August 27, 2006 4:26 pm

Transcript of Ashley Highfield’s speech

The head of the BBC’s new “future media and technology” division gave this speech on the 26th August at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival.

Good morning. It’s late summer 2011, and just two programmes in the last year have broken the 10 million viewers mark: The Royal Wedding and last year’s England World Cup Final. Those aside, a prime-time hit in 2011 is anything that breaks through 4 million viewers. Back in 1994, 182 programmes reached more than 10 million; by 2004 it was just 19.

Back in 2006, whilst total viewing hours were holding up reasonably well, the key bell-weather 16-24 year old audience had already given a clear indication that, if TV did not offer media on their terms, they were off: in the first half of that decade, share of viewing among 16-24s to the five major terrestrial channels had dropped by 20%, and it carried on falling at the same rate.

If the writing was on the wall in 2006, then so was the answer: well, perhaps not walls, more windows: internet usage was already consuming as much time as TV viewing among 16-24s, but the real revolution only started to occur in 2007. Up until then the web, still largely in its first incarnation, had been a predominantly text and stills-based medium.

In 2007 the BBC, following approval from the Trust, launched online their entire pan-channel, 450-hour schedule through the BBC iPlayer. This was followed by the release of the first significant tranche of the BBC archive - key parts of our long term strategy to move beyond broadcasting, down the distribution chain into find, play, and share services. And so the shift in consumption from scheduled TV to on-demand started to accelerate.

The “long-tail effect,” where archive, back catalogue and niche music, movies or books shift truckloads in aggregate, was a well-known phenomenon in 2006, accounting for 25% of Amazon’s total sales, for example, 40% of Rhapsody’s music track sales and 21% of Netflix’s movie DVD sales.

But in the TV business, the share of viewing to long tail programmes was, even as late as September 2006, negligible.

For those who had thought that all this niche or archive programming was just the ‘misses’, the straight-to-video, they soon understood that one person’s grit is another’s pearl. With good search tools, excellent filters, great recommendation engines, clever and relevant cross-promotion - you need only experience the programmes that are, to you, the lost treasures. Whether it’s the episode of the Goodies with the cat wrapped around the Post Office Tower, the 1970 World Cup Final, Muffin the Mule or the last episode of Colditz.

By 2008, with more and more archive and niche content becoming available, it was becoming abundantly clear that the TV industry was not going to be spared being whipped by the tail. A tail comprising not just 200 channels of satellite TV, and not just a few hundred hours of catch-up TV on the web, but thousands and thousands of hours of archive, stretching back to 1938. The BBC alone had 1.2 million hours of it. To this was added the explosive amount of user generated video, driven by such popular formats as ‘You’ve been mashed.’ Suddenly there were over 100,000 hours of British user generated content available.

At the same time, new aggregators appeared in the market, including a resurgent ITV. Recognising that Sky, iTunes and Google Video were taking a big chunk of their profit margin and brand credit, ITV created their own on-demand portal and commissioned a range of niche content specifically for the web, distributed not only on the ITV portal but also through Bebo, YouTube, MySpace and even the BBC’s iPlayer.

By 2009, in line with the music and movie industry, TV’s long tail was accounting for 25% of all consumption, and 33% of revenues for those commercial players who had realised that their future lay in on-demand. In her 2009 MacTaggart speech Jana Bennett declared “Prime-time hits are still critical for us, but more as shop windows, barker channels, cross promotional vehicles to the long tail, where the vast reservoirs of value reside.”

And now here we are in 2011, with Microsoft’s Digital Home finally working successfully, where it is now a piece of cake to throw video around the house, from PC to TV. Those broadcasters who had not created strong aggregator brands for themselves, nor bothered to secure on-demand rights, nor valued their archives, nor invested in the proper technology, have found themselves in serious trouble and wished they, back in 2006, had started to measure not just Barb overnights, but the long-term reach and value of their content. Not just on TV, but across all devices: any time, any place, any how. They wish they’d believed in Martini Media.

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