The BBC's digital future - one day on

 by Martin Belam, 1 July 2004
"The digital future is an exciting one. The public can look forward to a time of unrivalled consumer choice. New devices and communication channels will compete to deliver the right content to the right customer, whenever and wherever he or she wants it. All this is good for individual consumers, for our society and for the wider UK economy. The BBC will play its part in building the infrastructure and content on which this new digital world will be built."

One of my first reactions to the launch of the BBC's "Building Public Value - Renewing the BBC for a Digital World [PDF 1.1Mb]" documents was how disappointing the general media reaction to it was. Some newspapers were trying to spin it into a row with the government about the date of the analogue television switch-off (opening paragraph "The BBC today challenged the government's pioneering plan to turn off analogue TV in six years' time" which is the first time The Guardian has called New Labour pioneering for some time I'd wager). Others seemed pre-occupied with questions like "Is Panorama going back to prime-time BBC1?", "How much will the licence fee be?", "Does it mean less reality TV?", and "Does this still mean that Doctor Who is coming back despite Michael Grade being chairman?". (Alright, only me and a whole host of other Doctor Who fans asked the last one).

They seemed to have totally missed the big point that the document essentially totally repositioned the BBC from broadcaster, to digital dialogue facilitator for the nation.

The last charter didn't mention the internet and it didn't mention mobile phones. There was no concept in 1996 that 8 years in the future the BBC would be running a trial of a service allowing on-demand delivery of TV programmes to your home computer, or opening up a digital archive of free-to-use material. This document seems to me to be all about putting in the right infrastructure so that both the BBC and the government have some future-proofing. In fact this time around this is even explicitly acknowledged:

"Devices and media will change, but the audiences of the future will look to the BBC for the same qualities audiences have always demanded from it"

Leaving aside the broad strokes of strategy, there are some interesting pointers in the document for the near future. I'm quite taken with the proposals for a more open BBC - notably:

"The BBC will feature comments and complaints about its programmes much more prominently across all media. We will launch a new multimedia initiative spanning BBC One, Radio 4 and, as well as a live and interactive 'right to reply' programme on BBC News 24"

I think that is a great step forward. As a child of the 80's I used to very much enjoy Channel 4's "Right To Reply" programme. Mind you that may have been because my parents took the Daily Mail as their newspaper so I was expecting it to be filled with people complaining about the kind of outrageous filth on the channel I had been reading about all week. The other weekend I watched the current incarnation of the BBC's Points Of View programme, and I can't say I was impressed.

I also like the proposal that:

"Every three to five years, the Governors will commission an independent public value survey of 10,000 licence payers. This survey will form the core of a comprehensive audience-based assessment of the impact, value and effectiveness of the BBC's services. The Governors will publish the results of the survey.

I should, of course, add the caveat, as someone who looks after some of the online votes and surveys on, that the art of asking the right questions is half the battle.

Still the most intriguing bits for me are to do with the commissioning of production:

"This summer the Director-General will initiate a comprehensive review of the BBC's commissioning needs and production base in all media. The BBC will consult with independent producers, the freelance sector and other external stakeholders as well as with the BBC's own production community. The review will report in autumn 2004 and will set out a new supply strategy for the BBC."

Couple that with the question posed:

"How do licence payers benefit from a particular activity being carried out inside the BBC as opposed to being supplied from outside, for example by a commercial partner or an independent producer?"

and the statement regarding independent production that:

"A new voluntary quota for internet and broadband production will be announced shortly."

and I could be only one step away from deducing that 2+2=P45.

However, I'm not actually deducing that. What I am really happy seeing is that there is no doubt in the mind of the senior management at the BBC that two-way digital dialogue is the way we are heading, and the way they are committed to heading. Whenever people point out to me that our web offering isn't cutting edge because we don't use some strict dialect of XHTML / Flash for everything / design for screens set at 1024 x 768 etc I always think of two things:

  • We aren't building for us or the web community, we are building it for the UK's public.
  • What doesn't look cutting edge outside of the BBC is sometimes the leading edge inside the BBC.

I think this document demonstrates both those things. With the Graf report to come, site closures announced, the guarantee of an office move to White City, the possibility of increased independent production and on the horizon a long-term move to Manchester, the next couple of years don't look like the most stable within the New Media departments at the BBC. However the most important thing for me about yesterday's document was the fact that quote New Media unquote is now consolidated at the heart of the BBC's thinking about the future.

But that's enough of what I think - go and have your say - email - write to "Future of the BBC, PO Box 125, Glasgow G2 3WD" or visit future

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