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The BBC’s long-established R&D division has often been the unsung hero behind technological advances. But if new chief Matthew Postgate has his way, it’ll be much more high profile
Controller, BBC Research & Development
1994-97 BSc Politics, Bristol University
1998-99: Analyst, The Telecommunications Consultancy
1999-2001: Director, Diarymanager.com
2001-03: Strategist, Rufus Leonard
2003-05: Executive Producer, emerging platforms, BBC
2006-07: Launch team, BBC iPlayer
2007-08: Controller, BBC Mobile
“Pay attention, 007,” quips Matthew Postgate when I liken his role as BBC’s chief of R&D to that of Q from James Bond. But he’s also quite serious about his division receiving the recognition he feels it’s due.
“Our contribution to the wider industry hasn’t necessarily been recognised in the past,” he says. “I think the value we create both in the private sector and for audiences, in terms of standardising and making niche technologies mainstream, is immense.”
Postgate is talking to new media age not only in a bid to increase the exposure of his division but also to talk through a transformative few months for his department. The appointment of Erik Huggers as director of BBC Future Media and Technology in July 2008 was followed in October by Postgate’s promotion from running BBC mobile to heading the RD team. Together the two hammered out a new strategy for the 150-strong team, which Postgate admits had “drifted” in direction, despite the department continuing to produce impressive work. He felt it was important to crystallise the department’s raison d’être beyond its general agreement with the Government as part of its charter to “maintain a world-class media engineering R&D function”.
As part of the shake-up, around 90 projects were trimmed down to 40 through a process of rationalisation and natural attrition as four key benefits were identified. Firstly, R&D acts as an early warning system for the broadcaster -; the BBC broadcast the first HD signal 25 years ago, for example. The division also trains ‘problem solvers’, who often stay for many years and apply their experience to new issues, such as the processing and picture quality of the BBC iPlayer. Thirdly, it works closely with international standards bodies, representing the Corporation and the UK’s interests.
Perhaps most importantly for businesses, the R&D lab develops technologies that are designed for distribution outside the BBC. This is an area Postgate has focused on, making sure it happens in a more co-ordinated fashion by putting in place a series of teams responsible for transferring ideas beyond the Corporation.
We’re beginning to make that flow more efficient, more directed and more strategic through a more focused and disciplined work plan and through having people who are explicitly responsible for managing that transfer of ideas,” he says. He points to a graphical overlay used to analyse football matches, which the R&D department worked with Red Bee Media on productising.
Postgate sketches out the way R&D divides its time equally between development and applied research, with around 10% allocated to long-term strategic research. The work is then categorised as production, distribution, media management or audience experience. “We need to focus tightly on what projects we’re doing and understand how to work even more collaboratively with the rest of the industry,” he explains.
The largest of the projects to come out of this refocusing is the launch of the BBC Archive. It’s clear Postgate feels a sense of responsibility for being trusted with such a culturally significant project and has high hopes for the impact of its eventual rollout.
“This is the point at which society can begin to learn from the mistakes of its past, when it’s that easy for normal people. And we’ll find completely new forms of engagement and media experience that will be driven by the archive,” he says. “Societies that don’t have a digital or digitised memory risk the same fate as those that relied on an oral history when things started getting written down. The size and complexity of the problem are immense - even once you’ve digitised everything, you have to make it useful and accessible.”
Postgate is also looking forward to the introduction of Injects, a tapeless digital production system that aims to help populate the archive but also open up opportunities for much faster and more dynamic editing and distribution. Consultancy work for Canvas is also drawing on the department’s expertise, although the broadband-enabled TV platform is being built elsewhere.
“Canvas is trying to bring together digital broadcast technologies with internet technologies and deliver them to the living room. Luckily for us we have an R&D function that knows a lot about that,” he says.
IPTV also figures heavily on the roadmap as broadcast continues to converge with the internet. “IPTV is a huge part of the BBC’s future,” Postgate says. “But for the next ten years at least you’ll need to understand how the traditional broadcast technologies come together with those technologies. That’s the real challenge, not about how one will replace another.”
Mobile remains on Postgate’s radar following the rollout of iPlayer and the BBC website on the channel. “What happens when these devices become completely contextually aware? How would you envisage a future with less fragmentation? How can we use mobile with our other services? These are the big questions.”
The R&D division’s higher profile is backed by a physical move out of Surrey to sites in Manchester and White City. The shift is intended to help R&D work become increasingly closer to the BBC.
It’s clear that Postgate is relishing his new role and feels great pride in his team. With his bringing much-needed perspective to the division, R&D has every chance of raising its profile both within and outside the BBC.