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What’s next for the BBC’s technology strategy?

24/09/20

The absence of a high-placed CTO is an opportunity to divorce the BBC’s tech approach from being wedded to iPlayer, analysts say.

Unlike many large media organisations, the BBC currently has no-one responsible for technology on its board or executive committee. The resignation of chief technology officer Matthew Postgate last month poses questions about the centrality of technology within the Corporation.

While programming lies at the heart of the BBC, technology is key to its production and distribution. This year it will spend around £175 million on technology and a further £200 million on distribution.

“The BBC urgently needs to see its technology strategy as central to the future of the institution,” says William Cooper, founder and chief executive at consultancy Informitv and former BBC head of New Media Operations.

“In many respects, the BBC is falling behind the technical quality that can be delivered by some of its competitors. It is not currently clear how the BBC plans to address this.”

The broadcaster has promoted Charlotte Moore to the role of chief content officer and has an interim CTO, Peter O’Kane, reporting to interim chief operating officer Glyn Isherwood but, in its Annual Plan, the BBC has surprisingly little to say about technology.

“I believe it’s imperative to have a CTO on the board,” says Nigel Walley, managing director at media researcher Decipher.

“It needs a CTO that can balance the needs of broadcast and on-demand and that person should not have control of a consumer facing service or brand.”

Tony Hall’s departure as director general has left a series of unfinished problems and a significant number of landmines for new DG Tim Davie to defuse. Many of these are cultural and political but there’s a technology issue too which analysts deem rooted in a blind faith in iPlayer.

“Whenever the subject of digital strategy is raised everyone points to iPlayer, as though its mere existence showed that the BBC had solved its digital future,” Walley says.

“Decipher has long argued that the iPlayer team was too powerful and were distorting the way the BBC’s tech innovations were introduced to market. Every consumer facing tech innovation had to be plastered with the iPlayer logo, even if there was no iPlayer tech involved, such as BBC content in Sky OnDemand.”

Cooper agrees, saying that the Corporation has come to believe that 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 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.”

Responding to questions from IBC365, the BBC reiterated that iPlayer is core to the its future.

“Everyone in the organisation will have a part to play to continue transforming the service,” it stated. “The technology behind this is key – but so is the content, user-experience and way we market iPlayer to viewers.”

The primacy of broadcast
Fifteen years after its launch, and iPlayer delivers just 12% of all BBC television viewing. The vast majority of viewers are watching traditional transmissions.

“The TV industry seems to have spent 10 years denigrating the one major function which allows it to compete against on-demand apps – its broadcast function,” says Walley in a blog.

“Rather than being an Achilles heel, the able to broadcast simultaneously to millions of people at a fixed cost, is a remarkable capability that many of the Silicon Valley giants would love to be able to emulate. It is still the dominant distribution function for BBC content (by hours consumed) but has become the unfashionable relation compared to ‘digital’.”

This is not to say that the Corporation didn’t need to reinvent broadcast’s role in the face of an on-demand onslaught. However, Walley and Cooper say that the challenge appears to have been ducked by focussing efforts and profile onto its on-demand offering.

“The BBC has outsourced much of its technology and distribution to third-party service providers, yet has continued to invest in developing iPlayer and more recently BBC Sounds as the key to its future technology and distribution strategy,” says Cooper. “However, other global players with deep pockets are more than capable of competing in this digital domain, and the online technology is becoming commoditised.”

Platform conundrum
The vast majority of BBC television content is consumed via TV platforms where distribution strategy “has to be informed by ‘tech’ but not ruled by it,” according to Walley.

Some of these (Freeview, Freesat and Youview) are platforms that the BBC has a share of ownership. Walley argues that these have been under the control of the iPlayer team for too long and decisions have been made that favour iPlayer over the platform’s own interests.

“The BBC (with help from ITV) have left Freeview and Freesat ill equipped to fight the impending battle with AmazonFire OS and Android TV,” he contends. “The commercial platforms need a more nuanced approach than we have seen.”

The opportunity to have merged the three into a single, powerful and competitive free-to-air TV platform has probably been missed, he laments. “For the last decade the three UK based TV platforms have been forced to compete with their hands tied behind their back. But there is still time to allow them to spread their offerings.”

Rather than “meekly handing Freeview customers to Amazon and Google” and to prevent a “Kodak level misjudgement” resulting in no UK-managed TV platforms in play by the end of the decade, the trio of platforms need to work together.

“The BBC contribution to open international technical standards, and therefore freedom of speech, is worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize,” Richard Lindsay-Davies

“[They need to] build a joint free-to-air TV log-in, with a federated log-in system to allow a Freeview or Freesat user to log into the individual apps on each of the platforms via one, unified identity,” Walley prescribes. “That identity could be the basis for a wider TV account (perhaps including BritBox) that should include addressable advertising capability.”

Walley adds that the BBC’s broadcast channels need to drive innovation around the content and promotion required to capture audience share in a world of growing on-demand. “They need strong independent leaders for each channel with the authority to dictate brand and tech strategy.  Charlotte Moore’s move is perhaps an indication that Tim Davie gets this need.”

The BBC Executive and tech
In recent years, the post of CTO has attracted some controversy. Postgate’s predecessor, 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.”

Since then, Postgate rose rapidly from being a member of the management team for BBC iPlayer, to head of R&D, becoming CTO in 2014. “His degree in politics served him well in navigating the organisation,” assesses Cooper. “His lack of an engineering background did not appear to impede his progress.”

Postgate saw the future of the BBC as online and digital first. “I think the whole industry is moving away from thinking of video and audio as hermetically sealed and toward an idea where we are no longer broadcasters but datacasters,” he said in a 2015 Streaming Media interview.

Nonetheless, there is still a perceived lack of tech understanding among BBC executives. “Not only general tech understanding,” says Walley, “but even understanding of stuff that should be core to their business.  A very recent channel head had to have Freeview explained to them when they took the top job,” he says.

Two decades ago, Cooper says, it seemed that technology innovation was at least appreciated as strategically important at the BBC, even if it was properly understood by relatively few senior executives.

“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,” he warns. “So far it has offered a few online trials in UHD but has no announced plan to upgrade its transmission standards.”

In defence of Davie
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.”

“There is no doubt the BBC can only deliver on its mission through the continued development and exploitation of new technology,” says Richard Lindsay-Davies, CEO, DTG, which works with the UK’s broadcasters to maintain standards across digital TV.

“This is demonstrated by an impressive depth and breadth of technical expertise capability distributed across the entire organisation, and its commitment to R&D.”

Given the 20+ list of published BBC engineering management salaries, Lindsay-Davies urges us not to read anything into the streamlined Executive Committee.

“The reporting line of this role has changed quite frequently over the years from the Controller of Engineering being No.3 in command in the ‘30s, through the CTO reporting to the COO/DGG for many years, and more recently being part of a larger Executive Committee. Irrespective of who is on the Executive Committee I am sure Tim will want to be in the room with the right experts as mission-critical technology is discussed, whether it be radio waves, AI or super-computers creating and curating personalised content instances.”

Davie is a former chair and director of Freesat where he worked alongside Lindsay-Davies. “There is no question that innovation is high on Tim’s agenda,” he says.

Indeed, Davie recognised this in his first speech as DG, saying that “…we will be in a hybrid world for decades to come…[and] We will need to be cutting edge in our use of technology to join up the BBC, improving search, recommendations and access. And we must use the data we hold to create a closer relationship with those we serve.”

Collaboration is key
The BBC is also committed to a new technology hub in Newcastle. The hub, part of a move to relocate BBC functions outside the capital, will develop technology that underpins iPlayer and BBC Sounds.

Other recent examples of the BBC’s technologically-driven contribution to the UK digital economy listed by the DTG include:

Embracing IP technologies within studio complexes such as Cardiff; sustainability in every area from operations to studios and distribution; and accessibility – an area with great scope for development as new technologies emerge such as object-based assets.

“In my opinion, the BBC contribution to open international technical standards, and therefore freedom of speech, is worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize,” asserts Lindsay-Davies.

What next?
The DTG has a number of technologies where it thinks the BBC needs to be playing. From accessible, traditional viewing, “to AI-curated, highly personalised experiences that seamlessly reflect the individual, television connects people,” the DTG remains confident that the BBC and the UK technology industry is able to step up and deliver.

“Collaboration is key,” stresses Lindsay-Davies. “It will be critical for other players in the sector to keep pace, challenge and contribute to the next phase of digital television innovation.”

Others think BBC R&D could share the same fate as IRT, the joint technology research institute of the public broadcasters of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It is being shut down in part explained by shareholder ZDF because there is less need for broadcast-specific knowledge, as provided by IRT.

“In terms of blue-sky R&D tech, I am not sure we want the BBC doing that stuff anymore,” says Walley. “The idea of BBC boffins in brown coats working on AI and virtual reality is a nonsense.  It’s a throwback to the patrician age of Reith.”

Walley also urges BBC3 to be brought back into the broadcast line up – but as a fundamentally innovative, fully IP channel.

“To remove it entirely from the broadcast line up was an act of cultural vandalism that is still shocking,” he says.  “A fully interactive IP BBC3 could be put at the centre of a project to define the role of a broadcast channel in a digital world. It should have its own separate and distinct presence in the on-demand world, tied to its core linear IP output but highly experimental in its approach to content and distribution. It could be the first brand to link TV and radio output in an online world.”

It is formally the responsibility of the Board to ensure that the BBC fulfils its functions. The Board includes the DG 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,” Cooper says. “Given the strategic importance of technology, one might expect to see its representation at at least the Executive Committee.”

Davie, says Cooper, 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.

The BBC emphasised to IBC365 that technology will be a core part of the new Chief Operating Officer’s role.

“We’ll use tech, as well as the data we know about our audiences – to help maximise how much value we can give people online,” it stated.

“This will mean more joined-up products and services that are simple to navigate between – and content and programmes easier to find.  Design and Engineering (of which R&D is part) will be a key part of this division to help us achieve this. Driving the growth and development of BBC iPlayer, BBC Sounds and BBC News online are the key digital prioritise for the BBC – so our teams will be fully focused on this.”

Written by DTG Team
 

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