Podium: Harnessing the digital future

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The Independent Culture
Matthew

Bannister

From a speech by the chief executive, BBC Production, to a Young Fabians' conference

WHEN YOU think about "Going Digital" and about broadcasting and the BBC, what springs to your mind? Maybe you consider how technological change is stimulating astonishing global growth in a powerful new communications sector.

We already have, or are about to launch, five new public service television channels: BBC Choice, Nations' Choice for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, BBC News 24, BBC Parliament, and BBC Knowledge. Last year we launched five complementary commercial television services: UK Gold; UK Horizons; UK Style; UK Arena and UK Play, building revenues to the benefit of licence fee payers and allowing programme-makers to experiment with innovative, low-cost formats.

And there's Digital Radio - where we're already broadcasting the BBC's five national public service networks in CD-quality sound; and BBC Online - the BBC's Internet site, now used by more than 2 million people.

As we enter the digital age, the BBC has set out a clear statement of its role. You may have heard it. We aim to be the world's most creative and trusted broadcaster and programme-maker.

I'll talk first about how the digital revolution is transforming the way we make existing programmes.

The BBC's Big Cat Diary: an everyday drama of feline family life on the wild plains of Africa. We're all familiar with those stunning images. But have you ever stopped to wonder how a programme like that is made?

The key driver of this change is the role of the PC in programme-making. Imagine a future of end-to-end digital capture - whereby programme makers can research, plan and assemble a programme, all without leaving their desks.

We're piloting just such a system in BBC production. We call this system the Programme Maker's Workbench. The Workbench brings to your fingertips the full research power of the BBC's archive - combined with that of the World Wide Web.

A producer will be able to call up and review past programmes. Combine that with the full power of the Internet and instant online access to all the BBC's editorial and health and safety guidelines, and you have an exceptionally powerful research tool.

Once you've researched your subject, the Workbench will then help you plan your programme. You may want to do a recce to plan the camera angles. You saw that as I was coming up to speak, Mark was taking your picture. Now we have that material, the Workbench can start animating the shots for us. That means all sorts of savings.

Once the filming is complete, you bring your material back to the office, load it into your PC and start assembling the programme - all without leaving your desk.

You can see the potential for this system radically to alter the way producers work - freeing them to spend more time being creative and less frustrated time traipsing between edit suites and research libraries.

But there is another vital way in which this technology will bring benefits. The system allows us for the first time to have instant access to a whole range of cheaply and accurately archived material. That means we can harness the value of the BBC's unrivalled archive. In Bristol, we can already see the benefits of this with the BBC's WildVision unit which "re-versions" and sells the BBC's natural history material around the world.

My second point this morning is to show you how technology is helping us interact with our audiences, allowing us - almost literally - to provide something for everyone. Interactivity is not a new concept in broadcasting. We've long been familiar with programmes featuring audience letters, with phone-ins and, most recently, with audience polls.

Last month, the BBC launched a new interactive concept for children. I say "concept" , because Sub Zero was deliberately designed as half website, half television programme. And it's proving to be phenomenally appealing to our younger viewers and users. In any one showing, the website regularly attracts 30,000 page impressions, with the team receiving well over 2,000 e-mails.

So, to conclude, the BBC is in a strong position to harness the digital revolution. We are investing in it and exploiting it to bring new services to our licence fee payers.

It will enhance our editorial strength and simultaneously improve our value for money. As the world's largest public service programme-maker, we have the chance to push forward, and cross, ever more challenging creative boundaries.

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