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The BBC Rethinks Its Interface with the Television Audience

I recently was sent the text of an address by Ashley Highfield, Director of BBC New Media & Technology, at the Royal Television Society, which offers a remarkable glimpse into how one of the world’s leading media organization is thinking…
October 15, 2003

I recently was sent the text of an address by Ashley Highfield, Director of BBC New Media & Technology, at the Royal Television Society, which offers a remarkable glimpse into how one of the world’s leading media organization is thinking about the impact of convergence on the ways that television content is produced and consumed.

As a result of the expansion of access to digital cable and the internet, Highfield predicts a much more empowered consumer and a much more fragmented media landscape. Highfield explains, “future TV will may be unrecognisable from today, defined not just by linear TV channels, packaged and scheduled by television executives, but instead will resemble more of a kaleidoscope, thousands of streams of content, some indistinguishable as actual channels. These streams will mix together broadcasters’ content and programmes, and our viewers’ contributions. At the simplest level – audiences will want to organize and re-order content the way they want it. They’ll add comments to our programmes,programmes, vote on them and generally mess about with them. But at another level, audiences will want to create these streams of video themselves from scratch, with or without our help. In a fragmenting society, media becomes a substitute for community. If TV doesn’t fulfill this need then our audience will find the media that does, the rise and rise of games consoles, particularly the networked ones, and of course the Internet, are in part testament to this.”

Everywhere one looks in the entertainment world today media convergence is coming hand and hand with a new respect for and recognition of the hidden work which media consumers, especially fans, do in shaping the circulation and reception of content. The question is how the media companies will respond to the growing visibility and influence of their digitally-empowered consumers, and this speech offers some pretty interesting insights into the current thinking process, if you read past both the corporate and national self promotion that runs through such rhetoric. Here, in the United States, the media industries seem to want to declare war – legal and otherwise – on their consumers, whereas the BBC is looking for ways to collaborate with their consumers for mutual benefit.

The talk came at a moment when the BBC is announcing bold initiatives to make significant portions of its archives available for download on the web, a project which Highfield has been spearheading. The plan involves the development of new kinds of media players and program guides, the metatagging of its archival holdings, and the development and support of peer-to-peer networks which will allow consumers to share gems they find with each other. Highfield has told reporters, “P2P will enable us to defray our distribution costs and make downloading quicker for the consumer.” The BBC faces significant logistical and legal challenges if it is going to make good its commitment to make as much of its archive as possible available for download, but it sees expanding its digital archives as part of fulfilling its mandate from the British government to make its content available as widely as possible to the citizens of the United Kingdom and beyond. It is hard to imagine any American media company making this kind of commitment to public access of their archival holdings.

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