July 18th 2014
By Nigel Walley
Two seemingly separate things occurred at the BBC yesterday that got us thinking about the future of broadcast news. James Harding announced some very difficult cuts and changes to way BBC News is created and delivered as part of the broader DQF process. It was an austere message about cost savings, interspersed with some vision about ‘digital transformation’ and ‘re-orientating BBC News for a digital future’. At the same time, a separate part of the BBC – BBC R&D – announced a series of technical innovations to be showcased at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow under its ‘Future of Broadcasting’ initiative.
Along with the various 4K and 3D innovations that the Glasgow initiative announced (on the BBC R&D blog here), it included details of how the BBC will be ‘demonstrating the editorial and creative potential of a new internet-based broadcasting systems’ as well as ‘demonstrating the potential for richer, more interactive and more personal ways of telling stories to audiences’.
It struck us here at Decipher that the two issues, the need to change News, and the arrival of groundbreaking news broadcasting technologies, could be brought together to create a positive new role for the BBC News Channel, right at the moment that its future is being challenged.
James Harding’s comment about preparing for a digital future struck us as odd – firstly making us wonder how much ‘analogue’ news the BBC creates nowadays? More importantly, it made us wonder how much of the digital and interactive innovation the BBC is driving around news he is aware of? In particular, we wondered how exposed the News teams are to current innovations being rolled out, in particular the BBC’s Connected Red Button. As we have outlined previously, we believe the BBC Connected Red Button project is a hugely important step towards understanding what a future broadcast channel looks like. In many ways it is much more important than iPlayer, which arguably has a limited shelf life now, in the face of competition from the major national and international TV distribution platforms. But the Connected Red Button is a window into a future linear broadcast experience. Although, for reasons that we will explain, it is not a consistently good experience.
The Connected Red Button project means that, on some platforms*, it is now possible to press the Red Button while watching a BBC channel and pull up all sorts of clever, interactive web overlays. Some of these, for example the Glastonbury one, are truly groundbreaking. The Connected Red Button service can provide enhanced content for the show on screen, it can provide channel specific routes into BBC iPlayer and it can provide text and video news overlays. However, for BBC News Channel the outcome is currently a mess. Firstly, the news content in these overlays is controlled and produced by a different BBC department – BBC Online. This applies even for those that appear as ‘News’ overlays over the BBC News Channel. This means that there is no editorial synchronicity between the on-screen information and that being produced by the underlying broadcast channel. The overlays don’t support the on-screen stories and, worst of all, they don’t synchronise visually. Very often the Red Button overlays actually clash directly with the on-screen graphics and tickers produced by the channel (see screenshot below). It shows two separate BBC News teams, operating completely independently of each other, indifferent to or unaware of the overlap.
The BBC R&D announcement about Glasgow talks breathlessly of ‘augmented video – that can draw graphical overlays on top of video streams. As with subtitles, these graphics can be activated or deactivated by the viewer’. The BBC R&D people have either forgotten about Connected Red Button or have invented the next generation of it, with new and improved interactive capability. We are hoping it is the latter, and that they have created an interactive broadcasting system that can solve the News mess currently on screen in Connected Red Button using homes. And this is where the BBC News Channel could come in to its own.
By the middle of next year it will be possible to reach the majority of both the free-to-air (FTA) and payTV audiences with a linear IP streamed version of a broadcast channel. Any Freeview box or screen sold since 2012 has had to have this function included. It is odd that this functionality has arrived first on the FTA boxes and the pay boxes like BSkyB are only now playing catch up. This means that the BBC R&D vision of delivering a ‘new internet-based broadcasting system’ is very close to being a reality. (BT Sport is already delivering its HD channel over the internet to its YouView based customers and there are 25 IP streamed pay channels from Viacom on Freeview boxes – via VuTV). Once the Sky boxes become Web enabled (as opposed to merely internet enabled), the BBC News Channel could be moved to an IP streamed distribution model, dramatically reducing distribution costs, and creating the basis for a live, on-air research & development environment.
James Harding’s difficult announcement about cuts and changes did speak about a ‘the opportunity to lead a fourth revolution in news’. As well as saving money, a fully IP and interactive BBC News Channel could become the test bed for all news and broadcasting innovation at the BBC. At its simplest this could allow presenters to advise viewers when more info is available via the connected overlays and viewers could choose to turn them on or off. A much more ambitious vision would allow the channel to pioneer other emerging forms of linear and on-demand combinations. It could pioneer broadcast/web integration and experiment with new relationships between programming and social media and/or user generated content (UGC). By default this would become a UK test bed as other broadcasters would look to BBC News Channel for ideas and inspiration. More importantly, putting control of the interactive content into the hands of the BBC News channel, would create a simplified, slimmer news operation.
It would, of course need the support and co-operation of the on-screen journalists anchoring the channel. One of the key lessons learned in the first wave of red button interactivity was the importance of having the presenter prompt the viewer to interact. It just doesn’t work if the presenters aren’t driving the interactivity. At the moment, apart from the fact that the on screen presenters have no idea what is on the Red Button news content, there is no incentive for them to prompt the viewer to use it because of the chaos it causes visually.
To add another layer of complexity to the presenters’ jobs may seem too high a hurdle. But, what may not be apparent to the public is how much of an evolution the news channels and their presenters have already been through. A decade ago, a news presenter would read an autocue and notes in a studio that appeared, to them, pretty much how it appeared to the general public. Now, many sit in studios flush with green screen walls and surrounded by information screens, prompts and dynamic links to outside broadcast partners that would not be unfamiliar to visitors from NASA mission control. It has become a highly complex, interactive job that they do with great aplomb. The new environment would be an extension of an existing job evolution, not a revolution for them.
This coming together of new tech at a time of austerity means that the BBC have an amazing opportunity to link up various different innovation initiatives and to focus them on the idea that BBC News Channel could and should be the test bed for next generation broadcast innovation. It should be where the BBC play with all the ideas that could make up a 21st century news channel. The arrival of these opportunities at a time of austerity and cuts isn’t a problem, its an amazing opportunity. When given lemons, make lemonade.
*Currently on Tivo, and Freeview and soon to be on YouView and next year Sky.