BBC Studios executives explain to Adrian Pennington how they brought a “a chunk of British summer” from a field in England to audiences across radio, TV and iPlayer.
With more than 40 hours of TV plus 85 hours of live radio in addition to digital streams from the five biggest festival stages, Glastonbury 2023 delivered record coverage live from Worthy Farm. For the BBC teams assigned to produce it, however, Glasto is far more than one giant promo.
“It is a massive commitment from the BBC in terms of cash and time on air and a reflection of just how important Glastonbury is as an arts festival to the culture of the nation,” said Peter Taylor, BBC Studios, Head of Operations. “We don’t think it’s possible to tell the story of Glastonbury from just one point of view. An arts festival this big is experienced by people in so many different ways so it’s our job to try and give a flavour of that for those who can’t be there.”
Taylor has been involved in the BBC’s Glastonbury productions for the last twenty years. He and Alison Howe, Executive Producer for BBC Studios, work on the event on and off all year round.
Build of the operation including track ways, fencing and production offices, is installed two weeks out, but the technical outside broadcast rig only rocks up on the Tuesday before beginning broadcast on Thursday evening. Even then it can take 5-6 hours for OB trucks to travel from the entrance gate to their correct position.
This year’s presentation operation was delivered by festival stalwarts Timeline TV. Its largest scanner on site handled presentation for BBC One and BBC Two. A second Timeline truck managed prez for BBC Three and Four and a smaller one was dedicated to iPlayer. It supplied two radio cameras for coverage across the site and a roving cable camera for filming in the Pyramid stage pit. Timeline also supplied cameras for the presentation positions including at The Park, a near Worthy Farm looking over the Pyramid stage a teepee in the main broadcast hub used primarily for iPlayer presentation.
“It is an enormous machine,” said Gareth Wildman, Timeline’s Head of OB. “If you break it all down no individual part is particularly complicated but the scale of it is considerable when you consider how much we are broadcasting from a farm in a field.”
New to 2023, and following a tender for the operation, are Cloudbass which provided OB facilities for three stages including the Pyramid, and Vivid Broadcast which had responsibility for Woodsies (formerly John Peel) and The Park stages.
Feeds from all five broadcast stages were fed to Timeline’s hub on-site for production. The editing operation on site from four Avid suites included production of all non-live content clipped into various programmes and dotted throughout the weekend’s TV schedule. For this, Origin Broadcast supplied EVS systems and trucks.
The entire site is ringed with a fibre network first installed in 2013. “One thing I’ve learned is that farmers like to move dirt around and dig holes and fill them in,” said Taylor. “Our fibre infrastructure has been hit on many occasions by a tractor ripping it out.”
That was reinstalled last winter along with a whole back up circuit both of which are managed on site by Timeline. Twenty-two circuits comprising various stage feeds are transferred offside over two diverse IP networks to Bristol and to London for transmission (backed up by a satellite uplink managed by Timeline).
The connectivity also handled talkback between stages and carried BBC radio audio back to its on-site hub. Bandwidth is also shared with festival (for internet access and electronic payment) as data transfer across the whole site has become much more important.
“The upgrade to the fibre network features more connections to various places and some relocation of fibre termination points,” said Wildman. “The festival is quite organic. Things change all the time.”
Behind the Scenes: Glastonbury 2023 - Handling UHD HDR
All coverage of the Pyramid stage, which hosted headliners Arctic Monkeys, Guns N’ Roses and Elton John, is UHD HDR to feed the dedicated UHD channel on iPlayer which first launched in 2022.
“Since the majority of viewers are still HD we have to make sure the picture quality is maintained for that audience,” said Taylor. “This will likely stay the same for many years. We’ve only just moved off SD for some areas.”
“The important thing is that the pictures are racked and exposed for those viewers watching in HD SDR but the benefits of extra colour and extra exposure is available for those watching in UHD.”
A BBC developed LUT is applied to the UHD signal which is then down converted for HD viewers. The same workflow was used for the Coronation and major sports events.
“It’s becoming normal but still requires some extra work and quite a lot of additional kit to make it work,” Taylor said. “If you get the core right then the peripheral will sort itself out.”
Each stage also had its own giant screen display operated by teams separate to the BBC. This featured shots from additional cameras but resources are shared in order to keep the amount of infrastructure down.
“Rather than filling the venue with extra cameras there’s a lot of interchange,” Taylor said. “There’s an awful lot of conversion and monitoring between what we are able to take from them and what we give to them to cut into their mix.”
The quality of pictures from the Pyramid stage has improved since the introduction of HDR. The stage faces away from the sun and has traditionally proved tricky to film.
“It’s a black box into which the camera points,” said Taylor. “When you come wide it is completely silhouetted by a sunset - which can look absolutely glorious but honing those pictures so that they convey what’s going on onstage while exposing for the sun is not without its challenges. The teams we work with are used to that and HDR makes it zing even more.”
Others stages present the reverse problem with a huge amount of sunlight shining directly into it so the audience are backlit. “If you think of those festival shots of hands in the air, waving flags on a lovely summer’s afternoon, that is what people are tuning in for,” Taylor said. “A chunk of British summer.”
Behind the Scenes: Glastonbury 2023 - ‘Vanilla’ camera plan
Glastonbury’s reputation has grown as coverage has expanded. Last year Sir Paul McCartney’s performance on BBC One reached a peak audience of 3.9 million and Diana Ross’ performance peaked at 3.8 million. Although the ‘authored’ programming on the main channels remains solid, it is streaming which shows the event’s televisual future. Last year’s event saw record-breaking digital audiences. Streams increased by 116% on iPlayer and 205% on BBC Sounds, up from 2019.
There are around 64 official BBC cameras on site which is not dissimilar from previous years. Acts on the Pyramid stage are recorded with 12 cameras which a few of the headline acts may augment with a few cameras of their own.
“Because there are so many different acts and stages we have to have kit that works for any band. So, each stage has a ‘vanilla camera set up’ if you like.”
Howe hints at some “additional toys” this year but the Glasto team are generally more restricted in terms of camera gear than at a major sports venue. There’s no wirecam, for example, due to health and safety.
“I quite like not having a zillion cameras,” Howe said. “Glastonbury coverage operates on a level appropriate to the environment we are in. Its position in the landscape with the artists and the crowd lends Glastonbury a unique visual festival. We want the viewer at home to feel part of it and when you have the right operators and right directors you don’t need lots of tricks to do that.”
The camera and director teams cover ten bands per day on each stage. “When each new band comes on stage it should feel like a new chapter in the story of Glastonbury 2023,” said Taylor. “For us, just as important as capturing the artists themselves is capturing the interaction that happens between a band and the audience. We want it to feel very much a live event feel.
“We also have teams filming everything away from the stages such as the Kidzfield (for under 12s) or the Greenpeace Field or any of the myriad other elements on the site.”
Behind the Scenes: Glastonbury 2023 - Sound mix with artist involvement
Because the scale of the live broadcast across radio and TV the Glastonbury production uses one stereo sound mix which is produced by BBC Radio. Even the UHD channel can only deliver in stereo but as Taylor points out, “what would you gain by having 5.1 or Atmos audio through rear speakers? That’s the bit you don’t want to hear, the audience coughing and cracking open a beer.”
Representatives from the acts regularly join the BBC sound mobile truck to advise on what their artist expect.
“More artists want to spend more time on the prep with us each year because it’s important to everybody concerned that Glastonbury is a success,” said Howe. “Some artists want to talk through every element and join rehearsals and have a lot of meeting and specify things. Those acts in the middle of major touring schedule tend to be ‘in the zone’ while others performing live as a one off will approach it differently.”
Behind the Scenes: Glastonbury 2023 - Summer solstice – what could go wrong?
After a hiatus during the 1990s when Channel 4 took over (recorded) coverage the BBC has had a quarter of a century of uninterrupted broadcast of the festival. It’s a valuable relationship said Howe.
“The BBC team is part of the whole festival now so if one of our team find’s themselves in a tricky situation – say, the weather renders transport from one area to another difficult - we know who to call,” said Taylor. “We’re not seen as outsiders being a nuisance.”
The Summer Solstice was on Wednesday 21 June to give the whole festival an added vibe that the Gods are shining down.
“I’ve done enough Glastonbury’s to realise you can’t [rely on] the weather but so much effort goes into the show from so many people you want that last little element to tie it all together,” Howe said.
“It would just be nice if the weather joined in.” Fortunately for the team – and the festival-goers - the glorious weather held for the weekend – wellies not required this year!