HD Masters Conference Keynote Speech, 23 June 2009
I thought some of you might be interested to read a speech I gave earlier today at the HD Masters Conference in London.
I hope you will recognise within it the extent to which your comments do inform some of my thinking around HD (and there's a specific reference to the blog at one point). You might also want particularly to look at the list of titles of programmes which are now working in HD and will deliver to BBC HD over the coming months (towards the end of the speech).
All the best
Given the collective insight and vision assembled here, I'm sure the ground swell of the HD revolution was apparent to all of you when you last met.
But it is just under a year since I took over as Head of BBC HD and I've found the events of the last twelve months dramatic. To see HD TV sets ranked alongside baked beans, olive oil and low energy light bulbs as the consumer goods that are bucking the recession is certainly not something I would have anticipated.
And I think that even more startling, and in the long-run more significant, is the proof from HD in the last year - beyond all reasonable doubt - that it is the new, mainstream television proposal.
Let me show you what I mean:
[Clip of Michael Macintyre Live at the Apollo that ends with him saying:
: ".....totally unprepared for HD - I don't even know what HD is..."]
When comedians choose to make jokes about a new technology, that can get that kind of reaction from a general audience, I think that is the strongest true indicator we can have that the UK really is HD-ready.
With more than nineteen million HD-ready sets sold, independent estimates suggest almost 45% of homes across the UK are now HD-ready. Connectivity has grown over 40% already this year, on top of the more than 60% growth clocked up in the second half of 2008. I think it is clear that the UK population is voting with its albeit squeezed wallets. This rate of growth is no doubt a relief to those who have invested in consumer technology and platforms. But it can feel somewhat dizzying to those of us working in broadcasting and production, a theme I want to return to later.
To put this growth rate in perspective, it's helpful to look at the development path of other consumer technologies in recent years. Let's take the PVR for example. Sky launched Sky Plus into the UK market in 2001. Around two thirds of their customer base - a little over 6 million households - now take it, and in the year and a half since Freeview Plus, became available, nearly one point five million units have been sold. "Plussing" content - be it Sky, Freeview, or anyone else may not have reached the English Dictionary, but we all know what it means. It has however taken 8 years of the technology being part of the mainstream to get to this point.
HD to my mind has more in common with the mobile phone texting revolution, where consumers pounced on what was originally conceived as a minority feature and shifted it to a defining technology almost overnight.
Of course the technological gestation and the agreement of HD standards has been lengthy. But we are only just into the third year of a real consumer offering, and look where we stand. HD plays into a basic desire for high quality television pictures. There may be a degree of complexity in explaining what HD is and how consumers can get it. But we know that once people engage with HD they view it simply as bigger, better, normal television.
Download Dan, the person behind the growth in on-demand video, is easy to identify. He's about 40, and probably in a relationship though with no children. He earns a reasonable living, has a fair amount of disposable income and in terms of what he watches, he knows what he likes. Certainly when it comes to BBC iPlayer he heads straight for the programmes he knows - Top Gear being the obvious one.
I can't paint you a similar picture of HD man, or woman, or child. Stereotypes are much trickier in the HD universe. That's because although the first wave of HD uptake, ably led by Sky, has been around their classic heavy-users, the HD audience has moved very rapidly towards simply everyone. Younger people buying an AV set up of their own for the first time are choosing to go HD. So too are many older viewers who have carefully looked after the cathode ray tube occupying a sizeable chunk of the living room. They are leapfrogging a generation of sets and set-top boxes to move straight into the HD world.
When that HD set is first connected up, any stunning picture will do. We know that not least because on New Year's Day morning the viewing figures for BBC HD showed a significant spike. The thing is, we weren't actually showing any programmes at that point, only channel promotional material - the increase in viewers was purely a result of people playing with sets that they had bought in the post-Christmas period, desperate to look at HD material.
Naturally enough, once that initial euphoria has evaporated, people become more specific and demanding about the kinds of programmes that they are looking to watch in HD - if you don't believe me, just take a look at any discussions on the BBC HD blog. Contrary to expectations - which suggest the great appetite in HD is for sport, for films, for jaw-dropping natural history - our research shows that what viewers want in HD are the programmes that they love to watch in SD.
Topping the list are documentaries, modern dramas, Saturday night family entertainment, and science and technology programmes, with soaps, news and comedies not far behind. This is what we might describe as the bread, butter and jam of everyday television, and ties in with what we are seeing in terms of programme performance on BBC HD. Nature's Great Events - the stunning natural history series shown earlier this year - did do very well.
But looking at the programmes attracting our biggest audiences, they include the Doctor Who Easter special, The Eurovision Song Contest, Robin Hood, slick contemporary drama Hustle, and the period soap, Larkrise to Candleford. Events like the Six Nations Rugby and the US Masters Golf feature in the list, but so too do the Antiques Roadshow, Who Do You Think You Are?, Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, and Live at the Apollo (from which you saw a small section earlier).
Over the last year on BBC HD we've tried to strengthen and to broaden the programme mix. There is still - of course - more work to do. But it is no coincidence that over the same time period we've seen audience growth of more than a hundred and twenty percent, to around 1.2 million viewers a month. As a broadcaster and producer all this is incredibly exciting. But we also find ourselves racing to keep up with an audience whose appetite for what we can offer in HD seems pretty insatiable.
In the early days we at the BBC, along with many others, I think believed that HD could do wonders in certain, limited areas. In series like Planet Earth it gave us views of the world that we had believed impossible, the clarity of image, even shot at a distance, allowing glimpses of animal behaviour which we could never hope to get close to physically. In sport, it meant for the first time that viewers at home could really see the state of the football pitch, or follow the golf ball through the air. In television drama, it allowed us to get the qualities of film to work for the small screen on TV drama budgets - the Kenneth Branagh detective drama Wallander screened a few months ago being just one, particularly striking example:
[Clip of Wallander]
But our audiences are telling us clearly that we can't box HD neatly into a limited number of genres. They instinctively recognise that HD can transform everything that we make for television. Let me demonstrate using this footage from the men's 100m final in Beijing last summer.
[Clip of last year's 100m final in Beijing]
Aside from recalling one of the truly great moments from last year captured in HD, the point I want to make from this is about the ability that HD has to transform the relationship between the viewer and the subject matter. The picture detail means that in that opening sequence as the athletes prepare we are able to see their intense focus. As the race gets underway, raw energy and power surge out of the screen, with no need for 3D assistance. And the emotion of the aftermath is real and gripping.
Television's promise has always been about bringing the world into the intimate space of a living room. HD takes that further and breaks down the barrier of the screen so that an audience can feel part of the event, can get even closer to the characters, can really be there. And of course that has implications that are profound, and thrilling, across every area of programming.
Television is an art form and HD offers us a new set of tools to create intense reality. In BBC HD we've spent the last year stretching and testing ourselves, pushing out the boundaries across children's programmes, sport, current affairs, documentaries, features, entertainment, comedy, and of course drama, experimenting with what HD can bring to new kinds of programming. Like everyone else we are learning as we go.
As the majority of you will recognise, the challenges around moving to HD are substantial. We are effectively asking the entire UK production base to make a transition from the tools with which they are familiar to a new suite of cameras and post production equipment which is at a less mature stage in its development, which can be less versatile and is certainly less forgiving of mistakes. We are asking them to do that at a time when the funding for television content is reducing, and we are asking production companies, resource providers, facilities owners, and freelancers to invest time, skill and money in a technology for which although it is growing, the audience and the immediate return to parts of the value chain remains limited.
Money is a big barrier - but it is not the only one. The concerns of on and off-screen talent are an issue. So is the need to re-evaluate sets, make-up, costumes. But most limiting for us has been the slow evolution of a camera line-up to allow us to push HD production out across the range of programmes we make. We cannot afford - nor would our programme-makers want - to reverse the self-shooting trend. It is only recently that we have been able to identify any camera which can deliver broadcast-quality HD and work in that sort of production set-up. We have been trialling the Sony EX One and Sony EX three over the last couple of months. See what you think:
[Clip of U2 at the BBC]
That sequence intercut shots from a Sony HD-Cam and the EX One.
We are still working through the issues around post-production workflow, and archiving - and indeed it is at the post-production stage in particular that the immaturity of HD can add complexity and time. But for us what this small camera can deliver is a breakthrough, allowing us to consider the migration of a much, much wider range of BBC programming than has previously been possible. We are now eagerly anticipating the arrival of a light-weight shoulder-mounted camera from Panasonic promised for later this year.
Pioneering in these kind of circumstances is precisely what the licence fee funds the BBC to do. That is why we are determinedly pushing ahead and will continue to do so. Last year 23% of all the programming produced for the BBC - excluding news hours - was delivered in HD. This will increase this year and I hope that by 2012 we will see at least 70% of BBC programming being made in HD. We are providing training and support where it is needed, and sharing our experiences, both good and bad. To be successful, we need the industry as a whole to move forward, and so the insights and support that we have available are there for all those who may find them valuable, whether they sit inside or outside the BBC.
We are looking to grow in other ways too. In April we launched BBC HD content on the online BBC iPlayer. Our programmes have subsequently become available on Virgin's TV iPlayer. Our aim in moving into these on-demand spaces is to try to extend the access to the programmes we are making in HD, to open up the HD world a little further. Let me share some of the - unsolicited - feedback with you.
For the first time I am watching HD television... on my PC which has come down my phone line and over the power lines inside my house. How weird is that! Quality is excellent on my computer monitor and I can't wait to try it out on my 40" LCD.
Looks like my cheap PC may be getting a new graphics card soon. I could just stick to watching shows via the iPlayer in standard def, but you know what they say.....once you've gone HD you never want to go back.Our HD offering on-demand is still developing, and will grow. But already the experience of HD is sufficiently compelling to prompt people to think about upgrading their computers. HD does mark a return to traditional, old fashioned, sit-back-and-relax-while-the-pictures-roll television. But it is also finding a place in the new media world which - as connection speeds increase - will only strengthen.
We could not have got to this point were it not for the willingness of others across the industry to feel the fear of HD and to do it anyway. There are many independent producers, cameramen and freelance directors who have embarked with us on this voyage to the unknown, believing like us in the creative potential of the new technology. To them I would like to say thank you.
And to those who have to date sat somewhat nervously on the sidelines, I would urge you to join us. HD is more than a technology standard or a delivery format. It is the way that we need to make television going forward because it is the way that our audiences want to view television. As such, it is truly unstoppable.
I believe that we are already very close to the inflexion point at which HD take-up will start to accelerate away to stratospheric growth rates. Two things only are critical to that - the widespread availability of HD (and of course the equipment to receive it), and the availability of a rich seam of content in HD which audiences want to watch.
By the end of this year, HD on Freeview will be a reality. By the middle of next year it will probably be accessible to around 50% of the UK population and I am confident that the full range of consumer equipment - from basic boxes to next generation PVRs - will be in the shops. There are now more questions to the BBC about this issue than any other HD-related matter, and it is important for all of us working in HD that we understand the significance of the Freeview HD developments.
Already, the competitive dynamic between platforms around HD is spurring growth. But many of those nineteen million plus HD-ready sets sold are in Freeview homes. For the vast majority of households, the desire for HD alone will not trigger a change in the digital supplier. In other words, there is huge pent-up demand within the Freeview population for a route to HD which leaves them with their platform of choice.
But if we look at the broadband experience, we can see quite clearly the role that compelling content plays in driving firstly take-up, and more recently the demand for faster and faster speeds. In the HD world, the shift into mass take-up requires more than the craving for the "next best thing", and more than a belief that the picture and sound quality is better. Above all it will depend on the word-of-mouth marketing from existing viewers around how much more they enjoy the programmes that they're watching in HD than their SD equivalents.
Sky - and more recently Virgin - recognise this. So too do those building up their online HD on-demand libraries. The breadth of taste in HD requires a range of channels and content to satisfy it. The Sky portfolio stood at thirty three channels last time I counted, and will grow further over the months ahead. But as we all know, an HD channel does not necessarily equate to HD programmes, and HD programmes - even the best of them in terms of pure technical quality - do not automatically equate to compelling content.
Let me speak from personal experience over the last ten months. Every programme which I select for migration to HD delivery presents new and different issues. My team and I - together with the producers we work with - have contended with high-level studio metal work, suddenly visible; dust in a dilapidated school being used for a location; getting cameras into caves, or working for street-level guerrilla-style shooting; Saharan sands; concerns about the quality of wigs; unexpected results from combinations of filters; actors and actresses concerned about aging; camera combinations involving mobile phones; the challenges of viewing HD rushes on location; sticking HD cameras in the deep freezer to test for Antarctic shoots; and that selection excludes the financial challenges which working in HD can still raise.
Sticking to a more limited range of content, or upscaling, would undoubtedly make life easier. But it would also make the viewing experience poorer, and the appeal of HD narrower.
Without good, varied true-HD content available we will not realise the potential of HD either creatively or commercially. The consistent preference of UK audiences for UK content means we need to ensure that rather than buying in programmes from the US, we work together to migrate production activity in the UK. The BBC and Sky are already doing this in terms of our commissioning activity - despite the pressures on them I hope that ITV, Channel Four and five as well as others who commission in the UK can do the same.
That is all about the short-term, a period that I believe is characterised by rapid growth in HD availability, awareness and connectivity, and I hope by continued experimentation and expansion of the amount and the variety of HD programming.
But 2012 will mark HD's coming of age in the UK. We are working on ways to ensure that as many as possible of the hours of events that will make up the London Olympics are available to audiences in true HD. And I believe that the vast majority of our UK audience will watch at least a part of the action in HD. There will be moments - as during the coronation year sixty years previously with colour television - when families and friends will gather round sets to watch together. Not because they don't have access to the pictures in other forms, but because if you can't be there, viewing in HD will be the way to get as close to the action as possible. There will be others, at work or at home, who will watch events as they happen through the day using BBC HD online video streaming, or catch up on what they've missed using BBC HD content available through iplayer or the BBC Sport portal.
I would bet personally on the point of HD switchover being some way off. But as I've already suggested, the point at which HD becomes "normal", just the quality television that viewers expect, is only around the corner.
Working in HD, whether as a producer, channel provider, or distributor can be a painful process - but the way forward must depend on another "p", partnership, on which at times it seems the whole future of UK television rests. In this case the argument for partnership is pragmatic rather than political: Because quite simply none of us - and that includes of course the BBC - is sufficiently strong on our own to address the challenges around leading UK audiences and the television industry through the HD revolution that is underway.
We need to work together to cross new creative bridges as we make an increasingly wide range of content in HD, to develop the tools and the skills together to work successfully in HD, and to build a compelling offer in terms of the range of ways that viewers can access HD content.
We need to find ways simply and clearly to explain to audiences how to get HD. The last time we asked the question - admittedly a few months ago - only 43% of UK consumers knew that they might need an HD set-top box to watch programmes in HD, and 26% were unaware that they needed an HD-ready TV.
Consumers will not buy into HD, and appreciate what it can bring to their viewing experience, if they mistakenly think that they are already watching HD simply because they've purchased an HD-ready TV. Explaining the routes to HD, and what HD represents when you get there, is a much more complex job than, say, selling colour TV, or even a basic multi-channel offer. It is up to all of us to work together to demystify the process of acquiring HD connectivity, and to highlight the choices of platform and technology that are open to viewers.
On BBC HD we have used on-air campaigns and our website to provide support for people looking to find out more about getting HD through all platforms. The video guide we have made is freely available to all third parties under the BBC's usual syndication terms, and we will of course keep looking for opportunities to do more.
Through Freesat and Freeview, as well as the iplayer, the BBC is working to open up the routes into HD for audiences. While Sky and Virgin Media will undoubtedly continue to be an important part of our HD landscape, the non-subscription services in which the BBC is a partner - to be joined in time we hope by Project Canvas - offer important alternatives. Leaving HD as a premium product - whether in terms of content or platform - might make profits for some but would leave us ultimately failing to realise the true potential for UK audiences. Opening up the technology, to the point where it simply becomes the next television standard across the board, can deliver far, far more for all of us.
But the decisive factor will be providing content that audiences love.
This year, BBC HD was Freesat viewers' choice for Channel of the Year, ahead of all other channels on the platform. In the course of 2009, in addition to brand new BBC programmes, we've brought Doctor Who, and daytime drama Doctors into HD. In the coming months Dragon's Den, Countryfile, the Culture Show, Shooting Stars, The Restaurant, Waterloo Road, Ashes to Ashes, Hole in the Wall, and Flog it! are already committed to making the move. I am confident that this year we will increase the total number of hours of content that the BBC is making in HD by over 300, and I do not intend that we should stop there.
I want to end by sharing with you the words of a new member of the HD-family, who contacted me. He says:
"Its been wonderful to see that the grim predictions of the demise of TV are not only premature but totally reversed with the take off of HD and Blu-Ray quality.
"I know there is an HD file format on iPlayer but the big screen still has a thrilling impact - I feel like a kid again when my Mum and Dad first got a colour set in 1970!"
Everyone should have the opportunity to get that excited about television again. Within the BBC we will work to make good on the promise that HD really can be for everyone. Please join us. And enjoy the content we're going to bring to you.
[Clip of Doctor Who Special]