Monday, 25 March 2013

Some thoughts on Television Centre

(Disclaimer: I'm a BBC staff member, and these are all my own views, not of the BBC).

BBC Television Centre is finally closing its doors. The final shows were recorded there on Friday. It has ceased to be - in its current form as a wholly-owned BBC production centre and office complex at least -  and when it re-opens in 2015 after what I expect to be a considerable amount of redevelopment, it will be unrecognisable in both form and function.

You can read all about the whys in various places - but I'd like to write down my own personal views on the building and its closure, as I feel it's always been a big part of my life in one way or another.

My earliest ambition was to work for the BBC, at Television Centre, making TV programmes. Like so many proto-nerds of my generation, growing up in the 80s, it wasn't the thought of stardom itself, but the process behind the shows that looked and sounded so enthralling. Occasionally, shows like Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, Saturday Superstore (and probably Blue Peter) would swing off from the main studio action and head out, via fuzzy early portable camera technology, to the corridors, galleries and basement rooms that formed the real factory floors of television production.

It all just looked so cool, and given the state of the technology at the time, of industrial scale. Big chunky TV cameras being hauled around enormous studios. Vision mixers covered in blinking lights and buttons. Banks of videotape machines whirring spools at high speed. Adrenaline-pumped production staff hurrying around doing eighty things at once, just to get the show out. I wanted to do that! 

Fast forward 20 years or so and I enter Television Centre for the first time - not only as a massive TVC fanboy, but also as a BBC staff member. The intervening years saw me focus not on media production - short of a few media studies courses I'd rather forget - but the emergent technology of the Internet and the web, and as well as running all its TV and radio powerhouses, the Beeb has been thoughtful enough to require people who know their way around a Perl application to make their web presences work. So, although I hadn't quite fulfilled my ambition to drive a TV camera around TC1 to the letter, I wasn't a million miles off. In fact, I was right there - gazing at the curious combination of faded glamour, cost efficiency and national pride that seemed to be written into the walls of Television Centre.

That first time, I proceeded to have a raucous evening in the bar ("I'm in the BBC bar! Holy f**k! Where's Parky?") with a bunch of fellow software engineers - whilst they all wanted to chat about the latest web frameworks, I was far too starstruck to gibber about anything but doing a tour of the legendary studio observation rooms - which I subsequently did, having talked a few of them into joining me. I walked amongst the ghosts of Light Entertainment and popular culture past.

In the intervening years, although never based there, I've had meetings, workshops, celebrations and all manner of all-hands get-togethers around the building, so I got to be able too appreciate it as a place of work as well as a place to visit. It's when you worked there that the initial amazement wore off a bit - windowless meeting rooms with no network ports, naff catering, that curious feeling of neglect and lack of pride that seems to seep in to nearly all public buildings long after their initial heyday. Yet as an audience member of a recording, as any member of the public could be for free, you got to see TVC at its finest - as a centre of gravity of all that was excellent in British television production.

It's true that TVC is partially a victim of its age - many fifties buildings haven't aged that well, structurally or aesthetically. The danger of asbestos always seems to hang over it, although most of it has been (expensively) located and removed. It's not a concrete monstrosity - there is elegance in the clean brick of its front aspect, the tiled columns holding up the doughnut, the ingenuity of the flying South Hall staircase. There is less to be celebrated about the various extensions to the west over the years - the ring of prefabs that dominate the view from the Club windows - and the inevitable disappearance of the East Tower will surely only be celebrated, even (or perhaps especially) by those who worked in it.

Times change, and technology accelerates. You no longer need eight enormous studios, scenery workshops, editing suites and technical resources on-site to produce television programmes. Cameras are tiny, light, cheap and for most situations, more or less work themselves compared to the analogue monsters of yesteryear. Editing is all on PCs and laptops these days. Even playout and transmission got commodified, sold off and moved up the road (to the Broadcast Centre, the building I now work in). Production staff are mainly freelance these days, no longer a standing army of technicians and trades. Lines between editorial and production staff are getting blurrier - for better or worse.

There would be no justification for building a Television Centre today, in today's multi-platform, multi-discipline, multi-skilled world. Agile, lightweight, ad hoc, loosely-coupled - terms from my own industry of software engineering, which feel very hard to relate to a custom-built palace like TVC. No-one likes bespoke anything any more - due, I think, to the modern aversion to actually owning anything of worth in the long term.

Is it just nostalgia that makes us sad to see it go? Are we really lamenting the passing of a final link back to a heyday - of Cliff Mitchelmore, Joan Bakewell, Bob Harris, Python, Frosty, Galton & Simpson and the rest - which makes those of a certain age feel comfortable? Recent, very unpleasant uncoverings in the news have tarnished that legacy, and I'm sure there are those who consider the closure of TVC as something of a fresh start for the BBC.

I can partially get behind that, and can see the redevelopment as a chance to repurpose the building into something that will properly support the requirements of the Beeb, and other chunks of the media industry, into the future - even with the inevitable presence of retail n' flats that presumably make the overall scheme attractive to the developers. This is certainly preferable to the alternative of flogging the site off completely and blighting Shepherd's Bush and White City with yet another identicomplex of steel and glass to complement Westfield. So whilst I'm sad to see the wholly-owned BBC area pass, I'm open-minded and optimistic about whatever TVC turns out to be in two years.

I wouldn't want to live there, though. Too many ghosts.

For a hugely fascinating, in-depth, anecdote-heavy long read about the history of Television Centre, go here and lose an hour or two. 

Friday, 1 March 2013

Nearly three years later, what happened? Well, a lot. New job, bought a house, another new job again a year later, became a father. It's like I got all of the mid-30s growing up stuff done in one go. Also - you know, smartphones! Fibre broadband! Clojure! Lots of cool amazeballs technology! And it's exhausting! Go away!

Anyway, blogging about oneself is really only the domain of angsty teenagers or people with diseases these days. What I little I put out on the web publically is over on Twidder, and seeing as I only have about eight spare minutes a day to myself and nothing particularly interesting ever happens anyway, that suits me well.

Like so many, I still occasionally dream of one day having the will & way to produce more things. But I've got the hunch that the time'll come around when I'm about fifty.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Ch-ch-ch-changes (new job)

As usual, it's been a while, but people seem to be getting used to the idea of it being OK to blog only occasionally, now that (insert social networking site of choice) has cornered the market in real-time link sharing and minutiae.

I'm moving jobs soon, and it seems right to mark such tumultuous events with a bit of prose. So, soon I'll be leaving my position of Senior Product Manager within the Online Technology Group (OTG, formerly Online Media Group (OMG), formerly Digital Media Technologies (DMT)) of BBC Future Media & Technology (FM&T) to become Lead Engineer in the Prototyping team of BBC Research & Development (R&D).

WTF? You bet. None of my family really know what I do, because it takes too damn long to even explain where I work, never mind all the TLDs.

Within OTG and its former guises, I've been closely involved in the development of the huge success story that is BBC iPlayer, mainly making the audience consumption aspects of its various streaming & download platforms measurable and reportable on. No small task, given both the size and the complexity of the iPlayer offering - although primarily about streaming audio or video to your browser via Flash, there's many more additional ways to consume its content (on mobiles, games consoles, Freesat and other set top boxes, iPads, integrated televisions..) and they all need to be measured in some way so we can see how they're being used, and how popular they're becoming with audiences.

To cut a long story short, I (and subsequently the team I built) designed and built a suite of data munging & measurement products known internally as iStats, and it's those systems that ingest and produce all the data on which iPlayer's audience and business reporting is based. You can see some of the data from iStats in the press packs released here. As well as external and regulatory reporting, the data has been used for all sorts of purposes - measuring how new features perform (such as Series Catchup), debugging content delivery issues across different CDNs and ISPs, informing which new platforms to target, and feeding into product UX decisions (such as the new iPlayer v3 beta).

I'm very proud to have played a small part in the big success that is iPlayer, and I think I've progressed hugely as both a software engineer and manager over the last three years (I'm one of those weird sub-Spolsky types who likes doing both). It's time for a new set of interesting challenges, however, and I've always wanted to work across different areas of the BBC, so I have hopes that my new role will bring that. The team work on all sorts of diverse, fascinating, forward-looking things (like P2P AV delivery, real-time services, and all manner of other stuff I don't quite grok yet) across hardware and software so I'm hugely excited to be a part of it.

Of course, there's no point doing things in halves, so I'm naturally buying a house and preparing to move at the same time as all of this going on. Hmm.

Monday, 5 April 2010

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Sunday, 13 December 2009

Thoughts on Scalecamp

The other Friday I attended Scalecamp, one of these 'unconference' jobbies - organised by the Guardian. I'm not a very conference-y person, but given that I'm in the big data game and have come up against (and overcome) many a scaling problem in the past, I thought it'd be good to pop along and see what was happening.

It was certainly very well-organised, with everyone knowing what they were doing - obviously quite a few of the organisers/attendees had done this sort of thing before, whereas I hadn't. I enjoyed a few of the talks and sessions, particularly the ones that touched on Hadoop and Memcached, because they're very useful/interesting to us. Quite a lot of NoSQL data warehousing dogma floating around the industry already, which I did my best to puncture - I probably had my most interesting discussions here.

I was also quite taken aback at how few Perl hackers I met there. Bar one or two exceptions, most of whom I knew or I've worked with already, it's all about Python, Ruby, PHP and Java these days. I felt about 5,000 years old.

Any negatives? Not really - I had to skip out when the talks had finished and so missed the sponsored beers, which was a bit of a pain. Also, some nerds really need to find where their shower is. Seriously - it's not difficult. BO is very much the elephant in the room (almost literally) at any gathering of geeks. In fact, I might do a lightning talk on it at some point in the future*.

In other news, I'm worried that I've developed an allergy to certain premium brand lagers. No, really..

* This is a joke.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

It's a numbers game

I seldom talk/blog/tweet/etc about work directly, mostly because I never have the time, but I'm feeling quite proud that I can point out a couple of things I've been directly involved in in one way or another:

Jo Hamilton, Head of Audience Measurement writes on the BBC Internet Blog and shares a data pack with insights about BBC iPlayer's usage in October 2009 - a record month across all platforms.

And John Linwood (BBC FM&T CTO, AFAIK) has been sharing similar traffic and audience statistics with a great infographic.

All of the audience-oriented statistics are derived from the internal iStats data collation, warehousing and analytics system I designed, built and now product manage as part of my role in the BBC's Future Media & Technology division.

The public release of this data above is, hopefully, a step in the direction of sharing more data about how iPlayer's content gets consumed. I'd expect more data to be trickling out soon if the thirst is there.

One day I might sit down and write an 'official' blog on the detail of the system and how it works.. if anyone's interested, that is.

Note: this is a personal blog and my views aren't necessarily those of the BBC, or anyone else for that matter. Ahem.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Twonk

I like Twitter. I find it more useful now than I imagined when I signed up for it three years or so ago. For me, its usefulness began when a few close friends of mine, and some of my family, started using it in earnest. Then it became a tool for just working out where people were and what they were up to, as much as it was for stalking celebrities, getting news feeds, discovering links and feeling plugged into the zeitgeist. As nonentities and companies started flooding the service, I stayed resolutely private and felt isolated from it all, because I had my 30 or so followers who I also followed and who largely all followed each other too. More broadcast-y than instant messaging and less arduous than blogging, Twitter's always had an IRC channel vibe for me, which I really like.

(Incidentally, I dumped Facebook three or four months ago. Best move I've ever made)

Recently, though, I started wondering if I've been missing out on the other ways of using it and consuming the nonsense it could potentially push to me, so I renamed by private account and created a public account as well, so I could use that to follow the few public figures and news bots I'm vaguely interested in, and possibly start talking about non-whingey work stuff in a more involved way. The private account remains for all necessary cathartism and gossiping.

So what do I make of the wider Twitter universe, outside of my imposed bubble? Well, first impressions aren't necessarily good. I see a lot of:

  • Self-appointed 'social media expert' types, grinning out from their avatars in a state of perpetual self-satisfaction, waiting for the gravy train to pull in at the next stop
  • Comedians continually whoring out their latest non-hilarious endeavours
  • Spates of irritating hashtag trends - #movieswithunemployedpeople, etc
  • Masses and masses of linkspam, which is what tumblr is bloody for
  • General pushy careerist types being quite mean and rude about other people
And so on. The linkspam thing is the most interesting one, though. I've seen it happen every time a new fad comes along - users just leap on it and funnel everything they want to say, share or play with through it. Maybe Twitter is just too simple, too useful to people to stay within its original constraints, and an inevitable part of mass acceptance are the antipatterns above (and more).