The BBC's Great White Elephant—How New Media Buildings Rapidly Become Old Media

BBC

One of the things that makes me proud to be British is the good old BBC. As well as providing the nation with ad-free TV, radio and Internet, the Beeb, or Auntie, as it is nicknamed, also broadcasts around the world, providing news in 31 languages. To paraphrase the AA, some of its listeners probably regard it as the fourth emergency service—especially if they're listening in a politically unstable country. The fact that it brought us Blackadder and David Attenborough is proof of its genius. It does have another, slightly questionable talent, however: an ability to overspend.

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The Beeb has three centers in London: Bush House, Television Centre, and Broadcasting House. The latter is a beautiful, 1932 art deco building just off Oxford Street and houses the organization's corporate headquarters, its radio theater and several of its radio stations. For the past seven years, however, the stately edifice has been hidden behind hoardings as the corporation attempts to build the biggest newsroom in the world—as well as a whole bunch of other stuff (about which, more later.) The works are expected to be completed in 2012, when BBC News, Radio, and the World Service will all be under the same roof.

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The concept, designed by architects MacCormac Jamieson Prichard (now MJP Architects), is pretty impressive: an eight-floor structure around which the newsroom is housed; five studios set on giant springs to deaden noise from London's underground; a talking piazza complete with waterproof speakers that will be home to a massive granite sculpture by Mark Pimlott; and a transparent foyer that allows the public to see how part of its TV license fee is spent—namely watching journalists at work.

A basement the size of 15 Olympic swimming pools was excavated, which included blowing up the corporation's in-house nuclear bunker and putting in 2,000 tons of steel. Once completed—estimated at the end of this year—the building will house 4,500 staff.

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At £990 million ($1.5 billion), it could be said that the budget was at the outstretched-fingertips end of astronomical. And that was just the 2003 budget. Revised to £1.04 billion ($1.6 billion) in 2007, it is expected that the overspend is about to be adjusted to a not-insubstantial £59 million.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that building projects always come in over budget, but perhaps the problem lies in the fact that, with the rapid obsolescence of technology, a concept that was envisaged almost two decades ago will have to be constantly revised in order for it to remain current. The Beeb is part of Britain's heritage, and Broadcasting House's iconic facade could only ever have a nothing-less-than-spectacular add-on, but how long before it passes its freshness date and needs another makeover? Perhaps Rupert Murdoch has got it right. Journalists at the News International plant in Wapping may work in a joyless, windowless shed, but at least the bottom line is covered.

Via Media Guardian

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