Four years is a lifetime in digital. When Ralph Rivera joined the BBC in 2010 as Director of Future Media, the future of that lauded British organization was being openly questioned.
“There is no such thing as ‘The’ BBC,” Rivera said. “In fact, BBC is more like AOL Time-Warner than IBM…. It’s actually more like a flotilla than one big enterprise.
“We had these multiple silos, and each one of them were fragmented, such that we had 500-plus websites, 40 content management systems, and over 140 embedded media players,” he added.
“If every channel has a website, and then every genre has a website, and then every program has a website—guess what? At a place like the BBC you easily end up with over 500 websites.”
Rivera immediately set in motion a drastic plan whose goal was to enable the BBC not only to survive in the new digital media environment but also to become a digital organization in its own right.
In a keynote titled “Where Next?: The Journey from BBC Online to The BBC, online,” which Rivera delivered at the inaugural U.K. Chief Digital Officer Summit at that august institution in London, England, on October 29, 2014, he outlined how he was able to make the transformation.
1. Cut the Fat—Immediately
“My mandate coming in was to change [the organization], and that meant restructuring,” Rivera explained. The budget was cut by 25%, and with it 360 online jobs. He called the strategy “1 – 10 – 4” because “I’m an engineer; I like numbers.”
The “1” meant moving from multiple silos to a single service. Over 500 websites were replaced with just “10” services. “And we were going to move from one screen—when I came in, 95% of our traffic was through browsers on desktop PCs—to ‘4’ [types of display] screens,” Rivera said.
“1 – 10 – 4: simple, clear, concise, and yet very difficult to execute.”
2. Put Products First
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast. You could say ‘breakfast, lunch, and dinner,’ every day,” Rivera remarked.
To execute the drastic change needed to turn the BBC into a streamlined, digital organization, Rivera set to completely change its culture so as to emphasize products.
“I know most people would say ‘put people first,’” Rivera said. “What I was specifically was hired to do was to bring in the notion of ‘product’ and ‘product management’ and a product orientation—to replace the ‘build me a website with these colors, please’ orientation that we had.”
Rivera started by creating product roadmaps, instituting agile product development, and applying user-centric product marketing. The BBC “didn’t have the notion of a product manager. That job description or job family didn’t exist!” he said. “We didn’t have analytics; we had to bootstrap that. We had to procure analytics instruments in our environment so we could start making data-driven decisions.
“Now ‘product’ isn’t a strange word; it’s a word that everyone at the BBC is familiar with.”
3. Form Teams to Tackle Specific Product Areas, Rather than Having Them Compete
Changing an organization as large as the BBC did not come easily. Yet Rivera was able to streamline the process by choosing multidisciplinary teams to lead in specific problem areas, rather than having various parts of the organization competing against each other.
“Define specific roles and responsibilities, get people to understand that, you know what—editorial leads: lead on content, lead on the story. Product leads: lead on capability, lead on experiences,” he said. “Work together as a team versus bringing different groups together, each one trying to contend to be the lead.
4. Consolidate to Reduce Redundant Systems
“We went from 40 content management systems down to two,” Rivera boasted. “We went from 140 different embedded media players to one standard media player that works across iPlayer.”
Consolidation of digital processes not only resulted in greater efficiency and lower costs, it also enabled content from across the organization to be accessible and usable by everyone in the BBC. Services like video and coding were put up in the cloud, Rivera said, “so now we have metadata that spans a news story, a sports story, a radio program, and a TV show. We have all of that in one repository, with the ability to pull that together and do something like connected stories that cross different programs and different platforms.”
5. Embrace Positive and Negative Motivation Where You Find Them
“A benefit—and a curse—was the fact that we had the Olympics coming up, so that was a great motivator. Companies have the notion of a [fiery torch on a] platform, and we had the fact that we had to deliver the Olympics,” Rivera said. “And, man, that was an experience!
“What we were looking to do was deliver the first digital Olympics,” he said. “Our ambition was that what [Queen Elizabeth’s] coronation in 1953 did for TV, the Olympics would do for digital.
“I would be lying if I didn’t admit there wasn’t a bit of negative motivation as well. We were partly fueled by fear; we knew we would only get one shot at this. The entire country was riding on it, and we did not want to be the ones to f— up the Olympics.”
When Rivera delivered his remarks in London last October, it had been 18 months since the BBC began its transformation. The result, according to him: “Everything we built held together. It was all the video live and on demand; it was all the data in real time for every athlete, event, and country. It was available on every network, on every device, at home, at work, and on the go. It was mobile. It was social,” Rivera commented. “It was amazing!”
6. Don’t Let Your Best Moment Be Your Peak
“Post-Olympic stress disorder—the concern was, after the high of the Olympics, having a crash,” Rivera said. “Everything we did after that was just a form of managed decline. We had to confront that and fight that.”
To combat any loss in momentum, the BBC gave the “Olympic treatment” to every major media event that followed, each an attempt to one-up its initial success. The digital media machine Rivera had built sprung into action to cover the Glastonbury Festival, the Wimbledon Championships, the Sochi Olympics, the European Parliamentary elections, the World Cup, and the Commonwealth Games.
“What was exceptional in 2012 became business as usual in 2014.”
In summer 2014, BBC Sport went on to surpass even the high of the 2012 Olympics in number of views. Today it’s the number one online sports site in the U.K.
7. Employ a Multiple Screen Strategy
“Our four-screen strategy has paid off,” Rivera concluded. “Yesterday, daily browsers on mobile [devices] were actually greater [in number] than desktop [devices].
“We’re [now] two-thirds non-PC to one-third PC or desktop, so we’ve completely flipped our traffic pattern in the last three and a half years.”
The BBC Online is currently the only U.K.-originated site in the top 10 in the country, holding the number five slot on desktop and number three on mobile.
8. Continue to Innovate
After bringing in 27 language versions for the BBC World Service, BBC surpassed CNN globally for the number one spot for the first time in September 2014.
BBC Weather’s new mobile app was downloaded some 9 million times, in the fastest time to that stratospheric number that the BBC has achieved for one of its apps.
The BBC is currently developing “My BBC.” “It’s the notion of transforming from broadcaster to anonymous and passive audiences, to engaging and empowering known individuals,” Rivera revealed.
iPlayer is probably the best example of Rivera’s philosophy of constant improvement and innovation. “Right now I believe iPlayer is the best over-the-top video service in the world. It’s live and on demand. It’s streaming and downloads. It’s ad-free, high-quality, on over 1,000 devices…. No one else can check all those boxes. And yet it’s still a reflection of what happens on TV and the radio.”
Improvements Rivera would like to see are new channels created specifically for that player, as well as personalized channels building on “My BBC.” “Notice the progression from website to product, from product to platform, platform to service. That’s the journey that we’re taking iPlayer on,” he said.
BBC Three is probably the best example of where the BBC and digital media in general are heading in the future. “We’re the first broadcaster in the world that I know of that has decided to shut down a successful broadcast channel and make it online-only,” Rivera said, adding that BBC Three is set to launch in autumn 2015.
“The distinction between the iPlayer and BBC Three is like the old joke about the difference between the chicken and the pig, relative to breakfast: one’s involved and the other one’s committed,” Rivera quipped. “TV people are involved vis-à-vis iPlayer, but man, they’re committed relative to BBC 3!
“Going from BBC online to The BBC online: That talks to the pivot from getting our digital house in order, which is what we’ve been doing over the last three and a half years,” Rivera explained, “to the digital transformation of the entirety of the BBC. That’s the pivot. That’s the next leg in the journey for us.”
– By Andrzej Sienko
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