BBC: the open-source network

This week’s Media Guardian column is an open letter to Mark Thompson, head of the BCC, arguing that the beeb shouldn’t think as a competitor to big media but as a laboratory for innovation. (Here it is without registration required.) Excerpt:

The BBC can become the grand laboratory of media. For because of those licence fees, you are in a better position than any organisation anywhere to think generously, to share knowledge and audience – and thus revenue and support – with your media confreres. More important, you can afford to make mistakes. You can try to figure out how to let the people pass around your shows, how to distribute information and entertainment to new devices, and how to gather and share content from the public in new ways, and you can stumble along the way without risking shareholder revolts. The problem is, of course, that you are now facing a revolt of media moguls, instead. So you need to demonstrate that Auntie comes in peace, that you will involve them in your Creative Future, understanding their needs and sharing your answers. For the truth is that the news and media industries desperately need reinvention, they need to benefit from your experimentation and innovation, so long as you are open with your lessons.

Right after that went up, a BBC friend pointed me to wonderful thinking from Azeem Azhar two years ago proposing details of how to manage an open-source BBC with a BBC Public License (see his own site as well). Excerpt:

The internet, then, is where re-invention of the public service principle can begin.

Under the BPL, the BBC’s internet content, for example, would be available for third parties to access and syndicate. A non-commercial user, such as a charity Web site, could put up a BBC news feed free.

Under the BPL, the BBC’s software code would be freely available. Development for certain types of projects would be done publicly, using an open source framework.

  • Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for the tip–I think the BBC has come quite far since I wrote the original piece in 2002, but what I think they under-estimate is their own market power in the limited but still influential UK market.

    In 1995/6 when digital TV was going native, the BBC played it;s hand to Rupert Murdoch saying they would be available on all digital TV platforms. Thus ensued many competing platforms for DTV and interactive standards, rather than the obvious unique position of the BBC to (then) enforce strict interoperability (around EPGs, etc etc). I wasn’t privvy to the discussions so other factors may have played a role.

    The BBC missed a trick when it was audited by Phillip Graf three years ago–the main recommendation was to shut down a couple of handcoded websites about soap operas.

    Today the opportunity is to pour the BBC’s content and technologies into the open market. Innovation theory suggests that there won’t be long-term crowding out, far from it. There might be short-term casualties but long-term gains in general.

    The trickiest spot is how this with change the basis of competition for original news gathering and whether an opensource BBC wouldn’t dangerously crowd out newsgathering by other organisations.

    The BBC’s biggest short-term concern is about rights–but can managed pragmatically.

    Longer term, it’s about its settlement with the State. This is why it obsesses over Worldwide licensing. Once again, you can work around this by bracketing the international activities. Since the current settlement is all but agreed–and the emphasis was on governance and on TV–we’ll probably have to wait another five if not ten years.


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