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Engineering a more flexible and efficient BBC for the future

Matthew Postgate

Chief Technology and Product Officer

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In this post, BBC Chief Technology Officer Matthew Postgate discusses his strategy for BBC Engineering. 

BBC Engineering (until recently known as BBC Technology) provides the foundations for broadcasting - we keep the BBC’s services on-air 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

That means everything from transmission for TV and radio - enabling us to reach 97% of adults in the UK every week including the cameras, mixing desks, email and business systems for our world-class programme makers and staff. It is this technology that connects our staff and our viewers to our content.

To support the BBC, now and in the future, our priorities are to make sure we’re flexible, efficient and can take advantage of all the digital developments happening in broadcasting.

What’s in a name?

First of all, it's worth pointing out that engineering has always been a vital part of the BBC, ever since we developed the technology to produce and broadcast our first Radio programmes in the 1920s. We did the same for black and white then colour TV, and we do it now, in the digital age. It's the BBC's combination of creativity, programme making, innovation and engineering that has made this evolution possible, and makes the BBC so unique.

We live in a time of unprecedented technological change. The last major media revolution before the web was TV over 80 years ago. In a relative blink of an eye, we’ve seen the on-demand, mobile and social media industries become well established, with a wide range of others showing huge potential.

Today, our challenge is to take advantage of the rapidly changing technology and media landscapes for the benefit of the public. BBC engineering has always been at the heart of solving broadcasting problems and finding or creating solutions, so it's important we continue this great tradition. Doing this will make the BBC even better.

Laying flexible foundations

Because of this tremendous pace of change, our foundations need to become more flexible than we've ever needed them to be in the past. It's no use laying the ground work for a factory when in three years' time we find we need an apartment block.

As a result, I’ve implemented a new structure and approach for BBC Engineering, one that’s more closely aligned to our product areas. By partnering with editorial teams, we will create the systems, software and set-up to make sure engineering can support the specific needs of BBC TV, Radio, News, Sport and Children's, and drive innovation where we see potential.

We are also taking a much bigger focus on user experience and design for all the tools and software in our studios - a lesson from the consumer world that makes complete sense behind the scenes too. Ultimately, this will enable us to better work with our programme makers and make it easier for them to get the most out of new technology.

Doing more with less

Equally as important as technical flexibility is financial efficiency. The BBC has delivered £1.1 billion of savings across the corporation since 2007. We are now doing more with less. Innovation lies behind a lot of how we have managed that.

In BBC Engineering, we are in the midst of transforming the way we procure and manage our biggest, most strategic technology contracts. This includes the core infrastructure, services and equipment we rely on every day in our studios and offices. We are moving away from one monolithic, long term contract with a single supplier, to multiple shorter-term contracts with a number of specialist companies. We are saving £90m over the next two years and we expect to deliver similar savings once we've completed the transition.

Large and long-term technology contracts were common place and had their benefits when we signed ours 10 years ago. But, again, the pace of change means this is isn't an appropriate model for the BBC today. Now we need to be more flexible, get quicker access to new technology as it emerges, and ensure we get the best possible value for licence fee payers.

We also need to be focussed on doing what the BBC has done so expertly throughout its history – innovating new broadcast technologies and transforming the industry.

Take Glastonbury for example, where 900 acres of farmland in Somerset is transformed with over 1,200 acts performing across 100 stages for crowds hundreds of thousands of people. To bring the best of the festival to you across TV, radio and online, we need to create a functioning outside broadcast operation each year. This includes multiple production vehicles, each with their own support and camera crews, on the ground and in the mud.

Imagine a world where we don't need to do that, where we use those resources to do more creatively. Well, that may not be too far away, as ground-breaking technology being developed by world-class engineers in our Research and Development labs could reduce the entire operation for big events like these to potentially just one production vehicle (read more about R&D's work on this here), linked over the internet to our world-class production bases. That's incredibly exciting from a production perspective and, again, allows us to do more with less.

Looking to a digital future

Today we can already film broadcast quality content just by using a smartphone app. The digital world is changing broadcasting fast and the technology making it all possible is, essentially, the internet. It’s not only changing the way people watch and listen to programmes, it will change the way we make them too. And we will increasingly use the internet to deliver programmes and services to you in the future – whether that’s to the big screen in the living room or the smartphones and tablets scattered over the house.

This opens the door to entirely new forms of content that are much more data-intensive than audio or video – things like Ultra-HD or virtual reality for example. I'm not saying these technologies will take off overnight, or that they’ll take off at all for that matter, and traditional broadcast technology will continue to be critically important for many years.

But using internet technologies in new ways is another major opportunity for the BBC’s engineering, digital and editorial experts to pave the way. The Olympics has always been an event the BBC has innovated around – what kinds of experiences could we provide in 2020 or 2024 if the nation had universal high speed broadband and a broadcast infrastructure designed to take advantage of it?

Changing how we do business now can make that possibility a reality. That makes me truly excited about the future and my focus right now is on making sure we’re as prepared for that journey as we possibly can be, and that we’re flexible and efficient enough to adapt along the way.

Matthew Postgate is Chief Technology Officer, BBC Engineering

UPDATE (9 April 2015):

At BBC Engineering, when we talk about taking advantage of internet technologies or being ‘internet first’ we aren’t talking about the BBC doing more with online content or only putting content and programmes online.

My role is to make sure that the BBC’s technologies that underpin everything we do – from our newsroom infrastructure and new in-the-field production and editing tools, to how we keep the BBC on air and online – are set up in the best possible way, and take advantage of new internet-based technologies.

This is what will give the organisation the flexibility it will need to evolve to meet people’s expectations now and in the future.

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