* Posts by jellison

2 posts • joined 28 Nov 2012

Scoop! The inside story of the news website that saved the BBC


Re: BBC on the net before 1996

It feels a little odd to be debating this BBCNC thing after all these years, but just a few points. It's hard to remember now, but in 1994 the Internet was something that the general public really didn't know anything about. Access was largely confined to the science and tech departments of universities, elite civil servants and industries like defence. At the start of 1994, Demon had less than two thousand dial-up subscribers who had geniune Internet access, unlike Compuserve or CIX (remember CIX?), and configuring your PC or Mac to use a dial-up TCP/IP/PPP connection was only really for the enthusiast. The BBCNC was an initiative of BBC Education and we considered it very much in the same light as the BBC B Micro project of a decade or so earlier. Our aim was to try and make real Internet connectivity really easy, and to be very Reithian in our mission to explain what it was all about. The initiative had various impacts -- We didn't go with Demon as our ISP (some people thought their name was scarey), but BBC rules meant we had to promote Demon equally on air, and their user base went through the roof and ended up making Cliff Sandford a very rich man just a year or two later. We got Pipex to bring forward their plans for a dial-up network by at least 18 months, and thereby really accelerated the take up of Internet services considerably in the UK. We gave The Guardian and CNN case studies which helped them put their own organisations on line a few months later. We persuaded someone called Ran Mokady to build Internet software for the Acorn, which we never ended up distributing, but which he ported to the Psion, started earning licensing fees, and eventually he also made a ton of money selling his company, STNC, to Microsoft because they wanted the IP to Psion's Internet suite. We also introduced the Web to many BBC people who had never seen it before, let alone the public, and got URLs promoted on radio and TV in a way that had never happened. Brandon talks about nicking content -- until we got BBC departments engaged, there wasn't any content to nick at all -- and there's another point that seems ridiculous now, the domain name bbc.co.uk was viewed with suspicion by quite a few inside and outside the BBC because of the .co 'commercial' tag. Would this be the thin end of the wedge? Which is why we went with a .org domain, and got some departments with a public service political spin on things to back us, when they were concerned by the Birtian revolution taking over the Beeb at that time. I can even remember we tried hard to get a bbc.uk domain, but got turned down by people at JANET (the UK's university network authority). Listen, these are all old stories which seem ante-diluvian now, but we were a small team of 20 somethings who were making it up as we went along, which the legions of consultants floating around the Beeb at the time wanted to control and were scared by because they didn't know what we would do next. Neither did we. We were about to be canned at one point, when I got hold of the client software from Progressive Networks (later Real Networks) before it was in the public domain directly from their office in San Francisco and spent our monthly hardware acquisition budget on a sound card for 25 quid, and on returning home to Goldhawk Rd we were the very first people outside Seattle to listen to an Internet streamed radio station from America. We then carried this tower PC around the BBC, having to stick fingers into the back of the thing to keep the mother board from rattling, showing live radio from the States. This was in April 1995. That was when the penny dropped that the Internet wasn't just Ceefax for nerds, and we got a stay of execution for a year. All this was eradicated from the BBC's Corporate memory when BBC On-line began because now they wanted to do things properly, which was fair enough. I guess all I am saying is that footnote given to BBCNC team deserves to highlighted sometimes. Jane Drabble, then Head of BBC Education, came out of a BBC Board Meeting at some point in May or June 1995 and told us we were changing the BBC, which felt good, but scarey at the time -- so scarey in fact, I left the BBC shortly afterwards because I felt I was being sucked into a political vortex I didn't have the maturity to manage. I gave a bunch of stuff to the BBC Archive, but I think most of got lost. But there is still some stuff in a box in the attic, which they aren't getting their hands on because I am proud of the contribution we, in our chaotic way, made.


BBC on the net before 1996

For the record, Brandon Butterworth did many important things during this period, but he did not create the BBC Networking Club, in fact he had nothing to do with it and didn't like it. I should know, I was involved in setting it up. In April 1994, the BBCNC put up the BBC's first Web pages in conjunction with a programme on BBC 2 called The Net. To the best of our knowledge this was a first anywhere in the world.

At that time, the Reith IP network in the BBC was the private domain of BBC engineers and jealously guarded by them. They had a 64kbps connection to the outside world and didn't want anyone else using it for fear it would use up their bandwidth. They never went anywhere near programme makers. So, when we set up the BBCNC as an initiative of BBC Education (as it was called at that time) we had to go outside the BBC to get server support from a small company called TECC, persuaded Pipex to expand their dial-up network, and lobby BT to get a 1Mbps line into their offices in time for the first episode on April 13th. We also had to battle with policy planning to persuade them that the Internet was a tool of the CIA and filled with porn (they had a point). I can remember going to see Brandon in an engineering building out in Acton somewhere, sitting in a darkened room, and having the strong impression that he didn't really want to help us at all. Anyway, we did start inviting him to meetings because BBC staff started wanting Internet access and were using the BBCNC dial up software to get connected, which was daft, so we were trying to help him put pressure on his bosses to expand their connection to the outside world and help BBC staff get access to the Internet directly. It wasn't easy. Meanwhile, we travelled all over the place, from BBC Wales to BBC Scotland, to the Worldservice, to Bush House and to BBC News -- I remember quite a few sessions with Mike Smartt. We were picking up work putting all sorts of very basic Web pages together for programmes, and from time to time doing specials like Radio 1's first Internet night in March 1995.

While doing this, we were constantly fighting off BBC Worldwidewho believed that that the only thing to do was a deal with Microsoft, which the McKinsey consultants involved were backing, and building a concensus that the BBC should consider the Internet a public communication channel, rather than a new commercial opportunity. That didn't stop a deal being done eventually with Fujitsu ICL which had doom written all over it from the start. But the BBCNC was canned to make way for this deal, on what turned out to be somewhat spurious grounds that we had crossed the line between public service and commercial interests, but there we go. The BBCNC team got merged into a BBC Multimedia Centre during 1996, which in turn got overtaken by BBC On-line.

Anyway, got that off my chest. As I say Brandon did a lot of important work, but it was the BBCNC that got him moving and the BBC's presence on the Internet into the sunshine, not the other way round, and no matter what his blog piece says!!!!



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