Advanced Television

BBC Programme Index improves archive access

June 16, 2021

By Colin Mann

The BBC is making its archive more accessible than ever before,  launching a new Programme Index tool with a searchable index of nearly 100 years of BBC TV and radio broadcasts.

“Programme Index, like BBC Genome before it, is a spine of data – this time stretching back nearly 100 years,” explains Susannah Stevens, senior journalist with the BBC’s Archive Editorial department. “You can use it to browse nearly 10 million network and regional BBC radio and TV listings, including scans of the earliest Radio Times magazines, and to search more than 200,000 programmes that you can watch on BBC iPlayer and listen to on BBC Sounds.

BBC Genome, the precursor to Programme Index, was the BBC’s first database to provide audiences with an overview of its historical programmes listings. It shows broadcast schedules for most weeks between 1923 – 2009, as printed in the listings magazine, Radio Times.

“Since its inception in 2014, BBC Genome has been a work in progress and we have introduced many changes and improvements to the website over the years,” says Stevens. “With help from a host of fantastic volunteer editors who have picked up on the small typographical errors that come with scanning and converting what’s in millions of listings into plain text, we’ve accepted nearly 900,000 edits that have been submitted to our listings. We now display four decades of the Radio Times magazine on the website and we link through to thousands of programmes on iPlayer and Sounds. We are now entering a new phase of this archive project – to bring the website up to the present day, adding millions of extra listings and keeping the index permanently refreshed so that the very latest schedules are added,” she advises.

From 2007 onwards, the BBC’s broadcast information has been captured on a system called PIPs (Programme Information Platform), which powers programme pages, iPlayer and Sounds. It is that data that the BBC is using to fill in the recent gaps in BBC Genome.

“This new data stream brings with it enormous advantages – many of these listings automatically link through to available programmes, as well as containing rich metadata that is now more searchable than ever,” she suggests. “For the first time, you will see a huge number of regional channels and World Service listings, as well as information about programme genres and contributor data from 2007 onwards.”

“One of the challenges with adding this new, rich data source has been how to show it alongside our BBC Genome data,” she admits. “It has taken time and we’ve thought carefully about how to show the extent of the new listings without undermining the structure of our existing listings. For those of you who have already used BBC Genome, you will find that all the functionality and features remain intact, but we now have a more sophisticated search function and more ways of searching across the two data sets.”

New search filters mean that you can now either include or exclude specific genres, brands, channels and contributors from searches – using a simple toggle button in the shape of an eye. For example, searching ‘maths’ and clicking on the eye to show only programmes related to ‘learning’ gives lots of options of programmes available on iPlayer to help with maths homework.

As to why the BBC undertook the project, Stevens says “How can we truly understand the BBC, or the history it reported on, without having a full picture of its programmes? That’s what we’re trying to achieve here. Programme Index is for everyone – from historians and researchers to people of all ages who are interested in delving into the archives. It tells a history of the UK and the wider world in a huge range of radio and TV broadcasts – encompassing news, documentaries, current affairs, drama, entertainment and music. We want to give a long view to the public, and this extensive collection of broadcasting shows us how society and attitudes have changed through the years.”

“In time, we hope to further enrich our existing data with more items from the BBC Archive. We have plans to fill in the first year of the BBC’s broadcast history, which pre-dates both PIPs and the Radio Times magazine, as well as filling in the schedules where there are currently gaps,” concludes Stevens.

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