Can the BBC pull off a digital regeneration?

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 9, 2013
The BBC is a UK institution almost on a par with the National Health Service in terms of its role in the national consciousness. But it's also an organisation that's having to re-examine its role in the world and to work out its direction in a digital age.

Tony Hall

The BBC is a UK institution almost on a par with the National Health Service in terms of its place in the national consciousness. But it's also an organisation that's having to re-examine its role in the world and to work out its direction in a digital age.

The public service broadcasting ethos at the heart of the BBC has remained intact in the corporate DNA since its inception in 1922, but the world around it has grown ever more complex. While once the BBC had a monopoly on broadcasting, today it sits among literally hundreds of alternative channels.

That has made its funding by means of a compulsory licence fee an increasingly controversial factor and one that is exploited with cynical opportunism by Murdoch-owned media which argues that expecting UK citizens to pay what critics deem a 'TV tax' is not appropriate in an age of subscription options, most notably Murdoch's own Sky TV operation.

More recently the corporation has been thrown into a state of self-loathing by hideous revelations of rampant paedophilia from treasured BBC celebrities within its walls during the 1970s and 1980s.

Combine this with a series of high profile sackings and resignations accompanied by what many critics call inappropriately large pay-offs and the BBC of 2013 has been on a near-permanent back foot, instinctively adopting a stance of automatic assumption of guilt.

If the BBC is to continue into its next century, a new sense of identity and purpose needs to be found and the key to that is going to be its digital thinking.

Digital drive

Lord Reith

It's indicative of how important this is to the corporation that Tony Hall, the recently appointed (latest) Director General of the BBC, made it the subject of what was clearly an attempt to reboot BBC 2013 earlier this week in a speech at the BBC Radio Theatre in London.

He boldly declared:

"We have never been afraid of change. We’ve never feared new technology. We’ve always embraced it, because we know it creates new opportunities to inform, to educate and to entertain."

That's a splendidly Reithian ethos to evoke - Lord Reith was the very first Director General who declared that the corporation's role was to educate, inform and entertain - but the grand mission statements are easy enough to voice. The devil of course is in the detail.

But it has to be said that the BBC has a good story to tell here. From being 'the idiot's lantern' in the corner of the living room as TVs were described when the first BBC broadcasts began in the 1950s, the television set has become only one delivery platform among many.

This is a lesson that the BBC has learned quickly and which is has worked to address quietly - and very effectively - over the past few years, embracing mobile content delivery for example.

Hall explained:

"A bit of video I was looking at recently stuck with me over the past few months. It showed a toddler sitting up holding a magazine. She tries to swipe it – she tries to expand it – she bangs it to try to make it play. Nothing happens. And in frustration she throws it away. To a toddler a magazine is a tablet that’s broken.

"That’s how this generation is growing up. It will have a totally different set of norms and behaviours.

"Almost every teenager today has a mobile and it’s this device they value most, not the radio or the television."

And it's not just a teenage thing. Expectations across the wider BBC audience are changing, he added:

"When something big is happening, people don’t want to wait. The public want news they can trust about what’s going on wherever it is in the world. Now. In the palm of their hand. And then they want to share it and they want to talk about it.

"Users of the BBC – our public – want control, to find out things that matter to them, to search out something special. And they know that new technology means they can find it, whether it was recommended by a friend or suggested by an algorithm that knows what they liked.

"Our audiences demand to be involved, to share with others, to debate with others. They want less distance, more involvement."

The iPlayer generation

The iPlayer

Then there's iPlayer. iPlayer is perhaps the biggest BBC success story of the past decade, something for which the BBC can be genuinely proud. It began as a 7 day catch-up service that allowed users to access BBC TV and radio programming via their computers.

Today iPlayer functionality is increasingly embedded into the new generation of Smart TVs while mobile access is rapidly on the rise with 40% of all requests to iPlayer now coming via mobile devices, up from 6% a couple of years ago.

Enhancing iPlayer functionality is a core plank of the BBC's digital roadmap with Hall declaring that 2014 will see the BBC "re-invent" the offering, including:

  • Pop-up channels around specific events or festivals such as Glastonbury, curated by key talent
  • Online channels such as Radio 1 TV, Arts or Science
  • More exclusive iPlayer content to build on the success of comedy pilots for BBC Three
  • The ability to create your own evening schedule with access to more content before it airs on TV
  • An extended window to watch increasing from seven to 30 days
  • Ability to pause and resume TV viewing from one screen to another
  • More relevant and personalised recommendations for viewing
  • More programming made exclusively for online audiences for BBC brands like EastEnders, Doctor Who and themed collections from the BBC’s Archive.

Hall explained:

"We’re going to give you more content, more opportunities to watch our shows, making them available for free not just for seven days – but for thirty. We will give you the chance to see programmes before they’ve even been broadcast and 'first on iPlayer’.

"Imagine if you had the evening’s recorded schedule at your disposal – so you could sit at home and be your own scheduler, picking what you like, when you like, from our channels.

"And because we know people often want to go back and see older programmes – sometimes classics, sometimes more recent – we plan to launch something called BBC Store, a new commercial online service which will offer people in the UK the chance to buy a whole range of programmes to watch and keep forever."

The BBC also intends to exploit the Big Data it gathers on viewer habits to be more proactive in its engagement with its customers:

"At the end of a programme, the iPlayer just used to ask if you wanted to watch it again. It’s a funny request, really. We can do so much better. And we’ll be able to do that because we’ll know who you are. We’ll suggest more of what you might like. But also more of what you wouldn’t have guessed you’d like. We’ll surprise you. Challenge you.

"We will demonstrate we can do public service broadcasting on iPlayer as much as we have done on television and radio.

We want to harness the energy of the YouTube generation. We’ll invite them in to the BBC and fund them to make brilliant programmes. We’ll free them from the conventional commissioning process and encourage them to experiment and make original online content so they can inform, educate and entertain – each other."

And in a final manifestation of that Reithian public service mantra will also be seen in an ambitious scheme in 2015 to bring coding into every home, business and school across the UK.

From September 2014 children in schools in England will start learning computer coding from the age of five as part of the basic educational curriculum. The BBC intends to complement this.

Hall said:

"We want to inspire a new generation to get creative with coding, programming and digital technology.

"From working with children and young people, to stimulating a national conversation about digital creativity, the BBC will help audiences embrace technology and get creative."



This is a time of great change, Hall observed, but that's good:

"Media people often use the word ‘disruption’ for things like this. To me, it’s the wrong word – disruption may be what we feel inside this industry. But for the public – out there, using what we do – this is empowering. It’s becoming a golden age of media.

"The key challenge - the core of what we have to do - is to harness our power to create-to our power to innovate.

"And innovation has been a part of the BBC from its very foundation. You have to refresh, to regenerate. I suppose you can't be the home of Doctor Who for 50 years without learning something about regeneration."

He ended on an upbeat note, reflecting on how far the BBC has come:

"Look at this building to see what I mean: a place where once men in dinner suits spoke into foot-long microphones – now one of the most advanced, networked, interactive digital hubs in the world."


It's a bold vision for a digital future from Hall, but a necessary and welcome statement of intent.

There remains the question of how the BBC intends to fund all this. Hall himself acknowledges that there will have to be budget cuts to found to fund the future.

And all of this does nothing to address the ongoing problem of how a state-mandated 'TV tax' can be justified in a multi-channel, multi-broadcaster, multi-platform world.





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