The BBC common platform debate

Last Wednesday’s common platform debate at Broadcasting House was a hit. We talked for nearly three hours plus time in the pub afterwards. Mike covered it (live) over at Techcrunch UK (and I know the event was recorded in some form) and other bloggers have written it up (although at least one was actually watching the football!).

The topic—the BBC’s role in a post-broadcast public service ecology—is clearly going to be a very rich and productive one. Here is my summary of the event’s interesting bits, organised under useful headings. I was chairing the event so I wasn’t able to take proper notes—this is mostly from memory. Please chip in with your own recollections if you were present.

There’s a lot the BBC could be doing.

We’re ten years+ into the network revolution and the BBC’s impact so far has been a raft of quality content on multiple platforms (like this weekend’s quite awesome Glastonbury coverage) and very little else: hardly any of the kind of gutsy innovation the nation and the economy need. We’ve seen cautious incremental change when the circumstances (demographic and economic change at home, rampant growth in our most important competitor economies, environmental change of unknown scope…) demand courageous leaps in the dark.

The BBC is the nation’s most important machine for the production of consensus: nervous, go-slow adoption of common platform goals just won’t do. Tom Loosemore, who used to work at the BBC and now divides his time between Ofcom and The Cabinet Office, provided a handy seven-item list of things the Corporation ought to be sharing which I will now crudely paraphrase and expand (Tom would want me to point out that I’ve added quite a lot to his list in case any of it is traced back to him, causing him to be thrown from a high window in Downing Street):

1. Research. The Corporation produces (and pays for the production of) huge amounts of proprietary audience research, much of it hardly used. This should be made available to business and community, preferably in a useful, nicely-tabulated form.

2. Code. All code written at the BBC should be published under a suitable Open Source licence (Azeem Azhar was conveniently on hand to rehearse his BBC Public Licence idea from 2002). There’s really no excuse for this. It’s not obvious which licence would apply but if there isn’t one out there, one should be invented.

3. Data. The BBC produces and buys lots of data: from TV listings to electoral data. Sadly, much of it is not owned outright and some has even been stupidly given away (like the TV listings gifted to Red Bee on privatisation). What data the Corporation does own outright, however, should be made available freely.

4. Tools. The BBC should be obliged to give away or at least develop nationally-useful tools. Tom’s examples were geolocation and some kind of UK blog search tool. Others came to us in the pub afterwards but I’ve forgotten them.

5. Incubation and investment. The BBC could ‘do a Channel 4’ and seed a whole layer of productive and profitable new media production and technology businesses. Production quotas should be enlarged and a framework put in place to support startups and small businesses in the sector (analogous, I suppose, to the cost-plus budgeting methods used in TV production).

6. Traffic. This could be huge. The phrase ‘trusted guide’ has been current at the BBC since John Birt discovered the Internet in 1995 but it’s never been given meaning. Institutional caution has stopped the Corporation from linking to more than a handful of external sites, and always via a forest of disclaimers. It was pointed out at the debate that the addition of MusicBrainz to the BBC’s music sites adds something like 3 million external links so that’s a start I guess!

7. The Internet. The BBC shouldn’t attempt to augment, enhance or wall off any part of the Internet. The BBC’s endorsement of net neutrality is vital. The Corporation should build on freely-available net tools and services and avoid duplication at all costs.

Rights are a big deal. And they’re not going away.

Outsiders are impatient with the BBC’s rights regime. They want uncomplicated one-stop access to BBC content (and not necessarily for free) but instead they get a spaghetti of overlapping rights owners and regimes. Only the simplest and most directly-owned content can be shared easily: one example cited was Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time: live speech recorded in a BBC studio with expert contributions paid-for outright and no music. But a tiny proportion of the Corporation’s daily output belongs in the In Our Time category. Even historic and archive material is often encumbered by multiple rights owners (or potential rights owners) and the BBC’s own commercial arm has its own agenda and often has first call on original content.

Two lessons. First: if you’re a tech or media entrepreneur and your business idea needs access to BBC content, think again. Building-in any kind of dependency on the BBC’s rights regime will scare away investors faster than bird flu. Second: the BBC could simplify the regime and persuade (read: force) rights owners to participate, especially for old and potentially neglected material that is unnecessarily encumbered. The key here may lie with legislators who could help by reasserting the BBC’s larger purpose and agreeing to compromise the inalienable rights of content owners and creators a little in return for a more open environment (pay attention Cliff Richard).

BBC new media managers are not the problem

On the evidence of Wednesday evening’s showing, slow progress in building a common platform in Britain is not the fault of the managers building it. Tony Ageh, James Cridland, Jem Stone and other BBC staff present are evidently all passionate drivers of change (and I know many others like them inside the Beeb). In many respects they were the most forward-thinking people in the room: Tony Ageh’s suggestion that he’d like us to be able to right-click on any asset at bbc.co.uk to get a pop-up detailing its ownership and rules for use was particularly inspiring. Presumably many years spent wrestling with a highly-regulated, historically-cautious tax payer-funded monolith has produced a pragmatic approach to achieving change but there’s evidently no absence of enthusiasm for it.

Channel 4 is ready to help

It’s not all about the BBC. Jon Gisby, Channel 4′s new Director of New Media, spoke with what I’d characterise as cautious enthusiasm about the station’s status as a ‘convening brand’ (that’s a technical term. Look it up) and about its potential to provide a £50M springboard for UK tech and media businesses via the fascinating and so far enigmatic 4IP fund. More than one person used the analogy of Channel 4’s seeding of the British independent TV production business 25 years ago. Gisby nodded.

I’d certainly like to see Channel 4 function as a cheeky and innovative counterweight to the BBC in building out the common platform. The potential is clearly there in 4IP.

The BBC has a history of engineering leadership

All sorts of technical innovations were invented at the BBC and then spread into the wider industry. James Cridland put it like this: “we agree in technology and compete in content”. An organisation accustomed to sharing its production and distribution tech but closely guarding the programmes made with it will inevitably find it hard to shift to a new model. One where technology leadership has been replaced by open source collaborative methods and where content is freely shared.

Tech entrepreneurs don’t care much

On the evidence of our debate there is no real clamour for access to BBC resources from the UK tech startup industry. In fact there’s significant mutual ignorance. Startups don’t know how to access the BBC’s fund of good stuff and the BBC doesn’t know who might want it or in which formats. Entrepreneurs heard at the event said things like: “who do I talk to about access to historic news content?” and “how do I get a commercial agreement for use of programme metadata?” I think for most people—adventurous tech startups included—the BBC is part of the woodwork, practically invisible. The idea that it might function as an enabler for enterprise or community is not widespread. There’s work to be done there.

There were many other fascinating strands to our debate—the BBC’s monopolistic behaviour in some categories, market failure in others, the absence of true APIs and other easy methods of calling on BBC assets, public value tests… to name a few. I’ll try to return to some of them here. Others have covered the debate elsewhere. I’d like to see a follow-up meeting soon. I’m also planning to put up a web site (probably a wiki) for the further discussion of these matters. Do let me know if you’d like to help.

Thanks to Mike Butcher for putting the considerable weight of TechCrunch UK behind this. It was his initial post that got things going in the first place. Thanks to all the panelists, all of whom have important jobs to do and better things to be doing with their Wednesday nights. Thanks in particular to James Cridland who organised the venue, catering and lots of other stuff for us, as well as being a trenchant panelist and defender of the BBC’s honour! Thanks finally to attendees and bloggers who made the thing lively and interesting!

9 thoughts on “The BBC common platform debate

  1. Hi Steve, i’m following this with interest, and unfortunately wasn’t able to attend the event last week.

    There are a couple of issues I genuinely don’t understand though. Why should the BBC give away either research material or code to the business community? I’m all for sharing content with the wider community, including business, but it’s not for the taxpayer to provide free research and actual code to the private sector – i’m keen to understand why is this being suggested?

    Anyway, i’ll continue to follow this subject with interest and look forward to your next update.

  2. Lee, it’s a good question. The logic is that the BBC constitutes a fund of taxpayer-funded content, technology and community that could and should be put at the disposal of UK Plc. My position is that the industrial era role for the BBC was to inform, educate and entertain and that its 21st Century role should be to enable, engage and (need another verb here). We collectively invest North of 2BN per year in the BBC. Its assets are badly under-utilised. The nation (both business and community) will be able to think of things to with all that stuff if access is provided and encouraged… See what I mean?

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful post Steve and for agreeing to chair the debate. I think the lack of startups to attend may well be down to mutual ignorance about just how much data there is waiting to be released from the BBC (certainly the panelists indicated a lot was coming), plus a total lack of understanding – at least on the evidence of a startup CEO at the event – about how to get to that data or who to even talk to at the BBC. I think this is just the beginning…

  4. Thanks for the round-up Steve.

    I think it’s an interesting area for debate, but am really struggling with all the talk of calling this a ‘platform’ for innovation.

    Platform can mean anything from a technical service to a group of people to a policy to a soapbox, and it’s in that thin wash of meaning that most confusion arises for onlookers to this discussion.

    The particulars that you mention above are where effort is being placed mainly because people actually understand what these items mean: an open code base means a code base; tools that serve a specific meaningful function (the UK blog search idea, for instance would be HUGELY beneficial, and possibly a BBC merit badge) are easy to grasp. An ‘Innovation Platform’ is not…and I’m not surprised UK entrepreneurs aren’t connecting the dots.

    From where I’m standing, the BBC has made really good strides towards opening up their code base and their content – to an extent that Channel4 has not begun to emulate.

    The 4IP project could be seen as a ‘platform’ I suppose, in that it doesn’t have a big idea behind it really, but is the launchpad for other people’s big ideas. But again, it’s a commissioning platform, not any technical or even content service like the BBC could offer, so I don’t think it’s where this debate should be looking for guidance on improving the technical and content libraries at the BBC.

    Disclaimer: I’m a C4 bod, and these opinions (clearly) are mine alone.

  5. hi
    just to point to a couple of examples where BBC has opened up some of its audience research – when they were commissioned it was to make them open to public dissemination.

    1. BBC: Games In The UK http://open.bbc.co.uk/newmediaresearch/2006/01/bbc_uk_games_research.html

    we hope to shortly publish an update of this study for 2008 players.

    2. user motivations in mass participation.
    http://193.113.58.250/downloads/Participate_WP2.3_Design%20Methods_%20User%20Motivation%20in%20Mass%20Participation%20Presentation_2006.pdf

    not much but a start.
    cheers
    AdrianW

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