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24 September 2014
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Ashley Highfield


Ashley Highfield

Director of BBC New Media & Technology

Keynote speech given at the Broadcast Content Management Conference

Thursday 9 June 2005
Printable version



Broadcasting is changing. Reach to TV is falling, especially amongst 18 to 24-year-olds. But total consumption of media for this supposedly fickle audience is not: it's just they're getting their entertainment elsewhere - five hours a week on the net in Broadband homes, around the same on Playstations. For broadcasters, to reach them, multiplatform is not a nice to have, it's a necessity.


In the last two years, traffic on the internet has doubled: strong, but linear growth. By comparison, rich media content consumption - video and audio - of which is a good example, is increasing exponentially on the web.


40GB per second of content is being consumed in the UK - the equivalent of 100,000 TV channels. Issues around access, availability, and awareness are all largely being resolved by the market; and even affordability of hardware, with £399 PCs and MiniMacs, is no longer the barrier it was.


So, if demand is growing exponentially, and barriers gone or falling: what is holding up mass adoption of the net for rich media - for telly, radio, video-on-demand? It's not, I don't believe, an issue of the PC not being connected to the TV: for a start it increasingly is, with sales of TV-connected Microsoft media centres passing the one million mark, and

wi-fi distribution becoming commonplace in the home.


But more significantly, and somewhat surprisingly, our audience appear pretty relaxed about watching video on their PC monitor. After all, most PC monitors at home are in effect flat-screen hi-def tellies: just a bit smaller. No, the real barrier to ushering in the brave new world of non-linear media, of I.P. or internet TV and audio, is simply supply. There's nothing bloody out there… I'll come back to the why: let's explore first what our audience is doing with the few broadband bread crumbs that we throw them…


The Multiple Platform approach


The first important point is that most of the consumption of our rich media content on different platforms, like the EastEnders website, has up to now not by and large been substitutional for TV: it's most usually been complementary, frequently adding audience consumption more than reach. Put another way, it's mostly been about extending the offer to the same audience.


That's changing now, with faster and easier mobile and broadband services giving birth to the cyber-siblings of time-shifting and place-shifting. In this on-demand world of anytime and anyplace, the consumption is increasingly substitutional for TV viewing, but on the positive side, it also often attracts new audiences, adding wholly unduplicated reach to the BARB figures.


Extending the Offer - Anyplace


It's worth quickly reviewing where we've come from: the world where our websites on were often extensions of our existing programme brands, the equivalent of a fact sheet, available 24 hours a day, once the programme had gone off air, and giving audiences something extra.


Over time, these online pages grew in sophistication, so that EastEnders offered not just background details of all the characters in the Square, but tracked characters while they were off screen. As far back as 2001, the BBC experimented with a 'soap bubble' allowing viewers to follow Sonia's progress as she went off to nursing college. The site was accessed by around 20,000 users, in comparison to 7.4m regular viewers. That's around 2 per cent of the TV drama.


But compare this with the year-on-year growth around our online animated Doctor Who series, and immediately you can see how such a proposition develops.


The BBC's online community kept Doctor Who alive and kicking during his time off BBC TV airwaves, by embracing an animated series put out by The first iteration of the online Doctor in 2001 averaged around 15,000 unique users per episode. However, by the time a third series, starring Richard E. Grant, appeared on the web in 2003, some 100,000 unique users were logging on for each episode.


And today, with the Timelord returning to our television screens, the importance of an off-air presence is reflected in the 500,000 visitors playing the online Dalek game - and that's within the first month of it going live. That's some 15 per cent of the television audience. But still probably largely the same audience as watched the TV series.


Same Content, Same Time, Different Platforms - Anywhere


But as we've moved beyond simple brand extensions to time-shifting and place-shifting, and as web users became more sophisticated, and started to use the web more at work, we are seeing the early signs of more fundamental shifts in behaviour.


This second generation of on-demand multi-platform content takes different forms: the simplest is just offering the same TV content, at the same time, over the web or mobile. No mean feat technically, I might add - as dynamic reversioning of content, multi-platform authoring is bloody hard, but a simple consumer proposition.


On the Day of Pope John Paul II's funeral, for instance, the BBC offered streamed coverage of the event - in addition to its coverage on BBC ONE and News 24. Over 300,000 users accessed this content across the web, around one-third of them staying for almost a quarter of an hour. This created an additional 10 per cent of viewers over those who chose to watch the events unfold on TV.


Most recently, just last month, the BBC provided its most comprehensive coverage of the Eurovision Song Contest in the 50-year history of the competition, with three hours of linear television coverage; a red button interactive TV service; and the chance to download videos from all 39 participating countries via our Broadband Player and through our WAP portal, In so doing, these services encouraged 19 per cent of the available audience to press red for more than 30 mins, with an extra 11 per cent requesting video streams on the web and mobile phones.


And during the two weeks of last year's Olympics, the average 3.1m viewers who sat in front of their television screens every day were joined by 2.8m requests for video streams on the web from 5.7m unique users to Overall the Games generated more than 73 million online page impressions, much of this via mobile.


Suddenly, the idea of multiple platform media consumption seems less of a pipe dream. But these services, achieving perhaps 10 to 20 per cent of the TV audience reach, are just the beginning.


On-demand and Catch-Up - Anytime


It starts to get really interesting when we begin breaking completely free of the linear schedule to offer two perhaps more profound services, that of Catch-Up On-Demand TV, and the deep programme back-catalogue online service - or in BBC speak, the iMP and the Open Archive. Let me also say that what I used to dismissively call 'the tyranny of the schedule' is of course a massively useful navigation tool, and will probably be with us for many many years. I see the internet delivered catch-up iMP service and the long-tail Open Archive service as complementary, but they will one day account for a considerable share of media consumption time and eyeballs.


The world we're leaving is one of Spectrum Scarcity, as Chris Anderson, Wired's editor-in-chief puts it: "Not enough shelf space for all the CDs, DVDs, and games produced. Not enough screens to show all the available movies. Not enough channels to broadcast all the TV programmes, not enough radio waves to play all the music created, and not enough hours in the day to squeeze everything out".


And still in his words, the world we're entering is "A world of abundance. And," he concludes, "the differences are profound."


Last month I announced the content trial of the BBC's interactive Media Player (iMP), which will begin in September and last for three months. The service builds on the success of our RadioPlayer and offers BBC audiences the chance to catch up on TV and radio programmes they might have missed for up to seven days after the original broadcast. For those of you that haven't seen it here's a taster.


At the BBC we believe that iMP heralds a new era for programming, allowing audiences to get to our programmes when they want it.


It is still early days; our recent research put this right at the top of audience demand for new services from the BBC, with over two thirds showing a keen interest. Even conservative estimates suggest that by the end of this decade some four million people - 15 per cent of the UK population - may be likely to use a catch-up TV service. And this is not TiVo or Sky+ - brilliant services in their own right - but with iMP, you don't have to remember to record it: its all there, whenever you want it.


But time-shifted programming isn't just something for the net. The BBC has also been working with third parties like ntl to look at what catch-up packages will work on Cable TV. They expect some 50 per cent of their subscribers to be regular users of on-demand by the end of 2010, and our findings to date show, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it's popular BBC programmes such as Dr Who and EastEnders that attract huge on-demand audiences. But what we have also discovered is that there are other programmes - traditionally broadcast out of peaktime - our lower-rating, more specialist programmes, that also attract impressive cumulative audiences, albeit over a longer period of time.


The Longtail - Anything


Welcome to the long-tail. Its value to commercial providers of deep back catalogue is well known. Online bookstore Amazon gets one third of its sales from the long tail, outside the 125,000 books that Barnes and Noble can stock. And for them, the larger margins on these books contribute even more than a third of their bottom line.


The long-tail offers a return on investment in the broadcasting world too; not only delivering public or commercial value by providing quality programmes to our audiences when they want to watch them, perhaps again and again, but also by attracting new audiences to a programme who may not otherwise have come - extending a programme's appeal, its lifecycle and consequently its potential to add long-term cumulative reach.


The longtail takes the control away from the broadcast schedulers and puts it in the hands of our audiences - making anything available, anytime, anyplace, anywhere.


It is within this environment that we aspire to grow and develop the creative archive - a partnership currently comprising the BBC, Channel 4, the BFI and the Open University, but open to all public organisations.


With a wealth of material made available online, the opportunity to search - and find - programmes opens up huge possibilities. This is our vision for it.


So, with 10 per cent reach up for grabs with rich media programme extensions, 15 per cent for catch-up TV, 30 per cent for the deep archive, why aren't we rushing headlong to get our content up on the net?


Well, we are.


The barriers are well known. And most have solutions in sight: this is going to be one of the glibbest sentences I've ever made, but for sake of time: piracy will be solved by ease to use legitimate sites, rights with good DRM and open licences like the 'creative commons'; distribution costs will be solved for streamed TV by multi-casting; and for downloaded TV by peer-to-peer, quality of service will be solved by ever-increasing bandwidth going up, meeting ever more efficient video encoding coming down; getting the signal to the TV screen will be solved by convergence, mediacentres, and wifi. And almost free storage will solve everything else. So, problem solved! Well, not quite…


The Need for Good Metadata


Because, if you are offering material outside of a linear schedule, audiences need to be able to find what they are looking for. That means good Search tools, next-generation Electronic Programme Guides, which will require content to have next-generation, awesome levels of metadata.


The value of metadata in content management cannot be understated. Metadata is dull, no doubt about it: but it's so much more than the ISBN of the book world - it's not just a code that only computers can or need to understand. Metadata is closer to the synopsis and even the critic's review of the book: information that forms an intrinsic part of your decision on whether to consume the content or not.


How it all works


Traditionally a manual and arduous process, the creation and collection of the data that describes content is becoming increasingly more automated, although nowhere near perfect.


BBC News is currently trialling the Virage software as a means of capturing data on news programmes to help you find the right clips, the news stories of interest to you. It's clever stuff: it works by not just by looking at a programme's description, but by converting the speech and dialogue within it to text, and putting that in a database. It's more accurate and comprehensive than compiling metadata from subtitles - and, after a number of years of hard slog, it works.


Together with projects like TV Anytime, a set of standards developed by the BBC's Research & Development department, which labels and manages content across a number of platforms, you can start to see the future possibilities of finding the content you want no matter what device it is stored upon.


Indeed, one such product in development from the BBC will rely heavily on such advanced metadata if it is to succeed. Stapler is an aggregation tool in development, which in essence pulls together diverse BBC assets and 'staples' them together around an editorial proposition.


Still in its early development stages, the service uses cutting edge 'barcode' technology which is read by a camera phone and enables you to grab content when you see the special BBC Stapler barcode on a poster, a magazine, or the TV, and then provides you with the right content - tailored for you, tailored for the device you're using, and tailored for where you are.


The service requires amazing levels of metadata - from both our archive and current broadcast output - to work well, and true multi-platform authoring of all our content. To give you a taster of what you may experience in three to five years' time, here's a brief working demonstration.


Of course, it's not just the BBC doing this.


Large organisations like Google, Yahoo and Blinkx (hmm, didn't notice many other broadcasters in that list) are using advanced algorithms to generate metadata on existing content and footage from broadcasters like the BBC to make our content findable through their platforms. Guess who's going to get the brand credit and a slice of the ad revenues in the future…




We are on the very edge of a broadcasting revolution. From a slow start at the beginning of this decade, the increasing consumption of content across multiple platforms is finally becoming less the exception and more the rule; from a single platform programme extension, to a multi-media, multi-platform format, giving audiences the power to pick and chose anything they want. And it will not be at the margins, but somewhere around a third of all consumption could come from outside the current linear broadcast schedule, within five years.


We broadcasters need to move quick, if we're not to be as irrelevant as the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the world of Encarta, Wikkipedia and the web at large. We must create 'platform-agnostic content packages' - not quite as snappy as TV programmes I'll grant you, but flexible content, where there is a meaningful, appropriate experience for the audience on whichever platform they chose. Moreover, we need to look hard at clever and cost-effective ways of tapping into the heart and context of a programme, to create the wealth of necessary metadata to help our audiences find their way around this infinite supply: whether that be through the internet; third parties like Google; storage devices like PVRs; or even advanced on-demand EPGs.


The benefits of such an approach are enormous. A multiplatform approach can give our audiences access to our content when it suits them, but it can also extend the lifecycle of our programmes, giving them a reach beyond their original audiences, and increasing their value, public or otherwise.




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