:Ben Metcalfe Blog

Backstage hosts round-table debate on DRM to kick off it’s first podcast

(disclosure: I was part of the team who launched backstage.bbc.co.uk, although I no longer work at the BBC. Many of the people around the table are friends and ex-colleagues)

So I just finished listening to the inaugural backstage.bbc.co.uk podcast, which launched with a debate about DRM and the distribution of television (and radio) via the Internet.

I guess I have comments and views on both the content of the podcast and the ‘meta’ of the podcast — the fact backstage is doing one in the first place.

My views backstage.bbc.co.uk doing a podcast

First off congrats to Ian for getting this pushed through Editorial Policy – no doubt it was a lot harder than one might think, esp as the BBC has some regulatory issues around releasing podcasts that are ‘bespoke for the web’ and not based upon previously broadcast material. Nice one mate, and to Tom L and the rest of the gang. In fact congrats to the team generally who have taken backstage.bbc.co.uk to a new level since my departure.

I think it’s great that the BBC was able to bring this debate into the public, and in fine BBC balanced round-table tradition it offers representatives from the BBC, the commercial broadcast sector and proponents of free distribution.

I hope there will be more of these, opening up what’s going on inside the organization’s future media dept. Not only does it begin to allow cluetrainy conversation to occur across the decision making process, but it seems like the appropriate thing for a license fee funded organization to be doing.

However I don’t think these kinds of podcasts should be released under a backstage.bbc.co.uk brand.

Maybe it’s just nomenclature, but I think the BBC needs a unifying brand under which it can offer greater transparency and dialogue around it’s new media operations – just like BBC News has BBC Newswatch (although that’s a lot more out of post-Hutton regulation that desire).

What I’m talking about is something that encompasses backstage, but has a remit greater than just backstage. Just before I left I tried to start something called open.bbc.co.uk in an attempt to do this. This is not sour grapes now I’ve left – it didn’t take off simply down to me talking my eye off the ball as I was preparing to leave and as such I didn’t put as much time behind it as I should have. I also didn’t get enough management buy-in to make it stick. I put my hands up to that. However I don’t think that makes it a bad idea in general and in my opinion should be pursued.

As I listened to Ian (who now runs backstage) I kept wondering what I would have added to the debate if I was in his position during the recording. I think he was in a difficult position as he could only speak ‘officially’ and on behalf of the BBC. In the end I decided that I would probably have said very little – as although I have great personal interest in the subject, it’s not actually an issue that falls within the official remit of backstage. As it happens, this is broadly speaking what Ian did too – which I think was a positive move as his larger contribution was to make this all happen in the first place.

The other point about the podcast was that it was very long – 60 minutes in fact. In general that’s too long for a weekly podcast – it’s difficult to find 60 minutes in your schedule every seven days. However considering the nature of the discussion, I do think it warranted the duration – I just think they should keep these to an irregular series as and when needed.

As to whether there should be a backstage.bbc.co.uk podcast, that’s really up to Ian as he knows where he wants to take backstage. However if he does, I think he needs to do short 20 minute casts rather than mammoth debates like this one.

My views on the DRM issue discussed in the podcast

So onto the issue actually discussed in the debate – DRM. Firstly, I think it would be great if the BBC prepared a transcript of the debate – either through official means of via one of the outsourced transcription services available on the internet. The problem with podcasts is all of the useful debate is locked up in binary and thus difficult to search against.

I’ve listed some of the sentient points below, but for the sake of brevity I’ll cut to some of my conclusions.

Much of the BBC’s issue right now is that it doesn’t have the correct agreements in place to broadcast it’s archive material. Such are the nature of the production contracts that were in place when programs were made that they do not allow the BBC to simply make them freely available on the Internet. There’s more detail about that in the podcast, but yes it is true.

However that doesn’t preclude the alteration of production contracts from now onwards to allow the BBC to far more relaxed online distribution rights Sadly this point was missed from the debate.

The long tail may well be where much of the value is, but there’s still a great deal of value in the head too. And for a medium that is trying to breakthrough into mainstream adoption, showing last week’s Eastenders (a UK soap opera) and Spooks (think CSI but anti-terrorism), is perhaps the best place to push this. And by making this available, I mean in a less restricted format than is currently being proposed.

However what’s needed is a radical shakeup in the area of archives, and maybe putting out a moratorium on the restrictions of all content before 1997 (10 years) unless those content owners opt back in. Yes, I know that’s very controversial, but something controversial has to give somewhere here otherwise this is never going to move forward. It would also require a change in the UK law, and again that’s where the BBC has power over others. Yes, it was a leading light in broadcast standards, yes it doesn’t wield that kind of power on the Internet but it still does in UK legal circles.

Personally (now in a non-BBC position) I would also have added to the debate that DRM prevents me from exercising my full rights under UK copyright – such as being able to consume a given piece of media on any device I personally own for my own domestic use. Clearly this can’t occur if the DRM’d file is locked to a single device or won’t play on all of the devices I own (including non-Windows hardware).

There are many other well made points, from all sides of the table, and as such I would recommend the listening of this podcast even if you are not a regular podcast-type person. The format actually lends itself to this kind of debate.

The main issues that were raised:

The big issue right now is that the BBC is exploring the direction of offering BBC TV to UK viewers via Microsoft-powered DRM. This of course would only allow Windows users to view the content, and effectively lock out the 25% of the userbase who use other platforms. As one participant remarked “that’s like excluding all of Scotland, Wales and Northen Ireland out from watching BBC TV”.

Tom Loosemore, who’s title ever-changes but basically has been at the forefront of much of the BBC’s new media strategy, made the case for why DRM was needed and went on to explain that there was ultimately no suitable DRM solution that catered for everyone. As he put it it was “do DRM or do nothing”.

He also made the interesting point that it’s a funny position for the BBC to be in, which has always led the way with broadcast standards but on the Internet is not in any real power to lead standards in this area.

There was some interesting debate from the advocates of free distribution as to whether doing nothing was actually better as it created a vacuum that would ultimately kick content owners into facing up to the opportunities they were missing out on.

However Tom made it clear that he didn’t agree that that outcome would occur (and I agree). Channel 4 are already offering their own programming online and so were Virgin Radio (James Cridland from Virgin participated in the debate, representing the commercial broadcast sector).

The other point the advocates of free distribution made was that rights holders should try to be convinced to let go some of their rights as otherwise all this good content remains locked up. Again, Tom made the point that many of them have pensions and other incomes based upon their secondary usage — although an obvious response to that (that wasn’t made) is to question how much anyone is really making from all this content locked up in the BBC’s vaults that cannot easily be broadcast. Just how much interest is there in a 30 minute BBC Philharmonic Orchestra production from 1983?

There was a lot of discussion around the table as to whether DRM is right or wrong/evil, and if the latter whether it is the concept or the implementation that is broken. Someone from the free distribution camp gave the example that he still bought newspapers, CD’s and DVDs despite the fact that he could also read the news online and listen to music and watch films via the TV and Radio — a clear example that most people are prepared to pay for content if given sensible ways to do so.

Like I said, it’s well worth listening to if you have 60 minutes in your commute/etc.