The BBC will become an “internet first” broadcaster, claims CTO

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez April 8, 2015
Matthew Postgate has a monumental challenge on his hands, after the BBC's failed £120m DMI project last year. Can he pull it off?


matthew postgate BBC CTO
The BBC's chief technology officer, Matthew Postgate, has said that it is his job to refocus the public funded broadcaster to become an “internet first” organisation, in order to compete with the likes of Amazon and Netflix in the future.

And Postgate has a huge task on his hands - not just because the BBC has decades old legacy and has traditionally relied upon providing linear television, to what has historically been a pretty captive audience, but because of the Beeb's poor track record in delivering digital projects.

Postgate steps into the shoes of John Linwood, the BBC's previous technology chief, who was dismissed by the organisation for failing to deliver a £120 million Digital Media Initiative, which was aimed at digitising the broadcaster's video archive.

The project, and the BBC, were heavily criticised by a select committee of MPs for wasting public money and Linwood was later found by an employment tribunal to have been unfairly dismissed by the organisation.

The tribunal's outcome was a huge embarrassment to the BBC, not just because of the way it treated Linwood, but because it highlighted a number of failings in the organisation's governance of the project and pointed to particularly poor HR processes.

So it is unsurprising that Postgate's position in the broadcaster and his role of delivering technological transformation have been labelled by some as a “poisoned chalice”.

However, in his first interview since taking up the post, Postgate told the Financial Times that the BBC was trying to adjust its focus to younger audiences that prefer to consume content, whether it be television or radio, over the web, instead of via linear TV channels that offer less choice.

"It’s my job over the next five years to put in place the production foundations to be internet first,” he said, adding that media groups “are going to have to learn lessons if they’re going to be in a position to compete with organisations that were born in the digital age."

And when speaking about the BBC's track record on delivering digital projects and the failed Digital Media Initiative, Postgate said that the broadcaster had learnt some valuable lessons and that there was no longer any desire to “do very large, overarching, multilayer projects, but instead we're thinking about technology as a more agile, iterative process”.

However, Postgate still intends to move the BBC's huge archive from tape to online and claims that he has already made some of the changes that the failed digital initiative sought to make, such as, from this year, programmes are being produced using digital files, rather than being recorded to tape. Postgate said:

Rather than trying to deliver one large project, we've been taking off the different components and moving forward.

Interestingly, another thing that Postgate has done is renamed his department 'BBC Engineering', instead of 'BBC Technology', because he believes that “engineering is something that you do, whereas technology is something that you buy”. He has also created a 'business change' team to assist departments as they migrate towards digital processes.

However, the main focus of discussion for Postgate, and his main ambition for his new role, is to deliver more programmes online. Whilst the BBC was one of the first broadcasters to deliver an on-demand online service, in the form of the hugely successful iPlayer, it has been beaten by the likes of Channel 4 in recent years in terms of using data to personalise services and experimenting with delivering content over a variety of platforms – something that resonates well with the younger, digital audiences.

That's before you even start considering the likes of Netflix and Amazon, which not only are great multi-platform services, but produce some of the best content available.

The BBC announced last year that it would be shifting its youth-orientated channel BBC Three to become online only, which would reduce its budget from £55 million to £30 million. However, Postgate said that this was more than just about reducing costs and instead reflected how the BBC was responding to its audience's preferences. He said:

I think the direction of travel for the BBC is that we need to make sure that our portfolio is relevant in the internet age. BBC Three was a brand that you could move from one platform to another relatively easily.

The others you look at, something like Radio One, is already a brand that exists as much on other platforms as it does on FM [radio] or [digital radio], whereas BBC One ultimately is almost the home of the national conversation and it’s maybe suited to more broadcast-oriented technologies.

Diginomica recently ran a two-part special on assessing whether or not the BBC could become the 'digital heart

of the nation', which is definitely worth a read. In it we take a look at BBC Director General Tony Hall's arguments for making the Beeb more data-driven and creating services that deliver personalised results. For example, Hall said:

Take Wolf Hall [a BBC drama] – we’re just dipping our toe in here at the moment. On the iPlayer, we recommend a feature on BBC Online about whether Anne Boleyn was a proto-feminist. It’s a great interview with Wolf Hall’s brilliant director Peter Kosminsky. But we could so much more – guiding you to the best of the BBC’s content about the Tudors or radio shows about historical novels. Or to something brilliant from the British Museum or the RSC.

The potential is huge. Letting our audience become schedulers. Giving you the health news that you need, based on data you choose to share with us. Building on our Get Inspired campaign in sport to help you get active – or to encourage you to Get Creative, our new campaign in the arts.

This is the start of a real transformation – the myBBC revolution. How to reinvent public service broadcasting through data. But we’ll always be doing it our way – not telling you what customers like you bought, but what citizens like you would love to watch and need to know.

My take

Postgate's interview is interesting because this is the first time, from what I can recall, that the BBC has said that it is going to be an “internet first” organisation. That's very different to the situation now, where it delivers its primary content via linear scheduling, on the TV, and then uses its online services for catch-up and on-demand.

I know my colleague Stuart has a slightly more sceptical viewpoint about the BBC's role in delivering a digital service and whether or not it has overestimated the need for personalised services, all points which are valid and worth a read.

However, from my perspective, I know that when I'm consuming content I only watch 'live' TV probably only about 20% of the time...if that. The rest of the time I'm doing catch-up using the online on-demand services, or I use the apps on my Sky Box, I watch Netflix or Amazon, or am streaming content via my laptop onto the TV using Google Chromecast. This is the world that the BBC has to compete in.

If you look at Channel4, it made huge investments early on in analysing data to deliver personalised services. And they're incredibly useful. Not only this, but it is experimenting with content delivery. For example, its recent Russell T Davies series saw the main show 'Cucumber' delivered on Channel4, the more youth-orientated 'Banana' delivered in a shorter format on E4, with the even shorter documentary-focused 'Tofu' delivered online only. I'm not saying that this was totally successful, but you can see that it is trying to figure out what works for all audiences.

And if you look at Netflix – I don't find most of my content on Netflix by browsing through all the categories, I compile my own 'list' of content I want to watch largely based on personalised recommendations that Netflix delivers to me, or based on content that my friends are viewing.

Am I using the BBC for any of these things? Nope. And I suspect that's the gap that the BBC needs to fill. And it has a huge opportunity to do so, given the backlog of great content that it has at its finger tips.

Not only this, but if moving online means less cost – as was the case with BBC Three – this should be a huge opportunity to invest in new, creative content. Netflix isn't just successful because it delivers content online, it's successful because it also creates some of the best shows out there – Orange is the New Black, House of Cards – these are shows I can't watch anywhere else.

The BBC shouldn't forget that investing in content is equally important, if not more important, than investing in online. But that two actually go hand in hand.

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