Just weeks after a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) cast doubt on the ability of the BBC to build a digital-first public service media organisation and manage the future demands of viewers and listeners, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has also questioned the corporation’s capability in achieving its digital ambitions, with MPs expressing particular concern over any pushback on previously stated guarantees in how it could manage a vast increase in acquiring personal data on UK licence fee payers.
The BBC first announced its digital transformation plan in May 2022, with, said BBC director-general Tim Davie, a commitment to build a digital media organisation that made a significant positive impact culturally, economically and socially, and one that would be a global leader. Moreover, this would be an organisation that put digital first when creating content, and one driven by “the search for truth, impartiality, outstanding creativity and independence”.
To achieve these objectives, the BBC said it would reallocate money towards content that works in the on-demand world, such as the iPlayer on-demand, live and catch-up TV platform, making “tough choices” on traditional distribution and investing more in online services. Indeed, the BBC was planning for its digital services to be in at least the top three for market share in the UK in five years’ time.
In its assessment of the BBC’s ambitions and performance to date, the NAO investigated whether the organisation had the capability to deliver value to its users from its strategic technology review (STR) of 2021. However, the report found that the BBC’s digital leadership needed to evolve to deliver its strategy more effectively and accelerate its digital growth. It also emphasised the fact that the BBC had less funding available to develop digital products than most other media organisations, many of which were digital-only.
The report added that the BBC had announced plans to invest about £50m extra annually on digital product development by 2025, but said its internal plan to support this lacked detail and the broadcaster had yet to finalise the budget for its digital-first strategy. The NAO also noted that increased use of digitisation, with a commensurate rise in the use of personal data, also exposed the BBC to greater reputational risks if it did not meet best practice in acquiring, storing and securing personal data, and being transparent about its use.
The PAC, under chair Meg Hillier, questioned Davie, along with BBC chief operating officer Leigh Tavaziva and chief product officer Storm Fagan. It reminded Davie of a recent speech in which he outlined how digital offers a huge opportunity to unlock more audience value but requires big organisational change and a radical overhaul of how the BBC uses use data, the need for a world-class tech team, new operating models, new creative solutions and ideas. The PAC queried how new operating models were needed after the STR was established and indeed was the STR now defunct?
Davie explained to the committee that the December speech did not mean the STR was evolving and said it would not be rewound in any fashion. “Getting ourselves organised with product, tech and distribution was the right thing to do full stop. What I mean by operating model is that if you run television or content, we’re going to create new operating models. Editorially, you’re making sure you’re doing the right thing for the iPlayer [for example]. That cuts across traditional silos.”
Fagan added: “We’ve just come to the end of [the Strategic Technology Review of 2021]. So we have implemented the changes and that’s kind of set us up for everything. The next phase is broader across the organisation. There’s no rolling back or changing from that implementation.”
Tavaziva shed more light on what the new BBC would mean in terms of technical structure, noting that the broadcaster has spilt what it used to call its design and engineering function into product areas, specifically teams designed to deliver digital products and services into technology teams that look after broadcast and online enterprise infrastructure. This also affected the running of underlying technology across the delivery of cyber security and more traditional areas such as distribution – that is, how the content reaches audiences.
“That enabled us to develop the leadership to build the capability Tim was talking about in his speech. So the focus was not general technology capability, but technology [and] the way product teams work in an agile way – lots of tastes and learn development, quick movement activity for digital services,” she noted. “That was entirely essential for us to compete against the kind of product delivery that comes from a Netflix or Spotify and other competitors compared with the larger, more capital-intensive and recurring enterprise.
“It’s one thing to get our tech teams right and the capability [right], it’s another thing for all of the content creators to also start to understand changing audience habits and to think about how the audience receives the BBC. Not just through broadcast, but also through digital, and we have to optimise the capabilities and [support] multiple channels. We are moving some money out of the broadcast to enable more multimedia teams and [gain the] ability to have a stronger digital offer at the same time.”
While recognising that the corporation was working in what he said was an “incredibly challenging environment”, Davie was confident that the corporation was set up to make the requisite changes and that it could address concerns expressed by the NAO. In particular, he noted that the corporation had aggressive commercial plans, building on success in the world of production, such as partnerships with the Walt Disney Corporation for Doctor Who.
The PAC also questioned the executives on the specific technology changes the BBC was facing and what digital product development was in place to overcome them. Fagan took this on, stating bluntly that one of the big challenges surrounded data.
“There is a big shift globally at the moment in terms of ability to access data and use it, and you can see that in the NAO report when they talk about the three key challenges we’ve got around search, recommendations and metadata. Those are all stemming from how much data was changing, how we use our data in our products, how we use the data to make the [user] experience simpler. When you move from broadcast to digital, you have so much more choice in terms of content.”
Concluding, Hillier thanked the BBC for what she called its “very bold” plan and said the PAC recognised the challenges the broadcaster faced, but warned that the committee would be watching the BBC’s digital development very closely as it was drawing public money at a time when there were other pressures on the corporation. She noted that the PAC would be producing a report on proceedings before Easter.