Thursday, February 05, 2009

What is digital content?

Continuing with the coverage of the interim Digital Britain report, something has been bothering me since I read it, so I went back and browsed through it again until I realised what it was. According to the UK's chief technology policy-makers, we still seem to be living in the 20th century. Why? Several reasons: the only mention to Web 2.0 is in the glossary; some of the technologies being pushed are proved failures with the public; it believes DRM offers a solution to piracy; it blatantly ignores the content delivery revolution that is about to take place; but most importantly, it ignores user-generated content by insisting on the outdated view of the top-down content provider.

There are few things that can drive me to anger, but chiefly amongst those is the insistence by the copyright industry and regulators to ignore that nowadays content is much more diverse to what it once was. The first sign that the Digital Britain report has some very outdated ideas about content creation and distribution is the baffling emphasis it places on Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB). DAB radio is a broadcasting standard that replaces FM, offering better quality, larger amount of metadata, and more stations in the same spectrum.You may be thinking what is wrong with this? I'm quite fond of DAB in a way, I have a receptor in my kitchen, but what I object to is the fact that DAB has not proved popular with the public because it is what I call a mistimed technology, much similar to the DAT tape in the 90s. Mistimed technologies are those which are a clear improvement over their predecessors, but they come to the market almost at the same time as a much better technology comes along and renders the mistimed technology obsolete as well. There is therefore no incentive for users to upgrade to the inferior technology, so many stay with the older and inefficient one until they upgrade fully. In the case of DAB radio, most people still use FM radio, very few have bothered switching to DAB, and a large sector of the market, particularly younger audiences, are using online delivery instead. DAB is the new DAT.

But as I have already hinted at, the biggest problem when it comes to digital content is the fact that the interim report practically ignores the user-generated revolution. Yes, there is the obligatory mention to UGC and Youtube, but then the drafters have no idea what to do with it other than to mention that digital technologies lower barriers to new providers such as "the wide range of services now catering to ethnic minority communities and to specialist interest, the development of community services, of user-generated content whether on YouTube or on social networking sites". In one dismissing paragraph the UGC revolution is relegated to fringe status akin to Gaelic stations, World Music and train-spotting. So, UGC is on the radar, but the report makes sure that whenever it talks about content, it is talking about institutional content. In a Pratchean use of the word, it is clear that whenever they talk about traditional Content, we are supposed to read it with a capital C, while what the rest of us do can be written without pressing the shift key.

What I find disheartening is that the report insists that the solution to UK-based content creation is through more funding for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. We can then expect more failed digital channels from the BBC, as well as more publicly supported mind-numbing reality shows, when the real innovation lies elsewhere. BBC 6 Music struggles to top 300,000 listeners; BBC 3 struggles with similar viewing figures, while the high-brow BBC 4 has been criticised for not offering good value for money. In contrast, a live recording of DiggNation in London attracted ten thousand screaming fans; Facebook boasts 8.5 million UK users, Youtube has been visited by 20 million Brits in 2008, while Wikipedia had 9.6 million users last year. There is a generational shift that policy-makers seem to completely ignore. Their idea of digital content seems to extend to whether they can listen online to the Today programme on Radio 4. The turning of the century completely missed them.

It is perhaps unfair to compare hits between media, but this is a point that has to be made. The next generation of content users has no interest in the BBC and DAB, they want Youtube, Twitter and Facebook. It is about time policy should be drafted to reflect that nowadays the word content goes further than Radio 2.


David Berry said...

DAB is hardly the new DAT. DAT was a remarkably *successful* professional audio technology that is still in use in many studios etc. I think you may have meant DCS (Digital Cassette Tape) a rather poorer cousin that failed abysmally as a consumer technology.

In any case I think your analogy still fails as DAB will win regardless, presuming the Government continues with its strategy of essentially turning off FM broadcasts. This is technology push (rather than the technology pull you are talking about) and as the Govt buys into the 'information' society in a big way, it means to put its money where its mouth is.

Mind you, where DAB does have an interesting possible competitor is with the new WIFI radios that are emerging that connect to your WIFI connection at home. This could be a truly pluralistic radio technology (rather than having to have broadcast licenses).

David Berry said...

Sorry I meant Digital Compact Cassette...