Interview: Richard Titus, Future Media Controller, BBC: We Must Target Youngsters Via Mobile

imageMobile entertainment must play a key role in helping the BBC widen its reach to younger audiences, says Richard Titus, future media controller for audio, music and mobile at the BBC. Titus, who took over Matthew Postgate‘s mobile leadership role in November, told the BBC’s VOD service will be made to work on subway trains, apps are ideal and it’s too soon to bet on a mobile TV standard…

Broadening BBC’s reach: “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.”

Titus sees an imminent tipping point for mobile entertainment, sparked in part by the iPhone effect: “The platform is now behaving in very similar ways to the internet behaved in ’96, ’97 – you’re seeing massive growth and the adoption curves are exactly the same. In the early days of the internet, it was for geeks or males, mid-40s, reasonably large incomes, often single – and then everybody else came. What we need to do is learn from the internet, look at the ways that this is a different experience.”

BBC eyeing app store launch?: One differentiator may be mobile apps or widgets, something the broadcaster so far has none of – “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.”

iPlayer going Underground: Fellow BBC controller Anthony Rose told paidContent:UK in December he will this year introduce “variable bitrate” functionality for the BBC’s highly successful VOD service, 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 even with no connection: “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.”

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.”

Innovation and reorganisation in the downturn: “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.

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.”

Vision for visuals: Having founded LA design house Schematic 10 years ago before selling to WPP and serving as a Razorfish VP before heading the BBC’s user experience efforts, 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.