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Interview with Chris Winter, Manager, New Services, ABC Innovation and Michael Millet, ABC Communications Director
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation198 (ABC) is one of Australia's most valued institutions-the trusted source of news, information and entertainment for generations of Australians. But the image of the staid old 'Aunty' is long gone. The ABC is fast carving out a new reputation as a leader in the new multi-platform, multi-channel world. The organisation is transforming from a national broadcaster into a 21st century media innovator. Digital technology has given the ABC new tools and platforms to reach audiences across the country and the world. The audience is itself changing, demanding content when it wants to view it and on the devices and multimedia forums it wants to use.
The ABC's Innovation Division was created in 2007 as a direct recognition of the technological and social pressures driving the new ABC. Its brief is to 'drive strategic innovation and development in content creation, audience connection and new platform distribution' in partnership with the ABC's big content divisions—radio, television and news. This case study focuses on three of the results: ABC Earth, ABC iView and Gallipoli—the First Day.
'ABC Earth'—launched in mid-2008—was initially conceived as a trial to test audience interest in the presentation of ABC content, whether in the form of video, audio or text, using Google Earth as a platform.
Google Earth is a kind of virtual globe—a 3-D map and geographic information program based on highly detailed aerial photography that lets users fly to any part of the world and hover over a location at any height. Using only the mouse, a visitor can move around, go up and down, or look at the terrain from an angle or from directly above. It is a free program and can be easily downloaded from the Web and installed on a personal computer.
It was decided that ABC news and current affairs would be the perfect launching pad. Like television, the news team had been using two dimensional maps to illustrate their online stories for some time. The digital, online world created a number of new opportunities, including the ability to incorporate latitude/longitude information in a story's metadata and, importantly, automatically attach the story to its proper place on the map.
The digital mapping display technology, introduced by Google in early 2005 (developed in Australia and subsequently bought by Google), progressively allowed more and more complementary development. Attaching geo-defined content to its proper location on a Google map would become relatively straightforward, and news producers were becoming very adept in its use.
There was also the possibility of using Google Earth, with its rich three-dimensional, photographic appearance as a frame for the ABC's news stories—even more enhanced by the application's highly visual characteristic of 'flying' from one location to another. The first appearance of Google Earth (under that name) was in mid-2005, but the ABC's use of it in the Earth project and the more recent Gallipoli now relies for best effect on the version released in early 2009.
With some assistance from the Archaeological Computing Laboratory at Sydney University, the Innovation team built an ABC 'layer', a small file that could be downloaded to personal computers from www.abc.net.au/earth. Launched in conjunction with the Google Earth application, it allows users to navigate a wide selection of static and dynamic content.
National and local news, updated automatically every ten minutes, is one part of the offer, displayed as headlines on a map of Australia. Users can zoom in to whatever part of the country that interests them and examine stories in detail—some consisting of text and images, others accompanied by video. Perhaps visually more appealing are the hand-picked video stories from the archives-drawn from the celebration of 50 years of ABC News, domestic and international, and the 2007 series of Foreign Correspondent.
Such was the interest among colleagues in the ABC's local radio team, that a selection of content published by staff working in the ABC's some 60 local radio stations was added to the ABC layer created for the platform.
While The New York Times had for a short time before the ABC been posting stories with text and images, the ABC was the first news organisation in the world to successfully use its own video content in a Google Earth layer.
In the first year, there were approximately 20 000 downloads of the small file that powers ABC Earth.
In late 2007, the ABC's Innovation Division identified a full-screen video playback facility as an essential research and development (R&D) project. The ABC predicted that, within the year, the bandwidth and technological requirements of such an application would be pervasive enough to justify its development, and provide a successful, fluent service for at least 25 per cent of the internet population of Australia. iView, in its first version, took eight months to develop from start to finish.
ABC iView is an example of internet television, facilitating full screen, web browser-based on-demand playback of TV content. iView not only offers a catch-up service of ABC1 and ABC2 programming, but schedules web-exclusive programming.
The internet is as essential to this project as a broadcast signal and transmission tower are to conventional television broadcast. The objectives at the start of the project were to provide Australian audiences with the first subscription-free television on-demand service, and stimulate the broadband industry by providing rich media, high-quality content delivery at speeds of 1.1 Mbps.
It may have started modestly, but iView has rapidly expanded its offering to an eager audience. There are now approximately 266 full episodes of TV program material on iView each ranging from 30 to 90 minutes in length. Each week, approximately 55-60 hours of content from ABC1, ABC2 and material exclusive to iView is published and added to the site.
In April iView averaged 90 000 visits a week, which represented strong growth from the 66 000 visits per week in February and 55 000 visits a week in September 2008. iView is building a remarkably loyal audience-once users know of the service's existence. By April 2009, 35 per cent of users visited iView more than once during that month.
iView is also attracting attention amongst potential commercial users, such is its ease of use, its sophistication and its audience appeal.
The idea for Gallipoli: The First Day struck ABC Innovation producer, Meena Tharmarajah, on a visit to the site. Seeing the terrain at Anzac Cove gave her a whole new perspective on the battle and she realised that we could use mapping technologies to give people a far richer experience and deeper insight—the next best thing to being there. The opportunity to experiment with some new technologies and interfaces to produce a 3D online interactive narrative fitted well with the ABC Innovation Division's aim to develop a multimedia project specifically for broadband. It also fitted well with the ABC's eagerness to create an innovative take on a well known historical event.
Gallipoli: The First Day developed as the broadband equivalent of a prime-time TV special. It included filmed dioramas built using 3D models, diary entries from soldiers with voice-overs, an interactive timeline of the events of the day, archival video of interviews with survivors and photos from the trenches. Complementing the central 3-D creation is the option of choosing a Google Earth version (just as in ABC Earth described above) which provides an overview of the key events in the first 24 hours of the landing and gives viewers, including those with slower internet connections, access to text, photos and videos.
The project encapsulates some technical firsts, including using the recently released version of the same software used with iView to create a 3-D map of the Gallipoli landscape based on Turkish maps and topographic data from 1916. This idea became a reality with the new version of Flash and its ability to support 3-D, and overall running in a browser. What this means is that with one download of the Flash player the user can experience the full richness of the site and its contents. Experimentation with cutting edge technologies and developing new ways of telling stories is one of ABC Innovation's key objectives and the Gallipoli site fits with this perfectly.
Gallipoli is one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by the ABC Innovation team, and proves broadband as a legitimate medium. Feedback has been largely positive, although the site is only available to users on a high speed broadband connection and a desk top with good memory capacity. As at June 2009, there were around 120 000 visits to the site. The second phase of the project will focus on developing richer educational tools, in collaboration with the Department of Veterans' Affairs, rolling out educational kits to schools across the country.
These are ABC's first steps into an uncertain world. Superfast broadband opens up a myriad of new broadcasting opportunities. New platforms and devices will emerge leading the ABC further away from its 20th Century role as a master of mass, 'fixed appointment' viewing choices. The mobile phone has become a powerful multimedia tool.
Confronting a brave new world is nothing new for the ABC. When it turned on its first television transmitter in 1956, only two per cent of Australians owned a television set. We have seen in the past decade how quickly new technologies can become integral to Australian lifestyles. The challenge for the ABC over the next decade is to have the ingenuity and the flexibility to keep the corporation at the cutting edge: creating the right mix of content and technology to 'inform, entertain and educate' the Australian public.Back to top
 Reuse or distribution of this case study must include the following attribution: Australia's Digital Economy: Future Directions © Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Commonwealth of Australia, 2009, www.dbcde.gov.au/digital_economy/final_report