New BBC boss should stick with Entwistle’s bold online plan

When George Entwistle gave his first speech to BBC staff after becoming director general in September, he delighted many in the digital media sector.

For some years now, BBC Online has approached online much as a medium to log conventional broadcast content, through iPlayer — in many ways, far less ambitious than the strategy under which it used to regard the web as a “third platform” in its own right.

But Entwistle came in like a breath of fresh air, observing: “We’ve taken … our capacity to present and distribute existing forms of content to their natural limits rather than innovate to discover genuinely new forms of content.”

Now that much of the iPlayer platform building has been done, he was prepared to shoot for a greater prize: “It’s the quest for this – genuinely new forms of digital content – that represents the next profound moment of change we need to prepare for if we’re to deserve a new charter. We need to be ready to produce and create genuinely digital content for the first time.”

Entwistle was prepared to tear up existing BBC structures to achieve it, promising to integrate three distinct units — Vision (TV), Audio & Music and the digital Future Media division — within two years to ensure all three were conceiving digital content from the start, not just “obsessing only about the creation of television or radio“.

The plan was much welcomed. As much as iPlayer has pushed forward the VOD market, it now signifies an online strategy that is broadcast-led. But Entwistle will not get to start, much less complete, this transformation, having resigned in November after failing to convince BBC trustees and other decision-makers he was in control of the BBC Newsnight sexual abuse reporting controversy.

Now the BBC Trust has named Tony Hall to succeed interim replacement Tim Davie as director general. And many in the online business will likely want him to pick up and run with Entwistle’s plan, which could reinvigorate the BBC’s well-regarded online services with a much-needed post-broadcast raison d’etre.

What chance Hall will do so? A BBC spokesperson tells me: “Given the new director general doesn’t start until March, it is too early to say at this stage.”

The BBC Trust’s announcement of Hall’s appointment lauds him thusly: “He was a digital pioneer, launching BBC News Online, as well as Radio 5 Live, BBC News 24 and BBC Parliament.”

Only one of those services, BBC News Online, is “digital” in the internet sense. And the pioneering site is most often credited as being created by editors and directors of the time including Mike Smartt, Alf Hermida, Pete Clifton and Bob Eggington, albeit under Hall as director of BBC News.

Now he has been CEO of Royal Opera House for 11 years, Tony Hall has been custodian of a cultural institution and has leveraged digital platforms to extend access to its core product. Projects have included big screens to relay performances around the UK.

But if that all sounds a little like BBC iPlayer’s own goal (making TV and radio programmes more available whilst not necessarily changing that core product), then the Royal Opera House, under Hall, has also taken a slightly different approach, acquiring an opera DVD distributor, Opus Arte, that has subsequently become an online classical music retailer.

No matter who is top dog at the BBC, much of online strategy thinking will come from the corporation’s future media director, currently Ralph Rivera, and not the director general. But it was from Entwistle and not from Rivera that we first heard the exciting post-iPlayer proposals in September.

Hall should continue this way of thinking to carve out a new mission for BBC online services going forward. For it would be a shame to let the impetus fizzle.

Hall told a press call on Thursday: “I am committed to ensure, every way that I can, that the best and the brightest, the most creative people in the country — or, indeed, around the world — come and want to work in this place.

“With the right creative team in place, sparking off each other, you can do extraordinary creative things. I want to build a world-class team for this world-class organisation.”