Daniel Danker pushes the right buttons

Daniel Danker One of the BBC's top acquisitions

Daniel Danker's morning ritual says quite a lot about him. 'I have to confess that the first thing I do when I wake up is look at my phone and see what it has to tell me that day. I do feel like I've lost a limb if my phone isn't too close to me - and that's sad.'

Danker is the BBC's iPlayer boss, a man who passionately believes in making technology invisible. He doesn't want consumers to be aware of the advanced technology at their fingertips. Instead, he envisions using iPlayer the way you would use an old-fashioned remote control - it should be no more complicated than channel flipping or pressing a button.

Start Quote

I get a kick out of building things that affect people's lives on a daily basis”

End Quote Daniel Danker General manager, On Demand

If it sounds like a quest for perfection, you're probably right. In Danker's world, there is no room for complacency. If iPlayer was good when he joined the BBC two and a half years ago, it's his goal to make it even better. It was his idea to move it away from the PC and onto television sets.

'Call me a genius, but we decided that watching tv on tv was probably a good idea - so we brought it to television,' he says smiling.

'Entertainment destination'

Less than half of all iPlayer consumption now occurs on the PC and the iPlayer had a record 2.32 billion requests for programmes across over 650 platforms in 2012 - but it's still far off Danker's goal.

'I'm not going to be satisfied until iPlayer reaches 97% of the UK every single month … and I'm not going to be happy until we occupy a larger portion of people's lives,' he vows. One of his plans is to turn it into an 'entertainment destination'. 'Even if you don't know what you want to watch, it will be absolutely crucial,' he predicts.

At the moment only about 20% of the UK is using iPlayer every month and it represents less than two minutes of all the BBC content that is being consumed.

Contrast this with YouTube; it reaches 40% of the UK every month. 'That's a bit scary,' he admits. He doesn't look overly worried, but he does think the BBC has to become more aware of a new generation of competitors, the likes of Netflix, Google and Amazon. These rivals are ready to exploit the online market and are starting to make their own content.

House of Cards, an original Netflix series that has been hugely trailed and talked about, is only the beginning. Rather ironically, it's based on a political thriller first made by the BBC in 1990.

iPlayer: a success story

  • Reaches 20% of the UK every month; this is less than two minutes of all the BBC content that is consumed
  • In 2012, audiences spent 34% more time watching tv on iPlayer than ever before
  • Mobiles and tablets make up over a quarter of total iPlayer requests, an increase of 177% year on year
  • The Olympic Opening Ceremony topped iPlayer viewing in 2012 with 3.3m requests
  • Used by 50% men and 50% women
  • Over 25% of all iPlayer consumption is in the 55+ age range

'These companies are thinking very quickly and the difference is when the BBC rolls out programmes, we do so in the UK. When they roll out programmes or content, new formats and technologies, they happen globally. So you have seven billion people in the world who can contribute new ideas.' He calls this an 'interesting competitive threat'.

Technology DNA

Danker is young, ambitious and unarguably talented. The BBC recruited him after he'd spent 11 years at Microsoft, where he started as a software engineer at the age of 19. He doesn't use the word 'prodigy' but it springs to mind. The Israeli-born American was running an engineering team in Paris for Microsoft when the BBC came calling and offered him a package worth £254,000. He jumped.

'One of the reasons I was excited to join is because I believe that technology is part of the DNA of this company. But technology is a means to an end. I'm not religious about whether it's programme making or writing code. The ultimate aim is to delight audiences and to bring them something brilliant.'

He dismisses suggestions that the BBC might be slowed by bureaucracy, which could be frustrating for someone with his background. 'The beauty of the funding model is that it gives you the freedom to look out into the future and be creative and not necessarily worry about turning a profit overnight.

'In many ways, that gives us the ability to have longer-term thinking, which is great. That's not the kind of thing you get at a commercial company. I think [the BBC] has been really bold.'

iPod touch Downloaded programmes make up 6% of tv viewing on mobiles and tablets

This boldness comes from recognising iPlayer's potential early on, he argues. He also mentions the massive success of the Olympics, stressing how much it impressed American broadcasters. On a recent American business trip, they told the BBC executive that what the corporation did over the summer was 'leaps and bounds' ahead of what they were able to offer audiences in the United States.

Embrace paranoia

Listening to the on-demand manager, who oversees a team of about 300 in London and Salford, is not unlike listening to a politician deliver a polished speech. If Obama was a technology executive, I imagine this is what he would sound like.

He's politically agile at dodging difficult questions about cuts, which he's survived relatively unscathed. The manager says that only 15% of the team targeted to move to Salford wanted to go, which meant hiring about 75 new people in the north. He's now looking to recruit another 50 people in Salford. He tempers this admission with an acknowledgement that times are tough.

'But we need to be sensitive to the fact that we work in difficult economic conditions and not everybody has gotten to enjoy that kind of growth. We partner very closely with teams which are themselves going through very difficult times. So it's about making trade-offs and I think the BBC is making the right trade-offs right now.'

There is talk about 'embracing paranoia', 'transformative times' and 'harnessing opportunities', all of which have the ring of a PR man. He admits that as a child he wanted to be a journalist and still has a passion for it.

A graduate of Berkeley, Danker studied communications. This degree singled him out at Microsoft but not at the BBC. 'The whole time that I was at Microsoft I think they thought, Why do we have a person who majored in communications in our organisation? The great irony is that now I finally work for a company that fully respects what I studied.'

Although he never quite made it to the rank of investigative reporter, he still believes he can transform lives through his work. 'I get a kick out of building things that affect people's lives on a daily basis.'

Borough Market stalls Borough Market - a food lover's destination and a nightmare on Saturdays
Wine and beaches

His own life remains a bit of a mystery. He explains that London is part of his European adventure, which does make it sound transitory. There's a 'shoebox' in Notting Hill, which allows him to see 'the world open up before my eyes'.

Although he claims to love London now, he didn't fall in love at first sight. 'I came from Paris, you either love it or you hate it … It's very welcoming and London wasn't. I didn't know where to walk, you go to high streets and they were all the same. It wasn't very exciting.'

It's different now - he likes Borough Market, walking through east London and along the canals to the north. He likes cooking and eating out, and has even played about with making his own 'bad wine' in northern California. He uses no technology to make the wine; everything about the process is totally organic. He says he's even found twigs in some of his bottles.

Although travel is high on his list of hobbies, he finds it hard to relax - 'I go on vacation and I do the beach thing for about a few hours and then I'm ready to go explore again.' You can bet the phone is also never too far away.


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