The government has published the long-awaited independent review of the BBC’s web site and has given the BBC less than four months to redefine the remit for its online services.

The independent review concluded that it was not possible to prove any adverse impact on the UK Internet market but there were indications that the BBC’s online services may have an adverse impact on competition.

The government has published the long-awaited independent review of the BBC’s web site and has given the BBC less than four months to redefine the remit for its online services.

The independent review concluded that it was not possible to prove any adverse impact on the UK Internet market but there were indications that the BBC’s online services may have an adverse impact on competition.
The culture secretary Tessa Jowell has given the BBC just under four months to redefine the remit for its online services, following the publication of the findings of a major independent review.

“It is now up to the governors to respond on how they plan to redefine the purposes and aims of BBC Online, so that they are more closely aligned to the public service remit of the BBC,” she said.

Among the most significant recommendations was the proposal for a 25% quota for externally produced content commissioned from independent companies, similar to the provisions for television programmes.

The review, which was commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, will feed into the on-going wider review of the BBC’s Royal Charter.

Some commercial rivals had been critical that the BBC had a negative impact on the online market, making it difficult for others to compete.

Key recommendations

  • the remit and the strategic objectives which guide BBC Online should be clearly defined around public purposes and communicated to the public and wider market.
  • a deliberate “precautionary approach” to BBC Online investment should be introduced. If there is a “close call” between the public service benefits of a proposed BBC Online service and the costs of that service, the proposal should not be taken forward.
  • the current regulation of the BBC’s online services should be reinforced by the appointment of two governors – one with specific new media expertise and one with specific competition law expertise.
  • the Governors should have access to independent analytical advice on issues such as market impact.
  • at least 25% of online content (excluding news) should be supplied by external and/or independent suppliers by the time the current Royal Charter expires at the end of 2006.
  • BBC Online should prioritise news, current affairs, education and information which is of value to the citizen. Within these areas, it should prioritise innovative, rich, interactive content.

The 100-page report, with a further 150 pages of appendices, provides a detailed analysis of the BBC’s online services, including their technical provision, future market trends, and a summary of research into public attitudes to the service.

The publication of the report was welcomed by commercial rivals, following intense lobbying.

Hugo Drayton, chairman of the British Internet Publisher’s Alliance said the report was “excellent news” and was “long overdue”.

Ashley Highfield, the BBC’s director of new media and technology also welcomed the report, saying “It’s like a mixture of a bit of free consultancy and an MOT test for the service. We’ll be taking the views on board and coming up with a new remit for the service.”

“We’ve got a big challenge ahead of us as the BBC enters the next charter period to really focus on making digital Britain. We’re in danger of having a digital underclass who haven’t got the internet or haven’t got digital television. We’ve got to really start prioritising and focusing on those audiences,” said Ashley Highfield, BBC Director of New Media & Technology.

While the culture secretary Tessa Jowell has not attached any new conditions to BBC Online at this stage, she has given the BBC’s Board of Governors until the end of October 2004 to make a full response to the review. This should include a redrafted version of BBC Online’s remit, together with a statement of how the BBC intends to involve the independent sector as identified in the report. She will consider the need for further conditions when she has received the BBC’s response.

“The Internet has changed beyond recognition since BBC Online was granted approval in 1998,” said Tessa Jowell. “Through it’s much respected and trusted website, the BBC has played an integral role in that evolution. I am now looking to the BBC’s Governors to ensure that BBC Online remains a key player in the future.

“This will mean developing the service to take account of the vastly different technological landscape it now operates in. Philip’s excellent report provides some constructive pointers for how they can do this.”

Philip Graf, the author of the report and former chief executive of the Trinity Mirror media group said: “My aim was to produce a report that would give a fair and accurate portrayal of the BBC Online service to date, and to give a reasoned view on where we might go from here.

“There is clearly great public affection and appreciation of BBC Online, so I hope that, in their interest, my conclusions provide constructive input to both the BBC and to the DCMS’s Charter Review.”

The review found that the BBC’s online services deliver high quality material in an effective and user-friendly manner. The report noted that there are a number of changes which could improve the experience for users, deliver efficiency, and ensure that the site effectively reflects BBC Online’s priorities.

Philip Graf also noted that some sites – such as fantasy football, games sites and “what’s on” listings – were not sufficiently distinctive from commercial alternatives, or were inadequately associated with public service purposes to be justified by the remit.

Pre-empting the publication of the report, having had sight of its findings, Mark Thompson the new BBC Director General previously stated that the BBC “would close some of its web sites within weeks”.

Ashley Highfield confirmed that some sites would be closing, including Fantasy Football, What’s On listings, and portals for games, surfing and soap operas. Speaking at a press briefing, he said he wanted to work more closely with regional newspapers to deliver a more collaborative listings service and to increase spend with external companies.

The review found that the theory that BBC Online had an adverse impact on the UK Internet market could be neither proved nor disproved. However, there were indications that BBC Online may have an adverse impact on competition, particularly by deterring investment by commercial operators that would have led to new forms of competition.

The review also found that the BBC’s role in the development and promotion of new technology needs to be more clearly defined and expressed. It says the BBC should, as a top priority, explore how it can work more effectively with the rest of the online community.

The BBC Board of Governors officially welcomed the findings of the review in a statement, saying they would receive detailed consideration and a full response by the end of October.

In the BBC’s recently published contribution to the Charter Review debate, Building Public Value, the board announced it will create a new Governance Unit. In addition, together with all other BBC services, will have a service licence granted by the Governors defining its remit, performance targets and budget. The Governors said this licence will take full account of the Graf report recommendations.

The BBC web site, formerly known as BBC Online before being re-branded as BBCi, was recently renamed simply

Since the its inception in the mid-1990s, the BBC’s online offering has developed into a service with over 2 million pages of content, in 34 categories with nearly 500 sub-categories.
Department for Culture, Media and Sport