The BBC is to make some of its archive programmes available to the public as part of a limited consumer trial. Ashley Highfield, their director of future media and technology, announced the trial at the IPTV Explained conference in London organised by Broadcast magazine in association with informitv.

Around a thousand hours of archive programming from a mix of genres will be made available to a group of 20,000 trial users. Some 50 hours of television and radio programmes will be made available for general access. The BBC has about a million hours of material in its archive, the vast majority of which has yet to be digitised.

The trial is expected to begin early next year and is expected to last up to six months. It will test audience demand for archive material. The results of the trial will inform plans for a public service archive online, which will require approval from the BBC Trust.

The proposed BBC archive would be an extension of the seven-day catch-up programming proposition, including the BBC iPlayer, which is currently awaiting the outcome of a public value test.

“As part of our commitment to making our public service content more personal, more convenient and more relevant for all our audiences, we are developing a portfolio of services to offer licence payers access to the BBC’s archive,” said Ashley Highfield. “Our goal is to turn the BBC into an open cultural and creative resource for the nation.”

It follows a previous Creative Archive pilot which released selected television and radio material under a licence to allow people to use it for their own non-commercial purposes. Although it received a Bafta award for technical innovation, the scheme disappointed some because of the limited volume and quality of material that was made available.

Talk of the BBC putting its archive online has generated some excitement, but the project is restricted by rights issues and the resources required.

The BBC says that subject to the licence fee settlement, the public service archive proposition will be further developed in light of the trials before being submitted for approval to the BBC Trust in the second half of 2007.

Ashley Highfield also hinted to conference delegates that they might see the BBC distribute material through MySpace and YouTube, adding “more on that next year”.

The announcement of the archive trial comes the week after Channel 4 launched its commercial download service, which includes a range of programmes from its schedule and a selection of material from its archive.