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.