Saving Public Service Media

posted by Steve Bowbrick

(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.


Comments so far.

  1. Posted by atomoil on Tuesday 16th December

    perhaps they were worried about you invoking the ghost of reith?

  2. Posted by Paul Murphy on Tuesday 16th December

    Let’s not forget that the real reason the BBC offered to share the iPlayer technology/platform with the other big broadcasters was as a means of protecting the license fee. I’m sure once ITV,C4 and Five turn down this offer the idea of letting Tate, British Library etc on will be quietly dropped.

  3. Posted by Dan Sumption on Wednesday 17th December

    ITV, C4 and Five would be foolish to turn it down – any quick Tweet-survey shows how unpopular and incomplete their offerings are compared with the iPlayer. It makes so much more sense for them to cut their losses, and all work together to produce the best showcase for UK PSB.

  4. Posted by Dadblog » links for 2008-12-17 on Wednesday 17th December

    [...] BBC Common Platform: Saving Public Service Media "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 an Aussie import and impatient tech guru like Rose make a genuinely open iPlayer a reality? I hope so." (tags: bbc iplayer) [...]

  5. Posted by Anthony on Thursday 18th December

    “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.” — hmm, publicly owned organisation, a product funded by the license payer, Open Source????

  6. Posted by links for 2008-12-17 | I’ve Said Too Much on Thursday 18th December

    [...] BBC Common Platform: Saving Public Service Media "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 an Aussie import and impatient tech guru like Rose make a genuinely open iPlayer a reality? I hope so." (tags: bbc iplayer) This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 17th, 2008 at 4:01 pm . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. [...]

  7. Posted by The Phazer on Saturday 27th December

    “ITV, C4 and Five would be foolish to turn it down.”

    Quite the opposite. It would cost them many millions of pounds to adapt their playout systems to cope, and the reason they use the systems they do is because they want better protection from the streams being ripped. Indeed, they have likely given contractual guarantees to third parties that they cannot realistically get out of.

    Why would ITV/C4/Five want to hand over their distribution infrastructure to a rival so they couldn’t make any innovative changes themselves?

    One of the main reasons all of the commercial services have problems is because none of them want to pay for proper peering bandwidth. That wouldn’t change with iPlayer.

  8. Posted by Steve Bowbrick on Monday 5th January

    @The Phazer I think these are fascinating questions. For instance, is it economically rational for quite small broadcasters like C4 and Five to own and operate their own playout infrastruture? Both are tiddlers in even the UK’s media landscape.

    Is there any realistic scope for innovation in playout/distibution, especially for firms struggling to break even already?

    Wouldn’t the experience of marrying the BBC’s playout system with iPlayer be of direct application to the commercial operations’ players?

    As to bandwidth, high quality bandwidth could surely be bought more cheaply if part of a co-op buy with the BBC?

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