NTV Uncovered

NTV was rightly seen as breaking new ground when it aired for the first time on Noel’s House Party episode 1 on 23rd November 1991.  The inspiration had been the use of tiny cameras in cars during some of the previous year’s Saturday Roadshow Gotcha Oscars, including Peter Snow and John Leslie. 

Using them live was the logical next step, and provided the major hook for taking the show from pre-recorded to live.  But how did it actually work?  Thanks to some of the original NTV team at the BBC, NHP at 30 can finally reveal all…

What was your involvement in NTV?

Engineering Manager / Communications Supervisor

Was the technology new?

Not really, though miniature cameras were relatively new to broadcasting.

How did each “hit” actually work? 

-The Technical truck was signwritten as an RF survey truck with deliberately misguiding non-BBC markings.  The “victim“ would usually be taken out by a “friend” for a period of time during the day. Once the area was clear of the victim the truck would be “hidden” (try hiding an 11m long 3m High truck with small generator and RF dishes and antennas all over it, not to mention 15m integral mast!) in a pre-planned parking spot.  Small cables would be run into the house via the pre-planned routes through hedges, behind furnishings, under carpets etc to keep them hidden and then all the hidden cameras and microphones put in position and tested. The technical crew would then retire back to the technical vehicle and hide/line up all the signals with the studio.

Whilst the above house rigging was going on (and sometimes the day before for very long routes of multiple RF hops) an analogue RF vision and return audio path, sometimes return vision path, was set up via a number of temporarily rigged hilltop RF vans to relay signals from the OB technical truck to the nearest permanent fixed BBC receive/transmission point. From that point it would go on permanent BBC circuits to and from the studio in London.  Analogue transmission paths were used because it kept delay down and because at the time it was all we had!

Not before an agreed time, the victim would be brought back to the house by their friend on a pre-planned route to try and avoid any chance of them accidentally finding the technical vehicle or cables heading into their house. Sometime later, after a nervous wait of a few hours in case we were “rumbled”  the live hit would happen.

Was it true that a special version of BBC1 was fed to the victim’s TV to avoid feedback during the part where they went live?

The house owner’s TV was cabled and tuned into a “private” TV modulator, with content fed from the technical truck so that we were in control of what they were watching and listening to.

How much preparation surrounded the technical set up of each NTV?

About a week of planning/recces/prep in total. Initially house and parking for technical vehicle would be recce’d for positions and hidden cable runs. Then the RF Supervisor would recce various hilltops to bounce the signals back to a BBC POP. Once the plan was put together with the information from the recces, this would be sent out to the various stores and technical delivery teams including the Special Cameras department who would load and prep all the relevant equipment including making any bespoke camera hiding props eg VHS tape cases with cameras hidden inside. 

Did the links or cameras ever fail in your experience?

Not that I remember, but there would have been the usual “normal” failures of individual bits – Most things were at least duplicated.

Much is made of the ground breaking nature of NTV – but did it feel like that at the time?

– From a production perspective it was very new and ground breaking. From a technical perspective probably not so much.

Our thanks to the NTV technical team that made possible so much memorable television!