Two decades since preparations began for the launch of digital television in the United Kingdom, a BBC executive told the annual summit of the Digital Television Group in London that it was not a question of when but how to make the transition to being an internet broadcaster. Yet it could still be some time until all television transitions to internet protocols.
Mathew Postgate, the chief technology and product officer of the BBC, said the BBC faces the challenge of moving to a world based on internet protocols. Its services need not only to be robust by universally available and free at the point of use.
“We believe that the days when all media will be distributed over the internet are not too far away,” he said. “TV is going to evolve into something more pervasive, more interactive and more personalised.”
He talked of the need to recreate public service broadcasting for the internet age. The concept of public service broadcasting has involved not only a set of technologies but an endeavour with abstract values and attributes that have been created and nurtured over decades.
“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.”
The BBC was an early adopter of the internet and has pioneered new services with the BBC iPlayer. Yet this still delivers only a minority of viewing.
Asked when we could expect television to transition entirely to the internet, many delegates put it at 2035 or beyond, with hybrid services until then. For many of them that would be well after they have retired.
We hear a lot about the viewing behaviour of millennials. Depending how these are defined, they could be aged 55 or more in 2035. The median age of a viewer to BBC One is currently over 60. By 2035 these people will be in their late seventies.
The question is perhaps not whether they will still be watching BBC One through traditional transmissions, but how relevant that will be to the rest of the viewing public.
It seems likely that conventional broadcasting will continue as a nightlight service for the foreseeable future, if only because it is too politically sensitive to turn it off.
Ed Vaizey MP, a previous minister of state for culture and the digital economy, revealed that George Osborne, the former chancellor, had considered a switchover to accelerate broadband deployment. However, he suggested that this would not be on the agenda unless proposed by the industry, which would not be until it was sufficiently feasible or valuable.
Steven Unger, a board member of the communications regulator Ofcom, proposed that public service broadcasters might need to collaborate to compete in a changing media landscape.
He suggested that digital terrestrial television was likely to be important for a decade or more. Meanwhile, public service broadcasters have the opportunity to adapt to compete with the scale of global players.
Indicating that a more permissive approach might be required when considering any resulting competition issues, he implied that the previous online joint venture between broadcasters, known as Project Kangaroo, should perhaps not have been blocked on competition grounds.
That was topical, because it appears that such discussions are once again on the agenda, so perhaps we will see the return of a Project Boomerang.
Meanwhile, broadcasters may need to form distribution partnerships with global players. The challenge will be to maintain the values that have defined public service broadcasting and how to ensure prominence of public services in an era of infinite choice.
As Matthew Postgate from the BBC observed, the definition of broadcast may change. Once it referred to a way of sowing seeds in a field. So it seems the BBC does not wish to be limited by a strict definition of broadcast as a means of distribution.
If you are not defined as a broadcaster, it may be difficult for viewers to distinguish what you do from other online media distributors. Surely that is a challenge for broadcasters like the BBC.
Other services can compete with many aspects of what broadcasters do, increasingly with bigger budgets. Yet there seems to be something that is distinctive about broadcasting, however it is delivered.
That is something worth not only preserving and protecting but extending and enhancing. What is needed is the vision and ambition for to show what that might look like in the foreseeable future.