Weeks after Red Bee Media's broadcast centre fell over, Channel 4 is still struggling with subtitles

Got a Disaster Recovery plan? Ever tested it? You probably should...


Updated Confusion continues to reign in the world of television, including UK national broadcaster Channel 4, weeks after a broadcast centre cockup wrought havoc upon servers.

Things went horribly wrong at Red Bee Media's broadcast centre back on 25 September. Yes, that was the weekend before we ran an accidentally appropriate episode of Who, Me?

A fire suppression was triggered and severely damaged a lot of critical hardware. The net result was that a number of UK television channels (including the BBC as well as Channel 4) suffered a wobble. While others have recovered, Channel 4 remains unable to provide accessibility services, such as subtitles or audio description.

A bit of background: an industry insider (who asked to remain anonymous) explained to The Register that TV companies generally provide several items to playout providers, usually file-based. Video and audio tend to be batched together in one MPEG stream. Audio Description (AD) and subtitles arrive in another. And so on.

"In the 'olden' days of 2006, we manually got all of the different components and placed them into the various different output servers," explained our insider.

The playout server described in our Who, Me? story would grab the video, audio, AD and subtitles – which explains its sudden shutdown in our story, that caused similar problems.

Automation took over in the last decade, meaning that skilled intervention was perhaps not so essential. Up until everything went wrong.

Red Bee posted a Twitter thread last week, apologising for the situation, but insisting it was "getting back on track."

We don't know how far away those tracks are. Presumably quite some distance if, after three weeks, Red Bee Media has yet to haul itself back onto them.

Our source noted that it was not the first time the fire alarm had gone off, but was the first time that nobody had managed to get to the override in time. The thinking behind the system was apparently "kill the flames and sod the consequences." As for those consequences: "Now we know... it kills servers."

As for the hardware, hot-swap spares are likely limited and there is every possibility that parts of the kit could be quite difficult to find nowadays. Red Bee Media got the pictures and audio up and running again quickly, but the ancillary systems (such as the ones dealing with subtitles) are clearly proving problematic.

We have asked Red Bee Media to comment but it has yet to respond. A spokesperson told the BBC:

"Things are improving every day and we are able to deliver more and more accessible programmes, but we are unfortunately still experiencing issues with receiving the media for which our access teams create pre-recorded subtitles, audio descriptions and signing."

As for Channel 4, it fired up an emergency backup but reported that the system supposed to provide subtitles failed. The building of an entirely new system is now apparently underway, according to a release emitted by the broadcaster.

"Not only will this enable our channels to move back out of disaster recovery," it said, "but it also means we will be able to provide subtitles, audio description and sign language services as well."

It's not great, and there is every chance that well over a month will have passed before full recovery. According to Channel 4, AD and sign language services were "irretrievably lost during the incident," making one wonder exactly what backup strategy was in place. We asked the broadcaster to explain how its backups worked (or if it was something it had outsourced) but have yet to receive a response.

The ongoing woes are a salutary, and highly public, reminder to all administrators of organisations large and small. Check your backups. Rehearse your disaster recovery. Customers have very, very long memories. ®

Updated to add on 20 October

A spokesperson for Red Bee told us: "The fire suppression system in the Broadcast Centre was triggered by a genuine incident, which is still under investigation.

"The system works by discharging large volumes of nitrogen gas to displace oxygen and extinguish any potential fire. The system is subject to regular maintenance and testing."

The spokesperson went on to explain that while there were some on-site spares, "due to the extent of the damage, we have had to order additional replacement hardware."

As for backup routines: "Some are mirrored on site and some in different locations. Due to the extent of the damage to some of the equipment and the data loss, the recovery process is complex and time consuming."

"The main issues," the spokesperson continued, "relate to some of the infrastructure that supports our established playout operations. Our latest cloud-based and software-enabled playout operations recovered seamlessly from the incident."

It would seem that for other operations, as ably demonstrated by the woes of Channel 4, this is not the case.

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