When Victoria Real was asked to build a website featuring video streaming for the first series of Big Brother, the company did not know it would be changing the face of prime-time television. Liz Warren asks the company's solutions delivery director Kevin Goodings how he did it.
With the schedules awash with voting-based reality TV shows, it is hard to imagine a time when they did not exist. Yet Kevin Goodings, solutions delivery director at web developer Victoria Real, remembers taking a leap into the unknown when the company was asked to deliver a website and live video streaming for the first series of Big Brother. "Big Brother had run successfully in Holland but had not yet hit the UK. Nobody really knew what the show was about," Goodings says. "It was very different to anything we as a company had done previously."
When Victoria Real took on the project, there were several hurdles to overcome. "The scale of the site in terms of the size of the audience was potentially massive, but it was also an event site which would go live for only a short period of time," he says. "That meant we had to build a chunk of infrastructure that could cope with enormous loads, but which only needed to last for a short while."
The Big Brother producers also wanted to use streaming video to show real-time TV pictures on the web. This was one of the first times video streaming had been used to support a live event and Victoria Real had to work out how to encode and deliver it.
The team did have some idea of the potential size of the audience by looking at the impact of the original Big Brother show in Holland, although the load for the UK show turned out to be different. Victoria Real then struggled to identify partners in the UK who had the history and maturity to deal with those levels of traffic - especially with the added data burden of live video streaming. "We had to work out what infrastructure we needed, who could support it, how to physically tie it all together and then how to put a website and applications on top," says Goodings.
While the elements of the website over which Victoria Real had control stood up to the hammering given by fans, many other websites had not scaled up enough to handle the hits they received on pages linking to the main Big Brother site. "Although those issues were quickly addressed, we had not focused on the impact on services outside our own site. Those issues gave us a better appreciation of the whole picture," he says.
However, technical headaches were not the only factors the company had to grapple with: it faced the demanding creative challenge of engaging the audience and holding them for the life of the show. "The whole creative concept behind Big Brother was very different to anything we had been asked to do before,"Goodings says.
All of this had to be put in place in the three months before the show began broadcasting on a notoriously tight budget. The task was complicated by the fact that, at that time, many of the tools now taken for granted were in their infancy. For example, Victoria Real had to build its own content management system to accept stories from its editorial team and to manage the vast amount of content that quickly accumulated on the site.
The Victoria Real team also had to grapple with the Big Brother house and studio being under construction for much of the project. They sidestepped this issue by assembling the kit in the company's Brighton offices and laying it out and connecting it in the way it would be connected on site.
"That was a pragmatic way to give ourselves the confidence that it would all work. It gave us a real sense of just how much physical technology was involved," says Goodings. "Once we knew it worked, we took it to bits, put it in a van and drove it up to London to install it. In fact, the final connections were made just a few minutes before the first contestants walked in. There was little room for contingency and it was a rush to get it all in place, both physically and from a software point of view."
Goodings says the first evening when the contestants entered the house was pretty low key. "The site went live and the video streaming got connected and it was exciting to see, but we did not really begin to feel we were in the middle of a big event until things in the house got interesting." He says the turning point came when the housemates confronted "Nasty Nick" and people used the website and real-time video streaming. "More people watched that live on the web than on TV," he says. "We realised then we had converted a good share of the audience to online viewing for the first time in the UK. That really crystallised the achievement of a crossover between TV and the web.
"It is only by looking back that we can appreciate what we achieved in a short space of time and the impact it had. At the time we were just getting on and doing it." He says being in at the start of Big Brother helped Victoria Real build up its reputation and the programme is still what the company is best known for. However, it represents just a small part of its activities. This close association - and a lot of coverage in the Brighton-based media - meant that when the second series of Big Brother was announced, "a lot of people would come to our offices and try to access the show through us," says Goodings.
The company has gone on to provide support for other reality TV shows, as well as the later series of Big Brother. "As the show has come back for subsequent runs, the technology has matured and we have been able to create a lot of reusable components which are a good fit for similar programmes," Goodings says. "Our experiences with Big Brother have also profoundly structured our thinking about project delivery and the technology we offer."
Victoria Real has continued to introduce new features and technologies into successive Big Brother series. "Big Brother Two was about showing the programme on digital TV," Goodings says. "It was also the first large-scale consumer experience of voting through interactive TV. We have been able to move away from web-based support for the show to true cross-platform products for the web, digital TV and wireless services. A lot of people have talked about multi-platform delivery, but few have achieved it. It has been great to be involved in that."
Goodings admits that Victoria Real never expected Big Brother or reality TV to develop into the phenomenon it has become. "At the time, we had no idea we were involved in something that would be so significant," he says. "Since then, everyone involved has enjoyed being part of an online prime-time event that their friends and family are interested in. We certainly have not lost that initial excitement when doing new TV-related projects, because they are a little bit special and our work is very public."
Lessons Kevin Goodings learned from implementing the Big Brother website can apply to any business with an online presence:
- Although your website may already have the capacity to cope with peaks in traffic, ensure that other websites that link to your site have also made adequate preparations. If users are unable to access a partners' site, your reputation may be tarnished by association
- When time is tight, be prepared to improvise
- Do some research into your partners on the project. Do they have the right kind of experience and skills to provide you with the level of support you require?
- If the project involves developing new software, you may be able to re-use components on future projects
- If you have to learn new skills to implement a project, see it as an opportunity rather than a chore.
This was first published in October 2003