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back to article BBC's Digital Moneypit Initiative known to be 'pile of dung' for years

BBC executives ignored warnings that the corporation's £100m+ digital media extravaganza project DMI was on the rocks - and now it's being reported that the National Audit Office had been misled about the state of the project. The extravagant scheme was cancelled by new Director General Tony Hall last month, with almost £100m …

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Anonymous Coward

Licence fee

Why cant this just be scrapped and let BBC fend for themselves commercially?

Surely, cant be bad, since standards are already low.

Mostly cookery, antiques and dull insipid programmes. (And of course sucking up to the Royals/Royal family, whenever asked to)

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JDX
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Re: Licence fee

If you want to know, try watching TV anywhere else in the world and the current "low" standard will be a revelation.

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Re: Licence fee

"If you want to know, try watching TV anywhere else in the world and the current "low" standard will be a revelation."

Alternatively, just watch ITV or Channel 5.

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Re: Licence fee

"Alternatively, just watch ITV or Channel 5."

Errr... even that doesn't come close. Compared to even the best of Australian commercial TV's output, ITV and Channel 5's productions are shining beacons of quality entertainment.

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Big Brother

Re: Licence fee

I get your point but the DMI had nothing to do with content (was "programmes" before we all went web 2.0) and everything to do with managerial excess. Randomly I was re-reading my Private Eye 1999 Annual a couple of days ago and there were jokes from then about the BBC management structures.

While all this is going on, Radio 3 is doing less live music and Radio 4 is doing more repeats and commissioning less drama - so yes perhaps the BBC remains a high quality source of material, (but then I understand quite of lot of good stuff emerges from HBO) this is not inconsistent with the possibility that the BBC is also pissing a lot of the licence fee up the wall.

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Devil

Three lefts

We should be demanding that our BBC improves its standards, not be content to let them slide, no matter how much better than the comparison they are already. We should be demanding that they cut the budget for dross like Radio 1, East Enders and the One Show etc.instead of trying to be all things to all people. Let ITV do the cerebral vacuum filler.

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Re: Licence fee

What are you basing this on? Which countries have you been to ?

I have lived abroad in a number of countries and can say that the TV quality has been excellent in Germany Austria and Switzerland. Whilst on holiday I watched a full spectrum of Premier League matches, Nat Geo, Animal Planet at a friends house and was amazed when he told me he only paid £40 a year for this.

The fact is that we are ripped off several times over - once on the licence fee and then satellite/cable in this country.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Licence fee

"I have lived abroad in a number of countries and can say that the TV quality has been excellent in Germany Austria and Switzerland. Whilst on holiday I watched a full spectrum of Premier League matches"

Splendid quality metric there. At least you may now be ruled out as the owner of worthwhile opinions :)

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Re: Licence fee

"I have lived abroad in a number of countries and can say that the TV quality has been excellent in Germany Austria and Switzerland. Whilst on holiday I watched a full spectrum of Premier League matches, Nat Geo, Animal Planet at a friends house and was amazed when he told me he only paid £40 a year for this."

a TV licence cost EUR 216 in Germany, EUR335 in Austria and CHF 462 (about EUR 385) in Switzerland. In the UK, you pay GBP145.50, or about EUR 170.

I live in Switzerland, and to get things like premiership football and national geographic you need a cable or satellite subscription which you must pay on top of the TV licence fee. I have cable and receive the output from the national broadcasters of UK, France, Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland. Of these the BBC is far and away the best in terms of quality and content.

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FAIL

Re: Licence fee

"If you want to know, try watching TV anywhere else in the world and the current "low" standard will be a revelation."

You mean, like The Sopranos?

Or Dexter?

Or Breaking Bad?

The Wire?

It certainly is a revelation.

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Anonymous Coward

Old Boys Club

One "old boy's jobs for life" club pulls wool over gov "jobs for life" quango

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Oh dear

more ammunition for a hostile government to beat the BBC.

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Facepalm

And the clue is...

""The technology solution for the Programme has so far proven to be valid," the government accountants concluded after an investigation into the technology transfer of assets from Siemens..."

Because obviously the people best equipped to carry out an evaluation of the validity of a technology were the beancounters...

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Stop

An Important Consideration

I sometime play in this arena, and I want to add a few things before everyone piles on.

It's important to note that while, from what we read here, the project may seem to have been a bit overambitious, there is some precedent for this being a worthwhile, albeit expensive project.

There have been a few networks and large, geographically dispersed, production houses who have stepped up to get off of tape, get all of their assets digitized (within reason) and provide access to their data in practically all of their edit-bays and injest-points.

This is a hugely expensive thing to do. Think PB level's of SAN, MAID, metadata and asset management systems. Now think about linking that out at 4Gb or better speed to many dozens or even hundreds of geographically dispersed points.

It's a complicated project, but one that has been done, and has delivered substantial productivity benefits and even many cost benefits. (You would be quite shocked the price of a tape-based infrastructure. Everything from 50$ tapes that won't be reused to 50'000$ tape-decks that need considerable ongoing maintenance.)

Whether or not everyone needs access from everywhere is highly debatable, but by some measures it wouldn't be that difficult. All you need is a server hanging off the san, tied to the metadata and asset management databases with a web front-end and some custom software rendering the video down to h.264 streams in real time. Maybe use some heavy CUDA or something. Once you had the rest of the system functioning, this might be a not-that-big-of-a-deal bolt-on.

I'd be curious to know where they stand today. The project, from what I can surmise so far, is actually not only valid, but probably still needs to be done, albeit under much different direction.

Karl P

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Silver badge

Re: An Important Consideration

Indeed.

I was peripherally involved, just before the BBC took DMI back in-house, so I won't comment in detail on that - save to note that at the time many of the complaints about the Siemens project management were due to the BBC having sold its technology (including Project Management department) to Siemens and required to use control mechanisms defined by the BBC... and one thing that really meant was that when the BBC said 'can you just?' the answer was usually 'not without a change request, project review, and management sign-off, no.'

I believe the mistake made on the DMI project was a problem of scope, not of imagination. It already had a wide fast digital backbone structure linking all its sites - multiples of 10Gb/s - but it also had a fetish about doing everything on the desktop. In spite of people with decades of experience telling them that the place to edit is in an edit suite, where the audio can be properly managed and there is no distraction from a neighbour, the BBC had somehow decided that open plan offices and hot-desking was the way of the future... plonking DMI on that was fine for *review* of material but basically no bloody use for *production* or editing. And trying to shove the data rates required over the existing infrastructure was never going to work, so that meant an awful lot of improvements all around, at the same time of rebuilding and moving various premises around.

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Re: An Important Consideration

I expect there were some managers jogging around the field with the goal posts.

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Re: An Important Consideration

".. and one thing that really meant was that when the BBC said 'can you just?' the answer was usually 'not without a change request, project review, and management sign-off, no."

Well yes, that's not just a BBC thing it should be embedded in every project and I'd be somewhat surprised if Siemens didn't do this as a matter of course whatever client they are working for. "Can you just" may in many cases genuinely involve a few hours of developer time & no impact on anything else, but multiply that a few hundred times & there's a fair cost attached. And if you don't do proper impact assessment how can you be sure it isn't going to affect other areas?

Any large project that doesn't have proper change control embedded, especially one involving external suppliers, is doomed to failure. And scope creep is probably the biggest reason why public body projects go over budget.

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Holmes

Re: An Important Consideration

No argument; lack of change control has crashed more projects than any other cause, I believe.

The problem was not that Siemens had change control. Change control was a part of the BBC process long before we peons were sold en masse to Siemens, and the entire PM process was mandated by the BBC as part of the sell-off.

The problem was that the BBC expected Siemens staff - largely because they were the same people they had been dealing with for ten or twenty years, intimately familiar with the BBC technical systems and program making requirements, to work as they might have done when they were BBC staff.

One fundamental aspect of most project management systems is the requirement to use only those parts of it which are useful. The size and scale of the change, and its impact, is what needs assessing (and pricing!) - but the BBC was surprised when even a simple request (for example) to drop a new audio circuit back to the central apps room is treated - at the BBC's insistence - the same way as a request to drop in another ten gigabit circuit and a room full of servers.

For thirty years I was brought up in an atmosphere of 'one BBC' wherein one would offer solutions using one's skill and knowledge to judge whether the whole process was required. The BBC never seemed to realise that we worked for Siemens, not the BBC.

Scope creep is indeed a project killer. See Cheop's Law: no project is ever finished on time, to spec, or to budget. Or from NASA: on Mars, on time, on budget. Pick any two... I believe that there is a big divide wherein project stakeholders refuse to accept that before the hundred million quid project it might be a good idea to spend a couple of million finding out if the damn thing will work. When you work with modern technology, *every* project is a development project.*

[*] I vaguely recall that there was a certain amount of development work done for DMI, but I have no idea of the figures involved nor the results.

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Re: An Important Consideration

Ah so the typical failure of outsourcing contracts, the failure to realise the amount of stuff done by in-house staff that never gets onto the official call log, and is therefore not costed in when the outsourcing justification is calculated.

The other fail here, common again to outsourcing and just about all other "rationalisation" efforts, is the "one size fits all" view. I've been on both sides of the table and always try to insist there's at least a 2-tier change control system in place (had to put in 3-tier in one place due to the nature of the programme), and the first stage of either is a sanity check that it really is a change rather than a simple procurement or service request with zero impact on anything else.

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Re: An Important Consideration

The first thing that newly TUPEd staff receive is a training course subtitled 'how to say NO to your former colleagues':

"Is it in the contract?"

"Do you have a costed change request for that?"

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Meh

Oh, is it time for another "SCRAP THE BEEB! DOWN WITH THE LICENCE FEE! LET THE MARKET DECIDE!" thread already?

On the one hand - *facepalm* says it all, really. Textbook project management fuckuperry of the highest order.

On the other hand - if you can't see the potential benefits of an organisation-wide system to allow production teams to share their footage and material, you've not engaged your brain. The Beeb, as with any sufficiently large organisation, has the twin problems of first usefully storing all the masses of information generated by its various teams and departments and secondly making sure that it's indexed documented in such a way that individuals can discover the existence of and then request/gain access to relevant material.

It's possible that this problem has already been solved elsewhere, but I'm not aware of that being the case. And that's important - given the way that the Beeb's iPlayer project was what led the way to the UK's TV channels providing streaming access, we shouldn't just assume that any big BBC project is a guaranteed waste of time and money.

Thus far, it sounds like DMI was, in practice, a total balls-up. That doesn't mean the goals weren't worthwhile, or that they won't have produced some useful bits and pieces along the way. In a way it would be quite impressive to spend £100M on a project that yielded nothing of any use whatsoever.

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<quote>It's possible that this problem has already been solved elsewhere, but I'm not aware of that being the case. And that's important - given the way that the Beeb's iPlayer project was what led the way to the UK's TV channels providing streaming access, we shouldn't just assume that any big BBC project is a guaranteed waste of time and money.</quote>

Possible, but unlikely.

Lets be honest here.. The Beeb decision makers wanted a real time broadcast quality HD video editing and archive solution for all it's offices, no matter how far away. And all it's computers. That is a huge project...

Not just a digital archive, which is in it's self a pretty ambitious project.

Not just networking all the edit suites.. But desktops too. And no doubt, some tit wanted to be able to edit nature documentaries on his iPad from home too.

Classic case of letting management look at shiny brochures.

Things like this are too big to work.

Step 1, Archives.. Get em working. And extensible. Then at least the data and storage is there. No special file formats. No special single source hardware. Assume each supplier is going to be out of business 20 minutes after the project finishes, and the system needs to be doubled in capacity the day after.

Q1. Can we get this hardware from anywhere? No? Cancel project.

Q2. Do we haver full ownership of all source code, so we can maintain this system for the next 50 years, and shop around for maintenance contracts? No.. Cancel project.

This is not some new cutting edge experimental system, this is infrastructure. If it can't scale, it can't be used.

Step 2. Edit suites only, to at least manage the load until it can be built out.

Step 3. Careful review with users of the system given a significant amount of time to use and evaluate. BEFORE expansion globally.

And yes.. the BBC iPlayer is great..

But it is not what it started out as.

As I remember, it was a downloaded media player/DRM manager that specifically needed Windows XP and a particular version of MS media player, which torrented all the time unless you exited the program and went into the process manager and killed the still running torrent program.

Update media player.. Bye bye iPlayer.

Use Windows Vista.. No iPlayer.

And other platforms would eventually be supported.. <snicker>

Great eh? Keep your PC tied to an old version of Windows and an old version of Media player, max out your upload traffic, and don't allow automatic updates..

And then..The most efficient approach.. Write a totally new totally different application for each platform. Ideally, requiring a different file at the server end.

Common unified platform independent solutions.. Pah.. Not nearly WEB 2.0 enough..

The iPlayer we have today, is one that was born from pressure exerted from outside. Not a BBC management decision, but a BBC management concession to some open source activists, who demanded the BBC implement a solution that was platform indifferent as possible. And the oversight committee said they had to.

Result.. A nearly useless application on one OS version that hardly anybody bothered with. Followed by a runaway success that is the website streaming solution using systems that pretty much any rationally specified kit can use.

Followed by iPlayer clients being available for just about any hand held device with the oomph to use the same streamed media.

So it was done platform independent, and DONE RIGHT..

Eventually..

I can watch Doctor Who in HD on my Linux box if I want. I can also watch it on my tablet, or my TV, even on my PDA... And Windows users get the same options. Even Apple users can use it..

Not as good as only being possible with one Windows OS version and one Media player version I know.. But this is what happens when you slap management.

The resulting system we have today, is fantastic. But it is so because the BBC were forced to dispense with the impractical mess that they bought in.

Not because they had a great idea, and hired people who designed a fantastic system to implement the idea. But because they had a genuinely good base idea, and after a few slaps in the back of the head, they produced something worthwhile.

In internal projects like this, who administers the slaps in the back of the head?

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Is it really that difficult to figure out....i guess it is....

We can waste 100 Mill on this (insert expletive) but we cannot deliver fully working mobile applications to all major platforms.

There should be an uprising for this, heads should roll (not literally although tempting) its a bunch of bs that UK residents pay for tv licenses in the beginning.

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@The_Regulator

"its a bunch of bs that UK residents pay for tv licenses in the beginning."

You may not realize the benefits of your system. Here in Canada the Harper dictatorship is strangling the CBC financially by cutting its budget repeatedly. It's paid for through taxes. CBC tv is nothing special and has ads, but CBC radio is a treasure. In the US PBS is running infomercials from later in the evening, and pledge drives constantly, and a significant part of its best content is British. Here in BC, our provincial equivalent Knowledge has 30% gov't funding and less odious pledge drives and less overt advertising than PBS. Much of its best content is the same British programming.

CBC's Newsworld channel, PBS and Knowledge all run documentaries that you will never find on commercial tv, which in Canada are all owned by three corporate behemoths that also control our phones and internet.

If that odious license fee keeps the govt's hands off an independent tv source, free of ads and pledge drives, maybe it's not so bad after all.

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JDX
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exceeds the annual budget of BBC4 and CBeebies put together

Wow, not CBeebies. Almost like you just went looking for two numbers that add to almost £100m.

And hang on... the annual budget of BBC4 and beebies is ~£100m?! WTF do they spend that on exactly? BBC4 has good stuff and I guess beebies is good for what it is, but a pretty girl talking to puppets and some footage of The Who from 40 years ago are hardly big-budget broadcasting.

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Re: exceeds the annual budget of BBC4 and CBeebies put together

A good chunk of BBC4's budget would be music rights esp for fridays...

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Re: exceeds the annual budget of BBC4 and CBeebies put together

Surely the biggest chunk of BBC4's budget, is sending a temp down to the archives to collect the tapes of old programmes they constantly show. (Nothing wrong with that, as some of the old programmes they show are great, but it's not exactly expensive is it)

It would be interesting to see the overall cost of Cbeebies - they sell their programmes around the world, with some being very successful.

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Re: exceeds the annual budget of BBC4 and CBeebies put together

BBC has a sweetheart deal with the recording industry so they can use pretty much whatever they like for very little expense. Remember shooting an hour of new tv costs roughly 1 million even if it is some overhyped kids tv presenter and puppets

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Megaphone

Perhaps some jottings on the back of an envelope.....

Bandwidth of full res video and sound X No of locations x No of edit suites at locations x No of times above real time you want the stuff delivered to your location =OMFG how much bandwidth?

And that's before we get to the archives (' cause you're going to want to splice in stuff from there aren't you?)

Like the NHS NPfIT clusterf**k this "anywhere to anywhere" requirement should raise a BIG RED FLAG that this will be "non trivial."

But apparently it did not.

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"commissioned PwC to investigate the DMI failure"

Haven't they spent enough already? They won't learn anything they didn't know already!

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Silver badge

The first question a PwC (or any other 'management') consultant asked to carry out such a review will ask is: "What would you like the answer to be?"

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[quote]The first question a PwC (or any other 'management') consultant asked to carry out such a review will ask is: "What would you like the answer to be?" [/quote]

Hello Mr Fox, can you investigate why all my hens have disappeared.

Also telling that the senior (mis)management cant work out the causes of the problem themselves without squandering more cash on the problem. Do they actually have any IT experience or are they just managers who manage so far removed from the actual workplace that this kind of thing happens (and rinse and repeat).

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IT Angle

Private Cloud based environment ..

Does anyone think the reasons the project was cancelled were political rather than technological. Will some private-enterprise step forward in the near future to provide the service?

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IT Angle

Re: Private Cloud based environment ..

> Does anyone think the reasons the project was cancelled were political rather than technological. Will some private-enterprise step forward in the near future to provide the service?

And some people didn't want their specialized edit-desks taken away, as the system promised editing capabilities to anyone anywhere?

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Bronze badge

Priory

I have seen some code that made me think that a rest cure wouldn't be a bad thing. But then, it is probably better to treat the cause than the symptoms: how does one check the folks making up the specs to get their delusions cured?

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Trollface

bah

Being a long time reader of El Reg even as a Yank I have to say failed government IT projects are pretty much a given aren't they over there? (wish over here too sometimes but no PRISM seems to work but the US gov did piss away a billion to Boeing on an virtual fence that was real pork ). A $100 million wasted on a project wouldn't even make the news if it was Nulab responsible instead of the BBC.

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Unhappy

Re: bah

"as a Yank I have to say failed government IT projects are pretty much a given aren't they over there?"

Yep. And it doesn't seem to make a difference which party is in power either

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WTF?

Hang on a minute...

So when Mark Thompson was holding a gun to the head of 6music over cost savings he could have saved far more by getting rid of yet another badly managed IT project? I guess I should act surprised at this point.

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FAIL

Top & tail

Speaking of archiving, it would make sense for the BBC to employ an 18 y.o. to top and tail their radio programmes. Some iPlayer shows have five minutes of the previous show at the beginning and 15 mins. at the end. In my book that is a waste of storage media. It is also annoying to have to search for the start by trial and error.

As well as being a gopher, that is what I used to do at that age.

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Silver badge

Re: Top & tail

iPlayer (radio) works by recording all radio output. The programmes are identified by a program or series code, and provided there are no flags on the database to inhibit iPlayer broadcast (e.g. access permission by location or material type - the BBC does not necessarily have the rights to rebroadcast some material) or in the case of forbidden swear words which will require an editor to zap the offending words, they're available automatically to play once the original broadcast has been completed.

That automation will usually include some time before and after the program to ensure the top and tail aren't crunched. The BBC storage is therefore a constant size since material is kept for a week in its entirety, unless a programme stream wants to put it on its own podcast. The heavy lifting is done by external internet delivery systems.

Yes, I had a lot to do with iPlayer, too...

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Meh

Re: Top & tail

"That automation will usually include some time before and after the program to ensure the top and tail aren't crunched. The BBC storage is therefore a constant size since material is kept for a week in its entirety, unless a programme stream wants to put it on its own podcast. The heavy lifting is done by external internet delivery systems."

I'm guessing the whole programme stream is assembled from lots of different sources (all the pre-recorded standard bits + actual programme itself) under computer control through a very detailed computerized schedule. Does the meta data for the schedule contain the actual start time for the program?

IOW, any chance of an upgrade to the back end production SW that snips off all the irritating crap?

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Anonymous Coward

"Public access to the archive"?

What's so funny about that?

Public access to the BBC archives was first announced ten years ago (before DMI?), by the then DG, Greg Dyke, at the Edinburgh TV Festival in August 2003.

The BBC Creative Archive seemed a laudable goal ten years ago, and perhaps still is, given that it was re-announced under a different name (one I forget) just a few months ago.

Has this resurrected and renamed Creative Archive also just fallen by the wayside with DMI? That would be a shame.

Original "BBC Creative Archive" announcement news report, from

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/3177479.stm:

Greg Dyke, director general of the BBC, has announced plans to give the public full access to all the corporation's programme archives.

Mr Dyke said on Sunday that everyone would in future be able to download BBC radio and TV programmes from the internet. The service, the BBC Creative Archive, would be free and available to everyone, as long as they were not intending to use the material for commercial purposes, Mr Dyke added.

"The BBC probably has the best television library in the world," said Mr Dyke, who was speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival. Up until now this huge resource has remained locked up, inaccessible to the public because there hasn't been an effective mechanism for distribution. But the digital revolution and broadband are changing all that. For the first time there is an easy and affordable way of making this treasure trove of BBC content available to all."

He predicted that everyone would benefit from the online archive, from people accessing the internet at home, children and adults using public libraries, to students at school and university.

[continues]

For the press release containing the full text of his lecture, see:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2003/08_august/24/dyke_dunn_lecture.shtml

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Facepalm

This project sounds very much like the $1million dollars The USA spent to develop a space pen, one which would write in zero gravity......the Russians decided to use pencils........!

All that was needed was a huge cheap Google like server farm to support an internal cloud (and I do not like the concept of clouds, but that is another story).

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FAIL

@ HKmk23: Wrong.

The us government (ie taxpayer) did NOT spend the money to develop this, the pen was developed by private interest to work in zero g. It worked, and there were benefits in terms of the technology from that point, rather like alot of space program technology. A pencil would probably work great until you need to sharpen it, not to mention broken tips/graphite dust just from using them. You mentioned google further down in your post, how about you googled the Space Pen and actually get some facts before spouting rhetoric?

<snip> approximately 400 pens for $6 a piece </snip>.

THAT was what it cost NASA.

HTH :)

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Anonymous Coward

Srick it all on YouTube

I would stick it all on YouTube.

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More justification

for not having a television - smart or otherwise - in the house. So glad my money isn't being used to subsidise this or the 'lovies' lifestyles - but am able to use it to install decent plumbing.

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FAIL

Salford

The move to Manc-world is another failure to execute. In case you hadn't noticed they've actually moved to central London.

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Time to sell the BBC. Its staffed my a bunch of commies.

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Stop

Legal theft.

"Steaming pile of shit"

Or the enforced license fee as it's more commonly known. Seriously, if the BBC is so convinced that it's model is perfect then it should simply go subscription only like Sky. If it's as popular as it likes to think then everyone will pay to have it. But they won't because they know that line of patter is pure bollocks (so WHAT if it has top quality programs, why should I be forced to pay for programs, channels and radio stations I have no interest in - which is MOST of them - just to satisfy the cultural wet dream of a bunch of flag waving morons who equate the BBC with the last vestiges of empire?), so it has to essentially steal the money to operate by using the law to beat the money out of people, and usually the poor at that. If you disagre with that then YOU pay my license fee seeing as you think it's so "worth it" and I'll quite happily watch all the top quality programs I already watch that don't have a damned thing to do with the BBC. This idea that ONLY the BBC produces top quality programs and everything else is rubbbish is just blinkered bullshit by the twat-soaked brains of BBC Imperialists who have completely lost touch with any sense of reality whatsoever (or can so easily afford to pay the fee that they don't even notice the extra tax burden (which is what it actually is) and don't give a shit about those who can't)

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