One of the most hotly tipped Internet careers in the UK ended ignominiously last month. Ed Briffa, a long-standing BBC employee, widely respected TV producer and a man at ease with the current BBC dedication to all things digital, had been a natural choice when the BBC went looking for a leader for its Web publishing division, Online. So why, just 11 months after he took over, has it all ended in tears?
The answer may lie in what has happened in the last year. The BBC has four major Internet divisions. BBC Online, which Briffa controlled, was the flagship website for all public service content. Since inception it has followed a programming model, widely replicating existing BBC radio and TV programming.
Then there is BBC News, the Online outlet for the BBC’s massive news gathering operations, and the BBC Education site, which contains a mixture of education programme sites, original content and partner content, all education related. Finally, there is the public service World Service site, which reflects that department’s radio coverage.
Each of these sites and products is run separately, and their bosses reported to Briffa. Given the different agendas they all pursue, this structure appeared sensible last year, but it has clearly created problems.
For a start, there weren’t many shared resources, such as content production systems, Web servers and all the other dull, but essential back-end systems needed to power big Web publishing outfits.
If four of everything are needed, plus network provision, staff and the other paraphernalia involved with content, it costs a lot of money. The BBC’s own annual report shows an 18.7m budget for one year’s operational costs. Compared to other major publishers, this is a lot.
Channel 4 website editor Sophie Walpole says: “Our site is fabulously cheap, is run by ten people and has a small percentage of the BBC’s budget.”
The commercial issue is another difficult one for the Corporation. When BBC Worldwide launched beeb.com, in conjunction with ICL Fujitsu, it clearly expected revenues to follow. John Davidson, group marketing director for ICL and ex-head of the ICL Interactive division that co-funded beeb.com, pointed out that total revenues for all Internet-based content services in the UK can be counted “in the tens of millions”.
But many think Briffa’s departure was content-driven. His model was based on programming and content, but some feel this model does not lend itself to the medium. “Ed was a very competent and thoughtful TV guy. It was difficult for him to imagine a new model. In a sense he was bound to fail. He was parachuted in to implement the Birt model of content everywhere,” says Steve Bowbrick, head of Webmedia.
Others point to the unsuitability of replicating programming online. One insider said: “If you look at a strand like Watchdog, although it might feel as if it’s on very regularly, in reality it is probably only on six months a year. For a website this creates the problem of what you do the rest of the year. Do you pretend the website is made by the same people who make the TV programme and keep updating it with Web-only items, which is going to cost a fortune, or leave it to gather cobwebs? The joy of a genre-based system alongside normal broadcast output is that they can come together around special events or seasons but retain their individual identities. TV does the big grand series extremely well but the web does ‘community’ in a way TV can only dream of.”
This switch to a subject- or genre-based structure will be followed by the new manager of BBC Online (but not by the overall controller of all Net divisions), Mark Frost. It suggests the BBC is unhappy with the programming model. Indeed, though details are sketchy, it sounds very much like the portal model, where content is aggregated around key Net services like free e-mail and so on.
It may never be known why Briffa left, but when many staff members question his knowledge of the medium, it suggests that putting one medium’s content into another medium is not his strong point.
However, there seems to be cautious optimism about BBC’s online future, as our insider explains: “You have to see the changes at BBC Online as being a positive thing internally and, more importantly, externally. It will be interesting to see how it affects independents. At the moment, companies like Illuminations and Diverse outside the BBC have pitched for websites to accompany TV series. It makes sense – they know the material better than anyone else and they’re both Web-literate.
“The danger of Web-only content is that it is expensive (as MSN found out) and doesn’t have the full benefit of cross-media promotion. Will a Watchdog audience log on for a generic consumer website that isn’t Watchdog branded?” Only time will tell.