BBC Website Fail

So the BBC has called time on its Digital Media Initiative (DMI), the project to create tapeless workflow and archive access: £98m in the hole for a software solution that can now be bought off the shelf for less than £1,000. A project that was designed to save £100m by 2015, ended up costing the Corporation the same amount. The BBC has now suspended its chief technology officer, saying that to continue the project would be throwing “good money after bad”. The story points to some of the major difficulties the BBC, and other broadcast organisations, face in trying to adapt new technologies into their workflows and practices – particularly when such initiatives promise to harness technological efficiencies in the name of innovation.

A new Royal Holloway project, led by Professor John Ellis, to commence later this year aims to demonstrate how this is not a new problem. Indeed, the DMI has its own history as a troublesome new technology entering a broadcast production culture. Broadcast Magazine reported the project was ‘floundering so severely’ in 2009 that the BBC ditched technology partner Siemens. The ADAPT research project (Adoption of new technological Arrays in the Production of broadcast Television) will trace the history of such adoptions of new technologies for the recording and post-production of television between 1960 and the present. The project will look at how new technologies are adapted into current production practices, cultures and corporate decision making.

The slow death of the DMI, which will be part of my own work on the move to tapeless as part of the ADAPT project, is a salutary example of how such adoptions take place – or, rather, don’t. In 2007, then BBC Future Media & Technology director Ashley Highfield, described it as ‘the single most important initiative we are working on’. In early 2009, it was still being hailed by Jana Bennett, Director BBC Vision, as a project that would ‘realise both efficiency and creative benefits and to facilitate market driven innovation’. Yet by the end of the year, when I attended a BBC Vision Forum day for in-house and independent producers, the reaction to the project was lukewarm at best. Elsewhere, it was met with open hostility from production workers, as one comment on Broadcast’s story regarding the demise of the DMI BBC-Siemen’s partnership, made clear:

“Why is this not a surprise? Someone at the top of the ‘food chain’ has the great idea ‘to go tapeless’ without consulting those at the very bottom at great length (no, not line management. I mean the people who press buttons). Makes great nob waving headlines in industry rags too.” (posted 13/12/09)

By February 2010, the DMI had its re-drafted plans (post-Siemens) rejected by the BBC Finance Committee due to a lack of clarity on how the DMI would be ‘implemented into the business’. Despite these early warning signs, the project continued for a further two-years before new Director General, Lord Tony Hall, was able to put the brakes on.

Such a history speaks to the difficulty of implementing technological and cultural change within broadcast organisations, particularly one the size of the BBC. The experience of researching multiplatform production at the BBC over the last decade or so convinces me of the difficulty of such tasks: in one of my last blog posts I cautiously celebrated brief DG George Entwistle’s promise to create ‘genuinely new forms of digital content’; 6 months later he’s gone and the new DG is yet to mention such aspirations. The DMI, like the strategy for multiplatform, has similarly spanned the tenure of three Director Generals, indicating how ‘enterprise’ or ‘pan-BBC’ solutions, as our interviewees often termed such strategies, can seem so painfully slow to implement – or drop. As Ralph Rivera, BBC Director of Future Media, noted in his Online Briefing session last week (24/05/13), ‘Our biggest challenge was that we weren’t able to fail fast.’

But such strategies persist because, in the rhetoric of neoliberalism and the creative industries, they align innovation with efficiency. Thus, speaking about a similar change in the move away from multiplatform, one senior BBC figure spoke of the need to ‘get rid of bespoke … because there’s no value for money … we’re talking about scalability and enterprise solutions’ (Interview 71). Yet the juggernaut of such ‘enterprise solutions’ can easily quash other projects that place PSB fulfilment more centrally at the heart of their innovation: bespoke multiplatform being one example, including the derailment of creative commons release of archive materials; another being the BBC’s restricted involvement in EU Screen.

Moreover, as the comment on Broadcast’s story above attests, such promises of innovation and efficiency are often far removed from the experiences on the ground within any production culture – where in-grained ways of working, other creative priorities and editorial visions must be met or balanced. Within the BBC such balancing requires a strong dialogue between the technological divisions – Future Media and Technology – and the content-makers – Vision. In the past, many interviewees have argued that there is ‘still culturally quite a difficult [gap] for people to grasp’, because TV and digital media orientate around such different production cultures and modes of working (Interview 64). Notably, many digital producers argued, these differences included the ability of digital organisations to ‘release early, release often, fail fast … [which] is totally alien to TV broadcasting’ (Interview 85).

As PSBs, like the BBC, continue to feel the pressure to create innovative, efficient, technological solutions to the uncertainties of their future funding, the DMI is unlikely to be the last example of lost public money in the drive for market competitiveness. The ADAPT project will almost certainly uncover that the DMI was hardly the first.


Dr James Bennett is Senior Lecturer in Television Studies. His work focuses on digital television as well as TV fame. He is currently the Principal Investigator on a 2-year AHRC grant, multiplatforming public service broadcasting (AH-H018522-2), which examines the role independents and multiplatform productions play in the future of PSB. He is the author of Television Personalities: Stardom and the Small Screen (Routledge, 2010) and the editor (with Niki Strange) of Television as Digital Media (Duke University Press, 2011) and (with Tom Brown)Film & Television After DVD (Routledge, 2008). His work has been published in ScreenCinema JournalConvergenceNew Review of Film & Television, and Celebrity Studies Journal.

Twitter: @james_a_bennett