How the BBC became digital in three-and-a-half years

The BBC has undergone a digital transformation that started 18 months prior to the London 2012 Olympic Games

More than 500 websites, 40 content management systems and 140 embedded media players – that was the state of the BBC’s digital porfolio 18 months prior to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

As well as preparing for one of the UK’s biggest broadcasting events of the century, the BBC had to consolidate its digital offering, while restructuring, reorganising and cutting budget costs by 25%, as well as 360 online jobs. On top of that it also had to move a third of its staff to MediaCity in Salford.

“No one said it was going to be easy,” said BBC director of future media Ralph Rivera.

Speaking at the Chief Digital Officer Summit in London, Rivera said the broadcaster needed to move from having multiple digital siloes to a single service which could deliver the entirety of BBC online content.

Brought into the BBC in 2010, Rivera is responsible for online products and interactive services, as well as research and development. This is in addition to everything the organisation does over internet protocol (IP).

To transform the BBC’s digital efforts in a short space of time, Rivera focused on product management, roadmaps and agile development. He found in some cases products had to be made from scratch, such as an analytics platform.

More on technology and the BBC

Rivera said in a world where a film wouldn’t be broadcast until it is absolutely perfect, it was fundamentally different to take a product to the BBC and iterate it over time.

He explained encouraging the change from the board level down was very important. “We needed to get people on the same page,” he said.

Technology strategy

But getting new technical roles, including developers, has been a challenge in itself.

“The biggest challenge risk to any company doing digital transformation is getting the right people, and we’ve been able to get these folks because they believe in the BBC,” said Rivera.

Once it had the right people, the BBC technology strategy was first to try and re-use what was previously being deployed. 

For instance, from its 40 content management systems, journalists were using a platform called CPS. The digital team suggested the same platform was used for Strictly Come Dancing, but were told the show wasn’t a journalistic endeavor so why would they want to use it.

Rivera said he managed to consolidate 40 content management systems into two, and in the end CPS was one of them. “It’s computational thinking 101,” he said. “Destruct the problem and recognise a pattern.”

As for the 140 media players, the BBC managed to find one standard, while embracing the cloud for video encoding. It also used a NoSQL database to store metadata which expands over news, TV shows, sports, radio and more.

London 2012 Olympic Games

“The Olympics coming up was blessing and a curse,” said Rivera, who called the games a great motivator for delivering the digital change.

“We were looking to deliver the first digital Olympics,” he added. “And do for digital in 2012 what the Coronation did for TV in 1953. That was the sense of purpose and joined everyone together.

"I’d be lying if there wasn’t a little negative motivation, partly fuelled by fear,” continued Rivera. “The entire country was riding on it – we didn’t want to be the ones to ruin the Olympics.”

But the games were a success and, after the closing ceremony, Rivera joked he was finally able to enjoy the event upon reflection.

More on digital Olympics

“Fortunately for us it was incredible. The weather got nice, GB started winning gold and everything we built started working,” he said.

The BBC provided athlete data from every country; video-on-demand on all devices – at home or on the go; it met its mobile and social aspirations; and it was recognised in the press as a success.

But what happened after the Olympics? Rivera said at the time the broadcaster had “post-Olympic stress disorder”, where it was concerned about a crash following the high of the games.

“There was a lingering notion of fear it was going to be our best moment and everything after that would be a form of managed decline,” he said

But the BBC managed to take its digital offering to Glastonbury, covering every stage, as well as Wimbledon, covering every court. It also took it to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games, the European Elections, the 2014 Fifa World Cup in Brazil, and the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

“What was exceptional in 2012 became business as usual in 2014,” said Rivera.

Innovation and iPlayer

And the broadcaster has been continuing to innovate, from trialling ultra-high definition (UHD) over IP network at the Commonwealth Games, to broadcasting a live sports event straight to a virtual realty headset – the Oculus Rift.

“We took a 360-degree camera, it was IP end-to-end, and a fully immersive experience,” said Rivera. “We started to see a glimpse of the future of broadcasting.”

We’ve completely flipped the traffic pattern in three-and-a-half years

Ralph Rivera, BBC

The BBC weather mobile app was the fastest download the broadcaster had ever had for an application, and the BBC news website was also made responsive in September 2014.

In addition, BBC iPlayer continued to scale. After being rebuilt from the ground up and relaunched in March 2014, the next stage is to include a new BBC Radio 1 channel, add more short-form video, and provide the back-end power for a new BBC Worldwide store which will launch in 2015. 

Additionally, iPlayer will soon include the BBC personalisation tool – My BBC – which itself requires a great investment in data and analytics.

It also plans to make the channel BBC Three online only from Autumn 2015, subject to board approval. “Iplayer is phenomenal in terms of TV – we’re the first broadcaster to decide to shut down a successful broadcast channel and make it online only,” said Rivera.

The broadcaster is also seeing its mobile traffic on the verge of overtaking desktop. On 28 October 2014, Rivera said its mobile traffic was greater than desktop. Meanwhile, on average, September 2014 saw desktop only just overtake mobile traffic.

“We’ve completely flipped the traffic pattern in three-and-a-half years,” said Rivera.

Read more on IT for media and entertainment industry

Data Center
Data Management