Former BBC iPlayer boss and now Microsoft UK’s MD consumer and online, Ashley Highfield has warned broadcasters they have two years to create viable digital businesses, or face an ‘iTunes moment’ in which they could hand over control of their businesses online to Apple.

Highfield warned that advertising spend will eventually migrate to online services such as Facebook, which will create heavy pressure on broadcasters. Rather than give Apple control, Highfield told attendees at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival to take action now.

“So realistically I think the industry has about two to three years to adapt or face its iTunes moment. And it will take at least that long for media brands to build credible, truly digital brands. But, importantly, I do believe TV does have a small two to three year window in which to respond,” he said.

Highfield – who was the man responsible for the initially Microsoft-only BBC iPlayer service, and now works for Microsoft, also observed that online television services such as iPlayer (or the services he’s currently developing for Microsoft) are three years away from achieving a nexus point at which online ads spending may match that of TV.

The executive then launched into a Microsoft moment, calling out for a range of advertising techniques, including controversial forms of behavioral targeted ads based on user’s web viewing habits.

Highfield also demonstrated an Xbox and a multi-touch version of windows, calling for content to be freed from TV archives and be made available on-demand for numerous devices in ways consumers want to access the content.

"One of the biggest shifts has been that viewers want their media on demand and if they don’t get it, they will pirate it," he said. "That’s fair enough – well, it’s not, but it is understandable. I want to work as an industry to make sure content is available. The television industry needs to get into the mindset that it will be consumed through iPods, small screens, laptops, televisions and often multiple screens at once."

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