Save the Beeb

Can a web site turn traffic into money without losing its soul?

That is the question being asked at the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), which plans to launch in June an ad-supported site for North America called BBC News Online.

I have something of a proprietary interest in this question. After Interactive Age folded in 1995, I got a free trip to London on “the Beeb.” The network had invited my publisher, Chuck Martin, to explain this Internet thing to everyone there, but neither he nor editor David Klein were in the mood for the trip, given that they were out of work, so I won the gig.

I wound up spending several days at the BBC’s Broadcast House headquarters, staying at a hotel near Regents Park and attending a news conference inside the Tower Bridge. My hosts were undecided between pushing a web site or CD-ROMs and split us up into committees to seek enlightenment. While my group argued, I found a computer, clicked over to the NPR site, turned on a WAV copy of its hourly news update, then turned back to the group to say, “Here’s your competition. Do you want to get into the game?”

Evidently it did, because the BBC now has some of the best, most highly trafficked news, sports, and entertainment sites in the world. But profiting from the traffic isn’t as simple as throwing up some banners. Because the BBC is supported by British taxpayers in the form of broadcast “license fees,” it’s a bit restricted in what it can do. Commercial interests don’t want to compete with the government.

Still, the BBC is always facing a money crunch, and these sites (while excellent) are expensive. The move toward creating an ad-supported site just for us Yanks strikes me as, well, clueless. I go to the BBC for British content, news, and sport. I can get all the criticism of President Bush I want from Americans.

The new site looks like a loser, and standard banners are out. So how can the Beeb turn a profit? I have some of my own ideas: email alerts, affiliate marketing, and an online store (supported by discreet ads) that sells recordings and other paraphernalia like that already found in many U.S. catalogs.

All this, however, may still not be enough. So I’m enlisting the thoughts of you, the ClickZ man (or woman) on the street.

Remember that your ideas have to not only be profitable but also tasteful. They can’t detract from the BBC brand, violate the U.K.’s fair-trading laws, or contravene the BBC charter to provide a public service for British citizens.

Send your ideas to me, and I’ll send the best of them across the pond. I still have the “White Hat” I won last year from Rodney Joffe’s Whitehat.com, which has since merged with a direct marketing database outfit. So as an incentive the best idea gets the hat.

If we can save the Beeb, we can do anything.

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