Category Archives: BBC

Thoughts on a “risk averse BBC”, as covered in the Guardian today

BBC: Cut the CrapMaggie Brown asks in the Guardian today ‘whether the BBC has become too affraid to take risks?‘.

Her piece focuses around the dreaded “BBC Editorial Policy Unit” which was set up to appese the fallout from the 2008 Russel Brand prank call debacle and the prior findings of the Hutton Inquiry. “Russell Brand-gate” was about Russell Brand being, well, Russell Brand albeit on a pre-recorded radio show where someone editorially should have known better, and the Hutton Inquiry was about the fact that the BBC ‘falsely’ claimed the UK government had lied about claims Saddam Hussain had Weapons of Mass Distruction in Iraq.

(Except, that it turned out that the BBC was right all along, but that only came to light years after the Labour-government initiated inquiry had performed it’s ‘duty’ and given The Corporation a good kick in the bollocks)

The Editorial Policy Unit (essentially an internal editorial watchdog), it is claimed, is stifling bold, innovative and risk taking content from being produced because the BBC is too afraid to broadcast anything that might create another Hutton Inquiry or Brand-gate.

And as a former BBC employee I would definitely agree we’ve ended up with a BBC that is afraid to take risks.

The reasons for this, however, go far deeper than just the Editorial Policy Unit – but into areas such as not having the budget for innovative programming because the Tory government has frozen the BBC’s income over the next 4 years (essentially a 17% reduction marked against inflation). Or the corporation being kneecapped from doing anything innovative or risk taking online because the findings of the Graff Report warned that the BBC might be stifling the commercial sector. Now whenever the corporation wants to do something new and innovative online it must perform a series of bureaucratic “Public Value Tests’ and market impact evaluations – in concert with the regulator OFCOM which takes years to compete.

So yes after the (editorial) kicking, (innovation) knee-caping and (resource) strangling the BBC has gone through over the past 5-10 years, yeah it pretty much is affraid to take another risk.

But isn’t that by design and as intended?

Graff Report, Hutton Inquiry, et al are all thanks to the desires of past and previous elected governments and the influence of the media industry as a whole but in particular Rupert Murdoch and The Guardian backed Association of Online Publishers (AOP). This is what everyone wanted, no?

It seems ironic that the publisher of the original piece by Maggie Brown is the main protagonist within the AOP that demanded the Graft Report in the first place.

And we, the British public, have let it happen – perhaps not realising just how lucky we were to have a public service broadcaster like the BBC that would take risks the like of which commercial sector would never consider doing. The promise that the commercial sector, now un-stifled from the BBC’s supposed market saturation, would step in and save the day has sadly not proven true.

So maybe there is a place for strong, risk-taking public service broadcasting after all. Maybe there is a something perverse about people whinging that they don’t want pay £145.50 a year for high-quality, advert free BBC content but then happily shell out £100’s every month to satellite and cable providers who’ve demonstrated about as much risk and innovation as a ham sandwich.

Because otherwise the severely handicapped BBC we have today is the BBC we all let happen. The gift we never really thought we’d miss until it began to disappear. Which it now slowly is.

“Cut the Crap” photo CC Jem Stone, a former colleague. The former Director General of the BBC, Greg Dyke actually commissioned these ‘yellow cards’ during my service at the BBC for rank-and-file staff to use in meetings if unnecessary impediments were getting in the way of innovative and important work being broadcast. Oh how times have changed.

Memories of an era when the BBC was innovative and risk taking:

Why are we doing this

‘Hacking the BBC’, a BBC Backstage Retrospective

Back in October 2010 the BBC announced that BBC Backstage – the developer platform and open data project I had created with Tom Loosemore and James Boardwell back in 2004 – would be closing at the end of the year.

It was sad news, but one that was both expected and appropriate. The project set out to do big things:

  • introduce a large and buerocratic media organization to the concepts of open data,
  • share that data with 3rd party developers in order to let them find new and experimental uses for it
  • foster internal and external innovation practices that were new, chaotic and sometimes challenging to an old encumbant.

But I think its fair to say that on the whole, the project met its goals and expectations.

As a by-product I think BBC Backstage, and the community that formed around it, also helped kick-start the fledgling London Startup community that we have today. What was then called “The London New Media Scene”, primarily because of the agency orientated slant of the London industry at the time, influenced a generation of non-commercial hackers and NTK subscribers to become entrepenurial and start building startups.

With BBC Backstage winding up, the BBC has produced a wonderful retrospective, “Hacking the BBC”, which I had the honour of being interviewed for. You can download a copy here (pdf) or see below.

The closure of BBC Backstage is certainly a sad day for me, but at the same time I’m confident that it was time to do it. The challenge for the BBC is maintaining the concept of open data and external innovation – and weaving it through the entire fabric of the organization. They claim that is something that is happening, and I think there are good people there championing the notion – but I think the BBC still has some way to go before that box can be really ticked.

You can read Jemima Kiss’s coverage on the Guardian’s website or you can check out a few photo memories I have of the project:

A very flush-faced looking me launching the project at OpenTech 2005 (photo by Natalie Downe)
Ben Metcalfe and the launch of BBC backstage

The BBC Backstage Team winning a New Statesman Award for innovation, 2006
New Statesman Award 06

and of course, cheekily snapping Tom Loosemore in a suit:

Changes to BBC News Website reduces choice for users outside UK

Like many of its counterparts, the BBC News Website maintains two distinct versions of it’s front page – a ‘domestic’ orientated front page and an ‘international front page. The domestic front page contains a mixture of British and world-news orientated stories, whereas the international front page only includes British news if it’s of world-wide interest.

Any visitor to the site could select which version they wanted to receive.

Until last week, that is, when the BBC decided to start forcing it’s visitors to take the version intended for the territory from which they are visiting.

As an ex-pat living in San Francisco, California that means I am now forced to take the international front page despite being very interested in British news (I’m a British citizen, tax payer, voter and still have interests in the UK).

BBC News Website screenshot

Those of you who know my background will also know that I spent six years working at the BBC, predominantly on the BBC News Website – in a technical and product development capacity. I’m therefore doubly interested in this change, as I still feel very proud of the work that I contributed to at what is (in my opinion) the most upstanding source of news around.

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, New Mexico (?)

The changes have angered a lot of people, as you can well imagine. Check out the comments on the BBC Editors blog post – which Steve Herrmann (Editor, BBC News Website) tries to address on another post.

The heart of the matter is that the BBC News Website is serving three distinct user stories:

  • I am a UK user wanting to view British and International news
  • I am an International user wanting to view world news
  • I am an International user wanting to view British and International news

Sadly, the changes made no longer allow for the last use case – which is a pretty vocal set of people.

Technical challenges that have caused this change

The BBC says it’s doing this for a number of reasons. Serving video has become complicated – pages designed for a UK audience don’t play the video intended to accompany the page when viewed internationally as the BBC rarely has rights to show such video. The BBC is also now serving display and text-link ads to international users – it needs to maximize the efficiency of those ads and design pages layouts that accommodate them while at the same time running a domestic version of the site that contains no advertising whatsoever. The BBC also points out that a section listing UK News is included on the international front page – although I would counter that it is included ‘below the fold’ and doesn’t reflect the same editorial list as the Domestic Front Page.

While I understand and sympathize with the issues raised by the BBC I believe both are solvable very easily and am disappointed that this course of action has been taken.

5uP3r W1z4rd H4XoR

The great news is that due to the way the BBC News Website is built, you can still access the “UK Front Page” via a special hacked-up URL, which I have bundled into a convenient url:

I would suggest adding that to your bookmarks or updating your default start page with this url.

UPDATE: Following on from demand, I’ve also created as a dedicated url to the international front page.

Below I have pasted an email I sent to Steve Herrmann, along with Nic Newman (Technology Controller, BBC Future Media: Journalism), Pete Clifton (Head of Editorial Development, Multi-Media Journalism and former Head of BBC News Website) and Richard Sambrook (Head of BBC World News):

Hi Steve,

Just wanted to drop you a line to say that I’m really disappointed with the change to the site today. As you may know I’ve been living in San Francisco since leaving the BBC, so I’m an international-based user these days

Understanding the way the site is published I completely comprehend the point on your blog post that “all the same content will be available as now so you’ll still be able to get both UK and international news wherever you are” but that’s only true in so far as the stories themselves.

The specific editors decision as to what is most current and prominent across the domestic and international newscape for a British-focused audience – ie the UKFS Front Page – is no longer available to me (well it is at – but that’s only because I know the hidden urls of the system).

Today is a pretty international news-orientated day because of the Iranian elections, North Korea issues and Guantanamo Bay. However, I notice that a number of uk stories that appear high up in the UK homepage right now have no placing in the top 9 slots of the International Front Page at all. The “News from UK” is way down below the fold, and requires scrolling to get to – it’s nothing more than an after-thought.

I guess I’m not communicating anything new that hasn’t already been voiced by others, other than to say that I’m really really disappointed – both has a user and as a former employee. I understand the technical issues you are dealing with around serving templates built for advertising to the international audience while maintaining non-advertising templates for UK users. And I understand the video issues as well, where rights are not available.

From a product development perspective there are three user stories the BBC News Website has always served:

  • I am a UK user wanting to view British and International news
  • I am an International user wanting to view world news
  • I am an International user wanting to view British and International news

By implementing the changes to have made today, you have effectively trashed that third use case. Or incorrectly assumed the last two are the same, which they are not. It’s very sad and disappointing.

Let me know if I can brainstorm with you guys solutions that you could implement to help you get back to offering all three use-cases. I’m guessing that no one that works on the product development for the site actually uses it outside of the country, so let me know if I can be an advocate to that.

Best wishes,

Steve wrote to thank me for the email and promised to pass it on to the product development team. I will update this page if/when I get any further replies.

Update: Or, you could just check out the amazingly hilarious yet familiar looking NewsArse instead.

Disclosures: I am a former BBC News Website employee and companies I have a financial interest in supply technology to BBC

Great example of why rights management DRM sucks

I live in the USA, and I can’t access the BBC’s stream of John McCain’s acceptance speech… because “the media is unavailable in my territory”.

BBC NEWS | News Front Page
Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

Sure, this is nothing new to those of us familiar with online media. But equally, one has to ask why the BBC doesn’t secure worldwide distribution for ‘general news’, esp like in this case where it’s probably recording the broadcast live from the convention… it’s BBC copyright end-to-end.

And of course, it’s just plain stupid that I can’t watch John McCain’s speech here in the US from a website that is even served from the US (BBC serves international users mainly from servers in New York). Crazy.

Apture: elegantly adding context to your site

“Wow, that’s really really slick!”

That was my reaction when Tristan first showed me a demo of Apture (which just opened for signups, if you want to add it to your blog or website).

We’d met a few times previously and he’d been teasing with hints about the product he was working on – but refused to show me anything, or even give me any detail about what he and his fellow co-founders were really up to.

All I knew was that we shared a common interest in both grassroots and mainstream media, and importance of innovation given the nature of the content often being communicated. We’d spent several meetings discussing all sorts of interest stuff – from the way the media is often the last resort to keep governments and business in check, the need for informed society, through to the power of building products with a platform-orientated architecture.

Very much a meeting of minds – and so when I finally got to experience Apture, I was delighted that it too was at the intersection of so many of my favorite topics. I’m also proud to say that I am a member of Apture’s advisory board.

Welcome to Apture

For me, Apture is about bringing light-touch context and background to topics within the page you are looking at. In essence, it provides a simple framework to attach background context and ancillary content to subjects mentioned in your page – all without interrupting the flow of your reading and crucially, without leaving the page you looking at. In fact, you have already experienced Apture! (unless you are reading this in a feed reader, in which case check out the page on my blog)

When I saw the first demo of the product, what excited me the most was the implementation – which I think is slick and impressive. The thoughtful UI makes the product simple and intuitive to use, backed up by some pretty tight code that makes the seamless experience possible.

Elegantly handling off-site links and embeddable media

From my days working at the BBC News Website, I’ve seen first hand the importance of providing background information on the subjects discussed in a news story. Not everyone follows the news agenda as deeply as others, and providing a bit of context can really make the difference and ensure the reader is able to engage with the latest developments being written about.

I’d also seen examples of how the BBC had got some of it’s interface and style guidelines wrong – like not using hyperlinks inside body content and completely missing the early emergence of embeddable media (arguably pioneered by YouTube). I have to hold my hands up to these as much as anyone else at the Beeb as I was there at the time these things took off.

On both counts Apture solves these problems in an elegant way.

The concern around marking up body content with hyperlinks is about usability. When the user clicks on them she is taken to a new destination page mid-flow of her reading. Apture solves this concern by providing the essence of the page you want to link to in an easily manipulated floating window that the user can quickly digest and either get back to the copy or potentially elect to click through to a fuller page of content. The point is that the reader makes an informed decision whether to jump to a new page or continue reading. Apture also lets the reader position the window around the content so that they can interact with it later on when they are ready.

Another key part of this is the selection of the media you use to provide that background to your post. Apture helps you there too – by recommending relevant content from across numerous repositories on the internet – including Wikipedia, Flickr and IMDB. Finally, it reformats these pages so that the pertinent information is displayed clearly inside the Apture window that is associated with your subject.

Apture also provides a unique way to embed media, and can even handle certain types of media asset just by it noticing you are linking out to a photograph or a video in your piece.

Open for business

Having been in closed beta for some months, this week Apture was released to the public. Getting Apture on your site is really simple (just a line of javascript or the installation of a WordPress Plugin) and of course it is totally free.

You can also take a tour of the product and see more demos of it in action.

Channel 4 launches tiny widget/mashup competition

Given that I helped establish (probably) the first developer mash-up competition run by a media organization and also my recent foray into the world of widgets, I was particularly interested to read that UK broadcaster Channel 4 is dipping its toe into the water by running a similar competition around it’s Film4 service.

And to continue the ‘toe dipping’ analogy further, I’d have to suggest that it is only a little toe – as a quick review of the ‘Platform 4’ contest site demonstrate.

Create a widget or mashup from two RSS feeds, the winner gets £1500 and two runners up get £250 each. That’s it.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic start and I want to congratulate them for it (I have a feeling my ex-BBC colleague and supporter Matt Lock could be behind this as he’s now at C4). However I really hope they build out Platform 4 into a complete developer resource to help bring innovation into Channel 4.

Finally, if the BBC, Channel 4 and even ITV can get together and build out an IPTV offering, it would be great to think that Beeb and C4 could combine efforts along with other developer networks to help support each other.

[via TechCrunchUK]

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.

Reaching the tipping point: Online ad spend overtakes newspapers in the UK

I guess if this headline didn’t end with “in the UK” this news would be getting a lot more attention than it currently is. I actually don’t know what the online vs newspaper spends are here in the US, I’ll try and research it when I’m not on the client’s time.

However, it’s significant. Really significant.

This week, there’s been a lot of talk here in the US about the future of local newspaper business – reports suggest the San Francisco Chronicle is about to go out of business as it’s in such dire straights. The SF Chron has some interesting opportunities given it’s in a uniquely placed geographic location for technology adoption and pioneering, but it doesn’t seem to be able to capitalize that – that’s another story I guess.

What’s important is that newspapers finally newspapers can begin to ‘move their core focus’ over to Internet. That’s if they have the balls – but the finance people should now be armed with the relevant figures to help them find their balls.

The one issue no one seems to be talking about is whether the combined spend has changed. Is it simply a shift in existing revenues, or has online suddenly found new advertising budget (or newspapers lost out on evaporated budget). That’s important to think about – especially with the CraigsList factor – where advertising is free.

However even if overall budgets are down the opportunity here is the potential cost savings that come from running an online operation. During the SF Chronicle debate, various journalists and editors were arguing with the blogosphere that the cost of keeping a newsroom needs to be paid for.

True, it does. But there are many other parts of the salami that can be sliced without any noticeable loss. Those printers, for example, they’re the bit at the end of the salami that no one wants to eat yet you still have to pay for. In the UK at least, newspaper printing has traditionally always contributed a significant cost to the newspaper business because they have such strong unions – and that could be the case in other markets. So you can chop that end bit off.

Setting – both page and advertising can go – it’s part of the template in the case of the page, and advertising is handled by the fact that the advertiser accommodates your existing space rather than you have to accommodate their space requirements.

Distribution, pah that’s easy too – it’s part of your existing web op. Just scale up.

The new concentration on the Internet means that better relationships with the blogosphere can have them write some of your stories (I don’t buy the whole ‘bloggers will eat your journalists’ argument. Bloggers also make good stringers for new leads.

This is a quickly written post as I’m getting used to writing these in 10 minutes or less during my 30 min lunch break, but I think it’s indicative of interesting times for newspapers. This is an opportunity that is their’s to take – the question is how many will take it. I’m pretty sure in the next 10 years we’ll find one or two of the current ‘big name’ newspaper fall onto hard times as they didn’t embrace the opportunity that’s before them today.

Equally, I predict in the rise of new ‘online-only’ newspapers entering the market – perhaps not first in the UK. These will differ from the likes of BBC News by offering the kind of background and detail-led journalism that the BBC isn’t in the market to do – not with it’s 24/7 news website, anyway. There’s an emerging gap in the market for this kind of proposition, fueled by changing habits in reading – with more consumers owning laptops and PDA’s and a general willingness to read from the screen instead of from a newspaper. And if this foldable e-paper ever emerges, then it’s game-set-and-match IMHO.

Exciting times are a-foot in the world of news media – it’s ultimately all about wrapping the adverts with news that people want to read, and suddenly the majority of those adverts (in terms of $ spend) are now online. What will happen next?

My reactions to the BBC deal with Google/YouTube

The BBC has announced that it’s done a deal with YouTube, to put short clips and trailers up on the video sharing site. I actually found out about this last Monday when I visited the BBC, but promised to keep it quiet until the official announcement.

I actually don’t think this was very good deal, and the BBC should have taken notice that most of the other big broadcasters have turned their nose up at this and previous YouTube deals.

In fact, if you read the NY Times article, the BBC has been lumped in as being part of a round of contract announcements between Google/YouTube and ‘small media players’.

Other companies who decided to accept a similar contract to the BBC include the Hollywood Records, YES Network, and Ford. The only other relatively high-tier broadcaster in the announcement is the National Basketball League, which presumably commands high prices for it’s broadcast rights.

Most of the bluechip broadcasters have avoided putting their clips up on YouTube as even a non-exclusive license dilutes their own efforts to market and display such clips on their own sites. Viacom, which operates MTV and Comedy Central has done well on it’s own sites – finding the sweet-spot of ease of distribution/viralness and appropriate cross-promotion/upsell to full program.

To me, it jars that the BBC would agree a similar deal to, who have a lot more to gain than the BBC from the exposure and revenue (we’ll come onto that in a moment).

The BBC is going to show trailers and clips on YouTube, rather than bespoke or full-length content. Although YouTube is very good at facilitating the viral nature in which this kind of content can be shared, it’s ultimately promotional material and as such I think the BBC is missing out not getting it’s act together and having a way this can be displayed in a custom BBC-embedded player that can properly link back to the relevant BBC site for the clip. By putting the clips on YouTube the BBC is missing out on a fantastic cross-promotion opportunity by having the clips source directly in the site they originate from.

My guess is that there are no plans, or capacity, to build such a platform and as such doing a deal with YouTube has been decided as an easy way out. Or cop out, as I would call it.

Two concerning factors

The two big issues that arise from this deal are advertising revenue and the waived rights to pursue copyright infringement.

So some of the clips that the BBC will upload to YouTube will carry advertising (for non-BBC products/services). I find this bizarre on one hand because all of the BBC content that’s been announced sounds like promotional content and as such it seems a bit much to have adverts on the adverts! I still don’t see a 5 minute clip of the guy who plays Doctor Who showing you around the production set to be anything but marketing. For me it’s not ‘real’ content.

The more concerning issue is that adverts will be displayed for some clips to users in the UK, and I think that’s an awful concession to make in order to avoid building an in-house system that does this within the BBC. Admittedly the BBC is always under pressure to monetize it’s content internationally, but never domestically within the UK.

The other issue is that the BBC has waived it’s right to sue YouTube for any copyright breaches of BBC material on YouTube. It seems like anytime Google/YouTube do a deal with a media company or rights holder they demand they sign a waiver if they want to play ball with YouTube.

If ever there was an example of “better to seek forgiveness than to seek permission” YouTube is it. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing.

It was able to establish such a dominance in the market by being turning a blind-eye to the amount of copyrighted video that was uploaded. It’s now able to command many of the media companies get off their backs about copyright as they have just as much to gain as YouTube. It perhaps shows that if broadcasters in general had offered their own well-executed YouTube-like services in the beginning they would have seen a return that more than justified the risk and upfront cost.

There has certainly been the demand, which YouTube is now filling despite the fact it is a bit of departure from it’s original goal of sharing user-generated video.

As I said, overall I’m disappointed in this deal. For me, it’s arguable whether the videos are content or promotion and as such putting adverts on them seem galling, and that’s before you consider the UK license fee payer’s perspective (who should not be seeing any advertising on BBC content).

I really don’t see what the BBC will gain from this deal in the long term, and feel it would be far better off if it built it’s own strategy and well-executed solution for people who wish to share short clips of BBC material on their blogs, webspace and other places. Such demand is not going to go away, and will never be fully catered for to the BBC’s maximum benefit on YouTube.

Backstage hosts round-table debate on DRM to kick off it’s first podcast

(disclosure: I was part of the team who launched, although I no longer work at the BBC. Many of the people around the table are friends and ex-colleagues)

So I just finished listening to the inaugural podcast, which launched with a debate about DRM and the distribution of television (and radio) via the Internet.

I guess I have comments and views on both the content of the podcast and the ‘meta’ of the podcast — the fact backstage is doing one in the first place.

My views doing a podcast

First off congrats to Ian for getting this pushed through Editorial Policy – no doubt it was a lot harder than one might think, esp as the BBC has some regulatory issues around releasing podcasts that are ‘bespoke for the web’ and not based upon previously broadcast material. Nice one mate, and to Tom L and the rest of the gang. In fact congrats to the team generally who have taken to a new level since my departure.

I think it’s great that the BBC was able to bring this debate into the public, and in fine BBC balanced round-table tradition it offers representatives from the BBC, the commercial broadcast sector and proponents of free distribution.

I hope there will be more of these, opening up what’s going on inside the organization’s future media dept. Not only does it begin to allow cluetrainy conversation to occur across the decision making process, but it seems like the appropriate thing for a license fee funded organization to be doing.

However I don’t think these kinds of podcasts should be released under a brand.

Maybe it’s just nomenclature, but I think the BBC needs a unifying brand under which it can offer greater transparency and dialogue around it’s new media operations – just like BBC News has BBC Newswatch (although that’s a lot more out of post-Hutton regulation that desire).

What I’m talking about is something that encompasses backstage, but has a remit greater than just backstage. Just before I left I tried to start something called in an attempt to do this. This is not sour grapes now I’ve left – it didn’t take off simply down to me talking my eye off the ball as I was preparing to leave and as such I didn’t put as much time behind it as I should have. I also didn’t get enough management buy-in to make it stick. I put my hands up to that. However I don’t think that makes it a bad idea in general and in my opinion should be pursued.

As I listened to Ian (who now runs backstage) I kept wondering what I would have added to the debate if I was in his position during the recording. I think he was in a difficult position as he could only speak ‘officially’ and on behalf of the BBC. In the end I decided that I would probably have said very little – as although I have great personal interest in the subject, it’s not actually an issue that falls within the official remit of backstage. As it happens, this is broadly speaking what Ian did too – which I think was a positive move as his larger contribution was to make this all happen in the first place.

The other point about the podcast was that it was very long – 60 minutes in fact. In general that’s too long for a weekly podcast – it’s difficult to find 60 minutes in your schedule every seven days. However considering the nature of the discussion, I do think it warranted the duration – I just think they should keep these to an irregular series as and when needed.

As to whether there should be a podcast, that’s really up to Ian as he knows where he wants to take backstage. However if he does, I think he needs to do short 20 minute casts rather than mammoth debates like this one.

My views on the DRM issue discussed in the podcast

So onto the issue actually discussed in the debate – DRM. Firstly, I think it would be great if the BBC prepared a transcript of the debate – either through official means of via one of the outsourced transcription services available on the internet. The problem with podcasts is all of the useful debate is locked up in binary and thus difficult to search against.

I’ve listed some of the sentient points below, but for the sake of brevity I’ll cut to some of my conclusions.

Much of the BBC’s issue right now is that it doesn’t have the correct agreements in place to broadcast it’s archive material. Such are the nature of the production contracts that were in place when programs were made that they do not allow the BBC to simply make them freely available on the Internet. There’s more detail about that in the podcast, but yes it is true.

However that doesn’t preclude the alteration of production contracts from now onwards to allow the BBC to far more relaxed online distribution rights Sadly this point was missed from the debate.

The long tail may well be where much of the value is, but there’s still a great deal of value in the head too. And for a medium that is trying to breakthrough into mainstream adoption, showing last week’s Eastenders (a UK soap opera) and Spooks (think CSI but anti-terrorism), is perhaps the best place to push this. And by making this available, I mean in a less restricted format than is currently being proposed.

However what’s needed is a radical shakeup in the area of archives, and maybe putting out a moratorium on the restrictions of all content before 1997 (10 years) unless those content owners opt back in. Yes, I know that’s very controversial, but something controversial has to give somewhere here otherwise this is never going to move forward. It would also require a change in the UK law, and again that’s where the BBC has power over others. Yes, it was a leading light in broadcast standards, yes it doesn’t wield that kind of power on the Internet but it still does in UK legal circles.

Personally (now in a non-BBC position) I would also have added to the debate that DRM prevents me from exercising my full rights under UK copyright – such as being able to consume a given piece of media on any device I personally own for my own domestic use. Clearly this can’t occur if the DRM’d file is locked to a single device or won’t play on all of the devices I own (including non-Windows hardware).

There are many other well made points, from all sides of the table, and as such I would recommend the listening of this podcast even if you are not a regular podcast-type person. The format actually lends itself to this kind of debate.

The main issues that were raised:

The big issue right now is that the BBC is exploring the direction of offering BBC TV to UK viewers via Microsoft-powered DRM. This of course would only allow Windows users to view the content, and effectively lock out the 25% of the userbase who use other platforms. As one participant remarked “that’s like excluding all of Scotland, Wales and Northen Ireland out from watching BBC TV”.

Tom Loosemore, who’s title ever-changes but basically has been at the forefront of much of the BBC’s new media strategy, made the case for why DRM was needed and went on to explain that there was ultimately no suitable DRM solution that catered for everyone. As he put it it was “do DRM or do nothing”.

He also made the interesting point that it’s a funny position for the BBC to be in, which has always led the way with broadcast standards but on the Internet is not in any real power to lead standards in this area.

There was some interesting debate from the advocates of free distribution as to whether doing nothing was actually better as it created a vacuum that would ultimately kick content owners into facing up to the opportunities they were missing out on.

However Tom made it clear that he didn’t agree that that outcome would occur (and I agree). Channel 4 are already offering their own programming online and so were Virgin Radio (James Cridland from Virgin participated in the debate, representing the commercial broadcast sector).

The other point the advocates of free distribution made was that rights holders should try to be convinced to let go some of their rights as otherwise all this good content remains locked up. Again, Tom made the point that many of them have pensions and other incomes based upon their secondary usage — although an obvious response to that (that wasn’t made) is to question how much anyone is really making from all this content locked up in the BBC’s vaults that cannot easily be broadcast. Just how much interest is there in a 30 minute BBC Philharmonic Orchestra production from 1983?

There was a lot of discussion around the table as to whether DRM is right or wrong/evil, and if the latter whether it is the concept or the implementation that is broken. Someone from the free distribution camp gave the example that he still bought newspapers, CD’s and DVDs despite the fact that he could also read the news online and listen to music and watch films via the TV and Radio — a clear example that most people are prepared to pay for content if given sensible ways to do so.

Like I said, it’s well worth listening to if you have 60 minutes in your commute/etc.