Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/01/24/bbc_online_purge/

BBC axes some Online sprawl

Web empire pared back - still the biggest spend in the UK

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Media, 24th January 2011 12:28 GMT

The BBC Trust has approved proposals to cut the Beeb's sprawling online empire, with half of its 400 "top-level domains" to close, and the loss of 360 jobs.

It reflects budget cuts for BBC Online of £34m down by 2013/14. Yet with a budget of £103m, the BBC's online spending will remain the largest of any media company in the UK, larger than many of its biggest commercial rivals combined.

The 'austerity' strategy was outlined last year, where the BBC vowed to refocus its online efforts on news, sport and weather alongside iPlayer - with selected education sites. News and sport are well used and appreciated by the public, but in the past decade the BBC has also spawned dozens of non-core minisites and features; and with an explosion of private sector sites, their justification became even more questionable.

"It grew like topsy," BBC director general Mark Thompson told reporters today, referring to the past few years of expansion. "The web grew like crazy and there was a question of what matters to us."

Just how the BBC managed to create Slink - "a magazine styled website for teenage girls offering a mix of fashion, real life stories and health advice" - in the first place is a mystery. At one stage the BBC had three global warming lifestyle sites.

Lots of BBC sites have very little value or reach, outgoing online chief Erik Huggers agreed. Thompson promised to meet industry twice a year, and also promised to double the referrals to external sites.

The corporation also ruled out launching a Facebook competitor or a per-track streaming service such as Spotify - ludicrous proposals which raised eyebrows at the press conference and were never seriously considered.

Despite the cuts, the BBC's online spending is the highest by any UK media company - by a considerable distance.

The cutbacks in detail

The BBC promised "a substantial reduction in show business news" on the News website, and less focus on features and correspondents' blogs. Bespoke programme sites will be pared back, and "products" will be severely reduced.

Mini-sites that will close include RAW, Blast, Switch and Video Nation, while the ancient Wikipedia forerunner h2g2 (Hitchhiker's Guide) will be sold off.

Sites for the digital radio stations 6 Music, 1Xtra, archive channel 7 and 5 Live Sports extra will be largely automated. Huggers said that BBC radio alone currently has 26 separate websites. Local BBC sites will be told to focus on the basics, and drop features.

There's as much reason for the BBC to host its own message boards when the public is already talking about it on Facebook or Twitter as there is for it to start its own chain of launderettes. So the Speak-Your-Brains mania will also be trimmed back.

Web 2.0-tastic sites including standalone forums, "communiteh" sites, message-boards and blogs will be reduced and replaced with integrated social tools. "They don't work, and they're not part of our public service," said BBC Archive director Roly Keating.

The 606 site and iPlayer Message Boards close - although 606 has been a shadow of its mid-noughties self for years, when it was one of the liveliest message boards in the country. iPlayer will become focused on "long form video content", said Huggers.

The "knowledge and learning" commitment remains fuzzy - one area of stealth expansion that soaked up millions.

At 25 per cent, cuts to Online budgets are larger than the 20 per cent cuts the BBC says it is making across the board. Nevertheless, the BBC's budget still dwarfs that of many rivals.

Portfolios or "products" will be News, Sport, Weather, CBeebies, CBBC, Knowledge & Learning, Radio & Music, TV & iPlayer, Homepage, Search.

Ominously for the jewel in the BBC's crown - its magnificent archive - the emphasis will be on its use by busy producers. "We want to relate it more to our scheduled output - our big seasons," said Keeting.

The archive deserves better, since archives are a unique skill and knowledge set - nobody can find relevant material better than someone with an archivist with a long memory and imagination. A busy producer or production assistant tends to be in a rush.

The corporation vowed to increase the spending on "devolved nations" - which is Beeb-speak not for Bangladesh or Papua New Guinea, you may be surprised to learn, but Wales and Scotland. This will increase from 12 per cent to 17 per cent.

The BBC acknowledged the online changes will have an impact on suppliers, but not a significant one - and the Trust accepts the argument. It's been hard to move at most media seminars in the past few years for dozens of backroom staff enjoying an afternoon out of the office. Conferences may be more affected than external media or IT shops.

The Future Media & Technology unit will lose 120 posts, Vision 85-90, Journalism (news and nations non-news) 70, Audio & Music 35-49, Children's 17 and Sports 24. ®

Beebnote

Jemima Kiss, a correspondent from the Guardian newspaper website, fretted that web innovation would suffer after the cuts - and when the BBC was under such scrutiny. For £103,000,000 a year, no doubt a few readers would welcome the opportunity to innovate on a fraction of the budget.