2012: A bumper year for European OBs

Outside broadcasts are important to the TV industry and viewers alike. This is illustrated by how much of the schedule is taken up with live or recorded coverage of sports, concerts and other outdoor events. In any given year, there will be at least one big one-off or occasional event, as well as weekly sporting fixtures, music festivals and current affairs or entertainment programs.

The big ones for 2012 are the London Olympics and Paralympics and the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in the UK, and the European football championships, which are being hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine. Events like these sit on top of the regular contracts for the OB companies, most of the larger of which have fleets on average between nine and 12 trucks. This means they have the capacity and capability to cope with additional work.

Richard Yeowart, managing director of Arena Television, based in the southeast of England, predicts that 2012 “will be a record year for the UK OB sector.” In addition to its “bread-and-butter” contracts for the BBC, ITV, ESPN, Sky and Five, Arena will be working on the Diamond Jubilee for the BBC, London 2012 for Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) and Euro 2012 for UEFA.

Arena has 14 OB units, so it has not built any new vehicles specifically for these contracts. Last year, it added OB14, a 17.5m, articulated truck that can accommodate up to 16 cameras and features the first Lawo digital audio console to be installed in a British scanner. The vehicle was designed more for ad-hoc work — theatre, music and light entertainment (LE) — rather than sports. Among its first outings was the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

The indication is that the Diamond Jubilee will be at least three times larger in scale than the Royal Wedding, with trucks from most OB operators working on the events taking place the first weekend of June. Overseas broadcasters will be in attendance, offering work not just for UK facilities companies but, potentially, mainland European operators.

Olympics and Euro 2012

The majority of European OB companies are also gearing up for the two major sports tournaments. The different national components of the Euro Media Group will have 17 trucks at the Olympics, while Euro Media France is one of four OB companies involved with the host broadcast for the Euro championships.

An indication of both the number and diversity of sporting events now covered by broadcasters, and the demand for OB facilities, is illustrated by Euro Media's UK subsidiary CTV's OBs being involved in six events on the opening day of the Olympics, including cricket in the Netherlands and four golf competitions.

Barry Johnstone, managing director of CTV and chief operating officer of the Euro Media Group, says the OB market was “very healthy” in 2011 for all leading suppliers and adds that, for CTV, it was the biggest in company history.

International operations

There is some cross-border activity today, but companies need the capacity to operate in this way, says James Clement, sales director of SIS LIVE. He explains that although outside broadcast vehicles themselves are mobile, travelling to work in foreign territories is limited to companies with a large enough infrastructure to support these kinds of operations. It is not always as simple as just sending a vehicle across the border; there are many other considerations to take into account, such as providing a sufficiently experienced and adaptable crew, sourcing local liaisons, health and safety advice and risk assessment, carnets for equipment shipping, full support for the replacement or repair of kit, and so on.

SIS LIVE does work on international events, including Formula 1 for the BBC, and is currently supplying on-board camera systems to the America's Cup Event Authority.

Last year, SIS LIVE worked on the Royal Wedding, the Glastonbury Festival and TV shows such as “Top Gear” and “Songs of Praise.” During 2012, it will be involved in the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations. Clement says the company will be busy in general, with all vehicles already committed to projects.

Sports coverage dominates

Overall, however, Clement says there is limited growth in the OB market, mainly because of budget constraints at broadcasters. Traditionally, the majority of SIS LIVE's outside broadcast work has been in sports and, purely in terms of number of events, this accounted for approximately 75 percent of the company's work in 2011. However, the company always worked across a diverse variety of genres and for a range of clients, and 2011 was no exception.

Timo Koch, managing director of Outside Broadcast in Belgium, observes that, from his perspective, the OB market has not evolved much in recent years. The company still does 60 percent sports and 40 percent music and entertainment. He says that perhaps sports has become a bit stronger as there is definitely more money in sports production compared to other production areas.

Like other European companies, Outside Broadcast will be part of both the Olympics and Euro 2012, making for what Koch calls "a busy OB year." On the subject of cross-border working, he says that every OB provider operates mainly in its home market. Outside Broadcast does that for about 75 percent of its work. The rest comes from abroad and international projects. He adds that consolidation in the market has created bigger and, in some cases, international OB groups, with companies trying to spread their fleets over Europe.

The leading OB companies have been moving to HD in recent years and either retiring or upgrading SD vehicles. NEP Visions has invested €9 million in recent years, a proportion of which has gone into HD upgrades.

Koch says that most broadcasters still expect HD only, but there is the observation from another leading operator that while OB companies have the capability for HD, not all TV services in Europe are working in the format even now.

SIS LIVE's Clement says that when it comes to technology and services, clients expect choice. Such is the diversity of work on offer that a successful outside broadcast company must be able to offer a scalable service suited to events and budgets of any size. SIS LIVE has invested heavily in HD over recent years but, Clement says, it is not the norm quite yet; there is still a surprising level of demand for SD. However, SIS LIVE expects this to tail off over the next two to three years, with many clients opting to upgrade to HD as contracts are renewed.

The primary technological consideration today is 3Gb/s, more commonly known as 3G. This is the new standard for core infrastructures in OB trucks and TV studios, allowing greater connectivity, faster transfer speeds and upgrade capability to emerging technologies, including stereoscopic 3-D.

Arena TV's Yeowart says that any truck built today, regardless of size, should be capable of working at 3G. Outside Broadcast's Koch observes that it is an issue for OB companies, which want to be future-proof, but is not a major consideration for most clients.

Surround sound

On the audio side, OB digital mixing consoles, with the capacity for 5.1 and multiple channels and signal paths, are now well established. In the early days of surround sound for TV, the compressed Dolby E carrier format was adopted as the most efficient way of moving multiple channels around locations and back to the broadcast center.

As Paul Fournier, head of sound at Visions, comments, the demand today is for audio to either be embedded with the video or carried as discrete channels. Dolby E is now only used as a delivery format. For main production, Fournier says that Visions is using component audio, with 16-channels for every chain. This means there is no coding involved.

Stereo 3-D

The big discussion for TV in general, and OBs in particular, is whether 3-D is going to become mainstream, remain a speciality service or become a novelty. Sky channels across Europe continue to push the technology, but stereoscopy was dealt a considerable blow when Canal Plus dropped its 3DTV channel earlier this year, although the broadcaster has not ruled out resurrecting it in the future.

Some OB companies, notably Telegenic in the UK, have made a serious commitment to 3-D. Towards the end of last year, Norwegian facilities company OB-Team took delivery of the country's first 3-D capable scanner. The 13.6m truck can accommodate 16 HD cameras, features a Studer Vista 5 audio console and was built by Sony Professional Services working with UK systems integrator Broadcast Networks, Swedish coachbuilder Groth and OB-Team's technical department.

OB-Team's technical director, Espen Frøysa, says that because the vehicle was being built from scratch, it made sense to include 3-D capability. Malcolm Robinson, head of live production solutions at Sony Professional Services, says the continuing appearance of such trucks shows that stereoscopy for OB is "starting to take off" in Europe.

Not all OB companies are convinced, however. Outside Broadcast's Koch says that from what he knows from the European market, there is not much 3-D going on. Clement adds that SIS LIVE hasn't had a massive demand for 3-D productions. A lack of mainstream use means these events remain cost-prohibitive for most clients, and SIS LIVE is holding off purchasing its own rigs until the company sees a long-term future for the medium. That said, Clement says the company has worked with 3-D as far back as February 2010 when it broadcast Six Nations Rugby in 3-D for the first time and at the ICE Expo in January 2011, where the company ran demos of a 3-D Greyhound Racing system. Clement adds that the company has explored different types of equipment that can be used for its live 3-D offering, and all its recent large-scale OB vehicles have been built with 3G infrastructure to handle live 3-D productions.

Whether there are 3-D productions or not, this year promises many high-profile live events on both a national and an international scale. While these are significant for the OB companies involved on a commercial level, their value as examples of professional and technical expertise is limited thanks to the now almost ubiquitous Non Disclosure Agreement imposed by many organizations. In some cases, this means OB trucks cannot display company logos, so while facilities may be busy, there is often little clue as to whom is doing what.

Kevin Hilton writes about broadcast technology.