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BuzzFeed, AR and Boris’ majority – behind the scenes of Sky’s 2019 election coverage

In the aftermath of a UK General Election, polling stations aren’t the only battleground, with broadcasters embarking on their own fight to capture eyeballs as the results roll in. For the first December election in over a century, Sky News played with fresh ways of storytelling to put itself at the heart of the drama and capture fresh audiences. The Drum goes behind the scenes of its election night coverage.

There was an audible gasp from the Sky News studio floor as the results of the exit poll rolled in, indicating what we now know to be true: Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party had won the UK general election with its biggest majority since Thatcher.

In line with electoral law, Sky host Dermot Murnaghan, political editor Beth Rigby and former House of Commons speaker Jon Bercow received the shock forecast at the same time as everyone else — just as the credits were rolling on the 10 o’clock special edition of the channel’s flagship news show.

Viewers will have noticed something different about Sky News on Thursday night (12 December), however. As it sought to make its 2019 election coverage its “most ambitious ever” the business relocated its news desks the centre of its corporate office, putting the election “at the heart of Sky”.

As well as snagging the divisive Bercow as a special guest, the updated broadcast was complemented by heavy investment in augmented reality (AR). This was pioneered by Sky’s internal innovation team, while a partnership with BuzzFeed was launched to engage younger audience in the analysis and debate.

This was more than a stunt though. It all served to cut through the noise of a 24-hour news cycle dominated by digital and social.

Muddied by off-the-cuff reporting, questionable sources and Thick of It-esque PR blunders in which the UK prime minister literally hid in a fridge and the top two political parties restyled their social media feeds as ‘fact-checking’ services, the run-up to the big vote has been a rollercoaster ride for journalists and the public alike.

After reporting the outcome of the 2017 general election faster than any competitor (projecting a hung parliament at 3.57am on 9 June) Sky wanted its 2019 broadcast to raise the bar and push its election coverage to new heights.

Here, The Drum goes behind the scenes of what happened on the night.

A 'complementary' partnership with BuzzFeed

For the first time, Sky and BuzzFeed partnered to stream political coverage across social media platforms as the results came in.

Via a digital-only show called ‘Election Social’, which was streamed live from Sky HQ, the pair brought talent like BuzzFeed News reporters Emily Ashton and Ade Onibada together with Sky's Lewis Goodall and Rowland Manthorpe to set the agenda on the biggest talking points of the evening.

Broadcast over Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Twitch as well as the Sky NewsApp the show sought to appeal to a younger, more diverse audience and provide sharp analysis at an “accessible level” for all.

Behind the scenes, lively dinner party-style debate could be heard as guests from across the UK joined the foursome. The presenters also used a variety of weird and wonderful props to demonstrate nuanced political concepts to viewers, who were submitting their questions using the hashtag #ElectionSocial.

For BuzzFeed’s UK editor Stuart Millar it was a natural fit for both businesses; who are now part of the same media family following Sky’s Comcast takeover and NBC’s $400m investment into BuzzFeed.

“We've just done a huge bit of audience research on the UK and news audience. And there were some expected and surprising things in there [about our readers].” Millar said.

BuzzFeed’s data found that while 85% of its readers were under 45 and “the vast majority” were under 35; however it also revealed that one-third of BuzzFeed readers voted Conservative and around third voted to leave in the Brexit referendum.

“It's a proper mixture and being able to serve up to people in different ways is a big challenge for us.

"Sky is obviously reaching that audience too, so for us, [partnerships like this] get us in front of people that don’t usually tune into BuzzFeed and who probably know us for quizzes and lighter entertainment stuff – but who maybe don't understand the serious reporting and investigative journalism that we do.

“So it's complementary. And we were all on the same page on the show we wanted to do from the start, so it was a bit of a no brainer,” he added.

BuzzFeed already has form in hosting Twitter shows like 'AM to DM' and 'What To Watch'. For this partnership, Millar said success would be based on whether BuzzFeed was proud of the outcome and what audience figures looked like. Viewer participation and how the show shaped wider news output would also be considered.

Using AR to deliver a ‘fresh perspective’

Four months in the making, Sky’s newly-created Innovation division, which sits within its in-house ad shop Sky Creative Agency, played a central role in enhancing the broadcaster’s election coverage this time around.

If there’s a universal truth about elections, it’s that on-screen graphics featuring suited presenters standing atop colour-gridded maps will feature at some point on any given network. However, both Sky and the BBC invested in AR graphics this year to break down information for viewers and tell stories in a different way.

Taking over an entire floor of the Murdoch-founded channel, Sky’s effort forewent a map to embrace a ‘race to Downing Street’ theme, with hosts standing in front of an animated version of the PM's residence.

Gleaning lessons from Sky’s Premier League – which has been touring a portable AR studio that superimposes graphics on post-match analysis programming – Sky’s election night set was designed to give the show a “texture” viewers wouldn’t expect from political broadcasts.

“The Sky Innovation team seamlessly integrated the vision of sports productions, with the editorial rigour and agility of news,” explained Election night director Ben Wickham.

“It’s given us a fresh perspective and pushed the election coverage to new heights, both creatively and literally.”

The AR graphics also included a data-fed 3D AR map of all constituencies; a ‘coalition builder’ graphic; an AR exit poll display; and AR banner displays of the leaders and ’ones to watch’ that scroll down from the ceiling.

The broadcaster installed a 360-degree wire strung Spyder cam inside the building to offer sweeping aerial footage to be integrated with the graphics, providing a sports-style vibe.

“We wanted to turn big internal space into a dynamic visual story telling area, pulling in live data to ensure our viewers have the information in the fastest way whilst also delivering the wow factor,” said Jason Landau, head of creative innovation at Sky who headed up the team behind the project.

Bringing together individuals from production, innovation, design, sport, news and more the project has seen all technical bases covered – with Sky’s designers working around the clock to make the AR look as realistic as possible, right down to including reflections, shadows and LED squares on the imposed graphics.

“AR isn’t a new way of storytelling, we’re just getting to a point where we understand how to use it better and make it look good,” added Landau.

Landau’s division worked closely with Harry Ward, design director at Sky News, on the branding of the graphics themselves (which were also used across digital and social),

Ward explained: “Sky News has always wanted to be ambitious with its election coverage and this is the first time we’ve met that initial expectation, partly because of the space and the opportunity we had with the graphics.”

Landau said the real-time nature of the coverage and surprise element that comes with an election meant his team had to expect the unexpected and work closely with the gallery, producers and presenters on the night to ensure it all went smoothly.

The BARB overnight viewing figures will paint a clear picture of whether Sky's efforts drew in the eyeballs they were looking for, but for Ward there are other barometers of success.

"One of the big measures will be if the next time we get an opportunity to do something like this as a creative team, whether that be the US Presidential Election or something else, the bold ideas we present [to the news team] are met with a 'hell yes' rather than a 'maybe'," he said.

"It's all about building that confidence."

Additional reporting by Imogen Watson