In defence of BBC Food

As a piece of passive aggressive PR, the BBC’s move on their online Food database is superlative. The Corporation announces it’s going to axe a much loved service, only to provoke a public outcry which demonstrates that it is much loved – without Auntie actually having to say so.

It’s so ‘W1A’ it’s like a parody of a parody of itself. And it seems to have paid off. Now the dust has settled I’d like to tell you how I devised and launched the BBC Food website in the early days of BBC Online, how the status and role of online has changed and why the BBC should continue to do what it’s been doing so well.

At the end of the 1990s, I was employed by the BBC as a ‘category manager’ and tasked to produce an online strategy for their lifestyle programming. The category managers were a band of digital content experts. Filled with frontier spirit, we set about thinking what made online different from TV or radio. We knew there was a hierarchy, which went TV, Radio, Online, with us at the bottom. We were determined to establish Online as a platform in its own right with its own utility, pleasures, values and rules, whilst adhering to the BBC’s remit to be distinctive.

Faced with a collection of TV brand sites, essentially offshoots of TV programmes including Ready Steady Cook, Ground Force and Changing Rooms, I considered who was using the Web, which content was ‘evergreen’ and how to translate it from the screen to the Web to create something genuinely useful for this audience. I thought long and hard about the most useful way to distil and translate the content featured in TV programmes in order to serve our growing online audience (much younger than their TV counterpart). I arrived at the idea of a food website featuring recipes from trusted chefs, cooked on the telly, searchable by meal type, cuisine, and name of cook. And ‘techniques’ demonstrating basic culinary skills like gutting a fish or julienning vegetables in step-by-step image format (like Wiki How) or video (like VideoJug).

In those days before the advent of broadband, the constraints of narrowband really focused the mind. Video was just one tool in our arsenal, and we were trained to think about websites as structures through which you could move seamlessly, where everything was well signposted and accessible and which supplied a useful service, before you started to think about the surface aspects of design. We were establishing a new world, a new medium, which placed the online user (and not the TV audience) firmly at the heart of the experience.

And BBC Food does something that no other food sites on the Web can do, because it has the resources to do so. Yes, recipe sites are commonplace on the Web. Search for ‘chicken korma’ and Google will serve up hundreds of recipes from websites worldwide. Some of these are really good at getting noticed – the BBC’s commercial food site, Good Food, invests heavily in improving its SEO and is a case in point. The celebrity chefs featured on BBC TV programmes built empires by exploiting their recipes through their own channels. And there are sites, like Yummy, that deliver thousands of recipes served up on beautifully designed, responsive pages. But only the BBC can do this all at once. Only the BBC has the resource to produce recipes created by trusted chefs, lots of them all together in one place, that are easily surfaced, simple to navigate, beautifully designed, without adverts. And that’s because the BBC hired and trained up the best web designers and editorial staff to ensure that its user experience is the best there is.

We had to fight hard to establish Online as a distinct service and represent our audience as a group in its own right. And for a while we seemed to be breaking new ground. As I developed and launched BBC Food and BBC Gardening, so BBC Science & Nature site launched the Wildlife Finder and BBC Music, under my Unthinkable colleague Matthew Shorter, launched the artist pages. BBC Food later became one of the BBC’s flagship ‘products’ after product became the buzz word du jour. There was a brief honeymoon period when BBC Online was distinctive, but with the advent of broadband and the BBC iPlayer, so Online again became subservient to TV. But, alongside a few other islands of excellence, BBC Food survived this regime change, lauded as a stand alone product, staffed by a purely Online team, sufficiently distinct from TV and with a clear utility, so that it was allowed to continue its public service.

I cut my teeth editing Microsoft digital learning products, which opened my eyes to the potential of interactive content to invoke wonder and develop learning, and at AOL where I gained an insight into the behaviour of online communities. At the BBC, I developed skills in user research and user testing 10 years before UX became a thing, I collaborated with designers and developers to create exemplary websites, I learnt to negotiate with stakeholders in TV, commercial and marketing in a world that could be brutish. I don’t believe there’s anywhere else I could have gained the same level of knowledge, expertise, training and resilience. The BBC has a unique and distinctive ethos and I developed a bunch of skills which have stayed with me over the years since I’ve left and which I’ve taken out into the independent sector to help it grow.

Sixteen years on from the launch of BBC Food, I am helping Slimming World, a commercial client, to manage their nutritious recipes so that they can be more effectively shared across the organisation, updated and published to their cookbooks, magazine and consumer websites in the UK and the US to help people live healthier lives. I got this job partly because I had delivered the BBC Recipe Finder. The BBC provides its staff with a training and a craft that cannot be found anywhere else, and many of those people will, like my fellow directors at Unthinkable and me, return the favour by going into the outside world to help clients do digital things better.

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