Late one night, just over two years ago, I was converted to the potential of new media. Earlier in the evening, BBC2 had transmitted the first programme in the magazine series about computers and networks, The Net. By the time I thought to look at the show's email, some 600 messages had streamed in - despite the fact that the email address we had given in our closing credits was wrong. Most television programmes attract, at best, a dozen inconsequential letters, but these messages were thoughtful and engaged, even passionate. As I read them, I sensed that the writing was on the screen for television as we have known, loved and loathed it.
As The Net evolved, we brought more and more online components into the programme. We built a Web site and engaged in email and chat-room dialogue with viewers. These services helped us shape the The Net in significant ways and we were mostly heartened - and only rarely discouraged - by the torrent of commentary. The show, I am convinced, is better because of this process, and so one tiny, trivial corner of today's broadcasting has been enhanced by the possibilities of online communication.
We used these new media to bolster our old medium of television. But we knew their potential far exceeded the uses to which we were putting them. Five years from now, the roles will be reversed. Some (although not all) parts of the broadcasting world will naturally migrate onto the Web. Here, television broadcasting will become an adjunct to Web-based interaction, rather than vice versa, and the broadcasting industry will be rapidly evolving towards a future very different from that which today's media giants now envisage.
The BBC's recently published Extending Choice in the Digital Age neatly encapsulates its vision of the future. The book describes the corporation's "dynamic future in the digital age ... [as] the UK's most important producer of programming." Well, maybe.
The BBC reckons that video will be available on demand, that interaction consists of choosing from a range of options offered by the provider, that side channels will complement existing services by, for example, offering an automatic alternative to explicit sexual content, or presenting supplementary information. A "Guess the Value" game accompanying The Antiques Roadshow is one suggested example of the latter.
All variants of this future still assume the primacy of traditional broadcasting; it is the centre around which everything revolves. There is, however, an alternative, though not one which Extending Choice in the Digital Age as much as nods towards, perhaps because this alternative future assumes conventional tv broadcasting will be toppled from its throne.
What if television supported the Web? What if Web sites were the organising force for television shows rather than an adjunct? This vision has much to recommend it. It opens a new range of creative opportunities for programme makers. It offers a broader range of revenue sources than either the BBC's licence fee or ITV's advertising. It offers real viewer participation. On some subjects, the Web could gather broader, deeper content more cheaply and quickly than trad-itional television production companies could. Here's how television - new television - could work five years from now. Let's take a very British example - the gardening show.
The Garden Show, as we shall imaginatively call it, has very much the same intent as existing gardening shows. It is a popular and accessible magazine series which mixes how-to tips with visits to distinguished gardens large and small. The primary location of The Garden Show, though, is the Web. A complex, customisable site is being constantly enhanced by contributions from both the project's production team and its viewers. One "viewer" sends in DIY digital movies about the difficulties of growing geraniums in limy soil on a north-facing bank. Another offers a few photographs and text about ways to increase potato yield. Yet a third uploads digital video gathered on her family's recent tour of Renaissance gardens in northern Italy.
On BBC2 each week, one half-hour of material is drawn - by professional television producers and technicians - from the masses of text, pictures, video and ideas on the Web and offered as The Garden Show - a linear television experience which also acts as an introduction to the Web site. The look and feel of the programme mirrors the Web site in some respects, although it is still clearly using television grammar, and not the emerging syntax of the Web. So this week, for example, fragments of widely varied contributions from "viewers" make it into the show, after which the presenter trails a forthcoming guide to Italian gardens which will draw heavily on contributed material and ideas. Following the broadcast, most of those whose material was incorporated into the show make frequent visits to the Web environment, which operates not only as a storehouse of assets but also as a conversational space in which to swap ideas.
To convert audience into community, this scenario depends crucially on finding non-television people who can contribute meaningfully to good television. Before my experiences with The Net I would have dismissed such an idea out of hand. Now I think it's possible. Most viewers won't participate, but particularly as the price of digital technology falls and expertise in using it spreads there will evolve, in a variety of fields, an increasing number of inspired amateurs whose lack of skill in media is more than compensated for by their love of the subject at hand. After all, remember how quickly the Web and the Net have grown, and how few media experts predicted that growth. Indeed, one of the strongest traditions in British media is under-estimating the intelligence of the public whom they allegedly serve.
The key to creating community, however, is a complete rethinking of the role of the producer. No longer will producers have more or less the final say about content and organisation and no longer will they be more beholden to commissioning editors than to the viewers. The independent production team will still contribute its own televisual segments - some inspired by information on the Web site - and it will edit the broadcast show. However, in this new world, the most important job of the production team becomes structuring, indexing and enhancing the Web site, and one of the most time-consuming tasks will be "weeding" the site, stripping out superfluous, superseded and out-of-date material.
This presents new challenges. Producers, along with everybody else in new media, must develop interfaces and forms of information presentation which are both easy to use and engaging to explore. Producers will have to integrate publishing, broadcasting and database models in quite new combinations to present information so that it can be easily digested and enjoyable to browse through. And they will have to take on new responsibilities for policing the work of others.
Because the producers of Web sites will retain some legal liability for others' contributions, they will have to develop a finely tuned sense of the difference between healthy debate and a potentially libellous slanging match. They will also have to distinguish creative advice from dangerously unreliable nonsense. And they will have to learn to shape and channel contributions with a deft touch that, whenever possible, avoids possible outright confrontation and censorship.
In the new world of new media, a programme's producer becomes part town-planner (to set up the core structure of the site), part tax authority (to collect and disburse revenue) and part police force (to ensure order and reliability). But the effort of learning and deploying these new skills will be more than compensated for, both by the creative possibilities of new media and the potential for generating new sources of revenue. Funding for Web-based television can come from a wide variety of separate sources. At the extreme, revenues from the Web site could even pay for the television show, allowing it to be broadcast for free to drum up more business for the Web site. The Web site could obviously sell advertising to suppliers of garden products like Fisons and Qualcast. Classified advertising could draw revenues from hobbyists and small nurseries, too, and even a relatively small subscription charge for access to the site could add up to a lot of money. Here's how the numbers could work.
On its first television showing, each programme is watched by around four million viewers and around one in forty of these subscribes to the password-protected component of the Web site for, say, 25 pence a week. Those who don't wish to pay will still have access to some of the Web site, but not all of it. The programme is then repeated on a range of the new BBC services - terrestrial, digital and satellite - bringing in a tiny additional income. It is also offered, a fortnight after the first showing, to other broadcasters for a modest fee. These subsequent showings attract a further global audience of four million and again there is a one in forty Web subscription take-up.
That creates an overall subscriber base for the Web site of 200,000, which, at 25 pence a week, generates £50,000 worth of income weekly. That totals up to £2.5 million a year if every subscriber watches year round, or £1.25 million even if all of the subscribers lose interest as soon as the days begin to grow wintry and cold.
With those economics, there are good arguments for giving away the programme to anybody who would re-broadcast it, so it could more effectively market the Web site. But any venture involving the BBC will still have to negotiate the rules about contact between the BBC and the commercial sector - which try to ensure that it does not use the licence fee to create artificially cheap programming for other markets.
A final source of income for the producers of The Garden Show is marketing. Within the bounds laid down by subscribers' concerns about privacy, it should still be possible to operate - and derive additional revenue from - a marketing system that puts together small businesses with those gardeners interested in the goods and services they offer. Making intelligent use of intelligent technology, it should be possible to make the system both valuable and non-intrusive.
But the producers are not the only ones making money from The Garden Show. While for most contributors the joy of sharing their expertise and enthusiasm is its own reward, they could still charge electronically for some services. A geranium FAQ, for example, summing up wisdom on the genus Pelargonium, might be something that a lot of garderners would pay for. Green thumbs might give advice about how to make tricky plants thrive, or on novel designs.
In the past, television threw information out to viewers when it wanted to; in the future it must reel viewers in to participate in discussions they can join when they want to. Welcome to the world of broadcatching.
The one-to-many, centre-to-periphery model is being overturned as a less hierarchical, many-to-many model develops. It looks remarkably attractive, both creatively and commercially, and could be applied across a wide range of factual programming. With some enhancements, it can be equally appropriate for narrative forms like soaps. Already Web-based narratives such as The Spot and EastVillage are exploring the possibilities of interactive, online drama. Everyone benefits from the shift from broadcasting to broadcatching. Broadcasters get better, cheaper shows. The public gets shows that truly capture its interests and imagination. Advertisers get a broader range of more precise marketing tools. Producers get new ways to create work, and new ways to pay for it.
For the BBC and other public service broadcasters, the new media represent a fundamental shift in power from the broadcasters to the public whom they allegedly serve. The new media slip through the restraints on which public service broadcasting was founded - limited access to the spectrum, subordination to government authority, restrictive operating licences, inadequate access to production technology - yet the new media also give broadcasters new opportunities to lead the way into broadcatching by developing new relationships with producers and audiences.
For the BBC in particular, this new world offers a new definition of public service broadcasting that includes, rather than excludes, the public in all its multitudinous and varied voices. Unfortunately this is emphatically not the future - not for broadcasters, not for producers and especially not for the audience - the BBC currently envisages in Extending Choice. That is too bad for the public but, ultimately, it is worse for the BBC. Given the economic and cultural potential of broadcatching, it's no longer a matter of when it will happen, but simply who will do it first.
John Wyver is a writer and independent producer with Illuminations. Special thanks to Andrew Chitty, Andrew Curry, Julian Ellison, Joanne Evans, Henry Johnson and other colleagues on The Net.