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Interview: Jon Page, head of operations, BBC R&D
As the way people consume media content is changing, so the BBC is adapting to new audiences, as Jon Page, head of operations for BBC Research and Development, describes
Technology has disrupted the way every industry has had to deal with customer interaction, and the news and media sector is no different.
Companies providing consumers with content are having to adapt to readers, viewers and listeners expecting short and long-form content, tailored to them, and delivered through their preferred platform.
Jon Page, head of operations for BBC R&D, says that five years ago the BBC began looking into how content would need to change to address the digital consumer.
He explains the BBC identified three upcoming technology-driven changes that could be destructive: the internet, greater use of data, and how content was consumed.
“As consumers it’s very easy to see how that’s impacting our world and what we’re doing, but all of these things are leaking into how the BBC gets things to people and leaking into how we make things,” Page says.
“The R&D response was to say let’s embrace that, so if this is happening what can we do, how can we use this to enable us to deliver a new broadcasting system?”
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Jumping in at the deep end, Page describes some ways in which people may interact with content from the BBC in the future.
His examples include a home setting where a child uses a BBC-supplied content resource to do their homework, the use of virtual reality glasses to stream video from a festival to a consumer’s back garden, and a family using smartphones to upload content feeding into the BBC’s wider coverage of a subject area.
Page explains the point of these examples is to demonstrate that media will have to move towards non-linear content delivery and involve the user in the production and consumption experience.
Users will be able to choose how long they want content to be, what topics they explore, and even contribute to content through social channels to ensure it is fully dynamic and adapted to suit them.
“Rather than thinking about content as a linear thing that you craft, content can become an environment in which the audience can go and explore,” Page says.
“You start to deliver more, and deliver different things as well as traditional linear content. It enables you to make things a lot more immersive. It enables you to bring your audience a lot more into the content so they can explore it.”
To ensure that content is deliverable in a non-linear fashion, it needs to be produced in the form of objects rather than huge single files.
Combining this with social media will extend the brand experience beyond the home and the television set.
Page believes that the younger generation are “not simple consumers” and that the increasing use of the internet and smart devices means people are more demanding about how they consume content.
Social media interaction will be a huge part of future content consumption. Page believes it will become “part of the experience”, similar to how the broadcaster’s digital-only channel, BBC Three, utilises social media platforms such as Snapchat and Facebook to reach its target audience.
To deliver content in the way that people want it, BBC R&D is working on a concept called IP Studio. It’s a new take on the broadcasting studio, and will act as networking infrastructure for broadcasters to make and deliver broadcast content over IP networks.
Page explains that instead of hard-wiring a network, all equipment for content capture – such as cameras, microphones and mixers – will appear as discoverable devices which can be configured by the IP Studio over the internet.
“Instead of being huge lumps of hardware that you own and control, they are becoming bits of software, connected on the bog-standard internet that enables you to produce content,” Page says.
“What has been a specialist intensive environment is effectively a web service, run in the cloud. So this is a media in the cloud, and broadcast turns into an internet of things.”
Objects, not files
Rather than producing a cut-and-dried single file for a piece of content, each piece of content produced – video, audio, metadata, scripts – will be left as objects and given a time stamp and unique identifier.
Objects can be reassembled in any form or length depending on how users want content delivered to them.
Lots of content previously left “on the cutting room floor” could be used, depending on what consumers want to watch and how they want to consume it. There would be no need to create more than one version of content.
“We make it once, but we hold it in such a way that it can be used in many different ways, so then it’s relevant to far more people,” Page says.
“For example it’s relevant to the snacking user – say, during the commute – in the way that a lot of people are consuming a lot of media.”
Proving it works
As a proof of concept for leaving content as objects to be reassembled as required, the BBC experimented with IP Studio concepts during the Commonwealth Games, leaving output as objects until it reached the television set.
Page says: “We’ve proven that we can make it work, and what we’ve been doing in the two years since is playing with it. If now we’re starting to gather these objects, let’s start to demonstrate what we can really do.”
Using these processes, content such as a drama or a weather forecast can be produced once and adapted for the user. For example, rather than having an additional sign language layer for those who are hard of hearing, the main presenter could be replaced with someone using sign language.
Dramas could be adapted for pre or post-watershed viewing, depending on particular households rather than the time of airing, or the colour of a scene could be adapted depending on the tone and visual ability of an audience.
Jon Page, head of operations, BBC R&D
Spaces in programming due to regional differences could also be filled with relevant content.
Page says: “In a linear world you have one file, but if you understand your audience you can change the content to respond to what people are doing.”
He insists that this does not signal a move away from traditional television viewing, but is about developing the relationship with audiences in a new way.
He points out: “Theatre persists even though radio happened, radio persists even though television happened, and television will persist through the next wave – digital just enables you to do more.”
The release of the BBC+ app marks the start of a change for the broadcaster, developing its capabilities for getting to know its audience.
“The first step is we are getting to know our audiences as people a lot better, therefore we’re better able to connect things to them,” Page says.
“The greater depth of understanding you have of an individual’s journey both within a show and their media experience over time, the more compelling a media experience you can give them in their life.”
Smartphones will be a huge part in how the BBC does this, as phones are already collecting data about how we use them, and it is only a matter of time before they then adapt their behaviour to react to a user’s habits.
Page says the natural progression of content will involve social interaction, making people co-creators of content through collecting user-generated content through social media and adding it to the pool of materials in the IP Studio.
By focusing on data and virtual reality, Page believes festival season will be a good time to test how to crowdsource content from users. In the future virtual reality could be used to give those not at a festival a taste of the festival from home.
Because this new way of developing and sharing content doesn’t necessarily require expert equipment there is more capability to expand coverage of festivals, sports events or even newsworthy events.
By creating a content platform for broadcasting any appropriately tagged content, the BBC will enable a “co-creation” environment for media creators, who will act as just another content input.
“Why shouldn’t every festival have coverage? Why shouldn’t any sports event have coverage of things going on around the stadium?” Page says.
“These things can and will democratise the creation and sharing of media. It will enable a lot more people to play a role in these things.”
To develop these capabilities in the future, the BBC has already started its journey by pinpointing what it wants the future of its content to look like. It has begun implementing the backbone, ready to transform content delivery in the coming years.