At last week’s Online Media Awards, I was lucky enough to get talking to Mark Coyle, the online editor of the BBC’s London 2012 coverage. He gave me a fascinating insight into the rigours of providing unbroken live coverage of the mammoth Olympic torch relay which is currently touring more than 1,000 cities, towns and villages in the UK.
To put this undertaking into perspective, the BBC has committed itself to providing live wall-to-wall coverage of the torch as it travels the length and breadth of the country over 70 days. The text commentary which accompanies the live video stream on the BBC’s website every single day represents the corporation’s longest continuous text coverage of any event ever.
Covering an event of this scale presents massive logistical challenges. For a start, how do you deliver the footage?
For most live events, the pictures you see are beamed back by satellite – but then most live events don’t last 70 days. Coyle estimated that it would’ve cost in the region of £700,000 to cover the torch relay in this fashion, which was way too much. So his team of 10 set about finding an alternative.
Their solution was to beam back the footage using the humble 3G mobile network. The BBC hasn’t been afforded any special privileges by the mobile networks to do this, either: its team is simply using mobile phone signals as you or I would. As Coyle explained, if the BBC had asked, say, O2 to provide it with dedicated bandwidth it would’ve been met with short shrift, as to give special dispensation to the BBC would’ve harmed the service for everyday O2 customers. So instead, the BBC’s team with the torch have bundled together sim cards from every mobile operator in the country. To send back the pictures, they use whichever sim has the strongest signal in any given location.
So if you’re watching the torch relay live online and the feed breaks up, it’s likely because the mobile phone signal isn’t very strong in that area.
Coyle made no secret of what a hugely demanding job this was, but he was clearly immensely proud of his team and satisfied with how the coverage is being received.
But whatever you do, just don’t call it a ‘once in a lifetime event’. Anyone caught using that hackneyed term in the BBC’s 2012 team is forced to pay a fine into a swear jar.
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