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24 September 2014
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Ashley Highfield


Ashley Highfield

Director of New Media & Technology

The future role of the BBC as a broadcaster on the web

23 May 2006
Printable version

Speech given at a Royal Television Society dinner


Check against delivery


A couple of months ago, at a management retreat with my BBC colleagues, I was demonstrating the Any Questions Answered – AQA - text service, where, for a pound, you get a single answer to, surprise surprise, any question.


A nameless board member suggested I ask AQA: "How should the BBC be structured?"


I did, and, after a long pause, got the text back, "There are many views on this. The BBC needs a flatter structure with fewer managers. It's not clear the move to Manchester will save money." An even longer pause ensued in the room.


So now the secret is out about how we do strategic planning at the BBC, I thought I'd ask AQA why the BBC is on the internet? The answer in just a minute...


The official purposes were laid down by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport in 1998, and ratified after the Graf review of in 2004. They are:


  • To share BBC television & radio's wider public purpose as the BBC's 'third medium'
  • To act as an essential resource offering wide-ranging, unique content
  • To use the internet to forge a new relationship with licence fee payers & strengthen accountability, and
  • To provide a home for licence fee payers on the internet and act as a trusted guide to the new media environment


It's worth saying that the Graf review also concluded that it "could neither be proved nor disproved" that the BBC's online activities have adversely affected the UK internet market, and research done at the time, by MORI, suggested that the BBC may have brought as many as 2 million people online for the first time.


Since then we have striven to provide services that might help to narrow still further the digital divide - our web initiative 'The People's War' inspired older viewers to tell their wartime experiences for example - and it resulted in over 125,000 contributions, with over 91% of the stories contributed by people over 65, and brought tens of thousands of them to the web for the first time.


And it is of course to our audience that we must listen first and foremost to understand if we provide them with a valued service.


Human Capital asked recently what the BBC's services are worth to the average person, and the current service came out third after BBC ONE and TWO, with a value of £3.40 per person per month, not far short of ten times more than the 38p it actually costs the 16 million UK licence fee payers who regularly use BBC online.


However, whilst helping the commercial online sector cannot take precedence over our primary mission to inform, entertain, and educate our audience over I.P. as much as television and radio, I've always recognised the significant role the BBC can play here.


I welcomed Graf's recommendation that we should implement a more systematic and comprehensive approach to linking from to external sites for example.


The power of taking audiences from a programme on BBC ONE to a site on and then out into cyberspace is huge – but I think we could go so much further. And we are trying: 9.5m users in March used BBC content syndicated to third party sites such as AOL and MSN; 23% of those users did not visit at all in March.


So far from being a 800 pound gorilla crushing the green shoots of plucky cyber-sowers, I believe we have the potential to have a significant and positive market impact.


And AQA agrees! It texted me back that "The BBC website is an excellent resource. The Worldwide Web, developed by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Geneva in the 1990s, has room for everyone". Incidentally, I had to check the 1990s date - I couldn't believe it was that recent, but Berners-Lee created the first directory of web sites only as recently as August 6 1991: we've not even had the 15th anniversary of the web yet.


But can we really deliver a genuine win-win-win for audiences, the BBC, and the commercial sector? And if so, how?


Firstly, we at the BBC must recognise that the internet is changing. It is becoming more translucent and porous – less silo'd. It's becoming less centrally controlled – if it ever was.


Peer to peer and other technologies are shifting the power from the centre to the nodes at the edge of the network: you and me. This is a tough culture shift for an organisation used the certainties of the broadcast world.


Used to the idea of almost total control over what and how you watch, listen and consume, we must now learn to "loosen up and let go" as the Buddhist lama Surya Das puts it.


I still believe our audiences value as a portal, as a safe haven for many, which offers a starting point and a trusted guide.


And, by bringing audiences home to we will be able, using social software and advanced Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, to learn so much more about their likes and dislikes, and build far more valuable, personalised experiences around what we know they'll like, and often giving them what they didn't even know they'd like.


But we also believe our audience want much more as well. To find our content where they want it, whether within their favourite portal like MSN, their community like YouTube, or their environment like the Second Life virtual world website.


They want to contribute their content – this we know – but not necessarily always on our site, so we absolutely don't want to become a MySpace or a Flickr or a Friends Reunited, we want to work with these players, to partner our relevant offerings with theirs.


In short we want to shift from being a gateway, to being a conduit, a channel for conveying content, and frequently neither the start nor the end of the journey.


In this much more fluid world though, the imprimatur of the BBC, the stamp of independent, trusted, innovative, quality content, will have ever more, not less, saliency.


Strategic overview


So the key challenges facing the BBC as a broadcaster on the web in the next three years are actually quite straightforward - we must maintain the traditional values of what we offer - independence, trust, innovation, and quality, whilst changing how we offer our content and services so that we remain relevant in the on-demand, digital age.


I believe that how we deliver our programmes, the context, will be every bit as important as the content. Success in the web 2.0 world for all of us will come down to 'discoverability'.


Great technology will take us part of the way - for example using powerful search algorithms to query our information about programmes, our metadata, and unearth clips of Churchill from our Archive using text, voice, face, or other pattern recognition.


Harnessing the 'wisdom of crowds' or social software, from buddy list recommendations to 'most downloaded', will take us further.


But to give our audiences not just what they want, but what they didn't know they wanted, what will surprise and delight them, often without the distractions of a thousand alternatives, well that will require the web to adopt the skills of the broadcast industry of the last 80 years.


Skills such as scheduling programmes in the knowledge of which audiences will be tuning in, packaging programming in a way that enables the smooth transition of audiences from one programme to the next, promotion and marketing skills, and of course commissioning of great ideas that capture the national mood and deliver reach beyond traditional audiences.


Fundamentally, establishing a clear editorial voice that is flexible and intuitive to meet the needs of the on-demand world. And right now on-line, especially where rich media is concerned, this combination of technology, audience behaviour, and editorial skills is all too rare.


So we've got our work cut out. The Martini media world of anytime, anyplace, anyway, requires that we must radically reinvent


Firstly making sure our content always matches our values, and the high expectations of our users, applying the same discipline that spectrum scarcity forces TV and radio to enforce. Put another way we must learn better what 'de-commissioning' means in the web space. And secondly, making sure our content can be found, played-out, and shared and contributed to.


Find. Play. Share.


These are the three closely connected parts of the supply chain or conduit that will see our content reach and hopefully delight & engage the largest possible audiences.


Find is all about producing next generation search & navigation services. Play starts with our plans for BBC iPlayer, which is subject to a Public Value Test, and builds on the success of the BBC's RadioPlayer. And Share is at the heart of 2.0: personalisation, contribution, recommendation, and innovation.


The journey to reinventing 'Find' has begun. We have launched the BBC's programme catalogue going back 80 years as an experimental prototype:


[Video: programme catalogue]


And this catalogue merely represents the BBC's knowledge about our programmes: how much richer and more powerful when we open this catalogue up to our audience to contribute to - to tell us the exact crew of the 1955 boat-race – and they will!


We've also re-launched of the BBC's website search engine and internet search engine:


[Video: search]


But this is just the start. It still has nothing like the editorial strength we're aiming for, and still barely harnesses the wisdom of crowds. Working with our partners, within a year, we aim to offer one of the world's most comprehensive video, audio and text editorialised search services.


With Play we have a clear proposition in BBC iPlayer, which is subject to a Public Value Test. It is proposed to incorporate a 7-day catch-up radio and television service, live streaming of our television channels, and separately a pilot of the Open Archive.


iPlayer builds on the findings from the iMP trial which showed programmes downloaded via iMP accounted for 6% of triallists' total viewing from the BBC.


It showed that the 'long tail' applies equally to TV programmes as it does to books. Some 96% of all programmes offered were downloaded.


It showed that some programmes, released from users' pre-conceptions of channel brands, could find a new audience in the on-demand world, and it showed this service was of equal appeal to men and women.


iMP has recently be renamed iPlayer. Working with Microsoft, we've developed what a future generation iPlayer might look like:


[Video: iMP Vista]


Share - a philosophy which is at the heart of 2.0, it comprises not only innovative, interactive new formats which you may have seen or heard about like Jamie Kane, Action Network, and Wannabes.


It also has at its heart themed, editorialised User-generated content, building on legacy which goes back five years to H2G2 and has continued more recently with Film Network and Comedy Soup. Last week we were delighted that one of most significant User Generated Content pilots, the Open Earth Archive, won a Bafta.


[Video: Creative Archive]


Earlier this month, we launched an Open Schools Archive. Tomorrow, we pilot Local Archives in Devon & Cornwall, and in Lincolnshire & Humberside.


But Share is also about this idea of being more a conduit than a gateway, of trying to get out of the way, of moving from the centre to the edges.


For example, last autumn we ran The Children in Need Great Big Bid which pushed people through to Ebay to buy and sell items for Children in Need and raised £1m.


And just last weekend, Radio 1's year-long partnership with Second Life really came to life with a simulcast of the One Big Sunday Dundee festival within the virtual world at


[Run VT5: R1/Second Life]


And, rather than getting the photos that the audience had taken of the bands submitted to our web site, we partnered with Flickr instead.


[Run VT6: BBC/Flickr]


And coming up soon our BBC Action Network website will be teaming up with the RSA, Starbucks and T-Mobile as a partner in the RSA Coffeehouse Challenge.




The ultimate aspiration is to bring all of these new initiatives together into a comprehensive re-think of what the BBC's public service offering on the web should look like.


An offering which allows users to create their own personalised version of and to share it with others.


Not through expansionism but partnership – partnership with commercial companies and with our audience, achieving a balance between the need for some central control and coordination, and 'letting go'. Please feel free to help us!


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