Feature

All About ... The BBC's digital operations

The Corporation is determined to dominate online, Alasdair Reid writes.

UK newspaper publishers - and commercial media owners in general - have a touching faith in the effectiveness of the joint declaration or round-robin communique.

The latest of these was a submission from a group of media owners urging the Government to think again about the future of the BBC. It was signed by Paul Dacre, the editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers; David Elstein, the chairman of the Commercial Radio Companies Association; Les Hinton, the executive chairman of News International; David Newell, the director of the Newspaper Society, and Murdoch MacLennan, the chief executive of the Telegraph Group.

The Corporation, driven by a resolute belief that what is good for the BBC is good for the nation, has been voracious as it has expanded into new territories. It is one of the biggest winners in the digital land-grab - and its appetite is clearly undiminished. In recent years, the BBC has launched a handful of digital TV channels (CBBC, CBeebies, News 24, BBC3, BBC4) and as many digital radio stations. The BBC website is one of the world's most visited and has always been a thorn in the side of UK online portals and news sites.

Now its tanks are massing once more. In March, the Government published draft proposals for renewal of the BBC Charter. In April, the BBC responded by unveiling a blueprint for its evolution, entitled Creative Future.

It is now clear that the BBC is determined to dominate the digital environment - and every phase of digital convergence will only add to its power.

Senior BBC executives will smile indulgently at the latest intervention from their commercial rivals. Arguably, the Government decided ages ago to continue to cut the BBC as much slack as it needs, especially online.

Downing Street will only hope, now that Dacre is officially annoyed, that this won't result in unfavourable treatment of Cherie Blair in the Daily Mail.

1. The government White Paper on BBC Charter renewal proposes that the BBC be given a formal public purpose of "building digital Britain". It argues that a balanced media ecology can be maintained by reining in the BBC's ambitions when necessary, using detailed service licences and an independent BBC Trust. Critics point out, however, that one service licence covers the whole of the BBC's online activities - meaning, in effect, that the Corporation can make it up as it goes along.

2. The BBC's online presence will now be the main focus for its expansion. Increasingly, audio-visual content will be available via broadband internet. The Corporation has already been trialling proprietary video player software that will make it even easier to access these services.

3. The BBC also has plans to make its website (or sites) more of a cyber community along the lines of MySpace, with bandwidth available for users to set up blogs, add to knowledge databases (for instance, an eyewitness history project) and share files, including home videos.

4. The BBC's Creative Future review also calls for the Corporation to continue to build its expertise in offering "rich media" extensions to TV and radio programme properties - programme commissions will increasingly be undertaken on a "360-degree cross-platform" basis.

5. It's not just national media owners who are feeling squeezed by the BBC. For instance, the BBC now plans to launch a local radio station in Bradford, which is already served by six local stations. Also on the cards is a Somerset station - the media ecology there is so fragile that Ofcom has banned the launch of any new community services. It has no power over the BBC. The Corporation also plans to target local papers as it invests more in its Where I Live websites.

6. The BBC will use licence-fee monies to fund this expansion. The fee per household is currently £131.50 and the BBC is lobbying for this to rise by increments to £180 by 2013.

7. The Creative Future review will enhance the already high standing of Ashley Highfield, the BBC's director of new media and technology. As the principal architect of the BBC's digital convergence strategy, he is increasingly coming to be recognised as one of the most influential figures in world media.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

COMMERCIAL MEDIA OWNERS

- Many observers believe that, where the BBC is concerned, the commercial sector (in newspapers, as in TV) is destined to do far too little, far too late. Newspapers have now woken up to the fact that their only hope for the future is to migrate their skills into the online environment.

- But the BBC got there years ago and is spending licence-fee cash to ensure that the UK's traditional purveyors of news and views remain bit-part players in perpetuity.

- Publishers can expect very little sympathy from the ad agency community - despite the fact that the BBC offers an ad-free environment even on the web.

"I think it's legitimate for the BBC to be doing what it's doing in this space," Charlie Dobres, the co-founder of i-level, says. "I'm a firm believer in public service broadcasting, and the BBC's content on the web is the best by a country mile. It's not a question about money - lots of portals are well capitalised. It's a question of quality. They've created a benchmark and they've been innovative in technology terms too."

ADVERTISERS

- Advertisers have never really managed to develop a coherent attitude towards the BBC.

- With no coherent anti-BBC lobby coming from the commanding heights of the economy, politicians have felt pretty much able to duck the more difficult issues - which is handy because any radical reform of the BBC, by whichever party, would be horrendously unpopular with the country at large.

- But, in time, advertisers might regret not doing more to stop too much power being handed to a non-commercial organisation online.