20 Years of the BBC on the World Wide Web

Although the BBC has been online for 20 years, the site we know and love today was actually launched in 1997. Before that the BBC Networking Club was an early attempt to put the corporation on the web.

This timeline will take you through some of the milestones from those two decades through video interviews with key figures who were part of the story.

Before April 1994

The early days of the web

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The BBC's Bill Thompson explains how after two decades it would be hard to imagine a BBC that wasn't on the web.

As Tim Berners-Lee was developing the World Wide Web at CERN, companies like the BBC were trying to connect their networks to the outside world.

During the early 1990s a series of developments slowly inched the BBC towards a place on the internet. The engineer Brandon Butterworth applied for the bbc.co.uk domain in 1991 and also set up the internal REITH network to connect machines within different departments. Before long, programme-makers wanted email and Usenet access, which meant connecting to the internet via the JANET academic network - and some producers realised they could now publish to the web. The BBC's web journey had begun.

The first website by Sir Tim Berners LeeDouglas Adams' BBC 2 Documentary that foresaw the web

13th April 1994

The BBC Networking Club

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George Auckland and Brandon Butterworth talk about how the BBC came online in the early 90s. (Clip of The Net thanks to Illuminations)

The friendly face of Auntie to help you get online

BBC producers and managers noticed the growing importance of the web in the early 1990s and saw an opportunity to build on the success of the BBC Micro computer literacy project in the 1980s. The Networking Club was set up to accompany technology programmes such as BBC Two's 'The Net' and 5 Live's 'Big Byte', and consisted of a BBC-branded internet service provider, a website, and the AUNTIE bulletin board. The club was managed through its early days by Peter Riding and Julian Ellison.

BBC Archives: BBC Internet Club proposal, memos (PDF)Internet Archive: Networking Club site in Mar '95BBC Internet Blog: Brandon Butterworth's memories


Network interference

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As the Networking Club came to an end, plans were made to launch a commercial news and sport service and take the World Service online.

A step away from the web?

With no formal internet strategy an unexpected collection of sites represented the BBC online and many pages - not just those that supported computing programming - began to appear. Deciding the web was a form of publishing, responsibility for it passed to the commercial department which printed BBC material like Radio Times. The club closed within two years as it was considered inappropriate for the BBC to sell internet access whilst new internet service providers were launching in the UK.

BBC Internet Blog: Post on the BBC Networking Club


A new understanding

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Lord Birt talks about the early days of BBC Online to Ron Neil, former Chief Executive of BBC Production in an archive interview from 2003

As the web quickly developed, it was suddenly taken seriously by those at the very top of the BBC.

In just a few years the web had changed. Now it was possible to add pictures and sound to a web page - and video would not be far behind. The ability to deliver audio and images meant the web could become important - and Director General John Birt noticed - possibly influenced by other media companies who were staking out their places online too. Plans for a news and sport service by the BBC's commercial arm were halted and the project was developed within the licence fee. A plan was needed.

BBC Archives: Extracts of executive plans (1998) (PDF)


BBC Online

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Experiments with the Budget and 1997 General Election meant the BBC could quickly respond to a huge story - and found itself a new audience online.

bbc.co.uk and BBC News Online formally launch.

Parts of the BBC had continued to experiment with the web - the Andrew Neil show, Budget 1995/6 trials, and a service for the Atlanta Olympics were notable highlights. 1997's General Election took this a step further and a site launched to cover news from the campaign. The site proved popular and continued to report politics for the rest of the year. However, as journalists were preparing for the launch of News Online, the death of Princess Diana was announced.

Martin Belam: Budget 95 on bbc.co.ukBBC Internet Blog: The Birth of bbc.co.ukThe Register: The news website that saved the BBC



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The web has enabled audiences to become much more involved with the BBC, its programmes and other viewers and listeners.

The web allowed access to programmes in ways we'd never seen before.

Many sites were launched to complement BBC services, offering audiences an opportunity to find out much more about programmes or even be part of them! Message boards, webcams and email were well received and games like Celebdaq and Jamie Kane engaged audiences in new ways. However the web wasn't popular with all programme makers: some disliked the attention or resources given to 'new media', and some were totally resistant to the idea of viewers and listeners giving their input.

Jem Stone: A quick history of the BBC and social media


Experimentation and expansion

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The BBC's website grew quickly in the early 2000s but soon became a focus of criticism from new competitors.

Now the BBC was formally on the web, plans were made to develop sites and services and creativity flourished - at first.

The BBC's executive committee developed an internet strategy for the future. The first phase would offer simple text websites. When enough users could access broadband, the second phase would add audio and video alongside more complex sites and services. A third phase foresaw a future where high-quality streaming of TV would be possible in '10-20 years' (in fact it was less than that). A burst of new ideas attracted criticism as the BBC began to challenge non-traditional competitors.

Nick Kind: Some thoughts on the future of BBC Jam


Listen Again

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Before the iPlayer there was the BBC Radio Player - and its roots trace back to a small part of the Radio 1 website in the late 1990s.

The BBC Radio Player launches - a sign of things to come?

A small, highly unofficial feature on the Radio 1 site in the late 1990s led to the launch of the BBC Radio Player in 2001. Offering the opportunity to listen to many programmes from the last seven days, it was an instant success with the public. But the service was a good example of how the BBC was increasingly coming up against copyright issues with online services and was also having to consider how offering services for free would affect commercial competitors.


Web 2.0

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Mobile, Social, User Generated Content - how the BBC has developed alongside the web and incorporated new technologies and methods into it's output.

As the web started to mature and new technologies and formats became available, the BBC began to develop new ways of presenting content.

The web could now do more than just deliver simple pages. Complex sites and services were possible and mobile technology would clearly have an impact soon. Successful sites like Wikipedia engaged their users and there was a realisation that just because you could do everything on the web - it didn't mean you should. Linking and sharing would instead be key. The changes set the BBC on a new path and allowed it to dive into podcasting, quality video, citizen journalism and the mobile web.

BBC's New Media's vision for the futureTom Loosemore: The BBC's Fifteen Web Principles

25th December 2007


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Ben Lavender, the creator of the iPlayer explains where the idea came from and the challenges he had in creating the service.

Though the iPlayer is now a huge success, it took years to deliver and had a tricky time getting approved by BBC managers.

Ben Lavender woke up with the idea of being able to access all the BBC's programmes on demand via the web and so began his work planning the integrated Media Player (BBC iMP). Nearly five years later he and project leader Tony Ageh launched what had by then become the iPlayer on Christmas Day 2007. It had taken 84 internal presentations to convince managers of the service's value, put rights agreements in place, and conduct a host of technical trials, but the dream had finally been realised.

iPlayer Launch: First IndicationsiPlayer Day: The blue-eyed boy

"You've saved the BBC."

Director General Greg Dyke as the BBC Executive Board approved the iPlayer.


BBC Sport Online

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Ben Gallop explains how the BBC Sport site is responsible for introducing many new technologies.

The BBC has been able to develop new technologies and services around coverage of events like the Olympics, World Cup and Wimbledon.

The 1996 Olympics and 1998 World Cup were early BBC experiments within sport but it remained part of News Online until 2000. The Sydney Olympics in 2000 saw the launch of a dedicated sport site, and it has pushed forward many of the technical developments on bbc.co.uk ever since - video streaming for the Athens Olympics, the use of linked data in the 2010 World Cup and comprehensive coverage of every event during London 2012, while the popular mobile site and live pages continue to evolve.

BBC Sport: Watch the 2004 Olympics live onlineBBC Internet Blog: Dynamic semantic publishing

13th April 2014

The future

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The BBC has been innovating for 90 years - but where next in the digital age?

So as the BBC celebrates 20 years online... where next?

Many of the plans that John Birt's executive team oversaw in 1998 have now come to pass - we are in a 'total digital' future: a rich multimedia world that is available online, everywhere. But what do the next 20 years hold for the BBC on the web? What should the corporation do in future and where should it go online? How can the BBC take the latest technologies and incorporate them into the next stage of the web's evolution? Some of our interviewees gave us their thoughts.

BBC Where Next?