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Ashley Highfield, head of the BBC’s new “future media and technology” division, answers your questions on the challenges and opportunities in a world where search, metadata and user-generated content are bringing radical changes to broadcasters’ business models and the value of their archives.

What are the biggest design challenges in realising your vision of 360-degree media and opening up the BBC’s enormous archives? And as the BBC is a long-established player in digital media ‘1.0’, how do you plan to innovate beyond the PC Web browser model with which many of your viewers, readers and contributors are familiar?
Nico Macdonald, London

Ashley Highfield: Let’s answer this in pieces. 360-degree media requires a clear vision for what a particular TV programme (or radio show, or web idea) will be on all platforms, at the time of commissioning. There are only a few really good examples of this at the moment. Doctor Who is a good example. Perhaps even better is “Lost”, which has many brilliant spin-off sites and formats, across all platforms, but especially the web. They don’t all look the same however, they very much play to the particular medium or audience.

With respect to the Archive, presenting literally hundreds of thousands of hours of video and audio content is going to require great navigation, hopefully a generation on from Google Video, say. It will require awesome metadata, great social software and recommendation engines, and clever cross promotion from our linear channels if we are to really unlock the hidden gems.

Innovating beyond the browser is something we are really engaged with here: the design team from across the BBC have come up with some amazing ideas, which we’re keeping under our hats for now!

Do you expect on demand TV business models to be pay per view, subscription or ad-funded? If subscription or pay per view, how much have you factored in for household expenditure on on-demand TV (say per month) by 2009? And how much of on-demand TV consumption do you see taking place on the move, outside the home?
Omar Sheikh, London, UK

Ashley Highfield: Wow, Omar, are you trying to complete an MBA?! On-demand business models will no doubt be all three: Apple favour pay-per-download, Microsoft tend to favour subscription, and others are following ad-funded models.

Personally, I think on-demand TV consumption on the move will be important, but for a relatively small percentage of overall consumption: catching up on the plot of last nights East Enders, latest news in video, or short comedy clips. That kind of thing.

How would you describe the potential conflict of the BBC between its duty to service the public (in the form of online and free to view content) based on the current licence fee structure and the stated mission of the BBC to reduce its dependence on the licence fee? I understand that the BBC currently uses commercial partners and joint ventures to increase its non-licence fee revenues. How do you think these relationships will be affected by the BBC’s digital strategy over the next five years and in particular video on demand?
Fred Bjelland, London, UK

Ashley Highfield: Yes, we have, through BBC World Wide under the leadership of John Smith, established a number of partnerships and joint ventures. Possibly the most significant is the 50/50 joint venture with Flextech TV (now part of Telewest/NTL/Virgin) for the UKTV family of TV channels.

The BBC’s digital strategy will no doubt have an impact on all our relationships with third parties. We are increasingly moving to a world where the BBC has many relationships with commercial organisations on the public service side of its business too: for example new distribution partners such as Google and Microsoft.

In this world of open competition, why should we have no choice but to pay for the BBC?
Russ Parry, UK

Ashley Highfield: The licence fee has been called the ‘least worst method of funding the BBC’. It is not a perfect tax but the way we are funded enables us to take a long term view, to be the “creative R&D for the nation”. If you don’t think the BBC is worth £131.50 per year (and research after research indicates that the vast majority of our audience value it far in excess of this), then that’s another question...

Will the new BBC be a lot smaller than today with your vision and thus my licence fee reduced, or will you need more people to publish the niche media the long tail seek?
Ian Wood, London, UK

Ashley Highfield: Our aim, as stated by director general Mark Thompson is to be “as small as our mission allows”. We have gone through a value for money exercise in new media & technology, as with other parts of the BBC. The BBC’s total headcount has fallen as a result. This is freeing up resource to invest in our future plans like opening up our archive (as detailed in the ‘Building Public Value’ document you can find at bbc.co.uk).

Harnessing the ‘wisdom of crowds’, getting our audience to either contribute long-tail content, or help add the information and metadata about our programmes is really important: we do not envisage doing this ourselves.

Do you foresee people creating mini personal newspapers via the web, using smart text analysis tools to deliver exactly what they want?
Saul Haydon Rowe, London, UK

Ashley Highfield: Yes: its happening already, in early form. See the fabulous Guardian website. Compiling your own paper from a variety of newspaper websites using advanced RSS feeds is the next step.

I subscribe to some of Radio 4’s output as a podcast, however the range of programmes is currently quite limited. When can we expect to see most if not all of the current affairs / factual programming made available on podcast?
Tim Johnson, London, UK

Ashley Highfield: We’re in a trial at the moment, and would love to offer more. But it may require permission from the BBC Trust (and Ofcom’s input) before we are allowed to do more.

ITunes appears to have demonstrated the importance of early market entry in digital distribution. How is the BBC going to re-engage with a youth audience which has already discovered YouTube and MySpace?
Graham Fowles, UK

Ashley Highfield: We will not try to replicate YouTube or MySpace. Rather we should work more closely with community and user generated content sites such as these.

Andy Parfitt, controller of Radio 1, is the BBC’s teen czar, and he’s been tasked with coming up with a range of new content ideas (with innovative distribution): watch this space. A clue could be Radio One using the Second Life virtual world to ‘broadcast’ the One Big Weekend concert online through, and working with Flickr to post the audience’s photos of the weekend.

Do you believe that TV-channels will just become brand names for certain type of content that can be viewed by any type of medium?
Ave Peetri, Estonia

Ashley Highfield: Quite possibly. It means that, in the on-demand world, TV channels will need to have a very clear brand proposition.

Where do you think is the ultimate destination for linear broadcasting’s share of TV consumption and how much do you think it will cost TV content owners per hour of programming to digitise their libraries, clear the rights, and to make them available online? Might making all archive content available online prove prohibitively expensive and/or complex?
Omar Sheikh, London, UK

Ashley Highfield: Lots of questions! If archive programming accounts for say 25-33 per cent of viewing one day (lessons from Chris Anderson’s Long Tail), and on-demand viewing of the current schedule accounts for 10 per cent (our own BBC iMP research) then perhaps scheduled linear viewing will fall to maybe 60 per cent? We’ll have a much clearer picture in another year.

Making all archive content available using current technology and rights frameworks may well be prohibitively expensive: we’re hoping to fundamentally re-engineer parts of the process.

Following on from your vision of 2011, which I fully share, how do you think the issue of rights will be managed a) for existing and archive materials from studios and broadcasters, and b) do you think that there will be an emerging market for exploitation rights from new (individual/independent) players, eg the hilarious flame-throwing sambuca drinker becoming the new Arctic Monkeys?
Nick Brown, Founder and CTO of a2a

Ashley Highfield: Hello Nick!

A) Rights are, as you know a minefield, with the upshot that 98 per cent of programmes sit on shelves as the total cost of making them available (rights, digitisation, distribution etc.) is simply uneconomic. Distribution costs are falling, so is digitisation, and so we must find new blanket frameworks for clearing archive rights so that everyone wins - the broadcaster, the rights holders, and most importantly, the audience.

B) Yes.

ADSL roll-out in Scandinavia and now also in the UK has been rapid and many new broadcasting ventures launch as web channels only, often appealing to a global audience with niche interests. Do you believe niche channels can generate impressive subscription revenues without cross promotion on main terrestrial/satellite channels? If so, how?
Thomas Dodd, Copenhagen

Ashley Highfield: Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail has some interesting insights into this. Basically, he says that to properly exploit niche content you need effective cross promotion from the hits to the niche. In traditional broadcasting this means cross promotion from main channels and this will continue to be a key vehicle. Amazon, of course, use recommendation engines and other peer review technology to get you into the long tail.

Our strategy at the BBC will be to follow both and thirdly explore how to seed content into places where viral marketing might work - clips of new BBC3 comedy in Bebo TV for instance.

The BBC Creative Future editorial blueprint embraces creativity both in terms of content and distribution. How is the ‘Aunty’ going to persuade, especially young people, that it is a truly creative organisation?
Graham Fowles, UK

Ashley Highfield: Not a easy task, but as you say, creativity is vital in terms of both content and distribution. I can’t speak for the content side of the Beeb (although I think things are safe and well there in terms of offerings for younger audiences from BBC3 programmes such as Sinchronicity and Little Miss Jocelyn to a resurgent Radio One and 1Xtra. Not to mention Dr Who and Torchwood).

On the distribution side, offering our programmes and channels on-demand is just the beginning. We must think creatively as to how our audiences want to consume our content: via bbc.co.uk or via YouTube? As whole programmes or atomised and re-aggregated around their interests? A one hour compilation of all the best Stephen Fry clips - from ‘QI’, ‘BlackAdder’, ‘A little bit of Fry and Laurie’ created on the fly from our archive. As video or audio? - I think EastEnders, with audio description, would make good radio drama. And so on.

Given the increasing penetration of mobile handsets in different parts of the world (most notably developing countries) new opportunities for just in time content (images, videos, audio) related to newsworthy events have emerged. What is the BBC (and the news reporting establishment in general) doing to capitalise on this potentially huge source of temporally relevant information?
Vik Natarajan, Orange County, California

Ashley Highfield: If you mean the rise of citizen journalism, then this is becoming an increasingly important part of the mix. Content (still images and video) captured by live witnesses to news worthy events have become some of the popular items on our news website. Whether this will become a bigger phenomenon once the novelty has worn off, we’ll see.


The BBC’s investments in new media have put the state-funded broadcaster in the unlikely position of Europe’s biggest dotcom. Mr Highfield has pioneered online downloads and interactive television, and helped attract a fast-growing online audience for the broadcaster’s journalism and programming in the UK and beyond.

At the Edinburgh television festival, he set out the BBC’s digital strategy for the next five years, with his vision of what the “digital home” will mean in the on-demand world of 2011. “Key parts of our long term strategy (are) to move beyond broadcasting, down the distribution chain into find, play, and share services.” Do you agree this is the only way forward for the broadcaster?

Read the transcript of his speech in full

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