Sustainable TV production at the BBC

Published on Tuesday, 21 January 2014 11:37
Written by Nick Leslie

Few of us would deny that television plays an important part in our lives, however we may consume it in these digital days of tablets and smartphones. But have you ever thought about the TV industry's green credentials? Because it may surprise you that it's been calculated that, on average, producing one hour's TV produces the same carbon emissions as heating and lighting an average UK household for eighteen months!

Not surprisingly, the BBC – along with other broadcasters - recognises this as a hugely important issue - for environmental reasons of course, but also for financial, legal and reputational reasons. One approach is to have a good look at the way we makes our TV programmes – what's become known as 'Sustainable Production'.

Back in 2010 the BBC developed a carbon footprint calculator for TV production called 'albert' (incidentally it's not an acronym, just a memorable name!). It measures the energy consumption and corresponding carbon emissions created by the various operations and processes that make up TV production - studio use, location work, travel, accommodation, office buildings and materials.

Pat Younge, then Chief Creative Officer for BBC Television, took the bold step of making albert mandatory across most in-house TV production. Since then, around 700 shows have been foot-printed and there are now 600+ BBC albert users (and counting) - programme-makers on entertainment shows, documentaries, dramas and more.

Once albert was established at the BBC, the next step was to encourage greater environmental awareness across the whole of the UK TV production industry. So albert was put up for adoption, with BAFTA enthusiastically taking on a new role as guardian for the fledgling industry-wide carbon calculator, ably supported by a pan-industry group known as the BAFTA Albert Consortium. As well as the BBC, this includes broadcasters and production companies Sky, ITV, Channel 4, Kudos, IMG, Twofour, Endemol and All3 Media.

The consortium is working to enhance albert, and champion long-term change to minimise the negative environment effects of TV production. There are now 1,300 registered albert users in the UK, and more than 130 production companies have signed up to use the tool to carbon footprint their shows. It's helping teams understand their environmental impacts, and encouraging them to think about how individual decisions can affect their total carbon emissions. Hopefully, it will also enable people to become more literate about human impact on the environment.

With the consortium's competitive baggage left outside the door, the resultant cross-industry collaboration is already bearing innovative fruit. Our newest initiative is what we're calling "albert+". If you think of albert as the scales, then albert+ is the diet plan! Essentially it's a best practice methodology for production teams, giving them practical ideas and solutions to help make greener TV shows. It records the measures they put in place and calculates a rating so they can judge their environmental performance. Already the first tranche of shows using albert+ have shown both environmental and financial benefits. We are also better understanding how the various production genres produce different footprints and can adopt different approaches to reduce their emissions.

One major benefit of being a member of the consortium is the sharing of sustainable production best practice, aided by the recently launched Media Greenhouse website, a treasure trove of case studies and best practice for TV people. The site also has a 'green supplier' list, reflecting a rapidly growing industry sector.

The sustainable production journey that began with the creation of albert the carbon calculator has been an exciting ride so far, and more of the same is promised as sustainability rises up the corporate agenda for every industry. What the UK's TV production sector has shown is that sustainable thinking can be embedded across an industry through collaboration and innovation. Long may it continue!

Albert+ in action: BBC Two's Autumnwatch

There are three levels of albert+ certification (One, Two and Three Star), determined by the range and complexity of green initiatives implemented by each production, and independently audited by the BBC Quality Assurance team.
The 2013 series of Autumnwatch from the BBC Natural History Unit has been awarded a Two Star albert+ award. The team was able to reduce the show's carbon footprint by an impressive 27% compared with the 2012 series.

They adopted a variety of approaches to achieve this including:

  • a significant drop in domestic air travel
  • switching to local mains power wherever possible
  • trialling alternative sources of power, combined with better energy management.

In a ground-breaking collaboration with the BBC Sustainability team, the production trialled both hydrogen and methanol fuel cells to power on-location remote cameras and a camera jib. The trial will be valuable in determining how fuel cell technology can be used in other productions, including sister show 'Winterwatch' in 2014.

Other green initiatives included:

  • Location caterers adopted a range of sustainable practices, including eliminating non-biodegradable disposables, buying locally sourced, seasonally appropriate food from sustainable sources, and supplying the crew with reusable water bottles filled from the local water supply.
  • Travel was managed more sustainably by hiring low emission vehicles wherever possible, using public transport, promoting car sharing, and using digital communications technology to cut travel to meetings etc.
  • Using existing RSPB office space instead of production office trailers or marquees
  • Recycling waste wherever possible, using local waste disposal facilities. 100% of the team's paper and card was recycled.

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