Free access to the BBC's archive, or sale to the highest bidder?
The difference between the attitude of the publicly funded BBC and the commercial media in the UK was made starkly clear this weekend at the Edinburgh International Television conference as Greg Dyke and Tony Ball squared up to each other in an ideological boxing match.
In the blue corner, delivering the 2003 James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, BSkyB chief executive Tony Ball outlined his proposal of a future for the BBC where genre based quotas for each channel are set by legislation, where the BBC is excluded from competing with commercial channels for the rights to overseas productions, and where the corporation sells off it's most successful franchises to the private sector.
"The BBC should be asked to license some of its established populist programme franchises to the commercial channels."
His argument runs that this would free up the BBC schedules for new innovative programmes, and generate money that can be ploughed back into public service programming. Or as I understand the proposal, once the public have paid for the development of a successful format, why shouldn't the commercial benefit accrue to a private company at no risk. And it is not clear to me how he squares his logic - earlier in the lecture he describes the licence fee as a "regressive, hypothecated tax", and quotes a BSkyB commissioned NOP poll which reveals that
"for the first time ever, a narrow majority of those asked - 51 per cent - don't agree with the proposition that the licence fee provides good value for money"
So how does Tony Bll think those people will feel in the future about paying a licence fee if the most watched programmes developed by the licence fee are hived off onto commercial channels once a year?
Meanwhile, in the red corner, Greg Dyke used his speech at the festival as an opportunity to announce that he plans to give the public full access to all the Corporation's programme archives
"We intend to allow parts of our programmes, where we own the rights, to be available to anyone in the UK to download so long as they don't use them for commercial purposes. Under a simple licensing system, we will allow users to adapt BBC content for their own use. We are calling this the BBC Creative Archive."
Now there is no time-frame for this, and the example he gives was somewhat whimsical:
"Just imagine your child comes home from school with homework to make a presentation to the class on lions, or dinosaurs, or Argentina or on the industrial revolution. He or she goes to the nearest broadband connection - in the library, the school or even at home - and logs onto the BBC library. They search for real moving pictures which would turn their project into an exciting multi-media presentation. They download them and, hey presto, they are able to use the BBC material in their presentation for free."
To get it up and running is going to take a massive shift in the way the BBC deals with rights holders and residual fees. Consider that at the moment with new digital radio station BBC7, if you miss a programme, you can't listen to it again, unlike the BBC's other radio stations. And that is mostly due to rights issue with the same archive that Dyke is promising to liberate.
Now other people have already written about this rather excitedly, and rather more eloquently than me, like Oblomovka and Hangingday [via the always forthright 2lmc]. And Martin has written an analysis at Copydesk looking at the physical storage implications. Myself - I suspect what we might first see from this initiative will not be an available archive of classic television programmes, but more likely a collection of short-clips with no rights issues, exactly like the raw footage from wildlife programmes Dyke mentions, alongside news clips and educational programmes - a sort of BBC Encarta where all the multi-media elements are Licence Fee paid for content
But Dyke also used the word that always pricks up my ears - the 's' word - search. Aside from sorting out the rights issues, and physically digitising the material, if it still exists, some poor bastard is going to have apply the metadata to it make the whole archive searchable.
...and I just love the fact that whenever something like this is announced you can always rely on the Slashdot crowd to start griping about the format before they know the details.
"All of the programmes currently avaliable are in streaming RealMedia, catered to the 56k audiance. I could see this initiative falling flat on it's face unless a burnable, portable and high quality format is used." - Neophytus