Digital Britain “Position Paper”

by danhon

Digital Britain Position Paper

Dan Hon
danhon@gmail.com

A  heartfelt position on the Digital Britain interim report in the style of a blog post. Bluntly: this is quite raw. Stating what I hope to be the obvious: this is the opening of a conversation. Stating what should be obvious: keep comments civil. You have a right to free speech, but on your blog, not on mine.

These are my views.

The overall impression left by Lord Carter’s Digital Britain Interim Report is of something that’s not quite finished. To be fair, this is probably indicative of the report’s interim status, but there remain a number of troubling aspects to the report that leave pause for thought as to whether Lord Carter’s team properly understands what is at stake for the new media landscape.

Let me be clear: I am the co-founder of a young, VC-funded digital media business. We do not have one business model, but several. In fact, we are open with our VC that we need to experiment, innovate and undertake risk in order to understand the right mix of revenue models that will see us navigate successfully through both the media transition we are experiencing as well produce growth on the other side.

We do not know what the business models are. Some of them have yet to be invented. But the report isn’t just about business models.

We Aren’t In Broadcast Any More

Action 17 discusses the Universal Service commitment, support of which has been confirmed by Alistair Darling in this year’s Budget. But the report – though not explicitly – implicitly makes clear that broadband “speeds” are about *delivering* content.

The report has grasped that we are moving away from analogue scarcity – note, here, that the analogue scarcity model applies to television broadcasting, one of, but not the only, form of media that needs dealing with – and joyously envisages a future of ubiquity of delivery of content by “content providers”. But the report does not contemplate the fact that “digital” – whatever “digital” is, is about having a two-way pipe for the first time, a pipe that can connect everyone in both directions.

We talk about plumbing, and perhaps plumbing is the wrong metaphor. There are pipes that deliver our houses with water, and pipes that take sewage away from our houses. With “digital”, it’s one pipe. Fine: with ADSL over our plain old copper network, we’re dealing with *asymmetrical* bandwidth. But that’s not the case when we’re dealing with the prospect of fiber to the home, or fiber to the cabinet.

Digital Britain can – and in my view should – be in part about the leveling of the playing field. To paraphrase the Pixar movie Ratatouille – great content creators may come from anywhere, but not anyone can be a great content creator. We will have a truly participative society, a two-way society, when we realise that media isn’t just broadcast. It’s about being able to have a conversation.

You And Whose Rights Agency?

Action 11 contemplates what Lord Carter has termed the “straw man” of the Digital Rights Agency. There is much to be said here about how, fundamentally, the audience’s behaviour has changed. That behaviour has changed forever: we will not be able, nor should we want to, turn back the clock.

There are a number of strategies that we can employ to deal with the fact that, in a world where effective DRM is a nigh-on mathematical impossibility, content – whatever that content is – can be copied and redistributed essentially for free – once it has been digitised. One of those strategies is blanket licensing, put far more eloquently and cogently by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

What disturbs me about the concept of a Rights Agency and the terminology involved in the report is that the Rights Agency is to protect the interests – the rights – of “content creators”, “rights-holders” and “distributors”.

Let us be clear: when – not if – access to the internet is ubiquitous and transparent (and, let’s remember – the future is here, it just isn’t evenly distributed), everyone will be a content creator. Everyone will be a rights-holder. Everyone will be a distributor. It seems as if the report contemplates a Rights Agency that protects the rights of certain content creators, rights-holders and distributors over others. Namely, “big media”.

“Big media” – corporations, professional organisations and trade bodies do not need protecting from “consumers”. Instead, at the very least, it is the opposite. No one “content creator” is special. Either we are all content creators, or we may all be content creators and all of our rights are protected. If, for example, a DMCA takedown notice can be issued by a Big Four label against a private individual because that individual has uploaded a music track to YouTube, then a private individual, say, Jamie Ross, should be able to issue a takedown notice to, say, the Scottish Sun, for not respecting his copyright.

The Funding Gap

Actions 10 and 16 contemplate two linked issues: that of ensuring that UK creative ambition is fostered, and “alternative funding models to advertising revenues” and what we do about our second Public Service Broadcaster, whatever that PSB may be.

Let me make this clear again: we need to experiment. To experiment means to take risk. My company, Six to Start, has been lucky in that we have relationships with two clients – partners, in our view – who have taken risks that in one case have paid off, and in the other, I hope will be validated.

We created, with and for Penguin Books UK, an experiment in online storytelling that strips the nature of Penguin to its core – telling stories. Not printing stories on pieces of paper, binding those pieces together and selling them, either online or in stores. But telling stories. And, in my view, if Penguin concentrates on telling stories – and not so much on a particular format, medium, or delivery method of providing those storytelling experiences, in the long-term, Penguin will do just fine. We Tell Stories, our native online fiction project with Penguin, was a critical and popular success. We brought home – on a trip partly funded by UKTI – both the Experimental and Best of Show awards at this year’s South by SouthWest Interactive. We beat Hulu. A British company, again, punching above its weight internationally.

We could only have done this but for the existence of Pearson’s innovation fund and the passion and foresight of Jeremy Ettinghausen, Penguin’s digital publisher. Jeremy understands the value and critical nature of trying new experiments, of taking the risk to prove new markets and business models. The existence of Pearson’s innovation fund – a fund designed, so I am led to believe, to rapidly allow experiments to be carried out – demonstrates Pearson’s understanding.

A similar situation has happened with our partners at Channel 4 Education, Matt Locke and Alice Taylor, under Janey Walker. A public service broadcaster with a remit to produce educational content and plurality against the BBC for 14-19 year olds, Janey took the step – in the eyes of some radical, and others as prudent – of assessing where her audience was. They are, more than ever before, online, and especially with regard to learning about how to deal with the world that they inhabit. We all are.

To take the risk to say: we will commission content *on the most appropriate platform for that content* is a big validation of what my company is trying to do in creating genuinely native entertainment and media for a connected world.

There are not enough people or organisations doing this.

The BBC should be doing this. From our point of view, and as an independent producer (in the eyes of the BBC) who has already worked with the BBC, it is frustrating to see the BBC – and others – consistently spend significant seven figure sums on content companies who are tied to old models.

In the development of the internet and connected, two-way media, we are at the stage of the invention of the television camera. We are pointing the camera at a theatre stage – iPlayer, Hulu, Spotify – these are all simply the movement of one form of traditonal media defined by delivery method, whether that’s an arbitrary single, album or 30, 42 or 55 minutes of linear video content, to a common distribution platform: the internet.

We have not yet created media or entertainment native to the internet. We will not for a while, it’s going to take us time.

For Britain to remain competitive, we need to be taking those risks in exploring the potential that creating connected media affords us.

Anthony Lilly spoke eloquently at the Digital Britain Summit of needing to encourage and back risk-taking and innovation. In the current economic climate, we need that risk-taking and innovation more than ever before if we are to emerge strongly from this recession.

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Channel 4?

Let me propose a rather radical idea, one that I suspect may not earn me many friends in the broadcast or television industry, nor the public service television industry.

When I say that “we need risk-taking and innovation more than ever before” if we are to emerge strongly, if we are to discover and create the media that we have yet to understand, we are actually dealing with a funding problem that we have been through before, and we’ve done it successfully.

We’ve done it before with Channel 4 in the 1980s.

I want my company, Six to Start, to be as big as Disney, to be the next Disney. Or at the very least to be the next Fremantle, the next Electronic Arts, the next Endemol. Fortunately, we know how we ended up with Endemol and Fremantle, at least in part, and Channel 4 plays a part in those companies’ histories.

Channel 4 funded risky, innovative content. It did it with television. This new PSB “with Channel 4 at its heart” has an opportunity to fund risky, innovative content for the connected media age – for Digital Britain, that, I am confident, will show that Britain will continue to punch above its weight worldwide. We just won’t be doing it with television. We’ll be doing with any and all kinds of content and services that can be delivered over a ubiquitous two-way digital network.

Even more fortunately, Channel 4 has already started down the right path with its experiments in Channel 4 Education – in media and platform agnostic commissioning, the right service and platform for the right subject, whether that’s TV or games or ‘online’ – and in 4iP, a platform that is explicitly tasked with creating and funding innovative public service media that isn’t television.

How do we solve this funding gap and make sure that experiments like Channel 4 Education and 4iP prosper and usher in a new round of Endemols and Fremantles?

By realising that broadcast mass media is over. Channel 4, the television arm, should be commercialised. Let it make and show Big Brother. Let it make and show Hollyoaks and Skins and, bluntly, whatever will bring in the advertising revenue. But take that advertising revenue and invest it – wholly, completely – in funding the risky, innovative content that Channel 4 was known for in the 80s – content for the connected, Digital Britain age.

If we do that, we will be all right.

We’ve done it before.

Disclosures

Six to Start has been commissioned by Channel 4 Education, 4iP, has projects in development with various departments of the BBC and projects in co-development with Fremantle.