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Under the Bonnet of Glastonbury Online Coverage

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Tim Clarke | 12:10 UK time, Thursday, 2 July 2009

Glastonbury 2009 is over.

The event we started planning in November last year rushed by like a dream, albeit one featuring bizarre looking giraffes and elephants. Yet the blisters and wonderful videos, radio, photos and copy testify that something quite amazing happened over that long weekend at Worthy Farm, Pilton.


Glastonbury is the World Cup Finals of music on the BBC. It's the biggest, most challenging and rewarding event we cover. Yet we limit the number of people we bring so tightly that the hours worked verge on unhealthy. There's even a term called 'Sunday head' in the BBC compound. The effects are comparable to a lack of oxygen to the brain. I lost the ability to remember numbers for more than two seconds: pure exhaustion.

So how do these performances get from the stages to the website?

It starts with highly skilled producers, directors, camera crews, sound engineers, editors and production crews familiarising themselves with each of the artists' material and shows. They then plan how these will be staged, filmed and delivered to base, via talented engineering and production managers.

Photo courtesy of Donald Begg

All industrial strength kit comes down to the farm a few days before the event. Once this is set up and various satellites are pointed at the sky, the production teams arrive each with one or many vital tasks; be it film unit manager, studio engineer, presenter or cameraperson. My interactive teams, and the rest of the TV and Radio operations, do a lot of testing and set up on the Thursday so they can hit the ground running on Friday. The aim is to 'fail fast', make sure you know something isn't working before you go on air or online.

Once the music starts on the stages, the sweet elixir of Glastonbury performances starts to flow down the BBC pipes to the good folks of Britain. Here's how. Footage in high definition video and lossless audio go into digital storage systems, where they get edited for TV shows, radio shows and red button. Approved edits are sent down the line to London for broadcast. We also contract a team to grab red button performance material and format it for the web. There's about a four-hour turnaround from the band coming off stage and the material getting online. If we do have delays, it's normally down to swearing needing to be edited out or technical issues with sound quality.

A major innovation for online this year was the 6 Music webcam. We'd tried something similar for Radio 1's Big Weekend in May, so tried to build on what we learned there. We had a number of cameras in the tiny 6 Music studios behind the Pyramid stage where the likes of Steve Lamacq, Lauren Laverne and Adam & Joe were broadcasting. These allowed people to see guests, understand visual references and catch the odd acoustic session.

Adam & Joe on 6 Music webcams kit

Added to this, we had a video camera overlooking the Pyramid stage and the Park area all weekend. This aimed to put the broadcasts in context as well as give people something interesting to view while tracks were played. Heavy traffic delays on Wednesday after some accidents and a power outage during Thursday night's thunderstorm set us a back a bit more than we would have liked. This meant we didn't get our Pyramid view and Park view webcams up until later on Friday.

I'm going to pre-empt a question I know will be asked about the webcams: why not show the performances live? Simply, the BBC's commitment to taste and decency (mainly in this case, the need to avoid swearing or to provide appropriate guidance where necessary), plus reluctance from some artists to have all their material shown live, would have made this a patchy offering. As it turned out, audiences inundated us with wonderful praise as the 6 Music presenters really got into the swing. Adam & Joe's portraits were especially amusing and Julie Cullen's dancing during songs brought viewers the spirit of Wigan Casino.

One of Sarah Barney's awesome photographs

Apart from the videos, we also have some superb photographers who create our photo galleries. We also put effort into twittering and blogging at the festival. These elements help to tell the story of the event and unearth the atmosphere on site. Meanwhile, our photo editors and web production teams are recognised as having the most gruelling jobs in the interactive cabin. Unlike most websites covering the event, we handcode our pages, using some in-house tools to short-cut gallery creation. We take this approach because few of the BBC's online production tools work well outside of our offices and it also gives us the flexibility to adapt to changing needs on the fly. Things are likely to improve next year with the BBC's new technical infrastructure and dynamic events work by our technology teams.

There's been quite a debate on the message boards and on comments on the Glastonbury website about the amount of material we showed at the weekend. Along with my colleagues in TV and Radio, we share passion for music: that's why we devote our careers to it. We would love to show more music from more stages on the Glastonbury website, but the technical limitations of achieving this and the artistic requirements of bands prevent us from doing so. However, I am extremely proud of what we all created this weekend: coverage of more performances than you will ever see in any other festival broadcast on this planet. I salute the amazing devotion of my colleagues and thank you all for experiencing the greatest show on earth with us.

Tim Clarke is the Senior Content Producer of BBC Online's major music event websites



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