How the BBC lost its digital edge

14 December 2015 -


From stereo radio to colour television, Ceefax to Red Button, the BBC has often positioned itself at the fore of of pioneering new technologies, but a series of failures and lacklustre developments has seen the BBC lose its edge. We take a look at what went wrong…

Jermaine Haughton

Turn the clock back a decade, and the BBC was a strong presence in the then-emerging digital media field, through its introduction of BBC News Online and BBC iPlayer. At a time when newspapers, already feeling the pinch of dwindling ad revenues, were frightened to explore online journalism, the BBC was ground-breaking for its extensive use of text, and later audio and video, coverage of current affairs, sport and entertainment – mirroring the quality and impartiality of its TV and radio broadcasts.

Similarly, the iPlayer was instrumental in bringing catch-up TV to mainstream British audiences.

Initially laughed out of the room by BBC executives in the early 2000s, sources say it took 84 internal meetings for a small team of tech enthusiasts committed to the iPlayer to bring the idea to fruition. As the film and music industries wrestled with illegal streaming outlets throughout the noughties, and struggled to grasp the concept of their content being viewed and shared through a computer, it was the BBC which stood in front of the curve giving British users access to many of their favourite shows online.

Today, its competitors such as ITV, Channel Four and Sky all offer online streaming options, and the practice has been normalised. Ironically, it has worked against the corporation with the public’s love of catch-up TV leading to BBC licence fee revenues estimated to be £150m less-than-expected next year.

In recent years, however, the BBC’s zest for innovation seems to have been waning.

The iPlayer has been beaten by the likes of Channel 4 in terms of using data to personalise services and experimenting with delivering content over a variety of platforms – something that resonates well with the younger, digital audiences. While internationally, Netflix and Amazon have taken the catch-up TV model a step further by not just to delivering great multi-platform services, but also producing their own shows such as the critically-acclaimed House of Cards.

Furthermore, the reporting style on BBC News Online has been criticised for being antiquated, even by those within the White City offices. Following a research into its online journalism operations commissioned by BBC head of news James Harding, Sir Howard Stringer admitted its news service is failing to get to grips with readers preferring more punchy and personable online journalism, as shown by much smaller media outlets such as Buzzfeed.

Sir Howard argued that Buzzfeed has mastered the concept of social sharing. "The sites that are growing quickly – whether it is Vice or Buzzfeed or Upworthy – are the ones that have a really distinctive character," he said. "The BBC needs to think about how it can add character and personality."

By 2022, the BBC aims to have a reach of 500 million people but the report showed BBC News and Worldwide’s digital reach outside the UK in March was just 150 million, “less than Buzzfeed's peak of 160 million and only the same as the Mail Online's 150 million monthly audience in English alone."

The crowning managerial failure for the BBC’s digital teams, however, is the failed £125m Digital Media Initiative project. Aimed at digitising the broadcaster’s whole video archive, the project started in 2008 and was scrapped five years later by director general Tony Hall, who admitted it had "wasted a huge amount of licence fee payers' money".

An internal review found that the initiative, led by then chief technology officer John Linwood, had been badly managed and was outpaced by changing technology. To make matters worse, the BBC was then found guilty of unfairly dismissing Linwood following the project’s scrapping, highlighting a number of failings in the organisation’s governance of the project and its poor human resources processes.

Read about the BBC’s other management failures

Matthew Postgate has since stepped in as the corporation’s new tech chief, and has the opportunity to show an improvement on his predecessor’s mistakes with the transformation of youth-focused channel BBC Three from a TV to online-only channel from February. A vocal supporter of an “online-first BBC”, Postgate will now doubt work alongside controller of BBC Three Damian Kavanagh to reinvent the brand to suit the growing trend of 16-24s watching content online, and older viewers tuning into traditional TV.

Google executive Matt Brittin has advised the BBC to use the new digital channel as a "lab" for the BBC to test the digital waters, and assess what does and doesn't work online. Pointing to this moment as the perfect opportunity to experiment, Brittin said: "The BBC should focus on content that the audience will want to watch, share and engage with."

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