Skip to content →

BBC Future Media: So sad to watch the train crash happening

Bobbie Johnson wrote an interesting article in yesterday’s Guardian about the continued stifling of innovation and general staff frustration within BBC Future Media (the department of the BBC that works with Internet and emerging media). This was also picked up by PaidContent too.

The state of affairs that Bobbie’s portrayed sounds pretty much in keeping with my final experiences there and what I hear on the ground from my ex-colleagues who are still there (I know quite a few, so I hope no one is singled out from that statement). If you haven’t read article, go read it as I don’t want to repeat the points raised(use BugMeNot if you don’t have a free Guardian account)

To find out why BBC Future Media is in the state it is, I think you need to look at the BBC a whole. The problem is that the entire organization is in a mess, and it will take many, many years for it to recover.

When the BBC was fucked over by the Hutton Report it had its wings clipped. The whole affair, along with a damning report into the BBC’s online activities, was used as opportunity for the government to carefully bring the BBC under tighter regulation without going so far as to be considered ‘controlling’ (and thus loosing the BBC its impartiality). What was supposed to be an (unnecessary) shake up of BBC News and BBC New Media snowballed into changing the whole way the BBC was governed. The BBC lost all of its ‘bargaining chips’ when it came to the beginning of the charter renewal process a year or so later and basically had to suck up what it was given.

The BBC has been thoroughly kicked and beaten in the past few years and in many ways it’s unsurprising that it’s lost its way. It cannot launch any substantially new service without OFCOM performing a Public Value Test – to ensure that the project will not have an adverse effect upon the commercial sector.

The success on the Internet is often about agility and getting stuff out to market before the competition. It makes it very difficult to do that when you have to spend 6 months checking to see if what you’re doing is going to have a significant impact upon the market. And if what you’re doing is new and pioneering then such a consultation process at best removes all competitive advantage and at worse lets your rivals develop the idea and bring something to market in that time.

The current problems Bobbie Johnson mentions in his piece, such as the long-overdue MyBBCPlayer, are valid concerns. It is ridiculous that it’s taken so long to bring to market and I don’t think anyone believes it will be considered a success. People want free, non-DRM’d media they can do anything they want with and clearly that’s not going to be what the BBC will serve up. It will fail. But the BBC has to have some presence in the on-demand media landscape and at least this will give it some platform to build from as the regulatory landscape changes. It still fits nicely into the BBC’s ‘Toblerone’ value chain proposition (sorry, in joke).

Selling off BBC Technology was ridiculous and everyone acknowledges that – even Greg himself. In the original press release about the sell-off Greg Dyke planted the following gem of a quote:

“When we were given our current funding agreement in the year 2000 by Chris Smith, the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, he made it a condition that we raised an additional £1 billion over the next seven years.

“He suggested one way of contributing to that was to sell a BBC asset. This is what is now planned.”

(emphasis mine)

I remember from an internal Q&A with Greg Dyke that he was against the sell off but the BBC was being forced to sell something significant within the BBC and BBC Technology was at the bottom of the list (although BBC Broadcast fell later too). I can’t tell you the problems the sale of BBCT has had on running technical projects inside the BBC because I’m probably still under NDA. But it’s been difficult and expensive.

People can moan and grown about Ashley Highfield (hey I’ve done it) but even if he was replaced by someone innovative, passionate and creative (or even someone who just knew what they were talking about) I’m not sure that things would be much better.

Right now the ‘Director of Future Media’ position is a lame duck position. What a department like BBC Future Media needs is the kind of catalyst ‘leader’ that’s discussed in The Starfish and the Spider. Not someone who steers from the top but someone who facilitates everyone else’s ability to produce. The smart people are evenly distributed down the hierarchy but that Director role, that department and even the BBC is not geared up to capitalize upon that.

So it doesn’t matter whether you’re 1 of 100 devs working on a multi-million pound marquee project like MyBBCPlayer or leading the agile little developer network ( 🙂 ) it’s hard to innovate in an environment that so far removed from being innovative it’s unthinkable. (Imagine if your work laptop was setup so that you couldn’t even hook it up to public wifi! – that’s also BBCT again)

Next month sees my 1 year anniversary since leaving the BBC. In that time I’ve had a turbulent time – moving to a new country, helping to start a business that I later left because it wasn’t heading in the direction I wanted to see myself go. But in that time I’ve felt a sense of freedom and opportunity that I never felt within the BBC – even when I was given the ‘greenlight’ to do pretty much what I wanted… the constraints placed upon the BBC were always still there.

I feel sorry for those who are ‘trapped’ in BBC Future Media (there isn’t much else to go to in London other than Yahoo! UK as the startup culture in UK still very thin). I’m very aware that not everyone has the personal circumstances I have to move to the USA to capitalize on what’s going on out here – and for that I’m very blessed.

I equally feel very bemused for the fresh meat that’s rolling in, possibly not fully appreciating what they’re letting themselves in for – especially as all the rockstars are leaving out the back exit. I hope they can prove me wrong.

But the BBC right now is decaying inside, and it makes me so sad to see it wither. Something new and fresh and exciting will be born out of it, but I fear it is many many years away.

Published in BBC Thoughts and Rants


  1. ant ant

    If you think the state of the web development landscape is bad, you should see the rest of the FM&T fiefdom. What was the rump of BBC Technology was actually a world class broadcast engineering R&D facility- perhaps not the hyper agile community of hacking oriented new media types that FM&T wants to be, but then again what part of BBC ever was?! As you say, we all had/have constraints.

    Right now we’ve got fcomm giving us public value tests, the trust folding BBC jam the instant the EU expresses mild unease (very very depressing on so many levels), and an R&D capability crumbling before our eyes. Rapid remedial action is required, and is possible, but as you say, many of the problems now lie outside of the BBC itself, in the new wider public service broadcasting ‘ecology’. Shame the only beast in the jungle with any reithian principles is the BBC- Siemens? RedBee? Capita? The Trust? none are displaying the slightest regard for the public interest.

  2. DM DM

    I am choking back the tears as I type this Ben. It’s truly touching that a blessed rock star still has pity to spare for those poor wretches left behind. But aren’t you watching the wrong train crash? It’s the adverts stupid!

    It’s still very early days for the Trust. So far, the BBC Jam decision has caused the most trauma. But the Trust has a chairman now, and a real chance to prove itself by, this time, averting a potential disaster.

    Will they seize the moment and defend the BBC’s editorial independence? Or will they allow that independence to be compromised for everyone – including the unwitting UK licence fee payers? We’ll find out in June… possibly.

  3. All my own comments of course…

    Ben sorry I may have the wrong end of the stick here but I think you’re confusing OFCOM Media Impact Assessments with the BBC Trust’s Public Value Tests.

    See you at Hack Day 🙂


  4. Ben Ben

    @Matthew Cashmore: MIA is part of PVT. From link I posted in that part of my post:

    1.2 The BBC’s new Royal Charter and Agreement requires the BBC Trust to undertake a Public Value Test (‘PVT’) before a decision is taken to make any significant change to the UK Public Services. The PVT comprises two elements – a Public Value Assessment (‘PVA’) and a Market Impact Assessment (‘MIA’)

  5. @Ben – okay I see your point, just didn’t follow it very well I’m afraid. It reads like OFCOM carries out the PVTs which of course it does in part but not in total.

    In our defence I would point out the work that backstage is doing, not to mention all the other amazing work going on in BBC Research & Innovation.

    I’ll leave this alone now, but it’s not quite as bleak a picture as you’re painting, and rather a lot of us ‘trapped’ at the beeb think that it’s doing stunning work and that we have a bright future.

  6. Ben Ben

    a lot of us ‘trapped’ at the beeb think that it’s doing stunning work and that we have a bright future.

    I’m pleased that there are people like you who are happy working at the BBC.

    I used the word ‘trapped’ because that’s the word a number of other BBC’ers use when they email me in private to point out that I ‘have it lucky’ with my visa situation and that I should be thinking a little more of those who are ‘trapped’ at the BBC with (for them, in their jobs) little other opportunity.

    Matt, you have a great role in a great project and you’ve only been there for less than a year (in your current stint). There are plenty of people around you and on the floor above you who have little other career options and few other potential employers. They feel trapped – that’s what they tell me. I’m talking coders through to execs.

    I may paint a very bleak picture of the BBC, but having left the BBC with time to reflect I think the overall picture is bleak. There are glimmers of brilliance with people working hard to do something new and wonderful but overall the organization isn’t able to capitalize and support them.

  7. Mmm okay I see your point, but I don’t think there’s an organisation anywhere in the world where some of it’s employees don’t feel trapped – I’d be amazed if every single person in every role was happy as could be.

    As far as I go, I was at the BBC as a CSD and Development Producer for 5 years before I left for the commercial world, I then had 18 months to reflect on my time at the beeb and frankly couldn’t wait to get back, all of those things you describe about being bad at the beeb where exactly what I experienced outside.

    Since I’ve been back I couldn’t ask for more support from the organisation, right the way up the structure and from every department – seriously, there’s a tide change going on at the BBC at the moment – and I appreciate that is at the front of that change and that I experience an awful lot more freedom than a lot of people around me – but that’s exactly what backstage is about internally (not just externally) – not to mention the other initiatives going on to give developers freedom to try new things, new systems and to rapidly prototype new ideas and models.

    meh – and I was going to leave this alone 😉 Let’s talk about this properly at Hack Day – you should have had your invite by now and if not you’ll get it in the next couple of days.

  8. When I first heard about BBC’s future media, sometime ago, I expected a lot of changes and innovation on BBC’s web presence, though they’re not far behind the leading media orgs in taking up new media, they aren’t progressing much either.

    Your conclusion that “it will crash” seems harsh though, i think there’s still time to change course.

  9. For the BBC—and the rest of the world—try the Radeo Internet Player. MS Windows and Mac OS; IE, Firefox, and Safari browsers; Windows Media, Real, and QuickTime players. Available now—free and easy.

    For BBC offerings easily from one place—including Radio Player, News Player, Sport Player, Weather Player, Podcasts, and World Service (including foreign languages) and TV Clips, Film Network, and Collective—click the Search tab and open The BBC at the bottom of the list. This—perhaps most importantly the personalization—is significantly more than the BBC intends with their iPlayer.

    For an advanced version demo, including Playlists and set only with BBC streams, Login: MyBBC (with no password required). (And, a companion mobile version is in beta.)

    The Radeo Internet Player
    More than 10,000 Stations, 20,000 Shows, and 800,000 Episodes–
    Broadcasts, Webcasts, and Podcasts Worldwide–Audio and Video.
    Wherever You Are, Wherever They Are, and Whatever They Are.
    Easy to Play Your Favorites, Find More, and Share Them.

  10. Steve Withers Steve Withers

    The BBC is a vctim of the large donations media barons have made to the Labour Party. Rupert Murdoch, Conrad Black and others have, in the past, salivated to the point of dribbling over the commanding heights the BBC holds in both British media and in global media. For his part, Murdoch would want to “Fox-ify” the BBC if he could get his hands on it…..which he can’t. For now, anyway.

    It was obvious to me that the Hutton Report wold be used as the excuse to limit the Beeb’s balanced coverage of Blair’s massive screw-up in Iraq and related matters and their consequences. It was also obvious that at some point “re-structuring” would include selling part of the BBC off to these same salivating media barons.

    If any values democracy in Britain, they owe it to themselves and the country to make the independence of the BBC an election issue….and a BIG one.

  11. How act I leave concerning removing articles that infringe copyright?

Comments are closed.