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Election 2015: BBC swings one way, Sky the other

Elections are always a logistical challenge, and each UK broadcaster has its own methods to get the big stories

Last month’s British general election was even more of a media event than its recent predecessors, with opinion polls and political commentators predicting it would be too close to call. With the political careers of several high profile figures in the balance and many marginal seats, the main broadcasters, including the BBC and Sky, set out to capture the key events as they happened but went about it in different ways.

The BBC’s coverage was the more involved and elaborate. The main presentation came from Studio D at the BBC’s studio centre in Elstree. This was divided into three different areas on the night. Core presentation came from a central area, where two of the broadcaster’s heavyweight news and current affairs presenters, David Dimbleby (pictured) and Huw Edwards, shared hosting duties. They were joined by BBC political editor Nick Robinson and a number of experts through the evening. Laura Kuenssberg handled social media, while Emily Maitlis was in charge of the giant touchscreen with information on key constituencies. Above the studio floor was a mezzanine area where Andrew Neil and up to three guests discussed unfolding events.

Graphical representation of how each party was doing came from the virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) ‘studio within a studio’. Andrew Breaks, resource manager for BBC Studios and Post Production (BBC S&PP) on the election, explains that this area had its own audio and vision mixers so segments could be prepared for news bulletins while the main programme continued.

This component posed technical challenges for the audio production because all cameras in the studio had to be delayed by seven frames to match the VR/AR output. “A delay was put on the finished sound mix as it left the studio to match the delayed pictures,” Breaks comments. “We couldn’t do that within the studio because it would have caused spill on to the audio resulting in an echo, which would have driven everybody nuts.” He adds that non-delayed sound was also needed in other parts of the chain, such as talkback. “If audio was going anywhere that needed a talkback panel it couldn’t be delayed, because anyone speaking over it would get a double effect.” Audio delay was applied through the Studer Vista 8 console in Studio D’s sound control room.

Incoming lines arrived at a handling-routing area known as MCX, set up next door to Studio D. This was arranged in a series of six sub-hubs, each looking after approximately five OBs. “These would be active at different times depending on when declarations were made,” says Breaks. “The inputs were filtered down to ten lines, with two each from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The producer in charge would then switch to what was of interest.”

On the ground, teams of a director-producer and a presenter were sent to selected seats, with the aim of getting a story before votes were declared. Breaks says arrangements for the declaration itself depended on what individual returning officers would allow: “You can’t run cables to the stage because people might trip over them. Some returning officers are happy for a radio mic to be put on a lectern, in some cases you might get a feed from the PA or just have to make do with an open mic in the room.”

At chosen locations the BBC used a mixture of its own regional news vans and satellite vehicles provided by Globecast and SIS LIVE, which also worked for Sky, ITV/ITN, Channel 4 and Scottish TV.

Sky full of stars
Sky News’ coverage was more stripped down in terms of presentation – compared to both the BBC this year and its own production at the last general election in 2010 – but had the ambition of showing as many declarations as possible.

Tom Pidsley, production specialist for sound with Sky News, explains that there were three main categories of contribution. The first group contained the top six seats, including prime minister David Cameron, deputy PM Nick Clegg, leader of the opposition Ed Miliband and Ukip’s Nigel Farage, which were covered by key presenters. Pidsley describes this as a fuller broadcast set-up with “standard local communications on a four-wire circuit” for two-way talkback with the studio.

The second category comprised approximately 40 seats that were still key declarations, especially in marginal constituencies. A reporter with a satellite van was on site but there was only a one-way, non-return interruptible foldback (IFB) mix-minus link from the control gallery to the location for cueing purposes. Reporters would call the studio from their mobiles when a result looked imminent. Group three took in 150 locations where students with iPads and a basic audio-camera – but no return channel – provided coverage over streamed links. “The idea was to keep everything as simple as possible,” Pidsley explains.

He adds that the presentation divided into two distinct halves: “In the early part of the evening we were trying to focus on pre-analysis, with summaries from the 40 to 50 reporters out there. We got through most of that in the first hour and once the first declarations started coming in we focused on the results, getting as many on air as possible.”

Incoming circuits were dealt with in Unit 1, which Pidsley describes as a combination of an operational set-up and a master control room, which offered between 40 and 50 possible sources. Main presentation came from the Sky News studio, working in conjunction with an usually empty neighbouring studio where cameras, computers and desks were set up. The whole evening was anchored by Sky News Tonight presenter Adam Boulton, who wore two radio mics. There was support from Sky News’ political editor Faisal Islam, polling expert Michael Thrasher, a journalist/presenter in front of a video wall (all also on a radio mics) and guests using a hardwired Sony ECM 77.

These audio feeds, plus the outside sources (OS) came into the Calrec Alpha. “It’s an older desk and we were bringing in nearly 200 sources,” says Pidsley. “We had to get these down to 12 OS lines for two-ways, and then four for the main two-way interviews. There was a lot of subbing to get that on air but it was a beautifully simple set-up because there wasn’t much going on in the studio. The whole theory was to have a hierarchy of feeds into the gallery, so we didn’t have to cope with 100s of inputs, just a few.”

Pidsley acknowledges that there are new technologies “to make this job easier” but says that other than the iPads issued to the students, Sky’s approach was deliberately straightforward. “For me as a traditional communications specialist I feel that we had a better balance for this year of what was achievable in getting what we wanted to get on air.”

There were blips for some broadcasters at different points but considering the scale of the task that is hardly surprising. The unsung hero of the broadcast Election campaign, however, must be the sound engineer working on the comedy documentary The Pub Landlord v Nigel Farage. When the South Thanet result was declared and the Ukip leader finally came face-to-face with his nemesis – comedian Al Murray, who ran against him in the constituency – the false jollity was palpable.

BBC Election studio audio systems

  • 11 Sennheiser ECM77 bodypack radio mics
  • 1 Sennheiser handheld radio mic
  • 10 Lectrosonics IEM systems
  • 8 Sony ECM 77 cabled mics
  • 6 beyerdynamic BM32W white standby mics
  • Nexo PS8 PA system
  • Cedar DNS 8 live, to reduce noise from projectors and screens (pictured)