Rose came from startups — including geek favourite P2P network KaZaA — to join the BBC, and at the time friends questioned how “a dotcom kid” would survive our monolithic national treasure, he recalls. He describes his role as 75% cool stuff, 20% the cost of doing business and 5% bad stuff — not dissimilar to a startup. “When I arrived iPlayer was pre-release and not a wonderful consumer proposition. I didn’t know why it hadn’t turned out right, or what needed to be done. It turned out that the developers were brilliant, but the problem was that the BBC had so many internal stakeholders all pulling in different directions.” From financial pressure to reduce bandwidth use to editorial standards and parental controls, everyone had a say in the project — apart from consumers.
That says a lot about the BBC; despite its prowess in tech research and development, there is a lack of understanding of product, sa ys Rose. It’s not a problem specific to the BBC, but a feature of big organisations that they often struggle to make decisions, he says.His relentless focus on product is credited with ensuring iPlayer’s success, growing from launch to 130m monthly streams in May 2010, when he moved to another internet TV specialist role as chief technical officer at YouView. By December 2012 it had reached a record 217m streams.
By February 2011 Rose was out on his own and hungry to head back to the autonomy and opportunity of the startup world, having turned down inevitable offers from other big media organisations. Match-made with former EMI president Ernesto Schmitt, Rose pulled together a crack team of developers — many of whom came from the BBC, and most of whom initially worked for nothing — to build a prototype for a second screen TV service. The team of eight worked from shared offices in Old Street, secured $6m in private investment, and by November 2011 the first incarnation of Zeebox launched.
In person, Rose exudes a gentle, bubbling enthusiasm for his work. He talks quickly, intensely and very coherently, as if his mind had been synthesising ideas and observations overnight, presentation ready. Zeebox, he explains, is about the conversation around TV, and making that conversation accessible on mobile, tablet or through a browser. It offers programme information, discussion on social media, and targeted advertising.
From the outset, they decided, the concept had to avoid the precondition of partnerships with smart TV manufacturers. Why, despite the promise of Zeebox and a wave of other services perfect for internet-connected TV, have smart (internet- connected) TVs so far proved so disappointing? “Manufacturers had a dream that they would no longer be a dumb pipe, and looked to Apple’s 30% commission on app sales to try and do the same to TV listings,” he says. “But broadcasters won’t be disaggregated or forced to pay a fee to manufacturers. It has meant that smart TVs will have two brains, one for content and one for apps, until a new player comes in and disrupts the market to give consumers what they want.”
Zeebox, he explains, can’t reconcile that standoff with manufacturers. But it was also never intended to disrupt the TV space, recognising from the start that it would need to partner with broadcasters. “If you look at the people who start new ventures, do they have a religious zeal to change the world, or do they want to disrupt? If your goal is purely to disrupt I think that’s naive, because if your business requires deals