The UK is the home of so many media-related inventions. You invented photography. You invented TV. You invented computers in both concept and practice. (It’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyons chain of tea shops!) Yet today, none of the world’s leading exponents in these fields are from the UK.
So how can you avoid the same fate for your TV innovations? You need to bring art and science back together. Think back to the glory days of the Victorian era. It was a time when the same people wrote poetry and built bridges. Lewis Carroll didn’t just write one of the classic fairytales, he was also a mathematics tutor at Oxford. Over the past century the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths. There’s been a drift to the humanities â€“ engineering and science aren’t championed. Even worse, both sides seem to denigrate the other â€“ you’re either a “luvvie” or a “boffin”.
To change that you need to start at the beginning with education. We need to reignite children’s passion for science, engineering and maths. In the 1980s the BBC not only broadcast programming for kids about coding, but (in partnership with Acorn) shipped over a million BBC Micro computers into schools and homes. I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools. Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage.
At college level too, the UK needs to provide more encouragement and opportunity for people to study science and engineering. In June, President Obama announced a programme to train 10,000 more engineers a year. I hope others will follow suit â€“ the world needs more engineers. I saw the other day that on The Apprentice Alan Sugar said engineers are no good at business. Really? I don’t think we’ve done too badly!
If the UK’s creative businesses want to thrive in the digital future, you need people who understand all facets of it integrated from the very beginning. The world is changing, and you likewise need people who understand that TV is no longer purely a domestic affair. Online, any broadcaster can have global reach. Playing to this wider audience needs a new mindset, particularly when it comes to laws and regulation.
British television is subject to far more stringent regulation than its counterpart in the US. This means less flexibility and scope for UK companies to compete on the global stage. Though much of Europe is worse off still, that’s irrelevant because your main TV competition â€“ through shared language and similarities in culture â€“ is from across the Atlantic.
I’m not suggesting the UK should mirror US-style regulation. And I know it may sound counterintuitive to call for lighter regulation when the UK has just been through the hacking scandal. But it’s no exaggeration to say decisions made in the next year will determine the long-term health of your broadcasting and content industries for decades to come. If economic growth is the priority of the government, your regulators need to be cautious or risk stifling the growth of your content businesses.
The government should put innovation front and centre of their regulatory strategy. TV is going global and transforming in form. This new era, where innovation and speed are paramount, has parallels to the internet. To compete on the world stage, your content businesses need the freedom and legal framework to behave more like internet companies. The starting point for every new piece of legislation should not be “how do we regulate this” but “how do we protect the space needed for innovation”.
As a direct corollary, I’d urge you to cut back on the micro-regulation that broadcasters face. I appreciate that runs counter to the public mood, but there is nothing more stifling to innovation than having to jump through endless hoops. Just imagine if Facebook had to endure regulation like you face in TV. There’d have to be separate Facebooks for each region. There’d be rulings to enforce diversity of wall posts, and you could forget about poking before the watershed.
One of the most egregious areas is the micro-regulation around TV advertising. It is the lifeblood of the broadcasting industry â€“ except the BBC â€“ and yet doesn’t get championed by policy makers. In fact, the opposite. A similar principle applies when it comes to the use of data, both in advertising and content distribution. Sensible data protection rules are needed that reflect the realities of the digital age. Of course, there are lots of issues around privacy which must be taken into account. User concerns need to be respected and addressed. But it’s important not to overreact and prevent those who wish to share data and receive a personalised service from doing so.
Right now, it’s the internet sector at the forefront of the data debate, but as TV spreads its wings online, it won’t be long before you’ll join us in the fray. Based on our experience so far, I believe the key to any solution is to be transparent with people about what data is collected and why, and give them the tools to control it.
On a broader note, it’s vital we keep the internet open. Openness is a prerequisite for innovation â€“ no one should have to ask permission to launch a new product online. The more attempts to curtail the internet’s openness, the harder it is for tomorrow’s Larrys and Sergeys to become a success.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting a completely laissez-faire approach is appropriate. Alongside the internet’s benefits, there is content and behaviour none of us want to encourage. From copyright infringement to phishing scams to sexual abuse imagery â€“ none of this is good. But when legislators try to figure out how to minimise the harm of online content, technology solutions rather than laws should be their first thought.
Stifling the internet â€“ whether by filtering or blocking or just plain turning the “off” switch â€“ appeals to policymakers the world over. I don’t blame them for wanting to apply what seems, in theory, the simplest solution. The problem is things are far more complicated in practice. For every ISP filter there’s a work-around. For every blacklist there’s a proxy server. And for every well-meaning attempt to limit the bad stuff there is good stuff that gets knocked out too.
Instead, policymakers should work with the grain of the internet rather than against it. Harness the huge levels of user engagement we have online to find solutions. Encourage online innovators to find new ways for parents to protect their kids. A good example is YouTube’s community guidelines, setting rules for content that go further than the law and enable users themselves to identify content that’s inappropriate and have it taken down. Working with the grain of the internet rather than against it. Allowing the sharing of online data. And ensuring laws allow innovation to flourish. Three big principles that â€“ I think â€“ could help the UK’s TV industry to succeed globally.
The computing and creative industries are both on remarkable journeys. Sometimes our paths will intertwine where you least expect. The opportunities are vast, and British television is uniquely well-placed to take them, if we work together.
â€¢ This is an edited extract of the MacTaggart lecture Eric Schmidt gave today at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival