At the heart of Sky’s 2017 election coverage is their Sky 250 project.
The project puts the broadcaster live at 250 declarations across the country, from Witney to the Western Isles, and from Hastings to Hartlepool.
Sky 250 builds on Sky’s world record-breaking coverage of the 2015 election, which put them at 150 declarations. That project took over a year to organise, this time they had just seven weeks to do it all again – but bigger.
Overseeing the organisation of the Sky 250 project is Valerie Hamill, who has been tasked with recruiting over 300 personnel, organising the tech and liaising with 150 count locations.
“It’s a bit of a logistical nightmare,” she laughs. “There’s a lot of problem solving.”
They are not small problems..
In 2015, Sky toured the country, recruiting students to man the counts on the night. This time, however, there just has not been the time.
Instead, course leaders at the top universities for journalism and production have put forward their best students to cover the results. “They’ve been really tech-savvy and enthusiastic,” Hamill says of her new recruits.
Some of the students have come from a little closer to home. Hamill has recruited her cousin to cover one of the counts in Northern Ireland, and Tony, a Masters student doing work experience at the Sky, is covering the Angus count in his native Scotland. “It seems like a really good way for Sky to utilise students for the election broadcast,” he says. “It’s good for Sky and it’s good for them.”
The students have been sent a kit that allows them to broadcast their footage live using mobile connectivity. It’s a blend of the super high-tech, and the less complex.
“They’re given these really simple camera kits: a very flimsy little tripod, a little handycam and a fancy bit of kit called a LiveU,” Hamill explains. And how do the students flag the attention of Sky HQ when a count is about to be declared? “In a very high-tech way,” laughs Hamill. “Waving a red card in front of the camera that we have included in their kits…”
The footage they send back will form the backdrop of the set on the night as well as featuring on the Sky News app. “It’s impressive,” she promises. “It makes our coverage over the course of the evening [look] immediate and buzzy.”
However, with those tiny kits, the students will be going up against the might of the BBC and ITN. Hamill admits, “You do feel a bit silly. You’re putting this flimsy little kit together, and it broadcasts amazingly – you have great broadcast pictures – but you’re up against the BBC with their cast of thousands.”
The Sky 250 project is part of Sky’s effort to get out into the country. The shock of the 2015 election and the EU referendum were, Hamill says, “a wake-up call to our London bubble, and I think Sky has responded to that well. [It] has put more resources into the regions as a result of that - getting away from experts or spokespeople…” she adds, echoing Michael Gove’s infamous line that people have “had enough of experts.”
Geographical spread is one of the criteria by which election night editor Nick Phipps chose the spots Sky would broadcast from. Other considerations were marginal seats, the time they are due to declare (in order to get a good spread throughout the night), and whether there are any interesting stories or characters that make a result interesting.
However, the nature of the election has meant that those locations are constantly changing – a nightmare for Hamill and her team who then need to move stringers around and check that the new location works with their technology.
As she explains the intricacies of the technology, election night editor Phipps walks past: “Did you get my email about the changes? Sorry. That should be all for now…” he apologises.
Certain counts are more trouble than others. UKIP stronghold Thanet is a particular problem, Hamill explains, due to poor signal. “We always want to be there, [but] everyone’s like ‘uh, not Thanet again…’”
“We’re going to erect [a mobile phone mast] just for us,” jokes Head of Cameras Ed Bayliss, with whom Hamill is ensuring that the camera kits for the students work. In 2015, compiling the technology took weeks, Bayliss explains. This year they had eight days to pack the boxes and send them around the country.
On the night, Hamill will be one of ten Sky producers monitoring 150 live streams (15 per person) and passing the most interesting ones to Chris Howard, who acts as the go-between for Sky 250 and the gallery. “It’s a great big funnel,” explains election night director Jon Bennett, “[the producers] hone it down to what we call the Fab Four. Those are the feeds which come to the gallery.”
One of the hallmarks of Sky’s election coverage is its commitment to peeling back the covers on what goes on behind the scenes by building its technology in sight of the cameras. For Hamill, this means that she and nine of her fellow 250 producers will be back of shot throughout the night. “We have to behave,” she laughs, “I usually gesticulate wildly.”
This interview is part of the RTS series Inside Sky's Election Campaign. For more interviews from key Sky News figures, visit the series homepage.
Photos courtesy of Sky News, Valerie Hamill & Ed Bayliss.