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.”
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.