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Torch relay challenge for BBC broadcast output

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Roger Mosey | 11:01 UK time, Friday, 25 May 2012

Now as promised - here's the second guest blog this week about the torch relay and the way it's being broadcast. It's from Imelda Flattery in BBC News, who's been leading the planning of our coverage.

Usually you know where you stand with a big news event. Last year's royal wedding took place at Westminster Abbey.

End of. It didn't up sticks every 10 minutes and set itself alight.

The torch relay is something different. Live events often perambulate at a stately pace over a short distance.

They involve world leaders or Popes waving serenely to the crowd as they pass. Not the relay though. It's relentless.

So how do you provide non-stop live coverage of something that's the duration of about 280 marathons stitched end-to-end?

Conventional TV trucks and outside broadcast vehicles work well at static positions along the relay but each will only give you a short window of coverage. Once the torchbearer has passed you, you're old news.

Helicopter cameras are another option and although we will use them occasionally, flying one for 12+ hours a day for 70 days isn't a cost-effective solution.

A satellite dish on the roof of the vehicle was also considered. Fine for big open spaces but the signal goes once you've passed a building or even a tree.

Picture of media vehicle

A reverse view of torchcam with photographers seated underneath, ready to capture the action

In the end we went for 3G as it seemed to give us what we needed. Network coverage and drop-outs aside, it's not without issues.

When the relay travels to Ireland, for instance, we have to use Irish sims to avoid roaming charges.

So what about the cameras? The only way to get the shots we wanted was to embed the live cameras with the relay so they moved with the torchbearers, telling a story while they gave the viewer a tour of the UK.

To achieve this, one of the vehicles in Locog's convoy has been set up as a mobile broadcast unit. A converted horsebox, It's been fitted with the three cameras and technical equipment that make up BBC torchcam.

The rear camera gives you the classic torchbearer running shot. It needed to deal with all that the UK's roads could throw at it, from speed humps to potholes, so we picked a gyrostabilised camera usually used to cover yacht races.

Close shot of torchcam in vehicle

A "real" cameraman and the electronic one work side-by-side

A second camera on the roof of the vehicle gives great wide views of crowds and scenery and the third, front facing, "convoy mode" camera shows you the road ahead (and, on occasion, a minibus with two bikes strapped the the back of it).

During months of testing, we put the horsebox and the cameras through their paces at the test track used by our colleagues at Top Gear.

At one point members of BBC torch team were doing a simulated relay with planks of wood borrowed from a building site instead of torches.

Some of the kit we're using was still in bubblewrap a month ago and had never been used to broadcast. A week into the relay, we're still tweaking things as we go.

Torchcam is never going to work everywhere. The lack of 3G in some areas of the UK and contention in others make it impossible to achieve total coverage.

The crowds have made the story, but have also made the story a challenge to cover for television and radio.

Getting stuck in the traffic that builds up behind the relay has led to a few hairy moments as camera crews and reporters try to hit their editing deadlines or attempt to get to the next live broadcast position along the route.


  • Comment number 1.

    I think the torch relay coverage has been excellent - letting the pictures, speak for themselves.

    Congratulations to all involved !

  • Comment number 2.

    This time last Saturday week I spent all day watching the Torch Relay. I got very emotional about the whole thing and felt very proud. It was and it remain very very additive. Yes there are some technical issues and loss of picture ( occasionally) but having read what's required and the process of the "live transmission" I NOW understand the mechanics of what's involved to bring about the "live" pictures.

    On a closing note: The GOOD WEATHER and the CROWDS have made the Olympic Torch Relay SO very special and as a proud Black British Caribbean lady , I applaud the first ceremonial event re the Olympics in our Country. Hope it doesn't rain between now and end Mid September ( asking for a lot I know) AS that would be LUSH.

  • Comment number 3.

    That's my wife following the camera truck in Abergavenny. It was a very proud moment and a great atmosphere. I hope the anti Olympic brigade will now go away - literally.

  • Comment number 4.

    I admit that the on-line coverage is great, But it still doesn't answer the red button question which I posted in your last entry

  • Comment number 5.

    Thanks for comments #1, 2, 3.

    @usernamefood in #4: we made the home of the Torchcam because (a) the technical side of the operation as explained by Imelda and Mark made that the most suitable platform; and (b) we have very limited Red Button space on services such as Freeview. That said, we're continuing to look at options for later in the Relay and we'll keep you posted.

  • Comment number 6.

    Sorry if this seems a stupid question - can I watch the previous day's coverage at all? I went to watch the torch as it came through my locality but I'd love to now see it on the screen. Watching the live broadcast is really captivating, hats off to all involved!

  • Comment number 7.

    @Crumb: you will be able to, yes - but a little later in the Relay.

  • Comment number 8.

    Damn flawed technology. Not only do us folk living in so called rural areas miss out on the broadband coverage of the games themselves when the torch is in the area we can't even watch the Torchcam due to it relying on 3G!

    Must praise the BBC Wales programme last Friday - a superb effort with my only quibble being the low quality pics from Torch Cam not being of broadcast quality. The support for the torch shown in the last couple of weeks shows the BBC really should stop approaching their coverage from the position of defence and not compromise their coverage of a once in a lifetime event to appease those who can watch "their programmes" over the following 210 weeks pretty much uninterrupted.

  • Comment number 9.

    @Brekkie: not defensive, promise. I'm delighted we made the long-term decision to invest in the Torch Relay when there were plenty of sceptics around. But for the reasons Imelda sets out, it would have been massively expensive and difficult to use any other technology - and so far 3G has at least delivered what was predicted.

  • Comment number 10.

    First of all congratulations to the BBC on amazing coverage so far of the Torch Relay, how inspiring and moving so many of the stories behind the Torchbearers and what an advertisement for the English countryside in all its glory.Please can we have a lot more Red button coverage for the Olympic torch relay ( I just saw the 3 days in Scotland announced), this amazing one off event has caught the imagination of the whole country and surely deserves prime coverage especially for elderly people without internet access to the web cam. John Green

  • Comment number 11.

    And stepping away from the broadcast angle what has amazed me about the torch relay is how it's not actually really a celebration of the Olympics - it's a celebration of every town and city it is visiting and has certainly shown Wales off brilliantly in the last week or so.

    Good to see coverage expanding to the red button to - it would be nice to see other regions special programmes there too.

  • Comment number 12.

    Hi Roger,
    I commented on a few blogs back in March asking about whether the BBC were going to waive the licence fee for Olympics events in local communities - I'm still chasing the answer and wonder if you've got any further.

    We are looking to put on events to gather the local community to watch the opening and closing ceremonies and have a community fun day on Super Saturday with the Olympics being screen in the background. We want these to be free events and ideally would like to not have to organise a licence just for these events.

    I know last year the licence fee was waived for the royal wedding to encourage community groups to gather and celebrate a major occasion in British history - the main Olympics events would seem to me to fall into the same category of historic moments for our nation.

    I'd be grateful if you could get back to me on this as we are fast approaching the opening ceremony!


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