Why Ken drank alone on the Net

The BBC was swamped with calls when it put its Budget coverage on the Internet. Mike Smartt reports on the lessons learned
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Within moments of the Chancellor's Budget speech beginning on Tuesday, we had learnt one important lesson about covering such an important event on the Internet.

Our service was swamped, and access became impossible for long periods. When Peter Snow gave out the Net Address (URL) on the BBC TV Live Budget programme, no one could get in at all. The Press Association made a quick call to a company in the United States which had recently found itself similarly overwhelmed, and obtained guidance on how to tweak the system to allow more people in. Even so, frustrated users had long waits until long after the Chancellor had sat down.

At the end of the day there had been well over 155,000 hits (accesses) to the service - and those were just the people who had managed to connect successfully. No one knows how many people tried and gave up. For both PA and the BBC's News and Current Affairs Department, it was a useful learning exercise. Clearly, some way has to be found to allow more people to use such a service when it is covering an important event.

Having combined once before for coverage of the Cup Final, near-instant Net news publishing is still relatively new to PA and the BBC, despite PA already having a permanent site on the World Wide Web. The craft is still being learnt of gathering material generated on a major story for dispersal elsewhere - text from the PA's service to other news organisations, pictures and sound from BBC radio and television programmes - and then quickly adapting it for the Net.

The advantage is that PA is processing text for all its other customers anyway, and despite promising that a full transcript of the Chancellor's speech would be running on the Net service "within 20 minutes of him standing up", in the event it was almost instantaneous. PA journalists were also gutting the contents to distil the main points. The most popular page on the service, up on the Net minutes after the Chancellor rose, offered his most important pronouncements as he delivered them.

A small team at the BBC was monitoring television's Live Budget programme, capturing still frames of the Chancellor (the best being Mr Clarke taking a sip of his whisky having just announced 27p off a bottle of the stuff) and those who were commenting on his proposals. Within minutes, the pictures, together with those comments in text, were up on the Net service. The beauty of this type of publishing is that good results should soon be obtainable using relatively inexpensive technology.

Professionally produced graphics are vital for serious sites, but once templates are set up for journalists and writers, content can be poured in. The language used to author material for the Net, HTML, is still difficult to master but tools are being developed to make it as easy as many of the better word processors on the market.

But pure information is not enough for many users and the site offered the opportunity for interaction - e-mail facilities to put Budget questions to the BBC's political and economic correspondents and a link to the Institute of Fiscal Studies where, by putting in your details to a simple tax model, you could see how Mr Clarke's proposals might affect your own exchequer. There was a site, too, where the Budget's implications were applied to famous fictitious BBC families: the Fowlers of Albert Square, for instance, will be pounds 161 a year better off and won't have to pay any more tax than usual on a pint at the Queen Vic.