Aqute Research on BBC Online

 by Martin Belam, 29 September 2005
The BBC is beginning to leverage, in some ways clumsily, in other ways brilliantly, the aspects of the internet that make it into a development platform, namely user-generated content, and content APIs.

Aqute have been writing a series of posts looking at the BBC from the outside and trying to understand the current online strategy.

Part Three focused on "what trends in the Internet industry are relevant to the BBC?", and although the article sub-divided it into three types, essentially it was about the latest trends in using 'content'.

They argue the point that:

the BBC's role is not to provide developers with all the data they need for their growth, but to provide BBC data with all the developers it needs for its growth.

It is interesting problem for the BBC, as a lot of the information that is associated with the brand, weather and travel news being just two examples, do not always originate from the brand, which makes for a sometimes quite torturous negotiating of redistribution rights. And just because something hasn't been seen in public doesn't mean the BBC hasn't been trying to do it. I well remember that back in 2002 we already had XML feeds of our search results, an instant messenger chat-bot that spat back search results, and a toolbar plug-in for Internet Explorer, none of which we were able to launch as a fully-fledged service due to contractual, rights and policy issues.

Aqute pay a lot of attention to the kind of applications that should allow to flourish.

If the BBC is under no pressure to enter the web 2.0 world, and to do so brings a number of problems, why is it going there? The most likely answer, improbable as it seems, is that here is a major broadcaster that "gets" the value of web 2.0 and is being proactive about it. That in itself demands a lot of respect.

I'm not necessarily sure that it is right to say that the organisation as a whole "gets" web 2.0 - in fact I think there are still some pockets of resistance against web 1.0 to be won over yet. I do think though that the BBC has been quite lucky to have had the opportunity to hire in a lot of talent at a time when the commercial dotcom market was struggling, and that brought in an infusion of people who understood that the internet was going to change the way the BBC needed to behave, whether it wanted to or not. For some time there has been a strong nucleus of staff within the New Media and Technology department who have relentlessly evangelised about an internet-enabled future, and some of the initiatives Aqute points out are the fruits of that persistence. I also think there is an element where the freedom from commercial pressure allows the BBC to "get" the idea a lot faster. We have the luxury of trying services or changes to services without the pressure to turn eyeballs into hard currency from the word go.

Aqute don't though think that is bearing fruit:

So far, not much has been built off the back of BBC content. Some of what has been built, such as news and sport, has been left a tad unattended. The blog has not been updated for a month. The same goes for the new ideas. There is some reassuring activity in the creation of new prototypes.


There are reasons - it is only two months old, the BBC cannot force applications to be developed, and the BBC has not promoted any from within its own site, which will be a, perhaps slightly controversial, necessity. But it remains the case that the level of activity needs to rise.

I can't help but find this observation frustrating and I have to particularly take issue with the idea that "the BBC has not promoted any from within its own site" as showing lack of willing. If someone has developed an application in their spare time, the last thing we want to do at the moment is Beeb-bomb them and use up their bandwidth allowance / crush their server / exceed the API limit to whichever service they have mashed the BBC data with. A couple of the prototypes built, notably Matthew Somerville's homepage archive, are already used within the BBC (and at currybetdotnet towers) as the standard way of obtaining screen-grabs of past homepages or proving that an error really occurred on the public facing service. is also something of a work in progress - I currently have within my team a suite of projects which will make available some more non-News data feeds for developers to play with, but it all takes time, and has to be prioritised against our core web business of keeping the existing site and systems running.

Aqute also feel that the BBC's RSS strategy is failing.

The BBC has been promoting use of RSS aggressively, particularly on the flagship news and sports websites (although important sites such as the weather, and radio, do not have RSS). I suspect this has had limited success - the RSS pages do not show up on Nielsen NetRatings data. Bloglines points to 95 subscribers for the UK news feed (Boing Boing has 30,000). Such data is not authoritative, but a content source the size of the BBC should be appearing as more than a blip on even unauthoritative radars.

Again I would have to strongly disagree with this assessment. I don't think the BBC has a strategy of getting everyone who subscribes to Boing Boing to sign up to the RSS feeds from BBC News. I do though think that we have a public service educational remit to explain the advantages of RSS to the members of our audience who have never heard of RSS, and who most certainly won't have heard of Boing Boing.

I've said and seen as much myself - when we recently user-tested some proposed changes to the BBC homepage, and part of the testing was to ask whether people understood the RSS icons. Of the tests I observed nobody did, but 2 out of the three were interested enough to ask "What is RSS?" and click on the link. I'd also point out that the BBC's Radio & Music interactive department have, contrary to Aqute's observation, provided a lot of RSS content, although the portal itself doesn't have a feed.

Aqute's ideas are based on their premise that the BBC is a second tier global brand online, which is kind of illustrated out by a couple of the examples used - Live8 in particular.

When talking about the increasing digital availability of online audio/video content they cite AOL building "another yard of the road with its much-praised live showing of the Live8 concert." Though of course it was the BBC that had the Live8 Africa Calling concert online and splashed across the homepage, and the interactive ability to watch the different shows from around the globe on digital TV. However it was AOL the top-tier global brand that had the online streaming of the main event and therefore earned the kudos.

In part two they observe that:

BBC Online is one of the few foreign companies to break into the top 100 US websites (others being News Corp, Bertelsmann and HSBC). On the other hand, the BBC is not the UK's top website (which it could be)

Aqute earlier mention "the BBC is subject to regulatory pressures which means it needs to have a flexible approach to its plans". I think the latter sentence dismisses the idea that the BBC could be the UK's top website. To be the top UK site you need to either offer free (or nearly free) webmail, and/or e-commerce. I'm not sure that the regulatory pressure mentioned would, or indeed should, allow either of those from the Licence Fee funded site.

They do make a valid point that many types of BBC output are unlikely to suffer the same level of digital theft as films and music, although some will be more prone:

A lot of its programming is less likely to be stolen than that of, say, a movie studio (the demand for yesterday's morning chat shows is limited), but on the other hand, the relatively small size of the files of its major series episodes make them more likely to be stolen (sorry, "shared"). The future of digitized content is a nebulous affair, but one way or the other it will affect the BBC, so the BBC needs to have a response.

I've said before, I think that the Doctor Who leak was a wake-up call within the BBC to something that those closest to the web had believed was inevitable.

Aqute also proposes an interesting twist on the Licence Fee funded model

may I take this opportunity to suggest to the BBC that many people would prefer that instead of paying, say, a tenner of the licence to fund the website, we get ten pounds worth of "this page today was brought to you by James" sponsorship opportunities

...and may I take this opportunity to point out that licence fee payers get the whole of the website for £4.20 a year.

One final point caught my eye in Part Three:

The BBC has a mixed track record of managing the user-centric web, more of which in part four.

Part Four instead focused on and RSS (Events, dear boy, events - in the meantime BBC News had announced their forthcoming user-generated content plans). Aqute has previously described the BBC's community efforts as "under-whelming", and I'm very much looking forward to see what is written.


That's a great article, I've linked to it from my blog. I learnt some things and you validly challenged my thinking on a number of points. I can't wait to see what you guys do over the next few months, and in particular how the new user community stuff works out. I am at a web 2.0 conference in the US now and making sure everyone knows that the BBC is one to watch ;)

"It is [an] interesting problem for the BBC, [since] a lot of the information that is associated with the brand -- weather and travel news being just two examples -- do not always originate from the brand, which makes for a sometimes quite tortu[]ous negotiating of redistribution rights."

You touched briefly on the BBC's weather forecasts -- one of the best sources of detailed information on this complex and ever popular subject of discussion. Is it a rights-related issue between the BBC and the Met Office that has determined that the weather forecasts on BBC Online must be substantially more limited than those broadcast on BBC TV Weather, e.g. in terms of the generally lower level of detail online, the lack of large-scale pressure maps including isobars for the entire N.Atlantic and Europe (online has just a highly zoomed-in-map of UK, which stops anybody from seeing and anticipating the movements of Atlantic pressure systems before they arrive in the UK), the inconsistent and sometimes painfully low temporal resolution of the dynamic weather maps online (e.g. the pressure maps often use a 24-hour update interval which makes the movement of weather features on the maps very jerky and the trends hard to see), the lack of radar images (which show spatially-exact rainfall patterns)?

Can you also shed some light on the hitherto undocumented process between the BBC and the Met Office that led to the still heavily criticised total redesign of BBC TV weather forecasts that made that key element of any decent weather forecast -- the pressure maps -- be mostly withdrawn from the presentation? It went from being an excellent detailed forecast with a very clear presentation, to being one which has a relatively lower information content yet which still manages to be visually confusing, e.g. an over-fascination with excessively zooming in on tiny, mostly geographically feature-less, local regions of the weather maps and continually moving the viewpoint around without giving viewers enough time to digest the information from a stationary viewpoint, animated rain drops which are drawn falling - impossibly and confusingly - from over 100km high (i.e. rain from space!!) making it harder to tell at a glance which regions on the ground will or will not get rain, all place names being written in a huge, fixed-size font such that, during the zooming-in on the maps, the place names appear to slide around disconcertingly relative to their nominal anchor points, the chosen initial viewpoint for the unzoomed weather maps that is always somewhere over North Africa which falsely makes Scotland look smaller than Wales, etc etc. Why was BBC weather so redesigned? What were the supposed problems with the old-style forecasts that the redesign sought to address? Has anyone made any serious, formal evaluation of the effectiveness of the new-look forecasts compared to that of the old-style forecasts based on e.g. measurements of audience reaction , level of understanding and extent of information imparted and retained after forecasts? It would be gracious if the weather section of BBC Online included an invitation to viewers to comment on the new-look forecasts and to make suggestions.

P.S. Your web pages seem to be missing a closing tag at the bottom of every page, which can cause some browsers to display a totally blank page!

I very rarely work with my colleagues in the Weather department - the only involvement I have with it are the two little weather symbol graphics on the BBC homepage.

There is though a whole section of the Weather site addressing the new forecast graphics at

Some of your other issues are answered on the BBC Weather site

"Differences between forecasts on the TV and on
The five day forecast data is a Met Office data stream that goes directly to various BBC servers for use on and BBCi and is also used to make up many of the automated charts we use on TV (wind, temperature etc.). We do not currently amend it in anyway for any of the new media platforms, although this data feed is now updated on and BBCi twice a day to improve accuracy.

Broadcast Meteorologists based at the BBC Weather Centre may amend the data used on the TV bulletins as they have access to the latest information from the Met Office and so are aware of where the computer model may have been slightly out in some way, or where perhaps the weather situation progresses faster or slower than expected."

There is also a range of BBC Weather message boards where I know the new style of forecasts have been a hot topic at

You might also be interested in my post specifically about the weather, and some of the comment on our message boards about it at

>> P.S. Your web pages seem to be missing a closing tag at the bottom of every page, which can cause some browsers to display a totally blank page!

Now that, to my shame, has probably been the case for over six months. Thanks for spotting it, should be fixed on most of the templates now. Tut, tut, I don't know, claims to be a web producer mumble mumble etc etc

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