Revolution Not Evolution
This week's edition of Ariel, the BBC's in-house weekly magazine (and website!) has a feature by Claire Barrett on the official first ten years of bbc.co.uk. It's called Revolution Not Evolution: The Birth of bbc.co.uk, and we've asked to republish the piece here on the Internet Blog as part of our tenth birthday celebrations.
Caricatured as a Dalek, and famed for making decisions after rigorous analysis, exhaustive research and thorough documentation, it must have been a madcap moment back in December 1996 that saw John Birt act on impulse.
At the eleventh hour, the former director general reneged on a deal struck with computer company ICL to create a commercial website, called beeb.com, for BBC content. He withdrew news and sport from the equation, deciding instead to make them public service offerings. And so the bbc.co.uk we know today – the UK's third most popular site with 16m unique domestic visitors every week – was conceived.
"It was the most important thing he ever did," reckons Jem Stone, the FM&T exec producer who was one of the first BBC web producers. "To this day, news and sport account for 50-60% of the traffic to the site. They are the very heart of bbc.co.uk."
Ten years on from its official launch on December 15, 1997 – when the DCMS approved a one year trial (ratified a year later) – there can be no underestimating Birt's hunch.
To boldly go...
"He’s not my cup of tea," admits Bob Eggington, former project director for BBC News Online, "but had he not brought his determination and authority to the internet, it just wouldn't have happened."
Indeed, the early history of bbc.co.uk is full of bold moves, as the pioneers trusted their instincts, dodged bureaucracy and forged a path through unknown territory. "We were making it up as we went along," confesses Eggington. "It was an immature industry."
But even in more recent times, with regulation and review weighing heavily on innovation, moments of inspiration stand out: GCSE Bitesize, launched in 1998, which transformed learning and became so popular it had to be rebuilt in lightweight form to save the server; the BBC radioplayer which, from 2002, allowed people to "listen again"; the first podcast (Radio 4's In Our Time) and every Beethoven symphony made available to download from the Radio 3 site in 2002. Even the beleaguered iPlayer – forget the issues, who can quibble that in making virtually all main programming available on demand, within a seven day window, over IP, for free is anything other than a breakthrough for the public good?
But if it was Birt's backing that propelled bbc.co.uk into these heights of cyberspace, it was the foresight of some BBC worker ants that provided the launch pad.
Not least of them, Brandon Butterworth, principal technologist at Kingswood Warren, who in October 1991 – the same year that Tim Berners-Lee introduced his concept of the world wide web to the public – registered the domain name, bbc.co.uk, so that he could communicate with others on the pre www internet, primarily for development purposes. When Berners-Lee's vision became reality, it was Butterworth who set up www.bbc.co.uk and solicited content from around the BBC.
"As new technology, such as streaming, became viable I enticed more to join in," recalls Butterworth, who has a room named after him in the Broadcast Centre. "It was symbiotic – I needed content to test the technology, producers needed technology to deliver new services, the public was hungry for content and their use justified our efforts."
And as he supplied the technology and infrastructure for a public service model of the web, programme makers started to seize on its potential. BBC Education was first off the mark, recognising that it could enhance learning beyond the broadcast in the same way as leaflets, books and events.
Starting from scratch
"Web activity was a natural extension of what we were doing on a day to day basis," argues George Auckland, former education producer and now head of innovation in BBC Vision. "We were familiar with the philosophy, if not the technology."
In 1994, education execs launched the BBC networking club, acting as an internet service provider to help viewers click with the web. They paid a subscription, received a modem and gained access to a fledgling internet, including some early, and rather random, BBC content.
Education programmes such as The Net (for which the first BBC website was produced in 1993) and This Multimedia Business picked up the thread. "I bought a lot of magazines and beefed up on the subject," says Auckland, who produced the latter series and went on to become a self-taught web producer. "We thought we should do a website for the programme, so I took home a scrappy book one evening and taught myself the rudiments of html."
The site was launched – "we didn’t ask anyone’s permission" – and the url was given out at the end of the broadcast.
Taking a year out from making telly, Auckland was asked to grow education on the net – "at this stage it was an advanced version of the leaflets we'd send out" – and began recruiting the corporation's first dedicated web producers, Jem Stone among them.
"I remember saying we should do a site for Teletubbies," recalls Auckland, who was mocked for the audacity of his suggestion. New recruit, and new father, Stone (who’d worked on Radio 5's The Big Byte, the first programme to be broadcast live over the web in '93) was given the job. Teletubbies – a BBC education co-production – was a cult hit in 1998 and required viewing for the under-twos. "It was such a phenomenon," says Stone. "But trying to make a website for people who couldn’t hold a mouse, couldn’t read, couldn’t switch on a computer and couldn’t talk seemed like quite a tough job."
His solution was to design the site as a joint experience for baby and parent, with content working at two levels. Some of it was targeted at adults, some – like games and printouts to spark creativity – were for adults to do with their children. "It was as much about flesh and blood interaction as technological," says Auckland, who watched the site become the BBC's second most popular within a few months while providing the blueprint for CBeebies online (launched in 2002).
Another early player was BBC News, which nipped in with the launch of News Online the month before bbc.co.uk officially came into being.
"The only thing that mattered was momentum," says Eggington. "We got a team together in August 1997 and launched in November. We felt that if we didn’t do it quick, someone would stop us."
News had already dabbled with election, budget and Olympic sites, but the death of Princess Diana was the real awakening.
"I remember being jerked awake by my wife in the middle of the night [August 31, 1997]," says Eggington. "She’d been listening to the World Service and had heard the news of Diana’s death."
The Diana effect
Eggington and a skeleton team went into the office and bashed together a tribute site. Nobody knew. "Immediately we started getting traffic," he recalls, "significant traffic. Then, unsolicited, email tributes started pouring in."
In three days, 7,500 personal reflections on the royal death came in and Eggington posted the lot. They became the most popular element on the site. "It was a huge revelation to me that people wanted to participate and what they wanted to read was what they, not the BBC, had written."
Eggington, who recruited Mike Smartt as founding news online editor, was sure of his ground. "I'd been around BBC News for 20 years. Nobody needed to tell me what news on the web should be – and nobody did."
But with the BBC operating online on multiple fronts – beeb.com, bbc news project, bbc.co.uk and World Service – early relationships were not always cordial. "There was something of a fortress mentality. It was a bit of a necessary evil – we wouldn’t have got anything done otherwise."
"It certainly wasn’t joined up. In fact, it was all over the place," Stone corroborates.
Today, if still unwieldy and somewhat hit and miss, bbc.co.uk is a more coherent operation, with clearer ownership. But ten years on Stone, at least, believes it's time to turn back the (home)pages.
"When the net started out, it was all about enabling conversation – about chat, forums and mailing lists. It was not about publishing text and pictures relating to TV and radio programmes. Amazon realised that early on, eBay did in 1999 and the BBC caught on last year. Now we need to re-architect bbc.co.uk accordingly."
Alan Connor is co-editor of the BBC Internet Blog. Photo of Brandon Butterworth by Chris Capstick.