The BBC needs to advance its personalization strategy, including protecting against data risks

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez December 15, 2022
The National Audit Office has released a report this week investigating the BBC’s digital plans. Its key digital products are performing well, but risks remain.


The BBC - the main public service broadcaster in the UK - sees its digital services as essential to its long-term success and relevance in an increasingly competitive content market. The broadcaster has set an ambition that its audiences use its services for at least five hours a week, across at least five days, and on at least two platforms (including traditional broadcast and digital). 

The BBC has a ‘digital first’ strategy and has clearly set out its vision for using digital technology and data to improve the services it offers. However, it faces big challenges in competing with the private sector, where digital only media organizations, such as Netflix and Disney+, can spend billions on technology and development. The BBC’s overall spending on digital product development has recently fallen, from £109 million in 2018-2019 to £98 million in 2021-22. 

This is the backdrop to a new report from government watchdog the National Audit Office, which has found that whilst the BBC is performing well (despite the challenges), it has significant room for improvement in areas that focus on using data for building personalized experiences, as well as fostering digital leadership. 

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: 

The BBC faces a number of challenges in developing its digital offering, and its products are performing well compared to other, better-funded, media organisations. 

Stronger digital leadership structures in particular will enable the BBC to make the improvements it needs to its approach, if it is to maintain this success in a fast moving, global media market.

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Anyone that uses digital-only content services, such as Netflix, will be all too familiar with how the recommendation engines highlight content that is personalized for your consumption tastes (or so they should, in theory). 

The BBC is developing its capabilities in this area, but still has more work to do, if it wishes to compete with the private sector. 

Over the past nine years, the BBC has signaled that it sees personalization as important to its future plans and key to this is getting users to register and use a BBC account to access digital services. 

In September 2021, the organization produced a sign-in strategy, with a target for 72% of digital product views to come from signed-in users by 2023. However, the NAO notes, while the BBC has started to develop plans for how it could personalize some of its individual digital products and services, there is no evidence that it has begun working on pulling together a comprehensive strategy for personalization across the organization. 

And if personalization is the goal, through the use of registered accounts, the BBC needs to recognize that this increased use of personal data exposes it to potential reputational risks. As the NAO report notes: 

To build a more personalized experience for its users, the BBC will need to increase its use of their personal data. The BBC plans to use these data to support commissioning decisions and to make tailored content recommendations, and needs to meet best practice and transparency in data-handling. 

There is potential for reputational damage if the BBC does not meet best practice in acquiring, storing and securing personal data, and being transparent about its use. 

And it seems that the BBC has work to do when it comes to data management. The report adds: 

In 2019, a BBC-commissioned report found it was only in the early stages of maturity in compliance with data protection legislation in its use of audience data. The BBC has improved its approach to users’ data and data protection, including appointing a data protection officer and creating a central Data Protection Office team in 2019. 

However, in reviewing BBC planning documents on using customer data we found no references to its approach to the management and mitigation of reputational and other potential risks that could arise as it increases its use of such data

Leadership and skills

Whilst the BBC has a strategy in place and it’s making good progress given its budgetary constraints, the NAO has also identified that it faces challenges when it comes to leadership and skills. In 2021, the organization set up a new digital leadership group to help accelerate its digital growth - to ensure that digital was prioritized at the most senior levels of the BBC, via regular reporting of the BBC’s digital products and initiatives. 

Commenting on this, the NAO report notes: 

The BBC is improving the information given to the executive committee on its digital activity and recognises that it needs to formalize digital governance further. 

We have, for example, only seen limited evidence that the BBC’s executive committee is providing sufficient challenge to its digital leaders. 

In January 2022, following departures from the BBC board, the BBC recruited a new non-executive director with a background in technology to help, among other responsibilities, support and challenge its digital ambitions

However, leadership is just one element of this. And whilst the BBC has seen success in recruiting and retaining highly skilled individuals in key digital positions, it is experiencing technology staffing shortages and high turnover of staff (as is the case with other employers, too). 

In its product group, for instance, the BBC had a 23% staff turnover rate as of June 2022. And this is hindering its development of new products, as has been seen in the search team, which due to a number of vacancies has been unable to develop its search function further. The NAO report states: 

This is in part due to the BBC’s pay levels being lower than some other potential employers for technology professionals, although it does regularly review these pay levels, including through industry benchmarking. 

Watchdog recommendations

The NAO’s report is wide ranging and worth reading in full, but it also lays out some key recommendations for the BBC to consider. These include: 

  • Develop its leadership structures to ensure effective senior challenge of its digital projects - the BBC’s governance structures will need to evolve to ensure there is sufficient challenge to the corporation in terms of digital costs and opportunities and on the longer-term implications of decision-making. The BBC should regularly undertake a skills-based assessment of whether it has the right digital expertise in place at a senior level;

  • Building on its December 2022 announcement, plan scenarios for how it could move between broadcast and internet services in the future - the BBC should identify, working with relevant stakeholders, including those at risk of being left behind, scenarios for its proposed role of digital-only linear channels in the future. This should include how it may need to divest itself of more traditional broadcast technologies, setting out a trajectory for how it may need to move increasingly to internet services;

  • Set out how it plans to develop its personalisation strategy, including managing potential data risks - as it moves towards greater use of personal data and sign-in, the BBC now needs to fully develop a comprehensive personalization strategy. This should include how it will manage potential compliance risks around the capture, storage and use of personal data, as well as how it will maintain transparency around this with its users

  • Improve the detail that supports its digital-first investment plans - the BBC should finalize work to underpin its May 2022 digital-first strategy. This should include developing a realistic, more detailed digital investment plan. In the light of its 2022 licence fee settlement, this needs to set out how saving will be achieved, whether further borrowing is required, and whether planned investment is sufficient to meet the estimated costs of its digital ambitions. The plan also needs to take into account forecasts of inflation, particularly where these are specific to the industry.

My take

The BBC has some unique disadvantages when competing with private sector digital media organizations - namely its budget and that it has certain obligations that the likes of Netflix and Amazon don’t have to adhere to, given it is a public service broadcaster. That being said, it also has some huge advantages that these organizations don’t have: namely a deep historic relationship with its audience that goes back decades. The BBC will be forgiven for being slower than others to develop digital products, but it needs to remember that the trust it has built up over the years can be eroded if it deviates too far from its principles of informing, educating and entertaining, through impartial content. That’s the key to future success. 

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