Broadcasters face a "big challenge" to remain relevant in the internet age, according to Ashley Highfield, BBC director of new media and technology, writes David Fox. "Audience needs and behaviour are really changing," he told the Mix06 conference in Las Vegas. People are becoming used to obtaining music via legal and illegal downloads and now want "television on their own terms: whenever, however, wherever."
The BBC is already one of the world's biggest content-driven websites ("Over half the people in the UK visit our website every month."), and Highfield has noticed a huge rise recently in site visitor consumption of audio and video. "We are seeing an exponential increase in the amount of rich media we are serving."
This could be very beneficial to broadcasters like the BBC, because it can reach new audiences more cheaply. It currently costs the BBC £7 million a year to distribute one TV channel via digital terrestrial transmission, and about £700,000 via satellite. But distribution costs on the internet "are falling dramatically" thanks to new technologies such as peer-to-peer (P2P) and multicasting, bringing prices as low as £70,000 per year per channel. "That makes the internet a hugely compelling platform for us," he said.
There are, however, two main issues: quality of service and digital rights management. Up until now, the web audience has mainly been watching news clips, where having to view video in a small window with occasional transmission glitches has not been an issue. But quality does matter for drama or natural history programming, which is why the BBC is adopting multicasting and P2P technology). It has just completed a six-month trial, with 5,000 subscribers, of its Integrated Media Player (iMP), which allows UK users seven-day access to TV programmes and uses both P2P and multicast. "It's looking really encouraging," he said.
DRM is even more important, as the BBC commissions about 25% of its content from third parties, buys in some other programmes and makes the rest itself. What is particularly worrying is that "the UK is top of the world league in TV programme piracy." [Ed note: However, most of this is due to the time it takes for hit US shows to reach the UK].
But, the BBC doesn't want to make it difficult for viewers to watch programmes online; especially for "catch up" TV, which he believes will "increase the reach of the TV programmes." This is why UK viewers will be able to watch programmes free for seven days after transmission, possibly moving to pay-per-view afterwards. Viewers outside the UK will have to pay from the start.
Highfield demonstrated a BBC 'gadget' designed for next year's Vista release of Windows to Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, with whom he shared the stage. This allowed him to search for programmes by name, or browse through different genres. Once he had selected a clip, he could also drag and drop it to a photo of Gates to send him the clip.
A further development will be to get those programmes from the PC to the TV set. "A lot of people are very happy to watch our programmes on a PC screen," but he admits many still prefer relaxing in front of a TV set. The BBC also hopes to put all of its archive online, but this also requires more development, especially in video search technology.