Network: All change at BBC Online - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

Network: All change at BBC Online

It's another year, another head and yet another relaunch for the nation's biggest website.

The most visited UK website is BBC Online. Yet in recent months a number of high-profile staff defections - the latest, BBC Online's head, Mark Frost, left at the end of May - have prompted some to question the BBC's commitment to the Internet and ask how well it can compete for and retain the best Web talent. Unperturbed and under new management, BBC Online is restructuring once more as it prepares for an autumn relaunch.

It is, the corporation claims, an evolutionary process. In just two years since its launch, BBC Online has grown into one of Europe's largest sites, with more than 500,000 pages of Internet text, pictures, audio and video loosely divided into four strands: BBC Broadcasting Online, with its focus on programmes; BBC News Online; BBC World Service Online and BBC Education Online.

According to the auditors ABC, 3 million users a month are registering 80 million pages of information from the BBC Online site.

With its roots in broadcasting, the BBC explains that it is taking time to encourage the cultural change needed to develop its online activities to the full. Critics suggest that BBC Online is also restricted by the corporation's unwieldy structure, stingy budgets and red tape.

Part of the problem, however, has been the time it has taken to move BBC Online away from the traditional broadcast model on which it was initially set up and replace this with a structure and approach better suited to the fast-moving Web world. The succession of senior executives who have passed through the department has ebbed and flowed between those with traditional broadcasting backgrounds and outsiders brought in for their Internet expertise.

The BBC's challenge is finding the right balance between where it's come from - its public service tradition - and where it wants to be in the future, which makes BBC Online a unique proposition: a public-service Web offering which, the BBC hopes, can also capitalise on BBC brand values to help develop the Internet business both in the UK and abroad.

BBC Online is publicly funded - paid for out of the licence fee. As such, it is aimed squarely at the UK - in clear contrast, then, to beeb.com, the corporation's international, commercial online venture set up as a joint project between BBC Worldwide and ICL.

This distinction between the BBC's public service and commercial online activities may seem a curious one - the Internet is not an environment where neat boundaries are drawn, after all. But it is dictated by the corporation's public service remit, so BBC Online must be publicly accountable every step of the way. Which is why BBC Online's development is being carefully paced so as not to outstrip the growth of UK Internet use.

At the same time, however, BBC Online must also fight in an increasingly competitive market to attract and retain the best Web expertise. Acting against the BBC is talent inflation and a heritage of bureaucracy associated with the need to be publicly accountable. "Strategy, strategy, research and then more strategy," is how one BBC Online ex-staffer describes his time at the corporation.

"A big part of my brain was not being used while I was working at the BBC - I feel it is time to stretch it again," admits Mark Frost, who joined the BBC from AOL in April 1998, taking over from Ed Briffa. Frost is now managing director of Capital Radio's Internet arm, Capital Interactive - a move, he insists, which he would not have made if his plans to develop and enhance BBC Online were not on track. Capital, he says, was an opportunity which he found too good to refuse.

Frost inherited a BBC Online comprising an ad hoc collection of TV programme- based sites. "There were lots of different sites which had been built by lots of different TV people," he says. "[But] sometimes it's better to have six deep sites rather than 20 wide ones - it's the way to ensure you are really adding value to the consumer."

Frost set out to improve the efficiency of BBC website construction, rationalise and refocus the BBC Online offering and extend Net culture within the traditional programme-making arms of the BBC.

"Transferring TV and audio on to the Web isn't easy; you can't just publish transcripts of TV programmes. We had to find other sources, and greenhouse different talents," he says. "We pinpointed certain areas for experiments - such as live regional event stuff from the Edinburgh Festival. And a community site based around EastEnders. We also introduced interactive elements, database material and games to see how they went down."

Initially run on a trial basis, BBC Online was given the go-ahead by the Government for further development last November, following a comprehensive public review. In following months, the corporation looked once more at how to structure the department and how it should be positioned alongside BBC television and radio.

It also allocated BBC Online a dedicated annual budget of no more than 1 per cent of the licence fee: in other words, pounds 20m.

To oversee the next phase of BBC Online's development, a new senior executive - Nigel Chapman - was moved over from regional broadcasting to fill the new position of BBC Online director. With a seat on the BBC board alongside the BBC's director of television, his arrival signified a further endorsement of how seriously the BBC was now taking the Internet, the corporation claims.

Chapman is now overseeing the refocusing of many BBC Online sites away from individual shows and into themed genres, leaving only the strongest programme brands - such as EastEnders - with dedicated sites. Another priority is to develop a better infrastructure based around a new production management and authoring system. Initially, all sites were hand-built. New systems to standardise site construction and navigation were required, along with a single authoring tool to develop material for a range of platforms - digital TV, digital text - as well as the Web.

"We've built the basement of a large house but now need to move to the next stage of development," says Nigel Chapman. "We're grappling with the issues all broadcasters must now face. We have access to a great repertoire of material, but no one is quite sure how to marry the medium with wider broadcasting content: how much, what's new, what's different, what added value you can offer."

A key issue is how experimental BBC Online can be if it must keep pace with UK Internet uptake. "They're hamstrung in some respects - you need to push the boundaries, but you have less leeway to do so than do commercial organisations if you're publicly accountable," one ex-BBC Online staffer observes. "Then there's the cost of paying for the best talent in a highly competitive job market." Other recent departures from the department have included the founding commissioning editor, Mark Rogers, who is now at Amazon.co.uk.

"There is talent inflation," Chapman admits, "but that's the case across the media. It's difficult, but you have to be realistic. There is a lot of staff movement (in multimedia), but all that means for good managers is you must manage by prioritising your funds, sometimes paying more to the right people, and give them real opportunity."

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