Coming of age
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that we love an anniversary at the BBC.
The World Service is turning 75 in December and the start of 2008 will see us celebrate 60 years of the world’s oldest radio sports programme, Sports Report - which is a reminder of the legacy that the pioneers of broadcasting have left for those of us in the modern BBC to build on.
Exactly half-a-century after that auspicious landmark, came another significant event in the evolution of the BBC – the official launch of our internet operation. This week marks the 10th birthday for bbc.co.uk – and there has been a fair amount of reminiscing taking place among those of us involved in the early days of the online era.
Indeed, the decade of development of this new service tells you a fair bit about the way the wider broadcasting world has been transformed.
From my perspective, the story of the emergence of the BBC Sport website has the whiff of the younger sibling about it. TV and Radio Sport had the rich history, the glorious tradition, the huge audience and the awards aplenty – so it wasn’t always easy for the website to make its mark. Early on the attention-seeking toddlers of the online world struggled to gain credibility and kudos in a high-achieving Sport family, where they often felt ignored or stuck on the sidelines.
I won’t labour the analogy – but suffice to say that 10 years on from the birth of bbc.co.uk, the website is no longer an overlooked, peripheral element of BBC Sport. It now plays a central role in Sport’s day-to-day connection with the audience and, in an increasingly uncertain broadcasting world, with technology moving so fast, it offers some sense of stability for the future.
The Sport website was one of the BBC’s earliest forays on the internet. Starting as a sub-section of BBC News Online in 1998, the sports output gradually grew until in 2000 a separate, Sport-owned site was launched. Unsurprisingly the audience wasn’t enormous back then – and I think it’s safe to say that within the BBC, Sport Online was seen as a slightly snazzier version of Ceefax, aimed at a niche audience of techno-geeks and sporting train-spotters.
Over time though those initial perceptions have been challenged, as the sports media landscape has been transformed. BBC Sport’s TV and radio output remains as powerful as ever and has retained that ability to bring the nation together around the big events. But alongside these traditional services we have created a third major platform - bbc.co.uk/sport is one of Europe’s biggest sports website, with a weekly audience of seven million.
In its early days the site provided a pretty comprehensive coverage of sport – but it was little more than a ‘newspaper on the internet’. Indeed, it was a classic ‘Web 1.0’ offering, still heavily influenced by its bigger News sibling, with the emphasis on traditional reportage and little in the way of the ‘liveness’, interactivity and rich media that you see today.
The pace of change has been pretty relentless since then. Thanks to a demanding audience and an ambitious, creative staff, boundaries have constantly been pushed and over time the site has changed almost beyond recognition.
Among the landmark moments were the 2004 Olympics in Athens, when we became the first broadcaster to offer live streaming over broadband – a service we continue to build on, including the proposed addition of embedded video in time for the Beijing Games next year.
Then there has been the singular journey we’ve been on around the whole issue of interactivity. User-generated content is one of those phrases that has entered media jargon (incidentally, one of my colleagues is so fed up with the ubiquitous ‘UGC’ that he prefers the acronym SPP – that’s ‘Stuff Punters Produce’ to you) – but back in 2000 we didn’t give it such a grand title. We just asked our users to send in their emails and then we cut and pasted their sporting comments onto the site. It didn’t take long for that approach to prove unworkable – as the audience grew, so the scale of interaction exploded, to the extent that we just couldn’t keep up.
Now, in partnership with Five Live, we have a 606 website that offers our audience the opportunity to create their own content and to interact with BBC Sport experts around the big issues of the day, plus a series of blogs that continue to pull in some of the biggest numbers of users across the whole BBC. Our Rugby World Cup Blog, when we sent a couple of our journalists, Tom Fordyce and Ben Dirs, around France in a camper van produced some of the most enthusiastic responses we have ever seen.
Sport has always been a big driver of new technology in media – with colour TV, DAB radio and HD all benefiting from their association with sport over the years – and this has certainly proved the case with the web. The audience for the Sport website continues to grow (within bbc.co.uk, only News pulls in more unique users) and research shows that we remain one of the BBC sites that the audience would most like to ‘recommend to a friend’. Crucially for BBC Sport as a whole, our internet presence gives us a permanent home that, together with our TV and radio services, ensures fans can get their fix of sports news and live action at any time.
So we’re not the spoilt brat younger sibling any more. The website is now at the heart of what BBC Sport does, perfectly complementing our TV and radio offerings – and acting as the permanent, dependable presence that our audience demands.
We’re a long way from matching Sports Report’s stunning 60 not out – but with the Beijing Olympics coming soon and London 2012 on the horizon we’re entering our second decade with a sense of excitement at what the internet can offer BBC Sport.
Coincidentally, according to those in the know, this week is also the 10th anniversary of the term 'weblog'. December 1997 was clearly a busy time for those new media innovators.