Daunting; unprecedented; impossible? Whilst adapting to lockdown life, the world’s oldest broadcaster was tasked to keep its young audience informed and pull-off the biggest venture in modern educational history. For the BBC, time was ticking: children’s futures were at stake.
When schools closed and the country shut down for what felt like an eternity back in March, many were forced to embrace the #WFH lifestyle. During this momentous period, questions over who would pick-up the slack were at top of the agenda as millions of expectant young eyes craved reassurance, information and education. With everyone stuck at home, it was time for broadcasters to step-up to the mark.
Somewhat taken for granted, the BBC famously ‘educates, informs and entertains’ the nation. From Bitesize to Newsround, their smorgasbord offering of content provides children with everything they need to tackle life. One of many outlets inevitably relied-on by the Government during our youngsters’ hour of need, its responsibility was unimaginable in keeping young minds educated, active and engaged.
One week before national restrictions, they plunged into ‘lockdown’. For the Bitesize crew (with or without comfy slippers donned), the challenge was to defy what would normally be impossible and plan, develop and produce a daily education programme from home at breakneck speed.
Tasked with booking talent, Assistant Producer Sarah Clayton reminisced about the scale of the challenge she – and her colleagues – faced: “The Daily programme seemed an impossible task. Everyone dropped everything and got stuck in – there wasn’t an option not to!”
With accessibility a barrier to so many youngsters, time was ticking; lockdown wasn’t deemed an excuse to stop learning. Like a well-oiled broadcasting machine, teamwork was crucial – they had just weeks to turn this crazy idea into TV reality.
Exploring the importance of Bitesize Daily, Sarah added: “Teachers were pushing for the students to work at home. It really helped to fill a gap because home schooling wasn’t equal, but Bitesize was available for everybody.”
Cooped-up indoors, home life became work life. Time was meaningless. Days morphed into one. Forbidden from returning to the office, the pressure was on – the BBC had a legacy, let alone a well-loved brand, to protect.
Usually a Promotions Producer, Kimberley Boak also booked talent, revealing: “We had three-and-a-half weeks to come up with the concept; book guests; get into a studio and start filming. Normally, if you’re developing a TV show, you’d have six months to a year – absolutely unprecedented and the pressure was definitely on!”
At times, managing the project from home was less like spinning plates and more like juggling jelly as the tidiest email inboxes overflowed.
Something the soundest sleeper would have had nightmares about, the team had no choice but to adapt if they were to achieve the unachievable and pull-off the most unprecedented educational drive in the broadcaster’s history.
Kimberley added: “It was a brilliant opportunity for the BBC as a whole to show what we’ve got. It was a massive period of growth for anyone working on that programme because you had to learn to prioritise.”
Prioritising was no mean feat, however, as their colossal workload piled-up. Tasked with producing 150 programmes from scratch, covering Shakespeare to the sciences for three straight months was hugely taxing. Teamwork had to make the dream work if the cogs in this broadcasting wheel were to turn smoothly.
Sacrificing everything for the project, many had no choice but remain shackled to their kitchen tables to get the job done. Kimberley revealed the lengths she went to, exposing: “There were over 100 of us working on Bitesize Daily remotely. There are so many who I’ve still not met who were a huge part of us for three or four months. We worked 15-hour days at the peak of it – there were days we didn’t even have a toilet break in our own home!”
From iPlayer to Instagram, content was dispersed everywhere. An overwhelming task for anyone, let alone with the stakes so astronomical, Bitesize turned to the one dependable source who understood this task better than most: teachers. Considering the London School of Economics found 2.5 million children received no schooling this summer, schools simply couldn’t handle the strain. Signing-up a veritable army to replicate what had been lost, celebrities were valuable, but nothing was like the real thing.
After receiving an out-of-the-blue DM on Twitter, Jordan Firth came to the rescue. Transforming from Year Two leader to TV presenter in the click of a trackpad, just like ‘Stars in Their Eyes’, he found himself hosting their flagship show, ‘Teacher Talks’. He disclosed: “Everyone had this common goal that children were accessing some sort of learning.
“Within a couple of weeks, I’d sent in my audition film, been to MediaCity, seen this whole new world – all from just making a few daft videos on Twitter!”
With the pressure for creativity mounting, for everyone involved, the payoff was a monumental level of engagement. Revealed in the BBC’s latest Annual Plan, 5.2 million browsers accessed Bitesize Daily during its first week, and Newsround hosted a weekly record of 1.7 million online users during the peak of the pandemic. Content was being mopped-up, and broadcasters had to keep-up.
Since 1972, Newsround has stood at the forefront of children’s news. Arguably more essential now than ever, De’Graft Mensah joined in 2019 to help the BBC succeed in its mission to provide relevant information that kids could trust in the modern era.
Before 2020, his office used to be host to a hive of activity. De’Graft reminisced: “It was very much about being ready to go anywhere to cover a story. Even that aside, there was a real vibe and that just doesn’t exist in the same way anymore.”
Never has the Newsround community had to prove its worth more. One of a six-strong presenting posse, De’Graft wouldn’t have imagined that he’d be responsible for informing the nation’s six-to-12-year-olds from a Covid-safe studio at MediaCityUK when he first signed on the dotted line. A responsible journalist, he couldn’t pretend everything was rosy, and was adamant that young people deserved the truth.
Some would say De’Graft drew the short straw. Reduced to just one sixth of its previous capacity, one aspect that took its toll was the newsroom’s flat atmosphere. Describing this almost-alien workplace environment, he added: “More often than not, I’ll come into work and not see anyone apart from the people directly working on the programme!”
During lockdown, broadcasters enjoyed freedoms that others could only dream of. With the BBC recently estimating that 750,000 children watch their morning bulletin daily, the magnitude of their challenge was immense. Still venturing to Salford, De’Graft once again realised the privilege, and importance, of his profession.
Rediscovering this reverence, De’Graft recalled: “It was moments like that when I thought how grateful I was to come out, meet people and do work when people didn’t have that same opportunity – that will stay with me forever. It made me remember how much respect I have for this position and this job we do for children.”
Balancing information and consolation for their broad demographic, stories couldn’t be filled with doom and gloom. A difficult skill mastered swiftly when daily statistics looked increasingly bleak, encapsulating facts within wider contexts when all roads led to Coronavirus was certainly an effective tactic.
However, TV presenting was almost an insignificant sidepiece for these ‘key workers’ as much of their workload transitioned online. Aiming to develop constructive debates and make youngsters comfortable to share their views, Newsround’s focus on creating a safe virtual community helped solidify the brand’s long-running reputation as their website figures skyrocketed.
Broadcasting in 2020 emphasised the importance of focussing on the spaces that attract the highest level of audience engagement. Something many children appreciated, prioritising the news’ accessibility was beneficial during this period of confusion which threatened the repute of informational outlets everywhere. De’Graft mentioned: “You definitely felt that community feel in the comments. I’m happy we were able to give children that platform to have a discussion in a safe space with all the right information.”
Tackling their work professionally and passionately, being a broadcaster to children in 2020 was about staying calm, being headstrong and acting selflessly as they balanced a workload nobody would envy. From presenters to producers, schoolteachers to superstars, this tempestuous year forced them all to step-up as the #WFH lifestyle demanded more innovation and creativity from them than ever. Making education accessible to all and guaranteeing that the news never stopped, they have proved their worth to the nation’s youngsters and secured their legacy for years to come. For that, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
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