15 December 02004

Latest on the BBC Creative Archive

Here are my notes from a talk given by Paul Gerhardt, Strategic Director of the BBC Creative Archive, at Tate Modern this afternoon.

The current BBC Charter (due to expire in 02006) apparently provides for public access to the BBC archive, but 'access' means going in person to BBC premises to view or listen there. The archive is a huge cultural asset — one that the BBC 'factory' is adding to daily. The original expectation in the Creative Archive team was that they would re-create the broadcast experience, but they quickly recognised that the web encourages sharing rather than just on-demand broadcast.


There are three parts of the BBC's strategy for digital convergence:

  • providing the means to catch up with missed programmes for 7-10 days, which will be extended to television progammes as well as the current radio player (although not mentioned by name, this must refer to the interactive Media Player);
  • a commercial video-on-demand service, which will be relatively small, comprising a rotating catalogue of 200-300 popular titles that the BBC can sell to raise revenue that subsidises new programmes (with no decision yet on whether this will be delivered via digital TV or online);
  • the Creative Archive, which will be free (to UK licence payers) and feature programmes that have gone beyond their 'commercial life'.

Paul argued that there's a kind of spectrum of maturity in how different media have developed an 'ecology' and norms around what is reasonable copying and re-use: so at one end the written word has well-developed custom and practice in 'fair use' quoting, lending of books, and sale of second hand books; in the middle of the spectrum the music sector is currently going through a process of re-examining what norms are acceptable; but for broadcast radio and television, this crisis and debate has yet to begin. I'm not sure how well this maturity model matches all the facts, but the main point about broadcast producers being unfamiliar with the idea of their work being adapted and re-purposed is clear enough.

Definition and programme content

The definition of 'creative' in the archive is very broad and extends to scenarios like self-help health groups extracting case studies from BBC health programmes and re-distributing these to their members, as well as more purely cultural or artistic pursuits.

The Creative Archive will not make the BBC's full catalogue available from the start, but will ration the programmes available. It will offer tasters, and invite user groups to "pull through" more of what they want through online votes and feedback.

As well as having its own web site, the Archive will be promoted through existing BBC web sites. As well as the obvious programme connections, they will sometimes thinking laterally, for example by providing links to natural history material on the Radio 1 web site to encourage VJs to incorporate it in their work.

As trailed in the press recently, the BBC is also looking to forge partnerships with other broadcasters such as Channel 4 to add other non-BBC audiovisual content to the archive and add to its value as a non-exclusive national asset.

The Creative Archive web site will feature a list of programmes, with (presumably streamed) extracts for preview, search, and download — subject to a licence, covered below. The BBC envisages users manipulating downloaded programmes using a range of re-editing tools, from the simple to the complex.


Notwithstanding this interview, where the BBC's Director of New Media and Technology seemed to be back-pedalling a little on using a Creative Commons licence for the Creative Archive, Paul confirmed that the licence will be based on the Creative Commons framework and will provide for 'interoperability' with other Creative Commons licences.

Paul described the licence for the Archive as "a big risk factor". The restrictions it will impose on users are:

  • no re-use of the content for commercial purposes (without first re-negotiating this use with the BBC);
  • no undermining of the original editorial perspective of the content — a measure to protect the BBC brand (e.g. in a scenario where a pressure group edited BBC material selectively and then presented it as "from the BBC" with all the connotations this has);
  • access will be restricted to UK IP addresses — though the BBC acknowledges that "once the material is out, it's out" (there was a vague reference to working with a commercial partner on means to regulate, or at least retrieve revenue from, non-UK use).

The approach to intellectual property rights seems pragmatic and sensible: Paul said it would not be practical to extend the existing rights framework for broadcast material to the uses envisaged by the Creative Archive, so they are seeking ways to explore and recognise the value from the rights owners' perspective of keeping their material available through the Archive. Rights owners can consider this value and then they can opt in or opt out. Obviously it's important that most opt in.

During questions, Paul was asked whether the scenario of a health charity redistributing BBC material while making a small 'cost recovery' charge would count as 'commercial' and be prohibited by the licence? Something like this could not have happened without the Creative Archive, so there is no clear precedent to make judgements, and the position remains unclear right now.

Delivery and pilot

A Creative Archive pilot service will be launched in the first quarter of 02005, probably in March or April (isn't April the second quarter?). It will run for 18 months, with approximately 100 hours of programming. The mix of radio and television has not yet been decided — apparently there are some specific issues about re-use of radio. The initial pilot offering will tend to focus on factual programmes rather than areas like music where the rights clearances are more complex — though Paul did suggest there would be "some surprises" in the pilot.

The purpose of the pilot will be to test (a) demand for the service, (b) how well the licence works, and (c) the impact of the service on commercial offerings (both those of the BBC and, more significant politically, those of private-sector providers).

Creative Archive content will not be the same quality as is used for broadcast, but the television material will be 'VHS quality' — good enough for satisfactory viewing, but not good enough to make credible pirate offerings — and I guess the radio material will be similar to the 48/34 Kbps quality currently offered by the BBC radio player.

Paul also repeated what has been mooted before about using peer-to-peer technologies to distribute Creative Archive content, as a means to reduce the BBC's direct distribution (bandwidth) costs.

Prospects for the longer term

The concept of the Creative Archive opens up the opportunity for 'co-creation' of programmes with users. This will be a major cultural shift for some parts of BBC. Meanwhile, the other public service broadcasters internationally (e.g. NHK in Japan) are already thinking about their own archives. The BBC must scent the opportunity to show its global leadership through this experiment.

The event was recorded by someone who specialises in web streaming, so I imagine the recording will be available soon, though I am not sure where — I will update if I find it (here's one place to look).

Here's an earlier posting on the Creative Archive, and here is my collection of web resources and articles related to the BBC archives.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) BBC, Curatorial, Music and Multimedia on 15 December 02004 | TrackBack
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