Ashley Highfield: '99 per cent of the BBC archives is on the shelves. We ought to liberate it'

So says Ashley Highfield, the decidedly ungeeky head of the Corporation's web operation. But how is he going to deliver it? And is the power at his disposal skewing the market?

Ashley Highfield, the technology whizz who is leading the BBC - and, it could be said, Britain - into the new digital age, is not your average geek.

He is, for example, quite unlike Moss, the central character of the recent Channel 4 comedy The IT Crowd, who embodied every stereotype of the computer nerd. Moss lived with his mum, who dressed him, styled his hair and bought his clothes. His only previous romance was with the animation character Lara Croft and he struggled "to communicate with anything that doesn't have a keyboard".

Highfield is somewhat racier than that. Shortly before his recent 40th birthday he sat himself behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car and took it for a few laps of Magny-Cours, home of the French Grand Prix.

"All I could do was get on to straights and then floor it until I lost focus and then come off the accelerator pedal and - aaagh - catch my breath, go round a few corners and then dare to press the accelerator pedal again. It was just like being in something that picks you up and just hurls you at the horizon, faster than your brain can compute."

Let's hope he can get his brain around the changes that are propelling traditional media over the horizon and into a new era at a dizzying warp-speed, because Highfield represents the BBC's future.

In last month's shake-up of the BBC, he was promoted to a new, elevated, role that saw his budget increase from £250m to £400m and his staff from 850 to 1,500. He plans to use this power base to put Britain at the forefront of internet-based technology and to transform all our lives by giving us access to the entire video archive of the BBC, a treasure trove of 1.2 million hours of film, where and when we want, and for free.

His office, which has its own terrace patio, is a lofty perch in the new BBC Media Village, overlooking the modern, wooden staircase that would be familiar to viewers of Armando Iannucci's political satire The Thick of It. It is a workstation commensurate with the importance given by BBC the director general, Mark Thompson, to new media and it is decorated with modern and brightly-coloured furnishings. Highfield himself is dressed all in grey. "I'm an eminence grise, in more ways than one," he says.

Despite this dry self-deprecation, he is not a drab character. Earlier in his career he helped devise a prototype online reality television show that was a precursor of Big Brother. Before that he worked as a consultant to the African National Congress, helping to prepare the party for the post-apartheid election that swept Nelson Mandela to power in South Africa.

But now he faces his biggest challenge as the head of the BBC's newly-created Future Media and Technology division, as the internet starts to move into a second stage, widely referred to as 'Web 2.0', characterised by interactive, highly-visual, user-led sites such as MySpace and Bebo.

"I think we are about to go from the predominantly text-based, predominantly static world into the video-rich, dynamic, two-way engaging environment. That for me is when it starts to get really interesting. It's more than putting a newspaper online it's where you can really start to empower people and give them total control over their media consumption."

There is no reason, he believes, why the BBC - in co-operation with other British players - cannot exploit this video-led era to put Britain in a far more advanced position in the online world than it currently occupies. It does not, he says, have to stand back and give centre stage to US-based concerns such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and Apple. "It's wide open. These [US] companies are only a few years old. There's no reason why we couldn't actually be the companies that come out on top of this second wave of the digital revolution. It is not too late. We are fast approaching that tipping point but it's not too late," he says.

"What we have is an opportunity now in Web 2.0 to actually get ahead of the game, because we do have one of the most advanced creative industries, our television industry is world renowned. We do have some of the brightest technologists and in the unique way that the BBC is funded we have a public service broadcaster with a remit to go and innovate and take risks on behalf of the creative industries and UK plc."

The key weapon in this transition, he believes, will be the BBC film archive. "We've got one of the world's largest archives, if not the largest archive. And yet, because we've got so few channels - routes to our audience - inevitably 99.9 per cent of that content stays on the shelves. We ought to liberate it and make it available, how, when and where our audience would like to consume it."

Highfield has been down to visit this vast resource, stacked on shelves in a warehouse in Windmill Road, in the west London suburb of Brentford. He was so astounded by the sight that he was moved to take pictures on his mobile phone, which he displays. "It's corridors and corridors, absolutely incredible, right back to the dawn of television and containing countless episodes of forgotten news series, comedy series, drama series. It's all just there and only a fraction has been uncovered."

Some of the footage is on traditional film, some on VHS tape, some on Beta. So far the BBC has switched some 300,000 hours, a little over 25% of the archive, to digital format.

Judging by his excitement, Highfield must have felt a little like Howard Carter stumbling around the tomb of King Tutankhamun. "That's a good analogy. There's endless corridors of film... as far as the eye can see," he says. "But the people in archive would probably be grossly insulted because they would say: 'We've been telling you about it for years but you haven't been bothered to go and see it'."

Progress in transferring the BBC archive to the internet has so far been held up by the "triple whammy" of legal-rights issues, technological difficulties and limited broadband availability. Highfield believes the last two hurdles have almost been cleared. "We hope to do a pilot on the archive in the early part of next year, and understand more about what the real costs of getting the stuff online would be, how much of a mountain we have got on rights. We will have to fundamentally change some of the way we do rights. We can't possibly clear each programme individually. We will have to go for blanket agreements."

He expects "a few hundred hours" of archive programming to be made available online from next year, a major development. The BBC website, bbc.co.uk, has already streamed some of its most popular shows, such as The Apprentice, Top Gear and The Mighty Boosh. News programmes including Panorama, Question Time and Newsnight are made available on a "watch again" facility. From next year some of the classic archive material will become accessible.

Opening up the archive offers a wealth of possibilities, Highfield says. "My dad when he heard about it really got excited because he knew we had shot some footage from the Hendon airshow before the Second World War. Every person's interest will be different. My interest is that I would love to be able to go into the archive and pick out clips of Ferraris. Not just the obvious things like Top Gear but all the little clips that maybe the BBC [doesn't know about]. Someone will know that there's just a fantastic little clip of a Dino on a 1969 episode of Nationwide."

By putting this content online, he says, the BBC will eventually allow users to edit their own composite TV shows and structure their own schedules so that they can view programmes whenever they want. "Let's provide the content and the tools and the safe environment and let our audience make some of the decisions. If they want to compile their half-hour of the best of Stephen Fry by pulling together clips from A Bit of Fry and Laurie or Blackadder or QI then they should be able to do that."

At the end of next spring Highfield expects to launch the BBC's iPlayer, which will allow internet users to view the corporation's television shows for a week after they are broadcast. A similar audio service, bbc.co.uk/radio, already attracts 13 million listeners every month. Trials of iPlayer suggest that users are far more likely to try out shows from digital channels that have been largely ignored on television. Highfield believes that the introduction to the internet of television archives will create the same "long-tail effect" as that seen elsewhere online, where the interest in vast numbers of niche products actually outweighs the demand for the small number of high-profile offerings.

"I think the long-tail effect is going to be just as seismic for the television industry as it has been for the book industry and the record industry."

As head of bbc.co.uk, Highfield is in charge of Britain's biggest content-led website (it is less popular only than the search-orientated Google and the message-driven MSN). The BBC site gets 16 million UK users every month, and, in its many guises, reaches 60 per cent of those online.

"It's an awesome responsibility but also a fantastic opportunity and, I think, in a way the best opportunity is now. What we've done is struggle through times when the audiences were small but growing fast to a point where, in terms of total audience size, bbc.co.uk is the BBC's third most reached service behind BBC1 and BBC2," says Highfield, who has little input into web content. "My role in many ways is the janitor or the caretaker of a museum making sure that the door's open and that people can get in and everything can be found and that it's all kept nice and clean. I don't do much commissioning of the art work or indeed painting."

He rejects criticisms, repeatedly voiced by commercial British online ventures, that bbc.co.uk is too powerful. "We don't have adverts in the UK online, we don't offer mail services or classifieds, we basically try to keep clear of those established markets for commercial opportunities," he says. "There's no doubt that the BBC has a market impact but the guidelines are that we must weigh up our positive public value against our negative market impact and we do do that."

Highfield was a 15-year-old pupil at Elizabeth College, Guernsey, when he was introduced to a BBC Micro, the prototype home computer made for the corporation by Acorn. "I've got one somewhere," he says. "It's a thing that you learned to program and connected up to a television set. The amazing thing now is that they're all totally useless."

Despite it's subsequent demise, the Micro established a career path for Highfield who became a computer programmer and was taken on by Coopers & Lybrand (now Price Waterhouse Coopers) in a management consultancy role.

In his mid-20s he was sent to work in South Africa and found himself employed by the ANC shortly after it was pitched into crisis by the arrest of Winnie Mandela in relation to the death of activist Stompie Moeketsi Seipei. Amid allegations of financial irregularities, Highfield was asked to get the books in order. Among those he chose to employ in his team was Olive Mungadze, a Zimbabwean, who at the time was the only female black chartered accountant in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. At one point in the project, Mungadze and Highfield walked into a remote Afrikaaner diner in Transkei. He hasn't forgotten their reception.

"I had never known an entire restaurant stop eating and just turn round and stare at me, a suited white businessman, with Olive, a suited black woman. They just stared at us for the whole dinner. An utterly different world. It was only 1993."

He returned to Britain the following year and was introduced to the possibilities of the internet when NBC Europe employed him as head of IT and asked him to set up one of the first television websites in the UK. This led to a job at the television company Flextech, where he was soon establishing sites for much of the TV industry, including the Discovery, Playboy and Parliamentary channels.

At Flextech he launched The Doll's House, an online reality show for the Bravo channel. "It was a number of girls in a house under constant surveillance by webcam. It hit the headlines when, not surprisingly, a visiting boyfriend got caught in bed with one of the girls on webcam."

Having built up Flextech Interactive from "just me" to a business of 100 people, he was allowed to invest in ventures such as the online mapping site MultiMap.com, and the ticketing agency Way Ahead Group. Financially the adventure proved very successful. Or, as Highfield put it when describing his interest in cars: "When I lucked in during the dotcom boom I bought myself a Ferrari." Soon after Flextech merged with Telewest, a headhunter called Highfield to offer him a senior role at the BBC.

In six years this "bit of a car nut" has put the corporation in pole position in the digital revolution. He has got rid of the Ferrari for "something more politically correct" and will have to find other things on which to lavish his annual salary of £315,000 (including bonuses and benefits). He might have a racing driver's cap, autographed by Jenson Button, resting on the top of his chair, but Highfield is not flash. Nor is he a grey geek. He has thrived because of a rare ability to awaken others to the possibilities of the internet.

"The streaming of people in England into arts and science means that people who can explain technology are few and far between. It's so rare in the creative industries to find creatives who are interested in technology, because a lot of them look down on it. It wouldn't happen in America or Germany," he says. "It's very rare as well to find technologists who have been taught how to sell their ideas. It's one of the reasons why the entrepreneurial culture here hasn't made many dotcom successes."

It's just as well, then, that we have Ashley Highfield.

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