Monday, January 08, 2007


Conventional wisdom is that the BBC will struggle in the digital age; unable to justify the license fee "tax", unable to maintain market share against innovative competitors, and (eventually) unable to convincingly state what it is for, against political pressures from their paymasters.

But the BBC has a saviour: the internet.

The BBC's mission to "inform, educate and entertain" has never been more relevant or important. The BBC, at its best, still produces material of a quality or nature that no commercial provider could attain (which, after all, is the point).

And Auntie is in a great industry. As disposable incomes rise, information, education and entertainment will rise in value much faster than inflation. Paychecks for producers, writers and actors will increase rapidly, but so will the commercial rewards.

The biggest problem the BBC has is not the government, or satellite TV, or its mission. It's the limitations of the TV and radio channel, which have forced Auntie to:

  • Augment their great material with padding of questionable quality in order to fill a day's schedule
  • Wage a peak-time ratings war using material that any commercial broadcaster could produce
  • Schedule minority shows for the small hours, thus ensuring they are even more 'minority'
  • Negate their incredible back catalog - who can predict when a particular show will be repeated?

Each of these limitations prevents the BBC from attaining its mission. They have lowered the average quality of material and made the BBC seem like just another commercial broadcaster.

The BBC have introduced new channels to fix the third limitation (minority interests), but of course this makes the first one (too much padding) even worse! Their problem is the underlying, inflexible technology of the broadcast channel.

The saviour of the BBC is the internet. Already, the BBC news and CBeebies websites are fabulous resources for information, education, and entertainment, suffering none of the above limitations .

Now, the BBC is opening up its TV and radio back catalog for download on demand via the internet. Nothing could better prove its public service value than providing a vast, searchable, free database of high quality shows. Imagine working on a project at school, and being able to search and download any number of programmes; or imagine being able to see the performances of your favourite band, at the click of a mouse!

Within five years, the BBC will work like the iPod. You will be able to download and watch (or listen) to any show you want from a vast catalog, continually updated with live shows and events. You will be able to set a "playlist", and watch a series of shows in order. Or you will be able to choose "shuffle", and it will select a range of shows based on your interests, like a personalized TV or radio channel.

In this way, the old constraints of the TV and radio channel will disappear. There will be no need for padding; the BBC will be able to produce a tighter, more selective output. There will be no such thing as peak time (except for live events), and minority interests will be available at the click of a mouse.

Of course, it's only BBC-produced content that you'll see. There will be no Hollywood classics or US sitcoms - you'll have to visit commercial websites for these. The BBC content will become more obviously unique, and more obviously aligned around its public service mission. There will be fewer productions, but with higher average quality.

The internet will enable the BBC to be re-invigorated, streamlined, and re-organized more clearly around its mission.

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