Auntie's digital revolutionary

Our Power 50 number one, Ashley Highfield, tells Philip Buxton about the BBC's plans for a cross-channel interactive future.

To the three BAFTAs on his bookshelf, Ashley Highfield can now add the title of most influential person in digital marketing, as decided by peers and Revolution journalists in our first Power 50. It's safe to assume he was more stirred by his Academy victories and there's no gong to recognise this latest achievement. Still, it's a noteworthy victory, not least because he works for what is chiefly a non-commercial organisation.

Aside from all that, now is a great time to catch up with the BBC's head of new media and technology. He's in the middle of exploring trials that might define the shape of the corporation's output for years to come.

Tests of the integrated media player (iMP), revealed earlier this year, will provide the foundation for the provisionally named MyBBCPlayer. This device could offer personalised access to all of the BBC's broadcast content, both past and present - including, for the first time, BBC TV channels live over the internet.

And, he's marginally late for our meeting since, according to public relations man Chris, he is "just finishing something off for (BBC chief executive) Mark Thompson". "We're working on a big presentation," confirms Highfield, which may or may not be related to the iMP that he says is the main thing keeping him awake at night.

That Thompson and Highfield are in regular cahoots comes as no surprise.

The reason Highfield made number one in the Power 50 is that, so far, the BBC has not just made sense of digital but managed to drag its enormous self to the very front of its development. Highfield has led it there, while Thompson is a digital convert himself.

"When I joined in 2000, Greg Dyke took (digital media) seriously," Highfield recalls. "When Mark arrived, you saw another step-change again. Mark slimmed down the board to 10 or so, but new media is very much there as the future of the BBC."

Still, when we meet in Highfield's corner of 'Broadcast Centre', the corporation's utopian new offices just up the road from BBC Television Centre in West London, the most obvious question to ask is why he thinks he topped the list?

"I wonder if it's our place in the industry, which Tessa Jowell once described as the creative R&D for the nation," he muses. "Whether we're expected to innovate because we can, because we can take a long-term view on it or because we are funded differently; that we can be expected to take risks and try things out. And I think having the UK's largest content web site, that's got to be one of the reasons why we've got this huge role as a route to market. But I do hope it's more the positive aspects of what we can do to help drive the industry - drive the market - than the 900lb gorilla that distorts the market."

Highfield is acutely aware of the negative perceptions that remain in the sector over the BBC's hold on online audiences. The Graf Review of May 2004, which investigated ongoing complaints from the commercial sector, made some key recommendations, including that the BBC should take "a deliberate 'precautionary approach' to the launch of new services. It said: "If there is a 'close call' between the public service benefits of a proposed BBC Online service and the costs of that service, the proposal should not be taken forward."

Its other recommendations were that 25 per cent of the BBC's interactive services should be developed by outside parties and that it should focus on news, current affairs, education and 'information which is of value to the citizen'.

So, is Highfield doing things differently since Graf? "First and foremost is our audience, which is why we get the licence fee," he says. "You've got 16 million people (using BBC.co.uk), so we have an obligation to be there. It's not something we can play around with any more. For me, number one is meeting these sometimes frightening audience demands, but not doing so in a way that distorts the market. Far from it. What we are trying to do is make sure that, in getting out to more and more people, we don't end up dominating share."

Given Highfield's success so far and the freedom he has to innovate, this seems an impossible balance to strike. But, post-Graf, complaints from the commercial sector have been more muted. Instead, obvious competitors such as ITV, Channel 4 and Sky have grasped the digital nettle themselves and are making great strides in monetising content on online, iTV and mobile channels. This could be viewed as an affirmation of the BBC's role in driving the market. Certainly, adds Highfield, he regularly swaps notes with its commercial peers.

Shared information

On crucial issues like digital rights management (DRM), for example, he points out: "We've been talking to Channel 4 all year and have got a very good relationship with them, so much so that we've held a number of meetings where we've shared information and we'll be happy to do more of that. I've always said that we'll share the knowledge we have of how to crack some of these quite tough nuts."

This means sharing a lot since Highfield has been cracking some extra tough nuts all year long. These include finding an answer to DRM problems; that is, deciding who owns the digital rights to which bits of content and ensuring those rights are honoured. Also, given that BBC content should only be made available for free to the UK's licence-fee payers, how does it prevent people from overseas watching it? Only now that Highfield has addressed these issues, among others, can consumer trials of the iMP begin. The device allows users to make a high-quality download of any BBC programme of the past week to their PC. Last month, 5,000 people were invited to try it out until the end of the year. Highfield expects their responses to provide some crucial answers.

Digital demand

"This trial builds on all those technical issues to take them further - to make sure we have good digital rights management, that we can keep it within the UK, and that we can use multicasting and peer-to-peer - and then answers the really big question, which is 'does the audience want this?'," he says.

"We will know by the end of the year how much demand there is for offering video and audio for download over the web. Our research indicates that about two-thirds of people with broadband expressed a strong interest in it," he explains. "What's the conversion rate? And beyond that, what (content) works and what doesn't work?" Once the answers are available, he says he will share the information with the industry.

However, all of this is simply a warm-up to the main event.

Next year, it is hoping to launch MyBBCPlayer, an interface that could ultimately offer total access to BBC content, whether it's a programme from the archives or TV and radio as it is broadcast. MyBBCPlayer is a working title for the project and the iMP is the foundation for its development.

"We're trying to build towards the launch of MyBBCPlayer. The iMP is one part - a seven-day catch-up download service. The other component we'd love to do is live-streamed TV of all our channels - that's multicasting," explains Highfield. "All the indications are that it would be a popular service. The third part is piloting a slice of the archive. Now, for that, we don't know what the demand will be."

Trials of multicasting, which enables BBC channels to be broadcast over the internet as they appear on TV, will begin at the end of this year.

In his speech to the Edinburgh International TV Festival earlier this year, Thompson said: "We hope to have at least one of our main TV channels streamed on broadband within a year."

Which channel that will be, says Highfield, is more a question for the Beeb's TV bosses than for him. Though, thanks to the iMP trial, he will be able to offer advice on which type of content is popular on the web.

Combined with its content library - Thompson said MyBBCPlayer would offer "an ever-expanding proportion of the BBC's sound and video archive" - the player throws up some difficult problems. For example, Highfield says people might want to search for a football match from the 80s, kids' programmes from their childhood, or news stories featuring their hometown. Organising the player to meet all those needs, and help users find the actual content, is a massive challenge.

"The long-term question is 'how will people find the programming they're looking for?' Will they search by keyword (Nazis), programme (A Lesson from History), genre (history) or by channel (BBC2)? We just don't know," explains Highfield. "Whichever way people want to come in, we have got to be there and provide a really world-class design interface for them."

Highfield believes a combination of the search interfaces with which users are currently familiar should point the way. So, expect MyBBCPlayer to combine the best elements of search engines like Google with the electronic programme guides (EPGs) on 'choose-your-own-programming' services, such as TiVO and Sky +, to help users find their way around.

More challenges

It's challenges like these that keep the most influential person in digital marketing up at night. Beyond Christmas, when the iMP trial concludes, there will be many more. And, since the BBC dominates so many areas and is prepared to share what it learns, Highfield's work over the next 12 months is likely to change how most of us digest TV and radio output.

"If MyBBCPlayer can encompass the player stuff we are already offering, if we can take the iMP stuff live, if it can do live streaming, if we can do a big archive pilot, if we can provide stuff like IMDb (non-BBC owned International Movie Database web site that is enormously popular) ..." He never finishes the sentence, but the potential is clear, even if the way users will consume all this content is not.

Highfield suspects, for example, that user-generated content could constitute a major attraction for viewers. Think, he says, of the sheer amount of mobile pictures and videos that were sent during the chaos surrounding the London Bombings and the tsunami in Asia.

In truth, the potential is a little mind-bending and it is Highfield's job to not only make sense of it all, but offer suitable services. And, if he makes a mistake, he is accountable to more than just a company's executives and shareholders - he's accountable to you and I. This, of course, goes with the territory. After all, with power comes responsibility.

HIGHFIELD FACTS

Born: 3 October 1965

Company: BBC

Title: Director, BBC New Media & Technology, and a member of the BBC Executive and Creative boards

Joined: October 2000

Responsibilities: Runs the BBC's output on the internet and interactive TV, as well as new and emerging platforms such as mobile and broadband. Manages the BBC's technology portfolio, including research and development.

Leads the BBC's technological innovation through the BBC's creative R&D team, which addresses forms of future content.

Achievements: BBC.co.uk reaches almost 50 per cent of the total UK internet population; the number of UK adults visiting the web site more than trebled from 4.6 million a month in 2000 to 14.4 million in 2004. Page impressions have increased ten-fold to just under two billion a month.

BBCi, the digital interactive TV service, is accessed in more than half of all digital TV homes by about 10 million users, up from one million in 2000.

Given The Digital Innovator internet award by The Sunday Times.

Previous roles: Managing director, Flextech Interactive; head of IT and new media, NBC Europe; management consultant, PricewaterhouseCoopers.

THE REVOLUTION Power 50 Top 10 1. Ashley Highfield - BBC 2. Sir Martin Sorrell - WPP 3. Stephen Carter - Ofcom 4. Nikesh Arora - Google 5. Dominique Vidal - Yahoo! 6. Gillian Kent - MSN 7. Peter Bamford - Vodafone 8. Andy Duncan - Channel 4 9. Robert Leach - BSkyB 10. Guy Phillipson - IAB

HIGHFIELD RECOMMENDS ...

We asked Ashley Highfield which companies and people would make his digital Power 50. Here's what he said.

Sergei Brin, Google: "You can't help but admire Google, and what they're doing in video search has direct and very interesting relevance for us."

Autonomy: "I think Autonomy is a very interesting company and, again, what they are doing with Virage (streamed content management systems) in the same space is fascinating."

Yahoo!: "I think that Yahoo!'s move into broadcasting and their purchase of Flickr (online photo storage service) is really interesting."

Emily Bell, broadcast industry writer at The Guardian: "There's a lot of respect and love going on there."

Apple: "You can't ignore what Apple has done, particularly with iTunes."

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