August 15, 2006

Liberate the BBC

There was an interesting piece yesterday in the Independent about Ashley Highfield, "the decidedly ungeeky head of the [BBC]'s web operation". The headline says most of it: "Ashley Highfield: '99 per cent of the BBC archives is on the shelves. We ought to liberate it.'" In the body of the article, we learn that the Highfield's operation has an annual budget of £400m and a staff of 1,500. and that

He plans to use this power base to put Britain at the forefront of internet-based technology and to transform all our lives by giving us access to the entire video archive of the BBC, a treasure trove of 1.2 million hours of film, where and when we want, and for free.

This sounds wonderful. And Highfield's goals go way beyond online archive access:

There is no reason, he believes, why the BBC - in co-operation with other British players - cannot exploit this video-led era to put Britain in a far more advanced position in the online world than it currently occupies. It does not, he says, have to stand back and give centre stage to US-based concerns such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and Apple. "It's wide open. These [US] companies are only a few years old. There's no reason why we couldn't actually be the companies that come out on top of this second wave of the digital revolution. It is not too late.


The key weapon in this transition, he believes, will be the BBC film archive. "We've got one of the world's largest archives, if not the largest archive. And yet, because we've got so few channels - routes to our audience - inevitably 99.9 per cent of that content stays on the shelves. We ought to liberate it and make it available, how, when and where our audience would like to consume it."

Highfield's enterprise seems a lot more credible than what's been happening across the channel. His analysis of why Britain has lagged behind the U.S.? It's that old devil the two cultures:

"The streaming of people in England into arts and science means that people who can explain technology are few and far between. It's so rare in the creative industries to find creatives who are interested in technology, because a lot of them look down on it. It wouldn't happen in America or Germany," he says. "It's very rare as well to find technologists who have been taught how to sell their ideas. It's one of the reasons why the entrepreneurial culture here hasn't made many dotcom successes."

But if the article quotes him accurately (always an issue, alas), I'm not sure that Highfield himself gets it:

But now he faces his biggest challenge as the head of the BBC's newly-created Future Media and Technology division, as the internet starts to move into a second stage, widely referred to as 'Web 2.0', characterised by interactive, highly-visual, user-led sites such as MySpace and Bebo.

"I think we are about to go from the predominantly text-based, predominantly static world into the video-rich, dynamic, two-way engaging environment. That for me is when it starts to get really interesting. It's more than putting a newspaper online it's where you can really start to empower people and give them total control over their media consumption."

Consumption? Take a look at myspace or facebook and guess again, dude.

[Update -- Tom Phillips writes:

Just as an addendum to your post on Ashley Highfield's plans for the BBC, and whether or not Highfield "get's it", you might be interested in this post from Tom Coates, who used to work at the BBC. He's very much of the opinion that highfield doesn't get it, or that if he does, he doesn't know how to make it happen. There's an interesting debate in the comments between various UK media geek types, some defending Highfield and others agreeing with the criticisms.

Interesting. Here are some of the sceptical passages:

...[N]ot all parts of the organisation were similarly dynamic, despite the often amazing number of talented people working within them - specifically, in my opinion, Central New Media under the direct management of Ashley Highfield.

You'll have heard a lot of announcements coming out from his part of the organisation over the last few years, but surprisingly few of them have amounted to much. They all made headlines at the time, but they've all rather disappeared. Do you know what happened to the grand plans of the Creative Archive or the iMP? They were both being talked about in press releases in 2003, but the status of the iMP now appears to be a closed content trial and the Creative Archive has amounted to nothing more than a truncated Creative Commons license used by several orders of magnitude less people and a few hunded short clips of BBC programmes. Highfield's most recent speeches from May this year are still talking about these projects, with him showing mock-ups of potential prototypes for the iMP replacement the 'iPlayer' that could be the result of a collaboration with Microsoft. Are you impressed by this progress? I'm not.

And then there's BBC Backstage - a noble attempt to get BBC APIs and feeds out in public. What state is that in a couple of years down the line? Look at it pretty closely - despite all the talk at conferences around the world - and it still amounts to little more than a clumsy mailing list and a few RSS feeds - themselves mainly coming from BBC News and BBC Sport. There's nothing here that's even vaguely persuasive compared to Yahoo!, Amazon or Google. Flickr - a company that I don't think got into double figures of staff before acquisition - has more public APIs than the BBC, who have roughly five thousand times as many staff! This is what - two years after its inception? Even the BBC Programme Catalogue that came out of this part of the organisation a while back has gone into a review phase (do a search to see the message) without any committment or indication when it's going to be fully opened up.

I'm sure - in fact I know - that there are regulatory frameworks that get in the way of the BBC getting this stuff out in public, but these long lacunae go apparently unnoticed and unremarked - there's an initial announcement that makes the press and then no follow-up. If Ashley Highfield really is leading one of the most powerful and forward-thinking organisations in new media in the UK, then where are all these infrastructural products and strategy initiatives today? And if these products are caught up in process, then where are the products and platfoms from the years previous that should be finally maturing? It's difficult to see anything of significance emerging from the part of the organisation directly under Highfield's control. It's all words!

And that's just the past. This is a man who decides to embrace social software and the wisdom of crowds in 2006 - clearly waiting for Rupert Murdoch to buy MySpace and show the self-appointed R&D lab of the UK new media industry the way. His joy for this space is expressed in lines like, "The 'Share' philosophy is at the heart of 2.0 ... your own thoughts, your own blogs and your own home videos. It allows you to create your own space and to build around you", which is ironic given that earlier last year he stated in Ariel that he didn't read any weblogs because he wasn't interested in the opinions of self-opinionated blowhards.

Well, there's a lot more where that came from, and none of it's pretty. Maybe the BBC is more like the BNF than I thought. Still, if Highfield can really make 1.2 million hours of video easily accessible for free, that'll make up for a lot. We'll see. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 15, 2006 07:45 AM