24 Hours in Channel 5 TX
TX. Presentation. Playout. Whatever you call it, they’re the people responsible for taking the programmes, promos, adverts and continuity, packaging it all up, and making sure you have something to watch on your television… with the absolute bare minimum of breakdown captions. Yet oddly enough, despite the interest in the subject on many forums, there’s really very little writing online about what it’s actually like to work in transmission.
Last year, I left Channel 5 TX, having been there for a year and a half – and I thought people might be interested in a few details. What the bloody hell do we actually do all day, apart from sit and watch telly? Here’s your answer.
A few points first, however. Don’t expect any dirt to be dished – much as I’m sure it’d be entertaining to hear me whinge on, it’s not gonna happen. Also, there are certain confidential things which I’d love to be able to talk about, but can’t because… well, they’re confidential. Sorry about that. I can guarantee, however, that none of that affects what I have to say too much. Whilst some of the stuff I’ve had to leave out is really interesting, I think the below still represents the job pretty damn well.
Finally, and I can’t stress this enough: the below is just my perspective on the job. In no way whatsoever does it represent the views of Channel 5, or any of its partner companies.
Right, let’s get started, shall we?
08:00 The day TX controller arrives, bang in the middle of the Milkshake! children’s block. Handover time – one of the most important parts of the day. Any problems spotted overnight are handed over to you, both verbally and in writing – any missing material for the day, and any technical issues from the previous night. A good handover is the difference between a smooth day, and frantic fire-extinguishing as you’re constantly taken by surprise.
As you take the chair, you glance across the huge bank of monitors and make sure everything looks sensible and is in its right place. Same with your schedule for the day – it’s all been checked the previous night, but it’s always sensible to check the next hour yourself straight away to make sure you’re not in immediate danger of falling off air. The key to good TX is noticing problems before they happen.
In front of you on your main computer screen is your playlist. A channel playlist is in many ways very similar to a music playlist you might create at home – more complicated, but the same basic idea. At its simplest, it gives you a list of each event (a trail, an ident, a programme, an advert), the time it broadcasts, and its source (either from server, or an outside line for live shows). This will in general run by itself – you’re not putting each event to air manually, it’ll automatically cue up and run. Which isn’t to say the schedule doesn’t need any manual intervention… but we’ll come to that.
All programmes and trails for Channel 5 are now played off server – nothing runs off tape. (Technically it could be in an emergency, but I never had to do it.) Needless to say, there’s a main and a backup server running everything in parallel – so if anything goes wrong with the main server on air, you can flip to the backup with a press of a button.
On the desk is the paper schedule, usually printed out on A3. This is your bible. Any schedule changes or important notes are scrawled across it. (Or, at least, should be.) If you had to evacuate the building at any time, it’s vital you know what’s going on in your schedule… and how long the channel can continue to run without manual intervention.
During the week, most Milkshake! in-vision links are completely live. The links studio used to be right next to TX, but had moved off-site by the time I arrived. (Hence some of the old TX lags moaning they didn’t get the presenters making cups of tea for them any more.) The studio can see a copy of the playlist, so they can count themselves on and off. Occasionally, the TX controller may be needed to intervene – to add or remove a trail, or change the duration of a live link. If you need to talk to any live studio, or they need to talk to TX, you don’t have to rely on the phone – you have a talkback system. A row of buttons for each studio and a microphone = instant communication.
08:20 The PA for The Wright Stuff rings up, and you go through details. What time they’re on air, what time they’re off air, how many commercial breaks, their duration, etc. You also do a clock check to make sure you’re both in sync, and agree to check talkback is working once it’s available.
08:30 MCR line up with The Wright Stuff – checking picture and sound are OK – and then hand over the lines to TX. (MCR are the department in charge of all lines into and out of the building.) You then put the correct source into the schedule so the right line will be cut to air, and put the source of the studio feed up on your preview monitor – just to double-check yourself that things look sensible. At this point the programme is busy setting various things up – you pick a sensible time to buzz through via talkback, just to check communications are working.
09:13 Milkshake! do their last link. A quick goodbye to them over talkback to confirm they are clear, and then you give a minute’s standby for Wright Stuff: “One minute, Wright Stuff.” “Thank you, Channel 5.” They go on air bang on 09:15:00… and are live for two hours.
Doing a live show is, for my money, the best part of the job. Once the show is on air, you sit back and give it your full attention. Your main duty is ad breaks: whilst the live show comes from the studio, all commercials and promos are played out by TX. The PA will give you a minute’s standby to the break, and then give a countdown into the break (on The Wright Stuff, usually a 15-0). To go to the break is almost a cliche: you press a chunky red button, “Take Next”, which moves to the next item in the playlist – in this case, the ads.1 Once you’ve scanned your eyes across the monitor wall to make sure the correct ads are playing out, you let The Wright Stuff know what time they are back on air, and then give a minute’s warning. (It’s worth noting that different TX suites wildly differ in terms of the counts required for live programmes.)
For safety, each live show has a main line and a backup. If there are problems with the main line – picture glitches, or a complete loss of signal – you need to cut to the backup… within a few seconds. Or preferably sooner. If both lines disappear, it’s into full breakdown – “Sorry for the interruption to programming” slide and all. This is extraordinarily rare on Channel 5 these days – in fact, it never happened to me in the whole year and a half I was there.
11:10 The Wright Stuff ends for the day. A quick thanks over talkback, and they’re gone – off to record their promo for tomorrow’s show, which TX will play out later. Around this time ITN ring, and you go through their news bulletin times and durations for the day. You can only give them provisional times for anything after 6pm, as the evening schedule is redelivered late afternoon.
At this point, you get to chasing any missing promos, adverts or programmes for the rest of the day – if it’s not in the building at this point, you need to know exactly when it will be. This also goes for things like missing subtitles and audio description – two of the more hidden aspects of TX that most would rarely think about. Subtitles especially can be delivered quite close to transmission – it’s not uncommon for them to be sent less than an hour in advance. (Which can admittedly be frustrating when you’re dealing with a 50 year old film.)
If you’re very lucky, everything is already in and this is the quiet part of the day when there’s not much to do. But don’t get cocky. In practice, there’s always something. You might think everything’s clear for the day, sit back and relax… and suddenly, the email pings, the phone goes, and there’s Things To Do. An advert might be pulled and needs replacing; the afternoon film might clash with something in the news, and so needs changing. Of course, there are plenty of people behind-the-scenes chasing and getting this material to you… but in the end, you’re the one in front of those screens. If things aren’t arriving, it’s your job to scream blue murder until things do arrive. You are the last line of defence from having black to air.
12:10 ITN’s lunchtime bulletin; counted on air in exactly the same way as The Wright Stuff. Incidentally, with the odd rare exception, live programmes automatically come off air at a set time on Channel 5, so the schedule keeps exactly to time and there are no risks of commercials pushing into the wrong clock hour. (More of that later.)
12:15 Unlike ITV for example, most daytime programmes on Channel 5 are pre-recorded, and run off server. There is one major exception, though – when Big Brother is running, there is an edited daytime repeat. There’s no time to get this delivered to TX as per a normal programme, so it’s done as a live play-in. From TX’s point of view, this is exactly like a live show – you talk to the PA, go through all the timings, and it comes into you as an outside source just like a live show. The only difference is that the production is playing it down to you from VTR or server, rather than it being a proper live show – and so, of course, you already know the durations of each part.
15:00 That evening’s continuity announcer arrives, pops in to say hello, and then retires to the booth to start preparing their script. Channel 5 has live continuity between 5pm and midnight, and recorded continuity during the day – recorded the previous night by the duty announcer.
16:00:. The evening schedules are delivered. And things get busy.
Why are the schedules redelivered in the evening, I hear you say? Simple: the ads for that evening are being sold by the Channel 5 sales team throughout the day. So when you reappend the schedules from 6pm, they include all those freshly-sold ad breaks. Of course, this means you’re also waiting for all the new ads to be delivered and filter through to the playout servers – causing the odd stressful moment. (And frantic phone call if the ads are tardy in arriving.)
But surely just reappending a schedule isn’t that hard work? Bear in mind that you also have to check through the whole schedule to make sure it all makes sense; occasionally there will be things missing, or things which are mistimed. You have to check all the breaks present and in the right clock hour (again, more on that later). Then you have to prep various parts of the schedule. Not forgetting you also get a graphics schedule sent which also needs loading. And if things are wrong you need to request a new schedule. Then you need to chase up any missing adverts, and find out when they’re due to arrive. And when you’re done with all that, the schedules for tomorrow daytime arrive, and you need to go through it all again. And in the middle of all this is the live trail for the 5pm news, which needs counting on. And that’s not forgetting that the late-delivery entertainment filler programmes for that evening are delivered at this point and need to be prepared…
On a straightforward day, you’re just busy. On a day with problems… well, you earn your money, put it like that. Very occasionally, when you’re sent the evening’s schedule and it doesn’t even load, and time is ticking away… you have to remind yourself that crying isn’t really an option. It sounds stupid, but one of the most tricky things during this period of the day sometimes is making sure you’re actually loading the right version of the schedule. If it’s been resent three times with amendments, woe betide you if you get confused and load the wrong one.
One of the most “fun” things that can happen at this point is that you can be happy that at least all your programmes for the evening are in… and then the new schedule arrives, and suddenly one is missing. Often because it’s had to have a last-minute re-edit for compliance purposes. An hour-long hole suddenly appearing in your schedule without warning isn’t especially pleasant. But part of the job. Man up, fool.
16:45 The continuity announcer checks their levels with MCR, and then buzzes through to TX via talkback and checks their faders are working. (The announcer controls their mic and dips the sound themselves.) You then route them into circuit ready for…
17:00 Channel 5 News – and the first live continuity announcement of the day. It was always one of my favourite parts of the shift – sitting there in front of a film in the afternoon is all well and good, but at 17:00 the channel wakes up. You can’t beat having a live continuity announcement and then crossing to ITN for the latest headlines. It can’t fail to be exciting. Live continuity, for me, makes a channel feel alive.
Different TX suites will require different counts by TX for the announcers. On Channel 5, all the announcers need from you is a shout of “Ident next” when on the trail prior to the announcement. End credit squeezes would require a bit more: you give them a minute warning before the squeeze, and then give them a 10-0 count on air. On different channels, announcers can require more counts – a full count to zero through the ident itself, for instance.
20:00 The night Channel 5 TX op arrives… just in time for primetime.
Primetime on Channel 5 can be many different things. An easy night consists of mainly pre-recorded programmes, playing from server. A hard night would be, say, a Big Brother eviction night. With those you can have five live programmes back-to-back: a live news bulletin, Big Brother, Big Brother’s Bit on the Side, Live from the House, and then SuperCasino. Dealing with live programmes gets exponentially more difficult when you’re talking to more than one production at once.
With live events on a commercial channel, one thing is always at the back – or front – of your mind: break restrictions. The Ofcom rules when it comes to ad breaks are very complex – you can read the whole thing here – but the most important rule, boiled down and over-simplified, is: “No more than 12 minutes of ads per hour”.
Which sounds easy enough. The difficulty comes when you’re in a live show, near the top of the hour. The first two breaks have been taken, but you have to get the third break out of the way before it gets to, say, 11pm. The break is three and a half minutes long, which means they have to go to the break by 10:56:30pm. Otherwise, the next hour will have more than 12 minutes of adverts in.
What is truly head-spinning is when ad breaks are allowed to tip past the top of the hour – but only part-way. If the next hour has, say, 10 minutes and 30 seconds of ads, then your three and a half minute ad break can tip into the next hour… but only by 90 seconds. If this situation occurs, you’d better have done your calculations beforehand. This is why it is vital to have clear communication with the production. If they take their ad break too early or too late, you run the serious risk of overloading an hour with commercials and breaking the 12 minute rule. And ultimately, the production team isn’t in charge of ad breaks tipping. It’s the TX op’s responsibility.
This is one of the invisible parts of TX which nobody at home thinks or cares about… but which has serious consequences if you get it wrong – for the channel, and for the TX op sitting in the chair. Such mistakes are extraordinarily rare on Channel 5 – but scroll back through the Ofcom Broadcast Bulletins, and you can see how many channels screw this up on a regular basis.
Some of the most stressful – but ultimately rewarding – nights I had in Channel 5 TX were with the live boxing. With most ad breaks, you usually had three and a half minutes to sort yourself out once you went to a break. With boxing, you took 30 second ad breaks between rounds – you’ve barely had a time to orientate yourself before you’re back. Taking into account the fact the production played bumpers into the ad, and the automation took two seconds to cue up and take the break once you hit the button, to get everything looking smooth took some neat timing… and a little bit of instinct. If the match had finished early, I also would have had to combine the remaining 30 second breaks into one longer break – not difficult in itself, but when you have to do things fast in a high-pressure situation, the simplest things take on a whole new dimension. Rarely have two hours flown past as fast as when I was sitting in the chair during the boxing.
22:00 Around this point – sometimes earlier or later, depending on who the announcer is and how busy they are – the announcements for the next day are recorded. The TX op listens to each, compares it against the schedule, and checks it for accuracy – all before the announcer leaves at midnight. No point in finding out a problem once the announcer has gone home and can’t re-record. This isn’t just a formality, either: it’s very easy for an announcer to accidentally miss off a flashing images warning, or work to an old version of a schedule and point to the wrong programme, or simply misspeak a programme title. Mistakes can creep in anywhere.
A good example of how the simplest things can easily go wrong in TX: there have been occasions where the announcements have all been recorded by the announcer, but they steadfastly refuse to transfer correctly so the playout system can access them. You then have to call the engineer and get them to investigate… and it’s difficult to clear the announcer so they can actually go home if you have no guarantee tomorrow’s announcements are salvageable. You really don’t want to get to 4am and have the engineers say you haven’t actually got any announcements for the whole day. Sometimes, the simplest things can cause the most trouble.
01:00 SuperCasino is on air. Hooray, live gambling all night. If for whatever reason SuperCasino can’t make it to air, or have to come off air early – rare, but it occasionally happened – there is standby material ready to air in its place. This involves a bit of tricksy messing around with schedules. Easier said than done at 1am.
Anyone who thinks that TX ops must sit around all night DOSSING are sadly mistaken: there’s tomorrow’s schedule to check and prepare. This can take a very long time: each programme part needs to be checked to make sure the in and out points make sense; the graphics for the next day’s credit squeezes and in-programme-pointers needs to be checked for factual accuracy and spelling; all the offsets for the graphics and voiceovers need to be checked to make sure a squeeze doesn’t come in in the middle of a programme… and much more besides. Any issues are emailed off to the channel to get corrected.
Anyone who thinks that VT clocks are an anachronism these days, with server-based playout? Nope – they’re still incredibly important, as the clocks contain the programme number which we cross-reference against the schedule. If the two don’t match, there’s a chance that the wrong material entirely is on server. It’s happened – and the buck stops with TX to make sure it’s caught. And you only have to consider what might happen if a post-watershed edit of a programme goes out pre-watershed to realise how important checking the VT clocks is.
The glamorous side of TX is sitting there doing things Big Brother eviction shows – and it is glamorous. Anyone who isn’t excited by doing that is in the wrong job. But those overnight checks are some of the most important work a TX op does. Your job – especially in a single channel environment – is to stop errors getting to air. Material comes from many different departments and many different people… but you are the final person who pieces everything together, and will view everything before the material transmits. Whiling away the hours at 4am doing schedule checks is some of the most worthwhile work I will ever do. Pick up a spelling mistake in a graphic? You’ve just stopped the channel looking stupid. Pick up an advertising minutage issue? You’ve just stopped a needless Ofcom breach.
06:00 The broadcast day starts. Another of my favourite parts of the shift – the Milkshake! sting kicks off bang on 6am. (Their opening jingle is irrevocably burnt into my brain now.) When the Milkshake! live links team show up, you do the usual checks – check our clocks are correct, when their first and last links are, and do a clap test – where the presenter claps to make sure sound and vision are in sync. Once they’re all up and running, it’s time for all your final checks: make sure your handover is as comprehensive as possible for day shift, and that you’ve chased up absolutely everything that can be chased internally at that time of the morning.
08:00 The day TX op arrives… and this is where we came in.
And that’s your lot. Every channel and TX suite has its own way of doing things, so there are plenty of things done at Channel 5 which aren’t done elsewhere – and, conversely, things we didn’t do which other TX suites do constantly. But the above serves as a general overview of what it’s like to work in TX, the kind of things we have to do, and the kind of skills you need. I like to view the job as very much a “last defence” kind of role – and that’s one of the most satisfying jobs in television you can have. A day where you’ve stopped some stupidity going out on air which would make the channel look bloody ridiculous is a job well done. (Conversely, a day when you’ve done something stupid yourself and made the channel look bloody ridiculous is a day when you want to curl up into a ball and die.)
The motto of being in TX is: be prepared for anything. I was once in a cricket highlights play-in… and the very next programme hadn’t arrived in TX. Things can quickly get very sticky indeed – communicating with Channel 5, arranging which standby programme to put in instead, checking to make sure you aren’t tipping an ad break into the wrong hour, making sure the announcer knows what’s going on so they introduce the right thing – all whilst making sure the cricket stays on air. An eye for detail in this kind of situation is essential. For instance: we had squeezes and voiceovers planned pointing to the programme which hadn’t been delivered in time; it would be very easy to forget about those, and accidentally have the announcer promote a programme which wasn’t going to make it to air at that time. From the TX op’s point of view, you could have busted a gut making sure that you didn’t fall off air and the replacement programme was OK… only for the viewer at home to roll their eyes because from their point of view, you’d been advertising it an hour ago. The tiniest thing can make it look like a channel doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing. (Luckily, we did spot it in time and dropped all voiceovers and squeezes pointing to it.)
At times, it can feel like the whole world is caving in, and you’re the only person who can save it. But when a hugely difficult situation has been resolved with the viewer not having a clue about the frantic splashing around, and all looked great on air… it can feel like the best job in the world. Who needs extreme sports, when you can just fight to get a programme about extreme sports on air instead?
If you have any questions you’d like to ask me about the above, feel free to ask in the comments below or on Twitter. I’ll try my best to answer to the best of my ability – without giving away anything confidential or commercially sensitive. It’s a world which really isn’t talked about very much, and perhaps doesn’t get as much respect as it deserves. Within certain parameters, I’d like to change that a little bit.
Ads for Channel 5 were regional when I was in TX: there were actually five different regional variants of Channel 5, all with different ads. London, South England/Wales, North England, Scotland, and Ulster. (However, there was only one HD service, which used the South England/Wales ads.) This meant five different server outputs for adverts, and five different channel outputs. Sadly, as of August 2015, the different ad regions of Channel 5 have ceased, and there is now only one feed. ↩