MyBBC or OurBBC? a personal view on personalisation

BBC-imageRichard Marks of Research The Media asks whether the myBBC initiative is the right response to the growth of personalised content, or is it perhaps the BBC’s role to give us what we didn’t know that we wanted?

Last week I was lucky enough to land a ticket to NextRadio, an annual one day event focused primarily on the production side of UK radio. The Saturday just before Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party and the Saturday after Doctor Who returned to BBC 1.

How are these events even remotely connected I hear you ask? Well the three wove their way into a debate already raging in my sub-conscious about the merits of curated versus personalised content and specifically the myBBC initiative.

So let’s start at the excellent NextRadio event in London. In one day we rattled through no less than 28 presenters, too many to attempt to detail them here, but with that sheer volume of presentations, if you stood back and squinted then a picture did begin to take shape, rather like individual dots making up an image.

The first impression I left with was the increasing role that social media is playing in amplifying linear radio – a number of presenters described how best to use Facebook and viral video. The other main theme, which I continued to mull over subsequently, was that of personalisation of content.

The day kicked off with a presentation from BBC 5 Live controller Jonathan Wall who referenced the myBBC initiative. Meanwhile, consultant Chris Price related how he spent far too many hours listening to Foo Fighters Radio in an attempt to get to understand how niche targeted music streaming services were programmed.

What’s wrong with giving people what they want? Well, in principle, nothing. Digital technology gives us the theoretical ability to understand what people like and do and personalise suggestions for them. All very logical. In reality, so far it mostly means being chased around the Internet with flight deals to Paris long after you decided to go to Torquay.

Some of you may know that a few years ago I wrote a blog expressing my concerns about the dangers of algorithms in constraining the development of our cultural exposure, because they are unlikely to generate random elements. As Chris Price noted at RadioNext, at one point the range of similar artists on Foo Fighters Radio seemed to him to be merging into one gestalt alt-rock beast.

I won’t revisit those arguments in favour of curated content, you can read the article here, but let’s put it in much wider terms. Put simply, the question I am struggling with is whether it is media’s role to give people what they want, or to expose them to things that they didn’t know that they wanted. I would argue it is both, but personalisation and initiatives like myBBC in particular, if used in a blunt way, could be in danger of shifting that balance too far in one direction.

On the face of it the myBBC initiative makes sense on two levels.

Firstly, as people allow the BBC to recognise them via log in details it provides a valuable mechanism for interacting directly with licence fee payers in a way that the BBC hasn’t been able to before.

Channel 4 raised eyebrows when it required email addresses to be able to access the fledgling 4OD (now All4) but in hindsight that seems a no brainer, as unlike BBC and ITV it has a database of over 10 million users with which it can build a relationship, tailor communications and target advertising.

That relationship element of MyBBC makes sense to me. What I am less certain about is the avowed desire to be able to target content as a result. To quote Phil Fearnley, head of myBBC:

“You’ll be able to create a BBC experience that you control, recognises you as an individual, and brings you the best of our content based on what we know you’ll love.”

I’d argue that the role of the BBC, what makes it unique and justifies its existence is its ability to expose viewers and listeners to new content, concepts and art forms that they would not necessarily have guessed they would have loved in a million years.

… read on at

Originally posted by Richard Marks at Mediatel Newsline
23rd September 2015

Phil Fearnley will be speaking at the 2015 European Television Conference on 4th-6th November at the Hilton Molino Stucky Venice Hotel, Venice, Italy