DCMS Assessment of BBC Online's use of RealMedia and Search

 by Martin Belam, 5 July 2004

So the Graf report was finally published today, and like many BBC Online employees I have spent much of the day scurrying through it to assimilate as much information as I can. However, I suspect that unlike the majority of the media - who naturally leapt on the obvious headline of site closures (as already heralded by Mark Thompson last week) - I headed straight for the chunky "BBC Online review - module 1: Assessment of BBC Online's use of technology" [PDF 324kb], carried out by Spectrum Strategy Consultants, which forms an appendix to the main body of the report.

Looking through it this evening I was pleased to find it is broadly approving of the way we have built up the architecture and infrastructure of the site in what has been, according to them, "an immature and rapidly developing market place". Two points struck me as immediately worthy of comment.

The first concerns the findings on BBC Online's use of Audio and Video streaming services. The section opens well enough:

"It should be noted that the provision of streaming services is a relatively technically complex process and, as a consumer proposition, constitutes a new and innovative technology-based service. In this context, BBC Online's streaming services - in particular, its live and archived radio services - should be recognised as one of the most impressive and popular offerings in the market place."

However the study goes on to complain that the BBC is placing a barrier in front of first time users of the service by partnering with Real, rather than using the Windows Media player and codec (although we have started to do so for the digital radio stations). Notably the study points out:

"Users may be averse to downloading new software or put off by the download time or cost (this would not be the case with Windows Media player, as it is pre-installed on any computer with a Windows operating system - i.e. the vast majority)"

and suggests that the BBC should look to offer streaming services in the Windows Media codec

"as well as, or in place of, the Real codec."

I think there is a valid point about the download being a barrier to entry, but I am intrigued as to just how joined up this line of thought is with the EU. After all the EU has just successfully combatted Microsoft's anti-competitive practice of automatically embedding Windows Media player in the Windows operating system. However this DCMS report, aimed at checking the BBC is not stifling competition in the online market in the UK, seems to be suggesting that the BBC should be supporting Microsoft's dominance in this particular global marketplace.

Elsewhere in the report the section on search naturally caught my eye.

BBC Online's search tool offers certain safety features - for example, filtering out content unsuitable for children, which may help to meet its purpose of acting as a "trusted guide" to the online environment. Arguably, however, it fails to provide comprehensive access and "independent" guidance to other interesting or relevant online services as it is designed to return search results for a range of BBC sites ahead of external web sites.

It puts the finger directly on one of our biggest problems, namely, how do you successfully blend a site search tool looking at bbc.co.uk pages, with a web search tool, when bbc.co.uk contributes 2.5million pages to the web? For example it would be frankly absurd if the web search on the BBC site didn't point out that the BBC had a brilliant online news service when someone searched for "news". I'm very pleased that the report doesn't question the notion that the BBC should offer a safer web search - but it looks like we are going to have to do some work to re-examine the balance between the web results and the BBC results, and where they appear or are accessed from - which is probably no bad thing.


If you use Google, often you'll get BBC stuff back with a high profile - and so it often happens with the BBC search. What do you do? Mark all BBC content with a lower score so it doesn't look biased? But then, wouldn't that stop people from getting good content?

Oh and don't get me started on Windows Media - Ogg forever I say!

Yeah, that OGG Tarkin video format is really well established now. ;)

The report does note that the BBC carried out some Ogg Vorbis trials. The trouble is, I just can't ever imagine convincing my mum that she should be listening to her online radio using Ogg Vorbis - it just sounds like a character from Star Wars: Episode I.

It's a great name :) But you wrap it up by saying things like "Download this nice friendly BBC Media programme" - it's got the BBC on it so it must be good.

Of course it would just be a rebadged open source software product, but everyone would be warm and cosy :) Except of course, downloads bad. Integrated monopolistic products good. Really should get back on message.

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