While the BBC fiddles, Britain's innovation burns

Ok, so that might be a rather strong headline, but it was the best I could think of to describe what is currently going on. (That’s Nero fiddling while Rome burns, btw).

It’s no secret that I am dissappointed that the BBC has spent so much time and money trying to re-invent the wheel For The Glory of the Corporation. I think the BBC should do more, a LOT more, to hook into the innovation happening in technology companies in the private sector, and at the same time allowing private sector companies to innovate around the products the BBC produces. And that does not mean just commissioning more user interface design, or the odd microsite, from a bunch of agencies. If it did so, the BBC might even find some products it quite liked and could use to make the BBC better. Really. No kidding.

Yes, you can talk to me about Rights (“but we don’t have the release forms for that show’s music to be used online!” Yawn.) till the cows come home. That’s what the BBC should do. And I do not mean just organising another barcamp style event for geeks to feel warm and cuddly about the Beeb (with apologies to those great guys over at BBC Backstage).

I’m talking about turning the BBC into a platform that UK startup technology companies can work on and with.

Last week the BBC Trust’s review of Bbc.co.uk found the whole project in a bit of a mess. The most succinct account of this is over at PDA. Here are the main points.:

• The BBC breached its 2007/2008 budget by a whopping 48%.

• Two-thirds of the £35.8m overspend was down to “misallocation of general overheads and costs” such as failing to include costs such as the buildings that house its digital teams. Oh yes.

• Who gets fired? No one. (Thats OK though – former digital head Ashley Highfield has already jumped ship).

• Will the spend go down? No. They are adding £4.4m extra and taking the baseline budget for 2007/2008 of £74.2m to £114.4m, a 54% increase. Trebles all round!

• This does not take into account the BBC’s £400m “future media” budget, so the BBC actually has £500m to spend on digital media. Imagine what you could do with that…

• The Trust recommended three new levels of “protections” aimed at better controlling the BBC’s digital ambition: stricter financial controls, clearer definition for what each part of the website aims to achieve and an “independent” assessment of market impact where competitors risk being “overwhelmed by the scale of the BBC.”

• These rivals could now appeal to this mythical “independent” panel – which is in fact overseen by the BBC Trust. But guess what – the panel would most likely take 18 months to two years to adjudicate. Any startup trying to enter this process would be dead before it got going.

Now, I am not going to weigh into the argument the commercial newspaper sector normally has with the BBC. That’s just dull. They should be innovating just like the rest of the startup sector does on the smell of an oily rag, rather than whining about the BBC’s competition.

But the best way the BBC can now allay any fears about its market dominance is by building a platform for innovation. Not a policy – a real platform. With APIs even.

That way we’ll get our money/value back – and the BBC can start to give something back, not just TV and radio programmes, but a real platform for UK startups to become world beaters.


I’m starting a list of links to the small number of people inside the BBC who “get it”

Here’s one. And another.