The BBC is to reduce the size of its web presence, cut the budget for BBC Online by a quarter and shed 360 staff from online services. The BBC consistently refers to cutting “top level domains,” although anyone with any knowledge of the internet will recognise that .com or .uk are top-level domains. The BBC is actually planning to slash around half of the directories immediately after the domain — or should that be forward slash? The focus will instead be on a limited number of core “products” such as news, sport and weather, and the successful BBC iPlayer.
The BBC Trust helpfully explained in its approval of the BBC Online Strategy that: “The restructuring will also involve the number of ‘top level domains’ (i.e. bbc.co.uk/xxx) being reduced from around 400 to 200, and the number of ‘products’ being reduced from around 60 to 10”.
Erik Huggers, the director of future media and technology, has correctly referred to halving the number of top-level directories, although later in a post explaining the decision he referred to “The closure of half of the 400 Top Level Domains”. The error was repeated in post by Ian Hunter, the managing editor of BBC Online, following up with a post on “Delivering Quality First: Halving the number of top level domains on BBC Online”.
As it happens, ICANN, the body which actually administers top-level domains, is currently considering expanding the range, so we could end up with domains like .bbc.
Notwithstanding the confusion of basic internet terminology, the plan to trim the sprawling web site, although difficult for those directly involved, is long overdue. Beyond news and sports online, which have always been run as separate services, on a separate news sub-domain, the web site has lacked a clear and consistent focus. A coral reef of carefully crafted microsites, it had grown like out of control. In 2007-2008 it went £36 million over its then budget of £74 million.
The proposed rationalisation was first announced in March 2010. This will involve closing many separate sites, replacing the majority of programme sites with “automated content,” and replacing forums, communities, message boards and blogs with “integrated social tools”. It all sounds very efficient, which has not been a key characteristic of the online operation, which spent just under £200 million in 2009-2010, of which £126 million was on content, not counting the cost of the radio and television output that it complements.
The aim is to focus on specific “products” — a term that Erik Huggers admits is “not the common currency at the BBC and the commercial connotations are at odds with the clear public purposes enshrined in programmes”.
There will be ten key products arranged in five key areas of output: news sport and weather; children’s; knowledge and learning, radio and music; and TV and iPlayer.
Although the BBC web site has done relatively little to innovate in recent years, the BBC iPlayer is perhaps the most significant development from BBC Online, for which Erik Huggers claims some credit.
The BBC iPlayer was in fact originally developed many years earlier, and was originally known as iMP, which was variously referred to as either an integrated or interactive media player. Credit for that goes to his predecessor, Ashley Highfield. Several years after its inception, this was originally launched in October 2005 with a limited trial.
The BBC iPlayer did not receive the approval of the BBC Trust until April 2007, a month before Erik Huggers joined the BBC from Microsoft. It became an open beta service in July. Following a strategic relationship with Adobe announced in October, a cross-platform streaming service was launched in December 2007. Since then, the BBC iPlayer has gone from strength to strength, reaching over six million online users a week.
The other innovation for which Erik Huggers may be remembered is Project Canvas, which was first floated as an idea in October 2008 and became the basis of YouView, a joint venture between the BBC and commercial public service broadcasters and network operators. The platform has yet to announce a launch date.
Bringing a product management focus to the online propositions at the BBC appears to have paid dividends, at least for him, as he heads to a top job at Intel in California.
The BBC director general said “Erik is the key architect for a radical refocusing of BBC Online as part of our proposals for Delivering Quality First”. Sadly, having announced the reorganisation he will not be around long to see the results.