You and BBC Sport - now and in the future
Some of you will have read Roger's comments about the audience getting power and also seen reports of recent BBC announcements about the growth of user-generated content, and then wondered why we are therefore making changes to the 606 service.
I think it's fair to everyone - the few thousand people who actively contribute to 606 and the majority who don't - to try to explain more on this subject. I want to broaden the debate about what we should do and share as much with as many people as possible. This will hopefully also answer one important question people have asked on 606 and here. What is the real reason for change – cost-cutting or editorial quality or some other hidden factor?
This post is in three parts. Firstly I will quote from and discuss extensively BBC strategy documents, which I have linked to so you can go and make up your own mind. Secondly, I will describe in detail our main interactive World Cup features. Thirdly I will discuss a few ideas which we could do next season with 606 and other sport communities. This is in the hope that you comment on them and help decide which to go ahead with.
BBC strategy for this area
Firstly, then the big question. What are we here for? In 2004 the government’s Graf report laid down the blueprint for the BBC website. It mentioned message boards and interaction in a couple of places, quoting what are now very out of date facts and figures, but there were no specific recommendations on the subject and in the two years since there have been few changes despite the enormous growth of blogging and of services like MySpace.
We think the old 606 format now fails in a key factor demanded by the Graf report – “distinctiveness”. Graf said the BBC should not just copy what exists elsewhere on the web and that we should do things which only our unique position allows us to do. The report told us to actively link to and promote services that already exist around the web rather than copying them.
Last year we closed our fantasy football game (with around 10 times as many members as 606) as we changed our strategy in the wake of the Graf report, which specifically stated it was something the BBC should not do. We published a page of links to alternative fantasy games.
Like fantasy football, there are hundreds of football message boards on the web so is there a need for a BBC service identical in format anymore? There was a time when to talk about football or hear other fans' voices you had to come to the BBC and listen to 606 or your local radio station. Those were the days when some of us played fantasy football by post and phone, and there was a comedy show every week about it on BBC Two!
But this just isn't the case anymore, what with blogs, forum posts, videos and pictures everywhere. Having a centralised place for all football discussion/converstation is no longer the only way to do it. For example I support Aston Villa and I can go to www.holteenders.com or www.heroesandvillains.net to talk to fans of my own team. I know of bloggers who I can follow talking about my team and other general sites where there are other team's fans.
Graf says is that where there is a “close call” between the public service value of a product and its cost then we should probably “not proceed” with the service.
Message board running costs are immense and out of proportion with usage. For Sport alone we have 10 full-time staff hosting and moderators from an outside supplier with a central technical and editorial team managing the service as a whole. There are huge hardware costs and a situation rather like a rush hour motorway whereby every time we add more server capacity to ease a "traffic jam" of messages, it has the same effect as adding a lane does to a main road. The traffic jam just gets wider and the service slows down again waiting for the next upgrade.
Over the weekend somebody on 606 quoted another lengthy document - the BBC’s Online Services Guidelines which explain how the current systems operate and why. Chapter 15 says “the BBC wishes to take advantage of the full range of user-generated services provided they fulfil our public purposes and can match the standards our users expect of our presence on the Internet”. This full range includes far more than message boards; comments, blogs, SMS and email feedback for text. And voting and “rich media” (pictures, video and audio) sent to our programmes and websites.
We have had to ask ourselves some tough questions: In the face of such change do the current boards now offer such value, even if they have done during their lifespan? Could we do better with a richer and more relevant service? And if we can't do our current message board services on the scale of 2006, what happens as more and more people come online, discover the possibilities of the web and want to contribute something to it and the BBC?
Hopefully anyone who reads this post will understand some of our initial conclusions a little better now.
So, if we’re not doing traditional message boards then what will we do instead? Now or in a few months time. I believe we have at least three main jobs to do with our participatory services:
• to enable those that want to create content to be able to do so
• to allow people to give feedback and comment on all our services
• to facilitate engagement and interaction with the BBC and its content
As far as creating content, I really want to emphasise that the current version of 606 is a temporary measure which we simply believe will allow many people to comment on the World Cup and close season without significant technical problems. It’s the only short-term option we have for keeping 606 alive at the moment and we want everyone who’s happy with the format to actively engage with it. Those who want something more like the old format are more than welcome to post links to services elsewhere on the web.
The World Cup
The streaming of BBC One matches is something that I'm sure you'll agree that only we can do - another example of distinctiveness, especially when you consider all the extra participatory services we're offering alongside.
We have a World Cup blog. This is different to a message board in that it offers you a direct line to BBC reporters and staff from TV, radio and the web in Germany. We’ll also be picking out some of the great things people are doing around the web – even linking to a really good message board somewhere else – with comments on every post.
You might ask whether a blog is distinctive? There are millions of them but none can offer this direct relationship with us as a primary broadcaster of the World Cup, something we simply haven’t managed to ever achieve consistently on message boards. It’s a subjective thing but I also think the comments on the blog are of a higher and certainly more consistent standard than message board contributions.
We also want to offer people the chance to contribute more than simple text contributions to the website. The growth of podcasting, Flickr and YouTube demonstrates the huge appetite for this. It may seem wrong to mention this in the same sentence as something as trivial as the World Cup, but the contributions from people of photos and video of last July’s London bombings proved once and for all to the BBC that there was a massive role for this kind of content in our journalism and coverage of events.
So we’re asking for you to send us pictures of your World Cup experiences in photos and video – joy, despair or just you wherever you might be watching. We want you to contribute with your views to the 606 Rant Line and Your Shout on TV. And we’ll be asking you to share with us your recreations of the best goals, celebrations or incidents you see in the tournament. We’ve already had a massive amount of high quality creative video of people doing keepy-uppies with a prize of tickets to the first England match for the winner - and I’m sure there is more to come.
For feedback, alongside the “contact us” email channel we have always had, there is now this Editors’ Blog. We’ve already taken on board and acted upon a number of comments and questions since it launched six weeks ago and it’s a great place to share our thinking and find out what people think. In contrast, feedback about BBC services on the message boards has always been dominated by abuse and unconstructive or dismissive comments.
The new Player Rater , the other major World Cup development to engage people with us and our content, is hugely significant and provides a series of interesting contrasts to message boards.
It’s not hard for anyone to realise that far more people want simpler ways to interact with TV and radio broadcasts. Millions vote for something like Big Brother - and indeed have helped choose the Sports Personality of the Year for half a century - and these numbers will probably always be higher than those who want to write text or send photos. That pointed us towards creating Player Rater, along the knowledge that football fans always have a view on player performance and could produce some really interesting talking points by giving us simple marks out of 10.
So how else does it compare to a message board? Well it is far more straightforward to manage. Abuse is limited despite the fears of some of my colleagues who thought people woud maliciously make false ratings. I knew the majority of fans wouldn't do that - and they don't.
In cost terms it's cost us as much to build as running 606 for a month or two, and the ongoing cost for use across lots of different matches is negligible. And the audience's interest? On the FA Cup Final weekend up to 150,000 people rated by either web or mobile phone. That’s at least five times the number who posted to 606 that week. The results were also discussed enthusiastically by Gary Lineker, Alan Hansen and the panel in front of a TV audience or 10 or 11 million. In terms of distinctiveness it’s hard to see anyone else able to do it.
That's about all I can remember for the World Cup. Before the tournament starts a new place will be launched on the site collecting all this and more together.
Long term - next season
If you are still reading this and saying this is all very well but we still want team message boards back then I’m sorry. Hopefully, even if you don’t agree with our decision, you’ll now understand that it has been properly thought through and that we are working on alternatives.
However we do still want to enable a full community service with ability of users to engage with each other. The plans are not fully formed and agreed yet. What follows is not a set of promises but some clear ideas which we could do relatively quickly.
I will outline them in detail and welcome any comments you have.
1. Probably the biggest single challenge for us is to restrict those who simply want to use any service to provoke fellow supporters. We’re not naïve enough to think we can ever remove this altogether but we are considering asking members to contribute a basic profile when registering which would be used for a new enhanced member page. This page could also contain links to all a member’s content and external links to where else they can found around the web.
2. As far as content, we could then allow people to start discussions of their choice, by writing an article on which fellow users could comment. It’s not that different to starting a thread on a message board perhaps, but we would hope that the other moves we’re making will help reduce the troublemakers’ influence. We would also be likely to use a similar system to enable people to comment on sports news stories or matches. BBC Sport radio and TV programmes such as 606 and Football Focus would be able to also encourage comment on different items.
3. Members could also be invited to write their own match reports, on any level of football or sport, and from their point of view. Or write profiles or tributes to their favourite players or teams. Again, others would be able to comment on these.
4. We should be able to enable readers to rate content, with the highest-ranked content getting prominent links from elsewhere.
5. Member pages could be enhanced in time with members who had good behaviour records and the highly-rated content getting more features such as a diary or message centre – or maybe the ability to upload pictures or video. We are also definitely keen to look into engaging our best members in selecting content and helping the moderation maybe via some kind of hotline alert system.
6. I know that some people will be concerned about how they will find relevant content and members with similar interests. Eventually we could allow users to form small groups, with the ability to block other members they don’t want to hear from. But from the start we would use a search facility to do this with RSS feeds from this to be used in all sorts of ways to navigate from the rest of BBC Sport and anywhere on the web.
Some of these ideas are the kinds of things which some of those angry at the 606 changes have suggested in recent days and equally others have dismissed ideas like this. We will never get a unanimous view but we need to assess all the factors and make decisions accordingly.
I think if we got one thing wrong last week it was not fully communicating our thinking and more detailed ideas so I sincerely hope this satisfies people that we are still committed to publishing content written by our users and in helping people share that content with each other.
So please do let us know here what you think of what we’re doing for the World Cup and please comment on the ideas I have shared for next season, which are described with football in mind but could equally apply to other sports.
You can comment here or if you prefer your idea not to be published go to this page and send an email via the form.