Pace of change defeats BBC "tapeless" project

Written by David Shapton

BBC/RedSharkBBC abandons Digital Media Initiative

The BBC has announced that it's abandoning its Digital Media Initiative. This massive undertaking started in 2008 and was suspended in 2012 without being implemented. Costing £ 98M, the BBC Trust  claims that the project has resulted in "little or no assets". What happened, and what's a better way to plan for the future?

The idea, we understand, was basically to equip the entire organisation to deal with a tapeless broadcasting environment.

You can read more about this in the links at the end of the article. I'm not going to analyse it in detail. I just want to mention what I think they missed, and how they could perhaps avoid this mess the next time, if there is one.

Shaky ground

First, any large corporate attempt to design a system for just that organisation is on shaky ground from the start. Even though the BBC might think that it knows itself better than anyone, it is in reality no different from hundreds of broadcasters around the world who are on a roller-coaster ride to nowhere that is actually specified anywhere. In other words we can't predict the future - and this is truer today than it has ever been, with ever shorter technology cycles.

The fact is that, apart from specialised areas like post production, where very large, high resolution files are handled, generic IT equipment and techniques are able to give better results at the enterprise level than complex, bespoke systems. What's more, the market is driving change faster than any single organisation can keep up. Even Facebook had to buy Instagram, Yahoo bought Tumblr, and Microsoft bought Skype.  Of course these were acquired as much for their users as their technology but the fact is that even if you're dominant in your field, upstart young companies can outsmart you almost overnight, and so your best bet whether you're the world's biggest social media network or the BBC is to look at what's happening globally, and buy in technology that's already out there, and already working. Don't waste time developing it yourself.

Use standard interfaces

Secondly, don't attempt to build vertically integrated systems if you're a broadcaster. Just make sure that your equipment and systems use standard interfaces and protocols and buy the "best of breed" at each layer. At the top level, use XML-based systems that can talk to a wide range of services and data types. You can taylor your workflows to your organisation at lower levels but that still doesn't mean you have to build bespoke equipment and software in-house because there are plenty of suppliers of very high quality products at all levels.


Eyes open

Thirdly, by all means keep up research and development of new broadcasting technologies, but do so with your eyes open to the fact that even hardware is software controlled and is very largely reconfigurable in software. If you remember this you will avoid ever making the same mistakes you did with DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting - a European digital radio system developed largely by the BBC). It's not that this is a bad system - it's extremely clever and works very well with car radios, which is what it was largely targeted at. It's just that it was developed around twenty years ago, and radios that use it can't be re-programmed to work with more modern compression systems. The result is that most DAB audio is actually lower quality than FM - and even mono, sometimes, because the bandwidth just isn't available. Quality is lowered in exchange for more channels. With more modern systems you could have more channels and better quality. You can't blame the BBC for this, but it does illustrate my final point, which is that things are changing so quickly now that you have to take a completely different approach.

Strategy

And that approach is: don't spend millions developing your own technology. Instead, spend around a tenth of this on a dedicated unit that determines the strategy of the organisation in the face of rapid technology change. If you do this, you'll always be up to date, and you'll be in a better position to understand technology trends. So you're less likely to embark on something that - however well intentioned - is never going to keep pace with developments in digital media technology.

BBC news story
The Guardian

Tags: Technology

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