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The future of public service broadcasting


This op-ed was printed in Wired Italy, June 2010. You can read more about this blog at our english about-page.

Norwegian intro:
Tidligere i vår ble jeg bedt om å skrive en kronikk for Wired Italia. Den stod på trykk i juninummeret og som vanlig prøver vi å publisere våre eksterne medieinnspill her på NRKbeta også. I Wired stod naturlig nok artikkelen på italiensk. Jeg har valgt å gjengi min engelske versjon her. Dette er kjent stoff for faste lesere av NRKbeta, men kan fungere fint som en oppsummering av en del tanker om fremtidens kringkaster.

The future of public service broadcasting

– «It will cost us a beer or two»
– «What?»
– «Yes, the software is licensed as beerware»

I’m in a meeting trying to explain the cost of the BitTorrent tracker we have just installed at the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. It’s not easy. I’ve just finished weeks of explaining why the biggest public broadcaster in Norway should get a system based on the same software powering the Pirate Bay. And now I have to explain the fundamentals of beerware. «You know, if we ever meet the programmer that made the software we need to buy him a beer. That’s it. That’s all he asks».

This software has helped the government-owned broadcaster distribute terabytes of data to thousands of people. Through a technology that is feared by the media industry, yet extremely efficient and robust, we pump out huge amounts of content at a total distribution cost close to zero. And all of this is just a small technical experiment. But in that meeting, trying to explain the term beerware for a senior executive I realized that we have some exiting years ahead.

«To inform, educate and entertain», is how the first general director of the BBC, John Reith defined public service broadcasting back in 1929. That definition still works very well. But what if we could ask him today? The internet has democratized distribution. Technical progression has democratized production. This gives us possibilities that was unavailable for Mr. Reith. Sharing and participation combined with an abundance and freedom of choice impossible to imagine in his time.

As a license funded broadcaster we have freedom to experiment with content in cooperation with our audience, without being limited by traditional business models.

One recent experiment was the broadcasting of a seven hour long documentary about a train trip across Norway, on one of our traditional TV channels. With record breaking ratings. Another unexpected result was that people gathered around our documentary through the use of Twitter and other communication tools on the web. In a huge parallel event not initiated by us.

The amount of activity convinced us to publish the whole trip as a free download after the show. Complete with a Creative Commons licence allowing all kinds of use and redistribution. And where the discussion during the broadcast ended, creativity after the broadcast took over. People can now enjoy the journey on the web, in several interesting projects and videos, produced by our audience for free.

Another experiment was including the subtitle files when distributing some of our most popular TV shows on the web. The result was that all these shows have now been translated to English. And some of them translated to German. By our audience, and again for free.

When we do radical experiments giving away our content people tend to ask if we’re not afraid of losing control. But they are getting it wrong. The future is about the audience. The future is about the fact that if you want control over your content you have to be the best provider of it.

Your content will end up on YouTube and the Pirate Bay anyway. But when you’re the best provider, people come to you. Giving you the chance to interact and learn. And giving you the chance to build a business model.

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