Television. From the man who fixed the iPlayer: Freeview 2.0
By Kate Bulkley
Almost two years ago Erik Huggers was poised to become president of global video-rental giant Blockbuster. Then a last-minute phone call from the BBC and a follow-up 90-minute meeting with Mark Thompson led the 33-year-old man from Microsoft into the arms of the BBC as group controller (later, director) of future media and technology.
At the time, despite almost four years of R&D, the BBC iPlayer was still not working, the corporation’s online sites were a mass of different designs and messages, and Thompson’s ambition to make the Beeb a world force in emerging digital technologies looked some way from fruition.
The executive then running digital media at the corporation, Ashley Highfield, was eager to have someone of Huggers’ huge expertise on board, but the tipping point for the straight-talking Dutchman came when he sat down with Thompson.
“That the director-general of the BBC completely and utterly believed in the importance of the digital age was really important to me,” grins Huggers, who succeeded Highfield as director of future media and technology last August.
“I knew about the iPlayer and saw that while the rest of the media industry was fighting to offer just video clips online, there were these guys at the BBC talking about full-length shows and whole schedules online.
“I saw that the BBC, with its intellectual property and its funding model, was in a unique position to innovate. I could see that there was something bigger going on here at the BBC, and that it offered more of a runway of opportunity.”
But Huggers was also persuaded to accept the BBC job by some less lofty priorities. Crucially, how much closer London is to the Netherlands and to his wife’s home country of Italy compared with Blockbuster’s headquarters in Dallas.
“Do you know how hard it is to keep in touch with family when they’re an 18-hour airline ride away?” says Huggers, who strikes a continental European sartorial note thanks to his longish, curly hair, rimless glasses and uniform of jeans, open-necked, button-down shirt and blazer.
His family – which now includes a daughter and a young son – had already spent nearly three years living in Seattle during his nine-year stint at Microsoft. Having earned an international business management degree in the Netherlands, Huggers went to work at the then-newly minted Endemol in the mid-1990s.
There, he ran the fledgling interactive unit for the producer, including call-TV and websites to support Endemol programmes. He left Endemol because he says the unit was never centre stage in the minds of founders John de Mol and Joop van Ende. After briefly helping a charity launch some groundbreaking hologram technology for housebound kids in the Netherlands he joined Microsoft.
His time at the software giant gave Huggers many opportunities (and a lot of air miles), beginning with him establishing Microsoft’s MSN network in Benelux. He then became the company’s evangelist for the adoption of Windows Media at media companies and telcos.
This brought him into contact for the first time with the BBC. His last job at Microsoft was to help draft a “connected entertainment” strategy. The aim was to get devices and content from both inside and outside Microsoft working more effectively together.
This job is relevant to an important BBC project Huggers is leading in partnership with ITV and BT, to launch broadband-connected Freeview services that will combine TV and radio with on-demand catch-up and archive programming plus web content and programming from other content and internet service providers.
Called Project Canvas, it is essentially an open software platform that allows any number of content providers and broadcasters to offer broadband-delivered services to consumers’ TV sets. And the Canvas software can be put on a Freeview box or a Sony games console or another device that has a broadband connection linked to the TV. Huggers believes it is a “game changer” for both the BBC and the media industry as a whole.
Leaning forward in his chair, his voice takes on a heightened intensity: “This is the TV connected to the internet in a way that provides a way for application developers and service providers to reach consumers in their living rooms,” says Huggers. “Think of this as the 10-foot version of the iPhone application model. Personally, I think that the platform has the potential to ‘democratise’ access to the living room.”
Unlike the beleaguered Project Kangaroo, backed by BBC Worldwide, ITV and Channel 4, and which is stuck in a Competition Commission review, Huggers believes that Project Canvas is “fundamentally different” because it is an open platform, not a “walled garden” of aggregated content controlled by one entity.
“My ambition is that the BBC contributes to driving standards around IP-delivered and IP-consumed media,” says Huggers. “This will solve a problem for the BBC by widening our distribution but it will also solve it for the industry because I am not going to put a toll booth on Canvas. I am not going to try and lock it down because I don’t think that is the nature of the web.”
Apart from the BBC’s online strategy and iPlayer, Huggers, who is now 35, also oversees all the corporation’s broadcasting and enterprise technology. This includes cameras, edit suites and the £200m-a-year outsourcing contract for everything from networks to corporate BlackBerries with supplier Siemens.
Additionally, Huggers looks after BBC R&D, which includes around 150 people and a £12m annual budget. As if that weren’t enough, he is also responsible for the BBC Archive, where some 400 people are busy ensuring that no programme the corporation broadcasts is lost to posterity.
To date, his biggest achievement at the BBC has been the incredible success of the iPlayer. How Huggers got the iPlayer to where it is today provides a valuable insight into his management style. On joining the BBC in May 2007 his first decision was to hire two engineers he knew from Microsoft to assess the iPlayer. “They gave me a damning report that I have never showed to anyone,” he recalls. “But basically it said we needed a frontal lobotomy to make iPlayer work.”
He decided to prioritise streaming video rather than downloading and to outsource the distribution technology necessary to make iPlayer work. Crucially, he set up a daily “war room” and hired Anthony Rose, a technologist who joined the BBC in September 2007. The iPlayer was up and running on Christmas Day.
The next phase of iPlayer is set to include a lot more Facebook-like applications, which Huggers believes will be important for the BBC. “It’s the concept of bringing people together around our BBC content and connecting them with our content.”
Given the big-picture thinking needed for the BBC’s future digital moves, is it any wonder that Huggers has a seat on the corporation’s executive board? It is also clear that the BBC’s proposed partnerships with other public service broadcasters to share technology and expertise will largely come from areas that report to Huggers, such as iPlayer.
When he recently travelled to CES, the high-profile consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, Mark Thompson accompanied him to attend meetings with the CEOs of Intel, Cisco and Palm.
“Everyone wanted to know about iPlayer,” says Huggers. “They all want to know when we are going to launch it outside the UK, which is, of course, difficult, but I believe if any corporation is going to crack that, it’s going to be the BBC.”
Canvas at a glance
Project Canvas is a joint initiative backed by the BBC, ITV and BT that aims to use next-generation Freeview boxes to bring broadband-delivered content to TV sets.
The service will offer TV, radio and HDTV, with on-demand catch-up and archive programming provided by applications such as the BBC’s iPlayer and ITV Player, plus films, web content and interactive TV services.
Like Freeview, it is intended to be subs-free, but broadband providers will lobby for payment to cover the increased burden on their networks.
The aim, consistent with the corporation’s partnership strategy, is to encourage an open-industry standard that will allow ‘platform-neutral publishing’.
ITV executive chairman Michael Grade claims Canvas ‘makes convergence a reality’, while BBC director-general Mark Thompson hails it as ‘potentially the holy grail of future public service broadcasting provision in the UK.’
The hope is to get Canvas, which needs the approval of the BBC Trust, up and running sometime in 2010. It will also be launched on FreeSat.
Canvas will be distinct from BT’s Freeview service, BT Vision, and could run alongside the stalled Kangaroo, a commercial joint venture between the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.
Says Eric Huggers: ‘It’s the last bastion – it’s about getting into the living room with the richness and community features that the web offers with the viewing quality from a larger device. Because it’s an open service, any company could build an app for the platform.’