The BBC has unveiled its vision of the digital future in the run-up to the debate over the renewal of its Royal Charter.
At the heart of its nine-point plan for the future of the BBC in the twenty-first century is the ambition of building digital Britain, together with a new test of public value.
Michael Grade, the recently appointed BBC Chairman launched the radical 130 page manifesto, Building public value: Renewing the BBC for a digital world, saying: “Our task over the next year is to convince the British public that the BBC’s role in the new digital age of plenty is both justified and necessary.”
“The most urgent priority is not further expansion, but completing the challenge of creating a fully digital Britain. That is what will enable the BBC to deliver its vision of universality,” he said.
Unveiling the BBC’s defence of the licence fee and the case to retain its Royal Charter for a further decade, he said that in the view of the BBC Governors imperial ambitions are a thing of the past.
“Technological change is offering us new means of delivering our content in ways that work better for our audiences,” he said. “The public interest demands we explore them.”
Michael Grade was making his first set-piece speech since the departures of Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke following the Hutton report.
The BBC has a new mission, to build a digital Britain. It is the word digital, rather than interactive or new media, that resonates throughout the BBC’s manifesto.
“Ahead of us we have digital switchover. A transformation of Britain’s broadcasting landscape,” said Michael Grade. “It is right that the BBC should be expected to lead this change.”
While defending the licence fee as the most appropriate method of funding the BBC, the Chairman welcomed debate over the constitutional organisation of the corporation, including mutualisation, trust status, establishing the BBC as a public interest company or renewing its Royal Charter.
Rather than attempting to define public service broadcasting in subjective terms of quality or distinctiveness, the BBC’s latest big idea employs an argument more recognisable to an economist, that free-to-air broadcasting is a public good that creates collective social value. In other words it aims to treat its audience not just as consumers but as members of a wider society in which the objective of informing, educating and entertaining serves a public purpose that is democratic, cultural, educational, social and global. The difficulty with this argument is that much of the notion of public value remains intangible.
The BBC paper also indicates that while the public have a right to expect a breath of service, there will be a review of the BBC’s depth of vertical integration and the extent to which it undertakes activities in-house rather than in partnership or under contract with other parties.
Ironically, having already announced the decision to sell-off its Technology division, the Corporation is clearly putting digital transformation at the forefront of the debate over the future of public service broadcasting.
Mark Thompson, the BBC’s newly-appointed Director General said he believes that the BBC has a leadership role in building a fully-digital Britain.
The BBC will commit to supporting the full roll-out of Digital Terrestrial Television, building its network to near universality and taking the lead in a massive marketing and public information campaign on behalf of all public service broadcasters. The BBC challenges the government assumption that analogue switch-off can be achieved by 2010, saying that 2012 is a realistic target.
The BBC says it will work with others to create a successful free digital satellite service, able to reach those households who cannot receive Digital Terrestrial Television. Sky recently pre-empted the BBC’s internal plans to launch a Freesat service by announcing a free-to-view satellite offering, but the BBC says it is still committed to providing such a service in collaboration with other public service broadcasters, possibly in co-operation with BSkyB. Richard Freudenstein, Chief Operating Officer of BSkyB confirmed that Sky is in discussions with the BBC, telling a government select committee “We are not sure about what they are going to achieve with their service, that’s why we are talking to them about supporting our service.”
In addition, the BBC says it wants to accelerate the roll-out and take-up of DAB digital radio, investing in its network to cover at least 90% of UK homes.
The BBC’s submission also trails proposals to use digital technology to launch very local television news services for up to 60 locations across the UK, providing up to ten minutes a day of local news and information. The BBC says it is exploring the relative costs and feasibility of launching this service on broadband and on digital television, including Freeview.
The document also confirms that the BBC is currently developing plans to produce all its television output to meet High Definition Television standards by 2010.
“We look forward to a future where the public have access to a treasure-house of digital content, a store of value which spans media and platforms, develops and grows over time, which the public own and can use freely in perpetuity,” said Mark Thompson.
Among the more radical proposals is the previously announced Interactive Media Player that according to the BBC’s press release will allow users “to download any TV programme within seven days of transmission”. It is understood that the pilot service, currently undergoing internal trials, will only provide access to a selection of programmes for which the relevant rights are available.
Furthermore, the BBC says it will work with partners to make BBC content available on demand to audiences when and where they want and to help pioneer open access to rich broadband content and make content available to other digital platforms and providers where it is consistent with BBC brand and values.
The BBC has previously announced plans for a Creative Archive of selected material, freely available online for learning and personal use, and says it will work with others to make online and broadband more accessible and affordable, developing easy-to-use navigational tools to make it easier for people to find the content they want.
The BBC Creative Archive will establish a pool of high-quality content which can be legally drawn on by collectors, enthusiasts, artists, musicians, students, teachers and many others, who can search and use this material non-commercially.
The manifesto states that the BBC’s programme archive is owned by the British people and has until now remained largely inaccessible as there has been no cost-effective mechanism for distribution. This perhaps understates the issues involved in clearing the subsidiary rights involved in most of the BBC’s material, with the exception of certain factual domains such as natural history footage. However, the BBC states that as demand grows it is committed to extending the Creative Archive across all areas of output while protecting the commercial rights of intellectual property owners. Nevertheless, that has not prevented hyperbolic headlines such as ‘BBC TV library to be put online’.
Promising a revolution in learning, the BBC says it will launch and deliver the BBC Digital Curriculum to every school in the UK, working with the rest of the sector to bring the learning revolution to every British child. will be available to any school or household with an internet connection, although the benefits of the rich media on offer will be felt most fully by the increasing number of users with broadband access. The BBC will also use its online service and interactive television to develop new personalised learning opportunities for different audience groups.
Where online services did not meet the proposed test of public value, it was revealed that the BBC would close some of its web sites within weeks.
In Building Public Value, the BBC says it wants to build a digital world based on universal access, open standards without encryption, arguing that while subscription services may have a role in the digital ecology they cannot successfully replace free-to-air public service broadcasting.
“In the end, the future will not be about pathways and platforms but about content,” said Mark Thompson. “Creating a fully digital Britain is a public challenge the BBC must help to lead.”
He said that the traditional one-way traffic from broadcaster to consumer will evolve into a true creative dialogue in which the public are not passive audiences but active, inspired participants.
“The switch from analogue to digital television is only one part of this digital transition: creating a digital Britain is about much more than one change in one broadcast technology. If the full potential of the second phase of the digital revolution is realised, it could transform the lives of everyone in the UK.
The second phase of the digital revolution, according to the BBC will be characterised not just by the continued take-up of digital services, but by the rapid growth of broadband, bringing with it easy access to “a potentially limitless range of programmes, services and content on demand.”
The BBC is placing considerable emphasis on the importance of broadband, predicting that broadband access will be available to between 15 and 20 million homes by 2016, bringing fast internet services and high-quality video to computers and other devices.
The BBC expects that by 2016, seven in ten homes will be able to schedule their viewing and listening at a time that suits them best. Many will use Personal Video Recorders able to store as much as 4,000 hours of material, equivalent to six months of output of a 24-hour television channel. In addition, the BBC predicts, downloading and filesharing of video and audio from the internet will become commonplace for many people.
The BBC believes that users increasingly expect digital services to be tailored to their individual requirements to make them easier to use and more relevant. This will become more common in future as successful manufacturers increasingly tailor their products to suit individual lifestyles and people embrace intelligent devices and software which recognise and act on their preferences and needs.
Digital media is transforming relationships between audiences and broadcasters. Increasingly, viewers and listeners can vote, answer questions, shape the outcome of stories, give feedback in real time and even report breaking news. According to BBC research, sixty-one per cent of people who have used BBC interactive television services say it makes watching programmes more enjoyable.
Television and the internet will become as portable as radio over the next 10–15 years. The BBC expects to see new devices that can perform the combined functions of a television, radio, computer and mobile phone.
The BBC recognises that by the middle of the next decade, content will be available at the call of audiences rather than the plans of schedulers. Broadcast channels will still have their place for live and shared events and the first showing of new programmes, while brands will be more important than ever in helping people to find what they want in a crowded and cacophonous media landscape.
The BBC predicts “We believe these changes will be at least as dramatic as the impact of the internet and digital television over the last ten years, and have the power to transform the lives of everyone in the UK. However, this will only be possible if everyone can benefit from the new technologies.”
Elsewhere, the BBC’s submission states that it will deliver greater value and memorability beyond the broadcast, with an impact that is being transformed by online, interactive television and broadband.
The report concludes that the public can look forward to the digital future as a time of unrivalled consumer choice and that the BBC will play its part in building the infrastructure and content on which this new digital world will be founded.
Building public value: Renewing the BBC for a digital world is published by the BBC.