Stories about creative insight often involve some kind of “productive pause,” or what psychologists call an incubation period. Archimedes, who was given the task of measuring the volume of an oddly-shaped golden crown, had his flash when stepping into a bath. Kekule was said to have thought of the structure of benzene while riding on a horse-drawn on a bus.
And chances are, you have had some issue plague you that has resolved itself while you were away from the problem taking a walk, sitting in a bath, or lying on a couch.
Former BBC iPlayer boss Anthony Rose on the future of TV
Former BBC iPlayer boss Anthony Rose on the future of TV
TV is about discovery, social recommendation, information, participation and shopping – and the BBC is getting left behind
Jemima Kiss - The Guardian, Sunday 3 February 2013 18.41 GMT
Viewing figure … Zeebox founder Anthony Rose.
There’s a saying that in theatre, you don’t notice good lighting. For Anthony Rose, the former head of BBC iPlayer, there’s a similar principle around technology – particularly when that technology is driving an industry-defining online TV service.
iPlayer was a very different beast when Rose joined the BBC in September 2007. Though technically accomplished, it was a tool built very much in the image of the team that made it rather than the mainstream audience it was intended for, he says. “If you make things for geeks, they are super-satisfied but the real audience isn’t. So we brought in people who love EastEnders and Waterloo Road to tell us what they like, from usability to navigation, and quickly discovered what they did and didn’t want.” It took four rounds of testing the service on ladies from the BBC legal department (and a few boxes of chocolates) to get the service releasable, with each iteration improving five key issues.
Rose came from startups — including geek favourite P2P network KaZaA — to join the BBC, and at the time friends questioned how “a dotcom kid” would survive our monolithic national treasure, he recalls. He describes his role as 75% cool stuff, 20% the cost of doing business and 5% bad stuff — not dissimilar to a startup. “When I arrived iPlayer was pre-release and not a wonderful consumer proposition. I didn’t know why it hadn’t turned out right, or what needed to be done. It turned out that the developers were brilliant, but the problem was that the BBC had so many internal stakeholders all pulling in different directions.” From financial pressure to reduce bandwidth use to editorial standards and parental controls, everyone had a say in the project — apart from consumers.
That says a lot about the BBC; despite its prowess in tech research and development, there is a lack of understanding of product, sa ys Rose. It’s not a problem specific to the BBC, but a feature of big organisations that they often struggle to make decisions, he says.His relentless focus on product is credited with ensuring iPlayer’s success, growing from launch to 130m monthly streams in May 2010, when he moved to another internet TV specialist role as chief technical officer at YouView. By December 2012 it had reached a record 217m streams.
By February 2011 Rose was out on his own and hungry to head back to the autonomy and opportunity of the startup world, having turned down inevitable offers from other big media organisations. Match-made with former EMI president Ernesto Schmitt, Rose pulled together a crack team of developers — many of whom came from the BBC, and most of whom initially worked for nothing — to build a prototype for a second screen TV service. The team of eight worked from shared offices in Old Street, secured $6m in private investment, and by November 2011 the first incarnation of Zeebox launched.
In person, Rose exudes a gentle, bubbling enthusiasm for his work. He talks quickly, intensely and very coherently, as if his mind had been synthesising ideas and observations overnight, presentation ready. Zeebox, he explains, is about the conversation around TV, and making that conversation accessible on mobile, tablet or through a browser. It offers programme information, discussion on social media, and targeted advertising.
From the outset, they decided, the concept had to avoid the precondition of partnerships with smart TV manufacturers. Why, despite the promise of Zeebox and a wave of other services perfect for internet-connected TV, have smart (internet- connected) TVs so far proved so disappointing? “Manufacturers had a dream that they would no longer be a dumb pipe, and looked to Apple’s 30% commission on app sales to try and do the same to TV listings,” he says. “But broadcasters won’t be disaggregated or forced to pay a fee to manufacturers. It has meant that smart TVs will have two brains, one for content and one for apps, until a new player comes in and disrupts the market to give consumers what they want.”
Zeebox, he explains, can’t reconcile that standoff with manufacturers. But it was also never intended to disrupt the TV space, recognising from the start that it would need to partner with broadcasters. “If you look at the people who start new ventures, do they have a religious zeal to change the world, or do they want to disrupt? If your goal is purely to disrupt I think that’s naive, because if your business requires deals
with those incumbents they will never be your friend. Don’t try to fix other people’s problems, because they might not want them fixed.”
Rose is also back round the table with the broadcasters he dealt with during his iPlayer days, when the tenor of conversation was rather different. “I had fairly robust conversations with some of these broadcasters when I wanted content in the iPlayer, and needed them to change their rights and allow it. It made for some pretty interesting dinner conversation.”
A month after launch, BSkyB approached Zeebox and took a 10% stake understood to be worth at least $15m, giving Zeebox “the capital and credibility to develop the UK proposition”. Next came the US launch in September 2012, with launch partners including Comcast, NBC and Viacom, and Australia, with Channel Ten, the following month.
Television, Rose contends, has been the same for decades. Despite incremental improvements with colour and then HD, the essential dynamic of beaming programmes to millions of people remains the same. The Zeebox vision he pitches is one built on five principles of connected TV: programme discovery and social recommendation; programme information; participation, which could mean influencing the narrative of the programme rather than asynchronously commenting; and shopping, with a compelling case for click-to-buy that could be lucrative for Zeebox.
He won’t say when it expects to start seeing a profit, but this month Zeebox introduces its ad platform. Using a fingerprinting system to recognise ads playing on a TV stream, it can offer ads that synchronise each TV slot with Zeebox on mobile, tablet or the web. Broadcasters can partner and offer those slots to their own advertisers on a revenue share, or Zeebox sells them to other advertisers.
Ambitions are firmly fixed on cracking the US where TV advertising is worth $65bn annually, according to Group M. “TV ads are monetised at 0.5c to 1c per view, but Google is monetised at 50c per click on the internet, and that’s targetable and measurable,” says Rose. “Second screen will either be seen as digital, divorced from TV, or as TV plus plus, online and synchronised. We’ve had overwhelming interest from advertisers at the highest level.”
The pièce de résistance, if Zeebox can pull it off, will be to layer all this functionality around on-demand programmes. The team has figured out how to re-present timestamped comments from the original broadcast, though how any further interaction will work has yet to be determined. That catchup experience is just a few weeks away, Rose promises.
It’s impossible to talk about his work without discussing his time at the BBC, which set him on the path to being one of the most authoritative figures in connected TV. But while he’s gracious about former colleagues, he’s not confident that the BBC — despite its heritage of excellence in engineering — is committed to exploring the technology that will define its future.
"The Delivering Quality First programme has pulled the focus back to making content, and I don’t subscribe to that. In the future, people will have to watch and discover that content in the new ways, and while iPlayer is fantastic at discovery on multiple devices, the technology will keep moving. Consumers are moving off the schedule, and if you’re not plugged in to how they are doing that, then you’re not leading on it.
"The pendulum is swinging away from tech innovation toward content – and that’s the opposite of what the BBC’s competitors are doing."
Career 1979 founder, AR Technology 1981 student, electrical engineering 1988 emigrates to Australia with AR Technologies 1989 granted first patent 1994 co- founder, Sega Australia New Developments 1996 VP Technology, Brilliant Digital Entertainment 1997 CTO Altnet and KaZaA 2007 controller, vision & online media group, BBC 2010 CTO YouView 2011 co-founder, CTO, Zeebox