The World's Favourite Website At 10
This post is part of the tenth birthday celebrations of bbc.co.uk.
I've only been with the BBC for seven years, so much of the hard work on bbc.co.uk - getting it up and running in the first place - had already been done by the time I arrived, and my hat goes off to those founding heroes: John Birt, Brandon Butterworth, Mike Smartt, and Jonathan Drori all spring immediately to mind.
My history therefore starts from 2000, when bbc.co.uk was the tenth most used website in the UK - about 3.5m users, reaching a quarter of the then online population of 14m. It's been a long and sometimes winding road since then to get us to where we are now - ranked in a recent Ipsos Mori poll as the highest quality media service in the UK - and this post is a hopefully honest recollection of the highs and lows on this journey.
The early lead we gained online during the first few years was critical. bbc.co.uk is nothing without News and its sister sites, Sport, Weather, and regional output. They are at the heart of the offering, pumping the life-blood around the site, giving it its vitality and essence. Richard Deverell, Pete Clifton, Ben Gallop and the team built a rock solid heartland audience, and a global reputation for quality.
This heartland audience however, skewed somewhat. Male, 25-44 years old and upmarket. Nothing wrong with that, of course: but to try and grow our audience during 2001 and '02, especially among women, we put a large amount of focus on building factual and entertainment sites, under the leadership of Liz Cleaver and Sophie Walpole respectively.
Liz's team were behind the first of many cross-platform highly innovative formats, the 2001 Bafta award winning Walking with Beasts Interactive being in my mind one of the best. Her group were also responsible for the Parenting website, which remains to this day the most highly "loved" of all our sites, and without a dedicated TV programme to support it: an amazing achievement. In 2003, Liz pushed into unknown audience territories with People's War, a social media website for the over 60s. I wasn't sure it would work, but it did, bringing 90,000 pensioners online for the first time to tell their war stories.
This voyage of creativity - to find what works and doesn't on the net - is perhaps bbc.co.uk's most interesting contribution to the medium (and certainly most under-heralded, so forgive me for focussing on it here). The Dark House from Radio 4 and Celebdaq (both 2003 Bafta winners), Ghosts Of Albion, Jamie Kane, Wannabes, right up to this year's Signs Of Life have been early shoots of what I still believe could and should be a massive part of what we do online: new original creative formats.
I'm very proud that we got into communities and what's now called social media early on: h2g2 - the online guide to life, the universe, and everything - still ranks amongst the BBC's "most loved" websites, bought in Febuary 2001 out of Douglas Adams' company which had gone into administration. But h2g2 is for me tinged with regret that we couldn't have seized the lead it gave us and turned it into a Wikipedia - at the time a cultural leap too far for the BBC, and the debates around unmediated or peer-moderated user-generated content, and what the BBC's role is in this world, continue to this day.
There followed many more forays into social media: some sophisticated, some simple: 606, Collective, iCan/ActionNetwork, Film Network, right up to the latest Adventure Rock on the brilliant CBBC site. Some more successful than others, but all have given us hugely important learnings into how to directly engage with our audience. Many of these sites did not spring off the back of a radio or TV programme, but were genuine efforts to use the internet as a medium in its own right. Attempts to bring all these editorially led initiatives together into a pan-BBC offering largely failed - "chat around content", for example [pdf] - perhaps due to coming to market too early, perhaps due to a lack of commitment or investment, and perhaps due to the difficulties of getting pan-BBC buy-in in the world where there were 17 largely autonomous divisions.
This devolution was at the centre of Greg Dyke's strategy to create a BBC with strong brands, unhampered by the Birtist central bureaucracy, and to a large degree it worked. But divisions like ours, which tried to roll out common solutions across the BBC - even something simple like a new toolbar for bbc.co.uk - found progress hard going trying to gain consensus with 17 parties. Greg was also, probably necessarily at the time, focussed on primetime TV and BBC One, and wrote jokingly in my copy of his autobiography of his time at the Beeb: "I never understood all of that new media crap anyway".
By 2004, the success of the Childrens' site had cemented bbc.co.uk as a broad-based proposition with appeal to all ages: perhaps too broad? So thought our self-styled opponents, who brought themselves together to lobby against the BBC's online activities under the banner of BIPA - the British Internet Publishers Alliance. BIPA was headed up by Hugo Drayton, then MD of Telegraph Group. He later became a good friend, and apologised for their Beeb-bashing in their paper by sending me a framed copy of their "Page 3 Scoop" story, "BBC Sends 50 to Amsterdam", with a photo of me superimposed on a picture of the red light district. The story was nothing more than our annual trip to IBC, but it captures the sentiment of the time.
The dot.com industry was on the floor, and many companies, especially the regional press, were looking for a scapegoat, and we fitted the bill. The timing could not have been worse, as we then entered a formal, comprehensive review of bbc.co.uk - the Philip Graf's independent review. BIPA, and others were baying for blood: some wanted to see a massive curtailment of anything that might possibly compete with their sites, and some wanted us shut down completely (eg John Whittingdale, now shadow media minister, and much more pro-BBC online now too, to the extent of asking me to be his Facebook buddy!).
The whole process seemed to take up most of 2004 for me, and the extremely positive outcome - an endorsement by Graf and then Tessa Jowell (then media minister) that we should continue to be "a home for licence fee payers on the web" and "a trusted guide" to impartial, quality content - made all the effort from across the BBC worthwhile. Jonathan Kingsbury, the quiet hero of the piece, deserves most of the credit.
We shut a number of "undistinctive" sites, Fantasy Football amongst them, started to refocus a number of others, such as the WhereILive regional sites, and worked on improving the number of links to third parties from across the site, but especially from News (where have those links gone now?!).
Mid 2004 saw the arrival of new DG Mark Thompson, a man wholly committed to the web and its transformational potential for the BBC. At the end of that year, he gave his historic speech that talked of a BBC needing to change; a BBC needing to be smaller, more agile. Amongst all the coverage of job losses, few outside the corporation picked up on the message about the shift to digital: he foresaw a
change precipitated by digital technology, which is shifting audience expectations and their relationship with the BBC through on demand, interactivity and personalisation.
By 2005, BBC's online service, now reaching almost 12m users a month, started to respond to this renewed impetus from the top. More resources were made available, and more focus was put on moving from text and stills to a more audio- and video-rich offering. The RadioPlayer, one of many innovations out of Research at Kingswood, had been productised, launched, relentlessly championed, developed and perfected by Simon Nelson and his team. As more and more homes got broadband, so the creativity and innovation streaming out of Radio & Music Interactive reached ever bigger and bigger audiences, and became an essential part of the mix.
At this time Tony Ageh, Ben Lavender and their team ran the iMP trial of catch-up TV. They had persuaded the BBC management team (against strong opposition from the then head of BBC Worldwide, Rupert Gavin) that we should be allowed to move beyond 30 second video clips on the public service website. They had galvanised the BBC into renegotiating the entire rights framework with the industry bodies (PACT) to allow BBC programmes to be made available over the net, and they had put together an impressive proof of concept, followed by a large scale consumer trial (and we have recently agreed a new media rights framework for the industry). The intervening year - between the iMP trial finishing and the BBC iPlayer soft launching - has had more column inches written about it than I thought possible (or warranted), so I would add just one statistic: within 40 working days of permission being granted by the Trust (before which we had had a spending cap imposed) we had announced the launch of BBC iPlayer, and now six months later, I believe the service we will promote over Christmas is going to be a great hit with our audiences - the ultimate and proper judge of our success or failure.
As broadband speeds improved, so have our best programme support sites: Doctor Who, Robin Hood, Spooks, CDX, and Hustle have been amongst my favourites. Some are in-house and some are from work with indies (often as a result of the Graf review which imposed a 25% indie quota floor, which we achieved last year with over 29% of our spend going to the new media independent sector).
Over all these years, one thing I'm very proud of is the BBC content which has appeared not on bbc.co.uk. Our strategy to be "part of the web, not on it" dates back as far as I can recall. RSS feeds from News and a business development department set up in 2001 to get our content out across the web has resulted in some 8m UK users a month accessing BBC content on MSN, AOL, Bebo, YouTube, and hundreds of smaller sites, some 3m of whom never come to bbc.co.uk. Jane Weedon and her team in business development: take a bow.
The technological innovations are also something I should not pass over. Every year, Richard Cooper and his team have worked miracles to keep the site not just working, but performing better than most, with almost no downtime: with exponentially increasing traffic, and yet a fixed licence fee income, they have outperformed all expectations of Moore's Law. Technological innovations too from all content areas need mentioning: some technologies may seem commonplace now, but the divisional teams were often amongst the first to adopt them: News (broadband video; early user-generated content handling during the London bombings and the 2004 tsunami; popularising RSS; the Live Stats page), Sport (Player Rater; incoming text integration; the awesome pan-platform 2004 Olympics using GeoIP to the satisfaction of the IOC), N&R (integrating content into maps), Radio (pod- and vodcasting; simulcasts from Second Life and of course the Radio Player), Factual (TV/interactive TV/web simulcasts of Walking With Dinosaurs) and Entertainment (Test The Nation; Tardisodes and countless others) all deserve praise.
Innovation in rights too. The biggest contribution of RadioPlayer and now BBCiPlayer is not the technology, in my opinion (our world lead in legitimate peer-to-peer has been eroded); it's the rights framework they helped broker. Our Archive Trials have helped enormously too. We now have more content available for free, over the net, in the UK, from all the public service providers, than any other country in the world. That's the real achievement.
Along the way, many initiatives have not taken off as well as I'd have hoped (Book Of The Future, anyone? - I have a few spare copies!). It took me a while to really understand the BBC and public value (getting Jordan - sorry, Katie Price - in to open our interactive studio was not perhaps the best choice...
In fact, in hindsight trying to create an open mike studio in Bush House that we could open up to our audience was always an unreasonable ambition - especially in the cautious post-Hutton era). Wanting to be a trusted guide to the internet, which I still passionately believe in, led me to think we could offer a targeted, editorialised internet search service. Perhaps we could, but it would have taken an enormous amount of time and money and focus to have got it to work. I think the opportunity here is still massive, helping our audience through the cacophony of choice to high quality, impartial content, wherever it comes from - an opportunity still somewhat unrealised.
I've always believed that bbc.co.uk could be the most important website in the UK, and perhaps the world. It's now the third most visited site in Britain, behind only Google and MSN, with 17m regular users in the UK, and many more than that globally. I hope, whether on bbc.co.uk or through our many many partners, that BBC content, services, and applications one day touch everyone in Britain, and that we have done more than anyone to help create an empowered, enlightened, digitally literate nation. 25% of homes with children still don't have internet access. We have much to do.
I'm really excited about the plans for next year, which have been created so collaboratively. Exciting plans such as embedded video across News; Sport's Beijing 2008 supersite; bold and ambitious "portals" and programme support sites from Vision the scale of which we've not seen before; the rollout of iPlayer and its integration with RadioPlayer; the new homepage; automated support pages for every radio and tv programme; aggregated topic pages; social media applications and so on and so on - far too many to mention, and the new impetus and ideas that many of the new (and not so new now) recruits have brought is fantastic: Erik Huggers, James Cridland, Anthony Rose and Richard Titus have all made a awesome contribution already.
But thank you to everyone involved in making bbc.co.uk what it is; I didn't want to turn this into some Bafta speech, but the site is of course nothing without the hundreds of brilliant, dedicated people who work on it, and I hope they (and you) all have a great Christmas.
Ashley Highfield is Director, BBC Future Media & Technology.