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EXCLUSIVE: Inside BBC’s Television Centre

A peak inside BBC's Television Centre

Programme making returned to the BBC’s old Television Centre site in west London at the end of August. Technological interest in the ‘new TVC’ will probably focus on its 4k IP vision infrastructure, but the audio side is equally significant, with new Studer consoles and the first deployment of Riedel’s DECT wireless intercom. Kevin Hilton went to look around…

The distinctive 1960s building looks much the same, even though the last of the building works obscured the central ‘horseshoe’ area that will be so familiar to British people who grew up with television in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. The BBC logo on the side of Studio 1 (TC1) has gone, but the ‘atomic dot’ pattern remains as another indication that this is a place where TV programmes were and still will be made.

There are only three studios now. These and their supporting technical areas have been joined by many new developments: luxury apartments, a branch of media hangout and hotel Soho House, bars and restaurants and a spa/gym. The TV production operation is now branded as ‘BBC Studioworks Facilities at Television Centre’ and is run by the BBC’s studios and post-production subsidiary.

David Conway, managing director of BBC Studioworks, says the intention was to preserve as much of the Centre’s TV heritage while refurbishing and updating it. There is a new reception and audience-handling area, while inside the studio complex itself there is a series of green rooms, dressing rooms and production offices.

Because BBC Studioworks is a commercial operation, TVC will no longer be a dedicated BBC facility, although the public broadcaster will be using the facilities. As most independent productions are staffed by freelancers, much of the equipment and technology specified by BBC Studioworks had to be familiar or popular with crews. Another consideration was accommodating current trends in TV production. Often presenters move beyond the studio into backstage and public areas, while the production staff need to be in contact with each other wherever they are.

This last requirement was a major factor behind TVC being the first major installation of Riedel’s new DECT-based wireless intercom system, Bolero. BBC Studioworks has been using Riedel Artist at Elstree, where it moved the bulk of its operations from TVC in 2013. “Productions want to come into a space and say how they want to use it,” explains sound supervisor Andy Tapley. “We had Riedel as the wired part of the intercom for that, but we really wanted a joined up system with wireless comms as well.”

Tapley says he considered a hybrid installation with Clear-Com FreeSpeak II but then discovered that Riedel was in the process of developing a new wireless product. “We signed a non-disclosure agreement and worked with them for the last couple of years,” Tapley comments. Tests were later carried out to integrate what is now Bolero with the Artist frame, including a test on celebrity dance show Strictly Come Dancing at Elstree last year.

Bolero was completed in time for the launch of TVC. “We’ve taken it to the max,” Tapley says. “The system can do 100 belt packs and we’ve done that, split across the three studios.” This breaks down as: 40 belt packs in TC1, 40 in TC3 and 20 in TC2. These run on an AES67 network under DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications), which, Tapley explains, is how full roaming around the whole Centre is achieved.

Both TC1 and TC3 have their own Artist frames, while TC2 shares one with the central apparatus room. Each frame is fitted with an AES67 card, which connects to an AES67 switch that also links to the Bolero aerials. “Each Bolero belt pack has six full duplex channels and is effectively a portable panel,” Tapley says. “Each antenna is capable of connecting to 10 belt packs and we’ve covered the site with 22 antennas.” Further connectivity is provided through CAT5 points around the building, which are part of the AES network.

CAT5 also plays a part in the audio console installation. The sound control galleries at TVC feature Studer Vistas as the main mixing desk (Vista X in TC1 and TC3, with a Vista 5 in TC2), together the new Glacier for ‘grams’ (music and sound effects). BBC Studioworks has been using Studer’s OnAir board for grams operations and, Tapley says, this product provides the back-end of the Glacier, which has a new control surface.

“One CAT5 connects into the panel, which means you’re not so rigid in the way your desk area is set up,” Tapley continues. “Operators might want to move a panel to the other side because they find it better ergonomically.” The consoles run on a MADI highway that also connects to hybrid routers. A MADI feed also links the Vista to the Glacier, which means the grams desk would be able to take over programme content and run a video machine and microphones if there was a problem with the main console.

The ‘new’ TVC studio started making programmes almost as soon as it opened, and not without a couple of ironies. It is providing a home for ITV’s breakfast show This Morning due to the redevelopment of The London Studios on the South Bank, and also welcomed The Jonathan Ross Show as its first production. Ross, you might remember, left the BBC under something of a cloud in 2010, but is now back where he used to work.