The innovative BBC boss with his finger on the red button

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The Independent Online

"Winston Churchill" was Ralph Rivera's first thought when he came for a job at the BBC and was interviewed in a room full of broadcasting artefacts that included a Marconi microphone from the early 1940s.

Ralph Rivera grew up in New York's Bronx but he soon knew all about the BBC. A computer science student from as far back as 1979, he has followed the modern revolution in information technology from some of its earliest days. More than 30 year later, he is the director of BBC Future Media and has no hesitation in acknowledging the corporation's role as a global "innovator" in the field. The Marconi microphone was "a beautiful reminder of the rich heritage the BBC has with respect to engineering, technology and innovation," he says.

Since coming to Britain to take up his BBC post just under a year ago, Rivera has been shocked at the level of criticism the organisation faces at home. "It feels that this place isn't as appreciated here as it is outside."

The BBC's reputation in the digital media industry in the United States is based on three things: the BBC website, the exploitation of red button technology and the development of the iPlayer. To many of us, the red button might no longer feel so cutting-edge, but Rivera, 49, is clear about its importance in the evolution of interactive broadcasting. "There was a holy grail of interactive TV which we were never able to achieve in the US. Anyone who came to the UK would say, 'Hey, there is this thing called the red button and when you press it you get interactive TV.' [People here] take that for granted because it has been around for a while but 13 million people a week use the red button and it's one of the few instances of success and scale with interactive TV."

Rivera is on a mission within the BBC to persuade his colleagues to abandon their old notions of broadcasting. "Our objective is to deliver all our content on whatever piece of glass a consumer chooses," is how he explains his philosophy. Those pieces of glass range across more than 400 devices on which the iPlayer is now available. From smartphones to tablets, game consoles and connected TVs, they are parts of what he describes as "the ecosystem of the living room" and a means of bringing BBC content to a wider audience. "How do we start to create these interactive extensions to our linear programming?" he asks, partly answering his question with the example of a mother using a smartphone to interact with a programme she is watching with her children on the CBeebies channel.

Rivera joined the BBC from the computer gaming industry and previously spent a decade with the Internet giant AOL. He has found it "liberating" to move to a non-commercial organisation.

He sees it as inevitable that smartphones will become "the most ubiquitous device" and thinks that tablets "could easily become the second television". But he looks ahead to the day when the BBC will not merely be offering on these platforms the material available on television and radio.

Rivera's time in the gaming world and its potential for interactivity taught him a lot. At AOL he was not working with what he calls "casual" games. "It wasn't killing, conquest and competition games, it was puzzle games and word games," he says. "What was beautiful about that experience was that our primary demographic was older women."

He learned that many games users went online not just to play a specific game but to seek out fellow players and communicate with them. "It's about creating the dynamic of a bingo hall where you just happen to be playing bingo while you are having a social experience."

Rivera's view of the UK's future media is not wholly optimistic. Although he praises the "good news" of the high per-capita involvement in e-commerce, he is less impressed with the nation's broadband coverage and take-up, especially in comparison with some Scandinavian and Asian countries. He asks why some people decide not to avail themselves of 50Mb broadband when it is available. "The audience has to have a reason and for me the BBC is instrumental in creating the demand for high-speed experience," he says. "We need to move beyond the notion of content as just on-demand, anywhere playback of something I could already get on television."

The Olympics will help the BBC to drive broadband take-up by persuading audiences of the value of high-speed connections, he believes. "We are going to have 24 simultaneous streams live and on-demand via iPlayer. That will create the demand that makes people say 2Mb isn't enough, and that's what we have to do."

Rivera still has much to do. But he has no regrets at having dedicated himself to computers at such a time in history. "I have been blessed and privileged to work in an industry that has had such a profound and positive impact on humanity and specifically the opportunity to communicate."

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