What message does it send when you hire the country’s top new media manager to run a start-up business in an increasingly lean and competitive industry? What are you saying when you tap the Executive Board of the nation’s state broadcaster (and one of the most important media owners in the world) for your joint venture’s new MD? What does paying half a million pounds per year (my guess: his BBC salary is 350K) to the top man at your fledgling IP TV business say about your priorities?
Is it a statement of ambition and substance? An aggressive line in the sand for competitors and partners? A gesture of confidence in the business model and the medium?
Or is it a defeated acknowledgement of the status quo? Are you really saying “don’t worry everyone, we’ve had a good look at this IP TV thing and it’s going to be just like telly”. Does it scream “we haven’t got a name, a business model or an audience yet and already our HR costs are totally out-of-control”?
Frankly I’m worried. I’m worried that rushing out and securing the services of the best new media executive in the land is not the confident prelude to a smooth launch and rapid ascent to profitability and fame but rather the last thing you do before people start adding the prefix “troubled” to the things they say about you—as in “Kanagaroo, troubled web TV joint venture, today announced the appointment of Ashley Highfield…”
I think this role was really the perfect opportunity to ‘skip a generation’ and reach out to the dozens of smart managers one or two layers below Highfield at the Beeb and in the commercial sector. I think that opportunity has been missed because Kangaroo is already a disaster waiting to happen: an almost unmanageable Euro-pudding of a joint venture with no visible path to profitability and a business plan that’s in free-fall. Hiring the industry’s top man (and, thanks to iPlayer’s triumphant launch, its streaming TV talisman) looked like a large enough and decisive enough gesture to silence the doubters. Fat chance.
Or am I just being negative?
iPlayer‘s a huge success. Ashley Highfield says so. The first ‘iPlayer hits’ are emerging (Dr Who, Top Gear). iPlayer audiences are typically 10% of the broadcast numbers, sometimes 500,000 in one day. Within a year we’ll see the first streaming blockbuster – a show whose iPlayer audience exceeds its TV audience.
The corporation used to worry about the cost of streaming – the download iPlayer was, in part, aimed at controlling the Beeb’s bandwidth costs by offloading file distribution to downloaders (some have been surprised to see upload traffic from their PCs while viewing a show).
Greg Dyke was on record (can’t find a reference) as saying he didn’t think it was possible to resolve the economics of a system where each new viewer brings an additional cost, even where that cost tends towards zero. The problem, of course, is that the unit cost doesn’t (can’t) actually reach zero but can only bump along asymptotically – and is likely, in fact, to rise each time a service enhancement comes along (better resolution for instance).
The other problem, of course, lies out there at the network’s edge with the ISPs. Highfield is dismissive. iPlayer traffic is a ‘negligible’ proportion of overall traffic, he says. But, logically, it can’t stay negligible. ISPs are going to carry an increasing share of the burden of delivering the BBC’s streaming traffic to their customers. Tipping points will arrive, quality will suffer. A BBC insider told me the other day that the ISPs represent a huge potential problem for the corporation’s streaming plans. He used some graphic metaphors: cliffs, bullet trains approaching mountains without tunnels, that kind of thing. The $64K question is: can a national broadcaster switch a significant fraction of its content from a free transmission model to a costly per-stream network model without trashing its funding economics or the all-you-can-eat internet access model?
And, more to the point, is anyone at the Beeb thinking about this?
Sorry to bang on about this but how come BBC Birmingham editors were able to find over 80 camphone pics of the tornado good enough for use on the web site in 24 hours and Helen Boaden’s crack team in London found only 16 (of ‘thousands‘ apparently submitted) from the 7/7 bombings in three weeks? Where are all those other photos? Isn’t there some historic value in them? Shouldn’t they be archived somewhere?
I don’t know how many State-owned broadcasters there are left in the world (Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Italy…) but can you imagine any one of them having the resources or the courage or the commitment to new forms to attempt anything like this? I’m very proud of the Beeb and of the people inside it who are pushing backstage.bbc.co.uk (and the other open source projects I know to be going on in there). Keep your eye on the feed for this one.
I’ve been performing a detailed textual analysis of the Government’s BBC Green Paper – using the awesome analytic power of the ‘Find’ command (It’s easy: download the Green Paper and search for important words: if your top word doesn’t come up, write something righteous about its exclusion. You are now a pundit). I’ve read the Green Paper and the most dramatic absence is that of the much-feared post-Hutton hatchet. Most remarkably of all, the BBC’s extraordinary, exotic funding model survives and no significant proportion of the license fee bounty has been set aside for other Public Service Broadcasters.
The pop media have been reduced to discussion of the Green Paper’s fairly flaccid (and probably tokenistic) attack on copycat formats and ratings chasing in general. The proposed legislation is, unarguably, an almost unqualified victory for the Corporation but it’s also a cast iron, unmissable opportunity for forward thinkers at the Beeb (and in Government and in the legislature) to make grown-up use of the next decade-and-a-half to rebuild Auntie for the networked era.
Of course, above all else, what right-thinking people really want to know is, in the upcoming quality food-fight, will Dick & Dom’s brilliant, anarchic and entirely peurile Bungalow (already the target of Parliamentary dissaproval) survive? In our house, we hope so.
Ivan reckons I should have written something about the Graf Report. Of course he’s right – I’ll get around to it – but, in the meantime, here’s a useful statistical analysis of the report from Azeem.
Try this simple test. Go to the BBC Radio 4 web site and find the RealMedia streams for Misha Glenny’s excellent series of talks about European expansion, Brave New Europe. Start with the alphabetical list of Radio 4 shows. Now try browsing to the right section of the site (news? Factual? History?). No luck? Now try the search function. Try some keywords. Or the programme’s name. Give up? Now try Google. You’ll need to use the ‘sitesearch‘ syntax but that just means typing something like this: ‘site:bbc.co.uk glenny brave new europe‘ into the search field. Bingo. Glenny’s series is in the number 1 spot. Cool.
This is no big deal I suppose. Everyone knows how to use Google these days, right? And the BBC will get search working sooner or later, I suppose. It’s too important to leave to chance, though: sponsoring the creation of wise, informative material like Brave New Europe is admirable but effectively hiding it away behind a wall of information after it’s been broadcast sharply diminishes its value and, more importantly, damages the BBC’s claim to privileged access to public service status and inflation-protected funding. Good material like Glenny’s series has a substantial half life and, provided it’s not allowed to fade away, should continue to exert an influence on the European debate for a long time. In the networked era, making content visible (as well as accessible) is as important as creating it. Maybe we should reserve some public money for Google.
You can find Glenny’s Brave New Europe here.
Finding anything at The BBC’s web site is close to impossible these days. The site is deep (lots of layers), it’s very wide (lots of channels, departments, shows, regions, teams…), it’s unstructured, it grows quickly and without central control and there are, as far as I can see, no standards for marking up or indexing content as it’s added. Lots of people don’t bother with the Beeb‘s own search function and get Google to do it for them using the ‘sitesearch‘ syntax. In fact, Google (let’s be fair: any reasonably good web index) provides an effective replacement interface to big web sites like bbc.co.uk – but we need something better here, something fit for the purpose: making visible the important licence fee-funded assets held at bbc.co.uk.
I’d like to download a small, smart application that would do for bbc.co.uk what Quicksilver, LaunchBar and SixDegrees do for my hard drive. These clever little apps all, with detail variations, index my hard drive, address book, email and bookmarks to make them more accessible. Quicksilver, for instance, allows me to type a name, compose an email to that person and return to what I was doing with a few keystrokes or launch an application by typing a fragment of its name or find and dial a phone number in my address book without having to click even once. This is highly adapted, next generation UI thinking and we could really do with something like it to give us access to the content walled up inside The BBC.
How about a downloadable app that provides the same clever, keyboard-driven access to a continually updated index of The BBC’s web site (XML, or at least improved markup, would make this better but we can work with what we have). Typing a fragment of a show’s name brings up a compact palette of related pages: the RealMedia stream, the programme support web site, the presenter’s bio, a press release, related links… Hitting tab gives me second level choices (download audio, email producers, print transcript…). Hitting return activates my choice and dismisses the palette. Bingo: a useful, accessible BBC web site with no dark corners.
If David Elstein was a standard issue public service bootboy (like Gerald Kaufman) or a free market storm trooper (like Tony Ball) it might be possible to dismiss his report for the Tories as politics as usual. The trouble is he’s one of the most experienced and intelligent managers in the business and a provocative and forward-thinking commentator. So the report will be essential reading for anyone interested in the review of the BBC’s public service obligations, charter renewal and the scary post-Hutton landscape.
I’ll be trying to digest it over the next few days. In the meantime, I’m interested to note that the Tories are busy distancing themselves from their own report – presumably because they see its central recommendations – scrap the license fee, break up the Beeb, fund public service broadcasting directly from the public purse – as vote losers. Good article about the report from Torin Douglas at the Beeb and a suitably big-brained piece by Elstein from eighteen months ago about the stupidity of the Government’s DTT strategy.
Friendless at the seat of power, rudderless at a time of critical danger. What a difference 48 hours can make. I have no idea how things came to this. A year ago the BBC was certified golden – officially untouchable. The talk was all about how to rein in Dyke’s resurgent, inflation-protected juggernaut. Now, after (surely?) the most torrid two days in her history, Auntie has apparently lost every friend she ever had in all three branches of State. Executive – any mates there? Are you kidding? Legislature? No, not for years (thank you, Mr, Kaufman). Judiciary? Er, apparently not.
Governments of every colour have an instinctive dislike of the BBC – one they usually acquire pretty soon after gaining office. We probably shouldn’t be surprised that this one has now reasserted its ancient right to kick the Corporation around. It’s the extraordinary means chosen – an independent inquiry by a respected Law Lord – that takes the breath away. No one – surely – expected the BBC to get off without at least a warning but only a very subtle thinker could have forecast the outcome of Hutton’s complicated mixture of ignorance (of journalistic practice, of accountability in media), deference (towards ministers and civil servants) and suspicion (of scruffy hacks and media luvvies).
Here’s the thing, though: despite the grievous damage done to the BBC, there’s still no reason why this nasty affair shouldn’t be resolved to benefit everyone. All it needs is some genuine humility and a real eye for the future from the Government. The big thing, the really noble thing (and the properly third term thing) to do right now would be for Blair, Jowell and the rest to roll their sleeves up, set aside their resentment of media loose canons (and their glee at the Beeb’s humiliation) and make a serious effort to rebuild public service broadcasting in Britain. This would mean putting the independence and strength of the license fee-funded media before their narrow political interests and worry more about their legacy than about the next election.
This Government, like many before it, has engineered an opportunity to break and diminish the BBC. They’ve made a depressingly good start but the question is: do they have the strength of character to refuse this opportunity and to leave behind something strong, autonomous and useful to British electors?