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29 October 2014
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Ashley Highfield


Ashley Highfield

Director, Future Media and Technology

Keynote speech given at IEA Future Of Broadcasting Conference

Wednesday 27 June 2007
Printable version

The BBC In The Digital Age


There are many who see the digital world as threatening for 'big media' organisations like the BBC. The Web 2.0 world of Flickr and Facebook brings with it new business models, new forms of content, new ways of audiences connecting with that content, and with each other, and we risk being left behind, becoming increasingly irrelevant to our audiences.


Well, to be honest, we've not even fully embraced the '1.0' world yet: basic digitisation. Much of what we do is still on tape: shot on tape, moved around on tape, and stored on tape, much of it in dusty archives. Difficult and costly to store, hard to reuse, uneconomic to repurpose for use in new TV programmes and formats, and a highly duplicative effort to distribute over multiple platforms like interactive tv, web and mobile.


But for all those media organisations that can and do make the successful transition from the ground zero of analogue, siloed print or tape–based fiefdoms to the first base of the '1.0' digital world, and then follow it up by finding out how to properly engage with the Web 2.0 world of YouTube and Bebo, I believe a Golden Age awaits.


This Golden Age is sometimes called Web 3.0 or the Semantic web. The next phase of the web, starting anytime now, is – in a nutshell – a world where the web is a great deal more intelligent than now, where you can actually find not just what you're looking for, but what you really want and need. So, when I type "Evenin' all" into Google, instead of being returned with over half a million results from thousands of random blogs, I am given the best clip from the best episode of Dixon of Dock Green, with full transcript.


In this world, the expert – the aggregator, packager, navigator, scheduler and editor – still has a role alongside the amateur. In this world of easily findable, relevant content that delights, where we have got over the 'paradox of choice', the BBC has perhaps a more important role than ever. But first we must negotiate the 1.0 and 2.0 worlds.


The 1.0 World


The BBC is re–engineering its end–to–end supply chain, removing tape from the equation to end up with a fully digital BBC. A BBC where all our content is shot on HD cameras straight to solid state memory cards, with all the relevant meta–data that goes with it, the who, what, where, which is automatically captured too. This enables new services that we're only just beginning to think up: like a mobile phone service that can give you all the BBC news from the last 24 hours that happened within a 10 miles radius of where you are standing, or all the Springwatch stories relevant to your part of Britain mashed with user generated local sightings of particular flora or fauna.


We intend that all this digitally captured content would be put into a single digital library, and that any producer, anywhere in the BBC, could access any of it, from any genre, from rushes to post–production, and use it again in a new way in a new production, or on a new platform or device. Then, creating new audience propositions, like a Sport portal, or a programme focussing on events from 1979, would be a breeze.


And of course, it opens up a world of possibilities to offer our archive direct to our audience. This is a long–held ambition which has until recently not stacked up economically in terms of the costs of loading all the programmes up from over a million tapes, clearing the rights, and distributing it to our users. That's all changing, fast.


Last week we launched our BBC Archive Trial, putting a 1,000 hours up online to 20,000 users. Immediate feedback has been excellent.


Based on the usage patterns of the trial, we will submit a proposal to the BBC Trust, outlining which parts of the archive should be free, which can be downloaded to play around with and keep forever, and which parts should be commercially supported. The Trust will then decide on whether this requires a Public Value Test.


All of this takes time. Too much time some commentators have said. In a world that moves at internet speeds, a regulatory framework that can take months to sign off a new product launch might appear to be out of step and potentially damaging to the future existence or relevance of the BBC. And believe me, I personally get frustrated by the process – we do not want to be first to innovate, and last to market.


But it is often those very same commentators who call foul when we do surprise the market and publish a new innovative service – from the Beethoven downloads, to our 3G mobile phone syndication trials, to BBC Jam. The solution I think is in applying the appropriate level of rigour – the BBC iPlayer approval process with full industry and public consultation being a good example – but achieving this within a smaller timeframe.


Our BBC iPlayer service, launching on 27 July, offering the last seven days of the BBC's TV programmes on–demand over the internet, has already helped all the players in the UK on–demand space. We established the rights frameworks with the relevant rights bodies such as PACT. We established the technology framework that enabled us to use a peer–to–peer service that kept our distribution costs down whilst keeping our rights holders happy, a framework that has been copied by both Sky and Channel 4. And by working closely with the internet service providers like Carphone Warehouse and Virgin Media, we believe the BBC iPlayer will drive new broadband take–up, and demand for higher connection speeds. Market impact? Yes – a positive one!


BBC iPlayer is a service for everyone in the UK. The BBC earns over £500m from the international exploitation of its content, every penny of which goes back into making better programmes for the British public. We therefore needed to ensure, through the use of digital rights management, DRM, that our programmes could be viewed, in high quality, in the UK, for free, but not get instantly distributed around the world and undermine our international licensing and syndication deals.


DRM is not popular, but having it means the difference between being able to afford to make Blue Planet or not. Protecting our content is not optional anyway. A third of our content is made by independent producers who insist we protect our content as their future depends on exploiting that content themselves outside our rights window.


We are committed to making it as easy as possible to use the BBC iPlayer. Developing a version for Apple Macs and Microsoft Vista is absolutely on our critical path for this year, as is making it as widely available as possible. We're also committed to making it available on the television screen, which is why we are delighted to be working with Virgin Media towards a launch on their cable television platform later this year. We are hopeful that other TV platforms will follow soon after.


The BBC iPlayer will, at launch, offer some 400 hours of programming a week, pretty much the entire BBC schedule across all channels, and national and regional variations, around 20 times the scale of content of other offerings, a huge undertaking which would not have been possible without our partners, Siemens and Red Bee Media. Now, having cracked it, and built what is probably the world's biggest end–to–end digital production chain, we will be able to roll out new applications quicker than ever.


These then are our plans for Digital 1.0, the entry price for survival in the 21st century. Turning now to Web 2.0.


Web 2.0


We are a long way from integrating the BBC's output into the Web 2.0 world, a long way from really understanding how a public service broadcaster should move from 'broadcasting at', to 'engaging with', but we are experimenting.


The first big idea is to seed our content more widely across the internet. We've been doing rather clumsy syndication, from links and clips to RSS feeds for a few years now. But the recent YouTube deal, that saw us create BBC channels within YouTube, and put hundreds of clips of BBC programmes onto them each week, shows a new direction. It's about reaching out to our audiences, working much harder to showcase BBC content to them where they are, in a way which is relevant and of value to them.


Recently, in collaboration with Yahoo!, we held a Hack Day for 400 developers from across Europe to come to Alexandra Palace, bunk down for the weekend and create hacks and mash–ups of some of our websites. Turning our output over to the developer community to see what they might come up with was an idea the developers themselves came up with, unleashing their creativity on our platforms and content. And the results were impressive.


Similarly, the BBC Music website is delivering improved music information that will allow its users to personalise their music recommendations by working with non–profit foundation MetaBrainz and an international community of dedicated enthusiasts.


The service, which has just launched, uses information licensed from MusicBrainz – an open online database of music information like Wikipedia for music – and allows music fans to write and tag information around the music that they love and combine it with artist profiles and album reviews on


We were the first to broadcast a live concert in Second Life – last year's Radio 1's Big Weekend – and the first to erect a digital News billboard there too. These are early tentative steps into the Web 2.0 world. We have ambitious plans to completely overhaul, to make it more personalisable, more able to be integrated with the rest of the web, so that you can easily tear–off bits of our website and paste them into your own social website, the likes of Bebo and MySpace.


This takes investment, at a time when the BBC has a lower than inflation licence fee settlement. But I don't believe we have an option. We must continue to innovate, and exceed the expectations of the 17 million licence fee payers who use our Because only if we remain relevant now, can we hope to come out on top in the next evolution of the web, the world of Web 3.0, the intelligent web.


Web 3.0


This next evolution of the web is not a frightening 'AI' world where, like The Terminator, the machines have become 'aware'. Far from it: Tim Berners–Lee, who conceived this next stage, passionately believes that it's a world where 'Trust' is at its zenith. It is underpinned by – and I quote – "thousands or tens of thousands of knowledgeable people [taking] many years to boil down human knowledge".


The BBC is, according to Superbrands Web Survey , the most trusted brand on the web. Trusted brands that help sort the wheat from the chaff are going to be never more in demand than in the next stage of web development. There is a reason why BBC News is the UK's most popular information website. There is a reason why continues to grow ahead of the growth of the internet, and to increase its reach and share to become the UK's 3rd most used website, when many predicted that it would be overtaken by Wikipedia and YouTube. It's because people increasingly seek flight from the cacophony of choice.


Now don't get me wrong, I do not see this as old media versus new media, or professional content versus amateur. I do not subscribe to the views of Andrew Keen, author of "The Cult of the Amateur: How today's Internet is killing our culture". He expounds that "a number of Web 2.0 start–ups such as,, and are building artificially intelligent engines that supposedly can automatically tell us what music or movies we will like. But artificial intelligence is a poor substitute for taste."


I think he misses the point. For a start, many of these playlist building web sites have done very well in the Web 2.0 world: Pandora – whose strapline is "Plays only the music you like", LastFm, – and even Amazon recommending the books you'll like are powerful services but they are only part of the equation, and would not purport to be a substitute for editorial from trusted brands. People are still going to watch Film 2007, read AA Gill TV reviews, and listen to Radio 1's round up of the best breaking music.


Web 3.0 requires three things to work in harmony: firstly awesome technology, secondly the ability to harness the power of the network – the wisdom of crowds – and thirdly it requires those trusted brands with their thousands of professional content creators and editors.


Now of course I do not think that only professional publishers like the BBC can be the sole arbiters of taste. Far, far from it. But nor are we irrelevant in the world of social media. Lawrence Lessig, amongst many significant books, wrote one called "Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity". Even he, the darling of the user generated content world, writes: "I think it is a great thing when amateurs create, even if the thing they create is not as great as what the professional creates. I want my kids to write. But that doesn't mean that I'll stop reading Hemingway and read only what they write. But it does mean you're missing the point if you simply compare the average blog to the NY Times. It's a case of both/and not one replacing the other." I agree.


So, providing we can:


1. Fully carry through Web 1.0 – the creation of a single digital repository of all content – and successfully distribute that content however, wherever, and whenever our audience want it;


2. Embrace Web 2.0, working out how to engage with our audience on their terms, work with social media and not against it, from Radio 1 concerts in Second Life to hooking up with Wikipedia for rock star profiles, and;


3. Combine 1.0, 2.0 and our traditional core skills of creativity, and editorial know–how into the 3.0 world to increasingly exceed our audiences' expectations – giving them what they really want, not 100,000 stabs at what they might want.


Then I think that the BBC, and any other media companies who make the three step transition, can come out of these seismically unsettling but enthralling times ever more relevant. And that simply is our mission, to help keep the BBC relevant in the digital age.


Thank you.


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