What’s the point of BBC New Media?

Published on 23 July 2006 in , ,

Tom Coates’s post, Who’s afraid of Ashley Highfield, has resulted in some comments which for me, are rather depressing reading. There’s quite a few people out there who don’t know what the department I work for, actually does!

So, I thought long and hard, and this (rather long post) hopefully explains (maybe sells!) all. I’ve picked out some of the themes brought up in the comments of Tom’s post, and some other relevant ones too.

If you read Tom’s post, you’ll also see some specific comments towards the division’s boss, Ashley Highfield. As I work in his department, you’ll excuse me if I say that it’s really not appropriate for me to comment on them.

And I should also make it absolutely clear that all of my post a personal view and opinion, posted obviously in a personal capacity. It’s not been “vetted” in anyway. Hopefully though, it will give you some context about how New Media (or Future Media as it will be called) came to exist, why it does what it does, and what it’s there for.

Step back in time

To start off with, I think we should have a history lesson.

For many years, BBC Online basically consisted of three big power houses – BBC News Online, BBC Education Online and BBC Broadcast Online. There was no one real boss in control of everything – notionally Broadcast Online was in control but it had no clout over the other two divisions.

Each of the three built up their own empires – their own production, coding, design and operations teams. And there wasn’t much talking, much cohesion. Consistent global navigation didn’t exist (it wouldn’t for years) and even branding was a hotchpotch mess. News didn’t even use the same servers as everyone else.

It was to Broadcast Online that I joined in January 2000, on a three month contract with the rather pompous sounding “Graphic Design Authority”. By this point things had been going for a few years – Education and Broadcast had a reasonable relationship from what I could gather. There were a few other new media teams here and there, although not much – Radio had a small but growing team, as did those in Nations and Regions.

In April 2000, Greg Dyke (who coincidentally had started as Director General on the same day as myself) decided to change the BBC’s structure. BBC Education became Factual and Learning (Education Online being renamed Interactive Factual and Learning, or IF&L as I’ll refer to them now). BBC News stayed pretty much as is. Broadcast Online would be merged with the Interactive TV department and a small team called Imagineering to form BBC New Media, which would be in control of the whole of the BBC’s new media output across the whole of the BBC.

Suddenly the status quo was broken – one of the three online blobs suddenly more power than the other two.

In due course Ashley Highfield was employed, and serious questions were (rightly) asked about what New Media was there to do as a department. Greg’s structure had created various content producing divisions, and it was decided that content teams would go off to join those divisions. Over the next few year, whole teams would suddenly disappear from Bush House, never to be seen again. A handful of content teams would remain in the centre to do things like the homepage, H2G2 and the TV websites – the Television department decided it didn’t want to run its own websites directly, so to this day the TV channel websites are run by New Media employed staff.

New Media was beginning to find its role – its role that it has to this day. To support the teams out in the other divisions, and to have a pan BBC approach.

Ending Duplication

To have a pan BBC approach is just necessary to avoid waste and duplication. The past had left us with lots of duplication – for years there were several CGi scripts for doing quizzes. The one used depended on which department you came from. Yet they all did the same thing and was, of course, wasteful. If a site needed login functionality, then it would be a completely different login to another part of the site. Things needed sorting out.

And it needs to be done to this day – there’s still a lot of history to clean up. Every department has its own way of building its web pages – sometimes one department will have several just in itself. Fine you might say, but that’s a huge number of different systems that need to be maintained. It also reduces the flexibility of the content, because none of the systems could talk to each other – content could not be shard. Some might not see a problem with that – can’t agree myself, and nor do many people who work for Auntie.

Some years ago I worked on a pilot content management project with the English Regions department. At that time, each of their local Where I Live sites was built in Dreamweaver, and run separately. This resulted in problems on many levels, but the root cause was that content couldn’t be shared between sites. Something that appears on the BBC Manchester site might also be appropriate for the BBC Liverpool site, but the process of sharing it wasn’t simple and easy. The department wanted to move its stuff into a content management system.

Now English Regions could have gone off and worked by themselves and built their own system. But they didn’t. Instead they worked with the New Media department on a new content management project. I worked on a pilot before the main project kicked off – to enable people to see what works and what doesn’t. That pilot led into a much bigger project – still run by New Media – that’s slowly and quietly rolling across across multiple teams across the BBC. Not a particularly glamorous and sexy project, but one that quietly happens behind the scenes.

Another good example is blogs. Blogs are of course, the current big thing and the BBC has a fair few of them. A couple of divisions had done blogs – the Comedy Blog and Paul Masson’s Newsnig8t blog for example. And each division could have continued to do their own blogs. But if they had, the BBC probably would have ended up with twenty odd different installations of Movable Type, two copies of WordPress, and three home built systems because “nothing else does what we want”.

And that’s what could have been done – but instead the whole thing was managed centrally and cross divisional. Out of this came Nick Robinson’s blog, and slowly but surely other blogs followed. Chris Moyles’s blog is run as part of the same system as Los blogs de BBC Mundo.

There’s other things – search, message boards whatever. And all this is a good thing – as indeed Tom says in his own post. So to quote the trailers, this is what we do. Projects like this are a very important part of what we do, and in it’s most of what we do, and probably most of what we will do for years to come. The announcements are made about sexy, glamorous things, but most of the staff right now are building products to support people across the BBC.

Working with the others

However these things are often slow – and there’s a reason. When things are cross divisional, the process becomes slower because there’s more people involved.

When Radio and Music (where Tom worked) wants to do something, they do it. The stuff they do generally affects only their own department. When New Media wants to something, it has a bigger problem. It has loads of clients all with their own requirements.

For example, I’m working on a big infrastructure project at the moment in BBCi – it’s migrating all our data to a new, more common standard (this is a good thing), and providing a better, more flexible infrastructure. If we build something for one part of the BBC, it will be available to others automatically. This of course means we have to prioritise work, which can naturally dismay people when we have to tell them that they can’t have what they want just yet.

Because most of our projects are big like that, things take time. iMP has morphed into iPlayer – a huge giant project which involves multiple divisions (TV, Radio, content teams) to produce one giant product. It’s similar to the Radio Player, but much bigger. Is it any surprise then that sometimes (to the outside) things are frustratingly slow? To us on the inside, we know what’s going on. But to everyone else… Looking at the BBC blogs list, there’s noticeably no technical related blog, where project teams can spend a little time telling the world what they’re doing. There’s lots of blogs aimed at bringing blogging beyond the normal, small number of inhabitants of the blogosphere, but no technical blog.

For what its worth, my impression of the recent restructuring is that the idea is to try and make cross-divisional working easier. On the web side, technical and design teams in different divisions will have a boss who reports into the Future Media and Technology division, although the teams themselves will continue to be part of their divisions. The idea of the restructure seems to be so that FM&T can have a direct link to the people who build things. If the central design team want to completely redesign the BBC website’s templates, there’s someone there on the ground who can be mandated to ensure that each of the content divisions complies. And of course it works the other way – the teams in the divisions now have a defined link into the central process.

Some staff will move to FM&T – these generally aren’t web people, but what are termed as “Technology” – for years there has been two sides to New Media and Technology – the Technology team is more concerned with how people work. Solutions to technical problems from Internet technologies through to editing TV programmes. The idea here is that whilst solutions will still be made for specific departments, good solutions that should be shared, will be. If there’s a good system made for BBC News that would be great for Radio and Music, the process of sharing should become easier.

There’s another team that will move into FM&T – Information and Archives. They do all sorts – from creating metadata about programmes, to compiling scores for the Proms!


Of course there’s the more innovation side. There’s this horrible phrase going around about how the we’ve got to make bbc.co.uk into bbc.co.uk 2.0. Moving the BBC website forward – enabling it to fit in with the way the BBC needs it to change – is clearly something that’s a lot harder to do at a divisional level. That’s not to say that part of the innovation can’t come from a division level. There’s absolutely no reason why Radio and Music, or BBC News shouldn’t have input into it – indeed it should always be encouraged. There’s talented people everywhere in the BBC and innovation should (for my money) come from the ground up. Innovation rarely comes from management – innovation can be supported by management. but it needs creative people to come up with creative ideas.

The Google Friday example is one that’s bandied around a lot, but is a fantastic example of management supporting innovation – and look at the things that have come out of labs.google.com. Now the BBC seems to be moving in that direction – the recent programme catalogue interface is one Tom mentions and I know there are others. However it’s slow – the BBC is an old organisation that knows how it wants to work. Changing that isn’t easy – especially when you have deadlines. How many bosses would accept their projects being six months late, in order to allow their technical teams to spend some time coming up with new ideas? Clearly doing so would have benefits but it’s a bitter pill to swallow – and lots of companies are in the same boat. It’s very easy to implement such things when you’re a new organisation. Far harder for a leopard to change its spots.

The programme catalogue interface clearly made an impression – within days Google has indexed huge amounts of it. Why it has disappeared, I don’t know. If there’s a good reason for it going (server demand too high, database problems) then they need to be communicated properly – clearly we haven’t got the processes right yet for going from a quick labs prototype into a full production service. If it’s just closed for a “review” then we need to explain why that review exists – and importantly it should be stated from the outset that it’s just a trial service and may disappear. These are all lessons I’m positive will be learnt.

Public Value

Innovation can of course be small or it can be large. However there’s another issue with larger innovation projects – and it’s quite a recent one. One that Tom wouldn’t really have experienced as it really started to come into force when he left. The Public Value Test.

The Public Value Test came off the back of the Graff report – the report that criticised the BBC website for having fingers in pies that it shouldn’t have. Commercial rivals were bickering, questions “being asked”. So the Public Value Test was created.

The idea is a simple one. That every big project (across TV, radio and online) should be subject to a review – a review to check that the BBC should be doing something. Should the BBC be providing a way to download its programmes via its website for seven days after transmission. Some would say that’s a no brainer – of course it should. Others might say, well why should the BBC do that? Couldn’t it be left to people like iTunes or YouTube?

The Radio Player is (rightly) mentioned by many as a good example of innovation. It’s actually something that the Radio department wanted to do for years before they actually did. A colleague of mine found a document from 1995 discussing what the BBC could do on the internet. It was a fascinating document to read – I wish I had a copy.

The mid 1990s was of course CD ROM world, and a lot of the ideas were basically CD ROMs on the web. However there was one idea from the Radio department that sounds remarkably familiar. The idea of having programmes which have already been broadcast, available online for a period of time. Think about that – the idea that essentially became the Radio Player, was being thought of back in 1995 – and who knows how much earlier people were bandying around the idea.

Of course it took years for the idea to become reality. The technology was possible – around 1997/8 I think it was, there was a not very well remembered version of the Radio One website where you could stream programmes. It was short lived – inevitably it was pulled due to rights reasons, which took years to sort out.

But (as one commenter on Tom’s blog points out) the fact is that it was an era that such things would and could be launched. That environment is no longer in existence. Today any big idea has to go through the Pubic Value Test and the Radio Player would be no exception at all. To prove something is worth doing you need to pilot it, but having to shut down the pilot is obviously a horrible thing for the user point of view. Providing any service for people to use, then shutting it down is clearly not a nice thing. However it’s the world the BBC now lives in.

We’re probably masters of our own problem here – the Graf report came about because it was felt the BBC had too many fingers in too many pies. Quite why we ever had a Coronation Street website, I’ll never know. However it happened, and the consequences will have to be lived with.

Phew, that was a long post

So there we are. I hope that explains a bit about what we do. if anyone’s any comments, do feel free to email me – I can do a follow up post if people want to know a bit more about specific things. However I’m not the fount of all knowledge – what’s here is really the world as I see it. It ain’t perfect – sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. But it is the world I work in, and I hope it makes sense.

Now if you’ve read this far, I think you deserve a cup of tea. I know, after writing this, that I do.

For another perspective it’s also well worth reading ex-BBC New Media employee, Martin Belam’s post, Yet another ex-staff tuppence on the BBC’s new media restructure.