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24 September 2014
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Michael Grade


Michael Grade


Opening speech given to the Interactive TV Show Europe 2004 in Barcelona

Thursday 14 October 2004
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Ladies and Gentlemen

I can confidently predict two things about this conference. The first is that there will be many predictions about the way technology will develop. The second is that most of them will be wrong.

The history of technology is littered with predictions made with ironclad confidence that turned out to be way off beam.

You know the ones I mean:

The chap at IBM who confidently forecast a world market for "maybe five computers".

The distinguished British physicist who, not long before the Wright brothers took off, made the definitive pronouncement: "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible."

And the chief engineer of the British Post Office who took one look at Alexander Graham Bell's new invention and said gravely: "The Americans have need of the telephone. We do not. We have plenty of messenger boys."

And then there was convergence.

A few years back, conferences like this were confidently predicting that by now we would have reached the holy grail of convergence.

By now, we would have thrown away our TVs and our PCs and there would have been mass take-up of a single device - all-singing, all-dancing, all games-playing, all-communicating - and guaranteed to satisfy all known consumer needs.

But it didn't quite happen like that. For the last ten years convergence has always been just around the corner. And, guess what, it still is.

I don't doubt that some degree of convergence will happen. Ever-inventive manufacturers - many of them represented in this audience - are coming up with ever more sophisticated converged devices.

But even when the killer device comes onto the market, I suspect it won't take over the world. We will still live in a mixed economy. Because that's a better reflection of how our audiences actually live their lives.

A single box might suit someone chained in a cell 24 hours a day. It would suit them very well.

But most people lead mobile and complicated lives. As a result they want a lot of different devices that do different things and do them when, where and how the audience wants them.

Think how many screens you've used in the last 48 hours. The domestic TV in your home or hotel. The big public TV screens now common in airports and train stations. The PC on your office desk. The laptop in your briefcase. The PDA that keeps your diary while you're on the move. Your mobile phone. And so on.

The BBC can, and does, deliver content to all of them. That's quite a challenge.

We used to think the problem of convergence was how to make everything work for that single predicted device.

In fact, as we all now know, the problem turned out to be rather different. It turned out to be how to tailor our content so that it worked for each device as though it had been uniquely created for it.

I've made it clear that I'm not in the prediction business. However I do think I can give you a glimpse of what this means in practice by talking you through the BBC response to one of the major international events of the summer - the Olympics.

Barcelona knows a lot about staging the Olympics - and the BBC knows a lot about covering them.

But if you compare what we did back in 1992 in Barcelona with what we did this summer in Athens, the distance we've all travelled is extraordinary.

In 1992, there was not only no broadband, there was no internet to speak of.

Mobile phones were still the size of bricks and the notion of delivering video clips to them was pure science fiction.

And if you'd asked someone what a personal digital assistant was they would most likely have said: "A nail-file."

Since then there has been a quantum leap not just in the technology, but also in audience expectations of what the BBC ought to deliver from a big event such as the Athens Olympics.

I think we rose to the challenge. The BBC set out to make the Olympics work for our audiences across a wide range of platforms, and to do it in ways that worked for our audiences, on whatever device they wanted it, at whatever time of the day or night it was, and wherever they were.

One of the BBC's current slogans is: Information, education, entertainment, interaction, wherever, whenever, however you want it.

We like to think of it as the 'You-can-run-but-you-can't-hide' strategy.

On TV the BBC used interactive to expand the number of events it could offer at any one time.

By pressing the red button, viewers had the choice of up to four extra sports.

It was coverage the licence fee had already paid for, and without interactive it would have gone straight down the digital plughole, so it was a great way of delivering public value by extracting extra benefits for the licence payers' existing investment.

At Athens, there were something like 4,000 hours of events. By using the potential of interactive, the BBC was able to broadcast 1,000 of those hours - five times more than we managed out of Sydney four years ago, and more than any other international broadcaster.

And we weren't just putting out the raw feeds on the interactive stream, we made sure they had the same production values as the material on the main channels and were delivered to viewers with the right professional commentary and analysis.

There were also schedule planners, highlights packages, information about forthcoming events, supporting text, and so on.

And the audience loved it. We only have figures for satellite viewers but something like nine million satellite viewers pressed that red button during the Olympics - and perhaps half as many again using Freeview and cable.

That compares with about four million satellite viewers who used a similar 'choose-your-match' service during this summer's Wimbledon; and about two million during the Commonwealth Games in 2002.

The rate of increase in the numbers pressing the red button during big events is truly awesome.

And there is good evidence that our audience were not just sampling what was on offer for a minute or two and then switching back. Retention levels were very high.

Of those nine million, half were still interacting after 25 minutes and a third after 45 minutes.

What lies behind this audience success? I think it's simple. The red button empowers our audiences, giving them the chance to tailor our output to their needs.

One of the big challenges facing all content providers is: how do we make our content more personal and more engaging?

By its very nature interactive helps us achieve this.

The BBC applied the same philosophy to its Olympics coverage on broadband. Users could access all the live streams, including the interactive ones, plus highlights, gold-medal moments, news packages, supporting text, medal-tables and so on.

They could use the BBC Connector to discuss the games with other fans. Or they could play specially commissioned games.

There was one game I particularly liked, in which Hercules had to outswim a giant squid. If you got Hercules to win you felt good. But if you didn't, you felt even better because the squid swallowed him with a particularly satisfying sound effect. The game is still on if you want to try your hand.

Once again, the usage figures are compelling. There were nearly three million requests for at-home broadband streaming during the course of the Olympics.

Of course there were big rights issues to be solved before the BBC could put live events on the web.

But the solution - in effect restricting access to users with UK ISPs - has important long-term implications.

It opens up the possibility of much more live sport on the web in future.

And let's not forget the service to mobile devices. Here there were two offerings. The first was a dedicated Olympics WAP site available to all phones that are mobile internet capable.

The service here was primarily text - the latest news, results, BBC coverage details, plus a chance to contact the BBC about the games.

Users could pre-select the sports, or the athletes, or the countries they were particularly interested in.

For audiences on the move the service therefore offered both timeliness and personalisation. They seemed to like that.

The service attracted 1.4 million contacts during the two weeks of the Olympics.

Incidentally, the BBC looked at doing an alert service - texting results as they came in. But it was clear that the market was well supplied with services offering just that, and so the BBC stayed out of that game.

We're sometimes criticised for straying into areas where commercial competitors are already doing a good job. This is an example of the BBC deliberately exercising a self-denying ordinance.

The BBC also tried out a video service for two-and-a-half-G phones available to O2 and Orange customers with the right kit.

They were offered about half a dozen video clips a day - news packages or gold-medal moments. And over the course of the games an accessible archive was built up that they could call up whenever they wanted.

We don't yet have a proper feel for usage - and we don't expect that huge figures were achieved. But as far as the BBC is concerned the trial was a success in that it demonstrated that such a service is feasible. A pointer to the future.

The BBC set out to use the Olympics to show what was possible, and to continue the learning process we have embarked on in this area.

So, from our experience with interactive so far, what are the lessons?

The first is that this is about content, not about distribution. It's fatally easy to become mesmerised by new technology for its own sake. But technology is only a means to an end - and the end is great content.

Interactive gives us new ways to distribute our content and new ways to make wider and more imaginative use of our content, and it's stimulating us to create new content specifically for interactive platfroms.

But, on its own, it doesn't create a millisecond of content. What the technology offers is, at bottom, just another distribution channel.

And audiences don't come to us for great distribution. They come to us for great content.

Remember British Satellite Broadcasting and its battle with Sky? BSB had state-of-the-art technology with squarials and D-MAC and a glossy corporate HQ on a prime site.

Sky, on the other hand, had antique technology and came from a shed in an industrial estate miles out of town.

But Sky thought about content and BSB didn't and you know how that story ended.

So remember: this is about content, not distribution.

The second lesson flows directly from that and it's this: don't shortchange your interactive audiences.

The production values of the interactive material have to be exactly the same as the linear material.

Though different in kind, it has to look as good, it has to sound as good, it has to be just as creative in concept and execution.

Don't think you can get away with using second-class interactive material to support first-class linear material.

Your audience will rumble you in not much longer time than it takes to press that red button.

The third lesson is that you are much more likely to achieve compelling interactive content when you stop thinking about it as an add-on and start embedding it into the creative process right from the start.

That was the case with the BBC coverage of the Olympics when the interactive and new media people were at the top table right from the start of the planning process and stayed there right through to the end. So that the scheduling of BBC ONE and BBC TWO was integrated into the scheduling of the interactive channels.

And in the main TV control room in Athens the director dealing with the output on BBC ONE and BBC TWO sat at the same desk as the director dealing with the interactive channels.

If you want converged output, start with converged input.

The fourth lesson is: once you've started down the interactive path, there's no going back. The BBC has now created the expectation among its audiences that certain kinds of events, particularly multi-event live sport occasions like the Olympics and Wimbledon or other landmark programmes, will come with a powerful interactive component.

When we televise these events the audience question is no longer 'Why interactive?' but 'Why not interactive?'

Do you think that at Beijing in four years time we will be able to offer our audiences less interactivity, less choice, less empowerment than we did from Athens? I think not.

The fifth lesson leads on from that: it's that we are almost certainly heading into a world where interactivity will become the norm for some key programme genres.

And where the path leads after that, we simply do not know. Maybe to a world where the red button has become redundant - a world where all TV is interactive all the time; where viewers expect to be able to configure and reconfigure their TV to deliver exactly what they want, just as they now do with their PCs.

In this speech I've concentrated on sport, but the BBC has experimented with interactivity across all the main production genres: factual, drama, documentary, arts - you name it.

And the experimentation is continuing. In a couple of weeks' time the BBC hopes to start a brand new interactive service.

As far as we know, no other major broadcaster anywhere in the world has attempted to do what the BBC is planning.

If it works out, it will mark a real breakthrough in the provision of public service news.

The BBC will take its most important TV news programme - the Ten O'Clock News on BBC ONE - and enrich its content with additional, specially commissioned material which audiences can access by pressing the red button.

Right now, if you press the red button you'll find there is already a news service on interactive. It offers a quick round-up of headlines, a business summary, weather, and sport. But it's a catch-up service. It summarises what's already been broadcast elsewhere.

The new service is different. With this service - Ten Extra - you'll be offered three extra streams. Two are graphics packages, the third is video.

Typically they will offer extra material on three of that night's top stories.

For example, the newsmaking interview that gets a 30-second clip in the main news might be run in full on the video stream.

Or the reporter who filed the regular news package for the lead story on the main news might also file a supplementary package for interactive, perhaps a more personal From Our Own Correspondent style take on the news, or a piece that comes at the story from a different angle.

Or it might carry a mini-profile of that day's main newsmaker. Or give a historical perspective to a long-running conflict.

In the same way, the two graphics streams will carry a rich seam of background facts and figures, adding an extra dimension to stories on the main bulletin.

The newsroom has taken to heart the lesson that converged output needs converged input. The team producing the new material - a journalist and a graphics producer - are completely integrated into the normal Ten O'Clock News production team, sitting alongside them with their edit kit and graphics pack, and reporting to the same programme editor.

The new service will run Monday to Friday only, and it will only be available during the Ten O'Clock News, and for 15 minutes or so afterwards.

It's an experiment, a toe in the water. But you can see the potential. It's another way for the BBC to deliver its public value commitment to enrich its news services with background and context and analysis.

Will it find an audience? We really don't know until we try. Each time the BBC does an experiment like the forthcoming Ten Extra, the experience is different. Different, genre by genre. Different for live output as compared with pre-recorded output.

Each time, we learn something new. We get a glimpse of some new potential. The potential, for example, to reach out to underserved audiences by targeting linear output we know they already watch and then designing the interactive elements specifically to appeal to that audience.

The potential to attract audiences on one channel to sample output on other channels they may have thought weren't for them.

For example last year the BBC ran a strong drama about Mozart on BBC TWO and then offered viewers who pressed the red button a Mozart concert immediately afterwards on the digital channel BBC FOUR - and supported this with really inventive interactive material which brought the score to life and showed what was happening musically.

The interactive audience wasn't huge - about 10 per cent of the original linear audience. But 95 per cent of them stayed with the interactive experience.

We really are just beginning to scratch the surface of what interactive can offer. But already the BBC has a great store of knowledge - almost certainly greater than any other broadcaster in the world.

This is a good position to be in. But for the BBC it also poses potential problems. One of my jobs as Chairman of the BBC is to ensure, along with my fellow Governors, that the BBC does not abuse its privileged position in the market place.

We have a duty to ensure the BBC is run in the public interest, and that includes ensuring a level playing-field in the supply of content as between BBC in-house producers and those working in the independent sector.

In principle that must apply to the supply of interactive television content as to anything else. But in practice, because the BBC works on all three digital platforms, it's been hard to find a lot of companies who have the capability of supporting us across the piece.

We are making inroads. The technology for the interactive Ten has been built externally for all three platforms.

The BBC is working with a number of interactive content suppliers.

But we must never forget that the BBC has been able to achieve its current leadership position in interactive partly because its secure funding has allowed it to make substantial investments in this new technology at a time when others in the industry have not been able to.

That puts certain obligations on us. In this area, it's up to the BBC to invigorate the market. So let me make it clear that I consider the great store of knowledge the BBC has amassed about interactive to be not just a BBC resource, but a resource for the whole industry - including other broadcasters.

The BBC is committed to sharing this knowledge freely and openly. If you want to know what we know, just ask.

All the BBC audience insight is available to you. BBC Training now offers courses open to anyone in interactive. The BBC is working with PACT to share our learning with its members.

And it's one of the reasons why the BBC sends the leaders of its interactive business to so many conferences like this one.

This afternoon the BBC's Head of Interactive Programming, Emma Somerville, will be giving a presentation. I commend it to you.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the trick the BBC pulled with the Olympics was to find clever ways of creating a converged media offering across many different platforms - because that's what the audience wants.

For the BBC, Athens was the interactive Olympics. What will Beijing be in four years time? The PVR Olympics? Will our viewers go off to work in the morning having set their box to record the ten-minute highlights package, the whole of the 500 and 1500 metres events - and maybe a comprehensive selection of beach volleyball to round off the evening?

Who knows? I've said I'm not in the prediction business - but here's one that I will make.

Of all the many brilliant technological wheezes now in development, the ones that will succeed will be the ones developed by listening intently to the audience, by really understanding our audiences - and by offering them wonderful personalised content that engages and delights.

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for listening and enjoy the conference.


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