The BBC recently launched a trial program called BBC Backstage that allows developers to use some BBC content free of charge for non-commercial purposes. The BBC hopes the program encourages creativity and produces interesting ways to use its content in the same spirit in which Google and Amazon (and others) have opened up their application program interfaces (APIs) to developers.
Ben Metcalf, co-project lead at BBC Backstage says the program has been designed to encourage new ideas and promote innovation using BCC content. Backstage "is the BBC developer and designer network. It's basically the BBC promoting innovation and creativity on the Internet by sharing and providing access to some of the content and services that we already have available on the BBC.co.uk site, making them available as Web services using industry standards like XML and RSS, so that users can incorporate them and remix them into their own propositions, which in turn provide new value to the Internet and to users," according to Metcalf.
Metcalf says content sharing is simply consistent with the BBC's mission. "The BBC is very much in the spirit of sharing access to its content through a number of different projects," he says. "From the BBC's perspective, we are a public service anyway, so the aspect of generating revenue from content is not primary."
Industry-watcher Rafat Ali, who runs a number of content-focused sites and blogs including PaidContent.org, agrees. He sees BBC Backstage benefiting both the BBC and participants in the Backstage program. "I think they are trying to be genuine about this. They have such a huge repository of content and they are a public broadcaster for the benefit of the UK audience. In that sense, Backstage is not an investment on their part because all they say is, ‘Here is our content; do whatever you want to do with it.' In terms of monetary investment involved, it's not that much, and they gain innovation for free," Ali says.
Metcalf points out that while the BBC is opening up its content, some rules apply, and although Backstage users are free to use the content, they cannot change it any fundamental way. "As long as you are not commercial, and not doing anything that would bring the BBC brand into disrepute—if it's a positive use, then we are happy for people to build practically anything with BBC content. Because of the integrity of the BBC news, we are saying that users can't change the content, but they can change the context within which the news is presented," Metcalf explains. BBC News may present the top stories in a certain order, but by making them available in an RSS feed, the recipient can change the order and perhaps make the headlines available on a cell phone. He says that this provides a way to change the presentation without altering the news content.
Among the projects currently under way at BBC Backstage is a cross-pollination with Google Maps (which has open APIs) to view travel hotspots identified by BBC News on a map. Metcalf says another developer using the same type of geolocation capability wrote a script and, using BBC news stories, flagged on a world map where these stories were taking place.
Moving forward, Metcalf says they hope to include BBC travel alerts, sports, entertainment, and other content. In the end, Metcalf says, the program's founders hope to encourage an atmosphere of sharing and creativity and maybe come up with an idea or two. "Top line, we are looking to be seen promoting innovation and creativity on the Internet, and if we can be seen to be doing that, we will be very pleased. In terms of projects coming out of it, if we can see a few examples that offered real value to our end users to build something new, we would be happy with that as well. And if someone is doing something really innovative, we would like to invite them into the BBC and see if some of that value can be incorporate into the BBC's core propositions."