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Three dimensions, 5,000 hours, and an audience of billions

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Roger Mosey | 10:30 UK time, Thursday, 10 September 2009

I'm speaking today (Thursday) at the IBC in Amsterdam. Below is the full text of what I'm saying, but the aim is to do three main things:

1. Point to the range of innovation our audiences can expect in 2012 - from our commitment to broadcasting every single hour of every sport and services for mobiles to the possibilities of 3D and Super HD

2. Underline that this is about success for the UK, the creative industries and the legacy for the wider world

3. But also to outline how it gives us an opportunity to showcase the vigour and relevance of public service broadcasting in the digital age

Here's the detail...

Sir Chris Hoy at the London 2012 Velo Park construction site
Triple Olympic gold-medallist Sir Chris Hoy outside the London 2012 Velo Park construction site

You won't be surprised here at IBC when I say that I'm personally a fan of digital technology - and the innovation, the choice and the improved quality it's brought with it. That's what I'm going to concentrate on today, particularly in the way we can all use the 2012 Olympics as a flagship event of the fully-digital era. But I also want to factor in broadcasting and its traditional values. I'm one of the generation that grew up with television as an unprecedented window on the world, as a medium that educated and informed as well as entertained. And in the BBC we still want radio, television and new media to be forces for good: the public investment in us means we need to deliver clear and demonstrable benefits for our audiences and for society as a whole. So contributing to what we want to be a brilliantly successful Olympic Games - and securing a legacy for Britain and the wider world - is a challenge we relish.

It's more important than ever precisely because we're at this historic moment when the world will become digital. Analogue switch-off happened in the United States after Beijing; and London and most of the rest of the UK will have lost analogue by the summer of 2012 - unleashing opportunities that are limitless. But there are risks too if what we end up is just 'stuff': a torrent of digital chaff that suffocates the aspiration to excellence which I saw on television and heard on radio when I was growing up. And what I want to emphasise today is the chance we have to use the Olympic Games both as a showcase for the digital universe and as a reminder about why the tested values still have their place too.

Now, in 2003 I gave a lecture in which I said that the the brilliance of the technology of the digital age hadn't then matched the content it was spreading. That was a view I don't shirk from, because the initial phase of the multi-channel revolution clearly didn't mean that having 100 times as many channels led to viewers getting programming that was 100 times better. It still remains a challenge to ensure that original drama, comedy and entertainment have proper funding; that nations have content reflecting their culture and history; and that we enable creativity.

But two things have changed in the past six years. The first is that we've used digital technology to offer more angles on core content - exploiting the multichannel potential of single events. If you have something good, offer even more and make it even better. Before Athens in 2004 in the UK we'd never had any interactive streams from an Olympic Games; and viewers had been stuck with our choice of courts at Wimbledon or our decision on which live band to show from the Glastonbury rock festival. What we now do - through the red button on interactive TV or on our website - is make as much as possible available to people so they call the shots not us.

BBC camera at the 1948 London Olympic Games
BBC camera at the 1948 London Olympic Games

The second is, of course, the growth of social networking - providing the connection between individuals and groups, but also the ability to create and share content with ease. It's produced YouTube, Facebook and Twitter; and most of us in the media have accommodated much more of the people's voice - and their pictures and videos - as part of our daily business. If it's content people want to talk about, we can now enable it and share the benefits. For some companies it's their entire business, which is great; while for us it's something that can expand and illuminate our provision of content.

Putting these two big developments together and adding them to our core operations has been a success. In the BBC we had a review of our output three years ago that was entitled "Creative Future" and was largely about the opportunities of digital; and one of the things we identified was the chance to make big events bigger. That means everything from building documentaries and entertainment programming around sport or other big live moments - and encouraging people to participate - to using all our platforms and services to help our audiences enjoy the major landmarks. At its best it's a 3x3 play: that we offer content on tv, on radio and online. And we also serve audiences globally - through BBC World Service and BBC World News; nationally; and locally on our regional television and local radio stations.

We've done this as a strategy. It's been public at every stage, and it has been about serving audiences. They get top-quality content free-to-air on the platform that suits them at a time that's convenient - but within experiences that are shared as widely as possible across the population, in direct contrast to the pay model. The Beijing Olympics are a prime example: 42 million people, three quarters of the population, watching on television; new audience highs for our website; more video consumed by the end of the first day in Beijing than in the whole of Athens 2004; and more video streaming in total than anywhere else in Europe. Audiences showed massive levels of appreciation for the service they got; and that included opinion-formers too. The Conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph said in an editorial that Labour's culture secretary was "rightly proud" of the BBC's coverage of Beijing.

So in London in 2012 it's simple: we'll try to do even better. I'm going to sketch out some of the headlines of how we hope to do that, but I should underline at this stage it's not something we can do on our own. This will involve partnerships most obviously with the London Organising Committee, many UK public institutions and with stakeholders like the IOC, the EBU and the host broadcasters at OBS. It will also involve working with this industry and many of the people here today to harness the best ideas. You may have seen that James Murdoch spoke recently about his opposition to what he called 'state' involvement in digital media:

"The problem with the UK is that it is unhappy in every way: it's the Addams family of world media."

We want to cheer James up and suggest his pessimism is unfounded - that a BBC still respected across the world as a model of public service can and does work with the private sector, and a healthy BBC with popular support is a guarantor of innovation and supporter of enterprise. Here, then, are some examples of what we as an industry could aim to do for the London Olympics.

First, we have challenges we've set ourselves that are objectives for the BBC. In the era of analogue scarcity we sometimes covered only a few hundred hours of the 5,000 hours of sport available at an Olympic Games. By Beijing we delivered more than half of all the content - about 2,700 hours. For London we want to offer our audience the whole lot: every hour of every sport taking place across the Olympic venues through our online site, interactive tv and our other platforms. Don't think this will be easy: there are significant pressures on the infrastructure - not just our own but the UK networks, so we'll be working with the ISPs. However, this would represent a massive shift of power from us to our audiences with unprecedented choice and the ability, if you want it, to create your own video Olympics. Our main networks will still offer tailored guides to all the premier content; but if all you want is table tennis, that's what you'll be able to choose.

And there's mobile. In Beijing we were hemmed in by logistical constraints and by worries about 'bill-shock', but for London we're already collaborating with the mobile industry to offer unprecedented richness of content for people on the move. Not just the key action, where we hold the mobile rights within the UK, but a range of information services that can get the results speedily to your mobile device or navigate you to the event itself or to the nearest pub for a cooling drink. All, of course, with the opportunity to tell us what you think via e-mail, message boards and blogs - adding new levels of interactivity and audience involvement.

Audiences will be able to get more information than ever before, too. More data, more choices of statistics that again move the selection from the broadcasters to the consumers - just as we hope people will be able to find and share and edit some of the content themselves too, within the appropriate rights management systems.

But then there are challenges for the wider industry and our partnerships. We could, and I believe should, capture some of the Games in 3D. Nobody would expect the Games of 2012 to be comprehensively in 3D because the technology will be nothing like widespread enough; but it would be a shame not to have any images of London that were part of an experiment with what will be one of the next big waves of change. The Olympic Stadium may only exist in its full 80,000+ capacity for a relatively short period. Not to have that at all in 3D would be, at the very least, a major gap in the archive.

Spectators watch a large screen in 3-D spectacles
Spectators watch a large screen in 3-D spectacles

Similarly, Super HD. There won't be a set in your living room by 2012, but there could be a limited number of cameras and big screens that will give us a taste of the future - and could give a major creative boost to technologists and people thinking of the content of tomorrow. Both 3D and Super HD are currently posing questions and opportunities rather than solutions; but now's the time to start examining seriously whether there are answers that could make 2012 even more of a landmark year.

Now, the professional broadcasting of the Olympic Games has long been a showcase for innovation and expertise: Beijing and the host broadcaster there did the job brilliantly, and we will be enthusiastic supporters of the next generation of digital coverage. But the unique opportunity for us in London is that these Games are in our own country, and we can achieve wider benefits than from just the sport. The kind of 3x3 tv/radio/online, global/national/local coverage I mentioned earlier can and does apply to culture, to news coverage, to entertainment and to mass participation events. We'll showcase the Cultural Olympiad with its performance, music and art; we'll offer every angle on the major news developments; and we'll use our global reach to connect the world to London and take London's story around the world. Our founding fathers decided that the slogan of the BBC would be 'nation shall speak peace unto nation' and there's the most obvious of all links to the aims of the Olympic movement. It fits too with the promises London made in winning the Games about inspiring the youth of the world, and we'll be unveiling programming between now and 2012 that will be our contribution to that mission.

And it's worth just underlining here that it wouldn't be good enough for the BBC just to broadcast these Games to the UK. The measure of success is not simply whether we beat the 42 million who watched Beijing. It's about a range of measures which are demanding. I've mentioned our need to demonstrate that partnerships work and that we support the wider creative industries. We also need to show that we've driven digital take-up even faster within the UK, that we've helped prevent any digital divide between those who can afford new technology and those who can't, between those who leap at it and those who need assistance. It means supporting media literacy campaigns, enabling employment through apprenticeships and training, making sure there are the greatest range of social benefits too. We should be held to account for whether we play our part in getting Britain healthier and more active as a result of the great sporting festival being held here.

BBC crest outside Broadcasting House
The BBC crest outside Broadcasting House

I say this not because I'm in favour of social engineering - or, heaven forfend, central control. But we all recognise that we live in a vibrant, culturally diverse, increasingly independent and consumer-oriented society - almost all of which is a benefit. Yet within that we should celebrate the opportunities of the things that bring us together: the moments when we have connections with each other and with millions in our own country and billions around the world.

There's a gloomier view that the digital world means we have to lose the best of what has served us well: that the great television companies and radio stations and newspapers are obsolescent, that the public service model is irrelevant, that truckloads of unfiltered content will serve us better than the paternalistic approach of the past. And it's right that paternalism is pretty much dead: the adult-child model of broadcasting, the impervious view that 'we know best', has gone and that's no bad thing. But what we need to do is ensure that the excitement of the new era is matched by content for grown-ups, material that fosters citizenship and involvement as well as instant gratification. That means we in the BBC have to continue to shape new visions for public service broadcasting in the same way that businesses are reinventing themselves in a time of structural change and recession. It means embracing the possibilities of 2012 as a year, and all the potential of the Olympics - and it requires us to look beyond them too. Because the ultimate test is whether we bequeath a legacy for 2013, 2014 and beyond: a more connected Britain, a sporting inspiration for the wider world, stronger creative industries, a technological and digital dividend.

Now let me finish by being honest that there is a divide here, and I'm unrepentant about it, between those who believe we should simply let the market and pay models decide the future - and people who support a modest level of intervention that works and, crucially, is accountable. In setting ourselves public targets for 2012 we expect to be judged by the public too. They - the widest swathe of the population and our audiences around the world - will ultimately decide whether we've succeeded or failed. I'm very happy to have that jury in place, and I hope as many of you as possible will join us to ensure that we meet their expectations.


  • Comment number 1.

    No interest at all in 3D TV. All I want for the games is for Freeview folk to have as many interactive options as those on Sky, even if the number of streams is then reduced afterwards. DSO should enable that to happen - but OFCOM stealing a mux for HD have put that in jeopardy. I'd much rather have the choice of 6-8 channels than a limited SD choice just to make one feed available in HD.

  • Comment number 2.

    Brekkie - just for reassurance, this will have no impact on Freeview. At most it will be an experiment, and there are no plans for a permanent 3D channel. But you're right about the impact of HD on Freeview, and that's something we're working on.

  • Comment number 3.


    I hope you enjoyed Amsterdam. The key will be to continue to serve those with the gadgets and those without who don't want information overload. I hope you will continue to make progress with the other world broadcasters so that this will be a great games for UK sport and UK culture.

  • Comment number 4.

    Thanks Roger. And amongst the whinging I probably don't say it, but should really say I'm enjoying these blogs.

    Any news on the BBC's plans for Vancouver next year, and any build up programming following the potential Winter medallists, as amazingly we do actually have some, but they don't get the coverage they perhaps deserve (across all media), certainly in comparison to our summer hopes. Personally outside the Olympics I'd like to see the BBC focus less on skiing and more on events where Brits are exceeding - generally shooting down icy tubes on flimsy pieces of metal.

  • Comment number 5.

    Brekkie - Dave Gordon will be leading our coverage from Vancouver, so I'm sure he'll be blogging before too long. Thanks for the kind words. Also philccl - and yes, we're making progress. I'll blog more next week.

  • Comment number 6.

    I hope 3D and SuperHD don't distract from getting the HD coverage right.

    I have about 1.5 terabytes of BBC's Beijing HD coverage recorded. One thing was clear to me - Eurosport was beating the BBC hands down when it came to picture quality. BBC runs its HD Sports at 9mbps, half that of Eurosports bandwidth. The result ? Compression artefacts on fast moving sports like Swimming, or even the ceremonies.

    Lets get the infrastructure right for HD Sports - that means sadly anything less that 14 mbps stat mux won't do for Sports coverage. Ask Sky Sports for instance.

    BBC HD channel right now is not up to the job for 2012, its compressing the pictures far to much. The last footbal coverage looked deadful for HD, something which has a least been partially acknowledged on the BBC HD blog.

    If you want to get enough infrastructure for 2012 in HD , you've got to start booking the satellite slots now I'd have thought. What you will do on Freview HD I have no idea because you've only got one channel.

  • Comment number 7.

    You need to buy the slots used for that Dave channel on freeview


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