CIG recently held an exciting visit to the BBC Archives at Salford. Thanks to attendee Simon Green for the following report and photos:
The BBC’s premises at Manchester (or strictly speaking, Salford) occupy three large buildings at Media City UK, a locality which also includes buildings occupied by ITV, and a large studio complex which is shared by the BBC and ITV. The BBC’s three buildings are known as Bridge House, Quay House and Dock House, and we visited the first two of them. Among the BBC departments which are now wholly or partly in Manchester are Sport, Breakfast News, Children’s programmes, BBC Learning and Radio 5 Live. These all moved from London, but the BBC’s North West region, which also included Religious programmes, Entertainment programmes and various network radio shows also moved from Oxford Road to Salford Quays. More than 2,000 staff now work there.
Here is a view of the BBC Archives section within Quay House. The BBC’s main Archive section is at Perivale in West London, serving the BBC’s London departments, so the Archives at Salford Quays serve the departments based there. We were shown round by two of their staff—Jeremy and Jane.
The BBC’s long term goal is to establish a unified Central Digital Archive, but currently there are a number of separate programme archive databases. We were introduced to Jupiter, which covers television news, Discovery, which covers radio programmes, and Fabric, which covers television programmes, but which has failed to reach its full potential.
As well as archiving and indexing all their current broadcast output, the BBC also retain for a certain length of time the ‘rushes’, which are the raw material from which the programmes are compiled.
It might be thought that the BBC would always have retained copies of its radio and television output, but this is by no means the case— for example, it is well-known that many episodes of Dr Who were not kept because the videotape, which was expensive, was reused. Even radio programmes were only retained selectively until the 1990s.
We asked if they had any plans to make the indexes and the programmes themselves accessible to the public via the internet, but they informed us that they didn’t at present. There would be rights issues to consider—for example, the reuse of images from past Olympic Games is strictly controlled by the organisers.
Given that the production of many radio and TV programmes is now outsourced to independent companies, I asked if the staff of these firms had access to the BBC Archives. I was informed that they did, but currently only by paying a visit to the BBC’s premises, not remotely from their own offices.
Programmes are now recorded on camera cards, which are similar to the SD cards used in amateur cameras, but significantly larger and more expensive. Two formats mentioned were CF cards (= Compact Flash) and SxS cards (pronounced S by S). For archiving programmes, they use LTO tape cartridges (= Linear Tape-Open). We saw some of these stored in boxes on mobile shelving.
The editing suites at the BBC Salford Quays have been outsourced to a separate firm, known as The Farm North. We were rather baffled by the regular references which our guides made to ‘The Farm’, until this was explained to us. One of the media managers, Holly, is actually ‘embedded’ in The Farm, which seems to be something of a mixed metaphor!
Those of us who grew up with video tape recorders will remember that VHS once had a rival format known as Betamax, which lost out to VHS, so far as the consumer market was concerned. Well, Betamax remained popular for professional recording, and in fact the BBC have an extensive archive of programmes on Betamax tape. However, they are now finding it very hard to procure replacement parts as and when their Betamax players wear out! Many of these tapes have now been digitised.
The buildings which we visited use the currently fashionable atrium layout—here are some photos taken looking up into or down from the galleries.