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Steve Bowbrick’s “open BBC”

March 11, 2009

    It was an event, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

Steve Bowbrick – the BBC’s first and quite possibly only ‘blogger in residence’ – spoke to a select crowd of geeks, journalists and people pursuing free beer last about his experiences over the past seven months evangelising one simple message at the BBC: the corporation needs to be more ‘open’.

He tried to described his status as a pseudo-BBC employee as a “critical friend”, maintaining a neutral position whilst inside the BBC as he spoke to various individuals about what kind of “openness” he was talking about. He blogged about his thoughts, his meetings and the reactions he met with on his external non-BBC Common Platform blog.

The majority of attendees could be found nodding sagely at Steve’s findings while some others struggled to grasp exactly what the problem was, what methods had been employed to overcome them and what solutions might be used in the future.

Had I looked at the piece of paper attached to the wall behind me before the session began I may not have struggled myself.

Openness in Bowbrick-land equates to sharing all of the BBC’s assets be it technical or editorial to those who ultimately pay for it.

That in itself represents a seismic shift in attitude, a shot across the bows to those who have worked to the traditional broadcast model. In that scenario the audience is served up what we believe they want or we think they should know. Once that content has passed its window its stored away in the archive.

But the vista has changed with the ascendancy of the digital era – iPlayer demonstrates that. Now audiences get what they want, when they want it, where they want it (pretty much). And they want to share it. It’s with good reason Bowbrick opened his presentation with the ominous words “the broadcast era is dying”. The digital era is nothing like broadcasting era.

It’s nothing new. Don’t think for a moment I think I’m saying something new. Loads of other people have said the same. Being reminded of it however is what helps explain why “openness” is key.

Changing the mindset from broadcast to network is central. Persuading people who hold the keys to the vault that the vault now needs to be unlocked. On paper it’s a change which seems almost unachievable.

Just as Lord Reith ominously looks down on the occupants of the Council Chamber at Broadcasting House, so too the ogre of rights looms large. If we share content what happens to the rights?

The first people to persuade are those whose creative and technical skills the BBC relies on as a publisher. Without the talent the BBC can’t compete. How do you keep the talent if the BBC needs to rethink its position on rights in the brave new “open” world?

Somewhere behind them is a similarly large globular mass of people who need to be convinced the BBC’s competitive advantage won’t be diminished by the kind of airy-fairy thinking some might accuse Steve Bowbrick of promoting.

Then there are the people who look across the rim of their glasses, casting a disapproving eye on anyone who dares even propose the idea of openness: the lawyers. Nobody likes dealing with lawyers. No-one at all. How do we convince them?

Was seven months really enough time to visit all the different divisions and successful persuade people to come around to his way of thinking? “It probably would have taken seven or eight years,” he replied to the question during last night’s session.

But if there was a downward inflection in the seven months he spent as blogger in residence, there was a clarification from Michael Walsh – a member of the audience – who suggested a call to arms for the BBC. “Instead of blocking content, the BBC needs to find ways of establishing relationships.”

What he means is this. Blocking “stuff” is seen as a way of keeping your customers coming back for more. If they know the only way they’ll get is by coming back to the BBC then you’ve kept a grip on your customer base.

But with everyone in the world now having the ability to get at the stuff in different ways, blocking “stuff” is not only seen as archaic but also counter-productive too. It’s like the parent letting the kids leave home : let them run free because then they’ll come back when they want to.

I appreciate twenty-fours on that introducing this kind of thinking to the casual reader or to someone who’s never heard of the idea before prompt, in some people’s eyes, ample justification for being sectioned immediately. I’m sure any lawyer involved in rights would be happy to sign the forms.

And yet, the more I edit this particular post the more it makes perfect sense.

Maybe seven months wasn’t enough for Steve Bowbrick to crack the nut. Frankly, it would have been a tall order for anyone. But maybe the real point of the process was to demonstrate to a core number of followers and one or two casual observers that the idea of entertaining the notion of an “open BBC” is a sound one.

Maybe what it needs now is a spot more evangelising by a group of people intent on bringing new blood into the fold, or at least a handful of people with laptops and mo biles who are attracted to evening events in Broadcasting House with free alcohol.

One Comment
  1. Zoe permalink

    Brilliant stuff – I’m struggling to get it all into words this evening too! But that could be the aftermath of said free booze 😉

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