A couple of days ago I wrote an opinion piece on why I feel that being forced to duplicate existing software projects due to an antiquated and limited infrastructure is a large part of the reason the BBC is falling far behind the rest of the industry in its internet offerings.
To put this in context, until two days ago this site has had about 100 visitors total, so I was a little surprised to find that within hours the article was making its way onto the front page of Reddit, and being circulated amongst technology bloggers. In most circumstances it was accompanied by under-informed and wildly inaccurate comments and extrapolations about the BBC from people who have either never worked there, or not worked there in the better part of a decade. (I’ve also spent far too much time over the past couple of days deleting comments along the lines of “this is why we should abolish the licence fee”, strangely most of these comments coming from Americans.)
A lot of people missed the point of what I was writing about, which I’ll attribute to me not making myself sufficiently clear. I was not talking about the BBC’s web sites, about the quality of the corporation’s creative output, nor about what the situation was prior to the sell-off of BBC Technology several years ago. What I was talking about are the reasons that today, in 2007, the BBC is stuck with an archaic technological infrastructure, and how that ultimately hurts the BBC’s long-term strategy to be “part of the web” and not just a set of web pages.
You see, despite the critical handicap of its infrastructure, the BBC does amazing things with its content. It takes a little longer than the rest of the industry to get those things out there, but considering the size of the corporation, the all-encompassing nature of its audience, and its risk-averse leadership, that’s not surprising.
It’s also true that the BBC suffers from multiple personality disorder, and that within the corporation not all things are equal. As was pointed out in the comments on my article, BBC Journalism (what used to be BBC News) has its own infrastructure that lies more within the control of the BBC. The difference is clear – BBC News has to be able to respond in the most flexible and reliable manner imaginable as the changing pressures of world events and audiences demand more of their infrastructure than almost any other in the world. Waiting months for bug-fixes and code reviews to make minor changes would be the kiss of death for the BBC’s News offerings.
That’s really the crux of the matter. The BBC certainly can be slow to react to change, but over the past couple of years there has been enormous pressure from within the corporation to move forwards with this whole “internet” thing. It’s safe to say that the vast majority of the people working in on-line content at the BBC do actually “get it”, and even the traditional linear media people are catching on. There are some truly exceptional projects coming out of the BBC in the near future (especially on the CBBC and CBeebies side of things), and it’s not fair to tar everyone with the same brush.
A brilliant example of what the BBC does right is described in Curtis Poe’s response to my article. He says:
[T]oday when I got into work, I found a scathing email from one of the higher ups. He read the “BBC Fails at the Internet” post and rather than blow a gasket that internal details had been made public, he forwarded it to the responsible parties, said he agreed, and made it very clear that the problem will be fixed immediately…
Now, wouldn’t that be a fine thing?