The BBC’s digital direction

Based on interviews in the last fortnight with the BBC’s Director General (Mark Thompson), Chief Technology Officer (John Varney), and Director of New Media & Technology (Ashley Highfield), you might hope to be able to discern, by process of triangulation, a clear corporate position and direction. But what you get is a much more postmodern mix of perspectives that only rarely hint at connections.

Given the scale and complexity of the issues, combined with the uncertain organisational context with the impending renewal of the Charter, you can forgive the interviewees sounding a bit tentative in some areas. Here’s a summary of the points I found interesting.

  1. John Varney explains that the BBC creates “something like 13Tb [sic, presumably TB?] of content data a week, and we are talking about shifting that around a commodity network and storing it”, and they need to be able to “hit all these different routes to market — digital TV, broadband, narrowband, mobile — simultaneously and dynamically with the same content types”.
  2. The one thing all the interviewees refer to is the so-called ‘interactive’ coverage of the Olympics. I didn’t see it, but how interactive was it? I thought the interaction was glorified channel switching? Having been completely won over to a post-TV lifestyle in the last 18 months (broadband connections being much easier to come by than working TV aerials in the places I’ve been living), I worry that the TV experience, and particularly sports TV, is being used as the index of progress in digital media transmission. There are many more varied media futures ahead of us, where the moving image will play a more supporting role than it has done in TV over the last 50 years.
  3. Ashley Highfield is soft-pedalling, if not yet back-pedalling, on the BBC’s previous announcement that access to the BBC Creative Archive will be based on the Creative Commons model (see my previous posting on this issue)
  4. At the end of the Varley interview, comes the news “The BBC plans to create an online archive of factual television content due for release this autumn. An advisory panel to help the BBC choose what content to place online has also been formed.” This is presumably the first pilot for the Creative Archive. And autumn is imminent.
  5. On the interactive Media Player, about which there have been contradictory signals recently, Highfield is also very cautious: “…when we launch it as a real product, if we launch it — you know we have only just finished the trial — there is no guarantee that we will”.
  6. Finally, Highfield, who I think was first to coin the term ‘martini media’ refers dismissively to the “usual cyber bullshit”. But he knows, better than most, that John Perry Barlow’s dictum “Bullshit is the grease for the skids upon which we ride into the future” still holds true, even if it was to blame for the boom-and-bust. You need concrete and attractive scenarios of new products and services to get sponsors for new developments. And before you have those sponsors you don’t know for sure whether those scenarios are bullshit or not.

On that note, it would be possible to be cynical about the BBC’s tactics. Like NASA offering tantalising but uncertain evidence of life on Mars to secure more federal dollars for grand missions, it helps the BBC to describe exciting futures with Creative Archives and interactive Media Players while simultaneously stressing how fragile and contingent their plans must be until their political and financial backing is secure. But I think this is a completely fair representation of the BBC’s current position. Which probably means that it’s not worth laying bets on long-term directions becoming clear any time soon.

Meanwhile the Electronic Frontier Foundation is getting behind the lobby for the Creative Archive, and particularly the Creative Commons licensing, as can be seen from their testimony to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport.

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for the link to the John Varney interview.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *