Friday, March 17, 2006

Peter Griffin: Media industry should learn from BBC success

There are a few great things about being back in the United Kingdom: eating pork scratchings in 500-year-old pubs, riding the comprehensive Tube and train systems, and watching the BBC's excellent programmes.

The world's best public broadcaster seems to be in top form if current programmes, such as Planet Earth and Bleak House, are anything to go by.

But while the old Beeb has long been known for its quality radio and TV programming, it's rapidly become a major force on the internet, a development that is ruffling the feathers of its private-sector competitors.

It seems the BBC's policy of giving plenty of content away is a perfect fit with the internet. Google, after all, has thrived with this policy.

The BBC is now the biggest content creator in Britain and its web portal is the sixth most popular news site in the world.

It attracted 14.2 million unique visitors in January. Ahead of it was Yahoo News with 34.4 million unique visitors followed by MSNBC, CNN, AOL News and Google News.

The interesting thing about all the big media names listed here is that only the BBC is publicly funded. Each household in Britain with a TV pays a licence fee of £126.50 ($343) a year.

Everyone you talk to grumbles about paying it, but the fact is, the billions generated by licence fees allow the BBC to greenlight projects that otherwise wouldn't see the light of day.

The fees have allowed the BBC, backed by the educational and social aspects of its charter, to fund new media ventures.

Although the BBC's traditional business has had its bones picked clean in a major round of redundancies and cost-cuttings, the new media arm seems to be thriving.

It's just as well, because the broadcaster is facing dwindling audiences in its home market.

Last week, BBC 1 sank to its lowest peak time share of audience - 11.9 per cent. A survey by Google shows Britons spend 164 minutes online every day, compared with 148 minutes watching TV. The internet is taking over, changing the way people are informed and entertained.

It's no wonder then that so much effort is being put into the BBC's online operations.

In January alone, 8.2 million people listened to 17 million hours of live and on-demand programming on bbc.co.uk. A trial of podcasts in the same month attracted 1.9 million downloads.

Already supplying free feeds to all its radio stations online, news video clips and articles, the plan now is to have all of the BBC's content available online any time. A service dubbed MyBBCPlayer will debut this year and allow internet users in Britain to download all BBC content for viewing up to seven days after it aired on TV.

It's a major undertaking made possible only by the reasonable rate of broadband penetration in Britain.

In conjunction with ITV, the BBC is also trialling "multicasting", which involves programmes being made available for download via the internet at the same time as they are sent out over the broadcast network.

Content is king on the web and with 400,000 hours of video in its archive, the BBC is sitting on a goldmine. It's set to exploit it with some premium services as well.

BBC Worldwide wants to double profit to £74 million this year and that will involve selling a considerable amount of content overseas.

Any internet content provider trying to compete with the BBC could be forgiven for feeling hard done by when the large reserves from TV licence fees are used to pump up the public broadcaster's online presence.

Questions are now being asked about how far the BBC should be allowed to go in diversifying to the internet and other new technologies.

The way it's going, the BBC's online presence can only grow, but the political pressure will also increase if that progress comes at the expense of private internet companies.

What can our own public broadcaster, TVNZ, learn from the BBC? It should learn that you have to invest to create quality programming, and that includes online content. We ditched the TV licence fee here in favour of other forms of funding, but since the Nzoom website was wound down, TVNZ's online presence has been at a relatively subsistence level.

Meanwhile, a progressive BBC is also streets ahead in providing free-to-air digital television through the Freeview service. It knows that interactive services, on-demand and interactive services are its future.

The broadcaster has had its rough patches, but here's the thing: it has managed to create a profitable business generating quality programmes while writing the handbook on how to take public broadcasting into the internet age.

The media industry has a lot to learn from the BBC and those of us on the other side of the world can only hope some of its ideas and initiatives rub off.

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