Archives for posts with tag: innovation

Wednesday November 19th saw the seventh of the BBC Future Media’s Online Briefings, once again held at the storied Radio Theatre in New Broadcasting House. The half day session was admirably hosted by Naga Munchetty who kicked off the morning by showing a video interview with FM’s director Ralph Rivera, who, in awards show parlance, couldn’t be with us today.

Ralph reiterated the five priorities which stand from the last briefing in the spring:

  • BBC iPlayer
  • myBBC
  • Innovation at scale
  • The BBC, online
  • Continuous Delivery

Ralph also discussed some of his favourite recent initiatives, including apps for BBC Weather and CBeebies and the brilliant work FM had done around the WWI centenary. He also took on some tricky questions that had been sent in by indies, including whether the criteria for participating in Connected Studio had changed (short answer: no; for more detail see below).

Ralph was followed by Knowledge and Learning’s Tim Plyming (our old friend from BBC Radio & Music Interactive) and Chris Sizemore. Tim talked in detail about the WWI season (the largest season on which the BBC has ever embarked) and how it’s playing out digitally, including a series of brilliant, engaging and informative short-form documentaries commissioned specifically for online. But Tim dwelled on a highly innovative interactive TV episode of the Our War series that asked the user/veiwer to participate in a series of questions that would determine – in real time – the course of a drama based on a real life infantry charge on the Somme in 1916. Powerful stuff.

Chris talked more widely about K&L’s work, and in particular the launch of the the iWonder guides, which aggregate BBC content – from Learning and beyond – around specific topics and questions, all designed to both stimulate and exploit curiousity in the reader/viewer.

Jon Howard and Martin Wilson then talked us through Make it Digital: an initiative to get young people coding. Now in general I’m a little skeptical about such schemes, or at least the school-based ones. For one thing I’d like to see far more emphasis on STEM subjects than on the more modish coding, and for another I agree with The Register’s line that we are never going to be able to take on the developing world as a coding power house (nor indeed have their considerable arbitrage advantages). Rather we should think about coding in the wider context of entrepreneurship and the development of new ideas.

But, but… to my great relief all the projects Jon and Martin discussed did precisely this, presenting kids with problem-solving challenges that would use code solutions rather than simply teaching basic coding (whatever that is!) A video compilation of hightlights from a CBBC roadshow in the North East showed the process in action and was really quite moving.

Robin Cramp, now an old hand at these events, talked about the last – and the next – six months on the BBC’s open innovation programme, Connected Studio, which regular readers will know we’ve worked with, and reported on, pretty closely. Significantly, CS now has five pilots live with several more in pipeline, and, (arguably the most crucial bit of news of the day) is about to launch a brand new platform that will allow pilots to go live without the need for dealing with’s necessary restrictions. Robin discussed how some new approaches had been trialled lately that moved CS away from the open Creative Studio>Build Studio model, but this was a simple matter of trying out new approaches where strategically and editorially relevant, but didn’t set a new precedent.

Robin was followed by Maureen Gore who gave a brief overview of the current procurement process – and some upcoming changes – that managed the seemingly unlikely feat of being simultaneously succinct, informative and funny.

After a short tea break, BBC R&D’s Head of Operations Jon Page reintroduced us to the theme he’d discussed at the summer’s briefing, what he terms “Broadcasting as a System”. He outlined the defining characeristics of modern broadcast as being: immersive, pervasive, data-driven and interactive/personal/adaptive.

He then showed us how this thinking had played out in actual pilots run at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in the summer. Examples included a studio based entriely on IP infrastructure and standard, off-the-shelf computer kit (something that impressed me more than perhaps anything else all morning), the use of Oculus Rift and binaural sound to creative immersive “viewing” of certain events in the mains stadium, and the transmission of 4K (or UHD) broadcast from key events.

The final presentation of the morning was from Carmen Aitken, FM’s Head of Audiences. Carmen has presented audience research at previous briefings and today was presenting recent detailed research work looking at “Digital Needs”. Based loosely on Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, these comprised characteristics summed up by these verbs:

  • Unwind
  • Energise
  • Manage
  • Inform
  • Reassure
  • Connect

Carmen pointed out that all of these corresponded more or less to “Love/belonging” layer within Maslow’s triangle:

Screen shot 2014-11-20 at 17.05.03

I personally felt that I’d like to see something that related to Self-actualisation at the top of the triangle, and wondered if the verb “challenge” might fit the bill. But then, I’m something of a grumpy middle-aged man, a representative of what was, Carmen pointed out, the demographic least likely to use digital media to “Connect”. I suspect she’s right.

Carmen went on to break down what she termed “digital genres” that might apply to short form viral content: Cute, Win, Fail, OMG, LOL and Moving. She also discussed “emotional snacking”, and pointed out that while of course the BBC was hardly going to use this breakdown in how it conceived content, it could tap into it to get existing content to new audiences, which strikes me a smart thing to do (although left me feeling very old indeed).

The session wound up with all the morning’s speakers taking the stage for and audience Q&A, which took in the importance of design skills, the conversion rate from TV views to interactive participation (around 2-3% on average), the importance of the viewer “seeing themselves in the story”, the importance of open source (actually it turns out the BBC takes an appropriately pragmatic rather than ideological approach to open source), further uses of and metadata visual overlays on content and the small percentage interactive took up of overall BBC income (something of a red herring for me, but one I’ll have to go into at some other juncture).

Congratulations to the Market Engagement team and Jake Bailey in particular for pulling off such an enjoyable and genuinely thought provoking morning.


Last Monday (June 9th) saw the 6th BBC Online Briefing, outlining the organisation’s digital activity for external stakeholders and suppliers. I was lucky enough to be asked along again so as ever, I thought I’d report back (and, yes, it’s taken a week but what can I say, we’ve been busy).

Once again we were in the BBC’s storied Radio Theatre, and the event was hosted by the thoroughly charming Fiona Bruce, who seemed to be relishing this second appearance and generally got under the skin of the discussions more than last time (sometimes provocatively so, but we’ll get to that later).

BBC Online’s current priorities – BBC iPlayer, myBBC, innovation at scale, “the BBC, online” and continuous delivery  – were emblazoned on a banner by the side of the stage and in his opening key note,  BBC Future Media Director Ralph Rivera outlined these through a series of concrete examples from across “the products”, including:

  • the roll out of the Knowledge and Learning “iWonder” guides (a huge task involving the consolidation of material from over 200 existing sites)
  • long-form journalism in News (in which I gather our good friend Paul Finn of Fitzroy and Finn had a major part in designing)
  • the new iPlayer, launched in BETA in March
  • the re-tooling of “below the waterline” features such as metadata ingest
  • the ongoing development of Playlister
  • ditto with BBC Live, which will give, over the summer, “the Olympic experience” to Wimbledon, Glastonbury, the Commonwealth Games and of course the World Cup, which I gather is happening as I write

Ralph went on the discuss the importance of working with external companies. He admitted that it was still difficult for outsiders to work with the organisation, but that the development of the new roster, broken into Testing, Design and Services, was hopefully going to be a big step in improving things. He also pointed out that the external quota is “a floor, not a ceiling”; the impressive fact that last year’s external spend in digital was 30% – around £19.5 million) suggests that this is more than just rhetoric.

Robin Cramp was up next, talking though Connected Studio‘s work over the last six months (much of which, of course, we’ve reported on this blog). Robin first introduced Matt Shearer, from BBC News Labs and Chris Rush, of the agency Realise who talked us through Referend-erm, an interactive hub about the upcoming Scottish independence referendum, aimed at 16-24 year olds, where “no question is to big, to small or too stupid to ask”. I was pleased to see that the team had opted to to create an app but rather a mobile-first, fully responsive website. Matt described the work as a “speedboat project” – enabling the the team to build something outside the organisation’s usual roadmap.

Robin was joined by CS Head Adrian Woolard. The two talked through upcoming CS projects, which would include working with the Natural History on their next behemoth series, One Planet, as well as with Radio 3, building on the work already done around classical music, and the World Service. Adrian also discussed a project encouraging coding for teenagers and hinted at a new platform to enable “innovation at scale” – but couldn’t say what it was jut yet…

John Page from R&D then presented a range of work that showed just how BBC R&D was “at the heart of reinventing our industry”, looking ahead in time frames of 3, 5 and 10 years. “Broadcast as a system” had traditionally been Create>>Deliver>>Consume, but several factors were disrupting the model, including end-to-end IP, data-centrism and new devices and interfaces. R&D are currently responding to these shifts by concentrating on projects that are:

  • immersive (a project using Oculus Rift and binaural sound to present chamber performances by members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra)
  • data-centric (overlays on sports event)
  • interactive/personal/adaptive (personalised sound mixing of live events)

John also discussed the importance of collaboration with outside agencies including tech manufacturers, SMEs, digital agencies (I was pleased to see that they’ve been working with my old firm Somethin’ Else) and academia.

The final presentation of the first half came from Carmen Aitken from BBC Audiences, who came to talk not about “the death of TV” – but rather its future, based on various in-depth audience research methods. TV, however it’s consumed, continues to satisfy four key needs: sociability, sensory stimulation, synchrony and relaxation. Interestingly, research shows that most viewers generally know what they want to watch, and find it via EPG, PVR and VOD – very much in that order. As for those of us who have given up on the TV as a device entirely – well, we are still very much outliers, although it’s worth noting that we tend to use laptops to do so rather than tablets.

Carmen posited three scenarios for the future of TV, using car-based metaphors:

  • Flying Cars model – a completely disrupted landscape
  • Horse and cart model – business as usual
  • Modified car model – some hybrid of the present and new forms of consumption

She made a cogent argument for the likelihood of the last one, of course. I personally emain unconvinced, and, as I’ve said before, when thinking about the future of media generally, we’d all do well to think about Nasseem Taleb’s “turkey graph“.

After a brief break, the stage was taken by polymath Dave Birss, who’d been asked to think about what he would do if given a digital-only network to run (one couldn’t help but think of BBC Three here, but that was never made explicit). Dave set out to test a series of assumptions, in each case taking them part fairly comprehensively. These included:

  • Assumption – “The success of a programme = the number of viewers.” Dave – why couldn’t we use the number of interactions as a success measure? Wouldn’t this tell us more about how an audience really felt?
  • Assumption: “We make programmes for people sitting on the settee.” Dave – really? Tech gives us the ability to make location-based, context-appropriate content.
  • Assumption: – “Digital stuff should be an extension of TV content.” Dave – why not start “in the real world”? What about “player-written drama” or “social-guided programming”?
  • Assumption: “Content needs to be edited to fixed lengths.” Dave – why not have expandable content”, content which might initially appear as a 3 minute stub, which might expand to 90 minutes if the viewer wanted to see, say, a whole interview.

This last point was the most compelling for me, but interestingly it’s where Fiona Bruce came in, making the observation that from her experience, lengthy, un-edited interviews led to “crapitude”. Well, I think it’s a question of intention: if you go into an interview knowing that you can fix things in the edit there’s no real jeopardy – no incentive to make a good long-from interview. But speaking as podcast junkie, I have to say that the scene is pretty inspiring – and I rarely, if ever, come across a dud. (Note that Dubner & Levitt and are doing the rounds at the moment, promoting Think Like A Freak; most of what I’ve heard on the radio so far has been soundbyte-y, but not this fabulous hour-long conversation on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Most definitely not an example of crapitude.)

The session was rounded off with a Q&A with Ralph and Matthew Postgate, Controller of R&D. Questions covered included:

  • What tech gets you most excited? Matthew – broadcasting data sets and the Internet of Things; Ralph – truly interactive, immersive video.
  • What the role of UGC? Ralph – something we can draw on, but not our core mission nor a strength; “we are the signal in the noise”.
  • What are the key qualities you’re looking for in a collaborator:P Ralph – creativity, diversity, a focus on delivery – and tenacity.
  • Will the licence renewal process affect innovation? Matthew – yes, but positively, driving innovation in areas like personalisation.

Once again, it was a thoroughly engaging afternoon, and a revealing one two. Congratulations to all involved and I look forward to the next one…


We’re working towards our second draft on our report to Ofcom, and have done a lot of thinking about the “value” of UGC to the UK. Of course, value is both subjective and variously defined, so for our purposes, we’ve divided it into economic, social/political and cultural value, with “cultural” meant in the sense of the so-called “cultural industries”. We’ll look at each area in three separate posts. This first looks at economic value, and essentially looks at some of the potential economic opportunities UGC offers us.

There is no question that the advent of UGC and its rapid spread in the last five years has led to the creation of new businesses and jobs in the UK. The Centre for London counted 3,200 “digital economy” companies with over 48,000 employees in the Tech City area of East London in June 2012, a significant number of whom are creating services or technology for some part of the UGC value chain, including Unruly Media, Soundcloud,, We Are Social, Editd, Conversocial, Apps For Good and Makie Lab.

Of course some of these new companies and jobs have displaced “old economy” jobs at incumbent firms whose business models have been adversely affected by digital disruption, part of the process of creative destruction if you like, although it is very difficult to quantify this.

Below we discuss the main areas of UGC activity that derive economic value and identify some of the beneficiaries.


This is almost certainly the largest area of financial impact in UGC activity. The truth about the “long tail” is that to build a truly successful long tail company you need to own if not all of it then at the very least a good chunk of it. This is of course obvious in the case of the major content distributors: Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, Spotify… but it goes for UGC aggregators, too. There are thousands of bespoke UGC-hosting services, many of them highly innovative. And in aggregate those companies create significant economic value, but the tendency on the internet of one or two dominant players to emerge applies here.

The big hitters in the area are almost all US companies, of course: YouTube/Google, Foursquare, Vimeo, Facebook, Pinterest, twitter, tumblr and most of the major blogging platforms (WordPress, Typepad and so on). A significant exception here is SoundCloud, a German company headquartered in Berlin. It’s fair to say that while there is some great innovation happening in UGC aggregation in the UK (see our case study on MixCloud), no single UK UGC aggregator has yet emerged. However, the major players, including YouTube and SoundCloud recognise the UK as a major market (and for US companies a potential launchpad into Europe) and therefore maintain significant sales and marketing teams in the UK.

Furthermore, the London-headquartered famously sold for nearly $300 million to CBS in 2007 and remains based in London with over 50 employees and an annual turnover of £8 million. Although not a pure UGC play company, its core recommendations service is driven by the background “scrobbling” of music plays by users, it is home to a vibrant community and also allows the uploading of content by independent music makers. Nonetheless it’s worth remarking that Last’s sale and subsequent big expansion happened over six years ago, the service arguably remains a niche one, and it remains, no pun intended, the last significant UK player to emerge in the area.

Third party services

All UGC services by definition need to build an ecosystem – of technologies and users – to be meaningful. Furthermore, they tend to work best when they sit “inside” a larger ecosystem. Even an utterly dominant force like a Facebook or a twitter succeeds precisely because it is embedded everywhere (think of effectively ubiquitous Facebook “like” or “tweet this” buttons). The spread of these ecosystems has created a rich seam for third party services piggy-backing on the giants.

The UK poster child in this area was TweetDeck, originally a desktop-based client that later spawned mobile and tablet apps. Arguably, for many users, TweetDeck was the thing which first “made sense” of the twittersphere, or at any rate made it more navigable, and certainly more useful, with a multi-column functionality that allowed users to tweet from multiple accounts and sort the twitter “stream” into themes and groups. Additionally it allowed updating of Facebook statuses, thereby conjoining two massive elements of the social media ecosystem.

TweetDeck was founded by UK-based developer, Iain Dodsworth, in 2008. Initially a tool known only by the twitter hardcore, it was bought by twitter itself for a reputed £25 million in 2011. While this remains an edge case for UK developers, it’s hardly an outlier internationally, with the infamous sale of Instagram to Facebook for $1 billion unquestionably the most extreme example of a titan buying up a piggy-backer. Furthermore, even the most innovative large companies can become sclerotic at times, or at least “miss a trick”.

Finally, it’s worth highlighting those services that join up other services in some part of the UGC ecosystem. Bandcamp Scrobbler for instance, does “exactly what it says on the tin”, enabling users to “scrobble” plays from Bandcamp to their profile, significantly allowing user-generated or amateur music-makers to appear among their professional counterparts. This is, admittedly, just a question of smart development around published APIs, but it can be hugely valuable for both users and UGC practitioners. It can also drive development within the “host” service, too; both Spotify and Mixcloud only developed scrobbling functionality after third party developers had done so (and after a lot of lobbying on their message boards – as discussed elsewhere here).

There is, then, a huge economic opportunity for third party development across the UGC spectrum

Filtering, recommendation, navigation

We observe elsewhere in this paper that one of the negative consequences of the spread of UGC is a serious ramping up of “noise”. But there’s a real opportunity in here, too. Once again, as with the professional content arena, services which offer meaningful and reliable recommendation services around UGC, especially those which offer a degree of serendipity – hence ‘filtering out the noise’ – could prove to be really successful businesses. The most successful UGC aggregators of course offer targetted recommendations already, but these tend to use an existing array of methods based on a combination of algorithms, community/user base and some paid-for promotion (think YouTube or Vimeo).

It’s often noted that the UK has an arguably world-leading position in gate-keeping in the creative industries, through strong traditions in various kinds of cultural and political in a variety of media, especially print, radio and television. UGC has allowed new gatekeepers to come to the fore – most obviously with the advent the blog and later twitter – but it’s also created the need for yet more gate-keeping, albeit of a radically new kind. The harnessing of the UK’s vital critical tradition with the explosion of UGC activity surely offers a huge creative and financial opportunity.

Innovation and new business models

We discussed emerging business models at some length in the previous section, so won’t rehearse those arguments and observations here except to say there is no question that the advent of UGC is driving innovation in existing businesses, perhaps especially in the traditional content industries. Indeed, it may be that this innovation happens as businesses face massive disruption, even existential threat. In these extreme (but not necessarily rare) cases, innovation around UGC and its attendant business models may prove essential.