Everyone pays for the BBC and so we need to serve everyone in the UK in the way that they choose. More than that, we exist to create social value, not shareholder value so reaching everyone is essential to our mission.Matthew Postgate, Chief Technology and Product Officer
Date: 10.05.2018 Last updated: 11.05.2018 at 11.30
Speech by Matthew Postgate, Chief Technology and Product Officer, to the DTG Annual Summit in London on Thursday 10 May, 2018.
Check against delivery
The BBC is an organisation of story tellers; and one of the things you learn at the BBC is that if you don’t write your story then someone else will write it for you.
When it comes to how the internet is changing society, I think there are some truly amazing story tellers from the west coast of America. The story we have all become familiar with is one about disruptive new companies redefining industries as they sweep away the institutions of old.
As with all the best stories large parts of it are true; but it’s also a story that turns out to have a darker second chapter. In their effort to ‘move fast and break things’ some of the negative consequences were missed. The internet was supposed to offer infinite choice but we have ended up with filter bubbles; where the internet was supposed to usher in a new industrial age we have seen the economic benefits increasingly concentrated within a few companies.
I think that it’s important for the people and organisations represented by the DTG to tell their own story about how the internet will change what we do. And it does need to be ‘our story’; just as the story of what has been achieved over the last 20 years has been our story.
Today I want to start to tell you the BBC’s part of this new story so that we can write the next chapter together.
A year ago, our Deputy Director General, Anne Bulford spoke here and touched on the specific challenge the BBC has as we move towards an IP world.
We know some of our audiences are already using the BBC more on the internet than they do on our broadcast technologies. Equally there are audiences for whom the opposite is true.
Everyone pays for the BBC and so we need to serve everyone in the UK in the way that they choose. More than that, we exist to create social value, not shareholder value so reaching everyone is essential to our mission.
That’s why we have always said that this 11-year Charter period will be one of transition. Many people have already adopted the internet as their primary medium, while many will continue to watch and listen to traditional channels.
During this charter we will deliver for both groups.
The IP Future
Having said that we believe that the days when all media will be distributed over the internet are not too far away.
There are many reasons to be optimistic about this next phase for our industry; we have already seen a huge increase in content investment and the technologies of the internet are going to allow audiences to enjoy greater breadth and greater control over their experience.
The impact of on-demand is already apparent but that is only the beginning. TV is going to evolve into something more immersive, more pervasive, more interactive and more personalised. We are already seeing the beginning of this shift. One of the simplest innovations is instant restart on live programmes. When we implemented it on mobile a third of people used the feature and internet is going to allow us to extend these ideas of breadth and control even further.
Timing and readiness
You can’t talk about the potential of internet broadcasting without asking the question ‘when’. IP networks already do a good job of serving the on-demand version of the future. However both the fixed and wireless networks would struggle with the live output our broadcasts networks deliver every day, let alone on a weekend like the one we have coming up with a royal wedding and an FA cup final.
A world of data caps and buffering for linear services is not going to work although some factors will reduce the size of the problem will disappear over time:
The balance between live and on-demand will shift further
Our networks and the applications that run on them will improve
Crucially we will also find editorial ways round the bottlenecks
But there is another critical point about the transition to the internet
For the internet to be an effective distribution network, it needs to be not only robust but also universally available - everybody in the country needs access, without exception.
And there’s a third vitally important point to make. What if even though you do have great fixed and wireless broadband availability you can’t afford to watch the Royal Wedding or FA Cup Final?
In this country we’re used to the idea that our public service broadcasters can make sure that the whole country can come together for the biggest national moments.
But the IP future comes with no guarantees. At this nascent stage, the type of future we are heading towards is very much up for grabs and this is not just true for audiences but also for our industry.
The UK’s creative economy
For now, the UK remains one of the most vibrant and successful media sectors in the world, and arguably the most innovative and creative radio and TV market on the planet. That has been achieved, in a large part, by the people represented in this room.
Its driven by a sustained investment in British platforms and content, backed by a mix of funding models - advertising, subscription, and public money - a strong public service broadcasting sector and a competitive commercial industry.
It’s a unique media ecology that’s one of the jewels in the UK’s economic crown. But the competitive dynamics of the internet won’t necessarily sustain that success and uphold that ecology.
We know that the internet economy during the last 10 years of growth has been directed at winner-takes all markets, controlled by vertically and horizontally integrated platforms of massive global scale.
And these companies have no particular interest in sustained investment in a broad range of UK content, or news plurality, or positive social outcomes... They are not necessarily interested in providing a safe space for children online, or tackling fake news - both areas in which the BBC is working hard with others to improve.
On the contrary, the incentives of the today’s biggest internet media organisations are to own and distribute globalised content, to capture brand attribution, to control data and routes to audiences.
A move to IP distribution could follow a path where powerful, vertically integrated gatekeepers intermediate broadcasters’ relationship with audiences... Where the costs to both broadcasters and audiences spiral. Where British content diminishes and UK production stagnates.
Despite the opportunity for audiences, why would a broadcaster risk moving quickly towards an internet future under such circumstances?
When you take all of these issues into account I think the really interesting question is not ‘when’ but ‘how’ will we make the transition to being an internet broadcaster.
Our IP approach
As we think about the transition to IP distribution it’s important to remind ourselves that public service broadcasting has evolved not simply as a set of technologies, but as an endeavour; an act of will. It is defined not just by technological opportunity but also by abstract values and social contribution.
That means it has qualities and attributes that have been created and nurtured over decades: quality, breadth, universality, even intimacy - in terms of a direct, unmediated relationship between broadcasters and audiences.
We need these attributes of broadcasting to be carried over into the digital age and should have the ambition for them to be amplified by the creative potential of the internet.
My belief that the internet could make the BBC even more effective at delivering for audiences is what caused me to join the organisation in 2003.
So for the BBC, the question about our IP future becomes not just when, but also how? Not only about how quickly we can get there, but how best, and under what conditions?
Which brings me to the BBC’s policy on distribution…
Earlier this year we published our draft distribution policy for consultation, and we have now received responses.
It sets out the conditions which we judge to be both reasonable and necessary for the BBC in order to meet our public service mission.
Our starting point is simple:
The more effectively we distribute our services, the more valuable they are to the public. The more convenient they are to find and the more easily identifiable they are as BBC services, the greater the value for licence fee payers.
That’s why we’ve attached so much importance to curation and proper attribution when shown on other people’s platforms.
Similarly, knowing what people watch and how they watch it ultimately helps us improve the viewing experience. That’s why we’ve placed so much importance on access to data.
And, of course, the less our services cost to distribute, the more the BBC can spend on British content.
Delivering against these public service goals will be jeopardised if we cannot curate the breadth of the BBC’s offer for audiences in order to inform, educate and entertain.
Overall, the risk is that audiences benefit less from BBC innovations, consume a narrower range of BBC content and get less value from the licence fee. The BBC Board is now considering all consultation responses and will publish the final policy once complete.
It’s crucial that we get this right - it’s how we will recreate and amplify the act of public service broadcasting on the internet.
I want to finish by talking about how important it is that the industry in the UK comes together to help secure the IP future that I believe this country deserves.
We know the global media industry is consolidating. A world in which the market is increasingly dominated by a small number of US or Asian giants with extraordinary creative, financial and technological firepower is a world in which it is harder and harder to compete.
It’s also a world in which, despite all the potential, will not necessarily deliver an IP future that secures the interests of UK audiences and the UK media landscape.
Are we really doing enough, collectively, in this country? Are we really moving quickly enough to respond?
The BBC cannot consolidate like most other media players but we can partner at scale and across all the different activities it will take to build the IP future I have described; from standards, to network engineering, devices, content production and even personal data infrastructures and ethics.
I believe the creative ecology that we have created in this country can prosper in the IP future, but only if we join forces in new ways and with even more ambition.
The story is unfolding as we speak and it is a story that is being written on a grand scale at high speed. It’s time for us to write our next chapter together and not let someone else write it for us.