Friday, February 19, 2010

An Open Letter to the Director General of the BBC

[Originally I was going to send this to Mark Thompson's office directly, but dearie me, the BBC does got out of its way to make it difficult to communicate with them. I can find out what the man earns but not how to contact him. So I sent them a link to this post and we'll see what happens]

Dear Mark Thompson

You won’t have heard of me, but I write a small blog called Prerogative of Harlots. It concentrates on the museum world and has a modest, but loyal readership. I mention this in part because I’m posting this letter on the blog and I would be delighted to also post any response that the BBC would care to make.

One of the things that I spend a lot of time talking about is on-line access to information; museum collections, archives and other resources. So I was very interested to read an interview in last week’s Independent with Roly Keating about the BBC Archives and progress towards releasing some of the Corporation's enormous holdings of film and video on-line.

It all sounded very exciting, so of course I went off to the BBC website to find it. Truth be told, this wasn’t very easy, but I did manage it in the end. The problem was that whenever I tried to access the video feeds I got a message saying “Not available in your area.”

This was a bit disappointing, to say the least, especially after reading the interview with Roly Keating. As he himself says “"Audiences that have grown up with the internet – that means all of us now – have come to expect that they can, for a price, access almost everything from the past.” So I dug a little further, and in the “Help” section I found the following statement:

Unfortunately, due to rights restrictions out of our control, the programmes in the BBC Archive Project collections are only viewable from within the UK.

We do appreciate that there is a wider audience for this, and that this might be frustrating for non-UK visitors to the site. It's simply that it often costs more money to make programmes available worldwide, which would reduce the amount of programmes we can provide for free. Additionally, as the programmes were funded by UK licence fee payers, our first responsibility is to the UK audience. You should, however, be able to view the documents in our various collections.

Hang on a mo. I can understand that these days, when you contract out much of your program making, getting the rights to broadcast overseas may be a bit tricky. But is the BBC seriously trying to argue that it doesn’t own the rights to the material in its own archives? Speaking as a museum professional, who has to deal on a regular basis with rights issues, that position seems bizarre.

The second part of this answer is even more confusing. It says that the BBC appreciates that there is a wider audience for this content. That is something of an understatement. By the BBC’s own estimates (2006), there are 5.5 million Britons living and working outside the UK. That’s almost 10 per cent of the population. And it doesn’t begin to take into account the enormous Anglophone audience of the Commonwealth and USA.

Apparently, it costs more money to make this material available to users overseas, which would reduce the amount of material you can make available for free. This begs the obvious question of why you don’t simply offer overseas visitors to the site the opportunity to purchase a subscription to view content. I, and many other expat Britons, would willingly pay a fee in return for this ability.

Unfortunately, the website then goes on to cloud the issue by talking about the License Fee. This is plainly not an issue since, as a later FAQ makes clear, you don’t have to have a license to view video content on the website:

You do not need a television licence to watch programmes on the BBC Archive site. Please note that the BBC iPlayer is not the same as the BBC Archive player, and you do need to be covered by a TV licence if you wish to watch 'live' (simulcast) TV programmes via iPlayer.

Now at some point the question of BBC America will come up. Yes, it is true that US residents can access some BBC programming via this channel, as they can via PBS and other stations. However, like most Britons resident in the US, I regard BBC America as a bit of a joke. Today, for example, I could choose from 7 hours of Gordon Ramsey, 5 hours of antiques programs, 4 hours of News, 2 hours of How Clean is Your House, and a smattering of Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross. If I don’t fancy cooking, cleaning, or selling the contents of my home, then I’m out of luck. All this with advertising that is even more intrusive than that of the US Networks

BBC America’s bargain basement content devalues the BBC brand. The BBC is one of the finest makers of television in the world, but you wouldn’t know it from watching their overseas TV content. You could address this problem by providing a premium internet subscription service. As it is, your digital content is hemorrhaging into cyberspace as people steal it.

The demand is there, but because there is no legitimate way of accessing programs, overseas viewers use proxy servers to bypass the block on non-UK IP addresses; they download programming via Bit Torrent; and they post content on YouTube (incidentally, this has introduced a whole generation of Americans to “The Thick of It,” one of the finest comedies the BBC has ever made, and one that to the best of my knowledge has never been shown on TV here).

So why is a museum guy complaining about the BBC? Well, you did open the door by having Roly Keating boast about an amazing on-line film archive that it turns out no-one outside the UK can access. I would be equally critical of any museum that was as half-hearted in the way that it made resources available. The BBC website has the finest radio services available on-line. Why? Because you make them freely available, without restriction. Why can’t you do the same with video content? Yes, there are challenges. But the BBC is supposed to be a global media organization. If the BBC can’t solve these challenges, what hope is there for the rest of us?


  1. Indeed. I'd happily pay for BBC content (even the stuff I paid for with my licence, when I lived in the UK).

    I can see there being political problems with opening up the archives to paying customers - it might move the BBC towards being a commercial operation, which means the govt will want to cut their support. Of course, the BBC has a commercial arm, but it doesn't provide any broadcast material (DVDs are not quite the same).

    my wife and I decided to spend the evening watching Life on Earth. When we get to Hallucegenia, I'll try not to shout out "It's upside down!".

  2. I think the problem is that they don't really know what they are. On the one hand, they cling to the idea that they are a non-commercial organization; on the other, they try to behave as if the license fee is a subscription that entitles them to restrict access to their services. At some point they have to resolve this.

  3. Wow! I didn't know I could watch "How Clean Is Your House" stateside. Their show on dust mites changed my life.