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net.wars: Going non-linear

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 16 March 2007


OK, you're the BBC. How do you balance what consumers want with what the rightsholders demand, all the while trying to serve the public interest as required by your charter and bearing in mind the revenues you derive from secondary markets to non-license fee payers in other countries?

Wendy M Grossman

There are some things we can guess pretty accurately about what consumers want: control over schedules and access at will. People who have Tivos or other PVRs, for example, do not in general decide to throw them away and go back to scrutinizing schedules for the moment when their favorite shows will be on. ("linear viewing", in newspeak).

As channels and conduits continue to proliferate, the only way to make sense of it all is to have a computer do it for you. Similarly, the big action online is in two areas: downloads (legal or illegal), and streamed video clips. In both cases, it's up to the viewer to determine when they watch.

YouTube might seem close to the traditional broadcast model, since people do have to sit on the "channel" (site) to watch streaming video and can't download or save it for future viewing without a third-party hack.

But in fact it points to a very different future in which it will be more common to watch pieces of programs than whole ones. This is a trend throughout digital media – people buy songs more than albums, professors put together course packs of chapters rather than assigning whole textbooks, National Public Radio lets listeners pick the sections of "All Things Considered" that they want to hear, and ring tones capture a quick snip of a favorite sound. Why should video be any different? Great movies and TV shows are the sum of their great moments.

The BBC is trying to take the next steps into its digital future against this media landscape, and some time back it published its proposals. Ofcom has published comments (PDF), and the BBC Trust has published its comments (PDF) as part of a public consultation. You have until March 28 to respond as a member of the fee-paying public.

For the past few years, the BBC has seemed like the one big organisation that could really lead the way away from Big Media's take on what digital media should look like, especially when it began opening up its archives online for anyone to mix, rip, or burn. And in fact its original proposals seem to have been similarly far-ranging, including audio podcasts of classical music, a seven-day "catch-up window" in which viewers could download shows they'd missed, and "series stacking", allowing viewers to download all the previous episodes of a series that's still in progress.

Ofcom and the BBC Trust are seeking to modify these proposals. Some of their suggestions make sense. For example, allowing series stacking on 20-years of the soap EastEnders would be pretty extreme, as the BBC Trust points out, especially since the BBC derives revenue from the earlier years of the soap in syndication on UK Gold. I think decisions about what series can be stacked should include some consideration about whether the series is going to be commercially available in other formats within a reasonable amount of time – say, a year. If it's not, that would argue for greater availability via download.

What's unnerving is to read this passage against series stacking, from the BBC Trust's report:

"A window of 13 weeks could allow users to create sizeable archives of programming on their computers."

Compare and contrast to:the decision in the Sony Betamax case, in which Universal Studios and Disney complained about the potential for "library-building" that might "result in a decrease in their revenue from licensing their works to television and from marketing them in other ways."

We now know what they didn't in 1984: that people did create libraries of videotapes – but many of those tapes were purchased, and home video/DVD sales now make up a vital source of revenues for the studios. While the BBC also makes money from its secondary markets, it has a chance to be a real innovator here. It should not echo Disney in clinging to old business models...

A bigger issue is whether audio podcasts should be protected with digital rights management. The Trust and Ofcom are in favor of this, on the grounds that without it the BBC might be distorting the market for competitors.

Hogwash. The BBC has batches of free-to-air radio channels in the UK; does that mean no one listens to any other radio?

We know two things about DRM. First, it puts control over access to the content into the hands of a third-party vendor, one with no public service charter or accountability to the licence fee payers. Second, users hate it. The BBC could spend silly amounts of money into the infinite future DRMing its audio content, and the first thing that will happen is that someone will write a nice little program to strip it all out.

It has always been true that the best way to fight copyright infringing file-sharing is to build a service that's fast, reliable, and reasonably priced. As things are, if the BBC adopts the Trust's recommendations it will just fuel the extralegal file-sharing that all these guys are supposed to be against.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).