Auntie goes for gold

Sophia Chauchard-Stuart logs on to Beeb, the BBC's new commercial online service
Tomorrow sees the launch of Beeb, an Internet venture from the commercial arm of the BBC and ICL, the IT systems and services company. Beeb is a bold concept with an attitude to match. Log on to http://www.beeb.com and you will be greeted by a slick little Javascript loop proclaiming Beeb as "fun, responsive, engaging, surprising, personalities, people, entertainment, attitude, mainstream, cheeky @ the BBC".

So, what is it? For a start, it is not to be confused with the BBC's own parallel online sites which give information about programmes and services. Beeb is a commercial venture in the way that BBC Worldwide already markets BBC videos, magazines et al to the global arena.

Beeb's aim is to become a user-friendly Web service built around favourite BBC programmes and personalities. It will be funded by advertising, subscription fees (to access certain extra elements of the site), and via the virtual BBC Shop, where you can buy BBC CDs, audio tapes, books and videos of all your favourite episodes of AbFab. All profits will be fed back into the BBC itself for future programming and Beeb is careful to point out that no licence fee money is going toward the service. How much the site is costing is a closely guarded secret. Safe to say that ICL pledged to put in "many millions" when it signed the deal last year and Beeb certainly has not stinted in hiring, judging by the numbers of staff on the credits list.

The content will be rolled out throughout the year and is based around "attitudinal webzines", from sport to movies, motoring to cooking, science fiction to "edutainment". Beeb is being slightly coy about what some of these zines will contain, but it doesn't take a genius to work out that programmes like TOTP are easily transferable to the Web, sports programmes are a strong audience-puller already, and people love finding out more about their favourite stars and soap storylines.

Unlike other Internet start-ups, the BBC already sits on a goldmine of viewer loyalty. Beeb will really make sense, though, when Internet access via the television set is a reality. If you want mass audiences - which Beeb does - you can't rely on couch potatoes to leave the couch.

Beeb has a large team headed by Rupert Miles, former publisher of the Radio Times, and of Elle magazine. His aim is to deliver great content with a personal touch. Miles sees Beeb as "adding to people's experience of BBC programmes and magazines. We need to provide topicality with content that changes every day." Beeb is a place for users to interact with favourite BBC personalities; discussing - in real time, via e-mail - daily sports coverage with Des Lynam, for example. Or chatting about the new crop of olive oils with Delia Smith.

The overall design is sharp, fast, funky and well-thought out and the cheeky attitude that Beeb is trumpeting is present, even in the technical notes which point out: "Users of Apple Macintosh computers with Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 should note this browser does not directly support Javascript. Uncool, eh?" Which is a lovely bit of geeky sniping from one media giant to another.

Will Beeb survive commercially? Yes, if it gets mass audiences. Crucially, with the BBC identity behind it, Beeb will no doubt persuade audiences on to the Internet that no one else has reached yet. Especially if Delia Smith, Des Lynam and EastEnders stars are prepared to chat to the nation live online. Advertisers and Internet service providers must be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect.

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