The sun never sets on the Beeb

The BBC just announced big, strategic initiatives to change its very essence as a broadcaster. Rafat Ali has a characteristically brief and informative summary and there’s Media Guardian coverage here, here, with kvetching by rivals here, a story on the new BBC website here, another summary here, and BBC boss Mark Thompson’s speech here.

But Guardian Unlimited Editor Emily Bell writing at Comment is Free puts this in perspective and says the BBC is doing what many of us have been insisting that media companies must do: break free of their media.

Thompson no longer wants to be a broadcaster, he almost certainly doesn’t want to just be British, and he would clearly rather be a dot com than a corporation. As of today that old linear BBC is dead – long live the BBC.

Thompson’s sweeping vision laid out in the Creative Futures presentation takes the Beeb into a web 2.0 world of “user generated content” and “findability”, of community and metadata. This is undoubtedly the right thing to do to keep a large global audience – a commercial organisation in the position of the BBC would do the same thing (if it had, by chance, £2.8 billion of guaranteed income). He wants more big programmes – Planet Earth is apparently the new Blue Planet – and to take on the competition in a global and aggressive fashion. MySpace, Flickr,, watch out.

This is the vision of some kind of future, but it is not the future of a broadcaster; it is not even the future vision of a content creator. It is the future of an entity which just wants to continue to occupy the same percentage of the media horizon – a horizon which has expanded by a zillion per cent…..

Thompson’s speech is filled with gems about respecting the contributions of the public (formery known as the audience), about killing boundaries between media, about the new ubiquity of media. Just a few:

When I look at Creative Future, I see five big themes. We decided to call the first Martini Media, meaning media that’s available when and where you want it with content moving freely between different devices and platforms…. It means we have to adopt a completely new approach to development, commissioning and production by the BBC:
· from now on wherever possible we need to think cross-platform, across TV, radio and web for audiences at home and on the move;
· we need to shift investment and creative focus towards on-all-the-time, 24/7 services;
· on demand is key – and it’s not just a new way of delivering content, it means a rethink of what we commission, make and how we package and distribute it;
· we have one of the best websites in the world but it’s rooted in the first digital wave – we need to re-invent it, fill it with dynamic audio-visual content, personalise it, open it up to user-generated material – work on this is already underway in a project called BBC Web 2.0;
· and we need a new relationship with our audiences – they won’t simply be audiences anymore, but also participants and partners – we need to know them as individuals and communities, let them configure our services in ways that work for them. An early example is a competition launching tomorrow inviting our audience to reinvent our home page….

So what does all this mean for the different areas of output? First we have an incredible opportunity in news and current affairs. BBC News is an offer that transcends any one channel or medium or device. It already reaches more than 240 million people around the world every week and is the world’s most trusted source of news. If we get this right now, it can grow even stronger:
· we want to shift energy and resources to our continuous news services; …

The BBC’s always felt a bit less confident about its mission to educate than it has about the mission to inform. Even the words we use – learning, educative, specialist factual – can feel a little uninspiring. That’s got to change. This second digital revolution is going to enable the public to explore and investigate their world like never before. Programmes won’t be shown once and then forgotten. They’ll be there forever to be linked, clipped, rediscovered, built into bigger ideas; …

[I]f we don’t coordinate our content, make it easy to find and brand it clearly, it may just disappear. Let’s call the fourth theme findability. And here’s what we’re going to do about it.

· within a year we’ll launch a new, more powerful search tool – with both video and audio search – as part of the overhaul of our website; …
· next Ashley Highfield and his team will lead work to achieve one clear and comprehensive metadata solution for all BBC content. Good metadata gives content legitimacy. People know exactly who it’s coming from and the BBC will get the credit back to our brand and no one else’s….
· we’ll use contact with individual users, data bases and recommendation engines to build a far closer and more personal relationship with audiences. …

The final theme may turn out to be one of the most important. It’s the active audience, the audience who doesn’t want to just sit there but to take part, debate, create, communicate, share. This raises any number of editorial questions for us, but I believe – and I know lots of the other members of the Creative Future team believe – that this is going to be big and it’s going to touch pretty much every area of output:
· we want to build on our early experiments in user-generated content in News – we also want to be the best guide to the blogs on the big stories and debates; · it’ll be a key element in our local TV project and in the way we cover and debate sport, especially in the run-up to 2012;
· we’ll try to engage audiences in adding their content and their ideas across the whole range of knowledge-building from natural history to health;
· and we’ll make sure that our plans for search and metadata enable the public to add their comments and recommendations so that they can help each other find the content they want. Tomorrow we launch a prototype of our programme catalogue – some one million programmes from the last 80 years. It will be the first opportunity to see what our audience does with such a source.
· in journalism, we will develop the best interactive web forum in the world for audience engagement with our editors and correspondents, discussing our decisions, dilemmas and reporting with the aim of being the most open and transparent news organisation in the world.

In a word: Wow. If they can do half that — and convince the company’s culture of half that — the Beeb will lead again.

I’m going to be spending some time with BCC people in London over the next two weeks. I can’t wait to hear (and report) more.

One more thing: Note well that the media-boss speeches that have made waves lately all came from Britain: from Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger, from Reuters head Tom Glocer, and now from the BBC.

Are the days of America’s leadership in media over? You tell me.

  • If the American media is willing to adapt to change instead of complaining about it, I think they could lead once again.

    All I see is a lack of credibility in the public’s eyes. Even among my more left-leaning friends, the media will always manage to find an angle even they find detestable. For instance, the media’s constant uninformed coverage on the “evils” of video gaming has struck a sour note with many.

    The American media seems determined to do everything they can to alienate their audience. The BBC’s new attitude seems to be that they want to do everything they can to embrace their audience. The difference in attitude couldn’t be more vast.

  • Big, old, institutions never “get it”. They try to respond to change, but they are mired in their own history. So they pickup some of the current buzz to appear hip.

    Does anyone remember TQM or business process re-engineering?

    All the innovations in media over the past several decades have come from independent, mostly young, innovators. This started with the web itself and now has spread to various add ons like RSS and Podcasting.

    What the big news media have is a news gathering organization. I listen to the BBC frequently, and no matter what the story, or how remote the location, they have some on the scene. This is the unique value that they have to offer.

    Interacting with their audience will improve things, but they shouldn’t lose sight of what their true strengths are.

  • If the BBC was doing this with money other than that acquired by threatening people like me with jail time if we don’t pay their way, I would be a lot more excited about this. The fact that they want to do interesting things doesn’t mean it’s excusable for them to shake down the public for their funding.

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  • If small is the new big does the fact that they’re tiny relative to millions of bloggers mean they’re small enough? I don’t think so. A bunch of crazed Amazonian Bullet ants can eat a dead elephant or a live mouse.

    It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to define leadership in terms of geography any more. I work with people from Europe every day on an open source project and I rarely give their location much thought though I can’t figure out why they go to bed so early over there :D

  • james

    Here’s a cool story about BBC’s video production focus-
    (it’s a plug for Final Cut Pro, but shows they’re into producing video not just for TV anymore)

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  • Rick

    US is so 20th century … the only leadership it can retain now is in killing-machines — we’re still the best at making those. Oh we also lead in energy consumption per capita. Politically, economically, socially – our day has past.

  • Kirk — funny association with the ants. You are right. No boundaries anymore geographically. What will this do for nationalism? The BBC is ahead of the U.S., except the little Santa Fe New Mexican has been trying to get it right for quite some time. Maybe because their online leadership didn’t come from print backgrounds. Very chaotic and messy.

    Dan Gillmor’s Hearst Lecture at Columbia last night was very upbeat about how it will shake out. Glad his new foundation will be seriously studying these issues. It will help all the MSM media.

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  • Mike

    Typical BBC: long-winded, content-lacking, self-reverential tripe served up with a gloss of culture, and we’re expected to pay for it then thank them

  • Adam

    From what I’ve seen from inside the American television industry, no one on this side of the Atlantic is even talking about these things, or aware that major players like the BBC are taking steps toward better use of the internet and new technology. Disney, maybe, now that Bob Iger’s in charge, but I’m not totally convinced yet. At the very least, people at the BBC are paying attention to what’s going on outside, which is more than I can say for at least one major broadcaster in the US.

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  • As to the BBC’s Thomson’s part about ‘educating’ – that’s a little worrying. Sounds a bit like “white man’s burden”. There is room for it but not at the expense of “informing”. For 50 years that’s what Communist media tried to do by “educating” their public according to the party line rather than providing real information, leaving the listener/viewer to read between the lines. Even with the best of intentions, concentrating on educating will result in a loss of credibility.