In a wide-ranging interview, Daniel Danker, the BBC's General
Manager, Programmes and On Demand, tells VOD Professional about how
the BBC technology teams operate internally, what their best
practices are and how the iPlayer has developed for televisions,
tablets, computers and mobiles.
KANJI: Hi Daniel. So what's your typical day
like at the BBC?
DANKER: Well there's a huge variety of things.
It includes immersing myself into our product plans, and that's
fundamentally about creating products that continue to be
incredibly innovative, that push and test the limits of what we
have out there in the way that people consume and experience media,
television and radio. But it's also about setting the team up for
real excellence in software engineering and predictable quality
delivery so a lot of my day is spent working with the team top to
Another part of my day is spent working on partnerships. The BBC
is incredibly outward-facing, and as part of its public service
remit it has a responsibility to work with and help build industry
particularly in the UK and even to set a standard on the global
level. So I spend a great deal of time working with other companies
in the software business from startups to big names, television and
mobile phone manufacturers to make sure our content gets to the
audience in a consumable way.
KANJI: So, talking about software engineering,
does that reflect your background working for Microsoft?
DANKER: Yes. I believe that one of the reasons
the BBC brought me in was to get someone with a software background
into the leadership team. 11 years at Microsoft was certainly long
enough to learn some great practices which I bring to my work here
but I think it's important to keep evolving. The BBC is a deeply
creative organisation and I think you can inject that creativity
into the craft of building software.
KANJI: And so how deeply do you instil that
corporate methodology? For example, have you implemented formal
DANKER: Formalised SLA's might not be the right
ethos for the BBC because it implies that you know so far in
advance exactly what you want and what you don't. But we have
kicked off an engineering excellence process which looks at what we
do in terms of products and audiences and how we achieve that
through technology. So the teams have identified 4 detailed
attributes of great engineering that provide a guide to how you go
about doing your work and these are now being implemented across
the entire division. They were defined based on best practices and
have been adapted to the BBC.
KANJI: Are you able to say what those 4
DANKER: Sure. It gets pretty technical but the
first one's simple: that all check-ins need to be code-reviewed.
There are always 2 sets of eyes on any code which has all kinds of
benefits including driving up quality and sharing knowledge across
the team. So sometimes you don't even pick the most obvious person
to review the code, you mix it up a little bit.
The second one is accountability for non-functional requirements
like security, privacy, performance, scalability. These things
shouldn't be an after-thought: if you're an engineer or a developer
and you're building software you should treat those as part of your
responsibility when you're checking code.
The third is a real focus on automation testing at check-in.
This is good value for money in that when you check something in
you know it's high quality and that folks in the future will be
able to verify that quality.
The last one is continuous integration which basically means
that every time you make a change to the software that change gets
reflected almost immediately in our environments and across all the
engineers on the project. The key benefit here is that we can roll
out quality software on a consistent basis at very high pace.
There's an expectation and a responsibility to be
excellent and not just to be as good as someone else but to really
set a precedent.
KANJI: The BBC is a leader in so many areas; do
you, and indeed the division, feel a pressure to reflect that
leadership status in the work you do?
DANKER: There's an expectation and a
responsibility to be excellent and not just to be as good as
someone else but to really set a precedent. That's not viewed
through a competitive lens as if you were a commercial company. Our
unique funding model gives us the ability to look slightly
longer-term than a company might if they have to turn a profit
within 2 - 3 years. And what that means is that you can try out
ideas that others might not unless they know they're going to
A good example is the BBC iPlayer. We tried it, it worked and
now there's a large industry created around catch-up TV that has
largely modelled, or at least benefited from, the lessons we
learned. You see a lot of PSBs (public service broadcasters)
innovating like this. In fact, we even get calls from PSBs in other
countries who ask "How did you do it? Tell me more." and that's a
privilege but a responsibility too. You don't just pat yourself on
the back when you've done it. Instead you think we had to do it
because that's what we're being paid to do.
BBC iPlayer on PC
KANJI: For sure. Companies always look to see
what the BBC is doing because there's an absolute expectation that
any products you release will have adhered to best practices and
gone through rigorous focus grouping and user testing. That's the
upside but commercial companies aren't always 100% supportive of
what the BBC is doing are they?
DANKER: With all of the benefits of our funding
model there are equally a lot of constraints that have been put in
place to ensure that we work in a responsible way. So I suppose I
haven't really encountered that.
KANJI: And how does this compare with your work
at Microsoft which IS a commercial company?
DANKER: Well a misconception would be that we
at the BBC have a lot of time on our hands to be able to spend long
periods in development. We move really fast, we're ambitious; the
entire team comes here because they want to do big things. They
don't come here because they want to do big things in a really
long time. They're proud when they've done something no-one
else has done before or when they're able to do something great for
the audience but I think the difference can be distilled down to
the metrics we track.
If you were at a commercial company, profit would be thing you'd
focus on. You'd tend to refer to your customers as "customers" or
"users" or "consumers" and you'd measure yourself against the
competition to see how you were doing. Flipping to the BBC metrics,
we measure reach because we want to make sure that we
provide a service to all of our licence-fee payers. And we focus
much more on accessibility features and audience segments - not
because different audience segments produce different revenues but
because sometimes you have to do different things to cater for a
broader audience. Quality is another metric we track and so is
value for money - we need to implement things in an efficient
When I arrived I kept hearing the idea that the audience is at
the centre of everything we do and initially I wondered if that was
just something people say. But then I noticed that people at the
BBC really live by it. Now take that word, "audience", and contrast
that with "consumer" or "user" or "customer": it's a very different
way of thinking. If you look at our day-to-day processes they might
not look that different from a commercial company because the way
you build great products is similar but if you look at the metrics
by which we're judged, it's very, very different.
KANJI: And by and large this ethos seems to be
working. In 2009 iPlayer got 725 million television programme
requests and last year it got 1.13 billion. There's a defined
In 2009 iPlayer got 725 million television programme
requests and last year it got 1.13 billion. There's a defined
DANKER: Yeah, it's just incredible and what's
really interesting is WHERE it's growing. When I joined the focus
was on the PC. We were doing great and people loved the BBC iPlayer
but actually, I think we would all agree that given a choice,
generally speaking people would prefer other screens than the PC
for watching television. If you're at home, you'd probably rather
catch up on programmes directly on your TV. Or if you're in bed,
you might rather watch on a tablet. On the road, the mobile phone
is probably your best bet. Now the good news is that we make
great programmes and people would rather see these on their PCs
than not at all. But over the last year, the focus has really been
on bringing BBC iPlayer to its most natural home - the TV. We've
also invested in mobile phones and tablets which have punched well
above their weight as a place to watch TV. If you look at the
numbers you can see that this strategy is now really starting to
KANJI: And how is iPlayer evolving for
DANKER: We're in a bit of a transition period
right now and, for me, user interfaces on connected TVs in
particular still don't feel like television. The process of
connecting your TV is a little unnatural and the promise of what
you'll get isn't very well described to the audience. Now of course
I'd like to say that by the time you get into the BBC iPlayer
interface things are lovely but even there we have some work to do.
We've recently launched an update to BBC iPlayer on connected TV
and that experience in my mind now really feels like
KANJI: Across all connected TVs?
DANKER: We just updated Panasonic TV's a couple
days ago and we're going to hit all of the manufacturers shortly.
We want to get to a place where loading BBC iPlayer on your TV is
as easy as pressing the red button.
Now one of the places where we've seen really interesting
results is in the experiences offered by operators and companies
like FreeSat or Virgin through their TiVo boxes. There, BBC iPlayer
is integrated with your linear experience. BT Vision is the same.
So you're not switching inputs and you know your set-top box is
already connected. That eliminates some of the hurdles and we're
seeing phenomenal usage which is making us feel really excited
about the future of connected services on the TV.
A year ago, we made a bet that Connected TV was really going to
take off and bringing BBC iPlayer to it was going to work, and it
was a bit of a nervous time because you're not sure if you're going
to be right. But now we're starting to see that usage is much
higher on TV versus what it was on the PC and people will use it
more because it's in a more natural place. The breadth of what
people watch has increased too.
The other big "Aha!" moment of the year was with tablets. In
February, we launched the iPad version and now it works on Android
mobile and tablets too. The growth on tablet has been out of this
world. We believe that about three-quarters of tablets in the UK
are using BBC iPlayer today. The usage there has been great partly
because a tablet feels like a personal TV and watching on a tablet
feels bigger and more personal than looking at a 42" TV on the
wall. The rate of growth is continuing to climb.
BBC iPlayer on iPad
KANJI: There were 4 million iPlayer tablet
views last month?
KANJI: Are there any plans to match the
interface on tablets and connected TVs?
DANKER: Yeah, I think if you look at the new
connected TV experience that we've just launched the two are much
closer. And this is always a debate: do you make the product
identical across all screens or do you account for the differences
in usage patterns -
KANJI: Yes, and the device's own capabilities
DANKER: Right. And the reality is that if
you're navigating with a remote control it's a vastly different
experience than with touch or using a mouse. So we try to find a
balance. We're one of very few companies that have jumped both feet
into this and have actually had to solve the problem - and address
the opportunity - across 4 screens. So, for example, with
channel-flipping: on regular TV you can flip channels easily,
without even having to think about it, but with on-demand, it's
harder. So now in the new version of BBC iPlayer on connected TV,
you just hit the up arrow and it shows you options like "more
programmes like this", "more episodes" or your favourite
programmes. And you can choose those without having to go back to
another bunch of menus. It's really elegant. And you wouldn't
necessarily implement that in the same way on a tablet where going
back isn't that hard. So that's been very successful and the rate
of people finding the next programme is increasing. We're getting
more onward journeys than we ever did before.
We're one of very few companies that have jumped both
feet into this and have actually had to solve the problem - and
address the opportunity - across 4 screens.
KANJI: And it's interesting to work out where
that learning came from: was it looking at user behaviours, was it
a conscious decision to make content discovery easier...?
DANKER: I often get the question of "Is this
the death of linear viewing?" On-demand people love asking me that!
92% of viewing is still linear. Why? Because people love the
simplicity of it, they love the serendipitous discovery of it
because actually there are professionals curating those channels
and they're very good at it. They tell you a story. That's a real
art form. Now we could have built the on-demand products with a
software mentality. You can imagine that we could have sorted the
user experience algorithmically purely by popularity like Google or
recommendations like Facebook but what the BBC does better than
anyone else is tell stories. So we decided to use that lens to
focus what we do instead. We're not just going to do what everyone
else can do - and by the way, those companies I mentioned do things
very successfully - but we're here to bring something
KANJI: You mentioned the word algorithm so I'm
going to pick up on that. If I watch something like 'Frozen Planet'
on a tablet and then flip to the "For You" section, I usually only
see other episodes of the same show...
DANKER: We're evolving that now. It's very
early days there but interestingly it still gets used quite a bit
which surprised me because we haven't invested that much into it
yet. We've now increased investment into those onward journeys and
the curation element.
KANJI: How have you found the connected TV
DANKER: From a software perspective, I think
there's been a huge fragmentation in terms of different browsers,
software platforms and experiences on connected TVs and I don't
think that has benefitted the audience. The impact of it has been
that there is far less content on connected TVs than there could
have been because for content owners to create different versions
takes a lot of time. Again, we took the public service view and
said if we're going to start influencing what manufacturers are
doing with this we're going to have to get fully involved, build
for the individual platforms, learn from the processes. And we gave
a lot of feedback to those OEMs [Operating Equipment Manufacturers]
with the aim to build just once and have a consistent feel across
all the platforms. So I would describe 2010 as the year of porting
and 2011 as the year of innovation. And that is an experience that
was a trying time for us but the market is maturing so it's getting
KANJI: So, some questions from VOD
Professional's readers: first, can you talk about the worldwide
expansion and availability of the BBC iPlayer product?
DANKER: The simple thing that I can tell you is
that BBC Worldwide, which is a part of the BBC that is responsible
for this, has built a global version of the iPlayer which is now
being released to different countries. So it's already out in some
countries in Europe and there are plans to extend the reach into
more territories. Beyond that you'd need to talk to BBC
KANJI: Ok. A question on content rights: why is
Match of the Day sometimes not available on iPlayer at all and,
when it is available, it only appears a few days after the original
programme was broadcast? Is this rights-related?
DANKER: It is. Sport does tend to have the most
complicated rights issues and we try to find the best outcome but
obviously it's a case of negotiating with the rights-holder.
KANJI: And what about content generally? For
example, I've noticed that a pre-recorded show like 'The
Apprentice' usually becomes available on iPlayer almost immediately
but live shows take longer to get there. Is there a timetable that
you try to adhere to internally for getting content to
DANKER: Yes, we aim to have content available
on BBC iPlayer within 4 times the length of the show. So, if it's a
one-hour show we'll try to get it up within 4 hours. Mostly we beat
these timelines. If it's a pre-recorded show - which is about 60%
of our content - then it should be available immediately.
KANJI: And finally, as an American, what do you
think of our VOD industry over here versus the US environment?
DANKER: It's fantastic! It's a smaller media
industry here than I expected but that makes it more tight-knit;
you run into people you know all the time, there's a lot more
communication happening between companies and that's really
engaging. And I've really enjoyed looking at our products through
the eyes of the audience and not just with the idea of software for
the sake of it. At the end of the day, what we're aiming for is to
deliver a certain outcome to audiences and if software helps you
with that then it's great but if it doesn't then no big deal.
Whereas if you're in a pure software company it almost feels like
the answer to everything is software. That's so different here that
I find it great fun. The more involved I've got and the more I've
found out about the history of the BBC the more I realise there's
lessons that we can learn from the past. And this is a place full
of innovation and ideas so it's been really brilliant. I say
"brilliant" a lot more than I ever did before!