The BBC, arguably the most venerable broadcaster in the world, is having difficulty adjusting to the digital world. Which means, naturally, that it has released a “creative review” of what it quaintly calls “BBC Online” – essentially, everything the organization does that isn’t broadcast TV and radio.
The document starts out by saying all the right things about the BBC's flagship news operation. BBC News is “trusted, impartial and accurate,” we’re told. “The BBC operates online to deliver a public good. Quality is essential; universality a requirement; trust and openness its characteristics.” The BBC “must hold true to its standards online”.
And then they go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like “platform."
The BBC’s ambition online is to provide a distinctive public service that informs, educates and entertains…To do this, BBC Online will open up. It is going to change from being a provider to a platform.
The p-word may once have had a narrow, technical meaning (a platform, according to Fast Company, is "an asset that other people can use to build their own products and services atop"). But everybody calls themselves a platform these days, and no industry is a bigger offender than media; this recent story about emerging media companies, for instance, manages to use the word nine different times, without ever defining it. (I blame Napster founder Sean Parker: after he announced on a Davos panel a few years ago that "platforms" were the only thing he'd invest in, it was probably inevitable that everybody who wanted investment, or just a high valuation, would decide to call themselves one.)
For a while, the overuse of "platform" was just annoying—yet another piece of jargon to tune out. Increasingly, however, the term is becoming downright dangerous—and the BBC is a classic case in point.
The problem is that while “platform” is largely meaningless, it’s not entirely meaningless. And so when managers at places like the BBC start taking the word seriously, they end up doing things like this:
BBC News will open up its digital services so other news providers can share our content and reach our audience…This will not be one-way traffic. A platform makes it easier for audiences to become participants. People can contribute to, as well as consume, what the BBC does online.
If BBC News want to make its content available to “other news providers” via syndication, so that I could end up watching a BBC segment while, say, watching Fusion on my TV, that's fine by me. The problem is that the minute that people start watching non-BBC content on BBC News, all of those hard-won principles of quality and impartiality and accuracy become much, much harder to uphold.
I’m sure that there will be some effort made to distinguish BBC News content on BBC News from non-BBC News content on BBC News, but those efforts rarely succeed. Just ask CNN, which effectively shut down its CNN iReport section, which was open to “citizen journalists” from around the world, after a series of embarrassing errors, including a report wrongly claiming that Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack.
The fact is that in this era of overly-abundant content coming at us from all directions, a handful of strong legacy news brands have the opportunity to stand out from the crowd as a haven where everything they publish can be trusted implicitly. As the BBC’s own director general says, “In the internet era, it is easier to find information but harder to know whether to trust it.”
This is where the BBC can really shine. Organizations like the BBC (or the New York Times, or The Economist), all of which have been around since at least the 1920s, have a history and legacy which are the envy of younger brands. That legacy is incredibly valuable—but it is also precious and fragile. A reputation built over decades can be squandered surprisingly easily: just see the Telegraph, or Forbes.
New platforms, by their nature, are new. Whatever your personal definition of a platform is (it’s far from being a clearly-defined term), when you think of the best examples—everything from YouTube to the World Wide Web itself—they have all been platforms from day one. If you start out your life as a not-platform, your chances of becoming a successful platform are slim indeed. (That's why you're not reading this on Kinja.)
An institution like BBC News, with a clearly-defined and carefully-built identity, can’t just wake up one morning and decide that it’s a platform. It first needs to build out a whole infrastructure for hosting externally-owned content—something where it has no comparative advantage whatsoever—and then it needs to start opening that infrastructure to potential partners. In other words, an old and bureaucratic news organization needs to become a technology company. What could possibly go wrong?
Why is BBC News going down this path? We’re never really told, but I’m sure that budget considerations are part of it. If the BBC feels the need to carry local news from around Britain, for instance, but doesn’t have the budget to report and produce all that local news itself, then it can become a “platform” for other peoples’ content more cheaply. (This is similar to the idea behind Patch, which lost $300 million before it died ignominiously.)
Equally important, however, is the sheer power of the term “platform." It has almost talismanic properties in the media business, and surely appears in 99% of all pitches for new investment. By announcing that it intends to “change from being a provider to a platform”, BBC News is signaling that it’s a tech-savvy, forward-looking news organization, rather than a hidebound traditional broadcaster.
The problem is that once it has announced that it’s becoming a platform, the BBC needs to actually do something vaguely platform-like. Which is generally the point at which the engineers start spending astronomical amounts of money building technology that never quite works as well as they said it would.
So, media executives, it's time to stop saying "platform" as a way of papering over the gaps in your strategy, and instead start saying exactly what you mean, in language that might not sound as buzzy but at least is accurate. That way, projects are much less likely to suffer from mission creep, and the heart of the news organization can remain reporting the news.
In the specific case of BBC News, which was never ad-supported to begin with, the move to digital distribution is an amazing gift: the internet means that it can reach a global audience at very low marginal cost, and thereby turbocharge its mission of providing reliable information to as many people as possible.
BBC News only has one job, and that job isn't to start competing with YouTube and Facebook for other people's content. And I suspect that if it weren't for the ubiquity of the word "platform," the BBC's top executives would be much more likely to recognize that fact, rather than being dazzled by techno-bollocks.