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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Level-Up Talk: Second life of the BBC

VIRTUAL reality used to be a popular notion a decade or so ago, but now the phrase sounds so dated that the concept has become unfashionable long before it exists. Yet a version of the concept is taking off as people want to lose themselves in the complex virtual worlds of multiplayer computer games —and it heralds a revolution in media consumption that is unfolding at blistering speed.

The best-known multiplayer game is World of Warcraft, a swords and sorcery affair. A year ago Warcraft had 1.7 million paying subscribers; now that number is a remarkable 6.4 million; no wonder Vivendi, Warcraft'ss owner, reckons that computer games are going to be one of its fastest-growing divisions in the future.

Wherever people gather, brands and advertisers want to turn up too, although the new breed of digital marketing agencies complain that Warcraft is not amenable to their charms. Enter instead Second Life , another multiplayer game. For $9.95 (£5.25) a month, it allows people to buy land and develop it to their own taste, and people roam around in their virtual personas, communicating, seeking entertainment and doing business in the local currency.

The game is also more amenable to marketeers—partly because its owner, Linden Labs, wants something for players to do. Although Second Life's free-form style has proved popular with gamers, there are, apart from gambling sites, few other places where people congregate, which is where Radio 1 comes in.

Last weekend, the pop station aired its Big Weekend concert from Dundee in
Second Life, with the help of the new media agency Rivers Run Red. The Beeb and its helpers created a network of four virtual islands where sets by Gnarls Barkley and Franz Ferdinand were blasted out to the assembled avatars, who were given the chance to pick up radios to take the sound with them. This being the BBC, people could also copy the radios, trading them freely (in a world where many simple features are paid for in Linden dollars).

This is not the time to discuss whether this is a good use of BBC licence-payers' money; the largest group of
Second Lifes 250,000 players are Americans getting the Beeb for free. However, there are plenty of Brits too— and it is estimated that about 6,000 Second Lifers tuned in via the game. Some of them listened, or at least maintained the web link, for 11 hours.

It is not mass marketing, or mass listening, in itself, but any way you look at it, the growth of broadband, and the desire of a new generation to become immersed online, is changing the media for ever. In 1997, according to a study from OC&C Strategy Consultants, people spent 3.8 hours a week playing with online media; by 2009 that will rise to 11.2 hours.

Compare that with newspapers, for which the amount of time spent reading a week is expected to drop from 3.4 hours to just 2.4, as people buy more infrequently. By the end of the decade, messing around on the net will take up more time than reading books, magazines and newspapers combined, as part of a shift that turns people from media consumers to creators.

The signs of the dramatic transformation in audience — from people who receive media to co-creators—are everywhere. The trend is a natural development from reality television, where audiences are able to influence the outcome by voting—but already viewers, armed with laptops and video-editing software are moving to the next level.

YouTube is a Californian start-up where people put up their favourite videos. It is a trend that British broadcasters have failed to harness, with the partial exception of Channel 4s documentary site. Anyway, not many people at the time will have watched the hapless Guy Goma, a victim of mistaken identity, being interviewed live on BBC News 24 on a topic he knew nothing about.

YouTube, a business founded only in February last year, has helped to make Goma famous. The clip, helped by press publicity, has since been watched nearly 270,000 times on YouTube. There is also a remix, to the music of a childrens television programme. Remixing clips is already a standard feature of the infant YouTube culture, where people put up an estimated 35,000 videos a day. YouTube claims to have six million unique users a day, double the amount who logged in over December.

Whichever figure you look at, a revolution in media consumption is happening. No one in most traditional media businesses has a clue where it will end up, but the trick for existing brands will be to find ways to retain audiences, and advertisers, in an era where people have the tools to rewrite and remix what they do not like.

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