TV anytime, anywhere

The BBC's director of television tells Raymond Snoddy about new trials that give viewers the choice of logging on to watch at their convenience
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The Independent Online

The BBC will tomorrow announce its most dramatic experiment in providing online programming - a trial that could lead to all of BBC2 being provided on broadband.

Jana Bennett, the BBC director of television who has commissioned the TV Plus trials, which are already providing online content covering comedy, drama and parenting programmes, promises that the new BBC2 site will be very beautiful. "The BBC2 pilot will embrace much more video content on its website, and more broadband presence. You will almost be able to touch and feel what is on the channel," she says.

The hope is that the BBC2 trial will put the channel more in touch with its audience and "open out to people's conversations". The new series of trials hold out hope that BBC programmes and specially designed content will be increasingly available on demand on everything from mobile phones to DVDs and broadband platforms. The experiments reflect the fact that more than 18 million people in the UK now have broadband connections and 700,000 new homes are signing up every month, according to the latest figures. The number of mobile phones now exceeds the size of the total population. "TV Plus is trying to find out if audiences want this content, which might be available in more convenient forms, at more convenient times, on different forms of platforms and devices," says the BBC television director. The evidence so far suggests they do.

In the first two weeks since the Parenting Video On Demand site was launched last month, it has been used 43,000 times. The online trial, introduced by Melinda Messenger, who has three children of her own, brings together 70 hours of video material taken from programmes such as Child of Our Time, Little Angels and The Human Body. Together, the programmes cover physiological, developmental and behavioural issues. Users with a broadband connection can search the material at any time by age or topic, and can, in effect, call up the wisdom of Professor Robert Winston or Dr Tanya Byron instantly.

Tom Williams, who has been responsible for the overall creative approach on the TV Plus trials, was more than happy to use the Parenting service himself when his two-year-old son Isaac threw his first big tantrum.

The response from users has been overwhelmingly positive, with many wanting the coverage extended beyond its current scope, the first five years of life. At the moment, the plan is to run the pilot service for six months. "It does feel like a success, but we are being cautious because no one has done this before," says Bennett.

Health and nutrition - indeed, anything to do with life skills - would also be obvious subjects for the video-on-demand treatment. The comedy and drama TV Plus pilots launched last year also produced a considerable response. There were 850,000 requests for a sneak preview of the final episode of Doctor Who. The Doctor Who team have now been asked to design new material to sit alongside the conventional "linear" programme when the series returns in the spring.

When the BBC3 comedy The Mighty Boosh was premiered on broadband there were 668,000 requests, and 234,000 viewed material from another BBC3-originated show, Nighty Night, on the web and mobile phones.

"You've got to keep experimenting, and if we don't experiment on the creative side we will be prognosticating about these platforms and talking about digits and distribution and not thinking about the creative force behind it, because in the end that is all people really want - something that is good," says Bennett.

The results of the experiments so far suggest that there will inevitably be a period of "slicing and dicing" existing content. Some of it will be particularly suitable for promotional and viral marketing. "There will also be some ideal forms that haven't been invented yet," Bennett says.

She is increasingly cautious about guessing how viewers will behave. She had scarcely finished predicting that viewers would not be prepared to watch complete dramas on small mobile phone screens when she heard that the German channel ProSieben was already successfully broadcasting entire soap episodes to mobile phones.

The TV Plus pilots are precisely that - experiments that will come to an end. While enhancements to BBC websites will continue, anything that would constitute a new service will require the approval of the BBC governors. But, in an unusual move, Bennett plans to make all the data from the four pilots available to the rest of the television industry. "We are going to release data because everyone will gain from knowing more about things," says Bennett who insists its not just about technology. "We're really playing with time and release dates, and 'other chances to see' are very popular with viewers," she adds.

In an age of ever-expanding choice and audience fragmentation, Bennett is convinced that channels are far from dead. "People like the idea of validation, a signature attached. With something like BBC3 and comedy there is a basic expectation of what it might be in terms of quality, attitude, newness, experimentation, challenge - all those brand attributes," she says.

Despite all the new options and offerings, Bennett points out that the first episode of the Only Fools and Horses spin-off The Green Green Grass attracted an audience of 9.5 million and Little Britain more than 10 million.