The Christmas weekend marked three months since multiple services fell off air as a result of an incident at a playout centre in West London.
And in the run up to Christmas, Channel 4 was still reporting issues uploading new programmes to its streaming service All4. As a result, viewers found they couldn’t catch-up on programmes as quickly as they have become used to.
As things go, that’s a relatively minor gripe compared to the original situation, when it wasn’t clear if Channel 4 could offer any service at all.
The nightmare started on the evening of Saturday 25th September. At just after 6pm, a fire alarm sounded at Red Bee Media in West London. Staff were evacuated as part of routine protocol. What happened next wasn’t supposed to happen: fire suppression systems caused servers in the building to be destroyed. Reports leaked to the press the next morning talked of a ‘sonic boom’ created by the system.
The BBC almost seamlessly transferred playout to its back-up site. Channel 5 managed to switch to its back-up system after a brief outage spanning all of its channels. Its online service remained impacted for longer. The nightmare for Channel 4 was about to get worse: its back-up system comprehensively failed. This left it unable to restore some linear TV services until November. Online services are still not fully back to normal.
Red Bee Media quickly moved to shut down any further leaks. The following morning, Red Bee confirmed no further statements would be issued until an investigation had been concluded. It later apologised again for the issues, and has since 15th October made no further comment on the matter.
Channel 4 bore the brunt of an outspoken backlash from disability rights organisations and individuals. Here was the broadcaster that’s most associated with championing disabled rights, suddenly incapable of offering access services. The fall-out was so complex that it wasn’t possible to even estimate how long it would take to repair or replace systems. But viewers and organisations felt Channel 4 should have been more forthcoming and publicly state what the situation was and why it struggling to offer its normal services. The backlash continued, with many complaining to Ofcom. It took until 5th October for Ofcom to post a response on social media and a further 10 days to publish a news article confirming what steps it was taking.
By the 22nd October, Channel 4 confirmed it had restored subtitles on most live TV platforms. However, other access services such as Audio Description for the blind/visually impaired did not return until the second half of November. The problems have persisted right up to Christmas for All4.
Don’t mention the incident
Since late October, Channel 4 and Red Bee Media’s response is to act as if the nightmare never happened, apart from a standard social media reply to complaints about the lack of a programme on All4.
The restoration of subtitles on most live TV platforms appeared to a pacified most complainants. Channel 4’s announcement about subtitles returning on 27th October was the last press release on the matter. The channel remained silent about return of the remaining accessibility services (just missing its originally publicised deadline of mid-November). It also stayed silent about the ongoing issues affecting All4. It promised that access services would be retrospectively added to programmes. However, many programmes expired before that could happen.
In October, Ofcom promised to conduct an investigation on the matter. However, the regulator has since gone silent on the matter.
But the outcome may be a foregone conclusion: nothing less than a multiple site back-up facility that can take the full load if the main site fails will provide the resilience needed to avoid this happening again. It’s a solution that saved the BBC from a lot of bother. Viewers tuning in to Strictly that September night never knew of the chaos developing behind the scenes.
Ofcom is about to start the licence renewal process for ITV, STV and Channel 5. Those licenses already include requirements regarding the reception and availability of those services. It’s a good time to consider also adding broadcast resilience clauses to those licences, and amending Channel 4’s accordingly.