Should the BBC have entered the iTunes store without a full Public Value Test?

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 26 July 2010

I'll start with the disclaimers. I work at The Guardian. I worked on our iPhone app. I used to work at the BBC. This is a personal blog. It never represented the views of the BBC, and it doesn't represent the views of Guardian News & Media.

OK? Good.

Last week the BBC Trust gave permission for the BBC to launch applications into the iTunes store, which, in a lot of places was very much welcomed. There are all sorts of reasons why it could be a good thing to have BBC in that space. It should drive up demand and consumption of news. It puts public service news broadcasting onto smartphones. It protects the BBC brand from the unofficial apps using BBC content. And, given that the apps were already available overseas, it ended a frankly untenable position where Licence Fee payers were unable to get BBC apps that were freely available outside the UK.

Personally though, I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed by the BBC Trust's decision not to put the proposals to a full Public Value Test.

The digital era has posed newspapers the challenge of innovating our products and generating new revenue streams. With The Guardian's paid for download app, and with The Times' recurring subscription iPad app, that is exactly what we've been trying to do. And at a time when we are struggling across the board to fund news organisations, here was a very nascent market in getting people to pay for bundled news.

For me, the key issue that the BBC Trust had to rule on was exactly how much impact the apps would have in that emerging market. Apple tightly control the app store as the legitimate gateway to getting software onto the iPhone. As of the end of last week, directly at the point of purchase for commercial news applications, there is now a call to action to the consumer to choose a Licence Fee funded alternative.

The Guardian & BBC news apps on the same page of the iTunes store

I struggle to understand how placing BBC content in the app store was defined by the Trust as not being "a new area of activity for the BBC".

Still, there is no point moaning about it. We have to accept that the BBC now has a presence in the iTunes store, and that we'll have to compete harder.

We can't compete on business model - having a guaranteed income free from fluctuations in the advertising market is a luxury only the BBC has. But as an industry we can compete on content - where we have comment, opinion and editorial analysis of much greater depth than the BBC's due impartiality allows. And we can compete on features - the BBC application doesn't support offline browsing or the range of archive material that other news apps do.

I like the BBC News app, it is solid enough, and I'm sure I'll use it.

I just wish the BBC Trust had paused long enough to carry out the full PVT.

At Guardian News & Media we've only had eight months to try and sell news via iTunes without direct competition from the BBC, The Times have had even less for their iPad app.

Given the fragile state of the news industry business model, personally I would have preferred the Trust to carry out every possible piece of due diligence before giving the BBC permission to launch the apps.

9 Comments

I don't know enough about the workings of the BBC trust to tell whether they really should have had a full PVT. However, personally I think the Guardian app is much, much better than the BBC one (like it though I do). It's not just the comment, which is one of the main reasons I read the Guardian anyway (frankly, just getting news is a pretty simple thing to do online, getting good comment is much, much harder) but it's also the fact that it's a much, much better designed app.

The BBC app is a touch crashy, and fails to use good iPhone design practice (presumably because the forthcoming Android version is going to be nigh on identical). It's just nowhere near as nice to use.

The fact is that I think the public are happy to pay for quality. And the Guardian app definitely has the corner on that market when it comes to iPhone apps.

So when's the proper iPad version coming? I'm waiting...

Whilst I sympathise a bit, it always seems a little like sour grapes whenever anyone in the media is complaining about the platforms the BBC is allowed to compete on rather than the content they are producing. If as license fee payers we have collectively paid for this stuff then surely it should it should be available to the widest possible audience? (putting aside for a moment iPhone development costs and the fact it isn't the most widely used phone.)

The Guardian (and the much derided - very unfairly in my opinion - Independent) have nothing to fear from BBC News for as long as they keep producing quality journalism. Many of their stories still read like PA copy that's been rewritten for Ceefax - while the much derided - very fairly in my opinion - ad serving prompted redesign has made a right mess of the related stories, web links and pull quotes whilst leaving the far right hand nav nothing more than an irrelevant collection of shock "Man 'forced to marry' goat" headlines designed to solicit clicks.

Would Wikileaks have given the Afghanistan documents to the BBC? Would they have been able to do anything innovative with it? I think not.

There are plenty of apps in the Apple store these days and there's little in the BBC one yet to 'wow' me - indeed I find the photo-based index is an unnecessary gimmick - it'd be quicker to navigate with standard text headlines. Whilst there's a News 24 video feed there's no link to the most recent domestic or world service news bulletin (my most frequent feature on the wonderful NPR app - the on-demand podcasts in the Guardian app have come in handy on several occasions too).

Maybe you'll lose a few newcomers to the iPhone - the kind of people who think journalism isn't worth paying for - and you may want to show them what they're missing (personally I've always thought the "we'll give you X articles/sections for free" approach, where X is a largish number, is a reasonable one - less of a paywall, more of a white picket fence beyond which stretches a tempting garden of content.) But fans of quality journalism (still at the thickest end of the long tail, thankfully) aren't going to settle for mediocrity - you just need to maintain your standards and promote the good stuff.

(Faster offline syncing on the iPhone app and a way to turn the comments off on the website wouldn't go amiss either.)

Interesting blog.
I hope that your idea doesn't become reality and that 'where we have comment, opinion and editorial analysis of much greater depth than the BBC's due impartiality allows' leads to more Daily Mail like applications.

I would definitely pay good money to be able to turn off the comments on the Guardian site.

Well apple do make a lot of surprising decision. They kinda do what the better suits them. Like releasing the iphone 4 whitout clearly fully testing his liability which lead them into giving away free cover because they failed at designing a product that work correctly... I'm disapointed in how all those decision seem to be displaying a quality decreasing but i'm even more disapointed by seeing all those follower not even realising what going on in front of their eyes...

About the BBC, it should have definitly gone through a full public test.

The BBC are well know for their ill thought out moves .. Salford Quays relocation anyone? :)

I stumbled across this post in a Google search and I am glad I did.

It seems to me that the power held and the infulence that the BBC has, has allowed for this apparent oversight by the Trust to have taken place. I fully agree with your comments of
"struggle to understand how placing BBC content in the app store was defined by the Trust as not being "a new area of activity for the BBC"."

as it blatantly is. My question is why have the checks and balances not come into play over this issue. Who are the bodies responsible for authorising such manouveurs? It will be interesting to see te tactics used as the BBC move into more territory in the New Media sphere.

Cool article, but is your gripe because the BBC now has an app available that will steal Guardian's business/potential business or that they didn't spend enough time making an 'awesome' app?

It doesn't seem fair that the BBC are allowed to compete in the commercial arena like this. It also doesn't seem fair that any non-license payer can access so much BBC content for free yet as a license payer, I can't even get my local radio station on DAB. I think they need to look where they should be investing our money.

Keep up to date on my new blog