Modern playout centres use hugely advanced technology. When things work well, they work well. Things run like clockwork with minimal manning. But when they go wrong, they go wrong.
Channel 4, Channel 5 and some of their digital channels suffered catastrophic failures last night as a result of a fire at the Broadcast Centre in London – the playout facility used by the channels.
BBC channels would also have been affected – but didn’t suffer a catastrophe. It’s thought Salford simply took over and transmission of Strictly was saved.
It is reassuring to know that the national broadcaster can survive a playout disaster – indeed it would appear they are actually better placed now than in the old days.
BBC Presentation had an emergency power supply but in the event of a real disaster, such as fire or terrorism, it would have taken time for Pebble Mill to take over the network. Last night, the transition to Salford would not have been noticed.
ITV also has arrangements which would see its Northern transmission centre in Leeds rake over in the event of an emergency in London.
But what of Channel 4 and Channel 5? What is astounding is that a frozen image or a black screen went out for so long. Once this was unthinkable.
In the 1980s, for example, there were resilience arrangements if a local ITV company went off the air because of a fire or power cut. In those days this would have affected both ITV and Channel 4 – Channel 4 was routed through local ITV companies which inserted adverts.
If unscheduled black screen went out for more than 30 seconds or so, the IBA regional operation centre would have put up an apology caption.
If the fault continued, Channel 4 would have been routed straight to air (giving Pres fans a look at the intervals sent out by Charlotte Street to cover ad breaks) while a neighbouring ITV company may have been temporarily put to air so network programmes could still be seen.
Modern technology allows so many brilliant things to happen but has a little bit of old-fashioned, common sense resilience been lost?
To stress, the issue we are talking about is not with Red Bee, which is noted for its professionalism. The issue is what happens if no signal or a frozen image which should not really be broadcast is leaving Red Bee in an emergency. Should there be some upstream intervention?
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