Interview: Richard Titus, Future Media Controller, BBC: iPlayer Going Underground, We Must Reach Out

imageWhen BBC future media director Erik Huggers convinced Richard Titus, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who founded several companies in California, to join the BBC for “a few weeks of consulting” back in 2007, the robust American may have seemed an unusual fit for Britain’s publicly-funded broadcasting corporation. But two years later, Titus – who in November was promoted from user experience controller to be interactive audio, music and mobile controller – has settled right in in England, is trying to sharpen the Beeb’s innovative edge and is even developing a keen interest rugby. One of Huggers’ three online chiefs, Titus told paidContent:UK of plans to take iPlayer underground, to target younger audiences and how mobile entertainment will buck the credit crunch to finally go mainstream…

Broadening BBC’s reach: Having founded LA design house Schematic 10 years ago before selling to WPP and, later, becoming a Razorfish VP, design-minded Titus now finds himself overseeing all aspects of BBC online radio, music, mobile and rapid application development. “I was like an architect for a long time, and now I get to live in the house,” he says.

So what’s next? “We have a lot to do. The BBC, historically, hasn’t been as good at reaching younger audiences – mobile is a way that we can build a bridge. We have to get beyond news, sport and weather (on mobile). Mobile skews younger, very similar to our radio mandate … many of them don’t have laptop computers… we need to start targeting services and products there. Twenty percent of the audience for BBC Mobile uses no other services from the BBC.”

BBC on app stores, cost savings?: Auntie doesn’t currently build mobile widgets for stores like iPhone’s – “not yet“, Titus says – but his enthusiasm suggests a possible upcoming launch: “People you’d never think were geek people are doing this now (downloading apps). My goal is to have BBC content everywhere our audience is, and I do think widgets are one of the best ways to do that.”

“The great thing about widgets – which is the most over-used word of 2009 – is you can do a deal with the handset manufacturer; people get the phone and (the content) is already there. That’s really powerful; you get it and it comes with BBC.”

But, reading between the lines, Titus’ words on BBC Radio sites may point to some cost cuts, or at least reprioritisation: “We have some sites that do really well, we have some sites that frankly are showing their age. We’re going to be refreshing those, but also stitching together the underlying nuts and bolts so that they’re less costly and more efficient to maintain, so we can focus on creating value and new propositions.”

iPlayer going Underground: Fellow BBC controller Anthony Rose told paidContent:UK in December he will this year introduce “variable bitrate” functionality, scaling iPlayer picture quality for a range of bandwidths. But Titus revealed there will also be smart buffering and caching of content, preloading video that can be watched on mobile devices: “One of my objectives is to make this (mobile) very aware of its state so, when you’re in an area where there’s free or cheap bandwidth, to allow you to consume it when you’re on the Tube or other places that you don’t have it.”

Mobile reaching a tipping point: Titus draws parallels between mobile’s evolution today and the desktop web circa 1996/97 – about to reach mainstream popularity, spurred by the iPhone effect. And this growing acceptance will hold up despite the economic downturn: “As the world financial crisis impacts people on a day-to-day, the last thing you’re going to turn off is your mobile phone. You might change your data consumptive behaviour, but you’re likely to use more of your mobile device rather than less, because you’re going to have culled other means of entertainment. Think about the last crash, which was a microcosm of this experience – Web 2.0 and social media were invented by unemployed techies who needed to consume time with something fun to do. I’m really excited to see what happens out of this crash.” Titus’ predictions – cloud computing, geolocation and user-centered design.

TV on mobile: The BBC completed a 12-month live streaming trial over UK mobile phone networks in April but got only a peak of 580 simultaneous views. Titus: “I think 500 users, in a test market, on a new, emerging platform is a really excellent opportunity; there were no flaws in that trial. It’s changing dramatically – we’re trying to diagnose the car that has a rattling carburetor whilst hurtling down the motorway at 100Mph. As fast as you look at it, the data’s too old and doesn’t mean anything.”

Though mobile iPlayer already streams live TV over WiFi, the Beeb’s application to begin mobile broadcasts full-time is stuck with the BBC Trust, which has been deliberating the application since July. Though the European Commission last year ratified DVB-H as the standard for mobile TV, Titus is in no hurry to pick a winner: “There are a whole set of technologies around mobile broadcast… HSPDA, DVB-H … this feels a bit to me like the browser wars of 1996 … the markets haven’t got to a place where we know which way it’s going to go, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for us, with our public service, to make a bet. We’ve done some trials in the space but really we’re waiting for the technology to emerge that’s dominant.

Who killed the electric car?: Titus, whose wife is a film maker, maintains a passionate interest in independent cinema, having executive-produced the 2002 reality-internet drama On_line and 2006 environmental documentary Who Killed The Electric Car?. So why can’t everyone charge their car on volts yet? Titus, who admits to being “a bit militant on my green issues” and uses an electric car rental service, blames “apathy and a lack of urgency” on the auto makers’ part, but: “It’s coming back, I see them here all the time now. That film needed to be made and I think it had a huge effect on the world. If you’re not supporting sustainability, you’re a nihilist.”