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24 September 2014
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Mark Thompson


Mark Thompson


Speech given at the European Broadcasting Conference in Liverpool

Tuesday 20 September 2005
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The organisation I work for is called the British Broadcasting Corporation.


For most of the BBC's life that middle 'B' has served us pretty well. Broadcasting was what we did and everyone knew what broadcasting was.


It was tall masts on hills beaming out radio and TV programmes to mass audiences. It was one-to-many.


It was – to all intents and purposes – universal with, by the Eighties, common functionality in virtually every home. It was public. Perhaps inevitably, given that fact and given its universality, it was political. Indeed just occasionally it still is.


And broadcasting was also obviously different from what everyone else did. The phone company. The record company. The newspaper company. Different devices, different business models, different consumer behaviours.


People sometimes claim that these distinctions will one day disappear as convergence gathers pace. In some ways they've largely gone already.


Younger audiences search and navigate as seamlessly across media as the technology will allow. Two-thirds of the young people who took their first public exams this summer used a BBC revision service called GCSE Bitesize.


You can find Bitesize on interactive TV, on the web, or on your mobile phone. We offer it on all these platforms because that's how the UK's teenagers told us they wanted to use it, but I doubt many of them think for more than a second about which device they're using to access it at any one time.


Broadcasting is, in other words, morphing, and the boundaries between it and other parts of the media universe are becoming indistinct.


It's happening much, much faster than we thought it would – our predictions of even three years ago on the take-up of broadband in the UK look hopelessly conservative in retrospect.


For broadcasters, this means virtual reinvention. For regulators, the daunting challenge of delivering coherent, effective regulation in an environment where every single element is changing rapidly and unpredictably.


Perhaps it's not surprising then that we often focus on the dangers of what's happening. The danger of a kind of negative globalization of culture and of a loss of minimum standards.


The danger of a collapse in investment in high quality local content and talent. Or of a division between digital haves and have-nots.


But this is potentially a very good revolution. A revolution in choice and relevance, perhaps even a revolution in quality.


So the stakes are very high.


I'm going to talk about three things this afternoon.


First, our own immediate experience of the new broadcasting at the BBC – the pleasures and at least one or two of the pitfalls. I hope that our practical experience will inform your deliberations.


Then I'll turn briefly to the kind of Europe-wide regulation we think we're going to need as this digital space develops.


And third, I'm going to offer a couple of thoughts on the future of our strong European tradition of public service broadcasting.


Some people still talk about that as if it were device-specific – public service television, public service radio - and as if the main challenge were to contain it, box it, within those traditional media.


It won't surprise you to hear that at the BBC we believe instead that it should migrate into public service content, open and inter-operable across platforms, but still freely available to all and still informed by the same public and creative ambition that led to the founding of institutions like the BBC in the first place.


In the middle of the storm


But let's begin with the BBC's own digital story. And, the first point to make is that even today we are a long way from the traditional role of the linear broadcaster.


Our web reach is now more than half of all internet-enabled homes and offices in the UK. In broadband, it's two-thirds.


All of our digital services – TV, interactive TV, radio, the web – are growing fast. Page impressions on the web, for instance, which currently stand at three and a half billion a month, are continuing to grow at around 12 per cent every month.


As choice expands, it's inevitable that share and reach to some of our traditional TV and radio services will come under pressure.


But the success of our new digital services suggests that public demand for the core BBC content proposition – news, music, education, arts and entertainment, drama and comedy, documentary, sport – is as strong as it's ever been.


It's just that audiences expect to be able to access and enjoy all of these things whenever and wherever they want to.


But we think the real action is still ahead. The cost of storage is collapsing. So too the cost of at least some forms of distribution.


As a result, choice for many audio-visual consumers will become in effect limitless.


What does the word broadcasting mean in that environment? Well, sometimes – the 2012 Olympics, say, or even the first transmission of the 2012 run of Dr Who – exactly what it's always meant: millions of people sitting down together to share a common moment.


But it will mean many other things as well.


This week we're launching a five thousand household trial of a project called MyBBCPlayer, an on-demand window through which licence-fee payers can catch up on the past seven days' worth of TV and radio programmes, explore the BBC archive, create their own news bulletin based on the stories that interest them.


If that trial is successful, we'll be proposing MyBBCPlayer to our Board of Governors.


If it passes what will be one of the first "public value tests" and receives all other necessary consents, we would aim to launch it in 2006.


MyBBCPlayer points up another important theme. It's not a separate service alongside BBC Television and Radio. It is Television and Radio delivered by other means.


BBC News is now a service which transcends any one platform. On 7 July, 30 million people in the UK watched BBC News on television and tens of millions listened on radio.


But it was also our biggest ever day on the news website, and the biggest day for rich broadband news content.


Much of the rich audio-visual content the public wanted to see, by the way, was user-generated: stills and videos of the London bombings uploaded to the BBC by members of the public and then used across all our services.


Wherever we can, we conceive major projects and creative ideas across platforms. I want to show you an example of this.


Earlier this year, we broadcast The Beethoven Experience. The centre-piece was on Radio 3, where over a week listeners heard every note that Beethoven composed.


Alongside that was not only some high profile television, but extensive use of digital media both for two-way dialogue with the audience and, as you'll see, for a rather interesting experiment in downloading.




The story of the Beethoven downloads is an instructive one. Roger Wright, the Controller of Radio 3, briefed members of the record industry and we spoke to our regulator beforehand and everyone was very relaxed.


When we raised the idea of a market impact assessment with a number of interested parties, there was open merriment.


"There just isn't going to be a market," we were told.


Well, a million or so downloads later, it's fair to say the mood is slightly less relaxed than it was. So what are the lessons?


First, that market impact really is important to assess and understand. We'd always regarded the Beethoven downloads as a time-limited experiment. It's one we won't repeat without further research and consultation.


Though again, we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that the net market impact was inevitably negative. Let's look at the aggregate effect of The Beethoven Experience on the sale of Beethoven and other classical CDs.


Let's look at its effect, if any, on the commercial download market.


As you've heard, opening up the BBC's archive is an important part of MyBBCPlayer. Indeed it's a big idea in itself.


We have a treasure house of content which the public paid for and which we now have the means to give back to them.


But market impact and the interests and priorities of rights-holders will be critical as we examine exactly how to open the archive up.


Much of it, we believe, can be freely released for domestic use but some should, and will, be paid for – one reason why the BBC strongly supports efforts to establish effective Digital Rights Management systems and controls.


Wherever appropriate, we will seek to work in partnership with the commercial market to exploit the archive – we've recently signed a deal with Universal Music, for instance, to do just that.


But the biggest lesson from Beethoven is about public appetite for high quality content from the new media.


In the past two years, the initiative has passed to the consumer. Far from struggling to entice our audiences to sample cutting-edge technology, we are now racing to keep up.


Content without frontiers


This is only one part of the digital story of course. Although over 60 per cent of households in the UK have digital TV and a majority are on the web, digital exclusion for some less- advantaged groups in society remains likely without active intervention.


That's why last week the Secretary of State announced details of targeted help for some key groups as the UK switches from analogue to digital television – a project in which the Government has assigned a leading role for the BBC.


It's also why we place such an emphasis at the BBC on digital access and media literacy.


Freeview was an attempt to provide a simple, low-cost way of households to convert to digital TV – the clarity of the offer and the effect which open competition has had on the price of boxes mean that it is likely to overtake satellite as the most popular digital platform.


We've played a similar role in the successful launch of digital radio in the UK.


In many towns, we've built BBC Open Centres where the public can come in and sample the new digital technologies.


Through the BBC Learning project Blast and, from next year, through the Digital Curriculum, we'll be providing young people with the resources to develop the skills and confidence they'll need to express themselves and navigate effectively and safely through the digital world.


But what is the right role for regulation in this emerging digital environment?


The new platforms show even less respect for national boundaries than the old ones – many of those Beethoven downloads took place outside both the UK and Europe – and convergence has set two regulatory cultures on a collision course with each other: the high-intervention culture of broadcasting and the tradition of low intervention – at least in respect to content – of the telecommunications sector.


The original Television Without Frontiers Directive was an effective and imaginative response to the issues of its time but the Commission is right to regard revision as an urgent priority.


To be relevant, Television Without Frontiers should become Content Without Frontiers and extend to cover all platforms and all electronic media.


That does not mean, however, that broadcasting-style content regulation should extend to other media.


We need to be realistic here about the practicality – even the desirability – of content enforcement in an on-demand, online world.


Audiences and consumers will continue to expect minimum standards to be observed in much of the content they use, in respect of taste and decency, for example, and the protection of minors.


For the foreseeable future, they can also reasonably expect such standards to be enforced on content provided through linear broadcast channels.


In the on-demand environment, things are clearly more complex.


Some public interest objectives – like the protection of children – will certainly remain relevant and regulators will have a responsibility to work with industry and governments to address problems and identify solutions.


But our own research suggests that public expectations of BBC online content are very different from their expectation of what they see on BBC Television – they simply do not feel they need, or want, the same level of protection.


Even if the technical means could be found to enforce intrusive content regulation, it is not obvious that the balance of civic benefits – freedom of expression and creativity versus protection from offence – would favour it except in the case of minors and the most extreme content.


Self-regulation grounded in systematic and continuous research into public attitudes and responses is a better option for the new media.


We are also sceptical about whether it makes sense to map broadcasting content quotas across into the non-linear world.


Enforceability again is an issue, but so too again is the balance of civic advantage in an environment which is very different from that of traditional broadcasting.


Where spectrum and viewer choice is limited, it is reasonable to insist that a reasonable proportion of output should be of European origin.


Where spectrum is effectively infinite and the consumer is in control, it is hard to see why they shouldn't be allowed to choose for themselves.


We do not therefore believe that the quotas should be extended to on-demand media.


We should keep them under review in broadcast media. But there are other important other matters that a future Content Without Frontiers should deal with.


A pan-European approach to digital rights management, which is vital if the EU's creative industries are to grow and succeed in their own and in global markets.


Support too for inter-operability and common and, wherever possible, open-source technical standards so that the market in digital content is driven first and foremost by consumer demand and consumer convenience rather than by disproportionate power in the hands of gatekeepers.


The future of public service content


So there is plenty that Content Without Frontiers can achieve. But it should also be clear from what I've said that I don't think it can achieve everything.


In particular, I believe that guaranteed, large-scale European investment in many categories of content will continue to require not regulation but active public intervention.


It's sometimes argued that this kind of intervention will no longer be necessary in a fully on-demand world.


Why can't the market provide consumers with all the content they need?


And it's true that the sheer range of content which digital makes possible will change some priorities for the PSBs.


Hard, for example, for them to continue to justify their historic levels of acquisition of US imports when the same or similar content is available to consumers not just from commercial broadcast rivals but directly from the makers on-line.


But there's a big difference between simple variety and genuine choice, and there are many genres which we have every reason to believe will be under-represented in the investment decisions which the online market will support.


Rather than focus on obvious areas like current affairs, the arts and religion, I'll take the rather less obviously public service genre of comedy.


Currently, despite the scores of other radio channels available in the UK, BBC Radio is the only commissioner of scripted radio comedy.


In TV, comedy relies almost entirely on BBC Television and Channel 4. ITV does very little, Channel 5 almost none.


Satellite and cable have brought hundreds of new channels and plenty of chances to watch both re-runs of existing British comedy and of US shows. But virtually zero investment in new British comedy.


No new sitcoms, no new sketch shows - again apart from channels like BBC THREE and E4, launched by the PSBs.


Successful comedies can be enormous moneyspinners, but the strike rate is low.


That doesn't matter in the vast US market, but even in a market the size of the UK it makes more sense for commercial players to focus on lower-cost, more reliable genres - reality and format factual, for example.


Now, there is nothing in the likely economics of on-demand which will change this state of affairs.


Comedy - or at least indigenous comedy - will continue to require public investment if it's to be made.


And to state the obvious, if it isn't made in the first place, no amount of on-demand distribution technology will enable the public to see it.


The same is true, not perhaps of chart music - but of most other forms of music-making. The same is true of in-depth news and current affairs, documentary, many forms of indigenous drama and so on.


The key pressure on all these genres was never lack of spectrum. It was lack of sufficient investment.


It seems to me that the key purpose of public service intervention in this converging world is to concentrate investment to support outstanding content in all these areas.


So: enlightened, flexible, evolving regulation can play an important part in ensuring that the digital revolution is a good one.


But I would argue that, not just in the UK but across Europe, governments will not be able to rely on regulation or the market alone.


The digital space is a public space, an increasingly important part of the wider public realm.


It will need active civic intervention and significant public investment if it is deliver its full potential to the people of Europe.


Thank you.


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