Time for a rethink: rebuilding a digital BBC

In the run in to the eventual selection of George Entwistle as Director General of the BBC commentators suggested three major challenges for a prospective DG: securing the next license fee settlement and galvanising political and public support for a publically funded BBC; ensuring the BBC’s high editorial and creative standards were maintained and improved; and planning for a digital BBC.

In truth there was, and is, no candidate who can credibly say that they have a combination of a peerless track record in political advocacy, editorial and creative judgement AND digital insight and execution. The choice of any candidate for DG was, and still is, inevitably a compromise.

What my current and ex-BBC friends, who inevitably tend to be in the digital camp, told me at the time is that while George was a likely pick he was a programme maker and editor first and foremost and not someone who really understood the digital world. It’s ironic then that his undoing was in tackling an area of supposed strength, albeit that he was responding to a chain of events which he can’t possibly be wholly responsible for.

I suspect that in the light of the scarring events of recent days the most important quality the BBC, not to mention Westminster and the media, will look for in a new DG will not be a capacity to plan for a digital BBC and a digital future. The very nasty issue of abuse aside the BBC has some significant challenges to manage over the next ten years. Among them are managing a cut in real terms to the license fee resulting from the settlement of 2010 and the impact that has and will continue to have on resourcing and remuneration, pension provision, and the volume and quality of radio and television output; ensuring the corporation’s editorial independence and integrity are preserved and upheld while managing the corporation’s often difficult relationship with government; striking the right relationship with independent producers and the wider media business, particularly commercial broadcasters.

But long term no challenge is greater or more important to the BBC than proving that it is both relevant and useful in a digital age.

The BBC’s vision is to be “the world’s most creative organisation”. Ask anyone in Britain which is the world’s most creative organisation and the likely answer will be Apple, Google, Facebook or even Twitter. Once the most compelling, creative and dynamic media brand of the 20th century the BBC is in serious danger of failing to see out even the first half of the 21st, an anachronism dependent on its status as a much loved national institution and its ability to create just enough memorable television programming to scare its political masters into thinking that breaking it up might prove too big a political risk.

The BBC needs to regroup, refocus, rearm and rediscover its relationship with the British public. The digital era gives the BBC an opportunity to reinvent itself in its own image as a digital BBC, a brand that the digital generation tell their parents about, not a brand that wallows in its past.

A decade ago, at the turn of the century, the BBC was at the forefront of the digital revolution. In the late 1990s it was the first of the traditional media companies to embrace the Internet. It built a gold standard online news service, Europe’s most popular sports site and a pioneering radio streaming service. A huge number of online services followed. Many were good. But, without a clear vision or proper organisational and financial discipline, many more were merely expensive and mediocre.

As use of the Internet outgrew even its own most ambitious forecasts the BBC’s digital division went through a period of technical and structural consolidation. The corporation struggled with the need to provide a universal digital service when few people owned digital devices and at the same time satisfy the nascent commercial digital market players that it was not simply being successful by eating their lunch. The outcome was a renewed commitment to assess the “public value” of services it offered. Well intentioned, well meaning but not exactly well understood.

As part of that commitment the BBC aims to “assist UK residents to get the best out of emerging media”. It has successfully promoted adoption digital television and DAB radio, has made strides to promote and engage with third party content and services and has, most importantly, delivered the iPlayer, a digital platform that makes much existing BBC content fit for an on-demand world.

Compared with many other media companies with a broadcast heritage the BBC’s digital achievements are significant. But the consumption habits of the majority of Britons are already digital by default. Most consumers no longer need their hands held. The BBC is now competing with an array of well-funded, global and nimble organisations which offer audiences a dazzling range of services. In the digital age being good is no longer good enough. The BBC has to convince the British public that public service still has a role to play and that the BBC has the right to be the organisation which the public fund to, in the BBC’s own words, enrich their lives with programmes and services which inform, educate and entertain.

If the BBC is going to be a beacon of creativity once again it has to embrace digital more deeply, wholeheartedly and sincerely. It should be proud of its extraordinary heritage and confident in its ability to prosper in changing climates. It has an opportunity to create not just digital programmes, but products and services that not only offer tangible value to individual Britons but also help build a Britain fit for the future. And it should do it by building on traditional strengths in excellence and creativity and unique characteristics with which the digital newcomers cannot truly compete: trustworthiness, impartiality, fair-mindedness and a commitment to true universality.

The BBC still has a role to play to bring sense and meaning in a digital world by focusing on its public service mission from its unique, British, perspective. The technology increasingly is not the story. The people who use it are. The BBC has a rich history of engaging an audience of millions

Here’s a few ideas about how to bring about a truly digital BBC

1. Show leadership

An organisation as large, diverse, geographically spread and political as the BBC needs strong leadership. Self-evidently this means an individual sufficiently robust and skilled to stand up to scrutiny. A leader who can also, as, to be fair, George Entwistle intended, revivify the BBC’s vision to be the most creative organisation in the world. As an outsider the BBC’s tendency to self-criticise is now bordering on self-harm. Robust internal debate is healthy. But a leader must ensure that every employee of the BBC fully understands its vision and mission and act as its greatest advocate. If he or she cant, and they wont, neither should be working for the BBC.

2. Harness talent
Digital excellence requires outstanding, talented people. The most important qualities that talent must have are flexibility, creativity, open-mindedness, transparency, enthusiasm determination, honesty and sheer intellectual horsepower. These qualities should be identified, encouraged, rewarded and, where necessary, recruited. In a complex and fast changing environment the right mindset is far more important than narrow product knowledge. Multi-disciplinary understanding and team working is essential.

A confident BBC can act as an incubator for talent that will energise the rest of the digital economy and digital Britain. Many of the first generation of BBC digital talent is now at large and former BBC employees are driving innovation in Britain’s digital agencies, start ups and even the Goverment Digital Service (whose advisory board I sit on). But there are probably more talented digital people who have left the BBC than are joining it.

Here’s a further idea.  Both the talent the BBC incubates and the wider British community should be allowed to use BBC platforms, know how, technology and content to develop products and services. Just as Amazon opens some (but not all) of its infrastructure to third party exploitation so should the BBC. With bells on.

3. Champion digital through structural change

In the long term there should be no need for the BBC, or any media company, to have a digital lead or a digital strategy. The BBC will simply be digital.

At London 2012, an organisation with a stakeholder environment of comparable complexity at least in terms of stakeholders and scrutiny to the BBC’s, a digital commission took 30 weeks from conception to delivery. This process engages many traditional parts of the business including procurement, legal, editorial, design, brand and marketing, technology, communications, and commercial. There are also disciplines peculiar to digital delivery such as user experience design; front and back end build, usability and accessibility testing, and security and user acceptance testing.

Appropriate skills are important but it is more important that the characteristics and methods of digital production, and not just video production, are fully understood and embraced at every level of the business.

Without a detailed understanding of how Future Media, as the BBC’s digital department is known, relates to the rest of the BBC its hard to make incisive comment. But I have a strong sense that on the one hand many parts of the BBC see digital products and services (and by extension perhaps Future media itself) as a bolt on or worse to programming and that Future Media’s brief, by design or accident, seems curtailed to supporting the digitising of video and the evolution of the (undeniably excellent) Iplayer above all else. Video and Internet-enabled broadcasting is only a very small part of what digital can achieve in the wider pursuit of public service. Video is only a very small part of why and people use the Internet at all.

5. Invest in innovation

The BBC has a long tradition in innovation. Of all the groups that presented a vision of the future to us at the start of our journey to 2012 in 2006-7 in my view the BBC’s R and D team’s vision was the most compelling, sensible and ultimately most accurate of all that we saw. My impression is that since much of the BBC’s technology was structurally outsourced BBC’s native capacity for innovation in the pure digital sphere has diminished. That should be reconsidered as innovation should be a BBC hallmark free as it is from the philistine demands of reporting to the markets. But well managed it should be an engine that feeds the commercial sector and the wider British economy too.

6. Measure and be measured
The public are demanding even more transparency from the BBC. They should get it. The BBC’s benchmarks for reach, quality, impact and particularly value for money make sense in principle but have been unconvincing in practice. They don’t play to the BBC’s greatest strength: millions of Britons love what the BBC does. The BBC should be brave enough not to measure  just what is popular but what audiences love. The BBC should be bold enough to develop new and transparent metrics for measuring its value with digital data at their core.

7. Manage customers better

The BBC is, in effect, the biggest media subscription service in the world. It should use digital tools to manage its relationships with its customers, the British public. It should understand their concerns whether expressed directly or indirectly through their viewing, browsing and listening habits.

Going out on a limb aside from the obvious benefit of greater understanding if the BBC can build sufficient trust in its data collection and management it opens the door to a BBC online identity service which the British public could use to access all manner of services instead of Facebook or even the government gateway. There is certainly an explicit demand for a trusted and transparent identity which cannot be convincingly serviced by the commercial or even government sector.

A true relationship of trust between the British public and the BBC centred on online identity may be the single most important thing the BBC ever does in the next decade and will guarantee its long-term relevance. Possibly hard to countenance in the light of recent events but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered.

8. Provide digital information that sustains citizenship and civil society
The BBC is falling behind in its mission to provide information (as opposed to news) that “helps citizens make sense of the world and encourages them to engage with it”, particularly at local level. Public and private organisations such as mysociety, the Guardian, the London data store and now the Government Digital Service have trod a path the BBC has yet to follow.

This means not just local news provision but services and tools to help local voices be heard, to help people understand the world around them at local level. What Google has done for organising information more generally, Facebook for connecting people and Twitter for connecting people to interests the BBC should aspire to do for citizenship.

Im sure some of the things Ive suggested are well understood by people within and without the BBC and some may seem facile in the face of budget cuts, internal politics and entrenched institutional practice. But for me the BBC has always  been an exemplar and a leader in matters creative and in digital it simply isn’t. It should be. Id love to hear your views

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