BBC Turning Into a "Datacaster," Says CTO

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A few years from now the BBC won't be a broadcaster but rather a "datacaster," according to chief technology officer Matthew Postgate, who is leading a Corporation-wide overhaul of skills, connectivity, and outsourcing intended to transition the broadcaster to a "digital first internet-oriented organisation."

Postgate is responsible for the technology and systems that deliver the BBC's broadcast services, and for all of its IT technology and services. Based in research labs in the North and South of the UK, the department comprises around 200 specialist research engineers, scientists, ethnographers, designers, and producers, working on every aspect of the broadcast chain, from audiences, production, and distribution through to programme production.

It is a highly pressurised position. Predecessor John Linwood was sacked for the failure of a £100 million enterprise-wide archive and MAM project called Digital Media Initiative. A recent tribunal found Linwood was unfairly dismissed.

Postgate's mission is arguably more ambitious. He must transition the BBC into a leaner, internet-oriented, IP-centered organisation at a time when the BBC's annual income of £5 billion (of which £3.7bn is from the public licence fee) is coming under intense scrutiny.

"Digital first is about what it feels like to work in a data-driven organisation which competes with Netflix or Amazon in content," he explains. "It is about swapping out the network across all of our bureau to be more IP-centered. It's about introducing more commodity IT equipment. All the time we are driving down cost and giving editorial more options."

A year into the job and Postgate has been on a massive cost saving drive. BBC Engineering expects to save £45m a year as a result of its new modus operandi for procuring and managing technology.

On the distribution side, the 'digital first' vision means a greater focus on iPlayer. The service was recently upgraded with more Netflix-style features including Live Restart enabling users to jump back to the beginning of a show at any time during the live broadcast. The closing of youth-oriented linear channel BBC3 and relocating it online is a sign of things to come.

Postgate says 'digital first' also means adopting a software-oriented and open-API approach to solving problems and devising new services.

“In the BBC there is certain activity where the requirements are well known up front—with hardware deployments that don't typically change," he explains. "The rebuild of TV Centre (the BBC's flagship central London studio facility which is being refurbished and due to reopen in 2017) is one of those. Then there are systems where the requirement tends to be iterative, it tends to be software and the cost is on opex not capex. As soon as you achieve one thing, it needs new functionality. So it makes more sense to have a dual delivery model in the BBC. We need to make sure that we have the capability to deliver big capex projects and also to deliver a product-oriented methodology."

Digital and broadcast engineering teams have already been combined into a single entity. "Broadcasters like the BBC need a strong core engineering team as well as access to the IT market if we want to scale or need specialisms," he says. "Where we have new video systems we can deploy the skills of teams which have worked on iPlayer, and when we invest in consumer-facing areas we can help achieve the resilience of service we enjoy on BBC One. If we're to define what a internet broadcaster is over the next decade we need to bring those skill sets together."

Postgate plans to increase commodity IP equipment throughout the BBC and to increase the amount of IT that staff touch on a daily basis. However, investment in IP will be staggered, partly because of cost constraints and partly because of concerns that certain aspects of IP have not matured.

"We take strategic opportunities to invest as [areas] become end of life," Postgate explains. "I think we'll have a large amount of IP activity in five years but in reality the transition from SDI will take a number of years.

"We are increasingly using IP for live production, such as transporting feeds from (music festival) Glastonbury this year which gives editorial more options. But we need resilient IP delivery to reduce frame loss and packet loss in an end-to-end chain.

He elaborates: "If we transmit live from Wimbledon (tennis tourament) to BBC One over IP today, it still requires a high degree of technical knowledge and hands-on engineering. We'd like to get to the point where we're able to roll out the same technology in many more venues and have the flexibility to spin-up live contributions seamlessly. That's where broadcasters, IT companies like Cisco, and standards bodies can play a big role."

During the 2014 FIFA World Cup from Rio the BBC experimented with delivering Ultra HD live streamed simultaneously over Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) and broadband. BBC trials continue with further activity to be expected from the Rio Olympics in 2016, but a UHD channel is not on the cards soon.

"We need to establish what we mean by Ultra HD," says Postgate, referring to the ongoing debate about the frame-rate, dynamic range and color specifications for the format. "Ultimately what the BBC does is in line with audience demand. We're watching the degree to which 4K sets are deployed in key markets and planning for that moment because an investment like this has long lead times."

The final plank of 'digital first' is, for Postgate, the most exciting. It involves object-based broadcasting, the idea of separating audio and video and metadata and reconstituting it in different combinations in real-time on the reception device and in accordance to the user's context."

"I think the idea is profound and little understood," he says. "It's about moving the whole industry away from thinking of video and audio as hermetically sealed and toward an idea where we are no longer broadcasters but datacasters creating information and delivering a computer graphic model of reality. That opens up all sorts of creative questions around veracity and flexibility.

"Object-based broadcasting is feeding our R&D around immersion, including investigations using Oculus VR, and around mobile where video is pervasive," he continues. "Once you move to object-based broadcasting in a world of the internet of things there are fundamental questions about what role a media organisation plays."

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