BBC beta – Any better?

The latest incarnation of the BBC website is a revealing insight into the institution's changing priorities. But what does the new, stark layout reveal about the influence of Government policy on public service broadcasting in the UK? 

Sam Caleb
13 June 2012

Since revamping their website nine months ago, the BBC’s online objectives appear to have shifted. The minimalist chic, tablet-friendly carousel layout and the prioritisation of the iPlayer all indicate a move towards a streamlined portal to the BBC’s programming.

Contrast the old 2008 iteration: the iPlayer – only recently launched – hardly given homepage space; the text-box clutter accumulating links to the BBC’s public interest journalism. The revised site marks a paradigm shift, tailoring the BBC’s homepage to its programming rather than its journalism.

All well and good then. In light of online competition from, say, the Guardian or The Independent – whose budgets facilitate higher quality journalism – converting the homepage into a platform for online access to its television and radio programming allows the BBC to monopolise a niche digital space. Here is a hybrid homepage offering direct links to its programming, like ITV player, and 4oD, while still providing ‘objective’ news and informative articles alongside. In terms of competing within the online commercial market BBC ‘beta’ has demarcated a unique space of its own.

Then again, staring at the blank white space, the minimalism of it all, one begins to ponder whether that’s all that’s going on.

Greg Dyke warned in his Change or Die speech that ‘public broadcasting today is under greater threat from politicians and the political process than in the past’. What appears to be behind the formal changes to the homepage are not solely concerns with keeping up-to-date, but government policies. Rather than retain a semi-autonomous stance – state-owned but still capable of critiquing the government from within – the form of the new homepage suggests the BBC has acquiesced to, even affiliated itself politically, with Coalition policy.

Take Phil Fearnley’s blogpost on the ‘beta’ version’s launch. The 2010 ‘Strategy Review’ outlined a prospective homepage that:

  • Had half the number of top-level directories, down from the 400 we had then (i.e. /sitename)
  • Cost 25% less to run (i.e. the BBC Online Service Licence for 2010/11 is £135m - we intend to cut spend to £100m)
  • Sent double the traffic we did then to external websites, helping the broader UK digital economy
  • And, critically, did 'fewer things, better'.

Reading this, then looking at the ‘beta’ homepage, one gets the feeling that its white space, visual over textual layout, and diminution of its journalistic content are not simply gearing it towards the strengths of the iPlayer. These formal aspects seem to be an admission, under funding duress, that the BBC website is no longer the place for informative written content, but for pared down links to Eastenders,  Euro 2012 football, and, (the forthcoming) London 2012 Olympics.

Let me just flesh out a hypothetical situation. The ‘beta’ version’s layout is indicative of a move away from public interest journalism, preferring to redirect such user traffic towards the ‘broader UK digital economy’, i.e. online versions of the UK’s newspapers. Its programming then takes the fore.

However, in abetting the Coalition’s prioritisation of the private sector, while also suffering its austerity package, the BBC’s website is in danger of narrowing its horizons too sharply. In the next few years the BBC’s budget is set to take a sharp decrease, if Greg Dyke’s cautionary note on the BBC’s decision to freeze its licence fee, despite current inflation, is to be believed.

In the website’s current reduced state something is going to give. If its journalistic intent has already been diminished, then what happens if more cuts need to be made? Won’t programming be next? A reduction in the quality and breadth of BBC programming would leave the new BBC ‘beta’ with little to offer its users. A pared down homepage would simply nod towards these austere times: an Ozymandias with the face of George Osborne proclaiming ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ amid its blank white space.

The minimalism of BBC ‘beta’ is running a fine line. Instead of doing ‘fewer things, better’, it is in danger of doing ‘fewer things better’ in general. If funding does not increase, and the BBC continues to affiliate itself with the Coalition’s austerity package, then there is only so much streamlining or cutting of overheads the new DG will be able to do before the online service he or she is left with is no longer salutary to its users and they turn to look elsewhere for quality broadcasting and journalism. After all, such will only be one click away.

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