Public Service Broadband content

Here are my notes from yesterday’s Public Service Broadcasting: Beyond Television event organised by the Broadband Stakeholder Group.

I’ve decided to present the notes I took on my palmtop fairly unprocessed, since (a) most of the sessions were panel discussions, which it is hard to condense, (b) I don’t think there are any clear or snappy conclusions, so presenting the different voices sometimes talking across each other is perhaps the most fair representation of the proceedings, and (c) I have neither the brainpower nor the arrogance of strong opinion to give an ‘angle’ on what was said.

The notes are a mixture of paraphrase and precis rather than quotes, unless indicated by double quotation marks, and, as you can detect, the proportion of comments I found noteworthy declined gradually through the seminar. As a note-taker I am fallible: if you spot inaccuracies in this record, please tell me and I will correct them as quickly as I can.

Session 1: Introduction — building the broadband opportunity

Adam Singer (Member of Ofcom Content Panel, ex-head of Telewest)

  • Any technology worth having becomes ubiquitous — so the digital divide will disappear, though the ‘information poor’ may always be 5-10 years behind in terms of the bandwidth available to them.
  • If BT put fibre to the home, would that blow everyone else out of the water?
  • Broadband is a fragmented market aggregator. It helps users find ‘out of the way’ content that does not have mass market appeal (the ‘long tail’).
  • Television is becoming a subset of the Internet, as music has already become. Examples like demonstrate this, and suggest that, by using the Internet for TV-style content, they may circumnavigate Ofcom regulation in the process.
  • Programming for learning should recognise that the curriculum changes with the times: you don’t need to teach the capital of Peru in the age of Google, any more than you need to teach the hunter-gatherer skills of following deer droppings.

Session 2: Beyond television to public service broadband content?


Foster: There may be an issue about effectiveness of Public Service Broadcasting going forward, as it has always been predicated on reaching a large market, which is not always (often?) the case in the age of broadband.

Highfield: The BBC has a continuing role to inform, educate and entertain. On the education side, the BBC has several broadband offerings, from the digital curriculum, and GCSE bite size, through to helping teenagers through difficult periods on Radio 1 web site. There is also a valuable role of a trusted guide to help people to sift through the “five million channels” to which technologies like Google give access.
The site logged 14 million UK users in December, which represents half of the online population in the country, and demonstrates the size of the ‘market’.
Serendipity is not dead in the Internet world. Experience suggests that people do browse the BBC’s home page to find things that might interest them, rather than just bookmarking their favourite specialist areas and only visiting them. The fear that the Internet would lead to people just filtering the information that supports their own bigotry appears not to be well-founded. People don’t want “a Wikipedia, entirely user-generated, find-it-yourself world”.

Graf: The BBC is good at stating what it should do, but not so good at doing it. To be a trusted guide, the BBC has to help people go beyond what’s on their site. It should act more as an enabler, not as a restrictor.

Highfield: We have to recognise the need to change culture of the BBC to achieve this, since it has grown up dealing solely with its own content throughout its history until now, rather than being a gatekeeper. The beginnings of this are starting to be seen, as the BBC News site stories now have a side-bar linking to coverage of the same stories from other sources.

Chitty: If the rationale of the BBC was to inform, educate and entertain, and the rationale for Channel 4 was to cater better for diverse and minority interests, the purpose of the next stage of public service content should be empowerment: enabling people to be better citizens.

Singer: All the major infrastructural changes portended by technology are goinq to come into play within BBC’s next charter period. How do you put a fence round what should (and should not) be supported as ‘public service’?

(Unattributed interjection): There is still no clear fence for TV after eighty years of experience!

Graf: The issue is also about how you police this boundary, since the fence is likely to move as the technology environment evolves.

Highfield: All new BBC Online services will be subject to a public value test.

Graf: There needs to be openness and accountability in this process.

Chitty: The BBC’s parenting site fulfils a public value remit, but, following the recommendations of the Graf report, it was closed. There is a worry that the Graf report leads the BBC site to be just an ‘add-on’ to TV programming when there is value in it doing other things as well.

Singer: The BBC is positioning itself as a public good. For example, its programming promotes racial tolerance, which benefits everyone, whether they watch BBC programmes or not.
More generally, one rule of thumb for intervening in the supply of content is that, if you have a small supply, you regulate it; if you have a large supply, you tax it.

(Unattributed): Could there be a prospect of opt-in regulations, with rewards for participation (e.g. inclusion in the Electronic Programme Guide of the future)?

Highfield: “As endorsed by Graf report”, the BBC has a role to drive demand for new platforms.

Session 3: Implications of broadband for BBC Charter renewal


  • Angel Gambino, Controller Business Development & Emerging Platforms, BBC
  • Bruce Vandenberg, MD, Interactive Rights Management Ltd
  • John McVay, Chief Executive, PACT
  • Campbell Cowie, Director Public Policy Europe, Time Warner
  • Damian Tambini, Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy, Centre
    for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford University

Gambino: There is a danger of leaving radio out of the broadband picture in the discussion. The BBC Radio Player, which aggregates the BBC’s own content, has already shown itself to be a very popular service. The interactive Media Player, which will provide similar features as the radio player for TV content, is in development, as is the Creative Archive. The feedback from the market is that people want to be able to take their content with them, and watch/listen to it when they want. In this context its understandable that rights holders are nervous about what’s being proposed. Angel started talking about syndicating BBC content to broadband providers when she joined the BBC four years ago, but it has taken time for these ideas to build momentum. The BBC is committed to offering new tools to get their content to audiences.

Anthony Lilley (panel chairman): To summarise, the BBC is investing in (a) returning value to the license payer, and (b) innovation in new formats.

Cowie: This overview of BBC developments demonstrates that the BBC can experiment in ways that a private corporation would find it very hard to justify to its shareholders. What other market failure is there in the broadband market, and how is the BBC filling this? This is not clear. Only in the experimentation and innovation field is the market failure apparent.

Tambini: There is the prospect that in the future users may be driven to value public service content simply because it has less restrictive Digital Rights Management built in, and is easier to share than the commercial content.

McVay: There is a value attached to this content, and there is a market in operation . It’s just that the money is being made by broadband ISPs from users attracted by broadband content, even though they pay nothing towards the BBC content (as indeed they pay nothing towards the peer-to-peer services that also drive their demand).

Tambini: Broadband Stakeholder Group members should get behind Creative Archive and lobby for it, because it drives the demand broadband. And Creative Commons licensing in turn provides the enabling platform for the Creative Archive, so they should get behind that as well.

McVay: There is concern about the lobby for the right to re-edit and re-purpose content from archive materials. For example, people who appear in Wife Swap [apparently this is a TV programme?] may agree to participate based on certain premises and conditions, and they may not be happy to have the programme re-cut by someone other than the original programme maker.

Session 4: Implications for the PSB Review — Should Ofcom’s proposed Public Service Publisher (PSP) be a full broadband proposition?


[For background context on the PSP concept, see this Guardian article and this Ofcom consultation.]

Docherty: What kind of service is really needed? He and his colleagues have been impressed by blogs and peer-to-peer distribution, and they proposed to build a broadband service that aggregated these on the web, and would also be available on TV. It would effectively be just a big syndicating entity.

Geater: Channel 4 is in a perfect position to provide a PSP service, but recognises that it needs to work in partnership. They would also embrace the Creative Commons approach for the service.

Webb: What are the best media filters to get to new communities?

Arora: If the PSP is getting £300million a year [as indicated in Ofcom’s consultation], it needs to provide on substantial, tangible social goals, since it will be competing with health, education etc for public funds. The DfES’s Teacher TV is costing about £20million, and will have independence from government by following the post-Hutto-enquiry model for the BBC governors.

Docherty: Bloggers don’t need commissioners. You don’t need a big management overhead to deliver content that has a public service.

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