TV's Tipping Point: Why The Digital Revolution Is Only Just Beginning

Written by Ashley Highfield on . Posted in Studio 2.0

Ashley Highfield looking into the digital futureWith more people in Britain now watching TV on digital sets rather than analogue, this seems a fitting time to revisit what the BBC's digital chief had to say about the future for the industry that he foresaw. This is the text of the speech by Ashley Highfield, Director of BBC New Media & Technology, at the Royal Television Society on Oct 6 2003  

I was reading an article the other day called "The Dangers of Wired Love", about a teenage girl called Maggie, who helped her dad run a newspaper-stand in Brooklyn. Business was booming, so Maggie's Dad, George McCutcheon decided to get wired up, to help him process electronic orders. Being a total techno-phobe, Mr. McCutcheon got Maggie to operate the thing, but soon found out she was using it to flirt with a number of men, particularly one married man she had met online, called Frank. Breaking all the known rules of cyber dating, she invited Frank to visit her in the real world, and of course he accepted. McCutcheon found out, went mad and forbade his daughter to meet up with Frank. But Maggie nevertheless continued to meet him in secret. Her furious father found out and one day followed her to one of the couple's rendezvous. He threatened to blow her brains out. She later had him arrested and charged with threatening behaviour.

"Those of us in technology like to think we're breaking new ground, that we're creating history through the latest revolution, when we're quite clearly not..."

An every-day story of modern times--maybe? McCutcheon's fathering skills perhaps a bit severe, and Maggie perhaps a little naïve? The striking thing about this story is that is was published in a magazine called Electrical World in 1886. The Victorian network that McCutcheon got wired to, and Maggie got hooked on, was of course the Telegraph. Those of us in technology like to think we're breaking new ground, that we're creating history through the latest revolution, when we're quite clearly not as the very modern Maggie McCutcheon illustrates. The telegraph and the Internet are perhaps more evolution than revolution: but in a way that means the seismic shifts in society that they cause creep up on us unnoticed. But these cycles of change come round again and again -- and people tend to see them as momentous and more often than not scary. The future picture I want to paint today is one if which I show that the world of TV is about to change drastically. But nothing's quite as new as it seems. When the dust settled on both the telegraph's 19th century technology boom and bust, and the Internet's 21st century re-run, the world still looked remarkably similar.

But the world has changed. Today's facts, free of hype, are that almost 50 percent of the nation has access to the Internet and that 50% of the nation also has digital TV. What we are witnessing at the moment in the UK is, I believe, a tipping point. As more people have digital TV in the UK than don't, and as more homes are already connected to the Net than are not, so the rate of take-up may actually increase, aided by a number of social and technological forces coming together. This critical phase for digital TV will take us through to analog switch off which the government is aiming for in around seven year's time. The successful media companies in this context will be those that realize the landscape has changed and that viewers want to consume their media in fundamentally different ways to the traditional image of a family, gathered around the TV box, watching with rapt attention.

"Future TV...will resemble more of a kaleidoscope, thousands of streams of content, some indistinguishable as actual channels..."

Up till now industry giants have promoted digital TV take up by betting that the consumer wants more choice of channels and programmes -- more movies, more sport. Sky has stated that it wants 8 million subscribers within the next two years and realistically has 13 million homes in its sights, over half the nation, and they've never missed a target yet. This kind of take up though is not going to come from just offering more linear channels. No -- future TV will may be unrecognisable from today, defined not just by linear TV channels, packaged and scheduled by television executives, but instead will resemble more of a kaleidoscope, thousands of streams of content, some indistinguishable as actual channels. These streams will mix together broadcasters' content and programmes, and our viewers' contributions. At the simplest level -- audiences will want to organize and re-order content the way they want it. They'll add comments to our programmes, vote on them and generally mess about with them. But at another level, audiences will want to create these streams of video themselves from scratch, with or without our help. At this end of the spectrum, the traditional "monologue broadcaster" to "grateful viewer" relationship will break down, and traditional advertising and subscription models will no longer be viable. Digital TV has, until this point, been led by the commercial sector, but the next phase will see public sector services playing a far greater role. As the creative R&D for the nation, the BBC has a distinctive role to play in creating the content, services and tools which audiences want for this future TV world and which the market at the moment cannot risk providing.

Against this background, new research from the BBC has revealed four new and significant social trends that show that the way in which we consume TV is changing forever. From this we have been able to start changing our programmes and content. Broadly these trends show that viewers are taking much more control of what and how they view, they're joining in with their programmes, consuming more media simultaneously, and sharing all this content with each other.

"viewers are taking much more control of what and how they view"

There's danger in ignoring such changes and TV could really do without suffering the same fate as the music industry in the 90s. Pop star Moby in Time magazine in early 2000 talked about "the spread of instantly accessible digital media, where music will no longer be constrained by the limits of a compact disc." They ignored him. Then again he went on to say "Single pieces of music could be 75 minutes long, or six months long, or virtually infinite"...You might not know Moby's music -- but take it from me, infinite Moby is a pretty nightmarish prospect. So maybe it's not so surprising that people ignored him. But the facts speak for themselves -- 3 years later and 90 percent of music in Russia is pirated and CD sales have fallen yet again by 20 percent in the UK in the past year. Sony claimed recently that piracy had cost the music industry $7bn in the last two years.

Unchecked the impact of the social changes I mentioned could be just as serious for the broadcast industry. Addressed head on however and we might just get to a digital Britain sooner than most pundits expect. So let's look at each of these four changes and the way in which the broadcast industry needs to adapt.

Firstly, consumers are taking control of their media consumption, choosing not just the 'what' they watch but also the when, how and where they watch it. Now most people here probably know that TiVo and personal video recorders dramatically failed to rock anyone's world when they originally launched in the UK. Consumers just couldn't see the benefits for their £10 a month subscription. But in homes with Personal video recorders (or PVRs), around 70 percent of viewing is time-shifted: PVRs will mean we are able to finally break free of the 50-year-long tyranny of the TV schedule.

"PVRs will mean we are able to finally break free of the 50-year-long tyranny of the TV schedule."

As far back as 1950 the Daily Herald wrote "Delivery of the new television set starts a violent change in the habits of the household. Everything stops for viewing when the tuning chart appears. Household timetables are rearranged; meals are pushed forward or back." The Daily Graphic was even more dramatic: "Housewives are throwing aside their aprons", "downing their dusters in droves", "and settling down in the front room much earlier in the evening. The reason? Television." This same control over TV viewing habits has been turned into a positive by TV executives: we now talk of water cooler moments, of uniting the nation, of event television.

Water cooler moments have got nothing to do with scheduling and everything to do with good programmes. With a new blockbuster film at the cinema, we all want to see it and talk about it, but we don't all have to see it on Tuesday at 8pm.

So the PVR is coming, make no mistake. Already hugely successful in the US and relaunching here in the UK with a big push from Sky as I speak, PVRs will become mass market in the next 5 years and make a profound impact on programming. It will mean advert skipping, lower channel/brand awareness and less ability to hammock audiences from one programme to another.

In this world, "event" television will become more important, not less, and channels that have a higher percentage of live programmes, or ones you must watch live (perhaps in order to vote on the outcome) will win out. We have anecdotal evidence from trials in Hull, the UK's most advanced digital TV network, that audiences watch more, not less, TV once they have a PVR, but they watch less of any one particular programme, basically skipping through the boring bits. "Changing Rooms" is a great example of this: audiences would watch the first five minutes set up, then fast forward through the whole programme, and catch the last five minutes when Mr. and Mrs. Jones, come home to find their two bedroom suburban semi transformed into an S&M style dungeon, courtesy of the shocked home owners graciously admire their S&M inspired front room, Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen style.

"As broadcasters and programme makers, we should help bring forward this world where the viewer is in control."

As broadcasters and programme makers, we should help bring forward this world where the viewer is in control. It will help sustain interest in TV which otherwise runs the risk of being seen as increasingly flat and inflexible not least by the PlayStation generation. We should create more programmes that come with the meta-data, the tags in the programme that allow it to be chopped up and consumed piece meal by the viewer. We should perhaps even create shorter programmes!

The second trend our research showed was that the audience increasingly wants to join in and get closer to their media. Let's just remind ourselves of some of the recent participation TV successes -- programmes like Test the Nation, Restoration and Great Britons etc.

But these programmes still offer very little opportunity for the audience to actually shape the programme, or get down to the really micro-level of intimacy, localness, and personalization. But who wants to get intimate with their TV? Well it seems that lots of people do. Traditionally we have always thought that TV was about lying back relaxing and at best, half hearted interaction. In fact, recent trials again in Hull proved otherwise -- audiences want a lot more than this. They want to create their own content either from scratch, or perhaps using tools and support that a broadcaster can provide. In a fragmenting society, media becomes a substitute for community. If TV doesn't fulfill this need then our audience will find the media that does, the rise and rise of games consoles, particularly the networked ones, and of course the Internet, are in part testament to this.

"In a fragmenting society, media becomes a substitute for community. If TV doesn't fulfill this need then our audience will find the media that does..."

It's also becoming obvious to us that what we think of us as quality programming might need to be refined in the light of audience experience. For example, audiences might be willing to sacrifice full screen, high picture quality TV for a more highly localized, personalisable, timely service: the news, events and local gossip in your town, delivered through digital TV. We are currently working on just such a digital TV pilot to see if we can use our 50 local radio stations to bring digital TV news, focused not just on large regions like 'BBC South,' but on your specific county 'Hampshire', then your town, 'Eastleigh', then even more personal -- your local community. The point is you choose the focus. Could this ultra local TV be the shape of local newsprogrammes to come?

The third trend is about consuming more media simultaneously -- which is fast becoming the norm. Younger people are watching less TV -- this is a fact. But not only are people watching less TV, they are also less focused on the programmes and ads they do actually watch. Amongst the under 34s, viewing now falls into two distinct camps: high attention and appreciation for a few (and I mean very few) programmes, and much larger scale ambient or even apathetic viewing for the rest of the time the telly is on.

Here's two facts worth thinking about. 1) 50 percent of all viewing is now a secondary activity. This figure was 5 percent in 1952. 2) 1/3 of the time that young people spend on media is now spent on new media (that's mobiles, games consoles and the Internet.) How should we, the industry, respond to this? We need to get off the "slap a vote on" bandwagon to try and re-engage this younger audience. As a public service broadcaster, we don't want to neglect any generation and deny them the benefits in terms of informing, educating and entertaining which television provides.

"We need to get off the "slap a vote on" bandwagon to try and re-engage this younger audience."

One major new direction we are looking at in this context is to purposely create ambient TV, TV that is meant to be watched with just half your attention span, or just listened to, perhaps while you do something else. This is of course exactly what radio on digital TV is, and it is no surprise therefore that it has been a great success with 8 million people now regularly listening to radio in this way. At the BBC, we are now taking this even further, not by creating TV out of radio, but by creating a new type of service -- let's call it enhanced audio. When you tune to BBC radio services on digital TV, you can get the digital audio broadcast (DAB) text too, and we're working on more features for next year -- votes, webcams, message boards and so on.

A completely different idea to come out of our Research & Development division is to take the audio description that we do for the blind, where a voice-over describes what is happening on screen in between the actors speaking, and make this audio stream available to everyone through interactive TV. You can keep up with the plot of a drama whilst not actually having to watch the screen.

And finally, the last trend -- sharing. Broadband, which is growing exponentially in the UK (up 200 percent year on year to around 2.5 million subscribers now) will make downloading of decent video quality worthwhile, easy and cheap via the net. Downloading and sharing this video is the final piece of the jigsaw and will create a killer combination that I believe could undermine the existing models of pay-TV.

The killer combination is broadband together with digital TV and PVRs, plus the ability to share this video in the same peer-to-peer model with which music files are exchanged on the net. Broadband will provide the rich on-demand content; digital TV through Freeview will make 40 channels and interactive services available to the masses for free; PVRs will provide the means to break from the tyranny of the TV schedule; and sharing will enable file swapping of personal as well as broadcast content. It really doesn't matter if this solution is built into a PC as with the Microsoft's Media Centre, Sony's new PlayStation or a set top box. It all basically adds up to the same solution: a box and a screen -- offering unparalled video, TV, interactive and games content. What I'm certain of, is that this killer combination will be in half of all UK homes, in one form or another, by the end of this decade.

 In this near future world, you'll now be watching a combination of programmes: some from existing TV channels, some off the Internet, others stored on your own hard disk at home, or swapped electronically with friends. You'll need a pretty sophisticated on-screen navigation tool to find your way around programmes or content that comes from so many different sources:. We've started to think about what this tool, this Super -Electronic Programme Guide might look like. The product in development is called iMP, the Interactive Media Player, and our gateway to the future. It will work both on the PC screen when you've got a mouse in your hand, and the TV screen controlled by an ordinary remote control.

"Audiences to some radio programmes like the Archers or Radio One's Essential Selection, have increased by up to 30 percent thanks to the Internet Radio Player"

 iMP will allow you to record programmes in advance, like Sky+ or the humble video recorder. It will stream programmes live and will allow you to download any content we have broadcast, say in the last week, in exactly the same way as you can now access network radio shows online via the BBC's Internetal Radio Player. Audiences to some radio programmes like the Archers or Radio One's Essential Selection, have increased by up to 30 percent thanks to the Internet Radio Player, and there's no reason to suppose iMP wouldn't be as popular with TV programmes.

And this is where the Creative Archive, which Greg [Dyke] announced in Edinburgh, comes in. As it is both part of our charter obligation to make our archive available where possible and practicable, and part of our online consent to act as an essential resource offering wide ranging, unique content, it is through iMP, that pieces of our content could be retrieved from our archive, downloaded, and used for personal use. 

We are exploring legitimate peer-to-peer models to get our users to share our content, on our behalf, amongst themselves, transparently.

And as an industry, we should be more active in creating legitimate content download products, whether that's as a pay-model, or rights-cleared for free. We need to help consumers leap-frog the illegal downloading issues that have wrecked havoc on the music industry. Here's what we believe is the shape of things to come, a way for people to search for whatever they are interested in -- perhaps in the case of a natural history for a school project -- searching from Buffalos to Bears -- and then download it for their use.

"There is no reason ... that we can't be the world's most advanced, connected, digital nation.."

"Our vision is of a 100 percent digital Britain, with everyone connected.

Our vision is of a 100 percent digital Britain, with everyone connected. We believe that there are enough social and technological changes to indicate that we might be at a tipping point, where we could see the take-up rate of digital media increasing, rather than decreasing. As the BBC, we've got a huge responsibility to innovate and put new types of programmes, products and services into the market place to stimulate interest and demand. As our audiences increasingly turn away from the traditional concept of TV, and we increasingly enter a two-way high-speed relationship with them, and they with each other, we've got to run just to stay one step ahead of them. Aggressively prototyping services like I've shown you, maybe getting it wrong sometimes, but sharing our learning with one another, is, I believe, the way to do it. There is no reason, given our world leading broadcast and content industry, and the UK's track record in innovation, that we can't be the world's most advanced, connected, digital nation, with all benefits in terms of an educated, enlightened, tolerant, society that this might bring.

I hope you don't leave here tonight resigning me firmly to the ranks of Nostradamus or worse, Moby. I realize that these scenarios have a number of imponderables about them and will play out over time. Maybe I'm reading all the signals wrongly, perhaps my Bush telegraph is wired up incorrectly. But its unlikely in the current market that anyone will get too carried away on electric dreams, all I want to ensure is that we as an industry don't suffer the same fate as the music industry. 

There is no reason, given our world leading broadcast and content industry, represented so well by the people in this room tonight, and the UK's track record in innovation, that we can't be the world's most advanced, connected, digital nation, with all benefits in terms of an educated, enlightened, tolerant, society that this might bring.

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