Morwen Williams, UK Operations Director, BBC News
When COVID-19 hit and the lockdown ensued, it was incredibly difficult for BBC News to continue collecting and disseminating information as usual. Thus, our News Operations teams set out to develop systems to help us continue our
public. The three virtual tools we have developed have transformed the way we collect information for our teams, facilitating workflows and offering better programming to our audiences.
As the world turned to Zoom, it didn’t deliver the right frame rate for TV interviews and had to be converted. This slowed down the whole process, making the deadlines even more stressful. In just three weeks, some of our engineers invented
a new system to avoid all this and provide a better image: Toucan was born. Our news teams navigate to the platform browser, book a session, and click to generate a link. They send this link to the contributor who can just open it in a Chrome web browser. The team clicks record, and each camera is recorded as a separate file on a BBC server, already in the standard BBC News format, which saves time.
Likewise, chat programs and remote TV edits meant that the audio was over the internet and often substandard with glitches or dropouts. Our Program OB team was no longer on the road and developed PreRec, to renew exchanges in quality and for remote parcel tracking. It is used on television and radio across the BBC – and has been touted by one journalist as “perhaps the most important software developed by BBC News” for the television audio track.
PreRec allows a reporter to categorize their audio track remotely while watching the edit on Zoom and drag it around the room in perfect quality afterwards. This makes the radio talk shows as good as if the guests were together in the studio. The unique feature of PreRec is that, exactly at the same time as the live chat, it continuously records and uploads a quality recording to a secure server for each contributor. The producer simply needs to send a link to each contributor; they click on the link on any platform or device and everyone is logged in in a secure online session.
PreRec has been used nationally and internationally and will be used for remote production long after the pandemic is over.
Well, it’s all about the audience – but they couldn’t come into any of our buildings. We have therefore allowed them to join us from their kitchens, living rooms and sofas, to bring back reactions to our productions. Originally developed for a discussion program, Virtual Audience was quickly adapted by many television and radio programs seeking to restore this vital ingredient. It leverages Zoom but feeds audience reaction into the ears of presenters, so they don’t broadcast in
a vacuum as in the first days of confinement. The solution has been featured in the media for its creativity and simple ingenuity.
At BBC News UK Ops, we pride ourselves on our amazing engineers who deliver the news 24/7 on the road and in the studios. But when they can’t, they adapt, invent and evolve – and with these three products, they’ve kept BBC News and the BBC at large on and on the air during the pandemic.
This article first appeared in issue 49 of tech-I magazine.