BBC: Step Right Into The Telly

The network thought that its content was losing viewers' attention

Under the tent, they danced, waving fluorescent glow-sticks to the beat of bands Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol, and Pink. The British Broadcasting Corp. pulled out all the stops for its free One Big Weekend concert on May 12 and 13, renting an island, complete with tents and a huge stage. There was just one twist: It was all virtual, existing in the online game Second Life. The event mirrored the BBC's real world concert, held simultaneously in Dundee, Scotland. Some 30,000 people made it to Dundee, but 6,000 others attended while sitting at their PCs.

Not just any 6,000 people, mind you. A very committed -- some might say, fanatic -- group that spends hours constructing the Internet role-playing game. Just the kind of young, tech-savvy participants that the BBC, the archetype of old media, needs to engage.

The Second Life concert is just one part of a digital mission the Beeb, as it's known, is undertaking to revamp itself radically. It's driven by the conviction that technology is turning plain old-fashioned content into a commodity, one that's losing the attention of viewers and listeners.

As a publicly funded broadcaster -- each TV-owning household in Britain pays an annual license fee, raising $5.5 billion in funding -- the BBC must justify its value amid constant debate about the payments. With control shifting from the media to the audience, the BBC wants to turn its audiences into participants. "The second wave of digital will be far more disruptive than the first, taking us beyond broadcasting," says Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, the fourth-largest global digital news brand.

This ambitious new strategy puts the BBC leaps ahead of commercial rivals. Not only is it making radio and TV shows available on demand, it's surrounding that content with more personalization, social networks, and public ratings, sharing, and reporting.

In part, the BBC can experiment because it's unfettered by advertisers or shareholders. These moves, announced in April, immediately had commercial broadcasters up in arms. Even Rupert Murdoch's News Corp (NWS )., with $1.2 billion invested and growing in the new digital game, is starting to worry because of the threat the BBC represents to News Corp.'s MySpace social network. Rivals complain that the strategy will crush competition and have called for a government review. Others reckon it will have the opposite effect. "The BBC is a model for media companies," says Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly Media Inc., which popularized the term Web 2.0 for new services. "They are pushing the envelope to gauge how they engage their audience in new ways."


The revamp centers around three concepts: find, play, and share. Find is about making the BBC's content easier to navigate through improved search, links to Web content, and lists of popular content. Play revolves around the MyBBCplayer, now in trials, which lets British users download current radio and TV programs anytime up to seven days after broadcast.

Share is where things really get interesting. Along with plans to let the public create blogs, link to content on and off its site, and upload videos, the BBC is developing tools that allow individuals to download its content and build on it. One project lets Britons download footage from BBC news and science shows, remix them, and eventually share them online. More radical is The BBC is opening up its data in formats that users can remix to yield new ideas for the BBC site. So far, users have combined BBC data on sports, traffic, and weather with Google maps. A prototype called Sport Map allows people to find the nearest soccer team on the map and get its latest news. "One of the big pushes of Web 2.0 is to ramp up our knowledge of our audience," says Ashley Highfield, the BBC's director of new media and technology.

While other media giants fear or even fight technology, the BBC is embracing it, challenging conventional wisdom in the process. "They're teaching the broadcasting industry that it's not about owning more content," says Jeff Jarvis, a media consultant. "It's about opening it up." (Read on for the next installment, "Fighting Attention Deficit.")

By Kerry Capell in London

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