology and technological development will, of course, be important drivers of change as we make that journey into the future, though both will inevitably - and inextricably - be linked to improving and enhancing the services which we offer to our audiences. The BBC’s reputation for technical innovation stretches from the earliest days of analogue to the digital era and it continues today with the BBC iPlayer, with Red Button (and now Connected Red Button services), and much more.

Let me try to unpack some of that and, in the process, show how technological development and the role of the BBC as public sector broadcaster intertwine.

Just over five years ago there was no BBC iPlayer. The same could largely be said of social media, with Facebook and Twitter only first seeing the worldwide light of day a year or two earlier, in 2005 and 2006 respectively. Spool forward to 2013 and we find that, last month, requests to view BBC content on the iPlayer rose to a record 272 million, with an additional 72 million requests to listen to BBC Radio output.

March also brought a poll, conducted for First Direct, which suggested that the UK’s 33 million Facebook users and 26 million Twitterers spend an estimated 62 million hours each day using those social media tools - given the volume of this traffic, it’s not hard to see why so many commercial enterprises place such store on social media as a way of establishing, maintaining and growing key contacts with their customer bases. Direct contact with those individuals is increasingly important for any commercial organisation, as it is for an organisation such as the BBC, and this is a topic to which I will return in few moments.

Like all media organisations – indeed like all bodies involved in public engagement – the imperative on the BBC is to meet and exceed the ever-evolving expectations of audiences.

A moment or two ago I mentioned Red Button – it is a technology that has been with us for many years, offering access to additional content to support events such as Wimbledon, Glastonbury and the like. That, too, is undergoing transformation in the digital age, with the soft launch, last December, of the BBC’s Connected Red Button. Currently it is available on the Virgin platform, with the intention that it will be rolled out onto other platforms in 2014.

Where it differs from the existing service is in the richness and depth of what it offers, allowing users to continue watching one programme while trawling a repository of BBC content that stretches across news, sport, live events, programme clips, online output, weather information and much, much more. It will, we believe, further empower our audiences, offering a service that is simple, easy to navigate and to use, one that is fast and which allows them to tailor their viewing experience more closely to what they want and need, from quick information fixes to more in-depth involvement with our output.

However, the lessons that we need to learn from the Glasgow research findings I mentioned earlier are no less pertinent here. Currently, around 27 million individuals in the UK can access online content via connected TVs (via Smart TVs, Sky boxes, Virgin Tivo, games consoles, etc) and that number is expected to rise to around 37 million by 2016.

With connected TV, that is television with an online connection, just as with the connected Red Button, audiences are offered a richer, more in-depth viewing and listening experience. It is also one that draws together the traditional TV and radio experience, which is largely a passive one (with occasional elements of interactivity), with the online experience, which is predominantly participative and user-defined. It marries email and Eastenders, Eggheads and Skype, all easily and immediately available on one device, in the process evolving television from an entertainment and information hub to a social hub.

But that is not to say everyone is sold on the prospect – across the UK only around a third of those with connected TVs ever connect beyond the standard TV services available. And though that figure will rise, by 2016 it is anticipated that it will, by then, only stand at around 55 per cent. So far, the quality, relevance and convenience are not sufficiently compelling to encourage a section of the audience to connect. We have a duty to explain, to help audiences understand and to open up experiences that can transform and, hopefully, inspire. To do that, we need to evolve our relationship with the audience, listen to them and understand them better and engage with them in ever more varied, interactive ways.

In recent years, BBC iPlayer has transformed how we watch television. It is clear that audience figures continue to hold up. Strictly, Doctor Who, Mrs Brown’s Boys - filmed here at Pacific Quay - remain firm audience favourites – and in fact the Christmas edition of Mrs Brown’s Boys serves well to illustrate both that audience appetite for our content and how that translates across broadcast platforms, old and new. On the night, the programme drew an audience of 8.8 million across the UK, making it third in the list of most popular BBC festive programmes; however, when you add the subsequent requests for it via BBC iPlayer and time-shifted viewing, that figure rises to over 15 million, knocking the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special back into second place.

And, looking forward, I think I can with some confidence predict that similar levels of audience appreciation will be drawn by forthcoming productions from BBC Scotland for our Wild Scotland season. The 4-part Wild Cameramen At Work, voiced by David Attenborough, looks at the work of Scotland’s world-famous wildlife cameramen. And the Hebrides – Islands On The Edge series, which is narrated by Ewan McGregor... well, rather than simply listen to me talk about it, I think it best to let a short extract tell its own tale. This, I hope, will serve to remind us that at the heart of any discussion on connectedness is the one factor on which is predicated the BBC’s relationship with its audiences – quality content that both resonates with them and is appreciated by them.

(HEBRIDES - VIDEO INSERT – 2/3 MINS approx)

A timely reminder of the importance of quality content and of its place at the heart of all that we do.

For the BBC, and for BBC Scotland, what now must follow, as we move to Charter renewal in 2017 and, indeed, towards the type of organisation we want to see in place by the time our centenary comes around in 2022, is a re-shaping of our offer to audiences to make sure that it is both fit for purpose – their purposes and ours – and a deepening of our relationship with that audience.

How do we do that? I have already mentioned the developments around Connected Red Button. Let me make particular note of a number of other initiatives, already under way, which are designed to strengthen our links with those who consume our services.

Following on from the iPlayer, work continues on increasing access for viewers and listeners to the BBC’s digital archive and within this, through BBC Worldwide, we will build our own commercial routes to market, in consultation with the industry and subject to approvals from the BBC Trust.

And finally, personalisation and content curation projects seek to offer audiences a ‘two-way’ experience with BBC content. It is not strictly one proposition but rather an approach to strengthening and deepening the relationship between the BBC and its audiences and to helping them to get more value out of the BBC. Work on this project is still very much in its early stages, but I thought it might be useful this evening just to touch on it by way of example of the steps being taken by the BBC in its journey to 2022 and beyond.

I could go on to talk about connectedness through organisational partnerships, such as the valuable ones we have with MG Alba, STV and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland; I could talk about the work on digital public space currently being explored by the BBC in conjunction with the British Library, the British Film Institute and others; I could talk about our approach to social media... but time is against me so I will conclude with this one thought.

The picture of the brave new interconnected world is not an end in itself. The purposes and principles that underpin that world are every bit as important in the future as they were at the outset of the BBC. A connected world can enhance freedom of expression and provide more opportunities for freedom of speech but it does not guarantee it. In my capacity as a board member of the International Press Institute, I regularly encounter parts of the world in which public interaction, civic participation and freedom of speech have little value; it is a world in which those journalists who do value those principles put their lives at risk, on a daily basis, to report for us on the regimes where individuality and free expression have little currency. It is a world of repression, in which over 100 journalists and news reporters, in many countries across the globe, have, in the past year, sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of free speech. In these countries, a connected world has provided a portal for different groups to get their information and views across.

It is the duty of the BBC as a free-to-air public service broadcaster - as, I believe, it is the duty of each and every one of us here tonight - to fight to protect the right to freedom of speech and to continue to expand the digital boundaries which allow that public speech, that social interconnectedness between people, to grow and to flourish.

Thank you