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Being Daniel Danker

"There’s an expectation and a responsibility to be excellent" says the head of BBC iPlayer

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 bottom.

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 SLAs internally?

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 attributes are?

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 work.

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 PC_crop

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 way.

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 growth pattern.

In 2009 iPlayer got 725 million television programme requests and last year it got 1.13 billion. There's a defined growth pattern.

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 play out.

KANJI: And how is iPlayer evolving for connected TV?

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 television.

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 iPad_crop

BBC iPlayer on iPad

KANJI: There were 4 million iPlayer tablet views last month?

DANKER: Right.

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 different.

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 development process?

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 easier.

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 Worldwide.

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 catch-up?

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!