Unlike many major media organisations, the BBC now has no-one directly responsible for technology on its board or executive committee, following the departure of Chief Technology Officer Matthew Postgate. An interim CTO now reports to an interim Chief Operating Officer. There is a new Chief Content Officer, a Chief Customer Officer, but no-one with specific responsibility for technology strategy, direction or delivery. In its Annual Plan, the BBC has surprisingly little to say about technology, beyond that it will continue to invest in research and development. That is but one of the challenges for the BBC, which also faces the prospect of the appointment of a new chair and a government keen to clip its wings.
While programming lies at the heart of the BBC, technology is key to its production and distribution. This year the BBC will spend around £175 million a year on technology and a further £200 million on distribution.
The BBC has outsourced much of its technology and distribution to third-party service providers, yet it has continued to invest in developing the BBC iPlayer and more recently BBC Sounds as the key to its future technology and distribution strategy.
However, other global players with deep pockets are more than capable of competing in this digital domain, and the online technology is becoming commoditised.
Matthew Postgate rose rapidly from being a member of the management team for the BBC iPlayer, to Head of Research and Development, becoming Chief Technology Officer in 2014. His degree in politics served him well in navigating the organisation and lack of an engineering background did not appear to impede his progress. He saw the future of the BBC as online.
“Many people have already adopted the internet as their primary medium, while many will continue to watch and listen to traditional channels,” he suggested in 2018. “Having said that we believe that the days when all media will be distributed over the internet are not too far away.”
The BBC still faces key decisions on whether to invest in traditional broadcasting, which is likely to remain important to viewers and listeners for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, only a minority of its viewing and listening is delivered online. Fifteen years after its launch, 12% of all BBC television viewing is now through iPlayer, but the vast majority are watching traditional transmissions.
In many respects, the BBC is falling behind the technical quality that can be delivered by some of its competitors and appreciated by viewers on screens that are now widely available.
It is not currently clear how the BBC plans to address this. So far it has offered a few online trials in ultra-high-definition but has no announced plan to upgrade its transmission standards.
The BBC has not had a great track record with its technology leadership.
The previous Chief Technology Officer, John Linwood, won an unfair dismissal claim after his contract was terminated following the failure of the Digital Media Initiative, the development of which it brought in-house. This integrated digital production and archiving system was scrapped at a cost of nearly £100 million.
The National Audit Office was scathing in its report, concluding that “The level of assurance and scrutiny that the BBC executive applied to the DMI was insufficient for a high-value and strategically important programme that involved significant risks.”
Without an informed and influential voice responsible for technology leadership and governance at the top table of the BBC, the institution risks being outmanoeuvred by competitors, like Sky and Netflix, that see technology as core to their business. Now part of Comcast, Sky is now viewed by many as a technology leader.
The BBC has become increasingly focussed on seeing online as the future, and rightly so. The corporation has come to believe that the BBC iPlayer is a product that can compete with the likes of Netflix, rather than simply a means of delivering its programming on demand, which can be delivered by many competing platforms. Yet the technology requirements extend far beyond the BBC iPlayer and underpin every aspect of its operation.
The Charter under which the BBC operates provides an obligation to “promote technological innovation, and maintain a leading role in research and development, that supports the effective fulfilment of its Mission and the promotion of the Public Purposes.” Significantly, it says the BBC must “focus on technical innovation” to support the delivery of its services, “seek to work in partnership with other organisations” and “share, as far as is reasonable, its research and development knowledge and technologies”.
It is formally the responsibility of the Board to ensure that the BBC fulfils its functions. The Board includes the Director General or chief executive officer, three other executives and a number of non-executive members. It is for the Board to appoint members to ensure that they collectively have the range of skills and experience to fulfil its functions.
In practice, the Board delegates responsibilities to its Executive Committee. Given the strategic importance of technology, one might expect to see its representation at at least the Executive Committee level.
Tim Davie, the new Director General, would be well advised to appoint a CTO that can embrace both broadcast and online technologies as well as the general information and communications technologies of the corporation.
“Clearly Tony Hall has left a series of unfinished problems and a significant number of landmines for Tim Davie to defuse,” observes Nigel Walley, a well-known industry commenter, who runs the Decipher consultancy. He questions the view that the corporation has somehow “solved digital” with the BBC iPlayer.
“Far from being the answer to all the BBC’s digital problems, it can be argued that the iPlayer strategy under Tony Hall has actually caused many of them,” he writes.
The television industry appears intent on denigrating the one capability that enables it to compete against new online players, the remarkable ability to broadcast to millions of people simultaneously at fixed cost.
“This is not to say that broadcast didn’t have big problems to solve, or that it didn’t need to reinvent its role in the face of an on-demand onslaught,” he concedes. “However, that challenge appears to have been ducked by the BBC (and others to be fair) by focussing efforts, and profile onto its on-demand offering. The question of how a dominant national broadcaster balances its TV distribution options is still unresolved at the end of Tony Hall’s reign.”
The apparent failure of BBC Three to retain its young adult audience when it went off air and exclusively online is an egregious example, which Nigel Walley describes as “an act of cultural vandalism that is still shocking”. It has undoubtedly contributed to the decline in viewing of the BBC among the very viewers that are turning to online alternatives.
He suggests that merging BBC Three and Radio 1 would have been a more innovative move, while converting it to an interactive channel delivered online could have made it the first brand to link television and radio output in an online world.
More significantly, the focus on the BBC iPlayer has distracted from rather than compensated for the fragmentation of the distribution of programming across multiple competing platforms.
The majority of households in the United Kingdom now pay for a television service. The BBC is a shareholder in three television platforms that are free to view: Freeview, Freesat, and Youview. Stakeholder differences have inhibited the potential to align them into a single, powerful and competitive platform. Yet despite that, they have been forced to compete with their hands tied behind their backs. The participating broadcasters have persisted in pushing their own online players and separate logins, led by the BBC and its commitment to its iPlayer.
Nigel Walley refers to this “a Kodak level misjudgement”, referring to the iconic brand that foresaw and even pioneered digital photography but failed to address it. He suggests that broadcasters are meekly handing customers to Amazon and Google. He predicts that there will be no nationally managed television platforms in play in the United Kingdom by the end of the decade.
“We would like the BBC to shift the focus of future strategy away from iPlayer to create a more rounded understanding of how BBC audiences engage with their content,” concludes Nigel Walley. “The BBC should, by definition, be a broadcast centric organisation and iPlayer should be a complement and support tool to that vision.”
Leadership technology and distribution strategy is only one of the challenges facing the new director general. A new chair of the BBC is due to be appointed on the recommendation of the government, which seems determined to curb the corporation. The government is also due to appoint the non-executive chair of Ofcom, which is ultimately responsible for the regulation of the BBC.