BBC News: Rethinking newsroom workflow

Transforming the news production process at BBC News requires more than careful planning.
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In an average day, 500 hours of video and audio arrive at BBC News headquarters, and more than 1000 new media assets are created in BBC News

The convergence of broadcast technologies and IT, as well as the divergence and proliferation of delivery platforms, are compelling broadcasters to re-examine their approach to news broadcasting and production. In the past, news meant 1-way, linear transmission by TV or radio; today, it is about creating an engaging dialogue with the audience across a multitude of media, from the Internet to mobile devices.

Adapting to this environment is, in part, about effectively delivering and managing an increasing volume of content generated by the accelerated 24/7 news cycle. In an average day, for example, 500 hours of video and audio arrive at BBC News headquarters, and more than 1000 new media assets are created in BBC News 24, BBC World and BBC News Online.

The adaptation of this content across different platforms and the subsequent audience experience is of equal importance. Today’s news content needs to translate and engage on both the largest TV screen and the smallest mobile phone. Making the same content compelling across different form factors requires significant work, but re-versioning material within conventional production processes is costly and time-consuming.

News production needs a rethink

On the one hand, the changing news environment presents a fantastic opportunity for broadcasters to reach new audiences more effectively. Equally though, the established way in which news is produced is becoming an impediment that stands in the way of effective real-time, multi-platform news delivery.

The problem is that until recently, video production technology itself has dictated the way in which news is made, resulting in a linear approach to production and isolated silos for functions such as editing and archive between which content can only be exchanged in a proscribed and inflexible manner.

Within BBC News, existing technology is creating several TV production headaches. There are a number of inefficient bottlenecks, with waiting time on tapes as well as queues for viewing desks and editing suites. The archive facility relies on time-consuming manual procedures to extract material, and production teams working on different delivery platforms are unable to share and re-use content effectively. Video content for broadband and narrowband go through separate encoding processes, and the text for teletext and for new media services such as the Web and wireless application protocol (WAP) is separately authored.

Three technology projects are transforming the video production processes of BBC News. The Jupiter project is taking the production process off tape and on to server-based editing, of which there is only a limited amount at present, in the separate content silos of BBC News 24 and BBC World. The Multi-Platform Authoring project (MPA) is transforming the production process for new media platforms. And the accompanying Audio/Video Database project (AVDB) is automating the transcoding of media assets across different formats.

Jupiter

A pilot study conducted in 2000 called “Jupiter” established what the BBC’s journalists and newsroom users really wanted from the production process. It found that what they valued most was the ability to view media at their desktops; to share material quickly across production teams while being able to view metadata such as information on rights, usage, embargoes and locations; to search and select from current and archive material; and see the media life-cycle through intake, editing, transmission and archive.

Technology solutions for this were becoming available on a small scale. The problem for the BBC was the sheer volume of content, through-put and concurrent access needed to serve so many outlets efficiently, going beyond what could be provided off-the-shelf at the time.

BBC News went out to tender for an editing and storage solution and commissioned BBC Technology to build the media asset management solution and to lead the systems integration. Quantel’s generationQ solution was chosen to provide intake encoding, desktop editing and viewing, craft editing, and the server storage to underpin the whole. The name of the pilot project, Jupiter, had gained such awareness among the news staff that it was carried through to the implementation project. BBC Technology, which wanted to build more than just a one-off solution for BBC News, also took its solution to market as part of the Colledia product set.

The news system is scaled to record up to 24 simultaneous feeds at 30Mb/s in MPEG-2. Thirteen sQServers hold a capacity of 1300 hours of this broadcast-quality content, plus 1.5Mb/s proxy copies of it all. The high-resolution clips can be dubbed to the existing transmission servers that are under OmniBus machine control, and to tape archive. In addition to 20 craft editors on a dedicated Gigabit Ethernet network, hundreds of journalists can search, view and edit the proxies at their desktops over the standard 100baseT newsroom LAN.

Even lower resolution proxies of most content will be kept indefinitely. Access to this archive content from the desktop transforms footage selection, enabling review to take place in minutes, rather than hours. This will enable the BBC broadcasters to capitalize on the value of its archives and to more effectively manage its media assets. Only the media asset management layer of the system, the Colledia layer, makes this a realistic scenario, given the volume of intake and archive, the number of edits and the rights complexity inherent in multiple sources serving national and international outlets on different platforms.

A key part of this new workflow is the Mediaport (based on an airport analogy of arrivals and departures), where content is labelled as it comes in and allocated to a managed story list, and where outgoing feeds are arranged to partners such as the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Incoming video thereby gets a limited cataloguing up-front, with a subsequent, more thorough labelling as it leaves Jupiter, and this metadata is kept forever. It stays associated with the clips through their lifecycle of edits, inherited from their parent clips. The Mediaport unifies copyright specialists, staff from the existing picture desk and archivists with media managers (from the current limited server-based operation) in various new roles.

Jupiter will allow simultaneous access to the same content on the desktop across the entire media lifecycle, from intake to archive. Desktop access enables every producer to contribute to work in progress, for more scripts to be written with the associated pictures in view, and for editorial decisions to be made faster than ever before.

The use of stand-alone QEdit Pros is under way in BBC News, as well as pilots of Jupiter in the Mediaport. Assuming successful performance testing, the project will then ramp up to desktop editing and production in News Interactive, News 24 and World and so forth through the remainder of BBC News.

Multi-platform authoring of text, audio and video

All new media outlets are served by the BBC’s News Interactive department: BBC News Online, e-mail news services, news to mobile phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs), syndicated news content for partner Web sites, teletext, (called “Ceefax” on analog TV and “Digital Text” on digital satellite, digital terrestrial TV and digital cable), Interactive News on digital TV platforms, Home Choice, Kingston Interactive; and video headline clips for Real One. Bbc.co.uk is the largest content site in Europe, with an average of 45 million page impressions per day (on bbc.co.uk, not news specific). Average daily page impressions to bbc.co.uk/news in March 2004 were nearly 14 million, and more than 4.5 million page views accessed via WAP-enabled devices.

The in-house Web Content Production System (CPS) for news content is being redeveloped so that a single editorial multimedia team can create a common pool of content assets (text, video, graphics and stills). The system then delivers these assets to a range of platforms in the most suitable combination for each device, each service and its available bandwidth, be it a mobile phone, a PDA, Ceefax, syndicated Web content, etc. The News Interactive team will also use Jupiter to find and edit clips for use on the new media outlets.

This involves certain editorial compromises. Headlines must be written to be suitable for all platforms. Every story must fit the vital facts into the top four paragraphs, succinct enough for Ceefax, detailed enough for online, with a seamless move to the fifth paragraph and beyond for those platforms which can take longer-form stories.

The audio and video content handled by the CPS comes from disparate system sources within the BBC and has to be encoded at different bit rates, in different formats, for an increasing number of different distribution platforms. A new AV database for the CPS is under construction to reduce the manual effort involved in this.

Overall, the new systems will reduce editorial duplication, deliver a more integrated technology solution and position BBC News to launch new services on new form factors more efficiently. BE

Tiffany Hall is head of technology for BBC News.