Morwen Williams, Director of UK Operations at BBC News, describes how three groundbreaking tools were developed quickly as the first lockdown began, a project that was a runner-up for the 2021 EBU T&I Award.
When COVID-19 hit and lockdown followed, it was incredibly difficult for BBC News to continue newsgathering and broadcasting as normal. So, our News Operations teams set about developing systems to help us carry on for our audiences. The three virtual tools we developed transformed our newsgathering for our teams, making workflows easier – and delivered better programming for our audiences.
While the world turned to Zoom, it didn’t deliver the right frame rate for television news interviews and had to be converted. This slowed down the entire process, making deadlines even more stressful. In just three weeks, some of our engineers invented a new system to avoid all this and deliver a better picture: Toucan was born. Our news crews navigate to the platform browser, book a session and click to generate a link. They send that link to the contributor who only needs to open it in a Chrome web browser. The crew clicks record, and each camera is recorded in a separate file on a BBC server, already in a BBC News standard format, which saves time.
Similarly, discussion programmes and remote television edits meant audio was over the internet and often substandard with glitching or dropout. Our Programme OB team was no longer on the road and developed PreRec, to bring discussions back together in quality and for tracking packages remotely. It’s used in television and radio across the BBC – and was heralded by one reporter as “possibly the most important bit of software BBC News has developed” for television audio track.
PreRec allows a reporter to file their audio track remotely while watching the edit over Zoom and have it dropped into the piece in perfect quality afterwards. It makes radio discussion programmes as good as if guests were in the studio together. The unique feature of PreRec is that, at exactly the same time as the live conversation is happening, it constantly saves 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 the link on any platform or device and everyone is connected together in a secure, online session.
PreRec has been used nationally and internationally and it will be used for remote production long after the pandemic has passed.
Finally, it’s all about the audiences – but they couldn’t come to any of our buildings. So we enabled them to join us from their kitchens, lounges and sofas, to bring reactions back into our productions. Originally developed for a discussion programme, Virtual Audience was quickly adapted by many television and radio programmes looking to restore that vital ingredient. It harnesses Zoom but feeds audience reaction into the ears of the presenters, so they’re not broadcasting into a vacuum as in the early days of the lockdown. The solution has featured in the media for its creativity and simple ingenuity.
At BBC News UK Ops we are proud of our incredible engineers who deliver the news 24/7 on the road and in the studios. But when they can’t do that, they adapt, invent and evolve – and with these three products they kept BBC News and the wider BBC in business and on air during the pandemic.