Robert Smith, a PhD student from Lancaster, is one of millions of listeners worldwide tuning into the British Broadcasting Corp.'s digital radio shows each week on their computers. Thanks to the BBC's Radio Player, Smith, 38, no longer has to worry about missing live broadcasts of cult soap opera The Archers or Radio 1's world-music show. All he needs to do is go to the BBC Web site, click on Radio Player, and he can tune in anytime up to seven days after a broadcast. "Now I can listen to what I want, when I want," he says.
Radio Player is just one of many digital services Britain's public-service broadcaster is pioneering as part of its drive to give Brits access to BBC programming anytime, anywhere. The BBC is facing mounting pressure to justify the $240 annual fee it receives from every telly-owning British household. And digital technology, which enables more choice, better picture and audio quality, and interactivity, is key to the broadcaster's plan to give viewers more for their money. "Media is being reinvented, and audiences are racing ahead with it. If the BBC doesn't keep up with those audiences, it's dead," said BBC Director General Mark Thompson in a speech last summer.
That realization has led the Beeb to take the lead among global broadcasters in pursuing new distribution channels for its well-regarded programs. The BBC launched its first interactive TV application in 2001. Viewers tuning in to that year's Wimbledon tennis championships could choose the court they wanted to watch or find the latest match results with the touch of a button on their remotes. In 2002 came Freeview, a digital-television service broadcast over the airwaves for free. For a one-time cost of $100, viewers get a set-top box that converts their existing analog TV to digital, giving them access to 32 channels.
Spurred by those early successes, the BBC is experimenting with video-on-demand and podcasts, which are audio files distributed via the Internet that can be downloaded onto MP3 players such as iPods. Last summer, the broadcaster tested video-on-demand with a new service dubbed Interactive Media Player (IMP). Unlike Radio Player, which is available to anyone with a Web connection, IMP offers only Brits the chance to download select TV and radio programs on their PCs for up to seven days after they air. To avoid unauthorized distribution, the program files expire after a week. The software also prevents users from e-mailing the files to others or copying them onto disks. Initially, the IMP service will be viewed by most Brits over a PC or a TV wired to a PC, but the Beeb reckons that eventually audiences will be able to download shows to portable devices, such as mobile phones, laptops, or one of the new video MP3 players. The BBC is planning a much larger trial of the service this spring. It also may offer video-on-demand downloads internationally.
Recognizing that a growing number of Brits want access to BBC programs on-the-go, the broadcaster is also experimenting with podcasting. Since the end of last year, it has offered two of its weekly radio shows, Radio Five Live's sport talk program Fighting Talk and Radio 4's In Our Time, a show on the history of ideas, as podcasts. BBC loyalists can also set their computers to download programs in advance. The response has been "staggering," says Simon Nelson, BBC controller for radio and music interactive. "We got up to 25,000 downloads a week of In Our Time alone."
The Beeb's digital offerings are drawing raves on the other side of the Atlantic. "Their mentality is vastly different [from U.S. broadcasters']. It's 'what more can we do to benefit the consumer?"' says Alan Weiner, director of research at consultant GartnerG2 in Scottsdale, Ariz. Commercial broadcasters the world over would do well to tune in.
By Kerry Capell in London, with Heather Green in New York