Jana Bennett, the BBC’s Director of Television, addressed the joint MiPTV and MILIA conference in Cannes with a provocative keynote presentation entitled ‘Red Button Revolution — Power to the people’. It was significant that this keynote presentation chose to focus on the potential of interactive television. While acknowledging the contribution made by commercial broadcasters and programme-makers in popularising interactive voting shows, Jana Bennett said that public service broadcasters like the BBC have a duty to push the boundaries of interactivity.

“Of course this is not the first revolution for television. Seventy or so years ago television felt every bit as radical as it does today,” she said.

Addressing the MIPTV and Milia audiences under the same roof for the first time, Jana Bennet’s keynote speech exemplified the convergence of the worlds of traditional and interactive television.

The BBC has recently fully embedded its enhanced television operation within the main body of television commissioning, to provide an integrated approach that will ultimately result in greater audience connection and engagement.

As a medium, television reached into people’s homes and into their lives. It created new forms of entertainment, new sources of information and new opportunities to learn. Its near universal take-up, combined with the power of pictures, gave it more impact than any other medium.

“Looking back, it’s easy now to see the limitations of the analogue era,” observed Jana. “So many things we take for granted today simply weren’t possible. Analogue television may have been a force for liberation in its day but it was also bound by some pretty rigid technology.”

Television was previously a monolithic technology. It was big, square and sat in the corner. We fitted our lives around it. We all tended to watch the same things at the same time whether it suited us or not. TV called the shots.

Today, television is shrugging off those technical limitations. The technical revolution of the last decade has put power in the hands of audiences. PVRs and multi channel platforms are giving people the freedom to watch what they want, when they want.

“I believe one of the biggest challenges ahead will be creative rather than technical. I see consumers becoming just as concerned with the quality of the experience as the quantity.”

In comparison to the limited menu previously offered by television, modern viewers can consume an endless all-you-can-eat 24-hour buffet. As Jana observed, the freedom to eat all you can doesn’t feel like freedom if you don’t like the kind of food on offer.

“What is needed is a creative revolution every bit as ambitious as the technical one we have seen in the last decade. Creatively, a new world of possibilities has opened up allowing the BBC to experiment and challenge digital audiences.”

According to its Director of Television, publicly funded broadcasters like the BBC have the potential to play a crucial role. She claimed that digital television is deepening the experience and raising expectations about what television can do, adding: “I want the BBC to be a pioneer of original programming. As a publicly funded broadcaster we can afford to take more risks and pave the way for other broadcasters to be braver.”

“It means more than slapping a vote on as an afterthought. It’s about building interactivity in from the start and giving viewers freedom to play with our ideas in ways we no longer control. The result is television which really does break out of the box.”

She cited Restoration, a series about the potential to renovate historic buildings of national importance. The series reached an audience of 20 million viewers, with 2.3 million voting via phone or their red button for a building to save. Jana added: “By looking beyond the commercial returns of interactivity we can create extra value for the public in every genre.”

The age of interactivity may allow broadcasters to be driven by audience demand, but Jana challenged programme makers not to be driven by the lowest common denominator.

“Interactivity has to develop beyond voting someone out at the end of the programme by pressing your red button.”

Jana observed that for public service broadcasters like the BBC, interactivity is opening up new and exciting possibilities to strengthen our democratic, social and cultural contribution. In doing so it can enrich people’s lives, bring audiences closer to programmes, getting them more involved and creating shared experiences.

The keynote speech was originally scheduled to have been given by Greg Dyke, the BBC’s former Director General, who resigned at the end of January 2004.

Jana Bennett joined the BBC in 1979 and was appointed Editor of the science series Horizon in 1990, going on to become Director of Production and Director of Programmes before leaving to join Discovery Communications in the USA. She returned to the BBC as Director of Television in April 2002.