With Highfield gone, the BBC must now open up

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As Ashley Highfield leaves the post of the BBC’s director of future media and technology to head up Project Kangaroo (the joint online video platform for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4) one wonders what a startup – or even several startups – could do with the £400m budget he controlled at the BBC. Highfield had a £131 million to digitise the BBC’s production and multiplatform output, the biggest output of which was the late and over-engineered iPlayer. The answer is probably quite a lot, but let’s get over the fact that the BBC is important to the cultural and political life of the UK and it’s not going anywhere. That’s not the issue here – the issue is where and how it spends it’s massive budget.

What the BBC has are two things which could help power innovation in the UK: the ability to link its enormous site traffic to early-stage startup sites. Secondly, it has an awful lot of data which, if made available, would form the basis of some interesting startups out there which could at least use it to prove a concept.

Sure, the BBC Innovation Labs programme gets a lot of plaudits and the work it has done has won a lot of praise for creative technologists, application designers and others. Also BBC Backstage has worked for some years now on creating APIs and RSS feeds. And notably it supported and ran the Over The Air develper conference recently, among others, including HackDay.

But we have also seen the BBC (especially under Highfield’s long reign since 2000) do what most large, state funded bodies do, which is enter into mission-creep: trying to extend its reach into more and more places with its content, without necessarily letting smaller companies in on the action.
With all respect to the guys I know over at the BBC, I feel it could do a whole lot more. Having been on the receiving end when the BBC once randomly linking to a news site I was working on (but never again) I would say it could start with linking out to UK startups more, rather than remaining as obsessed with Silicon Valley as the rest of the tech press is. That may be an editorial issue in BBC News tech dept, but other parts of the site could do much more.

Highfield was also known for building a team around him smarter than he was about tech. But it couldn’t save him from various gaffs such as his bizarre claim, later recanted, that only 600 UK Linux users use the BBC website. Hopefully his replacement will be more au fait.

His successor also needs to join the debate about social networks and data portability, for instance. What about the ability to log in to the BBC Action Network? Is this not a social network? Why has the BBC never built a Facebook-like developer platform for instance?

So who is in the frame as a possible replacement?

The role will be open to external candidates, but speculation has focused on Erik Huggers, appointed from Microsoft last May as group controller for future media. Today, one of my sources told me: “Ashley’s done a lot, but as a new dad he’s probably looking forward to a slightly less hectic lifestyle. Kangaroo should fit him quite well. Really good things happening here though: some good new announcements coming shortly. Huggers is good at the “don’t ship and forget” stuff: hence continuous improvement for iplayer etc.”

The Guardian today quotes sources who say “There’s a belief that [Huggers] was brought in specially and was being trained up for the job.” They also say “He makes stuff happen and is very hands-on. He is a very accomplished public speaker, has a very broad knowledge and will knock heads together.”
Other candidates might be John Ousby, head of distribution technologies, audio and music interactive, BBC; BBC Vision controller of multiplatform and portfolio, Simon Nelson, was also a strong contender (where do they get all these job titles?!); Richard Deverill, the current controller of the childrens’ Vision is another likely internal candidate along with Nic Newman, the controller of journalism in the future media and technology department; and Tony Ageh, currently the controller of internet, is another possible candidate.

But to be any good Huggers would have to cut the apron strings from Microsoft – ties which saw it develop a pointless Kontiki application which didn’t work on Macs, when it could have gone straight to the Web – as it ended up doing.

In 2003, Highfield was awarded the Digital Innovator internet award by The Sunday Times for his vision of a digital Britain. Ok then, where is it? From where I’m sitting the combined power of the BBC and London’s financial sector are doing a pretty good jobs of sucking a lot of the talent up that might otherwise go into creating a few more Bebo’s, Last.FM’s and Skypes of this world.

And if the BBC was so good under Highfield why did major talents leave for new pastures e.g Tom Coates (now with Yahoo Brickhouse building FireEagle) or Matt Locke (now with Channel 4 which is actually funding a startup with real money) or Ben Metcalfe (now building MySace/ OpenSocial / Seesmic).

We need to remember that the iPlayer was in fact officially announced at least three times, rebranded twice, trialled several times and saw more than £3m invested in its development, even before it’s switch to a Flash version. And does anyone care to mention BBC jam’s dead-on-arrival digital curriculum?

The Guardian’s Bobbie Johnson correctly noted that Highfield had been little more than a good politician who has struggled to fulfill the glitzy promises he made to the media.

Highfield’s last blog post last week was “we will do what we can to help drive broadband penetration and adoption, for the benefit of all players. I’ll do a longer post when I’ve read more of the comments/reactions across the web.”
Lovely, but it’s not the BBC which has driven adoption of online services, but things like Hotmail, Facebook and Google. And yet the BBC seems happy to throw a few bones in the direction of startups and developers in the form of nice weekends away in country hotels for the companies and some sleeping bags for the hackers.

One source told MediaGuardian last year: “iPlayer is swarming with people. They’re throwing more and more people at it – a classic mistake – while McKinsey suits run around carrying wads of paper and trying to look important. The BBC often tries to be a software development company, and fails every time.”

Perhaps the BBC should just get out of the way, open up and let the real tech startups loose?

So, here’s the deal:
Dear BBC,

What we want is your data, a lot more APIs, developer tools and your traffic.

We’ve paid for it already in the license fee.

Now get on with it.

Yours Sincerely,

The UK’s Startups



Aqute Research has decided to weigh in on the side of the BBC. Note, the BBC is their client (screen grab) (Update2: The BBC was a client, 2 years ago, I hear from a Beeb person):

Here’s what I wrote on their blog:

They say: “The argument that the BBC depriving potential startups of funds or publicity is the very reason that these startups don’t exist, is not very credible.”

I say: I’m not arguing this. I’m arguing that the BBC could do much more to open up its platform and its data to third party startups. It’s not funding they necessarily need (although that’s always handy) but data on which to build new interesting services which, hell, the BBC might actually like!

They say: “the startups that are succesful don’t complain that the BBC got in their way”

I say: I don’t know where you have been for the last 10 years but that is no the feedback I have had from countless startups I have spoken to in 10 years of reporting this space.

They say: “Don’t assume that normal people (licence fee payers) want the BBC to fund startups”

I say: Hey, guess what? Normal people don’t understand data. That doesn’t meant the BBC couldn’t release more.

They say: “Last.fm (the company that few normal people have heard of”

I say: Listen, plenty of people will hear about it when the giant CBS starts doing interesting things with its new purchase.

They say that I say: “the BBC is doing badly”

I say: I don’t say the BBC is doing badly in content. I say the BBC is doing badly in opening up its *DATA*. Something apparently you agree with: “there are a million things the BBC could be doing (including, yes, opening up its data)”

  • http://suburbia.org.uk Rick Curran

    And does anyone care to mention BBC jam’s dead-on-arrival digital curriculum?

    BBC JAM was only dead on arrival because complaints from the commercial sector caused it to be suspended. (BBC Press Office, BBC Trust)

    Now it’s great that people get the right to complain and that the complaints were heard by the BBC Trust. However, I don’t see where the commercial ventures that were supposedly being harmed have stepped into the gap left by BBC JAM’s suspension!

    It’s fine to complain about something but it has to be backed up by some action, or else you just end up being left with a void.

  • http://doncrowley.blogspot.com DC Crowley

    Here in Holland I met a media guy who I have enormous respect for. I asked him why broadcasters are not following the canadian, german and I think Norwegian examples of releasing some programs via bit torrent on a creative commons license? That would help open a floodgate on free data. Rights is the answer. Even background music has copyright. When I go to the BBC website I cannot see many video broadcasts because of rights issues. It is a total pain in the rear.

    To get API’s etc. moving the BBC could do the following: 1/. figure out what information can be distributed free (TV, radio listings, weather, news? etc). 2/. See how they can create free content.

    If it does not happen, they (Sky, ITV, Channel4 included) will become as relevant as record labels. These are ‘some’ idea’s. I don’t thing anyone really knows where broadcasting will be in 5 years time. But since you can do ‘anything’ on the internet… TV will go that way as well (even if TV programs end back on a TV via internet) I somehow doubt that the BBC will fund startups so that they can run off with claim and fame to their own intellectual properties though. The TV license is not for the data and usage of it. It is only for the right to view them via a TV! That is a separate issue in itself.

  • http://benmetcalfe.com/blog/ Ben Metcalfe

    [As you know Mike (but for the benefit of others) I spent 6 years at the BBC, including helping to launch BBC Backstage, which to this day I am immensely proud of, and have since moved to San Francisco to be a consultant and toe-dipping entrepreneur.]

    Ashley was there too long, didn’t really understand the landscape enough to know what was ahead and so missed the boat on too many occasions (read:didn’t really know much more about the internet then my dad). He also spent too long politicizing, grandstanding and strategizing when really the secret of this game is to bring stuff to market and iterate. By the time BBC has planned and due diligenced it (some of which is down to external factors like the OFCOM competitive review, partly due to the incompetence of it’s own checks and balances) the market opportunity has passed.

    I’d love to see an open BBC, but the whole Open debate is stalemated. The BBC Backstage team, past and present, has done what it can to open up the BBC’s data. But so much is not in structured formats that can be API’d and a lot of data is still bought in from external sources which hold restrictive licenses (postcodes, anyone?).

    On the media side, the debate on open TV programming needs new momentum and new perspective. It’s why I really hope someone external comes into this role who has some recent experience actually executing.

    The problem is I scratch my head and wonder who would really want the job. Sure, money isn’t everything but Ashley took home a pay packet of £260k + bonus according to last year’s BBC Annual Report. Whilst yes it’s a public service, etc, the size of the talent pool from which the BBC can pick from isn’t anywhere near is as big as the tv and entertainment industry. Why would you want to go work for the BBC, where you can’t hold any outside financial interests, and head up a division of 2000+ in an organization of 26,000 for that kind of remuneration?

    Without wanting to go into too much detail nor sound like a big-head it’s not actually a very attractive package compared to my current situation – and that’s with the weak dollar! And I’m hardly experienced enough to be the next Director of BBC Future Media and Technology.

    Yes, I’m not saying the money isn’t a lot for public service – and I’m not saying the money is everything (hey I didn’t work for the BBC for 6 years for the money!). But I think as license fee payers we need to look at the quality of the candidature for that position. If we want someone who can understand how to bring startups into the equation, can work well with others in the UK internet industry and has the ability to re-ignite the open bbc debate, then maybe it’s worth investing a little more in that role and actually having some world-class internet executive talent sitting there?

  • Mesh Time

    Ii don’t know much about Highfield or his credentials, but the whole “OMG!1!1 ASHLEY HIGHFIELD IS INSTALLING UBUNTU1111!!1” thing was cringeworthy. A horrible PR stunt to show that the BBC is “cool” too.

  • http://techdigest.tv Ashley

    Couldn’t agree more about traffic Mike. As part of its public service remit the BBC really ought to be supporting more independent UK start ups by driving traffic to them. So far its record has been woeful.

    The corporation has done nothing to support Shiny Media. Even though we have 3 of the most read UK blogs in techdigest, catwalk queen and shiny shiny and four millions readers across our network, we never ever get a link or a mention from any of its bloggers.

    It is ironic that commercial media organisations like The Guardian , The Sun and The Mirror have consistently linked to our content in spite of the fact that we are competing with them for online ad spend.

    It is hugely difficult developing an online media company in the UK, especially when in many ways your biggest competitor is a public service broadcaster with huge budgets that we all play a part in funding.

    I sincerely hope that whoever replaces Highfield recognises that the BBC really needs to foster independent British media talent. Actually spending time finding out what is out there would be a start.

  • http://blog.newscred.com shafqat

    What I don’t understand is where all that money went. An average startup could probably take a tiny fraction of that money and build something really innovative or atleast useful. A great startup could take a fraction and build a Skype. Just because the BBC is a public service organisation, thats really no excuse to use funds inefficiently. I think John Doerr of KP says it best. “I’ve always been awed by entrepreneurs, by how little they have to work with when they start and by how much they sometimes accomplish.“ Is this a shining example of the opposite?

  • http://tescard.tv/ Simon Grice


    Totally agree with you. As you know http://testcard.tv/ is currently ‘on pause’ – if the BBC and others opened up I think we’d see a huge surge of innovation around the data/content.

    How do ‘we’ – the ‘startups’ continue this conversation. We held a mashup* Event last year themed TV2.0 which was very popular. I’m not sure we’re at TV3.0 but it feels to me like the TV2.5 debate needs to start.


  • http://doncrowley.blogspot.com DC Crowley

    Jeff Jarvis has a post. One problem I’ve had with much discussion about the future of news lately is that it’s too press-centric. It focuses on the press as if it were at the center of the world…. Above quote says it in a nutshell. The BBC can only do so much. It has it’s hands tied by copyright, politics and budget. The BBC like ‘the press’ is not the center of the world. You want stuff done… do it yerself and keep auntie out of it.

  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/ Jem Stone (BBC)

    Oh Mike. Catch up tv for free of over 250 programmes a week. Catch up streaming radio programmes something like five times that number. Download 100 different speech radio programmes a week. DRM free. (probably) the best online news service in the world. According to recent ofcom research the only provider (worldwide) of childrens online services with public service characteristics. An online education revision service used by 90% of UK teenagers. And according to Nielsen the 3rd most used online service in the UK (after google/msn) and the only UK owned service in the top 20. And an ok mobile service and an interactive tv service used every month by more users than facebook and youtube. combined.(nearly). And over 25% of that “massive budget” spent externally with the UK internet industry. And some bean bags for hackers.
    Quite nice ones too.

    Sometimes I think the question to ask of the BBC’s online presence in just a decade is really not how little but how much. ( Disclosure: I work there so i’m being a little mandy rice davies about it. i would say that wouldn’t I).

    And what is the Last FM point ? The BBC prevented Last FM (did it ?) or without the BBC there would be more Last FM’s ? (really ?).

  • Mike Butcher

    Jem Stone – With respect I think you might be misinterpretting this post. I’m not saying the BBC hasn’t been pretty great at distributing it OWN content on its OWN platform. It clearly has. What I am saying is that it contains within it a great deal of data which could be opened up and released for the benefit of people with ideas, thus powering new entities as yet undreamed of. People who could leverage either the BBC’s data or content on THEIR platforms or applications. It has released data – it could do much more. (I won’t bother to labour the point about traffic, but to see how startups get treated see this typical example:

    As for the Last.FM point – listen, I have had the *actual* conversations with VCs in the past who would not back a startup which looked like it might have to compete with the BBC. Please don’t try to tell me otherwise because I believe my own ears. Now, that may not apply in ALL cases but it certainly has in some.

    That’s not to say the BBC hasn’t trained up lots of people who’ve gone on to do many other things, of course. But I feel someone needs to fight the startups corner here.

  • http://www.broadstuff.com alan p

    Mike, I think you are right in theory – the issue is, as noted above, the rights are typically not wholly held by the BBC – in fact sorting out rights is a nightmare, as to save money the BBC has typically in the past allowed a plethora of small producers to own more rights than is usual say in the US.

    The second point I’d make echoes Jem in a way – from when I first looked at it in c 1996, the BBC has become a global new media powerhouse, no questions about it. I don’t think many people outside the operations there quite “get” what scale its operating at. And to get there required some fairly delicate manouevering at times, both within and outside the BBC.

    On can argue the “how” going forward though, and I agree an All- Microsoft future is probably not the best choice for a publicly funded service. I personally would like to see it champion Open Source wherever practical.

    And as its our money paying for it all, I’d like to see more usage of, and linkage to, UK businesses in the space. The US does not have a lock on knowledge in this space by a long way – in fact in broadband digital media and mobile I would argue the UK / EU is at parity at least, if not ahead – for the moment. And we have to seize that moment.

  • http://ahighfield.blogspot.com Ashley Highfield

    Hey, Mike, everyone, give me a break. I did install Unbunti with the best will in the world – the geeks told me to. I did get the iPlayer to launch and as for my salary, it’s not that big. I do have a small child, so I’m off to relax a bit in a startup. Don’t start criticising me, I’m joining you all in startup land. You’ll see me at the next Mobile Monday or whatever you guys go to these days.

  • http://www.gigpay.com Joe Charakupa

    I think we should lay off the Beeb on this and a lot of other points. As Jem Stone, points out they have so much stuff they are “supposed” to do with their budget, and I believe online is one area they can be relatively proud.

    Moreover, I think they do not owe anything to any startup in Britain, just because they are a public corporation. One of the reasons why people are starting to think there is a new bubble is because of startups built singularly around other tech companies. This is totally wrong from a business point of view.

    In addition lets not look at the Beeb as tech savvy people, because let face it, for the average person, they deliver. (People only argue about having LESS spent on the areas they don’t like. BBC Three, anyone?)

    Oh, and I don’t believe Facebook et all drive tech adoption more than the BBC. People get on the internet and get themselves broadband connections because companies like the BBC, SKY, Virgin, Three (yes 3!), Microsoft (and NOT Google) show them that there is more to what they are offering. Only after this do those people use Facebook etc.

    Any company would find it hard, to deliver what the BBC does (in all areas) on their budget. All things considered we should be proud of the BBC.

  • http://techdigest.tv Ashley Norris

    On Mike’s point about VCs. I must have been told 20 or so times by VCs that they won’t invest in British content-focussed start ups because ultimately new media companies can’t compete with the BBC.

    There are only a certain number of Brits online and the BBC hoovers up a huge percentage of those eyeballs. And eyeballs attract advertising.

    It is not just a problem for start ups. How can the likes of The Telegraph and The Guardian hope to ever be able to compete with the Beeb in delivering online video? They just don’t have the resources.

  • http://ShinyMedia Chris Price

    Couldn’t agree more with you Mike. As far as I’m concerned I pay my licence fee to fund an organisation that competes for eyeballs with my own company. Not only that, but they don’t even have the good grace to help us out by linking to us – I think your point about them being Silicon Valley obsessed is a good one. What I also find annoying is that whenever there is a discussion about the licence fee it is always about other broadcasters and not about internet start ups who ultimately suffer more from the BBC’s actions. Thanks Mike for having the guts to raise a topic that many of us trying to build businesses from the bottom up feel very passionately about. As for Ashley H’s comments about ‘relaxing in a start up’ all I can say is that he’s either taking the piss or he’s spent too long in the cosy, ivory tower, old boy network environment that always has been and always wil be the BBC.

  • http://www.e-consultancy.com Chris

    Great post Mike. But we can expect more of the same, I should imagine. Change always happens slowly at the Beeb…

  • Azeem

    So in order to open up, we’ll promote someone from Microsoft (What do you want to open up today?)

  • Mike Butcher

    @Azeem – LOL! A hit, a very palpable hit!

  • Steve Fuller

    I think the worst aspect of Ashley Highfield’s time at the BBC was that he was unable to break away from his Microsoft dominated background and realise that many of the BBC’s funders ( through the licence fee ) do not use Windows based systems, and so have equal rights of access. The BBC iPlayer when viewed in the streamed version on an Apple Mac platform is poor quality ( to say the least ) and popular programmes endlessly buffer , making normal viewing impossible. This will not be made equal until Mac and Linux users are able to download. However, I get the feeling that this will not be possible until Project Kangaroo comes on steam. The point is that the close relationship between BBC and Microsoft is unhealthy for the prime Public Service Broadcaster in the UK and the appointment of Eric Huggers straight from Microsoft will do nothing to dispell the concerns in this area.

  • Mike Butcher

    Aqute Research has decided to weigh in on the side of the BBC (their client) I have updated this post with a reply.

  • http://paulfwalsh.com Paul Walsh

    Mike – I couldn’t agree more with you. I blogged about this about a year ago, when I heard the BBC announce they we’re going to move into search at a Mobile Monday event. I mean, WTF? What the hell are/were they thinking? Once upon a time they helped stimulate innovation but they do more to hamper it nowadays. I’m sure they kill ‘potential’ startups before they’ve even been thought of.

  • http://www.grapevine-consulting.com Darika

    Obviousy it’s hard for big corporations to integrate new technologies. Traditional decision-making structures, entrenched “digi-dummy” management and, in the BBC’s case, some strict regulations, makes being able to move as fast as technology does, pretty impossible.

    But of course, a collaborative outward looking approach would offer more opportunities than threats – They need to shift from the insular old media view of broadcast and distribution to see this.

  • http://fav.or.it/ nick halstead

    Jem Stone, you have just proved completely that you do not ‘get’ what Mike is talking about. Instead of spending millions on building the flawed iplayer, why did they not adopt one of the gazillion web companies that already technology + the ability to deliver, I can think of 5 capable of doing it, and would have done it for free! why? because done correctly they would have leveraged the content out to other markets and made the BBC money, and therefore increased content going into what we expect the BBC to product i.e. content! Why is it obsessed with trying to re-invent the wheel? e.g. new bbc homepage? netvibes anyone?

    If Highfield was able to think out of the box even slightly, putting that money into some form of platform/API that allowed 3rd parties to leverage the content, would have mean a generation shift (a bit like when facebook opened its platform) in content delivery and also in the business models surrounding it. Lets really hope they can land someone like Ben M, or at least take on advisers within the right fields that will make a difference, but IMHO nothing will change in the next 5 years.

    sent from: fav.or.it [FID274259]

  • http://paulfwalsh.com Paul Walsh

    I’ve got a little insight with regard to the BBC wanting to create its own solutions – avoiding W3C standards being created… they think they can, and have the right, to do everything internally.

  • http://blogs.zdnet.com/Howlett Dennis Howlett

    I had some involvement in 2004 via a company that was working towards a way of opening up the data and had a solid plan in place. The problem at the time was that it was unclear whether IBM or Siemens would get the main re-engineering project and my client ended up on the wrong side of the fence.

    The DRM problems Ben mention were very real, huge but solutions were possible for at least a significant portion of the BBC’s digital assets.

    My client spent over EIGHTEEN MONTHS trying to get to the finishing post on the deal, much of it going over the same ground time and again. It was a ball aching experience for everyone.

    The paper I wrote in support of my client’s solution was solid and executable. Whether it would have achieved the desired effect is now moot, but all the relevant moving parts made sense.

    As I understand, political decisions were taken about technology choices that were clearly (IMO) going in the wrong direction in the sense the solution offered by the opposition would have been more difficult to implement and almost certainly would not have yielded an appropriate result.

    FF 4 years and it seems nothing has changed.

    The fact is the BBC has huge value tied up in more than 75 years of programmed assets, in both sound and vision. Digitizing them would be an enormous undertaking but the value they could potentially release to the nation and beyond is almost incalculable. It’s a sunken treasure that almost certainly without comparison anywhere else in the world.

    One can only hope that whomever they find to replace Highfield will have the smarts to realise the value – in more ways than one.

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