BBC iPlayer Local Radio Integration
Local Radio: You are waiting for one, then along come 40 all at once...
In the depths of Fortress BBC, BBC Nations and Regions (part of BBC Journalism) is proud to announce that we have finally unleashed the hounds of Local Radio into BBC iPlayer and beyond. (Also see this post from James Hewines).
Local Radio integration has been a long time coming and here is some background describing why this has been complicated to deliver.
Previously the Pop-up radio player was driven by a feed derived from our EPG metadata called What's On (editor's note; see this post about the closure of What's On).
This feed was limited in the format it was produced in and the richness of the data within it so was being switched off. Priority number one therefore was to find a new and more appropriate way to generate this data which could also be integrated with BBC iPlayer, /programmes and other services.
The data required to drive services like BBC iPlayer is more detailed than that required for an EPG, and make no mistake that metadata is expensive to look after. And if you don't look after it, caress it and love it, like a badly behaved MetaPet it will just as likely bite you on the MetaBum. So the challenge was, how do you create all the metadata required to feed a rich and structured metadata standard across a huge number of local radio stations in a cost effective way?
Bear in mind that different Local Radio stations have varied levels of support, depending on the size of the operation and the scale of BBC presence in the local area where they are based. This means that schedules were provided in a variety of different formats from each station. A cost effective way of pulling all this together was required, and a gateway to publish this information onwards needed to be built.
The answer was to look at establishing a more centralised schedule collation service and use a tool from Unique Interactive to bring together a more detailed schedule. This tool was used for driving some of our EPG and DAB text data for radio, but the opportunity was there to do more.
Suddenly of course, you will see we are no longer purely in the land of software. We are now into setting up new processes, re-engineering the business chain and finding people to use these tools to put together a consolidated data view of a Local Radio schedule which could drive interactive services. This is an area in which I am aware of the challenges after my Tour of Duty on BBC iPlayer. Designing the metadata is only part of the problem - you need to push back into the content production chain the process of creating and managing the metadata to make it consistent, reliable, relevant, etc. It's not easy and it takes a lot of effort and commitment.
Ian Myatt, who has been one of the driving forces behind this development, would say this, if he were here...
The migration of all 40 local radio stations is a massive achievement that has involved numerous teams across the BBC. We've had to take a detailed look at scheduling processes across the stations and introduced a more consistent approach with minimum disruption to existing workflows. Our Birmingham based New Media Support Team now receive weekly schedules from all our stations and are responsible for entering details onto a scheduling tool that then feeds directly into the programme information system behind /programmes and BBC iPlayer
So much for technology then. Most of this is about people and process.
Pulling all this schedule data together can now be controlled and managed centrally in a single tool for all these stations. Where does it go next?
A bit of background on Schedules. Schedules can have a very long lifespan, being planned many months in advance of TX (transmission) so schedules tend to evolve over time. The level of detail increases as you get nearer to TX based on what you know about the content of programme slots in the schedule.
As TX gets closer, there are key points when data in a schedule has to be taken as a snapshot for publications such as Radio Times and further points where it has to be published to other systems. But it might change right down to the moment a programme is broadcast and an audit process (Checking the As-Run) is used to make sure that the programme that went out was the one that we said we would broadcast. Sometimes programmes can get pulled at the last minute for reasons such as sporting events over running or breaking news.
At appropriate points, the data is synchronised from the Unique EPG Client to a central server which follows a delicate path to work through BBC Information Security restrictions. This data is then processed and sent back to PIPs, our home for Programme information, in a format it can process and understand. It can then be tweaked and managed using the Programme Information Tool which allows this data to be changed directly in PIPs as necessary. This includes making sure the data is accurate and that all the programme relationships to other data are correct. There's some info about PIPs here.
So it takes quite a lot of work to get here, but once you are the rest of the publishing chain is automatic. Programmes and data appear in iPlayer based on the metadata provided to this point, and here you can see the importance of getting the data reliable and consistent. For example if you spell programme names wrong, put the wrong genre against programmes or a series is not linked together then it automatically appears wrong to the end user. The importance of metadata is very apparent to the end user, thought they may not care to know much about it.
Finally you ask, where is the programme itself?
Well compared to the changes for metadata production, the media chain looks quite simple. Currently Local Radio follows the same process as it has previously and is mostly recorded off air into Real format by a system called BOB which lives in a semi detached house in Maidenhead. We will be changing this process soon to produce more formats for Local Radio, firstly to bring it into line with other audio programming as MP3 / Flash format.
A final interesting thought is that this process allows us an easier way to push information about non-broadcast material into PIPs. This could mean that content not in a TV schedule, such as the highlights package for a Football Match can be linked to the actual match as a version of the programme, making it easier to group together News and Sport programmes more effectively. For example, linking together:
- a programme (e.g. a football match)
- versions of programmes (e.g. highlights)
- segments of programmes (e.g. a goal)
- and clips related to programmes (e.g. interviews after a match).
The power of more metadata has yet to be realised.
So here they all are, a beauty parade of 40 new stations in iPlayer, publishing /programmes data and more to follow...
Hereford and Worcester
John O'Donovan is Chief Architect, BBC FM&T Journalism