Time and Relative Dimensions in Space - speech given at Broadcast Digital Channels Conference 2008
The BBC's digital strategy in a world beyond boundaries
Thursday 17 June 2008
Check against delivery
Good morning – and thank you to Conor and the Broadcast team for this invitation.
When you've worked at the BBC for a while - which I suppose I have - you can become a bit, shall we say, conditioned to accept things as normal which to people on the outside probably seem barking mad.
This struck me at a BBC conference a month or two ago when I realised that two of my distinguished colleagues, Jane Tranter and Tony Ageh, had never actually met.
So I decided to introduce them, and it seemed only right to use their job titles, and thus it was that I found myself introducing the Controller of Fiction to the Controller of the Internet. Only at the BBC. Shortly afterwards we were joined by the Director of Vision and the Controller of Knowledge.
Now it may just be creeping megalomania that makes us come up with job titles that sound like they've come straight from the pages of a 70s science fiction novel, but to be fair I think it's probably a consequence of the times we live in.
It's a bit of a sci-fi moment that we're all living through right now, where a lot of our familiar universe seems to have been upended and mind-bending concepts become commonplaces with alarming regularity.
It's all a bit like one of Steven Moffat's genius scripts for Doctor Who: it's scary, nerve-wracking, exciting, full of apparent paradoxes. And, in the end, like Steven's scripts, it does make a kind of weird sense.
[SLIDE] That's why this blue box is looming large again in our imaginations at the BBC. Not just because the show's revival has been one of the creative triumphs of British TV in the last few years. But because that famous acronym, conjured up back in 1963, seems more weirdly relevant than ever as we try to piece together what a digital strategy for broadcasters might look like in these early decades of the century.
[SLIDE] Time and relative dimensions in space. A line-up of apparently abstract concepts, signifying that this next phase of digital - for us at the BBC at least - is likely to be less about big new channel brands or service launches, and more about going back to first principles about what broadcasting really is these days, re-framing the question in a hunt for new ways to unlock value from the investments we and others are making.
Let's start with Time. [SLIDE]
We channel controllers tend to think we understand the concept of 'time' in broadcasting. It's something we carve up neatly into schedules, and it has to be said, even in the mature age of multichannel the sheer power of premiere transmission can still be pretty formidable – on BBC Two I'm always amazed at the impact of an event like Springwatch, let alone the astonishing figures the two major channels have been delivering on Saturday nights recently.
As I've said before, the linear TV channel – even as actual viewing habits shift – can continue to hold its place as what you might call the central organising principle of broadcasting, for audiences and professionals alike, the engine of instant, incremental scale and impact.
But either side of that moment of premiere transmission, something weird is happening to our sense of time. It seems to be stretching and bending in unexpected ways. It's no longer enough to ask of a particular programme 'when is it on?', because the lifespan of content is opening up in every direction.
Increasingly, for instance, the public life of a programme is beginning long, long before the moment of transmission, or even the start of its marketing campaign.
[SLIDE] In the case of Ewan MacGregor's and Charley Boorman's Long Way Down adventure, we took a decision to open for business pretty much as soon as the show was commissioned, with a continuously updated website giving full details of the unfolding journey and regular blogs from the presenters. We didn't just let it sit on the web either - we advertised the fact on air.
I can't pretend that this didn't freak me out a bit. To effectively disclose in advance the whole narrative of a series like this ran counter to most of my established assumptions about the sanctity of first tx. Isn't it insane to effectively tell people the whole story before we've even broadcast?
[SLIDE] But of course the opposite was true: the series massively outperformed expectations, bringing a pre-built audience of addicted fans who'd been spreading word of mouth and building expectation across the web.
[SLIDE] We've been doing something similar with Bruce Parry's new series Amazon. The official process of promotion hasn't remotely begun yet – it'll be a highlight of our new season launch next month and won't be on air till the autumn.
[SLIDE] But for nearly a year now on the web we've been effectively broadcasting an evolving, on-demand version of the whole adventure, which in the real world concluded a couple of days ago.
Here's the team doctor treating a child in a remote Amazon village.[AMAZON CLIP]
This stretching forward of the timeline of programmes ahead of their broadcast is significant enough, but it's nothing compared with what's beginning to happen at the other end of the process.
The idea that a programme only has real value at its moment of transmission has been on life-support since the invention of the VCR, but - in our small universe at least - it feels like it died once and for all on Christmas Day last year with the full consumer launch of iPlayer.
[SLIDE] I don't need to rehearse the statistics about the uptake of iPlayer so far – except to say that by this time next week we will have broken through the barrier of 100 million requests to view. It has indisputably, and almost instantly, made itself an icon for a new way of viewing.
[SLIDE] But one of the ironies about iPlayer is that - unlike the Tardis - it's really bigger on the outside than the inside.
What I mean is that for something which has had such impact on people's habits and imaginations, the actual volume of content it can make available at any one time is pretty small by the standards of what's about to hit us in the new world of non-linear media.
As consumers have already learnt, most content disappears after a week and even with the new 'series stacking' provisions – which will keep a selection of series available for the duration of their run – iPlayer by itself will only ever boast a strictly limited inventory of programmes.
[SLIDE] Users will continue to encounter messages like this, apologising for the unavailability of a particular piece of content.
[SLIDE] Commercial sites such as the proposed Kangaroo venture will of course go some way to meeting the pent-up demand, but our whole way of thinking about this kind of programme access is still based around a 'windowing' metaphor we've inherited from the last century.
Now the concept of the 'window' has a long pedigree. It's the basis on which the secondary market has flourished, and it's the key mechanism by which producers have benefited from the value of their work and distributors and multichannel broadcasters in particular have built their businesses.
Windows are not about to disappear, but they were only ever a device built to suit the nature of linear channels and the managed scarcity they represented. I'd say that we're just beginning to see the first tremors of a new way of thinking about value – commercial and public value – in the aftermath of transmission.
The internet has made us all greedier and more demanding for information and content of all kinds. Put it simply, if something's published people increasingly want and expect it to stay published. Whether it's ad-funded, subscription, licence-fee funded or whatever is important, of course, but in some ways it's a second-order issue: first and foremost they just want to be able to find it – and by and large they'll expect it to remain accessible to them indefinitely.
Whether you call it the principle of permanence, or perpetuity, or continuous availability, this feels like an emerging rule of media, and it's something that will gradually affect all the key decisions we make about platforms and programmes.
Some of our most common terms will change their meaning: 'transmission' will evolve into 'release', which in its turn is becoming something not unlike 'publishing'.
[SLIDE] Hence the new generation of 'programme pages' which Jana Bennett talked about at her Banff speech on Monday. The aim is to automatically generate one for every episode of every programme we broadcast, and after only a few months over 160,000 have been indexed by Google, with more appearing every day.
[SLIDE] Free and in the public domain, this cumulative mass of information has the potential to become a great public resource – especially when we find ways to link it as seamlessly as possible with all the data we have in the Catalogue about the previous 80 years or so of BBC content.
And as possibilities emerge to link them in turn to programmes themselves – whether in the commercial domain or the public – the potential contribution to knowledge building is almost unlimited.
[SLIDE] We got an early glimpse of the possibilities last summer with our successful India Pakistan season on BBC Two, where as a trial experiment the new programmes on air were supplemented online with a fantastic range of carefully selected audio and video archive content from more than six decades of broadcasting, covering everything from art and architecture to cooking and, of course, cricket.
The prize here is the chance for TV to become, at last, a medium with a mature relationship to its own past - as opposed to one that either knows nothing about it at all, or keeps harking back to imaginary golden ages. It will also be a sure way to identify content with really lasting value, while in commissioning there'll be an increasing premium for programmes that are genuinely built to last.
[SLIDE] It's that blue box again. One way or another we're all going to have to get a lot more comfortable with the idea of time travel, because we'll be living and working in a TV world where past, present and even future content will increasingly co-habit in exactly the same media space. It's an editorial, navigational and technological challenge whose significance is only just beginning to sink in.
[SLIDE] So much for Time – but what about those Relative Dimensions in Space?
This is where it gets really complicated.
When you work at the BBC, boundaries between different kinds of space tend to loom pretty large. We all have a very clear mental map - public here, commercial there - and a real, geographic one, where the borders of the UK have traditionally marked the clearest possible boundary between the BBC as a public broadcaster and the BBC as a commercial entity.
All of that still applies, but - as with Time and those blurring 'windows' - the internet is testing us all the time, forcing a re-imagining of almost every boundary we thought we understood - and in some cases the whole idea of 'boundaries' itself.
There's that simple business of UK and global, for instance. Even in what's currently still a relatively unconnected global TV world it's striking how the public service impact of programmes can cross continents.
I remember meeting a Pakistani filmmaker a few years ago who argued passionately that even when the BBC broadcast content about her country to a UK-only audience it could have a profound impact in Pakistan itself.
This point was brought home to me forcibly last autumn, when the broadcast on BBC Four and BBC Two of TrueVision's documentary Bulgaria's Abandoned Children made headline news in Bulgaria itself, forced the government to announce the closure of the children's home in question, and – just this week – led to Unicef supporting the development of a brand new home for the children involved.
If that's the power of television in a traditional broadcast environment, just imagine what's around the corner as the logic of connected media begins to bite.
As Jana said on Monday, "the web is a global medium and increasingly its users are knocking at the doors of the structures we have established for territorial exploitation."
In our debates about broadcasting in this country there's sometimes a tendency to imagine that public value stops at Calais.
[SLIDE] But I strongly suspect our audience has an increasingly 'whole earth' mindset, even if we sometimes don't. One way or another the power of the web will render our industry global, and if we don't anticipate that now and find ways to get UK content of all kinds findable by audiences right across the planet, then other powerful voices will begin to crowd us out.
Through all of this, what resonates for me in particular is a global sense of the BBC as unique kind of public space.
In a sense this dates back to the very origins of the organisation. Reith's insight was that electronic media was important because it had the capacity to provide a new kind of public space at the heart of all our lives - the virtual equivalent of the great shared spaces that exist in the physical world.
Since his time of course we've seen huge commercial value unleashed in UK media – both in broadcasting and increasingly in production too - but it's striking how durable the idea has been of public space in broadcasting.
If anything, in a fragmenting world, it seems to be becoming more important than ever. Which is why I think it's no surprise that the BBC and the internet have proved such interesting bedfellows.
Tim Berners Lee's vision of the World Wide Web was based on an equally idealistic vision of the power of electronic media to create public value - in this case by allowing free, equal connectedness between all participants.
[SLIDE] Our recent White Season brought these two kinds of public space together – a season of linear documentaries in a classic BBC Two tradition coupled with an innovative use of the web to create a zone for public engagement both with the films themselves and the issues they raised.
[SLIDE] We knew this was controversial territory, but we also had a sense that the BBC was one of the few places a debate like this could be held without being hijacked either by political interests or extremists – a real test of what public space on the web looks like.
[SLIDE] Out of this came White Spectrum – a series of online debates around each of the films which offers itself back to the audience in a completely different way from the usual scroll down and hope for the best format.
As contributions came in they weren't just moderated – they were re-presented back to the audience as a kind of visual map of their own emotional response – clustered and searchable not just by region (pretty interesting in itself) but by the feelings they evoke: confusion, fear, anger, happiness and so on.
At the heart of projects like this is a move to ever greater 'openness'. It's hardly something the BBC's famous for. Even our nicest buildings tend to have a slightly fortress-like quality, and I don't need a pile of research to know that the BBC can seem fairly impenetrable sometimes to both public and producers alike.
But openness is exactly the direction we're headed in. We're in the early days of thinking how everything from the popularity of 'making of' films to some of the rather good training materials developed in response to last year's trust scandals can be turned into something of real critical mass, a new kind of open BBC that dares to show more of its workings and engage with audiences proactively, rather than sitting back and waiting for the complaints to come in.
[SLIDE] My colleagues in BBC News have been the pioneers here. The News Editors' blog has already become something of a byword in the industry for what you might call proactive candour, with senior figures cheerfully admitting to varying degrees of error or cock-up, usually before the outside world has even noticed.
[SLIDE] This shift towards openness is about more than just showing our workings as journalists and producers and commissioners - important as that is.
It's about challenging ourselves to rethink some of our own institutional boundaries. Only two weeks ago the Trust challenged us to increase the volume of our external links on the web.
But that's just one stage of a journey that will see the BBC getting better at working with others to unlock the pent-up value – public and commercial – that's been hoarded away in the age of traditional broadcasting.
Or as Caroline Thomson put it last week, "sharing some of the benefits of our scale and public investment".
This isn't just a timely shift of emphasis. It's a direct consequence of the connected world we inhabit now, where go-it-alone initiatives will have less and less salience, and success for everyone – and certainly for the UK industry on the global stage – is more and more likely to depend on the smart intertwining of interests and talents.
For the BBC it's a journey towards a rather different kind of public institution, better aligned with others' interests - and more supportive of them - and drawing on creative energies from an even wider pool of talent.
One of the best bloggers on these topics, Tom Coates, formerly of the BBC, now at Yahoo, once advised anyone contemplating a web start-up to think less about immediate profit and more about how to 'make the whole web better'. The BBC's hardly a start-up these days, but that's still not a bad aspiration I think.
Anyway, let me leave you with a short video, partly because it's an example of several of the themes I've been talking about, but mostly because it's as good a way as any I can think of to spend four minutes on a Thursday morning.
Earlier this year on BBC Two we broadcast a Timewatch on the Omaha landings, presented by Richard Hammond. It was a successful programme, reaching an audience of 2.6 million people – but its lasting fame is as nothing to the four-minute 'making of' film which its freelance graphics team posted on the web.
They did it entirely off their own initiative, they put it on YouTube, not the BBC's own website, and thus rather brilliantly made it instantly available to audiences across the planet rather than just the UK.
Some three million views later it's become something of a global cult, has been linked to by 1,000 sites and even prompted me into repeating the original film on the channel.
For those of you who haven't seen it – here's how to turn three blokes into an army. Thank you. [OMAHA MAKING-OF FILM]