While all eyes have been trained on the bust-up between Mark Thompson and Chris Patten and the rest, another announcement concerning another TV fight has quietly been made. It won’t grab the headlines and might not end up costing dear old Auntie lots of license payers’ pounds but it will have a long-lasting effect on the way television in the UK is made.

Last week it was announced that the BBC, from March 2014, would be awarding contracts for its sport coverage to a list of OB facilities companies that notably does not include SIS Live, the company that hitherto had supplied nearly all of the BBC’s sporting OBs. There were ten contracts up for grabs and the BBC wasn’t able to award any of them to the OB company that grew from its own, former Outside Broadcast department. It’s the end of an era.

So, after decades together, the divorce of BBC Sport and its long-term OB supplying partner has inexplicably happened. All the relations are shocked, they didn’t see that coming. The rumour mill is currently busy working extra shifts in order to spin its myths about why and how this happened, who’s to blame and what it will mean for the world of OBs.

The BBC’s press release simply says, "BBC Sport and their current supplier were unable to reach a commercial agreement." Barbara Slater, Director of BBC Sport, adds, "We are very disappointed that an agreement could not be reached." There’s a faint whiff of mystery about the split, the BBC seem disappointed.

SIS chief executive Gary Smith commented: “Since acquiring the BBC’s outside broadcasting business five years ago BBC Sport work has represented a significant part of SIS’s outside broadcast total workload and we are therefore very disappointed at this news."

SIS Live has launched a strategic review of its outside broadcasting division, with all options under consideration.  “We will make no hurried decisions, especially not if those decisions relate to the welfare and livelihood of our staff," says Smith.

Colleagues who work for SiS Live are understandably shocked and worried. Their commitment and professionalism seem to have been in vain. The sentiment from Tony Hall’s email to BBC staff ahead of the parliamentary hearing of the public accounts committee could equally apply to them, ‘I know today is going to be a tough one… but I’d just like to remind you that none of this reflects on you, or the quality of your work.’ I hope the shock and worry felt in Langley today soon subside.

On a more positive note, in its press release regarding the BBC Sport contracts, the corporation also says, "The tender process was designed to ensure a high quality of service delivery and best value for money." I’m sure, on both counts, they are right.

Firstly, the successful OB providers are all reputable companies with huge experience: CTV, NEP Visions, Presteigne Charter and Telegenic are some of the best in the business; sports coverage is safe in their hands.
When it comes to money, a history of fierce competition in this area, and of course this particularly protracted tender process, will ensure value for money from the Beeb’s point of view and any profits the new providers make will, at most, be meagre.

Perhaps it is these low profits that are at the root of this. Running an OB company is as much a vocation as a business. Several colleagues from various OB companies agree; you don’t do this to get rich. Nearly all I know who work in the modern day circus of outside broadcasts do it because they love it, just like the tightrope walkers, trapeze artists and lion tamers of yesteryear.

There’s an interesting chronology of commercialisation at play here. I remember a 1997 report in which the non-commercial BBC judged that its OB fleet should not get any smaller if it was to service large-scale events. A decade later, looking to save money, the BBC sold its OB fleet to a commercial company but took steps to guarantee its future commercial viability. In 2013 those supporting ties have been cast-off and that now wholly commercial OB company will now surely be reassessing its future operations.

Without any BBC Sports contracts to fulfil SIS Live will have to consider if can still support the largest fleet of outside broadcast and satellite uplink trucks in Europe. If, for business reasons, it decides it has no choice but to downsize, the impact will be felt by all who rely on OBs to make their programmes. Proms teams may be looking for signs of the fat lady of Langley singing and January’s Stargazers may even consider a departure from astronomy and resort to a few less scientific astrological predictions about who’ll be shining a light on their stars.

The industry may soon be lining up for a game of Outside Broadcast Musical Chairs. As OB companies’ fleets grow or decline to suit their new demands and producers may have to switch suppliers when they find their usual trucks are now busy at the races. It will be interesting to see if anyone ends up without a seat.

So often it seems that decisions made to save the BBC money can backfire. The long-term effects of short-term gains aren’t easy to predict. A decade ago the license fee funded the both Corporation’s OB fleet and Television Centre; the BBC was much more in control of its destiny. Today, your £145.50 does get you ring side seats to see BBC managers squabbling in front of MPs while trying to avoid the blame for past poor decisions but it no longer funds a BBC OB fleet or sufficient in-house studio space; the corporation’s future looks far harder to predict.

Tony Hall still has a big rebuilding job to do. In his email to staff last week he said, "Every day I see for myself the passion and pride you have in your work. It is hugely encouraging." I’m glad he sees this, as long as that passion and pride remains, then there’s hope. I’m sure in these uncertain times, all who work in the industry will join me in wishing him better luck with his decision making than his immediate predecessors seemed to have had. Over £100m overspent on the New Broadcasting House, £98.4m wasted on the DMI failure, £25m pounds spent on executive pay-offs and uncertainty about Studio and Outside Broadcast facilities… there have been too many BBC own goals recently, let’s hope the new centre-forward can lead a return to form.

Ian Russell is a director of creative broadcast and corporate production services company Sparkly Light

Staff Reporter

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