The BBC has always created and embraced emerging technologies to remain relevant. Text based journalism, through Ceefax, didn’t really feature in the BBC until the late 1970s, which later evolved into BBC Red Button and the BBC News website, the backbone of BBC Online. Today, BBC Online gives us a foothold in the connected digital age, and with 26 million users each week, it’s a broadly adopted and very popular service.
So what role should BBC Online play as we plan for the BBC’s future in a complex, changing global media landscape? The principles and purposes that served us for the last 80 years remain unchanged; as a public service broadcaster, the BBC’s appeal needs to be broad. The internet age has not changed what we’re for, but has changed the way we do it. Without the natural limitations of broadcasting spectrum it’s easy to lose focus. Couple this with the lack of a single unified, online strategy, you get sprawl - which amounts to patchy quality and a loss of identity.
This underpins our approach to BBC Online in Putting Quality First, a wide-ranging review of the BBC’s strategy, announced last March. It was approved by the BBC Trust in December. Today, the Trust have announced their approval of our plans for BBC Online, and we’ve been talking to staff about what this is going to mean for them, as well as explaining to the press what this means for the public.
A New Approach
This is about reducing the scale and scope of BBC Online, to focus the site on our five editorial priorities - halving the number of top-level directories and delivering a 25% reduction in budget by 2013. The relationship with the wider industry is also important. Focus creates clarity on what BBC Online will and won’t do - and we’ll be taking a more open approach on what we are doing, engaging with industry twice a year about our plans. Plus, we’ll double the number of referrals we send to third-party websites.
Doing Fewer Things, Better
When I last blogged about our plans in the Summer, I outlined how we intend to move from building one-off websites to managing products and some were unsure as to what I meant by a product.
Products are the common currency in many businesses - it’s how they package what they do to make them distinctive, competitive and attractive to customers. But it’s not the common currency at the BBC and the commercial connotations are at odds with the clear public purposes enshrined in programmes, the BBC’s currency.
BBC News and BBC iPlayer are two of our most popular websites, and it’s no coincidence that they are run as products already. Each has a clear sense of purpose and identity, each has a clear sense of what its audience wants from it and meets that audience need. Each combine our distinctive editorial voice with great technology and design. It’s this partnership and focus that makes them successful, so we want to capture this in everything we do.
Products also explain how we’ll be reorganising BBC Online. They become the reference point for budgets, targets and objectives, and lines of accountability. Each will have a converged technology and editorial team working in partnership at a product level.
Product is is not a word that we expect audiences to start using, but it does explain how we applied boundaries to the service as a whole, created a single, united strategy for the first time, and reorganised how we operate to make it a better service for audiences.
In order to decide where to focus, we looked at every website we have and applied three tests to each. First, do we really need this website to meet our public purposes? Second, to what degree does it help meet our five editorial priorities? And third, how does it differ from what else is out there in the market; is it distinctive?, and if not - should we be doing it all? Working these tests through iteratively, merging some websites, and looking objectively at how much each costs and how much it’s used and valued by the public - we ended up with ten products.
Fewer, Better Products
News, Sport and Weather remain broadly the same technically, but with significant editorial changes (outlined below).News already combines technology, design and editorial to great effect and we’ll aim to replicate its success across the service. These three products continue to be the backbone of BBC Online.
CBeebies will consolidate its position as the best-loved and most trusted site for pre-school children and their parents.
Games will feature prominently; complementing the digital channel’s focus on learning through play. CBBC too is a place children, parents and schools can trust to provide a safe online experience.
BBC Knowledge has produced great factual programming for many years and websies like Bitesize have pioneered BBC online learning. But the current online knowledge websites are hard to navigate. The same is true of learning websites; fragmented and in parts lacking distinctiveness. Both can use the power of the web better to satisfy the curiosity of audiences wanting to discover and engage in new ways. Our plan is to merge all these sites into one cohesive product.
But perhaps the most significant changes are in how we approach TV and Radio online. We will continue to innovate and create great content built for the medium. But we are going to significantly consolidate the standalone, bespoke websites we have that surround our linear output to create just two new products; TV & iPlayer, and Radio & Music.
The BBC iPlayer has been through three major evolutions since its launch in 2007. The next will bring together the current drama, entertainment, comedy, TV, /programmes, /archive and /iPlayer websites in one product. This centres on the audiences’ primary needs of TV on the web: quick access to the programmes and programme information, but building more on the editorial power of our TV brands so it feels even more simple, intuitive and engaging for the audience.
While BBC iPlayer has been a good home for online radio, the way audiences want to interact with radio and music online is different to TV. Radio and music will come out of BBC iPlayer, and we’ll develop a new stand-alone product. All radio station sites, music events, podcasts and programme pages will be integrated to focus on highly interactive live radio, quick and seamless access to programming, support for new music and personalisation - on whatever internet-connected device you happen to have.
Homepage and Search bind all the products together. Both have an important functional role, guiding audiences around the service; but they perform important editorial roles as well. As the discovery engine for the BBC, the homepage is one of our most-used products and will be re-designed to reflect the new products, deliver nations “editions” and make all the products simple to use. Search has evolved from being a bolt-on technology to a BBC-built product delivering greatly improved targeted search results. As the service evolves, this too will become even more important in helping people find what they are looking for.
These plans outline a BBC Online that will get better, not just smaller. Within that, there are key things we want to focus upon:
- High quality news focused on up-to-the-minute news updates backed up by rich multimedia content from correspondents across the UK and the world
- BBC News Entertainment and Arts section will have more culture and arts coverage
- Dynamic ‘editions’ of BBC Online for each Nation
- Clearer focus of local sites on news, sport, weather and travel
- Sport will focus on fast, reliable and in-depth news and dynamic coverage of the best live events that bring the nation together
- Safe, creative spaces for children
- A single merged offer in Knowledge & Learning, making the most of BBC content, from science to literacy, arts to maths – for adults pursuing a passion or brushing up a basic skill, and for children learning at home and school
- Radio will focus on live output, and the discovery of new music as played and recommended by BBC DJs and iconic musicians
- BBC iPlayer will be re-shaped into a unified television offer, bringing together TV channels, programme information and live and on-demand content
- Selected archive content will be featured in TV & iPlayer and Radio & Music
Closures and Reductions
As a result there are some editorial areas we’ll be pulling back from, and some websites we’ll be closing completely.
- The closure of half of the 400 Top Level Domains (with 180 closing ahead of schedule later this year)
- The replacement of the majority of programme websites with automated content
- The automation of bespoke digital radio sites 1Xtra, 5 live sports extra, 6 Music and Radio 7
- The closure of RAW, Blast, Switch, Video Nation and the disposal of h2g2
- The removal of non-News features content from Local sites
- A substantial reduction in showbusiness news on the News website
- Fewer News blogs, with more focus on the updates from leading editors and correspondents
- A reduction in the overall amount of Sports news and live sport
- Standalone forums, communities, message-boards and blogs to be reduced and replaced with integrated social tools
- The closure of the 606 community site and the closure of the BBC iPlayer message board
Where BBC Online will not go
Equally, there are areas which we will not cover, and have no intention of going into. BBC Online will not:
- Launch its own social network
- Offer specialist news content for specialist audiences
- Publish local listings
- Develop encyclopaedic propositions in Knowledge
- Provide continuing professional development materials for teachers or a managed learning environment for schools
- Become a video-on-demand aggregator in BBC iPlayer, although it will link to other on-demand providers
- Produce online-only music sessions Offer track-by-track music streaming
- Invest in exclusive online sports rights
As I outlined in the summer, common technical functionality means that products are supported by the same infrastructure, delivering operational efficiencies and a consistent experience throughout the service. It creates the means to login and personalise the site and links your login to social networks. It also allows the site to be repurposed for different devices, provides the templates for programme automation and hosts the BBC’s archive material.
Changes for Staff
This is a big change for the BBC and the staff working on BBC Online. In addition to the operational change of working to a product management culture, there will be a substantial number of post closures.
Subject to consultation with the Unions, we are proposing the closure of up to 360 posts, phased over the next two years.
They won’t fall equally across each BBC division. We estimate that 120 posts will close in Future Media & Technology, 70 posts in Journalism (News and Nations non-News), 85-90 in Vision, 35-39 in Audio & Music, 17 in Children’s and 24 in Sport. Though we aim to mitigate the redundancies by redeploying staff, this will be a difficult time for the staff affected – these cuts will be painful, but we believe they are necessary.
This is the first time that BBC Online - as a whole - will have a single, unified strategy and I am confident that the new focus it will give will deliver much more for much less and enable the BBC to become as highly regarded in the internet age as it became in the broadcasting age – with six of the ten products to be based in Salford, which will become a digital hub for the BBC.
As in the early days of TV, when we simply filmed radio programmes, we are only just beginning to understand the huge potential of the internet, not just as a platform, but its creative potential. If any digital media organisation has the talent in its ranks and the imagination to harness that potential, it's the BBC.
While the BBC's first-class editorial output is what makes it so appreciated by the public, its innovation culture and engineering expertise has allowed it to keep pace with their changing expectations, a legacy that can be traced right back to Lord Reith himself. Putting online at the heart of the BBC’s future means this legacy continues in the connected digital age.
Erik Huggers is the Director of Future Media & Technology