There is the BBC's new media overspend...and then there is Google
Yesterday I bookmarked a piece on The Guardian's site which gave Edward Roussel from The Telegraph the chance to put his view on the BBC's massive new media 'over spend'. There are some good contributions from Jemima Kiss and Emily Bell in the comments, and the whole thread is well worth a read.
Roussel makes the point that the BBC's new media budget is greater than the digital budget of all UK newspapers put together, and that it threatens to crush them all. I'm not entirely sure I can completely buy that. The print and newspaper industry in the U.S. is also suffering a sales decline and a problem with a changing business models due to new media, and that can't be laid solely at the BBC's door. And as ever, when complaining about BBC new media spend impacting on the wider industry, the fact that 25% of the budget is mandated to go straight back out the White City doors to the independent digital production sector is omitted.
It also has to be said that the newspapers themselves have not been slow to move into producing video and audio content which is squeezing out smaller companies, for which the BBC required regulatory approval, and they did not. The BBC's mp3 podcast downloads were a trial for a long time, and the protracted birth of the iPlayer was not solely down to poor management, but also included some enforced review processes. The Telegraph and The Guardian, meanwhile, can produce their podcasts and video and have them policed by, I guess, the PPC, but I don't even know for sure if their rules of engagement cover that type of content yet.
The 'over spend' is more of a case within the BBC of re-arranging the slices of the pie, and the fact that television commissioned more 'associated web content' than was expected. People in The Guardian's comments thread suggest in the private sector heads would roll for this. I'm not entirely sure they would - the Corporation as a whole isn't over-budget, it is the equivalent of the IT department being asked to build more stuff than was anticipated, and the cost is coming out of money that was previously allocated elsewhere. In fact, surely one of the problematic outcomes of 360° commissioning of TV and online content together is that is hard to predict exactly how much online spend there will be until you see what TV has been commissioned.
Nevertheless, it seems to me from a distance that somehow the UK has managed to end up with something like the worst of all possible worlds as its regulatory framework. The BBC Trust was meant to be more independent and have more teeth than the old Board of Governors. Instead, for its first service review, it picked the soft target of the website rather than BBC1 or Radio 2, and has basically shrugged its shoulders at very lax budgetary control that allows 48% more than was intended to be spent in a particular area. That can't give anyone much confidence in the process. And in the background Ofcom is poised ready again to fine the BBC, and punish Licence Fee payers by confiscating their money and putting it straight into the treasury.
Meanwhile, more importantly, Ofcom can't prevent any commercial company from outside the UK moving in and squeezing advertising revenue and attention time. In his whole piece, Edward Roussel makes not one mention of Google. I'm loathe to call it the elephant in the room, because, frankly, Google is bigger and more aggresive than that.
I've watched time and time again in usability labs that for a lot of users "Everything starts with Google".
Well, when Google add street-views to their UK mapping product, and you access it directly from Google search, that will be the death knell for Multimap and Streetmap in the UK. When Google add more information directly from a look-up of a postcode via search, that will be the death knell for Upmystreet and similar British services. Google News already does a search 'by location' option in their advanced search, and once they start offering that as a personalisation option on Google News, that will be yet another nail in the coffin for local newspapers and news services. Never mind whether the BBC will produce 'ultra-local' news hubs, it is Google's infinite budget, spotless brand, and seemingly completely free hand in the UK market that poses a bigger commercial threat to all of the UK's web industry.
There is no doubt that the BBC has a massive impact on the new media market, and there is an idealogical component to whether people think that is a 'good thing' or not. What increasingly worries me is that we seem to be spending so much time and effort in the UK arguing about whether our playing field is level, that we haven't noticed that Google has already run off with our ball.