The digital challenge of turning BBC Online into The BBC online

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan November 24, 2014
The BBC has been on a three and half year digital transformation journey, explains its Director of Future Media Ralph Rivera.

No-one said it was going to be easy.

For an American, BBC Director of Future Media Ralph Rivera is a fan of understatement. The task to which he’s alluding was a checklist of tasks that would have had many other organizations backing away in trepidation. At one and the same time, the BBC set out to:

  • consolidate its digital portfolio of 500 websites, 40 content management systems and 140 embedded media players into something
  • more manageable
  • cut budgets by 25%
  • lose 360 online jobs
  • move a third of its staff from London to Manchester
  • oh, and not drop the ball on the biggest broadcasting event in decades, the London 2012 Olympics.

Ralph Rivera

US-born Rivera joined the UK BBC in 2010 after previous roles at Major League Gaming in New York, AOL's Games and Latino businesses, publishing company Pearson Education, Simon & Schuster, Deloitte & Touche and IBM. Nothing had prepared him for the iconic nature of the BBC:

I was greeted by ‘The BBC’ and the realisation that there is no such thing. The BBC’s more like AOL Time Warner than it is like IBM when I used to work there. The BBC is actually BBC News, BBC Sport, BBC 1 and so on. It’s more like a flotilla than one big enterprise. That’s different from when I used to be at IBM when you could go anywhere in the world and IBM was just IBM.

At the BBC we had these multiple silos and each one of them was fragmented, such that we had 500+ websites, 40 content management systems, over 140 embedded media players. My mandate coming in was to change all that and that meant restructuring. We needed to reorganize. All this 18 months before the Olympics!

Numerical thinking

Rivera argues that his engineering background was useful when it came to working out how to tackle this monumental ‘to do’ list, especially his love of numbers:

One, ten, four - that became our strategy. We were going to move from multiple silos to one service, one service to deliver the entirety of the BBC. We were going to move from 500 websites to ten products. We were going to move from one screen, desktop, to four screens.

That was the strategy - one, ten, four. Simple, clear, concise, but very difficult to execute. Everyone knows that culture eats strategy for breakfast - breakfast, lunch and dinner, every day. What we needed to do was execute on change.

The things we focused on were product, people and platform. Most people would say put people first, but for me you have to put people within a construct. What I was hired to do was bring in the idea of product and product management and a product orientation to replace the ‘build me a website in these colors please’ orientation.

The way you get to 500 websites is if every channel has a website, then every genre has a website, then every program has a website. At a place like the BBC, you easily end up with 500 websites.


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Such thinking was not ‘the BBC way of doing things, which presented its own cultural challenges:

There’s a fundamental difference between broadcasting, where it has to be perfect when it goes on air because I can’t do anything else with it, versus minimum viable product to be iterated over time.

Bringing in product meant bringing in product management, product roadmaps, agile product development, user-centric product marketing. We had to create these things from scratch. The job description of product manager didn’t exist. We didn’t have analytics. We had to bootstrap that.

We had to procure our analytics environment so that we could start making data-driven decisions. We had to introduce the notion of minimal viable product into an environment that’s not used to delivering something unless it’s perfect.

The people aspect involved getting everyone on the same page as well as bringing on board talent to support the new objectives:

We needed to get people on the same page. We needed governance structures, define roles and responsibilities. We had to get people to understand that editorial leads lead on content, product leads lead on capability, marketing leads lead on insights and form inter-disciplinary teams around each product area and work together as a team. Building trust across what used to be fairly contentious tribes was key. That started from the top and have that flow through the rest of the organisation.

The biggest challenge to any organization doing digital transformation is getting the right people and getting the developers, the engineers, the product management. We’ve been able to get these people because it’s the BBC. The BBC is a very mission-driven organization. You don’t come to the BBC to get stock options and be a billionaire; you come to the BBC to have impact.

Finally came the platform element:

We focused on platform. We consolidated our content management systems. We went from 40 down to two. We went from 140 different media player to one embedded player. We embraced the cloud for services like video coding. We implemented NoSQL triple stores to act as a repository for all our metadata. Now we have metadata that spans a news story, a sports story, a TV show and a radio show, cross different stories and different platforms.

Strictly Come Dancing

Rivera has a simple mantra when it comes to technology ‘buy or build’:

Re-use what you have before you buy and buy before you build. We picked the best content management system that we had and it was the one for BBC News, called CPS for journalists. It was literally referred to as the content management system for journalists.

Strictly Come Dancing on the other hand had a completely different content management system. When I asked the CPS people why we didn’t use the CPS for Strictly, the answer was ‘But they’re not journalists’.

This was an argument that didn’t fly with Rivera who saw a different pattern:

Strictly is a live event, with live commentary, photos and video. That looks like news to me. That’s how we got CPS to become one of the two primary content systems. You need to get the domain people to do the triage and decide whether to build or buy.

Olympic gold

Looming over all this was the 2012 London Olympics, which Rivera says in retrospect was a blessing and a curse:

Companies have the notion of the ‘burning platform’. We had the need to deliver the Olympics.

We were looking to deliver the first digital Olympics. Our ambition was that 2012 would do for digital what [Queen Elizabeth II’s] Coronation did for TV. [The 1953 Coronation is generally cited as the primary driver for widespread TV set purchasing in the UK]. That was the sense of purpose that joined everyone together.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was negative motivation as well. We were partly fuelled by fear. We knew we would only get one shot at this. The entire country was riding on it. We didn’t want to be the ones who f-cked up the Olympics.

It was all the video on demand, it was the data in real-time for every athlete, it was available on every network and on every device. It was mobile and the social. The BBC delivered everything.

In the event, the 2012 Olympics were undoubtedly a total success for the BBC which made every event available on every network and every device as well as seeing a massive audience on mobile and social platforms. In fact, so great a success was the coverage that there was a danger of a post-Olympics ‘come down’.

But as it happened, what occurred was demand for more of the same:

All of a sudden everyone wanted the Olympics treatment. We took that out to Glastonbury where we covered every stage. We took it to Wimbledon where we covered every court. We took it to Sochi. We did the European Elections, the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games.

What was exceptional in 2012 became business as usual in 2014.

But the digital innovation continues, emphasizes Rivera:

During the Commonwealth Games our R&D team broadcast in 4k via DTT, free-to-air, and also via IP. I also enjoyed the fact that it was the first time anyone had broadcast a live sports event straight into Oculus Rift so you could get a fully-immersive experience.

We also continued to improve and scale our products so that now at the BBC product is a word that everyone’s very familiar with.

The BBC is also approaching a major milestone where:

We could be mobile first week in, week out. If you look at September’s figures, desktop just edged out mobile. We are 2/3 non-PC to one third desktop. We have completely flipped our traffic pattern over the past 3.5 years.

So what’s next. Rivera has some clear goals:

Next step is going from BBC Online to The BBC online. That speaks to the pivot of getting our digital house in order to the digital transformation of the entirety of the BBC. That’s the next leg in the journey for us.

Then there’s MyBBC, the notion of transforming from broadcaster to anonymous and passive audience to engaging and empowering known individuals. That represents significant investment in data, analytics and personalised experiences.

There will also be a step change for the iPlayer on demand, free-to-air media player, one of the great BBC digital triumphs:

It’s live and on demand, it’s streaming and downloads. It’s ad free on over 1000 devices. I use Hulu, NetFlix, Amazon - no-one else can check all those boxes. And yet it’s still a reflection of what happened on TV and radio, it hasn’t gone beyond that.

In future, it’s going to have short form. It’s going to have new channels. It will have personalized channels built on MyBBC. We’ll use iPlayer as a platform. For example, BBC Worldwide is launching a [downloads] store and iPlayer will be back end of that.

The changing face of iPlayer

iPlayer will also become the platform for the planned shift of broadcast channel BBC3 if all the relevant approvals for the idea come off:

We are the first broadcaster in the world that has decided to shut down successful broadcast channel and make it online only. It’s something we hope to launch in the autumn next year.

The distinction between iPlayer and BBC3 is like the joke about hens and pigs and breakfast - one’s involved and one’s committed. TV producers are involved vis-a-vis iPlayer but man, BBC is committed. It’s commissioning, it’s production, it’s re-imagining the BBC3 brand be as a digital native. It isn’t going to be the BBC3 channel on iPlayer.

It’s all an enormously ambitious ongoing exercise and one that doesn’t have an end in sight yet. As Rivera notes:

There’s a race between digital disruptors looking to scale and scale players looking to transform.

I’ve come up with a conflict around the notion of journey. Journey is usually positive. Enjoy your journey, focus on your journey, not the destination.

But when I started working [in the UK] and heard the word journey, it was usually code for ‘this expletive thing is going to take a lot longer than we all want’.

My take

Over the past year we've written a lot about the BBC's disastrous Digital Media Initiative which poured around £100 million down the drain. With that in mind, it's good to get the positive side of the broadcaster's digital thinking. The digital transformation of the corporation over the past three years has been genuinely impressive and sets a standard for broadcast organizations around the world.


Ralph Rivera was talking at The CDO Summit in London. Thanks to Peter and Molly for assistance. 


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