BBC shifts focus to ‘internet-centric’ programme delivery

April 8, 2015 4:10 pm

BBC shifts focus to ‘internet-centric’ programme delivery

Murad Ahmed, European Technology Correspondent

The BBC is to be remodelled as an “internet-centric” broadcaster, as the web becomes the main way it reaches British viewers, according to the executive given the “poisoned chalice” of leading a technological transformation at the corporation.

In his first interview since becoming the BBC’s technology chief last July, Matthew Postgate said the organisation was trying to adapt to younger audiences who watch television and listen to radio over the web on mobile devices.

He said this required changes in the way the corporation produced and delivered content to compete against internet companies that are encroaching on the territory of established broadcasters, such as Netflix and Amazon.

“It’s my job over the next five years to put in place the production foundations to be internet first,” he said, adding that media groups “are going to have to learn lessons if they’re going to be in a position to compete with organisations that were born in the digital age”.

But Mr Postgate’s power to effect change may be restrained, as he moves into a role that has become politicised and described by some commentators as a poisoned chalice.

In 2013, the BBC scrapped a £100m, five-year project called the Digital Media Initiative, which was designed to give programme makers full access to its archive. Tony Hall, director-general, said it was “better to close it now rather than waste more money trying to develop it further”, and the project received scathing criticism from a committee of MPs.

In the aftermath, John Linwood, the BBC’s former technology chief, was suspended and then sacked, but last year he won a case of unfair dismissal against the corporation.

Mr Postgate said the organisation had learnt lessons, and there was no longer any desire “to do very large, overarching, multiyear projects, but instead we’re thinking about technology as a more agile and iterative process”.

Mr Postgate, whose salary is £225,000 a year, is a long-time BBC executive who previously led its research and development arm and was part of the team that launched the iPlayer service.

A few months into the job, he has made several changes, including creating a “business change” team to assist departments as they shift towards digital processes and renaming his department “BBC engineering”, replacing “BBC technology”.

“Engineering is something that you do, whereas technology is something that you buy,” he explained.

Though accepting that the Digital Media Initiative was a fiasco, Mr Postgate remains committed to the idea of moving the BBC’s vast archive online and making the corporation tapeless.

As quietly and cheaply as possible, the BBC has made some of the changes sought from the DMI project. For example, from this year, programmes are being produced using digital files rather than recorded on tape. “Rather than trying to deliver one large project, we’ve been taking off the different components and moving forward,” he said.

As the corporation prepares to discuss its next royal charter after May’s general election, with the future of the licence fee up for debate, the BBC is desperate to show it can use technology to make savings.

Part of the change is to deliver more programming online. Last year, the corporation said it would axe BBC Three, the youth-oriented channel that has been the home to comedies such as Gavin and Stacey and reality shows like Snog, Marry, Avoid?. Instead, BBC Three will be available online only, while its programme budget will be slashed from £55m to £30m.

Mr Postgate said this was more than a cost-cutting exercise and reflected how the BBC was responding to its audience’s preferences. The BBC would continue to experiment with ways to deliver programmes, he said, and certain channels and shows would make more sense being accessed over the web.

“I think the direction of travel for the BBC is that we need to make sure that our portfolio is relevant in the internet age,” he says. “BBC Three was a brand that you could move from one platform to another relatively easily.

“The others you look at, something like Radio One, is already a brand that exists as much on other platforms as it does on FM [radio] or [digital radio], whereas BBC One ultimately is almost the home of the national conversation and it’s maybe suited to more broadcast-oriented technologies.”

These trends will add to the strain on Britain’s broadband networks, as video traffic takes up more bandwidth.

In the US, where Netflix accounts for as much as 35 per cent of internet traffic at peak times, the video streaming service has struck multimillion dollar deals with Comcast and Verizon, paying to ensure its films and television shows are streamed smoothly across broadband networks.

But Mr Postgate rules out coining similar deals with the UK’s largest broadband groups, such as BT and Virgin Media. “We pay in the model of the internet that’s always been with us,” he says.

Instead, he is focused on building the infrastructure required to provide new services. Mr Postgate said the corporation was likely to be screening programmes in “4K” — four times the resolution of current high-definition broadcasts — as standard by 2016.

Some have suggested the BBC should become like Netflix and fund itself through viewer subscriptions. If you were in charge, what TV channels and radio stations would you offer?

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015.


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