The wall-to-wall glut of live and near-live TV sports shows that we now enjoy has been built on the one area of production that has changed the least in the last 20 years — outside broadcasting — plus the mesmeric values of slo-mo replays.
Without the revelations that slo-mo provides — from Indian Premier League cricket to the Greyhound channel — TV punditry would be a hapless occupation. But, right now, the issues occupying TV sports executives have as much to do with survival as they do with new technologies.
A high camera position gives viewers a site of the Royal carriage at the Ascot race meeting
Sunshine+Vine chairman Jeff Foulser, whose thoughts echoed those of many executives, said things are at a point where they cannot be squeezed more than they are currently.
To get a look at what is happening behind the scenes during the richest sports year ever, the three OB companies that share 80 percent of the UK market bared their souls.
The BBC is approaching the Olympics with a resolved attitude of supplying compelling content through a mixing of “journalistic sensibility and the aspirations of sport.” C4 has two historic reasons why it will give viewers better Paralympics coverage.
Elsewhere in the mix, Foulser was involved in the biggest pitching battle Sunshine+Vine has possibly ever contested. In other boardrooms, including Apple's HQ, rights-hungry executives concentrated every ounce of creative cunning on winning Premier League football broadcasting rights beginning in 2013.
No tainted journalism
“We will never let our partnership dictate our journalism, so the IOC and LOCOG know there will be tough questioning about any problems alongside the live coverage of what we hope will be brilliant a Olympics,” said Roger Mosey, director of London 2012 for the BBC.
In other nations, commercial interests exert pressure and tainted journalism, but that should not be an issue in the UK.
Mosey added that pay barriers and compliant reporting do not serve the public good, and that the broadcast team's intention is to show the advantages of universal access alongside the benefit of lively independent media. Also, it will will be delivering every event live for the first time.
The annual tennis Wimbledon Championship is a big event for OB companies. A Sony 3M/E 51-input MVS8000G switcher, inside a SIS Live truck, was used to cover the championships in 2011.
At its peak, the BBC will deliver 24 live HD streams of all Olympics action and, amazingly, will do so with just one unilateral truck (provided by SIS Live).
Flagship services will be on (television channels) BBC1, BBC3 and Radio 5 Live. And, according to Mosey, the London games will mark the first time 3-D will be transmitted from an Olympics.
Another big innovation is Super Hi-vision, which will be delivering 16X the quality of HD, and forming an important new video format leg of the Olympic journey.
Regarding legs, the “journey” has had several. In 1936, the Berlin games marked the first time there was any form of TV coverage. London, in 1948, saw “proper TV coverage,” and Los Angeles was captured in HD in 1984. Then, while it took two decades for HD to become mainstream, Barcelona saw the first 3-D capture (analog) in 1992. This time around, there will be SHV screenings in London, Bradford and Glasgow.
The BBC has made much of the Olympic Torch relay, and it focused millions of minds with the excellent documentary series “World Olympic Dreams,” which followed 26 athletes on their personal journeys to London.
“News and sport can work together,” Mosey said.
More from C4
Deborah Poulton, sports editor, Paralympics, C4, remembers December 2009 as the time when LOCOG offered up the rights.
Poulton said C4 is “very proud” of the company's history of broadcasting innovative test cricket and other innovations surrounding its Paralympics coverage.
“We absolutely champion alternate voices, and are very proud of bringing minority groups into the mainstream,” she said.
C4 was also aware that the Paralympics had always felt a distant second to the Olympics, so it planned this year to turn the Paralympics into a “landmark success.” To do so, the plan is for a 400-percent increase on the number of hours that the BBC broadcast back in 2008.
Additionally, there will be more than 150 hours of coverage across 11 days. Those hours will break down into six different day parts across each day, and will play out on both C4 and More4, as well as across different live streams on the web too.
C4 will package and tell the story of the Paralympics by approaching the sports almost as drama. Its up-front equivalent of the BBC's documentary effort has been “That Paralympic Show,” and it launched a dedicated web site. C4 brought in both Sunshine+Vine and IMG to produce the desired editorial treatment from the OBS clean signal and Presteigne fly packs, and it will have a team of around 400 people working for it during the event.
Foulser said the Paralympics work split gives Sunset+Vine presentation duties and IMG Media the facilitating role. He also echoed comments from IMG and Input Media about the “more for less” budget idea.
Budget shrinkage is nothing new, he said. That mindset has been in place for a number of years, and there has been pressure to keep costs low. At the same time, however, demands for better quality haven't slowed either, making it a difficult balancing act to maintain.
One of the first major sporting events in 2012 was the London marathon. The race’s length alone provides an inherent challenge to a sports broadcaster.
Foulser pointed at Sky as an example of a company that originally drove prices down, but then realized that too much consolidation was not good. He also added that buying power is driving things, and it wants to keep that in place.
Because of that, everyone continues to search for more feasible solutions. Foulser said any OB is at least 50 percent of the cost, so if one is able to drive that cost down 3 to 4 percent, more creativity can be put on the screen.
Keeping in mind the cost of OB trucks, if production houses want OB companies to invest in the latest EVS and 1080p 50 technologies, it is a huge capital outlay.
Given his own personal pride in the way Sunset+Vine's test cricket coverage worked out for C4, what magic could the company bring to the Paralympics?
Foulser said it will be delivered through on-air talent, and viewers should expect nicely produced packages with good editorial. Also, the studio's look and the way the presenters work together will be important.
1080p 50 a racing certainty
The HighFlyer contract (C4 Racing) NEP Visions runs at present is one of its most important commitments, and time invested reflects it.
In its current state, it takes up 52 weeks of the year, according to Brian Clark, commercial and technical projects director. While the time commitment is considerable, it does provide the company to “ring a fence around these facilities for this contract,” Clark said. He also explained C4's experience in horse racing coverage as a weekly event had provided the company with a unique knowledge of the sport. That's important to note as changes in the rights that C4 is now considering will have an impact on the nature of the racing contract going forward.
Clark said the Cheltenham festival is the largest event covered within the C4 calendar at the current date, with multiple units and more than 30 camera feeds, not to mention an additional complicated edit and EVS operation for the entire length of the festival.
Although the UK is well-equipped with truck fleets, this summer’s schedule is going to be challenging.
Cheltenham, along with wider racing coverage, has been moved from SD to HD over recent years by Visions. This has been done while taking into account the courses and distances involved because those factors can complicate HD delivery.
The next step will be looking to the migration of the major OB units to 1050p, incorporating 4K technology as it becomes available. That step is driven by C4's wish to lead the forefront of technology in the OB market, but also to ensure major clients' requests are met.
The NEP group runs multiple technology forums and has a base expertise in second and multiple screen delivery — the area that all broadcasters now request. New media tools tend to come as cheaper technology, but there are bandwidth and skill set issues.
Clark said his company's trucks are now much more capable of numerous versions, through second-bench cuts to multiple outputs from the main desks. That approach helps merge markets where content is needed, while lowering the cost of separate facilities.
NEP Visions will be responsible for 3-D host coverage at Wimbledon, and other events are still to be settled.
Outside major 3-D projects, however, little else is available on a contract or consistent basis, Clark said. For ongoing 3-D operations, support will come from the more mature U.S.-based parent company, while eyes and ears are constantly monitoring and then incorporating changes in technology inside a market that one should assume is not going to disappear.
“It will still need to establish its full nature and impact in the coming years,” Clark said. “Essentially, we have geared our approach to be ready to take advantage of the coming changes that 1080p and 4K will have on technology, and also 3-D.”
Half of CTV's work is in televising sports action. It also does a number of big light-entertainment shows.
All of the other channels without the Olympics are rethinking what they will schedule. For example, “The Million Pound Drop” will now run through July, according to CTV MD Barry Johnstone. He also said this means more facilities are needed, but, unfortunately, most of those are required for the Olympics and other contracts.
With Bow Tie selling its truck business to NEP Visions, how does Johnstone view the consolidation situation?
He said there are companies that will not consolidate (Telegenic, SIS, NEP Visions and CTV are a few examples), and Sky would not let the big suppliers merge because it would not want all the contracts going to one company.
For international cricket, CTV's camera channel count will be around 38, and maybe 15 for a County Cricket match. For the British Open golf championship in July, it will field about 100 staff and 46 cameras.
Can we assume that CTV will have to start towing around a couple of IT guys to handle broadcaster multimedia requirements?
“That would be the way,” suggested Johnstone. “Everyone is talking about the second screen, and suddenly we need IT skills. That probably means another facility, and at golf we do have a media truck. Not long ago, it was all about a clunky big satellite dish, and now bandwidth is the issue.”
The UK's big three OB companies will have more trucks for the Queen's Jubilee than at the Olympics, and CTV will be covering St Paul's Cathedral for the BBC and ITV.
During the Olympics, NEP Visions and CTV will both have one truck on site (for NBC), while SIS Live will have seven working for Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), and one with BBC TV. The biggest truck suppliers will be Alfacam, with 17, and CTV's parent company, Euro Media, with 11.
Johnstone said the Pan-Europeans can work the Olympics pretty easily because it fits their off-season time for football, and each truck only goes to OBS with a core crew of six people instead of a normal 20-person crew per truck.
Mindful that CTV will have to produce some 3-D content for OBS, he made sure of meeting James Cameron and Vince Pace during NAB, and talked with quality as well. The result is a production arrangement with Telegenic. Beyond the Olympics, however, what is the chance for 3-D in sports?
“The real take is that it is not happening in sport,” Johnstone said. “Once the manufacturers pull their money out, the broadcasters won't pay for it. Sky will, but in the U.S., there is no thirst for 3-D in the broadcasting business.”
Peaks and troughs
James Clement, sales director of SIS Live, has as good handle on what has become a funny season.
SIS Live has a third of its fleet committed to the Olympics, but Clement said attention has been paid to keeping regular clients attended to. Even so, even the regulars have had new queries in terms of extra work — such as requests for a truck for one day, in the middle of the Olympics, to do a news spot outside a London venue.
“You wonder what their minds went through,” Clement said. “They didn't think it was going to be a bit busy, and the price on the truck was going to prove difficult. Consequently, we are bringing stuff in from across the world in order to survive.”
Clement also spoke about the desired business model and true size of the home market, saying his company wants a sustainable business instead of investing vast amounts of money for something “we won't see coming back again in our lifetimes.”
Clement said OBS contracts were confirmed two years ago, and SIS Live has had a dedicated Olympics staff for a year. With that piece of planning in place, the company is excited, but Clement said there is an underestimation of the lack of OB resources in the UK.
The thing to consider, Clement advised, was that for each new idea, and for every idea's growth, it will take more media, which requires more resources in the form of another truck, more lines and more servers. If too many new ideas are taken in at once, logistics can become overwhelming. On top of that, the nature of spreadout events and bids manifests itself in running an OB business in a peaks and troughs manner.
“Because of the way the deals are done, you cannot tie up five years or five series of Olympics or Euros. You only do the ones that come up,” Clement said. “It can prove difficult to supply, but you just try and look ahead as far as you can.”
Those trough times must be filled with a good volume of light-entertainment work, shows like “Dancing on Ice,” for example.
OBS will deliver 5600 hours of clean signal HD coverage plus at least 225 hours of 3-D coverage to its rights holding broadcasters. It also expects clips of the main Olympics action to reach more than 200 nations or territories. In all, 52 mobile units will be deployed, along with 1000 camera channels and 40 super slo-mo cameras.
Nothing in our world of wall-to-wall sports will stop for the Olympics. But, in a people and resources sense, the facility and production market is currently stretched to the limit. However, once it is over, 2012 will be remembered as the “four-screen” Olympics.
George Jarrett is a freelance writer and event producer.