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29 October 2014
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Ashley Highfield

Director of New Media & Technology

Speech given at a Westminster Media Forum on the Department for Culture, Media & Sport review of BBC online services

4 November 2003
Printable version

We've already heard so much today, a range of viewpoints, from so many different areas interested in the BBC's online services.

I don't want to duplicate what we have already discussed, but I do want to touch on the future and address some misconceptions.

This review is a golden opportunity to define our role in the future of online.

The emerging new media landscape presents both challenges and opportunities for us as an industry and it is against this backdrop that I see the BBC's online services having an increasingly important role to play in helping to create a 100% connected, digital Britain.

Our trusted name and tri media approach means that we are in a unique position to bring new demographics on line for the first time and keep them there.

Our success since began is testament to the fact that we have already provided a unique resource online that makes a genuine difference to people's lives.

We experiment to create innovative formats and content and encourage connectivity, community, and creativity online.

In the last five years, the BBC's online services have attracted new users at a faster rate than the growth of the internet.

I think its telling for that the only companies with a still greater reach than ours - Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! - are all American, with no remit to delight a UK audience, or to help grow our indigenous new media businesses.

But so what? What does this matter to the ordinary user of BBCi?

It means: 10 million people find exactly what they need on the BBC website, and enjoy the experience, every month.

Or put another way, that's equivalent to 43% of the UK internet population using the BBC's website each month.

It's three million GCSE students finding the resources they need to pass their exams and 98% of teachers finding the support they need to teach them.

It's 330 hours of original radio production being made available online each week.

It means 250,000 people joining in our debate online about the outbreak of war in Iraq.

And, of the 25 million adults and children online in the UK, 7%, two million, said they'd been motivated to log on to the internet for the very first time due solely to the BBC's website.

All right, before you accuse me of having put on the ill-fitting Reithian sack cloth of Public Service worthiness, I also want to mention upfront some of our more controversial sites - our chatrooms and message boards, where one million people a month take the opportunity to make their voice heard online in a safe environment - against a backdrop where the market leader MSN has recently pulled out.

Or our news sites, where 20 million people world wide log on to for a high quality, trusted, impartial viewpoint in a market that is increasingly going the way of Fox.

Or our Where I Live sites which offer 40 regions across the UK, quality, tailored information and representation at an ultra local level, tied in to our local radio stations, aimed at communities of all ages.

And alongside our history, science and nature sites, we also do entertainment.

The BBC has always had a responsibility as part of its Charter to entertain as well as educate and inform and we carry this responsibility into the online environment as well.

We support the successes broadcast on TV and radio via our websites, everything from Dead Ringers to The Office, but we also develop and enhance original entertainment formats and invent totally new ones.

Take Doctor Who, for example, where we have developed an animated series using never-before-broadcast scripts from the likes of the late Douglas Adams.

These have kept the Doctor alive for quarter of a million die-hard fans who will finally be rewarded when Doctor Who returns to BBC ONE.

Or how about our cult webcast Ghosts of Albion, which isn't connected to a linear BBC programme, but pushes the boundaries of storytelling online and which, incidentally, recently won a special recommendation at the prix Europa, voted on by the industry.

I am also talking about Fightbox and Celebdaq, which brought completely new formats for entertainment to life via the internet, so successfully, in fact, that they were later commissioned as TV programmes.

All these examples have been developed in collaboration with Indies.

We are supporting a new and fragile industry, in a TV/ Radio/ Online, tri-media way, that only the BBC can make happen.

It is against the backdrop of these services that I want to say that we at the BBC welcome this review.

It is not something we are ashamed of and we don't see it, as some elements of the media have portrayed it, as a test - something dreadful we have to face as a punishment for our past wrongdoings.

I want to state that to my mind, beyond doubt, through providing the kind of compelling content I have just mentioned, we have absolutely met all the requirements of the original terms of consent laid down for us by the DCMS in 1998.

This is, after all, a large part of what the review is about.

Have we gone farther than the consent permitted?

Well, no, but then we do acknowledge that the consent, written as it was in the infancy of the revlution, was couched in very broad terms.

Have we always stuck to the spirit of the consent?

Absolutely - we have always developed our services in the interest of the licence fee payer. And yes - last year we spent £72 million doing so.

The initial BBCi online budget of £21 million was only set for the trial phase of the service in 1998 and the Governors, who ultimately control budget allocation at the BBC, saw fit to extend this amount as the internet universe developed and as the obvious benefits to the licence fee payer became apparent.

As we have heard from KPMG, the negative impact of this £72 million spend on the market is principally confined to the advertising sector and estimated to be about 2% of total revenue.

I don't want to deny or downplay this impact, but I do want to make clear, and I hope I have, what exactly this spend means in real terms, as far as our users, the licence fee payers, are concerned, some 300,000 of whom now consume BBC content only via BBCi.

It has never ever been my intention to distort the new media market.

I have only ever wanted to provide a quality public service that exists for the good of the nation.

I know that we at the BBC have a unique responsibility to the British public for our services and I see the review as an opportunity to gather the viewpoints and feedback from all interested parties.

I am genuinely keen to hear from you about the ways in which you think we could continue to develop this national resource and, at the same time, make our contribution to the online world less controversial in your eyes.

I know that many of you would like us to work closer with the indie sector.

I should say that in the last few years we have made a big effort to do so.

But yes, I appreciate we could perhaps do more to make BBCi's relationship with the industry more symbiotic, more two way.

I know that many of you would like us to cross promote from our sites to your own.

I should say here that we already link directly to 200,000 external sites and that 65% of internet users have used as a springboard to go elsewhere on the web.

But yes, we could try to make these figures higher (although please bear in mind that before we cross promote to your sites, we have to be allowed to cross promote our own sites from TV and radio).

Cut off the oxygen we get from cross-promotion and we'll all be left gasping…

I know that many of you would also say that we have a responsibility to drive the uptake of new technologies. I totally agree.

Our open centres and webwise courses have already seen tens of thousands of people sign up for both formal and informal learning in computer skills - through which we are able to actively promote the take up on online and encourage a web literate UK.

I can safely say, we will continue to push in this area and educate potential new users of the internet and, for that matter, any other technology that is key to the creation of a digital Britain.

But it is by providing the "must see" content and services via these new technologies that we will make a real difference to the UK's digital future.

We have already tried to innovate in the areas of web-on-tv, PDAs, digital and interactive TV, and have encouraged people to go online via whichever device is appropriate to their lifestyle.

And this brings me to the BBC's role in the take up of broadband - one area I am particularly keen to get yours views on and an area where I feel the BBC has huge potential, in the future, to offer a distinctive service of high appeal to those thinking of converting to broadband.

This will provide clear water between our services and the rest of the market.

We are increasingly offering broadband content from our site, streaming BBC programmes such as EastEnders and The Office over the internet.

We can use our broadcast content, our access to millions of hours of radio and TV, to provide rich media over broadband and convince people of the advantages of broadband to their lives.

We are actually collaborating with broadband service providers such as AOL and Freeserve already. But we could do more.

Concentration on services such as these would, I hope, go some way in reassuring the market that we have no desire to park a tank on every lawn.

At the end of the day, we are a public service organisation and audiences are at the heart of everything we do.

We have a public service duty, to provide something of value to every single individual, currently online in the UK.

That is sometimes quite a frightening task and an incredible responsibility and I'd just ask you to think honestly: in whose interest would it be to alter our services?

Certainly not the users, the ordinary people who log on to our site daily, to explore, learn, participate and connect with people from every conceivable background, from all over the UK.

These people, these communities, want a safe, trusted, ad-free, subscription-free public space online, where they can enjoy all the benefits of online interaction on an absolutely equal footing.

They can do so via the BBC's online services and I feel very passionately that it would not be in their interests, the people who pay for via the licence fee, to cut back on the services that they find so valuable.

I know that today and in the months to come we will hear more industry views and I welcome it, but I want to close by showing you a tape of some of the services we bring to UK citizens, delivering the BBC's public service offering of lifelong learning, independent information and quality entertainment through online services.

Our services are built with commercial technology and content partners, delivered through commercial internet service providers, and linked from and to third party content and commerce web sites.

They use our content creation and production skills, our cross-promotion, our brand strengths, our values, and our public funding.

It's this mix, this symbiotic relationship, through which I believe we can achieve 100% digital Britain.

The rising tide of digital consumption will primarily be to the advantage of the UK people, but will bring benefits to all players, both public service and commercial.


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