(I wrote this piece for iPlayer day over at the BBC Internet Blog but it was judged to be a bit ‘edgy’ for use there)
He’s an unlikely saviour for the creaking edifice we call public service broadcasting isn’t he? I mean Anthony Rose, of course: wiry South African firebrand and one-time buccaneering pirate-in-chief at Kazaa. Rose strides around the fourth floor at the BBC’s White City technology building at high speed and with evident purpose, often trailing a small cloud of geeks in his wake. He’s charismatic, almost Byronic. He’s not very BBC.
I find myself wondering what a foreigner like Rose makes of the weird and often arbitrary structures that sustain Britain’s public service media. I mean it is weird isn’t it? One big public service outlet funded from a compulsory levy and a short list of broadly commercial outlets funded by means of mysterious subsidies (of uncertain value) and advertising—oh, and some money from The Foreign Office. The whole thing held together by a quasi-religious value system handed down from an apparently tormented Scottish Baron who’s been dead for nearly forty years (sometimes I think the BBC’s a bit like Scientology).
And on Thursday we were handed the latest in a long series of proclamations from the BBC’s strategic priesthood: ‘Public Service Partnerships‘ (PDF here). This one’s short (18 pages plus footnotes) and rather nicely written but still has the impenetrable secret logic of a Papal bull. As with all important BBC documents, there’s a lot going on here—just under the surface—that it’s impossible for a mere mortal to interpret. The kind of carefully weighed political language that you know is delivering a message to someone somewhere but probably not you.
So, to the topic of the day: iPlayer. The document has a fair amount to say about the iPlayer, some of it genuinely new and interesting. The BBC intends to offer the iPlayer to the other Public Service Broadcasters. There aren’t many so I’ve committed them to memory: ITV, Channel 4 and Five. Later, if the scheme goes well, other owners of public service video, like the British Library and the Tate Gallery, will be asked to join. All will be invited to plug the iPlayer into their own web sites or to make use of a single ‘public service player’ where all of the UK’s PSB television will be available in one place.
Public Service Partnerships raises many questions (I predict months of media exegesis) but the most important for me relates to the very existence of a protected ‘public service media’ in Britain. In the broadcast era—the era of spectrum scarcity and Dad’s Army and that dog that said “sausages”—it was possible to defend the idea that public service media came in only one flavour—the broadcast flavour—and that it should come only from a short list of authorised providers.
A more open iPlayer, though, just highlights the absurdity of this artificial line drawn around public service media. An artificiality that can only become more obvious and unsustainable as time passes. People will wonder: if Five (the people who saved Home & Away for the nation) can claim privileged access to a public service video platform with a huge guaranteed audience and public funding, why can’t the secondary school in my area that’s producing media literacy podcasts or the County museum that’s made a documentary about the Diggers or, for that matter, The Telegraph or Penguin Books or me.
So Public Service Partnerships lays out a route to a more open BBC but does so in such a hedged and politically defensive way as to effectively neutralise its intent: sharing iPlayer will only make sense, finally, when anyone who creates content of public service value can use it. When it becomes a hub for the exchange of the nation’s public service genius. Openness at the BBC is surely about more than sharing the vast licence fee dividend with the anointed few. Can a cheeky South African import and impatient tech guru like Rose make a genuinely open iPlayer a reality? I hope so.
Photo by D Begley.