At press briefing today, the BBC director general Mark Thompson unveiled the first major implementation of the corporation's Putting Quality First strategy, aimed at doing "fewer things better". Thompson wants to "shape" the BBC's digital strategy in response to a changing market, and set clearer boundaries to give greater clarity to commercial rivals.
Under the new strategy, Online's service licence budget will be reduced by £34 million to £103m by 2013/14, equating to a 25% reduction in its budget. As a result, there will be up to 360 proposed job closures, including 120 in the Future Media & Technology (FM&T) team and 70 from the journalism division. The BBC is holding talks today with the affected employees and the trade unions.
In an effort to increase its support for the wider industry, BBC Online will aim to double the amount of monthly referrals it offers to external websites to around 22m by 2013/14. The BBC will further engage with the industry twice a year to gain feedback on its online presence, while also enabling commercial rivals to effectively plan ahead.
In a statement, Thompson said: "BBC Online lies at the heart of the BBC's digital future. As in television and radio, licence fee payers look to the BBC to inform, educate and entertain them online. As digital technologies advance, internet delivery of content becomes more important and more profound in our lives.
"BBC Online is a huge success, but our vast portfolio of websites means we sometimes fall short of expectation. A refocusing on our editorial priorities, a commitment to the highest quality standards, and a more streamlined and collegiate way of working will help us transform BBC Online for the future. I know that these changes will be painful for affected staff. But I firmly believe that they are right for the BBC at this time."
Erik Huggers, the outgoing director of the FM&T team, said that BBC Online must only retain services that meet the BBC's six new priority areas: Journalism, Knowledge & Learning, Music & Culture, Drama & Comedy, Children's and Major Events. His team has analysed all areas of the operation to judge what services no longer meet these new priorities. Huggers said that the new strategy for BBC Online will provide a "blueprint that once implemented will bring a better quality presence" for the division. He also stressed that it will result in the closure of "hundreds of sites that have very little traction or public value".
The cuts will involve a halving of the BBC's 400 top-level domains, including 180 websites due to shut down later this year. The domains are mostly offshoots of the main BBC website that have been set up for a particular programme or event. Websites for digital radio services 1Xtra, 5 Live Sports Extra, 6 Music and Radio 7 will be automated, meaning they will no longer receive updates of bespoke content, instead carrying just linear material in support of the broadcast schedule. However, dedicated sites for major TV shows such as Doctor Who and EastEnders will continue to be updated with bespoke content due to their strong popularity.
A number of larger services will also be shut down, including BBC Blast and Switch, along with RAW and Video Nation. The h2g2 service, a social network for users to discuss The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, will be divested to a third party. Other closures include all standalone forums and message boards that have been deemed outside the core remit of BBC Online. That means the 606 sports community site will shut down and the BBC iPlayer message board will no longer operate.
Elsewhere, the BBC News website will be refocused on its key areas of strength, such as breaking news updates, and move away from areas well served by commercial rivals. For example, the arts and entertainment section will drastically reduce its showbiz reporting and instead be "dialled up" to arts and culture stories. There will be a reduction in the BBC's sports news and online streams of live sport, along with fewer blogs outside of the core editors and correspondents. BBC Local websites will drop local listings and feature stories, instead delivering local news, sport, weather and travel.
The BBC Online restructure will also create a "clearer focus" for BBC iPlayer, making the catch-up platform a more unified TV offering bringing together TV channels, programme information and live/on-demand content. Similar reshaping exercises will be run on the Learning & Knowledge and Children's online services. The BBC also stressed that it has no plans to become an aggregator of video on-demand content, nor will it release its own social network. However, BBC Online will work more closely with Facebook and Twitter.
The BBC Trust has today approved the BBC Executive's plans for BBC Online and decided that there is no need to impose a public value test as the new strategy does not represent a significant change in direction. Changes to the service licence for BBC Online will be published shortly.
In a statement, the BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons said: "We are clear about the continuing importance of the BBC's Online service. But we want strengthened editorial vision and a more selective approach in the interests of both public value and market impact. This strategy is about doing fewer things better, and clearer boundaries."