The BBC 2.0
Auntie on tap
Apr 27th 2006
From The Economist print edition
The BBC lays out ambitious plans for its future online
“UNLOCKING our archive is one of the biggest challenges we face and, potentially, one of the richest gifts we can give to the nation.” So declared Ashley Highfield, the BBC's head of new media, as the corporation outlined a vision for its future on the internet this week. Its most ambitious idea is to go “on-demand”, making the million programmes it has produced since 1937 available to viewers online, mostly for free. Soon it plans to introduce a new service, BBC iPlayer, to allow people to catch up on programmes they missed on its main channels.
Mr Highfield reckons that opening the vaults would be of huge cultural value. His grandfather, for instance, was a pilot who set long-distance flying records before the second world war, and his father hopes to find old footage of air shows at Hendon if the BBC's library is digitised. This week, as a first step, the BBC put a list of 946,614 TV and radio programmes on half a million different subjects up on the internet.
Those who pay licence fees would doubtless enjoy an on-demand Beeb. But the plan is controversial. Giving away programmes could deal a blow to commercial providers of video content. Under the BBC's new charter, Ofcom, the communications regulator, must examine any new service for its market impact. BBC iPlayer will be the first for inspection this summer.
Though the BBC's stated aim to nurture new media in Britain is laudable, says a person close to government, “there's a question over whether it's a pillow under the baby's head or stifling it.” This week the BBC said it would re-launch its website to include more material generated by users. It wants to become the “premier” destination for unsigned bands. Commercial firms already offer similar services—Rupert Murdoch's MySpace.com, for instance, has lots of new bands. Newspaper bosses say the BBC has been stifling their online efforts for years. So far the Beeb has so much money for its website that they find it hard to compete.
Opening up the BBC'S archive, mainly for free, could amplify the corporation's market-distorting effect. Lots of popular past programmes will suddenly be available alongside its current shows. People have a limited time to goggle, and if they spend it watching old BBC favourites such as “Smiley's People”, they will skip something else, which might include pay-TV or DVDs or TV financed by advertising. “Just as commercial business models are taking shape for on-demand television and new media, it would be a shame if a large free intervention by the BBC were to choke them off and stifle innovation,” says Mike Darcey, group commercial and strategy director at BSkyB, a pay-TV firm.
In practice, however, Ofcom may not find much evidence of potential market impact this year. That is partly because the video market is changing rapidly, and also because people will be able to access the BBC's archive only on their personal computers, for the time being. Commercial internet firms are not protesting. The likely outcome, says a media consultant, is that Ofcom and the BBC's governors will say yes to on-demand programming, but with conditions. The kinds of programmes that compete most directly with commercial products—drama and comedy, for example—may not be allowed.
Even within the BBC, according to a media executive, there is disagreement over the extent to which the BBC should make people pay for access to its library. Mr Highfield wants most of the archive to be free. But people at BBC Worldwide, the corporation's commercial arm, want to use on-demand access to earn more from BBC content. Worldwide already gets money from a number of pay channels which show popular old BBC programmes, in partnership with Flextech, the content arm of Telewest, a cable company. It is unclear what would happen to these channels if the BBC were to open its archive.
The most effective limit on the BBC's expansion into new media may prove to be money. The Beeb has asked for a big annual increase in its licence fee to pay for it all. This week the government published an accountant's report which says that the BBC could get by with less. Auntie may find that she cannot afford to make quite as rich a gift as she would like.