Razzmatazz, Fame And Fortune
This post is part of the tenth birthday celebrations of bbc.co.uk
Before BBC Online, I'd been working in BBC Education for some years. I'd found the work there very rewarding and the opportunity to invent interactive output for the web with a group of expert colleagues was fantastic. I think we had a level of autonomy perhaps only enjoyed by BBC News and Current Affairs at the time. Then the BBC Online job came up and with it the possibility of creating a coherent BBC website, with razzmatazz, fame and fortune.
The role of the BBC was clear in news and in education (where we had been so desperately wanting interactivity for years) - but for the rest of the BBC, I think it was less certain. Just what we should be offering for children, teenagers, new mums, businesspeople and everyone else across every subject area (sport, cookery, gardening, science and nature, film, entertainment...) needed to be debated. That was the easy bit.
Audiences were telling us that they found aspects of bbc.co.uk confusing. We wanted to give them some consistency, with common navigation and branding across the whole site. This was easier said than done, as the BBC at the time (not now of course) was a series of fiefdoms, each of which argued strongly that they needed their own totally different system of navigation and very distinct and assertive branding.
On top of that, in a medium without channel slots and with unlimited airtime, everybody wanted to be a commissioner. I seem to remember matters coming to a head when the BBC very nearly had separate Edinburgh Festival websites from Scotland, Entertainment, News, Drama, Education and several others.
Gradually we put navigation, branding and commissioning procedures in place and recruited some wonderful Executive Producers and designers, followed by teams of producers to kick off each genre. Of course, we ran into the classic problem of how best to structure the teams.
Should the BBC be organising its staff around subjects? In which case, shouldn't the science online people be sitting in the science department on the other side of London? Or maybe they should be organised around audiences? Surely the children's producers should be sitting with the children's TV people? Or, when a medium is just being invented, maybe it's best to have all the online people together, across all subjects and all audiences?
So who should be responsible for, say, a children's science website? Of course there's no right answer, but in the early days of online we chose to group all the webby interactive people together, knowing that they would need to migrate outwards sooner or later.
Another thorny problem was the constant question about what sort of content management system should we have. There were people who argued strongly that the BBC should have just one system. It would be a thing of fabulous beauty and, like the unified field theory, it would be a constant grail, just out of reach.
In Education, we had used a collection of systems which seemed to work just fine under the careful supervision of Dan Tagg and his gang. The News and Current Affairs juggernaut had an amazing machine put in place by Matthew Karas and Bob Eggington, which did (and probably still does) exactly what that group of people needed. I think it was philosophically difficult, particularly in the face of some clever sales people, for the BBC to come to terms with the fact there were bound to be lots of systems and the important thing was that they should all talk to each other.
For all I know, there's still someone at the Beeb who wanders the corridors after dark, muttering "must... have... single... content... management... system - must... stop... all development... until we have... one database...".
There were moments that seemed completely bonkers to me at the time. After the huge autonomy my colleagues and I had had in Education, my heart sank when John Birt (the DG at the time), Will Wyatt (the Managing Director, I think) and half of the board of management sat in a large boardroom to look at typefaces and argue over banner colours of individual microsites. I didn't know how I would break that to the very excellent designers in the team.
In hindsight, I actually think this was rather clever of John who, by to getting his team to engage with some of the nitty-gritty detail, started to get them to own the medium itself and develop a critical mass of people who were able to take practical decisions. As it turned out, we were allowed to continue to take the decisions we needed to.
When I think back to my time as a producer and then executive producer in television, I feel I have a very good recollection of who was responsible for what. Perhaps it was because we were trying to invent something new or perhaps it's in the nature of the online medium but I do find it extraordinarily difficult to remember who was responsible for which things. There's so much overlap in new media.
I do remember being able to recruit the most fantastic team and managing to integrate content, design and technology in a way that has been a model for me in other jobs since. I also remember how well the BBC Online team seemed to get on and I think that says a lot for Nigel Chapman, who was my boss at the time and a very effective manager.
High spot? The huge rise in traffic and the recognition of the public and the industry culminating in a BAFTA for the team. The worst moment - indeed, the saddest moment of my working life - was the tragic death of Helen Gill, one of the executive producers in my team who used her talent and tenacity to lead the work on the new look and feel to the site.
I look back on my time at BBC Online with huge affection. I was being paid to learn alongside hugely talented people, for the public good. Around the end of 2000, I had that funny hormonal rush that told me that having spent all my working life in the BBC, it was time to move on. Besides, there was a big exciting internet bubble out there to explore...
Prof. Jonathan Drori CBE FLS is former Head of Commissioning for BBC Online and former Head of Digital Media and Learning Channels in BBC Education. He is currently Director of Changing Media Ltd.