Ashley Highfield, BBC – The IBC Digital Lifestyles Interviews

This is the sixth in a series of eight articles with some of the people involved with the Digital Lifestyles conference day at IBC2004.

We interviewed Ashley Highfield, Director of New Media & Technology and the BBC on the need to make content easily available to the public, and the platforms they might use to obtain it.

Ashley oversees BBCi services on the internet, interactive TV, and emerging platforms. He’s responsible for the BBC’s Technology portfolio, encompassing IT strategy, Research and Development, and technical innovation looking at the content forms of the future.

Can you give our readers some background to BBC’s interactive and new media operation and what you do here?

I’m responsible for all the BBC’s non linear output – so anything that is on the internet at, which is the world’s largest content website. It’s used by over 10 million people each month in Britain, and has a global user base of probably around 30 million. It covers news, information, education, entertainment … everything.

It is supported by our interactive TV service BBCi, which is available on satellite, cable and digital terrestrial Freeview. That too has an monthly audience of over 10 million in the UK alone. It offers a range of services, for example, the Olympics with multiple video screens that you can choose from – as well as information and education, things like GCSE Bitesize. I’m responsible for our mobile offering as well. I also look after the Technology Portfolio at the BBC and Research and Development.

Would you like to tell me a bit about your two IBC sessions this year and the sort of things that you are going to be covering?

The overall framework is that 50% of the UK have digital television, 50% of the UK has the internet and that’s been the easy bit in a way. I think history will come to look at that as actually having been the lesser task than the next 50%. The two sessions actually fall into quite neatly into “What are the technological solutions?” and “What are the content solutions?” So, what broadly are the solutions that could help drive us towards a digital Britain?

And what are the issues?

There has been a lot of work done by bodies like the Digital Inclusion Panel and by ourselves and by the Broadband Stakeholders Group and by Ofcom that are starting to come to some agreed conclusions about what are the barriers to adoption.

They are many and complex and the barriers are around “I don’t know it’s available” through to “I know it is available but I just don’t want it”; through to “I can’t afford it; I am frightened of it; it is not available in my area; I don’t even understand the language it is in; I can’t use it physically for some reason” and so on. There are a range of reasons.

I think that the interesting angle for these sessions, particularly the second one on content, is not just to ask “What are your whacky ideas for the future?”

If we know that the future is going to be held up by these different barriers, what are the contents initiatives to address these specific barriers? That for me would be “What tangible impact do you think it is going to have to drive take-up and get us to a digital Europe?”

That would be I think a much more gritty session rather than one that just goes off into the usual cyber bullshit.

Quite right.

I can give you an example.

Imagine I am someone living in a high rise block, I am thirty-eight but I am a single father bringing up two kids they’re thirteen and I have got digital Television because I have forced to by the Government.

I really never use anything other than the old five Terrestrial Channels. I can’t afford to get my kids a PC and I certainly can’t afford to subscribe to the internet or broadband, and they are getting teased at school for being behind the curve.

They are struggling in their lessons because all the other kids have got the digital curriculum available to them at home. Now, what if we could offer a content solution that got the digital curriculum into that home without any subscription charge? What if we could find a way of beaming that content service over digital terrestrial television into the home and getting it onto a cheap box for storage? If I could do it overnight so that my kids could actually have access to the digital curriculum in their bedroom through a £50.00 Freeview box with a hard drive, that would make a big change and impact on my life and would force me, as this single father, over some of the barriers.

It would be for my kids’ education. If it was simple enough to operate by just using the four coloured buttons, it wouldn’t break down and it was cheap – there was no subscription cost – then that would do it for me.

What are the content solutions, the content technology hybrid solutions that would breakdown all these barriers to leaving us with a non-digital underclass?

Do you see the BBC offering a Broadband content service, and perhaps even its own set top box?

It is not a specific plan – the set top box is not a specific plan, but it does strike me that we are not thinking about these problems laterally enough at the moment. The content people are just looking at the content solutions and the hardware people are just looking at the hardware solutions and what you end up with is hardware being put into the market like DTT boxes with PVRs in them.

Like HomeChoice and Sky+?

I think Sky+ is a platform driven solution where they want to drive subscription up to their platform. That’s very clever, but it is coming at it from their perspective. They haven’t actually thought too much about what kind of content could you start to download onto a Sky+ box. They are just going to start offering that service at the end of the year, downloading movies and letting you consume them when you want to consume them.

HomeChoice has a slightly different angle, and then you have the hardware manufacturers who are just making free-standing Freeview boxes with PVRs in them.

No-one is actually saying “Well, what is the content solution that is going to drive demand?” It is all a bit fragmented at the moment.

So yes, I do think that the BBC has got a role to play in starting to create content solutions that will start to shape the way that people look at the hardware.

The united broadband platform – the equivalent of a set top box like that – has lots of advantages for production houses and people who produce content. You write it once and it can run on several kinds of boxes. How serious is the BBC about getting involved in a project like that when you have people like N2MC trying to work on a single European standard for interactive content? Is there some duplication there or does what you are doing fit in with what the European Broadcasting Union is doing?

I know of a number of initiatives that have tried to set single standards – let’s say interactive TV MHP. I am sceptical because there is installed base in Britain – how many set top boxes do we have, 11 million? 7 million Sky boxes, 3.5 million cable, 3 million Freeview … in fact, well more than that now.

And at least 5 interactive TV platforms across Europe as well.

Right – it is not going to happen. It is better to actually focus either at a higher level of abstraction like putting a Java engine into every set top box or even a higher level just putting tools into the broadcaster to enable us to create content once and then using multi-platform authoring tools.

Again, it is a technological solution that often doesn’t wake up to the reality in the commercial market. Why would Sky ever use any other solution? Let’s assume that Sky is forever going to have Open TV as a legacy in 7 million homes. In which case let’s deal with that reality and therefore try and find solutions in the real world.

That’s what I am interested in – finding solutions in the real world for this last 50% of people who haven’t got Digital Television.

The worse thing is to try to dumb interactive content down to a common technology platform.

The lowest common denominator with the worst functionality.

It is not going to happen.

How much content will be on the Interactive Media Player when it launches?

The vision is quite clear – the vision would be all programmes up to a week after transmission. Then you are into practicalities, everything after that is practicality. Therefore, what can we put in or rather what can’t we put in? I would like to start with everything until somebody gives me an absolutely convincing reason why we couldn’t.

Now, clearly that is going to take a while, when we launch it as a real product, if we launch it – you know we have only just finished the trial – there is no guarantee that we will. If there is no demand for this thing, no matter how cute a technical idea it is, we won’t do it. But, if the demand is strong and we can find solutions to the rights issues and the distribution issues then we would want to set a route map towards all the content.

What rights issues and distribution issues do you see?

A plethora. Everything from encoding the stuff in the first place, to storing it here, to checking people have the right access to get it in the first place: i.e. they are within the UK, right windowing and so on, to how we actually physically distribute it, that it doesn’t make our service fall over, to quality control when they get it, to download and streaming technologies. You may know that we are looking at least three technologies to lighten the load of distribution.

I’ve heard peer to peer mentioned…

Peer to peer. We are doing that for IMP. We are doing multi-casting where we send it once to the service providers who then distribute it on, and store and forward and storage serving.

We are looking at a number of different technologies to lighten our distribution load. That’s the technology issues.

The rights issues are broadly around trying to find a framework similar to the one we achieved with the radio player which is a bulk rights clearance framework because it won’t work trying to clear things one by one by one.

What about Creative Commons? Lots of people are very excited about the Creative Archive and its use of Creative Commons. What’s the feeling inside the BBC about using Creative Comment as a licensing?

Too early to tell. I mean, it is an idea. It’s one that we therefore want to test but as to whether it will provide an effective enough rights framework, I don’t know.

So it is not set in stone yet?


What sort of DRM will you be employing with the Interactive Media Player and will Creative Commons material be DRM’d and will it be your own BBC codec, the source for it or will you be going to Microsoft?

Yes – all those are being evaluated at the moment! Those are the questions. The trial at the moment that separates the download from the DRM I think is very clever. It allows peer to peer, and the file is encrypted and can only be viewed when you come to view it by checking back with the BBC to confirm your rights at that time.
That isn’t going to necessarily work for Creative Archive where we give you the content to view and manipulate in perpetuity. There will be different DRM solutions for different content and that’s why at the moment we are running a separate initiative from Creative Archive – because they are actually testing different demands and different modes of usage. One is about catch up TV, and another is about actually keeping the content forever and doing things with it. They are going to need different rights approaches.

You are looking at using two difference rights systems for content that is used in two different ways.

Yes, currently.

When the public buy content they have copied protected CDs, they have Fairplay protected tracks from iTunes, they have WMA protected tracks from OD2 – and they can’t move content between devices. As awareness increases of the fact that people are locked into devices and DRM systems, where do you think that’s going to end? Do you think there will be a shake-out in the DRM market or will consumers say “That’s enough”?

There’s money in them there hills and competing formats are going to be around for a while. Whether the shake-out would happen such that you end up with the ubiquitous single framework a la VHS or whether you end up with a number of slightly different formats like DVD, or whether in this instance an organisation like the BBC could help to create an open framework remains to be seen.

Clearly, one of our objectives would be to ensure that our content was available, free at the point of consumption – and that is what we are here for as a public service broadcaster – and not intermediated by other gatekeepers. That is the primary strategic drive behind implementing the Creative Archive. It is to be able to get our content to our audiences with the minimum encumbrance.

As far as your audience goes, will the Creative Archive be limited to the UK or will other countries be able to access it by buying a licence?

It’s something that is up for debate. The licence fee extends just to the UK and therefore it is a completely legitimate framework for us to have pay models outside the UK.

Obviously BBC Worldwide exploits extra-UK rights for all of our content. They sell those rights packages to other broadcasters, not to individuals. What we have never done is to offer our content direct to the consumer a commercial B to C model. We have always done B to B to C. So could we start offering pay per play, pay per view for international users off the back of the Creative Archive. It’s something we can look at, but it can never be and will never be the major driver for the products. We can’t have a commercial tail wagging a public service dog.

We are seeing an increased demand for our narrowband streamed content, like our radio services. Also, the Proms is popular in Japan. That’s probably one of our Global roles. Increasingly as the content gets richer and more bandwidth is required, the cost of distribution increase – how do we recover these costs?

The perceived value increases, too, as the content becomes richer and so we get more guarded, a bit more jealous. There is certainly a huge demand around the world for content that is being funded by the Licence Fee.

We need to be careful. The Olympics is a good example where we do not allow Broadband access to the Olympics content from outside the UK.

We have got the rights to all the broadband content on the web but only within the UK. So if you try from abroad you just can’t get it.

The BBC’s efforts for the Olympics this year are phenomenal – you’re providing much more footage than has ever been done before by anyone and you’re covering it in very different ways. There are on-line statistics completely updated, people can watch the five interactive feeds at one time on broadband and on interactive. Do you see this as just the tip of the iceberg for new types of content that are enabled by new technologies? What sort of types of content are you looking forward to in the future?

That is where it starts to get interesting, the question is “How will content change to meet this need?”

My clichéd example is still the best one I can think of: snooker. Colour television, a change in technology made the sport.

Clearly people played snooker before colour telly, but it wasn’t a broadcast sport and suddenly about 1969 it was. What does this broadband and interactive TV technology enable that wasn’t before? The Olympics is a really good example. The viewing figures for minority sports, we imagine, will go up considerably.

So that makes the Olympics a better proposition, but it doesn’t change the nature of the Olympics. What sports could actually be fundamentally changed or created by new technology? An example might be a long form sport that currently doesn’t work terribly well in a broadcast schedule, like the Round the World Yacht Race. You could use GPS graphics – there are websites that enable you to track the yachts, but could you then use some clever interactivity and so on to make it a much more compelling sport, and therefore take it out of a niche activity and propel it into the mainstream.

Yes, almost certainly are there sports out there waiting to be transformed into mass spectator sports, like fishing. That’s where we haven’t got to yet, because we are only four years into interactive TV and probably only about four/five years into entertainment content over the web. We have not yet moved forward into totally new forms of content.

It certainly is an exciting area.

It is and you just see some emerging things like “Big Brother”. “Big Brother” would have just about worked as a television programme just on its own – “Test the Nation” you would have struggled to make Test the Nation work if you couldn’t have actually tested the Nation. If they couldn’t have joined in via interactive TV and the web you would have a bit of a lemon of a format, but, you know, where do you go from here?

Another good BBC example, of course, is “Come and Have a Go if You Think You’re Smart Enough”.

Right – totally doesn’t work.

It would never exist unless there is participation through the use of technology. Actually those kind of content, I think, we should set up at the beginning. Probably those are the ones that we want to show that we are on a journey here from enabling existing content to be shown in new and interesting ways to increase Region consumption through to totally new forms of entertainment that this technology allows.

Just thinking about “Come and Have a Go” and that sort of integration of different content platforms. Where do you see mobile content services moving? Will the BBC be adopting things like DVB-H?

We have been in a world where mobile content is not able to be distinctive enough to have made it appropriate for a large scale investment by the BBC. We are meant to be by being public spirited, we are meant to provide content that is distinctive and that is where its public value outweighs its market impact.

I think it has been very difficult with a tiny screen and text to let the values of the BBC through. I think it changes once you start to get 3G more broadband video, more meaningful video onto mobile phones.

However, I still don’t think that would then be enough if all we were doing was duplicating the audience that were already using us on-line. Then is that the best use of the Licence Fee? The question I’m asking is: What audiences are we not getting on interactive TV or the web that we could reach through the mobile?

Let’s take teens, a clear audience that are watching less television – certainly less BBC1 prime time Television. What kind of services could we offer to that audience through mobiles, and how can we make it high quality and distinctive? Now that is really interesting, and we have done some stuff like that – like GSCS Bitesize. I think it is too early to call at the moment the mobile market because it has been ostensibly a text based information service.

As it becomes a richer service – an example would be GO – IP based services i.e. how rich could it be for the BBC to offer you a content service to your mobile phone depending on where you are. Now have already trialled some of that where you can go on a walk around London and using information from our History website – will know where you are and tell you through the mobile phone historical facts about where you are actually standing at the time.

How could we use our network of Where I Live regional sites to maybe give you the news and information in radiating circles around your mobile phone? That for me starts to become really exciting. Once we start to move into that world I think that value of what we can do on mobile will increase exponentially.

Would you charge for a mobile service like that? If you are trying to get into every area to offer services it means that you are slicing the Licence Fee thinner and thinner.

Well, not if there is no marginal cost of distribution.

If we cut up all our content anyway, my vision would be a world where all of our content is meta-tagged with its location. On Interactive TV you could give me the news in a five mile radius round Humberside but you could also do that on your mobile phone. It’s not just news content – all our content – you could show me say on the Nature website, give me all the sightings of Greater Crested Plovers within a five mile radius of where I am, i.e. that all of our content – give me any entertainment you’ve got, any comedy clips from the Fastshow that are set in Wales. You can just see a whole BBC centred around location – now if we did that if we meta-tagged all out content then there would be no marginal cost of distribution to the mobile phone.

What resolution will Creative Archive material be in?

We’re testing that.

The content ranges from about 400 KB a second – news stuff – a bit more than that like 500 on Top Gear and so on right the way through to trials at 4 megabits for high definition. I have a Media Centre at home so I was able to use IMP to download the HD stuff and then watch it through my plasma telly – awesome!

That then, puts you in an interesting space where we could get HD out to people’s television sets without the need to rely on Sky and Cable to upgrade their Networks. At the moment can’t – it doesn’t matter if I shoot something in HD you can’t get it on your Television set, whereas through the Creative Archive we could. It is interesting but what we don’t know is, is there any demand?

Steven Carter, Ofcom said it wasn’t broadband until it was 10 megabits per second. When do you think that will be happening in the UK?

I don’t that is a terribly meaningful definition anyway. I think we are far too hung up on technology. The right question should be – when can we deliver enriching engaging content through these devices that doesn’t, because of its quality, diminish the experience? That is the question. It doesn’t matter if you come up with amazing encryption technology. Get me Eastenders down 500K and I get just as much out of it because the graphics aren’t blocky, then that is fine.

We are not there yet – jerky, slow video – we are not there yet but I don’t think it is 10 megabits. It is probably useful to try to understand it because it is certainly more Bandwidth than we have got with them at the moment. But understanding what – here is a good example – in Hull we found that local news people were willing to take it “lower quality” and yet to the audience it wasn’t lower quality at all – we thought lower quality meant lower picture quality, but actually for them it was higher quality because it was local.

It was immediate and although it was user generated, that for them was their perception of quality. The fact that the picture was shaky didn’t matter. So we are putting our perceptions of what quality is onto this equation.

I suppose it has a higher value to them because it is local and, in fact, when you see footage coming back from Baghdad you don’t mind that it’s jerky because you expect it to be.

Yes – because the important thing is that you want it now.

What impact will Charter renewal have on new media services on the BBC because obviously you are becoming very intermingled with traditional programme production?

It is fundamental – if you go through Building Public Value, there are 42 major initiatives in there – of which 25 are new media, so we have go to move from a position of still being, to some extent on the boundaries of the core BBC to being absolutely its heart. That’s going to be a big shift in everything.

Ashley is a chairing the ‘New Platforms, New Content‘ session between 09:30 and 11:00 at the IBC conference on Sunday, 12th September in Amsterdam. Register for IBC here


Published by

Fraser Lovatt

Fraser Lovatt has spent the last fifteen years working in publishing, TV and the Internet in various capacities, and believes that they will be seperate platforms for at least a while yet. His main interests at the moment are exploring where Linux is taking home entertainment and how technology is conferring technical skills on more and more people. Fraser Lovatt was born in the same year that 2001: A Space Odyssey was delighting and confusing people in the cinemas, and developed a lifelong love of technology as soon as he realised that things could be taken apart, sometimes put back together again, but mostly left in bits or made into something the original designer hadn't quite planned upon. At school he was definitely in the ZX Spectrum/Magpie/BMX camp, rather than the BBC Micro/Blue Peter/well-behaved group. This is all deeply ironic as he later went on to spend nine years working at the BBC. After a few years of working as a bookseller in Scotland, ("Back when it was actually a skilled profession" he'll tell anyone still listening), he moved to England for reasons he can't quite explain adequately to himself. After a couple of publishing jobs punctuated by sporadic bursts of travelling and photography came the aforementioned nine years at the BBC where he specialised in internet technologies and video. These days his primary interests are Java, Linux, videogames and pies - and if they're not candidates for convergence, then what is?