Television journalists and technical staff in the South West have adapted quickly to new ways of working in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Daisy Griffith, head of TV News and Online, BBC South West, told the RTS in a webinar how she had endured “a baptism of fire”, having only started in the job one week before lockdown.
“It’s been a period of radical change,” she said during an RTS Devon and Cornwall session in May chaired by Simon Willis. “There was an enormous amount of anxiety at the beginning of this. A lot of people were really, really fearful.”
But “little by little” most of her staff were soon working from home. “By the end of the first week (of lockdown) I’d made a lot of changes,” said Griffith.
BBC South West’s Plymouth newsroom normally houses up to 80 employees. It now has nine people and the tranquil atmosphere is palpable. “It’s lovely, really calm with loads of space. A lot of people haven’t been back in the building since that first week.”
New ways of working have been introduced with interviews done via Skype – a much more cost-effective and efficient way of doing things than undertaking a 300-odd mile round road trip in a region that extends to the Scilly Isles, and embraces Devon and Cornwall, the Channel Islands, west Dorset and west Somerset.
One of the swiftest innovations was to change the daily breakfast show to a one-presenter format, rather than the traditional two, in order to reflect social distancing rules.
BBC South West has become a vital point of information and reassurance for local people, especially the vulnerable, during the epidemic. Griffith told the story of how an 81-year-old man had called in to say that he had been told to order his food online but did not have internet access. A member of staff stepped in and organised the delivery for him.
“I think it’s completely appropriate that the BBC should do anything it can to help people during the crisis,” she said. “It shouldn’t be limited to making programmes or putting stories on our website. The BBC is a public service.”
Audiences have shot up during the pandemic. Before the crisis one in three people in the South West watched the nightly news programme, Spotlight. This has increased to 51% of the population.
Younger audiences have been tuning in too – with one in three 18-34- year olds watching the show. These figures were unprecedented, said Griffith. In future, she said Spotlight would try hard to retain these younger viewers and think hard about what sort of stories are likely to appeal to them.
She also predicted that once things start to return to normal, some of the new working methods are likely to remain in place, including less travel, Skype interviews and more home working.
The webinar also heard from Rick Horne, head of facilities at Plymouth-based Twofour, and also Chair of RTS Devon and Cornwall. He explained how lockdown had transformed the way TV is edited and compiled from home.
Twenty-four cutting rooms had been replicated in technicians’ homes. “We are all very creative, quick thinking people and have been able to step up and make it work, but it has been challenging,” said Horne. “It’s time-consuming and involves a lot of communication. Working in isolation is not good.”