People have started to talk about the death of the schedule, often in the context of complaining that broadcasters are ill-prepared for this inevitability and schedulers complaining that no-one appreciates their skills in placing programmes appropriately and in context. One example is “hammocking” – making sure that viewers receive a “varied diet” across an evening, perhaps placing the news between two lighthearted pop culture programmes.

Meanwhile, the anti-schedulists point out that given the choice, some people will download and watch an entire series in one marathon session (people have “Torchwood weekends”), so that they don’t have to commit to being in front of the TV at 9pm every Thursday, or will watch a film broken down into 20 minute sections on their mobile phone while commuting. Schedulism and anti-schedulism can seem like major culture clash, but is easily resolved when you think purely in terms of knowledge organisation.

A schedule is just metadata

A schedule is merely a set of metadata about programmes. It used to be the most important set of metadata for most people (along with the programme title!) as it was the key to not missing the programme. Now that we have catchup services and archives, knowing exactly when a programme will be broadcast or was broadcast may be less significant for finding that programme again, leading some people to claim that schedules are no longer needed. However, there are plenty of people who don’t want to look for specific programmes but want to sit down and be entertained for the evening. For them, schedules remain vital as they outline what is available. Scheduling in this sense is editorial selection, with all the craftsmanship and judgement that implies.

People are fascinated to know what was broadcast on the day they were born, and which programmes went out together, and schedules offer all sorts of socio-political and cultural information, giving snapshots of what were popular topics or contentious issues over time.

Schedule data is less significant in a vast online digital archive, but it is still useful. For example, you might want to find an episode you missed in a long-running series. You probably won’t know that it was episode 12 of 26, but you might remember that the reason you missed it was because you were out celebrating a friend’s birthday, which is a date you know. This may be a lot quicker than reading through the episode descriptions, which are usually too vague to be helpful, as the writers don’t want to give away “spoilers”, such as the final cliffhanger, which is often the part of the episode you remember the best. The programme descriptions are intended to entice you to watch the programme, not help you work out whether or not you have already seen it.

Don’t ditch the schedule, add to it

What is important to bear in mind is that digital archives can offer schedule data almost effortlessly, but can offer many more metadata streams as well. These metadata streams are in many ways innovative and can lead to fascinating new ways of grouping programmes and promoting content. Rich subject metadata (such as a subject index) becomes an engine by which you can drive all sorts of automatically created content channels. You can group programmes by theme or topic as well as series and genre. So you don’t have to rely on when something was shown, you can use an index to gather together all programmes about fishing, or harpsichords, or the miners’ strike – bringing together documentaries (Heart of the Matter, Panorama), news and current affairs (also Question time, Newsnight, even The Money Programme), as well as plays (The Price of Coal), or even comedies (The Comic Strip Presents.. The Strike).

Such subjective metadata also gives you extra contextual information, for example in the case of the Miners’ Strike, it shows you that there were miners’ strikes in 1921, 1926, 1955, 1972, 1974, 1981, as well as in 1984, and that miners around the world have gone on strike at various times. This historic perspective is hard to pick out from schedule data. (Even if you could see programmes about miners’ strikes had been broadcast in these years, you would have to do further research to find out if they were covering contemporary events.) If the programmes have such metadata attached, anyone – any user of the archive – can effectively build rich personalised channels on their favourite topics or themes, and share those with others who have similar interests.

Metadata advertises content

If the metadata is in a Linked and Open format, the associative trails can wander beyond your collection to others, reaching new audiences, perhaps via social networks. This releases the “long tail” of content that is otherwise hard to find and re-use, as well as putting popular content into context. Making your metadata available more widely means more people will have more and more routes in to exploring your archive, even if you choose to restrict this to in-house teams or paying subscribers.

Either way, if you want to sell individual programmes or parts of programmes, knowing not just when you transmitted them but knowing exactly what they are about – via the rich semantic metadata you have added – offers a very useful sales and marketing tool.