The online challenge for Wales

Wil Stephens, Founder and Director, Cube Interactive, Broadcasting in Wales: an agenda for the coming decade, IWA conference, 18 October 2011, Cardiff

Today’s conference topic challenges us to think about the next decade of broadcasting in Wales, so I’m going to talk a little about some long-range ideas.

From the beginning of this century and indeed right now in Wales, we have been and continue to be in the middle of the great technical revolution. This is what we know as the building phase of a technical revolution: building the infrastructure that we need to power the internet and to enable things to happen, sorting out the plumbing. If past technological revolutions are any guide we’re in for a cultural revolution next. And this is what I believe will underpin the next ten years.

I would like to talk through a few ideas that broadcasters in Wales should be considering as part of their plans for the next ten years. These are big-ticket ideas, which are not easily implemented. But they’re worth exploring.

Firstly I want to talk about two things, which are interlinked:

Plumbing and Data

Looking back at the technical revolution stage of this century, our broadcasters missed a huge trick. They missed the opportunity to invest in the platform business: the plumbing of the web which powers content and communications.

As broadcasters face the fragmentation of attention, partly due to new forms of entertainment and devices, and partly due to a new and increased choice of channels. It’s getting harder to get your message or content across. What is becoming clear is the need to own the last mile into the homes of your audience, and to understand a lot more about who they are, what they do, how they consume or interact with your content.

One of Television’s dirty little secrets, of which there are many, is that nobody really knows who or how many people are watching. This has already been mentioned by many here today: the fact that the BARB measurement is desperately broken. And of course, this became painfully obvious last year, when S4C had to answer very public criticism surrounding the lack of audience for certain shows.

So how can we get better data?  And why should we care? Channel 4’s David Abraham summed this up the importance of data in his speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival this year where he described data as the “new oil”. It really is that important. It’s not good enough to be an isolated institution: a broadcaster sat in Cardiff beaming to the world, not sure if the world is watching

The likes of Google TV and YouView are all applying the rules and principles of the web to television. They are capturing and measuring data that can then be used to sell to advertisers or, more importantly for us here today, to connect better and directly with our audience. No more guessing who is watching. You’ll know the names of those watching. No more trying to target new shows to a subset of users. You’ll be able to target exact demographic or specific users of your choice. This is the power of the web: a binary world, where you are either watching or you’re not. You’re communicating with your audience, or you’re not.

Now this leads me back to the plumbing.

YouView is probably one of the cleverest ideas the BBC has had in a long time. And here’s why: it marries the dream of better data with plumbing. If you look at Youview’s partners you’ll notice major ISPs: TalkTalk, BT and others.  The BBC , C4 and other content partners have overnight become telcos and carriers.

What this means is that the pipe all the way to the users eyeballs at home can be controlled and measured by YouView partners. They can beam out content, direct it to your device, they will know you’ve watched it, at what time and where, and based on that information they will be able to send you the next episode, similar series, and a whole host of other tailored information. They have you exactly where they want you. This is very powerful stuff.

Now one of the great worries for me in Wales is that we’ve lost out on our chance to influence or indeed to join initiatives such as YouView, and we’ve failed to recognise the opportunity to create our own broadband network – or to put it more bluntly, be where the eyeballs will be in a few years time. We will be left at the mercy again of a distant EPG that doesn’t account for Wales.

So, imagine for a minute, that I’m connected at home via S4C Broadband. A Welsh language broadband service, in partnership with the Welsh Government, that pumps Welsh language content directly into my home, via a set-top box owned and controlled by S4C. Every single show I watch can be tracked, every advert can be tailored, traffic can be shaped to allow two-way interactivity between programmes and users and creating an instant social network connecting of all of S4C’s viewers.

You wouldn’t have a panel of a 100 users to poll. You’d have a panel of your entire audience.

And to answer the gentlemen’s request this morning for S4C in his hotel room: S4C Broadband would deliver S4C as Channel number 1, eliminating the need to enter into a costly discussion with Sky over EPG numbers. We’d have complete control from content to delivery. The potential is amazing.

We need to look at this and we need to look at it collectively as broadcasters, content producers and Government. We shouldn’t sit back and wait for the Welsh Assembly Government or the telco industry to do this for us. We should look to the model of YouView, to look at the possibility of creating and investing in our own broadband network. A network that reflects our needs. Owning the last mile to the home is a big, big deal, and we should be focussing our efforts on how we can reach directly into every home in Wales.

Next, after we have created the infrastructure, we need to focus on the creativity and the content. We need to unleash the power of the platform.

The Platform

As much as all the broadcasters here in Wales would like to, it’s obvious that no one broadcaster can do everything. No broadcaster is an island.

What has been remarkable over the last few years – and it will continue as a trend over the next few years – is the rise of content created by so called amateurs, community groups, individuals and the likes of what will be created by local television companies if Jeremy Hunt gets his way. More on that later.

Indeed, at any given day in the Capital City here, there must be hours upon hours of footage created or captured ranging from the St David’s Hall, to the Cardiff Devil’s Ice Hockey down the Bay. Now with the BBC’s DQF cuts programme biting, and S4C needing to become a slimmer organisation, this presents us with a big opportunity: how to plug the gaps left by the broadcasters with community generated content.

I believe that public service broadcasters should act as a platform. They have the brand recognition and the captured audience: the two most difficult things to acquire as a small start-up that has content to share. And the small start-up with content to share has content the Broadcaster might not necessarily have.

I was actually on Dylan Iorweth’s show on BBC yesterday, where two of the other contributors were talking about launching new radio ventures, Radio Beca and Radio’r Cymry. The BBC could easily step in and act as a gateway for this new range of content. Allowing people to go to the BBC Radio Cymru website would not only give users the option of one Radio Cymru stream, but also signposting to alternatives: Radio Beca, Radio’r Cymry etc. which might fill a gap that the BBC cannot fill itself.

And, to go back to my earlier point, by doing this, of course, the BBC can retain control over the user, from their home, to their portal, all the way up to the stream, and remain relevant in this fragmented world. In this new world of a BBC-S4C partnership, where each might publicise content on each other’s network, why not go the whole way and publicise content that may not be on either channel’s network.

I accept this might be a whole new way of thinking. But it’s a line of thinking that I feel is required in an open, networked world, where institutions cannot govern and control all the airwaves.

The Commercial Platform

There is of course a wider opportunity for our PSBs to behave as platforms. There’s an opportunity to create enormous commercial value. Let’s call this the Commercial Platform. This idea actually builds upon Ian Hargreaves’s work on Copyright Exchange, which I’m sure by now you are all familiar with. It’s an important development that will radically reform our industry.

Now imagine if you will a world where you could dig deeper and gain access to content originating from the broadcasters. Imagine that you had access not only to the finished product – the end tapes that you see on screen – but also the assets: the characters, the graphics, the audio, the storylines. Just as the 8-track transformed the music industry by allowing people to re-mix songs by their individual elements, i.e. the tracks, and not just play the song as the musician initially intended.

What could you create? Well anything – games, apps, websites, all based on original characters and creations licensed through the CPI or the Creative Programming Interface. Basically, you would literally let a thousand flowers bloom and see what is created. This is exactly how big web entities operate. Twitter, Facebook, Google. They create the platform then allow anyone to use their data and assets to build commercial companies on-top.

Look at Facebook. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the game Farmville. It was produced by a company called Zynga. Zynga is in the process of going through a $1billion dollar flotation on the Nasdaq exchange, and the company is built entirely on-top of Facebook’s platform. It leverages the platform to create games.

Look at Twitter. In London one of the most celebrated success stories of recent months is Tweetdeck. A company sold to Twitter for $50million dollars. The company of course was built entirely on-top of Twitter’s platform and data.

Look at the Apple App store. Again, a platform that allows anyone to create an app, upload and sell to millions of users worldwide.

Now apply this theory to creative content. If we licensed Dr Who’s assets, instead of having 30 people in Llandaf plugging away at creating Dr Who games, I absolutely believe we could fill the Millennium Stadium full of developers from all round the World who’d love to launch games and create digital products on-top of that platform.

Let’s look at Welsh language content. There was a series recently on S4C following coastal walks. If developers had access to that content, imagine the apps that could have been built to guide you along in real-time the coast of Wales and Pembrokeshire. Imagine if we could tap into and retrieve the assets of Cyw, the highly successful kids strand, and create console games and apps and make these available to all to enjoy, with S4C getting a benefit from every sale.

The Copyright Exchange makes all this possible. The programme producers and content owners feed in the assets. On the other side, developers dip in and take those assets and create new digital products. The copyright exchange in the middle, sets standards for revenue share, fair usage rights any other commercial and contractual obligations.

The biggest platform we have in the UK is the BBC, far bigger potentially than Facebook. In Wales, S4C could be that platform. In radio, Radio Cymru could be that platform.

The three themes I’ve touched – data, owning the last mile to the home, and creating a platform for innovation – when combined will, I believe, be the central themes that should and will occupy broadcasters digital thoughts over the next few years. We must learn to think differently, to open up our institutions to sharing content and resources, allowing people to build resources and businesses on-top of them, and developing and owning the broadband network into the homes of everyone in Wales.

If there is one thing I’d like to for people to take home from today it would be this: we need to start seeing our broadcasters as enablers, not gatekeepers. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and great things will happen.

Wil Stephens is Founder and Director of Cube Interactive

One thought on “The online challenge for Wales

  1. Great article.

    I need to replace my digibox and looking at the market today I will buy a Youview box tomorrow, albeit it has a few flaws.

    It’s sad for us living in Wales with two young children, all of us learning the language, that S4C is nowhere to be seen on YouView.

    S4C should be using the BBC ‘relationship’ to make the most out of their platform. It’s failure (even behind Scotland!) grates as giving people the view the Welsh are yet again another backwards, slow nation waiting for the English to help them come into the 21st century image … When you look at the channel itself , when you look at Clic (their On Demand website service), and unique programming such as Astra Gwyn and the educational quality of Cyw puts the channel very high in my regard, far better that the comedy and cbeebies/cbbc offering.

    Come on S4C! come back fighting in 2013. We want you On Demand, we want you on tablets, on YouView and over the web… get Sugar around my house and I’ll tell him why he needs S4C too.

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