The American with his finger on the red button
Do we take the BBC's interactive output for granted? The corporation's director of future media, Ralph Rivera, tells Ian Burrell why digital Britain is the envy of the world
"Winston Churchill" was Ralph Rivera's first thought when he came for a job at the BBC and was given his interview in a room full of broadcasting artefacts that included a Marconi microphone from the early 1940s.
Rivera grew up in New York City's Bronx but he soon learned 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 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 that the organisation faces at home: "It feels to me that this place isn't as appreciated here as it is outside of here."
The BBC's reputation among 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 cutting edge, but Rivera is clear of 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 13m 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 via which the iPlayer is now available.
From smart phones to tablets, game consoles, DVD players and connected TVs, they are parts of what he describes as "the ecosystem of the living room" and means of bringing BBC content to a wider audience.
"How do we start to create these interactive extensions to our linear programming?" he says, partly answering his question with the example of a parent using a smart phone to interact with a programme she is watching with her children on the CBeebies channel.
Rivera is so dedicated to his role that he only brought his family across the Atlantic a few weeks ago, having spent the previous months immersing himself in his work. He 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. "In the Olympics we will show every sport and over 2,000 hours of programming live and on demand. We can do that because we are not concerned about 'turning analogue dollars into digital dimes' which is the concern that commercial broadcasters would have with the Olympics."
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 same material that it puts out 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 mimicked a behaviour offline. We realised it wasn't just the game it was the community around the game," he says. "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."
When Rivera, a childhood Star Trek fan, first toyed with computers at his high school, Bronx Science, the prototype devices depended on "punched cards" made from stiff paper perforated with digital information. His aptitude for maths made him a natural to study computer science at New York's Columbia University though he harboured an ambition to be an architect.
His early interest was in artificial intelligence and he recalls a class atmosphere where "everything was possible", as predictions were made for computers that would recognise voices and organise our lives. "It was aspirational. We thought we would get machines that would be able to reason, see, hear and understand.
"Some of these problems still haven't been fully cracked," he says, expressing satisfaction that an IBM computer outwitted humans recently in the US game show Jeopardy.
During his earliest jobs he found himself with the other technical boffins working in "the back office".
But then in the mid-1990s, as the internet took hold, Rivera and others found themselves in increasingly consumer-facing roles. At publishing company Simon & Schuster he found himself working on websites designed to support text books and on some of the earliest online bookshops and digital books. "We went from a B2B business to a massive B2C business."
Although he moved to the BBC at a time when budgets were being squeezed and the corporation was being pressured into pruning back its vast website, Rivera says that he hasn't felt starved of resources. "We will be operating with less 'resources' but we will have more focus so we will be doing fewer things better which then says we can be more strategic about how we apply our resources on what is distinctive, innovative and more high quality versus feeling that we have to be everything to everybody."
Rivera has his plans, but his view of the UK's future media is not wholly optimistic. Though 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 to some Scandinavian and Asian countries. He asks why some people decide not to avail themselves of 50 MB 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 next year will help the BBC to drive broadband take-up by persuading audiences of the value of high speed connections, he believes.
"At the Olympics we are going to have 24 simultaneous streams live and on demand via iPlayer. That will create the demand that makes people say 2 MB isn't enough."
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, to me, positive impact on humanity and specifically the opportunity to communicate."
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