British Broadcasting Corporation

The following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed or troubled projects from around the world.

British Broadcasting Corporation – UK
Project type : Digital archive
Project name : The Digital Media Initiative
Date : May 2013  Cost : £100M

Synopsis :
Having started operations in 1922, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is one of the world’s oldest and most respected media production and broadcasting organizations. Covering both entertainment and news, the BBC’s radio and television productions captured the 20th century as it unfolded. The BBC’s archive of broadcast materials is unparalleled and as production continues to this day, the corporation has one of the largest archives of media materials in the world. Delivering content through television, radio, the Internet and via the BBC iPlayer app, the BBC is a brand name that is known around the world.

To improve efficiency when creating new materials, and to allow for better management and integration of archive materials, the BBC initiated the “Digital Media Initiative” (DMI) in 2008. DMI was intended to provide a single tool that would enable video and radio production from raw materials through to final edit. Accessible from staff desktops the system was to standardize the tool used for new production while allowing for improved integration of the vast archive of media materials built up over the organization’s 90 plus years.

Without going through a formal tender process, the contract to develop DMI was awarded to the BBC’s existing technology provider (Siemens) in 2008. The fixed price contract established a plan that would see the project completed in 18 months at a cost £82M. In theory a fixed priced contract protects the buyer from cost overruns, in practice this is not always the case as lack of clarity in requirements, changing needs and other real world complications often leave the door open to continual changes that can impact delivery dates and costs. Such was the case for DMI and ongoing challenges creating the system resulted in a Jul 2009 “no-fault” termination of the contract. Bringing the project back in house the BBC revised the timeline and set about completing the project using their own internal technical team. An independent audit report by the National Audit Office at the time made note of the failure to conduct a competitive tender process and made a number of recommendations to help ensure the system could be delivered by the internal team.

As work proceeded still further problems were encountered. Internally there was growing concern at the lower levels of project that senior levels were not being given a true picture of what was happening in the project. Bypassing the hierarchy, one senior technologist eventually wrote a letter to the BBC Trust (the committee with governance and oversight responsibility for the BBC) telling them that they were not being given an accurate picture of the project’s true status. According to reports the letter stated that the BBC Trust, the government and other senior parties involved “may have been misled about the true performance of the DMI since it was taken in house”.

Sadly the warnings turned out to have merit as the failure to deliver a working system resulted in the project being abandoned in May 2013. Following investigation, Mrs Hodge (the then MP chairing the Public Accounts Committee) described the project as “a terrible shock and clearly completely shambolic” … “We were told that there were bits of this system that were working, that you were using them. That wasn’t true. That just wasn’t true.” The BBC’s Chief Technology Officer was suspended pending an enquiry and £100M was written off. The findings of the enquiry are due for publication shortly, so check back for further details.

UPDATED: 19 Dec 2013 – An independent report carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (“PwC”) has now been published (BBC Digital Media Initiative Review of the BBC’s management of DMI).  Further analysis to follow…

Contributing factors as reported in the press:
Underestimation of complexity. Ineffective governance structure. Hierarchical organization structure in which accurate flows of information were actively blocked (see “Green Shifting“). Failure to conduct an effective tendering process when selecting the original supplier. Lack of contractor oversight. Overstating the benefits of the project. The use of a fixed price contract acted as a barrier that discouraged the BBC from getting too deeply involved in the design stages for fear of triggering change requests thereby nullifying the fixed price.

Other related projects:
DMI was the BBC’s second technology project failure in 2013. In March 2013, a project designed to translate foreign news reports into English was also abandoned –  Spending Our Cash Recklessly On A Totally Empty System: 6 years and £8.3m later, there’s still no sign of BBC’s foreign monitoring technology “Socrates”.

Reference links :

  1. BBC digital ‘catastrophe’ criticized
  2. BBC abandons £100m digital project
  3. The BBC’s management of its Digital Media Initiative – A 2011 report on the status of the project produced by the government’s National Audit Office (NAO)
  4. £100m debacle at BBC: After years of waste and chaos, failing IT scheme is finally axed by humiliated corporation
  5. Former BBC technology boss sacked over failed project (added 24 Jan 2014)