Hounslow industrial complex is a collection of s dull, grey buildings on the outskirts of London. Until you step inside.
Beyond the reception area is a giant open plan studio/office. The centre of the room is a gravitational field; all the hard work ends up here at some point. There is a circular desk with multi-dimensional cameras with the ability to pan and orbit around the central subject – Anna Jones. To the left of her desk is a set of couches, polar opposite sits a raised platform where the newsreader can stage interactive video-links on a 20-foot television rig.
The real work of the producers, directors, sound engineers, cameraman, live journalists, silent journalists, researchers, developers, editors, technical advisors and app makers – it all takes place within four walls. The runners pace back and forth between office spaces like comets from planet to planet in a solar system.
To avoid being caught by the 24-hour rolling live cameras there are walkways raised above the studio. These pedestrian zones lead to other filming nooks and editing crannies. The runner will take one sheet of paper to one writer who will then transfer it on to an editor, forwarded on to the producer and then it will be displayed in front of the newsreader for the world to hear.
Sky News is a smoothly running, efficient operation “if one link in the chain broke the entire thing could fall apart”.
The Head of Foreign News Sarah Whitehead explains to Coventry University students that even the shift changeovers are effortless.
“I haven’t been here long so I’m not best at it yet, but the changeover happens at 6.30. These people have been in since 6.30 this morning and their replacement comes in at 6.20 runs them through the notes and emails and it keeps going.”
For a station that’s online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, creating a seamless transition is essential for the viewers who pay close attention.
“The only complaints we get are at 9 o’clock when some people are going home and there may be background noise, apart from that it’s a fairly quiet work environment. Everyone is aware it’s a live studio.”
Compared to the BBC studios, many of them pokey little buildings that have needed renovating for 20 years, Sky has the edge on style and efficiency – two things that come at a great price.
“It’s definitely a loss-leader, but all news is.”
Despite the ‘effortless’ and smooth exterior of the uninterrupted news network Whitehead acknowledges the level of effort required to complete this job, day-in, day out.
“It’s a big commitment, but this job is the best in the world. You need energy, you need to be passionate about news and you need to know what you want to do.”
Sky is the biggest private news rival to the BBC, and in the world. It is the current epitome of State Vs Private ownership. The Murdoch’s latest scandal has had literally no effect on the BSkyB Company – at least from a 24-hour news perspective. They are still competing.
When asked about the competition that drives the new Head of Foreign News “If it comes down to if we’ve got the story first, or if we’ve got to wait to get it right, we have to wait to get it right”. Unlike the publicly funded broadcaster, they are not afraid to spend money to make it right. “I’ve gone a bit over budget for this week, I’ve probably spent around £60,000” Whitehead said on a Wednesday.
From a personal and individual standpoint no journalist may harbour strong feelings about who gets to reveal a news story first “I’ve worked with Jon Williams (Head of BBC World Service) in the past, and he said how hard it is telling employees family’s that their dead, I’ve been there with him for a lot of it. When Alex Crawford broke the news of the fall of Tripoli she was with a huge convoy and probably safer than if a BBC employee left 20 minutes later.”
Despite ensuring safety above anything else, there’s no doubting the company’s competitive edge. Sky News chose to release an unconfirmed video of Saif Gaddafi being captured simply by noticing the plaster on his hand. It was a bold move but one that paid off.
“There were perhaps 5 stories of Gaddafi being caught before the real one leaked. We had seen a feed from Reuters that Reuters hadn’t even seen, we could only tell it was him because we zoomed in on his hand, he’s got that thing on his hand”
Sky News is the current media giant will the style and grace to rival of the BBC. Will it last as long though?
The BBC is a national institution, one that has the benefit of public funding, whether the public want to or not. It may not always look pretty but it has substance, standards and heart. Sky has the backing of advertisers and investors, just like many other private companies have before. Financial backing can disappear all too quickly with AOL/Time-Warner is an obvious example. Can the swanky smooth attraction of Sky survive? It all depends on whether you think looks can last.