More on the BBC…

I’ve been thinking about this idea that the BBC is going to make it’s archive freely available online… The more I think about it the more excited I get. This really is exciting. After all the humming and hawing and sniping and backstabbing that has gone on about the role of the BBC and the value of the licence fee suddenly we’re faced with a piece of real value (if, for you, Radio 4 and BBC2 weren’t value enough on their own).

The thing is, we’ve already paid for BBC programs – that was why we paid the licence fee in the first place. The only reason that we couldn’t get hold of the archives before was distribution. Previously if we wanted to access old programs we had to search for them on VHS or DVD or even resort to collectors’ fairs and ‘specialist’ web sites where if we were lucky we might find a shabby VHS of half the program we wanted. We couldn’t access them before because the cost of producing a nicely packaged DVD or video of, say, Blake’s 7 is going to be easily covered by the popularity of the series, but a similar run of “Blue Peter, The Janet Ellis Years” is never going to be cost effective , and so we the public were never going to see it again, even if we really wanted to. Now, under Greg Dyke’s proposals we would be able to simply download them.

One of the many miracles of the Internet was going to be video on demand… Suddenly it looks like the BBC may be about to make that a reality in a more radical way than we could ever have imagined. The idea that TV, something that many of us pay through the nose for, would be so completely and utterly free is a mind boggler. It will validate the P2P networks, and it will open up the whole idea of digital rights. Suddenly there’s a huge body of high quality work that the owner wants to give away. Give away – not sell, not even protect.

Even the name smacks of the rather fashionable new approach to Intellectual Property (IP). It’s called the BBC Creative Archive. As you can imagine that’s created a whole buzz among the Creative Commons community. By saying that it could be reused with proper attribution and not for profit he really is validating the whole piece, how so many people have been claiming IP should be.

I mentioned the good Tony Ball in the last entry about this. I wonder how he’s feeling? This must be gutting. He’s CEO of a company that’s promised investors it will increase revenues by �300 a year per customer in the next two years. To be faced with the BBC pulling yet another piece of the rug out from under his feet must be jaw dropping… And only two days after he announced that the only fair thing to do is force the BBC to sell off its most popular programs. Sell them to another channel, or give them to the public for free? Hmm Tony, I wonder.

I wonder whether Dyke made the announcement knowing it would stun his detractors at a time of renewed inspection? With the whole dodgy dossier affair going on the Government isn’t exactly the BBC’s best friend. On the same day as Greg Dyke’s speech the Culture Secretary announced a review of the BBC’s online activities and their impact on the “commercial online market.” The knives are out, and it’s not really that surprising. Under Greg Dyke the BBC has taken a more aggressive stance on more issues than it ever has. This one really came from left field, though. Someone somewhere has been thinking about this for a while, and probably chuckling to themselves as they planned it.

The impact of this move on the “commercial online market” will be pretty big though. I’m told that those in the know have been talking about Digital Rights Management (DRM) as the Next Big Thing. Among others BT is soon to announce a combined rights management and streaming service for media clients that will rival the others already out there provided by the likes of Akamai and TorandoVirtue. A whole bunch of consultants who have managed to keep their enthusiasm despite the last few years have been geeing themselves up, ready for the new wave of Cash-for-Content.

And then the BBC came along… By making its archive publicly available the BBC will set a standard by which all other content providers will be judged. Currently we’re used to channels wringing every last penny from their content – the idea that we would pay to subscribe to a channel to watch a program that we pay to take part in and then buy the videos of afterwards will seem a little different after the BBC Creative Archive goes live. The faff of a DRM client, registering for a monthly subscription, setting up micropayments, all of these things will seem like huge barriers to anyone elses content once we’re used to simply searching and downloading.

A lot of people (me included) would gladly pay for this service. A whole nother lot would dearly love us to have to pay for it but, gawd bless’em, the BBC have done the radically decent thing and plan to give it to us for free. The technical challenges are massive – distribution, search engines, asset management and metadata seem almost insurmountable when you think that they have 80 years of broadcast archives – but you and I know that they will manage it. Seriously, if they only manage to get 1% of their total archive online each year for the next 10 years it will still have the desired effect.

A counterpoint to all this positivism is that today the BBC makes a lot less programs than it used to. The days of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (radio or TV), Miss Marple, Red Dwarf or All Creatures Great and Small are gone. The programs that most of us enjoy are frequently made by independent production companies and as such can’t be included in this archive – there won’t be any Alan Partridge or Day Today available here. Also, those programs that include music videos won’t be available – those rights belong to someone else. But…

…Every little piece of reference material that you may ever want will be available. From the day you accidentally appeared on the local news at Castle Morton festival when you told your Mum you were staying with a friend (ahem) through to that absolutely fascinating nature documentary about badgers and wolves – it’ll all be there. Tie that together with the rich history of the BBC when it did make all its own shows and you’ve got everything from Life on Earth to The Goons and from The Archers to Lord of The Rings.

I’ll leave you with Greg Dyke’s own words, from the speech that announced all this:

Let me explain with an easy example.

Just imagine your child comes home from school with homework to make a presentation to the class on lions, or dinosaurs, or Argentina or on the industrial revolution.

He or she goes to the nearest broadband connection – in the library, the school or even at home – and logs onto the BBC library.

They search for real moving pictures which would turn their project into an exciting multi-media presentation.

They download them and, hey presto, they are able to use the BBC material in their presentation for free.

Now that is a dream which we will soon be able to turn into reality.

We intend to allow parts of our programmes, where we own the rights, to be available to anyone in the UK to download so long as they don’t use them for commercial purposes.

Under a simple licensing system, we will allow users to adapt BBC content for their own use.

We are calling this the BBC Creative Archive.

When complete, the BBC will have taken a massive step forward in opening our content to all – be they young or old, rich or poor.