Highfield’s Successor: Who’s In The Frame For BBC’s Top Digital Job?

The king is gone, long live… whom exactly? BBC future media and technology director Ashley Highfield’s move to Project Kangaroo opens up perhaps the most powerful position in UK digital media, controlling a £400 million budget and attracting 18.1 million monthly visitors to the UK’s number-five website. So who are the early runners and riders? I polled some insiders for this print-and-keep guide…

Erik Huggers: A former senior director overseeing Microsoft’s (NSDQ: MSFT) entertainment business, Dutchman Huggers was brought in by Highfield 11 months ago and promptly brought two MSFT alumni with him. With that new-look team, his current top task is building a new video delivery network. He has taken well to the BBC’s increasing need for transparency (keeping a good blog and speaking openly at a recent conference). Effectively Highfield’s number two, Huggers is in pole position. But, for some, that close association has brought a nascent version of the kind of scepticism Highfield himself came to face from within.

Said one insider: “I think he is the most likely candidate for the post BUT Mark Thompson may want to go with someone more politically minded as whoever gets the job will likely have to face grillings from the BBC Trust and from ministers over the next couple of years..”

Tony Ageh: Beeb “internet controller” and a UK web veteran, pioneering Ageh laid the groundwork for Guardian Unlimited, Wired UK and Virgin.net in the mid-90s before joining Auntie in 2002 – and he has his admirers. One told me: “If he was able to bring good people around him, I think he’d be a tremendous force for good in the organisation, and would be truly dedicated to the public service remit, rather than just taking it as read that the BBC is going to be a (depressingly unprepared) commercial company in a few years time.” But Ageh, who also had a hand in iPlayer, is not thought not to enjoy institutional politics as much as he does online publishing. My source said he had “been stuck in the position where he had to represent and follow though on some of Ashley’s work”. More after the jump.

Simon Nelson: Interactive controller for BBC radio and music for six years until 2006, Nelson introduced podcasts, the BBC Radio Player and led Auntie’s DAB strategy. Having since become multiplatform controller for BBC Vision, he now has broader experience aside from just audio. “Multiplatform” was the watchword under Highfield and BBC Vision has now come to value 360-degree commissioning that includes the web. Nelson has also worked on multiplatform approaches to programme scheduling and windowing, so is presumably used to competing stakeholder demands.

Said a source: “Simon is not a natural technologist, but he’s a very intelligent man who has, on occasion, managed to pull together pretty great teams of people. His strengths, when they manifest, lay in getting a good team to make policy and personally navigating the politics around the place. He understands programme-makers, which – in an organisation like the BBC – is pretty much as useful as you can get.” One said Nelson could end up playing the political game well.

Tom Loosemore: A surprise tip from outside the inner circle, Loosemore was BBCi acting controller, strategic innovation head and BBC 2.0 project director at the BBC, before heading to Ofcom in 2007 to lead its thinking on public service digital publishing. That continuing emphasis on public service ideals could still be right up the BBC’s street. Now that Ofcom has published the first phase of its latest public service broadcasting review, and dropped the notion of a publicly funded online publisher – mooted before Loosemore’s arrival – could it be time for a return? Counterpoints – Ofcom’s review is not due for conclusion until early 2009, and does Loosemore have the budgetary background?

Nic Newman: A founding member of BBC News Online in 1997, Newman was last year promoted to journalism controller within Highfield’s future media and tech team. He’s a development guru who can get down and dirty with code and web infrastructure planning. Which may make him a favourite of some techies but, coupled with his focus on the editorial side, doesn’t necessarily make him an obvious candidate for the overall top spot. Said one source: “News is traditionally too separatist from the rest of the organisation.”

None of which is to say the BBC will appoint from its own. Highfield himself came from outside the corporation. Said one insider source: “It might be worth looking towards the ISPs or more traditional media for a potential replacement.” Tiscali’s planned imminent sale could bring Tiscali UK CEO Mary Turner in to play (though Tiscali’s shouting about iPlayer bandwidth consumption may knock marks off). ITV.com MD Annelies van den Belt is leaving to join LiveJournal parent Sup in Moscow but, having held the top digital spot at the BBC’s biggest commercial rival, could she be tempted to stay on these shores? Who are your tips?

Photos: Steve Bowbrick, James Cridland (some rights reserved). Other credits behind photo links.